July 18 — “Western Union Desperate” by Mary Lou Lord

Mary Lou Lord

If you only listen to one song today, make it “Western Union Desperate” by Mary Lou Lord (1998, from the album Got No Shadow).

Mary Lou Lord is a folk/indie rock singer/songwriter from Salem Massachusetts. She grew up with a love of music and was a college radio deejay while she was still in high school. She attended the Berklee School of Music and earned a degree in audio production. After that, she moved to London and discovered busking. She spent hours a day every day, playing the same song over and over. Essentially practicing guitar in front of an ever-changing “audience”, and earning a little bit of money doing it.

When she returned to Boston, she continued busking in the Boston subways. By doing this, she started to develop a fan base, and she started to meet some of the right people. Around this time, she was playing a lot of folk music, and a lot of Elliot Smith, a lot of Daniel Johnston and a lot of Shawn Colvin. It was 1990, and they were all unknown at the time. She had already befriended Nick Saloman of the English indie band Bevis Frond (who has been a long-time collaborator with her), and she was playing his songs as well.

She also had a little bit of an obsession with Kurt Cobain. There have been rumors over the years that they had a wild love affair. Both Lord and Cobain denied it, but Courtney Love has caused a lot of controversy with her accusations. She still asserts to this day that something sexual was going on between Cobain and Lord. This put Mary Lou Lord on the map before she ever had a record out. Lord still, angrily, denies the affair.

One day, back in 1991, she heard a song that she really liked on a college radio show, but wasn’t able to find out what it was. In some crazy stalker scene, she followed the deejay all over town and into the Middle East club. It turns out that the song that she liked so much was something from the first Nirvana record. She became friends with this guy, who would later get her an advance copy of Nevermind. The story gets strange from here.

Lord loved her advance copy of Nevermind and learned and played some of the songs as part of her busking set. Her radio friend encouraged her to go see The Melvins on September 22, 1991. It was that night, that, totally by chance, she met Kurt Cobain. As she was leaving the venue, some people were trying to get in on the guest list, and they were being given a hard time by the door guy. Lord overheard one of the guys (who turned out to be Cobain) say that he was in Nirvana. She talked the door guy into letting them in. A while later, Cobain thanked her, and they ended up having a really long conversation. They stayed up and talked all through the night and into the next day. There was no blowjob. There was no sex. Just, according to Lord, talking and playing music. That was the entire “incident”, at least according to Lord. Here’s her story, in her own words.

This was, I think, at the beginning of the Cobain/Love engagement. I can understand why Love might have been furious at the time, but it’s 20 years later, Cobain is still dead, and nobody’s doing drugs anymore.

Lord wrote a song — “Some Jingle Jangle Morning” about Cobain. It was released on an early EP and it eventually landed on her first album. Although I gave it serious consideration, it’s not today’s song.

One day while busking, Lord was discovered by Tinuviel Sampson, who along with Slim Moon, had just started the Kill Rock Stars label. That meeting eventually resulted in a recording contract.

Around this time, Lord was also in a band called Chupa with Juliana Hatfield’s brother. When Lord decided that she didn’t want to play electric guitar, she left the band and was replaced by Mary Timony. Hatfield also left the band, and Chupa changed their name to Helium. And you all know who they are.

A couple of EPs, a couple of singles, a lot of touring. Lord still worked as a busker. She was being courted by major labels, but she fought them all off. Eventually, though, she signed on with the Work Group (a branch of Sony). That contract only bore one record — 1998’s Got No Shadow before the imprint went belly-up.

Finally, we’re to today’s song
“Western Union Desperate” by Mary Lou Lord

It’s a song, basically about devoted friendship. Or maybe it’s about how being on the road all the time sucks and you really miss your loved ones more than you imagine.

I’ve seen the sun rise from the cliffs of Point Reyes
And I’ve seen it set upon Thunder Bay
But I always keep my compass set on you

When the night comes in and the stars come out
And the highway lines start to wear me out
It’ll be okay, coz I’m coming back home to you

Distant salutation and silly souvenirs
Can’t help your twilight loneliness or wipe away your tears
I’ll wire you some love today

There’s so much more I want to say
I’m Western Union desperate in a pay phone in the rain
It’s so insane. I’m Rimbaud and you’re Verlaine

So hey California here I come
I’ve got an old backpack and a sunburned thumb
I hope my compass is tried and true
Coz when I need a friend it’s still you

I love the “in a payphone in the rain” line, which is probably a reference to the movie Say Anything.

The “I’ll wire you some love” line and the reference to the French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine is pretty strange. They were dear friends and lovers. After the relationship turned a bit sour and they spent some time apart, Verlaine sent Rimbaud a telegram urging him to come to a reunion in Brussels. Their rendezvous didn’t go well. Heavy drinking and arguing escalated, and Verlaine ended up shooting Rimbaud twice. Whether he was a terrible shot, or too drunk to see straight isn’t known, but there was only a superficial flesh wound. The relationship was obviously, permanently, and irrevocably damaged.

That notwithstanding, it’s a great song. It’s simple. It’s sweet. It’s acoustic. This album is a mix of rock and folk, covers and originals. Most of the original songs were at least co-written by Nick Saloman. Today’s song is one of just four on the album that were written entirely by Lord. Apart from the Cobain-themed “Some Jingle Jangle Morning”, all of the Lord songs are folky and acoustic.

Up to and icluding the release of Got No Shadow, Mary Lou Lord’s star was rising. She was on a major label. She was getting big airplay. She was playing a lot of shows. It seemed like everything was lined up for her. However, the Work Group imprint dissolved, and Lord was without a label.

I’m not sure what happened after that, but she was silent for a few years, during which she gave birth to a daughter. In 2001, she self-released a live album. She was picked up by Rubric Records, which is the home of The Bevis Frond, and in 2004, she released Baby Blue. The title track of that album is a mediocre cover of the Badfinger song of the same name. The album was met with lukewarm reception.

In 2005, Mary Lou Lord announced that she was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, a rare vocal chord disorder shared by NPR’s Diane Rehm. If you’ve ever listened to the Diane Rehm show, you probably know all about the disorder, even if you’ve never heard its name. This caused Lord to stop singing. She started doing A&R and management work, starting a management firm with her husband Kevin Patey.

Last year, she started a kickstarter project and is hoping to release a new album and tour in support of it.

You can buy Got No Shadow here.

About dlee

North Carolina born and bred. I'm a restaurant guy who spends free time listening to music, watching hockey and playing Scrabble. I have a bachelor's degree in political science and I will most likely never put it to use. View all posts by dlee

One response to “July 18 — “Western Union Desperate” by Mary Lou Lord

  • Athena

    “Can’t help your twilight loneliness or wipe away your tears”

    Makes me think this song is about Elliott Smith, as it seems to reference his sadly gorgeous “Twilight” song. She covered Smith’s “I Figured You Out” which he also produced, but never released himself. I feel it was because it was specifically written about her, and having her record it was the ultimate expression of this. There seems to be a lot longed for, and lost, between the two of them.

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