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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Five Music Muses: The Women Who Inspired Jason Pierce, Lou Barlow, Eric Clapton, and More

Posted By on Wed, May 23, 2012 at 8:34 AM

Kate Radley and Jason Pierce
  • Kate Radley and Jason Pierce

According to Greek mythology, the muses were the genius-sparking goddesses of song, poetry, and the sciences. Recently, the muse has more earthly origins; male recording artists often indicate that a particular woman was essential in stimulating the creative process. The Guardian's Germaine Greer described the modern female muse as such: "In a reversal of gender roles, she penetrates or inspires him and he gestates and brings forth, from the womb of the mind."

In honor of this week's 20th anniversary of Spiritualized's Lazer Guided Melodies -- one of the best muse-inspired records in recent memory, an album notably influenced by Jason Pierce's devotion to girlfriend Kate Radley, an album that was as spiritual as it was psychedelic -- we present you five other notable music muses. Spiritualized performs tonight at the Fillmore.

1. Juanita Naima Grubbs

Here is testament to the eternal beauty and emotional intensity of John Coltrane's "Naima," written for his first wife, Juanita Naima Grubbs, in 1959: Long after the two separated, the song remained part of the jazz legend's live repertoire.

Coltrane's wistful yet dynamic solos are played over a bass pattern that was carefully rehearsed by the tenor saxophonist and bassist Paul Chambers. "Naima" saunters along slowly, almost like a blues. Lewis Porter's book, John Coltrane: His Life and Music, describes the song as one that goes beyond mere balladry -- "There is no touch of that 'Oh baby, I miss you' feeling," wrote Porter -- and crosses into the realm of hymns.

2. Maggie Campbell

Tommy Johnson's first wife also served as his muse, only his 1928 composition lacks any of the adulation of Coltrane's. According to David Evans' book, Big Road Blues, the country bluesman based "Maggie Campbell Blues" on a brothel jaunt that ended with an unexpected visit from his wife. (According to older brother LeDell, Johnson had "as many concubines as King Solomon.") Judging by the lyrics "Well it look like Maggie, baby / But she walk too slow," Johnson not only suffered the humiliation of being caught, but the humiliation of failing to immediately recognize his own wife.

Despite producing records that only sold modestly, "Maggie Campbell Blues" became a wildly popular cover among Johnson's blues contemporaries and successors.


3. Laurie Allen

In the opening verse to the first song on his debut album, 1981's Songs of Pain, Daniel Johnston sings, "If I had my own way / You'd be here with me today / But I rarely have my own way / I guess that's why you're not here with me today." It set the tone for what has been a 30-year infatuation with a brown-haired coed from his Kent State art class: Laurie Allen, who may just hold the distinction of being indie rock's most well-known female muse.

"She inspired a thousand songs," Johnston said of Allen in the documentary on his life and career, The Devil and Daniel Johnston. "And then I knew I was an artist." Johnston's reverence for Allen can generally be classified as innocent, his lyrics oscillating between whimsical and worshipful. Take "When I Met You" for example: "I look for you / In every book / In every cartoon movie too." But then, Johnston's brief friendship with Allen was never more than platonic, which makes his eternal pining for her similarly tragic and creepy.


4. Pattie Boyd

Leafing through Pattie Boyd's biography -- Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Me; what else would a Pattie Boyd biography be called? -- we were struck by how the number of occasions she's been immortalized in song is indirectly proportional to how Harrison and Clapton treated her. Harrison largely ignored Boyd so that he could obsess about Sir Frank Crisp, the eccentric lawyer who built his house, and mediate for hours at a time. Clapton finally married her because of a drunken bet with buddy Roger Forrester.

Nonetheless, such backstory doesn't diminish the finely-spun poignancy of odes like Harrison's "Isn't It a Pity" and Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight."

5. Kathleen Billus

Ex-Dinosaur Jr./Sebadoh/Folk Implosion member Lou Barlow tried to win the affection of now-wife Kathleen Billus by sending her a homemade tape of him covering Harry Nilsson's "Without You." Not exactly a startling gesture from Barlow, who is credited with helping initiate the lo-fi scene thanks to his cassette collaborations with Eric Gaffney. "Some people might think, 'Oh, that's so romantic," he once said. "But looking back on it, it was pretty much one step away from harassment."

It wasn't the first or last time Billus served as Barlow's creative muse. His debut album as the frontman of Sebadoh, 1989's The Freed Man, paid homage to Smith College's Friedman Complex, where Barlow lived with Billus. Then there's "Kath," a straight-up profession of his love ("I'm so glad the wait is through / I'm so glad I waited for you"), and "Willing to Wait," written during a stormy period when the two were separated.

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