Has this happened to you before? You’re driving with the window down and unexpectedly catch a whiff of something you haven’t heard in a long time. Maybe it’s only a few words of the chorus. Maybe it’s the end of a weeping guitar solo. Maybe you don’t even completely catch the song, but something goes in your ear and sticks to something else. That weird chill tiptoes up the back of your shirt like a pair of subliminal fingers. Ties your mind up in a manic little bow. The shepherd hook yanks you back to a place you haven’t been to in a lot of years, and you can almost smell the room. Faces and names you haven’t…
The driver behind you lays on the horn.
You’re parked at a green light, zoned out thinking about a restaurant you worked at 14 years ago. The other driver probably thinks you were playing around with your phone. Your stoner buddy in the passenger seat asks if the shrooms have kicked in. You push the gas and the car proceeds through the green light.
Maybe you just go about your day or maybe you get stuck in that cyclical headspace for a while. Sections of daylight spent reminiscing about whatever the song was and all the stuff that came along with it. Maybe you listen to it on repeat a dozen times. I was preoccupied with something like this for most of Citizen Cope’s performance at The Broadberry on January 18th, but I hadn’t eaten any mushrooms.
Clarence Greenwood was born in May of 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. Since 2002 he’s released seven proper studio albums under the name Citizen Cope, the most recent being 2021’s The Pull of Niagara Falls, and the most well-known being The Clarence Greenwood Recordings from 2004. The Pull of Niagara Falls was released last year on Greenwood’s own label, Rainwater Recordings. His previous three LP’s, 2019’s Heroin and Helicopters, 2012’s One Lovely Day, and 2010’s The Rainwater LP, were also released on this independent label following 2006’s Every Waking Moment, his last album with RCA/SONY.
Fifteen years after The Clarence Greenwood Recordings initial release, it received a Gold Certification by the RIAA. In the years leading up to Niagara, Greenwood also saw his compositions put to tape by artists such as Carlos Santana, Dido, G. Love & Special Sauce, Sheryl Crow, and the late, great Richie Havens.
During Cope’s soundcheck I couldn’t help but drift back to the Summer of 2008 when I worked the door at Baja Bean. Bartenders there played selections from the Recordings album, and I heard those songs on most nights. Songs like, “Son’s Gonna Rise” (featuring a mercurial solo by Santana), “Hurricane Waters,” “Bullet and a Target,” and the whispered-from-the-floor sad-bastard track “Sideways.”
Greenwood didn’t stray from center stage very often as he played these songs during his set. His mouth hardly moving while he filled the room with his familiar, oft-imitated, ceiling-fan-cool vocal delivery. At times during the performance a smile beamed on Greenwood’s face like the cherry of something smoking. It burned with the lights reflecting off his guitar, and each time he did this, the crowd erupted.
There wasn’t an opener for Citizen Cope at The Broadberry. It was an evening dedicated to just Citizen Cope’s catalog, and the 300+ in attendance seemed to know most of the words. Standing 20 feet from Clarence Greenwood and his band for two hours felt surreal. I hadn’t been back to 2008 in a while.
I brought up “Sideways” to Greenwood during the 150 seconds I had with him after Citizen Cope’s performance. It was the song that had given me the weird chill. His forehead creased and he exhaled some cigarette smoke at the mention. It wasn’t conceited, and it wasn’t a dismissal of what I’d said about the song, either. It seemed like a momentary connection with a random stranger while having a cigarette. Like waving off a formality.
“Oh man,” he said. “It meant something to me at that point in my life too. It still does. I can understand that completely.”
Spend some time with Greenwood’s lyrics and maybe you’ll smell poetics caramelizing throughout. It could be the subtle nuance of a simple comparison. A collards and blues metaphor. The butcher’s block beauty of reality and acceptance. Maybe some exotic spices and something from New York. Good poetry cooks with this stuff all the time. It’s kept stocked in the dry storage of the very best.
A standout from 2019’s Heroin and Hand Grenades is the slow roast opening track “Duck Confit.” Greenwood performed it a capella to shut the rest of the kitchen down for the night. Quiet the background of the recording, and it’s spoken word poetry falling off the bone. Maybe similar to something you’ve eaten up at a poetry slam or something you could imagine hanging off the fork of Saul Williams.
Greenwood says in the song’s closing: If the truth sets you free / There’s a mute with a key / And the goose that laid the golden egg / Got cooked for the grease.”
“Do you have to get into a certain mindset to write?” I asked him.
“I just kinda do it,” Greenwood said. “I don’t follow much poetry. [It’s] kinda free-thinking. I just write it. Usually, I try, if I feel the muse or whatever. I was writing a lot of stuff on airplanes. So, some of the stuff, I had to sit there for.”
“I’d imagine the pandemic has frozen a lot of things,” I said.
“Everything’s a little slow right now, but it’s good. It’s good. Spiritual.”
I don’t often think about working at Baja Bean back in 2008. I didn’t particularly like the job. I drank too much, and I worked there for less than a year. Save for some college memories and a few friends, Citizen Cope is all I took away from working there. Fourteen years ago, I wouldn’t have imagined standing outside in the cold with Clarence Greenwood on a Tuesday night in Richmond, VA.
Most things are like that, I guess. You take what you want from an experience, and eventually you move on. Some people don’t move on and it’s an unfortunate loop to see a person caught in. Maybe that person was standing next to you in the crowd at this show. Maybe they’ll stand next to you at the next one. Maybe fourteen years have gone by for them too, and they’re still repeating the same old shit.
Maybe that’s the message to take from 150 seconds with a person. Some things you have to sit in an airport with. Growth isn’t something you experience in its totality at a traffic light. This is something to process as you move along with your life. Or you’ll be stuck leaning over somewhere in 2008, or wherever you are now.
Citizen Cope has played the National multiple times over the years, and I’ve missed each of these performances. Chalk it up to being broke or too enamored with alcoholism to break character enough to buy a ticket. Whatever it was, I wasn’t in attendance. Sometimes, you show up at the right time, even if it’s years late.
I told Greenwood it was nice to watch him perform his songs to an intimate audience, if you would call over 300 people intimate. He smiled and nodded, either in acknowledgment of the shows he’d played at the National or that the evening at the Broadberry was indeed intimate. I’m not sure and I didn’t ask. Greenwood was an accommodating, soft-spoken gentleman, but you can sense when somebody wants to take a break instead of talking to a journalist. He’d just played two full hours.
I told Greenwood I didn’t want to take up any more of his time.
“Alright, cool, man. You wanna do something [else], just let me know and we can do a full thing.”
His tour manager, Adrian, held up his phone which showed an email address, “This is you, right?”
“That’s me,” I said.
Hours later, just before daybreak, I watched the video I recorded of Citizen Cope performing “Son’s Gonna Rise” one more time. Then I went inside and turned off the lights.
I realized this was actually the song I’d heard before the stoplight. This was the song responsible for the weird chill. It was the tail end of Carlos Santana’s solo that took me back to 2008. If you let it, the mind will take you all over the place. That shepherd’s hook pulling you back to a time you may not need to revisit. Maybe it’s a good reminder to dig in your heels and stay right where you are. The sun is going to rise tomorrow just the same as it did fourteen years ago. It’s nothing new. You’ve woken before. You’ve eaten breakfast too.
And you’ve seen the sun.
Top Photo by Ryan Kent