Karen Dalton, Roving Jewel
When I first heard Karen Dalton -- which of course has nothing to do with who she was or what her voice sounds like -- I was in my early twenties. I was in my early twenties and I was angry and I was straightedge and I had short, angry hair. I wrote all the time.
I lived in Seattle, it was summer, and I was housesitting for my high school English teacher, a kind weird man whose vocab lists had words like “onychomancy,” or telling fortunes with sunlight on fingernails. His house was full of books and windows, and I slept in a big high bed with his family’s dog and cat.
When I first heard Karen Dalton, it was the morning after a fire. There was an arsonist in Seattle that summer, and that night my English teacher’s neighborhood got hit. Everything still smelled like smoke, it felt like someone painted the inside of your nose. Across the street at the zoo, the monkeys were still howling.
* * *
Karen Dalton was a folksinger and single mom from Enid, Oklahoma. In Chronicles, Dylan’s autobiography, she is the only woman he brags about actually playing with, not just seeing in a doorway with gold in her hair, whomp-whomp boots or something. He talks about singing with her -- straight no chaser, like she was a man.
Critics say Karen’s voice sounded like Billie Holiday’s -- though if you said that to her face she’d tell you to go to hell -- or a saxophone, because of how it snuck up on the notes. The Village Voice called her the “harpy responsible for a small handful of people wanting to sing like old doors.”
In 1970, Karen, who sparked both Dylan’s “Katie’s Been Gone” and Nick Cave’s “When I First Came to Town,” Karen recorded a studio album -- her only one -- near Woodstock with Harvey Brooks, the guy who played bass on Highway 61 Revisited and Bitches’ Brew. (The place, Bearsville, was run by Albert Grossman, a Chicago Housing Authority worker cum club manager, and a ballsy, stone-cold economist. He managed folks like Dylan and Janis Joplin, always wore a suit and tie, died on the Concord, and is now buried on studio grounds. That’s his living room on the cover of Bringing It All Back Home.)
Karen had a favorite yellow turtleneck sweater, a red twelve-string Gibson, and she played a 27-fret banjo someone’d carved from a bedpost. She had a huge ego, a wicked temper, a drive. Her apartments were always crawling with ivy and there was always a pot of beans on the stove -- hot and sweet, Cherokee-style.
Karen died in Manhattan, 1993. She was probably fifty, and she didn’t have any teeth. Nobody knows if there was a funeral.
* * *
My English teacher lived in Wallingford, and two blocks over some friends started a record label called Light in the Attic. Back then their catalogue was charmingly hodgepodge: stuff they liked, people they knew. Soul and funk reissues, movie soundtracks, the Os Mutantes and Free Design back catalogues. New stuff from the Black Angels and the Saturday Knights, with zines or coloring books as press releases. They did a seven-volume Jamaica to Toronto series of ska, rocksteady, and reggae from the '60s, which means those guys finally got paid, or paid a little more than not enough the first time.
That summer I’d would wake up and eat cereal and the dog would eat dogfood and I’d walk over to Light in the Attic, just to hang. Just to sit at an intern desk and eat chocolate eyeballs and ogle the distro. (Actually I probably only did that twice but it felt like all summer, and it was definitely the first time I loved people in a place I’d found on my own, and could walk to.)
The morning after the fire Matt played Karen Dalton for me, it was a cover of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” on vinyl, for little fists-clenched Courtney-Love-wannabe-me, and oh my god the pronouns alone were killers.
See, when a woman sings -- or, in Karen’s case, kind of honks -- that song, the tone changes from wounded sweetheart to something bigger, something cloudier. “When a man loves a woman,” she skronks, just stating her facts, “he can do no wrong.” Towards the end, the song sneaks into first person. “I know exactly how he feels because baby, you’re my world.”
So a woman sings this instead of a guy, is she loving that man back? Is she talking to someone else? Is she telling us all how it’ll be when the right kind of love comes? “You like that?” Matt said, and then Chris played other covers she did: Big Bill Bronzy, Otis Redding, Leadbelly’s song about a teenager paying for sex for the first time.
Karen’s songs always tip hat to the originals, but then they’ll screw with words or notes, punch in a couple skylights. All these old songs by pretty boys, forgotten boys, lucky boys, all sung by a woman who sounded like hinges, cats, a ghost. I used to sit on the floor to listen, just out of respect. I was sad everyone had forgotten her, so asked Matt if I could write a magazine article. He said yes, put me in touch with her friends.
* * *
Karen Cariker was born poor. Her dad was Irish, drunk and mean but never late to work. Her mom, Enid, was full-blooded Cherokee, she played the fiddle and slept in a brass bed in the backyard -- she’s why Karen always had ivy in her rooms, and knew how to cook beans.
When she was fifteen Karen had a son, Lee, who was raised by his dad’s parents. Two years later, she had a daughter, Abra. Karen married Abby’s father, a lit prof, then took his name -- Dalton. They divorced but he got custody, so Karen remarried him, kidnapped her daughter, and moved to Colorado.
In Colorado Karen was the same age I was, that summer. Sometimes I pretended we were each other, in the way girls do when they get a crush but really want a mirror. A boyfriend taught me tarot and sometimes when I read the cards I thought about Karen. The death card looks scary -- a skeleton in a cloak on a horse -- but really it’s not, really it’s about hairy-eyeballing fear. About what happens afterwards.
* * *
When she moved to Colorado, Karen found a place -- a converted gold rush cabin -- in Copper Rock, which is just outside Boulder. It had a population of five then: Karen and Abby, Esta Clevenger, an East Coast girl who came for a summer and never left, and a couple, artists who kept to themselves but shared their drugs sometimes.
Karen and Abby and Esta had outdoor toilets, got water from a stream, rode horses a lot. Once Esta’s got nosed by a slow-moving car, so Karen grabbed a tree branch, bat-out-of-helled up to the car and demanded the driver apologize to the animal. Once Karen wanted more standing room in the cabin, so she ripped up the wood floor and brought up stones from the river to stand on instead.
At night Karen would walk to town to sing at this place the Attic. Never originals, always covers, tweaked -- “Ribbon Bow,” “It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You The Best,” a haunting “Katie Cruel.” (“When I first came to town, they called me the roving jewel,” it goes. “Now they’ve changed their tune, they call me Katie Cruel.”) Karen sang with her eyes closed. People called her mother, called her magic.
Soon she met a banjo player named Dick Weissman. They’d known each other a week when Dick asked her and Abby to drive back to New York with him. They said yes, though Karen kept her Copper Rock address so Abby could go to school in Colorado if she wanted.
Dick shared a five-room railroad flat just south of Harlem, just underneath three guys in Count Basie’s band. Dick said how quiet they were, save every night at midnight, when for some reason they’d move the piano.
* * *
Two things were true, in all cases, when I talked with folks who knew Karen in New York: one, they were all men, they were mostly in love with her and they all thought she was some kinda genius oracle. Two, she was a hot mess. A druggie. A cathedral in ruins.
“It became clear,” they’d say to me, me sitting crosslegged in purple pants at some coffeeshop, drugstore mic held too close to the phone, “it became clear that we weren’t going to stay together.” I didn’t know how to record things then, so the loudest thing on all those tapes is my breath.
Karen did marry once more, five years long, to a guy named Richard Tucker. They moved to the Village, two floors above the Bleecker Street Cinema, so “no matter how much pot you smoked,” Richard said, “you could still make it to the movies.”
When she lived there with Richard, Karen played out almost every night: at the Cock and Bull, the Flamenco, the Cock and Bull again. You brought a hat and you went around. In photos from that time Abby’s tiny, still laughing, hair blonde and blunt. She has a doll, a big one with corkscrew hair and spooky marble-sparkle eyes. “Abby was fine,” Richard told me, even before I asked. “There was always somebody around, and if not she had T.V.”
* * *
There’s a photo of Karen and Bob Dylan and Fred Neil sharing a stage in Scorcese’s No Direction Home, but Karen’s just the woman in back. They say Fred and Bob’s names, not hers.
“I would have loved to have seen her perform,” said Nick Cave. “But I do my best never to meet my heroes. I can listen to their music forever and all the time, but I would hate to spend five minutes in the same room with them.”
Devendra Banhardt, whose voice could be Karen’s in a mirror, bragged about buying her album for fifty dollars on vinyl at the WFMU record fair. He said when he heard her singing “Ribbon Bow,” it sent him to a new place in him. He was consumed in flames.
* * *
Karen kept notebooks of poetry but never sang any of it to anyone. People said she was too nervous, too wise, too good at interpreting to do her own stuff. People romanticized her for being Cherokee, a single mom, an alchemist, a cokehead, all of which apparently make it impossible to perform your own work.
Her one studio album is In My Own Time – the one with “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Karen did it at Woodstock for six months for an advance of about $15,000, in a little wooden room with wild turkeys outside. The album got decent radio play, paid for itself and then some. That summer, she toured Europe opening for Santana.
And then Karen came home and never did anything in a studio again. Once folks tried to coax her and she got mad and ripped a sink clean from the wall. I didn’t understand those stories. All I wanted was for people to read my zines, and I thought writing them and swapping them made you -- meaning me, meaning all the kids I met on porches, in line, out back -- feel less weird, not more. I thought that was how you got home.
Lenny Kaye wrote the liner notes for Light in the Attic’s reissue of In My Own Time, and “a studio album,” he told me, “you’ve already made it louder and softer. You’ve lost that moment where it’s all expanding. At the end of the day, it’s this little plastic disc and you think, this is it?” Later on I wrote to him, said what am I doing, trying to tell this story? It’s big, and it doesn’t belong to me. Lenny said oh I’d be fine, just get out there and bite that bullet.
* * *
So Karen left New York. She went to Colorado, Mexico, Los Angeles, where she wandered into the home of this lady Lacy. “My husband came upstairs,” said Lacy, “told me there was a woman downstairs who thought she could sing. I asked him if she was any good and he said no, but I went down anyway. Karen knocked me out.” Eventually Lacy divorced her husband, and she and Karen took care of each other.
When Lacy talks about Karen, her voice goes guttural, twang, sometimes it’s like talking to both women at once. “Karen was tall,” said Lacy. “She wore leather pants and had a long glove.” Karen taught Lacy how to sing, “how to be an outlaw,” and in turn Lacy’d check in on her, make sure she ate.
Because by then Karen was doing heroin, coke, and codeine -- “we were all trying to find some other way to be in this world,” said Lacy -- and once Karen blacked out at the house. Lacy called an ambulance and Karen lived but wouldn’t come back by for three whole weeks. Finally she called to say a gruff “thanks,” an “I don’t know why you did that.” Lacy just said it was inconvenient, having people die at your house.
* * *
I wrote about Karen everywhere, all the time. I moved to Chicago with two boxes of books, two months of freelance assignments, and a suitcase of clothes, sat on the roof of my apartment and listened to her album. I sharpied “KD” on my wrists, tried to learn music so I could write a song to the one poem of hers I had. I fractaled out, started listening to the discographies of the men she covered, started making beans, hot and sweet.
One day a lady named Alice emailed from Minneapolis, said she’d seen one of my articles. Alice and I became penpals, still are. She had two long curtains of hair, braided in parts, an anchor charm knotted in. Sometimes she felt like Karen too.
Alice and her girlfriend got rats and Alice named hers Dalton, said sometimes he’d hide on her neck underneath all that hair, they’d all go out for coffee together.
Back then I wrote mostly record reviews and onesheets, to make rent and to magnet myself to something I loved. But as I kept talking to Karen’s people I started feeling less like a critic, more like a listener, a DJ. I was still a writer but I started going to shows to work door or merch or to pogo, only sometimes with a notebook. My hair got longer. I even drank sometimes.
* * *
A while after the ambulance came, Karen took off again, and one day Lacy heard she was couch-surfing, homeless in New York. Losing her teeth. So Lacy came out, got Karen’s cat from Pennsylvania and her guitar from the pawn shop, then arranged a plane ticket and a private room in rehab in the desert, plus a recording session once she got clean. Karen went but two days later, she called.
“Get me outta here,” she said to Lacy, and again, hearing Lacy retell it kinda cracks something in your chest. Who was this woman, this woman who spooked all these men but taught Lacy how to talk? “I oughta take this cowboy boot and ram it up yoah ass,” Karen told her friend. “For all this money you coulda bought me an apartment in New York.”
Lacy asked if Karen could just stay long enough to fix her rotting teeth, then realized she wouldn’t, because if she did she couldn’t get any more codeine. “I knew she’d made her choice,” Lacy said, “and once somebody does that you can’t really do anything about it.” So she bought Karen a ticket back to Manhattan.
Lacy heard Karen died after it happened. The funeral was over, and anyway no one’s sure if there even was one.
* * *
I kept getting calls about Karen for a long time. I started asking people what her speaking voice sounded like -- the same as singing, they said. I started asking people where Abby was -- no one knew and I thought I shouldn’t dig her up.
Folks came to Chicago and wanted to get coffee or sandwiches, to hop a train. I spent an afternoon looking at movie posters with a guy who liked her too, he’d found my contact somewhere. The session musicians from Woodstock called, one of them on break from his job as a caterer. Right then I had an early morning job, piping holiday pie filling for a wholesale bakery, so after talking about Karen we said how hard it is, getting cinnamon out of your hair. People sounded older, they said missed their friends and nobody did drugs anymore.
At some point it stopped being about skywriting Karen’s name in fire, or feminism or answering the men who said she was broken or witchy, the critics who thought she screeched. In the end, today, it’s about how I’ve played that album in every apartment I’ve ever had, how Karen sang a couple songs my mom did. How I made mixtapes for boys from the CDs Alice sent. How I stopped being straightedge and never lived anyplace I couldn’t make a meal for friends or put friends up, how I’m still figuring out how a group of people can love each other the best.
One day I got an email from my friend Jenny Kelly, who writes cleanly, zingily about music and coaches her son’s track team, too. Jenny’d just filed an interview with Peter Walker, sent me a clip that got nixed. Karen Dalton was a dear friend, Peter said, and he was with her the day she died.
He went to her place and thought she was sleeping. “It wasn’t an unexpected visit,” said Peter, “just a surprise.” He sat next to her on the couch awhile, watching television but not wanting to wake her, then he covered her up and got up and left.
At first, that creeped me out -- What was on TV? Was she breathing? -- but then it was a relief. Karen was home, warm, someone knew. When I say goodbye that’s how I see her -- just watching a little TV before dinner. “We all loved Karen,” said Peter. “She was a song stylist.”
Thanks to the Experience Music Pop Conference (and co-panelists Joshua Clover, Nate Chinen, Yuval Taylor, and Greil Marcus); the Skeleton News staff; and Emily, Priya, and Debbie at BUST, who all supported earlier versions of this piece. Special thanks to Chris Estey, Matt Sullivan, and Brian Culhane. Love to Alice and Lizzie.
Mairead Case is a writer and editor. Most recently she edited Tim Kinsella’s The Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self-Defense (featherproof books, October 2011) and copyedited Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl (Emergency Press, October 2011). Her novel, supported by a CAAP grant from the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, will be completed in early 2012, and her comic about Serge Gainsbourg, drawn by David Lasky, is forthcoming in Best American Comics 2011. maireadcase.tumblr.com