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Bargain Bin Babylon: Cowboy Junkies: ‘Cause Cheap Is How I Feel

When Toronto artists Cowboy Junkies released their 12” single ‘Cause Cheap Is How I Feel in Canada in 1990, they packed it with three other songs: John Lee Hooker’s “Decoration Day,” Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper” and a Margo/Michael Timmins original, “Take Me.” The vinyl release in the UK and Europe was similar. But in the U.S., the 12” was released as a promo only, rather than as a regular release — hence its emergence among the cut-outs in the bargain bin. The record sported a different cover; instead of the Junkies’ name and logo consuming most of the real estate, with an artsy insert photo of the back of Margo Timmins’ head as she studies a wall covered in tattered band posters, the U.S. edition (as befits a promo) featured a large photo of the band members, side-lit and unsmiling. It also had a different lineup of songs. The U.S. 12” was backed with two extraordinary tracks available nowhere else: a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers” and a Margo/Michael Timmins arrangement of the folk ballad “Captain Kidd.”

Margo Timmins’ hollow ache of a voice seems made both for cavernous halls and late-night intimate conversation, and the Junkies’ decision to record their second album, The Caution Horses, in the cold, empty Sharon Temple was unsurprising (but provided many recording challenges). “‘Cause Cheap Is How I Feel” was the second single and, like many Michael Timmins tunes, it comes across as both off-kilter lyrically for — and a studied showcase for — his sister’s unique vocal style. Listening to Michael Timmins’ songs can sometimes feel a bit awkward, as if Margo Timmins were a ventriloquist’s dummy mouthing her brother’s most uncomfortably personal thoughts, and this track is no exception. The single is accompanied by a somnolent, drugged-up video and a forced curl of Margo’s lip as she executes Michael’s half-contemptuous, half-obsessed lyrics: “I’m searching all the windows for a last-minute present/ To prove to you what I said was real/ For something small and frail and plastic, baby/ ‘Cause cheap is how I feel.

The Rolling Stones presented “Dead Flowers” as a tossed-off excuse, a scrap of self-deprecation outsung with a bit of joyous schadenfreude. The Junkies’ version changes the mood, leaning hard on Jeff Bird’s harmonica and shimmering mandolin as punctuation, while Kim Deschamps’ pedal steel underscores the poignant tone in Margo Timmins’ voice. As others have noted, Timmins sounds like a true “cowboy junkie” on the song — the listener is ready to believe she’s sought refuge in basement heroin and “another boy to take my blues away” after giving up the alternate addiction of attachment to a laughing, heedless Susie.

The Junkies’ “Captain Kidd” is a revelation, a reinterpretation of the traditional “Ballad of Captain Kidd,” which is generally rendered as a straightforward chant or folk song. It tells the story of William Kidd, a pirate of the 1690s — the tune is original to 1701, the year of Kidd’s death. In the hands of the Cowboy Junkies, the elegiac qualities of the story are heightened by Bird’s fiddle, Jaro Czerwinec’s rich accordion, and Margo Timmins’ voice at its most dusty and windswept. The rhythm of the song is transformed by the decision to go to 5-bar lines instead of 4-bar, giving it a suspended feel, the air of something about to happen. The final stylistic decision is the addition of a few uncredited alternate verses. “Farewell to young and old, all jolly seamen bold,” the singer mourns. “You’re welcome to my women, and you’re welcome to my gold.” The new words go on, reflecting some of the actual facts around Kidd’s trial: “Farewell to London town and the pretty girls around/ My friends have all vanished and no pardon can be found.” Kidd had originally depended on powerful allies who proved unreliable, and had not expected to be tried for murder, but in the end he was convicted and hung: “Farewell, for I must die, I must die, I must die/ And in my own misery I must lie.” Margo Timmins’ resonant whisper of a voice evokes the sense that Kidd’s own ghost is haunting the song, and the song takes full advantage of the acoustics of the historic hall in which it was recorded. The utter silence when the short record finishes feels centuries in the making.

It’s unclear why these recordings were never released in other formats — “Captain Kidd” can’t be found digitally except thanks to some intrepid soul’s YouTube recording of their own vinyl, and “Dead Flowers” only in live versions. Nor can one fathom why they never made it to an album (“Dead Flowers” does appear on a cassette single of “Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning,”) when they clearly outshine some of the selected tracks on The Caution Horses. Like Captain Kidd’s buried treasure, they’re available for those of us lucky enough to stumble on them in the vinyl bargain bin — and worth far more than the price tag.

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