Video with lyrics:
One of my favorite moments of “Have One On Me” occurs just before the two minute mark. Lola (more on her later) is doing “her famous spider dance” (almost certainly the tarantella) when she sings “Shake her skirts and scatter, there/a shrieking, six-legged millionaire/with a blight in his sockets.” Notice how she sings “there a shrieking” in a way that both simulates the shriek but also simulates the dips and swirls of the dance. That’s the most obvious example I can cite of Newsom using her voice to add color and detail to her story – you feel like you’re there with Lola for a moment.
The Lola in question is Lola Montez, born Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in Ireland. Miss Montez danced her way to becoming the mistress of the King of Bavaria (he eventually bestowed the title “Countess of Landsfeld”) and, for a brief time, the power behind that throne. His eventually abdicated under intense pressure from the population and she fled the country, eventually making several careers for herself in the United States.
Newsom’s song takes its time telling Montez’s story slipping in and out of first person story-telling. Lola is associated with the tarantula for which her dance is named which leads to a variety of spider images. As the song switches to first person images it seems to flip back and forth between Lola’s voice and (former) King Louis’ voice. Though it starts slow, by around 6:55 she starts singing of weddings and drinking and the song really starts building to an almost frenzied pace (just as the Tarantella would). By this time the song totally has me every single time.
She eventually builds to the title three times, imploring her cruel lover (or his cruel lover, I suppose, depending on whose voice you think you’re hearing) to “have one on me.” Sort of like asking an old friend from whom you’ve been parted for a long time to drink to your memory one last time.
Then there’s the cryptic little verse that opens and closes the song – something about a food taster who dies and a blackguard who is beheaded for the assassination attempt. Lola “doesn’t know how to feel bad enough to make him proud.” At the end, she implores Daddy Longlegs (the blackguard) “are you proud?” Even without being able to fully piece together what the story is all about, its a moving, powerful story. I wish stories with more logic had as powerful an emotional impact and character journey. Its like watching a movie.
Here’s a bit about the song that appeared in this article by Jody Rosen in The New York Times:
Exhibit A on “Have One on Me” is the title track. It moves from dreamy harp arpeggios to Old West saloon-song stylings to jaunty tarantellalike passages and beyond, through 11 minutes of whiplashing tempo and time-signature changes. The song’s meaning was a mystery to me until I got hold of the lyric sheet and realized it was about Lola Montez, the Irish-born dancer and actress who wowed theatrical audiences on three continents and led one of the 19th century’s most tumultuous romantic lives. (Her lovers included Franz Liszt and King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who made her countess of Lansfeld.)
Montez was also, as it happens, a resident of Nevada County, Calif., in the peak Gold Rush years. “I’ve been interested in Lola Montez since I was little,” Newsom told me. From 1853 to 1855, Montez lived in a small cottage in Grass Valley, a town next door to Nevada City. She performed her famous “spider dance”— a burlesque in which she shook rubber tarantulas out of her raised skirts — at the Nevada Theater. Today her portrait hangs in the lobby of the National Hotel. The highest point in Nevada County, rearing up on the horizon northeast of the house where Newsom grew up, is named for Montez: Mount Lola.
“I’m obviously identifying her story with my story to some extent,” Newsom said. “To be a woman and to be a performer at that time meant something very different than it does now, but I’m also interested in what the similarities are. I was interested in the fact that she was constantly traveling and constantly having to start over and make a new life for herself. And her connection to this town is very important to me.”
In other words, “Have One on Me,” like so many of Newsom’s songs, is bound up with the mythos of Nevada City. Travel, distance, exile, the yearning for home
There are some other excellent songs on Have One On Me but its hard for any of them to top this epic title track.