A Closer Look —

You Can’t Break My Window Mister — David Schickele’s Music

by Tom Hebert (Nigeria 1962–64)

    AT A MID-80s PEACE CORPS REUNION in Washington, D.C., I met up with David again after some 20-odd years. I hadn’t seen him since a Free Biafra/Committee of Returned Volunteers meeting in 1969. He mentioned his music. Like everyone else I knew, I had seen and used his film Give Me A Riddle, so I was interested. A week later he sent me a 45 RPM with “Jack” on the A side. In 1986, “Jack” helped me transition my career back to freelance consulting as I wore out the little 45 playing it every morning, steeling myself for the lone life ahead. A piece of “Jack” :

      Jack is true as the day is long
      an honest man in his hooves
      he don’t tell lies he just takes what
      little the lord bestows you
      and folds it under his cap
      flap your innocent angel wings
      hosannas sing
      it don’t mean nothing to Jack

      so say your prayers if you must do
      keep those beads in spin
      but when he crooks his finger
      just give him your
      watch and wait by the window
      fold your hands in your lap
      he take everything his hand can hold
      but your heart your soul
      but won’t take none of your crap
      cause it don’t mean nothing to Jack

         Beyond that 45, one of my life treasures is a 1987 cassette of Volume Four (of five), entitled “Everything.” The songs on it all have complex orchestrations with multiple tracks, David on leads with harmony vocals, reeds, drums of all kinds, pedal steel guitars, cello, harmonica, etc. Professionally recorded. But, as you can tell from “Jack” above, how tuneful they are! And some really, really swing, hosannas sing, in a mighty big way. I whistle them when I am out riding my Spanish pony. Accessible.
         The songs grew from David’s richly poetic lyrics, often written for his friends. They’re filled with heroes, outlaws and mavericks, death and danger, lovely and lonely women, weird strangers, ramblin’, horizons and away places, blues and aloneness, portraits of old friends, and one about a magical saloon:

      . . . the place just made me feel at home so
      it’s kind of hard to explain
      unless you’ve spend a night in old Ibadan
      at the West End Café
           Studying his lyrics now, I see how David melded his old yen for cowboy honky-tonkin’ music with the Western-romantic-grail-questing of the Peace Corps (which quest few of us abandon). From “Under the Baobab”:

      when the bastards wear you down
      and your love life’s all undone
      when you feel like skipping town
      with a suitcase and a gun
      when you’re beat to your soul
      wend your way down to the riverside
      where the waters roll
      sit you down under the baobab
      where the hippos play. . . .

      Hippo Rob will pull you through
      make you see the world anew
      so dry your tears and tie your shoe
      Hippo Rob will pull you through.

         Such merry music was a family affair. David’s brother Peter Schickele tells listeners of his Public Radio series “Schickele Mix” about how he and his brother started presenting these weirdly funny family musicales which later grew into his satirical classical music and the character of P.D.Q. Bach. (David was also a serious viola player.) Here’s David’s maverick self in “You Can’t Break My Window”:

      you can’t break my window mister with
      BB gun
      the clouds will beat you to the draw
      they’re drawn with fingers finer than your
      trigger’s ever known
      you’ll need a wrecker’s ball
      you can’t break my window mister cause it’s
      painted on the wall

      you can’t break my window mister cause it’s
      made too strong
      its glass is spun of songs that echo round in
      Hildy’s eyes
      clear songs of longing hiding in these
      desert skies
      I feel the wind a-scraping on my
      stubble chin
      the clouds they change like Hamlet’s whale
      you gotta
      stare down the valley, till it lets you
      till it lets you in
      you need only heed the call
      you can’t break my window mister cause it’s
      painted on the wall

         And lastly, from “Sophie Sleeps”:

      The moon wears black pajamas
      with buttons made of stars
      moonbeams stroll the avenues
      strumming cheap guitars
      so turn down the lamplight
      now is the hour
      Sophie’s sleeping . . . .

         Last November phone calls and e-mails asked, “Did you know David Schickele just died?” Damn! But we do got his songs. David’s sleeping.

    Tom Hebert (Nigeria 1962-64) worked with the USO in Vietnam and Bahrain after the Peace Corps. He was involved with emergency relief work in Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War, and was a consultant with Antioch College and the State University of New York at Old Westbury. He has written three books about innovative American training and education and spent eight years with TVA. He lives now in Pendleton, Oregon and is a consultant to the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, developing a Tribal horse program. His article on David Schickele appeared in Friends of Nigeria Newsletter, Winter 2000 Vol 4, No. 4. We thank FoN for permission to reprint it here.

    All lyrics copyrighted by David Schickele and reprinted with permission.