Sunday, September 28, 2008

Crossroads of Ireland

The first song you hear in the morning are the crows. The Jack Daw Ravens of time and tide. Irish Magpies. Wild cawing news of Yeats resurrected, perhaps from the sea on hangdog Irish mornings. Next comes the sound of dead Guinness barrels scrapping across the wet alley pavement; loaded on fog bound trucks behind the Longford Arms Hotel. And the night before the bearded lads were staring into their Guinness pints until they thought up a song; sung them low and dreamy and a sad and drunk and wistful and all of it; don’t matter if it was "Ragland Road" or "Bobby McGee," for it all sounded timeless and Irish. No matter where it come from, lad. The sessions! "But the bottles are done…we've killed each one….." And the lads sang "The Parting Glass," and disappeared into the mist. And right around the corner; upstairs in an empty storefront: "the International Pentecostal Church of Lost Souls," full of displaced Africans shouting versions of old white Missionary hymns brought to Africa by the English and Americans, and now carried back to Ireland by the "saved" black tribesmen. Music everywhere. Fueled by a sharp passion and the reaching for an uncertain God. The gypsy man playing Parisian Café accordion while his wives work the streets for coins in long red dresses. Babies on their backs. The crossroads of central Ireland. All the waitresses are from Poland. Forget any Brogue served up with your toast and tea. Wild cross currents and shiftings and turnabouts. And America has transported its fast food across the waters to poison the cuisines of the Olde Country. Germ colonialism. Fat babies in Spain, Italy, Ireland and France gnawing on Hamburgers and fries. Jesus Christ! What has God wrought? Diabetes! This cross pollination of the good and the bad; the ugly. Hang the Earl of Hamburger! Melamine and poison in Chinese baby milk and candy. But music flaps it's ancient wings above all woe - it is the wail of the human heart trying to survive and rise above war, madness, disease, loss of love and money; death, poverty, politics and boredom. The melodies rising out of churches and pubs and restaurants and book stores. It is a more human sound then debating politicians and commercials for life insurance and the Catholic and Protestant and Jewish and Islamic sermons. It is the keening of humankind.
God invented man. The Italians invented food. The French invented "cuisine," and the Irish invented music. It is only the music that will save us. Embalmed by it we are! Yet still alive. Immunized.
"On Ragland Road…of an autumn's day….I saw her first and knew! That her dark hair would weave a snare….that I would one day roux…." (Patrick Kavanaugh)
"For I'm drunk today! And I'm rarely sober…a handsome rover….from town to town.
But I'm sick now, my days are numbered, come all ye young men….
and lay me down." (Carrickfergus)
And finally, the dead Guinness barrels sliding across the wet alley pavement…on another Irish morning. Amen, lads, amen.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Tales From the Faeroe Islands

Twenty years ago; Copenhagen, Denmark. I'm sitting in a Five Star Hotel bar at nine in the morning, drinking coffee with my friend Gunnar. We're waiting for a radio interview. Remarking back and forth about these well-to-do Danish businessmen who start their day with coffee and gamledansk; liqueur and caffeine. Stockbrokers and lawyers fueling up. There's a commotion at the door, and in staggers a bum; God's own hobo. He's got cigarette butts in his hair; beard and wine stains down his coat. He's muttering and swatting flies. Gunnar and I wait for the Hotel police to descend on him. They don’t. People smile and return to their chat. Okay - the tramp walks up to the bar and barks orders (in rough Danish) to the beautiful blonde bartendress. She pulls out a silver tray and places five bottles of the most expensive Brut Champagne onboard. The drifter barks again and she throws two cartons of cigarettes on the tray, then reaches into his pocket and pulls out a wad of Danish kroners that could choke a Clydesdale. He throws a stack of bills on the bar; staggers off toward the elevators, balancing the tray. There's a hooker waiting by the elevator. Together they get on board and disappear up into one of the best hotels in Scandinavia. You waiting for the punch line? So was I. Gunnar and I looked at each other and the bartendress; but it was back to business as usual. Finally I’d had enough and called to her: "What's the story on that guy with the champagne?" She laughed. "You do not know of him? He's is a famous man here. He is from the Faeroe Islands. He bet a rich oil man that he, the old man here, could paddle a kayak from the Faeroe Islands to Denmark in the dead of winter. Impossible distance. Big waves. But he did it. He won fifty thousand dollars, and now he has been here one month. Spending it! All!" That was it. Great story. I used to love telling it. The Faeroe Islands are so far out in the middle of the Atlantic it's impossible to get a take on it from a normal map. I've always wanted to go there. I figure the last bar on earth is out there. Pirates and madmen. Fishmongers. End of story? Not yet. A year or two ago I got a CD from Bill Bourne, a very cool Canadian songwriter. He's singing with a gal from the Faeroe Islands. Great singer. So I write her manager and tell her my old story about the old man and ask her if it's true.
Here's what she writes: "Yes! His name was Roma (I think). He was a big hero in The Islands. But, sadly one day he went out in his little boat into one of our quiet lagoons here. He fell overboard and died." End of story. Huh? Drunk? Suicide? The best sailor on the face of the earth? Metaphors? Punchlines? Naw….just another Tale from the Faeroe Islands. Raise up a jar to old Roma. You'll never hear about this on CNN.......

Monday, September 22, 2008

Sketches of Spain

Ten thousand people on the street at midnight. Street culture: tapas, raciones, jamon Serrano. Madrid once again. I pay 10 euros and watch a Mestizo barkeep build me a sangria. Recipe: Start with an empty cognac glass; add two tablespoons of sugar; then three fingers of Rioja wine; stir wildly in circles; add a finger of lemonade soda and another of orange soda; splash of Lemoncello or a white liqueur I can't make out; splash of cognac; handful of ice cubes; level off with more Rioja. The tint must match the wine-red sandstone of old cathedrals. Onward to the Museo Chilocote Bar, where Orson Welles and Salvador Dali hung out with Sinatra. Dali, in fact, grew up with the poet Garcia Lorca. Then Lorca went on to explain passion to us in whirling flamenco poetics... he was shot and thrown into a common ditch. Poetry is a hard way to go. Ask Leonard Cohen. Ate Paella at La Barraca on Reina Street, watching Japanese tourists take photos of lobster pies. Another meal at Casa Botin where the echoes of muleteer's carts rattle through the brick caverns. Can't forget the paella at La Barraca. I've learned to make it myself, you know. It's an exercise in alchemy and luck. It involves the exorcism of the Spanish soil; a ration of the right herbs and rice and saffron, a good white Rioja and deep song, conte hondo, wailing off the hi-fi player. Maybe the voice of "Aguates," the singing blacksmith who gargles with the kerosene of lost love. But you too can build your own paella! Go to and order up a paella pan, rice and some "pembrella" herbs. They usually throw in a recipe sheet. Impress your wife or girlfriend. Grandmother; husband; lover. Wail! Listen to "Camaron de la Isla," the flamenco junkie, who sings like a raw nerve inside the heart. Read Lorca's poem on the death of Sanchez Mejias when you've finished. "At exactly five in the afternoon!" Then walk backwards down the Gran Via in a dream and remember all the hookers from Ghana and the Chinese men who sell warm beer from cardboard boxes and Watusi's hawking bootleg Madonna DVDS. The Caterwauling white nights of Madrid. Sketches of Spain.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Down Where the Drunkards Roll

There are moments in your life when you turn a corner and stagger into a back alley; into your past. Backed up against the rear exit of a burlesque joint and a junkie's got a knife at your throat. Haven't I been here before? Sometimes you wake up. Sometimes it ain't a dream. We were on the road a few weeks ago in New England. We pulled up to a gig in one of those states above New York. On the waterfront. It said "Riverfront Café." This was supposed to be a place I've played before. I realized the agent had made a bad mistake. The place I played a few years ago was: "The Riverfront Bar and Grill." (I'm using pseudonyms here for protection.) She'd misread the phone book. Big difference. The other place was up in a better part of town. I knew we might be in troubled country from the twelve Harley Davidson's parked out front. Reminded me of the time I boarded a "People's Express" airline in Oakland and Sonny Barger and twenty Hells Angels got on board in full colors, carrying briefcases. (Adios, baby, we're goin' to Cuba to kick some ass.) Now back to this bar…I opened the door and saw the twenty bikers, and didn't figure any of 'em were my fans, and then I turned and saw the big Monitor Lizard flicking his tongue at me in a glass tank with a sign that said: "He doesn't Play Well with Other People. Watch Your fingers!" Later on I'd watch the owner, tough gent who owned a carnival, feed the lizard with clam strips. Like watching a pirate with a hook feed sharks. We were no longer in Greenwich Village, baby, nor Kansas. But the owner was nice enough, and I got over my dread, and he told me long war story about Link Wray doing his last gig on earth in this bar, and how they carried Link up on stage, and he exploded in a furious two hour set of rock and blues, then collapsed and they carried him out and away. Perfect. Link Wray. A beat Indian rocker in dark glasses.
We made it through OK, but it was close. I asked a biker if everything was all right, and he said "No." It was the most meaningful "No" I'd ever heard. Definitive. To the point.
Lew Welch, the beat poet, would have liked the quiet fury and weight of that rendering: "No!" Welch was walking through a winery one day, taking a tour, and someone's kid almost fell into a wine vat, and the tour guide, who was muttering a boring speech, suddenly woke up and screamed: "Whose kid is that?!" Lew Welch vowed that his poetry would always carry the emotional impact of: "Whose kid is that?!"
Some nights you have to be prepared for that old trap door to open up and you're dropped down a long tunnel, into your hellish musical origins: skid row bars, bikers, hookers, con men, drunk Mohawks, carny's and the like. Dues. Perspective. The minstrel trade can be a humbling experience. Good for the soul. Down where the drunkard's roll. TR
"See the boys out walking, the boys they look so fine, dressed up in green velvet, they're silver buckles shine. Soon they'll be bleary eyed, under a keg of wine…down where the drunkards roll." (Richard Thompson)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Lenny Bruce Weekend

"To Rant: Speak bombastically, violently, theatrically. To declaim, pontificate, trumpet, preach, bellow. A tirade, diatribe, or rhetoric." (Oxford dictionary) Rant is in the dictionary right before "Rap." Yikes. This weekend I received feedback on the quasi-political rant I floated out. The best (and most adverse) was "Tom, stick to the songs!" I agree. I don’t want to turn into Joan Baez, Steve Earle or Phil Ochs. You might end up hanging yourself in Far Rockaway. Political rants are just: "old newspapers blowing down Bleecker street." Like Fame. The world is always better served by artists: Van Gogh, Cocteau, Geronimo, Dylan. Not politicians. The lasting stuff. But, hell, I had a momentary lapse - and now they found out ole Sarah Palin tried to ban William Faulker books from the library and goes to a "Pray Against Gays" church? I'll leave it all be. The reader who said "we get the leaders we deserve" was correct. George Bush reminds me of a lot of the guys I went to college with. Frat cats with slight beer guts. Sorta dumb. He truly does represent the average American male. He's got a difficult job. But, perhaps we deserve a change. And just when things were settling down here on the ranch…. this weekend NPR chose to run an old interview with myself on my song "Who's Gonna Build Your Wall?" That caused another minor shit storm with the white rednecks. You can read all the reactions on the NPR web site for "Weekend Edition." There's plenty of 'em. "If Mister Russell thinks that white people are lazy….well he is wrong." And how about: "The law is the law." I always enjoyed that one - seeing how I studied law a got a whacked out Criminology degree. I think we all learned everything we need to know about American law by watching the O.J. Simpson trial. The law is not the law. It's administered and interpreted by flawed mankind. It's on the take. It serves those who have the money to twist it. There ain't a lot of rich folk on death row. That being said, I'd rather live here than in Russia or Croatia. And white people willing to work at the same jobs illegals are covering? Give me a break. Most of all hard labor done on the border - this side - is done by illegals. Even on ranches owned by hard core Republicans. The wall in San Diego was built by illegals! Nobody else is gonna do the job. The wall began as a knee-jerk reaction after 9-11 when, with all our technology and CIA expertise, we couldn't find a bearded fanatic living in a cave in the third world. We better close up them borders! Protect ourselves. Well now they've run out of money and the wall sits there like a depressing black shroud over the landfill where I dump my tree limbs. In the end, folks, Lenny Bruce summed it up: "the truth is what IS; not what should be." The killed him for that one. And now I've had enough of the rant…believe me, I work on songs first thing in the morning before I vent my spleen on this stuff. Fun though! Adios. (Corky: just exactly why do I need to be doing a blog? You got me into this. )

Saturday, September 6, 2008

An American Moment

· I sat in my truck in the parking lot of a shopping mall in El Paso; the lights were going out at 9pm. Closing time. The Heart of America. My wife was in there exchanging something - or maybe she and her mom were robbing a jewelry store. I waited for gunfire. Sirens. Cops. I sat watching the dark glow of the mountains and conjuring up my next "rant." Maybe one more parting swipe at the whining shipwreck music biz. Enjoyable. Maybe tell how there are no more music cats like John Hammond senior who signed Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Bruce Springsteen and dozens of others, and stuck to his guns and let them develop. The Godfather. Music thrived. Creativity thrived. It used to be called "A & R."And then I thought I'd point to Nashville as the prime template for the ruination of The Song. I was thinking all you had to do was print out the Billboard Top Ten Country Charts for the past fifty years and you'd see that in 1988, or so, about the time Garth Brooks flew in on his wire, the whole thing went into the shit house. You won't recognize most of the songs after that. Disposable. And then I thought I'd dredge up a metaphor from William S. Burroughs' book: "Naked Lunch" and contend Nashville is a great example of the old carnie routine: "The Man Who Taught His Asshole to Talk." (Pardon my French.) It's a sideshow routine…except pretty soon the asshole begins to talk on its own accord and the man's head and brain and heart atrophy. Ya know? Like Nashville. Like when they told Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, George Jones and the boys they were now "credibility artists," not wanted on the air waves. But then, in that parking lot in the heart of America, I made the mistake of turning on the public radio station, and Sarah Palin was railing forth. John McCain's VP running mate? Most of you know I do not enter into political debates…but the drivel coming out of this person's mouth was on par with a white high school senior running for student body president in small town Mississippi circa 1962. Holy shit, John McCain, I use to respect you. Alaska? Governor? Credibility? Cool place, but they'd elect Old Dan Tucker governor, because "he washed his face in a fryin' pan." The dull, red neck, clichéd and infantile right wing banter emanating from this woman!…Lordy, Lordy!'s desperate times out there. Mighty desperate. Go ahead, folks, and vote with your fear in your belly. Order up your fear with your double burger with American cheese and ketchup. Kiss my ass, por favor. I'm gonna register to vote. I shook John Kennedy's hand once and I was on the Letterman show with John McCain and respected him…but…got to register…Holy God. Got to, if I'm ever gonna tour Europe again, with this passport, and expect any amount of respect, I reckon we need a change out there. Bob Dylan's candidate is good enough for me. I don’t abide the fear routine. I don’t abide the faux John Wayne swaggering. Don’t buy it. The breath of the elephant stinks of old shoes, fear, and piss water. The Republicans have wet the bed. It's time to change the sheets.
· My fellow Americans, I thank you for your time.