Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Sunday, November 29, 2009
In 1985 I was living in a closed-up storefront in Brooklyn I called: “The Bunker;” an idea stolen from Williams S. Burroughs and songwriter Pat Garvey. I thought I was living in a bohemian garret – Paris in the 30’s and all that. The rent was $150 a month and the landlord was an old Italian lady named Vera who made rot gut, bathtub wine. She bottled it in plastic half-gallon coca cola containers. I’m still picking the grape skins out of my teeth. She sat on the sidewalk in the late afternoons, reading Botticelli from an old beat-up paperback; when she finished a page she tore it out and let the wind carry it into the gutter. “You shoulda’ try an read this, Mr. Rosseli,” she laughed. “It’s feelthy stuff. Ha ha!” Her teeth were purple from the homemade wine. Her cackle of a laugh was charmingly evil. Before Vera died (and all of it died)…before the new money moved in, and the Italians moved out…Otis Blackwell showed up one day at my Bunker. He was half-blind from working years as a dry cleaner, and the toxic solutions had destroyed his eyes. His wife led him around. Otis, you might know, wrote “All Shook Up,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Return to Sender,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Fever,” and dozens of other rock classics. The early book of rock n roll. The Old Testament. (Dylan wrote the New Testament.) Otis was born in East New York, a section they call Bedford Stuyvesant. The Badlands. There’s a street there named Malcolm X Boulevard, and all retail business in Bed-Stuy is conducted through bullet-proof Plexiglas. As a young kid, Otis went to the Saturday afternoon Cowboy matinees at the local theater; he was always first in line so he could get a free cowboy plate. The first 20 kids inside got gifts. His favorite actor-singer was Tex Ritter. “Man I loved that cat’s voice,” Otis said, “so dark and groovy.”
(The shadow of Tex Ritter is very long. I later met a Japanese Countess in the Alps of Switzerland whose favorite singer was Tex Ritter. She was the widow of the painter Count Balthus.) Back to Brooklyn…Otis began to form his early songs from comic books and cartoons and “those weird little funny things I saw at the cowboy matinees.” Otis, like Leiber and Stoller, worked that cartoon-cowboy-street-lingo styled humor into early rock and roll history. Otis graduated to the Brill Building, helping to create the foundations of Tin Pan Alley rock. One day a record producer came into Otis’s cubicle and shook up a bottle of Coca Cola, which sprayed all over the wall. He challenged Otis to write a song about that in ten minutes….Otis wrote “All Shook Up.”Elvis Presley heard the demo and recorded it. Elvis not only copped half the song publishing, he copped Otis’s burping-chugging vocal style. Trust me. Otis was not offended; he was honored. When Elvis died, Otis gave me an LP Called “Otis Blackwell Sings His Hits”….he took a marking pen off my desk and re-titled if “The King Is Not Dead!” and signed it to me. “I was too shy to ever meet Elvis, “he told me, “I had the chance in Vegas once, but I was too shy. “
And there you have it; a little touch of rock n roll history from my bunker days.
“I wrote my songs, I got my money, and I boogied.” Otis Blackwell
Thursday, November 19, 2009
A decade later I snuck backstage at the Hollywood bowl and stood beside Cash as he waited for Bob Dylan to finish “Desolation Row,” that incredible beast of a song unfolding for the first time on stage. Cash and Dylan were defining nova-beat American folk music. Spin around a few more years and I was onstage singing with Johnny Cash in Switzerland; he whispered the lyrics to “Peace in the Valley” into my ear in front of 10,000 people… Christ, those Old Testament words about the “lion lying down with the lamb.” Chilling. Life changing. I’d had breakfast with him that morning and he promised me he would record my songs “Veteran’s Day,” and “Blue Wing.” He kept his promise.
“Blue Wing,” is still in the archives of those Rick Rubins' sessions, and it was those Rubin sessions which later brought Cash back to a younger, “alternative-country” audience, after Nashville had turned him out. How important is Johnny Cash to our culture? His face should be carved in granite next to Mount Rushmore, along with Hank Williams and Crazy Horse. He is our Black Moses. His voice defines an honesty which cuts to the heart of how human beings love and hate and hurt. That voice was not so much “beautiful,” as it was raw and truth-filled and in your face, with real poetic news that needed to be heard, swallowed, spit out and heard again.
I am honored to have known him, if just in a few passing hours on a two or three far distant stages. I still think of him when I cross that bridge, from Juarez to El Paso; walking that line between hell and heaven; dancing across the that tightrope between truth and oblivion –high above a river gone up in flames. Acrawl with nerves.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
On an overcast, bleak New York afternoon his Danish wife walked into their second-rate hotel room up in the east 50’s of New York City and found the body and the empty vile of cobra venom which was supposed to fight off his depression. He was the son of Oliver La Farge, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning novel “Laughing Boy,” and this boy inherited that passionate, driving ache to write about Native people, though he was not a full-blooded native person. He had a little Narragansett blood in him. His name was Peter La Farge, or “Peter Bucking Horse” as the Indians called him, and he wrote one of our finest American songs: “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” His sister lives right up the road from me here in these Chihuahuan badlands. One afternoon I took her the original 8 by 10” signed photo I found of Peter riding the great bronc “War Paint” and winning Denver in ’58. It was signed “To Woody.” I would imagine Peter had planned to deliver it to Woody Guthrie in the hospital, but Woody out-lived Peter by two years. La Farge died in 1965.
Naw, he wasn’t really a full blooded Indian. Nor was he a truly great bronc rider.
But these predilections and passions, along with the ravages of too much pain jammed into too few years, carved him up and into a Rimbaud-tinged, Cow kid-Indian poet and writer of grand power. From this western knowledge and a dose of truth-serum Peter composed “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” If God has made a better “protest” song, the Great Father has kept it to himself. The Pima Indian Ira Hayes served in WW II and helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima. He returned home to die drunk in an Arizona water ditch on barren Pima land; tribal land raped and gutted by the white man’s greed. Ira’s final departure is painted in tough, ironic lyrics:
“Then Ira started drinkin’ hard,
Jail was often his home
They let him raise the flag and lower it,
Like you’d throw a dog a bone.”
American poetry. Pure. Truth-filled. Here lies your cowboy song, amigos. This ain’t nothin' off of “A Prairie Home Companion.” Johnny Cash recorded a group of La Farge songs, but radio refused to play the single “Ira Hayes” Cash payed for a full page ad in Billboard: “radio programmers where are you guts?” Can you imagine this happening now? These were serious characters, friend. These were the times when our folk-writers: La Farge, Tim Hardin, Fred Neil, Johnny Cash and others - had done time in the Army, Navy, Marines, jail, and divorce court…had been exposed to all forms of powerful hard drugs and violence; the quicksand of catastrophic romantic relationships. Who were they? Where did they go? Married; divorced; addicted; disappeared; forgotten; dead; found Jesus, Buddha; day jobs; lost…. gone to Florida or Potter’s field, or crazy in hotel rooms, back streets, and bars. Many sank to the bottom - terminally depressed when Bob Dylan weaved and danced through it all like a blacksnake with wizened biblical poet knowledge; then went on to prosper with his Picasso-esque confidence. The rest of the generation (to mimic William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsburg) went all crazy and died, some of ‘em, as the purest minds of our culture are want to do.
Peter La Farge was a “seldom man,” to steal a concept from his father. A man whose character and mettle we’ll seldom see again. His poetry still crackles and sizzles high up in the eternal folk musical air; in my gut, and in the grooves of those collections, like Cash’s “Bitter Tears.” Let us now praise little known men and half-cocked bronc riders. His ghost is lying thirsty, in that hotel room near 50th street, where the cowboy-poet died, and where, years later, Tennessee Williams would choke to death in the middle of trying to write one final dramatic line; one last American truth. Come gather round me, people, a story I will tell….
“I always love like a high jack rabbit going through a bramble.
Or a hawk up there twining the world around him just before he
falls to get the jack. Like and eight wheeler going through a Kansas
town at midnight, with only a little boy watching from his bedroom
window and riding every non-stop car out. I love like an act of nature…
but I am alone now and filled with lonely pain…pain always send me home to write.”
Peter La Farge
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Who's gonna let it roll?
The treasure’s not the takin’. It’s the lovin’ of the game. Winter chill hits Columbia Missouri. Rivers soon frozen. Marking the Twain; ten shows in; fifty to go. Blood and Candle Smoke. From sold out show in Boston to midnight run on old interstate 95; here we are on this broke down, rutted highway and three in the morning and worried about making the Letterman show. We make NYC in the afternoon and walk head on into the “controversy.” Letterman tapes two shows on that Thursday, and he tells of the extortion plot against him. Dave handled it a lot better than those boneless politicians with their faux shame. Ratings climbed 50% higher and we began to chart on Amazon. More gigs: Joe's Pub, Turning Point, World Café with Gene Shay, who says he puts "Blood" into the top 25 of his 11,000 plus record collection. Told me he had dated Nina Simone. Vienna Virginia, XM Radio with Bob Edwards which will air soon; Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Columbus, Ann Arbor, Fairfield - Iowa…home of the Transcendental Meditation tribe. Blueberry pie and Vedic houses and down the road to Columbia. Then K.C., St Louis and Mt.Olive. There is still an America out there, but it's a house of mirrors. You don’t know what you're actually seeing; or eating. Much illusion. But the bridges and the rivers are still there, carrying coal, and shrimp and broken bottles through the night. Old America still exists inside used book stores and on the faces of Amish women.
People want to know what this life feels like, asking: "don’t you get tired of traveling?" Naw. What baffles me is what OTHER people have to do for a living. Just give me that fruit platter and two bottles of water in the dressing room. A towel and decent hotel. We follow an ancient path of old wagon ruts left by guitar toting muleskinners who carry the word from town to town. An honest trade in a tired land. And I dream back to that old Ed Sullivan theater dressing room where they tape the Letterman show; thinking about that tray of fresh cookies and those wonderful old photos on the wall; people who have shared the dressing room: James Brown, The Beatles, Bob Dylan (with his upside down Gibson guitar - the photo must have been backwards.) It's all worth it, if you can stay inside the song and sing it honestly.
Why do we do it? How? I quote the song lines:
But beside the lookin' for…
The findin's always tame.
There's nothin' drives a gambler,
Like the lovin of the game.
"The Lovin' of the Game"
Letterman link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EIDCYjvj5XU
(Southwest tour coming….and Texas….check www.tomrussell.com)
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
“Down below El Paso lies Juarez,
Mexico is different, like the travel poster says….”
-Burt Bacharach and Bob Hilliard, “Mexican Divorce”
I. Touch Of Evil
That was the summer of “birds falling out of trees,” as the Apaches might say. Looming weirdness. I’m in a beat-up Juarez taxi cab, inching slowly away from the Plaza Monumental bullring. A masked character in the truck across from us begins firing an automatic weapon over the top of the cab. Across the street at the Geronimo bar, three bodies fall into the gutter. My cab driver pulls his head down and shrieks: Cristo! Cristo! against the racket of trumpets and accordions from a narco-corrido song on the radio. Cristo, Jesu Cristo! Ayuda me! The cab lurches forward with each string of Jesus curses. I’m riding inside a pinball machine set up next to a shooting gallery. Bodies are falling outside. Bodies are falling in the drug song on the radio. My shirt sleeve is stuck on the handle of the door and I can’t seem to twist and duck my head down below the dashboard. This is not the way I want to die. I try to grab hold of the wheel but the driver pulls himself together, makes the sign of the cross, then turns down back streets and alleys that lead to the border bridge. The rat-a-tat-tat of a weapon fades into the distance. The cabbie wheels to a stop and lights a cigarette. Sangre de Cristo. Fifty pesos, por favor.
It’s another Sunday evening in Ciudad Juarez.
Back then, twelve years ago, it cost fifteen cents to enter Mexico. Fifteen cents to wheel through the turnstile and cross the river bridge into the carnal trap. The Lawless Roads. I used to think of Orson Welles’ noir classic: “Touch of Evil,” when I walked down the bridge into Ciudad Juarez. That sinister feeling which draws the gringo-rube into web of rat-ass bars and neon caves; the nerve tingling possibility of cheap drink, violence, and sex; sex steeped in sham clichés about dark-eyed senoritas and donkey shows. It’s that heady, raw – anything goes, all is permitted, death is to be scorned- routine which informed and carved out the rank borderline personalities of John Wesley Hardin, Billy the Kid, Pancho Villa, and hundreds of Mexican drug lords. Western myth now grim reality. You craved the real west, didn’t you?
The late British writer, Graham Greene, knew the border terrain. He crossed over at Laredo in 1939, noting: “The border means more than a custom’s house, a passport office, a man with a gun. Over there everything is going to be different. Life is never going to be quite the same again after your passport is stamped and you find yourself speechless among the money changers.”
Speechless among the money changers. I like that. I can’t imagine what Hunter Thompson would have come up with if he’d written a version of Fear and Loathingabout the current state of affairs in Juarez. Cristo, Cristo, Cristo. Thompson once said that if you want to know where the edge is, you’ve got to go over it. Juarez is big time over the edge. Amen....
(This is the first page to a Tom Russell essay published in full on a radical new blog called The Rumpus....here's the link to the full story with art.)
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
"It was not a luxury for me to write, it was a necessity. These times are very difficult to write in because the slogans are really jamming the airwaves - it's something that goes beyond what has been called political correctness. It's a kind of tyranny of posture. Those ideas are swarming through the air like locusts. And it's difficult for a writer to determine what he really thinks about things. " Leonard Cohen
The novel appears to be dead. Dissolving like a rotting cadaver in the quick-lime of post modernist droning. Authors are boring. Thus their characters. The radio air waves are filled with posturing; swarming with locusts full of the poison and "the tyranny of posture." New folk. Bad folk. Weak folk. Poetry's coming back, after Bob Dylan virtually killed and overpowered it as a relevant genre in the 60's. Every hack college lit professor knew it was doomed back then. Poetry is coming back because of the huge gap out there; for anything resembling literature or lyrics or scribed emotion. The yen for something which imbues lyrical passion. We are a nation of old junkies going cold turkey on very bad drugs. Word drugs cut with borax, false bravado, and insincerity. Tattoed babble. Watered down love and greeting card rhymes. At least Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison and Merle Haggard are playing to full houses and selling records. As the maestros should. People are hungry for anything vaguely real….but there are few new songs. No "new generation" of folk writers. As Kerouac said: "There is nothing new under the sun. All is vanity. Pass me the chalice, wifey, and there better be wine in it….."
I was leafing through two great books of letters: those of Martha Gellhorn, and another collection from William S. Burroughs. I realized there's not gonna BE anymore of these collections, because no one WRITES letters now. Just cryptic emails and cell phone messages. Slogans again. A nation of housewives in SUV's ranting on the cell phones as their drive toward nail appointments. The word "love" has become a slogan. The last good song I heard was probably: "I Don't Want To Go To Rehab," by Amy Winehouse. Dig it. Or maybe it was a John Trudell recitation called "Happy Fell Down." ("Love is blind; when it opens it's eyes it can disappear.") Or maybe it was Gretchen Peters' "This Used to Be My Town," inspired by a young girl who was abducted and raped. Jesus. And Nanci Griffith's new record is pretty damn good. Simple truths. Well told. With passion. Rolling Stone dismissed it with two stars. We don’t expect anything anymore. Running scared. My friend; London Observer journalist Peter Culshaw, stated, regarding journalism: …"the age of the drunken hack with a heart of gold buried under a cynical exterior is gone and the papers are run by terrified bureaucrats and guys who never leave their non-smoking, non-drinking offices where if you flirt with the secretary they haul you up for harassment..." Joseph Mitchell, A.J. Leibling and Hunter Thompson are rolling over in their graves. Little Stephen addressed the masses at South By Southwest music conference this year; told the audience that young musicians are not doing their homework, paying dues; not learning to write good songs. (My friend Alec asked me if I wrote the speech.) I'm sure 10,000 thumb-sucking networkers from around the world stood there and smiled; nervously fingering their access badges; twittering like parakeets at the Place of Dead Roads.
What's left, to cite Flannery O'Conner, is to "push hard against the age that pushes against you." And so, under the guise of taking out the trash at night, I sneak into my painting studio and blast out old Dylan and Ian and Sylvia records (like Fritz Scholder and T.C. Cannon before me.) I need that fix. Bad. And I paint Indians and plot new lyrical ways to push against this culture.
Well, hell, into all this great void; this fear driven mess; I toss my record. Blood and the Candle Smoke. 12 songs. Missives from this agave-choked wilderness. And I stand behind it. And you, dear reader? What can you do? Listen. Or not. Maybe buy two or three for your friends and get on the internet and invade a dozen chat sites and let 'em know. Call radio. Toss one off the Empire State building. Go out and create that internet tsunami…or don't. But I'll stand behind it. If you don’t think the record is 100% there for you or honest or "good," or if there's any false passion or bad lines, then bring it to a gig and I'll trade you two different cds back for it. Or give you 20 bucks. That's what I can guarantee you within the so-called music culture of today. It's all I have at present. I believe in this record, and I don't believe in much else.
And now it's time to shut up and tour. I hope the carnival is coming to your town…all the dates are up, and the ponies are being saddled. Amen.
"Words lead to deeds…they prepare the soul,
Make it ready, and move it to tenderness."
To order the record: http://www.villagerecords.com/product_info.php?products_id=5902
Tour dates: www.tomrussell.com
Sunday, August 23, 2009
Rain Clouds audible
So long, Maggie
I'm goin' back to Indiana….
The last song.The last lights go out on the carnival Midway. Circus Tent comes down. Clyde Beatty throws horsemeat to his two old African lions. The midgets are doing amyl nitrate poppers. The train is leaving. Out on the highway, the circus front man is one town or two states away; nailing posters up on creosote poles. He's got a headlight out. In more ways than one. His girl ran off with The Holy Ghost of Indiana. At least he thinks she did. He can’t be sure. Depression and bone-deep confusion run in the family. He does not have intellectual access to Williams Styron's book, "Darkness Visible," but he feels the whole thing anyway. By hillbilly osmosis.
Fell in love with the pony ride girl
Round and round her little pony's twirl
Sparkling eyes and curly curls
She went back to Indiana….
Something is closing in…out in Texarkana he sees an old guy pushing a shopping cart full of empty tin cans and broken bottles. Our carnival man pretends he is not seeing his future. He pulls into Shorty's Super Mart; goes in for a bottle of strawberry soda. Big Red. Tells Shorty he's heading for Indiana, in search of his one true love. Shorty laughs. "Didn't you say the same thing on your last three go-rounds through here? Let me tell you somthin' kid. Dreamin' dreams is like chewin' gum…chew too long, it all turns to stone." And there we'll leave our man as the credits roll. Dazed. Between the plains of the buffalo and the wild dogs of Mexico.
Turn the record over. Medicine for the ritual. Begin the circle again. The carnival circuit. The real message, in these series of dreams, lies somewhere between the blood and the candle smoke. Don't look down, friends, the ground might be burning.
And this road is dark at night
When you've only got one headlight
And you've lost your appetite
For idle dreaming….
Nailing posters up on creosote poles
Fallin' asleep, running off the road….
Don't ask for whom the bell tolls
It tolls for me…In Indiana.
(Series of Dreams #12. The final episode of stories concerning 12 songs on the coming album: Blood and Candle Smoke. Now available by pre order from www.tomrussell.com)
Monday, August 10, 2009
Our guilt to forsake
The Delaware, the Blackfoot
The Flathead and Snake
Now they flow past Casinos and Hamburger stands
They are waving farewell to the kid on the land….
With their jig-sawed old arteries
All clogged and defiled
No open heart miracle's
Gonna turn 'em back wild.
It's the river towns which attract me. Pittsburgh, Portland, St. Louis, Kansas City.
Even Manhattan and old El Paso. I tell European folks, planning to travel the U.S.; aim for a river town like Pittsburgh or Portland and you might still find an America of used book stores, local radio stations and a cafe cooking real food. Maybe. There might be a butcher, a baker and a candle stick maker. You might dissolve into another America. The towns that clang with the "rhymes and the rattles of the runaway trains, and the songs of the cowboys, and the sound of the rain." Towns like the poetry out of Carl Sandburg's song bag. Hog Butchers of the world! Stormy, husky, brawling city of the big shoulders. The sunsets look different from an old iron bridge over the Monongahela. Help you conjure up Huckleberry Finn and Ramblin Jack Elliott singing "912 Greens." Towns with voices. New Orleans on a Friday night: "With the wind blowin' off the Mrs. Miller river"….to quote Ramblin Jack. Not speaking of nostalgia, here, so much as a heart-pounding attempt to find where the music still flows in the "weird old America" of clogged rivers and empty factories. The America which has lost it's "Old Man River" Voice. Did it all die with Walt Disney? Meredith Wilson? Kerouac? Thomas Wolfe? Crazy Horse? Edward Abbey? Early Randy Newman? Harper Lee? Mark Twain? Joseph Mitchell? Fred Neil? Walt Whitman? The Band? Stephen Foster?
Past towns gone to bankers
And fields gone to seed
All cut up and carved out
Divided by greed
And old grandfather catfish
With his whiskers so long
And his life is a struggle
Cause the oxygen's gone….
Naw, there aint no more cane on the Brazos. But there's many a river that waters the land. Some nights my dreams float and roll along to the poetry of old folk songs, and there's always a river involved. Shenandoah to the Rio Grande. And a kid is always sleeping on the riverbank, near an old Chinese graveyard. It's me. Never figured what it means. Can songs and dreams really be explicated? Naw. Only rhymed and sung. Over and over. A river is a carrier of dreams. "The water is wide…I can’t make it over…nor do I have…the wings to fly." We are stuck inside the river dream. For a moment. "Until human voices wake us, and we drown….." (Eliot.)
(This is song #11 in a series of dreams…song sketches from the coming album: Blood and Candle Smoke. Coming to a drive-in theater near you….soon.)
Friday, July 31, 2009
High up in those ancient trees
Lord, I've given up without a fight
Another blind fool on his knees…
And all the Gods that I've abandoned
Begin to speak in simple tongue….
The shrine sits on the outskirts of Mexico City, beneath a low mountain where two older versions of the church are settling into the Mexican earth. Sinking into the primeval Aztecan mud. This is the spot where the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to a poor Nahuatl Indian named Juan Diego. On the morning of December 9, 1531, Juan Diego was walking near the Hill of Tepeyac and encountered a vision of a young girl. The girl was surrounded in light and spoke to Juan in his native language, asking that a church be built in her honor on this site. He recognized the vision as the Virgin Mary and went to tell the Bishop, Juan de Zumaraga. The Bishop asked Juan to return and seek a miraculous sign of proof. Back on the hill, the Virgin told Juan Diego to pick a bouquet of flowers and these turned out to be Castilian Roses which only grew near Bishop's home territory in Spain - they didn’t grow in Mexico. The Juan Diego opened his cape and the apparition of Guadalupe appeared there like an ancient votive painting…the same image which now hangs in the church. Let me tell you a little story….
I had flown to Mexico City six years ago during Christmas season. I was in between relationships; aching to escape self pity and the pressures of the holiday season. Craving escape in a city I now consider the Rome of Western Civilization. I hooked up with Taxi driving guide named Caesar who was a bit of a self-made historian. We drove to the pyramids, Frida Kahlo's house, the wondrous Dolores Olmedo Museum, all the great eateries near the square; we wandered the maze in the flea market of antiquities and I spent Sunday in the largest bull ring in the world.
Christmas eve I attended Midnight mass in the great central cathedral where Indian women carried their baby Jesus statues to the archbishop to be blessed with holy water. My heart pounded along with the 200 year old pump organ; sadness, doubt, self -pity and fear drained from my body with every hair raising crescendo of the ancient Latin hymns. I was not rediscovering religion so much as digging deeper into an understanding of the raw face of passionate belief - even if it wasn't my own personal belief. It was their belief and their story. Passion is passion. It counteracts the poison.
There are times when zealous rituals of other cultures open portals in your soul. A glimpse. Inward comes a light. This feeling does not lead to acceptance of church dogma or re-conversion or an overwhelming acceptance of Jesus, Mohammed, Jehovah or Buddha. Not every time. But I heard whispers and I was lead to the hill of Tepeyac. The shrine of Guadalupe. And I sat there for hours on a winter afternoon with thousands of Mexicans and Indians, and an odd assortment of German tourists who kept leafing through guide books. And that image was up on the altar in a golden frame, and the poor and spiritually crippled and dumbstruck and all of us… were staring at her. Guadalupe.
We're talking of an image that is tattooed on the backs of Mexican men on death row. An image from a million roadside shrines. The Mother of the Americas. The talisman carried in the pocket of the poor and the Indian and the lawyer the thief and the bullfighter and the used car salesman. The belief in Guadalupe transcends normal Catholicism. It is a story, much like an old folk song or a votive painting, which has endured. As Carlos Fuentes wrote: "One may no longer consider himself a Christian, but you cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in Guadalupe. Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz stated: "The Mexican people, after nearly two centuries of experiments, have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery."
And I sat there that long winter afternoon and it didn’t lead to my talking in tongues or getting baptized again or riding through Mexico City on a horse behind Zaptata or sub-commandante Marcos. And they both rode under her banner. It lead to a lingering chill and a knowledge that I was not alone in my yearning. There was a new light in my eyes, reflected from a thousand candle flames. And it finally lead to a song.
Who am I to doubt these mysteries?
Cured in centuries of blood and candle smoke
I am the least of all your pilgrims here
But I am most in need of hope.
(Guadalupe is song # 10 in a series of song sketches off the coming album: "Blood and Candle Smoke." It has also been recorded by Gretchen Peters on "One to the Heart, One to the Head"; available from www.tomrussell.com.)
Friday, July 17, 2009
We're turning the corner now, we might run into God
From the Plains of the Buffalo, to the wild dogs of Mexico
To the loves that have laid us low…gotta leave that behind.
A Heavy Metal rock star, on the way down, was quoted: "I knew it was all over when I looked up from different stages every night and always saw a Ferris Wheel." I love that quote. Perspective. The realization you've been relegated to the State Fair and Carny circuit, down from Indian Casinos, and the next stop is the freak show and biting the heads off of live chickens. But I've been there…in every T.S. Eliot verse and situation that you can imagine. I can recall backing up the nightclub act "Onyx and Pharaoh," a muscle-bound black man dancing around with an enormous boa constrictor. One night he put the snake's head in his mouth, for too long, and killed it. He performed the midnight show with a dead snake. Drum roll. And then there was "Big Jimmy," the 300 pound female impersonator, who stripped down to only a road sign that covered his rear end which said: "Do Not Enter!" Friend, we are talking: "There's no business like show business." Slave auctions, topless roller skating, sword swallowers, midgets, mud wrestling. Been there. And now I'm happy to have the fruit platter in the dressing room and a bottle of clean water for the stage. And a towel. And the songs.
Have I been too far? Have I seen too much?
Working in the shadows of the big Ferris wheel?
It's been 10,000 nights in the sawdust and mud shows
Walking a tight rope, for a room and a meal….don't look down.
"Don’t Look Down," is a celebration of the Minstrel Road. Survival of the emotionally fit. Adventures in the skin trade. Reflection: Michael Jackson died with enough drugs in his body to sedate the entire population of Somalia; whilst his personal anesthetist slipped out the back door. The press forgets they condemned him as a child molester; now hail him as a hero worth 200 commemorative magazines and a million dollar L.A. farewell. Americans are good at crying magazine tears. Wax figurines will eventually melt as the climate dissipates into reality TV and talent shows. We're hurting for heroes and songs. Hurting bad. Forty years ago, July 20, 1969, we landed a man on the moon (so they say). The ghosts of John Updike, Arthur Miller and Norman Mailer are still trying to figure the significance of that - and how we are supposed to FEEL about it - like the significance of Michael Jackson. They are telling us it's a big deal, but why do we feel confused and empty? And hyped?
In 1969 I watched the moon landing from a cinema in Ibadan, Nigeria, with 200 drunk Yoruba tribesman who were laughing their asses off, because the spaceship looked phony and toy-like. I was with them.(See "East of Woodstock, West of Viet Nam." First chorus.) Hearing Bob Dylan sing "Desolation Row" at the Hollywood Bowl (and seeing the Beatles there) were more culturally significant events; fer yers truly. Resonant for the ages.
St. Mary, Mother of Patience,
St. Joseph of the hammer and nail
Build me a ladder to the Heart of the Matter
High above the moon tonight….on this carnival trail.
All I'm asking for is a little deliverance, and the time and space to write another song. Like the noir actor Sterling Hayden, drunk and penniless on the old Johnny Carson T.V. show, begging for a free room: "Someone please give me a room overlooking the Hudson River…just lend me a portable typewriter and a mattress to sleep on and I'll write you a goddamn novel, sir." Amen. Don’t Look Down. The earth might be burning. Tickets please.
(This is #9 in a series of 12 song sketches off the coming album: Blood and Candle Smoke.Out Sept 15.)
Thursday, July 2, 2009
He drives the cold Missouri night
Strip malls and abandoned mines
Out on the left and the right
He drives into Mt. Olive and
the Becker Funeral Home
Where his daddy's lyin' with a cold hard stare,
Black lung and broken bones…
Ed Becker owns a funeral parlor in Mt. Olive, Illinois. Mt. Olive is a coal mining town with heart failure, north of St. Louis. The mines have closed down and the graveyard is filling up with old men who died with creased hands, dark bloody coughs, and hard, smoke-seared Midwestern eyes. Coal miner eyes. There used to be a bar on Main Street called: "Pee Wee's House of Knowledge;" beer was fifty cents a glass and the juke box played Tennessee Ernie Ford's version of "Sixteen Tons." Over and over. The Mother Road, Route 66, runs through town, and the oldest operating Gas Station on that pot-holed chunk of historic asphalt sits on the east side. I believe it's a Texaco. Mother Jones is buried in the cemetery on the edge of Mt. Olive. She was a tough, fist-swinging, guardian angel for union miners in the days when hired thugs and scabs were shooting up demonstrations. There's a monument on Mother' Jones grave in the cemetery; weeds and wild flowers are curling 'round the chipped gray cement. Ed Becker, who keeps and eye on the cemetery, has been trying to raise money to maintain the graveyard and Mother Jones monument. He asked a bunch of folks to write a song about miners and Mother Jones and such. He gave me a book about Mother Jones: "The Most Dangerous Woman in America." I liked the title. Didn't read the book. (The trouble with history is - it was written by historians. Dry humorless vultures with no sense of style, story, or humor.) I took the title; wrote the song. Mood-wise it's akin to Springsteen's "Nebraska," with a dose of Woody Guthrie and Merle Travis. Movie-esque. An ex con is driving across the bleak, frozen landscape in winter. Going home to bury his dad. The sky is gunshot gray; patches of amphetamine red. The old man is being buried, whilst the son shoots-up heroin on the kitchen floor of an abandoned farm. Pronto the sirens scream and bullets shatter the plate glass of a discount liquor store. Ed Becker will bury more bodies; the streets of Mt. Olive will be two tongues quieter. Fade to an oil painting of retired miners staring down at their shoes in the VFW lounge. Around the corner, at Turner Hall, the last pin boy in America is setting up the bowling pins on Saturday afternoon, and the crack of the ball hitting the pins is not the shot heard round the world. It's the shot piercing the heart of what's left of rural, coal miner, family-farm America. Let us now praise famous and forgotten men. And women. The most dangerous kind.
Some people say a man is made out of mud…
A poor man's made out of muscle and blood
Muscle and blood and skin and bone….
A mind that's weak and a back that's strong…."
"Sixteen Tons," Merle Travis
(This is #8 in a series of sketches on songs off the coming record: Blood and Candle Smoke.)
Monday, June 22, 2009
Everything's backwards and upside down
Baby Moses in the bulrushes
Paddling sideways to higher ground…
People, let me tell you, there was an earthquake down South in 1912, and they say the Mississippi river ran backwards. The world turned upside down for a few days and all creation was a children's nursery rhyme. One of the darker kind. The Land of the Razz-Ma-Tazz! Folks began to come apart. Fuller Brush men hanging in trees; insurance executives run out of town on rails. Tarred and feathered. Blow Gabriel Blow. They say Brother Levon went out of his head out on farm road #34. To quote Levon: "Man come down here tellin' me he got a mule for sale, and I realize it's a dead mule….and the man, he dead too, and then I woke up and wished I didn’t wake up cause outside my porch come the water and comin' fast and I'm knowin' I gotta hoof it for higher ground….'cept there ain't none. Only God be on the higher ground. So I lay down and wept. And that's when things gone real real bad."
Hell, I have no idea what this song is about. I only write 'em. Some sort of hillbilly Armageddon gone modern. But I woke up in the emergency ward in Tucson the other night and this song suddenly made complete sense. The world had turned upside down, and in the room next to me was a three hundred pound killer from the county jail who was chained to his bed; two cops watching him like hungry crows. The killer wore an orange prison jumpsuit and had a huge bald head and horn rimmed glasses. He looked like Rod Steiger in "The Pawnbroker." As I passed his room I thought I heard a nurse say: "…Oh, God, something's wrong. It's running backwards!"
(Song # 7 in a series of sketches on the songs off the coming record: "Blood and Candlesmoke." This song is now released and streaming from www.myspace.com/russelltom )
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
For they'll possess the earth
And please bless those who sleep alone
May they find what love is worth…
And blessed are the troubadours
Who handed me the feather...
A few days ago I sat down on the wall in front of the Mexican mural near Olvera Street in Old Los Angeles. The mural title was "The Blessing of the Animals." I was born somewhere around here; right up the street. Now I could still smell those same French Dip sandwiches at "Felipe's;" could taste the pancakes frying at "The Pantry" on Figueroa. I recall the Archbishop blessing the animals and the shoeshine boys. I used to drive a rose truck from Santa Barbara down to Fifth and Main in L.A. as the sun came up over the burlesque marquees and the L.A. river. John Fante walked these streets when he wrote his classic: "The Brotherhood of the Grape."Bukowski drank in these dank bars, sipping beer, with a bag of groceries between his legs filled with fresh fish, bread and oranges. Fante and Bukowski and I walked the Mexican alleys looking for the same thing: love, laced with a dash of respect; and money enough to endure and to keep food and wine in the bag and continue writing; throwing the jab. The oldest game in the world.
Forty years and fifteen relationships later I found myself in Switzerland, at the edge of the Alps, playing in a honky-tonk near a farm pasture where herd of buffalo were grazing. The West goes on forever. A beautiful girl walked in to the bar; right out of a Swiss fairytale. I walked up to her, grabbed her arm, and declared someday I'd marry her. All my Beat guardian angels were rolling their eyes and holding their breath; waiting for another collision. Two years later I proposed in Venice Italy with a ring of fried calamari. It was a long way from downtown Los Angeles and all the rusted wreckage and bad poetry along the way. Sometimes all your racehorses come home. Sometimes you pass by the dragons without being devoured. Somewhere in Yeats' lyrical desert the Sphinx begins to move, trotting off toward an Indian casino where Johnny Mathis still sings "Chances Are," and "The Twelfth of Never." Somewhere, later in your fight, in what they call "the championship rounds," your jab begins to connect, and you dance and lay blistering left hands to the jaws of anger, hate, fear, doubt, guilt, depression and embitterment. The naysayer will nay and the dogs will bark, but the caravan moves on. Into an eternity where persistence and endurance pay off. Where hope melts into a tangible heart-shape soul which bleeds with thankfulness every time you hear a Sinatra song, and "love" is not just a four letter word.
("Finding You" is song #6 in a series of twelve off the coming record "Blood and Candle Smoke." This is a love song. Every album needs one. Lift up the needle and turn the record over. You're only half way through. Carry enough water. )
Saturday, May 30, 2009
Mesquite, saguaro, great mystical agave…tell us, please,
Where in hell are we going?
There is a road which runs from Phoenix Arizona, on up to Globe and back down the other side to Lordsburg, New Mexico. Highway 60 melts into highway 70 at Globe and runs down through the San Carlos Apache reservation. This is the great cactus road of all cactus roads, with all the Sonoran varieties of agaves, prickly pears, ocotillos and chollas; and the barrels and the great saguaros and organ pipes. Don't forget the fish hooks, and devils fingers and ironwoods and stag horns and Palo Verde and hedgehogs. Might even spy a Joshua Tree with a Gila Monster hiding behind it. When you hit the San Carlos reservation the road becomes spiked and framed with the white crosses which mark the Indian dead. Drunk drivers, mostly. You see, there's no alcohol allowed on the reservation and sometimes the folks get thirsty and take off on a weekend spirit search for libation, which becomes a ghost dance. Those roads are snaky, sandy and treacherous when a man has twenty beers under his belt and he's pissed off anyways at what became of the Native West. All of it went to hell since they sent Geronimo into exile in Florida. Florida for Christ sakes. Can you imagine an Apache Warrior Chief in Florida? And maybe out there on that Arizona road, in dead of night, you might be lucky to glimpse the almost extinct Mexican Jaguar (one was recently collared and accidentally killed by well meaning Tucson park ranger biologists)…though it aint likely the Old Man Jaguar would venture this far north of the line. Let's say two boys stole a car from their drunken Apache brother and head for town; over yonder. This be Mangus Jack and Jimmy Yellow Eye. On the way back, drunker than a thousand white people, they are swerving and swilling. Swilling and swerving. They're listening loud to "Horseshoes and Hand Grenades" off of Green Day's latest: "21st Century Breakdown." The boys squint and see a Jaguar in the high beam lights. Brother jaguar is walking his coyote predator walk, down the middle of the road. There is a shooting star high up above Jerusalem Mountain; then a screaming and screeching of tires; the final war dance of blood, hot metal and sand. Shattered glass skimming sideways through the air like ancient arrowheads; piercing the sacred saguaros. The moaning and then the final silence. Three days later there are two more white crosses on Highway 70; a bouquet of plastic roses and a sign lettered in black paint. "In loving memory of our Apache brothers:Mangus Jack and Jimmy Yellow Eye. R.I.P. Horseshoes and Hand Grenades! Forever!" Amen.
(This is song #5 in a series of back-lit dream songs off the coming record "Blood and Candle Smoke.)
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
The devil he's got angles
But God is an expressionist
He's got the devil strangled……
When Pablo Picasso died I was working the lumber camp bars of Prince George, British Columbia. We had a rock and roll cover band called "Fathead" (when we worked country bars we were known as "The Mule Train." Skid Row's Finest Band!) I played piano for "Fathead" and we sang Rolling Stones and Kinks songs whilst the off duty lumberjacks tried to kill each other. I recall one guy knocking out another guy and then, when the ambulance was taking the poor bastard away, the protagonist who'd kicked him chased the sirens down the street, on foot, and opened the back door of the ambulance and climbed in and started clobbering the guy again. Just another winter's evening in a mill town. Rage and rock n roll. Catharsis. Boredom. Oblivion.
So, the night Picasso died the news came over the TV in the funky little broken down motel where we were living. At the very moment when Picasso's face flashed across the screen, five drunken Indian gals in the next room began to howl and keen and cry. For Picasso, I guess. Oh, the wonders of the primitive universe! There was must have been a deep, mystical link between what and who Picasso was and these drunken Native women in a frozen lumber town. (Picasso once said: "My mother wanted me to study medicine and become a famous surgeon. But I studied art and became Picasso!")
From Prince George we traveled to Prince Rupert, as the violence and drinking escalated. A desk clerk in a fleabag hotel in "Apache Pass" shoved a gun barrel against my face one night and slurred: "How you like it now, white boy? How's your blue-eyed boy now, Mr. Death?" Later I realized he was quoting E.E. Cummings.
Cummings? Picasso? Well that's the way it was. I was amused and interested in these little violent, character-building vignettes, because I had been educated as a Criminologist. Got my Masters degree, but never told anyone in the music biz. But in those honkytonks and skid row hotels I was experiencing the real subject matter - up close and very personal, without having to hang out with the boring and soulless academic tribe. And so, dear reader, the song "Criminology" carries on where "East of Woodstock, West of Viet Nam" was headed….basically cataloguing the many times I've had a gun pointed at me with mal intent or bad love. Oh, there were a few other instances….but time and rhyme got the best of me. I've done my criminology homework in the backstreet hotel rooms and skid row bars…pursuing Dylan Thomas' Adventures in the Skin Trade. Your reporter, signing off,from the outskirts of Juarez. The final frontier.
(This is song blog #4 in a row of 12 off the coming album: "Blood and Candle Smoke")
Monday, May 11, 2009
the trains rattle and moan
It’s just Hank Williams talking,
to Nina Simone…(From the song Nina Simone)
San Cristobal de las Casas. Deep in the Mexican Yucatan. I’m wandering through the colonial backstreets and dark Indian allleys, when I hear Nina Simone’s voice filtering out of the window of a used bookstore. Vinyl. And old tube-driven record player. She was singing Dylan’s „Just Like a Woman.“ A transforming moment. I finally HEAR Nina’s true voice. A folksinger; that’s all she ever claimed to be. Reminded me of Morracco when I heard Dylan’s „Love is Just a Four Letter Word,“ with the lines about storefront windows and Gypsy Cafes. Those moments when you hear through to the poetics of the song. Down into the bedrock, where the iron water seeps through the veins and soaks into the words. Cante hondo. Nina Simone.
A few days ago we were walking along a canal in Amsterdam and saw a barge with a crane and steam shovel dredging out mud and trash from the canal. Out of the dark waters emerged broken and twisted bicycles, tree limbs, plastic bags and chocolate colored silt. So like the archeology of a song; dissecting a Nina Simone song, where the core is blood, mud, and twisted bicyles dripping with the silt of trainwrecked relationships. She was an angry woman, but contrary to journalistic belief, it didn’t all have to do with her blackness or her womanliness….it was a fathomless spiritual anger that strangled and confused her, and allowed her to inject the riveting, jagged noir nuances into the music. Blues in real time. Take it or leave it. She sang everything from pop to blues, country to folk, jazz to blues... and soul and French dance hall songs. She sang whatever she damn well pleased with a spit-in-your eye attitude that masked a very warm hearted, damaged human. Her anger was no different than Van Morrison’s. The eternal search for the reason people destroy each other. As the painter Francis Bacon said: „relationships are all about two people pulling each other apart.“ Nina sang the soundtrack and I heard it and danced to it as I walked through my lonely alley afternoons in the Mexican Yucatan. Years ago.
(Song number three in a series of twelve from the next record « Blood and Candlesmoke » )
Saturday, April 25, 2009
the mountains…devastated by the hot dry
Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at
100 miles an hour and whines through the Eucalyptus
windbreaks and works on the nerves. October is a bad
month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult
and the hills blaze up spontaneously. There has been no rain since
April. Every voice seems a scream. It is the season of suicide,
divorce and prickly dread, whenever the wind blows."
Thus begins Joan Didion's brilliant and plague drenched evocation of the San Bernardino Valley, in her essay "Some Dreamer's of the Golden Dream," from the collection "Slouching towards Bethlehem." Something is working on somebody's nerves; somebody's gonna die. In this case it's a husband torched to death in a Volkswagen by his wife, who's been sleeping with the local car dealer. It's Didion's masterpiece and owes much to the "In Cold Blood" style of non-blinking, neo-impressionistic reportage on murder; the style that came into vogue with Truman Capote in the 1960's. Didion's essay takes place in California in 1964, the country of: "teased hair and Capris and the girls to whom all of life's promise comes down to a waltz length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberley or Sherry or a Debbi and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdresser's school." In sentence after sentence she nails these people to a common cross of flaunted religious ignorance, and the sweltering boredom of life in the great white middle class L.A. suburb. Too much is never enough. And then there's that wind.
It was Didion's opening focus on the Santa Ana wind which got me to thinking of Los Angeles and the sort of cursed Raymond Chandler country I grew up in. That wind was always coming from the Gila Monster hills; beyond Death Valley…and it would bring revenge upon those Catholic padres who built the mission system on the bones of the Mission Indians. Landscape tones: Forest fires, earthquakes, tidal waves, Jehovah's Witnesses, billion dollar glass churches, Amy Semple McPherson weirdness, and my Iowa-bred, horse-trader father playing five card stud in his Texaco gas station. Fast forward to Gram Parson's singing: "This old earthquake's gonna leave me in the poorhouse…" And here comes of "the "Lord's burning rain." And then Warren Zevon, Tom Waits and Randy Newman with their catalogues of Armageddon-inspired song poetry, which twisted Bukowski and Chandler with Stephen Foster, Harry Partch and Scriabin. Armageddon music for sure. California style. How about: "Smoking in bed can sure burn your house down….Especially if you're there with somebody's wife…"
("Building Fires by Dan Penn and Jim Dickenson) Seems appropriate.
These are the tones set for the song: "Santa Ana Wind." Number two song on the coming record. Joey and John of Calexico established the 6/8 time and the amphetamine flamenco groove with Tijuana trumpets by Jacob Valenzuela. Welcome to L.A. ! Gretchen Peters sings the Emmy Lou and Gram thing chillingly. We have our little taste of that ill wind which Joan Didion was speaking of…that wind which has been working on my nerves for a half century. This is San Bernardino drive-in movie music, and the hills above that big ole screen are burning with fake golden crosses; shining back towards the Banyan trees of Angel town.
(Song #2 in a series of sketches on the 12 songs on the coming record "Blood and Candle Smoke.)
Thursday, April 16, 2009
(The next 11 blogs will deal with the songs on the coming record. This is song number one, in a series of dreams.)
Thursday, April 9, 2009
enjoys fighting the creator on the very
rim of the well. Angel and muse escape
with violin, meter and compass; the duende
wounds. In the healing wound, which never closes
lie the strange invented qualities of a man's work.
Federico Garcia Lorca
Three and one half hours into Leonard Cohen's Phoenix concert; half way through the fourth encore, I thought of Garcia Lorca and the stated roots of art and duende. Lorca spoke of "black sounds" issuing from the essential, uncontrollable quivering common base of wood, sound, canvas and word…and there up on stage was Leonard Cohen and the guitars and female voices and wind instruments and percussion. Violin, meter, compass and angels. The musical soundtrack of lovers and poets and toreros and arch-gypsies and holy madmen who have stumbled down from the Zen mountain. Cohen was either kneeling in supplication or skipping off stage after another encore. There was nary a bad line sung; lest a bad song. It was akin to listening to an ancient Sevillian bard serenading his dead lover with deep song….at her graveside. Dead roses weeping. All the deep, beatific hits. The thoughts, and poetics and rhymes tumbled down till you forgot you were in the 21st century in the middle of the Arizona desert; you were watching this "little Jew who wrote the bible" tear though the heart of a deep repertoire, as he danced on the rim of the well of eternity.
So much for the poetics. There are no hard edged, journalistic set of tools to sum up an experience that washes over you and renews your faith that someone out there is still singing exquisitely crafted songs. Artful songs. Songs that cascade one after the other and resound in your worn soul. It was an ancient circus with guitars and horns and pretty girls and stuffed monkeys with plywood violins. And it was music untouched by time; not hacked to death with the politics of worry over the economy, baseball scores or God's broken ankle. The world, for four hours, wasn't run by "killers in high places," nor codified by the rules of love and engagement from afternoon talk shows. And I was the kid in the third row, enthralled; understanding for a swollen moment why I had joined up with the minstrel trade; why I had opened up in my soul… that "healing wound which never closes."
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
I've met the sons of darkness,
and the sons of light
In the border towns of despair
Bob Dylan, "Dignity"
I had the pleasure of sharing lunch ten years ago with the celebrated Southwestern painter Tom Lea. He was ninety years old and nearly blind, but his mind was astute as he shoveled in the peppermint ice cream and chatted about many things: the bullfighter Manolete; preparing paint varnishes; memories of the Mexican Revolution. Lea's father had been the mayor of El Paso, and he was always kicking "that old saddle-skinned son of a bitch" Pancho Villa back across the river. Villa, in turn, put a price on the sheriff's head, and little Tom Lea had to have a bodyguard accompany him to school. It was early in the 1900's and the revolution began to thunder in Northern Mexico. Tom Lea said El Paso folks would set chairs up on their rooftops and watch the war action across the river. The six o'clock news was just a quarter mile away; being written in blood through the binoculars.
80 years later, in 1997, I was close to being gunned down twice, near the bullring in Juarez. Wrong place; wrong time. Big time. These were the incipient skirmishes in what is now the full-on drug war in the streets of Juarez between the Tijuana and Juarez cartels. Statistics: 2000 people killed within the last year in Juarez (the Baghdad of Northern Mexico). An estimated 2000 illegal weapons flow from the United States into Mexico every day, and a ton of coca powder, heroin and marijuana travels in the other direction. Up the noses of the middle class; into the arms of the poor. Filtering through the lungs of wasted angels.
There are now ten thousand army troops and cops patrolling the streets of Juarez. Billy the Kid wouldn't stand a chance. The bridge into hell is just a twenty minute car ride from my hacienda. Ain't this the last frontier Hollywood cowboys longed for? Ain't this what Cormac McCarthy was trying to dream up? It might be time to put a chair up on the roof and watch the action, again, through field glasses. I used to walk those Juarez streets and drink at those bars; and good ones they are. There is nothing like the Kentucky bar on a Sunday afternoon when the margarita limes are being squeezed by Mando and Ana Gabriel is on the jukebox with her husky pipes bellowing out "Valentine de la Sierra.". And how many new narco-corrido songs will emerge from the current smoke? The narco ballads are the most contemporary of cowboy songs. And how many righteously shocked news commentators and NPR icons will lay their moral outrage at our feet? These news people bleed for us, but their blood is colored water and pomegranate juice.
The tourist market is empty now and the mariachis have gone underground. I wonder what happened to that old beggar from Kansas I met awhile back on a deserted Juarez street corner. The most down and out, grizzled and homeless sixty year-old being on the face of God's troubled earth. He wanted paper money; pesos or dollars. "Don’t give me no pennies," he said. "I'm from Kansas. I draw pictures on paper bags." I wish I'd asked him how in hell he got trapped in Juarez. Forever. His vaporous presence walking away down that alley… haunts me. Who was he? Why can't he cross back over? I want to hear HIS take on the drug wars. Only his take.
Is he dodging the gunfire now in that alley behind the Tragadero Restaurant, where Tom Lea's friend, Manolete, stares down from a 1946 photo on the yellow smoked walls? Are people blind in heaven? Or is Tom Lea, who landed with the Marines on Pelei, catching this action…all of it raging down along the river, in the battle of Juarez.
Friday, March 20, 2009
And uptown the St. Patrick's Day Parade has finally ended, after eight hours, and the whole Island is filled with retreating and staggering drunks in funny green hats and Irish cops lugging de-flated bagpipes past New Jersey High school bands and Haitian cabbies, and hotdog and falafel vendors; pretzel carts, fruit stands, pizza grab joints, Turkish taffy carts, used book hawkers…an America that has, not in this moment, little to do with partisan politics and bank swindlers and loud mouth right and left wing talk show hosts who attempt to sway moralities and carve wax emotions. For a moment no on cares about the six o'clock news or the weather channel…that's the other tired America that screams from the airwaves. For just this sundown moment we are what we were meant to be - brothers and sisters and lovers under the skin, trudging home half drunk from the beauty of being alive in this Gotham jazz afternoon fading into evening and the whole of America is out there, running west beyond Manhattan; out across those rusted train tracks through New Jersey swamps and on out to Pittsburgh; to the Mojave desert and on toward the Pacific. For just one moment we are part of that swelling chorus of Whitman, Kerouac, Sandburg, Ginsberg… as old Irving Berlin is pounding out anthems on the Brooklyn Bridge and Sonny Rollins is wailing from the Williamsburg…. For a moment we are a part of what it was intended to be. On St. Patrick's Day.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
There’s a book by David Gahr. Out of print. Inside is a photo of Gordon Lightfoot’s song list, taped to the top of his Gibson 12 string guitar at Newport in 1965. The songs are written in ink, smeared from sweat or rain ; or maybe they‘re late-night motel bourbon stains. This was back when people sang and swapped songs in rooms full of cigarette smoke; dawn light seeping through the yellow window shades. There‘s almost 80 songs listed on this paper scrap, scotch-taped to the antique guitar wood: his own classics: « Early Morning Rain », « The Way I Feel », « Ribbon of Darkness », and « For Lovin Me »; and Dylan covers: « Girl From the North Country », « Hollis Brown », « Blowin in the Wind », « Don’t Think Twice »; country-western gems : « El Paso », « The Auctioneer » and « Six Days on the Road »; Folk covers like Ian Tyson’s « Four Strong Winds » and « Red Velvet », and folk standards like « Old Blue ». A few rockaabilly numbers. That mix! Folk, Blues, Country,Gospel, Rockabilly and Rock and Roll. If there is any mystery where great songwriters come from, this tear-stained list is a black and white document of the homework. Lightfoot sang and wrote from a deeply rooted knowledge of roots music. Then he rolled and wrote his own songs. Still does….But let‘s move forward 35 years to a folk festival in Ontario, where they‘re in the midst of a Gordon Lightfoot tribute. Lightfoot had been in hospital for two monthes recovering from an aneurism. The prognosis aint good. Suddenly the crowd parts, like the Red Sea, and people are shrieking and applauding, and here’s Lightfoot himself, walking through the crowd with a guitar case. Damn, it’s Jesus coming to town on a mule, armed with an antique wooden machine gun. Then he’s on stage, singing an old song. People are weeping. Quite a moment. I had the chills. Lightfoot waves and retreats to a trailer dressing room and dissappears. The door slams. The applause is deafening. The only problem is my guitar is in that dressing room, and I’m on stage in 10 minutes for the tribute. I politely knocked on the trailer door, and Lightfoot bid me come in. He was sitting in the corner, grizzled and shakey-legged, smoking a cigarette. He looks at me: « What song you gonna sing out there, kid? » I said, « Your song, ‘For Lovin’ Me’ » He motions toward his guitar with his cigarrette. « Here, take my guitar and sing a little for me. I wanna see if you’ve got it right. » (I thought, holy shit. Im auditioning for Gordon Lightfoot. Heavy dues.) I picked up his revered old Martin axe ; it glowed in my hands. My fingers burned. I sang a verse or two of his wonderful song. « That was great,“ he said. „You sing it great, kid. Go out there and kill em“….I handed Lightfoot back his old Martin and glided out out he room. Later on he made a point of coming up to me and telling me how much he enjoyed my version, and my work with Ian Tyson on « Navajo Rug ». I thought back to that old stained set list on his 12 string at Newport in 65. And all the motel rooms and miles and the dignity of the man. A songwriter. It was like running into Homer, and he hands you his lute. A few troubadors still walk among us, with stained set lists taped to the top of their road battered axes. Old guitars soak up every room and song and situation they’ve been involved with…and oh, the stories they can tell. For a moment, in Lightfoot’s dressing room, I knew I was at the center of my universe. I knew why I was a songwriter. Amen.
(If the punctuation looks wierd I’m writing this on a Swiss computer in Calgary and it’s 35 below zero.TR)
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Muhammad's family used some of the texts for fire starter ( sacred poetry up in smoke!) before the rest were turned over to scholars. The Gospels contained many of the poetic utterances of Christ which were expunged from the "true Gospel" by four rather dreamy-eyed journalists, cum apostolic altar boys, named Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. These fellows shaped and edited Christ's words to foment an earthly church, and they disputed texts which urged folks to seek the Kingdom within. The Gospel of Saint Thomas (which I often quote) states: "everything you bring forth will save you….everything you do not bring forth will destroy you." Christ stated his kingdom was "not of this world." The apostle boys wanted an earthly kingdom with rules and "good guy - bad guy" moral logic. "My God is better than your God." Tribalism and insanity. Those lost texts, by comparison to King James, read like something from the mind of a poet or songwriter. A mystic. Poetry and song, in the end, is dangerous stuff.
Fast forward, brethren, to modern times where Christ's words are twisted by right wing talk show hosts and slick Jack TV evangelists with billion dollar glass churches and funny hair, who have profaned "the Word" about as profane as you can wish to profane it. If Christ comes again to cleanse these craven idolaters and money lenders from the Temple he'll need a mighty big bull whip. But I digress. ("Blog" comes from the Latin word "blogula": to digress.) What interests me is how we selectively corrupt the character of historical heavyweights and then twist our life and fate around false words and distorted characters. Then kill for it. Christian and Muslim and Jew alike. Based on our belief on a book or document that was edited and watered down by self seeking journalist choir boys. Lordy.
Okay, follow me brethren…. I'm having breakfast with Johnny Cash in Switzerland, and the people and family around the table won’t let him get a word in edgewise. He kept saying: "You talking about Me?" The Johnny Cash I talked with on several occasions was a big hearted, complicated human who bore no resemblance to the Hollywood version or the picture his friends and family now push into the DVDS which are more about "them" then Cash. Words are being jammed into his mouth. He's become the black-suited Christ. It's how we journalize great characters to suit OUR needs. Ditto Woody Guthrie the person….we live in a world of Reader's Digest versions of historical characters; versions which deny the heavier complexities of the human spirit. Which thus denies us the deeper truths of the hard and worthwhile human poetry. Life-saving poetry.
So there…you bastards! Our thoughts for today.
But what does all that have to do with those three fellaheen riding their camels across the black lands of the Upper Nile in search of fertilizer?
Friday, February 13, 2009
www.yarddog.com also has my new Bob Dylan print and the paintings "Hamburger" and "Milkshakes."
In the last few weeks we've visited Elko Nevada for the Cowboy Gathering and performed a follow-up workshop with Ian Tyson. The DVD of last year is available on our web. Then on to a successful Texas tour with Thad Beckman on guitar - giving Michael Martin a breather for a month. Thad has several albums out and plays a vintage 1935 Gibson guitar….great player who amazed the folks.
Canada tour in a few weeks - then Denver and Salt Lake and on toward Scandinavia. But more songs to cut here with accordion and Palm Wine guitar. Twelve good songs and a cloud of dust.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
"Those are Mexican wolves," said Eric. "I'm sure of it." A wild little desert co-incidence as the song played. Wolves. Blue Roan Horses. Blue Mountains. Cowboys born out of their time. Crosses in the desert. Shrines for our lady of Guadalupe. And finally The Last Go Round" was playing…"we drank the rivers, we rode the twisters, we stumbled down to the ground….but we'll rake and ride, we'll spend our glory. On our last go round." Amen.
(The record is now available on www.tomrussell.com).
Saturday, January 10, 2009
Street vendors sold canned soup and cheap cigars; gaunt, skeletal dogs yapped and whined; limping down dead-end alleys. Somewhere up the road was the Old Man's house, Finca Vigia, which meant "watchtower farm" or "lookout farm." Around a dusty corner and there it was; a large tropical bungalow hidden in the overgrowth of palm trees, orchids, jasmine, avocados, hibiscus and bougainvilleas. Lush and decadent. Decaying in the wet heat. I day-dreamed that he'd be standing on the porch, with his white beard, fishing cap, and a tall gin drink in his paw. The Old Man lived here once. Hemingway. Nothing has moved since he handed over the keys to Castro. Out of respect, Castro allowed Finca Vigia to stay exactly as it was when the Old Man walked away. Only Miro's painting - The Farm - went with him. It hangs in The National Gallery in Washington.
First thing I noticed was the empty swimming pool, where he swam laps every afternoon after writing. His fishing boat, The Pilar, was dry-docked poolside, next to four little graves for his dogs: "Negrita," "Blackdog," "Linda," and "Neron." Blackdog was his favorite."The Black Dog," was also the term he used for the deep depression which would eventually cripple his mind and lead him toward the shotgun rack one Idaho morning.
But none of that now. I peered through the windows, like a peeping Tom. You weren't allowed inside. A female guard approached me and offered to let me go in for a five dollar bribe. "Three minutes. You no touch nothing. I watch." And so I climbed in a window and saw and felt it all. The half-empty gin bottles on the living room table, next to his reading chair. The marvelous bullfight posters. His bedroom, with the typewriter where he stood to write at first light. There were hundreds of books and, unlike the libraries in most people's homes, these volumes looked like they'd all been devoured. Chewed-on. The covers were tattered; they matched the feel of the place. It was the house of a writer. A good one. Forgive him the late inning macho-bully ness, and the posturing. Praise him for the finely honed sentences; the essays in "A Moveable Feast;" some of the short stories; a few of the novels; and, especially the last chapter of "Death in the Afternoon." The one where he reveals all the wonderful things he left out of the book.
Raymond Chandler said: "The critics waited for him to write a bad one. Then they clobbered him. But when the Old Man couldn’t throw the fast ball, he threw his heart." And when they were sure the old lion was down; wounded and defenseless, they went over and kicked dirt on the body. That is our American way.
As we drove out through the bougainvilleas, below the watch tower where he flirted with Ivana; we were happy that the rum and lime Mojitos in Cojimar were waiting for us. And they tasted perfect that afternoon. Sweet and sour, like the Old Man's life.
I wished him peace-filled eternities.