Thursday, April 16, 2009

East of Woodstock, West of Viet Nam

In 1969 I stepped off a plane in Ibadan, Nigeria and a someone stuck a rifle up against my throat. Evidently I'd been taking illegal pictures over a war zone in Biafra, and now I was being carted off to have my priorities corrected by two machine gun toting Yoruba army thugs in dark glasses. I was saved by a U.S. ambassador, who bribed the lads. It was my first day in Africa…a baptism. I was a young criminologist; a month before I didn’t know where Nigeria was, let alone that one of the bloodiest tribal wars of all time was unfolding there. Six months later I was drinking palm wine and hanging out in the bars with Sir Victor Uwaifo and reading all of Graham Greene. And dodging bullets. I was adjusting to the eternal heat and smoking Target cigarettes and attending talking-drum juju ceremonies presided over by a white priestess named Suzanne Wenger, who took over the town of Oshogbo and carved giant vagina sculptures out of mud. She looked like Betty Davis and wore and Nigerian Fez cap over a cowboy hat. I thought she was 85 at the time, but she just died recently at age 110 or something….mighty big medicine. All these memories surfaced recently like old bullet fragments coming out of the skin. Graham Greene wrote that you never really leave Africa….years later, over a Pink Gin, the memories of those red clay roads at sundown….flood back into your bloodstream and heart. Ah Africa! And so, in 1969 I didn’t go to Woodstock….and I didn't go to Viet Nam. I went to Nigeria, and came of age in the market places and bars of Ibadan, while the U.S. was landing a man on the moon. I was carving wood and musical dreams. It was a world of mosquito nets and oil burning motorbikes and cook fires and Ibeji carvings. And guns. It all went down… East of Woodstock, West of Viet Nam.
(The next 11 blogs will deal with the songs on the coming record. This is song number one, in a series of dreams.)

6 comments:

Saddle Tramp said...

Very strong stuff here Tom . . .
Many touchstones, some clear targets and a few landmines. Much like Africa, Viet Nam does not leave the minds of many. The Viet Nam War ; many went and many did not. Both for reasons right or wrong or maybe it is just a dirty blur. Then there is Jimmy that you immortalized so well and thst Johnny Cash set in stone. Great and sorrowful mix here with glory in the neighborhood . . .
Looking forward to the next ten . . .


-saddle tramp
Via: South of Salty City / North of St. George

Saddle Tramp said...

Sorry . . .
That would be the next " eleven. "
Great concept Tom. I love a good series. Predictable, yet not . . .
Winter still hanging on here in Utah. Your schedule keeps dodging mine. One of these days hopefully before [You] hit 110 ( or something ) . . .
Sisters still on the list !

editor said...

We'll look forward to seeing you, ST.

Looking forward to these glimpses of the story behind the songs.

Charlene said...

Dear Mr. Russell,

My x father in law was in Africa. He never talked much about it. Don't think it was that great an experience for him. He was in the African Congo he says with the Air Force in the early 60's. He was an airplane mechanic.

When your from Sierra Blanca, Texas there wasn't much else to do right out of high school back then.

After retiring from a career fixing big motors he spends his spare time rebuilding antique motors in his barn out in the middle of the dessert.

He was a fan of Western Music back in the 60's. We talked about it once. So for his birthday last year I sent him a copy of your Indians, Cowboys, Horses, and Dogs. He loved it. For Christmas I sent him Borderland. I can't wait to send him a copy of the new one too.

Thanks for sharing.

Charlene Applegate

Nigel Smith said...

Great stuff. My folks were in Ghana around this time and later Nigeria in the early 70s. Loved hearing this song at the Luminaire last year.

Nigel

Mark said...

That sounds like a life-changing experience you lived there. The so called baptism? Nah! I'd better pass and stay in my comfortable American couch taking generic viagra and watching SNL.