Friday, July 31, 2009


There are ghosts out in the rain tonight
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

Friday, July 17, 2009

Don't Look Down

Don't look down, the ground might be burning
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

The Most Dangerous Woman in America

Three weeks out of prison
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.)