Friday, February 25, 2011

When the Legends Die (Song #2)

When I was a child my grandmother took me to her weekly painting lessons. A dozen old women with their easels in a hothouse room crowded with ferns, cactuses, and little dogs. Classical music seeped out a red Bakelite Zenith radio. The women hummed and threw paint on the canvas. They had runs in their stockings and splotches of paint on their aprons. Cigarettes. Black coffee. Ancient Bohemian spirits. The aroma of oil paint and kerosene mixed with preludes and waltzes and coughing dogs. A few years later my grandmother painted me pictures of Muhammad Ali and Jim Taylor. We were buddies. She gave me her mandolin, bought me a banjo, and cooked me prime rib and apple pies. Americana.

I was the kid in the room with heroes tacked up over my head. Pictures ripped from magazines. Grandma’s paintings. At first the walls were covered with athletes. As I became a teenager, the athletes were given over to folksingers. First the Kingston Trio, then the real stuff: Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, Ian and Sylvia, Tim Hardin, Peter LaFarge, Fred Neil and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. Oh, those lived-in faces. Beautiful beat-up guitars. Brazilian rosewood with scratches and wounds; cigarette burns; bullet holes. Guitars absorb every situation they work in. These dream photos depicted my legends and heroes. Icons of the Minstrel Trade. I wanted that life, but didn’t have the guts and heart for it, until I’d been to West Africa and seen war, and also the miseries of life in an academic setting.

In a pawn shop in San Luis Obispo I picked up a 1946 Martin D-18 guitar and went search of the folk crusade, not knowing it would take forty years and a lifetime to arrive at a watering hole where you could sit down and rest your camel, re-string your guitar, and contemplate whether you were a troubadour.

I woke up one day In Switzerland, recently, and realized I’d gotten too familiar with some of my heroes; too cranked up on the legends. You have to accept the song, and give up on getting to know the singer. You could get hurt. Don’t get too close to the stage, kid, don’t mess with the mystery. Heroes are human. They could hurt you. And hurt themselves. I had this vision (I’d been there) of a songwriter alone in a kitchen on Christmas Day. Drunk. His children didn’t call, and love was a half-remembered bottle of vintage wine. Between the idea of a hero, and the reality of human struggle, lies a shadow that might cripple you. Art can go there. But watch out. Beware the kickback of alchemy. The line between mystery and self destruction is a tight rope where heroes fall, like old Karl Wallenda. The parking lot below is mighty hard. Even wire walkers can’t fly.

It all started with my grandmother painting bohemian dreams. I’m sure it did. And the song “When the Legend’s Die,” will be the second song on the new album.

7 comments:

Jay Ess said...

Just read this and the previous one. I love your blog--hearing about the new songs makes me want to hear the new album even more.

Re: the previous post and Dylan, I've seen every Dylan show I could in the last 25 years. These days, the songs often take a while to reveal themselves, his voice is shot, he's lousy on the keyboard, and a completely indifferent guitar player. He still emanates something from the stage that is beyond critical comprehension. He is truly a holy man. He wrote those songs, he knows them inside out, upside down, and backwards and forwards, he can do whatever he wants with them--he has AUTHORITY. And his band kicks ass.

It's interesting to compare his shows to Leonard Cohen's lovely, universally praised shows. Leonard's shows are celebratory and triumphant but basically written in stone, with no surprises. Dylan's shows are alive, full of surprises. "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking" anyone? If I wasn't an atheist I'd say God bless them both; since I am, I just try to bless them myself by hearing their music, thinking about it, and letting it change my way of thinking.

The same goes for you, Mr. Russell. Love and Fear is one of the best records ever by anyone, a grown up album about love that can stand alongside of Blood on the Tracks and New Skin For the Old Ceremony and hold its own. It was a great show at the Tractor last week. The best moment for me was Manzanar, which I'd heard many times before but really reached me that night. How about that drunk chick screaming "Modern Art"--you get all kinds!

I Witness said...

Old folksingers never die, they just fade into the fabric of history. Woody wrote This Land 71 years ago this past week; still some life in 'er! And your riff on the guy in his kitchen on Christmas had to remind me of California Snow, a superb song fit to stand beside any and all. I'd say you and Dave Alvin have a corner on the market, so watch it with the legends thing. You guys are gettin' damn close!

westofthewest said...

This newer smaller music business is strange. I grew up with my heroes coming to the shows in limos, now they drive the van and lug their own amp in the back door.

The venues are so small I can look my heroes in the eye and but they look right back and sometimes I think, neither one of us likes what we see.

hidesertfox said...

heroes can hurt us....yeah, I'll be thinking about that one....
Loved your description of grandma's art class, I could really visualize all of it.

Saddle Tramp said...

A few pertinent quotes ...

I think maybe it was Twain who said:
" Familiarity breeds contempt ... and children "

Yeah, don't get too close!
Imitation brings annihilation " Et tu Brutus ".

" There is rarely a creative man who does not have to pay for the divine spark of his great gifts ... the human element is frequently bled for the benefit of the creative element ".

- Carl Jung


Randy Newman when asked by a young reporter about breaking into the music business:
" Who would want to break into it? It's like a bank that has already been robbed ".
- Backstage ( at the Oscars )



Well Tom, fortunate for us you have some in the vault gaining interest and no doubt there is not a default looming
with them as with prevailing economic conditions. Thanks for lessons in the dangers of hero worship that is better left in the proper perspective of earned respect. My respect to
you as well. Don't get the message confused with the messenger. By the way, my grandmother was from
Bohemia, but she did not paint. I had to come to all of this through the back door. I was surrounded by practicality and had to fight my way out. Each man to his own portal.
Enjoyed the description of yours. Keep 'em coming ...


tVIA: Phoenix parking lot having just listened to Tony Bennett introduce his list of great ones ( Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, etc. ) while introducing K.D. Lang before their duet of "Moonglow" and after the song declaring " Now that's a great singer " praising K.D. Lang. Tony Bennett, now that's a class act ( and he paints too ).

Homesick Clarence Jennings said...

"First the Kingston Trio, then the real stuff . . . "

That seems a little cold, especially since John Stewart began his career with the Trio and spent the next 50 years putting together an amazing body of work, as "real" as anyone's. I'll take "California Bloodlines" and "The Phoenix Concerts" over anything by anybody on your list of "real" folksingers. Surprising assessment from someone who constantly reminds us that words matter.

editor said...

After 15 years of involvement in putting on a folk festival, I've had the chance to meet may of my musical heroes, including Tom Russell, Guy Clark, Ian Tyson ... many more.

"You have to accept the song, and give up on getting to know the singer."

Truer words were never spoken. The song is what you keep. Waylon Jennings once said that the only thing he felt he owed his fans was good music — not a piece of himself. Fair enough. And many folks really can't get past the gap between the hero and the human. Hard on the singer, hard on the fan.

That said, it was great to see Tom in Sisters, Oregon, where he put on a magnificent show.


Homesick: I don't think the Kingston Trio comment is out of line. The John Stewart work you cite was post-Trio. The Kingston Trio introduced many many people to a treasure trove of folk songs — and should be honored for that — but they were bowlderized weak coffee. Had to be.

Stewart went on to dig deeper.

Jim Cornelius