Thursday, July 12, 2012

Light Summer Reading

                Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, of Myanmar, is standing three feet away from Vincent Van Gogh’s painting: “The Church at Auvers,” at the Musee d’ Orsay in Paris. She’s in awe. Prayerful. Her eyes are raised up towards the swirling blue sky above the church. Who is she? I know she received the Nobel Peace Prize. She’d been under house arrest in Myanmar for two decades. She’s called “the opposition leader.” She’s very beautiful. There are flowers in her hair. This photo came in my daily newspaper. Good news for once. Inspired images. I am reminded of a Townes Van Zandt story – how Townes stared at this same painting, in the Van Gogh museum, for hours. Townes moved forward an inch every few minutes. Until he was six inches away, and guards threw him out.
                I am mentioning these things because I’m 678 pages into “Van Gogh: The Life,” which was published last year. Light summer reading, eh? There are almost 900 pages in this book.  So far Vincent has alienated his teachers, classmates, and relatives; slept with and impregnated bottom-rung whores; contracted syphilis; killed his father; cut off his own ear; and is killing his brother, Theo, who’s been supporting him. Reading this tome I’m beginning to feel like a man carrying a gigantic, aching heart around on my back. It’s getting heavy, ma.
                Now as I walk through sunflower fields, under flocks of black crows, here in Switzerland, I think of Vincent, and Townes, and Daw Aung Kyi. It alI worked out for Vincent. 100 years after he died. A truer account of all this might be Artaud’s: “Van Gogh -The Man Suicided by Society.”
                Summer! I’m working on a songbook and a Western opera. A horse opera? I’m painting pictures of the rooftops of Emmental. I’m writing essays for a Western magazine. I’m thinking of the fanatics of the Van Gogh heart who have passed through my life in the last few years: Freddy Nock, the great wirewalker – the master of air – and the most extreme athlete in the world. Soon he’ll walk three kilometers across the Lake of Thun, and give money to UNESCO. Chris Koch, born with no arms or legs, who hopped up to me in Calgary and gave me a Mesabi sweatshirt, from a ranch of the same name. Chris is busy travelling the world and filming it. Chris, like Freddy Nock, is an extreme athlete of the finest kind.  And finally, George Kimball, who passed away last year, one of the foremost boxing writers of the last century. We did a reading together in Lawrence, Kansas, at the Williams S. Burroughs house. George was on a feeding tube. Unable to eat. But touring his three books. A rock and roller to the end.
                These three souls proved to me that there are no limits to life when you believe in the power of your intent and will. These three inspire. Like Vincent. Townes. And the face of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Train Dreams

Pass me that flask of cognac with the 1950’s Union Pacific Dome-Liner etched on it. I’ll tell you about The Portland Rose. Vintage streamline rail cars, sailing up the western coastline, towards my favorite city. All aboard! Special Music-Art Train coming April 13-18. Los Angeles to Portland and back. Special guests: Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Jon Langford, and Thad Beckman. And yours truly: Tom Russell.

Embark from Union Station, an historic landmark right out of a Raymond Chandler story. Setting for a dozen Film Noir classics. The train hugs the California-Oregon coast - rugged coastline you’ll never see from the highway. Dave Alvin has pointed out that Cecil B. Demille created biblical movie sets along this beach line, which are now buried in the sand. We pass Spanish Land Grant ranches right out of the folk song “South Coast.” There’s a vintage dome car where people fall in and out of love. I’ve seen it. Hitchcock-ian!

The song South Coast brings me to Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who sings the definitive version. Let’s talk history: Ramblin' Jack busked on the streets of Paris and London in the 1950’s. A young Mick Jagger heard Jack busking on a London subway platform and Mick decided, then and there, to become a singer. Bob Dylan stole a few tricks from Jack. Guitar stylings, singing style, etc. Dig it. Jack’s a living, breathing legend.

Jon Langford was the drummer for The Mekons. He’s originally from Wales. Jon now performs with guitar and is hailed for pioneering a mix of folk, country and punk rock. He’s recorded classic alt-country for Bloodshot Records. Jon’s also a prolific visual artist. His portraits of country music legends like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash grace dozens of record and book covers. Jon is one of the finest “folk” painters in America, and a celebrated alt-country performer.

Thad Beckman, American Guitar Master, will be hosting open mikes and guitar workshops. (Bring your guitar and latest songs.) Late night “hoots’ and non-stop jamming. Thad is a master fingerpicker, blues artist, songwriter, and guitar teacher.

Workshops will also include: song swaps, concerts, and art discussions with Jon Langford, Tom Russell, Charlie Hunter, and Yard Dog Folk Gallery owner Randy Franklin. Our supreme commander, Charlie Hunter is also a master painter. Painters, guitar pickers, music fans, train buffs… welcome aboard.

Tom Russell? Myself? I sing original songs. I paint. I’ve been known, on odd rail midnights, to sing old Irish ballads, or Honky Tonk Women. Spontaneity is the key to great rail journeys. Wine. Good food. Song. International friends. Romance. Mystery.

The stops? L.A.! The City of the Angels! Portland, Oregon! One of my favorite cities. Fine food, and the best used bookstore in the world: Powell’s. Jake’s Famous Crawfish is one of my favorite American food joints. A real American City with soul, beauty, vision, and history. We’ll be there two nights.

Climb onboard. Email Sarah at or check out the full details: Payment plans discussed. Phone 802-258-1397. Toll Free.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Last Mesabi Blog

Last summer we went to the circus in Switzerland. It was all very boring, until the last act. The extreme artist, Freddy Nock, appeared from behind the curtain. He walked up a diagonal wire, backwards, over the crowd, to the high wire. Without a net. Fifty feet up. Then he danced across the wire and did somersaults. He has since walked up cable car wires into the high Alps, and set seven world records in seven days, walking across lakes and up mountains. He gives the donated money to UNICEF. That night he walked backwards up the wire, I thought to myself, I feel like I’ve been walking up the wire backwards in this music business…

Ah! The new record, Mesabi, is out. I’ve written here about most of the songs, at least the peripheral color. Myself, I’m still that kid listening to vinyl folk music on my Uncle George’s record player. The scene where this record begins. I can smell the furniture polish on the mahogany console of that Phillips machine and see the tubes glowing in the back, as I listen to Joan Baez or Dylan sing “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right.” It wasn’t another time. It wasn’t even long ago. It was now and tomorrow. The songs. They do that. Stop Time.

Good songs and paintings aren’t locked into a frame or an era. They defy all the odds. They stick in the blood. They change the color of your eyes. They keep the heart pumping a different tango that carries us through all of our eternities. The songs of the masters have kept me going. The only way to end this record – with its so called dark moments, with fragile and famous characters going down hard – was by shining a small light of hope back on the stories. Love Abides.”

I picked an old guitar up on the Wall of Wave Lab studio, in Tucson, and strummed the dead strings, and layed the last song down just like you hear it. One take. Myself and guitar. A point of light to end the main course. But there are really no “dark songs.”Only hard truths. The only artistic sin is concocting untruthful emotions and clever lies, wrapped in easy rhymes. Welcome to the hit parade.

I’d like to keep walking backwards up that wire. Like our friend Freddy Nock. The Master of Air. You can see what he does at

You can listen to what I do on Mesabi.

Adieu and adios.


Time now to take the songs out on the highway. The Minstrel Trail. We’re coming into your neighborhood; hitting the front porch with the daily paper. Songs.

The concerts are listed on our web:

The film, Don’t Look Down, is out and also the Art book: Blue Horse/ Red Desert: The Art of Tom Russell. It’s all available at

That’s it for now. All the news from the high wire. See you down the road.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

And God Created Border Towns

The Jai Alai fronton was a grand, arched-top, ivory adobe building which stood in the midst of 1950’s Tijuana. A piece of architectural folk art. An Aztec gaming palace. The building dominated the border scene, at least in my young kid’s eyes. And it continues to drift through my dreams. What in hell went on in there? A Basque game? A gambling sport? Were there whores in the cheap seats? Was Clark Gable in the front row? Sterling Hayden? The world’s fastest game. Jai Alai. Men with baskets on their arms, slinging hard pelota balls against stone walls. It was Mayan. Prehistoric.
I have a menu from the Jai Alai Café. It’s dated Saturday, May 10, 1952. It’s a beautiful, deco-designed cream-colored sheet of French paper, with a dark blue frame. The food list is bordered on four sides by artistic renderings of lobsters and sides of beef. Lobster was the specialty that night, and it came “fresh from the Blue Pacific.” Are there any lobsters left in the blue Pacific? Is the Pacific blue? There’s a small sidebar for the “magic chef broiler,” which produced “savory broiled steak and chops…a gourmet’s delight.”
Let’s look down the menu, past the lobster cocktail supreme, the cream of fresh mushroom soup, the homemade chicken mole (Puebla Style), the roast prime rib and Yorkshire biscuit, the “unjointed capon” with corn fritters and honey, the fried abalone steak, the “young venison steak au garniture,” and the two quails sautéed on toast. Personally I’m thrilled that the capon was unjointed. It probably made fine dining easier. All that twisting and turning of capon legs can be a bother – might interfere with the wine toasts and the placing of Jai Alai bets.
But wait. Let’s not ignore the coup de grace deserts: crème de menthe parfait and the camembert or Leiderkranz cheese. Ah, the hell with it, how about pineapple pie, or Italian Zabaione - an Italian custard desert made from egg yolks and sweet wine (Marsala or Proseco) whipped to perfection and served with figs. Haute Cuisine in Tijuana. The cracking of pelota balls on stone.
Finis. That border era has long vanished into years of blood and dread. Tijuana. Juarez. Nuevo Laredo. The mariachis have disappeared from the tourist market. The photo-man with the donkey painted like a zebra is gone. Gone with the abalone steak and unjointed capon and lobster from the blue Pacific. Gone with the cheapo divorces and thirty five cent margaritas. Dog tracks. Horse Tracks. Jai Alai frontons. History.
As Marlene Dietrich said to Orson Welles in Touch of Evil (the greatest of noir border flicks): “Your future is all used up…”
As world economies tilt, and the malicious carnival jive of partisan politics erodes reason, there’s a new economy of cash, guns and blood bartered for drugs. This economy flourishes. Across the borderline. The world’s fastest game. Bet on it.

(These themes are embodied in 3 new Mesabi songs: And God Created Bordertowns, Goodnight Juarez, Jai Alai…coming soon.)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Heart Within A Heart

Truth is a pathless land. So sayeth Krishnamurti. Two roads may not diverge in the woods this time around. Suddenly there are no roads. Life isn’t what happens to you, but how you react to what happens. The journey home after we’ve lost our maps or honing devices. Time to re-tool personal philosophies. All gospels become Gnostic.

One month ago I was recovering from an eye operation in a hospital in a medieval Swiss City. Helicopters landed on the roof all night. Sirens wailed in the streets after the bars closed. A roundup of the wounded, broken and half dead. Humanity speaking in tongues of blood, pain, mortality, and sorrow. Maybe hope. When the next breath is all there is, it’s enough. Outside in the hallways nurses were murmuring in Swiss German. I was waking up in a Hemingway war novel set in WW1. One eyed and sedated. I remembered almost dying of dysentery in Nigeria, forty years ago, and every time I’d moan or retch in agony, the Yoruba girls out in the courtyard would wail in primitive harmony with my pain. The healing song. Cante hondo. Their chanting pulled me through. When the land becomes pathless it’s time to reach for the heart within the heart. The place to go when all the trouble starts. When your world spins upside down and falls apart. That song.

Every Tom Russell record should harbor at least one song of hope or simple love. Redemption. Internal rummage sales. A rest stop on a road marked with darker songs about people who’ve been somewhere and left their mark on the cave wall. We’re all climbing our crooked mountains, reimagining our art and philosophies, one song at a time. Touchstones have eroded. We live in a world polluted and broken down by divisive politics, tribal hatreds, religious wars and a corrupt media hacking into personal pain - to display it all on the evening news. We’re revolted by fanatical Muslims chopping off the nose and ears of a woman, and yet have tolerated the silence of the Vatican, covering up priest/predator damage to a half million abused children. Under the banner of God. We have politically corrected our lingo, while our baser instincts grow deadlier. We’ve invented a new mask of false innocence, with a clown’s smiling face. Our arts are phony. The news is tainted. Our children are one dimensional. Their songs are merely soundscapes. Lyrical abstract expressionism, lacking the guts and color of a DeKooning print. Novels are arch. Nobody’s home. Conceptual art devoid of content and wild-hearted thrust. Passion is a dirty word. The lions and elephants have disappeared from the circus and helicopters are landing on the roof. St. Jude has surrendered.

The direction out is into the pathless land where each individual must change their interior being. Good luck on your journey. Carry water, and a belief that there’s a heart within your heart.

(Song #9 coming…on Mesabi) (Rest in peace Bill Morrissey and Amy Winehouse)

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Monte Hellman/George Kimball

Two summers ago I heard director Monte Hellman was trying to reach me. I was familiar with Monte’s Two Lane Blacktop, the ultimate American road movie. James Taylor and Dennis Wilson, drummer of the Beach Boys, race their hopped-up car across the America, against another car driven by actor Warren Oates. Helluva movie. Monte also directed early Jack Nicholson films and produced Reservoir Dogs. He was a fan of my music. Had all the records. Would I like to write the music for his new film (released last month) The Road to Nowhere? Hell yes. He sent me the script. I had a hard time with it. A dense story within a story. Cubist. Sorta. But I worked on a title song and recorded it on a little hand held recorder. He loved it and used the demo and quite a few other songs in the film.

Monte also wanted me to act in it, on location in Rome, but that didn’t end up happening. He also used my song “Roll the Credits,” for the film’s closing credits. Two months ago we attended the premiere at the old Egyptian theater in Hollywood. We’d seen an earlier cut in Monte’s bedroom screening facility; drinking his Xylitol extreme Margaritas. Fine man. Cool movie. A Hollywood homecoming for me. As a kid I’d take a bus from Inglewood to Hollywood and walk up and down Boulevard, reading the Hollywood Stars embedded in the sidewalk.

The songs “Road to Nowhere” and “Roll the Credits” are on the coming record Mesabi.


George Kimball died several days ago. One of our finest Sports writers. A friend. A throwback to a time of cigar chewing, scotch drinking characters that cared about the art of sports journalism and the search for the right word or phrase that resonated with hard truth. He wrote like Alexis Arguello boxed. Toughness, laced with finesse, and the occasional eye drop of humor. The dance. He was in the mold of Leibling and Joseph Mitchell. He knew and loved the territory. The gym. The bar. The street. The word. The song.

My friend Steve Bodio told me that George wrote a story on the Boston Marathon once by stopping at every bar along the route. There are a lot of them. I met him in Austin, a few years ago, when he showed up at the gallery opening of my boxing paintings. He bought two and they were used on the cover of his book: The Manly Art. I met him beneath the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree last year and he gave me a whole bag of his books. They got me through the winter. Finally we did a gig together a few months ago at the Williams Burroughs house in Lawrence, Kansas. George had friends among folksingers, beats, boxers and some of the finest writers of our age, like Pete Hamil and Colum McCann. Here’s to you George. An Irish toast to all of our eternities.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Adventures in the Hollywood Skin Trade

On childhood Sundays Jiminy Cricket crooned “When You Wish Upon A Star,” as Disneyland came on the TV. Chilling. This song was performed by Cliff Edwards, also known as Ukulele Ike. Cliff was a funny little, frog-faced man, born in 1895 in Hannibal, Missouri. He left school to become a vaudeville crooner. Taught himself the ukulele and recorded hits like “California Here I Come,” “I’ll See You in My Dreams, and “Singing’ in the Rain.” Cliff was responsible for millions of ukuleles selling in the 1920’s! My mom played the uke, and it was the perfect axe for campfires and boring car trips. “Aint A Gonna Rain No More,” she’d sing. Indeed. Cliff Edwards went on to star in films, but his personal life was “Hollywood” messy. It began to rain hard on our little crooner.

Cliff paid alimony to three former wives, went through bankruptcy four times, and suffered from alcoholism and drug addiction. He hung out at the old Tam O’ Shanter, near the L.A River, trying to get voice-over gigs. He ended up in a home for indigent actors, and died in a charity hospital. The body was unclaimed, until Disney bought a burial plot. Yikes, Ike.

Couple this American vignette with my earlier story of Bobby Driscoll…the voice of Peter Pan…dying in a vacant lot in New York…further adventures in the Hollywood skin trade. You might say: why dwell on the dark side? I say, what happened to my childhood dreams? Where’s the star we’re supposed to be wishing on? Mommy never told me Jiminy Cricket could bleed…etc. Farewell Never Never Land.

Now Consider Sterling Hayden. Actor: The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing, Johnny Guitar, The Godfather. Dozens of great flicks. He stood six feet five and sailed round the globe with his children in a three-masted schooner. The author of two great sea books. One of the most popular character actors to appear on TV talk shows - he sat there with cigarette smoke whirling up into his Captain Ahab beard and told it like it was. I saw him on the Johnny Carson show, declaring: “Just give me a cheap room overlooking the Hudson, a mattress, and a typewriter, and I’ll write you one hell of a novel.” Last seen on a barge in Paris - bottle of Johnny Walker between his legs, declaring how it made him feel to fink during the McCarthy hearings.

And… Liz Taylor, who resided, briefly, a few miles from us, in the penthouse of the Plaza Hotel in El Paso. I imagine her looking out at Juarez, Mexico, with a salty Margarita in her hands. Liz chased furious love through her furious seasons. Her ghost stands looking out the penthouse window…day-dreaming of James Dean dying ‘neath the Tree of Heaven, near the old Jack Ranch Café in California. She begins to sing: “Oh, his Porsche car was burning, as the hawks took to the air”…..fade to oblivion.

(A few little stories behind the songs on Mesabi.)