Wednesday, January 21, 2009

One To The Heart, One To The Head

I was driving across the desert the other day with the great filmmaker Eric Temple; scouting locations for our film on the West: "California Bloodlines." We'd decided to take savage left turn, thematically, and consider raw, authentic Cowboy origins: Mexico; Charreadas and Charros; Spain on back to the Moors. The Violence in Juarez. Digging deeper into the bloodlines. The old west is chillingly alive on the border. The history rock and rolled through here; the guns are smoking. Why not include that in this film? The Spanish crossed the river just up the road. Rosas's Cantina was still open, where Marty Robbins wrote "El Paso." Cowboy as all hell. In the truck we were listening to "One to the Heart, One to the Head," the "western" side project I co-produced with Gretchen Peters. I'm a guest singer on the record. Gretchen is God's chanteuse.We covered Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, Rosalie Sorrels, Mary McCaslin, Jennifer Warnes, Ian Tyson, Stephanie Davis…and Gretchen sang a version of my new song: "Guadalupe." The music and Gretchen's voice was hauntingly simpatico to the desert landscape. The yucca, sagebrush, chimesa and Mexican broom washed past our windows, like a Maynard Dixon painting touched up by Willem DeKooning. All of the singing was underscored by Barry Walsh's marvelous piano score. Eric Satie meets Eno. The landscape and the music blended until they fused together. Eric turned to me and said: "This record is a western masterpiece. There's not a bad song on it." I listened to Gretchen's voice. Unearthly. There was no motive in putting this out, except a love for the West and a desire to make "westerners" aware of Gretchen's powers. And to celebrate the poetry of the songs. Then the song "Wolves," by Stephanie Davis, was rolling out of the speakers and I squinted out ahead into the sunlit asphalt on Highway 9. I saw what I thought were two coyotes crossing the road, about a 100 yards up there. "That's funny," I said. "They don’t usually travel in pairs. Pretty big,"
"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

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Watchtower

We took a taxi to the edge of Havana, into a little village called San Francisco de Paula.
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.