Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Battle of Juarez

The Battle of Juarez
I've met the sons of darkness,
and the sons of light
In the border towns of despair
Bob Dylan, "Dignity"

I had the pleasure of sharing lunch ten years ago with the celebrated Southwestern painter Tom Lea. He was ninety years old and nearly blind, but his mind was astute as he shoveled in the peppermint ice cream and chatted about many things: the bullfighter Manolete; preparing paint varnishes; memories of the Mexican Revolution. Lea's father had been the mayor of El Paso, and he was always kicking "that old saddle-skinned son of a bitch" Pancho Villa back across the river. Villa, in turn, put a price on the sheriff's head, and little Tom Lea had to have a bodyguard accompany him to school. It was early in the 1900's and the revolution began to thunder in Northern Mexico. Tom Lea said El Paso folks would set chairs up on their rooftops and watch the war action across the river. The six o'clock news was just a quarter mile away; being written in blood through the binoculars.
80 years later, in 1997, I was close to being gunned down twice, near the bullring in Juarez. Wrong place; wrong time. Big time. These were the incipient skirmishes in what is now the full-on drug war in the streets of Juarez between the Tijuana and Juarez cartels. Statistics: 2000 people killed within the last year in Juarez (the Baghdad of Northern Mexico). An estimated 2000 illegal weapons flow from the United States into Mexico every day, and a ton of coca powder, heroin and marijuana travels in the other direction. Up the noses of the middle class; into the arms of the poor. Filtering through the lungs of wasted angels.
There are now ten thousand army troops and cops patrolling the streets of Juarez. Billy the Kid wouldn't stand a chance. The bridge into hell is just a twenty minute car ride from my hacienda. Ain't this the last frontier Hollywood cowboys longed for? Ain't this what Cormac McCarthy was trying to dream up? It might be time to put a chair up on the roof and watch the action, again, through field glasses. I used to walk those Juarez streets and drink at those bars; and good ones they are. There is nothing like the Kentucky bar on a Sunday afternoon when the margarita limes are being squeezed by Mando and Ana Gabriel is on the jukebox with her husky pipes bellowing out "Valentine de la Sierra.". And how many new narco-corrido songs will emerge from the current smoke? The narco ballads are the most contemporary of cowboy songs. And how many righteously shocked news commentators and NPR icons will lay their moral outrage at our feet? These news people bleed for us, but their blood is colored water and pomegranate juice.
The tourist market is empty now and the mariachis have gone underground. I wonder what happened to that old beggar from Kansas I met awhile back on a deserted Juarez street corner. The most down and out, grizzled and homeless sixty year-old being on the face of God's troubled earth. He wanted paper money; pesos or dollars. "Don’t give me no pennies," he said. "I'm from Kansas. I draw pictures on paper bags." I wish I'd asked him how in hell he got trapped in Juarez. Forever. His vaporous presence walking away down that alley… haunts me. Who was he? Why can't he cross back over? I want to hear HIS take on the drug wars. Only his take.
Is he dodging the gunfire now in that alley behind the Tragadero Restaurant, where Tom Lea's friend, Manolete, stares down from a 1946 photo on the yellow smoked walls? Are people blind in heaven? Or is Tom Lea, who landed with the Marines on Pelei, catching this action…all of it raging down along the river, in the battle of Juarez.

Friday, March 20, 2009

St. Patrick's Day

America begins on the Brooklyn Bridge at sundown; walking into Manhattan as the crimson and luminous grays light up the Statue of Liberty to our left and the mid town sky line to the north. Sundown skyscrapers appear as old gangster movie sets of cardboard cut-outs from 1940's kid's games. I imagine Irving Berlin with his upright piano (with the knee clutch that allowed him to play many keys in one chord position - like a capo)…I imagine Irving pounding out "God Bless America," right there in the middle of the bridge, as the runners, and bike riders and lovers stream past him in both directions. And the ghosts of the high iron Mohawks harmonize from the steel towers, and their song ripples across the waters of the Gowanus canal.
And uptown the St. Patrick's Day Parade has finally ended, after eight hours, and the whole Island is filled with retreating and staggering drunks in funny green hats and Irish cops lugging de-flated bagpipes past New Jersey High school bands and Haitian cabbies, and hotdog and falafel vendors; pretzel carts, fruit stands, pizza grab joints, Turkish taffy carts, used book hawkers…an America that has, not in this moment, little to do with partisan politics and bank swindlers and loud mouth right and left wing talk show hosts who attempt to sway moralities and carve wax emotions. For a moment no on cares about the six o'clock news or the weather channel…that's the other tired America that screams from the airwaves. For just this sundown moment we are what we were meant to be - brothers and sisters and lovers under the skin, trudging home half drunk from the beauty of being alive in this Gotham jazz afternoon fading into evening and the whole of America is out there, running west beyond Manhattan; out across those rusted train tracks through New Jersey swamps and on out to Pittsburgh; to the Mojave desert and on toward the Pacific. For just one moment we are part of that swelling chorus of Whitman, Kerouac, Sandburg, Ginsberg… as old Irving Berlin is pounding out anthems on the Brooklyn Bridge and Sonny Rollins is wailing from the Williamsburg…. For a moment we are a part of what it was intended to be. On St. Patrick's Day.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lightfoot`s Guitar

„Remember that guitar in a museum in Tennessee ?....The name plate on the glass brought back 20 memories…and the scratches on the face told of all the times he’d fell….singing up the stories he could tell.“ John Sebastian (Stories He Could Tell)

There’s a book by David Gahr. Out of print. Inside is a photo of Gordon Lightfoot’s song list, taped to the top of his Gibson 12 string guitar at Newport in 1965. The songs are written in ink, smeared from sweat or rain ; or maybe they‘re late-night motel bourbon stains. This was back when people sang and swapped songs in rooms full of cigarette smoke; dawn light seeping through the yellow window shades. There‘s almost 80 songs listed on this paper scrap, scotch-taped to the antique guitar wood: his own classics: « Early Morning Rain », « The Way I Feel », « Ribbon of Darkness », and « For Lovin Me »; and Dylan covers: « Girl From the North Country », « Hollis Brown », « Blowin in the Wind », « Don’t Think Twice »; country-western gems : « El Paso », « The Auctioneer » and « Six Days on the Road »; Folk covers like Ian Tyson’s « Four Strong Winds » and « Red Velvet », and folk standards like « Old Blue ». A few rockaabilly numbers. That mix! Folk, Blues, Country,Gospel, Rockabilly and Rock and Roll. If there is any mystery where great songwriters come from, this tear-stained list is a black and white document of the homework. Lightfoot sang and wrote from a deeply rooted knowledge of roots music. Then he rolled and wrote his own songs. Still does….But let‘s move forward 35 years to a folk festival in Ontario, where they‘re in the midst of a Gordon Lightfoot tribute. Lightfoot had been in hospital for two monthes recovering from an aneurism. The prognosis aint good. Suddenly the crowd parts, like the Red Sea, and people are shrieking and applauding, and here’s Lightfoot himself, walking through the crowd with a guitar case. Damn, it’s Jesus coming to town on a mule, armed with an antique wooden machine gun. Then he’s on stage, singing an old song. People are weeping. Quite a moment. I had the chills. Lightfoot waves and retreats to a trailer dressing room and dissappears. The door slams. The applause is deafening. The only problem is my guitar is in that dressing room, and I’m on stage in 10 minutes for the tribute. I politely knocked on the trailer door, and Lightfoot bid me come in. He was sitting in the corner, grizzled and shakey-legged, smoking a cigarette. He looks at me: « What song you gonna sing out there, kid? » I said, « Your song, ‘For Lovin’ Me’ » He motions toward his guitar with his cigarrette. « Here, take my guitar and sing a little for me. I wanna see if you’ve got it right. » (I thought, holy shit. Im auditioning for Gordon Lightfoot. Heavy dues.) I picked up his revered old Martin axe ; it glowed in my hands. My fingers burned. I sang a verse or two of his wonderful song. « That was great,“ he said. „You sing it great, kid. Go out there and kill em“….I handed Lightfoot back his old Martin and glided out out he room. Later on he made a point of coming up to me and telling me how much he enjoyed my version, and my work with Ian Tyson on « Navajo Rug ». I thought back to that old stained set list on his 12 string at Newport in 65. And all the motel rooms and miles and the dignity of the man. A songwriter. It was like running into Homer, and he hands you his lute. A few troubadors still walk among us, with stained set lists taped to the top of their road battered axes. Old guitars soak up every room and song and situation they’ve been involved with…and oh, the stories they can tell. For a moment, in Lightfoot’s dressing room, I knew I was at the center of my universe. I knew why I was a songwriter. Amen.
(If the punctuation looks wierd I’m writing this on a Swiss computer in Calgary and it’s 35 below zero.TR)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Muffled Prayers

Sitting in the Hotel Congress "Cup CafĂ©" in Tucson, having breakfast and chatting with the waiter - a tattooed alt-folk rocker. We're discussing "new folk" sounds. I've been checking out the new music of writers like Bon Iver, The Felice Brothers, Will Oldham, Fleet Foxes, Iron and Wine…and on. The exploration began when hearing the sounds and production on the Dylan biopic film soundtrack: "I'm Not Here." My ear caught Jim James of "My Morning Jacket," singing Bob Dylan's "Going to Acapulco" accompanied by Calexico. Mariachi horns, powerful singing…it was novel and great. My perception was and IS…. there's something happening with these folks. At least musically and production-wise. Hell, I can’t spend my life listening to Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" everyday. (But I might try.) The internet opened up world music to younger artists, and they draw from all influences: Haitian, West African, Mariachi, Flamenco, Ska, folk, blues…etc. They concoct their own hybrid sound. It's fresh. But where were the songs? Where is the core of it all? I spoke out loud. The tattooed waiter passed by with a plate of pork cutlet and scrambled eggs - and pointed a fork. "There aren't any songs." I heard footsteps above me and a howling noise. Upstairs at the Historic Congress Hotel the ghost of John Dillenger walked the halls. He'd been caught here in the 1930's and broke out of jail with a gun carved out of soap. Maybe a lot of the new music culture is a gun carved out of soap. Core-less. Bullet-less. I'll keep digging, though. I arrived in Tucson with the hope that 12 crafted songs and a hipper sound might come close, feel-wise, to that version of "Goin' to Acapulco," and I was right. I've learned a lot and haven't resorted to rounding up the usual suspects. These desert musicians could play anything; referencing Nigerian High Life and Andalusian Flamenco, and sub-pop backwards guitar runs. And along came Barry Walsh, and his "Erik Satie meets Eno" classicism - and you've got a mix. I'm enjoying the journey. It's akin to recording with the Blue Men of Morocco. Meanwhile one of our last true writers, Leonard Cohen, is touring the world performing three hour concerts with his timeless songs, which he refers to as "muffled prayers." And so…we are in need of "new folk" and sub pop explorations which deliver the cross-pollinations of sonic world variety. But there remains our cultural and personal need…our desperate yen… for the passion and poetic truth of "muffled prayers." Deliverance to the core.