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.)


editor said...

Sterling Hayden:

* To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen who play with their boats at sea... cruising, it is called. Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change. Only then will you know what the sea is all about. "I've always wanted to sail to the south seas, but I can't afford it." What these men can't afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of security. And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine - and before we know it our lives are gone. What does a man need - really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in - and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That's all - in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention for the sheer idiocy of the charade. The years thunder by, the dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed. Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?

Unknown said...

Brilliant. I once tried to propose an oral biography of Sterling Hayden, but his wife would not allow. Back in the 60's or 70's I saw a documentary of Hayden in a barge in Holland drinking Johnny Walker and talking to the camera for an hour..where the hell is it now? Can anyone find it on DVD?

Anonymous said...

Arrrgh! Stop it ed, you're messing with my mind here. I'd like to go on the Cowboy Train (, but I can't afford it. And yeah, it's the mortgage. Trying to sell this place, but there just aren't any buyers...

guildedsinner said...

You hit it again: "Magazine Tears..." Oh how I like that. I'm just back from the grocery store and fresh from seeing all those tears. There's a song in that........keep up the good work and we'll see you in Ann Arbor in October!!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, Durango's only a little farther than Elko is from here (btw, Tom, they seem to have misspelled Elko on your calendar - and the abbreviation for Nevada is NV, not UK :-) and I *can* afford to spend a night or two in Durango & catch the show. And you'd better have CDs for sale at the show. How's that for a compromise?

Don't look down, Tom, I'll be sitting in the front row :-)

Saddle Tramp said...


I had to pass with regards to your Song # 8 out of respect to my coal mining lineage and for my grandfather and great-grandfather who were there in the beginning. My grandfathers first two initials were T.R. being named after the roughridin' one. Few could handle him (my grandfather) and there is too much to tell. I will for that reason leave it a void as my contribution would be lacking.

Backtracking again, I bring up Utah Phillips and his cd
titled " Loafer's Glory " where you get your heroes and heroines ( including Mother Jones ) and a potent quote from Hood River Blackie " What did reality ever do for anybody . . . we've earned the right to make up as much of it as we possibly can ". If you have to be told what it is you are already lost. Utah knew of which he spoke and lived of
which he spoke.

And now to the task at hand. Your Song # 9.
First let's separate the firecrackers from the dynamite.
The vacationers from the road worn voyagers and lost ones. For six years I have been living in a box and out of my back pocket. I know of the delirium of which you speak. Holding onto the precipice with bloody fingers dangling above the abyss. Pulling yourself back up. Back to the odyssey , the voyage and down the lost highway. It takes
it's pound of flesh, but then you see the stationary and stagnant lives trapped in a fenced-in hell and then you make the payment without grimace. If you can last long enough without your wheels going up the road starts revealing her secrets to you. She rewards your fidelity with an open and generous hand more and more. Last week I was on the 1st Ave. Bridge directly under the I-380 Bridge in Cedar Rapids, IA. I went there to take photos of the Veterans Memorial Bldg that is on a concrete island in the
middle of the Cedar River that flooded last year. Two transients were fishing off the rail. One would have made Bukowski look like a GQ cover boy. No offense intended to Bukowski now. This gentleman's face looked like it had been hammered out with a meat tenderizer. His long and twisted nose was even more tortured. Hair grew out of his
ears like a black beard. I asked if I could take their photos. I was answered with a disdainful scowl. A few minutes later he stepped aside to pick up his large open reel and rod that was in a working position against the rail and came over announcing that " You probably want my gear in it , huh "? " That would be great I said ". He posed with rod and reel and with his best effort at friendliness. The utmost respect transmitted through my finger as it depressed the shutter in front of this life worn soul. I have been an
outsider all my life. The eccentrics is where it gets interesting. You have to wait them out to finally get inside. Weird is a relative term. It is my belief that [G] od is a freak. That is not a sacrilegious statement. I have known many. On the inside and on the outside. I travel on . . . How many roads does it take , how many roads . . . someone once asked a nation . . .

saddle tramp

Via: The parking lot of Red Rock Park ( Gallup, NM )
under the hope of the stars and the moon after having dinner at the historic El Rancho Hotel / Motel where the "H" and the "M" alternate in classic neon. Hiking the canyon in
the morning before heading east to Cincinnati and then to parts unknown . . .

Jan Kristoffer Dale said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jan Kristoffer Dale said...

I just watched Sterling Hayden in "The Killing". The only Kubrick movie I have it in me to watch more than once.

While we are talking about movies. "The Lonely Are The Brave" finally got a DVD release. I just got my copy from

Saddle Tramp said...

Editor et al . . .

Just finished Richard Grant's " American Nomads ". I believe it would appeal to your historical taste and otherwise. The breed to which Sterling would be speaking to.

saddle tramp

Via: Cedar Rapids, Iowa where I load in the morning for Santa Ana, CA and where a severe storm is just starting to blow in, jostling my air ride air bags more than just a little bit ...
Lightning fills the cab . . .
Thunder rolls by shaking an angry fist . . .
Classic midwest thunder storm . . .

Saddle Tramp said...


Just picked up from my p.o. box, Bill Daniel's film of title above; 56 minutes of rough road shot on 16mm & Super 8 from over 16 years of Bill riding the rails. Full of poetic and musical characters riding the rails and dispensing gritty philosophy and truth.Unwittingly or not, they are followers of Whitman, Jack London, Jack Kerouac and the rest of the real ones. American characters that are a fast disappearing breed. There is hope within though. A new breed is mentioned in the film. A new generation taking hold. These
are the ones living Sterling Hayden's manifesto. You can see it in their faces, hear it in their voices and feel it coming from their insides. Few will take the path. Some of us have to lay the track and build the trains you know ....
This ride will take you inside the outside of minimalist living
and takes you through a gallery of Boxcar Art and the other side of America with the sound of steel on steel. Full
of Tom Russell characters and freedom's pathos and awe.
It ain't always pretty and I would not want it any other way.
The working and living side of the rails.

" I wish these new kids luck. I don't stand in their way and I don't criticize em'. I guess they're a new breed ya know. Somebody's gotta take these guys' place ".
- An unkown voice

October in the railroad earth and Colossus of Roads coming through your town soon ...

Tom, rumor in the yards has it that the ghost of Coaltrain will be grabbin' hold of the Cowboy Train. No doubt he will be well entertained ...

saddle tramp

Via: Behind a Jack In The Box just off the 99 waitin' it out.