Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Where God and The Devil Wheel Like Vultures

“Down below El Paso lies Juarez,
Mexico is different, like the travel poster says….”
-Burt Bacharach and Bob Hilliard, “Mexican Divorce”

I. Touch Of Evil

That was the summer of “birds falling out of trees,” as the Apaches might say. Looming weirdness. I’m in a beat-up Juarez taxi cab, inching slowly away from the Plaza Monumental bullring. A masked character in the truck across from us begins firing an automatic weapon over the top of the cab. Across the street at the Geronimo bar, three bodies fall into the gutter. My cab driver pulls his head down and shrieks: Cristo! Cristo! against the racket of trumpets and accordions from a narco-corrido song on the radio. Cristo, Jesu CristoAyuda me! The cab lurches forward with each string of Jesus curses. I’m riding inside a pinball machine set up next to a shooting gallery. Bodies are falling outside. Bodies are falling in the drug song on the radio. My shirt sleeve is stuck on the handle of the door and I can’t seem to twist and duck my head down below the dashboard. This is not the way I want to die. I try to grab hold of the wheel but the driver pulls himself together, makes the sign of the cross, then turns down back streets and alleys that lead to the border bridge. The rat-a-tat-tat of a weapon fades into the distance. The cabbie wheels to a stop and lights a cigarette. Sangre de Cristo. Fifty pesos, por favor.

It’s another Sunday evening in Ciudad Juarez.

Back then, twelve years ago, it cost fifteen cents to enter Mexico. Fifteen cents to wheel through the turnstile and cross the river bridge into the carnal trap. The Lawless Roads. I used to think of Orson Welles’ noir classic: “Touch of Evil,” when I walked down the bridge into Ciudad Juarez. That sinister feeling which draws the gringo-rube into web of rat-ass bars and neon caves; the nerve tingling possibility of cheap drink, violence, and sex; sex steeped in sham clich├ęs about dark-eyed senoritas and donkey shows. It’s that heady, raw – anything goes, all is permitted, death is to be scorned- routine which informed and carved out the rank borderline personalities of John Wesley Hardin, Billy the Kid, Pancho Villa, and hundreds of Mexican drug lords. Western myth now grim reality. You craved the real west, didn’t you?

The late British writer, Graham Greene, knew the border terrain. He crossed over at Laredo in 1939, noting: “The border means more than a custom’s house, a passport office, a man with a gun. Over there everything is going to be different. Life is never going to be quite the same again after your passport is stamped and you find yourself speechless among the money changers.”

Speechless among the money changers. I like that. I can’t imagine what Hunter Thompson would have come up with if he’d written a version of Fear and Loathingabout the current state of affairs in Juarez. Cristo, Cristo, Cristo. Thompson once said that if you want to know where the edge is, you’ve got to go over it. Juarez is big time over the edge. Amen....

(This is the first page to a Tom Russell essay published in full on a radical new blog called The's the link to the full story with art.)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Locusts Sang

"It was not a luxury for me to write, it was a necessity. These times are very difficult to write in because the slogans are really jamming the airwaves - it's something that goes beyond what has been called political correctness. It's a kind of tyranny of posture. Those ideas are swarming through the air like locusts. And it's difficult for a writer to determine what he really thinks about things. " Leonard Cohen

The novel appears to be dead. Dissolving like a rotting cadaver in the quick-lime of post modernist droning. Authors are boring. Thus their characters. The radio air waves are filled with posturing; swarming with locusts full of the poison and "the tyranny of posture." New folk. Bad folk. Weak folk. Poetry's coming back, after Bob Dylan virtually killed and overpowered it as a relevant genre in the 60's. Every hack college lit professor knew it was doomed back then. Poetry is coming back because of the huge gap out there; for anything resembling literature or lyrics or scribed emotion. The yen for something which imbues lyrical passion. We are a nation of old junkies going cold turkey on very bad drugs. Word drugs cut with borax, false bravado, and insincerity. Tattoed babble. Watered down love and greeting card rhymes. At least Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison and Merle Haggard are playing to full houses and selling records. As the maestros should. People are hungry for anything vaguely real….but there are few new songs. No "new generation" of folk writers. As Kerouac said: "There is nothing new under the sun. All is vanity. Pass me the chalice, wifey, and there better be wine in it….."
I was leafing through two great books of letters: those of Martha Gellhorn, and another collection from William S. Burroughs. I realized there's not gonna BE anymore of these collections, because no one WRITES letters now. Just cryptic emails and cell phone messages. Slogans again. A nation of housewives in SUV's ranting on the cell phones as their drive toward nail appointments. The word "love" has become a slogan. The last good song I heard was probably: "I Don't Want To Go To Rehab," by Amy Winehouse. Dig it. Or maybe it was a John Trudell recitation called "Happy Fell Down." ("Love is blind; when it opens it's eyes it can disappear.") Or maybe it was Gretchen Peters' "This Used to Be My Town," inspired by a young girl who was abducted and raped. Jesus. And Nanci Griffith's new record is pretty damn good. Simple truths. Well told. With passion. Rolling Stone dismissed it with two stars. We don’t expect anything anymore. Running scared. My friend; London Observer journalist Peter Culshaw, stated, regarding journalism: …"the age of the drunken hack with a heart of gold buried under a cynical exterior is gone and the papers are run by terrified bureaucrats and guys who never leave their non-smoking, non-drinking offices where if you flirt with the secretary they haul you up for harassment..." Joseph Mitchell, A.J. Leibling and Hunter Thompson are rolling over in their graves. Little Stephen addressed the masses at South By Southwest music conference this year; told the audience that young musicians are not doing their homework, paying dues; not learning to write good songs. (My friend Alec asked me if I wrote the speech.) I'm sure 10,000 thumb-sucking networkers from around the world stood there and smiled; nervously fingering their access badges; twittering like parakeets at the Place of Dead Roads.
What's left, to cite Flannery O'Conner, is to "push hard against the age that pushes against you." And so, under the guise of taking out the trash at night, I sneak into my painting studio and blast out old Dylan and Ian and Sylvia records (like Fritz Scholder and T.C. Cannon before me.) I need that fix. Bad. And I paint Indians and plot new lyrical ways to push against this culture.
Well, hell, into all this great void; this fear driven mess; I toss my record. Blood and the Candle Smoke. 12 songs. Missives from this agave-choked wilderness. And I stand behind it. And you, dear reader? What can you do? Listen. Or not. Maybe buy two or three for your friends and get on the internet and invade a dozen chat sites and let 'em know. Call radio. Toss one off the Empire State building. Go out and create that internet tsunami…or don't. But I'll stand behind it. If you don’t think the record is 100% there for you or honest or "good," or if there's any false passion or bad lines, then bring it to a gig and I'll trade you two different cds back for it. Or give you 20 bucks. That's what I can guarantee you within the so-called music culture of today. It's all I have at present. I believe in this record, and I don't believe in much else.
And now it's time to shut up and tour. I hope the carnival is coming to your town…all the dates are up, and the ponies are being saddled. Amen.

"Words lead to deeds…they prepare the soul,
Make it ready, and move it to tenderness."
St Theresa

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Tour dates: