Thursday, December 30, 2010

Auld Lang Syne

Walking through a snow storm in a Swiss Village. Singing about the girl from Ponchatrain; dark hair falling in jet black ringlets across her lovely shoulders. Raise a flowing glass to her memory! Then I’m humming Auld Lang Syne, wondering what it means. Or what we want it to mean. Old acquaintances. Olde Thymes. Olde love. Days of long ago. Another year. A goodwill drink. Songs imbedded in seasonal cheer. Buried in soul and bone. The spark of memory. Childhood recollections. Melodies ringing through the family house. Tradition. Or a French horn in a rescue mission, played by a soldier in the Salvation Army Band. Auld Lang Syne! Times past, yet remembered. Bad times. Better times. Should ole times be forgotten?

Now, blocking the snowy road - an apparition in a black hat. A sheepherder. Italian? He walked with a herder’s staff. Basque? Dignified. Biblical. Behind him a flock of sheep, turning the corner of a farm pasture. At least one thousand sheep. One pack burro. Four Border Collies, nipping and keeping the herd in line. On they went, until they disappeared down a side road, up into the low snowy hills. The last row of sheep drifted by, with a woman herder guarding the rear. Humming a song. An old herding song. Was it the melody to Auld Lang Syne? A chilling, warm coincidence on a winter’s road. Or maybe I’d just imagined the melodies were similar. This might be how Bobby Burns found the melody and the verse, two hundred years ago.

The Scottish bard Robert Burns is credited with Auld Lang Syne, though he admitted he’d collected the words from “an old man.” The melody is believed to come from an older traditional Scots song. Auld Lang Sine issues from “the folk.” The herders. Tinsmiths. Minstrels. Old men. Celebrants of the road. Folk. The eternal evolution of traditional song.

A drinking song. Ale or whiskey. Wine or tea. Water. What matter? A song of raising glasses in reverent toast to old friends and reminiscences –for old time’s sake. Lifting a cup of kindness. We have crossed the rivers of time, and the seas between us broad have roared…but yet…

We remember the jet black ringlets falling on naked shoulders. Death. Love. Loss. Recollections staining the bottom of the glass. Dregs melting into memory. Feelings of kindness, humility, and forgiveness. Forgiving ourselves. Years. The longer we endure the less we know. We are circling back, year to year, into the womb of the haunted earth. Earth which resonates with songs of the season. Songs passed down from old man to young man. From Robert Burns to Guy Lombardo. Back to this village road covered with snow. A melody and a memory, handed down from the folk, hummed to the beat of an old drummer on a Scottish road, on down to the jazz drummer in a New Year’s bar in New York... or measured out to the snowy muffled feet of two sheepherders and their biblical herd.


Saturday, December 11, 2010

True East/Beat Reflections

We flew east from Pie Town, Magdelena, and El Paso. Taking Poppi back to the Swiss country. Stopped in New York City and met with George Kimball, who used my songs in his new boxing book: “The Fighter Still Remains,” a collection of songs and poems about boxing. The book also includes Paul Simon, Colum McCann, Jack Kerouac, Tom Paxton, Muhammad Ali, and more… George has another book coming soon called “Manly Art.” I painted the cover. There also his great collection of American writers on boxing titled: “At the Fights.”

The night we arrived we wandered down to the old village to my wife’s favorite pizza joint, Arturo’s on Houston Street. Arturo’s could be a chapter out of Kerouac’s “Desolation Angels.” There was a one-armed trumpet player blowing wild; with a jazz trio of bass, snare and piano. A chanteuse named Joni Paladin nailed a hip version of “Moonlight in Vermont.” The pizza arrived from the coal oven; the white wine was poured in carafes; and the naïve paintings on the wall rattled against the beat of the snare. The regulars at the bar sipped martinis, brandy, and red wine. The waiters looked as if they were born there, sixty years ago. In fact the whole joint was born in another time of muted jazz and cool and cocktails. I thought of Kerouac reciting “October in the Railroad Earth,” and Allen Ginsberg, twenty five years ago, signing his book of photos for me in a loft in Soho; taking the time to draw an alligator, because I told him I was into alligators. Gone, man. Gone.

I’m leading a little beat tour into San Francisco as part of our next train experience and hoping to touch base again with one of the last true Beat poets, my amigo Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He’s 92. One morning in San Francisco Lawrence and I were having breakfast with NPR radio host Maria Gilhardin, in a café in Japan Town, across from the Fillmore West. Lawrence loved the record, “The Man From God Knows Where." He was sketching me with a felt tip pen on the paper place mat. He dipped his finger in ice tea and made the picture run, like a water color. The little breakfast painting is framed next to my Ginsburg drawing. We have film footage of Lawrence reciting my song, “The Pugilist at 59,” in our upcoming documentary “Don’t Look Down.” And I can’t forget Lew Welch reciting “Ring of Bone,” in Santa Barbara forty years ago, before he left a note and walked off into the wilderness, never to be seen again. “I saw myself a ring of bone, floating in the clear stream of it all….” Our first recording, in ’76, was called Ring of Bone. Ah, the Beats!

On our train tour we plan to visit City Light Books and walk down Jack Kerouac Alley and commute with the Beat spirits…check the train experience out: or email us at

Dispatches….On The Road.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

True West

We left El Paso at sunup. My wife, guitarist Thad Beckman, and “Poppi,” my father-in-law. Poppi doesn’t speak English, except for the phrase: “F*** You, cowboy.” We were hoping he wouldn’t employ it in the wrong situation. We rolled down Highway 9 into the desert and Columbus, New Mexico, where Pancho Villa attacked the U.S. in 1916. Black Jack Pershing, with George Patton in toe, was sent after Pancho –never caught him. On through Hachita and Animas; past the monument where Geronimo surrendered; ate crackers and cut meat near Skull Valley; arrived in Douglas, Arizona. I showed them the Gadsden Hotel lobby, where Villa rode his horse up the stairway. There’s a stuffed puma, a cowboy watering hole – The Saddle and Spur Bar - and an old café. Next stop Bisbee. Show for Bill Carter, who wrote fine books on salmon fishing in Alaska and the war in Bosnia. On to Sahuarita: a church with a giant cross made of saguaro ribs and copper wire. Ross Knox, the last cowboy-muleteer, was in attendance. Ross is “the man who rode the mule around the world.” True west.

On to Flagstaff and the Orpheum theater. Snow on the road going out. A night off in Scottsdale. Visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s desert retreat. Frank Lloyd Wright, Georgia O’Keefe, Fritz Scholder, Ross Knox, and Geronimo color the true, raw West. Outsiders. Aboriginals. I bought a pawn shop Kachina in Scottsdale and wondered about its journey. Hawked for five dollars by a Navajo in 1969? Monday night show at the Rhythm Room in Phoenix. Then we gave Poppi the Western ride of his life – across the middle of Arizona and New Mexico. Through towns like Payson, Show Low, and Pie Town; stopped for the obligatory slice of Apple, Blueberry, and Boysenberry. One codger, around 90, ate a cafe dinner of cream of mushroom soup with two dozen crackers crushed inside; for bulk. He was “western” to the beard and bone.

After seven hours we hit old Magdalena and the adobe home of Steve Bodio and his wife Libby. In the front room were seven Russian coursing hounds, called “Tazi’s” from the old Turkin territory, and one Peregrine Falcon, which Steven fed from his hand. Frozen quail. Steve has many fine books out, including one on hunting with Eagles in Mongolia: Eagle Dreams. We ate Libby’s homemade posole and drank Mongol vodka; imbibing in a few bottles of God’s grape juice. Bukowski once wrote me: the Greeks didn’t call wine the blood of the gods for no reason at all. In the morning we drove home down the Jornado del Muerto, the long “journey of death” the Spanish rode five hundred years back.

There is still a west. It exists on desert back roads and in odd, fragmented glimpses: Saguaros against Sonoran sunsets; pawn shop Kachinas; crosses made of Saguaro ribs and copper; the lingo of the muleteer, a blueberry pie slice in Pie Town; frozen quail on the hand of the Falconer. God’s footnotes.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Ballad of Little Dougie

He’s sitting on stage somewhere in the night. Clutching a Bajo Sexto. One of those deep throated Mexican instruments; a sonic cross between a 12 string guitar and a broken steel cable whacking beats against a wooden thunder drum. A tuba with strings. Doug Sahm is poised. Historically posed. Leather jacket, black cowboy hat, pointy toe black boots. Long Hair and shades. The real/true beat king of Americana long before it was deadened into a recycle bin for old rockers and hat acts and tired folkies. My friend Peter from England gave me this picture. Doug is probably one of the only gabacho/gringos who could play the bajo sexto; he also played guitar, steel guitar, bass, drums, and all of it. They say he played once with Hank Williams. He used to call me in the middle of the night and whisper arcane warnings: Man you gonna get fat on Mexican food down in El Paso. Watch out.” He said he’d drive out to see me, but “them Mexican banditos out there would steal my Cadillac.” He called me “St Olav’s,” because he loved that song of mine. He even recorded it once. Doug wanted us to tour Norway together and take it all back. The fame, the glory, the Norwegian Kroners. It never transpired.

He was called “Little Dougie,” in those 1950’s photos. A ten year old kid behind a steel guitar. Then he was the young dude with Beatle bangs and flamenco boots who hit ‘em hard with Mendocino” and “She’s About a Mover.” He sang with Dylan. He was American music in the raw/real sense; music drawn from the border, Mexico, accordions, steel guitars, East Texas blues, girls tight red dresses, white boy rock, and British Invasion boomerang POP. Doug Sahm. Crooning, moaning, and wailing his way through his own Great American Songbook.

I hung out with him in a New York deli once. He spent twenty minutes telling the waitress how to make real corn beef hash. Then we went back to his hotel room where he chastised me for tossing my cowboy hat on the bed: “No hat on the bed, dude, its bad luck!” Then he showed me his bag of vitamins, mineral water, and the special coffee machine he travelled with. The road warrior in his final season; with medicines for the ritual.

A year later he died, in a Motel, in Taos, New Mexico. Gone, but never gone. Little Dougie.

The other night I watched the Texas Tornados. Augie Meyers and Flaco Jimenez and Doug’s son, Sean. On fire. Doug looked down and whispered to “Boogie,” (which is what he called Augie) – “Heh, Boogie, keep your eye on St. Olav’s, don’t let him get fat on that El Paso Mexican food. And don’t let him throw his hat on the bed, boogie.”

Roll on, Little Dougie, roll on.

(I’ll send this one out to the regulars in “Bar Mendocino, Helsinki, Finland.)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Bob Dylan in America

Half way through Sean Willentz’s wise and complex, Bob Dylan in America, I thought of Simon Rodia and the Watts Towers. Rodia was an Italian immigrant from Naples who created folk art towers in the Watts area of Los Angles in the 1930’s. The towers are tall iron cones: ornamented with soda bottle glass, tile, shells, and other found fragments. Yesterday I was in the yard, hands deep in tile and concrete; hoping to make an old Mexican fountain echo the feel of the Watts Towers, or at least summon the mosaic work of Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona. I was thinking of Sean Willentz’s Dylan book, which details how Dylan fashioned his complex song catalogue out of the bits and pieces of American musical history: minstrel shows, vaudeville, blues, jazz, gospel, folk, early rock, sacred harp shape-note singing…inventing, reinventing, borrowing, and stealing, now and then. Building his unique, masterful folk-art towers from poetic fragments. The Watts Towers of Song.

Willentz begins with a link between Dylan and Aaron Copland (composer of the opera Billy the Kid ), then discusses Brecht and Weill, the Beat generation, Blind Willie McTell, Shape Note singing, Bing Crosby, Blonde of Blonde and onward….Willentz doesn’t adopt the usual tact of over-interpreting Dylan. Impossible. He places Dylan’s work into the larger, ever-evolving context of American music. He’s a history professor at Princeton, and the research and footnoted-detail is sometimes tough slogging. But worth the journey. Bring water, wine, and a walking stick. You’ll know more about our musical tradition when you arrive at the end.

In the final chapter Willentz discusses the issue of whether Dylan stole or plagiarized lyrics and melodies throughout the long ride. Willentz alludes to the unspoken rules of the folk process and the working methods of TS Eliot, Woody Guthrie and others. He backs up Dylan. People have been trying to dissect, heave charges, boo, criticize, condemn and lob cheap shots at Dylan and his work since 1962. Current detractors should choke on the toxic fumes of the search engines they’ve employed to prove plagiarism. When I was a kid, the City of L.A. wanted to tear down the Watts Towers as unsafe. They brought in army helicopters to try and lift the towers. The towers wouldn’t move. They stand. So too… Dylan’s towering catalogue.

Today we stare into the musico-cultural abyss of what is now call “singer-songwriting;” or the the catch-all swamp referred to as Americana music. Dylan and Leonard Cohen, and a few others, soar like endangered eagles above the polluted waters. Sean Willentz has fashioned an important book which provides a key to young writers, as well as all of us who might wish to learn what “homework” the Bard, Dylan, might have done as he moved through his changes and absorbed the wonders of our diverse musical heritage.

Ondale! Back to work on my own Watts Towers. Praise the Lord and pass me a shard of glass, a sea shell, a splinter of tile… a broken rhyme.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Cante Moderna

Now the music divides us into tribes.

Arcade Fire

My horse “Modern Song” came in 20 to 1 at Del Mar. I had sixty bucks to spend back on art and song. In a West Coast coffee joint I bought three records: Arcade Fire, “The Suburbs;” then a re-mastered version of the Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and finally, Jimmy Webb’s new one: “Just Across the River.” Three explorations into modern song. Arcade Fire, an indie band from Canada, sings up life and death in suburbia. The songs are decent. There’s the usual wispy, indie vocal sound – and the hand-printed lyric book which implies “ah, gee whiz, here’s our poetry.” That’s ok. It works as a soundtrack for this “indie age.” Tolerable good.

Then I put on Sergeant Peppers’. Luckily I put it on second. My God. Have not listened to this in 20 years. I assumed it would sound like a dated psychedelic artifact. Naw. This is a record about loneliness, depression, age, death, suicide…masked in a circus-musico format. The end of the world at Coney Island, with raunch guitars, superb vocal arrangements, and gut wrenching singing. It’s the Beatles, of course. Unfair to compare them with anyone else. This was like finding a forgotten Van Gogh in the closet. The record was recorded on a four track tape machine 33 years ago. Where has our technology taken us? I would borrow from William S. Burroughs in inferring that modern digital technology may be leading us toward boredom and oblivion… much like the Burroughs’ character who taught his anus to talk as a circus trick. Pretty soon the anus talked by itself and the man’s mouth and brain atrophied. But, ah, this Peppers record! Bob Dylan is pictured on the cover next to Simon Rodia, the man who built the Watts Towers. It’s modern carny folk art. Dig.

Then I put on Jimmy Webb. Only Webb could have written pop standards about a Wichita telephone Lineman; a lovesick guy cleaning his gun and dreaming of Galveston (recorded here with Lucinda Williams), and a man who leaves his girl on the West Coast and drives across the Southwest, singing up the lonely landscape - like songline-walking aboriginals. Webb is able to compose short odes to the common man; with a “pop” feel. His songs manifest the lyrical and melodic qualities of intelligent, hip Broadway show songs. It’s hard to pull off. They’re built to last forever. Like 1959 Cadillacs.

The three records rotated around the truck radio. Finally, to clean the palette, I put in an old record by flamenco singer Camaron de La Isla. Camaron was junkie who died twenty years ago in Spain. 100,000 people attended the funeral. He is sainted.This is guttural, throat bleeding gypsy soul, to the rhythm of hand claps and hammer on anvil. Primal. Not for the faint of heart. Subterranean. Moorish. Ole! Cante hondo! Modern Song.

(Jimmy Webb and Jesse Winchester will be on our January train: see:

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

On the fourth of July we went to the Swiss circus. The lions and tigers were gone. The elephants are next. Animal rights. Nobody took time to ask the animals how they wished to vote. The final act was the wire walker Freddy Knock. We were slapped in the heart by the performance. We were pulled into it; lifted up. Federico Garcia Lorca called it Duende: “dancing on the rim of the well.” Freddy Knock danced on the rim of the ancient well and he took the crowd with him. Freddy Knock walked up the diagonal wire, from the ground to the high wire; backwards. Over the crowd. Lorca sat up in his grave. Lorca declared Duende is experienced only in music, dance, spoken poetry, and bullfighting. Those were his original words. The word “bullfighting” has now been expunged from his internet profile. Our world is being edited down and out by and political correctors and terrorists of the modern soul. Guardians in the watch tower. The truth has gone the way of elephants and tigers. Gone south with the side shows. My summer vacation in the box. Stifling tho' it was becoming.

Dear Teacher: My summer reading included “Furious Love” about Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. The tale is one long passionate song of the Welsh coal miner’s kid and a grown up child actress, drinking their way across the Shakespearean stages of modern history. Ah! Virginia Wolf! This ain’t Brad and Angelina, kids. This ain’t no paper moon under a cardboard sky. Burton drank because: “life is big and it blinds you.” Taylor drank because she could. They married twice; the flunkies at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in London had to keep moving the Burton’s wax figures in and out of the display to follow the romantic changes. Two art lives. Burning. Blood in the water.

I kept thinking about the circus. And our moral watchdogs. Left Wing. Right Wing. Up Wing. Down Wing. We live in a box, and point fingers at the other box. We are protected by flimsy bullet proof vests of moral and political superiority. We save animals and recycle our wine bottles; or we praise our white God as we curse Obama as a Muslim. We watch MSNBC or Fox News, we take sides. The fake spit of outrage runs down the pancake-painted chins of our puppet-faced talk show hosts and newscasters. We create new forms of faux-concern at floods, earthquakes and cartel wars. We are good, and our goodness is slipped into an envelope addressed to a benefit funding. Tax deductible. But we can’t find our pulse or heartbeat, and soul is something that died with James Brown and Otis Redding. We can no longer paint or write songs or novels. The emotions of our artists and writers are cartoonish; fleeting. Politically corrected. We whine; therefore we are. Our blood is kool aid.

And Freddy Knock, Liz Taylor and Richard Burton danced up the diagonal wire. Backwards. On my summer vacation.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Where Is Holden Caulfield When We Need Him?

An airport. Somewhere. Leafing through an April 29 copy of Rolling Stone, which is bleating about “40 Reasons to be Excited About Music.” “The future is here and it rocks.” Spare me. The present is here and it limps. Their reason #9 was the only cool one: “You can still see Chuck Berry play once a month.” This is all we have left for a music mag, whilst England, with 1/6th the population of the U.S., swings with about ten major and well writ music publications; plus the BBC programming of shows designed to seek out the wide history and world fronts of great music: rock, jazz, classical, blues, folk, world… what have you. But wait, next time I pick up a "Rolling Stone" they’re featuring the 500 best rock songs ever written. Desperate now. The lists roll out with there’s nothing else to write about. I might agree with some of their song choices…here’s the kicker. Over 90% of their 500 best songs ever written were written before 1970. The summation is there ain’t been much to be excited about in the last forty years - with all our bleating, digital gadgetry, conferences, alliances, SXSW, “how to write songs” cartoon books, posturing circus rap, and lack of human artistic character. The chaos has led us, with our little IPOD head phones on, into the death throes of popular song. We’ve pulled the carpet out from under the original voice. We’ve lost our ability to speak in passionate musical tongue. Mostly. Sorta. Is it waxing nostalgic to go back and re- dig “Exile on Main Street,” or “Highway 61 Revisited?” It’s raw necessity. Nostalgia you say? Is there anything nostalgic about digging some of those Van Gogh paintings? They look like they were painted this morning. They drip blood. Like Highway 61 and Exile. We are a bloodless nation now. Where are the painters, writers, songwriters, novelists and good plumbers? Why don’t dentists use laughing gas anymore? Huh? My job is to shut up and write a song. I know that. I shall try, amigos. Every morning. Meanwhile “Rolling Stone,” struggling for something to write about, centers less on real music and more on throwing spitballs, sliders, curves and head dusters at the current president, whom they helped elect - and the were the first to turn against. We’ve got “freelance” journalists sucker punching American Generals over free drinks in Paris whiskey bars in the name of cheap shot, rummy journalism and sensationalism. And, aw, those interminable lists they throw out. Ah, hell. Where is Holden Caulfield when we need him? Old Holden would tell us what’s phony and what ain’t. It’s Barnum and Bailey time. There’s a paper moon hanging over a cardboard sea. But its happy hour, friends. I promise to write that song in the morning. I’ll open up and vein and see what drips down on paper then I’ll go paint something while blasting “Exile on Main Street (the re-issue) from my ghetto blaster.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


We come face to hard face with something
preserved here in ice, something familiar
we left for dead decades ago – our reflection
warm, alive, rousing, wild.
"The Make-Up of Ice"
Paul Zarzyski

He came out of Northern Wisconsin. Polish-Italian. Blue collar-blooded. A boy who’d memorized the names of trees, fish, fish hooks, birds, rocks, and the varieties of Polish and Italian stews. This Zarzyski kid loves stews: posole or ciappino. And pies! Pumpkin, Dutch Apple, Huckleberry. James Joyce said there’s the sound of words; the sound of words hitting against words, and the sound between words. Zarzyski knows this rattle dance. He loves the idea of concoction; food or words. He gives reverence to the names. They roll of his lips, down onto the page, and then back off his recitation tongue. Poetry can be holy; if you know the weight of the word. Zarzo knows. Hosanna.
Gary Snyder, in “What You Need to Know to be a Poet,” says a poet should know: “The names of trees and flowers and weeds, the names of stars, and the movements of the planets and the moon…real danger, gamble, and the edge of death…at least one kind of traditional magic.” Zarzyski grasps this; he knows the make-up of ice. This Polish kid, Zarzo, moved West and became a bronc rider. Then he wrote about THAT. Hanging off a bareback bronc; face-bound for a fence pole or a six inch square of bovine night-soil, he found out about “gamble and the edge of death” and how to create poetry out of raw-nerve experience. He got his Lit degree. Studied under Richard Hugo. Hid out in Great Falls, Montana, in a motel bar that has a shark tank behind it. Zarzyski. Rhymes with bar-whiskey. Means “bard” in Polish.
Forty years ago, a college professor said Bob Dylan killed off the need for American poetry; forever. Dylan created a transcendent mix of music and poetic-verse that made page-poetry a less important form; and there was no going backwards. Damn true. Mostly. There is a short list of great poets left in America. They are as scarce as good songwriters, painters and classical composers. Zarzyski is in that handful. He is our much needed Poet-Laureate. He climbed the mountain, saw the elephant, rode the bronc, and came back down to tell us about it - with fish hooks in his cowboy hat; posole and tequila dribbling down his Polack-Dago chin. Words growing wild.
And finally….his friend Joe Lear died in a bull riding - Zarzyski wrote one of the finest American poems of the last 100 years: “All This Way For the Short Ride:”
“It’s impossible, when dust
settling to the backs of large animals
makes a racket you can’t think in,
impossible to conceive that pure fear,
whether measured in degrees of cold
or heat, can both freeze
and incinerate so much
in mere seconds…”

Amen, Zarzo, amen.

Check out: www.
(Zarzyski rides the train with the Flatlanders and TR in September, see: or write

Monday, May 10, 2010

Lean On Pete

It was in the midst of a phone interview in Dublin or Belfast and the writer asked me if I’d heard of Willy Vlautin. Willy’s the leader of a band called Richmond Fontaine. I’d heard good things about the band, I said. “Well,” says the interviewer, “you ought to check out his novels. You’d appreciate his writing.” I winced. I’ve given up on current fiction. Most of it. Regardless of what the “New York Times” or “The New Yorker” may be laying on us, I don’t have time for the pretentious, vacuous cooing of the step-children of Joyce Carol Oates and Paul Auster. I usually give up after one page if I get the impression novelists are “writing At me,” with prose meant to impress with arch-style and form, rather than heartfelt content and well drawn believable characters. I don’t want to be constantly jerked out of the story in boredom and disgust. If there even IS a story. If I don’t care what the hell happens to the main characters or characters in a story I usually lay the book down or turn off the movie. I’d rather paint. You get the picture. Ditto songs and records.

But I got in touch with Willy Vlautin and he sent me his three novels. I’ve read “The Motel Life;” a damn good saga about the backside of Reno and two brothers living in seedy motels. I just finished Willy’s most recent book, “Lean on Pete,” about a kid who steals a broke-down race horse. Willy writes as if he’s the bastard child of Raymond Carver, with a little Salinger thrown into the mix. Other critics have mentioned Steinbeck. (Literary comparisons are a cheap shot. Sorry…they’re easy to toss around to make a quick point.) Willy Vlautin’s “voice” carries on the tone of the kid in Raymond Carver’s story: “Nobody Said Anything;” the voice of an American “kid” who’s telling us about his journey. Honest. Simple. It’s difficult to pull this off if you’re cute or insincere. Salinger slam-dunked the approach with “The Catcher in the Rye.” Holden Caulfield has our attention from the git-go with: “If you really want to hear about it….etc.” And then Holden’s breakdown spills out.

Willy told me he writes at the old Portland Meadows Race Track. Perfect. I believe the kid telling the tale in “Lean on Pete.” I grew up on the backside of Hollywood Park Race Track, and I’ve seen the hot walker and groom routine; and the junkies and winos and all the dirt of horse racing. I even owned a broke down race horse named “My Chief.” If our moral watchdogs think bullfighting is cruel, they ought to spend a season on the backside of a racetrack. And Willy Vlautin nails it.

Go get ‘em Willy. You’re a stretch runner.

(Also recommended: “The Circus at the Edge of the Earth” by Charles Wilkins. A non-fiction book on the Circus Wallenda.)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Blood on the Saddle

I was painting an adobe wall in my cantina; blood red; found a stack of long playing albums. Tex Ritter’s “Blood on the Saddle” leaning on Marty Robbins’ “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs.” If God made two better cowboy records (to paraphrase W.S. Burroughs) he kept them to his glorious self. Tex Ritter sang with the hang-dog snarl of a gravedigger with a thorn stuck in his craw. Bloody. Raw. His voice crawled up your backbone; the whisper of a hired killer pointing a gun at your back in a dark alley. “Barbara Allen,” “Streets of Laredo,” “Sam Hall,” “Sam Bass,” “Billy the Kid.” Deep Folklore from an authentico. Marty Robbins was the Pavarotti of Western song and was a helluva writer. Contemporary cowboy poetry and song pales by comparison. Non-dairy creamer. (Except for Ian Tyson and Pablo Zarzyski.) Ah, but Tex Ritter! Otis Blackwell, who wrote many of Elvis Presley’s early hits, told me once that Tex was his favorite singer. The Tex Ritter cowboy attitude, imbued within the rolling rhythms of Blackwell’s “All Shook Up” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” created the tone of some of the finest early rock.

Here’s a brief Tex Ritter anecdote: we were up in the French alps one dark night; visiting the widow of the famous painter Count Balthus - Countess Setsuko - a beautiful Japanese lady whom Balthus had often painted. We were invited to tea in the ancient chalet. A spectacular, five storey ornate structure on the side of forested mountain. Spooky. The countess received us in a formal manner; dressed in a kimono and wooden slippers. She began asking us questions about our lives. Picasso and Balthus paintings stared down from the wall. The conversation rattled safely and stiffly along; until I told her I wrote and sang songs. “What sort of songs?” she asked. “All sorts,” I said. Then she squinted and looked me in the eye: “Do you ever sing cowboy songs?” “Yes,” I said. “The dark ones?” she asked. “Dark? You mean like Tex Ritter?” I asked. Her eyes widened and she clapped her hands together and almost jumped out of her antique chair. “Ah, yes! Tex Ritta! Tex Ritta! I love Tex Ritta!” She called the house boy to bring the whiskey decanter and I sang a little of “High Noon.” I closed my eyes and somewhere a pisterlero was galloping his horse along a high ridge as a gunfighter was riding in on a train to kill Gary Cooper. Grace Kelly was catching the next stage out. “Do not forsake me, oh my darling, on this our wedding day…..”Tex Ritter’s voice castes a long shadow across our minstrel history. It resonates with the true grit and gen of the noir folklore stuff we’re looking for in cowboy and gunfighter ballads. Out on the eternal frontier. Go ask Countess Setsuko.

“There was blood on the saddle, and blood all around, and a great big puddle, of blood on the ground…a cowboy lay in it…”

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Old Harmonica Boxes

We were kids. Aged 12 or 14 or so, with and older friend named Eddie who was 16 and could drive a car. We were in the park lot, back of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, maybe 1962, talking to Bob Dylan. Dylan had just finished a concert to a half-filled auditorium; he’d recorded two LP records and was in his Charlie Chaplin phase of performing. Funny. Off the wall. Forming the early chapters of a deep catalogue. Hell, we were kids who grew up listening to our parents Harry Belafonte “Calypso” records. This Bob Dylan was our James-Joycean dream-ticket out of the suburbs. I didn’t tell the other kids that I’d decided that’s what I wanted to be. What this guy did with words and music. THAT thing.
There he was, sitting in a Ford station wagon, waiting for his road manager to come back with the money. Our friend Eddie had an empty harmonica box and he handed it to Dylan to sign. Then Bob Dylan looked at me and said: “Heh, kid, where’s the nearest liquor store?” I told Bob Dylan I was too young to drink. I didn’t know where the nearest liquor store was, or where the chicks hung out, or where the weed was stashed, or any of that good stuff. I was a Catholic school kid with braces and bad eyes. A day-dreamer; sand castle-builder. But maybe Bob was speaking in code and inviting me along on his song journey. “Heh, you…kid! Let’s go…”
The road manager appeared and they took off down the road. We took off after them; Eddie had the pedal to the metal. Following Bob Dylan into history. Or something. They saw we were behind them and pulled over. We pulled over too. Dylan jumped out, laughing and dancing around our car; like a drunken Whirling Dervish. Then he jumped back in his car and they vanished into the Big Time. I thought it was all a dream; but I guess it happened. Hell, I shook hands with Jack Kennedy once and saw the Dali Lama; but this was better. Dylan travelled his high road; I struggled on, until I had the guts to begin writing songs. And the seasons whirled round and round; the circles closed.
Almost fifty years later somebody handed me the new Clarence Clemmons book (Springsteen’s Sax Player) called “Big Man.” Clarence mentions a song I wrote with with Dave Alvin, “Haley’s Comet;” Springsteen says: “Man I wished I’d written that…” Deeper into the book there’s a dream sequence where Bob Dylan is telling Kinky Freidman: “Joe (Ely) did a hell of a song tonight about a rooster…a Tom Russell song…it’s good. It’s called ‘Gallo del Cielo,’…and I’m hard to impress.” I don’t know if that transpired. It’s in there, though. It takes me back to when he asked me where that liquor store was…that secret code urging me to get started. Songwriting…and now I’m wondering if Eddie still has that old harmonica box.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Knife Thrower's Sonata

The Knife Thrower’s Sonata

Hemingway did his work, and he’ll last. Any biographer who gives him less than this, granting the chaos of his public and personal life, might just as well as write the biography of an anonymous grocer, or a wooly mammoth. Hemingway, the writer he’s still the hero of the story, however it unfolds.” Raymond Carver

My mother taught me: never leave the house without a book. You might get stuck in a line out there. The waiting room of a dentist’s office. Freeway. Runway. I left for Europe with a bag of heavy books, which included: “The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink;” with fine essays by Joseph Mitchell and A.J. Leibling. Also books about two Raymonds: Chandler and Carver. The Chandler bio by Hinney, and the new Raymond Carver bio by Carol Skelenicka. Chandler was a maestro of hard-boiled detective literature – and Carver brought suburban noir-realism to the American short story. Both writers mastered American lingo, character and the backwater emotional landscapes of the Promised Land. Both men pretty much drank themselves into the graves. Writers. Sagas of two Americans who traversed the nether land of fame and publishing world. Critics – Hollywood – fortune – lossredemption. Marriage ups and downs. Drink. The carny wheel spins round: Drunk. Sober. Drying Out. Off the wagon. Under the wagon. They wrote their way through all of it. Chandler (after he was dead of course) was slagged by some fellow writers, including popular novelist Joyce Carol Oates – who declared Chandler and his detective Marlowe: “racist and misogynist.” Oh, Christ, please. New York critics deemed Carver’s work dreary and depressing. Welcome to the world of high brow, arch-political correctness and snobbery. Look out, folks; here comes the “new fiction!” The children of Joyce Carol Oates. Boring me to tears. But ah, Chandler and Carver…it’s a reminder of the work; then the later criticism of Hemingway –Hem’s work may seem dated to some; overly macho to others; out of date and style. But much of it will last because it was made with an artist’s honesty and passion; an accurate ear, a proven B.S. detector; and a whittled character that is lacking in much of today’s fiction. Style. But, oh mama, the morally-toned snobs love to kick the old lions when they’re down or dead. Ah, the hyenas and knife throwers…enough!...some final words from Chandler:

Apparently Hemingway was very sick when he wrote the book (“Across the River and Into The Trees”) and he put down in a rather cursory way how that made him feel…I suppose those primping second guessers who call themselves critics think he shouldn’t have written the book at all. Most men wouldn’t have…that’s the difference between a champ and a knife thrower, the champ may have lost his stuff temporarily or permanently, he can’t be sure. But when he can no longer throw the high hard one, he throws his heart instead. He throws something. He doesn’t just walk off the mound and weep.”

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Cactus Cafe Obscenity

Something is happening here,

and you don‘t know what it is,

Do you?... Mr. Jones.

Bob Dylan, The Ballad of a Thin Man.

I was high above the Arctic Circle, in the Norwegian town of Tromso (The Paris of the North) when I recieved the word that the Cactus Cafe in Austin, on the University campus, was being forced to close. I was playing a great rock and roll room that night in Tromso; I’ve played 10,000 venues all over the world in the past forty years (from Skid Row Canada on up to the David Letterman show)and I would rate the Cactus Cafe in the top 5 music rooms. The insult of closing a culturally important venue was heard round the globe; it reached me in the far north. University presidents and student council groups are never known for their insight, guts and feelings – with regard to decisions which impact deeper levels of a community, and the future of the arts. I’ve seen both sides of the game. I recieved my Master’s Degree in Criminology from the University of California (as referenced on Blood and Candle Smoke) and decided music was a more important calling, for myself ; then worked my way up from the bars. I’ve seen a lot of sleezeballs and thieves in the music game, but nothing that compares with the drone-like, day to day decision making cowardice of the academic tribe. The University system has failed us.(The dead fornicating with the dead – to quote The Bard.) Colleges are turning out robotic accountants and morally warped bank ceo’s and parasite scientists sucking on the fat teat of the grant system. Campuses are strangely remote places where people walk like zombies through the fear vaccum and occasionly slaughter other people (Alabama and Virginia) because the vibe is deathly cold, isolate and fearful. When these things happen the University system reaches out and pretends to be part of the community at large. Only when they need sympathy. They NEED The Cactus Cafe in that vacuum. The University of Texas pays it’s football coach five million dollars, so I’ve heard. Put that into perspective of the Cactus Cafe losing money. Music, literature and art are the honest lifeblood and the deep current which helps heals the greater community. Live music – what’s left of it –is vastly important. AUSTIN Texas,once one of the most important music centers in the world, is turning into a soulless freeway; a clotted adjunct to Interstate 35. I keep thinking of that hole in the wall back in Griff Lundberg’s Cactus Cafe office - worn through by his hard working boots over the last thirty years. They’ll tear that wall out over shrieking body. Shame on the University of Texas and it’s Ballad of a Thin Man President. Something is happening here...and you don‘t know what it is....

Tom Tussell, Tromso Norway.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Letter

There was a blizzard that night across New York State; went to the gig anyway. I believe it was The Turning Point in Piermont, New York. Sheets of ice covered the pot holes, and we bobsledded up the Palisades Parkway. Hydroplaning. 30 folks showed up. God bless the faithful. Must have been 15 years ago. I was living in a boarded up storefront in Brooklyn those seasons; the Bohemian life. Writing songs like “Hurricane Season” and “Chinatown in the Rain,” fueled by vodka and pizza slices. I came home from the blizzardy gig that night and there were a few wet letters on the snowy tile floor near the mail slot. One of them was marked “Bristol, England,” with blue ink scrawled on the hotel envelope. I opened up the letter and tried to read the scrawl. It was something about my song “Gallo del Cielo,” and how much this person admired it. I thought it was a fan letter, a nice one, and finally tossed it in the trash and passed out in a chair. Then something clawed at me in a dream about the signature on the note. I woke up and went through the trash again and read the letter. It was from Bruce Springsteen, on the road in England doing his solo shows. He was telling me Joe Ely had played him “Gallo del Cielo,” and Bruce had remarked “who in hell wrote that?!”…Bruce said he admired my writing and we’d “get together sometime.” It was a wonderful, warming moment for me when I was struggling, and this great and kind man took the time to send that note off. It kept me going for a few months. Later someone told Bruce was singing Peter Case’s and my song: “Beyond the Blues” at soundchecks. Bruce and I haven’t “gotten together” yet and it doesn’t matter…this is all by way of saying (in regard to the last blog) I would never take a “cheap shot” at Bruce. I admire him and have seen the proof how he can reach people. (I saw a live show in a huge soccer stadium in Sweden years ago…he reached me from 200 yards away.) I think his “Nebraska” is an American folk masterwork. My point was, last time, I’m am not interested in stars dueting with stars so much as a magic moment when an almost unknown cat like Jesse Winchester can turn around in a split second and still break your heart ...and that this carries a lot of spirit weight in this wasteland world. I can handle all the weird, silly feedback that Jesse is a “crooner” singing some idiotic nursery rhymes… and the cloying news I’m also taking shots against The Boss…but I don’t believe in cheap shots so much as the Ali Shuffle, the Rope a Dope, then the stinging lyrical jab and the Haymaker chorus right to the jaw….trust me…cheap shots are left for those who travel under assumed names... but I just wanted to set it straight and tell you about that letter. It meant a great deal to me… in this songwriting life.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Lion In Winter

There’s a blind Puma in a wire cage down the road. A wise old american mountain lion, on a medieval farm in Switzerland. Rescued from a zoo, I’d guess. Living on horsemeat and memories. At midnight on New Year’s eve I heard him growl for the coming year. Wistfully. Dreaming of the ancestral mountains of New Mexico or Colorado, whilst sniffing the midnight air fresh down from the Alps. Like this old puma, we’re all misplaced expatriots, thankful for another year, living on memories and whiffing the air of eternity. I’m thankful for love and limb; also that “One to the Heart, One to the Head” and “Blood and Candle Smoke” made dozens of year-end “best of” lists for 2009. Also grateful to have seen Leonard Cohen in Phoenix last summer – ripping the heart out of four hours of original music. Delivering the Gospel in the Desert. Just when the glow was fading from that memory, last week, my friend Alec delivered a link to a video of Jesse Winchester singing a song on Elvis Costello’s TV show. It’s a heartfelt saga of teenage love, rendered by a true master; with sincerity and quiet passion. We tend to forget about Jesse, but there he was. Telling me again why in hell we’re in this game. Cutting to the heart of the matter. Right near the end of the song the camera slides over to Neko Case; sitting next to Jesse on stage –and a tear rolls down her cheek. Do I have have to say more? That’s it. That’s why we’re here. In this age when we’re drowning in the worthless bilge water of tired celebrity – like who cares if Willie Nelson duets with Norah Jones, or Bono sings with Springsteen? It’s a ragged dress rehearsal of a celebrity circus that carries no original, gutsy spark. It’s all rote; a Starbucks CD sitting next to the Sugar Cookies. Then Jesse Winchester nails it. One to the heart and head; that tear rolls down Neko’s cheek. What songs are supposed to do…that’s why the good ones were written. To move the heart for a moment. Have we forgotten? We live in this age when people can’t tell the difference between Madeleine Peyroux and Billie Holiday. And this is a grand difference; like red Kool Aid verses hot Blood. But maybe I’m just a blind old disgruntled puma prowling a cage in Switzerland…looking for something to gnaw on. Something with meat. The lion in winter. It’s time to shut up and write new songs; not forgetting Leonard Cohen in Phoenix and Jesse Winchester… and that tear rolling down Neko’s cheek.

Happy New Year and thanks for hanging in there with us….TR. Swissland.

Jesse Winchester link: