Monday, December 12, 2011

Train Dreams

Pass me that flask of cognac with the 1950’s Union Pacific Dome-Liner etched on it. I’ll tell you about The Portland Rose. Vintage streamline rail cars, sailing up the western coastline, towards my favorite city. All aboard! Special Music-Art Train coming April 13-18. Los Angeles to Portland and back. Special guests: Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Jon Langford, and Thad Beckman. And yours truly: Tom Russell.

Embark from Union Station, an historic landmark right out of a Raymond Chandler story. Setting for a dozen Film Noir classics. The train hugs the California-Oregon coast - rugged coastline you’ll never see from the highway. Dave Alvin has pointed out that Cecil B. Demille created biblical movie sets along this beach line, which are now buried in the sand. We pass Spanish Land Grant ranches right out of the folk song “South Coast.” There’s a vintage dome car where people fall in and out of love. I’ve seen it. Hitchcock-ian!

The song South Coast brings me to Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who sings the definitive version. Let’s talk history: Ramblin' Jack busked on the streets of Paris and London in the 1950’s. A young Mick Jagger heard Jack busking on a London subway platform and Mick decided, then and there, to become a singer. Bob Dylan stole a few tricks from Jack. Guitar stylings, singing style, etc. Dig it. Jack’s a living, breathing legend.

Jon Langford was the drummer for The Mekons. He’s originally from Wales. Jon now performs with guitar and is hailed for pioneering a mix of folk, country and punk rock. He’s recorded classic alt-country for Bloodshot Records. Jon’s also a prolific visual artist. His portraits of country music legends like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash grace dozens of record and book covers. Jon is one of the finest “folk” painters in America, and a celebrated alt-country performer.

Thad Beckman, American Guitar Master, will be hosting open mikes and guitar workshops. (Bring your guitar and latest songs.) Late night “hoots’ and non-stop jamming. Thad is a master fingerpicker, blues artist, songwriter, and guitar teacher.

Workshops will also include: song swaps, concerts, and art discussions with Jon Langford, Tom Russell, Charlie Hunter, and Yard Dog Folk Gallery owner Randy Franklin. Our supreme commander, Charlie Hunter is also a master painter. Painters, guitar pickers, music fans, train buffs… welcome aboard.

Tom Russell? Myself? I sing original songs. I paint. I’ve been known, on odd rail midnights, to sing old Irish ballads, or Honky Tonk Women. Spontaneity is the key to great rail journeys. Wine. Good food. Song. International friends. Romance. Mystery.

The stops? L.A.! The City of the Angels! Portland, Oregon! One of my favorite cities. Fine food, and the best used bookstore in the world: Powell’s. Jake’s Famous Crawfish is one of my favorite American food joints. A real American City with soul, beauty, vision, and history. We’ll be there two nights.

Climb onboard. Email Sarah at or check out the full details: Payment plans discussed. Phone 802-258-1397. Toll Free.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Last Mesabi Blog

Last summer we went to the circus in Switzerland. It was all very boring, until the last act. The extreme artist, Freddy Nock, appeared from behind the curtain. He walked up a diagonal wire, backwards, over the crowd, to the high wire. Without a net. Fifty feet up. Then he danced across the wire and did somersaults. He has since walked up cable car wires into the high Alps, and set seven world records in seven days, walking across lakes and up mountains. He gives the donated money to UNICEF. That night he walked backwards up the wire, I thought to myself, I feel like I’ve been walking up the wire backwards in this music business…

Ah! The new record, Mesabi, is out. I’ve written here about most of the songs, at least the peripheral color. Myself, I’m still that kid listening to vinyl folk music on my Uncle George’s record player. The scene where this record begins. I can smell the furniture polish on the mahogany console of that Phillips machine and see the tubes glowing in the back, as I listen to Joan Baez or Dylan sing “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right.” It wasn’t another time. It wasn’t even long ago. It was now and tomorrow. The songs. They do that. Stop Time.

Good songs and paintings aren’t locked into a frame or an era. They defy all the odds. They stick in the blood. They change the color of your eyes. They keep the heart pumping a different tango that carries us through all of our eternities. The songs of the masters have kept me going. The only way to end this record – with its so called dark moments, with fragile and famous characters going down hard – was by shining a small light of hope back on the stories. Love Abides.”

I picked an old guitar up on the Wall of Wave Lab studio, in Tucson, and strummed the dead strings, and layed the last song down just like you hear it. One take. Myself and guitar. A point of light to end the main course. But there are really no “dark songs.”Only hard truths. The only artistic sin is concocting untruthful emotions and clever lies, wrapped in easy rhymes. Welcome to the hit parade.

I’d like to keep walking backwards up that wire. Like our friend Freddy Nock. The Master of Air. You can see what he does at

You can listen to what I do on Mesabi.

Adieu and adios.


Time now to take the songs out on the highway. The Minstrel Trail. We’re coming into your neighborhood; hitting the front porch with the daily paper. Songs.

The concerts are listed on our web:

The film, Don’t Look Down, is out and also the Art book: Blue Horse/ Red Desert: The Art of Tom Russell. It’s all available at

That’s it for now. All the news from the high wire. See you down the road.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

And God Created Border Towns

The Jai Alai fronton was a grand, arched-top, ivory adobe building which stood in the midst of 1950’s Tijuana. A piece of architectural folk art. An Aztec gaming palace. The building dominated the border scene, at least in my young kid’s eyes. And it continues to drift through my dreams. What in hell went on in there? A Basque game? A gambling sport? Were there whores in the cheap seats? Was Clark Gable in the front row? Sterling Hayden? The world’s fastest game. Jai Alai. Men with baskets on their arms, slinging hard pelota balls against stone walls. It was Mayan. Prehistoric.
I have a menu from the Jai Alai Café. It’s dated Saturday, May 10, 1952. It’s a beautiful, deco-designed cream-colored sheet of French paper, with a dark blue frame. The food list is bordered on four sides by artistic renderings of lobsters and sides of beef. Lobster was the specialty that night, and it came “fresh from the Blue Pacific.” Are there any lobsters left in the blue Pacific? Is the Pacific blue? There’s a small sidebar for the “magic chef broiler,” which produced “savory broiled steak and chops…a gourmet’s delight.”
Let’s look down the menu, past the lobster cocktail supreme, the cream of fresh mushroom soup, the homemade chicken mole (Puebla Style), the roast prime rib and Yorkshire biscuit, the “unjointed capon” with corn fritters and honey, the fried abalone steak, the “young venison steak au garniture,” and the two quails sautéed on toast. Personally I’m thrilled that the capon was unjointed. It probably made fine dining easier. All that twisting and turning of capon legs can be a bother – might interfere with the wine toasts and the placing of Jai Alai bets.
But wait. Let’s not ignore the coup de grace deserts: crème de menthe parfait and the camembert or Leiderkranz cheese. Ah, the hell with it, how about pineapple pie, or Italian Zabaione - an Italian custard desert made from egg yolks and sweet wine (Marsala or Proseco) whipped to perfection and served with figs. Haute Cuisine in Tijuana. The cracking of pelota balls on stone.
Finis. That border era has long vanished into years of blood and dread. Tijuana. Juarez. Nuevo Laredo. The mariachis have disappeared from the tourist market. The photo-man with the donkey painted like a zebra is gone. Gone with the abalone steak and unjointed capon and lobster from the blue Pacific. Gone with the cheapo divorces and thirty five cent margaritas. Dog tracks. Horse Tracks. Jai Alai frontons. History.
As Marlene Dietrich said to Orson Welles in Touch of Evil (the greatest of noir border flicks): “Your future is all used up…”
As world economies tilt, and the malicious carnival jive of partisan politics erodes reason, there’s a new economy of cash, guns and blood bartered for drugs. This economy flourishes. Across the borderline. The world’s fastest game. Bet on it.

(These themes are embodied in 3 new Mesabi songs: And God Created Bordertowns, Goodnight Juarez, Jai Alai…coming soon.)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Heart Within A Heart

Truth is a pathless land. So sayeth Krishnamurti. Two roads may not diverge in the woods this time around. Suddenly there are no roads. Life isn’t what happens to you, but how you react to what happens. The journey home after we’ve lost our maps or honing devices. Time to re-tool personal philosophies. All gospels become Gnostic.

One month ago I was recovering from an eye operation in a hospital in a medieval Swiss City. Helicopters landed on the roof all night. Sirens wailed in the streets after the bars closed. A roundup of the wounded, broken and half dead. Humanity speaking in tongues of blood, pain, mortality, and sorrow. Maybe hope. When the next breath is all there is, it’s enough. Outside in the hallways nurses were murmuring in Swiss German. I was waking up in a Hemingway war novel set in WW1. One eyed and sedated. I remembered almost dying of dysentery in Nigeria, forty years ago, and every time I’d moan or retch in agony, the Yoruba girls out in the courtyard would wail in primitive harmony with my pain. The healing song. Cante hondo. Their chanting pulled me through. When the land becomes pathless it’s time to reach for the heart within the heart. The place to go when all the trouble starts. When your world spins upside down and falls apart. That song.

Every Tom Russell record should harbor at least one song of hope or simple love. Redemption. Internal rummage sales. A rest stop on a road marked with darker songs about people who’ve been somewhere and left their mark on the cave wall. We’re all climbing our crooked mountains, reimagining our art and philosophies, one song at a time. Touchstones have eroded. We live in a world polluted and broken down by divisive politics, tribal hatreds, religious wars and a corrupt media hacking into personal pain - to display it all on the evening news. We’re revolted by fanatical Muslims chopping off the nose and ears of a woman, and yet have tolerated the silence of the Vatican, covering up priest/predator damage to a half million abused children. Under the banner of God. We have politically corrected our lingo, while our baser instincts grow deadlier. We’ve invented a new mask of false innocence, with a clown’s smiling face. Our arts are phony. The news is tainted. Our children are one dimensional. Their songs are merely soundscapes. Lyrical abstract expressionism, lacking the guts and color of a DeKooning print. Novels are arch. Nobody’s home. Conceptual art devoid of content and wild-hearted thrust. Passion is a dirty word. The lions and elephants have disappeared from the circus and helicopters are landing on the roof. St. Jude has surrendered.

The direction out is into the pathless land where each individual must change their interior being. Good luck on your journey. Carry water, and a belief that there’s a heart within your heart.

(Song #9 coming…on Mesabi) (Rest in peace Bill Morrissey and Amy Winehouse)

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Monte Hellman/George Kimball

Two summers ago I heard director Monte Hellman was trying to reach me. I was familiar with Monte’s Two Lane Blacktop, the ultimate American road movie. James Taylor and Dennis Wilson, drummer of the Beach Boys, race their hopped-up car across the America, against another car driven by actor Warren Oates. Helluva movie. Monte also directed early Jack Nicholson films and produced Reservoir Dogs. He was a fan of my music. Had all the records. Would I like to write the music for his new film (released last month) The Road to Nowhere? Hell yes. He sent me the script. I had a hard time with it. A dense story within a story. Cubist. Sorta. But I worked on a title song and recorded it on a little hand held recorder. He loved it and used the demo and quite a few other songs in the film.

Monte also wanted me to act in it, on location in Rome, but that didn’t end up happening. He also used my song “Roll the Credits,” for the film’s closing credits. Two months ago we attended the premiere at the old Egyptian theater in Hollywood. We’d seen an earlier cut in Monte’s bedroom screening facility; drinking his Xylitol extreme Margaritas. Fine man. Cool movie. A Hollywood homecoming for me. As a kid I’d take a bus from Inglewood to Hollywood and walk up and down Boulevard, reading the Hollywood Stars embedded in the sidewalk.

The songs “Road to Nowhere” and “Roll the Credits” are on the coming record Mesabi.


George Kimball died several days ago. One of our finest Sports writers. A friend. A throwback to a time of cigar chewing, scotch drinking characters that cared about the art of sports journalism and the search for the right word or phrase that resonated with hard truth. He wrote like Alexis Arguello boxed. Toughness, laced with finesse, and the occasional eye drop of humor. The dance. He was in the mold of Leibling and Joseph Mitchell. He knew and loved the territory. The gym. The bar. The street. The word. The song.

My friend Steve Bodio told me that George wrote a story on the Boston Marathon once by stopping at every bar along the route. There are a lot of them. I met him in Austin, a few years ago, when he showed up at the gallery opening of my boxing paintings. He bought two and they were used on the cover of his book: The Manly Art. I met him beneath the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree last year and he gave me a whole bag of his books. They got me through the winter. Finally we did a gig together a few months ago at the Williams Burroughs house in Lawrence, Kansas. George had friends among folksingers, beats, boxers and some of the finest writers of our age, like Pete Hamil and Colum McCann. Here’s to you George. An Irish toast to all of our eternities.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Adventures in the Hollywood Skin Trade

On childhood Sundays Jiminy Cricket crooned “When You Wish Upon A Star,” as Disneyland came on the TV. Chilling. This song was performed by Cliff Edwards, also known as Ukulele Ike. Cliff was a funny little, frog-faced man, born in 1895 in Hannibal, Missouri. He left school to become a vaudeville crooner. Taught himself the ukulele and recorded hits like “California Here I Come,” “I’ll See You in My Dreams, and “Singing’ in the Rain.” Cliff was responsible for millions of ukuleles selling in the 1920’s! My mom played the uke, and it was the perfect axe for campfires and boring car trips. “Aint A Gonna Rain No More,” she’d sing. Indeed. Cliff Edwards went on to star in films, but his personal life was “Hollywood” messy. It began to rain hard on our little crooner.

Cliff paid alimony to three former wives, went through bankruptcy four times, and suffered from alcoholism and drug addiction. He hung out at the old Tam O’ Shanter, near the L.A River, trying to get voice-over gigs. He ended up in a home for indigent actors, and died in a charity hospital. The body was unclaimed, until Disney bought a burial plot. Yikes, Ike.

Couple this American vignette with my earlier story of Bobby Driscoll…the voice of Peter Pan…dying in a vacant lot in New York…further adventures in the Hollywood skin trade. You might say: why dwell on the dark side? I say, what happened to my childhood dreams? Where’s the star we’re supposed to be wishing on? Mommy never told me Jiminy Cricket could bleed…etc. Farewell Never Never Land.

Now Consider Sterling Hayden. Actor: The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing, Johnny Guitar, The Godfather. Dozens of great flicks. He stood six feet five and sailed round the globe with his children in a three-masted schooner. The author of two great sea books. One of the most popular character actors to appear on TV talk shows - he sat there with cigarette smoke whirling up into his Captain Ahab beard and told it like it was. I saw him on the Johnny Carson show, declaring: “Just give me a cheap room overlooking the Hudson, a mattress, and a typewriter, and I’ll write you one hell of a novel.” Last seen on a barge in Paris - bottle of Johnny Walker between his legs, declaring how it made him feel to fink during the McCarthy hearings.

And… Liz Taylor, who resided, briefly, a few miles from us, in the penthouse of the Plaza Hotel in El Paso. I imagine her looking out at Juarez, Mexico, with a salty Margarita in her hands. Liz chased furious love through her furious seasons. Her ghost stands looking out the penthouse window…day-dreaming of James Dean dying ‘neath the Tree of Heaven, near the old Jack Ranch Café in California. She begins to sing: “Oh, his Porsche car was burning, as the hawks took to the air”…..fade to oblivion.

(A few little stories behind the songs on Mesabi.)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Hard Rain

I was the kid playin’ football, in a Catholic school

Deep down in Mexican town…

(Listening to)… “Don’t Think Twice Its All Right”

From the wild Mesabi Holy Ground….


Coming soon: Bob Dylan’s 70th Birthday. The magazines are trotting out the tribute writers and the cover issues. The complex fascination with The Bard has been building, ebbing, and building again for over fifty years. And the booing. The critics are lining up, on either side, to do combat. Maureen Dowd (N.Y Times), and others, say Dylan shouldn’t have played recently in China, where his “set list,” might have been censored. Did her sell out? Why didn’t he do the so-called “protest songs?” Why would he appear in a commercial for Victoria’s Secret and few years back? The Wall Street Journal said he should quit the stage. It’s Shakespearean.

The criticism is meaningless against the depth of the Dylan’s catalogue, and his un-impeachable influence on modern song. But we’re lost here, Bob. Everybody expected you (and Leonard Cohen & Paul Simon) to be GONE by now…and we ain’t had much luck replacing you… and it’s irritating to some folk in the media, and to all young writers who ache to be…artistically relevant.

I’m looking back at my childhood. On the coming record. The institutions which forged my youth: Church, Hollywood, Mexican Border Towns, and Bob Dylan. Back then it was folk music, for me, and 6 o’clock mass, and beat poetry, and Jai Alai and horse racing. The 60’s! Dylan exploded the folksong – and when the pieces came down, they fell all over me. Symphonies, fugues, and foxtrots loaded with resonant folk-roots melodies and lyrics which expanded our notion of “the word,” by cooking up new potions distilled from folklore, beat poetry, French mystical verse, and blues wisdom. And much more. Rimbaud meets Ramblin’ Jack. It sounds as fresh today as did forty years back.

The Mexican Border? Gone to hell. Hollywood? Who cares? And the 6 O’clock mass? The Catholic Church has finally gone morally under. 200,000 sexually abused altar boys (I’m unscathed, folks) can now feel a little better – the Holy Fathers came out with a million dollar study last week, which stated that there was no pedophilia plague inherent within the Church; it was all due to the permissiveness of the 60’s! It was Woodstock, and all those nude bodies and wild songs that drove these predators in priest’s collars over the line. Hell, maybe Bob Dylan was to blame. Again.

The new record, Mesabi, opens with a kid (myself) absorbing early Dylan while attending a Catholic school “deep down in Mexican town,” Los Angeles. The album ends with a version of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” with guest artists Lucinda Williams and Calexico. Dylan bookends the deal.

This is a birthday salute to Bob. Long may you run, sir. The songs will live long after the legends, and the boo’s, and the diseased and antiquated liturgies fade, like the border-mariachi horns echoing in my blood.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

William Burroughs' Backyard

“This is the fish pond,” said Tom. Our guide. Tom now lived in the William S. Burroughs house in Lawrence, Kansas. “William would tap his cane on the stone. The fish would come to the surface. Then he’d feed them. After Burroughs died the fish were left alone for four years. They didn’t perish. They survived. Carp are carnivores, you know. They ate their minnows. Two snapping turtles come out of Burroughs creek every summer and stay in the pond. They cull some of the carp.”

It sounded like a Burroughs story. Or perhaps: “The Man Who Shot Snapping Turtles,” by Edmund Wilson. We walked further into the back thicket of overgrown, untended plum and pear trees. Snake terrain. Burroughs placed targets on the trees, or hung up spray paint cans in front of canvases, and shot at them. Shotgun art. Further into the grove his fans had planted a line of trees in the shape of phallic symbol.

“Didn’t the neighbor’s mind?” I asked. “Gunshots? Snapping turtles? Cock and balls?”

“Someone built William a giant gun silencer,” said Tom. “You could only hear a slight pop pop pop when he fired at the trees.”

We moved on. There was a rusted car in the weeds. “That was his Datsun,” Tom said. “Bill didn’t drive his whole life. So he decided to learn. At age 80. He couldn’t see over the wheel and kept hitting things. Disaster. His friends drove it out here into the weeds and abandoned it. We have to drain the oil and gas out one of these days.”

We walked back towards Burroughs’ cottage. On the right hand side of the house were the cat graves. “William would sit in his room and write, looking out over the graves. Russky was his favorite.” It reminded me of Hemingway’s Finca Vigia in Cuba and the line of cat graves by the swimming pool.

We went inside and ate homemade pizza. We’d appeared at a concert and seminar with the great boxing writer, George Kimball, and George was staying in the Burroughs house. His medications were lined up on the bedside table. George has been diagnosed with a virulent form of disease that was eating him up, but he’s still out there writing books and doing gigs. He’s published at least four books in the last few years. Chain smoking Lucky Strikes and very much alive. If George was “going out” he was certainly going out on his feet, throwing jabs and hooks for a furious fifteen rounds. He was damn sure a serious writer. As was Mr. Burroughs, who tapped his cane, bringing the goldfish to surface.

It was the raw hangdog end of a Kansas winter. Two fine writers: Burroughs and Kimball. Outside the wind hissed gently through the row of trees pocked with bullet holes. We drank a few glasses. Toasting great writers, carp, cats, and snapping turtles. And the art of George Kimball. And Burroughs’ cane. Still tap-tapping in my dreams.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Farewell Never Never Land - Song #3

When I was sixteen, or thereabouts, my father rented a five acre ranch in Topanga Canyon. Near Malibu. One day at the racetrack he bought me a broke-down stakes horse named My Chief. We paid one silver dollar (a gelding worthless for breeding) and took him back to the little hobby ranch. Next, my father bought a herd of black-faced sheep. He built a barn, and bought more horses at the L.A. horse and mule auction. Then, at the racetrack and in the card rooms, he proceeded to gamble his way into bankruptcy. He went to jail. The paint peeled off the barn. The race horse strangled to death in barbed wire, and mountain lions ate the sheep. If we’d had an old grey goose I’m sure it would have died at the bottom of the well, standing on its head, because our Nursery Rhyme childhood was turning mighty Brothers Grimm. Know what I mean? But wait.

One day, before it all went down, I was hanging out at The Topanga Canyon market. I saw a nervous little guy standing by a garbage bin. It was the former child actor, Bobby Driscoll. Grown up. Haggard. Sullen. Maybe strung out. He’d been the voice of Peter Pan, and played the cabin boy in Treasure Island. An icon for us kids. I walked over and told him that I’d really liked his work in Treasure Island. He was the best actor Disney ever had. He turned slowly and said, “Go away, kid, and leave me alone.” Jeeze. Mommy never told me Peter Pan could turn mean. And bleed.

It was a two-second coming of age. The race horse in the barbed wire. Peter Pan strung out. Dead sheep in the meadow. Cows in the corn. Fast forward to two years ago. I picked up a book called The Semina Culture, about a Beat-Art movement which transpired around Venice Beach California in the 1950’s. Jazz, hard drugs, and collage art. Actors and musicians and junkies. Most of them died young. A few, like Dennis Hopper, moved on to success. There’s a page or two on Bobby Driscoll. How his acting career bottomed out, then he made art. He was a good artist, but the junkie yen took its toll. His downward slide was Promethean.

The conclusion to this tale, children, is this: some kids playing in a vacant lot in New York City, in the early 60’s, found a body in the weeds. No one identified the corpse, so it’s buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in Potter’s Field. A perch for migrant crows. Years later they realize it’s Bobby Driscoll. I think he’s still there, in Potter’s Field, near Riker’s Island.

But cheer up! And as the credits roll, your troubadour begins to sing: “Second star to the right, straight on ‘til morning, my little friends. There’s an island called Neverland, where childhood dreams never end….Farewell Never Never land….Goodnight Bobby.”

(This is the third song on the coming record.)

Friday, February 25, 2011

When the Legends Die (Song #2)

When I was a child my grandmother took me to her weekly painting lessons. A dozen old women with their easels in a hothouse room crowded with ferns, cactuses, and little dogs. Classical music seeped out a red Bakelite Zenith radio. The women hummed and threw paint on the canvas. They had runs in their stockings and splotches of paint on their aprons. Cigarettes. Black coffee. Ancient Bohemian spirits. The aroma of oil paint and kerosene mixed with preludes and waltzes and coughing dogs. A few years later my grandmother painted me pictures of Muhammad Ali and Jim Taylor. We were buddies. She gave me her mandolin, bought me a banjo, and cooked me prime rib and apple pies. Americana.

I was the kid in the room with heroes tacked up over my head. Pictures ripped from magazines. Grandma’s paintings. At first the walls were covered with athletes. As I became a teenager, the athletes were given over to folksingers. First the Kingston Trio, then the real stuff: Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, Ian and Sylvia, Tim Hardin, Peter LaFarge, Fred Neil and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. Oh, those lived-in faces. Beautiful beat-up guitars. Brazilian rosewood with scratches and wounds; cigarette burns; bullet holes. Guitars absorb every situation they work in. These dream photos depicted my legends and heroes. Icons of the Minstrel Trade. I wanted that life, but didn’t have the guts and heart for it, until I’d been to West Africa and seen war, and also the miseries of life in an academic setting.

In a pawn shop in San Luis Obispo I picked up a 1946 Martin D-18 guitar and went search of the folk crusade, not knowing it would take forty years and a lifetime to arrive at a watering hole where you could sit down and rest your camel, re-string your guitar, and contemplate whether you were a troubadour.

I woke up one day In Switzerland, recently, and realized I’d gotten too familiar with some of my heroes; too cranked up on the legends. You have to accept the song, and give up on getting to know the singer. You could get hurt. Don’t get too close to the stage, kid, don’t mess with the mystery. Heroes are human. They could hurt you. And hurt themselves. I had this vision (I’d been there) of a songwriter alone in a kitchen on Christmas Day. Drunk. His children didn’t call, and love was a half-remembered bottle of vintage wine. Between the idea of a hero, and the reality of human struggle, lies a shadow that might cripple you. Art can go there. But watch out. Beware the kickback of alchemy. The line between mystery and self destruction is a tight rope where heroes fall, like old Karl Wallenda. The parking lot below is mighty hard. Even wire walkers can’t fly.

It all started with my grandmother painting bohemian dreams. I’m sure it did. And the song “When the Legend’s Die,” will be the second song on the new album.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Mesabi - series of dreams #13

The Mesabi iron range runs across the top of Minnesota. Biggest iron ore pit in the world up there. Bob Dylan was born nearby, in Duluth. In the dead of winter Duluth is a bastion of weird old immigrant America. Freezing waves pounding the shoreline. Rusted freighters sulking out on the black ice. Raw, hard country. Beer tastes different in winter. Like yellow blood tingling with Slavic iron shards. It’s a long way from New York City, Los Angeles, Nashville and the rest of it. Dylan’s family later moved up to Hibbing. Hibbing, today, is a 1940’ movie set. Intact. Dylan worked in his old man’s hardware store; pounded rock and roll on an upright piano in the high school auditorium. He ran away to Minneapolis, and then to Greenwich Village. You know the rest. Fifty years ago.

I was the kid listening to Dylan’s early vinyl on my Uncle George’s record player. The kid in the room with heroes tacked up over my head. As The great vinyl wheel spun round with its holy prayer… The records keep revolving around in my soul. Nostalgia? If that’s a holy and bygone house of art and music, then I’ll live there. Art time is frozen and has no clock value. No expiration date. All the great classical composers: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Wagner, Brahms, Verdi … lived (mostly) during the 1800’s. What the hell happened? What’s happening now? Armageddon or the great Aquarian shift?

We are rowing through the doldrums, far out at sea. No wind to touch our sails. No movement. Jon Parales wrote a recent piece in the Herald Tribune about the “dumbing down” of the modern lyric. So can someone tell me why, on Dec. 3, The Wall Street Journal devoted two pages ,with irreverent cartoons, to a rant of why Bob Dylan should quit the stage? It was a cruel piece, and I can only guess why the paper, carried around in the computer bags of international bank and marketing types, would deem it necessary to spend two full pages contemplating the question.

I would say that: drunk, crippled, half dead, or 200 years old, Bob Dylan should be left alone. You don’t have to attend the show, folks. He’s been attacked since 1963, it never seemed to bother him, as he constantly reinvented himself and redesigned the modern lyric. Better that the Wall Street Journal had covered Leonard Cohen’s recent triumphant concerts at age 75. If age is the question. The truth is Dylan’s very presence, whatever shape he’s in, scares the hell out of a current generation of writers who will never measure up. There is nothing significant for music journalists to write about, so… attack the maestro. Sigh…Babe Ruth will not leave the stadium, and the little leaguers want inside.

My song Mesabi begins the next release. It speaks of my childhood; and Dylan’s. The spark. Coming this fall.

(The next series will deal with the new songs. Amen.)