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.