Friday, April 01, 2005

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: LAMENT FOR A LOST AMERICA

As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
April 1, 2005

Tom Russell‘s new CD Hotwalker, subtitled A Ballad for a Gone America, is a sad celebration of a lost time, a bittersweet, nostalgic work about the literary, musical and cultural milieu of Russell’s formative years in Los Angeles, a righteous invocation of “the old America when music still resonated through nightclubs, people gambled and drank and screwed and smoked. People went down to the border and sipped highballs and cocktails and went to the bullfights. The old America where the big guilt and political correctness and the chain stores hadn't sunk in so deep.”

Although Russell is one of the finest songwriters of this era, this isn’t a collection of songs. Though there are a couple of new tunes hidden within, this actually is an audio documentary narrated by Russell.

He lets us eavesdrop on a conversation with a border town cab driver (“donkey show … especial for you …) and hear snippets from old-time gospel music from Rev. Baybie Hoover and Virginia Brown as he talks about skid-row gospel buskers. We hear a Tex-Mex version of “96 Tears" by accordionist Joel Guzman as Russell reminisces of Norteno music and pachuco boogie.

Border town cantinas, smoky L.A. jazz clubs, and Bakersfield honky tonks provide much of the backdrop in Hotwalker. The Bakersfield sound was “fueled by a million Okies hopped up on Okie moonshine and amphetamines … it was the other side of Steinbecks’ Grapes of Wrath mixed with Nudie suits and women in push-up bras and it was real gone. It was gone hillbilly music too rude for polite middleclass white-boy ears …”

Russell speaks and signs lovingly of his heros from California and beyond -- Charles Bukowski, Edward Abbey, Lenny Bruce, Buck Owens, Jack Kerouac, Woody Guthrie and hobo/musical innovator Harry Partch. And in many cases they speak back with jokes, songs and benedictions in old scratchy old sound clips.

And Dave Van Ronk, the “Pope of Greenwich Village,” the gravel-voiced folkie father figure. (Personal note: Van Ronk is responsible for me getting into journalism. He was my first interview 25 years ago -- an assignment that entailed getting smashed with him on Irish whiskey and tequila at La Posada. That momentous evening is captured in this Feb. 1980 photo by my first ex-wife Pam Mills.)

Standing tall among these giants is a midget -- Little Jack Horton, a Bukowski drinking buddy. As Russell explains, "He's been shot out of canons, he did the pass of death on a Shetland pony, he rode the Four Walls of Eternity on a motorcycle. He appeared in movies like The Terror of Tiny Town and One-Eyed Jacks with Marlon Brando. And he wrote poetry. This is a true American voice from the sawdust back lots of the Old World."

Horton, who died last year, tells crazy stories. He talks about stealing a train engine at 4 a.m. with Bukowski. He talks about the time in 1951 when he was hired to substitute for Roy Weller, a dwarf evangelist known as “The World’s Smallest Voice of God.” Horton riled the rednecks in the gospel tent when he told the all-white crowd that the God of the Black people was better than theirs because their music was better.

One could argue -- and some critics have -- that beatnik/counter-culture heroes like Kerouac, Guthrie, Bruce and Bukowski have been eulogized plenty, and, as a recent review by Barry Mazor in No Depression said that the icons Russell memorializes here “would seem over saluted, for anybody that would hear this.”

That could be true. It can be argued that a lot of people in this country need to know about these underground titans. I was outraged when Allen Ginsberg died in 1997, a young editor on duty at this very newspaper didn’t know who he was. Of course that editor probably would never pick up an album like Hotwalker . So there is this unfortunate question of “preaching to the saved.”

And while I agree with Russell when he said, “There’s a deadening of the spirit in America today, and the record hits out at that.” (from a March 17 interview in The Georgia Straight) I have trouble with Russell’s implication that all the good stuff is all gone.

It’s true that Van Ronk and Bukowski are dead; that 99 percent of radio sucks; that those Bakersfield beer joints have been replaced by Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, where Buck comes out and sings recent hits by Shania Twain and Toby Keith.

But in reality, did this Golden Age really exist? Even in the ‘40s ‘50s and ‘60s most the people who Russell canonizes were unknown to mainstream America. Name all of Woody Guthrie’s top 10 radio hits. Some, like Bruce, were demonized and persecuted by the law, with middle America firmly in agreement with the oppression. And some, like Kerouac, were marginalized and turned into some cartoonish joke by the mainstream.

And I believe there still are vital, vibrant voices out there creating crazy music and literature worth reading. You have to look in off-the-beaten track music hangouts, coffee houses, churches and -- dare I say it? -- weird corners of the Internet. You won’t find it on Clear Channel stations.

But I love this amazing and eloquent work by Russell. And I love the ranting coda of Little Jack Horton, “half-drunk on bad wine,” when he declares, “it's our goddamn country. We built the goddamn midway didn't we? And we make the music that goes on the midway from sea to goddamn shining sea. You know, goddamn it, Ronald Reagan dies recently and they fly the flag half-mast. Well did they fly it half-mast for Ray Charles, did they fly it half mast for Johnny Cash? Declare a national holiday? These people moved to changed the daily lives of more people than these goddam politicians, who are just grifters and scum... One nation under God and Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Ray Charles, goddamn it!”

Tom Russell Special: Hear a wide load of Hotwalker and Russell tunes tonight on The Santa Fe Opry 10-midnight, KSFR 90.7 FM.

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