Friday, December 31, 2010

The giant roommate who paid the bills, cleaned the place, & nearly killed me


Darryl, the former roommate, is the hulking giant to the far right.

Next week, I will be seeing a former roommate I haven't set eyes on since Ronald Reagan was a president with a prostate problem. Thinking about this guy again has been good for my heart. Let me tell you the story.

Ayatollah Joe and I put up a notice for a third roommate. It was Darryl who answered. He was very tall and broad, bright and smiling, a beaming giant. Freshly sprung from the U.S. Navy, a veteran of special forces.

He needed a place to put his air mattress and his pile of clothes while he was working one of his two jobs or sleeping over at his girlfriend's house. We would have taken anybody with a pulse and a paycheck, but Darryl went out of his way to explain that he would be a light burden on us. We took him on.

More than half my life later, I still remember so much about those days. It was an unforgettable roommate experience.

Toward the end of every month, Darryl would pop up suddenly, after weeks of toal absence. It was not often we would see him when he popped in, but certainly we could see that he had been there after he was gone again.

He would have cleaned the entire apartment, down to the dust bunnies and the ring around the toilet water. He would have left his portion of the rent on the counter. The payment would be pinned to a note apologizing that he was such a poor roommate because he was never there to hang around with "the guys".

Ayatollah Joe and I had a very different understanding of the value of "the guys". Our previous third wheel in the apartment had been an unemployed chainsmoker with a threadbare trust fund that paid for his cigarettes, condoms, wine and rent - barely.

These were his only apparent needs. This guy never left the apartment, certainly not to launder his clothes, and he never cleaned the apartment, not even his own room, not even after he abdicated it. When Ayatollah Joe and I cleaned up after this dirty man following his disappearance from our lives, he had left a perimeter of used condoms in a circle on the floor around where his mattress had been.

So it was not a problem at all to Ayatollah Joe and me that Darryl was was never there to hang around with "the guys".

From time to time, there would be a sighting at the apartment. Darryl would just be getting finished mopping the entire place, or maybe he would simply have forced himself to stay on premise until he actually saw one of his roommates. He would always be full of stories when we did see him.

Sometimes, he would talk about the past. He had been a major college football player who partied away the academic opportunity and ended up in the U.S. Navy, where he went into special forces. Like almost all people who really have been there, in the dark heart of it, he didn't feel any great need to talk about what he had seen and done.

He would say, "We were the first ones in and the last ones out, and no one could know we had been there. We were trained to kill by hand. Sometimes, somebody noticed we had been there. We had to handle that."

He was tall, thick and strong, but not scary or boastful. This, simply, had been his life.

He scared me one time, though. I had been out drinking at Cicero's Basemen Bar, just around the corner from our apartment. I had lost my keys. So I went around to the back of the apartment, noisily popped out a screen, noisily worked up a window pane, and then crawled drunkenly into the window.

I am alive today because I flipped on the light switch to the kitchen that night before staggering across it. The second the light went on, I heard this deep groan. Then, a loud thud. The thud was Darryl dropping from a position of assassin's vigilance, flat smack chest-first onto the floor he had just mopped.

I knew the deal when his head and then the rest of him appeared gradually above the counter that separated the kitchen from the hallway. He was shaking his head, deeply disturbed. He was saying, "Chris, I was ready to break your neck. The very next thing I was going to do was break the neck of the burglar. Then, you turned on the light -- and it was YOU!"

I believe he was in the doghouse that night with his girlfriend, who was an heiress. Or maybe she had company in town and he was needing to prove actual independent residence. He wasn't supposed to be shacking up with the heiress, which helped to explain this apartment he paid for, cleaned up, but didn't actually sleep in.

Darryl's nearly having killed me woke both of us up. We talked as much that night as we ever did before -- or since, not counting the new days, now that we are back in touch as middle-aged parents.

Darryl talked about tripping on acid in the middle of the sea on a helo carrier, between operations. He talked about the daily challenges of adjusting to civilian life.

It was hard not to be a little nervous out there, knowing what he knew and having seen what he had seen. And it was hard to pay attention to the little things when you knew so much about real life and real death.

The other day, for example, he had driven off from the gas standard with the nozzle still fit into his gas tank. This was before the introduction of gas hoses that snapped off easily, and he had driven away so fast that he actually had done some damage to the gas hose and standard - probably thousands of dollars of damage.

Darryl so forcefully explained his predicament that the owner forgave him the cost of fixing his equipment, and then went on to offer Darryl a job, which Darryl declined.

Then one day, he was gone from Ayatollah Joe and me, as fast as he pulled away from that gas standard, though he left no damage behind. He just moved on with his life. And now, he is back -- and I will be sleeping in his house in a few short days!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Mashing up Chaplin, the Symphony, Lola, Kyla & Captain Beefheart


At the risk of being pelted with rotten produce and sharp objects, I have to admit I have enjoyed 2010 and it has been a really good year for me, personally, perhaps my best year ever (personally); though out of respect for the frustration and pain felt by so many at this time, I'll not prattle on about that.

I would like to say that this upcoming Wednesday, December 29th, promises to be one of the best days - or, rather, nights - of a great year (for me, personally). Check it out!

Charles Chaplin's City Lights (1931) - my favorite movie, ever, on every favorite movie list I ever fill out - will be screened at Powell Symphony Hall (maybe my favorite venue in town), with Chaplin's own score for his silent film performed live by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (my favorite local band) under the direction of SLSO musical director David Robertson (my pick for best working artist in St. Louis [*SEE FOOTNOTE*]).


And then, by golly, I have plans to take to the concert maybe my two best new friends from good old 2010, Lola van Ella and Kyla Webb, better known onstage as Sammich the Tramp. I pulled every trick in my book to get Sammich up on the Powell stage to do some funny business before or after David strikes up the band; but was denied. This leaves room for improvement in 2011!

After the show, I (perhaps, we) will hightail it over to The Royale (one of my favorite public houses in St. Louis [**SEE FOOTNOTE**] to join in progress the Captain Beefheart Tribute Spin. I am co-hosting this spin with Natalie Partenheimer and Dale Ashauer, who will get started, with or without me, at 10 p.m.

Anyone who loved Beefheart's music can bring a record, or just a request. For those who associate Captain Beefheart with irritating, atonal, arhythmic nonsense, be there by 11 p.m. when I plan to give Clear Spot a complete spin. Any fan of rock music would love that record.

***

[FOOTNOTES]
*
Close second for best working artist in St. Louis: the burlesque aerial duo Gravity Plays Favorites. If I have to go three-deep, third place goes to the poet K. Curtis Lyle.
**
My favorite public houses in St. Louis: 1) The Tap Room 2) The Royale 3) The Tap Room.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Russell Hoke SELECTED POEMS on vinyl for Christmas


I am a grown man who has procreated, which in my view exempts me from considerations about receiving Christmas gifts of my own; but it so happens this beautiful artifact arrived in the mail for me on Christmas Eve. It is the vinyl LP of Russell Hoke reading selections from his COLLECTED POEMS.
 


Russell was the inaugural artist in residence at The Skuntry Museum, more recognizable to the naked eye as my cluttered basement; and as such he is more vulerable than most to accepting it seriously as an actual facility, a proper destination for important poetic vinyl LPs.


Though a prodigiously gifted poet and musician - both songster and Highlands piper - Russell also is a very simple man. Among many other humble ways he puts a life together for himself, he scavenges objects of value from urban trash in San Antonio, Tex., where he lives. No surprise to me, then, that the mailer that protected his precious vinyl was fashioned from a couple of (used) Pizza Hut pizza pie cartons.

Russell did a good job of making the back of the record look like a classic, with the spare design, the mid-century font on the liner notes, and the exquisitely square and stuffy author photograph of the poet in his suit and tie in his study, with the obligatory work of art hanging on the wall over his shoulder.

Those liner notes, penned by our mutual friend the poet Stefene Russell, are themselves a finely wrought work of verbal art. I reprint them in full.
On the title page of Russell Hoke's Collected Poems, you'll see that the book was published by a mysterious entity called The Alchemical Guild. That's not just meaningless whimsy; though he doesn't write while surrounded by volatile gases and Buchner flasks, his is an alchemical process.

I saw Russell's manuscript before it was translated into book form, and it filled an entire suitcase. This was the prima materia that, after months of being reworked, rearranged, marked up in pen and pencil, and transported from San Antonio to St. Louis and back again, was distilled into a mighty, Blakean document pressed between blue cloth covers.

Now these poems, after all that careful microsurgery, come to life on this recording. Russell is also a musician, and his lines never stumble, never fall victim to that inelegant clunking so common to modern poets (even those who submit themselves to working with rhyme and meter). Though these poems have an inherent elegance arising from their classical poetic form and use of mythology, there is also an element among them that I can describe only as "Hokean." As the narrator in "Trickster" tells us, "Our egg has chicken physics on the run."
It's difficult to know how to read poetry properly without apprenticing one's ear to poets like Louis MacNeice, W.H. Auden, Sylvia Plath and T.S. Eliot. Russell, who is a careful archivist, owns more poetry on vinyl than anyone I have ever known. He has thrown himself into making poems that please the ear, as poetry was originally engineered to do.

STEFENE RUSSELL
SELECTED POEMS, we are told, was recorded in that same poet's study. The vinyl was pressed by United Pressing, Nashville, Tenn. The cover art of the record that fronts this post is by James Cobb of San Antonio.

I look forward to that day when John Eiler and I are in St. Louis at the same time, and in his garage, and jamming on this vinyl record.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Bootblogging #21: Eight by Jaime Gartelos



Jaime Gartelos!

Let's get some music out there.

This was 1999. The band name was Jaime Gartelos y l'a Orquestra Buena (got that?) and the name of the record is El Perfecto.

14 songs. It's all good. Perfecto? Close enough! Here is the best by me.

"Eyes to the Future"

"Emily Please"

"Resist"

"A Perfect Fool"

"Reason"

"Hands Make the Man"

"Sometimes My Head Keeps Me Up"

"I Dont Know"

All songs by Jaime Gartelos copyrightb 1999.

Produced and enginerred and mixed by Jaime Gartelos and Drew Haase.

Forgive me for musician credits for now.

*

Image is Jaime Gartelos' painting Grey Cups from his Flikcr site.

More in this series


Bootblogging #1: Three by The Lettuce Heads

Bootblogging #18: Four by Russell Hoke
Bootblogging #19: Krakersy (is Crackers in Polish)
Bootblogging #20- Four by Grandpa's Ghost

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Bootblogging #20: Four by Grandpa's Ghost


This is big news for old heads in the St. Louis music scene: Grandpa's Ghost has an actual live gig in town 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec 22 at the Lemp Neighborhood Art Center, 3301 Lemp Ave.

The band for this gig is Ben Hanna, William Emerson and Jack Petracek, with special guest Tim Garrigan on guitar.

Notably absent from this lineup is Eric Hall, though he is also on the bill as a solo artist.

Ben writes from New York that this will be the first live show in St. Louis featuring him in the flesh since 2005. Garrigan also is visiting from New York. The holidays are good for reunion gigs (not that Grandpa's Ghost was ever technically disbanded, as far as I know).

In an email to friends, Ben promises a "laid-back acoustic-based performance featuring all new original material". That is good to note, for in a recorded output that now spans fifteen years (1995-2010), Grandpa's Ghost has sounded like wispy folk, tortured folk, grain-belt rock, grain-belt punk, textural noise, end of the universe noise, and lots of other things that would be difficult to describe.

Ben and I have been trading recordings through the mail since he moved to New York, so I have just about everything they have released, which doesn't mean I could find it all in the basement when I looked just now. I did find a few favorites, which I have Ben's permission to post from here; and he also sent an unreleased track that falls into that "all new original material" he is talking about.

See you at the Lemp on Wednesday. After the show, Eric Hall is hosting a Captain Beefheart spin (by another Ben) at Mangia. See ya there, too.

mp3s

"Flowerland (Across the Universe Version)"
(Hanna)
Grandpa's Ghost
Unreleased
From The Executioner (forthcoming)

"Like the Sky in Reverse"
(Hanna)
Grandpa's Ghost
From Music from the Fotopoulos Projects (2005)

"Crooked Mouth"
(Hanna)
Grandpa's Ghost
From Stardust & Smog/Early Autumn Waltz (2001)

"Spit on a Stamp"
(Hanna)
Grandpa's Ghost
From Gun Shy & Trigger Happy (1996)

*

More in this series


Bootblogging #1: Three by The Lettuce Heads
Bootblogging #18: Four by Russell Hoke
Bootblogging #19: Krakersy (is Crackers in Polish)

*

Photograph of Ben Hanna (with Grandpa's Ghost album art in the background) by Dana Smith from his Asbestos Sister site.

Pops Farrar, the son of the speakeasy songster


Sparked by the recent inaugural Uncle Tupelo tribute show in St. Louis, I am posting some chapters from my unpublished musical memoir that deal with those guys. This is Chapter 120, which follows immediately upon my previous post, "The way the music dies" and concludes the book.


The son of the speakeasy songster
By Chris King


One night that spring, 1997, I went to see a local folk rock band, One Fell Swoop, at Focal Point. The venue, with its wooden school chairs bolted to the floor, had a claustrophobic atmosphere. During a break between sets, I stepped outside to feel the evening and have a smoke on the sidewalk. I was greeted there by the wife of the drummer, who pointed me toward an old man smoking a homerolled cigarette.

“This is Pops Farrar,” she said to me. And to him: “Chris is really into folklore-type stuff.”

“Well, I got considerable of that dern folklore,” Pops bust right out the gate and said, and it certainly looked like that was true. He was wearing a soiled fishing hat on which he had pasted a Route 66 sticker. His long face had all the cracks of a well-traveled road. Actually, this face was too animated for that comparison – it had all the twists and eddies of a river.

“Yeah, my old bandmate Chris Bess told me about you,” I said. “You know, Chris plays accordion.”

“I know it!” Pops enthused.

“He said you play Cajun accordion.”

Like the rest of us, Chris Bess always looked up to Jay Farrar of Uncle Tupelo. More than most of us, Chris made actual inroads into befriending him. Chris had at least learned that the whole Farrar family was musical, starting with the old man, Pops. One of Jay’s older brothers, Dade, played stand-up bass in One Fell Swoop, the band on the bill tonight, which explained Pops’ presence at the show.

“Oh, I guess I stagger around on the accordion,” Pops said. “But not only that Cajun stuff. I do a little bit of everything. And I got my old concertina I picked up in France, while I was out with the Merchant Marine. I do chainsaw sculptures, too, of Civil War generals and old Geronimo. I got lots of interests.”

Pops’ face bloomed with smoke, and a big smile. Folklore was opening another new trail for us, one that circled around to where we began. I asked for the old man’s phone number, saying I wanted to come over to his house and record his accordion and concertina, and maybe take a look at those chainsaw sculptures.

“Don’t just talk about it, old Chris,” Pops practically shouted, gesturing with his homerolled cigarette. “Do it!”

We did it. Elijah took a break from his work in the Nashville power pop underground, packed up a portable studio, drove to St. Louis, and we trekked across the Mississippi River to record Pops Farrar.

Pops lived on the outskirts of Belleville, Illinois, a town Uncle Tupelo put on the map, in what he called “the Belleville rainforest”. The jungle image was conjured by the ravine next door, which was overgrown and noisy with the calls of birds and frogs. Pops lived just above the bluffs separating the American Bottom, where Granite City sprawled, from towns like Belleville nestled in the hills that smoothed out gradually into corrupted prairie and plains.

Pops’ house was built into the side of a hill. He stepped out from the basement at the bottom of the hill to greet us. I could see chainsaw sculptures of Civil War generals and Indians standing woodenly around the bushy yard, but Pops steered us inside so he could hook up his laser karaoke.

“I like the sound I get out of this,” he said.

His karaoke rig sat at the foot of a recliner, which was bent almost completely out of shape by God knows how many years of Pops at rest. Tobacco smoke formed a solid brown smog in the room.

Pops plopped down on a saggy couch. He had to clear off a flattened foam pillow and threadbare sheet for us to join him – it looked like this little couch was serving as his improvised bed. “Stag beer’s in the garage,” he announced, gesturing toward a door between the recliner and a dingy bathroom.

I sprang for a round, admiring his set-up. This old guy was completely cocooned in his basement studio, cooled by the Earth of the hill and shade trees, with walk-out access to his own rainforest sculpture garden.

“I'm like a crawdad down in here,” Pops said, jiggling the input jack on his karaoke rig, which made the echoey sounds of space junk. “Now that I’m alone, I just crawdad down in here, and snap up a claw.”

I popped a Stag into his snapped-up claw, and said, “Pops, let’s not with the karaoke machine.” I implored Elijah for help with my eyes.

“Let’s just put you on the couch with the accordion,” Lij said. “Let’s try everything raw first. We can add effects later, if you like that echo.”

“That cocksucker,” Pops said, turning his back on the karaoke rig. “Crapped out on me, anyway.”

Elijah set up the equipment, and I joined Pops on the couch. I had to tense my legs to keep from sliding toward him in the middle, which was hollowed down from the nightly weight of his sleeping body. We bantered as he wheezed dust off his accordion and finagled a coat hanger, which clasped a harmonica, around his scrawny neck. On his head was a filthy fishing hat, pasted with a label from a bottle of Jaegermeister.

“I first picked up music from my dad down in Salem, Missouri, in the Ozarks,” Pops said. “He played a pretty good guitar, and would sing. The Farrars had been influential down around there, because they had the contract franchise for the freight delivery. My dad had these trucks, and he would pick up goods at the train station and distribute them around town. But then with him being a musician during Prohibition, he used to play those speakeasies, the little places outside of town with the big jug of whiskey. My dad was an alcoholic, and that cut into his business. Then he lost that contract with the railroad, and we started to go down. I remember living down in my grandma’s basement in zero weather. Then we just had my dad’s music – that guitar was the only thing between us and starving to death.”

I thought of my jug of white whiskey in the trunk of the Birthplace, and sipped Stag. Pops had hardly touched his beer.

“See, we didn’t have no radio then, and we didn't have no TV. So in this little town, why all the people would gather of a Friday or Saturday night, and my dad would play. One song I always remembered and always liked the best was ‘Railroad Bum’.”

Pops pulled big chords on his baggy accordion, and opened up in a sad hobo voice. The song is the soliloquy of a cold and hungry man a thousand miles from home. I heard the ghosts of Jimmie Rodgers, Bascom Lamar Lunsford (“Railroad Bum,” in fact, was in his Memory Collection), and the brother of Marvin Faulkner, his hobo fiddle tune cut short by the wheels of a train. I guessed Pops was remembering his alcoholic dad, and lying down cold and hungry as a boy, and feeling a thousand miles away from home in the middle of the sea as a Merchant Marine.

“So, here’s another one he played,” Pops said, as he shut down the “Railroad Bum” with a flourish. “This one's about a slave situation down in Kentucky. The singer lost his old Nellie Gray. She’s been sold off to the slave trade. They been together on one plantation, but things have changed, and they didn’t need help around the big house no more. So they sold her off. And he’s real mournful.”

With his long, lined face, finished with a scraggly gray goatee, Pops was the man for mournful. I waited for the corn pone, the minstrel shtick, to accompany the slave song, but it never came. Pops had one voice for sadness of whatever sort, but it was an enormous one. There was room inside it for any kind of mourning.

I thought, again, of Bascom Lamar Lunsford, who not only sang this song (without a hint of condescension), he also wrote a parody of it. Spurred by the unexpected celebrity of “Mountain Dew”, Bascom had adapted “Darling Nellie Gray” into “Nos Pros Nellie”, mountain lawyer slang for “No Prosecution Nellie”; Nellie was getting off easy because she brewed a potent mountain dew that was fancied by the judge.

Now I did need a nip of my Mississippi moonshine, which Pops also accepted, though barely a thimble full, and he insisted on coffee afterwards. He poured his coffee from a thermos that looked scorched from wars. Then his accordion roamed off in search of other sadnesses.

Pops’ dad would have been Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s exact contemporary, so it’s no accident the old man’s songs overlapped so much with the Memory Collection. When their repertoires diverged, Bascom looked toward old England and its ballads, and Pops looked south to the Civil War and west to cowboys and Indians.

In his songs, Pops was a Union man and friend to the Indian. Besides “Darling Nellie Gray”, he sang “Red Wing”, about an Indian maid mourning her brave, who died at the Little Bighorn. But he didn’t disguise his admiration for the flinty Southern generals, some of whom I had glimpsed outside in the rainforest, or the gutsy footmen of the U.S. Cavalry.

Pops came up with a transition that connects the laments “Red Wing” and “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (a symbol a Cavalry widow wore to remember her fallen soldier). By making them a medley, he made the sorrows of an Indian maid and a Cavalry widow bleed together. Maybe it was my Mississippi moonshine, maybe that mournful Ozark voice, but Pops seemed to speak up for every heartbreak in American history.

Pops must have seen the mooniness in my eyes.

“You bringing that dern illicit liquor into my house,” Pops said. “Sinner! You make me look like my dad down there, playing in them speakeasies. And that was real church people country, let me tell you. He’d be at some Friday night sing-out doing his honky tonk songs, and people would be drinking their homebrews, and he’d go into this little routine. He’d say:
You know, I was coming into town tonight, and there was a revival outside of town, with this big tent. They were inside singing all this beautiful church music. I thought I’d walk up and listen awhile.

So I walked in, and this old fire and brimstone preacher was preaching one of the most godawful sermons against whiskey and drinking and sinning and doping.

And he said, “Now I tell you tonight, if I had it to do here tonight, I’d take all the wine, and I’d take all the whiskey, and I’d take all the beer, and I’d take it down to the river, and I would dump it in, amen.”

Now, shall we sing,

Shall we gather at the river ...”
Pops jumped up at the punch line, and took a fresh smoke out to the rainforest. He smoked, and stretched his neck, freed from his homemade harmonica harness, and showed us hulks of old sports cars, rusting in the grass. “My boys say I need to clear them out of here,” Pops said. “They say I got too many interests. That I’m all over the place.”

“It’s because of a car that we know your boy Jay,” I said, “or a van, mostly. Our band bought their old van, the old Uncle Tupelo van.”

“That old blue van?”

“Old Blue,” I said. “Good van.”

“Did you know that was my old van?” Pops asked.

I sized him up with a funny feeling. I won’t pass this one off on white whiskey. I think everyone, with whatever patience for religion or tendency toward superstition, at some time feels a tingle, and knows the hand of fate just goosed them on the ass.

Uncle Tupelo and then their old blue van had put me out on the rock & roll road for years of adventures, which we only left behind for different adventures in music, pursuing the older ways. And now the pursuit of the old ways had brought me to the home where one of the Uncle Tupelo guys grew up, and I was swapping songs and moonshine with his father – with the source of that old blue van. I couldn’t have known it at the time, though I might have guessed, that Pops and I were just starting down a new road together that day while we smoked homerolled cigarettes surrounded by chainsaw sculptures of Indians and generals.

That road would take us up and down the Great River Road, down to a hippie commune in the Ozarks with a stone age African clown, to Georgia to reclaim my possessions from a previous life. Eventually it would bring remnants of my old rock & roll band back here to the Belleville rainforest to record our skuntry mishmash of world folklore and American folk music in Pops’ living room.

I couldn’t have known it at the time, though I might have guessed, that just like Enormous Richard took Old Blue out for one last set of wild rides after Uncle Tupelo had put the van to pasture, I would be taking Pops Farrar out for an unexpected journey near the end of the road – the last great adventures for this son of a hobo songster who had set foot on every continent on Earth as a Merchant Marine, keeping the music of the Missouri Ozarks and the world alive on a harmonica he kept in his pants pocket.

Pops was staring off into the thickets of the Belleville rainforest with his pale eyes. Maybe his intuition was also telling him we were onto something here. Something new. Something old. He breathed in some smoke from his homerolled. “You know, I maintained that van for those little guys in Uncle Tupelo – they beat it to hell! – until the day they give it away,” Pops said. “Or sold it, I guess. Sold it to you. You ended up with it. And now here you are, come to me. Well, I’ll be.”

*

mp3s

Railroad Bum
Darling Nellie Gray
Red Wing
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
Shall We Gather at the River?

All songs traditional.
All performances by Pops Farrar.
Produced by Chris King
Released on Pops Farrar, Memory Music: Songs and Stories from the Merchant Marine (1999).

*

Previous posts in this series

In the hothouse basement
The allure of the ever-elusive exposure gig
Opening for Uncle Tupelo
A meeting in Old Blue
Strangers in the village
Managing your religion
A farewell to Old Blue
Trading horses
No Chris Bess
Jamming with the dead
Fruits of the tunes
Picking and grinning
Math problems and cluck tracks
The way the music dies

*

Image is of Lij and Pops.

Pops Farrar, the son of the speakeasy songster


Sparked by the recent inaugural Uncle Tupelo tribute show in St. Louis, I am posting some chapters from my unpublished musical memoir that deal with those guys. This is Chapter 120, which follows immediately upon my previous post, "The way the music dies" and concludes the book.


The son of the speakeasy songster
By Chris King


One night that spring, 1997, I went to see a local folk rock band, One Fell Swoop, at Focal Point. The venue, with its wooden school chairs bolted to the floor, had a claustrophobic atmosphere. During a break between sets, I stepped outside to feel the evening and have a smoke on the sidewalk. I was greeted there by the wife of the drummer, who pointed me toward an old man smoking a homerolled cigarette.

“This is Pops Farrar,” she said to me. And to him: “Chris is really into folklore-type stuff.”

“Well, I got considerable of that dern folklore,” Pops bust right out the gate and said, and it certainly looked like that was true. He was wearing a soiled fishing hat on which he had pasted a Route 66 sticker. His long face had all the cracks of a well-traveled road. Actually, this face was too animated for that comparison – it had all the twists and eddies of a river.

“Yeah, my old bandmate Chris Bess told me about you,” I said. “You know, Chris plays accordion.”

“I know it!” Pops enthused.

“He said you play Cajun accordion.”

Like the rest of us, Chris Bess always looked up to Jay Farrar of Uncle Tupelo. More than most of us, Chris made actual inroads into befriending him. Chris had at least learned that the whole Farrar family was musical, starting with the old man, Pops. One of Jay’s older brothers, Dade, played stand-up bass in One Fell Swoop, the band on the bill tonight, which explained Pops’ presence at the show.

“Oh, I guess I stagger around on the accordion,” Pops said. “But not only that Cajun stuff. I do a little bit of everything. And I got my old concertina I picked up in France, while I was out with the Merchant Marine. I do chainsaw sculptures, too, of Civil War generals and old Geronimo. I got lots of interests.”

Pops’ face bloomed with smoke, and a big smile. Folklore was opening another new trail for us, one that circled around to where we began. I asked for the old man’s phone number, saying I wanted to come over to his house and record his accordion and concertina, and maybe take a look at those chainsaw sculptures.

“Don’t just talk about it, old Chris,” Pops practically shouted, gesturing with his homerolled cigarette. “Do it!”

We did it. Elijah took a break from his work in the Nashville power pop underground, packed up a portable studio, drove to St. Louis, and we trekked across the Mississippi River to record Pops Farrar.

Pops lived on the outskirts of Belleville, Illinois, a town Uncle Tupelo put on the map, in what he called “the Belleville rainforest”. The jungle image was conjured by the ravine next door, which was overgrown and noisy with the calls of birds and frogs. Pops lived just above the bluffs separating the American Bottom, where Granite City sprawled, from towns like Belleville nestled in the hills that smoothed out gradually into corrupted prairie and plains.

Pops’ house was built into the side of a hill. He stepped out from the basement at the bottom of the hill to greet us. I could see chainsaw sculptures of Civil War generals and Indians standing woodenly around the bushy yard, but Pops steered us inside so he could hook up his laser karaoke.

“I like the sound I get out of this,” he said.

His karaoke rig sat at the foot of a recliner, which was bent almost completely out of shape by God knows how many years of Pops at rest. Tobacco smoke formed a solid brown smog in the room.

Pops plopped down on a saggy couch. He had to clear off a flattened foam pillow and threadbare sheet for us to join him – it looked like this little couch was serving as his improvised bed. “Stag beer’s in the garage,” he announced, gesturing toward a door between the recliner and a dingy bathroom.

I sprang for a round, admiring his set-up. This old guy was completely cocooned in his basement studio, cooled by the Earth of the hill and shade trees, with walk-out access to his own rainforest sculpture garden.

“I'm like a crawdad down in here,” Pops said, jiggling the input jack on his karaoke rig, which made the echoey sounds of space junk. “Now that I’m alone, I just crawdad down in here, and snap up a claw.”

I popped a Stag into his snapped-up claw, and said, “Pops, let’s not with the karaoke machine.” I implored Elijah for help with my eyes.

“Let’s just put you on the couch with the accordion,” Lij said. “Let’s try everything raw first. We can add effects later, if you like that echo.”

“That cocksucker,” Pops said, turning his back on the karaoke rig. “Crapped out on me, anyway.”

Elijah set up the equipment, and I joined Pops on the couch. I had to tense my legs to keep from sliding toward him in the middle, which was hollowed down from the nightly weight of his sleeping body. We bantered as he wheezed dust off his accordion and finagled a coat hanger, which clasped a harmonica, around his scrawny neck. On his head was a filthy fishing hat, pasted with a label from a bottle of Jaegermeister.

“I first picked up music from my dad down in Salem, Missouri, in the Ozarks,” Pops said. “He played a pretty good guitar, and would sing. The Farrars had been influential down around there, because they had the contract franchise for the freight delivery. My dad had these trucks, and he would pick up goods at the train station and distribute them around town. But then with him being a musician during Prohibition, he used to play those speakeasies, the little places outside of town with the big jug of whiskey. My dad was an alcoholic, and that cut into his business. Then he lost that contract with the railroad, and we started to go down. I remember living down in my grandma’s basement in zero weather. Then we just had my dad’s music – that guitar was the only thing between us and starving to death.”

I thought of my jug of white whiskey in the trunk of the Birthplace, and sipped Stag. Pops had hardly touched his beer.

“See, we didn’t have no radio then, and we didn't have no TV. So in this little town, why all the people would gather of a Friday or Saturday night, and my dad would play. One song I always remembered and always liked the best was ‘Railroad Bum’.”

Pops pulled big chords on his baggy accordion, and opened up in a sad hobo voice. The song is the soliloquy of a cold and hungry man a thousand miles from home. I heard the ghosts of Jimmie Rodgers, Bascom Lamar Lunsford (“Railroad Bum,” in fact, was in his Memory Collection), and the brother of Marvin Faulkner, his hobo fiddle tune cut short by the wheels of a train. I guessed Pops was remembering his alcoholic dad, and lying down cold and hungry as a boy, and feeling a thousand miles away from home in the middle of the sea as a Merchant Marine.

“So, here’s another one he played,” Pops said, as he shut down the “Railroad Bum” with a flourish. “This one's about a slave situation down in Kentucky. The singer lost his old Nellie Gray. She’s been sold off to the slave trade. They been together on one plantation, but things have changed, and they didn’t need help around the big house no more. So they sold her off. And he’s real mournful.”

With his long, lined face, finished with a scraggly gray goatee, Pops was the man for mournful. I waited for the corn pone, the minstrel shtick, to accompany the slave song, but it never came. Pops had one voice for sadness of whatever sort, but it was an enormous one. There was room inside it for any kind of mourning.

I thought, again, of Bascom Lamar Lunsford, who not only sang this song (without a hint of condescension), he also wrote a parody of it. Spurred by the unexpected celebrity of “Mountain Dew”, Bascom had adapted “Darling Nellie Gray” into “Nos Pros Nellie”, mountain lawyer slang for “No Prosecution Nellie”; Nellie was getting off easy because she brewed a potent mountain dew that was fancied by the judge.

Now I did need a nip of my Mississippi moonshine, which Pops also accepted, though barely a thimble full, and he insisted on coffee afterwards. He poured his coffee from a thermos that looked scorched from wars. Then his accordion roamed off in search of other sadnesses.

Pops’ dad would have been Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s exact contemporary, so it’s no accident the old man’s songs overlapped so much with the Memory Collection. When their repertoires diverged, Bascom looked toward old England and its ballads, and Pops looked south to the Civil War and west to cowboys and Indians.

In his songs, Pops was a Union man and friend to the Indian. Besides “Darling Nellie Gray”, he sang “Red Wing”, about an Indian maid mourning her brave, who died at the Little Bighorn. But he didn’t disguise his admiration for the flinty Southern generals, some of whom I had glimpsed outside in the rainforest, or the gutsy footmen of the U.S. Cavalry.

Pops came up with a transition that connects the laments “Red Wing” and “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (a symbol a Cavalry widow wore to remember her fallen soldier). By making them a medley, he made the sorrows of an Indian maid and a Cavalry widow bleed together. Maybe it was my Mississippi moonshine, maybe that mournful Ozark voice, but Pops seemed to speak up for every heartbreak in American history.

Pops must have seen the mooniness in my eyes.

“You bringing that dern illicit liquor into my house,” Pops said. “Sinner! You make me look like my dad down there, playing in them speakeasies. And that was real church people country, let me tell you. He’d be at some Friday night sing-out doing his honky tonk songs, and people would be drinking their homebrews, and he’d go into this little routine. He’d say:
You know, I was coming into town tonight, and there was a revival outside of town, with this big tent. They were inside singing all this beautiful church music. I thought I’d walk up and listen awhile.

So I walked in, and this old fire and brimstone preacher was preaching one of the most godawful sermons against whiskey and drinking and sinning and doping.

And he said, “Now I tell you tonight, if I had it to do here tonight, I’d take all the wine, and I’d take all the whiskey, and I’d take all the beer, and I’d take it down to the river, and I would dump it in, amen.”

Now, shall we sing,

Shall we gather at the river ...”
Pops jumped up at the punch line, and took a fresh smoke out to the rainforest. He smoked, and stretched his neck, freed from his homemade harmonica harness, and showed us hulks of old sports cars, rusting in the grass. “My boys say I need to clear them out of here,” Pops said. “They say I got too many interests. That I’m all over the place.”

“It’s because of a car that we know your boy Jay,” I said, “or a van, mostly. Our band bought their old van, the old Uncle Tupelo van.”

“That old blue van?”

“Old Blue,” I said. “Good van.”

“Did you know that was my old van?” Pops asked.

I sized him up with a funny feeling. I won’t pass this one off on white whiskey. I think everyone, with whatever patience for religion or tendency toward superstition, at some time feels a tingle, and knows the hand of fate just goosed them on the ass.

Uncle Tupelo and then their old blue van had put me out on the rock & roll road for years of adventures, which we only left behind for different adventures in music, pursuing the older ways. And now the pursuit of the old ways had brought me to the home where one of the Uncle Tupelo guys grew up, and I was swapping songs and moonshine with his father – with the source of that old blue van. I couldn’t have known it at the time, though I might have guessed, that Pops and I were just starting down a new road together that day while we smoked homerolled cigarettes surrounded by chainsaw sculptures of Indians and generals.

That road would take us up and down the Great River Road, down to a hippie commune in the Ozarks with a stone age African clown, to Georgia to reclaim my possessions from a previous life. Eventually it would bring remnants of my old rock & roll band back here to the Belleville rainforest to record our skuntry mishmash of world folklore and American folk music in Pops’ living room.

I couldn’t have known it at the time, though I might have guessed, that just like Enormous Richard took Old Blue out for one last set of wild rides after Uncle Tupelo had put the van to pasture, I would be taking Pops Farrar out for an unexpected journey near the end of the road – the last great adventures for this son of a hobo songster who had set foot on every continent on Earth as a Merchant Marine, keeping the music of the Missouri Ozarks and the world alive on a harmonica he kept in his pants pocket.

Pops was staring off into the thickets of the Belleville rainforest with his pale eyes. Maybe his intuition was also telling him we were onto something here. Something new. Something old. He breathed in some smoke from his homerolled. “You know, I maintained that van for those little guys in Uncle Tupelo – they beat it to hell! – until the day they give it away,” Pops said. “Or sold it, I guess. Sold it to you. You ended up with it. And now here you are, come to me. Well, I’ll be.”

*

mp3s

Railroad Bum
Darling Nellie Gray
Red Wing
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
Shall We Gather at the River?

All songs traditional.
All performances by Pops Farrar.
Produced by Chris King
Released on Pops Farrar, Memory Music: Songs and Stories from the Merchant Marine (1999).

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Previous posts in this series

In the hothouse basement
The allure of the ever-elusive exposure gig
Opening for Uncle Tupelo
A meeting in Old Blue
Strangers in the village
Managing your religion
A farewell to Old Blue
Trading horses
No Chris Bess
Jamming with the dead
Fruits of the tunes
Picking and grinning
Math problems and cluck tracks
The way the music dies

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The way the music dies


Sparked by the recent inaugural Uncle Tupelo tribute show in St. Louis, I am posting some chapters from my unpublished musical memoir that deal with those guys. This is Chapter 119, which follows immediately upon my previous post, "Math problems and cluck tracks".



The way the music dies
By Chris King


Our rock & roll road had turned into a trail. It was gradual, the drift from grinding concrete connecting gigs in cities, where we asked people to pay attention to us, toward a lazy path winding between interesting old guys in obscure places, who let us pay attention to them. For most post-punk bands, the road ends much more abruptly, with screeching wheels, screaming, and years of seething after the wheels come off the van.

It’s hard to believe, but my buddies in Judge Nothing had been on the road, on and off, since the night I first saw them wearing upturned buckets of chicken on their heads a decade ago. They had been putting together scratchy tours since the birth of Cicero’s Basement Bar. Judge Nothing had cranked out four cassettes on their own dime and two CDs with an indie label in Chicago. No one toured or tried harder than these guys. And their crowd did grow, though not on the scale of their former friends and college classmates in Uncle Tupelo – let alone Wilco, the only band with roots in the Cicero’s scene that left the smelly van for a plush tour bus.

In the early months of 1997, just after Elijah and I tracked Ken Coomer of Wilco to the jerky Rosco rhythm, Judge Nothing hit the road, yet again.

A January or February tour of the Midwest is a miserable thing. You could have asked Buddy Holly. Heat on his tour bus gave out during one wintry Midwestern road swing, his “Winter Dance Party” package tour of 1959, inflicting a drummer with frostbite and inspiring the bandleader to charter a plane after a gig in Iowa. At the end of that flight – which went only five miles and ended nose-down in a corn field — they all had frostbite, or rather their corpses did, since they spent a cold winter night crushed in the wreckage. That was “the day the music died,” as Don Mclean sang in a song everyone raised on ‘70s radio has permanently grooved into their brains.

Nearly forty years later, touring indie rockers had it no better on the winter road. In January and February and most of March, show-goers remain suspended in after-Christmas hibernation. Crowds are thin, roads are icy if not actively battered by a blizzard. Sleeping in the van is not an option, so it’s literally do or die at the end of the night when it comes to begging for a crashpad.

Why bother? For the dream, of course, which needs to be fed. If a struggling rock band took a break for two cold months, they might never crawl back into the van again. Gigdom looks insane viewed from anywhere except inside gigdom.

It’s one reason why indie rockers wear their bluejeans into rags. You get used to scruffy pants, and they help you get cozy in rancid vans and shithole rock clubs. The instant you launder your clothes, they feel wrong, and so does your life. Buddy Holly was no penniless indie rocker, but the urge to arrive early enough in the next town to do some laundry was one of the reasons he chartered that plane. The dream must have died in him, if laundry was on his mind. The death of the music itself was only a tragic afterthought.

The Enormous Richards and Judge Nothings of the road book our tours in January and February because the weak won’t and the superfamous don’t. Gigs in plum venues open up during these months, places that wouldn’t take your call if you were touring during any other time of the year.

Judge Nothing booked a gig for the first days of February, 1997, at 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis. The isolation of that fair city makes for a long, exhausting haul, and a dangerous one during the winter. A blizzard can hit at any time during the endless grind of I-35, and fill the van with uneasy thoughts of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper, scattered as corpses across an Iowa corn field, quietly collecting snow in the night.

But 7th Street Entry was a CBGB for post-punk bands. This was where The Replacements and Husker Du cut their gig teeth. Every band wanted to earn that sticker on their amplifier cabinets. I know I gave myself serious gig neck calling 7th Street a thousand times, to no avail. An opening slot there was a damn good anchor date for a tour. So Andy Dykeman, Judge Nothing’s drummer and de-facto manager, put together a frozen 10-city tour around it that winter.

The gig gods were against them from the get-go. On the way to Kansas City, they wrecked the van – the first time they had so much as dented a fender in a decade of road gigs. If you change your pants even once a week and never sleep on a stranger’s floor, you might be thinking OMEN. Get your butts back home. But no, they soldiered on. Down the road, they wrecked again. They hit a patch of black ice and slid onto the grassy knoll of the median. GRASSY KNOLL. Assassination. Death. Go back home! But, no. The dream. They had a gig at a cradle of post-punk. Onward to the gig. To the dream.

When loading their gear into 7th Street Entry, they encountered what should have been a pleasant surprise: Wilco was playing at First Avenue, a much bigger room next door. Judge Nothing and Uncle Tupelo grew up together on the east side – the wrong side – of the Mississippi River, where we all got our start as kids. Judge Nothing introduced live sound to the basement bar where Uncle Tupelo made its name. Andy Dykeman and Jeff Tweedy (the honcho of Wilco) had doodled in the backs of college lectures and swapped gigs. Andy unloaded his drum kit at 7th Street Entry, then went next door to First Avenue to say hey to Tweedy.

“Jeff’s bodyguard, or something, stated that Jeff did not want to see us,” Andy remembers today. “We sent him a note, saying hello, and another one of his many roadcrew said he was not to be bothered. Oh, well. Fuck him. We played our gig and headed home.”

Driving south on I-35 through north central Iowa, Judge Nothing hit the end of the road. The van did not so much crash as its reasons for being evaporated. Maybe it was the cold shoulder from a former friend who had upgraded his gig to plush tour bus and handler status. Maybe it was just how long the highway through Iowa looks in the dead of the winter. Certainly, it was ten years of doing this, a decade of gigdom, without it ever getting any easier.

First, the bassist, Flea Bodine, cracked. Right there in the van, on the road home, he quit. And then the dream died in Andy, too, just like that. Andy quit. That left the frontman, Doug Rafferty, who said everyone only needed a little sleep, they could talk it out later.

Doug pulled into a diner for a bite to eat. They must have made an impression climbing out of the battered van, in their filthy, raggedy gig pants. As a waitress turned their coffee cups right-side up, she said, “You must be part of the Buddy Holly band.”

“Huh?”

“The Buddy Holly tribute band! You know this is the day they found his plane? Right over there. And I mean, right over there, in that corn field right across the road. The ballroom where they all played their last concert is just up the road. They do a concert over there every year. The Winter Dance Party. The Day the Music Died. I would have sworn you was a part of that.”

*

From And Let Him Ply His Music: Adventures in Post-Punk and Amateur Folklore (unpublished).

*

Previous posts in this series

In the hothouse basement
The allure of the ever-elusive exposure gig
Opening for Uncle Tupelo
A meeting in Old Blue
Strangers in the village
Managing your religion
A farewell to Old Blue
Trading horses
No Chris Bess
Jamming with the dead
Fruits of the tunes
Picking and grinning
Math problems and cluck tracks

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Math problems and cluck tracks


Sparked by the recent inaugural Uncle Tupelo tribute show in St. Louis, I am posting some chapters from my unpublished musical memoir that deal with those guys. This is Chapter 118, twelve chapters along from my previous post, "Picking and grinning". The band Enormous Richard became the band Eleanor Roosevelt, which evolved into a field recording collective. Uncle Tupelo pops back into this account of some of our folklore projects.


Math problems
By Chris King


Anthony Seeger must have taken a break from dancing with the Indians in the Amazon, because Smithsonian/Folkways finally got around to releasing its Bascom Lamar Lunsford CD I instigated. The release was announced that summer at the festival in Asheville Bascom had founded.

I was unable to attend, though Jo Lunsford Herron later played me a video of the event, and sure enough, “a young man in a rock band from St. Louis” was thanked from the grandstand and in the liner notes. I puffed up at my first folklore credit.

LIj and I put out a cassette for the Grebo elder Nymah Kumah. His Grebo archive deserved a 10-disc boxed set, not a 90-minute cassette, but we were penniless. Seeger wouldn’t release it on Folkways, and our usual lack of business sense and patience with tedium kept us from working the marketplace to find Nymah a deal. Never mind its chintzy aspect, our tape made the old Grebo clown more proud than anyone who ever unfolded a thank-you note at a Grammy podium.

We staged a release party for Nymah at Focal Point in St. Louis. It was well-attended, since word had spread among drum connoisseurs — the one type of person I have ever seen Nymah Kumah disappoint. These guys came in talking math. They were interested in learning new time signatures and syncopations. It was a little like the people who descend on distant corners of the earth just to check one bird off their career list of species sighted.

Nymah Kumah wanted to talk humanity, not math. The drum was just another voice to him, not an instrument for technical display. He refused to pull a drum pattern out of the context of a story and teach a rhythm in isolation. A lot of drummers showed up buggy-eyed with anticipation, but went home grumpy that night. That was fine with me. They all bought cassettes, which they could pause and rewind as often as needed to nail down the latest exotic rhythm pattern.

Nymah’s local girlfriend, the Goddess of Illusion at fifty, showed up at the gig with a warm smile, and went home with a warm smile, taking a grinning Grebo songster with her. I let them sleep late the next morning, since we had no pressing travel plans. When I went to retrieve him in the afternoon, Nymah answered her door naked. The image of that old man’s bare bum busting back up the steps will accompany me to the grave.

We mailed the hippie commune East Wind copies of Nymah’s cassette, but paid no visit this time around, as I was needed elsewhere. Lij’s ambitions for the Rosco Gordon record were outgrowing the field of folklore. He thought the old man had another hit record in him.

Lij wanted to build a band around Rosco through overdubs in Nashville, but he couldn’t work with those rotten piano tracks. So I put Nymah on a plane to Boston and drove Lij in the equipment-crammed Birthplace (my battered 1987 Cavalier) back to New York, where we borrowed time on a family Baby Grand that lived in Lij’s brother’s Brooklyn apartment.

Rosco, we learned, had diabetes. He took a break from our session to jab a needle of insulin into his little belly.

At least he didn’t sing his ulcers into aggravation during this session, though there was nothing we could do to stop him from playing ferociously enough to rip himself apart.

“I’m running out of chances,” Rosco said. “At my age, one day is two weeks. One month is two years.” He worked out this confusing math on a scrap of paper and left it with Lij, as a reminder of urgency.

Lij jumped right on those overdubs. He was trained to build a recording from the drum tracks up. For the Rosco record, we already had piano, guitar, and lead vocal tracks, so Lij’s instinct was to get the drums next. He called me down to Nashville, and we built our studio in the basement of a local drummer named Ken Coomer.

Uncle Tupelo had crept into our life once again, we would have thought for the last time. When Tupelo’s drummer, Mike Heidorn, left the band to raise a family, they replaced him with Ken Coomer, who then joined Jeff Tweedy in his new band Wilco after the Jay-Jeff split. Wilco was exploding in ways unknown to Uncle Tupelo or any of our peers, and had given Coomer a taste of life in a plush tour bus with beds, a fridge, a mini recording studio, and a professional driver behind the wheel.

But Coomer still knew the root, the real deal, when he came across it. “Come on!” he said, as Lij set up microphones, and I stir-fried cactus in Ken's kitchen. “Let’s get one with Rosco!”

Getting one with Rosco was no simple task. No amount of drummer’s math would prepare you for it. The Rosco rhythm had a logic all its own. It was not a question of keeping time, but rather following the unpredictable rhythmic instincts of an unusual old man. You had to learn his mood for changes.

Rosco’s beats changed in ways they don’t teach you in music school or in a pop band like Wilco. I thought of the chicken Rosco used to get drunk and set atop his piano. Maybe we should have got a chicken drunk, let it dance, and had Coomer play to that. We had no use for a click track. Maybe what we needed was a cluck track.

*

From And Let Him Ply His Music: Adventures in Post-Punk and Amateur Folklore (unpublished).

*

Previous posts in this series

In the hothouse basement
The allure of the ever-elusive exposure gig
Opening for Uncle Tupelo
A meeting in Old Blue
Strangers in the village
Managing your religion
A farewell to Old Blue
Trading horses
No Chris Bess
Jamming with the dead
Fruits of the tunes
Picking and grinning


*

The record Lij and I produced for Rosco Gordon was released by Dualtone Music Group in Nashville as No Dark in America (2005). The cover art, above, is by my friend George Davidson of Athens, Ga.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Picking and grinning at the insurgent country hoedown


Sparked by the recent inaugural Uncle Tupelo tribute show in St. Louis, I am posting some chapters from my unpublished musical memoir that deal with those guys. This is Chapter 106, six chapters along from my previous post, "Fruits of the tunes". In the interim, Enormous Richard changed its band name to Eleanor Roosevelt, I got lost in the quirky folklore thickets, and we had to settle for a new bassist, Jim, best known for licking the ends of his hair when he played.



Picking and grinning

By Chris King


Roy Francis Kasten began to open my eyes to a surreal afterlife of the Uncle Tupelo phenomenon. Some guys in Seattle (the source of so many things that confused me) had created something called an internet forum named after an Uncle Tupelo song, “Postcard”. The internet was a mystery to me, but in 1995, new media tried on the duds of old media and this thing stumbled out into the world as a magazine, named after an Uncle Tupelo record, No Depression, with all the departments of the magazine named after Uncle Tupelo songs.

I didn’t really know what to say. It was like someone in a foreign country naming something after your cousin – cool in its own way, but kind of puzzling and unwarranted.

Speaking of unwarranted, puzzling afterlives, our song from Meriwether Lewis’ lyrics was snapped up by a label in Chicago called Bloodshot Records. They wanted “Espoontoon” for a compilation of something they were calling “insurgent country” music. I sort of liked that phrase – more than “alternative country,” which the No Depression crowd was using – and we never said no to exposure. So in the fall of 1995, Eleanor Roosevelt packed up from our various locations and headed to Chicago to play an insurgent country showcase.

The one memory of the country music revival I still can’t shed is of a tall, husky man wearing a cowboy hat inside a Chicago nightclub, swaggering over to our band, where we sat at a side table going over songs (we needed the rehearsal), and saying, in a Chicago stockyards accent, “I see some of the pickers are here.”

It was one of the Bloodshot Records guys. We looked at him like we were mutes. That’s the way I would like to remember it, anyway. Jim Who Licked the Ends of His Hair must have said something off-point, and I probably schmoozed this urban cowboy, since I knew he was with the record label. It’s a fact, though, that we all looked at each other after he walked away, and said, “Pickers?”

I could get my ass kicked for saying this too loud at taverns in every single state of this union, and all up and down Mexico, but the cowboy hat as an indoors, after-dark ornament has always irritated me. It’s my impression that such a flagrant, space-hogging style of headgear evolved to protect men exposed to long days of direct sunlight out on the open range. When the sun went down on the Brazos, the funny hat came off the head. It wasn’t put on at night over carefully coiffed hair during a primping session at one’s city apartment, to be worn inside a dark nightclub.

I would even argue that the cowboy hat has no place whatsoever in the entire city of Chicago, at any time of day or night, indoors or out. Don’t those tall buildings shade the sun, son? Why, howdy, ain’t the sun done gone down, anyways? Just a picker a-thinking out loud, now. No use in a-gittin’ all riled up about it.

I don’t suppose there is any point in trying to disguise my pompous sense that we were present at the creation of this animal, insurgent or alternative country, and had since moved on to more interesting things. We had moved onto stuff like African proverb collages jacked up with Rolling Stones riffs, or Mayan creation myths adapted for slacker rock potheads.

I am sure we didn’t disguise this pompous feeling the night of the Bloodshot Records showcase. Guitar Johnny, who has an especially sharp aversion to cant and pretension, kept slipping out of the club to get away from the guys wearing cowboy hats to ward off the burning rays of the stagelights, singing about white trash cowboys and honky-tonk has-beens in iffy accents.

It’s bullshit, this pompous feeling of ours. We weren’t really present at the invention of anything. I don’t know about “insurgent” or “alternative” country. I prefer the term Brian Henneman used when I first interviewed Chicken Truck, before anyone outside of Cicero’s or Belleville had ever heard of Uncle Tupelo: “this suped-up country shit”. (Brian’s new band, the Bottle Rockets, appeared on that Bloodshot Records compilation with us, by the way, though they were not present at the Chicago showcase with the rest of us pickers.)

Suped-up country shit was certainly older than Uncle Tupelo or Chicken Truck, older than Hasil Adkins, older than the Byrds or Neil Young. Rockabilly and early rock & roll were just suped-up country shit and blues, and if you go all the way back to the banjo shouts Bascom Lamar Lunsford collected in what he called “mud-dauber happy homes,” that original country shit was pretty suped-up all by itself, even if the only available electricity were traces of lightning in the sky.

I doubt anyone at Bloodshot Records or No Depression magazine would dispute this today, or even care to poke the dead cow of this discussion. Both the label and the magazine went onto explore and spread the deeper roots of this music in ways that deepened all of our understanding about this music we all love. Though it must have been an impolite attitude for us to adopt when we were all young and they were first trying to peddle their awareness that there was something new going on, and they had named it.

One thing is beyond doubt: by the fall of 1995, right when the time was ripe to play suped-up country shit, we no longer played suped-up country shit, and didn’t get out our old clothes just to walk down the insurgent country showcase runway. Without steady practice, Elijah had lost his chops on fiddle and banjo, so now he played soaring electric guitar, very much under the spell of Alex Chilton and Big Star.

I sang Sioux Indian totem chants about elks and African proverbs about banana stalks as the boys played power pop on electric guitars, Jim licked the ends of his hair, and the country music revival quietly waited for us misfit city pickers to leave the stage so they could get on with the hoedown.

*

From And Let Him Ply His Music: Adventures in Post-Punk and Amateur Folklore (unpublished).

*

Previous posts in this series

In the hothouse basement
The allure of the ever-elusive exposure gig
Opening for Uncle Tupelo
A meeting in Old Blue
Strangers in the village
Managing your religion
A farewell to Old Blue
Trading horses
No Chris Bess
Jamming with the dead
Fruits of the tunes

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mp3

“Espoontoon” (Matt Fuller, Chris King, Meriwether Lewis, John Minkoff) was eventually released on the Eleanor Roosevelt record Walker with his head down, availible on iTunes, etc.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Fruits of the tunes



Sparked by the recent inaugural Uncle Tupelo tribute show in St. Louis, I am posting some chapters from my unpublished musical memoir that deal with those guys. This is Chapter 100, a good long stretch of twenty chapters down from my previous post, "Jamming with the dead".
We have skipped a lot – Enormous Richard has a distribution deal now with the label that distributes Charles Manson, and I have begun to document an African elder named Nymah Kumah – but I think you can follow the storyline.


Fruits of the tunes
By Chris King


Not long after I returned to St. Louis with a shoebox full of Nymah Kumah’s memory collection on cassettes, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana was found in the room above his garage with a junky kit in a cigar box, a triple overdose of heroin in his veins, and a shotgun shell in his head. He was twenty seven years old.

I thought of some things he had sung.

“Married. Buried.”

“In the pines, in the pines, where the sun, it never shines.”

He left a confusing letter, not quite a suicide note, about quitting the music business.

“The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it and pretending as if I'm having 100 % fun. Sometimes I feel as if I should have a punch in time clock before I walk out on stage.”

I thought of Nymah Kumah, singing to himself, alone, for forty years.

“All the warnings from the punk rock 101 courses over the years. Since my first introduction to the, shall we say, ethics involved with independence and the embracement of our community has proven to be very true.”

I thought of something Nymah Kumah said about selling music. “When you're a baby and can hear sound, walking and talking – can you sell that? Man stole music from the birds anyway.”

I got stoned that night and went to see a rock show. Our buddies the Boorays had a gig. They had outgrown Cicero’s now and were headlining a more upscale club across town. Same four guys, same post-punk surf rock approach, except they sounded strangely clean and a little soft. The place was packed with nicely dressed people in slacks and Docksiders.

“Pointe zombies,” Mark Stephens, the frontman, said to me after the show, at the afterhours party. The Pointe was the local “commercial alternative” radio station of the type that blanketed the country in the wake of Nirvana’s success. I guessed the Pointe had been playing the Boorays.

“More people come to the shows now,” Mark said, “but they listen less. Fucking Pointe zombies. Remember the old Cicero’s? It was only us, but at least we listened to each other.”

Mark still looked like a thrift store mannequin sprung to life. He fidgeted his way through a pack of cigarettes and twelve beers between last call and dawn, crashing through Nirvana songs on a battered, tuneless guitar.

The next month, Uncle Tupelo was dead. The inscrutable frontman Jay Farrar split. He and Jeff Tweedy were picking up the pieces in separate projects, Son Volt and Wilco. The band that had ignited our basement bar was history. The old Cicero’s was gone for good.

The next month, Bello called me, the guy from Fruit of the Tune, Enormous Richard’s new distributor in New Jersey – the ones who distributed Kinky Friedman and Charles Manson.

“Bad news, man, bad, bad news.”

“Kurt Cobain is dead,” I said. “Uncle Tupelo broke up.”

“You know? I heard that. But guess what? Indie distribution is in the toilet. Have you heard? We just got slammed with returns. We’ve been banking on records we thought were sold, and they all just came back in the mail unpaid. It’s over.”

“What’s over?”

“The bubble, man, the boom. Everybody snapped up every band in sight, and now all their records are coming back unsold. I’m sorry. We’re busted. Fruit of the Tune is flying the coop.”

“Man stole music from the birds anyway,” I said.

“Listen,” Bello continued, “I’m only calling you because I like you guys. You’re real people. You’re a college professor. You’re not just some horny kid with his first distortion pedal. You’re not some sick goof rock fuck. You’re not Charlie Manson, for Christ’s sake. I want to do something for you. I can’t get it all back. But I want to get you something.”

“Little birdy, little birdy,” I sang, “come and sing me your song.”

“You sent me, what? Nine hundred units? I’m going to get you back a box. Two hundred count. I’ll make Mango cut you a check – no promises for what. It won’t be what you’re owed. Cash it the second you get it, or you can bounce it on over to the trashcan. If you want the rest of your records, watch the auction notices. Highest bid wins. If you want the rest of your money, sue Mango. But you’ll have to get in line behind Mojo Nixon and the Manson Family.”

I sang, “Such a short time, to be staying here. But a long time, to be gone.”

Exactly. I am out of here. I’ve got tax ... issues. I’m telling you and my grandmother where I’m going – Puerto Rico – and that’s it. The surf is great. I hate the music. I’m thinking of wearing ear plugs so I never hear another note. I’ll open a fish taco stand and surf the sun up every morning for the rest of my life.”

I thought it was all bullshit, except for the news that we were getting screwed out of our records. But in fact, mail soon arrived at the Marconi house, precisely along the lines Bello had described. First, we got a box of our CDs back, each with a little faded Tower Records sticker affixed to it. Our record Warm Milk on the Porch had curdled at last. Then a Fruit of the Tune check came for $150, which actually cleared the bank. And then a postcard from Puerto Rico.


Surf's great.
Visit sometime.
I’m on the beach.
Look for the little fish taco stand.
I’m the guy with the false front tooth.

He had drawn a little cartoon of the scene. He wasn’t a bad cartoonist. That kind of looked like Bello on the beach, hawking a fish taco as a curling wave crested, all the way down to the hole in his mouth.


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From And Let Him Ply His Music: Adventures in Post-Punk and Amateur Folklore (unpublished).

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Previous posts in this series

In the hothouse basement
The allure of the ever-elusive exposure gig
Opening for Uncle Tupelo
A meeting in Old Blue
Strangers in the village
Managing your religion
A farewell to Old Blue
Trading horses
No Chris Bess
Jamming with the dead