Archive for the Cracker Category

#77 Exile in Beach Flats–Lulu Land, Wasted and Surf City 1985

Posted in Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker on August 1, 2011 by davidclowery

Ted Kaczynski’s Santa Cruz vacation shack.

04 Lulu Land

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In 1982 I lived in the tiniest house imaginable.  It was at most 400 square feet yet it boasted a kitchen, bathroom, living room and two bedrooms.  My bedroom was 6 x 10 feet.  big enough for for a single mattress on a small platform. The small closet could hold about a ½ a dozen shirts,  a couple of jackets and a sweater or two.  I rolled up four or five pairs of jeans and stuffed them onto the shelf at the top of the closet.  The rest of my clothes I kept in a suitcase that I slid out from under my bed when I needed it.  This is where I also kept my guitars.  I had two plastic beer crates.  I stacked these on the floor one on top of each other.  I kept a few books, a couple of writing journals and my supply of cassettes for my cassette recorder.  The cassette recorder was on the top of the stack. In the corner I kept a small fender amp. A Fender super champ  that somebody with excellent cabinetry skills had reworked into a separated “head” and speaker cabinet.  This was my songwriting workstation.

I can’t remember if the living room had any furniture in it.  I know we had my roommate’s stereo in there and one wall was filled with our vinyl collections.  The other side of the living room had a couple of guitar amplifiers, my full size SVT and some miscellaneous drum kit parts.   I can’t imagine there was any room for any furniture.  Plus I can not recall ever once sitting in that room.

The house was part of a collection of a dozen beach cottages crammed into the parking lot of the Santa Cruz beach amusement park.  These were originally meant to be summer rentals.  But this was during Santa Cruz’s deep nadir in popularity. Air travel had rendered Santa Cruz’s oceanfront irrelevant to the Bay Area’s middle class.  Yes there were tourists on the weekend but they were a decidedly working class and rowdy lot.

This area was called Beach Flats.  It was really just a sand bar barely above sea level. It was protected from the San Lorenzo river by a 12 foot levee.  Aside from a few students living here the area was populated by Spanish speaking immigrants. Most worked in the local restaurants.  Everything about the place suggested impermanence and transience.

In the summer it was occupied land.  A foreign army of daytrippers from San Jose, Milpitas, Watsonville and Fremont encamped upon these shores.  Their River’s Edge Baja Bugs, Low Riders and tricked out pickup trucks were like the chariot armies of Carthaginians to our Roman sensibilities.  Thus we avoided their beachhead.

But most of the time, especially in the winter, it was a lonely outpost from the rest of the city.  The city bus neglected the area and it always required a lonely and dark walk  along the top of the river levee.  Alternately you could walk across a small pedestrian bridge attached to the railroad trestle that spanned the San Lorenzo just as it emptied into the ocean.

During heavy rains directly below the bridge there was a  violent mixing of river current and storm driven waves.  If you fell into this you would surely drown.  I’d often encounter neighborhood youth smoking pot or drinking beer on this bridge late in the evening.   They stared at me warily.  Their alliances were uncertain.  I never knew if we were friend or foe.  On many occasion I imagined they might throw me off  the bridge just for their own amusement.  For this reason I often carried my all aluminum Ultraflex skateboard.  I rarely rode it, but both tail and nose were worn down into a sharp edge. It was like a 30” Celtic sword with urethane wheels.

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Corry Arnold defines a music scene as a neighborhood or city that is a “net exporter of concerts”.  In other words

 

Let  A = the number of concerts performed by the bands in a scene outside their neighborhood or city X. 

 

Let B = the number of concerts performed by outsiders within that neighborhood or city. 

 

City or neighborhood X is a music scene If and only if  A> B.

By this definition I’d say that Santa Cruz (barely) qualified as a music scene in 1982.

Arnold also notes music scenes rely on low property values in particular transitional neighborhoods.  Neighborhoods that had once had another purpose but now had fallen out of primary use.  Cheap space and a tolerance for noise are important commodities for bands.

You could argue that the old beach rentals along the lower end of Ocean street and the neighborhoods clustered around the old harbor qualified as in transition.  Too seedy and rundown for beach rentals these houses were subsequently occupied by the more adventurous.  Arty students, musicians and other slackers now occupied many of these cottages.

But our cottage was effectively cut off from these neighborhoods by the river levee.  In retrospect I now see it was very Dungeons and Dragonsish of the locals to refer to the homeless population that slept in hideaways along the river as “trolls”.  Indeed walking to my house at night I learned to steer clear of these trolls as many were quite aggressive or totally insane.   You definitely felt penalized after unexpectedly making contact with these folks.

But the isolation was very good for a couple young mathematicians and songwriters. I was able to really dive into the most difficult proofs and songs in that cottage.  Later when I moved to a better part of town I found that I had to go to the science library to get any deep thinking done.

My roommate was also a mathematician and songwriter.   His name was Paul MacKinney.  Recognize that name?  We covered one of his songs on the 3rd Camper Van Beethoven Album.   The song is LuLu Land.   We also  named our CVB fan club  after him. The Paul MacKinney Fan Club.  People were completely mystified as to why the Camper Van Beethoven fan club was named The Paul MacKinney Fan Club.  Paul was also mystified. As always CVB was Inscrutable.

I’m not really sure what Paul had in mind when he wrote Lulu Land but in my mind I always associated it with that walk along the river levee.   An unplanned conversation with one of the sad crazies was surely the root of this song!  But who knows.

Also it should be noted that Paul, Joe Sloan (of Spot 1019) and I had a short lived band about this time called The Jaws of Life.  It was actually during this time that I began performing the Black Flag song “wasted”.  This was later carried over into Camper Van Beethoven’s repertoire.

Paul would often finish his math homework well before me.  He’d come into my room and hover.  Or he’d try to help me with whatever proof or problem I was working on.  Once I was finished he’d celebrate by handing me a PBR (or joint). and dropping the needle on his well worn copy of Black Flag’s Nervous Breakdown EP.  Wasted was one of the songs on the B side.   We became fixated on the simple genius of the 40 second song.  How could we not cover it?

03 Wasted

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Beach Flats makes another small appearance in a Cracker song.  Once I moved to the eastside of Santa Cruz  I rarely went back to this neighborhood.  Except to go bowling.  Go figure.

Boardwalk Bowl (I remember it as Surf Bowl-anyone else?)  was on the western edge of Beach Flats.  Right where the land began to slope up and become Beach Hills.  To be accurate it should be noted that the cheap beer was more of an attraction than the actual bowling.  This and the two old dive bars The Asti Café and the Avenue  were for a long time my usual hangouts in Santa Cruz.

But one day my girlfriend Jennifer  (see fear and loathing in Las Vegas #….)  ruined it for all of us.  She had become fixated on the bowling shoes at the Surf Bowl.  She wanted her own pair but the ones that were available commercially were nothing like surf bowls cool retro beauties.  So one day she just walks out with a pair on.

When I discovered this I was quite mad.  Because we were regulars and she was quite the beauty.  There was no way the middle aged men who worked in the bowling alley would not remember us. No more Surf Bowl.  All for a pair of shoes.

So in Surf City 85 I sing.

Surf City

Then you stole some bowling shoes

What a pathetic criminal you.

What a pathetic criminal

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Lulu Land- (Paul MacKinney)


[Am]
 Pictures of [C] movie stars [D] fade and grow old
[Am] The hot dogs and [C] pretzels are [D] always served cold
[Am] Take nothing [C] with you when you [D] leave but your soul
In [E] Lulu Land

How can you lose when you choose what you feel?
The scab will fall off when the wound starts to heal
Luck’s on your side and it’s your turn to deal
In Lulu Land

In [F#m] Lulu land, the [G] walls are soft and [F#m] dark
In Lulu [G] land, the secret [F#m] heart
is in com-[G]-mand in Lulu [E] Land

How can you lose when you live in the past?
Nothing can happen that happens too fast
Live is a furnace and love is the blast
In Lulu Land

Where innocent promises turn into bad debts
Where things that you do you live to regret
Your life is a movie and the world is a set
In Lulu Land

In Lulu land, the wall are soft and dark
In Lulu land, the secret heart
is in command in Lulu Land

[C#dim]-[Cdim]-[C#dim]-[Cdim]-[B]-[A#m]-[Am]-[G]

[Am]-[C]-[D]
[Am]-[C]-[D]
[Am]-[C]-[D] [E]
[F#m]-[G]
[F#m]-[G]
[F#m]-[G]
[E]

Surf City 85
[INTRO x2 (also: chords for verses):]
[Am] [Dm] [F] [G] [Am]

Schoolgirls walking down the street
In schoolgirl uniforms
There’s a sadness at
The centre of the world

Well days they seem to drift away
I don’t know where they go
There’s a sadness at
The centre of the world

[CHORUS:]
So [G] come pick me up
At the tea cup
We’ll go [Am] down the seaside lanes [F]
We’ll watch the [C] girls
[F] We’ll bowl a few [C] games

Nothing to do
But there’s the red room
Then you stole some bowling shoes
What a pathetic criminal you
What a pathetic criminal

Blair and goldie on the sand
It’s raining in the surf
Well that’s nothing lost
And nothing gained today

They tried to go their separate ways
But all roads circle back
Well that’s nothing lost
And nothing gained today

[CHORUS:]
So come pick me up
At the tea cup
We’ll go down the Asti Café
We’ll watch the girls
Just like every Saturday

Nothing to do
Ride out to Bonnie Doon
We thought she had it made
But you crashed your bike on ice-cream grade
And then you were dead

[KEYBOARD SOLO then GUITAR SOLO (chords as INTRO)]

#70 I Sold the Arabs the Moon- When we fly we all become philosophers.

Posted in Cracker, David Lowery Solo with tags , on January 26, 2011 by davidclowery


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06 I Sold The Arabs The Moon

First of all let me openly acknowledge I am hijacking my blog for a few days to talk about the songs on my upcoming solo album  The Palace Guards.  Available everywhere Feb 1st.
And I know I have a lot of competition this week.  It looks like a number of my peers are releasing records.  So let’s quickly review them.
First off Iron and Wine has a new album out. Kiss Each Other Clean. I am told it is a 45 minute field recording of Sam Beam humming The Theme to a Man And a Woman while he vacuums.*
Then there is the new Deerhoof album which is titled Deerhof vs Evil. This is also a strange album.  It consists entirely of Brittany Spears covers with vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki singing in a fake texas accent ala Stan Ridgeway of Wall of Voodoo.  **
Finally there is REMs new record “Mine Smell Like Honey”  which is a concept record about Michael Stipe’s testicles. ***

So as you can see you are much better off spending your 8, 10 or 12 dollars this week on my new solo Album The Palace Guards.
Click Here to buy an autographed CD from Newbury Comics.

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There is this magnificent book by gabriel Garcia Marquez titled the Autumn of the Patriarch.  A sprawling first hand account of a south american’s dictators improbable 100+ year rule.
Throughout the story the dictator repeatedly sells out to various world powers  eventually selling the sea to the Yanquis.
I loved this phrase.  I’ve turned on my tongue many times while strumming guitar trying to fit it into a song.
I never found a home for this phrase until in 2009 I  found myself inexplicably flying in a US Army combat helicopter 2500 meters over Iraq. We were on our way from the Coalition base at Basra International Airport to a US armed forces base variously referred to as Camp Adder by the US army or Ali airbase by US Air Force. Most People call it Talill.

We were engaged in what had become the familiar GI shit talking on headsets as we flew.  Questions from the crew about details of life touring in a rock band.  Us asking questions about their lives, their experiences and some good gossip about  celebrities politicians and others they had ferried around Iraq.

At some point one of the pilots or crew members mentioned that we would be flying over the Ziggurat of Ur.  Although I had spent a good deal of time prepping for this trip by reading histories of Iraq and accounts of both Iraq wars,  I didn’t know what this was.

“It marks the city of Ur which is literally the birthplace of civilization”

“Ur was probably the first or one of the first urban human settlements,  the first city”. another unknown voice on the internal comms chimed in.

The pilots obliged us by banking the aircraft in a large arc as we went into Talill so we could get a look at this historic site.

The ziggurat comes clearly in focus at 0:12 seconds.

I remember looking down at this and getting this weird sensation.  This feeling that you sometimes get when you are flying and you see the curvature of the Earth.

You get this sense of how small you are.  How short your life is in the span of human history.  How insignificant your small deeds and actions.  At the same time you get a glimpse of the huge yet unseen forces that shape everything we do.

The green of the land between the rivers Euphrates and Tigres.  The great arc of the fertile crescent that produced the first large groups of non-nomadic peoples. How the land itself shaped who we are and what we do.  Farming and craftsmen then produced a (relatively) gentle life that produced cities scholars and philosophers. The great expanse of desert on one side. A harsh wilderness to some but a home of sorts to nomadic tribes like the arabs.  They became skilled warriors and traders taking goods from once place to another.

The Kurds on the other hand in their distant blue mountains, their strongholds they are independent and wary.   Their great herds of livestock still the cultural link between the eurasian steppes and the Persian gulf.   The people of this land also straddle the linguistic divide  between the semitic languages of the south, the Indo European mother tongue to the north and the mongol horseman borne languages of the East.

At an altitude like this you can see how the land shaped the people. At an altitude we all  become philosophers.

And other things.   I had an officer comment to me that we won’t leave Iraq for a long time because:

“we’ve scrambled their economy and now it’s reassembled around our supply lines.  The gulf arabs come in from the south and the Turks from the north. They use our supply lines.  It started with their mobile phone companies now it’s their construction companies, and so on…when you fly back to kuwait you can see the flow of containers and equipment coming in.  It dwarfs what we are taking out”.

There it is again.  When you fly you become an economist, a geopolitical scientist and a philosopher.

So here I was a son of a career US Air Force NCO.  I couldn’t help noticing the vast infrastructure of the Air that we were building.  Rows of antennae  non-directional helixes,  which told me they were for speaking to “birds’ or satellites.  As well as the more familiar satellite dishes.  Air Traffic towers,  infrastructure for unmanned ariel vehicles,  airstrips for our large aircraft, and the strangely  a high tech reprise of Edwardian blimps bristling with sensors and cameras.  All this showing no sign of a drawdown.  Sure we’re removing most of our  ground forces,  but instead we  leave behind our  dour civillian contractors with their mustaches and sunglasses. Our clever Australian, South African and English engineers to build and man our lethal redoubts.  Our invisible fortresses in the Air.  No one will notice.

Although unsure about the wisdom of this naked thrust of our imperial might my chest couldn’t help swelling with pride for my country.  I suddenly felt like chanting USA USA USA!!

The English and their grey warships.  They controlled this part of the world by controlling the sea.  The Turks with their masterful bureaucrats backed by cruel and efficient armies.  The Mongols with their highly disciplined calvary of squat horses.  The Arabs with their swords, caravans and the crescent moon of Islam.  And two dozen other forgotten empires. They all came to rule this part of the world.

And so on my way out of Baghdad on the roof of what serves as the passenger terminal for officers and US government employees in and out of Iraq I began composing this.

“I sold the Yanquis the Sky,  I sold the English the Sea.  I sold the Mongols the Steppes.  No too obscure.  People will think ‘steps’ instead of ‘Steppes’,  I sold the  Ottomans… no people will think furniture,  I sold the Mamluks the…  ?  Who?  I sold the Romans the chariot? sounds sort of pathetic.  I sold the Arabs the Moon.”

I also thought of my father as I was writing this.  I couldn’t help because he actually died this day (January 26th).  I wondered if all those years of flying around in planes had made him a philosopher.  He never really talked about much in a geopolitical context.  Although I do remember a vague memory of him pointing out the faint  arrow straight outline of the roman road out of Londinium towards Dover.  And of course scrambling around on Moorish and  Roman ruins when we lived in spain.  He clearly had some sense of the bigger  historical picture.   I also document this in the Cracker song Riverside.  My father metaphorically stands on the bank of the river Styx which in greek mythology separates the land of the living from the land of the dead.

I can’t see you standing by that riverside.

I can’t see you standing by that riverside.

See you on roman roads, aqueducts and matadors

See you on Moorish walls, Alhambra,  Seville


05 Riverside

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*, **,  ***   I’m only joking.  It’s just my sense of humor y’all. And my father would approve of this kind of joking.  And *** was actually borrowed from ashley knotts.

I WAS THE MAN THAT SOLD THE ARABS THE MOON
And I was the man who sold the arabs the moon
The emirate princes their hands manicured
Their servants with luggage they followed behind
The african concubines regal and tall
And I was the man
who sold the arabs the moon
they festooned their flags with
crescent moons
And i was the man who sold the English the sea
They wanted the afternoon breezes it bore
The sweet smell of spices from over the sea
The afternoon showers it brought during tea
And i was the man
who sold the english the sea
i cowered before
grey battleship guns
And I was the man
who sold the yankees the sky
the black of the night
and the blue of the day
the endless horizon
of hope and desire
I was the man who sold the yankees the sky
the english the sea
the arabs the moon

#66 -Raise ‘Em Up On Honey. Notes on the etymology of the word cracker

Posted in Cracker, David Lowery Solo, Sparklehorse with tags , on January 5, 2011 by davidclowery

 

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The word Cracker has an interesting history one that I felt worthy of further elaboration. It’s origination is widely disputed. Was it from the  ‘crack’ of the whip of the white vaqueros that herded  Spanish cattle in Georgia and Florida? Was it because they were such  poor people they cracked and ate their seed corn?

The most interesting etymology of the word purports to illustrate a history of  friction between the dominant English culture and Celtic subculture  of the British Empire including North America.  This is not my theory.  It has been thoroughly researched and written about by several historians. Much is in dispute but clearly  the word Cracker is intimately associated with Celtic culture in particular the Scots-Irish of the American frontier.  The most notable author to propose this is Grady McWhiney.  In his book Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways of the Old South McWhiney  argues that Cracker is synonymous with being of Celtic origin.  Here is a brief summary of historical uses of the word.

Cracker as in a braggart or sharp and entertaining speaker.  In Shakespeare’s King John

“What cracker is this same that deafs our ears with this abundance of superfluous breath?”

Craic in middle english also was  used to mean “to enter into” conversation.  Especially loud boisterous conversation.  Hence  to “crack” a joke.

McWhiney points out that this is exactly the use and spelling of the Gaelic word craic.  This and other uses of the word  from this  period generally reference the Scottish and other Celts of the British Isles.  These included not just the well know Irish, Scottish and Welsh but also lesser known Celtic groups like the Cornish,  The Manx and the Hebrideans.  One must remember that at this time the British Isles had yet to be fully conquered  much less  anglicized.  Later many of these troublesome un-anglicized groups were shipped overseas to the North American colonies.  The southern American colonies and maritime Canada were prime destinations. Many of these wild celts arrived in the new world fully un-anglicized. Speaking their native tongue and chafing under the English ways.

Certainly by the time these Celts hit the new world at least some of them were being called “Crackers”

From Wikipedia:

As early as the 1760s, this term was in use by the English in the British North American Colonies to refer to Scots-Irish settlers in the south. A letter to the Earl of Dartmouth reads:

“I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by Crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia, who often change their places of abode.”


First a little curious fact about the state of Florida.  It was a spanish colony from 1513-1763.  It then became an English colony for a brief 20 years.  In 1783 it was handed back to Spain after the American revolution.  But during those 20 years,  many colonists from Georgia and colonies to the north were encouraged to settle in Florida. When the spanish regained control they continued to encourage American settlers to move there by offering land grants.  About 20 thousand american immigrants and 40 thousand spanish colonists lived in florida at the time it was ceded  to the United States in 1819.

The white cowboys who herded cattle in Spanish Florida alongside the Spanish Vaqueros were purportedly called “Quáqueros.” A corruption of the spanish word for Quaker which was also generic insult for any protestant.  Others say they were  given the name “Crackers” by other white Floridians and Georgians because of the crack of their spanish whips.

McWhiney and others argue since these were mostly  freed Scots-Irish indentured servants  they were already called Crackers. Further the pan-celtic preference (at that time)  for ranging cattle on common land ( in this case sparsely populated Spanish Florida)  as opposed to the english preference for penned sheep and hogs, lends some credibility to the account. Cattle herding was the preferred livelihood of many of these immigrants.

As a footnote the battle between the advocates of private land for grazing and the advocates of a common free range often played out violently through American history.  It ended in a stalemate. East of The Rockies most grazing activities happens on private land.  In the West,  The Federal Government owns much grazing land through the BLM or Bureau of Land Management. Historically this agency then doled out grazing rights.

I have often wondered if the Scots-Irish had a such a deep seated ideological preference for ranging and common grazing land as McWhiney proposes, what did  those in Texas  think  as the US army methodically killed and subdued their Native American analogues?  By this I mean the Comanches and other  buffalo herding plains Indians. For ultimately the Indian Wars were a process of converting the Indian common lands to private land. Yes they may have been happy to see the murderous  cattle rustling Comanche vanquished and confined to reservations. But were they not saddened by the following influx of settlers?  For it were these settlers that destroyed the greatest commons the world ever knew.  It was settlers from the east that  divided the great sea of grass into a patchwork of poor farms and meager homesteads.  Did the Texan Scots-Irish descendants secretly prefer the commons loving Comanches to their new neighbors?

Allow me to divagate for a moment so  that I can make perhaps my most glancing reference yet to a song from our catalogue.   Raise ‘Em Up on Honey.   This is the opening track from my Solo Album The Palace Guards (Feb 1st 2011). In this song the protagonist proposes a very Cracker-like return to the common. Although for the purposes of marijuana cultivation.

Go up on the mountain build a little shack just over the line

well BLM they won’t complain cause no one surveyed this in a while

home school the children give them weapons training

just in case the DEA comes snooping round again

go up on the mountain where the water comes from glaciers blue.

With my red beard, cowboy hat and preference for the wild frontier I could easily pass for one of these Scots-Irish “lawless rascals” so detested by the English overlords.  And why not?  My  murky family history would support this.  Lowery is a common enough name not only in Celtic parts of the British Isles but very common through the main Cracker heartland.  Indeed my great grandfather came from “somewhere in Georgia” and settled deep in the Piney Woods of Southwestern Arkansas.  The Piney Woods are a distinct ecoregion covering 54,000 square miles of eastern Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, southern Arkansas and extreme southeastern Oklahoma.  But it must also be somehow culturally tied to the Georgia and Florida Cracker heartland.  And for a simple reason.  Spanish Cattle.

 

Those Crackers herding cattle in Spanish Florida were herding a type of cattle that is still referred to today as “Cracker Cattle“. This is somewhat of a misnomer as this breed of cattle is a Spanish breed that the Conquistadors brought to Florida.  Cracker Cattle had a very close cousin further west known as Pineywoods Cattle.  These also were remnants of the Spanish herds.  Whether they were brought west by Florida Crackers or whether Florida Crackers followed them to the piney woods is immaterial.  There is somehow a connection.  Indeed some historical sources equate the term “pinelander” and “cracker”.  But This Is Pinelander Soul doesn’t have the same ring.

Finally the Piney woods immediately reminds me of another Pejorative.  Peckerwood.  My grandfather used to endearingly refer to me as his little Peckerwood.  Years later I looked it up and was shocked to find it was probably the only known slur for red haired white people.

In 1999 I returned to the Piney Woods for my grandmothers funeral.  There was a sea of people at the small church graveyard.  More than 100 people.  Most of these were my blood kin.  The majority direct descendants of my grandmother.  There were 90 year olds and nursing great-great grandchildren.  It was impressive and beautiful spring day. The children were beginning to run in a pack.  My wife at the time, Mary was pregnant with our first child.  She looked out at the crowd and gestured with her head  ” I want one of those”.  I looked at where she gestured but i didn’t understand.  “One of those”  she pointed at a flaming redhead of a boy that bounded past us barefoot and freckled.  Two more followed.  I looked across the churchyard and realized that my clan was full of these redheads.  I laughed.  “Careful what you wish for”.

My grandmother was of course famous for saying of her red-haired progeny.  “red-hair is how god marks the crazy ones”.

We must have seemed exotic to Mary.  Her family also of Celtic origin are textbook Black Irish. The Black Irish largely from counties in the west of Ireland, are not “Black”. They almost look spanish with their black curly hair and dark brown freckles.  And as it turns out for good reason.  The Black Irish do appear to be from the Iberian peninsula as they share common genetic markers with the Galicians, Basque and Portuguese.  I reference Mary, her sisters and their love of broken, old and decrepit houses in this track I recorded with Mark Linkous.

16 Eyes Of Mary

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Raise Em Up On Honey

going up the mountain where the water comes from glaciers blue
take along my sweetheart gonna raise ourselves up a brood
raise em up on honey from bees and buckwheat wine
if we can go do this make our clothes from hemp and twine
go up on the mountain where the water comes from glaciers blue
go up on the mountain build a little shack just over the line
will BLM* they won’t complain cause no one surveyed this in a while
home school the children give them weapons training
just in case the DEA comes snooping ’round again
go up on the mountain where the water comes from glaciers blue
every fortnight or so the bible thumpers they come around
they’re worried ’bout the eternal souls of our daughters and our sons
they’ll be fine they’ll move into the city start black metal bands
give up and move back up the mountain again
raise their little broods on mountain waters from glaciers blue
Eyes of Mary
You were born
With it inside
A secret twin in your wounded side
Bits of hair
Teeth and String
And Yellow flowersOpen Up
Let it all in
Let the strange parade begin
A piece of pie
A piece of cake
For Every sister

Let the eyes of Mary
Carry you away now
Let the eyes of Mary
Carry you away now

A baby born
It’s made of leaves
And Carried round the maypole tree
By Irish Girls
With jet black hair
And dark brown freckles

Let me bring
You bits of string
Tired and worn and sagging things
Under the weight
Of old crows feet
And the seasons

Let the eyes of Mary
Carry you away now
Let the eyes of Mary
Carry you away now
Let the Brides of Jesus
Carry you away now
Let the Brides of Jesus
Carry you away now.
Away now
Away

#57 Can I Take My Gun Up To Heaven. Hollywood Cemetery. Richmond And Oregon Hill Part 3

Posted in Cracker with tags , on October 1, 2010 by davidclowery


Church Hill is on the opposite side of downtown from The Fan and Oregon Hill. But firmly on the East West Axis.  Indeed this is the original city center. The city shifted first west than stretched north and south.  Leaving the old city center Church Hill isolated from the main life of the City.


08 Can I Take My Gun To Heaven_

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Although Oregon Hill is now considered a neighborhood of Richmond it wasn’t always that way. It had a distinct identity separate from the city. When established during the Reconstruction (the rebuilding and re-industrialization ) of the South after the Civil War it was far west of the City. The neighborhood was established primarily for the workers at the Tredgar Ironworks and the Albemarle Paper company.

The houses in the neighborhood have a distinct look. The rumor I always heard was that they were intended to be only temporary housing for the workers. Hence their simple construction.Very narrow two story houses. A steep staircase at the middle of the house that went up at a 60% angle to conserve space. constructed of wood when most of the rest of the building in the city were brick. The adjoining row houses although separate houses and not “condos” often share continuous floor joists and communal walls. The whole neighborhood has the feel of something you would find in New Orleans or more tellingly some of the old West Virginian Mining towns.

Indeed one rumor or story I have heard over and over again from many Richmonders is that the workers were all recruited from a single village in the mountains of West Virginia because they supported the Union in the Civil War. The reconstruction authorities wanted Yankee loyalists in the factories to foil potential saboteurs. Indeed West Virginia broke away from Virginia and was made a separate state because by and large the folks in the mountain counties of Virginia supported the Union. For various reasons this seems believable to me, but I’ve yet to find any real reliable source that supports this story that the inhabitants of Oregon hill were imported from Appalachia in mass.

Still like all the big cities within a few hundred miles of the Appalachian mountains, Richmond attracted many many West Virginians. They came many in successive waves. Certainly during the reconstruction and industrialization of the southern cities after the civil war. But also during other periods of boom and bust. So the idea that the Oregon Hillbillies- as they are often called- came from west virginia or Appalachia is plausible for many reasons. When I lived there you could hear the neighborhoods distinct accent. It was different than the rest of the city. You could hear the mountain cadence in there speech. Older people used curious mountain phrases and words like ‘ye ought to ‘ or ‘thar’ and the river pronounced  not with the pretentious Richmond/Tidewater accent pronunciation:  Ruhvuh. it was pronounced River. Like the rest of us.

It was also 100% white neighborhood. Very poor, very working class. Insular and wary of outsiders. Although the wonderful and elegantly decaying houses were magnets for artists hipster and musicians. The students from VCU were also busy colonizing the neighborhood. Blocks of houses were abandoned and condemned. This didn’t stop people from living in them.

If Corry Arnold’s theory of the inverse relation between housing prices and the vitality of a music scene ever needed a case study, it would be oregon hill 1981- 2000. These are the earliest and latest dates by which my (admittedly) small pool of  Oregon Hill residents agree there was some music scene based in Oregon Hill. Even if your band practiced on Broad street or Fulton hill, the fact most band members lived in Oregon Hill made oregon hill the center of the scene.

The Fan district another neighborhood of brick homes and with a distinct upper middle class and historic pedigree attracted many students. But the Gestapo-like Fan District Association did not permit any bands to practice (or live music establishments) in it’s domain. Or even near it’s domain. Church Hill the oldest and most historic part of the city was another promising area where artists and students lived, but it was too ghetto to rehearse there. Your gear would get stolen.

In recent years oregon hill has begun to emulate the fan district. Exhibit A. the flag at the main entrance to the neighborhood.  This is in marked contrast to the old bumper sticker you would sometimes see around the neighborhood.  Oregon Hill: That better be a tan!

So Oregon Hill by default was the hub of the music scene however brief and small. Despite the fact it was an alien in a host body that did not 100% accept it’s presence. Yet it thrived in it’s own way.

It produced only a handful of bands that went onto wider recognition. But I have to say. owning a studio I have empirical quantitative evidence that the Richmond music scene in this period was much more vital than the current period.  With the exception of Lamb of God most of the Richmond bands that have had any lasting commercial or cultural impact emerged in that brief period.

Again leaning on Corry’s observations,  this was the period when the the city had abundant cheap real estate (mostly in oregon hill and along broad street),  but was sufficiently safe (in that area)  to support a start-up band ecosystem.

One thing that helped Oregon Hill remain inexpensive while The Fan rapidly gentrified was that it was not considered a “historic” neighborhood for a long time. It is still often dismissed by the local historical societies. Especially the University VCU which coveted the neighborhood for expansion.  I suspect this has something to do with Richmonds economic axis being pivoted 90 degrees after the civil war. Oregon Hill was definitely tied into the industries that were part of the “new” North-South trade.  It didn’t even exist when there was a East-West trade.

In contrast Church hill and the Fan (with it’s monuments to the confederate war heros) still dream of Richmond’s Antebellum past. These neighborhoods and others further west are where you find the connected families that make up the old money power structures.   The lawyers and politicians that broker the deals of the city and state. I have a friend who identifies this social strata as  the “skimming” class. His point they aren’t actually adding anything to the GDP of Richmond or the US. They are  just simply taking their cut. Much as generations of virginian rentiers that came before them.

Conversely the troublesome carpetbaggers   with their  US Army, Fort Lee,  Defense Supply Depot, railroads, industrial facilities, fancy credit card companies, pharmaceuticals, and bio tech firms all live and work along the north south axis. The poor ones live in places like Oregon Hill, Lakeside  or trailer parks along rte 1 south. The prosperous ones live in the gated communities and sparkling suburbs of Chesterfield county. Brandermill. Colonial Heights. As opposed to the “skimmer” class these people are generally involved in thevalue added part of the economy. But I digress.

My point is that Oregon Hill did not represent old Richmond. The old southern aristocracy. It also didn’t represent the old southern poor. It was simply a white working class factory neighborhood remarkably similar to those found in cities like Portland ME, Providence RI, Pittsburgh Philadelphia  or Baltimore.  Yes it had a southern flavor.  But it was it’s working class white trash sensibility that had the greatest influence on Cracker. That’s what Can I Take My Gun Up To Heaven is about.

Yes it gently mocks and praises the inhabitants of this neighborhood at the same time. And how could we not?

The first weekend we had our studio set up we heard a ruckus that was so loud we could hear it while wearing headphones listening to loud guitars.  Two different factions in the neighborhood had decided to fight.  Well not exactly fight but sort of pretend to fight. Each side had a leader.  One guy had a shovel.  Another guy had a chain. They were naked to the waist like ancient Celts or Comanches. They were standing in the middle of laurel street daring the other to “come on” .  To throw down.  To throw the first blow.  A crowd of at least a hundred people had gathered to watch.

“I’ll Rock and Roll you Motherfucker!!”

A cheer from most of the crowd.

“Yea and i’ll beat your ass,  C’mon C’mon!!”

A cheer from most of the crowd again.  Which really doesn’t make sense if you think about it.

Amazingly  a single fat white city policeman walked into the crowd and dispersed it.  In LA or NYC 25 squad cars and the SWAT team would have responded.

Then of course there was The Prison. Actually I think it was called the Virginia State Penitentiary.  I guess I should have mentioned that earlier.  Neighborhoods that contain a prison are quite unique.  And this was not the city jail i’m talking about.  I mean the Prison with death row prisoners.  They electrocuted people in that prison.  I was at a party in oregon hill one night when the lights dimmed. It was the night they electrocuted a prisoner.  It was probably just a co-incidence. There were death row protesters across from the prison sometimes.  Sometimes there would be Oregon Hillbilly counter-protestors.  One time I saw a guy standing at the corner of belvidere and spring with a sign that simply said “fry him”. People driving home to south side were honking and waving at him.  Like he had a sign saying “Go Redskins”.

Anyway  sometime during this time we lived in Oregon Hill,  they closed the prison and tore it down.  Suddenly our whole neighborhood was filled with rats.  They brazenly walked around my kitchen.  I could scream and stomp and they would hold their ground.   They would have had to smoke and feign boredom to seem more disinterested in me.  These were some hardened city rats. They’d done time.

There was also dirt woman.  He was a sort of local celebrity.  A redneck drag queen. Worthy of a John Waters movie.  Every year he would wrestle Dave Brockie from GWAR (in costume) for charity.  He walked up to Mary once and took a bite of her Ice Cream cone.  She gave it to him.  “You eat the rest”.

There was dog man.  That’s just what Johnny called him.  Cause he was like a dog.  He’d sit on his non functioning car in front of his house.  Drinking beer and barking or shouting at whoever drove by.  Not in an unfriendly way.  It was a shout but the important thing was it usually made no sense.

“Hey man it’s going on!”

“That’s what I say!! yep that’s what I say! “

Some nights when buzzed just enough I sensed a profound truth in his seeming inanities.  But it was always just out of reach.

We didn’t hang out with the locals. The students, musicians and artists that had moved into the neighborhood were our friends and peers.  Most were from northern virginia.  They played or listened to punk rock, hardcore metal alternative and indie rock.    Some played some quite fey indie-pop.  So it wasn’t like we were in some Southern Rock immersion zone.

And a lot of the young oregon hillbillies were picking up on rap, and listened to the more bonehead metal bands.  But yeah on any given day you would hear southern rock emanating from someones car or the local bars.  Especially the locals only place on the corner of Pine st and china street.  That place was rough. (somebody remind me of the name The Chuck Wagon?).  Johnny and I loved our dive bars, but even though we were accepted by the locals we only went in there once.  We were immediately challenged to a fight so we left.

One night I was driving Mary’s car up Pine street and a guy comes running out of that bar at full speed chased by an angry mob.  I didn’t have time to even react and touch the brakes.  I hit the guy going about 20 miles an hour,  he went up and over the hood of the car. Landed on his feet and kept on running.  I stopped to see if he was okay,  but  one of the locals started shouting at me.

“get outta here or you’ll get what he’s gonna get”

My dream was that one day I’d drive by this bar and hear this song blasting from the jukebox.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Finally there is an cemetary at the edge of Oregon Hill.  It’s called Hollywood Cemetery.  It is fairly famous because it has several US presidents and CSA president Jeff Davis buried there. It also has a giant stone pyramid that marks the burial place of 17,000 (?)confederate soldiers.  Many people assume that the song Hollywood Cemetery is referring to Hollywood California.  It is not.  It refers to this graveyard.  In oregon hill it’s presence is overwhelming.  The whole neighborhood should be filled with ghosts.  The protagonist sings the song from texas.  His lost love is like a ghost that haunts him.  He wishes she would stay buried and gone.

04 Hollywood Cemetary

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Can I Take My Gun Up to Heaven.
[D]

Can I take my [G] gun up to [C] heaven? [G] [C] [Cmaj7] [D]
You know she’s [G] always been by my [C] side [G] [C] [Cmaj7] [D]
Can I take my [G] gun up to [C] heaven? [G] [C] [Cmaj7] [D]
I’ll check it with St. [G] Peter at the gate [C] [G(sus4)]

And if I had a [D] woman that was [C] faithful [Am]-[G]
Or even [D] kind some of the time [C]-[Am]-[G]
I’d drag her on [D] up to the gates of heaven [C]-[Am]-[G]
Or follow her right [D] down to the gates of [C] hell [Am] [D]

REPEAT CHORUS

[G]-[D]-[C]-[Am]
[G]-[D]-[C]-[Am]
[G]-[D]-[C]-[Am]
[G]-[D]-[C]-[Am]

[C] When I come home from a long day [G] a-working at the prison
[A] I find my woman she’s not a-[D]-round [C]
She’s down at Dahlie’s corner [G] a-playing cards and drinking
[A] Or sitting on the cars singing Dixie with the [D] boys [C] [D]

REPEAT CHORUS

Can I take my gun up to heaven?
Can I take my gun up to heaven?
Can I take my gun up to heaven?
Can I take my gun up to heaven?

[C] Can I take my gun up to [G] heaven?

Hollywood Cemetery


[G]-[B]-[C]-[G(sus4)]
[Em]-[C]-[G]-[G7]-[B]-[Em]-[C(7)]
[G]-[B]-[C]-[G(sus4)]

[G] I left my baby, [B] I left her [C] down in Hollywood [G(sus4)] Cemetary
Weren’t a cloud in the [B] sky, but how I [C] wish it was [G(sus4)] raining

[Em] Well I know it was [C] wrong to feel love like a [G] burden [G7]
[B] But if we all were [Em] angels [C(7)] Heaven would be earth
[G] So I left my baby, [B] I left her [C] down in Hollywood [G(sus4)] Cemetary.

[BREAK:]
[Em]-[C]-[G]-[G7]-[B]-[Em]-[C(7)]
[G]-[B]-[C]-[G(sus4)]

She got her petees? and coffee, while the band plays a funeral dirge
In New Orleans Mardi Gras, but I’m sick as a dog, here in Texas

When the one that you love’s in the arms of another man
You’ve got to rise above it, and let her go
Leave your baby down, leave her down at Hollywood Cemetary

[REPEAT BREAK]
[G(sus4)]

#56 Kerosene Hat-Cracker. Richmond and Oregon Hill Continued.

Posted in Cracker with tags on September 29, 2010 by davidclowery

 

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In #47 part 2  I mentioned the move Johnny Hickman and I made from California to Richmond Va.  The 64 plymouth threw a rod in Arkansas stranding us in the middle of rice paddies in the middle of the night. That’s where i’m gonna pick up.

We were being eaten alive by mosquitos in the rice paddies while we were waiting for a tow.  Johnny started smashing the mosquitos with a magazine on the headboard of the car.  Finally aftter 2 hours a tow trucke arrived and took us to a local Uhaul facility.  We had to wait several hours for the place to open up.  We’d now been up all night. We rented a truck and a tow dolly and towed the station wagon all the way to Richmond.  When we  pulled the station wagon off the dolly in Richmond i noticed all these brownish red smudges all over the headboard of the car.  I stared at them for a while trying to figure it out.  Those hadn’t been there before.

Johnny leaned in the passenger window to see what I was looking at.

“It’s our blood”

I guess I gave him a confused look.

“from the mosquitos”

There were hundreds of these smudges. “We’ve already played a price in blood” I thought. I knew this was funny and overdramitic still  I didn’t say it out loud.  I couldn’t decide if this was an inauspicious or auspicious start for the band.

 

Big Dirty Yellow Demos were recorded on a machine like this.

Big dirty yellow is what we named the house at 239 S. Laurel street in Oregon Hill. Because it was well Big, Yellow and Dirty. This is also what we called the demo tape of 20 songs we turned in to Virgin Records.  The house had a few distinct pluses.  The first was the neighbors took an immediate liking to us, cause Johnny (always the goodwill amabassador) did an impromptu duet of Streets of Bakersfield with the neighbor lady to the right.  This drew a small crowd.  When Johnny flipped the last chorus to Streets of Oregon Hill the small crowd broke into pandemonium.   They had to play it 2 more times before the crowd dispersed.  Meanwhile I had managed to unload half the truck by myself.  It was a small price to pay for the goodwill of the neighbors.  We never had to lock our doors, and no one EVER complained about the noise we made recording the demos.

It also didn’t hurt that the neighbors on the left were a deaf family.  Well not entirely. The oldest daughter could hear.  She would play the pop radio station quite loud.  On weekends we noticed that the radio would often blast  all night.  This was because the one hearing member of the family, the daughter, had gone away to the grandmothers for the weekend.

It was not always easy to gain the locals trust.  Oregon Hill had been it’s own little city within a city for 140 years. A white some would say white trash ghetto in the heart of the city.  And the neighborhood was beginning to be not exactly gentrified but filling up with artists, hipsters and especially musicians. They were drawn there by the ridiculously low rents and charm of the funky houses. Members of GWAR, The Alternatives, The Fugs, Michael Hurley, House of Freaks, Flat Duo Jets and Cowboy Junkies could be seen wandering around the neighborhood. The old locals which dominated our block were hostile to these newcomers.  But never us.  It was fortunate that Cracker was such a country rock roots oriented ensemble.

Big Dirty Yellow  had three bedrooms and was 300 dollars a month.  It was the classic Oregon Hill row house.  Narrow like a shotgun shack.  Each room lead into the next room till you got to the kitchen on the back of the house. It had no heat or air-conditioning.  There was a hole in the floor between the kitchen and living room.  You could crawl down into the basement through it.   We tacked a large piece of plywood over the hole. I found an industrial strength restaurant kitchen fan at a junk store.  I installed this in the uppermost window of my bedroom recording room.  It basically sucked the cool air out of the basement into the upstairs of the house.   Except for the hottest days it was adequate.  In the winter Johnny and I each had a kerosene heater.  We would actually carry these around the house with us.  not lit of course.  But if we had people over we would drop both of them in the living room and kitchen.  If we took a bath or shower we would bring our kerosene heater with us.  To this day the smell of kerosene reminds me of the poverty and the wistful hope we had for our music.

 

Site of the old East Coast Gas Station in Gunsmoke.  Cary and Meadow Richmond VA.

In some ways this is part of the inspiration for the song Kerosene Hat.  The kerosene hat was the wool hunting cap with earflaps that I would have to wear when I walked to the  gas station in the middle of the night to get more kerosene.  This was sometimes a scary proposition because if it was too late and the local texaco by VCU  was closed, we had to walk to the East Coast station up in the neighborhood known as “Gunsmoke”.  Cary and Meadow st.  This is still a sketchy area today.  It was really quite dangerous in 1990.

The second part of the inspiration for this song was the simple fact that Johnny Hickman and I were older than many of our peers in the alternative and indie rock scene at that time.  Also we were one of the few bands that was playing what would later be called Americana.  So this is exactly what i’m talking about when I sing:

How can I fly with these old doggy wings

While a magpie sings some shiny song.

Finally the main body of the song is populated by characters that are similar to the broken down houses and people who populated the neighborhood at that time.  I’ll go into this more in the next post “Can I Take My Gun Up To Heaven”.

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04 Kerosene Hat

[INTRO & BREAK:]
[Em]-[C]-[G]-[D(bass F#)]
[Em]-[C]-[G]-[D(bass F#)]
[Em]-[D]-[C]-[A]-[G]-[C]

[Em] How can I fly with these [C] old doggy wings
While a [G] magpie sings some [D(bass F#)] shiny song?
[Em] Old corn face row of teeth, she says [C] sweetly to me
In the [G] elevator [D(bass F#)]

CHORUS:
[Em] Everything [D] seems like a [C] dream
and [A] life’s a scream.
[G]-[C]

Here come old Kerosene Hat
With his ear flaps waxed, a courting’ his girl
Come clattering in here on your old cloven skates
With that devilish spoon

CHORUS:
Everything seems like a dream
And life’s a scream
When you’re submarine

[BREAK]

So don’t you bother me death with your leathery ways
and your old chaise lounge (old chaise lounge)
Wickerman’s fence of leathery tyres
And the cook’s gone bad, started several fires

CHORUS:
Everything seems like a dream
When your submarine

Head like a stream she says softly to me
from the rattling chair
Bring me a steak and my old pair of crows,
my medicine lamp

CHORUS:
Everything seems like a dream
So life’s a scream
(life’s a scream)

#55 James River- Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven. Richmond Virginia.

Posted in Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker with tags on September 28, 2010 by davidclowery

 

The James River in Downtown Richmond.

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The James River is the major waterway through the center part of the state of Virginia.  The river is quite deep until it hits the “fall line” at Richmond.  Indeed this is why Richmond was built at this spot.  It is the farthest you navigate up the James in an ocean going vessel.  After that there are a series of falls and rapids. In the early 1800’s  the James River and Kanawha Canal was built to bypass these rapids and bring trade from the mountains of Western Virginia down the James River to Richmond. As a footnote it was surveyed and designed by George Washington. But that’s another story.  This canal helped bolster the city’s commercial activity turning it into a relatively prosperous and large city.

Although Richmond is very far inland few people realize that there is actually a Port of Richmond which accepts container ships -albeit the smallest container ships.  The port is tucked away along the south eastern side of the city, in an area dominated by large (and mostly abandoned) industrial sites.  Few people who live in Richmond even know where it is. I’m not sure how financially viable it is. I suspect that the fact the Defense Supply Facility is nearby has something to do with it’s continuing function

But these days the James is a relatively unimportant waterway.  And it figures little into the commercial life of the City. The city literally turned it’s back on the river for many years. The banks were  dominated by railroad right aways,sidings industrial facilities and power plants. Until recently there was no easy access to the river from downtown. It was only in the last 15 years a riverwalk was built along the river in downtown.  There were parks along the river but you still have to cross railroad right aways to reach them.  And thenyou were often in close proximity to railroad hobo camps (south bank) or the rough but not unfriendly denizens of Oregon Hill.*  It is a beautiful river nonetheless.  There are spectacular rapids for rafting and this is in the core of an urban city.  Quite strange really. Deer, foxes, bald eagles and even bears are often seen wandering along the forested banks of the city’s river.  But to me there is a certain sadness or nostalgia to river.  It feels at times a relic of the past.  Like the antebellum mansions and the Civil War battlefields  and monuments. And a hint of even darker things.  Belle Island in the center of the river was a POW camp for Union troops throughout the Civil War.  By american standards a gulag of unimaginable horror.  30,000 prisoners on this island. 1 in 25 perished.  A prominent Baltimore surgeon who treated some of the  released captives from the Belle Isle prison  had this description of the prisoners:

“in a semi-state of nudity…laboring under such diseases as chronic diarrhoea, phthisis pulmonalis, scurvy, frost bites, general debility, caused by starvation, neglect and exposure. Many of them had partially lost their reason, forgetting even the date of their capture, and everything connected with their antecedent history. They resemble, in many respect, patients laboring under cretinism. They were filthy in the extreme, covered in vermin…nearly all were extremely emaciated; so much so that they had to be cared for even like infants.”

 

Talk about Southern Gothic! Cormac McCarthy in his imagination could not do much better.  But it is less the horrors along the river that captured my imagination. It was the sense the river was part of the lost past.  Once important it  is now but a shadow of itself. It is irrelevant to the life of the city. Just as the city was once the capitol of the Confederacy it is now a second tier urban center.  It is somewhat irrelevant to the greater life of the nation.That is both sad and sweet.

The river was the heart of a system that sent the products of the colonies and antebellum south mostly tobacco back to England and Europe.  An export oriented agricultural / natural resource economy.  Trade that went East to West with Richmond an important trans shipment point.   But as the North began it’s rapid industrialization, and railroads proliferated  trade shifted North to South.  The Civil War only accelerated this trend.  Indeed one of the minor frictions between the norther and southern states was over tariffs.  High tariffs protected developing industries in the north.  Richmond was also industrializing and was becoming more tied to the northeast than the south.  Hence many Virginians reticence to join the cause of the Confederacy.  As Corry Arnold (Rock Prosopography 101)  recently explained to me:

Thus the geography of Richmond is infused with a logic that no longer applies to the way the city works, as it is oriented towards the river when that is not actually the economic engine of the city (rivers are pretty, fortunately, so its not a terrible thing, but I’m not researching quality of life). In effect, the economics of Richmond were literally rotated on its axis, as the James River initially facilitated East-West transportation, but was of no value when commerce in the the region moved to a North-South axis (eg Atlanta and Florida to Baltimore).

(This post on richmond is largely based on research that Corry sent to me)

I wasn’t aware of this when I began to write about the James River.  But one – even an recently transplanted westerner- could sense that the James River represented the old romantic past of Richmond.  It’s sorry state also represented something else that I came to associate with Richmond. “Elegant decay”  and “opulent poverty”. Two evocative phrases my ex-wife  Mary uses to describe Richmond.

 

The first time I ever spent any real time in the City was my 29th birthday sept 10th 1989.  Camper Van Beethoven was on tour with the 10,000 maniacs.  We played a show at the Mosque theater (now called the landmark theater) just west of downtown in the middle of the VCU campus.  Natalie Merchant had some friends that lived nearby.  Later Natalie asked me if I wanted to go to a party at her friends house in this funny little neighborhood to the south of the VCU campus.   This neighborhood is called Oregon Hill.  It is a former factory neighborhood built along the banks of the James for the workers at the Tredgar Iron works.  The neighborhood is very distinct.  It even has it’s own accent despite the fact it’s a 4 by 10 block area.  Tiny two story  row houses with porches.  It looked like some neighborhood in New Orleans.  The residents were out on their porches this fine late summer evening.  Some polite with nods or “good evenings”  others drunk with catcalls and wolf whistles.  Cicadas buzzed in the trees and I thought to myself?  “where the hell am I”.  I’ll explain this  neighborhood more in a later post (Can I take my Gun Up to Heaven).

It was at this party where i met my future ex-wife.  (I’ve always wanted to use that expression). It is the neighborhood that Mary and I lived in for many years.  And more importantly this is the neighborhood that Johnny and I set ourselves up as we sought to finish writing the first Cracker Albums.

So the song started as a Camper Van Beethoven Song.  With me trying to evoke what I would term the “Old-fashioned seediness” and “antiquated decadence” of Richmond.  There were a surprising number of junkies, drug fiends and decadents in the music scene when I first began courting Mary.  So that was what first struck me. That’s what the Camper Van Beethoven version and early Cracker demo reflects.  Later I would come to appreciate the “Elegant Decay” and “Opulent Poverty” of Richmond VA.  Thus the later more gentle more evocative version of the song on Gentlemans Blues.

Finally I hope my description of Richmond comes across as honest but still affectionate.  In many ways my musical career is deeply infused with the life of three places the Inland Empire,  Santa Cruz and Richmond VA.

james river (live) Camper Van Beethoven Italy March 1990

05 James River (Demo) Cracker Sept 1990

04 James River-Cracker Gentleman’s Blues
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James River (later version)

[INTRO & BREAK:]
[Dm]-[Ddim]-[F]-[C]
[Dm]-[Ddim]-[F]-[C]
[Dm]-[Ddim]-[F]-[C]
[G]

 

[Dm]-[G]-[Dm]-[G]

[Dm]You come across [Ddim] the [F] James River [C]
[Dm] A-for a [Ddim] needle, and a [F] spoon [C]
[Dm] But would you [Ddim] come across the [F] James River [C]
To be my woman again [G]
To be my woman again

[Dm]-[G]-[Dm]-[G]

You come across the old lee bridge
A-For a dollar fifty in change
But would you come across the James River
for this heart of gold?
For this heart of gold?

[Dm]-[G]-[Dm]-[G]

[BREAK]

[Dm]-[G]-[Dm]-[G]

You go to work for Ms. Kitty
For a decent rate of pay
But would you come across the James River
To be my woman again?
To be my woman again?

[BREAK]

[Dm]-[G]-[Dm]-[G]

You keep a pistol in your left boot
A brush and comb in your purse
But would you come across the James River
To be my woman again?
To be my woman again?

[ENDING:]
[Dm]-[G]-[Dm]-[G]-[Dm]

# 52 Yalla Yalla Yall. Gallows Humor Addendum. Cracker Live in Iraq.

Posted in Cracker with tags on September 24, 2010 by davidclowery


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Frank Funaro  (drummer Cracker and CVB) reminded me of some of the excellent Gallows Humour while we were in Iraq.   Here is Frank’s comment:

Oh, and lest we forget… When we were riding around in Iraq in armored vehicles, we all had headsets and microphones on so we could hear each other above the ungodly din these vehicles produce. The 82nd Airborne guys that were in the vehicle that David, Greg and myself were in would pepper us with questions about the band and touring, and music, etc, constantly chattering into our earpieces over the radio. This was to (as we later found out) keep our minds off the fact that at any given moment, it was entirely possible that we would get hit with a roadside bomb. Ok, that was part of their their job, can’t have any civilians gettin’ all panicky in the back of a sealed, 14 ton MRAP. But, here’s the strange thing. Every now and then, apropos of nothing, they would yell BOOM! over the radio. Talk about your professional-grade, industrial strength gallows humor…

And since we are on the topic again.  Here are a couple more pieces of gallows humour I overheard in Iraq.  The first are normal military variety.  The last is of a Deer Skull variety be forewarned.

BTW I am 6 foot tall.  Foxx on the far right  is really that tall.

First while we were  traveling through baghdad by MRAP with soldiers  from the 82nd airborne Frank and I must have telegraphed to them that we were okay with the gallows humor. None of the other band guys got this treatment.  Once we  were faced with two unattended disabled vehicles along the side of a road.  The soldiers paused the convoy for a while and got on their comms.  I’m not sure how this works but they were talking to Iraqi security or American forces to find out what the deal was with these vehicles.  They didn’t want to proceed even though it was unlikely they were bombs. It wasn’t a long pause and  eventually someone gave them enough assurances that these vehicles were okay and we proceeded past them.  But before we did the soldiers began wagering on which of the two vehicles would explode.  Like anyone would be alive to collect on this bet.

“my money is on the mini pickup”

“thats  bullshit why would you use a pickup truck there’s no trunk, no place to hide enough explosives”

“it’s good enough for an Iranian shaped charge and stealthier”

The part about the shape charge may have been explained later within the safe confines of BIAP on the way out of the country. No matter how jaded these guys were I don’t think even they wanted to imagine a high velocity ball of molten metal ricocheting around inside a MRAP severing limbs.

I Forget Are klingons Sunnis or Shias?

At another camp I asked one of the Soldiers  what he thought of the Sons of Iraq or Sunni Awakening Councils.  These were former insurgents who had now switched sides to the US. And they were now on the US payroll.  We passed by their checkpoints occasionally.

” What do you mean what do i think? you mean how do i feel about the fact these guys  were shooting at me last tour of duty*?”

“yeah something like that”

“well,  this is Iraq: The next generation. They’re the Klingons” This was delivered with a disinterested shrug. A sort of “it’s not my fucking job to care” gesture.

Finally at one of the Army airfields in Kuwait right before we went into Iraq I overheard this very fucked up conversation.  Basically two young soldiers on there way into Iraq were sitting around talking about what terrible things should happen to  US army Major  and Psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan.  He is the guy who had shot up Fort Hood about 10 days earlier.  We were all waiting around next to these pallets that we had piled our gear and duffles on.  It was dusty and pretty warm.  We were waiting for someone to do some kind of roll call.  We would have rather been inside the airconditioned tent that served as the passenger terminal.  An older NCO was listening to these two young soldiers.  Whether it was the heat or the dust or he was genuinely sick of hearing these kids talk. He stood up and walked over to them.

“You two.  Shut the fuck up.”

They looked at him stunned.

“Sorry sir-“

“There are probably a lot of guys here that are a lot closer to that shooting and those events than you are.  I’m sure they don’t want want to hear your bullshit… besides there is a distinct positive to this event”

“sir?”

“The US Army now has a Psychiatrist with actual combat experience”.

JEEZ.  remember i’m just repeating the story. This is less than two weeks after the shooting.  So in the US Army  Tragedy + 10 days = Comedy. The deer skull has been….
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#48 Friends – 3 Guys Walk Into A Bar In Canoga Park. Why being backstage at a low grade music festival is like being in Iraq.

Posted in Counting Crows, Cracker, Johnny HIckman with tags on September 20, 2010 by davidclowery

Patterson Hood, Johnny Hickman and I Perform Friends.

alternate link

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In february of 1998 Cracker was mixing our Gentleman’s Blues album.  Don Smith our producer engineer had just acquired a mini estate in Agoura Hills CA. It had a smallish mansion and enough land that it cost a small fortune to water and landscape.  It also had some kind of  combo 6 car garage guest house at the bottom of the driveway. Don had set up a studio in the garage/guest house so he didn’t have to drive all the way to hollywood to mix his records.  He got to be near his family and at the same time stay up all night mixing albums. I didn’t understand that so much then.  Now I do.

“Costalot”

That was Don Smith’s playful nickname for the place.

Costalot was  little bit of a shock for Cracker cause we were used to being right in the middle of Hollywood or Manhattan when we were mixing a record.  We weren’t used to being in a gated community in the far western San Fernando Valley.  We weren’t used to being in the nuevo riche suburbs with the faux mission style shopping malls, upscale restaurants and wine bars.    As detailed in a previous post Johnny and I back then enjoyed our dive bars,  our funky old man bars, and the general seediness of Hollywood and Downtown LA.

 

So one night,  must have been a weeknight and late, like 1:00 am,  Johnny Hickman,  myself and the Austrian assistant engineer decided that we need to go find a seedy bar and get a drink.  First it’s difficult to even find anything open in Agoura Hills at this hour so we head south on the 101 back into the valley.  By my recollection we probably ended up in Canoga Park.  We finally found a place that seemed to be a sports bar that may or may not have had a country music subtheme.  Certainly some pop country was on the juke box when we walked in.  And the the only other customers in the place three vaguely jock looking dudes at the bar turned and blatantly stared at us in that particular way that california rednecks stare at you.

To be fair:

1)The Austrian assistant engineer Martin Pradler  was wearing tight leather pants.

2)I was commuting out to my cabin near pioneertown on the weekends so I was probably dressed in high desert thrift store hippy cowboy threads.

3)And well Johnny has always been the metrosexual of the group.

We ordered the usual,  bourbon on the rocks and a beer.  Martin may have ordered schnapps which also probably didn’t help.  But the three locals went back to talking amongst themselves. So we lost ourselves in conversation discussing the various songs on the new album and relative merits of the mixes.

After a while i noticed that one of the locals was standing right next to me.  He wasn’t the biggest of the three and he didn’t seem overtly hostile,  yet somehow i knew something was up.  His two friends were watching intently.

“Hey man” I said.  I think I kind of tipped my beer towards him in a friendly gesture.

“Can I ask you a question?”  he said as he peered around me to get a better look at martin in his leather euro-jeans.

“sure”

“Are you guys..  are you guys queer?”

I couldn’t believe the softball the guy had tossed my way. And before I could stop myself or consider the consequences  I shot back in the most friendly manner, smiling ear to ear.

“No,  but what did you have in mind?”

His two friends just about fell out of their chairs laughing. So did the bartender.

Johnny had initially alerted me to the guys presence when he suddenly acquired a guarded serious look and  slyly palmed a glass ashtray.  (you definitely want Johnny around if there’s gonna be a bar fight). Johnny now visibly relaxed and joined in laughing.  The Austrian was the only one not laughing.  He was convinced there was still going to be an altercation.  No. When everyone laughs at you it’s over with and the guy knew it.  He slunk back to his friends. His friends had completely joined our side.  They kept yelling at him “yeah what DID you have in mind?”

I did not write the song Friends.  Johnny Hickman did.  And I’m pretty sure he was not referring to this incident specifically when he wrote these lines:

If a fight breaks out and you’re the cause of it

In some redneck bar where you been talking shit

However it very well could have been about this fateful night in Canoga Park.

+++++++++++++++++++++++

 

“it vas Terrrrrrrrefying” even his hair was frightened.

But it’s not just me that has this survival threatening smart-ass gene.  Virtually everyone in the band and crew has at one time or another done something like this. On reflection there are about a million of these incidents I could describe.  It’s something about being in a band,  being in close quarters driving around busting each others balls constantly that keeps us in this heightened state of smart-assdom. We are all always ready to pounce on the smallest opening.  There is intense competition to be the first one to the punch.  That’s why it’s funny when people attempt to heckle or make smart ass comments from the audience. They have no idea how practiced we are…

And now that I think about it not just our band.  The poor austrian Martin Pradler was also involved in a milder but similar incident with the Counting Crows.  That same year I hired Martin Pradler to help with the “This Desert Life” album.  Dan Vickery Counting Crows guitarist had taken to purposely referring to Martin as German.  This was driving Martin Crazy.

“I’m not German I’m Austrian”

“But it was once all the same country”

“no”

“Yes in World War II”

“No-No”  Martin was getting visibly flustered  ” We were invaded just like most of the european countries”

At this point Adam Duritz couldn’t stand it anymore and kind of runs out of the room in feigned terror  waving his hands above his head.

” IT VAS TERREEEFYING,  ZEY RODE IN ON BICYCLES!”

This was not only funny in a ball busting way but made a very valid historical point.  Austria was annexed by germany in 1938 when German troops-many on bicycles-rode into the country and were greeted with flowers and enthusiastic crowds. Ouch.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

This trash talking and ball breaking is an important part of the band’s camaraderie.  In fact the old adage is that when people stop making fun of you,  you need to worry about getting kicked out of the band. So it is also important to acknowledge and repeat to others when you have been the victim of a particularly brilliant bit of ball busting.  It means you belong.

For instance.  I must dutifully report that  Thursday morning I was in Las Cruces New Mexico with Bugs my childhood friend and former cracker  guitar tech.  We were driving back from breakfast with our concert promoter when she pointed out a bunch of buzzards circling in the distance.  Bugs  happily chimed in:

“Oh  that’s just David’s career”.

Again all the crew guys and band members are quick this way.  Relentless training and repetition.  During the recording of Gentlemen’s Blues Bugs had gotten so good at these one liners that we started calling him Shecky Salcido after the comedian Shecky Greene.

We were all in a thrift store in Woodstock NY when a parked  car (with a dog in it) rolled down the hill and bumped into another parked car.  An older gentleman came into the thrift store and asked

“does anyone in here own a blue toyota sedan with a dog inside”

Bugs quickly fired back “That’s no dog! that’s my wife!”

We were pleasantly surprised that when we went to Iraq  the soldiers who transported us around Baghdad engaged in a very similar kind of trash talking and ball breaking.  Within our MRAP convoy  there were external and internal comms.  The external traffic  to things like helicopters or to destination bases was highly formal and proper.  The internal comms were  a profanity laden free association roast of virtually everyone and everything within view of the gunners and drivers. Iraqi women in traditional abayas became “Ninjas” and were treated with mock reverence as a lethal threat.
“Number 2 you got 3 ninjas at your 2 o’clock. Prepare for some wild monkey style”

Iraqi policemen got some of the funniest treatments. This centered on the very specific style the high ranking Iraqi policemen adopted.  Very large bushy moustache and 70’s style leather jacket. Like they’d been watching reruns of The Mod Squad. This was summed up best by one of the gunners in our convoy.

“We are training the Iraqi Army and the Paramilitaries.  Apparently the Ensenada Police Department is training the City Police”

The ball breaking included us in the band as well.  Sal with his thick NYC accent was for some reason a  particularly inviting target.  Sal also made the mistake of not buckling his 6 point harness properly when we were put in the MRAP rollover simulator.  When they flipped us upside down Sal  landed on his head with an audible thump.  This prompted the operator to ask over the intercom “Is everyone good?”

“I’m not good”  came Sals response over the intercom.

This was hilarious to the soldiers in our convoy.  We could hear them laughing  through the intercom system. If i fall and hit my head it’s tragedy, if you fall and hit your head it’s comedy. For the rest of our time in Baghdad every so ofthen someone would randomly and anonymously pop on the internal comms  with an “I’m not good.” Complete with thick NY accent.    This was later translated into latin “Salus Non Sum”,  and when we  made our official coin for the cracker tour  we included Salus Non Sum as our motto.

 

The ball breaking did not stop when we returned to the states.  St Patricks day we were playing in Myrtle Beach SC.  A typical city street festival thing. We got word that 5 or 6 of the guys from the 82nd airborne that had escorted us around Baghdad would be coming to the show.  I realized that they had only been back home in the states for a couple of weeks. I figured there would be some hard drinking that night so i put them in the VIP tent NOT backstage.  I just wanted to play it safe.  One of the soldiers was underage.  Frank took him backstage where Drivin’ n Cryin’ invited him on their bus.  This was not lost on the other soldiers.  Eventually their highest ranking NCO started bugging me to get take them all backstage.  Fair enough  I could tell at this point they were all pretty well behaved and didn’t need to worry about them.  So I led them all backstage.  At this point their sergeant looks around and says to me:

“This is backstage? Tents?  Porta-potties? Generators? Steam trays?  I can get this shit in Iraq”.

 



 

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Friends.

I’d [C] never sleep with [G] your ex-girl-[C]-friend
Even if she starts to flirt with me [G] again
Al-[F]-low me to a-[G]-pologise for my [C] slightly [Bb] wicked [F] thoughts
But [C] that’s the kind of [G7] friend that you’ve [C] got

If a fight breaks out and you’re the cause of it
In some redneck bar where you’ve been talking shit
I would not forsake you later in that parking lot
‘Cause that’s the kind of friend that you’ve got

CHORUS:
Through the [F] laughter and the tears
We go [C] stumbling through these years
A bit disfunctional [Bb] some might [G] say
But I’ve [F] got the dirt on you
Hey I got [C] plenty [Bb] on you[F] too
So I [C] pray we stay to-[G]-gether all our [C] days

When you’re on a date and you finally bring that girl home
you put a little captain beefheart on the stereo and disconnect the phone
I’ll show up drunk and ravin’, and then i’ll pass out on the spot
‘Cause that’s the kind of friend that you’ve got

REPEAT CHORUS
[Bb] [F]
Dear Lord I [C] pray we stay to-[G]-gether all our [F] days
[C]

#41 Sidi Ifni -Cracker. Paul Bowles, Moroccan Space Rock and Old English Queens.

Posted in Cracker with tags , on August 31, 2010 by davidclowery

Hotel Suerte Loca in Sidi Ifni

08 Sidi Ifni



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So the last i left off the band had broken up in Sweden and we had made our way back to the UK to fly home.

I however had always planned to stay behind in England. My girlfriend Mary (later my first wife) had planned to meet up with me in the UK and then we were gonna spend a little time time traveling around europe. But i had two weeks to kill till she got there. the first thing i did was go and visit my cousin John in london. We methodically explored quite a number of pubs in the the grimy yet colorful area of south london where he lived. John worked nights and i learned to ride the night buses around london. A helpful skill i relied upon many times since. I’ve never understood why one of the biggest cities in the world has a subway system that doesn’t run all night. Also the London tube map has a way of distorting your perception of the spatial relationship between different neighborhoods and boroughs of London. You get a much better sense from the buses. But i digress.

I then headed down to the Isle of Thanet. This is the very tip of land where the south eastern thames estuary meets the english channel. This is where my mother’s people live. At least for the last few generations. I have a large batch of cousins, uncles and aunts in this area. in particular my grandfather lived in a little seaside town of Westgate-On-Sea. We then explored the various pubs of this part of the UK.

By the time mary arrived in London i was ready to get out to of the UK. I had settled on a pretty wacky idea. A trip to Morocco. I was unwittingly taking part in a long rock tradition of visiting this cultural crossroads. Mary didn’t seem totally thrilled by the idea of visiting a predominantly muslim country, only because she had in mind more of a laying on the beach vacation, not a covering up her head, arms and legs vacation. On top of that she had spent time in Mogadishu not cause she was in the 10th mountain division but because her mother and stepfather were very ambiguously associated with the state department, always ending up in interesting places like the Mogadishu, Peshawar and Manilla. Read into that what you will.

On the balcony at Hotel Suerte Loca

But go we did. Ending up in the very unique city of Sidi Ifni.  (To arbabic speakers: I’m aware it’s redundant to say City when Sidi is already in the name.  But we notoriously monolingual americans won’t be able to find it on a map if i just say Ifni.)  We went to Sidi Ifni largely because of the strange description the Lonely Planet guide to morocco.  Since revised,  it used to say something that began this way:

“If Lethargy and Decay can be described as charming…

Hence this line in Sidi Ifni.

we drank wine, slept off hangovers

lethargy decay and forgotten loves

“Through the porthole see an epiphany I will never leave this place alive”

Inspiration for that line was this apartment building designed to resemble a Ship.  Sidi Ifni Morocco.

The second reason we went to Sidi Ifni was because of it’s hybrid culture and lack of pestering “guides”.  Sidi Ifni was part of Spain from 1860 to 1969.  It is a strange updated remix of Spanish and Moorish.  Remember Spain already contains a healthy dose of Moorish culture.  The architecture of the town is this spanish/arbabic/ art decco mix.  It is striking.  Also when we were there, the legal status of many of the mansions in the spanish quarter left them abandoned and boarded up.  That whole quarter which near the hotel suerte loca was largely vacant.  There was also a Spanish Consolate, in this quarter.  It was unlocked the two times we went to visit it, but no one was there.  Totally eery.  Another interesting feature was the grand promenade and staircase that ran down to the beach.  Although the city made an effort to maintain it, it seemed to be always on the verge of crumbling and being overgrown by shrubs and vines.  Finally as the spanish had land routes in and out of the city, the center of the city was a runway.  At the time Mary and I were there the locals used it as a giant pedestrian thruway. Whether it was unusable or simply used so rarely it seemed abandoned was never clear.  The whole town had the feel of Macondo the fictional town in 100 years of Solitude.  Indeed the french couple  that was staying at Hotel Suerte Loca brought it up conversation

“Is Gabriel Garcia Marquez translated into English?”

“You mean this city reminds you of Macondo?”

 


“Vines and Shrubs grew between the steps from the Spanish town to the African sea”

Another character at the Hotel Suerte Loca was an gay englishman of indeterminate age . Everyday he’d sit out on the balcony at 5pm to listen to the BBC worldwide service.  We’d often join him with a bottle of the local sulfite heavy headache inducing wine.  He had been in Morocco for some time.  He had been a composer of some kind.  This strangely mimicked the writer Paul Bowles history.  He makes appearances in both Dr Bernice and Sidi Ifni.

12 Dr. Bernice

Dr Bernice:

“The Soundtrack is played by some aged british queen on BBC radio one”

Sidi Ifni:

 

 

 

 

“We’d awake to the BBC
An old English queen, on the balcony”

There was an air of sadness to this man.  Or perhaps i projected my sadness from the demise of CVB onto him. Alone at the very edge of civilization.  And this time i really mean the edge of civilization.  This isolated coastal enclave hemmed in by the trailing edge of the Atlas mountains.  Only accessible by dirt road through the mountains via Tiznit or Guelmin.  The climate along the coast was like San Diego or Ensenada, but just south of us the Atlantic Ocean meets the sand of the Sahara.  It was as if we were at the end of long skinny peninsula between two seas.  Or with some poetic license between the Sea and the moon.

Between the sea and the moon.  Doing my best sheltering sky pose.

Finally the Hotel Suerte Loca.   This lovely and friendly place was our home.  The family that ran it had two adult sons who took an interest in the fact i was a musician.  They took me out and introduced me to other musicians.  They also had considerable knowledge of the western rock music and introduced me to many Moroccan and Magreb (western arab world) artists.  Most of these artists played traditional or arabic and berber pop music, but a couple of the cassettes i brought home were moroccan “space rock” bands.  Indeed many young moroccans would proudly tell you the influence that their music had on various icons of 60’s and 70’s rock music.  The music to the song Sidi Ifni also references the sound of these moroccan space rock band.  This was a conscious choice to do this rather than reference the traditional music of Morocco.

The phrase “Suerte Loca” means wild luck.  Or crazy luck.  I loved that this hotel was named this.  So i also dropped this phrase into the song The Good Life.

01 The Good Life

 

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Sidi Ifni


[INTRO:]

[Em] [Bm] [A] [Em]
[Em] [Bm] [A] [Em]
[D] [C] [Em]
[D] [C] [Em]We walked [Em] down a long prome-[Bm]-nade
Down a winding [A] stair, wide as boule-[Em]-vards
Vines and shrubs grew between the [Bm] steps
From the Spanish [A] town to the African [Em] sea

We drank [D] wine and toasted to the [C] day
When she was the [Em] Queen, before the long decay
We drank [D] wine, slept off hango-[C]-vers,
Lethargy, de-[Em]-cay, and forgotten loves

[BREAK:]
[Em]

We’d awake to the BBC
An old English queen, on the balcony
Wander round abandoned consulates
An old broken chair on the marble stair

And from the roof see Canary seas
The discarded runway of Sidi Ifni
We drank wine lying on our backs
On the warm tarmac, in a bowl of stars

Well I went down, mostly on my own
‘Til I was alone in that shipwrecked house
Through the porthole sea, an epiphany
I would never leave this place alive

I drink gin with the old ex-pats
We are broken things from a broken past
And it comes near, but just out of grasp
The alchemist words that would bring her back

[ENDING:]
[Em]

#32 Poor Mexico so far from God; So Close to Camper Van Beethoven

Posted in Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker with tags , , , , , , , on August 18, 2010 by davidclowery


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“¡Pobre México! ¡Tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos!” -José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori. President of Mexico 1876-1911.
Poor Mexico, So Far from God, and so close to the United States.

In #22 I ride my bike. I briefly mentioned  the borderlands of California and the Southwest. This is as important as the Inland Empire and Santa Cruz to the identity and development of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven.
So I Should explain the concept of a Borderland a little better.

Borderlands are a concept from Geopolitical theory. It comes in handy when trying to describe California. Borderlands are regions where the immigrant population is still culturally and economically anchored to their nearby ancestral homeland. The classic example is Mexican immigrants in the Southwest of the US. Coachella valley, large swaths of LA,  the southern Central Valley. All borderlands. These pockets are neither US or Mexico or both depending on your viewpoint.  While physically part of the US they are culturally and economically tethered to nearby Mexico. If you slide into one of these pockets from Mexico or from the the southwest of the US there isn’t really much of a process of adaptation.

Contrast these with the large pocket of Arab immigrants around Dearborn Michigan.  The weather alone would require adaptation.  But this immigrant population is isolated economically and culturally from ancestral homeland.   Sot this population is firmly part of the United States.  Exotic and unusual but not a borderland.

So this is what the members of Camper Van Beethoven and Johnny Hickman grew up around,  these transnational pockets called Borderlands. Jonathan, Greg and Chris Pederson grew up near these borderlands. Victor, and Chris Molla across the street from the Borderlands while Mike Zorn, Anthony Guess Johnny Hickman and I grew up inside one of these transnational pockets. This was especially true of Anthony Guess.

BTW Guess is really his last name. It was not a stage name. More than any other member of CVB Anthony was the most immersed in the borderland culture. He grew up in the farming and ranching town of King City California way “up” (south) the Salinas Valley. He showed up in Santa Cruz at the ripe old age of 18 and quickly gained a reputation as the great drumslinger in town. First we grabbed him to play in Box o’ Laffs. Later we talked him into playing in Camper Van Beethoven. He was a nut. In a good way. His music options in King City were limited so he learned to play everything. Rock, Country and of course the Norteña or Conjunto music. When we asked him to play with CVB he agreed only if he could play Conjunto style. I had no idea what he meant. But to him it meant he would only bring a kick drum, snare drum, high hat and sometimes a cowbell (pre-irony) or tambourine. The entire first CVB record is played with kick drum high hat and snare. Nothing else. Genius.
Not only did anthony play drums like he was from the borderlands he also talked the talk. His speech sounded vaguely chicano and he sometimes threw in spanglish phrases.

Camper Van Beethoven already had a little subset of norteña influenced ska:

01 Border Ska

04 Yanqui Go Home

11 Tina

But when Anthony Guess came into the band this stuff really started sounding very cool. Like i said we all lived in or near the borderlands so it was as if we were culturally fluent in this stuff anyway. Anthony Guess just took it to another level. Even the flat footed folk of Tina took on a Conjunto edge.

01 Heart

But long after Anthony Guess had left the band we continued to occasionally dabble in this style. Heart was re-recorded in 1987 with Chris Pederson and still retained it’s borderland feel. Although technically it was played more in the Tex-Mex style which was a later offshoot of Norteña.

A quick but important aside.  Some people are confused by the this lineage?Norteña before Tex Mex? Norteña is very old. It goes back to the 1850s and those german settlers bringing their music into northern mexico.  But it keeps being re-invented. Every 20 or 30 years.  Just when it’s about to become old folks music it transforms itself. And always by attaching itself to the most dangerous and edgy elements of the borderlands.  Most recently in the 70’s by groups like Los Tigres del Norte, and in the 80’s by Chalino Sánchez (who was born in mexico but spent more than half of his life in california ie a borderlander) In both cases these artists re-invented Nortena by popularizing the Narcorrido.

Damn it feels good to be a gangster. Chalino Sanchez while performing in Coachella CA  was attacked and shot onstage. Still standing  he pulled his own gun and shot and killed the would be assassin. It was The federales that finally got him in Mexico.

02 L’Aguardiente

The song L’aguardiente nods towards this as well but it was actually more of a play on South american and European music. This track was recorded in Vienna Austria in 1990. Note how enthusiastically the Austrians embrace the Waltz section of the song. That in itself illustrates my earlier German/Czech/Texan/ Northern Mexican musical connect the dots.

Finally there is a Camper Van Beethoven song that addresses the concept of The borderlands directly. Or at least treats it as the real geographical entity it is. Borderline from Key Lime Pie. Like all the songs on this album it’s bathed in melancholy and a dreamy figuratives. But it’s a couple driving from east to west, and west to east across the borderlands. Not into and out of the US and Mexico. They are observing that nothing is changing, they remain in this transnational space between the two Nations. The song even suggests that the Nations are fiction while the Borderland is real. Not to divagate too far but if the people of borderland are bound together voluntarily (which i understand is arguable) their transnational state is as legitimate as that of the US or Mexico. My Anarchist and Libertarian friends might say more legitimate.

06 Borderline

Politicians and Military strategist worry mightily about borderlands. Perhaps rightfully so. These areas tend to explode into violence and chaos. They tend to be flash points for much greater wars. But no one seems to learn from these episodes. We are always given two false choices. Make these areas part of one nation or another. The more obvious and successful choice:  Why not let them be? These borderlands have been with us throughout history and oftentimes-not always- they are places of great innovation, thought, music, art and even prosperity. From my political perspective it is often because of the very weakness of the official states in these areas. The governments have limited influence on the culture and economy. People often enjoy extra liberty. Grey market labor, less taxes, fewer regulations and contraband not available in the firmly controlled areas of the nations. They often enjoy less security. But not that much less.

If these areas manage to stay peaceful (an iffy prospect mostly because of interference byt the nearby nations). They are often powerful economic engines. I would say that this is generally true of the borderlands of the US, even if the wealth is unevenly shared. I know this sounds crazy if you look at the headlines in the newspapers. It’s stories of drug smugglers and violence. But the vast majority of the people who live in these regions live peacefully and contribute greatly to the wealth of both countries on either side of the border. And most of the Borderland is not lawless.  There are some marked exceptions. Juarez which is firmly part of Mexico (and so technically not a borderland) is currently bordering on anarchy.  Some of this spills into the real borderlands of El paso and Las Cruces, but Baltimore is more dangerous than El Paso.

There i go again looking at the big picture.

The Yaqui Nation straddled the border of the US and Mexico. They were still fighting to remain independent of the Mexico in 1918. My Niece who is very much a All-American Californian girl is 1/4 Yaqui, should she go back to Mexico?

Finally shouldn’t we say “immigrants” with quotation marks because a large portion of these immigrants are mestizo. that is mostly Amerindian. Their ancestral homelands straddle both sides of the border. In fact we should probably go even further putting quotation marks around “Mexican”. For many of these people’s ancestors could have just as easily identified themselves as Americans or Texans had history been a little different. Indeed many of their ancestors did identify themselves as such. The recent self-identification of many of these Mestizo people as Mexicans was the result of manipulative nationalists on both sides of the border.

Note in our New Roman Times story Texas has neatly dealt with the situation. Aztlan the semi-autonomous republic within texas is made up largely of the borderland region of the southwest. And in our story it is assumed that these people identify themselves as Tejanos rather than Mexicans, yet still remain culturally distinct. In the story the Texans and Aztlans are comfortable with this arrangement. In reality i don’t know if that would have been the case. But one can hope.

Oh and since i love flags so much the Yaqui have a Flag.

As a historical note. During the Mexican Revolution many of the great Mexican corridos were recorded in San Antonio Texas. Texans in general are more comfortable having a border and shared cultural traits with Mexico than the rest of the western states (except New Mexico). This is instructive.

And indeed Sir Douglas Quintet did in the 60’s in texas what CVB dabbled in 1980s. 20 years before. basically because they were Trxan.

Cracker pays tribute to Sir Douglas Quintet on this track.

It Ain’t Gonna Suck Itself- Cracker

And don’t worry Cracker heads. i”ll devote an entire post to It ain’t gonna suck itself.

Kenny Margolis.  It’s not the Violin that is the Devil’s Instrument.  It’s the Accordion. And Kenny keeps his DI in a Holster.   At least we think it’s a DI. Now that i’ve read about Chalino Sanchez I suspect it’s his pistol.

Finally  Kenny Margolis accordion player for Cracker had this idea to take the Bruce Springsteen song Sinaloa Cowboys and make it a Nortena song.   This song is very much about the borderlands of California.

04 sinaloa cowboys

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Todays words and music.

Borderline.

[INTRO & ENDING:]
[G#m]-[F#]-[G#m]-[B]-[Emaj7]
[G#m]-[F#]-[G#m]-[B]-[C#m]
[Emaj7]-[C#m]-[B]-[E]
[F#]-[Emaj7]-[G#m]

I will [G#m] sing
I will be [F#] passed on over [G#m] now [B] [Emaj7]
Take the [G#m] wheel
Take me [F#] down
Let me [G#m] sleep till we have [B] disappeared [C#m]
‘Cause we’re [Emaj7] moving from east
to [C#m] west
Across the [B] grain, it’s meaning-[E]-less
On the [F#] borderline nothing is [Emaj7] real except for [G#m] you and I

 

I have silver
And I have dollars
And papers, too
Bring me a mango from the south
Pour me a drink from the bottle
And one for you
‘Cause we’re empty as the desert
As we drift from west to east
On the borderline everything is empty, even you and I

[G#m]-[F#]-[G#m] Yeah? [B] OK [Emaj7]
[G#m]-[F#]-[G#m]-[B]-[C#m]
[Emaj7]-[C#m]-[B]-[E]
[F#]-[Emaj7]-[G#m]

‘Cause we’re [Emaj7] moving from east to [C#m] west
Across the [B] grain, it’s meaning-[E]-less
On the [F#] borderline nothing is [Emaj7] real except for [G#m] you and I

[ENDING]

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