Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Dharma Bums

I decided to re-read Kerouac's *Dharma Bums* again, one of my two favorites of his, but I couldn't. I guess my head has changed too much since those days.

Cracks me up the first page, though. I did that journey in a similar fashion at 16, before I read the book. I hitchhiked up the coast from LA to Santa Barbara, where there were so many stranded hitchhikers on the on ramp that no one would stop for fear of being swarmed. I was there a day, a night, and most of the next day. Cops would kick you in the ribs if you were sleeping. Finally someone got the bright idea that there was a train yard near and walked down there.

A hobo told him that there would be an evening highball train all the way to San Francisco, and that it would be hauling new automobiles on freight cars. On each freight car would be one unlocked auto with the keys for the other autos in the glove box. So about ten of us wandered down there and waited through a mission sermon for a bowl of really bad potato soup.

Sure enough, just like the old bum said, the train arrived on time and stopped at the yard. We got on, located the keys quickly, and got the bunch of us into two new autos for the ride. Off we went, along the tracks that often ran close to the beach. Great nighttime views. But when we were rolling through the yard in San Luis Obispo, some idiot in the other auto blew the horn. A few miles later, at a crossing, the train stopped and cops got on, quickly finding us, of course. They held us at gunpoint while interrogating us, and one deputy sheriff's pistol was visibly shaking in his hand. Until I noticed that, I'd have said he was more nervous than me. They gave us a lecture about how much the local people hated hippies and how more than a couple were buried and forgotten out in the fields.

Then they left, leaving the bunch of us standing on the crossing in the middle of nowhere, for a hitchhiker, never mind eight or ten of us. Needless to say, we were a longer time reaching San Francisco than we'd thought.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Uplands Breakdown Review Blast From The Past

This is my review of the 2006 Uplands Breakdown, which originally appeared on the Snock e-list back in 2006:

My solo set caught me by surpise, as I hadn't known I was opening until just the same moment I was lifting the fork to my lunch. It went okay and the people seemed to like it, I was fine with it, but my real deal participation came later that night, when Michael ... See MoreHurwitz had a regular gig at the Beartree. He played a really good first set with his pedal steel player and bass player, both of whom are very good -- the steel player plays none of the standard steel licks you come to expect but has his own approach -- and he had the people up and dancing, a great pleasure for me to see, because people don't seem to do that anymore where I live. They sit or stand around on the dancefloor looking at the band, mostly. At the Beartree that night, they were really dancing, doing real dance steps -- two steps and others. The Aimless Drifters were slaying, with some real western blues, the real deal, and I was hanging at the bar with new friends, who were also enjoying themselves muchly.

Michael Hurwitz called me up to do a set after a while, so I began by playing with the steel player (I wish I could remember these guys' names but I can't -- maybe Dave Lightbourne'll pipe in with them when he sees the snock list) and first The Stop And Listen Boys' bass player and then The Aimless Drifters' bass player later on in the set. We got 'em dancin' good again with a couple of country standards -- "Honky Tonk Heroes Like Me" and "Take Me Back To Tulsa" -- rocked up energywise, the way I like to play country, and we were off ... I dropped a couple of mine and two of Jeffrey's into the mix -- and we were also joined by a great trombone player who's appeared on the scene out there (who's also a tenor banjo player) and a Laramie cat named Billy, friend of Dave Lightbourne, on accordion -- but mostly I stuck to an amped-up list of country classics. We burned it up pretty good, all told, but the great pleasure for me was to play for a dancing crowd that was out for some unapologetic good times at the Beartree. Did my heart good to see people dancing and carrying on like that. I spent most of my youth in the west but hadn't been out there at all in many years, except for California, which is west but I've never really thought of it as a "western" state, if you get my drift. Kind of like Florida and the South. I was remembering why I'd spent most of my time out there while hanging out and playing in Laramie and Centennial.

The Beartree is a great treat of a tavern, as well -- with welcoming people and also featuring good, decent grub on a menu that will take care of any but the most macropsychotic, and nuff of it, too, when your plate arrives -- and the little town of Centennial kind of reminds me, and Elwood, too, of Silver City, NV, which was a Rounders/Clamtones hq in the late 70s, early 80s. Elwood told me back in May, when the Sensitivos were Sensitizing in Vermont, "You ought to come out to Wyoming, man. You'd dig it." He was right. I hope to make it an annual gig if they'll have me. I had a great time, made some new friends, heard some great music.

Elwood played with his friend Josephine Foster behind him, adding harmonies and the occasional sparse guitar and percussive activities. What can I say in a Hurley review that hasn't already been said thousands of times? Sensitivo or not, I've always said that the best way to hear Elwood is when he's playing solo. He'd altered his set list some since May, with for me the most memorable change being the addition of the rock-and-roll "slow dance" song from long ago, "Don't Say, No, It's The End Of The World (It Ended When You Said Good-bye"), which Elwood plays and sings beautifully. Other favorites for me were "Steel Guitar Elwood," "Way Out West," "Snockando" (I love that one), "New River Blues" (really love that one -- a starkly beautiful Elwood, right there), "Rockin' Desdemona," "The Rattlesnake Song," and "El Dorado."

I missed nearly all of Spot's set, unfortunately, because I was getting a headache from the cigarette smoke in the tavern -- I'm not moralistic about it, having smoked Camels for 23 years, but 14 years on without one, I get a savage headache after a while -- so I took a walk around the tiny ville of Centennial (population "about 75," elevation 8100 feet) -- so I can't report on that one.

The Stop And Listen Boys, I think, are a really great thing to hear. I was impressed long ago, in Portland, when I first encountered Dave Lightbourne, when he was playing, with Fritz Richmond and others, in The Metropolitan Jug Band, but I think The Stop And Listen Boys are just as good and Dave's lost nothing in all the years since we were friends in Portland, which is many years, now. I hadn't seen him since '80 or '81 and when I arrived at his place the night before the Breakdown, the Stop and Listens were getting with it bigtime in his apartment -- next thing I knew, hardly even a hello having been said, Dave was handing me his old Gibson and there we were getting with "Diddy Wa Diddy" jug band style without a jug but nobody missed it. What's a better way to say hello to an old pal you've not seen in a quarter century? Ain't nothing says howdy like handing over a guitar for you to join a session well underway -- they'd been playing for five hours when I got there, Dave told me later. Anyways, they really got with it, too, at the Breakdown. Like the preview says, that music is the earliest roots of rock and roll, custom made for dancing, and the Stop and Listens know how to put the real propulsion into that kind of music the way not many do today. It was a real joy to hear and again, to watch people dance to it. It's a dancing kind, up there in Centennial, and bless 'em for it. They hadn't played together in more than a year, Dave said, but you'd not have known it, as they got with it from the first downbeat to last. They were to record all day the next day, Sunday, at Carducci's joint in Ft Collins.

Amy Annelle of The Places, with whom Elwood and Josephine were transmigrating, finished the Breakdown proper with perhaps the curiouser set of the day, as the most of us, even with originals thrown in along with those of friends (except Woodbill of course who occupies his own space and time) occupy a more classic space hovering to and fro betwixt country, the blues, jugband and rock-and-roll. Some call what she plays "psych-folk" which I think is just a bullshit term of the like music writers seem to indefinitely create through time. Amy has a haunting style to her originals that has some punk-descended aggressional elements propulsed by a more casual use of volume than you'd likely encounter in my, or our, well, geezer realms (though we were all cowpunks when cowpunks weren't cool....) It made for an interesting contrast. She has her own vocal style and songs, uses far from traditional tunings (which she's also very fast at changing, a delight for any audience, as no one likes to hear people spending much stagetime tuning their instruments), and has a lot to say. I think I was as caught by surprise as anyone else there, for the contrast with the rest of our sets. I know hers got the most people talking about her music and music in general afterwards.

But I much liked her set more the next night, in Denver, where she played, followed by Elwood, followed by me -- for one because I'd heard her once the day before and so could listen again to listen for what I'd missed the first time around (lotta lyrics, for instance -- I'd been sitting too close to a speaker at Breakdown and the volume had me ... See Morefocussed more on her guitar) and for two it was a very small place -- a boutique aimed mostly at a certain section of postpunk young womandom -- so more intimate and easier to catch her subtleties, which were much more present and evident in the smaller space, at lower amplitudes. I was very impressed with her set in Denver and would recommend that folks keep an eye out for name -- she's a road warrior so you'll likely have a chance to hear her one of these days. She also has a new record coming out soon as The Places -- "Music For Creeps." It's also for keeps. Saturday night at the Breakdown I hadn't known quite what to think about her approach but on Sunday in the more intimate clime -- and where she was the main draw so her crowd -- I got much further tuned in to her wavelength and was able to hear the unity of song and guitar in the many alternate tunings, and also could better hear her lyrics. She has an impressive way of her own that's not like anyone else who comes to mind. She has a knock-down version of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" in which between verses she's added a chord progression I believe goes to an F minor (going from memory of sound, here) that I still can't exactly place, and she hadn't known when I asked her, but I think comes from yet another "slow dance" from long ago rock and roll. I'll remember what song it was one of these days. Interesting that she hit upon the progression without foreknowledge of the song my damaged memory banks have yet to recall, and more interesting to have placed it inside a Hank song that's so intimately familiar to everybody, giving the song a fresh new feel, which I have to say few can do. (I'm one of them, I have to say, ahem.....)

Well, that's my little rundown of the Uplands Breakdown, which is a grand time, well worth traveling for, that I hope very much to make a regular stop in future, and that lots of others do, too.

And if you're driving north to get there someday, by all means drive the Highway of Death (Rt 287) north from Ft Collins to Laramie, to get there -- 67 miles of high plains and Rocky foothills, no town or even settlement along the way -- mustangs off to the sides -- I saw a couple of golden eagles and other raptors -- and allow yourself also a night before in Laramie to catch some music and check the local scene, along with the old-time buildings still intact in the downtown section -- which you can't see just driving through on the main drag, and which, like Dave's place, leans right up against the railroad tracks, where you can often get to hear the lonesome wail again, and the pounding of steel on steel tracks -- sounds that have disappeared altogether from my regular hill haunts of northern Vermont.

And don't forget to bring a guitar or other instrument, as you'll be invited to play 'bout guaranteed.

Awreety awrigty then,

Onward and forward but never straight!
More Metropolitan Jug Band

Here's a couple links where you can see and hear The Metropolitan Jug Band, featuring David Lightbourne.


Eulogy for David Lightbourne

Oh my god. My good old pal David Lightbourne RIP. I just heard from Joe Carducci that he died night before last, apparently in his sleep. A good old friend. I learned a mighty lot from him as a young 'un and have admired him for many years. He was very good to a young Crispo in the days in Portland. I put many a mile on his couch, up by The Earth Tavern, and many a mile on his lp's, too. Crushed.

So many -- too many -- good old buddies gone.

David was 67, one of the very last true afficianados and fingerpickin' masters of oldtimey music. Proto-rock and roll, he called it. Rock and roll's earliest roots. I loved to hear him play. I learned an awful lot from him about oldtimey music, jug band, and delta blues and the many greats who played it. A masterly musicologist of American music, with an encyclopedic memory, he had an amazing record collection I was privileged as a young man to have nearly all to myself. I was brokedown poor. Dave gave me a shoebox of crappy cassettes I used to make a bunch of compilations from his hundreds of records. I still have some of those tapes, thirty and more years later, and still listen to them, too. I learned songs that have stayed with me that way, like "Jim Cannan's," a Robert Wilkins song about a long-ago bar in Memphis in the 20s, about which a Memphis preacher has been quoted as saying, "If whiskey ran ankle deep in the streets and every man were given a cup, no one would get drunker, faster, than they did at Jim Cannan's." That was also how I was introduced to Robert Wilkins' music in general, still a staple of my domestic airplay.

When I met Dave, he was playing in the Metropolitan Jug Band in Portland, with Fritz Richmond, also gone, now, along with their incredible knowledge, memories, and lore. Hipsters of legend. I'd arrived in town with Michael Hurley and The Sensitivos (Michael, Dave Reisch and me, and often other friends, especially Lonesome Wayne Thomas and Robin Remaily. Billy Foodstamp, another Portland hipster of legend gone, now, too, also was known to play washboard with us in that period.) We'd been moving on together for a long while from Vermont to Boston to New York to Nevada to California and up to Portland. The first night we were in town, we went out to hear the Metropolitan Jug Band, I don't remember where, and they were sounding good, too. But what I remember most was a grin Dave got on his face while up on the stage, playing, when he saw the bunch of us walk in. We played some that night, for free beer. Really bad beer, as I recall. Some Portland-brewed swill you're better off not knowing about.

And of course we encountered each other often after that, because David was another Rounder in all but name, besides being a master in his own right. But our friendship was made fast a bit later on when David was kind enough to let me move into his apartment of the time, up near the old Earth Tavern, where I camped on his couch for quite a while, after Steve Weber, whose spare bedroom I'd been occupying, gave me the boot into the street, likely for good reason, because I haven't always been the charming motherfucker I am today. What's a little homelessness amongst friends? Steve and Essie were very kind to have put up with young Crispo at all, in the first place, and I'm still thankful to them, both. It's not often a young 'un gets to live with legends he's admired from afar, and I remember all of the many kindnesses still, with great affection.

Now, let me put this straight: David could talk. I mean to say, he could talk on into any night, and did, for as long as you could take it. Michael called him The Informaton. Michael told me, "If he ever asks you do you know about Blindboy Pigfoot or whoever, the correct answer is yes. If you say no, you will get the whole biography, and you will find out more about Blindboy Pigfoot than you ever cared to know." But I'll put this straight, too: As Weber said yesterday, lots of people talk a lot, but David always had something real to say.

And say he did. I learned a whole lot of stuff about real American music, bedrock roots musics, and how it's supposed to be played from David and Michael, and Weber, too. David and Michael, especially, were both very free with the lore lessons, with me, along with their huge record collections.

Ain't ever been anyone freer with the lore and lessons about how American music's supposed to be played, however, than was David Lightbourne. I was already, when we met, and had been for some years, playing oldtime blues and jug band and country songs as if they were rock and roll, which is how I got into this long adventure with the last untamed Americans to begin with -- this "karass," David called it, borrowing the word from Kurt Vonnegut. Songs like "Rich Girl," "Bring It With You When You Come," "Mind Your Own Business," "Jesus On The Mainline," "My Bucket's Got A Hole In It," and others still present in my standard rep. But I was still a young man, then, and self-taught, and hadn't had the depth and breadth of listening or listening time, yet, that cats like David, Michael, and Weber'd had in addition to their own many talents. They had ten or twelve years on me and were intimate with many hundreds -- thousands, actually -- of songs and records from those rich veins of American music from the 20s through 50s. (To which they've all added, themselves, over the decades since the early 60s.)

I'm so glad I got to go out to Laramie in '06 to play an annual festival, The Uplands Breakdown, he and Joe Carducci have co-organized for ten years. I got to play with Dave again and stay at his place again, and smoke the hootie while listening to his incredible stories that went on and on into the night and started back up next morning, right where he'd left off or on some other tack still to be discussed and elucidated in scholastic detail. Elwood was there, too, an annual event for him. And then I got to play a gig with Elwood and Amy Annelle in Denver afterward.

Damn it, I've owed David a phone call for a while and I'm so sorry now I procrastinated on it for so long. He didn't have regular access to a computer and almost all of my communications get done by email. Last I heard from him, a few months ago, was a long voicemail message, telling me, "dammit, Gary, if you want to communicate you're gonna have to learn to use a telephone and I was just telling Carducci ...." You had to be ready to keep a phone to your ear for a good two hours or more when you called Dave. I wish I'd been ready. I loved the old curmudgeonly iconoclast and have admired him now more'n 30 years. I don't expect I'll stop now because he's gone. He had a part in making me the man I've become and he was a good old buddy I'm going to miss. An American original. A true believer.

The last deep lesson I came away with from David, out there in Laramie in '06, he was telling me all about the guy he was working for, who'd let him build an apartment upstairs over the business. He was telling me how his boss was an evangelist christian. I allowed as how I couldn't imagine having the same in my own life. Dave said, "Well, Sisco, you see the thing is, America's a big country with lots of different kinds of people in it, and if you want to write about it and sing about it, you have to be able to deal with that. All of it."

Yes, you do.

RIP, old buddy.