Industrial Nature

For a kid who grew up in the country, surrounded by fields, trees, wind and chickens, it’s odd how much I love intense urban scenes. The highways, the bridges and tunnels, the buildings climbing up through the clouds, lines of warehouses, built by unending lines of dreamers–all pull on my imagination as much as any view of the natural world. In this, my preference has always been the zones created somewhere between the turn of the century up through the 1950s, when America was still in its “as a matter of fact we are going to build that” phase. It was an era of big shoulders, big hands, big concrete and lots of steel. We took the people who couldn’t bear to be in Europe anymore, stirred them in with the ones already here by choice or force, and came up with a construction cocktail that flat-out got things done. The east coast and upper Midwest in particular have the look — New York, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, and all the others. There’s something about the reflected strength, the sheer massiveness of scale and purpose that gives voice to the rise and decay of the American myth. It’s the rusting over of one collective muscle.

On the 1-9, just west of Hoboken if you’re headed to the New Jersey Turnpike, there’s a mile or so of highway, sunken with another road above it. It’s all asphalt and massive steel girders, a road built for commuters, and trucks hauling granite, for the stream of building and tearing down that is the lifeblood of change. Graffiti covers any flat surface. Sunlight and shadow use the exhaust to make a knife edged angle from the sky to the pavement. If there was ever a wreck here you would be trapped, and it wouldn’t be pretty. Everyone drives fast, both the radio and their guard up loud. You can feel the pulse of the city.

If you asked me for a list of 10 places that reflect America, I’d put this near the top.

Drive it, fast, and turn up the radio.

Artifacts

When I was in my early 20’s I became fascinated with these big cut-out Marlboro billboards of a guy riding a horse. They were simple, and very surreal. It was just a guy on a horse, holding a rope, in full gallop. But they were 70 feet tall and always placed so that he appeared to be riding up over some never ending horizon. And being a kid from Texas, there was always a part of the Western myth so embedded in me that I couldn’t escape it even if I had wanted. And to me, this billboard was like a hyper-color manifestation of all those cowboy stories, the western myth, and that peculiarly toxic James-Dean-lone-horseman bullshit all rolled up into one, plastered across the sky under the guise of selling cigarettes.

There was one on Sunset Boulevard, in Hollywood, placed near this curve in the road so it looked like he was riding over the plateau of strip joints and bad tattoo parlors, off to some movie shoot beyond the hills.

But my favorite one was just west of Houston, where FM 1960 connected with Hwy 290. I remember driving back to Austin after one of my trips to play a show at Corky’s in the Heights, seeing this thing up there, lit up and bigger than life itself, and thinking it was about the coolest thing ever. It spoke to so much of what it is that makes Texas both alluring, and at the same time so damn weird and inward. I loved it, and more than that, I believed in it.

That next week I had to write a paper for a class on Western Art and Imagery (yes, I did go to college). I decided to write about this billboard. But in an effort to one-up my other classmates I turned in a song to go with the essay (it goes without saying that I did get an ‘A.’ Occasionally songs actually do pay off). I don’t remember the paper, but the song, ‘Wild West Show,’ ended up on Native Soil, my first disc.

Then a couple of months later Hurricane Alicia tore through Houston. I had to go home and help my dad clear out all the trees that fell in the yard. On the way back to Austin, at the intersection of 1960 and 290, I looked up and the billboard was missing the cowboy’s head and the horse head. I sat at the light thinking about all the meanings behind that image, and as I drove past the sign I saw the two pieces laying in the grass and weeds beside the highway. I did a U-turn, pulled over and threw them in back of my truck.

Through nine moves, two marriages, and 25 years of collecting and getting rid of stuff, these billboard parts have stayed with me. They’re so beautiful and strange, and I think I keep them as a way of reminding myself of where I come from. Over the years I’ve foolishly ditched a beautiful ’72 Fender Precision bass, a Les Paul Custom, a Nudie suit that belonged to Carl Smith and countless other pieces of art and clothing, but not the Marlboro Man.

He stays.

Practice / Sammy Merendino

I’ve never been one for practicing, at anything. It’s not fun, and most of the time, I just get kind of bored. Even as a kid, trying to work on my handwriting, or throwing a baseball, it all seemed pointless. I would rather just do the real thing. I was always terrible at practicing guitar when I was young. I was supposed to do it 30 minutes a day. Once I realized that playing songs qualified as practice, I was ok, but when it was straight practice, forget it. Even now, when I sit down to ‘practice’ the piano, or do vocal exercises, it usually lasts about 15 minutes, then I hit on some sort musical seed that sends my brain skittering off after a song. Maybe it’s my feeble mind, or just some lack of focus in general. Whatever the reason, the fact is that I’d really rather write a song then do almost anything else. Especially practice.

But I have great respect for people who can practice. I see the results of all those hours spent slaving over their instrument, doing those charts. They sit there and sit there, working on some passage or scale, over and over until they get it right. And then when they come to the studio, or get on stage, they appear flawless. I get it. I just don’t do it.

Sammy Merendino — now there’s a man who practices. Everyday, he’s on the drum kit, banging out some incredibly complicated rhythm, working on his bass drum technique, playing with a click, without a click. He’s a drummer, and what he does is play the drums. It’s a craft, and like a good craftsman, the man knows his tools. You have to know the craft to make good art time and time again.

About a year ago I was in New York, staying with Sammy, and came back to the house around 2:00 in the afternoon. As soon as I turned the corner off Broadway onto his street I could hear this rhythm coming from somewhere close, deep, fast, insistent. As I got closer to Sammy’s, I realized it was him, in his studio, wailing away on a double bass drum figure. He later told me he’d been at it for 4 hours, and that he’d been putting in about 5 hours at the drum kit everyday since the tour he was supposed to go on cancelled at the last minute.

Yes, 5 hours a day, everyday.

That’s what makes Sammy so damn good. He practices even when he doesn’t have a gig.

10.16.12

photo by Jeff Fasano

passion flower

I like taking walks in my neighborhood. There’s a couple of different routes I take, and I like to do it slow. Lately I’ve been carrying along a guitar, playing it as I go. People seem shocked that someone would actually walk and play guitar at the same time. It seems like an obvious thing to do, if you ask me.

The best part about walking a familiar path is when something that jumps out at you, something you may have passed before. Or maybe there’s some change since you were last this way. Something small, maybe a cat in a yard, a tree branch fallen, some little change in light on a tree. Today I saw these passion flowers covering one side of a yard.

‘Passion Flower’ — wish I’d have thought of that name…It’s a good one.

 

Lighten the Load

Almost all kids are sweet underneath all the chaos the world puts on them. It’s our job as adults to lay as little as possible on the pile. And when possible, lighten the existing load.

I met this little sweetie in Johannesburg in May when I was there writing songs as part of the documentary on FAWN. She was in an orphanage, having lost both parents to AIDS, and is infected with HIV herself. Like many kids I met during my time in Africa, she had never heard an acoustic guitar played, never seen one up close. I would let them crowd around and just hit on the guitar. The sound of the hands on the guitar, the strings making this completely chaotic jumble of notes and rhythm, and their voices was better than most orchestral works I’ve heard. Real magic.

If you see a kid today, lighten their load.

 

Me And John R.

Last month I stood in the aisle at Waterloo Records in Austin while my buddy Radney Foster’s did an in-store for his new record. He sang a song he and I wrote with Jon Randall, Me and John R. It was the first time that I’d been in an audience and listened while someone sang a song that I’d been a part of writing. I mean, I’d heard Radney sing Angel Flight before, but I was always on stage with him.

It was weird, and good.

Songs are like children. You bring them into the world, do the best you can, and then send them off to do whatever their supposed to do, be what they can be, or not. You never know what will happen to them. When we wrote Me and John R., I didn’t think it was anything special. I was thinking that it was a just very good reason to spend the day hanging out with those two, acting like we were working. But listening to Radney that day, I heard the song in a completely different way. To use the children metaphor again, it’s as if someone comes up to you at a party and compliments your kid on a part of his personality that you had never noticed.

It’s a beautiful thing, to hear someone doing one of your songs, especially someone like Radney. The dude can flat out sing.

Photo by Bob Delevante

 

 

Getting Lost in a Guitar

Sometimes when I play my guitars, I go somewhere else. There’s a mystery inside of these boxes, wood with steel strung across it that defies a real true telling.

And it doesn’t happen all the time. Sometimes I pick up a guitar that sang to me the day before and there’s nothing there. It’s like someone isn’t home. And then a week later, the old friend returns. I wish someone could explain it to me, but then really I don’t want to know. I’d rather be surprised.

I have a 1952 Gibson LG, a little scruffy thing that looks like it was beat up in a bar fight outside of Phoenix and had to go to work in a car wash just to pay the bills. The first time I played it I immediately, and I do mean that, went somewhere else. Out of the guitar store, into the middle of a field, a still day, sun setting behind the trees, I’m on a bench, writing.

And I heard songs in that guitar. I want the songs. I buy guitars because they have songs in them that want to come out. Stories. I literally can feel the songs speaking. It sounds crazy, but it’s true.

On the road, I play my Collings. And when I’m in the back of a club, in a dressing room, with hours to kill before a show, the Collings and I pull the curtains on the world. No one can find us. We don’t need anyone’s help making it back to the show.

Wood, metal, held at tension, and out of that comes a medicine that cures more than I’ll ever know. I love a good guitar.

Photo by Bob Delevante

Hello from Austin

This is my blog. Though I’m not fond of the word — it brings to mind some sort of B-grade science fiction character, or an ancient surgical maneuver — it seems to be what it is. So I’ll go with it. I thought about coming up with some fancy title, but everything sounded a bit over the top for something that maybe only a few people out there will even care about. Plus, if it’s a really good title, I’d rather write a song about it.

I’ll be spilling thoughts here, a few photos, maybe a song lyric or scrap of verse. In general, this will be where things will go that don’t make it into songs, which are still the No. 1 bag where I dump most of what comes rattling out of my brain. I have other places, blank books mostly, where these thoughts go. But those are filled mostly with words I wouldn’t share with my best friend, so the idea of putting them into the digital, never-disappearing world doesn’t seem like the best idea. So the blog will be a trail of what crosses my mind that lies somewhere between song and what’s hidden from all view.

I know, I know, everyone has a blog now. And does the world really need another one? No. Not really. It doesn’t. But so what? I’m going to do it anyway. I have too many stories to think about, there are so many funny and weird images and instances that cross my path, to let them slip away unnoticed. It just seems like a good idea to put them down somewhere.

That way at least I’ll have some sort of record of what was in my mind when I’m old and can’t even remember where I put my shoes.