Round Top – Carmine, TX.
I love stamps.
A stamp on an envelope is pretty good, but sheets of them, with the image repeated across the page, that’s divine. And I’ve got envelopes full, dating back more than 30 years. My kids give me a hard time about it. Relationships have faltered over the expense and my insistence that they aren’t always meant to be used (I always buy a sheet to use, a sheet to keep. Believe me, this practice adds up after awhile and can be the source of household friction, as if I needed more!).
Personally, I think the US cranks out some of the best stamps in the world. This notion continually gives me hope, though small and rather eccentric, for the future. Just the mere fact that the Post Office has over the years sanctioned what I consider to be quite modernist art, given the slightly Warhol-esque nature of the look, inspires great faith in my country. For, no matter what particular outrage we might inflict on the world at large, how we’ve lost our industrial groove, or the many ways that Congress might appear ridiculous at times, history will show that we at least got our stamps right.
I mean, come on, Johnny Cash AND Ray Charles on stamps. That’s pretty swinging.
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She boarded the plane, threw her bag down in the window seat next to mine. Row 5.
I asked, ‘You interested in switching seats? I’d love the window.”
She looked at me over her glasses and said, “Baby, I wrote a song about getting the window seat. It’s the way I roll.”
I said, “Well I wrote a song about falling off a horse, so, big deal. What about switching seats?”
“OK, well, I’m Darden.”
“You a musician?”
“Yes,” she laughed. “You?”
“So, do you put out records and stuff?”
“Really? That’s great. You play live?”
‘Yes, 8 months out of the year.” She pulled out her phone. “Here’s a copy of one of my albums.”
And damn near fell out of my seat.
“Oh shit, You’re Eryka Badu. Hi. I’m an idiot.”
We talked for three hours straight, DFW to Salt Lake. What a sweetheart.
It is actually pretty easy to be amazed.
In fact, the less effort I make, the more amazed I am. I don’t have to do anything, go anywhere, spend any money. It’s not about having the right plane ticket to the destination of my dreams (which I hope I never find). More often than not, it’s about seeing what is in front of me, what is right before my eyes, what has been there all along.
A conversation with my kids, the sound of a guitar, good wine, how the still water in a deserted pool looks right before I jump in — this is where beauty lies, waiting for me. All I have to do is slow down, see it.
I was lost in the middle of my weekend day, on the phone, rushing about, adding things to the list, checking things off the list, when I happened to notice this moth on the outside stairs of my place. It just sat there. So regal, so pure. The height of beauty.
And if I hadn’t noticed the moth? I know it would have still been sitting there, looking the same, not caring about me one way or the other. It’s my job to see the moth, not its job to be seen.
The best parts of my day are often hiding in plain sight.
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.
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.