Thursday, October 16, 2008

I Get High on a Bottle of Rye, the Coyote He Gets Drunk on the Moon

I went to school for a few years when I was a kid, before I decided I'd had enough of that kind of fun and convinced my parents to homeschool. School entailed a 45 mile drive over dirt roads to get to the little town of Magdalena. School started at 8:00 AM, and ran until 4:00 pm, four days a week. This meant getting up before the sun, shivering in the cold to help my folks build fires and get breakfast on the table, and then saddling up the old Ford, using the hand-pump to fill the gas tanks from 50 gallon drums, back when gas was cheap, and a wet-line off the propane tank to fill the conversion tank in the bed. The sun was usually just breaking the Ladrone peak when we hit the outer gate, finally threatening the last glimmer of stars on the western horizon.
It was a long cold drive, and one that often didn't get completed. Snow packed into draws, filling them feet deep and impassible even to four-wheel drive. Rain washed the gullies across the road, and filled the lows with engine choking water, which soaked into foot deep mud. And in a big rain, the Rio Salado would rise from a thin salty creek to a raging demon, sixty feet across, of muddy water racing for the Rio Grande miles to the east, completely obliterating either of the small fords on the old county road. But, success or not, it was almost always a good drive, and truth be told, I rarely lamented those days I didn't get to go to school.
My dad, he was the one who usually drove, would always play music or sing old cowboy songs on the drive. I don't remember a lot of the cassettes he played, but I do remember one. It was in a scuffed case, scratches partially obscuring the liner photo of a cowboy in a vest and a big black hat sitting with his guitar in front of a sunset sky. The album was Ian Tyson's I Outgrew the Wagon. I really don't remember taking a lot of note of the songs on it then - The song I liked the best, then, of Tysons was The Coyote and the Cowboy, which was on another record - But I remember liking the music, and the liking continued.
I grew up different. I've said it before, and will continue to say it. Growing up on a working cattle ranch in the 90's is far from the common experience. More kids, I imagine, grew up in Volkswagens driving around the country with their pot smoking parents. Driving 45 miles to reach the paved road just outside town that lead to school, depending on wood fired heat in a half century old adobe, actually knowing the meaning of words like riatta, tapaderos, hackamore, morral, these were not part of the common experience of my generation. Nor was listening to Ian Tyson, because no one who didn't understand those things, would understand that music.
Tyson got his start as a folky. He wrote what has been one of the most prolific folk songs of all time, Four Strong Winds, which has been covered by damn near everybody, and was part of one of the most successful folk duo's of the era, Ian and Sylvia (with Sylvia Tyson [nee Fricker], his now ex-wife). According to some, he was even the man who introduced Bob Dylan to marijuana. And when his marriage fell apart, and the folk thing didn't work anymore, he made good on a long-standing threat and bought a ranch not far from Alberta, turning to what he had always dreamed of - Cowboying. Pretty soon in addition to running the T-Bar-Y, he was playing in a few local joints, some of his old standbys, but more old cowboy songs, and a few new ones.
Now, there is a difference between cowboy music and country music - Always has been, and always will be. Most country, despite use of the word on occasion, has little to do with cowboyography, or the cowboy way of life. More to do with farming than ranching, and far more to do with honky-tonks, fast women, fast cars, and southern rural life, than either. Cowboy music is different - It is the music of a unique group of people, doing a unique thing, in a unique place. And in the 20th century, and its successor, more rare than unique. And very very few voices ever captured it. Even fewer captured it in a way that identified not just with the classic cowboy, but the cowboy of today, that rare, and frankly flighty, individual hell bent on eking a living out of being a'horse and chasing the wild bovine. Ian Tyson has been one of those rare voices.
Tyson released two solo albums in the seventies, Ol' Eon, a far more folk sounding album, and 1978's One Jump Ahead of the Devil, leaning more to cowboy music trends, and featuring his hit Half Mile of Hell, from the sountrack to the film of the same name (about the infamous chuckwagon race at the annual Calgary Stampede). Other than that, and some TV work, he was mostly quiet, and spent his time ranching and playing the occasional live show.
In 1983 he recorded an album, in his living room, called Old Corrals and Sagebrush, that was intended mostly for friends and family. It wasn't long before someone heard it, and Tyson was staring down the barrel of a contract again. The album wasn't a big seller, but it started something. In the intervening years Tyson has released nine more albums. My favorite of these would have to be 1996's All The Good'Uns, although they all have a fairly strong place in my heart.
Tyson is, like most of the best, and truest, artists, not a man without demons. He has been almost unhesitating to be self-critical in his work, and many of his best songs reflect his depressions, entanglements with alcohol and women, and what its cost him. There are few truly happy Ian Tyson songs. He lives in a world filled with ghosts, and for good reason - His world, the world of those who understand what he sings, is desolate, and only sparsely populated with the living.
I met Ian Tyson once, when I was a kid, after a live show. He was drunk, quite literally stinking drunk, and extremely obnoxious. I am pretty sure his behavior that night, towards me particularly, cost him a manager (an author who'd become friends of my family while researching a cowboy cookbook). And to tell the truth? It never really bothered me. I've been around drunks, and obnoxious ones, often enough, and had been even by then, that beyond that evening it didn't really phase me. I am still quite fond of my autographed copy of All The Good'uns.
Tyson's last two albums haven't done as much for me as his older work, but they are still good, and speak truth (and a few entertaining lies) about a lifestyle most will only encounter through fictions of far greater proportions. His voice now, in his mid seventies, sounds weaker and reedier than ever before, but only as might be expected. If anything, he's earned it. Carrying a rare truth, about a hard and harsh world, is never easy work, and anyone who makes it to be an old man has earned his weariness. A unfair, and painfully incomplete, payment for a job well done, but nothing less than such a man might expect, and certainly nothing he's not used to.
Someday, in the not too far future, we'll lose Ian to that great unknown, when his circle is through, and he'll be another ghost on a great range already so full of them. And eventually his music will probably be forgotten. But for now, for those of us who still understand, at least a little bit, there is none better, and none other.

"We will ride to the end, on the wings of the wind, until we're home, and our circle is through. May the children read, may they understand, what is of true value, so the truth may be known. The glory of god, and the dark side of man. The one thing, they must ride on alone. And may they stay, where the river runs through, the range and the sky, buckskin and blue. May they ride to the end, on the winds of the wind, till their home and their circle is through..." 'Til the Circle is Through, Ian Tyson

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A Voice from the Borderland

I can hardly find the volume knob on my desktop speakers for all the beer bottles on my desk. Only two of them from tonight, though a third to join them sounds good, and maybe I should clean, but that will come later. Not tonight. I turn the knob, lower than I'd like fearing the high twangs of spanish guitar will wake my roommate.
I first heard of Tom Russell via pursuit of the music of Ian Tyson (there's another entry entirely to itself there). Russell has done good work with Tyson's material, but I've almost always preferred the original. The name however has been familiar, though I've never sought out his work for its own sake, so when I came across his blog a couple months back, I tagged it in my favorites and have returned to read it occasionally. Occasionally in recent weeks has been something more akin to often, checking for each new entry. Tonight, after reading a little, I decided it was time for music, and turned to YouTube to track the man down. Its not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but its certainly mine.
Russell has a distinct voice, in his songwriting, in his blogging, and I can only assume in his published writing which I may need to track down.

At any rate, I've added his link to my blogroll at right, for those interested. Its worth a look.

Preventing Utopia

Personally, I'm interested in keeping other people from building Utopia, because the more you believe you can create heaven on earth the more likely you are to set up guillotines in the public square to hasten the process. -- James Lileks

I haven't a clue who James Lileks actually is. I've never, to my recollections, heard of him before I read this tonight and he may be some kind of a monster, but this is a fantastic quote.
Struggle is what has defined everything. Without it, what would we have? What onus for evolution would there be? There would be great, bland, nothingness.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

A World Without Consequences Suffers for Manners

I've heard it said that good manners are the velvet glove which covers the iron fist, and I tend to agree. I am rarely better behaved than when I carry a gun. It is being polite, having good manners, that avoids animosities and deflects conflicts. But what makes manners work, is the threat that backs them up. There has to be a reason to be polite.
Now, modern social science pundits would tell you the reason and function of manners is to avoid hurt feelings, and psychological damage. We are polite in order to show our respect and love for our fellow beings, and their uniqueness. Because people, the emotional/psychological creatures, are unique and beautiful snowflakes and deserve to live their entire lives without ever having to feel painful emotions at the hands of another. I could go on, that line of bullshit stacks quite deeply - Deeply enough in fact to populate the text books of entire graduate degree programs in social "sciences". But, it is just that, bullshit. Non-competitive, non-aggressive, bullshit. Yet, we didn't get where we are today by being non-competitive and non-aggressive.
Manners are good things. Politeness is a good thing. Not hurting peoples feelings, and recognizing that inflicting yourself without provocation on another is a violation of their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, is a good thing. But there is a quiet understanding backing up why its good to be polite to people.
Because, classically, there were consequences for rudeness. If nothing else mattered to you, there was the ever present threat of getting busted in the chops. If you insulted a mans wife in earshot of him, you could expect to get hit. If you hit someone without warrant, you could expect him and his buddies to take you apart.
For most of us, we can see why its good to be good to others - And we dont like being cruel or hurtful. But, for others, manners are defined by their enforcement. You ever see two dogs whose food-bowls are near one another? One dog invariably finishes first. What stops him from going over and eating the other dogs food in most cases? A low growl, or if necessary a bite, from the other dog. And vice versa, how does the other dog lose his food? By cowing to the would be thief's presentation of force.

You'll note I refer to such enforcement of manners among men as something in the past. I do this because I believe, for the most part, it is. We live in a society shaped by the opinions of our social scientists, and the empty demand for manners and respect for other peoples deepest feelings and not hurting them, because its not nice. Not because there are consequences, but because its not politically correct to make other people feel bad. An attitude which is enforced by the well-intentioned, yet often mistaken, legal consequences for violence.
If someone says something rude to your wife, and you break his jaw, you will be arrested for assault - Because hitting people is not nice, and nice people "mind their manners" and let things roll off their back.
This is the tyranny of manners. We've become a quiet, polite, politically correct people. For the most part. Those who are not quiet, not polite, not politically correct, walk all over those who try to play by the rules, and be good people. They are rude, and brutish, and crude, and offensive because they know there is no real consequence for it. They may get looked at askance, muttered about under breath, and perhaps lose some social resources - But that will be the worst of it. They only have to be nice to a few people to maintain a social circle, to hold down jobs, etc. Everyone else they will bully and push and shove, and do so with relative impunity, secure in the knowledge that most people are well behaved and don't want to make waves by taking them to task for it. And that if they do get taken to task for it, all they have to do is call on the law of the land to protect them from the "viscous brute" who hit them in the mouth when they hadn't lifted a finger against him.
Manners are good things - But they are also crippling. A world which demands manners for manners sake, will (and does) find itself victim to those without any manners.
Manners should be maintained for the sake of good behavior, but upon the penalty of real consequence.

I've had occasion, twice in as many months, to forcefully call people to task for bad behavior with polite, but emphatic, threats of consequences. Threats I was more than ready to back up (or I wouldn't have been making them). A willingness which I am sure will eventually get me in trouble with the authorities for disrupting the flow and giving some SOB what-for. If necessary, thats a price I am willing to accept. Particularly when it comes to taking someone to task for offensive, over-the-line, behavior towards women. I have a special attitude for those people.

I dream of a world with consequences. I try to live my life as if I were living in one. I will, and do, hold others to that standard.

Where does the living go?

Layover, by Charles Bukowski

Making love in the sun, in the morning sun
in a hotel room
above the alley
where poor men poke for bottles;
making love in the sun
making love by a carpet redder than our blood,
making love while the boys sell headlines
and Cadillacs,
making love by a photograph of Paris
and an open pack of Chesterfields,
making love while other men- poor folks-
That moment- to this. . .
may be years in the way they measure,
but it's only one sentence back in my mind-
there are so many days
when living stops and pulls up and sits
and waits like a train on the rails.
I pass the hotel at 8
and at 5; there are cats in the alleys
and bottles and bums,
and I look up at the window and think,
I no longer know where you are,
and I walk on and wonder where
the living goes
when it stops.

Bukowski is amazing... maybe more later. I feel another poet post coming on.