TOM RUSSELL author of TOUGH COMPANY
interviewed by BRADLEY MASON HAMLIN
“I am an outsider, folk art, roots-based minstrel.”
Hamlin: You say that Charles Bukowski, in “Crucifix In A Deathhand,” wrote about the Los Angeles where you grew up. Tell us, in your own words, about that L.A., that time period and place in your life.
Russell: I was born down on Hope Street, downtown L.A., in the late 40s. California Lutheran Hospital. Had some kind of stomach problem when I was born, pyloric stenosis. My insides were all twisted. I almost kicked the little bucket. As a kid I was always going to the doctor in downtown L.A., so I have deep, child memories of big, dreary hospitals and old doctor’s offices in motel court type places where they were always sticking me with needles. I survived. And I remember the big hotels downtown. My father would go into those old hotels and get a shoeshine and read the racing form. I’d sit and listen to the old black guys talking about race horses. Poppin’ the shoeshine rag.
Back then people still went into downtown L.A. to do business. It was right out of a Raymond Chandler novel. I think I remember Angel’s Flight and Bunker Hill. And skid row. I was always fascinated with L.A.’s skid row, you know, 5th and Main, down there. Later I worked there in the flower market. I remember, in the late 50s, all those burlesque joints down there. Big neon signs “Appearing Now! White Fury and Her Twin 44s!” And there’s a twenty foot high cardboard blonde with huge breasts staring down at you.
We would walk through Pershing square and there were all these preachers and the “Sisters of the Holy Cross of God” in their starched white uniforms collecting money in buckets. They had bleeding hearts pinned to their chests. They scared the hell out of me. And was it Clifton’s Cafeteria? They had a fake waterfall in there. Lots of Jello and pudding. And The Old Mission and Olvera Street and all that Mexican kitsch stuff for sale. Maracas, whoopie cushions, cheap guitars, bullfight posters and sombreros. “Heh Meester, take a look! Get your photo taken on the back of a donkey.”
And taking those big, wonderful Union Pacific Trains out of Union Station, sitting in the dome liner and riding back to Detroit, where my old man bought a Cadillac. 1956 Blue and White Coup de Ville. And the racetracks, we grew up on the backside of Hollywood Park and Santa Anita and Del Mar. My old man owned horses in the 60s before he lost all his money and did time in L.A. County Jail. And the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to town in the 50s and Don Zimmer and Johnny Padres came over to our house to play poker. A lot of this time was written about on my record, The Man From God Knows Where. My father lost a lot of money in the card rooms over in Gardenia. And we used to go to the bullfights down in Tijuana. I could go on and on. That was the old 1956, cocktail-party-L.A. of my dreams. All these things are gone or politically incorrect.
Hamlin: Please explain your background as a student of criminology and how/if that influences your art.
Russell: The bio in this book [Tough Company] is one of the first times I’ve admitted having a degree in Criminology. I received a Master’s degree in what was technically called the Sociology of Law. University of California at Santa Barbara. I had a good friend named Bill Chambliss who was a big league Marxist sociologist who wrote a book on safe crackers and another on street gangs and I was intrigued. This was the time in Santa Barbara when the radicals burned down the Bank of America. I still had in my mind that I could end up doing some kind of work on Skid Row, doing research, finding out why all those folks ended up there. I was fascinated with that. Instead I graduated and ended up in Nigeria in l969, teaching school in Ibadan during the Biafran War. It was on a Rockefeller grant. I was there a year. I was there when the war ended. I think three million people were killed.
I was only twenty years old or so and my eyes were forced open. Drunk, tribal soldiers in dark glasses were always sticking rifles in your face. They got whacked on palm wine. It ferments in the tree. Makes you crazy.
“Give me a dash, masta. Oh my gun go ratty-tat-tat.”
They still called you master, even when they had a gun in your face. I was married to Dr. Chamblis’s secretary. There wasn’t much work to do because of the war. These tribes were exterminating each other. I spent the time learning to carve wood from a village carver. I collected African art, and I tried to stay away from the front of a machine gun. I jammed in the Ibadan high life clubs with Sunny Ade, and read a lot of Graham Greene. I love the work of Graham Greene. To this day The Heart of the Matter is my favorite novel. It takes place in West Africa and, believe me, Greene had it down. I’m still pissed off that the Swedes didn’t give him the Nobel Prize. They gave it to fucking William Golding who was a hack compared to Greene. But Green was considered anti-American so the Swedes passed him by, ‘cause they like to kiss America’s ass. Later I wrote Greene a letter in Antibes and told him what his writing meant to me and he sent me a nice little note back.
It was in Africa that I decided that spending the rest of my life around white academic people would be a really big drag. Those boring, back biting phonies, publish or perish and all that shit. I wanted to work with street problems and these people never went out of their offices, except to screw each other’s wives. There was no soul or passion to the academic life. People were hiding behind the University walls out of fear.
I ended up on Skid Row anyway. We moved to Vancouver, Canada after Africa and I was working as a census taker and I walked into a Skid Row bar and saw a honky tonk band playing a Hank Williams song. I said, “That’s it; that’s the job for me.” Six months later I was in a band, backing topless girls and snake acts and female impersonators and that’s where the music career began. I’ve never regretted that decision.
Thinking like a criminologist and a novelist probably influences how I get inside a character’s head. I’m interested in what ONE person is thinking and feeling and what they’ve been through. Their Story. Everyone has a story. That’s what I was searching for in sociology, but I couldn’t find anything real within the hallowed walls of academia. I found it in songwriting.
Hamlin: Is Tom Russell considered an outlaw/outsider from the mainstream recording industry—sort of like Bukowski being outside the regular control system of the big publishers? If so, why?
Russell: I feel like an outsider. I always have. I was a weird kid. I lived in my head. I went through the motions in the outside world. I felt painfully shy and unable to talk to anyone until I was in my 30s. I felt like a budding serial murderer. It wasn’t until I began writing that I became centered. I finally feel like I can communicate with women. That whole Catholic thing fucked me up—fucked a million people up. At least Father Duffy wasn’t trying to grope me. Fuck ‘em all. They perverted Christ’s words. Ever hear of the Gnostic Gospels? The Early Church edited out the mystic teachings of Christ so they could build their Earthly Kingdom. And the earthly Kingdom’s filled with a bunch of perverts. Heh, don’t get me started.
I like outsider art and folk art and I collect it. I am an outsider, folk art, roots-based minstrel. A troubadour. I was doing a form of country music fifteen years ago, then country music spiritually collapsed in the late 1980s. They virtually expelled the Great Ones like Haggard, Jones, and Cash. Kicked them off the radio and ushered in the Pop Sound, which was musac for white middle class consumers. People who tried to consume enough crap to ward off the FEAR. The guts and heart went out of the writing. It pushed writers like myself further and further out on an edge. But that’s a good place to be. Lots of perspective out here. The air is fresher. I feel like an expatriate. Paris in the thirties and all that. It’s too late to sell out. The line for selling out is far too long. Leonard Cohen once said he was fighting on the front lines of his own little career. His own little war. I feel that. Locked up in the Tower of Song and Hank Williams is thirty floors above me.
Hamlin: You are one of the people that has taken the time to look deeper into Bukowski, past the drunken exterior, past the self-hating man with the rooming house whores. What are some people missing when they look for the barfly but forget the writer?
Russell: Bukowski, at his best, was a goddamn good writer. He wrote about the working class life with a fresh, outrageously honest viewpoint. It was a very European approach. Like Celine. Hardcore and hip and funny. Irreverent. He didn’t kiss ass. I mean most of our fucking novelists and poets come out of the Academic lifestyle. Sucking on the tit. Riding the dole. Then there’s the darlings of The New York Times or The New Yorker. Have you ever tried to read Joyce Carol Oates? She pumps out two books a year. Her sentences have to be deconstructed before you can fathom what she’s trying to say—which isn’t much. It’s artifice. Style, such as it is, over substance. And then we’ve got Norman Mailer, the impotent lion of American letters, who has written nothing of interest, except bits of journalism. A blowhard. He ran for Mayor of New York. A good job for him. And John Updike has sunk into a goddamn book reviewer and third rate poet for The New Yorker.
The Beats broke through the crap for awhile, in the 1950s, and they were either ignored or lampooned or criticized or exiled to death. Ever see Kerouac on the William Buckley show? They humiliated him. They baited him. They destroyed him and he believed all the criticism and drank himself to death in his mother’s kitchen. There’s your American dream.
Now every five years The New Yorker tries to float out another set of “important new writers” like Jay McInerney for Christ sakes and it’s all bullshit. Bukwoski, at his best, told us what it was like in the American factory; in the post office; in the American bar; in the bedroom. He told us what it’s like to get up in the morning and go to work and sit out there on the freeway grinding your teeth. That’s where WE LIVE. He told us what it was like behind the shades in all those lonely rooms in Hollywood; and if you don’t think there’s a lot of people dying tonight behind the shades in a million lonely rooms, then you don’t know America. Bukowski got to the center of things you aren’t gonna read about in People magazine or The New York Times or in Rolling Stone or Vanity Fair. And he pulled it off with grace and humor.
Of course he was considered a drunk, foul mouthed, misogynist, and he played up to that when he felt like it. He shoved it in their faces in a rather crude manner. He wrote a lot of throwaway stuff. It amused him. He wasn’t always writing literature; he was entertaining himself. I believe that Post Office and Women and some of the poems are just as important to the American canon as Twain, Saroyan, Kerouac, Wolfe, and so on and so on—the best of Bukowski resonates with truth.
Hamlin: You have a wide range with the types of music you record, but the common denominator appears to be a folk, storytelling root. Is it the story you go for first in a song?
Russell: The STORY is the heart of everything. There is never a big message. Just one human heart. One soul. One mind. What someone has been THROUGH. Survived. It might have been St. Augustine who said: “We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragons. It is this passage by the dragons, or into their very mouth, which is the real substance of stories.” That’s the bottom line. That’s the plot. Passing by the Dragons. Or being devoured.
Hamlin: Do you find your audiences to be a mix of the working class and the literary crowd? In other words, you write about the average Joe, but you often do it in a literary way, making allusions to intelligent books, films, and historical figures. Has this method given you a wide mix of listeners?
Russell: I have always had a weird mix of listeners. Older folks who like a sort of “literate” country, and who hate modern country music, middle-aged people who went through the folk era with Dylan and Ian and Sylvia, and younger people who have discovered “roots” music and “alt country” and “Americana” or whatever they’re calling it now. These people reach out to find this type of writing. It’s underground.
Europeans are a fresher audience because they aren’t living under the umbrella of American hype. They want to hear an authentic American voice. Most of the journalists over there are very well versed in the roots and history of American music, where, over here, most American journalists appear to have given up. Caved in. Nobody really expects anything new.
Hamlin: Your friend Dave Alvin wrote the introduction for Tough Company. Tell us a little bit about this friendship. What does a rockabilly Blaster and a western troubadour do on a mutual day off?
Russell: I met Dave Alvin in New York at least ten or twelve years ago. Katy Moffat introduced us. He was a big fan of a record I did called Poor Man’s Dream. Someone had persuaded him to give Nashville a try and he couldn’t stand it down there. The dead fucking the dead (as Bukowski would say). Dave heard a tape of my record there in Nashville, which had “Blue Wing” on it, and he says it inspired him to write what he felt like writing and leave that god awful place. We eventually got together and wrote “Haley’s Comet” and about six or seven other things. He recorded “Blue Wing,” and then we did the Haggard tribute, Tulare Dust, which more or less established Americana radio chart.
On a “mutual day off” Dave has helped me irrigate my small plot of land here in El Paso. I irrigate off of the Rio Grande. I have these water ditches that date back to the Pueblo Indians. You just sit back on the porch and watch the mighty Rio Bravo wash up on your lawn and deep-water the pecan trees. It’s mighty satisfying. Dave and I have also crossed the border a few times and discussed the problems of the world (and our love lives) in the bars of Mexico. Research. It’s called “doing Naco time.” He is a very good friend and a great songwriter and a damn good poet. He also knows a hell of a lot about California history. He’s got the best rock & roll band in America and he knows where the California Condors nest.
Hamlin: What is the difference between a poem and a song when you’re looking at them on the raw page?
Russell: Poets don’t usually make good songwriters and vice versa. Leonard Cohen is the exception, and he gave up poetry. Lyrics don’t have to look good or make sense on the written page. They are brought to life inside the alchemy of the music. Rhyme and magic are important. Buddy Holly was a master songwriter, but his words on the page would read like drivel. I’ve stopped including lyric books in the CDs because I think people should listen to songs and not read them. That being said I sometimes work with a lyric first, but I always hear melody in my head. I hear the melody and the muse 24 hours a day. It can be annoying.
Poetry and song are two very different disciplines. Back in Chaucer’s time, poets and minstrels and bards and troubadours were all linked creatively. Their job and purpose. The minstrel boy showed up in the village or town and sang or recited or acted out “the news” for the King and his court. If he was good he got drunk and fed and laid; if he stunk his head was chopped off. Send in the Clowns!
I see more of a relation between painters and songwriters. It doesn’t surprise me that a lot of songwriters are painters. A painting and a song are very closely related in how they are experienced. You can experience a song or a painting very quickly and experience them again and again. You can live with them. In the background. In the foreground. Poems are more tedious things for me. Less entertaining. They come with the built in “onus” that this “thing” must be regarded as a piece of art, not entertainment. The poetic language is all but dead because people have given up. It’s all very clever, but nothing shimmers with passion. Nothing resonates. Lorca had a very deep understanding of “duende” in art. He spoke of that sort of gypsy soul and passion which a great flamenco singer, or a bullfighter, or a poet can transmit directly into the soul of the listener or seer. That’s what great art does. It should
raise the hair up off the back of your head, excite you, teach you, wave that mystery in front of your eyes, then pull it away. You come out of the experience a different person.
Hamlin: What was your favorite TV show when you were a boy? Were you influenced by pop culture at all?
Russell: I didn’t watch much TV. But on Sunday, in L.A., you had all those great country music shows back in the 1950s. Like Hometown Jamboree with Cliffy Stone. His father was named Herman the Hermit and he played a long string of empty bottles with a mallet. Like Harry Partch. Then there was Rocket to Stardom with the Collins Kids. Larry Collins playing that double necked guitar and his foxy sister Lorrie sang. Then Cal Worthington would come on and try and sell you a Dodge with some spiel: “Friends, I got a little gift for you. It’s a transistor radio and it’s just my way of sayin’ thank you partner for shopping at Worthington Dodge.” I think he’s still alive and selling. And Spade Cooley had his big band Western Swing. He killed his wife and went up the river for life and they let him out once to play a benefit concert and he dropped dead on stage.
I used to like Leave it to Beaver because the minor character, Eddie Haskell, was the greatest TV character ever invented. He was a two-faced wise ass. He was the phoniest TV kid character ever. Way before his time.
I don’t think I was much influenced by POP culture. I was imprisoned in the Catholic School system for twelve years. Dreaming about girls and sneaking out to Bob Dylan concerts. You weren’t allowed to have a Beatles haircut or anything. When I saw Bob Dylan sing Desolation Row at the Hollywood Bowl my life changed. I thought to myself, “This is the beginning of Modern American songwriting.” I told that to someone later on and they said, “Yeah, and it was probably the END as well.” I snuck in and saw The Beatles there at the bowl, helped Jon Lennon find the stage. History in the making. The chicks were really screaming, man.
I used to go down to the old Ash Grove on Melrose and see Ian and Sylvia, Jack Elliott, Mississippi John Hurt, Lightning Hopkins and folks like that. I was more influenced by folk culture than POP culture. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott would jump off the stage and walk slowly around the room and play his guitar right in front of you. Like in slow motion. I thought that was really cool. He was like a musical Jack Kerouac. He still is.
Hamlin: The great Johnny Cash recorded your song “Veteran’s Day.” Tell us about that. Did you have any interaction with Cash? Do you listen to Cash’s American Recordings music?
Russell: We were playing in Switzerland one time 12 years ago and Andrew Hardin called my room and said Johnny Cash was downstairs eating breakfast and talking about my songs and everyone was too scared to talk to him. I got up and went down there and Johnny and I had a great talk about songs. Someone had given him “Veteran’s Day” and “Blue Wing” and he was quoting the lyrics. He was also picking up packets of sugar and ripping the top of them and pouring the contents down his throat, for a sugar rush. Then all these Swiss photographers showed up and started to move in on him and he grabbed my arm and we walked off toward the elevator. He got inside the elevator and turned around and put his hand out to stop this wild horde of paparazzi. “Stop,” he said. “I’ll be right back.” The elevator door closed on those fifty photographers, and he turned to me and said, “… in about a million years.”
I sang with him that night. It was some spiritual. “Peace in the Valley.” I didn’t know it, so he sang me the words and they came out of my mouth like I was his ventriloquist dummy. Great. I met him a few years later, in Switzerland again, and he was very, very kind. He thanked me for putting his picture in one of my albums! Like all great people, he knew how to make you feel special. That’s a kind thing to do. When he left the backstage area, he was fifty yards off and people were crowding and he looked back over the crowd and waved toward me and yelled, “I’ll see you, Tom.” The voice of God. A very big, charismatic soul. A good, honest man.
My brother had the first Johnny Cash record on Sun, back in the 50s, called Johnny Cash and His Hot and Blue Guitar. I have always loved his sound. Raw and honest. I don’t care much for the American Recordings. I like the idea, but I think the producer tried to stick him with song material that was a little too “hip” and alt-country. But it worked. It crossed him back over to the younger crowd, and that’s important. If anything has come out of this No Depression or Alt-Country, or Americana thing, it’s a respect by these younger kids for the pioneers like Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell and Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. You can’t get any more real than these gentlemen.
So Cash eventually did my song “Veteran’s Day” and they say he has also recorded “Blue Wing” for one of these American Recording records, but it didn’t make the final cut. I hope it surfaces one day. Johnny Cash is a one-of-a-kind American voice. I love and respect him.
Hamlin: Other than being a singing type of western American is there other elements of the country boy in Tom Russell? Ever ride a bull?
Russell: I’m working on a project about one of my sisters, Claudia Russell, who grew up on a Spanish land grant ranch in California. Sixty thousand acres. This woman has shot two black bears in her kitchen. She’s a true link to the real, California West, and I’m working on a book and a record about her in the spirit of The Man From God Knows Where. Her story of the West—my take on the West. You have to sift through all the Hollywood bullshit to arrive at a true history. An oral history from a woman. Kronos Quartet might be involved.
No, never rode a bull. I’ve fought some little bulls. My brother, Pat, is the cowboy. I took away his gut string Tijuana guitar, back in the early sixties ‘cause he couldn’t sing in tune. So he became the bull-rider and I became the songwriter. He was riding bulls in high school. We were living in Inglewood. He built one of the first bucking barrels in our back yard. Four poles and a forty gallon oil barrel suspended from ropes and garage door springs. You could launch someone into outer space with this thing, and my brother did it; he showed no mercy. He rode bulls and bucking horses and bulldogged until he was too broken up. He’s a stock contractor now. Ian Tyson and I have written songs about him.
I never rode a bull but I have been into bullfighting since the 1960s when I saw El Cordobes in Spain. Try reading Or I’ll Dress You in Mourning by Collins and LaPierre. It’s a brief history of Spain and El Cordobes. Very readable. I would recommend that book to anyone. There’s a bullring in Juarez. I love to sit in the beer garden and listen to the Mariachi’s battle it out with the bullfight band. Old guys playing horns and drums. Spanish Pasodobles. Bullfight Music. Then the drug dealers parade in with their wives, mistresses and whores. High-heeled shoes and tight dresses. Then the bullfights start. Sometimes they’re pig-stickings and some times they’re transcendent. You cannot ignore the Fiesta Brava in order to understand Spanish and Mexican culture. One of the only decent pieces Mailer ever wrote was called El Loco, about a bullfighter. Of course Hemingway wrote a lot about it, but forget Hemingway. That’s confusing. As Bukowski told me, Hemingway reads better when you are younger. Same with Steinbeck. Hemingway was very opinionated about art and bullfighting. Though I went to his house, Finca Vigia, in Cuba, and I found new respect for him. It was the house of a writer. No bullshit. Basic furniture and a thousand books. The bottles were all open and there as he left them. He was probably one of the last writers of great merit that America produced. You can like or dislike his style, but he cannot be ignored. He transcended his journalism and became an artist. Faulkner transcended poetry and became an artist.
But … the bulls! Back in the forties and fifties all these actors and writers were into the bulls. Orson Welles was a bullfight fanatic. I think he’s buried on a bull ranch. But all these people, some who are still alive, have shut up about it. Even American, gringo bullfighters (both men and women) who fought in the 1950s and 60s. They fear the politically correct liberal, animal-rights people, will attack them.
I used to run into Cormac McCarthy in the book store here in El Paso and we used to have pleasant little conversations until I mentioned bullfighting once. He stepped back like I had slapped him. Maybe he thought I was tricking him. He muttered something about going a few times, but “they weren’t any good.”
I’m interested also in the bull scene in California, in regard to my next Western Project. The Portuguese have bloodless fights in the San Joaquin Valley. They don’t injure the animals. Historians want us to ignore this part of California history. The fighting cattle came over on the same ships the beef cattle came on—I mean with Columbus! Are we supposed to forget about it? There’s nothing about it in history books except casual mention of bear and bull baiting. Tom Lea, who was a great writer and painter from El Paso, was sent down by Life magazine in the 50s to research the history of beef cattle in “New Spain,” or Mexico. Well, he discovered that there were also fighting cattle on those early Spanish boats. So he gets real interested in fighting cattle and writes about their history, but Life magazine gets pissed off and won’t publish it. I’ve read it. It’s great. I was honored to have lunch with him before he died. He was 95 years old or something. He wrote The Brave Bulls, and The Wonderful Country, both of them were made into movies. One with Mel Farrar and the other with Robert Mitchum. Tom Lea met Manolete, the great Spanish Matador of the l940s when he fought in Juarez. Lea painted murals in a lot of the post offices around Texas in the 1940s. His father was the Sheriff of El Paso when Pancho Villa was raising hell around here. Villa put a price on young Tom Lea’s head, cause Sheriff Lea didn’t like Pancho womanizing and carousing on this side of the border. Villa, you know, invaded the United Sates back around 1916 and killed a dozen people. The United States was attacked by terrorists over a hundred years ago, and I don’t recall ever reading about it until I got older and moved down here. Then yesterday, I’m in The Gadsen Hotel in Douglas, Arizona, looking at the great lobby and the old woman behind the desk points to the marble staircase and tells me, “Go look at the seventh step. Pancho Villa galloped his horse in here in l916 and rode up those steps and chipped the seventh one.” You can’t get away from Villa, down here, and you can’t forget about the bulls.
Hamlin: Why is art important to Tom Russell? What specific pieces of art, music, paintings, or books have moved you, really deep inside the gut and therefore the heart?
Russell: I used a quote from an old college friend of mine on my record Modern Art. John Wilson, a very good poet from Ojai, California. In fact, he’s one of my first friends who became a poet. He has a book out by City Lights. In one of his poems I found this: “Art should give us back the world that our living confiscates.”
That’s it. A parallel world which delivers the mystery, emotion, and passion compacted into a painting or a three minute song. A movie. I like self-taught artists like Thornton Dial and William Traynor. Black Southern Artists who were working class cats who didn’t get fucked up by any art schools. Like the music of Lightnin’ Hopkins, it’s a world of its own. I like Van Gogh. See a bunch of Van Goghs and they’ll knock you over. The power is still there after a hundred years. And Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. It still sounds as fresh as it did in the sixties when he was pumping out new masterpieces every year. He’s still going. Very deep catalogue. Of course I’ve mentioned Graham Greene.
There’s not much that moves me in that way anymore. I see an occasional bullfight where that “duende” is sent out into your heart and mind and gut and you are lifted up. And it has nothing to do with macho aesthetics or hurting animals. But then again I am fixated here cause I have to catch a plane to Spain in a few hours and I get to ride out into the fields and look at these wonderful animals and drink chilled Rioja.
Hamlin: Please tell us about your new album Modern Art and how it felt to finally record your favorite Bukowski poem “Crucifix In A Deathhand” to your own arrangement. Have you performed the Bukowski piece live? What was the audience reaction like?
Crucifix In A Deathhand by Charles Bukowski
Yes, they begin out in a willow, I think
The starch mountains begin out in the willow
And keep right on going without regard for
Pumas and nectarines
Somehow these mountains are like an old woman
With a bad memory and a shopping
Basket. We are in a basin. That is the
Idea. down in the sand and the alleys,
This land punched-in, cuffed-out, divided,
Held like a crucifix in a deathhand,
This land bought, resold, bought again and
Sold again, the wars long over,
The Spaniards all the way back in Spain
Down in the thimble again, and now
Real estaters, subdividers, landlords, freeway
Engineers arguing. this is their land and
I walk on it, live on it a little while
near Hollywook here I see young men in rooms
Listening to glazed recordings
And I think too of old men sick of music
Sick of everything, and death like suicide
I think is sometimes voluntary, and to get your
Hold on the land here it is best to return to the
Grand Central Market, see the old Mexican women,
The poor ... I am sure you have seen these same women
Many years before
With the same young Japanese clerks
Witty, knowledgeable and golden
Among their soaring store of oranges, apples,
Avocados, tomatoes, cucumbers—
And you know how these look, they do look good
As if you could eat them all
Light a cigar and smoke away the bad world.
Then it's best to go back to the bars, the same bars--
Wooden, stale, merciless, green
With the young policeman walking through
Scared and looking for trouble,
And the beer is still bad
It has an edge that already mixes with vomit and
Decay, and you've got to be strong in the shadows
To ignore it, to ignore the poor and to ignore yourself
and the shopping bag between your legs
Down there feeling good with its avocados and oranges and
Fresh fish and wine bottles, who needs a Fort Lauderdale winter?
25 years ago there used to be a whore there with a
Film over one eye, who was too fat and made little silver bells
Out of cigarette tinfoil. the sun seemed warmer then
Although this was probably not
True, and you
Take your shopping bag outside and walk along the street
And the green beer hangs there just above your stomach like
A short and shameful shawl, and
You look around and no longer
Russell: Modern Art took me away from Borderland and that dwelling on my last, long relationship, which ended with my house being cleaned out by my girlfriend. It’s all on Borderland. So I had an abundant amount of material about that and I got over it and wanted to move on. It was too painful to sing about forever. I wanted to do a few covers on this one, songs I loved like “The Dutchman,” and some payback to my friends: Dave Alvin, Nanci Griffith, and the late Carl Brouse. I just wanted to sing a group of good songs and pay a little homage to my childhood and tell some stories, without getting too thematic for a change.
The Bukowski thing really jelled, and I’d like to do more spoken, recitations. These are very influenced by Ramblin’ Jack Elliot’s wonderful song “912 Greens” about a trip he took to New Orleans in the 1950s. Very Kerouac-like. The audience loves the Bukowski thing. I sometimes link it with the Zevon song and my song “What Work Is,” as a trilogy of songs about L.A.
Hamlin: Let’s print the lyrics to “What Work Is” right here so the readers can get a sense of just how well the two pieces go together (as does the Zevon piece as well …)
What Work Is by Tom Russell
I used to work with a guy named Frankie Acosta. We were butter strippers down at the Challenge Creamery, strippin’ that cardboard off 70 lb. cubes of butter. It was hot back then (in the summer of ’63) and Frankie, man, he’d get so angry. He’d say, “See what women made me do …” then he’d break off a splinter from a wooden pallet and stick it like a knife in one of those big ol’ butter cubes. That’s what work is. That’s what love is. A little pleasure and a little misery. Now every time it gets hard out here I think of L.A. back in 1963.
Then I got a job workin’ for the city of Inglewood, runnin’ the chipper, chippin’ limbs off of trees. I worked with a guy named Crazy Dave Macklin—one day he almost ran a tractor over me. We were out choppin’ weeds once near South Central when the riots broke out and the sky turned fiery red & brown and I called up my girlfriend on the pay phone and said, “Baby, it’s over. God’s gonna finally burn Gomorrah down.” And she said, “That’s what work is, that’s what love is: you build a house of straw, then the flames lick the sky.” Now every time I fall in love out here, I think of L.A. back in 1965.
Finally got a job drivin’ a rose truck. Santa Barbara Midnight to L.A. Fifth & Main. Jacked up on coffee, cheep speed, and donuts, walkin’ ‘round the L.A. flower market in the rain. And every morning I’d eat breakfast at The Pantry on Figuroa where the waiters were always ex-cons, then we’d load the truck back up with empty rose boxes and drive up the California coast in the dawn. That’s what work is. That’s what love is: Two eggs over easy on a T-Bone steak. Now every time I see the sun rise near the ocean I think of L.A. back in 1968.
Hamlin: Any good road stories you would like to share? Tell us a funny story about Tom Russell that we haven’t heard yet.
Russell: I suppose a lot of people have heard the story of how I quit the music business and moved to New York in l980, with a wife and two little kids, my daughters Jessica and Shannon. I had a literary agent at William Morris, who was shopping a novel of mine. I wrote about four manuscripts and they all came close. I ended up in an attic out on Rockaway Beach, very much like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. I didn’t write anything. I went nuts and got a job driving cab. That’s when I met my guitar playing friend Andrew Hardin. He was driving cab.
Well, the funny part of the story: I was driving through Rockaway Park at four in the morning and picked up Robert Hunter, the Grateful Dead lyricist. He had his guitar and a glass of Jack Daniels. He’d been doing a solo gig out there. So we’re talking, and I tell him I’m a songwriter. He says the usual: “Yeah, sure you are. Sing me one of your songs.”
And I had just written “Gallo del Cielo,” the long song of mine about rooster fighting. Joe Ely and Ian Tyson recorded it. Hunter listens intently and smiles. Then he has me sing it again and again. We’re riding around through Queens. He ran up the meter to 300 dollars and demanded a cassette tape of the song. He loved it. We got back to my house, and I woke up my wife and got a tape. I took him to the motel. He says he’s gonna give it to the Dead or the New Riders or something. Off he goes. I don’t expect to hear from him again, but I enjoyed the ride.
He calls me up a few weeks later, and invites me to a concert at the Bitter End in NYC. Halfway through the show, I’m standing there half-drunk on his Jack Daniels, and he starts talking about a song he heard from a cab driver. About a chicken. Then he says, “Ah, hell, let’s just get him up here to sing it.”
I hadn’t played in a year. I was scared. I walked up there and he hands me the guitar and splits. I’m looking down at five hundred Dead Heads. I sang the song … somehow … it’s seven minutes long. They loved it. I looked around for Hunter and he was still gone. I sang three more. I was a hit. He came back and hired me and Andrew Hardin to open some shows for him.
And that’s what got me back into the music business. Hunter wrote a lot of Grateful Dead classics, and he wrote with Bob Dylan. Years later, I got a cassette tape of a performance of his in London. He sings “Gallo del Cielo,” and the audience goes nuts, and he says: “That was a song I learned from a taxi driver in Jamaica Queens!”
Thank you Robert Hunter. I am still on the road.
"Tom Russell Tough Company Interview (2003)" by Bradley Mason Hamlin. Copyright © 2008 by Mystery Island Publications.
Photo of Tom Russell by Brian Kanof. All rights reserved.
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