Taking ourselves seriously as creative beings has to eventually lead to an exploration of our deepest and truest selves. We want and need to write from our hearts with substance, depth, and meaning, and that takes courage; it just doesn’t feel safe. But as J.A. Shedd stated so eloquently in Salt from My Attic, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”
In my case, for whatever reasons, a safe harbor was rarely part of the equation, and it seems to me that my journey would in many ways be a wasted one were I not to share it as openly as possible in the following pages. That’s a frightening commitment for a guy who learned very early in life to stuff his feelings and bury his true self beneath layers of protective illusion. But to continue with the nautical metaphors for a moment, I’ve found that it is in the casting off of our fearful restraints; the setting sail on a journey of personal discovery; and the facing of our own unique ocean of inner storms, shoals, riptides, eddies, and terrifying beneath-the-surface monsters that we build our sailing skills, while simultaneously discovering and accessing the inspiration available to only our truest and most authentic selves.
In his book Broken Vessels, American short story master Andre Dubus was referring to short story writers, but he could as easily have been discussing songwriters when he wrote: “Short story writers do what human beings have always done. They write stories because they have to; because they cannot rest until they have tried as hard as they can to write the stories. They cannot rest because they are human, and all of us need to speak into the silence of mortality, to interrupt and ever so briefly stop that quiet flow, and with stories try to understand at least some of it.”
Songwriting has helped me understand at least some of it. Songwriting saved my life for years. More than once, songs by other writers have saved my life. And once, a famous songwriter even saved my life . . . sort of . . . I think. More on that later.
Of course, while all the songwriting stuff was going on, life was generating its own stories and lessons, until the two, the creative and the human, became inextricably bound together, so melded now that it’s impossible for me to write in depth about one without the other.
In Susan Tucker’s wonderful book The Secrets of Songwriting, Mike Reid, one of my favorite songwriters and, in my experience, a kind and humble man, said, “Keep your ass in your own garden. Be where God has put you and dig as deep as you can.”
And that’s where I find myself as I begin, right where God has put me. Hunkered down in my very own garden, the soil a lifetime of memories. Some on the surface, some beneath the topsoil but fairly accessible, some buried deep, deep down, and more than a few that ought to be. Memories of a rollercoaster ride through seventy-three years (so far) as a human being and fifty years as a songwriter. On a journey of self-discovery that began unexpectedly and became in turn hesitant, avid, frightening, desperate, committed, and finally all-consuming as it led me significantly closer to my real self and allowed me to draw the first truly deep breaths of my life when I discovered that I wasn’t as bad as I’d spent four-and-a-half decades believing I was.
In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown wrote: “I now see how owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we will ever do.” I believe she’s right, and I’m about to see if I have what it takes to put her assertion to the test. To tell you what I need to tell you, I’m going to have to dig deeper than ever before. Thank you for keeping me company while I do.
She Loved to Dance
1990, San Diego, CA
By 1978 my second marriage had ended, as had too many other relationships, and it was painfully clear to me that relationships were not my strong suit. An additional indicator of other serious issues was the fact that by that time I had already lived at twenty-five different addresses in eleven different towns or cities in less than thirteen years, not including the summer I spent living in my ’63 Rambler.
It should have been obvious even to me that some disturbing patterns had emerged in my life. But it wasn’t obvious because I was still a victim; everything was somebody else’s fault. It would take getting straight and sober in 1986 for me to finally see that I was the common factor in all those aberrant and self-destructive goings-on.
I played solo gigs in a lot of dangerous places during the early years of my performing career. Biker bars, skid row dives, remote north-country saloons, wrong-side-of-the-tracks juke joints, waterfront taverns, and sleazy cocktail lounges. I wore a skinning knife on my belt and more than once had to use it, or my mic stand, to ward off some drugged-out drunk trying to climb on stage in full-on attack mode. At some point I discovered that my guitar strings could be a painful and intimidating deterrent; I would clip the excess off, leaving about two inches above the tuning pegs, making sure they were all pointing in the same direction. One taste of those needle-sharp strings was usually enough to discourage unwanted company.
Most of those places also employed strippers, many of whom were barely eighteen, if that. Theirs were brutal lives. If they weren’t already junkies and prostitutes when they started dancing in those bars, they were an exception, and it was a sure bet they would be before their first anniversary in the business. If they survived that long. One of those was Suzy, a young native woman from northern Alberta. She was a sweet soul, one of many teenage girls who had left a remote wilderness town for the allure of the big city, totally vulnerable, absolutely unprepared for the perils and predations of the life they thought they wanted. I could go on and on here, relating horror story after horror story, but I won’t, because anything I could tell you would be an understatement; there is no possible way to overstate the level of danger and degradation those young women faced.
Suzy had grown up wanting to be a dancer, like the ones she’d watched on TV in her distant, tiny, one-channel town. More than anything in the world, she loved to dance. Of course she found her way to the seediest bars in town, and it didn’t take long for the life to chew her up. I know her story because we occasionally worked the same establishments and over time became friends, sometimes getting together for afternoon coffee. She was sweet and naïve, and I liked her a lot, so I tried to help her whenever I could.
I was somewhere on the road in 1979 when Suzy died of a heroin overdose, alone in the snow, beside the railway tracks. A friend of hers later told me they’d been celebrating Suzy’s seventeenth birthday the night she left us. She’d gone out for some fresh air and was not seen again until three days later, when rain washed away the blanket of snow that had covered her. I always wanted to write something for her, and in 1990 I came up with this song. I like to think she’s safe and happy somewhere, costumed and clean and dancing on a well-lit theatre stage, with an adoring audience clamoring for one more encore.
She Loved To Dance
She’d be dancing every morning long before the sun would shine
Barefoot by the river where it wandered through the northern pines
She’d tippy-toe and pirouette and swear that someday she would take a chance
She’d run off to the city, she was pretty and she loved to dance
Sixteen and in a hurry she left without a look behind
Dreaming on a Greyhound, running from those northern pines
She found herself a barroom and she lied about her age to get her chance
They loved her in the city, she was pretty and she loved to dance
She never even saw the men who came to drink and stare
She never heard a single word they had to say
She was on her way to Broadway, to Hollywood and London
And on stage she was the rage of Paris, France
She was happy in the city, she was pretty and she loved to dance
But the neon ain’t as shiny when you’re looking at it from behind
And the city ain’t as gentle as the wind that sways the northern pines
Seven shows a night and soon her dream was looking like a hobo’s pants
But even tattered even gritty she was pretty and she loved to dance
Until she began to see the men who came to drink and stare
And she heard every tender word they had to say
And the stages she would dance upon grew dimmer every evening
Till her memories became her biggest fans
But by then she could not quit, ain’t it a pity that the city
Claimed one more innocent victim of romance
But that’s the thing about the city when you’re pretty and you love to dance
She ran off to the city, she was pretty and she loved to dance
Wrong Side of Lonesome
2007, Nashville, TN
Del Rio took the place of Lubbock because it was a better fit with the cadence and provided the “o” rhyme I needed. In reality, Lubbock was where the curtain actually fell on the final act of my third marriage on Christmas Eve of 1981. A few weeks later, I returned from the Mexico adventure that generated this song, loaded my ’63 Parisienne so full the windshield was the only glass I could see out of, and headed out on yet another solo road trip, bound once again for Point Roberts and the Pacific Northwest.
High winds, biting cold, and heavy snow marked my passage through New Mexico, the Four Corners, and into Utah, with that old car vibrating and making strange drivetrain sounds that had me worried. But by juggling my usual liquid-cure-all with a generous supply of NoDoz pills, I managed to maintain a state of suspended anxiety that kept me wide awake and totally engrossed in an effort to stay between the frozen ditches. I kept rolling until the noise and shaking got so bad I had to pull into a Provo service station, but the car was so heavily loaded it couldn’t be driven onto a hoist, and I wasn’t about to unload it if I didn’t have to.
So it was back on the road, through blizzards in Utah, Idaho, and eastern Oregon, into Washington and over the Cascades to Seattle, where the snow finally turned to rain. North through the Canadian border, a thirty-minute loop around Boundary Bay, then south again into the U.S.A. through the Point Roberts border crossing. I haven’t mentioned that there was very little tread on my tires (you could justifiably say “literally or figuratively”), so between that fact and the constant clanking and shuddering of the car, it was a white-knuckle trip all the way, even in my heavily-medicated condition. Two days and nights of no sleep, through nineteen-hundred miles of the worst weather I’d ever driven in, with that old car complaining every inch of the way. But that’s not the end of this tale, and I need to tell you the ending in order to explain why I decided to share it in the first place.
In truth, this is only one of far too many stories about my skewed, unaware, reactionary lurches through life. I don’t enjoy telling them; those I’ve included are here because each one turned out to be some sort of signpost on my journey.
This particular signpost gradually pointed me toward a significant change in the way I viewed and lived my life, until I eventually came to believe that I live in a benevolent and loving universe. We might disagree on our definition of who or what is at the creative center of all life, but I don’t feel any need to sell my personal point of view or convince anyone that I’m right. If I have to choose between being right and being happy, I’ll choose happy every time.
So here’s the ending, along with my apologies for keeping you waiting: A few days later, I made a quick trip into Vancouver. I was returning home on the freeway, doing seventy in the passing lane during a dark and rainy rush hour, when the drive shaft dropped out of my old Pontiac. It tore the left rear axle out of the differential housing, killing the engine, brakes, wipers, lights, turn signals, and power steering. The rear tire immediately shredded against the fender, filling the car with thick smoke and sending it into a spin. Miraculously, it didn’t roll. In fact, it never so much as touched another vehicle, and I survived with only a few minor cuts and bruises. But I’ve never forgotten that if the same thing had happened, if that drive shaft had come loose in the mountains and canyons less than a week earlier, my life would have ended on some cliff or riverbed somewhere between Lubbock and Point Roberts.
Wrong Side of Lonesome
(4/4, strong Mexican border feel)
My tears are salty like the Gulf of Mexico
My woman finally threw me out of Del Rio
Tampico seemed like it might be some place to go
On the road to the wrong side of lonesome
It was my last second chance but I came home drunk last night
Another broken promise and another fight
When she said, “Adios, it’s over, get out of my sight”
I took a hike to the wrong side of lonesome
The wrong side of lonesome’s not a happy place
Just a bottle of tequila and a smoky haze
I’m too far gone to call her on the telephone
And I’ve got no idea how to find my way back home
They would not let me through the border so I snuck across
Feeling guilty and ashamed of all the pain I’d caused
I’d go running back to her right now at any cost
But I’m lost on the wrong side of lonesome
Now I might reach Tampico in a week or two
Right now I’ve had so much tequila I can’t even move
One way or another I’m gonna drown these blues
What else can I do on the wrong side of lonesome
One way or another I’m gonna drown these blues
Nothing else I can do on the wrong side of lonesome
But that’s nothing new on the wrong side of lonesome
To Ride The Rodeo
1996, Osoyoos, B.C.
There are plenty of similarities between the country music business and the rodeo business. Both were once small industries with primarily regional demographics. Both experienced accelerated growth fueled by a number of common factors, including television, technology, and corporate sponsorship.
Back in the day, many songwriters, rodeo cowboys, and executives in both fields did what they did simply for love of the game. The ones who would have done it (and often did do it) for free, the ones who would have done it had they lived in Siberia or at the South Pole became anachronisms as they were gradually replaced by bottom-line types, and the song and the ride began to take a distant second place to increased profit margins.
Those dedicated folks took with them a true sensibility to the art that was the reason for the business. More and more we are being sold the idea that less-than-stellar songs and performances and less-than-epic rodeo stock and rides are “great,” because ratings and sponsors demand a high level of hype and excitement from producers and on-air personalities. (What the hell kind of job title is that? Do they hang their personalities in a closet when they go off the air?) The business has become the reason for the art, and at least in terms of Country radio, the art has suffered and devolved.
Rodeo performers often have to play hurt. If you’re not a cowboy, it’s impossible to imagine the fortitude it takes for a bull rider with cracked ribs, a concussion, and a still-healing broken leg to climb on the back of a ton of pissed-off muscle and bone and hang on with one hand, while his spine is jack-hammered and his organs are pureed for an eternal eight seconds, then coolly slide off and land upright on two feet. And that’s the best-case scenario. But they do it, all the time.
Performing songwriters often have to play hurt. If you’re not a songwriter, it’s impossible to imagine the fortitude it takes to have your heart shattered and your future shredded by someone you trusted to stay with you until at least the end of time, then climb up on a stage and expose your fragile, vulnerable, aching soul to a sports bar full of loud, drunk, television-watching strangers as you relate an all-too-familiar story in a fresh and unique way; free of forced rhymes and clichés; using a commonly-accepted structure with noticeable delineation between verse, chorus, and bridge; a prosodic and memorable (but not derivative) melody; and a cool “groove” for an eternal four minutes. Hoping all the while that you’re connecting emotionally with your audience and that they’re really “getting” you and loving your song. And that’s the best-case scenario. But we do it, all the time.
There are other parallels, some obvious, some not so much, but I’m running out of room and I want to talk about this particular song for a moment. Having been fortunate enough to enjoy friendships with a couple of real honest-to-goodness working cowboys (both of whom also competed in rodeos), a rodeo cowboy seemed like the perfect vehicle for the story I wanted to tell. My goal was to convey the futility, desolation, and essential aloneness experienced by someone who feels totally powerless to give up a habit or lifestyle they know to be self-destructive, one that has already led to a long history of poor choices, soft and gentle comforts left behind, and a promising future sacrificed on the stone-cold altar of addiction, in whatever form.
To Ride the Rodeo
(4/4, country “saddle” feel)
I could be tangled in those satin sheets with Amy
I could be playing on the floor with baby Joe
But instead I drew a bull they call “The Demon”
And now I feel like something’s stuck down in my throat
I could be sitting with my feet up down in Austin
Holding on to something tall and cold
But that dream is too damned easy to get lost in
Still I’d find a softer way of growing old
If I did not need to ride the rodeo
A year ago I almost won it here in Denver
It went just like I had promised baby Joe
Till I landed on my head under The Demon
And he broke a lot of bones ‘fore I could roll
Then I looked him in the eye as he was turning
All red and crazy and coming back for more
I swore I’d quit if God would send the clowns to save me
And I’d have kept my promise too, God only knows
If I did not need to ride the rodeo
Now it’s been almost a year since I’ve seen Amy
Though sometimes I call to talk to baby Joe
Today he asked me if I’m gonna ride The Demon
And for a minute there I almost told him no
Because he says he wants to ride like his daddy
Though he says he’ll spend a lot more time at home
Well I told him I would be right there beside him
I said, “Neither one of us would ever be alone
If I did not need to ride the rodeo”
Now I’ve got two-thousand pounds of hell beneath me
And it’s time to turn him out or let it go
But it’s all or nothing, just me and The Demon
And it ain’t about the money or the show . . . and if I live
Someday I guess I’ll leave it all behind me
When I’m too old and stiff and moving slow
But you call Amy, she’ll tell you where to find me
And please be sure to give my love to baby Joe . . . I gotta go
Right now I need to ride the rodeo
But I could be tangled in those satin sheets with Amy
Farewell To A Dancer
1993, Point Roberts, WA
Originally published in Issues magazine, July/August, 1995, Penticton, B.C.
Great-Grandma was a dancer in the thirties and forties, traveling on trains and buses from Chicago to New York to Hollywood, to any city with a stage big enough to handle a follies troupe. She danced with Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, and Frank Sinatra, and she would often hint at an affair with one of them. “And it wasn’t Ginger,” she’d say, with a mischievous sparkle in her eye. Later came a school of dance where she taught ballet, tap, and the old soft-shoe to many an Illinois youngster. A strong and courageous woman, she had outlived two good husbands who called her Duchess and Doll and told her she was the cat’s pajamas.
The boy and the man are alone on the beach, bundled against the late October chill. The ocean, at low tide, bears little resemblance to the malevolent monster that battered and pillaged this same sloping surface only hours before. The wind too is taking a well-deserved breather after a night of maniacal shrieking as it hurled itself into every nook and cranny and crevice and against every obstacle in a psychotic effort to level everything in its path.
The sky had cleared in the small hours, revealing a Hunter’s Moon in a setting of brilliant stars, the day dawning clear and cold and still. Not yet eight o’clock, that moon now sinking behind the westward islands as the brittle, wintery sun inches over Mount Baker to the east, its reflection a blinding white laser across the placid mirror of Boundary Bay.
Upon waking this morning, he had decided to walk with his son on this remote, primitive shoreline. To walk and listen and talk. About Great-Grandma. About life and death and love. About courage and the knowledge that compassion and service are the seeds of peace and abundance.
And so they walk, the boy and the man. Unhurried, aimless, comfortable, they follow the intricate steps of some ancient, cosmic choreography. Stooping, turning, bending, reaching, at times far apart but always aware of the other’s location. At times close together, converging temporarily in a natural finale to one act of the dance.
The man’s arm lifts for a moment to curl around the boy’s shoulder as they merge, gently guiding him to safe harbor before the big hand cradles the small tousled head now resting slightly canted against his side. An unsophisticated dance as dances go, but an unmistakable portrait of ease and love and boundless trust.
The day beginning to warm now, the sun drawing a little yellow, a little orange from the spectrum as the pewter of early winter gives way to the colors displayed by an autumn not yet ready to concede.
Over slick and shiny stones they glide, over hard-packed sand that swells and lightens at a footstep, then darkens and sighs in release. Over glistening carpets of brown and green and purple sea vegetables as a pod of Orcas frolics a hundred yards offshore, bald eagles trace serene thermal circles in the pale azure sky, and blue herons stalk the shallows. As gulls and terns and crows wheel and climb to drop their coveted cargo on the rocks below, diving to scream and fight over the juicy morsels as the shells smash open.
Eyes constantly scanning for treasure, the two figures move up and down the slope. Up from the gently lapping water, down from the high-flung driftwood so violently tossed only hours before on enormous, angry waves powered by record high tides and eighty-knot gusts.
And treasure there is for the finding! “Hey Dad, look at this,” the boy calls, holding up his newest trophy for approval: A large amber agate, a small white shell shaped like Aladdin’s lamp, a porphyry-stone, a piece of curved green glass from a fishing float, its once-sharp edges rounded and milky from its rolling, tumbling journey along the ocean floor all the way from Massett, or Moclips, or Maui. Each time their paths cross again, the newest bounty is transferred to the man’s increasingly-strained pockets.
Soon he forgets about his list of things to be discussed, and his heart opens deeper and wider than ever before to this small boy, to magic and tenderness, to whales and eagles and freedom, to changing tides and changing seasons, to beauty and dancers, and to those who are given to write about such things. The sun glints on a tear as he smiles, once again turning to the boy, grateful for it all now, allowing it all in, recognizing it all at last as part of the circle, part of the healing, part of the dance.