Leonard Cohen 1934- 2017 RIP

I first saw Leonard Cohen play at the Newport Folk Festival in 1967. Joni Mitchell, in an orange striped mini-dress, led him out.He looked like a rabbinical student. He played ‘Suzanne’ as I remember, and I vowed to buy it as soon as it was out. I have bought virtually everything he has done. I am not one to complain about Bob Dylan’s getting the Nobel, but Cohen was the best we had. He was a Zen Buddhist Jew with Catholic tendencies, and virtually the only person in the music world I considered to be a wise man. Despite the darkness and mortality of much of his work, he was also very funny.

When Libby looked up that first performance, she said my memory was wrong. I thought that Joni had been wearing a horizontal striped mini-dress; it was diagonally striped.

Here is one of my favorites; also one of the world’s best bar songs, though it is a lot more than that…

RIP: Merle Haggard,1937- 2016

 We are losing a lot of the great ones….

UPDATE: a great tribute from Wisconsin’s Kirk Hogan, MD, scientist, patent lawyer (!) elk hunter, gourmand, and neo- beat, whose letters often read like poems…

Great “Kern River”.
My top pick:
Didn’t even make the list of Merle’s top 35!
A day hasn’t gone by for decades I’m not singing 2-3.
No one, not Johnny Cash, not even Hank W., could write,
play, sing, immerse in and master American music like him.
Beloved by Garcia and Parsons.
Tanya Tucker said it best:
A simple man with an immense genius.
Listened to Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong
… always within arm’s reach.One time in a bar in Livingston In February on break from Crow
to hear Christopher Parkening . . .   
Sad for us, not sad for him.
He and Harrison were beyond deserving of rest.

Coming Attractions

Back from almost a week in Boston, where I went to see and hear Tom Russell’s debut of his new Ballad of the West, The Rose of Roscrae; also to see my 90 year- old mother, whose birthday I had missed, my siblings– 4 of out of 8 of them still live there, as well as any number of splendid nephews and nieces: and to eat sea creatures, as well as have any other adventures possible for an impoverished 65 year old writer badly in need of brain surgery.

It was a success, from music to family encounters to food, and paid what may well be an unexpected dividend; my brother in law George Graham, avocational naturalist- localist and photographer,introduced me to his town’s restored herring (alewife) run, and our mutual fascination with it became my unexpected second theme for the visit- who knows what may come?

Tonight, a preview and glimpses; I have an assignment to write on Tom, and many herring photos too, all to come.

 Coffee house nostalgia– I went to the predecessor of Passim, Club 47, (47 Palmer Street in Harvard Square) from about 1966 or 7 on. I saw Ian Tyson, who is now 82 and who I met when he played with Tom in Santa Fe, with his then wife Sylvia there, before 1970 anyway…

On the subway with K:

Sideman Thad Beckman; later, local singer Barrence Whitfield, who recorded more than a few songs with Tom back when… Cuban Sandwich!

My mother: “You look OLD”, she said to me. “And I am NOT convinced I’m 90, either!”

Sisters Alicia, Anita, Karen…

The blurred one below is, I believe, my sisters (and niece Stella) expressing solidarity with their geographically wayward brother, or something equally hilarious. Beware the Sister Posse…. (sorry for blur), and me with Wendy, closest in age to me.

The run- got an article’s worth, but some highlights– restored urban anadromous fish spawning, with predators! (Comorant by Lisa Erwin, Weymouth MA)

The Rose of Roscrae

Tom Russell’s magnum opus, his “Western Opera” or “Cowboy Musical” will be out in mid-April, debuting at Passim at 47 Palmer Street under Harvard Square, once the home of the legendary Club 47. It was one of the very few venues that kept a sort of vernacular American music alive even as it morphed into something else. Club 47 played “folk music” when I started going there in ’65, but it was already showing songwriters, bluegrass, and blues — Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf. I saw Tom Rush there before he had a mustache. Jim Rooney was a skinny kid with cowboy boots and ran the door as well as playing in a band. Maria Muldaur had just married Jeff Muldaur, and played with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, before Kweskin became part of the odd Fort hill Cult under former musician Mel Lyman. Ian Tyson, the great Canadian cowboy singer, played with his then wife Sylvia, singing “Someday Soon”, “Four Strong Winds” and my favorite, “Summer Wages”.

I kept going there through the early ’70s. The last act I remember seeing there was Jimmy Buffett, who didn’t have a band, only a backup singer. His songs were fine, including the number “If We Only Had Saxophones”, when Buffett and his backup guitarist made saxophone noises through the breaks.

 Tom’s album, two CD’s and a book, is almost novelistic AND  thoroughly musical. It is the saga of the West, seen through the memories of a ninety year old outlaw. It starts dramatically as he stands on the gallows in mid- life, waiting to die for stealing horses. He escapes the hangman, then  remembers his youth in Ireland, and takes off to participate in the whole bloody history of the west. As an old man he returns to Ireland, still searching for his lost love.

 The breadth and (and depth) of the music is like nothing else. New songs by Tom and others, an incredible cross-section of living artists including Ian, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Joe Ely, Thad Beckman, Sourdough Slim, Guy Clark (who does a version of Desperadoes waiting for a Train from his home, sounding as ancient as the desert), Gretchen Peters, and Henry Real Bird. There are also posthumous performances by, among others, Johnny Cash, Tex Ritter, and Leadbelly. There is poetry from Walt Whitman and orchestral backing by the Norwegian Wind Ensemble. There are, quoting the libretto,  “Indian voices and chants, old cowboy songs, Mexican corridos, Swiss Yodel Choirs, French ballads”; hymns and Irish folksongs, Gallo de Cielo (“The damn chicken song”); even a ballad based on John Graves’ wonderful novella The Last Running.

 Amazingly, it tells a coherent story, and the new material stands proudly with the classics. You also get an 82 page book with the libretto, the lyrics, and the history of each song and performer. You can see why I say that it’s something of a new genre. And as big as it is, at one point Tom wished he had ten discs to fill because there is so much more that he wanted to put in.

I will be putting up a lot of material about Rose of Rosecrae in the next few months. Stay tuned!

Below, my sister Karen, Tom, my brother- in- law George Graham, and Nadine, at Passim the last time Tom played there.

La Loca

First there were my old friend John Davila, Catron County rancher, world traveler, jack of all trades… in the old days and today.

and his then wife Becky…

They were among the first friends I made in New Mexico. They are in Querencia- the- book in several places, and came up to Albuuquerque to comfort me with a bottle of Jack Daniels the day Betsy died.

Their daughter Ungie (Ungelbah Davila ), the complete New Mexico kid–Spanish, Navajo, Scots Mormon– is as good looking as her folks, and also a multimedia  talent in art, poetry, photography, and now as editor of her new  Albuquerque- based glossy magazine La Loca, which covers our local tricultural version of the Fifties- revival- rockabilly- punk- western- hotrods- motorcycles- pinup- and whatever else can be thrown in arts and visual culture. If some of it bemuses those of us who lived in the REAL fifties, it is still pure fun and a visual treat, and our version has a real local flavor.

Apparently, the style is more widespread than I thought. I just bought the excellent new album by Alberta’s rising star Corb Lund, Cabin Fever. He can sing about cows, oil rigs, and .44 Russian antique revolvers, but when I heard the lyrics below, to “Gothest girl I can”,  I knew I had to send them to Ungie.

Music Lessons

Q loves rock and country, but Libby and I were brought up on classical and love it too. Both she and Jackson can play well; to my eternal regret I never learned.

We liked this essay in defense of obligatory lessons for the young, written in response to one against the idea.

“I do think that classical music is, in some respect, bigger than other kinds of music. The music has been going on for five hundred years as a self-conscious tradition, dedicated to an extended meditation on a series of musical structures so limited as nearly to be arithmetical. And the meditations have reflected on one another, and, over the centuries, sometimes they have advanced.

“You are free to see in this 500-year meditation something very close to a mystical or Pythagorean inquiry into beauty, if you would like.”

Joel? Jack?

Free Association

I have been kicking a few unrelated (?) things around, having plenty of material but not feeling, with our tough environmental conditions (no water, heat, impending possible rain making it an uncomfortable mix of steamy and dusty) much like writing a long essay. I was rambling freely through these things to L. and suddenly thought: I’ll just post this, the stroll through. So:

Tim Gallagher’s books have all been interesting, but I have thought even in its first stages; no, since reading his first slightly shaky email  from Mexico when he had emerged from the Sierra in a last nightmarish drive at 5 miles per hour past buildings that had been set afire since he had last passed them–  that Imperial Dreams  may be his best. It is certainly his most thrilling: his account of trying to find a remnant of the biggest and most spectacular woodpecker that ever lived in a beautiful but damaged land now controlled by narcotraficantes.

From my “official” review, not yet out: “Imperial Dreams  is a natural history of the world’s most spectacular woodpecker and a mystery: a forensic inquiry into what, despite the narrator’s hopes, looks like the death of a species. It starts as light-hearted adventure …  becomes a tragedy and a tale of terror. It may be Gallagher’s best book yet, one to excite adventure travelers who might never pick up a “bird book,” while telling an unforgettable tale of loss…

“The Imperial Woodpecker’s fate might seem even grimmer than the Ivory-bill’s; the researchers find evidence that loggers repeatedly encouraged shooting and poisoning the bird to ensure its demise. If true, it represents a case of successful, conscious biocide; worse, one done for imaginary reasons—the destruction of trees that were already infested with beetle grubs. “

Strong stuff, and all too relevant. But I also saw something funny. For various reasons, uber- guitarist Jimmy Page and his various bands have been crossing the screen lately, and I realized that Jim and Tim look like the old Spy Magazine “Separated at birth'” thing. Tim lives in upstate New York and grew up in southern Cal when there was still nature there, but like Page he was born in England. This is a very gringo face for someone who, with little Spanish, is walking around the Sierra Madre with a bird book, saying “Senor, have you seen this bird?” Tim, Jimmy:

They both looked different back in the late Sixties. I will find a pic of Tim, who had long hair and a beard, but here is Jimmy Page with the great Yardbirds in ’68, on French TV:

Great? At one time they featured Jeff Beck, Page, and Clapton (some time will find photos of some of Clapton’s London Bests).

Led Zeppelin were recently honored in Washington– never thought I would see Page, Robert Plante, and John Paul Jones in tuxes, being praised by the president and serenaded by Heart… (Annie Davidson sent this one…)

I was conferring with my little sport- science lit and guns group– five guys from 40- 70 who are variously, singly and multiply profs, biologists, bloggers, a novelist, a carpenter, a falconer, a former contributor to English Literary Renaissance, and a lawyer, stretched out over the nation from Marin County to Ithaca, about all these various important phenomena. A member who is several of the above,  Carlos Martinez del Rio, reminded me of another band, more local in impact but as memorable in performance: Boston’s Mission of Burma, who played the “Cellars by Starlight” (Jimmy Isaac’s Phoenix column and collective term for the Boston area clubs) when I worked at Inn Square in the seventies, and in the eighties when he got his nose broken at a memorable concert. Gerry, this is what they sound like– not Winterreise, though I like Fischer Diskau too.

Finally, Magdalenian Joel Becktell, last seen on the blog busting clays at Piet’s last Thanksgiving, cellist and peer of Yo Yo Ma, doing just that, and then playing selections with his crossover classical group Revel– including, of course,  “Stairway to Heaven.”

Water– nada…

Friends & Family, Music & Words, Past & Present

Everything seems to come around again. Last week, Tom Russell and his sideman Thad Beckmann played at Passim, a cellar room in Harvard square where I heard the likes of Ian Tyson as far back as 1966, when it was the legendary Club 47.

My sister Karen Graham, here with Tom, her husband George, and Tom’s wife Nadine, remembers my going there when she was a child, and the little printed ad sheets I used to keep under the glass of my desktop when I was still in high school.

Bronwen Fullington, a friend since ’68 or so,  saw the other pic and said “It hasn’t  changed a bit since then!” Looks like the same old tiny cellar…

Tom may be as good a writer of words as songs. Buy his book, with all the lyrics and tons of anecdote and history.


Tom Russell’s song from “Blood and Candle Smoke”, sung by Gretchen Peters, and Guadalupe herself, painted by Tom. You can see his paintings, including I believe the original of this print, at Rainbow Man gallery in Santa Fe. He began last week’s show with this haunting song.

We do have an oddly eclectic “collection”– she is flanked by Gorbatov’s painting of quail on Lee Henderson’s ranch, just east of town, and Jonathan Kingdon’s aardwolf, with photos of Eli and Betsy and a bronze of a harrier by Loffler below– not to mention our metal dachshund.