Monday, February 22, 2016

Naked Cowboys in Death Valley

No, this is not a Brokeback Mountain themed blog, so rest at ease (or sorry to disappoint you, as the case may be).  

Because I tend to write fairly dark songs in spite of my being a fairly happy-go-lucky kind of guy, I have been asked at times where I draw inspiration from.  For some reason the question always catches me off guard and I am ill prepared to answer it.  But a few days ago I found myself wondering the same thing: where the hell do these songs come from.

I decided to track back through my influences for answers.  It is important to note, however, that while I am both a musician and a music fan, I believe my writing is more influenced and informed by the literature I have read than by the music I listen to.  Therefore, while my music composition style may be influenced by the likes of Chris Whitley, Joe Henry and Tom Waits, and my vocal delivery by Howling Wolf and Louis Armstrong, my lyrics have been informed by literary figures such as John Fante, Nelson Algren and Charles Bukowski.

The first person that nudged me in the direction of writing by encouragement was a college professor that taught creative writing.  She told me I had a knack for storytelling and said I should nurture it.  She gave me reading suggestions and when grading assignments she provided feedback that was meant to build up skills, rather than provide reassuring “atta-boys.”  She knew I liked music and one of the books she said I should take a look at was Hammer of the Gods, an unauthorized Led Zeppeling biography written by music journalist Stephen Davis.  I devoured this book because I was already a Zep fan and being these were the days before internet, this was the only way to get some formal information and historical perspective on the band.  In this book several authors were mentioned either as quotes or as influences, mainly, the occultist Alister Crowley, the novelist William S. Burroughs and the journalist Hunter S. Thompson.  I promptly went out and read everything I could get my hands on from these three authors.  I found Crowley pompous, boring and disorganized as a writer, perhaps because the subject matter did not hold my interest.  But Thompson and Burroughs became my first true fascinations of the written word because both, although in different ways, were renegades in  their trade.  

From Hunter Thompson I learned that bending the truth to the extreme of outright fabrication could still be journalism and was much more entertaining than the average editorial.  His streaming flow of consciousness full of drug-infused, colorful descriptions of the surrealism he lived, sparked my imagination and made me want to write.  Burroughs, on the other hand, was the literary embodiment of what Tom Robbins described in Still Life with Woodpecker as an outlaw: not a person who breaks the law, which is a criminal, but one that lives completely outside the law.  Of course I started my Burroughs studies reading Naked Lunch and, while I understood the historic importance of the work, I found it an excruciating reading experience.  But shortly after Naked Lunch, I read The Place of Dead Roads, which to this day remains one of my favorite books, and which many years later would serve as the inspiration for not only the western-flavored background of my act, but also of the title song of an album bearing the same name.

Through Burroughs I discovered the other beat writers, but none of them held the same level of interest for me as the outlaw Burroughs.  Around the same time I was reading Burroughs, I discovered E.E. Cummings in a college class; he sparked my interest because of his disdain for capitalization and punctuation.  In this same class I discovered Edgar Allan Poe, who hooked my imagination with his macabre and eerie themes, a flavor that seeps into my lyrics every now and then.  Shortly after this class, around the late 1980’s, while browsing the Beat Poets section in a book store, I noticed an image on a book that caught my attention.  The gruff, pensive face about to take a drag off a cigarette, along with the book's title Tales of Ordinary Madness, drew me to Charles Bukowski instantaneously.

Bukowski was a revelation to me because he managed to snatch poetry from the scholarly and deliver it to the streets.  He wrote of the derelicts, the drunks, the prostitutes and what happens at the fringes of society, where basic human needs and desires are redefined from the norm most of us know.  While he is best known as a poet, and I do admire his poetry, it was his prose and short stories that influenced me the most.  In addition to Tales of Ordinary Madness, Post Office and Notes of a Dirty Old Man were highly inspirational and influential to my writing.  Bukowski opened other doors as well, as I always tend to go back in history to see what influenced those that I admire.  Arguably, nobody influenced Bukowski more than John Fante and Nelson Algren.  I read Fante’s Ask the Dust and Algren’s A Walk on the Wild Side with the zealousness and attention to detail of a 13-year old watching a porn flick for the first time. And while both of those works remain important references for me, Tales of Ordinary Madness is to this day one of the literary works that informs my writing most, followed closely by the works of Elmore Leonard.  

As is often the case, I found Elmore Leonard through one of the movies his books inspired: Get Shorty.  His way of humanizing criminals and showing the “rest of the story” to a criminal character (i.e. what he dreams about, what he eats, what he discusses with friends) may not have been completely original (I had already seen it in Bukowski’s short story “A .45 to Pay the Rent”), but it certainly represented a stylistic upgrade to the approach.  It was Leonard’s Complete Western Stories, made up of material that was written and published in the 1950’s, that made me become a student of Leonard’s characters and planted the seed for he who was to become Banjo Bones.

Banjo Bones is an alter ego of sorts.  He serves as a means for me to explore the Yin to my Yang.  Because I was raised on a tropical island, the idea of the vast deserts of the wild west was enticing, dangerous, and exotic.  Which made the characters that ventured into this landscape the subject of my admiration, fascination and wildest imagination.  Because I enjoyed a very stable, healthy upbringing, the idea of outlaws and renegades was as appealing to me as the forbidden fruit.  When I write with my proverbial Banjo Bones hat on, in my imagination I am traveling through Death Valley, with the same elasticity and non-linearity of time that Kim Carson traveled in Burroughs’s The Place of Dead Roads, with the same moral relativity of Leonard’s Raylan, and rubbing shoulders with the skid row characters of Tales of Ordinary Madness.  

As I travel the dark corners of my imagination, I seek my own practical revelations, hopefully not unlike Algren’s three rules of life from A Walk on the Wild Side:  "Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own."  And the next time someone asks where I draw my inspiration,  I will know my answer… sitting at an imaginary camp fire in the middle of Death Valley, listening to Burroughs, Bukowski and Leonard trade stories.

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