There was this kid I knew from grade school who got arrested for breaking in to storage units when we were about 19 or 20 years old. He and his cohorts rented a unit to stash their stolen goods in the same complex where one of my half-assed bands “rehearsed”. He was a tough little dude who had a hardened, detached attitude even when we were young kids. His parents were older and obviously struggled to control him. Today he’d probably come with at least a couple diagnosis, back then he was just a little bastard. A life of crime was no surprise.
At that time “rehearsal” was code word for party. We played a little bit through the drinking, enough to learn some songs and slog through a performance or two but very little action, musically or commercially was to be had at that time. No matter how good of friends we were then and how much love for one another we may have stashed in the corners of our hearts today, we were probably all looking at that band as a temporary thing. A place to test out the individual flash of genius we were certain was inside ourselves, until we each could find the real situation to apply our talent to. We did have good times in those storage unit practice spaces and somehow that kid left our Peavey Bandit amps and Squire guitars alone.
It wasn’t because he and I were friends. In sixth grade playing basketball I came down with a rebound and elbowed him hard in the temple as I turned to pass the ball. He tumbled over, sprung up and punched me square in the nuts. I caught my breath and proceeded to throw the absolute dumbest punch of my life. With all my weight I swung a roundhouse right haymaker that missed my intended target, his eye, landing nothing but pinky knuckle on the hardest part of the human skull, snapping my metacarpal in two places. The coaches separated us and we got back to playing until my hand began to swell up and I had to take the long walk of shame three blocks home and show my parents what I had done.
Most likely he and his criminal cohorts left us alone because our hours were highly unpredictable and as rehearsal parties spilled out in to the drive way our soberest members could probably identify the vehicles they used to transport their stolen goods. We were lucky no matter, as there was larceny all around us, we’d later learn from the police when they started to investigate.
During these highly confusing, difficult years stumbling out of adolescence and in to adulthood, one of my friends and I concocted a “What would Johnny Cash do?” credo. We’d read a book about Cash and how he’d done a lot of dangerous, destructive and impulsive things, so we mostly used him to justify our reckless behavior. One evening on our way to rehearsal we passed a traveling carnival in the Montgomery Ward’s parking lot on Lohman Ave. My friend, who was not in the band, suggested we stop off and check it out. When I put up a protest about having to rehearse he countered with the assessment that Johnny Cash would know that this band sucked and he’d go to the carnival instead. I could not argue that logic. With Sonic cups full of generic vodka and sticky sweet soda pop we walked through the midway, people watching and trying our drunken hand at the various games.
I fixated on a Harry Dean Stanton-looking carny with tattoos on his knuckles and scars on his face. His flannel shirt was half unbuttoned and his jeans were covered in grease. Watching him hustle the last dollar off customers by alternately challenging, insulting and teasing their hopes, I felt like I was watching a maestro. A dirty, drug addicted, law evading maestro who was no stranger to sleeping on the ground or walking in the rain. With his gaunt cheekbones and gold capped tooth he was complete outsider to polite society. If he played guitar he could start a band with Keith Ferguson and Hunt Sales.
At the end of the 1980’s in the midst of Reagan’s Cold War, several of the kids ahead of me in school enlisted in the service. The guys who were sort of my punk rock mentors, who taught me about politics and music and relationships, were all gone from Las Cruces leaving us to create excitement and figure things out on our own. The future was staring us right in the face. Standing there in the midway with a cheap vodka buzz, watching the master carny and contemplating the value system of Johnny Cash, I felt some sort of epiphany about my own maturity and independence. There were a lot of stories out there and I wanted to make it my job to live them and tell them. I would continue to trip and fall and plod through life before finding any consistent way to do the things I wanted to do musically but I remembered that night well enough to write a song about it the day Johnny Cash died.
I saw the kid from school again about five years later. He walked in, shoeless, to a bar in Las Cruces I often played with my much more organized band, some members veterans of those same storage unit practice spaces from years earlier. The tall blonde jock bartender immediately began telling him to leave as he’d been banned for stalking one of the regulars. Apparently he’d been caught peeping in her windows and lurking in the bushes around her home. The kid obediently turned to leave but stopped before reaching the door and began hurling a string of obscenities at the much larger bartender, challenging him to fight. The bartender picked up an axe handle and started for the shoeless kid who stepped out the door. The bartender followed, as did everyone in the club. In the parking lot the bartender was waving his stick and telling the kid to stay away when the little dude rushed him and in some move far too quick for my eyes, wrestled the axe handle away effortlessly and stood crazy eyed threatening the stunned and humiliated bigger man. After a tense moment of standoff the kid took off at a full run for the street smashing the axe handle on a fire hydrant breaking it in half, tossing the remnant in the air as he disappeared in to the night.
The following song was released on a record I put out in 2008 called Nature of the Blues. I poured my heart and soul in to making the album. Many of the songs were conceived while I was driving a delivery truck back and forth to Houston. I had no radio and would have to sing to myself to stay entertained. Ron Flynt, Vicente Rodriguez and I played most of the instruments with a few guest spots by Ponty Bone, Jud Newcomb and Larry Tracy. We play a few of the songs live with my current band but not this one, although I’ll do it solo every so often. The groove was influenced by the Band’s take on “Long Black Veil” and the words just evolved from wanting to write something about Johnny Cash, who never made it in to the song.