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Blue Collar's "Lost Highway" - Journeys And Arrivals
By Mick Polich - 02/06/2008 - 08:18 AM EST

“Lost Highway: Journeys And Arrivals Of American Musicians”

That is the title of a book I’m currently reading by Peter Guralnick, one of the more prolific music writer/critics on the scene. I enjoy good music journalism, which seems to have come of age back in the 1960’s. Jazz has had it’s outlet, in particular thru publications such as”Downbeat” – it took rock reads like “Rolling Stone” and “Creem” to break through with some pretty expansive, introspective writing for the pop music scene back in the day. Anyway, “Lost Highway” is a chronology of   the rise, fall, and sometimes re-invention of some classic, and obscure American musicians such as Sleepy LaBeef, Rufus Thomas, and Charlie Rich. Fascinating stories, even as I zipped thru the pages of the book at Border’s to decide if I was going to make the purchase. 

So, let start off with some vague memory from the Mickster’s mind vault, as per usual, to get things kicked off…..

One guy - and this recollection really stands out because it reflects so many things socially, and culturally, as I was growing up – but one guy who stood out as a ‘re-invention’ before we coined the term for “Self-Help” linguists, was Louie Armstrong.

Back to the ‘ 60’s – let’s see, who’s this “Funny Girl”? Oh yeah, Barbara Streisand – great voice, big nose (like I should talk), and CLEAVAGE (What’s that? Find out later)?

But Louie Armstrong is in a movie with her – “Hello Dolly”.  Wow, Louie is singing, sweating, grinning up a storm with Babs. I think various African-American factions would get on Louie about this for “Uncle Tomming” (first time I heard the term when I was young). Wow, what is up with THAT?

Well, at one point in time, Louis Armstrong was considered in the pantheon of American jazz trumpet players – an icon and innovator of early American jazz. His style, along with his early bands, helped shaped jazz and jazz trumpet from the beginning. When most people hear the name “Satchmo”, pretty much an image of the sweaty - browed, grinning, African American, New Orleans – styled trumpet player comes to mind (you don’t even have to be a music enthusiast, and this pops up…..). But way beyond this lies a true innovator in jazz music. What comes to the forefront, though, is the image of Louie just trying to survive and get gigs anyway that he could – as with the “Hello Dolly” movie, the lion in winter now as the circus act after the dog-and-pony show…… 

The ‘lost highway’ – the phrase, made famous as a song by country icon Hank Williams, conjures up an image of the modern-day troubadour, submissive to their talent and/or vices, trying to get the music out, make the money, and deal with the demons – on the road to whatever juke joint, small town, smokey bar, or V.F.W. lodge there is next - to ply the trade and give the masses what they want. Doesn’t matter if you’re big, small, or middle time - you get in that truck or Silver Eagle, and make it happen, man. F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in life – hey buddy, this is the freakin’ U.S. of A, this is AMERICA – we knock our heroes down, then offer them the olive branch and a morsel of a second, even third act in life, after our collective memories forget about all the crap that happened to them that took ‘em down in the first place. The re-invention starts NOW……

One of the book’s story lines involved a seminal rockabilly player who flew under the radar named Sleepy Labeef (nicknamed such as for his heavy eyelids). Sleep was still gigging the 1980’s when he passed thru Des Moines, Ia., when I was working as an amp tech/salesman for Rieman Music Co. on DSM’s east side. I remember him, a very TALL Mr. LeBeef, bringing in his road amp for repair – I’m thinking a Fender Super Reverb (for the sake of the tale, we’ll say as such because that would be a cool road amp to have). He did have a trailer hitched onto a truck to pull his gear – Sleep was a road dog, for sure, and there was an audience out there that still wanted the sounds of rockabilly, thanks to such revival bands as the Stray Cats.

The rise, fall, and rise again to some level of a job playing music, especially your music, to people, is a long road with an even longer history. Thing is - there is no road map, no guarantee of success (fiscally or even emotionally), no stability (again, as I have said before, there’s a reason that it’s called POP music, at least for that genre…) – sometimes you’re only cared for about as long as it takes for people to give you the money for your CD, t-shirt, or download. A fan base is a hard thing to maintain at ANY level because it takes WORK and EXPOSURE (I know if I didn’t have an e-mail base to send my article to, it might not get to many people. I wonder if it’s really getting out on the Internet, given the millions of ‘pebbles’ out in the big pond o’ Earth. Oh well, I’m glad there’s a site for it to get out OF!!). The ‘lost highway’ is an apt term – it can go on forever…

Fame is fleeting at most, and at any level of the business. Fame and recognition can be drug-like, addling you into a haze of inflated self-importance, and at best, lightweight relationships. But I know of very few that didn’t say it wasn’t fun while it lasted, if you look honestly. Just that fleeting moment of recognition – yeah, it’s a power thing on some level (why do you think we’ve taken it to the next level with air-guitar championships?), but it’s a very human emotion to wanted and loved, even in an inflated sense, which gives us the dichotomy of the modern media troubadour. And to have your creation, in Frankensteinian terms, wanted, swooned over, accepted, validated – it can be a rush: the roar of the spotlight, the smell of the crowd! Even in the micro sense of terms, to play a solo, then get some applause – even if you were just into the form, the music, the interplay, the creation of the moment –well, even somebody like Frank Zappa - who loved music but looked at it in a sense of a intricate math-like patterns being formed into a whole – who say, “Yeah, thank you” and smile at the coolness of the moment…… 

But there are the ‘oh yeah I remember him/her’ moments if an artist comes back into the fold (and if they were ever really gone to begin with – being presented in a media format means you need to be on EVERY STINKIN’ SECOND OF EVERY DAY to let people know you are who you is, bruthas and sistas……).

One non-musician who recently has been given accolades has been actress Julie Christie. Now, for all you youngsters out there that aren’t hip to it, the beautiful Ms. Christie started in film awhile back.  Julie started her film career in the early 1960’s, and went on to such acclaimed films as “Dr. Zhivago” and “McCabe And Mrs. Miller”. Her film career dropped off in the 1980’s and ‘90’s, as reportedly she became disillusioned with Hollywood and it’s processes. This past year, 2007, she made a dramatic comeback in the movie “Away From Her”, as an Alzheimer’s – afflicted spouse. What a journey – I do remember Julie during her day, so to have her re-appear, and receive accolades for an acclaimed role is very sweet, indeed. But it’s moments like this that make you realize that not everyone takes the same path, artistically speaking – not everyone goes the same route to get where they need or are suppose to go to…

Rise, fall, redemption, musical retribution, apathy, dross, sloth-like moments, triumph – even if a musician doesn’t have a career on the huge world arena, do these moments, feelings, and characteristics still ring familiar? I’ll say ‘yes’, and dip back to my personal memory vault on this one. I try to get together, if not in form at least in spirit, with my ex-band mates and music students from Iowa, Ohio, and Georgia. I follow their lives, and the associated stories of people who have dropped out along the way, from the music world we helped form and breathed to life. This hold true now when I head back to Iowa, to jam and create again, talk about who’s still around, who’s doing well, and who’s in bad shape.

I’ll take the Andy Warhol quote regarding everyone’s 15 minutes of fame (so true in the YouTube world now…), and re-cast that as anywhere from 15 months to 15 years of fame on a local level for some (I had a good run back home in the biz from about 1979 to 1994, so, hey, that’s 15 years – boy howdy!). The rewards and excesses of even local fame run true and flowing – the luck to have gigs and a following right away, followed by recording dates if someone asks you to play on their stuff in the studio. You’re young, single perhaps – “Wowee Ma, look! I’m making $200 a week gigging!” – supplement that with a day job, you’re in duck soup, brother (sleep? It’s overrated, dude –who needs it?). If you’re married, maybe a small haggle of followers, willing to step up to the plate to make you happy (have a good time ALL the time, right Viv Savage?). The excess, parties – everything is there, we just didn’t have a budget like Van Halen to make it a ROLLING DAILY PARTY!  The 10 year arc – 20 to 30 years old – still gigging hard, but maybe questions arise like,” Hmmm – can I keep on doing this? Gig at night, work during the day?” Time to settle down? But, dude, where’s my IDENITY there? It’s not about being a musician, it’s being a SHEEP!! The possible boredom of life on the local music market sets – played that place, did that gig, the cycle can go on and on and on until the public, promoter, and bar owner gets tired of you and your music – too damn old, son, pack it up. Dreams of a record label contract, somebody picking up your song – man, I will not end up like that bald guy playing acoustic guitar in the lounge at the bowling alley on Tuesday nights, trying to keep a bit of the flame alive….

Well, guess what, Shorty? Who’s that guy NOW???

I’m not bitter here, but I can go back home and count A LOT of men and women who aren’t even on the music radar any more that had a pretty good gig going back in the day. Divorce, drugs, drink, sometimes the repetition of the daily grind gets them, get US – same old pair of shoes, really…..

Thus, it’s the stuff of life that we all go thru at one point or another that makes stories from “The Lost Highway” fascinating, joyful, sad, and enduring. As I read the book, I can recall the musician friends in my own life that have taken different paths – right, wrong, or indifferent. What’s the solution, especially when all you have done for a livelihood since you were in your teens or twenties is play music for money, work in a money store or a place that USED to sell CD’s, tapes, and records, or work some other associated industry job? It can be like heroin, or the mate who always garners the love/hate relationship  – can’t live with it, can’t live without it. As you age, and perhaps take on less or no gigs, a job outside the music industry – “glad you’ve finally grown up” is a remark that inevitably comes up.

I compare this situation to athletes as they age – in order to play, they need to change their game (coaches, too). Two that come to mind are Green Bay Packers QB Brett Farve and Giants coach Tom Coughlin. Both are NFL vets with long careers – Farve with MVP’s, one Super Bowl win, and acclaim as a great player. Coughlin is a tough, no-nonsense coach that took the Jacksonville Jaguars to an AFC Championship game in only their second season as a franchise. Farve has had probably one of his best seasons in recent years, probably due to his re-invention (with Coach Mike McCarthy’s help) from pigskin gunslinger to senior QB tactician – that can add a few years to your playing life in the NFL. Coughlin, with his players in revolt over his autocratic coaching style, was about to lose a job at the end of the year, but as of this time, is an NFL world champion along with the entire Giants franchise. The Packers almost had a Cinderella ending at the NFC Championship game, if not for being upended by Coughlin’s peak-at-the-right-time Giants (again, did they peak at the RIGHT time – one of the best Super Bowls that I’ve seen in awhile……). New tricks to old dogs – it can be done, people……

And what about Tony Bennett? A singing sensation back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Bennett hit the skids for much of the ‘70’s – reduced to the kind of gigs a lot of jazz people were getting due to the wane in popularity of the genre. With the help of manager/son Danny, Tony has been flying high with respect, not only as a torchbearer of the flame of jazz vocalists, but a fine painter whose work has been shown to critical acclaim. It’s a youth-driven culture – has been since recorded history and then some – so it’s nice to see someone rebound, and thrive in the latter years of life.

Musician or not, anyone can be on the “Lost Highway” – we lose our way at times, and struggle to make sense on where our place is at any particular point in life. I’m always a bit suspicious of anyone who’s say they know exactly where they are and there’s no need to question anything in their life at that point – makes me wonder if they’re looking hard enough. No assures us of anything beyond taxes and death – yep, it’s a mystery, Father MulCaehy, left to our own devices to figure out. But it’s stories from books like “Lost Highway” that make interesting perspective  –  musicians out on the road or stuck at a local bar/bowling alley/VFW, playing to sometimes disinterested crowds who are only looking for the next cheap beer and perhaps a companion. They’re playing to make alimony payments, or college tuition for their kids – whispers amongst the crowd about a faded sense of glory form the ‘old days’ for the musican around town. This is the auto accident that we always drive past and take a quick peek at when you mom says, ”Don’t look, just keep going” – the aging, faded local artist. Sometimes, well, most of the time, their musical era has long since passed – perhaps playing for memories, or some vague sense of clinging nostalgia in a world too big, too fast, and a bit too cold.

Then again, this could be o.k. – a sense of place that keeps the artist engaged, and willing to share his or her talents, in whatever capacity, with the general public. We need to be reminded of our collective cultural history, and the wandering modern troubadour, the minstrel – perhaps that’s the mission, the purpose.

Charlie Feathers, an obscure rockabilly musician from the Golden Age of that music – mid 1950’s to around 1960 – has a pretty good summation of why musicians may tend to haunt to dives and little joints spread all over the world, but in particular in the United States. Charlie says you can always seem to find the best music and spirit in these little holes-in-the –wall, and I tend to agree, having played where I’ve played over my journey across a few states. The people that inhabit those joints are looking for a place to feel comfortable at, to call home, to have someone know your name and your music. I would never trade those cheers, dancing, and good times in playing places such as Dallas Center, Ia., Columbus, Ohio, or Alpharetta, GA., for anything else at this point, really. The collective ‘hoop-de-do’ that went up in the air – that’s spirit that’s hard to find or beat. People can get too damn full of themselves or too stuffy – where’s your sense to kick out the jams, mofo??  But you see, this is why I’m the ol’ “Blue Collar Rocker”, and will continue to be as such – you gotta keep on keepin’ on, because there is ALWAYS an audience out there for you!

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