Weblog of Leland Rucker
Random header image... Refresh for more!

Category — Books

Jesus Christ — The Superstars! Buffalo Bill & Little Missie

What is it about superstars? Why do they so fascinate us?

I thought about that as millions mourned publicly for Whitney Houston last month, as I read Tim Riley’s John Lennon biography, and again after finishing Larry McMurtry’s The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America (Simon and Schuster 2005).

Buffalo Bill: The first superstar to go viral.

Annie Oakley and Bill Cody were among the first real American celebrities, those people — mostly actors, musicians, athletes or media professionals — who become stupendously successful. McMurtry notes that we don’t remember any of the other big names from that period when live shows about the West were as popular as stadium concerts today. Pawnee Bill, Ned Buntline, Doc Carver, Johnny Baker and Lillian Smith were all renowned performers of their day. But we remember the Colonel and Little Missie. They were superstars.

And as such, McMurtry makes an equally good case that Oakley and Cody were also among the first to get swept up in the frenzy of celebrity, something they didn’t understand and ultimately weren’t able to control. In their wake, few have.

His wry, common-sense style is perfect for this kind of interpretive historical story-telling as he traces the arc of Oakley and Cody’s triumphs and tragedies, always questioning what made them so darned popular.

“Superstars cannot exactly create themselves, no matter how skilled – the public cannot be manipulated vis-à-vis superstars only up to a point. The public must, at some point, develop a genuine love for the performer – a love that grows as long as the performer lasts,” he muses. “When great stars die, thousands mourn and mourn genuinely. Exactly how this chemistry works, no one quite understands – but some deep identification is made or superstardom doesn’t happen.”

In Cody’s case, at least part of it was that he actually was a scout in the 1870s, a man of the frontier, as well as an entertainer. But Oakley, on the other hand, was just a performer who dressed in buckskins and was a damned good shot.

Luck and circumstance certainly have something to do with it. Cody’s life as a frontiersman overlapped with his performing career. His Wild West Show idea was prescient, and though he never got to see his dreams materialize, he was a film visionary as well.

He was almost certainly the first artist to go viral. His iconic image, first immortalized in dime novels, books, and on posters, sitting on a horse in buckskins looking out at the endless prairie, is still as recognizable today as it was around the turn of the twentieth century. Everybody saw his image somewhere. We all know Buffalo Bill.

McMurtry wonders aloud why Robert Duvall, an extraordinary actor who, for all his skills, isn’t a superstar, while John Wayne, hardly in the class of Duvall as an actor, was. “The sonofabitch just looks like a man,” McMurtry quotes director John Ford about Wayne. McMurtry ponders that it might be something in the way superstars move. Was it because Oakley would give a little back kick when she did well or would visibly pout when she missed that made the audience love her? Was it because Buffalo Bill looked as good on a horse as Wayne did when he sauntered, his walk slightly tilted, into a movie saloon?

In the end, like the rest of us, McMurtry has more questions than answers about superstardom, and he seems to be as bemused as the rest of us about it all, but the book is quite enjoyable. Perhaps in this case, the quest will have to be enough.

March 8, 2012   No Comments

Getting Lost in Shangri-La

I got Lost in Shangri-La (Harper 2011) for a few days last week. What’s not to like about Mitchell Zuckoff’s non-fiction book about a plane crash in New Guinea in 1945? It’s a World War II story with adventure, intrigue, danger, a daring rescue mission and a head-turning WAC, who is among the Americans who survive a plane crash in a remote canyon peopled by Stone Age tribes not listed on any maps and rarely seen by modern-day humans that gets its name from the 1933 James Hilton novel that captured my imagination as a kid.

Margaret Hastings gets her photo taken with a tribal child after a plane crash in the New Guinea wilderness in 1945.

That’s about all I’m going to say about one of the most interesting and eccentric tales of the Pacific War. On a personal note, my father was stationed on the western coast of New Guinea, an island known for its incredible natural beauty and, as Zuckoff writes, “a gift-box assortment of inhospitable environments,” for five months in 1944. Like many stationed there, he left after conracting malaria in August, several months before this incident happened, but most surely he was aware of the rumors of the hidden valley GIs called Shangri-La, and he must have read or heard news reports about this incident while recovering back in the States.

What I found as interesting as the book itself was how the author came across and pieced together the whole story, which happened sixty-seven years ago. Zuckoff’s interest was piqued after finding a newspaper story about the incident, which, mostly because of Margaret Hastings, the Women’s Army Corps survivor, got lots of contemporary press in the waning days of WWII, while researching something else. He found one living survivor, who had kept a diary and his memories, which in turn led him to the families of the other survivors, many who had journals, documents, photographs, letters and personal details about the strange story. Using these first-hand materials, Zuckoff was able to bring the very human story to life and render it in a way that it almost reads almost like a novel.

Dozens of black-and-white photos throughout the book really help advance the story, and Zuckoff posted a contemporary documentary film of the event on his website, which I’m not going to link to here because you need to read the book before you watch the film. Great page-turner for a vacation or to snuggle up with for a weekend.

January 25, 2012   1 Comment

John Lennon: A Life of Contradictions

When I was a child, my uncle Jack, who was my guardian at the time, would tell my brother and me, “do as I say, not as I do,” as if that were a way to excuse his own excesses and remain an authority figure.

That’s kind of how I feel about John Lennon after reading Tim Riley’s Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music – The Definitive Life (Hyperion 2011). After 661 pages and almost 100 pages of footnotes, Lennon comes off like Uncle Jack, insecure, deeply flawed and seemingly incapable of controlling his worst instincts. Except that Lennon created music that has become part of my own soundtrack.

Lennon and the other Beatles were heroes of my youth whose music, style and attitude helped shape my own thinking and life. His murder devastated me, enough that it took years to be able to listen or appreciate his music again. Trying to separate the myths from the reality of Lennon’s complicated life is a formidable task, and Riley has given considerable time and energy to the project. Just using “The Definitive Life” in the title sounds, well, definitive.

Most biographies spend little time on childhood, but Lennon’s is worth looking into, and Riley does a great job of tracing his early life in Liverpool: his incredibly dysfunctional family, his fortuitous early hookup with Paul McCartney and George Harrison, the formation of the band, the three trips to Hamburg and their residency at the Cavern Club.

This is easily the best historical narrative of the Beatles’ rise, success and dissolution that I’ve read (and I’m looking over at about three dozen Beatles books on my shelf here in my office). Listening to the recordings that survive of their last Hamburg trip (packaged now as Live From the Star Club), it’s easy to understand Riley’s persuasive case that the Beatles created themselves on those scuzzy stages, both the music they engineered out of the riffs, rhythms and harmonies of American proto-rock/soul and the smiling, smirking, smart-alecky attitude that made me to want to adopt a new lifestyle paradigm at age 15.

Riley is at his best when he’s writing about the music itself. Author of Tell Me Why: The Beatles Album by Album, Song by Song, The Sixties and After, he spends a breathtaking chapter weaving the Beatles and George Martin’s production skills into the rich patchwork of innovation that characterized 1960s rock. His interpretations of Lennon’s songs, though subjective, are always provocative. Though he obviously believes that Lennon was the more serious creative force in the partnership, he is generous in recognizing the special relationship between Lennon and Paul McCartney, McCartney’s many contributions to Lennon’s material, and vice versa, and how even during the band’s dissolution, Lennon and McCartney remained committed to each other’s music.

But back to Uncle Jack and Lennon. “Do as I say, not as I do” pretty much sums up Lennon’s life. Blame it on his childhood or his insecurities (both of which Riley makes a case for), but too often Lennon just doesn’t come off as a very nice guy. Riley doesn’t try to cover over the warts, showing us time and again that what Lennon said and what he did were in complete contradiction, whether it was preaching peace and love but treating even his friends and associates with callousness, or preaching family and fidelity while cheating on the “love of his life.” Riley makes a somewhat persuasive case that Lennon was growing up in his last five years, but not enough to make you believe he really was, as he put it, starting over. And I found myself scratching my head in a few places where he interprets, sometimes without attribution, Lennon’s thought process, and I kept thinking that the word “perhaps” could have been used a bit more often when ascribing motivation.

That’s a minor quibble. Making John Lennon human didn’t change my view of his musical contributions or impact on my own life. If you’re a Beatles/Lennon fan, you really have to read this one and judge for yourself.

January 22, 2012   No Comments

Johnny Otis’ Other Hand Jive

Johnny Otis died Tuesday. He was 90. The great bandleader and songwriter was also an impressive visual artist, and I spoke with him about it in 1995 for Blues Access magazine.

They only met briefly, long, long ago. But Johnny Otis hasn’t forgotten Mr. Charlie or his dogs.

"Mr. Charlie's Dogs" (click to embiggen.)

“It was on one of our trips down South in Mississippi. We pulled into a rural gas station/restaurant. It’s 1950, and here’s a big bus painted with all kinds of carnival things – Johnny Otis’ Rhythm and Blues Caravan, Little Esther, all that stuff in bright red colors.

“A young guy was running the gas station. It shook him up – all he saw was a bunch of black people getting off the bus. I saw him run in and make a call on the phone. I don’t know what he thought this was – the invasion of the rhythm and blues creatures,” Otis is saying during a phone interview in between bites of the leopard shark he’s munching at his Sebastapol, California, home.

“Right quick here comes this big honky with two terrible looking dogs,” he continues, emphasizing the word terrible. “We got back in the bus, and he just looked at us, and we froze. He just walked around us. The dogs looked at us and growled and growled. Oh, he loved the way he was terrorizing the black folks. I had a P-38 under my belt, and I thought, ‘If Charlie gonna start any shit, I’m going to take him with me’.”

“I remember him standing looking at us with a grin, then he pulled out a cigarette and struck a match. It’s that image that’s in my mind. We got our gas, and we left. That was it. We always referred to that as ‘Mr. Charlie’s Dogs’.”

It is a story worth retelling, but you won’t find it in the Johnny Otis songbook. He rather chose to remember Mr. Charlie’s Dogs in a 1986 acrylic-on-canvas painting. It’s in Colors and Chords (Pomegranate Artbooks), a new book on Otis’ art. “Mr. Charlie’s Dogs” is on the cover of this issue.

To his considerable achievements over the last half century – as bandleader, musician, hit songwriter, community activist, organic grocer, occasional preacher – be sure and add visual artist.  Otis’ talent has manifested itself, especially during the last 10-13 years, in paintings, lithographs and sculpture detailing contemporary black lifestyles, his music milieu and socio-political themes.

“Painting was something I just did, mostly as therapy in between gigs,” he explains. “What are you going to do when you’re off for a month? That happens in the music business. Can’t go fishing all the time.”

His active art life dates back to 1945, when he began sketching cartoons of band life for fun. “As we would be riding along in the bus, I would just sketch a little something funny, and everybody would laugh. And it turned into a request program about what happened the night before, something naughty or something sexy or something ridiculous. Most of them have bit the dust by now except for the ones in the book.”

Colors and Chords offers a couple of works, including the brooding, moody “Nat Turner” oil painting, from the early 1960s. Then Otis didn’t paint for a long time. “The only time I feel really emotionally inspired to do any artwork is when I’m in music,” he admits. “When I’m out of music, shit, I’m miserable.”

The late 1960s and early 1970s were lean years for the Johnny Otis Band. “That was when the British Invasion occurred, and we couldn’t get a goddam job. We weren’t working with the band for a stretch of years. As I think back, coincidentally, I didn’t do any art work to speak of, either.”

It wasn’t until 1979 that we went back to art in earnest. “We were working again,” he says. “We were playing all the time.” And Otis went on a tear, creating in many media, echoing Picasso and cubist painters and native African styles in his brightly colored, primitive, plastic and wood sculptures. Being immersed in music also stimulated his visually creative style.

“I went into an art store to buy a little pad of paper, pencils and pens, and I see all these colors, all these paints, and I said, ‘Shit.’ They were a magnet. It just happened like that.”

Otis believes that music and painting and sculpture have much in common. As a major chord is made up of the tonic, third and fifth notes, he sees the same triad in the three primary colors. And as you find out in music, there are new, interesting shading possible by mixing the colors or the chords.

That thinking can be readily seen in a whimsical oil painting of a band called “Olive and the Primaries.” “These are not true-to-life characters,” Otis says. “These are composites of musicians I’ve seen and heard. Olive’s breasts are shaped like olives, and the members of the band have faces in the primary colors – red, yellow and blue.”

Some other Otis paintings – Boogie Stompers,” “The Blues,” “Little Esther” and “Silas Green” – capture the immediacy and intimacy of the Otis band itinerary: fairgrounds, juke joints and clubs of the chitlin’ circuit. Otis rarely focuses on the star, instead weaving a wealth of detail, from the Super Dog stand in “The Blues” to the long, gold watch fob dangling from the waist of the dancer in “Little Esther.” That comes from the unique perspective he gets as bandleader; while we’re watching the band, they’re checking us out, too. “From my vantage point at the piano and up on the bandstand, I see a panoramic view, left to right – the bar, bartenders, dancers, waitresses, patrons, hangers-on.”

Like any artist, Otis doesn’t want to talk much about what motivates such work. “How do I know what I’m going to do tomorrow? I do whatever strikes me. I don’t have any boundaries about style. I just like to throw that shit around on the canvas and paint.”

Still, he’s giggling with anticipation at his next work. “The cartoon I’m going to do tonight is for my fishing buddies. One of us was charged with fixing the bait, and he fucked up, and we were so mad.” He laughed again.

Besides his current fishing jones, Otis is particularly proud of his band, which is working regularly on weekends at a local supper club called Lena’s and choosing assorted dates elsewhere. “The band is so strong,” he enthuses. “Every instrument has an exceptional person, and the singer is great.”

That he’s so excited about music should mean that he’s painting or sculpting again, but during the hot summer of 1995 Otis chose fishing. He prefers cooler weather so he can fire up a little wood stove in his home studio, where he’s working on a couple of large-scale paintings “If I can keep the pot belly full of wood and coals, I can paint for a long time.”

We received a letter from Otis soon afterwards and published it in the magazine:

I really like Blues Access a lot. Thanks for the article on my art. The bright colors on your covers is a good format. It makes the publication stand out against other magazines.

I hope the page-after-page of ads means you’re enjoying commercial success. And if you’re that successful, I think we should arrange a loan. Two or three hundred thousands dollars should be about right. Let’s do it in small bills — in cash, OK? And no IOUs please, because I’m allergic to paperwork.

If you ever get up to the California boondocks, let me know and we’ll hook up.

Johnny Otis

Sebastapol, CA.

January 20, 2012   No Comments

Quanah Parker’s Star House

I have a thing about old buildings, especially ones where history took place. Whether it’s standing inside Buffalo Bill’s hunting cabin outside Yellowstone Park in Wyoming or listening to Randy Newman at Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder, for that matter, old buildings have a way of making history come to life. This is especially true when those buildings are in out-of-the-way places that you have to seek out.

The Star House's red roof is lower left center, not far from the railroad tracks and behind the amusement park. Only in America. (Click to bigginate.)

That’s why I want to go to Cache, Oklahoma. Yeah. Really. I just finished S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (Scribner), which traces the story of the fearsome, decentralized Indian nation that once commanded huge swaths of Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico until its leaders surrendered to U.S. forces in 1875.

As with all books about the European/American extermination of Indian tribes from the Great Plains in the late 19th century, Empire of the Summer Moon tells a sad story about a miserable, irredeemable period in U.S. history. I realized how little I knew about the Comanches or the Indian wars in Texas and Oklahoma as Gwynne masterfully points out the pros and cons of both sides.

The book drops you into the Texas frontier in the early 19th century as whites sweeping westward begin tangling with those tribes and their lifestyle on the Southern Great Plains. Gwynne’s descriptions of the tribes’ nomadic life are as breathtaking as his exploration of how the Spanish, during their ill-fated attempt at conquest of the Comanches, among their many mistakes, unwittingly gave the Comanches the very thing – horses — which the Indians would then use to drive out the Europeans and stave off, at least for a while, their own extinction.

But the magic of Empire of the Summer Moon is how all this history weaves into and around the stories of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son, Quanah Parker, the last of the great Comanche chiefs. Apparently, if you grew up in Texas, you know the story of how Cynthia Ann was captured by the Comanches in 1836 at age nine in a brutal massacre against her family’s compound – she witnessed the torture and murder of her grandfather and gang-rape of other women during the incident.

Click on this to get a close-up of the immediate area.

Cynthia Ann was spared, eventually married Chief Peta Necona, had three children and was completely assimilated into the tribe for 24 years before being recaptured by famous Texas rancher Charles Goodnight and returned to her white family. Incomprehensible as it seemed to everyone at the time,  Parker rejected white society and tried to escape many times as she was shunted through a miserable life among her relatives. She never saw Quanah or her children again and finally starved herself to death in 1870.

Her first son with Peta Necona was Quanah. Six feet tall, with long hair, a stately mien and steely stare, Quanah Parker was a highly regarded, especially fearless and murderous chief of the notorious Quahadi Comanche band. Parker fought ferociously and killed and tortured many who chased the Quahadi before finally surrendering at Ft. Sill in Oklahoma in 1875.

For the last thirty years of his life, he lived out the life his mother could never accept. Perhaps more than any other Native American chief, Parker had moderate success living within the constraints of reservation life.  Though uneducated, he had great persuasive skills, and he traveled to Washington to lobby Congress on the behalf of his tribe. He was a founder of the Native American Church Movement peyote religion.

Perhaps the best expression of his desire to live in the white man’s world was the house he built near Cache, Oklahoma. It was a ten-room, two-story structure, a place where the great and the unknown came to pay their respects to the old chief. President Theodore Roosevelt dined at Parker’s house, and his table was always filled with people who wanted to meet the great chief.

Quanah Parker

There is an old photo of the house surrounded by a white picket fence in the book, and near the end, Gwynne says that he found Parker’s Star House, behind an abandoned amusement park near Cache. Beyond the peculiarly American irony of its location, this got me very excited. I quickly went to Google Maps and typed: Cache, OK. I moved down to the local level and began scanning, found a park northwest of town, and there it was, right behind what looks from the air like an old amusement park.

But what guided me to it so quickly were the stars on the red roof. You see, one story says that old Chief Parker, perhaps in a religious vision, had stars embedded in the roof of his home like those he supposedly admired on uniforms. The Star House. So I like to think that Parker himself helped guide me, lo these many years later, right to the spot.  I have to see this.

Read about our 2014 trip to see the Star House here.

December 10, 2011   3 Comments

Among the Truthers: Life in Conspiracy World

In Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground, journalist Jonathan Kay, an editor at the National Post in Canada, examines the history of conspiracy theory in America and takes a long look at some of the people and ideas behind the 9/11 Truth movement.

I feel a lot like Kay in that I did an honest search of 9/11 theories. After reading the Truth material and the official Commission Report and many books, including The Looming Tower, and watching, ad infinitum, the videos of the event, like Kay, I concluded that it was much more likely that al Qaeda operatives hijacked four jets, of which three hit their targets than it is to believe that American neo-cons used passenger jets to hit three iconic, already explosive-rigged buildings, attacked the Pentagon with a missile and made several hundred people go away, presumably under hidden identities, never to be seen by their families again.

And like Kay, I don’t consider “truthers” to be, as he puts it, nutbags. If al Qaeda committed the crime, why do so many people believe that Cheney did it?

If you’re looking for more on thermite in WTC debris, or analyses of how Building 7 collapsed or what flying object hit the Pentagon, you won’t find it here. But if you want to better understand why so many people believe in things like this, it’s good background. Kay devotes chapters to conspiracism’s history and mythology, its psychological and religious roots and its advancement through media and academic and activist networks. Especially interesting are the sections on earlier alleged conspiracy plots – Ku Klux Klan, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Holocaust revisionism JFK etc. Kay does a great job of showing how many of the old themes and mythologies are woven into many of today’s conspiracy theories.

He also makes a good point that, though conspiracy theories have always been with us, it is the Internet that has accelerated and advanced the 9/11 Truthers’ cause and conspiracy theory in general. Virtually anyone with web access is free to check any of this out in the privacy of your own home. Gotta love it.

(More of my thoughts about 9/11 Truth.)

December 3, 2011   No Comments

The Windup Girl and The Infernals

From the cover of The Windup Girl, a megadont walks the streets of Bangkok. Imagine the smell.

I just finished a couple of science-fiction/supernatural books that I highly recommend to fans of either genre.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (Nightshade Books 2009) is set about 250 years in the future in Bangkok. The world has long ago experienced both climate change (lotsa sweat) and the end of oil (or the Great Contraction, as it’s called).

Even worse, tinkering genetic bioengineering corporations have created food-borne plagues that have swept across continents, and bio-gen corps called “calorie companies” located in the U.S. are ever in search of the remaining germinating seed banks so they can destroy them and control food.

One of those banks is in Thailand, and that’s about all you need to know. There are genetically modified elephants called megadonts that help generate a kind of spring energy. There are genetically altered people (the windup girl is one) who serve mankind in ways both wonderful and twisted, all working in a cityscape so deliciously rendered and alluring that I went back and reread descriptive passages.

At the time I was reading this, Boulder County is seemingly split over whether to allow genetically modified crops on its land. (Hint: If you read this book, you will probably come down on the side of not allowing bio-gen crops anywhere.) And while reading, much of the supercity of Bangkok and its twelve million inhabitants, which in the novel has built even more elaborate walls to keep out the sea, were under water. Creepy when sci-fi slips into reality.

Somehow I get the feeling that Pacigalupi will create more stories and novels for this futureworld. In its scope and ambition, this world reminded me of how I felt when I first read Dune. Good as it is, I’d hate to see it go to waste on just this one tale.

John Connally’s The Infernals (Atria Books 2011) continues the story of Samuel Johnson, the twelve-year-old English boy who again winds up, thanks to a devil’s assistant and some laxity on the part of the scientists running the Hadron Collider, sucked into another dimension. We were introduced to Sam and his dog (of course he’s named Boswell) in The Book of Lost Things.

This time Mrs. Abernathy, a demon who has morphed into a middle-aged woman (albeit a particularly execrable and nasty one), having been thwarted in her bid to enter the real world in the earlier novel by Samuel, is trying to nab him to take back to her boss, the Great Malevolence, to gain back what self-respect she feels she has lost after Samuel and Boswell dashed her hopes for world dominance.

Connally writes with a professor’s delightful glee, using many assorted snotty asides and footnotes, as he leads Samuel and Boswell through the ever-changing, kaleidoscopic landscape of Hell, including a look into the Great Void itself, and a bewildering scourge of smelly, loathsome demons, dwarfs, elves, trees with claws, wraiths and rams, some of help to Samuel and some not so much, and a herbaceous beverage known to produce temporary blindness, an occasional inability to remember your name and explosive burping.

My favorites were the four dwarfs, and I laughed out loud while reading passages on the bus ride commute more than once. All I could think of while reading it was that, in the right hands, this would make an incredible animated film.

November 13, 2011   No Comments

Hound Dog Men: Leiber and Stoller’s Story

When we think of the great songwriters of the 1950s, we usually concentrate on Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Ray Charles. Leiber-Stoller doesn’t immediately come to mind. I didn’t even know their first names – they have always been Leiber-Stoller to me.

All that changed after reading Hound Dog: The Leiber-Stoller Biography (Simon and Shuster 2009), written with David Ritz. Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber were at least as important as songwriters as Berry or Holly, but like their first names, we don’t remember them because they weren’t performers.

Both of them grew up on the East Coast, but they didn’t meet until they had moved to Los Angeles, and their partnership, which began in 1950, has lasted through many decades, if their popularity and creativity pretty much dried up by the 1970s. But they will be remembered for the many songs they wrote for the Drifters, the Coasters and other great doo wop groups of the 1950s.

They were young Jewish men completely enchanted with black music. Stoller, a pianist, studied jazz and classical music and wrote all the music for the team. Leiber was a lyricist literally without peer at the time, and the pair created some of the most fascinating songs of the era: “Smokey Joe’s Café,” “Riot in Cell Block #9,” “Kansas City,” “The Chicken and the Hawk,” “Young Blood,” “Yakety Yak,” “Along Came Jones,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Little Egypt,” “Stand by Me,” among them.

Oh, yeah. And “Hound Dog.” “You know, gentlemen, no matter how many beautiful songs you write or how many other achievements you may realize in your lifetimes, you’ll always be remembered as the guys who wrote ‘Hound Dog,’“ Atlantic Records co-owner Nesuhi Ertegun told them. They knew he was right, naming their autobiography after the song and highlighting the quote on the first page.

One thing not many know is that along with their songwriting skills, they were involved in producing records before we came up with the term “production” in the making of records. Listen to the Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko,” and read how they came up with the recording. The Cups were in the studio to put final touches on a song they recorded a few days earlier, “People Say,” and warming up their voices with the old Mardi Gras standard “Iko Iko.”

Stoller writes, “We decided to cut it there and then. No band was present … Jeff (Barry) and Ellie (Greenwich) picked up a coke bottle, a plastic bowl and a few can openers. That became the percussion. There was also a souvenir kalimba box from the West Indies, a sort of giant version of an African thumb piano. I found a way to tune it and used it to play a bass line. The Dixie Cups sang the song with tremendous feeling and authenticity. When we were finished, we loved it … We had another Top Twenty hit.”

There are plenty of stories like that one in Hound Dog, their on-off involvement with Elvis Presley and Col. Parker, their experiences with everybody from Phil Spector to Shadow Morton to Norman Mailer, as well as many other stories about the early days of rock and roll. And I finally got their names right.

April 5, 2011   No Comments

They Found Everett Ruess’s Body …

A CU scientist used forensic science and Photoshop to identify the remains of Everett Ruess, missing since 1934.

A CU scientist used forensic science and Photoshop to identify the remains of Everett Ruess, missing since 1934. (Photo by Dorothea Lange)

Amazing news today that CU scientist Dennis Van Gerven has identified the remains of Everett Ruess, the eccentric young vagabond who, with his two burros, disappeared in the Utah desert in 1934, leaving behind a short life, a few snapshots and a sheaf of letters and paintings that have inspired naturalists, environmentalists, wilderness lovers and one of my favorite songwriters.

I’m happy for Ruess’s family, which finally learns the answer to a mystery that must have vexed its members over the decades. And the discovery is an astonishing story that will no doubt show up as a future episode of CSI. The mystery was solved through a captivating combination of ancient oral Indian family history and modern-day forensics technology and Photoshop.

But I feel a twinge of sadness about the discovery, too.

I came across Dave Alvin’s song “Everett Ruess” while working at KCUV (remember Colorado’s Underground Voice?) in 2004 when Ashgrove, the album it first appeared on, was released. Ashgrove was, to these ears, a concept album, a group of songs loosely arranged around the concept of growing older and learning to accept that fate. The title track was an unabashed look back at the former Blasters’ guitarist/songwriter’s days at the storied Los Angeles folk club where, as an underage teenager, Alvin was schooled in the ways of the great blues and folk musicians who inspired him. “Nine-Volt Heart” is a nostalgic memory of an older man’s youth, and “Man in the Bed” a penetrating snapshot of an aging man in whose dreams he is a young man again.

But “Everett Ruess” sealed the deal for the concept. Alvin had obviously read Ruess’ letters, and his song, written in Ruess’s own voice, tells the young man’s story as he builds a case around a notion that nags us all as we age.

I was born Everett Ruess
I been dead for sixty years
I was just a young boy in my twenties
The day I disappeared.

Into the Grand Escalante Badlands
Near the Utah and Arizona line
And they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

Ruess was twenty when he disappeared after leaving Escalante, Utah, in late 1934. But Alvin notes that among the many mysteries about Ruess is that there was no particular rebellion involved in his journeys. He wasn’t leaving because he wanted to get away from his family but because he found something particularly fascinating and illuminating about the wilderness.

I grew up in California
And I loved my family and my home
But I ran away to the High Sierra
Where I could live free and alone.

And folks said “He’s just another wild kid
And he’ll grow out of it in time,”
But they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

Ruess traded prints with Ansel Adams, studied with Edward Weston, Maynard Dixon and Dorothea Lange and sent letters, drawings and poems of his travels to his friends and family beginning with his first Southwestern pilgrimage in June 1930. Though his 1934 journal wasn’t found, he never stopped writing. Were it not for those letters, nobody would have known or cared, and today’s newspaper headline would never been written.

I broke broncos with the cowboys
I sang healing songs with the Navajo
I did the snake dance with the Hopi
And I drew pictures everywhere I go.

Then I swapped all my drawings for provisions
To get what I needed to get by
And they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

Alvin speculates convincingly upon Ruess’ continuing detachment from civilization.

Well I hate your crowded cities
With your sad and hopeless mobs
And I hate your grand cathedrals
Where you try to trap God.

‘Cause I know God is here in the canyons
With the rattlesnakes and the pinon pines
And they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

Everett Ruess and his two burros prowled the desert Southwest in the early 1930's.

Everett Ruess and his two burros prowled the desert Southwest in the early 1930's.

Ruess left Escalante, New Mexico, on November 11, 1934, and was last seen by two sheepherders near the Kaiparowits Plateau several days later, who reported that he said he was heading for the Hole-in-the Rock area, a Mormon landmark where the Colorado River could be crossed.

Ruess’s burros were found in Davis Gulch, and the search for his remains was centered in that remote area of the Escalante. Most theories were that he was killed by cattle wranglers, fell to his death, took his own life in that same area or on Kaiparowits Plateau or disappeared and is living in Mexico. One major problem with any benign death theory is that his paintings, paint kit, journal, cook kit, food and money were never found.

This lends further credence to the Ute Indian murder story. His body was buried about thirty miles east of the area where the burros were found and the search for Ruess took place, so he must have crossed the Colorado and headed toward Monument Valley, which he had visited before. Without his burros, food or supplies, it would be difficult but not impossible to reach the Bluff area where his body was finally found.

Alvin weaves in several theories about Ruess’ death before putting everything into context in his last eight lines.

They say I was killed by a drifter
Or I froze to death in the snow
Maybe mauled by a wildcat
Or I’m livin’ down in Mexico.

But my end, it doesn’t really matter
All that counts is how you live your life
And they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

You give your dreams away as you get older
Oh, but I never gave up mine
And they’ll never find my body, boys
Or understand my mind.

Billie and I visited Escalante, Utah, in 2005, where we first came into contact with the Ruess saga. There we bought Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty, the W.L. Rusho biography that included his writings. At times we felt we were following him around the wild areas in Escalante where he went missing, all the while staring in majesty and wonder at the same mind-boggling vistas that captured his imagination.

Reading Ruess’s words, and Alvin’s poetry, especially the lines “all that counts is how you live your life,” “you give your dreams away as you get older” and “they’ll never find my body, boys, or understand my mind” put a spin on his story that I still find deeply compelling. I really liked the idea of Ruess being lost, and staying lost. One part of me wished that he would remain unfound, a mystery – “they never find my body, boys.” Today’s news means that I will now only be able to take comfort in knowing that we will still never “understand his mind.”

April 30, 2009   2 Comments

Shadow Divers Titanically Out of Their Depth

“It hit an iceberg, and it sank. Get over it.”
– Robert Ballard

One of the best books I have read recently was Shadow Divers: The True Adventures of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II. The book, a non-fiction story that combined deep-sea adventure, history and two divers caught up in a suspenseful search for the identity of a German U-boat they found sunk off the eastern coast of the United States, completely captured my imagination.

So I was pretty excited to see that John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, the two Shadow Divers, were partners in a new book, Titanic’s Last Secrets. My enthusiasm abated rather quickly as the book’s only secret is that it’s a cheap knock-off that does nothing more than fulfill a contract.

Titanic’s Last Secrets, written by Brad Matsen, wants to make us believe that the great ship actually sank because of faulty design and workmanship. We are supposed to believe this because Chatterton and Kohler, who became bigger fish in diving circles after the success of Shadow Divers and even had their own underwater television adventure show, decided to ride one of the submersibles down to the Titanic because an earlier traveler convinced them he saw part of the shattered hull.

After spending $150,000, the divers don’t find what they went down for, but on a subsequent dive, they discover two hull pieces. After a subsequent twenty-minute dive to Titanic’s sister ship, Brittanic, which sunk off the coast of Africa, and a search of the historic record, they conclude that Titanic was designed poorly and destined to fail.

Much of the joy of reading Shadow Divers was the way the evidence unfolded over several years of diving and research. Several times Chatterton and Kohler follow leads that, though promising enough to believe, wind up wrong, which makes the final identification that much more satisfying.

But there is no suspense in Titanic’s Last Secrets. The first sixty pages do a good job describing the process that led Chatterton and Kohler to the Titanic. Then, with no explanation, Matsen begins telling the story of Titanic’s last voyage, using historical accounts, with lots of innuendo about Bruce Ismay and the other owners of the giant ships. This interminable section takes up more than half of the book’s length before the story finally shifts back to Chatterton and Kohler and describes their theory that the ship didn’t sink as Robert Ballard or the James Cameron film version showed. To say their argument is unconvincing would be an understatement.

“They found a fragment, big deal. Am I surprised? No. When you go down there, there’s stuff all over the place.”
– Robert Ballard

Feb. 25, 2009

February 25, 2009   3 Comments