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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

Tom Rush: The Circle Game

15 January 2005

The thing I had most forgotten about Tom Rush is that he is as much storyteller/comedian as he is musician. That became apparent on a frosty Saturday night at Swallow Hill warmed by two hour-long Rush sets that spanned the length and breadth of his four-decade career.

Rush was one of my initial guitar inspirations, but I have been seriously remiss in following his career. Though I play the four vinyl records I bought in the early 1970s, I don’t even own a TR CD, and I had never interviewed him. Though he has come to Denver many times, I have only seen him perform once.

That was in the early 1990s, when he appeared in Boulder at the Folks Festival up at Chautauqua Auditorium, the historic and cavernous building upon whose stage trod immortals like Billy Sunday and David Hidalgo and which Michelle Shocked, looking at the wooden frame of the ceiling, described quite accurately as “like being inside a giant guitar.”

I can’t remember how or why, but Gil and I were MCs for that all-day show, and we actually played as the Soldiers of Love on a stage out by the kid’s playground that afternoon. Could they have been that hard up for performers?

Second on the bill that Sunday was some pretentious folk-singer-of-the-day – what was her name? – who had a couple of indie releases getting some critical attention. Backstage, I didn’t recognize her when we met, and she gave me one of those “don’t-you-know-who-I-am?” looks. She apparently believed the drivel we rock writers dish up about them. She wanted everyone to jump and run for the young artiste.

In contrast, on that day Rush was quiet, unassuming and as unpretentious as he could be. And once he started fingerpicking, nobody remembered what’s-her-name.

Fifteen years later, I finally get my moment with Tom Rush. When I saw he was playing, I emailed G Brown to say I would love to talk with him on the air and introduce him in front of the Swallow Hill crowd. And thus it was.

Rush, of course, is the ultimate professional. He’s been doing this for a long time, and his banter is clever, quick and studied – he will use several of the same introductory shticks this morning during his evening set, and his playing, though a bit rough, is mighty effective.

I really wanted to call for a couple of old favorites but bit my lip after asking him just before we went on about what he wanted to play and he indicated a couple of numbers I didn’t know. It’s radio. Go with the flow, you know.

We did about twenty five minutes on the air. Afterwards, Rush signed the station’s signature guitar and added his name to the studio’s Wall O’Autographs. KCUV photographer Greg took pictures during the set, and I snap one of him and Tom and he snaps one of Tom and me, arm and arm. Not something I usually do, but what the hey? Going with the flow.

Later, in the evening, Billie and I attend our first Swallow Hill show in Daniels Hall. (Last SH show we saw was T Bone Burnett and Sam Phillips in some other Denver church even smaller than this one – that had to be a while back.) Under the guidance of the legendary bandleader Chris Daniels, after whom the hall is named, the folk organization bought a South Denver Protestant church just off Broadway and crafted it to its own needs: intimate concert venue, recording studio, teaching space and a place for those who love great acoustic music to hang out.

Rush is no stranger to Swallow Hill, and you can see the audience is mostly Rush-heads in a certain, uh, age group into which Billie and I fit. There are more than a few long-sleeved winter edition KCUV t-shirts in attendance.

I meet Troy, Swallow Hill manager, and Jim Williams, the executive director, with whom I chat briefly in the hallway backstage over who’ll say what during the introduction. Tom has changed into a Hawaiian shirt for the show and seems in great spirits.

Jim goes out onstage to talk about Swallow Hill and asks who came the farthest distance and gets “North Carolina” in reply. Standing behind me, Tom whispers that at his Loveland show last night, some guy from Italy showed up, a big fan.

I managed to bungle my intro, but it works and Tom ambles onstage.

Rush had explained on the air that he performs a few set songs each show that he says fans expect and uses his wide repertoire to fill in around the edges. And on this night, he gave this old dog more than enough bones upon which to chew.

You could argue that onstage Rush is a comedian who occasionally plays music. His banter has that sense of between-song timing that in my memory can be traced back at least to Dave Guard, whose brainy introductions were among the many things that attracted me to my first musical obsession, the Kingston Trio.

At age eleven I learned every pause and nuance of Guard’s deadpan delivery to “The Merry Minuet” (with its reference to Eisenhower Secretary of State John Foster Dulles) and “M.T.A” (“citizens hear me out, this could happen to you.”) I didn’t always understand what he was talking about, but I could tell from his delivery and audience reactions that it was hip and cool. Same with Tommy Smothers.

Though Rush is just as rehearsed as Guard or Smothers, his ramblings have a more stream-of-consciousness feel. The songs themselves are almost afterthoughts, loosely strung around his funny tales and one-line observations about forty years of life on the road. He’s also partial to stories of growing up in New Hampshire and living in Wyoming.

He admitted he was still working up new material for Santa Barbara, California, where he moved in June after many years in rural Wyoming, and tried a few out on us. He doesn’t think it will be too hard to make fun of California, punctuating that thought with a funny story about Trevor Veitch, his one-time band foil and guitarist, who lives in North Hollywood and, says Rush, is now a Scoutmaster.

He repeated the songs he played on the radio, including “River Song,” and that romping Sleepy John Estes blues, “Drop Down Mama.” His voice is pretty scratchy, but he finished the one that he bailed on in the studio – too early in the day to sing that high, he said at noon. “Silly Little Diddle” is a recent knock-off that began as a paean to his five-year-old daughter. (“Pee-on” jokes were a recurring theme throughout the monologues.)

A real highlight was an extended version of Bukka White’s “Panama Limited” that let him show off that quirky, slide-guitar style that still distinguishes him from others of his era. The train song ended the first set with a magnificent flourish. Why not? It’s the song from his very first Elektra album that really drew guitar players to his quirky style.

He did several bits from his recent stitched-together Trolling for Owls, which gathers many of the amusing songs and comedy routines he has worked out over the years, including one about a middle-aged guy who always forgets where he’s at (I can’t remember the title, hah-hah) and another “Wyoming song,” “Killing Coyotes,” that I am going to have to learn.

Couple of surprises, including a nice rhythmic version of his own “Merrimac County,” the absurdist John Prine/Fred Koller collaboration, “Let’s Talk Dirty In Hawaiian,” and “Drift Away,” which he introduced by telling a story about meeting Mentor Williams, who wrote the song, a big hit for Dobie Gray and a standard that is even included in every Mallworthy set.

He did it in that G or D tuning that he and Joni Mitchell share. He talked about meeting Mitchell while playing the Checkmate in Detroit and getting a tape from her, which included a song, with a personal note saying she had written it the night before and she was afraid it was too unfinished.

That was “The Circle Game,” which also became the title of his best-known album and helped jump-start both of their careers. Though he said he usually only plays one Joni-song a night, he played both “The Circle Game” and “Urge for Going,” much to my delight.

Besides waking me to the fact that “Urge for Going” is done in regular tuning – I have been working on it since — this performance reminded me that Rush has the rare ability to sing softly.

It’s a trait easily overlooked by its very nature and by his powerful guitar playing, but effective nonetheless. Rush closed with “No Regrets,” which he coupled with “Rockport Sunday,” the final two songs on The Circle Game.

In one of those twists of artistic fate, a couple lines of the chorus to “No Regrets” have been quoted by Bono, a performer not particularly known for subtlety, in recent U2 performances.

But restraint is the essence of Tom Rush. There are no histrionics and there is no pretension in his performance of “No Regrets.” The guitar chords ring out, punctuating the tension in the verses before he almost whispers the chorus, “no regrets,” once again letting the chords ring around his voice.

Today “musicians” use software to keep their vocals in pitch and move their lips to pre-recorded tapes onstage because, we are told, their audiences expect perfection.

Thanks, but no thanks. Rush knows that there are still a few of us who would rather see real people and hear voices as they actually sound. And so, a quiet huzzah for imperfection and being slightly out of tune.

February 22, 2007   No Comments

The Best-Dressed Man in Americana: Jay Farrar

Fox Theatre
The Hill-Boulder
Sept. 11, 2004

One of my duties as a KCUV disc jockey is to announce shows, which is why I’m at the Fox Theatre tonight. Amie, who’s in charge of things, is telling me that Jay hasn’t signed off on the announcer thing yet, and she certainly wasn’t going to bother him about it just now because he was having sushi.

Fine. So I killed some time just standing in front of the Fox and Tulagi buildings. As always, I’m wondering how I can build on the landmark designation of the Fox, which happened during my first landmark-board meeting, to include Tulagi, the best-known structure in Boulder, during my tenure as well.

I remember standing here one night when Cheap Trick played a three-night stand at the Fox a few years back, showcasing a different album each night. I was there for Heaven Tonight to see them play “Surrender.” Before the show, standing in this spot, Trick’s Rick Nielsen pushed down his sunglasses when he looked up at the Tulagi sign, grinned a bit, and said, “I played there,” and added after a pause, grabbing his beard, “long before Cheap Trick.”

Which is, ultimately why Tulagi should be landmarked – thousands of musicians have a similar story to tell; those walls reverberate with the entire history of seventies rock’n’roll on the road, though they are woefully quiet tonight.

Justin, the production manager at the Fox, comes out and hands me a ticket, tells me that Jay apparently got his fill of sushi and approved the KCUV introduction and to meet him at 10:50 down by the stage door.

I find a wooden perch to hang onto for what turned out to be two-fifths of Drag The River. Neither introduced themselves beyond that, but both guys apparently write songs and play rhythm guitar. They didn’t explain what happened to the other three-fifths of the band.

During an hour-long set, they sang three or four pretty decent songs and otherwise invoked the hoariest of Americana clichés. A song called, I think, “It’s Tough Being a Drunkard” got the most applause.

Almost every song performed by two-fifths of Drag the River is in the key of D, no matter which one sings lead, and every one included the obligatory BIG strum

whenever you hit minor chords, especially during the (often interminable) ballads, which were especially grievous in the cliché department. The performance was mediocre, they were both somewhat apologetic about that fact, and beyond that, completely forgettable.

During the set, I spy a couple guys in their fifties, both with matching KCUV T-shirts. They look like nerds. Yikes! Then I look down at my KCUV T-shirt. Gulp! They look just like me. Except I’m even nerdier: I also have a JACK baseball cap on. We’d look like the Three Stooges if we were together.

I meet Justin down in front of the stage at the appointed time, and he hands me a list of upcoming shows to announce at the Fox. Just say, “Jay will be out in a few minutes,” he reminded me.

The roadie for Jay grabbed me and warned me that I was good to go, and under no circumstances was I to touch the microphone.

I walk out onstage. Hit the bullet points: “Colorado’s Underground Voice,” “American Roots Music,” “1510 on the AM dial, where all the progressive music is these days,” “KCUV Presents Drive-by Truckers at the Bluebird …” “Fox upcoming shows,” “SUPPORT LOCAL RADIO,” “Screw the corporations,” and the most important: “Jay will be out in a few minutes.”

Didn’t touch the mike. The roadie said I did fine.

Standing down in front waiting for Farrar, Troy of Buckskin Stallion taps me on the shoulder and introduces himself. Says he’ll send me a CD.

On comes Jay and his accompanist, Mark Spencer, who sits down a couple of feet in front of me, slaps a pastel blue lap steel between his legs and begins scratching out the riff for “Doesn’t Have to Be This Way.”

It’s then that I notice that Jay Farrar is the cleanest, best-dressed man in Americana.

It was remarkable only because it was so surprising. Americana artists, like 2/5 of Drag the River, all pretty much look and dress the same. Cheap, ill-fitting clothes and hair that hasn’t seen a comb or brush since Uncle Tupelo broke up. Dirty shirts and jeans are almost obligatory, like a sharkskin suit defined Wilson Pickett. The Ryan Adams look (sometimes in Denver called the Doug Kaufman look) still rules.

In contrast, there is the spit-polished Farrar. He defines spic and span. He was the kid in high school who let his bangs grow a little long, but never let his hair get stringy or out of place. He could pass morning muster at any military boot camp. Black shoes with no scuffs. Chinos that could come from the Gap or Eddie Bauer. A creamy, slightly oversized white shirt with a big collar and – get this! – tucked in!!!

I’m guessing the guys in Drag the River haven’t put their shirttails inside their jeans since the nuns made them do it at Our Lady of Perpetual Pain grade school. (And I did find a couple of older photos on Google Image where Farrar performs with his shirt tail out, but the shirt is neatly pressed just the same.)

Tonight, his hair is clean and shiny in the stage lights, with short, clipped sideburns. You could almost smell his after-shave. I’ll bet he makes his bed in the morning even when he’s staying at a motel. Now I know why I couldn’t touch the mike – it might give him cooties.

The fastidiousness of his appearance matches his onstage physical presence (or some might say, lack of it). I like his songs, but he’s a little stiff, his guitar playing as economical and finicky as his wardrobe. It would be physically impossible for him to break a sweat.

Four of the first five songs are in the key of D – apparently the universal Americana key. The strumming never varies; no motion, or emotion, for that matter, wasted. The only things that change from one song to the next are the melody and words.

His voice never wavers, either. He sings the songs exactly as on record. Spencer pulls and gnaws at the strings of his Telecaster and lap steel as if to single-handedly relieve the boredom of Farrar’s insistent rhythms and sing-song vocals. (Later, at home, I realized his licks, too, were exactly as they were on the record, only louder because I was standing next to him.)

It’s 11:15, the floor is getting mighty crowded, and I have some wet paint at home that I’d rather watch dry. The immaculate godfather of alt-country drones on. Maybe the DVD will be better.

February 19, 2007   No Comments

Age Like Wine

August 20, 2004

It had rained all the way down to south Denver from Boulder. But there I was standing in the pinkish glow of the Gothic Theatre bar. Will Kimbrough’s set was just ending, and I was admiring the clouds painted on the ceiling.

I have been to the Gothic a few times, notably a magical mystery tour of the outer solar system courtesy the Sun Ra Orchestra back when Sun had a physical presence on earth. And I saw a good Pixies set, too, both of those back in the days when the Gothic’s ambience more than lived up to its name.

The changes are completely cosmetic – the building itself still looks pretty decrepit around the edges. But it’s eerie; at the bar, the place actually seems nice.

A guy who must have recognized me from my first appearance onstage to announce upcoming shows and remind people that we weren’t Clear Channel, strolled over. He had one of those strapped carriers over his shoulders that parents use to lug infants around on their chest, and he said that he loved the station and especially Meredith and me.

And, he says, his recent family addition was named Townes — after Mr. Van Zandt — and sure enough, young Townes is on his back, though he can’t be more than two months old. The baby carriage’s beverage rack has a baby bottle and a can of Dale’s Old Chubb side-by-side. I’m reminded that I was 18 when I went to my first concert.

I went back to my reverie with the ceiling. Suddenly, a thunderstorm passes behind me and bellies up to the bar. It’s KCUV’s first music director, no longer with the company, ordering a bourbon and water.

The ex-MD, who I think still harbors a grudge about his tenure with the company, turns and says, “I didn’t know that KCUV DJs went to concerts these days?”

Yeah, nice to see you, too.

We make a little small talk about Los Lobos coming to Boulder. At one point, he says, “Am I the only one here that did two concerts tonight?” He had come from Guy Clark’s Swallow Hill set earlier. Matt from the Reals appears and asks if he could buy me a drink. I politely pass. “I’ll take his,” says the ex-MD.

The bartender mixed up another bourbon and water as I graciously excuse myself to head backstage to announce Todd.

Ten minutes later, Snider and his manager appear at the top of the stairs from the dressing room just before I went onstage and did my best “give-it-up for Todd” impression. Todd, who was a bit older than I might have imagined from his CD cover, ambled onstage as I walked off.

The bouncer was out in the alley talking to somebody, so I sat down on his stool at the door.

Snider’s first song was cute, something about an old-timer from his new CD called “Age Like Wine.”

His manager, a goofy, show-business guy in his late forties sporting a John Prine cap worn backwards so it said johnprine.com across his forehead, had been trying to hit up everybody at the bar for some pot earlier. He looked back at me, grinning, and said, “this song is about you.”

He chuckled and turned to watch Todd.

The old-timer, his task completed, spun off his seat and was out the stage door in a flash, back in the rain, aging like wine.

February 17, 2007   No Comments