Down at Texas Rose Café with CB and Townes Van Zandt

Michael Ochs Archives_Getty Images

Regular readers of longitudes know that I feature periodic musical interludes. I’m particularly enamored of 1960s rock music. I’ve hosted more than a few 50th anniversary specials in the last seven years.

For this interlude, I’m doing something a little different. I’m soliciting the help of a blogging friend, Cincinnati Babyhead (CB), to discuss an artist who is more associated with the Seventies: Townes Van Zandt. CB has been listening to Townes longer than me.

Like a lot of musicians I profile, Townes was all but ignored on commercial radio, and he never sold many records. But he’s cherished by a small cadre of fans for his purity and musical integrity. He died on New Year’s Day, 1997 at age 52.

CB and I hopped a coupla freights, he from Vancouver and me from Ohio. We converged in Archer City, Texas at the Texas Rose Café, located just under the water tower near the railroad tracks. Archer City ain’t much of a town. It’s on flat, dusty prairie in the middle of drilling rig country. It has a permanent Sunday morning hangover. It’s the kind of place where raggedy divorcees with dark pits under their eyes conduct discreet affairs with high-school football players.

I checked in at the Motel 7 at the edge of town. Juanita, the housekeeper on the day of my arrival, thought it would be real funny to short-sheet the bed in room 202, and her prank gave me fitful dreams all night. But I felt better next day after meeting CB at the TRC for Happy Hour. Appropriately, the TRC jukebox was chock full of Townes songs, mixed with lotsa Hank Senior. We ordered a round of Lone Star beers from Lowell, our portly bartender. Lowell wasn’t too busy, so he occasionally leaned in on our conversation while offering nods of approval.

Without further ado, here’s our beer summit (with thanks to Vinyl Daft Dad for the barfly idea):

lone star

longitudes: CB, we’re both on record as enjoying the music of Townes Van Zandt. When did you start listening to him, and why is he special?

CB: Man, that’s a hard one. I guess like a Texas wind he just blew into my life way back when. It seems that he’s been with me forever. Special? Just listen to him. If it hits you like it did me, you’re done. He stirs emotions, images, thoughts, memories, inspiration. He just has a no-bullshit feel about him. Probably for some of the same reasons you like his music.

longitudes: I think so. With Townes, you get no smoke and mirrors, it’s all about the song. He’s one of those legendary cultish writer-musicians like Gram Parsons or Fred Neil that other musicians often namedrop. Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, even Zimmy have covered his songs.

CB: I remember when Merle and Willie cut “Pancho and Lefty.” I thought that was so cool. Plus it put some cash in Townes’s pocket. Emmylou has always had an ear for a good song and a special talent. She seemed to see past the rough exterior of people like Townes, Gram, The Band, and see and hear the beauty in the music. I guess she was moved just like you and me.

longitudes: She does have a sharp ear. Like so many of the greats, Townes had a substance problem and died young. For a while in the 1970s he lived in a shack without plumbing or electricity!

CB: Yeah, the old addiction thing. Who knows the demons he was dealing with? Too bad. I felt for the guy. Watched a doc on his life and shed a few tears.

longitudes: That might have been Be Here to Love Me from 2004. I first heard about him when Miss Emmylou raved about him in some old TV doc. Do you have a favorite album?old quarter

CB: That’s another hard one. You really can’t lose with any of them. When I think of Townes I always think of the wealth of songs he had. The one that always comes to mind is “Tecumseh Valley.” I get taken into that story every time and I’ve heard it more times than I can remember.

longitudes: I find his music hard to pigeonhole, which might be part of his appeal. He’s been called “outlaw country,” but I’m not sure that’s accurate, since his songs seem deeper, more literate, closer to folk. Maybe he lives on the county line between outlaw folk-country and singer-songwriter?

CB: I like your “hard to pigeonhole” thought. Labels mean so many things to different people. Townes is so much more than all those labels. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could ask him? Probably give you a different answer every time.

longitudes: Ha! He did have a crafty sense of humor. But he’s also good bummer music. Sorta white boys’ blues. Great to listen to when you’re a little down and out. Kind of a stripped-down Jackson Browne turned Texas troubadour.

CB: Oh yeah, I mean, how can you beat a song like “Waiting Around to Die.” How many times did you hear that on the radio? I would guess never.

longitudes: CB, what do you say we ratchet up the beverages a little? These Lone Stars are cold, but kinda weak. Wonder if Canadian brews are legal here in Texas. Lowell??

CB: It’s a known fact that beer gets weaker the farther you get from the Frozen North. Lowell keeps the good stuff in his secret fridge in the back. Crack us a couple Mooseheads, fella.

longitudes: You earlier mentioned “Pancho and Lefty.” That might be his best-known song: Livin’ on the road, my friend / Was gonna keep you free and clean / Now you wear your skin like iron / Your breath’s as hard as kerosene. That’s great writing. You wear your skin. And the iron and kerosene similes. The road is not for sissies, CB.

CB: Those lyrics are such a good example of his words and what they conjure up for you and me and anyone else who takes the time to listen. That “breath as hard as kerosene,” he knows that stuff. Him and Guy Clark came up to play in my area, which is about as far away from Texas as you can get. Townes couldn’t get past the border, so Guy played the show solo with a shit-eating grin on his face. Probably thinking about another fucked-up road story. It was a great show. Guy played a couple of his buddy’s tunes.townes 3

longitudes: I discovered Guy Clark, another songwriter’s songwriter, from his connection with Townes. Another Townes song I love is the bittersweet “To Live is to Fly,” which is on his gravestone. The title alone makes me shiver. “No Place to Fall,” just a simple love song, but like to make you cry. Also, “If I Needed You,” which came to him in a dream. Not your typical love song. He shifts the pronouns around. He also mentions “Loop and Lil,” who were pet parakeets…how’d he get away with that?!

CB: You keep throwing those songs at me, I just might have to go on another Van Zandt binge. He gets away with it, Pete, because they are beautiful songs sung with truth.

longitudes: “Beautiful songs sung with truth” sums it up. He comes off as just a regular fellow who can play a little, sing a little. But there’s a lot of talent underneath that casual exterior.

CB: His live recordings are sprinkled with it. I can imagine him sitting with us right here in this bar singing a little, drinking a little, laughing a lot and pretty much not wanting to be anywhere else. Just like me. I might not be going home tonight.

longitudes: Well, if you need to stay another night, Juanita at Motel 7 makes a fine bed. Anyway, if you could only choose one word to describe Townes and his music, what would it be?

CB: I could throw out a truckload, but because you are only giving me one word, it has to be special. Just like you and me, Pete. Special. Plus that word has come up a few times since we sat down.

longitudes: Great word, my friend. I’ll choose pure. Townes Van Zandt had a special kind of purity.

Well, muchas gracias, muchacho, for meeting me in the Texas Rose Café. I think ole Townes would be pleased to know of our rendezvous. (Thanks, Lowell, I’ll eat it here.) Townes, here’s to you!

(Sound of clinking glasses).

 

(Header photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Newsboys on the Loose!

newsboy

Blogging buddy Phil Brown recently did a piece on his days as a paperboy up in Ontario, Canada. I thought it was a great slice of (North) Americana. Phil gave me permission to do my own Norman Rockwell-styled dip into yesteryear, so here is my throwback tale of stomping over hill and dale in north-central Ohio, U.S.A. (the other side of Lake Erie from Phil) delivering non-electronic newspapers (such newspapers being folded sheets of 54-inch web-width, wood-pulp newsprint paper with printed ink that informs about current events. They lacked audiovisual accompaniment, pop-up ads, and “click bait”).

Here’s my story:

Joe Hamrick and I were shooting baskets in Joe’s driveway in the fall of 1969 when the station wagon pulled alongside the curb. She was a middle-aged woman who said her name was “Frances.”

“Would you boys be interested in delivering newspapers?” she asked us.

“Yeah!” we gasped, as if we’d been chosen to start the Indy 500.

A few months before, while our family lived in Detroit, I had a taste of being a newsboy when I filled in for Jon Longo for two weeks delivering the Detroit Free Press. Had to rise before the cock crowed, then pedal my Schwinn Stingray from house to house in frosty darkness, the melody of a Stroh’s Beer commercial dancing between my ears. It was a new experience, my first sincere responsibility. I owed it to Jon to do a good job. After we moved back to Ohio, I got a check and a nice note in the mail…so I guess I came through for him.

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Red Schwinn Stingray, with high-rise handlebars and banana seat (mine was a 5-speed)

Anyway, not long after meeting Frances, I discovered Joe wasn’t as enthusiastic as he initially seemed, because he backed out even before we started. (Much later, I heard he received a less-than-honorable discharge from the Marine Corps.) So…it was my route.

We lived on Vicksburg Drive, but the route was several streets away. It covered Cliffside Drive and Morrison Avenue. “Cliffside” gives you an idea of the terrain. Both streets sloped at least 45 degrees. Couldn’t pedal my Stingray up those hills.

Frances would drive her station wagon to the bottom of Cliffside and leave several tightly packed bundles of papers in the grass, waiting for me. I’d mosey over from Vicksburg and use a small pair of wire cutters to open the packs. Then I’d stack as many papers as possible into my burlap tote bag, sling the load over my bony 11-year-old shoulder, and trudge from house to house. Then return to the corner and stuff more papers in. I allowed each shoulder to take a turn. Several turns.

As I write this, the heady aroma of burlap and newsprint paper comes back to me.

Some subscribers wanted their paper inside the screen door. Others wanted it under the doormat. I had to remember who these people were. If I goofed up, I might encounter a frowning man wagging a fat finger at me. My favorite customers, obviously, were those laid-back folks who didn’t care where I placed their paper. I think these people later supported McGovern.

There were the usual dog encounters. Maybe it was during this period that I developed a dislike of Boston terriers. The teeth marks from “Chief” are branded into my ass flesh.

Even more irksome than surly dogs, though, was the weather. I hated delivering in the rain. And I’m sure my customers hated receiving soggy paper. (In those days, we didn’t seal everything in plastic.) Then, when fall turned to winter, I had to deal with Lake Erie-effect snow. Try to picture a freckled kid weighted down with thick Sunday newspapers—enhanced by slick, colored ads and comics—trudging up and down two small mountains in eight inches of wet snow.

Could I have foreseen summiting Mount Whitney 49 years later?

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1969 Mercury Marquis Colony Park station wagon

Dogs, hills, weather…what else? Oh yeah: collecting. Like most 11-year-olds, I was shy around adults, so ringing doorbells for money could be excruciating. I usually waited until the last minute to do this, such as Sunday afternoon or evening. Most folks were home, eating a formal dinner, and the door usually opened. But for many it was a rude interruption.

“Could you come back in an hour?” some would ask with unconcealed irritation. “We’re eating dinner now.”

“Okay,” I’d reply, as dots of perspiration formed. Often, on Sunday night, I didn’t get home until long after dark.

Once, the Rosslands from Michigan visited us. I still remember being slumped on our couch, cursing that I had to go out and collect. While getting ready to leave, Mr. Rossland walked over and said “Peter, when I was your age, I had to walk five miles every day before school to deliver newspapers.”

I couldn’t fathom this Abe Lincoln-like feat. I do remember my parents smiling in the background after Rossland made his remark. It was a long time before I realized that adults thought it was great fun delivering this white lie to kids.

I had a few special customers. At the bottom of Cliffside, last house on the right, lived the Grassels. They had four kids, and the oldest, Doug, was rhythm guitarist in the Ohio Express. This was a “bubblegum” pop band that had a worldwide hit in the 1960s with “Yummy Yummy Yummy.” (Yes, there actually were song titles like that back then.) Joe and I sometimes heard them practice while doing cannonballs at nearby Walnut Hills Pool.

ohio express

“Ohio Express.” Doug Grassel is the John Lennon lookalike on far left.

Although I never saw Doug—maybe he was always on tour—Mrs. Grassel was really nice. She always invited me in, probably so I could see the framed photos of the band she’d arranged in the foyer.  Bug-eyed, I’d scan the ruffled shirts and long hair while she scoured the house for the $1.50 she owed me. Years later, after I became a rock ‘n’ roll animal, I learned that “Ohio Express” wasn’t their real name, and they didn’t sing or play on any of “their” hit songs. They just fronted tunes that several hotshot New York suits wrote and sang in order to cash in on a fad. Another childhood bubbleburst.

And then there were the Malones. Ah, yes, daughters Pam and Cindy. I still dream of Cindy, with her creamy, amber hair and pale jeans that clung to smooth thighs like painted watercolor. Here’s the standard conversation after she opened the door:

“Can I help you?”
“Uh…hi.”
“Hi.”
“Hi…um…(gulp)…I’m here to collect.”
“Collect what?”
“Uh…dues for the News Journal.”
“Oh. How much do we owe?”
“Uh…let me see…” (nervous fumbling)
“Okay, take your time.”

This woman was like the goddess Venus to me. If only she’d have invited me inside and indoctrinated me into the ways of things. It would have headed off a lot of stress in the coming years.

Cindy was a co-ed at Kent State. I’m assuming she was there on May 4, 1970. Every time I see that famous photograph, I think of her, and what a rotten fricking world this can be.

Near the Malones lived the Hofstadters. Tom Hofstadter had the paper route before I did. He was a year older, raced a mini-bike (small motorcycle), and if I remember, was a rabble-rouser…which is maybe why Frances took the route away from him. Tom’s younger brother Mike was better behaved. Like me, he collected Topps football cards. Toward the end of my delivery career, Sunday evenings were spent crouched in Mike’s hallway with dozens of cards spread out. We bartered for probably an hour, with a bad moon rising outside the kitchen window while I should have been collecting newspaper money, not football cards.

barney

Topps 1970 card of Detroit Lions cornerback and Hall of Famer, Lem Barney. My dad got his autograph for me while on business in Detroit.

“Got some extra Tom Keatings, Hoyle Grangers, and Jim Tyrers,” I would inform Mike with expectation. “Need any?”

“No, already got those guys. They’re a dime a dozen.”

The real gold were the wide receivers: “Bullet” Bob Hayes, Lance Rentzel, Lance “Bambi” Alworth, Paul Warfield, Charley Taylor, Otis Taylor, and both Gene Washingtons (49ers and Vikings). Today, I have all these cards and more, though I’m still looking for a near-mint Tom Dempsey. He was the Saints kicker who nailed a then-record 63-yard field goal…with half a foot.

Our Topps trading must have influenced him, because Mike was a longtime TV sports anchor in Columbus, Ohio. A few years ago, I visited the old hometown and asked Mrs. Hamrick (Joe’s 80-year-old mother) about Mike. She told me he’d married a (quote) “very black” African-American woman, then taken a job at a small station in a small Amish-Mennonite town in rural Pennsylvania. A bold move, Michael.  Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner premiers in Hooterville.

***

My paper route ended some time in spring or early summer 1970. The wear, tear, and miserable Sundays—excepting the Hofstadter hallway—became too much. Although not a “real” job, delivering newspapers in 1969-70 was my first paying one. And I wouldn’t trade the experience for an entire collection of near-mint Topps cards.

In case you’re wondering, I bequeathed my route to Kurt Grassel, Doug’s younger brother. He was a year below me, and didn’t race mini-bikes. Not sure how long he lasted. Or if he joined the Marine Corps.

(Some names here were changed to protect the innocent, and to protect me. Also, thanks for the idea, Phil.)

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