Sorry to extend this look back at 2008 over so many posts, and so deep into the new year. But, we'd like to take a gander, and draw your attention to, two fellers who passed in 2008 that might have been overlooked in the rush to cover all the important deaths of last year. One is an author and the other is a musician and cultural icon. We'll start with the author, and finish with the musician, so all y'all can get your mp3 fix with context.
Truth is, we're big fans of the hardboiled, noir crime fiction. From Jim Thompson and Mickey Spillane to James Ellroy and George Pelecanos, and hundreds of points in between (we could spend pages and pages of text on all the great crime novelists, obscure and well-known), we've read voraciously all the pulp we can get our hands on. Maybe it's a style thing, or maybe it says something about us that's best left buried behind the shed. So, it was with great sadness that we learned of the passing of one of the last greats in the genre, James Crumley.
James Crumley had a gift for the poetry of the amoral. None of his protagonists were redeemable, but were saintly in their hangdog and inebriated response to a world gone fucked up and seeded with the blackest thorns. There could be no good ending for Crumley's primary anti-heroes, Milo Milodragovitch and C.W. Sughrue. His novels were the culmination of the Amercian dream gone to shit in the dust and sand-blasted corridor from Montana to Texas, bloody and barren, bereft of a centering point and damned by those dirty deeds done by desperate and rootless men. When bad men try to do the right thing in the face of even worse men, you get a Crumley novel.
Crumley was a writer, and a damn good one, with a keen sense of place, and a feel for the motivations of the down and out. Some have suggested that Crumley himself was not so far removed in temperament from the characters he wrote. Possibly, but who knows, and does it matter? Every novel he wrote had a shimmering brilliance, his lyrical craft on display as the descent into madness played out on a stage built by migrant workers and corrupted souls. One of America's last great authors, unfazed by fad, cleverness, or winking self-acknowledgment, Crumley left our land of letters a little poorer with his going.
From his novel "The Final Country":
"It's done. This may not be my final country. I can still taste the bear in the back of my throat, bitter with the blood of the innocent, and somewhere in my old heart I can still remember the taste of love. Perhaps this is just a resting place. A warm place to drink cold beer. But wherever my final country is, my ashes will go back to Montana when I die. Maybe I've stopped looking for love. Maybe not. Maybe I will go to Paris. Who knows? But I'll sure as hell never go back to Texas again."
-The Last Good Kiss (1978)
-The Mexican Tree Duck (1993)
-The Right Madness (2005)
Now, then, the musician.
The passing of Utah Phillips back in May, at the age of 73, seemed to go virtually unnoticed outside of a small group of true believers. Perhaps in this hyper-accelerated culture the news of his death was deemed unimportant to news organizations fixated on the young, beautiful and insipid. In most circles, Phillips' death would hardly even rate a mention...who the hell cares about some old folk-singing, railroad-loving, union-shilling agitator? Well, we care. We care deeply. Utah Phillips was the last of his kind. The last of an America we can only now speak of in past tense. In the world of co-opted protest (bands selling Che t-shirts as a form of "rebellion" for profit, Hot Topic anarchy t-shirts), Phillips did it the hard way, playing Union benefits, agitating for the working-man's cause, hoboing some, and living the life of the Wobbly.
Taking his cue and inspiration from Joe Hill, Phillips created a body of work vast in scope, and essentially American in it's core. His songs, culled from years criss-crossing the country, particularly the West and Southwest, were the voice of everyman, the worker and the dreamer, the downtrodden and the uplifted. Many of Phillips' songs were either prefaced by lengthy stories or were "talking" songs themselves, detailing the many characters Phillips encountered in his travels. Phillips was a chronicler of the missing or lost America, in much the same vein as Studs Terkel, but without the NPR-like sheen of technology at his back (not a rip on Terkel, dear god, they just had different avenues of messaging). His voice laconic and familiar, his guitar work simple and malleable to the tale, Phillips wove the tapestry of the American dream through the eyes of its outcasts, from the doors of a rail car to the bars and dives of the city, from the migrant farms of the West to the Goodnight-Loving Trail.
So douse the campfire, bid goodbye to the lonesome train whistle, and turn off the lights in the Union hall (Eddie Balchowsky will sweep up the ghosts when we're gone), the bohemian bard and Western wayfarer has left the building. Somewhere in the sky there's a new constellation to guide the wanderers.
For a full overview and discography of Utah Phillips please visit here and here.
We plead, no, beg you to give the following tunes a listen and bid goodbye to an American original, and last of his kind. Please note that the track "Holding On" is an excerpt (the spoken intro, really) from Phillips' great "Eddie's Song", remixed by Ani Difranco. Yes, Ani Difranco. She did a pretty nifty job, actually.
Utah Phillips: The Goodnight-Loving Trail (mp3)
Utah Phillips: Rock Me To Sleep (mp3)
Utah Phillips w/Ani DiFranco: Holding On (mp3)
Utah Phillips: Starlight On The Rails (mp3)
Utah Phillips: Solidarity Forever (mp3)
Utah Phillips: All Used Up (mp3)
Tom Waits: The Goodnight-Loving Trail (mp3)
Please support your local storytellers.