There’s a Mexican dead on a power line
He’s deader than yesterday’s communion wine
That’s a good opening for a song by any standards. It’s from Stealing Electricity by Tom Russell. He sang it last week at the 100 Club in Oxford Street, calling his audience ‘bastards’ many times over, as is his wont. Somewhere, I have a weird recital of the lyrics by the beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. They include one of my favourite couplets from any song:
When the poverty of your spirit and the weakness of your flesh
Go dancing every night through other people’s trash
Two things stand out about Tom. At their best, his lyrics drag you forcibly into his songs. They grab hold of your collar in the first line and they don’t let go. And, secondly, he has kept eclectic company. Another of his associates was the writer Charles Bukowski, whom Time magazine once described as the “laureate of American lowlife”.
With a master’s degree in criminology from the University of California, Tom started his working life teaching the subject in Nigeria in 1969:
Raise high the roof beams, carpenter boy
Yeah we’re coming through the rye
In the cinema I saw the man on the moon
I laughed so hard I cried
It was somewhere in those rainy seasons, that I learned to carve my song
Yeah, East of Woodstock, West of Vietnam
In 1980, working as a taxi driver in New York, Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead was a passenger in his cab. Tom sang Hunter his song Gallo Del Cielo and Hunter invited him to join him on stage at the Bitter End. That was the start of his musical career, and fed into his long love affair with Greenwich Village. Amongst his friends is Ian Tyson of Ian & Sylvia, idols of mine in 1966, and at the heart of much that was best in the Village folk explosion of the early ’60s. Ian wrote Four Strong Winds; Sylvia wrote You Were On My Mind. This year, Tom released a tribute album of their songs.
But you can’t call him a folk singer; you can’t really call him anything. Wikipedia terms his music a mixture of Americana, folk, rock and the cowboy music of the West. That covers most of the bases. But it misses out jazz, not to mention the huge influence of Mexico, of the city of Juarez in particular, where Tom lived for a while.
Uncle Tommy Gabriel, he played the blue piano
While Frank and Ava Gardner danced the wild Juaurenzi tango
Those were truly golden years my Uncle Tommy said
But everything’s gone straight to hell since Sinatra played Juarez
That was another song Tom played at the 100 Club. The first verse of it, anyhow: he couldn’t remember the rest, and with several hundred songs to his name, who can blame him.
Like many lapsed Catholics, the religion Tom was born into still exercises a strong hold on him. From the power of another favourite, Purgatory Road …
Well, it might have been Susie; it might have been Annie
She wore a white cotton blouse
And she’d memorised Modern Youth and Chastity
Said it’s a mortal sin if we kiss on the mouth
If we die in a car wreck on our way home
We’d be damned with the sin on our soul
But we closed our eyes and sealed our fate
In the wet grass of Purgatory Road
… to the agony of Guadalupe:
And all the gods that I’d abandoned here
Begin to speak in simple tongues
Mexico again. It’s never far away.
Among Tom’s songs may be found tributes to the writer Edward Abbey, the bluegrass singer Jimmy Martin, Greenwich Village legend Dave van Ronk, Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, Lenny Bruce, Muhammad Ali, Nina Simone, Bill Haley and William Faulkner. Tom is generous to those he loves, but it’s best not to get on the wrong side of him:
You got twenty twenty vision but you’re walkin’ ’round blind
You Grand Ole Opry fools
With your hypocritic judgments and your self-righteous snobbery
Your goddamned false-hearted rules
You scorned Hank Williams, you shunned Jimmy Martin
Boys who sang with tongues of fire
So God’s gonna burn down your Grand Ole Opry
Hear the screams of the hypocrites and liars
None of Tom’s songs is famous. Yet. But the best-known, and certainly the most topical, is Who’s Going To Build Your Wall? – not, as you might think, a recent one, but written when George W Bush also had the idea of building a border wall:
We’ve got fundamentalist Moslems; we’ve got fundamentalist Jews
We’ve got fundamentalist Christians, they’ll blow the whole thing up for you
But as I travel around this big old world, the thing that I most fear
Is a white man in a golf shirt with a cell phone in his ear
Who’s gonna build your wall boys? Who’s gonna mow your lawn?
Who’s gonna cook your Mexican food when your Mexican maid is gone?
Who’s gonna wax the floors tonight down at the local mall?
Who’s gonna wash your baby’s face? Who’s gonna build your wall?
In a novel I wrote a while ago I slipped in references to about 20 Tom Russell songs. Sadly, it was never published. But my new novel, Things We Nearly Knew, out on 11 January, does contain a reference to one of his songs: Coney Island Moon. Thanks for that, Tom. Thanks for all your music. And if I was ever shipped off to a desert island, one of the records I’d take starts like this:
Darkness visible; rain clouds audible
So long, Maggie, I’m going back to Indiana
So long, Tom. It was good to see you again, you bastard.