Tom Russell at the 100 Club

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.

The future of work, part 1

When Francis Pym ceased to be Foreign Secretary after the 1983 election, he wrote a book, The Politics of Consent, on which I collaborated with him. It briefly topped some best-seller lists. One of Francis’s main preoccupations was the impact of the technological revolution, then in its relative infancy, on the future pattern of our working lives. A chapter in the book was devoted to this topic.   Continue reading

Don’t bet on it

There is a nasty little puritanical streak strutting angrily inside me. It’s not very big and it doesn’t get much exercise, but sometimes it pushes its way to the front and demands to be heard, which is embarrassing. The rest of me is mostly tolerant and in favour of freedom of choice and freedom of everything else. It doesn’t like governments or moralists or anyone telling us what to do and what not to do.   [read more]

The touch of your hand

Rather strangely, now I come to think of it, I have never worked in an office where sexual harassment was obvious. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but I don’t think it happened much. This is curious, since the main defence of men of a certain age (my age, give or take) against current allegations is that, when we were younger, it was all perfectly normal, perfectly acceptable. I don’t think it ever was.   [read more]

The Claptrap OMNI/BUS

From Private Eye, 22 September: ‘In 2015, Brand Finance valued the annual contribution of Princess Charlotte and Prince George to the UK economy at £101m and £76m respectively. To estimate what the royal children could bring the UK economy in their lifetimes … these contributions were projected into perpetuity and discounted to a net present value of £3.2bn and £2.4bn respectively.’   [read more]

Inherited fallacies

In 1862, Lancashire suffered a devastating cotton famine. The apparently obvious cause of it was the acute shortage of raw cotton brought about by the American Civil War. Yet a few contemporary writers, animated by prejudice against the mill-owners, declared that the famine was in fact due to a gigantic over-production of cotton goods in the years before the civil war. It was this that allegedly caused the lay-offs at the mills that led to the famine, not a shortage of cotton. They said this despite the demonstrable fact that, for four consecutive years, Britain received only 40% of the cotton it required.   [read more]

Remaking the Western world

One of the problems with writing a blog is that it’s hard to avoid making predictions. One of the problems with making predictions is that they’re frequently wrong. Earlier this year, I wrote (blog of 14 May): ‘Despite all assertions to the contrary, the centre ground is alive and well enough – if not entirely thriving – to prevail in most cases. As it has in the Netherlands and now in France, and as it surely will in the UK and then in Germany.’   [read more]

Plus ça change

Autumn has come early to the Tarn. Normally, the leaves are still green when we leave our house here at the end of October. We watch the gradation of colour as we drive back to England. But this year the colours started changing in late September, and the leaves started falling. The weather has still mostly been warm, but not in the mornings or evenings. The sun has seemed less able to recharge its batteries each day.   [read more]

Therapy for Remoaners

A recent visit from an old friend has been a vivid reminder of the violent passions that still run among some of those who voted to remain in the EU. Peter felt it wasn’t natural, or healthy, for him to feel an intense rage more than a year after the referendum. He asked if I could offer some informal therapy, which might stop him exploding at every Leaver he met. I was happy to oblige, and am now happy to share my therapy with the rest of the world. If there is enough demand, I may set up in business as a counsellor for Remoaners.   [read more]