Archive for family tragedy

“Smoke Bend” Dollar Bill Johnston (Sunday P.M. Punk Rock Gospel)

Posted in country music, I Heart My Love-Tribe, Music & Life & Sundays, politics, Republicans scare me, Spirituality & Religion, Sunday AM Punk Rock Gospel, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2010 by alphabetfiend

Now it’s winter on the river, and a cold swift swollen tide meets a warm southern breeze from the gulf of memories.  

Every year, around the 9th of October, I fall into a funk. This blue mood is a complete mystery to me until the part of myself that’s been trying it’s best to keep the date from me will lag,  inevitably exhausted, and it will hit me. Oh! Right. That. The day that my father left this lousy place for good. The day that changed everything. The day that was so swollen with uncontainable sadness that even now, all these years later, it still will not be contained.    

      

I have another tough week in the spring. Another mysterious doom. “So?” Steffe’ll ask, pensively. “How are you? You always get down whenever y’know… me too. I miss him too.” And then it’ll hit me. Oh. Right. That. The week that our friend Paul had a heart attack in Florida, while shacked up with another poet on a houseboat.     

   

Souls have a secret calendar of agony.  

The Robot fades to black every year ’round labor day. The holiday serves as a hard-to-suppress reminder of the weekend his cousin/ little brother/best friend put a gun to his own temple. He was drunk and fighting with his girl friend, suddenly desolate, momentarily stupid. Maybe he meant to mash the trigger, maybe not. Those kind of over-wrought emotional moments can color the future with what is really just a temporary explosion of too too much. I keep a close eye on RB as the holiday nears. He wouldn’t do something so drastic but still, the date itself is a reminder of how hopelessness can swallow a grown folk whole.  

Like a snake eats an alligator.   

The gator goes down easier than you’d think.     

   

(Though I did see a story where a python tried to eat an alligator and the snake exploded… so that’s oddly comforting.)     

These last few days, I was hit by another mysterious gloom. It began with three days of insomnia — I was amped & aimless, annoyed with TV, avoiding the computer –followed by 15 hours of boulder-like sleep. It was a sleep-monster Saturday: ’round 4, Robo put me down like a toddler in need of nap; I reluctantly dozed off at the approach of 6; woke up at 3am to finish/post the gospel but mostly spent 2 hrs staring vacantly into space; then came Gospel!? We don’ need no stinkin’ gospel!; at 10am the Robot woke me with my favorite breakfast. I’m still annoyed and considering sending him back for reprogramming. It wasn’t until I finally got online that I ran smack dab into the Oh. Right. That.     

 Katrina.     

   

There, on the wordpress dash sat a letter from a reader/ friend, bummed about the anniversary of Katrina and wondering where-o-where was the Sunday AM Punk Rock Gospel? Ah. Arggghrr. (That’s an argh that becomes a grr.) In a split second of watery blinking, I decided to forsake my previously planned song in favor of another song which we played constantly in the wake of that fateful & fatal storm. Before too, but so so often after. This song has meant the world to myself and the loverman (why, he was just a little robot, maybe 8 or 9, when he first started reading The Times Picayune; wishing he could get into the city, good old Big Easy, to see Black Sabbath at City Park.)     

We played that record ragged. That album was our refuge in the storm. That smoking Piggie was a good gentleman friend to us. The song is “Smoke Bend.”  The album is The Gourds 2002 release “Cow Fish Fowl or Pig.”      

   

Yes, I know we’ve just done The Gourds recently but we’re talking about Katrina today and for me, there is only one Katrina song.     

 “Smoke Bend” by the Gourds with Dollar Bill Johnston.      

Dollar Bill Johnston joins The Gourds on stage

Dollar Bill is the father is the father of Gourd, Max Johnston (also of Wilco and Uncle Tupelo.)  Interestingly, Max’s sister and Dollar Bill’s daughter is singer/song-writer Michelle Shocked, who I love.       

        

They’re sandbaggin’ the levees     

They’re shovelin’ night and day     

It’s the year of ’27     

Gonna wash us all away     

 This song was not written about Katrina. Which in my mind, for my purposes, makes it better. Rather it’s about the ever-present worry that the levees might break and if so, then what?    

 The levee gonna bust     

On your side or mine     

A little dynamite on your side     

Help the river make its mind     

It’s about the day that you hope never comes. It’s about the risks we all take in life whether it’s living in the basin of New Orleans or loving even when you know know how much losing is gonna hurt.    

 Folks left that west bank town     

 Left it all behind     

 Start life on higher ground     

 Gonna get out just in time     

 I didn’t grow up in New Orleans, but I was worried by my own what-if’s.    

Even as a small child, my attachment to my father was so enormous that I was haunted by his mortality. This what-if stayed with me through-out my life. In college, laying in bed one night, I tried to picture the cruel day and could imagine no future for myself beyond it. I saw myself in my messy closet, tucked in the fetal position, refusing to come out. Ever. By the time it happened for real, that closet was long gone, and I was living in Austin, but I could still find the fetal position.     

It must’ve been crazy growing up in New Orleans in the shadow of what if?    

 After all, that’s was the place I wished to be.     

   

I’m a corn-fed midwestern girl (by way of A! I! Ohio!) so I’m not native to the south. But I wanted to be, oh I wanted it so badly, always, and I think that counts for something. It always made sense, jived with my version of self. I’ve kinda secretly way-down-deep-in-me thought of myself as the Delta Lady, the epitome of southern eccentricity. When I was very young, probably too young to long for such obscenity, I’d listen to Joe Cocker’s “Delta Lady” and think “That’s me! There I am! Standing wet and naked in the garden.”     

   

So it’s no surprise that this secret self-appointed Delta Lady found herself a mint julep of a southern gentleman.     

The Robot’s often spoke of the hurricane parties people have while weathering out the storm. They drink hurricanes, play cards and hope like hell. His stories were always punctuated with “Oh, you’d love it. You especially would love it!” ??? 

A hurricane party?     

   

It did sound like something I’d adore — the enforced play, the mandatory leisure; the tendency towards hedonism or at least too many hurricanes; the chaotic familiarity of community and iffy festivity of gatherings; kids running wild, adults divulging secrets; all that human energy, all that snap crackle pop, and over-top — the bristling electricity of sky & fear.      

But after Katrina, I dunno… it sounds too… scary.      

Robotboy grew up in Mississippi, just outside of New Orleans, so his family was hit. The eye of the hurricane passed directly over the family home. It was scary and it was scary even for us, waiting to find out if everyone was okay. They were. They lost a roof and few 100 year trees, a prized pecan, but our people were all very lucky. But then they weren’t depending on the levees…       

    

“Smoke Bend” is about the day that we hope will never come, and yet we know it will, and still that changes nothing.     

Now there’s mint juleps at Oak Alley     

  There’s poison in the air     

 There’s new dangers on the river     

 It’s so good to be from there      

    

We continue to love whatever it is we’re so afraid to lose. Once we’ve lost out, the love goes on. That’s another little something we can count on.     

{{MP3 17 – Part II – Smoke Bend}}   

Smoke bend 

CHORUS:

Now it’s winter on the river

And a cold swift swollen tide

Meets a warm southern breeze

From the gulf of memories

Missouri and clear Ohio

Give their currents to the tide

Now the river’s Louisiana’s

For the willow tree-lined ride

From cruel Angola down to Venice

Scatterin’ horseshoes everywhere

The river’s Louisiana’s

With no glory or bank to share

If the river had its way

The Atchafalaya’d be its home

Straighten out them horseshoes

Find another bank to roam

There’s cane fires up the bank

Of that horseshoe of Smoke Bend

The smoke was double thick

And the fog was rollin’ in

Tie your boat to a willow tree

Climb the bank so high

Above the blanket on the river

See every star in the sky

Smoke fog and family

Kept to that west bank town

Smoke and fog would burn and blow away

The folks they’d stay around

There was catfish with the Kingfish

And a culture spice gumbo

There’s coonass music playing

On a glowin’ radio

Klan and crackers on the side

At the Last Chance Cafe

Crawfish etouffee

Warm red river Beaujolais

CHORUS

They’re sandbaggin’ the levee

They’re shovelin’ night and day

It’s the year of ’27

Gonna wash us all away

The levee gonna bust

On your side or mine

A little dynamite on your side

Help the river make its mind

Folks left that west bank town

Left it all behind

Start life on higher ground

Gonna get out just in time

Now there’s mint juleps at Oak Alley

There’s poison in the air

There’s new dangers on the river

It’s so good to be from there

CHORUS

**************************************

Stay ahead of the snake, y’all, don’t get swallowed up cause really that’s silly, a gator in the belly of a snake, c’mon? Even a python! C’mon! And it’s not safe for the snake either. So just lift yer snout outta the swamp n’ hum a little cajun tune or maybe that one about the river, who did that one? The potatoes? The parsnips? The Gourds! With Dollar Bill Johnston!   

 So whaddaya say, alkies, got a hankerin’ for hurricanes? Well, why’ont you whip us up a pitcher!     

  

Thank’s to Mike — fellow Austinite, who grew up in Chalmette — for documenting his own (from afar & helpless) vigil during the storm and subsequent obsession with the recovery of his homeland. See his story and more of his storm photos (like above.) 

Immerse yourself in gourdy goodness at the band’s sweet sight, complete with wood round rekerd playa.   

If you’re in love with “Smoke Bend” (and you should be) the song can be downloaded for 99 cents. A great song for the price of a candy bar. The album “Cow Fish Fowl or Pig” available on amazon.  If you’re not ready for the I couldn’t nor wouldn’t begin to suggest where future aid should be sent so I open comments to suggestions.  

*************************************************   

Today’s edition of the Sunday AM Punk Rock Gospel is dedicated to everyone who saw Nola through that storm as well as to those who continue to be with her now. To those who lost lives, loved ones, homes, schools, churches, haunts. To those still healing and still helping in the aftermath.     

My heart aches for all of you, for your families wherever they may live, and for every one who had their heart mangled by that hurricane (even if “only” in an an empathic human way)  

Today was hard for people, people’s hearts are still hurting. Even those not directly affected by Katrina, even those hearts are clenched like angry fists. In a strange sad way, Katrina became a shared trauma, a throbbing dated ache that yearly seizes up. Katrina blew through our TV screens and flooded our family rooms. Which is not to diminish the unfathomable experience of being in New Orleans both during and after that storm; nor the losses borne by other areas hit by Katrina.

Nightmares, Roadside Tragedy and Other Vampiric Ick

Posted in Alphabetfiend, Books & Writing, I Heart My Love-Tribe, Psyche & Sexuality with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2010 by alphabetfiend

As a day, this one has taken an odd toll.

I awoke from a nightmare in which my little brother (a sweet affable fellow who is nothing but adoring, loving, forgiving and kind… to everyone, but to big sister certainly) was horribly vicious to me. I was writing a play in the dream and it was going well, very. I had that feverish creative energy-influx that happens when I’m working, and happens with giddy intensity when the work is going well. The play was about a young pre-pube boy and — this being a dream, a good dream at first — the play was pure lovely genius.

(I’ve had a YA novel about a young boy stewing in the far back of my mind, in real life, although it is developing so far back that it feels almost dream-like. The book has a steampunk theme which adds to the dreamy quality. I write literary fiction, not YA or sci-fi genre fiction so this project, if published, would be published under a pen-name.)

As I was dreaming, I assumed that the play must be referencing this project’s viability. Writing in dreams and buzzing/thrilling over the work is, for me, akin to sex dreams, only better because I prefer that writerly jangle to any other feeling in the world. So this was a damn good dream until suddenly the goodness and the writing were shattered by this familial attack which took me not just away from the writing but away from all semblance of security and comfort, leaving me homeless. The love my brother has for me in real life was completely non-existent and he terrorized me with relentless cruelty. I was especially stunned by this because things were going so well with the writing and how could he do this to me when I was peaking creatively??

(Of course those in the know will recognize that this has nothing at all to do with my brother and everything to do with the events of the past year; my best friend would snort at that “last year” part and point out that these issues go much farther back.) My brother has been a loyal ally in this mess and definitely didn’t deserve to be portrayed this way by my subconscious.

In fact when I called him, crying, he teased “You crazy dreamer!”

“I dreamt you didn’t love me, ” I sniffed.

“Not true, “ he said. “I do love you. I love you dearly.”

Normally, after a nightmare, I like to go back to sleep and re-work it in my favor like a good little lucid dreamer, but Mr. and Mrs. Robot had surprised me with a shiny new fridge for the Mississippi love shack and it was due to be delivered this morning. Yes, poor me, nobody loves me, everybody hates me, mize I go eat worms. Here I am, lavished with love, spoiled rotten like a summer peach, and yet sobbing into my pillow over imaginary unkind acts. Yet, I couldn’t shake my woe as I emptied out the old fridge in preparation for the new fridge’s arrival. Nothing helped to alleve my ill-temper, not the Bot’s sweet buss or the nuzzling of the baby wookie; not the loving assurances of my brother or the new “icebox” as Mrs. Robot says in her southern way. Not even my baby niece screaming “DIA! DIA!” as she runs to me for hugs & sugars. (She has just started to include the “i” rather than calling me “Da.”)

Then my big niecey shows up (little niecy’s too-young mama, I call them Thing 1 and Thing 2.) We’re gushing over the baby’s cuteness and plotting an art project for tomorrow, when Thing 1’s boyfriend comes in and says, “It’s good y’all got held up yesterday or you’da been on the road when that semi crossed the median.”  Why? Were there fatalities? Robot Boy hands me the paper and there on the front page is the familiar sad image from the day before. Up until that moment I’d held out hope — foolish hope — that everything had been okay.

Yesterday, we were just about to walk out the door for a much anticipated errand into town, the 9th of July being the expiration of our rip-off cell phone contract. Our family was now free to move to ATT and join the iphone madness. Thing 1 had been waiting for this day for weeks, warning the lazier members of the family (Robo and myself) that she wanted to be there at 9 am on the dot and would not tolerate our usual night-owl excuses or late-starts. I was so worried I’d over-sleep, I ended up with insomnia but hey I was there with bells on, no delays. But then Uncle Robot suggests to Thing 1 that she call around and make sure the iphones are in stock, offering to drive to the coast if needed. A short while later, having learned that there wasn’t an iphone to be had in all of MS or LA, we’re off to cancel our old service and place an order for future iphones. We looked like a clown car, packed in like sardines. Thing 1 and I shared the tiny backseat with Thing 2’s carseat. Slowing to a crawl on a normally breezy stretch of highway, we knew it couldn’t be good. The debris on the side of the road — including a wheelchair, lonely and eerie on the sunlit asphalt — made us squirm.

Well, the state troopers are filming it, says the Robot gravely. So there were fatalities.”

I desperately hoped that he was mistaken.

That was just after 9 am. We went on to have a great day of family togetherness:  jumping on the iphone bandwagon, sharing a nice lunch at Olive Garden of all places. Thing 1 was thrilled. Thing 2 was adorable. Mrs. Robot was proud to be out and about with her children. The Robot and I were just digging on the cozy vibes —  glad to be in town, making our loved ones happy. It was after 2pm as we headed home, so we were shocked to see the accident still there on the other side of the highway. Only now, that side of the road was closed off, as they laboriously lured a canary yellow rig with trailer still attached out of the brushy woods.

The road had been closed for so long that people were out of their cars and milling about on the hot tar. SUVs with impatient drivers spun their wheels in the swampy muck of the median; stuck like sitting ducks, now in need of their own tow trucks, awaiting police citations.

A hush fell over our happy car.

Thing 1 tucked her chin into her chest and resisted the urge to suck her thumb (a hard habit to break.)

My heart broke at the sight of that wheelchair, knowing with certainty that this was indeed the same accident and not just some new nothing.

It wasn’t nothing, it was SOMETHING and, for that family that lost 4 members in the blink of an eye, it was an ENORMOUS SOMETHING.

They were from our same po-dunk town (a town that can barely afford to lose four citizens.) They were a family heading into “town.” There were too many of them crammed into too small a vehicle. We were 5 (4 and 1/2?) and they were 4. We were in Thing 1’s itty-bitty KIA, they were in a pick-up (wheelchair loaded into the bed of the truck?) Myself and Thing 1, we weren’t wearing seatbelts. Same thing with three of them. One was Mrs. Robot’s age, another was my age. They were on the same stretch of road that we would’ve been on if not for Uncle Robot wanting to give his niece immediate ipod satisfaction. It could easily have been us — mowed down on a Friday morning, after the front tire blew out on an 18-wheeler, causing the driver to lose control and shoot across the median into oncoming traffic. Or we could have been the woman behind the pick-up who wasn’t hurt, except that she had to watch the whole thing happen which surely shaved a good ten years off her life.

Damn if that doesn’t put it all into perspective.

My heart breaks for that family, for that woman who witnessed the accident and even for the truck driver who escaped with minor injuries. I’m from a trucking family; my Dad ran a trucking company and his Daddy before him and his Daddy before him. I know that a driver never gets over this kind of thing. I know he faces his own rueful suffering.

Up until this morning, ignorance was bliss. I could still believe that they survived the accident. I’m fully aware of how quickly everything changed for them, and for the surviving members of their family. It’s not meaningful because it could’ve been us, but it’s that proximity — having seen the real-life version of that grainy newspaper photo — that makes it all the more real.

It sits sticky and heavy in my gut, like black tar and roadside gravel.

This dreary afternoon, done with chores and family socializing, having sat crying over the newspaper, I retreated to bed. I pulled my laptop onto my belly for more research on my recent obsession with William Blake’s painting “The Ghost of a Flea.” How icky could that be right? Yea. I ended up reading this spooky, creepy stuff about vampiric entities and mind parasites. Sonofabitch. I’m done with this damn day. Except it’s a Saturday and I have to write the Sunday A.M. Punk Rock Gospel. The song I’d planned on is far too cheery. (Devo? No.) So don’t be surprised if this Sunday is more of a silent be grateful for what you have cause it could gone in a flash kinda Sunday.

*************************************

Author’s Addendum: having thought of the perfect song — “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” — I managed to do the Punk Rock Gospel. I featured the versions by Reverend Gary Davis (who did it originally) and the ever-brilliant Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. For a fine musical post-script to this shitty Saturday see Sunday’s Death don’t have No Mercy (Sunday A.M. Punk Rock Gospel.)

**************************************

Out of respect for the family, I have decided not to mention the names of the deceased. This writing was about the witnessing. This is not my loss, these aren’t my loved ones, and those aren’t my names to drop. They were our towns folk however. I didn’t know them but Mrs. Robot did; she says the family ran (runs?) a dance school for kids. Our hearts go out to their family. We ache for the monumental loss that no one family should have to bear. I hate that this has happened and I’m so very sorry for everyone involved. These photos are not mine, they were taken by Channel 4 wwltv, where more details are available.

%d bloggers like this: