The following never-before-seen Tom Russell interview was conducted by email in October 2011 while he was on the road, touring in support of his album Mesabi. It was intended to appear in a third collection of author interviews, in sequel to ART IN THE BLOOD and ROGUE MALES (the latter boasts an earlier Tom Russell interview). That third book didn’t happen (for myriad reasons, I pulled the plug). The interview survives. Revisiting it for the first time in several years, I’ll declare it here and now to be one of my personal favorites of the exchanges with writers I’ve been privileged to conduct.
Tom Russell has a new double-album out called The Rose of Roscrae. (You can find my review here.) The following interview stands as a deep-dive into Mr. Russell’s interests and thoughts on music, the writing life and creative types of all stripes. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mr. Tom Russell….
Q. Bob Dylan centers the title song of your new album, Mesabi. You’ve recorded several Bob Dylan covers, notably on Indians Cowboys Horses Dogs, a take on “John Wesley Harding,” as well as a recent track from the Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid soundtrack with Gretchen Peters. You do a killer version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” You’ve never been bashful about putting your heroes and inspirations at the center of various songs, but Dylan seems to loom largest for you. What speaks most profoundly to you in Dylan’s music or career?
A. First: his catalogue. Astounding in its depth and profundity. Bob Dylan exploded folk song, or hell, exploded American popular song, and also did away with the absolute necessity for poetry in this culture. At least for awhile. When I was a teenager I absorbed three key records: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway Sixty-One Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. Dylan wrote and recorded all three in an 18 month period, along with dozens of outtakes. That’s probably fifty incredible songs within less than two years. It’s unimaginable now. I can only liken it to Van Gogh painting over three hundred paintings in the space of one year. The impact of that never left me. Then he kept re-inventing himself. It seems like most other songwriters have been scared stiff, into silence, ever since. Dozens of damn good writers from the early Dylan era just gave up, went home or killed themselves. Ponder all that if you will, and bring out the crucifix…the kid from the Mesabi Range.
Q. The album closes with a bonus track of you and Lucinda Williams dueting on a Dylan song. With the vast Dylan catalogue to draw on, why did you pick a Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall, for this particular album?
A. I was fooling around with it one day and started finger-picking a version while reading the lyrics. It sounded like a fresh take on the song. The song had much impact on me because it appeared on Dylan’s second album and it was ahead of its time. He really didn’t write apocalyptic poetry like this for two or three more records. So he was channeling his future muse. I like the drone of the lyrics as they build into Armageddon. The images seem to combine Steinbeck, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Carl Sandburg and Rimbaud.
Q. In terms of Dylan and “the reputation,” it seems increasing numbers of buzzards are circling these years. We let some rare novelists grow old without critical fallout. A character actor here or there… Painters get to age gracefully. But few others in the creative arts are granted the privilege to mature and remain relevant. Maybe some percentage of critics would actually have preferred Dylan to check out in 1966 when he spilled that Triumph Tiger near Woodstock. Is Dylan’s greatest sin maybe living too long?
A. Buzzards. Of course. This is a heartless culture full of journalist buzzards. Elvis was laughed into an early grave. The Wall Street Journal did an incredibly cruel article about Dylan being too old to play. No respect. But consider the fact that Dylan has been getting booed throughout most of his career: for turning electric, for not writing more protest songs, for being born-again for awhile and preaching about it in song, for doing Victoria Secret ads, for going to China…on and on. And finally for not dying young. Journalists would rather write his obituary, and then the magazines could do the memorial issues and bla bla bla. I think the bottom line is it’s intimidating to journalists and young songwriters to have this guy still around performing and recording and writing. He set the bar way to high and now they want to crucify him for it. His face should be on the fucking hundred-dollar bill instead of some dead politician. Let’s give him the Noble Prize and shut up.
Q. At the other end of the spectrum, I recall watching you perform a few licks of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” during a Columbus sound check a couple of years back. Did that “live hard, die young and leave a beautiful corpse” siren’s song ever threaten to reach you?
A. I always knew my limits, so to speak. I love the discipline of writing too much to wipe it away with dissipation. Though I’ve been in the alley a few times. My wife Nadine keeps me out of the bars now. I paint away the nights. I think Amy’s rehab song was the last great and honest song I’ve heard in ten years. Blunt honesty and dark humor. I loved her. She was the real thing in the faux era of Lady Gaga.
Q. Like you, and several other singer/songwriters, Dylan also paints (and has recently drawn fire for that, too). You’ve been painting for a number of years now. Hemingway claimed to learn about writing about the natural world from studying the paintings of Cezanne. Does your painting, in any way, feed or enrich the music, or does it run the other direction?
A. I’ve always seen a link between songs and paintings. More of a link than between songs and poetry. It’s hard to describe. I think I spelled it out pretty good in the introduction to my art book: Blue Horse/Red Desert. Painting and songwriting enrich each other. For certain. There’s a lot of magic involved. You throw paint on the canvas until something magic happens, or until you take it too far and ruin the thing. Same with songwriting. Like Picasso said, it’s better to leave your mind outside the door of the studio…and let it all rock.
|"Zapata" by Tom Russell|
Q. In Blue Horse, Red Desert, the new book collecting many of your paintings, you quote Baudelaire: “Genius is but childhood recovered at will.” Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” How do you keep the adult from getting in the way on the canvas or in the studio?
A. I never grew up. Still the idle day-dreamer. I walk through the usual bullshit of adult life just like everyone else. You have to eat and sleep and mow the lawn and all that. I outlined the problem in the song The Pugilist at 59… the goal is to keep the passion going while balancing it all against the paying of bills and dues and the painfully dull bullshit of modern existence. I believe art, and the making of art, and even listening or seeing great art….takes us out “out of time.” We don’t age when we are painting or singing or digging good art. I know that for a fact. The trick is to stay in that realm, or tent, as long as possible. Head on down the rabbit hole with Alice in Wonderland. It’s no mystery to me why a lot of painters live to an old age. Painting and singing are like floating above the killing fields. It’s the avoidance of getting that “heart attack machine” strapped across our backs…as Dylan might say.
|"Peckinpah in Durango" by Tom Russell|
Q. You’ve asserted, “It’s far healthier to be creative than to be bored.” Have there been periods in your life when you were bored in more than the usual sense?
A. There’s been periods when I gave up on myself, and then boredom and depression knocked me off base until I could find my footing again. I drove cab. I dried out in the odd mental hospital. Briefly. When the writing and painting and prose writing is going well I’m never bored. Depression is kept at bay. That old snarling predator! I also love being out on the road singing the songs and taking them to the people. That routine is good for me. That old Shakespearean stage life. Art has saved my soul, brother.
Q. The new DVD, Don’t Look Down, gives some sense of life on the road. Maybe it’s apocryphal, but you hear these stories of Willie Nelson touring nearly year round, then getting home and still sleeping on his tour bus parked out in the yard in order to get a solid night’s sleep. Do you look forward to touring? Is it hard for you to transition between the road and home?
A. I love the road, though I’m not as much of a road-hound as Willie. I like the balance of writing the songs and then taking them out on the road for a year or two, then holing up to write a new album and paint new paintings. Work on a book. I think every new record deserves two years of concerts and such. Then I’ve got to lay back and figure the next move. I’m working on several books, so I need to be home part time to keep them going. But I love hotels and the routine.
Q. Your albums have always boasted strong thematic structures—the sum of the parts amounting to a much larger, clearly carefully constructed work. Is it frustrating to see the bigger work chopped up or diffused through the delivery system of single shot sales of songs via iTunes and various other web outlets?
A. Naw. The songs will survive being thrown up in the air. They are children who were raised well. There’s something out there for everyone. I would hope each song is strong enough to stand alone, outside of the album. But I also appreciate those who still look for full records.
Q. Do you see a viable future for albums as a format?
A. Yes. It will never fully go away, but the question is more like…will there be any writers around who can write ten or twelve decent songs to fill a new record? We’re not creating great songwriters. We’re creating people painting ambient sound walls of whine. We’re creating networkers when we should be encouraging outsiders. But the old forms survive on the edges. L.P.’s are coming back. As are cassettes! Dig it.
Q. Let’s talk about what seems to me to be the two running thematic streams of your latest album, Mesabi. First we have Hollywood and what you term, “the Hollywood Skin Trade” — what others have called “the Hollywood Death Trip.” The front end of Mesabi is populated by several Hollywood—particularly Disney associated—screen icons. You grew up in Los Angeles. How did living in the heart of the Hollywood machine affect your attitude to film?
A. We took it all for granted back then. I mean we were virtually living in Disneyland. The theme park was just down the road and the T.V. show came on every Sunday and man, those cartoons. Scary and weird. Check out Pinocchio again sometime. They take all the bad kids to an island where they grow donkey ears and work in the mines! Frightening things. Then Jiminy Cricket sails into the scene and saves the day…the voice of Ukulele Ike. Weird. Cartoons, and movies and great characters who were also actors…we took that for granted. These hugely unique people. Now actors are just somebody on the faces of those glossy magazines when you stand in line in the supermarket. Empty mannequins.
Q. Your line in “Farewell Never Never Land” about meeting former Disney child star Bobby Driscoll when he was pretty far gone—does that refer to an actual encounter you had with Driscoll? Are there other Hollywood-types you encountered in your youth around L.A.?
A. I think I saw Bobby one day outside the Topanga Canyon Market and he looked strung out. It was a long way from Treasure Island, for sure. Adios, Never Never Land. Scary. It formed my idea that there was a difference between real life and movies. I also grew up near Lee Acre who played “Rusty” on Rin Tin Tin. We played baseball together. Jerry Mathers, who was The Beaver on “Leave it to Beaver,” played football against us in high school. These people were just around. You saw them at the beach. You saw them in school. They were just doing a gig like anyone else…until it turned bad for them. When your voice changed you might not get those parts anymore and they drop your contract and you have no other skills. The bottom ain’t too far from the top in Never Never Land.
Q. The actor and noir icon Sterling Hayden is another Hollywood casualty spotlighted on Mesabi. You earlier name-checked the “Viking God” in “Beautiful Trouble” on Love & Fear. Is it the actor, the troubled man, or the later-in-his-career author you find yourself drawn to?
A. All of it. I remember seeing him on the Johnny Carson show, where Sterling was broke and asking the audience for a free apartment overlooking the Hudson River with a typewriter and a mattress. He was going to write the big novel. He’d written two books already. Once you saw him on TV and heard his voice you didn’t forget him. He was damaged yet fearless. That was back when they smoked on T.V. And laid the talk out on the line. I also saw a documentary on him in the 1960’s (which I can’t locate now) where someone filmed him on a barge on a river in Europe. Sterling was living on it. He was chugging Johnny Walker and really laying his life out on the line. I’m drawn to his no-bullshit character. You can see and feel the rough edges on that face. He’d been on the frontlines and could tell you what it was like.
Q. The second theme of the album seems to be “the dark and bloody battleground” that is present-day Mexico, particularly as seen from your vantage point via a key U.S. border town. Was Juarez still relatively open when you first moved to El Paso?
A. I used to walk across the bridge to Juarez until about two years ago. I drank in the bars, I went to the bullfights, and I filmed Mariachi’s in the market place. Some of that you can see in our film Don’t Look Down. Juarez was wide open then. All of that is gone. It’s been a war zone for several years and a lot of the old bars have been bulldozed.
Q. Can you talk about a couple of your last border crossings? I read somewhere about you getting caught up in at least one exchange of gunfire at some point….
A. When I first came here in 1997 I used to go over to the bullfights. Twice I just missed being mowed down in a drug rubout. We could hear the machine gun fire as we drove away in the cab. The taxi driver was ducking down and the bullets were flying. Those were the incipient rumblings of the war…cartel’s fighting cartels for all that American drug money. It didn’t dawn on us that it would escalate into World War Three. Nine thousand people have been killed over there and more than forty thousand in all of Mexico, and yet this country seems obsessed with the Middle East.
Q. You’ve said Juarez is now more like “Tombstone on methamphetamine.” Can you foresee any return to normalcy on the border or deeper in the heart of Mexico?
A. It works this way: we sell them the guns, they kill each other to control the business, and then we buy the drugs. The cartels war against each other to make the millions in profit from all of this. It’s too much embedded in the economy over there to fully go away. If America legalized some drugs it would take the heat off, but that won’t happen. We’ve lost the war on drugs. Charles Bowden, the writer, is really the authority on all of this.
Q. The other night, in concert, you remarked that Mexico City is the center of western culture. Can you elaborate a bit on that?
A. The Aztecs were there. Mayans. The pyramids and temples and art. It’s the old land of the bottom line. Then the Spanish rode through. The shrine of our Lady of Guadalupe is there. Mexico City is the spiritual heart of our western and cowboy culture. You could spend two weeks down there and not see all the pyramids and museums and shrines, and eat at the great cafes. The largest bullring in the world is there, and Frida Kahlo’s house and the murals of Diego Riviera. I could go on and on. My sister, who is married to an Italian, is always going to Italy and Rome, and I tell her she should visit the heart of our culture. But most Americans don’t get the point. They think it’s too dangerous and third world down there.
Q. In an age when the very act of reading and writing seems threatened by technology, you strike me as one of contemporary music’s lonely and truly voracious readers. On recent tracks you’ve riffed on everyone from T.S. Eliot to Graham Greene to Raymond Carver to Ray Bradbury. You seem to continue to cast a pretty wide net in your reading. Are you still mostly drawn to nonfiction? How do you choose a book?
A. I'm educated as a criminologist, so I used to be drawn to a lot of true crime things. But there’s not a lot of it being written that’s decent. I love biography. I’m now reading Hemingway’s Boat, which is quite good. I love the non-fiction work of Joseph Mitchell and A.J. Liebling, and both used to write for the New Yorker. You can learn a hell of a lot about New York and Paris and food, and writing, by reading these two. And boxing, in the case of Liebling. They had character and style. I choose a book now by hearing about it or reading a review or getting a nod from somebody. Then I read a few pages and if I’m not pissed-off that somebody is writing at me or showing off, then I continue. If I reach a point where I don’t care or give a shit about the subject or character or what the writer is trying to do, I put it down and move on. Life, in that sense, is too short to tolerate writing you are not moved by.
Q. On the subject of fiction writers, you told a journalist recently, “Ninety-eight percent of writers are lying… Even in fiction, it goes a long way for me to find a modern fiction writer that I believe.” Who are some of those modern fiction writers you can take the ride with?
A. I recently discovered Denis Johnson. Train Dreams. Nobody Move. Jesus’ Son. Unbelievably good. I want to read more. He seems to be able to hit to any field with plenty of strength: crime novel, historical novel etc. It seems the worms haven’t gotten to him. He lives off the grid, as you told me, way up on the top of Idaho. I’m going back and reading some of J.P.S. Brown’s western stuff because I visited him recently and he’s led a fascinating life. I think Leonard Gardner’s Fat City (an influence on Denis Johnson) and Fante’s The Brotherhood of the Grape are modern master works. Of sorts. I always go back and read the openings to several Graham Greene novels like: The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter.
Q. You spent a period of time in your earlier years trying your hand at writing novels. You’re back at that task, working on your own timetable as you put it. Can you talk a little about where you might be headed in terms of subject or setting?
A. I’ve been trying to work on a piece of fiction about life on the border, here in El Paso, during the Mexican drug war. Sort of a fragmented cowboy novel about the last frontier. Cowboys, Indians, and Mexicans, fighting it out on the great Chihuahua desert. It’s amusing me. My earlier crime novel Bloodsport (published only in Norwegian) was recently released as a paperback in Norway. I won’t pursue getting that out in English. Not yet. I’m also writing a regular essay on western things for a magazine called Ranch and Reata, a very well done publication. When I have about twenty or thirty of those I’ll collect them into a book. My take on the West.
Q. In “Goodnight Juarez,” there’s a lament: “They even tore the bullring down.” I’m pretty sure you’ve read Hemingway’s bullfighting tribute, Death in the Afternoon. Hem equated bullfighting with the act of fiction writing. The bullfight is under pretty strong fire, even in Spain. What lessons or value can still be drawn from witnessing bullfighting in your estimation?
A. That’s dangerous to try and explain or justify. First of all, I think Death in the Afternoon is dated now. But the last chapter, where Hemingway celebrates all the things he left out of the book, is one of his strongest pieces of writing. He summons up the old Spain which has been ruined by the transformation into the euro economy. It’s the best travel writing on Spain ever composed or concocted. It’s all gone. Secondly, to even discuss bullfighting or Torero within the context of current culture is almost impossible. It can’t really be defended, even Hemingway knew that. I find all the political correctness rather absurd in comparison to factory farming and the world of horse racing, and other pursuits. I grew up on the backside of the race track and, trust me, racing thoroughbreds are treated a lot rougher than fighting bulls. Dozens and dozens of horses ruined and killed every season. But the very idea of sticking swords into an animal and such is alien now. Torero is an ancient art, not a sport. It’s a ritual. To really get into the idea of what’s going on and why, one would have to explore the duende musings of the great Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, and his writings have been edited and politically corrected in online bios. Such bullshit. I wouldn’t defend the bullfight to anyone now. It’s a cultish thing that you either get or do not get….and you’ll spend too many afternoons waiting for that one moment when the door opens and you see something that will hook you forever. By the way, I’m not a huge Norman Mailer fan, but the best piece of writing he did was an essay on bullfighting called El Loco. Or “The Crazy One.” It’s worth seeking out because it goes a long way in describing these matters of duende in the ring. Mailer says the bullfight taught him “something about the mystery of form.”
Q. Your penned a memorable Hemingway piece about visiting his house in Cuba several years ago. You’ve indicated you’re thinking of expanding that into some kind of essay. What’s your strong impression of the Finca?
A. I was offered a rare glimpse inside the house, if I coughed up a five dollar bribe, and so I was able to walk into his bedroom and see the typewriter and the spot where he wrote, standing up. The books on his shelves were well thumbed and the bottles of scotch and vodka were still in the front room. It was all very moving. It was the house of a writer.
Q. What, if anything, do you most admire in Hemingway’s writing or life as an artist?
Charles Bukowski, who I corresponded with for many years, said something to me once: Hemingway is better when you’re young. I suppose that’s partly true. Same could be said of Bukowski! We immerse ourselves in writers like Hemingway, Steinbeck and Kerouac, when we are younger, and get carried into their dream. They lived “full up.” Hell, it was exciting to imagine how these people lived their lives. They were certainly characters in the truest sense. But then we had to grow up and lead our own lives. I went back recently and read A Moveable Feast and loved it, even with all of its meanness and back-stabbing. It’s wonderfully written. I think Hemingway changed the American sentence, and all the airplane journalism parodies and put downs will not erase his influence on writing culture. As with Kerouac… I think the drinking life caught up with Hemingway. Rituals that worked when you were twenty sometimes slap you down when you reach fifty. He turned into a parody of himself. The funny thing about Hemingway (and Bob Dylan for that matter) is there have been over a hundred books written on these guys. Positive and negative. These two artists have left a huge mark on our culture and all the cheap criticism and mockery doesn’t matter. Is anyone going to remember Max Eastman or those critics who went after Hemingway?
Q. Your previous album, Blood and Candlesmoke, contained this beautiful song called “Guadalupe” I especially admire and I think you’ve referenced as a song you’re particularly proud of. In setting up the song in concert, you seem to take pains to make clear it shouldn’t be construed as a religious statement on your part. I’ve seen Kristofferson do a similar thing in past years when performing his song, “Why Me?” Is “Guadalupe” a song you fear some have taken the wrong way in some manner?
I don’t really care, since the song has to stand on its own. And does. I just want people to know what moves me is the story and the spirit of the Mexican people in continuing to react to the story. We all pursue our miracles wherever we can find them. And in some ways, for some wild reason, Our Lady of Guadalupe has become one of my own angels. We all need to pray at times and prayer has nothing to do with organized religion. Prayer is found embedded within the pursuit of making art. And in the reaching out for help and hope. No matter Who you’re reaching out to.
Q. So many of your albums contain songs with flashes of autobiography, but you seem to have become more aggressive about putting yourself at center of your albums, particularly since Hotwalker. Is that a false sense on my part, or are you deliberately letting more of your life into the music?
A. I’ve become more at ease with digging deeper. I often quote an old Carl Perkins line: a man can run away for so long….until one day he runs back into himself. I was known for many years as a “storyteller” which seems to stand outside the idea of writing your own personal saga. After ten or fifteen years of being slaughtered in personal relationships, and clawing my way back up to the rim of the canyon, I decided to write about it. What it’s like on the frontlines. I think it really started with the record: Love and Fear. Now I’m happily married, so maybe I have the balance I need to get personal.
Q. The new DVD includes some footage of your wedding to your wife, Nadine. Has marriage changed or affected your songwriting in any way you’re conscious of?
A. Yeah. I’m more confident to follow whatever path my muses and angels will lead me. I also am able, finally, to approach the great American love song with a bit of confidence. I’ve written a number of songs for her. She also runs our business interests which allows me to focus on art and song. Meeting her has really saved me. She’s also got a Master’s in psychology, so she is perfectly equipped to deal with the maestro.
Q. You’ve said, “Every Tom Russell record should harbor at least one song of hope or simple love.” The album Mesabi, proper, ends on an acoustic version of “Love Abides,” from The Man From God Knows Where. What brought you around to closing out with a reprise of that particular song?
A. Nadine heard it a few years ago and told me I should re-cut it, because it was a great song. I picked up a guitar in the studio in Tucson, recently, and laid down a rough version. Just me and the guitar. I was going to re-record it with a band, but Nadine said it was perfect. It’s rough and to the point, like Dylan finishing a record with Dark Eyes. Him and his guitar. A voice in the night. I think all these dark stories need a little light washed over them. Like Churchill said: if you’re going through hell, keep going. You’ll eventually find a place where love abides.
Q. Your earlier composition, “Roll the Credits,” and a new one, “The Road to Nowhere,” are featured in the Monte Hellman film, of the same name. There was reportedly some interest on the part of Hellman for you to act in the film. Were you tempted to take that “star turn”? Why didn’t it happen?
A. I think that scene got cut from the script when the budget ran out so they didn’t call me. I wasn’t that interested. I was honored Monte would think of me, but I don’t need to stand around a film set all day when I could be painting. I was really happy to write the music and Monte has become a good friend. And he makes a killer Margarita.
Q. On the subject of performing, you’ve often described yourself as the kid who was a dreamer and one who lived in his head. Yet your stage persona is that of a man who is wry, engaging, charming. Do you relish your time on stage, or are there still butterflies?
A. I’m now more comfortable on stage than I am in “real life.” It took forty years, but I relish it. As I said above, when you’re really inside a song, performing it truthfully, then real-time stops. I also like bringing the songs to a live audience, because a lot of people don’t have the patience to dig into records these days…you lead them through the songs, then a light bulb goes off in their heads. Oh, I get it!
Q. I believe you’re now living part-time in Switzerland. Is that having any effect on your writing or painting in terms of voice or theme? Do you paint when you’re in Switzerland, or is that strictly a while-in-Texas pursuit?
A. I’ve been writing and painting in Switzerland. Same as El Paso. Two unique perspectives. We live part time in a small, medieval, Swiss farm town and there’s an inn down the road built in the 1600’s with a huge wine cellar and a beer garden. I fancy I’ll sit out in that garden and write a few books. It’s like living in a dream. I also think you have a more objective view on the American scene from the perspective of Europe.
Q. Any intimations you’re prepared to share about where you’re headed next musically or in other fields of creative endeavor?
Q. I want to finish up a film on the West I’ve been working on with Eric Temple. He put together my DVD and has done some great work, including a film on Edward Abbey called A Voice in the Wilderness. It will be an edgy look at the Spanish-influenced West, and will have a soundtrack of new and original songs. I also want to finish the border novel and keep working on a book of essays, many of which have appeared in Ranch and Reata. And of course keep painting. I’m working on a series of nudes called “White People,” and trying to finish three paintings titled Juarez-Guernica. Adios.