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Terrible Beauty

The ballad of Sam Baker

By Doug Freeman, Fri., Nov. 16, 2007

Terrible Beauty
Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

The train ride from Cuzco to the majestic ruins of Machu Picchu covers 70 miles as the tracks wind northwest through the mountains of Peru. June mornings cast an intensely brilliant sunlight into the ancient city, blinding the broken layers of history competing uncomfortably within the legendary Inca capital.

At 32, Sam Baker is athletic and adventurous. His brown hair is cut short, his body lean and muscular. He's spent the last four years guiding white-water rafting trips down the Rio Grande, and he's come to Peru with three friends to ice-climb and trek the Andes. Unlike most of the country in the 1980s, scarred by guerilla warfare at the hands of the Maoist revolutionaries the Shining Path, Cuzco is a heavily secured haven, and the four explore the city casually.

The train is nearly full for its 8:30am departure, and Baker crams into the next-to-last car, finding a seat beside a 19-year-old German boy sitting opposite his parents. He gives no heed to the red backpack lying innocuously on the luggage rack above his head. As they wait to depart, he carries on the idle, awkward chatter of tourists with the family. The explosion silences everything.

"I thought that I had a heart attack, and I thought the Germans hadn't seen and that I was just going to die right there beside them without them even aware," says Baker in a calm, distant reflection. "That's what I thought at first. Then pretty quickly I knew that they were dead and dying."

The time bomb was crudely made, its force driving up through the roof of the train rather than out. Even so, the steel bars of the luggage rack became a rain of shrapnel, killing seven people and injuring nearly 40. A station worker hauled Baker from the debris and sent him to the hospital in a cab.

"I woke up on the table, and I knew it was bad and went back out," Baker remembers. "When I woke up the next day, I was reasonably alert, though I wouldn't say I was in the world. I couldn't hear, my hands were bandaged, my legs were bandaged, and I couldn't move. My eyes worked, and I could breathe, so I was alert. But it was internal alertness, almost on a cellular level, where I knew I was dying, and I was aware of my own death."

In the squalid hospital, gangrene set into the wounds in his legs, where a femoral artery had been severed, and the subdural hematoma from a concussion slowly hemorrhaged in his brain. Baker shifted in and out of consciousness through a morphine haze, reality lost somewhere between fevered dreams and an intense awareness of his broken body. Five days passed before a U.S. military jet could evacuate American survivors from Lima. The plane was scheduled to stop in Panama to relieve the pilots, Baker barely clinging to life.

"A little girl that was there went into a coma, and on the evac out, she arrested," says Baker, relating what he was told later by friends. "They manually kept her alive, so she could see her mother and get her last rites. Because of her, we got to San Antonio just in time for me to get treatment, and had we landed in Panama, I wouldn't have made it. I was dying of everything. I was on the very tail end of this earthly life."

Baker pauses and squints his eyes, his thoughts somewhere distant.

"You know, it's funny how that works," he says slowly. "It's all connected in some way that I cannot figure out."


Sweetly Undone

Today is the first day that Sam Baker has heard clearly in more than 20 years, since the explosion in 1986 crippled his eardrums. The new hearing aid is inconspicuous, technology finally progressing enough to convince Baker to wear one. He leans forward in a confidential manner.

"It's my first time really hearing much, and you know what, there's a whole lot I don't need to listen to," he laughs. "I didn't realize there's just so much noise coming at you. Everywhere I've been today has some sort of sound back-screen, commercials everywhere. I didn't realize there's so much sound. And I don't know if I need to hear that. My world goes just fine without it."

Outside Flightpath Coffee House, the Beatles play softly through the speakers. Baker sits with his back against the wall, his right side directed across the table. His left eardrum is completely shattered, leaving only the constant ringing of tinnitus in his head. With the crooked fingers of his left hand, he draws back the tattered hole in the knee of his jeans, revealing scars crudely healed.

His gray hair is tied into a loose ponytail, and his broad shoulders match his gregarious personality. Baker recalls the events in Peru with a candid, if hesitant, narration. Frequently pausing, he carefully seeks words to relate the experience. It's a search that for the past eight years he's attempted to articulate in his songwriting.

"It's an immensely powerful place that comes to me, and the need to describe it, but I haven't been able to find the words to convey that emotional state, that whole sort of place," he says.

Instead, he retreats into metaphors, grasping at analogies in hope of brushing against a peripheral understanding. Appealing to his days on the river, Baker's language drifts into fluid imagery.

"The boundary between living and dying can be a very sharp eddy line or very gauzy," he offers. "I hit a very sharp one at first, and just like when you hit it in a river, it will spin your boat around hard. That first one, I don't think I've ever been able to describe that. Then over the next seven or eight days, when the gangrene set in and we were trying to figure out if my system would actually come back, I felt I was drifting into this space, and it just wasn't clear at all. The currents were just not terribly strong one way or another. It was all soft.

"With most of my writing right now, I think I'm somewhere in this place where the currents are a little softer, where I think it's a little safer to talk about or describe them," he continues. "I'm not sure that I'm steady enough to get a real clear look at that first eddy line. Maybe I don't have the strength yet to go back and revisit that specific place, that eddy line, whatever that crossing is."

Baker's songs linger in the same soft wash of the uncertain veil between waking and dreaming, life and death. Details emerge and recede, ungraspable except within the worn narratives of his characters. Half-remembered histories and fragments of familiar songs rise to the surface, only to subside in the wake of reality yet abide indomitably still beneath the currents.

There's a rough elegance to Baker's work. His voice is course, songs more spoken than sung, halting melodies that gesture toward the proper tone yet refract from it elusively. The unpolished imperfection underscores the tenacity and rugged hope of Baker's vision, a world filled with beauty and wonder amid the weary, unextraordinary struggle of life.


Mercy

Born in the small prairie town of Itasca, about 40 miles south of Fort Worth, Baker was a natural student of character. As the fourth of six children, his upbringing gave him an eye for everyday minutia and the power of genealogy.

"It was a good place to grow up," Baker attests. "But a small town can be pretty insular in the world, and you can not know anything about stuff just a few miles away. And in a place that small, it's all in the details, of how people live their lives, the ways they tell the truth, and the ways they lie. The ways they deceive each other and sometimes themselves, the ways they're sometimes heroic and sometimes not. The knowledge base on everybody is so big, and it's so influenced by gossip, myth, and accepted stories and hidden stories.

"I dig it; I just don't want to live there and be subject to it," he laughs. "But then I'm more of an observer. I don't want to be part of the story. I love to just watch and put a puzzle together where the narrative makes sense."

Terrible Beauty
Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

The characters populating Baker's songs are often the frayed but defiant descendants of inherited hardship, toiling against legacy and the mundaneness of simply plodding forward. The portraits that slowly develop merge Townes Van Zandt's vivid poetry with John Prine's storytelling, infused with a persistent, if continually frustrated, hope.

"We as people are so complex, and we're conflicted about so many things," says Baker about his songwriting. "At some point, the characters take over and tell me what to write. I don't really control them. What I try to do is get me out of the way and let them live the lives they need to live, even if it doesn't follow how I think it would go. My job is to give them the time and space to do what they need to do and say what they need to say."

Baker moved to Austin in the early 1990s. He taught himself to play guitar left-handed to offset his injury and directed his restless energy inward to songwriting. After his sister Chris Baker-Davies recorded four of his songs for her 2000 album, Southern Wind, Baker mustered the confidence to begin playing open-mic nights at the Cactus Cafe. He quickly befriended other local songwriters, and in 2004, Walt Wilkins helped produce his debut, Mercy.

The disc eventually fell into the hands of local producer/guitarist/singer-songwriter Gurf Morlix, who helped get it played on the BBC and Texas radio. The two became fast friends and last year toured together through Italy. This summer, Baker released Pretty World ("Texas Platters," Aug. 10), the album further honing his gift for evoking a simple, devastating beauty.

"Let's not kid ourselves; the world can be a very, very brutal place," Baker acknowledges. "But my sense is that we're all trying to do something that we believe in or that makes things better. I think that for the most part people struggle, but most people, even in hard times, you know what they do? They get up, they make themselves a cup of coffee, and they keep going. They walk out the door, and they go to work, they go to school, whatever they do. It's not dramatic, but I see that as a moment of triumph, of major triumph. Maybe I'm a romantic, but I admire that, and I think that's everywhere.

"In my world, I saw some fairly awful stuff and had to actually accept that that's part of being alive," he says. "I think at some point, being able to accept that gave me the freedom to accept all this other stuff that's triumphant, even if it is just making another cup of coffee. It's immensely powerful, that will to get up and do something even when you don't want to do it. I think it's beautiful beyond words."


Pretty World

The lights are low inside the Cactus Cafe, the semidarkness enfolding the packed, Wednesday night crowd. Onstage, Baker has the look of a lion, his long gray hair flowing across his shoulders and wide smile friendly and inviting. He laughs easily with an earnest, self-deprecating humor. Seated on his right, Morlix tunes his guitar as Baker jokes with the audience and eventually produces a tuner to correct his own instrument.

The two gruff-voiced songwriters make an odd, but natural, pairing. Between songs, they carry on a running, congenial conversation, telling stories from their Italian tour and playfully mocking each other with a warm familiarity.

As the duo trades tunes, the balance between Morlix's ballads of dark cynicism and Baker's rough hope is striking. During Morlix's songs, Baker leans in close to follow his lead, as much with his eyes as his ears. On his own, Baker rocks unconsciously, eyes closed as he croons coarsely from the corner of his mouth.

Before the sun

Before the heat

Before we untangle from our sheets

Before the summer day unfurls

Pretty world

Baker's ear is bent low to his guitar to follow his own playing. His strumming is heavy-handed, knowingly ungraceful as he throws his shoulders into every chord. Morlix's adept accompaniment softens the edges of Baker's songs and is the subject of a constant, laughing harassment between the two.

Before the paper is dropped at the gate

Before the coffee, before we're late

Before dreams are lost like midnight pearls

Pretty world

The power of Baker's songs flicker in the ephemerality of his vision, the lingering moments just before dawn, the glimpse of truth in fractured verses. With the quiet determination of his characters – the single mother stalled in the parking lot in "Thursday," the whorehouse rambler in "Juarez" humming "Waiting Around to Die" and thinking, "Who in the world would write a song like that?" – Baker pursues the fleeting seconds of terrible beauty born within the simple ruptures of everyday life.

Before the traffic, before the jets

Before the sound of your footsteps

Fades away like summer girls

Pretty world

Baker peers from the stage into the darkened room and asks for another beer.

"I think I'll try a new song, and we'll see if it works," he laughs. "But there's something beautiful about the failure, when things fall apart."  

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