Steve Earle brings Townes Van Zandt's ghost along on Silver City's magical mystery tour; it hangs around for the Toronto Film Festival
It was to his queen turned" ...
The thing about adventures is that usually those you plan fizzle rather than soar. Done in by anticipation, any pleasures pale against expectations. The best ones are those you tumble into, often not aware that you're undertaking one or sure where you are until you emerge at the other end.
The clarifier there is "usually": Sometimes they work even on rare occasions better than you had ever expected.
..."He sent his deuce down into diamond
His four to heart, and his trey to spade
Three kings with their legions come
Preparations soon were made"...
Not surprisingly, given my narcoleptic tendencies, I fell asleep almost as soon as the bus ride began. Head tilted, eyes rolled back; I hope I didn't snore.
I probably did.
We were heading up from Santa Fe to Colorado Springs ... wait, let me start at the beginning, or at least what might pass for such:
This was a bus tour to promote Silver City, John Sayles and Maggie Renzi's new movie. Shot in Colorado, it's a political satire featuring an all-star cast, including Danny Huston, Richard Dreyfuss, Daryl Hannah, Chris Cooper, Mary Kay Place, Kris Kristofferson, Michael Murphy, Maria Bello, Miguel Ferrer, James Gammon, Tim Roth, Billy Zane, and Thora Birch. Based more than loosely on our own ex-governor, Cooper whose dad (Murphy) is a senator is running for governor, though he sometimes has trouble with the language and offers sound bites more than policies.
Sayles and Renzi decided the only right way to promote the film was an old-fashioned bus tour, sort of a whistle-stop campaign with booksignings, radio and TV show appearances, music, and the film instead of speeches. Three nights, three cities, three fundraising events that offered a traveling-show menu rather than just a simple screening. Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins) projected select strips; Steve Earle and Kris Kristofferson played songs; Sayles and Renzi introduced the film, after which some combination of filmmakers and cast members engaged in a question-and-answer session with the audience.
I arrived in Santa Fe on Wednesday, just in time to hook up with folks at a luncheon. The evening's performers were there, including cast members Mary Kay Place, Michael Murphy, Sal Lopez, and Luis Saguar. In the best Maggie Renzi tradition, a motley crew of folks Sayles and she enjoy hanging out with joined the trip, most of them having at least marginal connections to the film and set responsibilities for the trip.
When Maggie first talked to me about shooting this film, she asked for any names of folks in Colorado who might help out with knowledge and relationships. "Name," I told her. "You only need one: Patty Calhoun, editor of Westword, Denver's great weekly, who knows all of the politics and most of the stories of the state. If by some stretch she doesn't know something, she'll know who does."
Mutual longtime friend Sandy McLeod, jack of so many trades (including script supervisor and second unit director on several Sayles/Renzi productions), lives in Boulder, so she came down for the drive. Sandy was recently nominated for an Academy Award in the short documentary category for Asylum (Maggie helped produce it). There were assorted others, certainly some I'm forgetting, including Liz Brambilla from Newmarket (the film's distributor) and Suzanne Ceresko from Anarchists' Convention (Sayles and Renzi's company). One of the trip's coordinators was Jason Silverman, a writer and critic who was the Taos Talking Pictures Film Festival's artistic director until its demise and has long been involved with the Telluride Film Festival. I was along as a utility infielder, ready to be helpful if I was needed and to hang out and enjoy if not.
... "Flushes fell on Gold like water
Tens they paired and paired again" ...
The Santa Fe show went beautifully. Daryl Hannah joined us. Steve Earle did a short, powerful set that ended with Kristofferson joining him in a haunting performance of "Jerusalem": "That I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham/Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem." Kristofferson followed with his own short set. Earle joining him at the end for Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," including the often ignored verse: "Was a high wall there that tried to stop me/A sign was painted said: Private Property/But on the back side it didn't say nothing/God blessed America for me."
Afterward, there was a party backstage. Sandy was staying with Jo Harvey and Terry Allen, who came with son Bukka and friend David Byrne. A lot of fun was had by all, but it wore me out. So I fell asleep on the bus. Right away.
I didn't sleep long. When I awoke, I got wrapped up in conversation with McLeod, Sayles, and Michael Murphy (although Murphy's name may not be familiar, you know him from dozens of films, including Manhattan and many Robert Altman films, as well as the Altman television series Tanner). The talk was of politics and movies: Elvis Presley singing on helium, what a dick Lawrence Tierney could be, shooting in Harlem, and just how weird it was on the set of a John Cassavetes movie.
A couple of rows back, Kristofferson and Earle were singing and talking. Kristofferson has a role in the movie, and a song by Earle plays over the end credits. I really wanted to go back and listen, but the conversation flowing around me was too fascinating.
... "The diamond queen saw Mud's ordeal
Began to think of her long lost son
Fell to her knees with a mother's mercy
Prayed to the angels every one" ...
Earle was really the surprise. I've been a fan since he first started recording, but I hadn't really known what to expect. Going from zero to 60 in less than 10 seconds, Earle is brilliant, passionate, incredibly well-read, and shockingly smart. In a closed environment that includes Sayles, Renzi, Calhoun, and Kristofferson, it's hard to stand out. Earle stood out.
... "The diamond queen, she prayed and prayed
And the diamond angel filled Mud's hole
The wicked king of clubs himself
Fell in face down in front of Gold" ...
The bus stopped for lunch near Ludlow, Colo., where we were joined by a local labor lawyer and several United Mine Workers members who told us of the state's labor history. Shortly after our journey resumed, Earle began playing again. I moved back to talk to Maggie and to listen.
Earle was playing and singing as though in an intimate club, not seated on a bus. He performed not only his songs, but many others from his seemingly endless store of them. We had talked about Margaret Brown's new documentary, Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt, of which I am executive producer and which was accepted at the Toronto Film Festival. Earle performed his song "Brand New Companion," then a Lightnin' Hopkins blues, followed by Van Zandt's "Loretta." In between, he talked of Townes, telling the story of their first meeting. It's passed into legend, so I knew it, but still urged Earle along. Sixteen or 17 years old, Earle was playing the Old Quarter when his hero Van Zandt walked in and sat down, putting his legs up on the stage. Intimidated enough by Van Zandt's presence, Earle was further unnerved as his idol drunkenly called for "Wabash Cannonball." Finally, Earle admitted he didn't know the song. "Then you're not a folk singer," Van Zandt admonished.
Now, Earle loved Townes' songs. Hunched over albums, he had labored to learn the music and the words. "Mr. Gold and Mr. Mud," Van Zandt's fable of a poker game, proved among the most difficult, truly a multilayered mudslide of words and images; mastering it had required real devotion. So right there, back then, Earle launched into it, knocking Van Zandt out.
As I was praying he would, Earle then performed the song.
... "But the angels from the sky did ride
Three kings up on the streets of Gold
Three fireballs on the muddy side" ...
I couldn't stop grinning. The rest of the trip went like that, as well (and yes, my skills were needed by the end). Saturday morning, I flew back to Austin, only to head out Monday for the Toronto Film Festival. In a way, the trip ended there as much as in Denver. There was a terrific response to the first screening of Be Here to Love Me at the festival. The party afterward was outrageous.
Walking home, I got lost in Toronto, as I often do. Walking, grinning, a bit dazed, I was lost still in the moments of Earle nailing that song, the torrent of words endlessly ricocheting in my head until they finally flowed out into the thick, dark Toronto night.
... "The club queen heard her husband's call
But Lord that queen of diamond's joy
When the outlaw in the heavenly hall
Turned out to be a wandering boy" ...
"Mr. Gold and Mr. Mud," by Townes Van Zandt