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All the pain money can buy

Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report
Robert Johnson at the "crossroads" in a painting at the House of Blues in Dallas.
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OKLAHOMA CITY – Last week, driving back from Charleston, South Carolina back to Oklahoma City, I took a route through Athens, Georgia, hometown of R.E.M., a band that has been important in my life over the years and a city with a long history of having a vibrant music and arts scene.

As I drove into Athens, heading toward downtown to pick up some vinyl at Wuxtry Records, I was greeted by a sign suggesting visitors go to Weaver D’s, the Athens eatery made super-famous in 1992 when R.E.M. named their album Automatic For The People, a slogan linked to Weaver D’s, as in: “Fine Foods, ‘Automatic for the People.’”

Last records for Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain, respectively. (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

It was Automatic For The People that Nirvana lead singer and songwriter Kurt Cobain was listening to that fateful day in April 1994 when he allegedly died by suicide at his home in Seattle, Washington. Reminded me of the report that Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis was listening to Iggy Pop's The Idiot the day he hung himself - May 18,1980 - the same day that Mount St. Helen's in Cobain's homestate of Washington erupted, while killing an old man named Harry Truman, who refused to leave his mountain home before the volcano erupted. Truman's name and story would later inspire Twin Peaks director/writer David Lynch who would name the sheriff after Truman, not specifically after the 33rd president, we should note.

President Harry S. Truman (left) and Harry Truman, victim of Mount St. Helen's 1980 eruption (right).

Cobain was a big fan of R.E.M. and was reportedly planning to work on a music project with R.E.M.’s lead singer Michael Stipe. That was not to be. Kurt Cobain was 27, another member of that notorious rock music club that was first opened by Delta blues legend Robert Johnson, the Mississippian who, according to legend, met the Devil at the “crossroads” and sold his soul in exchange for his being able to create the blues, for which he is famous. He is known as “The King of the Delta Blues.”

Blues legend Robert Johnson. (Wikimedia images)

In any event, a few months before Cobain’s untimely death, in the midst of Nirvana’s 1993 fall tour in support of In Utero, Cobain had asked scrappy punk group Half Japanese to open the tour, along with The Breeders.

According to the Seattle Police Department report on Cobain’s death (which remains controversial to this very day) officers reported that the victim was “wearing a long sleeve shirt pen, a T-shirt with two figures on it & ‘half Japanese’ lettered on it, blue jeans, and a pair of black athletic shoes.”

One wonders if he heard “Everybody Hurts” playing, Stipe singing the lines: “When you’re sure you’ve had enough of this life / Well hang on / Don’t let yourself go / ‘Cause everybody cries / And everybody hurts sometimes.

Just last night, synchromystically enough, while watching the heavily synchromystic series The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon Cooper’s love interest Amy Farrah Fowler is shown sappily playing a harp and singing “Everybody Hurts” off-key, clearly depressed. And here we are …

THE BAND THAT WOULD BE KING

A few months ago I took a renewed interest in Half Japanese, which began as a Maryland-based, brotherly punk duo back in the 1970’s, led by Jad Fair and his sibling David Fair. I picked up the absurdly-titled Greatest Hits and is chock full of Half Japanese hits ranging from “T. For Texas” and “U.F.O. Expert.” Don’t feel bad if you don’t remember hearing them on the radio.

I also picked up a book titled All The Doctors in Hot Springs, a slim, colorful book primarily consisting of kooky Half Japanese concert posters promoting their two-day series of concerts at Maxine’s live music venue in Hot Springs, Arkansas on Oct. 5 & 6, 2012, with assistance from Little Rock bands Ezra Lbs. and Bloodless Cooties. The Fair brothers call Maxine's the "coolest music venue west of Hoboken." High praise, indeed!

The title of the book comes from the Robert Johnson blues song “32-20,” where a jealous man sings, “I sent for my baby, and she don’t come / I sent for my baby, man, and she don’t come / All the doctors in Hot Springs sure can’t help her none.”

In addition to the images of the posters are photos of the band (along with sometime member Mark Jickling) and images of the band’s set lists. 

In addition, a clip from a June 1937 issue of the socialist newspaper New Masses, written by John Hammond, raves about “Hot Springs’s star” Robert Johnson and how he was “a worker on a Robinsville, Miss. plantation.” Johnson did play throughout the mid-South, including Arkansas, and is believed to have played in Hot Springs, as previously reported, although much about Johnson’s life remains murky and unknown.

“CRAWLING IN THE GRASS IN AGONY”

But it was weird to make the Robert Johnson connection to Half Japanese and noting in a book review I am currently writing about Room to Dream, the biography of director David Lynch

Next month, on August 16th, it will have been 80 years since the death of Delta blues musician and singer-songwriter Robert Johnson. It was, of course, at the age of 27. A Faustian bargain ends, well, badly. But the legend remains. And everyone from Eric Clapton to Bob Dylan have only high praise for Johnson.

Since that time, nearly eight decades later, Robert Johnson has become one of the most “iconic and mythologized figures in popular music (and the first of many to die at the age of 27),” as noted by the creators of Love In Vain: Robert Johnson 1911-1938, The Graphic Novel.

Oddly enough, I’m currently writing a book review of Room to Dream, the biography of director David Lynch, with additional chapters about Lynch’s life provided by Kristine McKenna. On pages 350-351, Lynch talks about Love in Vain, the book by Alan Greenberg, about Robert Johnson and how Lynch had wanted to turn a script of the story into a film, but as Lynch says, “it never happened.” Here he talks to Charlie Rose in 2000 about the Robert Johnson film script.

And Lynch captures that day in August 1938 near Greenwood, Mississippi where he writes: “The myth is that Robert Johnson couldn’t play guitar until he met the devil at the crossroads, and after that he could play like crazy. He was asked to play at a party at a man’s house, so the party is going on and the man’s wife is getting drinks for Robert while he plays. When she took the drinks to him she was rubbing herself on him, and Robert’s getting drunk. The husband sees what his wife is doing and puts poison in Robert’s drink, and Robert Johnson dies crawling in the grass in agony.

Pretty grim way to go.

One wonders, with the renewed attention Lynch - an avid practitioner of Transcendental Meditation - has been getting over the past year in the wake of the mind-shattering Twin Peaks: The Return, if both his film on the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Robert Johnson will ever be completed. I would love to see both and I know he has it in him.

And speaking of Twin Peaks, when Cobain told Musician magazine in January 1992 about life growing up in rural Aberdeen, Washington, he said Aberdeen was like “Twin Peaks without the excitement.

Kurt Cobain of Nirvana on MTV Unplugged, months before his death. (MTV)

And many years later, in 2014, former Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters rock star Dave Grohl said it thusly: “To hear (Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic) talk about their childhood, it was some Twin Peaks shit.”

No doubt. Cobain loved the blues. He loved the sinister Lead Belly folk-blues song "Where Did You Sleep Last Night? (In the Pines)," performing it on MTV Unplugged in 1993. I have been inspired by "the pines" before, here at Dust Devil Dreams.

And as I write this, on July 20, 2018, we recognize today as the 53rd birthday of Chris Cornell, the Soundgarden and Audioslave vocalist who died by suicide in May 2017 (Christopher Knowles at The Secret Sun has written about it here). Cobain and Cornell were among the top singers (along with the late Layne Staley of Alice In Chains) of the Seattle Grunge scene. And Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam (whose voice is reportedly shot) is among the last of that era still standing.

Yes, the “27 Club” is well known, having taken the likes of Rolling Stones multi-instrumentalist and band founder Brian Jones (1969), Jimi Hendrix (1970), Janis Joplin (1970), Jim Morrison of The Doors (1971).  Later, it would claim Pete Ham of Badfinger (1975); Chris Bell of Big Star (1978); D. Boon of the Minutemen (1985); Mia Zapata of the Gits (1993) and leading up to Kurt Cobain. All were 27 years old. Some died from health problems. Others took their lives. Still others died under mysterious circumstances. Few will be forgotten for their contributions to popular music.

Janis Joplin memorabilia the Museum of The Gulf in Joplin's hometown of Port Arthur, Texas. (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

DUCK!

Beloved by some of the biggest names in rock n’ roll, it was this somewhat obscure and goofy band Half Japanese that really got the wheels turning with this Robert Johnson connection AND Hot Springs, Arkansas.

And Hot Springs has been on my mind quite a bit of late. As a child, living in Little Rock, Arkansas, my dad kept a sailboat, The Gryphon, at a dock on Lake Hamilton, near Hot Springs.

It was this same lake, in 1999, when a Duck Boat sank in Lake Hamilton, outside of Hot Springs. In that disaster, 13 people died.

That story really got my attention, considering all the blistering hot summer days I spent out on Lake Hamilton. My chances for skin cancer later in life subsequently increased thanks to those days spent on Lake Hamilton without sunscreen. Those sorts of things weren't really thought about in those days ... 

Several other Duck Boat accidents would take place, leading up to last evening on Table Rock Lake, outside of Branson, Missouri, where a storm “came out of nowhere” and whipped up waves on the lake that apparently overcame the Duck Boat (called a “death trap” by many) and sank with 31 people aboard, 17 of them reportedly dead. (Loren Coleman at Twilight Language has more on the Duck Boat disaster in Branson, and others in the recent past, here).

The doomed Duck Boat on Table Rock Lake, July 19, 2018. (Google images)

As interested as I am in mystical toponomy (like that of late researcher James Shelby Downard), I noted that both Hot Springs, Arkansas and Branson, Missouri lie a little east of the 94th meridian, but both are on the 93rd – with Branson’s coordinates being 36.6437° N, 93.2185° W and Hot Springs’ coordinates being 34.5037° N, 93.0552° W. Just a little outside my “Stilwell Enigma” line, but pretty damn close.

HOWARD’S END

So, while I was driving through Georgia, having seen the Weaver D’s “Automatic for the People” sign in Athens a little earlier, I came across a public radio program (the name of which I did not catch) and some acoustic-folk band was performing a cover of “The Way,” a catchy-yet-dark song by the Austin, Texas-based band Fastball, and a song that was exceedingly popular exactly 20 years ago – in that hot summer of 1998.

"The Way" single, taken from their 1998 album All the Pain Money Can Buy (Hollywood Records)

I had recalled really liking “The Way” back at that time, but 1998 was a year of great transition for me – and for the music industry, for that matter. I liked Fastball and still like that band, but until I heard this cover of “The Way” I frankly have to admit I had heard very little about them.

But the song. taken from their All the Pain Money Can Buy LP, is really fantastic! Brilliant, musically and lyrically speaking. Dark and melodic. A couple decides to throw caution to the wind and hit the road, “without ever knowing the way.” It would hit number one for seven weeks on the Modern Rock charts in '98.

I wanted to know more about the song, and I seemed to recall there was more to the story, kind of like David Lynch being inspired by the 1994 coverage of Iowa farmer Alvin Straight, riding a 1966 John Deere lawnmower from the town of Laurens (on the 94th meridian) to Wisconsin to see his ailing brother – which inspired Lynch’s touching film The Straight Story in 1999, the same year the Duck Boat sank in Lake Hamilton.

Fastball singer Tony Scalzo was inspired to write the song after hearing the tragic story of Lela and Arthur Raymond Howard, an elderly couple living in Salado, Texas, near the city of Temple, and not too terribly far from the haunted city of San Marcos.

And like the Fastball song inspired by the Howard's ill-fated journey, Lela and Raymond wanted to go to the nearby city of Temple, Texas and check out Pioneer Day on June 29, 1997. Their planned 15-mile trip turned into a harrowing and ultimately deadly sojourn into music history.

As Scalzo puts it in a 2017 interview with WUSA9.com: “(T)his story sort of struck me. It was sort of an ongoing story. Still no developments in the case of the missing couple.”

During the search that captivated Scalzo, he wondered if maybe this couple wanted to get lost and not be found, simply wanting to “go out and have fun.

Meanwhile, family members back in Salado, Texas were panicked, not knowing where Lela and Raymond were, one family member saying it was the “biggest nightmare of my life.”

Somehow, the disoriented couple – Raymond was 88 and Lela was 83, and both having problems with their mental faculties, drove over 500 miles away, crashing through a T-intersection in Hot Springs, Arkansas and landing in a creek, but not noticed for days. Their bodies were later discovered by two boys walking home from a video store. 

It was a sad ending for the couple. But "The Way" enshrined their story in music history, something the couple's surviving family members say is a "powerful" tribute to Lela and Raymond. 

"You can see their shadows wandering off somewhere / They won't make it home but they really don't care / They wanted the highway, they're happier there today, today ..."

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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