While driving into Big-D to visit the city’s art museum, I saw a billboard announcing that the band America would be performing soon at the Mesquite Arena, Mesquite being a once sleepy country town now subsumed into the megalopolis.
I thought, “Well, hey, how about that? Here we are taking a trip across America—even if we are shipwrecked for an extended period—and look which band crosses our path! America!”
I was not sure if this was serendipity, divine irony, or mere meaningless meaning making, but I thought I would check into tickets to see if it were possible to attend. That night when Captain Crunch, Dr. J., and his girlfriend, who was visiting and my excuse to drag us all to the museum, returned home from Dallas (Knightsmama was spending the night with The Buckaroo at the rehab hospital), I conducted my searches on the interwebs and discovered that the tickets were cheap by today’s standards and the whole thing went to a good cause. The event was sponsored by the Mesquite Independent School District Educational Foundation attempting to raise money for local schools. I could purchase tickets at a table with local movers and shakers for 80 dollars and get a little buffet meal while I was at it or go cheap and sit with the hoi-polloi for 20 bucks.
So I held on to this bit of information for a week or so. I was hesitant to mention the possibility of seeing America perform because Knightsmama has given me unending grief about the two concerts we have attended in the past five years. You see, Knightsmama and I have a difficulty that I suppose—at least, I hope this is true—other married couples have. The shaded overlapping area of the venn diagram of our musical tastes seems to get smaller every year. Or another possibility is that we just lied to each other when we first started dating.
The music that bound us early was the music of TheKerrville Folk Festival, that is, the singer songwriter tradition. I was an early follower of the Cosmic Cowboy stuff and their progeny: Jerry Jeff Walker, Nancy Griffith, Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark. Knightsmama was enthusiastic about Townes Van Zandt, and some younger folks like Tom Prasada-Rao, Michael Lille, Pierce Pettis, Ellis Paul, and the Indigo Girls. In addition, we get all moony listening to the music of our friends Daniel Barrett and Todd Hoke, who, over the years, have released some very strong music.
But we each have music from our youth that we cling to—and perhaps in the early years of our relationship we hid from each other. Nowadays Knightsmama goes all goofy and jittery when a song like “Brick House” comes on the radio. Anything by Abba turns her into a dancing fool, if not a dancing queen. And for me, as the odometer on our marriage ticked off the mileage, I began pulling out the albums of my youth and playing them on the stereo (or purchasing new CDs). Five years ago, it was Poco, who was my favorite band in the seventies. Then one weekend about three years ago, while Knightsmama and the boys were away somewhere (a bike race?) I pulled out all my Chicago and America albums. With Chicago, I regained a lost enthusiasm, especially for their first records where they were both more rock (less sap) and more experimental. With America, whom I followed for their first six albums, I rediscovered the ambivalence that made me stop listening to them. I really still liked the songs by Dewey Bunnell (“Horse with No Name,” “Riverside,” “Ventura Highway,” “Sandman”) and I cringed as I was sucked into the tunes by Gerry Beckley (“Sister Golden Hair,” I Need You,” “Daisy Jane.”), hating myself the entire time I sang along.
|Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley (America)|
As it turned out, I was able to drag Knightsmama to concerts by Poco (at Gruene Hall) and to Chicago (at Austin City Limits Theater). I can’t quite decide if these dates were worth the cost and effort. For everyone ounce of pleasure I received, I have endured a pound of shame. At the Poco concert, there I was with my generation: chubby guys with goatees hiding the second chin, wearing loud Hawaiian shirts covering the extended belly. Don’t think that Knightsmama did not notice how I had become a cultural cliché. Worse, Knightsmama could have been a daughter to most of these couples. Heck, she might have been considered underage for that venue that night. At the Chicago concert, even though we attended it with my niece and her husband—meaning they are closer to Knightsmama’s age than mine, Knightsmama still could not still her mouth as he commented on what she considered the desperate enthusiasm of the famous horn section. I mean, I am open to the idea that Knightsmama just has better taste in music than I have, but I will also entertain the possibility that she just has no control over her sarcastic mouth.
So, like I say, I was really hesitant to bring up the possibility that I might like to see America. However, it was so inexpensive and all, and we are taking a trip across America and their name is “America,” etc. etc. But God, or whatever passes for God, was on my side. One afternoon, the entire family was driving on the highway heading into Dallas to visit The Buckaroo. We had the radio tuned to some Dallas FM station. Dallas radio has become a recurring joke in our family because if one scans through the stations one can always find, somewhere, a song by ZZ Top, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Steve Miller, or Lynard Skynard. I don’t know what was going haywire, but some disc jockey was moved at this particular moment to alter the play list and punched up “Sister Golden Hair.”
And there we were, a happy family tooling down IH 635, and Knightsmama began singing along. “Ooo, I like this song.”
I did not let this miracle pass by. “You know, America’s playing at the Mesquite Arena in a week. We could go.” Within minutes, the deal was closed, and by the end of the night we had purchased our tickets. We were going to see America, a band I loved and was ashamed of loving, and I was going with the woman I loved and who loved to shame me about the things I love. It’s all so complicated. Why does it all have to be so complicated?
But on Saturday, March 1, before we could head off to Mesquite, Texas, we had a more important duty to accomplish. March 1 was C-day. Cattle Day. The day when we simplified our lives and The Buckaroo’s. While The Buckaroo improves daily and is inching his way toward becoming his old self, we all have to admit that if he is to become his old self fully, it is still some ways off in the future. That is, we have some time to wait until he will live out on Hundred Acre Woods by himself, wake up every morning, tend to his breakfast needs, hop into some vehicle, head to some portion of his property, tend to his cattle on this property and however many on another, build and repair fences, drive his tractor, move hay bales, transfer dirt from one pile to another, rev up the chain saw, climb trees and trim branches, drive into Wills Point (7 miles away), Terrell or Canton (30 or so miles away) for tools, equipment, repairs and nutrition. You know, live the life that any eighty-one year old widower lives.
|The Cow known as "Big Mama"|
For six weeks, Dr. J. has been doing an exemplary job for a city bred sixteen-year old in caring and feeding the nine head at Hundred Acre Woods. But March 1 was the day assigned for eliminating that commitment. Our job that morning was to make certain that we collected all nine head into a small corral and wait for the man who would load them into his trailer, cart them away, and coordinate the sell at the Saturday Van Zandt County LivestockAuction. The man was a friend of The Buckaroo’s. About fifty years old, this man had grown up in the area and since a child has cared for his cattle and that of many of the less experienced citizens, like The Buckaroo, who had decided at age seventy-nine to apply for his IRS Agricultural Exemption and discovered he needed to become a cattleman to do so. That morning, we accomplished our task without nary a problem and awaited Buddy. I am going to call this man “Buddy.” It’s not his name, but the truth is that over the past six weeks we had referred to him, among ourselves, by a half dozen names that The Buckaroo had given us: Buddy, Budson, Jason, Jubal, Jewett, Dodson. The Buckaroo’s difficulty with the name had nothing to do with the stroke. We found “Buddy’s” telephone number on a post-it note on a bulletin board with one of the afore mentioned incorrect names. Dr. J and I had met with Buddy a few times in the past six weeks. At first, he moved hay for us; then, being the only person besides The Buckaroo with the magic touch needed to start the tractor, he taught Dr. J. the trick, and I think was glad to off load a menial job that took longer to drive to and from than to accomplish.
Buddy showed up at Hundred Acre Woods right on time, and with the aid of a portable, battery operated cattle-prod, he and Dr. J. persuaded the cattle into his trailer, largest ones first, so the weight distribution fell forward toward the towing truck, then the smaller ones. And since no one else was interested, I guess, or because it was cold and early, Knightsmama and Dr. J. returned to the warmth of the house, and I hopped into my own Big Ass Truck and followed Buddy to the site of the auction.
Attending the cattle auction is an activity I am glad I did once. I suppose if life had led me in very different direction I could participate in cattle auctions regularly, like going to Friday night high school football games or meeting my old men friends at the Dairy Queen for Tuesday morning coffee. But a different set of values and aesthetics has seized me and I see no need to release myself from them. In all ways, the auction is, I guess, just what one would suppose it would be. There is a metal building with a large number of stalls stretching behind, covered barn like, for fifty yards or so. I didn’t measure. I’m guessing. Circling the structure is a wide dirt road, more beaten down dirt than road, and parked at the edges were pick-up trucks and pick-up trucks attached to cattle trailer. Outside the stalls, it’s motors running; inside the stalls, it’s cattle mooing. In many ways, cattle remind me of humans: some are quiet followers, some are quiet and wary, and some are loud and worried, and others are loud and angry.
|Van Zandt County Auction House on a Non-Auction Day|
The cattle basically have only two destinations after today. Some, mostly heifers and calves and a rare lucky bull, are being sold to some rancher to add to his stock. The rest are headed to some creature’s stomach, possibly even yours. A tenderfoot, such as myself, sort of feels like many of these poor dumb beast might not be so dumb and do realize that the halcyon days of green grass, hay bales, and tasty supplemental feed are behind them.
As one enters the front of the metal building, the fluorescent lights and cheap wood paneling announce immediately that one has entered the bottom rungs of efficient capitalism. No one is showing off his or her outrageous success and good taste. What we have here is the contractors’ sale aisle from Home Depot. To the left, one can enter a café. I avoided it—no need for fried foods and cholesterol this morning. To the right is the office, a long counter framed in the same paneling behind which sat several women. One, who seemed to run the place, was older, thinner, and more serious, and a couple of other younger women, shuffling papers, appeared to have been feeding well in rich, green pastures. I headed straight ahead to doors that led to stairs going up to the auction room.
Here is where my expectations were thwarted. I think I expected the auction of take place in the barn-like structure, the stockyard. How that would happen, obviously, I had not given much thought. Instead the auction room is a small auditorium, almost like one of the theaters that we have back at my college. There are about ten or twelve rows of seats, nice, soft cushioned chairs, like in a movie theater, in a semi-circle raked down to the front, which is fenced off with fairly substantial metal tubing. Again, I am guessing, but I figure one can load about a hundred or more bidders into this room. Behind the fencing is a dirt floor, essentially a stage where the cattle will be displayed for bidding. The cattle enter through a series of gates from back stage left (as one observes from the audience), pause awhile in front of the bidders in front stage center, then exit, through another set of gates, at back stage right. In center stage, raised is the auctioneer’s command center, open toward the display area and bidders, but also looking through windows, back stage, toward the barn and stock yard. All in all, the command center reminded me of “The Bridge” of the Enterprise on Star Trek.
I arrived early and found a place in the middle, just to the left of the center aisle. I fiddled with my iphone, but mostly I just watched the auctioneer and his staff prepare, looked at people come and go, and mentally observed the, most likely inaccurate, judgments I was making of the people and the place. The first group of folks who entered were well-dressed for Saturday morning rancher standards: gray Stetsons, blue jeans with pressed creases, starched bright cowboy shirts with snap buttons, leather belts with shiny silver buckles, and freshly shined boots. Hair neatly trimmed, faces bright and freshly shaved, these men were the peacocks, proudly announcing their version of success. They acted like they knew people looked at them and so they needed to act like people who had people looking at them—you know, like television newscasters off duty, or C-list celebrities. As time passed, more men with cowboy hats entered, gray, black and straw, but they grew dirtier, more sweat stained, and less stiff, and the jeans and shirts became more wrinkled. Many of these men were large, six-two or three, two-hundred fifty pounds or more. They talked loud, friendly, and proud. Finally, the third group entered, not nearly so bullish in size or attitude, much more varied, men in their thirties, men who would be retired, men in dirty jeans, men in trousers from Wal-Mart, t-shirts, sport shirts, work boots, tennis shoes, and Vel-Cro strapped Hush Puppies. A lot of gimme-hats. And for a while I tried to develop theories about the cultural gaps between the men who wore cowboy hats and those who wore gimme-hats. You know there has to be a difference.
|On the Road to the Auction House|
But in the end, this is what I decided about these men—and I do need to say that, except for a couple of wives and a few children who accompanied a few younger men, we are talking about men—by far, these men are Republicans who believe that they are the heart and center of America. They are doing God’s work in raising beef for our dinner tables and making a little money while they are at it. They are generally taciturn and no nonsense guys, who like life the way they like life. No need to complicate things with second thoughts, guilt, or revisionist histories. You have what you have and you deserve what you have. If you don’t have what you deserve, it’s your own damn fault, or the government’s. Why are you asking questions? Get back to work.
The best advice I received from Buddy illustrates my point. When I was about to enter the building, Buddy saw that I was carrying my camera. I had already thought that this would be a once in lifetime experience, something new for this trip and something I would like to document. I was being, I thought, a perfectly innocent tourist. Buddy could see beyond my sentimental voyeur assumptions. “I don’t want to tell you what to do. But you might want to rethink that camera. There might be some folks, who, well, you know.”
I must have looked as dumb as one of the cows we were about to sell. “Some people might think you are with PETA or something.” I swear I thought I saw him glance at my long hair.
“Got it. I have no need to make things complicated."
America’s concert was held in the rodeo arena in Mesquite. The previous weekend, the arena had hosted RFD Television’s “The American” two million dollar rodeo. This venue is similar to a reduced version of a 3A high school football field, except it’s fronted by brick and covered by a high metal roof. Again, I have no idea how long the “field” is, but it is shorter than a football field, and, of course, it’s all dirt, no grass or fake grass. About twenty-five rows of metal benches form a U around the field, leaving one end open, and this is where the stage had been placed. For the benefit concert, approximately 100 tables, round ones near the front, and rectangular tables toward the back, had been arranged on the field. They were decorated all pretty like, red table clothes and sparkling table fixtures. This is where the movers and want-to-be shakers rubbed elbows and celebrated their status and civic-spirit. I’ve been there and done that. One of the pleasures of this year has been my release from such duties. I know that many people aspire to such roles, the smiles, the handshakes, the light conversation, the pitch and the sell, the nods and eye contact that says I recognize you as one of us. Truth be told, I could live the rest of my life happily enjoying my status as the guy in the office doing the work rather than being the guy projecting respectability and closing the deal. But no such luck, next year I fully expect to suit up and hit the field to market the arts and their importance to general education and civic engagement. But this night, I was uncomfortably plopped on the metal benches on the top row of section 208, turned at about a 60 degree angle, 100 feet from the stage.
|The Mesquite Rodeo|
We arrived during the opening act, a Beatles’ tribute band, called the Fab 5, from Houston. Dressed up in wigs and costumes reminiscent of the St. Peppers era, the band worked its way through arrangements of tunes from various periods in the Beatles’ catalog. Look, I don’t know what to say. They were good; the songs sounded like Beatles songs faithfully played. Paul was left handed and winked and smiled. Ringo displayed long side burns, grinned and bobbed his head. George played guitar and remained quiet. John sang “Revolution.” Yoko had not showed up yet. But this is the deal: even though my ipod includes almost every Beatles’ song, I haven’t been listening to them. For me, this year is about America. I am listening only to American music. It’s like a spiritual discipline: no Beatles or Rolling Stones or Who, no Duran Duran or UB40 or Soft Cell, no U2, Radio Head or Adele. No Van Morrison or Bowie. So I listened to the Fab 5, enjoyed it, and applauded when they left the stage.
But deeper than all this, I find the entire idea of a tribute band to be problematic, or to use a less academic term—it’s just weird. Really, why would I wish to sit with three thousand strangers to watch and listen to five guys recreate a performance that never happened. As I have discussed before in these blogs, the entire urge toward simulacra just plain stumps me. You know, I can understand some of it. I ate breakfast at the Snappy Diner and stood outside Floyd’s Barber Shop in Mount Airy, but no one was dressed in 50’s styles and calling the town Mayberry, and the barber wasn’t dressed up like Floyd. I can appreciate Civil War enactments, but the real meaning making of those events resides in the enactors: they, themselves, are paying homage. They would do it all without an audience. The Fab 5, on the other hand, are not recreating any one performance by the Beatles. In the long run, their performances are moments of nostalgia for something that never existed. It’s like going to see a concert in which the pianist who plays “The Moonlight Sonata” dresses up in a wig and clothing like Beethoven. It’s like an painter who makes exact copies of a master’s works and sets them up in a gallery. As we sip our wine and munch our cheese, what would we actually be looking at? Wouldn’t that be weird?
During what seemed like an eternity, while Knightsmama ate a corn dog and I nursed a $5 Lone Star, the movers and shakers out bid themselves for back stage access to America, guitars signed by Dewey and Gerry, golf games at a local country club, spa retreats, and safaris in South Africa. Then, finally, America took the stage. I don’t really have a “Bucket List.” I sort of feel that I am living the life that there is for me to live and I am happy with it. For me, the idea of a bucket list hints, somehow, that I am living life unfulfilled. I am far from unfulfilled. I don’t have to do a damned thing to feel like life and I had a good go with each other. Still, I am glad that I got to see the band America live and in person, even if it was forty years after my greatest enthusiasm. Check it off a list? Well, I never had a list. But it’s another experience I have had, am glad to have had, and can thank this trip for.
|America from Our Seats in Mesquite|
As I have said, I enjoy a love-hate relationship to their music, or maybe it is better described as a love-embarrassment relationship. I don’t think that I would ever say that they are one of the great, pioneering bands of the rock and roll era. Maybe my affection for them is simply another example of a deep and intractable sentimentality that resides in me. I remember purchasing their first album with their most famous song, which all the hip people love to hate, “Horse with No Name.” They were one of the first bands I liked that were more or less my age. Air Force kids, they lived in London, yearned to return to the states and so they called themselves “America.” Though they learned song craft from the Beatles, they studied the harmonies of The Beach Boys. I used to sit with the album in my hands and try to imagine myself, a nineteen or twenty year old, living the life that they lived, playing guitar as well as they did. In college, a friend who was an excellent guitarist taught me how to play the rhythm part to “Riverside” so he could play lead on top. In spite of critical opinion, the band has been incredibly successful. Eleven albums have made it into the top 100. Sixteen singles charted in the top 40 of either the Billboard Top 100 or the Adult Contemporary, usually both. They continue to perform in about 100 concerts a year.
During their set, they played about 20 songs and I could have listened to a few more. If you have ever listened to one of their many live records, you have heard the concert. They do the hits and they do a few songs by others that they appreciate, and recorded recently for an album called Back Pages. They began with “Tin Man,” moved into “You Can Do Magic,” hung out with tunes from the first album for a while, included an odd version of “Woodstock” (why compete with Joni and CSNY?) and a lovely version of “California Dreaming,” then returned to their hits and ended with great energy with “Lonely People,” “Sandman,” “Sister Golden Hair,” and the famous desert song. After the concert, on the way back out to Hundred Acre Woods, Knightsmama and I agreed that in some ways you could not expect more from their concert. Maybe, we wished they had been a bit more energetic at the beginning. I wished they had included songs from the albums Here and Now (2007) and Human Nature (1998). I think these are really strong records and as good as most of their early records. It was good evening of solid entertainment. I have to say I am glad that Knightsmama did not lay into me too much about Gerry Beckley's whispery voice.
|The Cover to the First Album|
But I think that the best thing I can say about the concert is that these guys seem comfortable in their own skins. They never appeared to me to be attempting to be young, cool, hip. Nobody showed up and laid a bit of rap on top of an old tune; no drum machines, no dance rhythms. On the other hand, they never seemed to be claiming to be greater than they were or are. Unlike a band like The Rolling Stones or even performers like Robert Plant, David Bowie, or Sting, they were never so cool or definitive that they must continue to seek a sort of cutting edge relevancy. They can come out on stage to three or four thousand adults, play their songs more or less like they wrote them, act their ages, entertain and enjoy the applause, and then head off to wherever they are going next. They are substantial and varied enough talents to avoid becoming a nostalgia act; they were never cool or pioneering enough to appear lost and desperate. It seems to be a nice way to live if you can keep your head straight about fame. It's not complicated, but in a culture that produced Elvis, Michael Jackson, Cher, and KISS, their sanity and modesty just might be what is really weird.