06 February 2006

Back In The Country

That's the title of a great Roy Acuff song, by the way, but then most Roy Acuff songs are great, so I don't need to get all tautological on you.

What got me singing it was, of all things, Brokeback Mountain, which I hadn't been planning to see, on grounds that I wasn't interested in cowboys, and even less so in gay cowboys. But a friend persuaded me to go see it a couple nights ago, and it turned out to be excellent in just about every way.

I wasn't all that enthralled with the love story - it was obvious that was never going to turn out well - but found myself falling in love all over again with country life, which is why I walked home hearing old Roy's voice in my head singing:

Back in the country
Now I know you're gonna say
Back in the country
Don't you wish that you had stayed

The weird thing is, as anyone who's seen the film will know, is that country life as portrayed in Brokeback Mountain doesn't appear all that fetching. It's mean, narrow-minded, hardscrabble, harsh and unforgiving, just like many of my own memories of rural America, and I found myself missing the hell out of it.

My nostalgia was actually triggered on two levels, in fact I could say it was bifurcated if that weren't such a fancy-pants city slicker word. In the mid-60s, around the same time the film starts out, I was living in Ypsilanti, Michigan, about 35 miles west of Detroit. It wasn't "the country" by any stretch of imagination, more a shabby little industrial town with a shabby little college that I had attended for a month and a half before being thrown out. But apart from the college students, known as "pinheads" by the local kids, most of Ypsilanti's inhabitants were recent arrivals from the South, so much so that the place was nicknamed Ypsi-tucky.

After getting booted out of college on my 18th birthday, I went to work in a local factory running wheel drums through a rivet machine. Out of about a hundred men working there, I was the only Yankee, and they frequently let me hear about it. For want of anywhere else to go, I moved into a boarding house where about a dozen of my co-workers lived. It looked and smelled of hard times and desperate loneliness. Everyone there was trying to save up enough money either to move back down South or to bring their girlfriends or families up North. A tinny little radio atop the fridge played constantly, tuned to the local country station, as the hatchet-faced landlady served up greasy eggs and grits and reminded us, "This is as close to home cooking as you bastards are gonna get."

There were no private rooms, and I was considered lucky because I only had to share with one roommate rather than two or three. I said that everyone was from the South, but that wasn't quite true; my roommate was a tight-lipped, taciturn cowboy, recently arrived from Colorado. He kept his boots under his bed and his saddle on a stand at the end of the bed, and every day he'd polish them with a wistful look on his face, as though it was only a matter of time before some cowboy work turned up in the greater Ypsilanti area. In the meantime, he worked the midnight shift at Motor Wheel with the rest of us.

In the wake of Brokeback Mountain, I can no longer tell that story to anyone without getting some leering comments implying that Ed, my cowboy roomie, and I must have then embarked on some star-crossed love affair, but nothing of the sort happened. We talked about cowboy stuff, or rather I listened to him talk about cowboy stuff, and that was just about it. I'd never met a real cowboy before, and thought he was interesting, but I also felt sorry for him, because I knew, even if he didn't, that he was wasting his time polishing up that saddle. He'd be grinding wheel drums for the next 40 years if he didn't drink or smoke himself to death sooner.

I anticipated a similar fate for myself, but life took a few different twists and turns for me, beginning when I drank a couple of six-packs of Pabst Blue Ribbon while trying to learn Hank Williams songs on my new Gibson guitar, passed out and set fire to the sofa with my cigarette. The landlady threw me out, but not before confiscating my guitar and hanging on to it until I handed over several weeks' pay to buy her a new sofa. Being homeless didn't make it easy to keep up my shifts at the factory, not that I was highly motivated anyway, and I spent more time hanging out at the pool hall with the local gang of hillbilly greasers. They were going nowhere fast, or rather, I should say, they were going somewhere fast, that somewhere being Jackson State Prison, as a result of 34 (count 'em) burglaries we pulled in one epic trawl out Michigan Avenue in the early hours of Christmas Eve. I was the only one who didn't get caught, and don't let anyone tell you there's no honour among thieves, because none of them fingered me. Or maybe that's because most of them only knew me as "Pinhead."

Anyway, that sort of shifted me off on another tangent in life, which I'll skip over now, and instead get right to the other bit of nostalgia that Brokeback brought out in me. That, of course, would be the years - most of the 1980s, to be specific - that I spent up on Spy Rock in Northern California. I'd only be living there a few months when I was awakened at 6 am by a lot of "Yee-hah!"s and the sound of thousands of cattle hooves. Out across the canyon, on the opposite ridge, a real live cattle drive was in progress. A week or two later was the Laytonville Rodeo, followed by Willits Frontier Days, and so forth. We didn't just have cowboys around those parts; there were loads of Indians, too, though they mostly stayed out on the reservations apart from when they came into town to get drunk. Of course the majority of folks on our mountain were neither cowboys nor Indians; they were hippies, hillbillies, pot growers, and other social misfits, and in some cases, all of the above. But they adopted cowboy ways, running around on horseback (or three-wheeled motorised tractors), carrying guns and occasionally having shootouts, and saying "Yep" and "Howdy" a lot. A few contrarians lived Indian style, instead, building their own teepees and making buckskin suits out of deer they'd shot, and one half-Indian, half-hippie, used to prowl the woods shooting squirrels to survive. Once he surprised me by climbing out of the woods onto the road where I was walking and wordlessly offered me one of the string of squirrels he had slung over his shoulder.

After a while, things like this began to seem more or less normal, and when I got involved in the punk rock scene, I thought nothing of bringing bands up to stay on their way back from shows up north. I had Operation Ivy up there, and Green Day, but no band ever seemed so out of place as Screeching Weasel. Once safely back in civilisation, Ben memorably started his next MRR column with, "What kind of asshole lives nine miles up the side of a goddam mountain?"

But my most precious memory of Ben's visit to the wilderness came on our way back to San Francisco. We had to stop in Laytonville that Sunday morning, and as it happened, it was rodeo weekend, the biggest event of the year for tiny little Laytonville. There were cowboys and Indians and horses and goat-ropers everywhere, and if that weren't enough, just then a flatbed truck pulled up carrying a couple dozen Woodstock-style hippies, just about every one of them dressed in the most garish tie-dyes imaginable.

This was in June of 1989, and by that time I'd been living in the country for going on eight years, so very little fazed me. Not so for Ben and the rest of Screeching Weasel; the looks on their faces were a combination of sheer terror and deep suspicion that somehow I had arranged all this just to fuck with them.

Well, I've ranged far afield from the beauty of those country mornings and the views out across the Eel River to the snow-capped Yolla Bollys, and the incredible struggle and the incredible joy of making your own way in what looks at first like hostile and inhospitable wilderness but turns out to be, once it's put you through absolute hell trying to survive, the kind of home that gets in your blood and never lets go no matter how far away you wander.

Well, that's my country story for now. I'd tell you more, but the internet cafe is closing down, and anyway, you've got the gist of it, even if you don't see just what the hell, if anything, it has to do with Brokeback Mountain. But at times like this, no matter how warm, safe, comfortable and easy it is to be here in the seemingly endless Sydney summer, I can only say, damn, I miss that old mountain of mine.

No comments: