Clip: Tom Russell
Singer honors Bukowski's influence
March 3, 2005
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporter
Singer-songwriter Tom Russell's new record "Hotwalker" is a remarkable
cut-and-paste journey through 1960s Southern California.
The record (on Hightone) is sprinkled with the actual salty voices of
storyteller Ramblin' Jack Elliott, folk singer Dave Van Ronk and author
Charles Bukowski, who was catalyst for the project. Musical interludes
include Russell's brilliantly detailed songwriting, none better than
"Grapevine," a Tex-Mex salute to the Bakersfield roots of Merle Haggard and
Russell appears with longtime guitarist Andrew Hardin in an acoustic show
Saturday at FitzGerald's in Berwyn. Saturday is Russell's 55th birthday;
expect special guests starting with Robbie Fulks. "Hotwalker" -- named for
the lost soul who walks horses around in a circle at a racetrack --
requires serious listening. It's also a great road CD, but how will it play
out in a live setting?
"I do 'Grapevine', 'Woodrow' [his defiant ballad about Woody Guthrie] and a
couple other songs," Russell said earlier this week from a tour stop in
Philadelphia. "I recite a couple of pieces, I talk about the record."
"Hotwalker" is a document of Russell growing up in the deep purple valley
of Southern California. Russell first connected with Bukowski in the late
1960s when Bukowski was writing his "Notes of a Dirty Old Man" column for
Open City, an underground newspaper in Los Angeles. "Nobody had heard of
him," Russell said. "I collected all of his columns. The paper folded a
couple years later, and I was told they were looking for back copies
because their office burned down. I was the only one who had them. I gave
them to the publisher, he gave them to Bukowski and Bukowski wrote me a
nice letter and sent me a record. That's where it started. We corresponded
back and forth."
Russell was influenced by the guts and the rhythm of Bukowski's work. He
isn't the only contemporary musical figure to relate to "Buk." Vic
Chesnutt, Bono and the Boo Radleys (who in 1995 recorded "Charles Bukowski
Is Dead") are fans of the author, who died of leukemia in 1994.
"At his best Bukowski wrote good hard-core stuff about blue-collar work,"
Russell said. "So much of our literature comes out of academics and the New
Yorker. His was street-level stuff. It did influence me, for better or
worse, and it influenced about 10,000 very bad writers that think they can
get drunk and write poetry. A lot of his stuff was bad and a lot of it was
misogynistic. He told me once in a letter, 'Hemingway's better when you're
young.' That's true in a way. And Bukowski is really better when you're
young and your testosterone is acting up, you like to drink and mess up. It
makes you feel better."
Next month Bukowski and Russell's correspondence will appear in the book
Tough Company (Mystery Island Publications). Dave Alvin contributed the
introduction on California writing, and Russell's painting of a bloodied
Sonny Liston adorns the cover. "That really was the hook for this record,"
Russell said. "The publisher said, 'Let's get some actors like David
Carradine and Sean Penn to recite Bukowski because they loved him, and you
do music.' But when we started, the [Bukowski] estate closed up. So in
August I went in the studio and started messing around with some musical
tapes I had. We made a montage and built on that. The record company loved
it. I'm glad it went this direction rather than working with a bunch of
actors, because I would have just been playing off their names."
HIS LIFE IN SONG
Sunday, May 15, 2005
Tom Russell is a noir cowboy with a voice that whispers like the dust
blowing down a deserted circus midway.
He started playing music and writing songs relatively late in life, and,
like a character in one of his songs, he started his career at the bottom.
"I got my musical education playing in the strip bars and honky-tonks on
Skid Row in Vancouver, B.C.," Russell says by phone from his home near the
Texas-New Mexico border. "We did six to eight hours of cover tunes a night,
six nights a week. Country, rock, blues, whatever the people wanted. I hear
Dylan knew 500 songs before he wrote his first tune, so (all those hours on
the bandstand were) a great education."
Russell's Skid Row adventure has colored everything he's done since. He's
made 18 albums that wander through border-town barrooms, ghost-town
landscapes, deserted highways, closed-down factories, old-time carnivals
and one-ring circuses. His songs champion society's underbelly: the shadowy
world populated by underemployed dreamers, brokenhearted schemers,
gamblers, junkies and other lost souls wondering why their particular
American dream never came true. Russell opens for John Prine on Monday at
the Fillmore and plays Tuesday at the Little Fox in Redwood City.
Eight years ago, he began work on an ambitious project, a trilogy that
would use the experiences of three generations of the Russell family to
tell the story of America in the 20th century. The first album, "The Man
From God Knows Where," told of Russell's grandparents, who came to this
country from Norway and Ireland. It could be called a folk opera, combining
Irish and Norwegian traditional music, Russell's songs, spoken-word pieces
by Dave Van Ronk and the voice of Walt Whitman from a scratchy old
"Hotwalker," Russell's latest album, is the second part of the trilogy.
" 'Man From God Knows Where' ends with the death of my father," Russell
says. " 'Hotwalker' is my childhood. When I thought about putting it
together, I tried writing some tunes (in the style of the late '50s and
early '60s), but they weren't any good. That got me thinking about the
cadence of American voices, the regional dialects and the unique rural
cultures that are slowly getting Wal-Marted out of existence. I wanted to
introduce people to the music of the spoken word. I wanted to throw away
the idea of a conventional album and make a piece that you'd have to listen
to all the way through.
"I wanted to walk you down an amusement park midway, where all the voices
of the past come back for a second. Lenny Bruce would be standing outside a
freak show; Jack Kerouac would be a carny barker. The music would come at
you and then fade away like it does when you're walking down the street. It
would be like my childhood, when you'd hear country, Chicano, jazz, rock,
folk, all coming at you at the same time, all washing together in a wild,
confusing, exhilarating sound."
Even for a songwriter like Russell, who has a well-deserved reputation for
pushing the boundaries, "Hotwalker" is a stretch, a piece that demands much
from listeners. There are a few "real" songs on the album -- standouts are
"Grapevine," a tribute to the Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens and Merle
Haggard, with some fancy picking supplied by longtime Haggard guitarist Red
Volkart; and "Woodrow," a warts-and-all look at Woody Guthrie.
But most of "Hotwalker" exists in its own world, a place that's part spoken
word, part performance art, part subliminal soundtrack, part rambling,
kaleidoscopic memoir. Russell's voice sounds both weary and bemused as he
recalls the wild cigarette-smoke-and-whiskey-filled nights of his youth.
His monologue is supported by a subtle background of carnival and
border-town music, gospel singing, cool California jazz, moaning accordions
and crying pedal-steel guitars.
To give "Hotwalker" some authentic flavor, Russell tracked down recorded
performances by Bruce, Kerouac, Van Ronk, Harry Partch, Ramblin' Jack
Elliott and other members of America's fading "outsider" culture and added
their voices to the mix. Also included are an old gospel record by the Rev.
Baybie Hoover and Virginia Brown and a poem from Charles Bukowski. Russell
says that the album's unsung hero and the man who gave the project its
title is Little Jack Horton, a little person whose resume includes clown,
human cannonball and "hotwalker."
"I rode a circus train years ago and got to know some clowns and little
people, including Little Jack Horton, who used to drink with Bukowski,"
Russell says. "I taped hours of his ranting and raving and carnival music.
I edited that stuff down, taking all the F-words out. He's the real star of
the show. He says things more eloquently, in real colloquial American
lingo, than I can. He says religion is a disease and that we should honor
musicians the way we honor politicians. A lot of people believe that but
won't come out and say it.
"Little Jack said Bukowski once got him a job as a hotwalker. On a
racetrack, after a thoroughbred runs, you have to walk him around the track
until he cools down. That's called hotwalking. You have to calm the horse
down or he'll drink too much water and get in trouble. So Little Jack is
walking me around, keeping me cool, because I don't know how you can walk
around in this culture today with your eyes open without blowing your
TOM RUSSELL opens for John Prine at 8 p.m. Monday at the Fillmore, 1805
Geary Blvd., San Francisco. $40. (415) 346-6000, www.bgp.com. Russell also
performs at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Little Fox Theatre, 2209 Broadway,
Redwood City. $20. (650) 369-4119, www.foxdream.com.