or Deep South Rashomon
Biscuithead changed my life, that’s for sure. But that’s what people do, isn’t it? If we’re paying attention? Even if we’re not expecting much from them in the first place?
It had been more than twenty years since I’d picked up a pen. The pen had practically become obsolete, when you think about it. I’d always had the habit of dancing with two girls at the prom: Words and Pictures. And Pictures, being what they are, had pretty much taken over my life, the way a pretty-enough woman you meet one lonely night on the road can make you forget about home for a little while maybe. But then I found this website, and Biscuithead, a guy who loved it and words enough to spend the rest of his life reminding me that what I wrote mattered.
Fact: Anything anybody writes matters. Time matters most of all though, once you realize it goes on forever without you. For twelve years, Biscuithead and I spent the holy gift of precious time together, much of it in righteous disagreement. And for this I consider myself inordinately Lucky. As I always have been.
I was surprised and delighted when E2’s resident curmudgeon said he wanted to go down to the Crossroads with me. Clarksdale, Mississippi, and Robert Johnson’s Crossroads at Highways 61 and 49 were the whole point of this particular cross-country road trip of mine, if you don’t admit the fact that I wanted to see dannye before he died. I was even more surprised, much later in my hejira, somewhere in New Mexico, when he called and said he wanted to write about our adventure, and was that OK with me. Though I’ve revealed some of the most intimate aspects of my life here on E2, I do value my privacy, and I was wary of dannye’s tendency towards indiscretion in the name of “truth.” Which is how the creation of our noms de voyage came about. I was greatly amused by “Biscuithead.” And “Lucky” was the absolute truth.>
dannye was healthy and happy up in Santa Barbara the day after my birthday in 2008, the only previous time we’d been in a car together. The radio had just announced that Sarah Palin had been chosen by half-batty, wholly opportunistic John McCain as his Vice-presidential running mate. dannye was ecstatic over the news. I thought he was out of his mind, if not uninformed, and told him so. His wife kicked the back of his seat (he was driving), and dannye chilled. We never spoke about the election, or politics, again.
A “chill” dannye is something not a lot of people here in our virtual playground have ever experienced. “Chill” is what you get when mutual respect has been established after many a spirited disagreement over many hard-lived years. “Chill” is what you get when the rough edges of personality are worn down by time and received wisdom.
dannye was an extremely bright man, some kind of homegrown savant, I guess you might say, which made his always articulate reactionary politics extremely difficult for me to understand. “dannye doesn’t like anything new,” his sainted wife said to me one day in the hospital, where we’d gone to see his oncologist (who certainly didn’t speak in anything LIKE the clichéd “oriental” patois dannye uses in his writeups).
She was a 40-year old medical FELLOW there in that big-city hospital, after all. But that was dannye’s way with the world—perpetually bending it to fit his perceptions of the way it SHOULD be.
“We’ll be needing some beer for the road,” said Biscuithead as I pulled into the Citgo station on Mississippi Highway 49.
“Relax. You’re in Mississippi.”
“But an open contain—“
“Just hand it to me and we’ll be fine.”
So we bought a 24-pack of some local pissbeer and a styrofoam ice chest from a pretty dishwater blonde, topped off the tank, and got along down the road, me with one eye in the rearview.
For years, before SiriusXM Radio, I’d made a habit of tuning to local radio stations, especially in the South, which is like alien territory to this avowed Yankee. The fire and brimstone preachers and the amateur-produced ads for local businesses are always entertaining, an aural background for the mind-blowing “Christian” billboards and sunny wet landscapes. I was anticipating turning dannye on to some righteous blues—new stuff, old stuff, maybe-new-to-him stuff—But dannye had brought along his collection of old cassette tapes, and insisted on regaling me with a blow-by-blow of every musical orgasm he’d ever enjoyed since his college days. A little of this goes a long way, as any of you who may have had the experience of dannye in the flesh may imagine, especially since I’d gone to school with some of his favorites, Steely Dan, and Terence “Boona” Boylan. His long-suffering wife’s refrain came back to me: “Danny doesn’t like anything new.”
And I am all about the new. Change is the only thing we can count on in this world, and somewhere along the line I’ve come to embrace it utterly. Which accounts for my yearly hejira from California to the east coast and back: in the midst of the familiar, I seek the new. Little Rock was the home of my E2 nemesis/conspirator. We’d both conspired and disagreed in public and private on the site. dannye and I were virtual friends once upon a time, and then real life intervened and things got even more interesting.
Danny (middle initial E, hence his moniker here) was anxious to show off his new house, the town, and the Deep South environs where he’d made a pretty good living for himself in the insurance industry after early forays into lead guitar and documentary filmmaking. We shared “the best ribs in the south” at a joint that was ground zero for him back in the day when he’d go collecting whole life premiums five bucks at a time in sharecropper cabins and shotgun shacks. But the goal, the jewel in the Odyssey, was always The Crossroads. Highway 61 Revisted revisited, the place where the devil makes his deal.
I’ve been tempted to sell my soul to ol’ Beelzebub many a time over the years. The fact that I can’t play guitar worth a damn should be noted here—he’s never been impressed. Which is another reason why I guess I’m Lucky.
Clarksdale, Mississippi, has a torpid quality about it in the heat of the summer. After a hundred miles of sorghum and corn, it’s sun-bleached storefronts and tired municipal buildings are modest relief. We accidentally stopped a minute at the Riverside Hotel, famous as the place where Bessie Smith died and Ike Turner practiced his left hooks as a long-term resident. Once upon a time it was the only “black” hotel in Clarksdale. Right down the street is Red’s Blues Club, basically the last of the old-time honky-tonks in the Delta.
I know about Red’s because I’ve been back there many times since that first visit. On the day dannye and I rolled into town, though, we never got to Red’s. As a matter of fact, we found no blues at all. And this is where the whole “Roshomon” aspect of this shared tale of ours kicks in.
Yes, Danny had thoughtfully booked a room—a veritable suite— at the Shack Up Inn, but that bit about being “jealous of (his) virginity” is fucking weird. Right. It’s a joke. But it’s a joke in the same peculiar way that many conservatives I know make “jokes” about things they say that they actually really mean. I’m “Hollywood” and therefore I’m gay?! WTF?
dannye was a conservative. But he was a conservative cloaked in the residue of 60’s hippiedom. He did ALL the fine funny furry freak stuff back in the day, as I learned on this Odyssey of ours. Sex, drugs, rock n roll, and more sex and drugs. He played fuckin’ rock n roll, and pretty damned well on the guitar too, judging by the tapes he brought along for our ride. But in the end he was a racist who could never escape his dirt-poor southern heritage. Never wanted to, never tried. “It is what it is.” That’s the motto at Red’s Blues Club, as a matter of fact. Red’s is on the other side of the tracks. Literally on the other side of the tracks in Clarksdale, Mississippi, “backed by the river, fronted by the grave.” White folk don’t go there.
So it was with grave misgivings that dannye and I, drunk as punk skunks after a day-full of highway beer, ventured into nighttime Clarksdale, looking for food. True it was that what looked like good places to me were full of young black kids, dancing and carrying on. It’s what kids do everywhere, for chrissake, but there was no way dannye was gonna let me park my black Mercedes THERE! “This is the SOUTH!” he kept saying to me. I didn’t get it. Still don’t. Is there some criminal delimiter that segregates this little burg of sixteen thousand souls from Harlem? From Compton? East St. Louis, Southside Chicago, fucking Palm Springs, California for crying out loud? Crime is crime is crime, and it happens everywhere. I had eight thousand dollars worth of camera stolen off a table in an upscale restaurant in Buenos Aires just last summer. It is what it is.
So, later, this completely stoned BLACK man hits Danny up for a cigarette down there on Main, where there ain’t no cocaine no way no more, yes. He could barely stand. He had a filthy mouth. In the end he was harmless, but the incident, mostly off of dannye’s reaction, kept us from following the seductive stream of music coming from a club just two minutes down the street. It was dark in Clarksdale. Fear. Paranoia. Alcohol. Racism. Mutually excluded from the Blues of the Mississippi Delta. Or maybe not.
There’s a Church’s Chicken joint right in the middle of middle-class Pasadena, California, not far from KFC and a couple ethnic rib places. I’ve been to Church’s. Church’s is commonplace, but that’s where we ended up that night. It was well after midnight and there were half a dozen young black men fussing over the very cute counter-girls and cooks in back. They did not appear to be strapped for a subsequent crime spree around town, but they really were…black. I really did scoot dannye back to the car, because he was giving off a really weird vibe, and it was starting to freak everybody out. Once he was gone, I got to talking with these guys. They were beyond harmless. The oldest, the one with the “prison tattoos” (dannye informed me later), had run his auto body shop down the street for fifteen years. Two of the other guys’ girlfriends worked in the joint, and they were waiting for their honeys to get off. The way you do.
I opted to chat with the old brother outside with the uniform (shirt: old) and gun (pistol: tiny). It really was a tiny little pistol, the sort of thing “ladies” must’ve carried in the olden days, on the way to and from the Birdcage Hotel and Social Club.
“Nice night,” I said.
“Ain’t they all?”
I nodded agreement. This is the sort of thing a vet might offer, just a reminder you know, nothing heavy. Just an acknowledgement. We stood there listening to the night for a while.
“So what’s with all this?” The gun. The uniform.
“They likes me here. Just in case.”
OK. I guess I get that.
“Ever have any trouble?”
Two of the kids nod to him as they leave. He half-salutes them.
“How long you been working here?”
“Comin’ up on about six months now.”
“Really?!” You’d’ve thought longer, him being old and with an even older shirt and gun.
“Ah needs d’ money.”
“Gonna buy me another house.”
“Well how many houses do you own?”
The chicken was great. dannye and I drank more beer. The Shack Up Inn was spectacular in its cut-rate Disneyfied approximation of the Old South (hint, hint), and I slept that night like a little black blind baby boy out front his tar paper shack on his gramma’s knee.
But I didn’t get a great story out of it, my friends, not like dannye. I saw no clowns. Giant black crows did not gather at the Crossroads for me in my dreams, just to sing “I Want You” in C Major.
But that’s just the way art is, isn’t it? Art can show up when you least expect it, and it ALWAYS shows you where your shit is.
I loved Danny E. Wildman, here and in real life too. I always will. Our Odyssey that fine summer weekend has become one of my fondest memories, and I hope I’ve done it modest justice this glorious Bloomsday 2018.
Rest in eternal inquisitive demonstrative artistic peace, my friend….