Round the Dial
Wednesday 20 November @ 09:49:21
by Tom Hallett
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “95 percent of the time, I’m a happy guy. I tried to examine it at one point, why don’t I write happier lyrics? And yet, a muse is a muse. That’s what drives me. I always felt better after I listened to a Joy Division record.”
-—Scott McDonald of Arcwelder
SONG OF THE WEEK: “I’m The Ocean”
We first noticed Sunny Jim scavenging under the docks around the Homer, Alaska, boat harbor a month or so before we were scheduled to head out for a summer tending salmon boats in Southeast. Dressed in a skimpy T-shirt, faded bell bottoms, and a feather-spewing down vest, he was busily clipping buoys from jam-packed shrimp pots and bobbing his head mightily to some tinny noise emanating from the headphones perched precariously over his shaggy mop. After what seemed like an eternity (long enough, anyway, for me to polish off a quarter box of Fiddle Faddles), he glanced up and started like a deer caught in a pair of high-power halogen headlights. “Whoa!” he exclaimed, dropping the stinking, dripping cage full of greyish, still-twitching harbor shrimp and falling back off of his haunches. “I-I didn’t see you guys there!” Once we’d assured him that we weren’t the owners of the purloined pots and had no plans to force him to walk the plank, he visibly relaxed and returned his eight-inch Bowie knife to its sheath.
We introduced ourselves, and he told us his name was John. After a momentary sidetrack pertaining to the wonders of a certain Green Thunder Moss, I realized that our new-found pal bore an eerie resemblance to the grinning, freckled, red-headed kid whose face had graced the label on Sunny Jim jam jars for years. As much an icon as the Hamm’s beer bear, the Land O’ Lakes Indian maiden, or that freaked out dude in a wind tunnel on Maxell cassettes, Sunny Jim had been a true American fixture for half a century, and I thought it would be quite an honor to bestow the nickname on John. He, however, had never heard of Sunny Jim jam, and thought I was calling him gay when I began referring to him as Sunny Jim. I saw his eyes dart towards the knife hanging from his belt, and quickly changed the subject to music. “So hey, what were you listening to on those headphones when we walked in?” That did it. His eyes lit up like the Big Dipper on a December Alaska night, and he pulled a beat-up, zippered cloth tape holder out of his backpack. “Ah! Here it is!” He belted out a strange yip of a laugh and held out a copy of Marshall Tucker’s Greatest Hits. “It’s great workin’ music!”
A few days later, Sunny Jim talked our skipper into hiring him on as a deckhand for our summer “cruise,” and we spent the next ten days or so working side by side, bull%@!#$&ting about music, sneaking off for Moss or beer breaks together, and generally planning the debauchery we meant to indulge in over the next couple of months. With his advance, he bought brand new Carhardt overalls and a fresh work shirt, boxes of candy bars, and dozens of batteries for his boom box. With mine, I bought a load of new tapes and lots of Moss. He hated my Stones and Van Halen albums, I detested his Kenny Rogers and Dire Straits tapes. We found common ground with Marshall Tucker, (his, of course) Patsy Cline, (mine) and The Byrds (both of us).
Though we fought constantly over whose tapes would claim the boom box for the day (and my calling him Sunny Jim, a moniker he eventually came to tolerate and even answer to), the Moss was the great equalizer, and after a tuft or two, not even the maddening strains of “Sultans Of Swing” could mar the massive, swelling beauty of the sea, the broad, hopeful blue skies, and the promise of a grand adventure to come. And a grand adventure it was—we burned our way through the backwater towns and harbors of Alaska that summer like a couple of left-over Dalton boys, out-partying the bloated cover bands and haunted land-lubbers in at least twenty low-rent dives, and finally ending up stranded on a tiny island after choosing last call over catching our boat. We split up then, Sunny Jim and I—he catching an empty Russian trawler back to Juneau, me camping in the woods and working at a local cannery. But that’s another story.
I saw Sunny Jim one more time, years later. We were both married, and I’d returned to Alaska to try one more time for that mythical quick fortune. I heard Sunny was living in the area, and gave him a ring. “Moss?” He hollered, braying out that oddly endearing yip of his. “Hell yeah, I remember the Moss, man! Hey, you oughta come over to the house!” So we drove through four miles of mud-soaked, rutted country roads to Sunny’s shack in the woods. It was worse than I could’ve imagined. The front door of the tar-paper shanty stood ajar, and a mud-spattered goat stood defiantly in the entrance chewing on a plastic radiator fluid jug. Four or five other goats and several pigs lounged around the yard, sharing space with countless howling dogs, who were all chained to various poles and stakes. Though the scent of dog%@!#$& and stale urine emanating from that sty was more than evil, it was nothing compared to the stench that hit my nose when we entered the dark, dank hovel. A square box that I eventually recognized as a fish tank burbled fitfully on top of an orange crate, algae coating its insides like the fur on a hungover tongue, and if any sorrowful creature still survived in its murky pits, I feared it must be some sort of mutated monstrosity.
Several small children, too covered in grime for me to identify their genders, ran in and out of the house, slapping the goats and dodging their horns. A shadowy, stick-thin figure sat in an old recliner, gently rocking back and forth, causing a long string of drool that leaked from one corner of its mouth to sway in time like a slimy snot pendulum. And next to the chair, still dressed in the same pair of grease-laden Carhardt overalls and yellowing long john shirt he’d worn that summer so long ago, stood my old pal Sunny Jim. He pulled out a wrinkled grocery bag and thrust it at me. “Check that out!” As I peered into the sack, he hit a button on that old boombox and out blasted Marshall Tucker’s “Can’t You See.” “Wait ‘til you see the Moss I’ve been savin’, man!” He cackled and cranked the tunes. I reached into the bag and pulled out a handful of dried-up Moss mixed with chicken feathers, goat hair, and bird droppings. Sadly, Sunny Jim’s Moss was as dilapidated and run-down as his own life had become.
He made a gallant effort to invite us to stay for dinner (introducing us to his wife, AKA the drooling skeleton in the rocking chair, hadn’t helped), but I couldn’t stomach seeing any further into the man’s wreck of a world. I didn’t make my fortune that year, either, and I never saw Sunny Jim again. I heard he’d gone on one last fishing expedition, and had disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
Apparently, he’d been bullied quite a lot by the crew he worked with on that trip, and he and a fellow deckhand had been sent, as a joke, to collect water on some god-forsaken island for their shipmates. A storm had suddenly rose up with the mighty, cruel force only an Alaskan squall can, and the two had been lost at sea. After I heard the story, I thought of Sunny’s decrepit wife, howling dogs, screeching children, and angry goats, all waiting forever for papa to return from the sea. And I thought of Sunny, grinning like a madman, rowing like a 12th-century galley slave, riding high over those deadly waves, his Walkman cranked up as he uselessly fought his way towards the safety of land. Needless to say, even though they haven’t made Sunny Jim brand jam for years, I can’t eat a slice of toast or hear “Fire On The Mountain” these days without reflecting on the wild times I shared with that goofy, music-lovin’ bastard back when life was still unfolding and time dragged like an anchor.
I thought of Sunny again the other day, when I overheard a couple of local indie rockers debating the finer points of the Marshall Tucker Band and late guitarist Toy Caldwell. They thought it might be funny to play “Can’t You See” to a room full of uptight, bespectacled scenester-types without telling ‘em who’d originally done it. I had to chuckle to myself and agree with them. That would be funny. And I know just who’d appreciate it. But what he’d appreciate even more would be the amazing popularity and proliferation of his beloved ‘Country-Rock.” I think it’s important to note that Sunny Jim was never into wimpy California pap—he’d as soon chopped Don Henley up for fish bait as trade a single Tucker tune for the Eagles. So I’m bettin’ he’d have dug the %@!#$& outta Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, The Jayhawks, The Youngers, Blame, Hungry Horse, and a hundred other great Americana bands and artists who’ve emerged in the years since Sunny took the big dive. I’ve only got time to review one here, though, so I picked a band that not only encapsulates all that Sunny loved about music, but are playing a gig here in town soon. This one’s for you, John.
The Bastard Sons Of Johnny Cash
Distance Between (2002)
Let’s get the Big One outta the way right up front. Yes, Johnny Cash knows these cats are using his name. Yes, he likes their music. And yes, they deserve to use the moniker. No, they’re not scary, speed-addicted country outlaws like Johnny, Waylon, and Merle. Yes, they do sing and play the %@!#$& outta their own hard-edged brand of countrified rock’n’roll. And no, they won’t be scoring airtime on your local FM country station anytime soon. What they will do is bring to mind a delicious blend of all of the above plus 30-plus years of pop culture with the guts, bravado, and contempt only a quartet of Gen X-ers who worship equally at the altars of Gram Parsons and The Replacements can.
The Bastard Sons Of Johnny Cash
Led by singer/songwriter/axeman Mark Stuart, the Bastards (Deane Coate on guitar, bassist Clark Stacer, and drummer Joey Galvan) lay down gruff vocals over heartfelt country rhythms, shimmering guitar licks, and driving bass. Distance finds them putting some miles between them and their critically acclaimed debut, Walk Alone, with deeper lyrics, spot-on production, (courtesy of Daniel Lanois’ pal Mark Howard) and a darker, more soulful vibe. Lead cut “1970 Monte Carlo” belies the album’s shadowy tone with honky-tonk riffs and a barn-stompin’ beat, but hints at what’s to come in the line, “...all I need is the open road and some Johnny Cash on the stereo...” “Hard Times” sets the pace right quick, though: “I’ll fight for what’s mine/Cause I’ve never known any better times...”
The title track kicks off with a bounce, but soon lays back and evokes smoky, romantic imagery: “Across a thousand miles between...sing me a sweet lullabye/Reachin’ out across the distance between...” I know Sunny woulda cranked the knob up on this one, man. A tasty reading of the classic “Long Black Veil” (with guest vocals from actor-turned-singer Billy Bob Thornton) is chunky and moaning, and I can almost see Mrs. Jim’s drool thread swaying in lonely time to the dirge-like beat of the song. “”Burn Down” is gaunt, an early-morning road tune: “Out here no one knows you/You just keep to yourself/And all the ghosts that haunt you/Keep you livin’ in the past...” “Tears Of Gold” slithers in your ear like a wet come-on, a rueful cheatin’ song packed with pain, regret, and shame. “Wind It Up” brings to mind a fiery young Steve Earle: “Wind it up/Accelerate it/Another hundred miles in a dead man’s shoes/White line fever an’ the interstate blues...”
“Marfa Lights” could be a twisted Texas roadhouse standard, with that ole “boom-boom” backbeat and sobbing guitars over bizarre conspiracy theory lines like: “From Grand Horne to Juarez, Mexico/The rumors grow about UFO’s...” “Damage Is Done” is a straight-ahead rocker, and “Where I Found You” a sweet couples-only dance. All tunes I swear Sunny would’ve fallen in love with in a heartbeat. But it’s “Last Goodbye” that really hits the nail on the head. In just under three minutes, the track perfectly captures Sunny’s true being; his love for the outdoors, his passion for music, his comfortably-%@!#$&ed home life, and the driving lust for adventure that eventually spelled his demise. “I’ll be the last goodbye/I’ll be the last goodbye/Watchin’ the clouds drift ‘neath the starry sky...” sings Stuart over dreamy guitars and a hesitant beat.
But unless you listen real carefully, it sounds like he’s singing: “I’ll be in Alaska by...I’ll be in Alaska by...” And I know that’s what Sunny would’ve thought—we’d have fought nearly to the death over those lines, until the Moss was pulled out and we were both loungin’ like Tom and Huck on the fishy deck, blowin’ smoke rings an’ actually watching those clouds. All I can do now is turn it up real loud, Sunny, and hope that somewhere, deep in those dark, cold, soundless fathoms, you can hear it too: “Well, I’m curled in the shadows/The flickering gloom/A haunted spirit ‘neath a killing moon/And everything that’s beautiful dies too soon..” Amen. “Let it rain down/All your ghosts and all your demons/Let it rain down/Everything that you can’t face alone...” You’ll be in Alaska for all time, brother—right where you wanted to be. You are the ocean—the giant undertow. And these days, the Moss don’t have no chicken feathers in it. Can’t you see? The Bastard Sons Of Johnny Cash play The 400 Bar on Tues., Dec. 3. Until next time-make yer own damn news.
If you have local music news/gigs/events that you’d like to see listed in this column, or you’d just like to enter your own claim as a bastard child of one of my musical icons, send replies to: TMygunn777@aol.com.