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High Plains Drifter: Garth Cartwright

By Cathi Unsworth.

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‘The soul of the US has been beaten black and blue, but I found plenty of it via the people I met, the lands I crossed,’ considers Garth Cartwright, a Kiwi just back from an epic voyage across the country that once reached out to his teenage soul. ‘America is in many ways ruined – I see my book slotting perfectly in between Kerouac’s On The Road and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – but it still holds the promise of good times, wild adventures, fascinating people. And great music.’

Inspired by Kerouac and Huck Finn, Cartwright’s latest musical travelogue More Miles Than Money began as a search for vernacular music, the sounds that built America, forged from its indigenous people and its immigrants, largely under conditions of extreme poverty and oppression. Like his previous Princes Amongst Men (Serpent’s, Tail 2005), in which he traveled across a Balkans landscape scoured by civil war for the spirit of a people captured in song – helping to kickstart a revival of interest in gypsy music in the process – Cartwright does not ride the comfortable route.

Instead, he spends long hours on Greyhound buses crawling with homicidal meth-heads, or weaving a tiny hire car between thundering juggernauts down the Lost Highway. When he gets to his destinations, he often passes out at the wheel, or in flophouse motels reminiscent of slasher flicks. He takes in the tourist hotspots – Beale Street, Graceland, The Grand Ole Opry – but then quickly departs for those places that are way off the map: the Navajo reservation in the shadow of Monument Valley, the Watts Towers of South Central Los Angeles, the East Side of Chicago, still unreconstructed after the riots of 1968. Sometimes, the things he sees there make you wonder if you are reading about America at all – it seems more like some desperate Third World failed state, ravaged by an insane despot.

George W Bush was still in power when Garth made his journey.

‘We grow up on the myth that America is so rich and everyone there has more of everything, but I’d stop believing in that a long time ago,’ says Garth, who spent some of his youth in San Francisco, ‘before the dotcom boom crushed the culture’ and ended up fleeing to London, where he now resides. ‘The sad thing is that US government has been so right wing for so long – to me, Clinton was a right wing liberal – that ordinary working class people are now pretty desperate. But Americans can be incredibly optimistic. People don’t have time to feel sorry for themselves. They just hope something better is on the horizon.’

Garth set off with a ‘baptism of sound’ from Ramakrishna King Haqq, aka Bishop King, founder of the Church of John Coltrane, whose congregation worship the late improvisational genius jazzer as a kind of saint, gathering to trip off on freestyle jams led by King on sax. The Church, which had begun life at the centre of the cosmic Haight Ashbury, has since relocated to a grim warehouse district where it offers succour for the poor as well as the hope of transcendence, a story which will repeat itself throughout Garth’s journey.

Thus fortified, he flits across the Bay in El Cerrito, to meet with old pal Chris Strachwitz, founder of Arhoolie Records, a label dedicated to putting out the most marginalised of vernacular music, including an unrivalled wealth of Mexican and Native American recordings. Chris offers a surprising summation of the state of the nation, that will also be echoed down the tracks by many of Garth’s interviewees:

‘I hate to put it like this,” he says, ‘but with the end of segregation a lot of black music has ended. Back then blacks lived in self-contained areas and they had their own community support systems, which included plenty of clubs offering music… Now all that’s left in those communities are the poorest people who can’t move out.’

‘Yep, that’s a sad reality,’ Garth concurs. ‘When the US was segregated the black community had their own shops, sports teams and music venues. Now that a black person with money can live pretty much anywhere, it means the old urban centres of black life are ghettoes. While there is creativity in the ghetto if there is no economic base – ie, good bars and restaurants to support music and provide all kinds of jobs, then things are going to end up like what you see on The Wire: ghettoes with nothing but drugs as an economy.’

Garth leaves ‘sad ole Frisco, no song in its heart, no flowers in its hair’ to find out what the largely male, white, middle class inhabitants of the old freak zone do in their spare time – visiting the Burning Man festival out in the desert. It proves the most soul-sucking experience of the entire trip.

‘Burning Man had 20-30,000 well-off white people all pretending to be ‘alternative’. God, they were bland,’ Garth spits. ‘I used to go raving in the 90s and while I always hated techno I liked the drugs and squat parties and the sense of madness. Burning Man removes all that – you don’t even see anyone smoking a damn joint in public, they’re scared they will be arrested! Techno/trance is machine music for people who only need a beat. Dancing fools. For a festival that promotes itself as so ‘alternative’ and ‘new age’ it just panders to that sense of white entitlement. “Be naked. Dance to shit music. Feel you are not part of McDonalds eating consumer America. $300 please for entry!” I hated it with a vengeance. And I was stuck out there for seven days…’

From one hole in the desert he moves on to another – Las Vegas: ‘a set from a lost David Lynch film.’ Here he meets Jimmy Castor, a living link between do-wop and hip-hop whose Funky Bunch records have been sampled, he estimates, 3,000 times. Diligent copyright policing has earned him back a him a decent living, but his thoughts on rap, particularly the Californian version, verge on the disgusted: ‘It’s very negative, that gangsta element, full of self-hatred,’ he tells Garth. ‘Slavery has implanted too much anger and hatred across the US. I don’t know if we can ever truly put it behind us.’

Attempting to put Vegas behind him and travel on the Greyhound to Los Angeles, proves difficult for the Kiwi author, when his bus is searched by Border Patrol cops and his non-American status is revealed.

‘That was scary ’cos I thought they might lock me up in a Phoenix jail. And I can’t think of many worse things than being in a US jail,’ Garth shudders at the memory. ‘But they let me go so that was alright, although it meant when I got to LA I at 2am I had to spend the night in the downtown Greyhound station. That was something I wondered if I would survive…’

The City of Angels does indeed prove to be the book’s heart of darkness. Author and reformed gangbanger Luis Rodriguez is Garth’s guide to East LA’s Pachua (urban Mexican) neighbourhoods. He rages against the evangelical Christianity that spreads like ‘a cancer on our community’ in a stark contrast to Garth’s previous interviewee, Motown’s first female star Mable John, who now devotes herself to feeding and clothing the city’s homeless with her Joy in Jesus Evangalistic Ministry.

‘If you look at the US, so many people have substance abuse problems and so many have God problems, it’s two sides of the same coin,’ Garth expounds. ‘In East LA the same process that has happened is Latin America is underway — evangelical churches are harvesting those who find little relief in Catholicism. I’ve seen this in Guatemala and, according to Luis, they’re hard at work amongst the Mexican American community. The evangelicals tend to promote a fundamentalist right wing agenda. Not really what you need in a community that already has so much against it.’

To prove his point, Luis takes Garth to Skid Row on 4th Street.

‘I’ve travelled…through Calcutta slums and West Bank refugee camps, but nothing’s prepared me for this bright Californian inferno,’ Garth writes. ‘Skid Row functions as an open air asylum, a place where crazies can be contained.’

Containment: a word familiar from the books of James Ellroy that map the ’40s and ’50s, cataloguing the racist policies of the LAPD that have reaped such a bitter harvest. Garth takes in the Watts Towers, the bizarro folk art monument to black LA’s futile stand against the forces of white law and order, and meets Charles Wright, who first brought the funk up from Mississippi and paved the way for the likes of Barry White and War with his Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. ‘My people, as a body of us, are in worse shape than when the original riots started,’ opines Wright.

Garth ponders how what happened here has had terrible repercussions not just for America, but for the world.

‘South Central is the heart of black LA and was, until the LAPD cracked down on its blues and jazz scene in the late-1950s, the West Coast Harlem. After the Watts riots in ’65 and the Rodney King riots in ’92 it has been left to decay. All it produces these days – outside of gangsta rap – is gang culture. The Bloods and Crips — and now the Mexican Mafia and other Latin gangs — picked up on the Black Panthers organisational structure but employed it to create something entirely negative. Crack cocaine helped them spread their gang culture across the US and into Latin America. Today we have variations on these same gangs in London. It’s the kind of thing that Burroughs or Ballard would be fascinated by, how something started by the poorest people in an area with no media coverage can become a cultural virus of sorts.’

From here, Garth heads south, picking up a Thelma to his Louise, a chainsmoking Irish-American bartender called Greg, who proves a great comedy foil, with at times, lifesaving qualities. After one particularly harrowing night drive, the pair pull into a small town off Route 66 and, as Garth succinctly puts it, ‘into the kind of thing that happens in horror movies – lost travellers end up in a small town and find the locals are monsters. Well, in Grants, they appeared to be hitting the crystal meth heavily and so extremely hostile. We were lucky to get out of there without taking a serious beating.’

The duo’s drive takes them through the Mojave desert to the Grand Canyon and a visit to the Navajo Nation Reservation with former beauty queen-turned-gangster’s moll-turned inspirational singer Radmilla Cody. Garth witnesses a Pow Wow, in which traditionally dressed Navajo dance with hoodies and veterans wearing medals.

‘That so many Navajo end up in the US Army is not because they love to fight, but the Rez is so poor, there is so little work there, that the military come through and siphon off a lot of the youth,’ Garth explains. ‘The Native Americans remain at the very bottom of US society, extremely marginalised. That said, Radmilla and her family and friends were great people and I think of my time on the Rez as my absolute highlight – to be in America but amongst a people who have been there before Europeans ever arrived and speak their own language (Dine), have their own music and religion, it’s something else. People often tend to romanticise Native Americans as New Age seers, which they find hilarious – they struggle so hard to survive! They’d like a bit more of the conventional material world we enjoy. That I got to spend time with Native Americans and Mexican Americans – two ethnic groups overlooked by almost everyone who writes about American music and culture – is, to me, the greatest achievement of More Miles.’

Further down Route 66 Garth and Greg hook up with cowboy poet and country singer Kell Robertson living in a chicken coop up in the mountains. Kell is a proper cowboy, who used to punch cows, work the carnies and run guns to Mexico. Appropriately enough, he once met Sam Peckinpah in Montana, got drunk with him and ended up in the opening scenes of The Wild Bunch. He lives on in a world that he considers has lost its: ‘Innocence. The sense of wonder. Spirituality…’

And also, its outlet for the people’s music. In 1996, Bill Clinton’s Telecommuncations Act allowed the airwaves to be monopolised by the richest. Now Bush buddies Clear Channel own 1200 radio stations and 40 TV stations, dictating a policy of canned material across the US, foisting Rush Limbaugh and corporate rock down the throats of the nation. This is a shocking state of affairs that in itself is killing music. And it’s very tough to drive by.

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‘It is destroying that nation’s musical culture,’ states Garth. ‘MTV and the destruction of regional radio have done more cultural damage to the US than anything I can think of – beyond crack cocaine and electing Bush twice. As for neo-fascists like Rush Limbaugh, listening to them is scary ’cos they really hate hard. Nasty, nasty people.’

The duo finally arrive in Austin, where they roll up at one of the last proper Honky Tonks, where super cool country singer Dale Watson is playing a residency. Austin, says Dale, ‘is conductive to originality which is rare in this State’. But he, too, is pessimistic. ‘Country music… is definitely the white man’s blues,’ he tells Garth. ‘These days… we ain’t got country and they ain’t got blues… we all share the same blues. To survive as an ordinary American today is tougher than it’s been for decades.’

Witnessing the teenage Bush clones swaggering through the city, Garth sees the wisdom of Dale’s words, pausing to wonder if the youthful Dubya ever witnessed a performance of hard-drinking, maudlin country legend Townes Van Zandt.

He moves on to San Antonio to meet Mexican singing legend Lydia Mendoza, born in 1916 to a family who had fled the Mexican Revolution. She became a sensation in the 1930s with ‘Mal Hombre’ (Evil Man), lost a fortune to bad contracts, was rehabilitated by Arhoolie in the ’70s and toured until a stroke in 1988 stopped her from playing guitar.

‘Lydia Mendoza began recording aged 12 in 1928 and died aged 91 in December, 2007. I believe I got the last ever interview with her and the only one by someone from Europe,’ says Garth. ‘Hard to believe but Mexican American music is so overlooked – only Arhoolie Records have issued much of it. Such beautiful music! Lydia played 12 string guitar and sang, largely alone but sometimes with mariachis. She is, to me, one of the absolute legends of American music. Meeting her was a great honour.’

Having parted ways with Greg, Garth gets back on the Greyhound for a Faulkneresque journey to Nashville. Here, he tries to find what made the city so famous, ending up wondering: ‘Is there a link with the decline in US Top 40 radio and increasing US bodily corpulence? Less joy in music = less joy in life.’

Still, salvation is at hand, deep in the badlands at the Mercy Lounge, where he watches Billy Joe Shaver, described by Willie Nelson as: ‘maybe the best songwriter alive today’. Born Corsicana Texas in 1939, Billy Joe’s bare-knuckle boxer pa beat his ma to half to death before he was even born. Like Kell, he worked the rodeos as a youth, before witnessing Hank Williams, Roy Acuff and Jimmie Rogers had him heading for Nashville. Here, he palled up with David Allan Coe, Kris Kristofferson, Willie, Waylon, Johnny and June. But it’s been a hard-knock life – he lost his son to drugs in 2000. ‘I started off a cowboy,’ Billy Joe tells Garth. ‘Still am a cowboy. Just moved on a little.”

Garth moves on into Memphis, home of the legendary Stax, the interracial record label that launched Isaac Hayes, Booker T, Otis Redding and Sam & Dave, before ending under such acrimony that the very studios were razed from the earth. Name dropping Mable John gets Garth a meeting with Deanie Parker, Stax veteran and founder of Soulsville, the Stax Museum and music college. Soulsville sits in a ‘pure Southern ghetto’ – but Deanie aims to change all this, to ‘teach the neighbourhood kids how to play instruments, how to make music.’ Rap, she considers, ‘is not music. Stax was a finishing school for…me and I’m hoping it can offer a similar kind of hope for local children.’

She might have a long way to go – at a Memphis gas station, Garth experiences an ‘unmade George Romero black zombie movie’, another horrifying glimpse of Third World America. He heads for Beale Street, once the among the most celebrated black music strips in America, now a gaudy tourist hole. After further depressing himself at Graceland and Sun Studios, he finds solace by hooking up with Sam the Sham, Tex-Mex rock’n’roll pioneer. Born in the Dustbowl to a full blood Apache and a Basque, Sam had an itinerant childhood and adolescence, playing chicken wire joints, including those operated by Jack Ruby. With his band The Pharoahs, he cut the mega hit ‘Woolly Bully’ in 1964. But bad times befell Sam, he became an outlaw and drug addict, finally escaping by getting a job as a deckhand in Lousiana, before being rehabilitated by Ry Cooder on The Border soundtrack in 1982. But all the time he worked on the boats, he never let on about his celebrity past.

‘Sam was definitely the coolest guy I met,’ Garth enthuses. ‘What a life story – growing up dirt poor in Texas, his family friends with Clyde Barrow’s family! He speaks so beautifully, Sam is a natural poet. He walked away from music in the 70s and I guess he never felt the need to talk to the men he worked with on boats about when he was once a star. You have to admire that – in our celebrity-saturated culture someone who can walk away from fame and not try to dine out on it is a soul rebel.’

Heading deep into the land of legend, Garth drives on down Highway 61 to Clarksdale, where he spends a night in the motel where Bessie Smith died, her arm severed from her body by a crash on Highway 61. Then he finally gets to achieve his childhood ambition, to sail down the Mississippi like Huck Finn, with Wesley ‘June’ Jefferson, a local blues singer.

The trip is a moment of timeless transcendence for Garth, which is later tempered by a poignant visit to the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated, on 3 April 1968. He finds a plaque with an ominous Bible quote: They said to one another, Behold, here comes the dreamer… Let us slay him… And we shall see what becomes of his dreams (Genesis 37: 19-20). At this moment, it really hits home that at the time of writing, Barack Obama wasn’t even a blip on the horizon.

‘That Obama got in shows how America can rise to its promise,’ Garth considers. ‘That said, I doubt he will change very much about the US – those who own it are too entrenched.

With his love of the music, the people and the history of this country shot through every word of More Miles Than Money, it seems symbolic that the book starts and ends in Chicago, home of the great American oral historian Louis ‘Studs’ Terkel, who started off writing about jazz and ended up recording the voices of the working class across the whole of the country. Studs, considered by many to be the world’s greatest interviewer, died in October last year at the grand old age of 96, leaving a legacy that seems to have been very much the prime influence on Garth.

‘You got it!’ he says. ‘Studs is a hero! I asked Bruce Iglauer (of Alligator Records) if he thought it might be possible for me to meet Studs and he made some enquiries, but it appeared that Studs was very fragile at the time, so his family weren’t wanting just anyone to turn up. As I didn’t have a commission for an interview with him, I couldn’t promise that there would be any benefit in him talking to me. I now wish that I had persevered a bit and at least got to shake his hand and tell him how much I loved his work. I like to think of him as More Miles’ spiritual godfather – talking to ordinary Americans and letting them express themselves. As Studs knew, ordinary people often live extraordinary lives.’

More Miles Than Money is available now on Serpent’s Tail.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cathi Unsworth is the author of three pop-cultural crime fiction novels, The Not Knowing, The Singer, and the forthcoming Bad Penny Blues, to be published by Serpent’s Tail on 3 December. She lives and works in London. Read her 2008 interview at 3:AM. Photo: Allison McGourty.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, October 22nd, 2009.