Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Painted Pony

It was the icebox winter of 1972. The Pennsylvania hills were covered in blue glaze that locked the land in a glassy silence. Coming up the last hill the car's tires whirred on the frozen patches, fishtailing through the black woods until the lights of an old farmhouse broke through bare branches.

Inside the house a bearded man sat cross-legged on the floor with a Martin D-28 guitar cradled in his lap and a lit Camel dangling from the corner of his mouth. He stretched his hand towards me and introduced himself. "You write songs," he said, as if my arrival had been foretold in a vision. "So do I." He crushed out his Camel and launched into one, punching out the chords with the force of a ten-pound hammer ringing on suspension bridge cables.

"I met me a Bearcat Woman, high on a mountain side"
Then he segued into another, and others after that. There was a tale about a union soldier who retreated from a bloody Civil War battle.
"Sassafras on the wind
Fog in the morning where the river begins”
From that first encounter with Fritter our two worlds were in close orbit. Sometimes gravity tore things away from the one and added to the other. The dust between us never quite settled. It was a dust made of molecules of inspiration that hung in clouds of chaos until we shaped it into songs.

We spent the next few months in the old farmhouse writing tunes and getting our new band tight. It all came easily, like breath. Music was in my pores and in my blood. It fueled and fed me like invisible bread. Every new song stretched the horizon a little further and made me want to explore what lay beyond. The world seemed on the verge of becoming some penultimate thing, capable of the perfect fulfillment of possibilities, and I was alert for the moment's arrival. There was little to tie me down and even less to keep me grounded. When the creative euphoria hit it was like helium. I could no more weigh it with considerations than I could keep the clouds from floating by.

Fritter would lay out his lyric concepts in big dense chunks, like ore in slag. I grabbed the scribbled pages before the ink was dry and forged the melodies. By summer we'd worked up a decent set of originals. We felt good about the musical direction we were taking.

One afternoon the two of us took a 12-string guitar, a 12-gauge shotgun and one of his notebooks out to the barn. The wind blew fresh from the north and ragged clouds raced overhead. Everything seemed to be going somewhere. Inside the barn I emptied both barrels of the gun into a beam. Splinters flew back in our faces and some of the shot hit the far wall making tiny puffs of dust that coiled upwards in the light between the slats.

We climbed to the upper level, opened the bay doors, and sat on the floor still covered with hayseed from years before. I started strumming a chord progression on the 12-string while Fritter flipped through pages of his half finished verses. "Here, check this out," he said handing me the notebook.

"There's a frost on the wind as it scours the town
Shutters in place as the awnings come down
Sap is barely flowing and there's ashes on the sun
Yield to summer's sister, the gentle painted one
Ride the wind, read the breeze, and be gone
Painted pony with the dancing eyes be gone
Take a part of me along…”
By the end of the day we’d completed the song. The Painted Pony was a metaphor for our dream. We'd spent a lot of time those first few months talking about getting out of Pennsylvania and setting up our project in Colorado. From there we could hop to LA and be near the music industry for short periods, and we'd have the scenery of the mountains for inspiration the rest of the time. The record deal would come down eventually, we could feel it. But it wasn't quite time for us to go.

It took six more months for the band to finally pull up stakes and head west. When we did it was without Fritter. In the end I was the wandering gypsy and he was the one rooted in the soil of home. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was embarking on more than a move west. I was beginning a lifetime of riding the wind and being gone. Sometimes I wish I’d been content to stay where I was. Sometimes I don’t think I’ll ever get to where that pony is going.

Copyright 2009 Craig Bickhardt. "Painted Pony" copyright Craig Bickhardt and F.C. Collins. Incidental lyrics copyright F. C. Collins.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Bear

The big Boeing 737 whined into the blue carrying a stocky man in a twill coat. His beard was neatly trimmed. On his lap sat a hunk of greenish rock. No one had objected to him bringing it onboard the plane because this was back in the days before terrorism and the lethal fear of men with beards.

When I met Fritter at the Nashville airport, the first thing he did was hand me the rock. It was a crudely chiseled figure of a hulking bear moving on all fours, head slightly raised, sniffing the wind. It had tiny ears and anatomically accurate muscular hindquarters. It weighed about fifteen pounds but he’d carried it all the way through the long terminals at Philadelphia International and BNA.

“I saw the bear in it as soon as I picked it up out of the field,” he said.

“Seeing is one thing, but taking the time to chisel it out…,” I said.

“Nah. I knocked it out one morning last winter when I couldn’t get out of the driveway in the snow. It just felt like it should belong to you.”

“Thanks,” I said turning it in my hands. “I wouldn’t know where to begin chipping on a hunk of granite to make it look like a bear.”

“Neither did I.”

Fritter had always been a bit of a creative nomad. He wrote songs mainly, but he would pick up a hammer and chisel one day and surprise himself with something like the bear. A few days later you might find him sculpting clay figures or pouring cement into rubber molds to make his garden plaques.

When we got back to my house I put the bear in my studio, nosing it up against a thick dictionary at the end of the reference shelf. It sat there poised to head into Webster’s to hunt for some fresh adjectives.

Fritter and the bear with his nose in the wind had much in common. I pictured them both standing at the edge of the wilderness watching the rest of the human race apprehensively and being regarded nervously f
rom the opposite direction, too.

“I know what that bear reminds me of,” I said.

One of the first songs Fritter played me back before we started our band together was a song he called The Bear. In the lyric a rancher confronts a grizzly in the snow only to realize;

“My land sits on his land, that’s the way it is.”
(The Bear copyright 2009 by the estate of FC Collins)

On this particularly fine Nashville afternoon Fritter and I sat in the shade of my elms with our guitars and our notebooks. The Hedge Apples thudded to the ground in the woods while the bees got drunk on the overripe fruit. Occasionally a breeze blew the leaves around the yard like a clutch of ducklings scurrying after an invisible mother. The world was as small as the open ground between the two of us and the tree line.

We sang our newest tunes to each other and talked about writing. Later, when the sun went down we watched a meteor shower that sent little comets shooting out of the dark like welder’s sparks. I balanced my guitar on my knee and played a loping finger pick that became the soundtrack for the spectacle. Fritter dove from topic to topic, grasping at salmon in the stream of his thoughts while I picked and listened to his words resonate against the night sky and the bronze strings. That was how we wrote sometimes. I picked and listened to him talk until a certain phrase would tumble out serendipitously; the perfect metaphor for the mood of the music.

Suddenly the wind rose over the trees with a deep roar that carried off the sound of my guitar. Fritter halted in mid-sentence and put his head in the air. He froze suspiciously and waited for the tumult to pass over. When the hush returned he said, “We should call this tune Brother to the Wind.” I smiled because I knew that was exactly what we should call it.

Sometimes, all these years later, when I'm missing the inspiration I'll lift the bear from its shelf. Inside that rough, chiseled figure I can almost feel the stirring of a creative hunger. It reminds me of my place on the edge of the wilderness and I feel a sense of restless anticipation as the winter rolls in once again. Maybe he was right. The wind, the bear and the songwriter are brothers, and the bright salmon are still leaping somewhere.

copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt

Listen to "Brother to the Wind" written by Craig Bickhardt and FC Collins

Craig Bickhardt Brother to the Wind Track 03

Buy the full length, 12 song CD directly from the artist here

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Stone Barn; a Reminiscence

"Music from Big Pink" was an inauspicious LP, selling only moderately to some Dylan fans who hadn't deserted him after Newport. The group of musicians that made the LP didn't have a name. They were simply referred to in some vilifying reviews as "the band that accompanied Dylan". Pete Seeger had been appalled by them, but "Big Pink" was a landmark record for many of us. It was followed soon after by an even better record humbly titled "The Band". By that time they'd earned no less, nor more, of a name.

The Band influenced me and some friends to start our own group and rent a house like Big Pink where we could woodshed. It just seemed like the thing to do even though we had little money to keep up the lease. The old Heyburn farm became our home for 18 months. The property was located near Chads Ford, PA a couple of miles from where Andy Wyeth painted. It was a big place-- six bedrooms, plus an attic, two living rooms, a mudroom, kitchen and upper level porch. I used to sit on that porch sometimes when the moon was full and write or sing until dawn. The fields and woods behind the house sang back to me with ciccadas, owls and other wildlife.

We called our band Wire and Wood (the name has since been re-used by another east coast outfit unrelated to us). It was a phrase from a lyric written by our fearless leader, a songwriter named F. C. Collins who was nicknamed Fritter by his grandfather. The name was the perfect sobriquet for sizing you up. He'd look you in the eye with an unspoken threat that defied you to call him an apple turnover. No one ever did. He had the look of the wolf in those gray blue eyes and the stocky build of Grizzly Adams.

The melodies of Mercury splash along the walls
Sounds of wire and wood, fingers moving good

("Mercury" copyright by F. C. Collins)
The melodies did indeed splash along the walls mixed liberally with other substances. Day and night music was heard in the Heyburn house after we took it over. We collaborated on original tunes in combinations; me and Fritter, Rick and Fritter, all three of us. The songs were juicy, with titles like "Bearcat Woman", "Painted Pony", "Changing of the Guard" and "Long Distance Man".

Friends dropped by at all hours to listen to the arrangements we were tightening up in one of the living rooms. During a lazy afternoon two guitarists might be found in the kitchen working out Allman Brothers style harmony lead guitar parts. Some evenings there'd be a three-part harmony vocal rehearsal happening in one room over a jug of wine, while in another room the rhythm section worked out a tricky groove that made a song pulsate like a titan's heartbeat. Taped to the walls were set lists, gig posters, stage layouts, clippings of our Main Point reviews- anything that kept us focused on what we were doing. We meant business, but I remember it as the most fun I've ever had with music.

Fritter and I used to hang out and write in the barn sometimes. It was a typical farm structure for eastern Pennsylvania, probably built by Quakers who loved to use stone in everything. For the Quakers and the Egyptians, if it was worth building at all it was worth building for posterity. This particular barn was huge- four levels spanning almost full acre. It smelled of manure, barley and damp hardwood. The wooden top levels had rear bay doors for tossing out bails to the stables in back. Fritter and I would sit up there of a summer afternoon- bay doors swung wide, our legs dangling high above the pasture- and write. We put the tunes together mostly from fragments of lyrics and melody we'd composed seperately. We were learning as we went, discovering our creative wings while the barn held us majestically aloft and the hawks circled above us.

It came to an end too soon as all good things do, and I was brought back to earth older and somewhat wiser. But I've managed to keep a few inches of sky between me and the ground by holding onto the idealism we shared and the standards we set with our feet in the air that summer. Those values became essential when I ventured to Nashville some years later. I've never forgotten that music is all about woodshedding and dreams. The beginning is the most difficult part of anything, whether it be a life, a journey, a career or a song. Our beginnings define us. Anything well-begun is more often than not well-completed.

After decades in the south I returned north recently to reconnect with my past. I live only a couple of miles away from the Heyburn property now, which was re-zoned in my absence. Commercial potential never lies unexploited for long in America.

Developers attacked the barn last month. Notified of the event by a neighbor, I went over to watch as the shirtless young men, tanned and glistening, ripped the boards off the roof one by one and threw them towards the sinking sun. The Band's "Whispering Pines" floated through my head as the soundtrack for the scene.

By the end of the day the upper wooden structure was completely gone, bay doors and all. But in the cool shadows below, the massive stone walls remain. That old foundation is still holding up a few of my dreams this morning. After all, part of me has never stopped being a kid with his feet dangling in the blue.

copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Cold Eye, Warm Heart

A procession of ants invaded our kitchen not long ago. We sprayed, we cleaned, and the ants retreated. They were back a few days later following a slightly different path. It has been a month now and we've conceded that maybe these ants are smarter than we are. Their intelligence is collective, of course, but does it matter?

The truth is I’ve had no real will to exterminate them. In fact I admire them. I feel sympathy for these hard working creatures that won’t be deterred. I imagine them going home to their ant children, their ant aunts and uncles, and saying, “Don’t worry. Tomorrow we’ll get back in there and bring home the bacon.” I was moved almost to tears by the thought as I watched them die in the chemical spray. How strange.

My brother Eric sent me a quote from R. H. Blyth, “We are being sentimental when we give to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it.” Precisely. Here I was being foolishly sentimental about my ants and yet God certainly had no tenderness for them because He invented the ant eater.

I’ve always admired writers who avoid being sentimental. This seems to be a talent the best southern writers naturally possess. Perhaps it’s the harsher climate and the way the light is keen in the dust.

The world was like a distant storm
I could feel it on the breeze
But it made so little difference here
Just a whisper in the trees
Mending fence for room and board
Was mostly all I’d done
For I was still a prisoner here
In nineteen-sixty-one
The sucker rod on the windmill creaks
Now and then you hear a car
There’s thunderheads across the southern sky
But they won’t get this far

(“Six-Year Drought” by James McMurtry)

Sentimentality is wrung out of this and left to evaporate on the parched earth. McMurty’s lines are as hard and pitiless as the Texas plains, and yet they still touch something pulsating with life inside. I bet he sees his struggling ants and sheds no tears for them.

While I hold McMurtry's standard in the highest esteem and wouldn't change a word of it, I suppose I’m just a sucker. I’ve flirted with sentimentality all of my writing life, and maybe I’ve even crossed the line sometimes. The truth is it’s damn hard not to cross it if you feel any pity at all for the world.

Softer art for harder times? Probably won't fly. Yet we must feel something in order to be human. There must be emotion when it is warranted, and there is indeed a perceptible difference between emotion and sentimentality even though it sometimes takes a microscope to see it. After all, it’s our compassion that keeps the human race going, and we don’t want to lose that.

In the writing we can err both ways. On either side of the good, observant narrative there are pitfalls; effusiveness or stolidity. The line between is walked with a cold eye and a warm heart.

copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt