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.


Jim Sotzing said...

I've been missing you; whew, you're back! And now this that reads like Chapter 4 of your developing memoirs. I look forward to future chapters - or maybe I missed some - but I'll happily buy it when it's between covers, fully realized. Anything that simultaneously addresses PA, clouds, icy roads, Martins and the 70's must be worth considering. At least by me and some of my PA HS classmates. Thanks Craig and keep 'em coming.

Tim McMullen said...

I echo Jim's sentiment: it has been a dry, Bickhardt-less couple of months, but this piece is worth the wait. Was Pinto Pony ever recorded? The lyrics in the excerpt are really wonderful.
Nice to have you back,

chromehead said...

Thanks Jim and Tim. The song in the blog piece has not been released on any CD yet, but I have a guitar-vocal recording of it made in 2003 that's waiting for a place in some future project. I think the song holds up very well in spite of being nearly 40 years old. It also factors into a future part of the story I've been telling here on the blog, but at the rate I'm going it might be years before you get to read that little tale!

Erin said...

Yea! I'm so glad your blog is back in action! Seriously...I've been checking every day. Cup of coffee in hand, baby in the lap, and eyes searching for some Bickhardt-edness. I'm a fairly recent fan, but it's always such a great read! I'd even go so far as to call it "soul candy"! :)

Not trying to flatter, just trying to encourage you to keep this up.

Thanks for taking time to share your life with us!


zensuit said...

You are the only writer out there writing about the creative process with any kind of weight. You should collect these and publish them as a kind of "Letters to a young songwriter".

Brilliant my friend. Maybe I'll get lucky and be this smart someday.


Tim Wheeler said...

Ok.. so the first paragraph reads like Cockburn... that's a good thing!

Good to see your posts.