Tag Archives: Las Vegas

Woody lives!

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943 Pic: Life

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943
Pic: Life

The closest I got to Woody Guthrie was the morning I quickly shuffled through his personal letters, while a vigilant lady kept a beady eye on me, in a small room in a New York office block.

The office belonged to Harold Leventhal – the legendary music manager who’d worked with Benny Goodman, Pete Seeger, and Guthrie himself. His staff had maintained the folksinger’s archive for decades after Guthrie’s death, and I visited there in 2003 to undertake some research as part of a writing project I’d planned.

My groundwork came to naught, but I did enjoy an hour immersed in manuscripts of Guthrie’s lyrics, letters, and notes (and briefly encountered Leventhal himself). Looking back, the ride up an old escalator to a small room in an ageing Midtown building was the culmination of a journey I’d been on for a few years.

Bruce Springsteen once commented that when he heard the opening of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ for the first time, “that snare shot…sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind”.

My snare shot was the first few fingerpicked bars of ‘This Land Is Your Land’, recorded by Guthrie in 1944 and which I heard for the first time – and listened to heavily afterwards – in my rented room on Cadogan Road in Dublin in the late 1990s.

Every verse hit home, not least the last:

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me

I’ve long since lost the CD that contained that track (and others, including a great Cisco Houston version of ‘Deportee’) – probably because I moved on from it so quickly. Within months, I’d picked up and devoured whatever budget-priced collections of Guthrie’s music I could afford.

Shortly afterwards, on a trip to New York, I came across a copy of ‘Bound For Glory’ at Biography Bookshop on Bleecker Street, five minutes’ walk from ‘Alamanac House’, the apartment Guthrie used as a writing space with Pete Seeger and others in the 1940s.

All the while, I played and sung Guthrie songs on my battered Hohner acoustic guitar – at parties in Dublin, at cook-outs on the shores of Lake Tahoe, and – an occasion which sticks out in my memory – far above New York’s pavements on the balcony of an Upper West Side apartment I crashed at on another brief visit to the city in the 90s.

So Woody Guthrie meant a lot to me back then. He still does – a small part of me takes heart in the fact that every time I see the mighty flow of water which runs 10 minutes from my home in Portland, my first thought is ‘Roll On, Columbia’.

Guthrie’s been back in my mind in recent days, as the 50th anniversary of his death approaches, next Tuesday.

I’ve also seen more of him in recent times – in the humanity displayed by those who comforted the dying and helped the survivors after the Las Vegas shooting, and in the actions of citizens helping one another in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

Like Guthrie’s writings, the practice of people simply helping one another – whether they be lifelong neighbors or complete strangers – stands in contrast to the rancor of partisan politics and the seemingly-constant slew of bad news.

Such actions, like the best of Woody Guthrie’s songs, offer hope.

As the folksinger himself wrote of his life’s work:

I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.

So next Tuesday I’ll listen or strum a few, remember Woody, and keep the hoping machine running.

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Lost memories of Death Valley ’99

Death Valley, August 1999.

Death Valley, August 1999.

The older I get, the more I forget.

What was the 21-year-old guy standing near a small copse of joshua trees in Death Valley thinking about, as the shutter clicked on an August afternoon in 1999?

For a kid from drizzly Athlone, Ireland, visiting the area, aware of some other Irishmen who claimed the joshua tree for themselves, must have been a big deal.

It was, but all that remains now is an ageing print, the negative lost, which is itself decaying. Is that a moon over my right shoulder, or just a mark on the print?

My shadow indicates that it was shot in the late afternoon. I can’t remember who took the picture – it was one of a group of friends I was travelling across the States with at the time. More to the point, I can’t recall where it was taken – though, given the heat, I’m sure it was just a few meters from the blacktop of highway 190.

Hindsight might tell me that is a photograph of a young man staking a claim of some sort – to an interest in the outdoors, or to a love of travel, or to the country where I would relocate to 17 years after this shot was taken.

It’s nice to think of such explanations, but, in truth, I’ve no idea. It’s more likely I wanted to get out of the 110 F heat and back into our air-conditioned van. (The only clear memory I have of this day is from hours later, when we approached Las Vegas as a lightning storm broke over the city.)

Looking back today, on finding the picture in an old folder, I see a kid starting out – on a journey across both a country and something vaster. I still feel like I’ve just started.

Which puts me in mind of a song we listened to in the van that summer:

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone

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What a two-decade old photo taught me

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Nevada was in the news this week.

And not the good Nevada – the 24 hour, ‘where’s my credit card, actually where’s my trousers?’ Vegas Strip Nevada. Or the eerie lunar landscape Nevada, beloved by hippies. Or even the escape-from-everything-and-start-anew Nevada.

Nope. Instead we had the Nevada of furious politicking, of promises and press conferences, of caucuses and crackpots. Of, worse still, Donald Trump.

But the headlines from the Silver State put me in a nostalgic mood, as did a picture I came across, taken by a friend en route from California to Nevada almost 20 years ago.

It shows a 21-year-old, tired and likely hungover, Irishman posing on a sandy hillside in bleaching sunshine, the desert floor in the distance. My recollection is that this was taken in August 1999, somewhere west of Death Valley on Route 190, shortly before a group of pals and I drove into the basin and on to Las Vegas.

The previous evening had been spent sleeping in the backseat of our rental van parked somewhere on the edge of Yosemite National Park. The following night was a sleepless one, which started with a spectacular thunderstorm on the Vegas city limits and ended at 6am the next morning, sipping refreshments in the dollar slots and wondering where the last 12 hours went.

Then, after a couple of hours’ sleep, we drove out of Vegas and across the United States.

As can probably be gathered from the picture above, my worries at the time barely extended beyond the ensuring 24 hours.

I recall that I had to get to New York City by a certain date to catch a flight back to San Francisco. I had nowhere to stay on the West Coast but I figured that would work itself out. In the end it did, via a payphone call from a Greenwich Village bar to pals in the Sunset who had a spare mattress on their floor.

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After that I had a flight booked out of SF to Dublin. Friends were returning to college or work but I didn’t have a job lined up, or a place to live. It didn’t bother me much. It worked itself out too. The rest, as always, is history. Here I am.

That brief, blazing roadside stop on 190 came to mind this week as I spent too much time testing my blood pressure limit, reading about megalomaniacal politicians, the cracks in the Chinese economy, the weakening of the euro  – all the good psychic dread stuff.

As I did it occurred to me that I need to balance this stuff up. I need to let go more often, to let the future happen.

Above all, I need that guy in the photo to swing by for an hour a week, to set me straight. And I need his hair.

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