That Lonesome Whistle
by Elliot J. Gorn
From Boom Summer 2012, Vol. 2, No. 2
Music and loss in the Southland
I left Los Angeles when I was eighteen years old. Left it cold. I didn’t like LA then, don’t like it now, so I’m always pleased when people think that I am from “back East.” I left and never looked back.
Except I’ve returned to the city of my youth at least a hundred times over the last forty years. Most of my family lived in LA and many are buried there. Old and new friends are still scattered around the city, my brother recently moved back, and most important, my daughter—whose mother relocated to Los Angeles shortly after our marriage dissolved twenty-five years ago—has grown to adulthood there.
Still, just thinking about the place makes me uneasy. My ex-wife once ran into my ex-girlfriend at a Los Angeles Starbucks, the sort of thing that I thought happened only in bad television sitcoms. Neither of them had ever set foot in Los Angeles before meeting me. What does it mean that the women I had loved most in my life left me for the town I fled?
Months earlier, that same ex-girlfriend—who finally bailed on me because, among other things, I was “too negative”—took me to one of LA’s cultural showcases, the Getty Museum, high on a hill, overlooking the city. I was impressed. The architecture was grand, the landscaping artful, the views magnificent. But I couldn’t stop myself from suggesting that the art collection was a little thin, that the Getty’s motto should be “Looks Just Like an Art Museum.” Me, negative?
My routine doesn’t change much each Christmas season: rent a car and drive hundreds of miles in a few days to visit my daughter, my brother, an old high-school buddy and several other friends. An unalloyed pleasure for any normal person.
My last trip, it was dark when I left Chicago, ice treacherous underfoot. I froze on the El platform, roasted in my parka on the way to the airport. I emerged from the terminal at LAX a few hours later into a morning bathed in warmth and sunshine. Within minutes I was tooling around in a nice new car, no work, no responsibilities. I headed down the Santa Monica Freeway to visit some friends in Venice, and we took a walk along the pier. We stood above the Pacific watching waves break toward shore trailing rainbows in the mist. The next day I cruised Interstate 210, my eyes filled with gorgeous green hills, Mediterranean-style homes creeping up their sides, and in the distance, the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains. LA’s sky is enormous, its colors breathtaking.
That’s the problem. As Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick, “All deified Nature absolutely paints like a harlot whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within.” LA’s visual feast sates the senses, induces amnesia, and “the industry”—Hollywood—magnifies the effect. Something about the cult of casual beauty here encourages forgetting, as if remembering moments of loss and despair were some sort of personal failure.
I barely notice any more as I drive the foothills, midway between where my brother and my daughter live, the forgotten spot in Lakeview Terrace (lovely name for a dusty, dead-end, working-class suburb, with its three-bedroom-one-bathroom-thousand-square-foot-American-Dream-homes) where several LA cops made media history in 1992 with what can only be called the world’s first “reality TV” video, as they beat nearly to death the hapless Rodney King, the same cops whose acquittal months later touched off a horrific riot. In the words of the city’s adopted anthem, Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” from the album appropriately titled Trouble in Paradise: “Look at that mountain,/Look at those trees,/Look at that bum over there, man,/He’s down on his knees.”
I know, I know, I’m being unfair to my hometown. LA’s superficiality is an old cliché. Once you stop expecting it to look like New York or Chicago or San Francisco, then of course you recognize that Los Angeles is its own place, a post-modern city with fascinating neighborhoods, mind-bending diversity, and its own distinctive histories of rich and poor, black and white, Latino and Anglo, not to mention Jews, East Asians, and Middle Easterners. The whole world comes to LA now, and countless writers, historians, filmmakers, poets, and painters have depicted and enriched the town’s cultural life.
But all that feels beside the point. Cities have their self-images: New York’s raw wealth and power, Chicago’s working class and gangster ways, LA’s laid-back, easy “lifestyle.” More than anywhere else I know, pain, conflict, and unpleasantness feel out of place there, even insulting. Or maybe it’s just me. I admit, I’m the sort of person who can be unhappy anywhere, a “can’t-do” kind of guy. Only a wretch resists smiling up at that big white “Hollywood” sign set against a flawless sky. My trips to LA always make me feel guilty for being such a curmudgeon.
Anyway, I’ve developed a habit in my drives around town. I like all kinds of music, but I always plan ahead and pack half a dozen country CDs. Not the pale imitations coming out of Nashville these days, mind you, but the classics—Hank, Merle, Willie, Johnny, George, Waylon. Guy songs. Hurtin’ songs. Los Angeles is about cosmetic surgery; country music is about scars. My tonic for LA’s easy glamour is the sound of America’s heartbreak.
So I’m on the Santa Monica Freeway heading to the west side, to the Pacific, and Merle Haggard is with me, singing of “Rambling Fever,” the need to keep moving on. Merle grew up not far from LA, a hundred miles north in Oildale, near Bakersfield. Mileage doesn’t begin to measure the distance to hardscrabble lives in that hardscrabble landscape. Dust bowl refugees like Haggard’s parents flocked to California from Oklahoma and Arkansas during the Great Depression, keeping body and soul together with migrant farm work and oil field labor. Young Merle was in and out of prison, including hard time in San Quentin, but music was in his blood, and in another few years, he became locally famous, along with Buck Owens, as a founder of the “Bakersfield Sound,” which by the sixties, was the soundscape for many of LA’s white, working class neighborhoods.
“Rambling Fever” is a truckers’ anthem, full of bluster, but sadness, too, at a weary soul’s inability to rest. Like all great music, country’s range of emotions is wide and deep. Haggard turns the feeling around with his next tune, a beautiful little love song, “That’s the Way Love Goes,” as he croons his devotion to his woman, reassures her that he is in it for the long haul. But even in that title there is a hint of discord, a song about love deepening, introduced with words that speak of love fleeing. Love can’t last; it never does. In the next song, his voice heavy with resignation, Merle declares that he’s leaving. Not immediately, though. No, he’ll wait until some day in the future when things are good, when he has the courage, the strength, because he just can’t go when he feels so low. Some day. Some day.
The paralysis Haggard sings about must have been banished from the west side, for all is in happy motion around me—the cars on Pacific Coast Highway, the bicycle-riders and skate-boarders by the sea, the palm trees in the warm wind.
Next on the CD player comes George Jones, the Eugene O’Neill of American country singers. George’s best stuff, and O’Neill’s, comes down to a single theme—our inability to forget what must be put behind us. No easy amnesia here, but the relentless pain of recalling emotional betrayals, ours and others’. With pedal steel wailing behind him (you know you’ve crossed over when pedal steel no longer sounds like caterwauling), George sings of doing time in a honky-tonk prison. Days crawl by, each year feels like ten, but there is no reprieve, no forgiveness, no way out. Yes, yes, I know, the music is lachrymose, manipulative, self-pitying. But loosen the literal narratives of prison and drinking and cheating, take seriously the notion that many of the writers and singers of this music are serious craftsmen of metaphor and allusion, put aside the easy irony of our times, and the emotions, fresh and sharp, come crashing in. George’s voice resonates for a moment with our deep regrets, our buried sadness, the dark wee hours when love fails and absolution eludes us.
Years ago a student of mine heard me talking about country and dismissed it all as “music for losers.” I was living then in a town in southwest Ohio, teaching at a college where students seldom questioned that they would follow their parents into the suburbs, buy a house as swollen as a goiter, and fill it with stuff. It was the kind of town where the business and professional classes loathed less successful people, feared them, dismissed them as shiftless. The lives of the working class were a mirror that no one wanted to look into. They came mostly from rural Kentucky, and in their part of town—in bars and doughnut shops, in beauty parlors and garages—the sounds of home always played from the radios.
In nearby Ohio cities like Norwood, with its Fisher body plant, and Middletown, with the big Armco steel works, the promise of union jobs turned generations of coal miners into factory workers in the classic post-World War II bargain: brutal labor for a decent standard of living. Dwight Yoakam sang of these people and of his own family—of their trips back and forth, back and forth, north toward opportunity, south toward home—in his fine song, “Reading, Writing, Route 23.” So did Johnny Cash in “One Piece at a Time,” about a Kentucky migrant who lands in Detroit in 1949 to work on the Cadillac assembly line, where over the next twenty years, he smuggles one of those long black beauties out in his lunchbox, piece by piece.
I’m going neither to Detroit nor Kentucky, but Johnny is riding with me now as I head back to my daughter Jade’s place in Pasadena. For fifty years “the Man in Black” sang about workers, prisoners, and outlaws. His career faded by the late seventies, then he stormed back as the old century waned with a series of CDs “The American Recordings,” dozens of tunes, remakes of his own country hits, as well as rock, punk, pop, and folk songs. Usually that kind of crossover proves disastrous, but Cash had something serious in mind, an American songbook that plumbed the depths of family and loyalty, sin and salvation, love and memory, life and afterlife.
I was in an LA record shop with Jade a few years ago where I bought Johnny’s 2003 compendium, Unearthed, five CDs of outtakes from “The American Recordings.” Jade’s musical taste runs to punk, hip-hop, and some pretty campy pop, but she always liked Johnny, and we sat silently in the parked car sampling several songs, and in particular, “Long Black Veil.” First written in 1950, its dark themes come straight out of traditional murder ballads. Johnny’s version on the 1968 Folsom Prison album was outstanding, but this new one is simply perfect. Told in first person, a man goes to the gallows for murder rather than reveal his alibi, an adulterous affair with his best friend’s wife. Old British folk ballads grab us with melodramatic tales revealed in the sparest language, and “Long Black Veil” borrows from that tradition. The lyrics cut back and forth from the trial and hanging to the windswept graveyard where the woman weeps over her lost lover. More than the story though, it is Cash’s longing baritone, the voice of the hanged man, that holds Jade and me spellbound.
Maybe my student was right, maybe this is music for losers. So much of country dwells in the past, in memory, in the passage of years, in loss. But not all of it. A day or two later, cruising Interstate 210 west of Pasadena, I slide in a CD of country’s poet laureate, Hank Williams, and we ride the foothills together. Hank’s songs remain unsurpassed sixty years after his death. He begins with the lovely and innocent “Hey, Good Lookin’,” where the only assets of a young man trying to make time with a local beauty are a few dollars, a souped-up car, and a gift of gab. “Whatcha got cookin’?” he asks, and we can just imagine them together years later, still finding “some brand new recipes.” This really is country music, filled with rustic imagery, from the comic “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It,” to the gently erotic “Settin’ the Woods on Fire,” to the joyous gospel classic, “I Saw the Light.”
But like the music he godfathered, the genius of Hank Williams—who died on the back seat of his limo, 1 January 1953, on his way to a gig in Canton Ohio, not yet thirty years old, hooked on pain killers, his health, marriage, and career in shambles—is revealed not so much in each piece but in the breadth of his whole work. Moments of contentment only made his fall harder, as he pulled from his soul songs like “Lost Highway,” “Ramblin’ Man,” and “I Heard that Lonesome Whistle Blow,” all about the inexplicable need to flee, to move on, to hop a freight train and disappear, not in joy but in deep, deep sadness.
For all of its bows to tradition, country is truly modern music, and rootlessness is its master trope. The songs’ perpetual longing for home and stability measure what we have lost. Hank’s early stage name was “Luke the Drifter,” and though he chose the life of a celebrity entertainer, he sang lovingly of stable country joys not out of cheap nostalgia but from first-hand knowledge of a dying way of life.
My own parents were dating back in the late 1940s, when Hank’s career took off, though I suspect they rarely listened to his music. My mother’s parents, Jewish immigrants from Latvia, moved their family from New York City to Los Angeles in 1928 when a doctor advised them that LA’s climate would be good for their eldest son, Herman, the family’s bright and shining star. Herman was a scholar and law student, too sickly from the lingering effects of childhood illness to survive another winter back East. Not long after the family arrived in California, he took a job on a San Fernando Valley ranch, where he wrote buoyant letters home, declaring that outdoor work in this healthful landscape surely would cure him. He died within a couple of months, and I don’t believe my mother or her parents ever fully emerged from that shadow.
Still, about ten years later, toward the end of the Great Depression, my grandfather opened a men’s clothing store downtown on Seventh and Los Angeles streets, and for a while the store prospered. He sold inexpensive goods, and a lot of his trade was with new migrants to the city, families from the South, Midwest and Plains, many of them dustbowl refugees who found salvation from hard times as America shifted to a war economy and the defense industry boomed in Southern California.
My father first saw Los Angeles in the late thirties, fell in love with the place, and moved out for good after World War II. He took a job downtown, selling men’s clothing for my mother’s father. It was all so American: This young man not only went west, within a couple of years he married the bosses’ daughter. My brother, my sister, and I were born in the early 1950s—when Hank Williams’ life crashed and burned—and those were the years my grandfather’s business failed and a decades-long round of badly paid retail sales jobs began for my father.
One of the only ways I know much about my family before I was born is through stories my parents told about my grandfather’s store. Growing up, we learned that he sponsored a weekly country music program on a local radio station, KRKD. My parents imitated the show’s host, who would say things over the air like “We have received hundreds of requests (the number was closer to three) for the Sons of the Pioneers’ ‘Cool Water,’” and again that old standby would spin. Hanging on the store walls were enormous photographs of movie stars like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, those singing cowboys of yesteryear who occasionally came in to make personal appearances. In telling us these stories, my parents mocked the customers—they apparently were all toothless and traveled only in enormous families—who stared in awe at the images of their silver-screen idols. Occasionally, these “Okies” sprang for a pair of pants off the dollar table, as my grandfather paced the aisles, muttering darkly.
Such stories had a purpose, though no one said so at the time, and maybe no one really understood it. We lived in a working-class suburb, housing built by the square mile to accommodate the post-war demand. The family next door was from Indiana, and the husband drove a bread truck. Across the street were folks from rural upstate New York; husband and wife worked in one of Lockheed Aircraft’s factories. The families of mailmen and construction workers, machinists and short-order cooks filled out the block. This was not what my parents had in mind for themselves or their children.
“Negroes,” as they were called through the fifties, barely existed in our part of town, and no one in our household viewed them as a particular menace. No, the real threat was the white working-class from the heartland, living cheek by jowl with us as neighbors. These were folks who headed to Newhall for “swap-meets” on Saturdays, or took off to the hills for weekend hunting trips, or watched “demolition derby” on television, or listened to country and western stars like Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb on the radio, or went to the Palomino Club on Lankershim Boulevard to dance to a little western swing. We were not supposed to become like them. “Swamp angels,” my father called them; “local-yokels,” “rednecks,” “hayseeds,” “stump-jumpers,” “shit-kickers.” Our family had missed a generation of upward mobility, but my parents were determined that my siblings and I would make up for it with a vengeance.
“You are not a cowboy,” an old girlfriend used to tell me in her Hindi-inflected English; “you’re a Jewish college professor.” True enough. But as I near my brother’s home in the dry seismic country where Interstate 5 merges with the Antelope Valley Freeway, now the enormous suburban developments of Valencia and Santa Clarita—though back in the Los Angeles of my youth, a place where westerns were filmed—Waylon Jennings sings “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.” Despite the title, this is no valentine. Yes, the music is elegiac as Waylon croons that he grew up dreaming of cowboys. But something is wrong. The subject of the song shifts back and forth from cowboy to singer until they’ve merged. Cowboys and their admirers are wistful dreamers, Waylon tells us, loners who take what they need then move on, leaving behind only sad songs. As if to declare the treachery of appearances, the music continues to sound like an homage to lost heroism but the words cut more and more deeply against that tone. Waylon sings of dreams wasted and youth misspent. In the end, homeless and loveless, even his “high-riding heroes” are left with only worn-out saddles and faded memories. The song is finally about growing old, about dying alone.
Pretty depressing stuff. But that is why I listen to country music as I drive around Los Angeles: It is a talisman against LA’s corrosive denial of life’s pain. Snow may never get there, but the emotional winters always do. Those good old boys on the CDs can’t cure what ails us, but at least they offer witness to our troubles, along with the solace that comes from shared suffering.