Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Tao of Spartacus Jones: Believing is Seeing

Here's something I learned from an early mentor, a 17-hand leopard appaloosa named Benny.

I was in the barn grooming him, getting ready to tack up for a ride.
He was good at ground-tying and would stand there for you until hell froze over or you asked him to move.
It so happened that one of the barn cats had very recently had a litter and one of the kittens was wobbling down the center aisle, on the prowl.
A little grey puffball.
Tiny tail sticking straight up like she was giving the world the finger.
Eyes watery, not having been opened for long.

She paused at the feet of this giant gelding I was brushing and peered up at him.
Benny gradually lowered his muzzle to investigate.
And as soon as he got his nose within range, that puny week-old kitten gave him a hiss and a swat of her mighty paw.

With a snort, Benny crow-hopped his 1100 pounds backwards and sideways about two feet, which happened to be where I was standing, and his hindquarters knocked me into the tack-room wall. He rolled his eyes, showing lot's more white than he should, pretty sure he was about to be the kitten's dinner.
The kitten sauntered off, maybe to pick on someone her own size.

Despite getting a huge bruise on my ass where I hit a doorknob, it was so ridiculous I had to laugh.
Bennie turned to me and stared balefully.
He was not amused.

It took a little while for what my equine mentor had so perfectly demonstrated to sink in, because I'm only a human being, and human beings are not as smart as horses. But it finally got through my thick skull.

Here's the thing:
If you conceive of yourself as prey, then any predator, no matter how fragile or puny, is a threat to you.
If you conceive of yourself as a predator, then no prey, no matter how big or powerful, frightens you.
What you ARE is important.
But what you BELIEVE you are is equally important.

So you have to be very careful what you believe about yourself.


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Tao of Spartacus Jones

Nothing great was ever achieved by being "realistic."
Or "reasonable."
Or "practical."
The danger isn't that we set our goals too high and fail,
but that we set them too low and succeed.


Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Putting the finishing touches on the new CD, I was in the studio all day and evening yesterday.
Had a chance to work with Sera Smolen on cello, who plays exquisitely and brought a couple of splendid ideas for "Noble Heart."

Max Buckholtz also came in to play on the Celtic-style tune, "A Horse of White," and he absolutely wailed. We finished mixes of "Montana," and "Many Ponies," too.

I'm lucky to have Will Russell in the control room. Keeps me from floating too far away from earth at times.

So that's 6 of the 15 tunes wrapped up.
Feels like we're in the home stretch.

Here they come
Many Ponies
Yellow, Black
Red and White.

Here they come
With a New Way
And everything's
Gonna be all right....

Monday, July 28, 2008

Star Dancer: Finale

I had already picked out a good place.

It was empty and for sale, and the nearest neighbors were more than a shout — or scream — away. I had checked with the realtor to find out if I could see the place, but there was no way anyone would be showing anybody a house on a SUNDAY, they informed me rather indignantly. Obviously speaking to an infidel. I had tucked the “for sale” signs out of sight, behind the barn.

I met Red at the appointed hour.

We drove out in my pickup truck — a “borrowed” truck. Told some jokes on the way. Some dirty ones. Some racial ones. Sipped some Jack Daniels from a pint bottle. I explained that the owner wouldn’t be home — he and the family would be in church -- but he’d said I was welcome to come out anytime.

I pulled way in so nobody happening by would spot the truck. We got out and headed for the barn. I let him go in first.

I think there was a moment when, on some deep level, he might have become aware of how quiet it was in there and suspected that something wasn't quite right.

He didn’t see any horse tack, or gear.

Didn’t see a horse trailer.

Didn’t see any horses, for that matter.

And he didn’t see the shovel I had left just inside the door.


Sunday, July 27, 2008

Star Dancer: Part Two

I don’t know why they called him “Red.”

There was nothing red about him.
Except maybe where hard drinking put blotches on his cheeks and bloodshot in his empty blue eyes. He was skinny as a stiletto and he had the look of a man who was just as dangerous. When your back was turned.

He liked to hang out in this roadhouse called “Cactus Jack’s Saloon.” The place was so old they still had a jukebox over by the pool table, even though on weekends they might have a DJ come in — on rare occasions a live band — and people would jam the place for country line dancing, which, as far as I could tell, was an unpleasant form of close order drill.

Okay, I wasn’t a big country fan: Beer bellies and fancy belt buckles. Imitation alligator or ostrich skin boots — or, worse real alligator or ostrich skin. Skoal tucked into the lip. Cowboy hat apparently nailed to their fucking heads. And those were the women.

Somebody had selected an ancient recording of Hank Williams Jr. doing his dad’s tune, “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
I dig hank Williams.
It started up just as I slid onto a barstool a couple seats down from Red.

I almost laughed out loud to see myself in the mirror: a down vest over a faded Levi jacket; black chamois shirt, Levi jeans, work boots. “John Deere” baseball cap tilted down over my eyes, partly to hold my wig on. Most of it was from a Goodwill Thrift Shop.

It wasn’t my style. But then, what color is a chameleon, anyway?

And it matched up well with the uniform that Red was wearing.
He had a woodland cammo baseball cap pushed back on his head, revealing sandy hair that matched the scruff of beard on his chin. Undershirt stained around the neck. Plaid flannel shirt, hunter orange vest. His shirttails hung out under the vest. Levis. Harness boots.
And hanging from his belt, a big old truckers’ key ring on a heavy chain.

I order a beer, sipped it from the bottle, just like he did, putting a stretch in my vowels that might suggest I was raised somewhere south of the Manson-Nixon Line. Just like he did, I leered at the buxom waitress who showed lots of cleavage above her ruffles. I made a comment about her breasts and he sniggered.

And that was the start of a beautiful friendship.

We got to talking. Bought each other a few beers. Made crass comments about women. Mostly I listened. Nodded a lot. Asked him what he thought about this, what he thought about that.
It was almost too easy.

I worked it into the conversation that my daughter had a birthday coming up and that I wanted to get her something really special — something my cunt of an ex-wife wouldn’t be able to top. Maybe a horse of her own. I told him I knew of a horse for sale that sounded like a pretty good deal, too.

Then I led him to questions he could ask me, letting him think it was all his idea, showing him how stupid I was when it came to horses, letting him flaunt all he thought he knew. Letting him walk into the trap all by himself, using just his ego and a little greed for bait.
It usually does the trick.

By the end of the night, my new pal had agreed to meet me the next morning to go out and have a good look at this horse I wanted to buy. Give me the benefit of his expert opinion for fifty bucks. I noticed, when he left, his keys jangled loudly at his side as he walked.
Like spurs.

(To Be Continued...)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Tao of Spartacus Jones

Most people think they're smarter than horses, which proves they're not.

Sex is like riding a horse -- it's embarrassing if you fall off.

Love is a lot like horse-keeping. There's a certain amount of manure you have to deal with if you're going to sustain the relationship. Unfortunately, no one's invented a good muck fork for love.
Now, with a horse you can pretty much predict how much manure there's going to be and even when. And it's a sign of good health, everything's working properly. On the other hand when two-legged gives you shit it isn't because it's necessary, it's just because they feel like it, and it usually means things aren't going well at all.

A lady I know told be some clever reasons why a horse is better than a man, and I don't doubt her word on it one little bit. But there's a flip side to that. A horse may be preferable to a woman, too:

A horse never asks if the saddle makes her rump look big.
A horse doesn't mind if you ride somebody else once in a while.
A horse would rather have carrots in her mouth; a woman wants them on her finger.
A horse only needs new shoes once ever 6 weeks or so.
What a horse does always makes sense.
If that IS a carrot in your pocket, your horse is happy to see you.
A horse doesn't mind if you don't feel like talking and won't keep asking you "What's wrong?"
You can mount a horse any way you want.
You don't have to take a horse to dinner and a show before you go for a ride.
A horse won't bite you or kick you for no good reason.
A horse likes a good roll in the dirt.
And most importantly, horses never, ever lie.

The mane thing with this tail, whither you agree or not, is that it's a cinch that I may just be horsing around, with no desire to stirrup any trouble, and it behooves you to stifle your rebukes and not take me TOO seriously.


Star Dancer: Part One

Star Dancer, fly me away
Ride me off to a better day.
Your hooves barely touching the ground.
I don’t care if we never come down…

(from "Star Dancer," on the CD Many Ponies)

They say that when the Carribe Indians first saw the Conquistadors on horseback, they thought horse and rider were one. Now, having known Star Dancer awhile, it’s easy for me to understand how you could make that mistake.

Star Dancer is an 18 year- old Appaloosa gelding. He’s gray with patches of black like an approaching storm. Like most Appaloosas he has a marvelous combination of speed, stamina and toughness. The easy, rolling rhythm of his gait when walking is a mantra for relaxation, soothes the stiffness from hips and back. His trot is like gliding, his canter like the backward and forward lullabye of a giant rocking horse. And when he gallops, it’s like soaring.

He responds to the merest knee pressure or shifting of weight so immediately that it’s almost like telepathy.
Hell, maybe it IS telepathy.

It makes me wonder about horses. They’re so powerful and yet so gentle. They could easily buck us off, bludgeon us into gory pulp with those hooves. I wonder why they don’t. Why do they let us ride them? Why have they carried loads, dragged plows, pulled wagons, carried us into deadly battle, lived and died with us and for us?

The Old People would probably say they do it because they see how small and weak and stupid humans are and they take pity on us.

I haven’t known Star Dancer very long, but we seemed to have a certain rapport right from the start. I enjoy his company — maybe I enjoy the company of anyone who can tolerate mine. I spend more time grooming him than I absolutely have to, delighting in the warmth of him, tracing along the contours of his muscles with the brush, following with my hand, combing out his tail and mane — even when I know he’s going to go right out and roll in the mud.
I’ve sat in his stall for long times, just being with him. Talking to him. Listening to him. Seeing what I can learn by osmosis. Horses know secrets. But they don’t proselytize.
Once, I fell asleep, stayed there with him, stretched out on the hay, my back propped against the gate. Awakened to the soft, warm nuzzle of his nose against my cheek, just before dawn.
I turn him out on warm nights, leading him out to his paddock, navigating along the rutted path by starlight. After I walk him in past the gate and slip off his halter, sometimes I climb up on the fence and stay awhile, breathing in the soothing combination of earth smells aloft on the breeze, looking out at a billion other worlds that have got to be better than this one, and feeling quite small. Often Star Dancer will come and stand near me, nudge my leg with the side of his face until I stroke his neck. Or rub his ears. He likes that.

And carrots.
He likes carrots.

I always bring him some nice carrots. Sometimes I munch one along with him. I figure I hate to drink alone, so maybe..... Once in a while, I put a carrot in my jacket pocket and let him ease it daintily out with his teeth. He’d make a great dipper. Maybe, if I’d met him earlier, when I was a kid, I’d have turned out to be somebody different, too.

One evening, working out with Star Dancer in the indoor arena, I had the feeling something was different. He seemed nervous, on edge, like a guy who’s been on a cocaine binge. Walking out and trotting, he kept sidling, turning his head to watch me out of the corner of his eye, as if he didn’t want to takes his eyes off me. The way you’d keep your eye on a guy you thought was going to give you one right in the back.

It puzzled and disturbed me.
I was walking him along the rail, about to ask Jill, my riding instructor, what she thought the matter was. Suddenly, I became aware that my keys were still hanging from my belt. There are quite a few keys on that ring, attached to a big brass hook that’s a souvenir from a couple of years I spent on a ship. Used to carry my bos’n keys on that hook. I usually leave them with my coat in the tack room because losing them in the arena would mean a search through dirt and dung that would make finding a needle in a haystack seem as easy as bottom- dealing an ace-high flush.

I asked Jill to hang on to them for me and tossed them over to her.

The keys jangled loudly as she fumbled them and with the sound of it Star Dancer abruptly bolted. I had to move him forward hard to keep him from rearing up and probably tossing me on my ass. I spoke to him, reassuring him and in a moment, he settled down. For the rest of the workout he was perfectly fine, back to his old self again. We did some easy cantering — he knows how to do it but I need the practice — then ran around a few barrels —he loves barrel racing — and walked a few laps.

Afterward, I untacked him and I walked him around the arena slow and easy to cool out. No hurry. There's no such thing as time in the world of horses. Jill kept us company and I asked her what she thought about Star Dancer’s aversion to my keys.

“He’s just got a couple of funny little things like that,” she said. “A sudden change in the environment, a sudden noise and any horse will get on his guard. That’s how they survive. Being really aware of potential threats.”

Sure. But keys?

“Plus,” she added, “it may have something to do with his being abused some, back before we got him.”
“What do you mean, ‘abused’?”
“There was this guy. Hired hand. A real Marlborough-man cowboy, you know what I mean?”

I knew the type she meant, though by a different name.

“One afternoon he laid into Dancer with a shovel.”
“He did WHAT?” I could feel an old familiar tightening in my gut.
“Didn’t hurt him real bad or anything but...”
“A shovel? “ I said. “He hit him with a fucking SHOVEL?”
“Fortunately that guy didn’t last long,” Jill nodded. “When Bonnie found out— you met Bonnie, right?”

I had. Bonnie was the B in B&L stables.

“Bonnie canned his ass right away.”
“Not soon enough,” I said.
“No, I guess not.”

I brought Star Dancer to a halt, gave him a little massage and he almost nodded out, which is ok with me. Off in one corner, a pair of tabby barn cats were hunting for a mouse in a small haystack to the amusement of Sheba, a grand dame German Shepherd whose only remaining duty was to enjoy her retirement. Outside, crickets.

No wonder Star Dancer and I got along so well.
We had some history in common.

Finally, we headed for his paddock We stopped by where Jill was measuring out sweetfeed and I asked her— very casually, trying to make it sound like idle curiosity — “So this shovel guy. You know his name?”

(To Be Continued....)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Tao of Spartacus Jones

When there is a discrepancy between your actions and your beliefs, you can do one of three things:
Change your actions to be consistent with your beliefs,
Change your beliefs to be consistent with your actions,
or deny that there's a discrepancy.

If you do the first, you're an idealist.
If you do the second, you're a pragmatist.
If you do the third, you're a politician.


Monday, July 21, 2008


Especially for my friends Lori, Coyote, Linda, Mouse, Ric, Sarah, Margaret, Lianne, Pam, Dawn, Frank, Sue, Kate, and Kimberly, here are the lyrics from one of the songs on the MANY PONIES cd.

This tune wasn’t part of the original plan. It came to me, pretty much fully-formed (mistaking my head for that of Zeus?) while I was running my sprints up the Amy Lane hill, and I don’t think I’ve changed three words from the first draft.

The vocal is by Marie Burns (of The Burns Sisters fame), accompanied by my favorite pianist Molly MacMillan. Sera Smolen will be sitting in on cello.

Noble Heart

I was the child
Who dreamed of soaring high above the clouds
On Pegasus, my steed.
But I won’t lie
I never dared to try
‘til the day you came to me in need.

And now we’re one,
Like the sunlight and the sun and some may say
That I have done my part
But I know
It was you who made me grow
With the power of your noble heart.

Was I cruel? A thoughtless, selfish fool?
Is my fate ---- to realize too late?
Forgive the past – and we will dance at last.
To the rhythm of your noble heart.

And when one day
Your mighty wings must rest and, passing on
Into legend, you depart
To leave me healed,
Forever more I’ll feel
The power of your noble heart.

If I’m strong – and help the weak along
If I stand – yet wield a gentle hand
If I’m true – it’s only thanks to you
And the power of your noble heart.

If I’m strong -- and true to what I do
It’s thanks to you and your noble heart.

Listen to the song here.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


MANY PONIES is the title of my new CD coming out in August, god-willing and the creek don't rise.

"Horse-inspired songs for horse-inspired people," is how I describe it.

The inspiration for the title song, and so, in a way for the whole album, was a painting by a wonderful artist, Cecilia Henle. The style is primitive, in the best sense of that word, and looks quite American Indian to me.
And other-worldly, as well.
It reminded me a lot of the Horse Nation Dance described in Black Elk Speaks.
Cecilia isn't only a terrific artist, but she was wonderful about allowing me to use her piece for the project, very encouraging, too.

When the horse (t'shunka wakan) came to the Plains Indians, especially the Lakotas, it created a revolutionary change in their culture and ushered in a whole new way of doing things. Since that time, the horse has been symbolic of something new, something radically different, or revolutionary change. Horses brought a revolutionary change to my way of thinking, acting, being, too.

But for the New to be born, the Old has to die.
To become the person you will be, you have to let go of the person you've been.
It's that simple.
But it ain't easy.
Trust me on that one.

See. horses saved my life.
I’d be a much different man if not for them, and I’m not sure you’d like him.
I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t.

Horses taught me things that changed me.
Taught me by the nature of their being.
Made me a better man and a better person.

If you know and love horses, too, if you’ve been touched by them, been inspired by their courage and nobility, if you’ve delighted in their company, felt a deep peace and “at-home-ness” in their presence, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.
If not, for now, just take my word for it.

Because the thing is, a whole lot of what you learn from horses is applicable to any relationship with anyone, anytime, anyplace.
Like the importance of honesty.
And trust.
And respect.
And loyalty.
And about being strong enough to be gentle --- and gentle enough to be strong.
You might not find these qualities in many two-leggeds. But they are common characteristics in horses.

This collection of tunes includes several different genres.
There’s something country, something folk, something pop, something Celtic, something Spanish….
I don't care much for an album where every song sounds the same. So I've tried to make each one of these a little unique in some way. I hope you’ll find something there that speaks to you and I’d love for you to let me know which ones you like best.

Every penny we make from this CD will go to help horses. There are a couple of established horse rescues we’ll give some support to, and one that’s in development, Common Song Horse Sanctuary. Too many horses are neglected or abused and thousands go to slaughter every year, an ignoble end for such a noble creature.
I have to do something about that if I can.
Too many kids are neglected or abused, too.
And I also have to do something about that.

My grand plan is to put wounded horses and wounded kids together so they can heal each other.
Maybe I’ll pull it off, maybe I won’t.
But I don’t quit.
That’s something I learned from horses.

Like I said, horses saved my life.
I have to do my best to return the favor.
It’s debt of honor.


Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Breath of Allah

Summer hasn't left just yet, but the signs are unmistakable that she's been seeing somebody else.

She still comes over, but she arrives later and later and leaves earlier and earlier. Even at times when she may feel as warm as she ever was, she seems somehow distant. Her body's here, but her spirit is somewhere else. Her smiles become forced. She laughs too loud and too long at your jokes, which aren't nearly that funny, trying to pretend nothing's changed, but being a lousy liar.

You want to tell her it's all right.
That everything runs its course and when it's time, it's time.
Move on.

But you don't tell her.

Partly because you can't bear the thought of the look it will put in her eyes, and partly because, somewhere deep inside, you know it's better if she figures it out for herself.

So maybe you go out to the paddock one night, just after moonrise, the light from that huge pearl turning night almost into day. As soon as the languid wind carries your scent up the hill, he prances over to you, knowing full well you always have an apple in your pocket.
He munches his tribute in two slobbery bites, and, that formality concluded, gives his mane a shake. You hold your face close to his a moment or two, breathing into his nostrils and breathing in his moist breath in return.

"What's up, Jack?" he nickers.

A sigh is the only appropriate reply.

"Got the blues, huh?"

You say nothing, gaze up at the full moon, feeling in your every cell the profound appropriateness of the word "lunacy."

He nuzzles your elbow. "Want to go for a ride?"

The thought of going back, dragging all that tack over and putting it on, suddenly seems like an unreasonable chore, demanding far more energy than you have.

"Fuck it," he says, as if reading your mind. "Come on, let's just go."

And "let's just go" is exactly what you need.
Where, doesn't matter.

You strip off your clothes, tossing your stuff carelessly against a fence post, until you're down to bare skin. Your nakedness stirs up the wind's curiosity and she comes over and kisses all the places that she usually doesn't get to kiss, making them vibrate with life. There must be rough debris under your feet, but you don't feel it. As far as you're concerned, it's like walking on a plush carpet.

He offers you his mane and you grab a handful of it, pivot back for a good lead-off, and swing up onto his back. You find your spot, letting your legs go into those places behind his shoulders, where they fit so perfectly, you'd think they were created with this in mind.
Who knows?
Maybe they were.

You sink deeply onto him, into him, feeling the soft bumps of his spine wedge up between your glutes, and against the back of your scrotum. The heat of him seeps into your inner thighs and fills you up. The night air, so much cooler, alights on your skin like a butterfly.

And you just go.

The thud of his hoof-beats shinnies up your spine and your core begins to vibrate to that rhythm like a tuning fork.

Then the strangest thing happens: you start to melt.

Like a candle left in the hot sun. But this sun is coming from under you. Your legs melt into his legs, pounding the earth in a sacred dance; your hips melt into his hips and you can feel the powerful surge of your rump, with your maleness swaggering with every step; your arms melt into his neck, your hands become his head.
Now, you're just a little lump on his back, feeling the wind in your face as you fly through the night like a witch to the sabbat.

Along the old logging road you race, propelled by raw elation, instinctively ducking and dodging to avoid tree limbs, splashing through the shallow stream in the ancient riverbed, sailing effortlessly over a rotting tree trunk, bent low in homage across your path.

Up Bald Hill you climb, up, up to the very top, like Rocky running up those stairs, and once there, you snort and blow, and triumphantly call out your name to the stars.
Your heart pounding like a war drum, you circle around in your victory dance, stepping high and strong and proud, overflowing with the sheer joy of doing so perfectly what the creator made you to do.

In that moment, it isn't that you KNOW God.

In that moment, you ARE God.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Tao of Spartacus Jones:

If you have one person you call Friend, you're lucky.
If you have two people you call Friend, you're blessed.
If you have three people you call Friend, you're kidding yourself.


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Story Behind the Song: Give Me Liberty!

When I was a kid, I wrote a lot of songs about love and peace and brotherhood and justice, clinging to the naïve hope that, somehow, my little songs would change the world.

I may have splashed around a little, but it was an extremely small pond.
When it comes down to it, not very many people ever heard any of my passionately sincere ditties and of those who did, I can't be sure that anyone was ever touched, let alone moved, by anything I ever sang. You know that question about the tree falling in a forest where there's no one to hear it?

I know the answer to that one.

Not that music didn't get me laid with enviable frequency — I don't want to seem ungrateful for the fun parts. But to be pretty good, when you dream of being great, just doesn't cut it.
After making that scene — or trying to — for a lot of years, I found that my creative energy was worn down to the nub. I was tired of playing in bands that were doomed from the outset to the inevitable sameness of sound that everything we did would eventually acquire.
I was tired of playing solo gigs, hearing orchestras in my head while I filled in the chords. It was like tap dancing in a deep-sea diving suit. Or describing the color red to someone who's blind. Or...well, you get the idea.

So I quit.

I still played the guitar, but strictly for my own amusement. Sor. Bach. Flamenco. Not exactly on the Billboard top 40. Who cares?

And I might have gone blissfully on, eventually disappearing up my own ass, had it not come to pass that George W. Bush took office as President of the United States.

I say "took office" because, let's face it, he won that election like Elvis really earned that black belt of his.
Faster than you could say "peace dividend," the coke-snorting, cheer-leading frat boy-sociopath was driving the whole country headlong toward a telephone pole — and you know how it is with that kind of thing: innocent people get killed and the drunk driver survives.

More than that, GWB seemed intent on being known as the man of the century. Unfortunately, it was the 11th century. He was pulling out all the stops to roll back human progress to pre-Renaissance standards, dismantling every advancement made in liberty and justice since the Magna Carta.

Déjà vu hit me so hard I almost got whiplash.

Suddenly, it was 1968 again.
And Nixon-on-steroids was in the White House.

Every day brought more bad news about how this arrogant moron and the members of his neo-fascist circle=jerk were gang-raping Lady Liberty.

Apparently, Boy George had found a copy of Mein Kampf and taken it for one of those "how to" books from the self-improvement section, which must have been somewhat frustrating for whoever read it to him. You know, a little bit each night just before beddie-by.

I caught myself in the sporting goods store buying new sweatpants, but gazing across the aisles, looking longingly at .30 calibre rifles with a good scopes and absently calculating windage adjustments instead of thinking about baseball to last longer during sex.

And then it happened.

One night I awoke from a fitful sleep, padded across the cold floor to my all-purpose keyboard and coffee-maker, snatching up my Jack Daniels from the kitchen counter on the way by like Kevin Costner grabbing that kid's letter in The Postman.

An hour and two broken pencils later, I had a new song. First one in almost 10 years. And a pretty good one too, even if I do say so myself.

And George Bush, bless his pea-pickin' heart and pea-sized brain, had been my inspiration.

Now, you and I both know that writing these songs is a psychological safety valve.
It's a way of letting off steam and keeping my sanity, which means NOT doing something that, on some level, I might regret.
If I didn't write, I might go back to that sporting goods store, you see.
And I'm all stocked up on sweatpants.
That wouldn't be pleasant for anyone, I'm sure, least of all me.
Well, maybe second to the least.

New songs are coming out pretty regularly now.
Thank you, George. Thank you for doing your best to turn the country I love into Nazi fucking Germany.

It doesn't look like you'll become a decent, honest, freedom-loving human being anytime soon, so I'll have plenty of inspiration.

But maybe you just better hope I don't run out of creativity.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Where the Arrow Points to the Rainbow: Finale

As a high school freshman, I had once dated a horsewoman.
Or horse-GIRL, to be more accurate. I accompanied her to horse-shows from which she carried home armfuls of colorful ribbons. I sometimes helped feed (they only had four horses) and when haying time came around, I learned what it was like to be hot, sweaty, itchy, sneezy and exhausted. Six tough dwarves out of seven.

One day, when I hitch-hiked over to her house I found that everybody was gone. Everybody except a neighbor.
Marilyn was her name.
Pale skin, brown eyes, straw-blonde hair, extremely buxom, the more obviously so due to her petite stature. She was dressed in dirty, faded levi's and cowboy boots. Plaid shirt. Cut-off sleeves.

I liked Marilyn.

She explained to me that a couple horses had gotten loose and had been spotted out near the beach at Lake Villanova and everybody was out after them before something awful happened. Lots of tourist traffic around there in the summertime.
She was about to take off and join in the search.

"You want to come? You could ride Sweet Sioux."

Sweet Sioux was Marilyn's horse but she boarded it temporarily at my girlfriend's place while her own barn was being partly re-built. She peered up at me skeptically as she asked, chewing on a stalk of grass.

Well, hell, I was a teenager and I suffered from all the signs of testosterone poisoning, including transient idiocy.
Maybe not so transient.

"Sure," I said.

In no time, we were in the saddle, crossing the back pastures in a straight line toward Lake Villanova with me pretending I knew what I was doing, desperately trying to remember and imitate everything I'd seen my girlfriend do on horseback.
I doubt Marilyn was fooled for a second. But the testosterone poisoning syndrome allowed me to believe she was. Forced me to believe it.

Fortunately for me, Sweet Sioux knew pretty much how to horse and more or less walked along with Marilyn's horse -- just as she would have done if I hadn't been there at all. But I got feeling quite good about myself. I was a natural.
At a WALK.

Without sighting hair or hoof of the missing horses, we emerged at Lake Villanova about a block from the public beach. We could see it from there. Crowded even on an overcast Tuesday. Even crowded, that beach looked pretty inviting. Lot's of bare skin.
I wondered what Marilyn was wearing under her jeans.
But I wasn't going to find out.

At that moment, Marilyn spotted the missing horses, both of them, far across the fields, maybe a quarter mile away, and she picked up a trot in their direction. Sweet Sioux, without so much as consulting me, did likewise.

Now, the trot is a more difficult gait than the walk.
More difficult than the canter, I'd say.
It's particularly difficult when a complete lack of balance causes you to bounce on your testicles a few times. My rugged cahones were veterans with their fair share of bumps and thumps, but there's nothing to compare with getting them between you and the saddle and landing on them with your full weight.
I believe that's how posting was actually invented.
In any case, nothing like it to teach you to sit back on your pockets.
The dizziness and nausea that accompanied full contact scrotum-squashing subsided just as we caught up to the errant steeds.

Usually horses will just join up and follow. Strong herd instinct, you know, But these two wanted to play.

One of them, the chestnut, took off to the left and the bay took off to the right, initiating the ever popular chase-me game. I wish I could take some credit for catching one of those horses, but I can't. What I will take credit for is hanging on and staying in the saddle while Sweet Sioux caught one.
Seems that somewhere in her checkered past, Sioux must have worked cattle, because she cut off the ring on that chestnut time after time until she finally got her to quit and stand still. Her halter was still on, so it was a simple matter for me to lean out and snap a lead rope on her and pony her along behind me. Marilyn had easily grabbed the bay and was lounging on her saddle horn, squinting at me as I approached in triumph.

"That was some pretty fancy riding," she said.

"T'warn't nothin' ma'am," I said. Ok, maybe that's not what I said. But that's what it sounded like. It’s the effect of testosterone on the tongue...

So back to the present.
Casey and I had about a 15 minute lesson with our host, Jill, long enough for her to decide we'd be safe on a trail ride, I guess. She was going out with us and so was another woman named Christina, who was a veterinarian and was married to a classical guitarist of some renown.

We were out about three hours, I think. Most of it through pine forest. It was peaceful there. Quiet. Hoofbeats muffled by a thick carpet of pine needles. Crossed trinkling steams. Up and down hills. Startled some wild turkeys. Yielded right-of-way a half-dozen deer sprinting across the trail. Somewhere a hawk screeching. Finished up with a nice hundred-yard canter home. It rained a little, while we were out. Just enough to cool things off pleasantly after a string of hot muggy days.

We dismounted and walked along the access road between the paddocks, past horses grazing, rolling, playing. I felt completely at peace and would have been content to stay there with them forever. There had been times I’d come in contact with horses before in my life and I wondered why I’d never been touched by their power, their nobility before.
They say “when the student is ready, the master appears.”
I guess I hadn’t been ready.
I was ready now.

As we reached barntard, we happened to walk through a few puddles and in one of them something caught my eye, just as Moonshine stepped in it.

"Look, Jack!" Casey was pointing skyward. A rainbow stretched from horizon to horizon, one end disappearing into the forest we'd ridden through.

I suddenly realized that that's what I'd seen reflected in the puddle.
But there was something else, too.
When Moonshine stepped in that puddle, he left behind a clear hoofprint. Part of the arc of his hoof lay perfectly along part of the arc of the rainbow. The impression of his frog was clear, too. Looking just like an arrowhead.
An arrow.
Pointing up at the rainbow.

It hit me like a jolt of expresso.
"Go where the arrow points to the rainbow," I mumbled.
"What?" asked Casey.
"Nothing." I said. But I knew that something had changed in me. Or been discovered. Or re-discovered. From that moment, horses would become my closest friends, my mentors, my family.

I could have sworn I heard my old Dream Indian cackling with delight.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Where the Arrow Points to the Rainbow: Part III

Jan Jan Johanson owned a small dairy farm in Wisconsin, just across the Illinois border.
Like most small farmers, he was gradually sinking into the quicksand of debt and it was his job with the railroad that kept him afloat. I can't quite recall whether he was a conductor or what.
I think he was more or less in charge of the tiny Illinois Central station at Englewood, Illinois, about a 30 minute train ride from the Chicago loop.

I don't know how he knew my father, but they were pals of some kind. Maybe Army buddies. Maybe jail mates.

Jan would stop by our place for a coffee or a beer from time to time and always brought a little something for each of us kids -- piece of candy or something like that.
And he always called me "Best."

"Where's Best?" he'd ask. "There he is. Come one over here, Best. How'd you get to be such a good kid, huh? You're the best boy I know." And so on.

That may not seem like a very big deal.
But when people beat the shit out of you every day and tell you what a rotten, worthless bastard you are, having someone express such a different opinion --- well, there aren’t really any words that can describe it.
Remembering his kindness, even now, I can feel my eyes start to tear up.
Can't help it.

At least one time, probably several times, we visited Jan's farm. My dad did some work for him, I think. Worked on his tractor, maybe. My dad was good with machines.
Too bad I hadn't been one.

When Jan Johanson lifted me up onto the back of one of his horses, it was a delight for the senses: the sounds (creak of leather, thud of a hoof stomping away a fly, swish of tail, muted nickering – like a horse chuckle); the smells, (saddle soap. horse sweat, fresh hay, manure); the feelings (hard saddle seat, cool gust of wind rippling my shirt, hot sun on my back) the sights (horse’s ears like the front sight of a giant pistol, people looking smaller and less powerful from way up on horseback, and being so high up I could see farther than even the adults); and the taste --- the taste of freedom.

At some time or other, Jan was in the saddle and I rode on his lap. The reins ran through my tiny hands, wrapped inside his huge, gnarled paws, so that he could pretend it was I who was doing the riding.
"Ask him to go this way, Best, look over there..." and we went. "Ask him to trot, Best," and he brought us up to a trot for me. "That's the way! How'd you learn to ride a horse so good, Best?"

We cantered, too. It's an exquisite feeling, hips rolling forward and back in synch with that triplette hoofbeat, wind thundering in your ears, horsemane flying.
It can take you beyond mere time and space.
Way beyond.

One Christmas, I got a special present from Jan.
It was a toy horse, like a rocking horse, only suspended by four heavy springs. A golden pony with a white mane and tail.. I spent every waking moment I could on that plastic palamino -- and I’m told I would often climb on her clad in cowboy hat and jammies and go to sleep in the saddle.

Those are about the only good memories I have from my childhood.
Most of it is a blur of abuse, one day indistinguishable from another, and I’m sure I’ve buried it to avoid remembering, the way you’ll black out when pain is too great to bear. But these good memories, I don’t know.
Maybe I hid them away so no one could take them from me.
Going to the horsebarn for Casey’s birthday brought them back where I could find them.

And it brought back another horse memory, too…


Sunday, July 13, 2008

Where the Arrow Points to the Rainbow: Part II

Gradually I healed up from those burns.
And gradually, I stopped having the dream and forgot all about it.
Fast forward about 30 years…

I was dating a girl named Casey.
Casey at the bat.
Except she never struck out.

One night in that warm post-coital languor that often makes you say really stupid things, she mentioned that she used to have a pony when she was a kid, but hadn't gone horseback riding since childhood, and would love to do it again sometime.

I liked Casey.

So I looked into it an found out there was a place, not too far away, with a couple of hundred acres to ride and State Forests on three sides, with even more trails. So just for fun, I arranged for us to go on a trail ride for her birthday.

Walking into the barn, I was assailed by the combined scent of hay, manure, horse sweat and leather. To some people this is an unpleasant odor. For me it seemed like some long forgotten ambrosia wafting on the summer wind. Very relaxing. Even welcoming. And because I wasn’t accustomed to relaxed welcomes, it put me a little on edge.

I didn’t know what I was feeling, but something was definitely up.

I was introduced to a grey Arab-Quarterhorse gelding named Moonshine. Our host showed us how to tack up, explained this and that. Some of it I seemed to remember from some way-back-when that had never been.

Moonshine sniffed me. Nuzzled my hand very delicately with his nose, wiggling his lips side to side like Samantha on Bewitched. His unclipped whiskers tickled my hand and made me smile.
But what really struck me, what completely fascinated me, astounded me, awed me -- and a whole bunch of other synonyms -- was the look in Moonshine's eyes.
He didn't just look at me.
He looked INTO me.

I felt like I was standing there completely naked, being examined by a being of impeccable spiritual character. He saw me for who I was and what I was and accepted me, without making any judgments about it. And for a moment, looking into his eyes, I saw me the way he saw me. The reflection of myself in his eyes was someone I didn't recognize. Like looking in a funhouse mirror. You know it's you, but it doesn't look like you. At least not the you that you've grown accustomed to seeing.
But it was a two-way street, too. And I had the odd sensation that I could see through his eyes into his soul, jus as he could with me. I must have looked a little….
"Are you all right," Casey asked me. "You look a little…..”
"I'm fine," I lied.

When I swung effortlessly up into the saddle, I was swept by a jolt of long-forgotten childhood memory, and I suddenly remembered Jan Johanson....


Friday, July 11, 2008

The Tao of Spartacus Jones

Nothing eats away at your soul more insidiously or more surely than the acceptance of unearned and undeserved accolades. It's dishonest, of course. That's reason enough not to do it right there.
But it's also spirit-stunting because you can't pretend to be something and actually BE that something at the same time. It's the difference between "air guitar" and actually playing a guitar.
And people who get good at pretending rarely get good at anything else. Too much energy spent maintaining the facade.
Elvis's black belt.
Evander Holyfield's decision against Lennox Lewis.
George W. Bush being "president," or "commander-in-chief."
And the beat goes on...

How many times have I seen it in a class, for example, where the primary focus was to pass THE TEST and get your ticket punched instead of really learning the material? Particularly true of "required" classes.

There's an odd thing that few people seem to understand: that the motivation for doing something may have NOTHING to do with extrinsic rewards. Not money, not fame, not praise, not belonging, not comfort, not even physical survival. Sometimes you do something just because it's who and what you are, how you've decided to live, in order to act autonomously adequately, appropriately and artfully in the world. Abraham Maslow refers to this as "self-actualization."

This is not to say one disdains praise out narcissistic perfectionism or false modesty.

There's a song, by Sting, that's one of my favorites. Part of it says this:

He deals the cards as a meditation
And those he plays never suspect
He doesn't play for the money he wins
He doesn't play for respect
He deals the cards to find the answer
The sacred geometry of chance
The hidden law of a probable outcome
The numbers lead a dance

I know that the spades are swords of a soldier
I know that the clubs are weapons of war
I know that diamonds mean money for this art
But that's not the shape of my heart....

In a film called THE YAKUZA, there's a moment in a scene in which a former yakuza is trying to explain to a "gaijn" about "giri," or duty and why he must obey his code of honor and do what honor dictates, fulfill his obligations, his "giri," instead of just "walking away" as the Anglo suggests the yakuza could do.
The Anglo says, "If you nobody's MAKING you do it, you don't believe in any heaven or hell. So what do you believe in that makes you do it?"
The Yakuza replies. "Giri."

If I have to choose, I'd rather deserve honors I don't receive than to receive honors I don't deserve.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Q & A: Where the Arrow Points to the Rainbow

Q: How did you first get into horses? Why horses?

A. Not a short answer to that...Here's the long one.

It’s funny how things turn out.
When I was a kid in black leather and blue jeans, lurking on the streets of Chicago like some kind of petulant shark, one of the worst insults you could spit at somebody was to call him a “farmer.”
Or “clod-hopper.”
Or "shit-kicker. "
Or “Clem,” to be short and cute.

If you’d ever told me back then that one day I would be more than happy to trade the comforting city cacophony and the stench of exhaust fumes for the lullabye of horses munching on grass and the aroma of fresh manure, I’d have slapped the white right off your face.
But very often, after something completely unexpected happens, you can look back over the whole course of events and see how obviously inevitable that something was.
I guess this is a good example.

As I understand it, I was born a little pre-maturely (and in some ways, some might say, I’ve been ahead of my time ever since). But I wasn’t very strong, and I almost didn’t make it. While still an infant, I got pneumonia, double pneumonia, actually. I gather that everyone was pretty sure I was going to die, but I managed to disappoint them. Then, when I was maybe four years old, I was reading the funny papers and munching a piece of cake – chocolate cake, if I recall correctly, with coconut frosting – and I absently began to chew on a lamp cord.

To tell the truth, I really don’t have much memory about what happened next.
But I guess it fried me pretty good. I was bedridden for quite a while, slathered in Unguentine burn ointment and swathed in bandages. Ate everything through a straw. Lips always dry and cracked, it hurt, anyway

It was during that time that I first had THE DREAM. It went like this:
I was way up high, like I was 8 feet tall, walking along with my feet never touching the ground, as if I were flying.
Walking beside me was an elderly Indian, his features nearly lost among the wrinkles. A hawk nose. Whispy remains of white hair, thinning bald on top, stirred gently by the wind. Skimpy braids wrapped in blood red cloth. He worn some kind of robe wrapped around shoulders, fur nearly as white as his own hair. His weathered skin stretched across stringy muscle and I could just glimpse a pair of ragged scars, one on each half of his chest, like a pair of exclamation points.
He was singing to himself in a high, scratchy voice, not words, really, just an Indian version of scat. We paused a moment and stood together looking out over a vast prairie panorama and he fell suddenly silent.

Then he looked up at me and spoke in an odd language which I somehow understood. He pointed a bony finger at me and said, dead-serious, “Go where the arrow points to the rainbow.”

I was completely baffled.
What the hell did THAT mean?

And he apparently thought my bewilderment was delightful because at that point his smile-wrinkles ate up his face and, with a phlegmy chuckle, he went back to his song...

When I woke up, not quite re-oriented from dreamtime.
And the dream had been incredibly vivid. I fully expected him to be sitting there beside my bed. I could still hear those words, his gulch-dry voice still in my ears. "Go where the arrow points to the rainbow."

I had no more idea what it meant, awake than I had asleep, so I decided it didn’t really mean anything. After all, I’d had weird dreams both before and after my little joust with electricity and I figured this was just another one.

I was wrong.


Monday, July 7, 2008

Q & A: Why do you write songs, anyway...?

Q. Why do you write songs, anyway? When did you start? What was your first song about? How many songs have you written, total?

Maybe I do it because songwriting is a lot cheaper than therapy.
I'm about half kidding.
Sometimes I do it to get my mind off of something else.
Sometimes I do it because I CAN'T get my mind off it, so I write about it.
Sometimes I do it to laugh and that usually works.
Sometimes I do it rather than just weep but I often wind up doing both.
Sometimes I do it rather than kill somebody. That's worked pretty well.
So far.
Mostly there's something I want to say, or need to say, or a story I want to tell and a song is how I do that.

I read someplace that, in the way-back-when, wandering minstrels singing for their supper carried around epic chansons de geste (tales of knights and chivalry) set to music to help remember everybody's favorites.
Apparently they had a top-40 THEN, too...

According to unreliable sources, I was always making up little songs and singing to myself even as an infant, but I don't remember that. It's probably baloney.
I wrote my first actual song when I was 13. Same year I played in my first band.
That first song was about unrequited love.
Looks like that's what my last one will be about, too.
Some people never learn.

I still have that tune around someplace, in an old notebook. I keep it for perspective.

How many tunes?
I have no idea.
For a decade or so, I wrote at least one song every day. Sometimes a couple. Sometimes a couple of variations on the same idea, figuring out where to go with it.
A lot of what I whipped up, I ripped up. Idea too small to keep, had to throw it back. But maybe once a week or so, I'd pen something I thought was worth keeping.
Sometimes I was right.
Not often.

Now, I don't write as much, but I keep more of what I write.
Quality over quantity.
At least, I hope so.

I guess YOU can be the judge of that. :)


Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Story Behind the Song

One of the things I'll do with this blog is tell you about why I wrote a particular song, the inspiration behind it, or what it means to me.
People have sometimes asked, so I thought it might be a good thing to do.

The thing is, just because I wrote a song, that doesn’t mean my own interpretation of it is the only possible one – or even the best one.
Take vocals, for example. I’ve written some things --- like Noble Heart – that I wrote with somebody else in mind to sing, not me. I might sing it, and I might do all right with it. But the other vocalist does it a little different, different inflections and so on.
We're doing the same song, but we interpret it differently because of who we are. There can be more than one “right” answer to a question and often there is.
So maybe what a song means to you is a little different than what it means to me even though I wrote it. That’s okay.

I write what I believe to be true.
Sometimes, if something is true, it’s true in more than one way and on more than one level.
There's one particular song about a horse. In fact, I wrote it for her while riding her one day, a long slow ambling trail ride to nowhere in particular. Most people hear that song assume I wrote it for or about a woman, a past or present lover.
I didn’t.
But it works for them from that angle. And it's equally true and valid, because what the song is REALLY about is love. Loving and being loved. Finding another being with whom you're like Siamese twins joined at the heart.
If you ever get to experience that kind of thing, I think you'll find it doesn’t really matter one bit how many legs your beloved has.

Anyway, if you’re take on my song is different than mine, that’s cool, daddy-o.
This isn’t a situation where I have the right answer and you have to guess what it is. So if a song of mine does mean something to you, speaks to you, touches you in some way --- especially if it's a positive way --- and if you feel like writing to me and letting me know your thoughts or, more importantly, feelings about it, I’d like that a lot.

And I’m not fishing for compliments, here. It doesn’t all have to be praise. I’ve heard songs where I just wanted to find the writer and give him a good smack. If that’s how you feel about it, say so. Even if we disagree, at least I’ll respect you for being honest.