Swinging Modern Sounds #5: Heliotropism


I love the city of Tucson, Arizona, because I like places that have run out of luck, and I think running out of luck makes for good music. Running out of luck makes for a lot of good things, in fact. Good writing. Good sunrises. Complicated futures. Everything easy is dead inside somehow. I assume that Tucson doesn’t think it has run out of luck, but you only have to visit to know what I mean. Maybe Tucson never had any luck in the first place. Many places have none, and yet people relocate to these places nonetheless.

Among Tucson’s areas of especial bad luck: it has virtually no water. It’s drier than almost anywhere in the USA. The aquifer underneath it has been sucked mostly dry and is on the point of collapsing, or so the doomsayers say, and the pools outside of town that are supposed to replenish the underground aquifer are just evaporation pools, or so it is said, and the doomsayers are probably right. Then there is the nearness of the border and the country to the south. This makes for a brisk trade in undocumented people coming and going, bringing about the complicated and ambiguous and electrifying border culture phenomenon. Which around Tucson is noteworthy, in part, for its hard luck and poverty. While it is true that South Tucson is its own city, that can’t disguise the fact that the struggling South Tucson and the struggling south side of Tucson proper are one and the same thing, dangerous, with lots of gang activity, lots of crystal meth, lots of people who are having trouble finding work, lots of people who don’t speak English and who don’t have much to lose, making Tucson, this city I love so fervently, a hive of car theft activity and violent crime, much more so than the city where I nominally live, New York City. (I should also say that the south side is more colorful, literally, and has amazing food.) If all of that weren’t enough, Tucson is startlingly hot much of the year. It’s also paved over in amerciless way. The heat shimmers off the blacktop, you see it when you’re driving, which you are bound to do a lot, and reality goes all hallucinatory, shimmery, as if they put mescaline or peyote in the water supply; you move slowly from curb to vehicle, because there is no other approach to life that makes sense, in summer, and the animals from the desert, as desperate as the residents, crowd into town, the coyotes, and the javelinas, the overly tanned homeless population, and occasionally, the mountain lions crowd in too, especially in that rich neighborhood up by

the canyon, up there the mountain lions get out into the carefully xeroscaped yards of the rich people, and they get habituated to trash-picking, and then they will attempt to take out the occasional jogger or overly tanned homeless person. Anyway, a lot of Sonoran Arizona is like this, is like nowhere else in the USA, and that’s why I like it, because it’s crime ridden and physically dangerous and poisonous, what with all the snakes and cacti. I like Tucson because it seems like it just can’t go on this way. Oh, and it’s a college town, too, so it has its share of kids with purple hair and fishnets and jump boots. These kids look like they are part of the indigenous landscape.

Probably for all these desertified reasons, Sonoran Arizona has produced its share of interesting and rather strange bands. Among my favorites is the Tubes. The Tubes, you may recall, were a kind of boring band from the early MTV era who produced a mediocrity called “Talk To Ya Later.” I think I can say without fear of contradiction that we should be suspicious of any song with “Ya” in the title. But this is not an exemplary Tubes song. “Talk To Ya Later” comes from a period when the best songwriter in the band, Bill Spooner, was already fallen on somewhat delinquent times. On the other hand, the first three albums by the Tubes (The Tubes, Young and Rich, and Now) from when they had first moved from AZ to San Francisco, are remarkable and strange. There was no genre the band could not burlesque and reinvigorate, and they were such great players that they could do all this while flourishing with the occasional brilliant lick and bizarrely ornate arrangement—just enough to show that they knew how, without sounding showoffy. Their live shows were legendary. Their first album is remarkably hilarious and singular, with its science fiction synthesizer blips and nihilistic lyrics and choral arrangements.

Another unusual Arizonan band was the Meat Puppets. Again here, you have to locate the earlier material. Which glistens with a stoned, offhanded quality— Meat Puppets II, e.g., or Up On the Sun, or Huevos Rancheros—somewhere between Captain Beefheart, Black Oak Arkansas, and Rush, but with less professional credibility. Along the same lines, and perhaps from the same moment, were the Sun City Girls, a real favorite of mine for their world music fixations and their bad attitudes. Torch of the Mystics, their best album, manages to sound pyrotechnically dazzling and international without sounding like a Ry Cooder project. It also manages to preserve some of the punk rock creepiness and menace of their earlier albums. In this case, the band got older and stopped touring without losing what they once had, though I believe one of them, the drummer, recently passed away. They also started the Strange Frequencies label of “found” world music, any release of which is completely fascinating for those who want to get beyond the rigid formulae and predictable gestures of Western pop.

In Tucson itself, there is the two-headed monster of local popular music, viz., Giant Sand and Calexico. Calexico is perhaps the better known now, having sundered itself from Howe Gelb of Giant Sand with whom they earlier collaborated. But to my ears Calexico, while having all the requisite skills and a charming Mexicali inflection, is the less interesting of the two. They are very skillful musicians, sensitive renderers, but they are not writers. Whereas Howe Gelb has vision, and the vision is deeply melancholy, and slow-moving, in a really Tucson-like way. You can imagine that it takes Howe a fair amount of time to get started in the morning; Howe could easily abandon the project, no matter what the project is; Howe understands the complexities of life in the Southwest, and thereby he understands some of our national difficulties, entire, because (arguably): as the Southwest goes so goes the nation. The Southwest suffers cruelly under the lash of the Big Collapse of Capital, the Southwest had a speculative real estate market, the Southwest is a bellwether for what comes next, in immigration, in environmental policy, in water rights.

Now, when I began composing these notes for this site, I remarked that I was interested in hearing from people out there about some of their favorite unsigned and unreleased musicians, and in the course of this attempt to reach out I fell into communication with a musician from Tucson called Maggie Golston. I don’t know very much about Maggie Golston, except for one tantalizing fact: she used to operate a very good bookstore. One thing about Tucson that is consistent with its desperate qualities (as catalogued above): it has nowadays a wealth of mediocre bookstores. The best bookstore in town, actually, is the used bookstore, called Bookman’s. (Which also does a fine business in used CDs.) For new books, you are basically shit out of luck in Tucson, unless you want to go to one of those fucking horrible paved over strip malls that have raped much of the town, where you will no doubt find an understaffed and underserved Border’s or Barnes and Noble, and a few lonely souls pawing over the latest murder mystery. Anyway, Maggie Golston had this bookstore, and no longer does, and this I assume has to do with the cruel realities of mercantile life in a town that balances its budget by selling condos to retirees.

I investigated further. Golston has some songs up on her MySpace page, and these are good, but when I wrote to her that I was liking some of the songs there, she told me that the “best song” on her album, her words, was not available on MySpace (though it is now). I got myself a copy. As to the song, let me first say that one thing a lot of desert music is not: Goth. The Goth thing just doesn’t seem to play well in Sonoran Arizona, maybe because layers of black clothes are contraindicated in overpowering dry heat. There’s hardcore in AZ, there’s twang, there’s the skatepunk stuff, but not so much Goth. Maggie Golston, however, writes, and therefore she has a writer’s interest in song forms that leave a lot of room for the words, and mood, and that means that she likes people who have Gothic aspects to what they do, like Nick Cave. Maybe there’s a little Leonard Cohen in her diet of influences, too, and some Tom Waits.

Because of her strange stew of influences, and the way these go with her local landscape, “Black Capsules,” the best song according to Maggie, is, yes, very, very interesting, very compelling. First, Maggie has a really alluring (and nicely uninflected) voice. It’s alto, slightly smoky, and with an urgent prosody to it, sort of like Debora Iyall from Romeo Void. Or maybe she’s a more urgently feminine Carla Bozulich. In “Black Capsule,” she has lots and lots of reverb ornamenting her voice. Sounds almost like it was recorded through an intercom or in the echoing interiors of a semi-demolished mall corridor. “Black Capsules” is structured according to rules derived from the Bob Dylan school of multiple verses, lots and lots of verses (9:02!), without feeling a great need to develop rapidly. The ensemble is small and simple—acoustic guitar, drums, accordion (mixed way back)—and the percussion, which was apparently recorded late at night by a battery of infrequent drummers, slips in and out of the pulse, giving the whole thing that woozy, slightly drug-addled feeling that I associate with Tonight’s the Night, by Neil Young. Upon repeated listens, the song only gets better, more grim, especially as it slips into some scalding white noise toward the end of its momentous journey. And that is before you gaze upon its allusive and unsettling lyrics:

I can still see the dashboard that carries your face past the checkpoint
You’re bending your words with the frequencies I had to teach you
I can follow your trace with machines whose long names will escape me
A machine is a heart is a galaxy trying to reach you

You’re an engine with pistons that kick up the dust of a presence
You’re a laser that cuts me to ribbons from light years of distance
You’re a mirror, a pistol, an airplane propeller that hisses
You’re the space where I put all that matters, you’re only an absence

These lyrics, as I understand them, are full of Neruda’s brokenheartedness, Hispanic and Latin American fatalism, admixed with the strange desertified hallucinatory quality, of which you should now consider yourself informed. The results are sometimes like a Goth version of Garcia Marquez, or maybe a Hispanic version of P. K. Dick. The narrator alludes again and again to the black capsules in her pocket, though we are not always sure of their particular chemistry, their makeup (could be NASA-prescribed cyanide, could be something with a more sedative purpose). There are also ghosts in virtually every verse, and what of the “spaceman” and the “checkpoints,” of which we hear so much?
It all reminds me of a couple of a trip I once made to Portal, AZ, a town on the New Mexican border, a town with almost no one living in it. I love towns with almost no one in them. They can see you coming from a great distance. On the way to Portal, I stopped in the last berg with a Safeway. The big city, comparatively speaking. This berg, whose name I am excising, was a true ghost town. The roads there were still. There were people living there, somewhere, because someone was going to that Safeway and the drive-thru MacDonald’s, but all the trailers had tinfoil in the windows to reflect away the violence of the topography. A great place for a meth lab, and there were billboards dotting the empty roads warning about the horrors thereof. There were the occasional border patrol guys, parked, leaning out of rolled-down windows, looking lost and bored. Actual tumbleweeds. The dirt roads led from there up into the mountains, but in such a winding and irresolute way that no car could ever have made that passage.

What did the desert offer the residents of that town? Did they know anymore of their surroundings than they tuned in on their satellite televisions? Did they know only empty spaces and an absolute paucity of economic opportunities, or, the extermination of their people for the greater glory of European expansionism? Did they long for families back on the other side of the border? Crystal meth? Safeway burros that you just throw in the microwave? Did they, these heliotropes, wander out into their landscape, and glory in the expanses, or were they so used to these expanses that they didn’t even see them?

Golston’s song, with its uncanny lyrics, so full of desert resignation and, as she puts it, “bad excuses,” is a great artifact of this lonesome Southwest. If you offer her money for her songs, on MySpace, maybe she can amass the capital to reopen her bookstore.

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →