[Edit: 11 December 2007. Since I wrote the below I’ve . . . tweaked my interpretation of Josh Ritter’s song Monster Ballads. You may want to read Desert radio: Monster Ballads revisited first.]
Favorite is a fickle word, but with regard to the songs I know, it flirts shamelessly with Josh Ritter’s Monster Ballads. Months and months ago I went through a troubled time when the world and God and my own heart seemed to be asking too much of me. After some time submerged in grief I began to write, and if music came to the rescue—and it did—Monster Ballads was the rope.
I didn’t know how or what or why, but I kept writing, and when it got hard and I was feeling lost I often listened to The Animal Years, and then returned to and replayed Track 3. Over and over. I didn’t know what the lyrics meant; I didn’t know what I meant to find in my words, but I found I could write them listening to that song. And it took a long time, but things got better.
I once described Monster Ballads as a beautiful ivory canvas proffering a brush. It’s true: it’s confusing. It’s mysterious. But it’s vivid, and so powerful that you don’t need to understand the words. It’s probably too cryptic to fully understand the words. I think the point may very well be that we cannot understand the words.
But it inspires me, and I was curious, so I went on a journey and came home and got out some paint.
Along the way I saw this—
Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
“Notice” on page 1 of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
—and my resolution wavered for a moment. But then I thought, Oh no, Mr. Twain, you would have never heeded such a warning if it got in your way. Of all the things you’ve taught me, that’s my favorite.
And anyway, I think that while the point may be that we can never fully understand the words . . . actually . . . let’s just go already. Track 3. Play.
Push ‘Play’ and hear a faint, mysterious, electric sound growl and take a swipe at a strong and steady organ . . . that fades and then swells in an unmistakably holy vibrato to put the smooth wood of the pew under your fingers, the stained-glass bejeweled sunshine in your eyes, the dust and stifled coughs in the air, the arms outstretched and slowly descending with the choir, the robe climbing the stairs to the pulpit . . . but enter the single-minded drum and at once see a sanctuary splintered in your mind’s eye, the pieces falling away and the Mississippi River of the mid-nineteenth century—the steamboat’s heyday—rising up to take its place.
In the soothing and steady bass line find the wheel in your hand as you stand high up in the silent pilot house, the river’s most famous and prodigal son returned with watchful eye to see how she has fared. Rise and join the 4am watch so as to catch the singular Mississippi summer sunrise and find it as splendid in 1882 as your memory of your happiest days just over twenty years ago:
First, there is the eloquence of silence; for a deep hush broods everywhere. Next, there is the haunting sense of loneliness, isolation, remoteness from the worry and bustle of the world. The dawn creeps in steathily; the solid walls of black forest soften to gray, and vast stretches of the river open up and reveal themselves; the water is glass-smooth, gives off spectral little wreaths of white mist, there is not the faintest breath of wind, nor stir of leaf; the tranquility is profound and infinitely satisfying. Then a bird pipes up, another follows, and soon the pipings develop into a jubilant riot of music. You see none of the birds; you simply move through an atmosphere of song which seems to sing itself. When the light has become a little stronger, you have one of the fairest and softest pictures imaginable. You have the intense green of the massed and crowded foliage near by; you see it paling shade by shade in front of you; upon the next projecting cape, a mile off or more, the tint has lightened to the tender young green of spring; the cape beyond that one has almost lost color, and the furthest one, miles away under the horizon, sleeps upon the water a mere dim vapor, and hardly separable from the sky above it and about it. And all this stretch of river is a mirror, and you have the shadowy reflections of the leafage and the curving shores and the receding capes pictured in it. Well, that is all beautiful; soft and rich and beautiful; and when the sun gets well up, and distributes a pink flush here and a powder of gold yonder and a purple haze where it will yield the best effect, you grant that you have seen something that is worth remembering. (LM, 228-29)
Squint into the “blank, watery solitude” knowing you are unlikely to come across another vessel, and remark on the impressive, depressing solitude of the “stupendous flood,” yearning for the days when you trained as a cub pilot and the steamboats were crammed like sardines at the wharf. (LM, 198) Remember back even farther to your hometown of Hannibal, Missouri—river town—where every single boy’s most fervent and enduring wish was to be a steamboatman, and each day was brought to life and then left for dead with the arrival and departure of the daily packet from St. Louis.
Look in vain for the wood-yards that used to dominate the shores. Go back in time courtesy of three bright notes, the gentlest of bass drums, and remember the hot rolls served at supper, the fragrant coffee coming through the pilot house door on a steward’s tray, the red-faced, sweating, swearing mate and the tumbling deck hands, the bells that clanged through one’s slumber.
Find yourself in New Orleans, customary departure time—between four and five o’clock—gearing up for a long upstream voyage, the smell of burning rosin and pitch pine, and a cloud of coal-black smoke hanging over the boat and inching toward the city:
Two or three miles of mates were commanding and swearing with more than usual emphasis; countless processions of freight barrels and boxes were spinning athwart the levee and flying aboard the stage-planks; belated passengers were dodging and skipping among these frantic things, hoping to reach the forecastle companion way alive, but having their doubts about it; women with reticules and bandboxes were trying to keep up with husbands freighted with carpet-sacks and crying babies, and making a failure of it by losing their heads in the whirl and roar and general distraction; drays and baggage-vans were clattering hither and thither in a wild hurry, every now and then getting blocked and jammed together, and then during ten seconds one could not see them for the profanity . . . The ‘last bells’ would begin to clang . . . with the cry, ‘All dat ain’t goin’, please to git asho’!” . . . People came swarming ashore, overturning excited stragglers that were trying to swarm aboard. One more moment later a long array of stage-planks was being hauled in, each with its customary latest passenger clinging to the end of it with teeth, nails, and everything else, and the customary latest procrastinator making a wild spring shoreward over his head. (LM, 138)
Or trade the rising sun for shooting stars and, under the cover of darkness, shove out to the middle, giving yourself up to the current as you float through the night on a rough-hewn raft. The organ’s tremolo the ripples rolling fast and close—and then nothing— off the plonk of a river stone’s return to its bed. Legs dangle in the water, two thin trails of pipe smoke drift behind.
Listen and look while on a journey whose purpose—freedom—has slipped away and is now shrouded with uncertainty. En route to nowhere, begin to make a most unlikely friend, and slip past the sleepy eyes of the leadsmen aboard a giant steamboat as its wheels churn resolutely against the current:
Sometimes we’d have that whole river to ourselves for the longest time. Yonder was the banks and the islands, across the water; and maybe a spark—which was a candle in a cabin window—and sometimes on the water you could see a spark or two—on a raft or a scow, you know; and maybe you could hear a fiddle or a song coming over from one of them crafts. It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened—Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many. Jim said the moon could a laid them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn’t say nothing against it, because I’ve seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done. We used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them stream down. Jim allowed they’d got spoiled and was hove out of the nest.
Once or twice of a night we would see a steamboat slipping along in the dark, and now and then she would belch a whole world of sparks up out of her chimbleys, and they would rain down in the river and look awful pretty; then she would turn a corner and her lights would wink out and her pow-wow shut off and leave the river still again . . . (AHF, 179)
Or push ‘Play’ and be entirely clear of the Mississippi, rocking gently west on the adventure put in motion by the Civil War enveloping the river and your reluctance to take sides. In the first beats of the drum feel the wheels of your Concord coach—a “cradle on wheels,” you call it—grip the gravel and begin to turn. In the singsong guitar see the horses’ heads nod up and down with the rhythm of exertion. Remember the envy with which you regarded your brother’s status as traveler just before he invited you along:
Pretty soon he would be hundreds and hundreds of miles away on the great plains and deserts, and among the mountains of the Far West, and would see buffaloes and Indians, and prairie-dogs, and antelopes, and have all kinds of adventures, and maybe get hanged or scalped, and have ever such a fine time, and write home and tell us all about it, and be a hero. And he would see the gold-mines and the silver mines, and maybe go about of an afternoon when his work was done, and pick up two or three pailfuls of shining slugs and nuggets of gold and silver on the hillside. (RI, 1-2)
But stop short of the romance that pervades your ghostly river, for it was something else that happened out on that desert, and not a moment too soon.
. . . Lastly, push ‘Play’ and see an endless highway framed by the windshield of a car, the journey’s purpose and promise growing fainter as the odometer spins, the wordless questions posed by eyes drifting over the desert and up the sky. The turning and turning of the radio dial, thumb tapping the steering wheel. Stop in a foreign town, the gentle bump of two railroad tracks beneath the wheels . . .
First & second verse.
In the summer of his twenty-third year, Samuel Clemens was nearing completion of his steamboat pilot apprenticeship on the Mississippi River. He’d always known the river: he’d passed his boyhood in the port city of Hannibal, Missouri. But though the relationship while training to be a pilot would grow a bit stormy, he loved the Mississippi, loved it and longed for it his whole life. His beloved younger brother had died in the horrible, dramatic explosion of the Pennsylvania near Memphis in June, but I find it intriguing that I can’t unearth any evidence that Clemens ever blamed the boats or the river or considered leaving them because of the tragic association. Instead he blamed himself—relentlessly—for myriad reasons, perhaps chief of which was that he thought his good-natured kid brother by far a worthier soul.
August 1858 marked an historic event: the very first transatlantic telegram was sent via under-the-sea cable from Queen Victoria to President Buchanan. She cabled, “OMG, Jimmy boy!!! I am totally putting this on my blog.” Just kidding—she said Congratulations. (And isn’t it amazing to think . . .) Twain, ever enthused by new technology, later recalled, “[a] wave of jubilation and astonishment . . . swept the planet.” (MTE, 10) Passengers would have had lots of company if they wanted to discuss the exciting news: the heavily freighted steamboats navigated a crowded river. They were enjoying the final of their glory days.
With the invention of wireless telegraphy, or radio, at the end of the nineteenth century, boats gained a way to communicate with each other and those on shore. But once radio operators had begun traveling on ships—in the early 1900s—the Mississippi was a far different place than it was when Samuel Clemens was a cub. Boats had vanished from the levees, once-bustling passenger decks were empty. Of the vision confronting him when he returned in 1882 to gather material for Life on the Mississippi, he wrote
Half a dozen sound-asleep steamboats where I used to see a solid mile of wide-awake ones! This was melancholy, this was woful. The absence of the pervading and jocund steamboatman from the billiard room was explained. He was absent because he is no more. His occupation is gone . . . Here was desolation, indeed. (LM, 172)
What was to blame?
As Twain writes:
The towboat and the railroad had done their work, and done it well and completely. The mighty bridge, stretching along over our heads, had done its share in the slaughter and spoliation. . . .
. . . Mississippi steamboating was born about 1812; at the end of thirty years, it had grown to mighty proportions; and in less than thirty more, it was dead! A strangely short life for so majestic a creature. (LM, 173)
One particular railroad began a historic service to open up the remote Indian Territory to and through Texas when the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, known as the MKT, or Katy, was christened in 1870. (It had been founded five years earlier under a different name.) Railroad fever was everywhere—there was a race on to offer transcontinental service, and the evolving feasibility of western migration fired imaginations. In 1873 the Katy acquired the Hannibal & Central Missouri Railroad, which had been leased previously by another company that serviced the track from Hannibal through Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Katy supervised the traffic on these tracks until 1897.
I wonder if it’s a riddle that describes both Katy (fairest daughter of the Pharaoh’s son) and Moses (fairest daughter of the Pharaoh’s son). Katy, descendant of Moses? Well, there’s this: the father of Hannibal, Missouri is Moses Bates. He founded the town in 1819.
But the much more famous Moses, the one who feels more comfortable in that Egyptian imagery . . . Well, Katy did set off into the unknown, lending a hand in leading a young America into what it considered (albeit unfairly) a promised land of sorts.
But Katy went east out of Hannibal too, leading her passengers—yes—through a sluicing sea.
The bridge in the foreground is the Mark Twain Memorial Bridge, built over the Mississippi in 2000. The harbinger of slaughter and spoliation behind it—half a mile away—is the Wabash Bridge, built for the railroad in Hannibal, Missouri, in 1871. And pyramids . . . indeed. .
Chorus & bridge.
Clemens ended up out on the desert after he left the Mississippi River in 1861. He traveled west with his incredibly straight-laced brother, Orion, who had employment in the Nevada Territory. Sam didn’t have employment, and he didn’t want it. But he was by no means free of ambition, or pressure:
But of two things [Clemens] was certain. One: he had no intention of following one of the usual professions, such as law. . . . Two: he was not going home until he was rich, even if that took more than three months. Fortunes were to be made. He wanted one. And the eyes of the homefolk were on him. He would not return without the wealth that would prove him estimable in their eyes. (SMK, 93-4)
Silver had been discovered in nearby Virginia City in 1859, and an excited and optimistic Clemens flew headlong into the mining business, investing the modest capital he had and traveling long distances between mining towns:
[For the first three months of 1862] his mind was almost entirely on ledges, ledges in Humbolt, Virginia City, and Aurora: how many feet could be bought at what price with what promise of return. (SMK, 95)
Ones, zeros, dollar signs flooding his thoughts from the mountains, the mesas, the desert. He didn’t strike silver or gold. Instead he got homesick, exhausted, frustrated, blistered and broke. He’d sent in some writing using the pen name “Josh” to a local newspaper, and he finally gave up and in and reported—dusty and disheveled—to the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise in September 1862. Staff writer. Though the banality of daily local news left him uninspired, nineteenth century journalism allowed for the blurring of fiction and non-fiction, seriousness and satire.
Clemens seized that opportunity, and into the lines of the goings-on in a rather wild frontier town, a voice—small, for now—began to settle into a register. And in February 1863 he woke up after a late-night party and signed his first article Mark Twain. That year he poked fun at himself (though he had certainly not sworn off investing or hoping for return) by announcing to his increasingly amused readers that he’d founded the “Unreliable, Auriferous, Argentiferous, Metaliferous Mining Company.” (L1, 252)
Mark Twain is not the only person in these lines; he may not even be the primary one, may be just a shadow, or a diversion; he may be a figment of my imagination. The wire albatross (a covered wagon? a stagecoach?) . . . monster ballads . . . stations of the cross. There’s another speaker, of course, one listening and looking, one lost out on the desert and sighing, one on a journey whose feeling is flagging.
Somwhere there’s a Bible.
And emptiness—silence?—to fill.
He offers two things that stake out impressive extremes on the spectrum of human experience: the loud, self-important, worldly and dissolute bad ass rock stars, and the humble, solemn, sad story of divine suffering and death that prompts the culmination of the Christian faith.
Well . . . I purchased a single of Skid Row’s I Remember You in seventh grade, and I locked myself in my room and turned the volume up until my ears rang and my boom box shook and my heart beat as though pounded by an insane drummer and three minutes in that electric guitar lost its shit, and I thought I might rock myself to death before my mother’s approaching footsteps could reach my door—and wouldn’t they be sorry then— and she could yell, “What in the world?!?!? Turn it DOWN!”
I remember the uncomfortable look in her eyes as she glimpsed the music videos we were watching: the long-haired heads banging and the feet stomping up and down the stage, the features contorted and wincing as though the guitar strings stung their fingers. The wanton demolition of perfectly good instruments. The camera panning to a girl in the tenth row, completely overcome, blue eye makeup translucent with tears—her eyes wide and blank with anxious yearning.
No, the adults in my adolescent world didn’t like the rockers, and there’s no need to talk about the church. It and the world told us we’d have to choose, and that’s what I was thinking of when I read this in Kaplan’s fine biography of Mark Twain (emphasis mine):
Roles were important to Twain, who played many, both within himself and in public, including the Hartford baron and the Boston literary celebrity. When it came to business, he was a New York entrepreneur and investment financier; in domestic life, a devoted husband and father. In another mood, he was a restless adventurer pining for Hawaiian simplicity and bachelor life in a boardinghouse. In accent, he was still Missourian. In social and cultural values he belonged to the northeastern elite; in intellect, he was independent, satirical, and skeptical, particularly in regard to Christianity and what he considered inherited prejudices and stupidities. Using his own logical razor, he delighted in dissecting irrationalities. His own he had tolerance for, increasingly convinced that life combines contradictions into complicated unities, sometimes unstable but mostly cohesive amalgams that provide the reality of self and society. (SMK, 388-89)
For Mark Twain’s life had barely gotten going when, having already lived in a number of cities and had a brief spell as a Confederate soldier and mastered the Mississippi River and scoured Nevada dirt and rock for silver, he came in off the desert to be a writer. He was only twenty-six years old, only up to page 120 of a 650-page biography.
Despite his modest roots and raucous time in Virginia City and skepticism of the Christian faith he would court and marry a devout East Coast heiress. (And then she would mellow out.)
He would live to see and be a great many—and contradictory—and some not-so-great—things, and he would claim them all:
In a speech to the New England Society of Philadelphia in 1881 [Twain] presented himself as the American amalgam: ‘I am a border ruffian from the state of Missouri. I am a Connecticut Yankee by adoption. I have the morals of Missouri and the culture of Connecticut, and that’s the combination that makes the perfect man. . . . The first slave brought into New England out of Africa by your progenitors was an ancestor of mine—for I am of a mixed breed, an infinitely shaded and exquisite mongrel.’ Like himself, America was a mongrel singularity that could reach an even higher level of exquisiteness if it would understand and accept that many bloods and cultures flowed through its veins. (SMK, 389 & SP, 163-64)
So what do we do with Monster ballads and the stations of the cross?
I trekked through the stations verses of the Bible thinking about those old songs. I sorta knew it was wrong, but I had to smile as I thought of that patented rocker passion versus The Passion, as my eyes drifted over the names Stryker, Queensryche, Slaughter on my CD . . . and then Golgotha, Barrabas, The Sanhedrin in the Bible. Fourteen tracks, fourteen stations. That lead singer of Skid Row looks strikingly . . . something . . . around one minute and twenty-two seconds into the music video, and when I glimpsed that awe-struck girl with the makeup in another one, yeah, I smiled and thought Mary. At church on Sunday I watched the candles morph into the flames of a rolling sea of cigarette lighters.
At the very end of his story Huck Finn tells us he’s “got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest” so as to avoid getting collared and sent home with Aunt Sally and all her rules. (AFH, 433)
I wonder where we find him, how we find him, when he appears and reflects on his river days, telling us how he’s been thinking and thinking, about his old friend and their lawless adventure, about the boats and their hymns? The mesa chords and the high, soft, far-off piano melody are silenced now. The organ is gone too, but these quiet lines and bars are holiest to me—as simple and beautiful and true as the heart of Huck’s boyhood tale. For when Jim is betrayed after their long journey and sold back into slavery for “forty dirty dollars,” Huck despairs over what to do: honor a conscience that has been ingrained by the law and the church and society by returning Jim to his rightful owner, or honor a heart’s desire—with nothing to recommend it beyond the tug of his memories of a journey and a friend—to help him get free. (AFH, 314)
His conscience grinding, Huck reproaches himself for the part he’s played in Jim’s escape, working himself into a fright over the apparent divine retribution in Jim’s capture. So he resolves to pray and be a better person—immediately—but on his knees he finds he can’t say a word:
I knowed very well why [the prayer] wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. . . . You can’t pray a lie—I found that out.
So I was full of trouble, full as I could be, and didn’t know what to do. (AHF, 316)
Write a letter to Miss Watson, he decides. Tell her Jim’s whereabouts so she can come and reclaim him as her slave. See if you can pray then. So he writes the letter, and feels redeemed momentarily, and then like his older self and his creator in the earlier verse he thinks, and thinks and thinks—could he feel the eyes of a nation waiting, waiting?—could he hear me listening, listening?—remembering Jim’s kindness and care . . . sighing just a little bit . . . “[N]on serviam . . . . the embodiment of [Twain’s] own commitment to think for himself, to make up his own mind about what was true. . . . Although he might defer to authority if expedient . . . . when it came to what went on in his own mind, [Twain] had begun to recognize no master but himself” . . . sighing just a little bit . . . “. . . out in the middle of the country, playing . . .” . . . sighing just a little bit . . . song as profound and beautiful and true . . . as the notion of the story’s most lost boy ultimately refusing the world’s fallacy in its opposition of two things, inadvertently calling the bluff when it said Make your choice. (SMK, 76) Big enough to recalibrate conscience to the desires of a supposedly wicked heart. Brave enough to search and listen and think and think, and to sacrifice his salvation for the resulting conviction.
Whether or not he lived to realize his vindication, a boy who unwittingly found a fault line: the right in the wrong . . . the church in the mud . . . God in the sin:
I took [the letter] up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up. (AHF, 314)
He didn’t, of course. Go to hell, I mean. I mean, it was a rocky start—there’s still controversy. But they made him a hero—some say our greatest novel. He’s not in the fire; he’s on the shelves of every bookstore in the country.
And I don’t know about you, but I’m holding out hope for these guys:
Smiling just a little bit.
Things change. The world may want black and white, but life is necessarily confusing, broad, strange. The thing about the monster ballads era is that it was so—scandalous at the time, so over-the-top, so threatening, but now . . . it’s not. (You might say it looks a little silly, but be careful. A little surfing will demonstrate that those fans are still around, and they still believe. And I confess: that guitar still gets me.) Popular music didn’t give up on scandalous, though—it just moved on. Upon investigation the lyrics to those monster ballads are quite benign and quite human. Love wasn’t intimidated by those tough rockers; she left them as broken as the rest of us, and asking the age-old questions.
And society didn’t give up on slavery; it just found new ways to disguise the chains. One way to combat that is to get comfortable with confusion and difference and paradox in ourselves, in our society, in our relationships with one another. For the hardest men’s hearts can still bleed, and perhaps you have known or hope to someday know a still small voice to blaze. Perhaps not. But I believe that whatever we each ultimately choose to believe, we have to keep listening and paying attention to and caring about and claiming it all, or we’ll miss something. Like Kaplan’s higher level of exquisiteness.
And we have to be ready to change our minds. Anyone who can see how wrong we’ve been should be convinced of that.
Don’t push! I’m climbing down from the pulpit now.
Smiling just a little bit is my favorite line of Monster Ballads. For me, it’s the small rewards for keeping at a trying journey—the sharing of a wry joke with the universe in the midst of pain, the fleeting rush of euphoria when struggle dissipates and you’re seized with the confidence and conviction to keep going. The stirring sense of freedom one feels as the quest for absolute certainty is laid aside, and one finds she can hold two seemingly opposite things, or possibilities, even, in one head, or heart, or life. It could be the precious moments—for me, nanoseconds—when we sit back and look around and survey the mess and accept that this is it. The end is journey.
Or perhaps sometimes it’s the only recourse left when you feel you’ve been stretched too far—the fixing of narrowed eyes that peer over the desert with the faintest grin. Screw you, world. I’m not giving up. It’s the moment you know the world took notice.
Smiling just a little bit is Mark Twain, a couple tough years after Nevada, hiding out from the San Francisco police with a handful of friends in a rustic bachelor-pad cabin in the middle of nowhere, laughing to himself as he wrote by firelight—quiet and calm and free of the urge to join the others outside digging for silver—a funny story about a jumping frog that would introduce a border ruffian to readers on the East Coast. Later he’d be accepted into the literary elite. Did you know Twain published, amongst lots of other stuff, the beginning passages of Life on the Mississippi in The Atlantic? I like to think it would have made him smile to think of us looking for him on Jackass Hill.
It’s Josh Ritter . . . well, I like to think he smiled when he got this call.
And it’s a girl in a cafe with a familiar nod for the waitress and a blinking cursor for her mangled heart, dusting off an old dream.
The song’s called Monster Ballads, but that beautiful high far-off piano gets the last word. You can decide what that means, if anything. In fact, of course you know, you can decide what it all means. Certainly don’t take my word for it. I’m only really sure of one thing.
We should listen.