I was driving on I-40 in Oklahoma, headed west toward yet another destination I didn't know I was traveling to, when the line "interstate highway, psychedelic snake" came to me. The sun was high and in my face, and I opened my journal book and started writing the song while cruising down the highway. I was headed back to wherever from shows in Texas and Arkansas, toward an unknown destination. Not only did I not know exactly where I was going, but wherever I was going, I'd never been there before. As usual.
It starts off obvious: New York, San Francisco, L.A. Maybe you go to New Orleans a few times, visit somebody in Colorado, spend a night in Vegas, and before you know it you're driving in circles around the Arizona desert, pulling over in RV parks in central Nevada in the middle of the night, to enter the unlocked bathroom and take a shower before driving off without paying, to sleep under a juniper tree. Paying for camping at Joshua Tree turns into pulling into campgrounds in East Texas or Eastern New Mexico at 9 or 10pm, after picking up a roach from the scattered coins and bullets on Billy The Kid's grave, and mourning him and perceiving his torment in hell even as he smokes you out, knowing his horror, his irrevocable regret, feeling it, seeing visions of him screaming and weeping in flames before driving back to the campground (if there is one) to take a shower and maybe even pass out for a few hours before leaving at dawn to avoid the twig pigs, who show up at 9am to collect the fee, which you probably don't have. The venue in Aspen books you for one night, and the place they tell you to sleep doesn't have anybody in charge, and nobody is there, so you spend the night and leave without paying, even though it burns your reputation with the venue, because you need the money for gas, and really, what's another bar in the woods, anyway?
After awhile, you know where you're going, everywhere you go. You become familiar with the network of dirt roads with 3 or 4 sub-numbers in Chaffee County, Colorado, or Yavapai County, Arizona, because you've lived on them all. For at least a night, if not a week, or even longer.
But no matter how many thousand-mile donuts you do in the icy parking lots and dusty baseball diamonds of America, there's always somewhere you've never been. And you always wind up there, eventually.
I was driving west on I-40, the Oklahoma heat not as harsh in November, but with the heater blowing, it might as well have been August. I had to keep the heater running at all times, to prevent the van from overheating. It was particularly unpleasant in Phoenix, especially in June. The question of the ages is not, "what is the meaning of life," or "why are we here," but rather:
While driving through Phoenix in June, is it cooler to keep the windows closed and simply have the heater running so that the van resembles the inside of an industrial clothes dryer, or is it better to open the windows and let in the unbearable gale of heated airplane exhaust blowing in from the freeway, so that the air from the heater can escape?
I have never found an answer.
The song I was writing turned into a rare, almost straight-autobiographical account of recent events in Arizona, which had culminated in me leaving town in the middle of the night to go play shows in San Diego and L.A. alone, instead of with my girlfriend/duet partner. I'd driven up to Colorado to smoke weed without fear and book shows from libraries in Fort Collins, Leadville, and other towns. The time came to go to the shows, which were in TX and Arkansas, and so I went down there. I had to throw my weed out twice in TX, because I saw cops do U-turns on the highway. I presumed they were interested in me, and the first time, threw away all my surplus weed, leaving only one swallowable joint. If I was wrong, at least I'd have one joint left. I was wrong; the guy pulled over someone behind me. Then, an hour later, another cop did a U-turn and I ate the joint while idling slowly through a small town somewhere in the humid Texas plains. It was a false alarm again. The cop pulled over the guy behind me, again. So I was out of weed, but it didn't matter. The place in Little Rock was giving me a hotel room and a free pizza, and there was Dallas, ATX, and Houston to look forward to in the meantime. Those shows were all pretty good, with the exception of Houston, which was weird. It was a cavernous dog box full of Raggedy Ann dolls, the couches were covered in dog turds, and no one was there. They gave me a pizza though, and even though the future Antifa members who lived there were entitled and douchey, the one chick with the punk-rock dollhouse name was really cool, and we had a great conversation. But I couldn't sleep on the shitty dog furniture, so spent the night in the van, which I was accustomed to anyway. The show in Little Rock was anti-spectacular, but the pizza and hotel were great, in spite of the hardcore vibes of aggressive hatred and racism that were the building blocks of the entire city, as far as I could tell. Little Rock was the first place in the U.S. with desegregated schools, but you wouldn't know it, so aggressive and pissed-off was everyone I met. The metal bands I had no choice but to share the bill with at the show weren't interested or respectful, and the black people all looked at you like they thought you worked for the CIA; it was a horrible place, but it's a show. But if a nuclear war starts, don't go to Little Rock. Return to the fallout zone before you go to Little Rock. Those people will rip your head off.
So I was headed back to my comfort zone in the Western 11, writing a song about leaving L.A. to go to Colorado to book shows in Texas to get away from the drama in Arizona, titled "Los Angeles To Leadville." The muse left me somewhere in Albuquerque, and I ended up sleeping in the parking lot of a Walmart in Socorro, the only time in 15 years of transient life I ever spent at Walmart.
I tried to sleep in the parking lot of the grocery store, but there were so many cops, I knew they'd notice me eventually and wake me up. I didn't have anything to be afraid of, but I decided to avoid the problem altogether and move to Walmart, where people are expected to be sleeping. It was the only night I've ever spent at any Walmart anywhere, and it passed uneventfully.
I woke up and looked at my money. The day was going to have its limits. I had enough money to either get all the way back to the Verde Valley in Arizona, where there was no reason for me to be, or spend one night at a hotel anywhere within a quarter tank of gas, tomorrow be forever damned.
I decided on the latter, looked at the map, and decided to drive straight west into the high desert of New Mexico, mostly because I'd never been there before.
I ended up in Magdalena, a small town near the VLA, which stands for "Very Large Array," an impressive system of movable space dishes featured in the movie Contact. Jodie Foster and William Fichtner and others are listening to the stars, trying to find extra-terrestrial life, and several big scenes are filmed at the VLA. It's a cool place. If you're ever within a thousand miles of it, I recommend a day trip.
Most of the hotels in Magdalena were closed, but I walked into the one that actually looked closed and asked how much for the night. Whatever it was, I didn't have it. The proprietress took one look at me and said, "you're a musician, aren't you?" I couldn't deny it. She said, how about you play in the restaurant/lobby on the weekends and you can stay here for free?
I was incredulous with relief. It was an offer from the heavens, impossible to refuse. My heart felt like a pile of dirty laundry in the presence of a brand-new washing machine. Finally, at last. I'm going to be able to take a bath in a room I can lock, like a rich man. I can even turn the heater in the van off.
I finished the song in the lobby/restaurant of the hotel, within a week or 2 of my arrival. I remember sitting at the table, covered by a red-and-white checkered tablecloth, with all my new New Mexico friends coming and going, and I was eating soup in the Old West hotel and working on the song. And suddenly, it was finished.
I did a lot of recording in Room 13 of the Magdalena Hall Hotel. Most of the Wild Hearts Forever album, and some other scraps, including "Los Angeles To Leadville."
"Los Angeles To Leadville" is a great example of a song which is better served by the demo recording than by any attempt at a finished product. The "final take" that ended up on the album is in fact the demo. It goes out of time, all the time, and the performances in general are scratchy and loose. But it works a lot better than anything I set to a click track and performed in perfect time. Those perfect recordings lacked the fundamental ingredient of rightness that the demo, to my own surprise, actually has. There's no editing, except the occasional "background" vocal which is really just another scratch vocal track un-muted for a second or 2, there's no bass, and the guitar and tambourine might as well have been performed by a homeless person.
Which, in fact, they were.
The story behind the song, the chick drama, the angry ex-boyfriend, the casinos, and even the sketches of things I saw in Colorado, are all stories for another time. They're in the song, which is the best place to hear them anyway. But sometimes it's fun to hear the extended version, in addition to the version that's condensed into 4-line stanzas.
Some other time.
Thanks for listening.
Los Angeles To Leadville
Interstate highway, psychedelic snake
I've been jonesing for some Colorado shake
you don't have to love me, don't have to stay awake
I don't even need a cigarette break
I'll drive all night with the heater on high
I won't overheat but I know I'm gonna die
I flew past Baker like it was standing still
I gave a ride to the ghost of a sleeping pill
is that Las Vegas or a sign from God?
the path is wide & the way is broad
I defrauded 20 dollars from a slot machine
I watched a slow lightshow on the sunset screen
and then the desert enveloped me
I went fishing in the starry sea
with a bottle rocket & a pocket flask
I caught a meteorite and a Halloween mask
* * *
Don't bitch, this is what you want
try not to think about that Arizona cunt
I wish that cop would stop staring up my steering wheel
the whole world's going to hell on a banana peel
she'll be waiting for me in New Mexico
skinny dipping in a lake of electric snow
I've got an Altoids tin full of peppermint kush
personally, I like a little bush
I cut my hair in the rearview mirror
Española, why am I here?
ain't it true that the myth of mother earth
is just a secular version of the virgin birth?
* * *
Rollin' up the mountain sleeves
of my porcupine shirt with the evergreen leaves
10,000' above the civilized spleen
there's no such thing as too much caffeine
I saw a buffalo scalp in the mud
morbid bathmat soaked in blood
jawbone bicycles, icicle trees
festooned with intestinal Mardi Gras beads
and then I dreamed our love was true
like an idiot, I will not argue
I threw our souvenirs over the ridge
you be my dying flame, I'll be your burning bridge
* * *
All alone in the sunrise ruins
Turquoise Lake, water you doin?
painting the sky with a chemical stripe
smoking me out with a Leadville pipe
type your name on your knees
my boots are stuck like typewriter keys
in a weird morass of angry bums
stuck to the streets like chewing gum
bummer man, on a city bus
it's cool to be you, but it sucks to be us
a rusty razor on a wrist of fire
cuts right through the crazywire
higher than hell & dumber than dirt
a major-league slut in a miniskirt
hell no I ain't talkin' 'bout you
but if it's that big-a deal, maybe it's true
don't talk to me about bitterness
smiling at me through your Judas kiss
I'm not having the debate anymore
I'm totally done with war
it's time to end this endless weight
lyin' on my heart like a wooden crate
loaded to the brim with emotional fluff
ten thousand tons, but it ain't enough
to fill my heart or satisfy
my desire to fuck off and die
dammit to hell, if we can't sleep,
at least let's keep this nightmare cheap
I guess we're on our own
we sure done reaped what we done sown
loneliness and a lack of trust
a hollow pie with a cartoon crust
eaten until we take our fill
I've learned to speak before I spill
my guts into the fluency kit
a little English, and a lotta bullshit
so hit me up before I die
sometime last week, judging by
the drunken worm, the forgotten cow
crawling across my cornfield brow
now's the time, or was it then?
back before the dead and dying end
playing slots on my lap
midnight trips to the treasure trap
walkin' around in our scuba shoes
Mitch was all, "have fun you two" ;)
roulette strategies, flashing lights
valentine's days and stormy nights
up all night writing our song
with a magnetic kiss & a telephone bong
was it wrong to capture the dove?
we were in hell, but we were in love
we lived in a happy little dream
you and me and lucky black fifteen
I was your knight in shining strings
you were the casino din beneath my wings
and then the door came crashing in
sure enough, it was him
high on coke, drunk on beer
why is she naked?
why are you here?
and then a rain of angry wrists
he struck me with his baby fists
you ran off wrapped in a dirty sheet
there was a lotta noise, but not much heat
ridin' outta town, sparkin’ up a joint
he never got to make his hollow point
rollin' down space highway 89A
a dead-end street, at the end of the day
© Nathan Payne