Sunday, August 30, 2015

Laird Baldwin, RIP

I got a phone call from Layo Baldwin on Friday night. I hadn't heard from Laird in a good while. Last I'd heard he and Layo had decided to move down to near Charlotte. He was going to wait for a liver transplant. Things had gotten worse, and it was time to deal with it. He'd had liver issues since he and I had renewed our long-term friendship back around 2000 or so. He was living in Florida then, but planning a move to Wytheville, VA. He'd taken up or been polishing banjo-playing, and one perk of Wytheville was, the joint was plumb full of banjos. I can't remember exactly how we re-connected, perhaps he wrote the Early Blurs website. At the time I was working on a CD with Libby, and also on a solo CD, all songs, no fiddling. A couple of years into our conversation he wrote this view of the solo disc and posted it on Amazon, where I was hawking the thing for a while:

BILL HICKS: THE PERFECT GIG (Admit One Records 1001, released April 2002)

"Kick Me, I'm a Tree!" 

That's what Marshall Hay, the guy that brought Jack Kerouac to Chapel Hill, N.C. back in '66, said  one night on his way back to his dorm after a few beers at "Harry's Bar and Grill". How did he meet  Kerouac? Marshall was hitch hiking. Kerouac was, well, on the road.  They met, paths converged. Marshall told Kerouac about the literary scene at Chapel Hill - how his fans would lay their drugs, booze and bodies at his feet, and the self-ravaged poet could not resist the flattery. So Jack Kerouac passed through a few of our lives shortly before he left the earth. 

Live in a bar/coffee house in Chapel Hill, about 35 years later, Bill Hicks recalls and invokes this visit in "Wet July" (track 6), in the same way that he ruminates over less significant events - some real, some  not - all authentic, in which (if you are good at reading between the lines) you can find little pearls of wisdom. Usually unspoken. Kind of like meditating on that old Zen Koan: "What is the sound of a solid iron flute, played upside down?" Answer: "Beanpaste that smells like beanpaste is no good."

This collection of songs (perhaps poems set to music is more correct) is not a pretty, slick piece of  Nashville packaging. It is neither for the faint of heart, nor the weak of will. You have to work hard  to pry out those oysters. But each is guaranteed to have a pearl. Not that I've been clever enough to  find them all... The upside to this is that you can listen to the songs over and over and over, as you slip into the warm nocturnal Southern breeze blowing through the Spanish Moss of Bill's brain. Or let your feet  play in the sandy beaches at Okrakoke, where Bill and his musician-wife Libby spend a lot of time  these days. Bill holds steadfastly to many of the ideals we all held so true back when I knew him at Chapel Hill in the sixties, the essence of which, I believe, can be summarized thusly: the journey is what It is all about. The question is the answer. And there are moments of vision in the most unexpected situations, (like "The SOB in the Carvel Truck" that passes him on the right and makes him swerve  into the twilight zone) that reveal a glimpse of the truth and beauty of our ephemeral lives, which is always right there under our noses, just out of reach, or maybe not.

There are a few tunes that are just pure fun like "Uncle Charlie's Revenge" and "Play 'Rocky Top'"  and others, that you just have to listen to again and again before they make much sense. His "dissertation on bars" ends with "Last Call", which, in my humble opinion, buggers all description. Here is the third verse, without the snakelike guitar accompaniment:

"So anyhow one night a drifter came in 
And swayed down the aisle in his long cowboy coat, 
His spurs making tiny Oooommmm-ish like notes, 
And the moon making sparkles on his buckles and irons, 
And he sat down beside me and ordered a brew. 
"How far is this engine takin' this rig?" 
I asked him--a kind of a "howdy" I guess-- 
And he looked at me gently, like Clint Eastwood would, 
And drew his revolver, gave the chambers a whack 
And said with a smile, 'It's a circular track.'"

Though Bill is one of my favorite old time fiddlers, no, my favorite (but don't tell that to whomever I'm playing [banjo] with these days), he plays strictly guitar on this album. His rhythm guitar work is quite amazing. Not only does he find the soul of each poem/song, he can cook that stuff up like gumbo. I had to email him to ask him if it was only one guitar. It is. As you approach this album keep in mind, this guy is a philosopher, a poet, and an artist. This is the  real Bill Hicks. He has dared to bare his soul. And, I think, it is his honesty and integrity that does  not want to make it too easy for the listener.
"Comparisons are odious", as a quote, is attributed in Bartlett's to Sir John Fortescue, who  apparently said it first, back in the 15th century. The important thing is not who said it first, but what  it means. In Bill's case it means it would be odious to compare his song/poems to anyone else's  writing, Kerouac notwithstanding, because of the unique quality of his art. 
[June 10, 2002, Reviewer: Laird Baldwin from New River Valley, Virginia]

I've never received a more wonderful review. A couple of years ago I contacted Laird in the hopes that he might help me produce a second CD--I've written a lot of songs since that first one, and I had home-recorded tracks of more than enough. I think I just burned out his ears though, and maybe that's one of the many ways times change. The project stalled, is still stalled. One o'these days maybe...

Through the years Laird and I talked a lot about music and politics. We pretty much agreed on everything, except the idea of voting for Nader in 2000 out of disgust with the other choices. I've talked about that here before. So anyways, it crossed my mind a few times that I should write Laird, see how the medical front was going, and that thought was sort of cancelled by the other one: he'll let me know, don't bother him right now.

So Layo called. Laird had died of heart failure last fall, waiting for that transplant. She apologized for not letting me know, but she'd been too devastated to try to find my address. I told her several times that mattered not at all, and I think that took ok. I'll miss his opinions on Trump, and on Hillary for that matter. These are very weird times in our politics, but then Laird rode the weird politics rails all his adult life.

We met in '65 or so, at UNC. He was the younger brother of a friend of mine, Stu Baldwin. He didn't like UNC much, though he was plenty smart. I remember the last time I saw him, back then. We'd walked down some tracks in Carrboro and found ourselves in a strange kind of clay-walled canyon, which is no doubt gone now given how Carrboro has been developed to the hilt in the subsequent 50 years. Laird was pondering his future. He wanted to drop out. He didn't want to end up in Vietnam. (I'd held on to my student deferment so tight the eagle was grinning, and ended up keeping it till I got a miraculously high draft number, making Vietnam a moot issue for me short of the black-pajama-ed hoards showing up east of the Appalachians.)

Laird opted for the Coast Guard. But then he'd raised his hand when some non-com asked for anyone interested in the field of medic. Laird's idea was, being a medic would be helping people. They shipped him straight to Lejeune and trained him with the leatherneck boys, bayonetting straw dummies, ready to take every hill in sight. He was going to Vietnam anyway. So Laird got on a bus and went to Canada. A lot of people who didn't want to go to Vietnam were doing that, but since he was in the military, it was a much more serious decision (see. e.g., Dick Cheney and his deferments). Laird ended up almost stateless, a man without a country. He got to Europe, where at some point he met Layo. And then Jimmy Carter finally ended this particular Vietnam chapter by pardoning the men who had done what Laird did, and Laird got to come home, with his wife.

All this happened since I'd seen him. So we talked back and forth on email, and met at a couple of fiddler's conventions back when he had a band, and he set up a nice gig for Libby and I in Wytheville, and he and Layo came down here to the cabin once to visit, where I made them my spectacular black bean chili rellenos.

Laird and I shared that other memory too. The time Jack Kerouac came to Chapel Hill. That was a neat thing. He was my corroboration. It really happened, that afternoon in the old Tempo Room, a basement bar full of writers and educated drunks. Later on it turned into some kind of dress shop, and Tom Banks had died of something or other, although Russ Banks did write his own account of the visit, and helped push Kerouac's car out of the ditch since the ditch was right in front of his salon. Laird and I retold the amazing story to each other, Marshall Hay hitching back to Chapel Hill, Kerouac picking him up! It was a different time, particularly if you ignored the sit-ins, as Kerouac did.

Layo is living for the present with their son, Arlo. She is thinking of moving back to Germany. It's strange and sad for her, to be in Wytheville, Va. I have no doubt of that.

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