You Can Run Your Whole Life, But Not Go Anywhere by Gina Myers
Driving around Saginaw, Michigan, window down, sunny October day, I sing along with Social Distortion: Times are hard getting harder / I’m born to lose, destined to fail.
Saginaw is a place that knows about hard times. Closed factories, failed businesses, abandoned houses, burnt out neighborhoods, busted up roads, and no sign of relief. Looking around, it’s not hard to see that promises have been broken.
And it’s in this light that I first read Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus and learned that to live in futility, to delight in it, is rebellious, and more specifically: “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”
Saginaw is a post-U.S. auto industry town, and as a college junior I equated Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill, only to have it roll back down, with life on the assembly line. As Camus himself noted, “The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.”
From an early age, I’ve been drawn to the tragic in literature, and so it’s no surprise that my pop culture heroes are like my literary heroes—outsiders and rebels, they’ve been beaten up and pushed down, but they keep moving on, or they die. Sisyphus himself was a highwayman. And Saginaw, home sweet home, is beaten down a little more each year. I realized more than just life on the assembly line was Sisyphean. I realized my own life is too. There’s a strange thing that happens when you accept this fate. Camus says you become master of your own destiny, but it’s been my experience that consciousness doesn’t change anything. It just makes the hopeless desirable.
And so I find the hopeless desirable.
I often joke that Social Distortion’s “Ball and Chain” is the reason I’m the way I am. But there’s probably more truth to it than I like to admit.
When Mike Ness sings, “There’s got to be another way,” I almost believe him. After all, there is always the promise of something else, but Mike counterpoints: “But wherever I have gone / I was sure to find myself there / You can run all your life / But not go anywhere.” And so the rock rolls back down the hill, and I move on to another bar, or another town, or another relationship. Though ginabird, my nickname, stems from something else, my best friend says I am always a bird in flight.
And I romanticize this lifestyle so when things don’t work out, it doesn’t bother me. Things aren’t supposed to work out. I don’t recognize a good thing when I have it, because I know there is more out there yet to experience. And somehow, there also remains a romantic longing for lost chances. Staying is the wrong thing to do, and moving on is the wrong thing to do. This contradiction makes sense to me. In recent years I’ve found an affinity with early country music and alternative/outlaw country. I grew up in a strict Motown and soul household, so it took me some time to come around.
As for the older folks, there are the obvious choices: Johnny, Hank, George, Willie, Waylon, and Merle.
All the men you can call by first name. And of course, there’s Lefty whose hit “Saginaw, Michigan” I’d be negligent not to mention in a piece about Saginaw and country music.
There’s also Patsy, Tammy, and Loretta. And then there’s Wanda Jackson, the original queen of rockabilly.
In present day alternative country, you can find the progeny of the originals—Hank III and Shooter Jennings.
This past year I spent 24 hours in Nashville, a city I hardly know but romanticize horribly. I spent the afternoon in and out of honky tonks with my parents and checking out Ernest Tubb’s record shop before going to my cousin’s wedding.
While I enjoyed live music at noon on a Saturday, nothing in particular stood out. The current country bands I like have been found in the most unlikely of places: Brooklyn, NY, and Saginaw, MI.
Hand-in-hand with my transient desires, I romanticize outsiders: artists, punks, thugs, and cowboys. And it probably goes without saying that I have a soft spot for bartenders. In Brooklyn, I met a bartender named Jeffro who had a nice smile, tattooed sleeves, and a penchant for rockabilly and Morrissey (though he tried to deny the latter). Jeffro plays guitar and sings forThe Dixons,whose Still Your Fool was recently released from Cow Island Records. The Dixons are a definite throwback to the early days of country, complete with pedal steel.
The songs mostly concentrate on that oldest of tales: lost love. Jeffro singing that he’s “broken-hearted, lovesick, and blue” reminds me of Mike Ness waking up in a dingy hotel room or the county jail. Not that they sound alike—they don’t. It’s just this sense that things are never going to change. While Mike Ness says “It’s been ten years and a thousand tears,” the Dixons complete the thought, but “nothing’s changed, I’m still your fool.” The album contains eight originals and three covers, including a nod to the Texas Troubadour Ernest Tubb with a version of his “Thanks a Lot.” It’s the perfect cd for an afternoon or evening of quiet reflection, or a night of counting your regrets and drowning your sorrows.
And there is a lot to be said for drowning sorrows. Gordon Lightfoot summed it up: “I get feeling better when I’m feeling no pain.” And this is a predominant theme in a lot of the country music I like—finding a place of escape, a place where you can leave your troubles behind. I’ll admit to singing along on more than one occasion to Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places.” Places where the whiskey flows and the beer chases my blues away sound pretty great. Texan-transplant, bartender, and poet Shafer Hall introduced me to a number of such places in Brooklyn and Manhattan. He also introduced me to NYC’s raucous monthly affair, the CasHank Hootenanny.
Led by Alex Battles and his Whiskey Rebellion, the hootenanny is an open jamboree that plays popular country songs and sticks to the four chord rule so anyone can join in. The stage is typically full of musicians playing a variety of instruments—guitars, fiddles, banjos, washboards—and the crowd is always on its feet singing, shouting, and drinking along. The hootenanny takes place on the last Thursday of the month at Buttermilk in South Slope, Brooklyn. Lori Cole wrote in the Village Voice, “The rowdy strumming, along with a pitcher of Yuengling, is enough to soothe a cowboy’s heartache.” I may not be a cowboy, but the hootenannies always left me feeling no pain—at least until the next morning.
After spending eight years away from Saginaw, it was strange to return here as an adult, and it was a bar (sorry mom and dad) that made me feel at home. White’s Bar had the right mix of seediness, cheap drinks, local flavor, history, and a good jukebox.
White’s is also the only bar in Saginaw that has live music every night of the week, and it was here that I was introduced to two local acts: Cash O’Riley and the Downright Daddies, and the Honky Tonk Zeros.
I actually had known of Cash O’Riley before this past year. He used to play an acoustic set on Thursday nights at Meinberg’s and I caught it once when I was visiting. But the shows are different now—he’s gone electric and the band has rounded out by adding a drummer. When Cash O’Riley is booked to play, there are no opening bands. He and the Downright Daddies play all night with a couple set breaks.
They play mostly covers—anything from “Sunday Morning Coming Down” to “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” to “Hollywood Babylon,” and yes, I have heard them cover “Ball and Chain” more than once. It is always a fun-filled night when they play—a lot of drinking and dancing, a lot of singing along.
While a night of the Cash O’Riley Show can be a raucous good time, I feel like it is the Honky Tonk Zeros who make the most sense to me. When in “Don’t Get Attached,” Charlie Klein sings, “Even if he loves you, a man with a broken heart never stays,” my peripatetic heart skips a beat. It’s “Ball and Chain” all over again. The absurd hero moves from town to town and will never be happy, but he must keep moving to survive.
In songs like “Whiskey and Sleeping Pills,” the Zeros make a list of demands that aren’t too different from my own: “Give me whiskey and sleeping pills, enough money to pay my bills, a place to play all night long. Give me one more last chance, one more slow dance, give me back the girl that done me wrong. Give me best friends and a million shots, just lovin the life you’ve got…Give me a smoky bar with the lights way down low.” And later: “After years of nothing, give me something to show.” There’s the idea that promises have been made and they have been broken. The desperation is there: after years of nothing, give me something to show.
But it isn’t all longing for the past and moving on. It isn’t all about broken dreams and asking for what you thought you were promised. The Honky Tonk Zeros also know how to have a good time. And this balance, ultimately, is important. Without it, what would be left? And so I kind of get that Sisyphus could be happy in his futile task, because if there was nothing else, it would be impossible to go on.
In “Hank Williams is King,” the narrator is in search of a place to get away from his life which has turned into a sad country song, a place “Where Willie, Waylon, and Cash are hanging on the wall / Where no one’s paying rent and no one’s keeping score / Leave your heartaches and memories hanging back there at the door.”
In “Drink Up,” the Zeros set a similar scene: “I want it so dark, I can’t see nothing / Except a hanging cloud of smoke / Let the pitchers overflow / Pour me way more Jack than Coke / Let that jukebox keep on playing / Some old Haggard drinking songs / Keep the fighting in the parking lot / In here let’s get along.” (I should note, Michigan still allows smoking in bars, and White’s is one of the smokiest bars I’ve ever been in.) It’s the type of song you can sing the chorus to the first time you hear it, and whenever they perform it, everyone in the bar is yelling along:
It’s time to drink up
So let’s all have another round
It’s time to drink up
So just lay your money down
It’s time to drink up
And set those sorrows free
It’s time to drink up
And be somebody
The evening makes a promise: we’ll set our sorrows free. At least for one night. Tomorrow morning will be a different story. But then again, there is always the promise of tomorrow night.
The Clash have said, “Death or glory becomes just another story.”
Death or Glory:
No matter how things are different, they always stay the same. I’m still your fool, and Sisyphus is a fool too, but a happy one. Tonight, I’m going out to go out and have Hank III’s words in my head, “I’m going straight to hell, so you just better get me one more round.”
Looking for my name
in every pawn shop
I’m not fit
to be a politician’s
wife Laughing along
Lake Shore Drive
Pointing to all the places
we’ll never live
Our plans for Mexico
forgotten at the end
of a novel
4am post-bar text
message The camera’s
third eye wrapped
inside a flag
brings the promise
of a new baseball season
Outside Wrigley boys
stand along N. Waveland Ave.
with gloves on their hands
Too young to have
baseball is only
good for heartaches
Gina Myers is the author of several chapbooks, most recently Behind the R from ypolita press. Her first full length collection, A Model Year, will be released by Coconut Books in summer 2009. She currently lives in Saginaw, Michigan, where she makes books for Lame House Press and works as a freelance writer and adjunct English instructor. She can be found online at http://asaddayforsadbirds.blogspot.com.