We are pleased to announce Last of the Blacksmith, a folk band from San Francisco, has teamed with Vanguard Squad to release their recorded works on our label. Vanguard Squad couldn’t be more tickled about this involvement, as we regard the music of the ’Blacksmiths as exactly the kind of music we dream to release. How lucky are we? Personally, I am thrilled to be connected with this band because I get to associate myself with two of my favorite people in this world, Nathan Wanta and Nigel Pavao. The three of us go way back, high school distances. We’ve been in bands together, record shopped, vacationed, slept on each other’s couches, written letters, babysat one another’s children, walked on bridges. I’d be hard-pressed to name two other people who are as great as Nigel and Nathan at any of those things.
To celebrate our working together, Nathan and I made the first (of hopefully several) compilations for the Vanguard Squad Jukebox. With this mix--the first of which is titled, We Had No Dream, We Just Lived One (Click here to download mix)--we wanted to address the wide range of past and present Americana music: folk, country, No Depression, alt.country, bluegrass, rock, blues, indie, old-timey, whatever. The distinction or classification of the songs matters little. Instead, what we hope the mix will do is serve as an introduction (or reminder for those already introduced) to all things born of these territories. The mix should be likened to the affect of long walks, ramblin’ rivers, bees swarming, and birdsong.
Birdsong especially. But first...
My friendship with Nathan began in the early ’90s, when I started playing bass in his band. We met for the first time at a house party where his band was playing. They were your garden-variety high school punk rock: four dudes, distortion pedals, screaming songs that last two minutes. That band broke up and Nathan and Mitch (of Judith and Holofernes) started a new band. The two of them recruited Rahsaan (of Sleeper Waves) to play drums. Rahsaan suggested I play bass. One afternoon I hauled all my shit over to Nathan’s parent’s garage and we ran through the few songs they had already written. The four of us were an instant fit. That garage birthed some of the best times of our young lives. Practicing for hours, trying to rip off other band’s songs without sounding like we were ripping them off, eating cheap burritos from the taco trucks near the railroad tracks after practice, playing shows, recording, talking about girls, talking about whether we thought girls were talking about us, listening to records.
I came from a family of heavy-drinking, truck-repairing, dirt road-driving, red-necking country music lovers. I remember all my aunts and uncles standing around the bar (yeah, their mobile home had a built-in bar? and shuffle board table!) singing along to Bocephus’s “Family Tradition” at the top of their lungs. (Hank, why do you drink? And Hank, why do roll smoke? / Why must you live out the songs that you wrote?) Or one of my aunts pinching my cheeks and slurring the lines of Waylon’s “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys” (Don’t let ‘em pick guitars or drive them old trucks / Let ‘em be doctors and lawyers and such). No wonder, then, that as soon as I had a chance I reached for the furthest thing from Bocephus, Waylon, Willie, Kris, Merle, and Rita that I could find: punk rock!
It took years before I could listen to country music without suffering a gag reflex. It happened though, and I can still remember the exact moment when I embraced country music of my own volition. The occasion was my first trip to a Costco store, near San Francisco. I was pushing one of their jumbo shopping carts loaded with hundreds of pounds of macaroni & cheese, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (“Oh shit, a case is only eight bucks dude!”), flats of soda, gallons of Dinty Moore Beef Stew, and whatever drop freight shipments they had on special, when I walked by a CD display case and saw a 3-CD Willie Nelson box set. This was in the early ’90s, when the CD was still fresh, and a “best buy” triple disc set for eighteen bucks was impossible to pass up, regardless of the content. I looked at the songs and saw they had compiled the Many Sides of Willie into three predictable categories: “Easy” (i.e., non-offensive), “Cowboy” (i.e., drinkin’, smokin’, fuckin’, ridin’ and ropin’), and “Duets.” Reading through the song titles I realized, even though I hadn’t heard--much less thought of--any of these songs in years, they were all emblazoned on my mind. Uttering the Costco mantra, “It’d be stupid not to buy it,” I threw the set into the cart. So began my hunt to add all the old family favorites to my personal record collection. Luckily, most country records sit in the dime bins at every record store, so it wasn’t long before I had my family’s collection matched and then some.
Nathan is a few years younger than me, and while I was working my way out of a factory job, he had just finished high school and was listening to Simon and Garfunkel CDs while delivering pizzas in his lime green ’87 Subaru Wagon. I had taken up residence in the mobile home abandoned by my aunt, and when we weren’t practicing, Nathan and I would usually spend the time listening to records. After watching Taxi Driver, Nathan and I got to talking about Kris Kristofferson’s The Silver Tongued Devil and I, the album Robert De Niro gives to Cybill Shepherd in the film. In my mind this conversation was the epicenter for the rippling interest that Nathan and I share about this type of music. Nathan hadn’t heard the Kristofferson LP before, and I was happy to find someone my age that was interested in country music. Kristofferson’s guttural voice bears the same evidence of living that both my uncles had. Besides being an obvious byproduct of smoking and drinking, I associate that particular timbre with eating the gristle first, as my uncles were prone to do.
Years later, Nathan and I saw Kristofferson perform at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, a show that will be remembered by both of us as a favorite. Particularly when Kris dedicated a song (“You Are the
Wind Shit Beneath My Wings Shoes”) to, “All my kids? and all they mamas.” After just about every one of his hard living anthems, when the screaming from the middle aged women in the front row was dying down, Kris would lean into the mic and grumble, “True story."
While I may be older, and was introduced to this brand of music before Nathan, there was no delay in making himself familiar with every artist he could find. Minding the spoken introduction on "The Pilgrim-Chapter 33" (the song De Niro and Shepherd discuss in Taxi Driver), Nathan got curious about all the artists Kristofferson name checks: “I started writing this song about Chris Gantry. Ended up writing about Dennis Hopper and Johnny Cash, Norman Norbert, Funky Donnie Fritts, Billy Swann, Bobby Neuwirth, Jerry Jeff Walker and Paul Siebel? Ramblin’ Jack Elliott had a lot to do with it.” After some nosing around, Nathan went to a Ramblin’ Jack Elliott show at The Freight and Salvage in Berkeley. A show that changed Nathan’s life. Elliott spent much of the night discussing the recent death of his friend Townes Van Zandt.
There was another Ramblin’ Jack Elliott show scheduled, and Nathan insisted I join him. It was my first live experience with the talkin’ style songster. Elliott was slated to play at a spiritual bookstore, Open Secret, in Marin County. Nathan, I, and a few others drove to San Rafael to see Elliott, pretty excited to witness a folk “legend” live. When we arrived, stepped into the tiny store, saw a few rows of folding chairs, and a handful of people milling around, I became apprehensive. How lame was this? We drove all this way to see some washed up dude sing some washed up songs for ten or fifteen yuppies that probably haven’t seen a show since the folk heyday. But hey, they have free coffee and cookies, plus we drove all the way up here.
We settled in, amidst the soon-to-be-retirees, between the bookshelves, and I waited for this thing to be over. What happened instead, much to my amazement, was one of the best nights of my life. Ramblin’ Jack came out of the back room, said hello, made himself a cup of tea, tuned his guitar, pushed his cowboy hat around his head, and then started talking. Ramblin’, really. Each song faded into the next. Stories about horses, houseboats, friends and women he’d loved. Small towns he’d gotten lost in, trains he’d ridden, wildlife, wonders, famous people who’d gotten rich while he ate beans over campfires. It’s not often that someone, with a song, can take you out of your experience and place you, however unseated, smack dab in the middle of their experience. For a few hours that night I was a prairie wanderin’, slow movin’ outlaw, and it felt fantastic.
Kristofferson said it first, and I’ll repeat it, “Ramblin’ Jack Elliott had a lot to do with it.” In general, and specifically, Elliott’s presence in our lives has a lot to do with this mix. When picking the songs for this compilation, all those mixed-tape-minded thoughts crept into the picture. You know, the unspoken rules about how to make a good mix:
- Don’t repeat the same artist
- Don’t choose unreasonably long songs
- A tasteful balance of the ’obscure’ and ’popular’
What good is all that shit, really? The idea that there are these silent rules we all follow, making the safe decisions in order to appeal to the largest cross-section of people. Really, what the fuck is that? The thing I love about the Ramblin’ Jack Elliott tune on this compilation, “912 Greens,” is that it is a hopelessly long song. He just strums the same progression over and over, for damn near seven minutes, before he sings. And what he sings are two lines. Two fucking lines! I won’t give away what those lines are, for those of you unfamiliar with this particular moment of musical genius. I will say that the tune is so beautiful, in part, because Jack makes you wait for it. Wait for it. He takes you down this long, ramblin’ road. Meandering through New Orleans, towards the house of Billy Faier, traversing a back yard fence, a banana tree, a naked ex-ballerina dancer, and a three-legged gray cat named “Gray.” What more could one want? Really, what can some “safe” two minute song offer that’s better than a naked ex-ballerina dancer in Billy’s backyard in New Orleans? For the banana tree alone I say, “Fuck safety.” Fuck trying to appeal to as many people as possible. This is free coffee and cookies, man.
Now, about the birds.
At some point, after I moved away, Nathan’s bird-watching tendencies put their talons into his lifestyle. As our worlds are strangely interconnected, I have always had a fondness for birdsong myself. My appreciation developed during my sophomore year of high school. Geology class, specifically. My teacher, Mr. Handy, had the same mild temperament and gentle disposition you might expect from someone living on the prairie. Somehow, the teenagers hadn’t jaded him like the other faculty. Mr. Handy loved the outdoors. He was a well-built senior citizen, wore overalls, had muttonchops dripping off either side of his face, and generally looked “country.” Mr. Handy gave extra credit to his Geology students if they could find, and identify, rocks they brought in from outside the classroom. While I refused to do homework (I took my punk rock really serious-like at the time), I saw benefit in this extra credit offer. Mr. Handy referred to the credit as a “gold nugget.” If you could identify the rock, he’d pin a gold nugget on the bulletin board under your name. At the end of the term, he’d tally your nuggets and add them to your grade. This was like free money. I went hog wild. I walked to school every day along the railroad tracks, so I’d fill my pockets with rocks. I was all about getting my gold. After presenting one particularly interesting specimen, Mr. Handy said to me, under his voice so the rest of the class wouldn’t hear, “You’re going to make a terrific rock hound, but you’d better get some pants with bigger pockets."
The gold nugget rush of Mr. Handy’s class had a profound effect on the way I looked at my surroundings. At the time, I considered the nugget crusade only as a way to prevent myself from failing, but it taught me to be aware of things outside. How many mornings had I walked those tracks with no other thoughts than those that concerned myself?
We took a field trip to the Sierra foothills to exam fault lines. I assumed we’d stop at some nature conservatory, look at some mechanical re-enactment of moving earth, and listen to a weirdo tectonophysicist explain why we should give two shits about what happened to dirt a million years ago. Instead, in the middle of one anonymous patch of road Mr. Handy asked the bus driver to pull over. Once stopped, all the students looked around, wondering what the fuck we were doing miles from any rest stop or museum. Mr. Handy asked us to “observe our surroundings.” I looked out the window? nothing. The class agreed.
“What’s the big deal?” we asked. Mr. Handy explained that we were parked on the fault line. Everyone looked around again. “Nuh unh!” Where was the big crack? We wanted a crevice! Mr. Handy, in his infinite wisdom, asked the students to look out the window. He pointed in one direction, “You see over here. All the trees, you see the manzanita shrubs everywhere? You see all that?” We nodded. Big deal. “Now, look over here,” he said, pointing in the other direction. “Notice there’s no manzanita, the grass is different, and you see the ground is much rockier. See that?” It was as if someone had drawn an invisible line straight across the countryside. Literally. And our bus was fucking parked smack dab in the middle. I had driven that highway countless times, and never, not once, noticed this obvious change in geology. I was amazed. From that day on I made it a point to listen to everything Mr. Handy said.
One Monday morning, while asking the students how their weekend was, Mr. Handy mentioned he and his wife went canoeing on the river. One of the students asked why Mr. Handy and his wife canoed (no doubt fishing for a fuck joke). “We bird watch,” Mr. Handy replied. I felt the dumbfounded thud of bewilderment at Mr. Handy’s admission. Bird watching? Dude, that’s how you waste your time? A student, assuming Mr. Handy was the real birdwatcher of the couple, asked if Mrs. Handy got bored. “No, she loves it. We take turns rowing. One of us rows while the other looks through the binoculars.” Mr. Handy pulled a bird book out of his desk and talked briefly about the different species he and his wife had seen on the river in their last few trips. This moment clearly marks an early instance in my understanding of what is meant in “true love.” The idea of spending a Saturday alone on the river with someone watching birds? that’s like free coffee and cookies.
Nathan’s trajectory is similar to mine, as he was in Mr. Handy’s Geology class a few years after I was. He was introduced to the wonders of the wild earlier; in the summer of 1987 Nathan got his first rock chart from the Grand Canyon bookstore. That same summer, in a Toronto bird park, he got his first Peterson’s Field Guide. Mr. Handy rekindled Nathan’s affinity for our feathered friends. I don’t pretend to know the inner workings of Nathan, but he displays the same gentle craving for instruction through quietude that Mr. Handy had. Nathan was the first person I thought of when, in a pile of records, I found the National Geographic Society Guide to Bird Sounds record set. Six double-sided flexi-discs covering 179 species, this record, like Ramblin’ Jack Elliot’s “912 Greens,” makes you wait for it.
This mix is dedicated to the things that keep us connected. The things we shouldn’t pretend to understand. This mix is dedicated to just enjoying it. This mix is dedicated to spending more time away from things. Canoeing on a river. Ramblin’ across the countryside. Rock-hounding down railroad tracks. Getting far away from most things and totally lost in all things. We Had No Dream, We Just Lived One.
This mix has been optimized for bird-watching.
Thanks for reading and listening,
--Bambouche of the Vanguard Squad
Nathan and I have prepared a slideshow of exemplary experiences where this mix would come in handy. Review and enjoy!