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Friday, August 22, 2008

Anger and Anonymity

Well folks, the last couple of blogs have really ignited some passion - much of it my own! What pleasure to know that the words I write, the music I play, and the drawings and paintings I make can inspire sure-enough righteousness! Give me joy, my friends! I'm officially an artist!

However, I've also had some issues (my own, pretty much) with the anonymous comments I've been getting. I stand up for what I believe, and I speak my mind openly and as honestly as I can. For better or worse, I am a "public figure" and should I push some insane person's buttons the wrong way, it would be no trouble for them to find me and inflict real damage.

I find that I have no trouble with the opinions of my readers - no matter how divergent from my own - if said reader stands up for what they think by "signing" their comments and revealing who they are. The anonymous commenters on the other hand not only tend to be far more petty and immature, but my last post actually provoked an anonymous comment that directly addressed my "anger," was borderline slanderous, and walked a very fine line of accusing me of threatening others. Whether real or imagined, behavior like this boils down to fear, and fearful people do stupid things. I'll save some of you the trouble and embarassment:

Anonymous comments will no longer be allowed on this blog.

I cannot stress how much I believe in the democratic principle of free speech, even anonymous free speech, but this blog is my sacred ground. You wanna have a rapport with me? Fine. Introduce yourself, and let fly. I'm a big boy, and I can take it, and you have nothing to fear from me should I disagree with you. Otherwise, don't bother, or get your own damn blog.

As for my "anger," let's talk a little about that. There's a bumper sticker going around that says "If You're Not Outraged, You're Not Paying Attention." Well, here's some of the crap I have to be angry about:

Demented, sociopathic frat-boys (that I didn't vote for!) and their goose-stepping cronies are illegally running this country. Wrapped in my flag and carrying a cross, their actions continually lead to the deaths of millions of innocent people- both foreign and domestic - in my name. Yep, I'm pretty pissed.

Those same frat-boys and their corporate friends are getting rich - richer than most of us can ever imagine - by this same homicidal plunder. Unconscionable. Yep, I'm pretty pissed.

Not only are the frat-boys getting rich by homicidal plunder, they're also getting rich by the systematic neglect of the citizenry of this country in favor of corporate financial interests. We have no universal health care. Our schools are falling down, and if not physically in shambles, our children are not being educated with the knowledge they need. Our roadways are crumbling. There are many more examples.... Remember New Orleans? Criminal, embarrassing, and worth being angry about.

The folks in this government that I DID vote for, who are supposed to speak for me in Washington's hallowed halls, are rolling over like pussies and not holding these criminals accountable for their actions. Some of them are even getting rich as by-products of their silence. Yep, I'm pretty pissed.

The election process that will hopefully replace the demented frat-boys is transparently corrupt, and no matter who is elected to run our country in November, and no matter how enthusiatic I am about them, they will probably, at some level, be morally compromised. Pretty sad, and worth being angry about.

Our prisons are full of people who take drugs or look at "dirty pictures," and our drug-rehab clinics and counselling centers are chronically underfunded and slandered. NOTHING that doesn't hurt the person or property of a non-consenting other should be illegal. Period. Meanwhile, real criminals (political and otherwise) walk the streets brazenly, knowing they'll never be brought to justice, because "that's the way it is... nothing you can do about it. The way of the world." Worth being pissed about.

On the other hand, I am bombarded by the toxic spume of coal-fired power plants, the seepage of methyl mercury in my groundwater, the radiation of cell-phone towers, the delightful exhaust of millions of cars (yes... one of them my own... do I have any genuine viable options since the auto manufactuers and oil companies systematically eliminate any real competition?) and the whomping bass from nearly as many urban car stereos. These things DO hurt my person or property, and I do NOT consent. Yet they do not change. I'm mad.

And just for local color, I'll throw in that most artists ARE underpaid, and certainly unappreciated and often downright disrespected. "Get a real job." Indeed. I think I'll go work in a cubicle for Halliburton. That'll fix everything, right? Shit. Worth being angry about, if you ask me.

Sadly, I could go on, but if you haven't gotten my point by now.... Don't worry, I won't take it out on you.

On the other hand, I have many things to be grateful for, and I'm well aware of it. A few of them:

A loving wife who cares about me, is patient with me, supports me when I need it, and doesn't when I'm wrong. Also, I get to make beautiful music with her! (Literally and figurativly.)

Loving friends who do the same... well... not the part about figurative beautiful music... there are healthy boundaries....

Loving pets who do the same, and they're warm and fuzzy!

Living a life largely dedicated to making art.

Being in relativly good health, and having only myself to blame (well... except for those coal-fired power plants and the methyl mercury) for my physical deficiencies.

Living in a comfortable and safe in home, in a reasonably comfortable and safe community. (There's always room for improvment in both....)

Having enough to eat.

Having time to enjoy my life, which among other things includes: aspen trees, really big rocks, green grass, sage, mountains, elk, deer, antelope, magpies and crows, rivers, rain, sunshine, horses, cats and dogs, guitars and mandolins, the Aubrey-Maturin series of books by Patrick O'Brian, the Olympics, Akira Kurosawa's films, catfish, bacon, lemonade, popcorn with butter, rocking chairs, Mission-style architecture, the paintings of Lanford Monroe and Andrew Wyeth and my father Bob Thompson, plains indian tipis, muzzle-loading rifles and antique sabers, Blade Runner, Creedence Clearwater Revival, healthy social discourse exactly like this blog, the smell of Bushmill's whiskey and woodsmoke, and the feeling of my shoulders unknotting when I fall asleep at night.

Yeah, I'm cranky and snarl a lot. I suppose when I'm in a foul mood I look like I could take a wild swing or two, or at least snap an expletive in an undeserving direction. Perhaps I could control my attitudes a bit better, at least in public, but I don't think my anger is totally unjustified.

Likewise, I'm often just thrilled to wake up in the morning, and the ability and the - dare I use the word in the America of G.W. Bush? - freedom to put my thoughts and feelings on the line is one of the things worth waking up for.

Like all of us, I'm learning. Other than my drawings (I hope my scanner works today) don't expect a lot of blogging for a while. It's been wonderful and enlightening and healthy, but I'm pretty worn out with it for now... and I've got gigs to play and drawings to make and friends to attend to - all in the "real" non-virtual world. And to all you anonymous folks... there's a lot to worry about in this world, but hang in there. Courage is right around the corner.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

How Much Coin Does A Man Need?

It'd be easy to get into an overwhelming cosmic discussion of the "true" meaning of wealth - in the spiritual sense - but my financial status of late has me living on the edge, and it's led to lots of meditation on money and wealth these days, and I've got a few fuzzy thoughts for ya.

As usual, full disclosure is necessary. On a day-to-day level, I'm indeed on the edge much of the time. I'm getting by, but just barely. On a broader level, I'm quite comfortable. I sold a (paid-for) house recently. After paying commissions and taxes and all that crap I didn't have enough money left over to build the new house I wanted, but I do have a decent chunk of change in the bank and it'll be there when I've earned some more and I finally get to build that house - or if there's an emergency when I need it. Not only that, but there's probably even enough there to build a smallish, spartan studio here at Kim's house until the day when we get our Mc Mansion. (Just kidding. About the Mc Mansion.)

But I'm trying to live day-to-day on what I earn as an artist, and it's damn tough. It's more fun than mopping floors (which I've done) or packing boxes in a manufacturing plant (which I've done) and I'm thankful that I can make art instead of having to endure the workplace-bullshit that most of my audience has to deal with in their day-to-day lives. But that doesn't mean it's easy. In fact, my hourly wage (figured roughly) is quite low when one takes into account the amount of time I spend humping gear into and out of venues (never fun) and driving to the gigs and the gas I buy to get me to the gigs and the amount of time I spend practicing and preparing for those said gigs (not to mention the years I've spent learning my craft in the first place). Then, you've got to figure that I usually only "work" on the weekends.... This month is an exception, but generally I'm lucky if every Friday and Saturday is booked... otherwise, I'm at home, trying to figure out how to get more gigs and pay the bills.

I bring all this up not to prepare you for a screed about how most artists are so dramatically underpaid (though they are). I bring it up because in my struggles to pay my bills and my ongoing meditations on how I might bring in more coin without going to work in the coal mines, I've noticed myself thinking on this: how much money do we really need to get on with life?

A few years ago, before I sold my house, I lived in my guest house and rented the main digs for my income. One autumn afternoon I was talking with my tenant and we started discussing his family's future and his work and aspirations. He stated flatly and without hesitation that he wanted to net $365,000.00 a year. "Why that?" I asked. "A grand a day," he said. "Anybody can live on a grand a day."

I've never forgotten that. Most folks, if they're honest, tend to say they want millions and millions of dollars. I'm that way most of the time... I've driven many friends nuts telling them all the great shit I'd do if I could ever win that damn Powerball lottery. But my tenant's logic has never left me. He was very specific: that 365 grand was net, not gross. That's the money you get after your taxes and so on. That's the money you actually get to keep, and spend, or save.

It immediately occurred to me that I could spend more than that... who couldn't? I once read that a million bucks translated to a stack of hundred-dollar-bills about three feet tall. But a billion bucks translated to a stack of hundreds three times taller than the Empire State Building. Well... a billion seems gratuitous even to me, but I could seriously deal with a million. If we really had say, Bill Gates' kind of wealth (about 56 billion according to online sources... 56 fucking billion dollars! Holy shit!) at our disposal, who wouldn't be able to justify a second home in the south of France and a third home on the beach in Tahiti? Who wouldn't want a Ferrari and a Porsche and a four-door pickup for around the ranch house in Jackson Hole? How about a boat for Tahiti? How about a stable full of horses for family and guests in Wyoming? How about a private jet to get all those places without the bullshit of standing in line at airports? And how about world travel? How about staff to take care of each house when we weren't there? How about a Chicago penthouse, right downtown with views of Lake Michigan, and a doorman, and blocks-away access to the Field Museum and a million restaurants that'll cost you two hundred bucks a plate even on Tuesday afternoon? Obviously, I could go on and on. Original art. Antiques. Rare books. Home theaters. Computers. Stereos. Concerts with backstage passes. Opera tickets. Daily massages. Private chef. Hired security to protect all this mess, now that we've got it. The yearly "gift" to the museum... and on and on and on.

But what do we really need? Am I being a bastard because I sneer at the kind of wealth that'll buy all those second homes and private jets, or am I being a bastard because I whine about all the stuff I want when there's people doing fine all over the world with a tenth... no, a hundredth... no, a THOUSANDTH of what I have even now? Am I just a bastard?

I can't figure it out. It seems that in order to do what I do - make art, whether it's writing or drawing or playing music - I need a space that's mine, that holds all my guitars and books and desks and drawing tables and all that. I need to be able to close the door and keep out all the cats and dogs and wife and friends and be quiet (or not!) and do my work in private. It seems that I really need that.

But tons of musicians make their careers with one guitar. Writers become famous in their laundry rooms with a table balanced on their laps for their manual typewriters. Artists make it with a pencil and a pad. What is it that makes me think I need all this, and do I? Really?

If I was king of the world, every human on the planet would have (if they wanted it) a clean, safe place to sleep, prepare and eat their food, and clean their own bodies. They would have access to enough food to maintain at least their minimum calorie count every day. They'd also have free universal health care, and free education at least to high school level. Far too many folks do not have these things, and I can't help but wonder how much better the world would be if they did. I think that would free us from most of the terror, from most of the violence, from so much of the suffering and anger and pain that seem to run and ruin our lives.

But beyond that, what do we owe each other? Has there ever been a time in human history when one individual or group didn't have more than some other? Didn't one tribe always have more mammoth meat than the other, even in the days before we could talk in more than grunts? Whether it's skill, material goods, or good looks, it seems like somebody's always got it better than somebody else, and I don't know if there's anything we could, or should, do to change that.

In the absence of any definite answer to this question, I like the $1000-a-day solution. I freely admit that I haven't done any hard research to see if "redistribution of wealth" would in fact shake out so that we'd lose a few billionaires so all that extra cash would trickle down to the grand-a-day level or not. Hell, there might not even be that much "stuff" in the universe, for all I know. But I know that despite my wildest, over-the-top fantasies, I'd do more than fine with that level of income. Even with a mortgage (horrors!) I'd pay off that McMansion in a couple or three years, and in the mean time I'd never worry about medical bills or college for the kids or food in the fridge or gas in the car to get to the gigs (side note: reminds me of the joke of the musician who wins the lottery and the reporter asks what he's gonna do... well, just keep gigging 'til it's gone, he says...) and I could still buy the odd guitar or flat-screen TV now and again without freaking out about it.

I have no idea if this blog boils down to anything, but perhaps it's this: I know there's always gonna be folks with less than me, and folks with more than me. It seems to be the way of the universe. So with no other moral guide to help me, I'll shoot for the grand-a-day standard and I won't feel guilty about it. I'll try not to bitch and whine however long it takes me to reach that, and I won't necessarily refuse more wealth than that should that be my fate, but I'll help my friends and fellow men when I can, and I'll wish them their grand-a-day with a clear conscience and the hope that with that level of coin, they can get what they need.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Stare Into The Face Of Horror

In the course of my life of late, playing music in a bar constitutes a perfectly normal evening, but at one of my recent gigs an odd thing happened. We were going about our business as usual, singing our songs while folks were eating and drinking and kids were running around and cowboys were dancing and tourists were staring, and everybody was getting pretty rowdy. The scene was happy, and nothing particularly weird was going down.

During the last set, three buzzcut guys in the back started yelling and whooping very loudly, to the extent that even the other drunks were shushing them. Then the tallest started "dancing" by himself right in front of the stage, and he stomped and stumbled and shouted for "Sweet Home Alabama" over and over... again, nothing overly weird in the context of a bar gig.

Then he dragged in his two buddies from outside where they'd been smoking, all three of them hammered out of their minds. One immediately fell on his ass and crawled outside, where he projectile-vomited into the shrubbery. The original guy tried to continue his "dancing" while propping up his third pal, a short, taut-looking dude who leered at my singing partner and wife, Kim, in maybe the scariest way I've ever seen.

I really thought he might go for her, and I'd have to pull a Keith Richards and take the guy out with my guitar. I truly thought he might jump her. I've seen lots of drunks and a few near-fights, but despite the booze-soaked, potentially volatile atmosphere of the typical honky-tonk, in hundreds of gigs I've never seen a fight. Everybody seems remarkably mellow around here, even when they're depressed and shitfaced. But this man was clearly dangerous.

There was something in this guy's vibe that truly worried me. He stared at Kim shamelessly, blatantly checking her out and thinking... well, I don't want to know what. He was not smiling, and the look in his eyes was as glazed and reptilian as I've even seen in an ostensible human - even one this plowed. I was so distracted by the vapor of sullen fury clinging to him I could hardly play. His overall countenance of apparent total insanity was really something to behold.

I don't know what happened, I just know that eventually he and his dancing buddy stumbled off. I saw them reeling just outside the door, and the dancer asked for a drink of water and promptly and deliberately smashed the glass on the patio. The bouncer wisely eighty-sixed them all, and after another song or two the gig was over anyway.

It was when we were breaking down and packing up that we learned they were all U. S. Marines, just home from Iraq.

I don't know anybody who's been over there. I don't know what those guys are going through, but I hardly need to know the details to be dead certain I've never had to do anything near as awful in my spoiled, cushy life. It seems ludicrously disrespectful and simple-minded to say "I've read about it," like some prissy dilettante, but I'm ashamed to say that's about all I've got.

I will say that I never have and never will blame those young men and women for doing what they have to do to survive, or for starting this ridiculous war. The unrepentant, psychotic, satanic frat boys from hell that are currently running this country are wholly responsible (notwithstanding the 50 million idiots in this country that voted for them... but that's another rant for another day...) and one day will be held accountable, in this life or the next. If there is a hell, the imps and demons surely wait with baited breath for the return of these scum.

But I also know that sociopathic behavior is almost never innate, it must be taught, usually by long-term systematic abuse. And I must wonder just what we're teaching the cream of our youth by putting them in a situation like they face in Iraq.

Our military is there illegally, under transparently false pretenses, and are in fact an invading, occupying regime. These kids must know this. And yet - probably in violation of their consciences - they have to defend themselves and each other every day. Constantly in fear. Constantly on guard. Constantly ready to kill or be killed at a moment's notice.

Maybe some of them will come out of it okay. Maybe some of them will be perfectly normal when they get home to Iowa or Vermont or Alabama or Texas. They'll get married, hold down a job that doesn't pay 'em enough, mow their lawns and bitch about insurance companies, and raise good kids of their own.

But not all of 'em will.

My own fear is that in a few short years, we'll have a bunch of vets in psychiatric hospitals, suffering from post-traumatic stress that makes the worst, most stereotypical "crazy Vietnam vet" look like the model of mental health.

Who knows what the toll of this useless war will be on the world? Are we wrecking the psyches of our youth, along with the untold murder of innocents in Iraq? Are we crippling our own future along with our environmental and economic lifebloods?

I tremble to think of the horror we've wrought, and I tremble when I think about that guy's lizard-eyes, and I wonder: if an otherwise peaceful New Mexico honky-tonk almost turned that bad, what kind of barrel of monkeys is Fallujah like?

The horror. The horror.

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