© Copyright 1987, 1996
by Brian Alpert;
All rights reserved.
A true tale of a weird time...
fter twenty years as a professional musician, much of it spent shlepping around the country in vans, one acquires a catalog of bizarre and unimaginable stories. In my experience, one band in particular provided me with a wealth of such tales: Cowboy Jazz.
Cowboy Jazz was an eccentric western swing band that actually enjoyed some success, particularly on the West Coast. The group put out two LP's on the independent Rounder label, and toured much of the country, each of us (six players and our road manager/Mr. fixit) pulling-in about $50-$120/week. The band picked-up the occasional motel room (we lived a good bit off the kindness of strangers who enjoyed our music so well they'd put us up on their couches and floors), but you were on your own for food - most of that precious $50 went down the hatch.
Cowboy Jazz was full of the romance of the American West, and loved to travel there, touring many of the most beautiful spots in the United States. We didn't work many days of the week, but damn we saw some mighty-purty-places. This group is responsible for my having visited (or at least driven through) 49 of the 50 states. Never made it to Oklahoma.
Oklahoma notwithstanding, Cowboy Jazz did tour Alaska, twice. The first was in 1983, the second in 1986. In spite of always spartan conditions, and absolutely no monetary gain, these trips were wonderful experiences; I would not trade them.
One of the most amazing Cowboy Jazz stories occurred on the way home from the first Alaska trip. Some background regarding that trip: To begin with, we had driven straight to Seattle, about a month previous, to start the tour. Four days STRAIGHT with only one nine-hour break. We were physically spent and hadn't played a note. Arriving in Seattle was the strangest feeling: unsure of the prospect of actually being able to leave the truck, three of us were walking down the street clumped together in a small mass, uncomfortable with so much personal space! Weird.
THEN we went to Alaska for three weeks. Most of our time traveling was via Ferry: Alaska's Marine Highway. We had a wonderful trip in this majestic state. Our crowds were ecstatic (they don't get too many electric bands in Alaska; it's a pretty big deal), the scenery world-class, the people gracious. The tour was a rousing success.
Three weeks later, disembarking the last ferry in Seattle, we were absolutely s p a c e d. But our remaining work was pleasant: three days in lovely Aspen, Colorado, and two more in Ft. Collins. With home in sight, we were relieved.
The first leg of the drive was uneventful. We stopped in Jackson Hole Wyoming, had a nice dinner, and then giddily went on our way. We were a stone's throw from Aspen.
We left Jackson proper, and had just reached highway speed when the most amazing thing happened:
A horse, poised on an embankment, jumped OVER an oncoming car and landed squarely on the hood of our truck.
It was out on the open range after dark, an oversight that was (and still is) strictly forbidden. Needless to say the poor animal didn't survive it's last act. I hadn't the nerve to look, but it was reportedly mangled beyond recognition. Its brand was unreadable; its identity forever unknown (except to the owner, who would be scratching his head next morning: "Wonder where _______'s got to?"). Even if the brand could have been read, it's a good bet the local authorities were more inclined to protect local ranch owners than East Coast hippies.
So much for litigation and remuneration. Hell, they probably would've arrested us given half a chance, and considering some of the band members' habits, this could easily have been arranged.
So we were lucky, and not just to have avoided arrest. One half second later that horse would have gone right through the windshield, almost certainly killing the front seat occupants, road manager Nick Sharp and his wife, keyboardist Deanna Bogart. Deanna has gone on to motherhood and a respectable career as a touring recording artist, multiple solo albums to her credit. A far sight better than dying in a freak accident outside Jackson Hole Wyoming.
So, we were thankful to have escaped uninjured. On the other hand, our truck was by anyone's guess totaled. It was mashed big time, flattened, accordian style, right to the front of the cab. This happened on Friday night; our chances of getting the local body shops to work over the weekend were nil.
We were, in a word, screwed.
We took what we could carry, walked back to town and checked into a motel. The next day, Nick did find someone to help us. A referral of a referral of a referral. The guy ran a small body shop and had the worst reputation in Jackson. He needed work, we needed to get the hell out of there.
He set to work, our hard-earned T-shirt money would be his reward. Virtually penniless, we spent the next three days killing time, walking around Jackson, holed-up in a not-so-awful motel. (Thanks for small favorswe'd stayed in many worse places.) At that point I was pretty much sick of everybody and kept to myself. Not hostile mind you, but these trips, long and close as they are make privacy a scarce commodity. You're living with your bandmates, 24 hours/day. You get to know these people, uh, really well.
So we'd get up and go on little day trips. Our hippie-to-the-max guitarist and bassist had one particularly aggravating experience with a couple local cowboys. They set off on foot to Grand Teton National Park, a pretty good hike from Jackson. The cowboys picked them up hitchhiking, and therein ensued a sort of taunting harassment dance: won't stop the truck, get out of the truck, you're stranded, we'll take you back, we won't take you back, ha ha, blah blah, yee haw. So, they had a bad time. But they did make it to the park.
I didn't go for anything quite so adventurous. Jackson is a gorgeous place, but the circumstances amounted to large boredom. I trolled around town, looking at boots I couldn't afford in stores I had no business even entering, outside of town, climbing hills, trespassing, observing wandering herds of local elk, looking as bored as I was.
The experience was also disorienting. Time and schedules become meaningless, more so with each passing day. I remember enjoying the film Breaking Away on the hotel cable, feeling relief at actually being entertained. The band popped in to announce a foray for dinner, and reluctantly, the film only 20 minutes from concluding, I switched off the tube and joined them. If you didn't make the food run with the rest, you might lose your best opportunity for a good meal that day. In the back of my mind I set a note to look for a rebroadcast, so I could catch the last twenty minutes. As is the way with cable, it was on the next day. From 3 - 5am. I actually set the alarm for 4:30am, got up, tiptoed to the TV, watched the remaining half hour of the film and happy with closure, went back to sleep.
With strange behavior like this starting to seem reasonable, we got out not a moment too soon. Three miserable days and $1500 later, we limped out of Jackson, our truck pulled-out like so much taffy, patched and pieced together like Rube Goldberg himself accomplished the work. The gig in Aspen was a missing chapter in history, but we did make it to play Ft. Collins, and then unbelievably, the truck made it home. Yes, the truck was totaled. Yes we were bored, tired, disoriented. Yes, we were broke: our T-shirt money found its way no doubt to the creditors who no doubt descended on the body shop guy. And yes, the poor horse lost its life.
But hey, we have an amazing story. That's got to be worth something.