Blurred Time Continues
The War Pipes
A Trip with Ralph
In a Birmingham Diner
|In a Birmingham Diner
"Satan's cave. It's the same, more or less, as Plato's cave." Murphy was leaning towards me. There was a bead of sweat across his upper lip. His breath was oniony, and I backed away, trying not to look like that was what I was doing. I didn't want to hurt his feelings or anything.
"You know. The Gram Parsons song. Don't you remember it? We must have listened to it fifty times. That guy is always putting things into his songs. There's this veneer of country, but that's not really what he's doing. He's the magical realist of country, you know?"
We had driven all night, from Charlotte to Birmingham. The goddamn bus we'd bought a couple of weeks before had broken down in Charlotte, so we had to rent two cars at the airport there--one for the stand-up bass mainly, the other for the rest of the band. Murphy was the bass player. I'd ridden with him. We alternated driving and chugged down gallons of bad gas station coffee. We made good time. Hitting Atlanta at 4 AM wasn't a bad idea really. Now we were in Birmingham, waiting for the rest of the guys in the other car. It was a pain the bus broke down, and the rental fee would cost us most of our gig money, but actually, the car was great--comfortable, good sounds, cruise control. Beat the hell out of driving a 1948 GMC Coach with ten million miles on the engine. And the guy we bought the bus from had been living in it at the beach for a couple of years. Hmmn. Was that why the engine was sort of finicky in cold weather?
We were sitting in this diner in downtown Birmingham. Eggs with hot sauce, toast, sausage, grits. The end of the night. There were these whores sitting behind us, arguing about the night's work. One of them, a little blonde, said, "Damn Judy, I had to come in and get the john off. Why can't she learn. Thirty minutes. That's all it should take."
"What do you mean," I asked Murphy. I knew something about Plato's cave. "They're both caves?" I was trying to hear more of the conversation at the next table while we were talking.
"Yeah," he said. "But, see, Plato's talking about illusion, right, versus reality? And now everybody has gotten completely engrossed in the wall of the cave, right? I mean, we're finding more and more of interest, more and more detail, in the wall. We're zooming in on it, paying less and less attention to the entrance, to the light pouring in from outside, the distinction. Our backs are completely turned, you know? And the light's just the means to make the shadows, the machinery. It's just a black box. And--wow--think about what I just said there. That's like saying black is white, or up is down!"
I sipped my coffee. It was one of those moments, like in a movie. The coffee was black, in a thick, white mug. It was made in one of those restaurant makers that burn it, and it was kinda weak. The wait kept coming around and refilling us every few minutes. I didn't know whether she was working hard on a good tip or just getting off on a job well done. We didn't look like tippers, and we weren't. The whores were leaving. They looked tired, gaunt. The blonde who had been talking had scary eyes. Her fingernails were chewed down to nothing--little dabs of chipped pink polish. They left a pile of change on their table. The street outside, through the diner window, was lined with oaks. They were changing. It was November. On the high ridge behind downtown was a riot of color-- reds, yellows, various browns. All the hot shits lived up there.
It was a funny place, Birmingham. Not what I'd expected from watching TV back in 1963, the riot dogs, fire hoses and stuff. That was all in black and white, literally. Bull Connor was retired now. It turned out, at least with the people we'd met, that Birmingham was actually a fairly enlightened place compared to a lot of the South.
"So, do you see what I mean?" Murphy asked me.
"Not yet," I said. I smiled at him. I'd been thinking about those oaks, the colors, while he was talking. It was a little drizzly, which made them even brighter. For some reason the whole scene made me think of that moment at Chancellorsville, in 1863, when the deer burst into the Union camp in the late afternoon. That bizarre explosion told the soldiers who could understand it that in a few seconds they were going to get blasted by the Confederates, who had flanked them through the woods, Jackson's last, brilliant maneuver. There's something about that image that just knocks me on my ass. I can play it over in my mind, again and again. Cook fires, smoke, smells of meat and gruel, men strolling around, pissing, shitting, setting up lean-tos, cleaning weapons, tack, boots, everybody figuring tomorrow is the big day, they're going to kick Lee's ass. Then there are deer, startled, wild-eyed, leaping over the fires, through the camp, knocking over things, and they're gone as fast as they came, just the white tails in the woods for an instant. The brown flanks of the deer, the bright green of a Virginia May, fresh new leaves. The wild brown eye. The very next thing they see is the glitter of bayonets in the foliage.
There were a handful of middle-aged black people queuing up across the street at a bus stop. Some of them had lunch pails. Some looked like maybe they were maids, domestic workers. They hunched in the drizzle. No one had an umbrella. The women had kerchiefs on their heads.
"The guy's sitting in the kitchen," I said to Murphy. "In the song, right? And he's looking at this shotgun on the wall. And his wife's getting ready to go out on the town again, right. That's the plot?"
"Plot!" Murphy was almost shouting. I shushed him with my hand. "Plot," he whispered. "You can't talk about plot with a song like that. Any song. Except maybe some of Dylan's things, like that Jack of Hearts deal where he's really telling a story. Or some of the old ballads, where they were sort of like oral newspapers. Parsons isn't like that at all. He's not linear. He's speaking in the language of, of...."
"Images?" I said.
"Images. And so, what is Satan's cave, thatís what I'm asking. There's this shotgun on the wall, and he's focused on that, and his old lady's going out the door, the kids are crying, dinner's cold again. Parsons is saying, I should say implying, cause he's not saying it at all, that's the point. He's implying that we're all looking the wrong way, and we're going to hell. Right? But dig the irony--it's like that cartoon of the Polish pistol that's pointing back at the person holding it. The shotgun's really pointing at the guy, see?" Murph was ecstatic.
The bus had arrived while he was talking, and the black people had climbed on. Now it was gone, and the sidewalk was empty except for a few golden leaves here and there. I was just sitting there, looking out the window. I watched the rest of the guys drive by in the other car. Actually, Rex was driving. The rest of them were asleep. I recognized Billy's head, cocked against the passenger-side window, his little bald spot. They didn't stop.
"Those dumb asses just drove right on by," I told Murph. He looked out the window. They were gone. He made a wry face.
"We could go over to the bar, " he said. "They know where that is."
"It's the place with the old fire truck in the room, right?"
"The very one," Murphy said.
We paid our check and went out to the car. Then we drove over to the club. It was locked up of course. It was only a little after 8 AM. I could see the fire truck through the front window. An old Ford. Very red, even in the dim, murky light. I thought about sitting down on the sidewalk and just watching the world go by, but it was still drizzling. We went back to the car. Murph put on the tape--Parsons and Emmy Lou. A killer record. Every cut a jewel.
"Listen to what he's saying here," Murph said. "'Take me down to your dance floor, . . . paint a different color on your front door . . .í See what I mean. I mean, what's that, what's he really saying there? All they sing about now is just 'you left me, I left you' over and over. The chord, the hook, that's all it is. Nashville is just sick, corrupt."
We got to the Satan cut. Parsons is singing like Johnny Cash, that's part of it, and the old '50s Hank Williams kind of sound. I love the song. The chorus came by twice before it sank in.
"Hey Murph," I said. "Listen, man. What's he saying there, right there. It's 'cage,' you doofus, 'cage,' not 'cave.' 'Satan's Cage.'"
Murphy had climbed over into the back seat and curled himself around the doghouse bass somehow. "I'm catching some Zs, man," he said.
I looked back out the window at the
bar. I could just make out the fire truck in there. The rain
drummed on the roof of the car. After a while I shut my eyes.
|Red Clay Ramblers Souvenirs|