Cowboy Angels And The Old Weird
A major influence on Cowboy Angels was Greil Marcus’s book Invisible Republic. It’s an extraordinary meditation on the Matter of America and its lost and shadow selves that widens out from an examination of the music that Dylan and the Band made together in the basement of the Band’s rented house in Woodstock, NY, where Dylan had retreated after his bruising World Tour with the Band in 1966 (the electrified passages of his concert were greeted with howls of derision and anger by folk fans; one famously called out ‘Judas’, to which a rattled Dylan replied, ‘I don't believe you . . . you're a liar,’ before turning to the Band as they gathered up the opening of "Like A Rolling Stone" and telling them to ‘play it fucking loud!’). The Basement Tapes may be the way into the central argument of Invisible Republic, but at the heart of the book is a collection of obscure folk music compiled and curated by Harry Smith and issued in 1952 as the Anthology of American Folk Music, described by Marcus as ‘an elaborate, dubiously legal bootleg, a compendium of recordings originally released on and generally forgotten by such still-active labels . . . [that was] the founding document of the American folk revival.’ Divided into three sections - ‘Ballads’, ‘Social Music’, and ‘Songs’ - it chronicles tales of archetypal murder, revenge and disaster, music of public celebration and appeals to God, and songs of ‘wishes and fears, difficulties and satisfactions that are, you know, as plain as day, but also, in the voices of those who are now singing, the work of demons - demons like your neighbours, your family, your lovers, yourself.’
Inspired by the cadence of a phrase ‘the old free America’ used by the poet Kenneth Rexroth ‘to describe the country he thought lay behind Carl Sandburg’s work’, Marcus named the territory that opens up out of Smith’s Anthology as the ‘old, weird America’. It is the territory where there still lives all that is strange and distinctive of the lost, gone world inhabited by the singers of the songs collected by Smith, and its capital is Smithville: ‘a mystical body of the republic, a kind of public secret: a declaration of what sort of wishes and fears lie behind any public act, a declaration of a weird but clearly recognisable America within the America of the exercise of institutional majoritarian power.’
This is the America that Adam Stone is searching for as he travels through alternate Americas and discovers a weird, secret world of conspiracies working within conspiracies, a world where the dead live again, a woman can be murdered over and again, the past is as mutable as the future and one is hand in hand with the other, and where a lost love can be rescued from death, if you are willing to pay the price.
The old singers, the traditional people whose end Dylan saw in the early 1960s, after they had been rediscovered by fans and brought out to play at the Newport Jazz Festival and other venues, were all gone by the time I first visited America in the early 1980s. But I was able to glimpse traces of their world while I was living in Los Angeles, and during visits in the years immediately after my stint as a legal alien. A world before the spread of strip malls, exurbias; before Clearwater and Fox News; before the corporate homogenisation of what seemed like an unquenchable abundance of deep history, of regional tradition and variety.
I remember on one visit driving in my hire car around the Beltway of Washington DC an hour after deplaning when Simon and Garfunkel’s 'America' came on the radio, and I was so lost in the gap between the yearning of the song, its personal resonances, and the actuality of driving in America that I missed my exit and had to park in a street sunk deep in twilight and the deep quiet dream of suburbia to gather my wits. (The secret name of Cowboy Angels, the original title vetoed by its publishers but surviving as the title of its central section, is Look For America.) I remember driving across the state line into North Carolina where fireworks were everywhere advertised for sale and the radio was suddenly full of bluegrass and hellfire preaching. I remember driving past the wreckage of an Antebellum house, of finding Raleigh-Durham airport full of Civil War reentactors (I have a memory that they carried their rifles onto the plane - it may be false, but those were certainly more innocent times).
Those were the days of Ronald Reagan, who if he did nothing else brought back to America the idea of hopefulness, who in his 1984 acceptance of the Republican Party nomination invoked the image of America as a city on a hill:
I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it and see it still.
It's an image that, as Greil Marcus notes, may have been intended as a sign of American triumphalism, but three hundred years before was a warning, a prophecy of self-betrayal invoked by John Winthrop in 1630 to describe to his fellow Puritans what awaited them in the New World, and what would happen if they failed to meet its promise:
For wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty vpon a Hill, the eies of all people are vppon vs: soe that if wee shall deale faslely with our god in thos worke wee haue vndertaken and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from vs, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world, wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake euill of the ways of god and all professours for Gods sake; we shall shame the face of many of gods worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into Cursses vopn vs tll wee be consumed out of the good land whether wee are goeing.That doubled image of alternate Americas - the shining city as testament to glory or as a curse on failure - is at the heart of Cowboy Angels' story; the story of the kind of America Adam Stone’s America has become, and what he does about it.