After a day full of humanity and conversation at St. Paul’s, I had dinner at Elko’s famous Star Hotel. Basque food still confuses me. It is familiar items served in strange combinations – pasta and French fries. But I am more than fond of it. I am committed to it. As I ate the cabbage soup I remembered that my older daughter’s first boyfriend was Nacho (Ignacio – as in the greatest Basque saint, Ignazio Loiolakoa a/k/a Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits) – his name, I say, was Nacho Larracochea. It was not a great romance. They were only in the second grade. But Basque food makes me sentimental for times, people, and places left behind. Yes, friends, I had my first Picon Punch and was briefly confused by the grenadine, fearing there might be gin in there somewhere. Gin and I had a falling out 40 years ago and never made up. But there was no gin. So I enjoyed my Basque dinner very much indeed.
Then I made my annual pilgrimage to J. R’s Bar for karaoke night. I love J. R’s Bar for ineffable reasons even I do not understand. But tonight it was a special study – karaoke night. The first performer after I arrived was a big ugly guy in shorts and a t-shirt who did violence to Billy’ Joel’s song Honesty that would have been outrageous except that such a schmaltzy preachy song – music and lyrics equally reprehensible – deserves whatever it gets.
But then things took an unexpected turn. The DJ, an obese decidedly unattractive woman sitting behind her console took the mike and sang the 1955 Eddy Arnold hit (given definitive expression by Ray Charles and current expression by Michael Buble) You Don’t Know Me. Her voice was pretty good, but the thing was, I believed her. I believed she lived unknown and the loneliness was palpable.
The next singer was a larger woman who sat in a corner to sing, I imagined, because she was ashamed to stand in front of people. She was not alone at her table. She was with a young man who was probably attractive in a shaved head, ear ring, goateed sort of way. But she sat there in the corner so obscurely that it took me awhile to find where the voice was coming from as she sang,
Take the ribbon from my hair
Shake it loose and let it fall . . . .
And all the times I have ever heard that song in its contrived sexiness were exposed as a sham. Her voice was rich, expressive without pathos, just real, keeping the un-self-pitying loneliness between the notes. I noticed my face was wet and I was glad for the darkness of the bar and wondered if my feelings were coming from the bourbon in my glass, the emotional challenge of this past month, or a lifetime of encounters with the loneliness of others and sometimes my own.
The next performer was the young man who sat with her, Scotty, clearly a favorite at J. R.’s. He had a splendid voice for Western singing – to be distinguished from country. Country singing calls for “a cry in the voice like Haggard” – but Western singing is a train whistle in a canyon. It is not about loneliness. It is loneliness, without self-pity, for it is the sound of a humanity that knows no home but the desert. Such was Scotty’s voice as he sang that most curious of neo-ballads about past life regression, El Paso City – a déjà vu remembrance of the story line of El Paso, a narrative somehow haunting the pilot who suspects he is the dead cowboy reincarnated.
Scotty was in his late 20s. Marty Robbins, whom I remember quite well – whom I remember from the days of El Paso, long before he sang El Paso City “I don’t’ recall who sang the song” he sang ironically – Marty Robbins had been dead a good long while before Scotty saw the light of day. Scotty would think of Marty Robbins the way I might think of the whistling brakeman, Jimmy Rogers. But his performance was just superb; his voice the soul of the West and it was for me a déjà vu about a déjà vu. As he returned to his table with the large young woman, someone called from the back, “Who was that by?” – they were not joking – they actually asked who El Paso City was by – and Scotty answered quietly as if the question were perfectly natural, “Marty Robbins.”
Another man followed Scotty, a 50 something bald guy who was the epitome of ordinariness in his appearance, but his voice was smooth as Gentleman Jack as he crooned Amarillo By Morning and I found myself loving Texas “pure and chaste from afar” – I love Texas best at a safe distance. Then came a particularly handsome young man, in a Tom Cruise sort of way, who rapped a song in such a blatantly white style that I was embarrassed for my race.
Then Scotty returned to the stage and sang country lyrics this time, but still with that train whistle in the canyon voice,
The rain falls where it wants to
The wind blows where it will
Everything on earth goes somewhere
But I swear we’re standing still
So I’m not gonna wake you
I’ll go easy on your heart
I’ll just touch your face and drift away
Like smoke rings in the dark.
I finished my drink and walked back to my room though the cold dark night with a Taurus moon.