May 30th, 2009 | Interviews

carolyn pennypacker riggs

Download: The Flatlanders “Homeland Refugee”


(from Hills and Valleys out now on New West)

The Flatlanders knew everything that was going to happen to them when they named their first album—available if at all in the U.S. only on 8-track—
More A Legend Than A Band. Founders Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore all won significant fame on their own—Ely would publish poetry and tour with the Clash besides releasing an impressive set of solo LPs—but they regroup on rare occasions just to see what happens. Their newest Hills and Valleys is out now on New West. This interview by Chris Ziegler.

Do you still have the guitar you bought off the street in Venice Beach?

Joe Ely (vocals/guitar): I’ve taken it out on the road for the first time in 20 years and I’ve been playing it for the first four or five songs. It sounds better than ever—it’s just aged really well. I’ve always played it in the studio because it sounds so sweet and I used to take it out on the road with me until the airlines punched a hole in it one time. But I got a nice case for it and I’ve been taking it out. What happened was I was playing down in Houston, alternating sets with ZZ Top when they were still called American Blues. We’d start at 6 PM and play until 6 AM. We’d play an hour, they’d play an hour—all night. And I had a falling out with the club owner and he pulled a gun on me so I hit the road—ran four blocks to the bus station and caught a bus to Fort Worth, and my friend in Fort Worth had just quit his job and he had enough money for two plane tickets to L.A. And my guitar had been stolen a few nights before at the club. I had stored in Fort Worth my Super Reverb amplifier and they actually let me strap it into the seat on the plane—like a baby! So we get to L.A. and I didn’t have any clothes or anything—just the amplifier. Well, there were a few shirts stuffed in the back of the amp. And we took turns carrying that thing from LAX to Venice Beach.
On foot?
Yeah. Well, we got a ride from a winged-out guy for a few blocks, but he was so crazy we said, ‘Let us out here.’ We get to Venice Beach and I was sleeping under the old pier that’s been torn down—I had my head on the Reverb to see if it moved. And then my friend knew someone out there so I put my amplifier at their house. I was out there about a week or two just doing whatever I could and I ran into some speed freak playing that old Gibson guitar at a bus stop right off of that main road—I guess it’s called Ocean or something. I can’t remember the streets in Venice anymore. He was sitting at a bus stop playing it and he had seashells glued all over it and I just came up and started talking to him and said, ‘That’s a real interesting guitar.’ And he looked at me all pissed-off and said, ‘Yeah? You wanna buy it?’ I said, ‘Well, what do you want for it?’ He said, ‘Ten dollars.’ And I thought, ‘God, a Gibson guitar for ten dollars!’ So I told him, ‘I don’t have one penny, but where are you going to be tomorrow?’ And he said ‘Oh, I’m always here—just get out of here if you don’t have any money!’ I spent 24 hours borrowing, begging, selling Coke bottles—whatever I could—and I came up with $5 and some change and I went back and told him, ‘Hey, man, I saw you yesterday and this is all I could scrape up.’ And he just looked at me like he was kinda needing a hit of speed or something and said, ‘All right, gimme the money—but I get to keep the seashells.’ So he starts ripping off the seashells and I was scared he was going to rip the top off because they were glued on with airplane glue. And he ripped all the shells off and I take the guitar and a couple months later I take it back to Texas with me and a guitar-and-violin maker in Lubbock, Texas, put a new bridge on it and new frets and sanded down the top. He just left the top all the same because he said if he refinished it, it would lose a lot of the sound. So it has the original finish and just a bunch of half circles where the seashells were ripped off. It’s an ugly guitar but boy, it sure sounds sweet. I think I’m going to bring it out to L.A. with me for these shows.
And that was your first week in L.A.?
That was basically my first week in L.A.
What was it like the first time you rode a freight train from L.A. back to Texas?
I’d run into some Texas buddies that had come out from Lubbock on a freight train and I asked them all kinds of questions about it. And I got called for the draft to go back to Lubbock and appear at the draft board in Amarillo, and I still didn’t have any money so I had somebody drop me at a San Bernardino freight yard. I asked which train went across to Albuquerque and they pointed it out and I made it all the way to Clovis, New Mexico—and hitch-hiked part of the way. But, boy, what an experience—flying across the desert in a boxcar with no weight in it so it’s just bumpy as shit. It literally knocks your brain out of your skull. Besides that, the girls that had given me a ride to the freight yards had given me a little package with some food in it—sandwiches and chips and brownies—so about dark I got hungry and I started eating their food and I ate the brownies and I’ll be damned if they hadn’t spiked the brownies with pot! I was riding 80 miles an hour in this boxcar and the brownies started coming on and I was bouncing towards the door—pushing myself back because I was scared shitless. And then I came out to Venice the next three summers. That was the winter of 1966 when I first went out there and then I went back to Texas for the draft, came back summer of ’67—the ‘Summer of Love,’ they called it. That was when Jim Morrison lived there and Venice was just a true bohemian spot—it wasn’t an upper-hunky place like it is now. It was a real bohemian village and I had a really great time working on music out there.
Didn’t the Seeds play there every day for a month?
At the Cheetah at Pacific Ocean Park—P.O.P. Some surfers showed me a way to climb on the outside of the pier and cut across through the middle and there was a hole and you could come up right underneath the stage. So we used to climb on the pier and sneak into shows at the Cheetah. The ocean was like six stories below. I didn’t have any good sense then—that was my problem!
I read when you were a kid, you liked to follow songs around—go where someone had sang about to see what it was really like. Why?
First it was Woody Guthrie, so I had to go everywhere that Woody Guthrie had gone. About the time I got that old guitar, I had to go to the towns that Woody talked about and then I heard ‘Go to San Francisco with flowers in your hair,’ so I went to San Francisco and made it up there in ’67 and ’68. I spent a whole lot of time in Berkeley. Mainly it was Berkeley, San Francisco and Venice. Being from Lubbock, Texas, where nothing ever happens to being right in the middle of the whole movement in 1966 and ’67—it was quite different than Lubbock and I found it totally fascinating.
The Flatlanders come back together every so often—is it because of something between the three of you or is there some outside force lets you know the world could use you for a bit?
There’s no outside force that gets us together. We don’t have much drive or ambition or anything like that. Between the three of us, you could put all of our ambition in a thimble! What it is is that we are truly dumbfounded and fascinated that we sit down and put a song together one word at a time—one note at a time—and we’re always fascinated at how it’s going to turn out. We never expected we would ever write a song together. That was just something that you didn’t do. Like this last record. Somewhere around the time Hurricane Katrina hit, we got together and started putting together some songs and it took us about five years to write these last songs. I think one song took two-and-a-half years to write. It’s almost like a game that we play—to see what happens. And even if we have songs, we don’t know if we have an album or not until we sit down and start recording it. So it’s quite a process. If we had someone looking over us saying, ‘You better get this record done!’ we would never do it. We just like to take time out from our own schedules every once in a while and just see what happens.
Butch told a reporter that you’ve ‘spent many hours in pancake houses across the country revealing the secrets of the universe to each other.’ What secrets can you share with us now?
We have come to the conclusion that sooner or later it’s now or never. And that’s about all we figured out. Anything that comes your way, just say to yourself, ‘Never mind.’ And everything will be all right—you won’t have any conflicts.
You’ve said before you cared much more about the live shows then the recording sessions when you were younger—what kind of things got lost because of that?
I’m sure I lost a whole lot of things—physically and mentally. One time I lost four years of songs I had written and stories in my journal. One time I lost an entire album—when I was coming back after we were touring with the Clash in London. I was over in Europe for a few months and had recorded an album on a little tape recorder and had it all pretty mapped out and was going to record it when I got back to Texas, but we got to New York City and the taxicab that took us from the airport to the Chelsea Hotel drove off and it had my bag in it with all four years of writings and a complete record album—all the notes on cassette tape—and it never came back. That night I kicked a table in my hotel room and broke my foot, so for the next three weeks I had to hobble along on tour from town to town with a cast on my foot and playing every night. It was miserable. The University of Texas just published a bunch of my journals that I kept on the road and those would have been four years of journals I probably would have included in this book and there’s a missing gap now. I’m amazed that this many things did survive because I’ve gone off and left whole record collections and whole houses full of stuff. I’ve gone off and left cars in airport parking lots and never gone back.
What’s it feel like to walk away from things like that?
Usually it’s not an impulse—it’s just a situation that I find myself in. It’s like, ‘Well, I’m here, but somebody called me and said to come up here and I know I won’t be back for six months so I’ll just call somebody and say, “Say, want a car? You can have it.”’ One time I had a collection of glass doorknobs that was my most prized possession. I don’t know why—I found these glass doorknobs in a house that had fallen down in Amarillo. I got a gig in New York playing with this theatre company which then went to Europe for six months and I knew I was going to lose my house and everything, and I called a friend and told him, ‘I’m going to donate to you my glass doorknobs.’ And he went, ‘What in the hell is a glass doorknob?’ And I said, ‘You know. Old houses in the ‘20s—everybody had glass and crystal doorknobs.’ That’s just kind of the way things are if you’re a rambler and that’s what I’ve always been.
But you’ve settled down in Austin for a bit, right?
I’ve had this house in Austin for 20 years now. There were a few places around there—one was one of the few settlements—at least in Texas—where the white settlers and the Indians lived side by side. The guy that built my house, his family settled Texas and came out with Steven F. Austin in the 1820s. He told me some stories and there’s been a couple of books written about one of the few places where the Indians had their teepees down by the river and the settlers were on the other side and they helped each other get food and pick pecans and all that stuff. I kind of feel like I was guided into that spot. I feel like I’ve found—after all that wandering—found that right spot.
Where do you feel the Flatlanders fit in your life now?
It’s a different kind of chemistry that happens when we sit down and work on something together. I cant put my finger on it—I don’t know what it is. All I can call it is kind of like mustard and mayonnaise—just a chemistry. We have tried to figure it out and we’ve never been able to. Probably something we’d be better off talking about at a pancake house! But if we figured it out, we probably wouldn’t have it anymore. It’s like the story of somebody asking the centipede about how he moves all his legs at one time and when the centipede thinks about it, he trips all over himself.
How did you happen to get bit by the world’s smallest horse?
When I came back from one of my trips from the East Coast, the Ringling Brothers circus was setting up in my hometown of Lubbock and I went out to watch them set up. And some guy walked over and handed me a jackhammer and said, ‘Go over and help those guys set up that tent.’ I was hired on the spot. And my first job after the tent was when we moved from the auditorium where we played back to the train yards which was several miles away—I was put in charge of two llamas and the world’s smallest horse. If you can imagine, his head was exactly knee-level to me. And he was a mean sonofabitch so every five seconds he would turn over and try to take a bite out of my knee. Napoleon complex. And when I would kick the horse off me, the llamas would rear up and look at me and spit at me. That was the worst job I ever had—leading the llamas and the world’s smallest horse. Within three weeks of being in the circus in what they call ringstock—which is taking care of the animals—I had the most seniority which goes to show you how long circus employees last. It’s usually guys running from the law who get a job so they can make it to the next town. So if you’re ever running from the law, just go join the circus.
You had a lyric on the new record that says, ‘the average person’s afraid of talking about death but not afraid of driving a car.’ What does that mean?
This world we live in is one big paradox. Everybody worries about the latest thing to worry about. Today it’s swine flu, but yet there’s a volcano underneath Yellowstone National Park that is 60,000 years overdue and if it goes off, it’ll cover the entire United States with fifty feet of ash. So I don’t worry about the latest things to worry about. I just think it’s better to make the best of what you got. My old BBQ friend Stubbs, I asked him once—‘What’s the secret to what you do, all the sauce and BBQing?’ And Stubbs said, ‘The secret of it all is to make do with what you got.’ So I figured that’s a good thing to live by.