And, the Pulitzer Prize for death notices…goes to…
“Uncle Bunky burned the candle, and whatever else was handy, at both ends,” obited Jacobs’ nephew, Chris Santa Maria.
“When the end drew near, he left us with a final Bunkyism: ‘I’m ready for the dirt nap, but you can’t leave the party if you can’t find the door.’ “
It’s officially gone viral. “To commemorate his uncle’s fearless life and times, Santa Maria is now working with O.H.S.O. Brewery in Phoenix to produce a beer in his honor. Taking things a step further, Santa Maria and O.H.S.O. Brewery barrel program manager… hope to donate proceeds from Jacobs’ brew to local dive bars struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic.” From Janine Puhak, Fox News report.
Metafiction by Jeff Kaliss
Inspired by Bob Will’s legendary hit song “San Antonio Rose.” Wills, the bandleader of the “Texas Playboys,” is considered the co-founder of Western swing and was widely known as “King of Western Swing.”
Thing about being a muse is…
Thing about being a muse is: there’s no retirement, no vacation, nothing like that. Time off ain’t really time off, it’s more like just looking for someplace to be. If that sounds easy to you, just remember you’re a human being reading this, you ain’t no muse. Even though, if you’ve somehow been tricked into reading this story, you’re probably one of those types who’s had the hots to find a muse, for most of your supposedly creative life.
I know, I shouldn’t be that way with you. Listen, I hope you do find your muse, whatever you’re looking for, and that you deserve each other. Hey — have you imagined what a muse looks like? Do you want him to look like that smiley dark-haired guy you watched grasping an IPA at that bar downtown last weekend? Should she be wispy but strong, with long legs and a small hand to guide you on to enlightened bliss? Or maybe something like that exotic je-ne-sais-quoi you wanted to get to dance with at that club in the gay part of town?
Ha-ha. Just thought I’d ask. Well, no, you don’t always have to see a muse, but for you humans it’s probably better if you think you can. Me? Hell, you can see me anyway you want, and probably a lot of folks have. And I’ve been changed up by Whatever Does the Changing, over the millennia. Muses sound different to different folk too, did you know that? Do I sound a little “country” to you right now? That’s no accident, ‘cause for this ride, I’m gonna let you see what happens with one particular (and particularly famous) country-and-western song and one particular country music artist, just so you can see how it works. You college types have always fantasized about riding with a cowgirl, or being one, but you never were able to find a cowgirl or a horse on campus, were you? Anyway, if it works, you can just think of me as your Cowgirl Muse, for this short ride. Are you down with that?
Oh, and where we’re going? The song I was talking about is “San Antonio Rose”. It was the biggest hit, long before most of you were born, a big hit for a very successful songwriter, fiddler, bandleader, and sometime cowboy movie star named Bob Wills. Here’s a bit of what you call “encyclopedic” stuff: Bob Wills, who was born and lived in Texas for much of his life — 1905 to 1975 — created a music called Western Swing, because of how it tied up traditional instruments and melodies in jazzy packages. More western than country, really, Bob never did cotton to country. Though when he was a kid, he did pick cotton, in Texas. That’s when he also started picking up music and jig-dancing from the Negro kids who were out there with him in the cotton fields. Aside from the blues, Bob was never a guy hung up on color, not where it came to the skin color of anybody sharing music with him.
“Rose,” the sound and sway of it, came into his life at the start of his career, long before all that fame, around 1927 or ‘28, just before his and Edna’s little Robbie Jo came into their lives, when Bob was still cutting hair over in New Mexico, amongst a bunch of Mexicans. He found himself sweeping up the sounds of their fiddles and the rhythm of their polkas, along with their locks of lovely dark hair, and the tune that he borrowed, he titled it “Spanish Two Step.” And that’s all it was, a fiddle tune — no words. Me, the Muse, his muse, I helped him out with that, slithering around in his brain and making sure he got the modulations right — that’s when a certain section of a song shifts to another key. He wouldn’t have seen me, though, except maybe when he’d been hitting the bottle, which was his one bad lifetime habit, if you don’t count an allergy to monogamy, and maybe you should.
Anyway, around Thanksgiving time, 1938 — Bob was onto his third wife and his famous Texas Playboys big band, probably spending a lot more of his love on the latter — Columbia Records, that big business in New York, decided Bob Wills needed to wax some fiddle tunes. And Bob, who had fiddle strings going back in his family for several generations, was only too ready to comply.
What was I up to? Well, when I wasn’t helping Bob get out of barbering, I was musing around with a bunch of other musicians. I was beginning to notice — and it was rather to my satisfaction, I may tell you — that those artificial useless fences human beings set up between different kinds of music were beginning to collapse. Country music was grazing over into pop music and vicey-versey, long-haired Jewish guys like Aaron Copland were putting country into classical stuff, and so forth. I had a lot of fun stirring up people’s souls and integrating their minds, racially and otherwise. The Lord’s Work, if you will.
So now Bob needs me again. He’s yearning back towards that “Spanish Two Step” I got him hooked on, but his Columbia boss Art Satherley wants him to rename it “San Antonio Rose,” to give it regional flavor but keep it inside the U.S. of A. Couple years later, there’s even more interest in that old shit-kicking tune: Fred Kramer, from Irving Berlin’s company, also back east in New York — this is just about the time Mr. Berlin, another Jewish show biz guy, was dreaming of a “White Christmas” — this Kramer offered Bob three hundred bucks to put lyrics to that “Rose” tune. Kramer’s people would publish the song, and then Bob and the Playboys could record it. None of ‘em had any clue how big it’d be.
But I had a hunch of what would happen, as soon as I saw how far Bob had gone with my inspiration. That word, “inspiration” — you smarties may know this, but you should take note of it again while I have you on the line — comes from “the immediate influence of a god,” and even further back, from “breathing in.” Breathing in. Try it. Consider it your creative yoga workshop. Better breathe out, too.
And now, listen and learn. ‘Cause I’m gonna try to show you how it worked with good old Bob and his hit song, and with the rest of those Playboys, at that session in the middle of April 1940 in Dallas, Texas. America was pulling out of the Great Depression, and wasn’t yet in the War, it was pretty happy times for Bob and everyone else, despite his problems staying married and on the wagon. This “Rose” was a tune, remember, with history for Bob.
So, here’s how muses work with this kind of thing, how we can do stuff you can’t, unless you sort of recruit us. Some of what we do, is with stuff that’s been lying around in someone’s soul for a while. Some of it is what you’d call in-the-moment (there’s your “inspiration”). Some comes from other souls you’re keeping company with, or used to keep company with, it just kind of rubs off on you. Some totally flashes in and out of time and place, so fast, so pretty, you can’t even tell the hell where or when you are. Or even who you are. Are you Bob? Andrew?? Philip?? Gloria??? Well, you don’t have to be able to tell, not most of the time, and not right now. Just enjoy the ride with this Cowgirl Muse. Even if you don’t know this Western Swing classic (yahoo, there’s always YouTube), see if you can make out how I managed to herd Mr. Wills into the aromatic pastures of creation, into leaving himself and his band and the rest of the human race something they could love as long as they keep listening to it, a bouquet of sound. Here’s the music and meaning and magic of “San Antonio Rose!”
I have Bob start this song in the key of B-flat, which is good when you have horns in the band, and the Playboys have a slew of trumpets and saxes, something you wouldn’t get with your run-of-the-mill country string band. But the first thing you hear — it might have been on one of those old scratchy 78 rpm shellac discs — is Twin Texas Fiddles, in this case Jesse Ashlock and Bob, invoking the melody of that old “Spanish Two Step.”
Lots of open fifth chords, they’re not crowded chords, they’re open and rather sweet, like sucking on a piece of sugar cane from down on the Rio Grande. I remind Bob that you can start opening your heart up in those chords, big enough to polka through with whomever or whatever you’re in love with, sweet enough to sweeten your tears of joy. I get Bob to work every part of his top-notch band, like a fit cowboy with all his body parts ready to ride in a rodeo or make love. Listening, your heart gets pumped by Son Lansford’s big boy bass, your joy gets all the time tickled by Al Stricklin’s tinkly piano.
Need to be reminded that you’re in cowboy country, with a cute-as-a-button Cowgirl Muse? Okay: here’s a little slidey break on Leon McAuliffe’s steel guitar, and that brings on the first of Bob’s trademark high-pitched cry-outs of “A-ha!” You hear ‘em on practically all his recordings, plain as day. And they always sound somewhere between a wise-ass crow and one of the wild mules he used to mount when he was a little dark-eyed tyke in West Texas. “Some of ‘em was dad-burn hard to ride,” Bob said about those animals once. The grown-up Bob, when he gets on top of the music and brays this way, is maybe thinking both of wild mules and wild women, and maybe a bit of the Wild Turkey he had a few nips of before he began the recording session.
But Bob, the song is moving on and you have to get back to your half of the Twin Fiddles, before Tommy Duncan starts in on his vocalization of the lyrics, in that I’m-as-solid-and-straight-as-a-pine-tree kind of baritone-tenor of his: “Deep within my heart lies a melody . . .” That melody, in this song, has already had two beautiful rises and falls, like the two pretty ears on a cantering horse. Bob urges here, “Ah, tell ‘em, Tommy!” ‘Cause this story is gonna be everybody’s story: Bob’s (who wrote it), Tommy’s (who sang it), and even you folks’s who’re reading this now and will be listening to Bob and Tommy on CDs or the streaming service du jour later on.
“A song of old San Antone,” Tommy stays singing. For six beats, Tommy holds the long ‘o’ on the last syllable of that colloquialized name for that South Texas city, sounding like an owl perched on the famous but broken-down wall of the Alamo, which, you might not know, is now within walking distance of the San Antonio Holiday Inn. History lesson? Product placement? Indulge me, and enjoy it.
“When in dreams I live with a memory.” Same chord structure as the first part of the tune, but with a change of the melody line; that’s nice, Bob. Like the different ways you find to tell a guy you love him, when you’ve been loving the same guy for a long time. And Bob shouts out, “Yes, yes, go on!” because he’s in on this dream, he wants you in on the dream, that’s why you row-row-row your boat and ride your wild mule.
“Beneath the stars all alone.” All alone, in the middle of the Lone Star State. You’re in a star, as well as beneath them. Does that help you belong to eternity? And you’re resolved, on the tonic B-flat note. But not for long. Because love, or the looking for love, will never leave you alone, Bob.
Here comes yet another stroll along that same chord progression, with that flirty shift from B-flat to B-natural on the C7 chord, which always makes you think, Oh, what’s this then? Ain’t you cute, to ‘B’ so “natural??” “It was there I found, beside the Alamo” — I told you — “Enchantment strange as the blue up above.” Isn’t it enchantment which makes the blue strange, though, Bob? That’s what happens when the love which wouldn’t leave you alone gets under your skin. It fills an ordinary unclouded blue day with rainbows and clouds that look like pillows you’d like to lie down upon with her or him.
“A moonlit pass that only she would know.” Did she know it before you took her out there with that rough striped blanket, Bob? Would it matter if she did? You might be the better for it, actually. “Still hears my broken song of love.” Resolved back on the tonic B-flat, is Bob resolved to have to walk, or ride, through that pass alone, with a broken song? Well, in a lovely lyric like this one, it probably makes for a better story ballad than just trotting back down the pass with some new, quick señorita or caballero or cowgirl or cowpoke or whoever.
Now, here comes the part of the song where it shifts keys, from B-flat to its dominant key, F. It’s an irresistible thrill! Bob might have looked for this kind of thing in a bottle, sometimes. But, we might say, if you’re from a different part of the Southwest, it might be like the fireworks in your brain, after you chewed up that peyote you copped from a friendly cactus and got past the obligatory puking. You’re still polkaing, or two-stepping if you prefer, but you’re in a higher key!!
“Moon in all your splendor, know only my heart.” My heart is now the splendiferous moon! Metaphor without simile! And with a blare of jazz which Bob imported from New Orleans, or maybe even New York, where Charlie “Bird” Parker would have just gotten “Cherokee” off the pop reservation and had begun to rebop it under his title, “Ko-Ko”. With my recommendation as a hybrid breeder, Bob makes sure we hear the jazz in the trumpeting of Everett Stover and/or Tubby Lewis. It animates that moonshine! (Sidecar (or is it sidebar?) : Did you know that Bob was part Cherokee, on his mom’s side, and that he had another hit with “Cherokee Maiden,” a year after “Rose”?)
“Call back my Rose, Rose of San Antone.” This Rose, whoever she is, is the heartthrob of the title, the girl in so many guys’ song lyrics. And maybe, with that F modulation, the guy’s heart is throbbing loud enough to sound like a tom-tom, or tambora, or whatever Rose’s people respond to, and to get her to give the guy another chance. Bob?
“Lips so sweet and tender, like petals falling apart.” C’mon, Bob. “Petals?” Wasn’t Rose a little bit more actively involved in the kissing thing? Yeah, I know, it’s supposed to be your song, as your Muse I should know my limits. Or should I?
“Speak once again, of my love, my own.” This time, the long ‘o’ is holding (four beats) on the note, E-flat, which returns the song to its original key. And after the high of the ‘F’ bridge section, it feels like a homecoming, a lying down on your own bed, with or without Rose, but with different words, words of consequence for this romantic musical quest.
“Broken song, empty words I know.” Another reference to a broken song, but here’s where we, the listeners through time, may have to stand apart from the forlorn teller of this tale. Because, to our ears, the song has been as strong as it has been stirring, and the words maybe fuller and lovelier than Rose ever was or could be. I’m taking some kind of credit for that, folks.
“Still live in my heart all alone.” No, not alone, because your heart harmonizes with our hearts, and in big bands and in timeless tunes, the glow in the company of other folk shines on the cold silence of mortality. “For that moonlit pass by the Alamo.” We’ll ride it with you, Bob, again and again, after we toke up behind the Holiday Inn. “And Rose, my Rose of San Antone.”
After finishing his sing-through of the song, Tommy is comforted and congratulated by Bob (and by me) by means of a snappy guitar solo by Junior Barnard, a white man in a Stetson, channeling Negro-electric-guitar-pioneer Charlie Christian. Listen to how Bob moans over Junior’s magic. That’s a moan of color-blind delight, and maybe the pride of a bandleader who has led his boys where no band had gone before, and likely would not go again.
Then, there’s a flashback to that high bridge, the splendor this time shared by a mini-choir of cowboy angels — three guys, not identified in the notes but credited in our memories — and Bob jazzing and fingering his fiddle to a climax way, way up on the fingerboard. Finally, with no need of pretension (this ain’t the Basie band), Tommy finishes with a reprise of the song’s last four lines.
And there you have it. How a muse works through some good music. Did I already tell you that ‘music’ dates back to the Greeks, where it meant, “the art of the muses?” Though, I don’t think they had much to work with. Could you have squeezed out as much joy as Bob Wills did, if all you had was a lyre and pan pipes? Maybe, it you’d squeezed enough grapes to go with it.
But I’m sure all you writer types are hoping that a muse might make herself available for more than just music, and you’d be right about that. Or “write about that,” for a cheap wordplay You gotta give me that, I’m a little tired. I told you, we don’t get any vacation, like you guys do. Remember this: Bob loved mules, and ‘muse’ is only one curvy letter away from “‘mule.” Much obliged.
(Dedicated to Andrew Joron and his Speculative Fiction Playboys and Playgirls. Joron is a writer of experimental and science-fiction poetry and was of the circle of late Surrealist poet Philip Lamantia. He currently is in the Creative Writing Department at SFSU.