Dusk on Highway 6, a crescent moon hanging over a jagged line of the Sierra Nevada, a distant set of headlights miles up the road from me. The FM choices are few, but with night comes the faraway AM stations. I have heard strange and beautiful noises on these desert nights: Paiute chants from reservations, melodic static like a chorus of goblins, and especially the mystifying rockabilly program I picked up somewhere near Cortez, Colorado, in the summer of 1983.
I was driving cross-country, in my bright orange International Harvester Scout II—a rounded 1970s tank with four-wheel drive you needed to get out and turn on, with a wrench—and there was a scary-looking thunderstorm rising up over the San Juan Mountains ahead. A hillbilly guitar line jumped out of the speakers, with impossible levels of reverb. Howls of insanity and abandon followed, an ancient sound, far more terrifying and primal than anything produced by the punk-fueled rockabilly revival of the era. Another song followed, short and brutal, this time with lyrics so unintelligible that I could never figure out if they were Spanish, English or Martian.
The DJ laughed maniacally, his voice echoing both from the modulation of the scratchy signal and whatever effect he used in his studio booth. He spoke an arcane 1950s’ style slang of Cholo Spanglish I recognized from the slick old guys with their Low Riders in San Diego and Chula Vista and El Cajon. There was an old car-hop diner called Richard’s out in then-rural Santee in San Diego County, and on Saturday nights the classic American cars and less-classic 1970s’ Low Riders would line the gravel parking lot, the proud owners hanging around and talking to their buddies, looking under the hoods at the gleaming engines beneath.
The Cortez DJ was somewhat in the style of Wolfman Jack and the other radio howlers of early rock ‘n roll, but he was also his own special kind of lunatic. The records were menacing, too: For every recognizable number by Johnny Burnette or Eddie Cochran or Wanda Jackson, there were three or four so resolutely bizarre and arcane that the DJ himself might’ve been performing them live, creating them with a Gretsch hollow body run through a theremin and bounced off Sputnik back to Earth.
Adding to this terrifying sonic mix were the lightning strikes from the thunderstorm, now right on top of me. For two or three harrowing hours, I crept southward on U.S. Highway 666 (since renamed by people scared of the Devil) toward Gallup, New Mexico, while giant white bolts exploded around me and a mix of violent rain and hail made it nearly impossible to see the road. At one point I saw what looked like a massive ocean liner (or a Jawa Sandcrawler) backlit by the blue-white glow of another crashing bolt. Only later did I learn this was the notorious “Shiprock"—the remains of an ancient volcano in the Navajo Nation. I was so was shaken and exhausted that when I finally reached a motel and got a room that I couldn’t sleep for another several hours.
I cannot be sure if this was the motel in Gallup where I finally rested so uneasily that night, but it looks right, and “Thunderbird” sounds right, too. On the corner was a phone booth, with the glass shot out, and when I walked out there to make a call home to California, I saw a knocked-over highway sign—two signs, actually, one of them a coveted U.S. Route 66 marker. Back to the Scout for my toolbox and the socket wrench set. I crouched in the highway weeds as the rain poured down, and I brought those signs home. Route 66 officially vanished a year later, but was already the subject of many nostalgic television features and newspaper articles in the early Eighties. (The signs are, I think, still at my sister’s house in Portland. She had nothing to do with that particular crime.)
Thirty years after that harrowing night, I’m driving solo from Bishop to my property up near the Nevada state line, and that music and that voice are right there with me, through the scratchy AM of a rented Hyundai hatchback. 660 AM. Twang and reverb, more country & western than full-on rockabilly, but then … yes, the alien hillbilly beat. Could it be the same lunatic? A recording, like the classic Art Bell show from 1996 I found on another station this same Labor Day Weekend night? The Internet should be a help, but it’s not: there’s a 660 AM that’s a Navajo station, but there’s nobody on the program schedule that matches “crazy reverb guy playing obscure and possibly alien rockabilly.” Mysteries of the Desert.
The last Yosemite trip of the summer.
Steve Coulter, my good friend of many decades and the powerhouse drummer in my occasional band The Corvids, is the only person I’ve ever known who has a journalism degree. This year, he re-launched himself as a writer of mystery/thriller fiction and various web articles. And then he demanded that I answer these questions so that he can get me tied up in some sketchy multi-leveling marketing bullshit online. That’s how we do it, in 2014! (And my talented & elegant friend Martin Langfield has done a far better job with this assignment.)
1. What are you working on?
I’m still happily recovering from the failed launch of my environmental/nature online magazine, Greenfriar. It was a “self-financed startup,” which means I don’t owe anyone money and am free to go about my business, such as it is. But it also means I couldn’t hire any full-time help, or pay myself, or pay more than $50 for free-lance pieces, because “hope for eventual advertising money” is not accepted as a form of payment for rent, groceries, liquor, etc. I’m doing a little freelance, the sort of essays and columns I used to do for The Awl and Gawker, and I’m always halfway starting or plotting a book—but the reality is that I’ve only had two books published and I’m well into my 40s, so it’s unlikely I’m going to suddenly start churning out novels or non-fiction books. All of that is to say: What I’m working on is something that has grown out of the visions I had for the book Dignity, along with my longtime obsessions with the California missions, land conservation, the high desert, and the special satisfaction I get from walking around in silence, far away from all you people and your constant jabbering and tweeting, etc.
2. How does your work differ from other writers in your genre?
As a novelist, I don’t really have a genre—of my two published books, one is a dark comedy that very roughly follows the “diversity of perversities” style of satirical thriller written by Carl Hiaasen, but it also has the “tell much of the story in fake news accounts” trick that powers Dracula and Salem’s Lot, and most of the (few) reviews noted the snarky dialogue was of the Elmore Leonard/Raymond Chandler vein, which is a pretty terrific thing to get called on.
My more recent book, Dignity, is written as a collection of epistles from a modern-day Saint Paul sending encouragement and news to self-sustaining communities that pop up within half-built and abandoned exurban developments after the 2008 financial collapse. It’s utterly sincere and romantic. Which is to say: I believe that book. Very easy to write, too, although of course it was work. But an empty house in the desert and some Leonard Cohen or Antony & the Johnsons or Emmylou Harris could generally get me back to the haunted traveler who wrote that book.
And then there’s my non-fiction book about hiking up the California Coast, from the border fence at the Tijuana Bullring by the Sea to San Francisco. I did this in 2009 for HarperCollins, but the little Harper imprint that signed me was shuttered not long after I submitted my aimless first draft. And that’s probably for the best, because nobody at HarperCollins liked my first draft at all. (This has been my most successful book, financially, because I got to keep the substantial advance. Thanks, Rupert Murdoch!)
As an essayist or a columnist or (what I’ve really been) a blogger, the people who admit to liking my stuff tend to put it in the American Jeremiad school of half-humorous/dead-serious writing, which is a great compliment, because most of my favorite writers did their best work in that area: Edward Abbey, Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion, Mike Royko, Malcolm X/Alex Haley, Mark Twain, etc. And despite the fact that I “quit” journalism and blogging and any kind of periodical writing on a disturbingly routine basis, my full-time income has mostly come from this kind of work, to the point that I haven’t had a Real Job since working as a desk editor and rewrite guy at United Press International in Washington back in 1999.
3. Why do you write what you write?
I mostly write out of disgust and dissatisfaction. I want a beautiful life but I’m stuck in this Garbage World with you people.
Very slowly, I’m figuring out I probably should not waste any more time on writing. It seems increasingly passive and banal, the whole exercise. There’s real stuff that needs doing!
4. How does your writing process work?
Not very well. The truth is, I don’t really “believe” in writing. Not now, anyway. The writers I admired are almost all dead and gone. The kind of writing I like to read has fallen out of favor, or the current versions are pretty tired copies. Writing is a pretty disgusting way to make a living, when you think about it—it’s all to get people to “emotionally respond” to a headline so they’ll click on something, “share” it, and then close the browser tab a paragraph later because who cares?
There’s a whorish desperation to even the very few halfway-decent writers today. You either write about the same tripe everybody else writes about—Game of Thrones, Hillary Clinton, Silicon Valley, whatever new subculture is offended by its lack of persecution, a sports star, a wealthy rapper, the Tea Party, the new iPhone—or you make a stunt out of not doing that specific thing: Dark Matters: A Gamer Woman’s Journey Through a Year Without Using Light Bulbs In a Very Dark House, etc. The paucity of aesthetic morality throughout global civilization dulls the wits of even the sharpest satirists at The Baffler and The Onion.
5. What is your advice for those struggling to write and/or make a living from writing?
Give up! Really, why struggle with something that has so few rewards? Now if you just love typing so much and can’t stop, then type away. That’s fine, and better than watching the teevee or joining a bicyclists club or whatever.
But if it’s hard, and you’re not getting anywhere, don’t waste time or money on writing programs, writing seminars, writing workshops, books about overcoming writer’s block, books about how to read other books, books about how to sell books to book publishers, etc. Chances are, whatever you’ve got to say has been said before, and it’s probably been said much better, and any look at the bookshelves in your local independent bookshop will reveal that most of the shelf space goes to the deserving “old reliables”—along with gimmick-garbage throwaways like Four-Thousand Supermarkets: A Year of Traveling To 4,000 Supermarkets, gift books for Father’s/Mother’s Day, gift books for graduates, gift books for the home chef, gift books for the unemployed, gift books for the depressed, gift books for the recently divorced or widowed, gift books for pet owners, seasonal political books with snappy topical titles that repeat something the few buyers already believe, glossy magazines with many beautiful photographs of Scarlett Johansson and/or a new device of some kind, and various gewgaws that announce to co-workers and potential sex partners that you actively engage in the reading of books, because you are smarter than the people that just watch Netflix eight hours each night.
* * *
Now, I think, I am supposed to somehow “pass this on” to some other people, but I’m pretty sure the people I have in mind will refuse to take part in such a morbidly vain exercise. Instead, I choose … Jim Newell, Salon’s politics writer and the 2013 world sex champion, and the talented Matt Welch, noted “libertarian of convenience” until the Koch Brothers shut down Reason due to moral bankruptcy. As always, “Blame Steve Coulter” for all of this.
I lost my quadcopter while flying it along the coast for a beach wedding and had a GoPro camera on it. The footage is extremely valuable to the couple so if you find it, please contact me and willing to pay a reward