22 January 2019
To whom it might be interesting,
I was cleaning out an old dresser when I came across an unopened letter addressed to “Buddy Damen”, no return address. I looked him up on the internet and found you guys. I hadn’t thought about this guy in years – he slept on my couch for a few months. He used the bottom drawer of this dresser to hold his few bits of clothing. Sure seems like the same guy.
That was my address, alright.
He went out every day with his guitar and a grubby folder of papers. We became buddies over beers on his dead nights. Really great guy.
One morning he up and left before I woke up. A small bit of him remained: he left me his dirty socks and took a pair of my clean ones! I took offense at first, but I guess he was in a hurry and that’s what friends are for, of course. Now I remember that this letter was another thing he left. If I had to guess, this letter was the reason for his sudden departure. I don’t read other people’s mail, so here it sits unopened to this day. If anybody claims it I’ll send it along.
-Elmer Goods, LA
Often when I’m riding the train, I look out the window and imagine the landscape passing by in the key of G. There’s the steady rhythm of the train rolling along, something everyday and nostalgic too, a moment out of time. I’m not sure “nostalgic” is quite the right word. But a place that often feels like home. This morning the sun rose in B-flat. There was something simple about it, and glorious. Like the clear melody of a horn deep in your soul.
I love you, Mama. Tell the girls I love them too. I know I’ll see you sometime soon.
Posted by Pooch
A conversation, Closing Time Melodies, with the band, Buddy Damen and the Last Call, here in Chicago, 9/21/18.
He had been working on some new material, playing some gigs, but he was beginning to wonder if he was doing it for the wrong reasons, like an impulse to “make it” was moving him away from the heart of his music. He decided to take a hiatus—to walk away from his music, walk away from himself if he could, for a couple of weeks. He left his guitar behind and took a bus north, spent a couple nights here, a couple nights there, ended up in a town in North Dakota. He noticed someone playing guitar against the side of a building. Nobody seemed to pay him much mind, they’d just walk right by him, and he seemed to sing all his songs into the ground a couple feet in front of him.
The first day Buddy didn’t pay much attention to him. He was tired and wanted to check into a hotel and get some sleep. But the second day he piqued Buddy’s interest. He seemed to be part of a landscape that was easy to take for granted. Buddy stood in the shadows where he wouldn’t be noticed but where he could hear. The musician played tunes from the 30s and 40s, nothing fancy, nothing strained in his voice.
And as he was listening, Buddy remembered hearing these songs as a child, his father playing Walking the Floor Over You—Wildwood Flowers in the background on a Saturday morning.
It took him back to Alabama. He thought he could smell the fields, the river. He remembered his mother singing lullabies to him, almost saw her, as if the musician had become his mother and was singing to him again. And it triggered a progression of people he had known and many he hadn’t, moving through the body of the musician, one person morphing into another . . .
His sister Ina Jean, the quieter of the twins, who cried when he left home; a classmate who wrote him a note he never responded to; a stranger who flipped him off when he was playing on the corner; another who told him he sounded just as good as the radio; and on and on, a sequence of people Buddy had known or met or seen moving through the body of the musician, coming back as glimpses of parts of his life he had forgotten or never been aware of.
In every case—whether he knew the person well or hardly at all—he learned something about that person he hadn’t known before, something he could connect to.
And then the musician morphed into an image of Buddy himself—as though he were standing outside his body and watching himself, seeing himself in a way he had never seen himself, objectively, without judgment—and at that moment, the musician began to play one of Buddy’s songs:
Any other day I could love you
Any other day I could stay
Buddy had no idea how he knew the song. He’d written it recently and only played it publicly a couple of times.
The sun would shine as it does today
Any other day, I would stay
At the end of the song, the musician looked up from the ground for the first time, looked right at Buddy, and winked.
Four nights later Buddy gave the legendary show at the Palace Theater, Nacogdoches.
1970. I was a somewhat naïve young would-be reporter taking journalism classes at a Tennessee college near Nashville. Word was that Bob Dylan would be recording the next day at one of its many studios so, hopeful of an interview with the great man—what was I thinking?—I hopped a bus then found a crappy motel room in that city of dreams. One long, scorching day later, after trudging around a dozen studios with predictable results, I ended up in front of one of those dark, smoky little bars that seemed fixtures in American cities back in the day. With just a couple of dollars in my jeans and not much of a head for alcohol I hesitated, thought, What the fuck, and went in.
Other than a bored-looking bartender, there was no one there except a tall figure dressed in black, sitting on a bar stool his whiskey in front of him; on the floor next to him a guitar case. “What’ll you have?” asked the barkeep. I hesitated just long enough for the man on the barstool to say “Give the kid a whiskey, Swearagin, my dime.” I thanked him and, pulled up a stool. He introduced himself as Buddy, and asked where I came from. When I told him Chicago he said he had “kinfolk” there, which triggered a sort of garbled account of his life. That first drink he bought me, then the second and the third have affected my memory, but I recall him describing in some detail his hardscrabble childhood in—I think—Alabama, his early love and mastery of music, and his leaving home at sixteen—or seventeen maybe—riding the rails and hitching lifts down to West Texas, playing in bars and honky-tonks to get just enough for a meal and a bed. Then came California and a lengthy spell in Alaska, all the time, he told me, writing, writing: poetry, lyrics, musical scores. What, I asked him, was he doing here, in Nashville. My memory’s vague—I was starting my fourth whiskey by then—but he definitely mentioned “passing through on my way home,” a “session” he’d just been in that day, and that he was meeting a “couple of guys” later for supper. “Just killin’ time ‘til then, son,” he said, as the barroom door swung open and a clutch of hip-looking people spilled in. “Buddy, Buddy, Buddy…” they crowed, and clustered around him. “Sing for us, Buddy” a tall blonde woman said, which the others echoed. “Hell, no, I’m just about to leave” he said with a grin, finishing his whiskey. “One song, just one song,” the blonde wheedled.
At this point, things grew really hazy. Four large whiskies on an empty stomach will do that; what happened next is a blur. I recall Buddy getting his guitar out, the crowd quieting down and that, standing right there by the bar, he played, and he sang—more than one song, I remember that. Those melodies, those lyrics, Christ! I wish I could bring them into focus in my mind now! His themes were pure country: love, betrayal, heartache, beauty, loneliness and death, and the like, but somehow he wove them into something ethereal, something transcendent, which seemed to hit every heart fiber, ease down every distant corridor of the soul. And what flowed from his guitar, those silver chords, appeared—as I think of them now—like a waterfall sparkling with starlight on a deep summer night. I was transported, entranced. Then, seemingly before I could register it, he was gone. Out of the door. Off for his damned “supper,” and that was that. After he left, the crowd ignored me as I stumbled out of the bar to find the motel.
In the folorn, hungover morning, groggily returning my key, I heard the motel clerk talking on the phone, “Yeah,” he was saying, “they was here recording, Dylan and Cash, then I saw them in a restaurant last night with another buddy of theirs, can you believe it? Mebbe it was Leonard Cohen, he’s livin’ here, just out of town. Yeah, they was all dressed in black.” I wondered then, and I wonder now, about the “session” Buddy had mentioned. And I wonder: perhaps it wasn’t Cohen who was eating his supper with Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash in that Nashville restaurant on a magical night, half a century ago.
I only heard about Buddy Damen because of the Wayland Cross fire. It happened in Nacogdoches, Texas in 1968, when Wayland Cross burned down the old Palace Theater in the center of town. The Palace was a popular stop for musicians heading west, and it was also the town’s first movie theater. When Wayland Cross burned it down, the theater’s collection of film prints went up in smoke, including prints of Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, The Magnificent Ambersons, and a single print of a concert played a few years before by a songwriter named Buddy Damen. The manager at the Palace had got a 35mm film camera with the hope of making concert films that could be replayed on the movie screen at the theater, but after the fire he stopped filming concerts, heartbroken over the loss of his growing archive.
The old timer who told me about the fire was especially broken up about losing the footage of Buddy Damen in concert, claiming it was the only filmed recording of Buddy Damen anywhere. His albums are so impossible to find that the concert film was, for a few years, the only real proof that Buddy Damen existed, and now it’s gone. What does remain, though, is the memory of what folks around those parts call the “best durn show ever seen”, as Buddy Damen’s one-night-only stop at the Palace lives on in local lore.
No one knows why Wayland Cross burned down the Palace Theater, but that lost concert footage has become Americana music legend, just like Buddy Damen himself.
-Kizzie First, Folk Historian and Documentary Filmmaker
This is great! The music, the legend, everything. Alison as she passed by me said, I love that music. Who is that? Buddy Damen, I said. Oh, I’m from Texas but never heard of him. Well, says I, let me tell you about the legend of Buddy Damen . . .
And as I told her, I suddenly realized I had heard Buddy on the radio during the Vietnam War, I remember a staticky voice announcing Buddy was entertaining the troops somewhere . . . in Saigon . . . and I said, Ma, that’s great stuff, and she said, Turn that thing off and eat your breakfast! And after that I tried every radio station in Salinas but never heard him again.
I also remember a waiter at one of these Asian noodle restaurants in LA, he was a translator for the US in Saigon so he escaped the Viet Cong invasion. Well we got to talkin’ and he said he heard this great music on the US army radio, reminded him of his village music—someone named Baddy Damong and ..I said, not Buddy Damen? and he almost dropped the Ramen noodles and said Yes! But he never heard him sing again.
-Rocky from East LA