Monday, December 13, 2010

All of the Angels are Cowboy Singers (Cowboy Kid)

Special thanks to Tracy Grammer for her patient answers to my overly verbose questions. Please do yourself (and her) a favor, and buy some music at the band's website, or at hers.

I have long been an advocate for the view that art is poorly understood as sketching out a world. Video games make this clearer than most things. Cowboy Kid is no exception. A Western narrative of staggering minimalism, the story amounts to "You walk into town, get armed, get hired as sheriff, and go about busting bad guys." A sort of merge of a beat-em-up and Legend of Zelda, complete with "It's Dangerous to Go Alone" moment, the game is not firmly situated on one end or the other of the good/bad distinction.

What I like about it, though, is that it seems to me to capture the sense of placelessness of the best Westerns. I'm thinking here of The Man With No Name, a series of movies where the locations, chronology, and geography are ambiguous at best and completely screwed up at worst. (Chicago, apparently, is right near Phoenix) The amorphous, clumsy "worlds" of video games are better suited to Westerns than other genres because the Western is used to working in a mythic place that is as much dream as reality.

As a result, and perhaps somewhat strangely, I associated westerns inexorably with Dave Carter. In the fall of 2003, a little more than a year after he died of a massive heart attack in Hadley, Massachusetts, not half an hour from where I was born, I bought my first album of Dave Carter's music - his 2001 album with Tracy Grammer, Drum Hat Buddha. And thus began a seven year affair with his music that saw his work with Tracy Grammer rapidly take the top slot of favorite music, a slot it has held since, fending off such luminaries as Vienna Teng and The Wailin' Jennys, to say nothing of earlier favorites like The Smiths, Tori Amos, and R.E.M.

Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, among their preposterous number of gifts, were uniquely good at describing albums. Their second album, Tanglewood Tree, was billed as "the world's first Buddhist Country album," while Drum Had Buddha had my favorite description of what they did: Postmodern mythic American folk.

There are many things to love about his music. He is as sharp a songwriter as has ever strummed a guitar - capable of twisting a melody that does not stick in your head so much as haunt it. In a genre of music that typically values a confessional authenticity (exemplified in this case by Dar Williams), or an equally biographical authenticity (Richard Shindell being the current king of this, although the Woody Guthrie/Pete Seeger tradition speaks volumes), Carter's music stood out. It would be deeply misleading to call his work inauthentic. Rather, it exists on a different spectrum entirely.

Here is where the mythic comes in. Carter studied briefly with Joseph Campbell, popularizer of the Jungian archetype approach to mythology. I discovered Campbell in late 1997, as Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer were beginning to tour together. I was in my second of three years in high school, having fought for and won permission to take senior electives in English on the basis of my having completed college-level English work (though, frustratingly, I had to agree to take the sophomore-level English class as well). I signed up for a class called Modernism and Mythology, which turned out to be a thorough overview of mythological tropes and Jungian archetypes vis-a-vis Joseph Campbell.

This was my first exposure to literary theory, a cavernous rabbit hole I would tumble down at length subsequently, and now shout upwards from the bottom of. Since then, Campbell has fallen from my favor, more because his followers produce bewilderingly bad and boring scholarship than because his central idea of observing pan-cultural mythic tropes was a dud for me. If I have a complaint about Campbell, it's that, after observing the fascinating phenomenon of cross-cultural mythic elements - things like the unsettling preponderance of serpents in creation myths across different and independent cultures - he takes the utterly depressing (and morally questionable) position of positing a monomyth, a sort of master narrative that all myths stem from. The cultural imperialism involved is lost on Campbell.

But other possibilities exist. Postmodernism is full of them, as is the largely abandoned but still fascinating and productive process of syncretism. These days, other than Unitarian Universalists, who take the concept a mite far for my tastes, syncretic faiths are mostly small blends in third world countries - fascinating, but obscure. I personally love it, because syncretism avoids the imperialism of Campbell. A good syncretic combination merges multiple concepts into something new, as opposed to subsuming one into the other.

And then there is Dave Carter. A folk singer whose syncretism transcends dry theology and turns to art. It would be a mistake to treat Carter as some sort of prophet. Or, perhaps more accurately, it would be a mistake to treat him as just a prophet. The folk tradition is central to what Carter did - the personal, material intimacy of folk music is alive and well in his songs. It is not that Carter seems equally at ease in the home of the gods or in a seedy bar on the outskirts of town. It is that he seems not to see a difference between the two. This is inspired by Campbell, clearly - Tracy Grammer says, in fact, that reading Joseph Campbell, she could literally hear Carter's voice in Campbell's words.
The result are songs that feel like dreams that have taken form. Take his glorious song "The Mountain," a song begins with Tracy Grammer's haunting vocal, "I was born in a forked-tongued story, raised up by merchants and drug store liars. Now I walk on the paths of glory, one foot in ice and one in fire." At once mythic and personal, set in some other world of magic and this one simultaneously, the song pulls you in, sketching out not a real place, but a place that is somehow more real than mere reality.

Carter was, if not a prophet, at least someone who was unmistakably playing with live ammunition when he worked with mythology. He was not merely evoking the tropes or making allusions, but rather using myths actively - making something new, in the genuine and magical syncretic tradition. If he was a prophet, it was not a prophet in any sense we have seen one before, but a new sense. He was a postmodern prophet, one who sought not to tell The True Story, but a story - a real, live story. When I asked Tracy Grammer what she took post-modernism to be, she said that it was "Refusal to adhere to the notion of One Truth -- and that includes the truth of the story conveyed inside the song itself, and how we as artists choose to represent that song (our truth) to the world." Were it that more prophets spoke like that.

It is here, perhaps, that Carter most resonates with me. And always has, though it was not until talking with Tracy Grammer that I knew the words to say it in. Mythos as live ammunition is central to the Nintendo Project. The idea that I can take the lowest of cultural detritus and, because it was part of the deep consciousness of my childhood and generation, make myth out of it. It's an enduring gamble. A balancing act. A mythology of materialism.

This materialism has its consequences. Carter and Grammer knew this. Grammer still does. Every album contains a small note – “By this merit may all beings swiftly realize omniscience,” for instance. These dedications of merit are a Buddhist practice that amount to a declaration of intent – that the album, the work of art itself, ease suffering in the world. This is one consequence. Others are harsher.

When myths are brought forth to walk the streets, when they are brought to life, they are brought also to death. Neil Gaiman once said that the real trouble with stories is that "if you keep them going long enough, they always end in death." This story ends on a hotel room floor in Hadley, Massachusetts.

But not yet.

It is difficult for me to imagine Dave Carter as a digital figure, although apparently he did, in his lengthy lead-up to his career with Tracy Grammer (which began when he was in his 40s), record computerized music. But something about his music seems to me strangely reminiscent of video games. I alluded to it above - the way in which a game like Cowboy Kid is strangely out of place and time. The result is that, with a video game, one plays less with objects than with tropes. This is the strange nature of the alleged immersiveness of video games. They do not immerse you in a world, but rather in a set of ideas. Cowboy Kid is not a Western story, but every Western story - the opportunity to experience the raw form of the genre.

This is a very tricky thing to accomplish, artistically. Art, in the Aristotelean tradition, is imitative. Imitations of imitation get to staggering abstraction pretty quickly, making this sort of meta-fictional move inherent to video games tough to make work. This is part of why video games are not, often, great art - because their narratology is incredibly difficult.

To make this work in song is extraordinary. But Dave Carter did it. Part of this is an incredible gift for wordplay that paints vivid abstractions - a line like "I walk the Occam's Razor way through priests and circus clowns" is at once inscrutable and vivid in a way that makes me gape in awe every time I think about it - a truly fantastic lyric. And there are few images more chillingly threatening than "a twisting pillar spun of dust and blood up from the prairie floor," nor images more poignant than "the crystal ball, always bright before, is gray as the dust of desire."

In my interview with her, Tracy Grammer made the following statement in a discussion of how it was decided who would sing what songs: "The choice of a voice for a particular song depended on which manifestation of our Narrator we wished to present." I love this way of thinking - that somehow the disparate songs of Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, from the tough-guy cowboy songs to the sweetly sad love songs, from Buddhist meditations to love songs to Jesus, are all unmistakably from one voice. This is not the persona-donning character sketch folk of Richard Shindell, nor the storytelling folk of Woody Guthrie, nor the confessionalism of Dar Williams. This is something else - music that does not so much reach into the deep well of the mythic as tap it, allowing it to gush forth into the world.

So here's one myth. Dave Carter was born in 1952 to a profoundly devout evangelical Christian mother - a childhood that exposed him to the charismatic Christian tradition, a tradition that any coherent ethical or aesthetic judgment on would be too complex even for the Nintendo Project. He moved about the world in an almost classically bohemian fashion, with a series of experiences that read like they fell out of a Jack Kerouac novel - studies in mathematics, transpersonal psychology, computer programming, and music in amongst bouts of country singing, psychedelic rock, film scores, and kids music, and the occasional hitchhiking trip across the country.

Eventually, in 1998, he met Tracy Grammer. The nature of their relationship was clearly as complex as it was intense. The party line on the incessant questions of romantic entanglement was that they were "partners in all things," a statement Grammer later quietly clarified to confirm that romance was, in fact, a subset of all things.

There are two ways to look at the next (and last) four years of Dave Carter's life. In one, it was Tracy Grammer that provide the unique final ingredient that allowed Carter's genius to break through into the world and allowed him to become the major figure he deserved to be. In another, more akin to that proposed by Grammer, it was a matter of zeitgeist: "what was it about the year 1998 that made our world suddenly receptive to the work of Dave Carter?"

Regardless, the next four years were stunning. "When I Go," their first album together, is uneven, but its highlights are jaw-dropping. It is its first track, however, that is both the stand-out track and one of the most chilling recordings ever made. The song has characteristic Carterian mystery - what exactly is meant by "when I go" is not clear, but there is something intensely, fatally final about it - something that would lead to "diamond tears" on the part of whomever the song is sung to. The clearest implication is death, as the last verse refers to glimpses of "my wandering form out on the borderline between death and resurrection and the council of the pines." But what a death it is: "And when the sun comes trumpets from his red house in the east, he will find a standing stone where long I chanted my release, he will send his morning messenger to strike the hammer blow, and I will crumble down uncountable in showers of crimson rubies when I go."

Two albums followed - Tanglewood Tree and Drum Hat Buddha, each one better than the preceding one. Tanglewood Tree's first three tracks are better than the whole careers of most musicians, and Drum Hat Buddha is the rare album that may well avoid having a single clunker of a track. With Drum Hat Buddha, Carter and Grammer found themselves on the cusp of folk stardom, a minor sort of fame, but a real one nevertheless. They toured with Joan Baez, who later called Carter with the news that she'd played one of his songs, The Mountain, for the Dalai Lama. "He liked it," she happily reported.

Hold this part of the story. Linger here for a time. The growing success, the clarity that something is happening, that art and magic are occurring, together, inseparable. Imagine the two of them, equal partners, strapped into the tour van, loner Buddhist magician bards wielding a raw mythic power. I asked Tracy Grammer about the seeming contrast between Buddhist serenity and the tough-guy lonerism of country music. Her answer, in part, was "But don't be fooled. We were tough guys in our heads, and we were loners too. Especially in the van, traveling the long roads between gigs. But we were other things too. Buddhas. Babies. Sinners. Saints. Just like everybody is."

Stay there, because the alternative is Hadley. She has written and recorded exactly one song since Carter's death (although she has recorded versions of several unrecorded Carter songs and other covers). That song, The Verdant Mile, is one of the most heartbreaking recordings I have ever heard. Beginning with the plaintive "I didn't want to burn like this, so close to the bone, with no muscle left to carry it, this black bag of stones," the song reaches its crescendo in its third verse. "I miss you like I love the sound of blackbirds in the trees. I sit alone and wish that maybe one of you would visit me. But no matter how much seed I throw, what prayer I call out, I cannot bring a bird in from the field or make an angel come around." I have heard her speak, at concerts, of her pain at the fact that Carter really is gone - that he has not haunted her, but has moved on, has ascended. She does not speak of him as being dead in the atheistic no afterlife sense, but rather as having finally merged with the deep consciousness he could reach so far into.

But her pain is palpable. There is perhaps no way I can express the raw anguish of her talking about his death, save for linking to her words. And perhaps quoting a small segment: "Many are the moments when I see his dying face before me, replayed like a bad sample inside a warped beat, again and again and frustratingly again. You don't forget things like that, dying faces and last words. You don't forget the stupid things you said, those things which neither soothed nor saved him; you don't forget your idiotic optimism when you misread signs of life and death, mistook a deep last reflex breath for a return to life."

I hope she is doing better. I did not have the courage to ask when interviewing her. She, who brought the missing piece to Dave Carter's musical career, who gave him four years streaking across the sky, burning more brightly than imaginable, who has done so much. She is as entitled to her pain as she is to the joy she so evidently deserves.

And then there's me. Somehow cursed with being the missing link here, the authorial presence who has to bring all of these strands down to a coherent message. These people with their mythic lives, these video games, these ideas, all, through some pointless quirk of a blogging window, are my responsibility. It’s not fair or appropriate. I shouldn’t be the one telling this story. But I can’t not. It’s here, to be told. A flash of beauty arcing from heaven to Hadley, or, perhaps, the reverse.

My story started just under 20 years before Carter's death, half an hour away, in Springfield, Massachusetts. Nine minutes up the road from Hadley is Amherst Chinese Food, a fantastic Chinese restaurant that was my parents' favorite while they went to graduate school there. When my mother was in the hospital having given birth to me, Mr. Chang, the proprietor, tried to bring food to her room. My parents eventually had to make the rule that if you ate at Mr. Chang's for lunch and dinner one day, and then lunch and dinner the next day, you had to go somewhere else for lunch on the third day. But you could go again for dinner.

It was half an hour south of Hadley that I discovered video games, in 1984, on the Commodore 64. It was there that I sucked breath through cleft lip and palate, developed inexorably towards what I was. It was Chicago, on the other hand, where I discovered Dave Carter. Actually, I know I listened to "Gentle Arms of Eden" first in the basement of my parents' house in Newtown, Connecticut. That would have been Christmas, probably of 2001. But it wasn't until the fall of 2003 that I bought an album. Then, very quickly, all the others. When Tracy Grammer released Flower of Avalon, her solo album consisting primarily of versions of unrecorded Dave Carter songs, in 2005, I was already an avid fan.
Shortly thereafter, I moved to Florida. There, I saw Grammer in concert for the first time, in a little cafe on the coast of St. Augustine, Florida. I had already briefly corresponded with her over some edits to Wikipedia she made, in which she revealed some striking new information about Dave Carter, but did so on the Wikipedia page itself, falling afoul of policies on original research. After verifying her identity, I did what I could to help her out, which turned out not to be much.

There are other intersections. A stray black dog, escaped from an owner who had gotten him at a shelter, came into my life. I hated dogs, but somehow this furball was different. It was clear we needed each other. The previous owner didn’t disagree. Previously named Davey, I renamed him Krypto. Some time thereafter, I remembered a stray mention in the liner notes of Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer's 2007 Christmas album that mentioned that an old black dog mentioned in one song was likely an avatar of Carter himself. Nothing. A steam of irrelevant coincidence. The thought has never quite left me. Like most thoughts about Dave Carter.

And then, a month or two ago now, I fired up Cowboy World to write a blog entry, and somehow, in amidst the digital bleeps, thought of Dave Carter. And had the idea for this entry. A three-stranded braid, wedding the strangely barren mythos of the game with the life and work of Dave Carter and my own experiences with that work.

Looking at it, what stands out is the sense of loneliness. That's barely surprising. Video games, in the NES era, were primarily one-player experiences. The cowboy myth is about loners. Loners are lonely. That's pretty axiomatic. But somewhere, out on abandoned plains, in the flickering headlights of a touring van, the banal wreckage of video games and American mythology sputters into life. You already know this. To hear one of Dave Carter's songs is just to confirm it. This is the best evidence of how he plumbs a mythic deep consciousness, whether you set it up in a Jungian-Campbellian model, or in the far more postmodern model that I think Carter ultimately does.

It is a model where the acceptance of multiple truths is not tantamount to the abandonment of the idea of truth. Where to speak, or, in their case, to sing, is not to proclaim but to perform. To embody an aspect of a larger narrator, and describe one facet of a thing. If we treat ideas as existent abstractions - if we treat, for instance, a number, or, for that matter, a myth as something that exists in some form other than the wetware of the human brain - then we are forced to contend with the fact that any idea that has ever been had is theoretically understandable in any human brain. That is, our ideas, memories, thoughts, and dreams - those things that make us up as individuals - are in a fundamental sense non-unique. Dave Carter's gift is... was... his ability to reach into that place just outside what the mind has thought of - that morass of thoughts that are conceivable but unthought. His ability to make a song that spoke from just past the realm of human experience, pulling us deeper into that undertow of mystery that underlies thought and speech

There is nobody who walks those plains who is not a loner. The shamanic path is necessarily one for those who transgress. There is irony here, given that Dave Carter understood better than anyone the way in which people are linked, that he could find something to admire in any religion, and at times wished he were a member of all of them.

Thought of this way, Tracy Grammer's posthumous revelation that Carter was pursuing a gender change should be unsurprising. A sad fact of our culture is that it never is. These are stories that don't get told. And a lot of them have far worse endings than Hadley.
I have the blessing of knowing some. The one I know best is that of my dear friend Anna, a truly beautiful woman I met in North Carolina. Smart, funny, insightful, and, as she goes through her transition, all I can think of are, unsurprisingly, the words of Dave Carter: "May you bloom bright and fierce."

Carter began hormone treatments a few months before he died. (I use the male pronoun because, at the time of his death, he was still presenting publicly as male, and because it is the pronoun Tracy Grammer still uses for him. Absent his voice, I defer to hers.) It was difficult for Grammer - they separated their living arrangements. But they were still partners in all things.

Grammer observed, and she's right, that his songwriting over the years with her shifted from songs about the ambiguities and difficulties of masculinity to a more... mournful, quiet approach. Where their first two albums brim with a sort of furious mythic fire, by Drum Hat Buddha his songs had shifted to, in Grammer's words, songs that "explore the frailties and failings of the human heart, the inability of one man to commit to one woman, the loneliness of AIDS, and spiritual relationships with either the goddess or Jesus." Perhaps unsurprisingly, these songs increasingly got given to Grammer to sing, and Carter spoke of his long-term plans to have her do all the singing.

The last album they were working on, a re-recording of some of Carter's songs from a solo album before he met Grammer, bucks this trend, but listening to it feels far more like a loving farewell to a part of Carter's life than anything. An album by someone with one foot out the door of the life he was living.

It's just that nobody knew what that would mean. Talking to Grammer, I learned that the last song Carter finished was "Phantom Doll," a song recorded by Grammer on Flower of Avalon. The song is, on the most simple level, about body image - a character who wishes to be seen as the woman she views herself as. "Raggedy Ann came out to play, kittened a thin disguise against the day." But, in characteristic Carter fashion, the song has a turn - first singing of how "in glorious dreams she walks outside her skin," but finally, in the last verse, making a turn. "Raggedy Andy wrote this song, scribbled it here where oceans meet the dawn." And we see, perhaps, the story that never got to be told.

Instead, on a hotel room floor, held by the woman he loved, Dave Carter collapsed of a massive heart attack after a morning run. I will, again, let her speak.
"Yesterday, shortly after he went unconscious, he came back for a lucid minute or two to tell me, 'I just died... Baby, I just died...' There was a look of wonder in his eyes, and though I cried and tried to deny it to him, I knew he was right and he was on his way. He stayed with me a minute more but despite my attempts to keep him with me, I could see he was already riding that thin chiffon wave between here and gone. He loved beauty, he was hopelessly drawn to the magic and the light in all things. I figure he saw something he could not resist out of the corner of his eye and flew into it. Despite the fact that every rescue attempt was made by paramedics and hospital staff and the death pronouncement officially came at 12:08 pm Eastern Time, I believe he died in my arms in our favorite hotel, leaving me with those final words. That's the true story I am going to tell."

And so, a little more than a year later, I found the strand of story. The story of a brilliant man who roamed the country singing songs that were magic. Who saw what others didn't, and knew that they could see it, and that he could show them.

And he did.

By this merit, may all beings become myth.


  1. Wow ... this is surely the deepest analysis I've read of any video game, ever.

    What is a "Dangerous to go it alone" moment and where are you saying that comes from, Zelda or Westerns?

  2. Is it really true that syncretism is a small phenomenon? There was an article in the Christmas issue of The Economist (the only issue I read, but I read it every year) last year or two years ago focusing on growth of "hot" religion in formerly Catholic Latin American countries -- making for Charismatic Catholicism.

    And if you spend much time in rural Mexico or Central America, you'll come across tons of blends. Just a few examples from my travels:
    -near San Cristobal de las Casas, a cathedral whose floor is covered with pine needles; John the Baptist stands in Jesus' normal place at the CENTER of the nave-or-whatever-it's-called
    -Jesus Negro from Escuintla, near Flores in northern Guatemala
    -a hilltop church in Tactic, Guatemala (Polochic Valley) -- also aware of the Jesus Negro mythology and with unique murals that mix indigenous Mayan religion with visits from Pope JP2 saying that the locals are some of the most spiritual people on the planet.

    and I'm sure there are more!

  3. In this case, it's a moment where at the start of the game, you are given a weak weapon and warned about the dangers ahead. I took it to come from Zelda, not Westerns.

    As for Syncretism, I think my description is accurate, though yes, I did sell short the syncretic tendencies of Latin American Catholicism. The fact remains that none of the largest faiths in the world right now are particularly syncretic, with the possible exception of Hinduism, which is either non-syncretic or syncretic to the exclusion of all else, take your pick.

  4. Philip, this is a truly excellent piece. Thank you.

  5. Several years later, I stumbled onto this.

    I never expected Dave Carter, NES games, and Neil Gaiman to all cross over into the same article. Thanks for this. I learned a bit about Dave Carter that I didn't know before.