Sunday, November 15, 2015

Mysterious Package in the Mail: The Songs of Zak Jourek (Part 1)

In January of this year I received a large manila envelope in the mail. No return address. The postmark was from Denver. Inside the envelope I found a manuscript, a couple of old cassette tapes, and a short letter. This is what the letter said:

“Dear Christien,

You don’t know me. Our connection is that we were both friends of Zak Jourek. I was his girlfriend in the winter of 2002. We were only together a short while. One day, he walked out on me – just a note on the kitchen table that said “Going out to the desert to clear my head.” This wasn’t unusual, he spent quite a bit of our brief time together disappearing, reappearing, and disappearing again. Staring at that cryptic note I gave up on him, prepared to end it when he deigned to show up again. He never did.

To be honest, in the months that followed, my reaction was relief. Our relationship had been a bit bipolar – up and down and up and down. Crazy. Zak was angry much of the time. The drinking didn’t help. When he wasn’t drinking there was a sadness about him, deep, some place he couldn’t reach. From what, I never knew. In retrospect, I think that he was in the middle of some sort of mental breakdown. I probably suspected that at the time, but kept the realization locked away from my own consciousness for years – what would that say about me, my attraction to him? How was I haunted?

Right after he disappeared, I dumped his stuff into a box and that box has traveled around with me, apartment to apartment, house to house, stuffed in some back closet or in an attic, for the last thirteen years. I don’t know why I didn’t get rid of it. Maybe I was waiting for the right time to find it and open it. While packing for another move (divorce) I found the box in the basement.

I read the manuscript, listened to the tapes (after going out to a local thrift store and buying a tape deck). I remember some of those songs recorded on the tapes, but not all. I vaguely remember that he said that you were around when he recorded these songs. You were "the poet" he had worked with in Des Moines, and then met again later in Boulder.

After reading the manuscript, I went online to find Zak, hoping to send all this stuff back to him, but there was nothing. So I'm sending this package to you, through your publisher. Maybe you’ll be able to do a better job at finding out what happened to Zak than me.”

There was no signature.

My Connection to Zak

I met Zak Jourek while working in the dining hall of a small private university in Des Moines, Iowa. He worked in the dish room and I worked in the kitchen. I heard someone singing "Graveyard Shift" by Uncle Tupelo in the dish room and went to see who it was. The connection was sealed when we found out that we had both spent our teen years in the Philadelphia area. If you know anything about Iowa, you’ll know that very few strangers – people who were not born and raised in Iowa – come to live there. Iowa is filled almost exclusively with Iowans. If you are from somewhere else, and you happen to end up there, you will constantly get the question: “Why are you here?” Why, indeed. So, we bonded as professional strangers. 

There are two kinds of professional strangers out there. The first kind is the one that keeps moving from place to place, always looking for something. Most likely, something called ‘home.’ The second kind is the stranger who moves from place to place because he’s running from something. I think, for the most part, having grown up in the navy, I fall into the first category. It’s safe to say that Zak fell into the second. The anonymous letter writer was right – there was something haunted about him. 

About four months into my first year at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, there as a knock at my door, and I opened it to find Zak standing there grinning, guitar and backpack at his feet. He stayed with me for about a month before finding a job and his own place. It was during that time that he made the tapes that were in the package.

I sent the tapes to my nephew, Rick Thomas (aka. Rikki Lixx, former lead guitarist for Operator and Rev Theory, and poster boy for Epiphone guitars – you can find an interview with him from Epiphone here) and he kindly re-mastered them for me. After thinking about it for too many months, I decided to post sections of the manuscript and the songs here. Whether Zak would have wanted that – I don’t know. Where he’s gone – I also don’t know. Dead in the desert? Wandering in the mountains? Assumed an alias, living as someone else? Skipped the country? Playing on some street corner in Portland? Short of hiring a private detective, I’ve exhausted all avenues. If he’s out there still, he definitely doesn’t want to be found.

Zak's Manuscript and Songs

The manuscript has seven coherent sections and then some unfinished bits and pieces. I believe it’s mostly autobiography masquerading as fiction (as so much fiction is). The part below about being signed and dropped by EMI was true enough (well, to be honest, it suddenly occurs to me that I only know it was true because he said it was true – hmmnnn...). I’ll be posting the sections, along with Zak’s songs and lyrics, over the next six weeks.

I leave you now with the first section of the manuscript (untitled) – and two songs. One of the songs is my all-time favorite of Zak’s work, called Kids on the Stoop. The other song, In the Motel Cave, shows up in the manuscript below. Keep in mind these tapes were personal demos, never meant to be heard by anyone other than friends. How he would have finally produced them is anybody’s guess. The guitar sounds a bit sour, but we can forgive it because it’s been re-mastered from ancient audio-tape.

Beneath the manuscript section, I’ve posted the lyrics to the songs.
To hear the songs, click on the title of the song below.

1. In the Naked Bed, In the Motel Cave

I opened the motel window curtains. We were somewhere south of Jackson, Missouri. Across the highway, messages scrolled across the TRUCKSTOP 76 digital board: “ATTEND OUR CHAPEL SERVICE IN OUR NEW AIR-CONDITIONED TV LOUNGE…BREAKFAST ALL YOU CAN EAT ONLY 12.99...” 

            Me and Liv were in the middle of a low budget singer/songwriter tour: empty coffee houses, bars that served up open mics before we played. Denver, Kansas City, St. Louis. Fifteen years ago I signed with EMI. Right after I signed, there was a shuffle in higher management and the executives that signed me were fired. Needless to say, the new fuckwits didn’t want to have anything to do with the artists the old fuckwits had signed, so I was dumped. They dumped a lot of people. In my desperation to be signed, I’d handed over all the rights to my music. They locked it all up in a vault and threw away the key, thus ending my brilliant career in the music industry. I went on a drinking binge that lasted many, many years.

            I picked up my guitar, played the same three chords over and over, humming nonsense words. Liv stirred on the bed. “I need coffee.” There was still some wine in the bottle on the bed stand from the night before. “Have some wine,” I said.

            There was a guy sitting poolside in blue shorts, white socks, dress shoes, no shirt, scanning a Sunday paper. Two children, wearing face masks, stood in the shallows. Trucks thundered down the highway on the other side of the chain link fence that surrounded the pool. It was strange how that fence, that flimsy see-through fence, stood in for a legitimate divide between the vacation and the workaday world. 

A tall, thin man wearing floods dragged a black plastic bag behind him through the ditch grass in front of The TRUCKSTOP 76, looking for cans. He suddenly dropped on all fours and scoured the ground, but came up empty. The reflection of the sun off a passing truck sent a sliver of light across the ceiling.

            I could feel the words out there. I opened my mouth and sang: There’s a long white glare on the ceiling/Streetlight through the trees/There’s a man on the corner crying “Jesus!”/He drops down to his knees

            “I’m sick of this,” Liv said.

            I nodded, kept playing, humming, waiting on more words.

            “There was only one guy in the audience last night,” she said.

            When she first hooked up with me she was under the impression that she was the secret ingredient that was missing from my former brush with fame. Now that I was with her, singing with her, I would surely get back what had previously been denied me, wouldn’t I?

            The lone guy in that cafe looked about my age. He sat through both sets, smiling, tapping his fingers on the table. During the break he found me in the bathroom, stood at the urinal next to me, pestering me with questions. How long did it take me to learn guitar? Could I recommend a kind of guitar? It was hard to pee. I think he was slightly retarded.

            “I liked him,” I said to Liv.

            “I think he was retarded,” Liv said back.

            It’s funny, thinking about it now, but I’m surprised she didn’t last longer. We were only halfway through the tour when she threw in the towel. But then, she was ambitious, and it was clear we were heading nowhere.

            Liv pointed at an old woman behind another window, holding a plastic cup, staring down at the kids in the pool. When the old woman saw us watching her, she slipped further into the darkness. I instantly thought of my mother, the drunk war widow, and sang: There’s a woman in the sea of forgetting/drinking wine from a plastic cup/Cutting the lines to her memory/the sea swallows them up

            “Let’s go to Florida, lie on a beach,” Liv said.

            “With what?” We were barely making gas money. The motel was a ridiculous splurge on my card. Most nights we slept in the car. Of course, the tour would have been terribly exciting if I had been nineteen. I wasn’t even close.            

            “Just use the card,” Liv said.  

(end of part one)

(click on title to hear song)

Little tense Anne in her neoprene suit
dives beneath the closet floor
looking for the treasure of lost hours
Her husband sleeps by the closet door
still drunk from the night before
Anne prays for rain
but she really means  "flowers"

Dr. Lazer adjusts his tie
gets up from his DJ couch
thanks the singing waitress for her cupcakes
Looks out the window at half past noon
thinks about the gypsies in his youth
Gone with the orchards
that they camped in

And the kids on the stoops, beating things with sticks
And the kids on the stoops, beating things with sticks

Shockbox Fred reads to his girl
about the troubles in the Third World
She really likes the way he says the word "disaster"
They replay the video of their honeymoon
The part where he drops the ball too soon
And talk about money made from such

Shirley Temple Cannonball
staples celebrities to her wall
Tells her children they’re her lovers
Michael Jackson, Elvis too,
the first man who walked on the moon
The children stare and dream
of their potential

And the kids on the stoops, beating things with sticks
And the kids on the stoops, beating things with sticks

Crazy Jackson collects the cans
he separates the wheat from the chaff
Reads the magazines left in the dumpster
Articles of how to curl your hair
and articles of what to wear
to make your lover think that you're
a model

Fat Cat Mac in his sleaze balloon
born with a silver spoon
trades gold for love in the alley
Keeps a watch inside his head
keeping tabs on money spent
Marks the wage of love by the hour

And the kids on the stoops, beating things with sticks
And the kids on the stoops, beating things with sticks

(click on title to hear song)

There’s a long white glare on the ceiling
streetlight through the trees
There’s a man on the corner crying Jesus
he drops down to his knees

There’s a woman in the sea of forgetting
drinking wine from a plastic cup
Cutting the lines to her memory
the sea swallows them up

The butterflies of heat fly skyward
turn to bats on the wing
Flapping in the caves of the lonely
making song where no one sings

The train-engine talk whispers secrets
into the widow’s ear
Telling her of the sea of forgetting's here

A boy flies towards the moon
just because he wants to
An old man with a farmer’s tan
sinks into the frog-dark of his shoes
Remembering the wife he lost
smelling of buttermilk
Picking roses in the dawn
eating petals with the dew

What I really want to know
is why some rise and why some fall
Why some thrash in the waterfall
and why some do nothing at all

And why some do nothing at all
And why some do nothing at all

Next Week:

Part Two of Zak's manuscript, 
along with a couple more of his songs

(All images of paintings  are by Georges Braque, 
except the one directly above - 
known as "The Old Guitarist" 
by Picasso)

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