Sunday, December 6, 2015

Mysterious Package: Songs of Zak Jourek (Part 4)

This is a continuation of a six-part series presenting the songs - and a lost manuscript - of a musician friend of mine named Zak Jourek. 

Part 1gives a more in-depth introduction to Zak and can be found here.

The songs posted can be found

 Brief re-cap:

I met Zak while working in a dining hall at a small university in Iowa and then we both ended up in Boulder, Colorado at the end of the nineties. I got a package in the mail last January from one of his old girlfriends with an old manuscript of his and a demo cassette tape of his songs. As far as I can tell, he disappeared without a trace about thirteen years ago. Did he wander up into the Rockies? Is he homeless and mumbling, going through dumpsters in Portland? Did he become a juniper in the desert, charred by lightning? I have no clue. 

I leave you with section four of his manuscript and  two of his poem-songs: a goofy piece called I am the Bodhisattva Who Saves the People on this Bus from the Smell of my Feet and one inspired by Gershwin’s Summertime, Summertime (poem in the key of Gershwin).

4. The Watermelon Pickup

We passed a rusted pickup full of watermelons on the shoulder of highway 17, south of Charleston, heading north. My card was almost maxed and we were trying to make it to Philadelphia, crash at my mother’s house, before the credit ran out. 

I’ve been caught up in a particular hamster wheel for the last ten years: long, crap-bar tours, at the end of which I inevitably run out of money, and then I reluctantly high-tail-it back to my mother’s house and present myself on her doorstep, with nothing to show for another long absence. She lets me in as if I’ve been out for the weekend, though sometimes it’s been as long as three years. We drink some wine, and she inevitably begins one of her drunken tirades, then passes out at the kitchen table. I leave her there, the way I did my entire childhood, and crawl off into the darkness to find a place to sleep. The endless round. But this time, I thought, I’d be bringing someone home with me. Would that change things?

“There was a watermelon truck in the gas station where our car had been towed,” Liv suddenly said. She started stories that way, as if they revolved in the air around her, like moths on the moon’s currents, and then she’d reach out, grabbing blind, and bring whatever she found into her mouth, start from there.

 Maybe it was her form of cave-painting.       

“The boys in the truck eyed my sisters,” she said, “chopped up a couple of melons and came over to our station wagon, offered it to everyone. My father was in the garage waiting on the mechanics, who were busy ignoring him, playing at making the Yankee wait...”

We passed a row of sharecropper-shacks, surrounded by thick-trunked oaks, and a sign for barbeque (Loudon’s Bar-B-Q   Satisfy   Testify   No lie). Two children kicked dust into shafts of light falling through a canopy of live oaks. Liv turned, watched the children grow smaller, disappear, then continued, telling me how her folks piled their seven kids into the station wagon and drove from Chicago to a rented cottage on Pawley’s Island in South Carolina every other summer. Liv was the youngest so she spent those twenty hours wedged in the well of the backseat, leaning against her sister’s legs. It wasn’t until she was ten years old and two of her sisters had left home that she finally saw the peaks of the Smoky Mountains.  
“The mechanics ended up taking three days to get to the car,” Liv said. “We were all together in one room at a motel run by a sister of one of the mechanics – a fat woman in a yellow and aqua bathrobe. The yellow parts were butterflies...”
We passed two men in a yard of junked cars, holding cans of beer, staring down into the engine of a stripped grey Chevy pickup. “There was nothing to do in that town but sit around at the gas station,” Liv said. “That’s when Kendall and Shannon, the two oldest, started the game of making up stories about the people who came and went.”

White sheets hung slack off a clothesline behind a small green clapboard house. A woman’s face appeared – for a moment – from a small window framed by trumpet vines. She looked like my mother – probably because I was dreading the moment when I would have to ask my mother, once again, for shelter from the storm.

 “On the second day there weren’t any other cars in the lot and the fucking mechanics still wouldn’t touch the car.”

 “What did your father do?” I asked.

 “There was nothing he could do,” she said. “It was Kendall that got us out of there. The second night Kendall and Shannon were hanging out down by the creek behind the motel and they ran into one of the watermelon boys. They started flirting. He was this skinny kid, blonde crew cut, freckles, a little awkward, and happened to be the son of one of the mechanics. I’m not sure what happened, but I remember Kendall from that time, and whatever she did with him was probably pretty overpowering. She was merciless.”

Liv laughed. “Shannon came back to the motel room alone around ten. Kendall didn’t show until around midnight. Her t-shirt and shorts were soaked. I remember she had this baby blue bra – she loved it – and you could see it through the shirt. My father was furious. Whenever he got mad his glasses would was hilarious. Still, when we went down to the garage the next day, the mechanics were working on the car.”

“Did you ever ask Kendall what she did with the kid?”

“Why?” she said. “Even my father knew that Kendall was responsible for the car being fixed. They were always arguing when I was a kid, especially on vacations, but when we left that town he let her drive the car all the way to Pawley’s. He sat in the back with the rest of us.”

As we passed another group of shacks, tin roofs burning orange in the sunset, I looked over at Liv. She flashed me a smile. “It’s a song,” she said. “Don’t you think?”

I wondered: does she want me to write a song about it? Even after she’s heard my seven or eight different drunken versions of the music-as-cave-painting speech?

I said nothing.

She squinted into the sunset. “It’s a country song,” she said. “I can hear it.”

(End of Part 4)

(click on title to hear song)

My shoes are rotten on the inside from rain

the dark shined grooves the toes made

and the divot curved into the once-thick foam heel

are the possum body left dead on the summernoon street

when I pull my feet from my shoes

Two days on the bus San Francisco to Des Moines

listening to my feet crackle and burn

whispering temptation into my busdrone ears

praying and screaming 'air', cajoling 'air'

while I stare out the window through Nebraska's rain

coming on for hundreds of miles - darker and darker -

strips of grey from heaven to wheatearth

(and the gasps of the passengers from back east

when the balls of white hairl begin clattering the bus sides

covering the highway in crushed white marble).

My feet burn to be free

listening to the hail jump ecstatic off the roof

Free from the rot leather and rubber gone bad

in the Oregon rain

I may be discovered here on the bus

by the woman who dangled her bare feet in the aisle

reading Danielle Steele

when the juts of cragrock behind her

slowly turned away from the sun

as we rounded a bend in the road above Salt Lake.

How can she do that?  Is she my demon?

And the vultures with their turkey red faces fly

dangerously close to the bus

tempted down by the invisible strings that bind them

to the rot of the earth.

I can see an invisible string from their beaks to my feet.

If I take them off everyone'll know who I am

the last man who owns only one pair of shoes

sneaking along the streets in the rain with only one pair


Beneath these shoes my feet are the same as anyone's

I declare all feet on this bus must be free!


(I am the revolutionary with ulterior motives...)

In Ogallalla the pasengers pile out at a rest stop

One by one, weary, hair-tousled, mung-mouthed,

getting out to wash and purify themselves

and I think 'This is it!  Time for the revolution to begin!'

Let the air on this bus circulate the truth!

Let is circulate the hidden meaning of America!

Let it circulate the smell of no job!

Let it circulate the funk of the one-pair-of-shoes-man!

But I can't do it.

I must realize my higher calling.

I must turn my back on utopia.

I must turn back from Nirvana.

I must return forever on this bus

for I am the Bodhisattva who saves the people on this bus

from the smell of my feet

Vowing not to take off my shoes

Vowing not to take off my shoes

Vowing not to take off my shoes

until all other feet have attained

the truth

A Bodhisattva is someone who, after death, chooses not to leave the wheel of birth and death, but return in another incarnation to help all other beings attain enlightenment. Zak wrote this after spending a summer busking up and down the Oregon coast. It rained the whole time and his shoes got a bit soggy. The situation is his bus ride back to Des Moines with nasty, soggy shoes. Michaela and I were around for this recording. We're the ones in the background screaming 'Free the Feet!'

(click on title to hear song)

Trains couple, disengage in the railyard.  The scrape of metal shakes sleeping questions from open window, stalks the bliss of roof shadows cutting pink streetlight.  The slow-dance of freight cars echoes inside distances carried by dark rain down a corridor of steel petals.

Leona Martinez parts her curtain.  She has an open space in her front teeth where 700 sighs have escaped in the last hour.  Her hands are questions, asking ‘Why?’

Art Harris switches on his bedroom light, still dreaming, and searches his apartment for the sound of water running down a canyon of glass.  His ears are questions, asking ‘How?’

And Samson the Joker smells perfume riding the rain. And Samson the Joker rushes to his window, catching two women in skin-tight black leather skirts turning the corner at the end of his block.  And Samson shouts, ‘Hey! Who are you?’ And Samson shouts, ‘Hey, I love you.’

The scrape of high heels, brakes. Voices in the labyrinths of a steel rose.

Trains find each other in the dark. Old lovers trying to remember what the other felt like – in the rain – in the dark, in the rain – in the dark, in the rain – all questions left unanswered.

Rivulets of street water hunt the elusive moon, enthusiastic as the first time thief.

This came from a time when Zak lived near the Des Moines railyard, listening to the trains couple and disengage all night long. 


Next Time:

Parts 5 & 6 
of Zak's Manuscript
& More Songs


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