The Cowboy And The Stripper (Part 1: The Cowboy)

One day, when I was about eight years old, I was over at a friend’s house. Interestingly, this friend, who lived on my street, was also my bully. We would play together, and every once in a while, he would beat me in addition to the normal taunting. He never stole money from me, or seriously injured me.

He had an older brother who was already a teenager, and who was in the house with another friend. The house was blue-grey, with a couple of pickup trucks parked out front, and cheap coke-bottle glass everywhere. We were playing Pong and drinking soda out of cups of textured plastic. The brother came over with a hunting knife, and his friend held me against the sofa by the shoulders. They opened the knife and put it up against my throat.

“You’re a girl, you’re a pussy,” my friend said. His brother and the other guy were just giggling. They held the knife there for about a minute, then let me go home.

We saw less of each other, especially since I wasn’t willing to play at his house after that. My friend went from being my main competition in math, to being a generically bad student. Our friendship really ended in fifth grade, when he attacked me. I knocked him down and we were both sent to the principal.

The last I saw of him, he had an adult growth of stubble, and was a good employee at a local inn. Off-hours, he’d ride out with his friends to the local beach, drink, and practice spinning out in the beach parking lots.

The three movies I currently have in from Netflix are Mystic River, which I just watched, Match Point, and A History of Violence. It occurs to me that all of them are about murder.

Remember Heath Ledger kicking the shit out of two guys in Brokeback Mountain, thereby proving his masculinity? Remember Peter Sarsgaard, in a strangely related moment, beating Hilary Swank to death in Boys Don’t Cry? Sarsgaard was so powerful in that role because I’d seen him before: he held a knife to my throat for about a minute when I was eight.

Roger Ebert, back in his lucid days, wrote about Boys Don’t Cry that “The film is about hanging out in gas stations and roller rinks, and lying sprawled on a couch looking with dulled eyes at television, and soul-crushing jobs, and about six-packs and country bars and Marlboros. There is a reason country music is sad.”

Well, the avatar and genius of that music is Johnny Cash; and you will not find a hip, cultured man or woman anywhere who will deny Our Lord and Saviour Johnny Cash. I think this is absolutely justified, although fairness compels me to report that Cash repeated himself a lot, and was propelled back into national consciousness through a series of covers of other people’s songs.

But I insist on listening to the thing that Cash was really saying, even when he chose to perform a cover:

I drew a bead on him
to practice my aim
My brother’s rifle
went off in my hand
a shot rang out across the land
the horse he kept runnin’
the rider was dead
I hung my head

The sheriff he asked me
Why had I run?
And then it came to me
Just what I had done
And all for no reason

Violence is violence, and Cash was a true artist in that he stood on that sinking ship and went down with it. His best songs are not love songs, unless you count the very peculiar self-policing of “I Walk The Line.” His best songs are about crime, punishment, deliverance, and solitude, and occasionally about hatred and estrangement between fathers and sons (“A Boy Named Sue,” “The Baron”). I think the maritime metaphor is apt, since in “I Hung My Head” the killer throws his rifle into a stream; in Mystic River the waters swallow knives and guns and bodies; and since all of this follows hard in the footsteps of vengeful Ahab and the sunken Pequod.

Incredibly, however, the myth of Johnny Cash manages to sugar-coat his real vision of unending purgatory through the love story: John and June. Sam Phillips, in the film Walk the Line, asks an amazing question of Johnny Cash: “If you was hit by a truck, and you was lyin’ in that gutter dyin’, and you had time to sing one song, one song that would let God know what you felt about your time here on earth, one song that would sum you up…” what would it be? And, to nobody’s surprise, Cash doesn’t sing “I Walk The Line” or “Give My Love to Rose.” He sings “Folsom Prison Blues.” And the question itself is about staring death in the face, because (at least as a fictional character), Phillips understood Cash. I’m pretty sure he didn’t ask the same question of Jerry Lee Lewis, in order to get “Great Balls of Fire” onto wax.

“Jerry,” he must have said, “what shakes your nerves and rattles your brain?”

So all this talk about June Carter Cash does very little for me, although she does appear to have been a phenomenal woman (not a phenomenal artist, though) and they do appear to have been in love all their lives. If you put the songs in the context of the love story, then perhaps “We’ll Meet Again” or “In My Life” come off as great performances. But “Hurt,” “Personal Jesus,” and “I See A Darkness” don’t need any such bolstering to shine. Should anyone doubt that Cash had a sentimental side, listen to his really religious recordings, such as “Unchained” or “If Jesus Ever Loved A Woman.” Facile, toneless, humble to the point of insincerity — I love “Folsom Prison Blues” and “San Quentin” as much as anybody. I’m listening to them right now. But these other songs are a different breed; offering false salvation, and (one hopes) abashed before a Patsy Cline love song or a Leadbelly spiritual.

ANYWAY, the point of all this is that Cash appears to have had his cake, and to have eaten it too: he was able to embody the machismo of the cowboy while making his mark as an artist of rare distinction, and being a family man with a ranch open to countless friends. But this is also the mark of his singularity: nobody else should want to be Cash for the same reason that nobody else should want to be Ebeneezer Scrooge. It is missing the point to envy the forceful violence in the man, against which he himself fought for a lifetime. And the archetype of the cowboy, which is the archetype of Cash, is completely permeated by violence and disconnection. It is no different for Hank Williams or “The Red-Headed Stranger,” who is another murderer.

This violence is not merely literal; it would be easy enough to say that we’re in the clear so long as we don’t actually fire guns at people. It has to do with the sensibility of masculine brutality, and the peculiar American thinking problem by which these men think themselves saved by their families and their faith. Heck, even the families are willing to buy into this. “You’re a king,” Laura Linney tells Sean Penn in Mystic River. To prove himself worthy of love, the man can just fasten his soft little heart on anything.

Even on ducks in his swimming pool. Yes, it’s time to conjure up one Tony Soprano, heir to Don Corleone’s beliefs in Christ, family, and business. Without wishing to re-hash analyses of the Sopranos that have been done to death by well-meaning people who also listen to a lot of Johnny Cash records, the connection between real violence and the violent self-interest of capitalism has been made absolutely brilliantly by this one television series.

The cowboy hat is still there — as is the notion of being captain, a word which conveniently has Mob connotations in addition to the usual meanings. (NB: Kasey Chambers got a huge boost from the Sopranos because of her song, “The Captain.”) The cowboy hat has transformed into the captain’s hat supposedly worn by John F. Kennedy, and which is now on Tony’s head, now on the head of Tony’s naked Russian mistress when they cavort on the good ship Stugots.

Stugots, as is also well known, is an incredible piece of Italian-American slang that, as it used, has an ambiguous meaning falling between “nothing” and “testicles.” A character on the Sopranos might say “I got stugots” the way we’d say “I got fuck-all”: I have nothing. The Lacanian pun on the concealed absence in masculinity and sexuality is deliberate — in case you are wondering about this, they make pointed references to Lacan through Dr. Melfi’s son. The irony is that unlike Ahab, who actually has lost his “leg” to the whale and is supporting himself with a white-as-the-whale stump, Tony’s impotence is at the heart of his whole powerful personality and intact physiognomy, and is symbolized by his panic attacks. As Dr. Melfi and many others confess, Tony’s an “alpha-male” and attractive for it.

Of course, part of Tony’s weakness comes from the imitative nature of being a mobster in an age of media: he and his team imitate The Godfather, Christopher and A.J. imitate him, and on and on. Joe Pantoliano plays a character who goes around shouting “heroic” lines from Gladiator, and applying them to his life of petty crime. Others, when they become objects of consumeristic desire, become objects of indiscriminate, imitative desire, rather than being understood in their desire to be understood. I know that’s a bit knotty, but examples help: Tony Soprano, like Johnny Cash, like Eminem, is not understood so much as swallowed whole out of envious desire and recreated in all his actual misery. After all, not only does he have anxiety attacks, but he’s so tormented that whenever he slows down, he falls asleep from exhaustion.

There are two reasons to bring Tony into this. The first reason is that Tony owns the Bada Bing strip club, and when I continue this post I want to complement the cowboy archetype with the stripper archetype, a link that is blatant in the Sopranos but I think also a real marriage within the culture. The way that Jean Genet speaks of the “eternal couple of the criminal and the saint” is how I want to speak of these two gender fantasies.

The second reason is to show that the murderous fantasies of country music (or rap music, for that matter) do not simply go away when the guns are locked in a cabinet. They turn into the cold-blooded reality of successful personal relations in a culture of self-interest. Tony Soprano, the killer, smokes cigars…but then so does Mr. Big in Sex and the City, and very attractively gets away with breaking the rules against doing so. Violence goes hand in hand with indifference to others, and the signs of violence (even the masochism Adorno recognized in cigars and straight whiskey) can be merely the signifiers of callousness. But this callousness is disturbing, too.

Since I want to return eventually to Burning Man, and specifically to a particular burner known as “Cowboy Bob,” I’ll conclude tonight by talking about sentimental symbols. The much-lauded emphasis on “family” that supposedly absolves Tony Soprano is ridiculous considering the dangers to which he exposes his family and himself. Carmela Soprano, like Annabeth in Mystic River, thinks she’s married a “king,” but a dead king can’t earn. It is another piece of smart writing that Carmela becomes obsessed with obtaining adequate life insurance for her husband.

In a moment of psychological insight, Dr. Melfi tells Tony that the ducks in his swimming pool, with which he becomes obsessed, are symbolic of his love and concern for his family. However, it is crucial that they not be his family; that way he is able to expend upon them luxurious emotions not in keeping with the actual foolishness of his means of “providing.” Like Johnny Cash in love, like Cash as Our Lord’s Humble Servant, this is convenient Hallmark sentiment to be squandered on ducks. There is initially a subplot involving Carmela’s religious qualms about Tony’s line of work; this is fascinating, but has to be abandoned when it becomes clear that the answer isn’t complicated. There can be no reconciliation here, except (as Cash recognized) in an afterlife.

The ducks are one sentimental symbol. Another: at Burning Man, which was thematized around hope and fear, there was an enormous work of art that really did inspire fear. It was a rattlesnake that must have been a hundred feet long. It was made of steel, and constructed as a moving, ghost-like skeleton with enormous open fangs. The fangs, the skeletal head, and each of the many vetebrae were on fire with huge gas flames.

To put this in perspective, this weirdly involved symbolism of snakes, kings, and cold desire, and deep water, and the cowboy West:

There’s danger on the edge of town
Ride the king’s highway, baby
Ride the snake
To the lake, the ancient lake, baby
The snake is long, seven miles
He’s old, and his skin is cold
The west is the best

Or as Lawrence put it: “The last phallic being of the white man […] Hot blooded sea-born Moby Dick. Hunted by monomaniacs of the idea. Oh God, oh God, what next, when the Pequod has sunk?”

Forgive Lawrence his apparent racism. I think he’s being true to the original; it is a white whale, after all.

But does this snake admit itself? Does it admit its horror, its violence, the obvious ghastliness of its bared skeleton? It does not. Instead, the artist assures us that she has created a female snake, who is moreover a mother defending a precious egg against all comers. By which, presumably, is meant human burners less than one-twentieth the size of the metal monster.

So the metal snake inferno turns out to be just an aggrieved mama black bear. And I say this is false. We have a cowboy President. There were cowboys running Enron who liked to go out on extreme sports adventures. The precious egg is false, and the “motherhood” is false, and the ducks are false, and it is false when a boy named Sue finds his peace, and false when The Baron finds his son. Eastwood knows the falsehood of it, which is why the final scene with Linney and Penn is so chilling, especially coming before their self-satisfied appearance at the baseball parade, as the happy family.

I liked what my friend Tomemos said, quite literally, when I borrowed somebody’s black cowboy hat to perform “Wanted Dead or Alive” as karaoke: “It has a little skull on it,” he observed of the hat. “I didn’t see that before.”

“Yes’m,” the man said, smiling slightly as if he were pleased in spite of himself to be known, “but it would have been better for all of you, lady, if you hadn’t of reckernized me.”

More soon.