Return from the Void – part 1
the old master – Pericon de Cadiz: “Nombre artístico del cantaor gaditano Juan Martínez Vilchez. Nacido en Cádiz en 1901 y fallecido en 1980. Ha dejado valiosas grabaciones; su repertorio fue amplio y se le considera uno de los últimos maestros del cante de su tierra.”
….. TEXAS IN OCTOBER 1969:
I looked fixedly at the beat up linoleum knife laying in the dust amid wrinkled cigarette packs and nuts and bolts on the dashboard. I reached out and took it in my hand and turned to the pervert behind the wheel of the dusty pickup and said: “I’d be happy to cut your balls off. I’ve done worse than that in Vietnam. But I’ll kill you as well. So you better pull off and let me out. NOW! “
We were somewhere in the middle of nowhere between San Antonio and San Angelo. It was desolate hot brush-land. This plump and prosperous looking cowboy had picked me up 40 or 50 miles back and we’d been having a nice chat until he pulled some crazy stuff (Him) “You know I am terribly unhappy. I think I am a woman trapped in this man’s body. I’m a queer and I can’t live like this. Particularly out here in the country. I know this is strange to ask but…would you cut my balls off? ” (Me – thinking) “Holy shit – this guy is nuts.
I guess my bluff worked because the 40 something guy pulled over onto the gravel shoulder..as I grabbed my guitar and bag and climbed out he said: “I’m sorry. I’m all screwed up. … But would you mind just pulling your shirt up?
I figured if that was all it cost me to be rid of him I was ahead so I pulled the old tee up and let him look at my upper torso – scrawny after 14 month living on the road from hand to mouth. I felt a bit tense as he took off in his Ford pickup; hoping he would not come back and precipitate a really sweaty situation.
As the minutes ticked away and cars began to come by sporadically I relaxed and stuck out the old thumb. After 20 minutes a car pulled over..I looked in. The Roman collar was unmistakable. I climbed into the sedan and we took off…a catholic priest. We introduced ourselves and it turned out he was headed to Lubbock which was a mere hundred miles from Amarillo and Route 66. .
Things were looking up.
I’d left Madrid at the end of August, catching a train to Toledo, and the last 7 weeks or so had been bare bones hitching and busing and trampsteamering; but it had also been scenic, interesting, warm, and lush – good travel – it would be a shame to spoil the atmosphere now.
At this rate I might be home to Menlo Park in 3 or 4 days!
……. MADRID IN AUGUST 1969:
It’s so hot here in July and August that the Madrilenos leave the city and head for the higher towns and beaches. A sense of lethargy blankets the old center. I was able to find some refuge in the wonderful Retiro Park, lying in the cool grass under the chestnut trees and reading, and sneaking into the university swimming pool on Sunday afternoons. Thinks had worked out well. I knew by the beginning of August that I was going to be able to raise the money to head home and actually get there. It might take me a couple of months, hitchhiking, buses, a tramp steamer, but I now had a plan that could work. I felt good, real good.
The crux had been getting a part on the permanent company of a spaghetti western called “Cannon for Cordoba”, a Mirisch Productions film starring George Peppard (cigar chomping leader of the TV series “The A-Team”). A bunch of us had hopped a train up here from Almeria on the Costa del Sol in June as the work dried up on Patton and Sledge. We had made the casting call at Estudio Espana the week after we got here and I had made the cut. Paying me $300-400 for 6 or 8 weeks of work made catching a freighter possible. I just needed to put the plan together.
I got a cheap room in a nice pension north of the Gran Via, where I was the only non-Spaniard. The set provided lunch for day shooting and dinner for night. I had a cafe con leche and a small baguette other wise. One night, after getting my weeks pay, I went to a restaurant in the narrow walking lanes off the Plaza Santa Ana and had a pork cutlet and fresh peas – first restaurant meal in months. We sat in the small living room of the pension on July 20 and watched Neil Armstrong jump on the moon. I was the only American in the pension – it felt good. I had a bit of kif left from the Dave Kramer trip to Melilla and sold it to raise some more money. By this time I had stopped smoking but still had my sebsi pipe to take home a souvenir.
The movie days were long, catching the bus by about 0630. They had built an 1890 border town about 40 miles out in the rolling plains of La Mancha, south of Madrid. If you’ve watched movies being shot you know that for every 10 minutes of action there are hours of set up. We’d sit and watch George Peppard, Don Gordon (Steve McQueen’s partner in Bullitt) and Elizabeth Ashley play poker all evening. They burned the town down after several nights of gun fights. I had a good part in one of the fights as Cordoba’s bandits raid the town – I was in the street shooting a Winchester lever action rifle as 3 horsemen tried to ride me down, running out of bullets I ran back to the wooden storefront sidewalk, throwing the rifle to a compadre to reload, spinning and drawing my pistol, shooting up at a mounted bandit, who then drilled me – his shots pushed me into the wall where I slowly slid down dead. I got an ovation from the whole set…but, things being what they are, as Mom would say, “the best parts of my role ended on the cutting room floor”.
I spent several weeks researching how to get a freighter back to the states. I finally found one headed out that belonged to the Transatlantica Espanola shipping line – La Transatlantica. There is a postcard of the ship in one of the boxes of my junk. It looked great..leaving from Cadiz then through the Canary Islands, Venezuela, Curacao, Santa Domingo, Puerto Rico, and ending up at Vera Cruz Mexico. It was leaving about 3 weeks after the movie shoot was to end. It would take 20 days, cost about $10 a day including 3 meals and all the wine you wanted. Perfect.
As the few weeks went by and the filming ended I had gotten some decent sandals and a lovely but inexpensive flamenco guitar ($35 I believe), packed what little stuff I had into an old airline style bag, rolled the cotton sleeping bag on top and caught a train down to Toledo, headed for Cadiz. Hitching out of a big city is always a pain and Madrid was no exception, so a 2 hour train ride for 30 pesetas made sense. Forty years later, Margo and I would take the bullet train down – 20 minutes – $60. But plenty of time for a days site seeing, a lunch of Carcamusa at the Casa Ludena, and a few glasses of wine sitting in the shade of the cathedral. The best way to appreciate this ancient town is to climb down into the gorge of the Rio Tagus then up to the old Infantry school on the bare southern hillside and watch the sun set on the towers of the Alcazar. The waves of yellow, tan, red, ochre, terracotta tiles seem to sing in the clear light of the late sun – Toledo – probably the most picturesque town in the world.
I spent 4 or 5 days hitching and sleeping in the fields. The summer days were long and I took the back roads where curious truck drivers were more likely to stop for me. The countryside in midday was swimming in a blinding white yellow haze. The sound of insects ceaseless; small birds swooping endlessly gathering them in for a meal.
– Cuidad Real, – Cordoba, – a couple of nights in a Sevilla pension, – down to Puerto Santa Maria where I went to the bullfights,
– then around Cadiz Bay to the old pirate port which sits on the Atlantic and is the oldest continuously-inhabited city on the Iberian peninsula.
…in Cordoba, late in the evening, the center of town was still lit by gas lamps….I wandered through the city park, sub tropic evening mists, palms, sago, and palmettos, just a few hundred miles north of Africa; I crawled under some thick shrubs and slept – dreamlike…in Sevilla they hung great panels of sailcloth across the streets – Rothko like primary and secondary colors – massive sun screens to beat back the power of the Andalusian sun …Then finally into Cadiz.
This was to be the last town of the European undertaking. The ship from La Transatlantica wasn’t coming for another 10 days so that gave just enough time for a quick last trip to Marrakesh. Stashed my guitar at left baggage, grabbed a bus to Algeciras, a bus to Tangiers for an afternoon, then down to Rabat and on to Marrakesh – through the dry empty wasteland where we’d accidentally killed the unsuspecting guy walking on the road that January evening 9 month before…
Marrakesh was lovely as before…shopped- a copper plate for Kay, a Fez for Dad, some hash candy for a long walk through the souk…getting lost in the exotic scents and colors and sounds. I stayed at the same old hotel, tea brewed by the owner over a small stove while we sat on the stucco floor of the roof. Ate the wonderful shish-kabobs cooked on the small charcoal stoves in the medina; ate the oranges until my skin tingled overdosed on the ascorbic acid; sat on the ground and watched the neverending show of story tellers, drummers, magicians, dentists, and other unimaginable delights.
A crazy ride in the back of a 3 wheeled pickup standing windblown in the truckbed with 3 other travelers heading north… back to Ceuta… back to the ferry… back to Algeciras. Then back to Cadiz for a final coda to bring 13 months bumming around Europe and North Africa to a fitting close.
… a small rhapsodic moment:
Most people have heard the words Flamenco.
Some know it as a guitar music played by Montoya, or the Romeros, with lightning finger runs and trills – Malaguena by the Gypsy Kings. It is old gypsy music and it is the soul of Andalusia, which is where the soul of Spain is the oldest.
Others have seen it danced with clapping and heel snaps and spins and twirls of red flounced dresses and tight spangles pants over snake skin boots – perhaps in a cave outside Granada or a theatre in Madrid.
But most have never heard the true depth of the soul that is Flamenco singing.
The essence of flameno is cante – the singing. It is deep and tough and passionate, longing, wounded, howls of liquid copper sounds hot out of a fire. It is Arab, it is Romani, it is Mali and Algeria, it is hot lonely nights in the back alleys of Almeria, with the twin french-doors of my room in the Pension Oriental open onto the dimly lit lanes as 3’s and 4’s of men walk along with their guitars and voices uplifting the cante into the skies above the old town. More than anything, to me, it is and always be Cadiz and a humid night with Pericon de Cadiz. Him headlining a flamenco festival and singing at midnight in the small amphitheatre in the lush gardens of the Parque Genoves. Here, playing in the late evening of my last day in Europe, was the 70 year old master of all masters in the style of cante jondo – the songs of profound and deep emotion, with themes of death, anquish, despair, doubt. Songs of the wounded bull, songs of Guernica, of the white terror of the civil war, of the 3rd of May 1808. He stands grave and weighted, body still as the night air, the weight of Buddha, the gravity of a king. And his song swirled into the park’s thick air, then through the tropic forests, and out to the west, mixing with the faint sound of the Atlantic breakers crashing on the park’s stone shore.
For me that was the a perfect way to end the European experiment that had started with Pete in August 1968 on Market Street in San Francisco in a red Mustang and had then covered so many miles, countries and adventures.. Pete the talented classical guitarist and lover of all great music and my partner in pursuit of all things fine in music.
The next evening my freighter sailed past the point of Cadiz, where the Parque Genoves sits, the last sight of land to the thousands of boats and ships that have set sail since 1000 years BC from the oldest city in Western Europe. And off I was – again on another leg of my delicious wandering.
– THIS IS THE END OF PART ONE OF “RETURN FROM THE VOID”…to be continued
You can hear Pericon de Cadiz on Youtube…try it you may like it