Letters @ 3AM
By Michael Ventura
DECEMBER 22, 1997: For years I thought he was taller than I. He's not, actually. Not so much. Maybe some. But he's more or less my height. Still, for years I thought he was about a head taller. I saw him as taller. It wasn't just that he has a barrel chest, a wide face, enormous hands, and big feet, and that I don't have any of those and I'm skinny. (Well, not anymore. But 25 years ago, when I met Butch Hancock, I weighed about 125 pounds, really skinny.) It was the sense I had of him. I would have sworn on a stack of Upanishads, Bibles, Tao Te Chings, whatever you've got, that Butch was about a head taller than I. It was the way he carried himself. And the way he always seemed to be laughing, quietly, without derision, at some joke I didn't get, didn't even hear. At first I thought he was laughing at me. Didn't hold it against him; there's a lot about me to laugh at. But he wasn't laughing at me -- at least, not all the time. He was just laughing. Not out loud, necessarily, but laughing. What was the joke, dammit? Even now, after all this time, all the roads we've traveled together, all the nights talking over all those coffees and beers -- even now I sometimes ask, a little annoyed: What is the joke, Butch?
I long ago stopped expecting an answer. Anyway, some of Butch's answers aren't really answers, and aren't meant to be. But then, people have said that about me too. Sometimes we bounce his non-answers off mine, talking about a subject without talking about it, talking about it by not talking about it, talking on its edges, like making outlines in the air. They're invisible, but we can both see them. Or we think we can. But about the joke....
It's just that the things that haunt me, they mostly make Butch laugh. The things that haunt a lot of people mostly make Butch laugh. I know now that it's his inner river of laughter, more than anything else, that made my eyes see him as taller.
And, back before he'd recorded his songs, before we'd drifted from the Panhandle down to Austin and he made a legend of himself, it was also the way... the way, after he wrote a song, he'd be so eager to play it. Not like he was showing off, not like the song was his, but like he'd discovered this strange incredible thing behind the sofa or in the gutter or by the side of the road or in the sky, and he had to show it to you, to you in particular. He was amazed and delighted by what he'd found, and he wanted to share his delight. That's what he calls "songwriting" and "singing" and this, too, makes him seem taller.
When we spent that year or so in that tiny town in the Panhandle, by the Salt Fork of the Red River, when it was my job to mix the cement that he would mold into fantastic shapes, and we were tearing down old buildings and using the materials to build a couple of saloons... I saw him walk on his hands at the edge of a cliff. Not once, but several times. We'd be walking by this quarry, and suddenly I'd look over and I was walking eye-level with his shins, while he was walking on his hands not a foot from the edge of a five-story drop... and he'd do it with absolutely cheerful confidence, so that you were never afraid he'd fall... well, I'm afraid of heights, and I can't walk on my hands, so that made him seem taller.
He once suddenly told me, "The miracle isn't important anyway! It's whether the reason it occurred was absorbed by you or not."
When you have a friend who often comes out with things like that, well, honestly, he seems taller.
Or, 17 years ago, when he wrote me from the Roman works at Bath, England: "The rocks are worn, corners rounded -- colors changed who knows how many times? What? Maybe a couple of thousand generations know. Perhaps a few thousand or a few hundred or maybe only 10 or 20 pairs of eyes each generation could remember the fading colors over that generation's span of years -- the living wave of consciousness from generation to generation... No way to pass that memory on except in dreams and genes."
I'm through being surprised by Butch. Which is a way of saying, I'm so used to being continually surprised by Butch that the surprises don't surprise me. (That's a Butch-type sentence.) Wasn't surprised when he pulled up stakes in Austin and went to live in Terlingua, near the Rio Grande, to spend most of his days and nights on the river. Well, that inner river of sacred laughter had to find a real river sooner or later, and the Rio Grande is just about real enough. (As soon as I write that I can see Butch grin. "Real, Michael? And just what is that?")
So now there's his new CD, You Coulda Walked Around the World, on his own Rainlight label. Which, because it's on his own label -- and because Butch's business sense is, well, laughable -- is going to be an awfully hard CD for mere (shorter) mortals to locate. It's about what the river is telling Butch and what he's saying back. Just somethin' shinin' over yonder hill, one song goes, And I know not to chase it... but I know I will.
The day I got it in the mail (no letter, no note, just Butch's calligraphic handwriting on the envelope) I played it for hours. And that night I dreamed of my death.
It was one of those dreams you don't tell, but suffice it to say that it was very calm, and because it was calm I knew it was (forgive the expression, Butch) real. So real that when I woke I was still in it. In my death. Well. There was no fear in the dream, but, waking, I waited for the fear to hit. It was death, after all. There was no clue in the dream about when -- tomorrow, or 20 years from now; but in the dream death had visited, so I expected, on waking, to feel fear. But no fear filled me. I was astonished. I don't mean to give the impression that I'm so fucking enlightened that I don't fear death; I suppose that when the time comes, tomorrow or 20 years from now, I'll be afraid enough. But the dream had found something in death that was not about fear, and I was still in the wash of the dream. Astonished to feel thankfulness. A deep, sweet thankfulness for all that I've lived. And a verse from one of Butch's new songs came to me as I lay there:
One man lives to die... One man lives for thrills... One man only lives to live... Hiding in the hills.
To be that man who only lives to live. That is my task from now on. It isn't about writing anymore, or finding a meaning, or changing the world, or getting and keeping love, though all of that is important; but it isn't about that stuff anymore. The task now is to be that man who only lives to live. For whom life, life, life, is enough.
And the dream continued to segue with Butch's new songs. In my heart I heard the quiet joyful way he sings these days:
Ancient mountains... chills and fevers... empty roads and fields of flowers... dusty beds... hanging gardens... the golden light still in my eyes. And then the soft lilting chorus: Roll around... Roll around... Roll around and sing forever... Spread your wings... Spread your wings... Spread your wings and fly tomorrow...
There aren't many songs you can bear after a dream of your death. I lay there, full of thankfulness for all that I've lived, and thankful for my friend.
I played his CD all that day:
All of what I feel... And for all I see... There is no you... There is no me... Just somethin' shining... Way deep inside...
That was the thankfulness. A way of singing it. And that day I needed to sing it. (Not that I can sing, but I can sing along.)
You coulda leaned into the face of four strong winds... 'Stead of drivin' round town collectin' useless odds and ends... 'Stead of goin' nowhere you coulda lived... a life of... Destinations!... You coulda walked around the world....
Well. Yes. A life of destinations. I thought of all my destinations. Of Butch's. Of our friends'. It was a good day. And, as the Lakota say, a good day to die. I pray that on the day of my death this feeling will not leave me.
And for that I must learn to live only to live. So.
You might chase dreams... You might chase flies... You might chase gold... You might chase God....
Some time ago I was describing Butch to some strangers, and a friend of ours at the table said: "Michael, Butch isn't taller than you. Not that much." "Of course he is." "He ain't." And he ain't. I suppose. But he is.
Or maybe he is, really, physically, actually, taller. Twenty-five years, and I'm still not sure.
And that, my friends, is the measure of a man.
...this one's for Rory....
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