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A Band Called Blue Mountain
Couldn’t get no closer and couldn’t get no further away.” ― Larry Brown
They emerge, four of them/four people; a couple bass players; maybe two guitar guys, I can’t remember really; but they come gently from the doors with the body of the drummer wrapped in an American flag.
I am dumbfounded. Silenced. I smirk I think, but it’s touching too, in ways that are hard for me to describe even now after all these years. After all this time I’ve had, man, to plan this first couple paragraphs.
The ash doesn’t have a chance that morning, I remember that much. Me; smoking a cigarette in the hard southern wind, down in the parking lot of one of those rare-ish multi-floored Motel 6’s, it was hammer-to-the-head hot. I take you there now, to stand alongside me, over by the light blue van one summer morning. We are somewhere upon a stretch of strangeness; lost down in the shredded ribbons of land that border the interstate in western Louisiana and east Texas.
I don’t know what interstate. I don’t even care anymore. I’m never going back there, I’m almost certain of that. You don’t revisit these places. You pass through once. To return is to mess with things, with time and space, in ways that I’m not comfortable doing. I have this creepy feeling that transient places like this, they remember you. Your face, your presence, your jittery caffeine hand or your shaky drug hand or your sad hand, wrapped around the steering wheel, Dorito dust in the morning light on your fingertips/ whoever you are/ whatever you’re doing/ Just Go, they whisper. Or at least that’s what it feels like to me.
Anyway, they bring him out wrapped in the flag and the wind is banging and I have a styrofoam cup of coffee in my hand, that smoke in my lips, and I’m standing there as empty potato chip bags and Arby’s wrappers rage by me, and I am starting to cry a little.
Not because of the sad, but more because I’m hungover and I’m happy because I’m young and my body can fight it off. And because look at that.
Look at those motherfuckers.
I sip the coffee and it tastes like warm water, like some kid’s weak piss.
Before me- and forever etched in my consciousness- it’s like a painting. The glory of being alive captured for eternity. The ghosts, the tragic fumes that must hang around the edges of any scene like this, of human beings caught up in their workday lives/ focused and concentrated on the labor at hand/ on the heaving of the wheat… or the hauling of the barley… or the disappearing of the man from one place and reappearing him in yet another, I can barely contain everything I feel right now. Right then. Right now again.
The sky is stoney like a Monday and as such the available light is hyper-focused and sharp; each of these people is outlined somehow with thin bright lines and blurrier dark ones together. I let my cigarette go and it moves swiftly with the wind. Across the lot, towards the semis, towards a resting place many, many miles from where I bought them back in Philly, in a carton, at the Wawa on Moyamensing.
The people carrying the flag-draped body out into the Texas Louisiana, I smile because it’s lovely. I nearly weep because it moves me. They chuckle to themselves, speak quietly as to not disturb the body, I guess. But I doubt he will wake up. I mean, that is Frank under there, you know.
The drummer from Blue Mountain.
Frank doesn’t do mornings. He just doesn’t. Somewhere along the path that led him here today he decided that the morning thing wasn’t for him. And so here we are/ time to roll out/ a gig in Austin later tonight/ a lot of highway ahead.
They move across the sidewalk outside the motel and they step gingerly, sweetly even, I tell myself, down off the curb into the blacktop like they would move down into the swamps in the night with the murdered/ hacked to bits under there/ son-of-a-bitch had it coming.
I am alone then but now you are here with me and I’m glad about that.
They are moving Frank’s living breathing body to their van. It’s red, I think. I remember it red. Blue Mountain’s red van. And their black dog, Willie is already in there, waiting. Let’s roll, he says to himself. What the fuck is the hold up.
At the van they’re laughing louder now. The whole thing is extraordinary. Frank asleep through it all. The van opening as someone balances Frank’s flopping leg (white Converse All-Star emerging from under the flag). My cigarette butt tumbling end over end/ under trucks from faraway places/ North Dakota/ Alberta/ Maine/ Florida/ Kentucky/ the drivers asleep in the cabs of their rigs/ or maybe watching a movie on their little VCRs/ Terminator again/ or maybe a fucky/ hash browns in their little microwaves/ like little mountain men in little caves blowing across the goddamn landscape/ and if they’d only look out here now, you know?
See this, lads. See this all you ladies up in there. Look out and watch this.
Into the backseat of the van they manage to get him.
The body dumped to where the body will rest, like a vampire, across hundreds of miles, several rest stops, music from the stereo in the dash/ the speakers turned off in the front/ the drummer will sleep while the rest of the world moves around him, just outside this van barreling down the interstate.
I light another cigarette. It doesn’t seem real to me now. None of it does. Maybe I dreamed it? I just can’t say.
Once, outside Silk City, the diner bar on Spring Garden in Philly, me and my brother, Dave, handed a cassette to Go to Blazes guitarist Tom Heyman, who was a friend of ours. We had all just watched a Blue Mountain show that had left everyone giddy. Certain bands can do that, make the crowd high.
The tape was a copy of the first Marah record, an album we had made ourselves on ancient recording gear in a small space above an auto garage in South Philadelphia. It was unreleased then, we’d just finished it, and we were hungry to get it into the hands of Cary Hudson and Laurie Stirratt from Blue Mountain because they had started a new label called Black Dog Records. And we figured that if we could get on their label then that would mean they liked us. And that’s all we kind of wanted. Fools, we were, when it came to the business of music. We knew nothing of record deals or making money. We only wanted to be on a label owned by a band who were legends in our world.
And you know what? It worked.
Blue Mountain crashed at Tom’s joint that night after the gig and Tom generously played them our cassette. The next morning there was a message on a different cassette, the one in our answering machine in our spot above Frank’s Auto.
“Hey… um… Hey' y’all. This is Cary from Blue Mountain and …yeah… Tom played us your album last night and we loved it. Hell yeah. So let’s talk, boys.”
Something like that.
Something like that, from Cary, with Laurie maybe sitting not far from him, maybe smoking a cigarette, maybe counting the t-shirt money from last night and listening to her husband’s words and probably thinking about other stuff too/ like the gig that night/ maybe New York or maybe Pittsburgh/ I don’t know. No one knows anymore.
But I remember that message, the sound of the singer’s voice, warm and friendly. I remember my heart leaping, looking over at my brother as we both heard it for the first time. He was trying to act all cool, but I could tell his heart was racing too.
I’m not bullshitting you here when I say this but that moment changed my entire life forever. The words rolling off that old answering machine were the words of someone who truly, truly mattered to us. I was like 26, Dave was 24 and in that moment, two brothers from a dad-less American suburb life were lifted from one life narrative and set down into another more beautiful one. I really believe that.
Cary, of course had no fucking idea of any of that. He was probably smoking a morning bowl and taking a big drag of breakfast sandwich when he dialed that phone number, left that message, and hung up.
It’s crazy, I know it. I don’t care about nostalgia. It will fuck with you if you try it. But for some reason, I go back to that answering machine message in my head sometimes and I can’t help but feel connected to something both ephemeral and real. We wanted one band in the world to listen to our record and to love it.
And that band was Blue Mountain from Oxford, Mississippi.
And it happened.
It actually happened.
In an upstairs bar with support beams holding up the ceiling in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I once stood in the back of the club after our opening set. People came up to me and said good things.
Great show. Y’all come back again. Sign my CD?
It was an early taste of what ended up being my favorite thing about ever being in a band and touring around. Talking to people after you’d killed it, after you’d left your sweat on the stage and spilt your plastic cup of beer on your tuner and laid down in the puddle in the sweltering heat of the lights with the buzz of the booze shooting through you and the volume of the amps pushing you forward through that last song and seeing them, these faces/ these strangers in their Uncle Tupelo shirts and their Slobberbone shirts and the women, if there were any, never meeting my eye much but closing theirs in order to feel the IPA smash into their brain as Dave’s banjo tried to convince them telepathically to come to the merch table in about ten minutes and throw down a couple 20s and get some CDs and spread the word, if you might, dear stranger friend. Talking to those half-drunk, mostly kindhearted people after we had played our set became the thing, you know?
It was currency you cannot spend. Useless for much in this world except one thing, but that one thing proved to be, in the end, the most important thing for me. Those people/ their voices/ their words of encouragement or gratitude or praise/ it all lifted me again. Up, up, up, like a kiss from a looker, but better in a way, because we’d come so far to play this music for them.
And it worked. On some small-scale level it had worked. Which ended up feeding starvations in me that had never been fed before. I needed it. I was lonesome even in a crowd. The people’s accolades, big or small, gave me life. That sounds fucking corny as hell, and I know it but whatever. It’s true.
And once again, it all started because we got there. I got there. To fucking Tuscaloosa on a Friday night with Blue Mountain. The generosity and the kindness of a band like them showing us the keys to the world and saying, Here, y’all. Take them. Get yourselves a taste of this. Of this far from home playing to strangers shit. And see what you can do with that.
Some people came up to me that night and they threw pennies in my fountain. Stroked my high lonesome ego. But eventually the piped music between the sets died down as Cary and Laurie and Frank made their way up onto the small stage at the far end of the room just like I’d seen them do a lot of nights before.
It’s a special moment. When a DIY band takes a stage in a smallish club on a Friday night in America, it’s a thing. I hope it never goes away, but I don’t know. Covid has changed stuff. And YouTube has woken up a lot of the past in the middle of the night with a shotgun barrel in the mouth. But what can I do? I can’t change that. It happens. Life moves forward and the old ways change and that’s it. That’s all there is to it.
But, oh yeah. Tuscaloosa, remember?
That moment. That rarified oxygen in a club when a band takes the stage. The tightening of the beams of light. The throbbing of your heart. The jockeying for position towards a spot closer to the front. The random first hoots from the already drunk dudes. The house music dying in the middle of a chorus.
There they are, you tell yourself.
The band. That’s them. Holy shit. There he is. The singer. Holy shit.
BAP BAP BAP.
The drummer tunes up the snare. Or hits it for the fuck of it. Frank hits the snare hard a few times probably just for the scattered cheers it brings from the abyss out in the dark.
Cary with his acoustic, head down, looking at the tuner.
Laurie smiling at some bonehead in the front row. He’s talking sweet shit. She’s saying something back.
I watch it from our little merch table set-up towards the back. I sip my beer, it’s still cold. It feels so good moving down my throat and out into my veins, into my blood just now. Opening band dude feeling alright in the back of the club. Feeling accomplished. Feeling appreciated.
Cary lifts his head and smiles big at the face of the crowd. Many faces become one face in that moment for him. He knows this before it happens. He has prepared himself for this across many, many nights of juke joint city.
I remember catching everything. My rising spirit. My beating heart. Cary’s glance at Laurie and her calm confident smile back at him. Frank’s face back in the dark/ shimmers of light glancing off the cymbal stand/ sparks of spotlight flicking off the high-hat stand/ Frank with a cigarette dangling from his lips/ the smoke rising in straight lines at first and then curly ghosts as Cary turns to look at him/ nods/ nods back/ ONE TWO ONETWOTHREEFOUR!
In those spaces in our lives when a certain band kicks in a certain song at a certain time and you are lucky enough to be there in the room, and lucky enough to be smoking your own cigarette and waving your own drink in the air as the music comes cascading down upon you from the stage but not only from the stage but also from the ceiling and from outside in the night like a roaring jet shadow running you down on some hilltop in the moonlight.
I remember standing there that night as they broke into the first song, into Bloody ‘98, and feeling like I might never feel more alive than I was feeling in that precise moment. Staring up at them, I understood not only that this was the best band I had ever seen play live music in my life but also, this band/ these three people/ in that moment/ it promised me that I was part of the best kind of something that ever existed.
The red bandanna sticking out of Cary’s back ass pocket.
The red van parked out back the club in the southern night.
Laurie looking at Frank.
Frank/ mid-song/ looking at his beer on the floor by the stick bag.
Cary singing into the lights, into the spotlights which were really the street lights, which was really the moonlight over Lake Ponchartrain.
How is it possible that these things happen? How did my days move from Little League dugouts in a thunderstorm to dark Alabama rooms filled with music to this room/ here today/ my wife’s pillow over there on the bed/ my Gettysburg books all set up on their shelves right here in front of me?
Gettysburg books. Holy shit. That’s so good. It’s just perfect. I close my eyes and I see the rolling battlefields of rock/roll bars of my past. I open them and I see these books, these Civil War books, and I feel alright. I am still here. I am still going. I am still trying not to live in the fucking past. But sometimes it’s hard.
Sometimes I just want to smell the burning tubes and the spilt pale ales and the cigarettes all burning all at once.
Like the stars in the sky.
The frailty of everything revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night. The last instance of a thing takes the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone. Look around you. Ever is a long time. But the boy knew what he knew. That ever is no time at all. ― Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Blue Mountain was the best band I ever saw. And I saw a lot of bands in that era. Many of them were okay. A few of them were incredible. But Blue Mountain was better than them all and for what it’s worth/ since I own this essay and all/ fuck it.
I’ll tell you why. Ok?
Not contrived bullshit marketable soul. Not soul that comes from a certain microphone or a certain strut across the stage or a certain kind of shirt or whatever the fuck. I don’t know anything about any of that kind of stuff. What I’m talking about is the slight gauze of early morning mist that envelopes their first record (or second record depending on who you are and where you are from), Dog Days. I don’t know what is going on there but I do know that it is one of the most magnificent records I have ever listened to in my life.
The songs are old books and dusty Civil War swords in the trunk of a car headed towards a lazy river for a picnic with someone you are really crushing on who also just so happens to be a ghost from 500 years ago when this world and landscape you inhabit now was wildly different in every possible way but one.
The human longing to find peace has always been there. Has always been here.
I still listen to Cary and Laurie’s voices singing together on this album when I want to feel like I feel whenever I see wild turkeys picking along the barren tree lines along the brown cornfield where I live in central Pennsylvania. I drive along and I put the album on and Mountain Girl begins and I watch the trees where the darkness spills out into open fields of the winter afternoon.
It is by no means an irrational fancy that, in a future existence, we shall look upon what we think our present existence, as a dream. ― Edgar Allan Poe
What I know from this album and from the nights I spent watching them play their songs from it, and from later albums as well, is this. The whole thing was unmistakably organic in much the same way that wolves hunt or trout fuck. It was all just this very rare combination of several unique lives intersecting at a moment in time that resulted in some kind of savage excellence.
To me, a band called Blue Mountain was the most soulful thing I have ever known. And I can’t explain it. Maybe it was because they changed my life just by including me in theirs for a while. But I don’t think that covers it. I think there’s more to it than that.
I suspect that Blue Mountain was touched by something otherworldly. Some kind of soul that rarely touches down here on this planet. Like they got hit by magic moon dust or something. And after that they were able to walk up on stages, plug in their shit, stare down at their tuners and then up at the crowd, smile, and count it all off into everything at once.
To take people on a late night summer ride, under the stars, and to seduce you if they wanted to.
All just by singing harmonies and playing loud Les Pauls and smoking behind the kit and knowing that the key to unlocking doors of the universe are to never fucking shut them in the first place.
When the sun comes over the sea/ I'll tell ya where I'm gonna be / Ridin in the van with the rest of my band/ The wheels singing in my dreams.
- Generic America, Blue Mountain
If you were there, you know I’m fuckin’ right.
My Honda, I roll it out through the valley now and I’m older and much removed from many things I once knew. I stick toothpicks in my lips instead of Marlboro Lights now, but I still crack the window a bit when I do it. Old habit, you know? The music comes out of a shitty little Bluetooth speaker these days because my car stereo busted and I can’t seem to sort it out. I’ve got work, Little League. Me and my wife Arle have got 5 kids between us (3 are mine/ 2 hers/ so 5 are ours), and I often lay in bed thinking about all the fishing I need to catch up on. Before it’s too late, you know? So much I’ve got to get done. So much and I know it.
I look out at the fields as I blow by them in my car and the music washes over me and it’s just me and I am transported back to a time when I was lucky. I was lucky to be around Blue Mountain. To watch them from a hundred sides of the stage, To laugh with them in tiny backstage rooms that smelled like lunchmeat and pot. To visit their Mississippi homes, drink moonshine with them under dark starry skies. To meet their friends or people they once called friends. To see them walking up ahead of me in truck stops, Cary and Laurie ( and later Ted and George/ and never Frank who was resting) and to think to myself, as I spotted them, how is this possible?
How come they let us do that?
How come they let us open for them so many times?
My brother says that all those shows were a lesson that pushed us further as a live band than anything else ever could or did. Because they were lessons in getting our asses handed to us. No mater how good we might be that night, Blue Mountain was better. Way better.
But still. How come they never ever treated us like a pain in the ass/ like not even once? Who does that? And I know, I know, I’m a bit all over place here, but I told you, man. I told you that they moved me. Only a few bands do that to you in a lifetime if you’re lucky. I told you how it is, how the whole experience stays with me to this day.
They made me almost cry in parking lots, in bars, in truck stops, on the balcony at Square Books looking down on Oxford Town, wondering how the hell I ever ended up on a wagon train bound for glory. I was a punk ass kid from Philly. I meant well, but you know.
Laurie once looked at me and then pulled on the shoulder of a man who, when he spun around, I immediately recognized as one of the best writers I had ever read. Then, with definitive southern cool, she spoke to us both at once.
‘Serge, this is Larry Brown,” she said. “Larry, Serge is in that great band from PhiladelphiaI was telling you about.”
Can you believe that?
What times, what times.
What sweet luck come my way..
I tried so hard. I swear it. - ‘When You’re Not Mine’, Blue Mountain
Being here, just being alive is so hard sometimes, so unforgiving and unrelenting. I think we all lose so much along the way if we aren’t careful about how we see it, about what we remember. The moments that meant the most/ it’s a challenge to recognize them in real time. But I have always tried. I knew I would forget so much, so I tried like hell to remind myself to study it all. To remember everything I possibly could. But you know, I forgot a lot, same as you. Same as everyone. Maybe it’s better that way. Maybe that’s the best way for growing old, huh?
These days, I see my past in flashes/ shots of scent from days gone by. Never again will we meet like that, but so what. It happened. I remember pickled quail’s eggs at a buffet in Hattiesburg. I remember bass fishing together on a pond that seemed cut off from the world. I remember the smell of the inside of your van when you’d roll the windows down in the motel parking lot to make sure we new the way to Dallas.
I remember the sound of your band kicking in, the sound of voices colliding above it all and how it somehow made me feel like I would never die. Like after hearing that/ after standing in that: I would always be around.
Like, it wasn’t all just then. It still continues on. I’m still feeling it. I still clench my eyes shut and meditate on it and I’m in that zone again. In that place. Happy. Excited. Homesick. Alive. I was there as a bystander, as a witness, to a rock ‘n’ roll band in their very prime. That is an extraordinary thing to experience in this life. To be embedded in the same motels, the same truck stops, the same late night parking lots outside the same last call clubs.
The songs. The faces. The feedback. The voices. The goodbyes from every angle.
I clocked it all before it slipped away.
Oh, how I tried, buddy. How I tried to remember whatever I could, even as it was all going down as if I had a hunch all along that someday I was going to try and write something.
Something exactly like what just happened here, disappearing as it goes.
Carefully edited by Arle Bielanko
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Send me mail: Serge Bielanko/ PO Box 363/ Millheim, PA/ 16854
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