Part Two: Cowboy Songs

Sam Price

The piano player in the saloon works through a songbook of old standards. On a raucous night, the same song might carry more verve or come at a speedier tempo than if the general consensus among the tipplers is moroseness, say that of a blue, non-payday drunk. Either scene, the saloon pianist provides the soundtrack to the old west for modern audiences. Often portrayed as a dimwit or lackey, he’s a stereotype of a character within a stereotype of a drinking establishment within a stereotype of a town. Yet art, even at its most formulaic, is generous in the gifts of individual voice. Though whoever fingers the keys may not be Gould playing Bach, they bring the song to life with their own personal flourish.

There is something to a piece of music written long ago and played innumerable times unfurling in a unique way that reflects back on the entirety of the western genre. An artist’s touch changes the very plains and rivers they wish to elucidate. What might be a deadly river crossing for one writer’s characters is an easy jaunt for another’s. Danger, instead, is holed up on the other side.

In Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, plenty of danger awaits the two former Texas Rangers, Gus and Call, who have decided to leave Texas with a herd of cattle and their makeshift group of cowhands (even Lonesome Dove’s piano player comes along) for mostly uninhabited Montana. They set off out of boredom, since the west they knew has been largely tamed, even though they spend the first few hundred pages of the book ranging into Mexico to steal horses and cattle while the Mexicans spend their time coming into Texas to do the same. What bores them measures beyond excitement in modern standards.

Call’s life is defined by duty. Gus’s life, if it can be defined by anything, is spent shirking what Call sees as duty and pursuing what drives him: Gambling, women, whiskey, lively banter. Yet even Gus, the imaginative one, finds himself unable to see much past the end of the “wild” west, with the threats—to the settlers, at least—of the Native Americans and the Mexicans mostly subdued. Gus and Call have a conversation near the beginning of Lonesome Dove reflecting upon all the new settlements they see as they pass through North Texas with their herd, to which Gus says, “Me and you done our work too well. We killed off most of the people that made this country interesting to begin with.”

The interesting people, Gus frets, have been replaced by bankers and lawyers. Civilized folk. They may make for better neighbors but a boring acquaintance is less amusing than an interesting enemy. These civilized folk are measured by their usefulness, not their charisma.

“The world has moved on” is a refrain from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. From the beginning of the series, King’s characters encounter familiar signposts of our world—the highway system, broken-down tech, snippets of popular music—displaced from their original setting. To imagine our lives, or at least our homes, schools, churches, and the technology that connects us, scattered as rubble and ruin is to question if all this empire-building had been worth it in the first place.

Of course the empire-builders will say, well, what else were we supposed to do?

Progress is often seen as linear, but perhaps the image called to mind shouldn’t be a line sloping ever upward but two scales joined together like Lady Justice’s. When one side rises, the other falls.

Though Gus makes it to Montana with Call and the cattle herd, he’s grievously wounded after he goes scouting ahead looking for a place to set their ranch. In a stroke of heroism by one of his men, he’s saved at the very last minute. The reader, at least this one, breathes a sigh of relief, only to find out that one of Gus’s legs needs to be amputated to stop the gangrene from spreading. However, since it took a while for his man to walk the one hundred miles needed to get help, this amputation wasn’t enough. The gangrene has spread, and Gus needs his other leg amputated as well. This second amputation is not a bridge Gus is willing to cross. Call tries to talk Gus into the operation but, finding himself unable to outwit his stubborn friend, he resigns himself into sitting and watching Gus die.

I won’t lie. I was mad at Gus. I wanted more of him. And I wanted him to still be there for the other characters who love him, especially a woman named Lorena who Gus saved during their journey, but serious old Call, too.

Reading Lonesome Dove, it’s easy to fall under Gus’s spell. He’s certainly the one that most seems worth hanging around. The cowhands all felt the same. Though they might not have respected Gus quite like they did Call, they still turned to him in times of trouble. For some serious situations you need a rapid, sure response but in other situations, the ones that seem all but hopeless, levity is the only thing that might provide any relief.

Beyond the pages of a novel, anyone would naturally gravitate toward those they find interesting. Now, this doesn’t make our friends universally interesting, but they’re interesting to us, whether it’s the conversation or a shared interest or experience.

End up with enough interesting friends and a situation will arise where a friend is unable to lean away from whatever is killing them. Drug ODs and suicides are on the rise, and plenty of others slowly pick away at their remaining health with booze or cigarettes. When I started Lonesome Dove, I had shakily aimed myself at sobriety, so as Gus sat on his porch watching the sunset with a jug of whiskey, there was nothing else I wanted to do more, even if I knew it would not end for me when the sun set but would continue long into the night when all the warmth and good feelings had been sucked out of the atmosphere.

Even at my most degenerate, I was always able to (somewhat) manage my binge drinking. I stopped being able to drink every day not long after college. Which is no real accomplishment because it’s probably mostly due to the extremes I took it to. I could drink endlessly once I started but since I’d down a half a case of beer plus whatever hard liquor was around, my hangovers raged to the point where I wanted nothing to do with booze the next day. Naturally, this aversion only lasted so long, and later that week I’d be back browsing the aisles at the beer store and liquor store to stock up for another night, hoping the clerks weren’t judging my frequent visitations.

One word—alcoholic—can mean so many different things. My best friend, who has been a heavy daily drinker for years, has been struggling to stop. Booze broke apart his long-term relationship, he lost his job, who knows what it’s doing to his physical health—let alone his mental—and yet the talons are sunk as deep as ever. As a friend trying to help and support someone in the throes of addiction, it can be a frustrating feeling that you can’t really change anything. Words and reminders that people care and want to see the one suffering get help and get better feel largely stock, like my words are cribbed from a Hallmark card shelved in the second-to-last aisle of the store, only closer than the condolence cards.

I also harbor the feeling of being a fraud when I give these messages, because what me and my best friend normally did together was get fucked up.

Still, I suggest other hobbies to my friend. Writing and music, for instance. Things he used to enjoy. But one thing about quitting—or trying to, who knows how well I will do in the long run—that plenty of old hobbies are tied in with getting fucked up. For me, music especially. Bob Seger doesn’t hit quite the same without molly, Three Six Mafia is made for a night of cocaine and drinking, and the Dead, well, I haven’t quit smoking pot so I can still sit through a show from the seventies. Maybe I just need to find different music. Stuff that is decoupled with my partying past. It couldn’t be that hard, not unless there’s an entire sea of tunes to wade through all at my fingertips.

None of this stops me from giving advice I can barely follow myself. I white knuckle through bucking emotions. One day I feel like I’m a new man, happy to be waking up early and fresh. Other days all I want to do is sit out on the porch in the sun, turning up a bottle of bourbon at regular intervals, living in the burn in the back of my throat.

Maybe given enough time I’ll be able to listen to the same songs I fell in love with during those nights that lasted both forever and no time at all. The old coke standards. But I have to resign myself that I won’t hear them the same, and that even when I thought I was—getting myself back to the same amount of fucked up to hear them—I wasn’t really listening to them anyway. I was only listening to the memory of hearing them for the first time when I was high, and with the music I got the same sort of diminishing return that comes with the drugs and booze. Moments pass; they always do. Yet knowing this doesn’t make it any easier to stop holding on dear to ghosts.

From his death bed, Gus hears music coming through the window. He sends the doctor off for a bottle of whiskey and to tip the young girl playing the piano. She comes by the window to gape at the dying Texas Ranger, and he throws her another coin. She understands, and quickly returns to playing. By then, Call has arrived and he’s trying to talk Gus into living by reminding him of the two women in his life.

“Lorie would look after me but it would be a sorry life for her,” Gus says, not wanting to become a burden. However, Gus quickly steers away from this truth, and blames his own vanity, his unwillingness to not be able to roam free under his own power, which is easier for Call to swallow.

This issue of being a burden is one I’ve felt continuously as I’ve struggled with addiction and mental health. It is something I never wish to be and yet I know I think of it wrongly. Putting myself out there, honestly, and asking for help is not burdensome, at least not to the ones I love and love me in return. At least it’s not as burdensome as me being drunk and depressed, churning in the cycle of addiction.

It reminds me of my friend, my dear friend, who I’ve felt like I could do nothing for, and how I could do nothing for myself for so long, not until someone reached out, took hold of my life for me, and made me attempt to begin to change.

Me and my friend talk about what it would be like to be the type of person who could, at the end of a hard day, drink one or two beers and then move along with their life. Could people like that even have hard days? Not like ours, we laugh. Not like us.

I’ve had one beer maybe a few times my whole life, all of them in social situations. But most times after one of those one-beer situations I’d rush home to amplify that buzz. If my fridge stash was low because I didn’t see myself drinking that evening, I’d swing past the beer store on the way home. And, don’t worry, I knew when I had to leave to make sure I arrived before they rolled down their metal gate to close for the night.

Long into one of those drunks, when I was inevitably taking my thousandth piss, I often wondered: Why didn’t I just stop after one or two drinks? I could have been asleep by now, on the path to a better tomorrow than the one I stumbled toward. I never had a good answer but I never needed one because it wasn’t a question I asked myself when I was on my first or second drink. It was only after eight or ten that I’d get to that point. I’d find myself fucked up, wishing I was sober. Much like how, sober, I’d wish I was fucked up.

Gus and Call outgrew their version of America. Adventure was extinguished through genocide and industry in the name of expansion. I suppose all of us will one day—if we’re lucky enough to live that long—find ourselves in an era that does not seem to belong to us. And, since we’ve been taught to toil in the name of capital-P Progress, we’ll probably in some small way help to cause our own uselessness.

So hopefully, before that day comes, we can steel ourselves so we don’t feel both useless and hopeless. We’ll need to find a way to laugh at the absurdity of it all or we risk succumbing to the darkness.

Sam Price

Sam Price lives in Pennsylvania.

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