Johnny told me, “So here's everything you need to know if you want to make it as a singer - songwriter: it's just as tough as making it as an ugly whore. There are better looking women out there who'll do it for free. That's where the competition starts. Most of the time you only find a niche with those who failed to score with the beautiful girl. Not all the time, though. There are some who want things they can't get from the beautiful girl. There are some who want to do things they wouldn't dare do to the beautiful girl.
“The next thing to know is that singer/songwriters are like gunslingers and only some, as Townes Van Zandt knew ‘wear their guns outside their pants for all the honest world to feel.’ These songwriters want to blow you away. OK, some are more like Mac the Knife. They want to cut you. You know, like in jazz - to cut someone is to play so much better that you slink away or fade away or, as you take your next break, pretend that you're not just a bloody stump with a horn.”
“What can destroy a shy songwriter with some good chops and good lyrics, and that’s how I see you Burl, is to see all those semi-successful no-talent bastards with attitude. You see, in the entertainment business, attitude is equal to talent. Talent does not rise to the top. Attitude with a dose of talent does. And the ones with attitude got it by some alchemy of nature/nurture that you didn't get. You sit there and watch a guy go from C to F to C to F, ad infinitum. You hear hackneyed vocal lines and you think, this is shit. Then you look around and the room is filled with rapt attention and dreamy eyes and you think, what the fuck, I could do that when I was 13! Sure you could, but you had a shy attitude - you were a loser then and you're a loser now. The girls go for the boys who exude dangerous, edgy attitude not the very nice, shy ones with heads full of sensitivity.” Man, Johnny could go on.
“Now there's young attitude and there's old attitude. Young attitude should be perfectly enacted. Old attitude - they cut you some slack because they know your past. They admire the road you traveled. Once you were tough and hot and you rocked the house, so now you can get away with just reminding them of that – or maybe you’re one of those special old men who still rock the house like you did when you were young!” He went on.
“Before continuing I want to make the distinction between the only two types of musicians who count. There's the ones who can play. They range from the soulful C, F, and G types to some who really have nice chops - some can hang in any jam; they know some sophisticated chords; they have a number of pleasant songs. Then there's the Motherfuckers. They are Django Reinhardt, Paco de Lucia, Jimi Hendrix. I'm not talking about the Motherfuckers here. They are a breed apart and I am not worthy.
“To me the funniest way to get cut is by lyrics. When I listen to singer/songwriters I rarely walk away with any lyrics stuck in my head. I mean even the good players who made me nod my head and tap my foot. I enjoyed them, but nothing stuck. I finally figured out why. It's because they were singing about themselves and how sensitive they are. Makes me want to puke.” Johnny threw his head back and moaned:
“I'm receptive to your needs
I'm conscious of your wants
I feel things so deeply
I need to get deep inside of youuuuuu.
That man can never understand you
He can never give you what you need
Only I have the love so true
That can make you become brand newwwww.
“To me, the worst of the worst is the good looking chick with performance attitude and sensitive songs. And low-cut dresses that swirl as she plays, dresses that you can almost see through. She expects you to fall in love with her. She's used to it. Before you know it you've bought her a drink, tipped her tomorrow's lunch money, and then her boyfriend comes in. He's not jealous. He knows you're just another useful john who will never get to first base, but who'll probably buy him a drink to be sociable before you excuse yourself.
“Oh, I'm such a curmudgeon. I forgot the hippies, the tried and true enthusiast who is just happy to be there. They play from the heart. They are infectious; they leave you feeling good. If they are also a Motherfucker, they are sure a rare gem.”
That's what Johnny wanted and wanted it desperately. He wanted to go back to the 60s when he knew God. When he trusted the world. When he took no offense. All the shit in the world could be dumped on his head and roll like water off a duck's back. He played on.
Johnny was like that in the 60s. He loved his guitar so much he played all day. The calluses on his left hand were so thick that his left hand fingers were a quarter inch longer than the right hand. Sitting on the edge of his bed wailing out a new song was as exciting to him as if he were at Carnegie Hall.
Right now, Johnny was back in Texas. Not the part he grew up in, that flat, dusty, windy Panhandle - the part that makes the wind blow in Oklahoma (because it sucks). No, he was down around Austin and San Antonio, a beautiful place to be - in the winter when it's not 103 in the shade with 90% humidity. East Texas has more side-of-the-road rest areas, rest stops, and picnic areas than you can shake a stick at. They are a reminder of the gracious Texas, a reminder of the time when a few tax dollars were spent with the comfort of families in mind. Johnny's type of family - the kind that packed a cooler with sandwiches and bought a watermelon from a roadside stand. Picnic areas with nice mowed grass, tables, a water spigot, and a toilet.
You could be poor as dirt and yet have a place to be. Having a place - Johnny took that for granted as a kid. His family home was small, but Daddy had it almost paid off. He could ride his bike all around the neighborhood - his neighborhood. There's something wrong with a country that refuses to spend a few bucks for the public. A country where you have to go into a store and ask for a key to the restroom and where you get a hard look if you haven't spent any money there. A country without public parks and plentiful water and restrooms is a poor country that doesn't give a damn about kids.
Johnny was moving from rest area to rest area in a hundred square mile area. Some nights he was parked by a sweet little river or creek. Tall trees with leaves rustling in the breeze. Most nights there was no one else there and the stars at night were big and bright. And it was all his because everyone else was afraid to spend the night outdoors. Americans have become full of fear, that's why. Empires create fear both abroad and at home.
Johnny was practicing his songs, getting ready for the open mics he intended to play in Austin. He was 65 years old and thought he still had one more chance to make it if only he could do on a stage what he could do alone. All he wanted was for an artist to pick one of his songs. He still had the feeling in his heart, the muscle memory in his fingers and wrist, but the mind was slipping. He had to run through his song list every day to keep those lyrics fresh in his mind. And then in the bar, waiting for his turn to sing two or three songs, he drank and smoked. The smoke helped keep his voice solid on the low notes. The drink all too often made him slip up. He might sing one line out of order, keeping the meaning but ending on the wrong word, ruining the rhyme. Then he'd think about that and hit the wrong chord. Jesus, why oh why did I pick music as my dream career, thought Johnny. I'm a loner by nature, I can't cut loose in front of an audience. I'm tongue-tied and not having fun. Hell, I should have been a writer.
Johnny woke up to the sound of a bulldozer, a front end loader, and a truck. He stuck his head out the van door and a friendly Hispanic man said, "Sorry Buddy, I've got to ask you to move. We're tearing this place up today." "How come?" "Well, Texas passed this new law that allows neighbors to ask the state to remove rest areas and picnic areas." "Isn't it state land? Why would they want this nice place torn down?" "Yeah, it is nice. I can remember stopping here with my family when I was a kid. But people are claiming that drug users meet up here. They're scared and the law lets them decide." "So taxpayer dollars built this nice little place and one guy can have it torn down just like that? Does he have to pay for it?" "Hell, no. The taxpayers pay. It's a raw deal, but it's the law. Gotta ask you to take off so we can get to work."
So Johnny drove off to Sweet San Antone.
Sheep Springs, New Mexico is a bump in the crossroads. Westward are the Chuska Mountains of Navajo land, East is Chaco Canyon, an important Anasazi ruin; it's north to Colorado and south to Gallup, New Mexico (where everyone is a minority). Navajos spread out on the land so you can't see many hogans or houses from Sheep Springs, but they are out there. And each spread has dogs and the dogs have puppies.
Sheep Springs is mainly a convenience store with gas and some storage units. On weekends a flea market springs up around the parking lot and across the road. If there are a more enterprising people than the Navajo I've never seen them. All across the reservation there are Grandmas getting up at 4 and even 3 a.m. to make breakfast burritos to sell to folks on their way to work. They make the thick tortillas by hand. On weekends they set up little propane stoves and make fry bread, mutton stew, and Navajo Tacos fresh on the spot. Johnny kept track of what he called the Navajo fast food inflation index. His first mutton stew 10 years ago was three dollars. You just say mutton stew when you order. It's assumed that a big hot piece of frybread and a cup of coffee are part of the order. The last time it was five dollars. Inflation.
A pack of dogs was running around the flea market this winter. Every one was a female with the tits of a mother. Everyone had had a cute litter of puppies and every one was abandoned after that. It happens even in wealthy areas. This pack was a very cooperative little band. Winter is cold in Sheep Springs and during the long nights they huddled tightly together, pushing into each other for body heat. And every now and again a dog would find her way into the middle of the warm mass. Ahhh, blessed heat. There was no fighting; fighting was a waste of energy and it took you away from the warm mass. During the day the dogs begged for food at the flea market (bringing their own contribution of fleas) and jumped in and out of trash cans. So they were very friendly, both with each other and with people. As a cooperative mass they survived the cold and as friendly individuals they charmed food from hungry humans.
The dogs didn't know it, but plans were in the works to hunt them down. A little boy had been killed by a pack of wild dogs near Gallup. Animal Control was planning on bringing the trucks and a group of men with guns was planning on mopping up after that.
One particular dog didn't know it but a guitar player named Johnny was just now crossing the state line from Texas in an old Chevy van. He'd laid around and played around San Antonio for a week playing open mics at night then sleeping in picnic areas outside of town. And he was beginning to be noticed – and I don’t mean as a musician.
Johnny tried to spread out his nightly locations, but he knew the cops had his number. It's legal to spend less than 24 hours in one spot, but the problem for Johnny was driving sober to those spots. Alcoholism is a job hazard for musicians and in the U.S. the legal limit is so damn low. Hell, Johnny with one beer on an empty stomach was over the limit. He was ready for a break from the booze and the city so he was off to the Four Corners, an area about as vast as Alaska and almost as thinly populated. He had a few acres of cheap land with a funky cabin. And he had a sweet little yeller hound with the softest tongue in the world waiting to be saved.
Johnny pulled into Sheep Springs because he saw a frybread stand. As he got out about seven dogs came up, barking and romping in a friendly way. He was handed his frybread, the most greasy one he’d ever had. The bread was so hot that the excess lard pooled up on it without congealing. One little dog had the nerve to come close to Johnny. She was, I guess, a medium-sized dog, but on the small side of medium and she reminded Johnny of Old Yeller, a dog in a Disney movie he’d loved in his youth.
He held out a piece of the bread and she took it daintily, but wolfed it right down. Johnny said to her, “I might just come back for you.”
You see, Johnny was still in mourning for his last dog – also an abandoned rez dog. He felt a bit like a man might feel who’d lost his loving wife less than a year ago. It didn’t feel right to bring a new love into his life yet. Edy had been his best dog companion ever. Instead of telling you, let me put in this song he’d written about her.
Good Dog A’Mighty c BurlDunn
I had a dog one time, I mean to tell you the best of her line
That sweet girl loved me to the end
When it got so she could hardly move her tail still wagged for me
You don’t have to tell me how to treat my best friend.
I got down on my knees, held her to my chest
She gave a long, relaxing sigh and surrendered to her death
At that moment the love that flowed was pure and blessed
You don’t have to tell me how to treat my best friend.
I howled at the moon, I growled at strangers
The pal I’d lost was ever ready for laughter and dangers
I’d give six more years for each one she gave me
You don’t have to tell me how to treat my best friend.
Every dog I’ve had has been all a dog can be
God help me be the man those dogs have seen in me.
I had a dream last night, seemed so real
We were walking on a ridge that was so high
Lord I slipped, I fell, I was falling straight into hell
But my good dog dug in, she didn’t let me die.
I landed on my knees, she jumped up on my chest
Licked my face and gave a great big grin
She said, “You can stumble, but you can’t fall,
Not as long as I give my all. You didn’t have to train me to be your best
“I howled at the moon, I growled at strangers,
You were the pal I loved, ever ready for laughter and dangers
I gave you six more years for each one you gave me
And you didn’t have to train me to be your best friend.”
No, and you don’t have to tell me who is my best friend
No, no, it’s my good dog a’mighty
You don’t have to tell me who is my best friend.
Johnny pulled out onto the highway and that pack of dogs followed him, nipping at his tires and barking in a friendly way. The yeller hound was romping along, too, and Johnny thought, “She’s just doing that because she has to be part of the pack to survive. I couldn’t stand it if she were run over.” He did a U-turn. Johnny asked around the flea market, “Are these dogs strays? Do you think they belong to anyone?” Everyone answered that, oh yeah, no doubt, they are all strays, so Johnny went into the convenience store, bought a can of dog food, opened it and then picked up Ella Frybread from Sheep Springs, New Mexico, put her in the van and took her into his life. He knew he was saving her life. He didn’t know she was also saving his.
Ella worked every bit of meat out of that can as Johnny drove along. Soon he shortened her name to Ely – pronounced LLE – he had her “fixed” and wormed and deloused.
Ely leaned into Johnny hard as he drove along. Both vehicles he drove had manual transmissions and it required a great deal of effort to push against her when he needed to shift gears. I don’t mean to push her away; I mean just to get hold of the shifter and make the motion. It was funny at first. Ely would just sit leaning her entire weight against Johnny, looking forward at the road with a calm look on her face, like saying, Yeah, it’s just me and my man heading down the road. Several times in towns Johnny would see someone in a facing car laugh as they went by and he realized that Ely looked like some girl pressing against her boyfriend as they drove down the road.
While on the smallish side, Ely became deceptively heavy. Johnny took to teasing her, calling her a “dog muscle.” One solid mass of muscle (with the softest tongue in the world).
The folks who abandoned her must not have needed a sheep dog, because most sheep-herding dogs on the rez were medium size hound dogs. Ely would have been one faithful hard-working dog, thought Johnny.
Unbeknownst to him, she was working. She was working on Johnny. Making him move more because he loved to let her go off leash in the country and watch her playful running around. Making him laugh like a fool at her antics. Teaching him to love again because Johnny was getting bitter about life and music, politics and people in general. I think the feeling of love is essential and it doesn’t have to be love of God or love of mankind or love of a human even. For some of us as we get older, especially those of us without enough money to keep our old cars going and buy good food, the world is a loveless place. We have one entire political party dedicated to the principle that people, even children (once they are born), don’t deserve health care unless their mommies and daddies make enough money to buy it. A political party that would deny food stamps to the poor even though food stamps are necessary for the health of the families of our soldiers – soldiers and military being now objects of worship – “heros” and “support our troops” – but we don’t support them with a living wage or meet their needs when they return damaged by wars fought for corporate greed.
Then we have another political party too indebted to the real power-base of America to heed to voices of the majority of Americans. Too busy justifying the need for more spies, more private prisons, more bombs, more corporate welfare so our jobs can be outsourced overseas. A corporate media that guides us towards empire; the empire breaking the backs of the poor and middle class who pay for it.
No, it’s pretty true, as Dylan sang, “Everything is broken.” But not real love. That’s not broken. Not the love of a good dog or a good man or a good woman. Johnny loved Ely and Ely gave Johnny six more years of life than he had been destined for. Just that moving and loving and thinking of the needs of another being gave him six more years.
But one day, Johnny just kind of sank to the ground inside his isolated cabin. He was awake and aware, but he couldn’t move much; certainly he couldn’t get up. And there was no one around to help him up. But Ely was there. And as Johnny faded away his last sensations of life on earth were simple yet as full of love and as powerful as God could offer: he heard little whimpering sounds right in his ear and felt his face being licked by the softest tongue in the world.
The post right below this one contains the lyrics of “Good Dog a’Mighty” with chords and links. Thanks for reading this to the end. You must love dogs, too.