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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

The Essay
Show #190
Carhorn Hobo
David Gunn

I was born 125 years ago in Plano, Texas. My friend Emma says that makes me the oldest man alive today. My parents were hobos who lived in railroad shantytowns across the south. My own life was itinerant for the first 50 years, when I figure I lived in 265 different places, never long enough to settle in. My pa always wanted to keep movin', movin' on. He said stayin' in one place for too long just made you sedimentary. Once, he and ma rode to the coast and left me alone for eight weeks in the front seat of a 1949 DeSoto roadster. That was in Chicago. It was in July, so I really didn't need a heater, which had been stripped from the car. In fact, the engine and tires and nearly every other salvageable part had been removed. Fortunately, it did still have a battery with enough juice in it to operate the dome light, the clock and the horn. It was the horn that got me through those long, lonely summer nights. By pressing on different parts of the horn rim, I could get different sounds out of it. And by opening the car door so that the dome light would come on and the battery would drain a little unevenly, I could even vary the pitch. By the sixth week, I was playing the most amazing carhorn blues. I was jazzing in the windy city and my only audience was me. But then a hipster friend of my pa stopped by to check up on me. He heard me playin', got all excited, and ran to make a phone call. Next thing I know, a bunch of his pals showed up with their own musical contraptions, none less amazing than my horn. They all arranged themselves around the car, picked up their instruments, and waited. I didn't know what to do. I played the lonesome blues, that's all. I didn't jam with a band. But then I had some flatulence and had to open the car door to get rid of it. Automatically, I pressed down on the horn rim, and before I could stop, I had a pretty good riff going. Pretty soon, some of the other guys joined in. One cat beat out eight to the bar on a set of trollycar brake drums; another blew sky notes on a trumpet made from PVC pipe; still another strummed pentatonic power chords on a crystal punch bowl guitar. It took a while to find out just where we were headed, but eventually we all settled into one groove, and oh, man, it was great. We were one incredible collective unconsciousness making up the rules of harmony as we went along. It was a beatnik bolero and a circus cotillion, impressionistic big band and a new wave symphony, all rolled into one. It might've sounded like cacophony to passers-by, but to us it was pure bop, 128-proof. We played through the night without stop. By daybreak, I'd about had enough, a sentiment echoed by my dimming car dome light. But next evening, the whole crew stopped by again, and someone had even brought along a battery charger. Well, they all just sat there while I charged the battery. But this was back in the days of the slow, trickle charge. It took all night. I didn't mind. I liked the company. One feller passed around smokes. Another cooked up a pot of hobo stew, while two others showed up with wheels for the DeSoto, and they put 'em on. That raised the car just enough off the ground so I could peek into the first floor window of the apartment across the street. They had one of them new television sets, and the people for some reason left it on all night. There was nothin' on then, of course -- no picture, just snow. But when I watched it during that stiflingly hot July night, it helped me cool off some. The next night the battery was fully charged and so was I. Even more hobo hepcats showed up loaded with mouthpieces, and I had the feeling that this jam would be the one to remember. Enjoying the new elevated view of my surroundings, I bounced up and down on the seat a few times. The rocking motion broke the DeSoto free from its longtime moorings, and it began to roll downhill. Guess I forgot to mention that it'd been parked near the top of a big hill on what was probably the steepest street in all of Chicago. So off I went, heading, as far as I could tell, downtown. The hobo band cheered wildly, and broke into a fast two-step. I blew my horn, but more out of alarm than any musical inspiration. The ol' DeSoto showed she still had some get-up-and-go as I careened faster and faster towards a sure-fire, whiz-bang coda. Gradually I got into a new honking groove as I swerved this way and that to avoid oncoming traffic and pedestrians. Even if I had had brakes, I might not've used 'em. I was enjoying the ride and the riff too much. Ahead of me loomed Lake Michigan, black and foreboding in the gathering twilight. According to the speedometer, the car was now going over 60 miles an hour, and the hands on the clock slowed, stopped, and then began to move backwards. As I hurtled into the urban canyon which the downtown skyscrapers created, the echo of the carhorn off of the high walls began to sound more frantic than jazzed. And then, just as I was about to write off any more recapitulations, the car hit a pothole the size of a bull fiddle, bounced hard once, twice, three times. I gritted my teeth, awaiting the final crashing chord ... but it never came. The DeSoto had lifted up into the air! We cleared the 20-foot sea wall by plenty and continued to gain altitude. As I passed over a trawler captain heading out for some night fishing, he waved and beeped his horn. I honked back a riff of my own, and noticed that, depending on what part of the horn rim I pressed, the car veered this way and that. After a minute of experimental be-bop, I found I could control the direction we went. Although I really dug the Chicago music scene and my hobo pals, I decided to head back south for a while, because if you stay in any one place for too long, you tend to get sedimentary. So I sailed down to Baton Rouge, where I discovered cajun polka ... but, that's another story.

Still a third story is the remainder of this 190th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar, whose co-host I suspect is about to wonder aloud what in the flambeaued oriange is the point of all of that, which is yet another story, eh, Kalvos?