By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Gordon lit out for greener pastures last year, when he returned to the land outside of Talpa, Texas, that had been in his family for generations. The death of his father last April left his mom, stricken with Parkinson's disease, and his grandmother, who was 97, alone and without support. There wasn't much choice but to go home.
"Wouldn't you leave Dallas, Texas?" Gordon said last week from his new home about four hours west of the metroplex. "I always planned to live out here or northern Montana, but I guess here is where I'm going to be for now."
The Road Goes on Forever Records, a British label, has recently rereleased Gordon's Smaller Circles, originally recorded in 1990 in a bathroom with Max Johnston (later of Wilco) assisting.
"It was terrible," Gordon says with a laugh. "I really didn't like how it sounded." He shipped the master tapes off to Wes McGhee, the owner of The Road Goes On Forever. McGhee stripped most of the music from the songs and re-recorded new accompanying tracks. The result is a spare but deeply textured work, full of acoustic guitar, tribal drums, and echo-y electric guitar and steel that slide along beneath Gordon's sung-spoken poetry like the blacktop between an old car's wheels.
Gordon's lyrics combine elements of beat poetry and old-fashioned West Texas coffee shop bull sessions. The title track is a meditation on the beauty of a hard-living woman who is "running her horse in smaller circles." Gordon obviously loves the woman for the sheer life force she contains, while at the same time admitting "You said you go through a lot of guys/I can't say that I was too surprised/Babe, I got eyes."
"Andrew Gray and the Ghost" is a ghost story in which the protagonist runs out of gas in a haunted canyon and ends up sharing cigarettes with his ancestral spirits. It's no novelty number or shaggy-dog story, but a clever and spooky dissection of roots and what they mean. In "Murder," Gordon travels back in time in order to kill his Scottish ancestor as he steps off the boat on the shore of the new world. "Willie" is an elegy dedicated to a waitress from Gordon's past, intercut with Nashville-based Tony Lane's song "The Light at the End of the Line." Gordon recalls his youthful disgust at the "painted clown" that the woman had become, but by the time Willie dies, he's a wiser man, one who, by then, recognizes all the questions that cluster around the extreme isolation one can feel, even in a roomful of people. The way the song moves from Gordon's youthful derision to a more mature appreciation of Willie's life is masterful.
"I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night" isn't the old labor hymn once so popular with the hootenanny set, but an examination of rage, violence, power, and the price of those things. The song starts off with Gordon at the State Fair, drinking vodka in the sun, when a military marching band comes along "playing Old-Glory-World-War-II-patriotism." The most accessible song is "Indians," a bouncy examination of the contrasts between Native American culture and our own, that chugs along infectiously (see clip 'n' save box).
Gordon comes by his beatnik signifiers legitimately. Born in Ballinger, Texas, he journeyed to Austin as a young man "to be a communist, even though I didn't really know what a communist was. There was this store-owner in Ballinger who told me that Austin was full of communists, and it sounded pretty good to me." He spent "way too many years" in Austin before journeying to Montana to connect with his Indian roots (Gordon is part Choctaw). "I wanted to play Indian," he says. The late '60s found him in San Diego, where he hung out with the likes of Jim Morrison, whom Gordon remembers as a "crazy drunk. We were out one night and--do you know the poet Robert Creely?--Morrison tried to beat him up, probably because Creely was a better poet."
Circular is a good way to describe the experience of conversing with Gordon, who--unlike his album title would suggest--talks in ever-expanding circles. Soon his story about his life in San Diego had caromed off along a dozen tangents, among them, a description of how his wife came to pierce the ears of Chuck Berry's girlfriend and daughter, and how he once picked up Rip Torn at the airport only to find the actor in a panic because he'd lost a tackle box full of marijuana on the plane.
In the mid-'70s, Gordon ran with the cosmic cowboy crowd, hanging out with Waylon and Willie, David Allan Coe, Doug Sahm, and just about every other luminary from that period. In between adventures, he published books and magazines, wrote and performed music, and explored multimedia art. He came to Dallas in 1976 to work for Coe and wound up staying. Although he maintained a profile in the local arts scene, the '90s found him less active. "It's like Waylon says," Gordon explains on the phone from Talpa as Kris Kristofferson rasps and booms in the background, "'I've got a right to disappear.'"