I should read more books. Every once in awhile I’ll pick up a novel and it will blow me away. Even if I’ve read it before, if it’s special enough I’ll spend weeks thinking about it. Sometimes it’s good for me, I’ll read Three Men in a Boat and remember that people have been laughing about how stupid we can all be for over 100 years; it’s a good thing to find humor in the day to day nonsense. Other times I’ll start becoming obsessed with how closely my thoughts on people align with Holden Caulfield, and trust me, I don’t need any more encouragement on thinking that society is made up of only jerks and phonies.
Somewhere between 1985 and 2009, Ben Nichols, frontman for the band Lucero, read a book, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Apparently it kept him thinking about it for awhile. Hell, he was inspired enough to write a concept album about it. The Last Pale Light in the West is Nichols taking stories directly from McCarthy’s masterpiece (so I’ve been told, I haven’t read it yet…again I really should read more books) and turning them into his own acoustic outlaw tales. The album is simple, but beautiful, featuring only Nichols gruffly melodic voice, his acoustic guitar, and dashes of pedal steel, piano, and accordion. While the story isn’t his own, the lyrics do the music justice, evoking the old west imagery required from a story set in the mid 19th century American southwest. After pounding whiskey at the saloon left them feeling alone and depressed, cowboys would tie up their horses and play this album as they tried to sleep, staring up at those infinite stars.
Also…it was played to millions of adults aged 18-49 who watched AMC one Sunday night in the comfort of their living room just few months ago. Yeah, The Walking Dead used the title track from The Last Pale Light in the West to set up a montage for their laughable villain The Governor. No horses or stars were required. In a way it fits, the post apocalyptic settings that we find today in film and television are the closest we will get to repeating the past experiences of the old west. Only when society is torn down by war, disease, or zombies will we see the elements come out so blatantly like they did before in Blood Meridian and countless other sources of fiction and non-fiction from that time period. Incredible violence, de-humanization (in this case Native Americans), gangs of outlaws, and the general feelings of isolation and despair.
Yep, it’s bleak. But is there optimism to be found? Ben Nichols words in “Tobin” give you a hint. And I’ve seen hoof prints cloven in the stone/ Now tell me what kind of devil trod there long ago, with a sack of sinners souls/ There must be a place where this world and grace are made to meet/He says that life’s a game, lets play for larger stakes. We’ll wait and see.