Saturday, January 25, 2014

Willis Earl Beal - A Place That Doesn’t Exist

I first met Willis Earl Beal at the Wendy’s on Central and University in Albuquerque. He was applying for a job at that esteemed establishment and we talked about Dylan as he filled out his application. He gave me CD-R’s of some of his songs and a packet of stories and drawings. I don’t know quite what I expected, but before I’d even heard all of one song I knew this was music that deserved attention. As for Willis, he got the gig at Wendy’s.

But it wasn’t long into his burger-flipping career that Willis had to leave Wendy’s. He’d eaten one of his own creations, among other infractions. Soon after that, he would have to leave Albuquerque entirely. But none of that matters now.

In 2011, Willis caught the attention of Hot Charity Records, an imprint of the celebrated XL Recordings. His first release, Acousmatic Sorcery, was comprised of songs I’d heard on those CD-R’s. In fact, they were the same recordings that he’d made in his small apartment near downtown Albuquerque. The record attracted a lot of attention. Willis found it all a little embarrassing. Last fall he released a proper studio recording, Nobody Knows. He’s proud of the record and when I told him I could still hear Albuquerque in his songs, he quickly agreed. It turns out that most of those tracks were written while he was still living here.

Now there’s another set of songs, A Place That Doesn’t Exist. This recording was handed out by Willis as he roamed the streets of Park City, Utah last week for the Sundance Film Festival, just like he used to do in Albuquerque, when anyone at a bus stop or laundromat might get a CD-R. He was promoting a film called Memphis and, from what I hear, the role allowed him to…draw pretty strongly on his own recent experiences, shall we say? Only 100 copies were made and, as of this writing, it’s unclear what kind of wider release it might see, if any. So, Willis asked if I’d make this music available right away and, of course, I said I’d be happy to oblige.

In fall 2010, I posted some of Willis’s songs on City of Dust when they weren’t available elsewhere. So, despite all the gigs, road miles, and publicity, maybe not much has really changed. And the songs still sound like Albuquerque to me (and it’s not just because he mentions tumbleweeds). In fact, Bright Copper Noon goes back to the original CD-R’s.

The accompanying photos were all taken along Central Ave. Before Wendy’s, Willis worked security at the La Quinta on San Mateo Blvd. Riding his bike back and forth across town, he would’ve passed these long-gone hotels and sun-blasted parking lots every day. Central through Albuquerque is old Route 66, once the Mother Road that would lead people from their small towns and dreary lives to the golden glow of California. But Route 66 is now chopped-up and cut-off where it’s not totally gone. Like the dream of easy prosperity and happiness that once beckoned in the West, it’s a place that no longer exists.

I’ve yet to see Willis perform on stage. But when we talk he sounds just like the same dude I met in Wendy’s. He’s still working hard on his songs, he still wants people to hear them, and he still wonders if they deserve attention. He’s still got his sense of humor, too. I was only a few seconds into Times of Gold, the first track on this record, when I once again felt that this was music that did indeed deserve attention. So, yeah, not much has changed.

Right-click the link below and "save as" to take a trip to “A Place That Doesn’t Exist.”

A Place That Doesn’t Exist

My understanding is that Willis recorded the basic tracks at home and then sent them off to Matt Dewine for production assistance. Enjoy.

Next post we’ll go to another place that doesn’t exist. I’ve got a piece on the ghost town of Steins, New Mexico, down near the Mexican border, all ready to go.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Spindrift Visits the Ghost Towns of Eastern NM

In fall 2012, western rock band SPINDRIFT played ghost towns of the Wild West, the best tour idea I'd ever heard. I was honored to have my photo of the First Presbyterian Church of Taiban grace the cover of their subsequent album, Spindrift - Ghost of the West. After their ABQ show last fall, the band felt the call of that little church on the windswept plains. So we headed east on a pilgrimage, visiting other ghostly places on US 60. This is the record. Click photos to enlarge.

Vaughn, NM was a crossroads town, where two major railroads met. There should have been a Spindrift gig at Spurs Saloon that night.

Billy the Kid was killed not far from Yeso, NM. The Hotel Mesa was probably the first stop for folks getting off the train. Not anymore.

In its last days the Hotel Mesa became a musem (sic) that had it all.

The First Presbyterian Church of Taiban was finished in December 1908. It cost $250 to construct and even that needed to be borrowed.

Reportedly the first sermon was poorly attended due to bad weather.

The last sermon was in 1936. Taiban's Pink Pony Saloon lasted a few years longer. The sun sets as we wait for the ghosts of the West.

Spindrift leave their record at the altar. The little church attracts such things. Many pilgrims have written their prayers on the walls.

The documentary of Spindrift's 2012 Ghost Town Tour will be finished in March. This is not to be missed by ghost town aficionados and those that enjoy Hawkwind, Marty Robbins, and all that lies between.

The band screens a short of the film this Friday (1/17/14) at Slamdance Film Fest in Park City, Utah and plays live. Then they're off to explore the ghost towns of northern Nevada. More festival and local screenings will follow later in 2014, so keep your eyes open.

Wanna hear Spindrift? Here's a link to The Matador and the Fuzz.

As a rule, I don't photograph people. So, I thank Spindrift for looking good, being patient, and getting me back out to a part of NM I love.

James Acton – Drums, Autoharp
Henry Evans – Bass, Baritone Guitar
Kirpatrick Thomas – Guitar, Vocals
Michelle Vidal – Vocals, Mellosonic, Keys, Percussion

On the fall tour Rob Turner played bass and got his picture taken.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Let Me Die at Home: Melvin Mills Mansion, Springer, New Mexico

Let’s start 2014 way out on the cold, windswept plains of northeastern New Mexico. There we’ll find Melvin Whitson Mills former home, a three-story adobe territorial mansion with 20 rooms, carved walnut features, and a massive cistern out back.

Melvin Mills (or, “Colonel,” as he was known to friends) was born in 1845 in Ontario, Canada, his Quaker parents moving to Michigan shortly thereafter. He graduated from Ann Arbor Law School in 1869 and then came out to Elizabethtown, NM, where a gold rush was in full swing. But Elizabethtown eventually began to founder and Mills played a key role in getting the Colfax County Seat moved to a new town he was helping establish, this one named after Territorial attorney Frank Springer.

In 1877, Mills, both a District Attorney and New Mexico Territorial Legislator, platted Springer with William Thornton and took up residence, building the magnificent mansion that still stands. It’s considered the most unique architecture on the old Santa Fe Trail; the Cimarron Route could be seen from the south balcony while the Mountain Route was visible from the west. Travelers on the dangerous trek would frequently stop at Mills’ home and try to recover. This photo shows the mansion’s staircase, the tallest in New Mexico, bathed in devilish light from the 100+-year-old “ruby” window set in the transom over the front door, visible in the photo above.

Mills had already been a member of the infamous Santa Fe Ring and thus a major player in the vicious Colfax County War. He made many enemies in northern NM in the 1870’s as he worked to evict settlers, some of whom had lived on “their” land for decades. This was at the behest of the English and later Dutch companies that purchased the 1,714,765-acre (?!) and by then wildly-contested Maxwell Land Grant. Practicing this type of law in the Wild West wasn’t an easy business and the Colonel was occasionally associated with violence. He was implicated in the murder of Methodist preacher and Ring opponent Franklin J. Tolby and, while the charge was quickly retracted, Mills accuser, Manuel Cardenas, was himself shot on his way from court by an unknown assailant. Mills stated that he’d been in Colorado on business when Cardenas was killed and was taken into protective custody with another Ring member. A third Ring affiliate had earlier lit out for Santa Fe with the hot-headed Clay Allison’s posse at his heels. Reportedly in the interest of fairness, Mills trial was moved to Taos where a grand jury dropped all charges.

Dark political intrigue and bloodshed aside, Mills had a way with fruits and nuts and his Orchard Ranch, sprawled within a lush canyon of the Canadian River, became renowned, at one point containing 14,000 trees. In addition, he raised cattle and grew vegetables. A stage line stopped at the front door of his Mills Canyon Hotel. Mills’ beef and produce was shipped all over the U.S. and it’s no coincidence that Springer was already a bustling railroad town on the Santa Fe’s line. Pictured above and below is the shell of the Springer House, once the place where everyone went to raise a glass as soon as they stepped off the train. Now even the tracks themselves are gone.

In 1904, heavy rains came and the swollen Canadian washed away Mills’ agricultural empire entirely, leaving him a ruined man. He abandoned the area, but is supposed to have returned at the end of his life to ask his former Santa Fe Ring partner, Thomas B. Catron, if he might be allowed to die on a cot in the beautiful house that Catron is said to have now owned. However, Catron had died over four year earlier, in the spring of 1921, raising questions as to how Catron gave his consent. In fact, there's no evidence Catron ever actually did own the mansion, although he bought some of the original Maxwell Land Grant from Mills. More likely is that the president of the bank in Springer, who did own the home and was a friend, granted the request. But I wonder if even this is true; the August 21, 1925 edition of the The Springer Times makes no mention of any of it when announcing Mill’s death, only saying he “passed away at his home in Springer.” What is surely true is that Mills died on August 19, 1925, age 79. The next day he’d been scheduled to give a talk at the New Mexico Historical Society. While virtually nothing remains of his once vast-holdings, a small community to the southeast still bears his name.

Might Melvin Whitson Mills still reside in his mansion? There are many sources that say he does. But when I asked the current owner, all I received was a smile and the cryptic reply: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The Cactus CafĂ© (below) in downtown Springer looked about the same last fall as it did in 2005 when I first encountered it. Some things in the desert don’t change (fast).

Information for this post came from all over the place and the conflicting “facts” of Mills’ involvement in the Colfax County War are voluminous. I tried my best. Mills’ Wikipedia entry is bizarre and disjointed, but does seem to contain a few true facts. The New Mexico Historical Review, Volume 1, contains some of the best background on the man. Frank Springer and New Mexico: From the Colfax County War to the Emergence of Modern Santa Fe and Translating Property: The Maxwell Land Grant and the Conflict Over Land in the American West, 1840-1900 seem to do the most thorough work on the shadowy war, which once saw the town of Cimarron essentially blockaded. Arthur and David Pike's "Detour New Mexico" is one of the only published sources to debunk the myth of Catron allowing Mills to die in the mansion. Did you know you can hike in the beautiful and now even more remote canyon where Mills’ great orchard once stood? You can actually hear the mansion here. Finally, this website, by T.T. Hagaman, provides contact information for the mansion itself. I thank him for allowing me inside and permitting me to photograph the lovely staircase.

Next time we’ll travel almost the entire length of the state to have a look at Steins, out near the Arizona border, where a tragic murder in 2011 has cast a pall over the little ghost town.