WASTELAND BAIT & TACKLE / James McMurtry

 

 

WHITE MEN AND THEIR TOYS

I don’t think the super rich are evil, but I fear they are out of touch–and that’s dangerous.

 

Car
traffic on the interstate highways has thinned out a bit in recent months, but
the number of privately owned Prevost tour buses seems to have remained
constant. The Prevost, squared off and boring looking, long ago replaced the
more flamboyant looking Silver Eagle as the preeminent mode of band
transportation, but most of the Prevosts I see on the highway don’t appear to
be hauling bands. Bands don’t tow cars behind their buses, and most of the
buses I see have some sort of SUV in tow. No, these buses, burning $4.50 a
gallon diesel by the tanker load, are hauling rich people, and there are a
whole bunch of them. One of these guys is a fan of ours who likes to drive his
bus up from Lake of the Ozarks Missouri to Kansas City whenever we play at
Knuckleheads. Our stock rises when he shows up because he parks his bus in
front of the club and everybody thinks it’s ours. Once, he came up towing his
BMW. Somewhere in the blackness south of Jeff City, the driver noticed an orange
glow in the side mirror and pulled over to find that the BMW was on fire. The
owner simply unhitched the Beamer and they left it burning by the road.

 

It’s
amusing to hear about such extravagance in isolated incidents, but when I see
all those buses pulling all those cars, burning all that expensive diesel
merely for the amusement of the owners, I can start to go full-on Commie. Why
do they get such big toys, and at what cost to the rest of us?

 

Meanwhile,
back in Austin, the downtown skyline changes daily. We return from a six-week
run to find that yet another high-rise condo, units all sold before
construction commenced, has been completed. Where is all this money coming
from? The economy is bad right? The condos are messing with the music scene.
Condo buyers don’t want to live near music venues, even here in the city that
bills itself as “Live Music Capitol of the World,” so the developers are
pressuring the city to lower the noise ordinance to 70 decibels at property
line, way quieter than your lawyer neighbor’s new Harley, and crippling for a
music venue across the street from a construction site. Some clubs manage to
get grandfathered in. Some don’t. Those that do can expect the rules to change.

 

I was at
a party in one of those new condo units once. The place turned out to be a sort
of urban retreat for a couple who mostly lived on a high fenced ranch out in
the hill country. The condo was one more toy. When you get that rich, is
anything essential? I asked the fellow what he did for work. He said he was a
cedar chopper. File under “Oh, please.” Cedar choppers were flinty, wiry
fellows with gnarled up hands from gripping axes who, in the time of my
grandfather, supplied ranchers with cedar fence posts. They rarely chopped
cedar off their own land, as they generally had none. Now, in the era of mass
produced metal fence posts, cedar chopping is an endeavor reserved for
presidents on a photo op and rich guys whose wives want them out of the house
for a while. I never did find out where his money came from.

 

The guy
who left his Beamer burning by the road owns a club on Lake of the Ozarks. We
played there once. I would never have guessed that there were so many 50-foot
yachts in the middle of Missouri. The Mississippi Gulf Coast was once referred
to as the Redneck Riviera, but I think that title now should go to Lake of the
Ozarks, a vast manmade impoundment on the Missouri and Osage Rivers, which I’m
told, has more navigable coastline than California, due to all the feeder
creeks and secondary rivers that it backs up. But the yachts, My God they’re
everywhere. Most are wrapped in white plastic, perched on trailers in the lots
in front of the dealerships that line the roads around the lake. Many more are
lined up in slips down in the marinas, and quite a few are floating around in
the coves, their owners and their friends lounging on the decks, drinks in
hand, eyeing one another across the brown water. I asked why no one seemed to
be fishing and was told that the fishing wasn’t much good around there.

 

So the main
sport seemed to be one-upmanship. The talk was all about who had the biggest
boat. Someone pointed across the cove to an amphitheatre where some big touring
act had recently played. The amphitheatre faced the lake, and there were slips
where, for a fee, one could pull one’s 50-foot yacht in and watch the show from
one’s very own deck chair. Virtually no one came to our show, but the club
owner paid us well and provided the right wine back stage, a rare occurrence.
He said he was sorry we hadn’t gotten there in time to go out on his boat. This
guy looked like he could have actually been a cedar chopper. By his wiry build
and hillbilly twang, I guessed he had been raised in poverty, busted his way
out of it in a big way, and was now proceeding to have himself a time.

 

I don’t
think the super rich are inherently evil, but I fear they are out of touch, and
there is a danger in their being out of touch. Everyday, I see the physical
evidence of extreme wealth sliding into the hands of a few. My fear is that those
condo owners and Prevost drivers, despite the fact that they make up a very
small percentage of the population, will be calling the shots for all of
us—elites always do somehow, even in more or less democratic countries. How do
you convince people who can afford to leave their burning cars beside the
highway to care whether or not the rest of us can afford health care? Can they
be made to understand that the price of the diesel they pump into those buses
on their way to Disneyland affects the price of food, catastrophically for
some. It’s a hard sell, especially here in the States, where we still have
enough room to isolate ourselves from people we believe to be different from
ourselves. It’s easy to pretend that other people’s problems won’t effect us, as
long as they’re out of pistol range or over a wall.

 

 

Singer-songwriter James
McMurtry
lives in Austin, Texas. When he’s not touring, you can see him at
the Continental Club every Wednesday, ‘round about midnight. His latest album,
Just
Us Kids, is out now on Lightning Rod
Records.

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