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Peter Culley
review of Far Out West
from Poetry Project Newletter 185 (Summer 2001)
The western is an elegaic mode from the gitgo. Frontier expansion left, like a trail of rotting buffalo carcasses, a flood of dime novels in its wake: industrious nickel-a-worders like Far Out WestNed Buntline got weirdly lengthy pistols named after them by nostalgically evoking even then a time more free and lawlessly open, receding like pastoral Arcadia past any traceable origin. Owen Wister's "Virginian" (...smile when you say that...) might have, a bit further on, introduced the soft spoken, tough laconic mode (in contrast to the Boothian speechifyin' of the dime novel crowd) echoed six decades on by a young Clint tearing fistfulls of dialogue from Sergio's scripts. The cowboy movie was a natural and inevitable dead lock. Skilled wranglers arriving on the west coast sans cows or frontier met Astorian entrepaneurs in search of free land and cheap light. The Spahn ranch was open for business, and for decades to come the western is the absolute bottom line Hollywood product. For every airy comedy and lavish musical there were at least 200 westerns, and mostly they weren't the classy John Ford kind but pure Poverty Row sausage, with cardboard sets and stock footage stampedes, leaden exposition enlivened by abrupt denouements and cheating cliffhangers. Early TV, desperate to fill the temporal void between Hugh Downs and Jack Paar, fell ravenously on the bulging, leathery archive. One old series of cinematic time rustlers, Hopaling Cassidy, got so popular with the coonskin demographic that a new series was produced, infecting a whole new generation with its sculpted tedium and dry cracker landscapes.

Cut to: a hotel room in Anycity, USA, an afternoon in January or February 1957. Tenorman Sonny Rollins, bestriding like a colossus the post-bop firmament, mentally prepares himself for an upcoming Los Angeles recording date, where he will be paired with west coast mainstay Shelly Manne and East Coast expatriate Ray Brown. Now the east coast/west coast jazz rivalry of the fifties--whipped up by Downbeat hacks and desperate publicists (and sadly perpetuated by Ken Burns' vile Jazz) which spuriously pitted the supposed effete workshop experimentalism of the west coast against the imagined manly school of hard bop of the east--can have had little meaning for as astute a musician as Rollins, who would have greatly anticipated working with a rhythm section of this caliber on any coast. But let us suppose that in this hotel room a TV has been left on, and in time for the kids getting home from school a Hopalong movie is playing, leading Sonny to goof on matters west and western, perhaps recalling the Herb Jefferies Bronze Buckaroo flicks of his own boyhood. The next album writes itself! I can play anything! Thus is recorded in March the classic "Way out West" containing not only cowboy faves such as "I'm and Old Cowhand (from the Rio Grande)", but wrapped in one of the all time great album covers, Rollins in full dude ranch regalia, saxophone in holster, puncturing for all time the journalistic meringue of the bicoastal feud. Cut to: the California compound of prosodist emeritus Clark Coolidge, the present day.

Newly settled on the west coast, the poet's satellite (saddle light?) lands on an on old western, faintly recalled from his youth, the very same Hopalong Cassidy. Inspired by the monochromatic vistas and molasses in January absurdity of diction he "without hardly aiming to" enacts 39 improvisations. "Far Out West" is Coolidge in high Sonny Rollins mode, that is effortlessly masterful and peerlessly funny, running insouciantly through the registers of cowpoke speak, both sending it up and revelling in its unexpected richness. It's all here and they're all here: the campfire intimacy, the sexy mountains, the dry gulches, Royal Dano and Robert DeNiro, Sterling Hayden and the Molybdenum Kid. Vintage Coolidge, aaayup, smile when you say that.

 


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