A Cowboy Looks Back On Life
"I would travel all my life if loneliness was not the price – but headin' north across that line is the only time I'm flyin'" – Gordon Lightfoot.
Good old "Gord" was writing about the US/Canada border – but, for me, that line means every time I cross the equator, travelling north to my beautiful Thailand. Crossing the equator travelling south is the absolute pits – a real downer.
One would not normally associate the word "Cowboy" with Thailand – but why not? Quite a large part of The Kingdom is engaged in livestock management, with not many property owners who do not have at least a few buffalo running on the property. An elder friend of mine (Dave), back in 2002, ran a feedlot up in Maha Sarakham – with his Thai girlfriend having title to the property – and Dave sure was a Cowboy in so many ways. Just a likeable old rogue. Yet, one does not need to be a practising "cowboy" to wear the title – it really comes down to an attitude thing – and, in my experience, that attitude seems to prevail in quite a large proportion of men in Thai society who have never been near a cow, a bull or a buffalo. I wonder if we could include elephant mahouts as "cowboys" but I suppose that is stretching it a bit – elephants are bloody big "cows".
I have never ridden a horse and I have never roped a steer or ridden the rodeo – but my life has been all that which embodies the spirit of what is a “Cowboy” – a drifter, a rebel, a gambler who was never afraid to take a risk, along with all the other characteristics that tend to make a man stand aside from what is considered by most to be conventional behaviour. Most of my life was spent playing and singing Cowboy songs in country rock bands. Perhaps it cost me a marriage or three yet, in retrospect, there is not much that I would wish to change because this life has given me so much in the way of treasures that I could never have hoped to find had I been any different. Of course there were also the downsides. Memories seem to be specific random events that have mostly been coloured by the most valuable treasure of all – love.
A friend of mine plays an Emmons electric pedal-steel guitar and spends a lot of his time in Nashville, Tennessee – and hob-nobbing with all the other "session" musos. We have been mates for 40 years now – but he made me laugh when he told me he is friends with a Thai pedal-steel player in Nashville. I had no idea that a Thai would be playing pedal-steel because it doesn't fit the image that Thai music conjures up – but it's true. Most Farangs only ever hear the same old Farang music and traditional Thai music in The Land Of Smiles. I have heard him on some of the backing tracks for a number of Thai recording artists in the Grammy and RS "stables". Another pedal-steel player (David Donald) resides permanently on Koh Samui and is highly respected in the Nashville music scene.
After half a lifetime of playing Country, Bluegrass, Cabaret and anything else that was on the boil, I found a new love – Mainstream Thai Pop. It now consumes my attention and I have discovered a virtual gold mine of originality and talent in Thai songwriters and performers. I keep saying this but I don't think I have found anyone able to write songs with as much feeling as a Thai can write. The honesty stands out and the choices of melody, words and phrasing are immaculate in almost every case. I am certain this has something to do with "face" – because things that a Thai would not normally let show in normal, everyday life are allowed to be expressed in song. It is their only outlet to express emotion and still maintain "face". The mask of inscrutability is allowed to be taken off for a little while.
But back to Cowboys:
Ed Bruce wrote a song called “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” and in it are the principal elements that go to make up the persona of “Cowboy”.
Cowboys ain’t easy to love and they’re harder to hold,
They’d rather give you a song than silver or gold;
Lone-Star belt buckles and old faded Levis and each night begins a new day,
If you don’t understand him and he don’t die young, he’ll probably just ride away.
Cowboys like smokey old pool-rooms and clear mountain mornings,
Little warm puppies and children and girls of the night;
Them that don’t know him won’t like him and them that do sometimes won’t know how to take him,
He ain’t wrong, he’s just different but his pride won’t let him be changed to make you think he’s right.
Those are a few lines that surely must say what it is that goes to make a “Cowboy” that which he is. For me it has been all of the above – and some more.
When you look at The Thai National Anthem, you can see the same theme running through there – proud defiance and a willingness to fight for that in which they believe. Often that nature is hidden in what appears, to the casual observer, to be insouciance. Do not make the mistake of believing that they are indifferent.
Thailand embraces in its bosom all people of Thai blood.
Every inch of Thailand belongs to the Thais.
It has long maintained its sovereignty,
Because the Thais have always been united.
The Thai people are peace-loving,
But they are no cowards at war.
They shall allow no one to rob them of their independence,
Nor shall they suffer tyranny.
All Thais are ready to give up every drop of blood
For the nation's safety, freedom and progress.
May they forever believe in those ideals and stand proud.
So, let's ask this: Does being a "monger" qualify one for the title of Cowboy? I believe it does because most mongers surely do like "smokey old pool-rooms and clear mountain mornings" – and they sure do like "girls of the night" (or even girls of the day – for that matter). And, of course, you have to like Jack Daniels – that goes without saying.
Cowboys are always trying to find something – and half of the time they don't even know what it is they are looking for. I can vouch for that. Half of my life was spent in this mode – moving here and moving there – while your only real companion is that old Martin guitar or the Fender Jazz Bass. You're never home – always on the move – then, when you get where it is that you think you want to be, you find it wasn't what you wanted in the first place. You never get to know your kids and the wife seems more distant each time you see her. Eventually, you take stock and a long hard look at what is happening – and what you are doing to those who love you – then you realise is it any wonder that the wheels fell off the wagon? You are always vulnerable because the temptations attached to playing music professionally in a band are ever-present – the booze and the women are so available. But although some of my friends were into "other substances", that was never my scene. The women were my weakness. I was a monger in the making, without a doubt, being groomed for Thailand although I didn't know it back then.
That period reminds me so very much of the song "My Elusive Dreams":
You followed me to Texas, you followed me to Utah,
We didn't find it there so we moved on.
Then you went with me to A-la-bam',
Things looked good in Birmingham,
We didn't find it there so we moved on.
I know you're tired of fol-low-ing
My elusive dreams and schemes
For they're only fleeting things,
My elusive dreams.
I guess I never deserved the good fortune I found in life – all I have ever been is a "hack road muso" with no fame or fortune. In my "old faded Levis" and Cowboy belt buckles, just a minstrel of the dawn, searching for something I didn't even know I was looking for. But then I found Thailand – and Dear God, why oh why didn't you point me there all those years ago?
It wasn't until I went to Thailand that I discovered what peace really was – by throwing off the Cowboy persona and adopting practices and a lifestyle that was far more comforting to the soul than any other part of life I had experienced. Nothing ever comes close to that back in Farangland.
All I really want to say is this, to all the mongers who whine and complain about how bad life is in the Thai bar scene – "try living the life of a Cowboy". I can guarantee you will be so glad to get back to what you have in Sukhumvit, Patpong, Pattaya, Phuket or anywhere else where there are lovely little Angels ready to take you as you are.
So, attitudes change and prices rise – that is life. Be grateful for what you have.