Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Rank and File: "Coyote" (1982)

The overture hits you in Cinemascope and Technicolor: a big echoey dry wash of harmonica. This subsides into a freight-train rhythm, taut bass and drums against a Monument-Valley sky. Rawhide guitar. Then the vocals, big harmonies, the Byrds meet the High Lonesome Sound. That's the refrain: the verse is the opposite, a tough-as-rusty-wire deep hiccupy drawl, like Johnny Cash and Buddy Holly's ashes blown together in a desert dust storm.

Rank and File were the best country band of the '80s, which was no mean achievement considering their nucleus was a couple of LA punks, brothers Tony and Chip Kinman, augmented by a Mexican-American guitarist (Alejandro Escovedo, who's gone on to slightly bigger things). They more or less invented cowpunk (along with the Blasters, sort of, and X, in their Knitters mode). Their debut album, 1982's Sundown, is one of my favorite records ever. Not a note out of place, not a track that's not totally stacked.

And "Coyote" was their epic, their yelp, a widescreen yearning after cowboy myths. It's the song that introduced me to them (I heard it on WHFS, and was instantly hooked).

What I didn't realize instantly, and in fact not for about twenty years, was that it's also one of the most gut-wrenching songs about illegal immigration, the US-Mexico border, you'll ever hear.

The refrain is tactful. "Coyote, why did you take me so far from home? / Coyote, why did you leave me? I'm all alone" (or "why did you leave me out all alone" - I can't quite tell which it is. Evocative Old West imagery, right? Kind of an impressionistic cowboy blues, right?

But then dig the first verse, delivered in that drawl, but fast, hard, matter-of-fact and unforgiving, so gaunt you might miss the words entirely:

"Well they asked the rancher's son what happened to the lad
Oh, I don't know but we di'n't do nothin' bad
And what's all the fuss
They ain't like us.
They don't matter anyway.
Took their hands and we bound them up with wire
And when the sun went down they felt the fire."

That's one point of view, that of the Arizona (maybe) border kid who finds illegals on his property, but not all of them. He knows there's someone missing, but he doesn't care; he takes the one's he's got, ties them up (none too carefully, because who really cares about a buncha Mexicans anyway? Note the utter bone driness of this, the bare suggestion of an observer (the "they," probably border patrolmen), the guilty conscience, the denial, the rage ("they felt the fire"). You have to hear it to get the full impact, though, the way the country yodel in Tony's voice breaks through on "anyway," and all it implies.

Now here's the other point of view, that of the missing lad:

"Yeah the sun pushed him down and the moon pulls him up
He's all alone and he cries like a pup
My mothers, my sisters, no I don't know
And the cold wind blows
I wanna go home but I'm too far north
And the cry comes for hi-yo, hi-yo, coyote"

Brutalized by his very environment (manhandled by sun and moon), he's reduced to an animal, almost a coyote himself - but of course the coyote is the real animal here, and by this point you realize we're not talking about a coyote that runs on all fours, but they kind that drives a van and accepts money to point people across the desert, to lead or abandon them as the mood strikes, to contribute (like the rancher's son) to the fact that in FY 2009, 213 people died trying to cross the border south of Tucson. Which is where I was driving away from this past Sunday morning, Rank and File's first album blasting in the rental car's speakers, and when this song came on I had to choke back tears, since I'd just read that little statistic in the Star that very morning.


Sundown, along with their second album, Long Gone Dead, and a handful of bonus tracks, was released on CD in 2003 on Rhino's collector's label, Rhino Handmade. It was a limited edition: I have number 2159 of 2500. I like to think I had a little to do with getting this released: a couple of years before that I emailed Dr. Rhino a suggestion that they release Rank and File: and then they did. I was very pleased.

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