A long time coming for Joe Ely
Joe Ely is making a rare appearance in L.A. He will be performing with slide guitarist Jeff Plankenhorn at the Mint, and highlighting songs from ‘Satisfied at Last.’
That’s certainly not the case, Ely said last week from his home in Lubbock as he geared up for a trip that will bring him back to the Southland for one of his rare concert stops on Thursday at the Mint in Los Angeles. But were it true, it wouldn’t be unprecedented: That’s just the way he came to the City of Angels the first time, some 45 years ago.
“I was playing the old Cellar Club in Houston,” Ely, 64, said, launching a scenario that sounds like one of the richly detailed shaggy dog tales that’s been a key part of his musical repertoire since he emerged from Lubbock in the 1970s with a string of critically lauded solo albums.
“I had some differences with the management one night,” he said in the languid West Texas drawl that contributes to his reputation as a canny storyteller. “I’d met some friends at the old Market Square in Houston — they were black guys — and I invited them to the club as my guests. When we got there, the bouncers pointed to a sign they kept way high over the door that read ‘$99 cover charge.’ It was there to keep blacks out of the club. That was in 1966.
“It really made me mad, so I quit the club,” Ely said. “When I came back the next day to get my stuff and my paycheck, the manager pulled a gun on me. I’d never had that experience before. Right at that moment, somebody else came in the side door, so I dove and hit the front door running.
“I found a friend of mine who had enough money for two plane tickets to L.A. The only piece of equipment I had left was a [Fender] Super Reverb amplifier that I’d left back at my hotel room,” he said of the workhorse guitar amp that weighs close to 65 pounds.
“I grabbed the amp and we took the bus to Fort Worth, hopped a plane to L.A. My friend only knew one person in L.A., and that was in Venice. We walked there from the L.A. airport, with me carrying the Super Reverb the whole way. To this day, one of my arms is longer than the other one because of that.”
Ely hasn’t turned that incident into a song — yet — but he did say it inspired the title of a book he’s been working on for several years and which he expects to publish next year. It will follow his 2007 book “Bonfire of Roadmaps,” in which he weaved together journal entries, song lyrics and other documents of his life on the road.
“It’s called ‘Super Reverb,’ and it’s sort of an autobiography,” he said. “I didn’t make it strictly about me.”
That’s also true of his considerable body of songs that have charted the path of a lifelong maverick and restless spirit born of the grand expanses of West Texas he grew up in, songs that artfully process real-life circumstance through a creative writer’s imagination.
Although his music never clicked with a mass audience — he suffered from the “too rock for country audiences, too country for rock audiences” syndrome — he’s long been a favorite of critics and musicians of various stripes: The Clash once tapped him as an opening act, as did the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Linda Ronstadt. He collaborated with Los Lobos members Cesar Rosas and David Hidalgo, Freddy Fender and Flaco Jimenez and others in the Mexican American all-star band Los Super Seven. The collective yielded Ely his one and only Grammy Award, in 1988, for Mexican American music performance. Ely’s last appearance in L.A. proper was in 2007 for a Walt Disney Concert Hall program, when he shared the stage with John Hiatt, Guy Clark and Lyle Lovett.
Ely’s latest album, which he’ll be highlighting at the Mint in a duo performance with slide guitarist Jeff Plankenhorn, is “Satisfied at Last,” a title that’s thrown many longtime followers for a loop given his seemingly unquenchable thirst for something more.
“That kind of came from back in the early ’80s when I picked up Muddy Waters at the airport,” Ely said. “He was playing in Lubbock; a friend of mine had brought him in. The first thing I said to him when he got in the car was, ‘Man, Muddy, you’re traveling all the time. How is that?’ He said, ‘You know, every day is 22 hours of misery and 2 hours of ecstasy.’ And that’s what it is.
“I’ve found that when things are done — when a show is over or a trip is complete — I am satisfied at last,” he said.
The album’s title song, as it turns out, isn’t any turnaround from the spiritual yearning Ely has long expressed. He sings of being satisfied at last only after he’s breathed his last breath. Several of the album’s other songs also deal with facets of mortality — his own and the three he didn’t write: Billy Joe and Eddy Shaver’s “Live Forever” and two by longtime friend and Flatlanders bandmate Hancock, “Leo and Leona” and the album-closing “Circumstance.”
“On this record there are a lot of little stories,” he said. “Two or three of them came from the B or C sections of the newspaper. One I got from the obituary section in a small town — I think it was in Arkansas — about a guy who loved to shoot skeet with his friends on his back 40. When he died, they found in his will that he wanted to be cremated and have his ashes put in shotgun shells and shot out over his land. It was so funny because it was a complete story of somebody who had enjoyed their life and also planned their going away.”
And somebody who found satisfaction at last — if only at gunpoint.
-- Randy Lewis
Image: Cover photo from Joe Ely's newest album, "Satisfied At Last." Courtesy of Redeye Distrbution.