After a vibrant life, Joe Bageant died yesterday following a four-month struggle with cancer. He was 64. Joe is survived by his wife, Barbara, his three children, Timothy, Patrick and Elizabeth, and thousands of friends and admirers. He is also survived by his work and ideas.”
Joe Bageant was an extraordinarily gifted writer and thinker. Author of Deer Hunting With Jesus and countless essays and editorials on politics and society, Joe was a champion of human rights and a fearless critic of America’s treatment of its working class. His writing was imbued with compassion but also with a caustic wit that laid bare the working class’s tendency to do what is in their worst interests. His death comes at a time when his voice was needed more than ever.
This is not an obituary. I’m not trying to give the reader an overview of Joe’s life in a few paragraphs. I am sharing a few of my memories of Joe as a friend and writer.
The last time I saw Joe Bageant was in February of 2009. He helped save my life. I was in the middle of an agonizing divorce, a divorce I didn’t want. I was struggling with the most profound despair of my life, barely hanging on, trying to keep my business, my home and my marriage together. I could see the marriage part was doomed but I held on, pretending to the people who worked for me and my customers that everything was okay. It was a pathetic charade and one that was exhausting to maintain. Between bouts of drinking and staring at walls, I somehow managed to create a theater of normalcy…until I couldn’t anymore. While all my friends were telling me to do the responsible thing, to stick it out for the sake of my business and the home I owned with my wife, it was an unending nightmare trying to maintain a sense of order while suffering through an emotional apocalypse. Money, the house, the business didn’t mean jackshit to me in the face of someone I deeply loved leaving me and leaving ugly after 18 years of being together. I knew I’d die by drink or my own hand if the pain continued.
It was in the darkest night of my dark night of the soul that I received a phone call from an old friend that I hadn’t heard from in at least a decade. It was Joe Bageant. He had no idea what I’d been going through, but I am convinced that somewhere deep down Joe had heard my sobs and felt my desperation. I told him of my situation and he gave me the only advice that ultimately had any real impact on what I was going through. Joe said “Marc, it’s alright to run from your problems.” He was the only one of my friends to suggest that I get the fuck out of Dodge, and get out now! And he backed it up with an offer for me to stay in his beach hut in Belize. I packed my car and drove to the coffeehouse I owned with my wife. She was behind the counter waiting on a customer. I walked up to her and gave her a long and heartfelt kiss. I said goodbye. I haven’t seen her since.
Joe Bageant wasn’t big on doing the “responsible” things in life. He was big on telling the truth, when he wasn’t making colorful shit up, and he was real big at trying to change the fucked-up world we live in. Joe was responsible in the sense that he kept gas in the truck and food on the table, but Joe never did anything that he didn’t want to do. He made a living being himself. Joe had the Buddha nature. He instinctively knew that life was a richer experience if you didn’t try to control or organize it according to outmoded belief systems. If responsibility entailed compromising your values, your compassion and happiness, then Joe was the most irresponsible man on the planet.
I know Joe made his rep as a progressive redneck with a conscience, but that was only one dimension of a complex and tricky dude. When I first met him in Boulder, Colorado in the early 70s, Joe was living in a converted school bus with his wife Cindy and son Timothy (named after Dr. Leary). On the surface they looked like your stereotypical hippie family. But when they spoke in their sultry southern drawls the words that came out of their mouths weren’t littered with hippie cliches or new age jargon. The Bageant family weren’t Aquarian age Clampetts, they were totally unique and totally magic. Cindy was an oldschool southern gal and Joe was some kind of madcap hillbilly visionary. Now in Joe’s case, he laid the southern thing on thick. He knew the redneck connotations would spook the longhairs who were still re-living the last reel of Easy Rider in their heads. Joe played with people’s expectations, he was a real mindfucker. Like Neal Cassidy, Joe had a sense of playfulness and knew how to drive a bus.
Boulder in the 70s was becoming a mecca for poets thanks to the Naropa Institute’s Jack Kerouac School Of Disembodied Poetics. The streets and bars were crawling with bards and beatniks. Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso, Creeley, Di Prima, Waldman and dozens of other writers were reading, writing and speechifying in bookstores, schoolrooms and coffeehouses. The Muses had gathered over Boulder like a radiant syntactical cloud, raining down vowels and consonants on tongues of invisible angels. It was impossible to be around the energy of the moment and not think poetic thoughts.
Bageant wasn’t a writer, or much of one at the time. He wasn’t part of Boulder’s literary scene. But, I would soon find out, Joe was paying very close attention to what was going on and secretly he wanted in. Years later Joe described Boulder’s poetry vortex and writing in general:
Nobody was sitting me on their knee and telling me the secrets of writing and magicianship. But I was accepted in their company and at parties and got to watch them live their lives creatively and with passion. I came to the conclusion that this writing thing and the arts in general had as much to do with how you lived as anything else. It was clear to me that I should watch and learn from people like Ginsberg, who was the most famous poet on the planet for a reason.
As far as writing goes, I was influenced by all the usual suspects of my generation, Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Gay Talese, William Styron, Genet, and especially all the Southern writers, Welty, Willie Morris… not to mention a lot of people who never got the respect they deserved, especially poets like Marc Campbell of Taos, New Mexico and Jack Collom of Boulder, Colorado. Their works really clued me in on the connection between words, your brain and your heart.
Joe mentions me in the above quote and I share it not to flatter myself but to give you some insight to Joe’s approach to the whole writing thing. I had no idea at the time that Joe gave a shit about my poetry or anybody’s. In some ways I think he may have actually been embarrassed by the notion of becoming a writer. It was too much of a “scene,” too bourgeois and narcissistic. I never saw him writing. I read him my poems and he would nod and smile and blurt out a “right on” now and then, but I had no idea that he was listening with the ears of a blossoming writer. When Joe eventually sprung his work on me it was jaw-droppingly good, fully formed, inventive and visionary. He worked the southern vernacular up into something that drifted on wings of song.
Poets are a competitive lot, lyrical gunslingers looking to lay waste to the latest hotshot wordsmith that pulls into town. I must admit that, along with just about every local poet in Boulder, Joe’s talent sent me racing to the typewriter to take up the gauntlet he had thrown down. Envy, jealousy and the competitive urge may lack virtue in and of themselves, but they can fuel great works. When poets say they only write for themselves, I respond “bullshit.” Go to any open poetry reading and watch the poets chomping at the bit to hit the lectern and spew their restless poesy. It makes the open mic night at a blues club look like the epitome of brotherly goodwill and graciousness. Joe had quietly been honing his craft in the shadows, but when he finally unleashed his writing it was one glorious monster.
One the one hand, Joe was a down-to-earth, unschooled, self-taught everyman who happened to have a brilliant analytical mind. On the other, he was a cosmic cowboy who had eaten his fair share of good LSD and knew that within the yin and yang of the material world lay dimensions of untold beauty and mystery. Instead of fracturing his point of view, Joe’s multiple and occasionally opposing characteristics played off of each other and deepened his perspective on all things, from the mundane to the magnificent. With the added element of a biting sense of humor and a healthy dose of cynicism, Bageant was son and brother to Lenny Bruce, Paul Krassner and Tim Leary. Eating peyote with Joe was like taking a fast ride along a prototype of the information highway while a hyperkinetic bluegrass band played the music of the spheres on a transistor radio made of human brain matter.
When I spent time with Joe in 2009 he was ill. He had problems with his liver (he had been a drinker in his life) and his energy level was somewhat diminished, but his mind was as quick and lucid as ever. He spoke of the many projects he was working on - his blog, a screenplay, memoirs, columns, essays, etc - and gave no hint that his days might be numbered. The word “cancer” was never spoken, so I assume he didn’t have it then or didn’t want to talk about it. I did detect in Joe a sense of urgency at the time. Upon reflection, it seemed as though he was trying to get as much done as swiftly as possible. He had passed the age of 60 and, along with his liver problems, I think he was very conscious of his own mortality. I was used to seeing Joe operating at a high level, but I was not used to seeing him in states of exhaustion. It’s usually spine- stiffening to see an old friend after years of no physical contact. Those are moments when you are reminded that we are not going to live forever and there are no exceptions. Not even Joe.
Joe had chosen Belize as a retreat because he liked the small fishing village where he lived. It wasn’t a tourist area. It was dirt poor and Joe felt connected to the people living there. Hopkins Village was founded by Africans who had jumped from shipwrecked slave ships in the 1600s and forged out a life for themselves and defended it against the encroachment of European imperialists. These were Joe’s kind of people - independent and loving life despite hardship and adversity.
I had gone to Belize to cry on a friend’s shoulder, but Joe really wasn’t up for wallowing in pity. I mistook his coolness to my pain as being Buddhist detachment or his own self-absorption. In retrospect, I understand now that he intuitively knew his days on earth were limited and to waste it on the past, mine or his own, was to squander precious time. He had pulled me out the fire and that was enough. It was time to move on, brother. Losing your life always trumps losing your wife. He had saved my fucking life. What more did I want?
I have no idea what Joe would have done had he lived another 20 years. But I like the future he imagined for himself:
I plan to have a cottage in someplace like Andalusia, or French Martinique; someplace VERY cheap that I can go and write and snipe at the Republic of terror. One man never beat a mob in its own turf. I’ll stroke my wife’s sweet snatch, pet my dogs and give heart to my children (every one of whom is a good lefty) in some dry place where my arthritic fingers will loosen up enough to learn to play flamenco guitar. I’m serious folks! There is not a person on this earth who can say I never did what I promised… eventually. And every reader here, every son and daughter of good yeoman liberty and decency, as it is defined by the suffering poor of this planet, is invited to come visit, eat tapas and drink wine at my table. Solidarity!”
I drank wine at Joe Bageant’s table and it was sweet and the taste lingers still.
Any day spent with Joe was a spiritual adventure. He was always sparking on all cylinders, a speedfreak without the speed. Fortunately for all of us, Joe finished his memoir before he died. I have the feeling it was just the first volume of others to follow. I can’t wait to read it. Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir comes out on March 30th and you can pre-order it here. Buy it and be happy to get a chance to spend some time with an extraordinary soul.
From Joe Bageant’s Lafayette Park Blues:
America: When we first stepped onto this playground of the national soul together, I truly believed you were not a bully, that you were the protector of queers and thick-tongued immigrants and laboring spiritual hoboes like me. I have tossed down your dreams straight from the bottle with no chaser, then bought a round for the house, because this is the goddam land of the free where even a redneck boy from Virginia can dream the dreams of bards, call himself a writer then walk away from dark ancestral ghosts to actually become one.
I believed it all, America. And I still fall for it if I let my guard down, just like the abused wife who believes she will not be punched again for that thousand and first time. All the neighbors — whole nations — believed in you too, despite the muffled screams of the black slave and the Red Indian coming from within your own house. But now you are lurking on the neighbors’ porches smelling of the halls of Abu Gharib and gun grease and there are no cops to call because you ARE the cops, so they are going to break down the doors and cut your balls off.
I can’t sleep at nights and don’t you pretend that you are asleep. Talk to me! You are going to have to say you love your native son or this whole terrible ecstatic thing of ours is over. You have changed over the many years we have been writhing together in this little power struggle of yours and mine — the one between little guy liberty and big authority. Now you have become the police court judge of my days and I dare not even leave your house for a quart of milk or a look at the stars. It’s too late for counseling. You have broken my heart one too many times. Cracked one too many ribs.
Time is short. Dawn will bring nothing good, I promise you.
Speak to me like you used to.
Or it’s over.