John died 10-23-22 in a hospital in San Diego. He had Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), a disease where the blood marrow cannot produce red blood cells. It is not a treatable form of cancer. I believe he was diagnosed over 2 years ago. He would receive transfusions periodically that made him feel much better. He had made a couple trips to Tijuana for a procedure to try to jump start his bone marrow red blood cell production using stem cells. On the second trip to Tijuana, he contracted pneumonia and had no resistance to it, and passed within 24 hours up in San Diego.
John was working on at least two books. One was pretty far along, as I understand he was waiting for permission to use graphic images. Subject: environment.
I saw John in Oregon – brief visits in 2020 and 2021 John had a house in Yachats, OR. I’m attaching a photo of us in 2020.
John was such an interesting character, had intense enthusiasms and pessimisms (the state of the environment mainly, right?), knew so many folks, and had close friends during his years in Silverton. I’ve never organized (nor believe that I’m the best one to do so) a “remembrance of life” or some such way to commemorate, share stories about somebody, but that seems appropriate for Johnny.
Juan was an old friend. He was a rogue, a poet, a writer, an explorer, a lover of life. He wrote books, charmed women and men. A hard man to define but if you were his friend you were his friend … He and I colaberated on a book that we spent three years researching, interviewing and writing.. Living and Dying in Avalanche Country. A book about snow, Hwy. 550 and the people that lived along it’s edges… We had a hell of a time together.. I’ll miss you Juan.
Don Walser was born in Brownfield, Texas. A roots musician since he was 11 years old, Walser became an accomplished guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter. He started his first band, The Panhandle Playboys, at age 16, and shared bills with another aspiring Texas singer, Buddy Holly.
As rock’n’roll began to skyrocket in popularity, Walser opted to stay in the Texas Panhandle, raise a family and work as a mechanic and later as an auditor for the National Guard, rather than move to Nashville and pursue a recording career. As a result, he had little following outside Texas for the first part of his career. However, he never stopped playing and became widely known in Texas. From 1959-61 Walser had a group called The Texas Plainsmen and a weekly radio program. For the next three decades he was always in bands and played a heavy schedule. He wrote popular original songs such as “Rolling Stone from Texas”, which received a four-star review in 1964 from Billboard magazine.
As time went on, Walser also became known for maintaining a catalog of older, obscure country music and cowboy songs. He keep alive old 1940s and 1950s tunes by country music pioneers such as Bob Wills and Eddie Arnold, and made them his own in a style that blended elements of honky tonk and Western swing. He also was known for his extraordinary yodeling style in the tradition of Slim Whitman and Jimmie Rodgers.
In 1984, the Guard transferred Walser to Austin, a center of the burgeoning alt-country music scene. He put together his Pure Texas Band and developed a strong local following. Walser opened for Johnny Cash in 1996. In 1990, Walser was “discovered” by musician and talent scout TJ McFarland.
In 1994, aged 60, Walser retired from the Guard. Able to devote himself fully to music for the first time in his life, he was immediately signed by Watermelon Records, and released his first LP, Rolling Stone From Texas, produced by Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel. His extraordinary vocal abilities earned him the nickname “the Pavarotti of the Plains” by a reviewer for Playboy magazine. Because of his Austin base, he attracted fans from country music traditionalists, and alternative music and punk fans. His band later became the opening act for the Butthole Surfers.
Don Walser was voted “Best Performing Country Band” at the Austin Music Awards, was voted top country band of the year by the Austin Chronicle in 1996, and received an Association for Independent Music “Indie” Award in 1997. He also received recognition in mainstream country, and played the Grand Ole Opry on October 30, 1999, and again in 2001. In 2000 he received a lifetime “Heritage” award from the National Endowment for the Arts, and he and the Pure Texas Band played at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He also received cameo roles in feature movies with honky-tonk settings, such as The Hi-Lo Country (1998), starring Woody Harrelson.
In September, 2003, Don Walser retired from live performances due to health issues. Three years later, Walser died due to complications from diabetes on September 20, 2006, 6 days after his 72nd birthday.
“I hope I never offended anyone, especially my friends. I like to think that I stood by my friends and that I never gave any advice to someone that I didn’t live by myself. I’ve tried to live my life like an open book. I done about as good as I could, you know. I might have done a few little things differently, but not much. As for the music business, I ain’t got too much to say about it. Music to me is not like it is to most folks.”
Texas Music Cafe features live performances from singer-songwriters all over Texas and beyond. Over 20 years of unknowns and locals alongside the legendary icons of Texas music reside in our archive. Donald Ray Walser (September 14, 1934 – September 20, 2006) was an American country music singer. He was known as a unique, award-winning yodeling “Texas country music legend.”
Quotes about Don Walser
“Perhaps the last of God’s great pure country singers, with a national and international following among those who like the real deal” — John Morthland
“This man’s voice is a national treasure and qualifies as high Texas folk art. … When it comes to evocative, classic country music, it doesn’t get much better than this” — Erik Hage, Allmusic
“Nothing less than pure country music incarnate” — David Courtney, Austin City Search
“Country music’s greatest yodeler” — Texas Music Group
“A Texas country music institution” — Jerry Renshaw, Austin Chronicle
“Simply one of the great voices and nice guys of our day” — tunefan.com
Let me state it plainly: If you find yourself singing onstage in Austin, Texas, with a guitar strapped around you, wearing a Western shirt, cowboy boots, and a hat, then you do so at the good graces of Don Walser.
You may come from someplace else, and chances are you were still in high school when Don was holding down Monday nights at the late Henry’s Bar and Grill on Burnet Road. If you only got here in the last decade or so, you could conceivably be forgiven for not knowing your debt to the man. Those of us who knew and played with Don Walser were irrevocably touched by his music and his outsized personality.
Austin has a reputation for being the place where the hippies met the rednecks, but that was long ago, and pot-smoking, long-hair “cosmic cowboy” country acts fronted by three-named singer-songwriters went out right about the time of George Strait’s first Top 10 hit. By the time I got here, from Oklahoma via Dallas in 1989, the local country music scene had gone from “cosmic” to “creepy.” The clubs overflowed with a veritable cornucopia of middle-aged hippies-gone-country, firmly stuck in the fast-fading glow of tired groupies, cocaine habits, and better times. It was a scene so insular and cliquish that no one in it was the least bit aware of the latest musical movement taking root here, one that rejected wholesale everything that had come before it. To my knowledge, nobody from the “songwriters guitar pull” at Headliners East was found at the Cannibal Club right down the street. I’m reckoning I was the only guy in town witnessing sets by Rusty Wier and Poison 13 in the same evening.
True, punk rockers down here liked to wear cowboy hats, cowboy boots, and tended to name-check country “outlaws” like George Jones and Johnny Cash. Yet a pitiful few would cop to knowing how to two-step and most certainly wouldn’t be caught dead – or be welcome for that matter – at any of Austin’s then C&W joints. All of this changed in time, and Don Wasler was at the heart of that evolutionary shift.
Paul Leary, guitarist for the Butthole Surfers, first told me about Don. I met Leary when he produced a single for my band the Bad Livers in 1990 and then took us out on tour as the Surfers’ opening act. He knew I was a fan of traditional country and told me he had heard of a wonderful steel guitarist who played at a little “hole in the wall” joint once a week up on Burnet Road. Established punk rockers were always on the lookout for some cool local dive where they could drink in peace away from the hipsters. The Carousel Lounge and its savant blind pianist had already been overrun by the hooples, but this place, Henry’s Bar and Grill, showed great promise. My bandmate Danny Barnes, who put himself through college playing guitar in honky-tonks all over Central Texas, told me he knew the place well and had played there many times before.
That sealed it. I must go.
On my first visit there, I nearly had an asthma attack from decades’ worth of cigarette smoke without proper ventilation. It was ultra dark, cool even on the hottest summer day, and as big as a postage stamp with a ceiling so low you had to stoop to sit in a corner chair. I walked in early one Monday evening, and when my eyes finally adjusted, I peered across the room, plastered in a dizzying array of literally thousands of snapshots of country music singers. Leary and his party were sitting at a table near the center of the dance floor.
Sugar Moon (l-r): Don Keeling, Walser, Howard Kalish, and Sam Roberts at Henry’s (Photo By John Carrico)
Crammed into the corner next to the bathroom was a trio of pickers: a slight, skinny man on an ancient electric bass; a silver-haired gentleman hunched over a pedal steel guitar; and between them, perched on a stool, was a big man strumming a big Gibson guitar. I will never forget they were playing George Jones’ “Window up Above.” I turned to Leary.
“That sounds just like the original record,” I blurted.
“It ought to,” he replied. “That’s the guy who played it.”
I had come for the steel guitar, but it was the otherworldly bel canto coming from the singer that held my rapt attention. It was a sound so pure and controlled that it completely overshadowed the otherwise genius playing of country steel legend Jimmy Day. And the choice of material was a C&W fan’s wet dream: Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, Johnny Bush, Freddie Hart! At the set break, James Henry, the club’s convivial owner and the man who took all those photos on the walls, introduced himself and then called over the singer. That’s how I met Don Walser.
Henry’s Meets Emo’s
As time went on, word got out that there was real, live country music going down at this dive in Central Austin on Monday nights. It was at Henry’s that I met Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, a fine steel guitarist in his own right. He was in town doing preproduction for a Butthole Surfers album and had become so enamored of Don Walser’s Pure Texas Band that he stayed a month longer than planned just to see four more shows. It was also at Henry’s that Don got the Bad Livers one of our first local gigs. (We didn’t go over so well, actually, but Mr. Henry put an extra $20 in the tip jar to make us feel welcome.) For many years to come, I made it a point to bring out-of-towners there to show off “country music in its native environment,” as if it were some kind of an anthropological reserve, which in many ways it was.
Becoming a regular, I got to sit at Henry’s private family table and hobnob with the band members. If I was really lucky, bassist “Skinny” Don Keeling would take a break to dance with his wife, and I’d get to play bass with the band. My old pal Ed Miller (not the Scot) drove down every Monday from Fort Worth with his tube-powered reel-to-reel tape recorder just to capture the sounds of the place. (Someday we’ll find someone who wants to release it.) The house’s local character, “Cowboy,” would make his patented bellow and Mr. Henry would have to shut him up and maybe drag him out to the parking lot to cool him off. I got asked to dance by all manner of lovely ladies, most about my grandmother’s age, smelling of rose water and Kool unfiltereds. It was all part of the floor show on Burnet Road, but it was the good-natured country singer with the encyclopedic set list that we all came to see.
Beyond his immeasurable vocal talents, Don filled the dead air between songs with the most easygoing and natural repartee, a style of elocution well known to previous generations of music fans but sadly absent in the entertainment business today. If Don thought he was something special, he never let on about it. Sometimes he seemed just as amazed by his gifts as we were, often ending a particularly virtuosic yodel tune with a little laugh, as if he himself were surprised he pulled it off so well. In his mind, he was simply leading a honky-tonk combo, no different from the ones he cut his teeth with out in West Texas growing up. He was blissfully unaware that simply being that made him as special as could be. My weekly pilgrimage there became a master’s course in old-school musicianship and show business.
Over time, Walser’s Pure Texas Band added a fiddle and then a drummer, playing a style of country music that had for all intents and purposes been pronounced dead by the very culture that spawned it. Hipsters and punk rock freaks turned up at Henry’s with regularity. There were as many “kids,” as Don called the purple-hair-and-pierced crew, as there were “cowboys” now. It was hippies and rednecks all over again, only this time the punk rockers played the roll of newly minted C&W fans.
The John Deere Tractor Song (l-r): Phillip Fajardo, Kalish, Keeling, Walser, Floyd Domino, and Scott Walls, the classic Pure Texas Band lineup (Photo By John Carrico)
And why not? Playing hardcore honky-tonk, drinkin’, cheatin’-heart songs was every bit as subversive and counterculture as the latest Henry Rollins project, if not more so. Somewhere around the house I have a poster for a gig at the Austin Music Hall in 1991, promoting the Butthole Surfers and openers the Bad Livers and Don Walser & the Pure Texas Band. A bill such as that may have appeared to the outside world like some kind of goof being perpetrated, a postmodern laugh at the audience, but they’d be wrong. Unlikely as it might have seemed, all three bands were playing to essentially the same audience now.
When Henry’s was leveled in favor of AutoZone’s parking lot, the logical and natural progression was to thus decamp the residency to the then-bastion of punk credibility, Emo’s. There, Walser was able to connect personally with a whole new generation of music fans who took the sincerity of his music completely at face value. Some punters may have come out to see an old hillbilly sing at a punk rock bar, but the force of the music and the honesty of the man resonated deeply in this generation that, to this very day, drives around with beloved Pure Texas Band stickers stuck next to other punk rock band endorsements on car bumpers.
It was this new appreciation and veneration for musical elders that eventually brought Johnny Cash to Emo’s in 1994, years after Walser and his band had opened the door. At the same time, the scent of a loyal following lead to opportunities at other venues, even ones where country music was the currency. With his profile buoyed by the popular press, Don now packed dance floors regularly at Jovita’s and even the vaunted Broken Spoke. Today, too few remember that he was packing them in at Houston’s bygone Emo’s long before the two-steppers paid any attention whatsoever.
This acceptance for traditional country music and the ready support of both rockers and rednecks is a confluence we take for granted today in Austin. Those reading this who, like me, go out into the clubs and lead a little combo playing trad Texas dance music, singing the old songs with fiddle and steel, you need to take a moment and realize that you stand in a house that in many ways Don Walser built. That’s why as we mourn him now, we must take time to remember what he accomplished here, even if – especially if – he himself probably never realized his true and lasting influence.
Yet just as certain as we took him for granted, it was just as quickly that he faded from our scene. He left the stage one day, in what seemed like a blink of an eye, and it was suddenly like he’d never been there. Very few people I run into today ever saw or heard Don in person, much less own one of his albums. I fear in time that Don will be best remembered as the disembodied yodel in a Bill Chapman Autos TV spot than as the great musical force he was. And more’s the pity. That speaks more about our local culture’s inability to appreciate its actual treasures than it does about Don himself. For his part, Walser constantly looked to the “young” folks to pick up the torch and soldier on, to learn the old songs and play them well, get the folks dancing and show them a good time. And to make new songs, ones that tell stories and unfold the truth of life.
There’s a lot I could tell you about Don’s late-blooming career: the making of his albums and the controversy spurred when his producer found his band unfit for the recording studio; his eventual recognition by the Nashville “establishment”; the movie about his life story that never got made; the appearances on national television, the Grand Ole Opry, a presidential inauguration, and the main stage of the National Folk Festival; photo shoots with Annie Leibovitz and recording sessions with the Kronos Quartet; managers and booking agents; and the long list of musicians who traveled far and wide to learn his music and pay their respects to him.
It’s a truly amazing and unlikely story. But I’ll leave its dissemination to the music historians. You see, I’m not too good with those sorts of particulars when I’m as emotionally attached to someone as I was to Don Walser. Truth is, friends, I feel like an orphan today.
IT’S SAID THAT THE BEST THING about country singer Don Walser is his voice, a wiry tenor that has earned him the nickname “the Pavarotti of the Plains.” But to really appreciate him—to get the full effect—you have to see him in action.
Between sets one Tuesday night on the patio at Jovita’s Cantina in South Austin, the six-foot-two-inch, 350-pound, 61-year-old Walser sat on his stool behind his microphone, greeting a representative mix of fans. A middle-aged man had a photo to be autographed. Accordionist Ponty Bone wanted Walser to meet a musician friend visiting from Los Angeles. A little boy in Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt asked the title of a yodeling song Walser had just done. A pair of amply tattooed men in Converse sneakers were curious where he was playing later that week. A fan near his own age; a fellow musician; a tyke who looks so small next to Walser that he could seemingly fit into the man’s boot; some young rockers—they’re all the same to him, and each got his undivided attention.
When Walser’s band returned to the stage, he repositioned himself on his stool and gripped the neck of his guitar backward, as if the instrument were a club, with one of his arthritic hands. He immediately set a mood by playing what felt right at the moment—he has no set list—and sustained it tune after tune. He started with one of his own songs, “Fuzz Dixon,” about an oil-field roughneck he used to know in his hometown of Lamesa. Next he did a couple of requests left over from the first set: Johnny Bush’s d.t.’s admonition “Green Snakes on the Ceiling” and Bob Wills’s Western swing classic “Take Me Back to Tulsa.” On Lefty Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil,” Walser’s voice shifted into a keening, desolate wail that cut through the night like the West Texas wind. Then, on Elton Britt’s “Cowpoke,” he moved from falsetto to yodel so cleanly that it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began—a mystery as wondrous as how such a high voice can flow from such a huge frame.
Walser, who says he “must know thousands of songs by now,” is a human jukebox of Western swing, honky-tonk, and Western, the three strains that Texas has contributed to country. He performs them with natural, guileless ease and none of the residue of revivalism usually attached to such music. That’s because they’re not oldies to Walser—they’re just good stories about things that remain true for any era. They were “test-marketed” over decades on jukeboxes and small-town honky-tonk stages, not in some focus group last week, and they were built to last. So is Don Walser; what you see is exactly what you get.
In his easygoing way, Walser defies a culture shaped around niches. He’s a lifetime musician who only launched his career in earnest in 1994, when he retired from the National Guard after 45 years. He’s a teetotaling Mormon who can talk admiringly of an alcoholic friend whose life improved immensely when he switched to marijuana. He’s country according to the genre’s traditional definition, and thus has benefited from its recent resurgence of popularity, though he fits into the current crop of Nashville pretty boys like a trusty, beat-up pickup truck in a parking lot full of shiny stretch limos. And while he’s hardly what you’d call an outlaw, Walser has been swept up in the return-to-roots movement that has reinvigorated the careers of artists like Johnny Cash—and so he turns on crowds of people who not long ago would have scoffed at the idea that they’d ever love a song called “Yodel Polka.” Indeed, his most loyal fans include the Butthole Surfers, Austin rockers who’ve been pursuing their own noisy, neo-psychedelic path since the punk era; they’ve landed Walser and his Pure Texas Band a semi-regular slot at Emo’s, the Austin grunge emporium, where purple-haired People in Black toss themselves around the mosh pit to the sound of his honey-dripping yodel.
In the past year or so, Walser has been working as many as 21 nights a month, and the word has been spreading. He’s toured both coasts. He’s been featured on the Nashville Network, ABC’s PrimeTime Live, and assorted nationally broadcast music shows. In December 1994 he was profiled on National Public Radio’s popular news programs Fresh Air and All Things Considered—and within two weeks, sales of his Rolling Stone From Texas CD jumped 50 percent (from 20,000 to 30,000, on an independent label, Watermelon, where sales of 10,000 are considered good). “It’s just amazing that all this is happening,” says his wife, Pat, whom he married when he was seventeen.
But it is happening, and Walser’s new CD on Watermelon, Texas Top Hand,which is in the Rolling Stone mode, suggests he has yet to peak—his modest demurrals notwithstanding. “I’d like to get some money, don’t get me wrong,” he declares. “But my motivation for this is to spread that old music. I’m just trying to do my part to keep it alive.”
Don Walser was born in Brownfield, and his family (including three sisters) moved to Lamesa when he was nearly a year old. His mother died just before his twelfth birthday, so he was raised mostly by his father, a night superintendent at a cotton oil mill. Required to entertain himself most of the daylight hours, he turned to the music and movies of West Texas. “I had the old radio to keep me company—I listened to all the good old music they had back then,” he recalls. “And there were three movie theaters. I’d see them old shoot-’em-ups, all the white-hat guys.”
Walser taught himself guitar in his early teens, which explains his “wrong” grip; nobody showed him the right way. He practiced singing by spending afternoons hidden in a tree in his front yard, adding a new dimension to the oft-used description of country music as a “high, lonesome sound.” Bashful, worried that the neighbors were annoyed but aware that they couldn’t identify him as long as he remained hidden, he often stayed there past dark. (Years later, a neighbor told him that folks used to sit out on their porches and listen. They knew exactly who it was.)
Fibbing about his age, Walser enlisted in the National Guard when he was fifteen. The next year, he put together his first band, the Panhandle Playboys, and two years later wrote his first song, “Rolling Stone From Texas.” In 1959 he left Lamesa to work for the Guard as a mechanic and then a unit administrator in places like Midland, Port Neches, Abilene, Snyder, and Sweetwater. Despite his duties—not to mention his busy home life; he and Pat have two sons and two daughters—he performed on the weekends. In 1977 he was reassigned to El Paso, where his band played weekends on behalf of city tourism (he also toured Canada and Germany once each for the state).
By then, however, country radio had grown slick and soulless, and Walser gave up on it, opting instead, as the saying goes, to dance with the girl that brung him. “I pretty well quit trying to learn anything off the radio,” he remembers. “Besides, most people hadn’t heard those old songs before, so they sounded new. They’re such beautiful gems. I tried to write my own songs in that same vein.” Walser’s sound was so retro that when he took his one stab at Nashville, he was told his music had been dead for twenty years—and this was back in the seventies.
Still, he stood fast; the small, weekend-warrior scale he was working on didn’t seem like the consolation prize to him that it usually does to others. “Back then, if you really wanted to make it, you had to starve for a couple years,” he says. “But I had young kids and I just couldn’t do my family that way. I don’t regret it, ’cause I got to play VFWs and weddings and private parties. I got to know the people and what their favorite songs were. I know the big stars don’t get to do that: They got a set list and they do the same songs over and over. That’s no fun.”
The story could have ended there, with an ol’ boy playing what he calls “Top Forty music from forty years ago” for friends and neighbors. But as his Guard career wound down, he began thinking more about music, and about Austin; though he had never even performed there, he’d heard it was “where all the great musicians are.” In 1984 he transferred to Austin to become an internal auditor for the Guard. He kept playing, mainly on weekends. He quickly became the favorite act of the crowd at Henry’s Bar and Grill, then the hippest country room in town. And his band occasionally expanded to take on legends like steel guitarists Bert Rivera, who had played with Hank Thompson, and Jimmy Day, who had played with Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, and Willie Nelson. (The lineup of today’s Pure Texas Band includes bassist “Skinny Don” Keeling, drummer Phillip Fajardo, steel guitarist Scott Walls, fiddler Howard Kalish, and, often, Floyd Domino on piano.) Walser seemed to have found what he wanted.
And then, in 1990, it got a little weird. Jeff Pincus, at the time the bass player for the Butthole Surfers, discovered Walser and began taking the rest of his band to Henry’s. The band’s influence got Walser a regular gig at Emo’s—a nightclub where, needless to say, he’d never been before. “Oh, Lord, what have I gotten myself into here?” Walser asked himself after walking in on his first night. But when he started yodeling, the crowd started two-stepping. “They got pierced bodies and orange hair, but they are lovable kids and they come give you a hug and they hug my wife,” he says. “They treat us like the king and queen, and they love that old music.”
Eventually, he shared a bill with the Butthole Surfers. “It seemed like a really cool thing to do,” recalls Surfers guitarist Paul Leary. “Don is so charming that anyone who sees him sing will be captivated. All he had to do to play to our crowd was put on his black hat instead of his white hat.” Walser’s set went well, and because he’d still never heard his benefactors’ music, he decided to stick around for their show. They tried to discourage him, but he popped in earplugs and stood just offstage. “I found out why they didn’t want me to stay,” he says with a giggle. “It wasn’t the music—it was what went on with the music. They had a couple screens up there. One of ’em had a naked lady, and the other one had an operation goin’ on where they were changin’ a man into a woman.”
After his residency at Emo’s, Walser could play just about any club he wanted; his local audience grew in all directions at once. And, suddenly, he found he was in demand outside Texas. His music and demeanor disarmed fans just as readily in the alternative and roots rooms of New York and Los Angeles as in the hipster hangouts of Austin or the traditional dance halls of the Hill Country. He even grew to be admired in Nashville.
Last year, on the heels of his NPR exposure, he toured the South and Midwest, as well as both coasts, with Austin folkies Butch Hancock and Tish Hinojosa and San Antonio conjunto artist Santiago Jimenez, Jr.; though Hancock and Hinojosa boasted much larger followings to begin with, Walser’s sets usually incited the most hooting and hollering from audience members and critics alike. That response helped sell even more copies of Rolling Stone From Texas and generated strong advance word on a two-CD Archive Series set released in mid-’95, featuring tracks culled from cassettes he had recorded to sell from the bandstand after he came to Austin.
Now comes the new record, which, like Rolling Stone, was produced by Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel. Walser’s relationship with Benson is just about the only hint of controversy in his career. Some complained that their first collaboration resulted in too many outside musicians, mostly from the Wheel, supplementing the Pure Texas Band. The new one follows the same course. To those who argue that if the band ain’t broke the producer shouldn’t fix it, Walser responds that he’s gratified to be working with someone of Benson’s stature—and besides, modern technology and recording techniques make those old songs sound even better.
“There’s a great need and a great yearning for that music,” Walser says. “I suspected it all the time, but now I know ’cause I’ve been out there.” Or, as fiddler Howard Kalish puts it, “America needs Don Walser.”
We bumped into Georgia mudding the church in Rancho de Taos the other day and followed her to the museum in Santa Fe.. after a private tour it was up to her place in Abiquiú following her and her friend Maurice Grooser on his hog. The photo of them created quite a conversation and became known as Women Who Road Away.
My grandmother used to light a candle to worship him, even though her idol had been an atheist throughout his life. The memory still dances in quivering light: When I was a child in the late ’70s in Havana, during the never-ending blackouts, I was terrified by the shadows on his face.
That famous face, printed on a huge poster my grandmother had scavenged from the streets of Havana following a military parade: It was heroic, seemingly immortal, and yet a decade had passed since he’d been killed in the jungles of Bolivia, a country I couldn’t have pointed to on a map.
Grandma used to pray to him as “Saint Che.” She wasn’t fond of the revolution, but she did believe in strong spirits that refuse to leave this world. For years I thought that his family name was Sánchez (which Cubans pronounce SAHN-che), and that Che was a diminutive. Then in school I learned that he was Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, and that he’d been given pop culture immortality by a former fashion photographer named Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez, who’d later changed his name to Korda. Everything about the man and the myth was always a little off-kilter.
The photo, so prominent in the shadowy world of my childhood, became one of the most reproduced images ever, rivaling those of the “Mona Lisa” and Marilyn Monroe with her skirts flying. It was Che as deity—and went viral long before the advent of YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat, and Facebook. From Bolivia to the Congo, from Vietnam to South Africa, from the U.S.S.R. to the U.S.A., Korda’s Che became the apostle of anticapitalism and the ultimate icon for peaceful social activists everywhere—despite the fact that Che himself had preached hatred as a tool for the “New Man” to wipe exploitation from the Earth.
How his mug made the rounds! To the student barricades of Paris, 1968. To the album cover of Madonna’s American Life. To Jim Fitzpatrick’s psychedelic posters. To Jean-Paul Gaultier’s sunglasses. From cigar boxes to condoms, from Che Christ to gay-pride Che, from dorm room to dorm room and refugee camp to refugee camp. To the facade of the frightening Ministry of the Interior in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution.
The iconic Che was nothing if not adaptable. Patrick Symmes, who tried to disentangle the man from the myth in his book Chasing Che: A Motorcycle Journey in Search of the Guevara Legend, told a New York Times reporter, “I think the more that time goes by, the chicer and chicer Che gets because the less he stands for anything.”
Che was not Cuban. But in February 1959 he was granted Cuban nationality “by birth.” Che was not an economist. But by November of that same year he was president of the Cuban National Bank, where he signed the currency with his three-letter nom de guerre. Che wasn’t even very handsome, his features puffy after a lifelong battle with asthma. But he’s remembered as the most photogenic idol of the Cuban Revolution and beyond.
For Cubans, and not only those of my generation, Korda’s Che is less about guerrilla chic and more about a mix of superstition and socialism, ideology and ignorance, fidelity and fear. Many venerate his absence as a symbol of what the revolution was meant to be, maybe because the man himself would be too overwhelming for us today, when the shopping mall is far more central to our lives than Marxist manifestos.
We might still need heroes, yes, but not heroes so powerful as to lead us like sheep to some faraway paradise. Who were we following anyway?
In this era of anything-goes globalization, Che doesn’t really stand for anything partly because he stands for so much. Once a symbol of a society struggling toward the ultimate abolishment of money—during the 1960s at least three communal experiments were launched in the Cuban countryside to achieve this goal—Korda’s Che has now been converted into its own form of capitalist currency: a cool knickknack or keepsake, a pin or poster or touristy T-shirt. When the Rolling Stones performed in Havana’s Sports City this year (provocatively, on Good Friday), Korda’s Che welcomed “their satanic majesties” from the audience in his usual heroic form, except for the big, fat, redder-than-ever Rolling Stone tongue protruding from his mouth. And you can bet that tongue came thanks to a pirated copy of Adobe Photoshop.
Cubans who can’t make a decent living in their own professions—including doctors and engineers trying to survive on the low salaries paid by the state—have learned how to make and sell Che trinkets. They hawk them in tourist markets, in accordance with new government regulations that allow selling to occur por cuenta propia (literal translation: “by individual account”)—but only after fees and taxes have been extracted.
Nowadays, when Cuban government functionaries mention Che at all, they tend to repetitively quote a couple of common phrases—“the highest level of the human species is being a revolutionary” or “the true revolutionary is guided by big feelings of love”—and they keep a large picture of him in their offices as an emblem of their ideological purity. But those types are increasingly rare, and they’re mostly pretenders who know very little about Che’s life and thoughts.
Even Frank Delgado, a Havana troubadour who sincerely admires Che’s epoch, condemns what he sees as the revolutionary decadence of today:
Those who use your image as the topic of their sermons While doing the opposite of what they teach We won’t allow them further speeches honoring you Nor the use of your image if they preach what they are not.
Curiously enough, Korda’s Che, at least as ubiquitous in Cuba as in the rest of the world, came to be published by chance. The photo started as a reject, a casually captured news image that a Cuban newspaper didn’t publish. It was used initially to decorate Korda’s studio.
On Friday, March 4, 1960, a ship exploded in Havana Harbor, killing more than a hundred workers and injuring many more, including passersby who rushed to offer help. It was the vessel La Coubre, loaded with tons of weapons bought in Belgium by the Cuban government and secretly transported to the Caribbean.
The details are sketchy, but it seems the arms and ammunition may have been off-loaded by ordinary dockworkers to disguise the operation from the “enemies of the people”—local opposition groups, exiled “counterrevolutionaries,” and CIA officers who kept a close eye on Fidel Castro.
Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez, a staff photographer for the newspaper Revolución, was assigned to cover the funerals the next day at the Colón Cemetery. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, enchanted with a tropical utopia that might lend color to the gray Stalinism of Soviet-style communism, were among the honored guests. Close to them stood Che, who years earlier had signed letters to his family as “Stalin II,” swearing to an aunt “before a stamp of the old and mourned comrade Stalin” that he wouldn’t “rest until seeing these capitalist octopuses annihilated.”
In Castro’s funeral oration, as might be expected during the not-so-Cold War, he announced that the explosion had been sabotage. He went on to accuse the U.S. of the crime, the only evidence being his own monologue to the masses (typical of what he called “direct democracy”). It was on that Saturday that he first uttered his slogan “Homeland or Death,” radically transforming Cuba’s republican- era motto “Homeland and Liberty.”
Díaz was by then better known simply as Korda, but it wasn’t a nom de guerre. Before the revolution, which began in 1956, he and his friend Luis Antonio Pierce had named their studio Korda after two Hungarian film directors. They took on the name of their Hungarian idols and worked as fashion photographers who made the most of Cuba’s natural light to commercialize clothes and promote TV stars.
But in 1959 Castro’s revolution turned them into graphic reporters committed to a cause. Private businesses were being forcibly nationalized, and the two men grasped that the rebeldes were fast becoming the only lawful employer and trademark left.
Korda would later recall his magic Che shutter click: “At the foot of a podium decorated in mourning, I had my eye to the viewfinder of my old Leica camera. I was focusing on Fidel and the people around him. Suddenly, through the 90mm lens, Che emerged above me. I was surprised by his gaze. By sheer reflex I shot twice, horizontal and vertical. I didn’t have time to take a third photo, as Che stepped back discreetly into the second row…. It all happened in half a minute.”
Back home, Korda cropped the horizontal shot into a vertical portrait, because in the full frame another man was emerging near Che’s right shoulder and some palm branches hung over him on the left. The Revolución editors declined the black-and-white print without further comment. They simply preferred to run one of Korda’s pictures of the commander in chief, and another picture of Castro’s philosopher guests Sartre and Beauvoir.
Korda hung the Che image in his apartment. He used to call it “Guerrillero Heroico,” and he liked to describe the Che who appeared in it as a human being who was encabronado y doliente (pissed off and pained), with “impressive force in his expression, given the anger concentrated in his gaze after so many deaths.”
Despite having taken hundreds of pictures of Che, Korda insisted that the Argentine Cuban didn’t like to be photographed. For Che was obsessed with neither governance nor diplomacy but with exporting the revolution by any means—a mission too sacred for him to play a character who emerges for half a minute and then steps back discreetly behind the verbosity of Fidel Castro. He was a man of action and needed to get back to it.
In 1965 the Cuban people heard nothing of their supposed hero for six months, until Castro unexpectedly made public a farewell message from his old comrade. In the letter, Che renounced all of his civil and military positions—including his Cuban nationality—because, as he said, “other regions of the world claim the support of my modest efforts.”
Though Korda and Che had been born just months apart in 1928, the photographer would outlive his subject by more than 33 years. Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was executed by U.S.-trained soldiers in Bolivia in 1967, after being captured with help from a Cuban exile working for the CIA.
A couple of months before Che’s death, Italian businessman Giangiacomo Feltrinelli knocked on Korda’s door in Havana. He’d arrived in Cuba directly from Bolivia and handed Korda a letter from Haydée Santamaría, then president of Casa de las Américas— a cultural think tank that was helping to export the ideology of the Cuban Revolution—requesting that he provide Feltrinelli a good picture of Che.
Korda pointed to his studio wall, where the picture passed over by Revolución—a newspaper which no longer existed—was still hanging. “This is my best picture of Che,” he said.
Feltrinelli asked for two copies, and the next day Korda made two eight-by-ten prints. When asked about the price, Korda said the photos were a gift because Feltrinelli had been sent by someone he regarded highly. That may well be true, but accepting money in payment could also have been risky. The government was on its way to extinguishing all private business, and possession of foreign currency was a crime that carried a prison sentence. (That restriction continued until the “dollarization” decree of 1993, after decades of generous Soviet subsidies ended and Fidel Castro took to the airwaves to personally approve the use of American dollars in special Cuban stores, officially named hard-currency-collection stores.)
Heir to one of Italy’s wealthiest families, Feltrinelli had turned his considerable energy to radical, left-wing causes. With Che’s corpse barely cold in Bolivia, he began selling millions of posters that used Korda’s photo but made no mention of the Cuban photographer. When Fidel Castro handed him a copy of Che’s diary from the Bolivian jungle, Feltrinelli published that too, with Korda’s unsigned picture on the cover.
According to his son, Carlo, Feltrinelli baptized Korda’s masterpiece “Che in the Sky With Jacket,” a riff on “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” It’s an irony within an irony that Beatles songs were censored in Cuba at the time and that rock-and-roll lovers, considered “extravagant beings,” were being rounded up, along with homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and nonconformist hippies. They were sent off to forced-labor camps under the infamous program UMAP—Military Units in Aid of Production. These were prisons in the countryside where inmates were to be “turned into men” by hard work—a kind of aversion therapy that could have inspired Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange—and held without charges until their behavior, at least to all appearances, was deemed proper for members of the “dictatorship of the proletarians and farmers.”
The violence that runs through this story did not spare Feltrinelli. In 1972, the man who helped smuggle Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago out of the Soviet Union in the ’50s was found dead near Milan, apparently killed by his own explosives, next to a high-voltage power line he was suspected of attempting to sabotage. Suspicions of suicide and assassination still surround his death. The Soviets never forgave him for helping Pasternak, just as they never forgave Che for being an admirer of Mao, whose global aspirations conflicted with their own.
For decades Korda never earned a cent from the broad distribution of his iconic picture. Such profiting would have been unrevolutionary. “The strange thing is that air cannot be shut up in a bottle, but something as abstract as intellectual property can be shut up,” declared Castro in 1967. Asking “Who pays Shakespeare? Who pays Cervantes?” he concluded that Cuba had “de facto adopted the decision to also abolish intellectual property.” And so, de facto, Korda’s Che had to be given away for free.
Just before his death, Korda did file and prevail in some legal claims and finally had his copyright confirmed by the London High Court. He was then able to stop the use of his Che image in Smirnoff vodka ads, arguing that he considered such commercial exploitation an insult to the legacy of the guerrillero heroico. (Korda insisted to the press that neither he nor his hero ever drank alcohol.) He received $50,000 from the settlement, which he donated to the Cuban state to buy children’s medicine on the international market.
Yet capitalism is a force that’s hard to resist. Korda’s Che did end up on Cuba’s three-peso bill, which is approximately equivalent to an American dime. And now Cuba is on its way to becoming a state-controlled market economy, engaging with “imperialism” even before what some call the “Castrozoic era” ends.
For the time being, Korda’s Che still frowns from the facade of Cuba’s mysterious Ministry of the Interior—where repression is ordered and reality staged. And his image continues to be framed into the last selfies of socialism by tourists passing through what was once called Civic Square and is now the Plaza of the Revolution. Even Barack Obama, during his visit in March 2016, paused with American and Cuban officials for a group photo with Korda’s Che in the background. Maybe he saw the irony or some political utility in the shot. Still, it was more evidence—as if any were needed—that the magic somehow persists.
Meanwhile, the mortal remains of Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, their authenticity subject to ongoing debate, are kept as a communist totem in Santa Clara, in the geographical center of Cuba— a withering testament to one of the last attempts to create a utopia on Earth. “Hasta la victoria siempre”—toward victory always—used to be Che’s war mantra, even if the price would be intolerable and the victory unattainable. In the end, it seems, Korda’s Che remains the guerrillero heroico— eternally pissed off and pained.
These are special mornings in the Colorado mountains. So sharp and clear. They ask of us to be the same. Why is that so difficult ? To just be like snow covered peaks. Not trying to achieve anything. Fuck it all, more Haiku !
Ski edges Sword like Cut through my delusions. Ha ha ha !
Charles Frederick “Chuck” Kroger was a pioneering climber, ultra runner, cyclist, master craftsman, and mountain renaissance man – a jack of all trades and master of many.
Born on December 1, 1946, Kroger grew up in Kalispell, Montana, where his love for the outdoors took hold. While at Stanford University, Kroger became a member of the elite Stanford Alpine Club, serving as its president in 1968-69. Known as the “college boy climbers,” Kroger and his friends spent weekends at Yosemite’s famed Camp 4, often besting the full-time climber residents of the camp when Yosemite was the center of America’s big wall rock climbing world.
He was the first person to climb four routes on El Capitan in a…
Avalanche forecaster Jerry Roberts and I are riding in his orange welfare rig. We’re on our way to check storm boards for recent snow accumulation totals. It’s the middle of the night. Our tires leave tracks several inches deep. Snowflakes in the air stop, eerily, strobe-like, in each sweep of the yellow flossing light on the roof…..
“3-Mary-14, this is 3-Mary 51. Come in Doug.” “Ya, Jerry, this is 14. I’m over in Ironton Park on my way up. It’s snowing pretty hard. Visibility is pretty poor. See you on the pass.”
“I’ve got a lot of respect for the plow drivers,” Jerry says working the defroster to keep the wipers from icing up completely. “Man, that’s a lonely, hateful job. Ninety percent boredom and 10 percent terror.”