Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Streets of Laredo

I just got back from a 3-night, 2-day trip to Laredo, Texas, a city bisected by an eight-lane highway that has one-way streets lined with box stores, motels, and chain restaurants on either side of it. The Laredo visitor’s bureau website yielded an empty “events” page. The “to-do” page recommends the mall – famous all over South Texas, it claims. I know there's a historic center; but I never found it, mainly because the 40-degree weather and bitter rain were hardly conducive to exploring. I wasn't even inclined to take pictures.

The only picture I took on the streets of Laredo

What I did spend a lot of time looking for was a cup of coffee at breakfast time. There is a Starbucks in the mall’s food court, which doesn’t open until 10am. A sweet check-out girl at Target told me there was another and while I was driving around searching for it, I spotted a red neon Krispy Kreme sign glowing through the drizzle. They open at 6 am; make a decent latte; and if you arrive at the right moment, they give you a free donut warm and fresh off the assembly line! Just to add icing to the fritter, there was a tableful of cops there chowing down on donuts. That experience was the highlight of my entire stay.

I love you Krispy Kreme

Laredo was doubly disappointing because mostly what I’ve heard about it is that old ballad, The Streets of Laredo. It’s a lament about a young cowboy who’s been shot and the most haunting version is by an ailing Johnny Cash made just a few years before his own death. I got the impression from it that Laredo was some kind of dusty Texas frontier town on the banks of the Rio Grande, right out of the pages of Lonesome Dove (the sequel to which was called Streets of Laredo.) I should have known better because I’ve been disappointed by songs about cities before.
When I was a kid growing up in Africa in the 50s and 60s, we had great radio stations that kept us up-to-date on all the latest music from both England and the United States. We lived in an entirely British ex-pat community so the English music seemed more familiar and accessible. Also, we’d get bundles of newspapers and magazines from family back home that would come by sea mail. They’d arrive about six week out-of-date but would fill us in on the life and times of the singers, not to the extent of today’s tabloids, but still I knew what Cliff Richard’s favorite color was. Cliff was my first crush and before you watch these videos and snicker, a little pop trivia: John Lennon was a fan and The Beatles four-man line-up was based on Cliff’s backing band, The Shadows, who became stars in their own right.

Cliff Richard. Eat your heart out Justin Bieber

Cliff notwithstanding, the American music and musicians were way more intriguing to me than the British ones. It was all so foreign and glamorous. They used cool sounding expressions like “see ya later alligator” and “hot diggity, dog ziggity.” (Did anyone really ever say that?) They sang about proms and drive-ins and cars called Mustangs and Thunderbirds. No one ever mentioned genres so I didn’t know country from blues from gospel from pop. It was all just music and I either liked it or didn’t.
Mostly, I loved those songs about places. My mother’s sister had married an American soldier during World War II and had sailed out to New York as a G.I. bride. Now I had five American cousins who lived in some incredibly exotic sounding place called Wildwood, New Jersey. I was sick with envy since my parents had dragged me off to darkest Africa! How lame was that?
Anyway, I was enthralled by the idea of Chuck Berry’s Memphis, Tennessee, Fats Domino’s Walkin’ to New Orleans, and Marty Robbins’ El Paso among others. More than anything, I wanted to go to those undoubtedly fabulous places.
I took off for the states for the first time when I was 21. In those days, you could get a $99 Greyhound Bus pass that gave you unlimited mileage for three months. So I flew to Ottawa to first spend time with my Canadian friend Judy.
Beautiful 70s girl Judy on that trip to Canada.

And still beautiful in 2010
Just proving that great songs and great friends
never get old

Then I set off alone and “went off to look for America;” which along with mention of other cool places like Pittsburg, Saginaw, and the New Jersey turnpike are lyrics from the Simon and Garfunkel song, America. Because by then – 1971 – there had been an entire new crop of songs come out to whet my wanderlust.
American cities in the early 70s were for the most part at the peak of the urban blight years and far from song-worthy. There had been a big out migration to the suburbs leaving city centers prone to decay, crime, and graffiti. It was also a jittery time. The passing of the hippie era was leaving a lot burn-out cases in its wake. I remember New Orleans, in particular, to be characterized by stoned, aggressive young pan-handlers everywhere on the streets. Vietnam War protests were still going on and Kent State had happened the year before. The women’s moment was cranking up and the Black Panthers were scaring everyone to death. In Washington D.C. I was surrounded by a group of young black men with huge afros. “You know what you are?” they taunted me. “Ugly. And you know why? Because all white girls are ugly.” Their rage left me shaken and sick and is still vivid in my mind 40 years later.   
By now I was little more educated about music. In Memphis I went to Beale Street looking for the birthplace of the blues. It was largely run-down and boarded-up.  I also took the bus tour to Graceland. Elvis lived there and you couldn’t go in. As we drove through the grounds, the guide pointed to a young dog scratching its armpit on the lawn. “That the ol’ hound dog E-vis wrote about,” he said.
Little foreign girl in the back of the bus piped up, “No it’s not. It’s way too young and in any case, Elvis didn’t write Hound Dog.” When 40 furious Elvis fans turned to glare at me, I slunk down in my seat and kept my counsel through the rest of the misinformed spiel.
Lest it sounds like I’m being excessively negative, I did leave my heart in San Francisco; I think Chicago is a rockin’ town, which might be the same as a toddlin’ town but I don’t know for sure; and New York is so great it deserves to be named twice (although I tended to like the sleazy 70s Times Square more than the current Disneyfied one).  

Pictures from The New York Times of 70s New York
I also love LA. My mother recently reminded me that I used to sit in my room repeatedly playing Santa Monica Pier by Noel Harrison (son of Rex) in the 1960s – long before I ended up living in Santa Monica for 16 years.
However, to be on the safe side, I’m never going to Biloxi, Mississippi. By far my favorite place name song is Biloxi by Jesse Winchester. I first heard it in the mid-1970s and have never once listened to it in all the years since that it hasn’t given me goose bumps and made me tear up. Although about Biloxi, the lyrics are so evocative of people and places and experiences I was having at the time the song first came out that I find it almost painfully nostalgic. I originally had the song on vinyl but couldn’t find it in any other format for years. Then when I was in Austin (a city Texas does get right!) a few years ago, I found it in one of their fabulous music stores on CD. It’s now on my MP3 player.
Jesse Winchester is one of the best songwriters our generation (Bob Dylan said it so it must be true), but his own singing career was pretty much derailed when he fled the US for Canada to avoid the draft. Biloxi is such a beautiful song I wanted to share it. But I searched the internet high and low all I could run across was a recent poorly recorded version that really doesn’t do it justice.  If you’re inspired to track it down, you can find it on Pandora.
I went to Laredo to renew my temporary car import license for Mexico and will have to do it again in six months. Laredo is not calling for a second visit but another option is to go to Brownsville, Texas. And there is that great Bob Dylan song, Brownsville Girl 


  1. Hi Angela. I was looking for "The Streets of Laredo" by Marty Robbins, and accidentally came across your very interesting Blog. (You're still looking good). John Barnes.

  2. Thanks John. Marty Robbins was one of my favorites but have you heard the Johnny Cash version. Truely haunting.