Saturday, June 7, 2008

Bruce ``Utah'' Phillips 1935-2008

When I encountered Utah Phillips, he was standing at the bottom of the narrow stairway that led to the basement at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Massachusetts. I would have had to go out of my way to keep my head down to avoid eye contact, which is not what he wanted. He had just finished a set of songs and stories of the lives of hobos and workers who provide their labor, as the saying goes, for a song. After the set we went downstairs, I to the bathroom and he to the dressing room. Phillips was interested in the people he sang and spoke of. A great many people are bums or working stiffs, and the only way they will have a chance in this life is if they keep talking to each other, so let nothing isolate them from each other. Phillips took an opportunity to resist alienation in a small way by gently insisting, through his body language at the bottom of the stairs, that audience members say hello and exchange a few words.
Utah died May 23 of congestive heart failure at age 73.
All I knew about Phillips was what I heard from a tape, ``The Telling Takes Me Home,'' that my girlfriend's father had loaned us, and which I listen to while changing the sheets and the blankets. I asked Utah if he would play that song with the line, ``I don’t a lot about what you call class/But the upper and middle can all kiss my ass.’’
``Larimer Street'' condemns gentrification for pushing out the hobos by demolishing their haunts, the flophouses and bars, and the bookie joint and the Chinese cafe that was open all night, and replaces them parking lots and ``counterfeit hippies and plastic boutiques.’’
Utah told me he didn’t remember ``Larimer Street’’ well enough to sing it that night. Turns out the song goes back a ways. It didn't occur to me that the song would be old enough for him to forget. Despite the references to hippies and boutiques, it sounds contemporary to me.

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