RESOLUTION: “What does it mean to carry our past with us?” asks Baker, who vows never to be defeated or embittered. “There are always flowers for those who wish to see them.”
Sweeping Up the Hearts
About to release his fourth album, Say Grace, Sam Baker, who survived a terrorist attack, reflects on Boston and West, Texas.
BY GEOFFREY HIMES
SAM BAKER WAS HAVING a rough week when we spoke in mid-April. On Monday afternoon, two bombs had exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, and that Wednesday, a burning fertilizer plant in West, Texas, exploded, killing 14 and injuring almost 200. We were all saddened by these events, but few of us have experienced such a fatal explosion first-hand. Baker has.
In 1986, he was sitting on a train in Cuzco, Peru, ready to depart for Machu Picchu, when the red backpack on the luggage rack overhead exploded. The young German boy sitting next to Baker and both of the boy’s parents were instantly killed, as were five other people in one of the first urban attacks by the Shining Path terrorists. Baker had a severed artery, a deflated lung, renal failure, a shattered left hand, a deafened left ear and, eventually, gangrene. He survived only because he was airlifted to a Houston hospital.
So April’s events stirred up painful memo- ries. They also helped clarify why he got serious about music once he was out of the hospital. On all four of his remarkable albums, including this summer’s Say Grace, Baker has pursued a consistent quest: How do you honestly examine this world of ours — including all its horrors and tedium — and still find cause for affirmation, maybe even celebration? The April horrors in Massachusetts and Texas made that quest seem more urgent than ever. More than anything, though, those explosions made Baker angry.
“I’m sick of kids getting blown up for what- ever reason — malicious reasons, tactical reasons, strategic reasons, hearts and minds, whatever,” Baker said. “There is no rational justification for killing someone else’s kids — not the kid sitting next to me on the train, not the kid in Boston this week who got killed. Nobody ever forgets a kid getting killed; it turns into this blowback for generation after generation. That kid sitting next to me on the train, pretty blue eyes, off to see South America with his parents, didn’t do anything, then boom, he’s gone, and his parents, too, in a particularly gruesome way.”
Having vented, Baker took a deep breath, collected himself and returned to the theme of his musical quest. He refused to soft-pedal the awfulness of the week’s violence — or any week’s violence — but he also refused to let it defeat and embitter him.
“What helps me these days,” he continues, “is being grateful for what I’ve got and not being bitter about what I lost in South America. Yes, I’ve lost mobility and a lot of my hearing, but I still have a lot left. Let me remember to be aware of the things that are here and to say that. This record begins with, ‘Say grace,’ and ends with ‘Go in peace, go in kindness.’ Maybe I can do that; maybe I can go in kindness and be thankful.”
The new album opens with the title track, one of Baker’s bare-bones narratives that saun- ters along atop a pretty guitar figure as his dry, reportorial voice reveals essential details. In just 35 words, Baker’s first stanza supplies a surprisingly sharp portrait of the song’s protagonist: “She was almost out of high school when she left home / Got a job in an office, she answered the phone / Her boss was a creep, he wouldn’t leave her alone / She had to go.”
Without changing his diction or tone of voice, Baker slyly shifts from journalist to novelist and crawls inside the woman’s head. Sitting in her terry-cloth robe in a wrought-iron chair, she looks in the mirror, sees her mother’s face and hears her mother’s voice: “You know better, baby, say grace / Don’t even try, you can’t take your brother’s place.” The mother’s words may not be a bomb going off in a public place, but they are a weapon nonetheless, one that still echoes in her daughter’s head, one that spoils that one word, “grace,” the daughter so desperately needs. It’s an astonishing song, for so little seems to be happening on the surface — neither musically nor verbally — and yet so much is going on just below.
“What does it mean to carry our past with us?” Baker asks. “That’s what the woman in that song is wrestling with. She’s one of those people whose lives are so busy there’s not a lot of time for reflection or observation on how the world flows around us, because they have to be so focused on making the car payment and paying the rent. You try to tell their stories. It can be helpful to them that someone else has a job to provide some clarity for them to help them figure stuff out.”
That, Baker says, is the role of the writer and artist. “You and I and the people who do get the time to look around … that’s a pretty valuable gift — to make things transparent, to see the tree and how it fits in with the forest.”
On “Ditch,” Baker tells the story of a construction worker laying sewer pipes by the side of the highway. This is a happier, bouncier song, even funny in places. Assuming the first-person role of the ditch digger, Baker sings that his co- workers may be stoned and his boss may be an asshole, but the narrator’s OK; he’s got weekly pay and a baby on the way. His wife may be liv- ing in outer space (she’s convinced she’s Taylor Swift’s long-lost twin), but he’s happy in his hole in the ground. In “Road Crew,” Baker imagines some other hard-hat workers making an unexpected leap from practical details to the universal. One moment they’re surrounded by billboards, brake shops and flashing signs; the next they’re “sweeping up the hearts, putting love away.”
“I love where I’m talking about billboards and beer cans, and all of a sudden you leap into hearts,” Baker says. “It’s like when [poet] Gabriel Garcia Marquez is talking about people sitting around eating and suddenly one of them elevates into the sky. The details are a grounding thing; they’re part of the landscape. My life is not the British countryside or the Appalachian Trail; my life is streets where utility wires hang over our heads and stores where you buy auto parts. Taco stands. That’s where love lives.”
The album boasts other uplifting moments, but things turn bleak again on “Migrants,” a sequel of sorts to Woody Guthrie’s “Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).” In Baker’s story, the migrant farm workers don’t die flying out of California; they die sneaking into Arizona. With Joel Guzman playing Tex-Mex accordion, Baker uses his flintiest voice to sing, “The water ran out one by one / Ay, mijitos / They looked like dried leaves scattered in the sun.”
“That was definitely a Woody-inspired deal,” Baker acknowledges. “He wrote ‘Deportees’ when he heard a radio guy say, ‘Yeah, this plane went down, but don’t worry — they were just deportees.’ I was working in the Midwest and reading the local paper; it said they were migrants. It really bothered me. There is so much celebrity press and so much entertainment press, and here was this really tragic thing that got 12 lines. I’m not an advocate for anything, but let’s not let people die in the desert because we need them to pluck our chickens.”
Say Grace is Baker’s first album in four years. Because so much of his writing process is whit- tling away unnecessary notes and words, he keeps playing the songs to see if he can stand to listen to the same phrases over and over again. If he can’t, out they go. Things are further slowed by his hearing loss; it just takes him longer to make sonic decisions.
Despite this slow pace — or, perhaps, because of it — Baker has released four albums that stand up to repeated scrutiny: 2004’s Mercy, 2007’s Pretty World, 2009’s Cotton and this year’s Say Grace. But all of Baker’s work is concerned with staring into the darkness and trying to glimpse a glimmer of hope. It’s not easy, he says.
“What is forgiveness?” he asks. “How do you forgive people? Can you forgive the people who try to blow you up? I’m thinking of the people in Texas who were watching TV this week and got blown through the next wall. How do you find beauty in a world where such horrible things happen?”
In March, when Baker played the Homeguard Festival in Kansas City, he was approached after the show by some guys who’d been soldiers in Afghanistan. They’d heard “Steel” from Baker’s debut album, a song where he addresses his experience on the Peruvian train. The veterans just wanted to talk to someone else who’d been through an experience like that.
“I didn’t say a lot,” Baker recalls. “There’s not a lot to say. ‘It’s fast; it’s awful,’” I said, “‘and it takes a long time to get your footing.’ After it happened, I moved a lot: different houses, different apartments, obsessive. When I was in an airport, when I noticed things like a trash can or a car that looked like it had been parked too long, I tried to put something concrete between me and that thing. I can’t pretend that never happened.
“Turning a blind eye to terrible things is not only naïve, it’s false. But also you can’t turn a blind eye to wonderful things. You can’t cherry- pick life and say it’s all good or it’s all bad. What you can say is it’s a beautiful knife’s edge. I know there are people struggling all over the world, but there are always glimmers of hope. It’s spring here in Texas, and the plants are exploding with life. I talk to people all the time whose lives are not chaotic. We can take a few moments to enjoy these beautiful days. As [poet] Wendell Berry once wrote, ‘Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.’”