You know how, when you’re in a tiny village high in the Sierra Madre, pounding shots of homemade mescal in a tiny tarpaper shack, and the witch doctor grabs your wrist and commands you to sing, to save your friend’s soul, it’s really hard to come up with something on the spot?
Well, it was a first for me, too, and I’m not at all sure that I passed…but I did get a song out of it…
I was on a truly epic road trip with my friend K., driving from San Francisco, CA to La Ceiba, Honduras – a journey of more than three thousand miles – and it was not going well. A partial list of the trouble we ran into includes:
- Having both our driver’s licenses stolen at the border between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez
- Daily shakedowns by federales of every stripe on the highway between Chihuahua and Guanajuato (our watches, Walkmans, cameras and boombox were sacrificed in the interests of international goodwill)
- Running a Guatamalan army roadblock in the dark and fleeing through the night from vans full of teenaged paramilitaries with AK-47s
- Total inability to find turkey OR cranberry sauce anywhere in Guatemala on Thanksgiving
To make matters worse, my friend was suffering from hepatitis-like symptoms, which had proven totally unresponsive to hospital visits and all the normal types of medication he’d been given back in California.
Which is why we found ourselves stuffed into a tarpaper shanty in a Michoacan village with the witch doctor, her assistant, two pigs and a bowl full of chicken blood. And a bottle of the strongest mescal you’ve ever tasted.
K. had been referred to this doctor (or faith-healer – “curandera”) in a last-ditch attempt at a cure. She took one look at him, declared he was possessed, and herded everyone into her “office”, where in short order, a chicken was killed and bled, non-optional mescal was prescribed to all present, and I was commanded to sing, to play my part in spinning the incantation that would drive the demons out of K.’s body.
What’s the appropriate type of number for that situation? A lullaby? Show tunes? Meat Loaf?
My memory is a little bit hazy (because mescal), but I think I vamped a little and then came out with sort of a mashup of “Doctor, Doctor”, by the Thompson Twins, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”, and “Jack & Diane”, by John Cougar Mellencamp. (Like I said, mescal.)
Whatever it was, I guess it did the trick, because the curandera abruptly stopped me and declared that K. was no longer in danger of keeling over before bedtime, but that he’d need to stay in the village under her personal care for an additional 30 days before he could be fully cured.
“How much will that cost?”, K. asked.
“Five thousand dollars, American.” – from the curandera.
“How about 50 pesos?”
At this point, I think K. suspected that things weren’t quite on the up-and-up, because he abruptly stood up, grabbed the mescal bottle and walked out the front door. I followed, and that was the last we ever saw of the doc.
A few years later, I found myself back in Northern California, where I was finally recording my debut album in Room B at world-famous Fantasy Studios. (Why Room B? Because Room A had been block-booked for like two years by Carlos Santana, recording the follow up to his gabillion-selling Supernatural LP. But that’s another story).
My producer and I had assembled our dream list of A-team musicians – including the
incomparable Jef Labes on keys, who may be just a shade better known for also being the piano player on Van Morrison’s Moondance – and I was finally getting to record 10 of my very best tracks.
The first one we cut? “Curandera”, a song about love, possession, witch doctors, faith healers, and the riches, poverty, beauty and danger of Mexico – all tracing back to that one crazy night high in the Sierra Madre.
Now, I know you may have heard this song before, since you have membership access to all of Radio Nowhere’s official releases but I like to think that maybe it means a little more once you know the story, and that you can sort of hear that whole story in the song. Press that big orange play button!
What do you think? Sound like mescal and chicken blood to you? 😉 And what would you have sung? Drop a comment and let me know – and thanks for listening!
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