Feb 15, 2010

Des Moines via Marysville

Saturday Day 6
From St Louis to Des Moines... no fast roads. Look at all the interstates in East Missouri, they go east to west. No one wants to go to Iowa. Except us.

We headed north because tonight we're staying in Des Moines. Staying with a guy from the Tom Waits list which is called Rain Dogs. And the reason why is because of this song called Burma Shave which was on Tom Waits' 1976 album Foreign Affairs.
The song is a story about a young buck who just jumped his parole and passes through a small dying town called Marysville and whisks this young girl away from her dull life. For a short while anyway. Then they both die in a car wreck. It's terribly romantic. Anyway, each verse of the song ends with a reference to this place called Burma Shave.
He says... I guess you'd say I'm on my way to Burma Shave
Then she says... I'd rather take my chances out in Burma Shave
And then after the fatal crash the lyric goes... Just a nickel's worth of dreams and every wishbone that they saved, lie swindled from them on the way to Burma Shave

Now Burma Shave is a brand of shaving foam. But not one that's sold in Britain so, like the East St Louis reference, that was lost on me. As was the reason behind it being used as a place in the song. Between 1925 and 1963, Burma Shave was advertised on highways with a series of small signs, spaced for sequential reading by passing motorists. Each sign would be the line of a funny poem and the last sign was almost always the name of the product. I found this out when someone gave me a cassette of an interview with Waits and he mentioned this kind of advertising having an effect on him. He remembered one of the poems which went...

Don't drive along
With your arm out too far
It might go home
In another guy's car
Burma Shave

Waits said that as a child when he saw these he didn't realise what Burma Shave was, he thought it was the name of a town. A town that was always being sign posted, but somehow his dad never got there. So it became a mystical place to him, a sort of Shangri-La. And that's why he used it as the destination for the two star-crossed lovers in his song.

The song is such a great song lyrically. With just a few lines it painted a very clear picture of the protagonists and the town Marysville which is described as "nothing but a wide spot in the road." So it was another must see for me. However... there are at least 10 Marysvilles in the USA. Plenty of Maryvilles too. So I asked the Rain Dogs list and this guy Tim helped me try and get to the bottom of it. Anyway to cut a long story short we came to the conclusion that there was no specific Marysville.

But Tim suggested one near Des Moines that would fit the bill as much as any other place where a young woman would say everyone in this stinking town has got one foot in the grave and I thought that would work. Burma Shave is a mythical place and so is Marysville. This one was close enough, it had a railway nearby like the song mentioned, the countryside around was farmland which tied into the images of the song. So we set off from mild St Louis where snow was only lying on north facing roads. Seriously weird driving down roads with 6 inches of snow on one side and not a drop of the white stuff on the other. It was 306 miles but no interstate so we were looking at 6 hours of driving. During which time the snow by the side of the road thickened and the number of country music stations on the dial did likewise. If only it was good country. But then I could say the same about the rock stations. We passed through Hannibal, MO which had the front to call itself America's Home Town because it was the childhood home of Mark Twain. He lived there from the age of 4 to 18. I love Twain for many reasons, not least because he disproves the maxim "Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart; and
any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brain."

Hannibal MO is also the name of a song by a band/artist called Dolorean. It's a cheery murder ballad though one with a twist because I'm not sure the narrator kiled his girlfriend, he just chickened out of the suicide pact. Still he got convicted. I also like it because his girlfriend was going to study creative writing on the east coast... so some might say she was asking for it. You can listen to the maudlin track here. I have no idea why the track is called Hannibal, MO, nor why the writer set this peculiar murder ballad here. I'm hoping blog reader and Dolorean fan Heather will tell us.

Anyway we did make it to Marysville, though each turn onto a smaller road filled me with fear as they became ever more icy. And for good reason. Marysville is nothing but a widespot in the road. A snow covered widespot. Just houses scattered across a field really. I'd go for a ride with a guy who looked like Farley Grainger if it helped me get out of that place. Marysville makes John Cougar's home town look like London. There's small towns and then there's small towns. America needs to start using terms like hamlet and village it would help. As would not calling two cow sheds and a shack a city. You can see Marysville on this Google Map grab. There's no street view, but I'm sure it got overlooked for very different reasons than East St Louis.

I like that it has its own cemetery. For a town with a population of just 54 people. I told you it was depressing.

The Diary Of Frigid Bones. It was over 30, just, for most of Missouri. But it had fallen to about 24 by the time we reached Tim's house. It had also started to snow. Ominously snow.

1 comment:

  1. I asked Al James why a Portlander wrote a song about Hannibal, MO. Here's his response:

    I wrote Hannibal because I had two very close friends that were very much in love and spent their summers in Hannibal.... Thankfully it didn't playout the way the song does, but they always talked about summers there and it just sort of was a little seed to start the song...