Ode to 97, or Happy Birthday, Kevin Kozak

Dear Pete,
Well I’m flat broke in Barstow, California. And let me tell you, it’s one rough place. The girl I told you about? Well I caught her with a guy in the back of this bar called the Katz. Well the guy ended up kicking the shit out of me and even broke my right hand. And now I don’t even have a room to stay in.
Now I’m living in the backyard of this old man’s house, and he don’t watch TV. And let me tell you, it’s hard to make it through the day without having one.
Hope you got my money order for $15. You know I’ll get you the rest when I can.
Your friend,

Walter

Richmond Fontaine, Postcard Written with a Broken Hand

Barstow, Calif., Nov. 25 – We’re in Barstow, though we’re not flat broke nor living in the backyard of some old man’s house. And I’m not typing with a broken hand. It could always be worse.
I’m just not sure why we’re in Barstow. Probably, nay certainly, it is the random result of my eternal fecklessness.
When you leaving? I don’t know.
Where you going? We’ll see.
How long will it take you? Fuck if I know.
And so it goes.
Last night we stopped at county campground just south of Bishop, which offered us refuge for the low, low price of $10. The place was deserted save two or three other campers. An electric moon and a starstrewn sky gave us an astonishing view of Mount Darwin, which loomed over us from its perch 13,837 feet up in the hulking Sierra Nevada.
Today, a bit of old business. Back in September, I took Becky to the Showbox in Seattle to see the veteran alternative-country band the Old 97’s. It was Sept. 4, the day after her birthday, and she loves herself some Old 97’s.
They were touring in celebration of the 15th anniversary of the “Too Far to Care” album. When they launched into the opening salvo of “Streets of Where I’m From,” I was transported back 15 years myself.

As it happens, I became aware of the Old 97’s in the spring of 1997, when they were fresh-faced poster boys for the alternative-country racket and I was hard at work blowing up my marriage to a nice girl who deserved better.
It wasn’t easy, but I was up to the challenge. When my work was done, I had inflicted incalculable pain on my partner, made a mockery of my wedding vows and revealed myself to be what I am: a selfish fool.
But I was on top of the world. I recall strolling blithely along Phinney Bay Road, the afternoon sun dancing in the water against the rugged backdrop of the Olympic Mountains, and me without a care in the world.
That day a mixtape had landed in my Bremerton mailbox, hard by the shores of Dyes Inlet. It had come all the way from Centre County, Pa., where it was dispatched by the redoubtable Kevin John Kozak.
I met Kevin in the spring of 1992. I was a ridiculous teaching assistant at Penn State. He was a wonderfully sardonic student in Phil Stebbins’ History 3 class, where I was a graduate assistant in charge of his group. Kevin called him “Fancy Phil.”
Students were divided into groups. For a final project, each group had to assemble a mock utopia and then defend the parameters of that fantasy state against the withering inquiry mounted by the professor and his teaching assistant.
When the night came for my little group to present its project, Kevin walked into the meeting room at the Liberal Arts Tower with a wry smile on his face and a mini-cooler full of Budweiser in his hand. Dr. Stebbins reacted quickly.
“That’s highly illegal,” he said. “”Get in here and shut the door.”
Hey, you have to know your audience, and Kevin played us like Sam Bush wields the mandolin. With one ballsy move, he guaranteed his group an A.
The campus broke up, and Kevin went back to his home in Coaldale. Before long I received the first of what would become a trunkful of letters. It contained a 331/3 rpm record. I think it might’ve been Sam and Dave, I can’t remember for sure.
I kept the envelope, which today is stuffed full of subsequent letters from Coaldale, New Orleans and beyond. Kevin had scrawled a plea to the postman on the outside. It read something like this: “Dear carrier: Please don’t fold, spindle or detonate this package. There’s a record inside, and not just a 45. There’s $5 in it for you (not really).”
Back to the spring of ’97 and that mixtape. Kevin had larded one side with songs that served as a primer to what the record company executives like to call “alternative country.” Some called it “y’alternative.” Back then, genres were to record company honchos what snake oil was to the traveling medicine show salesman.
Sadly, I no longer have the tape. But individually and collectively, those songs left a mark. For me, and I don’t think this is hyperbole, it was nothing less than a watershed document.
There were two offerings by Jay Farrar: “Windfall” by Son Volt and “A Life Worth Livin”’ by Uncle Tupelo. Ryan Adams probably would’ve been annoyed to learn he only got one song on the 45-minute side: Whiskeytown’s “16 Days.”

Among other songs were “Tear My Stillhouse Down” by Gillian Welch;  “Big Star” by the Jayhawks; “Myrna Lee” by Blue Mountain; “Not Yet/Ain’t No Fair” by Slim Dunlap; “Yer Shoes” by Hazeldine; and of course “Streets of Where I’m From” by the Old 97’s.

I’ve been down, I’ve been down too far to care
I keep getting in my car but I’m not going anywhere.
And I’ve been had, well at least that’s how it looks
And it’s not funny like on TV and it’s not smart like it is in books.

And I wonder yeah I wonder how the world keeps spinnin’ ’round.
Where’s a boy with bad intentions gonna settle down?

And I don’t know what you’ve been told,
The streets of where I’m from are paved with hearts instead of gold.
Yeah the streets of where I’m from are paved with hearts instead of gold.

Old 97’s frontman Rhett Miller had this to say about the heart-paved streets of his youth:
“The years between the onset of adolescence and the moment when one accepts the mantle of adulthood are selfish, drunken and often painful.”
I was 34 when I got the tape, and chronologically speaking I should’ve been an adult. I wasn’t. Not much of one, anyway. And had it not been for Kevin Kozak, I easily could have become the kind of sop who dulls the pain of aging with a heavy dose of classic rock.
He later introduced me to Richmond Fontaine, Marah and more. Indirectly, he opened the door to an ever-growing litany of obscure artists that includes but is hardly limited to the Gourds, Hayes Carll, Todd Snider, Robert Earl Keen, Scott Biram, Drive-By Truckers, Frog Holler, Jon Dee Graham, James McMurtry, William Elliott Whitmore,  Waco Brothers, Warren Hood, Justin Townes Earle, Fred Eaglesmith and Old Crow Medicine Show.
A peripatetic life of drifting from festival to festival has kept the list alive and growing. We’ve been to Merlefest in North Carolina, Pickathon in Portland, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in San Francisco and Old Settlers in Driftwood, Texas. I’ve been to Austin at least five times since 2003, and I can’t seem to stop going there.
I’m not sure why Kevin started writing me back in the summer of 1992. Probably he saw what a hopelessly immature, self-involved drifter I was and thought maybe he could help. (As an aside, no less than Fancy Phil Stebbins once said this to me; “You scare me. You are wonderfully unfocused.” I’ve thought about that many times in the past 20 years).
In that first letter, he wrote “maybe you can be my mentor, or I can be yours.”
I think he knew the latter was far more likely. I haven’t seen or even talked to Kevin in ages, but I think of him often. I’ve thought about writing this thank you for many years.
Today (Nov. 26) is Kevin’s 40th birthday. The above nonsense is simply a long-winded way of saying, Happy Birthday, Kevin Kozak.
And thanks for the music and all those letters.

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2 Responses to Ode to 97, or Happy Birthday, Kevin Kozak

  1. I loved reading this post. It’s amazing how music can transport you right back to a time in your life and relationships, friendships. Also, I’m a huge fan of the Old 97’s. How awesome was the Too Far to Care Anniversary tour? I saw it in LA and loved it.

  2. rhodamorgenstern says:

    It was so great! They always put on a fantastic show, and seeing the entirety of Too Far To Care performed live was so much fun. Thanks for reading.

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