One September night, I wandered into a bar Johnny Cash had once played, in
. There was a young man picking a guitar and
singing with only a few people, hanging out and listening. I was immediately entranced. His voice commanded attention. He sounded like a fifty year old black guy
singing the blues when in fact, he was a white guy, probably in his
twenties. He sang with his eyes closed
and there was depth in his songs that someone his age shouldn’t know yet. It was like he was exorcising demons on
stage, while equally calling upon them. He
broke the strings on his guitar at one point and had to go out to his car to
get more. He had the voice of someone
who had lived ten lives. We stayed until
the very end of the set and he gave us his CD.
“He was fantastic live—his CD must suck.” I have to admit I thought.
His CD was even better than his live performance. The eight songs were arranged perfectly. The songs told folk stories, told of the blues. Blues that a young man at his age should not know. Sitting around a campfire with a jug of whiskey blues. Boxcar blues. You could hear influences and references to classic literature, along with country and folk music. It was an extremely wise CD for a man of his age. It immediately reminded me of Tom Waits first album, Closing Time. There was so much potential there. His CD felt like he had laid down the groundwork for something amazing.
I didn’t take the CD out of my trucks player for a month. The more I listened, the more curious I became. Who was this guy? I did a little research online. I found out he had left school at an early age to hitchhike and ride trains around the country. People still did that? You could hear the travelogues in his music. I had to find out more.
I contacted him to see if he’d meet me to tell me his story.
When Robert Louis Cole arrived at the Weathervane Café on
in Denver, he
told me he had just worked a double shift at the bar the day before. It’s 1:30 pm on a Sunday and he just woke
up. He was surprisingly clear eyed and
ordered a coffee and a sandwich.
“How did it all start?” I ask him.
“Well, I knew by the time I was 15 that school and that sort of life wasn’t for me. I started hitchhiking around the country and hopping trains. It terrified my parents.”
“I bet! How did you start riding trains?”
“I grew up in the punk rock community of older guys. Some became my friends and others became my enemies. They were all apart of this train hopping culture. I just got really hyped on it. You see these kids in lots of towns. Dirty, carrying backpacks, eating out of trash cans, begging for change, drunk a lot. I did all of that shit.”
He had tattoos peeking out from every part of his flannel shirt. He had a pack of Pal Malls in his shirt pocket.
“So, I wasn’t doing much. I had twenty-four free hours in a day. I learned how to juggle. I’m still pretty good” he smiles. “I bought a pawn shop guitar and started playing. Dylan songs, stuff like that.”
He tells me he had a great life growing up. His mother was a musician and he grew up singing in the church choir. He grew up going to church because it was a safe community and it was free. His parents were hippies and he grew up on wheat bread and sprouts.
“Does your mom support your music?”
“She does, mainly because it’s one of the only positive things I’ve done with my life. She’s sixty and does Thai Chi and is still writing songs.”
Eventually, RL Cole ended up living with his sister and brother in law. He was living in the basement and teaching himself to play guitar. His brother in law was a great musician and was patient with him and gave him honest feedback. He really helped him out.
Eventually, he found himself living in a trailer in
New Mexico for a couple
of months and in his mind, he was putting together a concept for an album. Not long after, he recorded twenty-seven
songs and whittled it down to eight perfectly arranged, beautiful songs.
“How does the muse hit you?” I ask.
“Well, sometimes it hits me after a manic episode of not sleeping for a few days. I’ll be in the garage with my dog, red eyed and drinking whiskey, putting together all of these concepts that have been rummaging around in my head. Sometimes Lady Luck comes to your house for two or three days and throws a brain party. However, I’m not necessarily a balanced person.” he admits.
“Listen man, I don’t want to dwell on your train riding days” I say “but you’ve gotta indulge me a little. Tell me some stories”
“Well, there’s a few ways to ride freight trains. The most common is to ride box cars. It’s nice when it happens but it’s not that often when an unmanned boxcar goes by with one or both doors are open. It’s easier to get in a shipping container called a forty-eight. It’s called a forty-eight because each of the serial numbers on the cars starts with a forty-eight. There’s a lot of wind pressure between the wheel well and the track and if you’re not careful, it’ll suck you under. So you have to be careful riding forty-eights because it’s easy to lose a dog or your backpack. I actually lost a friend that way. It sucked him under between
Baltimore and Philadelphia
and split him in half. So most of the
time, I’d rope myself onto a medal rail and crawl in my sleeping bag and
sleep. Half the time it’d be pouring
rain and I’d just want to ride in the pusher engine in the back of the train.
There’s usually no one in them. It’s
like a luxury ride! There’s a fridge
full of water, a bathroom, air conditioning or heat. But I got caught doing that a few times.” he
“Oh yeah. Sometimes you’d get lucky but not always. I didn’t usually have ID. Sometimes they’d just kick us off, sometimes we’d get arrested.”
“What was one of your high moments while out riding trains?”
He thinks for a minute.
“Probably the last time I rode a train, it was June of 2013. I was in
and I wanted to get home to Colorado
to see the woman of my dreams. I had a
buddy who had just gotten out of jail and he had a good mind for train
hopping. I asked him, how do I get back
to Colorado? Well, there’s a north / south coal line that
goes down to Texas
and dumps there and goes back empty. So
I needed to hitch a ride down to Saginaw, Texas outside of Fort
Worth. There I
am, camping in a cornfield near the train yard waiting for the right train for
a couple of days. Riding trains is 98%
sitting in bushes waiting and 2% pure adrenaline. I saw my train and I’m booking it through a
cornfield in snakeskin boots with a backpack and a guitar. Well, I missed that train and had to camp
another night. Finally, on the third
night, I caught a train and I was so happy.
It was a high point
in my life. I’m on a train heading back
to see the love of my life, it was pouring rain. I knew I was going to be back in Colorado in thirty-two
hours man! There is no storm like a Texas plain thunderstorm. It was beautiful.”
Robert Louis Cole has several lifetimes of hard won experience. I think about all of his adventures and talent and him working at a bar in
I feel like there’s something to be said about a guy who drops out of
school at 15 to ride trains, drink and do drugs, yet he somehow emerges as this
heroic, layered musician. I see as much
devil in him as I see God. I see as much
of a past in his eyes as I see a future.
I see as much evil as I see good.
He’s extremely well read and we talk literature for a while. He says he ripped off a Dylan Thomas line in
one of his songs. He mentions the
Russian authors and how they wrote so beautifully amidst such a bleak
landscape. He doesn’t understand
Faulkner but acknowledges that Steinbeck is his guy. He also says he’s been a heavy drinker and
drug user since age 15. He is now 26
“What are you doing with yourself these days?” I ask.
“I live with my sister and her husband and their two kids. Between work and my family and my dog, I like to read.”
He tells me he goes to the gym regularly and he’s an amateur boxer.
“Where do you see the direction of your music going?”
“I’ve got a few shows coming up but I’m going to take five or six months off to reflect on where I’d like to go with it all. I want to think about different album concepts and I want to analyze my live performances and decide where I want to go with that.”
When we shake hands and part ways, he is in front of the Weathervane Café, smoking a cigarette. This is his one man attempt to do something. The hard living RL Cole.