Nameless horse, meet aging man

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Released: December 1971
Label: Warner Bros.
Cover art: Nigel Waymouth

Told by Stewart Schley

Shoulders bent, back hunched, grey hair cropped short, military-style. The old guy who shuffles to the microphone on this sunny Friday afternoon could be my grandfather. Except my grandfather’s dead. And I’m certain that when he was alive,  he didn’t know this lyric:

“Under the city lies a heart made of ground, but the humans will give no love.”

But this guy does. By heart. Up on the makeshift stage in the little downtown plaza of a small New Zealand town, splashed in sunshine, bookended by big black amplifiers, he’s warbling an off-key version of “A Horse with No Name” without even glancing at the karaoke teleprompter.

I’m in the grip here of a genuine global village moment: a local New Zealander, performing a song written by a kid living in London, who called his band America.

But that’s not what stops me cold. The big brain freeze here has to do with time, age, mortality. As in: what the hell is somebody’s grandparent doing singing one of my songs?

And a weird song at that. “A Horse with No Name,” famously loopy and occasionally overwrought, is exactly the kind of thing you’d invent if you were musically talented, barely post-adolescent and stoned, as America co-founder Dewey Bunnell reportedly admitted was the case when he wrote the thing while stationed in England with his family. The lyrics do exhibit a lean toward the inane: “The heat was hot,” sings Bunnell early in the song. Thank you, sage.

“Horse” plays out a sort of mystical tale that’s mostly about exploring a forgotten desert and is not, as was widely believed at the time, a wink-wink about heroin use. It’s five minutes and 35 seconds (the album version, anyway) of two-chord, E-minor, hypnotic storytelling that channeled Neil Young and was musically cool enough and lyrically inscrutable enough to make a 13-year-old suburban America kid (that would be me) think there must be something heavy going on.

That, plus the thing exudes a sweet hook of a melody, and it has a brain-sticking little guitar arpeggio that feels like somebody tickling your earhole with a paper clip, except kind of sweetly. There’s a sultry weirdness to “Horse with No Name” that gave it immediate admission to the honor society of early FM rock radio, where it stayed around for most of 1972 and basically put America – the band America, that is – on the map.

Because of all this, I know every word the guy here is singing and I find myself wanting to coax him back when he strays off key somewhere around the entry to the chorus (“You see I’ve been to the desert…”). The odd karaoke performance has restarted dormant little electric connections in my brain, and weeks later the melody’s floating around up there. I go to sleep sometimes with it still dancing about.

Except: there’s this image of the old guy to resolve.

Mathematically, I reason, it makes sense. In March of 1972, when “Horse” was released, if you happened to be 25, let’s say — still young enough to qualify as FM radio-hip and all — then today you’d be…

Holy stallion. You’d be 67. You’d be old.

Time warps like this unfold in different ways depending on whatever sensory triggers your brain keeps handy. For some people, memory is about smell: your grandmother’s spaghetti sauce, a fresh stick of Juicy Fruit folded thrice and stuffed into your mouth on the walk home from school.

For me, it revolves around music, and especially the music that navigated its way into my life when I was probably optimally prepared for it, when I gave it wide and willing latitude, when I was pre-career and pre-mortgage and couldn’t quite see what the whole problem was for people who were post-all-of-those-things.

Songs like “A Horse with No Name” are part of a hard-coded musical vocabulary I possess and can call up at will, usually fondly. I hear it, and it doesn’t sound old at all. It still sounds cool.

Here, though, on a Friday afternoon, the visual evidence does seem compelling, I have to admit. If this was a criminal court trial, this is the part where the prosecutor whips out the audio recording of the damning phone call and you realize the defendant is toast. Because, well, this guy on stage is undeniably of senior-discount-deserving status, and yet, damn, he knows this song straight up. Just like I do.

Even so, I resist. I devise explanations. He heard his own kids singing it back in the day. Or: He was on the early edge of the baby boomer generation, whereas I’m at the tail end, which means I’m waaaaay younger than he is. Or who knows? Maybe he looked up songs on Google and discovered this one late in life.

It has to be something like that. Otherwise, there’s no legitimate reason for him be up here, on a perfectly fine afternoon, singing that song. That song belongs to a different generation than yours, old man. It belongs to young people. You know, like me.

Stewart Schley, creator of 33hifi, sips coffee and procrastinates frequently in Denver, Colo.

One comment

  1. Great story, Stewart. Here’s my own “Horse With No Name” story.

    I’m a little younger than you. According to various sources on the boundaries separating American generations, I was born in either the first or second year of Gen X. I fit the bill. I’m dubious about everything, including all the things about which the Baby Boomers were hopeful and pushy. Only the burnouts still wore bell bottoms at my high school. I grew up with the fear of AIDS rather than free love. Michael Stipe and Bono and eventually Kurt Cobain were our Neil Young and Jerry Garcia and Mick Jagger. I wore flannel. I still have a goatee.

    In 1976, I was 11 years old and our family moved from Missouri to southern California. We owned two cars: a 1973 Pontiac Catalina and a 1966 Pontiac GTO. While my Dad’s company paid to pack up all our belongings and ship them to the coast, we needed to drive our cars the 1,840 miles from Black Jack, MO to La Palma, CA. It was an epic road trip that will be forever seared into my mind: we visited the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona and Death Valley, including Scotty’s Castle, in Eastern California. I saw my first horny toad. We drove with the windows open and the A/C off to keep the GTO from overheating in the hot summer sun.

    I mostly rode with my Mom in the GTO, and we listened to local AM radio as we crossed through six states. The one song that seemed to be playing on every radio station that summer was “A Horse With No Name.” It was especially salient because it told a story of a rider in the desert, and we were traversing through the desert ourselves, through bleak terrain I’d never seen. I memorized the lyrics to the song and tried to figure them out. It didn’t help that I misheard them:

    In the desert you can’t remember your name
    ‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain

    I thought: if no one hassles you and nags you to do your homework, maybe you eventually forget your name? Whoooa. Could that really happen? How long would it take?

    The songs of the 70s have a special place in my heart. I absorbed most of them uncritically. I have equal love for “It’s Too Late” by Carole King, “Seasons In The Sun” by Terry Jacks, Jim Croce’s “Operator,” Linda Ronstadt singing “Blue Bayou,” the slightly salacious “Torn Between Two Lovers,” and a hundred other light rock/pop songs from that decade. Some of those songs are celebrated as milestones now and others are viewed as little more than throwaway hits. I mostly don’t differentiate between the good and the cheesy, although even at a young age I recognized Barry Manilow was pure schmaltz (my grandmother loved him). But all those 70s hits seem so much better than the soft rock drek of the early 80s. I still can’t stand by Air Supply.

    “A Horse With No Name” is not a great song, but it occupies a special place in my heart. It takes me back to the hot summer of 1976, sitting in a sticky turquoise vinyl bucket seat, searching for a new AM station as we lost the signal from the last one, and happily hearing “A Horse With No Name” again, singing along with my Mom.

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