Jim Boyd and Sherman Alexie
Time and location: 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, The Met
Tickets: $8 ($10 at the door)
When Sherman Alexie was a fresh-faced kid in high-school Jim Boyd was already a reservation rock star.
“I knew about Jim for a long time,” Alexie said last week over breakfast. “He was a reservation hero.”
Boyd, who is a member of the Colville Indian Nation, made a name for himself in the late ‘70s when he went to Arizona to sing with the Indian rock group Xit. He returned to the area and formed a band, Gray Wolf, which played the local reservations.
What set Boyd apart all those years ago, Alexie said, was his willingness to step outside the comfort zone of the reservation.
“We come from cultures that are very performance-oriented - dancers and singers and story tellers and stick game players - but it’s always in small circles. Jim Boyd took it out to the whole world in general. That’s scary; that’s still scary.”
Today, of course, Alexie is the country’s most celebrated young Indian writer - his books of poetry and fiction have been toasted in the New York Times and the Boston Globe, as well as on the pages of the Indian press. A Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, he was raised in Wellpinit, and his work is set in the Wellpinit-Spokane area.
It was probably fated that he and Boyd would become friends; Boyd has been working solo and in groups for several years and organizes a series of Native American concerts called Reservation Echoes. Now, the two men are working together in a musical collaboration. Saturday night at The Met, Boyd and Alexie will perform material from Boyd’s upcoming CD, “Reservation Blues.”
The songs are taken from Alexie’s soon-to-be-released first novel, “Reservation Blues,” whose action centers on the exploits of a reservation rock band.
Alexie didn’t plan to have anyone record the songs he wrote for his fictional band, Coyote Springs, but “I had these lyrics to the songs and gave Jim one of the sets of lyrics to read.”
Boyd wrote music for one of the songs and recorded it in his bedroom studio.
Alexie was surprised and pleased and a partnership was born. If that one song hadn’t worked, the writer said, “nothing else would have happened.”
But artistic collaborations are mercurial and unpredictable, even if after the fact the good ones seem inevitable. So it is with Alexie and Boyd, the writer and the musician who have found themselves in an exciting relationship.
“Sometimes when we do it, it’s really powerful,” Boyd said. “I get goosebumps myself, like at Bumbershoot.”
It’s not surprising that Alexie would write a book about a rock band; music - heard or implicit - plays in the background of his mystical but earthy tales of reservation life.
“It’s like everybody else,” Alexie said. “I’m a frustrated rock star.”
But, claiming with a laugh that he would “be insulting 10,000 years of tribal tradition” were he to sing, Alexie’s musical input is limited to playing a little guitar and doing some narration.
“We never know exactly how it’s gonna work and pretty much because I’m not very musical we’re always guessing at what I’m gonna do - Jim’s struggling to keep up with whatever I’m doing. My musical ineptness actually makes us sort of dynamic.”
But, added Boyd, “It’s nothing we can screw up too bad.”
Like his poems and short stories, Alexie’s songs present a clear-eyed vision of reservation life: Car wrecks are practically genetic and alcohol and government commodity food are facts of life.
But where non-Indians can find the realism depressing, Indians respond to Alexie’s powerful honesty and his obvious love for his people.
“I think non-Indians get wrapped up in the bad stuff that happens in my books, but there’s a lot of great stuff, too, and I think Indians see that more readily.”
He’s fond of quoting Lou Reed’s line, “There’s magic in everything and then some loss to even things out.”
“Indian life is about magic and loss and very few people are telling that story, especially about reservation life. These stories need to be told.” he said.
Saturday, in addition to the “Reservation Blues” material, Boyd will perform a set of original material and Alexie will offer up one of his humorous free-form performances.
Despite their unique position as storytellers who take their stories off the reservation, neither man wants to be known as a representative of his culture.
“I think we represent Jim and Sherman,” Alexie said. “We’re definitely heavily influenced by our tribal backgrounds, but we’re not spokespeople. Nobody gave us that job and I don’t think we’d want that job.”
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