From the Archive

The Ballad of Ed Ruscha
By Joe Scanlan

This ballad was first published in Parkett no. 55, Zürich, in 1999.


What to say about Ed Ruscha?
I floated that question the other day
While driving north in my Chevrolet
Through the crease of the Hudson Valley.

The morning rain had turned snow by noon,
But now the clouds were making some room
For the final hour of the sun's wan swoon
On the purple cushions of the Catskills.

Bierstadt was here, and Church, and Heade,
Gifford and Kensett and Cole I believe,
Pinkham-Ryder stayed home but helped sow the seeds
Of a mythic Manifest Destiny.

But now we've been West seven score and ten,
What has become of our schooled brethren
Who make pictures that capture our moments and then
Get confined to the vaults of museums?

When was the spirit of the road trip undone?
Where has the thrill of uncertainty gone?
Why must all things get nailed down all at once?
What are we so afraid of?

I pose these questions to Ed Ruscha
'Cause I've always been impressed by the way
His ambitions have never led him astray
From painting the things he loves.

Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas,
Painted in klieg-lit, two-point perspective,
Suggests that a lone patch of Route 66,
Could be a celebrity site.

As if an oasis of petrol and cigs
Could warrant a spotlight swung on a rig,
Emblazing the moment you stretch out your legs
Like an actress on Oscar night.

Culled from a landscape of mountains and plains,
Bathed in a city of asphalt and names,
Woven in layers of standards and fame,
'Til each becomes fused with the other.

Now how can a picture be so profound?
How can it sing of the moments we've known?
Of light coalescing, of liquids aglow?
Of life, of pleasure, of loneliness?

It can be quite cathartic to realize then,
You're no longer in charge of the time that you're in,
'Cause Edward has shaken that time through a screen,
And said: I'll keep it for you.

I've been 'cross this country from valley to canyon,
Seen everything I could get my two hands on,
And sure as my guitar and laptop say Scanlan,
Ed Ruscha's an American hero.

Not due to his cash and his long accolades,
Nor because he owns guns and salutes at parades,
But because he's accepted that all good things fade,
As his grand motivation.

So when pundits start hawking some new all-time best,
Remember the wisdom Reyner Banham once passed,
That all the possessions Americans grasp,
Are defined by their expendability.

And I'll close with a phrase that sticks in my head,
One I think Ed Ruscha would be pleased to have said,
Some advice Yogi Berra once gave to a friend:
When you come to a fork in the road, take it.

Refrain:

Oh, when was the spirit of the road trip undone?
Where has the thrill of uncertainty gone?
Why must all things get nailed down all at once?
What are we so afraid of?

I've been 'cross this country from valley to canyon,
Seen everything I could get my two hands on,
And sure as my guitar and laptop say Scanlan,
Ed Ruscha's an American hero.
Ed Ruscha's an American hero.
Ed Ruscha's an American hero.