As writer Joe Nick Patoski and I were going back and forth about this issue’s feature story on the Resentments, we got to talking a little bit about Mambo John Treanor, the band’s original drummer and one of the quintessential Austin characters.
Eventually I forwarded to him a piece that Mambo had written as part of a self-published book called Power Of Love And The Life Of Dead Animals. It’s subtitled, “Stories by John ‘Mambo’ Treanor from the Federal Prison Camp, El Reno, Oklahoma (Incarcerated for growing and smoking grass).”
“That’s some mighty insightful, powerful writing,” Patoski responded after he’d read the piece. “If you haven’t written about it, you should.”
So I shall.
Mambo’s book is a simple copy-shop job, with a green cardstock cover and white typewritten pages (plus a few xeroxed photos scattered throughout). Far as I know, it’s never actually been for sale in any bookstores.
Me, I just lucked into it a few years back. It was the night after Christmas in 1999, and Alejandro Escovedo had played a show at the Continental Club. A bunch of folks ended up heading over to a party at the home of one of Escovedo’s friends afterward, and among that bunch was Mambo, who I knew only from his reputation and from seeing him onstage so often with so many musicians in Austin.
He had a copy of this book with him, and at one point, I picked it up off the chair where it was resting. I randomly opened to one of the entries, started reading, and was captivated by the style and the soul of the writing. I asked Mambo if I could buy a copy from him; he said sure. I gave him fifteen bucks. He signed it: “Peter — Take a walk in my shoes! — Mambo.”
The entries, most of which are two or three pages long, vary widely in subject and tone. Some are poems (with titles ranging from “Johnny Spider-Head” to “Breathless Fundamentalism”), some are letters (including two to fellow drummers Mickey Hart and Ritchie Hayward). Most, however, are ruminations on his life and the world around him.
The one I sent to Patoski is probably my favorite. It’s called “Snake Man And Manny Ponder The Dimensions And Road Building Materials Of Heaven,” and consists largely of a conversation he’s had with a fellow inmate. When Mambo died in August 2001, I shared it with some friends in an online community, so they could get a sense of the voice that had been silenced. Here’s an excerpt:
“You know, at the last moment of sunset, even though I couldn’t see the sun through the clouds, I could swear that there was the slightest tinge of red to the whole scene,” I said. “It was so slight that I may have hallucinated it,” I added, chuckling.
Manny replied, “That reminds me of a dream I had.”
“Is that the one where you were out in front of the elementary school that you used to go to. The one in which the only part of the dream that was in color was the reddish brick wall that was the exact color of the wall at your school. Didn’t something scary happen in that dream?” I asked.
“Yes, my brother and I were playing in the street in front of the school when a hole opened up in the clouds and I was taken up in the fetal position,” Manny replied, eyes big.
“Yeah,” I said, eyes bigger. “Very vivid.”
“This was a different dream though,” Manny said, referring to last night.
“What was it?” I hungrily asked.
“I dreamed I was in heaven,” was Manny’s reply.
I asked, “Well, how was it? What did it look like?”
“Beautiful — big — like the Bible says,” he replied, matter-of-factly.
I knew right then and there that “heaven” would be the only subject of this evening’s service, and that it would be a juicy one.
“What does the Bible say?” I asked, even more curious, looking at the mist against the light towers in the growing dark, thinking of heaven.
“Heaven is 1,400 miles high, 1,400 miles long, and 1,400 miles deep,” he said, looking up into the same mist.
“No kidding?” I replied, in shocked horror.
He went on, “There are four gates, each made of a single large pearl. The streets are paved with gold.”
I thought to myself, ‘Oh no, it has streets, too!’
“Why are the streets paved with gold?” I say. “Why couldn’t it just as easily be red Oklahoma dirt?” I said, looking down.
“God only wants the best for his heaven,” Manny said proudly.
“That’s just my point. Gold is merely a metal that man has attached value to. That red dirt could have just as easily become precious had there been far more gold and far less red dirt. Why couldn’t the streets of heaven be paved with red dirt? Supposing you and I went to heaven and you liked gold, but I preferred red dirt? I’d be out of luck!” I said with conviction.
The two argue for a bit before, as Mambo puts it, “our good karma ran over his bad dogma.” In the end, he comes to his own conclusions.
I would hope that my heaven would go beyond this physical dimension of distances and substances, and even time. As I see something beautiful, or feel love, if you will, in the things that Manny and I share at the “Sunset Cathedral”, I would hope that the feelings that are inspired by the physical surroundings are only the tip of the iceberg of a similar state of peace that would be heaven. Peace, not just the absence of hostility, but something that in my mind is intimately connected with surrender. It’s similar to the feeling I get from giving. But, beyond giving things, it is a giving up of what’s honestly inside you to friends and enemies alike — surrender.