Rambler Magazine
  • 11.10.14

    Odd Americana: Offbeat Religious Reads

    No denying it, Christianity and American roots music have a long history with one another. There’s everyone from The Carter Family singing “Can the Circle be Unbroken” to Those Poor Bastards belting out “Glory, Amen”. Exalting and questioning that old time religion is a standby in country. There’s a whole lotta musicians – heck, a whole lotta people – who are lookin’ for steady ground and find the Christian faith a rock to stand on. Then again, there’s a whole lotta folks who’d rather bust that rock and stand in the rubble.

    We here at The Rambler aren’t for promoting any one faith (or lack thereof).

    What we are interested in are good stories. Those stories can be shaped like songs, sonnets, films, fiction, tramp ramblings, sentences pissed in the snow, old lady chats in laundromats – we aren’t particular. And Christianity is ripe with good stories. Heck, that tree is sagging under the weight of a thousand tasty figs. Lives being saved, backsliding, bad preachers, good teachers, leaving the faith, drowning during Baptism, Rapture waitin’, deathbed conversion, con men, and so on.

    …but Hank Williams and his musical cohorts aren’t the only ones that saw the light on chronicling matters of conviction. Here’s nine offbeat religious reads that may appeal to roots music fans. They feature everything from fanatics and apocalypse cults to revival tent memoirs and a teen Jesus. And Nick Cave. Seriously. We’ve brought you Nick Cave and God. Or is Nick Cave God? You decide.

    And the Ass Saw the Angel
    And the Ass Saw the Angel – Nick Cave
    Yes, Nick Cave wrote a book. Actually, he has two poetry collections, multiple lyric anthologies, and two novels. Yes, everyone at The Rambler feels slackassy knowing Mr. Cave’s been in 4 bands with over 20 albums, has 6 books, worked on over 10 soundtracks, and appears in the occasional film. WE DIGRESS. Dude’s got skills, and while we were eating cheesy popcorn, sipping Tab, and playing Ms. Pac-Man back in ’89 he published And the Ass Saw the Angel.

    Written in a Southern drawl, And the Ass Saw the Angel explores man’s inhumanity to one another through the story of Euchrid, a mute born to a boozehound and an animal torturer in a valley full of religious fantatics.

    Omensetter's Luck cover
    Omensetter’s Luck – William H. Gass
    Written partially in a stream of consciousness style with hella modernist wordplay, Omensetter’s Luck is the story of good man Omensetter settling in Ohio in the 1890s and Furber, the town priest (whose going through a mental breakdown). David Foster Wallace said Omensetter’s was one of the 5 best, overlooked American novels after 1960. With the epic examination of Good, Evil, envy, and justice going on, it ain’t a surprise that William H. Gass was a philosophy professor, in addition to being a writer.

    Elmer Gantry book cover
    Elmer Gantry – Sinclair Lewis
    Sinclair Lewis won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1930. He was the first U.S. writer to attain it, yet dude’s been forgotten by modern readers. He was called the “red-headed tornado of the Minnesota wilds” by H.L. Mencken and often dealt critically with materialism in his works. Elmer Gantry is Lewis’ satiric take on the 1920s evangelical scene. Elmer is a ruthless womanizer and boozer. He accidentally becomes a golden-tongued preacher and his “ministry” takes the world by a brimstone storm. Read this opener and tell me you don’t want more:

    “Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk.”

    And, hell yes, there’s a 1960 adaptation with Burt Lancaster that’s badass.

    Lamb Book cover
    Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal – Christopher Moore
    What if Jesus had known kung fu? This was the question that partially inspired Christopher Moore’s humorous take on the life of Jesus. More specifically, on the unknown years of Jesus. Everybody’s heard about dude’s water-into-wine thirties, but what did Jesus do from his teens through his twenties? Meet Biff, the guy Jesus talked to about ladies and life. The guy that walked with Jesus before the Apostles did. The guy who didn’t want to see his friend die on a cross. If you like Monty Python or Kurt Vonnegut, you’ll probably dig Lamb.

    Wise Blood book cover
    Wise Blood – Flannery O’Connor
    If you read one book off this list OH MY GAWD, read this. Repeat: Flannery O’Connor is the m-effin sickest Southern Gothic writer out there. Her work is punctuated with eccentrics, religious exploration, sinister scenes, flawed folks, and decay. And Wise Blood? Yes. Absolutely.

    Hazel Motes is a 22-year-old WWII veteran who has fallen under the direction of street preacher, Asa Hawks, and his daughter, Sabbath Lily…but the “blind” Hawks is preaching cynicism, not Jesus. Motes eventually starts his own church accentuating his own lifelong crisis of faith – the Church of God Without Christ. Add in a mummified holy child and existential struggle and you have the most WTF, how-did-that-get-published-in-1952 novel ever.

    P.S. – Brad “The Voice of Chucky and Also Doc on Deadwood” Dourif starred in the strict adaptation done by John Huston in 1979.

    Leftovers book cover
    The Leftovers – Tom Perotta
    What if the Rapture happened? Could you rebuild your life if your family disappeared around you? Was it actually a religious occurrence? What new religions would form because of the mass disappearing act? Perotta’s dark, but not bleak Leftovers (now a HBO show) looks at the social and philosophical aspects of being left behind in a Rapture that doesn’t conform to biblical prophecy through the framework of one family. Stephen King wrote in his New York Times review, “The Leftovers is, simply put, the best Twilight Zone episode you never saw…”

    Salvation on Sand Mountain cover
    Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia – Dennis Covington
    A finalist for the National Book Award, Salvation on Sand Mountain explores snake handling as a religious practice in Appalachia and the trial of Glenn Summerford, an Alabama pastor who may or may not have purposefully killed his wife with poisonous snakes during services.

    Written through New York Times reporter Dennis Covington’s first-person point-of-view, Salvation on Sand Mountain is an even-handed account of an obscure religious practice that spurs the author to examine his own beliefs.

    Holy Ghost Girl cover
    Holy Ghost Girl: A Memoir – Donna M. Johnson
    Donna M. Johnson grew up in a traveling revival. Her mother played organ in the show and miracles, exorcisms, and face-offs with the KKK – it was all everyday for Johnson’s family. Under the God tent there were five-hour sermons, praying in the dirt, healings, speaking in tongues, and selling the Lord to get to the next city. It makes for an energetic, reflective read. If you like true stories that feel like tall tales, get a copy of Holy Ghost Girl.

    Under the Banner of Heaven book cover
    Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith – Jon Krakauer
    Best known for Into the Wild (made into a movie by Sean Penn), Krakauer puts down the outdoors and picks up Mormon history for Under the Banner of Heaven. Here’s an unbiased brush-up on Mormon and fundamentalist Mormon history. Krakauer weaves the history in and out of the story of a murder – two modern-day brothers believe that God has asked them to kill…and so they do. True crime, insanity, history, and faith. The book feels a bit long, here and there, but it’s a hella solid read written with a fair hand.

    - – -

    What? You’re still here? Why aren’t you at the library or cruising IndieBound for local bookstores? Go forth and read the word.

    - – -

    Patty Templeton just drove 11 hours on about 3 hours of sleep. She would like to be sitting across from you while drinking coffee and talking about weirdo Southern Gothic fiction. Find her over here.

  • 11.03.14

    Odd Americana: John R. Brinkley – Quack Doctor and Radio Pioneer

    Hear ye, hear ye, men who despair, there may be an operation to restore your vim and vigor! To get the powder packed back in yer pistol and the lead in that pencil. And women, if you require the flush of fertility, a renewal to the womb, an energy to your eggs – there are options!

    Goat gonads.


    The Rambler has learned of an operation – a simple in-and-out, really – to renovate, rejuvenate, and reinstate your sexual satisfaction and babymaking machinery. All it requires is slicing open your scrotum and tucking goat glands inside. Or, for the ladies, having goaty bits folded willy-nilly next to the ovaries.

    It doesn’t sound like a real procedure, but this was exactly the operation that John R. Brinkley made millions off of during the Great Depression.
    John R. Brinkley operating
    Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Hillbilly Society, here’s the astounding, true story of the charismatic, yet deplorable John R. Brinkley.

    John R. Brinkley started his career as a roving railroad telegrapher. When this didn’t prove profitable, he decided to become a doctor. His medical career began in 1907 when he posed as a Quaker physician in a North Carolina medicine show. He then shucked healing tonics in Tennessee. Wanting a larger greenback stack, Brinkley decided he would become a real doctor. Ish. Kind of. Somewhat. He attended Bennett Medical College in Chicago for three years. But why finish studying medicine when you could buy a diploma and begin immediately? Armed with a degree purchased from the Kansas City Eclectic Medical University, John R. Brinkley opened his first practice.

    The Greenville Electro Medic Doctors storefront was Brinkley’s clinic in South Carolina. Those who attended the health center could acquire “electric medicine from Germany”. Yup. Electric. Medicine. From. Germany. Trusting saps were injected by Brinkley or his partner with a shot of colored water for twenty-five bucks. Folks were told the shot cured everything from a sleepy demeanor to syphilis…which was why it cost so much. 1912’s $25 is equivalent to about $600 now.

    The Greenville Electro Medic Doctors lasted two months before they got kicked out of town. No, they didn’t pay their back rent. Yes, everyone in town hated them.

    But where are the goat sacks? And what about that whole radio pioneer thing? SOON, friends, soon!

    Brinkley had a wife. Some kids. They separated, but didn’t divorce until Brinkley married a new woman (briefly becoming a bigamist). He joined the Army Reserve Medical Corps and served in World War I. In Brinkley’s case, serving meant having a nervous breakdown for several months until he was discharged. This was also the point in time where Brinkley decided to get that final year of medical school, after which he had a license to practice in eight states.

    Enter Milford, Kansas. A new clinic. A radio station. Goat balls.
    john r brinkley goat gland baby
    In 1918, John R. Brinkley and his wife settled in Milford and opened a 16-room clinic. It was a general services clinic until, one day, a man came looking for a fix for being “sexually weak”. Jesting, Brinkley said he could always sew goat balls into the guy, being as goats were an amorous and active creature. The now unknown man was willing to try anything. He begged Brinkley for the operation. And, like a dirty ol’ SOB more interested in getting rich than healing, Brinkley obliged…for $150.

    You read that right. John R. Brinkley charged a desperate man 150 smackaroos to insert slices of goat testicle in his nuts.

    Others got wind of the operation. Xenotransplantation became all the rage not so much because people adored the idea of having living cells of another species implanted in them, but because Brinkley was a magnetic man. It didn’t hurt that early on, one of the rubes who had the operation – for an increased $750 (near $9,000 today) – managed to impregnate his wife giving Brinkley’s clinic a thread of credibility. According to Brinkley, goat glands were the cure to 27 ailments. You could alleviate dementia, flatulence, and even spinal tumors by a quick jaunt to Milford.

    Folks knew about the Milford clinic because Brinkley was a master of mailed advertisements and, more importantly, in 1923 he bought a radio station. KFKB became Brinkley’s pulpit. He treated the station like he would a medicine show. Programming was part entertainment, part spiel that included cowboy orchestras, old mountain fiddlers, local talent, the weather…and of course, medicine.

    …it was in the early 1920s that the American Medical Association started keeping tabs on John R. Brinkley.
    john r brinkley prescription window
    Perhaps, it was because of his show Medical Question Box. People wrote to the radio station with ailments. Brinkley would read letters, diagnose patients without ever seeing them, and prescribe treatments – to be bought at one of his pharmacies. These pharmacies net the doctor over $14,000 a week (almost $200,000 a week in today’s market).

    Not content to be a radio personality, the doc kept up his clinic. He was prone to conduct surgery while drunk and with dirty equipment. By 1930, he’d signed over 40 death certificates for xenotransplants gone awry. The same year Radio Digest said KFKB was the most popular radio station in America, the Kansas Medical Board revoked Brinkley’s license to practice. Less than a week later, he did what any shamed doctor would do…he ran for governor of Kansas and ALMOST WON. He came so close, he tried again. Between races, Kansas revoked his radio broadcasting license.

    After his second run at the governor’s race bombed, Brinkley sold KFKB (for about 90 GRAND) and moved down to Del Rio, Texas. Del Rio was a hop over a bridge to Mexico. Brinkley bought a radio license from the Mexican government and built a border blaster radio station in Mexico…where he was immune to the Federal Radio Commission.

    Now, here’s where John R. Brinkley becomes a granddaddy to country music.

    Originally, Mexico granted the doc a 50,000 watt license for his “Sunshine Station Between Nations”. That turned into 150,000 watts. That turned into one million watts. Even though it was way down in Mexico, folks could hear XER-AM in Kansas, hell, they could hear it in CANADA. The signal was so strong it made bed springs hum and it could be picked up by car headlights. John R. Brinkley no longer had a regional audience, he had a national audience…not only for his clinics and pharmaceuticals, but for the entertainment he provided.
    XER Brinkley radio station
    XER belted out health talk, poetry, ads for “crazy water crystals” and autographed Jesus photographs, market news, preaching, comedy, and…hillbilly music. Yodelers, crooners, a country orchestra, and roots music filled the air waves. Tennessee Ernie Ford, Roy Rogers, Patsy Montana, Gene Autry, Little Jimmy Dickens, Red Foley, Shelly Lee Alley, Jimmie Rogers, Cowboy Slim Rinehart, and the Carter Family all had appearances on Brinkley’s border blaster. The Carter Family spent entire seasons there. Performers who played in schoolhouses, churches, and on local radio stations now had an outlet that broadcast them across all of the United States, some of Canada, and occasionally other international markets. A regional form of music became (inter)nationally known, accepted, and craved.

    Brinkley didn’t care that he was fostering the growth of an entire genre of music. He cared that roots musicians caused the most fan mail and that they helped move the most merchandise.

    Too bad for Brinkley that Mexico caved to the pressures of the U.S. government and revoked his radio license in the mid-1930s. By the time XER closed, other border blasters had mimicked Brinkley’s business plan and roots musicians still had access points to extended air waves.

    A fleet of Cadillacs, a mansion, an exotic animal garden…Brinkley left it all behind when he moved from Del Rio to Little Rock Arkansas in 1938.

    Life did not end well for John R. Brinkley. An old nemesis from the American Medical Association wrote a series of articles titled “Modern Medical Charlatans” that Brinkley was included in. Brinkley sued Fishbein and lost. After his loss came malpractice lawsuits from former patients and a tax fraud investigation by the IRS.

    Brinkley died penniless. Thank ye Gods for comeuppance, eh?

    - – -

    Wanna know more? The Rambler’s got a few books for you:

    Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flim Flam – Pope Brock
    …the be all end all bio of John R. Brinkley

    Border Radio: Quacks, Yodelers, Pitchmen, Psychics, and Other Amazing Broadcasters of the American Airwaves (revised edition) – Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford
    …a portrait of border radio from the 1930s – 1960s with an introduction by Wolfman Jack

    - – -

    Patty Templeton wishes she had a time machine so she could drive in Del Rio listening to XER through her headlights. She is currently writing a pulp adventure tale that involves lesbians, a blues record shop in Chicago, and Robert Johnson. Say hi to her over here.

  • 10.27.14

    Odd Americana: Tombstone Tourism

    Greetings Rotguts and Ghouls! Have a gander out the window. Past that sky the color of rat bellies, further than those hound dog clouds, after your eyes trip over the red and yellow leaves, what do you see?


    Like a bone-hand shoving through a fresh grave, like the dry tongue of the Crypt Keeper in your ear on a boil-boozed night, like the leaky zombie sex in Dead Alive, All Hallows’ Eve is thrusting itself at us in short order. And, Psychos and Spitfaces, we at The Rambler are stoked. It’s a running tradition to sit around the office (re: typewriters and notebooks splayed on crates around an oil barrel fire in an undisclosed junkyard clearing) trading sips and stories, nips and traditions. After equal swallows of pumpkin loaf and eyeball shine, it came ‘round that there is such a thing as TOMBSTONE TOURISM!

    There are beautiful weirdos whose vacations amount to walking offbeat boneyards.

    Pause. Side note. Disclaimer. The Rambler and its affiliates have the utmost respect for the dead and customs surrounding the dead…but come on now. Cemeteries are calming. Quiet. Soothing. They can be artful respites in a busy world. Who wouldn’t want to walk through that? To reflect on humanity and one’s inevitable end? To snap a few melodramatic band photos standing amongst the monuments?

    We won’t waste your time yakking up your local marble orchard. Any dark and spooky kid knows how to find one of them while blasting Bauhaus outta their beater. What we’re talking about is THEMED cemeteries. It’s simple enough to find one astounding grave (for example: Muddy Waters resides in Restvale in Alsip, Illinois or Elmer McCurdy the Sideshow Mummy is doing the six-foot-deep-sleep in Summit View in Guthrie, Oklahoma). What we’ve found are graveyards that completely comply to a theme.

    Here are six abnormal, American necropolises that’ll put the wonder in ya.

    The National Hobo Memorial in Britt, Iowa
    When a hobo catches the Westbound outta this world, they can be buried at the National Hobo Memorial in Britt, Iowa. Pass under a wooden archway and you enter a bright corner of Evergreen Cemetery. North of the tall cross is a region reserved for Hobo Kings and Queens. Hobo royalty are provided free burial plots. Any hobo can be buried south of the cross, but at their own cost. Headstones are made by fellow hobos, unless the family of the deceased wants to buy a marker.

    A fine time to tap walking sticks to headstones at the hobo graveyard is during the National Hobo Convention, a gathering that’s been around for over a hundred years. Don’t forget to stop by the Hobo Museum, housed in the renovated Chief Theatre.
    Hobo Graveyard
    Lakeside Cemetery in Colon, Michigan
    The self-proclaimed Magic Capital of the World is in Colon, Michigan. Since 1934 Colon’s been the home of Abbott’s Magic Company – a shop that’s now 50,000+ square feet fulla illusions and gags – and of the Magic Get Together, where over 900 magicians have performed. If you come for the Get Together, stop by Lakeside Cemetery, it’s known as a magician’s cemetery. Lakeside houses everyone from the famed Harry Blackstone to unknown vaudevillian sorcerers with markers that range from simple headstones to sleight of hand demonstrations.

    Bonus: the American Museum of Magic is located in Marshall, Michigan, a short jaunt from Colon.
    Blackstone Magician poster
    Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard in Cherokee, Alabama
    In 1937, Key Underwood laid his coon dog, Troop, to rest. Underwood buried his pal of 15 years in a cotton sack three feet deep with a screwdriver-chiseled memorial stone. What began as one man honoring his four-legged friend has grown into a pet cemetery of over 200 coon dogs. Settled betwixt a picnic area and hiking trails, there are hand-painted crosses, homemade concrete headstones, and marvelously ornate monuments celebrating the bond between a hunter and his or her coon dog.
    coon dog cemetery sign
    Showmen’s Rest in Forest Park, Illinois
    At 4.a.m. on June 22, 1918, part of the Hagenbeck-Wallace train halted due to an overheated wheel bearing box. It didn’t matter that they followed proper stopping procedures. An engineer who had once previously been fired for sleeping on the job, plowed into the rear of the circus train, demolishing 3 sleeping cars and causing an immense fire. 86 performers and roustabouts were killed – 56 of which were buried in Showmen’s Rest, a 750-plot section of Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois. Today, 5 stone elephants with trunks lowered in mourning stand guard to the circus folks interred within.
    showmen's rest elephant memorial
    Union Miners’ Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois
    Past the wrought iron entry stating “Resting Place of Good Union People” is a two-rut road that leads through the Union Miners’ Cemetery. The only union-owned graveyard in America came about after union victims of the Battle of Virden (a strikebreaking conflict in 1898) were refused permanent interment within the resident Lutheran cemetery. The local union bought one acre of land to house its workers. This acre expanded again and again and became the burial site of labor leader Mother Jones.

    In 1936 a crowd of near 50,000 came for the dedication of a 22-foot tall granite obelisk flanked by two bronze miners – a monument devoted to Mother Jones and assassinated unionists of the Progressive Miners of America.
    union miners' cemetery mt olive, il
    Train Graveyard in an Undisclosed North Carolina Forest
    Somewhere, in the folds of a North Carolina forest, is a railroad graveyard. Over 70 train cars and street busses from as far-off as Philadelphia and New York were supposedly collected by a man who fixed them up and sold them. As interest in buying died out, so did the man’s upkeep of his collection. He left it to rot in the woods. All this, according to Johnny Joo, an urban explorer and photographer who has not disclosed where the train church yard is. Who knows, maybe he can be persuaded to release its whereabouts, but until then, check out the gorgeous photos of bygone modes of transport.

    OK. OK. So it isn’t a conventional gravesite, but hey, we started with a hobo boneyard…it felt fitting to end with an apocalyptic train cemetery.

    - – -

    Stop eyeballing the batwing stew and pumpkin brew. It’s for staff only. Unless you bring something to The Rambler Halloween Potluck, you ain’t eating. Haven’t we given you enough? Six strange spots for Devil’s Night walks. You wanna sit by the fire, fine, but no touching the typewriters or the black cat hash.

    What? Leaving? Well, don’t let Old Scratch bite your ass on the way out. He’s hiding around here somewhere.

    Pleasant screams and happy Halloween, Fiends and Furies.

    - – -

    Patty Templeton writes about freaks, fools, and underdog heroes. She plans on dressing up as Henry Rollins for Halloween. You can find more of her work here.

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