May 1, 2013

Keep on the Sunny Side

Always bet on the pale horse!

Right now, Ozzy Osbourne is probably sitting at that crazy fish tank bar in the Galt House while a zebra loach languidly polices the algae below his pint glass.

Maybe the limo is late. Maybe Ozzy left his phone up in his room. Maybe he lost his phone last night at Freddie’s. Anyway, for some reason, he doesn’t have his stupid phone, so he can’t just Google himself or watch last night’s “Rachel Maddow.” Out of boredom, he reaches for the free local weekly paper, just like bored people waiting around in bars or bus stations used to do in olden times.

He’s seen this type of rag in plenty of towns and knows to start reading it at the back like a manga. Still puzzling over the Rustic Frog, he absentmindedly scans the rest of the paper. Our eyes meet. He is staring at the picture of me holding that cute little dog from the LEO office. Now I really wish I could have a do-over on those photos. Brady’s great, but I totally look like a clown.

Suddenly, Ozzy is transported back to another beautiful spring day in Louisville. It is 2003. He is leaning out over the balcony of Millionaires Row. I am down below at the tail end of a very long line snaking around toward the women’s restroom. The sun glints off the massive silver cross hanging from his neck. My gaze is predictably drawn toward the Goth and the shiny. There is meaningful eye contact.

Kid Rock was there, too, or maybe I just saw him later, getting out of a van in front of the Doublemint Twins’ house while I was waiting in the rain for Anna Nicole Smith. Derby is a magical time — just ask Larry Birkhead. People are getting disinhibited all over town. Like Hunter Thompson told his buddy, “Almost everybody you talk to from now on will be drunk.”

You don’t have to be drunk to sing “My Old Kentucky Home” right before the race starts. You might have to be from Kentucky to cry over it. Drunk and from Kentucky and wearing seersucker would be the guaranteed trifecta.

I love Stephen Foster. I don’t care if he never really went to Bardstown. I’m sorry he died totally broke and drunk and alone, curled up in some doorway on the Bowery. My love for Stephen Foster is complicated by his occasional, completely poisonous flight of racist fantasy. If I end up hanging out at the track with Ozzy, I’ll teach him the new fix for the problem verse of “My Old Kentucky Home.’’ In my band we just sing ’Tis summer and many of you are gay. If you think Stephen Foster can’t be redeemed, check out Mary J. Blige singing his most beautiful song, “Hard Times Come Again No More.”

Bill Monroe’s “Molly and Tenbrooks” is the greatest song ever about horseracing, in the same way Albert Pinkham Ryder’s “The Race Track” is the greatest painting ever about horseracing. “Molly and Tenbrooks” is based on an 1878 race at the Louisville Jockey Club, which became Churchill Downs. No one died in the actual race, but the song unfolds into a classic murder ballad with this unforgettable lyric:

Molly said to Tenbrooks, You’re lookin’ mighty squirrel

Tenbrooks said to Molly, I’m a-leavin’ this old world

The song has all the confusion and frantic pace of a horse race. In some versions, Tenbrooks kills Molly by kicking her to death. In others, Molly dies of a mysterious fever. Either way, she ends up in “a coffin ready made.” Like the Kentucky Derby itself, the song is really about a race against death and against the fleeting, futile nature of life and the whole mess.

See you at the track. Your invitation to act a fool comes with a sprig of mint in a commemorative souvenir glass.

Catherine Irwin is still feeling kind of dirty about why we didn’t get our fake war on this year. Rand Paul and the “sequester” called off the annual simulated strafing of Butchertown. It’s still a win for kite contests and dogs, though, right?