May 2011 — Joe Bageant
This tribute to Joe Bageant originally appeared last May in La Cuadra, a print magazine published in Guatemala. The magazine recently posted the following to the web, and here it is.
By Michael Tallon, Editor-in-Chief, La Cuadra Magazine
Joe Bageant is dead, Joe Bageant is dead. Now hang down your head, Joe Bageant is dead.
It is with a heavy heart that we share that news. Cancer got him in the end. Regular readers will recognize his name as Joe was a steady contributor to La Cuadra over the years. Your editors had been fans of his for a long time, but when we first started this project we never imagined we’d actually land his great talents for our magazine. Then, one evening back in 2008, as we were necking beers with our good friend Earl The Retired Bank Robber, Joe’s name came up. I’d just stumbled upon Joe’s website and discovered a trove of essays I’d not seen before. When I asked Earl if he’d ever read Joe’s stuff, he grinned and said, ‘Been friends with that old bastard for years. You want me to call him up and see if he’d do something for the rag?’
A spit take and a ‘Hells, yeah!’ was the immediate response.
The very next day I received an email from Joe saying ‘any friend of Earl’s is a friend of mine,’ and that he’d be more than happy to contribute. Further, he hoped that maybe he and Earl could arrange to be in Antigua at the same time someday so we could all get drunk. In that email, Joe noted that his schedule was very busy in the coming months, but concluded, ‘. . . when I return, I’ll come down to Antigua and do anything you want. Or nothing in particular if you want. Nothing is as important to me as engaging good people in this life. In art and labor, Joe.’
Sadly, life got in the way and we never had that boozy rendezvous, but we were able to keep up a healthy correspondence since then, culminating in an invite to his joint up in Virginia to talk about the world and see if he could do something about finding me a publisher up North. Missed that opportunity, too, goddammit. I coulda used some of his wisdom in those regards.
Joe gave me the most deeply appreciated professional compliment I’ve ever received, and no matter how long I write, I doubt that I’ll hear more meaningful accolades. He’d read a review I’d written of his first book, Deer Hunting With Jesus, and shot an email to Earl that read, in part: ‘Jesus H. Christ that Tallon can write! I don’t say that because of the favorable review of the book, but because he is a bona fide wordslinger of the first order. Clean, clear, punchy, intelligent.’
I was the happiest of monkeys brachiating through the highest of branches for weeks after Earl forwarded that letter. Sweet shit, Joe Bageant likes MY stuff. For me that was like having Kareem Abdul-Jabbar compliment my hook shot.
It wasn’t just his own skills at wordslingery that made him such a hero to those of us at La Cuadra. Joe had empathy out the ass for anyone who was getting the short end of the stick, and he noted, time and again, those were almost invariably the same people: poor folk; his folk.
Joe grew up a redneck and remained one his entire life. Bageant was a Second-Amendment-defending, whiskey-drinking farmer’s son of Virginia. But intellectually and spiritually, he’d transcended the provincialism, the racism, the anti-intellectualism and the clan (if not The Klan) mentality of his shuttered volk. There’s a fetishism in our culture for white folk who ‘remember their roots,’ or black folk who ‘keep it real.’ Joe did both of those things, but unlike so many others, he was not limited by the horizons of his formation. He grew up hard, hungry and poor, spent the Vietnam years in the Navy, came home and moved out to the West Coast to be a hippie, took heroic doses of hallucinogens, partied with rock stars and wrote about holy men. He tended bar on an Indian reservation, edited a journal of military history, lived in Belize, Colorado, Idaho, Mexico and Oregon before deciding, in his words, ‘to settle some scores with the bigoted, murderous redneck town I grew up in. I love ’em but they need a good ass kicking.’ And so he moved back home.
Joe spent much of his life kicking the collective asses of the bigots, the prideful, the pompous, the blindly patriotic and the cruel. And in that life he also brought balm and his big love to the weaker-thans and the world-forgotten. He was an honorable man.
And Joe was a good man, a generous man, a loving man, and we’re sorry that we never got to share that beer in person. There aren’t enough hombres like him knocking heads together on this planet, and with his passing the world is a sadder, sillier place. So, we’re raising our glass to you, Joe. And our toast is a promise to keep faith with the cause of the just, and to maintain a weather-eye out for unexpected sources of kindness, sincerity and love.
Sleep lightly and haunt the bastards.
Joe Bageant lives on. Joe Bageant lives on. Now strike up a song, Joe Bageant lives on.
Photo of Joe Bageant with flag by Konijn Marshall