BOB HITE, THIS WAS YOUR LIFE (THEN)/”How the Cossacks Took Their Vodka”
I want to at least start a post on the late Bob “the Bear” Hite, mover and shaker —— especially shaker——with my all-time favorite blues band, Canned Heat, since Feb. 26 is his birthday, and this is Feb. 26. But it is also the eye of one of the great mid-Atlantic snowstorms of recent times in which this being written, and I’m about to lose power. In fract, the lights just flickered, and I don’t wnat to lose anything, so I’m going to post this now and come back to it. At least I will have made the deadline.
View from my window right now
Bob and Canned Heat were very kind to my band, Evergreen Blueshoes. They turned us on to the Topanga Corral, an important venue in their early days, and turned the owners of the Corral onto us. The Corral WAS our early venue for many months, and really has to be considered our launching pad.
I knew Bob via Barry Hansen, aka Dr. Demento, as a blues collector, well before he co-formed the Heat with Al “Blind Owl” Wilson, another blues scholar and fellow student in UCLA’s Anglo-America Folklore and Folkmusic Dept. or whatever it was called, in the mid-‘Sixties. Yes, Al, Barry, John Fahey and I were certainly interested in the genres, but we were absolutely FASCINATED with staying out of Nam, and the Folklore and Folkmusic graduate program gave us IIs student deferments to do just that, don’t ask me why.
Anyway, Bob and the Heat gave us our start in a way, and I will love his memory forever. He had a terrific sense of humor, and an even better sense of irony.
One of the many times they got busted for drugs–a drama which they seemed to revel in–they were thrown into some cell in LA, I have no idea which one, made their call, and began the short wait for their attorney to come and get them out. But I guess he couldn’t get there fast enough for them to get high again, so Bob developed a headache, asked for some aspirin, ground it up, put it in cigarette and passed it around.
“What the fuh!” was almost all I could say when he told me. “Why?” was the rest of it.
“Well, it was better than nothing, wasn’t it?” he said. You can’t argue with that.
He was a classy guy, a good blues collector, and a thunderous presence on stage. Say what you want about the importance of blues guitarist/singer Al Wilson and rock guitarist Henry Vestine (btw, both gone, as is Bob) when I think of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ , hearing it on the radio and seeing it performed live, I think of Bob Hite. In my knowledgeable and arrogant opinion, he was the heart of the band.
And it looks like I got my 2 cents worth said before the next wave of this storm hits.
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Here’s an historical event I’ve been trying to write up for 20 years or more with no success, and I don’t think I’ve broken that run now. But I just have to get this on the record, and I can’t wait until it’s ready to come out of me in its own good time. It’s really kind of cool, and I hope you read it.
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How the Cossacks Took Their Vodka
by Allan Ross
This is one of very few personally-related, historically interesting stories I collected from my family, and I think it needs to be recorded. Though it’s now almost two centuries since the event took place, it still lives in my family’s generational memory, even if the generation is represented by only me, as personal experience. It’s what I call “touching the hem of the hem” history.
As usual with ancient, oral accounts, accuracy is not the point. The “facts” were presented to me as facts.
The story was told to me on a hot, blast-oven-dry Los Angeles summer afternoon when I was home on semester break from college, my parents were in Las Vegas and I was sitting at the kitchen table with my grandfather, Papa Dave, drinking bourbon in shots and listening to stories from his childhood. This is one of them.
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In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, in rural peasant Russia, vodka was bottled by filling an open flask with liquor, then blowing the top closed so that the vessel was completely sealed. (Remember what I said about oral recollection vs. facts).
Papa Dave guessed it saved a few steps in the bottling process, but it meant you had to break off the top of the bottle to get to the vodka. You would then spill a little of it onto the ground to rinse away any shards on the jagged edge, pour yourself and your friend a glass, say “Na Sdrovye,” and—down the hatch. Except for the Cossacks.
The Cossacks would drink straight from the bottle, passing it to each other and getting drunker and drunker as the booze made it’s from horseman to horseman, first mingling with, then joining their body fluids with its own. Bottles would replace themselves as soon as they were empty.
In the early rounds, while the Cossacks were still sober, they would hold the shattered mouths of the bottles above their open maws, goatskin-like, and let the liquor pour out and down their throats.
But sometimes, after drinking this way for awhile, anesthetized and growing clumsy, they would begin stabbing away at their lips and faces with broken bottlenecks until blood ran down their cheeks and necks, onto their tunics, down their arms, where they drew veins on the backs of their hands and onto the white snow.
When they got drunk enough they’d decide what they were going to do to whatever peasants were unlucky enough to be around at the moment. The sight of bloody-faced, rifle-waving Cossack horsemen was something no Russian peasant could ever forget. The Cossacks, for their part, seemed to live for these moments.
Their standard procedure was to descend, eight or ten strong, on a settlement, rein in their huge, steaming horses just outside some family’s hovel, smash the first bottle across a fence post or porch rail or anything else solid enough to withstand one blow from a blown vessel, and begin passing it around while the locals cringed in barn, house, or wherever they were huddled, in unspeakable fear, because they never knew what the Cossacks would do once they were drunk. Usually, neither did the Cossacks.
This time, though, in my grandfather’s story, the Cossacks had a purpose: it was to savage an enemy’s army as it retreated across the frozen Steppes after losing a battle at the gates of Moscow during a typically bad Russian winter in the early 1800’s. It was a desperate chase where the once great army could not stop long enough to bury its dead. The best its recoiling troops could do was kill their dying before the Cossacks did, in a way far worse than a lead ball through the head. The survivors would then continue back-pedaling, begging potatoes or bones or a nite of shelter along the way to safety from quaking serfs who usually stared at them thru panic-blinded eyes and did nothing.
However, in my grandfather’s story a peasant family does the unthinkable: with the Cossacks one town away and closing hard, they succor two infantrymen for a night and a day, hiding and feeding them and finding enough rags and leather scraps to make them footwear that had a chance of holding up for the frigid, problematic journey home.
There was nothing special about the two soldiers; probably a couple of poor farm boys from some rural area in their own country who’d joined the army hoping they might get dealt a better hand in life soldiering than plowing. In some ways they were not that different from the peasant family quartering them, risking all to give them an advantage maybe ten, fifteen kilometers on the Cossacks. And maybe that’s why they did it: they saw themselves in the two soldiers. There is simply no way to ever know.
Anyway, in my grandfather’s story, they somehow get away with it, the French foot-soldiers and Russian peasants, with the Cossacks less than half a day’s ride behind the two boys. As far as the family knew, the boys made it back to France.
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What makes this story light up in neon for me is that the story was told, as you’ve probably figured out by now, to my grandfather by his grandmother who’d been one of several daughters in the family that took in the soldiers. The soldiers were part of Napoleon’s troops that limped back to France after their defeat in Moscow in 1812.
I do not know her name, and I doubt if I ever will, but my great, great grandmother actually saw and remembered the Cossack horsemen, their vodka turned red from their own blood, their yellow eyes narrowing as they pranced their horses thru her shtetl, probably trying to decide what hovels to fire, who to rape, who to kill, you know, the usual. And when my grandfather was old enough my great-great grandmother told him. I guess he figured at 18 I was old enough for him to tell me.
No wonder I was, and still am, a little bit excited. That story really was about the Napoleonic wars, the beginning of the end of the Empire, and that really was my great-great grandmother telling my grandfather all about it, up close and personal. And that really was my grandfather telling me the story of how our—my!—family hid Frenchmen from the Cossacks, and how the Cossacks took their vodka.
So it’s my story now, and can you imagine telling it in a fraternity bull session after someone else is finished talking about how his dad ran out of gas on the Oakland Bay Bridge? Well, I did and it got me an extra dessert.