Volume 18, 2023 Spring Edition

Buenos Dias, buckaroos and buckarettes!

I'm Bob - welcome to the bunker. You may know me from the band Big Medicine Head or daytime television.  This seasonal missive from the land of tumbleweeds and the lonesome six string guitar features news from the frontier, music and prose. Each issue will have a downloadable track and lyrics, along with the backstory of the song. For the duration of the pandemic and beyond we'll also feature live songs from the bunker. 

This issue is dedicated to the memory of Peter Nelson, my father-in-law. As his daughter and I stood at his bedside while his life trickled down to minutes, I held his wife Sally's hand, and contemplated the sad honor of watching a 57-year love affair come down to just one breath.

Peter Nelson is on the open prairie now, giving God a bad time. If you’re ever passing through San Diego and happen to see the Cuyamaca range against the fading twilight, tip your hat to Pete - those mountains belong to him.

Travel well, my friend.

If you'd like to revisit past issues of Tales of the Western Hemisphere you can find them at bobgemmell.com

Bravado Pete

Peter Nelson was a great man. The King of San Diego County, in fact. When we heard of his diagnosis we set about telling his life story, with appropriate hyperbolic license.

We submitted to Pete a questionnaire, asking him details of his life: his favorite tree in the yard of his childhood home, the most influential book he read as a young man, a time when he did something he should have been arrested for but wasn't. His response was voluminous, and served as our roadmap for this narrative .

His daughter Lea did the artwork for our tall tale. Myself, the rest of the boys from Big Medicine Head and Allen Johnston threw paint at a musical canvas to see what would stick. Peter Nelson is the spoon player.

Bravado Pete is up on YouTube Music, Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, and all reputable purveyors of well crafted melody. Or, just click here.

Or...grab some popcorn and hunker down with the Bravado Pete movie!

Bravado Pete 

A dericho in the Wisconsin sky
on the night the baby arrived
The doctor gave him a slap
and he slapped the doctor back
he was swaddled in a jaguar hide

Young Pete grew to be as lean as a plank
Tall enough to pull down the sun
when he was still a boy
he made his way to Illinois
after some trouble he was gone gone gone

Don’t shine a light down the well
leave the shovel where it fell
you’ll never find Bravado Pete

A shadow on the road he travelled all alone
rang the Brethren bells in Ecuador
In a Barcelona bar
a sailor taught him to play cards
Won a Spanish pistol with the Queen of Hearts

He danced the Donkey Steps under Santorini skies
An English gypsy taught him to read palms
drank with Picasso in Migennes
absinthe until dawn
and bongo solos all night long

Don’t shine a light down the well
leave the shovel where it fell
you’ll never find Bravado Pete

On an Arizona night
gun shots splashed the sky with light
flashed the windows in Palo Verde West
Sally and the girls
were upstairs taking out their curls
where the shots came from was anybody’s guess

Pete met Sally in an Indio cafe
A swimsuit model in another life
there was magic in the air
she was unaware
Bravado Pete had pulled the trigger that night

Don’t shine a light down the well
leave the shovel where it fell
you’ll never find Bravado Pete

Pete and Smoke Show Sally hit the road for El Cajon
he started up a hiker gang
he rounded up a crew
some educators that he knew
The Bravado Club was their name

There was Hombre Tom and Craig Le Champion
Truck Stop Dave and Boston McQuaid
Bravado Pete
and Jailbird John
trouble haunted every road they travelled on

Don’t shine a light down the well
leave the shovel where it fell
you’ll never find Bravado Pete

It was on a summer night beneath the yawning desert sky
the boys were holed up for a rendezvous
A one hour drive
took Pete twenty five
where he lost those hours no one knew

A hundred years ago a Julian miner disappeared
now there’s a ghost on Banner Grade
as the story is told
he roams the mountain poaching souls
many travellers have been waylaid

They say Pete and Sally left and disappeared into the west
precisely where went nobody knows
their silhouettes have been seen
against the Cuyamaca Range
and on the bluffs above the San Diego coast

Don’t shine a light down the well
leave the shovel where it fell
you’ll never find Bravado Pete

Cuyamaca Sky

When you are told that someone dear will soon change worlds, what words will you summon? We articulate our feelings in the limited forms of expression that we possess. I was left with the language I know best - lyrics.

As mentioned above, Lea and I sent Peter a questionnaire, looking for details of his life. He responded with far more than I could fit into one song, so I wrote two.  Maybe three. The working title for the first was "Hyperbolic Pete" - it later became Bravado Pete.  I took some heat from Sally and Lea after they listened to early versions and it became clear that my tall-tale had wandered far from the actual details of his experience. Thus, I began the second song, with the temporary moniker "Literal Pete". This hewed a little closer to his actual narrative.

Something I noticed when I first met Pete and Sally was that after decades together they were just like teenagers. When they sat together on the couch they held hands, and embraced. They looked at each other with the affection one associates with two people whose love affair could be measured in weeks, not years.

What was clear in Pete's response to our questionnaire was that the defining event of his life was the day they met. Cuyamaca Sky is dedicated to Pete and Sally.

Listen to Cuyamaca Sky on Apple, Spotify, Tidal, Deezer, Bandcamp, wherever...or simply click here.

Cuyamaca Sky

As the sun sets in the Cuyamaca sky
we know we all will be alright
Oriole’s sing in the fading light
looking down the road that led to here...

Afternoons in Elgin, Illinois
in the branch in a cherry tree
I fell asleep reading Catcher in the Rye
woke up to a brand new me

I left the states
and headed down to Ecuador
Brethren bells
above the Quito mission door

A Vespa rolled across the countryside in France
from Paris all the way to Cannes
Etienne and Matilda treated me just like a son
Pablo Picasso lived next door

In an English pub in 1963
I heard the news about John Kennedy

I made it back to the states
A chance encounter sealed my fate
sitting in an Indio cafe
I knew she was the one
brighter than the Arizona sun
she’ll always be my friend
I’ve loved her everyday since then

Now everyday seems to fold into one
these moments add up to a life
holding hands with Sally on the porch
looking at the Cuyamaca sky

An Individual of Great Distinction

(in the July 2020 edition we featured Peter Nelson in our Individuals of Great Distinction feature. We reprint it here in observance of Pete's passing)

I wonder about people some time. We all have some measure of creativity, and artistic achievement. Some of us are adequate in that regard. Some of us are sub-standard. A few of us explode with energy, creativity and a blinding life force. It is the latter corridor of existence in which Peter Nelson roams.

Peter is a master craftsman and photographer, and a gold-standard father. His creations are on display in homes and gardens across San Diego county. One of his recent efforts is a table he shaped from the wood of an apricot tree that had reached the end of life. 

The beauty of this table is intrinsic - evident at a glance. It isn't until the drawer is removed and turned over, however, that we discover that a piece of furniture can have a soul. For, inscribed on the underside of the drawer, is the history and dedication of this fine piece: 

"Our granddaughter, Olivia, was born to our daughter Lea Renee with the help of a midwife on September 4th, 1994 in our house. According to ancient custom her placenta was buried in the planting of an apricot sapling to fertilize and add their very special DNA to the fiber of the new tree. Sadly, the tree...died in 2018 at the age of 24.  The wood from that tree was used in the making of this small table to commemorate the beautiful spirits of the two women whose bodies helped to nourish it."

The wood chosen for this table is rippled and burled, and the edges are rough hewn, as though Peter shaped the wood with his bare hands and willed it into being. 

We should try to be economical with words when describing a piece of furniture. This much we can say about Peter Nelson's beau chef-d'oeuvre: you and I may spend the rest of our lives trying to create something only a fraction as cool as this table. 

S O N G  o f  t h e  M O N T H
Sit back and relax as we explore the Bob Gemmell and Big Medicine Head song catalog. The download instructions are at the bottom of this newsletter.


Finally, I've included a song from my most recent album Parts and Labor.

I've included it because Pete cried when I played it for him on the night I finished it. I think that was because I wrote it about his daughter.

To listen, follow the download instructions at the bottom of this message. Or click here.