Poker Face Smile (1977)
Author: Robert Force
Date/Studio: 1977 Biscuit City, Denver, CO
Engineer: N.C. Bull
Producer: Laura Benson
Original Release: Pacific Rim Dulcimer Project (BC1314
Current Release: The Complete Recordings (BSR 158)
This song, written in Aberdeen, Washington in the Spring of 1975, marks the beginning of the style of songwriting I have mostly followed since. It is a song about actual events. Over the years as I matured in the process of writing, I became more literal. Prior to writing this song my rhetoric was laced with weighty thoughts. I still was telling the world what they ought to know instead of simply, poetically, making observations and letting folks draw their own conclusions. This song changed that.
Janette and I were living at Alexander's by the Sea Artist's Guild, between Copalis and Ocean City, north of Gray's Harbor. The 1930s seaside resort of twenty-some cabins on two dead-end streets was the home of an equal number of artisans practicing their arts and crafts. It was the first time Janette and I had lived together. We had answered an ad in Mother Earth News asking for artists to be juried into this low-rent collective. We were both accepted as musical instrument builders.
The guild was the result of a developer building condos on the beach who thought having artists up the road would be a good selling point. He bought the old resort to gain access to the beach lots. Janette and I were given cabin number 9 at the beginning of B street, the head of the road to the beach. We could rehab it in anyway we saw fit. I tore out the two small bedrooms and built a sleeping loft under which, at exactly my head height, we put in our workshop. Our rent was fifteen dollars a month.
In was a hard-scrabble life despite the glamourous picture. We ate razor clams stuffed with nettles, made pancakes out of cattail pollen and had potlucks where we all fed each other. We scrounged building material and dry firewood from the condo construction site. Many of us covered the inside of our cabins with the aromatic cedar shingles that had blown down the beach. We had, almost to ourselves, one of Washington's most beautiful beaches in the rainiest place in North America.
We had no income to speak of. Janette was getting a weekly, thirty-five dollar unemployment check from having been a waitress in Seattle prior to our move to the beach. In Search was out but there would be no royalty checks for six months or more. No one was stopping by that largely uninhabited portion of the West Coast's rain forest looking to load up on artisan goods in the dead of winter.
Heidi was one of the guild's weavers. Her husband, Howard, was a gambler who did all right in the behind-the-bar card rooms of Aberdeen and Hoquiam. I fancied myself good at cards, after all I had won the money for my first dulcimer playing poker at college. With Howard's encouragement I set out one evening to make it big playing against the loggers and fishermen. Janette knew the buy-in was ten bucks and entrusted me to cash the unemployment check and then see what I could do with the ante.
In two hands I was out. I put the rest of the money in and lasted another twenty minutes. You are not allowed to stay in the gambling room if you are not playing. Howard was my ride home and he was still in the game. I was banished to the bar with not even enough money for a consolation beer. I borrowed a pen and sat at a back table writing on a napkin, “You ain't lost your money 'til you've lost it all and spent your reason on one last call...” I had plenty of time to finish the song.
I had spent my reason and gotten an education about a couple of truths in return. I was looking for something high and wild to pull me through in the company of hard men with hard stares who put their lives on the line doing dangerous work every day of the week. I was a fresh-faced kid, a long-haired hippie idealist. There was no bluff in me. That night a sleepy Janette asked me how I did. I told her I had lost it all. A couple of hours later she shook me awake, “All of it?” “Yes, but I wrote a song.”