His real name is Zebu Recchia, and at the age of nineteen, he left his hog-riding, bricklaying father in Denver behind to become a tramp. Though it's hardly your usual 21st-century occupation, it seemed like the timing was just right for Zebu, whose stage name is Eddy Joe Cotton, a moniker he chose arbitrarily when he first hit the road. Cotton, he says, is what the clouds looked like in Wyoming, where he first hitchhiked.
Newly forged, Eddy Joe took to the road like weeds to a garden. Along the way, he met kindred souls like Alabama, a weathered father figure and hobo philosopher who showed him the ropes. And by fortuitous chance, Cotton kept a journal of his travels, which eventually became a book called Hobo: A Young Man's Thoughts on Trains and Tramping in America. Cotton signs his book in Denver this week.
"I had a pile of cocktail napkins and a pen I found by side of the road, and a lot of spare time spent waiting on trains or waiting on women or waiting on anything else of a seductive nature," Cotton says. "I kept a suitcase filled with notes written on pieces of cardboard, Yoo-Hoo soda boxes, cigarette cartons, the aforementioned cocktail napkins. I carried that thing around wherever I went. It was the only thing that meant anything to me. When I was in Guatemala, I'd be Xeroxing things and sending them back to the suitcase, which I kept in my father's attic for a while."
Why do people need to know about the hobo subculture? "It's the closest thing America has to gypsy culture," Cotton notes. "And any sort of transient culture or rubber-tire culture or turnpiker culture in America is something to be respected. These people live off what we throw away. They find ways to get their kicks with very little." The "homeless" category into which we tend to lump hobos in modern times, he adds, isn't exactly accurate: "That term stresses that you don't have a home. People should find a term that stresses what we do have. But on the other hand, there are a lot of bums out there." And what's the difference? "I can identify a tramp or hobo just by looking at him -- by the way his bedroll's wrapped up, or the way he or she carries himself," Cotton says. "There's still something very gentlemanly about a hobo."
Cotton's no doubt come a long way. At the end of his big adventure, he camped out in Las Vegas, compiling his ragtag notes and doing research on hobo culture. Now based in the Bay Area, he performs with the Yard Dogs Road Show, a vaudevillian throwback hobos' carnival featuring jug-band music, a pair of dancing girls and such acts as "outlaw Buddha poet and gambler" Rick Rainbow and the Twelve-Toed Man, both from Las Vegas. Cotton will bring the entourage with him to town this week for the book signing, as well as a full-fledged performance at the Bluebird Theater.
The Yard Dogs, he says, embody tramp values in their art. "First you've got to define 'tramp artist': That's someone who uses any resources at hand to create his or her art, despite financial inadequacies. I've tried to create a mobile gallery of this type of artist." And despite difficulties in rounding up a bunch of drifters on a regular basis, Cotton's persistence has resulted in gigs with the late Ken Kesey and his resurrected Merry Pranksters, at the Coachella and Burning Man festivals, and even one in the parking lot behind Denver County Jail.
Perhaps you'll want to answer the call, too. It's not unheard of, after all: "The spirit will always be there," Cotton affirms. "And there still are a hell of a lot of trains to ride."