Bye-bye, Aspen: Homeless troubador John Baker is on the road again

When we last caught up with John Baker, irascible author/songwriter/culinary guerrilla, he was celebrating the richness in spirit of the downtrodden by performing his song "The Homeless Bums of Aspen" on YouTube. Baker knows a thing or two about being without portfolio in Colorado's glitziest town, but since those days he's traded the mean streets of Aspen for the beaches of Hawaii -- and more songs about hitting the road with little to slow you down.

How do you go from a shelter in Aspen to the north shore of Oahu?

Baker, who has a culinary arts degree from Mesa State College and has lived in Telluride off and on, explains the move in a recent e-mail: "I couldn't even get a job at Chipotle in Denver without a car," he writes. "I didn't want to go back to the shelter in Aspen. Telluride has no place for homeless bums and the rent is ridiculous. I will be going back to either Vail or Glenwood Springs when winter is over. I live in a tent for 300 a month, but that is coming to an end because I don't have any more cash. I bought a car yesterday for 300 instead and will be living in it."

Or you can find a more lyrical version in his new six-song compilation CD, Stand By Your Dog:

I left Colorado without a damn dime to my name Spent my last dollar on a drink in a plane As I said goodbye to snow ten feet high in the Rocky Mountain Saloon I put a quarter in the jukebox and played "I'll Be Drinkin' on a Beach by Noon"

Baker's economic troubles date back to a breakup with his girlfriend four years ago that found him without domicile or ready funds. The crisis stirred his creative instincts; at the age of fifty, he went to culinary school and became part of a team of misfits that won a national competition against the likes of students from La Cordon Bleu and New York culinary schools. That experience, in turn, generated his breezy, screenplay-ready memoir, The Bad News Culinary Students from Grand Junction, Colorado, "based on half-truths and flat-out lies" (and available as a last-minute stocking stuffer from lulu).

But Baker has also branched out into songwriting and performing. He comes by the talent naturally enough; his nephew is Richard Colson Baker, better known as the rapper MGK (Machine Gun Kelly). "The Homeless Bums of Aspen" was an early effort; his new CD compilation features a range of more polished tunes about drinkin' and roamin' this land, from Chicago to New Orleans to Waikiki (where, he reminds us, "Drinks with umbrellas/The Hawaiians will tell us/Keeps the rain from diluting your gin").

These are half-growled, half-crooned honkytonk specials, suitable for drinking parties, from the novelty item "Stand by Your Dog" to "Christmas Time in New Orleans," a sly entry for any collection of holiday music. There's even an ode to Illinois, "John Belushi's Still Alive."

"My Christmas wish would be that I get an agent in Denver to pick up my book and pitch it to the studios and that millions of people download a song or two from my CD from," Baker says. "Life is tough."

Indeed. The car he just acquired for $300, Baker adds, doesn't seem to have a working reverse gear. That means there's nothing to do but plunge ahead.

"Anybody can come out with their own CD," he notes. "Anybody can self-publish anything. But I came out with both, respectfully. In more ways than one, it cost me everything. I think there's something beautiful about that, if nothing else."

From our archives: "On Aspen Mountain, visiting memorial shrines is a tradition."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast