James Brubaker

An Almost Holy Absence of Everything

James Brubaker

Nobody knew where Jim Toop was headed on the night that he disappeared from I-25, just North of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. His next gig wasn’t for three days, and was in Houston, south of his point of departure. Granted, even if Toop had been heading in the correct direction to get to his next gig, we’d still be left wondering why he left in the middle of the night, under cover of darkness, and why he pulled over, less than twenty miles into his drive. Of course, had Toop never disappeared on that fateful night in 1975, I’d still have been drawn to his music, but were it not for the mystery surrounding his disappearance, I wouldn’t have driven to New Mexico to investigate that disappearance, decades after the fact, nor would there be as much of an audience for my current project, yet another book about Jim Toop. As such, though the cult of Toop has grown over the years, its members are more interested in those mysteries than his career as a musician—to wit, sales of books about Toop’s disappearance and of T-shirts featuring the musician’s official Missing Person photograph have far outsold his music for decades, even prior to the proliferation of internet music piracy. There is, however, one place where the music and mystery merge and it happens to be, for music fans one of Toop’s strongest albums, and for conspiracy theorists and amateur sleuths, one of the most important pieces of the Toop puzzle—that would be Toop’s 1971 album, Black Triangle. Upon its release, the album was largely viewed as a strong sophomore outing that found Toop building on the songwriting promise of his debut while adding new textures to his arrangements and smoothing out the rough edges of its predecessor. Following Toop’s disappearance, though, the album came to be viewed in a much different light. Here is its tracklist:

1. Speed Limit

2. Just the Other Day

3. Black Triangle

4. Ransom

5. Desert Highway

6. Ascension

7. Sacrifice

8. Peyote Blues

9. Said the Cactus to the Cloud

10. On the Wind

11. Black Triangle (Reprise)

12. You Were A Loan

            Notice the titles’ preoccupation with deserts and driving. More peculiarly, though, once we dig a bit deeper into the album’s themes, we see that most of its songs are primarily interested in mysterious disappearances and being lost. The album title and title track are believed to refer to UFOs. Though flying saucers, not the now ubiquitous “black triangle,” were the preferred representative form for UFOs through the sixties and seventies, many of Toop’s fans have come to believe that the song—which tells the story of a lonely desert traveler coming across a black triangle hovering over the interstate, then being lifted into the triangle by a beam of light and meeting the “powerful strangers” inside—was based on a vision Toop had of his own future. Of course, speculation about UFOs and “Black Triangle” represent the thinking of only the most fringe contingent of Toop enthusiasts. Different factions of Toop fans find the “truths” of his disappearance in a number of the album’s songs: “Speed Limit” is about a man who suffers a psychotic break, drives his car off the road then walks into the desert, never to be heard from again; “Ransom” tells the story of a young musician who pulls over in the desert to urinate, only to be kidnapped for a ransom that is never paid because the kidnappers—burned out hippies, bloated, waterlogged, and spit out by the ocean of the sixties onto the shore of the seventies—were sending their ransom notes into the world, unaddressed and tied to the backs of rattle snakes; meanwhile the protagonist of “Sacrifice” winds up lost in the desert only to be taken in by a cult and, as the title suggests, sacrificed.
            All twelve of the songs on Black Triangle tell stories of protagonists disappearing in the desert, and while each tale is quite different, conspiracy theorists and Toop’s fans mostly came to agree on one absurd fact: Toop had somehow foreseen his own disappearance and made an album about it. But there is even disagreement about the way Toop saw and understood his future: some enthusiasts believe that Toop was able to see the future, but not clearly—he knew he would disappear in the desert but didn’t know how. Others believed that Toop could see clearly into not just his own future, but the futures of several alternate universes—that he was destined to disappear in every universe, only in different ways, and the album’s songs describe several of those ways. Still, another faction believe Toop saw all of the album’s disappearances as his own future, and have warped the different songs into a single narrative, believing that the extra terrestrials who traveled to Earth in “Black Triangle” were unhappy with how close the song came to the truth of their existence, so they orchestrated a plot to lure Toop into the desert where he was kidnapped by a cult, held for ransom, then sacrificed. Only a handful of Toop’s fans took issue with these readings. The few rational fans challenged these sensationalistic interpretations of Toop’s songs and disappearance on grounds ranging from close lyrical analyses of the songs (“Black Triangle” never refers to its “powerful strangers” as aliens, leading some to read the piece as an allegorical interrogation of class and power in America), to the simple, pragmatic claim that, perhaps, Toop couldn’t see the future at all, but self-fulfilled his own prophecy, or better yet, orchestrated his disappearance to feed the flames of his fandom, and construct an enduring legacy.
             For my part, I tend to agree with these later, more reasonable ideas, though even they seem to be trying a bit too hard to turn Toop’s disappearance into story. Isn’t it possible, after all, that Toop had to pull over for some reason—was to too drunk to keep driving, or just wanted to get out of the car and feel the desert around him, and wandered off into the night to never return? Does there need to be a story or a reason? Sometimes these things just happen, and I’m inclined to believe that they just happen more on quiet stretches of road defined by an almost holy absence of everything. Still, though, the cult of Toop’s stories are seductive, and I’ve come to feel their influence on my life. Were it not for these theories, I wouldn’t have driven across the country and through New Mexico, cutting a path through its desserts and sand blasted cities. I never would have stopped my car in the approximate spot where Toop’s own car was discovered close to forty years ago, stepped out into the cool desert night, looked toward all the cardinal compass points, the ordinal points, and all the quieter degrees between, then looked up at the sky, full of more stars than I’d ever seen, and recognized, for probably the first time in my life, the promise of infinity. And there on the side of the road, looking up and out at the surrounding emptiness, it wasn’t so difficult to imagine a UFO, or a cult, or incompetent kidnappers slipping out of the quiet black forever and stealing a single lost folk singer back to their own realms, twilit and secret. Before I drove south into Truth and Consequences, I looked up and down I-25, disappearing both directions into darkness, and I prepared myself to receive the truth of Jim Toop’s disappearance, however fantastical it might be. Assuming, of course, I was going to find any truth at all.

JAMES BRUBAKER is the author of Pilot Season (Sunnyoutside), Liner Notes (forthcoming from Subito Press) and Black Magic Death Sphere: (Science) Fictions (Forthcoming from Pressgang Press). His favorite road used to be SR48 in Ohio, but now he kind of misses the stretch of OK-33 that ran part of the way between Stillwater and Oklahoma City.