One windy morning in the early 1990s, sometime around 3 a.m., a man named Chicken John Rinaldi was driving around the hills of San Francisco with a van full of trash, looking for an empty dumpster—if he found one, he'd be able to sleep lying down instead of making do in the driver's seat. He located one that was half-full and cleared it out to make room for his cargo. Squatting down to light a cigarette, Rinaldi spotted a candle and lit it as well. That's when he saw a scrapbook, carefully bound in hand-tooled leather, just lying there at the bottom of a dumpster he happened to have climbed inside of. Naturally, he picked it up and read it by candlelight.
The album chronicled the life of a woman named Margaret Rucker. Born in 1907, she was the daughter of the old-money family that basically founded the city of Everett. (John D. Rockefeller had muscled his way into town when it looked like the Great Northern Railway would end there, but he divested quickly when Seattle got the job.) The book included photographs, yellowed pages of poetry Rucker had published as a student at the University of Washington, an eager telegram (presumably from her husband-to-be, Justus), and a series of newspaper clippings. The smiling young woman came from a privileged life, but Rucker was a morose character. Her youthful poetry was soaked in melancholy. There were pictures of her looking bleary in a hospital bed after a head-on car crash while she was pregnant and three newspaper clippings about her husband's suicide: They were drinking coffee, he went into the next room for a moment, came back to resume their conversation, then pulled a Japanese pistol from his pocket and blew his brains out. She was the only witness. (Eerily, one of Rucker's student poems, published when she was 20 years old and titled "Two Deaths," ends: "Had he left me, old, in winter,/My heart would have known less pain—/But my love left me in April/And I shan't know love again." Justus shot himself 23 years later—on April 21, 1950.)
Rinaldi—who played in the Murder Junkies with GG Allin and ran for mayor of San Francisco under the motto "Nuisance '07"—was transfixed. He kept the book and, over the years, showed it to artists, musicians, friends, dates, roommates, the plumber, and anyone else he thought might be interested. Eventually, not knowing what to do with it, he put together a Rucker memorial cabaret and gave it away in pieces to the crowd. But he'd scanned some of the images, made a slide show, and kept evangelizing for the cult of Margaret. One of those people was his longtime friend Jason Webley—an itinerant Seattle-based musician with a devoted following among accordion-punk, gutter-Americana, and cirque noir aficionados—who saw the Rucker book for the first time about nine months ago and was shocked by the coincidences it held.
Webley is originally from Everett, where lots of things are named after the Rucker family. Their massive pyramid-shaped mausoleum has become a town landmark (as well as a late-night high-school hangout). In fact, the day before visiting Rinaldi, Webley had been driving around Everett with musician Amanda Palmer and climbed the tomb. He remembers her asking: "Who are the Ruckers?" Webley didn't know. Approximately 24 hours and 850 miles later, he found the answer.
At the time he first saw the images, Webley had been on a years long break, having put down his guitar and accordion in 2011. But Margaret Rucker called to him. He began investigating Rucker's life and asked musical colleagues Jherek Bischoff, Eliza Rickman, Shenandoah Davis, Alex Guy, fellow Everett native Zac Pennington, and others to write a song cycle based on the book, and performed it at the 809-seat Historic Everett Theatre. It was packed. After the concert, the crowd walked to the Everett cemetery, lit candles, and climbed the Rucker mausoleum.
Webley thought the Rucker saga was done that night and he could get back to his break, but people kept bugging him to keep it going. He recorded the songs, put together a book (with images from the scrapbook, lyrics to the songs, and essays by himself and Rinaldi), and he and his collaborators will kick off a small West Coast tour beginning at the Moore on December 12—Margaret's 107th birthday. (Since this is a story full of coincidences, it's worth noting that the Moore opened in December of 1907, the same month Rucker was born.)
"I really couldn't not do this," Webley said. "I don't fully understand it. There's not a great thesis or anything that it all supports. But the music and the book and the images—I hope they come together to make people halt for a moment to think about their lives, think about their existence, think about what it means to walk through a life on this planet—and someday stop."
While Webley was traveling in Russia for another project, shortly before the book was due to the printer, some death certificates he'd been trying to find showed up in his mailbox and answered a couple of nagging questions. How did this record of her life end up in a dumpster? And whatever happened to Rucker? The first death certificate answered the first question: Rucker's son John Rogers Armstrong died in 1993 at the age of 49. He had been living in the Castro District, just a few blocks and months from where Rinaldi would find the scrapbook. The cause of death was listed as "acquired immunodeficiency syndrome."
The second certificate reported that Margaret Rucker Armstrong died on June 18, 1959, of barbiturate poisoning from an overdose of sleeping pills.
Throughout this project, Webley has fixated on one of Rucker's verses in particular, about a garden statue blown over during a storm:
My marble god lies broken in the garden,
But I will patch him till he looks like new,
So people will not guess that he is shattered,
A lifeless Eros made of stone and glue.
And since I've learned to patch, you needn't love me
If for a while you will pretend you do.
In an interview last week, approximately two decades after Rinaldi found the scrapbook, Webley quoted that verse back to me. I had asked whether he thought Rucker was a remarkable poet or just a mediocre one who's had a remarkable afterlife. "'You needn't love me/If for a while you will pretend you do,'" he said. "I've never heard that sentiment put so heartbreakingly or simply. There are a lot of great poets—or even mediocre poets—whose legacy rests on a single turn of phrase. And her poetry, really, was just a student thing. Even when I call her a poet, I feel like I'm stretching. She's this very compelling skeleton of a story that showed up on my doorstep."