Driving in No Direction (with a Glimpse of Johnny Cash)

Since I started banging out these memoirs I have left the Cannonballs, recorded a new solo CD, joined the Paul deLay Band and toured Oregon, Washington, Idaho and California. Sitting backstage at Bumbershoot in Seattle, waiting to go onstage while Wilco and R.E.M. crank it up in another part of the festival, drinking my ritual cup of tea before the show, I have a flashback that sets me off again.

One winter morning in 1962 I wake up at a stop light in Decatur, Alabama, behind the wheel of a 1957 DeSoto with the rest of my band, The Esquires, sound asleep. I don’t know how long I have been driving in a blackout. Since the car is pointed south, I assume we are on our way to Birmingham and hit the gas again.

Before joining Jerry Woodard’s Esquires (replacing the great Bobby Mizzell on piano, to be replaced myself by Barry Beckett) I had played rock and roll on flatbed trucks and in movie theaters, at skating rinks and high school dances and live TV. I had toured with gospel quartets such as the Sacred Aires and the Glorylanders, doing shows with the Statesmen, the Blackwood Brothers and the original Chuck Wagon Gang. I made my first recording with the Sacred Aires, a song written for us by Alton Delmore of the Delmore Brothers called “I Can’t Be Satisfied.” That the first song I recorded may have been the last one he wrote moves me in strange ways.

Speaking of driving in a blackout, my first composition, a rock instrumental, was called “Blackout,” probably because Mizzell had done one called “Knockout.” My next song was called “Rebellion.” What does that tell you?

As a member of the Esquires I had jammed with the Tommy Dorsey Band, Ace Cannon, Bill Black’s Combo, Woody Herman’s Herd. I hung out with Bobby Goldsboro and met Roy Orbison.

I was about to get a total-immersion baptism in the blues. I got married, quit the Esquires, settled in Birmingham, got into college and discovered modern poetry about the time I met Big Joe Turner. If I had trouble keeping my head on straight, consider this: I’d get up before dawn, do a TV show with Tammy Wynette and Fannie Flagg, run back to campus and study Muriel Ruykeyser, Alexander Pope and Wittgenstein, then head out to the clubs to play with Big Joe, Sam the Sham, etc. Or maybe one of the local recording studios, where I’d run into people like Doug Kershaw or ? and the Mysterians.

I met John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed and Lee Dorsey at the Pussycat a-Go-Go down under the viaduct. I saw the great Roy Hamilton there. Some redneck slashed Lee Dorsey’s tires while he was working.

The night I met Jimmy Reed, the poor man was too drunk to function. On his first song, he pulled the big microphone to his face and hit himself in the mouth with it, breaking a tooth and bleeding badly. They led him away unable to continue.

Fortunately I had seen him elsewhere at his best, on one of the big package deal R&B shows that came through town occasionally. For two dollars you could see Jimmy Reed, Sammy Turner, Joe Turner, Lavern Baker, Bo Diddley, the Coasters, the Drifters (once with both ben E. King AND Clyde McPhatter on the bill!), Big Maybelle, Sam Cooke, Barrett Strong, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters — and the Lloyd Price Orchestra.

There were white package tours as well, most of them pretty lame. You got Bobby Vinton, Fabian, Bobby Rydell. I did get to see Brenda Lee and Duane Eddy and the Rebels at one of them. Both those acts had some soul.

Then came drugs. By that I mean that drugs crossed over into public use. Musicians had always had drugs. The first time I smoked pot, there was something elite about it. Dope was for hip cats, it wasn’t for the rubes. Suddenly, now everybody had it. Within a few years even Willie Nelson was smoking it, and there was nothing cool or special about it anymore if people who looked like they worked at a feed store did it.

At my first rock show — Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash at the old National Guard Armory in Huntsville — I got a glimpse of the dark side. After the show I ran to the dressing room door and heard Carl begging Johnny to “put that stuff away, don’t do that in front of these kids, please Johnny, they’ll all be in here in a minute.”

Flash forward to a mid-sixties movie premier (“Your Cheatin’ Heart,” starring George Hamilton as Hank Williams) in Montgomery. I’m in the house band on a flat bed truck in front of the theater. One by one the stars hop up on the make-shift stage for a bow before they enter for the screening.

Johnny Cash arrives looking rail-thin, his skin a dark yellow. He stands right in front of me, his hands clasped behind him, waiting for the announcer to introduce him. Cash is fidgeting fiercely. He is not merely uncomfortable in his skin. He rubs all the skin off the area behind his thumb until there is a bloody area about the size of a quarter. He keeps right on gouging at it, as though the pain is giving him some relief.

“Come on up here, Johnny Cash, and tell these good people some stories about the wonderful times you and Hank Williams had together,” croons the emcee.

“I never met the man in my life,” says Cash. He says it in an aggravated way that warns the emcee not to ask him any more stupid questions. As Cash leaves the truck, a fan tries to shake his hand. Cash snarls and slaps the hand away, turning for a moment as if to say, “You want to fight? Come on.”

Later, backstage, I overhear a conversation between Cash and Tex Ritter. If anything, Ritter, notwithstanding his kindly uncle image, is in an even more dangerous mood than Cash. He’s delivering a stern warning. “I’m telling you John, and I mean it. If you go out there and embarrass me and embarrass Miss Audrey and embarrass Hank’s memory, I’ll whip you with this pistol till you…” “Aw come on, Tex, I didn’t…” “Shut up when I’m talking to you. I’m not kidding, John. If you can’t behave yourself …” “Don’t get mad at me Tex…” “I’m already mad. I’m beyond mad. And I’m not telling you again…” Or words directly to that effect, with Cash more or less begging Ritter not to hit him or have him evicted from the dressing room.

These memories of a great artist at his rock-bottom worst may seem disrespectful now that he’s gone. They aren’t meanT to be. His entire career, including his magnificent late comeback, is all the more impressive when you consider what kind of personal demons he had to face down to get where he was going, and how unattractive they were. He never pretended not to cast a shadow. Nor did he ever kiss the shadow’s ass.

To me, the romancing of people’s bad behavior is often more disturbing than the acts themselves. I met people who were pretending to be alcoholics because Hank Williams drank.

I also met a man who pretended to be Johnny Cash. It was in Bryan’s Lounge, on 5th Avenue, in Birmingham. He was a short, balding man whose hair had been blond. He was tipping heavily and invited me to sit at his table between sets. He explained to me that he was Johnny Cash and he liked my music. I had met some famous people in night clubs (Y. A. Tittle, Brooks Robinson), but this was my first famous poseur. For twenty bucks a song, you can be whoever you say you are.

Most people don’t need drugs to make them crazy.

More than a decade later I would meet a professor down in southern Florida who, aided by years of pot, had managed to convince himself that Willie Nelson was the greatest poet of the 20th century. He based this opinion on his own deranged analysis of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” which he saw as some kind of radical masterpiece. “It’s not blue eyes in a head,” he assured me, “it’s just blue eyes. In the fucking rain, man.”

When I told him that Fred Rose and not Willie Nelson had written “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” he sat stunned for a moment, then recovered himself with a furious explanation that it was Nelson and Nelson alone who had had the genius to COVER the obscure song, transforming it from a run-of-the-mill country ballad through a miracle of contextualism into a neo-surrealist poetics. When I explained that Gene Vincent had in fact covered the song back in 1958 he shook and then wept. I should have been more careful.

Dope had a mind of its own. It was easy to convince myself that it was more important to drink beer, light up and listen to Hank Williams sing “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” sixty or seventy times in a row than to go home and study for an exam. “The silence of a falling star lights up a purple sky, man. That’s big time synesthesia. Just to hear that line would have made Emily Dickinson come before she crumpled to the floor.”

Somehow I was convinced that all this music and all this poetry and everything else I was studying were all the same thing, really. My academic advisors were pleading with me to make choices, do one thing and do it well, effectively to the exclusion of everything else.

I dealt with this pressure by taking more dexedrene, benzedrene, speed and LSD. I went to lots of parties where people had drugs and took whatever people offered me. I partied with lawyers and local celebrities and played water basketball with Joe Namath. Four or five of us could be trying to drown him and he would sink one basket after another with a flick of the wrist.

One night, after taking LSD and playing the same chord over and over in a night club, thinking I was a genius, I borrowed a car and took off on some dubious errand (to find a party? more drugs? food? who knows) promising to come right back.

Within moments I had forgotten what I was doing and where I was. It seemed to me that I was driving on Interstate 65, that it was snowing (in July) and beginning to accumulate, and that I had better drive faster before the roads got worse. In fact, I was driving on Red Mountain, down winding neighborhood backstreets and through people’s yards, pulling down laundry and clotheslines. The car came to a halt, still running, with its hood under someone’s back porch. I walked down the alley, found a phone, and called the owner of the car. “You can come and get it, I’m through with it.” Later I learned that I had hung up without giving the location. I don’t remember how I got home.

At eight o’clock the next morning I was probably in class, wearing a coat and tie, discussing chiasmus in the neo-classical couplet or reading William Shenstone’s “Unconnected Thoughts on Gardening.”

I like to say that I left Birmingham-Southern with a double major, both in English. I do know that I took more hours in English than anyone in the history of the college. I wrote, produced and directed a play which Arnold Powell, who ran the drama department, called the most appalling instance of the theater of cruelty he had ever been pleased to witness. I minored in Philosophy, chiefly because visiting prof Edward Churchill Bottemiller allowed me to ramble through his personal collection of over 10,000 books. I remain grateful to professors Richebourg Gaillard McWilliams, Cecil Abernethy (who wrote a wonderful biography of Pepys) and Howard Hall Creed, who worked the phones and got me an NDEA Fellowship to Vanderbilt for grad school.

Entitled to a married student deferment, I had been mistakenly classified 1-A by my draft board. I went in to ask about it and was assured that the error would be corrected — at the board’s next meeting, the following October. I was advised to keep my fingers crossed.

At Vandy I remained as conflicted as I had been in Birmingham. During the week I went to class by day but wrote fiction and poetry by night, getting my first poems published in the Green River Review and the Roanoke Review, at the time edited by Henry Taylor (more about Henry later). On weekends I drove back to Birmingham for gigs (and gatherings). I also worked a good many recording sessions, most of them produced by Zeke Clements and some of them engineered by Scotty Moore.

Clements, a former Grand Old Opry star and the co-writer of “Just a Little Loving,” at this stage of his career mainly worked “vanity” sessions. Someone came to Nashville, wanting to be a star. Most of these people would have made Richard Hell sound like Pavarotti. No problem! If they could write a check, Clements sent them home with a record.

He even tried to sell me one. It had already been recorded! “You won’t even need to play on it,” he explained. “$5,000 and you have an album with your name on it.”

At one incredible session the artist was an aspiring singer named Ottice Yawn. Mr. Yawn wished to record a tragically sincere ballad called “Destroy Me.” The project required an agonizing number of takes, considering the band’s tendency to break up whenever we heard the title line.

I scored a Happy Hour gig across the avenue from Vanderbilt at Ireland’s Pub. It was a favorite hang-out of Music Row people. There I met Charlie McCoy, some of the Foggy Mountain Boys and a few of the Byrds. Joan Baez complained about my music one night and left in a huff when the manager wouldn’t make me lower my volume.

I took a class with Allen Tate, at that time the most famous writer I had ever met. Reactionary to the core, he still had much to teach about poems. At 75 his famous wit was intact. At a gathering I saw him cornered by a woman who complained about the pronunciation of Marcel Proust’s name. “I know they say it’s Proost. But I’ve always said it Prowst. If I want to say it that way, why can’t people just leave me alone?” “Madame, what a wonderful idea,” Tate said, disappearing.

One day an editor from the Saturday Evening Post sat in on the class, called “The Art of Reading Poetry,” afterward telling Tate that “I ought to send some of my writers down here for a few weeks and let them master the art of poetry. Hell, I think it would make them better journalists!” “I dare say it would,” replied Tate, a little too calmly for the visitor to catch his tone.

The editor, not smelling his own blood, would not give up. “Say, have we ever published any of your stuff? I don’t think we have. Would you have anything laying around that you could let us have? Bearing in mind that we’re not made of money, ha ha.”

“I can’t say that I have anything at all for you, not at present. Look, I’ve got to run. Why don’t you have a nice day or something?” said Tate, showing that death-head grin.

“Hey, that’s a GREAT idea! I will!” cried the editor after him down the stairwell.

Tate had the most original approach to the problem of grading papers I have ever encountered. He simply refused to read anything that bored him. In others classes we competed or grades. In Tate’s we competed for attention.

Thanks in part to a summer in France, during which I spend days on a Velosolex scooter and nights at a typewriter in the pantry, I was able to take a first novel through four drafts while at Vanderbilt. I made the mistake of mentioning the project to my adviser, Thomas Daniel Young, who would later direct my doctoral dissertation. “If I were you, I’d keep that to myself. We don’t want people questioning your commitment to scholarship. They might think, if you have time to be writing novels, that we’re not giving you enough work to do up here.”

I was bold enough to answer that some might think it commendable to be ambitious in more than one direction. “Don’t be naive,” I was told.

I still have a paper I wrote for Edgar Duncan’s Chaucer seminar. In blue pencil he wrote across the top: “This is wonderful! It should be published.” Then came the grade: a rather large letter B.

In Nashville I could find nothing like the drug parties I had attended in Birmingham, which usually wound up feeling like episodes from a Dr. Strange comic book. These gatherings were always fairly innocent and harmless. No one did any hard drugs, no one freaked out. Humorless people weren’t invited back. In fact, everyone I knew back then who used drugs did so more or less successfully. (That’s far from the case today, alas.) Anyway, we didn’t “do” drugs or “use” drugs. Where I came from, we “took” them.

But in Nashville, no one was interested in a “trip.” These were hard-drinking graduate students to whom the Visionary seemed ridiculous. In Birmingham we had listened to the Byrds, Dylan, the Beatles and the Velvets. Nashville listened to Nashville. Since the Nashville of the time was utterly ashamed of hard-core country music, opting instead for the “countrypolitan” sound of Eddie Arnold and 1000 violins, pickings were slim.

I had gone to graduate school imagining that I would be among people who loved poetry.

In 1968 I saw Robert Kennedy speak at Vandy’s Memorial Gym. A few weeks later he and Martin Luther King were dead, and National Guard troops were bivouacked at the replica of the Parthenon in Centennial Park. I was sitting in a drugstore, eating a BLT, when an elderly woman rushed in to inform the pharmacist and me that “Dr. King has just been shot, in Memphis, by a total stranger, a man he didn’t even KNOW!”

It occurs to me just now that I had been sitting in the student cafeteria at Birmingham-Southern when the news of JFK’s death came, and that I was in the Vanderbilt student snack bar when I heard about the massacre at Kent State. Is this why I feel a low-level anxiety when I’m eating a sandwich alone?

The last time I saw Allen Tate, he was ardently defending the guardsmen who had fired on students in Ohio.

With all my course work behind me, and prelims passed, I headed off, thoroughly depressed, to “do one thing” — fill a teaching post at Longwood College in Virginia, when I wanted to be doing three or four (playing music, writing, traveling, acting). The last thing I did in Tennessee was to tie all the drafts of my novel into a neat package and throw the whole thing into the trash, saving nothing. Of my many self-betrayals, this is the one that would eat at me the hardest.

I was “Dr. Vest” now, or would be as soon as I completed my dissertation, but who was that?

Someone With a Sense of Direction

On an evening of the long light rain,
As you sit upstairs with the window open

let someone with a sense
of direction come along
the sidewalk underneath.

Let the stranger pass
beside the nameless trees
then cut across the street.

Let it take all night.

DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He and his band, The Willing Victims, just released a scorching new CD, Way Down Here.

He can be reached at: davidvest@springmail.com

Visit his website at http://www.rebelangel.com


DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He and his band, The Willing Victims, have just released a scorching new CD, Serve Me Right to Shuffle. His essay on Tammy Wynette is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on art, music and sex, Serpents in the Garden.