Country Rambler - October 7, 1976
"Jerry Jeff Walker, hell-raising poet"
By John Moulder
Being a poet and philosopher, as well as a roaring rogue, Jerry Jeff Walker did not get into a hassle with the cop. Instead he wrote a new song.
"It's about a guy who goes around wrecking cars, running around with other women, getting drunk, getting in fights and using another guy's identification that he found in Mexico," Walker explains. "I'll call it 'The Other Jerry Jeff.'" His friends doubt he'll get away with it though. They know there is only one Jerry Jeff Walker. Thank God. Meanwhile, the one-and-only may have learned a valuable lesson in Mexico, along with collecting an idea for another hit song.
The day started off as a bummer. Jerry Jeff's mother, who still lives in the Catskill Mountains of New York State, telephoned him in tears. Some bastard had mailed her a copy of the New Times article about Texas musicians. It pictured Jerry Jeff as a brawler, drunk, drug freak, wild man and generally anything but the basically peace-loving picker-poet he also is.
After all, the unfortunate incident at Armadillo World Headquarters saloon in Austin, where Walker had relieved himself in a beer pitcher before making a fool of himself on stage, was the thing the article dwelled on, and it happened a whole three years before. Jerry Jeff is sure of that, because he hasn't been back to the Armadillo since.
Now, wearing a heavy stubble of beard and a T-shirt with a picture of a frightened bear and the legend, I Can't Bear It, Walker raps with Rambler at the bar of his fashionable home in the hills west of Austin, not far off the highway that leads to the LBJ Ranch. Hammers bang away as workmen add finishing touches to a new guest room. Out front, near the gate, a garage accommodates Walker's growing collection of vehicles. Behind the house, down the hill from the swimming pool, is the new tennis court, where Walker works out after a night of partying.
Thus surrounded by the physical trappings of a success he is not totally comfortable nor compatible with, Jerry Jeff Walker will spend the next dozen or so hours talking about how he got here, how he feels and thinks, and where he might be going. He will touch on such far-ranging subjects as the future of outdoor music festivals and the philosophy of existentialism, as expressed in the writings of Albert Camus.
A decade ago, during his boozy road days and long before he would sing to sellout crowds of tens of thousands, Walker also read The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran's famous statement of philosophy.
"I realized it was like the ancient scrolls - something that would appeal to every generation for all time, " Walker recalled, drinking Budweiser from a 32-ounce iced tea glass. "I was surprised to find out Gibran hadn't been dead that long, that he had lived during my time."
From the inspiration of Gibran and his own deep well of experience, Walker wrote Mr. Bojangles, one of the most moving and most successful songs of all time, and one that would turn Jerry Jeff Walker's career around.
Met him in a cell in New Orleans
Down and out...
The sorrowful tale of an aged alcoholic minstrel carried a distinct message - that even in a drunk tank, human dignity can somehow survive in the form of an old drunk's love for a dog that died 20 years ago.
Sammy Davis Jr. was one of a multitude of major recording stars who used Mr. Bojangles as a showcase for their own talents. A damp-eyed Davis said of the character in the song: "That could easily have been me."
Even Richard Nixon was moved by the song. He once told a reporter it was his all-time favorite. Reminded of this praise from the former President, Walker was far from flattered. "It must have been a political move," he said. "Everything else was with Nixon."
But back to Bojangles. "Yes, he was a real person - an old white man, a street man in New Orleans," Walker said. "The other street people would see him and yell, 'Hey, Bojangles, hit us a lick.'"
Walker first sang the song on a late-night show in New York City, where it was taped and replayed night after night. By the time he got around to recording it, other artists, including big names like Harry Belafonte, were hot after Bojangles. Walker's own record was released simultaneously with another version. Both touched the Top 40, then dropped out of the running. Finally, everybody jumped on the Bojangles bandwagon and it eventually became a classic.
It has been widely reported that Walker's close identification with that song overshadowed his other work so much that he sometimes becomes angry at audiences that request it. That's not true, says Walker. He's had plenty of trouble with audiences, but not for that reason, he claims.
"The truth is, any request from the audience tends to piss me off," Walker explained. He feels a concert belongs to him and that he deserves the right to sing his songs in whatever order he chooses. "Sometimes I'll tell the audience 'later' when they request something and then forget about it."
During his lifetime, Walker has played for all types and all sizes of audiences. He picked and sung on street corners with his hat upside down on the sidewalk to catch any coins anybody wanted to toss. And recently, he performed for 100,000 people at Willie Nelson's picnic at Gonzales. He's a veteran of the outdoor festival format, but he doesn't think much of its future.
"Some people think with the outdoor concert, anybody can do it," he said. "Crap. It takes experience or you're dealing with catastrophe. I can't break in every one of these promoters."
An outdoor concert should be confined to one day - the one at Willie's picnic lasted three - and be held to five or six main acts instead of dozens, Walker maintains. "You can't make it for three days. You come home covered with chigger bites and sick; you've lost your old lady; your kid was last seen in San Antonio; and you paid for the whole thing, too."
Hi, buckaroos. Scamp Walker time again.
Yeah, I'm tryin' to slide one by you once more...
Those are the opening lines to Viva Terlingua, Jerry Jeff's best selling album to date; and the reference to Scamp Walker is an over-simplification of Walker's legendary relationship with his audiences. In the past, when he failed to obtain a desired reaction from those watching him, he has been known to remark casually: "If you didn't like that song, you can just kiss my ass." As often as not, audiences dig his antics, sometimes responding with a chorus of "All right."
Once he performed a concert in his swim trunks after drinking all day, but he indignantly denies reports that he did the show in his undershorts.
During the past year, however, Walker has appeared to be working harder. His performances have been tighter, less chaotic. He seems - just maybe - to have mellowed a bit, and friends say it is due, at least partly, to his marriage a year and a half ago to his pretty brunette wife, Susan.
Walker agrees that he and his audiences seem to be relating better to each other. But he figures it just might be the audiences that have reformed not him. "The fact is, they can't tell me what to do even though I want the audience's respect, at least enough for them to listen to me. When I play loose, I want them to jump and stomp and have a good time. I want the show to touch all bases of emotions, but I want to try to get some quality in it, too."
Jerry Jeff refilled his iced tea glass with a couple more bottles of Bud while he was being told that Billy Joe Shaver and Dennis (Easy Rider) Hopper were talking about making a movie called Honky Tonk Hero and basing it on Walker's life.
"If you ask me, they ought to do a movie like that on Jerry Lee Lewis' life," he said. "He was the original cosmic cowboy. He definitely lived pretty much that way."
Walker feels Dennis Hopper isn't really into country music as such anyway, but is merely turned on to some of its characters, people like Shaver, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings.
Walker's first shot at a movie role was Two Lane Blacktop. It didn't work out because the director asked him if he knew anything about cars. "Yeah, I know when on'e running and when it's not," Jerry Jeff replied.
"Then, of all things, somebody came up with the idea of a musical version of Othello starring Ritchie Hayes, Tina Turner, Linda Ronstadt and me. I said the four of us together would be strange enough, let alone a musical version of Othello.
"The movie role I can see myself in is a Western, with Ben Johnson, Jack Elam and me sitting around a campfire, wearing heavy beards and drinking coffee, saying, 'They went thataway.'"
Jerry Jeff grabs his guitar and starts picking out a tune.
You always pick the winner
In every derby race.
I guess you just picked on me
For a little change of pace.
"This is a new song," he says. "I wrote it as a funny love song for Susan. When I wrote it, I was thinking of such things as I'm glad you still love me when you wake up and I'm sleeping next to you with my clothes on. It's called Derby Day, and I wrote it at the Kentucky Derby. Susan did pick some of the winners."
Jerry Jeff grew up in rural upstate New York. He played basketball in high school, and could have gone to college on a basketball scholarship - if his grades had been high enough. He started singing in his high school choir, and when he was finished with school and basketball, he hit the road with his guitar, picking and singing and tending bar. After drifting around, he spent some time in Houston, where he met Guy Clark and became acquainted with Clark's songs, and where, eventually, he would record such hits as L.A. Freeway and Desperadoes Waiting For A Train.
"I spent two years lost down on the coast at Key West, Florida," said Walker. "I was tossed in jail about once a week - I was usually just standing around when a fight broke out or something else funny happened."
Finally, in 1971, Walker discovered Austin and really turned on to the Texas capital city and the picturesque hill country nearby.
'Cause I got a feelin' -
Something that I can't explain -
Like dancin' naked
In that high hill country rain...
He found it easy to accept people and be accepted in Austin. All he needed was a pair of jeans and a pickup truck. "I like to find people and have people-things to do," he said. "I like to get together and hang out where there are things like armadillo races and chili cookoffs."
It was inevitable that Walker would find his way to Luchenbach, a crossroads west of Austin, consisting mostly of a beer joint run by Hondo Crouch, a colorful, twinkling-eyed, white-bearded character who has become one of Jerry Jeff's closest friends.
Three years ago, Walker summoned a sound truck to Luchenbach where he and members of the Lost Gonzo Band and some friends at under shade trees drinking beer and philosophizing - and occasionally taking time out to record the album Viva Terlingua. The title was taken from a poster on Crouch's wall advertising the annual chili cookoff at the West Texas ghost town of Terlingua.
Jerry Jeff dug Terlingua so much he agreed to take part in a big music festival there. Waylon, Willie, Shaver, and the group Asleep at the Wheel (plus lots of other big names) converged on the desolate spot near the Rio Grande. Unfortunately, nobody else showed up. Since a film crew was there to make a movie of the whole thing, however, Walker tried to convince everybody to get stoned, act natural and let the filming proceed despite the lack of bodies. So they did. "Some of them went out and played straight sets with only 12 people listening," Walker said.
The bizarre scene came unraveled finally when one of the handful of fans walked up to Jerry Jeff and told him he was one of the five greatest artists in America. The statement must have sounded like total bullshit to somebody who was playing music for next to nobody in the dusty middle of nowhere. Anyway, it pissed off Walker beyond words. He could find only one way to express his anger, and that was to throw his guitar on the ground and jump in the middle of it.
People tell me to take it easy,
You're living' too fast.
Slow down now, Jerry.
Take it easy; let some of it pass.
>From Terlingua, the wild bunch drove more than 400 miles to Abbott, Texas, Willie's home town, where his neighbors were holding a homecoming party for him. As they drove up, a record company truck promoting Jerry Jeff's new album was parked right there in the middle of the festivities. The truck was covered with large blazers proclaiming, Viva Terlingua.
"My God," said Billy Joe Shaver, "they must be psychic!"
By now, it's almost nightfall at Walker's house. The doorbell rings and in walks Hondo Crouch himself, wearing swim trunks and a T-shirt. Hondo, who makes friends like a magnet picks up tacks, is moved to comment on his friend, Jerry Jeff, when he learns an interview is in progress.
"When I first saw him," says Hondo quietly, "he was sitting on my patio. I knew he was hungry because he was playing a guitar. It turned out he was starving to death."
Walker also has a tale to tell about that first meeting with his eventual sidekick: "I went down to Hondo's ranch and ended up singing on the table and having a good time. I always have quite a good time down there."
Then Walker rapped about the time he got a DWI (Driving While Intoxicated) in Los Angeles, enlisted a lawyer to get him out of jail, and asked the judge for a suspended sentence in exchange for a promise not to return to L.A. for five years.
"That's like our contest at Luchenbach," Hondo added. "The first prize is a guided tour of Luchenbach. Third prize is four days in Luchenbach."
After discussing some business with Hondo, Jerry Jeff answers the telephone to talk with Jimmy Buffett, who is appearing in Austin at the Armadillo. Arrangements are made to meet Buffett at the Armadillo, despite some concern over the reception Walker may get because of the controversy surrounding his last appearance there.
Hondo adjourns to the patio and Jerry Jeff refills his iced tea glass and turns philosophical. He seems to know how he reached this point in his career, but is uncertain of just where he is now or where he's going.
"If I could just have an affair with Louise Lasser from Mary Hartman, I'd get on the cover of People magazine and have a lot better chance of a solid career," he says. "If I could be in a gossip column every week, that might make a difference."
But Walker shies away from publicists and big organizations - like Willie Nelson's - in favor of small, close-knit groups. He prefers socializing with the Gonzos, Hondo and his manager, Michael Brovsky, who recently moved to Austin from New York, to flashgun-orchestrated assignations with TV starlets.
"It's taken me this long to be with the friends I'm with," he says. "They're people friends as well as picker friends. I guess before we go any further, it's like deciding if you want another kid or not."
After Blue Eyes Cryin' In The Rain became Willie Nelson's first gold record, Willie asked Jerry Jeff: "What do you do after you've finally won?"
Walker figures he has plenty left to do. "My version of Mr. Bojangles hasn't been heard much lately," he admits. "But I can keep it alive." Toward this effort, he is motivated by the fact that he lost about $200,000 on Bojangles, by his calculations. In the original contract he signed, he gave up publisher's royalties, although he does receive writer's royalties.
Riding in the cab of a pickup with Hondo driving, drinking beer, heading for Austin and the Armadillo, Walker expounds some more on the philosophy of one of his favorite authors, Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus, who saw life as a continuous absurdity and a constant battle. Here, you realize, is a man who has been at war with forces, both within and without, all his life. And as far as absurdities go, well, Jerry Jeff did almost star in a musical version of Othello.
At the Armadillo at midnight, Walker is well-received. Manager Eddie Wilson welcomes him, and any previous embarrassment is apparently forgotten. Groupies help him on with his cowboy chaps. He goes onstage to pick and sing with Jimmy Buffett, and the crowd blows the roof off at the sight of Jerry Jeff Walker.
He guides Hondo Crouch onstage to recite a poem -
Nothing much happened last week in Luchenbach;
The potato chip man came by...
The day that began as a bummer has turned into a huge piece of cake, and Jerry Jeff hangs out at the Armadillo through the rest of the night. Everybody is his friend. His iced tea glass is filled and refilled again and again. And sometime before dawn, Jerry Jeff is heard to declare unequivocally:
"I'm the only sane one in this room" Perhaps he is, Camus might have thought.