Rolling Stone - December 19, 1974
Mr. Bojangles' Dance: The Odyssey and Oddities of Jerry Jeff Walker
by Douglas Kent Hall
Austin - Jerry Jeff Walker, the last king of the road and hairy-assed hillbilly, wedged the red plastic glass between his legs. He poured beer into it and talked and gesticulated and tried to drive all at the same time. There was no seat belt. I held myself rigid against the seat, tried not to look at the speedometer, and caught myself recalling little snatches of the Lord's Prayer. Every turn seemed to be a sudden sharp left and the last stretch was rough dirt road. There was no traffic but at this speed the close fence rows and line of well-rooted trees looked treacherous. I forced my eyes down to watch an empty bottle roll back and forth on the floor. Just driving home is an adventure for him.
Of all the wandering troubadours of the Sixties, only Jerry Jeff has kept after the road life with a burning intensity, turning his back with equal disdain (despite nine albums) on both success and possessions. He's come close to pop success - "Mr. Bojangles" from 1968 became a standard, and "L.A. Freeway" made it to No. 98 on the charts in 1973 - but that proximity made him start itching again for the open road. His aversion to being closed up in recording studios led him, in 1973, to record Viva Terlingua, a virtual milestone in the Texas country and folk movement, in the ghost town of Luckenbach. Now he's semi-settled down in a ranch house outside of Austin, within spitting distance of the two-lane blacktop road that leads to Luckenbach.
"Susan's gone right now," Jerry Jeff warned as he spun into the driveway. From the state the house was in, she must've left some time ago. Socks, comic books, records and empty bottles were strewn everywhere. Out in the middle of the living-room floor was a crippled turntable; a mass of green and red wires stuck out of the socket where the arm should be. Looking out through the glass door into the yard, I saw something floating in the swimming pool. "Jerry Jeff?" I called. "Is that a real TV?"
"What's it doing there?"
"Floating...sonofabitch never would sink."
It turns slowly, the sun glinting off a strip of chrome.
"Wouldn't it work?"
"It was on the educational station," he cackled. "No..." It happened this way: Jerry Jeff found himself suddenly faced with an album deadline and he felt he needed to free himself of a few things that he figured were needlessly hanging him and adding to the general confusion of his already difficult life. "It's too damned easy to put on a record or watch the goddamn tube. I ripped the arm off the changer and threw the TV in the pool. The TV's the worst. If you don't have any discipline that sonofabitch'll just gobble up your brain...The problem is, I like TV."
He thought the big color set would sink like a stone. But it didn't. Just bobbed up and hung there, like one eye looking back at him. He ran out and jumped on it. But it only came up again. It was tilting badly to one side and the sun had warped a curl of veneer up off one side like a hopeless distress flag, but it didn't seem in any danger of going down.
"At first," he said, "I was a little embarrassed. I thought people'd think I was nuts and put me away. But after the votes were taken, I was surprised. People kept saying, 'Jeez, I always wanted to do that.' I found out that some people had actually shot their TVs."
Heading back to Austin, Jerry Jeff waves the red plastic glass again and attempts to explain his phobia of recording studios. "First off, you lose all sense of time and space. Because no matter what time you go in there and close the door, it's twelve o'clock midnight. It always was. You don't know if you're making a rally or dying. It drives me fucking nuts. I don't like to play music in a dead space. I'm always saying, 'Okay, can I be excused now? Can I go out in the street and be with real people?' You have to play music over and over too much. It loses all spontaneity. I want live albums, even if I have to do them in the studio. I want the whole band to play at once - no overdubbing, nothing. You can't get that live feeling standing in there with headphones on. But maybe that's what they mean by being professional. I don't know. I'd just like to point out that hookers can do that too. 'God, she really loved me. I mean, I knew it. She moaned and groaned and everything.'"
He has pretty much avoided the studio box lately. Viva Terlingua's ghost town and hay bale simplicity was sandwiched between Jerry Jeff Walker and this October's release, Walker's Collectibles, both done primarily at Odyssey Sound in Austin, aka Rap Cleaners, where, as Jerry Jeff put it comfortably: "We didn't even have a little ol' board." His eccentricities and incessant wandering have left two record labels in his wake - Vanguard and Atco - but he's found a home for his last three albums at MCA.
Jerry Jeff's face reflects a few of the desolate mile that songs such as "Blues in Your Mind," "Help Me Now" and "Little Bird" prove he's been through. He's striking looking - tall enough to have to telescope a mike standout to its last few inches. And he'd be taller still if he stood up straight.
Jeans, a big hat, boots and a shirt with pearl snap buttons are all part of Jerry Jeff's current Texas image. By birth, of course, he isn't a Texan. He was born in Oneonta, New York. "Home was pretty much like Ozzie and Harriet - you know, just growing up in the Fifties. There was a lot of music around the house. My mother, her sister and another girl had a trio. My aunt played piano. My grandfather had a dance band; he played drums and called square dances. My grandmother played piano in his band. She also played for the Grange.
"I used to get together with some guys at Mosca's Pizzeria and sing. Jim Mosca had a guitar hanging on the wall in back. He taught us songs like 'Up A Lazy River.' We put together a group called the Pizzerinos."
Jerry Jeff discovered that his best lick was drifting - drifting and picking. The pay's not too good in the beginning, "but if you get up some morning and don't feel like going in, you don't go in." And notoriously he doesn't.
The first time, he headed for Las Vegas. A heavy snowfall in western Pennsylvania inspired a sudden left turn and a winter in Florida. It was the first lesson from the road: "Go where the weather suits your clothes."
Back in Oneonta the next spring, he landed a job: tending bar. But that was the wrong side of the bar for him and he barely lasted two reeling weeks. He hung out long enough to find some trouble and then "left in a cloud of smoke."
That time he stayed gone for three years. "And it all kind of went away."
"I just came alive in 1961 and decided I was going to do it. It's a picker's heritage that's been going on forever. I took my guitar and started to hitch. There's no other way. I don't know how else you do it: You can only learn so much from your own radio and your own uncle. You've got to take a chance."
The big folk revival was in full swing - coffeehouses popping up all over, people picking guitars and banjos. The climate was good and the time was right. Jerry Jeff spent the next few years shuffling back and forth between New Orleans and places like Dallas and Portland, Austin and Key West, Montreal and Cincinnati. He hung out with Babe Stovall, Harmonica Slim and Pork Chops. During one long weekend in a New Orleans jail, he met Mr. Bojangles and wrote the song. And it all started to click.
"I decided I was going to learn some music I'd be able to pick always." He found it in the streets and bars. "In the South, there're about three guys in any bar who can Travis pick. I'd go in and play a couple of songs. And someone'd say, 'Damn, that's purty good. Let me see that there thang. Twang twang twang...' I just finally said, 'Shit, if Johnny Cash can do it, I can do it.'"
It didn't take long before he met people like Jimmie Rodgers and Woody Guthrie through their stories of traveling and started seeing just how they'd done it. "The stories were everywhere. They just traveled around and when they saw something they wrote it down."
At the same time, he kept running into all these super serious folkies who were spouting things like "'Well it says in the Child ballad book that this is the proper way to do the song'...I'd play a song and they'd ask, 'Where's that come from?' I'd say 'I wrote it. Tell me what Child says about that.'"
Jerry Jeff took to Texas right from the start, though it took another few years on the road before he was ready to semi-settle in. The thing that set Texas apart and made it special was its attitude towards drifters and pickers. "When I used to hitchhike around, Texas was the only place where they didn't look at me like I was crazy. It was the first place where when I got on the stage to play they said, 'Of course, why not?' Other places, they said 'Aw, you're just another Bob Dylan, trying to make it with your guitar.'"
So he kept Texas tucked away in the back of his mind until another solid flush of success - an AM hit with his old friend Guy Clark's "L.A. Freeway" - brought him back to the same schizophrenic position of trying to be a drifting picker and a star at the same time. Austin seemed a likely home for both. The way Jerry Jeff looks at it, there's still space in Texas to stretch out and be - good flattop magic music pickup truck and blue jeans country. It's wild enough and sort of half civil at the same time. And it's amiable. "If I want to transform myself into a 30 decibel flattop picker, I can do it here. The shops are open to everybody. The equipment's here. Buy what you need. Be who you are."
There's also an abundance of the materials from which he creates his best songs.
"I'm not a room writer," he insists. "I'm an on the street kind of writer. Just walking down the street something catches my eye. It can happen anyplace - going to the drugstore for a prescription. Anyplace. Down at Huntsville Prison, after a performance we were sitting in Willie Nelson's bus drinking a beer. I just looked out at the prison wall and said, 'Goddamn, if I had my guitar and some paper and a pencil, I think I could probably make it here. Come to think about it, I wouldn't even need paper and pencil. Just my guitar. I've got it down to that.'"
But wouldn't it get depressing? "I used to say a song is as good in proportion to how bad the place you're in is when you're writing it. I just get involved with the playing. I start picking and everything gets good and I'm gone. All of a sudden it's all dancing in a prettier setting."
What Jerry Jeff decided once, on the way back from New Mexico, was that he and his band would just play and sing some of the songs he'd been making up since the Viva Terlingua session up at Luckenbach, songs like "Wingin' It Home to Texas" and "O.D. Corral." It's the whole Lost Gonzo Band concept of music - which is really no concept at all, and which finally makes everything work out beautifully. "Besides," he says, hitting an E chord and letting it ring, "if we can't sit around for four or five days and make up ten good songs, what the hell kind of musicians are we?
"The Lost Gonzos are the band I've always wanted to put together. We're people who play music - but we're people, not musicians who only live when we pick. We just go out and have fun. We play till everybody's tired. Whatever it takes - an hour, an hour-and-a-half, two hours. And we make sure we feel good about it."
It was this Lost Gonzo ethic that finally brought Jerry Jeff back to Austin. He drifted the Sixties away with the Lost Sea Dreamers and Circus Maximus, trying to cut a slice out of the big rock & roll pie. In the process he spent enough time in recording studios to know he liked the raw stage and the street a whole lot better. So, in 1972, "I had a new album due. I didn't want to go to Nashville.
"I was just eating Mexican food and looking at what was going on..." He got in with Gary Nunn and a lot of other old friends from Michael Murphy's band. They liked the ideas, sketches and half-ideas he played for them. It looked like something could happen.
"I wanted to find someplace funky to cut the album [Jerry Jeff Walker]. I went down to Sixth Street and looked at this place. It was even funkier then. It didn't have a board - just a machine with mikes going into it. 'Damn,' I said, 'we're going to do it right here!"
Actually, Rap Cleaners is what this studio was called before it became Odyssey Sound. But people down here, Texas people, get a little uneasy around an effete word like odyssey. Besides, the only thing even faintly Homeric about the place is its utterly forlorn attempt at achieving the look of a professional studio - which is precisely the quality Jerry Jeff likes most about it.
(I flash back to a backstage scene before a Jerry Jeff performance in New York. Someone brought a girl in to meet him. She was blonde and excited and apparently had rehearsed what she wanted to tell him for so long that she could hardly say it. "I never really think of you as just a singer," she blurted. "I think of you more as a poet."
He fixed her with a steady gaze. "Yeah," he said, "I'm trying to get over that.")
Right now Odyssey is in good hands. The Lost Gonzo Band has taken over. They have forced the young engineer left to protect the studio's sparse taping equipment and given him a smoke and a bottle of Boone's Farm. The rumor here is that there actually will be an album (Walker's Collectibles). Nobody really puts much stock in this except Michael Brovsky, Jerry Jeff's manager and producer. Michael has been around since the beginning of his career and he ahs practiced patience with such diligence he could probably now hold his own with Job.
The minute Jerry Jeff steps into the studio, Michael signals Martin Lennard, the engineer, to roll the tape. He wants to get everything - because with Jerry Jeff a sudden flash of magic is possible at any time.
I feel the difference immediately. Jerry Jeff pulls the rest of the Lost Gonzos together and leads. Something about his approach and this closeknit feeling is impressive. He likes these pickers. He wants them to like him. Still, he knows exactly what he wants and he keeps a control on everything.
Two false starts. Then a complete take on "The First Showboat." Everyone comes out for a cold beer and the playback.
For someone who claims to dislike studios as vehemently as Jerry Jeff does, he doesn't allow much time to pass before he gets sucked into the whole business of making this recording. (In a similar vein, despite his shyness at the high-minded notion of poetry, his solo albums always have been careful to include lyric sheets.) Jerry Jeff's fingers are suddenly all over the board, bringing this up, dropping that under. He listens to the song once more, makes a suggestion to Gary Nunn, then leads the Lost Gonzos back to the studio for another take. It'll be loose and not too studied. And it'll be fun, of course, but the intense kind of grueling Jerry Jeff fun that will send them all stumbling, red-eyed and wild, out into the humid Texas dawn over and over again for the next seven days.