CountryStyle Magazine - March 1980

"Jerry Jeff Walker, 'Mr. Bojangles Battles Hollyweird"

By John Moulder


Jerry Jeff Walker is, of course, an enigma. His rougher sides are well known. He has been in more fights than Muhammad Ali, but nobody can recall him ever having won one. He seems hellbent on touring every drunk tank on this planet, but he's still just the lovable black sheep of the family. He's never been in any real trouble. His boozy antics onstage have ticked off a few concert managers, but Jerry Jeff is still one of the highest-paid performers in country music. And he works constantly.


But here's the saintly side to the 37-year-old legend. Here's a man, who from his personal experiences, could write lyrics that would bring tears to Richard Nixon's eyes during the height of Watergate. (Nixon once said "Mr. Bojangles" was his favorite song.)


Up until fairly recently, Walker has never been able to get a real handle on himself and why he has spent his professional career doing such crazy things. But during a recent interview with CountryStyle at his fashionable home in the Texas hill country near Austin, the scarred and battered troubadour seemed to have it in perspective.


"I'm a brat," he said. "I know it now. I have been a spoiled brat all my life."


We talked all afternoon and all night long about many things except during those brief periods when Jerry Jeff would nod off in his straight-back chair. He hadn't been to bed in days.


He had been partying with Guy Clark and some other friends, and his standby repair team had just come in from out of town that day to put the house back together. But mostly we talked about his latest album, and his plans to invade Hollywood with both guns blazing.


Already he has had serious run-ins with movie moguls in Tinsel Town. The project is a movie version of Jerry Jeff's life, a film to be entitled, what else, "Mr. Bojangles." He is working on a script with Doug Cantrell, who scripted the critically-acclaimed film "The Great American Cowboy."


According to Walker, the movie will cover Jerry Jeff's life from the time he started out as a folk singer on the streets up to the point in the late 1960s when he quit the music business altogether for a couple of years.


"I worked with Bud Shrake for awhile on the project," said Walker. "But Shrake is a fiction writer. He wanted to make it all up. We're making it the closest to how it happened in real life as we can. Shrake once wrote that somebody's tears tumbled to the floor. I told him tears don't tumble to the floor. They slither down your face. They sure as hell don't tumble to the floor unless you're doing your hair at the time."


Walker said he will play himself in the movie. He figures he's had plenty of acting experience just playing himself in real life.


"I'll be the brat that I am, the brat that I've always been," he said.


His self-analysis that he is a spoiled brat seems a sign Jerry Jeff is maturing. "I am a brat," he went on. "Going on vacation with me is like going to sleep with an alligator. Nobody takes a vacation with me twice. I have a tendency to go onto an island."


With the same stubborn spirit, Walker has been jousting with the Hollywood people about "Mr. Bojangles."


"They're trying to pay me to go away," said Walker. "One offer was $4 million on the condition that I would just go away and wouldn't get involved. But I'll have to be involved with it. Just wait until Jacky Jack (the nickname Shrake once pinned on Walker) goes to Hollywood. I want to make sure the movie is made and released. I want to get it out. I don't want to ---- with it for a couple of years."


This independent attitude is typical of Walker's roller coaster career. "I am still the street singer with freedom," he said. "Ain't nothin' holdin' me. It stays with me all the time."


The song "Bojangles" has never before been sung in a movie, though versions by various artists have been immensely popular, and "Bojangles" was once used in the Broadway play "Dancing."


Hollywood wants to change the character of Mr. Bojangles from the way he really was to the way the celluloid types think he should have been. Walker had this dialogue with one movie producer:


"You'll have to change the script. Your character of Bojangles is white."


"Bojangles is white, too," Jerry Jeff explained.


"You'll have a hard time convincing this town he's white."


"My God, man, this town is not the center of the universe."


Walker took time out to freshen his weary insides with a beaker of Budweiser and went on. "Actually, Bojangles is me - all the street people I have known. He becomes embodied in me...a free spirit. And there's a little Hondo (the late Texas humorist Hondo Crouch) mixed in it. Hondo was a prefessional Texas story-telling character. That's what he intended to do, and starred in and directed his own theater. Everyday was April Fool's Day to Hondo."


Walker was once involved in a movie project about Luckenbach, the tiny Texas town Hondo owned and made famous, but those involved could never get together on how it should be made. "They wanted to have 45 minutes of Luckenbach and 10 minutes of Hondo," said Walker. "Luckenbach was nothing without Hondo. They want to make something big without making it right. I want to make it right too.


"I told them don't ask will it sell. Do it right first and then find out if it will sell. The thing is, do it right first.


"We don't do a record to see if it will be a hit. We do it first to see if it is the very best we can do it. Then we see if it becomes a hit."


Jerry Jeff has been approached in the past about making movies, but never got anything on with Hollywood. He was motorcycling across Canada in 1971 and was summoned to Hollywood for a possible starring role in "Two Lane Blacktop" which eventually starred James Taylor and The Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson. It didn't work out because the director asked him if he knew anything about cars: "Yeah," he replied, "I know when one's running and when it's not," replied Jerry Jeff.


"Then, of all things, somebody came up with the idea of a musical version of 'Othello' starring Richie Haven, 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 version 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, sayin' 'They went thataway.'"


Jerry Jeff's music has defied classification. Rock stations don't play his songs because they think he's country. Country stations don't play his songs because they think he is rock. Easy listening stations don't think he's easy listening. And middle-of-the-road stations don't think he's middle of the road.


"I'm about as unclassified as I was the last time you were out here," he told me.


Jerry Jeff's voice has been described as "something like twin glasspacks on a '49 Ford." Years of hard drinking, hard living, have removed any golden throat he may once have had. But his voice and his music appeal to a lot of people.


Walker switched last year from MCA Records to Elektra-Asylum. When I talked with Walker, he still didn't have a firm handle on his relationship with the company.


"I guess we're still trying to figure each other out," he said. "I guess the biggest thing you can write about me is 'Misunderstood Again.'"


Those were some of the more serious things Jerry Jeff talked about as he blinked and nodded, nearly napping, glassy-eyed, pondering his past and future and the magic of truth.


But the brat hasn't changed much. From left field, for no apparent reason, he muttered:


"I'm gonna punch out the next Elvis impersonator I see. I've made up my mind.


"Another thing I'm gonna do is become a modern day Jesse James," he went on. "I'm gonna steal from rich booking agents and give the money to poor-poor musicians. You know, like leaving $50,000 under a napkin for somebody."


"I will be known as Ugly Boy Clyde."


Just another AKA to add to the legend. Robert Clyde Crosby, a transplanted rural New York State boy transplanted in Texas, also known as Jacky Jack Snowflake, Jerry Jeff Walker, and now, Ugly Boy Clyde.