We went back to Montana in the Scragg bus, followed by Peter in his own VW bus. It was early May, meaning it was cold, windy and snowing. But a warm welcome awaited us at the ANTLERS BAR, one of six serious drinking establishments in this 1,000-population town. We landed a gig there just by showing up; word had gotten out that these Californians—musicians, hippies, crazies, whatever—had bought the old Tom Day place, so the Antlers was packed. Everyone was overwhelmingly friendly, and not shy about dancing.
The thing all of us remember most vividly about the Antlers is the row of shots of Jack Daniels that lined up for us on the piano during the course of the night. Peter claims about a hundred—but then, he polished off quite a few of them, which might have affected his counting abilities. Anyway, it was a lot—way more than the three of us could finish though we went at the job like warriors. Maybe forty.
In the middle of the second set the crowd parted to let a mysterious man approach the stage. He was in his sixties, almost seven feet tall from his (very tall) hat to his (very tall) boots, and dressed in a navy blue suit; his nose was thin and aquiline, his hair white, his eyes bright blue and direct. He squinted up at us, extended his hand and said, “Well, I guess we’re neighbors.” He didn’t look totally happy about this assessment, but he certainly looked prepared to deal with it. It began to occur to me that when you buy land, there’s a lot more to it than putting out some money; you are essentially claiming to throw your lot in with a community of people you probably don’t know and maybe have never known the likes of. They will change your life—you will change theirs. For good or bad? Everyone will wait and see.
As it turned out, we couldn’t throw much of our lot in with this community, not yet, because there didn’t seem to be any way to make a living. The thing to do in a case like that would obviously be to go back to Santa Barbara and make a record, quick while we were all still speaking to each other, so that’s what we did. It was called Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out; we took two afternoons to record it, and I remember that Peter decided, on the spot, to pick up a Dobro that happened to be leaning against a wall in the studio and really quickly figured out how to play solos on two of our songs in time to record them.
Eventually the record came out on the SONYATONE label, which was Peter’s own company, named after his second child, and when the heck did he manage to get married and have two kids in the midst of all this?! With each chapter I find I struggle harder and harder with the timeframe problem.
But: >>>>This record, with new liner notes by MARY KATHERINE ALDIN and several extra live songs, is now available on CD, having been re-released by Peter, and I have actually looked at (though not yet listened to) it. It’s the damnedest thing I ever saw. There’s even a nude centerfold in it. If you want a copy, you can write me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will negotiate a deal.
Just as I didn’t really know anything about the CD until it was out, I also didn’t know about the record until it was old news. Shortly after the session, Gene and I went back to Montana, to experience our first -30 winter in the city of Missoula. RODNEY CROWELL wrote a song about leavin’ ol’ Missoula, so you know it is a place of considerable romantic importance. And so it was. Loggers, miners, ranchers, cowhands, Indians and truckers mingled more or less cooperatively with University of Montana students who, in 1968, were a handful. RICHARD HUGO had been, until that very minute, the hot local writer; the arts—and the bars—were hopping
The local hip music scene was very open to us. We were fresh blood, we were the new catalyst, we were from that elusive place many of the musicians wanted to go to: Someplace Else. This right here could have been that superhighway to success. I didn’t want to be hip, though; I wanted to be country. I’d been learning songs like mad—songs by NORMA JEAN, CONNIE SMITH, PORTER WAGONER and LORETTA LYNN—and figuring out how to play this new Fender guitar of mine, starting with plugging it in and cranking up the tremolo. I got a job barmaiding, then another. (I see my spell check wants to claim there is no such word as ‘barmaiding,’ and I suspect this is due to the agenda that would have us be ‘wait-persons.’ If I’d had to be a waitperson instead of a barmaid I wouldn’t have taken the job. I barmaided in a short, ruffled skirt and Maja cologne, and the hell with you, spell check.)
Gene and I went out dancing often. Our favorite was the CABIN LOUNGE, in East Missoula, where the truckers went. One night the DAVE KNIGHT BAND was playing, and they ended up asking me to do a few songs with them. I did a bunch—like five—because I think they were kind of tired of doing the same thing every night and I was something different. Gene was impressed: “When did you learn all that?” He wasn’t the only one. There happened to be a woman in the audience—JEANNETTE–who owned a club in Missoula called the GAY ‘90s, and what she wanted me to do was put together an all-girl band. I did, and she hired us. We really stank. I don’t think we lasted long—I can’t even remember those girls’ names, but one kind of played bass and the other kind of played drums. The bass player had a horse that used to walk into her kitchen all the time. She had a joke, too, her one line on stage: “My husband is a boxer. He works at the supermarket boxing groceries.”
A couple months after we disbanded, I rambled back into the Gay ‘90s on impulse and behold, there was a piano bar where the stage had been. ROSEMARY was holding forth at it, in a middle-aged, half-hearted way. The new management was Jeannette’s husband, LONESOME JIM; lovely, red-haired JOYCE, who once bought Lonesome Jim a brand new suit out of love, was barmaid, and so here we have everything necessary for a soap opera. I replaced Rosemary—well, I’m sorry. Jim asked me to, and I was glad for the job, which was every weekend, but I was sorry that Rosemary had to be carried out in full, yelling protest by two men the night of my first show.
I was strained for repertoire. I did all the folksongs that were appropriate, a little bluegrass, all the country songs I’d been learning, and the four songs I had written. Joyce liked my written songs the best. Especially one; she would drape her cleavage across the bar and cry big, drippy, real tears and tell me that song killed her and I should do it again because it made her think of Jim. Since Jim was always right there, thinking of him was probably not hard to do, but anyway, she wasn’t supposed to think of Jim, on account of Jeannette, who occasionally popped in to see who was thinking about who, and sometimes Joyce would just have to leave really fast, hands over her face. Her heart was being broken every minute. I admired her greatly; she resembled TAMMY WYNETTE (another of my sources for songs) in her ability to fill all the air around her with the pulsating fumes of her constantly breaking heart.
One time, a customer wanted to hear ‘Yellow Bird,’ and I couldn’t oblige him. The song came to symbolize, for Jim, all the songs I couldn’t do, countless thousands of songs. Maybe he was starting to belatedly appreciate Rosemary, who had a cheat book and certainly could have made that customer happy. “If you don’t learn ‘Yellow Bird,’ said Jim in one of his very rare fits of unpleasantness, ‘I’m going to fire you.’ So I learned ‘Yellow Bird’ and can do it to this day, should anyone ever request it, which no one ever has since. And kept my job.
I kept my job even when I got started on another kid. Gene had taken a teaching job up north in Eureka, so we drove down every weekend and I kept playing—drinking a White Russian or a Rusty Nail between each set, with a cigarette to go with it. Lonesome Jim kept smiling, Joyce kept crying and buying him things, Jeannette kept popping in like a harsh shaft of light, and I kept being a guitar bar until I was sick of it and the roads had become too wintery to make the drive. Finally I quit and spent the rest of the year growing that baby and writing songs.
Then it was summer. Nils was born; Gene’s teaching was over; we were broke—but I had sent a homemade tape of my new songs to Ed Pearl, and he had played the tape for SANDRA GETZ, who was working at the Ash Grove, and the two of them thought I was onto something. They were way exited. Ed wanted me back at the AG; Sandy decided she should be my manager. So back we went—at least to San Francisco, because the first gig Sandy had booked for me was THE BOARDING HOUSE, which wasn’t even open yet.
One tidbit that sticks in my mind is that my mother met a psychic at a party. She began telling the psychic and everyone else that her daughter was on her way down to California to start performing, and she asked the psychic, “Is my daughter as good as I think she is?” The lady went into a trance, so claims my mother, and said from that distant place of all knowledge, “Your daughter is much, much better than you think she is.” Whoa.