17—SANDY GETZ—DOES SHE EVER!

The list of famous acts with which I like to sprinkle my resume mostly came from the next three years working with Sandy Getz. She didn’t fool around. I had no idea how lucky I was.

 Before she could do much, though, she needed a better tape than the garbled one I’d sent Ed Pearl. And I just can’t describe how difficult things like tapes and photos were to come by in those days if you didn’t have any money. In this case, since I didn’t know anyone with a tape recorder, I looked in the Bay Area yellow pages and finally found a small studio over in Oakland that would be willing to record six songs for $25, and I’d end up with two copies of the tape. This was hard, but possible.

 So we paid the toll and crossed the bridge and found the house—yes, it was a house, with clapboard siding, a teeny lawn yard full of un-mowed grass, and a rusty doorknocker. The person who answered was kind of a surprise to people who’d been living in Montana: tall, lean, hairy-bodied, wearing a flowered dress with nylons and British walking shoes, thick glasses, gray hair in a hair net, that kind of thing. He went about his business efficiently, so efficiently I couldn’t believe the songs were done being recorded and that was that; I guess I’d hoped to work with them a bit. But I ended up with two actual tapes in green Shamrock boxes, and they were my future. Perhaps later down the line I might get lucky and find someone who could make another copy while that was still possible.

 I say that because already when Gavin was 2, we’d left him sitting in the bus with the tape recorder, and when we came back he had it up and running, but he didn’t know about take-up reels, so the tape was in a giant pool around him, this being obviously the third tape he was auditioning, and this not only was a defining event in Gavin’s life, as he’s been doing essentially that ever since, but it also warned of the possible fates that might befall a tape.

 So what’s this list, let’s see how many I can remember. ELVIN BISHOP. ERIC BURDON. JOHN PRINE. JOHN FAHEY. MARC-ALMOND BAND. JOHN LEE HOOKER. JOHNNY SHINES. DOC WATSON, DOC AND MERLE. LOGGINS & MESSINA. BROWNIE & SONNY. RAMBLIN’ JACK ELLIOT. SPIRIT. THE DILLARDS. MOSE ALLISON. MIKE JANUSZ. ALBERT COLLINS. HELLO PEOPLE. CHEECH & CHONG. JIM KWESKIN. . . . Well, I’m really starting to be annoyed by my memory loss, since I would love to dazzle you with my name-dropping. Let’s say it included just about anyone who was medium well-known on the west coast in the early ‘70s.

 And my job, of course, was Opening Act. Sometimes I barely spoke to the main act; sometimes I played on stage with them. Some noticed me, some didn’t. Here are some typical scenes of being an opening act:

 THE GOLDEN BEAR in Huntington Beach. Elvin Bishop was the headliner. The Golden Bear was right across the street from the pier; you could go hang out and watch the night surfers straggling onto the beach with their boards, peeling off their wet suits under the streetlights. If you were me, you could accost them, invite them over to hear your show—and often they would show up. Afterward one of them might venture backstage and say, “Hi, remember me? I’m that one guy?” and I’d say, “Oh! Of course! Thanks for coming!” and away he would go, looking like that wasn’t exactly how he’d imagined this scenario would play out.

 Elvin and his chaps would always be back in a corner, doing what bands do in corners before going on, and I’d sit in another corner doggedly warming up, wishing I didn’t have to do this in the presence of these rather dominant musicians. But Elvin was a man of considerable sharpness—kindness as well, I’d say. He sat with his back to me, so as not to be listening, and then he came and told me I had a really great right hand. I am so naturally cranky that of course my first reaction was to think, so my left hand is not so good? It’s always been true, though, that my rhythm hand is much stronger than my note-selection hand. Elvin said, “Will you be playing in Chicago? If you are in Chicago, there are some people I want to introduce you to.” I thanked him and told him there was almost no chance I would ever go to Chicago, since I had a husband and two small children. He shrugged and said, “Well. If you do. I’d give you some lessons, be glad to.” So why did I not follow through on that? You tell me.

 With JOHN PRINE, at TULAGI’S in Boulder. John’s style was to play in the almost dark. He was intensely laid back, and so was his band. From the audience you’d just see these ghostly forms, a bit of sleeve moving slowly up and down across the strings, a momentary glimpse of someone’s profile. I don’t remember but am willing to bet they dressed in black. “Magnoliaaaaa,” he sang, like a night bird in a magnolia tree.

 I, on the other hand, wore a strappy aqua dress covered with brilliant red blossoms, red shoes to match, and my style was as up-front as John’s was laid-back. “I didn’t know God made honky-tonk angels,” I sang, twanging and grinning through one of the two songs we did together in a spontaneous moment. (I’d made sure to choose songs we all could play, at least I knew that much.) The contrast must have been electrifying. The first two rows of the audience began climbing up on the stage—I can still see their faces, with frankly open mouths, and their outstretched arms.

 EBBETS FIELD in Denver. The dressing room was upstairs, an elevator ride, and it was a large, modern, well-equipped place indeed, with armchairs and wall-to-wall carpeting. I did not mingle with the MARC-ALMOND BAND, or maybe they did not mingle with me. I remember underdressing and underplaying, considering what a very posh club it was. The band was so sharp, so talented—what on earth was I doing there? Horns, keyboards, brilliant solos, wow. John Marc, though, underdressed as well, in a plain, faded black jersey, open at the throat to reveal city-white skin.

 On the last night, I wore a long, slinky red gown. Then suddenly I was mingling like mad. All the band members became friendly as could be, and John Marc said, “My, you’re looking awfully dishy tonight.” “Oh,” I said, “well, hm. Yes. Sorry. It’s Saturday night.” He said, “Sorry? What do you mean, sorry? Why shouldn’t you look like this? You’re an entertainer, aren’t you?” I said, “I don’t know, am I?” He assured me I was, and then he allowed that he hadn’t liked me much at first, I seemed too snobby and distant, but now he could see that I was warm and dishy and he liked me just fine. I took advantage of our cozy new relationship to point out that one of his theme phrases—‘the good green earth beneath my feet’—was not good imagery, was city imagery, should be the brown earth, earth being brown and not green, and he said he liked his phrase very much, thank you, and was certainly not going to change it. “Well, it’s wrong,” I said.

 Even after this snippy little exchange, he asked me if I would like to attend an after-hours party with him, since I was certainly dressed for it. I said I had a husband and two children back at the motel. He said, “So what? Come anyway!” I said it would be nice but probably not. He said, “Please. I want you to. At least think about it, eh?” I said I would think about it. Later, having gone back to the motel as was proper, I did think about it, for hours. I thought, see? See? It’s always this way. No wonder I will never get anywhere, since I can’t hang out. You have to be able to hang out. Linda Ronstadt would have gone. Boo hoo.

 Now we’re at JOE’S BAR & GRILL in Boulder, a poorly-attended venue featuring ALBERT COLLINS as well as the SAN FRANCISCO MIME TROUPE. Albert has, evidently, one mode of performance, no matter what the crowd. He’ll strut across the stage with arched back, right knee and then left knee raised toward the ceiling, head thrown back in a fearsome grimace involving stretched lips, squinted eyes and clenched teeth, his guitar alternately cradled against his breast or thrust away as if it were a hot potato. I can see this working well before five hundred people. When it’s five people, huddled at their tables in a cavernous barn of a room, the effect is absolutely startling.

 One of those five people was a man called ‘The Silver Fox.’ I remind my readers that Silver Fox is an extremely popular name for gents whose hair has turned white before they feel ready to cash in their youth chips, and that I’m not referring to the singer of ‘Behind Closed Doors. I met the Silver Fox when the club manager came to me after my set and told me The Silver Fox was waiting in the office to meet with me. When I went in, the manager introduced us, “Kajsa Ohman—the Silver Fox.” Consequently I never knew what to call him and so didn’t call him anything. And what did he want with me? To be my manager! He’d fallen in love with my song, ‘Come All My Old Boyfriends,’ a number I’d considered a throwaway and have since forgotten.

 “You need to come to Chicago,” the Silver Fox said.  What’s this with Chicago all of asudden? I told him I really couldn’t operate out of Chicago since I had a husband and two small children. “You don’t have to move there,” he insisted. “Just come out for a brief business visit. I’ll pay your airfare.” It did cross my mind that while in Chicago I could go take a guitar lesson from Elvin Bishop—and by the time I was back home in Santa Barbara, Gene and I had decided if the guy was for real it could actually be arranged to send me to Chicago.

 The question was finessed, however, when the Silver Fox phoned to say he was now in Ventura, a half hour away, and I should meet him at the Wagon Wheel where we could discuss my future. So I drove down and sat with him in a booth and drank, well, really a lot. It seemed like we were talking a bunch of bullshit. I remember thinking I’d better let him know something about me. Maybe everything about me, from childhood on up. Except I had to go to the ladies’ room, where I threw water into my face and tried unsuccessfully to force a quick vomit. I’ve never been easy with this sort of interview. At any rate, I collected my wits and went back and sat across from him and continued my story.

 After a few minutes, he said, “Ma’am, this is interesting stuff, but I think you were with the gent in the next booth.” I stared. Two Silver Foxes in one lounge? And I couldn’t tell the difference? So I lurched over to my own Silver Fox and suddenly realized I was not going to Chicago, or anywhere else except back home to our little trailer to subsist on mortification for the rest of my life. [Yes, a patrolman did stop me on the drive home. He made me get out and recite the alphabet. This is something I can do at lightning speed any time of the day or night in any condition, and I think the officer was stunned. Anyway, he let me go, which he should not have done. Things were different back then.]

 And this is quite enough for today. It is exhausting to relive, even superficially, the events of one’s life. Try it some time. See you soon, with more of the same, or maybe it will be different. At least we know there’s a common element to all the stories, which is the fact of my being an idiot. Thanks for listening.

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GOD BLESS THE HIPPIE

16—GOD BLESS THE HIPPIE

 

While waiting for the Boardinghouse to open—living in my mother’s apartment, on a pile of blankets on the floor, with husband, boy and baby—I wrote a few new songs, including ‘God Bless the Hippie.’ This was/is a hectically fast flat-picking song in typical C chord progression, and as it has been so omnipresent in my life ever since, I’ll just lay it out right now.

 

               GOD BLESS THE HIPPIE  @KAJSA OHMAN 1970

 

    In a ’57 Chevy 6 that Richard loaned to me,

    With a burned-out generator, out on Highway 93

    I was all alone and stranded as the shades of night drew nigh—

    With the snowflakes whirling ’round me, lord, I knew I’d surely die.

    I stepped into the highway to extend my freezing thumb

    And I could have stood that way, my friends, till the day of Kingdom Come.

    Many cars went roaring past me in a cloud of mud and snow

    Till an old Dodge panel truck pulled up, and a hippie said “Hello!”

 

             God bless the hippie, wherever he may be—

             He’ll be a friend to you—oooooo, he’s been a friend to me.

 

    His hair hung down like feathers upon his velvet coat,

    He jingled when he walked and smelled of incense when he spoke.

    He was covered with medallions, to protect him from the cold,

And he handed me, in a friendly way, a joint just freshly rolled.

He looked into my engine, and he told me in a flash,

“I’ve an extra generator this dude traded me for hash!

I’d be glad to lay it on you, if you’d be so inclined,

’Cause these ’57 Chevy sixes really blow my mind.”

 

          God bless the hippie………..

 

I asked, “What do I owe you?” and he said, “The pleasure’s mine.”

As he stood there smiling down on me, the sun began to shine,

And many happy hours we spent in Richard’s Chevrolet

Till the breaking dawn reminded us we must be on our way.

He wrapped me in his jacket and he held me by my hand

And he promised me we’d meet again up in God’s golden land.

He gave me half a dollar and he gave me half a lid,

Climbed aboard his panel truck and shouted, “So long, kid!”

 

          God bless the hippie………………..

 

 

Okay, keep this song in mind, because the spirit of it gives the flavor of the next few years. The spirit, that is, of Hippie-dom, which despite sensational exceptions that were featured in the news was always based on Love. Love the one you’re with. Love the trees and flowers and the open highways, the home-baked bread, the home-written songs, and the home-grown leaf—though you didn’t necessarily have to love club owners, rival musicians, or people in Cadillacs who would not stop to help you when you broke down, which you would, because we really did drive a bunch of sorry wrecks back then.

 

While waiting for the Boardinghouse to open, an event that was put off again and again while days turned to weeks, I was delighted to run into John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers. John said they were playing right across the bay at THE LION’S DEN, and I should come over and see the show. He’d leave my name at the door. In fact, I should bring my guitar and do a song.

 

The next day, accordingly, was a busy one for me. First, I needed to finish ‘Hippie,’ memorize the lyrics and learn to play it. I also needed to sew a dress, and for some reason it had to be a complex one. [For those interested in such things, I already had three yards of Kelly green silk splashed with roses, and I made it up into a form-fitted gown, ankle length with a scoop neck and scalloped hem, scallops also along the edges of the short, ruffled sleeves. With a side zipper. So I had to learn, or devise, how the make a scalloped hem, and this is a thing I’ll doubtless never attempt again.]

 

After I got whatever sorry wreck we were driving then across the Golden Gate Bridge and managed to find the club, the rest was gravy. The Ramblers were doing a terrific show, and the audience was in fine fettle. In the break, I came out in my rosy green dress and played and sang ‘God Bless the Hippie’ as if I’d been doing it all my life. The crowd cheered and hooted for a long time, banging their fists on the tables, which as I recall were wooden barrels on end. The Ramblers hugged and kissed me and shook my hand. For that night I was golden.

 

They thought I should stay and meet the owner later and see if I could set something up. But I couldn’t stick around. Good though it would be to stay on this superhighway to success, I was pretty worried about driving back home by myself. Not only that, I’d been too long away from my baby, and milk was starting to seep out and soak the bosom of my new silk dress. Enough was enough—but thank you.

 

Now, about this superhighway to success: Can it possibly be that it exists in many forms? It occurs to me that moments like that one are the success. So it doesn’t happen again the next night, so what? Even the best superhighways in the land are occasionally broken by roadwork, or some other problem of discontinuity. You find yourself lost on a detour, or maybe you like this place you’ve driven through so much you decide to live here for a while. You take a scenic route, your generator goes out, and suddenly there’s the Hippie, who you never would have met had you kept on succeeding in whatever you thought you wanted.

 

At any rate, after playing the Boardinghouse, which I suppose was some kind of success (a review of opening night by Phil Elwood of the Chronicle said I got off to a shaky start but redeemed myself eventually), we drove down to Santa Barbara where we would live in a very small trailer in a friend’s canyon for a long time.  There was more mileage to be gotten out of the Scragg Family; Peter and his wife were now running THE BLUEBIRD CAFÉ, a railroad-car-shaped room with beer and wine and a stage. As long as there’s a stage, I’m in. Except right away I managed to get the flu and hang on to it for three weeks, losing some weight and hair and confidence. Photos taken at the Ash Grove by PHIL MELNICK after that showed me looking fragile, dyspeptic and pale, la bohème wrapped in a fur coat and smiling wanly. Hardly the heroine of ‘God Bless the Hippie.’

 

15—A NEW WORLD

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 kajsaohman@hotmail.com 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.

14–EXTRA, EXTRA! SCRAGG FAMILY HITS BIG TIME.

14–STILL RAMBLING

First, though, there was that land we’d bought. One hundred sixty acres of it, which still belonged to the original homesteader. That much land—a quarter section, tiny by rancher standards—is about a mile long and ¼ mile wide. A good-sized creek ran down the whole length of it, fed by a few smaller creeks. The trees were mainly lodgepole pine, Doug fir and aspen. Willows made a jungle wherever there was water, though right now their branches were bare and deep purple.

And there was a log cabin, dating back to 1911, which had lost its roof, windows and floor. We parked the bus next to it and with the enthusiasm of Californians started putting up roofing tin. It was so cold we built a fire in the Great Majestic wood stove we’d bought for ten dollars and stood Gavin on the range top in his little white shoes. The next day—Thanksgiving—dawned on 18 inches of fresh snow, so that was that. We fired up the bus and drove straight to Sacramento.

Sacramento?! Well, we had some old friends there, who let us park the bus in their back alley indefinitely. Sure couldn’t do that now. Anyway, I got a job—that job where I was secretary to a newsman in the Capitol building, poor fellow—and we made it through the winter.

Sacramento was where I found out how much I really liked country music. For one thing, it changed my style of dress: starched bouffant hair, micro-dresses, garter belts, and high-heeled shoes with straps, this was the new Ruby Scragg, and she learned she could dance, too, so watch out.

There was a certain club we went to a couple times a week. The house band was called the SNEAD FAMILY—well, maybe it wasn’t, because I just googled it and find that there’s a Sneed Family that doesn’t fit the description. One of the brothers played pedal steel, and although I hadn’t heard a lot of pedal steel in those days, I still could tell that this was an extraordinary player, like SCOTTY STONEMAN (a fabulous fiddler from the STONEMAN FAMILY who drank too much and eventually OD’d on shoe polish or something, so says folk-music scuttlebutt) or CLARENCE WHITE. I’d like to know what happened to that guy.

I didn’t play much but listened to a lot of music in Sacramento. I heard this young MERLE HAGGARD on the radio, so I rushed out and bought his first LP. I also got a record of DOLLY PARTON and PORTER WAGONER. I heard ‘The Day the World Stood Still,’ by CHARLIE PRIDE and found out he’d been living in Montana—that in fact he got his start in a little roadhouse just down the road from our new town. I began to learn some of their songs, and, secretly, to write some of my own.

                                                         *     *     *    *

Then, out of the blue we got a call from PETER FELDMANN. He said he’d found an agent and had booked the Scragg Family into some Nevada casinos on the assumption that we would like to play them. Well, of course we would. We had Gene’s 14-year-old son, Bruce, living with us, and going to Nevada seemed like a cool idea to him, too. (I can’t think why he wasn’t in school, but he was certainly getting an education on the general unreliability of adults.) So off we all went in the bus to the MIZPAH HOTEL in a town called TONOPAH. I’d heard that this hotel had since burned down, but thank goodness that was a false rumor.

Opening night: Wow! The hotel had a beauty salon! I could get my hair put up, what a fantastic idea! I had quite a bit of hair, and the updo was intensely challenging to the ladies (two) of the salon. It took them almost three hours, and by the time I came crashing into the showroom, my bandmates were in an awful sweat over the prospect of doing the show without me. Things like this make me feel valuable, appreciated. In fact my lifelong habit of staying away until the last minute can be entirely attributed to my conviction that the show can’t go on without me.

Now, this was the same time that Martin Luther King was shot. I’ll always remember this because we climbed up on the stage, a very high, circular pedastal behind the bar, and I was worrying about whether my hair was all going to stay balanced on my head and whether my dress was too short considering how high up we were, and we started tuning and getting ready to play, and the bartender was surfing the TV, if you can call it surfing when it’s three stations, when some drunk down below hollered up, “What’s on TV, Ed?” and Ed said disgustedly, “Not a damn thing, every way I tune it they’re burying that nigger.”

The culture shock went on. Aside from the drunks at the bar, our audience was a sea of slots with arms working them. We did have one fan (he reappeared every night) who would yell, “Oh, sock it to me,” every time we got done with ‘Little Annie’ or ‘Down the Old Plank Road’ or ‘Brazos River’ or ‘Hold the Woodpile Down,’ as if we were rock stars. But mostly we were ‘the entertainment,’ which was something like being the janitor.

We had two bosses, who wore black pants and white shirts, black ties and black armbands (to hold their sleeves up, not to honor Dr. King) and green eye shades. They were called MR. SMALL and MR. SHORT. One of them was quite tall. They appeared to live behind grilled windows in the basement, a good place for them since they were the least friendly human beings I’d ever met. And they got their money’s worth out of us California wusses. We hadn’t ever played five sets before, and for my part those five sets were in high heels with a D28 hanging off me. By the last song we were so exhausted we had to carry each other up to our rooms where we barely managed to scrape the costumes off our bodies before falling into bed. My fingertips were all bleeding, so were Gene’s toes from the cowboy boots. And no sooner did we close our eyes than the phone rang. Mr. Short, or Mr. Small. “Hey, where the h*%&^ ARE you co**%#ks*#@*rs? You still got another set to play!” Oooooh my God, kids, always read your contract; don’t assume it was drawn up by rational, modern people with hearts. Yes, it did say six 45-minute sets a night, six nights a week, for two weeks, and that’s by God what we did.

On our night off, Gene and I drove into Las Vegas. It was like a dream—we wandered into some casino, not a hard thing to do when they re all free and open to the street, and then we wandered into the showroom, not a hard thing to do when they are free and open to the anteroom, and some babe with nine-inch tits and a tray of drinks is shoving you toward the stage–and there was Merle Haggard, his very self. He had his original band, THE STRANGERS, and one of his original wives, BONNIE OWENS. They were new, relatively unknown. We sent a note up requesting the song ‘Somewhere Between’ for the Scragg Family, and Merle read it out loud, “Folks, we’ve got the SCRAGG FAMILY with us tonight!” An uneasy flutter of applause. Whoa, famous in Vegas.

Time to leave. Bruce spent all his baby-sitting money on toys and presents for Gavin—also a haircut and a western shirt. We bade farewell to this strange little town of gray houses and slightly sinister dust streets to head for JOE MACKIE’S famous STAR BROILER in WINNEMUCCA. Winnemucca is pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable, as our cowboy audience informed us.

The club was in process of an extensive remodel, which seems to have started at the stage, so we performed on a concrete floor with a background ambience of sawhorses and electric tools. That made for pretty bad sound, though not so bad that Joe Mackie himself had to come over and summarily turn our amp down from 8 to 1—I mean, he didn’t have to. He just did.

Our work-mate was dissatisfied with his gig as well; he was a comedian who never got a laugh even though he was, I thought, exceedingly funny. His most memorable line was, “Excuse me, I didn’t mean to disturb you, I know you have to hurry back to your coffins.” Yet the crowd was a nice one, in its way. Just neither sophisticated nor demonstrative. Our music suited them well. A lot of them came from the surrounding ranches, and The Broiler was their once-a-month big night on the town.

At the end of this gig, we went to a pawn shop in Reno where I bought a black-and-white Fender Strat that would be worth a fortune if I’d hung onto it, and a Standel amp, which ditto. It was time to start a stealthy transition from mountain to country music. Time, too, to get back to Montana and figure out what our new life was going to look like.

I guess I need to mention that the Star Broiler did burn down, though long after we left.

So that was our blast of success. There should be a T-shirt, SCRAGG FAMILY WORLD TOUR ’68. I’d wear it.

13–FLYING IDEAS!

STILL RAMBLING 13
Flying Ideas

At the end of 1965, Gavin was born in that shack. At least he was brought home to it when he was a few hours old. The Scragg Family named him BLACK DIAMOND. (In those days, if you went into an ordinary music store and asked for guitar strings, Black Diamond was likely the only brand they carried.) He crawled around among the fallen avocados and ate them and listened to Peter and Gene and me playing music.

For a short time, we moved to a nearby house that seemed to be up for grabs. Then Gene had an idea, that we could turn the avocado shack into a bar. La Cantina. This bit of anecdote isn’t music related, just cool. But I mean really cool; imagine yourself driving up into the hills—fewer and fewer houses—steep, winding roads you could easily get lost on—yeah, guess you’re supposed to park beside this row of old junkers and, what, walk down over this cliff?—down a dirt path covered with squished avocados—and suddenly there’s mariachi music playing, there are lights (from kerosene lanterns) and laughter, there’s a funny little shack, and you can walk right in there and slap down your dollar on the bar and get a generous shot of Bushmills or Cuervo, or pretty much whatever you fancy. There’s an Irish bartender smoking a cigar, his name’s Mike Lannigan and he works for shots. In one corner there’s a poker game in progress—you recognize the Santa Barbara D.A., but who are those guys with bulges under the armpits of their suits?

By 1967 this level of domesticity—i.e., state of not playing music—started to wear on me. Then I had an idea. And right now I have to say that I’ve just seen the new CD of the old Scragg Family record—yes, it’s now out and available—and I see by the liner notes there’s some dispute about whose idea this actually was. Normally it wouldn’t matter, and memory plays tricks, and all that, but in this case I would claim that this was my idea because no one else is that harebrained. And because I remember lying awake nights, thinking about it off and on through pretty much my lifetime.

“I have an idea,” I said to Gene. “Wouldn’t it be great if the Scragg Family had an old truck or something, and we’d just get in and travel all over the country, and whenever we’d get to a town we’d set up our gear and play, and people would take up collections for us, so we’d always have enough money to go on to the next town….”

As it happened, Peter was all for it—assuming, of course, that it wasn’t already his idea. He’d been going to college, but right now he wasn’t really into botany. Gene was for it, too, but the only truck he had left was a lowboy for his bulldozer, and there was no way the three of us and the baby could fit in that little cab. By next day, he’d had an idea, so he went downtown to lean on an old friend and was back a few hours later with a 42-passenger school bus.

It was a good bus, a ’53 Chevy, but it had belonged to a group with lots of kids who had painted it outside and in with rainbows and butterflies. And it had barely made it up the hill before it died. That was all right, Gene already knew he’d have to put a new engine in it. He did that over the next week, in a field, while Peter and I painted the bus—blue with a white roof, THE SCRAGG FAMILY on the side in red and gold circus letters. We took out the seats and put a stove, ice box and sink in it, what more could we want? Oh, beds, and closets. Easy.

Oh, and Peter should really find a girlfriend who would want to join us in our adventure, because it’s easier with 2 couples than a threesome, and of course we’d need someone to look after Gavin while we were playing. So a day later Peter showed up with a girlfriend. I was impressed with the speed of his courtship. Her name was Cindy. She was reasonably enthusiastic but far from passive—we were to understand that we’d have to stop every two hours because that’s how often she would have to get out and meditate, and she lived on yoghurt, and what’s more, the rust on the ice box shelves was not to be tolerated. Did she like children? Well, that depended.

Oh, and we’d need a sound system. No problem, we had a friend who would take the one Peter bought at considerable expense from a big-name L.A. outfit and make it twice as good if he could live with us while he worked on it it, and if we’d drive him downtown every day to a certain fast food place where they had the right kind of burgers and then another one across town because they poured the right size of Coke. It was the sort of rebuild where the pre-amp had to be sprayed with Zolotone or something, and the special capacitors had to be special-ordered from Libya. I flipped my lid at the guy one day, and this was the first time someone actually said to me, ‘You’re beautiful when you’re angry.’ DO NOT EVER TRY THIS LLINE. But finally the bus was done, and the sound system was done, and the only thing remaining was to give a farewell concert on the steps of the old Mission up on APS (Alameda Padre Scragg) where our new custom amp blew up in smoke and flames.

It was amazing how we didn’t get any jobs at all. We drove and drove, we stopped in every town and canvassed the bars, we felt like idiots. In Reno we even got in costume and took the elevator to the top floor of a major casino where the manager was sitting at a big desk, and he took one look at us and died laughing.
Okay, we wouldn’t be working there.

Late that afternoon we got to Virginia City and parked the bus in front of the RED DOG SALOON because it looked promising. We didn’t get out right away. It took us half an hour to put on our costumes and pretty up. (Gene had refined his outfit so he looked like a traveling preacher; trust me, this took some effort.) By the time we entered the saloon, people had pretty well talked themselves out over WTF we could possibly be. We said we wanted a job. They wanted to know if we could start tomorrow and play for all summer, and we said if the pay was okay, we would. I guess it was. Once we were hired, the owner—STEVE HENRY—asked us with great respect if it would be all right if they could hear a song right now, if we weren’t too tired. Now, see, that’s the way I like to get gigs.

We did play all summer and on through October. That’s a good run. (The previous summer, the GRATEFUL DEAD had been the house band. They’d left their light-show behind, a light-show that pulsated to the rhythm of each song, so we played our mountain music to psychedelic pulsations.) There was an available room, which Peter and Cindy took; Gene and I lived in the bus with Black Diamond. The crowd was an afternoon one, mainly tourists, a lot of them from Appalachia. They’d line up to get our autographed poster for a dollar. I always told them we were from Horn Rim, Ky., which I thought was a joke because so many scholarly types were into mountain music, but lots of folks would say, ‘Oh, I know Horn Rim, it’s just a coupla hollers over from Strangle Crick.’

1967. I was here often in 1956 with my mother and her boyfriend. He (JIM GAHAN, house pianist at THE PLACE in San Francisco) had bought a weekend house at the end of the street, and he’d play ragtime piano in the BUCKET OF BLOOD saloon. Every place in Virginia City, Nevada, is a saloon. I mean, this is mostly true, except where it isn’t. The sidewalk is plank, the building fronts are false, and behind them the hills rise in folds, dry, sagey and rattlesnake-covered. I loved to climb them while the piano-playing routine was going on—heard one rendition of ‘Bill Bailey,’ heard ’em all. Up on the hillside, the air was brittle cold, the stars close. I felt like a stranger and liked it. I sure never thought I’d end up part of the town’s ambience.

With our nights free, sometimes we’d go down to Carson City and spend some tip money on the slots. Those nights we’d camp on the Carson River. Once, another family was camping on the river, not too far down the mud flat from us. After a while the dad wandered over from their campfire to ours. He had a banged-up Harmony guitar across his back and wanted to do some picking. Turned out he was pretty good. We invited him to come to the Red Dog next day and do a couple songs. He did, with the whole family—Indian wife and several kids. Eventually one of the boys came over to say his dad wanted to ask us if we could give them five dollars, because they didn’t have enough gas to drive back to the river. JACK GREEN. The un-famous one.

Finally the season was over. We divided up, Peter taking the sound system and us taking the bus. Gene’s divorce was finalized. He sold his family house he had designed and built in Santa Barbara, and with his share of the money we drove up to Montana and bought a hunk of wilderness land. It was an idea.

What?! Was this the end of the Scragg Family then?

12–ROY ORBISON WHO?

STILL RAMBLING 12
ROY ORBISON WHO?

Gene was a building designer and contractor, before I came along and sabotaged his career. He also had a wife and four children, so I could add ‘home wrecker’ to my growing list of credentials if that home hadn’t already become pretty well wrecked anyway.

This reminds me of another issue to be addressed. Someone remarked, on reading this book so far, “You seem awfully hard on yourself.” And several others, reading my novels and stories, have spotted the female ‘me’ character and said, “You don’t seem to like this girl very much. Why?”

So then, rolling up my sleeves: I like myself a lot. I think highly of myself, even. It’s my behavior I don’t like. Sometimes. As a yet-to-be-introduced friend once counseled, “People will like your confidence, but they won’t like your arrogance.” Alas, when confidence decides to hide behind a curtain, arrogance is quick to claim the vacancy, even masquerading as confidence—and no, no one will like it.

I don’t like it either, nor my obsequiousness, nor my obliviousness to others, nor a particular brand of aggression that comes roaring out of me when I don’t expect it, nor my perennial lack of money, nor my hair agonies, nor my fear of you-name-it…….but these are things I don’t like, they aren’t me. They are encrustations on a long-lost masterpiece; scrape them away and you have a beautiful woman of talent, wisdom, humor and music. The person who was living these pages was unfortunately still encrusted, and I can’t paint her otherwise. If you want to like her in spite of herself, it’s okay!

Gene liked me. While noticing the whole picture. That didn’t mean it was ‘happily ever after’ from that moment on. The intense drama of breakups and get-togethers doesn’t relate to guitar-playing, so I’ll skip over it.

While it was going on, I became very close friends with RITA WEILL She had a gorgeous voice and a compelling way of delivering an old ballad with no accompaniment. And her clothes! Like me, though, she had her encrustations. She was not calm. Helping her get ready for a gig, I tried not to be hit in the head by shoes flying out of the closet. Her social skills were almost as unpredictable as mine. But she was smart and funny; we laughed generously at each other’s puns and huddled together under a quilt to discuss our man troubles. She once described to me what it was like to room with the women of the GEORGIA SEA ISLAND SINGERS while their men were housed elsewhere—the mooing, bellowing and groaning of enforced abstinence caused by some insensitive concert organizer—and she raved, too, at great length about the fabulous thighs of a certain folk musician whose thighs I honestly had never observed. I needed to hear stuff like that, to gossip. We were what they now call BFFs. Since the final F stands for Forever, I assume it is still so.

As a family and business man who no longer had a family or a business, Gene no longer had a house, or credit at the bank. (Really, though, I couldn’t at that time be induced to live in a house; I’d gotten used to sleeping and cooking outside and liked it that way.) He did have a couple of major requirements of me—one, that I had to be (relatively) sane, and two, that I was apparently expected to stick around. No bolting, not even a threat of bolting. Damn. The sanity part is still interesting to me: So, growing up and taking responsibility is something a person can do even if he/she is as out of control as a junebug crashing into screen doors and knocking itself cold? As I had been raised to the ‘can’t help it’ tune, this expectation was daunting. I was game, though.

Then, soon I was working on another baby. This meant we’d have to live somewhere. Not that we were homeless; Gene had been building a boat, and we lived next to it in a tiny shelter with an open-air kitchen. Best place ever. Nonetheless, it would be necessary to upgrade. So Gene went around gathering old windows and 2×4’s and pieces of mismatched siding, and built a little shack in a friend’s avocado orchard. And next time I drove up to Berkeley, Rita was working on a baby as well. I’m talking two fine musicians in vitro. We’ll meet one in the next chapter.

Our scaled-down Scraggs never ran short of places to play. San Diego Folk Festival . . . Scripps College . . . lots of folk clubs and taverns, including one where the owner said if we weren’t packed up and out in fifteen minutes he was calling the sheriff. (The crowd we brought wasn’t always top-notch; in this case, three families showed up with all their children, shared one mug of beer and brought their own bag of unshelled peanuts.)

The Ash Grove again, of course. This was when the Ash Grove Women (MARY KATHERINE ALDIN and SANDRA GETZ, who actually ran the club) became my friends and fans mostly because of a little photo of John Lennon I’d taped to my new dreadnaught. The BEATLES had just come out with their record, Hard Day’s Night, and Ed Pearl had piqued me by saying with disbelief, ‘You don’t like them, I hope.’

You bet I liked the Beatles. After the grief years they made me feel like I was sixteen. And I was a ‘John.’ You had to pick one to like best; John was a natural for me because of a lot of physical and mental family resemblance. I also took note of the fact that he wrote songs, although it was some time before I got up the nerve to do the same.

One gig we played for several weeks when I was 6-7 months pregnant—well, I just asked Gene if he remembered the name of that club in Goleta, and he said, “You mean the one where my building foreman got hit over the head with a pipe wrench by that Appalachian nightmare who was stalking you?” “Yeah, that one.” “No.”

Anyway, one night on my break I wandered down the bar and sat beside the one customer who sat at it. He was wearing a dark blue shirt of some really quality cloth, kind of like an old-fashioned policeman’s shirt; it was pressed, professionally, in twin back pleats. And he was wearing big sunglasses, indoors, at night. His black hair was done in a ‘60s style pompadour, probably with a little dab of Brill-Cream.

He was glad enough to have company, and bought me drink. (Yes, I drank when pregnant, a little, probably why my son is so smart.) Then he asked, “Do you know who I am?” I said I didn’t.

“I’m ROY ORBISON,” he said. I said I was really glad to meet him.

“No,” he said, “I mean it. I am. I’m Roy Orbison.” I said I believed it.

“No, really,” he insisted. “Look here—” he pulled out his wallet and started taking things out of it. “See, here’s my driver’s license. See? It says, right here, Roy Orbison, and here’s my picture. (He took off his glasses so I could compare him with the license.) “And here’s my social security card. See, here’s—” I tried to stop him; he was certainly, obviously and incontrovertibly, Roy Orbison. Whether the Roy Orbison or not, he was the guy his license and five other ID cards said he was.

“You know how many guitars we used on ‘Pretty Woman?’” I didn’t. “Eleven,” he told me triumphantly. “That’s right, eleven guitars.” I said I always loved the sound of massed guitars. “Well, that’s how many we used. Eleven guitars.”

I said, “Well, I’m afraid we only have the one, which is me, but we’d be honored to have you come up and do a song with us if you would.” He said he didn’t know whether it was in his contract that he could do that. I said, “Well, there’s not very many people in here, and probably nobody who’d squeal on you. We sure wouldn’t.” He still didn’t know. The idea seemed to make him squirm.

“I’m really not in Goleta to perform,” he said. “I’m here to look at some property. I’m looking to make some investments, and this place is growing like crazy. I figure I won’t be rich forever, I know how show business goes. But, sure, yeah, I guess I could come up and do ‘Pretty Woman.’ You think you know how to play it?”

I went, “Dah-dah-dah-dah-DAAAH, dah-dah-dah-dah-DAAAH, pretty woman—”

“That’s it,” he said. “Okay, y’all call me up when you want me. Just the one, though.”

I got back on stage and told the Scraggs we were going to have Roy Orbison. “Roy who?” they asked. I said it was that guy sitting right down there at the bar, and we all looked. “What guy?” they wondered, because there was nothing but a line of empty barstools.

Maybe he was just shy. Maybe he didn’t want his song massacred by some pregnant hillbillies. Maybe he was some other Roy Orbison. But that shirt! It was straight show biz. And those glasses! That hair! Dude, if you were not Roy Orbison, then good job, whoever you were.

12–‘KNOXVILLE GIRL’

STILL RAMBLING 12

KNOXVILLE GIRL

Considering their gruesome content, it’s amazing how murder ballads capture us. Most people find them fascinating. Remember what success I had with ‘Pretty Polly’ at the hungry i? Back in high school, when I had a hopeless crush on the yell leader, I played ‘Pretty Polly’ in a talent show, and afterward that yell leader was on his knees beside my chair, asking, wide-eyed, ‘What is this music? How do you find it?’ My crush incidentally evaporated in the face of this abject admiration.]

When I was fifteen, I’d learned one called ‘False Lambkin,’ in which a gory night of mayhem unfolds while the lord of the manor is away on business. I would sing this at any gathering where there were children, and they’d climb all over me and want to hear it again. When I got to the best verse, they would all sing along with great joy:

There’s blood in the kitchen

There’s blood in the hall

There’s blood in the parlor

Where the lady did fall.

Har, hardy har!

All this is just digression, a preamble to a thing I do actually have to talk about. Those who just want a merry romp through the early folk days might want to skip this chapter about June 7, 1964…….

I need to bring up the death of my son, Christopher, which happened one afternoon during a Scragg Family rehearsal. It wasn’t a murder—though that matter is still cloudy—and there was no blood; it was a drowning. There was no one to blame, no lawsuit to be brought, no eye for an eye. What could a person do? Nothing. Accept.

Accept that this staunch, sturdy, curly-headed, argumentative little Scorpio fellow who had traveled all across the country singing ‘Limbo Rock’, who had waited loyally while I wandered in a haze, who knew all my songs and plucked so carefully at the guitar strings, attended the Grand Ol’ Opry, slept under the stars and got puffed up like a balloon from mosquito bites, was now this cold, smooth, peaceful, dead thing across my lap. His hair was still damp; his skin was marble.

I could write a whole book about the death of a child, but not this book. I said I would only write about things pertinent to guitars, guitar playing, and maybe singing. So, is this tragedy really pertinent?

I’m a folksinger, for God’s sake. I’m doing songs that come out of the real life people live. In fact I’ve already made a nuisance of myself through arguing publicly that folk music has virtually nothing to do with how well a person can handle a banjo, a guitar, a mandolin or a set of vocal chords; it has to do with rather lowly people expressing their feelings about their life in the only ways that are available to them.

And now I myself was lowly. Because death lays you low. For a brief time (don’t worry, this wisdom doesn’t last) you realize that you know nothing, are nothing, control nothing. You are dust.

I also realized I had nothing out of my own experience, or my family’s, or my community’s, that I could turn to, to make sense out of this senseless thing. I’d known almost no one who died. We had no religion. I didn’t know what to think or even how I was supposed to feel.

So I sang ‘Knoxville Girl.’ Whenever I was left alone, which didn’t happen much, I’d grab my new Martin–always standing ready in D tuning these days–and I’d sing ‘Knoxville Girl.’ Using finger picks. My arrangement was hideous, from the clanking of the picks to the shrillness of the vocal, and I haven’t ever played it for anyone. [The version I do now, and that rarely, is just dreary.]

The song itself, though, is hideous even by normal murder ballad standards. In it, a smug and self-serving young man of means tells how his parents bought him a mill, how he fell in ‘love’ with a local girl (probably one of his underpaid employees), how he lied about marrying her, lured her out of the house, screwed her, bashed her face in with a fence pole, finished her off while ignoring her cries for mercy, ripped a strip off her dress to make a rope, dragged her to the river with it, pushed her in and watched her float on down, and then asks his mom to bring him a handkerchief to bind his aching head because he had a really rough night. And plus, of course, now he’s about to be hung, which actually is pitiable for anyone. Between the earth and sky.

I was driven to sing it. I couldn’t not. It might be that I just needed something worse than the actual event that had cannon-balled into my own life. I may have found it helpful to fit chaos into the fairly rigid structure of a song. But I can tell you the song was a medicine. I sang from a new place. The song sank talons right down into my diaphragm, and when they pulled out again, they were dripping. Dripping with the very stuff of lowliness.

In consolation, I could now definitely be ‘no Joan Baez.’ My song was not theoretically sad; it wasn’t romantically sad; it wasn’t wistfully sad. It was really, honestly sad. I was starting to resemble those women I’d seen in the yards of little Kentucky houses—gray-faced, gaunt, lowly women worn to the calcium-deprived bones from disappointment and sorrow. And I was glad of it. I bared my teeth and sang the song. Over and over and over.

 Then too, ‘Knoxville Girl’ is a flogging, flagellating song, and there was my own guilt to be assuaged. There was that fun rehearsal, full of puns, musical jokes and camaraderie, while Christopher was off drowning under waterlogged leaves, and maybe the person who should have been watching him actually should have been, but that didn’t let me off any hooks. In a way, I was also the murderer of the Knoxville girl. I was even the rapist who raped me—oh, I didn’t tell you about the guy with a straight-razor who broke into my room at the Cozee Court Motel just after I last saw Clarence, did I? La la la, what a silly oversight. Anyway, I did say my life was going from disaster to disaster, and I mean it really was. So, once again, now, with raised whip—“My parents raised me tenderly, providing for me well. They brought me down to Knoxville town………”

 Whenever I wasn’t singing ‘Knoxville Girl,’ it was because some kind person or other was with me. Many people stepped forth for this job. I needed to be hugged and cooked for and told that little dead boys turned into soil that made the trees and flowers grow so it was okay because it was Nature’s way. (Wow, I feel so much better hearing that.) Peter, bless him, offered to let me drive his brand new Volkswagen bus, but I couldn’t concentrate long enough to get it out of the driveway.

 In a death, you’d expect the dead person to be the star of the show. And in a way, that’s true; the reminiscences and eulogies are ostensibly for the one who died. In reality they are about the one who died. They are no use to the deceased, who no longer has use for anything, who has no future life, who is done. So the spotlight falls next on the person nearest to the deceased—me in this case.

 It was a bittersweet, unwanted kind of stardom. And like any stardom it required certain social skills, which I had to learn on the spot. A noblesse oblige. People are sad and frightened, they don’t know what to say, they feel terribly inadequate, so your immediate job is to help them however you can, comfort them, reassure them that their condolences are satisfactory ones.

 Then, too, you are standing on an isolated patch of ground that’s kind of like an electrified grid with an electric fence around it. People try to reach you, to be close, but they are afraid of that electric barrier. Certainly I feel this way when it is my turn to try to comfort a grieving person—as if their grief might jump onto me if I get too close, and I don’t really want it.

 Enter Gene McGeorge. He was actually the first person to step forth, but his was a different kind of step. He stepped right through the fence, stood there on the grid with me day after day and accepted–shared–whatever I was feeling, without fear or embarrassment. He seemed to be the only human being around who knew anything about death, and he knew a lot about it. When I asked him, after a couple of weeks, how long he thought it might be before the pain went away, he said it wasn’t going to go away. He said it would grow into me and be a part of me.

 It did. And that probably is why I am such a really good singer—which I am. What I mean to tell you right now, though, is that all through the middle of this confusion, Gene and I were falling in love. I think that happens a lot, between bereaved and consoler. Often such loves don’t last beyond that critical period. Ours did.

 A few days after the death, the Scragg Family did a ‘Goodbye, Christopher’ concert. I couldn’t imagine having the energy or heart to perform. But it turned out to be easy, refreshing, curative, and in fact a hell of a party. (I did not sing ‘Knoxville Girl,’ of course.) By this time, we were a three-piece—Peter, Gene and me. Regrouped, refocused, not nearly as hilarious. Music itself became the core of the group. We had all grown up quite a bit, even Gene, who was 12 years my senior.

 We didn’t get a lot more serious, though. Luckily there is always another song to be played, more fun to be had, another glass to be drunk. As I’m about to describe.