The Willie Thread
Turk Pipkin has written a great article about Willie for Texas Highways. Willie's almost 86 and still out there making music with his friends.
Texanness is next to godliness.
Merle and Willie sing a song written by another great Texas songwriter, Townes van Zandt.
I like this version, I like Townes' version, I like Emmylou Harris' version ... It's just a great song. It can work its way into your consciousness and not leave for days.
Texanness is next to godliness.
This is one of the best things I've read in a long time and that's why I've taken the time to transcribe it. A little backstory before the quote: Longtime readers of Traces of Texas know that, in the space of a few days in late 1959 or early 1960, Willie Nelson wrote 5-6 classic songs: "Funny How Time Slips Away," "Nightlife," "Crazy," "Turn Out the Lights (The Party's Over)," "Mr. Record Man," and "I Gotta Get Drunk (and I sure do dread it)." I have always been fascinated by creativity and its sources and in this quote Willie talks about these songs, how they came to him, and the places from which creativity comes. As we pick up the story, it's 1959 and Willie has just moved his small family to Pasadena, Texas, searching for his big break in Houston. Willie alternates between the narrative of his life and the lyrics of these songs. This is Willie picking up the story:
I found a little apartment for us in Pasadena, one of those lonely-looking industrial suburbs in the shadow of the ship channel, lined with factories sewing out petrochemical toxins into the stale night air.
From there I went out on my own, going from club to club, wandering up and down the Gulf Freeway, looking for a break. But nothing broke. Nothing was happening. Drinking gave me little consolation. A little consolation was better than none at all.
By then I had already accumulated a large inventory of songs written in the margins of my days and the loneliness of my nights. But in Houston those nights got lonelier. With a wife and three kids at home, I needed money --- and I needed it now. Yet this locale was not yielding immediate results. I was still up against some slow-moving sh*t. It was during these long dark nights of the soul ---- driving here, driving there, stopping everywhere and anywhere a wandering minstrel might find work ---- that I reached down even deeper and found solace in words and melodies that expressed the anguish gnawing at my insides.
When songs fall from the sky ---- even the polluted midnight sky of Houston ----- all I can do is catch them before they land. They are mysterious gifts. I know they are born out of experience and genuine grief. I know they are born of uncertainty and fear. I implicitly trust their sentiments. I trust their sincerity. The deepest songs expose vulnerability. They strip me bare and leave me amazed.
Where the hell did they come from?
Did I really write these songs, or am I just a channel chosen by the Holy Spirit to express these feelings?
I really don't know. I don't remember creating the words. The words just came. I can't remember creating the melodies. The melodies were already there. The songs arrived prepackaged. There was a distinct beginning, middle, and end. In my head, I heard a groove that would drive the rhythm. In my head, I heard the accompanying instruments.
Without trying, I heard everything.
And I heard myself ruminating about the nightlife.
"It ain't no good life, but it's my life. I see it as just another scene in this 'ol world of broken dreams. Oh the nightlife, it ain't no good life, but, Lord, it's my life.
Listen to the blues that they're playing. And listen to what the blues are saying. They're saying that nightlife ain't no good life, but it's my life."
While I made those endless loops around the Houston highways, that song grew out of the soil of my soul. It happened because I was living it.
A few more hours or a few days later ---- I can't remember which ---- here comes more thoughts and feelings.
I imagined a man, someone like me, who runs into an old girlfriend.
"Well, hello there. My, it's been a long, long time. How you doing? Me? Well, I guess I'm doing fine. Been so long now, but it seems that it was only yesterday. Gee, ain't it funny, how time slips away?'
The words of the song seep out of the darkness. They fall from my imagination like tears from my eyes.
"How's your new love? Hope he's doin' fine. Heard you told him you'd love him till the end of time. That's the same thing you told me, seems like just the other day. Ain't it funny, baby, how time slips away?"
Or another night ---- or the same night ---- I imagine that the rest of the world is asleep. The rest of the world is comprised of normal people with normal jobs. This gal works as a secretary. This guy is an accountant. They go about their nine-to-five lives. They earn their money, they buy their groceries, they raise their children.
They're not crazy.
But what about me?
Why am I crazy?
"Crazy, for feeling so lonely, crazy, for feeling so blue.
Why am I imagining a man like me facing the loss of his deepest love?
"I know you'd love me as long as you wanted, then someday leave me for somebody new.
Worry. Why do I let myself worry, wondering what in the world did I do?"
I can't get this man off my mind. His blues are my blues. He's crazy, and so am I.
"Crazy for thinking that my love could hold you. Crazy for crying, crazy for trying, I'm crazy for loving you."
Is it crazy to think that this song, fallen from the sky, has a haunted beauty that could last forever?
Or is that just my ego speaking?
I hum the melody again. I see how each note is perfectly married to a lyric. Is that marriage of my making? It feels like it is. It feels like it isn't. Putting it together was too easy. I can hardly take credit. Yet who else is around? Nobody but me, driving along the highways of Houston, songs filling up all the space in my head, songs crowding my heart.
A song that says, "Mr. Record Man, I'm looking for a song I heard today. There was someone blue singing 'bout someone who went away. Just like me his heart was yearning for a love that used to be. It's a lonely song about a lonely man like me."
Am I inventing this character or am I merely writing about myself? How is it possible to step outside myself while, at the same time, delving deeper?
"I was driving down the highway with the radio turned on ---- and a man that I heard singing sounded so blue and all alone."
Who is doing the singing? Who is doing the listening?
"As I listened to this lonely song, I wonder, could it be ---- could there be another lonely man like me?"
And how could this man lose his loneliness? What's a lonely man to do?
"Well I gotta get drunk and I sure do dread it 'cause I know just what I'm gonna do. I'll spend my money calling everybody honey and wind up singing the blues."
And I do just that. I live the life I'm singing about in my song.
"I gotta get drunk, I can't stay sober. There's a lot of good people in town that'd like to see me holler, see me spend my dollar, and I wouldn't think of letting them down."
I know I'm running into a dead end. Know I'm acting the fool, but that don't stop me.
"There's a lot of doctors tell me that I'd better start slowing down. But there's more old drunks than there are old doctors. So I guess we'd better have another round."
"Spend my whole paycheck on some old wreck and, brother, I can name you a few. Well I gotta get drunk and I sure do dread 'cause I know just what I'm gonna do."
After the drinking is over, I realize what has to happen next. I realize the next song is one that says, "Turn out the lights, the party's over. They say that 'All good things must end.' Let's call it a night, the party's over, and tomorrow starts the same thing."
"But the party has hardly been fun. Look at me. I'm almost crying. That don't keep her love from dying. Misery .... 'cause for me the party's over."
----- Willie Nelson, "It's a Long Story: My Life."
It's a marvelous book. As I read Willie's words and contemplate his life and put them into the context of what the readers of this page respond to when I post, it's clear to me that what strikes responsive notes within the public are the universal things. Pretty much all of us can relate to a song like "Crazy" because we've all been there at one point or another. All of us have been in love with somebody who either didn't love us back or with somebody with whom love was impossible for some other reason. Heck, there's a whole genre of music ---- the blues ----- that has sprung up from this feeling. You lay there in bed at 2:00 a.m., anguished because this other person doesn't love you or can't love you, knowing full well that your whole life would be perfect if you could just make them see how great things would be if they would just relent. Which brings me to another Willie quote. It was Willie who said ---- in one of the most stinging, perspicacious quotes of all time ----- that "99 percent of the world's lovers are not with their first choice, and that's what makes the jukebox play."
Yup. Preach on, Willie. Preach on.
Texanness is next to godliness.