Willie Nelson turned 80 recently. Years ago, I wouldn’t have guessed that he’d make it nearly that far, but then Willie is a tough old bird, a survivor. Willie and I go way back. He helped to launch my writing career, in a manner of speaking. I was nineteen and we had just moved from suburban Philadelphia, where I’d grown up, to Somerset, Massachusetts. The move wasn’t my idea but my opinions on the subject were about as welcome as a carload of Klansmen at the Nation of Islam convention. Somerset, Mass. is actually a nice little town, nestled along the Taunton River. Nothing much happens in Somerset, which to a 19-year old from Philly—where a whole lot happens on a nightly basis—was a large part of the problem. The rest of the problem was that all of my friends, my girlfriend, my life—was back in Pennsylvania.
From my perspective moving to Massachusetts then was akin to a prison sentence, the equivalent of exile in Siberia. I was blessed, or cursed, with a vivid imagination. At times I would pretend that the small Cape Cod on Blossom Avenue was a safe house and that I was lying low until ‘certain matters’ back home were resolved…which speaks volumes about my mindset, my peer group and my lifestyle then. I didn’t plan to remain in Siberia—er, Somerset—for long and had various schemes in place to assure a triumphant return to Philadelphia. As Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon on a white horse, I would cross the Delaware on a silver Greyhound AmeriCruiser. In the meantime I had to make the best of a bad situation. Had to tread water. Had to kill time.
I treaded and killed in part by taking long walks at night to the sad little K Mart Plaza shopping center down on Route 6 or along Riverside Avenue. There, I’d stare in fascination at the massive old textile mills across the Taunton in Fall River, decaying monuments to the glory days of the Industrial Revolution. I’d roll my own cigarettes, just like the cowboys used to, although I wasn’t buying my tobacco from Ike Godsey’s General Store or out of the Sears Roebuck catalogue. I’d smoke my little cigarettes and feel warm and happy as I exhaled pungency into the cold and starry New England night.
When everyone went to bed I’d stay up until dawn, locked in my bedroom, listening to the stereo on my Koss headphones and drinking iced bottles of Narragansett beer. The album that I listened to most and loved best was Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger, a classic that helped make Willie an iconic star. I wasn’t much of a country music fan then, though I did appreciate song as story, album as concept, and Red Headed Stranger fills the bill on both counts. It’s a sad, sweet and romantic tale of tragedy and redemption, of love lost and love found. From the opening track, “Time of the Preacher”, to the musical dénouement, “Hands On The Wheel”, RHS is evocative in its simplicity and brilliance. You can listen and be transported to another time and place: to the time of the preacher and a place where good men and women do bad things and pay the price. But as the Preacher might tell us: we can be delivered from our sins and end up in a better place, a state of grace born of fate, timing and choices. With Willie, you could tell that the man knew whereof he spoke. He had credibility. He’d been there, and back. Walked the walk, lived the life.
Yes, Red Headed Stranger does indeed tell a story, or stories, interconnected. Bored, at loose ends, with nothing better to do and fascinated by the art of storytelling both musical and literary, I began to write myself. I wrote in longhand, on college-ruled 150-page notebooks. I wrote and wrote, filling those notebooks. I wrote poetry. Most of it was pretty bad, worse even than anything Jim Morrison perpetrated in The Lords and the New Creatures, although I did salvage one of those poems later and won $100 in a poetry contest: “Three A.M.”, the story of my life.
I wrote bad erotic fiction and submitted it to Hustler Magazine. Larry Flynt wasn’t interested; Larry had high literary standards to maintain. My work wasn’t fit to share a page with Chester The Molester. I wrote bad biker fiction, submitted it to Easyriders. They told me, basically, to do to myself what the toothless, Red Man-chawin’ rednecks did to Fonda and Hopper at the end of Easy Rider. I wrote creative nonfiction years before the genre was even invented, or maybe it was Gonzo journalism, a la Hunter Thompson. The timing wasn’t quite right, and the fact was that most of what I wrote wasn’t very good. It would be years before I’d attempt to write a novel: The Promised Land, a story about a colorful group of expatriate Americans residing in a Central American banana republic. I’d never been any closer to Central America than the consumption of Honduran cigars or an occasional banana with my Honey Nut Cheerios. My idea of an expatriate was someone that lived in Delaware. I didn’t know anything about writing novels either, but those minor annoyances weren’t about to stop me. I was always blessed with an overabundance of chutzpah, if nothing else.
But at least I wrote. None of it was sold, and most people would have given up at that point. But I guess I’m not most people. And to quote Willie’s friend Kris Kristofferson: freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. Willie didn’t give up, after all, even when all the doors in Nashville were slammed in his face and he was written off as out of touch and out of time.
That was the beginning and Willie rode along, keeping me company and providing both a soundtrack and inspiration, there in the safe house just uphill from the river. Unlike Mr. Nelson I may not be on the road to iconic status, but at least I’m on the road. I’ve paid the toll, and paid my dues. You can check my books out of the local library. You can buy print editions and eBooks on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, on eBay in Australia. You can dip into your pockets for a few pounds, guv’nor, give up the fish and chips for a day and buy them in the UK or shell out a few Euros for them in France—complete with ‘biographie de la auteur’—or order The Blue Route ‘taba blanca’ in Spain. There are even rumors, as yet unconfirmed by the CIA, that the books are available in Japan and the Czech Republic. How many people in Liverpool, Barcelona or Marseilles want to read about bathroom brawls in the boardwalk pizza joints of the Jersey shore, or about drug deals going down in strip clubs in the shadow of the Philadelphia airport? Who knows? Life is full of surprises. Still, it’s something, and something is always preferable to nothing.
So happy birthday, Willie. And thanks.