Friday, March 17, 2006

The Search for Willie Nelson

The dream had to be put aside. Family starving. You'd taken the job as copyeditor and headline writer, poet of typography, zippy headlines produced in a seconds, somebody else's copy polished to a tight sheen, every word counting, as if there were a paper shortage.

At least that was more or less the job description. Desk man, or sub-editor as they say in the U.K.

Last person to see the copy before the mighty presses rolled. You processed the copy and wrote the headline; writers did not write their own headlines. There was the matter of advertising already dummied in. There was column width and depth. There were instances where you only had one column in which to write your head, so you'd use three or even four lines in that narrow space. Oakies did not like a movie about their town, so in those days you wrote:


Oh you had to be good. No fuzzy-eared Wordworths here. Speed and accuracy was the shibboleth.

Except that I was neither speedy nor accurate. And I had a big mouth and an ego the size of Newfoundland to boot.


Me? The published poet, short-story prizewinner, former Toronto Star man?


The music playing in my head, out of Charlie Brown: "Who me?"

"Yes, you!"

He's a clown, that Charlie Brown.



Wife is pregnant again.

Buck up, fuckup!

I had initially quit my job at The Canadian Star Weekly so I could finally write that great novel. Ran out of money; ran back to what was by now called The Canadian magazine.

"Think I'll pass," said top editor Gerald Anglin.

Sure as hell can't go home again.

Over to the Toronto Telegram. They needed headline writers. I had a rep. I was soon in.

But you have to work nights to put the paper out in the morning. Two a.m. And three a.m. and four. Always working in the wee hours. And you had to be brilliant on demand, sleepy or no. These were the days before serious barbiturates. Mind spinning in the morning. Impossible to sleep. I drank.

Walking into work at three a.m., still half drunk. Actress June Havoc having an up-and down career. Head editor, or "slot man" wants an eight column headline, 36 points high to explain the story. You set HB pencil to paper.

"Havoc an apt name for showbiz game."

"Good," says the slot man. "But can you keep it up?"

I couldn't.


You go back to the university. "Yes, yes, we can find a job for a recent graduate. But a mature man?

Things were so bad that at thirty, I was seriously thinking of going back to my faculty advisor. At thirty?


Catch Thirty. Here you were in your twenties, brilliant, you thought, bulletproof. Instant publishing for anything you wrote. Catch thirty. You'd already burned yourself out.

It was now that you had to pay for all those superiorities, the newspapers and magazines with so much of you in it, the yearbook, the student newspaper, the literary magazine.

Catch thirty. Like the -30- journalistic ending for a written piece.

"You've dug your last hole, Mole!". At least that's what had happened to a plug-ugly character in MAD magazine.

Now the novel has drawn you back, back to the cashing in of beer bottles, Mac' milk jugs, painting furniture for your mother-in-law. Hugo the Yugo, who owns the apartment complex, wants his money.


Then sudden, unexpected relief.

The mother-in-law wants to go to Florida. She is a little ill. She has no babysitter for her Florida vacation.

Does a cat have a tail?

I would be her constant companion, confidante, bottle-washer, bum-boy. My wife too, offered her services. And wouldn't my little boy like a Florida vacation?

Leonardo Arms, the famous condo in Fort Myers.

Gulf wind wafting through the white stucco penthouse.

Going shelling in the morning, shopping for momma-in-law at Winn-Dixie. Dolphins jumping up and down as your drive over the bridge to Winn-Dixie.

What a marvelous way to screw up! Did I know what I was doing when I let my life just float away?

Wife and chubby-chucks doing fine. Momma has big bucks. We suddenly had big bucks and a new station wagon to drive (Mother-in-law had to get around). Hey, this was just like downtown! But better.

Sharp stinging sense of inferiority all the same. I had been fired. I took it personally.

Had to make amends. Put pen to paper, did some golf course story and what do you know? Published in the Reader's Digest. I had killed the incubus, but did not yet give it a name, so it really stayed down there, tamped-down but ugly and accusing all the same. Deep down, you are a fuck-up. You are a turd.

Well, here we were, living the life of millionaires on Mommy's money.

And yet, deep down, I was a turd. I knew it, mother-in-law knew it; only my poor wife didn't know it.

Losing at Scrabble (some editor!); Losing at board games. A duffer at bridge. Piss-poor swimmer at the dive club.

Oh sure, it sounds top-of-the world.

But I was a turd.

Late at night the twelve-pack to feel like a kid again, the twenty cigarettes. "You're turning alcoholic baby," says wife.

I know. That's because I'm a turd.

Can not snap out of the lassitude. The worm gnaws away. I needed a karma mechanic. I prayed for a karma mechanic. Head of the household going mad. What shall we tell the children? My mother, though highly intelligent, as are most crazy people, had once been institutionalized. Like mother like son? Catch Thirty. You who have enjoyed life and sampled some of its pleasure, will die. And not only will you die, but you'll die crazy.

What will we tell the children? Well, at least I had bred out. I married someone as far from my gene pool as possible.

My mother, once she recovered, said, "Your son is lucky. He is a troika. Three ethnic groups in one. He will do well." He did.

But the search for the karma mechanic.

The more I drank, the more I seemed to disappear up my own aperture.

And then finally, the karma mechanic.

Would you believe it?

Willie Nelson.

There was that long-suffering, almost angelic face on the TV screen. "There were seven Spanish angels in the altar of the Sun. They were praying for two lovers, in the valley of the gun." Well, I had certainly considered going out and buying a gun.

But the life story, Willie Nelson's life story. The sleeping in laundromats, the whiskey bottles piled up, history of family anxieties, divorce, orphanhood. And there he was, bright and angelic on TV, singing his life song and On the Road Again.

The snap had somehow been achieved. Suddenly I was free. And sane. And on the road again.

Back in the station wagon, back up 75 towards Detroit and Toronto.

I was going to take on those goddamn towers, write my book and bring the house down.


R.J. Baker said...

Damn, did my darkness rub off on you? I've been listening to Willie's Stardust album, there's noone like him...Angels flying to close to the ground...He is the man.

ivan said...

We're all sort of shlepping around the Cherry Orchard till we hear

Anonymous said...

Ivan, mama said, "It will never heal if you keep picking at it!"

Willie said, "The night life ain't no life/ But it's my life." At least most of the SOBs in the world are home in bed.

Headline writer, eh? The pride in headline writing and spelling in general seems to have gone to hell. Remember a headline in local rag that included the word, "APALING". I was appalled. Today, I see the word, "mannor" in the body of a story. Sometimes you aren't much better, Ivan, but I suspect you are TWI. hahaha

I heard a quote from the head of the Toronto Chamber of Commerce about 10 years ago. He said that kids in school aren't being prepared to go into business. They are being taught about cultural sensitivity and the blessed environment. Making change and spelling and grammar aren't in it any more. (Met a kid last week that didn't know what a dozen was.)

The generation of non-spellers and new-thinkers has been in place for awhile now. Old goats used to rut, but now rant.


ivan said...

Doubting Thomas,
Hell man, it's only writin'.
W. Somerset Maugham quoting somebody: "How do I know what I mean until I see what I've written?"
Yet all the while, I see people with great sprawling literary blogs--who can't write. Are they part of this new illiteracy?--and I'm no snob, I can trade street argot with the best of them; been on the street.
I don't think I've ever caught you saying "Between you and I" or "Everybody will pick up their books"--grinding stuff that drives me crazy.
I have the greatest respect for Lewis Lapham, Harper's editor and the bravest man in the U. S.
--But I've heard him say "Between you and I" on television. WTF.
North American education, cultural sensitivity and all that rot. You should see the shit-kicking I had on the playground; and it was still better the old way, out front and personal. Professor at Trinity college: "We tend to absorb all the foreign riff-raff."
And the bastard was an Englishman just off the boat and I told him so. Gave me a C, but what the hell, it was a pass. Better the old way. Prejudice, against everybody, not just one group.

I kind of like Bernita's phrase when it comes to writing, "tapping echoes of the wind." I think Peggy had a hand in it, but it's certainly one of Peggy's many phrases that I remember.
I'll say one thing for Ms. Atwood:
She can certainly write a bell lettre.

ivan said...

Your case in point.
Had a typo in belle lettre.

Chuckercanuck said...

Great Texan.

Little things I should have said and done,
I just never found the time.
You were always on my mind.

Not bad. Makes me weepy.

Chuckercanuck said...

now you're going to tell me he didn't write that one?

ivan said...

Makes me weepy too.
Just thought of a certain someone when you quoted Willie.
What careless bastards we can be.

ivan said...

Did he write it?
Sounds like pure Willie to me.

Did you have a chance to see the Canadian Songwriters' Hall of Fame inductions last week on CBC?
Gangbusters! KD Lang, Leonard Cohen--and Willie Nelson fronting.
I do believe he did a Cohen song there.
I can't get over Willie's riffs on that acoustic-electric. So Spanish, somehow, and so pure.
Tex-Mex, I guess; picked up the guitar immediately and tried to copy. Some success, but didn't get all of it.

Aaron said...

"There were seven Spanish angels in the altar of the Sun. They were praying for two lovers, in the valley of the gun."

He's my Karma Mechanic, too! That's one of my favorite songs.

ivan said...

Some sort of iconic figure, who is not only an antidote for down feelings, but also, somehow, predicting a brighter future.
Too bad old Karl Gustav died so early. I'm sure he'd never heard of Willie Nelson. Ah, man and his symbols. Forever Jung.
Forever Willie, for us, I guess.

Chuckercanuck said...

grown men weeping. times are tough, we've all been pricks, but things get better and we get better.

every song is baptism.

ivan said...

Amen bro.

jeff said...

It's funny cause I still remember
The day
A good friend of mine
In a small town in the heart of the Rockies,
Working in a music shop selling tunes,
Not knowing much about good music at the time
I counted on Glen's advice and he was seldom wrong
He knew what I'd like more than I knew what I'd like
I distinctly remember him saying he DID NOT like Willie Nelson.
Don't know why this stuck with me... probably because I DO like Willie

Anyhoo, about a year later Glen took his own life.
Sat in the front seat of his car
in the garage, with a hose from the exhaust providing the remedy.

A Sad reminder...

ivan said...

Growing up is hard to do. The changes, he changes.
it takes a kind of strengh to get through. I used to know more young people who used drugs to go through the changes.
Running down the street and yelling, "I'm all fucked up,I'm all
fucked up," and maybe even offing yourself.
And many a time, during the worst of things, you sometimes wish you'd just leave a beautiful corpse instead of dealing with all the shit. Yeah, it's a way out for you, but how about those around you, family, friends.
The Jim Morrison syndrome. Kurt
I'm sure Willie was there a couple of times, but he was strong. We have been there a couple of times,and I suppose we were strong.
Over here, as a writer, I had been compared to Jerzy Kosinsky, author of the famous "The Painted Bird."
My own "Black Icon" had been another rendering of World Wat Two experiences.
So I pick up a paper one day and read that Jerzy Kosinski took some drugs, put a Winn- Dixie plastic bag over his head and did himself in.
Top of the world, famous author, beautiful wife.
Talented as some people are, there is this weakness.
Willie had the luck and the genius to take the pathos of his life and turn it into beautiful art.
And then staying just on the smokable stuff and away from the hard. Hell, if I were Willie, I'd smoke marijuana all the time, just high on the idea of being Willie.
Where does he get the discipline, as in a CBC programme recently, to stay so consistently cool and fresh, bringing down a house full of achievers and notables, who probably had no idea of country music beforehand?

Inside our hands, outside our hearts said...

I have loved Willie Nelson since I can remember. He has not only a wonderful gift for singing, but he can also bring you right into his suffering and make it all seem so much easier. He is truly the good-hearted home grown boy!