Forty-two years ago today, I was sitting in the lobby of a hospital in Tyler, Texas, swatting at flies. My grandfather was hospitalized with the emphysema that eventually would kill him, and my parents were in Los Angeles, looking again for a way to treat the chronic disorder that would contribute to my dad's death some three decades later.
It was a typical, sweltering East Texas day in August, which was one reason the flies had moved indoors. I had ridden in the car some 30 miles from Longview with my grandmother and my aunt, hoping to see my grandfather. That was doubtful. Hospital rules prevented 12-year-olds from visiting patient rooms and he was not in any shape to come down to the lobby.
So I sat there, bored out of my mind, killing flies.
At some point late that afternoon, news started to spread that shook me to my adolescent core: Elvis Presley was dead at age 42.
Adolescents in the mid to late 1970s were not supposed to be Elvis fans, and I certainly did not get any cool points from my peers. “Fat Elvis” had become a parody, a bloated yet hollow shell of himself even for those immersed in the 1950s Happy Days-Laverne & Shirley nostalgia of the time.
But my peers didn’t understand what Elvis meant to me. At the time, I don’t think I understood why he meant so much.
My dad and aunt were teenagers when my grandmother discovered Presley in his first appearance on the Louisiana Hayride. A year and a half later, on Dec. 15, 1956, my grandfather drove my grandmother (then 51) and my dad (then 16) the 60 miles east to Shreveport to see Elvis’ concert at the Hirsch Youth Center at the Louisiana Fairgrounds.
I still have the program from that show, which remarkably was taped and released on one of the hundreds of Presley compilations in 2011. Listening to the low-fi affair still brings a smile to my face, knowing they were both there.
My first rock and roll record was Elvis’ first album, bought by my dad in a record store on Ninth Avenue in Texas City. I remember sitting with my parents watching Aloha from Hawaii, the first show televised around the world via satellite. My first concert, at age 6, was an Elvis show at Hofheinz Pavilion. My second, at age 9, was his performance at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
In a weird way, Elvis felt like a member of my extended family, although I was woefully short on accurate information. I hadn’t liked his last few albums, not knowing they were cobbled together by his label because he no longer enjoyed recording. I didn’t understand why he had not been able to recover from his divorce, not realizing it was in large part because of guilt over self-inflicted wounds. I didn’t connect the dots when my parents returned from a trip to Las Vegas in 1975, having been disappointed in Presley’s concert because he looked and sounded “bad” — code, as it turns out, for overweight and stoned out of his mind.
All I knew, at age 12, is that people aren’t supposed to die at 42 unless they are at war or in some type of accident. People don’t die while sitting on the toilet in their bathroom, especially when they’re only five years older than my dad and six years older than my mom.
We left the hospital that day and went to Gibson’s, one of those catch-all department stores not far from my grandmother’s house. My grandmother bought me “Moody Blue,” Presley’s last studio album that came in blue vinyl, and I played it on my aunt’s turntable that night.
Today, in the words of music writer Bill Holdship, Elvis has “now been gone as long as he was here.” And I have remained an Elvis fan, albeit one who — with the benefit of information — is more discerning and less a blind member of the cult. While I separate the schlock from the sublime, I remain in awe of his talent and charisma. I also am grateful for the way he brought my family together on a common subject for a lot of years.
In retrospect, I also can thank Elvis for introducing me viscerally to the concept of mortality at what now seems like so young an age. I didn’t realize it then, but Presley’s death was the first time I understood life can be more fleeting than you imagine. And it taught me, not for the last time, that you just have to appreciate what you’ve got.
“Here you go. Want to try and do something with this?”
John Simsen, my boss at the Texas City Sun, was going through the daily stack of mail when he tossed a Rounder Records/Bullseye Blues press kit onto my desk. He knew I was into music, and opportunities were rare to do much regional or national entertainment coverage. Writing a profile on a musician opening for Bonnie Raitt would be a nice change of pace amid the daily grind of cops, obits and meetings.
I called the press contact and set up a phone interview with Charles Brown, having no idea that I was starting an eight-year friendship with a future member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Chances are you’ve heard Charles’ music, even though it’s been 28 years since that interview and almost two decades since his death. He is responsible for two holiday classics (“Merry Christmas Baby” and “Please Come Home for Christmas”) that are piped through stores and Starbucks in a never-ending loop from Halloween to New Year’s Day.
The stories behind those two songs are fascinating. But then, Charles had a fascinating life. Our interactions, mostly over the phone, were memorable too.
Yesterday, eating lunch with a friend and freelance colleague, Charles’ version of “Merry Christmas Baby” started playing through the restaurant’s speakers. He recorded the song — as have more than 90 others — numerous times from the 1940s to the 1990s and played it at every concert, no matter the time of year.
My favorite version is the one he did with Bonnie Raitt in the midst of his comeback. You can listen below and judge for yourself, but I think you’ll agree: Charles Brown was one of a kind.
When we first talked, in 1990, Brown was in the midst of a comeback that was getting a huge boost from Raitt, whose own comeback had started the year before with the release of the Grammy Award-winning “Nick of Time.”
“I love her,” Brown told me over the phone. “She’s been very good to me.”
By this point, approaching 70, he was nostalgic, grateful, and quick to turn on the charm. He described growing up in Texas City in the 1920s and 1930s, raised by his grandmother, Swannee Simpson, after his mother died when he was 6 months old.
Brown’s grandmother started teaching him church music on the piano when he was 4, pushing him to play more with his left hand than his right. “She liked the deeper sounds you got from your left hand, and said you were taking the easy way out if you spent most of your time on the right side of the piano,” he said. “She’d make me hold my right hand behind my back and play with just my left.”
When Charles was 11, his grandmother took him to “the Rev. Cole’s” Baptist church. Cole, Brown said, was so charismatic that “he had the sisters rolling. They were carrying them out on stretchers.” He also was “jazzing up those spirituals just like the blues, and I was hooked. I wanted to play like that.”
Charles started taking lessons from one of the church members, but his grandmother pushed him to get an education. He graduated in 1942 with a chemistry degree from Prairie View College, worked as a high school teacher for a year, then as a junior chemist at the Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas. Ruled ineligible for the draft due to asthma, he moved to California in 1944 and started playing music.
B.B. King, who I was fortunate to interview in 1991, said he always wondered why Brown chose the life of a musician.
“We were all jealous of him because he went to college,” King said. “He had so many more options than the rest of us.”
Within months of moving to Los Angeles, Brown had abandoned chemistry and joined Johnny Moore & The Three Blazers. In 1945, Brown had his first hit song, “Drifting Blues,” which has been covered several times by Eric Clapton. Soon, musicians such as Ray Charles started copping Brown’s mix of jazz and blues.
“I loved and imitated Nat Cole and Charles Brown,” Charles wrote in his 1979 autobiography, Brother Ray. “I had been stealing their licks and singing and playing like them for years. I had my first hit with a Charles Brown-influenced number, `Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand'."
Brown went solo in 1948, signed to Aladdin Records and saw his music shoot up the charts. Between 1949 and 1952, his songs spent 103 weeks on Billboard’s Race Chart, including 29 weeks at No. 1.
“I was living it up,” Brown told me, noting that his next-door neighbor at the time was Billie Holiday. “But things change.”
What changed was the music business, as Charles’ smooth, mellow blues/jazz hybrid fell out of favor with the birth of rock and roll. He continued to record throughout the 1950s and 1960s for multiple labels with limited success. Like many African-American musicians of that era, he was prevented from getting royalties to his songs, or sold off the rights to fuel a ferocious gambling habit.
Although Charles didn’t drink, he loved to gamble. He refused to play piano for Sam Cooke’s “Night Beat” album in 1963, noting that he was offered only $75 for the session and “I could make more than that at the track.” Cooke cut the album in four days and featured two of Charles’ songs on it.
Middling gigs and stints as a music teacher and with a janitorial service led Brown to consider quitting the music business by the early 1980s. But a chance encounter with a Steinway piano in one of the houses he was cleaning started his comeback.
“We were working in one of those big houses, and I saw this piano,” Charles told me. “It was a Steinway, and no piano player would turn down a chance to play a Steinway, no matter if you had permission or not. So I sat down and started playing, and the owner of the house found me. She liked what she heard and asked me to play for a party she was having.”
It was at the party, in 1986, that a record executive for a small label asked Brown to return to the studio. The subsequent album, “One More for the Road,” received enough notice to get Brown back on stage, where he struck up a conversation with Raitt at the Blue Note in New York. A longtime fan of Brown’s work, Raitt offered him the opening slot on her tour, which is how we met.
Two hours into our conversation, Brown asked if I was going to the show and offered to leave tickets and a backstage pass for me at will call. Afterward, we met in his dressing room and started talking like we had known each other for a lifetime.
A few minutes into the conversation, someone opened the door and asked if a few people could take a picture. Charles obliged, and into the room walked Raitt, Lyle Lovett, Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top, and Jeff Healey.
If I had been chewing gum, I would have swallowed it then and there.
After the picture was taken, Raitt stayed behind and sat in the chair next to me. “Who the hell are you?” she asked, before Charles made a formal introduction and noted I was from his hometown.
“I love this man,” Raitt said. “If more people were like him, there would be no war. He is just filled with love.”
The day before the concert, Raitt had performed “Amazing Grace” with Jackson Browne and Stevie Wonder at Stevie Ray Vaughan’s funeral in Dallas. I had snagged the wire photo from work and gave it to Raitt.
She sighed. “That,” she said, “was a day I’ll never forget.”
A few minutes passed and Charles had to change and get on the bus that was taking the tour to its next stop. But before he left, he gave me his home phone number and asked me to give him a call when he got back to California.
“It’s always nice to talk to someone from my hometown,” he said.
For the next eight years, every four to six weeks, Charles and I talked on the phone. He’d tell stories about Texas City and the musicians he’d encountered, ask questions about my work and family, and then cut the conversation when it was time to leave for the track.
I saw him perform twice more in Houston before I moved to North Carolina in 1993 and was thrilled to hear he would be touring with Raitt and Ruth Brown on the “Caravan of Blues” tour in 1995.
We met for dinner in Raleigh, and he regaled me and others at the table with tales of love and marriage and music. He talked about betting on the horses, saying simply, “It’s my hobby.”
On the way back, Charles asked how I was doing. Jill and I had met, but we were both going through divorces and the relationship was not yet on solid ground. I mentioned to Charles that “All My Life,” the title track from the 1990 album that led to our interview, was a perfect summation of my feelings for her. I also mentioned that Jill didn’t fully believe me when I told her of the friendship Charles and I shared.
“Well,” he said. “Let’s do something about that.”
Sitting in the hotel lobby, he proceeded to ask for a piece of paper and a pen, then took 10 minutes to write her a one-page note. The note mentioned what I told him about “All My Life” and ended with “Forget my concern, it’s only real.”
I knew it was.
Flash forward four months. Charles is on the road with his small band, playing in Carrboro. He wants to meet Jill, so we arrive for the soundcheck. I asked him to play “All My Life” for us.
“Can’t do it,” he said, picking at the piano. “Don’t like the introduction.”
That night, at the show, he asked the two of us to stand. He told the audience the basics of our story, and of how I had bugged him to play the song. He then told us to look into each other’s eyes as he sang “All My Life” just for us.
Charles and I continued our long-distance phone conversations. Finally financially stable, he had moved into a one-bedroom unit in a Berkeley senior-citizen housing project.
In 1997, he went to the White House, where he received a Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. The next month, he was feted at the end of the San Francisco Jazz Festival by Raitt, Ruth Brown and John Lee Hooker, among others.
In 1998, we talked only two or three times. Jill and I were busy with a toddler and two newborns, and Charles’ health was starting to fade. When the notice came in December 1998 that he had been selected as an “Early Influence” by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, I tried to call but could not reach him.
In January 1999, just two months before the induction ceremony, Charles died of congestive heart failure at age 76.
Eight years before, during the meeting in his dressing room, I asked Charles if he had ever been recognized in his hometown. He laughed and said no, but “That sure would be nice, wouldn’t it?”
After writing the story and a subsequent column on him, I thought Texas City would find some way to honor one of its most famous residents, but it took 19 years. Today, a bust of Charles hangs in the Charles T. Doyle Convention Center, and he is recognized annually during the city’s Juneteenth celebration.
I need live music. It feeds my soul. Since my late teens and early 20s, when I lived in Houston, I’ve found myself in bars and clubs, absorbing the sounds of musicians telling their stories and pouring out their souls to crowds large and small. Usually small.
Most of my family doesn’t understand this need; at least I don’t think they do. The music I typically enjoy is miles from the top 40, although I’ve been known to embrace the occasional pop song that is played ad infinitum on the radio. But mostly I appreciate singer-songwriters whose music strikes a common cord with who I am, who I’ve been, or who I wish to be.
Jon Dee Graham cuts across all three. His music touches and informs; the honesty with which he writes and plays is something I related to immediately. He writes as a father and a husband who has acclaim and hardships in equal measure. I’ve been a fan for almost two decades, albeit one who has experienced the topics he writes about both vicariously and up close and in person.
Like The Replacements, another band I tried to see but couldn’t manage to connect with live until a few months ago, my attempts to see Graham seemed thwarted at every turn. I’ve caught Dave Alvin, Steve Earle,John Hiatt, and Buddy Miller — other genre-crossing favorites in my ongoing music queue — numerous times. Other than one show in the mid 1990s when he was the opening act, I can’t begin to tell you how many times I missed Graham by a day or a week, seemingly caught in an inextricable conflict that prevented me from making that live connection.
Still, I’ve bought everything he’s released, ranging from the music on mid-major labels (New West) to his self-released material. I made a contribution via mail when I heard of his son’s rare disorder, which led to a live album/DVD that I also purchased and lapped up with the fervor of the fans who’ve seen him live hundreds of times. I’ve read with envy of his weekly 17-year residency at the tiny, infamous Continental Club in Austin, and wondered how I could catch a show at the infamous small club in my home state’s capital.
This past Wednesday, thanks to a fortuitous spur-of-the-moment trip and my wife’s indulgence, I finally managed to see Graham live. In Austin… at the Continental Club … with Jill and I sitting on a former car seat against the wall.
And it was worth every penny, even if the cover charge was only $8. I gladly would have paid much more.
These photos (plus the ones on my Facebook page here) tell the story of that night. They alternate between photos of the club and the groups we saw — Graham with his incredibly tight band, the Fighting Cocks, and his tremendously talented teenage son, William, leading his band, the Painted Redstarts.
The best part for me was seeing my wife enjoy one of my favorite musicians in a club in my home state. The next best was seeing Graham standing on the opposite side of the room, watching his son perform and leading the cheers. Just like any other proud dad.
I can’t put a finger exactly on when I became a Lou Reed admirer — fan is a word he alternately would have loathed and loved. But I'm sure he would have appreciated that I came to admire his music — or at least a great deal of it — in backward fashion.
My appreciation started, I guess, when a neighbor passed me “New Sensations” in the mid 1980s, roughly 20 years after Reed founded the Velvet Underground and more than a decade after his only hit ("Walk on the Wild Side").
At the time, I was living in Houston’s museum district, an area that opened my eyes in ways my parents had always feared. But in the grand scheme, it was a quiet rebellion; I sat on the fringes of a bohemian lifestyle while working nights and going to school during the day, unsure of what the next chapter would bring.
Lou Reed’s music — along with that of X, R.E.M., the Talking Heads and, somewhat belatedly, The Replacements and The Clash — pointed me in directions that clashed with the grounded emotional reality I experienced growing up. I still find those directions intriguing and exciting, especially from a distance. To this day, I can quote Reed’s 1989 album “New York” verbatim, and find myself looking for the very characters he describes when I walk the city’s streets.
My last trip to New York was in late October, the day after Reed died of liver failure at age 71. In the brief time I was there, I made sure to find a minute to walk to the Chelsea Hotel, where a makeshift memorial with candles, flowers and notes had been placed at the entrance. Someone also put a small plastic Ziploc with a powdery substance among the memorial items.
While I stood there, a woman bent over and moved it out of sight. Another woman said, “He wouldn’t have cared.”
Two doors from the Chelsea, painters were finishing work on the bright orange and green sign for a new 7-11 that's opening on West 24th Street. On that note, I get the feeling Reed — always the social critic of cool — would have had something caustic to say.
Or maybe not. I’m not sure.
Moving backwards: My first exposure to Reed's music and the Velvet Underground came the summer before my freshman year in college, when I picked up and consumed Edie, the biography of socialite and Andy Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick. Masterfully presented in an oral history format by Jean Stein and editor George Plimpton, Sedgwick’s story is part of the bigger tale that was New York in the mid to late 1960s, a tale that also included the Velvet Underground.
For a brief period, Sedgwick was the brightest star of Warhol’s voyeuristic faux reality show, so captivating that she inspired Bob Dylan to write “Just Like A Woman.” But within five years, she was dead of a drug overdose at age 28.
Edie never stood a chance, given the Warhol-level indulgences and the Sedgwick family tree — a generationally unstable lineage with a history of great wealth, mental illness, breakdowns, and suicide.
At the time, I did not understand why someone with so much would piss everything away in a drug- and alcohol-induced haze. Thirty years after reading the book, I still have trouble reconciling her path toward self-destruction, although I’m more understanding than ever of the causes and of how fragile life can prove to be.
Just after finishing Edie, I met and quickly became good friends with Brian, a fellow student at the University of Houston. I didn’t have many male friends growing up — it’s always been easier for me to talk to women — but we formed a bond that lasted for more than 20 years. He was like the older brother I never had.
When we met during my freshman year, Brian was a sportswriter at the university newspaper, an erstwhile English major on the slowest possible path to graduation. He was putting his life on the right path, he said, in the same sentence claiming he had been so stoned that he could not remember his last three years of high school. Going back to school at 23, he said, was his chance to make something of his life.
Brian, who was five years older, and I bonded over sports, music, movies, and journalism. We talked about New York and he handed me my first copy of the Village Voice. For a naive kid from Texas, this seemed like a big deal.
Over time, I learned of the struggles he had growing up. He was the oldest child of alcoholic parents involved in a toxic, codependent relationship. Brian had identified his parents’ issues and tried to work his way through them, but life proved to be a constant struggle to get over his self-created humps.
For a time, our lives paralleled. We participated in each other’s weddings. He had children. I had a child. Then I moved from Texas to North Carolina, and naturally the time between our conversations lengthened, buoyed when I returned and we managed to connect in person.
He did not understand why I left my first marriage, at least in the beginning. I did not understand why, if he was as miserable as he claimed in his relationship, he did not do the same. Brian insisted that he could not leave his children, no matter how many times he wished his parents had divorced when he was growing up.
A few nights ago, I found a Fresh Air segment devoted to Lou Reed’s life and legacy. The primary interview subject was Bill Bentley, Reed’s publicist from 1988 to 2004 — no easy task given the songwriter’s notoriously prickly nature.
The program, which featured clips of interviews with former band members and others close to Reed, was an intriguing listen. But one quote in particular stuck with me:
"Lou's whole contribution to rock 'n' roll was — at the very start of his career he said, 'You should be able to write about anything.' Anything you could read about in a book, or talk about in a play, he felt should be in a rock 'n' roll song,” Bentley said. “He set that out as his No. 1 goal: to change the parameters of what rock lyrics could be.”
And he did, writing honest pieces about life on the fringes, with New York as his backdrop and muse. To the listener with a pop ear, much of his music can be tough sledding, although he wrote some cool pop songs. (I’m not a huge fan of feedback and extended drone, and “Metal Machine Music” is almost as bad to me as “Having Fun with Elvis on Stage,” for many of the same reasons.)
The riches for the reader, and occasionally the beauty, are found in the lyrics. The best are three- to 10-minute short stories and poems bursting with vivid characters and the spectre of tragedy lurking nearby.
Like his parents, Brian had a love-hate relationship with alcohol and the blues. He fought his demons, but the demons fought back. Eventually, in 2005, he and his wife separated — apparently for good this time. He also took a leave of absence from his job.
No matter how many times I asked him to call if he needed help, I had to initiate the conversation, and for a dozen years we spoke every four to six weeks. In 2005, however, we talked only three times — once when I went back to Texas, and at two other points on the phone.
The last conversation, in June one weekend evening when I was working late, seemed like old times. We didn't talk much about families, but had a passionate discussion about sports and music. The Houston Astros were making a run that eventually would land them in their first World Series, and now that I lived near Washington, D.C., we trash talked about the Redskins/Cowboys rivalry. We finished the call saying we needed to have more talks like that one.
In early September, two weeks before the Redskins/Cowboys game on Monday night football, I called his office and was told he wasn’t there. I also called his apartment, but got no answer.
On Sept. 19, the Redskins won 14-13 on two huge plays. I thought about calling again, but was leaving for a meeting in Las Vegas that week and decided to wait. While in Vegas, I received a call from a mutual friend who told me the news.
Brian hadn’t seen the game. In fact, when had I called his office earlier in the month, he already had been dead for two weeks. He had taken his own life, apparently so miserable, tortured, and hopeless that he decided to leave his sons behind after all. His soon-to-be-ex had buried him with no obituary notice and no calls to his friends.
Apparently no one at his office knew what to say either.
I’ve thought many times about Brian, but standing outside the Chelsea Hotel and its many ghosts last month, I felt his spirit more strongly than I have in years. Listening to the Fresh Air program, I felt it again. And I feel it every time I think of Reed's song “Perfect Day,” one thing that prompted me to write this sort-of eulogy eight years too late.
It’s easy to be lulled into the lyrics at the start of the song, “Just a perfect day/drink Sangria in the park/And then later/when it gets dark, we go home … Oh, it's such a perfect day/I'm glad I spend it with you/Oh, such a perfect day/You just keep me hanging on.”
But then the song turns dark: “Just a perfect day/you made me forget myself/I thought I was/someone else, someone good.” And even darker still with the refrain at the end: “You're going to reap just what you sow/You're going to reap just what you sow.”
“The story of our lives. Written page by page. Careful what you write. You gotta read it all some day.”
When I was a child staying at my grandmother’s in East Texas, inevitably I had to take food to Mrs. Douglass’ house.
I viewed this as penance for some yet-to-be-committed sin, in part because Mrs. Douglass and I had nothing in common and I was not interested in a career in the pharmaceutical industry at age 11. At this point in the story — Mrs. Douglass was a white haired, frail widow in her early 80s — conversation revolved around the variety of doctor’s appointments and prescriptions she was taking.
Mrs. Douglass was inevitably polite — although bitter about her lot in life, it seemed to my childhood self — and she always seemed to enjoy my visits. The pattern rarely deviated: I sat on the couch and, after a 30-second description and acknowledgment of the home-cooked meal my grandmother had made, listened to her describe her various ailments and what they prevented her from doing. After 15 or 20 minutes, I was escorted to the door and told to come back soon.
“I never want to be like that,” I told my grandmother more than once.
She nodded, pursed her lips slightly, and gave me a half smile.
“You can give away some things. That you never will get back. One piece at a time. And you never will get them back.”
My father-in-law is 80. Over the 15-plus years I’ve known him, the conversational window has narrowed considerably. At one point we could talk about photography; recently he barely looked at the pictures I showed him, even though most were of his grandchildren. At another, he could provide you with a dissertation examining the merits vs. the weaknesses of any sport involving the University of North Carolina. Now he barely talks about his beloved Tar Heels.
The relationship Jill and her brother have with their father is fractious, prickly, and tense. This is nothing new, but rather an extension of feelings that have been there since childhood. The undercurrents of lives that constantly overlap and occasionally intersect are never far from the surface.
Jill (I know) and her brother (I’m sure) have spent countless hours trying to figure out the enigma who is responsible for their place on this planet. And while it’s not my place to say what they think, I believe it comes down to this: Don’t mistake gratitude for kindness.
Like Mrs. Douglass, Bob’s life seems to revolve around two things — his visits to the doctor and the various prescriptions that he is taking to extend his life. He too is bitter, so focused on those things that he doesn’t seem to care about much else.
Recently, I drove to Boone as part of a Virginia/North Carolina trek that also involved parents’ weekend at Nicholas’ college (more about that in a separate post). Jill and her brother are trying to see Bob at least once a month and this gave me an opportunity to help.
Bob appeared grateful. He appreciated my taking him to the doctor and taking care of the things he has on a never-ending list. He talked of wanting to leave the assisted care facility to return to his house full time, although he’s not in good enough health for that to happen.
His charm with others not close to him remains intact. The person who has cut his hair for years spoke of his wit (and his love for Carolina sports). As he shuffled through the lobby, where a community band honked through the “Gilligan’s Island” theme at a 5:30 dinner concert, a couple of his fellow residents perked up, said hello, and waited for his acknowledgment. He gave them a nod, but didn’t sit with them.
Meanwhile, his temper simmered just below the surface, and he struggled not to bark or bellow. His temper, while infamous, is not something his children talk about, and you can tell he struggles to control it.
On more than one occasion, I’ve heard Jill mention that her father is not a kind man. I didn’t see it fully, however, until this visit, when I realized all along that I had mistaken gratitude for the kindness I had hoped to see.
“You need a strong heart. You need a true heart. You need a heart like that in a world like this. So you don’t get faithless.”
Four years ago, on Sept. 11, my second “mom” passed away. In many ways, she had died 3 1/2 years earlier.
If you follow this blog for any period of time, you will discover that I had two sets of “parents” — my biological ones and Fran and Bill, who lived across the street from us growing up. We moved into my childhood home on 22nd Avenue in Texas City when I was 4, and my parents became fast friends with the couple across the street and one house over to the left.
Much more than my parents, Bill was my personal familial enigma, although unlike Bob we reached a much more peaceful resolution in the end. With my mom facing a much more difficult juggling act (work, kids, sick husband) than any of us knew, I often turned to Fran for advice and support.
And Fran freely dispensed it, in what my mom called her “Yankee” way. (Ironically, it took me a while to realize that mom’s definition of Yankee includes the south side of Chicago.) Fran was always quick with an opinion and never afraid to share it, whether it was about my choices in music or literature. Unlike my grandmother, she didn’t partake in the rock and roll era (more about that in a future post, too).
Like my father, Fran had health issues for much of her adult life, and it took me some time to realize just how much she relied on Bill for everything. Without children of their own, all they had was each other, even though they treated us like their kids.
Fran marched in lock step with her Catholicism, never missing a mass and politically aligned largely with its beliefs. But after Bill died in 2004, she started questioning everything, including her own belief about the end of life.
One afternoon, during one of my 14 trips to Texas in 2007 to see my dad in the hospital, I stopped by Fran’s house for a visit. She was using oxygen, largely confined to bed or her chair.
Like Bob and Mrs. Douglass, most visits with Fran at the time were conversations about doctors, her various caregivers, and her medical treatments. The conversations had narrowed so much that a person I once could talk to at any time ran out of things to say in just minutes.
But on this mid-May day, we sat in her bedroom, went through pictures of the kids — unlike Bob, she remained interested — and talked about life’s trivia. She even endured a song I could not get out of my head at the time — Jon Dee Graham’s “Faithless.”
She put her head back on her chair and listened, eyes closed.
“In the deep blue dark down under. Tell me what you’re thinking of…”
“The things we find. The things we lose. The things that we get to keep. Are so damn few. And far between. So far between…”
She teared up, but rebounded at the conclusion.
“You need a strong heart. You need a true heart. You need a heart like that in a world like this. So you don’t get faithless.”
For a moment, she seemed more confident. “That’s how I feel on so many days,” she said. “I get so frustrated. It’s so easy to do.”
Fran told me how much she enjoyed the visit. I gave her a kiss and let myself out. In less than four months, she was dead.
My grandfather liked to say he was an “Okie from Muskogee,” having lived in the Oklahoma town for a period before moving to East Texas with my grandmother. I remember him telling me this numerous times, especially when Merle Haggard’s signature song came on the radio.
Haggard, who died last week at age 79, wrote “Okie from Muskogee” in 1969 after he became frustrated with anti-military, pro-sex and drugs protests that helped define the Vietnam era. The song, released three weeks after Woodstock, became a Number One hit as angry, proud conservatives embraced and latched on to its lyrics.
I’m not a huge Haggard fan, although I greatly admire his body of work and his ability to write about a hard scrabble life that included a stint at San Quentin, five wives, alcohol, drugs, bad business decisions, and battles with the IRS. Reading the many tributes written in the wake of his death, what I find most interesting is how he constantly evolved in his stances while tapping into the frustration of conservative whites piqued by changing morals and values.
Interestingly, Haggard’s death came just a couple of days before Bruce Springsteen decided to cancel a concert in Greensboro, N.C., to protest the state’s passage of HB2 – or the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act. The law, passed during a hastily scheduled legislative session by an increasingly conservative General Assembly, discriminates against transgender people and the LGBT community.
"To my mind, it's an attempt by people who cannot stand the progress our country has made in recognizing the human rights of all of our citizens to overturn that progress," Springsteen said in a statement announcing the cancellation. "No other group of North Carolinians faces such a burden."
Driving through North Carolina earlier this week in a truck that had only AM radio, I heard “Okie from Muskogee” in tribute to Haggard and wondered what he would have thought of the state’s latest legal action. After all, U.S. politics are the most strident they’ve been since Vietnam, and Haggard already had come too close to the flames of controversy more than once.
“I write from common knowledge, current knowledge, collective intelligence,” Haggard told author R.J. Smith about “Okie from Muskogee” in 2000. “At the time I wrote that song, I was just about as intelligent as the American public was. And they was about as dumb as a rock.”
I wish everyone could evolve like that over time…
The photos above are of my grandparents around the time "Okie from Muskogee" was released. The video below is of my favorite Haggard song, a duet with Willie Nelson on "Poncho & Lefty." (Seeing Townes Van Zandt, who wrote the song, in the video is a nice touch.)
Scott Miller is another one of those songwriters who leaves tiny Post-It notes on your soul. Take, for example, his new song "Epic Love." It is by turns humorous, mournful, and a symbol of every relationship that started out passionately, only to crash and burn.
And then there is this: "For Jack Tynan," which came out on Miller's live album with The Commonwealth a couple of months before my dad died. In a mere 2:59, he captures perfectly my love for Nick, Kate, Ben, and Emma. Definitely worth a listen.