Friday, October 30, 2020

In Memoriam: Jerry Jeff Walker

Jerry Jeff Walker, 1942-2020. (Photo: Paul Natkin)

Jerry Jeff Walker, who succumbed on October 23, at seventy-eight, to the throat cancer that had been dogging him for three years, embodied Austin, Texas so perfectly that it was something of a shock to recall that he was actually a native New Yorker whose early days as a singer and songwriter were spent in the Greenwich Village of the mid-1960s. He moved to Austin in the early seventies, where he was a vital part of the outlaw country movement (“outlaw” because they weren’t mainstream enough to get played on conventional country-music stations), which also included Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Steve Earle. These men loved Texas and they made music that sounded like it couldn’t have come from anywhere else. But like liberal Austin itself, they were wild cards – holdover hippies, exuberant free spirits. (Van Zandt, a drug addict who died at fifty-two, was the tragic figure of the group.) You can glimpse Walker in a party scene in James Szalapski’s affectionate 1981 documentary about the Austin outlaws, Heartworn Highways. 

My own history with Walker’s music goes back nearly half a century. At twenty-two I spent a little less than a year living in Toronto, temping for an agency and trying to work out how to launch a career as a movie and theatre critic. A native Montrealer who’d attended university in Boston, I was never really at ease in Toronto; I felt untethered and lonely much of the time, despite the efforts of a few loyal friends and relatives to cheer me up. One of them was my best friend from high school, who was eking out a career as a professional musician, singing and playing guitar in a downtown bar. Every now and then Jeff would drop by with his girlfriend and lure me out to clubs to see performers with whom I was mostly unacquainted – and the most memorable of these was Jerry Jeff Walker. Like most people in 1973 all I knew about Walker was that he’d written “Mr. Bojangles,” and I’d heard his own (peerless) recording of it; I didn’t realize that he was about to release his sixth solo album, Viva Terlingua! (His pre-solo career, with a band he co-founded with Bob Bruno called Circus Maximus, had yielded two records.) Walker did two sets that night; after the first the room half-emptied out and the three of us moved up, so I was seated maybe fifteen feet away from him. Most of the tunes he sang were from Viva Terlingua! and his self-titled previous album, but the one I’ve never forgotten had been written by a Canadian singer-songwriter named David Wiffen. It was the tale of a weary, alcoholic, dead-ended folkie called “More Often Than Not,” and Walker’s rendition was one of the most heart-rending performances I’d ever heard. (You can find it on a long-out-of-print 1970 release called Bein’ Free.) The next day I went out and bought Jerry Jeff Walker and until the end of the decade I never missed a new Walker album – and he put them out at roughly the rate of one a year. I heard him in concert several more times, too, in different cities, though good as he was, my subsequent experiences seeing him live never quite lived up to that first one, when I was a lonely young man and his gentle, cracked, bourbon-and-rye voice reached out to me.

Walker’s personality – life-embracing, hard-drinking, profane, anti-authoritarian – comes off his records in ecstatic bursts. Listen to “Hill Country Rain” or “Gettin’ By” or jocular, in-joke-littered novelties like “Pissin’ in the Wind” and “Will There Be Any” (the unspoken noun in that phrase is “chickenshit,” but you wouldn’t know that unless you’d heard him introduce it in concert) and you quickly identify the singer as a “damn braces, bless relaxes” kind of guy. His early albums contain songs that mock record companies (he formed his own independent label in 1986) and clubgoers who – as he  he puts it in “Hairy Ass Hillbillies” – come out to shows expecting artists to play every single song they know. That first night I heard him answer an audience member’s insistent request for “Mr. Bojangles” by telling him to go fuck himself. He wasn’t typically surly with audiences: he apologized immediately to the man and tried to explain what it felt like for a musician to have to play his only truly famous song at gig after gig. But he liked it loose; the rambling, grinning, improvised-sounding tune “Contrary to Ordinary” off his 1978 disc of the same name seems like such a deliberate portrait of him that it’s a surprise to find out that someone else (Billy Jim Baker) wrote it. In truth he was the most congenial of singers; listening to him, you feel you’ve been invited to a party with him and his buddies. Most popular songwriters write about their own lives at least some of the time, but the tone of some of Walker’s songs and his throw-away delivery makes them as intimate as besotted late-night confessions – like “I Love You” and another love song called “Derby Day,” or like “David and Me,” his affecting tribute to his friend and fellow musician David Bromberg, and the indelible “Stoney,” about hitchhiking and busking around the country with a gospel-singing, concertina-playing companion he met in a bar in Richmond, Virginia with a penchant for tall tales.

It must be obvious by now that the Jerry Jeff songs that mean the most to me personally are the downbeat ones. He could curl that warm, craggy bass around a plaintive lyric like a scarf; he was the prince of the elegy, whether he was singing his own ballads (“When I Had You,” “Wheel,” “My Old Man,” “Leavin’ Texas,” which he co-wrote with Dave Roberts) or those of other songwriters, many of whom, like Guy Clark and Gary P. Nunn, were close friends. On the first Walker albums I collected, Clark’s are, along with Walker’s own, my favorites: the piercing, evocative “That Old Time Feeling,” “L.A. Freeway,” the devastating “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” about a boy’s friendship with an aging one-time driller of oil wells who dies in the last verse. Nunn penned “Well of the Blues” and (with Karen Brooks) “Couldn’t Do Nothin’ Right,” about the fag end of a relationship. “Some Day I’ll Get Out of These Bars,” by Keith Sykes and Richard Gardner, a piteous howl of a song, compares a desperate bar singer with an ex-con who listen to him as he drinks:  “We’re a lot alike, guitar man, you and I / But your sentence is way too long.” “Eastern Avenue River Railway Blues” (Mike Reid) is about a yearning for a different kind of escape, that of a young man trapped in the city. In “Tryin’ to Hold the Wind Up with a Sail” (Pat Garvey), the singer is awakened by his wife or lover, who can’t shake a bad dream and whose anguish is inconsolable. Walker’s rendition is marvelous: his surprising syncopation of the second chorus lends it a floating, ineffable quality – you can hear the woman’s elusiveness, the singer’s inability to find a way to ground her. (See the title.)  

Perhaps the Jerry Jeff Walker song I find most moving is “Stoney,” especially the penultimate verse:

We split the road at Norwood
And he just shook my hand.
He said, “I’ll see you someplace, friend,”
But you know, he never has.
But we were that free then,
Just walkin’ down the road,
Never really carin’
Where that highway goes.

For years I wondered whether Walker ever found Stoney again; I learned only much later that he was one H.R. Stoneback, who became a poet and academic when he stopped bumming around the country. But of course in Walker’s song Stoney is also the spirit of a youthful restlessness and adventurousness that inevitably vanishes. Some people regret the loss all their lives. Others channel it into art.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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