It Doesn’t Get Much Better Than Ray Wylie Hubbard’s Memoir
When you open Ray Wylie Hubbard’s memoir, a life…well, lived. (Bordello Records) and see the epigraphs, you already know you can’t put down the book. Both quotes illustrate that soul-shaking, sometimes godawful, fearful, invigorating struggle between the spiritual and the physical that many artists endure or embrace or seek to escape. The Greek tragedian Aeschylus captures the insidious, can’t-get-away-from experience that accompanies any hard-won wisdom: “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.” Aeschylus is followed by Judy Hubbard’s candid observation of the way life really works, in the muck and mud of the everyday: “Some get spiritual ’cause they see the light and some ’cause they feel the heat.”
What other musician’s recollection of his or her life opens with an epigraph from his wife and one from the Greek tragedian Aeschylus? Well, Ray Wylie Hubbard is no John Fogerty or Gregg Allman or Carly Simon, looking to sanitize his or her past by rehearsing it superficially and not revealing with any candor the depth of their struggles with alcohol or drugs, or their scuffles with the songwriting muse. When Ray Wylie Hubbard sits down to tell us his stories, he’s like Coleridge’s mariner to whom we can’t help but listen because his tales are so terrifyingly compelling, they irresistibly fascinate us. Even more, though, Hubbard tells us the truth with a wink and a nod, and we’re laughing at his foibles along the way. His shortcomings are ours, but Hubbard has the balls to live through it all and share the lessons he’s learned.
Much like Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry — who’s depicted in that novel’s opening pages as roaringly, pugnaciously drunk — Hubbard roars off into the stories of his life with a cinematic scene that hides nothing, lets us know what the life’s going to be like, and invites us to come along for the ride.
From the foreword:
i remember seeing a movie about a wild young folk singer who left a trail of scorched earth behind him as he traveled from texas to Colorado singing songs and drinking beer and goofing off mostly, not wanting for nothing except a new set of guitar strings and true love…at least for a night…and meeting poets and artists and cowboy characters and motorcycle racers and…wait..aw man, that wasn’t a movie…it was my old head remembering stuff.
Reading Hubbard’s memoir is like a Marx Brothers caper, maybe, or a Luis Bunuel film where one scene cuts to another with underlying connections and characters. In Hubbard’s case, he cuts from a song to a memory, to a story about his life at the time. Every scene of the movie has its memorable moments, and Hubbard allows us to start in the middle of the movie and wind the reel backward or forward. On whatever scene we land, he tells a part of his story and how he’s always tried to come to terms with himself, those around him, and what he calls “the Whole Cosmic Energy shebang.”
His movie carries us along, from his childhood in Oklahoma — where he threw a rock the size of an egg at his cousin Billy and hit him in the forehead — to his days in AA, up though his most recent reflections on songwriting. When Billy starts bleeding and screaming, Hubbard prays that if God lets Billy survive, he’ll go to church every Sunday for five years and not miss a day. It’s the beginning of a thread that weaves itself through Hubbard’s life: the struggle between the spiritual, as Hubbard understands it, and the physical.
He recalls the night that a bunch of his friends were hanging out, just passing around an old guitar, running low on beer. His friends pick him to go out and buy more. He choices are the D Bar D, “which was known as the hardcore-cowboy-redneck-right-wing-pro-war-anti-hippie-bar…and the Red Onion Bar at the Village Inn Motel where a long-haired musician could buy a beer.” Hubbard asks himself how bad can the D Bar D really be, even though no long hair had ever gone into it. So he walks in and requests two cases of Miller High Life. The rednecks at the bar taunt him and are ready to kick his ass, but an old woman sitting at the bar tells them to let him go. He buys the beer, returns to the cabin, and his friends pass him the guitar: “I hit the G chord and sang, ‘He was born in Oklahoma…'” And “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” was born.
Every page of this memoir shines with his luminous stories, and wherever you join him, you’ll be rewarded. Toward the end of the book, he shares his reflections on songwriting in a chapter titled “The Equation, The Whole Cosmic Shebang, The End.” Here’s his equation for songwriting: “Inspiration + Craft x Time & Effort – Fear & Doubt + Purpose + Prosperous Songwriter.”
He offers a few hints on songwriting: “Here’s another songwriting hint…wait…forget it…everybody knows how to write songs. seems what everybody wants to know is how to get them recorded by famous hot shot singers so they can make a ton of money off of royalties…well, I can’t help you there…in my case, it’s been like shooting dice.”
“After one demoralizing night,” he writes later, “I went home and meditated. After my thoughts quit racing and kind of smoothed out, I opened my eyes and made a commitment to respect whatever creative spark was within me and no matter what, I was going to write songs without compromise and align my purpose with some energy that I believed honored my faith in it to do what I thought would be beneficial to the other human beings walking around on this planet.”
Hubbard’s memoir arrived not long after his 2015 album, The Ruffian’s Misfortune (Bordello Records), on which his song “Stone Blind Horses” appears. In that song, whose lyrics appear as the last scene of Hubbard’s memoir, he sums up much of his own life and struggles:
There’s ghosts along the highways
And there’s storms out on the seas
My only hope is somewhere in that heaven
Someone is saying a prayer for me…I been riding stone blind horses
Never seeing a reason to believe
Hey sweet Genevieve, say a prayer for me.
And the wild young cowboys, old drunks
Paramours and thieves.
Hubbard’s memoir rides high as one of the best music autobiographies of the past year because he tells his stories straight, with a few chasers of his humor. He recalls the hard moments and the highlights of his life, and what it’s really like to be a working musician in today’s world.