Jerry Jeff Walker – Let the time go by
He roared across the continent creating the legend that still grows and changes and threatens altogether to becloud the personality of the man who wrote the poems…
— John Malcolm Brinnin, Dylan Thomas In America
Now some of you would live through me, lock me up and throw away the key…
— Steve Earle, “Feel Alright”
By the time he was 19, the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas had written the poems that would make him famous. His handlers put him on the road. By the time he was in his 30s, he was in great demand. He did three tours of the U.S. literary circuit, and a pattern developed. Thomas would arrive hungover, get prodigiously drunk, spout outrageous non sequiturs, gibe the highbrows, say naughty things to girls, and then blow out of town, leaving trouble to dissipate like bubbles in his wake.
For an hour or so, when the spotlight caught him, he’d loose his booming Welsh voice, perforate it with impish self-deprecation, and deliver a command performance. The crowd loved it. But the poet was no longer driven by poetry. “[It] became an almost monstrous exhibitionism as thousands wished to enjoy the voyeur’s pleasure of seeing the famous poet drunk,” writes Constantine Fitzgibbons in The Life Of Dylan Thomas.
Performance had eclipsed art. Steer him stageward, prop him up and watch him go. Let us cheer while he does what we dare not. He was on tour in America when the act caught up with the man. “Eighteen whiskeys, I think that’s a record,” he might or might not have said, and he went to his hotel room and never woke again. It was 1954. Dylan Thomas was a rock-‘n’-roller’s cautionary tale back before rock ‘n’ roll was old enough to die.
Jerry Jeff Walker knows what it is to watch the act overtake the actor. Knows what it is to be the willing main attraction at a pay-per-view kamikaze show. He made a career out of kicking the wheels off his own wagon. Out of living up to the legend. And now, with the publication of his autiobiography, Gypsy Songman, Jerry Jeff tells how the legend came to be, what it cost to maintain it, and what he’s decided to do with it.
A contented, aging outlaw faces an autobiographical dilemma. Rehash the war stories, reminding everyone how naughty you once were, or admit that you’ve learned to love a little quiet time. Do the former, and you risk looking desperate and sad; do the latter, and you risk disappointing the paying public.
In Gypsy Songman, Walker has struck an engaging middle ground. The book is filled with the sort of itinerant debauchery you’d expect — “…faint wisps of beer misted from his nostrils…a few million bucks had come and gone…a fifth of whiskey and a couple of grams of coke a day…” — but the overall feel of the book is one of equanimity. Walker will be pleased to tell you about the gonzo days, but he is equally pleased to tell you he has lived in the same house for twenty years.
The book proceeds chronologically, but rather than giving a blow-by-blow death march of dates and places, Walker lets the story breathe by not trying to tell it all. “We had already decided there were about four big places in my life,” he says, on the phone from Austin. “Oneonta [New York], growin’ up; New Orleans, street singing; to New York to get the break with ‘Bojangles’; then Austin, where I lived. And then the rest would just be my life touring.”
The story begins on March 16, 1942, with the birth of Ronald Clyde Crosby (Jerry Jeff Walker was many years and several name changes away). When Dad came home from the war, the Crosbys took up residence in Oneonta:
It was an Ozzie and Harriet life for me. Tuna sandwich and Oreo cookies after school. Crewcut boys riding thick-tired bicycles with old playing cards chattering in the spokes. Shooting hoops in the backyard until dark. I had free run of the neighborhood. No fences between the neighbors’ back yards. So it was one big playground.
Eventually little Ronnie took to running away. Away, as he puts it in the book, from his home, his family, even his name. He ran away, but he never got over the idea of the world as a playground. Hitchiking in 1963, Ronnie — now calling himself Jerry Ferris — found a new place to play: “Driving into Louisiana, along Lake Ponchartrain, I smelled a new air and entered the special magical land of New Orleans.”
A street musician’s education commenced shortly. New Orleans was where the man who would become Jerry Jeff Walker got deep into the exploration of music and performance as a way of life. He went away now and then — “Road adventures were a big part of [our] existence…” — but New Orleans was the nexus.
“I’d never been around such people,” writes Walker. “Until now all the people I had known over thirty were all selling insurance. But here were writers and thinkers and drifters. Painters, poets, madmen. They made their living bartending and at other fringe occupations in the Quarter.” Monday nights, the crowd converged on a smoky apartment occupied by a pair of gay poets and convened Ivan’s Wine Discussion Group. The wine was gallon-jug Gallo, and the discussion covered everything from Lead Belly to Jean Genet. One night a man left the gathering, and Walker followed him to the river.
…I found myself sitting down by the river drinking wine with a raging visionary poet. Page by page he was tossing his writing into the Mississippi. He would read to the night then toss a page. Tenderly beautiful poems, strange haunting babbles, and giant epics. He had stayed up many painful mornings scratching these in solitude. And now he was watching a freighter pass under night clouds and throwing all that work into the river.
Walker’s decision to strain the tell-all soup for images like these elevate Gypsy Songman above the chummy ain’t-we-been-bad drivel it easily could have been. The book is nicely stocked with this sort of pleasant surprise. His description of his beloved Uncle Clyde, a potbellied farmer who played the drums and called square dances, is worshipful and tender. When Clyde was killed in a haying accident, Walker was working in the same field. He tells of finding Clyde beneath the tractor, and how after the ambulance left, he ran off to a high meadow to cry, “realizing that some things broken can’t be mended.”
The book is also buoyed by straight talk. If you’re wondering how FM radio transformed from free-form stew to tasteless corporate gruel — and what this devolution meant to music in general — you’ll find the answer in Chapter 12. If you think a record deal and a hit will make you rich, read the aptly placed Chapter 13. If you want to avoid Chapter 13, read Chapter 14, which is essentially a crash course in the warts-out side of the music business. And then, to wrap things up, proceed to Chapter 16, wherein MCA Records head Jimmy Bowen makes a most illuminating, if uncomplimentary, cameo.
Several long runs in the book detail the genesis of “Mr. Bojangles”, the song that broke Jerry Jeff Walker. While it is generally true that the song was based on a character Walker met upon being tossed into jail in New Orleans after climbing atop a table in the Cafe Du Monde and declaring that “Love will not be threatened by force or doubt,” this is not the whole story.