Waylon Jennings: Sex, Drugs, & Rockabilly-Part 4
Waylon’s New York manager, Neil Reshen, had freed him from the restraints of Nashville’s assembly-line recording system. When Waylon felt pressure from RCA, he phoned Reshen, known to industry insiders as “Maddog.” Waylon called him “my pitbull on a chain;” said when he needed him to bite, he just rattled the chain. Early on in the relationship, Waylon loved the way Neil terrorized the industry suits.
In the early 70’s, when Reshen first offered his services as a business manager, Waylon candidly declined: “I don’t need a New York Jew for a manager.” Reshen wasn’t offended; he saw big bucks coming with the country-rock merger, so he stayed in touch. Before long, Waylon found himself in financial trouble and hospitalized with hepatitis. Reshen paid another visit. He informed the ailing country star that New York, not Nashville, was in charge of screwing country artists, and Waylon Jennings needed a New York manager. Waylon recovered from his illness and still faced bankruptcy; he wondered how much more he could lose with Reshen representing him.
In one of his first New York meetings with his new manager and the RCA bosses, Waylon was instructed by Reshen to sit quietly and watch: the first guy to speak or even clear his throat, loses. The meeting dragged on and Waylon had to pee. Following his manager’s orders, he said nothing, just got up and left the room. The RCA suits assumed Waylon was mad and they caved to Reshen’s demands. When Waylon returned, they were all smiles and shaking hands. On the elevator, Reshen praised Waylon, telling him that walking out was a brilliant move. For the first time in his career, Waylon was beginning to enjoy the business of music.
Willie had already by-passed the Nashville execs, but he liked the idea of kick-ass Yankee management, so he too signed on with Reshen .Waylon welcomed Willie into the mix, but warned, “We’re gonna have to run him off someday, but right now, he’s just what we need.”
Reshen was a powerful force. He was Bela Lugosi on crank—a dark and threatening figure—and he was never on a chain. He enjoyed the business smarts he had over his musician clients. In short, he cooked the books and barked so loud no one dared challenge his math. One evening in Nashville, he bragged to me, “I’ve got the biggest combined catalog in the business: Waylon, Willie, and Miles (Davis)—over a hundred albums between them—a coke fiend, a pothead, and a junkie.”
Summer of 1976, Reshen instigated the end of Waylon’s friendship with fellow outlaw, Tompall Glaser. Collateral damage brought on by the platinum success of Wanted: The Outlaws came when Reshen asked Tompall for a certified accounting of royalties due Waylon and Jessi from Tompall’s publishing company. Assets were frozen and Tompall filed a $300,000 breach-of-contract suit against Waylon and Jessi who counter-sued. Chapter One of the outlaw movement ended on a blue note. Years earlier, Waylon’s friend and roommate, Johnny Cash, had warned him of the dangers in doing business with friends. Willie soon left Reshen, but Waylon couldn’t follow because there was a cocaine connection.
By 1981, the confrontation and separation was unavoidable. Waylon’s mad dog manager had been juggling receivables and ignoring payables, and Waylon’s assorted outlaw enterprises were $2.5 million in debt, including a quarter million to Lear Jet leasing. For awhile, the private jet rides were over.
MUSIC ROW & THE FRATERNITY
In the early seventies, a depressed area of Nashville near Vanderbilt University experienced a revival. Inside that decaying area, Sixteenth and Seventeenth Avenues ran parallel for about a mile, and were lined with dozens of once-elegant two-story homes. Many were uninhabited and needed repairs. Although county music was considered Nashville’s red-headed stepchild, there were some in city government who could see the dollar signs in its enduring presence. A proposal was made to redirect the two avenues into one-way streets, running in opposite directions. This plan came with tax incentives and zoning changes aimed at attracting music business up and down the two avenues. Music Row was born and became the best business move that ever happened to what was then called Country & Western music.
Before Waylon’s superstar status and Tompall’s lawsuit, they shared offices on 16th Avenue, just off Music Row. “Hillbilly Central,” they called it, an old two-story house with boarded-up windows to keep out all light. Inside contained a high-tech recording studio, office space, and the atmosphere of “Animal House”. Hazel Smith worked for both Waylon and Tompall as secretary, publicist, and den mother. She remembered Waylon and Tompall as “blood brothers,” and said, “It was like a fortress—us against Music Row.”
The blood brothers were either inside their fort or nearby playing pinball at the Burger BoyDrive-In. Their entourage often included Kris Kristofferson, Shel Silverstein, and a local DJ/court jester, Roger Schutt, AKA Captain Midnight. Waylon had a favorite recollection from those happier times.
One afternoon, he greeted his buddy with: “Tompall, who’s your best friend?”
Sensing something special, Tompall instantly replied, “Waylon Jennings.”
Waylon continued, “Who stands by you when nobody else will?”
Tompall grinned and repeated, “Waylon Jennings.”
Waylon: “Who just gave you a brand new Ovation guitar?”
Tompall crowed, “Waylon Goddam Jennings!”
Waylon: “And who just backed into your new Lincoln?”
Dented fenders were easily repaired with a gram of toot, and for Tompall, a bottle of Jack.
After his split with Tompall and the pinball gang, Waylon purchased a two-story, beige brick, mini-mansion on Music Row’s corner of Seventeenth and Edgehill. Jessi and June Carter Cash cruised the local antique shops and transformed the old house into an office that felt like home. Waylon lived there more than at “Southern Comfort,” the home he shared with Jessi in Brentwood, just south of Nashville. When he did go home to recover from his marathon highs, he usually slept in his recliner for a day or two. Jessi would rub his feet and pray for him.
As Waylon’s star rose in the heavens and his coke addiction became hell on earth, the parade of characters entering the office through the back door was a colorful sideshow. Most came bearing drugs and songs they wanted to share with the “Chief.” I was pulling down $250 a week as the in-house publicist and sometimes gatekeeper. If you came in the back door, you had to pass my office with its open door.
Some would just wave at me and go straight upstairs to Waylon’s office. Others would greet me with, “Is he in? How’s he doing? Is he grabbing his back?” After several days on a coke high, Waylon would experience cramping muscles. “Grabbing his back” referred to a stretch with an arm pulled up his back he performed to ease the discomfort. That exercise indicated a binge buzz, many knew to avoid or approach with caution. During the marathons or “roars,” he avoided showers—they brought him down. His hair got slick, and he splashed on Brut, a potent, musky cologne that announced him before and after you actually saw him.
Many evenings after midnight it was just the two of us in that old house, with our music cranked up. Waylon had installed a sound system that shook the building, and he would usually play just parts of songs. Sometimes he would invite me in for a few minutes of small talk and offer me a snort from his endless stash. On one occasion, he showed me the extra-long thumbnail on his right hand, his strumming hand. “See that?” he said. “That can hold a gram!” I just smiled and shook my head in wonder.
Visitors with a backstage pass included freelance security guards, Deakon and Boomer from Hell’s Angels/Oakland, rodeo champion Larry Mahan, a stock car driver Waylon helped sponsor, and assorted pushers. There were the odd, exotic female groupies, including a leggy, aloof blonde named Marsha who soon made the local news when she overdosed and died. And there were the musicians: Spooner Oldham, “Funky” Donnie Fritts, Lee Emerson, Bucky Meadows, and Hank Williams, Jr.
On one of Hank Junior’s first visits, he arrived with a gift for Waylon: a pair of boots once worn by Hank Williams, his late, country music legend daddy. Waylon was completely amazed and even humbled by that gift. He announced to everyone in the office, “Junior said, ‘Wear them motherfuckers!'” It was reported that Hank Senior had big feet. Even so, Waylon was a much larger man. He admired and studied those boots for few days, then emerged from his office with his feet inside them, and proclaimed, “They fit!” and although they looked painfully tight, Waylon kept grinning and added, “Kinda spooky.” Those of us who watched, all nodded agreement.
Waylon decided to let Hank Junior share the bill on an upcoming tour. To start with a clean slate, he wanted Junior to know that contrary to rumors, he never slept with Audrey Williams, Junior’s mom, Hank Senior’s widow . Waylon did confess to one secret that occurred while partying at Miss Audrey’s home. He had slipped away to the garage where a ’52 Cadillac once owned by the late Hank Williams was parked. He opened the back door and lay across the seat, the same seat on which Hank Williams was found dead at age twenty-nine on January 1, 1953.
1977 was less than two years after Junior survived a fall of over 400 feet, off Ajax Mountain in Montana. He had come real close to a rendezvous with his legendary daddy. The accident split his skull and crushed his face. He was still wearing large sunglasses to hide the permanent scars from multiple surgeries. Prior to that tumble, Junior had struggled with a career that seemed mostly a forced tribute to his father’s music. No matter how hard he tried to sway audiences with his own musical ideas, they were never quite satisfied until he gave them a medley of Hank’s country classics. On Waylon’s bill, it was agreed Junior would perform a short Hank Senior medley and a mix of Marshall Tucker/ Charlie Daniels-style music. Southern Rock had Junior excited about performing again.
What Junior delivered on Waylon’s tour was a mild shock to most everyone. He did please the crowd with the Hank Senior music, but wrapped it inside a wild, rocking frenzy. Apparently, he had not yet found his Southern Rock groove. Waylon shrugged it off. It didn’t matter who opened, the crowd was there for Ol’ Waylon.
One show early in the tour did prompt Waylon to ask Junior to tone down his stage costume. The electric Mr. Williams apparently wanted to shed his rhinestone cowboy image. He arrived on stage one evening shirtless with a vest, cowboy hat and boots, and a pair of neon green surfer shorts. Hank “Bocephus” Williams, was a man on the verge of establishing his place in the new order of Country Rock. Waylon was happy to introduce him to new fans who would embrace his rowdiness from that tour forward.
Junior was a good old boy. He mingled with one and all, and often joined us on the bus for a dice game known as Farkle. At the time, he was deep in love with a southern belle: Becky White from Mer Rouge, Louisiana. The next year, 1978, she became the second Mrs. Hank Williams, Jr. They had two daughters, Hilary and Holly, and divorced in 1983.