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AND THEN I WROTE …
I expect I’d just as well go ahead and own up, right off the bat, to the
fact that this little morsel of writing has but one ambition, which is to
provide a vehicle that will allow me, at readings like this one, to inflict upon
the public weal—be warned--the only three songs I’ve ever written, rendered
up, strictly Acapulco, in–be doubly warned--my very own inimitable singing
voice. I implore you all, however, to take the opportunity to sweeten this
bitter dose of salts by adding your own voices to the second and third
That said, let’s betake ourselves way up to the upper-left-hand corner
of the country, where I am lumbering along a Montana freeway in a
cumbersome, sway-backed old white whale of a ’65 Chevy van named
Moldy Dick, headed east, into the very first sunrise of July 1976. At my
back is a U-Haul trailer and, receding into both the distance and the past, the
town of Missoula, Montana, which until this morning I’ve called home for
most of the past three years. Ahead of Moldy Dick and me is my new bride
Ten months earlier, Cia and I had set out from Missoula on the same
highway, in the same direction, on what has to be one of the most feckless
adventures in the history of human endeavor, a quest for—to borrow Tom
Waite’s title—the Heart of Saturday Night; we were going to write a book
To that dubious purpose, we drove 14,000 miles over the next six months or so, honking and tonking relentlessly, from Montana to Louisiana to Kentucky and, by way of northern Mexico and Bakersfield, back to Montana … but of course the book never happened, though I did get a chapter--“Drowning in the Land of Sky-Blue Waters”—of Famous People I Have Known out of it. Which is good, because it means I won’t need to rehash here the intrepid details of our travels. Suffice it to say that we contracted a severe case of the honky-tonk blues, compounded by a touch of motion sickness. But it’s all in the book, dear hearts, and said book—again, for those of you who are, like me, a trifle hard-of-hearing nowadays, that’s Famous People I Have Known—is still available at fine booksellers everywhere.
Back to our story: Midway in our travels, Cia and I had taken a
breather for a couple of months in that abandoned tenant house by the
Kentucky River, on the farm belonging to my longtime friend Wendell
These old bangers of ours cruise at about forty-five, flat-out, which makes for a long, lazy day at the wheel. Any other time, lollygagging along all by myself like this, I’d pop the top of a cold Grain Belt and tune in the nearest call-in show on the radio. There are problems, though: For one thing, it’s a little early in the day to dip into the beer cooler; for another, Moldy Dick, which we bought for four hundred bucks just for this trip, came with a gaping hole, like a missing tooth, in the middle of the dash where the radio should have been. So, left to my own devices, too uncoordinated to twiddle my thumbs and steer at the same time, I’m casting about for something to occupy the vasty fastnesses of my mind for the next few hundred miles. And that’s when I remember the Elbow Room, and the Born in the Land of Sky-Blue Waters sign.
The Elbow Room is a nondescript bar in a nondescript building which squats nondescriptly amid the used-car-lot ghetto on the south-side of Missoula. It has a pool table, a good country jukebox, and a peremptorily amiable bartender, but by and large the atmosphere is pretty businesslike, and the business at hand is alcohol. (THE DOCTOR IS IN AT SICKS A.M. discreetly advises a small sign taped to the back-bar mirror.) The clientele is mostly trailer-court working class—day laborers and millhands and motel maids and Granny Goose salesmen and tire recappers and Korean War widows and Exxon pump jockeys—and it includes a sizable contingent of full-time, dedicated alcoholics.
Now, for all my inabstinent ways, I have never counted myself among
that happy number; but when we lived in Missoula I did like to fall by the
Elbow Room every now and then for a nightcap or three, just to clear my
head after a hard day at the thesaurus or some trifling domestic impasse or a
particularly egregious outrage on the evening news. The glum, podiatrist’s-
waiting-room anonymity of the place seemed to cool me out somehow, and
many’s the midnight hour I’ve whiled away sitting there nursing a shot of
Brand-X bourbon and meditating upon the electric Hamm’s Beer sign
behind the bar, the one that bears the legend “Born in the Land of Sky-Blue
Waters” beside an animated picture, which follows a rushing mountain
stream down past a campsite with a red canoe, on down a riffle and over and
Why not now? Sure! I’ll call it “Drowning in the Land of Sky-Blue
Waters;” it’ll be my personal anthem, an old honky-tonker’s swansong.
Within the next ten miles of freeway I’ve got the opening lines—“I’ve lost
So, as Roy Rogers used to put it, “Now don’t you worry, folks, we’re a-gonna git them rustlers. But first, lemme sing ya a little song. It goes … kinda like this … “
Well, so much for my formative years in show biz. My marriage
survived my singing—for a while—, and we lived in Uncle Jimmy’s little
house for the next four years, until our burgeoning family obliged us to seek
more spacious accommodations. Our fortunes had improved by then to the
point that we were able to buy a rickety but roomy old farmhouse up on the
hill, a little closer to Greater Downtown Port Royal. I mention this
otherwise-irrelevant transition merely to demonstrate that at this stage in my
life, I was interested a lot less in being a rolling stone and a lot more in
(pardon the mixed metaphor) becoming a moss-gathering stick-in-the-mud.
Yet my late-blooming homebody propensities hadn’t by any means
So-o-o … I went home and wrote--yes, folks, that disquieting
premonition you’re experiencing means you do feel a song comin’ on—I
went home and wrote the song which some critics, in their wisdom, have
Well, that pretty much got the songwriting bug out of my system, an apparent miracle cure that was no doubt welcomed by my adoring public. But it turned out that the condition was chronic, and the long-dormant symptoms would return in 1986 to put me through one more bout with the terrible reality that I can’t sing a lick.
That fall, my friend Ken Kesey called to say that he was about to publish his memoir, Demon Box. There would be a book tour, Ken said, and he was planning to take a break during his travels and come to visit us and the Berrys for a few days. This was exciting news for my then-nine-year-old daughter Annie, who had never met Ken, but had heard Wendell and me talk about how much he loved kids, how entertaining he was with them, how he always had an assortment of magic tricks and songs and jokes and stories for them. For Annie, it was love even before first sight; she could hardly wait.
Okay, I told her, yielding to my old vice one more time; howzabout I write us a little song, and when Ken comes, you and I will sing it to him. So that’s what we did; I wrote a song called “Jack the Bear”—it’s dedicated to Ken, of course--, and Annie and I rehearsed it together for days, and when Ken arrived we sang it for him. He loved it, by the way—though I daresay he might have enjoyed it even more if he could’ve traded me for, say, Mario Lanza—or, for that matter, for Daffy Duck.
Here I’m going to interrupt myself briefly to remind you that in 2003,
two years after Ken’s death, I edited the seventh and final issue of Ken’s old
self-published literary magazine, Spit in the Ocean, and when Viking
Penguin published Spit 7 (subtitled “All About Kesey”), a band of a dozen
or so superannuated but still serviceable surviving Pranksters, myself among
them, put together a modest book tour for ourselves. We got Ken’s famous
bus, Furthur, out of mothballs and hit seven bookstore venues from Portland
to Eugene to the Bay Area, doing readings from the book and skits about
Our final show was on a Saturday night at Moe’s Books in Berkeley, where, by then, the lovely and talented Annie was (and is) a candidate for a Ph.D. in English literature at UC. And of course she was, by paternal injunction (and possibly even by choice as well) in our audience that evening, and of course I drafted her—paternal injunction again—to join me onstage for “Jack the Bear.” Annie isn’t nine years old anymore—indeed, she got a wolf-whistle when she came forward—but I’m here to assure you that, as far as I’m concerned, our Moe’s Bookstore rendition of “Jack the Bear” was, for me, the very best moment in the whole adventure.
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