Texas: A Rock 'n' Roll Pilgrimage
(First published in Madison)
What’s the best part of living in America? Is it the inalienable right to –? The self-evident truth that –? No. Those star-spangled clich?s are fine for manifesto-writers, but for everyone else who’s lived free and breathed brave, hands down the best part is being able to hop behind a V-6 and peel cross country with no one to tell you boo.
A whole continent at our toe tips! Where else on the globe is there such a vast and changing array of geographies to be had merely by pressing an accelerator? In peevish little ethnic-maddened Europe you’re stopped by oceans or mountain ranges or mustache-twirling customs agents before your feet hardly get hot. In Africa you run the risk of encountering machete-brandishing Hutu at every 7-11. Australia offers a continent, to be sure, but Australia lacks chains of Stuckeys and late-night preachers on AM stations. Only in America can you drive all night and change your landscape from lobster village to alligator swamp, skirting great gashes of canyons and riding the ridges of purple mountain majesties with the Beach Boys making sense in every time zone. Over the course of a lifetime I’ve done it six or eight times, sea to shining sea, and it’s one of the thrills I’m planning to recall on my deathbed.
On a late 90’s trip I decided to give myself a focus, just for fun. The assignment my woman friend and I came up with was a rock n roll pilgrimage, finding the roots of rock in the heartland. There’s no more heartland than Texas, so we programmed the little hatchback for the deep south and settled into our bucket seats to watch the movie unfurl.
And what a movie it was. We were coming in from an obtuse angle, from New Mexico, but entering the hinterland is the same from any direction. As soon as you cross what was the western territory into the confederacy, you’re hit with an almost palpable sense of natives licking the lyric wound. The Civil War is this morning’s headlines from which people have simply not recovered. The mailman limps, the waitress has scar tissue, the coffee mug boasts dried egg on its rim. Front yards consist of dirt in a circle around a chained-up hound dog. Cemeteries have chain link fences around them, and the lock is always broken.
“Musicians don't come from West Texas, they explode out of West Texas!” Kris Kristofferson has said. And this is splendidly true of Lubbock, boyhood home of Buddy Holly, he of the dork-glasses and twang-guitar. “Lubbock is so flat in every direction, that if you grow up in it and are blessed with any curiosity at all, your attention just naturally runs to the horizon,” says musician Terry Allen. “It's the same thing a good song does. . . . goes straight from the heart to the heart of the matter.” But what you don’t get from his buoyant, nervous music (what you certainly don’t get from the saccharine Buddy Holly revivalist musical “Don’t Fade Away”) is the leaden weight of the sun in this part of western Texas. It’s like living under a flat iron. Any music that manages buoyancy is a de facto protest against that weight, an against-all-odds holler of vitality.
Simply by kicking around behind the main street of shiny-looking pawn shops, we found Buddy’s childhood home in no time: an unmarked slab of pre-cast concrete in the grounds of an ancient subdivision. But then we ran into a proud Texan (and proud Texans are a class by themselves, this one being proud of the fact that all of New England could fit inside Texas twice, that in his roadmap Massachusetts, where we hailed from, was lumped with Connecticut and Rhode Island on one page while Texas took up two pages “all by itseff!”) who turned us on to something even better: the hamburger joint where Buddy and his boyhood friends first starting performing.
The Hidi-Ho was quintessential Texas. The women’s room was called the “ladies” room. The signs announced they were “now serving fried okra.” Characters came pre-cast: the spitting grandma, the toothpick-dangling teen (toothpicks are to Texans what cigarettes are to Alabamians – they dangle). With a deadpan expression, what looked to be the local judge kept pinching our waitress on the butt. Everyone was handsome in the cowboy mold, smoking the way people did a couple of generations ago – not the sheepish way modern folks have been taught by a guilt-ridden middle class, but with nonchalant defiance. They took pleasure in torching their fags, the flare buzzing up, their eyes in bedroom pose against the smoke.
Learning we were driving cross country, the waitress befriended us. “Long hours on the road, ain’t nothin’ like it,” she murmured appreciatively. “My mother once dated a guy who worked for the state highway department,” she confided, fetching us our salad, ice on the iceberg lettuce. “Do you know how long the lines are in the middle of road?”
“Three feet?” we queried.
“That’s what I woulda guessed, too,” she said, squishing her cigarette down into our glass ashtray and swatting away the judge’s roaming hand. “Nine feet is the reality.”
It was late afternoon in the northwest corner of the second-largest state in the Union, and we weighed her offer to stay till nightfall, when one of Buddy’s genuine Crickets was due to amble by on his evening rounds. But our feet were cooling down too much. It was time to move out under those spacious skies again. We gave ourselves 24 hours to traverse the state on a little two-lane diagonal to the southeast corner where Janice Joplin hailed from.
Two speeding tickets later (well, we didn’t stop to collect the second one: when my rearview provided me the sight of the fly-eyed trooper in the opposite lane viciously slamming on his brakes and doing a u-ey through the median’s bluebonnets, I scudded down a secondary hillock and lost him in amber waves of grain), we had made it to Janice’s home town of Port Arthur, our ultimate rock n roll destination for a couple of reasons:
1. It’s a challenging part of the state. The neighboring pine woods of east Texas, not far from the swamps of the Louisiana border, are generally agreed to be the most racist zone in the country, combining backwoods xenophobia with militant splinter chapters of the Klan. Port Arthur is just below the small town of Jasper, where not long ago three young men dragged a black man behind their pickup down a logging road till his flayed and battered body broke apart. And talk about casting: At the trial, the defense lawyer had such a name as “Haden Cribbs,” and defended his mastermind client, a 24-year-old tattooed cretin dubbed “King” by explaining that King had hoped by his action to form a Klan chapter locals could look up to. Completing the sort of details you’d expect in an east Texas courtroom, King’s emphysema-ridden daddy sat in the front row with plastic tubes connected to an oxygen canister, while across the room, under slow-moving ceiling fans and plantation shutters keeping the brutal sun at bay, the victim’s bible-quoting family told reporters they had no vengeance in their hearts.
2. Janice, herself. Why had there been no comeback to speak of? Who was more deserving than this rasp-voiced pagan? My college roommate had slept with Janis, and I’d always felt a personal connection. This was in pre-AIDS 1969 when it was possible to meet a star after a college concert and inquire whether she might fancy going to bed with you. They had drunk Southern Comfort in her limo on the ride to her Holiday Inn. Once there, my roommie had elected to shower, a felicitous move considering he’d been eating and sleeping in the same Superman sweatshirt for a month, occasionally carrying a monkey who liked to get its paws caught in his shoulder-length hair (he’s a corporate lawyer now, specializing in Internet issues). But when he emerged from his toilette 45 minutes later, he had a quandary on his hands: Could he, should he disturb the beauty coma of this rock icon who was passed out on the bed? On the other hand, how could he return to campus empty-handed, as it were? He opted for the inevitable, to such fateful fruition that, by his account, Janice composed “One Good Man” shortly afterwards. “Maybe it was just coincidence,” my roommate modestly appended. In any case, Janice died the next year and I had the assignment of waking my roommate at noon to give him the news. We downed a Southern Comfort in her memory, consoling ourselves that at least she had lived a good long life. She was 27.
Yet the question lingered. Why had Janice never made a comeback? With her croaking heartbroken voice, a cicada voice of parched and trilling achiness that was innocent and yearning at the same time, wounded without the slightest ounce of self-pity, I would have thought she was a shoo-in for immortality. Why didn’t that voice still speak to people?
Her childhood home turned out to be in a suburb: the odor of charcoal lighter fluid embroidered the evening air. Seeing the self-boostering little high school that had so cruelly rejected her (“Cheerleader practice, Go Yellow Jackets!” read the giant sign), my woman friend recalled how Janis had gone back to her reunion after she’d become famous and she’d still been shunned, winning only the booby prize for having traveled the farthest. What was curious was that though we were 500 miles away, the neighborhood was almost identical to Buddy Holly's. Coils of mattress springs pocked an otherwise striving subdivision. Rusting refrigerators leaned on porches. Each purlieu exhaled a suffusion of suffocating small town air that, after only a few minutes, made you want to bust out. Undeniably, the roots of rock n roll were lower middle class: the energy came from wanting out.
Even more uncanny was the fact that both their houses had been razed and nothing had been built on the foundations. No plaques marked either site. Wondering whether any natives remembered her, we randomly stopped two middle-aged women power walking down the sidewalk who shuddered at the mention of their old classmate’s name and indicated they were no closer than they’d been three decades earlier to forgiving her for being a greaser who picked her pimples in gym. The way these women saw it, they had the inside dope on Janice and it was any remaining fans who were in the dark.
I had my answer. People rejected her then, and now rejected her again, because she represented all that was distasteful about the 60’s excess. Even with an overdose of raw talent – and she was talented, for all her “superhypermost” living style – she couldn’t escape the imperatives of acne-determination. She was one of those pimple pariahs the world could deal with in only small doses, exhibiting too much puss, too much slobberiness, too much naked need for the public to handle. Rock n roll was one thing. The raw energy of rock n roll, that assaultive self-destructive zit-drive she so tragically manifested, was another.
We were done with Janice's hometown. It was getting dark and we’d had enough of small-town Texas. We were famished but wanted to cross a border for the night for a better change of scene. Going over a bridge into Louisiana, we soon discovered our mistake. That section of Louisiana was called the Cajun Riviera and, as my woman friend put it, you could get away with calling it that only if you'd never seen the real Riviera. Gas refineries dotted the shorescape. The odor of natural gas oozed in through the car windows. Mosquitoes the size of grapes bombarded the windows, nasty squishy blood-thirsty things that were determined to get a belly-full of us or die trying. The night was darker than we thought possible, and humid. Salt spray splotched our windshield and dried to a gray film. It was lonely and deserted and we were creeped out, sad from our pilgrimage of doom.
There was simply nothing here. No food, no gas, no lodging. We were exhausted from the road and felt every inch of those nine feet of white stripes up our backsides. At last we came across a collection of ramshackle beach houses up on stilts so the floodwaters could roll under them. It was as piecemeal as a subdivision of driftwood: It felt like the white trash punctuation point to all our travels.
We drove up and down the tracks of sand between the houses looking for a light burning in one of the splintery windows. Eventually we found a cafe that had a spark of life. We parked and made for the door, collecting a rash of mosquito bites in the three steps it took to get inside. Four men sat at the bar not talking. "We're closed, darlings," said the barmaid. But she took pity on us and hauled out a loaf of Wonder Bread and made us two egg salad sandwiches which she put with a ribbed piece of pickle on a plastic plate and laid on the bar. Grateful for her kindness, we took the sandwiches to a table and sat there eating with a disoriented feeling. Where was our hot-footed wander lust? It had chilled and we sat there with cold feet, feeling blue, scratching at the mosquito bites that felt like they were going to itch for years.
One of the men, a redneck gentleman in cowboy boots and tractor cap, upped from his stool and weaved in our direction with half-closed eyes. “Uh oh,” we thought.
“Where y’all from?” he said, standing over us and trying without luck to crack his knuckles.
“Oh, we're just driving in from Texas,” we said.
The gentleman looked as if he’d bitten into a bad almond. “Lot of niggers over there,” he said.
“Yes sir, nothing but a bunch of jew-lovin, nigger sons of bitches over there.”
Eventually, the redneck gentleman weaved back to the bar. We finished eating and hightailed it to the car, collecting a fresh rash of mosquito bites around the navel. Resuming our ride into the night, my woman friend and I felt that in our silence we’d somehow collaborated in Janice’s downfall, in Buddy’s air crash. Why hadn’t we stood up for the underdog? We vowed that if anyone ever said anything like that in our presence again, we would set the record straight about our belief systems.
“Sir, I happen to be a nigger,” we could say. “A Joplin fan, a draft dodger, a commie kike from Boston, Mass!”
“Oh, sorry!” he would probably say. He would probably be embarrassed. Or he would lynch us with his friends. But it would be worth telling him off.
America! America! God shed his grace on thee! And crown thy good, with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea!