I met Willie Nelson on the gangplank of Noah’s ark. Like most country music friendships, ours has managed to remain close because we’ve stayed the hell away from each other. I’ve played a few of Willie’s picnics and we’ve attended the same Tupperware parties now and then, but ironically, I didn’t really start feeling spiritually akin to him until I’d phased out of country music almost entirely and become a pointy-headed intellectual mystery writer. Now that my new novel, Roadkill, features Willie as a main character, our karma is suddenly linked—whether we like it or not.
Even when Willie produced a record of mine in Nashville in 1974 (and sang backup with Waylon Jennings and Tompall Glaser on “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore”), he and I were still only close enough for country dancin’. Of course, we’d come from different backgrounds. Willie had picked cotton in the fields as a kid in Abbott. For entertainment he’d go out with a little homemade paddle and kill bumblebees; he would come home looking like he’d just fought fifteen rounds with God. Willie grew up never having much money or much schooling and got married and divorced about 97 times. All he ever wanted to do was write songs and sing them for people and maybe get one of those cars that roared down the highway with the windows rolled up in the middle of summer, indicating that the driver could afford that ultimate symbol of success: air conditioning.
By the time Willie finally got that car, it was about ten minutes too late to make any difference, but he did get something else far more important: He got a bus. In fact, he got three buses. The one he lives in and calls home is known as the Honeysuckle Rose. The way I first really got to know Willie was by travel-ing with him aboard the Honeysuckle Rose. It’s a floating city unto itself, with “floating” the operative word. Even the secondhand smoke has been known to make casual visitors mildly amphibious. (There is no truth, incidentally, to the widely held belief that Willie needs the other two buses to carry all the weed he smokes on the first bus.) By contrast, my own country music career never quite reached the tour-bus level. The closest I came was a blue Beauville van, out of which the Texas Jewboys poured like a thousand clowns at every honky-tonk, minstrel show, whorehouse, bar, and bar mitzvah throughout the South, to paraphrase Jerry Jeff Walker. The Beauville, like my career, was not a vehicle destined for vastly commercial country music stardom, though it did have at least one good quality: It broke down in all the right places.
Also unlike Willie, I came from an upper-middle-class home, which is always a hard cross for a country singer to bear. I got a guitar as a young teenager in Houston, and like Townes Van Zandt, the first song I learned was “Fraulein.” By then Willie and his sister, Bobbie, were already playing in beer halls on Saturday nights and in church the next morning. By the time I had my bar mitzvah, Willie had sold Bibles and written “Family Bible,” which he also sold, reportedly for $50.
Willie never went to college, but I graduated from the University of Texas’ highly advanced Plan II liberal arts program, which was mainly distinguished by the fact that every student had some form of facial tic. Then I joined the Peace Corps and worked in the jungles of Borneo, teaching new methods of agriculture to people who’d been successfully farming for more than two thousand years, while Willie continued writing, singing, marrying, divorcing, struggling, and smoking. Like I said, I don’t really know what Willie and I have in common—other than the fact that we’re both pretty fair bumblebee fighters. Probably it has to do with what Johnny Gimble, the great country fiddle player, told me once aboard the Honeysuckle Rose. He said that when he was a kid he’d told his mother, “Mama, when I grow up, I’m gonna be a musician.” His mother had answered, “Make up your mind, son, because you can’t do both.”
If Willie had been Rosa Parks, there never would have been a civil rights movement in this country because he refuses to leave his soulful locus at the back of the bus unless it’s to go onstage or onto a golf course. Golf is a passion with Willie, and it’s the one aspect of his life I find stultifyingly dull. As I once told Willie, “The only two good balls I ever hit was when I stepped on the garden rake.” Willie, of course, responded to this news with a golf anecdote. He told me about a woman who’d recently come off his golf course at Briarcliff, went into the pro shop, and complained to the golf pro that she’d been stung by a bee. “Where’d it sting you?” asked the pro. There’s an enormously humorous punch line here, but this professes to be a family magazine, so I’m afraid you’ll have to read Roadkill.
After writing nine mystery novels and traveling extensively with Willie, the idea crossed my dusty desk to write a book with him as a central character, set the scene aboard the Honeysuckle Rose, and let the bus take the story wherever the hell it went. This meant I would be exchanging my New York loft with the cat and the lesbian dance class above for Willie and his crew, who more than anything resemble a band of Gypsies who’ve broken into a Rolex factory. Willie had never been a character in a murder mystery, but he thought it might be worth a shot, so to speak.
We crisscrossed the country two years ago. Willie sang, played chess, and smoked enough dope to make him so high that he had to call NASA to find his head. As for myself, I smoked cigars, drank a little Château de Catpiss, played chess with Willie, and wrote down many things at all hours of the day and night in my little private investigator’s notebook. Along the way, I went to many of Willie’s shows. Wandering around backstage at a Willie Nelson concert is a bit like being the parrot on the shoulder of the guy who’s running the Ferris wheel. It’s not the best seat in the house, but you see enough lights, action, people, and confusion to make you wonder if anybody knows what the hell’s going on. “Fortunately,” said Willie, “we’re not in control.” If you’re sitting out in front, of course, it all rolls along as smoothly as a German train schedule, but as Willie, like any great magician, would be the first to point out, the real show is never in the center ring.
Backstage at any show has its similarities, whether it’s Broadway or the circus or the meanest little honky-tonk in Nacogdoches—the palpable sense of people out there somewhere in the darkness waiting for your performance, or being able to pull a curtain back slightly and experience the actual sight of the audience sitting there waiting to be entertained by someone who, in this case, happens to be you. It’s the reason Richard Burton vomited before almost every live performance of his life. It’s part of the reason George Jones took Early Times, Judy Garland took bluebirds, and many a shining star burned out too soon. Standing alone in the spotlight, up on the high wire without a net, is something Willie Nelson has had to deal with for most of his adult life.
One night at Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth, I was standing backstage in the near darkness when a voice right behind me almost caused me to drop my cigar into my Dr Pepper. It was Willie. “Let me show you something,” he said, and he pulled a curtain back, revealing a cranked-up crowd beginning to get drunk, beginning to grow restless, and packed in tighter than smoked oysters in Hong Kong. Viewed from our hidden angle, they were a strangely intimidating sight, yet Willie took them in almost like a walk in the trailer park.
“That’s where the real show is,” he said.
“If that’s where the real show is,” I said, “I want my money back.”
“Do you realize,” Willie continued in a soft, soothing, serious voice, “that ninety-nine percent of those people are not with their true first choice?”
“Do you realize,” I said, “that you and I aren’t with our true first choice either? I mean, a latent homosexual relationship is a nice thing to have going for us, but sooner or later …”
Willie wasn’t listening to my cocktail chatter. He looked out at the crowd for a moment or two longer and then let the curtain drop from his hand, sending us back into twilight. “That’s why they play the jukebox,” he said.
Willie’s character leapt off the stage and onto the page. I don’t know if you’d call it Jewish radar or cowboy intuition, but during my travels with Willie, a storyline began to evolve. He would be at the center of one of my most challenging cases (and I’d have to solve it before we all ended up in a bar singing Jimmy Buffett cover songs). There wasn’t a butler to do it, but Willie did have a valet named Ben Dorsey, who’d once been John Wayne’s valet. This provided some humorous commentary, since Willie wasn’t an enormous fan of the Duke’s. Willie preferred the old singing cowboys. Of John Wayne, he once said, “He couldn’t sing and his horse was never smart.” (That kind of talk never failed to irritate Dorsey and usually resulted in some sort of tension convention.) Other real characters who inhabit the Honeysuckle Rose and the pages of Roadkill are Bobbie Nelson, Willie’s sister; Lana Nelson, Willie’s daughter; Gates “Gator” Moore, his intrepid bus driver; L.G., his one-man security team; and a cast of thousands of friends, fans, and family, who, along with life itself, did everything they could to interrupt our chess games.
You can tell a lot about a man by his chess game, unless, of course, your opponent is smoking a joint the size of a kosher salami. Edgar Allan Poe once said of chess: “It is complex without being profound,” and it is because of that very complexity that a momentary loss of concentration or the entry of some foreign emotion, like a broken heart, can torpedo the game. When you take this into consideration, Willie plays with the evenness of the Mahatma, at a lightninglike pace, and rarely loses. (I, of course, rarely lose either.)
One of the things I admire most about the way Willie plays the game of chess, as well as the game of life, is his Zen-Texan approach to inevitable triumphs and defeats. The endgame doesn’t hold great interest for him because he’s already thinking about the next game. If he comes off less than his best in one game, one show, one interview, one album, his next effort is invariably brilliant. This is one of the reasons I’ve always looked up to both Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan, even though they’re both shorter than everyone except Paul Simon.
I see Willie as a storybook gingerbread man: born into poverty, rich in the coin of the spirit, ephemeral and timeless, fragile and strong, beautiful beyond words and music, healing the broken hearts of other people and sometimes, just maybe, his own as well. Yesterday’s wine for Willie includes personal tragedies, Internal Revenue Service audits, and a somewhat geriatric band that could be dubbed the Shalom Retirement Village People yet to this very day undeniably takes no prisoners. The changing landscape of country music has made major-label support and generous radio airplay almost a thing of the past. For many legends of country music, this trendy tidal wave toward Nashville poster boys and modern, youthful “hat acts,” plus the inevitable pull of the old rocking chair, has meant the end of careers that were supposed to last forever.
In the midst of all this, like a diamond amongst the rhinestones, Willie Nelson stays on the road.