The fright before Christmas
Two years ago, Jerry Jeff Walker and his Gonzo Zippa-Dee-Doo-Dah Band (or whatever) swung through the now-defunct Lone Star Roadhouse in Manhattan, and in a crowd filled with expatriated Texans with a little Lubbock homesick blues stood one New Jersey man who got the point. Standing next to the head of the Texas A&M alum association--Midtown chapter, one recalls, the Wall Street-working young man's crisp Stetson and shiny buckle-as-big-as-his-head advertising this College Station Yankee as a part-time yokel--was a loud, foul man, an enormous bulk wearing only a studded leather vest, black jeans, biker boots, and an odor imported from the cattle ranches of East Texas.
"Play 'Pissin' in the Wind,' Jerry!," he bellowed between songs, sometimes during them, in a thick Yankee blurt. "C'mon, Jerry!" And Jerry, of course, obliged. Never one to let down the hometown crowd, he's just an old folkie at heart. Which is what made Walker's New York experience such a perfectly realized moment: up North, in his native surroundings, Walker is revealed as the approximation he truly is. Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Guy Clark--these are the real things, homegrowns whose music, whose very identities, are tied to the land; Walker's merely a reflection of their image, a failed folk artist who moved to Austin and switched to country when his Atlantic records stiffed in the late '60s.
Walker's a bizarre one--embraced by iconoclasts (Hunter S. Thompson, for one, lists him beside Warren Zevon and Cowboy Junkies) and the Establishment (Walker, in a creepier move, was spotted at Clinton's last-minute campaign stop in Fort Worth, performing--ho ho, ha ha--"Up Against the Wall, Republican President" to the freezing, rabid crowd). He has also achieved near mythic status by accomplishing nothing more than enduring, for which they hand out few rewards: of his handful of hits and near-hits of two decades ago--"Mr. Bojangles" (released 26 years ago), "Up Against the Wall, Redneck," "L.A. Freeway," "London Homesick Blues," "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train"--he wrote only "Bojangles." The rest were penned by Ray Wylie Hubbard (who remains more gonzo, and more lost, than Walker ever dreamt), Guy Clark, and Gary P. Nunn (who sang "London Homesick" on Viva Terlingua!, which further blurs the lines of success).
At his early best, Walker was a minor player among men more talented than he. Yet he managed to perfect his shtick as drunk, as "singer," as performer, and as obscure legend till it seemed he'd always been there and always would be. His rabid cult of fans take that as a promise; most consider it a threat. Even worse, he'll probably play a good hunk of his Christmas record this time through, a Yuletide treat only for the tone-deaf.
Jerry Jeff Walker performs December 23 at Billy Bob's Texas in Fort Worth.
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