Friday, July 23, 2010
Heartworn Highways, a documentary film by the late James Szalapski came out, I read, in 1975, the year Diamond Studs splashed in New York City. The film-stock was exposed back in the early to mid '70s: bus rides with David Allan Coe behind the wheel and a prison concert with Coe which features some of the most amazing music and off-the-cuff ranting I've ever seen; an interview with Townes Van Zandt and his girl friend and various other passersby which happens to include him singing "Pancho and Lefty" and "Waitin' Round to Die,"the former of which he introduces as "a medley of my hit"; time spent with Guy Clark, talking, singing off stage and on, repairing a guitar, reveling with a very young Steve Earle during the Christmas Season; backstage and on with a Charlie Daniels who can actually play the fiddle (versus the geezer who made the ad for Geico); a classic Gamble Rogers performance bit. And there's of course more. Recently there's been a sort of sound track produced by recording the songs off the movie and then doing studio magic to make it all work on the CD player.
I rented HH from Netflix because I'd seen a wonderful documentary about Townes and noticed there was some of him in this movie too. Mostly the Townes stuff was used in the documentary. Oh well. It's the David Allan Coe material that just blows me away. I had no idea! I think the first time I ever heard of Mr. Coe was via his hit, "You Never Even Called Me By My Name," which got quite a lot of air play back in the day. As I'd met Steve Goodman a couple of times, my ears certainly pricked up when I heard him referenced re Coe's famous "last verse," which probably made the song as certainly as Mark Knoffler's breaks made "Sultans of Swing." But Knoffler's breaks are actually still a joy to hear, and after you've heard Coe's schick in "Never Even Called Me" about 10 times or so, that's about all you'll need to be quenched for the next ten years. I never heard anything else by him that grabbed me, and it was only just now that I found out he wrote "Take this Job and Shove It," which is certainly a great song in it's own right.
Then, at some time in the last fifteen years or so, I saw some pictures of Coe as he's, ummmm, "developed." These days he looks pretty grotesque--tattooed to the extreme, seriously over-weight, and then it turns out he's in the midst of a controversy over whether he's a "racist" or not based on some songs he tossed off thirty years ago and marketed on the back of some biker periodical which probably featured women humping Harley seats near the staples in every issue. "I'm not a racist," he replied to some inquiry. "I have pictures of Michael Spinks all over my bus, with my kids." It's for sure that he's not a politician at any rate. Put him and Brietbart in the same room and it's Mr. Coe who walks out eating a chicken leg and grinning. I'd actually really like to see that bout. It'd be better than Tonya Harding TKOing Paula Jones.
So to me, Coe's the story of the documentary, except that documentary unfortunately didn't get made, just this road diary slice-of-life. Coe also says, re the racism thing--"I don't hate black people, I mostly just hate people, generally." That's him today. He's about my age. He's been on his long strange trip just like all us geezers. Plus, his trip started with a very messed up family and a stay in prison at the young age of 18. Like he tells it in the prison concert, "when I walked into the cafeteria everything got quiet. They thought I was Marilyn Monroe."
It's not too hard to squint and read between some of the lines. Coe gets out of prison with his life, he is a very smart kid who's been ground into the dirt but has a vision and can write. He works hard day jobs. He gets to Nashville. He sells "Field of Stone" to Tanya Tucker and she gets a hit. He's a hell of a performer, so he gets a good band together and starts trucking, driving his own bus no less. Everything he can earn he earns because, he believes, he knows how to SELL. And over the years, it gets a little out of hand to at least a lot of people, and he gets kinda marginalized. (These days there's an argument over whether he killed some guy in prison--an alleged fact which adds to his dark lustre but is apparently not checkable by reputable media reporters, who've tried.) Which doesn't mean he doesn't have a devoted following, because he's obviously charismatic as hell, but he knows he owes his particular base, so he makes damn sure they recognize him. And he makes a decent living making music, including some royalties. That's how it works, most particularly when you graduated from prison when you're 18.
You may or may not have a single good opinion of David Allan Coe. But you've got time to watch a movie now and then, so watch Heartworn Highways, particularly every bit of footage on David Allan Coe, including the extra bits at the end that they couldn't figure out how to fit into the movie itself. I won't be surprised if you watch him singing "River" a dozen times, like I did. The cinematographer did one fine job on that. Look at Coe's eyes. And as far as who and what he seems to have become. Well, it makes me think of those blowfish that get all huge and spikey when bigger fish happen around. Ain't nobody going to fuck with David Allan Coe. That's what he learned, a real long time back.
I hope Mr. Coe's having a real great summer this year, with his family. That's what he deserves. If only because of this one moment long ago:
It's even better in the movie, so consider the vid a trailer.