My Pop Life #148 : Lost Highway – Hank Williams

Lost Highway   –   Hank Williams

I’m a rollin’ stone all alone and lost
For a life of sin I have paid the cost
When I pass by all the people say
Just another guy on the lost highway

Late ’88 I’m driving down Highway 20 towards El Paso, Texas.  Apart from ordering food and gas I haven’t spoken to anyone for over three days,  I’m almost out of money, my credit card has started bouncing and it’ll be Christmas in 4 days.  I think it’s possibly the most all alone and lost I’ve ever been in my life, but I’m kind of happy in a self-pityingly dramatic kind of way.  O Me Misererum.  One of life’s natural wallowers in misery, (wallow, not wallflower) I was pretty vacant, alone, solo, half-empty and broke.  Mile after mile after mile of desert scrub, punctuated by dull dipping oil derricks and the odd bridge.  The lost highway.  Abilene.  I knew that from a Nanci Griffith song. Lone Star State of Mind, deep in the fart of Texas.   There was a kind of masochistic pointlessness to the drive which suited me perfectly.

I’d gone into Auto Driveaway in Washington D.C. on December 16th and got a car to deliver.  You give them a deposit of $200 and get five days to drive to say, Dallas.  If you drive like a wanker, which is not allowed but who’s checking, you can spend a day somewhere along the route and still deliver on time.  I drove like a wanker through Virginia and West Virginia and crashed out in a motel in Bristol, Eastern Tennessee on day 1, got to Nashville on Day 2 (noted previously in My Pop Life #83) spent all of Day 3 in Nashville bopping around, drove to Memphis on Day 4 and mooched around Graceland and Beale St, got ripped off by the Mack man to the tune of $350 which is most of what I had on me, then delivered the car to an address in Dallas on Day 5 after driving through Arkansas.  

Oh you want more on the Mack man?  The phrase has now gone out of use thanks to the computer age, but you might have heard of the Mack Daddy, also going out of use.  We heard about him the following spring when I returned to D.C. with my new girlfriend Jenny for an awards ceremony.  A barbecue at a Hubert’s yard, one fella had delighted us in spinning his rap on The MackMan.  He’s the man who you can’t trust.  He’s a good talker.  He’s on your side.  He can help you get what you want, what you need.  He’s your buddy.  Oh yeah, he’s good, real good.  Then he fucks off with your money.  That’s who the mac man is.  He’s a pimp.  He’s a hustler.  The Mack Man can spot a fool from 40 paces, and wandering on Beale St, Memphis, birth of the fucking blues, he’d seen me.  Would you walk away from a Fool and His Money ?   So that was that, on the road again, Memphis had come and gone and been really great by the way, love that city, and when I’d delivered the car, the grateful owner did the decent thing and driven me to the Autodriveaway office in downtown Dallas – thence to choose a new car.  I chose the red open top 2-seater Mercedes from 1967. Can’t remember why. Where’s that car going?  I asked. It doesn’t work like that she said, where are you going?  I looked at her, short and frumpy and bad-tempered.  Not a very American attitude. They are usually so friendly and generous and willing.  She was a cow.   I’m not going anywhere I said.   No plans.  No destination.  She looked at me like I’d tricked her.  I was supposed to have a destination. I just genuinely didn’t have one.   I’d lost my UK girlfriend Rita earlier in 1988, and although I was seeing someone in England it didn’t feel official at all.   I’d had a relationship in Washington D.C., which lasted until I left town at the beginning of rehearsals and mongrel shagger Paul had stepped into my shoes and my girlfriend’s bed.  So now I was licking wounds and driving WEST WHEREVER.  I was as alone and lost as I’ll ever be in all likelihood.  I didn’t say all that.  But I wasn’t lying.  No destination, no expectations.  So she gave me the Mercedes.  It was going to Phoenix, Arizona. Another five-day ride.

I figured Texas would be boring but I was still stultified and unprepared for just how   b  o  r  i  n  g Highway 20 was. I drove into El Paso on the afternoon of Day 3, found a hotel and then drove into Juarez across the bridge over the Rio Grande.  It was Mexico.  First time I’d been there since 1980 (see My Pop Life #31).  

The bridge was the border, but not really.   I had some proper Mexican food and crossed back into the USA and slept.   The following day I drove out towards New Mexico and crossed the actual border about 5 miles outside El Paso on Highway 10.   Passport, everything. The little red Merc was driving well, guzzling gas, and I had to choose gas stations where they didn’t have the new-fangled credit card machines that were electronically connected to the bank and the rest of the world.  I sought out the ones with a piece of grey tracing paper that got rubbed over your card leaving a blackish imprint which you had to sign. Then I could fill up, and make sure I bought provisions too.  The electronic machines refused the Access Card – I was over my limit. Oh well. Made me feel more like an outlaw.

The reality was dull and lonely of course.  The lonely road.  Actually the road in New Mexico is pretty special, one of the great drives I’ve been on.  Red baked earth, blue sky, adobe dwellings and building, grey tarmac.  Country music on the radio mainly.  Washington D.C. And the theatre company who’d stabbed me in the back dwindled further and further into the distance.   Ahead of me was nothing.  It was a strange glorious empty sad feeling.  The white lines, the rolling tyres, the sun treading across the sky, the minutes ticking past, the gas tank slowly emptying, the feelings of sorrow and freedom, the man alone driving into the future, the rolling stone, all alone and lost, as night falls once more, a few more miles, a few more and there’s a cheap motel, there’s a place to crash, a parking lot, a giant empty sky. But, being a romantic, I stubbed my eyes upon the wheeling spokeshave of the stars.

Alun Lewis wrote that last line – one of my Dad’s favourites. Nicked it for the first play I ever wrote “Drive Away The Darkness” which itself is a quote from a Rolf Harris song ‘Sun Arise‘. Irony as one imagines his wandering fingers brought a fair bit of Darkness into young girl’s lives over the years.

Tombstone, Arizona

On Day 5 I rolled into Phoenix after a brief look round Tombstone and the Boothill Graveyard, resting place of the Clanton brothers, murdered by Wyatt Earp and his brothers Virgil, Warren and Morgan and Doc Holliday in the Gunfight at the OK Corral in 1881.  The so-called gunfight lasted around 20 seconds and established the Earp family as ascendant in this part of the West. They became the law, literally, which is to say that Wyatt Earp became sheriff.   Much of the history of the U.S.A. has this violent gangster-ised quality (as does the history of man in general I hasten to add) where the winners write the history and the “good guys” always win.  I had always wanted to write the true history of Tombstone, a kind of anti-history where the Clantons are the heroes who get murdered.  But that’s the kind of warped twerp I am – always running against the wind, swimming against the tide.  

Well, now the tide had dumped me in Phoenix, where the Reverend Diane had said I would have my turning point when I spoke with her in D.C.   And you know, when people predict things, sometimes they do come true.   Maybe particularly if you want them to.   I delivered the car and back at the office was told that I couldn’t take the next car to Los Angeles.  Why ?  Because it was Christmas Eve today, LA was only a one-day delivery, and the office was closed on Christmas Day. They couldn’t give me the car for an extra day !!   No no.  No. So where was I going ?   The same old question.  What you got?  I asked.  They had Portland, Oregon.  That was like driving into winter, but it was further West.  And way further North.  I wonder what would have happened if I’d taken that car.  And this Brown Oldsmobile is going to Dallas, Texas.  Where I’d been five days earlier.  Turning point ?  Rising from the ashes ?  The definition of futility ?  Time to stop all of these rolling stone fantasies and go back home ?  Not quite.

Hank Williams was a major influence on country music in America despite dying at the young age of 29. Born with spina bifida, he used pain killers and alcohol all his life especially after an accident led to further pain. From Montgomery, Alabama, Hank (christened Hiram) learned guitar chords and turnarounds from black blues singer Rufus ‘Tee Tot’ Payne, a fact he acknowledged years later. He recorded his first hit Move It On Over in 1947 after slogging around the circuit for years, spending the war shipbuilding in Mobile, Alabama and singing for the sailors in the evenings.  The spinal injury and another fall had excused him from service but he was already an alcoholic. Roy Acuff, country music pioneer told him “You have a million-dollar talent son, but a ten cent brain.”  Move It On Over was a huge hit, and Hank Williams spent the next six years playing live and recording his 31 singles before dying on a car journey between gigs in 1952. 

Lost Highway was written by Leon Payne, a blind country singer, and its combination of doomed romantic drifter schtick and self-mythologising misogyny was perfect for Williams.  It was also perfect for my self-pitying road trip, a man searching for his soul, for himself, a man who had never been single in his adult life but was trying it on for size and frankly, hating it.  Little did I know (or did I?) that the most important relationship of my entire life was literally days away.  

Hank Williams Sr sings to Hank Williams Jr

Lost Highway was a minor hit for Williams but remains a major song.   Dylan and Joan Baez sing it in Don’t Look Back the famous Pennebaker documentary from 1965.  It remains the anthem for the single man.  

Lost Highway is also a fantastic book by that greatest of music writers Peter Guralnick, author of Last Train To Memphis and Careless Love the two-part Elvis Presley biography, as well as books about soul music, blues, Sam Cooke and Sam Phillips. Lost Highway is a personal review of the history of American music, featuring Ernest Tubb, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard, and Sleepy LaBeef.   It’s absolutely brilliant.  

I started driving back to Dallas on Christmas Day 1988.