||The other two men on the clean-up crew at the mall were a squirrelly old hillbilly who was always drunk on the job and a Vietnam War vet trying to make it in the country music business. There was a center court, with a fountain in the middle that was bordered by benches and planters. In those days large ashtrays were everywhere in the mall. A little longhaired man who somehow looked like he had seen some tough timeshe had what Viet Nam war combat veterans called the thousand yard stare---would sit in the center court smoking, his sky-blue cowboy boots glowing in the artificial light.
The early seventies were the tail end of a golden era on Lower Broadway in Nashville. Song lyrics were walking the streets. This was the honky-tonk heaven order of things in this heart-broke Mecca filled with low riding singers and Telecaster-slinging twang-masters, who were still, at this point, primarily from the south. It was deep-fried nightlife with a grits and gravy heart, the last time this particular pure form of 20th century southern culture would exist in its original, unadulterated form.
This was, however, no shut-my-mouth, Beverly Hillbillies/Gomer Pyle Hollywood cornpone kitsch, doped with barbeque sauce and smoked with drawl. Lower Broadway was the dark end of the night, where platinum-wigged girls walked out of the shadows and loud guitars rattled shot glasses on the banks of the Cumberland River. It was dangerous and true.
The rhinestone-encrusted soul of the street was the Merchant’s Hotel, next to Linebaugh’s Restaurant, across the street from Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and just around the corner from the Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry. The Merchant’s was hard-core country long before punk and tattoos had given hard-core a predictable and tame rebel identity. In 2013 the multiple layers of simulacra in “Y’allternative” music have led to a kind of music and culture now called Americana, which is as much Grateful Dead as it is Carter Family, an ever-changing search for authenticity through old guitars and songs, but it has also morphed into a kind of one-size-fits-all rebellious ethos, often represented by tattoos and rockabilly fashion, but just as frequently overlaid with Steampunk Victoriana and 19th century American gothic.
The time period when I was on Lower Broadway was the end of the original era, the time that the present scene harkens back to, and is patterned after. The bar of the Merchant’s was a long, smoky room leading off Broadway. It was filled with late-night gamblers and working girls, whiskey drinkers and pig knuckle chewers. It was a hangout for fun-loving losers from all over Dixie in the hard-brawling diamond heart of Nashville.
Going to the Merchant’s Hotel became a Saturday night ritual. A small group of us, usually me and two large friends, one of them the Vietnam vet from the mall with a black belt in karate, knives hidden in his boots and a pistol in his belt, would brave the rough and tumble, otherworldly Saturday night sidewalks of Lower Broadway.
A couple of years before this, I had been a regular at a bluegrass bar around the corner from the Merchant’s, a place called The Old Time Pickin’ Parlor. The Pickin’ Parlor was frequented by Vanderbilt students and other bluegrass and newgrass cognoscenti, and while we would put away many pitchers of beer, and we were only a block off Broadway, it never seemed as though we were in any kind of danger. This was still the known world, where the counter-culture met traditional music, a place where the music might have the spirit of The Rolling Stones shaking hands with Bill Monroe. As exotic as it may have been to an eighteen-year old hippie from upstate New York just recently moved to Dixie in 1969, shortly after watching Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper getting blown off their motorcycles down south, by shotgun-toting rednecks at the end of Easy Rider, it was still reasonable, and somehow familiar, territory.
The Merchant’s Hotel was not the known world. Broadway was in its death throes, or at least it was at the lowest ebb it would reach before it started to move toward the gentrification it achieved in the ensuing years. At this point, there were massage parlors and smut shops and porno theatres everywhere. This was Pottersville, the town where the angel Clarence showed George Bailey what life would have been like if he had never lived, in Frank Capra’s classic Christmas film, It’s a Wonderful Life. It was a sinister wonderland that spun neon lights and blared loud music long into the night, nudging its honky-tonk soul up against the dawn of Sunday morning.
The Merchant’s Hotel was crucifixion born and whiskey bred in the red dirt and gasoline pumping heart of southern life, with characters so outlandish, archetypes so exaggerated, that to walk into the Merchant’s was like entering Federico Fellini’s great film of the late Roman Empire, Satyricon, only transferred to hillbilly central, with revelers wearing cowboy hats and party dresses instead of togas, drinking bourbon instead of wine, but with the same come hither, spider-to-the-fly leers. These were the same faces that had cheered as the head of Louis XIV rolled off the guillotine and bounced off of the cobblestones in the Place de la Revolution. This was proletarian peasant nightlife immemorial, the Saturday night release of pent-up chthonic forces, and it must be said that this was also my own version of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady listening to high-octane post-war jazz in Manhattan in the late 1940s. I was there at 2:00 in the morning, drinking shots of scotch and bourbon and chasing them with cold beers and unfiltered Lucky Strikes and Camels. I thought I had everything under control. I had no idea how wrong I was.
Larry, the man with the blue cowboy boots, started coming with us to the Merchant’s Hotel on Saturday nights whenever he was in town. He would periodically take mysterious road gigs with marginal country acts and be gone for a couple of weeks, and then he would reappear and hang out at the mall, smoking in the center court. Larry always had inside information about the honky-tonk country music nightlife. He knew the tawdry world of the Merchant’s Hotel in ways I could only imagine.
We would drink at the Merchant’s until closing, watching the untethered yahoos cavorting in their hard-luck dream rodeo, and then go next door to Linebaugh’s, the last of the old-time greasy spoons on Music City’s Lower Broadway.
The food was not all that great. It never was in those kinds of places, the all-night beaneries on American backstreets with Edward Hopper light shining out of their windows onto the night streets of mid-20th century downtowns, the Tom Waits-imbued, cigarette smoking, coffee-wired, 3:00 AM streetlight nocturne of the soul, but I dearly loved the place just the same, perhaps as much for the atmosphere as anything else, with the intuitive awareness that this was a place and time that should be remembered, if only so I could call on the memories many years hence, the same way that Kerouac did when he wrote about cafeterias on Times Square in the 1940s.
Somehow at one of those early- morning, open-face-sandwiched, Budweiser-lubed sit-downs, the subject of an out-of-town gig came up. A country band needed a couple of guitar players for a week in Indiana, and for who knows how much longer, once the music started to kick and thrash. This was a ticket to the open road for someone willing to throw down and take it. Who knows where it could lead.
The lights of a romantic nighthawk 3:00 AM dream were calling from the glittering distance. One place that it might lead could certainly be right back to Nashville as a session musician rather than a janitor, or so it seemed at the time, so it made some kind of crazy sense. But in some other faraway place, my fate was being sewn up like the lips of a corpse.
Larry would play bass. There was a husband and wife teamhe played drums and sang, she was just a singerand they were the rest of the band. This couple was recently separated, and this gig was going to be a kind of trial get-back-together for them. In retrospect, the fact that she had just gotten out of a mental hospital might have been a sign that there were going to be problems ahead.
This couple lived outside of Nashville. The whole thing had been arranged by a booking agent that Larry had worked with. Every booking agent that I ever met in Nashville was a walking cliché, pushy and abrasive and coarse. Larry was also a cliché, a certain kind of weirdo picker with a borderline nutcase personality, the kind of guy you could picture homeless if things did not go right, or in jail.
So the drummer and the singer were getting divorced, but they had decided to use this road gig to try one last time to see if they could make their marriage work. She had just gotten out of the laughing academy and he was fresh off of playing in some stripper dive in Palookaville. The bass player was blue boots Larry from the mall center court and Merchant’s Hotel, and my friend Carter and I would complete the band. Carter would play rhythm guitar and sing and I would play lead guitar and singvery little, but some.
We were to drive up from Nashville and meet the rest of the band in the little town of Granding, Indiana, a wholesome enough sounding farm town. What could there possibly be to worry about in a place like this? I thought that the worst that could happen there might be that one could die of boredom. I was now an experienced veteran of the honky-tonk life on Lower Broadway! This small town hick country bar in the middle of the corn stalks was not going to present any kind of problem for a night-life veteran like me. It would be a good place to build up some chops and get some road cred. I wanted to put on the hard miles that I thought, at the time, were essential for any serious working musician. Ah yes…the innocence of youth.
I can picture a stretch of the trip from Nashville to Granding, a view of green fields on either side of the road with thick woods on rolling hills, the kind of countryside one finds all over the eastern US. We were on a two-lane highway, and this road was taking us north from Dixie into Indiana, a place that I imagined was filled with midwestern farm country, rural routes, and distant train stations, smoking with steam. Lightning was coming, silently flaring up the insides of blue-black clouds in the wet slate light of a summer afternoon storm, but the rain held, and we drove silently on a two lane highway through the radiant mystic green. The pieces were now all in place. Tickets had been sold and it was almost time for the show to begin.
It’s interesting that I have no recollection of the name of the bar. I could call Carter and see if he remembers, but what would be the point? It would just be the name of a forgotten dive in a Midwestern farm town, the kind of place that a local historian might romanticize as having a kind of raffish charm that gave the town a little bit of much-needed color and at least partially rescued it from total babbitry. It was, oddly enough, actually on Main Street.
We pulled up not knowing what we were going to be meeting up with, and we walked into a bar that smelled the way that so many bars do during the day, or used to, anyway, a combination of cheap disinfectant, cigarettes, unwashed people, and draft beer. They probably still smell the same way today. I’d bet money on it. It’s the smell of life gone wrong.
The owners were husband and wife, and they had taken to Larry. They thought he was just the cutest thing, with his long hair and blue cowboy boots and his crinkly-eyed road-burned motel tan. They confided in him, and he would pass some of the stories along, but there was one story that he said we had to hear directly from the source.
The band had rooms above the bar in the back of the building, and the owner’s apartment was in the front, also above the bar. Shortly after we arrived in town, Larry got Carter and me up in the owner’s apartment to hear something that he thought was very cool. The husband was a big man, not very smart, though of course none of these people were exactly Mensa material, and the wife, equally dim, was about half his size, with an IQ somewhere between a tennis score and a houseplant.
We got up to their apartment and she started saying “Show them our lucky bullet, honey, show them our lucky bullet,” and the husband, the big lug, was acting all shy and retiring, sort of shuffling around like a bashful sheepdog, and she just kind of unbuttoned his shirt and pulled out his prize bullet, which was hanging from a silver chain around his neck.
He had shot his wife. He had, however, not killed her, and when they took the slug out in emergency surgery they both decided that this was their special bullet, which the husband would wear close to his heart to remind them both of how lucky they were, since she had not died. There it was, a little deformed silver thing on a chain. These people were straight out of some grade-B hillbilly gothic, drive-in picture show, goober town potboiler, only even the most jaded, tire-squealing, trailer trash tornado bait script would not include something like this. It simply would not be believable.
The trouble started almost as soon as we began playing our first set of the first night. We had only been able to rehearse for a couple of days. It had been ragged at best, although not all that unpleasant. The drummer and singer had not been at each others' throats and, everything considered, it looked like this might be a good run for a couple of weeks, and who knows where it could lead.
Then it was like someone waved a magic wand and everything turned to clay. It happened fast. On our first night, the singer was flirting from the stage with the single guys in the audience. At first it seemed like this was part of the act, and perhaps even to be expected from a sexy girl singer in a tough bar like this. The second night she kicked things up a notch. She was not only flirting, she was actually making out with guys at their tables while her husband sat in the corner and watched them go at it. We then would go back onstage and play a set with the two of them shooting bolts of hate at each other while we played. All night she moved around the room during the breaks.
This was not a situation of having romantically fallen for someone in spite of her husband. She was working the room to tick him off, table to table, kissing strangers in public, lighting the fuse and waiting for the bang. It was easy to see how she had just been considered fit for long-term residence at the fruitcake factory.
The next night, we were playing to a full house with a dance floor packed in front of us. The singer had been working the room again, table to table, kissing strangers, making out with all of the inbred hound dogs that were circling around, now that the word had gotten out in this backwater puke-hole that there was a loose woman down on Main Street. It was late and the room was very drunk. The music was loud, raucous and then sultry, a train-wreck followed by tears, and all of this was happening in a kind of reddish-blue smoky haze of dancers in front of the stage.
Then the gun appeared. It didn’t last long, in the air for a couple of seconds directly in front of me on the dance-floor, pointed at the singer in the middle of the stage, before it disappeared. The man with the gun was wrestled down by other men on the floor and then dragged out back to the parking lot. They took his gun away and roughed him up a little bit. The owners didn’t call the police. They didn’t want the bad publicity. The man with the gun said that he was doing it for the drummer.
He had been sitting for the last couple of nights at a table with the drummer while the singer was putting on her table act, moving around the room, and finally he decided that this was enough. He was going to put the drummer out of his misery by killing his wife onstage.
And there it was, sure enough, waving in the air on a crowded dance floor, for a long, unstable moment, a pistol pointed through the smoky haze at the stage, and shakily aimed right next to me, as the singer was only a couple of feet away from where I stood with my guitar. Yikes. Hi ho Silver, buckaroos.
It didn’t get any better after that. The next night, there was a group of old ladies sitting at a table in front of the band who, like the owners, thought Larry was cute and cuddly. They would tease him and make requests and ask him to sit with them during our breaks.
For no reason that I could ever discern that made any sense, Larry finally snapped. He stood onstage and began savagely berated these nice old women, calling them names, screaming at them, out of control, until they left. Not good. Bad for business, but then again, who cared. We were in honky-tonk hell.
“Larry come quick! He’s got a knife!” The owner/husband’s name was Larry as well. Some guy at the bar was threatening the owner/wife with a knife. The husband and a couple of other guys dragged the knife guy out the front door, where they engaged in some sustained cluster-kicking of the knife man on the sidewalk, before they came back inside. That’s just the way things were here.
A big man liked my guitar playing. He told me I should be playing with Merle Haggard. He insisted that Carter and I sit with him and his friends at his table during breaks. There was no contradicting this man. He was huge and solid. I was his new boy.
He told me that he would come by later that night, at closing time, and we would then go to an all night riverbank pig roast. They would roast a pig through the night on the banks of an Indiana river, drinking beer and whiskey, and party on through the next day. We were going. There was no debating this. He was coming for us. As he stood up to leave he pulled up his jacket to show me the pistol he was carrying, jammed into his pants. “You talk about big Klan, son, I’m it.”
So we were going to a Ku Klux Klan meeting. That is what this pig roast was. It was a Klan meeting for about five counties of Klansmen. We got this information from the owners. It turns out that this town was an epicenter for Klan activity. One of the men in the bar was talking about interracial dating, and said that he had told his daughter that he had brought her into this world and he could damn sure take her out of it. He did not give the impression that this was an empty threat.
The Klan did not come to get us that night. They just didn’t come and we never found out why. We did find out that Indiana was one of the strongest Klan areas in the country, and we were in the thick of it, drinking whiskey and playing music for these human retroviruses. In retrospect, they were calm and self-assured. The image of these people is usually one that sensationalizes them as monstrous, and while they surely were that, they were also very, very comfortable being who they were, in this place, this town. These were rock-solid racist thugs brandishing guns in bars and bragging about being big Klan. So when does it become clear that it is time to leave? How bad does it need to get?
The owners had a daughter, who must have been in her late teens or early twenties. She was hanging around with a girlfriend of hers on Sunday night, and Granding was dry on Sunday. You could not buy any alcohol, and she could not even get any from her parents’ bar downstairs. The parents were not around, but even if they were, they would not have sold it. Some people have standards, even if they do carry lucky bullets around their neck.
The daughter knew of a place where we could get some liquor. It was the mother of the daughter’s girlfriend. We followed them over to the next town, to a clapboard house with peeling paint, next to the railroad tracks on the outside of town. There was vodka, but we were now officially in exorcist territory. Somehow we knew it.
The mother was not dressed, wearing some kind of nightgown, and her teeth were out. The two young women apparently had some kind of romantic ideas about my friend Carter, and their plan, as far as we could discern, was to take him upstairs, and leave me downstairs with the toothless harridan of a mother. We just wanted alcohol. When we figured out the rest of what was going on, we left in a hurry. Nothing happened. The next day we drove back to Nashville.
And that was that. After hanging out at the Merchant’s Hotel I had thought that I was some kind of road warrior, when in fact I was nothing of the sort. In order to find out what is really happening behind some of these walls, you have to be ready to go all the way, the same way that you have to be ready to shoot if you pull a gun.
I was not ready to shoot. The people that I was drinking with, and playing for, obviously were not only ready, they lived for it. They wore bullets around their necks. They pulled up their jackets and bragged about being in the Klan. They told a bar full of people that they had threatened to kill their own daughter if she dated a black man, though of course using more colorful language. These people pulled knives and guns, and I saw it happen from a stage far away from home, still somewhat protected by my youth and inexperience from the deep and raw corruption of what was happening in front of my eyes.
But there is no doubt that I was hurt. I was branded by the fire that I had reached out to touch, in this out-of-the-way place, this drink-sodden Hee Haw night-world. Something sprang up and wrapped my hands around a wire, turned on the juice, and watched me dance across the stage with the electric jolt. The town left scars in tender places.
There were guns and knives and insanity. It was a long time ago. Nobody else on the planet will tell this tale. It all began in the center court of a mall outside of Nashville, Tennessee, with a little elfin man with his feet propped up, smoking a cigarette, surrounded by shoppers, his blue cowboy boots shining like ice in moonlight, and it ended in a railroad-hugging, crooked-floored, paint-peeling, upside-down-cake house on the outside of an Indiana town, staring at a toothless hag with a come-hither look, while two young temptresses flitted about, flanking her as they tried to ply the out-of-town men with alcohol. Maybe somebody was watching over us after all and helped us find the strength to leave.
We all know about decadence, but it usually is painted in glamorous colors, the opposite of puritanical black. This was as glamorous as looking through a pile of corpses for a ham sandwich. This was revulsion on a cellular level. We finally realized that these were alien life forms. It was time to go home.
We rode back to Nashville and have lived for another thirty-nine years. Carter married a beautiful girl from his hometown, and they raised two fine boys. I became a college professor who plays a little music at home. Neither one of us has ever had any desire to go back to Granding, Indiana. There are just some places in life that are best to avoid. Summoning up these unholy ghosts has meant that they have become more real, however, than before this writing brought them forth. Perhaps they were asleep, or wandering in limbo, but now they are back in all of their filthy technicolor.
For what it’s worth, it did not occur to me that I was also writing about the price we pay for just remembering the past. This becomes even more extreme, more dramatic, when writing about long-submerged memories that are dragged to the surface waterlogged, and which now have nowhere to go. Wonderful. As if I don’t have anything better to do than conjuring up honky-tonk ghosts from beyond the curtain of memory’s matinee and bringing them out onto the proscenium, where they can wobble around and act tough or scary or empty.
But these shades are easier dismissed as zombies than as the intractable haunting spirits that they truly are, kin to the sound of wind in the chimney, a line of vultures on a wire, or the look in the eyes of an over-the-hill musician doing the late-night heroin nod at a piano in an empty nightclub.
Long ago, there was a musician who was a hero of mine, and a junkie, though I didn’t know it at the time. He came to my hometown when I was eighteen, and I went to see him play in a bar. He died of a heroin overdose years later. He played strange that night. He was always so out there, so vulnerable, so heartbroken, on his records and in his songs, that to see him like thisobviously loaded, and not even really playing, more like noodling around as much as anythingwas hard. I went across the street during a break and got sandwiches for him and his wife, who was just as loaded as he was, and then a friend and I counted his money for him in the dressing room, after the show was over. He was too stoned, too junked out, to even count his own money. He seemed to have found his own Granding.
A callow young man was out of place. I should not have been sitting in a bar at 3:00 in the morning waiting for the Ku Klux Klan to show up, expecting truckloads of men with guns and clubs to empty out on the street and come walking in the front door. And now here they are again, ghosts milling around in my recovered memory, but with nowhere to go, as a 61-year-old man sits staring at a computer screen, still trying to come to terms with his past.
This all happened long ago, after leaving the shire and traveling to a faraway place.
And then finally there is this. It was through all of these experiences that I came to know some things I could not have known through reading or television or movies. The honky-tonk threat when a gun is pulled, the gasp when a knife is drawn, the sound of a fist meeting a facebut this only tells part of the story.
We are all only aware of the smallest, infinitesimally tiny percentage of the cosmos, or even of the strange wonders of the small blue planet on which we live.
Giant squid, for example, wash ashore every now and then, but until very recently, one was never seen alive in its natural habitat, three miles down in the dark, as alien as anything imaginable in a distant galaxy. They wash ashore only rarely, and, when they do, they cannot be kept alive.
Scientists and a very small percentage of the public know how valuable these rare sightings are, these appearances of a being that has emerged from a pressurized place of complete darkness and cold, where the tentacles of the squid grow to fifty feet long. Once out of the water, the squid are in another world entirely, as remote, to them, as the far side of Jupiter is to us. They stretch out pink on the beach, tentacles streaming in the sand, or dangle from a net hung from the side of a boat.
In their home environment, in the pitch-dark reaches, they lash out with power and control and battle the sperm whales that come to eat them, wrapping their long tentacles around the whale’s head and leaving long scars even as they are bitten in two. Scientists have spent decades hoping to see giant squid in their home. They actually have mounted cameras on the heads of whales, hoping that this will lead them to the squid.
Sometimes the only thing to do is to go into the dark places yourself, the way that I did in Granding, Indiana, taking notes and paying attention. Perhaps one of the tentacled giants will appear, looming up close, passing spectrally through the highly-pressurized black depths, moving slowly in the cold, in the deep dark, tentacles stretching out, parrot beak opening wide, while the band plays the “San Antonio Rose” or “Waltz Across Texas” and smoke drifts out the door into the Indiana night, over the lights of Main Street and out into the fields, where the corn is covered with mist and tassels hang from the tops of stalks in a patient line, waiting for the earth to turn, and the sun to come again.
Steve Newton spent part of his youth in Tennessee and is currently Associate Professor of English and Director of the Writing Center at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey.