Stewart Voegtlin on Waylon Jennings’ exquisite replica of eternity (Arthur, 2013)

Originally published in Arthur No. 33 (Jan. 2013)


Waking Waylon Jennings’ Dreaming My Dreams

By Stewart Voegtlin

Illustration by Beaver

“The Day the Music Died”—not just the name of Don McLean’s too long song that refused to climax. It’s also a co-descriptive term referring to the aviation accident that took three of rock ‘n’ roll’s biggest names—Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson—and magnified them until they became analogous with—and even eclipsed—the music they made. Littlefield, Texas’ Waylon Arnold Jennings, then playing bass in Holly’s band, was supposed to have been on that flight. He gave up his seat to the Big Bopper, and settled for second-rate travel in a makeshift tourbus with Holly’s guitarist, Tommy Allsup, who’d lost his seat on the doomed plane to Ritchie Valens in a coin toss.

In its most savage—and strangely sacred—way, the accident mimes an offering to some cosmic god who rejected it, and sent it careening back to earth engulfed in flame. Take a look at the Civil Aeronautics Board’s crash site photo. Wreckage resembles one of Robert Rauschenberg’s early combines: an abracadabra of Americana—ambiguous machinery compacted and deconstructed into a monolith of hyper-meaning, conveying less and more than the sum of its parts, even with nary a corpse in the frame. A wheel. A wing. A barely identifiable frame of fuselage. All there amongst Iowan Albert Juhl’s snow-covered cornfield, a barbed-wire fence keeping it clear of the plain—separate, contained: an art installation to the everlasting gone awry.

Incapable of being quarantined, however, was the guilt Jennings walled himself up in the tragedy’s aftermath. Before the plane left the ground, Holly reportedly told Jennings he hoped his “ol’ bus would freeze up.” “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes,” Jennings responded. Illogically, but understandably, Jennings took sole responsibility for the crash. It’s so much salt thrown over the shoulder, but it makes great superstitious sense, especially since, in Jennings’ mind, those seven words worked up a hex heavy enough to take the lives of four men and Holly’s unborn child, as the tragic news caused his wife to miscarry. But the music, it never died. Jennings and Allsup even completed the midwestern tour, two men spreading song amongst a bottomlessly black sky bereft of its three stars.

And still the music kept on. Throughout the amphetamines and the cocaine and the drinking. Throughout the invention and reinvention. From rockabilly to “Outlaw Country” and all its trappings: big black hat and somber clothes, beard long as days spent in saddle, a voice drink and smoke ravaged carrying on about campfire yarns concerning women loved, men reckoned with, and the Almighty above watching it all transpire from eternal dusk to dawn. Sixteen years after Holly’s charter crashed, Jennings made what was arguably his finest record—and perhaps the finest of the “Outlaw Country” subgenre—Dreaming My Dreams. This compendium of the conscious unconscious harkened back to country music’s so-called “Big Bang,” the Bristol Sessions in 1927, and roared on far ahead to a future that saw this generation’s Sam Phillips—Rick Rubin—-coax Johnny Cash into songs sparer than those that tossed and turned throughout Dreaming My Dreams, and woke as grizzled fable, larger than the legends that wrote, played, and recorded them.

The fables sure had done their part: Jennings, unwittingly, had long ago assembled persona. He was now wrapping up everything else. Hammering home together from this setting, that scene. A whole world and everything in it from and because of song. As he dismantled Nashville’s prefab Gomorrah and its empty promises, he built a new system, same as the old ones shocked back to breath by archivist Harry Smith. Like Smith’s collection of 78s, Dreaming My Dreams wasn’t ever just a record. It was American holistic reborn as newfangled hillbilly monism. Here the country and its music were indistinguishable. Here all was reducible to the substanceless substance of eternity, where, as Augustine wrote, “today” does not yield to tomorrow, and does not follow yesterday: “today” is the everlasting.

While Jennings brought his Babel tower up from the muck, he turned up every ghost in the boneyard. Buddy Holly’s Geist always already there, a sort of pneumatic shadow falling across Jennings’ fretboard; rising in echoes lonesome, on’ry, mean. Bringing in “Cowboy” Jack Clement, who served as Sam Phillips’ engineer/producer at Sun Records, to record Dreaming My Dreams was like holding a seance on Gettysburg’s battlefield. Spirits stood therein thick as swamp fog, and Jennings had little trouble connecting himself momentarily to a world—or worlds—other than his own, even while spiking the whiteline fever. With Clement, Jennings had the consummate ghost chaser. The unlikely, staggering sage operated thinly, spread about place and epoch that spanned the dragon’s wings.

Clement was a heavy-drinking ex-Marine—essentially the Harry Crews of country music. And like Crews, he knew the power of fable. He knew the past was stubbornly often the present, the now a stilted kind of then where songs sounded sometimes far less than six degrees of separation. Instead of brandishing talismans and calling up a cleansing sort of voodoo in hopes of a unique and wholly personal recording, Clement—and Jennings—welcomed unintentional collaboration. Somewhere between queueing tape and fiddling with levels, Clement tripped the earthen hatch to Harry Smith’s monadic pandemonium. There, miners and farmers, drifters and loiterers, demons and angels blowing jugs, scratching washboards, pawing banjos, guitars, hollerin’ heavy at the moon. Thereafter—and surely because of them—were traces of Sun Records’ Jerry Lee Lewis (whom Clement discovered), Johnny Cash (whom Clement produced) and Elvis “The Pelvis” Presley (whose music Clement likened to an aroma-less fart).

After all the studio parties and late night sessions, the heated exchanges and awkward apologies, what Clement and Jennings had, of course, was a unique and wholly personal recording. Meddling spirits stood in repose, waking in Jennings’ delivery of words cruelly honest and understatedly beautiful, a concatenation of Bob Wills, Jimmie Rodgers, and chiliastic Kentuckian, Alfred G. Karnes. When Jennings asks “It’s the same old tune / fiddle and guitar / where do we take it from there?” in opener, “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” he’s not only excavating a mass grave, he’s grading for the build. “Rhinestone suits” and “new shiny cars,” Nashville’s contemporary ephemera, collide with Jennings’ sound as new as it is old. Their instrumentation? Minimal. Studio effects? Limited to a good room and better musicians. All that was left to do was to mark up a notepad with some words that worked, and grab the guitar. Make up a melody. Doesn’t sound like a novel way to write a song, much less pick a fight, but to ears wrongly attuned it must’ve gone over like a wet fart in church. And just to gild the lilly, Clement talked Jennings into setting strings down on the record’s title track.

Consider the pissin’ match begun. How many times had country music been “taken back” already? The folks Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Jerry Jeff Walker, and many others wrested it from had long ago caved to popular arrangement, fashion, other meaningless bullshit. While omnipresent string arrangements kept tearjerker ballads in bondage, and overbearing lap steel turned perfectly good tunes into near hideous smears of sound, Glen Campbell saddled up his stick pony for “Rhinestone Cowboy,” and (in horrific harbinger of things to come) Tom T. Hall gave an unintentionally Aristotelian take on what country music “is.”

Both Campbell and Hall netted number one on the charts (“Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Country Is” respectively) in 1974, just as Jennings and Clement wrapped up production on Dreaming My Dreams. Both of their tunes passively laid claim to country music’s identity, serving strange commentary on its contemporary scene while it reordered the very aesthetic criteria that allegedly kept it the same, even as it transformed over time. The question begged, in roundabout way by Campbell and Hall, is what exactly does it mean for country music to be the same as itself? Could it be the same if it was altered so much and maintained so little of its original integrity?

Hall’s country was predictably overused, tapped of meaning. Back porches, moonlight walks, listenin’ to the music, and singin’ your part. Campbell’s country was “singin’ the same old song.” Not so much a “thing,” or “feeling,” but a business, where “hustle’s the name of the game” and “nice guys get washed away like snow and the rain.” Hall, conversely, sticks to greeting card koans, offering “Country is what you make it,” then qualifying the ordinarily ambiguous with extraordinary ambiguity: “country is all in your mind.” Hall, in self-serving chess move, invests faith in something only he could know, even if “Country Is’” cliched laundry-list was something all could know. His solipsistic idea of country music should’ve damned him. Campbell’s idea of country music was damned, and for the damned—those relegated to “Broadway’s dirty sidewalks.” Jennings’ idea was to change the idea altogether. The “same old tune,” that had been the “same way for years,” needed alteration, upgrade, new life to keep it forever that same, old tune. No metaphysical quandary here.

What Jennings did was practical, and cunning. He actually combined Hall and Campbell’s take. He remade country music the old, new way. The same old tune became the other new one. There was no place to take it. There was no future bound; only the present configured into Jennings’ idea. His country wasn’t internal. It wasn’t in minds. It was on the street, wandering, staggered, stoned. It was in every honky tonk, lit by a single yellowed bulb, where homemade liquor’s served in fruit jars. It was on every riverbank littered with screwcap wine bottles; snapped line from cane fishing poles. It was within every fossilized pickup cab smelling still of smoke, cheap beer, cheaper sex.

Jennings grew the life of his songs out of these conceptual petri dishes. Their cellular map spread from West Texas to Tennessee, and shared likenesses with music at times diametrically opposed to country’s urtext of self-imposed rambling, drinking, womanizing. Jennings’ “I’ve Been a Long Time Leaving (But I’ll Be a Long Time Gone)” serves able example, glancing over its shoulder at Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” (a tune Jennings himself recorded on 1973’s Lonesome, On’ry, and Mean), farther back to Hank Williams Sr.’s version of Leon Payne’s “Lost Highway” (1949), and then left squinting into the beyond at Alfred E. Brumley’s spiritual hymn, “I’ll Fly Away” (1929).

Never one given to great contrast, Clement pairs threadbare guitar and fiddle with Jennings’ lyrics running wide open on the verge of empty. Like all but “Let’s Help the Cowboys (Sing the Blues),” it’s a song under three minutes running time. Here and gone. A goodbye note waved to the wind and flown carelessly to its breeze. Spend more than the song’s duration trying to determine if Jennings is happy, sad, mad. Like Hank Sr. in “Lost Highway,” Jennings melds all three emotions, his voice going from murmur to controlled wail, and culminating in whiteknuckled growl.

“I loved you so much I stayed around when I should’ve moved along / I’ve been a long time leaving / But I’ll be a long time gone,” Jennings sings—a scorned lover’s embellishment of Hank Sr.’s: “Oh, the day we met / I went astray / I started rollin’ down that lost highway.” The unintended echo of Brumley’s “I’ll Fly Away” rightly casts the tune as redemption song, where Jennings, like a “bird from prison bars has flown,” far beyond his life once lived and out onto the lost highway, his thumb extended, a “big old semi” coming his way.

Neil Diamond, in his liner notes to Dreaming My Dreams, says he “hears the soul of Waylon Jennings” in the record. “It’s a beautiful soul,” Diamond writes, “one that reflects the joy and pain of a man who has seen lots of both.” That joy and pain permeates each song, from moment to moment, there even present in passages raucous and meditative. “I Recall a Gypsy Woman,” and the record’s title-track remarkably bind the two. Jennings’ vocal delivery rides a perforated line demarcating terror and beauty, his words whispered, cried, forever on the verge of falling to pieces.

In “I Recall a Gypsy Woman,” Jennings sings about a past long since gone, the memory of a woman he’ll never love again. But the song’s bigger than the girl. She’s just another sip of “life’s sweet wine.” The real recollection is his very mortality, where the “boy of seventeen” is now an unstable memory, a photo faded—if not altogether lost. Tormented by a past that both “haunts” and “stir(s) the darkness of [his] mind” Jennings struggles with the threat of decay, of death, a much darker counterpart to Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day” (1957)—essentially a crayon happy face scrawled over his tombstone, free of pain and suffering, where death is de facto, unavoidable, a time of “unplugging” where “you say goodbye,” ‘cause “that’ll be the day when [you] die.” Holly’s vocal is smacked bubblegum, sly smiles. Jennings, conversely, sounds sweat-soaked, a pistol barrel pressed to temple, choking through words in abrupt croaks and slurs, much like Dock Boggs’ delivery of the “False Hearted Lover’s Blues” (1929), a Jonah & The Whale parable mountain-grown and drowned in corn whiskey. Boggs’ vowels crawl forward, brokenlegged and crooked armed, just as Jennings top spins his o’s and a’s ‘til they trill like dying words, or worse, transmissions from the undead.

The prophet Jonah denied his destiny, disregarding God’s command to travel to the wicked city of Ninevah and preach against its depravity. Jonah, for his disobedience, is thrown from his ship into the fish’s stomach, and taken to the ocean floor. Bullied by God, Jonah becomes incensed and begs for death. Boggs, no stranger to transgression in life or song, happily wears Jonah’s deathmask, turning the blame for his carnal worship back on the sacred object itself—a once drooling cavern of now unwhettted desire driving Boggs “to [his] lonesome grave.” Greatly angry, even unto death is he, his “earthly stay over,” body sunk in the sea, where the “whales will watch over me.” Flesh rots, but the mind perseveres, an eternal well put into motion by recollection, memory and desire stirred perpetually, left lonesome without a body to haunt.

It wasn’t a fish, but a tragedy that swallowed Jennings up. Down there, way back when amongst Iowan Albert Juhl’s snow-covered cornfield, a barbed-wire fence keeping it clear of the plain—separate, contained—the bodies of Holly, Valens, the “Big Bopper,” left out in the night, covered slowly with snow. It’s easy to hear Jennings wondering incessantly why he was left to live on. It’s easy to hear in “I Recall a Gypsy Woman.” It’s easy to hear in “Dreaming My Dreams.” It’s easy to hear in nearly every song on the record, and before and after it was cut and sold and supported by tour. Bullied by God, Jennings could’ve copped to Jonah’s anger, “even unto death.” He could’ve couched the rest of his days in unworthiness and given his sacramental life to the mouth of decadence. Jennings certainly tried to swallow himself with pills and booze and the nagging why bereft of beginning nor end.

“I hope that I find what I’m reaching for / the way that it is in my mind / Someday I’ll get over you / I’ll live to see it all through / But I’ll always miss / Dreaming my dreams with you,” Jennings sings in the title track, his object a concatenation of implication, the “Gypsy Woman,” or Holly, or Jennings’ younger self—the “boy of seventeen.” The joy and pain rattled soul Neil Diamond wrote about in the liners is here at full strength, recalling Pythagorean notions of soul as harmony of the body, even as Jennings’ eternal immateriality is palpably disharmonious, as ravaged as an ancient upright piano pawed by a millennia of Sunday school classes.

Can’t shake the feeling that this tune’s an empty eulogy. Nothing’s going to be OK. “Dreaming My Dreams” is delivered like a lullabye. It’s given carefully, slowly. It’s whispered—said more than sung. Clement keeps it quiet, leaving Jennings’ ‘53 Tele to the hills, setting its strum into steady rhythmic pulse like a zither, not surprisingly like the work of “intonation only” composer Arnold Dreyblatt. And there’s the string arrangement that overly sweetened so many Nashville one-hit-wonders. Clement brings them up like the sun. They merge with Jennings’ steady strum. Pythagoras’ celestial monochord, a diddley bow plucked eternally, never serving to calm a man torn in two by longing, overcome with guilt and left to dream of simply “getting over” it, instead of ever hoping to reconcile the mess. In accord with the tune’s lack of denouement, Clement fades it out, sending the song down a wormhole that defies time or space so it can effectively never end, just carry on in cycle that challenges the persistence of the seasons themselves. The music, it never, ever dies…

The record’s coda, “Ride Me Down Easy,” shows Tom T. Hall and Glen Campbell how to let country music be the same as itself, cunningly maintained and little altered, to “put snow on the mountain / raise hell on the hill / Lock horns with the devil himself.” Again, here’s a song under three minutes running time. Here and gone. A goodbye note waved to the wind and flown carelessly to its breeze: “Some glad morning when this life is o’er / I’ll fly away.” But Jennings isn’t sent off. He’s ridden down. Bullied by God. Asking only to have Him “leave word in the dust where I lay.” It’s macrocosmic commentary, at turns self-reflexive and eerily holistic from the Homeric voice of Hazzard County’s “balladeer,” the unfortunate American archetype of archetypal americana.

There’s a scene in Terry Zwigoff’s 1995 film, Crumb, where its subject, R. Crumb, sits in his studio, rocking back and forth while Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Word Blues” (1930) plays. “When I listen to old music,” Crumb says, “it’s one of the few times I actually have a kind of love for humanity. You hear the best part of a soul of a common people, their—you know—their way of expressing their connection to eternity, or whatever you want to call it.” In a strangely selfless manner, Jennings fashioned not only a connection to eternity with Dreaming My Dreams, but an impossible replica. While definitely not unsung, it was at odds with the excesses of everything else set in 1975’s record store bins. In the same year, the marquee players took to Babel’s roof and aimed skyward: Elvis promised the Promised Land. Dylan sought to fuse folkie roots with overstated country rock in Blood on the Tracks. And singer/songwriter Lou Reed made a songless record without any singing, Metal Machine Music.

Reed’s MMM miraculously maintains its status as the most nihilistic statement ever made by a musician. If anything, the day it was conceived and put to tape, was the day the music died. Its provocation, its boundless nihilism goes unmatched, even today. The Sex Pistols, who had just banded together over a causeless front, would never cut a turd as aroma-less as Reed’s MMM, a record built on nothing, conveying nothing, and designed to render as much. Jennings couldn’t have fashioned a broader contrast: cutting a record ostensibly about everything. Amongst debris of scratched up coke mirrors, amphetamines, and faded black hats, Jennings presented an enigma of eternal progressions and digressions: luck/misfortune, identification/alienation, addiction/sobriety, with anchoring guilt controlling a character arc Herman Melville himself couldn’t have designed. It’s Tender Mercies forever at odds with Altman’s Nashville. It’s the “same old tune,” that had been the “same way for years,” only needing alteration, upgrade, new life to keep it forever that same, old tune, the same as itself.

If the accident that claimed the lives of Holly, Valens, and the “Big Bopper” was indeed an offering to some cosmic god who rejected it, and sent it careening back to earth engulfed in flame, then Dreaming My Dreams was an accepted sacrament, an exquisite replica of eternity too commanding and entrancing to turn down. And it was here, justly, that Jennings’ life-altering penance was finally put to rest. All that was left to do, was to move past guilt’s prison bars, and fly away.

Stewart Voegtlin is the editor of Chips & Beer—the only real Heavy Metal magazine created today. He lives, hunts, angles, and drinks brown liquor in the state of Georgia.

Beaver currently chews pencils for the magazine Chips & Beer. The dam is located just outside Washington, DC, where Mrs. Beaver bakes her pies.

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About Jay Babcock

I am an independent writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona. In 2023: I publish an email newsletter called LANDLINE = Previously: I co-founded and edited Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curated the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was somehow listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. From 2010 to 2021, I lived in rural wilderness in Joshua Tree, Ca.

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