It’s Still Scamp Walker Time Part 2
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
some people might have wondered if Walker was down on his luck after he listed himself on eBay in June 2001 under the auction title: “Jerry Jeff Walker Fishing Trip & Private Concert.” The auction promised a fishing trip and private concert with Jerry Jeff in Belize. Marie Behan, of Dallas, won the auction for $12,600. She described the three-day trip as a thrill of a lifetime and said the Walkers made her feel welcome and warm, although it was obvious that Susan had organized the auction. “You could tell Jerry Jeff was not really a part in planning this trip at all. They just pointed him in a direction and said, ‘Go,’ and he said, ‘OK,’” Behan said, laughing. “They were both so nice. Susan seemed like she was really glad we had come, and that counted a lot for me. You can tell she does that part of their lives for them, the making everybody feel comfortable. I think he’s probably real shy. I got the feeling that he’d rather talk about anything but my adulation of him.”
Walker wasn’t desperate for cash; he was merely following the direction of his wife-manager, who is trying to raise money for the Walkers’ nonprofit Tried & True Foundation. Susan Walker is obsessed with starting a school unlike any other in the United States, with a curriculum designed for young musicians right out of high school who want to forge a career in popular music.
“The first semester, these kids are going to learn about self-employment, about filing estimated quarterly taxes,” she said. “I bet about 90 percent of these kids out there right now in Texas doing this music are selling crap with no sales tax number. And they don’t even know that they’re supposed to — until somebody catches them, and then they fine them. Where else are they going to learn it? They’re not going to go to college. This school is set up as a vocational school. Django wasn’t going to go take him a math or science course [in a university]. He even lied to me about taking his SAT test. What option did I have for him? He was just going to hit the street with a band. Luckily, Jerry Jeff found [Paul] McCartney’s school in Liverpool for him.”
The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts opened in 1996 with financial backing from the ex-Beatle. About 3,500 people applied this year, and 200 were accepted. Django Walker attended the school in 1999 and 2000. He wasn’t completely sold on the setup, but he learned enough to know what he would do differently.
“People over in Liverpool said, ‘Why are you here? America is the land of opportunity,’” Django Walker said. “The whole time, I was wondering why there was nothing like this back home.”
Django Walker didn’t care for his instructors, whom he described as skeptical of country music. And he thought the curriculum was often too broad, including actors and dancers in addition to musicians. While he was in Liverpool, one of his songs, “Texas on My Mind,” was recorded by Green and topped the Texas charts back home. Walker quit the school early, returned to Texas to take advantage of the song’s popularity, and started touring and recording on his own.
Susan Walker praises the Liverpool school as a model but won’t hesitate to customize the Austin version. She ended up teaching her son many of the business aspects that he had intended to learn in Liverpool. “Django got to take a lot more music classes than business classes the first two years he was there, and then the third year they were going to make him learn all this business stuff, and he said, ‘I’m out of here,’” she said. “I’m going to make students do just the opposite. They have to learn the business first.”
If his parents manage to get a school up and running, Django Walker has promised to serve as a board member and help develop the curriculum based on his Liverpool experiences. “I didn’t fit in at that school,” he said. “I can see my mom’s school is going to be about music and sound technology, and it can be more direct. And there are some things you can’t learn at school, that you have to learn playing live. That’s one thing that should be incorporated in my mom’s school — once a week or something they have to go out somewhere and play live. I heard from a bunch of kids [in Liverpool] who said they would love to go to America and do this. It’s going to be a great thing to have this school here.”
A site in downtown Austin is earmarked, but Susan Walker doesn’t anticipate opening until 2007. “The building that I’ve targeted is going to be vacant in three years, and it will take at least a year or two to get it ready,” she said. Once the school is open, the Walkers will tap into their pool of talented friends to guest-lecture. “We’ve talked to a lot of our friends, like Jimmy Buffett and Garth Brooks, and approached them with this idea, and the first thing both of them said was, `We want to come teach,’” Susan Walker said. “That would be the ideal thing, to have them come in and spend two or three days or a week. Buffett is going to be great as a business teacher. He is a moneymaking machine, and I’d love for him to come and talk to those kids about sponsorships and endorsements. Garth, I believe, was the first guy who did a joint venture with a record label, so he actually owns his music. They’ve done it because they’ve been smart. They need to teach these kids you can be creative, you can be successful, and you can still take care of business.”
Passion and a keen business sense mark Susan Walker’s personality. Those traits helped her take control of her husband’s career in the 1980s and head off a financial crash caused by Jerry Jeff’s uneven oversight and big-spending ways. Susan Walker was no saint; she partied with fervor during the 1960s and 1970s and married Walker in 1974 as his crazed behavior was becoming legendary. By 1978, though, she’d had enough of the party and focused on a stable home life and being a good mother to the couple’s newborn daughter.
Jerry Jeff remained a rounder. For a while, he was unwelcome in his own home. The partying was taking its toll on his voice, which was croaking and cracking at shows and on albums. The Lost Gonzos left Walker after MCA offered the backup band its own recording contract in 1977. “We would have stayed with Jerry Jeff if he had taken his career seriously, but he wasn’t,” Inmon said. “He was looking at it as an excuse to get high. Jerry Jeff at the time was making too much money for his habits and he was not doing good shows because he was too drunk and too stoned. A couple of times we felt we were in danger flying around in these airplanes because of his habits. It was nerve-wracking, and then you get to the show and he’s too fucked up to do it. The band left en masse.”
The ’70s ended with American Express dogging him for $90,000 in unpaid bills and the IRS auditing his previous four tax returns. Walker soon found himself hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt after a decade of unchecked spending and partying.
Walker viewed his domestic and financial problems as a wake-up call. He quit drugs, whiskey, cigarettes, and red meat and began jogging and swimming. No Betty Ford clinic, no gurus, just willpower and a determination to find the same peace and contentment he could see in his wife. He recorded a final album on MCA, which sold poorly, and then he went several years without making an album.
He fired his managers and turned his business affairs over to his wife, who became a self-taught music mogul. In 1985 she helped Walker become one of the first major artists to successfully record, market, and distribute albums on his own label, Tried & True Music, using mailing lists. She further cut overhead costs by pushing Walker to go on solo tours. He toured the country with nothing but a guitar, playing small venues that he wouldn’t have considered in his heyday. Fans were thrilled, but more than a few wondered if their musical hero was on his way to becoming a has-been on the Holiday Inn circuit.
Susan Walker’s business plan, though, was well crafted. The solo tours allowed Jerry Jeff Walker to stay in touch with his core fan base and to develop new fans, who were encouraged to sign up for the mailing list. Susan Walker sent them a monthly tour schedule and newsletter and sold them cassette tapes through the mail. Later, Jerry Jeff would become one of the first country artists to release his music in the fledgling c.d. format and to develop an internet web site. “You don’t have to go up there and beg some record company to take all your publishing and change all your music to make a living,” Jerry Jeff said. “If you think you’re making good music and people want to buy it, you can make it and press it and take it out and sell it.”
With managers and middlemen out of the way, the bulk of the money stayed in the Walker bank account, which grew. Even former guitarist Inmon, who quit Walker’s band earlier this year after clashing with Susan Walker, praises her sharp business sense. “Susan has always tried to be fair,” he said. “She is hotheaded but a good business person. Susan is not a phony.”
A strong-willed West Texan, Susan Walker says and does what she wants with the same fervor as her famous husband. “I don’t care if I’m accredited or not,” she said about her planned school. “I’ll make up my own diploma if I have to. I just want these kids to learn. I don’t want the state telling me what I have to teach. I don’t want the federal government telling me what to teach, so I’m not going for federal or state education grants. I’m just trying to raise the money privately so these kids really have an opportunity to be creative and to learn from some really great teachers.”
The effort to start a pop music school doesn’t surprise Green, who was guided early in his career by the Walkers. “That’s their family; you never walk in the Walker house when someone doesn’t have a new idea,” he said. “I’ve never been to their house when we didn’t sing songs and talk about the business. If Susan Walker opens a school, I don’t think you are going to have any shortage of teachers.” Or students.
The Gruene Hall gig is set to begin at 9 p.m., and, unlike the old days, the bar staff has no doubt Walker will arrive on time and play the two hours he promised. Walker’s days of missing gigs or showing up late and too drunk to play are distant memories. Sure enough, at 8:59, he comes walking through the front door and makes his way to the stage. People say hello and offer high-fives. He nods and smiles but keeps moving until he is “backstage,” which is actually the entrance to the men’s restroom. He straps on his guitar, tunes, and within 60 seconds of walking in the bar, he is standing on stage with his band as they begin the familiar strains of “Getting By,” the opening song on Viva Terlingua: Boomp, boomp, boomp, boomp - “Hi, buckaroos,” Walker sings. “Scamp Walker time again.”
Six hundred people crowded into a century-old dance hall erupt in a unified holler.
For the first dozen songs, the crowd is pumped. Midway through the set, however, the energy fades a bit. Walker kicks off a perennial favorite, “London Homesick Blues,” and, for the first time this evening, the crowd is distracted, with people talking among themselves instead of giving full attention to the stage. Walker has played thousands of gigs and can spot even small shifts in mood. He knows which buttons to push to get a crowd back in his camp. His voice notches up an octave, he yodels, and people begin yodeling back. Then he veers into an old ’50s rock song before returning for the final verse and chorus of “London Homesick Blues.” At song’s end, the crowd is on its feet, yelling and singing. The energy doesn’t wane again for the rest of the evening.
After the final encore, it’s 11 p.m. Walker steps offstage and heads through the crowd, past people standing on benches and chairs and waving their hats and tipping their beers, and yelling, “Jerry Jeff! Jerry Jeff!” He smiles and walks briskly to the front door and into the night. His show the following night at Gruene Hall is already sold out.
Once Walker is gone, the crowd thins until only the three band members, the bartenders, and a handful of resolute beer drinkers remain. Walker’s drummer and lead guitar player are new to the band, but the bass player, Bob Livingston, is an original member of Walker’s Lost Gonzo Band. On Viva Terlingua, Livingston is the guy who spells out the title word on “Redneck Mother” — “M is for the mudflaps you give me for my pickup truck, O is for the oil I put on my hair. ...”
At midnight, Livingston sits down at a picnic table outside the dance hall and reminisces about spending much of the past 30 years touring with Walker. He describes his own plans for 2003, when he’ll spend fewer dates with Walker and more doing his own thing, which includes playing overseas and performing in an acoustic duo with ex-Gonzo guitarist Inmon.
When asked to compare a 1970s Jerry Jeff concert with the current version, he laughs and says, “We play more in tune. We play better now.” He can recall hundreds of crazy stories about life on the road with Walker, especially during the time when the hard-drinking frontman was tearing his way across the country and leaving carnage in his wake. “I couldn’t stay up for days like he could,” Livingston says. “After a gig, I eventually had to go to bed. Jerry Jeff was meeting a new friend.”
One freezing winter night in Minneapolis during the Outlaw heyday, the band was invited to a party after a show. Livingston arrived at an upscale private residence, and everyone kept asking him, “Where’s Jerry Jeff? Where’s Jerry Jeff?” Anticipation for Walker’s arrival built to a frenzy. When Walker finally sauntered in wearing a large cowboy hat, people began crowding around him. An urgency seemed to fill the room, an expectation for Walker to do something Walker-esque. “He walked over to this big aquarium and began whooshing his hat around in the water, knocking fish out on the floor,” Livingston said. The party hosts were unimpressed and told Walker to get the hell out. Someone plucked the cowboy hat from the aquarium and threw it out the door into the snow.
“The band stayed there and kept partying,” Livingston said. “When we finally left, we walked out the door and his hat was lying there, frozen solid in a block of ice. We picked it up and took it back to the hotel and dropped it there in front of his door. The next morning, he found the hat and went, ‘What the hell is this?’”
Booze and drugs were eventually pushed to the background as times changed, bodies aged, and common sense prevailed. “Back around then (1970s), cocaine didn’t fry your brain, and sex didn’t give you HIV,” Walker said. “It was pretty innocent when it started. We came out of the psychedelic period of the ’60s, we were dropping acid and mescaline, and here comes cocaine and drinking. It did kind of tear out a path. It’s kind of like what heroin did to the jazz guys in the ’50s. From our perspective, first it was pot, and we were all protesting the war, then it was psychedelics with mind expansion, and the next thing that seemed to be on the rise was cocaine, and we slid into that. Cocaine didn’t keep you up as long as a tab of acid.”
The diminishing quality of drugs brought the trip to an inglorious end, he said. “It was getting to be pretty bad,” he said. “You’d pay a lot of money to get crap that had been stepped on about eight times and was shitty. You used to not have to spend any time thinking about it. Somebody just said, ‘Hey, I got something,’ and it was, ‘OK.’ Now you go, ‘Where has this been?’ But about that time we were getting to the point where we were cleaning up our acts — ’79, ’80. A lot of us started jogging, playing golf, and getting sunshine.”
Friends say Walker still goes on a bender once in a while, but he is more settled than he has ever been. Despite the lifestyle changes, or perhaps because of them, the ideas keep flowing. The songwriting remains vibrant, the albums strong, and the live shows captivating.
“That’s the great thing about Jerry Jeff; he’s still writing really good songs,” Hubbard said. “He does ‘Redneck Mother’ and ‘Bojangles,’ but he’s not a nostalgia act. He’s still got that creative spark. He’s contemporary and very valid.”
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