Feature: Wednesday, August 8, 2002
Maddog in Winter Part 2

By Jeff Prince

In 1972, Milner was unemployed, approaching 50, broke again, and feeling emotionally unbalanced, in large part because of the “Dexamil, Dexedrine, and dexa-anything else.” He rented an apartment in Fort Worth with his daughter, Carter, and spent a year as a public broadcasting newsman at Channel 13/KERA. He has almost no memory of that time and doubts that he displayed much tv reporting promise.

Milner quit his tv position after a year and became managing editor of Iconoclast, a Dallas underground weekly with designs on mainstream legitimacy. One day, an acquaintance called and told him he should visit a club called The Western Place and check out a performance by Willie Nelson, who had rebelled against Nashville and was forging a new style of country-and-western music in Texas. Back in the early 1960s, while Milner was in New York, he had written a weekly folk music column. When someone told him to go to Greenwich Village and listen to a young kid named Bobby Dylan, Milner procrastinated, and the New York Times wrote Dylan’s first mainstream review. The Times writer was often quoted in subsequent stories about Dylan, and Milner kicked himself for losing the scoop.

True to form, he procrastinated with Nelson as well, missing several shows over a period of weeks before finally catching Nelson’s act. Midway through the show, Nelson told the crowd he wanted to play songs from a record in progress, a conceptual story album about a failed marriage. Milner was surprised that the rowdy crowd fell silent for the next 45 minutes, and he was floored by the songs, which would be released in 1974 as Phases and Stages, one of Nelson’s most profound efforts.

Milner was hooked. He wrote favorable stories about Nelson and the new progressive country movement, and Nelson began visiting him at the newspaper and inviting him to shows. About that time, Milner began clashing with the Iconoclast’s publisher, who seemed to resent that people were referring to the tabloid as Milner’s paper. “The guy that owned it got real jealous,” Milner said. “We had a falling out, and he tried to turn it into a music newspaper but it just never worked. It was a borderline operation anyway as far as money goes. After I left I think he had one or two other editors and they didn’t last but a few months, and then the paper folded.”

Milner began freelancing for various magazines but wasn’t making much money. “I just bounced around a lot about that time,” he said. “Freelancing means you’re out of work.”

Nelson came to the rescue, offering Milner occasional jobs. Milner became the entertainer’s unofficial publicist and designed and wrote concert programs when Nelson began holding annual Fourth of July picnics. “We just got to be friends,” Milner said. “Next thing I know I was doing the programs. He would call up and say, ‘You ready for a payday?’ ”

His alliance with Nelson meant more partying and long stays in Austin. During those stays he began sharing a rented house in downtown Austin with Susan Streit, another West Texan who had moved to Austin to work for a state senator. One night, a well-oiled Jerry Jeff Walker came busting into the house, telling Milner he wanted to use their piano to work on a song. Susan was just getting out of the shower, and she had a towel wrapped around her. “He looked at her and said, ‘My God, you look like an angel,’” Milner said. Walker was an ornery, hard-drinking roustabout — wild even by Maddog standards. He would later marry Susan. Ironically, the crazed Walker eventually became the best husband and father of all the Maddogs, Milner said.

Susan Walker, who would be “best person” at Jay and Gail Milner’s wedding years later, recalled those days of rooming with Milner as heady and strenuous. “Willie slept many nights on the couch; he and Jay were good buds at that time,” she said. “Those were wonderful, wonderful days and nights. Every singer-songwriter that came to town ended up at that house on Ninth and Rio Grande (streets). Talk about some great guitar pulls.”

Ever since Milner was a boy, he had risen early in the morning. He could never break that habit, even when he was partying all night, and so he would go long periods with little sleep. “I remember him always coming back from Austin and collapsing for a week,” said Carter Milner, now 42 and living in Arlington. “He was up 24 hours a day when he was hanging out with people down there, and he was wiped out when he would come back to Fort Worth.”

Carter Milner’s popularity soared in high school when word spread that her dad was a friend of Nelson, who was becoming a folk hero to area youths. “I’d grown up with my dad, and it was normal to have famous authors around,” she said. “But when he got into the Willie stuff, it was really cool. I remember I had a lot of boyfriends all of a sudden.”

Backstage doors were open to Carter and her friends. “I’d be there with all my friends and Willie would say, ‘Hi Carter,’ and my friends would go, ‘Ahhhh,’ ” she said. Her father limited her access. “I kept her away from all those pickers,” Jay Milner said. “I didn’t want her involved.”

Milner had been approaching collapse before he met Nelson. By 1976, he was barely hanging onto his sanity when Nelson and a mutual acquaintance came up with an idea — put on a concert, raise money, and start a magazine focusing on progressive country music. They chose Milner to write and edit the magazine, and they would all be stockholders.

A depleted Milner tried to pass, but didn’t want to disappoint Nelson. The Texas Music Magazine Concert, featuring Nelson, Walker, Wier, Steve Fromholz and others, was held at SMU and raised more than $60,000. Milner stocked up on diet pills, wrote the magazine without an editorial staff, sold ads, and did most everything himself.

A crash loomed.

He was afraid to contemplate his future and the prospect of reflecting on the past was horrendous. With his yesterdays and tomorrows unthinkable, he managed to sustain himself in the Now any way he could, chemicals and sex being his best bets so far. ... He had tried, several times, to let go, to slip on down into madness, figuring he would then at least be cared for and no longer pushed. ... But he had not been able to let go. ... No, he clung to his sanity like an exhausted mountain climber clinging to a crumbling crevice in the rock, fingers bleeding but still hanging on.

— From an unpublished novel

Texas Music’s first cover featured longhaired and grizzled Willie Nelson and sold well. The stars got plenty of press, but so did more obscure artists, such as Billy Joe Shaver and Guy Clark. The monthly magazine was a hit, and artists were eager to be featured. Susan Walker recalled traveling to Los Angeles during that time and seeing the magazine “on every coffee table.” Jerry Jeff Walker was on the second cover and Fromholz on the third.

A fourth issue would never hit the streets.

Milner was on a shoestring budget and paid a small wage to a young woman to assist in the office. When Hank Williams’ widow, Audrey, submitted a story written in longhand, Milner asked his assistant to type it for him. The woman rewrote the story, adding many of her own fantasized anecdotes unbeknownst to Milner. Audrey Williams was outraged when the story appeared. “She nearly sued us,” Milner said. “It turned out the secretary was stoned. She was nice and I liked her, but I don’t know where she came up with all that stuff she put in that story.”

Fort Worth businessman and rancher Steve Murrin offered Milner free office space in the Stockyards, and Milner returned the favor by getting Nelson to hold a benefit concert to raise money for the Stockyards. Milner wrote stories under different names to obscure the fact that he was the magazine’s sole staff writer.

Milner was never a savvy businessman and could barely handle his personal finances, so the mutual friend who initially pitched the magazine idea was put in charge of accounting. Checks written on the magazine’s account soon began to mysteriously bounce. A fourth issue, featuring soulful singer Tracy Nelson on the cover, had been printed, but the printer was threatening to destroy all copies unless payment was received.

The bank confirmed the obvious — Texas Music had a zero balance. The friend and the money were gone. An embarrassed Milner called Nelson to explain, but Nelson shrugged and said they would hold another concert, raise money, pay off the magazine’s debts, and get back on track. But Milner balked. He was exhausted. He was also angered by their friend’s apparent theft of the magazine’s money and asked Nelson whether they should file criminal charges. Nelson had been robbed many times by conmen, promoters, acquaintances, and hangers-on. “They got families to feed, too,” was Nelson’s stock reply. No charges were filed.

After almost a year of intense work and after sinking his money and energy into the magazine, Milner was again unemployed, broke, and completely strung out. He headed to Lufkin in East Texas, where his mother had moved, and slept for the better part of a month.

The Maddog dropped out and kept a low profile for the next 20 years.

Talking to Maddogs is engaging but confounding. When contacted for this story, they told funny tales about Milner and the wild days. Memories, though, are foggy. Stories often contradicted each other. When anecdotes were relayed to Milner for confirmation, he would usually laugh and say, “That’s bullshit,” and tell his own version of events. The stories are colorful and contain elements of truth but are blurred by whiskey, time, and the sheer number of stories to recount.

For instance, Larry L. King’s tale about Milner avoiding the hotel desk clerk all those years ago in Washington D.C., differed from Milner’s version. “Hell, I talked to Sports Illustrated and was waiting on that check,” he said. “I asked them to Western-Union it because I needed it. They asked me if twelve-fifty would be OK. I said, ‘Well, I guess that’s all right,’ thinking they meant $12.50.” When $1,250 arrived, he felt compelled to blow it on partying — with King as a willing companion.

Shrake, an excellent storyteller (and Willie Nelson biographer), recalled how Milner snagged the 1949 Cadillac hearse that became his mobile calling card for a couple of years. A bar near downtown Fort Worth was a favorite spot for gamblers, criminals, and writers, Shrake said, and, in 1962, “Jay and I won some kind of a bet from this gambler named Circus Face, and we wound up with this Cadillac hearse.” Yet, Milner explained it like this: Milner, Shrake, and Circus Face had decided to go on a road trip to Mexico. Circus Face gave Milner money to buy a car for the trip, and Milner bought the hearse from a Dallas car dealer for $75. He later converted it to a sleeping van so he could travel the state and write freelance stories for Texas Observer.

When the stories contradict, one has a tendency to believe Milner’s version. His friends are famous arthers, playwrights, screenwriters, and novelists, with more room to fictionalize, while Milner is more apt to follow the reporter’s credo of describing events without embellishments.

Shrake, however, is adamant about one detail. Shortly after Milner got the hearse, he drove to Shrake’s house, which had no grass in the front yard and was a muddy mess from a heavy rain. “I pulled up and saw that hearse, and my wife was waiting for me and she was pissed off,” he said. “Jay had walked right through the yard, mud up to his knees — he must have gone out of his way to avoid the sidewalk — then tracked mud all over the house and was sitting on the couch waiting for me.”

The hearse, dubbed “William Randolph,” carried Milner on several long road trips, until 1964 when it caught fire during a trip to El Paso. Another Texas writer, Larry McMurtry, used Milner’s mobile hearse as inspiration for a character in his novel Moving On.

Friends recall Milner as a big bear who made people laugh but remained a bit mysterious. “Jay is slow-moving, funny, an extremely good writer, and very good company,” Shrake said. “He was always kind of hard to put your finger on. Jay is the kind of guy who you’d look around for at a party and he’d just be gone.”

Escaping to Lufkin took Milner off the party path, and friends gave him the space he seemed to desire. “You never knew when Jay was going to show up and when he was going to leave,” Shrake said. “When he dropped out, it wasn’t strange. But all of sudden you realized, he’s been gone for several years instead of a week. After that, he never really did get back into it. A scene was still going on, but Jay wasn’t there anymore.”

The search for it had worn him down. In Confessions, Milner described it as a vague calling, something inside that pushed him toward misadventure. It could be the possibility of meeting the ideal woman who would recognize his deep qualities and fall instantly in love, or the possibility of an enlightened conversation that might open a new window of perception. Shrake understands the quest for it, and, like Milner, has trouble with the definition. “For some reason we thought it was important to stay up all night,” he said. “We partied all the time. I still can’t figure out what on earth we thought we might miss.”

Whatever it was, the attraction left Milner and didn’t return. He kicked his vices and began exercising, eating and sleeping more regularly. He described his sabbatical in Lufkin as a poor-man’s version of entering the Betty Ford clinic.

He didn’t miss the vices so much, but he missed journalism — both the writing and the camaraderie among journalists. He sent word that he would like to meet Joe Murray, editor of the Lufkin Daily News. Murray was skeptical, thinking “this worn-out old fellow was going to come by and interview for a job,” he told the Weekly. Milner arrived, and they had a long and entertaining conversation, but Milner never mentioned a job. Murray finally brought up the subject, and Milner said he wasn’t looking for work, he just wanted to visit with an experienced journalist.

Murray, whose little paper had won the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1977, lacked the celebrity status of Milner’s former buddies, but he had qualities Milner admired — stability, a gift of gab, and the ability to have fun without it becoming self-destructive obsession. “We had a grand time,” Murray said. “Some people you just mesh with.”

Before long, Murray offered Milner a regular column, and he’s written about books and authors for Cox News Service ever since.

After Milner married his third wife, Gail, in 1983, he divided his time between Lufkin and their Fort Worth home. As he got older, he dreaded the commute and now spends his time in Fort Worth, enjoying his grandchildren, working on his novel, and taking it easy. Growing old has its advantages, he said. “It’s handy because I don’t have to do a lot of shit. I don’t have to work in the yard anymore — I’m physically not able to,” he said with a laugh.

During an interview for this story, Milner talked about dieting and how he no longer eats carbohydrates. Within minutes, we were on our way to a bakery on Bluebonnet Circle, where he drank a large coffee and ate three carbohydrate-filled delicacies.

Over the snack, he pondered a question about mortality and recalled a memory of Hondo Crouch, the informal mayor of Luckenbach, Texas, a tiny town made famous in the 1970s by a Jerry Jeff Walker album and a Willie Nelson-Waylon Jennings tune. Crouch and Milner had stayed up late talking one night in the mid-1970s, and Crouch was about to turn in for bed when he paused and asked Milner if he’d ever heard his theme song. Milner hadn’t, and so Crouch broke into song, complete with a dance and a big clownish smile, all while framing his face with the palms of his hands like Shirley Temple. Crouch died a couple of years later.

No, Milner said, he doesn’t worry about old age or death. Then, with pastry crumbs scattered on the table in front of him and a steaming cup of coffee in his hand, Milner smiled and recited the lyrics to the song that Crouch performed that night: “Life is just a bowl of cherries, don’t take it serious, it’s too mysterious. ...”

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