belushi

I was not a rebellious child. I minded my parents and my teachers, and if they told me to do something—or not to do something—I would typically obey. This was reinforced by my favorite pre-elementary, black-and-white, mid-‘50s Nashville TV show, “Romper Room,” when Miss Norma would encourage us to “do be a Do-Bee, and don’t be a Don’t-Bee.” None of us wanted to be a disgusting and despicable don’t-bee.

My parents were both hard-scrabble representatives of the “Greatest Generation”—my mother was a “Rosie the Riveter” during WWII, and my father was a tail gunner on a B24 in the South Pacific—and neither had a high tolerance for unruly children. My father had fought off incoming fighter planes over the Pacific; by comparison, a smart-mouthed nine- or ten-year-old really wasn’t too hard to handle. Also, my school teachers—as well as my Sunday School teachers—would not have hesitated to provide my parents with an incriminating report had I “acted out” in those respective institutions (please refer to the parental-lack-of-tolerance-for-unruly-children reference above for a clue as to the consequences for my bad behavior).

Notice, I was careful to say that I was not a rebellious child; I didn’t say that I was not a rebellious kid. Or youth. Or even thirty-something. That’s because something snapped in my head when I was at my Southern Baptist college. Maybe it was because they told me I couldn’t dance. The crazy thing is I didn’t even like to dance—I just hated being told that I couldn’t. Or, maybe it was because I had spent my entire life trying to please the status quo. At any rate, I was to become the lead singer for the band (“Uncle Duck”) that played at the “Street Dance in the Middle of the No-Dancing-Allowed Campus,” but that’s another story for another blog.

When I was first offered a job in far-away New York City, I was told that I was out of my ever-lovin’ mind for packing up my old Volkswagen bus (“Van Go”) and heading north. My then-boss told me that in six months I’d be back in Nashville—or dead. There were times in those first few months that I was afraid he was going to be right. However, with the help of my old and new New York friends, I managed to tough it out and stay put (and alive!) in the city. That particular position was working in the art department of Record World magazine, and I came to love the job, the people and the city.

After three or four years at the magazine, I had an office on the 41st floor of the 1700 Broadway Building, overlooking the “Ed Sullivan Theater,” but this was in the years between “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “Late Night With David Letterman,” both of which were broadcast from the venue. It was a free-wheeling time, and the dress code was blue jeans, sneakers (or sandals) and rock t-shirts. I even created some of the t-shirts (for Stiff Records and later, for MCA and Elton John). But, then it all came to a screeching halt when Record World went belly-up in early 1982.

After looking for another art director job throughout that summer, I finally found a head hunter who promised me she could help. And, true to her word, before I knew it, I was sitting in a coat-and-tie cubicle at Doubleday’s Garden City headquarters as Art Director of their Literary Guild magazine. My job was to take the summaries of books being offered by the Guild and create marketing concepts for them. However, here is where the “don’ts” started…don’t do your own illustrations; don’t wear your sneakers; don’t skip the “Importance of Making Your Deadlines” Seminar…even if it means missing a deadline to attend.

The “Don’t Do Your Own Illustrations” rule was a little perplexing to me. The word on the Doubleday street was that some past art director had paid himself a tidy sum to create the illustrations for his publication. I was willing to do mine for free, but I was still told “no.” The up-side to all of this was that I had the budget and opportunity to work with the very best illustrators in the country. My favorite was air brush artist extraordinaire Mick McGinty; Mick had worked with Willardson and White in L.A. before becoming the original “Joe Camel” artist and creating numerous album covers, movie and Super Bowl posters and billboard campaigns. Mick was always the one I went to first when I had a crazy concept that only an airbrush illustration could capture.

And that was the case when we were asked to create the marketing look and feel for Bob Woodward’s soon-to-released bio, “Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi.” This was in early 1984, and the loss of the comic genius just two years earlier was still a lingering hurt. Like the promising stars before him that had died the same way and much too young—Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison—Belushi had been so much larger than life. He was our generation’s Abbott and Costello, Jackie Gleason, and Jerry Lewis all rolled up in one big package.  I had been a fan of his since we sat around our off-campus apartment back in 1974, listening to his work on National Lampoon’s “Lemmings” album, which parodied (okay…lampooned) Woodstock. After “Saturday Night Live” and then, “Animal House,” we thought Belushi was destined to become one of the all-time comic greats. After reading the synopsis of the Woodward book, however, it appeared as if the Hollywood lifestyle had been as much to blame as the actual drug overdose.

The “don’ts” regarding the marketing direction of Woodward’s book started at the preliminary editorial meeting.

“We’re walking a fine line here,” the editor said.

“A ‘Wire’,” I said. She didn’t laugh.

“Don’t even think about any sort of drug reference in the marketing,” she said.

“But that’s what the whole book is about, according to the summary,” was my puzzled response.

“Again, don’t even think about any sort of drug reference in the marketing,” she repeated, this time a little more loudly.

“What about a Hollywood reference?” I asked. As I mentioned, it seemed like Belushi’s Hollywood life-in-the-fast-lane had been as big of a factor in his death as the drugs that actually ended his life.

“The Hollywood reference is fine,” she said, rolling her eyes, “but again, don’t even think about any sort of drug reference.” (“If you want to keep your job,” was the innuendo).

And so, I arrived at the concept of Belushi standing in front of a “Hollywood Sign” movie poster on his wall, but with a sunrise over the hill, illuminating him from behind. As before, Mick McGinty hit it out of the park. However, by the time it printed, I had moved back South, this time to Atlanta to help create a print-and-design company with two partners called Indelible Inc.

That was thirty years ago, and looking back, I realized how frustrating it was to always have to hand off my ideas and concepts to other (albeit, very, very talented) illustrators. Especially, after being constantly told that I couldn’t do it myself.

Over the past year or so, I’ve gone back and resurrected projects from my past that I wanted to digitally illustrate (or re-illustrate) using Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop; the “Hollywood Belushi” picture was the most recent one to fall into this category. So, with one fell swoop, I’ve gotten to “do” what I was told “don’t do”—I’ve done my own illustration and I’ve included a drug reference in the same illustration. Actually, the original “Hollywood Belushi” art that Mick did all those years ago included the same subtle drug reference—right over Belushi’s left shoulder and right under the editor’s nose. Even back then, I felt like it was only right to spell out the two things that helped end the life of one of our generation’s most brilliant comics. All it took was to use the deceptively-welcoming iconic sign in the background. And, besides, “OD” spelled backwards is, of course, DO.

LastSecond

When the guidance counselor met with me my senior year in high school to discuss my college plans, I told her that I like to draw pictures and that I wanted to attend Carson-Newman, a little Baptist college.

She was apparently underwhelmed, because she immediately began trying to talk me into finding an appropriate “commercial art” school. Call it a gut reaction or Divine Providence, but the word “commercial” set off all kinds of bells and whistles in my teenage brain, because I was fit and determined to attend Carson-Newman for two main reasons—it was a Baptist college (and I was a Baptist boy) and it had a football team (why should I give up the excitement of college football on Saturday afternoons?).

In retrospect, I now realize that my reaction to my guidance counselor’s suggestion was pretty ironic, because the graphic design that I do these days really does coincide with the “commercial art” that she was pushing way back then. She wasn’t wrong in trying to direct me to a commercial art school—it’s just that she wasn’t totally right, either. That’s because what we learned at Carson-Newman was more than what could have been taught at a conventional school of design.

Whether it was the school’s theology courses and required chapel services, the extracurricular activities or even the lengths that we took to get around the college’s ban on dancing, somehow we learned more about life than how to paint landscapes and specify fonts and Pantone colors. In fact, I really credit my art professor, Dr. Earl Cleveland, with teaching me how to think creatively with nary a mention of a single Pantone color. Throughout my career, I have used the same the same thought process that Dr. Cleveland taught us on my design, advertising and marketing projects, whether it was creating Glock’s first four-color ads (http://www.bridgital.com/NewBridgitalWebsite/ads), or designing and illustrating the 20-foot bas relief sculpture for the University of West Georgia’s football stadium (https://davidrayskinner.wordpress.com/2014/09/10/big-chief-2).

The illustration of the gunfighter (shown above) ties together the old and the new, and the conventional with the digital. It’s called “Last Second,” and I just recently finished putting the final touches on it—using my Mac. My intent (other than to use it with this blog) was to properly update a piece that I initially submitted to Dr. Cleveland back in the spring of 1973. It was the second semester of my junior year and the project was done for a mixed-media course.

Dr. Cleveland had given us a specific (and reasonable) number of completed projects as the requirement needed to pass the course, but at that point in my college career, I was juggling a number of projects and circumstances, and I found myself going down to the wire to complete them. Realizing that I would have to pull an all-nighter to finish them all, I laid out all my paints and brushes and cranked up the stereo. Somewhere in the middle of the Eagles’ “Desperado” album (which had just been released), I put my head down, and a strange concept crawled into my brain. Would it work? It needed to be an airbrush rendition, but I had never attempted any airbrush illustrations.

To my amazement, it all fell into place. Not only was the concept innovative and off-the-beaten path (if not strange and unusual), the colors were bright and inviting. It took me all night to complete the illustration, but I was truly amazed at my ability at handling the airbrush…I had never even seen an airbrush before, much less utilized one! I stood back to admire the finished piece, but something was wrong…it smelled like spit. Was that the way airbrush paints were supposed to smell? What’s more, it was all over my mouth.

I woke up in a pool of drool to the thump-thump-thump of my turntable’s needle bumping over the endgrooves of the Eagles album. There was no painting, there was no airbrush (it would be years before I would actually use one), and there weren’t even any rough sketches. It had only been a dream! However, there was a concept—after all, I had worked on it all night in my sleep.

The idea was one of a gunfighter who was about to die. The look on his face was to be one of puzzled surprise and fear. The reason the viewer would realize that the gunfighter was about to die is that the vantage point of the picture was from the barrel of the gun that belonged to the cowboy who was about to kill him. It was a “you are the bullet” concept, and it was to be a picture created as if there was a tiny little camera in the nose of the .45 bullet that was about to exit the victor’s six-gun and drill its way into the bosom of the surprised gunslinger whose gun had yet to be elevated into position. Oh, those crazy dreams…too much pizza, milkshakes, and Eagles.

Obviously, using an airbrush was totally out of the question. So, I created the piece as a pen, pencil and watercolor black-and-white painting. So much for the vibrant colors. Through the years, I have always felt like it was an execution (so to speak) that didn’t live up to the concept.

But now, here we are, living and working in the digital age. This time around (43 years later), I used a mouse and Adobe Illustrator and then dropped the layers into Adobe Photoshop to refine and “airbrush” all the details. Plus, once again I listened to the Eagles’ “Desperado,” only now, I have it stored in Mac’s iTunes, along with the rest of their albums.

Sadly, and coincidentally, it was while putting the final touches on the illustration that I heard about the death of Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey. That only underscored the poignancy (and my perceived importance) of reproducing the artwork. I have to say that I find it interesting and ironic of how fast technology is advancing; it seems to be moving at the same rate of speed at which some of us are winding down.

 

CSA-UFOArt

A few years after I moved to Atlanta (from New York), I stopped off at a Buckhead grocery after work to pick up a few things. While I was standing in line at the check-out, I scanned the tabloids in the rack beside the cash register.  One of the papers, The Weekly World News, had a couple of headlines that caught my eye. The main one, “2-Headed Woman is Pregnant (One Head Wants the Child—The Other Says ‘Absolutely Not’),” looked pretty interesting, but the one that really intrigued me was the smaller one at the top with a picture of a rebel flag. It quietly announced: “Confederate Flag Spotted on Belly of UFO.”

That would make an interesting song, I thought, so I jotted down, “Belly of a UFO” in my “song ideas” notebook, and in the margin I wrote, “Rebels, Aliens, Gettysburg.”

It took over 20 years for me to put it all together, but I finally got the song written. It evolved into the story of a hapless alien, who, incidentally, looks like an average Southerner and is still alive in present-day suburbia (I love tweaking the space-time continuum in my songs). Anyway, this poor clod (red-neck? green-neck?) is still bemoaning the fact that he totally botched the arms deal between his planet and the Confederate States of America, and both his emperor and Gen. Lee were extremely disappointed. What’s worse, it wasn’t just some ordinary deal; it was one that could have changed the outcome of Gettysburg (“…okay, perhaps 10,000 ray-guns could have turned some things around, but everyone was blaming me…”). I mean, let’s pull out the big guns here. You can’t make this stuff up, folks…well, okay, maybe you can…

After the song was written, I started wondering—did I really see a headline like that on a grocery store tabloid all those years ago? and I kicked myself for not actually buying a copy of the paper. But, ah, the good old internet (where everything is available, including obscure tabloid covers) came to the rescue. After only a few minutes of Googling, I rediscovered the specific issue of the tabloid in question. It did exist! Even more than 25 years later! Obviously, I wasn’t the one that was crazy (at least in this particular instance).

So, I printed out the cover, recorded the song with my Macbook and uploaded it to YouTube. Here’s the link: http://youtu.be/VQ8yZVbhRR8

Just don’t tell General Lee. Rumor has it that it’s still a sore point.

Opry

I grew up in Nashville listening to the Grand Ole Opry on crackly car radios and later on, we were able to even watch it on our old black and white, three-channel, Motorola cabinet television. My father loved the Opry; he had grown up as a farmboy on the Tennessee-Kentucky border in a house with no electricity, and on Saturday nights, his family and neighbors would gather ’round the farmhouse’s living room radio—hooked up to their old truck’s battery—to hear Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, and Dad’s favorite group, the Carter Family. He even learned to play some Carter Family songs on an old hand-me-down guitar that borrowed strings plucked from the farmhouse’s front porch screen door.

Dad met Mom after they both returned from the war—he, as a tail gunner in the Pacific, and she, as a “Rosie the Riveter” in Detroit. After they were married, he found a job as a printing plate electrotyper in downtown Nashville, a block away from the Grand Ole Opry’s Ryman Auditorium, country music’s own Mecca.

Mom loved to sing, and though she did like my dad’s country music, I really think she preferred more of the big band type of music, especially Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore. When my sister and I came along, my parents found a house in a modest Nashville suburb and set out to live the post-war American dream. At any rate, we always considered it a treat when Dinah Shore popped up on the old Motorola. Our parents would remind us that, having attended Hume-Fogg High School in downtown Nashville and then Vanderbilt University, Dinah was “a little ol’ Tennessee gal who did real good.” Mom would smile when Dinah sang her hit from the ’40s, “Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy.” Dad would listen politely, but we all knew his heart was with the Opry. As for my sister and me, we weren’t so sure that any kind of pie made with flies sounded very tasty, whether they were wearing shoes or not.

I had the good fortune to meet Dinah Shore at a Doubleday Literary Guild party in Midtown Manhattan in the early ’80s. I was the Literary Guild Magazine’s art director at the time, and I had worked with her publisher in the marketing of one of her cookbooks. I spotted her as soon as I entered the ballroom, and I brushed past several other Literary Guild writers to talk to her. I told her I was a fellow Tennessean and she said, “We might be kin!” in a familiar accent, albeit so far from home. I also told her how we had grown up listening to her, especially, “Shoo Fly Pie.”

“Shoo Fly Pie!” she repeated, laughing as if she really was kin. “Did any of that Nashville guitar pickin’ wear off on you?” she asked.

“’Fraid so,” I told her, “The first song my dad taught me was the Carter Family’s ‘Wildwood Flower.’”

“The ‘Nashville Anthem’,” she said, wistfully.

“Yes ma’am,” I replied.

That evening I also talked to other Literary Guild writers, including Andrew Greeley about his “Cardinal Sins” and Peter Maas about “Serpico” and “Marie: A True Story,” his book about the downfall of a Tennessee governor, but it was the Dinah dialog that has hung in my memory all these years like a bright Christmas candle. And I was totally truthful about learning “Wildwood Flower.” My dad had played it all my life (and probably, most of his), and the fact that I learned it and mastered it sort of made up for all of the mechanical skills that I didn’t inherit or learn from him. I do know that it pleased him greatly when I added the guitar harmony alongside him as he played it.

As for the Grand Ole Opry, I knew that if I ever got to sing and play on its stage, it would have been a high point of both of our lives. We both knew it was a lofty aspiration, and my dad never would have pushed it on me as a career goal. However, in the back of my mind, I always dreamed that somehow I could slip in a side door at Opry.

And though Dad wasn’t around to see it, that side door was opened for me a few years ago. Dad had passed away in ’97, and though I didn’t think I could actually speak, much less sing, I was able to play “Wildwood Flower” on his old guitar at his funeral in the little country church where he and my stepmother were members. Dad’s pallbearers were his friends and church leaders from that same church, including Charlie Haywood, Charlie Daniels’ bass player since 1975.

The next time I would see Charlie would be backstage at the Opry, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

My journey to the side door of the Opry began with a phone call from Jerry Barr, a former co-worker of mine. He was handling the online sales for Carriage House; their signature products are King Syrup and Chicken ’n’ Ribs barbecue sauce. “Have you ever heard of Gaylord Entertainment?” he asked.

Nashville boy that I was, of course I knew. “They own the Grand Ole Opry and what used to be Opryland,” I told him.

“Carriage House wants to run a jingle on the Opry. Can you do that for us?” Jerry asked.

“What kind of a jingle?” I asked, “Something about syrup?”

“Yeah,” Jerry said, “Syrup. King Syrup is the main ingredient in something called ‘Shoo Fly Pie.’”

Somewhere up in Nashville, a side door creaked open. And, “Shoo Fly Pie,” the jingle, was written, recorded and shipped up to the Opry folks (http://www.bridgital.com/ShooFlyPie.mp3). That first Saturday night, I streamed the Opry on my Mac, and I could hardly believe my ears when I heard myself singing between the sets of some of the Opry stars.

“Shoo Fly Pie!” said Jim Ed Brown, the segment host after the jingle ran, “Y’all remember that?” Then he hummed a few bars from Dinah’s version.

When I spoke to the young Opry apprentice the following Monday, I worked up the courage to ask her if I could perform the jingle live on the Opry stage.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said, “We don’t do that anymore…if we let you do it, we’d have to let everyone play their ads and jingles, and there would be way too much commotion up on the stage. However, we could get you in and let you sit at the back of the stage while it’s playing.”

“That would work,” I said.

“In fact, this week’s Opry would be a great one…Charlie Daniels will be here.”

And so, that’s how my sister, Jann, her husband, Lance, and I got to sit at the back of the stage while my voice, guitar and piano wafted over the airwaves and into the audience. I silently mouthed the words as the jingle played.

“What are you doing?” Jann asked.

“I’m Hillbilly Vanilli,” I told her. It was as close as I could get to performing on the Opry stage.

Then, Charlie Daniels took the stage, and his incredible a cappella rendition of “How Great Thou Art” stunned the crowd—and then brought them to their feet. After his set, Jann, Lance and I got to spend a few minutes backstage talking to Charlie Hayward, mostly about Dad. A few minutes later, Charlie Daniels joined us.

I had brought a couple of print-outs of cartoons I had drawn back in the early ’80s for Record World magazine, both of which featured Charlie Daniels. One of them, which I had drawn to highlight the 1980 CMA Awards, showed the finalists for that year’s Entertainer of the Year, and they were all dressed in swimwear. In the cartoon Charlie was saying, “Seriously, y’all…I’m a little nervous about this swimsuit competition…”CMA1b

“I woulda been nervous about that!” Charlie remarked after I gave him the print-outs.

The following Monday morning, the young apprentice followed up with me.

“How did you enjoy the Opry?” she asked.

“It was incredible,” I said, “It kinda made me feel like Moses.”

“Why Moses?” she asked.

“Moses got to see the Promised Land,” I told her, “But he didn’t get to set foot in it.”

“Oh. That’s beautiful,” she said.

“Also, Moses played banjo,” I added.

“I did not know that,” she said.

“Yeah, he had a bluegrass band called ‘The Burning Bush Boys.’”

“Oh, I see,” she said, finally catching on. She did not sound amused.

And though Jann and I would go on to record yet another jingle (with the same tune) for Carriage House called “Chicken ‘n’ Ribs” (http://www.bridgital.com/ChickenNRibs.mp3), that golden night at the Opry would be our last visit there.

It was still a thrill to hear the new jingle twang through my Mac’s speakers for the next few Saturday nights, but it definitely wasn’t the same as being on the stage of the “Mother Church of Country Music,” or, since it was the new Opryhouse, maybe I should say, the “Daughter Church of Country Music.”  As I listened from the warm confines of my suburban Atlanta home, in my mind I could almost see one Opry stagehand saying to another, “Hey, shut that side door over there…you’re letting flies in!”

BigChiefWebArt1b

After my dad’s death in December 1997, I began writing the songs that would eventually evolve into a WWII-based CD about him, his B-24 crew (Jasper’s Jokers) and their heavy bomb group, the infamous Jolly Rogers.

In early 1998, I talked on the phone with the Jolly Rogers’ historian, Wiley O. Woods, Jr., and he asked me if my dad had ever mentioned Captain Leaford Bearskin, who was a pilot in my dad’s squadron. “If you’re writing songs about the Jolly Rogers,” Wiley said, “You may want to talk to him—he’s got plenty of stories. Here’s his phone number in Oklahoma.”

Wiley was right; Leaford Bearskin was a treasure trove of adventures, and his life was a song just waiting to be written. All I had to do was make it rhyme. Bearskin had been born a Wyandotte Indian in the territory of the Wyandotte Nation in northeast Oklahoma. Right after high school, he had joined the Army Air Corps (it would become the Air Force after the war). “I always wanted to fly,” he told me when I called, “and I always wanted to serve my country.”

To picture the mindset of America in the early ’40s with regard to their impression of Native Americans, all you have to do is check out a black-and-white Western movie from that time period. The Indian warriors were so indispensable that Hollywood would often kill some of them multiple times during the course of a single battle with the U.S. Cavalry or heroic (if foolhardy) settlers. All you needed was a different camera angle and spliced together footage.

So, you can only imagine what kind of obstacles and prejudices Leaford Bearskin must have had to overcome to be able to command a B-24 warship. But he came from a tribe of warriors. Bearskin’s people, the Wyandotte, were sometimes known as the Huron, and they had been fighting for their very existence hundreds of years before the war that he fought in. They were initially settled around the north shore of present-day Lake Ontario. Although they shared elements of their language with their New York neighbors, the Iroquois, there was definitely bad blood between the two entities; the Iroquois spent quite a bit of time trying to wipe their neighbors from the face of the earth.

The Wyandotte numbered in the tens of thousands when they first encountered the French in the early 1600’s. However, they were soon decimated by European infectious diseases, such as measles and smallpox, to which they had no immunity. It’s estimated that anywhere from half to two-thirds of their population died, and many of the survivors were forced out of the region and into the Midwest by hostile tribes. The Wyandottes were pushed westward to Michigan and Ohio and then, after the Civil War, even more westward to Kansas and Oklahoma. By then, their numbers had decreased substantially. In fact, there were only a few hundred that successfully sought reinstatement as a tribe in 1867.

Leaford Bearskin was born in 1921. When he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1939, he was initially assigned to Alaska as a crew chief, but after World War II broke out, Bearskin entered flying cadet school, received his pilot wings and went into heavy bombardment training. The war took him to the South Pacific, where he flew in the same squadron as my dad, the 321st of the 90th Bombardment Group (Heavy), the “Jolly Rogers.” He and his crew called his plane, “Big Chief.” Like the other pilots and crews, they never knew if they would return from any given mission.

“There was one particular mission over Wewak in December of ’43,” Bearskin told me during our phone conversation, “Not only did we lose planes and crews, the flak was so thick, that I felt like I could just get out and walk on it.” Fortunately, the “Big Chief” survived that mission, and Lt. Bearskin decided to stay in the service after the war and to make a career out of the Air Force. Leaford Bearskin retired from the Air Force as a Lt. Colonel in 1960 and then began a second career in Federal Civil Service, where he served until 1979. After returning to Oklahoma, his tribe elected him chief in 1983.

Once the album about my father was completed, I sent the Chief some copies of the CD, so he could hear the song about himself, obviously entitled “Big Chief.” (Click here to hear the song, “Big Chief”)

“That was a good one,” Chief Bearskin told me, when I followed up by phone. “I like the part about carving into stone.”

He was referring to the bridge:

“Through broken promises and about three hundred years, they have stood the test through all their trials and tears. But the Great Spirit of the Wyandotte people never disappears; Blood and tears in stone relief—Big Chief.”

A few years ago, my architect friend Ken Pritchard called me with a request. He was helping to design the new football stadium for the University of West Georgia, and they had hit a snag. The university was in the process of changing their nickname from “The Braves” to “The Wolves,” and they needed something to commemorate the transition. The school had been built on land that had formerly been home to Georgia’s Creek Indians, hence the initial nickname to honor the tribe, but UWG was moving their teams up into the NCAA, and that organization was concerned about the “insensitivity” of using a native American as a mascot.

The solution that we came up with was a bas-relief sculpture commissioned by UWG supporter Bob Stone to go over the entrance of the stadium. However, the relief wasn’t going to be in stone; we chose aluminum with a “bronzed” effect. Also, it didn’t exactly feature blood and tears; we went with wolves against a clouded sky emboldened by an etched face of a noble Creek warrior to depict the old and the new, the future against the backdrop of tradition. I created the design on my little 12-inch Macbook; the digital illustration would then be used to engrave the various layers of the 20-foot relief sculpture.

There was one last request from the university. They wanted the illustration/design to be approved by a native American, one who was recognized and registered with a documented native American tribe.

“Who could do that?” the university representative asked me frantically. The clock was ticking on the completion of the stadium.

“Would a Chief work?” I asked him.

When I sent Chief Bearskin a print of the design, he was impressed and pleased to be part of the process. “It brings honor to a brave people,” he told me, “It’s good that they won’t be forgotten.”  True to his word, he signed off on the sculpture and it now adorns the entrance to the University of West Georgia’s new stadium.

StadiumWebShot1

That was the last time I spoke to Leaford Bearskin, this World War II hero turned tribal leader. He served as Wyandotte Principal Chief until his retirement in 2011 and passed away the following year at the age of 91, like so many warriors of his generation (we’re losing a couple thousand WWII vets each day; in fact, as I was in the middle of writing this, I heard of the death of “Band of Brothers” hero “Wild Bill” William Guarnere, a month and a half shy of his 91st birthday).

Chief Bearskin made a difference, whether it was the office positions and agencies in which he served, or his B-24 crew (he always managed to get them home safely). But most importantly, perhaps his biggest impact was with his own people. Under his leadership, the tribe grew to over 5,000 citizens, secured self-governance, initiated cultural renewal and achieved economic success unlike any other time in Wyandotte history. I truly believe that the Big Chief would have been gratified to know that his legacy will be remembered for a long time, just as the legends and deeds of the great Wyandotte warriors have been sharedflickering campfires for centuries long gone.

ItalRestArt

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always loved the simple pleasure of discovering unexpected joys. Whether it was an exotic dish, new music, or a secret, hidden place where all of the points of the universe seem to intersect, I relished the serendipity of it all.

When I was about 10 or 11, I accompanied my father on one of his Saturday morning volunteer rescue missions to repair some sort of machinery in North Nashville. I can’t remember if it was for a relative, friend, or even a friend of a friend, but it could have been any of the above; Dad was a mechanical wizard who could fix anything, and there always seemed to be a car, washing machine, radio, television or gizmo-at-large that needed fixing, tweaking or a swift kick in the assemblage. It was a cold winter morning, so he asked me to wait in the small warehouse on the property, while he performed his mechanical magic. “Don’t touch anything,” he told me.

I hustled inside to get warm, and as my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I beheld an incredible site. Toys! There were mountains of toys of all kinds—board games, electric trains, dolls (but who cared about that?), radio-driven cars, BB guns, model airplanes, and other wondrous playthings, all stacked to the ceiling in their shiny un-opened cellophane-wrapped boxes. It was like the Nashville distribution center for Santa. I wandered around the warehouse, incredulously inspecting the contents (but not touching!) and rehearsing how I would ask my dad if I could have one (just one!) toy from the stockpile of boxes. “Don’t even ask,” my father said after he reappeared, once his mechanical task was completed. He knew me too well. I left the dingy warehouse empty-handed, but my heart was full of joy just to know that places like that little toy heaven actually existed.

As I got older and the joys of toys were replaced by the finer things in life, such as art, love, music and food, I still experienced the giddy thrill of serendipitous discovery from time to time, and it was always an unexpected and pleasant surprise. For example, in the early ’70s when I was an art major at Carson-Newman, I attended a “bring your blanket and sit on the floor” concert in nearby Knoxville on the UT campus. One of the opening acts was an enthusiastic kid who had recently left his job in Nashville as a Billboard magazine correspondent. His name was Jimmy Buffett, and he strode out onto the stage with just his guitar and harmonica. I left the auditorium still humming the melody to his song about a pencil-thin mustache, and to this day, I can’t remember the headline act.

I can’t remember if my fraternity brother, one-time bandmate and fellow CN art major, Ran Coney was with us at that concert, but Ran and I shared a love of music and art, and we introduced each other to all kinds of bands. He first played King Crimson for me, and I shared Poco with him. He also introduced me to a song called “Piano Man” (both Ran and I played keyboards) by an up-and-coming New York piano player named Billy Joel. I sniffed at the song’s line “and the microphone smelled like a beer,” but not too many years later, it suddenly made sense, as I sang for my life (or at least my supper) in the far corner of a dark little taproom in an East Tennessee Holiday Inn.

As songwriters, both Ran and I thought Billy Joel was a master of the craft. When Joel released his “Glass Houses” album (complete with a cover shot of him on the verge of hurling a brick through his real-life Long Island glass house), I was surprised when many of the critics panned it. At the time, I was art director of the music trade magazine, Record World, and I drew an industry-related cartoon every week. After one particularly scathing “Glass Houses” review appeared, I decided to fight back with the RW cartoon and turn the brick around on the critics. The cartoon depicted a rock critic’s office where the brick had just been thrown through the lobby window. The critic’s secretary was on the intercom to her boss, saying, “…I believe there’s a Mr. Joel here to see you…” People in glass houses, indeed. Some of the guys at Columbia Records (Billy Joel’s label) loved the cartoon, and they showed it to his people. A couple of days later, I got a call from the editor of the Billy Joel newsletter asking if they could re-print the cartoon.

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I was more than happy to share the fun; I loved keeping the folks at Columbia happy. I actually felt like I owed them one; they had shared a secret with me—the name and location of an out-of-the-way Italian restaurant in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, on 9th Avenue, between 38th and 39th. It was a little old storefront, only 25 feet wide, that you could easily walk by and never notice. The storefront sign said “Supreme Macaroni Company,” and it was an ancient butcher shop that had been converted into an old-world pasta shop. In the front of the old store were wood-and-glass cases, all stocked with various sizes and shapes of pasta in their individual bins. The hidden pearl, however, was Guido’s Restaurant, a small, tile-floored room at the back of the shop. It was a best-kept secret among members of the entertainment and music communities, and known only through word of mouth. At the far end of the front (pasta) room was a hall that led to Guido’s, which was actually just a small room at the back of the building. The room held only 9 or 10 tables, all covered with red-and-white checkered tablecloths. There was an open door on the far wall, and it led to the modest kitchen.

Guido’s was very reasonable but cash-only, and it featured the best Italian food and home-made wine this side of Italy. The restaurant’s walls (as well as the walls in the hall) were covered with framed, glossy black and whites of both family and celebrities; some of the pictures featured both. There was usually a line stretching from the front door through the front room and into the hall as the famous and not-so-famous waited their turn for a great meal. There was also an elderly lady in a faded cotton floral-print dress, sitting at the front in a straight-back chair, sometimes shelling peas. After I had been there several times, I realized that she was in many of the pictures on the wall, posing with family members. In some of the pictures where she appeared a few years younger, there was an elderly man beside her, and you had to wonder if he was Guido, himself. Also, if you looked a little closer, you could discover pictures of the two as a middle-aged couple, posed with other family members. The closer to the backroom and kitchen you got, the younger the two were in the framed pictures on the walls. On one of the walls inside the restaurant area, there was a wedding picture of the two from many years before. It was as if you were moving back in time on your way to the restaurant area.

So, when my old artmate and fellow culture explorer, Ran flew up from Atlanta to visit me in New York, it was only natural to share Supreme Macaroni/Guido’s with him. We filed past the elderly woman seated in the front room, and as we waited in line in the hall Ran took in all the photos. “This would make a great photography exhibit,” he said. As we stood in the hall at the edge of the restaurant room, next in line to be seated, Ran asked, “What’s good? Do they have a specialty?”

“Meatballs,” said the guy behind me (I was going to say “lasagna”), as the hostess motioned us to follow her to our table. As she handed us our menus, we turned to thank the guy for his recommendation. It was “Saturday Night Live” alum Bill Murray, and he was grinning. I didn’t understand the joke until sometime later; Meatballs was a Guido’s specialty dish (and also one of Murray’s movies).

We were seated at the back of the room, and my back was to the wall next to the door leading into the kitchen. “I feel like I’ve seen this place before,” Ran said, looking around. Then he stopped, and his eyes grew wide as he peered over the top of my head. I turned to see what he had discovered. It was a framed and autographed back cover of Billy Joel’s album, “The Stranger.” The back cover shot was a picture of Billy Joel and his band inside an Italian restaurant, apparently to pay off the album’s track, “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.” It wasn’t just any Italian restaurant; it was Guido’s. It wasn’t just any table; it was the table in the back, by the kitchen—our table. The only thing missing from the picture was the framed back cover of the album, but you know that old pesky space-time continuum thingy. We toasted Billy Joel; we toasted Guido’s; and we toasted the crazy lives that we had led, from East Tennessee to Atlanta to New York.

It was one of those serendipitous events that I’ll always remember, much like the Buffett concert and the mysterious toy warehouse. And so, the years have slowly moved along, much like the line for Guido’s, slowly snaking through the front room toward the back. They did finally tear down the Supreme Macaroni Building to make way for a glittering 12-story, mixed-use hotel/condo. Billy Joel hasn’t released a new album in 20 years, although he did play in the recent benefit for the victims of Hurricane Sandy. Ran passed away in the Spring of 1997, but he left a legacy of artwork, including a ceramic sculpture at an Atlanta MARTA station, along with a number of paintings and ceramic works in various collections.

And now, as the pictures from my youth move further into the distance, I often think about those special times when we were discovering new music and new places, and I try and keep the memories from fading. More and more, I find myself recalling people and places that are no longer here. I don’t have a lot of regrets, but in retrospect, I do wish I’d tried the meatballs at Guido’s.

WearsValleyArtI know it’s been said before, but I do find it interesting how an old picture can snap you back into the past. A while back, I found this picture tucked inside an old college yearbook. It featured three of the four original members of Contents Under Pressure, a band that we hastily assembled in September of 1970 for a freshman talent show at the East Tennessee Baptist college we attended, Carson-Newman.

The only member of Contents not in the picture was (Dancin’) Dan (the Man) Schlafer; he had joined the band in early 1971, and by the time the long-lost picture was snapped—in the autumn of 1974—Dan was well on his way to being a responsible citizen, unlike the three of us pictured here. The backdrop for this picture was the 40-acre farm in Wear’s Valley that I shared with Mike Copas and Stephen Kling, two Opryland caricature artists that I had worked with the previous summer. The truck actually belonged to Copas, but I loved it and the way it made me feel when I rode in it. The picture was taken by my sister, Jann; she had ridden down from Nashville with Paul Dunlap—that’s him with the leather jacket and red mod cap. Filmore (actually, Millard Filmore Strunk, Jr.) is the one with the flannel shirt and Tom Mix 10-gallon hat. I’m also wearing a flannel shirt, along with a pair of bell bottom jeans that my grandmother patched (this was before holes in jeans were cool). BoatRamp, the farmdog, was trying to imitate my stance and smile for the camera. He was a very talented dog.

I can’t remember what all we did that weekend, but I do know that it involved at least two things—playing music late into the night (early into the morning) and talking about the California Trip. The California Trip had its genesis a few months earlier as a group of us sat around an off-campus apartment trying to figure out what we were going to do with our lives once our impending graduation had come and gone. Copas and Kling had driven down from Nashville. “Let’s go to California, or maybe even Gatlinburg,” they said.

We could be in Gatlinburg in an hour or so, we decided, but California—now that was a genuine state of mind. “Yeah, but we could draw caricatures in Gatlinburg,” Copas said.

“Why California?” someone asked.

“Because you can’t go any further west,” someone else said.

“Can’t go no further—this here’s injun territory.” Copas said, quoting the California stream-of-consciousness comedy troupe, Firesign Theater.

All of us were fed up with our particular circumstances. Kling and Copas were bored with Nashville, and those of us finishing up our college careers were anxious to trade all the hassles of collegiate life for a big adventure. I was finishing up my tenure as editor of the college newspaper and had managed to get myself in hot water with the administration through a series of activities and articles. Some people just have no sense of humor.

A week or so after the initial California Trip discussion, I received a note from Bill Dockery, a former staff member of the college’s newspaper who had graduated a few years earlier and had gone on to have a real job at a real newspaper in the Gatlinburg area. He said that he liked what I had done with the college paper, and if I was interested, he would introduce me to his publisher. It’s not close to California, I thought, but it is close to Gatlinburg.

Graduation came and went, and we all scattered back to our hometowns, taking our individual pieces of the Big Adventure dream with us. But, we promised each other that, at some point, we would meet back up and bring our respective pieces to assemble the big puzzle that would be the California Trip. In the meantime, Copas and I decided to try our luck in Gatlinburg, and we found an old farmhouse to rent in nearby Wear’s Valley. By day, we drew caricatures in Gatlinburg, and at night, we played bluegrass in the town’s bars, along with Michael Thornburgh, a fiddle player we had met on the porch of his family’s hillside cabin. Because we didn’t have a name, a table of intelligent and articulate drunks at The Shed (a main street watering hole at the time) named us PigFish BoatRamp. We liked the name, so we kept it and even used a piece of it to tag the stray we brought out to the valley to be our farmdog. In the meantime, Kling had not forgotten the dream. He had packed up his car and was on his way to California. He stopped off at the farm on his way to say goodbye, and got sucked into the East Tennessee beauty.

However, before the interview with Dockery’s publisher could be arranged, Kling and I got job offers from his newspaper’s rival, the weekly Sevier County Times (in addition to being a crackerjack caricature artist, Kling was an incredible photographer). We’re not giving up the dream, we rationalized, we’re just going to be able to save up some money to fuel it. Besides, one by one, everyone else from that initial dream planning session had found some sort of distraction—graduate school, fulltime jobs and even marriage.

The Sevier County Times turned out to be an interesting job. Because the paper was a young upstart, we could be more daring with our stories and coverage than Dockery’s more established paper. Dockery usually beat me to every scoop, anyway, including the scene of the county’s first ax murder.

Working at the Times gave me the chance to write sports copy, handle local stories, and offer editorials; it also allowed me to contribute illustrations and editorial cartoons. Kling and I would also deliver the stacks of papers to some of the various convenience stores in outlying areas of the county, and pick up the papers that hadn’t sold from the previous week’s issue.

At some point, Kling and I (along with production guru Kerry Brown) came up with the idea of featuring regular original comic strips. My comic was Tales of Space Helen, a strip about a time-traveling superhero whose secret identity was Anita Ficks, a salesgirl in a local Chinese bakery/laundromat. The first episode featured a customer coming into the shop and ordering a birthday cake—“…and, Anita, dear,” she said, “go easy on the starch.” Anita and her teenaged sidekick, Rod, traveled through time in The HelenMobile, a craft that eerily resembled a modern-day PT Cruiser, only without tires.

That winter was extremely cold. The farmhouse didn’t have running water or electric heat; it only had the living room fireplace and a wood stove in the kitchen. At first, we cut firewood on the weekends, then we resorted to burning the unsold papers that we had picked up over the past months. Eventually, we would just drive around until it was late enough to go home and jump into bed. It kept me dreaming about California. The dream of the California Trip however, began to flicker. It was much too comfortable to have a weekly paycheck.

Spring came and went, and the warm temperatures turned the winter hardships into a distant memory. When summer rolled around, the dream started gnawing at me again, and I started thinking about leaving the Times and heading west. During the Fourth of July weekend, I met up with some of my college friends at a Middle Tennessee bluegrass festival and tried to resurrect the old passion for the great adventure.

“It was a nice dream,” someone said after one banjo breakdown.

“I’ve got commitments and responsibilities,” one of my friends said.

“My wife says ‘no’,” said another.

“Do you even know anyone in California?” another one demanded.

“I’ve got relatives in Iowa,” I said.

“Yeah, well, I’ve got relatives in New Jersey, but that doesn’t mean I’m headed to Canada,” my friend said.

“It’s just a crazy itch,” I said.

“Don’t they make medicine for that?” he asked.

As I drove back to East Tennessee, I felt defeated. Is this how life is going to play out, I wondered, dreaming up big adventures and making plans and then abandoning them?

That Sunday afternoon as I drove up the long dirt driveway to the farmhouse, I noticed a stranger sitting on the front porch steps.

“Are you the Space Helen dude?” she asked me as I got out of my car.

“Guilty,” I said.

“That’s some bizarre stuff there,” she said. She explained that she had been backpacking in the Smokies and had gotten a serious case of poison ivy—bad enough to take her off the trail and into Gatlinburg. A man who ran a shop on the main drag took pity on her, and he and his girlfriend took her to their home so she could recover. While there, she came across his collection of “Tales of Space Helen” that he had clipped out of the Sevier County Times.

“I know the guy that draws those,” he told her.

“I have a friend back home who is an underground comic book publisher, and he would love these,” she told him, so he dropped her off at the farmhouse.

“Where’s back home?” I asked.

“California,” she said, “My comic-publisher friend is back in San Francisco.”

A few weeks later, she was back on the west coast. It took me about a month to wind things down at the paper, but toward the end of August, I got on an Amtrak in Nashville, and took it to Chicago. After a four- or five-hour wait, I boarded a west-bound train to Seattle, and then down to Portland, where she was getting ready to start school.

The plan was to hitch down to San Francisco and meet up with the comics publisher. We got a ride from a crusty old Cadillac cowboy just south of Portland, but when he found out I was from Nashville, he suddenly became friendly. He was playing country music on his AM radio, and every time I started talking about Nashville, he nearly teared up. “I’ve always dreamed about going there,” he said. Just then, Moe Bandy’s voice twanged out of the box.

“Doodle Owens wrote that!” I told him. Doodle was my friend, Lee’s dad. When I was at their house a few months earlier, Doodle had played the song for Lee and me on his old Gibson. When I relayed the story to our driver, he told us he’d take us all the way to Salem.

“It’s out of my way,” he said, “but it’s worth it just to hear about Nashville.” As soon as we exited the Cadillac in Salem, a kid in a Corvair screeched over to the side of the road and threw open the passenger door.

“Bay Area?” he asked.

And so, the California Trip began. We ended up hitching all through California, from the Bay Area to L.A., up to Fresno, over to Santa Cruz, and back up to San Francisco. The comics publisher was as interesting as you might imagine; he lived a few blocks from Height and Ashbury, not too far from Golden Gate Park. He was amused by Space Helen, but said that it needed nudity. I didn’t think we could pull that off in East Tennessee. Maybe Space Helen should move to California, he said.

I called up the kid in the Corvair, and he came and picked me up in the city and took me out to meet his parents in the Bay Area. They initially invited me to stay a few days. Then, his father (who was from the South) asked if I could stay with them indefinitely; he said he wanted a southern influence on his kids.

And so, I moved in. Their house was in the suburbs, a few miles from the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), so during the day, I’d hitch over to the station and take the train into Berkeley or San Francisco. It didn’t feel dangerous, but there seemed to be tension in the air every day. When I had been down in L.A., there was an assassination attempt on President Ford in Sacramento by Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. And, the historic events just kept on coming. One day I went over to Berkeley to see if I could find the apartment complex where Patty Hearst had been kidnapped. When I stopped at a Berkeley newsstand to ask directions, the owner shushed me and pointed to his radio, which was screaming some sort of news story.

“Patty Hearst!” he said, “The feds just captured her, over in the Mission District!” While I was pondering the implications, a guy tapped my on the shoulder and invited me to a church picnic in the Eucalyptus grove on the Berkeley campus. It turned out to be a “virtual picnic”…there was no food, just some, uh, interesting people pretending to eat sandwiches. “The real food is at our real church,” the guy told me. “We’re having a special dinner in a few nights and you’re invited.” He gave me his card and I assured him I would be there if the friend I was staying with (who drove the Corvair) could get off work on time. As it turned out, he had to work late, so we missed the picnic. (Here’s how that turned out: http://equilt.com/TheEucalyptusTrees.mp3).

Like I said, there was tension in the air. Less than a week later, I thought I’d take in the San Francisco Museum of Art (now called the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). In 1975 the museum was located more in the center of town, a few blocks off of Market Street. That Monday morning, I hitched to the Concord BART station, took the train into the city, then took a bus to the museum. However, to my surprise, the museum’s front door was locked. I then noticed the “Museum’s Hours” sign that chirped, “MUSEUM CLOSED ON MONDAYS.”

I was incredulous. It had taken me over two hours to get there, only to find it closed. To try and salvage the day, I decided to treat myself to a late Chinese lunch. Keep in mind, in 1975, there were not a lot of Chinese restaurants in Tennessee. In fact, the only time I had eaten Chinese food was when Kling took me to visit New York City. I didn’t have a map of San Francisco, but I knew that Chinatown was northeast of the museum, so I guessed that if I went one block north, then one block east, then one block north, I’d eventually reach that part of town. Plus, I figured I’d get to see some parts of San Francisco that were not included in the tourist guides.

As I got closer to Union Square, which was between the museum and Chinatown, I noticed more people on the streets and sidewalks. I thought I must be approaching some sort of major bus stop. But as I got closer to the square, I saw that it wasn’t a bus stop, it seemed more like a mob of people waiting for a parade. Then, I noticed policemen with rifles on the roofs of several of the buildings. It’s a riot, I thought. But the mood was festive…maybe it was a happy riot. Trolley stop? Happy riot? Parade? Making my way up the sidewalk by the St. Francis Hotel, I noticed that every 20 feet or so, there was a San Francisco police officer standing guard. I ambled up to one of the police guards.

“Excuse me, officer?” I said.

“Yes?” he said, not really rudely, but not exactly politely.

“What’s going on here?”

“The President,” he said with a pitying look, as if I had crawled out of a cave and wandered into town, “President’s here.”

“The President of the United States?” I asked.

“That would be affirmative,” he said, with a hint of condescension.

“Wow,” I said.

“Excuse me?” he said, this time actually looking at me as if I could be some sort of threat.

“Oh…I was just kinda lost, on my way to Chinatown,” I said, trying not to look suspicious, “and here, I wander into the President of the United States. I’ve never seen a President in person.”

“Okay,” he said, “move along.”

“Thanks, Officer,” I said, tipping my thrift store Stetson.

I pushed my way through the crowd to the front of the hotel. It was wall-to-wall people, so I crossed the street and stood beside a street light, about a half-block away from where President Ford would exit the hotel. His limo was idling in front of the entrance, surrounded by black cars and police motorcycles.

I can’t remember how long I waited; I just remember the electric charge that surged through the crowd, along with a cheer when the doors opened and President Ford emerged into the California afternoon. That brief moment of excitement, however, was short-circuited by a gunshot from across the street from where President Ford stood, and the crowd’s cheers turned into screams. It was almost as if someone had dropped a large stone into the crowd—right where Sara Jane Moore, the woman with the gun, was being wrestled to the ground. The crowd erupted into frantic ripples, running in panic from the shooter in all directions. I fought back my initial reaction to run—I had a half-block head start—and I instinctively jumped up onto the concrete base of the streetlight where I had been standing. My second impulse (after the first one to run) was to protect myself from the stampeding crowd. I saw people being knocked down, and all I could think about was how cowboys knocked off their horses during cattle stampedes managed to not get trampled. They usually used trees; all I had was a streetlight.

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As I looked over the heads of the frightened crowd I saw that a group of police, bystanders, and plainclothes cops had picked up Sara Jane Moore like she was a roll of dining room carpet. Then the crowd, not hearing any more shots, reversed itself and tried to close in on the shooter. In the meantime, the President’s motorcade, sirens blaring, screamed out of Union Square. It was controlled bedlam. I ducked into a five-and-dime and bought a notepad and a pen, and went back out onto the street and tried to talk to some of the police officers who were scurrying around the St. Francis like fire ants out of a lawn-mowered anthill.

I continued on my journey to Chinatown, where I bought myself a late lunch and proceeded to write up the story in the dim light of the restaurant. “Take that, Bill Dockery!” I said to myself and a bemused Chinese waiter. I found a phone booth and placed a collect call to the Sevier County Times. I knew it was coming up on the weekly’s deadline, but I figured they’d make room.

“Have I got a story for you,” I said when the publisher, Tim Pollitt got on the phone.

“Wait a minute, let me get my recorder plugged in,” he said.

“First of all,” I said, “I want the byline to say: ‘by David Skinner, San Francisco correspondent to the Sevier County Times.’” I then proceeded to dictate my story. After I finished, Tim asked me, “What’s California like?”

“Don’t get me started,” I said, but I must have gone on for ten minutes before hanging up. Recently, I wrote the account as a song called “Sara Jane.”

That following weekend when I called home, my father sounded irritated. I told him about moving in with a Bay Area family, about the comic book publisher, about Patty Hearst, and about the almost-assassination of the President.

“I didn’t know you talked ugly,” he said, and handed the phone to my stepmother.

That was certainly perplexing, I thought as I hung up the phone after the call. Talking ugly?

A few months later, I was back in Nashville, writing songs with Lee Owens. I was going through a stack of Sevier County Times papers, looking for a particular Space Helen strip. My dad had a subscription to the paper and had carefully saved all the back issues. I came across the issue with my assassination attempt story, just as I had dictated from that Chinatown phone booth. It was then that I realized that Tim had kept the tape recorder rolling, because, on the jump page, below the continuation of the story was yet another story. The headline read: “Reporter Calls California Crazy as H***” The story consisted of my rantings about the, well, intensity, of the California scene.

The following week, Lee and I went into a Nashville recording studio to demo some of our songs. I had just finished a new one (about a Tennessee boy having this weird obsession to travel west) called “California Itch” (click here to hear California Itch), and Lee demo’d a beautiful song of his called “Finding Annie Gone” (click here to hear Finding Annie Gone).

So—what happened to all the characters in the story? President Ford finished out his term. Sara Jane Moore served a 32-year prison sentence and was released in 2007, and the people from the Berkeley Eucalyptus grove that invited me to the church dinner ended up at Jonestown. I lost touch with some of the other characters, as well, but as for the ones I’ve kept up with, Stephen Kling moved back home to New York and went on to do ads on Madison Avenue; Michael Copas became the woodcarver to the stars, teaching Jane Fonda how to carve and creating pieces for Hollywood notables; Paul Dunlap became a music teacher and he, my sister Jann, Michael Thornburgh, Kerry Brown and I still play music in a band called Dog & Pony; Filmore Strunk is now an Anglican priest in Charlotte; Dan Schlafer became a Tennessee Coach of the Year and is now a Federal Programs Director; Tim Pollitt got out of the newspaper business and into something that was actually profitable.

As a footnote, not long after I unearthed the pickup truck picture, I found a cassette that featured a Contents Under Pressure concert. One of the original songs, “In About Fifty Years” was written in the Summer of 1971. We were so smug and heady predicting how things would be in 2021, ironically, now only a few years away. Judge for yourself, here’s Dan, David, Filmore and Paul from a concert many years ago: http://equilt.com/InAboutFiftyYears.mp3