MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
They say a man can’t love a material thing
With aluminum skin and a cast iron soul
But they never heard your engine sing
Ah, there’s peace in losing control …
—JLW, “Too Young to Die,” 1993
“So let me get this straight,” I said into the telephone. “You have a new Corvette for me?”
“That’s right, Mr. Webb. We owe you three brand-new Corvettes for the work you did with Mr. Campbell.”
“So this would be my second Corvette and…”
“And, we would owe you one more. You could get the four-hundred-fifty cubic-inch option next year. That’s a lot of car.”
“Wow, that’s far out!”
I had done some work with Glen Campbell on a commercial earlier in the year. We had already collaborated on a top-twenty record, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” but had met only once, when we shook hands at the Grammys. When I had walked into Armin Steiner’s Sound Recorders in Hollywood, Glen looked up from tuning his guitar and I extended my hand.
“Hi, Glen! I’m Jimmy!” I blurted as I approached television’s familiar coiffed and blue-jeaned figure. He scanned my skin-and-bones frame, my leather jacket, and my hair hanging down to my shoulders.
“When ya gonna get a haircut?” he asked.
Writing hit songs was so damn easy I fantasized I could write one whenever I wanted or needed to. My songs dominated easy-listening pop radio. My manager was Sandy Gallin, who also handled Cher and the Osmond Brothers. I was one of the first guys since Burt Bacharach and Hal David to be famous for writing songs. I wasn’t a Beatle. I wasn’t a bandleader or an arranger. And I was definitely not a performer. I used to joke around with other songwriters that they had to be very careful and not sing a demo too well. Great singers loved to have a terrible demo that needed their particular brand of refinement.
I lived in a vintage “Valleywood” mansion that movie star Phil Harris had built for his screen darling, Alice Faye, in the 1930s. It housed two grand pianos and a handmade billiard table with my name inscribed on it. On my front porch, I stood at the top of a hill that crowned six acres of pools, gardens, and waterfalls rambling down to the bottom of a wooded hill to a quaintly wrought stable and corral. Huge, century-old white oak trees intertwined their canopies on the hillside, inspiring a pet name for the estate: Campo de Encino (Fort of the White Oaks).
In my living room I erected a temple to the idols of my profession. Artist Jeffrey Speeth, who was known to ride with the Hells Angels, had delicately torched two stained glass panels, each twenty feet wide by eight and a half feet high. On the right panel were Joni Mitchell, Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon, and Bob Dylan. To the left was George Harrison, John Lennon, and Elvis Presley, each traced with thousands of intricately shaped stained glass ellipses. Elvis stood tall—a colossus in antique purple and red glass. Joni, a golden angel, rendered in sunny yellow and clear. In the same room was a pipe organ that stretched floor to ceiling, much bigger than the one Captain Nemo played in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Much bigger. In addition to my two grand pianos, there was a two-manual German harpsichord. My whole house was wired as a recording studio.
The glowing room was a glimpse of rock ’n’ roll heaven … would I ever get there? Perhaps not. And perhaps that’s the reason I went for the fast cars instead of fast money. I was twenty-three years old. Life beyond the age of thirty was unimaginable.
By writing songs for Glen Campbell, Mr. Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, and others, I had opened myself up to a left cross from snobby journalists and other elitists. Some said I was “middle of the road,” “represented the establishment,” and all that left-wing folkie exclusivity that doesn’t buy a stick of gum in the world of music today.
The truth is I was a heavy pot smoker, a sexual adventurer, and a hopelessly liberal Democrat who hated the war in Vietnam. I had some redeeming qualities: Aside from the occasional beer, I didn’t drink or smoke tobacco. I was lauded as “The Cole Porter of the Sixties” or—even worse—as “Pop Music’s Mozart!” in a critical press more than slightly intimidated by the proliferation of loud rock bands. Journalists and mature people all over the country were encouraged by the fact that I was a young man who saw things their way. I wrote ’em the way they used to write ’em. Meanwhile, just like every other kid, my favorite bands were The Beatles and the Stones.
That summer, I threw my suitcase into the trunk of my brand-new, sleek, sharklike silver Corvette 427 and drove out through San Bernardino and the Inland Empire to Route 390 going north. I opened her up at close to one hundred miles an hour, heading for Las Vegas, where I was appearing with “the hardest-working little girl in show business,” Connie Stevens. After a sudden divorce from crooner Eddie Fisher, she was remounting her career with a show at Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn, which had just recently been purchased by Howard Hughes. He bought the hotel and casino after arguing with a manager over extending his reservation. He now occupied the blacked-out top two of the tower’s nine floors.
On the drive, I was steaming over an item I had read in the New Musical Express on my last trip to London: “Jim Webb is back in town, with his orchestra or whatever,” the paper sneered. Who was I? Percy Faith? And who was “Jim Webb” anyway? The same London publication groused that whoever had “changed” my name to “Jimmy” was an asshole. My name is Jimmy Webb on my birth certificate. Upon moving to Hollywood and being informed that “Jimmy” was not an especially cool name and would have to be changed, I had fired that particular manager.
Perhaps someone who was more concerned about dropping their left for a bunch of Donny Osmond and John Denver haters might have thought twice about baiting the bear with an appearance at a casino, but I met Connie and she charmed me without any particular effort. I knew her mostly from 1963’s Palm Springs Weekend, in which she played the good girl. It was no act. With my guitarist Fred Tackett—a true hippie—I worked up a few songs for Connie and me to perform.
I idled through the gate of the Desert Inn, one of Vegas’s original five casinos. In five-foot-tall letters, the marquee said CONNIE STEVENS. Underneath, it said JIMMY WEBB. Connie had insisted on me having equal billing.
There was a message from Connie at the front desk to meet her in the Crystal Room to rehearse our duet of a song called “Didn’t We?”
The Crystal Room was a modest venue; our capacity was 450 for dinner and the stage itself. Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Noël Coward, Bobby Darin, and thousands of others had performed on that stage. I was one large nerve as I hesitantly touched the keys on the grand piano with Connie sitting beside me on the bench, relaxed and graceful, the pretty girl known in the business as “Dollface.” We parted with a pact to meet again later at the pool so I could meet her and Eddie Fisher’s two little girls: Joely, two years, and Tricia, one.
The next day Freddy and his very pregnant lady Patricia checked in after their drive from L.A., and the three of us went out to the hotel’s trademark figure-eight-shaped pool. Freddy and I detuned a couple of gut-string acoustic guitars to an open D, or what we called a “Joni Mitchell tuning.” The hardened gambler crowd sat under umbrellas, drinking and smoking their cigars, waiting for it to get dark, as the two long-haired kids beat the crap out of guitars and harmonized to the heavens, “And he cries and he cries, there’s an ocean in his eyes…” All the while, Patricia, pretty and burstingly pregnant in a flowing white dress, danced improvisational free-form on the grass.
When Connie came down with her girls, she took us in stride. We pitched camp beside the large pool: water bottles, beers, babies, guitars, long hair, cassette players, and all. Connie took both of her children into the water to teach them to swim. Every eye at the pool was on Connie. Folks asked for her autograph or a photo; there were no private pools at the Desert Inn. The stars were expected to entertain.
That night I took Connie out for a ride in my Corvette. We went out to the highway, Nevada’s autobahn, and I let it fly. We laughed like hell as the warm summer wind caught in our hair and the mile markers rushed past. I got to know her a little at the hotel bar after; I had a beer and she had a glass of water. It had been quite a rough time for her during the divorce and she paled a little talking about it. She said she was doing a very physical show with a lot of dancing so she had to get to bed early. We said our good-nights. A hallmark of a lady, she had two little girls and a broken marriage and she was hitting the boards and hoofing to get her life on track. “The hardest-working little girl in show business” wasn’t just a release from some press agent.
On opening night, Freddy and I went out and joined Ray Noble and His Orchestra. We performed for twenty minutes with Connie, then she invited me back on stage as part of her finale. We sang “Didn’t We?” to exceptional howls of approval from the packed audience. After our third curtain call, I said to Connie in amazement, “What are these people making such a fuss about?”
“People love a fresh face!” She laughed.
We were poolside virtually every day after that and performing at night, though I still got around some. I met Paul Anka at his condo one afternoon and we talked about songwriting and Vegas. He looked at me with the knowing smirk of a seasoned pro surveying a helpless greenhorn.
“Hey, listen,” he said. “After your second show tonight come over and meet me and some of the guys at the Sands Health Club.”
I raised an eyebrow. A health club that stayed open until one in the morning?
After my show, I went over to the venerable Sands in my silver shark and parked in the back as I had been instructed. Nothing. Pitch black. Suddenly a crack of light as a door opened directly on the parking lot.
“Pssst. Hey Jim!” It was Anka, silhouetted in the doorway.
I locked up my ride and went into the light. I was inside the Men’s Health Club at the Sands. All the heavies were in there—the Righteous Brothers, Vic Damone, Redd Foxx. Some were leaving, some arriving, some were in towels, some even had ladies. This was the ex-officio men’s club for entertainers in Vegas, and it really didn’t get rolling until two or three in the morning.
After a steam and some time in a Jacuzzi, I found out that the ladies too were an optional accessory. You could have it any way you wanted it in Vegas. I might even have gotten around to a lady or two except for the fact that I started to smoke a joint in the hot tub. There was a full-blown panic when the first cloud of smoke went up. The Everly Brothers almost trampled the Righteous Brothers getting out of the place. The hookers were close behind.
There was drug use in Vegas in those days, but nobody flashed it around, and nobody talked about it for one simple reason: It could cost you your job.
Our booking finished after a few weeks with the usual mixture of sadness, premature nostalgia, and relief. When it was over I took my whole crew, including Connie, on a private jet to Oklahoma City for the Stars and Stripes Show, a local extravaganza. I met Tom Stafford, who had played “Up, Up and Away” on his way around the moon in Apollo 10. I played “MacArthur Park” with the Oklahoma City Symphony and twenty thousand people cheered their approval. By the time we got back to Los Angeles, Caesars Palace had offered me an eight-week engagement—forty thousand dollars, three times a year. Management wanted me to play an instrumental version of “MacArthur Park” on a white piano once a night “like Liberace.” They didn’t want any singing; singing would pay less.
I turned the deal down. I wanted to be part of the world that my peers inhabited. The world I’d experienced at the Monterey Pop Festival, playing with Johnny Rivers and the Wrecking Crew. Real rock ’n’ roll and higher-consciousness types did not play Vegas in 1969. I faced a significant divergence in life’s river.
In Oklahoma before the Second World War, my two sets of grandparents lived on opposite sides of the North Fork of the Cimarron River, a tributary of the sprawling Red River that crosses a third of the United States. In plain language, our part of it was a creek; in the rainy season you could squint your eyes up close and it looked a little bit like a river, even if one of somewhat questionable character. Most months of the year it was merely a musical trickle as it looped in gentle arcs through groves of silver-leafed cottonwoods, its bed paved with a mosaic of round river rocks.
On one side of the river stood the relatively prosperous farm of Joe Killingsworth, who had his own gravity gas pump out by the garage to fill the tank of his Pontiac. On the other side was the Sunshine Ranch where Charlie Webb sharecropped, and where his God-fearing wife, Myrtle, saved copies of the Sayre Headlight-Journal and used them to line the unfinished walls of their rough shack, to hold at bay the keening wind of deep winter.
Robert Webb, my dad, was a tall, strapping teen and had a younger sister, Barbara, who was pretty enough to be a marquee idol. The Webb family contrasted in an austere way to the great clan of the Killingsworths, with their two handsome sons, Joe Verne and Don, and two comely daughters, Ann and Joy, who were long of legs, white of teeth, and rosy of lips and cheeks. Ann, a vivacious brunette; Joy, the younger, an athletic blonde and varsity basketball player.
My grandpa Charlie Webb was an odd duck on any pond. He was a rather short man with red hair and a stout build. His pink face was of the round and cheerful variety that belied a hard-as-nails undercoat. His secret armor seemed to insulate him in a satisfactory way from the inevitable, outrageous slings and arrows of fortune. Behind his back, folks called him “The Dutchman,” though privately he claimed—with some pride—an Irish heritage. Down in Southwest Oklahoma “Dutchman” was an acceptable sobriquet for any oddball. For one thing, Grandpa Charlie didn’t go to church like the rest. He would calmly sit on his porch at the Sunshine Ranch on a Sunday morning smoking snuff out of a briar pipe—a uniquely vile habit—and waving to each family as they passed, seemingly to bless them in their ignorance. The smoked snuff hung around him like a steel blue curtain, impenetrable and noxious as mustard gas.
Myrtle Webb was of the Nazarene sect, who went in for the occasional ecstatic roll on the floor as part of worship, speaking in tongues. Charlie regarded this practice with some unease. However, on one occasion “The Woman,” as he called her, was able to persuade him to leave his pipe on the porch and go down to the First Nazarene. He discovered to his great mortification that the proceedings that day had been laid on specifically for his benefit. Dozens were praying out loud for “poor old Charlie” to come back into the fold. Folks rolled on the floor and recited incantations in indecipherable tongues. Charlie got as red as a Texas tomato and walked out of the Church of the Nazarene vowing never, ever to return.
Joe Killingsworth, who we called Granddaddy to differentiate him from Grandpa Charlie, was another sort of iconoclast. He seemed to embrace the theory that words were a precious and irreplaceable resource that were best conserved, like money or gasoline or cottonseed. He said little to nothing as he worked his six hundred acres and raised his ample family. In summer he would wear a short-sleeved shirt with a clean blue tie and a dress straw hat, which was removed from his head at the doorway of the Sweetwater First Baptist Church every Sunday.
He is still, obscured by all these years, somewhat of a cipher, this tireless farming machine with his code of unremitting dawn-to-dusk labor. His reticence went beyond that of the usual quiet sort of country fellow and crossed over into a philosophy of life, with his conviction, never articulated, that life was filled with way too much talk, and talk was a frivolous and wasteful thing. A Marcus Aurelius of the plains, he was rear guard to his wife, Maggie, or “Grandmother.” She was a neurotic and nervous soul who fretted her way through the hardships of life on the prairie, worrying at every turn of fortune, good or bad. Joe followed silent and watchful.
Joe Killingsworth would more than likely have kept to himself if not for certain occasions of dire need or crisis when he found it necessary to call on Charlie Webb. For despite the poverty of the Webbs, Charlie, as many folks in Beckham County knew and discussed in hushed tones, was rumored to be the seventh son of a seventh son and he had powers. Some of these claims seemed fanciful but certainly not the ability to douse or as some said, to “witch water.”
It is a fact that Joe Killingsworth paid Charlie a visit one drought-plagued summer when my father was a teenager. Proverbial hat in hand, Joe asked Charlie if he would “witch him a well.” It must have been a dry spell indeed to send Granddaddy on his errand across the North Fork to the Sunshine Ranch.
My father remembers vividly the early morning that Charlie crossed the creek and walked onto the lower forty of Granddad’s farm, pausing to cut a pliant young fork from a cedar tree with his pocketknife and cleaning it as he walked. When he was finished, he held a rough instrument. The two prongs functioned as handles and at the midpoint joined together in a single stick: a wand.
Charlie asked Joe where he wanted the well and Joe pointed out a general area, which Charlie walked across, holding this dowsing rod out in front of his body, casually. About halfway across the space the divining stick plunged as though of its own accord into a dry furrow. Charlie smiled and circled the area a little and then held the humble instrument forth again and walked back across the spot at a forty-five-degree angle. Joe watched with his usual stoicism as the dowser crossed the same spot and the cedar branch plunged anew, as though forced by unseen hands into the parched earth.
My father and young Joe were watching this performance expectantly from the top rail of a corral fence, and at this point Charlie called them over and took two pairs of pliers out of his coat pocket.
“Now this time, boys,” he said, “I want you to walk with me. And I want you to clamp down on the handles of this here twig with all your might and if you allow it to bend even a smidge, I’m goin’ to thrash yuh.” He winked and smiled.
This, the third time, Charlie walked across at a ninety-degree angle with each boy pacing him on a side, gripping the pliers with fierce concentration. As they came to the appointed place, the branches began to twist and bend in the pliers, complaining and weeping. The bending became a tearing and rending as Charlie walked closer to the spot. Then the cedar bent at ninety degrees toward the ground, in spite of any counterforce the two strong young men could exert. Joe Killingsworth stood, doubtless dumbfounded, chewing a stalk of hay. Whatever his true feelings, they would be held in check.
The demonstration presaged good fortune, for Killingsworth dropped a well on that spot within a week and artesian water came bubbling up and flooded the thirsty soil of its own accord. The well itself remains, and I have quenched my thirst there on many a sweaty, humid summer afternoon. So must Robert Webb and Ann Killingsworth have shared the miraculous water. Despite the seeming disparity of fortune and ambition that divided the families as surely as the rambling scar of the North Fork, young love budded under the rustling leaves of the cottonwoods before the war.
I sang in public for the first time on Hugh Hefner’s Playboy After Dark. My voice was untrained, though it had benefited somewhat from years of hymn singing. I was restless and looking around for some way to take advantage of my notoriety. My closest companions were Fred Tackett and Patricia, my majordomo Jim Beniche, my father, who had come out from Oklahoma to help me with my production and publishing endeavors, and Howard Golden, an ambitious and industry-savvy young attorney. Oh, and there was Satan. Old Scratch. The Devil.
Satan was a semipermanent houseguest, getting a divorce and managing a girlfriend but finding time to lounge by my pool to read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and works by Carlos Castaneda and Ken Kesey. I had a sauna installed in the old pool house, with a shower and an old gothic church window in the dressing room to the outside. We sat there in the fragrant heat, Satan and I, and had contests to see who could stay inside the longest at the highest possible temperature. It is gratuitous to add that he most often won these contests with ease. We engaged in long meandering conversations, mostly about his philosophy, which was not to have a philosophy. No one, before or since, was funnier or more ready for a bit of rowdy.
He was unimpressed with the new Corvette. He had discovered an advertisement in a local newspaper announcing the sale of a number of cars and other machinery at Carroll Shelby’s warehouse. Carroll’s years of Class-A sports car racing were winding down and Cobras were for sale. We were among the first on the scene and wandered in well-oiled ecstasy through row after row of race cars, trucks, tools, a Cobra turbojet boat and other pricey knickknacks, finally coming to a reverent halt in front of a 427 Shelby Cobra, Carroll’s personal ride. The Devil flashed his grin.
“Now here’s a sled,” he murmured reverentially, folding his arms and taking a step back, the better to take it in.
The Cobra crouched in immaculate Shelby racing blue, the embodiment of barely restrained violence. It flat-out scared me. I had seen Cobras from the stands at Laguna Seca. I had seen little red 289s scooting around Hollywood with an impertinent snarl. I had never seen this big block monster 427 up close, especially Carroll’s car with its decidedly indecent bulging bonnet and flaring chromed exhaust headers, each one the diameter of a small cannon.
Shelby sauntered over to join us.
“Well, ya want me to wrap it up fer ya?” he drawled, betraying Texas ancestry.
“How much you want for it?” I asked.
“Thirteen thousand.” He leaned over the car and looked at his contorted reflection in the curvature.
In today’s money that was about $130,000. I looked at the Big D. His grin had stayed in place, so I said to Carroll, “Can you give me ’til tomorrow to think about it?”
He looked me up and down, surely thinking, No way this kid has thirteen grand. Then he said, “Okay. Tomorrow.”
We walked out of there and crawled into the stifling heat of the Corvette’s sumptuous little cockpit. The ’Vette had gotten smaller. It was shrunken and ladylike and didn’t sound nearly as gnarly as before. I started her up and looked over into the Devil’s cold, gray blue eyes.
“Buy it,” he said.
Now known as a Super Snake it was reclassified as a 427 Cobra Semi-Competition. Although many 427 SCs were raced and never saw a public road, they had titles and were legal to drive on the highway. There were only two of these Shelby race-ready cars ever built. One briefly belonged to Bill Cosby, and now one of them was mine.
I had an inspiration to drive that Cobra up to Vegas to see Elvis Presley. Presley was staging a comeback at the International Hotel and the Hollywood cognoscenti were all vying for tickets to witness the second coming of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll. Some, it must be admitted, were merely jealous or envious and interested in seeing the King lose his clothes. A casual perusal of rock history will reveal that Presley knew this and was terrified by the prospect of failure. Having missed the Presley phenomenon the first time around, I was mildly skeptical but curious.
As usual, the Devil was amiable to any brand of mischief and readily agreed. It was late afternoon when we got started, wearing leather jackets and carrying a Sucrets box prudently packed with ready rolls to ward off the ennui.
“Well, you must be happy,” I said to Satan as the big engine cranked over in a petulant mood, cantankerously launching a couple of blue Roman candles into the air.
“In general, or about something in particular?” he asked without breaking his blinding Southern smile.
“Don’t think I’ve forgotten it was all your idea … this Cobra thing.”
He beamed brighter and laughed. “I seem to be at my best during moments of indecision, if you haven’t noticed.”
The car coughed and hacked its impatience all the way down Hayvenhurst to the red light and ramp leading to the Ventura Freeway. We came to a stop, stifling our wild anticipation, and at first did not notice the CHP trooper mounted on a motorcycle as he coasted slowly to a halt beside us. He looked us over with a hard face, the typical Übermensch with his tiny, immaculately groomed red mustache and glossy knee-high leather boots. The afternoon sun was dropping behind the eucalyptus trees that lined the roadway. He looked; we waited.
The Cobra waited as well, but with less patience at the long red light. Behind the wheel I was sweating bullets as the big cam cranked over and each time caused the car to dance its nervous little dance with an ear thumping whump, like a grandfather clock with giant stainless steel balls.
I watched the temperature gauge move upward ever so slightly, as the big engine politely coughed and cleared its throat. The electric cooling fans in the intake scoop up front automatically came on and whirred.
“No!” I screamed at the car telepathically. “Don’t … not now…”
At that second the Cobra launched one glowing, incandescent blue ball of half-burned fuel with a tremendous report like a signaling cannon, and then another: two missiles in quick succession. Both made direct hits on the trooper’s polished right boot. He was stomping his boot on the ground trying to get the fire out and almost jumped off the motorcycle but thought better of it. The light turned green. He reached up and keyed his motorcycle off, impassive, and stiffly extended the kickstand and parked the bike upright in the middle of the street. Nobody else moved.
“Turn off the ignition please,” he said so softly I could not make it out over the sound of horsepower.
“Excuse me?” I begged politely.
“I said turn the Goddamn ignition off!” he barked, suddenly animated enough to place one hand on his gun and the other on my vehicle.
I thought about our Sucrets box full of high-grade weed and looked over at Satan, whose expression was deadpan. His sangfroid was rarely displaced.
“Do you realize, sir, that these baffles are illegal?” He gestured at the side pipes.
“These baffles are factory installed on this vehicle, Officer. Without intentionally contradicting you I think you will find the inspection sticker is in order on this car, sir.” When it comes to politeness I am hardly ever upstaged.
He leaned over and stared at the current inspection sticker with jaundiced eye. I had him, I thought.
“License and registration please,” he ordered tersely. As I complied he looked at the racer from head to taillight shaking his head in silent anguish.
“All right then, Mr. Webb,” he said after inspecting my papers. “I’m going to be writing you a citation this evening.”
“For what?” I blurted in an unforgivable loss of cool.
With a self-satisfied smile he handed me the ticket and my license, remounted his iron steed, and rode on to the Ventura Freeway without even a backward glance. I restarted the car and in the dim light of the instruments managed to read his deformed handwriting on the proper line: “For excessive display of speed.”
I choked, handing the ticket to Satan, who howled with laughter. We both chortled as I revved the engine and put the hulking Hydromatic trannie in drive. He had written us up for an excessive display of speed while we were stationary and the engine wasn’t even running. The Devil and I tooled the Cobra up the Van Nuys on-ramp to the Ventura Freeway and headed southeast toward San Bernardino and Elvis’s opening night at the International Hotel.
On a Sunday afternoon, news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor arrived in Western Oklahoma. My dad was visiting in the Killingsworth homestead and by chance, as in hundreds of thousands of American homes, the austere brown radio was on at that exact time. Joe Jr. and my father struggled to find the Navy’s huge Pacific base on a map and showed the family where it was.
When things quieted down Joe Jr. and my daddy went outside on the porch. Joe pulled him closer and whispered, “That means us.”
Within a couple of months Dad had boarded a Greyhound and taken the ride up Route 66 to Oklahoma City where he presented himself for the draft.
At first the war went so poorly against the superior machines and manpower of Japan that the government misled its own citizens as to the seriousness of their situation and secretly prepared for a physical invasion of the westernmost states. Down amid the whispering cottonwoods Robert and Ann spoke often of impending catastrophe; Robert would be taken soon and sent into the maelstrom of total war. They had no illusions as to the outcome.
At some pivotal moment they decided they would marry before it was too late, even though Ann was only a sixteen-year-old junior at Sweetwater High School. At seventeen, my father’s dates with Ann to this point had been carefully monitored. The only way Dad could date my mother was with her brother Joe Jr. and his girlfriend Jean along, including the caveat that all traveling must be done in my granddad’s ’42 Pontiac.
A conspiracy was hatched. My dad went to his uncle Ernest, a persistent black sheep, even on the Webb side where it might be said that standards did not run quite so high as they did across the creek. Ernest had a beat-up old Ford that he loaned to my dad for an afternoon drive to the high school. In an amazing display of testosterone-charged hubris, Dad picked Ann up at school and took her up the road twelve miles to Erick, the scene of a hastily convened wedding party at Uncle Virgil’s place. The group made a short trip to the Methodist minister’s home and there the two kids were married, my mother in her school clothes and my father wearing a pair of blue jeans and brown shoes, tall and lithe and good-looking but now on the wrong side of the law.
With thirty-five dollars between them they headed for Lubbock, Texas, cuddled in the backseat of a Greyhound bus. But when the cooing newlyweds arrived in Lubbock, the terminal was crawling with cops. Dad was promptly clapped in irons and charged with kidnapping.
The next morning Ann was driven home by her indignant parents, her dreams betrayed by a girlfriend in whom she had foolishly confided details of the plot. For my father, alone and behind bars for the first time, life had taken a sudden depressing turn.
Voices were raised on the Killingsworth estate. Ann was in a high temper over my father’s predicament in the Lubbock jail and for once laid down her own version of the law to her normally unassailable father and his equally phlegmatic counterpart. If they didn’t get Robert out of jail immediately, she said, they would have to watch her every second for the rest of her life; otherwise, at the first opportunity she would run.
She meant it and they knew she meant it. Dad was released from jail and drove the old Ford back to the Sunshine Ranch, still smarting from his first encounter with the law.
He went to work as a hired hand up on the highlands east of the creek, and he and Ann lived together in a one-room shack with an outdoor lavatory. To hear him tell it they were happy, even though their time together was of the borrowed variety, and too soon the day came for him to pack a single suitcase full of essentials and make the trip to the train depot in Sayre.
The morning was pleasant and cool, and both families, after all that acrimony, turned out to say good-bye. They were all dressed in their Sunday best except Charlie, who for reasons of his own, was elsewhere. There were tears, kisses, and hugs, and then the big Santa Fe locomotive took Robert away.
He finished basic training two months later. He had excelled, particularly with a rifle, earning a marksmanship badge. Ann settled herself with relatives near Camp Matthews on the outskirts of San Diego. They were able to see each other in almost painful intervals of intimacy knowing Dad was destined for the South Pacific. Perhaps there was no other way, but high in the government, great men were impatient to have the war over and done with, and the most expeditious, not the most humane, tactics were employed.
Such were the anxieties and fears that filled the waking and sleeping hours of the young lovers until the night my father was ordered overseas. The soldiers received no warning. They were told to pack and pray and present themselves at the trucks that would take them down to the great harbor and the ships of war. As the trucks trundled along the highway that by chance ran just past where Ann lived, Dad agonized over not being able to leave a note or even place a phone call. He eased his KA-BAR out of his duffel and carefully cut a small peephole in the canvas that covered the back of the truck. Through the tiny hole he saw Ann’s little house come into view and as quickly disappear. It was the last he would see of her for thirty-seven months.
The Cobra went up to one hundred miles an hour as easy as cream goes into coffee, still grumbling and launching fireballs from time to time, betraying an insatiable appetite to be in her comfort zone, which was another fifty miles an hour faster. Real race car driving was trickier than it looked on television. It took all my focus to keep it straight and between the white lines as we penetrated out into the Inland Empire on Highway 10, past Ontario and its gigantic speedway, eventually toward Colton, home of my alma mater, and birthplace of my muse, the lovely Susan Horton.
Night fell. Now we were cruising. Past San Bernardino on Highway 15, then onto the wide, buff-colored Mojave Desert. The evening chill and increasing altitude seeped into our clothes as the engine bit into the colder air. We homed through the desert on a mostly empty road. No gas stations, no houses, no roadside phones or rest stops, just the cacti, mesquite, and tumbleweeds of the high desert.
There, the Cobra powered down and slowed to a crawl in a slight depression, and then stopped. Even the Devil looked stunned.
We waited, the only two figures in an otherwise lifeless tableau. Hours crawled by and no assistance came. The questionable novelty of our situation quickly turned into fathomless boredom and irritation, punctuated by fits of temper directed at the Cobra (“fucking piece of shit”) and the desert (“my left ball just froze off”). Finally the Devil got so cold he stood in a tumbleweed and ignited it with a cigarette lighter. There he stood, his feet and legs swathed in boiling flames, smiling his enigmatic smile.
“Does that work?” I asked.
“Not really. I’m signaling.”
Eventually a kindly driver chanced upon the pathetic scene and agreed to take us, shivering and babbling our gratitude, into the nearest town, humble Barstow. We checked into Leon’s Lucky Deuce Motel, a dung heap, and fell asleep. I dreamed that I was in Las Vegas and meeting Elvis.
The next morning the Evil One and I staggered to Leon’s Lucky Deuce Garage. Leon was hunched over the engine compartment, undoubtedly challenged by the Gordian knot in the guts of the Cobra. “It’ll be ready when it’s ready,” he grunted. We headed to Leon’s Lucky Deuce Grill and Grocery for breakfast.
“Places like this will be history soon,” said the Devil. “Soak it up while you can. In ten years that garage will be a parking lot and this joint will be a strip mall.” The Devil was always throwing that kind of shit in my breakfast.
We went back to the garage and noticed with satisfaction that the bonnet was closed on the Cobra. Leon charged a thousand dollars for his work. I grudgingly handed it over, anxious for the bellow of unfettered power moving ahead. Moving ahead was all.
By the time we got into Vegas, we were beaten down. Ears ringing, hair greasy, a slight film of oil covering our faces, not looking or feeling our best. I drove to Caesars Palace, where I was a regular, and the parking guys gawked at the Cobra and parked it out front where everybody could see it. They asked us if we wanted broads and we stared dumbly into each other’s glazed eyes and shook our heads in negative unison. We went up to a big suite that was furnished like the best little whorehouse in Herculaneum, and we crashed.
When the shadows grew long and the towering hotel blotted out the descent of the merciless sun through the unadorned sky, we donned expensive Italian suits with silk shirts and Gucci loafers for the Elvis Presley show. Our hair was shoulder length, however, and we got looks from some of the casino bosses as we exited the elevator and walked through the lobby. Hippies were objects of suspicion at the big hotels back when “The Family” was running things.
Out front under the huge arching canopy, under a thousand glistening spotlights and exuding a silent belligerence, sat the Cobra. Without discussing it, we opted for a cab. It was a short hop from our hotel to the International, barely time to smoke a ready roll and split a couple of caps of mescaline.
Reality was already morphing when we exited the cab into a mass of celebrity and journalistic chaos. Outside and inside the huge lobby of the International were sensational billboards announcing the “Elvis Presley Summer Festival” to an elbow-knocking crowd of DJs, high-rollers, hookers, greats, near-greats, not-even- greats, ingrates, would-bes, hustlers, hucksters, hoodlums, honchos, and some fans. In the faces of the middle-aged women who had worshipped Elvis in their teens, there was a holy light. Not on any other evening of their lives, be it unbearably long or tragically short, would they experience the transcendent ecstasy that was visible all around their persons. No mean thought marred their beauty in this hour, however sordid or plain their lives may have been, as they moved in a hushed mass toward their Source, their Fountain and High Priest of Youth.
I was carried along with the current of unmitigated enthusiasm, into a showroom that glowed like the interior of some impossibly vast spaceship, emblazoned high up on the walls with idols: unforgettable, gigantic golden angels. Why angels? I did not know, nor did I know for a certainty they were really there. And then I had it. It was Elvis! Elvis was the angel. And around me the world swirled in joyous pilgrimage to see a real angel.
Security persons blocked the way but the Devil whispered in their ears, money changed hands, and ropes and barriers parted magically as the elite were filtered onward, down the seemingly endless platforms of the indoor amphitheater, past the leather upholstered divans and booths, all the way down, until I thought there must be some mistake. Down to the linen-covered long tables situated in parallel rows right in front of the stage and then, unbelievably, further still, to the first seats at the very front of the crowd, the stage looming a couple of feet above our heads.
I stared across the table right into the face of All-Pro fullback Jim Brown.
“Howdy,” I said.
He acknowledged me with a curt nod. Still, I was impressed. Even a cursory glance around us revealed an essentially all-celebrity crowd. Hollywood had come to Las Vegas.
Softly at first, but with increasing urgency, the Thus Spake Zarathustra theme of Richard Strauss began to play on huge speakers overhead as the lights dimmed. The throbbing engine of the rhythm section was engaged and the metaphor of space travel was evoked again as the floor trembled under the influence of some vast psychic motor. Then, to put it simply—though it was not a simple thing—Elvis Aaron Presley walked onto the stage.
Putting all criteria regarding tessitura, style, presentation, and all the other boxes on the scoring checklist of the professional reviewer aside for the moment, Elvis had a superhuman, metaphysical presence on stage that bowled me over completely. I felt as though he knew I was there and was singing to me, talking to me. I looked around me and could see that everyone else felt exactly the same way. He was wearing a black, close-fitting costume with a long piratical red sash around his midsection. His hair was loose and styled much like a Beatles cut, not sprayed into a pompadour as I had expected. His physical condition was superb as he gyrated through “Train” and “All Shook Up,” stopping to indulge in some questionable comedy, such as bending over too far and allowing his guitar neck to get “stuck” on the toe of his boot. He goofed around with a little foot-long Fender guitar: “When I was a baby I played this little bitty guitar!” Dumb joke. But nobody cared. I felt the electricity lancing through the room in great jolting bolts. It wasn’t a performance as much as a special effect or an induced epiphany. He possessed the audience and made it his.
He looked up at the gigantic figures on the walls and stared thoughtfully before saying: “Boy, those are some pretty funky-looking angels up there!”
Everybody laughed hysterically. It became obvious to me, somehow I knew in the way trippers always know, that he was high as a kite on something.
Looking back into the room I could see the beginnings of mayhem. Hundreds of women were leaving their seats and migrating toward the front as the show progressed. Quickly they penetrated the A-list conclave and were all around us, tears streaming down their cheeks, faces filled with a ghostly light and tranquil reverence as though they were witnessing a miracle: a perfect outline of Christ appearing on the wall of a grain silo.
“Wise men say, only fools rush in…”
Like the invitational at the end of a revival service, the hymnlike tune of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (w. Peretti, Creatore, and Weiss) caused many to cry openly.
Elvis was now working his way from stage right to stage left along the footlights, fifteen or twenty silk scarves draped around his neck. He was stopping to kiss the girls and drape a souvenir scarf around them. He took his time and the kisses were real. A beautiful supplicant near me sighed and dropped like a stone, while others tried to support and comfort her.
Eventually I looked up and saw he was standing over me looking down. If he had wanted to kiss me and give me a scarf it would have been okay. Instead he reached out with a little scrap of paper torn from an envelope and dropped it on my table. I was looking straight in his eyes and they smiled as he moved on. There was much more kissing and scarfing to be done!
I squinted at the little torn out square of paper and saw scrawled there in a rough hand: “Dear Jimmy, come backstage.”
Suddenly the house lights were up. The show was over. The audience stood applauding, all of them, waiting for an encore that would never come.
The famous epithet “Elvis has left the building, ladies and gentlemen. Elvis has left the building!” sounded through the P.A. in an attempt to dissipate the crowd, which was stubbornly holding its ground, reluctant to consign such a moment to history.
Two burly security guards appeared out of nowhere and I had a momentary notion that they were there to throw us out of the place.
Instead one of them growled, “Are you Webb?”
“Let’s go!” they both said, and bracing us on either side as we penetrated that mass of humanity, stubborn as a hedgerow, they half escorted, half dragged us to the side of the stage and through a double door that led into the labyrinth of hidden passages that honeycombed the inside of the hotel.
Eventually we came to an unprepossessing doorway that led into a smallish dressing room full of Elvis costumes on racks, glittering suits with big collars. Then the guards stopped at another door and beckoned us inside. A short, fat man chewing on a cigar was glad-handing us from the moment we stepped inside.
“I’m Tom Parker,” he chewed in a Southern accent. “I s’pose y’all here to meet Elvis.”
We nodded dumbly, the mescaline wearing off now, the neon lighting harsh as we went through yet another door, and suddenly there he stood. It was Elvis, already changed into tight faded jeans and a loose coat of many colors. The customary sunglasses were forgone. Surrounding him, in a flying wedge, as though they possessed him in some way, was the Memphis Mafia: Red, Charlie, a half-dozen of ’em. The tableau had a psychological effect. We shrunk; he expanded.
I approached and shook his hand, the Devil and I mumbling words that I don’t recall except I do recall Beelzebub saying “Howdy, El!” which seemed a little familiar, but the Devil had a pair and he wasn’t going to kowtow to nobody. In close proximity to Elvis his animus, his mana, became almost suffocating. I forgot what I had planned to say. It didn’t seem to matter. Only he mattered. He was saying something about Glen Campbell, and they were saying he had to pick out another outfit for his next show, and we stood there in La-La Land just staring like tourists from another planet. Elvis must have endured millions of such stares.
Phone numbers were exchanged through intermediaries as though he was going to be calling me or vice versa. What a laugh. The last thing I remember before I left, hustled out by the officious and ever congenial Tom Parker, was gazing in awe at the diamond-studded belt that marked Elvis’s physical and spiritual center. It lanced, glittered, and sparkled with the only word that needed to be said: ELVIS.
After thirty-seven months in the combat zone my father de-shipped in Long Beach from the USS Maryland and walked down the long gangway with his duffel bag over his brawny shoulders into a milling crowd of brother Marines and sailors, and civilians—mostly women—intent on finding that one special person, to remake a pairing in a ritual as old as warfare and waiting. The crowd was thinning before they found each other, it having taken them a long time to recognize each other after all the years and the physical changes on both sides. He was twenty pounds of hard muscle heavier and two inches taller. She had always been a pretty girl but had flowered into a curvaceous pinup in his absence, a fact she had not been shy to advertise in an occasional black-and-white photo posed demurely in a one-piece bathing suit and sent like a promise into the maelstrom of war. Finally, they came hesitantly face-to-face.
“Bob?” she asked uncertainly, looking up into his hard, browned features.
“Ann?” he replied unsteadily as he dropped the duffel bag and swept her up into his mighty arms.
My father, a man of considerable wit, says I was born “nine months and forty-five minutes later.”
I soon returned to Las Vegas. It was the end of August and the Presley show was closing for the year. I couldn’t miss that. I was alone, the Prince of Darkness having gone off on some nefarious mission.
I was in the lobby of the International Hotel, which had been closed for a huge private party. A corridor had been roped off through which the regular guests could travel from the front door to the registration desk and then to the massive elevator banks. The rest of the stadium-sized lobby was reserved for Miss Nancy Sinatra’s opening night party, commingled with Elvis’s closing night party. Elvis and Nancy had just appeared in 1968’s Speedway together. Mr. Sinatra was hosting for his suddenly famous daughter, riding high with Lee Hazlewood’s production of her hit “These Boots Are Made for Walking.” In attendance was every singer on the Strip who wasn’t working, the celeb contingent up from Hollywoodland, hundreds of record company brass and high rollers, and cadres of undercover security guys packing iron, which made them so conspicuous it was laughable.
There was so much glad-handing, bullshitting, ass-kissing, ego-schmoozing, and showbiz circle-jerking going on that you could have easily mistaken it for a political fund-raiser, but it was just the usual Vegas Vamp. I had neither the will nor the skill to play this kind of chess. I was only learning insincerity, slowly but surely.
I drifted from the center of the room, where I greeted Nancy Sinatra, a sweet, straightforward kid my age, and her father, who wasn’t really known for long frivolous conversations. Nobody knew who the hell I was unless they were telepathic, which made it easier to slide through the seekers and sounders and find a friendly barstool in the corner. I ordered a beer and swiveled to face the crowd, which had reached maximum spatial saturation, a point at which literally no person in the room can move in any direction for any distance. Networking shuts down. Now people just want to get out alive.
I laughed and wheeled around to devote my attention to the gold veins in the black mirror behind the bar. “These Boots Are Made for Walking” was just short of deafening on the sound system as I felt rather than sensed, a person immediately to my right.
A familiar baritone bourbon voice reverberated in my ear: “Jimma!”
The guy had bent over and put his elbow right down on the bar to talk to me. I eased my head around cautiously, not sure who had managed to move in so close.
“Jimma!” he said again, and I found myself nose-to-nose and eyebrow-to-eyebrow with Elvis Presley.
“Hey!” I shouted involuntarily, as all my ass-kissing solenoids kicked in at the same time. I skewed the barstool around to face him. He was wearing dark glasses, a white shirt open at the throat, jeans, and a black velvet jacket.
“Don’ geddup, Jimma,” Elvis said. “I jus wonna talk to ya fo a minute.”
I mumbled something about that being an honor and asked him if he wanted a beer.
“Nah, I don’ drink.” He laughed and I laughed, too, as if I knew the joke but I fuckin’ didn’t.
“Jimma, I jus wanna ask you how many French horns you use in your orchester.” I didn’t think of myself as someone who “had an orchestra” like Harry James or Nelson Riddle, but so earnest was his expression and tone of voice that I let that slide.
“Well, I tell you, Elvis,” I said, “when I first started out I used three because there’s basically three notes in a chord.”
He snorted. “Yeh, I know that!” His lip really did curve up on one side, like a friendly snarl.
“Well,” I continued, “when I started writing more complicated chords I found out three French horns just didn’t always get a full, rich sound.”
Now, I was talking to the guy about something I cared about. He thought about it as I studied his reflection in the bar mirror.
“Okay, Jimma, that seems about right to me, too.”
So the Big E lies in his giant white bed and thinks about orchestration? Mind-blowing.
“You know,” I added, as I nodded toward Mr. Sinatra across the room, “Nelson Riddle uses four French horns.”
Elvis slipped off the black glasses and reached over to shake my hand.
“Hey, Jimma, thank ya vermuch. Just wait’ll yuh hear ma new orchester.”
He smiled and I said, “Hey, anytime!”
And then like a wraith he was gone. I mean gone. I did a 360-degree scan of the gigantic lobby and there was no sign of him. All my life I’ve felt a moment passed, a chance to say: “I mean anytime, or anything! Any of those monsters you’re wrestling with, ’cause I have monsters in my closet, too! I like you. I would like to tell you every goddamn thing I know about music! I think I could turn you on to stuff.…” But he was gone, and like Melville’s Moby-Dick I would only see him again once more.
Copyright © 2017 by Jimmy Webb