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Tag: grover lewis

Farewell to Cracker Eden

lewis583.

Just as a quick follow-up on Grover Lewis. Check out this memoir piece he wrote in 2005.

In 1943 my parents—Grover Lewis and Opal Bailey Lewis—shot each other to death with a pawnshop pistol. Big Grover had stalked us for a year, fighting divorce tooth and nail, and when he finally cornered Opal alone and pulled the trigger, she seized the gun and killed him too. They’d started out as Depression kids who had eloped from the Trinity Heights area of Oak Cliff, where they’d both been friends with Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Like Clyde, my father was an unschooled country jake who fell—or jumped—into low ways in the big city. Opal, like Bonnie, was a bright student who left school early to help support her family—a moral girl with high ideals. Like Bonnie’s, Opal’s main crime seems to have been picking the wrong guy. In the end, she managed to save my father from everybody but himself.

The fatal events took place in my hometown of San Antonio when I was eight, and I became the ward of a brutish Fort Worth in-law who amused himself by trying to break my body and spirit. By today’s standards, he would have been deemed abusive enough to serve jail time. After five years, when I realized that my options were either suicide or homicide, I ran away and refused to return if I died in the process. Many of my mother’s kin considered me unsalvageable because I was a “pure Lewis.” They’s give me that look: “Just like his daddy.…”

Spook—my great uncle, C.E.Bailey—saved my life. When he took me in, I was badly damaged—withdrawn, lacking confidence, blind as a bat, smart as fire, dumb as hell. Still, with a friendly home base only a block’s walk from my high school classes and the local library also close at hand, I began to mend. My case was extreme but hardly singular in a workingman’s district where a lot of families got blown to smithereens.

A sagging condo pile with a “No Drugs” sign out front occupied the lot where our old family boarding house had steed. Spook and I had lived upstairs in a bare room with a bare bulb above the iron bedstead. When I started working after school, I bought us reading lamps, feeling grown-up about pitching in.

Spook’s insight—his special grace—was to treat me as a younger brother instead of a ward. In is fifties by then, a union machinist and a lifelong bachelor, he kept his mind sharp by studying the Bible and parsing out “the lies in the papers.” Half a Wobbly in his secret heard, he taught me a multitude of useful things, one of the germinal ideas being that decency and common sense were most likely to be found in common people. He offered general advice, specific if asked, and never raised his voice or hand to me. In the long haul, I think I was less trouble to him than his batty sisters, both of whom constantly schemed to lure him into their religious cults.

If Spook was our family Samaritan, Matthew Bailey—my mother’s father—was our scourge. A Snopesy little jackleg-of-all-trades—he had been Bonnie and Clyde’s favorite bootlegger—he worked for thirty-odd years as a maintenance engineer at the Wholesale Merchants Building in downtown Dallas, where he routinely slept with maids as a condition of their employment. With a flame of rage perpetually flickering in his head, he once put a black man off a city bus at knife point for sitting in front of him. I loved the old devil regardless and helped him out sometimes on weekend plumbing jobs, mostly just handing him his bottle. Matthew approached everything with a maximum violence required for the job, he never swatted me around, because as a rule, he only beat on the people who lived under his own roof.

And then dig this nice oral history on Grover by Texas Monthly:

Peter Bogdanovich (director of The Last Picture Show): I don’t remember how Grover got on the set, obviously through Larry [McMurtry]. He introduced him. And at some point we decided he’d be good to play Sonny’s father. I had written something, and we told Grover what the lines were, and he did it. I don’t remember that I was told that he was going to write a piece about the film until it was a fait accompli. Because I never saw him take notes. No tape recorder. No interview. I was surprised when I saw the piece. At the time, I remember being very unhappy with it and thinking that it was ungenerous, unkind, and inaccurate, if well written. And I remember being rather angry about it at the time. I don’t believe I ever saw Grover again.

Rae Lewis: The thing about Grover—I saw this time and time again—was he had a reporter’s instinct for relaxing his subjects. By the time he’d interview them, he had researched them. When he talked to Robert Mitchum [for Rolling Stone ], he knew about Mitchum’s short stories. He would start talking and point out that he was taping the conversation. He wanted them to understand that they would be quoted. But he just had a way of talking so they’d relax, and next thing you knew they were going to town.

Robert Draper (correspondent at GQ; former writer at Texas Monthly; met Lewis while researching Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History): Around the time I interviewed him for the book, he hadn’t really done any work at all for two or three years. His confidence was shot. Maybe, to put a finer point on it, his ability to reconcile his standards with the realities of the publishing business had gone the way of the buffalo. Not to give myself too much credit, but in his eyes my book had restored his rightful place in magazine journalism, and it was only after that that he started to churn out magazine stories again. Although by churn out I mean three stories a year rather than one a year.

Kenneth Turan (film critic for the Los Angeles Times; worked with Lewis at New West): Posterity is so quirky. Grover was as good as anyone who wrote nonfiction journalism in his era. You can hold his stuff up against anybody’s. Who knows why some people get to be better known than others? But in terms of quality, Grover took second place to no one.

BGS: Hitting the Note with the Allman Brothers Band

duane

Shortly before Duane Allman’s fatal motorcycle accident on October 29, 1971, Grover Lewis spent a week on the road with the Allman Brothers on assignment for Rolling Stone. He turned in his story two days before Allman’s death. Lewis had already helped give the magazine credibility with his sprawling account of the making of Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 film The Last Picture Show but he’d never write another story as controversial as the one on the Allmans. Truth is, Gregg Allman hated—and still hates—the piece.

According to Lewis’ widow, Rae, “I know it was [Rolling Stone editor] Jann Wenner, not Grover, who made the decision to run the piece in the immediate wake of Duane Allman’s death. Frankly, I’ve always thought Gregg’s beef about the story—and the timing of the story—was just puerile nonsense rooted in some sentimental attachment to southern notions of valor and honor and the sanctity of the dead.  Also, and maybe I’m just being cynical here, it is much easier for someone to be pissed off about a negative story if they can shift the emphasis so that its publication becomes a breach of good taste and not just a negative story. You can’t even really blame Jann. No editor or publisher I can think of would have pulled that piece under the circumstances. When Grover’s collected work, Splendor in the Short Grass came out it was reviewed by Roy Blount Jr. in the New York Times Book Review, Gregg (or maybe it was his attorney, on his behalf) sent an irate letter about the grievous injury that story did to the memory of his late brother.  Wow, I thought, this guy really knows how to nurse a grudge.”

From 1971, originally published in Rolling Stone—and reprinted here with permission—here is one of Lewis’ most memorable stories (followed by an epilogue by W.K. Stratton, co-editor of Splendor in the Grass):

Hitting the Note with the Allman Brothers Band

By Grover Lewis

There are sixteen seats in the first-class compartment of the Continental 747 flight from L.A. to El Paso, and the tushy blonde stewardess greeting the boarding passengers beams the usual corporate smile until she does a fast snap and realizes that a full baker’s dozen of the places are being claimed by this scruffily dressed, long-haired horde of… Dixie greasers. Her smile congeals, then goes off like a burnt-out light bulb when one of the freaks asks her matter-of-factly for a seatbelt extension and starts packing guitar cases—seven of them—upright in seat 1-D.

“Well, now, wait, I don’t know,” she stammers, fidgeting from foot to foot. “Who are you, anyway?”

“We’re the Allman Brothers Band from Macon, Gawgia,” Willie Perkins, the band’s road manager, announces in a buttery drawl. He searches patiently through his briefcase and produces a round-trip ticket for the seat in question. “It’s OK,” he assures her, “we paid cash money for it. It’s the only safe way to transport our gittars. We do this sometimes six days a week. Now would you please get the extension; please, ma’am?”

Reluctantly, the stewardess fetches the cord, and Willie finishes lashing the vintage Gibsons into position. Then, just before takeoff, he does a quick head count of the entourage to be certain that no one’s been left behind. The members of the band—Duane Allman, Gregg Allman, Dicky Betts, Berry Oakley, Butch Trucks, Jai Johany Johnson—all are present and accounted for. The three roadies—Joe Dan, Kim, and Red Dog—and the sound technician, Michael Callahan—all aboard. The proud bird with the golden tail lifts skyward to Texas.

By the time the No Smoking sign flashes off, both of the Allmans are fast asleep, their mouths characteristically ajar. Duane, whose nickname is “Skydog” but who resembles a skinny orange walrus instead, looks bowlegged even when he’s sitting down.

Dicky Betts, alternate lead guitar to Duane, whiles away the flight swapping comic books with the bassist, Berry Oakley. Butch Trucks, the group’s white drummer, pores over a collection of sci-fi stories by Philip Jose Farmer. Jai Johany Johnson, the black drummer, who’s also known as “Frown,” stares somberly out the window the entire trip.

Willie Perkins, wearing a faded Allman T-shirt, offers a fellow traveler a filter-tip and concedes that yes, there’re quite a few hassles involved with being on the road almost constantly. “Coordination is the key to the whole thang,” he says as if it’s just occurred to him. “Gettin’ all the people and the equipment to the right place at the right time. Then, too, I’ve got to mess with gettin’ us paid, all that shit. These days the band averages about $7,500 a gig, and we don’t ordinarily have no trouble gettin’ our money. When the band was younger, though, playin’ smaller clubs, sometimes I had to… well, lean on some of the shadier promoters.

“Sure, there’s a bunch of headaches. Me, myself, I wouldn’t do my part of it if it was just a pure-dee ol’ gig. I wouldn’t do it at all unless I really dug the band. Business-wise and musically, see, the boys are all equals. Unofficially, Duane is the leader—everybody looks to him for makin’ the major decisions. Family is an overused word, I reckon, but here it fits just fine.”

While a second, less nervous stewardess serves lunch, Willie points out the three married members of the group—Gregg Allman, Berry Oakley, and Butch Trucks—“Gregg just got married two weeks ago, was you aware of that? Yeah, sweet little ol’ girl, too. But the wives don’t travel with the band ‘cept on special occasions. Everybody has purty well adjusted to the situation, you might say.” Willie signals to the stewardess that he needs some help with his tray. “Would you fix this doohickey for me, please ma’am?” he asks pleasantly.

“You bet,” she says, bending to the job. “Did you fellows play someplace last night? Everybody looks pretty sleepy.”

Willie grins. “Naw, we was up all night, but we wasn’t workin’. Truth is, we up all night purty near every night.”

From the seat behind, Red Dog reaches forward to tap Willie on the shoulder, jostling Gregg awake in the process. “Hey, brother,” Red Dog asks Willie excitedly, “is that snow down there on them hills?” Gregg squirms angrily in his seat. “Kiss my dyin’ ass, brother,” he mumbles. Willie peers out the window for a second and shakes his head at Red Dog: “Naw, brother, that’s the desert. That’s a right smart of dust down there.”

As the plane makes the descent to El Paso, Berry Oakley squints down at the brown, hilly town. He nudges Butch Trucks: “Hey, my man, this is where the Kid got it, you know that?” Butch dog-ears a page in his book and yawns, “Billy the Kid?” “Naw, brother, that cat in the Marty Robbins song. Marty Robbins is my hee-ro, man.”

Inside the terminal, after Willie and the roadies have rounded up the group’s thirty-odd pieces of luggage, Joe Dan rubs his palms together in a parody of lustful anticipation. “Man,” he crows to Michael Callahan, “I can’t wait to put skates on the ass of some of these nice Texas ladies.” Callahan tells him that the night’s gig is in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and that they won’t be in Texas more than a few minutes in transit. “Well,” Joe Dan says philosophically, “they got nice ladies in New Mexico, too, I reckon. We’ll put skates on their asses.”

Under a lowering sky, the entourage crowds into two Hertz station wagons for the sixty mile drive to Las Cruces. During the ride, Jai Johany plays lacy Afro jazz on a cassette machine, frowning, saying nothing. At the wheel, Willie reminisces to the fellow traveler about the band’s gig on the last paid-admission night at the Fillmore East: “Oh, my God, the boys was hittin’ the note for sure, brother. They smoked up the place till seven in the mornin’. That was a great place to play. The World Series of rock and roll.”

In the backseat, Duane leafs boredly through a copy of Cycle magazine and grumbles about the group’s travel arrangements. “It’s a drag not to have your own plane, man. That way you could go where you wanna go when you wanna go. Jesus, I’m wasted.” He falls asleep almost instantly, as does Berry Oakley. The wasteland miles roll past, and the first quarter-sized spatters of what will turn into a furious rainstorm blur the windshield.

Las Cruces is the kind of vanishing Western town where you can leave your motel room safely unlocked, except almost no one ever does because most of the people in the motels are from places where you can’t leave anything unlocked. At the Ramada Inn, where the Allman menage disgorges for a rainy afternoon of sleep, TV-viewing, card-playing, comic-book reading, coke-snorting, and pure listless boredom before the evening’s concert, there is a stenciled sign on the door to the hotel’s cocktail lounge. It reads:

N. Mex. Law:

ALL CUSTOMERS MUST WEAR

SHOES & SHIRT

Wearing neither, Dicky Betts sits in his room just before the show, strumming his guitar and softly running through the lyrics of “Blue Sky,” a muted country-style air he’s just written in honor of his Canadian Indian lady friend, Sandy Blue Sky. Joe Dan, one of the roadies, sits hunkered on the carpet across the room, sipping a can of beer, and when Dicky has finished singing, Joe Dan nods and murmurs respectfully, “That’s hittin’ the note, brother.” Betts acknowledges the tribute with a sober bob of his head; he has just cut his hair short, and he has the kind of bony, backcountry face that calls to mind the character Robert E. Lee Prewitt in James Jones’ From Here to Eternity.

“Hittin’ the note,” Betts muses, cradling his guitar snug against his bony chest, “it’s kinda hard to explain to anybody outside the band. It’s like gettin’ down past all the bullshit, all the put-on, all the actin’ that goes along with just bein’ human. Gettin’ right down to the roots, the source, the truth of the music. Lettin’ it happen, lettin’ that feelin’ come out…

“See, we got a lotta blues roots, the old-timey blues players—Robert Johnson, Willie MeTell. Myself, I do a lot of the old white country players like Jimmie Rodgers, some of those fellows…. Hell, I’m a big fan of Merle Haggard. The truth be known, I bet ol’ Hag set down with his manager and schemed out ‘Okie from Muskogee’…

“Ten years from now? Well, I’ll still be playing music. That’s just in me to do. Where I’ll be at or what kinda music I’ll be playin’…shit, I don’t know. Naw, this band won’t be together by then. I don’t see what point there’d be in tryin’ to keep it together that long. Everything’s got to change. The times’ll be completely different. But I’ll still be playin’, somewheres or other.”

There’s a knock at the door. It’s Willie Perkins, rounding up the boys for the gig. It’s time to go hit the note.

But it doesn’t happen this night. At the Pan American Center of New Mexico State University, a cavernous, sweltering-hot gym where the concert is scheduled to begin at 9:45, there’s a forty-five-minute delay while Gregg Allman’s rented organ is located and installed on stage. During the wait, Gregg and Duane Allman and Dicky Betts sprinkle out little piles of coke on a table in the backstage locker room where the band is sequestered and sniff it through rolled-up hundred dollar bills. Duane calls it “Vitamin C,” and after his second snort, he buttonholes the fellow traveler in expansive praise of Betts’ guitar-playing: “Brother Dicky’s as good as there is in the world, my man. And he’s gonna be smokin’ tonight. Listen to him on ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.’ Fuck, he wrote that fuckin’ song after he fucked this chick on a fuckin’ tombstone in a fuckin’ cemetery in Macon. On a fuckin’ tombstone, my man!” The other members of the band sprawl listlessly about the room on wooden benches, drinking Red Ripple and reading comic books in a tableau that will be ritually repeated every evening for the next six days.

When the band finally files on stage and Duane kicks off “Statesboro Blues” to a scattering of cheers and applause, the principal revelation of the occasion is that Gregg Allman is not, after all, a stone catatonic, as he appears to be everywhere except in front of a microphone. His voice rises and swoops, circles and jerks the old blues staple to a frenzied, hair-raising climax that’s explicitly sexual enough to be rated “X.” The usual contingent of snowbirds and total-loss farmers, massed ten-deep in front of the towering amps, howl their pleasure—“Boogie mymind, motherfuckers!” a pudgy cockatoo in head-shop plumage screeches as the band runs through its more or less standard repertoire: “Elizabeth Reed,” “Please Call Home,” “You Don’t Love Me,” “Stormy Monday,” “It’s Not My Cross to Bear,” “Dreams,” and “Hot ‘Lanta.”

But the crowd in the farther reaches of the hall seems considerably less enchanted. For one thing, the sound is soggy at the rear, and a long-haired kid who says he’s majoring in Police Science (yes) estimates the crowd as “25 percent freaks, 25 percent cowboys, and 50 percent who don’t give a fuck.” The band manages one encore, “Whipping Post,” but halfway through the number the audience is busily streaming toward the exits.

Afterwards, back in the locker room, Gregg Allman morosely doles himself out another dollop of coke. “I couldn’t hear shit,” he snorts, and snorts. “Sounded like we’us playin’ acoustic,” Dicky Betts chimes in disgustedly. “Coulda been a dynamite gig, too, man,” Berry Oakley laments. “Coulda been, but it wadn’t,” Duane snaps. He sinks down on one of the benches, frowning. “I thank mebbe it was the audience,” he sighs, “but then again… it coulda just been too much fuckin’ coke. You know what I mean?” He snuffles and reaches for the coke vial.

Off to one side, Red Dog is whispering in the ear of the lone groupie who’s shown up, a big-nosed redhead with deep acne scars. The girl listens expressionlessly, then finally nods yes to whatever, sucking on a joint as if it were the last sad drooping cock in the world.

Under Willie Perkins’ persistent proddings, the Allman retinue is out of the Ramada Inn and settled on a flight back to L.A. by noon the next day. Again, most of the boys spend the travel time dozing or poring over comic books. Before zonking out on the plane, Duane shows Berry Oakley a crumpled letter he’s just received.

“Know who this is from, brother?” he crows. “Ol’ Mary—You ‘member Mary? Man, I hitchhiked 2,500 miles to see that chick one time, and then her daddy caught me fuckin’ her in the garage and throwed me out. Sheeit, I’m still in love with that chick, man… I… thank.” Within seconds, Duane is snoring, and when a saucy-hipped stewardess stoops to pick up his letter from the aisle, Red Dog leans over and says to her conversationally, “Honey pie, you got the sweetest lookin’ ass I’ve looked at all year. Lawd, I wish you could sang: We’d take your sweet-lookin’ little ass right along with us.”

“Oh, I can’t even carry a note in church,” the stewardess sings out, flustered and flattered.

Red Dog is the undisputed king of the Allman roadies. He’s been with the Allman Brothers Band since its earliest permutations—first, with the Allman Joys in 1965; then with the short-lived Hourglass, a West Coast-based studio group in ’67; still later, when the present band was formed, principally from the personnel of the earlier groups, from ’69 on. Red Dog was there toting instrument cases when the Allmans cut their three LP’s to date—The Allman Brothers Band, Idlewild South, and The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East—and he’ll likely be around as long as there are any Allman instrument cases to tote.

Right now, he winks slyly, orders three cocktail-sized bottles of Jack Daniel’s Black Label from the stewardess, serves himself one, and pockets the other two. “Gawddamn,” he cackles to me, “I gotta whole suitcase full of these leetle fuckers. Why not? They free when you fly first-class.”

Rubbing his back, he complains that he feels achy all over, “See, I tuck and fell off the fuckin’ stage last night while I was settin’ up Butch’s traps. One or the other of us is always fallin’ off the fuckin’ stage. And I got a pimple on my ass, too, man. Hurts like hell. This just ain’t my trip, brother.”

Teasing his scruffy red beard with a swizzle stick, Red Dog remarks that the band’s success has brought some changes. “Aw, it’s still fun awright, but not anywheres the way it used to be. Time was, we’d blow our last five bucks on a case of beer in Flagstaff or someplace. Now it’s big bid-ness.” He makes a face, then laughs aloud: “I still get off behind the chicks, though. Man, we get chicks ever’where we go. What really knocks me clean smooth out is to get head. Did I tell you? This weird chick was eatin’ me on stage at the last Fillmore East blast. Naw, the audience couldn’t see it, but all the boys could.

“Another time, in Rochester, I was standin’ against the stage wall while the band was hittin’ their note and some chick come up and unzipped me and started gobblin’ me alive, man. The cat in the booth saw what was happenin’, and he flashed a spotlight on us. Shit, man, I didn’t know what to do. Three thousand people out there, see, but goddamn, it felt so good. I thought, well, fuck it, and I grabbed her ears and said, ‘Let it eat!’”

A black-suited, middle-aged limo chauffeur named Artie, self-styled “driver for the stars,” meets the band at L.A. International Airport, helps Willie round up the mountain of luggage, and drives the boys to the Continental Hyatt House high atop Sunset Boulevard. During the ride, he prattles on cheerily about what groups are playing in Vegas and Tahoe, and he looks away discreetly as Duane snorts coke through a short-stemmed surgical straw.

At the hotel, Bunky Odum greets the group with bear hugs for all. A bluff, hairy grinner with a build like a crocodile wrestler, Odum books the band in the East and South and serves as second-in-command to Phil Walden, the Allmans’ sharp young manager. In a poshy suite on the fifth floor, he seizes the fellow traveler’s hand and pumps it like a hydraulic jack. “Gawddamn, boy,” he booms, “you gonna have to come down to Macon and get laid back with us when this bid-ness is over. We’ll take you ridin’ on our motors and get you laid and feed you somedown-home collard greens.

In another suite on the same floor, Berry Oakley orders a meal from room service, then kicks off his boots and plops heavily on the bed. “Tourin’,” he grimaces, “I’m gettin’ just a little tired of it, but that’s what I been doin’ ever since I could do anything on my own. Started playin’ gigs eight, nine years ago when I was about fifteen, and I been more or less livin’ on the road ever since.

“I can’t say what’s gonna happen with the band . It could be somethin’ great, and then again it might just go away like all the rest of ’em. We could do ten times more than we do, actually. There’s so much that’s in us that we haven’t played. We’re gonna have to start rationin’ ourselves out, like goin’ on the road and then goin’ home and workin’. Lately it’s been just goin’ on the road.

“All of us like to play to an audience and get response back. That’s what we call hittin’ the note. How should I say it… Hittin’ the note is hittin’ your peak, let’s say. Hittin’ the place where we all like to be at, you know? When you’re really feelin’ at your best, that’s what you describe as your note. When you’re really able to put all of you into it and get that much out of it. We just found it out along as we did it. We learned some from the audience, and they learned some from us, and things came together that way. It happens, I’d say, 75 percent of the time. There’s some special places we play where we’ve done it before, and everytime we go back, the vibes are there and it ends up happening again. We’ll end up playin’ three or four hours, and when we finish, I’ll be so high I can hardly talk. When you start hittin’ like that, the communication between the members of the band gets wide open. Stuff just starts comin’ out everywhere.”

Stuff starts coming out everywhere that evening at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, beginning with the little white piles of coke backstage. This time around, though, the acoustics of the hall are crisper, the audience is more responsive, and the band’s music flows more smoothly, although there’s little if any variation from the previous evening’s program. The crowd bawls its approval, but begins to disperse after one encore.

Afterwards, there’s a party like an open running sore in Phil Walden’s tenth floor suite at the hotel. The booze flows, the smoke blows, the coke goes up, up, and away. Around midnight, a trio of female freaks, including a Grand Guignol-painted dwarf, crashes the festivities, chanting gibberish, doing stylized little dance numbers, groping cocks. Somebody says they’re part of Zappa’s grass menagerie. When the hotel manager finally flushes them out of the room, Dicky Betts nudges the fellow traveler and guffaws: “Haw! You better get out yo’ pen and pencil and write down their names, my man!”

The next morning, while Artie and Willie Perkins are loading the black limo with luggage and instruments, Gregg Allman sidles up to the fellow traveler in front of the hotel and palms off a plastic vial containing a quarter ounce of white powder. “Hey, brother,” Gregg mutters, “hold these goods for me till we get to Frisco, will you do that? I’m scared of them fuckers at the airport, man. They got them gun detectors and all, and they down on people that look like hippies.”

On the way to the airport, more comic books and boredom. As the car passes the Super All Drugs, Butch Trucks cranes around to stare at a flamboyant leather dyke. “Well, theh’s ya big city,” he philosophizes. Willie is fascinated by the dizzying onrush of traffic. “These California people all got to be good drivers,” he drawls, “or they’d all be dead by now.”

At the airport, Duane draws Dicky Betts off to one side. “Did you hear them tapes of last night, brother?” he asks, shuffling excitedly from foot to foot. “Man, I wasinspahred. Listen, we got to get at least six more killer tunes right away. My composin’ chops are gettin’ rusty. What say when this tour is over we woodshed and write for a coupla weeks?”

“I dunno,” Dicky says, looking dubious. “I was thankin’ about goin’ to Canada to see Sandy.”

“Aw, come on, man,” Duane groans.

An hour and a half later, in a rented station wagon headed for what turns out to be a fleabag tourist warren near San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, Dicky is reading aloud the marquee billings along Broadway in North Beach: “Cal Tjader, hmn… the Modern Jazz Quartet… hey, Mongo Santamaria. Shit, I thank I’ll bop in there and ast ol’ Mongo when he’s gonna record ‘Elizabeth Reed.”’ He double-takes at a sign above a topless joint that reads NAKED SEDUCTION. “Crap on that stuff,” he wheezes. “I druther do it than look at it.”

Pausing at the hotel only long enough to drop their gear, Duane and Gregg and Berry Oakley race back to North Beach on a shopping binge. In a super-expensive leather shop, Duane freaks over a hand-tooled shirt with a colored panel on the front that resembles a drive-in theater facade in, say, Ponca City, Oklahoma; he eagerly pays $200 for it. Within minutes, he and Greg have dropped over $500 for a few shirts and trousers, and then Butch Trucks, accompanied by his slender, shy wife, Linda, briefly joins the group and buys a cowboy-style coat. Then Dicky shows up, looking for a maxi-length white leather dress for his Indian lady friend. After Butch and his wife have paid for the coat and drift on to rubberneck the bizarre upper-Grant Street mise-en-scene, Gregg curls his lip derisively: “Shit, you see that ratty-lookin’ coat ol’ Butch bought? Fucker didn’t even fit him.”

Duane shrugs contemptuously: “His ol’ lady probly put him up to it. She don’t know shit. She made him buy that Dee-troit car, too, man, and he coulda bought a fuckin’ Porsche for the same bread. Shit, man.”

“Yeah, shit, man,” Gregg agrees.

The band plays for a near-capacity audience at Winterland that evening. Before the music starts, while Bill Graham’s rent-a-goons are nastily hassling reporters on what seems to be sheer lunatic principle, Gregg draws on a joint backstage and mumble-explains his concept of hitting the note: “Uh, achievin’… the right… frame of mind, man. You smoke enough grass, you’ll get there. Uh… three joints, maybe.”

Ten minutes later, Gregg is squalling out the opening lines of “Statesboro Blues,” and a joy-transfixed chickie in the balcony shoots to her feet in a writhing dance.“Oh, baby,” she screams, “joy up and jump on me!”

Early the next afternoon, enter the photographer, looking cheery. An easy-going zaftig lady, she’s been promised a two o’clock shooting session with the band, but whatever else they’re doing, the boys are not hitting the note today. Half of them, in fact, are still asleep at the appointed time, and to a man they resist being roused. “Aw, Duane and Gregg’ll do that, you know,” Willie Perkins explains sheepishly. “They’ll stay up for three, four days, and then crash like they’us dead.”

Bunky Odum promises solemnly that he’ll deliver both Allmans to the photographer’s studio before the evening’s concert at Winterland. “Gawddamn, honey,” Odum booms, “you gonna have to come down to Macon and git laid back with us when this bid-ness is over. We’ll take you ridin’ on our motors and… uh… feed you some down-home collard greens.”

But Odum fails to deliver on his promise that evening when both the Allman brothers balk at the notion of being photographed apart from the rest of the group. They seem, in fact, outraged by the notion. They seem, in fact, like cranky, petulant children, coked to the gills. “Fuck, man, we ain’t on no fuckin’ star trip,”Duane snarls. “Naw, man, we ain’t on no fuckin’ star trip,” Gregg echoes. Trying to smooth things over, Odum arranges for the photographer to join the group’s swing back to Southern California the next day.

Exit the photographer, looking addled.

Exit the fellow traveler, looking for a movie far from the madding goons at Winterland.

Sleepy and hanging over, the group assembles in the hotel parking lot the next morning for the drive to the airport and an early flight to Santa Barbara. Only Dicky Betts seems in high spirits; after last night’s gig, he’d gotten a new tattoo at Lyle Tuttle’s south-of-Market studio—a dove entwining the name “Sandy” on his right bicep. “Ever’body in the band got one a these, too,” Dicky says proudly, pulling up his pant leg to show a tattoo of a mushroom on his calf. Willie Perkins nods shortly, “It’s the band’s emblem. We all got one, and we use the same design on all our litachoor, too.”

Dicky catches sight of Duane and guffaws: “Hey, brother, you got coke all over in your muss-tache.” Peeved, Duane rakes the white grains out of the hair on his lip and glares steadily at the photographer, who’s snapping individual candids of the band members. When she moves in toward him, he turns his back with a growl.

On the drive to the airport, Berry Oakley is literally holding his head with both hands. “I run into this ol’ girl last night who had a whole purseful of tequila,” he groans. “Then when that run out, we got into some Red Ripple. Jesus.

On the flight south, Butch Trucks reads the opening chapter of D. T. Suzuki’s Zen Buddhism. “You read this un?” he asks Dicky Betts. Betts’ eyes flick over the title. “Yeah, good, ain’t it,” he grunts. An hour later, one of the stewardesses remonstrates repeatedly with Duane to return his seat to the upright position for landing. Irritably, he complies, but when the stewardess moves on, he reclines the chair again, muttering balefully under his breath. “The boys are gettin’ pretty tahrd,” Willie Perkins sighs.

The band puts up for the night at the Santa Barbara Inn, a poshy beach resort for the middle-aged rich, where, once again, Duane refuses to show up for a picture session with the photographer. Looking positively shell-shocked by now, she pleads her case to Bunky Odum. “Goddamn, honey,” he booms, “you gonna have to come down to Macon and git laid back with us when this bid-ness is over. We’ll take you ridin’ on our motors and feed you some down-home collard greens.”

That night’s concert is held in Robertson’s Gym at the University of California-Santa Barbara. The band plays a tight, subdued set that sets a gaggle of braless nymphets near the stage to jiggling like fertilized eggs frying in the ninth circle of hell, but the general ambience in the hall—high humidity, surly security guards, a surfeit of bum acid—gives the evening a jagged, unpleasant edge, and streams of people begin leaving before the set is done.

Duane and Dicky lope backstage afterwards to “do some sniff,” as Dicky terms it. Duane grabs a towel and mops his streaming face while Dicky spoons out the coke. “Goddamn, I’m sopped, brother,” Duane complains.

Dicky snorts the powder and bobs his head in pleasure, “Sheeit, my man, I druther sniff this ol’ stuff than a girl’s bicycle seat.”

Jo Baker, a black singer with the Elvin Bishop Group, hovers nearby, eyeing the coke. Duane fixes her with a cold stare. “Looka-here, sister,” he says loudly. “I’m sorry, but I got just a little bit of this shit left, so I can’t give you none.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” Jo says, looking embarrassed. “Sure, as a musician, I understand.”

Early the next morning, “Frown,” Jai Johany Johnson, is living up to his nickname in the hotel restaurant. Slurping a triple Gold Cadillac, which is a positively depraved concoction of liquor and liqueurs, he growls, “Bullshit, my m’an. I’m into playin’ music, not this sittin’-around bullshit. Seems like when we was unknown, all we did was play. Now all we do is get publicity…. Ten years from now, if I be livin’, I expect to be playin’ music…. Naw, not with this same band…. I got my nickname, the full thing of which is ‘Jaymo King Norton Frown,’ from drinkin’ Robitussin H-C, that cough syrup. It makes you nod and frown. All the cats in the band used to drink that shit, so they finally got me to drink it, too…. Shit, I don’t know what my attitude is towards dope. I don’t guess they ever gonna stop it comin’ in the country and all that shit. Sure has caused a Iotta hang-ups, if you can dig what I mean…. Hittin’ the note is—well, that don’t be nothin’ but a phrase. What the cats in the band mean by it is… gettin’ out of it whatever you’re lookin’ for…”

Bunky Odum has again promised the photographer that he’ll line up the boys for some shots when the group checks out of the hotel, so she stations herself near the parking garage and nervously waits for them to show up. Soon, Butch Trucks and his wife join her, and Butch apologizes to her for the runaround she’s been getting. “Aw, ol’ Gregg and Duane don’t mean no harm, I reckon, but they still ortn’t to act that a way,” he mutters, looking pained. “We been on the road too long, I guess. It’s been five weeks now, and you get awful tahrd and wore out bein’ out that long, playin’ the same tunes every night and all. It gets to where sometimes it ain’t any fun. And this definitely ain’t the kind of business to be in if you ain’t havin’ no fun.”

One by one, the boys straggle out to the cars, again looking sleepy and hung-over. When they’ve assembled in a loose semicircle, the photographer explains that she’d like to get a group shot showing the tattooed mushrooms on the calves of their legs. There’s some grumbling, but they begin to fall in line and raise their pant legs. Then Duane shakes his head angrily and stomps out of camera range. “This is jive bullshit, man,” he rasps, “it’s silly.” “Yeah, silly,” Gregg echoes, and follows suit. “Jive bullshit,” Dicky Betts agrees, stuffing his pant leg back into his boot. At my teasing suggestion that it’s no sillier to shoot a picture of everyone’s tattoos than it is to have them put on in the first place, Duane coldly offers to punch me out on the spot. Well, what the fuck, hare krishna; Duane is, after all, the walrus.

The entourage crowds into two rented cars for a tensely silent ride down the coastal highway to L.A. Along the way, Duane gruffly agrees to stop for a last try at the photos on a beach road. When the photographer tries to position the group around the cars so all their faces will be visible, Duane goes out to lunch entirely. “Fuck it,” he bellows at her, “either take the fuckin’ picture or don’t take the fuckin’ picture. I’m not gonna do any of that phony posin’ shit for you or nobody else.”

He’s still grumbling and snuffling when the cars swing back onto the highway. “I don’t like any of that contrived shit, man. We’re just plain ol’ fuckin’, Southern cats, man. Not ashamed of it or proud of it, neither one. Ain’t no superstars here, man.” When he finally shuts up and falls asleep, the fellow traveler gladly crouches down toward the floorboard so the photographer can shoot both the Allmans with their mouths agape in the rear seat. It’s uncomfortable for a few miles, but it beats the hell out of getting punched.

Quartered once again at the Continental Hyatt House on the Karmic Strip in L.A., the Allman group whiles away the afternoon snorting coke, reading comics, mounting a seek-out-and-buy raid on Tower Records, and watching The Thief of Baghdad on color TV. When it’s time for the evening’s gig, Willie Perkins rounds them up and herds them toward Artie’s black Cadillac limo for the half-mile ride down Sunset Boulevard to the Whiskey-a-Go-Go. “C’mon, brothers,” Michael Callahan, the soundman, calls out as the band mills about the driveway, “they gonna eat you alive at the Whuskey-a-Dildo.”

In the upstairs dressing room at the Whiskey, amid the usual groupie babble and turmoil, the photographer determinedly tries to shoot some final pictures. Politely, she asks a busboy to replace some burnt-out light bulbs in the ceiling. When the busboy fetches a ladder and the bulbs, Gregg Allman saunters up and mumbles, “Don’t screw that bulb in, my man. I like it in here the way it is.”

“Please screw the bulb in,” the photographer entreats.

“Don’t screw the bulb in, man,” Gregg says to the busboy stonily. This happens a few times.

“Oh, screw it,” the photographer says finally in exasperation and leaves.

When the band’s set gets under way downstairs, the usually comatose Strip crowd yells its lusty approval from the first chorus of “Statesboro Blues.” By the time Dicky Betts thunderballs into his solo jam on “Elizabeth Reed,” people are standing on their chairs, yodeling cheers. As the band jam-drives to a sexy and demonic close, sounding not unlike tight early Coltrane, a flaxen-haired waitress is passing up draughts of beer to the screaming patrons in the second-story gallery. The beer is streaming amber and glistening down her bare arms, and the Allman Brothers Band from Macon, Gawgia, is—what else—hitting the note.

EPILOGUE by W.K. Stratton

Back in the day, I marshaled some of the rare coins I had in junior high and took out a subscription to Rolling Stone. At the time, it came out biweekly on newsprint and unfolded into a tabloid format, so it was really not exactly a magazine in the sense of what one expected from, say, Esquire, with its slick pages. It also seemed to balance itself between a newspaper and a magazine in terms of content. Much of the material up front was very weekly-newspaper-like, but there was tons of editorial space between the ads as you moved through the remainder of the publication, and this space was filled by features, some short, some long, some very very long — and even some poetry.

I was already interested in writing at that time, reading a lot of Steinbeck, for instance, and I had a sense that different writers could write in different ways. Then as now Rolling Stone was about more than just music, and the features could take in a lot of different things that might have been of interest to young Baby Boomers, who made up its primary reading audience. The editing hand seemed to be light, allowing different voices to deal with different topics in different ways. I remember well reading the Hunter Thompson pieces, and remembering his name. I remember reading a piece by Joe Eszterhas about a band of rural hippies in Missouri and remembering his name. And I certainly remembered the bylines of Chet Flippo and Ben Fong-Torres.

But there was this one guy, who seemed to write about movies as much as anything, whose style captured my fancy more than anyone’s. I didn’t really connect with his byline until after the horrible death of Duane Allman; shortly after Allman’s death, Rolling Stone carried this long piece about the Allman Brothers Band. And it was by that guy whose style I liked: Grover Lewis. I remembered it thereafter. As for the piece itself, at the time, I thought it portrayed the band as real and it did so not in any sort of derogatory way. It never occurred to me then that anyone could see it in any other way. But I was, what, 15 at the time? What did I know about the emotions of brothers and other family members, and friends, and devoted fans?

I did not realize that the story caused a shit-storm of controversy for the magazine until I read Robert Draper’s history of Rolling Stone years later. A number  of years after that book came out, my good friend Jan Reid and I were compiling Splendor in the Short Grass, an anthology of Grover Lewis’ writing. We both read the Allman Brothers Band piece and thought it was fine, but we also thought Grover had done finer writing during his career. We toyed with the idea of omitting it in favor of some of his later work, such as the heartbreaking piece he wrote about Gus Hasford, the author of the novel that was the basis of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.

But people familiar with Grover and his work insisted: We had to include the Allman Brothers piece. It was his most famous article from Rolling Stone. So we did. Ironically, when Roy Blount reviewed Splendor for the New York Times Book Review, the Allman Brothers Band article was the one he particularly pointed out. Well, within a few weeks, Butch Trucks, the drummer for the Allman Brothers Band, wrote a lengthy letter to the editor of the Book Review stating, essentially, the band’s disdain for the article and Grover. No one could have been more surprised than I at the reaction. After all these years… I learned this much from working on the collection itself: The back story is that Grover never seemed to be that big on the article himself. He finished it and filed it and it was set and ready to go when Duane Allman died. He was fine with withdrawing the article under the circumstances. It was Jann Wenner who insisted that the magazine run it.

As far the prose goes, I think the article is a fine piece of writing, for my money not as good as Grover’s writing on Peckinpah, for instance, but good. Is it a fair assessment of the Allman Brothers Band and Duane circa 1971? The Allman survivors would say no in thunder. Grover, if he still walked among us, would most certainly insist yes. One thing that’s clear from Trucks’ letter is that the whole project was a bad match of writer and subject from the very beginning:“Lewis joined our tour in 1971 at the insistence of our management. We were a very close-knit group of musicians and had little use for all the interviews, photo shoots and other such nonsense that went with the image building that made for big-time rock ‘n’ roll success.” As to its place in Grover’s canon, it is indeed the best known of his Rolling Stone pieces.

[Photo Via: Phil Ochs archive]

 

The Banter Gold Standard: The Killing of Gus Hasford

Grover Lewis was part of a remarkable generation of Texas writers to emerge onto the national scene in the 1960s and ‘70s, including Larry McMurtry, Larry L. King, Edwin “Bud” Shrake, Gary Cartwright, Billy Lee Brammer, Dan Jenkins, and Dave Hickey.  Police records show that Lewis’ estranged parents shot and killed each other in San Antonio when he was a small child, and he was raised among uneducated and poor relatives who, for the most part, discouraged him intellectually and artistically.  He also was legally blind, making his way as best he could through substandard Texas public schools.  Yet, remarkably, he managed to become very well read and developed an encyclopedic knowledge of American film.  At what’s now the University of North Texas, he fell in with the company of other bright students with a literary bent, including McMurtry. He then pursued graduate school and newspaper work for several years.

Among Texas newspaper reporters, he developed a reputation as a hard-drinking, never-back-down journalist.  He made a name for himself nationally when he began to publish articles in the Village Voice in the late 1960s.  He then became an early staff writer and editor for Rolling Stone, where he proved to be a master of long-form journalism.  At the time, Rolling Stone was at its peak of its journalistic influence and Lewis was one its star contributors.  While he wrote about a variety of topics, his groundbreaking work was made up of dispatches from the shooting locations of some of the most important films of the 1970s.

Lewis’ tenure at Rolling Stone was relatively short-lived, however, as conflicts with publisher Jann Wenner grew.  After leaving Rolling Stone, he contributed to several magazines, notably New West and Texas Monthly.  Except for paperback collections of his Rolling Stone articles and poetry, he published no books, yet he developed a devoted cult following for his magazine pieces, a following that included important authors, editors, critics, and filmmakers.  A heavy smoker, Lewis died of lung cancer in April 1995 at age 61.  Ten years later, the University of Texas Press published Splendor in the Short Grass: A Grover Lewis Reader to wide acclaim.

W.K. (Kip) Stratton is the co-editor of Splendor In the Short Grass.

“The Killing of Gus Hasford”
By Grover Lewis

1. SEMPER GUS

“The best work of fiction about the Vietnam War,” Newsweek called Gus Hasford’s The Short-Timers when it was first published in 1979. The slim hardcover sold, like most first novels, in the low thousands, but established its author as one of the premier writing talents of his generation. In the tradition of Stephen Crane, Hemingway and James Jones, the book summoned up the horrors of war in an unrelenting voice with all the potential for world-class success.

Hasford’s critical stock rose even higher when Stanley Kubrick filmed the book as Full Metal Jacket. Released in 1987, the picture received one major Academy Award nomination—shared by Kubrick, Michael Herr and Hasford himself for best screen adaptation. At a stroke, the struggling, rootless young novelist entered the upper realms of “A-list” Hollywood. But in a skein of envy, spite and the inexorable grinding of bureaucratic “justice”—all of them compounded by Hasford’s own obsessive passion for books—his newfound celebrity backfired, and he was sent to jail on bizarrely exaggerated charges involving stolen and overdue library books.

It all combined to kill him.

Gus died alone, as he had mostly lived, in Greece on January 29 at the measly age of 45 from the complications of untreated diabetes. His death coincided eerily with the 25th anniversary of the Tet offensive, the campaign so graphically described in The Short-Timers. Two weeks after the shock of his death, 20-odd mourners had gathered in the chapel at Tacoma’s Mountain View Memorial Park. Gus’ kin sat close to the front—his mother, Hazel, a gaunt and visibly ailing Alabama native, along with Gus’ younger brother, Army Sergeant Terry Hasford, and Terry’s Korean wife, Soo. Back of them a couple of rows were the Snuffies, a cadre of Gus’ brothers-in-arms from the Vietnam days, all wearing their battle ribbons on sweaters or lapels, the five men who’d managed to attend representing a total of eight Purple Hearts.

Several editions of The Short-Timers lay on Gus’ bier, along with copies of his later books, The Phantom Blooper and A Gypsy Good Time. Gus’ picture as a stern-faced teenage Marine sat on a pedestal, The urn containing his ashes on another. His Vietnam decorations were also on display—two rows of ribbons plus-one, the highest being the Navy Achievement Medal with a Combat “V.”

Five wreaths ringed the dais—two from Gus’ family, another from “Doctor Dave” Walker, who’d been Gus’ landlord and unofficial medical adviser in his last days in America. A spray of white tulips was signed, “From all the gang down at the Cafe Cafard.” The floral tribute from the 1st MarDiv ISO Snuffies spelled out SEMPER GUS. Nothing from Hollywood—not a bud or sprig from Stanley or Michael or any of the other distant A-listers who’d profited from The Short-Timers.

Assorted friends sat across the aisle—Doctor Dave, and the book dealer Bruce Miller from San Luis Obispo, who’d supported Gus during his trial, and Kent Anderson, another formidable Vietnam War novelist. Anderson, author of Sympathy for the Devil, fidgeted in agitation. I sat just behind him, shivering a little in my lightweight L.A. clothes, In the far rear of the room, with their rifles stacked out of sight, sat six young Marines in full dress uniform, white hats squared on their blue-clad knees.

The noon ceremony was spare, simple and elegantly offbeat Steve “Bernie” Berntson, chief archivist of the Snuffies, spoke a brief eulogy and then set out bottles of Jack Daniel’s, fruit juice, Evian water and California wine. Nine other mourners, including myself, offered personal tributes to Gus, concluding with toasts to his memory. A local Presbyterian minister, a little nonplussed by the procedure, toasted God.

At the service’s conclusion, the Marine honor guard fired four volleys of salute outside the chapel, followed by a bugler playing taps. A smart-stepping Marine SNCO presented Gus’ mother with a folded American flag. “In behalf of a grateful nation, ma’am, we present this flag as a token of your son’s honorable and faithful service to the United States of America.” Mrs. Hasford sat with her eyes lowered, softly fingering the cloth. “I never could understand that boy,” she’d told one of the Snuffies a few days before, “just never could.”

In a caravan of cars, the memorial moved en masse to Berntson’s house in a nearby suburb, where the post-mortems continued through the afternoon and into the evening in a glow of sipping whiskey, fond remembrance and brusque camaraderie. Many of the characters in The Short-Timers had been modeled on the now-middle-aged Snuffies, and the men were strapping proud of the distinction. In Vietnam with Gus, they’d all been Marine combat correspondents, equally adept filing dispatches or fighting hooch-to-hooch. At Gus’ wake, circulating from bar to buffet. they openly discussed his jail sentence and its effect on him. None of them approved of his transgressions, but none of them had rejected him, either. As men who’d shared life at its worst, they viewed Gus as family—and whatever had happened, they loved him. “Capital punishment for library violations?” Gordon Fowler growled. Gordon was “Cowboy” in the book.

Bernie told perhaps the best “Gus story”: “It’s peculiar, but this happened exactly 25 years ago today. I’d set up a base camp in Hue City, and Walter Cronkite rolls up with a camera crew. He was doing a stand-upper with some pogue colonel, asking about rumors that our guys had looting. Just then Gus busts in with two black onyx panthers and a stone Buddha on his back. ‘Hey, there’s a whole temple full of this shit,’ he hollers.’ We can get beaucoup bucks for this stuff in Saigon!’ I hustled him outside quick, and Cronkite, of course, came back home and declared the war unwinnable on national TV.”

There were a million Gus stories, and some of the classic ones were told by Major Mawk Arnold, USMC (Ret.). He arrived late in the afternoon, delayed transit, but he was essential not only for his moral presence, but to carry Gus’ remains back to the Hasford family plot in Haleyville, Alabama. Picture John Huston with a shiny pate, resplendent in dress blues and battle ribbons dating back to the South Pacific and China in the 1940s. “Skipper” Arnold had created the Snuffy team by letting them make their own mistakes and victories. Nearing 70 now, he’d been the catalyst—the force who’d molded raw young snuffy recruits with reading habits and verbal skills into warrior artists in a World of Shit.

Another round of toasts commenced after dinner. Every Snuffy present had helped Gus out of various hapless jams during and ever since the war … and, Jesus, if the fucker hadn’t slipped out of their reach, maybe he wouldn’t have died. It hung over the table, unspoken. Bob Bayer (“Mr. Short-Round”) recalled driving hundreds of miles to rescue Gus from his latest broken-down lemon car. “He could start out to meet you with a thousand bucks in his pocket, walk past a bookstore, and then you’d have to spring for dinner.” Earl Gerheim (“Crazy Earl”) nodded and smiled: “Gus had a 45-year childhood—the childhood the rest of us missed, I guess.” There was general agreement that Gus had been a zany, wonderful, generous naive, impractical genius, maybe too pure in his way to die of old age. Bernie raised his wine glass. “To those of us who are near,” he said, “and those far away, and those who are beyond the wire.”

Around midnight, since we both had early flights to catch, Skipper Arnold offered me a lift. We rode across the dark city, at conversing in low tones, with Gus’ ashes in the trunk.

Back at the hotel, I packed for a wake-up call, turning over in my mind again the riddle of how Gus had become a victim instead of a victor. As much as anybody—except perhaps Gus himself—I understood how he’d been stung to death by success. But there was one more key to turn, one final labyrinth to enter—in a hilly suburb of San Diego. For the first time in two weeks, I fell into deep, dreamless sleep.

2. CAFARD

“I know this psycho vet novelist you ought to meet,” Judith Coburn, a writer for The Village Voice, told me over drinks in the spring of 1982. Coburn, one of a handful of American women to cover the Vietnam War, let me know with a look and a shrug that she’d gone out with Gus Hasford a time or two and found him too much of a headache. “Maybe !’ll bring him by.” I said sure, lovely. I’d admired Hasford’s book and was curious to meet him I figured anyone who wrote with that kind of crafted velocity would have to be a piece of work.

When the two of them arrived on the weekend, July was fuming. On the walk over. they’d argued in shouts about the IRA, wi1h Gus staunchly defending terrorism. She !eft early and he ended up staying late.

In his early 30s then, a tall, beefy lad in mismatched wash-and-wear clothes, Gus shook hands formally with my wife, Rae, and me, declined a glass for his beer, and launched into a stream-of-consciousness commentary that ranged from Nathan Redford Forrest’s cavalry tactics to Lion paperbacks, cheerfully finding a thread of comedy in everything, including Judy’s desertion. He had a huge, open, frequent country laugh, and he paced back and forth with big arms swinging. his eyeglasses and high forehead glinting, he seemed very much like a large child coming on as a swaggering Marine drill instructor. Amiable and eager to please, he was a ceaseless note-taker. If you said something be liked, he jotted it down immediately in the little leather-bound notebook he always carried with him. ‘”Hey, do you mind? I don’t want to make any more faux passes, y’know.”

With the ice broken, Gus raided the fridge for another beer, located the bathroom, and then took up position by the main bookcase in the living room, where he delivered a blistering diatribe against Harper & Row, from whose clutches he’d been trying for months to pry remainders of “Shorty,” as he called his book. “Hell, I don’t work for those candy-ass pogues,” he snorted, “they work for me.” In style, he was a master of bombast, invective and insult repartee—but his heart belonged to books. He spread his arms and said he owned over 10,000 volumes. “My God, where do you keep them?” “In a rental locker up in San Luis Obispo. It’s my research library.”

He clucked approvingly at my collection of hard-boiled titles, and pulled out a volume of Ambrose Bierce’s short stories. He read aloud a favorite passage from “Chickamauga” and said he was planning to write a biography of Bierce, plus a multivolume saga on the Civil War. Plus a novel about an American woman president, which he was presently working on. Plus a sequel to “Shorty” called The Phantom Blooper. Plus a series of six L.A. private-eye novels. His notebook was color indexed to various ongoing research projects, including Mark Twain, anarchy, the Alamo, Van Gogh, screenwriting and Abraham Lincoln—all subjects about which he expected to write books eventually. “I don’t quite have my stroke down on Hollywood yet,” he confided, “but somebody’ll film ‘Shorty’ one of these days, and I want to work on the script. My book, my movie. So maybe you’ll play me some videotapes sometimes and give me your counsel and talk to me and stuff. Hey, are we bonding yet?”

If Gus was chasing rainbows, it was on a Renaissance scale. He laid out his writing plans with such implacable certainty that you had to nod. He never quite let himself brag, but he had his path to success all mapped out, and he managed to leave the impression that he was poised for little short of world literary domination.

As a journalist, I specialized in playing fly on the wall to star misfits, and I recognized an utter original as Gus offhandedly related the bare bones of his back story. When he was a high-school kid in backwoods Alabama, he’d somehow managed to publish a nationally distributed magazine for writers called Freelance. Then, at 18, he’d joined the Marines to get away from Dixie and Mama. After the war, he’d floated through a decade of shit jobs up and down the West Coast while he honed The Short-Timers to a fine and polished point. Now, he was trying to get the bread together for a look-see trip to Australia with an idea of settling there permanently. He rejected American Civ wholesale—except for maybe Sizzlers and used-book stores. Full of outrageous opinions, he loathed “the brass” in all forms, whether military or industrial. At the moment he was flirting with anarchy, because it figured in his woman-president book, and I just laughed when he brought up the IRA as misunderstood heroes. When he got too far out for me to follow, that was my response, and usually he’d laugh, too.

Our conversation carried on into the night, and something subtle and intensely personal began to flow between us, keyed to the fact that we’d both grown up poor in the cracker South. Beneath his mock-macho manner, Gus projected unspoken miseries, unvoiced suffering—an undertone of vulnerability and isolation that he carried like a shadow. We compared notes on growing up, and I observed that neither of us had been properly raised—we’d escaped. Gus wrote it down. I began to feel protective toward him even as I laughed at his one-liners.

Still prowling our bookshelves, Gus came across Rae’s inscribed copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem. “Ooh,” he crowed, “do ‘y’all know the Didions and the Dunnes? Could we go over there right now? I got a thang for Joan. I want her to sit on mah face!” Elaborating his fantasy in obscene flights, Gus picked up his empties and pitched in to help with the dishes.

Rae, who’d seen Hunter Thompson puke on his shoes and survived, said after Hasford had gone, “Sweet guy. We’ll have to get him some clothes.” We agreed he was a heartbreaker. Before turning in, I made a few notes of my own, sensing that Gus was going to be part of our history, not so much as a subject but as someone who taxed my abilities to sum him up.

Gus had an uncanny way of involving you in fun that was clever and layered and kept unfolding. On his third or fourth visit, he marched out to our glassed-in lanai, switched on the neon cerveza signs, and stood silently regarding the white buildings of downtown Santa Monica just as dusk fell.

“Through those palm leaves,” he announced, “it looks just like Saigon. Outstanding! I’m naming this joint the Cafe Cafard. Do you mind?”

Cafard, he said, Was an obscure French term meaning “beyond anomie or dread” that he associated with the last-ditch warriors of Dien Bien Phu. Gus appointed himself social director, and within weeks a company of regulars formed for occasional al fresco dining and light carousal. Gus brought in Andy Dowdy, the owner of Other Times Books in West L.A., and Dowdy in turn introduced us to Philippe Garnier, a correspondent for Liberation in Paris, and his wife, Liz Stromme. It was a cozy, harmonious circle, free of competition or back-biting—a sort of R&R club for non-joiners. If you weren’t happy to be there, you weren’t invited twice. Gus hungered for acceptance, validation of his talent, and the group gave him that.

Going out in public with him was a dicier matter. He would race into a software store and say to the first clerk, “Tell me all about computers.” He’d get buzzed off, of course, without ever fully understanding why. He and I went to only one movie together—after which I slunk out guiltily because he’d talked throughout the picture. At an exhibit of Larry Clark photos, he somehow grossed out the gallery attendant. As time went on, I mainly confined my travels with him to book-buying expeditions. In bookstores, he was as well-behaved as he ever got.

As a hardcore eccentric, Gus either charmed people on the spot or scared them off quick. Full of an astonishing array of tics, tropisms, quirks and peculiar habits, he was alarmingly innocent about some things and deeply cynical about others. Everybody found him unreliable about time and totally resistant to sane advice. He imagined he was being subtle when he was being obvious. Given one of his periodic fixed ideas, you had to jolly him along toward a ray of reason. Part of him was a sunny boy and another part was permanently angry—over his childhood, the war, his poor luck with women.

Gus’ love life was a touchy issue. Oh, he could score, I gathered, but he wanted to capture some worthy woman’s heart on a permanent basis. He had his career all plotted out, but he longed for a partner to ease his loneliness. In the past, he’d been briefly married, and was bitterly estranged from his latest girlfriend in San Luis Obispo. “Brains is what I’m looking for,” he joked, “but I’ll settle for big tits.”

Our first heated words arose over Gus’ free ways with library books. In describing his reference files, he let it drop that he sometimes checked out books without returning them or otherwise “liberated” items he needed. It hit me dead wrong—my own life had literally been saved by public libraries in Texas—and I jumped down his throat about it, pointing out the obvious fact that library books belonged to everybody.

“Well,” he said defensively, “I need them more than everybody. If the libraries would just let me, I’d buy the stuff outright. Cut me a huss, willya?” If Gus got really sore, the cranky child would come out in him and he’d stalk off with his hands clenched. Not knowing the extent of his “borrowings” and mildly rattled by my own moralizing, I marked it up to one more mad-cap quirk. You had to make allowances for such a wild hair.

When we’d first met, Hasford had been living in his car “between motels”—a fact he didn’t mention until his fortunes improved. That occurred when a Munich businessman with no visible ties to the movie world optioned the screen rights to The Short-Timers—acting, as it turned out, for Stanley Kubrick. Gus broke the good news by brandishing a one-way Qantas ticket to Australia. All of us were jubilant at his prospects, since he stood to make handsome royalties from his worldwide literary rights alone, not to mention the prestige that would come from Kubrick’s involvement. At a bon voyage party, Hasford grandly signed and passed out remainders of “Shorty” to one and all. As the evening wound down, I commented that it might be tough for him to find a spot in Kubrick’s plans. Gus grinned: “Hey, I’m a self-motivated individual.” “Well, I’ll spread your fame,” I said. “Okay, I’ll keep you posted,” he promised.

His first letter to us was dated November 23, 1982—from Perth, on Australia’s far western shore:

I am, as we say so poetically in Alabama, happier than a pig in shit…Some big star is supposed to be interested in “Shorty” but they won’t tell me who it is until they sign the deal…I am trying to work on my famous thriller about the first woman president but so far my discipline is zero…Selling a book for lots of $ will be the end of my writing career because as soon as I have money I’ll see that I really don’t want to write, I just love to fan about with books and little projects…

The same week, Gus confided to Bob Bayer, his closest Snuffy pal:

My famousness seems out of control and may grow to proportions so awesome I’ll be scared to speak to myself. Yesterday I got a call from Stanley Kubrick—no shit…It was like Moses talking to the burning bush, a pea picker from Alabama and your basic cinematic legend…Don’t tell anybody, but I think I wet my pants…I feel totally out of my class…So now I’ll be more famous and more people will get mad at me, but there it is…Just don’t anybody accuse me of becoming arrogant—I always been arrogant.

(Dec. 8) Dear Grover & Rae…I don’t know if I should order a Rolls-Royce or get on welfare from one day to the next…I’m 35 now, so I have to be good. I come from a family of chronic dyers. Diars? Anyway, I have the death certificates of about 30 of my blood ancestors, and stress knocked them all off, so I’m mellowing my own self out… Stanley… is a thoroughly charming and easy-going fellow, just a good ole boy who happens to have made about half of the classic films in America. I talk to him every few days. We are trying to come up with a more satisfying ending for “Shorty”…I said, “But Stanley, the Vietnam War bloody well wasn’t satisfying.” “Right,” he said, “but they made you go…while we’ve got to convince people to pay to see this movie.”…That’s show business…Give them my regards at the Cafe Cafard.

(Jan. 4, 1983) Greetings Bob & America…Stanley and I, after about a dozen long talks, are lobbing frags. I told Stanley he didn’t know shit from Shinola about Vietnam. And he’s so sensitive, he got mad…Boy, famous people think they know everything.

Hasford returned to California in May 1983. Having given up his idea of emigrating and abandoned his thriller, he seemed almost desperately glad to see our friendly faces again. After a reunion in Santa Monica, he moved into a downscale motel in San Luis Obispo to be near his precious “storage.” In the coming months, striking several of us as slightly off his stride, he made two connections that would vex him for the rest of his life.

Early in the summer, he met an attractive young woman named Tidwell, a student at Claremont. Smitten at first sight, Gus decided she was the girl of his dreams. Tidwell, although friendly, failed to return his interest. No matter—he started writing her epic-length letters and showering her with gifts and attentions, determined to change her mind.

He also fell into a troubling relationship with a fast-talking pretty-boy sidekick I’ll call Hacker. A dabbler at writing and exotic con games, Hacker had hatched a bald scheme to accompany Gus to England to “cool out Stanley.” Forever posturing, Hacker was so up-front in his brown-nosing, so transparent in his envy of Gus’ talent, that I eventually barred the door to him. For a time, the two of them shared Hacker’s house in Sacramento. They traded books and competed for the same women until their chummy friendship turned to mutual hatred. When Gus decamped, he left behind him not only a poisonous enemy, but a time bomb set to explode.

(Feb. 1, I984—from San Luis Obispo) Hi Gang…”Shorty” is on the road to cinematic legend, etc. I’m rich now, only I don’t have any money. What an odd sensation. I can’t wait to see what it feels like to be rich and also have the money.

I told you I was planning…to do a series of tough-guy detective stories…I decided that the name of the detective’s partner will be “Dowdy Lewis.” Works pretty good, huh?…I still would like to see Killer’s Kiss…Stanley gets miffed every time I mention this film, so I mention it all the time. Or I say I liked Spartacus, another one he doesn’t care for…I’m going to go live at Stanley’s house and we’ll write the screenplay. Then I’m going to be technical advisor during the production…The other day he threatened to hire Michael Herr to help him write the film. I told him, be my guest. Stanley can’t replace me…Michael Herr can rite gud, but he wasn’t a Marine, he was just a very perceptive tourist…I promise not to eat cocaine with a spoon. I’m 36 now, got to pace myself. I think about a year or two of this show business bullshit is going to be enough to last me for a long time.

(Jan. 18, 1985—from a Mayfair address in London) Hi, mates!…I miss you guys. And Tidwell—I miss Tidwell a lot…I found (via Stanley’s connections) a really cute and cozy little flat right in the heart of the city…Stanley and I are getting along great. Michael Herr and I are big pals. I had dinner over at his place last night…Look for the movie around 1999—Stanley…insists on doing every single thing himself. Today Michael and I were joking with him, saying that when the film came out Stanley would probably insist on taking the tickets…Stanley didn’t think it was funny. He just looked at us with that Buddha face of his, as though considering doing just that…

(July 14—return address c/o Michael Herr)…Here in London the Great Movie Wars…are going hot and heavy. The situation is very complex, but the basic issue is one of screen credit. I’ve pretty much written Stanley’s movie (Michael and I are big pals now, but—off the record—Michael’s biggest contribution…has been his famous name) and Stanley has added a few minor things, but essentially the screenplay is by me. But Stanley wants to give me an “additional dialogue” credit…He threatens to pull the plug on the whole thing. Meanwhile, I am refusing to sign my screenwriter’s contract. Shooting was scheduled to start on July 1st, so I have held up the production for two weeks…I’m starting to feel all alone, like Gary Cooper in High Noon…Don’t worry about [Tidwell and me]…she won’t hear from me again. I never meant to be such a pain in the ass for everybody. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again…Don’t worry about Stanley and the movie, [either]. It’ll work out. Stanley has got more tricks than there are recipes for chili…

But back in Santa Monica we were worried—about Gus’ blinding naiveté and the fact that he had no agent. I wrote to him on July 23:

Try to think and go slow. The real power that the world will see in Full Metal Jacket is yours—and everybody who is past eating with his hands will know that. So if you take the money…and the…”Additional Dialogue,” so what? You will be buying yourself entry to . . . future big-time screen credits and much bigger book money in the long haul. What’s “right” by Hollywood standards is who says what’s right. That might not be suitable to your taste or mine, but it’s the way things work.

(Aug. 13—handwritten letter from Paris) Sorry I haven’t written in so long, but I hate to write…when I’m depressed…Stanley is bullying me, threatening me, and trying to rape me, and every day I’m getting hysterical phone calls from my mother because [Hacker] is calling her up and telling her all kinds of hateful fantasies—I’ve just driven that boy insane with my “success”—a “success” that is such a curse to me…What else? I’m broke. I’m in a city where I don’t know anybody. I feel old. I miss Tidwell every minute of the day…I miss all you guys.

(September—handwritten letter from London with a Bantam editor’s return address). The situation now is that I have delayed signing…until Stanley was forced to start filming, which he did on Aug. 25. The white flag has not yet waved…but I have beaten that self-described Napoleon son-of-a-bitch and I have beat him fair and square…I will mark [Hacker's] file “case closed” after I knock off his kneecaps. For some things, you’ve got to pay the price…

(March 1, 1986—from Gus’ former address in Perth) Late Flash: FILMING IS FINISHED!…I cannot believe this situation. I finally pried a copy of the shooting script out of Stanley’s famously anal-retentive fingers. It’s 99% mine. I got records, copies, witnesses…I got this shit locked in concrete. So here is a major motion picture written by a guy who has not signed any kind of contract, nor made a verbal contract, nor entered into an implied contract. This may be unique, I don’t know. Stanley thinks I’m worried about collecting the relatively small amount of money he owes me for screenwriting, plus getting some kind of credit, while I’m thinking that until I have received the money and the credit I deserved and was promised, I own his fucking movie…By and by Warner Brothers will hear about how far out on a limb their ass is—and how prime for the manual insertion of a big piece of paper with Latin on it, and then the rivers will run upstream…because there is only one rule in the movie business—The Golden Rule—he who has the gold makes the rules…I stumbled a few times…but now I think I’ve got this “Success” thing whipped. I’ve learned to view it in its proper perspective—that is, as a comedy…Defections, betrayals and swamped egos are just routine and are not my fault—I see that now…It really is something quite astonishing and pathetic [and] really, really scary. I have been introduced…as Gus/slash/Kubrick movie and I’ve seen seemingly normal people…with almost perfectly concealed egos that are like chained monsters—monsters so ugly, malformed, and sick with ruthlessness that they would make Count Dracula weep…So now…I can’t be the same, because everybody is relating to me differently…I’ve learned some stuff, but the price bas been high—almost higher than I could pay…I can only hope that the people that I care about will allow me to exist by seeing that it’s just old plain me back here behind this blizzard of little tinfoil stars…Stress kills but adrenalin keeps you young. Happy trails…

(May 20—from Perth)…In the cynical world of L.A., where show *biz* deals are conducted in the back alleys of cocktail parties like self-parodying out-takes from a comedic film noir, you might want to interject this lively note…I won my credit battle with Stanley, I beat Stanley, City Hall, The Powers That Be, and all of the lawyers at Warner Brothers, up to and including the Supreme Boss Lawyer. As a little Canuck…friend of mine would say: I kicked dey butt…I’m sort of bracing myself for all the attention that’s coming…[but] I can’t imagine anything more likely to seduce me into the far side of negotiating than this rush I am experiencing after taking on these movie people, the Big Boys, the Money Men & Yankees—and coming out with a decisive victory. As an Apache said: “Who will they send against me now?”…After Stanley gave up and decided that I wasn’t the hillbilly they stand in line to sell the Brooklyn Bridge to, Michael Herr wrote me a nice letter, which included his reaction to…the movie. Michael speaks with some authority … which is even more impressive if you know that Michael is so level-headed that it’s a mistake he wasn’t born an Englishman: “Your work has been treated with extreme sensitivity and respect…I think it’s going to be a great movie, and a landmark movie, maybe the best war movie ever made, and one that could be of incredible importance and usefulness to everyone involved…it is also, incidentally or not so incidentally, incredibly faithful to your book, to the real heart of your work…” I’d better go roll up in the old saddle blanket…I’m looking forward to being able to step up to the bar at the Cafe Cafard…

3. SOME CAME RUNNING

 

When Hasford flew home for the release of Full Metal Jacket, I interviewed him for the L.A. Times Sunday magazine. It was an ordeal—collaring Gus in his paranoia for a taped interview, working up a quick profile that did him justice without caricaturing him, and then nursing the text through the Times‘ pasteurization process. On the record, Gus cagily moderated his comments about about Stanley and Michael, but he was jittery about the piece and pressed me several times to see it.

Two days before the pub date—too late to change a word—I showed him the galleys. He read through the story several times, seeming gruffly pleased. Since he was camped out on our sofa, the two of us sat up late watching the glass elevator glide up and down the side of the nearby Huntley Hotel. Just before turning in, picking my moment, I asked: “How exactly did you kick dey butts, Gus?” He gave a short, abrupt laugh as if to say touché. “I forced them. Those fuckers retyped my book and wanted to put their names on it. So I told Stanley, either give me my credit or I’m going to the press—Gloria Emerson and Frances Fitzgerald and all my other old pals in the media—and say, ‘Hey, I’m a Vietnam veteran and Kubrick’s ripping me off.’ It would’ve killed the movie, so Stanley saw his way clear to cut me some slack.” The hair on the nape of my neck stood up. It wasn’t what I would’ve done, but I couldn’t help admiring his audacity, either. Still, I thought he might be fooling around with some kind of high-stakes bad karma.

Gus devoted the better part of two weeks to promoting the film. Warner Bros. put him up at the Westwood Marquis, where he gave phone interviews and amused himself by ordering $25 hamburgers from room service. “Hell, order a steak,” his buddy Bob Bayer advised. “What,” Gus cried, “and go back on my raising? Burgers are still my meat.” Since childhood, he’d subsisted almost exclusively on junk food (Ding Dongs were probably the most nutritious strain). During his time abroad, he’d started putting on excessive weight, causing several of us to wonder about his health. If we hinted that it might be a worthwhile idea to get a medical checkup, he’d say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah”—meaning the opposite.

Gus was threatened by celebrity, apprehensive about what he saw as the black hole of success, and after his flacking duties were finished, he seemed touchy and insecure, easy to rile. To cool him out and reintroduce him around, Rae arranged a series of dinners, inviting many of the writers and artists we knew. Gus thought he wanted to hobnob with the Westside literati—until he met some of them. The literary crowd tended to regard him as an amusing freak of nature—he didn’t have manners exactly like theirs. Gus could scent condescension at a thousand yards. He got along much better and found more in common with wheeling boho painters like Joe Clower, Jim Hayward and Robin Palanker.

Gradually, Hasford regained his easy-going composure and began enjoying his new status. Full Metal Jacket was playing to full houses all over America, and Bantam’s new paperback edition of The Short-Timers was on sale everywhere. The book was a global franchise now—a dozen translations poured in during the summer—and Louis Blau, Kubrick’s tony U.S. lawyer took Gus on as a client, placing The Phantom Blooper with Bantam for publication in 1990. Gus found a spacious, comfortable place to live in San Clemente, forming a lasting odd-couple relationship with his landlord, Dr. David Walker. Free of stress and money worries for the first time in his life, Gus went on a shopping spree, treating himself to a big-screen TV, a VCR, a Jeep and a new flak jacket. He lavished gifts on his friends and took a cross-country drive to tour the Southern battlefields. By mail, he conducted a heated side feud with Kubrick over Lee Ermey, the film’s drill instructor, whom Hasford labeled “a fucking pogue lifer” and a propagandist for the official Marine Corps pro-war line on Vietnam. Happy in his new digs, Gus puttered with his various projects and spent hours on San Clemente beach, where he claimed the world’s most beautiful women gathered to sunbathe.

Only romance—the lasting kind he yearned after—continued to elude him. The up side was that he met and dated a number of attractive new women. The down side—most of them, he was convinced, had dollar signs in their eyes. Gus’ ex-wife, whom he hadn’t seen in a dozen years, tracked him down after his picture appeared in the press. Her new husband ran some kind of bucket-shop phone-sales operation. She asked Gus to make a $25,000 investment. He declined, and related the story afterward with a mixture of rue and wrath.

Hasford still missed Tidwell, so he looked her up with the hope of renewing his courtship. Rejected again, he began bombarding her with angry letters. Tidwell showed me some of them, a little alarmed and seeking advice. I read a few pages and blanched—it was dark, spooky stuff, Gus’ usual invective gone off the rails. Fond of both of them, I gingerly interceded, asking him to ease up and try his luck elsewhere. The barrage of letters ceased, but he wouldn’t or couldn’t give up the idea of winning the girl he’d chosen to adore. His persistence had paid off with “Shorty.” Why not with Tidwell?

On February 11, 1988, Hasford, Kubrick and Herr were nominated for the best screenplay adaptation of 1987 by the Writers Guild of America, and a week later the three were also nominated for the Academy Award. Andy Dowdy and I urged Gus to attend the ceremonies for the sheer novelty of the experience. “Nah,” Gus snorted, “I’d have to wear a tuxedo.” But he asked Rae to plan an Oscar-night party for him at the Cafe Cafard.

Less than a month later, the time bomb that had been ticking for almost five years exploded. On March 21, in the Calendar section, the L.A. Times reported. “Jerry Gustav Hasford is being sought by California Polytechnic State University authorities, who late last week discovered some 10,000 books from libraries around the world in a storage locker in San Luis Obispo rented to the author.” The item went on to say that campus police had located overdue books from Cal Poly, delinquent to the sum of $3,000 in library fines, as well as rare books from libraries in England and Australia. “Authorities say the address and Social Security number listed on [Hasford's] card were false. No arrest warrant has been sought because investigators must first inventory the books, contained in 396 cardboard boxes that comprise a pile 27 feet long, five feet wide, and five feet tall.” In its essentials, the same story was carried on the AP wire (where it originated), in the L.A. Herald Examiner, and on CNN and KNBC-TV.

I tried to reach Gus all day. In a state close to shock, I also spent hours calling back and forth with Dowdy, Philippe Garnier, Tidwell and Bob Bayer, whom I knew only slightly, at the time. Bayer drove by Hasford’s place, found it deserted, and speculated that Gus was on the road to Tacoma to see his mother.

Ten thousand books from libraries around the world—that part of the story, I knew, had to be rubbish. And why, with no arrest warrant issued and no inventory of losses compiled and no “allegeds” in the copy, had the story run at all? Whether true or false, a charge of library theft was the toughest kind of antisocial beef to beat, a universally despicable offense that even illiterate slobs could feel superior about. As a former daily newsman, I realized that in two inches of type, Gus had I been branded a bug—effectively lynched. On some instinctive level, I also knew that any chance for him to win the Oscar had vanished and that his career had been permanently blighted, if not destroyed.

Two days later, with Gus still out of touch, Louis Blau called to ask if l knew his whereabouts, “Things are not as bleak as they seem,” the attorney said, “but it’s important that I reach him before they become bleak.” Miles Corwin of the L.A. Times also rang up to ask for Gus’ phone number. I told him I thought the initial story had been misreported, and he promised to look into it. Later, he called back to say that some 800 books were in question, not 10,000. He added, “They may have gotten in over their heads up there [Cal Poly],” and conceded that the original AP story had been mishandled by a local stringer.

On March 26, five days after the hub-bub erupted, Gus checked in with us from a highway pay phone. He seemed calm and oddly detached when I asked him what had happened. ‘The assholes ganged up one me,” he said. “You remember Hacker? Well, he had his eye on Tidwell, so I took off with some of his books for payback, left him mad. And he got together with my ex-girlfriend, who was mad at me, too. They hooked up with some showboat rent-a-cop at Cal Poly who thinks he’s Matlock.” Gus didn’t seem terribly upset then or a couple of days later when he came by to visit. As we talked through the evening, it sank in on me that he’d decided to treat the whole affair as a minor annoyance. The worst of it, he said, was that the “college-boy pogues” had all of his books. He planned to pay his fine or whatever and put it all behind him.

Ray Berrett of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo campus police with books seized from a campus-area storage locker rented by Hasford. Photo via the LA Times.

An AP follow-up ran in the Times on March 31—”Author Nominated for an Oscar Charged in Library Book Thefts.” The story related that Gus had been charged with grand theft on a Sacramento warrant dating to mid 1985, alleging that he’d stolen 50 to 100 books worth more than $1,000. (This was in addition to the Cal Poly allegations, not yet legally charged.) Bail was set at $50,000. The AP’s theft count had dropped from 10,000 to “9,816 books from libraries as far away as Australia and Great Britain.”

Miles Corwin’s lengthy story about Gus and his troubles, running the next day in the Times, corrected the stolen-book count to “hundreds,” but without stressing the exaggeration of the original reports. Ray Berrett, the Cal Poly campus police investigator who “broke” the case, was pictured and quoted: ‘”All the librarians [we called] said [Hasford] had checked out books, didn’t return them and then disappeared’…The San Luis Obispo County district attorney could issue a warrant…Berrett [went on]…’If [Hasford] gets an Oscar…an officer could hand him the warrant [at the ceremony] and say…put your hands behind your back and away we go.’”

Corwin’s story alluded to, without naming, Gus’ former girlfriend—”a librarian at Cal Poly”—and Hacker—”a man who said Hasford was a house guest…and left ‘unexpectedly with a number of books’…found in Hasford’s collection.”

At our Oscar-night fete for him on April 11, Gus handed out signed Full Metal Jacket posters and copies of an editorial cartoons showing a reader being arrested at gunpoint for overdue library books. Hasford arrived at the party “fashionably late like a famous Hollywood screenwriter” with a couple of brainless little dumplings he introduced as “neighbor girls.” The turnout was large and supportive, and Gus was especially pleased to see two writers whose work he admired—Kent Anderson and Scott Bradfield. “Awww,” we all chorused when The Last Emperor won the best adapted screenplay award, but Gus actually seemed relieved. He talked at length with Bradfield and Philippe Garnier about the Greek isles, his latest idée fixe being to move there when he got his library intact again. Offering and responding to toasts, he drank more than usual—the only time I ever recalled seeing him tight.

Once in motion, the legal machinery ground on inexorably, and like a top reversing itself, Hasford’s life began to spin the other way. At first, Gus thought he’d be shielded by Louis Blau’s venerable reputation as a lawyer, but he ended up retaining a San Luis Obispo attorney named Orlan Donley, who eventually billed him around $20,000. On June 23, Hasford pleaded innocent to two counts of grand theft and 10 counts of possession of stolen property at an arraignment in the San Luis Obispo County Municipal Court He was booked at the county jail and freed on $7,500 bail. “Books from 77 different libraries were found in Hasford’s collection,” Miles Corwin reported in the Times, and the AP finally reduced its count to “hundreds of stolen books.” Later, Bruce Miller, the San Luis Obispo bookseller, was appalled to discover that the campus police investigating Gus’ collection often confused university-press books with university property.

For a while, Hasford maintained an outer calm, but I knew he was on the far edge, trying not to look down into the abyss. Traveling constantly between San Clemente and San Luis Obispo for the preparation of his case, he made our place a regular stopover going both ways. By the end of the summer, he looked worn down and started talking nonstop about an idea he’d had for his next book—an expose of the overblown charges against him. He said he planned to hire private eyes to get the goods on his persecutors, the vicious pack of enemies who’d conspired to turn his fame against him. “It’s ugly enough for this country,” he said. “It’ll sell millions.”

Early in November, Orlan Donley solicited a character reference for Hasford to present to the San Luis Obispo Probation Department, and I promptly dispatched it. A week or so later, Gus stopped by on his way to the hearing. The outcome was crucial, so I sat him down, fed him half a box of doughnuts, and gave him a sort of George-and-Lennie pep talk about how important it was for him to keep his equilibrium. A day later he came back ranting about a run-in with the hard-ass woman officer assigned to his case. She was hostile and bent on destroying him, he claimed, and they’d gotten into a shouting match right off the bat when she questioned his attitudes toward women. “What’s that crap got to do with anything?” he raged. “My old girlfriend probably put her up to it and she was just laying for me.” A couple of weeks later, on December 2, Hasford pleaded no contest to possessing stolen property, with two counts of grand theft dismissed in the terms of the plea bargain. The prosecutor—Deputy D.A. Terry Estrada Mullaney—recommended that Hasford serve six months in jail. Even so, Gus held out hopes of getting off with a hefty fine, payment of restitution costs and maybe a stretch of community service.

Surprising almost no one, except Gus himself, the court creamed him when he came up for sentencing on January 4, 1989. Superior Court Judge Warren Conklin ordered Hasford to serve six months in jail and five years’ probation for the theft of 748 books from nine libraries and “one individual.” The court also fined Gus $1,100 and directed him to pay shipping costs for the return of the books. After the verdict, Estrada-Mullaney, with a celebrity scalp on her belt, said Hasford’s punishment would “serve as a lesson that stealing library books is a serious offense.” Stunned, half expecting to walk free, Hasford was handcuffed instead and taken directly to a rural annex of the San Luis Obispo County jail, where he was issued an orange jumpsuit and assigned to manual labor on a road crew.

(Jan. 17—handwritten letter from the San Luis Obispo County Jail) Dear Grover and Rae: Just a note from the Stone Hotel to assure you that I am okay…A lot of people seem to be cashing in their chips on me…Perhaps it’s good to drop off deadwood every so often…I stand corrected, but firm…Because the facts are on my side…and I am neither discouraged, nor intimidated, but am rather inexorable, like fate. Bayer [is] planning a party for me [in San Diego] when I get out…I hope you guys will be able to make it down. Remember what Nietzsche said—”What does not kill me only serves to make me stronger. XX’s and OO’s…

Gus called us from jail the same week his letter arrived. He said the San Luis Obispo slammer was hellish—a constant din of racketing TV, stinking meals and nothing to read. His voice was raspy from a cold, full of wounded pride and barely reined-in belligerence.

We talked for most of an hour, and Gus’ mood veered between frantic and laid-back, manic and depressive. He rambled obscurely about Tidwell and “cutting his losses,” and as gently as possible, I urged him to stop obsessing about things he couldn’t control. In a defiant tone, he said he had no regrets about anything except getting caught. “Oh, I regret being snitched on—I regret being in here with all these junkies and head cases. I’m putting it all in my expose book. This shithole’s so boring, I’m already writing the opening in my head.” Finally, I rattled off some old Cagney prison-break lines and got him to laughing. When I offered to come up for a visit, he said no, but we agreed to meet at Bayer’s party down the line.

Hasford promised to call us regularly, but a week went by without him checking in, and then another. Concerned about his health, Rae wrote him several letters without receiving a reply. The silence—and our growing uneasiness—stretched from weeks to several months, and by the time we saw a news brief in the Times about Gus’ early release from jail in April, we still hadn’t heard from him. Incredible, but there it was—Hasford had broken off contact with us for no discernible reason.

“It was the Didions and the Dunnes,” Rae decided, rolling her eyes. “That Joan’s such an iceberg.”

Getting brushed off without cause was a bitter pill for me to swallow, and I burned with resentment until I caught myself and thought: You’re acting just like Hacker. Feeling spurned. In the end, Rae and I settled into thinking of Gus as an absent friend. We assumed his delusion or whatever the hell was bugging him was temporary, and we expected to see him at the door again when the fit had passed. But with our social director on French leave, the gypsy good times were over. The chairs were stacked on Table No. 1 and the Cafe Cafard was closed until further notice.

4. EX LIBRIS

What Rae and I didn’t know was that the disgrace and ritual humiliation had already started to kill him by the time he left the San Luis Obispo lockup. Ravaged by a cold and then intestinal flu, Hasford had dropped 40 pounds as a prisoner. In time, he gained back some of the weight, but he never really regained his health or strength or spirit.

Bob Bayer started telling me the end of Hasford’s story as we drove along a commercial strip in suburban San Diego, headed for a location Bayer wanted to keep secret. “When he first got out, Gus was in pretty rocky shape. It took him a long time and a lot of effort to get his stuff back from the police. Cost him a bundle, too. And things were missing—a collection of $20 gold pieces, for one. I’m not sure what else was taken, but they got him coming and going—whacked him for stealing, and then stole from him when he couldn’t do anything about it.

“Gus started drinking around that time—drinking a lot of beer and wine at night. Said he couldn’t get to sleep otherwise. He’d never had that problem before. You know, he’d go out, maybe have a beer or two, but he never really drank all that much. He was living in a motel in El Cajon so he could be close to his books, which he was reorganizing after trucking them down from SLO. I was recycling cans at home, and he’d bring over big trash bags full of tall Colt 45 empties every couple of weeks. He drank those by the case. Plus, wine—a lot of wine.

“He just wasn’t ever himself again after going to jail. It weighed on him heavily, you know, on his mental attitudes. He was afraid to take planes afterwards, and he talked a lot about applying for political asylum in France. And that big expose he was planning to write—hiring private dicks and everything? I told him, ‘Gus, nobody’s gonna care about this shit three years from now—it’s a small time legal deal. Focus the energy you’ve got on your bigger projects.’ But he wouldn’t let go of it.”

I mentioned that I’d had an almost identical conversation with Hasford.

Bayer nodded, grinning ruefully. “Gus just totally lacked common sense. His diabetes, for instance. When he got his books back in order, he went up to Tacoma to stay with his mother and brother in a real small apartment, sleeping on the floor. He was still drinking all the time and feeling lousy constantly, so Bernie Berntson dragged him—almost physically—to a V.A. hospital. They ran tests and gave him an insulin shot on the spot. After that, Doctor Dave, who’d moved his practice to Seattle, kept after Gus to get his diet regulated, get his weight down under proper guidance. Dave told Gus he probably shouldn’t be going to Greece. Everybody else told him the same thing. By the fall, he’d moved into a pensione in Aegina, about 45 miles by boat off the Greek coast. By that time, he was hardly even writing letters anymore, so l called him in December and asked if he was under a doctor’s care and so on. ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah’—you know the drill. Apparently, he was alone when he died. The woman who owned the pensione found him in his room.”

As we approached what resembled a small city of prefab warehouses, Bayer braked the car and fumbled for his wallet. He was a 40-something married man who worked as an editor for the San Diego edition of the L.A. Times, but since the two of them had first met as teenage warriors in Vietnam in 1967, Bayer—”Mr. Short-Round”—had been Gus’ ever-patient best friend and obliging gofer, nurse, handyman, charge d’affaires…and the keeper of the keys to Gus’ library. Turning out of traffic, Bayer fed a plastic ID card into an electronic gate, and we pulled up the macadam drive to the numbered door of Hasford’s book locker.

It was a standard mini-storage unit with plastic skylight and a plywood floor, measuring 10 by 60 feet. Massive cardboard boxes filled with books and papers crowded almost every inch of space, making it tricky to move around. Out of sheer nervous energy, Bayer and I rough-counted the cartons, arriving at a tally just under 900. Gus had believed he could master any subject if he could find the right books to study. Books, the printed word, had been his college, his tabernacle—the secret labyrinth at the center of which he lived.

Bayer tapped his toe against a Marine-issue footlocker stenciled with Hasford’s initials. “It was fun being Gus’ friend,” he said, shaking his head reflectively. “It wasn’t always easy, but it was always fun.”

I wandered along the narrow squeeze-space between the stacks of boxes, reading labels. In the gloom near the rear wall, I spotted a carton marked A GYPSY GOOD TIME—COPIES. The book had been published just before Gus left for Greece—the first of his “Dowdy Lewis” series—and as I well knew, the dedication read:…to the regular patrons of the Cafe Cafard: Grover and Rae Louis, Philippe and Liz Gamin, Andy Dowdy…and, of course, especially, to Tidwell.

While Bayer found his coat and prepared to lock up, I ducked outside for some air and a moment alone. I was still tasting bile over Gus’ death—the sheer, needless waste of it. He’d died by many hands, including his own, but basically I thought, he’d been pecked to death by chickenshits. His real crime was being hopelessly different from most people in a claptrap culture where everything was considered transient, talent a mere currency. In my mind’s eye, l could see a montage of Gus’ blood enemies—smug, merciless, “correct” killer wimps—gorging on their casual road kill.

I paced along the tarmac like Gus, with my hands clenched. Slipped beyond the wire now, Hasford still taxed my ability to sum him up. But l could say for certain that he was irreplaceable. Full of shortcomings and human failings, not a grown-up at all on some level, afflicted with built-in buzz-saw cussedness and a deadly book jones, he had been nonetheless gallant, large-hearted, steadfast—a man of honor with complicated gifts and brave, bad attitudes in a wretched time, a Southern romantic to the core and forever a soldier. Hollywood hadn’t even looked up from its chips at his passing, but among those who’d taken the time to see him clearly, Gus was well-loved. I wondered if it was something he ever fully knew.

The Short-Timers stood as his his major testament. To write it, Hasford had outwitted poverty and class prejudice and his own callow ignorance and lack of education. As long as the Vietnam War was recalled, his book would be read as one of its defining documents—raw and galling and true as spilled blood.

At the corner of the warehouse, I stood smoking and warming my back in the washed-out February sunlight. I’d thought in advance that coming to see Gus’ locker would be my last step with him, but l knew now that I’d never be through with Gus. Maybe I’d get down to Alabama to visit his grave with Skipper Arnold, who lived in a town not too far from Haleyville. For sure, I meant to go for a walk on San Clemente beach when the sunbathers were in force. Laughing and joking, Gus had talked a blue streak about the beach and all its lustrous beauties. When he died, he’d say, he wanted his ashes scattered there so all the gorgeous girls could sit on his face for eternity.

That night I dreamed about Gus Hasford. He had come back home to the fold, bearing an armful of books.

This story originally appeared in LA Weekly, June 4–10, 1993. It is reprinted here with permission of Rae Lewis.

[Images of Hasford via: gustavhasford.com; photos by Linus Lohoff, Nicole Franzen and mrfreakz; painting by DK Stone]

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver