Friday, March 24, 2006

Hank Williams: Lost Highway

Last night Richie, 3, lay on the couch, having thrown up earlier. J.J. cried, covered from eyebrow to bellybutton in smashed carrots. Chicken noodle soup was sloshed from the kitchen to the dining room. Johnny bounced up and down on his chair like it was a trampoline. As usual, our house resembled a Loretta Lynn song, minus the drunken husband, Doo. Remember the line in The Pill. "You're callin' from a bar? Get away from thar. Not you, honey, I was talkin' to the baby."

I felt a little guilty walking out the door, having read Justin the riot act in the morning for not pitching in enough around the house. He did not, by the way, read me out for not working much outside the house.

But not that guilty. These type of disasters happen five times a day, so better him than me this time. And I knew that daddy knew just the medicine for Richie's tummy ache: Sprite and Spiderman cartoons.

My aunt Mo and our friend Stephanie waited outside. We were going to the play Hank Williams: Lost Highway. Mo's new year's resolution was to go to every Kansas City Reperatory play. As a busy mom and school principal it was her way to take two hours for herself every two months. Pretty selfish, when you think about it. She should resolve to do more for others. I'm sure she could squeeze a few more minutes in there between cooking for her neighbors and babysitting everybody's kids.

We met our friend Betty there. Running late, we were seated in the upper balcony. But Mo quickly snuck down to our third row seats. The rest of us were too chicken to follow her. As we watched Mo inch her way down during the dark parts of the play, Betty called it blog fodder. Or blodder, if you will.

All I knew about Hank Williams I learned from listening to the Hank Williams, jr. song "Family Tradition." I knew that he drank to get drunk, rolled smokes to get stoned, and got drunk and sang all night long. In high school, my brother Luke loved Bosephus--Hank jr's nickname. We'd listen to him in the Caprice Classic. One time my brother, his girlfriend Eileen and I went to Hank Williams Jr.'s concert and he never made it to the stage. He was too drunk. We didn't get our money back, either. After that, the radio station we listened to wouldn't play him for a while. Then one day, we were all riding in the front seat because it was snowing in the backseat and a David Allen Coe song came on. My brother thought it was hypocritical for the radio station to play one honky tonker and not another. But we remembered that they had played a Hank song earlier, only without fanfare. The ban ended quietly. The radio station couldn't stay away.

The play showed that there was more to Hank Williams than his honky tonk reputation.

According to the play and playbill, Hank Williams grew up in rural Southern Alabama, under the firm and loving hand of Mama Lilly. She bought him his first guitar, enrolled him in singing school, and managed his band. Margaret Bowman played this role with a stern attitude masking a sense of humor. You got the idea that even as she yelled at band members to straighten up and fly right, she was laughing at their smart aleck comments. She hilariously calls Audrey, Hank's girlfriend and future wife, "Tawdry."

The one thing the two strong-willed women agree on is that Hank shouldn't take his pain pills with booze. Hank suffered back pain from spina bifida.

After dropping out of high school to play in honky tonks, it took Hank and his band, the Lonesome Cowboys, just 10 years to make it to the Grand Ole Opry stage. He got fired three years later because of his drinking.

Actor Van Zeiler played Hank's character to perfection. Full of contradictions, Hank had both common sense and an apparent desire to die young, a good natured dry wit and a tragic case of loneliness. His marriage was miserable, but you got the idea that he wouldn't have it any other way. Band members, initially drinking as much as he did, eventually tried to get him to slow down and finally left his side. He was en route to a reunion concert, but never made it on stage. He died at age 29 with alcohol and morphine in his system.

Now, I love stories about singers. Coal Miner's Daughter. Ray. Haven't seen Walk the Line yet because my friend Joaquin and I are on the outs. Long story. Don't ask. Well you can ask, but I won't answer. I was supposed to go to the Oscars on his ticket but I changed plans at the last minute to watch them at home. There. You got it out of me. But this is the best I've seen.

In the end, Hank plays an old church song "I Saw the Light" in what looks like heaven. The tragedy and joy are still there. The hellbent addiction isn't.

What makes singers drink? Betty and I talked about this on the way home. She thought maybe it was for courage. Singers are often shy. As Hank's friend Hoss, played by Stephen G. Anthony, said in the play, Hank was only happy fishing out in the middle of nowhere, or on stage--out in the middle of everywhere.

Hoss, part clown, part psychologist, also made this observation: People who could handle the pain gathered around to hear the songs of someone who couldn't. Hank was the way he was because someone heard him sing. Now I subscribe to the Charming Billy theory of drinking. An alcoholic always has a reason to drink but never needs one. Still, chronic pain, a life spent playing in bars, and a poet's front row seat to all the loneliness and heartbreak in the world--none of this could have helped. Sometimes it's better to watch the Lost Highway from the roadside cafe, to sit in the back row for the lonesome tragedy. Instead, Hank Williams drove the car and climbed on stage.

Go see Lost Highway if it comes to your city. It is the best character study I've ever seen.

1 Comments:

Anonymous mom said...

He truly lived by the songs that he wrote! He never got to reach the bottom, so that he could rise again. I know an alcoholic who doesn't want to quit, who wants to die young while she still has her beauty. This sounds like someone who doen't love herself. They say dinking enhances your senses - if you're happy, it makes you happier and in Hank's situation - if you're sad, it makes you sadder. That's the depth his songs came from. I just wish he could have stayed around long enough to realize how loved he was and that we wouldn't walk away.

7:06 AM  

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