My first semester of teaching is over. As Christmas of 1976 approaches, I am a little dizzy from it all. I have taught a full load, three new preparations, while trying to figure out how to be a husband for the second time, working on a doctoral thesis that has to be finished by March and looking closely for a crack in the hard persona Milwaukee shows to outsiders. I am sitting at Axel’s, a bar near the campus but not a campus bar. With me is Mark Lucius, a graduate assistant that I think I am going to like. It’s after midnight and we have just left a department party together because we have discovered we like a lot of the same music. We have come to Axel’s because the jukebox has some of it, including the Amazing Rhythm Aces’ “Third Rate Romance,” Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” Ernest Tubb’s “Waltz Across Texas With You,” and the song we talked about for almost an hour before deciding we just had to hear it right then, David Alan Coe’s “You Never Even Called Me By My Name.”
The song is for each of us some kind of crazy anthem about the world as we see it. It is a joke that mimics a litany of country music clichés, but Coe’s voice somehow molds the verses into articles of faith. The outsider is hurling his song at the world in a strong voice full of emotion that suggests both a wail and an angry challenge, and oh yeah, there’s a joke too, but it’s not on him.
I have been to Axel’s a few afternoons already. It’s dark place, day and night. There’s a slit of a window to let the light get in, but between the beer sign and the dirt, it’s hard to see in or out. The bar has its homey side, with a cast of characters who tell a lot of old stories about another time in the city, but it is also a place where you have to watch your step. One of my friends will be beaten up in the parking lot after an exchange with a bartender. Another friend, a woman, will find herself being hurled from the end of the room with enough force to put her in a booth halfway down the bar. She apparently brushed up against a rough neck who felt shoved instead of brushed. These little moments of terror will come later, but I know enough already to be careful. Still the bar has been a refuge from the university, married life, my thesis, and any reference to how funny I talk. It’s been a place to use David Alan Coe’s voice to map my own territory between the joke and the angry wail. It’s good to be sitting next to Mark, a guy who gets the duality of the song intuitively.
There are things I feel about the song but don’t say. They would be too embarrassing just now. The song is too full of jokes to claim as any kind of reasonable account of my life. But it is a poetic rendering of how my life feels, all knotted up over being seen for who I am. I have received much love, but I can’t seem to escape the shadow of my mother’s vacant gaze.
Well, it was all I could do to keep from crying
Sometimes it seems so useless to remain
You don’t have to call me darlin, darlin
You never even called me by name.
When my mother dies a few months later, I even hear the final nonsensical verse tie up the events I live out.
Well, I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison
And I went to pick her up in the rain
But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck
She got runned over by a damned old train.
We don’t talk about sad things this night, but we recognize in each other someone else who feels like an outsider. We laugh a lot, drink too many beers, and celebrate the joy of good company. There would be time enough in the next seven years for talk. We will spend a lot of time together, see the sun come up a few times and run the needle through more records than I can count. Sometimes we will sing those Tom Waits and Randy Newman songs ourselves and others I will listen as Mark sings some of his own.
A few years later, we will even see Steve Goodman, who wrote the song Coe made famous. He does a smug version that returns the song to its origins as a simple joke dreamed up by a couple of drunk songwriters, and his crowd loves it. Then he proclaims that he is not a friend of David Alan Coe, as Coe says in his version of the song, that he has never met him nor even received a letter from him. This doesn’t sit well with me. I fume for a bit, decide I have heard enough of Goodman and spend the rest of his set outside smoking, waiting for John Prine to come on. “Down where I come from,” I tell Mark later, “when a man makes you more money than you have ever made in your life, you go along with the gag. You for sure don’t make fun of him as a rube.”
Mark says that was the night I also told him about how I heard my mother and her death in Coe’s song. We were good friends by then. Friends and lovers may not be able to fill up our emptiness, but they bring us some light by seeing us in our sorrow and accepting our story. I got the present I needed most that Christmas in 1976, a good friend who called me by name, and he came on the wings of a black and blue song in a room where it was always midnight.
(My friend Lynne Butler, who writes short stories as Lynne Oakes, has been a big help to me as I have gotten this blog going. She helped me out of major structural dilemmas with both “Shame on the Moon” and “A Love Letter Straight From My Heart.” She is an accomplished writer and a skilled editor. Back when she was just beginning, she was a student of mine, but I have found that she has a lot to teach me now, and she is very generous.)