At the baggage claim carousel at Little Rock Airport, I knew Arkansas was different. I saw a lot of people smoking and thought, Cool. I can light up.
I’d been to Arkansas a number of times, but usually only in passing when I was taking the 40 cross-country. My record on the 40 was forty-eight hours from California to Wilmington, North Carolina. Most of the time on cross-country drives (almost all the time) I was trying to make time. States became a blur of gas stations to fuel the car and bad coffee to fuel me.
Christmas of ’93 was different. I’d flown to Little Rock to meet my fiancée’s grandmother and father.
I grabbed my rental car and met my betrothed (let’s call her P), at a hotel. I hadn’t seen her for almost a week and it was the kind of relationship when five days apart starved me of oxygen. P was excited. P’s mother (who lived with us in LA as well) came to meet us at the hotel with her mother. We sat around the room talking and P had her grandma break out her harmonica and play the blues. Even though the woman was in her mid-eighties, she could still jam. P had music in her family.
P was stunning. The first time I saw her, I was a janitor at a drug and alcohol rehab center in West Hollywood and I saw her pull up in a vintage, white, ’75 Corvette convertible. I didn’t know much about her, except she was a singer and had just signed some big record deal. I was the janitor and usually all the guys there were trying to make time with her, so I made it a point to stay in the background. She was tall, had long, straight black hair like Ali McGraw, and was the first woman I’d seen in LA with full sleeve tattoos. This was back in ’91. In this era of Suicide Girls and Tattoo Parlors on every corner, it’s hard to imagine, but back then, P was unique.
One day, she’d come in early for her coffee commitment for a meeting and said, “Red— sorry, I don’t know your name. Can you help me make coffee?”
I was helping her in the back room of the alley set up the big urn and, though I’m slow, I realized, I think this woman likes me… Had I known how the next three years were going to shake out, as insane as it was, I still would’ve signed on for the ride.
Our first date was to Hollywood Billiards. After we shot pool, we hit the 101 in her Corvette. She slipped in Sticky Fingers and the first haunting notes of “Gimme Shelter” floated from the sound system into the night. It was a kind of thrill you feel in your twenties when the million amazing possibilities of your future are in front of you through the windshield, and the fuck ups of your past are in the rear view mirror.
P started to sing Merry Clayton’s back up part and I was shocked. It was like Merry Clayton was sitting next to me, driving the car. See, a lot of people say they can sing and you think, “Oh cool,” but there are those, and they are few, who can SING.
Years later, after it had all crashed and burned, I met her old music lawyer, David Codikow, through a mutual friend. David was big time and he and his partner, Rosemary Carroll, were perhaps most famous for representing Nirvana. David said when he got into the music business, his goal was to find the new Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin. While he never found a new Leonard, P was his Janis. We shared a few words about what a shame it was that her talent was never fully realized.
I’m getting ahead of myself. P left high school at fifteen to model, but at the time, was the first white soloist in the renowned Little Rock Gospel Choir. Her heroes were Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin. But when we got to Arkansas in ’93, P’d just been through a really rough patch. After recording two-thirds of a record with the Allman Brothers as her back up band and Tom Dowd as the producer, her label, Capitol Records, was taken over by Gary Gersh. As everyone knows, Nirvana, Radiohead and the like were in, and anything that clung to the old was out. There was even a rumor that Gersh was considering cutting Bonnie Raitt from the Capitol roster. Millions had been spent, the record wasn’t finished, and the plug was pulled on the project. P was out of a contract, they owned her masters, and she was starting to spiral. Maybe marriage, something she desperately wanted, was something to look forward to.
From my janitorial days, my career prospects were certainly looking better, but even that was uneasy. It seemed like the relationship dynamic worked better when she was successful and I was the dude with the five-dollar an hour job. Though I’d graduated to being the bread-winner, the shift wasn’t without resentment and difficulty.
We hung out with some friends of hers from her Little Rock Central days (wonderful people, you know who you are and I love you, F) and her mom and grandma for a few days. We went by her old house in ‘The Heights’ and her mom told stories of her days in Crossett, Arkansas and that she had been a classmate of Barry Switzer. She told a particularly tragic tale of how Barry’s mother had committed suicide after a family argument, and the note was never found ‘til years later that both fully revealed the long term pain she’d been in and absolved her sons from the act. This is all hearsay and I apologize if the story isn’t accurate, but P’s mom said Barry always unfairly blamed himself for his mother’s death because they’d argued before she shot herself. It made me feel for the man.
On Christmas Day, P and I headed north to see her father on his farm near Snowball, an unincorporated, one stop sign town near the Buffalo National River. We had breakfast in a Waffle House in Conway and it reminded me of my tour as a roadie for the Lemonheads. Evan Dando was obsessed with Waffle Houses and knew all the words to the Waffle House songs on the juke box: “Scattered, smothered, covered, and make it cry (ie. add onions).”
We hit Snowball late in the afternoon and it was already growing dark. P’s dad was taking us to a local get together and after a quick introduction, we got in his truck and went to a house deep in the country.
Now, I’d lived in Mississippi and don’t want to engage in any bullshit cultural stereotypes, but Snowball was DEEP SOUTH. One of the first guys I met in the kitchen of the house we were at was drinking a Bud and told me that they called it Scandanavia up there because it was whites only. He said, “You got red hair, freckles. You’re alright.”
I also met these two brothers, the Daniels boys. They were spelunkers, but they preferred to call it “Cavin’.” They liked to jam and they’d set up a Marshall stack at this house and were going at it on bass and guitar. It was a good night.
I got to talking to P’s dad and I realized that the man was deep. He was an avid history buff and had am encyclopedic knowledge of world events. That’s where the initial connection started, talking history, and it helped break the ice.
He took us back to his farm and I had a separate cot set up for me downstairs. It was clear that his daughter and I weren’t going to stay in the same room. I could dig it. I was their to ask his permission, to earn his trust, and respect the world he had set up for himself, purely because, in his words, he had sickened of urban life and needed to back to the country.
For the next few days, we rode dirt bikes, talked history and he showed me all around the 150 acre spread he had. It was beautiful. In fact, P’s dad inspired me to try and do the same thing, something I accomplished a decade later in Oregon. He said, “Find a piece of land that you love and pull the trigger. They aren’t making any more.”
He also gave me permission to marry his daughter.
On the day we were leaving he gave me something. P’s dad had been a high-level, competitive kayaker and at a competition in South America someone on the circuit had given him a Nyaminyami. Nyaminyami is the Zambezi River God, sacred to the Tongan people of Zambia and Zimbabwe. He has the body of a serpent and the head of a fish and controls life in and on the River.
P’s dad handed me a necklace with a carved wooden pendant of the Nyaminyami and said, “You seem like a traveler. Regardless of where you go, this will keep you safe.”
While things with P didn’t work out, for a million reasons, I’ll always have love for her in my heart. I haven’t been back to Oregon in a minute, but the last time I was at my ranch I found the Nyaminyami P’s dad had given me and said a little prayer for her, for him, for her mom, and for myself.