Partying with the Mesquite Beats
CONFESSIONS OF A MADDOG:A Romp Through the High-flying Texas Music and Literary Era of the Fifties to the Seventies.
Until you adjust to its presence, a living legend can rattle your nerves. You expect too much too soon, for one thing, and probably fear you will stack up poorly.
– Jay Dunston Milner on Stanley Walker
Indeed. One might have a similar sensation when commencing to write about a book by a living legend, the running buddy of Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker and Bud Shrake and Larry L. King and just about every you-name-it literary or outlaw music notable who passed through Austin in the last four decades. That creeping uneasiness might be even worse when writing about that legend in the pages of The Texas Observer, this august and fabled institution, where the subject himself wrote (and was briefly Associate Editor) in the glory days of the early sixties, sharing its pages with the likes of Billie Lee Brammer and Willie Morris.
Yeah, that would put the scare in a body worse than the D.T.s after a weekend of drinking with a bunch of crazed and (at least regionally) famous literary and musical celebrities. But you know what they say about fools rushing in. If there is any lesson to be learned in this book, it is that on any given day, rushing fools can seize the high ground from fearful angels. And if one of them is lucky – several failed marriages and a triple-bypass operation later – he might be able to sit on the front porch, sip iced tea, and pen a genial and chatty memoir.
So let’s go. Let’s jump in the hearse, pop a few pills, light up a doober, hide that bottle under the seat, and take off on what is a most enjoyable – if forgivably mislabeled – ride through the heyday of Texas letters with Jay Dunston Milner, raconteur and friend to the stars. It’s a wild ride and one that has not often been recounted, at least in its entirety, with a narrative line – and by someone sober.
Why mislabeled? Because these are not, in fact, confessions, either of the lurid tabloid sensation or of the spiritual Augustinian genre. “Confessions” imply fresh revelation of the self-incriminating variety, but these anecdotes sparkle with the unmistakable polish of frequent retelling. “Hey, Jay, tell us the one about….” And Maddogs? That self-description is also an overstatement, but maybe just as forgivable. Unless the high jinx of this impressive cast of affable intellectuals were a good deal wilder than what is described here – which is unlikely – these dogs were about as mad as Huckleberry Hound at a keg party. Especially compared to real literary outlaws of the same epoch, like William S. Burroughs or Hunter S. Thompson. First of all, there just aren’t enough drugs here to provoke serious nastiness. Compared to the sixties’ national freewheeling experimentation with psychedelics and opiates, the Maddogs’ drinking, smattering of diet pills, and occasional joint or tab of acid seem a bit tame. Also, there were no guns to speak of. Real literary outlaws make a big show of their heat, and when the guns come out, real badness can occur – such as Burroughs shooting his wife while playing William Tell at a three-day party in Mexico. But this is no criticism. We don’t require incidental corpses to know that we have truly partied. If anything, one is relieved to find that most of the high crimes promised on the jacket of this book turn out instead to be misdemeanors.
For despite its title, the real focus of Maddogs is not high times, but literary history: a series of portraits of writers who comprise, if not a school of writing, then at least an effervescence of the arts at a time and place where it might have been least expected to arise. The book is chronologically organized, and Milner begins with a couple of obligatory autobiographical chapters summarizing his early years. These pages are livened briefly by the tale of Grace Halsell, one of the few women who figure in any role other than that of long-suffering wife. Halsell’s best-known book, Soul Sister, is about her experiences masquerading as a black woman (recalling John Howard Griffin’s more famous Black Like Me). Halsell was a high school friend of Milner’s, and first encouraged him to write. He also describes an uneasy encounter with her years later, and that awkwardness becomes characteristic of the uncomfortable relationships between men and women in this book.
Milner’s real business – celebrity portraiture – begins in earnest on page 41, with the chapter on Hodding Carter, editor of the Greenville newspaper, the Delta Democrat, where Milner worked in the early fifties. (This Carter is not to be confused with his son, Hodding Carter Jr., for a time the press secretary for Jimmy Carter’s State Department.) In Milner’s account, Carter was a man of rare integrity, who seemed to do everything he could to alienate himself from what must have been Greenville’s severe level of intolerance and provincialism. Yet he eventually became one of the town’s most respected citizens. Carter’s integrity – as an essential component of the character of any writer worth the cost of ink – is a common if unspoken element of Milner’s narrative of these men’s lives. In one anecdote, Carter pulls the young Milner aside and warns him not to socialize with folks in the marketing department. “I’ve seen more than one promising reporter go wrong because of associating with advertising people,” Carter warned Milner. “Some fell so far they went into public relations.”
Like the second piece in a matched set, the next essay is on another newspaperman, Stanley Walker, former editor of the New York Herald Tribune, and his might be the best chapter in the book. Milner describes a series of hilarious visits with Walker, who had retired to a ranch in Lampasas County. Walker tells Milner, for example, that he would like to hitch a ride back to Austin because he does not drive. “I do not drive a car,” Walker says. “Not that I can’t, but when I came here I saw those signs: ‘IF YOU DRIVE DON’T DRINK; IF YOU DRINK DON’T DRIVE!’ Never did a man make an easier decision.”
The second Walker jewel is a recollection of one of the stable of notable writers (including Lucius Beebe and Joseph Alsop) who worked for Walker at the Trib. Walker describes one reporter who was badly enamored of semicolons. In Walker’s telling:
He was obsessed with semi-colons. He insisted on using semi-colons indiscriminately. Finally, one hot Sunday afternoon in the newsroom, I decided to do something about it. I decided to file the semi-colon off his typewriter. And that’s exactly what I did. Filed it right off. Then the sunuvabitch started putting ’em in with his copy pencil! What could I do?
A Milner rule of thumb seems to be in play in this chapter: namely, that there is a direct correlation between the appeal of the anecdotes and the substance of the subject. In Milner’s memories of Walker, he comes to life as a principled newsman of the highest order, unmellowed by retirement, and who, when he discovered he had cancer of the larynx, ended his life with a shotgun. “He had told [his wife] Ruth that he didn’t believe he wanted to go along with God’s little joke this time; she’d thought he was kidding, of course.”
Thus ends the prehistory of the Maddog chronicle. In march the lot of characters that we’ve heard so much about and from, though perhaps seldom in this level of detail: Billie Lee Brammer, Bud Shrake, Larry McMurtry, Larry L. King, Gary Cartwright, and several musician types of the Redneck Rock sort, most notably Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker. That there has not until now been another significant literary history of this group is interesting, especially given the self-absorption both of the members of the pack and of others obsessed with things Texan.
These pages are entertaining enough, and filled with great stories of the shenanigans and tomfoolery of this bunch of highly talented writers and, later, musicians. This period – roughly from the mid-sixties to the late seventies – coincides with the turbulent years of Vietnam War protests, drug experimentation, and other manifestations of social discontent and unrest. It is not surprising that Texas intellectuals of that same era would develop a wild hair as well – except that, well, this is Texas. We don’t smoke marijuana in Lubbock and Amarillo; tequila and longnecks are more often the intoxicants of choice. On the other hand, while some of these good old boys came from those parts, most of this chronicle plays out in the living rooms, backyards, and bars of Austin, with brief detours through Dallas, Washington D.C., and even Mexico. It’s no secret that Austin has always been a Babylon of liberal ways, and the convening of the Legislature every odd-numbered year doesn’t do much to restore order. In fact, a number of state representatives wander through these pages, partying with the best, even earning here and there what seems to approach honorary Maddog status.
Speaking of cameos, there are a number of great ones, from the tale of Dennis Hopper showing up at a party at the Dobie Paisano Ranch during Gary Cartwright’s stay there, to Lauren Bacall snarling “Fuck off, buster,” to Larry L. King in a New York City restaurant (victim of yet another send-up by his good buddy Bud Shrake). Larry McMurtry is here and there, as well, always aloof, always revered. Townes Van Zandt puts in a late appearance, in a memento mori object lesson of fast living and early passing:
Townes was fifty-two when his heart knocked him out. Brammer was about the same age when he OD’d. Both had pushed it to the limit most of their lives here, meantime producing musical poetry and prose that will live long after them, probably long after the rest of us have passed from our lives in their present aspect.
But above all else, this book is a series of portraits of a few men, and the tone of each chapter changes with the personality of the subject. Perhaps the strangest and saddest tale belongs to William (Billie Lee) Brammer, who seems to have been something of an anomaly in this group. Not a back-slapping, lie-telling, beer-swilling, loud-talking good old boy, Brammer comes across as a quiet man, a guy who could stay awake as long as there were people in the living room, but not necessarily whooping it up. He also seems to have been prone to fits of depression brought on by an inability to draw forth from his muse a book to rival his masterpiece, The Gay Place, a political roman-à-clef set in fifties Austin, and widely regarded as the best book ever written about Texas politics, one of the best about Texas at mid-century, and one of the finest political novels in all of American letters. Along with such notable one-hit wonders as Frederick Exley (A Fan’s Notes) and John Kennedy Toole (A Confederacy of Dunces), Brammer never wrote another work to equal the power and gravity achieved in The Gay Place. That reality drove him to an early grave in 1977, the victim of too many pills and, so it would seem, too many broken dreams. Thankfully, Brammer’s achievement lives on, and holds a place in Texas culture as perfect and unassailable as Elisabet Ney’s statue of Stephen F. Austin in the south hall of the Capitol. About Brammer, Milner writes,
Billie Lee had a rare charisma. Strange and powerful. His compelling charm had something to do with the fact that he had written that famous book everyone had read, or heard about, and perhaps related to. But it was more than that. One friend, Jim Smithum, might have come pretty close to explaining his mysterious charm when he said, “Billie Lee is the most reasonable human being I ever knew.”
There are ups and downs in this narrative. Down is a ghastly bullfight attended by our hero and his entourage in Mexico while all are attempting a pathetic recreation of Hemingway machismo. Down also is a weird digression to describe driving his hearse to El Paso – is it on fire or not? Who cares? Up is the image of Gary Cartwright communing with the spirit of J. Frank Dobie, whose ghost haunts these pages like that of Hamlet’s father. Also up is the account of Cartwright’s run-in with a couple of narcs who bust him for giving them a joint. (Some Maddog.) Following his arrest, the literary sycophants stripped Cartwright of his salon pass, but his true friends stuck close, and this most prolific of Texas writers swam back upstream from financial ruin and a busted marriage to claim his place as the best in the pantheon of Texas Monthly writers.
All tales of faded glory are tinged with sadness, and this story is no different. First of all, there is an irreconcilable truth that Milner comes to willingly, but long after the reader has noted that there are no women to speak of in this yarn, save the occasional divorcée or long-suffering spouse. This is the Boys’ Ranch, the Liars’ Club, where gettin’ messed up over “litterchoor” is a uniquely masculine pastime. The history of these good old boys is littered with broken marriages, and hardly a one of these fellows hasn’t done time in their wives’ doghouses and on each others’ sofas. Being a perceptive kind of guy, Milner ‘fesses up in a chapter called, “Not Enough Women to Go Around?” (alluding wryly to his subjects’ habits of serial intermarriage). But his considered conclusion is something dolefully akin to, “Women, you can’t live with ’em and you can’t live without em.” He closes with the brilliant observation that “the difference between the Maddog Group of writers – who seem to divorce a lot – and members of the country club bunch, is merely that the writers, for whatever reason, are more inclined to go ahead and get divorced.” Well, that’s a relief: if your sexually progressive ideas are worth a salt, they ought to be able to get you out of a marriage the “country club bunch” would just endure out of sheer squareness. The less said about this Milner theorem, the better.
The second contributing factor to the melancholy feel of the book’s close is that the Maddogs, nearly to a man, retired their wild ways, and on doctors’ orders. For all of these cowboys, the endgame has been remarkably similar: a ride home from the triple bypass (or transplant) in a water wagon steered by a good-lovin’ second, third, or fourth wife. Gary Cartwright – who had a quintuple bypass – has recently even issued a practical paean to clean living, HeartWiseGuy, and unselfconsciously sung the tumescent praises of Viagra in the Monthly. He says it works a lot better than whiskey.
And so we leave them, sitting on their front porches, sipping iced tea, writing their memoirs – or if they are still young enough (like Cartwright) hard at work at the day job of writing. They’re a little the worse for wear, but perhaps generating a higher-quality prose than before because (with apologies to Dylan Thomas), you really do write better sober.
There is a final question suggested by this book, but never addressed by Milner: do these guys together form a literary school or movement? I would never have said so before, but Milner’s memoiristic confessions argue a case for The Maddog School. Call them The Mesquite Beats: for what is a literary movement, other than a simultaneous rising of a group of writers and artists in a given time and place, colleagues who write in a similar manner about common subjects, and who share similar values? By this reasonable definition, the Maddogs surely qualify. And if every movement has its fellow traveler outsiders – as the English Romantics had Blake and the Beats had Burroughs – then the Mesquite Beats had Brammer, with one foot firmly outside the tent and one inside. We will leave it to the academy to decide whether the school includes McMurtry; whether the roots go as deep as Graves, Dobie or even O. Henry; and the relation of such non-Anglo or non-male writers as Américo Paredes or Katherine Anne Porter.
Austin writer Mark Smith has been known to stay out in the sun too long, stay up too late, and drink too much, but he’s still too young for a bypass.
This article is partially funded through a grant from the Austin Writers’ League, in cooperation with the Texas Commission on the Arts.