Two of My Riskier Decisions: Going to Rwanda and Letting David Allan Coe live in my Basement

Maddancer #4

Two of My Riskier Decisions

Going to Rwanda & Letting David Allan Coe Live in My Basement

          I remember getting the call from an agent asking me if I might be interested in writing a book about the genocide in Rwanda and the difficult process of healing that the nation was going through.  He already had a deal in place with an established Christian book publisher and they had tried two or three writers who regularly wrote books for the Christian market. The problem was that the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) writers did a fine job writing about the forgiveness seminars and healing programs created by Bishop John Rucyahana, but they kept skimming over the horror of the genocide itself.  He said his agency heard that I was a Christian and they read my bio and saw that I’d written books on Jim Morrison and Oliver Stone and that I worked with teens in trouble and had tried to do a book with David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam.  They figured I was their guy.

          “I’m that guy?” I asked, somewhat surprised at who I’d become, I guess.  “You’re that guy,” the agent said.  “We’ll give you twenty grand and pay for your trip to Rwanda.”  I thought about it for a day, but instinctively I knew that this was my kind of project.

          So I went to Rwanda.  It’s a thirteen hour flight and you have to change planes in Belgium, which is kind of fitting since it was the Belgians who planted the seeds of the Rwandan genocide in the first place.  The Hutu and Tutsi tribal people make up about 99% of the population of Rwanda and, up until the Belgians conquered the country back in 1916, they had gotten along peacefully for over five hundred years.  Then in 1926 the Belgians implemented their colonization policy.  Using the standard European formula of divide and conquer, they forced the largest segment of the population, the Hutus (nearly 80%), to do the manual labor they required such as building roads and placed the much smaller group, the Tutsi (nearly 20%), over them as their taskmasters.  Both groups were virtual slaves to the Belgians but it was the Tutsi who wielded the whips that cracked across the Hutus backs as they worked.  Then, when the Belgians gave in to pressure from the United Nations and left the country in 1962, Rwanda held free elections.  By this time the Hutus outnumbered the Tutsis by six to one and it was an all Hutu government that ruled the country from then on.  The Hutus hatred of the Tutsis had built up for an entire generation and it wasn’t long before harsh discrimination became standard government policy. But not letting the Tutsi get a decent education or hold a decent job wasn’t enough to quell the Hutu anger and soon the government began planning what they called “the final solution” – the organized killing of every Tutsi man woman and child in the country.

          During a hundred days from April to June in 1994 at least 1,117,000 Tutsis were brutally murdered.  We know there were at least that many killed because that’s how many bodies were found.  The complete story is in my book, The Bishop of Rwanda, cowritten with John Rucyahana who lived it and who, through his amazing programs, has proved that God will heal even the most horrific situations if we have the courage to let Him do so.

          The genocide had long passed when I flew into Kigali, the capitol of Rwanda, but there were lingering effects.  One of them was that there were virtually no white people there.  The big corporations were not doing business with the country yet and the tourist trade – well let’s just say that even though Rwanda is a beautiful country with wondrous green hills – the overriding sense of death just kept folks from wanting to visit.

          The airlines have only lost my bags twice – the first time was in Bangkok when I was working with Oliver Stone and he was filming in Thailand and the second time was in Rwanda.  These are not the places you want to lose your bags, but both times I got them back within a few days.  Filling out the necessary paperwork at the Kigali airport took some time however, and by the time I got to my hotel, there was a problem.

          As soon as I steeped out of the mini bus that had picked me up at the airport, I realized that everyone was staring at me.  I’m pretty white, classic Irish boy pale and then I’ve got snow white hair to boot.  That means I glow under streetlights.  People stopped and stared.  Children pointed and parents tried to explain.  Some people looked at me as though they knew what the white man had done to their country.  As soon as I entered the lobby and gave my name the manager took me aside.  “Let me explain about the roooom,” he said in what sounded to me like a Jamaican accent but I soon learned was the sound of the colonial English spoken by hotel, restaurant and store managers all across the continent.  He held his hands out in the classic “nothing I can do” expression and continued.  “The day man…he knew. But the night man…he did not know.”  I soon figured out that he meant that, when I missed my reservation time, they had given the room away.  I then proceed to two other hotels where I was stared at a great deal and told there was no room at the inn.  Finally, I decided I would go to the Hotel des Mille Collines, the famous Hotel Rwanda,  which I thought would be more than ironic.  Unfortunately, they had no rooms available. 

Desperate and very tired now, I stopped at a slightly seedy place which featured a lively restaurant bar on its front patio.  At least it was lively until I approached.  Suddenly, the whole place quieted down and everyone stared at me.  A white man in Rwanda.  I nodded as politely as I could at the onlookers and made my way to the front desk.  There I was told that they did in fact have a room available. I was very relieved.  At least until we actually got inside the room and the manager turned to me and in the exact same accent as the manager at the first hotel said, “Let me explain about the roooom.”  I stared at him dumbfounded and then he said, “I do not have the inside door key for this room.”

Oh, well, that didn’t seem too bad until I figured out what he meant.  “Wait a minute,” I said. “You mean I can’t lock the door?” He nodded. “Yes, I’m afraid not.”  I must have stared at him for the better part of a minute.  “Let me get this straight,” I said.  “I’m in a country where one million, one hundred and seventeen thousand people were murdered in horribly brutal ways, I’m the only white guy here and I can’t lock the door.”  He looked at me and nodded sadly. “Yes.”

Now, I was pretty doggone tired by this point and I knew of no other prospects for a room for the night, so I took the room.  I asked the hotel manager if I could borrow the tin sculpture of a native warrior that he had on the front desk and he agreed.  After he left, I unscrewed the bulbs on the stairway leading up to the alcove where my room was and placed the tin sculpture on the steps, figuring that if anyone bumped into it there would be quite a clatter as it fell down the concrete steps.  Then I went in my room and placed a chair against the knob, holding the door shut.  Next, I stripped off the blanket and quilt from my bed figuring I wouldn’t need them since this was July in Africa.  I rolled the covers into a ball and placed them on the other side of the chair so that if my attackers took a run at the door to pop the chair, they would trip over the rolled up blankets.  Then all I would have to do is jump out of the mosquito netting surrounding my bed and wrestle the machetes out of their hands.  Needless to say, I did not sleep well that night.

The next day I was able to get a room with a lock on the door.  While in Kilgali I interviewed some men in prison who had been convicted of murders during the genocide.  One of the men told me he still didn’t understand the bloodlust behind some of his actions.  “I killed babies,” he said. “I am a father. I have babies.  How could I kill babies?”  I also interviewed victims including one woman whose entire family had been killed and whose house had been burned to the ground.  She was now participating in one of the forgiveness programs where the men who had killed her family and burned her house had gone through a confession program and were now building her a new house as part of their retribution.  She had forgiven them and would bring them water as they worked.  John Rucyahana, an Anglican bishop, knew that there was so much pain and hatred in the country that only this kind of face to face repentance and forgiveness could save Rwanda.  About the third day I was there I got a call from the Bishop whom I was to stay with in his mountain compound the last weeks of my trip. 

“Jim,” he said in excellent English, “I understand you are leaving the hotel at night and talking to the people.”

“Yes,” I replied.  “I have to get the feel of the man on the street if I am to write about the country.  It can’t just be scheduled interviews.”

‘That is dangerous,” he continued, “but I understand.  I will send you a body guard.  His name is Apollos.  He will watch over you.”

Well, Apollos was a very nice man.  He wasn’t that big, but he seemed well versed in what was safe and what was not.  One time we were sitting at an outdoor restaurant in a crowded square and I became concerned about some slightly nefarious characters who kept staring at me.  I kept my passport in a wallet that was strapped to my shoulder so that there was no way it could be stolen.  From a distance though, it looked a little like a shoulder holster which might contain a gun.  When I was out at night with Oliver Stone in Thailand he once remarked, “Why do you wear that thing?  It looks like a gun.”  To which I replied, “Good!”  But, in Rwanda, things were different.  In Bangkok, a very dangerous city, the possibility that you were carrying a gun was something that would keep people at bay.  In Kigali, where nearly every human being had witnessed the most horrendous violence possible, a handgun was more of an invitation than a deterrent.  After all, how many could you kill?  But when I mentioned the men staring at me to Apollos he just shrugged and jerked his head to the left saying, “We are safe here.  There is army security nearby.”  I looked in the direction he was indicating.  “You mean that fifteen year old kid with the Uzi?”  He nodded.  I nodded too, but actually I was more afraid of the kid than I was the guys staring at me.

I soon realized the shoulder wallet was not a deterrent in Rwanda so I quit wearing it, but still people eyed me on the street. Often, when Apollos and I would enter a crowed area, I would hear the word mazuma being uttered through the crowd.  I would also hear the words zuma or zum, zum, zum. Sometimes, on a dark street where the brightest thing was my hair, this was unnerving.  I asked Apollos what the people were saying and he said, “White man.”  Then I asked him what the other words were and he said, “Variations of white man.”  I figured that was good enough.  I also figured that maybe I was getting too old for this kind of adventure.

Another problem with Apollos was that he walked very fast and I couldn’t keep up with him.  If I was attacked, there was an excellent chance that he would see who did it, but I’m not sure he would actually be able to stop it.  But whether it was Apollos or God watching over me I got through my trip with no injuries whatsoever.  What I learned in Rwanda was that God is not absent when great evil is unleashed.  Whether that evil is man made or helped along by darker forces God is right there, saving those who respond to His urgings and trying to heal the rest.  Sure He could stop the evil in its tracks.  But where do you draw that line without ending free will and turning mankind into a bunch of zombies?  When people ask me where God was in Rwanda, I say, right there on the streets amidst the dead and dying.  Today Rwanda has not only recovered from the genocide politically and economically, but men like Bishop John are accomplishing the impossible — healing the hearts of the people.  With God’s help.

Things didn’t quite work out so smoothly with David.  Back in 1969, I was living in Nashville, Tennessee. trying to make it as a songwriter.  From 1969 to 1971 I wrote about 300 sets of lyrics of which about 125 became songs, of which 32 were published by Nashville music publishing companies, of which 3 were recorded and released as records, of which none were hits.  During that time I met lots of colorful characters.  I met Jimmy Buffet who in those days, sounded more like James Taylor.  Jimmy and I have an unusual connection.  The first song he wrote that was released as a record was called Ellis Dee by an artist named Gary Miles.  Mike Leppert and I wrote the B-side of that single, a song called Jennifer Sunshine.  Gary Miles was actually a top Nashville publisher named Buzz Cason who was the first person to take a chance on both Jimmy and I.  In Jimmy’s case, it eventually paid off handsomely.  In my case, not so much.

Anyway, another friend of mine at that time was David Allan Coe.  Back then David was a struggling songwriter like me.  He used to drive a funeral hearse that he had painted white and decorated with steer horns welded to the hood.  He had yellow concert posters with red writing on them taped to both sides of the car.  It looked really nice.  David was always an original and, despite what you may have heard, a pretty good guy. We had lots of good times together hanging out at the life size replica of the Greek Parthenon that they had built in Centennial Park.  It was where all the hippies hung.  Well, eventually we both got a little action and a little money.  David moved back to Ohio for a while and I moved to a better neighborhood in another part of Nashville.  I thought I was going to hit the big time just about any day.  In fact I talked my 65 year old widowed mother into leaving a somewhat secure situation with my brother in Wichita, Kansas, and moving with me and three other songwriters into a big house in Nashville.  My mother was a wonderful person with a great sense of humor as you may have already figured out.

Well, after we’d been in the house a few months I get this call from David telling me he’s got some gigs in Nashville and wants to bring this hard rock country band from Cleveland down to try to get a record deal.  Can we stay with you?  I don’t have room.  What about the basement? Well, there is a basement, yeah.  We won’t be any trouble.  Now that was where I should have let some form of common sense enter in.  But no.  So David and the five members of Eli Raddish moved into my basement.  They were all nice guys. The band had this version of poker that they played all the time where cheating was legal, but if you got caught you had to match the pot.  So you can imagine that things often got out of hand.  And along with the yelling and fighting were the extremely loud practice sessions.  Of course, I pretty much knew all of that would happen and was willing to forgo it because of my friendship with David.  Then the band brought one of the stripper/hookers that hung around the Pancake Man restaurant over to the house for the weekend.  The next thing I knew Crystal – that really was her name – was upstairs borrowing my mom’s makeup and my mother was inquiring about her moral stature.  Things had gotten out of hand.  I told David that Crystal had to go and that maybe the band ought to leave pretty soon as well.  We agreed that the band could stay another week until the last of their gigs and we all parted as friends.  A few years later David wrote a couple of big country hits.  And then he became somewhat of a star himself.  I was happy for him.  I still am.

So today, when my wife questions my decision making process once in a while, I try to recall questionable ventures that I’ve done in the past.  Maybe I’m wiser.  Maybe I’m just older.

___

Maddancer #3 : A Celebration of the Strange : Downtown Nashville 1969

 

  The recent floods in Nashville, Tennessee,  brought to mind my years as a songwriter there. Nashville is home to some of the nicest and most talented people in the world. But Nashville in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was also home to some strange folk.  Of course, a lot of these people only came out at night and that’s why the most bizarre place I have ever regularly visited was the Pancake Man Restaurant located in the downtown Nashville Holiday Inn.  Now I’m admitting that I myself and the three to five other songwriters who lived in that wild house on Central Avenue then were pretty strange ourselves – which is why we belonged with the late night Nashville crowd.

Before I digress, let’s break down the basic after midnight clientele of the Pancake Man.  First you had your Grand Ole Opry performers.  Now, this was back when the Opry was in the Rhyman Auditorium in downtown Nashville and not in its own theme park. Occasionally, a legitimate country music star dined at the Pancake Man but not that often.  But many second tier acts and their bands and backup singers always ate there.  Then you usually had a representative or two of the legions of honky tonk singers that performed all over Nash-ville, but especially in the downtown area.  Now, I don’t know how well you know your basic Honky Tonker but think of a bunch of David Allen Coes without the fame and the money and you’ll get the idea.

Another key ingredient of the Pancake Man crowd was the strippers and hookers.  There were like seven thou-sand strip bars in downtown Nashville then and each one had fifteen girls working there.  Okay, that’s an exag-geration. Let’s just say there were always a few there. Since Nashville was a major recording center then as well as now, you had all kinds of session musicians hanging around, some of whom were legends themselves.  

Downtown Nashville was also host to big wrestling shows and there were always a tag team or two wolfing pancakes there at two in the morning.  I don’t know how many professional wrestlers you know but, in public, they are pretty much like they are on stage except they don’t slam you on your face with a figure-4 leglock.  But they’re really loud.

Then you had songwriters, armies of them – three James Taylors, two Joan Baezes, four Carole Kings, two Carly Simons and three sets of Simon and Garfunkles. Some of these were hippies as well and that was the slot in which I and my co-habitators fell. 

So this one Saturday night we’re eating eggs and the Pancake Man is in its full glory, overflowing with the previously mentioned folk.  In comes the Allman Brothers, fresh from their concert at Vanderbilt University.  This is their first major tour even before the first album is released.  But everyone had heard of them.  This is the original band before they started dropping like flies caught in the heyday of the ‘60s rock myth.  Duane Allman was still alive.  Eric Clapton had already said he was an amazing guitar player and he’d already been in Rolling Stone.  Duane was tall about six foot maybe, but a little shorter than Gregg.  Both of them had long strait hair, down past their shoulders.  Gregg’s was pure blond and Duane’s was red.  Rock gods. And Dickie Betts stood next to them, already being recognized himself as a great guitar player.  I believe that Butch Trucks, Jaimo and LaMar were also there, but I can’t be positive (like everything else about the human body, the memory does its dance). 

I remember them scanning the room as they waited for a table and watching the look in their eyes as they took in the downtown Nashville menagerie.  After a few minutes, Dickie Betts looked over at us and recognize-ing kindred spirits(longhairs), came over to our table. He said, “Hi, I’m Dickie Betts of the Alman Brothers.  We just got done with our gig at Vanderbilt and…” Then he paused as he watched the Alaskens (their Wrestling stage name), one of our tag team patrons, go into one of their fake tantrums with another wrestler whose name I didn’t know but who we called the “Giant Craig” because he looked like a larger version of a good friend of ours.  When the professional wrestler-pseudo tantrum was done, Betts looked at me and said, “What the f**k’s the deal with this place.  I did my best to explain late-night Nashville to him and he marveled along with us that such a place could survive very long.  A few years later when I was writing my syndicated column on pop music I got invited to the Capricorn Records picnic and hooked up with Dickie again.  By then half his band was dead but we reminisced a bit.

Nashville by day wasn’t much more normal especially to some Illinois boys like us.  One time Mike Leppert and I had written a tune we thought was perfect for Bobby Goldsboro, the reigning country king of smaltz ballads who’d had huge hits with “Honey”, “Little Green Apples” and “Watching Scottie Grow”.  I wrote these lyrics called “Another Busy Day” and it was all about this guy who adored his wife and could never afford to take her to Paris and give her all the things she deserved.  We took it to Kenny O., Bobby’s song guy, who ran his music publishing companies.  Well, like most Nashville music execs, Kenny was a real nice guy and made time to listen to our latest batch of songs.  In fact, people are so nice in Nashville that it takes six months for you to figure out they’re just giving you the run around.  In L.A. you learn that in about an hour.  In New York, about ten minutes.

Anyway Kenny listened to the tape and didn’t find anything to his liking.  I made a point of asking him about “Another Busy Day” because I thought it was Bobby’s type of song, but he passed.  So then, Mike and I went across the street (actually across the alley) that ran between 16th and 17th Avenues, an area called Music Row in those days because of all the music compa-nies located there.  We took the song over to a guy named Larry who worked for Elvis Presley’s arranger at the time.  Larry put the tape on and as soon as he got to “Another Busy Day” he stopped the machine and said. “This song is perfect for Goldsboro.”  I said that I had thought so too but Kenny passed on it.

Larry nodded.  “Let’s take it over to Kenny right now.”

“I was just there,” I replied.  “He didn’t like it.”

Larry nodded again.  “Let go over there and play it for him.”

I looked at Mike and Mike shrugged.  “No, we were just there, not fifteen minutes ago and he passed on the song.”

Larry nodded.  “Alright, let’s go then.”

Who am I to question the marvelous minds of Nash-ville music?  I got up and Mike and I followed Larry right back to Kenny’s office.  When we entered, Larry said, “Hey Kenny, we got a song we think would be great for Bobby.”

I said, “Hi Kenny, you remember us.  We were here like twenty minutes ago.”

Kenny said, “Hello boys.  Yeah let’s hear it!”

Then he put the same tape back on the same machine where he had listened to the song before.

Larry said.  “It’s the third song.  It’s called “Another Busy Day”. 

Kenny nodded and fast forwarded the tape to the song.

I said, “Remember, it was the one I pointed out to you.”

Kenny said, “Alright, let’s take a listen.”

I looked at Mike.  Mike shrugged.  I shut up.

Kenny played the song.  After about a minute he said, “Yeah, this is Bobby’s kind of song alright.”

Larry agreed.  “And Glenn too.  We’ll get a lot of cuts on this.”

“Cuts” is music publisher slang for recordings and by Glenn I assumed they meant Glenn Campbell, another big star of the time. 

“Maybe even Johnny or Waylon,” Kenny added and Larry nodded.

When the song was over Larry said, “Alright I found the song so I get half of the publishing and you and Bobby can have the other half.”

“That’s fair,” Kenny said. “But you got to do the demo.”

“Okay,” Larry said.  “I might just record it on the album I’m working on and we can use that as a demo to pitch it. I’ll draw up the song-writing contracts with the boys here.”

Then he turned to me and said, “Congratulations, boys.  You got a hit song in the works.”

Now, as things tend to go, Larry’s album got bogged down so we never got our demo and then he left the company so our song was stuck with someone who didn’t care about it.  But that day, as I sat in Kenny’s office, I couldn’t help myself from looking the gift horse in the mouth.  After all the talking was done, I said.  “You know Kenny, when I played you that song like, oh about a half hour ago, you passed on it.  How come?”

He looked at me for a long moment and then he said, “I just couldn’t hear it then.”

I use this story in my book The Platinum Rainbow because it illustrates what I call “The Well Respected Source Rule” which means that, since the arts are so subjective, you always have more power when someone successful brings in your project.  That why agents work so well. Kenny was telling the truth.  He couldn’t hear it when the song was coming from two kids that were living in a ’65 Chevy.  But when Larry, a respect-ed songwriter/publisher, played it for him, he heard it loud and clear.

  • May 2017
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