Thursday, January 8, 2009

George Watterson and the great Safari (Part 1)

It was the early fall of 1998 and I had just finished one of the more grueling tour seasons of my life. The first half of the year was spent doing the last few months of an 11 month tour with a young artist named Kami Lyle. We had made a record called "Blue Cinderella" with the great Hugh Padgham producing ( of Police, Phil Collins, Sting, and Peter Gabriel fame among many others ) and were on the road trying to build it from the ground up. For someone at Kami's level this meant just enough tour support to hire reasonably capable people- myself, a revolving door of bass players, and a tour manager- and enough to book a string of club and theatre dates opening for established acts in front of mostly uninterested audiences. We did this non-stop for several months in '97 and straight into '98, all in a 13 passenger van. That means the 4 of us, all of our luggage, and all of the equipment, all in one trusty old Dodge van. By default, I ended up being the lead driver and then some pretty early on- which I was OK with. I'll explain; 

I'm known for having a pretty unhealthy amount of enthusiasm for taking a road trip if I'm going to be behind the wheel, but it soon became obvious to me that if I wanted to up my chances of staying alive, I would be doing all of the driving. This of course can be said in another way, that is, if I was going to die in a Dodge van I'd just assume not have it be because the bass player thought he saw a woodchuck ( which really did almost send us to our deaths on one occasion ) or because the road manager was cleaning his bong while trying to negotiate The Grapevine at 3 am. That one is true too. I'll explain; 

I was sleeping in the rear-most seat one night while we were driving from LA to Santa Cruz and woke up to the van swaying back and forth across two lanes, much like the rhythm a car gets into when pulling a trailer without enough tongue weight. This was not just regular old bad driver swaying, this was with enough force that the tires were squalling. Mixed with this was what sounded like a ball peen hammer smacking the side of the van. I grabbed on to the seat back in front of me, looked up front to see what was causing this, and found that the road manager who was driving at the time had half of his body sticking out the drivers door window like a dog enjoying the wind in its face. When I yelled up to him to see what was going on he responded, "I'm trying to clean out this bong man." Apparently he thought the best time to dismantle his piece of smoking equipment was in the middle of the night while driving on one of the most treacherous stretches of road in the country. So why the leaning out the door and what was the smacking... you may ask? Well, it turns out that he was leaning out the window and smacking parts of his bong on the side of the door to try and clean them out. All while he had one hand on the wheel sawing back and forth. So, I guess you can see why I felt OK to drive at ALL times for the rest of the tour. And I did. For the entire tour. Every mile of it. I'm not saying I'm the greatest driver in the world, I'm just saying that since I don't own a bong I won't have to clean one. And at age 27...  I had already seen a woodchuck. 

The Kami Lyle tour finally ended for me in May of '98 as I had to get back on board my regular job at the time, which was playing guitar for Steve Earle (not Monterey Historics Steve Earle, but"Copperhead Road" Steve Earle). I remember that I had two days to make this transition and we ran almost non-stop from when I jumped on in May until the first week of September. So, you can imagine how I felt when that first week of September arrived. 

I was so done with anything that had anything to do with anything touring that there wasn't anything or anyone or any money (well that's not really true) that could get me to do anything for anything. I wanted nothing, and a lot of it. As soon as my feet hit the ground in Nashville I immediately hopped in my glorious Ivy green Mustang fastback- damn I miss that car- and buzzed up to relax and visit my folks in Bedford, Indiana. 

Bedford is a smallish town in southern Indiana with about 14,000 folks and looks like every John Cougar video you've ever seen. Nice place, nice people, and safe as could be as everybody knows everybody. You hear that old tall tale about people not locking their doors at night...   my folks really didn't lock their doors at night. I spent most of my high-school years there and made some great friends both in and out of school. A great car town that "cruised the square" every Friday and Saturday night every bit as much as American Graffiti. Lots of circle tracks and racers around, the influence of the 500 up the road was always felt, the SCCA had a pretty decent stronghold, there was a car show in some neighboring small town almost every weekend, and their were plenty of drag racers and places to run... and I mean on and off the track. In fact, to this day the best street races I've ever seen were in or around this town. Someday I'll have to tell some tales from "The River Bridge". 

Anyway, back to our story; 
As you may have read in my bio, my father was a serious enthusiast who had his hands in projects and restorations at all times. He also had a really nice and well equipped shop up at my folks home in Indiana. When I finally touched down at their place in September, that's all I wanted to do or be around. Just get me out to that shop with Dad and everything will be fine. Always plenty to do and I couldn't think of anything that was going to be more therapeutic for what was ailing me. 

As is always the case, when you're deep in a project non-stop, you get into a rhythm where you end up at the couple of parts stores you deal with almost daily. Things will then become so casual that friendly conversation will start almost as soon as you're through the door. Of course with car guys, it's always about cars. Now when you're dealing with a small town, things tie together quickly. Someone will mention something and someone else will know someone else with a similar situation or story and it goes on. Now I don't remember how it started but I think I remember it had something to do with a flat-head part I was looking for ( I was already well into the process of collecting the parts for my '29 roadster ) and I know that I was at the Napa store.. or Fultz's as we called it. I said something about my needed flat-head part and Steve behind the counter says,"You should go out and see that guy in Heltonville who has all those old flat-heads." Another guy behind the counter says,"Yeah, he sure has a lot of 'em... and some nice old V-8 Fords just lying around too." I'm like,"What?". "Oh yeah", says Steve. "Lots of 'em. Then there's that old boy on the way to Brownstown, he's got a lot of that old stuff too. Tons of them old cars just sittin' out in the weather. Model A's, '32s, anything." Again, I'm saying,"What? I've never seen this stuff. Where is this guy again?" Then Steve says,"What about that old man down there outside-a-Mitchell? He's got 'bout every old car you can imagine on his property...  Fords, Chevrolets, Packards, Hudsons, he's even got one of those Lincoln Zephyrs with a 12 cylinder motor." At this point I'd kind of had enough. Something just clicked in my head. I'd been hearing these tall tales and unsubstantiated claims for years around this small town. Ever since I was in high school. Everyone seemed to have story. I couldn't put gas in my Chevelle without somebody coming up to me and saying,"I know where there's one just like it sitting under a car-port. Got the 4spd and the big motor. Just like new. Been there for 30 years. Nobody knows who it belongs to." Over and over. 50s and 60s Corvettes out in fields and sitting in pig pens, an old lady in town who had a mint condition MG TD in her basement that belonged to her late husband, etc etc etc. I mean, can any of this be true? Could they ALL be true? I've known these guys at Fultz's since I got my license. They're all super good guys, aren't crazy and are honest as the day is long. Sure people will exaggerate and punch up stories on the fly to entertain and pass the time, but it has to start with some kind of a germ of truth. It just can't be all pure fiction. Can it?

This is what was going through my head as I was driving home from the Napa that day. If only someone would take the time and get to the bottom of this stuff and let me know what they find. Wouldn't that be great? Then it occurred to me- the only guy nuts enough to get to the bottom of this stuff is the one driving the car right now... me! This is perfect, I thought. I have the time, for some crazy reason I have the energy, and I have the story tellers to guide me where to go. This seemed like the perfect mind cleanse/therapy for my case of "road burn". That's what I'll do. I'll collect every crazy tall tale car guy story I've ever heard around here and I'll do everything I can to get to the absolute bottom of all of them. 

And throughout the fall of 1998, that's exactly what I did...  every one of them. And what a ride it was. 

Tune in tomorrow to see and hear about all that I found. You may be surprised...  I certainly was. 

1 comment:

biggearhead said...

What's funny is how far off some of those stories turn out to be. What's scary is how many of them turn out to be 100% true, and that no matter how many times you think someone has found the absolute last one, out comes another from a barn or a shed or a basement.