by Michael Bane
“And now, ladies and gentlemen,” the unseen Nashville Network announcer says in his perfectly modulated radio voice, “America’s favorite outlaw… Willie Nelson!”
And Willie Nelson strides to center stage, as he has a million times before — and as he probably will a million times more — oblivious to the incongruity of the words “favorite” and “outlaw” being strung together in his introduction; oblivious o the cameras and lights and dancers and producers and directors and general mayhem that accompanies any television production; oblivious as always to the storm o f controversy that has once again descended on his long-haired head.
Craggy and timeworn, he is as he has always been — unlikely golfer, long distance runner, famous songwriter, semi-fugitive from justice and, of course, the Lord High Zen Master of the Road.
“Howdy, folks,” he says in his perfect Willie Nelson voice. Next he will say, “Good to see you,” and damned if he doesn’t mean it.
You’ve probably been reading a lot of news about Willie recently, and none of it has been good news. Depending on which tabloid you happen to be reading at the time, Willie Nelson is broke, destitute, desperate and probably living in some cardboard box under an Intestate overpass. He does, in truth, owe the internal Revenue Service around, o, say $16.7 million. (“Say it real quick,” Willie confides, “and it don’t sound so bad.”) The federales auctioned off his property to pay the debt, although, other than a few souvenir-hunters, there weren’t a lot of takers. It just wouldn’t you know, be right, somehow, profiting from Willie’s Nelson’s distress.
I have caught up with Willie Nelson, whom I have known for the better part of two decades, to ask him two simple qustions I already know the answer to. Both are pretty obvious. The last time Willie and I talked, it was in a ritzy club in New York City. Willie and Burt Reynolds, actresses Carol Lynley and Candice Bergen and me. It’s sure as heck, I say, not the bad old days.
“No,” Willie laughs, “thank God, it’s not.”
Question One, then, is how did the bad old days come back with such a vengeance?
Question Two dates back to the first time we met, not surprisingly in another older and substantially more decrepit tour bus parked outside a gig in Charlotte, North Carolina, and where a younger Willie Nelson told a much younger me, win or lose, that this — the bus, the road, the gig — was his life, and he never wanted it to change.
Question Two, then is has it change?
Let’s let Willie answer in hs own words.
To Question One:
“Ah, Michael,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. “You know how it is.”
And to Question Two:
“Look around you, Michasel,” he says, his arms encompassing the Honeysuckle Rose II tour bus, his manager Mark Rothbaum doing business in the back, Kris Kristofferson exchanging “remember when” stories with assorted Family members, all the flotsam and jetsam of a life of the road. “Do you see anything different?”
That’s a fair question, but it’s not what you can see that gets you. What happened to Willie Nelson was, as Robert Draper in his exhaustively chronicled financial story in Texas Month, said, not “a story of greed that backfired. It’s instead a story of generosity to a major fault.”
In a story that’s suitable for the lyrics of a country song, the single most successful act in the history of country music made it all, than gave it all way — unfortunately, before he had paid any of the taxes due. In the scrambling to salvage his life and lifestyle, Willie Nelson has been forced to make decisions that make the bad old days look like a church picnic. So far, he hasn’t had to race back into another burning house to rescue his legendary guitar, but it’s been close.
Might as well blame it on the road.
Here’s one of my favorite images of Willie on the road. We’re out somewhere, Louisiana, I think, ten years or so ago. Outlaw music is riding high, but Willie hasn’t yet reached the stature of saint –at least, not nationally.
The show’s been over for a while, and the road manager comes onto the bus.
“Well,” he says, “guess it’s time to get the money.”
Everybody laughs, and the road manager goes over to his briefcase, hauls out a battered Colt 45 automatic and racks a round into the chamber, clicking the safety on. this is, for most of the history of country music, business as usual. Pick up the gate money from the show promoter or the club owner, stuff the cash in a briefcase and walk it back to the bus, or whichever beat-up car or truck was carrying the freight. The hardware, of course, was for that long, dark walk back to the bus, but it didn’t hurt for your average sleazypromoter to understand that this was serious business.
Other money came from song royalties and record company advances — no one ever expected the record company to sell enough records to pay off the advance — but it seemed like magic money, to be spent just about as quickly as a person could. For people like Willie Nelson, the money got bigger. Unimaginably bigger. Once the Outlaw Train began rolling, around 1976, there was no stopping it.
Everybody, though, did start casting around for a conductor.
For Willie and Waylon Jennings, the conducter came in the form of a hot-shot New York music business wiz named Neil Reshen, who signed on as manager to both Willie and Waylon. Reshen brought a shock of negotiating to small town Nashville.
“Why are they afraid of him?” Waylon told me when I was working on the Outlaws book back in the 1970’s. “Cause he knows where all the bodies are buried, man! I tell him, ‘You’re my old mean, dog. I got you on a chain over there, and every once in a while I’m gonna pull it and you just bite.”
Unfortunately, the chain proved to be a speck too long, allowing the “ole mean dog” to bite the hand that held it.
“I can’t be sure the taxes are paid and records kept and also write songs and play music,” Willie says. “At some point you have to trust somebody. And that’s always dangerous.”
Wilie broke with Reshen in 1978 and sued him two years later. Onc particularly bitter point of contention being that, according to Willie, one of his manager’s prime dutie was filing Willie’s retruns and taking care of the taxes, something Reshen disputes.
Even more controversy swirled around the famous Fourth of July Picnics. Willie has been concerned with Reshen’s handling of the events, and there were serious questions of where the money went. Willie claimed that was something he’d like to know. So did the IRS.
Willie’s troubles continued to escalate. All his financial records for the 1975 through 1978 — the Outlaw Years — had been destroyed, and the IRS is aking $2 million for those years, according to Draper. Willie and new manager Mark Rothbam went to one of the top accounting firms in the world, Price-Waterhouse, for financial hlep and advice.
What followed there, as evidenced bya 1990 lawsuit by Willie against Price Waterhouse, was nothing short of falling out of the frying pan and into the fire. A serious of disastrous tax-deferred investments left Willie in worse tax shape than ever. In 1984, the IRS began getting serious, demanding taxes due from the mid-1970’s, and tax notices began snow-balling.
And now we’re in Nashville where “America’s favorite outlaw” and Kris Kristofferson, in jeans and ragged T-shirts, are on the set of a television show performing to the vast chasm of the Operyhouse.
“They wanted us to wear tuxedos,” Kristofferson says later. “Ha ha.” Somethings, I suppose, never change.
Willie sings his barroom anthem, “Whiskey River,” and Kristofferson sings, “Me and Bobby McGee.” Also, when he gets to the refrain of “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” he pauses. “Just ask Willie,” he adds. The crowd gives an appreciative laugh.
We are on the bus later, and we are laughing. Kristofferson is telling Kris stories, Rothbaum is doing business and the whole bus has the atmosphere of an old club. Earlier, I’d grabbed Rothbaum and asked how things were really going.
“Willie’s Willie,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
I grab Willie and tow him to the back of the bus. We sit on the edge of the bed. Willie with his hands clasped and his uncanny ability to tune out the entire rest of the world.
“How do you survive in all this crap?” I ask.
“I maybe even thrive in all this crap,” he says.
“Has it been pretty hard on you?”
“Not on me, Michael. A lot of people worry about me, and it’s been hard on them. I haven’t noticed any major changes in my life… You know, the road is really the only safe haven. Once I get stopped in one place too long, I get in all kinds of trouble.”
“You told me once that it was hard to write when things were going too good…”
“Well, that’s true…” [laughter]
“Where are you living, anyway?”
“Well, I’ve still got a house in Austin and a house in Abbott, my home town. I move around a bunch on my days off. ‘Course, there’s not many of those this year.”
We talk about running, about doing Farm Aid in Russia, about Who’ll Buy My Memories: The IRS Tapes.
“Somebody asked my bass player, Bee Spears, if I was in trouble. Bee says, “Well, if he owed them $1 million, he’d be in trouble. but he owes them $17 million, so they’re in trouble!”
“You still give away everything you get?”
“I try to. It’s hard to carry all that shit.”
In the front of the bus, Kristofferson has everybody on the floor laughing, and, pretty soon, we join them. Stories are the currency of the road, maybe what we’ve bought and paid for. I can’t help thinking of another Kristofferson song, one I’d heard when I was just starting out on the road. ‘Once he had a future full of money, love and dreams, which the spent like they were going out of style..” I thought “The Pilgrim” was the most romantic song I’d ever heard. Having it, losing it, still knowing that, “The going up was worth the coming down…”
Hell, maybe it still is the most romantic song I’ve ever heard.
— Michael Bane
Country Music (March/April 1992)