Close to 20,000 sweat-drenched fans happily descended upon Fort Worth recently for the 32nd Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic. Held in the Fort Worth Stockyards field adjacent to Billy Bob's Texas honky-tonk, the 29-artist lineup included country legends (Nelson, Ray Price, Billy Joe Shaver, Asleep at the Wheel), shady ladies (Jessi Colter, Janie Fricke), up-and-comers (Randy Rogers Band, Cross Canadian Ragweed), rockers (Los Lonely Boys, Doobie Brothers, Leon Russell) and even Bob Dylan, right at home in his recent "country gentleman" phase. Some dispatches from backstage:
The Surreal Life
Ushered into Willie's tour bus, we found ourselves in cramped quarters with Willie, Kinky Friedman, an alternately awake-and-sleeping David Allan Coe and comedian David Steinberg, who is filming a documentary on Kinky's run for Texas governor. A large butchered watermelon sat on the counter. "I have a lot of friends in Houston. I worked at a radio station and club there," Nelson told us. "Like Larry and Pat Butler. He had a band down there at the Esquire Club on Hempstead Highway. He loaned me $50 once so I could get a house!"
Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic
Willie, Willie Everywhere
Though sidelined from much of last year's Picnic (save for his own set) thanks to carpal tunnel syndrome, like a grizzled Zelig, Nelson popped up on stage with many of the artists. But -- perhaps keeping in theme with his new reggae record, Countryman -- it was his joyful stint with Marty Dread and the Los Maui Boys that had the most impact. With Nelson on stage, they stretched their 20-minute set into more than an hour, throwing the schedule off whack, from which it never recovered. Got munchies, dude?
A Brave, Brave Man
T-shirt spotted on a roadie: A picture of Sitting Bull, and written underneath, "My Heroes Have Always Killed Cowboys."
Nurse, How Did that Harp Fall in There?
Nelson's longtime harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, has Houstonian friends in high places. "One time, I was meeting Dr. Red Duke for lunch, and he had an emergency at the hospital, so I went with him to the surgery," Raphael said. "He figured he's seen me work enough times, and now it was my turn."
Biodiesel Fuel, It's Not Gas, Gas, Gas
Back on the bus, Willie was extolling the virtues and secrets of biodiesel fuel, which powers his tour buses, and its secret origins. "Part of it comes from vegetable oil that is recycled from restaurant grease traps. It's going to catch on, because both Republicans and Democrats realize that [fuel conservation] is a serious issue." Not to mention vegans.
Masked and Not-So-Anonymous
Shortly after 9 p.m., things got tense behind the stage. Cops running around. Security flashlights out. Paths being cleared. Was the new pope in town? Dubya? Tom Landry brought back from the dead? Nope, someone with even more celebrity cachet: Bob Dylan. Surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards, cops and Picnic staff, he made a brisk walk through the path -- staring straight ahead under his white cowboy hat -- and onto the stage. During the set, a tour bus (presumably his) was backed up to the area, running and ready to receive the Bard of Hibbing immediately after he hit the last note. Seems Fort Worth barely even crossed his boot tip, much less his mind.
Mama's Got a Squeezebox
Though the King of Western Swing is long gone, a group of grizzled, gray-haired veterans of Bob Wills's Texas Playboys continue playing "San Antonio Rose" and "Corrine, Corrina" in matching shirts and scarves. "Thank God for George Strait keeping this music alive!" said Playboy George Uptmore. One thing the current lineup has that Bob would have never: an incredibly hot young Latina on the accordion. Ahh-haaaa
I Wanna Be Elected
Texas gubernatorial wannabe Kinky Friedman said he's already got plans for Willie in his administration. "He'll be head of the Texas Rangers and energy adviser," the candidate said, waving his trademark cigar. Friedman said he'd also name Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel "minister of culture." So what about his chances in heavily Republican districts? "If I could get one person in Tyler to vote for me, it would be progress. Texas is ready for this!"
All hail Biggie Smalls, who loved it when we called him Big Poppa. Hail Tupac Shakur, whose thug ways made us forget he was in the Digital Underground. Some may say we are overstepping our bounds with this most serious critical fatwa against the Los Angeles Police Department, but it was they who stepped onto our turf first with their mangling of rappers' murder investigations. Fatwa!
This month, a wrongful death suit against the LAPD ended in a mistrial when it was learned that the department had been hiding evidence -- evidence that rogue LAPD cops pulled the trigger on Biggie Smalls. Notice that this is a wrongful death suit and not a criminal trial, as the LAPD never got around to solving the crime in the first place.
Watch out, LAPD, or you might squander all that goodwill you've built up with the minorities of your city. Can you blame the rap fans who don't trust the police, when the cops have been unable to solve the murders of Biggie, Tupac and Jam Master Jay? And now the accusations that LAPD hit men killed Smalls -- that is very bad, LAPD! It is worse, even, than Lindsay Lohan's new single, and we dropped a fatwa on her without mercy. Your punishment must be severe. So, LAPD, until you get off your duffs and solve Biggie's murder, may you be forced to listen to new Tupac albums, featuring every flow and fart the man ever uttered, on constant repeat. It is written. -- The Ayatollah of Rock
WHAT AN ASSASSIN
The feds get heavy with an angry Arab-American gangsta rapper/baggage handler
Bassam Khalaf is a bit stressed these days, what with all the attention his rapping alter ego, the Arabic Assassin, has been getting from the media. "I'm fucking all paranoid and shit now," says the native Houstonian, before mentioning a recent trip to Carter's Country. "I wanted to get me a gun, just for protection, man, but it's like, I don't, 'cause I don't want to take that path, you know?"
The Assassin isn't considering going all Second Amendment because he's worried about people taking advantage of his success. His debut, Terror Alert, has never been pressed, and it's received little buzz on the Net. Wack listened to some of his tracks a while back, but we never got around to writing about the Assassin; most of the lyrics were dirtier than Bobby Brown's fingers, and we would never, ever give coverage to someone just because of controversy. That would be beneath Wack's lofty journalistic sensibilities.
And now, the hullabaloo: People are all over the Assassin's ass because he got fired last week from his job at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, where he had worked for six months as a baggage handler. The reason for his dismissal was "authorship of songs which applaud the efforts of the terrorists on September 11" and making further terroristic threats, according to the termination letter he received from the Transportation Security Administration office. Chalk up another victory for the war on terror, and hell, while you're at it, add a tick mark for serendipitous marketing.
"They fired me because of my rap stuff, you know, like my lyrics and my name -- that was the only reason," says the Assassin. "I'm trying to tell people, it's only one song, and it's not even a full song. It's just a couple of lines where I mention that shit."
From the song, "Bringing the Pain," here are the lyrics in question: "Nigga, what you don't want, it with this Arabic / I'm a crash a fuckin' plane in yo buildin', bitch / Nine eleven o five, be ready to die, I show no mercy for ho ass tricks."
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All of which makes us wonder: What's the big deal? So long as you're not a ho ass trick, you've got nothing to worry about. And what ever happened to freedom of speech? We haven't seen a case more ready-made for the ACLU since the ouster of NAMBLY the Clown.
The Assassin couldn't agree more: "I'm tired of people twisting the story around, talking about, 'You're the Arabic Assassin. You're an Islamic Muslim.' I'm not even Islamic or Muslim, first of all, I'm Christian. And what they're implying when they say that is that all Islamic Muslim people are terrorists. That's messed up too, you know?"
The track, he admits, was meant to court controversy. "I write for shock value," he says. "That's the fucking genius, man. If I had an album out, it'd be even smarter."
Well, no one's going to argue with that. -- Keith Plocek