Me and Mr. Jones

To paraphrase one of his favorite Iggy Pop songs, Noise is now the passenger. So for all of his Facebook friends wondering why his "status" is now a quote from Wilco's A.M. gem "Passenger Side" ("I don't like riding on the passenger side"), wonder no further.

About four years ago, when he was still living in Austin, Noise's generally good luck (not to mention judgment) faltered, and he got busted for DWI for the first time, and hopefully the last. Noise thought he had put it behind him, but it turns out things like this don't go away quite so easily.

The night of November 6, Noise got pulled over on his way to meet a friend at Leon's Lounge. (Actually, he had already parked when the HPD car pulled into the lot, but close enough.) The officer let him go with a very stern warning – and thank you, ma'am, wherever you are — but not before informing him his driver's license had been revoked.

Evidently Noise still owes the State of Texas some money, part of the surcharge the Legislature added to all DWI convictions that took effect a few months before his case came up in court. Noise can be less than punctual when it comes to whipping out the checkbook; ask anyone at Ford Credit.

So until he figures out a way to come up with about three grand, Noise is on foot patrol. At least he's finally buying a bike.

Therefore, as you might imagine, Noise has been thinking about drinking quite a bit recently. And lo and behold, who should be headed for Houston this weekend but perhaps the most famous drunk in country music history, George Jones.

Surely this is no coincidence.

He's sober now, but the jacket copy of country music writer Dolly Carlisle's 1984 Jones biography Ragged But Right contains this tantalizing teaser: "He tells about his most desperate days when he lived out of the back seat of his car with nothing more than a bottle of Jack Daniels and a picture of his idol, Hank Williams."

Noise reached out to Jones's PR people in the hopes of setting up an interview, but found them somewhat less than cooperative. Nonetheless, he feels a strong kinship with the ol' Possum, so named for his booze-induced proclivity for disappearing just before he was due onstage, the same habits that earned him another famous nickname, "No-Show Jones."

Reading further, it seems Noise and Jones drink — or drank, in his case — for more or less the same reason. We're both shy, perhaps even antisocial personalities working in two of the most social professions there are: entertainment and journalism. There's not much difference between being a writer and a singer, not much at all.

We both offer up our most private, personal thoughts and feelings for the evaluation, entertainment and — we hope so, at least — enrichment of complete strangers. It ain't easy, not least because whether you're writing about music or singing it, it all plays out in the most public of arenas, that invisible and indivisible screen between stage and audience. It's a harsh place to confront your demons, whatever they may be.

From either side, that's where you'll find humanity at its most exposed and emotionally charged: the performers doing what they've dedicated their entire lives to (more often than not at great personal cost); the audience because there's nowhere else on earth they'd rather be at that moment (ditto). And after it's over, adrenaline rampaging through your synapses, there's no quicker way to come down.

"After you were finished playing, everyone wanted to have a party, and you'd wind up staying up all night," Jones, describing life on the honky-tonk trail in the early and mid-'60s, told Carlisle. "I'd end up fatigued and hoarse the next day. I'd take a drink to get started, and after one or two I didn't want to stop. When you play taverns ten or 15 years, like I did, it draws everything out of you. The people became overbearing, and I'd respond accordingly."

Alcohol, be it of the grain or the grape, really is the great equalizer. It's nobody's friend and everybody's buddy. Not a music venue in this city or any other could exist without bar sales, unless, like Javajazz, it caters exclusively to the under-21 emo-trumps-booze set. Otherwise, bar and venue owners make their rent on a river of tears.

But let's not forget that without liquor, beer and wine, a lot of the greatest songs ever written would be DOA. And if you're talkin' country, many have been recorded by Jones. Among post-WWII American singers, only Hank Williams Sr., Frank Sinatra and Roy Orbison ever sang with more sadness.

Noise lost most of his country archives in a nonalcohol-related vehicular mishap a few years back (he managed to drive off with the CD book still on top of the car, where needless to say it didn't stay for long), so last week he hitched a ride to Cactus Music and bought George Jones: 50 Years of Hits, a 2004 compilation released on the Possum's own Bandit Records.

Let's pick it up at Disc 2, which begins in 1972, around the time in Jones's life he famously responded to then-wife Tammy Wynette confiscating his car keys by tooling down to his local tavern on a riding lawnmower (a gambit the native of Big Thicket oil/sharecropping community Saratoga perfected in a previous marriage). Jones, now 77, was a child of the Depression, but a lot of his material from these years is downright suicidal.

1975's "These Days I Barely Get By" begins — begins — with "I woke up this morning aching with pain," and it just gets worse from there. There's 1978's "Bartender's Blues," where he sings "I need four walls around me to hold my life," and 1981's "Yesterday's Wine," a Willie Nelson-penned duet with Merle Haggard about a chance barroom meeting between two old friends sodden with fading memories and lingering regrets. And 1980's "He Stopped Loving Her Today," the biggest hit of Jones's career and the only song to win CMA Song of the Year two years in a row, isn't a drinking song per se, but it's opened many a bottle in its time.

Although Disc 3 is dominated by late-period novelty trifles like "High Tech Redneck" and Garth Brooks's duet "Beer Run (B Double E Double Are You In?)," Disc 1, which includes several songs Jones originally cut for Houston's Starday Records, is even starker than Disc 2. Exhibiting a world-weariness far beyond his 25 years at the time, Jones opens 1956's "Just One More" with the demand, "Put the bottle on the table," before sighing "one drink, just one more ... and then another."

Of course, there's "White Lightnin'," the best hooch song of the '60s, rockabilly when it had all but died laced with Jones's funny whistling noises — and one of the few songs in his catalog where booze is the hero instead of the villain. Even at his most upbeat, like on 1964's "The Race Is On," Jones sounds like he's barely keeping it together — "My tears are holding back, tryin' not to fall." And "Still Doin' Time," two years later, forget about it: "The ocean of liquor I drank to forget her is gonna kill me, but I'll drink 'til then."

So what did Noise learn from a couple of evenings drowning his sorrows with Jones? For one thing, that even more than his buddy Johnny Cash, Jones's existential lyrics could jam a great big middle finger up even the most conventional Owen Bradley countrypolitan arrangement. Besides that, nothing the Possum's fellow CD-player denizens Van Morrison, Jeff Tweedy and Tom Petty didn't echo in some form or fashion — which is to say, a hell of a lot.

In 1979, Jones and Waylon Jennings, another Nashville legend with a well-known taste for hard living, recorded a version of Willie Nelson's honky-tonk blues "Night Life." The night life, now as then, ain't no good life.

But, although it can sometimes lead to bad things, it ain't no bad life either. And it's our life.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray