In our collective younger and more innocent days of three months ago, the cruise industry was a going concern. Despite his lifelong avoidance of cruising, Larry “Ratso” Sloman could not resist stowing away, with his wife, on the most recent Outlaw Country Cruise, organized by SiriusXM’s Jeremy Tepper and featuring Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Kinky Friedman, the Waco Brothers and, yes, Lee “Scratch” Perry. The following is his cruise diary, which captures the moment when the coronavirus began to creep onto the radar. He also captures some magical musical moments.
Somehow, in all my decades on the planet, I had managed to avoid going on a cruise. My wife, Christy, had been on one once. Fifteen years ago, she and her sister took a week-long Carnival cruise from New Orleans to Mexico, the Cayman Islands and Jamaica. She hated every minute of it. The food was pedestrian, she had to dine with people she didn’t know, the entertainment was lame and the entire passenger population seemed to be yahoos from red states. If they sailed today, they would all be wearing red MAGA caps.
A few months ago, my friend, Jeremy Tepper, the program director for the SiriusXM Outlaw Country channel, told me about the Outlaw Country Cruise, about to make its fifth annual voyage. This year’s lineup included Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, and Kinky Friedman. I was intrigued. When he asked me if I would want to set sail, so to speak, and participate in celebrations of Dylan’s fabled 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue, since I had written a book (On the Road with Bob Dylan) about that tour and was prominently featured in Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Netflix documentary, I was excited. After a short negotiation, my wife and I were upgraded to a cabin with a balcony, where I could smoke cigars with impunity, and I signed up. What follows is my Outlaw Country Cruise diary. Welcome aboard!
TUES JAN 28TH
We flew into Florida today and booked a room at the Hotel YVE, a boutique place just minutes from the Port of Miami. Downtown Miami is now studded with towering overpriced co-op buildings. It seems like all the Eurotrash overflow from South Beach has migrated here.
WED JAN 29TH
We Uber it over to the port. This is cruise central and we pass massive boat after boat until we finally find ours. It’s one of the flagships of the Norwegian Cruise line and it’s called the Pearl. It looks intimidating.
We are ushered to a special artist’s section to check-in. A few minutes later, I spot my old pal Kinky Friedman with his guitar player Jim “Washington Ratso” Silman. Kinky dubbed him “Washington Ratso” to differentiate him from myself, the original Ratso. This somehow causes people much glee to be in the presence of not one but two Ratsos. Kinky is on a roll as of late with two brilliant albums of original songs released after an almost 40-year hiatus. The Kinkster had been written off as being “too hip for country” and “too country for the intelligentsia” but it seems that at 75 he is having a renaissance.
In fact, his latest album, Resurrected, produced by the musical polymath Larry Campbell, is so good that Kinky actually has visions of conquering the charts. So in a unique ploy to get some publicity for the album, the lifelong bachelor planned to get married on the cruise to one of his long suffering girlfriends. Since I’m a minister in the Universal Life Church (Rev. L.J. Sloman of the Last Exit Before Freeway Church of God), I was to officiate and Washington Ratso would be the ring boy. But when Kinky’s friends got wind of the idea, they warned him that he should get a pre-nup agreement since the union at sea just might be legal. Kinky had second thoughts up until a few days before the cruise, when he decided his fiancé was not getting a ring. So Washington Ratso thanked his lucky stars that he would not be sharing a crapper with Kinky and his soon-to-be wife.
We hear a bellow from across the room. “Kinky! Ratso!” It’s our old pal Mojo Nixon, one of the pioneers of the cowpunk/psychobilly musical movement. Best known for his hilarious deification of Elvis, “Elvis is Everywhere”, he also penned such gems as “Debbie Gibson is Pregnant with My Two-headed Love Child” and “Don Henley Must Die”—the last song considered so offensive by his own record company that they urged radio stations NOT to play it. He dabbled in acting for a while, even appearing in the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire as Jerry Lee’s drummer. But by 2004, Mojo officially retired from touring and went into radio DJing where he has been a mainstay on SiriusXM hosting a show every weekday on the Outlaw Country channel and earning the well-deserved nickname “The Loon in the Afternoon.”
Mojo is accompanied by his manager, Bullethead, who is wearing an identical Hawaiian floral print outfit, shirt and shorts, except Bullethead is wearing a bowler hat. After greeting us, Mojo works the waiting area, shouting greetings in his bullhorn of a voice to some of the other performers on the tour. After a few minutes of making his presence known, he comes back to where we’re sitting with Adaire, his saint-like wife. “Pace yourself,” she tells Mojo. “You’ll lose your voice by tomorrow.”
The rooms are ready. Our room has two single beds pushed together, a convertible couch, a well-appointed bathroom, and, best of all, a nice balcony.
We have to gather in one of the musical venues for a mandatory safety briefing. We’re joined at our table by Larry Campbell and his wife, Teresa Williams, who will perform their usual show on the cruise. But Larry is being put to work backing Kinky for his two sets and he’s playing acoustic guitar on my Sunday night gig where I will read from my Dylan Rolling Thunder book and then play three songs from my debut album, Stubborn Heart.
I’ve known Larry since our days at the fabled Lone Star Café in the late ‘70s. He was in Kinky’s bands after the Texas Jewboys – bands that Kinky named The Blue Ball Truckers, The Angry Young Men, and, my favorite, The Entire Polish Army. Campbell then played guitar for Bob Dylan from 1997 to 2004 and wound up working with Levon Helm in Woodstock on Levon’s famous Rambles at his home/studio. Larry masterfully plays nearly every stringed instrument known to man and has recorded with everyone from Lowell George and Little Feat to Willie Nelson to B.B. King.
While we catch up, a tall, goateed desperado-looking dude sidles into the booth next to me. He introduces himself as Jesse Dayton, an Austin-based fixture on the outlaw country scene who’s released 12 studio albums and works the road at least 200 days a year. Somehow he found time in 2013 to also write and direct a zombie apocalypse film Zombex set in post-Katrina New Orleans and starring the great Malcolm McDowell. Jesse tells me he’s a big fan of my books and we talk about writing since both of us are in the throes of writing memoirs. He’s incredibly affable and we make plans to meet up later in the cruise. That’s the beauty of this cruise. You’re on a boat with thousands of fans and 47 artists, most of them pretty accessible. You might be in an elevator and Kris Kristofferson could get in at any random floor. This is not a cruise that Howard Hughes would have enjoyed.
A few toots on a horn and we’re actually moving! Christy and I make our way up to the pool deck where the opening festivities are being emceed by Mojo Nixon and Elizabeth Cook, another Outlaw Country personality and a fine performer. The deck is jam-packed with thousands of revelers, spanning a huge demographic swath, though the AARP contingent seems the strongest, mainly because they have the most disposable income and a cruise like this ain’t cheap. But these are not your father’s AARP members. Steven Van Zandt, whose production company Renegade Circus co-produces the event along with Sixthman, a theme cruise operator, had the best description of the Outlaw Country channel devotees – “a sanctuary for the freaks, misfits, rebels and renegades of country music.” And he’s absolutely right. You’re much more likely to find a retired biker on board than a retired CPA. I haven’t seen this many canes in one place since the faith healer Benny Hinn was chucking his jacket at his handicapped followers and “curing” them by knocking them flat on their asses.
Mojo warms up the audience by announcing a special guest – Kris Kristofferson. Kris slowly walks on stage and waves to the adoring crowd and then retreats as Steve Earle and the Dukes break into a rousing set. The sound is pristine, the sea air is refreshing and it doesn’t hurt that Sixthman crew members are passing around margarita shots from silver trays. Christy and I have about six each. This is going to be fun!
After a brief nap, we go to see Larry and Teresa play. The ship has five musical venues and they’re playing the Atrium, an intimate stage that’s mid-ship. Their setlist is eclectic, covering a Duke Ellington song, Johnny Cash’s Big River, and a particularly soulful version of John Sebastian’s “Darling Be Home Soon”. Larry’s playing and singing are impeccable and Teresa’s fulsome voice hits all the right notes. I guess the family that plays together, slays together.
We have time to rush to the artist lounge and grab some dinner from the buffet, but then it’s straight to the Stardust Theater where Lucinda Williams has packed the vast house. On Christmas Eve, Christy and I went to punk icon Jesse Malin’s bar Niagara in the East Village for a listening party for Lucinda’s new album Good Souls Better Angels. Lucinda seemed a bit shy as the twenty or so people sat in a downstairs room and were blown away by the intensity of the new album that featured “Man Without A Soul” a savage but clever takedown of Trump by the self-proclaimed “yellow dog Democrat.” From beginning to end, the album rocked hard and Lucinda never sounded better. So seeing her on the big stage at the Stardust Theater was revelatory as she offered up her big hits like “Joy”, songs from the forthcoming album and her classic protest song “Bone of Contention.” Lucinda was back, with a vengeance!
After the set, we check in at the Artists Lounge for a welcome party but only a few performers show up. Among them is the dynamic duo of Amy Nelson, daughter of Willie; and Cathy Guthrie, spawn of Arlo, who, as Folk Uke, have been cracking up audiences for the last decade with bawdy, hilarious songs like “Knock Me Up” and “Shit Makes the Flowers Grow” sung in angelic harmonies. I had met Amy when Kinky and I had attended the Austin Film Society’s dinner that honored our friend John McCall so we hug hello but then I take Christy over to meet Cathy since she’s a huge fan of her granddad Woody Guthrie. I relate Christy’s admiration and Cathy is all smiles.
“What’s the name of your group?” Christy asks.
“Folk Uke”, Cathy smiles.
“Fuck me? Fuck you too,” Christy shoots back.
Cathy cracks up. “No, Folk Uke” she corrects her and everyone laughs at the miscommunication.
You’re much more likely to find a retired biker on board than a retired CPA. I haven’t seen this many canes in one place since the faith healer Benny Hinn was chucking his jacket at his handicapped followers and “curing” them by knocking them flat on their asses.
THURSDAY JAN 30TH
I wake up and realize the boat isn’t moving. A peek out on the balcony confirms that we’re at port in Key West. Time for breakfast!
Christy and I hit the buffet in the Artist’s Lounge. We pick out a table and five minutes later, Kinky and Washington Ratso saunter in. Kinky is wearing his ever-present long black frockcoat and black dungarees but he ruins the look by wearing white “old man” sneakers. They join us at the table.
“I had a sad dream last night that I might never again see the greatest love of my life,” Kinky drawls.
“Who? Erin?” Christy mentions one of Kinky’s exes.
“No, not Erin. Erin and I just might get together again,” Kinky muses. “It’s my old girlfriend who was Miss Texas. I was just on the elevator telling some guy about my dream and that I might never see Miss Texas again and we got to my floor and I got out and the elevator doors closed just as I was telling him how tragic it all was. It was like a scene out of a Woody Allen movie.”
We all laugh. “How can I find Larry Campbell?” Kinky asks me. “He’s playing with us at 9 tonight.”
Just then, Larry walks in and joins us at the table. Kinky immediately tells him his tragic elevator story and then segues into their set this evening.
“I don’t think we need a sound check,” Kinky, as is his wont, starts to obsess on the forthcoming performance. “We’re going to have a completely unrehearsed set. You and Washington Ratso will just come up and go as you like. Look, if you think Ratso is fucking up then just give him the hook.”
Larry politely suggests that they meet at the venue a half hour before to do a sound check. “All right,” Kinky agrees. “But use your own fucking judgement. If we’re doing ‘Asshole From El Paso’ and you want to come up, do it. Larry is the purest, maybe the best musician on the ship,” he tells the table, then gets up and fills up a plate at the buffet station.
Seeing her on the big stage at the Stardust Theater was revelatory as she offered up her big hits like “Joy”, songs from the forthcoming album and her classic protest song “Bone of Contention.” Lucinda was back, with a vengeance!
“Which one is the salt and which the pepper,” Kinky asks when he comes back. I point out that the salt shaker has a big “S” on it and the pepper a big “P”.
I show him the tops of the shakers.
“I learned a lot from Danny Hutton, my friend from Three Dog Night,” Kinky says. “Danny said there are two types of people in the world – the nuts and boltsters and the dreamers. The dreamers can’t even pour a cup of coffee for themselves.”
The talk turns to the day’s plans. We’re in dock at Key West until 3:30 PM. “I’m not even going to leave the ship,” Kinky decides. “I’m going to become a recluse.”
“Christy and I are going to tour the Hemingway House,” I say.
“Well, I do love cats. They have about 50 of them there. I’d like to be a caretaker there. Hemingway wrote some really sick shit. Seventy-two short stories and I read them all.” He then switches the topic and talks about Melville and how he wasn’t appreciated in his lifetime.
“Do you realize that when Moby Dick first came out it was only available in the Whaling sections of bookstores?”
We ponder that and Kinky begins to obsess about his age. “I can’t believe I’m 75 years old…Although I do read at the 77-year-old level. I was on another elevator earlier and I told some woman that at least I wasn’t the oldest person on the cruise. She asked me who was older and I told her Kristofferson and she said ‘Who’s Kristofferson?’ People just don’t know anymore. They think Elvis was crucified.”
After a few seconds of silence, Kinky begins to worry about his set that night again. “I think I should do ‘Jesus in Pajamas’ and ‘Sold American’ solo. I think I’ve been very charming and humorous at this breakfast so far. I think I’m a pretty good guy. Although I do have a little bit of a case of early onset asshole. See Larry is laughing at Kinky’s joke and that’s why I find him a pleasant guy to be around.”
Kinky talks again about when Larry should come up on stage and Larry says, “We’ll just vibe it out,” chilling Kinky for now.
I want you guys to come and go as you wish,” he finally says and starts coughing when his eggs go down the wrong way. “Jesus. I was with my friend Brian Molnar at a Waffle House and I was choking to death and he didn’t know the Heimlich maneuver. My sister said ‘if you’re alone or with someone who doesn’t know it, just use a table or a chair and land on the edge into yourself’.”
“The old self-Heimlich,” I say.
“Can’t you see the whole audience doing a self-Heimlich if they don’t like my set tonight?” Kinky envisions.
Larry finishes his coffee and says goodbye to the group.
“That’s why they think he’s such a charming guy, because he has such a nice laugh,” Kinky says. “He is a charming, likable guy. He’s a Will Rogers.”
“Hey remember when we were in that downtown Nashville hotel at breakfast…” Washington Ratso begins.
“…where I called a guy a social paraplegic?” Kinky suggests.
“No. We were having breakfast in a big room with all these conservative businessmen and Kinky got up and shouted, ‘Somebody in this room killed Stringbean.”
Now this is an arcane reference to 99% of the U.S. population. Stringbean [David Akeman] was a recurring character on Hee-Haw and Kinky always maintains that Stringbean was the first Jew to perform on the Grand Old Opry stage. He was known not to trust banks and he always kept a considerable amount of money under his bed. Until he was murdered in his house along with his wife.
“Can’t you see the whole audience doing a self-Heimlich if they don’t like my set tonight?” Kinky envisions.
“Hey maybe I’ll work that into my set. ‘I know that somebody on this boat killed Stringbean!’ But I don’t know if the audience will know who that is. It’s like this Patti Smith joke I have. I got the Lifetime Country Music Achievement Award recently and I had to go to Lubbock to receive it. And I was debating if I should just send Patti Smith.”
“That’s also way too inside a joke, Kink,” I say.
Kinky gets up and walk over to the next table filled with performers. He tries out the Stringbean joke and comes back triumphant.
“They got it!” he says.
We get up and go back to our room.
We debark and run into a friend and fellow writer Gary Lippman who is meeting Little Stevie’s sister-in-law Maria and her husband Ken at the Hemingway House. He’s been there before so after a 20-minute walk he drops us off and makes plans to come back in an hour and take us all to lunch. We buy tickets and walk through the house which, as advertised, caters to over 50 cats, who have the run of the place, including the right to curl up in his cordoned off bed. I was never a big Hemingway fan but it’s fascinating to see all the memorabilia and photos of Hemingway and his celebrity friends.
At one point we run into a group that’s getting a guided tour by one of the experts who tells the story how Hemingway’s wife surprised him with the almost unheard of luxury of having a residential pool in the 1930’s. When he came home from covering the Spanish-American war in the late ‘30s, his wife Pauline had transformed the area to the side of the house where the writer had erected a boxing ring to spar with local boxers into the then-luxurious pool. Angered at the cost of the project, Hemingway allegedly said ‘Pauline, you’ve spent all but my last penny, so you might as well have that!’ and threw a penny on the floor of the half-finished pool patio. Pauline memorialized the event by leaving the penny there when the patio was finished. Sure enough, there’s a penny visible embedded in the cement.
We’re back on the ship after our excursion. We decide to rest up so we miss Steve Earle’s Camp Copperhead At Sea, which is a nautical version of his songwriting master classes he gives every summer in upstate New York. We also miss the world premiere of Mojo Nixon’s documentary The Mojo Manifesto but we have a long evening ahead of us so a nap and then some dinner is in order.
Christy and I see Folk Uke, who are playing in the Atrium. Chairs have been set up for this gig and, as with all the other gigs, there is a sizable handicapped section set up in the front. And with their first song, I see the appeal of these two young women. “Knock Me Up” is not only a very funny song but underneath the humor, it’s a clever feminist manifesto.
“I have some issues to address/ So quickly let’s both un-dress / I just need your love injection/ I don’t need your affection/ Or protection
Knock me up, if you love me/ Knock me up if you don’t
If you ever want it, then I want it baby/ Knock me up, honey knock me up”
The set is peppered with these satirical songs, but they also do old Carter Family and other covers with respect and acumen. Their jokes are sometimes corny but always funny. Plus, they have pawn shop balls, as Kinky would say. At an Easter show in Aspen, they actually talked about Jesus and told the audience “If you have a resurrection that lasts for more than four hours, call your doctor.”
Christy goes back to the room to chill and I rush over to the Stardust Theater to catch a few songs by Kristofferson before I go to Kinky’s set. The place is packed and people are standing in the entranceway to the theater. Kris is being backed up by Merle Haggard’s old band, The Strangers, and they’re alternating between Kris’ and Merle’s songs. Kris has been battling cognitive issues the last few years; a diagnosis of dementia was called into question when he tested positive for Lyme disease and an antibiotic protocol seemed to restore most of his memory. Tonight, he’s not talking between songs, but he still has a commanding presence and the audience is eating it all up.
I make my way back to the Atrium to catch Kinky’s 9:00 set. And because of the super abundance of shows, this is who I’m forced to miss:
Laura Cantrell: Laura is a country singer/songwriter originally from Nashville. Her first album Not the Tremblin’ Kind was championed by the legendary UK disc jockey John Peel, who called it “My favourite record of the last ten years and possibly my life.” I always love to hear Laura play but since we’re friends back in New York (she married Jeremy Tepper back in 1997), I can always see her there.
Jesse Malin: Another long-time NYC friend who began his musical career at the age of 12 fronting the hardcore band Heart Attack. He’s most famous for being the lead singer of glam-punk band D Generation for eight years. After that, he began a solo career with a critically acclaimed album The Fine Art of Self Destruction produced by his friend Ryan Adams. Jesse’s worked with everyone from Lucinda Williams to Springsteen and Billie Joe Armstrong. He’s also an entrepreneur, owning some of the hippest bars on the Lower East Side over the years, including Coney Island High and Niagara. He’s a renaissance man and I’d love to check out his new stuff, but it’ll have to wait until we get back to New York.
Jesse Dayton: After meeting Jesse at the orientation I’m eager to check out his live act. Thankfully he’s on the road 200 days a year, so I’ll definitely catch him down the road.
Kinky’s audience tonight is decidedly on the O-L-D segment of the age spectrum so he’s tailoring his jokes to them. He jokes about his hearing going and tells a hilarious visual joke about a husband who calls out to his wife to ask her where the rake is so he can rake the lawn. Not hearing a word she’s saying, she uses visual cues. “I (Kinky grabs his left breast) left it, (then grabs his ass) behind, (finally he grabs his crotch) the bush!” The audience goes wild, so Kinky keeps mining that vein. “I went to the doctor the other day and he sat me down and told me that I had AIDS. And that I had Alzheimer’s. Well, at least I don’t have AIDS.” But, predictably enough, his joke about Patti Smith accepting an award for him falls flat. No one in the audience knows who Patti Smith is. Amazingly enough, the musical performances work great with Larry Campbell and Washington Ratso seamlessly join Kinky for some of his classics including “Sold American”, “Ride ‘Em Jewboy” and “Homo Erectus.”
After his well-received set, Kinky and I hit the casino where Kinky exclusively plays the slot machines. Then we head up to Kinky’s suite where Washington Ratso joins us on the balcony and we smoke some of Kinky’s fine stogies. Kinky is always contemplative after a set and this time is no different. He’s obsessing about getting married again and goes over his top four prospects, one of whom is a casino waitress in Las Vegas. Then it’s back to his age.
“I can’t believe I’m 75,” he says softly. “Isn’t that amazing?”
By now its past midnight and I literally have to drag Kinky to the Great Artist Afterparty in the luxurious penthouse suite used for late-night soirees. There’s a room with some food, a full bar serviced by two bartenders and right outside the massive room is a huge outdoor hot tub. I see my old pal Rocky O’Riordan, who used to play bass in the Pogues, and is now backing Mary Lee Kortes, who performs as Mary Lee’s Corvette. Rocky introduces me to Mary Lee, a sweet woman who besides her musical career has just published a book called Dreaming of Bob, a collection of 115 people’s dreams about Dylan. Folk Uke is here as is Rosie Flores. Kinky lasts about five minutes before he bugs out for the dugout, but my pal Gary, who is a total party person, brightens up the room when he comes in. Within a minute he’s introduced me to his friend Rosie Flores, a dynamic Tex-Mex rockabilly heroine. Then I say hello to a tall gentleman from Wales, Jon Langford, one of the founders of the pioneering punk group the Mekons. He is on board playing with his alt/country band The Waco Brothers. He’s an affable Welshman and we bond when I tell him that I wrote lyrics for years with my favorite Welshman, John Cale.
Suddenly Keith “Wetdog” Gordon, the keyboard player for Mojo Nixon and the Toadliquors, sits down and begins belting out tunes by Burt Bacharach and he’s joined by a horn player. This is beginning to remind me of the late-night jams on the Rolling Thunder Revue. It’s past one a.m. now but the party seems to be just beginning. I start to seriously sway as I’m walking around the room but it’s not me and the one drink I consumed, it’s the boat. For the first time, I’m reminded that we’re hauling ass somewhere in the middle of the Caribbean.
FRIDAY JAN 31ST
Christy and I make our way to the main dining room, after a tip that there’s a much better spread and made to order omelets in the main dining room. But before we can enter the restaurant, there’s a battalion of crew members with Purell bottles spraying each person’s hands while smiling. Apparently last night the ship got a call about the outbreak of the coronavirus on several cruise ships in Asia and precautions were immediately instituted. Once inside the dining room, there’s many more staff members serving the buffet and other items wearing plastic gloves.
It’s time for my first gig, with Steve Earle hosting his radio show, one of the SiriusXM Sessions at Sea. It’s a panel discussion about Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue featuring me, Kinky, Larry Campbell and Sid Griffin, one of the Long Ryders and an author of another book on that tour. Backstage I search for some hot tea but nothing is to be found. Steve tells us that all the backstage spreads for the artists have been eliminated. He’s even pissed that the staff is insisting on spraying him with anti-bacterial gunk and he relates how he refused to get sprayed this morning. Always the activist!
But Steve is a master storyteller and a great radio host and someone who is always ready to give a nod to the people who paved the way for him in music. More than once, Steve thanks Bob Dylan for “inventing my job.” Larry is just there to play a few tunes, as neither he nor Steve nor Sid were actual witnesses to that tour and the burden of talking about Rolling Thunder falls to me because Kinky can’t remember much about the tour at all. In fact, before we go on, Kinky asks me to remind him how he met Bob.
It’s a funny story that Kinky relates during the show once I refreshed his recollection. Seems that Bob had shown up to see Kinky at the Troubadour in L.A. barefoot and wearing a blanket. But he did have a limo. Bob told Kinky that he would send a car after the show to pick up Kinky and take him to an undisclosed location in Malibu. Kinky entered the car which took him to Roger McGuinn’s house. As McGuinn escorted Kinky into the house, there was Dylan, strumming a guitar and singing Kinky’s greatest song, “Ride ‘Em Jewboy” a song about the Holocaust. Everyone in at the house was silent as Bob finished the poignant song. Then all eyes were on Kinky to see his reaction.
But Steve is a master storyteller and a great radio host and someone who is always ready to give a nod to the people who paved the way for him in music. More than once, Steve thanks Bob Dylan for “inventing my job.”
“Oh, I suppose now I have to sing one of your songs?” Kinky cracked.
At one point in the show, we all sang “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” one of the mainstays of the Rolling Thunder tour and Steve ended the show by dedicating a song to one of his band members who had recently died. It was the old folk song “He Was A Friend of Mine” which Dylan had recorded in 1962. It was a beautiful way to end the show.
Anxious to shake my cold before my reading and performance on Sunday afternoon, I hit the spa. Trae Vedder, an affable Sixthman Artists Relation person, got me a spa pass. The Spa is just breathtaking. There’s a big pool that features hydrotherapy, along with a hot tub. The lounge chairs are all heated. There’s a pristine sauna and steam room in the men’s locker room. And all of this is topped only by the spectacular view of the ocean as the boat plows through the water.
I take a quick steam and then I don my bathing suit and try out the hydrotherapy. As soon as I get in the pool, two women swim over to me.
“A friend of ours is dying to meet you,” one says.
Seconds later, a familiar looking man swims over to me. It’s Barry Scheck from the Innocence Project. We had never met but we have many mutual friends and we spend the next half hour standing in the pool and talking about Abbie Hoffman, Donald Trump and Scheck’s erstwhile colleague Alan Dershowitz. I don’t bring up O.J. Scheck is an Outlaw Country Cruise veteran. I’m sure he’s the only passenger who brought along an extra suitcase filled with legal briefs.
On the way back to the stateroom, we pass Kinky who’s perched in front of a $5 slot machine. He’s graduated to the high roller slots and it’s paying off: he’s hit for $2,400 a few times already. I tell him to cash in but, of course, he refuses.
Christy goes back to the cabin but I make my way over to hear Rosie Flores. She’s playing in the Spinnaker room, a club-like venue where I’ll be doing my thing on Sunday. Rosie is wildly energetic and her band is incredibly eclectic playing a pastiche of honky tonk, Western swing and an infusion of her Tex-Mex heritage. She’s got the dance floor full and the crowd rocking along. I’d stay longer but Kinky wants to go check out his pal and tour mate Dale Watson who’s playing at Magnum’s, the venue that’s just outside Kinky’s favorite spot on the boat: the cigar bar.
I met Dale and his lovely finance Celine Lee a few months ago when Kinky and Dale were on the same bill and hit New York City. Dale is the real thing – an authentic ‘50s throwback with a sweeping silver pompadour and muscle T-shirts that are only lacking a pack of cigarettes rolled up on one sleeve. He’s a vintage kind of guy, driving old Fairlanes and an Edsel. Even the appliances in his Memphis home are vintage. Once a stalwart in the Austin music scene, Dale recently escaped the horrid gentrification of that beautiful city and now lives around the block from Graceland. He’s the purveyor of what he dubbed “Ameripolitan” music but really just seems to be the classic tried and true honky tonk sound.
Celine is not only Dale’s finance but his helpmate as well. A fine singer in her own right, she collaborates on many of his songs. And his backing band, The Lone Stars, are facile and hard-driving enough to punctuate both his songs of heartbreak and songs of triumph. Kinky, Washington Ratso and me are watching Dale from the side of the stage enthralled.
“This is what country music is all about,” Kinky says with the appropriate amount of awe. We see the last few songs and then we celebrate his triumphant set in the cigar lounge. Dale is in a good mood and he starts ribbing Kinky good naturedly but then gets serious and tells Kinky that his new album Resurrection is a country music classic that will be talked about for years to come. Meanwhile, I’m chatting up Celine and her female friend. She tells me that she and Dale met in 2012 at one of Dale’s shows in New York City. He hit her up on Facebook and despite her trepidations at dating a fellow musician they’ve been together ever since. And now they’re the center of the new music scene in Memphis, even owning the legendary Hernando’s Hide-A-Way bar.
We’re having a great time in the cigar room, mingling with the passengers and getting offers of cigars right and left but Kinky wanted to check out some of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s set in the Stardust Theater so we head over there.
Ray Wylie Hubbard is another archetypal Texas country singer. First of all, he’s got the requisite three names. Hubbard is responsible for the country anthem “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” made famous in 1973 by Jerry Jeff Walker. He made some albums and then vanished from the music scene for a decade, returning to recording in the ‘90s. Slowly he built an audience that enabled him to put out eight records in 2000s and tour into his seventies.
We take seats at the back of the hall and suddenly realize that there’s something odd about Ray’s sound. Washington Ratso and I look at each other. We hear a bass but there’s no bass player. Later Washington Ratso will find out that Ray pre-records the bass lines to save on paying another musician. He also employs one of his sons to play lead guitar. Quite masterfully, I might add. So he’s got a rabid following, including one fan who is screaming like a banshee into my ear, “I LOVE YOU RAY!!!! I LOVE YOU.”
But Ray is one of those Texas good ol’ boys who punctuates their set with hilarious patter. They break into a song and Ray encourages the audience to sing along. Just what we needed. The banshee is all too happy to participate and her off-key screeching is driving me and Washington Ratso bonkers. Thankfully, Kinky doesn’t seem to hear her. The song ends and Ray smiles. “That was the best it’s ever been. OK listen, we brought some CD’s but we sold out but before you go to my website and order one of my CD’s and a hat or something, take the money and buy yourself a pitch tone and a metronome. You know who you are.”
SATURDAY FEB 1ST
On the way to breakfast in the main dining room, I stop to go to the bathroom. I’m surprised at first to see a receptacle on the wall labeled SHARP. It’s a place where patrons can dispose of their used needles. Back in the day, a lot of the passengers might have used the bin if they were shooting heroin or methamphetamine. But for this demographic, it’s a convenient place to safely jettison their insulin needles. They think of everything on the Norwegian Cruise Line!
After getting sprayed with Purell, we make our way into the dining room and see Larry Campbell and his wife Teresa at a table. I’ve known them for years but Christy, who’s an ace reporter, gets them to relate how they hooked up. It turns out that Teresa was fresh in New York and looking to put a band together. She asked our mutual friend Mike Simmons, one of the original alt-country singers in the city, if he knew of any musicians who could play with her. Mike immediately suggested Larry but told her that Larry had a girlfriend, because he had a crush on Teresa. Actually, Larry did have a girlfriend at the time but they were coming to the end of their relationship. They had met when Larry was playing at the Lone Star one night and this woman came in with a chimpanzee. It turned out that she was a chimpanzee trainer. So Larry moved in with the woman and her chimps. And for Larry, breaking up was hard to do, not because they had children together but because he had gotten attached to the little primates. Larry went on to play in Teresa’s band and it was love at first sight. After all these years they’re still happily married. And chimp free.
We’re docked in Falmouth, Jamaica until 3:30 P.M. so Christy and I decide to leave the ship and explore the neighboring area which is basically an outpost of fast food shops, overpriced jewelry stores, a duty-free section that sells liquor and tobacco and the like, and an outdoor crafts market where local artisans sell souvenirs. We were thinking about getting away from Falmouth on an excursion and my friend Gary and Rocky O’Riordan decided to hire a car to go to St. Ann’s in Nine Mile, a district in St. Ann Parish where the Bob Marley Museum and Mausoleum welcomes tourists daily.
But Christy and I had gone to Nine Mile on our last trip to Jamaica a few years earlier when my friend David Peters paid our expenses to meet with Glen DaCosta, Marley’s saxophone player who was interested in doing a book that David was helping him produce. I was busy at the time with other projects, but they thought I could help find him a writer and it would be best if I got a feel for the island. Okay by me! One day we took a car up the winding road to the Marley compound where Marley’s cousin, Sleggo, met us and escorted us around. There was a big structure, the museum, where videos of Bob played non-stop and some artifacts of the reggae star were on display. Of course, you exited through the gift shop. But the highlight was when Sleggo took the four of us to the mausoleum. He approached the door and then gently knocked before cracking it open. “Skipper, you have some visitors,” he said. And there was Bob’s tomb, which was actually resting on top of Marley’s half-brother’s casket. It was a surreal sight made even stranger by the items that Marley’s fans had left behind to commemorate their visit – flowers, coins, stones, and even a driver’s license.
We paid our respects and went outside where we saw a Rasta-colored painted rock which Bob used as a pillow to get inspiration for his song writing. But then Sleggo took us to another small structure and ushered us inside. It was a small room adorned with Rasta drapings and posters with a single bed in the middle. “Go, lay down on the bed,” Sleggo said and he borrowed my cell phone and took a picture of Christy and me. “That’s Skipper’s bed from Kingston. You remember the song “Is This Love”?” And he started singing “’We’ll be together, with a roof right over our heads/ We’ll share the shelter, of my single bed.’ That’s the bed, mon.”
He approached the door and then gently knocked before cracking it open. “Skipper, you have some visitors,” he said. And there was Bob’s tomb, which was actually resting on top of Marley’s half-brother’s casket.
Rather than take return trip to Nine Mile, we decided to just hang around the Falmouth dock. Upon leaving the ship, we immediately run into Kinky and Washington Ratso, who’s looking for a T-shirt. Christy and I were on a mission to find a pharmacy because Christy’s knee was hurting her and my cold had gotten worse and I was, lordy, losing my voice, the day before my reading and performance. But first, we found a duty-free shop where Christy was shocked to see a liter bottle of Stoli Gold, her favorite vodka, which had been discontinued in the States. She copped a bottle for $20! We walked around the crafts booths and spoke to the locals who told us that there was an earthquake off the island the day before we departed from Miami. Apparently, the Norwegian Pearl was on the way back to Miami and passing Jamaica at that time and nobody on the liner noticed anything. Meanwhile the locals were thanking heaven that the quake was miles offshore because if it had occurred on the island that could have been the ruination of most of Jamaica.
We depart from Falmouth. I bought some decongestant/antihistamine pills, but I make my way up to the spa for more schvitzing.
The artist newsletter has asked that all the performers congregate for a group photo at the pool deck at 6:00 P.M. I get there promptly but hardly anyone has shown up. But then Steve Earle arrives and he’s got his young son John Henry with him. John Henry has protective earphones on and he’s bouncing up and down to the music. John Henry also suffers from autism. But just as Steve has put his energy into his social causes, he has been tireless in his advocacy for increased research and treatment options for kids on the spectrum. Last month, I attended a fundraiser for John Henry’s school that Steve headlined at The Town Hall. He’s a devoted father to John Henry and includes him in his social life when he can. John Henry is always fun to hang with at Steve’s New Year’s Day parties in his home in Greenwich Village. Bottom line, Steve is a mensch and I’m proud to call him a friend.
“You made it to the photo shoot!” I tell him.
“Hell, if somebody is paying me to be on a boat in the middle of the Caribbean when its February and freezing back in New York, I’ll do anything they ask me to do,” he drawls.
After collecting about 15 of the performers, we take a group shot. The Waco Brothers, one of Jon Langford’s bands, are about to go on and Rocky and my friend Gary are to the side of the stage, ready to cheer them on. Just then Jeremy Tepper, the SiriusXM Outlaw Country channel program director, comes up to me with a smile of profound relief.
“He’s on the boat!” he says. “We did it!” and we slap five. Clearly a weight has been lifted off his shoulders. Jeremy is referring to the great reggae producer and artist Lee “Scratch” Perry. I had a small role in helping “Scratch” get here. Last May, Jeremy called me up and asked me if I’d like to go with him to Lee’s art opening at the Swiss Institute in the East Village. All this is not that odd, considering that Lee, who’s 83, has left Jamaica because of the “evil” and the “violence” and spends most of his time living in a small town in Switzerland with his Swiss wife. Besides making great music, Lee also produces wonderful art, mostly in the form of amazing collages or augmented found objects. We get to the opening before Lee arrives and Jeremy and I marvel at the work, especially a large mirrored cross that lies on the floor bearing rocks, candles, a Black Madonna, old shoes, a bowl of fake fish and other strange artifacts that came from Lee’s travels around the world.
When Lee arrives, he arrives in style. He’s wearing a black embossed high neck jacket, tons of colorful bracelets, a multi-colored cap that goes nicely with his multi-colored beard. He doesn’t say much as he slowly walks through the room, making sure not to disturb his work, which covers not only the walls but the floor too. And that’s no easy task because for some odd reason, which will be revealed later, Lee is schlepping a carry-on wheeled suitcase behind him.
Later in the evening we meet his wife. As far out as Lee is, she’s extremely grounded. All is well until the end of the night, when she discovers that Lee positively reeks from some strong ganja that one of his admirers shared with him. Now the mystery of the carry on is solved. They plan to leave the exhibit and go straight to JFK to catch a flight back to Switzerland. But with Lee reeking from the herb she is worried that, once again, security will detain them and check every inch of their persons.
But that aside, Jeremy made the connection and after some telephonic negotiations, he signed Lee up to come aboard the ship in Jamaica and sail home to Miami with us. All he has to do is be himself, sit in with a few bands, and do an art workshop on Sunday afternoon.
So Jeremy is jubilant. But his joy is somewhat tempered by the fact that the Waco Brothers are halfway through their set, and four songs ago have promised the audience that a “very special guest” will be up soon. We are all waiting for Lee but he is on island time. Soon come. Meanwhile, my friend Gary pulls out a six-inch Lee “Scratch” Perry action figure, honest to God, and he gives it to Rosie Flores, who gets called up to sing backup with the Waco Bros. They introduce Lee and she holds up the doll, mystifying most of the huge audience.
But then there’s some movement and a phalanx of Sixthman crew members escort the tiny reggae star to the side of the stage. Lee gets introduced to a huge ovation. The Waco Brothers shift from their alt country rock to an impeccable reggae beat and Lee starts to improvise a lyric that keeps coming back to the line “Kill the Politicians”. But then they break into a torrid version of “War Inna Babylon” the Max Romeo song that Lee produced.
“De baba men nuh like de dreadlocks man
De dreadlocks man nuh like de baba man, no
De po-lice men nuh like de dreadlocks man
De dreadlocks man nuh like de po-lice man, no
So war inna babylon, tribal war inna Babylon”
Lee is chanting these strident lyrics and it’s a surreal sight to see hundreds and hundreds of outlaw country fans swaying to the beat of the island, but it all makes sense. Then they finish the set with an outstanding cover of Jimmy Cliff’s classic “The Harder They Come.” The Waco Brothers come off the stage totally jazzed and we all pose with Lee for a picture that will hit social media in no time flat.
I pick up Christy who is just finishing up a hot stone massage at the Spa. Her masseuse has been dishing some hot info to her. It seems that six Chinese nationals who were working mainly in the spa have been sent home from Jamaica. Even though they weren’t from Wuhan, they had been in China during the outbreak, so the cruise line didn’t want to take any chances, especially when, according to the masseuse, they found out that a passenger on an Italian cruise ship in Corsica had come down with coronavirus.
We are all waiting for Lee but he is on island time. Soon come.
She also said that before the Chinese crew members left, they told everyone that the outbreak originated in an outdoor wet market outside of Wuhan. At these wet markets, they sell live and dead animals like pigs, snakes, birds, etc. Someone bought a bat, undercooked it, and caught the coronavirus after eating it. This was not known by the general public at this time.
But the masseuse also claimed that Trump was behind the virus, that, in fact, he had invented an anti-corona vaccine before the outbreak so he could make tons of money. It all had something to do with him doing business in China, she said.
Kinky is playing right outside the Cigar Bar and he brings me onstage and plugs my reading tomorrow night. His audience is still AARP veterans so the jokes about his deafness and Alzheimer’s go over well, as does his new credo: “I don’t have a bucket list, I have a fuck it list.” And then in a nod to the younger members of the audience, Kinky says that’s he’s changed the name of one of his earlier hits to “Waitress, Oh Waitress, Please Sit on My Facebook.”
I finally get a chance to see Mojo Nixon’s set. He’s performing outside the Cigar Bar in what is billed a “Mojo Nixon and Friends Party Set.” And it is. They’re mostly doing covers and Mojo is bringing everyone in sight onstage including, at one point, his boss at SiriusXM Jeremy, who sings some exuberant backup on a cover of Iggy and the Stooges cover of “Louie Louie”. This is a perfect example of the camaraderie and the joy of music that’s evident among the performers and the audience is lapping it up.
I should be in bed nursing my cold and preparing for my show tomorrow but instead I’m back up in the penthouse for another artist afterparty. The room is packed, the adult beverages are flowing and the jamming continues, this time with Tom Jones songs added. At one point I see Terry Adams, one of the founders of NRBQ, on the fringe of the party. I’ve seen him in the artists lounge most of the week – a striking figure in his Alfred E. Newman ‘What Me Worry’ vintage t-shirt and a multicolored floral bucket hat. Jeremy introduces us and the woman he’s with, who I assume is his wife, turns out to be a fan of my books. She’s from Western Canada and we chat a little. Turns out that she’s NOT Terry’s significant other, in fact, she’s just a major NRBQ fan that Terry has escorted up to the party. I can’t seem to tear myself away from the festivities and I’m on my fourth drink and try to navigate my way through the crowd but it’s hard to keep my balance. This time it isn’t the boat that’s rocking, it’s me.
SUNDAY FEB 2ND
Despite all my precautions of the previous days, which included a ginger/lemon herbal tea and honey regimen and hourly gargling with warm salt water, my cold is getting worse but what’s really worse is that I’ve lost my voice almost completely. Christy and I make it to the main dining room with Larry and Teresa again. Larry and I plan to rehearse right after breakfast in the ship’s chapel, a quiet room off the Spinnaker Lounge. I get there first and sit in a wooden pew. The chapel is filled with a lectern, plastic floral sympathy arrangements and chairs piled up so it’s obvious that none of the Outlaw Country stalwarts seemed to be in need of any spiritual comfort.
I’m in the room for a few minutes when the door swings open. It’s Larry and his guitar. “Come in, my son,” I say solemnly. “Can I be of help?” He unpacks his guitar, tunes it and we start in rehearsing the three songs I’ll be performing later. I croak my way through the first song and I’m discouraged.
“No, it sounds good,” Larry says, upbeat. “Just speak it. That sounds cool especially with your lyrics.” Kinky’s right. People love Larry because he’s so encouraging.
Christy and I walk over to the Summer Palace, which is a gorgeous restaurant that we discovered for the first time last night. It’s literally styled like a French palace with statues and impressive columns but today all the ornate chairs have been removed and there are individual booths set up for three autograph signings. Here is the chance for anyone who bought merch to get it signed by the artists. I’ve sold a lot of my Dylan books and people are bringing them down to get personalized but what blows me away is that there a few people who actually brought along my other books for me to sign. And one person schlepped a rare vinyl copy of my album. It’s fun to kibbutz with the fans but I’m wary of causing more strain on my vocal cords.
So I come up with a plan. At the next signing, a few hours later, I ask both Steve Earle and Mary Lee Kortes, if they would be special guest readers and help me get through the reading with some semblance of a voice left to sing. They both agree and I’m a bit relieved.
It’s time for my reading/performance. Dale Watson has just finished another torrid set and we hang out backstage while they set up for me. One of Dale’s fans is gracious enough to buy me a few shots of tequila which may not help my throat but does soothe my nerves. Finally, I’m introduced. I read a few portions from my book and then bring up Mary Lee to read the dialogue between me and Joni Mitchell when we first meet on the tour. I read another short passage and then Steve comes up and reads the phone interview between Bob and me that closes out the book. Dylan had been talking about how excited he was to venture into filmmaking with the documentary Renaldo and Clara that he shot on the tour. The audience howls when he reads this exchange:
“Well, what is in your blood, man? Making movies or touring…” I ask.
“Making love and making music is in my blood.”
“Which has the priority?”
“Uhhh, that’s hard to tell, sometimes I wonder about that myself.”
“Well, most of the time I would much rather listen to you sing ‘Sooner or Later One of Us Must Know,’ then get a blow job.”
“I’d rather sing it than get a blow job,” Dylan chuckles.
“Last question. Have you been writing on this tour?”
“I’ve been writing some letters, that’s about all, yeah, personal letters.”
“Any songs?” Ratso hopes.
“I have some things on scraps of paper.”
“Gonna put them together?”
“Anything you wanna –”
“Anything I wanna sing right now?” Dylan anticipates. “No.”
“No fragments, no exclusives?”
“No, not really Ratso. You’ll get it though, you’ll get it.”
Ratso hangs up and starts to work on something else when the phone rings. It’s Dylan.
“Hey Ratso, I’ve been thinking, maybe we should take out that stuff about the blow jobs?”
“OK man, OK, what do you want to say?”
“What’s the question again?”
“Uh, ‘What’s in your blood, making music or making movies?” Ratso repeats.
Dylan hesitates. “Uh, uh, making music, making movies, making love. It’s all in my blood. Look, I’m just outgrowing, er, settling my old accounts but the restoration of honor is also still in my blood.”
The audience cheers Steve when he finishes, and I return to the stage to sing. I do two songs from my album Dying on the Vine and the countryish “Matching Scars”. I can’t hit any notes but the crowd seems to enjoy it.
“I’m sorry about my voice. I was worried that this thing might be the coronavirus so I started drinking a lot of Corona Light because someone told me that was the antidote,” I say. Then I go into my last song, a cover of the beautiful Nick Cave song, “Skeleton Tree” and I dedicate it to all the friends we’ve lost recently, including Doctor John.
We finish up to a nice round of applause and then I go to the back of the room where the last remaining copies of my book and CD have been brought down. There’s a rush to buy the last few books and as I sign them, people are telling me how moved they were by the songs. I’m appreciative for the feedback but I’m also relieved to have gotten through the gig.
With my responsibilities finished, I make my way to Kinky’s suite where me, Kinky, Washington Ratso and Adaire, Mojo’s wife, start watching the Super Bowl. Because we’re at sea, we’re getting an ESPN feed of the game which means we aren’t seeing any of the actual Superbowl ads, which is half the fun. But Mahomes finally is getting his head out of his ass and he pilots the Chiefs to a thrilling come from behind win. We’re all upbeat and energized so after scoring some cheeseburgers from one of the restaurants, Kinky immediately heads for the casino. I really want to see the last few acts, Rosie Flores and NRBQ but I’m too tired and drained from the day so I head back to my cabin.
But I make one last stop in the Artists Lounge when I see a cluster of people, in the middle of which is Lee Perry. They take a few photos and then Lee wanders off to the side of the room. I go over and tell him how exciting it was to see him play and that I was sorry I couldn’t see him making art at his workshop but I was performing at the same time and I actually had seen him at his gallery opening in the East Village. Lee just smiles broadly through my fanboy monologue and when I’m finished, he squeezes my arm, pulls me towards him and gives me a big hug.
MONDAY FEB 3RD
Debarkation day. Kinky has already left at 6 A.M. to catch his flight to Texas. Most of the other performers are congregating outside the ship in Port of Miami waiting for the shuttle bus that will take us to the airport. As the passengers disembark from the Pearl, a new set of cruise-goers are waiting to board because Sixthman is about to start their annual Cayamo singer-songwriter cruise that will leave later that day and stars Brian Wilson, Jeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples.
It’s like the last day of camp as all the artists hug each other goodbye. Friendships have been strengthened or, for me, established. I tell Langford and Dale and Celine and Amy and Cathy from Folk Uke that we’ll stay in touch. Then Christy and I file onto the shuttle. We hit Highway 95 when someone points out the right window and everyone looks that way. There in the right lane, piloting his RV, is Jesse Dayton, back on the road, heading for another gig. And life on terra firma resumes.
MORE FROM PKM:
ON THE ROAD WITH BOB DYLAN, REVISITED: A ROLLING THUNDER REVUE STORY
FROM ROLLING THUNDER TO STUBBORN HEART: LARRY “RATSO” SLOMAN TELLS ALL