George Jones died yesterday. I’ve been listening obsessively to his songs, re-living the brief time I spent with him, his concert (always torturous, uncomfortable and oddly cathartic affairs), the hours spent crawling into his voice.
Death was Jones’ constant theme, it’s what he sang about, lived, he was a man transparent in his pain and confusion and failure, especially his failure, so it’s odd that his body finally disintegrated and we’re left with memories and his voice. He was the greatest country music singer, one of the great blues singers – haunted by his own failure. Eugene O’Neill, four Pulitzers and a Nobel, the father of U.S. drama, died in a Boston hotel room haunted by his own failure, probably his greatest was that he couldn’t find the strength to kill himself. Jones, a testimony to how much abuse the body can withstand, lived to 81.
Both battled the great demon alcohol with dramatic flair and became dry drunks to survive. Gene retreated into the pain of the betrayal and cruelty of life, sequestered at Tao House to pen his final masterpieces, Jones accepted that his singing made people grateful for their pain, and they loved him for it, and he took to the stage, where he was most comfortable. Jones didn’t gloss it over. You look at him singing sometimes and you see an Apostle offering himself up for public torture and humiliation. Gene O’Neill is the Patron Saint of Suffering for playwrights. You look at his cragged face blatantly mocking: You think you’ve gone deep? You think you’ve suffered for your art? Ha!
The remembrances pouring in for Jones around the Internet are not what you’d hear for Johnny Cash or Waylon Jennings or even Merle Haggard. They are from people who drink too much and want to stop and can’t. People trying to figure out why they need to get divorced or can’t find love. People who can’t find meaning and struggle with suicide. People who depend on Jones to absorb their pain and tell their story.
I was 29 in 1981 when I met Jones in the Hilton Hotel in NY. He was in town for a gig at the Bottomline and I was interviewing him for a story in the Village Voice. I remember that hotel room being sterile like a crypt, with Jones half-embalmed. He was wearing some element of those ridiculous leisure suits he favored, his hair nearly lacquered in place. His eyes were open too wide, darting. A glass of water on the table was all that was between us. He touched the glass, twirled it, inspected it, drank gingerly. I came to think, years later, of the brilliant and muted terror of the ‘glass of water’ scene in Pinter’s “The Homecoming.” How a common object can manifest emotion. How a glass of water can vibrate with tension.
Jones spoke in the third person throughout the interview. “We strayed,” he said. “We took a wrong turn.” “We see things more clearly now.” “We let people down.” If he looked at me at all it was fleeting glances. He seemed paranoid, adolescent, wanting to confess if he could be assured of absolution. He was in a period of public remorse, interspersed with coke and alcohol binges, and he seemed to want me to say something that would save him, if he was to make it to his gig at the Bottomlime that night.
He did make it, a surprise (He lived up to his name “No Show Jones.”). He seemed drunk and he had this strange, tall woman accompanying him on vocals. We surmised that he picked her up in a bar with a line like – Hey, I’m George Jones. Want to come sing with me tonight on stage!
Two women at the table next to us were particularly boisterous in their appreciation of Jones. One wore a jacket embroidered with “Grievous Angel.” They were Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt, who bounded on stage with glee when Jones called on them to join him in a rendition of “Rockytop.” Actually catching him in concert was a feat in those days, though it didn’t help me define who he was or what might become of him.
I retreated to my apartment in Brooklyn to write the story. I spent weeks drinking Jack Daniels and crawling into Jones’ compressed and stretched out vocal modulations, searching for the impetus of these songs, trying to define its impact. In searching for Jones I was in danger of becoming him. I couldn’t go that deep, with stakes so high. I wrote the story. It was good (pre-Internet, not available on the web). Front page. Lots of pics. But it always seemed inadequate.
I deduced that Jones was not human. He walked among us but he had no story of his own. Some people are possessed and he was one of them. Like Gene O’Neill, he was composed of nearly transparent alien skin and he would always be slave to his fear and hurt. They might convey something personal but the agony of being alive was the meta-story they transmitted. Jones stopped drinking but I never thought of him as sober. Same for O’Neill.
The uninitiated and skeptics don’t get Jones. They see videos of a near caricature of a country singer. Watch this video of Jones singing “The Door.” It’s a classic story song. A man has been through war, bombs and trauma, but the most awful sound he hears is the closing of the door when she leaves him. Jones didn’t just convey pain, he embodied and embraced it. It’s etched in his face. Like O’Neill. http://youtu.be/yI3JBVrFdK4