Authors: Willie Nelson
Praise for Willie Nelson
“Willie Nelson is a profound, original songwriter in a class with Stephen Foster who continues to enrich our lives with classics. He plays guitar like Django Reinhardtâit's an extension of his body and soul, totally responsive to the power of his imagination. He is an artist of the very highest order, and beautifullyâoften hilariouslyâhuman.” â
“I have admired Willie's songwriting and his personal style for many years. He is without a doubt one of the finest country song writers I know.” â
“Willie's one of my heroes.Â .Â .Â .Â He also shares with Sinatra a gift for incredible vocals.” â
Rhythm and Blues: A Life in American Music
“I have admired Willie Nelson as a songwriter and a recording artist for many years.” â
“Willie and his music have touched the lives of so many people, and I personally have learned much from him.” â
“Willie Nelson is all by himselfâhe's an authentic American master. The genuine article.” â
“With hair as long as the generosity and talent as big as the heart, there is also a compassion that appears to be endless. Willie is a giant among men.” â
“Willie is a true gypsy. No matter what era he might have been born in, his music would have touched the hearts and souls of everyone, as it has in our times.” â
With Bud Shrake
First Cooper Square Press edition 2000
Copyright Â© 1988 by Willie Nelson
This Cooper Square Press paperback edition of
is an unabridged republication of the edition first published in New York in 1988. It is reprinted by arrangement with Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Designed by Helen L. Granger/Levavi & Levavi
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote passages in a review.
Published by Cooper Square Press
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New York, New York 10011
Distributed by National Book Network
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data Available
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Nelson, Willie, 1933â
Willie : an autobiography / Willie Nelson ; with Bud Shrake.â 1st Cooper Square Press ed.
Â Â Â p. cm.
Originally published: New York : Simon and Schuster, cl988.
Â Includes index.
Â Â 1. Nelson, Willie, 1933â 2. Country musiciansâ United Statesâ Biography. I. Shrake, Edwin. II. Title.
ML420.N4 A3 2000
The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of American National Standard for Information Sciencesâ Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI/NISO Z39.48â1992.
Manufactured in the United States of America.
This book is dedicated
to my mother, Myrle,
who went on the road
long before I did
I could never have put
all these memories together
without the loving aid
of my daughter, Lana
I wish to thank
Cheryl McCall, Fred Burger,
Townsend Miller, Bobby Arnold,
Jody Fischer, and Jo Ellen Gent
for their help in preparing
“I didn't come here,
and I ain't leavin'.”
Â Â Â Â Â Â âW
A long time ago when I walked onto a stage to do a show, I would search the room with my eyes. I was looking for somebody who was looking at me, who appeared interested in learning what I was doing in front of the microphone with a guitar in my hands. Once I found that friendly face, I would sing to that person all night long. I would zero in and make heavy contact with their spirit. And it would grow. The flash of energy between me and the one friendly face would reflect into others, and it would keep growingâthese bolts of energy ping-ponging from one table to the next, or from one pair of dancers to the couple dancing nearbyâand before long I would have the whole crowd caught up in my music and me.
But it all had to start with one friendly face.
It's like now when I hug some girl in the front row. I'll reach over and put my arm around her, and some other girl will give me a flower and I'll kiss her, and the rushes of excitement will wash out through the crowd like the waves of the ocean, touching everyone. I don't want any security guards between me and the front row, roughing up the crowd or preventing anyone from trying to touch me. I want to hug these people and let them feel how much I love them and are thrilled they are here with me.
But it don't always happen just like that nowadays. There are many
nights when I walk onstage in some enormous dark venue and I can't see a friendly face in the audience unless I took a Boy Scout flashlight and walked among them.
I do a number of big concerts at night in arenas or at outdoor picnicsâby big I mean crowds of 100,000âand I have to work those shows by feel. I can see nothing but a wide deep-purple canyon blinking with the fire of thousands of cigarettes.
Even before I step onstage I can tell how hot the crowd is. If they're hot they're screaming or they're rumbling with pent-up emotions. Sometimes there is so much noise from the crowd that I never hear a note I am playing or a word I am singing. My sound guys are the greatest at getting monitor music back to the band, but some nights it is impossible. I went to a couple of Beatles concerts in the sixties and I couldn't hear their music for the screaming crowd.
I can't say I never dreamed such a thing would happen to me. I knew it would.
The biggest crowd I ever played toâthe biggest live and in-person crowd, as opposed to the worldwide audience that saw
We Are the World
on satellite TVâwas at the US Festival in Los Angeles a few years ago. The Apple Computer guyâSteve Wozniakâhad a lot of money he wanted to spend so he built a huge concert stadium around L.A. somewhere and hired a bunch of bands and paid us all way too much money. There was a constant stream of helicopters and limos arriving and departing backstage. Wozniak said there were a zillion people in the audience and how can I argue with a computer guy? The newspapers said there were more than 500,000.
I walked out onstage and saw more people than I ever imagined seeing all at once, only they were speckled and flashed and hidden by the darkness and the theatrical lights. It was exciting, like standing in a spotlight at the fifty-yard line with five Rose Bowl crowds screaming and cheering from the darkness.
I got a sense of people waving at me, and I waved back. Every now and then, thousands lit up like the exploding bridge scene from
, sparking and booming like a fireworks display amid that immensity, that forest of people.
They were hot. But I thought, well, if they're this hot now, I better work a little harder and make them a little hotter.
The way to do that if you can't look them in the eye is to play musicâone song after another, driving at them with the musicâand that's what we did. I felt electricity like my tennis shoes were wired to a generator. The screaming as we finished our set reached the pitch of jet engines. I was so high from the experience I wanted
it never to end. There was so much noise and backstage confusion that I had to ask myself, “Self, did you arouse them tonight?” And self said, “Son, you lifted them up.”
Really it's the same thing I used to do on the road in the early days when I was looking for one friendly face. Many of those old shows the audience was hung over from the night before and not feeling that great to begin with, but you've got to get them to jump up on their feet and start dancing.
What I do for a living is get people to feeling good.
It's not a power that I feel I have in and of myself. It is a power that is exchanged between me and my audience. By the fact that we musicians are out there with a bunch of big amplifiers and we know we can be heard by 100,000 peopleâor in high-tech terminology a zillion peopleâwe know there is a tremendous lot of energy leaving the bandstand, and we can tell from the feeling coming back whether we're having a big time or not.
My band and stage crew and my sound and lighting guys have been with me so long now and know me so well that we communicate by instinct on the nights the crowd is so loud we can't hear each other onstage. Paul English on drums and Bee Spears on bass can read me like a diary. By the gestures I make or the mood I'm in, Paul and Bee always know what I'm getting ready to do. To me it seems like I just go ahead from one song to another as they pop into mind. It's a great help to have old friends onstage and at the control boards who anticipate what I'm about to do before I've even consciously decided.
The whole experience is very electric. It's the utmost high. Crowds come to see us and pay ten to twenty dollars apiece to stand up and scream for two hours. It's probably very therapeutic. Psychiatrists encourage people to scream, holler, and laugh. Music raises their spirits, which is why they go to concerts. Music is a motivator. Music will make you leap up off your ass and move. It will make you dance, it will make you do jumping jacks. It's no wonder music has been incorporated into exercise videocassettes that sell way up in the millions.
Of course, our band is onstage to have a good time, too. If we don't have a good time, chances are the audience won't enjoy it so much either. Musicians who grow tired and cynical and begin playing just for the money instead of for the love of the music and for the crowds find their audiences start slipping away. You can't fool a crowd for long, whether it's a concert for 100,000 or a honky-tonk with 300 in it. People will pick up sour vibrations and take their
business elsewhere. When you open your heart to an audience, you share your deepest feelings with them. They want to find love in your heart. They don't want to see that it is nothing but a bank vault.