Todd Walton: Cheating Heart


From TODD WALTON
Under The Table
Mendocino

“It’s like deja-vu all over again.” Yogi Berra

My recent essay Cheating elicited several responses from readers wishing to share more examples of cheaters in high places, cheating as an integral part of our economic and political and interweb reality, and tales of people who don’t cheat being routinely victimized by individuals and corporations who do cheat. So the word cheating was on my mind when I remembered…

Long ago in Santa Cruz, circa 1973, I fronted a jazzy folk rock group called Kokomo, and for the better part of a year we were the Friday and Saturday night band at the popular tavern Positively Front Street, a stone’s throw from the municipal pier. One of my favorite things about that gig was emerging from the smoky confines of the pub in the wee hours of morning and filling my beleaguered lungs with cool briny air as sea lions arfed to each other in the near distance and the somnolent fog horn lowed with reassuring regularity—little waves lapping the white sands of the Boardwalk beach.

In the beginning of our entrenchment at Positively Front Street we— sometimes a duo, sometimes a trio, rarely a quartet—played only my original songs, and to this day I am amazed that the owner of that commodious tavern allowed us such artistic freedom, especially on Friday and Saturday nights when the place was packed. On the other hand, he only paid us twenty dollars for four long artistically free sets (us being the entire band), plus complimentary fish and chips and burgers and beer and whatever tips we could entice from the tipsy crowd. Thus if we wanted to make more than five bucks a set it behooved us to play requests, and to that end we learned to play a handful of standards, two of which were Hank Williams songs, far and away the most requested tunes in that blessed watering hole patronized by many men and a much smaller number of brave women.

The two Hank Williams tunes we learned were Hey Good Lookin’ and Your Cheating Heart, the latter being the most requested of the two, which I found remarkable considering the song was already twenty-years-old in 1973, having been written and recorded in 1952 and released shortly after Hank’s death in 1953. The story I heard about Hank writing Your Cheating Heart is that he was driving drunk one night and musing aloud about his first wife, Audrey Williams, to his second wife, Billie Jean Jones, who was in the passenger seat writing down the lyrics as Hank sang and talked the words out to her.

The lyrics to Your Cheating Heart as I sang them (slightly different than the official lyrics) are as follows:

Your cheating heart will make you weep

You’ll cry and cry and try to sleep

But sleep won’t come the whole night through

Your cheating heart gonna tell on you

When tears come down like falling rain

You’ll walk around and call my name

You’ll walk the floor the way I do

Your cheating heart gonna tell on you

Your cheating heart will pine some day

You’ll crave the love that you threw away

But love won’t come the whole night through

Your cheating heart gonna tell on you

When tears come down like falling rain

You’ll toss and turn and call my name

You’ll walk the floor the way I do

Your cheating heart gonna tell on you

I think what makes these simple lyrics so meaningful to so many people is that Hank not only speaks of his ex-lover’s heart, but of his own. You’ll walk the floor the way I do makes it clear that the craving and pining go both ways; the sorrow shared.

When we played Positively Front Street we installed a gigantic glass tip jar on a high stool on the little stage with us, a jar we would prime with coins and a few dollar bills to make it clear what we wanted from our audience. And several times a night, some guy or gal would stagger or sashay up to the stage and shout over the din, “Play Cheatin’ Heart!” and drop a buck in the jar; and if we hadn’t just played that tune, we would play her again, and our violinist would wring out a heart wrenching solo to bring a few more coins to the tip jar.

Hey Good Lookin’ never failed to get people dancing in their seats or up and dancing to the bar, so we would play that sweetly sexy tune whenever we wanted to brighten the mood and give folks something familiar to balance all my original tunes they hadn’t heard before unless they were regulars.

One of my songs, Loose Woman, was much loved by the Positively Front Street crowd, and we got requests and tips for Loose Woman several times a night. The chorus of that skanky ballad became a sing-along anthem for the love-starved denizens of that beer-drenched dive:

I’m hooked up with a loose woman

A loose woman’s all right with me

She don’t like my songs or my jokes or my dreaming

But she gives me all her love for free

I don’t care what she don’t like

What she don’t like don’t hurt me

Just so long as she’s a loo-loose woman

And gives me all her love for free

But the biggest tip we got—ten smackers every Friday and Saturday night—came to us from the same man; and when I think back to the dozens of times we enacted the little drama I am about to describe, I marvel at how easily I was ensnared in such an odd ritual by the lure of big (relatively speaking) money.

Rodney was an effeminate middle-aged man who rarely missed our shows at Positively Front Street. After every set, as we headed for the bar to whet our whistles, Rodney would come close and whisper, “Please, please, please won’t you play Puff the Magic Dragon?” For our first few weekends of playing the joint, I fended him off by saying we only did original material, but after we felt compelled to learn those Hank Williams tunes and a few other songs by other people, I resorted to saying, “Well, gosh, Rodney, I don’t think Puff really goes with the tone of our show.”

But Rodney persisted, and one Friday night he dangled a ten-dollar bill (my rent was due) and said, “Oh, Todd, please play Puff. Pretty please.”

Wanting that money, I replied, “Tomorrow night, Rodney. Just for you.”

So the next evening on our way to the gig, my mandolin player asked me, “Do you even know how to play Puff the Magic Dragon?”

“Not really,” I said, feeling cornered. “Do you?”

“Easy,” he said, grinning at me. “But the rowdy boys aren’t gonna like that sissy stuff. Prepare to get booed.”

“We’ll play it for Rodney between sets,” I said, thinking fast. “Back in the Pong room.”

Pong, electronic ping pong, was one of the very first video games, ever, and there was a dark little alcove behind the stage where the Pong game lived, twenty-five cents a game, and that is where every Friday and Saturday night for the better part of a year we performed Puff the Magic Dragon for Rodney, playing and singing very quietly so the tough guys and rowdies out front wouldn’t hear us—Rodney singing falsetto on the chorus—so we could make an extra ten dollars, which was a good deal of money to the likes of us in 1973.

And there was one night we sang Puff the Magic Dragon for everyone to hear, that being the last night we played Positively Front Street, our resignation precipitated by the owner of that marvelous tavern making an impossible demand on our artistic freedom such that I had no choice but to give up our lucrative (relatively speaking) gig.

Unaware of what was about to befall us, we arrived a half-hour before show time as was our custom to eat fish and chips and have a couple beers before taking the stage. The bartender said the owner wanted to see me upstairs in his office, so I took the stairs two at a time thinking maybe we were finally going to get a raise.

“Here’s the thing, Todd,” said the owner, smiling painfully. “You know I love your music, and I especially love your voice, but I cannot stand the way the other guys in your group sing. So…I will double your salary if you do the singing and your buddies keep their mouths shut. Deal?”

Well, I wasn’t about to tell my buddies they couldn’t sing with me. Half the fun of playing four hours of music in a smoky tavern was playing and singing together, fueling off each other, trying out new harmonies, playing the fast songs slow and the slow songs fast. And I sure wasn’t going to tell my partners that our patron hated their voices but loved mine. Never.

So I said to the owner, “I’m very sorry, my friend. This gig has been a godsend and a rent payer and I will be forever grateful to you for giving us this opportunity to hone our chops, and I think it fair to say that your business has not suffered from our playing here, but I cannot tell my pals to keep their mouths shut. It would be cruel and mean and they would hate me forever, so…I guess tonight will be our last show here.”

“Okay,” he said, pointing at me in his friendly way. “But if you change your mind, the gig is yours. Fifty bucks a night.”

And you know what? When we sang Puff the Magic Dragon that night for the whole mob of rowdies and tough guys and brave women and college kids and tourists, every last one of them sang along, and our tip jar overflowed, and Rodney was moved to tears, which just goes to show you how little any of us knew about anything. And at song’s end the audience let out such a roar that the owner came down the stairs to see what the hell was going on, and when I saw him gazing in wonder at the happy mob, I turned to my buddies and said, “Let’s finish with Cheatin’ Heart,” which we did, and it brought the house down.
~
(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2012)
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One Comment

To again quote that great Confucius of the Infield, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” No telling how it will all turn out.

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