Midnight Plane to Houston

farrahknight

By 1973 I had a red Panasonic ball radio parked in the darkened little hutch that was built into the headboard of my bed and was discovering both the inchoate power of music, and words like ‘inchoate’. I’d bought my first LP with my own money, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, played McCartney’s RAM album till the grooves wore off, and would trance out to The Carpenters’ version of Leon Russell’s doomed groupie hymn Superstar while holding hands with my neighbor Cathy under the mesmerizing influence of my black light, which turned her skin to velvet and her teeth into lovely phosphorescent chiclets. At bedtime I would lie awake in a fever of imprecise and free-floating ‘feeling’, marinating in the weirdly deep and inexplicable reverie that overtakes certain insomniac, newly minted teens in their early throes.

Gladys Knight and the Pips singing Midnight Train to Georgia was a particularly potent intoxicant for me, and every night it would scrape out of the little ball radio just behind my head.  ‘L.A. proved too much for the man,’ Gladys would sing, already dolorous in her delivery of the very first line. I couldn’t stop thinking about the song and I couldn’t stop feeling it. Midnight Train’s struggle parable, the pure but domitable artist being crushed by both philistines and ‘impersonal forces’, rang my bell, as did my imaginings of L.A. The very idea of ‘L.A.’ (vs Los Angeles) made me swoon. To this wall-starer in Boulder, Colo, shut up in his room with his St. George and the Dragon poster and shelf of nicely bound Reader’s Digest condensed classics (4 to a volume), L.A. meant darkness and power and brutality and triage and unsung heroism and stardom and all the other variegated sorrows and glories of big cities and world wars; the dank brickwork of the bowery, the benighted rag people scrabbling like Morlocks in the pitch-black alleyways beneath a starry vault swept with the announcing klieg lights of a Hollywood premier somewhere downtown, not very far away at all. Holy shit. All this proved too much for the man. Holy holy shit. How many artists and lost souls had gone to ‘L.A.’ and been beauteously beaten down? Dragged to a soulless nub down Sunset Boulevard or burned to death trying to embrace the electric surge that ran through the town like a racing subterranean river? My ability to fall straight through to the middle of that song had everything to do with these totemic elements it so powerfully summoned, and my growing awareness, which I can mark to that year, that Earth is a rock swarming with a thrilling and finally incomprehensible cacophony of stories.

Because for some peculiar reason I’d always assumed the tune was a love song to a discouraged dad, sung by his commiserating daughter, I pictured Pop Staples on a train platform at night, bathed in flickering incandescence, holding a weathered little suitcase and wearing a too-wide floral tie as he boards the Julep Express to head back home to a Georgia I imagined as an expanse of leafy sunlit nature punctuated by houses with porches where the people, young and old, sat in rocking chairs and sipped tall glasses of antebellum iced tea. I knew both L.A. and the South like the sole of my foot, but the song intoxicated me with imaginings of a penetrating true story of artistic loss and its obverse, a complex recondite glory. When Gladys and the Pips sang that song, pictures resolved out of the dark with a clarity that could bend my spirit like a Uri Geller spoon. Of course L.A. proved too much for the man! You had to be a chiseled demi-god with a dimple like Kirk Douglas (born Issur Danielovitch and the son of a poor junk man) to even survive in ‘that town’.

Former football player Jim Weatherly was struggling. His songs were not lighting up the Billboard. He’d had some success with one of them, “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)”, which had scurried up the charts to the delight of Atlanta’s Gladys Knight and the Pips. Now as he labored to augment that happy accident with some solid gold, nothing was happening. Nothing. One night sitting alone in his demure little apartment in L.A. he telephoned his old college football buddy and fellow struggling artist Lee Majors, with whom he was now in a flag football league in the city, a league comprised in part of disaffected transplants. Majors had just come off four years on The Big Valley, a major T.V. western in which he’d played opposite the frightening Barbara Stanwyck. Soon he’d be a bionic prime-time heavyweight, lifting cars with one arm while both rescuing and scaring children, but for now he was between gigs. He’d recently begun dating another transplanted hopeful, a model from Texas named Farrah Fawcett. Weatherly knew Fawcett and got her on the phone when he called, asking if Lee were home.

“No, he’s out,” Fawcett had said, sounding impatient, and after some polite chit-chat she confessed she was in something of a hurry. “Look, Jim, I’m sorry, I need to get going. When you called I was just throwing stuff into a suitcase. I’m taking the midnight plane to Houston to go visit my folks.”

“..a little bell went off when she said ‘midnight plane to Houston’. Sounded like a song title to me,” Weatherly recalled later. He got off the phone, grabbed his guitar and let fly, writing the song in 45 minutes or so. He called it  Midnight Plane to Houston. “The line ‘I’d rather live in her world than live without her in mine’ locked the whole song. I used a descending bass pattern, which was the song’s natural movement. Then I filed away the song.”

Weatherly’s publisher urged him to record an album of his own tunes, as a way to get more attention from the industry and from artists looking for songs. He did just that and in short order Cissy Houston and then Gladys Knight wanted to record Midnight Train. It was Houston (Whitney’s mother) who said something like, “Jim, do you mind if I change the title to Midnight Train to Georgia?” She was from Georgia, like Gladys, and added, “Where I come from we don’t take planes anywhere. We take trains.” Weatherly agreed, ecstatic the song was going to be picked up and stood a small chance of some radio play somewhere. Houston’s record got no support from her label and the track vanished. Gladys Knight heard it, and had a different idea for the song.

“I thought the song should sort of ride,” she said. “Like Al Green or something.” Her new label boss, Tony Camillo, gave it a new arrangement. Here’s hoping, they thought. It’s not known if Gladys and the Pips knew they were singing a soon-to-be timeless anthem of artistic surrender and loss, or that the future, star-crossed Farrah Fawcett-Majors was a balding black man in a floral tie waiting for a train.

Scared of Barbara Stanwyck

fear

At age 8 I was Stephen Hawking-like; schlumpy, collapse-faced and incommunicative, my bottom teeth jutting up crazily out of nowhere to make a mockery of my ability to see beyond time and space. In school we had begun to ‘learn’ about the Wild West, but it wasn’t sufficiently impressed upon us just how unknown and unknowable the frontier was, how the word ‘frontier’ stirred in those people something like the feeling of awe and mystery the word ‘frontier’ hefts when spoken in a show like The Outer Limits. To Boomer kids ‘frontier’ meant buckskin with fringes, Daniel Boone, Ed Ames (a terrific singer and recording artist, here dressed up like an Indian and throwing a tomahawk at a tree which splits obligingly to the delight of the sponsors), and remote military outposts whose tall outer defenses were long upright logs and sometimes Ken Berry. The barbarians who 1200 years before had brought down the Western Roman Empire would walk through these Lincoln Logs like a hot coal through margarine. So the New World was in many ways a foal on shaky legs; soon to exhibit real horsepower but in the meantime a timorous newbie. The westerns on t.v. didn’t really play this up, choosing instead to sell cereal by glamorizing gunfights, whores in huge dresses, and a bottle of whiskey that could be bought for a single largish prop-room coin, that coin always slapped noisily down on the frontier bar as if the prop man insisted his metallurgical handiwork be made known through the airwaves.

‘Make sure Connors really slaps that coin down!’

‘Shutup about it already, Carl!’ Connors fires back.

You never saw soil on these shows. On Bonanza the front stoop of The Ponderosa let gently down to what looked like poured maroon concrete. Then Little Joe would get punched and fall down and standing up would flap his hands angrily at his chaps and dust would suddenly appear as if he’d fallen in some dirt. On The Big Valley, a show whose See-Spot-Run title lifts the veil on what simpletons t.v. consumers were in that decade (a hard-won lesson in prime-time show titling probably learned at the feet of the bewilderingly titled Bonanza), the single indomitable Ranch Mom was played by the diminutive and doll-like and unnerving Barbara Stanwyck. No matter her frontier bravado and habit of wearing vests and guns, the fear she radiated was finally ineffable, I couldn’t quite make it cohere. But…Stanwyck! Even her last name has the stiltskin nomenclature of a ghastly post-Grimm gnome living under a bridge and sucking the marrow from the bones of passerby. Stanwyck’s cotton candy hair and savagely diminutive body vibrated with an otherworldly demon energy. To see her standing on a little sound stage knoll, all dressed in form-fitting cowgirl black, and her little black cowgirl hat tilted on her doll head – this is the psychic assault of an overly coiffed prancing gremlin in a fever dream.

Victoria Barkley and her three look-nothing-and-act-nothing-alike sons and single gorgeous daughter were always getting into one scrape or another, and after a couple seasons they could have been anyone anywhere, in that Jumping the Shark way that 60s t.v. shows eventually didn’t care where they were set or how laboriously some poor network pitchman had, years before, made his very specific situation comedy case to the network jackanapes. Two or three seasons in and the Space Family Robinson’s spat aboard the Jupiter II is more or less indistinguishable from the Barkley melee around an evenly burning smokeless campfire in the middle of an airless set of glimpsed maroon concrete. Kids notice when the Robinsons on the way to Alpha Centauri are saying the same dumb scripted junk the Barkley’s of 1874 Stockton are, and both families are walking around inside a giant fallen robot, so to speak. Very little was lost on us. The t.v. worlds which to the writers and entertainment lawyers were the result of profitable toil, were to we preteen 60s couch cripples actual, habitable ur-environments. We could see the writers’ wills flagging after a time and the dream would always become harder to sustain.

But Barbara Stanwyck was in any case unwatchable, was too like that radiation-spangled lady, the Terror from the year 5000, hypnotizing with her sparkly fingernails and making grown men scream. Stanwyck was once upon a time a delicate but slightly freaky beauty with reptilian eyes and, yeah, a too-small body. In her late-middle period she was selected by the Big Valley’s casting director or nepotist insider to be a symbol of protean American resolve and pluck, a single 1870s mom, about 4 feet tall, raising her three vastly different sons and radiantly edible daughter in the rough-and-tumble world of a big western city known for massive odorous cow slaughter and pistol-waving shoot-em-ups. Stanwyck, too often you had your weird little paws on your hips as you squintingly appraised a bad guy or flirtatious sheriff, your damnable little cowhat rakishly askance and meant to summon outback mettle but more often quoting the hell-monkey in its little pillbox cap, pulling its lips back and screaming while the organ grinder cranks his little box. That’s the way I felt during my Scared-of-Barbara-Stanwyck period. That’s the way I feel today.