Heaven on Earth – Rompin’ Ron!
A couple of months back, the Hawk and I talked. Singer BJ Cook and actress Beverly D'Angelo, former bandmates of Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins, had been scheming an interview for me. Cook was encouraging me along. I thought about it but carried in mind that journalist Peter Goddard had previously questioned and written about Hawkins - Last of the good ol’ boys in 1989 - and I will not improve on that. Besides, Hawkins is 87, and I’m not pulling him back in time with very few points left. So instead, we lingered in the moment.
The brief call was much like the porch-sitting moments we shared in Nashville forty years back. Think about that. I would have been 35 and the Hawk 46. Damn, so young. It was only moments ago BJ informed me of Ron’s passing.
The two of us grew up merely a few hundred miles in between. Like those road gigs, we played in our late teens and early twenties. There was talk, talk, talk, laughter, more talk, and the radio blasting. That U-Haul swaying left to right. The night air as sweet as a plucked gardenia. Girls, girls, girls. Rock ‘n Roll the lure. Each tug of the line – another local beauty in the fold. At least that’s what one assumed after a night of hustling, lustful whispers, and campy one-liners. One-liners? The Hawk had a file cabinet stuffed with witticisms. Some are more memorable than others. “Boys, stick with me, and I’ll have you farting through silk.” This he said, once to my hypnotized band and me, hunting for new players for one of those band makeovers and house gigs in Sarnia.
As the conversation rolled on, I felt even more affection for the man. We never fought, argued, or crossed one another. Instead, something in the tone of our conversations informed us we had much to gain from our friendship. Nothing monetary but mutual history.
The Ozarks aren’t that far from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Tennessee and the rolling hillsides of Kentucky. Behind every white picket fence, a wild ass husband or relative is making trouble. The Bible thumpers got all the press. Church folks did their thing. “It’s so good to see you, brother King. How’s cousin Curtis’s brain tumour? We’ll be praying for him.” Honestly, we were grateful someone was on the case because there were recreational chores to do. Like smoking, drinking, hustling, and dancing.
There’s an impulse to view southern folks as one-dimensional: Hard working, honest, and churchgoing. Yet, there were more crazies per neighbourhood than churches. That says something. Ronnie picked up the humour. The storytelling. How to stretch and amplify a minor incident and turn it into usable road material. There is a way to stoke chaos. How to read people. Wait for the results and throw a left hook. Timing, my friend. Ron had that. The rhythm of the moment. When and where to drop a line.
I recall that dressing room at the Roxy in Hollywood, and Motown bassist James Jamerson tossing out one-liners. These were curveballs timed to detonate in the brain. Body convulsing humour. In Moscow, Idaho, jazz man James Moody strolled up to a table with guitarist Russell Malone and pianist Kenny Barron. With lips barely moving, a permanent grin locked in place, Moody tosses out two sentences or maybe less, then watched the table erupt in laughter. This is a gift; one Hawkins possessed like few others.
Folks talk about stage personality, but that larger-than-life presence accompanies a rare few. Their world, whether planned that way or willed, revolves around them. When in the room, all lights burn down on them. When out, the spotlight follows.
Ron made me laugh. The music was invariably there, but it was off stage when the show commenced.
We come to this gig in Banff, Alberta, playing for oilmen. Ron looked at rich men as investors. Bankers in that next repacking of his hits. Big dollars on the way!
Banff was magnificent. Thanks to the mountains, air, forests, and lakes, Heaven is close to the earth. The Hawk was delighted about the prospect of tapping an oil tycoon for a million bucks to record another monumental album. The budget was more like a hundred dollars for the recording, fifty dollars for sidemen, cover art by Mac’s milk, leaving behind nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand for personal expenditures.
The billionaires appear sporting Ringling Brothers clown wear remarkably suitable for eighteen holes of celebrity golf. We concretized on the ninth and eighteenth hole, thus spent the afternoon viewing golf balls stab holes in unprotected ferns, smash the skulls of fleeing wildlife, and land in the bowels of some fabricated water pit. Nothing eventful, just some of the world’s finest business people out to conquer mother nature. Ron says, “Bill, you gotta get yourself an outfit like that.” Something out of the late eighteen hundreds, funny golf merchandise. I looked at Ron and said, “You first”. He pauses and suddenly says, “It would clash with my logo.” That sketchy Hawk stencilled in black.
The plane flight to Whitehorse was the first time I chatted with him. He boasted about the approaching fishing expeditions and the massive amphibians awaiting and to be outfoxed by the man from Arkansas. Hawkins spoke of lengthy boat trips deep into the interior where few trawlers ever venture. It rang exotic to me.
I knew Hawkins was a fight fan, so I figured the best way to share natural conversation was to find common ground. I mentioned Carlos Zarate, Marvin Hagler, Alexis Arguello, flyweights, lightweights, middleweights, and heavyweights. He loved them all. We talked about music - Jerry Lee, Elvis, Carl Perkins. He said David Foster played too many black notes, later using the same line on me. Stevie Ray Vaughan would one day be recognized as the best guitarist in the world. Hank Snow, Willie, Waylon, you name it - were all related to him musically. Hawkins seemed at ease, at least for the time being.
Whitehorse was unique. Everything had to be transported. The beef was expensive, so was lumber and about every fundamental for survival. The people were hearty, creative and indestructible. As soon as the Hawk found his motel room, he discovered a television wired to cable. Ten plus channels. Remember, this is 1983. That meant reruns of Gilligan’s Island. The Hawk unearthed nirvana. No fish had to endure the cryptic plans designed for incarceration. There would be peace over the lakes. Loons could bravely resume flying missions, bellowing freedom songs above stilled waters. The king was occupied, holding court with the skipper, the banker, and the movie star.
I knocked on his door and said, “I’ve been given a car; let’s go fishing. The lake is your gold mine.” He glances out the door. “You know, Bill, it’s dangerous out there. Remember when we were in Banff? There was an elk, a caribou and what looked like an angry moose hanging out my front door. I couldn’t even get to the ice machine without putting my life in jeopardy. This place is even more remote. Sasquatch most likely bunks in this hotel.”
Fuck me! I’m still laughing!
Love you, Ron!