Going Back to "Lake Charles"
He used to talk about it
He'd just go on and on
He always said Louisiana
Was where he felt at home
"Lake Charles" is one of the most bittersweet songs on an album full of bittersweet songs, Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road -- a song so close to the songwriter's heart that it's often difficult for her to sing, much less talk about. It's about Lucinda's one-time boyfriend, Clyde Woodward, who died long after they'd split up. Lucinda had married and divorced in the interim, but Clyde's influence was so profound that when his deterioration from cirrhosis of the liver reached its final stages in August 1991, Lucinda jumped on a plane from Los Angeles to see him before he died. Clyde died as Lucinda was in transit and she didn't get to say goodbye, but I could tell her what it was like: Clyde Woodward died as I sat on one side of him and held his hand, playing lowdown blues songs for him in those long last moments.
He was born in Nacogdoches
That's in East Texas
Not far from the border
But he liked to tell everybody
He was from Lake Charles
Clyde J. Woodward Jr. was just like that. He knew the Louisiana backroads of Ville Platte, Eunice, Cankton, Sulpher, and could paint florid descriptions of crawfish boils and backwoods French dances as if he were swamp born. Which was sort of the idea, because Clyde was a cultural chameleon capable of conjuring jaw-dropping magic. Clyde was the kind of person who knew not just the best restaurant in New Orleans but the most elegant restaurant patronized almost exclusively by blacks.
He knew the music of Louisiana from swamp pop to Cajun to New Orleans to zydeco to Dixieland and back. He swore no Jazz Fest was right unless you'd had a Dixie beer and softshell crab poboy for breakfast. He taught writers how to eat like royalty at happy hour buffets for the price of a beer; knew how to build the best barbeque pits ("you dig a big hole and get an ol'refrigerator with the door off..."), and could talk his way into the Palomino in L.A.
I had met Clyde in 1981 when he appeared at the newborn Chronicle as "Lucinda's agent." Agent-boyfriend, I figured correctly; working the paper's front desk exposed me to many "agents" and "managers." Still, he took a liking to the Chronicle's crude, ramshackle first office above a dry cleaners on 16th Street and often parked by my desk and chatted me up about New Orleans and Houston, where I'd grown up. He'd bring us boudin and crawfish by the bagful when he and Lucinda would come back from gigs in Louisiana.
We became good friends in a brother-sister way, Clyde and I. We had a lot in common, but the more he talked about Lucinda, the more I realized how much she and I had in common, too. Raised in the South, Lucinda had gone to the same junior high in New Orleans as me; years later, we discovered that my neighbor and pre-teen crush Fielding Henderson had been her first boyfriend. We were eldest daughters of doting college professor fathers who took custody of the kids after their divorces. We liked to talk about writing and growing up Southern and how much our daddies inspired us. Even today, we find ourselves buying the same datebooks, the same toothbrushes, the same saint sitting atop our TVs. Talking about Louisiana brought us all together.
We used to drive
Thru Lafayette and Baton Rouge
In a yellow El Camino listening to Howlin' Wolf
He liked to stop in Lake Charles
'Cause that's the place that he loves
Nineteen Eighty-three. Clyde would regularly roust a bunch of us by phone on Fridays: me, Ed Ward, a few friends. "Hey!" he'd say. "Let's all drive to Houston for the dance on Sunday at St. Phillip Neri Catholic Church! Buckwheat's playing and it'll be cool!" We'd dress up, pile into a couple of cars with him and Lucinda, and drive as Clyde navigated. We'd dance all night at the Fifth Ward fais do-do, but once we ended up in Lake Charles because Clyde had a hankering for crawfish from a particular place and Lake Charles was "only a couple hours ahead." We ate crawfish and drank beer until we nearly popped, and drove back five hours to Austin.
But Clyde longed for something he never got. Like saying he was from Lake Charles, Clyde wanted to be a musician. He played bass, but only passably. He even played with Lucinda a few times when she had a band, but she wisely kept him separate. Eventually, he got decent enough to play a few times with the Rhythm Rats (and later Zydeco Ranch), treating each gig like a major event. "We're playing the Austin Outhouse this Tuesday!" he'd proclaim. "The Outhouse is a dump, Clyde," I'd reply. "I know, isn't it great?"
Like many musicians, Clyde liked drugs; often were the times he might show up at my apartment with a Hefty bag full of pot he needed to weigh, then leave it with me "because Lu might get mad" if she found them at home. His taste in drugs got harder and eventually he graduated to cocaine and speed, then shooting up cocaine and speed -- not uncommon in the early Eighties.
And always there was the drinking. Clyde was a man who could hold prodigious amounts of alcohol and not show it. He was a bourbon man, but always called for George Dickel, not Jack Daniels, and could give five reasons why it was a better bourbon -- none of which made sense and yet inspired you to order Dickel instead of Daniels the next time.
Did an angel whisper in your ear
And hold you close and take away your fear
In those long last moments
I still have a pink phone slip from that August 1991 with a terse message: "Clyde is dying. Brackenridge hospital" and a room number. Louis gave it to me with a shake of his head. "I can't go. I just can't." I nodded and took the message. I gathered up some Chronicle gossip columns and stories I thought would be of interest and went to see him.
Oh lord, I'd walked into the wrong room -- one with some wizened old man who was banana-colored. The stranger in the bed turned his jaundiced face to me and croaked like the Big Bopper, "Hello, baby." I almost broke down. This skeletal creature was Clyde? Dear chubby Clyde? I smiled and entered, kissing his fevered brow. With my Walkman and its little portable speakers playing Clifton Chenier, I read him the latest gossip from Ken Lieck as he drifted in and out of consciousness. Reading steadily for two hours, I punctuated the items with juicy details; Clyde had always been a prime source of gossip for me and I knew he just hated being out of loop just because he was dying.
Two weeks later, the call came from the friends to whom he had been sent to die. This message was even terser: "He's dying and hasn't much time." I quickly gathered some stories I was writing about Louisiana, including one about Stevie Ray Vaughan, and a tape of miscellaneous belly-rubbing blues with my Walkman and speakers and headed to him. Lucinda was already on a plane from California.
It was one of those clear August days so hot the sky shimmers blue. The room he was in crackled of death, not so much a physical quality as the sense of life being sapped from within. I set up the music and started playing it. He had been unconscious for hours. I pulled the chair close and started reading stories I thought he would like -- stories about Louisiana. My friend was dying; I wanted him to think of the places he loved the most.
Clyde's last 35 minutes can be traced on that tape I'd hastily recorded once and grabbed on a whim as I'd left the house to see him. "Marked Deck" by the Thunderbirds opened, followed by "Scratch My Back" by Slim Harpo, "I Pulled Covers Off You Two Lovers" by Dr. John, and "Hello My Lover" by Ernie K-Doe. There was more Slim Harpo on "Tip on In," "When This Battle Is Over" by Delaney and Bonnie, "Mary Had a Little Lamb" by Buddy Guy, and "Yard Dog" by Al Ferrier.
When the Ikettes' single "I'm Blue (The Gone Gone Song)" began its loping beat, Clyde shifted palpably. His face turned to me and he opened his eyes, closed them, and coughed deeply, gratingly. I called in Stephanie, his last girlfriend, who started sobbing and took his other hand. He took two deep breaths and the second time he exhaled, his chest did not rise again. In the background, the Ikettes were crooning about fortune tellers and cheatin' lovers. Wherever Clyde was, I wished he'd stuck around for a little longer, because Clarence Carter's "Strokin'" and Professor Longhair's "Tee Ni Nee Ni Nu" were about to come on and he wouldn't want to miss that.
After Clyde died, Louis Black wrote about him in "Page Two" and we had to use a thesaurus to look up all the words for "rascal." Louis chose "Visionary con." "Weasel" and "bastard" were also suggested and truth be told, he had the requisite quota of both. But Clyde was like Robin Hood, he'd share with everyone. "Ordinary events were transformed by the amazing grace of Clyde Woodward," wrote Louis. And Lucinda wasn't the first to eulogize him in song. Mandy Mercier, with whom he'd had a relationship while in L.A., wrote "Texas Wake" about Clyde. It's not hard now to figure who "Lucy on an airplane" and "Maggie reading" are in her telling of his death. In the end, his friends threw his ashes off the Lake Charles bridge.
Did you run as far as you could go
Down the Louisiana highway
Across Lake Ponchatrain
Now your soul is in Lake Charles
No matter what they say
Backstage at Antone's last July, Lucinda has poured her heart out at what fans and critics alike are coming to regard as one of her best shows ever in Austin. Clifford Antone is telling anyone who will listen that Lucinda and Lou Ann Barton should record together. Lucinda turns around after dispensing with the hour-long queue of well-wishers and friends. She's got a wild look in her eye that a little likker'll give you. Her face breaks widely into a smile of great mischief and she pounces on the couch as we tumble onto it in a tangle of black clothes, silver jewelry, and giggles.
We hug and she whispers in my ear, face pressed into my hair, "Did you ever fuck Clyde?" "No!!" I cried, pushing her away and sitting up. Holding her slender jaw between my hands, I made her look at me. "Never! Not even close -- we were really and truly great friends! Drug buddies!"
"Well, I did fuck him and he died with you, and that's the most connected you can be to a person," she mumbles into an ear that understands. "He comes to me in dreams, sometimes. In one, he's whipping me. In another, he's trying to pull me, make me go with him." She pulls away. "I have to tell him, no. Go away, get away from me. And then he looks all hurt, like a little boy."
Suddenly, I missed Clyde terribly. I put my arms around Lucinda and held her like a child.
Did an angel whisper in your ear
And hold you close and take away your fear
In those long last moments
"Lake Charles" © Lucinda Williams, from Mercury Records release Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.