A Hell of a Year
Jon Dee Graham's great battle
By Kathy McCarty, Fri., Oct. 21, 2005
I met Jon Dee Graham when I was 23 and he was 25. We were both struggling musicians, but little did we know the struggle had barely begun. He was playing in a local band called the Lift that was in the process of breaking up, and my incredibly famous rock band, Glass Eye, had formed about five months earlier. His temporary day job was dishwasher at Pecan Street Cafe, where I was employed as a busser, which is how we met and got together. It's unlikely we would have met out in the music scene at that time, because my band thought the Lift was totally derivative schlock, and his band thought Glass Eye was a bunch of fruity art-fag weirdos. We've remained lifelong friends.
Jon Dee went on to join the True Believers, a still-legendary guitar-heavy Austin band, whom I believe inspired the Daniel Johnston song "The Marching Guitars." I mean they really had a lot of guitars. (Okay, okay, it was only three.) Since the breakup of the True Believers in the late Eighties, Jon Dee has pursued a solo career. It's been a hard road, but at present I'd have to say he's the greatest songwriting guitarist alive, stealing that crown from the head of Richard Thompson. Go see him play if you don't believe me. The last time I saw him play, his guitar work left me slack-jawed with disbelief. And that's not even the best part: The best part is his songwriting. Now, I've always known he's a great songwriter, but then again we're lifelong friends. The rest of the world is finally beginning to realize it. Not surprisingly, when we talk, it tends to be about songwriting.
Lately, though, Jon Dee's been "in the news," as they say, thanks to a series of benefits for his son Willie, 6, who's been diagnosed with Legg-Perthes Syndrome, a degenerative bone disease ("Phases & Stages," Music, July 1, 2005). The crowning horror is, although the Grahams had health insurance, their insurance company quietly declared bankruptcy and went out of business. That means none of the hospital bills are covered, and they can't get insurance for Willie because his condition is now considered "pre-existing." They're stuck with giant debt, an ailing child, and no legal recourse ("TCB," Music, June 24, 2005). Take note, because under the current system, this could happen to any one of us at any time.
So we're sitting at the kitchen table in his house in South Austin. It's been tough setting up our interview, because he's never ever home. He's always on the road. When he told me he was gone three weeks out of four, I thought he might be exaggerating for effect ("I don't have time to scratch my ass"), but it's true. Just look at his Web site (www.jondeegraham.com); his schedule is brutal. While we talk, his wife, Gretchen, periodically walks through the room and urges him to eat his Thundercloud sub. Honestly, for a big guy he's looking rather skinny. Jon Dee's just mentioned having been audited by the IRS.
Kathy McCarty: I didn't know you got audited by the IRS! I got audited by the IRS! It was so bad!!
Jon Dee Graham: For $3,000. Dick Cheney made $14 billion off no-bid contracts for the Iraq war, and they come after me for $3,000. This was right before Christmas last year. In December. Oh, it's been a hell of a year, starting in December. A hell of a year.
KM: It's been better lately though, right?
JDG: Well, it's been good and bad the whole time. It's like all the furniture in my life got rearranged, and I've been bumping into it a lot. Sharon Agnello, who manages Jay Farrar and Bob Mould and all these people, started managing me, which is great. Then I got audited not so great and then simultaneously, the gigs with Alejandro [Escovedo] started becoming a regular thing. At the same time, we had some major health issues going on inside the family.
KM: Well, that's an understatement! What's going on with all that?
JDG: Willie will recover, but it will be years. With Legg-Perthes, it's over the course of the next six years, maybe longer, and the disease itself is like this tree that branches out. A tree of possibilities. You go down this branch, and we end up having to put him in traction for six months; you go down this branch, and we end up having to have the hip bone resurfaced, sculpted, and all that. Or, you go down this branch, and we end up doing a total hip replacement every three years until he's an adult. So, we don't know what's going to happen. What we do know is that he has it in both hips. The left hip is more advanced than the right hip, but it's all interwoven.
KM: One of the points of me interviewing you is to talk about the next benefit for Willie, for those bills. Here's what I know: It's going to be a reuniting of the True Believers and Los Lobos!
JDG: The True Believers and Los Lobos spent a whole year touring together [in 1986], so the plan is that we're both going to do the same show the same show we did when we were doing that tour.
KM: That's such a great idea.
JDG: They love it, we love it. The whole thing was Alejandro and Heinz [Geissler, Escovedo's manager], the whole thing was their idea. We were in the middle of this amazing fundraiser at the Continental, which I can't even describe ...
KM: I know, I was there.
JDG: You played it!
KM: I've never seen anything like it.
JDG: You know, Steve Wertheimer, who owns the Continental Club, was standing in the back with his arms crossed. Very few people in this town have been as good to me as he has been over the years. He's really a man of few words. He says, "In all the time I've owned this place, I have never seen anything quite like this."
KM: It was like this incredible flower bursting open or something!
JDG: It was! It was! And it felt that way. I was on the verge of tears all night, because all of this came from nowhere. It came from nowhere! First, Willie gets sick, so, your child's in pain. Then comes the enormous fucking of the insurance company, being thrown into the labyrinth of health care, and then trying to figure out how we're going to pay for it going to other insurance companies and finding out it's now a pre-existing condition and no one will cover it.
We looked into the Texas High Risk Pool, only to find out that it would cost $600 to $700 a month for very little actual care. I was sitting there with Scrappy [Jud Newcomb], and saying, "I don't know how we're going to do this." So Scrappy says, "Well, we're going to have a benefit." And I am like, "No, we are not going to do that." Because, I was raised in West Texas. West Texas farm stock, where self-sufficiency is the law. Not the rule, but the law. Like, a physical law of the universe. Self-sufficiency: If you can't take care of yourself ...
KM: You can just go die.
JDG: Exactly. The sick cow is cut loose from the rest of the herd. That's how I was raised. So the notion of a benefit was, well, unthinkable to me.
KM: Why did you give in?
JDG: Scrappy, being a bodhisattva, said, "Well, okay, but let me ask you this: In all your years as professional musician, how many benefits do you think you've played?" I couldn't even come up with a figure it was so many. So Scrappy said, "Surely you believe in some part of this, or you wouldn't have participated." His logic was irrefutable.
KM: He got you there!
JDG: [imitating himself] "You've got me there!" Scrappy went on to say, "Well then, you have to be gracious enough to accept being on the other side of it." Over all my objections, Scrappy just said, "I'll take care of it."
KM: And man, he did a tremendous job.
JDG: And continues to! I have an enormous gratitude, and obligation, to Scrappy for doing everything he's done. He's worked so hard on this, and then it just radiates out into the music community. Not only the people I know really well, like you, and Scrappy, and Ray Wylie Hubbard, but also people I don't even know, like Bob Schneider, were calling me up and asking what they could do play, sell T-shirts, anything. I would love this list to be in the Chronicle: Scrappy, Diane Scott, Roggie Baer Elm, my agent ...
KM: Jo Rae DiMenno.
JDG: Jo Rae DiMenno, the people at Skylist. I mean, it's hard to put into words. It was so humbling.
KM: When I was there, I was thinking, "On some level this is so hard for him, but on another level it's so good for him." In the sense that, let us, let Austin, show you, Jon Dee, how loved you are. Because a lot of the time when you're out there doing a show for eight people, you end up thinking, "Nobody gives a fuck about me anymore."
JDG: You think no one cares about you. So much of the time it's hard for me to believe that my music makes it any farther than the end of the bar. Then seeing this night, and seeing how much people cared about Willie, and cared about my family. The whole thing was an act of grace by everyone.
KM: You were saying it was Alejandro's idea to have this Los Lobos benefit.
JDG: Right. Essentially, we were doing this big benefit, and Heinz kept saying, very mysteriously, [with a German accent], "Ve are vorking on somesing. I can't tell you about it, but I can tell you that you will be very, very happy." And finally Al tells me. It was astounding Los Lobos were willing to do this. It's been this way every step of the way. What terrifies me more than anything else? Other people. I guess that's why I'm a performer, because it automatically puts this barrier between me and other people. The big "Aha!" moment in all this is how much, how interdependent I am with this community.
KM: Nothing made me more aware of how interdependent I am with this community as much as moving away ["Infinite Capacity," Music, April 29, 2005]. I don't even know if I have any identity away from Austin. Here, you're all interwoven with all these people, and you don't even know it.
JDG: You don't even know it. That's the point I was making. You know, in Russian, they have this word "nostologia." And people go, "Oh, it means 'nostalgia.'" But no, nostologia is a disease or sickness you get when you get too far away from the place you belong. It's a physical ailment. I don't know why, but this is the place I belong and I always have. I lived in New York for a year, I lived in L.A. for seven years. I lived in Europe for a year. All that time, those nine years, all I wanted to do was come back here. Would you like a bite of my sandwich?
KM: Thanks, no. One of the great things about the Troobs was that there was no great singer in that band. It wasn't like you wrote a song and they could say, "Well, you can't sing like so-and-so." Because none of you guys could "sing." I'm not saying that in a disparaging way. I prefer to have the writer sing the song.
JDG: That, right there, that's the beauty of my experience in the True Believers. In every band I had been in before, mostly I was writing songs and bringing them to whomever the singer was and they would sing them. When I started playing with the Believers, I came in and said, "I have this great new song." And Al was like, "No, you sing it." I was freaking out! "This is you and Javier's band. I'm just a guitar player." They forced me to sing my own songs.
KM: That was very beneficial.
JDG: It was the beginning of me having a solo career. Even though it took another six years for it to "take," it forced me to sing.
KM: You had to be kicked out of the closet. You were never into being a frontman.
JDG: Absolutely. The pain had become so great [at the breakup of my first marriage] that there was no other option except for me to put out my own record. That was the only way that could happen. But Al is really the one who made it possible for me to even do that.
Intense Emotional Pain
KM: Speaking songwriter to songwriter, it's kind of fucked, isn't it, that the time one is most prolific is when they're in intense emotional pain.
JDG: Oh yeah.
KM: I know from your history that the biggest burst of songwriting you had was when your first marriage broke up. At that time, it seemed the only way you could survive was to write.
JDG: It was literally the only thing that saved my life, period.
KM: You have these terrible feelings you can't find any vent for, so you end up writing a lot of songs. Then, sometimes, when you're happy and life is kind of okay, it gets really tough to write anything. I know you're pretty happy these days. What do you do?
JDG: Well you've known me for a long time: I'm a chronic depressive. For many years I dealt with that with, ahem, "self-medication." I was always looking for a way to feel all right. I've sorted though a lot of that stuff, but the fact remains I dedicated The Great Battle to the strugglers, because I still see myself as a struggler. I am a struggler.
Also, anybody I know who I respect is involved in the struggle in some way or another, because that's what all of this is, you know? What I've come around to also: songwriting's about how I want to document, not just how sad or hard or fucked things are, but also how powerful things are, and how beautiful things are. It's the intensity of the feelings that sparks the songs.
And so, on Battle, the songs "I Don't Feel That Way" and "World So Full" basically lay it out that, "Yes, this is all very, very hard, you know, but not to be corny three nights ago there was a sunset the color of a mimosa blossom: neon pink. It was incredible. It was the most improbable color that filled the whole sky."
KM: Ever get the feeling, "I'm finally getting the hang of this life thing"!?
JDG: We only have a few years left! [Shouts of laughter] I am starting to get it. OK, wait a second, I have to bring something in. [Leaves room and returns with a piece of paper.] I was sitting on the front porch with Willie last night, and just out of nowhere Willie goes, "How many hours have you been alive?" It was irresistible. I said, "Well, wait a minute," and I went inside and got a pen and started doing the math. I've been alive 67,176 hours.
KM: I'm amazed that number is as low as it is! I don't feel so bad for not making more progress in that amount of time [laughing]. I mean just in my vague idea, I would've guessed I've been alive, oh, over a million hours, probably.
JDG: That's what Willie said, probably a million hours.
KM: But it is only 67,000! And about a third of those hours you were asleep. We're not doing that bad!
JDG: I've gotten a lot done, considering.
"The Great Battle"
KM: Speaking of "The Great Battle," that song addresses the meaning of life really well. It's a subject that's never been fully addressed.
JDG: In the popular music vocabulary that's probably the one subject that everyone avoids. Yes, this is really hard, but that's the beauty of it.
KM: And we're fighting it.
JD: We are fighting the Great Battle, and everyone who's not in a state of fighting it is not fully alive. And also the notion that my judgments about what happens in my life are so frequently wrong; good things happen, bad things happen. I should really just stay out of the whole judgment process.
KM: That's one of the things I've been looking into spiritually lately, this detachment from the judgment process.
JDG: God, get in line! Do you know Charles Keating? He's this renegade Catholic priest who's written a bunch of books about contemplative prayer and about the state of the world. He's fantastic. He points out, about the Scripture's "Judge not, lest ye be judged," that the more you judge other people, the more you judge yourself. The more you weigh situations, about whether they're good or bad, the more you divide your life into good and bad. And that the whole process belongs to God. The whole judgment process, literally, belongs to God. We have no business entering into that arena, taking on that mantle. It's brilliant.
KM: We waste an incredible amount of energy judging everything all the time. We don't even know we're doing it.
JDG: We don't even know we're doing it.
KM: Let's talk about your song "The Change." It's ostensibly my favorite song on The Great Battle. Who are you addressing in it?
JDG: Wow, that's a good question. [Thinks] Myself.
KM: Really? Okay. I thought it could be God, or a particular person.
JDG: I woke up one day and went, "I'm so different from how I used to be. Where did this happen?"
KM: I don't think you're a different person than you used to be ...
JDG: I'm 67,000 hours old!
KM: Let me finish my sentence! I think the substance of you has been refined, rather like a smelting process. You're not a different person. You're you. You're Jon Dee Graham, the person that I first met. You've just had a very challenging time. You've had to learn a lot of things you didn't want to learn.
JDG: Ohhhh. That continues! "The Change" is kind of about that refining process. The last verse is "No one gets their heart's desire," because it would kill you if you got your heart's desire. The heart's so flawed and imperfect, and there's this thing that I want, and I want it so bad. I want to so bad. Then I get it, and when I get it, "This isn't what I wanted! This is the wrong color, or the wrong size. It doesn't smell the way I thought it would. It doesn't taste the way I thought it would. Now I want that!" [Laughter] The only thing that saves us is we don't get our heart's desire, you know?
KM: Oh, I know. That line, people think it's a downer line, and it's actually the opposite.
JDG: It's the only thing that saves us.
KM: Okay, I have to go. I've gotta go to work now.
JDG: I have a great new song, it's about faking your own death.
KM: Tell me about it.
JDG: Oh, I can't tell you about it, but it's called "Swept Away." What person's never thought about faking their own death? I bet you've thought about faking your own death many times.
KM: No, not faking it. [Laughter]
JDG: That's a different conversation.
Proceeds from the Los Lobos/True Believers show at Antone's, Thursday, Oct. 27, benefit Willie Graham.