Music

Face to face with the ghost of country

Wayne Grigsby January 1 1979
Music

Face to face with the ghost of country

Wayne Grigsby January 1 1979

Face to face with the ghost of country

Music

There was no mistaking the pedigree: Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave was a thoroughbred all the way. Having opened at the Beacon Arms Hotel in Ottawa in November, 1977, it eased on down the road to the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto and stood the town on its ear. Critics tripped over one another’s hyperbole; tales of personal conversion rivalled Paul’s story about the road to Damascus. Hard-core Hank Williams fans stared deep into the eyes of Sneezy Waters, who bore him an uncanny resemblance, but others had to be told that Hank Williams was, and still is, a legend in country music, composer of classics— Your Cheatin' Heart, I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry and Jambalaya. A year later a national tour is launched, its highwater mark a New Year’s Eve gala at the National Arts Centre—the show Williams would have given 26 years ago on New Year’s Eve, had he not succumbed to his personal devils.

So what was this show doing on Montreal’s sleazy Stanley Street? There it was, upstairs over a strip joint proudly advertising erotic movies on large-screen TV in their Film-O-Lounge, next door to a stretch of cruising bars and discos catering to the androgynous sequined eye-liner set. The idea to mount the show in the bars and honkytonks that Williams might have played came out of a brainstorming session, o The producers liked the idea because it was cheap and suited the show; director Peter Froehlich loved it because it gave him a chance to continue his experiments in “breaking down that invisible line between the actor and the audience.” And it suited author Maynard Collins, whose idea it had been to recreate an event that never took place. Hank Williams didn’t do his show Dec. 31,1952. He was at his mother’s place, no doubt looking for a little consolation. His wife, Audrey, had divorced him, the Grand Ole Opry had kicked him off their show for erratic and sloppy performances, and his agents had booked him out on a gruelling stretch of onenight stands. He was also taking painkillers for a damaged back and drinking. A lethal combination of booze and pills would leave him dead in the back-

seat of his Cadillac the next day, Jan. 1, 1953. What kind of show might he have given the night before?

The task was rendered formidable: Hank Williams without his music was unthinkable. The show called for a performer who could handle both the singing and the characterization. Musically, the man Maynard Collins had in mind was a veteran of the coffeehouse circuit and an institution in Ottawa folk circles: Sneezy Waters (a.k.a. Peter Hodgson). He knew the songs, the style, and there was that uncanny resemblance. Could he act? Even Waters had reservations: “I said yes without really thinking about it, partly because I didn’t think the project would get off the ground. Then Maynard showed up

with a manuscript. Jesus Christ, 30 pages of script and I’m the guy who couldn’t do memory work at school!”

On stage, Hank Williams comes apart; the only other character is the audience itself. “What we want to do,” says director Froehlich, “is strike a balance between the two sides of the audience. There’s the side that wants drama at any cost—let’s say for Hank to fall down—and the side that identifies with Hank the victim, the performer who falls down because of pressure from the audience.”

That audience involvement can be

pretty direct. “One night I was in the middle of an evangelical spiel I do in the second act,” Waters remembers, “and this guy yells ‘Eat my shorts!’ ” When that happens, says Froehlich, “invariably, someone else will yell ‘Leave him alone!’ ” All of which should make it pretty tough for Waters to concentrate. “I just climb behind my Colgate shield of protection. Things come in, but they don’t affect me that much.” Still, for the cross-Canada tour, he asked that many of the dates be played in theatres as a respite from the intensity of bars.

In Montreal, the heartless insensitivity of nightclub operators nearly sank the show. A disco called Le Double Jeu seemed ideal. Once a dance hall, it featured a good-sized stage, a vast dance floor with lots of room for tables and chairs, a balcony that runs right around the perimeter, a long bar, and—yeseven three large wagon wheels hung from the ceiling as chandeliers. Despite a contract that clearly stated otherwise, the club’s waitresses hustled drinks throughout the show. Music from the strip joint downstairs came blasting up through the floor. A quavering “I’m so lonesome... Iii... could ... diiiiieeeeee” faded into “ah, ah, ah, ah, stayin’ aliiiiivvee.” Talking didn’t help. When it was pointed out that the conditions were less than conducive to a good performance, the club management pointed out that they didn’t particularly care. Guerrilla action didn’t help. When a waitress in the balcony persisted in pestering patrons who preferred to watch the show, an irate Froehlich dumped a bottle of beer on the girl’s tray. Moments later, three large and nasty-looking gentlemen threatened to break his arm.

Harassment piled on harassment. The music downstairs was turned up rather than down. The club insisted that the weekend shows start early to be over soon enough to catch a chunk of the street’s disco action. But somehow the show survived it all and went on to a triumphant return engagement at the Horseshoe, where the only problem was the crush trying to get in—lineups on cold December nights began at 5 o’clock.

All hands are looking forward to New Year’s Eve at the National Arts Centre. A show among friends with a party to follow. Watching a tortured soul sink further and further into a personal hell, a man with no options left singing songs of heartbreak and misery, may not be traditional fare for a New Year’s Eve. But co-producers Dawn HarwoodJones’s and Robin McNeill’s invitation to friends goes: “Why grit your teeth and smile through another New Year’s party? Come on down and cry your eyes out with a really depressing show.” Cryin’ time again. Wayne Grigsby