Most writers, before they became writers, were something else.
I was a steel man.
For those of you not in the know, a pedal steel guitar is an instrument that looks something like an ironing board. You play it sitting down; you pluck the strings with your right hand, and a metal bar in your left hand makes contact with the strings. It also has knee levers and pedals for changing chords.
Now I’ll name drop a bit. In my years as a steel man (basically the ’70s through the late ’80s), I backed up and recorded with artists like Dolly Parton, Tanya Tucker, Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Doc Watson, Phil Everly, Garth Hudson and Albert Lee. Soon, I was traveling around the country in big old Greyhound bus with Doug Kershaw (the Rajun’ Cajun’) and playing concerts with John Stewart (a former member of the Kingston Trio). My very last gig (and my favorite) job was as a member of Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys.
But it wasn’t always so glamorous. My very first gig was at a seedy little dive in Reseda, Calif., called the Tampa Inn. It was your typical beer bar. I was a member of a fairly terrible group called Lucky Starr and His Country Wranglers.
For some reason, the thing I remember most about Lucky was that he had these real long hairs protruding from his nostrils. It was everything I could do from reaching up and yanking one or two of them out.
Lucky only knew three songs: “You’re Cheatin’ Heart,” “Tiger by the Tail” and “White Lightning.” He played them all in the same key.
As for the rest of the Country Wranglers, I forget their names, but I can still recall them clearly. The guitar player worked in a gas station by day. Since he didn’t get a chance to shower before work, I came home at the end of the night reeking of gasoline fumes. I don’t remember the bass player at all. That’s because I’m convinced that all bass players in the word are the same person. The drummer was an old guy who had his bass drum lined with Christmas tree lights and who – for some reason – thought it was hilarious to wear a gorilla a mask onstage.
No one in the band ever referred to me by my name. It was always, “Hey, steel man.”
I admit – at least at the outset – to liking the sound of it.
A wee bit about my background: I am a middle-class Jew who grew up in a nice neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio. My father was a well-known composer of classical (primarily Yiddish) music, and my mother at age 18 was the youngest flautist to play in the Cleveland Orchestra.
So let’s say my parents were slightly taken aback when they saw me going to work attired in a cowboy shirt, jeans and a pair of pointy-toed cowboy boots. Alas, it was too late. By this time – though I’d hated it for years – I’d become totally addicted to country music.
My goal was to become the first Jew ever to play steel in Nashville. Oddly, when I finally arrived in that fair city, I found that more than half of the steel players were Jewish!
I led a double life. At home, we’d have dinner while a Schubert sonata played in the background. Then at about 8 p.m., I’d don my outfit. Soon, I’d be back in the Tampa Inn, playing for a bunch of drunken rednecks.
After quitting the Tampa Inn, I slowly began to climb the musical ladder. I played various clubs around Southern California. Some of the bands were mediocre. Some were just “OK.” Some were actually good.
But I was determined to play with a real recording artist. This finally came to pass when a friend of mine, Dan Dugmore, quit his gig playing steel for John Stewart, who was on RCA Victor records at the time. Dan asked me if I was interested in the job. I jumped at it. I played with John for a while, but unfortunately his popularity wasn’t at an all-time high, and, gradually, the jobs became fewer and fewer. Soon, we were barely working.
Through the grapevine, another friend of mine, Ed Black, quit playing steel for Linda Ronstadt. I don’t know how I did it, but I managed to get hold of Linda’s home number. My hands were shaking as I dialed her number. “Hi,” she said, in an overly friendly manner. We made small talk. I finally got around to telling her I was a pedal steel player, and that I’d like to try out for Ed’s old job.
“Sure,” she said.
Two days later, I found myself at a rehearsal studio in North Hollywood, Calif. Between the time I’d talked to Linda and the day of the rehearsal, I’d purchased every one of her albums. In a few days, I had all the steel parts down cold.
Once we got to the studio, I found to my dismay that the rehearsal consisted of Linda trying out an entirely new group. None of the people at the rehearsal had ever played with one another before. We launched into “You’re No Good.” To put it mildly, it sounded like s–t. It was all downhill from there.
Pretty soon, Linda simply got up and walked out of the room. Thus ended my brush with fame and fortune.
But I wasn’t about to stop. While playing at some hotel in Reno, I saw Doug Kershaw (The Rajun’ Cajun) was playing down the street at Harrah’s. I decided to pull my Ronstadt trick. I called Kershaw’s room. He answered. I immediately said (not knowing if it was true), “I hear you’re looking for a steel player.”
That night, I played my first big gig in front of a full house in the main room at Harrah’s. The band was great – and I played great. At the end of the night, the road manager handed me an itinerary for a 15-city tour we were about to embark on.
Thus began my life on the road with the Rajun Cajun. Oh yeah, I was still the “steel man,” But now everything was different. I was making good money, and we had gigs lined up for the next year.
Yep, I’d finally made the Big Time.
Approximately two years later – in between Kershaw gigs – one night I found myself playing in a club that looked something like the Tampa Inn. Our audience consisted of three drunken Indians. Suddenly, a little voice went off in my ear. It said, “Enough, buddy. Time to pack it in.”
Thus ends the story of the steel man. Oh, I still do a gig now and then – but these days I make my living as a writer – which, in truth, is no more glamorous than being a steel man. But truth be told, I was only a mediocre steel man, but I had been gifted with real talent as a writer.
I have been making my living with a typewriter (yep, I still call it a typewriter!) for more than 40 years how. I’ve written for just about every major magazine in existence – from Penthouse to National Review. I’ve had a syndicated newspaper column. I’ve optioned two major motion pictures. I’ve just had my fist book published. And just recently, I landed this great new gig (well, it’s not exactly new – I did it before – for three years from 1998 to 2001) as a weekly columnist for WND, the most powerful conservative website on the planet. I’m in seventh heaven. For a journalist, there’s absolutely nothing more rewarding than having a weekly column.
And you know what? People don’t call me, “Hey, writer.”
Today, they call me by my first name.