It felt as though there were two suns in the yellow afternoon sky. The air was so hot I was in a crouch, trying to find some coolness low to the ground as I scuttered along the filthy, dusty road towards the railway station in south India. I was fighting to breathe…
In front of me walked a bearer, a man in a dingy red turban carrying my heavy bags and even my guitar piled on top of his head. He was quite tall and thin, sure of step and grinning wildly showing his perfectly decayed teeth as we marched through the oppressive heat. I was drenched with sweat and thirsty as the dry road before me. Even so, I was happier than I had been in a long time, 10,000 miles from Texas and happy as a clam. It was April, 1981. John Lennon had been shot four months before.
Back in Austin, nothing much was happening. Without much notice, Jerry Jeff had decided to go on a solo tour and for us in the band, that meant no work and no money and right before Christmas. Scramble and improvise was the name of the music business I knew. Nothing was for certain and you had to have the right temperament and a thick skin to deal with this sort of gypsyness. By the time I learned to roll with the punches as a touring musician for hire in 1972, I had some fairly interesting gigs under my belt. I’d played and recorded folk rock with two of the most colorful singer-songwriters in the country, Jerry Jeff and Michael Murphey. Geronimo’s Cadillac. ¡Viva Terlingua! Good things were going on.
But now? Now in 1981 following my man around a pool of tepid monsoon water I was overwhelmed by fatigue and jet lag, sweating, in awe of the crowd, the pressing of bodies, the unbearable heat, the smells, the clatter and chatter. I fell into step behind, trying to keep up, wiping my face with a bandanna and putting up a good front as if I did this every day of my life. “Onward!” I shouted for effect. “Ah, yes yes,” the red turban said as he spat some foul looking red goop on the road. Blood I wondered?
As we ambled along the noisy street towards the railway station, I pictured myself as an international vagabond, a one-man corps of discovery on the loose. I know it sounds like a fantasy, but this was high adventure and hard traveling like I had never known before. On pilgrimages such as these times are supposed to be tough and your mettle tested.
There were at least four lanes of traffic on the one lane road. Cars, lorries, taxis, motorcycles, scooters and jeeps. There were oxcarts, cows, water buffalo and, yes, elephants! We wove past auto rickshaws, bicycles, army and police vehicles, still more taxies, a dead cat or two and a swirling mass of humanity. It was a game of chicken to the death, darting in and out of traffic every whichaway, head on. And all of it was done good naturedly to the tune of thousands of chattering, smiling, laughing, shouting, hurrying people. They were dodging traffic, running a mile a minute, shouting orders, strolling, eating a variety of odoriferous foods, performing bodily functions, smoking, chewing and spitting. Red, yellow, brown…
Meanwhile, I was wilting down to nothing in a cacophony of sound with magical India spread out before me in all of her wonder. If there is a more exotic, loud, colorful, historic, ancient, musical & artistic, confounding, crowded, awe inspiring, smoky, smelly, devastatingly beautiful and polluted country on earth, I'd like to know what it is. For me India was the farthest out…and sometimes the furthest in.
So what was I doing here on the other side of the earth in such an overrun and rowdy neighborhood? How did a boy from San Antonio and Lubbock end up on this exotic dirt highway in the wilds of Indian Summer on a trek through this ancient wilderness of civilization? I’ll try to make some sense of it for you soon enough. Maybe I should start at the beginning. Can I tell you a story?