Wednesday 12 November @ 21:42:02
by Tom Hallett
I’m dumpin’ cable TV in a couple o’ weeks. That’s right, I’m weaning myself off o’ that billions-of-miles-long teat that, like a giant alien mommy, feeds me a steady diet of off-balance cable news, live courtroom drama, behind the music specials on people who are more behind than music, and, of course, good ol’ TV Land. TV Land is that special place where worn-out old bastards like myself who grew up in the “Happy ‘70’s” can go to get back in touch with our screwed-up childhoods.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “When you’re a country boy, just a month from the plough, and suddenly you’re a star with money in your pocket, cars, women, big cities, crowds, the change is just too fast. You’re the same person inside, but you’re a star outside, so you don’t know how to act. You can’t take the strain without a crutch. For me it was booze—I’ve seen the bottom of a lot of bottles.
— Carl Perkins
SONG OF THE WEEK: “Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home”
— Joe South
Wanna kick it with Samantha, Darren, and Dr. Bombay? No prob, TV Land shows six episodes of Bewitched a day. Ever find yourself wondering if Mr. Ed had any redeeming values as a television program at all? (answer: NO!) Fret not, my little glowing screen-face, you’ll find Ed and his idiot owner blabbing at you from dusk to dawn. Wanna marvel at how risque’ it was for Barbara Eden to dress in belly shirts on I Dream Of Jeannie before it was socially acceptable to show two adults in the same bed together? That’s right, Tony, Rog, and Dr. Bellows are waiting eagerly at convenient prime-times for you to tune in and flashback.
Naw, I won’t really miss any of those silly TV Land programs all that much (and the ones I dig I’ve been taping for the past month or so...argh), but I hafta confess I will find my nights a little emptier when I can no longer tune into Chicago’s WGN an’ catch reruns of the ultimate Me Generation TV classic: The Rockford Files.
James Garner in his other famous TV role, Maverick. Talk about star power!
For those not in the know, James Garner (formerly of Maverick fame) played an unlucky, ex-con private eye named Jim Rockford for nearly two decades (10 years on TV, 10 on infrequent made-for-TV movies) before his recent (limp) return to TV as some decrepit old codger on the show 8 Simple Rules For Dating My Teenage Daughter (Jesus, sounds like a Dillinger 4 song title, don’t it?). Jim joined up, ostensibly, (or so his press releases keep saying) to help the cast and crew through the difficult period they’re experiencing while grieving the death of the show’s actual star, the late John Ritter. (whew—TV! It’s tougher to keep up on than rock n’ roll!) Back in the day, though, Garner was a pretty bad-ass dude.
The only reason I bring up the show at all in this column is that I caught the absolute BEST episode EVER of The Rockford Files the other night. How I missed it over the years (I was an avid fan of the series as far back as 1976) is a mystery to me, but maybe it was kismet or some bullshit that finally brought us together on a cold, blustery November night. Or it coulda been the hangover I had that forced me away from my stereo and onto the couch with a bowl of cinnamon Life cereal—either way, I’m damn glad I caught this particular show.
Kicking off (as usual) with a smart-ass message comin’ in over Jim’s answering machine, episode 90 promised to be above even Rockford standards right from the get-go. Phone rings, machine picks up, guy’s voice intones: “Say, I’m the one who hit your car at Fork City. I’ve got no insurance, I’m broke. But, I really wanted you to know how sorry I am. If it makes you feel any better I hurt my arm.” Then BANG! Into that kick-ass theme song by Mike Post: “Bwow-wow, wow-wow, wa-ah-wa-ah-wa-ah-ah...” God, I LOVE that tune!
Plot premise this time out: Rocky (Jim’s dad, a semi-retired trucker, played by the incomparable Noah Beery, Jr.) gets in yet another jam, sending his son the private eye sniffing around a crooked sausage-making operation that’s endorsed by a singing cowboy. Well, that’s a bit of a simplification, I guess, but the bottom line is, after Rocky gets forced off the highway in his big rig (Tightest moment: Rocky jams an 8-track marked Charlie Strayhorn in the deck, and outta the speakers cranks an early version of Willie & Waylon’s “Good Hearted Woman,” SUNG BY WILLIE!), the truck jacknifes, and some goons rush up and burn his load of hot dogs. While in the hospital, he’s threatened with the loss of his trucker’s license by some smart-ass CHP officer, who sez he’s lyin’ about the goons an’ tells him he’s just too damn old to drive anymore.
Rocky had just turned 68 in this 1978 episode (actor Noah Beery was actually 65, and lived ‘til the ripe old age of 81), and was particularly concerned that he’d be worthless without his livelihood. Totally understandable. Jim dug it, and set out to find out who was behind the attack. Turns out that the cat on Rocky’s 8-track, Charlie Strayhorn (played by the rustic Taylor Lacher, who looked like a freakish cross between Lee Majors and a beardless Waylon) is the OWNER of the factory distributing the (what turn out to be) illegal weenies.
The episode is titled “Heartaches Of A Fool.” (another Willie song, but we’ll get to that shortly) The Charlie Strayhorn 8-track is really Willie Nelson, but Willie does not appear on the show, and is represented onscreen by actor Lacher/Charlie Strayhorn, a rising country outlaw star (surprise, surprise) who’s having trouble with the IRS, a wife who wants a divorce, a kid who wants him outta the biz, and is surrounded by slick, greasy, “loafer-wearin” shysters who could give two shits about his music or his personal life as long as they get their collective fingers in his (country) pie. Is it just me, or does this sound suspiciously like WILLIE’S OWN LIFE?!
OK, so before I go gettin’ all conspiracy theory on yer asses, let me run down the rest of the story: Jim goes to visit the trucker who set Rocky up with the job, and the guy sez he cain’t believe the old duffer didn’t know it was an illegal haul, after all, he’d told him to avoid weigh stations and major highways, and how much did it take to figger out the weenies wuz comin’ up from Mexico with the stamp of approval from a crooked FDA agent, anyways? “What, did you just float down on some little white cloud, er whut?” he sneers to Jim. So he shows the younger Rockford a package of the devilish ‘dogs, an’ right there in plain sight is the big, goofy, smilin’ mug o’ none other than Mr. Charlie (Willie) Strayhorn!! Golll-eee, Sarge, do ya think he could be a crim-in-all?
‘Course, that ain’t so, nossireebob. Our ever-lovin’, punch-throwin’, shot-slammin’, man’s man of a man Charlie’s got no idea his face is plastered all over ten million packages of sausage and bacon processed and shipped outta ol’ Mexico (“Hey, Juan—do you theenk those stupido Americans will be able to tell thees ees armadeelo meat an’ not beef?” “Nawww, Paco- they ees sooo stupido!”) Strayhorn’s just a poor hick lug who wants to “...make this damn record an’ get out an’ play it fer mah fans...” but he’s surrounded by the aforementioned besuited leeches, one of whom (weird plot twist #4) turns out to be a Chinese Triad (mafia by any other name) member.
By the time we discover this hot lil’ piece o’ info, Jim n’ Chuck’ve already flown (and heard—but not seen—Strayhorn play Willie’s gorgeous “Heartaches Of A Fool” as the plane eases in over the treeline) to Cripple Creek, Arkansas (ye gawds, who wrote this script, Levon Helm?!), and found that there ain’t been no sausage smokin’ goin’ on outside o’ the county jail in over a hunnert years, an’ there ain’t no factory, neither (Jim was RIGHT! Can ya believe it?), cuz it really is in Mexico just like Rockford said it was.
Well, Strayhorn is jes’ about as het up as an ole polecat caught up with a blue-tick hound in a briar patch by this point, chillun. He an’ Jimbo commence to kick some Chinee mafia ass and git to the bottom o’ the whole farce like a couple o’ jackrabbits diggin’ fer carrots, they do.
In the (happy, ‘cept for the Triad dude, who, along with the crooked FDA guy and the corrupt union boss—don’t ask—got whut they deserved. Seventies TV was nothing if not morally correct—I mean, didja ever see Joanie an’ Chachi worry about birth control?). In the end Rocky gets outta the hospital, gets his license back, and his name cleared. He bakes Strayhorn a cake to thank him (well, he did turn out to be a nice country boy after all, even if he wasn’t really Willie Nelson and he did sorta backhandedly git Rocky involved in the whole mess in the first place), and he and Jim go to visit the thoroughly reconstituted and reinvigorated singer/songwriter.
Only trouble is, there ain’t nobody home at the Strayhorn spread ‘ceptin’ ol’ Shorty, the ranch boss, who sez Charlie’s flown the coop to git his family back together and do some fishin’ and he might NEVER come back. Wellsir, he brings Rocky an’ Jim some presents Mr. Strayhorn left behind, as a sorta combo “I’m Sorry I’m an Asshole/Thanks for your help” notion, I guess. No money, which kinda sucked for Jim, who usually gits $200 a day (plus expenses) fer his private dick work, jes’ a beat-up old saddle that meant so much to Charlie that he’d told his wife to list it as a $20 expense when they were doin’ their bookkeeping. Ride this, Jim! Ouch.
Rocky was a bit more fortunate, I guess—he got a copy of Strayhorn’s new 45 (yep they still pressed ‘em up at the big comp’nies back then, an’ Jimmy Dean hadn’t even DREAMED of makin’ sausage yet—wait a minnit, I smell a polecat here amongst the hand-formed patties an’ skin-wrapped links...), titled, you guessed it, “Heartaches Of A Fool.” An’ not only that, but good-time Chuck’d also included a dedication right to ol’ man Rockford below the title on the record’s label: “FOR ROCKY, WHO HELPED TO SET ME FREE.”
Wall, ya’all might figger that Rocky was jes’ about as pleased as a plough mule on Sunday ta see his name “Right there on the label plain as day, Jimmy!”
Oh, yeah! Fade to a fantastic view from the air of a wild, tangled forest, a broad, brilliantly blue lake, and an opulent, shoreside fishin’ cabin, whilst “Heartaches Of A Fool” eases in one more time...now that’s some WACKY TV writin’, pal. But let’s go over the ubiquitous comparisons to Willie Nelson’s own life here one more time: to be continued next week. That’s it for me this time out, folks. Until we meet again—make yer own damn news.