Had a good chat with Doc Watson and his wife, Rosa Lee, yesterday. We covered a lot of territory in a half hour: music and musicians, kids, Merlefest, computers (still none at the Watson place,) health, doctors and hospitals (Doc’s salty about some of these; tell you why later), and spirituality. That’s always an important subject whenever we talk.
It took awhile, but we finally made it around to the ostensible reason I’d called him: I’d gotten an email request to interview me for a biography on Doc to be released August 1.
August 1st!? Of this year?! An interview today for a book coming out in two weeks? Plus, the perps were feeling me out about getting rights to use the photo in my April 7 p0st, Doc and the Psychedelic Guitar. (Guitarist, guitar and guitar-maker, Roy Noble, are pictured above).
“What psychedelic guitar are you talkin’ about, Son?” Doc said, when I told him about the request.
“Uh, well, that mahogany one Roy made for you around 1967.”
“Oh yeah, I remember now. Son, that was a good guitar, but, you know, I couldn’t play it in public if there was hippy pictures all over it.”
“I know, Doc,” I said.
“’Cause I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was a hippy,” he said.
“I remember, Doc,” I said, “and we were careful to shield you from that. Anyway, these people said getting an interview with me and the photo of you with the psychedel—uh, picturesque—guitar would be great for their biography on you. And now that I think about it, since they’ve already created the cover art, August 1st would be a perfect release date.”
“Huh?” said Doc.
“That’s exactly what I said, Doc, tho’ not in those exact words. Then I realized they must have been talking about an online thing, where all the kerfuffle of getting a real book printed, reviewed and distributed would be eliminated. Knowhuddamean?”
Doc said he thought he did.
Now, I know I don’t have to tell you, good reader, that a righteous biography represents months and months, often years, of research, interviews, archive-hopping, public records-begging, informant-bribing, etc., before a word of prose goes into the computer. To do one on Doc, you’d want to sell your soul to see private papers, become friends with his friends, win over county clerks, eat grits and hog jowls and so on. And then there’s the empathy thing.
“Doc, has anybody ever approached you about doing your life story?”
“Maybe about a dozen or so. Why?”
“Just curious. Have you ever considered it?” I asked, shamelessly leading the witness.
“Yes, son, I have, and I’ve pretty much decided I don’t want to do it.”
“Well, Al, I’m just not that important to have a whole book written about me.” If it weren’t Doc Watson saying this I’d think it was false modesty. But it was Doc.
“Dude!” I say, “a lot of people would disagree with that. People would like to know what you’re like. I know, because I get a lot of questions about what you’re like on my blog, I guess because I’ve known you for forty years and we’re still on speaking terms.”
“Forty years? Has it been that long, Al? What’s a plog?” he says.
“Blog,” I say. “It’s sort of a personal gossip column you put on your computer so nobody will read it. Mine is called Power-Pickers of the ‘60’s.”
“Huh,” he says, “if you say so. Forty years, Al, you sure?”
“Actually, Doc, 44, give or take a UCLA Folk Festival or two.”
Back to The Big E. Empathy is usually a sine qua non of any successful biography. If you’re the writer and you’re doing a bio on someone it’s pretty important you try to identify with him, which will be tough if you’ve never met him, so I have to make sure my presumptive interrogators never have. I tell Doc their names on the off-off-chance that maybe they’d once pulled him out of a barroom brawl or something and he’s been trying to find them ever since to thank them.
“No, good buddy,” he says, “I haven’t been in a barroom brawl for just ages, and I’d certainly know the names of any folks that rescued me from one.” I’m paraphrasing here.
On a slightly deeper level, I think Doc feels that telling his story to be written down and printed in a book would be like bragging. And Doc simply cannot do that. C-a-n-n-o-t!
Recently, when he took his grandson, Richie (I believe that’s his name. Rosa Lee told me, but it was a choice between remembering her name or the boy’s, so…) to Duke University Hospital’s emergency room for what turned out to be blood poisoning from a botched dental procedure, one of the things I told you Doc spoke saltily about. They didn’t take Richie immediately, because, Doc felt, “They have a lot of big shots come in there, famous people, I guess, and they have to take them first.”
“They probably didn’t recognize you, Doc,” I said. “I bet you weren’t wearing the Hawaiian shirt I gave you, were you?”
Doc laughs. “But that’s just the point, Al. I’m not important enough to butt in line at the hospital.”
“Do you think those assholes who did butt in line are more important?” I asked heatedly. “Huh. I bet they were wearing Hawaiian shirts, weren’t they?”
“Now, how the heck would I, of all people, know what they were wearing?” he says. I can hear the grin in his voice from here. “Son, you’re messing with me, now.”
Doc comes by his humility honestly. He had a hard childhood among hard childhoods. A blind boy raised in some public institution he doesn’t feel much like talking about, in the Deep South, in the middle of the Depression, can’t have been as much fun as it sounds like. To this day Doc has kidney problems caused by being left alone in places where he couldn’t find a toilet and had to hold his water, so to speak, much longer than he should have.
In fact, care-giving in general was a little different then than it is now. By way of illustration, why don’t you share this little Doc-watching moment with me.
One season, when he was staying at my itty-bitty Hollywood bungalow apartment, he found, feeling along the wall, an old hand-cranking telephone I’d bought at a flea market. He stood stock still at the discovery, gradually breaking into his broad smile of delight, which was his version of “Eureka!” As usual with him and me in these situations, it was right away Mr. Science and the Dumbkopf.
“Son, do you know how this works?” he asks me.
“Um, it rings and you answer it?” I say.
“C’mon, Al, you can get this.”
“Oh no, I can’t, Doc. I told you, I’m not gentile, I don’t understand how things work.”
“Do you know what a magneto is?” he says. He doesn’t wait for an answer. “OK, well then, you’re gonna learn something today, good buddy. Go git me a screwdriver. You do have a screwdriver, don’t you, Al?”
“How ’bout a butter knife, Doc?” I say. “Just kidding, good buddy.”
So I get him the screwdriver. He opens the box, feels around in it, does some rewiring from this terminal to that, etc., all the time talking about things like capacitors and armatures. For once I am glad he can’t see my face, because my eyes have glazed over into opacity. He, by comparison, is completely absorbed in his work.
In a very few minutes he shuts the box, puts two fingers on neighboring terminals at the top of it, turns the handcrank a few times and jumps back as if he’d got an electric shock. Electric shock?! You think? Uh, hello, Al.
“Son,” he says, smiling gleefully, “come over here. I want to show you something.”
“Uh, you already just showed me, Doc,” I say, edging along the wall where he and the phone aren’t. “Oh, look at the time! I really must go to the—“
“Don’t worry, son, I’m gonna lower the voltage so I don’t fry you to a crisp, but I just want you to see what this thing can do. See, big ol’ magnets like this and coils of wire like these were in all kinds of machinery when I was growing up. Phones, cars, power tools, just about anything that used–” Suddenly, he stopped and stood stock still, like I described before. But now the big grin and childlike energy gave way to a sadness I wasn’t used to seeing in Doc. Didn’t mean he never felt that way, just that he didn’t often show it.
“Doc, are you okay?” I say. He seems to be staring into the middle distance, like he’s seeing something I’m not. He’s quiet for some time–you know how ten or fifteen seconds can seem like an eternity in close, intimate quarters–before he finally answers.
“Yeah, son, I’m all right. I was just thinking about where I was when I learned about magnetos. In that home, I guess they called it, where they’d sent me because I was blind. I’d gotten hold of one–a magneto–, and I was studying it, taking it apart and putting it back together, you know, learning what it could do. God, how I loved that thing. We didn’t have much to play with at that place. That magneto was about it for me.
“Anyway, one day one of the sisters or supervisors or whatever they called healthcare givers back then came and took it away from me. Just walked into the bunkroom I slept in and took it. She never told me why. I asked her and asked her if I could please have it back, wasn’t there something I could do to get it back again, but all she said was, ‘It’s not good for you to have it.’ I never saw that magneto again.
“So, touch it, Al,” he says, the cloud having quietly evaporated, at least for the moment. “I promise, all you’ll feel is a little vibration.”
I touch it, and, of course, he isn’t lying, tho’ I wouldn’t like that “little vibration” to be applied to my gonads at Gitmo U or someplace like that if I could help it. But I trust Doc. Never didn’t.
So, without giving offense, Bloomingbrookbooks, or whatever your cyber-imprimatur is, do you think this might be the kind of thing people would be looking for in a biography, or not? No? Well, maybe you had to be there.
BTW, I still don’t understand magnetos.