By Bruce Bennett
On June 1st, 1952—two decades and 2,000 miles away from the Alabama honkytonks, motels, cafes so vividly depicted in Darryl Duke’s Payday—Ralph J. Gleason treated readers of his popular San Francisco Chronicle column “The Rhythm Section” to a profile of one Hiram Williams. After a string of chart successes, the 28-year-old writer and performer had, under the name Hank Williams, simultaneously topped the pop, western, and blues charts with a self-penned, infectiously bouncy dirge entitled “Cold Cold Heart.” Gleason accompanied Williams to breakfast at Oaklands Leamington Hotel. A local DJ named either Wally Elliott or Longhorn Joe, depending on whether the on-air light was lit, had booked the MGM recording artist to play San Pablo Hall, a one-story honkytonk parked in a dirt lot outside of Vallejo. Gleason’s column mixed slow-pitch softball quotes (“’A good song is a good song,’ he says in his Alabama twang. ‘And if I’m lucky enough to write one, well...’”) with untaxing middle-brow cultural commentary likely to impel the uninitiated to their local record retailer. A caricature that accompanied the column was captioned “Hank Williams and his git-tar,” as if to mock the fanciful pre-Chuck/Elvis/Bo/Buddy notion that anything not made of brass could be a contemporary hitmaker’s instrument of choice.
Gleason’s column ends with Williams unambitious plan for a serene semi-retirement on a recently purchased, freshly stocked cattle farm outside of Nashville where, ‘ere long, he would, “Watch them cattle work while I write songs and fish.” Seven months to the day of publication, Hank Williams would, of course, be doornail dead, discovered in the back seat of his eggshell blue ’52 Cadillac by a fan who Williams had hastily booked to drive him to his next gig in Canton, Ohio, being too wasted to make the drive solo. When put to the post-mortem scalpel, Williams’s imbrued body yielded a severely bruised groin and a few other souvenirs from a Montgomery, Alabama, bar fight that the Cowboy Shakespeare had endured earlier that holiday season. Hank’s blood carried markers of morphine, prescription drugs, chloral hydrate, alcohol, and vitamin B12. Word of the beating and pharmacopeia that helped usher Williams to the ultimate career move didn’t surprise anyone who had encountered him on the long road to his final no-show. Least of all Gleason who, when revisiting his 1952 hang with Williams for a 1969 Rolling Stone essay, began with this not-for-Eisenhower-era-family-newspaper-publication recollection:
“Hank Williams came out of the bathroom carrying a glass of water. He was lean, slightly stooped over, and long-jawed. He shook hands quickly, then went over to the top of the bureau, swept off a hand full of pills, and deftly dropped them, one at a time, with short, expert slugs from the glass of water.”
By ’69, Gleason had made a byline for himself at Down Beat, Rampart, and Rolling Stone, which he co-founded. His knack for personalizing and contextualizing his musical enthusiasms in print helped a generation of writers re-establish the music journalism rules of the road, while Gleason’s vocal impatience with the speed and direction of progressive social change earned him a spot on Richard Nixon’s enemies list. Around the turn of the decade, Gleason also fell in with Saul Zaentz, accountant-turned-head of Fantasy Records (and its sister imprint, the soul-oriented Galaxy). At the time, the jazz label was riding high from signing rock ‘n’ roll act Creedence Clearwater Revival—a group well on the way to establishing a curious but nevertheless lucrative top-10 bridesmaid record for number of singles stalled in the #2 chart spot by contemporaneous Beatles releases.
We were partners in the record company with some other friends, and we decided to go ahead and make a movie
Always looking to diversify, and eager to exercise a high-minded desire to support the Seventh Art, Zaentz wanted in on the picture business. “Ralph Gleason and I worked together,” Zaentz remembered in 2008. “We were partners in the record company with some other friends, and we decided to go ahead and make a movie.” Payday would become the uncredited executive producing debut of Zaentz, the future Thalberg Award-winning producer of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The China Syndrome, Amadeus, and The English Patient. The script Zaentz green-lit was written by Don Carpenter, a Pacific Northwest literary leading light with the Norman Mailer dust-jacket flap pull quotes to prove it. Around the same time that Gleason was chatting with Williams, Carpenter was honing his writing chops at Stars and Stripes’s Kyoto bureau as a guest of the US Airforce. Carpenter’s military service also introduced him to P.F.C. Shel Silverstein, a then-nascent songwriter who would later contribute “Country Girl” and a half-dozen or so other songs heard and performed on Payday’s necessarily diegetic, music-heavy score.
Mainstream American filmmaking’s storied ‘70s romance with marginalized Americana was patently evident to literary boat-rockers like Carpenter and his better-remembered compadres Richard Brautigan and Thomas McGuane. “He loved, and I loved, to talk movie lingo,” Carpenter told Brautigan’s biographer William Hjortsberg. (Indeed, Carpenter is widely believed to have coined “Hello, he lied”, a phrase that producer Lynda Obst chose to title her End of New Hollywood memoir.) Though a model of unostentatious clarity and courageous deference to character above all, Payday, starring Rip Torn as conspicuously Hiram Williams-esque turbulent troubadour Maury Dann, remained Carpenter’s only produced feature screenplay. His final run of finished novels evinced a hard-won bitterness about the picture business, and it’s safe to say that Carpenter and Brautigan’s lack of sustained attention and recognition from Hollywood did little to slow their individual descents into the suicidal mindsets that ended each of their lives. For those, like myself, who are always interested in the tools and habits of other writers: Brautigan’s self-dispatch was via a .44 Magnum, while a decade later Carpenter opted for the Glock 9mm he kept in a writing desk drawer.
“The idea that Don Carpenter had [was] about a second-rate country and western singer that didn’t make it,” Zaentz explained. “A second rater who made a good living but lived as much by his brains as his talent.” Zaentz and Gleason both recognized in Carpenter’s fictional Maury Dann the real-world workaday asperity that defined the lives and deaths of Hank Williams and countless other touring musicians, yet remained absent from most films set in any American musical milieu. “He got not only the era of the country and western singers but he also got the music business down,” Zaentz said, “the little tricks in promoting records and the lies spread out about every artist being a wonderful sweet man to his family and kids and the tough life they had to lead.”
Zaentz was no stranger to the tricks and lies of the music business—Fantasy’s legal imbroglio with Creedence’s front man and principal songwriter John Fogerty is the stuff of cautionary music business legend, with the fusillade of lawsuits the two parties exchanged leading all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. To those not personally invested in the outcome, the specifics of their years-long legal battle border on parody. Zaentz accused Fogerty of plagiarizing his own prior work and successfully took legal action after Fogarty released a solo single bearing the chest-poking title “Zaentz Can’t Dance.”
Both Gleason and Zaentz also recognized the importance of Carpenter’s only choice of actor to play Maury Dann. “Rip Torn was a friend of his,” Zaentz remembered, and Torn’s non-budgeable presence in the lead role sharply narrowed the list of directors that Gleason, Carpenter, and Zaentz felt comfortable approaching. Recently, on another low-budget independent film set, that of 1970’s Maidstone, Torn had taken a hammer to director Norman Mailer’s head, splitting the Great American Author’s scalp open on camera, in full view of Mailer’s justifiably horrified family. Payday would hold Rip Torn front and center for nearly its entire running time, and the necessarily quickly made, low-budget enterprise called for a director that could handle the quantity and quality of interpretive goods that the actor would inevitably bring to the gig. Torn had already made it clear that his participation in Payday was, in part, contingent on his doing his own singing.
When he signed on to direct Payday, Canadian-born and CBC trained director Daryl Duke had both documentary experience and a literature degree under his belt. And while Duke’s prior directorial outing—a turgid, stage-bound ABC Movie of the Week potboiler called The President’s Plane Is Missing—was a universe away from Maury Dann’s life and times, the film proved noteworthy for two reasons. Firstly, it had remained shelved for more than a year to separate the story’s fictional villains (spoiler alert: the Chinese Communist Party) from the reality of President Nixon’s surprise trip to China. More importantly, the acting ensemble in The President’s Plane Is Missing included Rip Torn as a nefarious, pipe-smoking policy wonk. Mailer’s experience to the contrary, Duke considered Torn “a director’s dream come true.”
Duke’s passion for his leading man was in lockstep with his affectionate but unsentimental foreign-born eye for the turbid extremes of non-Canadian North American life. Per Duke, prior to Payday mainstream audiences “might’ve seen Elizabeth Taylor popping pills,” but never an average Joe abusing drugs in the unglamorous service of getting the business of music done, or at least not without some kind of finger-wagging moralism coming into play. Up to that time, according to Duke in his commentary for the 2008 DVD release of Payday, “most of America was left on the cutting room floor… Don Carpenter’s extraordinary script gave me a chance to enter an America that I had read about and that I had touched on in doing documentary films and in circling around news events, but never [approached before] in the form of drama.”
Duke’s smooth, gently incisive direction gilds Payday with a glass-bottom boat view of Maury Dann’s roughly 36-hour decline and fall, made vivid and livid by Torn’s absolute commitment to the righteous cause of his character’s self-immolation. (“I’ve always seen the world with a frame around it,” Duke explained to an interviewer a few years before his death in 2006.) Dann’s handful of deviations from the lost highway—chiefly a pair of visits to an ex-wife, in which he comes across as a sort of ghost haunting a previous life, and a booze-and-pill amped encounter with his beloved bird dog, hunting buddies, and mother—are played clean and straight. Everything is framed in near-porn-movie-ugly lighting revealing an American South that, at least as I remember from being transplanted below the Mason Dixon line at around the time that Payday was made, was near-porn-movie-ugly in reality. Slight, unostentatious, and emotionally explicative camera moves and zooms unpack the film’s Sisyphean dramatic circumstances. Motel room parties and couplings, or a restaurant confrontation and ensuing parking lot tussle, are largely shot from seated heights, making the audience an uncomfortable addition to Maury Dann’s touring entourage. It’s a position Gleason knew from hanging out with Williams and company at San Pablo Hall back in ‘52. Another remembrance from his 1969 Rolling Stone piece could’ve been pasted into nearly any page of the Payday script:
“He was a little stoned and didn't seem to remember our conversation earlier in the day and the party was beginning to get a little rough. They were whiskey drinkers and so I gave them room, looked around a while, and then went on back out.”
Alas, Payday flopped at the box office. The majors passed on distributing it and Cinerama releasing, just a few years short of folding, thought they had another Willard on their hands. The only person I know who saw Payday in first release did so at the Thunderbird Drive-in in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. A handful of positive reviews did little to help. Hindsight being 20-20, I wonder if foregrounding a pull quote from Nick Tosches review in Creem magazine—“Payday is a great fucking movie”—might have filled a few additional seats. Too sordid for broadcast TV, I’d never even heard of Payday until the same friend commanded me to see it when it surfaced for a night in the 1980s at the old Thalia. His pitch at the time included the observation that the view of c&w music and musicians in Payday made it the antithesis of Robert Altman’s universally better-known and revered Nashville. Sure enough, as soon as the lights went up after Payday at the Thalia, the curtain rose on Nashville. Payday is movie (white) lightning in a bottle: a weirdly dated yet timeless celebratory stake in the heart of sentimental, country-fried Americana. And where Altman’s condescending social mosaic could just as well have been set in the world of primate research or professional tennis, Maury Dann’s Lost Highway belonged only to the scrubby dirt backroads of country music. •
Bruce Bennett is a musician and recovering film critic who scripts unscripted TV from inside a shed in upstate New York.