I've Lived to Tell It All
By George Jones with Tom Carter
By Chris Varias
George Jones is lily-livered. Not only that, he gives crappy interviews. Jones has been working the publicity circuit lately, peddling his recently released autobiography I've Lived to Tell It All. TV chitchats may help George spread the word, but they leave you wondering if he has anything to say.
The strongest voice in country music turns weak once the subject becomes himself. When PBS's Charlie Rose asked Jones if his voice was God's gift, he was dumbfounded: "I don't know why God put me here." The Nashville Network's Ralph Emery wondered if Jones's heart was pounding the night he was accepted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. "Oh man," Jones replied uncomfortably. "It's pounding now."
I've Lived to Tell It All, cowritten by Tom Carter, tries its best to live up to the title. It tells of Jones turning to alcohol and cocaine when he should have been making music, but it doesn't tell us why. It does let us know that George is a simple guy--if he had his druthers, he'd pick guitar and sing hymns on his front porch instead of getting up onstage to play his hits. But the book can't fill in the gaps Jones chooses to leave blank. There seems to be a connection between the escapism of his epic binges and his unwillingness to perform and succeed. Why does a guy often cited as the greatest country singer who ever lived still get butterflies?
Jones tries to explain the drinking with a theory that doctors and counselors told him: "Many men who had been beaten by their fathers hated themselves. My young mind felt I was worthless as a human being and therefore deserving of the beatings my dad had given me. When Dad was no longer around to beat me, I strove to beat myself through various forms of abuse." That comes as close as we get to finding out why the country legend hates himself. Whereas Jerry Lee Lewis has talent, knows it, and isn't afraid to tell the world about it--drunk or sober--Jones may say he has talent, but deep down he kind of doubts it.
But I bought his book for its stories, not for its psychological insight, and there are plenty of good ones. The best involve his third wife and longtime singing partner, Tammy Wynette. Yet even here there's a certain amount of denial. The string of Tammy stories begins with George trying to justify his part in the failed marriage: "Before I tell you what I did to damage my marriage to Tammy, let me tell you two things I didn't do. I never beat her (although I slapped her once), and I never shot her or shot at her." Jones only mentions this because, as he notes, published accounts tell otherwise. He especially takes exception with Wynette's autobiography, Stand by Your Man, in which she writes that Jones aimed a 30-30 rifle at her back. She later refers to the firearm as a shotgun. George only has one question: "Now which was it--a rifle or a shotgun? One sentence claims I was aiming a rifle, and another claims I was aiming a shotgun. Tammy is from the country. She knows the difference between a rifle, which shoots one bullet at a time, and a shotgun, which shoots hundreds of pellets. Not knowing the difference is like not knowing a BB gun from a water pistol."
When he was drunk, Jones could fly into a jealous rage. Few learned this so savagely as Porter Wagoner one night backstage at Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry. On this particular evening, Jones mixed diet pills with the sauce and got the idea that Porter and Tammy had something going on the side, so he followed Wagoner into the men's room. Wagoner stood at a urinal, and Jones took action. "I walked up behind him and shouted, 'I want to see what Tammy's so proud of!' Then I reached around and grabbed his dick. I twisted hard." Jones says this was the only story Wagoner related when asked for anecdotes about their interactions over the years. "Imagine having a friend for four decades whose only pointed recollection for publication is that you twisted his dick."
Perhaps Wagoner knew there wasn't a lot more to say. When Hollywood gets around to the book's movie version, casting will not only require a lead with some golden pipes, but also one who has mastered impressions of the duck and the old man, two personalities Jones took up in the late 70s. He questions his sanity back then. "The duck sounded like Donald Duck and the old man something like Walter Brennan. Neither would take shit off the other. 'What the hell do you know?' the old man would say. 'You're only a young duck.' 'I'd rather be a young duck than a useless old fart,' the duck would insist. They leaped out of me, and I trembled in vain to contain them. 'So you're the great George Jones,' one might say. 'Wonder what the people would think if they could see you now, dirty and stinking and bawling like a baby? World's greatest country singer, my ass. You ain't nothing but pathetic shit.' I couldn't make them stop."
Jones is the king of country music because he embodies this duality, simultaneously singing about his troubles while objectively observing himself sing. He can sound both beaten and hopeful at the same time. He's the eternal loser who might get lucky yet. He can please the old folks with a standard, while making it suggestive enough to keep the young 'uns listening. This duality is also at the heart of the book. It's easy to chuckle at the overblown tales of gunplay and honky-tonk brawling, but you could also view these stories as lessons in the dangers of whiskey and cocaine. It offers something for both those looking for laughs and those wanting moral tales--take your pick.
The laughs cease during passages about Jones's fourth and current wife, Nancy. It's impossible to doubt their love for each other, if only because he speaks of her virtues ad nauseam: Nancy dumps a double-crossing journalist into a creek; she diagnoses heart abnormalities; she does battle with the coke-dealing Mafia; she scolds program directors for failing to spin his latest single.
Jones's one-dimensional view of his sainted wife mirrors the book's overall failure to plumb the depths of his history. Jones admits that he's fried his brain to the point where his memory has suffered. This is only a dilemma if you want an encyclopedia. The real problem here is Jones, who chooses to treat everything, even his embarrassments, only on a surface level. But even if the unexamined life isn't worth living, it can still make a fun read.