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Through the Looking Glass, Darkly
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
This past New Year's marked the 60th anniversary of one of the most heavily mythologized moments in American music history — the last ride of country singer Hank Williams, who died in the back seat of his Cadillac somewhere along the blue highways in Tennessee or Virginia on January 1st, 1953. Williams had hired a 19-year old college student to drive him to a New Year's Day gig in Canton, Ohio (the snowy weather in Tennessee had made flying impossible), and sometime in the coal-black night Williams' legendary alcohol and drug excesses finally caught up with the singer's body and stilled his heart. The young driver hadn't realized that Williams was in dire distress and kept driving, deep into the night, until finally the lack of responses from the back seat compelled the driver to stop at a Virginia hospital. Williams was declared dead after 7 AM, though the doctor guessed that he probably expired sometime after the midnight hour chimed and welcomed in the New Year.
As far as folklore goes, it's pretty hard to beat the pathos of Hank Williams' last night. There's almost a built-in, ghost-story like aura to the image of Hank rolling through those Appalachian hills, drunk, alone, while the revelers in the tiny towns that Hank's Cadillac drove past shrieked in the New Year. It's painful to remember that the famous singer's last contact with the human race was this kid in the front seat, this stranger he just met, the guy driving soundlessly through the dark while Hank headed toward his final exit. It's not surprising that the story of Hank's last ride seemed so full of portent and shadows that it inspired a movie, a play, and dozens of country ballads and tributes. Hank Williams was a legendary artist in America, the guy who defined what "country music" meant for generations of fans, but it's the doomed nature of his last 24 hours that gives an extra jolt to his iconography.
I like Hank Williams a lot, but the thing that amazes me about the guy is that he was only 29 years old when he checked out in that lonely Cadillac. And let me be clear, what's particularly amazing to me about his age is not that he was so prolific, or that he sold so many records, or that he scaled such tremendous heights at such a young age. No, what's amazing to me is how old the guy looked. More like 59 than 29. I remember seeing record commercials on TV when I was a kid, and they showed Hank Williams singing, and with that homely Tin-Man face and that high forehead and those bugged eyes I thought the guy had to be, at the very least, 45 years old. And a hard 45 at that. I simply couldn't reconcile that that face belonged to someone who hadn't reached 30 when he died. Hank was the oldest looking 29 year old guy I had ever seen.
Okay, I know that when you factor in the years of drug and alcohol abuse, when you consider the rural-Alabama, Depression Era upbringing, when you remember the lean years of hard-scrabble, hand-to-mouth survival, it's easy to figure that Hank had some hard living crammed into his 29 years and certainly that strain caused some premature aging in his face. But man. It's hard for me to look at my copy of Hank Williams' Greatest Hits and believe that that old guy on the cover never got out of his 20s.
As I get older I've thought a lot about Hank's old face, and I've started to wonder if his mug was really such an aberration at that time. Whenever I see old footage from the 40s and 50s, it always strikes that everybody — and I mean everybody — looks sort of old. Even the kids. I don't think it's the clothes, or the haircuts, but something about life back then just made people seem a little more severe, a little more serious. I remember looking at my parent's high school yearbooks and being astonished at how mature and life-ready all the students seemed — kids they were, 17 or 18, yet in those black and white photos they looked impossibly adult. I couldn't help but contrast that with pictures from my own high school yearbook, where all the kids (including me) looked like hopelessly immature, pimply adolescents. The physical difference between kids "back then," in the 40s and 50s, and kids in the 70s and 80s seemed immense.
Why is that? I recognize that there have been incredible achievements in health care and nutrition in the past generation, I know that people live longer now, I see the obvious changes that Botox and plastic surgery have effected on the faces of the populace — still, I'm not sure that that is the answer. There seems to have been a weird, time-warp moment sometime in the baby-boom generation, when people started looking more modern and less aged than before. When I look at old high school yearbooks, I can almost pinpoint the exact year when things started to change — sometime in the mid-70s, maybe '73 or '74, I'm guessing. In sounds like I'm making an arbitrary call here, but I swear it's true. America's "Modern Face" began in the mid 70s.
Personally, I don't mind getting older, but I do have to admit that I'm a little uneasy about how I'm supposed to look as I age. It has always struck me as the height of ridiculousness for adults to fret about looking younger than they really are. I still look too damned young for my age, and if that sounds like bragging please know that that's not how I see it. I'd like to look my age, I'd like to look like one of those 1940s guys who's an adult and capable and a little wearied. It bothers me that, for the most part, I still wear the same clothes that I wore in my 20's — the jeans and T-shirts and boots, et al. I've consciously added "old guy" clothes into my wardrobe — topcoats, cardigan sweaters, squeaky black dress shoes — but it's a little affected and instead of looking older and mature I think I just look odd. What I wouldn't give to have one of those effortless, earthy, Hank Williams' faces, old and American and full of sagacity and sadness. That would be the way to go, though hopefully I wouldn't have to become a morphine addict to get one.