Grover Lewis: An Appreciation

Grover Lewis was among that great first generation of Rolling Stone writers who chronicled the art and excess of popular culture in the late 1960s and '70s. His pieces on such subjects as Sam Peckinpah, Robert Mitchum, Duane Allman, John Huston and Paul Newman are collected in " Academy All the Way. " He published a volume of poems, "I'll Be There in the Morning If I Live" (see Page 6), and at the time of his death on April 16 he was working on a memoir, " Goodbye If You Call That Gone, " which may yet see the light of day.

Since my old pal Grover Lewis no longer walks among us, let me begin by saying that, as a physical creature, by the standards of the culture, Grover was nobody's dream date. But he had an air about him, something likable and complicated. He had this lanky Texas stance, a big mouth with a big smile, and attired as he usually was, in boots, jeans and some goofy '40s shirt, faintly squiffed and glaring at you through those thick Coke-bottle glasses, he was a caricaturist's delight: all eyes, mouth, angles, sweetness and ferocious intelligence. Moreover, he was a Southern Boy to the end. He believed in truth and justice, and through all the years of dope and whiskey, Deadheads and deadlines, movie stars and rented cars, he remained an alumnus of that old school.

As a consequence, women were always calling my attention to Grover's "courtly manner"--alluding to his charm, even. Dogs and babies, I suspect, would have probably done so as well, could they have testified. But to me, Grover was always like Prewitt in "From Here to Eternity," a clenched fist in a frail package--prince and pauper in equal parts--always passing some outrageous, absolute judgment on your life and work, while appealing to your sympathy by bumping into a chair. Which is pretty much my definition of "exasperating"--that uncanny ability to break your heart while making you smile--so you never knew whether to thank Grover or forgive him for his impertinence. In my own case, since we were old and permanent friends (and Texas boys too, cagey with mutual respect) I usually settled for neither.

Grover was, after all, the most Stone wonderful writer that nobody ever heard of. He was also a fellow survivor of hard-scrabble, bar-ditch Texas and as blind as a cave bat in the bargain. He had been since birth, so he had to wear those wonky glasses. So when he really ticked me off, I comforted myself with imagining Grover and his old running-mate, Larry McMurtry, back at North Texas State in the '50s: as campus pariahs, as these two skinny, four-eyed geeks in goofy '40s shirts, scuttling along the sidewalk head to head, toting copies of The Evergreen Review and plotting their mutual apotheosis--in the aftermath of which they would both be famous authors, claiming any female who fell within their view.

The pleasure I took in the imagined tableau of pathetic "geekdom," of course, was considerably enhanced by the improbable fact that both Larry and Grover, each in his own way, actually achieved their apotheosis (and its consequent surfeit of feminine companionship), did it so rapidly, that, by the time I met them in the early '60s, they were no longer geeks. They were "promising Texas writers," marking the path I fully intended to follow out of town.

By the early 1970s, McMurtry was producing novels at a steady clip, living as he does now, in various places, like a fugitive. Grover and I had seen the blessed vision--Texas in the rear-view mirror--and were ensconced on opposite ends of the country practicing something called "new journalism," which, in fact, was nothing more than Victorian reportage with neon punctuation--Dickens and Stevenson and De Quincey in meaner streets with stronger drugs. Grover was in San Francisco working for Rolling Stone, writing landmark stories about movies and rock 'n' roll--inventing pop genres such as "the location story" and "the tour story." I was in New York going for something a little more effete, writing about art for Art in America, and about rock 'n' roll for The Village Voice. As a consequence, our paths began crossing in airports and bars, in press trailers at country music festivals and Allman Brothers' concerts. Out of these encounters, we forged a friendship based, first, on our mutual distaste for contemporary Texas, and, last and always, on our fatal love of the life we found ourselves leading. Both of us had read enough books and seen enough highway to know what a lovely moment it was.

We had grown up with the myth of the open range, with that unreflective, visceral cowboy hatred for fences and, just for that moment, the fences were down, the institutions that strung them in disgrace; the borders were open, the President was a crook, the generals were losers, old Hollywood was dead, corporate culture was confused and the universities irrelevant. So there was a sense of making it up as you went along, with new rules in a new place, where, if you wished, you could bring your Foucault and your Stratocaster, too. And there was enough sleazy fame to go around--except that, back then, it was still the colossal joke that Warhol intended it to be: still marketing and not a religion.

Not yet, anyway, so you could still write a tight, astringent, literary piece about a rock-and-roll brand or a pop mogul or a movie set, or even an evangelist, and it would pass for hype--the assumption being that people were cool and everybody was in on the joke. The sustained ironies of this new world distressed utopians and conservatives alike, but it was very Victorian, really. As Grover put it, we wrote about cottage industries. We did pieces about people doing pieces, out there in the savanna between the corporate jungle and the ivory tower.

Ultimately, the fences would go back up, and, as the '80s progressed, that space would evaporate, go underground or into cyberspace. The times would change and editors changed with them. Suddenly, it was all Demi Moore and no more demimonde. Hip stories about pop subjects went out of fashion. Pop stories about hip subjects came back in, and it was no fun anymore. As I told Grover at the time, "Either we got old, or the president did."

Probably it was both, but it hit Grover harder. He loved what he did and the status associated with it. And he hated where he came from. By the time he was 10, Grover explained, he had known enough hard times and chaos to last the entire population of Newport Beach into the next century. He hadn't like it then and he didn't like it now. But he remained a Southern boy, stubborn as red dirt, bound and determined to stick to his last, lost cause or not, and to believe forever in that brand of truth and justice that first had set him free. And he was a magazine writer. His job was to hammer the detritus of fugitive cultural encounters into elegant sentences, lapidary paragraphs and knowable truth; and, in truth, the loveliness and lucidity of Grover's writing always rose to the triviality of the occasion.

His burden was to suffer that chronic, Promethean anguish known only to slow writers with short deadlines and absolute standards, and he had lived with that. Whatever it cost Flaubert to conjure up le mot juste for Madame Bovary's trousseau, Grover paid comparable prices to evoke the butch camaraderie on the location of some lamentable movie, to capture the joy and desperation of some unremembered rock concert in a gym in southeastern New Mexico, to dramatize the antic absurdity of lunch with Paul Newman at the Pump Room. And he had accepted that discipline, had bowed to it, soothing the anguish, whenever necessary, with whiskey, amphetamines and carloads of cigarettes.

But the work dried up anyway. In Grover's view, this was because editors, at present, were either corporate swine or academic twits and he, Grover Lewis, had his standards. I suggested that Marie Antoinette had her standards, too, but to no avail. So there were several years in the '80s when, to put it mildly, Grover Lewis was a very grumpy dude, prowling like a blind lynx around the apartment in Santa Monica where he and his wife Fae had finally come to rest. I would drop by and find him reading 10 books, one page at a time, making encyclopedic tapes of all his favorite songs, fulminating against things in general and writing at a pace that was stately even by Grover's standards.

It was not a good time, but finally, with nothing much to look forward to, Grover began looking back, tentatively at first, but then with a longer, stronger gaze at his final, terrible treasure: that brutal world of Texas white-trash geekdom from whence he sprang and the redneck tribes of sharecroppers, well-diggers, religious maniacs and petty thugs from whose blunt ignorance he had struggled so mightily to liberate himself. Opening up those raw memories gave him nightmares for a while but, even so, in 1992, he accepted an assignment to return to Texas and write a piece for Texas Monthly about Oak Cliff, the working-class suburb of Dallas where he spent a good part of his childhood, which, in truth, had no good parts at all.

"Farewell to Cracker Eden" turned out to be a hard and beautiful piece of writing, and Grover was heartened by its reception, though privately amazed at the courage it had cost to write it. So, finally, in his most Faulknerian manner, he "resolved to track the black beast to its lair." He wrote a proposal for an autobiographical book about those years. It was to be called "Goodbye If You Call That Gone" and it began like this:

"History and legend bind us to the past, along with an unquenchable memory.

"In the spring of 1943, my parents--Grover Lewis, a truck driver, and Opal Bailey Lewis, a hotel waitress--shot each other to death with a pawnshop pistol. For almost a year, Big Grover had stalked my mother, my four-year-old sister and me across backwater Texas, resisting Opal's decision to divorce him. When she finally did, and when he finally cornered her and pulled the trigger as he'd promise to do, she seized the gun and killed him, too."

To no one's surprise but his own, Grover got a contract from Judith Regan of HarperCollins to write this book, his first, for real money. So he set about researching. Grover and I had a long conversation about the book about a month after that. By this time, he was fully aware of the ironies that swirled around the project. It was not the story he was born to write, he said, he had already written that in a thousand magazines with the shelf-life of milk. It was, however, the book he had to write because he was born where and when he was, and to whom. And he planned to write it with a vengeance, because, at one level, he had been "Lonesome Doved," as he called it, referring to the experience of his friend McMurtry, who after 20 years of writing first-rate novels about living Americans in the contemporary moment, had been rewarded finally for a mythic novel based on an old screenplay about archetypal cowboys.

So Grover had a little litany he had clearly worked up with me in mind: "They will admire you for writing about the present, oh yeah. But they will love you for writing about the past. They will praise you for writing about house-wives and showgirls, bookworms and business men. But they will pay you for cowboys and rednecks. They will admire you for writing about the world before your eyes. But they will adore you for spilling your guts. And somehow," he said, "I'll subvert that bull---- and still write this book." Bam! He hit the table with his hand. It was the only violent gesture I ever saw him make. I was heartened by it.

But there was more to it than that, because in essence, by writing this book, Grover was dismantling the engine that drove the words that wrote it. He knew, and I knew too, that by writing the story of his parents, he was handing every armchair psychologist we knew a false key to his heart, because, clearly, the crazy, loving, violent figure of Big Grover flickered behind half the people he had written about, behind all the bad guys, rough necks and broken poets, behind Robert Mitchum, Duane Allman, Lee Marvin, Lash LaRue, Art Pepper, John Houston and Sam Peckinpah, and Grover knew it.

"I can see it now, of course," he said, "how I would want to talk to somebody who was like Big Grover, who was bad and good, and sweet and violent. How I would want to speculate on how he might have survived, done well and been redeemed. That's a reasonable interest, I think, but it doesn't explain anything. That was just the assignment, you know, and I'm too good a reporter to let the assignment distort the story. I always got the story that was there. From all these people. The only difference Big Grover made, I think, was that I was really interested in those guys and predisposed to forgive them for their rough edges. That made better stories, I think."

It would have made Grover's book a better book, too, I think, but about two months after we spoke, Grover hurt his back moving something on his desk. He went to the doctor with it and was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He was immediately thrust into chemotherapy, which scalded his throat, so we never spoke again. He died six weeks later and was buried in Kanaraville, Utah, Rae Lewis' hometown, in a little Mormon cemetery in a high mountain meadow on a day full of wind and scudding clouds, hard rain and banners of angled sunshine.

A small group of us stood in the mud around the grave, hunched against the rain and blinking at the shafts of dazzled sunlight, while a dark-haired girl in a long, country dress played an Irish melody on the fiddle. It was so damn cinematic I could barely stand it. I hardly felt like I was there. All it needed was Beau Bridges and a commissary truck, so, to distract myself from proliferation of easy ironies, I thought about the fragment I had read of "Goodbye If You Can Call That Gone." About this line: "The fatal event took place in my hometown of San Antonio when I was eight. By then I had experienced at first hand such a numbing amount and so many varieties of violence that I was left with a choice between an invitation to death and the will to live." Grover, of course, chose both.

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