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This Creature That I Am: The Mysteries Of George Jones

George Jones around 1975.
George Jones around 1975.

"And I will be changed from this creature that I am." — Peace in the Valley

But first, let's talk about the famous lawn mower situation. He was living in Southeast Texas, married to second wife Shirley Corley. The man loved his liquor, and Shirley thought she was so smart taking the keys and leaving George home alone. There he was in the dark, staring out the window at light gleaming off something. An idea ... Jones hopped on the 10 horsepower rotary engine vehicle, making maybe five miles per hour, and rode all eight miles into Beaumont and the closest bottle of liquor.

The incident appalled Jones. But what occurs to me today is how it could have been a perfect little scene from one of his latter day songs: a guy boiling his obsessions and self-loathing down to a deranged image, one that seems to be happening to a different guy named George.

The country singer George Jones lived a rich and full life, which ended on Friday in a Nashville hospital. He was 81. His voice, eccentric and impossible to follow, made him among the most revered singers in pop music. He flushed cash down the toilet and drank swimming pools of vodka, snorted cocaine and liked his diet pills. He mattered because of that amazing voice, and because of the wildness it so sharply described.

The things that happened in his life, it was like they were happening to somebody else. To himself his actions were as mystifying as a yeti. Iggy Pop gets the love for daringly closing the space between performance and life, stage and audience, but Jones was shooting the gap without any sense of "concept," without a wink to fans, long before. He might or might not show up at shows, he brawled and berated and drove those around him crazy. He sang onstage in the voice of Donald Duck. He would not say he was in control of events. In " The Stranger's Me," an oddball appears in town, wearing glasses and a black hat. Everybody talks about him — and as soon becomes clear, the stranger is the singer, a local now shamed by the town bad girl who broke his heart. In one of his most famous songs, " The Grand Tour," Jones invites us to "step right up, come on in" and gives us a guided tour of the fiasco that is his life.

"I'm just trying to find myself, before I get too old," he sang in 1992. In his autobiography he all but says he can't explain his actions. He was the guy watching from the window up above, a great vantage for observing some wildman drive by on a gas-powered lawn mower.

It started in a small oil town in Texas, where he was born into a family of Baptists who loved song. Daddy would come home drunk, wake up and beat him with a belt unless he sang Roy Acuff tunes sufficiently pretty. What singing meant: acceptance, relief, punishment. His mature style was full of sudden pauses, like he's stopping to kick a stone, and great upwelling swoops. Words get underscored with a shocking intake of air, as if these words had delivered a sudden gut punch. The world terrified and shocked this guy, and the shock was visceral, communicated without examination. The lines are constantly nuanced, not taken for granted, which in part you can attribute to having learned that holding a listener's attention meant the difference between a beating and its opposite.

The vocal style was diverse and expansive: for someone who was as original as they come, whose peers were Sinatra, Holiday, Cooke, he was unparalleled as an accompanist and duet singer, of listening and fitting in. When George Jones sang, he delivered you from one place to another: from the worst broken heart of your life to shelter, from the bar stool to your car. He began in the '50s as a hard-edged honkey-tonker, thrilled with winning and losing in the nightlife. He became by the '70s a loner who was trapped by his own obsessions and bad choices — and an even greater artist. He lived long enough to make really good records in the '90s and after, jaunty well-told-tales that played disaster and heartbreak for style points and a smile.

In his final decades something unexpected happened: call it surrender. Jones more or less put his addictions aside, and his marriage to his fourth wife, Nancy Sepulvedo, was his longest and most nurturing. He'd gone from being a pariah in Nashville (when the hits dried up) to a mascot who got respect — a bobble head doll that might punch out your lights. It's hard to think he's gone.

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