I’ve got a friend who swears that his father wrote “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” for Creedence Clearwater Revival. Or rather, he wrote it for the Kingston Trio, in 1961, and when they passed on it, the song kicked around the music biz for years before making its way into the pirating hands of CCR’s John Fogerty. It sounds crazy, he admits, but he swears it’s true.
Read the last Popdose on country star Chely Wright.
For the record, I don’t believe a word. It simply strays too far from the established history to be credible. But I love to hear him tell the story nonetheless. It’s a splendid example of the elaborate personal mythologies that individuals and families can weave around themselves. Human beings are natural-born embellishers. We’re hardwired to take events and spin them into stories. It’s not lying, exactly, more like revising. Improving on reality, editing out the boring bits and highlighting the funny, sad, exciting parts. And when you start with events of intrinsic interest, the resulting fabulisms can be spectacular.
Now, Billy Bob Thornton is, to put it mildly, an interesting guy. He’s your genuine polymath—actor, screenwriter, director, musician—whose achievements are matched by his eccentricities. Dyslexia, OCD and mysophobia, a string of ex-wives, episodes of insomnia and anorexia, the blood fetish, the morbid fears—of antique furniture, of silverware, of Benjamin Disraeli’s hair. Imagine the stories that this guy could tell, late at night, after he’s had a couple of drinks! Or stop imagining and pick up The Billy Bob Tapes: A Cave Full of Ghosts, the new oral autobiography assembled by Thornton and his collaborator, noted man of letters and professional Texan Kinky Friedman, from hours of rambling recorded conversation.
Thornton tells some wild tales here, the wildest concerning his upbringing in rural Arkansas, where his mother was a consulting psychic (Thornton’s screenplay for The Gift drew on those experiences). The ever-present poverty and violence of backwoods life continue to inform his work and perspective. As Thornton tells it, Karl’s snack of biscuits with mustard from Sling Blade was a real thing, the only meal that a poor child might have in the days before school-lunch programs; mustard was favored because it wouldn’t spoil in the Southern heat. These are stories that only Thornton could tell.
But there are other stories, too, that you might hear just anywhere. When my family gets together and dinner winds down into drinking, the conversation always seems to wind its way toward the old reliable topic: The Funniest Place I’ve Ever Puked. And sure enough, Thornton goes there, too. Other standards that get trotted out in The Billy Bob Tapes include:
* Sportin’ A Chubby In Math Class
* The Sickest I’ve Ever Been
* I Knew This Band Back Home, Dude They Coulda Been Huge
* That Time We Went Cross-Country By Bus (see also The Sickest I’ve Ever Been)
* The Mothers Of Invention: Man, There Was A Band (not actually a story per se)
* Oh Man One Time I Got So-o-o Wasted (see also The Funniest Place I’ve Ever Puked)
* This Time My Buddy Got Us In To See Three Dog Night For Free (may not actually appear in this book, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to go back and check)
Now, maybe it’s just that my family is particularly large and voluble, but these are all stories—or types of stories—that I’ve heard many times. And while every story is different, they’re all sort of the same, too. When Thornton talks about how hard it was to gather all the members of his teenage garage band together for a rehearsal, readers who’ve been in bands will nod knowingly. (I did.) When you hear it from people that you know personally, your intimate knowledge of the personalities involved gives the story its hook. When Billy Bob Thornton tells that story for a national audience, it’s an archetype, and the story deflates, and The Billy Bob Tapes lurches into its long, saggy middle.
When he covers his movie career, Thornton makes it a policy to speak ill of no person—which is a fine policy for living one’s life, but makes for dull reading. He will, however, tear into institutions and trends of which he disapproves. He really hates the Internet, amusingly comparing it to “a secret club.”
Thornton takes particular issue with the way the Web grants a public outlet for opinions that he, frankly, deems unqualified. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “Armchair critics have always been there, tearing apart lyrics like they know something though they’ve never written a song, and tearing apart a movie though they’ve never made a movie. Generally these guys are just jealous or envious...But why did we not know about these guys before about 10 years ago?”
Because of the Internet, of course. Back in the day, audiences knew their place. They bought the tickets and kept their mouths shut. But in the wired world, “we’re gonna let every one of you call yourself whatever you want to call yourself. You are an Internet critic, you are a blogger, you have a title, you’re somebody.” When you strip away Thornton’s bluster, it’s apparent that he, like Kevin Smith, is upset with the democratization of the critical discourse.
It’s not an uncommon stance, of course, but Thornton presents it as simple common sense and himself as a bewildered Everyman. That’s the great weakness of The Billy Bob Tapes—the way it downplays the history and the strangeness that makes Thornton a voice worth listening to in the first place. He’s not even particularly reflective about his own neuroses. He describes in some detail the specifics of his obsessive-compulsive disorder, describing it as “geometrical configurations in my head” and outlining the mental rituals that help him find “angles that are comfortable for me.” Then he dismisses it all: “I now figure out all these things naturally, so you would never know that I’m doing all these things [in my head] while we’re talking…[But] all that stuff seems normal to me, it doesn’t seem weird…People have thoughts all the time that they just don’t express. I make the mistake of saying them every now and then, that’s the problem with me.” He’s no more strange than you and me, in other words—he’s just more open about it.
But we want him to be strange. Thornton wants to think he’s normal, but normal people make for boring stories. When Thornton embraces his inner weirdo, The Billy Bob Tapes is wildly entertaining. But when he tries to show what a regular, no-nonsense sort of fellow he is, it lapses into standard showbiz-memoir territory. The nadir comes with Thornton’s tribute to the “people who have been golden” in his life—leading into a solid page-and-a-half of name-drops and shout-outs. “This is probably supposed to be part of the acknowledgments page or an awards speech,” he cracks. The self-awareness is no excuse, but he just can’t help himself. Billy Bob Thornton always wanted to be a character actor, but he’s trapped himself in the far more limiting role of leading man.
Jack Feerick may call himself Critic at Large for Popdose, but really he’s just some guy with an opinion. Not that that’s a bad thing. Or maybe it is.