The legend speaks for itself, and so does ?the Legend himself, uninhibitedly and scabrously. On the eve of a long awaited, career-spanning biopic (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, opening December 21), Dewey Cox tells all and then some. In a frankly revealing conversation about his wild, adventure-filled ?life, Cox addresses his countless loves, and the buzzing highs and devastating lows of his 30-plus-year career, from his hardscrabble roots as an Alabama farm boy turned budding pop idol to his longtime advocacy work on behalf of midgets. “Walk Hard,” he sang. Walk hard — and rock hard — is what he did.
L.A. WEEKLY: Dewey, you began your career as a 14-year-old rocker, just barely out of diapers. At that early point, did you have any idea how much your music would end up altering the very cultural fabric of our nation?
DEWEY COX: Actually, as a child I knew that if I was just given the chance that I would change the world. So, yeah, I was fully aware of it, and I actually had my first album planned out, I had the title picked out even though I had not written the songs yet.
Walk Hard. It’s been your creed and your code. “Walk bold: You gotta keep that vision in your mind’s eye?.?.?.”
How do you keep that vision in mind? Where does this rage to live come from? Deep inside?
Well, you’re just at the top of one peak and look to the next one, I suppose, or the vision is the next thing you want to accomplish, whether it’s a song or, you know, a woman that you’d like to bed — whatever it is that you set your sights on, that’s the thing you’ve gotta keep in your mind, and you’ve gotta keep out the things that are telling you not to do those things, you know. Unless you have taken a strong psychoactive drug, in which case you can’t trust your mind at all, and so you should just not think, if you can just wait for the chemicals to pass. I learned that from PCP.
If you can’t trust your mind in those situations, can you trust your body?
Oh, no. You can’t trust your body at all. So it’s best to keep women away from you if you have altered your mind. Can you trust your body? Well, you gotta trust your body if you get sick or something, you know, if your body is telling you something. But you asked me, “Where does this rage to live come from?” Well, I have been told by my personal doctor that most of the rage that I have is located in my gall bladder. And I asked him, “Can I have that removed?” And he said, “No, you would die if you had that removed.” So I guess without rage, I would die.
Unfortunately, my rage is married to my gall bladder; that’s where it’s physically located in my body. Where it’s located in my life is in the people that cross me and the people that are out to get me, which some days seems like everyone.
Do you think that might have a little bit to do with your imagination? Or ?are there really people who want to harm you?
Those are not imaginary. Those are photographs and profiles that my helpers have collected, that are proven agents of destruction out to get Cox.
You’ve been involved in a lot of controversial issues. You went through a very political period later on in your career.
I did, yeah.
I’m done with that now. Enough. Gonna let these people solve their own problems, you know?
Let’s go back to the beginning. Tell me about your parents.
Well, you know, all these journalists, that’s all they wanna do, they wanna go look in the past, you know. Why don’t we get together and talk about the future, talk about the things we could invent? Let’s talk about things that would change the world, could make things better, you know?
The past is nothing but a goodbye. Bobby Zimmerman said that best, he said, “She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist, she don’t look back.” And I heard that and I said, “You know, I don’t care for most of his music, but that line right there I just might steal someday.”
People want to know about your past, your childhood, because they’re aware of certain crucial factors in your family history that might have been a catalyst, in part, for all this rage — or drive — that you have.
For example, your relationship with your father.
Yeah, well, there ain’t much of a relationship there, you know. And that’s something I have some regret about. You know, everybody needs a dad, but I’m planning on working that out with my own kids, you know, discovering what it is to be a dad by bein’ one. Right now my schedule does not allow it, so the kids are gonna have to wait on that; it may be a couple years before I’m able to see some of the new ones, but by that time I’m sure Edith’s gonna have some fresh ones, so ?.?.?.?
Yeah, my father, you know, I wish I could say my father meant well, but I know he didn’t mean well. He meant to harm me, he meant to undercut me, and why is it that people do that? I don’t know. I don’t know why people want to destroy their own flesh and blood.
And then there’s your brother, if you don’t mind talking about him.
Aw. That’s a touchy one.
Well, let’s face it, you did accidentally cut him in half with a machete.
The memories I have were of great, fun times — you know, stuff that all kids do — catching rattlesnakes, playing with blow torches and playing chicken with tractors and horses and .?.?.? we got into a whole mess o’ stuff. On the farm, that’s just something all kids do, you know, they tempt death. And if my father had properly tied the sheath to the machete, then the thing you’re referring to might not have happened.
So I lay it at his feet. If you don’t know proper machete maintenance, then you have no business owning a machete, let alone leaving ’em out where children can find ’em.
You’re saying your father was responsible in that situation?
Oh, absolutely. Those things have a tie on them, and that’s what it’s for, to keep the blade from slipping out of the sheath when you don’t want it to. And he was lazy about it — “Oh, I’ll tie it later, I don’t wanna deal with my machetes.” He just cared about sharpening them, unfortunately. If he’d been as lazy about the sharpening as he’d been about the sheath, then, you know, maybe it might hadn’t passed all the way through and we could’ve done something.
You started to amass a new family at a very young age when you eloped with your high school sweetheart. Very quickly, you sired a sizable brood.
Yes, well, Edith, her sexual voracity is matched only by her fertility — I mean incredible fertility. I’m convinced that she had one growing and another one fertilizing at the same time. The doctors have told me that that’s not possible, but I know a couple of them kids came in a shorter span than eight months from each other. I just blinked my eye, I had six kids, and, you know, that’d put any man out on the road.
Do you think your high sexual drive is linked to your creative drive? Do they work together?
Well, that’s the whole package. You know, when people come to the show, they come for Cox in every way — you know, they come not only because they love Cox, but they love what Cox does to them. Especially for the female segment — and I’m told a certain part of the male segment — yeah, people want a little excitement in their life, and, you know, maybe they even have a husband who can please them, but can he play 12-bar blues while doing it? There’s very few men that can do that.
Speaking of the 12-bar, there’s a well-known story about when you were first starting off, you were a cleanup boy in a black-owned nightclub, and you had the cojones to get up and front the band one night when the bandleader was sick. And what were you, 16 years old?
I was 15 at the time, yeah.
Were you nervous?
It was terrifying, but you know, it’s a different thing down in the South with black and white, and I felt like the people in that club had already accepted me in a way, though not as a performer. The main thing was, as Big Sam, my boss there at the club, told me, “People come here to dance erotically,” and that’s the most important thing — that transcends any type of racial hatred or judgment they might put on me. If I start to deliver the goods and they could close their eyes and make believe it was Bobby Shad and dance erotically at the same time, well then, everybody’s happy.
Were “making people dance erotically” words of wisdom that you kept in mind when you went on to compose your own material?
Well, Sam reminds me of it often — my drummer Sam, who I poached from Bobby Shad. Honestly, Bobby, he was happy that I did well that night, and he was happy that he was able to come back and keep his gig going at the club. But he was awfully miffed when I took Sam — that did not sit well with him at all. So some say that Sam was the real horse behind Bobby Shad. Bobby just sort of faded away after Sam left the band.
Sam .?.?.? yeah, Sam. Through many difficult years in terms of racial politics, Sam — well, that first recording session I did where we recorded Walk Hard, it took me three hours to get him into the building, and then I had to lend him my coat and bring him around the back and — it was just not done in those days. I’m not saying it was right, I’m just saying that’s the way it was. Then we all, we showed them, we moved all the way through the Black Power movement together, so .?.?.?
One thing that impresses me is how all along you did what you felt was right. You just went out there and stuck your neck out. You had one of the first integrated bands at the top of the pop charts —
That’s right. We broke color barriers left and right, we did. I was the first person to wear red at the Orpheum Theater in downtown Los Angeles, and that was a color barrier of its own kind — some kind of superstition, I don’t know what the big deal was. Then the stagehand was killed that night from a sandbag, but nothing bad happened to me.
Yeah, Sam and I had a complicated relationship, because as much as he brings a lot of good into my life, he’s brought a lot of .?.?. complications. The highs, you know.
It’s common knowledge that you had a regular supply of the “goods” early on, and it always seemed to be coming from Sam, plus a few other bad influences that crept into your life. You started doing various kinds of drugs, and smoking reefer.
Well, they exaggerate a lot in the press about the reefer use — I was also eating it, I wasn’t just smoking it. They all talk about “smoke and smoke and smoke” — of course it’s terrible for your health. I was one of the first people to use it in my cooking, that was a big thing.
You know, I wanted to say something about the records that we did in the ’60s. I realized there were a lot of groups that needed to be spoken for that were not getting heard. There’s everyone screaming for, you know, black rights, everyone was screaming for women’s rights, everyone was screaming for, you know, White Power or whatever, and I really started to think about the man in the middle — the mulatto, someone who, really, was stuck on top of the fence, was on neither side and needed a hand down — them, the little people. Women, I was one of the first people to champion — I had one of the first rallies to burn bras, in downtown Atlanta, and honestly, I just thought, Oh my god, here’s a cause sent from heaven. And so that’s when I wrote “Ladies First.” I don’t know if you’ve heard that one. “Ladies first/Scream it out loud/Ladies first/So firm and so proud/Ladies first/Show us what you got!”
But more importantly than the issues I wanted to raise, and the groups that I felt were being oppressed, the most important thing was that I saw that people wanted to buy records about those things, and that was really the main thing that was driving me. Yeah, I saw that people needed help, but more importantly I saw that people wanted to buy records about people that needed help. And some people say, “That’s jaded, that’s cynical,” but you know, we’re being honest now, and that’s really the way I saw it.
You went through a period in the 1960s when you attended protest rallies and grew your hair long, strumming an acoustic guitar and singing socially relevant songs.
Yeah, and it’s a good thing we did. Because look at the world now. Look how much good we did by standing up and singing for those people. I mean, we have a fully legitimately elected president now, we have a country that is completely at peace and doesn’t believe in war or violence and eschews guns, and it’s just a good thing that we all put our necks out like we did in the ’60s, because we really did change the world. And then we could move on to other things, like making money and stuff like that, by taking advantage of the world that we had created.
I was curious about the recurring theme of midgets during this “sociopolitically relevant” period in your career. What is it about midgets that encouraged you to sing about them so much?
Well, if you think about it, I love pudding, okay? And I’ll break it down to you this way: You look on the package of a box of pudding, and it tells you “Cook this and stir gently for 15 minutes.” Okay. And if you do that, and you stir that pudding for 15 minutes, you take it out, let it cool a little bit, you’ll have a pretty nice pudding, you know?
But if you cook that pudding 30 minutes, 45 minutes, stirring slowly, making sure you don’t let it stick to the bottom, and you let it get into a concentrated form, now that’s something.
And that’s the way I think of “little people” — it’s the proper thing to call the little people; I’ve made the mistake of referring to them as “midgets,” and it cost me a couple of shin bones [laughs] a couple times over the years. But I realized a little person is like concentrated pudding, and if you think of a whole person who stands up high, you think about the problems and issues and all the love and the things they’ve gone through, and you just cook them for another 45 minutes, you cook them down to a concentrated form, well then you have a little person.
So I feel like my interactions with my friends who are little people, it’s just that much more potent — it just tastes better to be with them.
Also, there’s something — I don’t know, I think about my brother a lot, when I see a man who’s half a man, or who’s have the size of a man. Somehow I see something about old Nate in that.
Do you see a bit of yourself in the midget, too?
Oh, I see myself in everything.
Is it possible that you yourself feel very small?
It’s not like that?
No, no. In fact, I feel enormous, and at times, omnipotent. So having a lot of little people around me just makes that sort of like after you’ve been drinking a bunch of champagne, then have a little bit of reefer and it makes it even that much more — if you’re feeling large and omnipotent, and you surround yourself with little guys, you’re like [laughs] the Colossus of Rhodes.
Can you tell us a little bit about Darlene? She’s been with you off and on for so long; at one point she walked out on you, because of your whoring, your —
Not so much the whoring. She was more the drug usage; that’s where she drew the line.
Oh, come on. She didn’t mind the whoring?
Well, I should say, in a strict sense, if it was a whore that I was with, one that I had paid, she did have a problem with that; she said, “Dewey, you will get diseases from people like that. But if it’s someone who’s just really into you and is moved by your music, well, I’m not gonna stand in the way of that.”
So, yeah, with the drugs, though, that pitched her over the edge, and I can’t blame her — if I was in her position, I might’ve done the same — or I might have supported my husband and stuck by him. But that was her choice. I was cawing like a dinosaur at the time, and screaming at the top of my lungs on the top of a building, wearing a dashiki diaper, so I can’t say I have a clear memory of the moment when Darlene left me that first time. But she had her reasons. And I have to believe her.
Was that rooftop episode prior to or after your trip to India?
That was after my trip to India. I got into a little bit of a squirrelly situation there in India. The maharishi and the boys from Liverpool introduced me to what they told me was headache medicine, and it turns out it was “head trip” medicine, I just misheard them. And of course I’m talking about LSD. And that began a love affair with LSD that lasted for quite a few years, and, you know, I can’t say it was all bad, because I did get some good musical ideas out of it; they never quite coalesced into a coherent record, but I got close, I got close, and in getting close I learned that maybe I was chasing my own tail.
And in the back of your mind you were no doubt conscious of not yet having written your masterpiece. True?
Yeah. But that’s what I mean: By failing in the 1960s with that record, Black Sheep, I realized I was chasing my own tail. The way to make a masterpiece is not to force it and just say, “Oh, this is my life so far, it’s been a masterpiece and therefore I can make this record.” It’s just, “Be patient, and wait for the moment of clarity when it all comes together.” And that’s what “Beautiful Ride” ends up in.
During the period when you were writing very “poetic,” basically indecipherable lyrics, and playing an acoustic guitar and wearing shades onstage, a lot of people thought you were borrowing heavily from Bob Dylan. Any comment on that?
Well, those people weren’t around in the many hotel rooms and back alleys when I was writing that type of music, and my voice started to change — it was an illness that I had, it’s called “rasp throat,” which, I don’t know what the technical term for it is, but it causes you to [makes a Dylanesque sound] pinch your mouth and you end up talking like this, and you can’t quite open up in the way that you did before. It’s just something that happened to me. Luckily, it passed.
Um, but I would say to the people who say I was ripping off Bob Dylan that maybe you should’ve been a fly on the wall when I was writing all those songs that you claim sound like Bob Dylan, because if you look at the history, I actually predate him by two years.
What?! Can that possibly be true?
I don’t hold it against him, you know, it’s great music, of course — he stole it from me, and Donovan stole it from him.
And all three of you have written some pretty good songs.
Yeah, I enjoy some of Dylan’s work, I do. I think at times he’s overly opaque. And people have to know what a song is about. You know what I realized in writing some of those songs, though, like “Royal Jelly” and “Former Glitzenstein” and some of those, was that it really doesn’t matter what you’re saying as much as it matters what you mean. And I’ll tell you honestly, John, as I sang “Royal Jelly” on the Ed Sullivan Show that night, there were a lot of square people out there; there was many people out there who had no idea, you know, what a “dripping lamppost” was or, you know, “the mouse with the overbite” — you and I know that that’s an obvious allusion, but there were many people in our audience who had no idea what a mouse with an overbite was.
But what I realized in singing to them was, it doesn’t matter what I’m saying, what the words are. It’s what I mean — and by the end of that song, I guarantee you, John, they knew what I meant. Maybe not in a literal way, but they knew that was a good song — “I’m confused by it, but it was good.”
If you could change anything, would you? Or would you do it all over again?
I would’ve stuck with reefer for a lot longer. I moved on to amphetamines and cocaine a little too soon. My mind works fast enough already.
Change things? I probably would’ve changed the timing of when my first wife came into my hotel room after I had married my second wife without telling my first wife. Other than that, I got no regrets.