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, 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.
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?
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
Walk Hard. It's been your creed and your code. "Walk bold: You gotta
keep that vision in your mind’s eye…"
do you keep that vision in mind? Where does this rage to live come from? Deep
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.
you can't trust your mind in those situations, can you trust your body?
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.
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.
you think that might have a little bit to do with your imagination? Or are
there really people who want to harm you?
are not imaginary. Those are photographs and profiles that my helpers have
collected, that are proven agents of destruction out to get Cox.
been involved in a lot of controversial issues. You went through a very
political period later on in your career.
done with that now. Enough. Gonna let these people solve their own problems,
go back to the beginning. Tell me about your parents.
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?
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."
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.
example, your relationship with your father.
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
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.
then there's your brother, if you don't mind talking about him.
That's a touchy one.
let's face it, you did accidentally cut him in half with a machete.
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.
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.
saying your father was responsible in that situation?
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
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.
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.
you think your high sexual drive is linked to your creative drive? Do they
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.
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?
15 at the time, yeah.
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.
"making people dance erotically" words of wisdom that you kept in mind when
you went on to compose your own material?
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…
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 ––
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.
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.
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
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.
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!"
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.
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
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 [editor's note: George W. Bush was
president at the time of this interview], 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
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?
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?
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.
that's the way I think of "little people" –– it's the proper thing to call
them 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.
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.
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.
you see a bit of yourself in the midget, too?
see myself in everything.
it possible that you yourself feel very small?
not like that?
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.
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 ––
much the whoring. She was more the drug usage; that's where she drew the
come on. She didn't mind the whoring?
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
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.
that rooftop episode prior to or after your trip to India?
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.
in the back of your mind you were no doubt conscious of not yet having
written your masterpiece. True?
But that's what I mean: By failing in the 1960s with that record, Black
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.
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
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 nnnnnthis, 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.
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.
Can that possibly be true?
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.
all three of you have written some pretty good songs.
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 TheEd 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.
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."
you could change anything, would you? Or would you do it all over again?
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.
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.