Days after a brief jail stint in the Bahamas for marijuana possession, Willie Nelson was invited to the White House by Jimmy Carter who thanked the country superstar for his campaign support.
Following a dinner in which the President spoke of his days as a peanut farmer and the singer talked of raising pigs, Nelson says that a “White House insider” invited him to the roof to look at Washington at night – and brought out a joint.
“Getting stoned on the roof of the White House, you can’t help but turn inward,” Nelson recalls of the 1977 episode in his memoir, “It’s A Long Story,” which was published this week.
“Certain philosophical questions come to mind, like… how the f**k did I get here?”
Now 82, Nelson looks back at his life from a hardscrabble childhood in tiny Abbott, Texas, during the Great Depression to his Farm Aid benefit concerts to his triumphs as one of country music’s original crossover successes.
But in large part, Nelson’s book is about marijuana, for which the singer has long expressed – in a relaxed, stoner way – a passion.
Nelson traces how he discovered marijuana as a young performer and ended his dependence on alcohol and tobacco, which he blames for his parents’ deaths to lung cancer.
Famous for his grey braided locks and beard, Nelson says he faced an initial stigma in the clean-cut country world when he embraced marijuana and the hippy culture of the 1960s.
But he writes: “I couldn’t betray marijuana any more than I could betray a family member or lifelong friend. “That’s because marijuana has never betrayed me. Unlike booze, it had never made me nasty or violent. Unlike cocaine, it never sped me up or fired up my ego.”
Nelson’s book has come out amid changing US attitudes on marijuana, with four states moving to full legalisation for recreational use, although his native Texas retains tough penalties.
Nelson recounts his run-ins – both legal and social – over his love of marijuana, including the awkwardness when he recorded one of his best-known duets, “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” with Spanish legend Julio Iglesias.
Nelson said he was advised not to smoke marijuana in front of Iglesias, who was trained as a lawyer.
But he writes that Iglesias, who had flown to Texas, voiced no objections and focused on the music when Nelson said he wanted a “down-home atmosphere” in the studio and “lit up a fat one.”
Co-authored with veteran music journalist David Ritz, “It’s a Long Story” – the title an allusion to Nelson’s saying that songs are short stories – is written in an unadorned, conversational style and offers little for readers seeking gossip about other stars.
But Nelson writes at length about his own travails, including intense fights with women. Nelson has been married four times and had seven children, one of whom has died.
In a blunt summary of his predicament, Nelson writes: “As a young man, (it) became more and more apparent to me – A hard dick has no conscience.”
Nelson also writes bitterly about his battle over millions of dollars in back taxes, a dispute he settled in part by releasing a 1992 double-album with proceeds to the Internal Revenue Service.
He opines, without offering evidence, that tax authorities targeted him for his marijuana advocacy and for exposing government failures toward family farmers through his Farm Aid shows.
Despite his ultimate success, Nelson devotes much of his book to his early failures as he resorted to selling vacuum cleaners and encyclopedias and depended on his first wife’s waitressing tips.
His break came in the early 1960s when he wrote hit songs for other artists, including “Hello Walls” for Faron Young and “Crazy” for Patsy Cline.
But Nelson remained an outsider from Nashville’s country industry and recorded albums in Texas, New York and Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the home of the blues.
Nelson attributes his eclectic tastes to his childhood hearing African American and Mexican artists on the radio. He says his top influence was not a country star but Django Reinhardt, the legendary French jazz guitarist of Roma heritage, whom Nelson admires both for the music and persona.
“He wasn’t greedy for the spotlight. His delight came in quiet creation.”