Those words by David Byrne come to mind whenever I think about the long and winding road that led me to become a publisher because I certainly didn‚Äôt set out to become one. Without delving into the whole crossroads thing, since both Roberts (Frost and Johnson) have expounded at length on that human condition, I‚Äôll just say that the road I took turned out to be the road that led me to Pharoah Cain.
I‚Äôd heard his name mentioned around Nashville several years ago by some friends in the music industry, always in conjunction with some mysterious manuscript called Django‚Äôs TuneTown Shuffle that everyone was raving about, though no one ever seemed to have a copy handy for my own perusal. They were devout in their acclaim, and several even hailed it as one of the best works ever about Nashville, in part because it was set in the Market Street district, which at the time (early 90‚Äôs) was something of a creative hub where we and dozens of artists of all flavors were living. But after several failed attempts to locate a copy of the book, I simply forgot about it and moved on to other things.
Fast forward several years and I had left Nashville and its traffic behind for the country life here in southern Tennessee. During a conversation with my neighbor about clearing some of the brush and overgrowth on my land he suggested I buy a few goats and turn them loose. He gave me the name of a local swap/shop website and by mid-afternoon he and I were in his truck and pulling a small two-horse trailer, heading deeper into the countryside to look at goats and meet the farmer whose ad I had answered.
Twenty miles later we turned into a long, winding drive that led to a large, obviously old but distinguished log home with a red tin roof and a long front porch that ran the entire length of the house. As we parked the truck and got out, a tall angular man in t-shirt and overalls with long silver hair rose from his chair and walked down the steps and across the yard to greet us. He looked to be in his fifties and country-fit, his arms lean and corded with muscle, his pale blue eyes serious and his smile brief but congenial, his introduction a simple nod as he led us toward the small barn sitting on a rise a couple hundred yards from the house.
‚ÄúI penned ‚Äėem up so you could look at all of them,‚ÄĚ he said, as he opened the barn door to a small indoor pen that held about fifteen huge goats.
I knew absolutely nothing about goats but even I could tell these were exceptional stock. Large, beefy Boar goats, all registered as it turned out, most of them white with red heads, a few paints, and a couple solid red.
‚ÄúHow many were you looking for?‚ÄĚ he asked.
‚ÄúJust two or three,‚ÄĚ I answered, and immediately saw the disappointment in his face.
‚ÄúWell, just pick out the ones you want and we‚Äôll go from there,‚ÄĚ he said, ‚ÄúThey‚Äôre all does and nannies, about half of them are bred so naturally they‚Äôre a little more expensive.‚ÄĚ
I picked out a white, a red, and a paint just for pure variety, as though I were decorating a den.
‚ÄúLet‚Äôs walk over to the office and I‚Äôll get the papers for you,‚ÄĚ he nodded.
We followed him back across the lot to a small rustic building that sat off to the side of the old log house. As we stepped inside I was surprised to see that it was actually a studio, with an ancient wood desk and several guitars in cases on the floor. The wood paneled walls were decorated with posters and signed pictures of old country and blues artists, a couple of framed Billboard charts, and prints from book and film festivals. A ceiling fan turned overhead and in the corner sat a small cast iron stove with a full kindling box just a few feet away. But it was what was sitting next to the box that really caught my attention.
Three worn and battered Kinko‚Äôs manuscript boxes stacked one on top of the other, the words Django‚Äôs TuneTown Shuffle barely readable in fading, hand-written ink, the top box open and half full of yellowed paper filled with text.
‚ÄúWhat‚Äôs that?‚ÄĚ I pointed, but he was distracted, busy rifling through a binder of papers he‚Äôd removed from the desk drawer.
When he finally looked up to see what I was speaking of, his face hardened and his eyes narrowed and went flat, and it seemed I could almost see the light go out of them. For the first time I noticed a serrated horizontal scar that ran beneath his left eye along the ridge of his cheekbone, about the same width as a buck knife blade.
‚ÄúThat‚Äôs nothing,‚ÄĚ he said. But I knew better.
‚ÄúCan I look at one?‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúNo, there‚Äôs nothing to look at. It‚Äôs a dead thing. In fact, it‚Äôs not even a thing, just something I use to light kindling. That‚Äôs what it‚Äôs for now.‚ÄĚ
But I refused to give in and we went back and forth for several minutes until it appeared he was almost on the verge of anger and my better judgment told me to ease up.
‚ÄúTell you what,‚ÄĚ I offered. ‚ÄúLet me take one home tonight and read it, and I promise I‚Äôll bring it back tomorrow. If you‚Äôll do that‚ÄĒI‚Äôll buy one more goat.‚ÄĚ
He leaned against the ancient wood desk and looked at me for a long moment, his fingers drumming on the worn plank top.
‚ÄúLet‚Äôs walk out to the barn,‚ÄĚ he said finally.
A half hour later my neighbor and I were back on the road, pulling a trailer with six over-priced goats and a battered copy of ‚ÄúDjango‚ÄĚ on the seat beside us. When we got home I thanked him for his help and turned the goats loose with strict orders to eat everything in sight. They must have understood because they went straight to work.
Then I went inside and made the first of several pots of coffee, knowing it was going to be a long and, hopefully, interesting night.
The next morning I drove to Pharoah Cain‚Äôs house with the manuscript just as I had promised. He was sitting barefoot on the porch in a caned chair wearing a t-shirt and sweatpants, a guitar in his lap and a beat up Panama hat on his head, a steaming mug of coffee on the table beside him. He waved me over and I walked up the steps and sat in the rocker next to him.
We talked for almost an hour, and in the course of our conversation I found that we had some things in common: we‚Äôd both served in the Marine Corps, both spent time as musicians (though I was much less accomplished), and ironically both of us had lived in that unique Market Street/2nd Avenue area of Nashville in the very early 90‚Äôs, before Gaylord/Opryland eviscerated it with tacky redevelopment, wrecking the community the same way they eventually ruined Opryland.
Perhaps it was those commonalities that caused him to loosen up with me, but eventually he began to tell me the story about ‚ÄúDjango‚Äôs TuneTown Shuffle,‚ÄĚ about the years it took to write it while working 40-50 hours a week at other jobs, the initial rejections, another year or two of rewrites, then landing a New York agent who turned out to be crazy and whom he ultimately fired, another series of rejections (though now the reviews were glowing), another agent who took him to the very final stages of a book deal only to watch it fall apart at the end.
‚ÄúI just threw it in a drawer and forgot about it,‚ÄĚ he said, with no regret whatsoever in his tone. ‚ÄúIn the book, the main character, Jake, says he gave up a little bit every day until one day he woke up and there was just no desire, no fire in his soul. That‚Äôs not me. I didn‚Äôt give up‚ÄĒI quit. I turned my back on it and walked away like you would walk away from a lover or a friend who betrayed you. I found those old copies in the attic last year and took them out to the studio and made them useful.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúYou mean by using them to start fires?‚ÄĚ I said, amazed he could do that after all that hard work and sacrifice.
‚ÄúA great writer once said, ‚ÄėFire is a fine editor,‚Äô he smiled, adding, ‚ÄúI concur.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúI don‚Äôt believe you,‚ÄĚ I said. ‚ÄúEven after all that you‚Äôve told me, I still refuse to believe that you‚Äôre finished.‚ÄĚ
Then I proceeded to tell him about the idea that had come to me in the wee hours of that morning as I was finishing the last few pages of his book. How I had been moved by the shear serendipity of its discovery, how I had felt ‚Äúcalled‚ÄĚ to do something with it, as though some great and undefined force had entrusted me with this mission of bringing his long-buried work to life. And then, of course, I had to tell him that I had absolutely no experience or knowledge of book publishing, very little money, and that I was presently unemployed. Pharoah Cain roared with laughter and almost choked on his coffee.
‚ÄúHoss,‚ÄĚ he nodded, ‚ÄúYou seem like a real solid bet.‚ÄĚ
And so my neighbor and I returned that afternoon with the trailer to buy Pharoah‚Äôs nine remaining goats. After we had loaded them up and I‚Äôd paid his inflated price we shook hands on our publishing agreement, which was simply that I get half of all book sales until I get half my goat investment recouped, and then everything else goes to Pharoah. In truth I knew it wasn‚Äôt the best deal I‚Äôd ever struck but this time, for once, it wasn‚Äôt about the money.
‚ÄúNow you can take that money and buy more goats,‚ÄĚ I said, as we were leaving.
‚ÄúNope,‚ÄĚ Pharoah shook his head. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm out of the goat business."
‚ÄúWhy?‚ÄĚ I asked.
‚ÄúYou‚Äôll see,‚ÄĚ he grinned. ‚ÄúSummer is coming. Goats tend to stink up a place in the summertime.‚ÄĚ
And that, my friends, is how I became a Publisher!