(First published 2/15/98)
1. The Ugly Suit
Nudie made the greatest suits in the world. He made Elvis' famous gold lame outfit, which was reputed to have cost $10,000. Nudie would add that $9,500 of that was profit. He made all of Porter Wagoner's rhinestone suits. He is credited with having invented the rhinestone shirt. He made the light-up suit for the movie "Electric Horseman." Tammy Wynette found out she was pregnant with George Jones' child when she noticed her Nudie Suit didn't fit. Nudie was, not arguably, the greatest cowboy tailor. He had come from the Old Country and made a name for himself. At his peak, he could be seen driving his huge, handcrafted, horse-trophy-bearing limos through Hollywood, passing out dollar bills to kids--his picture was pasted over George Washington's. A special man, and a real artist. He died in 1984 at age 81, and his shop closed ten years after.
In the early Nineties, my brother Dave called me from Taos, New Mexico. Dave is the drummer for Asleep at the Wheel, a job which has earned him a small fistful of Grammies. Dave was calling because he had found two Nudie suits in a second-hand clothing store. He whispered into the phone that the owners didn't know what they had. He wanted the "good-looking one," for himself, and I could have the "ugly one" for $250. I told him I didn't care what was on it, what condition it was in, what the pattern was on it, or what size it was, I wanted it. One day, I had a feeling it had arrived. I waited by the mailman's truck until he showed up and handed me the big, brown-wrapped package. When I tried on "the ugly suit," which was a perfect fit, I felt wonderful. At last I was where I belonged. I felt, I imagine, the way a transvestite feels when he first tries on the bra.
It was great for my career. All of the pictures of me that are well-known were taken in the suit. I wore it to every trade show. After a while, I traded a computer to Dave for the "good-looking" suit, but I had to promise that I'd leave it to him in my will. Some folks would say I got pretty famous with the help of those two outfits.
"The Ugly Suit" is brick red, with about 50 hand-stitched, painted leather silver dollars on it. Each silver dollar is about the size of a pizza or cupcake, and is surrounded with a tightly spaced circle of the finest rhinestones. The dollars on the right side are all stitched tails, and those on the left are heads. It's the best-looking thing I'd ever owned.
"The Good-Looking Suit" is black, with hand-embroidered gold buckets of money dumping out all over it. It's gaudy and elegant. It appears on the cover of Hank Thompson's "Live in Las Vegas" album, which I've heard said was the first live country album. Who knows.
Dave wore the black suit to the Grammies, and was the best-dressed guy there. Bonnie Raitt got on the elevator with him and gave him a look. "Heavy Suit." "Thanks." At a later Grammy show, Dave ran into Hank Thompson. They talked about the suit as though it were a woman they'd both slept with. "Sure was heavy." "Yup." As Dave was leaving, Hank's wife showed up. Dave thought he heard Hank's wife call after him--something about the suit.
In 100 Years of Western Wear, the book about outfits like this, there's a chapter or two about Nudie. A couple of Hank Thompson's suits are shown. Hank is a great Country singer who was one of Nudie's biggest customers (http://www.infocs.com/hank/). Nudies were Hank's trademark. The book says, "if anybody knows the whereabouts of Hank's Gold Nugget Suit, please contact the publisher. I called, got in touch with Hank's manager, and was assured that there was no problem with my owning the suits.
2. Cousin Ernie
After my first really, really good year in business, I went with my friend Kevin to the Dallas guitar show to buy myself a treat. Maybe a "White Falcon" guitar. We looked at every guitar in the place, and came back to one very strange one. "Cousin Ernie" (which was its name, for that is what was painted on the pickguard) was a big '58 Gretsch, that much is certain, and as such is worth more than I paid for it. However, there was so much uncertain about it, it was universally known and despised by Gretsch collectors, so I got it for a steal. For one thing, it looks just like a "White Falcon," but it's finish was an outrageous gold sparkle. For another thing, there was a little red button next to the other switches. The button did nothing and shouldn't have been there, and the purists didn't like that. What's more, "Cousin Ernie" is the stage name that Tennessee Ernie Ford used on the I Love Lucy show. Nobody has ever shown me pictures of Ford with this guitar, but, in the unofficial opinion of Teisco Del Rey, the great expert on weird guitars, it's too weird not to be real. Who would paint "Cousin Ernie" on a perfectly good instrument if it weren't for Cousin Ernie? I mean, who would bother to forge something that stupid?
My conversation with the salesman was colorful. I asked him "what's Cousin Ernie's story?" and he told me to sit down. That's a good sign. He said that Mac Yasuda, the famous collector of vintage guitars, had once bought Cousin Ernie for $28,000*, but Gretsch wouldn't authenticate that they had made the guitar in-house, so Mac hadn't taken delivery. As for the red button, he swore that it was stock. There was, he said, a picture in some book somewhere of some famous guy with a stock Gretsch Anniversary with that same button.
There is a group of guitar enthusiasts who complain that the Japanese are ruining the world buying up all the "real guitars." It's generally thought that the guitars sit around, collected but unplayed. I have come to believe these enthusiasts are complaining about Mac Yasuda. Mac now also collects Nudie Suits. Some folks worry about that.
During what I imagine to be years of disuse, waiting for the collectors to stop arguing, the jack on this poor guitar had fallen into the body, indicating that the thing hadn't even been played for a long, long time. I asked the salesman to fish the jack out. I played Cousin Ernie. That was that. I bought Cousin Ernie, for much, much less than the $28K Mac Yasuda had supposedly paid. I pretty much haven't played another guitar since.
One day, a few months later, I decided to explore the vintage guitar store nearest my home. I'd never been in. The owner recognized me. He had a color newspaper picture of me and Cousin Ernie up on the wall. I think I was wearing the Good Looking suit in that picture. He was glad I'd come in--he had wanted to get a good look at Cousin Ernie, maybe a photo, and didn't know how to reach me. We talked slowly and appreciatively about guitars for a while--I told him all about Tennessee Ernie Ford and Mac Yasuda. I went home and got the guitar, came back, opened the case--now remember this was, like, a Thursday afternoon--and into the empty store walked a Japanese guy, followed by two guys carrying briefcases.
He pointed at the guitar in the case, and said, very deadpan, "Cousin Ernie. I know this guitar. It's not real."
"You know this guitar?"
"Yes. I once paid $28,000 for this guitar. It's not real. I didn't take delivery." He turned to go.
"Wait! Can I have a card? I might want to get more information on the history of this guitar." He scrawled his name and number on a piece of paper. Mac Yasuda.
"Are you going to the Dallas show this year?"
"No, I've got a guitar I like playing."
"Hmmmm." He left.
"Who was that guy?" asked the store owner. I showed him the piece of paper. "MAC YASUDA?!?!" he screamed, and started wildly flipping off the exit door. "I wouldn't have sold you anything anyway, ya jerk! I don't NEED your money!!!!"
3. The Nile Valley
On the way out to the NAMM show in LA in '98, where the rest of this story will take place, I had the good luck to be on a nearly empty plane from Austin to Phoenix. After hauling the Ugly Suit to the airport in a big, heavy Keel case, I was delighted that I might get to sleep, since for the two previous nights I'd been partying hard for business and friendship at the Austin Computer Game Developers' Conference. But the sleeping was not to be, for assigned to the seat across the aisle from me was Awad.
I had seen Awad twice before, and had each time had a wonderful, though short, conversation with him. He wears white robes, and has three deep scars down each cheek. He sells incense and herbal tea under the brand name Nile Valley (http://nilevalleyherbs.com/). He uses the profits to buy solar power and clean water for the villagers in his homeland on the banks of the Nile. Awad is a Nubian.
We had wonderful talk, which led to my telling him about a dream I'd had recently. I was in the poor part of town, near some parking lots. There were homeless folks all around. There was money on the ground. I'd pick up a dollar, then a five, then a hundred. It felt pretty good. Then I saw that one guy, one really old guy, was dying. I gave him all my money. It felt really good.
Awad said "it's always better to give than to receive." I guess he'd know.
On the next plane, from Phoenix to LA, I was ready to sleep. But I got to talking to the guy next to me, who was into Big Investments and moving money through time and all that cash stuff. He seemed pretty "up." He especially was excited about model trains. When I asked him what motivates him, this is what came out: "I had a rough divorce. My wife set fire to my house, destroying everything I owned. She was convicted of arson, so there was no insurance. She then killed my 14-year-old daughter, and herself. That changed my priorities. Now--I have good days, and great days. That's it."
4. NAMM. I was There.
I arrived at my hotel room, and found my roommate, Jim Cara, had already arrived. I told him about my having sat next to Awad, thinking he'd love the story. But his airplane story was better--sort of a "Dear Penthouse Forum, I never thought this would happen to me" story. Part of the fun was that Jim, married, acted the perfect gentleman throughout his adventure. So I got really mad at him for beating my story, and that became our running gag. "...and The Forum team is still just a little bit out front--but wait! What's this? Out of Nowhere, The Nubians Score!!!"
Every month, the back page of Music and Computers magazine (published by Miller-Freeman) features a photo of me in The Ugly Suit, with a few paragraphs of crackpot philosophy, which I narrate in about an hour every month to editor Dave Battino. Dave edits it brilliantly (modest guy--he says he just "takes out the 'um's'"), and the column has gained a bit of a following among computer-oriented musicians. I was at the NAMM show to sign autographs at Miller-Freeman's booth. The slogan for the event was "It ain't over 'till the Fat Man Signs." To be recognized, I wore The Ugly Suit. It's interesting to note that the signing event was taking place at the LA Convention Center, the same building in which I had once used the Heimlich maneuver to save the life of a movie producer, in front of 300 people, dressed in my "cowboy hero" clothes. How all those people got in my cowboy hero clothes, I'll never know.
At the booth, during signing hours, things went slowly. To pass the time, the Miller-Freeman staff and I took to swapping some stories. When my turn came, I opened with the phrase "Amazing things seem to happen to me." I began to tell of opening my guitar case in the little store in Austin. I told how Mac Yasuda had walked up, and how he had said "I once paid $28,000 for that guitar." I was doing my best gruff Japanese accent, which is somewhat thicker than Mac's. At exactly that moment, somebody stopped right in front of me and waved. I looked up. It was Mac Yasuda.
The two or three people who had stayed with me during my story were dumbfounded at this coincidence. I told Mac that I had just been telling a story about him. I even repeated the last line in my awkward "Mac" voice--I don't like to say things about people behind their backs that I wouldn't say to their faces. He touched me on the brick-red rhinestone-studded sleeve and said only this:
"Hank wants the suits back. I'm seeing him in two weeks."
5. Horse Trading
I mentioned that I had checked into it, and all I could figure out is that maybe Hank's wife wanted the suits back. For a Hank Museum or something.
Of course I was a bit stunned. I mean, the suits were my trademark, but they had always been Hank's, too. I'd seen a music video recently of Hank and Junior Brown, which featured a couple of Nudie Suits. I told this to Mac. He said "He gave them all away. He doesn't know where they are."
I said maybe we could work something out. A trade. "Mac. You're a famous horse-trader. You could work this out for us."
His reply? "Horses. Yes. White ones. I have five of them. Are you going to the Dallas guitar show this year?"
I went home that evening. I slept, but not a lot. Around four in the morning, I was thinking about Awad and that dream about giving the money to the old man. Suddenly, I felt great. Come to think of it, I've felt great ever since.
The next day, I took the suit to Mac and told him to give it to Hank.
Turns out Mac's a pretty nice guy. He's a country singer, performs at the Grand Ol' Opry, and loves Hank Williams. He wears Nudie suits when he plays out. He gave me a CD of him singing Hank Williams tunes. On the CD, he plays Hank's actual guitars. Sounds good. Looks really good.
When I went back to the hotel, I told Jim Cara what I had done. He said I was like Jesus or something. Then he figured maybe that I had an angle and I'd get some kind of reward. Grin. Wink. I told him that the only reason I had done it was to kick the Forum Team's butt.
I had a run of great luck. Our hotel room had been paid for, I guess by Miller Freeman. I tried to take a cab across town that evening, but the hotel insisted I take a limo. The next day, the hotel's ATM was broken. I checked out and there was a $9 refund, which they gave me in cash--exactly what I needed to make it to the airport and still have some money left for lunch. I took a cab to the airport. The cab driver, Amat or Ajak--sadly I only remember that he was Armenian and his name was only two letters from "Awad"--asked what I was carrying in the big Keel case. I told my story. He said I was like Elvis.
Amat, the cab driver, had been interested in playing guitar when he was in high school. His dad had said that if he got good grades, he could have a guitar. He couldn't get the grades. My parents and I had made the same deal, and I got my first good guitar that way. I said, "Amat, I'm you. You're me."
Amat and I stopped for lunch at In-n-Out Burgers on the way to the airport, and he paid for my lunch. I told him he was like Elvis.
As of this writing, my favorite music is Mac Yasuda's Tribute to Hank Williams.
*Mr. Yasuda called me sometime after the original publication of this story to correct the number, but unfortunately I do not recall the number he gave me. With apologies to Yasuda-San, I have the impression that the more accurate number he suggested was something more like $15K. I readily admit that I am not particularly good at remembering numbers, and so the detail-oriented reader will just have to bear with the inaccuracy and love me for who I am.