Wooly Bully always had a thing for rock music.
“Have you read Carly Simon’s book?” he asked me. We were sitting inside his shed in the northern wild. We felt like a couple of critters. He had just said dark, unforgivable things about my family, and I had just said dark, unforgiveable things about his. Then we cracked some beers and dropped it. His next words astounded me. “She made it with Paul Samwell-Smith, a Yardbird.”
Looking mystified as he spoke, Wooly struck himself in the forehead with a cloven hand. It was sort of like a hoof only well-manicured — he could play guitar with those hands, but only three chords. The sudden movement dislodged the buzzing flies that always covered his face. The buzzing beard took off, briefly circled his jaw, then landed once more.
“I mean, if you’re going to make it with a Yardbird back in the mid-sixties, why would you choose Samwell-Smith, the gawkiest, nerdiest musician on the scene?” he said. “There were certainly better-looking Yardbirds, if that was your band. Singer Keith Relf was described by female fans as beautiful, and Jeff Beck the guitarist was certainly handsome. So here we have Carly-soon-to-be-‘You’re So Vain’ Simon, who presumably will hook up with Mick Jagger in the near future, screwing a guy who looks like a stick bug in mod clothing. I mean, it’s like finding out that Barbra Streisand did it with Weird Al, or that Diana Ross boned Flavor Flav.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Samwell-Smith had something going for him. Maybe a heart full of soul.”
I met Wooly Bully working for the highway department. I painted lane lines and he marked engine brake hills. What those were, he explained to me, were the inclines semis drove up when their brakes failed, narrow lanes of soil and rocks, slanted up at 45 degrees to the road or steeper, and long enough to stop an out of control four-ton semi without seriously injuring the driver or destroying the truck.
Or that was the theory. The lanes were never tested, and Wooly said that any truck taking one at 50 mph or higher would need a complete overhaul afterward, and the driver would be lucky to survive. He tried one once in his own ramshackle pickup, putting a horn through the windshield and knocking himself out. He considered himself lucky.
I thought he was lucky too. Here was a guy who was part elk, part bison and part human, and he had a job working outdoors. But he was always broke. Every time he exhaled he asked for twenty dollars. “Look,” I said. “I’m an ugly guy. You’re an ugly guy. You must know a couple of ugly girls we could meet tonight.”
We took a girl Hattie he met in a cranberry bog and her friend Mattie to a town festival a few miles downhill from Wooly’s shed. Sam the Sham was playing his hit song, and Wooly wanted to see that, due to his influence on the music. We took Wooly’s pickup that he had overhauled after the brake test I mentioned. It was run-down but loud and powerful.
“Don’t you think I should have some rights in that song?” he asked us all. “Don’t you think Sam legally owes me a bundle?”
“Not sure,” I said. “You a citizen?”
Wooly told us a funny story. It was funny because he said it was. A year ago, Wooly had his own musical group, that he refused to name. I don’t mean the band had no name — I mean he wouldn’t tell us what it was.
Wooly said that in another town he and his unnamed band had opened for a band from England called the Tarytons. This was a one-hit-wonder band, and their hit, called “At Some Time, in Some Place, What Does It Matter?” didn’t even sell all that well. Wooly and his band decided as a joke to play that song in their own set, to see the reaction of the Tarytons.
Well, the Tarytons didn’t like that one bit. They stormed into the tent where the bands waited to go on and confronted Wooly and his boys, absolutely livid. Wooly laughed in their faces and couldn’t stop. He said he imagined that the Tarytons were the Beatles, and wondered how the Beatles would react if his group had played “I Want to Hold Your Hand” before the Fab Four took the stage.
“I decided,” he said, “that Lennon probably would be pissed, but that Ringo and maybe George would laugh their asses off. And I couldn’t help laughing myself.”
I laughed at that, though Hattie and Mattie seemed unamused.
“I wish I still had that band,” he went on. “We’d play my song before Sam came out. Wouldn’t that be great?”
“Why?” asked Hattie. “What would be the point?”
“The point is,” said Wooly, “Sam owes me about a million bucks in royalties or something.”
“How do you figure?” said Hattie. “You didn’t write the song, did you?”
“For inspiration,” he said. “I should be paid for inspiring people. I may have inspired Dylan. I went to a lot of his shows and I’m pretty sure he saw me. I may have inspired ‘Desolation Row.'”
“You never inspired anybody, Bullwinkle,” said Hattie.
After the festival, we four drove through town at night. We cruised down residential lanes until we found a house with a big picture window and a big TV on behind it. We parked there and watched TV while we made out with the girls.
Wooly kept trying to persuade Hattie to go knock on the door and tell them to turn up the sound since we couldn’t hear anything, but she refused. “Why don’t we just ask them if we can come inside and watch TV with them?” she said. “I’m sure they’d be overjoyed to have a talking moose and his friends inside their house.” We later broke up with Hattie and Mattie because they couldn’t discuss Frank Zappa intelligently.
In the winter, Wooly, clad only in an orange vest, took to the northern forests on hoof, surviving by raiding chicken coops and stealing cooling pies off windowsills. When close to starvation, he stood in line for samples at Costco and attended wedding cake tastings.
When he returned to the shed, where I was still living while I figured out what to do with myself now that I’d reached a dead end with lane painting, he was often accompanied by a wild animal he had courted and married. Once it was a reindeer with STDs, and once a sow with a sordid past. Having to share our shed with these females gave me a strong push to move on.
Wooly finally scored a job as a roadie with the Derek Trucks Band, a job I had declined and passed on to him due to a weak back. By then Sam the Sham was ancient history and their songs didn’t appear on Trucks’s set list.
I said goodbye to Wooly in his truck as he dropped me off at semi road school. I was going to be a driver now, and told Wooly that I hoped his engine brake hills were clearly marked. His last words to me were “Let’s not be L-seven.” I never did know what that meant.