It all seems so long ago and far away now, and yet it was just a year or two ago. It was a cold and foggy Monday evening in Hollywood—one of those special Southern California nights that looks like London, feels like Alaska, and makes the world seem like one big movie set.
We were all gathered in the Troubador, a folk night club located on the border-line of Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Monday night was Hoot Night at the Troubador—the night when all the hundreds of aspiring, starving, talented musicians in Hollywood gathered together for a good old-fashioned community sing. For some months now, the young man who conducted these Monday night hoots was a quiet, talented performer by the name of Mike Nesmith.
He was an odd sort, actually. Tall, quiet, and very reserved. He hardly spoke to anyone—just moved noiselessly through the crowd, thinking his own thoughts and watching all the people. Quiet though he was off-stage, the moment he moved into that center spotlight—he came alive! It was immediately apparent to everyone present that he was something very special. His voice was better than that of many folk singers, and he always seemed to mean the lyrics he was singing. His fingers moved deftly over the strings of his guitar—quickly, expertly, gently; it was obvious he knew them well.
This particular evening, several of us had gathered upstairs in a small dressing room to wait until the first act came off-stage. At first, there were just three of us in the room—a young singer-guitarist, another writer, and myself. We sat on chairs and pieces of ancient furniture, talking and laughing. It was an animated, friendly conversation, although we had only just met one another.
Suddenly, Mike walked into the room. He walked in quietly, and sat down in the corner with his guitar. He made no attempt to stop our conversation or even to join it; he just sat quietly thinking and watching.
Finally, unable to contain my curiosity about this strange young man any longer, I asked him his name. I got the distinct feeling that I had just asked a top-level, priority secret! I was even more determined now to bring him into our conversation, and besides—everyone else had stopped talking and begun watching Mike. For a while, I was almost the only one speaking—Mike answered only in monosyllabic sentences of three words each.
Slowly, he began to trust me a little more and to be a little more open and friendly. I discovered very quickly that it wasn’t shyness which had caused his initial silence—it was just that Mike was a very quiet, very pensive sort of person. I began asking him questions about his childhood, and suddenly, I hit a responsive note. His eyes lit up and for the first time all evening, he became quite animated and almost excited as he began to relate a story from his younger years to us.
It had all taken place years before, some place in the South of Texas. As he spoke, some of the old Southern, Texas drawl returned and the three of us sat captivated, listening to the story.
There were some railroad tracks, Mike explained, which ran parallel to a river bed. It was a very strange thing about these particular railroad tracks, he recalled they were exceptionally straight. Most tracks began to curve along with the land after a very short time, but these tracks ran perfectly straight for miles and miles.
One evening, when Mike was in his mid-teens, he and three friends went out for an evening on the town. One of his friends got so tired as the four boys began walking home, that an idea occurred to Mike. Why not have a little bit of fun with their buddy?
The foursome headed out toward the railroad tracks, and found an old, abandoned car sitting just a short distance away from a crossroad on the tracks. Mike checked the car to be certain that it no longer belonged to anyone and that it was no longer in good working order. When he had satisfied himself of its uselessness, he and two of his friends pushed the car up to the cross-road, and then onto the tracks. Mike explained that the car was somehow wide enough that it fit just perfectly.
Then, the three boys helped their “now-very asleep buddy” into the car, sat him up straight and wished him a Bon Voyage. And with a giant shove, they sent the car whizzing down the railroad tracks, bound for Anyplace, USA. Mike laughed at the memories of that night’s antics passed through his mind again, and then he explained that they never could figure out just why the car kept going. There was no motor to turn on and the tracks weren’t on a downgrade. But they were perfectly straight, and that old car just kept whizzing along through the night.
Mike assured us that his friend never knew where he was or what happened the next morning when he finally awoke, miles away. But, he came home safe and sound feeling very confused about the night before!
Back to work
Downstairs, we could hear the audience applauding now, and we knew that it was time for Mike to go on and begin his own act, before he got the Hoot underway.
He never said much, just picked up his guitar and quietly walked downstairs. As suddenly as he had come into our lives, he was gone and just as much a stranger.
I turned to the young singer who had worked with Mike on several of these Hoots and asked him if he knew anything about this strange young man. He laughed and explained that he really didn’t. “No one seems to know too much about Mike,” he said. “He just sorta comes and goes. He’s always here on Monday night to lead the Hoots—that’s his job—but he never says too much about himself. I can’t figure him out, really—but I like him. And he’s a great musician.”
Downstairs, Mike was captivating the audience with his music the same way he had enchanted us with his words. The audience applauded warmly and enthusiastically and Mike responded with a quiet, gentle smile.
When he finished his act, he began the Hoot—it was loud, and fun, and lasted far into the night. And, then it was over. Candles were blown out, furniture moved back into place, and someone began to sweep the floor. Mike just picked up his guitar, buttoned his weather-worn jacket and disappeared through the door into the foggy night outside.