Written and sung by: Elton John
SONG: Follow the Yellow Brick Road
After spending four exotic years living in Central America, I was suddenly thrust into the deep dark bowels of the US criminal justice system. When my Dad and my brother Wayne’s visit to Corn Island, Nicaragua finished I kept the lines of communication open by writing frequently. My Mom had sent me a pretty nice camera with which I took pictures and sent them home to be developed. Mom kept a set and sent a copy back to me. My set always seemed to either get lost in the mail or left behind when fleeing some war torn country or another.
My parents had constantly sent me a invitation to come home–they would even pop for the air tickets. After living for a while in Guatemala with Rainy, my now ex-wife, I decided to take them up on their offer, but I thought that I would do it “my way”. At this point my hair was very long. Instead of hanging down attractively to my shoulders it was very bushy and stuck straight out of the sides of my head, sort of like Bozo the Clown, only it was gray instead of orange. Also I would like to think that I was just a little more attractive than he was — at least when he was in make-up. Anyway, I decided to dress the part. I would land in Chicago dressed in my best Guatemalan outfit, and maybe I would exaggerate my funky look just a little bit. I was thin as hell and brown as a berry, so I chose vest that I had specially made from an antique woman’s repeli. It was hand done, and very colorful, as was almost every piece of clothing that the Indians made or wore. Since my gut had not yet begun to form I left off the shirt. I then decided to accentuate the outfit with 3 or 4 strands of beads in different lengths and colors. For pants, I choose knee length Guatemalan trousers held up with a colorfully woven wide sash. To top off the ensemble, or rather to bottom off it I selected a pair of rubber sandals carelessly carved by hand from an old car tire. The straps were made from strands of inner tubes. I remember hesitating before making the purchase. I really already had a pair of nice sandals, and these were, in all reality, not that comfortable, and besides it was the middle of winter in Chicago, but I reasoned that the 25 cents they cost would be well worth the statement I was going for at the time.
Anyway, it was thusly dressed that I arrived at the Miami Airport. I was pretty freaked out to begin with. The change in culture was quite amazing. As I went through customs I looked all around trying to take in the whole scene. When it was finally my turn, I expected a delay as they looked at my passport and saw that I had been out of the country for so long, and further that I had spent most of my time in countries that were on the State Departments least liked list. The customs agent gave my costume the once over, but seemed to not pay it too much mind. I guesses that he must have seen his share of US weirdos in his time. But then he seemed to become fixated on something that kept flashing on the computer screen. He picked up the phone and called for assistance. Inwardly I groaned, but I tried to react calmly on the outside. Shortly two agents came over and asked me to step aside and wait. They then proceeded to search my bag really well. It didn’t take too long because it was just a single small red day pack and it didn’t have much in it. Tropical clothes, which was all I had, don’t take up too much room. Then they searched me. No one told me what was happening until another agent came in and said that there was a 4 year old warrant out for my arrest for auto theft. He said it was probably nothing.
“Usually these things are taken off the computer every year, but yours seems to still be on.” he kept a straight calm almost nice expression on his face as he continued, “It’s probably an error, but we need to check it out.”
For the next few hours they tried unsuccessfully to find out some more information on it. The same nice man later told me that they could not find out anything, so they were going to have to turn me over to the Dade County Police. The handcuffs, he assured me, were just a requirement.
Everyone was very nice to me, but none the less I began to feel very foolish in my outfit. I asked if maybe they would let me change. They wouldn’t. I think he said it was some stupid rule. The Dade County Police were also very nice. We had a pleasant conversation while they transported me from the airport to the jail. I had to be locked in the back, they said, because of regulations you know.
Once there I pleaded again with them to let me change into some more suitable jail clothes, but to no avail. I was taken into a room by two nice detectives who then carefully explained the situation to me.
“You see, we don’t want you. It’s Illinois where the warrant was issued. But we have to hold you for them. Right now you have two choices according to law. Either you can decide that you will go back voluntarily. In which case we can only hold you for 20 days. Or,” he added, “you can say you wont go voluntarily in which case by law we can only hold you for a maximum of 60 days.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. I was numb. I was in shock. “20 days! 60 days!,” I shouted. “Who is this? What’s is this all about?”
The two agents kept their composure and further explained that they didn’t know any more than that, but that they would have to hold me until Illinois responded.”
“Meanwhile,” he added with a pleasant smile, “We will have to process you.”
Which is just what they did. They escorted me to a holding cell filled with many other gentlemen. At first no one seemed to pay the least little notice of me. I laid down on one of the empty benches and tried to watch television. You see it was my first look at it for quite some time. It even managed to take my mind off of my problems until some big burly guy walked over and stood between me and the screen. He didn’t say anything to me but just kept on talking to his friends.-
“Boy, I can’t wait till lights out,” he said using an accentuated pleasant, almost sweet tone. “That’s when all kind of things can happen to new meat. Hey, Joe it’s almost lights out time already isn’t it?”
I was no fool. I instantly knew he was talking about me. The conversation went back and forth across the room. I stared straight ahead at he screen, even though it was still blocked by Convict No. 1. After a while he took notice of this fact and leaned down and said in that same pretend kind of gentle voice, “Oh, excuse me am I blocking the TV?”
I told him no that I wasn’t watching it. I closed my eyes and tried to make the bad man go away. I tried to envision the beautiful place that I had just left only hours ago. The emerald green lake surrounded by lush volcanoes covered in green coffee plantations. The friendly, gaily dressed Indians smiling and waving at me every time I passed.
“Why me?” I pleaded to the universe? As the taunting reached a crescendo I was taken out and officially booked. Apparently they could still not get Illinois to answer. The Booker took a long look at me and asked if I was queer. “I don’t care, “he added matter of factly, “I just need to know what floor to put you on.”
At this point I pleaded with him for what seemed to be my life. “Okay, okay,” he tiredly responded, “we are pretty crowded, but I’ll try to find a safe place for you. Ahah, I think floor six will work just fine.”
I thanked him and was escorted to floor six. I later found out it was where all of the crazies went. They seemed to be decent enough follows, except for the guy that insisted on taking a shower with all of his clothes on while humming some long forgotten show tune. At first I tried once again to concentrate on TV, but I kept getting distracted by my growing depression. I got in bed, pulled the covers over my head and tried to use one of the tricks that I had developed while living in Central America. When things got to be too overwhelming I would make my mind become a movie camera. It would record everything as it happened. Life would only be a movie that I could play back at some future sane time. And that’s just what I did.
When they unexpectedly let me out the next morning, as I was walking down the steps out of the courthouse, I kept repeating to myself, “It’s only a movie! Its only a movie! And when I am more able to cope with all this I will play it back and see what really happened.
At this point you are probably saying to yourself, “Hey, I thought this was supposed to be a story about one of the “Songs of True Happiness?” I dont see any “happiness” here. In fact, your just kind of bumming me out. Well, I say to you, patience. This is a story of contrasts. Besides it’s my memory of my story and I will tell it in any order that I want.
When I went in I handed them $100 in US cash, but when they let me out they handed me a nice shiny $5 bill–and a check for $95 made out to me from the Dade County Correctional Institute. I had started to protest, but instead I just headed out the door. For over 2 hours I wandered the streets looking for a bank that would cash my check. I must have gone to a dozen. They all politely said the same thing, that they could only cash checks for their customers. Finally, almost by accident, I found the bank that the check was drawn on. Even they weren’t going to cash it until I put up a stink.
I jumped on the first bus that came along. Before I had left the jail I had changed into some more suitable street clothes, but remember that I had been out of the country for four years, my wardrobe still left something to be desired. My long hair, my dirty red backpack and my strange clothes lent to some pretty good stares. Unfortunately the bus, instead of heading to the beach or the country like I hoped it would, looked like it was going to downtown Miami. I got off and just stood there on some the busy, noisy street. It seemed like I was riveted to the concrete pavement. Everything just seemed to catch up with me. I froze! I couldn’t figure out which way to turn. I yearned to be on some natural soil, to sit under a tree and try to catch my breath. I had gone the wrong way. There were people and cars everywhere. Then I looked over and saw a pay phone on the corner. It was then that I remembered that my good friends Patty and Ernie, that I had met years before in Nicaragua, lived in the Florida Keys. They were tropical fish divers. That is they caught fish for sale in aquariums. On a whim I called their number and Patty answered the phone. I explained what had happened to me and pleaded for her to somehow help me out. She was great. She gave me exact directions of what number bus to get on to take me to the airport. And then what plane to take to their home in Marathon.
They both picked me up at the small airport. They were good enough to let me stay with them for the best part of week. Most of the time was spent sitting on the white sandy beach, staring out to sea and dreaming of all that I had lost and left behind when I decided to make this foolish excursion. I almost never thought about my recent jail experience. The movie was still on hold. At least I thought that Rainy was back in Guatemala waiting for my return with another life. I just had to hang on and I would get back there soon enough.
After I had gained some mental strength, I once again boarded a plane to Chicago. Only at the last minute I changed my mind. You see it was my paranoid contention that Illinois was in reality just too cheap to come get such a supposed petty criminal such as me. Instead they were going to wait until I got off the plane. They would then arrest me, thusly saving the taxpayers a whole bunch of money, but more importantly, for me, putting me through the whole ugly scenario once again. Maybe this time it would be for an even longer time? I just couldn’t have that. So I flew to an alternate state, Michigan, and my brother, always the good sport, drove the 300 miles each way in the snow to come get his little brother who was in deep shit.
My family was great to me. First I stayed at Mom and Dad’s–later I moved over to Wayne’s house. I was still sleep walking through the days. All my experiences seemed to be coming at me out of a fog that I just couldn’t seem to shake out of. My one saving grace was that I knew that Rainy and some kind of home were waiting for me. Once I got back all would be fixed.
Then I got the letter from Rainy. She and her kids had freaked out and left Guatemala for Columbia. She had sold off what she could and just left what she couldnt carry. Things were not going at all well for her. She had spent most of the cash on plane tickets and such. She further said that she was going to try to come back to the US as soon as she could raise the funds. She planned to move in with her sister until all was well.
It was all gone! There was no place to return to. No friend. No house. No business. And most importantly, no money. I still didnt feel strong enough to play back this last horrible movie and now I felt a new one beginning to start. Soon out of the fog seemed to emerge a big realization. I now had no more the $10 from the $100 that had I left Guatemala with. If I was to ever get out of here I needed to make some money. Even without Rainy there, I still had very vivid visions almost hourly of what had been my life back down south. I had a hard time relating to the “Suburban life style.” I needed to get home. I needed a plan.
My job opportunities at that point were limited. It was the middle of winter, I had no car, and no job prospects. Who would hire an ol’ hippie architect who had been out of the job market for over 6 years? At this point Wayne offered to try to get me a job with him down at the machine shop. I would be able to drive with him until I got my own car. I sounded like just what I needed, only I thought to myself, what do I know about machines? I ne-edn’t have worried though, because Blackhawk Molding turned out to be about the most disorganized shop I had ever seen. It was run so inefficiently that everyone said it must just be a write off for the wealthy owner. He really didn’t seem care how many plastic milk carton handles we turned out.
Which was all that about 90% of the shops production did. I had many different jobs. Because I looked intelligent –I did have glasses after all–I was assigned all kinds of tough jobs. Even so far as telling me that I was going to be in charge of and I was to start a company “tool crib.” Hell, it took me two days just to find out what it was!
The job turned out to be kind of fun. It was nice hanging around with Wayne, and although the pay was not much, I had, by the end of a few weeks begun to accumulate a few – bucks. I started to hatch my plan. I would buy a truck, fill it with all kinds of junk and take it all back to Mexico, sell it and live happily ever after on the proceedsor at least until I could catch my breath. As luck would have it, as soon as I told Wayne about it he told me about this guy name Jim the Welder. Apparently he had a pickup for sale. “It runs great,” Wayne added. “But, ” I protested, “I don’t have very much money saved.” Wayne said that it didn’t hurt to look at it. “Besides,” he countered, “I know the guy real well and maybe he will accept payments?”
The next day after work we drove the short distance to Tom’s shop. “Sure, Tom said, “I’ve got a great truck for sale. It was running super. That is until the snow plow came along.”
“It hit it?” I asked.
“Hell, no. They had the back alley posted with a sign telling everyone to move their vehicles. I guess so that the snow plow could come through. I was working and hadn’t bothered. Hell, comon’ I’ll show you. It’s right out back.”
We three walked out back. “Where is it? I don’t see nothing but piles of snow.”
“That’s it over there. That really big pile. It’s in there. I guess the plow guy got pissed or somethin’ at me ’cause he must have worked real hard to put that much snow on my truck. Just when I think I can get it out, it’ll snow again and this guy plows this here alley again and he gives it another good dump.”
When we reached the largest pile he said that this was it a 1971 Ford F100 pickup. I lamely asked, mostly because I couldn’t think of anything else to say, what color it was. “Here,” he said, “I’ll show you,” He started to dig straight through the packed snow. When he hit something solid he said, “Here! Look through here”
I peered through the 8 inch diameter hole he had made, and saw a lime green fender and a part of what I guessed was a side mirror. “It’s got real nice side mirrors,” he added as if reading my thoughts, “On both sides.”
“Do you think it will run? I mean come on guys. Do you really think it will run after I dig it out?”
“Oh you can’t dig it out. It’d take you a month of Sundays the way that snows backed in there. Besides we’ve had a couple of thaws and then freezes. It’s a solid block of ice in there.”
“Well then, if I do buy the truck, how do I get it out?”
“Why, you’ll have to wait until it thaws out. That should be, the way the winters about ending, in about another month or so.”
Again I asked the $64 question, “Do you think it will run. And if it does, then why are you willing to sell it so cheap for $400?”
“Oh, that’s easy. “Cause that truck will be so rusted and ugly ’bout time we get it out of there. There wont be any one crazy enough to buy it.”
I thought to myself, “Except me,” but instead I said, “I think we got a deal.” And we shock on it. As Wayne had suggested Tom the Welder was willing to accept payments, seeing as I was a relative of a friend and all.
In the month that followed I continued to save as much money as I could. I also started to collect a pretty good stash a goods that I hoped to take with me for sale in Mexico and Guatemala. I even, at Wayne’s urging, started to take home a nice pile of used drill bits, grinding wheels and such. There was a special pile in the back of the machine shop where Wayne worked with a whole bunch of steel cased professional looking tools on which were written the letters NFG. I asked what it meant and he said they we broken tools marked No Fuckin’ Good. Needless to say I began to take home as many of those as I could. Every week or so we would go back over to Toms to see how the truck was defrosting. By about the third week it was starting to get real exciting. We could almost see one half of it.
Things were starting to click now I thought. I had almost $400 saved and the truck was almost paid for. I made my departure plans for the following week. On the weekend I went to pick up the truck. I thought that we would have to tow it over to Waynes, but once we put in a newly charged battery and some fresh gas it started right up. We used Wayne’s 4-wheel drive Ramcharger to tow it the rest of the way out of the snow bank. I actually drove the damn thing home. Tom was right, it was covered in rust and it was ugly a hell. Only a Mother could love you, I though as I looked it over, then I happily added, and I am your Mother.
In the week that followed I called around to junk yards trying to find a camper shell. I was lucky enough to find one. It was under a pile of old car parts. It had split at the four corners, I guessed from the weight, and was flattened out like it was an life-size cardboard cutout of a camper top. I asked the guy what he wanted for it and he said $25. Wow, I thought now we’re on a role. Once my Dad and I pulled it free we found that remarkably 3 out of the 4 windows were not even broke.
Back at my Dad’s place we put it back together as best we could and then mounted it on the back of the truck. We both said that we felt that it was a good match for the truck. Although I got the feeling that Dad was being more facetious than happy for me. The rust spots were really starting to show now. There were even some pretty good sized holes starting to form. We decided to try to cover them up with nice neat horizontal rows of gray duct tape. We stood back to admire our handy work. It was staring to come along.
Now, finally your patience has been rewarded, this is the part were the Song of True Happiness starts. Another one of Wayne’s friends donated an old used car stereo to me. My brother is a kind of genius with stereos and in no time at all he had it hooked up. We built small wooden boxes to house the speakers and bolted them to the inside of the door panels. As an afterthought, we added a piece of metal mesh so that I wouldn’t put my foot through the speakers.
In the prior weeks I had raided every neighbor of their unused, unwanted items. I now had a pretty nice pile of dishes and games and radios and toys and such. In addition, I had the ever growing pile of junk tools that I had been bringing home from Blackhawk Molding. I built a bed in the back of the camper, One day when I was at work, my Dad built a floor to roof cabinet, complete with shelves and a door.
I spent the last few evenings at Wayne’s making tape recording of any record that he thought I might like. We had to do it so fast that I didn’t even have time to listen to most of them. Everything was now complete. My plan was now a reality and I was ready to go. No one really believed it would be possible for me to leave after being back in the states for as little as a month and a half, maybe I didn’t even believe it, but with the help of family and friends this was really going to happen.
Finally the day came and I said my good-byes. I didn't really begin to be excited until I left the Expressways of Chicago behind and hit the open highway. I pulled over to survey the situation and I saw the huge pile of cassette tapes that was on the floor. I randomly picked one. Wouldn't you know, you guessed it, it was Elton John's "Good-bye Yellow Brick Road." When are you gonna come down? When are you going to land? I should have stayed on the farm. I should have listened to my old man. The first night I stopped at a road side park in Missouri. As I crawled in the back of the camper shell it started to snow. I got under some old wool army blankets. I was cold as hell, but hell I knew that I had a big grin on my face. But the smile was short lived as the realization of the situation hit me. Here I was in the middle of Bumfuck, USA with so much junk that not even the garbage man would take it, I have no friends, very little money and I'm in a truck that just a few weeks ago was a frozen popsicle! Oh my god, what have I done? Stay focused I thought. If you can make it to Mexico before the truck breaks down you will be all right. Then you can trade stuff for repairs. But what if it breaks down before I get there? Then what am I going to do for money. $360 does not go to far when you have over 1500 miles to go. That night Elton John lulled me to sleep as I chanted, "Just get me to Mexico! Just get me to Mexico!" You know you can't hold me forever, I didn't sign up with you. I'm not a present for your friends to open, This boys too young to be singing the blues. I was 32 years old! In the morning there was a good inch of snow on the ground. Fortunately the truck started right up, and it had a good heater to boot, I drove south like the dickens all the next day. Every little sound that the truck made sent me into another fit of paranoia. I finally just turned up the stereo real loud just so I wouldn't have to listen. When I hit Corpus Christi, Texas I was feeling good enough that I thought about picking up a dog to take with me. I really missed Nevada, and I reasoned that I could sell him to a rich family if he became too much trouble. At the very last minute, in Brownsville, Texas, just as I was to cross over the border into Mexico, I found a German Shepherd wondering on the side of the road. No collar, no tags. Texas, as I was to call her, and I went and purchased 50 lb. of a very cheap generic brand of dog food. Together we made it to the border. Remember that this is where my trouble had started. Did you think that I had forgotten? It was with great apprehension that I approached the border patrol. In the end every thing went OK. Oh, I did have a little trouble crossing into Mexico with all this "stuff." I had tried to hide as much as I could, but there was only so much that I could do. Any fool could see that mix masters, bread pans and toys were not what the average young male tourist carried, and my boarder officer was no exception. "Para que llavas tantos cosas?" he suspiciously asked me. "Porque soy puro gringo y me necasitas muchas cosas," I said giving him a wink and a hand shake filled with 5 one dollar bills. He put them in his pocket without looking at them, slapped a vehicle entry sticker on the windshield an said, "Bienvenidos a Mexico." As I crossed the international bridge I saw the sign welcoming me to Mexico. I had made. I had really done It. I was here. Elton sang: So goodbye yellow brick road, Where the dogs of society howl. You can't plant me in your penthouse, I'm going back to my plough. The first thing I did was pull over to a cantina and buy a cervesa. I sang along with Elton as I sipped my cool beer. Even Texas, who sat on the front seat with his paw perched on the open window sill sang a little, howling for the high parts. Back to the howling old owl in the woods, Hunting the horny back toad. Oh I've finally decided my future lies, Beyond the yellow brick road. It was time for another cervesa, and then another round of singing, and then another cervesa, and then--well, you get the idea, until I had a whole row of cans and bottles lined up along the dashboard. I had begun to sing louder, and drive slower. What do you think you'll do then? I'll bet that'll shoot down your plane. I'll take you a couple of vodka and tonic, To set you on your feet again. Finally, I was driving so very slowly, weaving from lane to lane, that I turned off the road, I think I bumped a small tree, because I was now stopped. As I laid down on the front seat, thinking about how warm it was in the Mexican sunshine, and how beautiful it was to be alive and well and free again. I thought to myself that now might be a good time to play back that jail movie. In the background I heard voices singing. So goodbye yellow brick road, Where the dogs of society howl. You can't plant me in your penthouse, I'm going back to my plough Before I passed out, I thought that I didn't really need to repeat that movie, now or ever. The smile on my face was big, and it lasted through the night and on into the many happy months that followed.
Please send your comments to me at firstname.lastname@example.org—