Robert Travell was about to make a comeback. It seemed like all anyone had talked about for the past few months, the return of the 6os music icon whose songs helped changed the world and stop a war. You couldn’t turn on the TV, radio, pick up newspaper or surf the internet without seeing the excited commotion this had caused. It was rumored that Columbia Records were paying him a million dollar advance for his first album in thirty years.
What had happened to him? At the height of his career he just disappeared. Retired. Became a recluse. Periodically there were sightings of him – or someone resembling him – in diners, at bus depots, on a construction site, but nothing ever confirmed. Some say he’d gone mad like Howard Hughes and now had a beard to his knees – others say he did a J.D. Salinger and had simply had enough of the prying eye of the press and public and was now working as a history teacher in some rural area school. The truth is, no one knew.
The magazine I worked for had assigned me to interview the great man on this eve of his return. I was only twenty-one at the time and had missed Mr. Travell’s glory years, but had grown up in a home where my parents had played his records ad-infinitum. In many ways he felt like a member of my family. Like a beloved uncle I was yet to meet.
I was given his address and the appointed time for the interview. The address was in a little street in West Hollywood. It seemed an odd location for him as I knew the street well and the homes and apartments there were all very modest. I would’ve expected a mansion befitting this man’s contribution to the world, but I was young and yet to learn about the music business and the thieves that run it.
I was so nervous on the day that I almost had a car accident because I was so tense and my mind was on everything other than the road. I pulled up outside the address and had to recheck it as I couldn’t believe this little house in disrepair could possibly be where the great Robert Travell had ended up.
I knocked on the door. There was no answer. My disappointment went straight to my stomach and I felt sick. I must’ve written down the wrong address. Maybe I misheard the interview time. Oh shit. I’d been given the chance to interview Robert Travell and I’d screwed it up. Just as I was beating myself up on the porch, I heard a voice.
“I’m around the back! Come to the backyard”
Oh thank God! He’s home. Well, around the back. I then began the grand adventure to get to the back yard. I had to maneuver my way past several rusted out cars, knee-high grass, an old discarded washing machine, and through garments that looked like they’d been hanging on the clothes-line for several years. Finally, after some time, I succeeded in reaching the backyard but no one was there. Then, from inside I heard…”Where are you?”
I know realized he’d gone to the front door in search of me. My fantasized wonderful interview with the great man was rapidly descending into a farce.
“I’m here!” I yelled out but doubted if he could hear me.
I opened the back door and walked in. I could see him, his back to me, at the front door. I was silenced by awe and fear. I heard him grumble something to himself and then he closed the door and turned. Lost in his thoughts he was almost up to me before he saw me. He stopped with a jolt.
“Who are you? And what are you doing in my house?”
This was now a Laurel and Hardy sketch and I just wanted to turn and run from the embarrassment.
“Ahhh I’m Suzie Montrose…I’m here to interview you, Mr. Travell. I’m sorry, I went to the backyard and you weren’t there so I just came in. I’m so sorry. I’m usually very well mannered.”
He smiled and his whole face softened. “You are well-mannered, Suzie. I see that in your eyes. A cup of green tea, perhaps?”
“Yes…Oh thank you, Mr. Travell…thank you so much. That would be lovely.”
I hate green tea but at this moment I was so looking forward to it.
As Mr. Travell walked into the kitchen to prepare the tea, which he did with great care as though it was sacred ritual, I studied his living room for clues about him. I looked at his book shelf which usually revealed a lot about a person. But in this case it was empty except for one book – “The Art of Dentistry.”
“Mr. Travell. I see you’re interested in dentistry” I yelled out so he could hear me in the kitchen.
“No, not at all. A friend of mine gave that to me.”
“No, he’s a carpenter.”
This man was becoming more and more fascinating and enigmatic by the second. How could someone so great with words be the owner of only one book?
He suddenly appeared with a tray and our teas. He took great care to place my cup on the coffee table in front of me. I could see his hands shook a little. Perhaps he’d been an alcoholic? Or maybe by caring too much as illustrated in all his songs he’d burnt our his nervous system.
“Don’t you read many books, Mr. Travell?”
“No. I find they contain too many words.” He sat. “Never read a book that couldn’t be improved by cutting it in half.”
I wasn’t sure whether he was serious or just having me on. I was lost for words so he jumped back in to fill up the void.
“For instance, “A Tale of Two Cities” would’ve been much better, in my opinion, as a tale of one city. But what do I know?” Then he smiled.
I was speechless and had nothing to add to that, so I drank my green tea. All of it, in order to buy some time to think.
“Ah, we’re off to a great start! I see we have something in common.”
“Huh? What’s that?” I asked.
“A love of green tea.”
“Oh yes, I can’t get enough of it” I lied.
“Well I shall get you some more.”
And so he did, and poured it slowly and with considerable care.
Desperate to say something to fill out the silence, I uttered, “I see you live very simply, Mr. Travell.”
“Two divorces and a record company that robbed me blind. I have always admired Jesse James. At least he was honest about what he was.”
“You must be excited about your new album?” I ventured on.
“But the whole world is waiting for it.”
“Are they really?…Isn’t that sad?”
I had nowhere to go with this interview and was losing any grasp I had on an angle for the story.
He looked at me for a long time. I was used to that, being a woman and interviewing sleazy rock stars. But Travell’s look was different. He was looking at me – into me – as though seeing my soul. There was nothing sexual about it. His caring eyes exuded the warmth of a father. For the first time in my life I felt safe. And loved.
“Here’s the deal. Forget this interview, I know how they go, you ask the standard questions and I give you the standard answers. Why don’t you hang out with me for the rest of this week and get to know me. The real me. Y’see everyone I’ve ever met has written a book about me, as well as all the people I never met. They all seem to be an expert on my life. And y’know something? It’s all bullshit and lies. And seeing this will be my last foray into the public, why don’t you take the time to get me right?”
“Really?…How do you know you can trust me?” I asked.
He smiled again, “I can trust you. You have a shining soul. You must protect that, but I’ll tell you how to do that later in the week. Now, who’s for some doughnuts? I know a wonderful place and it’s so much superior to those Krispy Krap ones.”
I loved this man already. “Yes, count me in!”
And so off we went on another adventure. This is how the whole week was. A series of adventures with a man who, if he was mad, it was a madness like Don Quixote – a madness that cut through all the ugliness of the world and taught you that there was love in everything. If you looked hard enough.
That week I had the best doughnuts ever. We also went to a baseball game; sat on Venice Beach and saw and heard the drum ceremony at sunset; ate in diners and all the while talked about our lives. He asked me why I was working for a stupid magazine that only interviewed stupid celebrities. I told him my dream was to buy my own little apartment so I’d never have to struggle to pay rent again. He told me I could achieve that without selling my soul.
I was concerned for him because he fell several times that week. Literally. He had so much pride he was back on his feet within seconds. He told me he had dizzy spells occasionally and was on medication for it. In fact he seemed to be on a lot of medication. He had pills in every pocket and regularly took them.
Every time I asked him about his new album he changed the subject. All he would confirm was that it was finished. And so was he. It would be the last.
“So that means that it must contain some interesting statements about the present day and age?” I ventured.
“You could say that,” he smiled mischievously.
“Why did you walk away for so long?”
“I didn’t walk, I was driven away actually. But that’s a story of greed and darkness and why ruin our meal? Anyway, I’d said everything I wanted to say in all those songs. Each one of them deals with a different aspect of life and, seeing the world unfortunately hasn’t changed, I have nothing new to add. To have gone on would’ve meant I’d have just been repeating myself, which so many artists do. You have to have the class to know when to go. You owe it to the public to leave their fantasy about you untarnished.”
“So, with the new album – are you taking music in a new direction?” I bravely asked.
He looked momentarily disappointed in me. But then the warm smile returned. “I am giving the music industry what it deserves.”
He then looked sad, and turned away indicating he’d said all he was going to say about that.
I asked him if he had any children.
“Yes. But they were taken away from me years ago by mothers who convinced them I was mad and dangerous to be with. Not a day goes by that my heart doesn’t break when I think of them. I hope they have grown to be good people and that they are safe.”
That night we walked back to his place. When we got there he was genuinely concerned about me driving home.
“I won’t hear of it. You’ve had three glasses of wine over dinner and that’s enough to get you in trouble with the cops or worse still be involved in an accident. You can sleep in my bed, I’ll sleep on the couch.”
“No, no, I’ll sleep on the couch.”
“Nope, that’s the deal. Besides, I like the couch. It’s my friend. To tell you the truth I fall asleep here most nights.”
Then he looked at me and said, “You are safe here you know?”
“I know that. In fact I have never felt safer.” I am so glad I said that to him.
The next morning I got up and went out into the living room. He was sitting up asleep, or so I thought. After some time I touched him and he was stone cold. As cold as a statue. As cold as the monument they would eventually erect of him. I ran screaming into the street. I wanted to tell the world he was gone. I wanted to tell them everything was now changed. A light had gone out. He was gone.
I watched them take away his body. But that was not him. It was just a body. I lied and said I was his daughter just so I could sit in his house and feel his spirit a bit longer. On his table I found a CD that had scribbled on it “The New Album.” With trembling hands I put it on and sat on his friendly couch to listen to Robert Travell’s last statement to the world.
The first track was Robert reciting “Mary Had A Little Lamb.”
The second track was a diatribe about what thieves record companies are.
And so it went on. 10 tracks in all. He had delivered 10 tracks and fulfilled his contractual obligations, and thus could keep his million dollar advance.
I started to laugh, uncontrollably. This was his “fuck you” to a record industry that had fucked him long and hard. The record company would later issue a statement saying that the reason the album wouldn’t be released was due to the fact that it was unfinished and in respect of Mr. Travell’s important legacy they would shelve it.
In his will he left each of his two children $400, 000 plus all the royalties from his record and publishing catalogues. And to me he left $200,000 so that I would never have to struggle to pay rent again.
I have quit my job writing about other people’s lives and have started a Robert Travell Charity Foundation to help homeless people. I am also writing my first book and making sure it’s not too long.
Every night I sit on the couch, his couch, in my apartment, sip my green tea and give thanks that he came along and that I was lucky enough to know him. Really know him. Trouble is, I fear he has ruined me for any other man. You see, a Robert Travell comes along just once in a lifetime. If you’re lucky. Although I live in hope that I will find his spirit in someone else. And that that someone will look into my eyes and really see me. And I will feel loved and safe again.
Recently I was offered a million dollars to write about my experiences with him. I told them to go fuck themselves. And somewhere, Robert Travell laughed, and I was filled with a warmth deep inside. A warmth that told me he was proud of me and that I’d turned out alright. In his words, I’d grown to be a “good person.”
(c) Frank Howson 2014