In mid-March I took a road trip down South with my dog Judy in tow. In between stops in Charleston and Austin we found time for a visit to Daytona Beach, Fla., where Bike Week was getting underway. We weren't reporting about bikes, however. We were meeting Durham filmmaker Shambhavi Kaul and her crew who have been working since last fall on a documentary about the country singer David Allan Coe.
On I-95 south of Jacksonville we passed a dead biker lying in the breakdown lane, surrounded by nonchalant emergency personnel. Statistically speaking, it was no big deal: The newspaper in Daytona Beach carried reports of a half-dozen other fatalities over the weekend while I was there--a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of thousands that moved through the resort. There would be a couple hundred thousand of them in Daytona Beach, choking the retail boulevards and beach roads with chrome and exhaust and engine noise.
Bikers seem to be a fatalistic lot, people who would rather die with the wind in their hair than live out their lives in wary and prudent ways. The freedom of this countercultural existence is tempered by the knowledge that one can end up as an anonymous carcass on the side of the road. Relatively few bikers are members of organized criminal gangs but a self-romanticizing outlaw ethos persists nonetheless. And there's probably not a more celebrated troubadour of hard rebellious living than David Allan Coe.
Coe belongs to the same generation of country music legends as Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Unlike them, however, he has spent virtually all of his career on the fringes of the industry. He did a spell in prison (and claims to have killed a fellow inmate), ran with the Hell's Angels and married and divorced several women. Although he has performed and recorded prolifically, his most famous songs have been hits for other people, including "Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone)" for Tanya Tucker, "Bottle in My Hand" for George Jones and "Take This Job and Shove It," for the late Johnny Paycheck.
Perhaps the most unpleasant phase of Coe's career, and one that continues to trouble many of his fans, is when he recorded what are delicately referred to as "X-rated" songs. Some of these allegedly comic songs have explicitly racist content. Coe steadfastly denies being a racist, and claims that these songs are recongnized as merely humorous by his fans, who are presumably less afflicted by middle-class taste and manners. Coe furthermore maintains that he has never attempted to profit from those recordings which mostly exist in bootleg form.
All of this makes for a difficult and complex subject for a documentary. It seems surprising that such a highly educated and refined South Asian woman as Kaul would take an interest in this figure who is considerably less fashionable than Cash or Nelson. However, the director traces her interest in Coe to a revelatory experience she had in a little bar in Davidson, N.C., with her husband Josh Gibson (a Surry County native who, despite his association with Duke University and its film program, still enjoys dipping Skoal). Late in the evening a much-loved Coe number called "You Never Even Called Me By My Name" came on the jukebox. As she recalled in a written accompaniment to her film, "The people around me suddenly come to life. The biker salutes with his beer and I notice drunk tears rolling down his face. The man with the toothless smile nods his acknowledgment and the woman by the pool table begins to dance. It is amazing. Faces light up. ... The corner-pub-messiah is belting something great from that little juke box and there is a charge in the air that makes my hair stand on end."
In the years since, Kaul has developed an encyclopedic grasp of Coe's life and songs. Backed by Banzai Entertainment, a Carrboro-based production company, Kaul has been working on her documentary--provisionally titled Lay With Me --since last fall.
Kaul is a native of Bombay, India, who moved to Durham several years ago after marrying Gibson. (Gibson, a filmmaker in his own right, is serving as director of photography for the Coe film.) Kaul was born into a filmmaking family, but in the land of Bollywood her influences were avant-garde: Her father, Mani Kaul, is a noted experimental filmmaker. Kaul acted in his and others' films for a time, before studying design in university. After a stint in a Bombay architect's office, Kaul designed costumes for Murali Nair's A Dog's Day, a film that played at Cannes in 2001.
After arriving in North Carolina, Kaul found the film culture a little harder to locate. However, she landed work as art director on Dog Nights, Banzai Entertainment's maiden production, and contributed to their later efforts before tackling this project, her first time out at the helm of a film.
During my visit to Daytona Beach last March, Kaul and her Banzai crew pursued several different goals. During the day Kaul and Gibson were often at Coe's home in the vicinity, while producers Erik Martin and Justin Eldreth conducted interviews with Coe fans. In the evenings, all hands are on deck at the Iron Horse Saloon, a biker club that is partially owned by Coe and is definitely no sissy bar. Every year during Bike Week, Coe plays on the outdoor stage out back, in free shows every night. Coe is getting on in years, and he turned repeatedly to his memories and old grievances during the two packed shows I witnessed. As Kaul puts it, "David's down because his friends like Waylon Jennings and Johnny Paycheck have [recently] died, and Johnny Cash is on his last legs."
It's been a tricky weekend for Kaul and her crew. There's been some friction in the Coe household that has made access difficult, so Kaul has been looking for material more obliquely. In the kind of lucky accident that documentary filmmakers depend on, someone in the Banzai camp has met a pair of German students who, as hardcore Coe fans have flown to Florida and spent their vacation at the Iron Horse Saloon.
In hopes of stimulating an interaction, Kaul invites these pilgrims to a biker campground after the Friday night show. Coe's teenaged son Tyler and bassist Michael "Pork" Graham plan to be in attendance, and Kaul hopes that the Germans will hit it off with the Americans. Despite the fearsome image of a "biker camp," the Moonshine Campground turns out to be a really lovely remnant of a true American counter-culture. Although it's already well past midnight, a fish fry is underway and the drinking is only getting going. There's a covered pool table, with hairy guys in leather jackets and trench coats playing inexpertly. There's a jukebox nearby pumping out such suddenly apposite evergreens as Aerosmith's "Back in the Saddle Again."
After a few beers and a lot of milling about, a guitar gets handed to one of the Germans, who begins strumming an old Marshall Tucker number called "Can't You See." Michael Graham steps forward to sing it, showing off a reedy and appealing tenor. The song is about love and highways and midnight trains, the usual stuff that, at 2 a.m. in a biker campground filled with rough-hewn characters, takes on an aura of actual experience.
Kaul directs, and Gibson points his camera. They've shot over 200 hours of footage at this point and there's no guarantee that any of this will end up in the film. Then again, it could be an emotional high point for the film. They roll more tape.
Shambhavi Kaul will discuss her project on Wednesday, May 21, 7 p.m. at Durham's Center for Documentary Studies. She will screen a short trailer and a moderated discussion will follow. Call 660-3663 for more information.