March 4th through the 17th of 1982, I was playing piano at Lake Tahoe in Harrah’s Stateline Cabaret. Some friends and I had taken a one-off gig as a country group fronted by beef jerky mogul Ajay Avery – creator of a chewy product called Montana Bananas. Superstar John Denver was the headliner in the South Shore Room, the big room, with Jay Leno as the opening act. In 1980 if you’d asked me to take a country gig with a moderately talented Jerky mogul, unequivocally, I would’ve offered you profanity’s most succinct reply. I was a star in the making, not a jester dancing for dollars. Circumstances change.
Denver had hired Elvis Presley’s infamous Takin’ Care of Business band (TCB) with Glen Hardin on piano, James Burton on lead guitar, Jerry Scheff on upright bass and Ron Tutt on drums (Nashville producer Tony Brown had once been a piano player in this same Elvis ensemble).
Very briefly, we all shared oxygen with these immortals. Watching James Burton and crew walk through the casino in their TCB leather jackets was a transformative sight. These musicians were the storied giants, cool, and worthy of adoration.
Ajay Avery had given our outfit the luminous title, the Montana Banana Bunch. The Bunch received a generally favorable review in Variety (March 11th, 1982), with a positive mention of my piano skills. Steve Voudouris, John Denver’s guitar tech, arranged for us to have a few minutes backstage with John. We all chatted, and I left with an autograph for my mom.
On March 18th, drummer Jimmy Caselli and I raced back down the mountain to Sacramento. Jimmy and I were in an actual, cool and popular band that played its own music, the Charlie Peacock Group. Now that we had a little extra money in our pockets, it was time to get back to headlining Sacramento and San Francisco clubs. Besides, we were close to signing a record deal – a condition of authenticity every band needed.
The first seven years of my marriage had been full of youthful fails, uncertainty, chaos, blood-dripping wounds and deep pain undealt with. Because of my neglect, Andi had needed help from (AFDC), Aid to Families with Dependent Children – a federal assistance program for children of families with low or no income. Now that my sanity was returning, I wanted us off welfare at the first possible moment. That was my goal. Sobriety was making a man out of me and giving our family the first seeds of peace and financial stability. 1982 would prove to be the year that changed everything.
One year before, on March 31st, 1981, producer David Rubinson (my then manager) cut me a check for one-half of the two hundred dollars I was paid by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart for the publishing on So Attractive (a song co-written with Steve Holsapple). The other hundred bucks went to my lawyer Lindsey Feldman. David Rubinson, a true mensch, deferred his commission. I was all revved up because the legendary songwriters who wrote The Monkees’ songs had bought my little tune.
All the self-generated buzz in the world couldn’t change the fact that the Boyce and Hart opportunity had been no real opportunity at all – and that’s the way things went for me back then. Before I got my head screwed on straight (that elusive outcome my father valued so much), I was always one great opportunity away from making it.
Even when given a legitimate opportunity, my self-destructive impulses would sabotage it. Like when Juliea Clark and David Kershenbaum of A&M Records signed me to a development deal with David Kahne producing. Or when I was hanging with Tommy Tutone at attorney Brian Rohan’s house in San Francisco and had to be shown the door. Bad form all around. Brian Rohan, along with Clive Davis, is arguably the progenitor of the attorney/talent scout/rainmaker – the genesis of the music entertainment attorney. There’d be no enigmatic character in Nashville like Jim Zumwalt without Rohan.
In between a gig with my own band at the China Wagon in Sacramento on February 17th and the March trip to Tahoe, I got a call to sub for a piano player at the top of The Holiday Inn in downtown Sacramento. This was the average cocktail bar gig of the era. I read charts of standards, backed up the singer and soloed on cue. The leader on the date was a saxophonist named Mike Butera. Mike, a friend of producer David Kahne, had done some recording with Voudouris & Kahne, David’s short-lived duo on Capitol Records. Most notably, Mike had been the lead tenor saxophone soloist in a contemporary version of the Harry James Big Band. My dad admired Harry James’ trumpet technique and tone. Though arguably famous, to most of our Sacramento community of musicians, Harry James was an anachronism. He did give Sinatra his start, was married to film star Betty Grable and had Buddy Rich for a drummer. Sixty years ago this meant something.
There’d been a particularly dark hour in 1980 when I was separated from Andi and the children. It began with a Greyhound bus ride north to Yuba City and my parent’s home. With intervention in mind, my parents hatched an idea for me to check into a hometown mental health facility. I was resistant and left the house for cheap beer at the 7-11 and brought the smell of defeat back with me.
I had betrayed my father for the last time. He told me to pack my things and be gone by the morning. After all the misspent words had been spoken, after all the tears and false promises ceased, he came into the guest bedroom where I’d gone to sulk. There was no fight left in him. He laid a Bible on the bed. “Son,” he said, “everything you’re looking for is in this book.” Then he turned and left the room. I caught a Greyhound to Sacramento the next morning and barely spoke to my parents for a year.
It wasn’t like I was unfamiliar with the Bible. I’d read some of it.
On November 23rd, 1971 I wrote in my high school, creative writing journal: “I’ve told some people that I’m going into religious study and missionary work. Some laughed. Others were shocked, and some were happy for me . . . my dad doesn’t know my exact plans, and he still thinks I’m going to be a music major because he keeps saying, ‘You’ll never be a music major if you don’t practice the trumpet more often.’ I do know he thinks it’s kind of strange that I’m reading the Bible so much.”
Less than a year after this journal entry everything had changed. The pleasure of teenage sex put me off the idea of Bible school. I didn’t know much at sixteen, but the thought of trudging through my last remaining year of high school as a fornicating pastor-in-waiting seemed a bit off. I was evolving into something of a syncretist anyway, a committed spiritual tourist. My moral compass had taken a few hits too, and everything was a bit skewed.
Fast forward to 1981. When it came time to pick a higher power for my recovery group, it made some amount of sense to circle back around to the God of the Bible. I had a Bible from when I was a kid, one of those tiny Gideon’s Bibles – like the Beatles song, Rocky Racoon. In the back of the Bible, it says:
Confessing to God that I am a sinner, and believing that the Lord Jesus Christ died for my sins on the cross and was raised for my justification, I do now receive and confess him as my personal savior. I signed my name, Chuck 5-30-64.
This was followed by some assurances including 1 John 1:7 – “But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleaneth us from all sin.”
Late one night in 1979, inebriated, I wrote these words in the front of that Bible. “I’m gonna write in here cause many, many years ago this was my papa’s Bible, and I just found out Calvin W. Ashworth first received this Bible in the 1940s and god bless the souls of the Ashworths and our ancestors, love through Jesus Christ our Saviour.” I signed it, Charlie Peacock Ashworth 1979. In the middle of my handwriting, printed by the Gideons it said: THIS BOOK NOT TO BE SOLD.
So it came to be, that in 1981 I began to pray morning and night to my higher power, the God of the Bible. In the light of a little sobriety, it was humiliatingly evident that my life was unmanageable. I needed restoration to sanity as much as anyone ever needed it.
I started my day with, “God of the Bible, please help me stay clean and sober today.” Late at night in bed, “God of the Bible, thank you for helping me stay clean and sober today.” That simple. No flourishes. No thees, no thous. Just help and thank you.
I had a notebook that I wrote in, a kind of confession, admitting what the recovery group called “the exact nature of my wrongs.” As time went on, I began to elaborate a bit in my morning and evening prayer – asking the God of the Bible to change my character, my whole way of being. I even began to pray for family provision, for help in my marriage and the whole of life. My prayers were about what was happening under our roof. I figured I’d get to matters of global concern once it was clear I’d live to see the age of twenty-seven.
The Holiday Inn gig with Mike was three hours long, with breaks in between. I knew he was, what was then called, a born again Christian.
During a fifteen-minute break, looking for common ground, I let Mike know that I’d been praying for work – appealing to a higher power. I thanked Mike for hiring me, told him I was grateful. He asked which God I prayed to. “The God of the Bible,” I replied. I figured he’d be pleased — one point for his home team and all.
Afterward, I left for Lake Tahoe and the adventure with the Banana Bunch crew. When I returned, Mike called to see if we could get together. He wanted to know if he could come to my house and pray with me. This was the middle of the day. Seemed odd. It wasn’t my usual routine, but I guessed I could pray in the middle of the day. I told him, sure, come on over.
There’s a passage in the Bible that reads:“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
Mike brought me good news that day. I didn’t have to work my way to God – a fallacy I’d picked up along the way. In fact, Mike said, it’s impossible to do so. I could just sit tight, God was coming toward me in the person of Jesus. He was bringing a gift called grace, an antidote to karma. The God of the Bible had put a plan in place to deal, once for all, with my notebook chronicling the exact nature of my wrongs – including the exact nature of any future wrongs, near or distant. I wasn’t good Chuck who became bad Chuck who now needed to become good Chuck again. I could just be me. Peace and reconciliation with God, people and planet was not dependent on my performance after all. Jesus had already accomplished for me what I could not possibly do for myself. Because of God’s love, Jesus had done billions of people, the ultimate, cosmic favor.
As soon as Mike told me this, I knew it was true. It rattled me, scared me. There was a moment in my imagination when I saw something like a line at my feet. On one side was my life. The one I’d decided I wanted to live, the one I was finally getting together. On the other, nothing but Jesus and the infinite unknown. I felt a nudge to step over, but couldn’t. Somehow I knew that if I stepped over the line, there’d be no going back, and I wanted to keep my options open. The last thing I needed was to get sucked into some religious craziness.
Then without another thought, there I was, on the other side of the line, standing in the land of belief.
Art, Confident of This, by CWA
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