“It was 1973, a pretty strange time. I was young and disgruntled.
I left school and was working concrete. We were using flying metal
forms, pouring the walls, letting them cure and then going on to
the next wall. We were going fast. We were up on the fifteenth
floor of an apartment building in Brooklyn. There were beautiful
views of the city and the water. I also liked standing and
watching the cranes wheeling through the air and the planes

“Early one afternoon, a carpenter went over the edge of the
building. One step and he was gone. I’ll never forget the look on
his face. It was a mixture of rapture and terror. I was pretty
upset by it. The thing I focused on was whether he knew what he
was doing. He was drunk, but I think he thought he was going
somewhere. I don’t know where, but somewhere he wanted to go,
maybe even somewhere he’d been longing to go all his life.

“Maybe it was the look on his face that got me out of New York. I
drifted around the country, working when I needed the money. I
like buildings best when you can still see the sky through them.
I never have liked being shut up inside. I was working one cloudy
November day on a new Ramada Inn on Interstate 70 just east of
Columbus, Ohio when it hit me that we were a nation of nomads.
Only our tents are made of concrete. That changed how I felt. I
realized I was very mad. I realized nothing in the whole world
made me happy. Nothing

“I couldn’t get the look on that guy’s face out of my mind. It was
like he was trying to tell me something. Only I couldn’t figure
out what it was. I never thought about him when I was at work.
But at night I’d think about him. I never have liked drinking, but
I always loved music, all different kinds. I could sit and listen
for hours. I’d close the place down, stone sober. I’d listen to
almost anything. Maybe I couldn’t let myself think about him
during the day. It’s scary to think how close to the edge we all
are all the time.

“I drifted around for almost five years. I worked in every part of
the country. I was good with concrete. I had a feel for it. It’s
not so simple to guess how it’s going to spread and dry and set.
The weather makes everything different. You just have to feel it.
It’s not something you can teach or tell anyone. I don’t know why
I got to wondering. Maybe it was all that music I listened to.
Maybe I’d always been wandering and wondering without even knowing
about it.

“Maybe it was the look on that carpenter’s face as he went over the
edge. After a while, I stopped thinking he wanted to tell me
something. I started thinking he had a question he wanted to ask
me. One July in San Antonio we were pouring at night. We were

working on a bank headquarters and they were in a damn frenzy to
get the thing done. I think they needed to get it on their balance
sheet. It had been over a hundred during the day but now it was
cooling down. A whisper of a breeze had come up. A crane was
swinging a bucket overhead just beneath the moon. I could hear the
sirens of police cars caterwauling in the distance.

“I was twenty-eight then. I took in a deep breath and I held it.
I saw everything all at once, the crane and the bucket and the moon
and the stars and the city all spread out below and the lights
flashing down the highways and me. By the time I let that breath
out and the cold thrill of terror left my spine, nothing was the
same for me. I realized I’d been taking concrete too literally for
a long time, taking everything just plain too hard.

“Maybe I should say I realized that I was taking concrete too
concretely, like I was trying to bury myself in what was around me.
Only I could never get myself either to fit or to quit. I’d
written a few ballads before then. I’d write them on napkins or
the backs of envelopes late at night in some joint or other. I’d
sing them over a few times to myself. But I couldn’t really hear
what I’d written. I mean I couldn’t hear it in my own mind. Or I
was frightened of it. Anyway, after I’d sung them over a few times
I’d just toss the napkin or the envelope in a wastebasket and
forget about it.

“I know it all happened that night in San Antonio. A couple of
days later, I started to write songs. All my music is about
drifting, how you don’t really have to lift a finger to get from
here to there, because there’s a road that connects everything that
you do and see in life. The problem is to hear the melody on the
road. Life’s a trip. Everybody knows that. You can’t ever shut
your restless heart up in a house. That shiftless itch is here to
stay. The problem is to go where it says, to stay with it while
you go, because you never know where you’re going until you get

“I started singing a couple of nights a week at Jacinto’s there in
San Antonio. I had a little success. I wrote ‘Falling Off The
Edge Of The World,’ ‘Love In A Concrete Teepee Just Outside Of
Memphis,’ ‘There’s No Mad Like My Mad,’ ‘Can’t Settle Down For The
Night,’ ‘I’m Always Leaving Myself On The Road,’ ‘I Don’t Know
Where The Time Goes When We Get Close,’ and ‘Lookin Out The Windows
Of My Mind On A Rainy Day’ in about five weeks. The first album
got hot. I really don’t know why. I think I was as scared as I
was pleased.

“Once I got started, there wasn’t any way to stop. I’d be sitting
having a burger or walking up a set of stairs somewhere or slipping
a sock on my foot and, next thing I knew, I’d hear the first line
of the next song in my head. I’d hear a voice singing, lyrics and
melody and all. Really, it was a spooky experience. Because it
seemed to me those songs must have been there inside me all along,
just waiting to get out.

“All those years I was pouring concrete. All those footers and
floors and walls and ramps and stairwells. All those different
cities and all those different days, the sun and the rain and the
snow and the sleet, the gloomy air and the light fresh air. All
those different women and all the different wanting eyes. Once I
started listening inside, it was like I’d gotten hold of the key to
the jailhouse and those songs just couldn’t wait to come streaming
out. ‘Hell,’ they said, ‘we never did nothing wrong in the first
place and, if we did, we’ve long since paid for it. About damn
time you set us free.’

“I never wanted to play Vegas. I never thought it was my kind of
place. I’d worked on a building there one time. It was a
residence for some priests, Dominicans, or something like that. I
thought it was kind of funny to be working on a residence for
priests in Vegas. It kind of tickled me at the time, but I thought
you did have to get near the sinners to save them.

“But, anyway, we got an offer to play Vegas that we couldn’t
refuse. I had a band by that time, with Hubert ‘Jaundice’ Pinkney,
Lester ‘Honeypot’ Jones, Coleman Dickinson, Roy L. ‘Majesty’ Uber
and Wilson Fey. Really it was kind of flattering to be asked to
play in Vegas. I wrote, ‘Lord, It’s A Sin To Save A Sinner From
Himself,’ for our opening at the Sands.

“I was thinking about concrete when we were warming up. I was
strumming and trying to settle in and catch the butterflies in my
stomach with a net. I was thinking that concrete wasn’t just sand
from the desert but gravel and glue, too. I was thinking that a
song wasn’t just sound and searching, but that it had to have glue,
too, and you had to have a feel for pouring it. The first number
we were supposed to do was ‘Ain’t No Razzle Dazzle Like Rinky Dink

“I don’t know why I chose that one for the Sands. We were getting
paid a lot of money and that made me uncomfortable. I never
expected to be rich. You can’t quite bring yourself to give it all
away, even if you’d like to give it all away just to get rid of the
headaches. I wanted a song with some grit to it. I wanted
something down home. So that was how I came up with ‘Ain’t No
Razzle Dazzle Like Rinky Dink You.’ It’s a song about a skinny
woman, a woman who’s all skin and moans. Well, it’s a sexy song,
too, with a hurt hurting beat.

“Anyway, I was sitting there up on the stage. My heart was
pounding. I broke out into a cold sweat. I knew it was getting to
be just about time to open up my mouth and make some noise. The
lights went on. That bright old beam came and found me, like it

knew right where to look. I got to sweating and my hands got to
shaking. They seemed like somebody else’s hands. I didn’t know
whose. I knew there wasn’t any way in the world I was going to
make even a squawk. Might as well have shaken a dead rooster and
expected him to sing like chanticleer.

“I’d never felt anything like this in my whole life. I was looking
around wildly for a friend. So I see this fellow sort of ambling
towards me out from behind the curtain at the edge of the stage.
He looks kind of run down and out of luck. I thought to myself
that that wasn’t a stage hand or anybody I’d seen around before the
show. He had one of those metal folding chairs in his hand. I’m
thinking that I’m kind of glad to see him. Even if I can’t place
him, still it seems to me that there’s something familiar about

“So the light is on me, just as bright as can be. I’m looking at
him and he’s just unfolding this metal chair like he’s got all the
time in the world plus seven minutes. No hurry at all. It’s quiet
at the Sands, as quiet as night time in the desert. There’s not
even a hack or a cough or a whisper in the audience. I’m sitting
there looking at him and he’s settling himself down in the chair
and crossing his legs. I still can’t place him, but the shaking in
my hands is slowing down. My shirt is soaked through and through,
so there’s no point in sweating any more. My heart’s still

fluttering and pounding, skipping in and skipping out, but I can
feel it starting to find a beat. He looks so damn familiar.

“Suddenly, I’m sitting there in the light and the heat and the
silence and it comes to me. I recognize him. It’s the guy who
went over the edge of the building all those years ago back in
Brooklyn. He looks at me and I look at him. Damn, if he doesn’t
wink at me. So I can’t help myself and I laugh right out loud and
I hit the first notes of ‘Ain’t No Razzle Dazzle Like Rinky Dink
You’ with all the juice of a condemned man who’s just been let off
death row.

“I can hear the audience let its breath out and I know I’ve hit it
big in Vegas. They don’t know why, but they’re right with me. I
guess one lost gambling soul can’t help but know another. He sat
there with me and listened to the whole show. I haven’t seen him
since, but I do reckon that whatever question it was he wanted to
ask me, I must have answered it. He seemed to enjoy the show,

George C. Crook, legendary founder of what’s come to be called the
Drift n’ Mix sound, looked us directly in the eye for a long still
moment, then winked at us, keeping a perfectly straight face.

Hubert “Jaundice” Pinkney, who was playing alto along with George
that night at the Sands, shook his head. “George, George, Georgie
boy, he so crooked, ain’t no way to know for sure if he’s pulling your leg or if he’s just plain mixed up. Ah worry, ah worry, ah really do worry about you, Cement Mixer,” he half whispered and half groaned, unfolding his long lean frame from his chair. “Sometimes ah listens to you and all ah want to do is go back home to Marion, Mississippi. Ain’t it damn, damn strange what a man’ll do for a shiftless melody.”

George C. Crook, known both as “Middle C” and as “Cement Mixer,”
watched “Jaundice” Pinkney walk away. Then, Cement Mixer’s head
started nodding, getting a beat. In that rich elusive voice of his
he began to sing: “You got to pour concrete/To make a floor for
meta¨öphor/Cause you cain’t fix/What you cain’t mix…

He broke off just as suddenly as he’d started.

“If I had to do it all over again, I don’t know what I’d do, so I’m
glad I don’t have to do it all over again,” he said, as much to
himself as to anyone else. “When you ask a man for his story, you
get a song. A song can’t be right and a song can’t be wrong. It
ain’t concrete and it ain’t discrete.”

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