Endurance - a story about Lee Clayton

Episode 048 – Endurance

“There’s only country singer who’s influenced me and that’s Lee Clayton.” – Bono (U2)

He called it the 2% rule. He explained it like this. When you’re flying a jet, you push the throttle to the limit and then back 2% so that it feels like you’re riding just at the edge. 

He was a legendary figure and you don’t know his name. He wrote songs for Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and the Highwaymen and you don’t know his name. 

Lee Clayton was tougher on me than any artist I ever worked with and he made me better. In this episode, I tell the story of a fateful show in Amsterdam that left a mark on my journey that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. 

Complete with an unreleased recording. Tune in for this one. 

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Hey everybody… welcome to 48 … that noise you’re hearing is the refrigerator. Normally, I turn it off when I’m recording. You see, there’s powerstrip and a bright orange button, glowing… reminding me that it’s the night before this episode is to post and I still have yet to even begin to write it, let alone record, edit, and compose the music.

That’s the reason I’m recording the refrigerator. Because it’s there… my not-so-sublte ticking timer… the imaginary hourglass who’s sand flows in a steady, measured descent. Funny thing about hourglasses. They… the sand isn’t affected by pressure.

What I mean is… unlike water where the pressure at the bottom of a container is directly affected by the height of the liquid, the hourglass, the sand… is different. The shape of an hourglass creates friction between the sand and the glass itself, thereby cancelling out any pressure directed at the bottom of the hole. 

The sand runs at a constant speed and does not accelerate through the hole like liquid would as illustrated by Bernoulli’s Principle. 

Ah, here I go blathering on about refrigerators and hourglasses. Time and pressure. This was going to be an episode on endurance.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago in episode 46, The 40% rule, I’ve become somewhat obsessed with ultra-endurance races and the atheletes that participate in them. One of my favorite people in this world is Rich Roll.

If you don’t know Rich, he’s host of the mega-successful Rich Roll Podcast and the author of Finding Ultra, a story about his journey.

In short, at forty years old, Rich’s life was out of control. He was drinking heavily, 50 pounds overweight… you know the story. 

He began to change his habits. He started running. Within two-years, he was competing with the world’s best athletes in the Ultraman World Championship, a 320-mile ordeal that combines running, swimming and cycling. 

It’s an amazing story and a great book. But this isn’t about that, now.

[Lee’s music: Rehearsal from 1993… I ride alone breakdown]

That’s a really bad tape from a rehearsal room in Nashville, Tennessee from 1993. It’s a terrible recording. The tape recorder was a small handheld piece of crap, the room was a hundred degrees. 

The guy singing is Lee Clayton. 

You probably never heard of him and that’s shame.

But understandable. He’s been away from the music industry for decades. His first reccord came out back in 1973, simply titled Lee Clayton. Despite having stars like Carly Simon on the record, it was a commercial disaster but Lee was immediately part of the country music outlaws with Waylen, Willie, Cash, Prine, and Kristofferson.

I don’t know how to even begin to tell you his story except to say that it begins when he got divorced in 1967. He joins the Air Force and decides he wants to fly jets. He breaks the sound barrier in his F-101 and then nearly dies when he spins the jet at 1500 feet of elevation. 

He releases his most iconic album in 1973. Naked Child. It’s a record that simply can’t be compared to anything before it or after it. But Lee, being Lee got into an argument with the producer and decides to steal the tapes and hide them under his bed.

Eventually, he returned them. Naked Child was so raw and emotional, legend has it that the musicians one of them being the legendary J.J. Cale, couldn’t do more than one take. That’s what’s on the record. 

Lee was not shy about his despair or lonlieness. He was a loner and proud of it.

Other artists began cutting Lee’s songs. Waylen Jennings cut Ladies Love Outlaws. Willie Nelson cut If You Could Touch Her at All and then the Highwaymen cut Silver Stallion. Lee could finally stop living in his car. 

But, as the music business is wont to do, it goes south. Lee discovered tequila and cocaine. 

In the late 80’s a guy from a small Irish band called U2 comes to Nashville to meet his idle. Bono said at the time, “There’s only country singer who’s influenced me and that’s Lee Clayton.” 

I met Lee in 1992, as he was experiencing a small resurgence. I was sitting at one of Nashville’s favorite watering holes, the Iguana. My roommate and longtime friend Romo was tending bar. 

Because of that, my broke ass could actually afford to drink there. My other friend Eric was on the stool next to me and Lee was at the corner. I had heard about the legend of Lee Clayton but there he was, in the flesh. 

He was telling us that he was looking to hire a band for a European tour he was lining up. Romo jokingly said from behind the bar, “Here’s your band. I’ll play bass. Pointing to me he said, there’s your drummer and to Eric, he’s your guitar player.”

Lee immediately stood up and walked out. 

We all kinda looked at eachother… Way to go Romo. I guess he didn’t like that idea.

A few minutes later, Lee came back with three cassette tapes. He gave one to each of us and said, meet me back here on Friday night. We’ll talk. 

We booked a rehearsal. The one you just heard at the intro of this show. Our first rehearsal with Lee Clayton.

A few weeks or so later, we were on our way to Amsterdam to open the tour at the famous Paradiso club.

The rumor was a writer from Rolling Stone Europe was going to be there. It was sold out. The place was crazy. We didn’t feel ready. 

It was surreal hitting the stage that night. It was a blur. We have no pictures from the show. 

But one of the greatest memories of my musical life occurred on that night. 

We had just played our last song of the set. We hadn’t rehearsed an encore. We had no other songs just the ones we’d rehearsed. 

But the crowd wouldn’t leave. The manager of the club came downstairs to the dressing room and said, ‘You gotta do something. They’ll tear the place apart.”

Lee looked up at us and said, “Get up there.” 

Me, Romo, and Eric climbed the stairs, all of us looking at each other, thinking the same thing, we can’t screw this up. Rolling Stone is here. What the hell are we gonna play? 

The crowd went nuts when they saw our silhouettes. I sat behind my drums, Romo picked up his bass and Eric launched into Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Child. The intro of the song gives me chills to this day.

We had never rehearsed it. In fact, the only one that ever played it on stage was Eric. We blasted through the intro and first verse with reckless abandon. I was playing so hard. I remember bashing the shit out of my drums. The place was going crazy 

We had no idea how we were going to end it but we didn’t really care. 

Then, from the depths of the dressing room came this dark figure wearing a hooded sweatshirt with the hood up. It was Lee. 

He was stomping around the stage and hunched over like man possessed. We were just as surprised as the crowd, all of us looking at each other like, What the f

As we lowered our intensity, Lee began to recite one of his poems over the verse of Voodoo Child. It was brilliant and volatile and completely improv. We were in a moment and we just went with it. 

After a few minutes of this, Lee stormed off the stage and we ended, I’m sure in a noisy, messy trainwreck of a crescendo of cymbals and wailing guitar. 

The press went crazy over Lee’s interpretation of Voodoo Child. They asked us about it at every show that followed. The crowed screamed Voodoo Child! Every night. We began to dread it. 

But… we made a pact… 

We never played Voodoo Child ever again. 

The tour was crazy. Lee was an eccentric dude. We smoked a lot of pot and sat on hotel beds until dawn listening to his stories. He worked me harder than any artist I’ve ever played with. He demanded that I play just behind the beat.

He called it the 2% rule. He explained it like this… and I’ll problably get it wrong but what the hell… 

When you’re flying a jet, you push the throttle to the limit and then back 2% so that it feels like you’re riding just at the edge.

When I wasn’t playing the way he liked, he’d stop the rehearsal. If he didn’t like the way a song was feeling live and in the moment, he’d turn around and shout, “go to the bridge.” And then he’d just end the song and expect all of us to be on point.

It’s because of Lee, that I feel like I could get on stage tomorrow and having never heard a lick of someone’s music, I’d be able to follow along. 

Lee Clayton was a hard nut to crack and just as we were all getting ready to depart for Ireland to record a record and do a second tour, he fired us all. 

It ended badly. 

In 2001, I cut my second record, american dream. I tracked Lee down, which was like finding a unicorn…

I wanted to make things right. I met him for coffee and gave him a copy of my record. I had him in the liner notes, thanking him.

He actually ended up writing new liner notes and what he wrote is on the inside cover of my record to this day. I’m proud of that music and I’m glad I patched it up with Lee.

A couple of months ago, I went on the hunt again to find Lee. I wanted to have him as a guest on my podcast. I didn’t think he’d agree but I was going to offer to fly to Nashville and do it in person rather than have him fuss with the online thing.

I emailed him. He responded.

I emailed him again. He didn’t respond. 

A few weeks ago, I got a message that Lee passed away and tonight, as I was sitting here kicking my own ass for not having my episode done, I got a text from a dear friend and Lee’s old manager.

He sent me the one lone article written confirming the death of Lee Clayton.

Lee deserved better. He was as unique as they come. He called himself, True Love. He drove a white Cadillac Eldorado and he called it, Bigger White. 

He deserves better. 

So here it is, my episdoe that is late as shit. The one that was supposed to be about endurance actually just might be about that very thing.

Lee may not have run a 320 mile race but he endured. As best he could, when fame fades and the money runs out, the world can be a lonely place. But Lee knew that.

Here’s a lyric from the first track from Lee’s iconic Naked Child Record

I think about my thoughts of Paris
Of fine wine, women and precious things
I think about my life on the midnight highway
The life of a renegade king
Twenty years they’ve called me a bandit
Twenty years I’ve been on the run
Twenty years defending my honor
Twenty years harming no one
And I ride I ride alone, yes I ride, I ride alone


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