After the president went to sleep, a friend who worked there knocked on the door of the Lincoln Bedroom, where Willie was staying, and invited him for a private tour that ended on the White House roof, where the friend produced a joint.
Nelson, now stoned, looked out on our nation’s capital — the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial and the Capitol all in glorious sight — and had an obvious thought for one in his circumstance.
The answer is as breezy, entertaining and occasionally bizarre as the man himself.
His new memoir, “It’s a Long Story,” written with David Ritz, tells how Nelson became a long-haired, pot-loving musical icon.
Nelson was born in the small town of Abbott, Texas — population 400 — and started writing songs at age 7 with a guitar from the Sears catalog.
In addition to songwriting, the tough young athlete, who played several sports and got in quite a few scuffles in his time, was drawn to another activity at a very young age: smoking.
“As a kid, I’d sneak off and smoke anything that burned. Loved to smoke. Would even smoke strips of cedar bark,” Nelson writes. “The various substances have changed over the years, but the act itself has never ceased to satisfy me.” (These days, he vapes.)
By 14, he was already performing so often that girls at his school formed a Willie Nelson fan club.
He married at 19, had his first child by 21 and spent much of his 20s playing music live and on the radio — the latter as a disc jockey — while supporting his family with odd jobs such as selling vacuum cleaners and encyclopedias door to door.
His first marriage, to wife Martha, was tumultuous. Nelson loved the nightlife and had a wandering eye, and he and Martha fought horribly. She once bit his index finger “to the bone,” leaving him unable to play guitar for several weeks, and their fights became so violent that one night, “while I was asleep, she tied me up in ropes and beat me with a broom.” She would be the first of Nelson’s four wives.
Surprisingly, Nelson avoided pot in those days.
“I was a hick from Abbott. I’d seen [the marijuana scare film] ‘Reefer Madness,’ and I was a little worried that a little pot might get me crazy. Wasn’t I crazy enough?”
At the time, Nelson thought whiskey was a good match for him, not yet realizing the damaging situations drinking placed him in.
“Booze emboldened me. Brought out the fighter. And on more occasions than I wish to remember, the fighter picked on guys bigger than him,” he writes. “More often than not I got the s – – t kicked out of me. Booze did nothing to improve my dexterity or my judgment in provoking an opponent.”
When he tried pot for the first time, he smoked it like a cigarette, leading a friend to say, “No, you dumb son of a bitch. You don’t treat it like no Lucky Strike. You hold in the f – – kin’ smoke.” He initially stuck to cigarettes and drink, since, “I was too young and dumb to see the harm they were doing.”
Nelson lived a nomadic life, moving frequently and often hitchhiking from town to town. He tells of one night when, unable to find a ride at 4 a.m., he “slipped into a ditch to get some sleep,” warming himself with a newspaper-fueled fire that almost asphyxiated him.
After some minor successes, he went on a songwriting binge where in a span of “a week or two,” he wrote a suite of songs about his life including “Night Life,” “Crazy” and “The Party’s Over.”
In dire need of money, he offered to sell the songs — including all rights — to a band leader named Larry Butler for $10 each.
“That’s insane. You can’t do that,” Butler said. “Those are hit songs you’ve written. They could be worth thousands of dollars. You just can’t give ’em away.”
Nelson argued, but Butler refused to buy them. (Though Nelson did wind up selling “Night Life” for $150 soon after.)
He had writing hits with Patsy Cline’s recording of “Crazy” and Ray Price’s version of “Night Life,” as well as Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Paper,” but success as a performer eluded him. His early albums featured pictures of him on the cover “clean-shaven, smiling and looking straight as your local insurance salesman.”
He eventually signed with Chet Atkins, the head producer at RCA, a top country recording artist, and one of the prime shapers of the Nashville sound. This would begin Nelson’s long and uncomfortable relationship with Nashville, a conventional town where an oddball like Nelson — who sang off the beat and preferred his recordings to have a stripped-down quality — would never fit the mold.
“The idea [of the Nashville sound] was simple: to sweeten up country music with strings and background singers and make it more palatable to the masses,” Nelson writes. Over the course of several albums, Atkins had Nelson’s music overlayered with sweeteners that never quite worked, and neither Nelson nor the record-buying public ever embraced the results.
“In the studio,” he later realized, “I gave my power away.”
Around this time, Nelson discovered the hippie lifestyle, and the music that came with it.
He grew his hair long, and after his daughters attended a music festival featuring acts like Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Led Zeppelin, they told him that the peace, love and marijuana-fueled scene would be perfect for his music and sensibility.
The more Nelson learned about this new scene, viewing acts like Zeppelin and Joplin as just the next stage of the blues music he grew up with, the more he agreed.
“I liked that [the kids] had courage to look and act any damn way they pleased,” he writes. “The new world represented by the Grateful Dead or the Jefferson Airplane was new only in appearance. [It] appealed to me because it was bold and creative and said to the world, ‘To hell with what you think. I’ll dress any way I please.’”
By the early ’70s, Nelson quit tobacco and cut way back on booze, realizing that marijuana was a much better accompaniment for the life he sought to live. “My love affair with pot became a long-term marriage,” he writes. “It was, by far, the smoothest of all my marriages.
“As I moved closer to the Woodstock Nation, as I bore witness to their music-loving, life-loving, peace-loving ways, I saw the key role played by pot. Pot was a communal experience,” he writes. “Liquor agitated me. Weed calmed me. Liquor made me reckless. Weed made me careful.
And when it came to two of life’s greatest pleasures — making music and making love — liquor made me sloppy while marijuana made those experiences rapturous.
“In short, I fell in love with this lovely leafy plant. It kept my head in my music. It kept my head filled with poetry.”
Nelson grew increasingly comfortable as a long-haired, bandana-wearing, pot-smoking musician and found his musical freedom at the hands of Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler, the legendary producer who coined the term “rhythm and blues.” Wexler, unlike Atkins, knew that the best way to produce unique talents like Nelson was to put them in the studio and leave them alone.
His outlaw country style established, Nelson did a few albums for Atlantic before hitting No. 1 on the country charts with 1975’s Columbia release “Red Headed Stranger,” which set the stage for his great success to come.
Now, at 81 (he turns 82 on Wednesday), while Nelson looks back on his life with a clear appreciation for his blessings, he’s also planning for the future, including the recent announcement introducing his own brand of marijuana called “Willie’s Reserve.”
“I owe marijuana a lot,” he writes in the book. “I think I can fairly make the claim that marijuana — in the place of booze, cocaine and tobacco — has contributed to my longevity.”