Q&A: Crazy Heart Author Thomas Cobb on His Character Bad Blake, Deer Tick, and Why Chet Atkins Killed Country
Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart
Bad Blake, the main character in Crazy Heart, played onscreen by Jeff Bridges, embodies the ugly side of the glorified outlaw-country lifestyle. He's a stone-cold drunk. He's been an absent father to his son, who's now grown and wants nothing to do with him. And he's jealous of the success of his musical partner in crime, Tommy Sweet, who he considers a sellout now that Sweet is playing mainstream country. But all of this changes, and 57-year-old Bad finally grows up, when he falls for small-town journalist Jean Craddock and her adorable little son.
This road-to-redemption story is based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Cobb. Cobb wrote the book under the tutelage of postmodernist Donald Barthelme, borrowing from his own experiences covering country for a music magazine in the '80s. Were it not for Barthelme, Cobb says, the book "never would have seen the light of day," and Cobb would have never been prompted to break Bad's ankle halfway through the story.
Cobb has since published two more books, but neither has resonated like Crazy Heart, which on film boasts three Oscar nominations: Best Actor for Jeff Bridges' Bad Blake, Best Supporting Actress for Maggie Gyllenhaal's Jean Craddock, and Best Original Song for Ryan Bingham and T-Bone Burnett's "The Weary Kind." (Colin Farrell as Tommy Sweet wasn't too bad, either.)
In the lead-up to the Academy Awards, I spoke with Cobb by phone from his home in Rhode Island, where he's relocated after stretches in Arizona and Texas. Cobb talked about the differences between the book and the movie, why Chet Atkins killed country, and the price people are willing to pay for a hardcover edition of Crazy Heart.
A lot has been said about who Bad Blake is based on. Jeff Bridges seems like Waylon Jennings to me. Who's your Bad Blake?
Well, you know, the book is 20 years older than the movie. Waylon Jennings was somebody I actually thought about as possibly starring in the film as Bad. He wasn't a great actor, but he was a good singer and he was a great guitar player-sort of the whole Bad Blake persona. The physical model for Bad was Hank Thompson. I had seen Hank Thompson opening for Conway Twitty at an arena show in Tucson in the late '70s, and the image of that stuck with me. I thought it was a tragedy that Thompson was opening for a lesser talent.
Was there a particular inspiration for Bad Blake's name?
The beginning of the name came from a sentence that just popped into my head: "Bad's got the sweats again." The "Blake" part came from William, and from a friend in graduate school, and some people I had known in Tucson.
You used to write about country music, correct?
I did. I wrote for a magazine called Newsreal. It had been a monthly alternative paper, and I wrote a column called "Lowlife." When it became a music magazine, I did country music because I was the only one who would listen to it.
One of the cool undercurrents of the movie is the difference between real country and pop country. What is the point that's trying to be conveyed there, by the Bad Blake/Tommy Sweet contrast?
Country music has always seemed to me, at least in the last 40 years, to be on a kind of steady descent. Bad Blake at one point in the novel says that Chet Atkins made a huge market for country music with his "countrypolitan" sound-making country seem a little bit more sophisticated-and in doing that he ruined it. And that was me talking.
I mean, Garth Brooks, when he came out, seemed like just a travesty. And now I sort of look back at Garth Brooks kind of fondly, when I look at some of the people who are around-which is not to say that there's not great country music out there. Actually, I listen to a fair amount of alt-country.
Like Lucinda Williams or something?
Yeah, I love Lucinda Williams. Absolutely. And Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore-all the Flatlander guys. And Guy Clark. And Lyle Lovett. We have a local band here called Deer Tick that's good.
Wait, is Tommy supposed to be Garth Brooks?
No, no. Actually, only one person ever figured out who it was, and that was this great country writer from the Houston Chronicle named Bob Claypool. Tommy was Willie Nelson.
Your book took 20 years to make it to the screen. What was the hold-up?
Well, it was optioned a number of times. Chuck Barris optioned it-The Gong Show guy. He was about ready to go with it and then decided he wanted to take off and sail around the world on his yacht instead. An actor optioned it and used it as an episode for L.A. Law-just a complete rip-off. I was totally surprised when [director] Scott Cooper was able to actually get that thing greenlit.
What was his attraction to what is a pretty obscure book?
He'd been trying to make a movie based on the life of Merle Haggard and had traveled with Merle on a couple of tours. But Merle, like Bad, has been married a number of times and the legal complications were just too severe with all of the various parties competing for a piece of the action. He realized he couldn't make it and he was telling one of his friends, and his friend said, well, you ought to read this book Crazy Heart.
What do you think are the biggest differences between the book and the movie?
There are two things. The most obvious one is that the ending has been changed. They went with a somewhat less dark ending. They did shoot the original ending. Scott Cooper would have preferred to keep it, but he did not have authority for final cut.
The other thing is, there's a scene where Bad drives to L.A. and visits his estranged son. And that was also shot, and also did not make the final cut of the film. That's a scene I would have loved to have seen. I heard great things about it-that the actor who played the son was very good.
Tell me about the dark ending.
In the book, Bad ultimately falls off the wagon. He's last seen in a ditch, in the rain, with his van broken down, and a woman asleep in the van.
I like to collect hardcovers and plan eventually to buy a copy of the book with a dust jacket.
You're sort of a year too late. There are only first-editions of the hardcover. You could have picked one of those up for about a buck this time last year. And now they're running around a $100, up to a $1000. It's ridiculously overpriced. I collect books and I think it's probably worth 50 bucks. Maybe.
Yeah, but it's the zeitgeist right now.
Right. Apparently, somebody did sell that copy that they were asking $1000 for.
I know. Send me that guy's address.
How else has the popularity of the movie benefited your career?
There are all sorts of things going on right now. The book is being reprinted. There are various audio books that I'm reading for. But there are also things like you called me. You weren't going to call me last year.