Busted: Chip Taylor

The songwriter behind "Wild Thing," "Angel of the Morning" and "I Can't Let Go" on music, gambling and the Church of the Train Wreck

BH: You left the songwriting business entirely in the early 80s and became a professional gambler. What made you leave music?

CT: Well, all along when I was writing my hit songs in the 60’s and I was making my records in the 70’s, there wasn’t a day that didn’t go by that I didn’t make a bet or two at the race track. I was very, very good at it. One of my real good qualities is that I know when I’m not good at something. And when I tried to be a good gambler and I knew I wasn’t, I knew either the races were fixed or I had to learn. So to make a long story short I learned; I became one of the best handicappers around. I teamed up with the biggest moneymaker of all time, Ernest Dahlman, and he and I were partners from 1981 or -2 til ’96. And the reason I left music was because I was more and more loving the gambling, but I was also more and more not liking the politics of the music business in terms of being a recording artist. And I was a country artist signed by major divisions, and then I needed Nashville support and that was very hard in coming. They were angry at me because I wasn’t playing their Nashville game. So not playing the Nashville game and also being involved in gambling so much made it at one point a real easy decision —‘f*** this, let’s just gamble.’ So that’s what I did.

BH: You made a good living at it?

CT: Yeah, I did very well. Oh, a typical day back in those days would find me gambling maybe between $10,000-$15,000 a day and losing very close to that a day. You know, so at the end of the year I’d make quite a bit of money, but I could make $350,000 in one day and often did.

BH: Strictly on horses?

CT: Yeah. I never bet on sports or anything like that. But I was a blackjack card-counter and I was banned from all the casinos, but that didn’t bother me because horse racing was probably my favorite thing to do.

BH: You sound like you have a deeply analytical mind…

CT: Yeah, when I turn it to that direction I do.

BH: So you never went to college.

CT: I was gonna go to Georgetown but they wanted me to go to summer school in French and I didn’t want to do that. I eventually went to business school ay the University of Hartford and drove every day into the city to sell my songs. Once I could do that there was no more school.

BH: There must be something in the Voight family genes; it sounds like you’re pretty exceptional people between your success in music, your brother Jon Voight is an Oscar-winning actor and your brother Barry is a world-class geologist and volcanologist.

CT: Yeah, I guess it’s a search for truth. Jon with his acting thing, Barry with his volcano kind of stuff, and me for the truth of the chill of a song that really gives me some feeling or if it’s a mathematical thing like in horse racing, or a logical thing—searching the truth of that. Not being fooled by things.

BH: Can you talk a bit about the revelation or epiphany that lead to The Church of the Train Wreck?

CT: What happened is that I smoked cigarettes for a long, long time, but this was one of the things that I recognized when I was gambling. When you get up in the morning and you feel this wonderful thing—here you go, the card is waiting for you, my partner is waiting for my information, I’m waiting for his information; it can be such a great day. ‘Wow, this is gonna be great. I’ve got some stuff that—oh wow, wait ’til I…’ You know, like that kind of feeling. I’ve done my work the night before; I love doing all the work, I love the fractional data. My thing was kind of more of a creative thing than my partner’s was, where I would let my brain drift as to which exact path of the race track the horse would be in at this point and whether that was gonna be good or bad, and all of these kind of wonderful things that I would think.

And I’d be very good at this. So then you’d work like crazy at that, and then you go to the track and all of a sudden—or you’d go wherever you went, or I’d go see ’em in—and I’d finish the day and I’d win fifty-thousand. And then I’d say, ‘That’s it? That’s it—I did all of that to win money?’ And I would get sad, and it was like all this effort, 100% energy, toward the goal of winning at this game of horse-race handicapping; and just the thrill of it, which obviously was taking me away from other things, because all I wanted—if somebody called me on the phone and said, ‘Hey Chip, how you doin’?’, I’d say, ‘How you doin’, Harry? Yeah, good, nice to hear your voice. Let’s talk another time.’ I didn’t want to talk to Harry. I had my mind on the horse races and I didn’t want anybody to interfere with that. So then when I would win these enormous amounts of money sometimes, it was the biggest depression in the world. I’m not saying I didn’t come out of the depression rather quickly for the next card, I did, but during that period of time, maybe for a few hours, I would sometimes cry. I’d be so sad that that was it.

“When I would win these enormous amounts of money sometimes, it was the biggest depression in the world. I’m not saying I didn’t come out of the depression rather quickly for the next card, I did, but during that period of time, maybe for a few hours, I would sometimes cry. I’d be so sad that that was it.

And that’s how The Church of the Train Wreck got started.”

And one day I was doing it, I was coming back from Belmont race track and that’s how The Church of the Train Wreck got started—I mean, I didn’t know it at the time. I’d won an enormous amount of money, $40,000-$50,000, with a very little investment. And I was sad. And I was listening to a radio show—I’m one of these that doesn’t poke fun at these little evangelical kind of things, and I happened to be listening to this one preacher saying, ‘Well the Lord is not gonna just help you if you sit on your tail and do nothing. Don’t go praying to the Lord if you’re just sitting there doing nothing for you or nothing for anybody else. Get yourself off your tail, do something for somebody else, and then ask the Lord to help you and the Lord will help you.’ So I was listening to that.

And then there was another guy on the radio with a self-help thing saying, ‘Oh yeah, well here’s the deal: you wanna change your life? Hey, it’s simple. It’s the easiest thing in the world you can do, and I’ll tell you how to do it right now. Think of how you want to be five years from now. Go ahead, think of how you want to be five years from now in the area of your business, in the area of your relationships, with your children, with your wife, with your girl’ in the relationships of this, that, and the other thing. And I’m writing these things down. ‘Do one thing toward that five-year goal of how you want to envision yourself five years from now. Do one thing right now. Right now; not tomorrow, not in five minutes. This second. Do something.’ So here I am, I’m picking up the phone and calling my accountant and saying, ‘We gotta get together. We haven’t resolved this thing. Very, very important. We have to finish this. Let’s do it tomorrow at ten o’clock. Alright?’ Okay, call Joan (Joan, my ex-wife). ‘Joanie, things are a little tough, you know. I know I was short with you the other day. My fault, God bless you, you’re the greatest, let me take you out for dinner tomorrow and let’s do something.’ Call the kids, the same thing—everything that I was doing.

And one of the last criteria was health, and it was bumper-to-bumper on the L.I.E. coming into New York —that’s why I was able to do all this stuff—and this stand-still was like a parking lot and I was getting closer and closer to midtown tunnel, and I was now going to do something for my health. So I said ‘what the hell could I do?’ So I called the health club next to where I lived and I made an appointment for after my appointment with my accountant Alright, great. I was so proud of myself. Then, I stopped to pay the toll and I looked at my hand and there it was—a cigarette. I’d been smoking every second since I’d been doing all these great things. I came to my health and here I’m gonna join the gym. ‘Oh, really. Big deal.’ Okay, so I said, ‘What do you want to be in five years; you wanna be without this cigarette.’ So I took the cigarette, I threw it out. Paid the toll, went through the midtown tunnel. As soon as I got to the other side of the toll, like an addicted smoker I picked up another cigarette and put it in my mouth again. And then I said, ‘What are you doing? Do you have any strength of character whatsoever?’ And I took the cigarette, I threw it out the window, and I never smoked again.

BH: That’s extraordinary…

CT: Yeah. So I told that story to a few people. And then several months later, I most have told it to ten people and maybe three or four came back to me and said they’d stopped smoking since I’d told the story, and that it was very empowering. And I thought, ‘jeez, I should put this on my website and let people know about it.’ Because if it could help those three of four people it can help other people. But I tell the story on the website and I’ve heard from so many people that it helps them. So that was the start of it and I gave them a download, a thing you could download to do your five-years-from-now-thing, and you should do it on a Monday and all that king of stuff, and I set up a plan with it. And then the rest of the podcast just talked about nice little things that—human nature, you know, good things that human beings can do for each other and kindnesses, and things that I hear and that happen to me and stuff like that. And that’s what the podcast has been about. So it’s been like a uplifting kind of thing, for me.

BH: Did you feel you could still gamble if you wanted?

CT: Yeah, yeah. It wasn’t that that stopped me from gambling, it was just an interesting thing that I noticed. And in doing the church thing it helped me put my life a little bit more in balance. And then when I gave up gambling, it wasn’t that I’m giving up gambling because it’s bad for me; I’m giving up gambling because I want to make music now. I started to play songs for my mother when she was ill in 1995, and she’s dying. And I went up to her house, instead of going to the track, and started to play for her. And then the next day I wrote a song and played it for her. The next day I played a song for my kids and Joan.

And I was spending more time with Mom and more time with Mom, and I finally said, you know, ‘What am I doing? I’m not doing this, I’m not playing songs for people because of [gambling].’ So I said, ‘Nah, I want to do this from now on in.’ So that’s when I called my partner, Ernie. I said, ‘Ernie, you won’t believe this but I am giving up gambling totally.’ I said, ‘You’re not gonna hear from me. I am giving it up. I’ll call you once every so often to see how you’re doing, but I’m giving it up because I cannot get back into this business. I know what it’s like if I spend half of my time making a bet and half of my time trying to make music, that’s not going to work.’ I said, ‘If I’m gonna be a touring singer/songwriter and get the best out of my music now, I’ve got to totally give up gambling.’ And I did it, just like that.

BH: Wow. He didn’t believe you, I’m sure.

CT: When I said this I think he believed me. He knows me.

BH: Do you think when this whole moment of becoming a better person for yourself and also for others and serving others, did you think of yourself as a more selfish person beforehand?

CT: You know, nobody would ever look to me like a selfish person because in the midst of this—whenever I was doing things, I would think people would think I was a kind person and sensitive to other people’s needs. But I didn’t have a lot of time for that when I was wrapped up in the horses. When I did have time I think I was okay with it. And I’m not doing it for that reason. I just think in the aftermath—just like when you write a song and in the aftermath the song becomes important, not because you’re trying to tell somebody it’s important for them; because it’s important for you. If I get a chill writing a song, I know that song’s important for me. If it becomes important for somebody else, that’s good too.

So when I do the Church of the Train Wreck thing, I’m documenting some nice thing for me that I’m going to hear again, and I’m gonna tell it and it’s gonna make me feel good. And I think other people might feel good too, and that’s gonna be nice. But it’s not like a big ego—‘Oh, look at all this karma I’m getting back for me’—no. I’m just glad to do it. Like when I’m on tour, the Church has a nice following. When I was on tour almost every show somebody would come up to me, ‘Chip, can I talk to you about something about the Church?’ And it was never anything—it was always something like, ‘I can’t tell you how much it meant to me, me and my wife; we were going through a big thing and we listened to—’ I’m sure preachers get this all the time but I never get that. I get somebody who liked my songs. But it’s a nice feeling. But more than that, it gets me thinking in some way that I like better for myself.

BH: I like this quote you have, Chip: “Every morning I pick up the guitar. It’s such a joy for me either playing a song I wrote yesterday or if something comes up. All of a sudden I’m drifting off someplace and getting that spirit. My spirit is more fully attached in me than it’s ever been, way more than when I was writing hits. What a joy it is to be able to just write, writing these songs.” To me that was a kind of a spiritual statement of sacred truth or something for you. Did you feel disconnected from it back in the days of ‘Wild Thing’ and ‘Angel of the Morning’, but now you’re feeling a greater connection there?

CT: I felt connected back in those days. I just think that the things that I’m doing now have a more powerful, fuller impact to me. That’s all. And they last longer in a different way. And I don’t mean to say if I write another ‘Wild Thing’ it won’t strike me the same way. I’m waiting for that. If that comes along, God bless me. [laughter] I have to talk to the Lord every time I sing ‘Wild Thing’ and say, ‘Look, that’s nice feelings these people are having singing the song’; I make that deal with Him.

BH: You got back together with your wife at some point?

CT: It’s funny, Joanie and I got separated and then we got divorced, and I still spent most every day at the house. But then when the kids were grown up I coached all the teams even though Joan and I were separated. And there was a little friction and whatever, and then I was gonna get married again, and there was friction. But we always had a very loving thing for each other in the middle of a lot of that friction. But then Joanie got cancer about five years ago and we had to deal with that, and we dealt with that together. And I was her kind of advocate, I handled all that stuff. So that brought us even closer together, and then she said, ‘Well, do you think you’re going to get married again?’ This was back about five months ago. I said, ‘Nah, I don’t think so.’ She said, ‘What do you say?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ [laughter]

BH: So you just recently got re-married.

CT: But it wasn’t one of those things were she said, ‘I want a change of lifestyle; me change mine or you change yours,’ you know. It’s like we’re soulmates and we still live the way we live; she lives in Westchester, I live in Manhattan. I just spend more time with her. And it’s like we’re figuring it out again together but we’re figuring it out being married, and that’s the way it was supposed to be ever since we were little kids and we met each other.

BH: You met as kids?

CT: I first yodeled for her when I was thirteen.

BH: So you had a crush on her as a kid?

CT: Oh yeah. We got married at Twenty-three. We were separated maybe after 6-7 years. I was a music business guy and loved the city and didn’t like Westchester living and stuff like that. It was hard for me. And I still am that way. And then we got divorced when I was gonna get married, maybe twenty years ago, and then I decided not to get married. So it’s been hovering like that. So we’ve been re-married; didn’t tell anybody except for the last second we told the kids—we were in Vegas visiting my gambling partner—and I said, ‘Okay boys, this is what’s going on.’

BH: Onstage at a recent show I heard you talk about going to mass and being an altar boy as a kid. Can you talk a little bit about what that meant to you and how that plays into your thinking now? The ritual.

CT: Well, I can’t say—I can’t say I know, really, to tell you the truth. I was always running from that. Although I loved the spirit of the church, I was always running from anything that told me that this meant exactly that. And I can’t say—I don’t want to disagree with it too much because I’m not that knowledgeable about it. I would just say that I love the spirit of the church and didn’t like people telling me that the word of God was the word of God because I didn’t know that. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to me were like, you know—these were good guys that were all, in often cases I’m guessing, they were trying to out-do somebody else who was talking about some other good healer. But there’s a lot of nice stories that do a lot of people good. If you turned to me and said, ‘blessed be the word of God’ and somebody’s saying something in the altar, there’s something over me that says ‘I believe the feeling and the niceness of it, but I don’t know that that’s the exact word of God.’ I always had these challenges in my brain.

The virtue of the mass—I must say I hid from that, it frightens me a little bit, all the rituals of that stuff. I can’t say I got lost in a calm way with any of that, you know. I always thought that maybe sometime I would like to look at it a little bit more, because certainly the things, the wonderful stuff about Jesus is wonderful stuff, whether it’s exactly accurate or not, it’s just wonderful, wonderful stuff. Sometime I would like to maybe specifically sit down and look, you know, the place where music comes into the mass see if I could write my own kind of stuff about it. But probably this stuff has been written many, many times by many writers like Townes Van Zandt and John Prine and Kris Kristofferson, and maybe me included over the years. We could throw a song or two that would mean as much, maybe more, than what you’ll listen to now in church.

BH: It sounds like a similar feeling to when you write a good song, though.

CT: Yeah. So it’s like, I don’t know what I believe with all of that, but I just believe in the goodness of man, and when I see somebody do something kind for somebody, to me, what do I care if he’s Catholic or Muslim. That’s just a person doing a nice thing for somebody. Blessed be that guy. And whoever is the good god up there, he’s gonna bless that guy too.