Travels with the Chameleon

Gene Wall Cole may well be the luckiest man alive.

In the introduction to his recently published memoir, The Chameleon: A Spiritual Journey Through Wine, Women & Song (Awakening Imaginations, 1998), the traveling musician/author/lecturer confesses that, throughout his life, more than one person has given him that nickname.

That’s not surprising, considering the varied and intense life experiences described in the book: collaborations with Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, B.B. King, Waylon Jennings (with whom Cole toured, in the ’70s) and other pre-eminent musicians; not one, but two narrow escapes from death (one involving drug addiction and the other a motorcycle accident); and, perhaps most remarkably, the wealth of incredible “coincidences” (there’s really no such thing, Cole insists) that have led him to his current excursions into altruism.

As predicted by the title, the book adopts a mind-boggling and rather disconcerting spectrum of tones. Alternating between the first person and the omniscient narration of “Merlin” (who represents the author’s older and wiser self), the self-consciously jocular Cole swings from granola-infused rainbowspeak to chest-thumping bravado faster than you can say fallen angel. The work, soon to be rereleased by a major publisher, inspired one reviewer to paint Cole as a kind of “spiritual truck driver,” a paradox the author adores.

In person, however, the Chameleon exhibits yet another hue.

The surprisingly humble Cole whom I interview speaks with the measured awe of a man who relinquished control over life and still won — prevailing not in spite of this spiritual surrender, but because of it.

Indeed, the first thing he does after ushering me into his solar-powered RV — a plusher version of his first bumper-stickered van, which urged skeptics to “Follow Your Dreams” — is apologize.

“I didn’t sleep at all last night,” he explains. I can sympathize, being no stranger to insomnia myself. But with Cole, it’s different. Far from feeling frustrated by his unwarranted sleeplessness, he merely accepts it as a current part of his life. Disgorging the glut of memories stuffed into the relatively short prose section of the book (the rest consists of poetry and song lyrics), he says, was a cathartic endeavor that continues to tax his emotions — and invade his sleep time.

“There are so many tears on those pages,” he confides. “It was something I had to write. I would be up at 3 or 4 in the morning, trying to go to bed, but it was my job just to put it out. It’s not that [some of the less-savory confessions included in the book] were good or bad; it’s just what was necessary for me to learn my lesson. It’s important for me to help others.”

By his own account, Cole has been blessed with some extraordinary mentors in his life, without whom he’s sure he would not have succeeded — or even survived. “I’ve had so many evolved teachers over the years,” he observes. “[Enlightenment] is something I’ve pursued since I was very young. I wanted to know how to do it.”

It’s that “how” that’s the crux of his new workshop, entitled “Follow Your Dreams: The Bottom Line.” Despite the New Age dogma he has long embraced, Cole says his seminar is strictly tailored to common sense.

“It’s for people who want [more from life], but who don’t have three years to sit on a mountaintop and contemplate their navels,” he declares. “So many people are so unhappy with their life, with what they’re doing, and life is too short for that. The workshop is about going for your dreams. And it doesn’t have to be ‘airy fairy'; it doesn’t have to be about spirituality; it can be ‘I want to own my own car shop.’ It’s about going for your bliss, and [knowing] the money will follow. There are techniques you can actually use to create anything you want to out of life. And a lot of this stuff has been around forever, since the time of the Bible, but everyone makes it real hocus-pocus. It’s actually very simple.”

He hopes his fluid nature will attract a similarly variable crowd.

“I hope to get the type who wouldn’t normally go to this kind of event, someone who’ll say, ‘Look at that. This guy’s played with Waylon Jennings. He’s kind of a cowboy.’ And, of course, I’m going to get the Deepak Chopra followers, because that’s the crowd I’ve always been in. I think I’ll get an unusual mixture.”

Like his writing, Cole’s music comes in a startling gamut of styles. On the three CDs he has released to coincide with his book, you’ll find everything from transcendent New Age sounds to country tunes to the folksy foot-tappers that have garnered comparisons to Woody Guthrie. And though Cole sees book and music as intimate companions, he’s quick to explain that they’re not inseparable.

“Some people don’t read and listen well at the same time,” he says generously. “I made a point that [the two media] would stand alone.”

As a young man living in the Great Smoky Mountains, Cole received a one-of-a-kind gift — a dulsitar (a hybrid of a sitar and a mountain dulcimer) — that has weathered its owner’s tribulations intact and remains with him to this day. For this listener, Cole’s most interesting music is what emerges from the clear, simple beauty of this complex instrument. Likewise, the book’s most affecting passage is Cole’s similarly clear and simple account of his reunion with his long-estranged father — a lovely, sparely written patch of prose.

After his father confesses his deepest wish — to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery — the younger Cole recounts: “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The man I used to hate was entrusting me with an honor that would have been inconceivable even a few short years before. You just don’t get there from where we’d been.”

Whatever parts of Cole’s art you may or may not warm to, stagnation is one note that has never entered this man’s repertoire: Cole’s next book will be a coast-to-coast account of the people he has met on the most recent leg of his incredible life’s journey. On learning that the owner of a local RV park was a retired prima ballerina, the author was as thrilled as a child at the circus for the first time.

“I’ve always wanted to interview a prima ballerina,” he reports excitedly, adding, “That’s what I really love: when people tell me their stories.”

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