Howard and Copeland

In our Memoir in a Melody series, Biographile writers examine the storytelling of well-known musicians, exploring the autobiographical elements of their famous songs

If you were anywhere near a radio in 1998, you probably heard "The Way," a jangling, Latin-influenced ballad by Austin rock act Fastball. It was the band’s first big hit, and managed to hold the number one spot on the Billboard Modern Rock chart for almost two months.

"The Way" is an incredibly catchy tune, but there’s something a little spooky about it too. The song’s lyrics -- about an elderly couple who disappears from their home, finding immortality on the road -- seem sweet. That is, until "shadows" on the highway are referenced. The promises that the unnamed couple will never go home, grow old, or be hungry again seem a great deal less reassuring. Perhaps, the listener thinks, the "immortality" they found on the open road is purely allegorical.

Fastball lead singer Tony Scalzo said that he wrote "The Way" in 1997 after reading an article in The Austin American-Statesman about Lela and Raymond Howard, an elderly couple who disappeared on June 29 after leaving their Salado, Texas home to attend an event fifteen miles away in Temple.

The article, "Elderly Salado Couple Missing On a Trip To Nowhere," appeared in the July 2nd issue of the paper and was written by Denise Gamino, a former reporter now employed as a freelance writer. She remembers the Howard case well.

Gamino had been assigned to the state desk during her time with the paper, and said that her colleagues preferred to cover politics, a topic that she had grown tired of after working for many years as a correspondent in DC. When an editor came looking for someone to cover the Howard story, she volunteered.

"I always sought out stories about people no one had ever heard of," said Gamino. "My journalism philosophy was ‘blessed are the nobodies, for theirs is the kingdom of fascinating stories.’"

When Gamino interviewed the family she learned that Lela and Raymond were both in their eighties and had medical conditions that left them prone to confusion. They had apparently made it to Temple, where they were spotted getting coffee at the local WalMart. After that, they disappeared. The Bell County Sheriff’s Office was notified when the Howards didn’t return home that afternoon as expected, and a missing persons bulletin was issued that day.

Their family had no way of knowing it, but by Saturday night the Howards were already 500 miles away in rural Arkansas. The wayward couple was pulled over once for driving without their headlights in Logan County, and then 45 minutes later in nearby Yell County for driving with their high beams on. Neither of the deputies who pulled them over were aware that they were missing, and wouldn’t know until Monday. By that time, the Howards were long gone.

Scalzo said that Gamino’s first article was a starting point for his own version of the story. His would be a happier one, in which the Howards find their youth again and live forever on the open road. Once he had the idea, it didn't take very long to write and record the song.

"I wrote 'The Way' in a couple of hours. It was a working demo similar to what you hear in the recording by the end of the day," said Scalzo. "It did not fit with Fastball's catalog by then. Most of the stuff we were doing was straight Modern Rock/Power Pop. I was just trying to do something a little different, but not very."

While Scalzo and his bandmates were working on "The Way," the search for the Howards had spread out to include much of the southeastern United States. Helicopters flew over the rough terrain of Arkansas to search for any sign of the couple, while relatives and volunteers combed back roads, woods, and ravines. The Howards had some family that lived near Hot Springs, and some held out hope that they might be making their way there, or would be found in the area, lost but unharmed.

Gamino continued her own investigative efforts, tracing their journey in Arkansas best she could and interviewing family members and law enforcement by phone and in person. At one point, she arranged to visit the Howards’ home to look for clues.

She described what she found there as "eerie." The television was unplugged and clothing laid out on the couple’s bed as if the Howards had been in the middle of planning a long trip and abruptly left. Their hearing aids and toiletries had been left in the bathroom, though.

The more she looked, the more it seemed that the Howards had been suffering from more confusion and forgetfulness than their family had been aware. Gamino left their home with more questions than answers.

“If they had planned a trip, why did they leave behind some essentials and not tell their son, who lived next door? This was July but the wall calendar in the kitchen was still turned to the page for February," she said. "The Howards were in their 80s and both had been exhibiting cognitive impairments, so the scene in the house didn't seem to bode well. When I found out the cat they left behind was named 'Happy,' the melancholy spoke for itself."

The search for the Howards came to an end on Saturday, July 12 when hikers discovered the crumpled remains of their vehicle at the bottom of a 25-foot cliff, just off of a stretch of highway near Hot Springs. The area had been searched before, but the crash site was obscured by thick vegetation that made it difficult to see. Bodies found at the site were confirmed as those of Lela and Raymond. They had died from injuries sustained in the crash, which apparently took place the Saturday they left for Temple.

A year after the Howards died, the song they inspired became the first hit single off of Fastball’s second album, 1998’s "All The Pain Money Can Buy." It was followed by two more from the same album: "Fire Escape" and "Out of My Head." Both songs hit Billboard’s Top 100 chart in 1998 and 1999, and the album went platinum.

Scalzo said that he’s grateful for what "The Way" brought him and his bandmates, and attributes Fastball’s longevity to the attention the song earned.

"I enjoy singing it and I never forget the fact that without that one song, Fastball would have just been one of those bands I was in for a few years. Because of fame and success, I get to be an influence to a few folks out there. I am grateful."

With this story in mind, give "The Way" another spin while reading the lyrics below.

“The Way”

They made up their minds and they started packing
They left before the sun came up that day
An exit to eternal summer slacking
But where were they going without ever knowing the way

They drank up the wine and they got to talking
They now had more important things to say
And when the car broke down, they started walking
Where were they going without ever knowing the way

Anyone can see the road that they walk on is paved in gold
And it's always summer, they'll never get cold
They'll never get hungry, they'll never get old and gray
You can see their shadows wandering off somewhere
They won't make it home, but they really don't care
They wanted the highway, they're happier there today, today

Their children woke up and they couldn't find 'em
They left before the sun came up that day
They just drove off and left it all behind 'em (leaving it all behind)
Where were they going without ever knowing the way?

Anyone can see the road that they walk on is paved in gold
And it's always summer, they'll never get cold
They'll never get hungry, they'll never get old and gray
You can see their shadows wandering off somewhere
They won't make it home, but they really don't care
They wanted the highway, they're happier there today, today

Anyone can see the road that they walk on is paved in gold
And it's always summer, they'll never get cold
They'll never get hungry, they'll never get old and gray
You can see their shadows wandering off somewhere
They won't make it home, but they really don't care
They wanted the highway, they're happier there today, today

Notes:

Thank you to Tony Scalzo, Denise Gamino and Debbie Hiott for their help in filling in the blanks in this story.

Fastball is still active and playing shows. You can find out more about the band and their upcoming appearances at fastballtheband.com.

Before they were married, Lela was a widow and Raymond a widower, and after their death in Arkansas their bodies were buried next to those of their respective first spouses. Thank you Larry Lagut, and Betty F. for allowing me to use their photos.