Peter Case

As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport

Chapter 3

THE EDWARD DAILY/WEEKLY RESIDENCE HOTEL 

I couldn’t stay at Steve’s pad long, they had a full house. I was only there a couple nights, then I split for my big sister’s place, north of the city. Sue was the first rocker I ever knew, a world traveler, and she had even turned me on to folk music, way back in ‘64. But Sis was living with her boyfriend now, a “hip” businessman named Hank, and I didn’t get on with him, so it was back to the city in a couple of days.

I could hardly believe I was in California. At the instigation of my sister, I tried working at a couple places. Neither job worked out.

The first was up in the Haight, where I was cast as the office boy for a small counterculture sex newspaper. It was in a fascinating location, right across from the trolley tunnel on Carl Street, at Cole, where the train tracks emerged from the mountain. My mission was to take the big dumpsters of unsold papers and roll them down the street to a building on Cole, where they were destroyed somehow, out in back. I excelled at this part of the gig. My next assigned task was to build a wall in the office, creating a new back room. I did it, sawing wood, hammering nails, setting two-by-fours, taping sheet rock, even hanging a door and a window, but I had no idea what I was doing and worked very slowly,  especially while listening to the ripe conversations at the editorial desk in the next room. It was all very interesting, but the paper was going down, and my mind wasn’t on the work anyway, so I got quietly fired after the inspection of the wall was completed.

The next job was helping to complete the remodeling of the unoccupied second apartment of a frenetic Chinese businessman named Hugh Lee. I was supposed to sleep in the apartment at night and paint it by day. The pad was on the second floor. There was a water bed and a big Andy Warhol painting on the wall, but the air was polluted with kerosene fumes, plaster dust, and the smell of oil-based paint. Ladders were set up, tools and drop cloths covered everything, and every night I felt like I was going to sleep on the job.

A guy named Michael came in every day to work. He was a nice enough fella, but turned out to be a massive stoner, on and off the job. As a result, Hugh Lee’s apartment was being destroyed at nearly the same rate it was being remodeled. I watched a completely whacked Michael throw a ladder over his shoulder and set off down the hall, then turn, taking out the crystal chandelier over-head, then standing there bewildered in the shower of glass. Wow.

I worked days splashing around in the white paint. By night, I sloshed around on the water bed trying to read, or I’d get up and go wander the city streets, with my guitar, meeting people, just looking around. One night I brought some of my new street friends back to the pad for a little party. Bossman Hugh showed up the next morning unannounced, found big wine bottles on the floor, strange people crashed out all around the room, me sleeping with my shoes on, underneath his Warhol, and that was that.

Fired again.

All I really wanted to do was play guitar. I decided to go downtown and try playing music on the street. I was falling in love with San Francisco. The streets of the city were wide awake, completely alive. I was happy to wander any neighborhood, with no idea where I was going. People everywhere, travelers, hipsters, crazy down-and-outs, beautiful women dressed like gypsies, barefoot hippies, workers, hustlers and dealers by the score, guys who looked like they were just out of prison, full dress Marines and cops, bicycle messengers by the hundreds pushing their clunky two wheelers up and down Market St., street artists doing portraits, blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, all kinds of people, speaking every language in the world. Anybody would be likely to come around the next corner, and did, all day, every day. Vietnam veterans, Black Panthers, gold prospectors. The Watergate scandal was blasting out of radios and TVs, and the president was stinking it up, nonstop. Out in the golden sun, against the breeze off the bay, the cool fog rolled down Twin Peaks and over the city. I wandered looking for action, friendly faces, music, any interesting scene.

In Union Square there were gatherings of people at lunch hour every day with street performers playing for huge crowds. I went down and sat on the grass in the park, playing my guitar, watching as office girls sat and chatted, and the pigeons took off and wheeled around the monument at the center of the square

Me, I wasn’t trying to attract much attention; I was too nervous to say anything or play too loud.

A black man of about 40 years or so, stocky, dressed in jeans, a longish denim jacket and a black beaver fedora hat, sat down across from me, listening to me play. He was wearing shades, and slightly smiling. We started talkin’ about blues. He listened for a spell as I tried to play a Lightnin’ Hopkins shuffle. “Well that’s pretty good,” he said, “but, the old style, you gotta play it with some slip and slide.” Anyhow, I think that’s what he was sayin’, I was havin’ difficulty gettin’ it all. “Let me see the guitar, I’ll show you.”

I handed over the Gibson, and he took it, cradled it, hovered over it with a cigarette hanging out his lips, pickin’ with his thumb, holding bass notes and chords in his left as he started a rolling blues rhythm with the brush of his right, kinda eyeing me through the smoke, and it was just the most rockin’, swinginest thing I’ve ever heard. A whole band sound coming out of one guitar, a very slippery groovin’ blues band.

 

He handed the guitar to me so I could give it a try, and I took a shot, but I couldn’t quite get my head or fingers around it, so he took it back and showed me several times, and I kinda maybe sorta got it. We just hung out and took turns playing for a while. He said his name was Steve, when I asked him. I told him I was gonna start playin’ on the street, and he said, “You need a louder guitar. That’s an electric, but you need one with a big sound box.” I went with him up to the pawnshops on Sixth Street off Market and traded the Gibson electric across the counter for a fabulous Yamaki Deluxe. It was an imitation of a classic D28 Martin, except it was the cheap line of Yamaha, if you know what I mean. I had to put in some cash too. It sorta seemed like a rip, but I needed that guitar.

With my new axe in hand we left the pawnshop, and Steve said, “I’m gonna take you over to the wharf, that’s the place you need to be playin’,’’ so we caught a cable car loaded with people and rode over the hill, riding for free. We got there, and yeah, he was right, this was the great spot to be playin’, very wide open, tourists throwing money right and left, no supervision, just a right loose scene. I jumped right in and Steve hung around for a while, givin’ me a few pointers about the street music business, then he split, and I never saw him again. I guess you could say Steve gave me my start in the professional music field.

That night I moved into a cheap residency hotel on Scott Street called the Edward. The Indian family who ran it was friendly and didn’t seem to care what I did. The hallways were dark, the air was thick with the aroma of an exotic spice mix. It was quiet and cheap enough that I could afford a week or so on the dough I had left.

I moved into my tiny room, fell asleep, and woke up in the middle of the night, sick as a dog, with the psychedelic flu. The walls were moving. I was delirious. I was down for three days and three nights, and I stayed locked in, going completely crazy.

At about midnight on the third day, I was feeling a little better, carrying a bottle of ginger ale, and my guitar, walking East on Lombard Street. A yellow cab pulled up with its service light off. The driver was a tall, thin, pale-skinned, dark-haired hipster dude with a strange look in his eyes. “Hey man get in. I’ll give you a ride.”

This was Eric, 25 years old, from Brooklyn, New York. He’d just been released from a mental institution in Morocco, and he was trying to save up some dough while he waited to ship out as a merchant seaman. He drove me over to North Beach, to the Coffee Gallery, not a coffee house at all, but a knock down drag’em out dive bar that featured folk singers. Within a few days Eric became my first manager. Things were really movin’.

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Chapter 2

WEST  MARCH, 1973

It was my first time in Chicago and my first trip West. “Well shot with a beer back!” That’s what I heard a guy in the bar ordering, so I did the same, an’ I threw the drinks down, pretty quick, workin’ my way through that little pocketful of folding money they’d given me as we said goodbye, at the Buffalo Greyhound Bus depot, less than 24 hours before. I was 18 years old: legal rock and roll cannon fodder, across the street from the Amtrak station, workin’ up my nerve.

The bus had to push through a blizzard, all night, heading west, and it seemed like I was the only passenger. Sun rose on the brownlands of Ohio like chocolate mixed with death, and I was alone for hours with the darkness and drone, my chest on fire and so fucking hopeful, finally running for my life. A big whiff of freedom wafted in through closed windows, perfectly mixed with the smell of my own fear, my stomach felt like i was on a rollercoaster., and only my eyes were hungry. “I’m going all the way,” I promised myself. “I’m bound for California, I won’t stop ‘til I get there.”

So the first thing I did was stop, in Chicago, and get drunk under the El. But even then, with the alcohol in me, I was all nervous and shaky as I boarded the train, looking up and down the platform, afraid I was being pursued. I had my army green duffel bag and the Gibson in its brown fake alligator cardboard case. My winter coat—white early ‘70s fake fur zippered snazz—well, I wouldn’t be needing that in sunny California.   A copy of the  Bible.  The Complete Works of Shakespeare I’d copped at the campus store at Buff State, when I was still crashing there and eating for free in the cafeteria, before I’d made up my mind to go. A sweater and an extra pair of pants. A piece of paper with Steve’s phone number in San Francisco.  A worn paperback copy of Conrad’s Lord Jim. And finally, a  Hohner harmonica, a notebook, and a pen.

My last night in Buffalo, I wandered across the campus as the snow fluttered down, happening on a coffee house. Behind a plate glass window sat a roomful of students listening to folk singers. I walked in, but was too shy to talk to anyone; then I borrowed a guitar and sang John Lee Hooker’s “Stranger in Your Town.” I’d never sung it before, but I knew it; it came out on its own, welled up in me, and caught me, and everyone else in the room, by surprise. The other day when Donnie had rescued me out in the farmland of the Boston hills—answering my call for help, picking me up in his beat ‘65 Mustang, spinnin’ his big brother’s blues tape as we drove around all night, trying to figure out where I could go, what I could do, and how I was going to escape—I’d rewound it and listened again and again. Finally he’d dropped me off at that school, where I didn’t know a soul, but where I felt like I could hide out and survive until something made sense. I knew after I sang Hooker that night, I’d to have my guitar when I left town. I’d been mixed up for a few months: but now I knew I needed it, and I’d never put it down again. I’d never give up on it, no matter how good it felt, no matter how much it hurt.

Now, a little dazed in the Chicago station, somehow I found my track, and my train: it was called “The Super Chief.” Famous. I’d seen it in the Golden Book of Trains when I was six, and here I was, getting on board. I was carrying my duffel, the Gibson, and a paper sack that held a bottle of wine. As I came in the door of the car, I looked up, and entering at the very next door, was a long-haired guy in denim, wire rim glasses, with a guitar over his shoulder, a duffel, and a bottle of wine in a sack. He looked to be a few years older than me.

We settled in across from each other, and the train started rolling. He said his name was Richard, he was from Syracuse. I asked him if he knew the blues band Bad Medicine out there, and he said he did. That seemed like a big coincidence to me, ‘cause that was my friend Donnie’s brother’s group, but I didn’t say much; it was weird, that’s all. I told Richard I was going to California, and he said yeah he was too. “Is it your first time?” I said yeah, and he proceeded

to give me the word on San Francisco, L.A., and the rest, like he was my big brother.“You’ll love it out there, man, it’s the greatest place on earth. There’s something for everybody. Whatever you’re into, you can find it. It’s wild, and it’s all kids. You can go surfing in the morning, then ride a motorcycle up into the mountains, and be skiing the same day. There’s bike gangs, radicals, everybody’s on drugs, chicks are loose, everybody’s partying, people like to boogie. You gotta watch out though, man, there’s a lot of trouble you can get into, sidewalk commandos and things like that.”I found out later that sidewalk commandoes were motorcycle gangs that couldn’t afford motorcycles.

“I’ll give you one piece of advice, man.”

“What’s that, man?”

He leaned towards me, and lowered his voice to a hush: “Whatever you do, always stay alone.”

Right. That seemed pretty serious, but it made sense. I wasn’t sayin’ nothin’.

We started rockin’ on our guitars and drinking the wine. We ended up in the club car a few hours later, playin’ for the crowd up there: boys and girls our age, who were enjoying a few drinks, and who seemed like they were ready for some kicks too. We were all stuck together on this journey, and me and Richard were becoming the entertainment. I knew maybe a handful of songs, and played ‘em all night. The train rocked on forever, across the plains, through the Rockies. At one point I saw a sign that read “Cheyenne” and I knew we were getting somewhere. We took a collection in the club car at a stop in Denver. It was early in the dark hours of morning. The bar on the train was closed, but our gang there needed booze. Somebody said there was a liquor store open all night, right near the train depot in Denver, if anybody had the nerve to go, so I got off at the stop, and ran into the town, searching frantically for the store, finally found it, this beat up little neon shop, scored as much alcohol as possible and then dashed like mad for the train, just making it as they started to pull out. The whole gang was in the door there, cheering me, reaching arms to help me on with the bag.

We finally came down the mountain side into California, and as far as I could tell, we were landing on the moon. The sun was rising in a huge blue sky, the air was clear, and the hills were covered with space vegetation: plants I’d never seen before. In the next thirty years. Eventually I came to know them as jade, eucalyptus, century plant, cactus. This earth wasn’t dirt; it looked all sand and stones, not the black dirt and clay world I knew. I’d landed on another planet.

Downtown San Francisco outside of the bus station on Mission, looking at the high rise, guitar and duffel on the pavement, just spinnin’ and lookin’, at the J Church trolley, the N Judah line, crowds and crawling traffic, checker cabs and car horns and rumbles sounding deep in the earth. I’d been up for days, reelin’. Steve came down in a VW microbus, I hopped in, and he carried me up to the Haight. I crashed that night at his pad up on Buena Vista. Up late, alone, looking through the records, I’d found one of Jimmy Reed singing “Help Yourself.” I played it softly, over and over and over again, until I’d carved it into my heart.

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As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport (in serial form) Chapter 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AFTER THE FIRST GREAT PSYCHEDELIC ERA  JANUARY, 1970 

“There are no stars because there is no sky.”

It was bleak, the wintertime in Buffalo, and all the world looked flat, as if it was.projected on a movie screen. Nothing looked real, and I was the first kid on my block to notice.

I’d walked out of Hamburg High School a few hours before, and I swore I wasn’t going back. The fear had come over me while our elderly and bespectacled little teacher, Mrs. Myers, was up at the front of the room, reading out loud to the 10th English class, all of whom listened, hypnotized with boredom. Jeanine and Robin, the girls who sat on either side of my desk in the back of the room, were stretching their legs, yawning, looking over at each other and me, smiling, fidgeting, ready to do something, to be entertained. The sweetly oblivious Mrs. Meyers, continued to read from her book, in a raspy sing-song ghost of  a voice:

“Between the idea

And the reality

Between the motion

And the act

Falls the Shadow…

Between the desire

And the spasm

Between the potency

And the existence…

Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom”

I started to sweat and shake, the projector was slipping, time whooshing past on all sides of the clock. Reality jumped the track. A wave of dread crashed over me, the immense and terrifying feeling of being stranded in Eternity.

I couldn’t make it. I had to leave.

“Mr. Case, please sit down! Where are you going? Get back in your seat this instant!”

“I quit.”

I ran down the dark halls of the school, crashed through the exit doors, and stumbled out into the snow. The cold air slapped me across the face. .After a brief walk through the empty streets of the town, I was hanging in the parlor of Banana’s garage apartment with some other kids I knew, watching the strange outline of shadows around their bodies. Everything I saw appeared to be in two dimensions and nothing seemed real. Sound was out of sync, and I was beginning to feel like I’d broken my senses.

The strangeness came over me again, and now I needed to escape Banana’s quickly. I left without saying goodbye, got out to the sidewalk and turned left. Looking way down Pleasant Avenue, I saw three people coming, rounding the corner together, puffing along in the cold,

and before I could read their faces across the distance, before I could even identify who it was, I could tell: they weere three dimensional and sure enough, when they got closer, I could see it was my best friends Jerry, Veronica, and Bray, and they stood out in relief against the flat screen behind them. They appeared real, full bodied, and alive.  Everyone, and everything else, was flat.

Something was happening to me, and I couldn’t stop it. You can bet I wasn’t pouring this out to my parents, teachers or the cops, but it’d been coming on for a little while, and people were starting to notice. I played piano and sang in a band called Pig Nation. At the rehearsal the day before, down in the basement, Gary, the organ player, got mad at me and said to Banana: “Tell him I’m real!”  My Mother was overheard, the previous weekend, at a party cross town, telling an acquaintance, “Having Peter for a son is like having a brain tumor!” Okay, that sounds about right. My tongue was hanging out, black with death. There was a constant knifing pain in my chest and fire in my limbs. On top of all this, the hallucinations continued, the walls moving and such. I tried not to say too much about it, but it was enough to drive me mad. I’m lucky that I didn’t wind up strapped down, committed to Gowanda, the local State Mental Institution.

I’d seen a man get shot in the head one night, live on the TV news. A captured Viet Cong. They just put a pistol up to his head and blew his brains out, with the camera watching. I said fuck it man, that’s it for me, I don’t give a fuck about this world anymore. I quit. They can all go fuck themselves, the parents, the cops, all the teachers at that fucked up crazy school. Bray gave me the William Blake book, the songs with the pictures, and that came close. Descartes was supposed to help a bit but he just made things worse. The first fucking thing in there, in his “geometric proof of God,” is, “you can’t trust the senses.” No kidding! There’s no verification possible of the senses, no way of ever knowing. The most basic problem there is, right? Am I alone? Does anything or anyone else exist? How come nobody else has any trouble with this?

“It’s the crisis all religious men and visionaries go through,” says Bray, “where your soul gets torn open and the whole universe comes rushing through, and you see the world in an entirely new way. Then, on the other hand,” he says, “maybe you just need to get laid.”

Whatever it was, I couldn’t take it, man. I was too weak and too lonesome. Sometimes I’d out on the street, and be overcome by terror, like the day I refused to leave Malkas’ apartment on Main Street. Panic.

“Yer Blues,” now there’s a great song. Lennon sounded like he knew. I was hurtin’ man, I didn’t see how I was gonna make it. And band practice was comin’ up in a couple hours.

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Tell The Boss I’m Sick

In New York City, the club was the Bottom Line, over near Washington Square Park.

At The Bottom Line, dressing rooms were small, but the mirrors were ringed by bulbous white lights, like you would imagine seeing in a Broadway backstage. The Bottom Line equals “making it in the big town.”

The Village Voice gave my show a pick, New York magazine raved about the new album, the writers were out front, even the reviewer from the New York Times. All the DJs were there from Fordham University, and KNBC.

Paul from The Nerves showed up, with a Rolling Stone photographer in tow, and we had our picture taken together.  The members of R.E.M., in town to make a record, were seated at a front table.

A representative from the New York Musicians Union showed up and came backstage with his date for the night, so she could meet me. I could hear the murmur of the crowd building in the house.

I needed to go out there, connect, and blow the place away. Or rather, my career needed it. Maybe I’d finally be recognized, The endless scuffling would come to an end, I’d get respect from my peers, and be able to meet my bills. I could stop putting myself through psychological torture. I’d experience a new freedom, a new happiness and no longer wish to shut the door on the past, and LOVE would be running like freshwater in a clear mountain brook. I’d be working with my heroes, travelling at ease, the songs would keep flowing, and I’d attain fingertip control of my own brilliance. The big questions would be answered. I’d ‘make it.’

There was a nearly full house when I walked the plank, out onto the stage, and put on a terrible show, one of the worst of my career. The guitar sounded thin, my voice hurt, the audience was smiling, but remote. I made foolish mistakes, and was self-conscious in a new, terrible way, flat footed, awkward between songs, grabbing the wrong harmonicas, misplacing my capo, and tuning up endlessly. I sang my songs but the jokes fell flat. Somewhere towards the end of the hour on stage my heart sank, and I crashed. Struggling to turn it around, somehow I got an encore, but I knew I’d stepped on it. I fought gravity and lost.

That was it. The audience split. Backstage a pal of mine came along, making fun of one of my songs in an exaggerated baby voice, in front of a crowd of “well-wisher’s.” It was a joke, I guess.  I saw my weakness in a stark light. I felt ashamed. But it was funny, too.  I had to laugh. So I had a bad show, so what? You have to go on.

Later that night, Josh and I wandered the empty streets of midtown Manhattan, telling stories, looking in store windows at stuff we couldn’t afford,  and watching the steam rising from the grates of the street,. We stopped at the all night bodegas , drank cokes and smelled the smells, the flowers, the fish, the garbage, the smoke from cigarettes, dug the great atmosphere in New York, as the newspaper trucks made their rounds, and we talked, trying to deal with the distance between us, the years I’d left him, and our closeness now, It was like talking to a mirror sometimes, the way he looked just like me, only younger, more wounded, maybe, but smarter, too, less absurdly ambitious. And we had the same mannerisms, used the identical tones of voice, suffered the same anxiety.

There were big differences too. I had the drive to sing in these joints for a thousand years, no matter what the weather. He had other ideas, in areas I knew nearly nothing about. But he had to deal with the gigs too, when he was with me, and I know it wasn’t easy for a kid that age.

I was always one step from going down. I still am. It’s a habit. But every time I’d lose, no matter how bad, I’d come out to someplace like this, where I’m alone again, and free to face the glory of the world, as the memory of the shame fades, and is slowly replaced by that wild sense of hope that I can’t seem to shake. I’m gonna write the song, that magic melody that’ll set everything right, that’ll redeem all the years of jive, the wasted years of days of hours of minutes of eternity. The song where I’ll learn what it’s about and what it’s for, the song I’ll sing that’ll melt my own heart, let everyone feel what it’s like to be loved.

We went back to our cramped hotel room, with the two beds along opposite walls, and we lay in the dark talking until we woke up.

*                              *                                            *                                            *

I went to go pick up the “hot rod,” a blue rented Dodge Charger, from a nearby parking garage, and I asked Josh to keep an eye on the clothes, which were all hanging on a luggage cart out on the sidewalk by the front door, and wait there until I got back. A few minutes later, I got back with the car, pulling up behind some taxis, to the spot where Josh stood on the sidewalk. He opened the back door and threw his tape bag and the guitar back there.

“What ‘ dya say we go get a slice before we blow town?”

“Josh, where are the clothes?”

He spun around a couple of times, looked up, looked back down, walked inside and around the lobby, came back out shaking his head. We both looked up and down the busy street. He’d turned his back on the clothes for a moment and they were gone, vanished up the boulevard without a trace, probably in another state already. Another lesson in New York City.

“Let’s get out of here.”

We navigated our way through traffic, heading crosstown. The next gig was somewhere in New Jersey, and I’d be playing in last night’s sweaty rangly-tanglys, which for some reason, I still had on. We’d lost everything we’d brought for the tour.

Through the tunnel, over a bridge, down the turnpike, then turning off towards the beach towns. We’d passed that stretch of New Jersey, by the Newark Airport that always makes me think of Jimmy Hoffa, and guys wearing concrete boots.  It’s the edge of the city, the urban wilds, the toxic swamp-zone, with Manhattan in the distance, further away than it looks. On our right, jets were taking off and climbing at intense angles, and on our left, vacant bad lands of post industrial waste, covered with poisonous water and reeds.

We drove out to a town called Longbranch, New Jersey. Longbranch is a hard hit, bombed out beach town, one stop north of Asbury Park. We passed a lot of knocked down buildings and many vacant lots. The club was a super-funky rock box called Marz American Style, and was right across from the beach, looking out on the Atlantic Ocean. We got there about 5 o’clock, and knocked, and the sound guy came and unlocked the door for us, letting us into the dark and empty club for our mic check.

It didn’t take long to get the guitar sounding right, so, with sound check finished, we walked across the road to the little tourist beach shop, looking for some shirts to replace the dirty ones we had on. Alas, all they had left were two identical black tee’s, with a picture of a pink starfish on each one, but I bought them and we put ’em on right there, and walked back over to the club.

We crossed the street and entered the club, and saw a guy leaning back against the bar in the dark. That was the moment, in our matching father-and-son pink seashell t-shirts, that we met Bruce Springsteen.

He wanted to talk. “I really dug your first album” he said. “I even phoned Van Dyke Parks, ’cause I was thinking about working with him. I liked what he did on ‘Small Town Spree.’ We didn’t end up working together, but we became friends.”

“Are you getting the Plimsouls back together?” he asked me.

“I’ve been thinking about it,” I told him. “We played a benefit a few months back, and it was like we’d never stopped, the sound and feeling were back immediately. It really surprised me.” He told me he was gonna get the E Street band together again. I decided to kid him a little.

“I’m from Buffalo, man, been on the road, and seen just about everywhere in America, but this little stretch of beach towns in New Jersey is about the strangest, most foreign place I’ve been in the whole country, and about as far from New York City as you can get. It’s hard to believe it’s only fifty miles away.”

He laughed and said, “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell people for years!”

We chatted for a while, as the club lights were turned on, and soon it started getting to be time for the show. Some of Bruce’s friends showed up in a small group, including his wife, and they went down and started drinking beers at the bar on the other side of the room. More people came in and I got ready to go on.

I played my set for the seventy five or so people in the joint. Towards the end, as I was going into “Walk In The Woods,” the club owner came up on the back of the stage, hit a button, and a wispy jet of smoke-like thick mist began squirting from a hose. He had a manual attachment for it, and he was walking around the front of the stage, spraying more fog here and there.

At first it formed a low cloud cover at the base of the stage, kind of like an early morning out by the riverbank, but the fog kept coming, and deepening, rising up my legs and the microphone stand, while I stood in the blue light, wailing like a train whistle on my harmonica, chugging the rhythm, keeping the song going as the whole world began to disappear and the fog swallowed everything. The lights were dim, like the moon behind clouds, and I was alone, lost in a fog-bank.The song finally ended, and I heard applause, light and distant, from somewhere far off in the night. I staggered from the stage and stowed my guitar, then headed out to the bar, as the air began to clear. The Boss was buying a beer for my underage son, and he offered me one as

well.

Bruce was laughing. “Hey Peter, those were some great effects you had going there, man. Really dug the production of your show!”

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The Nerves Live At The The Cow Palace

The Nerves played the Daryl Starbird Hot Rod Show at the Cow Palace in early 1976.

The place was huge, it was one of our first gigs, and we were anxious, even though nobody was paying any attention to us—they were all there for the cars. But Daryl Starbird himself gave the introduction to the crowd, in a loud, clear voice, over the PA, heard throughout the hall, “Ladies and Gentlemen, now, on our main stage, I’m proud to present, for your listening pleasure, THE NERDS!”

I just about fainted. The other guys were looking at me like they were going to kick my ass. “C’mon man!” hissed Jack, “didn’t you spell it for him?”

We always had to spell it. Maybe I forgot. Oh well. We went out and played a set, and no one listened. We put everything we had into it.

When we were done, Jack and Paul cornered me, and said: “You gotta go straighten him out on the name before we play the next set. Get goin’! And make sure you spell it for him!”

So I headed out, across the main floor, past all his beautiful award-winning custom hot rods, his famous bubble-topped” Predicta” “the Futurista,” and the “Cosmic Ray,” through the Cow Palace, to the lobby, up an elevator, through security, talking my way past officials from the show, finally—about—15 minutes later—arriving in a room at the top of the Cow Palace, a very private, exclusive, quiet, office type room, where two men  were engaged in a deep conversation. One of them was Daryl Starbird, the famous custom car cult hero. I just stood there, a few feet away from them, until finally they stopped talking and Starbird  turned to me” “What can I do for you?” he asked. He seemed kind of pissed that I’d interrupted him.

“Mr Starbird, when you introduced us on the main stage, you said we were ‘The Nerds.’ That’s not the name of the band. It’s The Nerves. N-E-R-V-E-S. Nerves. The Nerves.” I finished and just stood there looking at him. He looked at me. “N-E-R-V-E-S,” I repeated.

“Okay, Okay, I got it.” And he waved me out of the room.

I went back out and made the trek, 15 minutes, down the stairs and elevator, through the lobby, past the hot rods in the main hall, through the security to the backstage.

“Did’ja tell him?” asked Paul.

Yeah, man. So the Nerves hung out for an hour or more, whatever it was until our next show. It seemed like a long wait. We were cracking jokes, bitchin’ about how stupid everything was, making fun of it, smoking, and just generally doin’ our thing and killing time. After a while we tuned up, me and Jack arguing about the pitch for a spell, and then it was time for us to go on, finally. We were nervous, again, and there were a lot more people in the hall. It looked like might we actually have a good-sized audience for this one.

We stood by the side of the stage, waiting, and finally we hear Daryl Starbird’s voice very concise and clear over loudspeaker, introducing us to everyone in the arena: “Ladies and Gentlemen: I’m proud to present, for your rock ’n’roll listening pleasure, from San Francisco, three great guys, THE WORMS!”

 

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Don’t Leave Me Hanging On The Telephone

 

‘Don’t leave me hangin’ on the telephone…’

I was living in San Francisco’s North Beach, and on my spot in front of the Swiss American Hotel one night in 1973, playing the 13th Floor Elevators song ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me, ‘ when I noticed this skinny white guy, about my age, leaning against the no parking sign, smoking a cigarette, watching me. He had short curly hair, wore old blue jeans, white deck sneakers, and a blue/green wooly sweater. At first look, he didn’t really fit in with the scruffy Broadway outlaw scene. I watched as he walked off, and I saw when he came back later, with a big German Shepherd on a short leash, and stopped to listen again.

The next evening he passed by, walking, with a pretty, long haired woman, up a few doors to the Condor Club. She was wearing the full length type of overcoat that all the Condor dancers favored wearing to and from work, and after she pushed through the curtains and disappeared into the club, the guy came back, and listened to me play some more. He was definitely checking me out.

I took a break, bummed a smoke, and started talking to him. He loved Roky Erikson’s wild harp on the end of ‘Miss Me.’ I was surprised he knew Roky’s name. Me & Johnny had been the worlds prime interpreters of the Elevator’s music, we played their songs every night, and talked about them endlessly. Anyhow, the guy said his name was Jack, that he was a songwriter, came from Alaska, and dug the music I was doing. He was putting a band together. I went back and picked up my guitar and played ‘Friday On My Mind,’ ‘Secret Weapon’ and ‘Sunnyland Moan,” and made a couple bucks.

He asked me ‘How much, on the average, do you make out here a night?’ and I lied and said ‘ fifty bucks.’ He lied and said ‘I’ll pay you double that if you join my band,’ and that was the beginning of it.

He invited me up the street with him, to share a joint.

Sure. I packed up my Yamaki and we headed up Broadway past the strip clubs, to Stockton Street. We took a right and walked another half block, up to where a white Ford Country Squire wagon was parked on the curb. He unlocked it, we got in, he lit up and we smoked.

I got real high. Maybe ’cause I hadn’t eaten all day, but as we were sitting there watching the traffic on the street, I felt like an alien, the SF street so foreign, the light, the sky, the pigeons, all seemed so chaotic. Life is so strange.

‘How you gonna make it?’ he asked me.

A deep question. I felt like I was in the bottom of a hole the size of  the Grand Canyon, and Jack had leaned over and yelled it down to me from a great height.

‘Huh? What do you mean, make it? I am making it’ I answered.

‘No, how are you going to make it in music? You know, make records, get famous and rich… play concerts around the world? You know what I mean. How are you going to make it?’

I’d never thought of that before, it had never even occurred to me as a serious subject. I was playing music for a living already, wasn’t I? I mean, vaguely, as something that could happen in the distant future, a big career in rock and roll? Maybe. Derek and I had talked about it, but had never got anywhere. Johnny was running from the law, so he wasn’t interested. I had kinda figured I wanted to be like my heroes, a nomadic blues singer, or some kind of wandering minstrel.

I had nothing to say for myself.

Jack asked if he could borrow the guitar so I got it out and passed it to him, and he started to sing, sitting right there, all cramped behind the steering wheel, turned my way. It was a loud fast one, that he’d written himself, and his face turned crimson as he sang. ‘Don’t leave me hangin’ on the telephone! Don’t leave me hangin’ on the telephone!.’

Impressive. But I wasn’t really moved. So he played another one, and turned an even brighter shade of red. This one was ‘I’m a new man living in wide world! I’m a new man, living in a wide world.’ It had a driving beat and a great melody. I got caught on the hook. This one got me. A wide world, that was my dream. Starting a new life, a million miles away from my past. Yes.

I told him I’d think about it.

He split, and I walked the streets of North Beach. Man, I had better get busy.

By the next time we ran into each other on Broadway, Jack had worked up a secret plan to make it to the top. His ideas and enthusiasm were charismatic. At least I thought so. Soon I began to see a lot people weren’t so taken with him. He talked fast, with a sort of Northwestern twang, and it was obvious to me, he was going to make a dent in the wall of the worlds indifference. He was a couple years older than me, and though he seemed to have come up on the outside of life like I did, he was ahead of me in a lot of ways. He was his own Lennon, McCartney, and Brian Epstein all boiled into one dreaming loudmouth!

‘We’ll make it right off the street! San Francisco is our Liverpool. This street music scene will be our cavern club. We’ll use amps, man, battrey operated. Pat’s got one, a Mike Matthews Freedom Amp! We can take the whole band out to where the people are. Play outside on the Wharf during lunch hours. School kids  and secretaries will come out, it’ll be a sensation, we’ll cause riots. Herb Caen will have to cover it. But the whole thing has to be undeniable! The songs, the guitars, the clothes, it all has to be right, powerful.’

There was a big street music thing going on in San Francisco. And if the songs were great, when you really thought about it, with a little imagination, it did seem possible.

He wanted the band to wear short hair, long hair was hippie, old style. He said the electric guitar should sound like a saxophone, he was tired of all the guitar noodling that was in vogue in 70’s ‘progressive’ rock. He hated hard rock, heavy metal, and progressive, and he mocked it all.

‘Music’s been dead since the 60’s, but it comes back again every ten years,’ he said.

I wasn’t so sure. He challenged me.

“What’s any good. then?”

“The Stone’s Exile” I answered. “The Band, Bob Dylan, blues.”

‘The Stones were great when they had Brian Jones, man, and when Jagger and Richards were still writing great songs. They’re past it! That blues stuff is tired, man, it’s been done.”

He wouldn’t discuss those other guys, still, there was something about what he was saying. I was intrigued, this was the invitation to an adventure. And he was by far the most talented songwriter I’d met in California so far. There was some real magic in those tunes, something I knew was hard to come by.

The first Nerves rehearsal was a gas, more like a party. It was in someone’s  apartment on Sutter Street. Pat Speed, the rush freak, was there to blow harp,  and Sitka Pat, the street musician that frequently played out in front of the Swiss, played lead guitar. It turned out he had grown up with Jack in Alaska. An old black blues singer named Koko made the scene. He always played a harmonica taped to the broomhandle  neck of a washtub bass that he thumped in crazy rockin’ jump time. Koko was a big drinker, had lost all his teeth, and sounded like Sonny Boy Williamson. I think Rush invited him, Guitar Pat invited Rush. Jack invited me, though it wasn’t clear what my role was supposed to be. i didn’t have an electric guitar or amp, just my Yamaki. Jack wanted me there, so I went, ’cause I was curious, drawn… this band thing was fascinating in it’s possibilities. I pulled it out and rocked along in another dimension.

Jack and Sitka Pat got their arrangement of Hanging On The Telephone down, while Pat Speed vibrated, twitched, commented through his high velocity mustache, and generally irritated Jack, every so often even blowing a little harp. Koko rocked, drank wine, and his speech got more and more unintelligible, his patois was so thick in the first place, and after awhile no one could understand a word he said but Pat Speed, who held great lively  conversations with him.

The next session was across the bay, in a black residential neighborhood on the  Oakland/ Berkeley line. WE met in the garage  behind the house of the drummer Bobby Freeman’s Condor Club band. he was a great drummer, but he’d never played anything like ‘Hangin’ On the Telephone.’  This was the first day of  the new dispensation, the first blast of the new music that would be coming from everywhere in a few years. Something new was being born that day in that garage.

We were all smoked up to the moon. Jack was on bass, Sitka Pat played loud electric lead through the Matthews amp. Pat Speed was nowhere to be seen, guess he hadn’t made the cut. I banged on the acoustic, and played percussion, and as the day went on, the session got more intense.

Jack sat in a chair facing the drummer and shouting at him, trying to get this guy who was used to 50’s R&B and strip house  show band rock grooves, to play a fast and driving straight  eighth note groove, without fills, or anything fancy. Everytime the guy tried to tart it up, Jack yelled over the electric blare. It was ‘yeah… yeah…. YEAH! … NO!  on and on. Jack turned red and the whole thing kept going.

It was the assault of the new: loud, driving, a catchy song, but intense and screaming. Nothing had ever sounded like this.

I knew it was great, that I was the witness at a birth, and I  was bored at the same time. I saw it was Jack’s scene, he didn’t care what anyone else did or thought. I got restless and went outside, looking around the area for something to do, while I waited for a ride back to the city with Pat and Jack. I played my guitar. I was still looking for it.

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Willie Dixon

I met and collaborated with the absolutely great Willie Dixon–a thrill!–when his songs were administered by Bug Music—he listened to one of my piano demos over at the Bug office, and had me over to work at his house in Glendale, a little cottage really, a very small place for such a definitive musical giant;  his publishing suit against Led Zeppelin for “Whole Lotta Love” hadn’t been decided yet; word on that Bug hoped would be coming soon.

He reclined in a large leather upholstered chair in his office,leaning back and peering through bifocals, scratching away at lyrics in pencil on a little pad, with one leg swung up over the armrest, and the other foot firmly on the floor. A parlor grand piano was situated in the middle of the adjacent room, by the front door, in sight of his armchair and he’d ask me to sit down at the keys and pound out infinite repetitions of the two-handed blues groove to the song while he composed lyrics, all based on rhymes for smoke. We’d do that for a spell, then I’d come in and we’d discuss music and life.

“Everybody’s got to have their own style” he intoned with the voce of a mystic. “Sometimes the name of the style, the song, and the artist are all the same thing–identical–Bo Diddley. When I first met Chuck Berry he didn’t have a style. One afternoon he came in playing the old country and western song Ida Red, but he had it going a new way, and I told him ‘keep doing that so you don’t forget it while I set up the microphones; and that was Maybelline.”

“You gotta have your own style—,”  he starts rummaging over the articles atop a shelf in the back of the office— “I got a style over here for somebody,“ and he comes up with two harmonicas, silver in his huge grip, handing one to me and commanding to just “play.”  He assumed I could, so I did, playing a blues in cross-harp, what they call “second position,” the key of G on a C harp, while he lifts the other harmonica up to his mouth and starts wailing a strange  lick, very eerie and keening.

It was the first I’d ever seen or heard of a minor harmonica.“Major against minor,”  he explained, “that’s a style for somebody.”

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About Jokerman by Bob Dylan. I wrote this 15 years ago…

Let’s see, it was October 1983 and I was still in the Plimsouls, but we had come in from the road, and had wound down, and I was just knocking about, living alone in a tiny pad up in Laurel Canyon (in the same cottage the Melvins eventually moved into, after I split). I  was writing songs for what was gonna be my first solo LP, and felt like I was on the moon, ’cause I was living at night, isolated, kinda living in my dreams & musical ideas, and I didn’t have to show up anywhere or for anything, it was woodshed time.

It was a good time, I was 29 years old, freed up for the first time from a lot of things that had been bugging me.

So I picked up the new Dylan LP at Tower on Sunset, and took it straight back home, and threw it on, and was completely transfixed by “Jokerman.”

The first thing that got me about it was the Sly and Robbie groove, unlike anything I’d heard before: it’s not rock or reggae either, but something new, very open. As usual with a Dylan record you hear every word. He delivers that very clearly.

On first listen the song hits you with a strong sense of life, of what it’s like to be alive in the world at that moment, a sense of NOW. The complexity, color, seductive sensual lure, sense of danger, of freedom, of possibility that one feels in the world, call it the Modern World, is all communicated so vividly, that the flash of recognition I felt upon hearing it, EVEN THOUGH I HAD NO REASONABLE IDEA WHAT HE WAS ON ABOUT, gave me a rush of Companionship. So that’s the first thing about the art of his songwriting, he wins you with the representation of what it’s really like to be alive. And you feel that before you understand it.

I think “Like A Rolling Stone” did that for its time. And the song “Dignity” hit me with that kind of force, when I first heard it on the radio, and had to pull the car over. And it’s a hugely exciting thing.

I’m not sure to this day that I could say I understand the song really. But I find it really moving.

The lines about ships, mist, snakes, glowing eyes, all were like kindling and I went up in flames when he hit “freedom just around the corner for you — but with the truth so far off what good will it do?”

That’s what I mean about him reflecting the true complexity of being alive, instead of the party line, which would be something like,  ‘”Gotta get free!” or ‘”I’m free — but with freedom comes responsiblility.” You know, “freedom good!”

I was in a period of my life when I felt a bit of freedom, but the nagging thoughts about the validity of what I was doing were unexpressed, kinda murkily swimming about in my mind, then PRESTO! Dylan’s said it, and I’m pushed into a new dimension of thought. All of this I just felt though on that first listen.

“So swiftly the sun sets in the sky…” yeah especially if like me you’re getting up in the afternoon and turning night into day, “You rise up and say goodbye to no one.” Check.

“Shedding off one more layer of skin, staying one step ahead of the persecutor within.” He does it again with this one, shedding off skin, sounds good, that’s what I was trying to do, reinvent myself, renew my musical vision, evade the weights and mistakes of my past. “One step ahead of the persecutor.” It was like he was reading my mind, I’d been guilty for my impulse to ditch the band and go solo, though it seemed necessary from a purely artistic point of view. So, those lines hit me too, and grilled me. As they would anybody I think, who was actively going through the kind of changes life threw on individuals at that time, which is still THIS TIME, by the way. The struggle of freedom, guilt, knowledge, power, foolishness that we all experience.

It’s a good song; there’s just so much in it. It seems alive, almost.

The chorus is so stripped down, it’s more tricky. “Jokerman,” that’s him singing about himself, and maybe about Jesus in verse three, and maybe about the silence of God at the end. But it’s also anybody, the Fool, jokers, trying to get serious, by that I mean, living with their eyes open, not “asleep neath the stars with a small dog licking your face” an image of a childish, maybe foolish sort, but also attractive in a way, hmm. The nightingale’s tune, it’s been pointed out that that’s like Keat’s Nightingale, the muse, or Imagination, flying high by the moon, that is, almost in the dark, moony, lunar, almost lunatic inspiration, like the subconscious, or unconscious (I mix them up!) which it always seems like Dylan relies on. For example, he always used to insist the songs come “through him” and the creation of his early work had to do with “power and dominion over the spirits.”

Is that clear at all? It does seem like he is singing, at least in part about himself. And it’s relevant to you and me, to the degree you want to apply it.

There’s a great difference between his best work and his other stuff. “Jokerman” is one of his great songs, right in there with the best of the early work, and the best of the ’70s. “Neighborhood Bully” doesn’t have this kind of impact, whatever you think of its message. “Man Of Peace,” likewise. I think “Union Sundown” is a great piece of work, but as a song lyric, though it’s good, maybe someone else could have written it, he merely covers the subject. Another song like that, from a later album, is “Everything’s Broken” from O Mercy. It’s strong, complete, but not necessarily “Dylan-esque,” in that it’s not communicating that super-vivid and 360 degree sense of life, of what it’s like to be alive at that moment. And when you hear the songs that have that quality, it’s like a mirror, or a trick window, you almost feel as if you’re looking through reality, getting a glimpse “behind the screen” and that’s what makes it so valuable.

So some of it is cold, detached, etc. but people need to hear his great stuff. His Greatest Hits, Vol 3 is pretty powerful, for that reason.

If you don’t get Bob Dylan, you don’t get much, in my opinion. Complaints about his voice are a sure sign of ignorance of music and history. It’s not really a matter of taste. It’s a matter of mind or not. I know as time goes on it may be harder for younger people to get in on. But it’s worth trying to find the door in, a whole universe opens up.

A lot of it is down to words. Can you relate to another mind, as related in language. Beyond the either/ors of binary choice. Dem or Republican? Hot/Not? Young/Old? Yes/No on this or that.

Bob Dylan uses roots music to tell his story, his way. That’s what I try to do as well. But you have to know your limits. Dylan is the best at that, he’s got that “bullshit- detector” that lots of people talk about. It better be real or forget about it.

I grew up in a house when blues and jazz and early rock and roll were just coming out, and the records were comstantly being played on our record player, and my sister and her friends (who were all about the same age as Dylan) were attempting to play the music,too, on piano and other instruments. And that ’50s music was all blues-based, or country. And then there was Elvis, who I experienced as a three year old. And he had the feeling on the Sun Records, and the early RCA, and I just soaked it up, but also the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, Link Wray (the first HEAVY guitar) Richie Valens, Fats Domino, the great Little Richard and Jerry Lee on TV shows like Bandstand, and all of that is blues.

Then Dylan and the Stones, Beatles too, and I followed the streams and first heard Muddy Waters, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Carl Perkins, and Buddy Holly.  I just loved all of that so much. And it got deeper from there, Howlin’ Wolf, and Robert Johnson, McTell, Gary Davis, etc.  I just loved it and listened endlessly. And kept TRYING to play and sing it, and I HATED what I sounded like at 17, 18 years old, so young and white and reedy. It was EMBARRASSING.

The story of all this is in my book, As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport, which I’ve been posting bit by bit for the last few months.

Somewhere in there it all opened up to me, but you still gotta keep a sense of humor, and the bulllshit detector trained on yourself, so look out!

And then you gotta work to be YOURSELF,  to sing through the influences.

I think I need to write a part two of this!

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Don’t Let Me Down

 

 

Jimmy and I worked it out so we didn’t have to go home. He told his parents he was staying at my house, and my folks were under the impression I was over at his, so everything was cool, we both got out for the night. We made straight for Jon and Mike’s garage apartment on Pleasant Avenue, all ready to go psychedelic.

The cast that night, besides Jimmy and I, included Dennis Bicknell, his girlfriend Donna, and Jon, and they were all older and more experienced in everything than me and Jimmy, who had just taken our final exams for the ninth grade. Bicknell was probably twenty-one or two, Donna, maybe twenty. Jon, I think was eighteen. Dennis was a good cat, kind of a car-guy gone psychedelic, and had just got out of the Navy. He was half-crazy, liked to laugh hysterically and pull outrageous stunts. He’d grown a mustache while he was gone, but his hair hadn’t grown long yet. He smoked a lot of weed, was also big on pills, and enjoyed drinking a bottle of Robitussin every now and again, digging the codeine high. Donna was a tall thin brunette, a hairdresser, quiet, a good kid going outlaw, friendly, good natured. I always felt comfortable around her, we all liked her a lot. She had short cropped hair, was still very fresh-faced and pretty, and wore a beautiful fringe suede jacket that she got from some biker she knew out at the lake, sized way too big for her, giving her kind of a waifish look, in a rough hewn way.

Jon was my friend, a local character already, a dark eyed, denim-clad, gentle but rebellious soul, stubborn to the core. His hair was short because he’d just got it clipped, while serving a week in jail, a few hundred miles away, in Albany. He’d mouthed off to a State Trooper who was shaking him down at the roadside for hitch-hiking. Everybody in town knew he’d run away from home to San Francisco in 1967,  and was there for the big Be-In,  and it’s aftermath. He’d lived in a California commune for months before coming back, hopping freights across the country to Buffalo, intent on getting in his last year of High School, but then he’d dropped out again to go traveling,  in June one week before graduating, and never got the diploma. The teachers just shook their heads. He had his own way of doing things, and though he was only a few years older than me, Jon was someone I looked up to in a big way. We were writing songs together, and starting to play a few gigs.

Everybody there dropped orange sunshine at about 8:30 in the evening, the whole gang except Jon.  I told him what I was doing, and he seemed amused, and said “man you better get some cigarettes!” Jimmy, Jon and I cut through by the old grade school, and walked up to Main Street, to the neighborhood market, as the sun set and the little town revved up in it’s cozy way for another beautiful summer evening. Couples rode by on bicycles, little children played hide and seek in a yard, dodging in and out from behind the giant elm trees that lined the streets. Dogs were running free, playing, too, and some one with a window open was banging out a hymn on an out of tune piano, bright chords floating on the faintly refreshing breeze.

At the store we waited in line behind a crowd of little boys and girls in shorts and t-shirts, buying rainbow taffy, popsicles, jawbreakers and gum. They kept laughing and changing their selections, running all around the store, getting items, and putting them back. I got to the front and asked for a pack of Camel filters and some matches. I was starting to feel strange, a sense of energy was building. I was nervous, filled with anticipation, and a teeny bit of fear. It was like the quiet moments as you climbed to the top of a roller coaster.

On the walk home the sun was nearly gone, painting the houses red, and along the way curtains were still open, the windows and doors giving off the warm and golden living room glows I knew so well, and we could look right into homes and see the family life, people watching their televisions, gathered at dining room tables, or a man sitting alone, in his favorite chair, with a newspaper, under a lamp, smoking a pipe.

Birds settled in their nests, katydids called, some last children were still out yelling, trying to finish one more inning of kickball in the fading light, and soon all I could see was the white stripes of their shirts, floating on the dark air in the vacant lot. A lone dog barked, cars drove slowly by, and the streetlights came on.

Everything was starting to vibrate and shimmer, and a pressure was slowly growing inside of me, like a case of the butterflies but a lot more intense, and I was surprised, as I didn’t think it would happen so soon.

By the time we got back to the apartment I was really feeling it. The others were too. Jimmy was saying goofy things and making stupid faces for Dennis and Donna’s amusement, but I wasn’t talking, I was checking out my walking, starting to feel very strange, preoccupied. They were all talking ’bout something but I wasn’t involved, I didn’t know what they were going on about. I was beginning to feel a very powerful sensation, like being inside my own personal blizzard. The haze cleared up for a second and I saw the others were were gone, except Jon.

‘They went out for awhile, man, we can just stay here and do what ever you want. You ok?’

He was smiling at my gestures, as I tried to talk. I couldn’t seem to put anything into words,’cause the words just wouldn’t hold still.

‘Are you alright, man?’ he asked with a laugh.

‘Let’s go for a walk.’ I managed to get that out. My knees were weak. I felt like I was caught in a wind tunnel. Streaks of light poured down, but the energy was rising up into my head. I was blinded, brightly colored snow was swirling around me.

‘Ok, man’. It took a very longtime to get to the front door of the apartment, about four steps away.

Jon helped me navigate, keeping the humor up, leading me down the driveway. Jimmy, Dennis, and Donna were down the drive, and looked like they were saying something I could barely make out. They’re going somewhere, did I want to go?

Me and Peter are going for a walk. Right, man? Do you want to go for a walk, or leave with Jimmy and those guys? It’s up to you’.

I couldn’t decide, and in a moments confusion, right there in front of the garage, I turned quickly and stepped completely out of my body for a moment, left it standing there as I turned left, towards Jon. Panicking, I jumped right back into it, that was too weird.

I paid no more attention to them as Jon and I walked down the driveway. We turned left on the sidewalk, walking along Pleasant Ave in the dark, and I looked down: we were walking in white flowers, on millions of daisies spread on the ground. I told Jon that my legs didn’t stop at the ground, but continued way down, deep into the earth.

I began laughing, and started running, turning around quickly to watch myself catching up, in a blurry trail, streaking behind me. I could’t stop laughing. It was fun.

Jon seemed a little worried. ‘You alright?’

I was fine, walking through the world of blossoms glowing in the dark, my head a little clearer, the earth breathing, the trees waving, headlights coming down the streets for so long it was like waiting for Christmas.

Back inside, the FM radio was on, tuned to the all night show on WPHD.

The DJ spun the Paul Butterfield Blues Band singing ‘One More Heartache’.

Jimmy, Dennis and Donna came back in. We were all talking at once, trying to tell each other about it. The tag of the Butterfield track came on and I was transfixed. I heard it so clearly I could see him, hear his soul, and I felt like I understood that word for the first time, the singer’s life, the feeling, and the way it came across. Soul. Got it.

The DJ played a Muddy Waters track and I was on my hands and knees, head jammed into the speakers. Then the Doors came on, ‘When The Music’s Over.’ The music got everyone else’s attention at this point. ‘The scream of the butterfly’. ‘We want the world and we want it ….now!.’

Dennis was very excited about this. We all crowded around.

Wow. We want it NOW.

Now.

I didn’t have any idea how much time passed. There was a bright light on, someone was filming. It was Bruce, where’d he come from?

‘Let’s go up to the Host’, suggested Dennis. The local all night diner, the Your Host Restaurant, up at the Village Shopping Center, only a few blocks away. Jon was into it, he wasn’t doing what we’re doing, and he felt hungry. Sounded great to me. Exciting.

We got it together, set out through the door, and started walking, the five of us, a little search party, the night patrol.

I felt like I was on my way to Times Square or something.

We stopped every few steps, to look or laugh at something. Halfway down Pleasant Ave. we noticed a huge old elm. I could see it stretch and breathe, and it felt very alive. A giant’s stalk growing up into the sky. We gathered round the tree, fingering it’s coarse and crumbling bark, smelling it’s musky scent, putting our arms around it’s girth and holding on. I felt the tree’s living presence,  and I sensed that it was aware of mine.

We all loved the tree. We stayed by it for awhile. Even hard guy Bicknell was hugging it, and laughing.

The town felt like a stage set, the houses and business all seemed like facades. All was quiet, no one else seemed to be out, and we could hear the clicking of the traffic lights, changing colors as we crossed.

The shopping center was a giant, empty, grey,  flat concrete field. The stores were dark, there were a few streetlights shining, off at the far end, where a handful of cars were parked outside of ‘The Host’. Slow, soft, and sleepy. We crossed the parking lot laughing and talking quietly.

A sharp squealing noise, then a roar, made us all look up. The world was exploding with light, and screaming with loud engine noise, headlights was bearing down on us, fast, from across the lot. I stood there frozen, as everybody scattered in different directions. I started to run, too, with Jon just a few feet ahead, yelling “Wow, man, someone is trying to run us down!”

The car turned around in the parking lot and came by for another pass, at high speed, gunning right for us.

We made it up to the sidewalk on the other side, as the car jammed by, just missing us. It was coming so fast, we almost got hit. I caught a glimpse of leering faces on the passenger side, hostile eyes watching back at us, a leather jacketed arm out the window, a hand shaking a fist, another face looming larger as they left, burning into my memory. It was a carload of motor heads and hoods, some local gang. Now they were turning around and coming back again.

Carloads of guys acting like this weren’t that unusual here, quite a drag though, and we were pretty shook up.

At the entrance to the Host we saw the green motif through the plate glass, the weary waitresses in their white aprons and hats, the drunken clientele, straight from the bars, trying to sober up on cheeseburgers, or a plate of eggs and bacon before going home to bed. We pushed in  through the glass front door and the whole place stopped eating and stared at us. A Gene Pitney song was playing from the shiny silver jukeboxes on the walls of each booth along the right, and spaced every few feet along the counter, on the left.

I loved those jukeboxes.

The five of us crowded into the third booth from the front. The lights were flashing on my eyes, vibrating. I felt very gritty, everything was moving, the walls were waving, and the waitresses looked like ponies. The carful of guys pulled up out front, and  I could see ’em through the window, their image mixed with our reflection,  as they piled out of their hot rod, and began coming in. They were gonna fuck with us, people were always getting stomped in the Your Host in the middle of the night, it was sort of a regular thing, we’d all heard the stories.

Stay cool. The bunch of ’em, five big tough guys, ugly looking in their mid-20’s maybe, blue jeans and t-shirts, hair slicked back, leather jackets, come straight up to our table and stand, glaring down, crowding over.

The leader looks down at Jon and starts in on ‘If I had a dog ugly as you…’ when Dennis looks up, and his face lights up.

“Big T! It’s me, Dennis…Dennis Bicknell!”

Big T stops, squints, then relaxes, smiles, and laughs. “Dennis, is that you? Shit man, how you doin,’? I didn’t recognize you. How’s your big brother? I haven’t seen him for awhile.”

Everybody cools it at this. Sorry man, didn’t know it was you! Ha ha ha…

I was bumming quarters from everyone as the situation mellowed out.  The jukebox had the Beatles’ new single, it’d just came out and the B-side was my favorite song in the world. I pumped in all my silver and pushed the buttons to play it five times in a row. I was diggin’ the soul, don’t let me down.

 

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The Plimsouls At The Starwood (1980)

Some nights, alone in my pad, I’d soar through the early hours of the morning, drunk and stoned, working on songs. A feeling of exultation would come over me, as if all the pain and trouble I’d caused were forever in the past, and, now guided by my genius, combined with my personal power and innate capacity for good fortune, I could conquer the world. I felt warm, safe, protected, in the arms of the gods.

I’d pass out as the sun came up, waking up a few hours later in the miserable condition I called a “hang-beyond.”  My head would feel like a dirty glass bowl with fishes swimming around in the murk, and I’d be shaking, sick, terrified, and unable to even get back in bed and sleep it off. I’d be in a cold sweat, and sometimes then the phone would ring and it would be a manager, or an interview, or people at the record company wondering why I’d missed the meeting over there.

Somehow I’d get through it and make the next gig, to have the laugh of being with the band, then the joy of pouring my heart out on stage in front of mobs of people reveling in the fantastic-ness and excitement of all the noise and soul. Then be home again late, dreaming big dreams in the middle of the night, writing songs and throwin’ ’em away, wishing I was on the other side of the universe. Some of the gigs were great, but I felt as if I were operating behind enemy lines. I began to get stage fright.

It started like this, one night at the Starwood, one of our favorite clubs. There we are, Plimsouls, top of the card in front of a 1000 peeps, 100 degrees, and my anxiety level is building towards the first set for some reason, and before we go on I start really pouring down the screwdrivers, but it isn’t working. Beers are lined up on my amp, for insurance, but it’s not enough.

My shoes feel wet, loose, hard on my feet. My clothes all of a sudden don’t fit. My hands are cold, the guitar strings cut into my fingers, right to the bone. I’m up on the stairs above the stage, in the dark, looking out at the rowdy crowd, the place is going nuts, ready to blow, energy is climbing up my backbone, I have the butterflies, bad, like my guts are turning to water.

I want to run. Hit the alley. Drink beer with some winos out of a paper sack. But our manager, Danny is behind me there, on the landing. He knows I’m nervous, just says, “It’s gonna be great.” I try to act like that helps. “Yeah.” But half of me feels like I’m going to be executed, and the other half is trying to pretend that it’s all just goodrockin’ fun.

Down the stairs and into the mouth of it. I feel weak, but I’m coming on bold. The crowd is cheering, Louie’s behind his kit now, blam de blam, pish pish blop! Eddie’s guitar is a piledriver. I’m fiddling with my dials. Someone’s calling out our names, kids looking up, lit by the stage lights, boys and girls, the M.C. yells “Plimmmmmsoooouls!” and we’re off into the first song, the lights come up, and I go blind with the freight train bearing down on me.

A massive surge of pure electricity courses up my solar plexus; I’m so high all of a sudden, my breath is short and fast, knees weak, shit I’m singing fucking flat! My mouth is kissing the mike ball, I can smell its filth, my mouth is dry, pitching up and the music is fast white noise. I’m huge now; the world has vanished in the white haze, my body is immense, a house, but I’m trapped, can’t get free, a piece of lightning metal sculpture, I’m caught by the nose, by the balls, by my whole life, I turn and wheel back to the drummer, then jerk to the mic where I keep up my leg backward as I sing, still bursting with stage fright, so I’m doing anything I can to elude the spell, making willful mistakes to break the predictability. I’m in hell, shaken, trying to rock my way through it.

We play the tag on “Shaky City,” and go into the second song while the audience happily, insanely roars. Drums rolling, tom toms and maracas, and I’m trying to get some quick beer. We all kick it in.

“Smashing rocks in the burning sun.” Mymouth is open and a stream of red neon comes out. A loud voice is screaming at me from a few feet away, and I’m lost in a tunnel of brilliant light, alone at center stage, I can’t see nobody, just this pitch I’m tossing in. Louie’s drums are all that hold me, though, and while the spotlight roves I see the faces at my feet: kids, friends, eyes and mouths, fists; they love it, but they’re all caught just like me.

My strength’s returning, my voice is a strip of wet black rubber now, and I disappear into it, sending it out, it’s bouncing all over the very back of the room, now to the kids on the stairway. The fear flows away, and I’m left with the size, I’m King Kong on top of the Empire, with the girl in my fist and snapping at planes, now on stiff legs like Frankenstein, colliding with Eddie back at the amps, screaming at the top of my lungs off-mic at Davido who just looks over and laughs at me, then walks away. The crowd is boiling, surging back and forth, people look up, out of control and calm eyes, and somebody I haven’t seen for ten years is in the front row wearing shades and grinning up at me.

Elvis now, King Creole, it’s a laugh as Eddie solos, a roller coaster and we’re riding it, slowly now, between songs, up at the top of the scaffold, about to drop.

Later, the dressing room is a crowded subway train at rush hour. Everyone’s sloshing a drink, got their arm around somebody; it’s a cocktail party and I’m the guest of honor, so I slip out, make down the hall, out the back and down the metal staircase, push through the exiting crowd in the parking lot, past the huge line of people waiting for the doors to open on our second show, but no one spies me as I cross the boulevard, enter the corner liquor store and score a quart of Mickey’s Big Mouth Malt Liquor. Then, taking the green bottle out in a brown sack, I cross back over Santa Monica, and after a quick glance at the pre-show chaos, I traipse on past to the corner, a nondescript office building, where I cut into an alley between it and the place behind. There I find several other dark forms propped on the concrete, against the wall, hooded, working on bottles. I plop down, and unscrew my lid, the smell hits me first, like barf, but better. I take a deep drink.

Soon, I’m more relaxed, almost ready for the second show, so I get up, nod a “take it easy” to the guys, and leg it back to the joint. Now it’s packed again, more packed than before; they got EVERYBODY in. I make it up to the dressing room, now cleared out, and “where you been, man?” everybody’s yelling at me, “it’s show time!” and this one set goes off crazier and smoother than ever.

Finally, at the end of the night, everybody’s gone, and I’m the last to leave the dressing room. I’m going home the same way I got there, sneaker power. With the boom box on my shoulder, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles light the way.

What lonesome thoughts and dreams on this homeward roll? I can’t say at all. Sad?  Yes, I know, and angry, too, also a bit elevated from the night, but on the verge of weeping over whatever happened between me and whoever it was up there after the show. “My Girl Is Gone,” “Bad Girl,” “The Love I Saw In You Was Just A Mirage.” Somehow I walk right past my apartment building, and “I’ll Try Something New” is playing over and over again: Smokey knows. I’m walking aimlessly down Franklin Ave, by the red brick walls on Cahuenga, in the tailights now, as I nearly fall down on a curb; the street is cobblestone, and for a second I forget where I am, and I’m back in Buffalo, over by the train tracks, tears are in my eyes, I’m crying for Smokey, for me, for all my old friends, for all the ones who tried so hard, so many times, and went down…when a hood who’s been following me comes up and pulls a knife, I can barely see through the blur, but I’m pissed, “fuck off, motherfucker!” I wail at the top of what’s left of my voice, and he vanishes, just like that.

I wake up on Saturday with an aching head. We’re back at the Starwood tonight. I roll out of bed and put on some morning music.

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