Peter Case

As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport

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.


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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Joey And Chris And A Million Miles Away

[above: Chris and Joey] [earliest version of A Million Miles Away, from 1981 tour]



I ‘d met Joey Alkes and Chris Fradkin at  just the right time, the same week the Plimsouls began playing in the Hollywood clubs. We’d hit it off immediately.

I ‘d always wanted to be a Brill Building songwriter,  like Otis Blackwell, Doc Pomus, or Carol King,  who were adept at composing three minute rock ’n roll symphonies on demand.  I felt Joey and Chris were my ticket to that dream, to that kind of fun. And we always had a blast writing songs.

I’d get up in the morning, get some coffee and head straight over to Joey’s. Chris would show up, and we’d get right into making up songs, trying anything and everything out, looking for a real idea.

Joey’s from Brooklyn, was a few years older than me and Chris, had been in the army, was a published poet, too, but  his specialty was great song hooks.

Chris had studied music, and played guitar and piano. He’d been music director for a wild band Joey had managed in Denver, and always had a lot to say about grooves and arrangements.

Chris and I would sing and play riffs or chords on our guitars, me still banging on the Yamaki deluxe, that same guitar I’d been banging’ on for years. We’d work for hours without stopping, sometimes making up several songs in a session. It was fun, a lot of laughs, tough sometimes if you thought you had something and the other guys gave it the thumbs down.

But the great thing about writing with Joey and Chris was the camaraderie, and that came through in the music. I wrote a different kind of song with them than I did alone.

Joey  lived in one of those Hollywood pads where the apartments circled a pool. Even on the sunniest day, we never sat by the pool, but we sort of looked at it through the windows as we gathered around his kitchen table and worked. Joey didn’t play an instrument, but he’d be singing choruses and horn parts—just making sounds, that added to the general feeling.

We knocked out a load of songs over there. “Now,” “Lost Time,” “Hush Hush,” were all on the first Plimsouls album. “Hypnotized,” the first song we wrote, was featured on our debut e.p.. Writing became nearly my favorite thing to do, and whenever the ‘souls were back from the road I’d go over. Sometimes it would be like a party; we’d buy beers and bottles of wine, or whiskey, get high, and keep writing. Sometimes we’d get too messed up and have to adjourn to the next day. But we just kept writing songs. It was so much fun, walking in with nothing and coming out with a song a few hours later. When we got one, we’d put it down on the boom box, making a cassette I could take with me. I’d go learn it with the band. And then, when everybody got to it, wow, that was the best feeling.

Meanwhile it seemed like every gig the band played was bigger than the one before it. The EP had been a hit on local radio, especially a song I’d written on my own, called “Zero Hour.”  Like Rodney Bingenheimer, KROQ’s great punk rock dj liked to say, “IT’S ALL HAPPENING!” And there was pressure to come up with a powerful song to lead off the next record.

One night Chris and I went out to see the Germs play a gig at the Starwood. The place was going nuts. Punks were climbing up the walls to the balcony and diving off head first, back into the crowd. We watched it from the back for a while, then decided to work on a song.

We drove to Barney’s Beanery, a horrible bar and restaurant a mile or so up the road. We sat in a booth in the back, and Chris ate dinner, while I drank a beer and scribbled lyrics on a scrap of paper. We talked about the words, and each kicked in some lines. I was remembering something from a long time back and the feeling was pouring into the song. I’d been having an affair with a girl I really thought a lot of, and that had just broken off. Something of my childhood was in it too. A lyric was taking shape based on all of this. We wrote the second verse and a bridge but still had no title or chorus.

We got out of the restaurant and drove the five minutes over to Joey’s. He rang us in the front door of his building and met us outside his door.  His wife Esther was asleep. I went in and grabbed the cheap acoustic 12 string I’d left behind the table and came back out playing. The whole song came to life as I sang the lyrics. I played the guitar riffs between the lines the way Chris and I had laid them out that afternoon, and the build up of the bridge. It was all coming together in a rush. But what’s the title, where’s the chorus? I told Joey I wasn’t sure, then somehow  Joey nailed the chorus, just like that. “I’m a million miles away” and I threw on the tag “and there’s nothing left to bring me back today,” and we had another one.

We taped it on cassette, adding it to the other two songs we’d done that day, and that was it. We forgot all about it for a while.



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A Walk In The Woods At Ben Frank’s.

I’d left the band. I was disorganized in that cottage up there in the canyon, living alone, banging on the piano I’d rented, with records scattered all over the couch and floor, and notebooks too. All I did was write and demo songs. There was never anything in the refrigerator except beer. On the shelf were boxes and boxes of sake. And I powered down coffee like mad when I wasn’t drinking beer or wine, sake or brandy. Not being much of a cook, I took all my meals out, down on Sunset Boulevard usually, at one of the places down there. My two favorites were Ben Franks’s twenty-four hour diner, and the famous natural food restaurant The Source, where I could pretend I was doing great things for my health.

One night I was sitting in a booth at the Source, picking at an avocado, beet, and bean sprout salad, when I realized Muhammad Ali was seated at the very next table, in discussion with a number of men. I listened in, couldn’t help it, and from what I could pick up, straining my ears as best I could, the guys were from the Olympic Committee, doing their best to convince the Champ to host the Olympic Boxing that was coming up in LA later in the Summer. I was trying to be cool, and not let on I was eavesdropping, but I nearly fell out of my seat when I heard Ali tell them, “I threw my medals in the river.” He was turning them down, and they were beseeching him. His no was solid, no matter how they begged, and finally he got up to walk out, right past my table. He was big as life, looking very strong, totally cool, and he winked at me as he walked out.

Another time I was up at Ben Frank’s restaurant in the small hours of the morning, sitting at the counter drinking cup after cup of the bad coffee they served there. David Bowie was just a few seats down from me at the counter, wearing a khaki coloured jacket, drinking the coffee too, leaning on his elbows and absently chain smoking, looking off into the imaginary distance. No one else seemed to notice him there, or seemed to care. That’s the way it was in Hollywood, it still had a few surprises left in it back then.

I was studying songwriting, trying to catch a ride to the next level, looking to tap secret power, pouring over the Song Of Solomon in the Old Testament, Robert Browning, the complete Hank Williams catalogue, and the ABC of Reading by Ezra Pound. EP laid it down as “dichten = condensare,” poetry as concentrated verbal expression. To condense. Highly charged language was the goal. Every word, every note is important to the whole. Whenever I saw the word poetry I read the word “songs.” I was consciously trying to expand my mind on the subject. I had a box set of Lotte Lenya singing the Brecht-Weill songs from Three Penny Opera and Mahogany, and I followed the lyrics in print in German and English. I was developing a love for condensed, colorful , concrete language. The best songs told their story by referencing the world of people and things directly, vividly evoking the senses. Dylan’s records reflected all of this in a big way. And I was digging Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, plus all the pre-war blues, and somewhere in there I was still working on the lessons I’d learned as a street singer, as one of the Nerves. I was brewing up a hybrid.

I’d work on songs alone up at my pad for days, then flip and need to go out and make contact with friends. I never really dated anyone, didn’t call it that anyhow. Cathy turned me on to the Love ‘Forever Changes’ album one night. I couldn’t get that out of my head.

I was sitting at the counter in Ben Frank’s one afternoon, drinking black coffee and doing the crossword puzzle in a newspaper, when the lines came to me. I wrote “out past the cemetery down by the willow bend,” in the margins of the paper. I was thinking of my hometown Hamburg New York, the old graveyard I used to walk through, above the winding Eighteen Mile Creek. “Half a mile from the railroad track.” That easily fit into the picture. “Last seen together these two lovers hand in hand…took a walk in the woods and they come back.” I wrote all of this in pen on the margins of the paper. The lyrics were pouring out in rhythm as fast as I could write.

Out past the cemetary, down by the willow bend

Half a mile from the railroad track

Last seen together, these two lovers hand in hand

They took a walk in the woods and they never come back

They took a walk in the woods and they never come back


Metal from the radio, it rang out through the fields

Just when they thought they’d found the track

Through a patch of four leaf clover that vanished in thin air

They took a walk in the woods and they never come back

They took a walk in the woods and they never come back


Never before in history has this town been so up in arms

You never heard such misery as those bloodhounds ‘cross the farms

Between God and the police they were protected from all harm

Until they walked in the woods and they never come back

They took a walk in the woods and they never come back

They never come back

They never come back


Sirens wailed emergency, no evidence was removed

You never heard such theories, but none of them could be proved

For the missing children, no conscience could be soothed

They took a walk in the woods and they never come back


Well,that was fifteen years ago,I guess we’ve come a long, long way

I never heard the end of it, you know, I couldn’t stay

When I’m not stuck for time or money, I still wonder ’bout that day

I took a walk in the woods and I never come back

I took a walk in the woods and I never come back

I never come back

I never come back

I took a walk in the woods and I never come back

I was thinking about my home town that I’d left for good ten years earlier. I was thinking about specific places there, and particular people, but the whole song took shape before I even had time to figure out the meaning. It just arrived. I paid my check and left a tip at the counter, picked up the newspaper, and still scribbling as the words hit me, I made my way across the parking lot to my car (a red ’69 Barracuda ragtop with hounds tooth interior) and I got in, putting the paper on the passenger seat. I started it up and drove East on Sunset, took a left on Laurel, and continued on up to Kirkwood, all the time getting lines for the second bridge.

I had most of the song as I pulled up in front of my place. I ran up the steps opened the door, and grabbed the Gibson Hummingbird laying on the couch. I sat down, spread the newspaper in front of me, and began to strum. I played an F#m chord, picking up the first finger and replacing to create a bass line in a rolling rhythm on the bottom string. I pretty much sang the whole thing right then, first time through. I had the words, and the music just came. I’d never played anything like it before.


My first solo album is available in an expanded cd edition with many bonus songs at

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From The Goodwill to Rip City


The Frozen Chosen were playing every night on the corner of Broadway and Columbus, across from City Lights books, and Allen Ginsberg started coming out. We spotted him walking across the street towards us, he stepped right up and said “Hey guys, I’m Allen. Mind if I sit in?” We knew who he was, and said “sure.”  He said “Can you play some country blues?”  And we said yeah and went into a blues, and he started making up a song right there on the corner, singing to the people passing by. It was sailors and hookers and tourists and kids and nobody ever stopped but he made up these incredible songs. They’d go on and on, and were funny and moving, goofy and angry at the same time. The best one had a refrain of “Stay Away From The White House” and it was a commentary  on the Nixon scandals, barbed, surrealistic and hilarious. And he was out there performing with the guys on the bottom of the musical totem pole in San Francisco at the time, the Frozen Chosen, probably the least respected group in a fifty mile radius. But he hung with us and was a huge inspiration.


Me and Danny were ambling across town the next day after that first session and he pulled up in his VW van, driven by his partner Peter Orlovsky.  We said “Hi we were going to the Goodwill” and he said  “Hop in,” and they drove us over.

He turned around and asked, “So what do you guys do out there to keep your voices together on the street”

“Whiskey helps” said Danny. Allen said “Dylan told me he uses a mix of honey and lemon when he gets raspy.”

Me and Danny just looked at each other. This guy knows Dylan, just dropped his name. We thought that was pretty cool.

Danny decided to stay around, see where the Ginsberg thing went. I decided to make a trip up to Portland, Oregon. I just wanted a change of scene.




I got out on highway 101 the morning after jamming with Ginsberg, and start trying to hitch a ride.

The first car that went by was a hippie in a Valiant. It stopped and I jumped in. He took me quite a couple hours North. I was happy and relieved to be moving, anticipating the trip, with no idea of what to expect.

He stopped and let me out at the first Ukiah exit and headed into the town, as I crossed over the highway to the ramp and stuck my thumb out again at the approaching cars.

This time I was stuck out there for hours. There was plenty of traffic but nobody wanted to stop. Some even rolled down the car windows and shouted at me, others flipped the bird. Finally a car pulled over, but as I ran up to get in, it drove off as the passengers in the rear seats laughed at me. After a while, a carload of high schoolers even drove by blasting a full moon at me out their backseat window.

I was starting to get the creeps from Ukiah.  Hours passed, my paranoia started  to run, and I began to consider my options. I wasn’t excited about walking into town, but sitting out there on the shoulder wasn’t getting me anywhere. I felt stuck.

The sunlight was hot and shining, in the high afternoon, and the air tickled my nasal passages, with that Northern California bouquet of pine sap, gully dust, and the faint trace of marijuana scent—not so much a smell as a bite up the nose—accompanied by a windy sort of high.

I was about to give up and admit I was stranded, when a yellow Mercedes pulled over on the shoulder. The driver was a fair and long haired, attractive woman in her early 30’s.In the passenger seat sat a fairly large, middle aged, bald headed man with a goatee, looking to be conservatively dressed, with an intense expression about his face and eyes.

The guy rolled down the window and asked me where I was going.

“Portland,” I told him, and he said, “Hop in. We’ll take you all the way.”

What luck. I jumped in the backseat, throwing my guitar and duffel onto the seat next to me, and we took off.

The car got up to speed. We rode along for a few minutes, then the man twisted around towards me. “I have a little game I like to play, when I’m first getting to know people. Do you mind if I read your palm?”

I offered up my hand, and he pulled it to him.

“Hmmm… hmmm” A few moments passed. “When you were young, you seem to have had an encounter of some sort with a very poisonous snake.”

“I didn’t.”

“Funny, the lines are very clear. I think you did.”

“No, nothing of that sort at all. I guess your clairvoyance has let you down,” I cheeked.

After that, I watched out the window and kept my mouth shut. I was glad I’d finally gotten a ride, and right to where I was going.

We pulled over in a grove overlooking the sea from a slight bluff, and all got out of the car for a smoke and stretch break. I lit up one of mine and leaned against the car by the back passenger side door. The sun was sinking and we still had a longway to go. We hadn’t even crossed into Oregon yet.

The man and woman had been discussing the object of their trip, but I couldn’t make much sense of it or even follow the conversation, but there seemed to be some sort of tension between them.

The man walked around the front of the car and stepped back towards me.

He stood right in front of me, and asked “Have you ever seen me before?”

I looked up. He seemed amused.

He was just a couple feet away, looking into my eyes. “Do you recognize me?”

Huh? I didn’t know what he was talking about. “No”

“Shall we tell him who I am?” he asked the woman, slightly turning his head towards her but keeping his eyes on me.

She didn’t say anything but stood away to the side, a few feet behind him.

The air was nearly still, fog smoked up from the blackbark pines, and I looked him in the face again.

“No. I’ve never seen you before in my life.”

“Well my name is Anton Levay” he said. “I’m the author of the Satanic Bible, and  founder of the Church of Satan.”

“Never heard of you,” I lied, feigning indifference. I felt a jolt of adrenaline, and my back began to hurt, my heart raced.

He smiled for a moment then turned and walked around to the driver’s side ofthe car. He opened the door and slipped in behind the wheel. The woman took the other side, and I looked off into the distance for a second, then got in. We were a long way from anywhere. What else could I do?

I’d just seen his picture that week on the racks by the register at City Lights Books, in a creepy, purplish, goofy star trek-esque photo on the cover of his mad book. It had given me the chills: the shaved bald head, the pointed ears and goatee, the arch expression. In person the effect was different, but no less creepy.

I figured he was a psycho, and it was bad luck  being stuck on the outskirts of Nowhere with him. As he drove, they argued, and then he began to speak to me, making eye contact in the rearview mirror. They were going to Vancouver to capture a dead man’s spirit that was haunting or possessing a friend there. Once they caught the spirit, he said  they were going to set it on someone they didn’t like.The process involved spells and other necromantic action, and I couldn’t really follow the story. It was too outrageous.

In a seacoast town on the California/Oregon border, we pulled up at a little rickety,  waterfront bar, on a boardwalk overlooking a small boat harbor. Anton parked and jumped out of the car, saying he was going in for cigarettes, he’d be right back. As soon as he was out of sight the woman turned to me. She was crying.

“I’m so afraid of him!” she blurted. “Something terrible is going to happen.”

“Why don’t we just leave him?” I said in a rush. “Look!  He left the keys in the car. Let’s just ditch him here and go!”

“He’d track us down! He’d get me!”



The door of the bar opened and Anton came back down the walk tamping his new pack of smokes. He got back into the now perfectly quiet Mercedes, lit one up, and we continued on our journey.

The sun went down and the world grew even darker. The road climbed into a mountainous wooded area, extremely remote.

Anton drove and spoke to neither of us in particular:

“If something were to happen to someone up here, they wouldn’t find the bodies for weeks.”

I opened up the Barlow pocket knife that I kept in my pocket and stuck a folded up match book in there to use as a handle, in case I had to open the blade up fast.

The road was winding and climbing, the land was pitch-black, and I was anxious as shit. In the dark of the backseat I pretended to be asleep and silently wigged.

I had to open my eyes as I felt the car slowing.Anton pulled off the road at a bend, and stopped on the wideshoulder.

What’s this?

He left the car running, got out in a hurry and walked up the highway in the dark. A minute later I saw headlights coming from the opposite direction. A car came around the turn and drove  straight over on to the shoulder and stopped facing us.  Anton approached the car and after a short, hushed conversation with the driver, he turned and started back towards us.

I was sweating with fear. I thought I”d had it. I was going to be tortured and killed, gutted and used as an offering to the Necromancer.

Anton just got back in and we drove away. Maybe the other car just wanted directions.

In the early hours of the morning, the woman fell asleep, and Levay himself looked very tired. He began to talk in a weary voice about his concerns for his son, who had grown up around  orgies and rites and other insanities, and who he hoped would grow up to be strong and true. The Black Pope began to seem like any other old fuddy middle-aged father, worn from responsibility.

I stayed awake the whole time. We entered Portland and they dropped me off by the school, and drove off into the night to save one life and destroy another.  I never saw either of them again.

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A Million Miles Away (radio promotion one-oh-one)

Barry Rose, the music director at the local rock ‘n’ roll radio station KBOP, happened to live in Joey’s building. Every so often he and his wife came out to the pool and Joey’d smoke a joint with them in the Jacuzzi. Joey got to know him a bit, so after we had the record finished and had an acetate, we decided to give Barry a preview.

Joey set it up for the next night at 7pm, in Joey’s apartment. We’d all be there, the writer’s, Joey, Chris, and me. Supplies were ready, all the Gold, Ludes, Courvosier, Heinikens, and whatever else Joey figured Barry might need to get in the mood to listen.

Barry came to the door a half hour late. He had long, straight black hair, and wore mirrored aviator shades and a leather jacket and pants. He was all in black, and slurring his words already. After offering a little of this and a sniff or two of that, we positioned him in a chair at the center of the room between the stereo speakers. He was leaning back in the chair with one booted foot up on the table. When everything was ready, we set the volume of the record player to “Hollywood Bowl” and dropped the needle on the disc. Barry started nodding his head in time to the music and rocking the chair a bit. As the record hit the chorus he smiled and shouted something no one could hear. We all just shouted and nodded back.


He was really getting into it. I was too, kind of excited to be listening through his ears. The record sounded great, and kept building and building. Barry was rocking harder now, sweating a bit and rolling his head strangely from side to side. At the start of the guitar solo he looked like an electric shock hit him, and he started sort of writhing in the rocked-back chair, pushing farther and farther back, just diggin’ the whole thing like crazy.

The solo was climbing, the whole thing was cranking, we were all rocking, Joey was playing air guitar, and so was Barry, who looked like he was levitating in his chair. As the solo hits its last and highest screaming peak, Barry seemed to have some sort of a conniption, and the chair tipped back and went completely over, dumping him on his back on the floor. We didn’t know what to do. He was just laying there. We hoped he wasn’t hurt, but didn’t want to stop the record and ruin the effect. So we left him on the floor, and he stayed down for the rest of the song, but you could sorta tell, he was still rocking.

When it was over we shouted “Barry are you okay?” and he just looked up and said “Wow.”

He liked the record, and said the station would go on it immediately. Then, a few minutes later, he got me in the corner and in a rambling way, told me that of course we’d need to hire him on as a consultant, that would really help. I told him we didn’t have any money, but, yeah, man, we’d sure look into it.

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Trouble at City Hall

Dorian lived upstairs from the Green Street Mortuary, in North Beach. He was caretaker there, cleaning up around the bodies downstairs, late nights and early mornings. The rest of the time he was blowing mouth harp out on Broadway, with the likes of me and Jimmy, or practicing alone, sitting on his bed, upstairs over the death chapel, truly lost in the blues.

He’d come to the states from Australia, and his skin was a whiter shade of paste, but he took his blues music very seriously.  He was “living the blues,”  and that was the sole purpose of his journey. Dorian loved all the great harmonica men, Little Walter, Big Walter, Jimmy Reed and Lazy Lester, Sonny Terry, too and he had  a huge collection of their work on homemade cassettes that he’d listen to for hours, trying to play along.

The living quarters above the funeral home were bare bones. Dorian had a room with a bed, and he shared a bath and kitchen with several other boarders, including an Irish-American cabdriver named Mike, and an old toothless original beatnik named Louis, who sold codeine number fours for fifty cents a piece to kids like me.

There was a spare room, and I moved in, with Dorian’s okay. It was empty, with only some carpet on the floor, and twobig bay windows without curtains that looked out on the street. No one seemed  to mind when I came back every night and crashed on that floor in my sleeping bag. Dorian had even given me a key.

Jimmy was another musical pal. He came over, knew a good thing when he saw it, and immediately split. He was back within the hour, carrying everything he owned in a cardboard box. He’d been kicked out of his other place. The price was right at Dorian’s, so he moved in too. He was the same age as me, and had only recently taken up the guitar, but he was an amazingly quick study. He could get his head and hands around some very complicated patterns.The only thing he couldn’t do yet was make ’em sound like music. He’d be all over the place, out of tune and out of time, but it was still impressive. We’d been learning by osmosis, watching the unsung North Beach music heroes, soaking up the blues and ragtime finger picking styles.

The two of us had even spent some time going over the stuff with some of the older musicians.Then we’d sit up in the mortuary and work for hours on whatever songs we ‘d learned that week, songs with names like “Charlie James” and “I Belong To The Band.”

Jimmy called everyone ”pal,” and was street smart in sort of a dim-lit way. He’d heard all the reigning hipsters spin their tales, knew their disclaimers, the retorts, the slippery verbal repertoire of the full-time musicians and street addicts he’d grown up around. His parents had both died, and he’d been raised by his big brother Jerry, who played bass in some well known West Coast rock bands, so he was known and tolerated, even welcomed in, by the local rockers. It was a little brother situation. He had a homemade tattoo from his spell in Juvenile Hall, that said “Mom” in sloppy blue letters. He liked to brag that he was a hothead, a badass fighter, but he seemed pretty mild most of the time. I liked him.

I’d made a bunch of money in a couple lucky sessions on the street, and loaned Jimmy a hundred bucks. He’d spent it on percadan and skunk weed, and now both of us were dead broke. It’d been raining for days, with no hope of letting up, so the busking income was completely cut off, and we were going hungry.

He said he had a Social Security check coming, so, when I found out he was going to walk to City Hall and pick it up, I decided to go with him, knowing that was the only way to make sure I’d get paid back.

We left our guitars stashed in the upstairs room and headed out.

It was a long way across San Francisco, over to Polk Street, through the Broadway Tunnel, and even farther, South, to City Hall. We trudged in the rain,  and the cold, stomachs gnawing, but hopeful, already spending the money in our heads. We’d have a big meal over at Steve’s Restaurant on Sixth Street, maybe score a bag of grass, and get some Heinekens—that’s what Jimmy is rappin’ about, his scene, the good life. A couple of comic books, and we’d be set to go on home to the mortuary and kick back.

After the cross-town trek, we finally got over to City Hall, entered off Polk Street and walked into the great, domed, wide open lobby, with its marble floors and giant pillars. It sounded like an indoor swimming pool, the murmur of voices echoing, as little groups of people in business dress stood about in the civic space and chatted, conferred, confabulated.

I was wearing a pair of terrible, black and green-striped bell-bottoms, high water style, with a faded blue cut-off sweatshirt, and an oversize red and black, hunters-plaid winter overcoat. My shoes were worn, brown Hush Puppy desert boots, several sizes too large, and my feet moved around inside.  All of this couture was courtesy of the hand-me-down street economy. My hair was down to my shoulders, a tangled mane that hadn’t seen a brush for over a year. Jimmy looked a little slicker than me, but not much. His hair was riding in sort of a distorted Afro-Cuban formation, he had on a black lightweight man’s jacket, a grey t-shirt, blue jeans, and a pair of black Keds. It all might’ve looked alright if it hadn’t been his sole motif for the last month. I felt conspicuous, like we were a couple of wet dogs, coming in from the rain. I don’t think Jimmy was too worried about it though—he just wanted his money, he needed to get his hands on that check.

We made a beeline straight for the Treasury Department, which was all the way to the back and left of the lobby. We walked through the double glass doors, and it was like a bank inside, with rows of clerks behind windows, and, in back of them, numerous workers at desks piled high with official documents and accounting books.

We waited in line, absently watching the others ahead of us all hassling with the man, but I didn’t think too much about it. I was just happy, dreamily anticipating the life-enhancing feel of some new silver and green in my cash pocket.

Jimmy got to the head of the line and immediately there was a problem.

“Sorry sir,” said the man behind the glass, “we don’t have the release form for your check yet; it hasn’t come in from Otis Street. They have to clear it over there and send it in.”

“There must be some mistake!” said’  Jimmy. “They told me it was ready, that everything was taken care of.”

“Sorry, sir. Please step aside. Next!”


Jimmy had to step away from the window. I was dumbfounded. What did it mean?

“Look, man, this guy’s full of shit. My worker told me this morning on the phone, everything is supposed to be cool. It’s not that far, let’s just walk over to Otis Street and see her. I’m sure she can get it together.”

So we headed back out into Civic Center, under low clouds, wet from grey drizzle and the splash of passing busses and cars. I felt the cold breeze whipping up underneath my clothes, getting its icy fingers all over me. It was enough to make me wish I still owned some fruit-of-the-looms.

In that kind of cold you just have to just put your head down and fade away as you go. We worked our way down Polk, walking past Market and out Mission; we didn’t say much. It was grim, that’s all, and we wanted to make it ASAP, ’cause there was still time to get the check today, before closing.

The building on Otis looked like the last brick outpost on the frontlines of a siege. Here were the Welfare, Foodstamps, Social Security and ATD offices. People were jammed in like clowns in a phone booth; the hallways were cold, dark, and lit with fluorescent brown light that made everyone and everything appear distant. Jimmy’s worker’s name was Janis, and she was just a few years older than us. You could tell with one look as she passed by, that Janis was hopelessly buried under an insane caseload, totally overworked, beseeched nine to five, five days a week, by the most troubled and poverty stricken people imaginable. She looked stressed.

Jimmy took a number and we waited.

We watched the minute hand of the clock run a slow lap before Janis was ready to see Jimmy. There was about forty-five minutes of the work day left, and the traffic in the building was starting to thin out, when she appeared at her door and waved us both in.

Her office was tiny, just a cubicle.  Jimmy sat down and started to explain the situation; he was actually tearful, and I was surprised to see him like that. He usually tried to come off as a tough guy. It almost looked like he was gonna start crying, as he told her how the man withheld his check. She was very sympathetic, warm, nodding her head; you could tell she really was concerned for him.

“Go back to City Hall,” she said, “and by the time you get over there, I’ll have it taken care of, you’ll get the check. It’s just a mistake. I’ll let them know.”

Cool. So we hit the exit, retraced our footsteps, back down Mission, over Van Ness, across Market, on to Polk Street, and into City Hall. We made straight for the Treasury and waited in line again. There were just a few customers ahead of us, and soon we were back at the window, with just moments to spare.

The man took a look at his ledger, or whatever it was, and peered back up at Jimmy through his thick horn rims. “Sorry, Sir, the paper work on this hasn’t come through. I can’t release the check without the correct paperwork.”

“There must be a mistake!” wailed Jimmy. “Didn’t they tell you? We’re starving! We’ve been trying to get this check since this morning! Please, just call over to Otis. They’ll straighten it all out!”

“I’m sorry sir, there’s nothing I can do,” the man said, as he closed his window and walked away, leaving us there.

Jimmy was furious, and I could tell he was on the edge of completely losing it, his eyes bugging out, his whole body trembling, but somehow he got himself under control.

I was disappointed, but numb.

It was a long, wet, cold, dark, and quiet walk back to the Mortuary. It seemed like it took hours, since we were so low on energy from hunger. My head was pounding, the world had transformed into a droning torture chamber. We needed food. What a fucked up day!

“Oh well, it’s bound to get straightened out by tomorrow,” said Jimmy.

Back at the funeral parlor, the guys were pretty cool. Dorian was strangely reserved. Louie and Mike the Cab fronted us a couple of bucks, and we made it down the block to Coit Liquor, where we bought some beer nuts, and a little package of Philadelphia cream cheese, all of which we devoured in about 30 seconds, sitting in the doorway of the pad.

Exhausted, we just slept on the floor of the front room in our clothes.


The next morning it was raining again. First thing, we headed out the door right into it, and back all the way, through the tunnel, down the avenues, across the town, to the offices on Otis.

This time we didn’t have to wait so long. Janis was sorry and said the man had it wrong, he should have released the check, but she promised to take care of it herself, to make sure that everything was cool.

She sent us back, with a release form to show the man.

Before we left, Jimmy turned and looked at Janis, and announced in a dead serious, even toned voice, “If I don’t get that check today, you’re gonna read about what happens in the newspaper.”


Paperwork in hand, we went back to the Treasury, and through to the front of the long line. I felt as if I was watching from a distance; it seemed like a dream.

Jimmy got to the front and spoke to the man in the glasses. He was still unwilling to release the check.


“But I have the release form right here” said Jimmy.


“Sorry, sir” said the man. “The form lacks the correct signatures. It needs to be signed by the case-worker and the section administrator. I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t release the check.”


“You sonofabitch!” shouted Jimmy, and he started shaking, crying, losing control of himself.


“Sorry, sir! Sorry sir!” the man cried.


Then Jimmy reached through the window and placed his right hand behind the man’s head, while with his other hand he reached up and began smooshing the release forms in the man’s face.


I’ll show you ‘Sorry sir,’ you motherfucker! You see these forms? Take a closer look!” And with that Jimmy scrubbed away with the paper, wiping it all around in the man’s face, knocking the guys glasses off.

“Jimmy, stop!” I shouted.  I could see the security guard coming for us from the doorway. He had his billy-club out.

The man was trying to twist away from Jimmy, and he had his hands under the counter, feeling around, trying to hit the Treasury’s emergency alarm button, while all the time getting the face treatment.

I pulled Jimmy away from the guy, but then the cop got a grip on him. Jimmy was crying and shouting “I want my check,” and I was burbling at the cop, “It’s all a misunderstanding, he didn’t do anything! We’ll leave. Let him go!” But he wasn’t gonna let Jimmy go,he thought this was a robbery in progress or something.

I got in between him and Jimmy, and Jimmy broke away and started running. The cop chased him, then turned suddenly and came at me, so I took off too, running  through the vaulted lobby of City hall, heading for the front door.

A couple men in suits, who’d been standing reading newspapers at the other end of the floor, threw their papers down and started running towards us, shouting. Undercover treasury cops were coming out of the crowd, from all over.  They thought we were crooks. I saw another couple T-men coming from the other side of the lobby. I was running for my life.

Jimmy’d already made it out the door and into the street.They cops were angling  to cut me off at the door, but I kept picking up speed, really going full tilt now. I came right out of my Hush Puppies, so I just kept going in my socks, eluding one of the Treasury cops, ’til I made it to the street myself, and hung a right. There was Jimmy up ahead, running his ass off, too.

The cops were right behind us, a bunch of ’em, yelling “stop or we’ll shoot!”, but I couldn’t stop, I didn’t have it in me, I was too fucking scared. I just had to get away from these guys and this whole ridiculous situation before it killed me.

We ran and ran, a couple of blocks, Jimmy right ahead, the gang of cops coming up behind waving guns and yelling. It looked like we we’re gonna get away, but as we cut through a gas station, a black limousine pulled up at about a hundred miles an hour, right across my path, and slammed on the brakes. Two burly undercover men in black suits and shades, jumped out and grabbed me, the one behind me twisting my arm up hard against my back, then slamming me down across the hood of their car,  the other one handcuffing me as they mashed my face into the steel.


“It’s all a misunderstanding…”  I started going for that one, but I gave it up. These guys didn’t hear a thing. It was like I was an animal or something. I got the feeling they wanted to take me somewhere and kill me.

Another black car pulled up and cut Jimmy off the same way.  Two other cops handcuffed him, and then they led both of us straight across a little alley and into a building that just happened to be right there.

It turned out to be a mental institution.

The cops spoke to a white coated man behind the desk, who nodded, and seconds later we were led to a cell, thrown in still handcuffed, and the door was slammed shut.

The cell was tiny, dark, and empty, so we sat on the floor with our hands cuffed behind our backs and waited. Every so often someone opened the grate on the cell door and looked in, and Jimmy would start to beg “Please! Help! It’s all a mistake! Let us out of here! Please help us!”—crying as he pleaded, but the window would slam shut again, and it was plain that no one was listening.


I was clear eyed, shut down, observing.There was nothing to do but wait. It was cold in the cell, and I was shoeless and wet. Jimmy and I didn’t speak, there was nothing to say.


It was hours later when the door finally swung back. Two blue uniform city police officers, one a black man and the other white, stood looking at us. The white cop gruffly asked us some questions, then they stepped back out again and the door was shut again.

A few minutes later the door opened again, and the black cop came in and told us to rise. He removed our handcuffs. Then he said, “You can go.”

I was dizzy, dazed, shocked by the light, and so glad to be out of there I felt like I was gonna fly. It was the end of the day.  A light drizzle was coming down, as we walked up the alley and back to Polk. As soon as we got around the corner we started laughing and swearing, recounting the chase.

I wanted to see if my missing Hush Puppies were still lying in the street in front of City Hall. Sure enough, there was one of’ ‘em in the gutter right out front. I put it on and then, a few feet away I found the other.We started back, walking home for a third time, broke and hungry, ragged and dirty, but sort of happy, full of light, glad to be free.

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Rosie’s Cabaret

We said goodbye to Bruce Springsteen and headed out to spend a weird night in a funky motel, right across from the beach. There was a lot of late night action in the parking lot, but it was nothing to get involved in. It was one of those “cover me, I’m going out for cigarettes” kind of places. In the lobby the night clerk was behind six inches of bullet proof glass. I went down to ask him for some towels and he about jumped a mile when I came in, kinda spun around, looking all sweaty and nervous, like I’d busted him doing something nasty, but I couldn’t see what it was. The chain lock on the door in our room had been kicked off and replaced about ten times. The repairs on the door where the wood had been ripped off made a ladder-like design up and down the jamb, and there was an intense stench of death coming from the dumpster right outside, but no one to tell about it, so we just went to sleep.

As soon as we woke up in the morning, we cleared out of our room and went straight over to the oceanside, and it felt great to be breathing the fresh air and looking into the blue wave-capped distance, even if we were still wearing matching shirts. We walked around, got some coffee, sat on a bench by one of those tourist telescopes, watching the clouds blow by, for a while, and then hit the trail again.

When you think of New Jersey, who thinks of a wild, rural setting? The image in my mind was of Newark as the only North American industrial area that was bombed by the Germans in World War II. But, we followed our directions from the agency, and they took us to see a whole other aspect of the state. We drove for a couple hours and found ourselves way out in the country, passing through dark woods, lush green fields of farm land, and occasional little towns.

It was well past the dinner hour when we began to close in on our destination. The street name was right, but the numbers? We were way off. We kept driving, turned around a couple of times, and finally came to the little village where the map told us the club was located. We drove right past it the first time, performed a “swoop and pounce” maneuver, parked and shut off the rod, and checked the joint out.

We knew nothing about the club, except that John Hammond Jr. had played there once. It didn’t look like much, just a little wooden building with pink weather tiling, and a sign over the door, shaped like a pig in silhouette, and the lettering Rosie’s Cabaret, and in smaller letters at the bottom: Dining & Entertainment.

The owner’s name was Chris, and at first he seemed an odd, myopic sort of fellow, about my age, with a modified bowl haircut, great thick lenses in his round wire rims, and a quiet, businesslike manner. He didn’t have much to say to us, in fact didn’t engage us at all, except to ask for a hand once, as he moved tables and arranged chairs in the tiny club.

He had the world’s smallest PA, but when I brought out my guitar, plugged in and turned it on, Josh got it sounding great in about 10 seconds and two flicks of the wrist. The sound was full, warm, and responsive. Even though I was beat, I suddenly woke up and felt like playing. It just sounded so good in there.

After sound check, I asked him about the lodgings, which the hotel had agreed in the contract to provide, and he said we’d take care of it after the show. I said fine. I wondered out loud who would come to see me out in these boondocks, and Richard assured me the show was “sold out,” even though it was scheduled to begin in half an hour and all the tables and seats were still empty.

About 15 minutes before the show, the screen door to the street opened, and a line of people with reservations began to pour into the place. Mostly couples of people my age, but the extremely elderly and the latest punk rock generation were represented at a few tables as well.

The place was packed out and noisy, but when I started to play, the audience shut right up, and you could tell they were listening. I could feel ’em hanging on every note. When I was trying to crack wise between songs, they laughed hard, and when I’d play a guitar solo they applauded in the middle of the song. You know it’s going good when people cheer in the middle of things!

I was playing songs I hadn’t done in years, things like Ian Tyson’s “Summer Wages” and “Horse And Crow,” blues and folk numbers I’d thought I’d forgotten since my street-singing days. I even made up an instrumental for a break song, a fast unison guitar-and-harmonica jam sort of based on an old-time song I’d heard and loved,  “Train On The Island.”

When I got done with the first set, they gave me a strong round of cheers, and Richard and some young waiters and waitresses began to serve dinner and wine. Everybody was eating and conversing and the place was loud with the ring of silverware on plates, the clink of glass, and relaxed but enthusiastic talk. The whole scene was very encouraging.

The second set went even better than the first. It was one of those gigs you go on the road for, small but sort of magical, the kind that make you glad you’re a musician, that you stuck with it. It was really fun. I played some encores for them, and they gave me a long standing ovation at the end, then finally a “walking ovation,” as they all disappeared back into the New Jersey night, and I could hear groups of them singing the last song together as they walked away in the dark, “Cool… Clear…. Water.”

Richard straightened out the place, stowed everything spic and span and ship shape. The wait staff cleared out and it was just us. Richard settled up with the pay straight away, handing me a few hundred bucks, which I counted out.

“So wheres the hotel?” I asked, and he said,

“Well, there’s no hotel.”

And I said, “I thought you guys had me covered.”

And he said, “Well, the musicians usually stay at my house.”

I said, “Is that what John Hammond Junior did?”

And he said, “Well no, he stayed at a bed and breakfast nearby, but it’s too late to get you in there now.”

And so we made the decision to follow him out to his place, which he said wasn’t too far, and crash there.

Cool.  So he got in his pickup out front, and we pulled around behind him in the hot rod, and he took off and we followed.

We got down the main road for about 10 minutes, then took a left onto another road, which headed away from the towns, in fact, a little ways down the second road we weren’t seeing any house lights anymore, just cornfields under the moon, corn for miles. We took another turn onto a very small two lane side road, and after driving that for a few remote miles, we started to get a little antsy. It was really dark and lonely out there, no other cars in either direction, just the floating islands of light ahead from the pickup’s headlamps, and the little moving circle of light from ours.

“What if he’s taking us out here to kill us?” asked Josh, his face lit by the green dashboard, his eyes rolling towards me in the dark, and for a second I feel a slight chill all over my body. We both laughed too loudly: “Ha! Ha! Ha!” Then let it trail off.

The pickup was pulled over now to the left side of the road. Richard hopped out to open an ancient wood and wire gate, and then he pulled his truck onto the dirt road behind it, cutting into a dark wooded area. We followed him in, then stopped as he ran back again to lock the gate behind us. He was way up ahead now; we were just trying to keep an eye on his taillights. We drove for another five minutes, back and in, winding through trees, the road deeply rutted, us trying to keep up.

“I’m sure it’s okay,” I mumbled, and then suddenly we were in a large clear area, surrounded by trees, very dark except for the sliver of moonlight, the sky crazy with stars, and nothin’. I was trying to get my bearings.

Chris stopped, shut off his car and came over; we shut down, and then I made out the shape of a very large house against the night sky, a huge darkened farm house, not a light on in the place, and Chris set off towards it, gesturing for us to follow him. So I grabbed the Gibson in its case out of the back seat, Josh grabbed his bag and we went over and up some steps, apparently to the backdoor of the house.

He lets us in, and we were standing in the pitch-black room, some sort of anteroom or hall. We bumbled ahead in the dark; it was very quiet for a moment, then we heard the sound of feet, a rustling on the floor, as of something running, many somethings, very large, strange, moving in the dark, coming at us. “ARGGHHHHHHHH!”  We were paralyzed.

Chris hit a switch, the lights came on, and we were in an ordinary American farmhouse kitchen, that was entirely filled with pigs. Little pigs, big pigs, running around the room, squealing; all were very excited to see Richard, who was greeting each and every one.

“Hello Winfield! Jimmy! Oh Rosie, there you are. We have visitors! Don’t be afraid, they’re very nice people!” And then to us, as he plopped down into a wooden chair by the table with a tiny pig on his lap, “They’re cleaner than cats and smarter than dogs. They’re nearly as smart as humans!” The pigs swarmed around his feet and under the table, hidden by the red checked table cloth, grunting and making other odd humming sounds, breathing hard, all very fast and wiggly, demanding our host’s full attention. “Oh Jerry Lee!” he called, and a medium size pig scampered up. “You guys did your show tonight. Would you like to see Jerry Lee do his? Come on Jerry Lee, it’s showtime!”

Jerry Lee hopped up on a stool. Chris reached under the table and pulled out a huge pair of red sunglasses and a little toy piano. He put the glasses on the pig, set the piano on the table, and as Chris started singing “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” Jerry Lee started bangin’ the piano, eight to the bar, in a real rough style, but really pretty good, for a pig. Chris was excited now, sweating, wide awake, energized. The pigs were all rockin’ n rolling. I was sitting over by the piano, but Josh had gone over to the door, sitting on a wooden bench there, with a big porker on his lap.

“Dad, come here, check this out!” Every time he would reach over and touch the pig with his hand, the pig would immediately vibrate and hum. It was like completing an electrical circuit. Josh would take his hand away and the hum would stop. “Uhhhhh. Uhhhhh.” Josh tried the shave-and-a-haircut-bo-diddley-beat, touching the pig’s backs in time. “Uh Uh-uh uh-Uh! Uh uh-uh UH!”

Everybody settled down a bit down after that. Chris told he’d been a touring musician for years, and had only recently retired and opened the restaurant. But he wanted to pass on some encouragement to me.

“Peter, you should go tour Europe, they want the real thing over there, they’d love you…”

After a while it sort of seemed like everybody’d had a lot of fun, and had a good talk,  and it was time to go sleep, so Chris headed off to another part of the house to get things ready, while Josh tried some Morse code on the back of the “hummer,” and I just sort of idly looked around.

The room we were in was a chaos of pigs, pots, pans, and assorted useful junk, most of it old.

I poked around there a minute or two, and then sort of thought of looking for a phone to call the West Coast and see if I could reach any of my other peeps out there, but I couldn’t find one. I went around the corner and through a door to a little office. It was just a little larger than a closet really, with a dark wood floor, and a desk piled with papers pushed up against the wall, and a lot of random seeming items lying around. In spite of the clutter, the room was oddly empty, didn’t seem like it was used much. I couldn’t find a phone. Josh came in too. The door closed into the room, and behind it was a little bulletin board Josh was checking it out.

“Dad, come here and look at this.” He was talking in a whisper all of a sudden.

The bulletin board was empty except for one faded, curling, yellow newspaper clipping from a small hometown paper in the Midwest. The headline was about a man acquitted in a trial, in a city far away. There was a picture of the man, hard to make out. He was sort of a medium build, had a bowl haircut, and was wearing glasses. He looked a little like Chris, but not exactly, and Chris wasn’t his name. The story told how the man had been acquitted, found completely innocent, though circumstantial evidence had pointed to his guilt.  I couldn’t really figure out what the crime had been. We were standing there kind of silently mesmerized, when Chris’s head popped around the door, and interrupted our snooping. “All right then. Follow me, guys. I’ve got your rooms ready.”

We followed him up the stairs to the two guest rooms, which were situated, for some reason, at opposite ends of the second floor. The rooms were typical American farmhouse: brass beds, overhead fans, wild life pictures on the walls—bird and flower prints—historical portraits, dusty, massively overstuffed mattresses and pillows.

Chris left me in mine, and then went off to show Josh his. I felt agitated, and had been trying to go to sleep for a while, when the door quietly opened and someone was tip-toeing in through the dark.

It was Josh.

“A pig just tried to get into my room!”

When we woke up in the morning, the world was shining again, but Chris was gone and so were the pigs. We went down stairs and found this note on the kitchen table:

“Pete and Josh,

Thanks for the great gig guys. Hope you had a wonderful night. Help yourself to breakfast. Bacon’s on the stove.

best, Chris”

But the next show was up in Boston, so we split.

New Jersey club owner and musician CT Tucker with his pig Winfield.
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