Peter Case

As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport

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 http://omnivorerecordings.com/music/peter-case/

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From The Goodwill to Rip City

Allen

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.

 

 

Anton 

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!”

“C’mon!”

“No!!”

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.

“Yeah!”

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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Regarding The Plimsouls, Chuck Berry and Alan Freed

I needed some dough bad, so I told our manager Danny Hollyway I was ready to do a publishing deal. He set a meeting up with the wigs over at A&M Publishing. I wasn’t too keen on going, but Danny told me I better if I wanted to do the business, so I said okay.

It was a morning meeting, and I wasn’t in the greatest shape. I was psychedelically hungover. I had an urge to cancel the meeting, but instead, I tried to pull myself together. I got up and put my shades on, and went outside to wait for Danny to show up. We always rode to these things in his car, and I was in no condition to drive.

In the meeting I shook hands with a couple guys. One, a serious man in an elegant suit, youngish looking, but with well-cut grey hair, seemed to be in charge. As we were introduced, I felt nervous and started to have an almost out-of-body anxiety experience, a real existential crisis that I was trying to keep a lid on. The old short term memory was out of order or something, so the names were gone from my mind the moment were introduced, as if they’d been written on the air in disappearing ink. I could hardly sit still to follow the conversation. This was how it was at most of the band’s business meetings during this time: I had difficulty getting my head around it.

I don’t know why but somehow the conversation got on to Chuck Berry. This got my attention and I jumped in: “Chuck Berry got ripped off man. What the fuck was ALAN FREED doin’ with his name on “Maybelline”? That’s bullshit, man! Payola! Rockola! Freed ripped Berry’s royalties in exchange for radio play. That’s a federal offence, but does anybody give a shit?!” I just raved on and on: I loved Chuck Berry, saw him as a great lyrical genius, and this thing galled me. “Freed ain’t no songwriter. I don’t buy that whole thing about him. ‘Father Of Rock n Roll.’ He didn’t invent that term. He was a dj that put his name on people’s tunes; he shoulda been ashamed. Alan Freed was a parasite!” I finally ran out of gas and went silent. I was a little out of breath, riled up. The other men all sat there motionless. I could hear traffic out on the street. The man with the brush-cut grey hair looked up at me and spoke. “Alan Freed was my father.”

Maybe I wasn’t hearing right. I looked down at the name plate on his desk. It said “Lance Freed.”

I can’t remember what was said next, it’s like someone turned the volume off, and we were all just looking at each other. But me and Hollyway got out of there quick, and to this day I’ve never made a publishing deal. It just never works out, so I’ve kept my publishing. Not that I couldn’t have used the dough!

One Night in America (1981)
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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 being in a Broadway backstage. A good night at the Bottom Line equaled “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  wanted to get 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. 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. My wife would stop with the 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 full house when I walked the plank, out onto the stage, and put on one of the worst shows of my career. The guitar sounded thin, my voice hurt, the audience was smiling, but seemed remote, and it seemed like I couldn’t close the gap. I felt flat footed and awkward between songs, grabbed the wrong harmonicas, misplaced my capo, and tuned up endlessly. My best 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 was downhearted for a quarter of an hour, 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 than I was, 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, he loved science, and already had an encyclopedic mind. 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 loss fades, and is slowly replaced by a wild sense of hope that I can’t seem to shake. I’ll write a song, find some magic that’ll set everything right, the music that can redeem all the years of the business jive, the wasted years of days of hours of minutes of eternity, that  I’ll sing to melt the ice in my own heart.

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, 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 to in this whole country. Hard to believe it’s only fifty miles from New York City, the Jersey Shore is about as far from New York as you can get. ”

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 was walking around the front of the stage, spraying more fog here and there. It almost looked like he was fumigating the place.

At first it formed a low cloud cover at the base of the stage, 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 in sight. The lights went dim, like moon behind the clouds, and I was alone, lost in a rolling fog-bank.The song finally ended, and I heard applause, away in the distance, from somewhere I couldn’t see. 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.

He 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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King Kong Management

We recorded “Hanging On The Telephone,” “When You Find Out,” and two other songs at a studio in San Francisco’s Chinatown, then put it out on a 45 rpm record on our own label, and it was a little record with a big hole. We sold about five copies in the first month. The great radio station KSAN played “Hangin’,” “When You Find Out,”  and “Working Too Hard” on New Year’s Eve.  Then we moved to Los Angeles, driving that cold night down Highway 101, and arriving in L.A. on the morning of the first day of the new year, 1977.

 

Desperately wanting to get things going, our drummer Paul went out every day, going around Hollywood, trying to hustle up some business, and after a few days,  he told us a manager wanted us to meet. The guy’s name was Raymond Albert.

Albert had a tiny little office in a decrepit old fire trap of a building off of Hollywood Boulevard, near the Cahuenga Newstand. There was barely enough floor space in there for all four of us to crowd in. He sat behind his desk, a fortyish man with short brown hair and a chin-strap beard, wearing a khaki safari jacket over his large upper frame. He spoke in a deep voice, seemed very strong, and gave off the impression of a subdued or capped energy.

We talked for about 10 minutes in his office. He loved the record, just loved it, really thought something could happen, if we were willing to take his advice. We asked about the dozens of boxes stuffed with Gorilla toys, lined up and stacked along the walls, and he enthusiastically told us about his latest project. He had put a record out, on his own little label, a novelty single: “Oh! Kong” or something like that, capitalizing on the year’s big re-make of the King Kong movie. It was going to be huge.

He asked if we were hungry, and then, at his suggestion, the meeting adjourned down the stairs and through the alley to the Two Guys From Italy restaurant next-door.

We got a booth in the dark back room at Two Guys, and the meeting continued. Albert ordered a couple pizzas and pitchers of beer. He wanted to know: “Are any of you guys married?” We ate and drank, talked nonsense about the music world. Albert had some theories and talked big. He ordered a lot more beer, and we drank all he ordered.

Ninety minutes or so later we were all drunk, and the restaurant was starting to empty out. Albert picked up the tab, then pulled his briefcase out from under the table. Funny, I hadn’t noticed he had that with him before. He opened it up, and pulled out some paper and set it in front of me. “It’s a very simple contract, you’ll need to sign it now so I can get on with things for you,”

I tried to focus on the typewritten page in front of me. We weren’t expecting this. It made me very uneasy.

” Go ahead, take some time and read it,” he said, “or if you want, I’ll explain it. This is a standard management contract, the same contract that everyone in the business uses.”

“Raymond, It says here the term is for 10 years. That seems like a really long time,”  I said.

“That’s the industry standard.”  Raymond assured me. “And once the record’s a hit, time will be flying by.”

I looked around the table at my partners. Paul and Jack were looking down at their copies, reading. Everybody looked wasted, rumpled, bemused.

“Raymond, I don’t think we can sign this, it gives you fifty percent of the songwriting royalties for ten years.”

“It’s commonplace procedure, you guys. The usual rate. I need to be protected too. I’m gonna make you guys into big stars. I need to get something, a piece of the pie. And remember, one hundred percent of nothing is nothing. You gotta give something up if you want to make it to the top.”

Paul caved in. “He’s right. I think we should sign.”

“I can’t sign this,” I said, though I felt like I might be blowing my big chance.

The table went silent. Raymond was getting angry now. “You mean to tell me you guys get me out here, I buy you pizzas and beer, and now you’re not gonna sign the contract! You’ve gotta be kidding me! Sign that contract!” He was really getting worked up.

“I might be drunk but I’m not gonna sign this crap,” I said.

Paul was dismayed, but we hung together, and finally, over Raymond Albert’s ever more intense objections, we split. And that’s how the Nerves handled their first big opportunity in the music business.

 

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Trip to Lightnin’, 1971

The latest lineup of Pig Nation moved into an old house out by Lake Erie, with six bedrooms, a fireplace, a porch, and a main room big enough to play ball in. It was situated in a remote and seedy wooded compound called Idlewood, and from the bluffs overlooking the lake we could see the steel mills of Lackawanna  blowing sulfurous smoke into the cinereal gray sky, merely a few miles of polluted shoreline away to the North. The leader of an infamous motorcycle gang and his old lady lived across the street from us, and often threw gargantuan outlaw parties on the island below, which we could hear on the breeze late at night, but outside of that the neighborhood was quiet.

In our house there were six guys, splitting two hundred dollars a month, and we could never make the rent. Then the first big winter storm hit and the back-to- the-land people, who were living in sleeping bags around campfires in the woods outside of town, began arriving at our door, begging to come in out of the cold, and we said okay to sixteen of them, boys and girls, and now we had twenty-two people in a house made for six, twenty-three if you count the dude someone picked up hitch-hiking, and at this point we began to suffer from cabin fever in there, and with the Buffalo weather and the distance from town, what had been a workable and even idyllic situation for all was starting to get strained. Twenty three divided by six bedrooms, that’s approximately three point eight-three hippies a room, and we still couldn’t make the rent.

At first I’d been thriving, beating for hours on the old piano in the main room, teaching myself to play boogie-woogie, blues and honky tonk,  and my girlfriend from down in town, Julie, who I was nearly crazy about, would come out and stay sometimes, when her Dad was gone all week driving semi-trucks, but all my roommates started calling her “the Painted Woman,” and anyways, she never spoke, I’m not sure why. I’d ask “what can I do?” and she’d just look at me. I was hopelessly bad at sex and romance, and we weren’t really getting anywhere. The ping pong table in the middle of the house was going constantly with people working on their game, and everyone was stoned. Dinner every night was rice and beans. Being the youngest in the house, I was usually pressed into KP duty, and I began having to do the laundry too, over at the bikers place. But one day the oldest guy began thinking he was a religious leader, and became obsessed with converting the rest of us to his vision. He started going naked and calling everyone en masse up to his quarters to see God…

And I thought “man, I gotta get the fuck out of here!”

There’d been a storm in the night.

It was early in the morning and I’d decided to leave. No one else was awake yet. Stepping lightly through the house, I didn’t want to rouse the sleepers and have to face their questions. I wanted to get as far away from this place as I could, right away, blizzard or not. Out the door onto the gravel and ice, the cold air bit my nose, the wind punched my lungs, and the world was muted, still  in darkness.

The  pines were covered with snow, the bridge was buried, even the tiny sparrows flittering in the trees had little piles of snow on their heads. When I reached the highway,  I waited, watched and shivered, then stuck out my thumb as the first set of headlights approached through the wind and cold, wet snow. I ran to the car and jumped in, out of breath, took off my gloves, and held my hands to the dashboard heater. The radio was playing rock and roll, it was like arriving late to a party. The driver was a guy in his 30’s, mustache, short hair, nervous, probably doin’ a sales route.

“Goin’ to Syracuse,” he said as he pulled out into the flow.

“Me too!” I answered.

The country rolled by as we got on the New York Thruway, a road I’d travelled on a lot of times.  This was the first time I’d ever taken the road alone. While he fooled with the radio dial, I turned to the right and stared off through the window at the power lines and electrical towers that were marching in our direction like an invasion of giant robots, back across the grey frozen landscape to the horizon.

I got dropped off in Syracuse by the university, on the hippie-student strip.

I met two friendly and attractive young college girls, in a record shop and they invited me to their apartment near campus. Once there they brandished an item that I’d never seen before, and told me it was called a “bong.”

We fooled around with that for a while. To make sure this story doesn’t get too long, I’ll just say, I got out of the hospital a couple days later.

It was a weekday morning, the air outside was cold, but the storm had passed. The sun was shining in a clear blue sky, the diamond ice on the ground glittered, and I thumbed a ride with a carload of kids that took me all the way to Albany.

The girl in the front passenger seat asked where I was going and I answered

“Boston.”

“Oh really? That’s a long ways. Do you have friends or family there?”

“Well, my grandfather was a train conductor out of Worcester, but he’s gone now. I’m just going to have a look.”

They dropped me off on the last Albany exit,  a major Thruway interchange with toll booths and lots of cars speeding both ways.

The weather was getting worse again. I immediately started trying to hitch a ride. Another traveler, a guy a few years older than me, was up ahead, workin’ the same flow of cars.  I wandered up and spoke with him. He was trying to get up near Boston as well. We talked for a while; he  said he was going home. We had a couple laughs about the weather, then split up again. Who wanted to pick up two riders?

Standing out there in the cold for an hour, I started getting a little nervous. A thousand cars must’ve gone by, and no one even looked. The flurries swirled and swarmed. I turned around and the sun was gone, it had just disappeared. The sky was getting dark, I could feel the temperature falling, as the snow began to squall. It was turning into a blizzard, and still no ride.

Headlights were halos in the wall of white; cars emerged from the ground-level clouds into the foreground, and zoomed past, my plight raising not even a quick look from the drivers.They kept whooshing by, hundreds of thousands of  ’em, the car-wheels spinning and kicking up slush. Spotlights at the blue thruway toll booths ahead revealed more traffic coming off the Thruway than going on, and the storm looked to be on top of us now.

The other hitch-hiker came over and said that after hanging here so long not getting a lift, he figured it might be time to surrender. I watched his back as he walked to the toll station, went into a phone booth, and dialed. Ten minutes later a checkered taxi pulled over and he ran for it.

“My parents sent me a plane ticket home,” he called. “Good luck!”

The cab pulled out on the Thruway interchange and disappeared, with him in back.I left my spot at the on-ramp and began to walk into Albany, hoping to find some shelter for the night. After a while a city bus came by and I flagged it down. There were no other passengers; I paid and sat down on one of the sideways benches, looking over the driver’s shoulders into the night as the bus lurched, roared and slammed its way up a hill.

No one else got on, and we rode all the way to the end of the route: State University at Albany. In a hollow voice the driver muttered, “this is it,” as the door swung open.  I stepped onto the street, and the bus lumbered away leaving me standing there, floating in a giant, haunted empty space, a dark plaza of vacant modern campus architecture.

Lit by flood lamps in the snow, the buildings looked like something dreamt up by Albert Speer for the Third Reich, and the university was a ghost ship; everyone was gone. It was the semester break.

But the snow kept coming, and I needed to move.

The next bus to town pulled into view and it was the last. Once again, I was the only passenger. I asked the driver, a middle-aged black man, who seemed ready for anything in his heavy parka and Russian-style hat with ear flaps, and he said there was a shelter downtown. He stopped a few blocks away and gave me directions.

I said thanks, stepped off and his bus roared away.

I was in downtown Albany, its streets lined with old brick buildings, and the snowplows hadn’t even come through yet. There was no one in sight. I walked and after a while I found it, a storefront next door to a church. The door was unlocked, and I entered. It was warm inside, where a lady and man were toiling about getting ready to leave. I’d just made it, they told me, come on in.

I looked at the posters on the walls. Apparently, the place did quadruple service as a shelter for transients, a suicide hotline, a community resources switchboard, and as the home for the Downtown Albany Free Medical Clinic. There were no other clients, or customers, victims, whatever the hell I was.

The rooms were furnished with junk chairs, an old low wooden table, and ancient asbestos floor tiles in faded primary colors. Piles of toys in the corner waited for the preschool that met there. On the wall hung a plaque with a serenity prayer on it, the same prayer I’d seen displayed at my Uncle Jim’s house.

The people were friendly and relaxed, but they asked a lot of questions, and I lied about everything including my name,“Davis Clifford,” my age “eighteen,”  my purpose for the trip,“visiting family in Boston,”  and they were perfectly satisfied with the answers I gave. I was shown into a room with a couple of cots, and I put my things down, lay back on a pillow, pulled the green blanket over, and crashed.I woke early the next morning ready to leave.

The people were talking excitedly about the big snowfall setting some kind of a record. The front window was so frosted I couldn’t really see, but from the way they shivered and shook and stomped the snow off their boots I got the idea.

I put on my coat and steeled myself for the freeze, said goodbye to the kind people of the Albany Downtown Switchboard and Shelter, and headed out through frosted doors into the morning. The sun was out and blinding, and the streets were filled with shining ice; the sky was clean blue, the storm had passed but everything was buried under great heaps of white.  Cars were skidding along the street; the little one-man snowplows were coming through, clearing the sidewalks. It had really been a big storm.

Following directions back to the highway, and walking slowly, slipping on the ice, the cold air burned my face,  and my toes already ached from the cold. When I passed a public library, an ancient brick building on a hillside lot set back from the street, I gave up; without thinking much, and went in.

There were only a couple of people there.

An old bird, probably retired, with bushy eyebrows, sitting at a table scowling at a copy of Popular Mechanics, and  a middle-aged lady librarian in a sweater and skirt; she wore glasses and her grey hair was pinned up in a bun on top of her head. She smiled at me as I passed her desk. I saw carved-on tables, a worn out floor; I could smell the old books, a dry musty odor, not unpleasant. The tables and chairs, the carpets and the floors, even the pictures on the wall were brownish and worn.

In the back room where the phonograph records were kept I saw a little music listening booth with glass windows, equipped with a turntable. Records were kept in a bin along the wall: I went down on my knees to read the lettering on the worn out album cover spines. Hidden in there amongst ratty copies of Victory At Sea, Sing Along With Mitch, and Sounds of the Brazilian Rain Forest, was one record that caught my eye and made my heart jump: a Skip James LP, in a blue sleeve with a photo on the front of a black man in a loud yellow shirt rockin’ on a blond Gibson guitar.

This was it.

I continued to flip through the records and pulled two others: The Cisco Special by folksinger Cisco Houston,  and  Ramblin’ Jack Elliot Sings the Songs Of Woody Guthrie and Jimmie Rodgers. I took the three albums in hand and stepped to the listening booth. Something about the situation I was in made me uniquely ready to listen. I dropped the needle onto the first tones of Skip James’ “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues.”  The guitar was low, flat-toned and buzzing. The ghosting voice was high and almost disembodied, “If I could ever get up offa this killin’ floor…”  It was the sound of America, my home, as the foreign country I knew it to be. A soul was peeping out the window of eyes and seeing the strangeness of the world. I knew Skip James was a Mississippi born blues singer, but I knew absolutely nothing else about his life or his music; I’d never heard anyone speak about him or even mention his name before, but the sound of that record hit me hard and was so fresh, I was unprepared.  I got turned on, and burned like a tungsten bulb. I played that song over and over again.

Ramblin’ Jack and Cisco were a different story, wise guys of another stripe. “Dead Or Alive” by Ramblin’ Jack was an hilarious outlaw blues. “The sheriff wrote me a letter: ‘come down and see me, boy, dead or alive.’ Jack had a touching way of making the law sound foolish. He swallowed the words then spat’em out, and it cracked me up.

The first cut on the Cisco Houston LP was a rousing, old fashioned  boogie-woogie country tune about how “all I ever did was shoot a deputy down” and how, then, “I got ninety nine years on the hard rock pile.”  “This has sure been a lesson to me!”  is the last line, a ridiculous wrap up…a great record!

Mocking the trouble, their bad luck, the straight uptown world, all phoniness and hassles, right to its face, Cisco and Ramblin’ Jack were thumbing their noses at the law and living large and free in the face of insurmountable opposition. “It’s a hard road, dead or alive.” Nothing would ever get you down if you laughed at law and life and made it rock like Cisco Houston or Rambling’ Jack do on “The Badman Ballad” or “Dead or Alive.”

Or make a record as powerful and wailin’ as Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues, with nothin’ but a guitar and your voice. I never got over it.  I was never the same after hearing Jack Eliott, Skip James, and Cisco Houston the day of the blizzard in the Albany Public Library.

Perfect snow on the Massachusetts turnpike, after-the-storm calmness. White dusted over white pines and stone ledges of the road, cut through shale stone hillsides. Got a ride in a Lincoln with an old man, in a black suit, frail, he might’ve been fifty years old, soft spoken, the car was quiet, no radio and going all the way.

“Where you going?”

“Boston”

“Me too!”

Through Stockbridge, past Worcester, watching the snow-covered countryside, the distant hills and mountains, towns wheeling by on each side of the road, I was breathing deep. In the aftermath of the storm, it felt like a Sunday. Time was bright and quiet for a while in that old man’s car, and everything was okay.

It was exciting to be going somewhere new, Boston, and when we got there the city burst all over me. On its teeming streets and miles of stone and wood, I was overwhelmed. The old man dropped me off in a place he called the Combat Zone, which was one-way in full tilt, sidewalks jammed with workers, men and women in long dark wool coats, steam rising from beneath the street, and car exhausts puffing from the cold blocked traffic.

Boston was cranking with the energy of a million edgy people. I ran down into the subway and found my way to Cambridge, coming up from the underground to wander the busy streets by Harvard University. The area surrounding the school was just as busy as downtown Boston, but vibrating at a different pitch, girls of approximately my age, and guys with long hair and sideburns, waving gloves of kid leather, peering through wire-rimmed glasses, wearing blue jeans, boots, colorful parkas and ponchos, fancy scarves, stylish black motorcycle jackets, wool hats with beanies, and steam rising in clouds from their chatter. Arm and arm they came, across Harvard Yard, bound together in youth and privilege, on their way to studies, bundled up and trundling past the most wasted street-people I’d ever seen.

Banks of snow lined the curbs and covered the sidewalks. It was mid-afternoon and, blizzard or not, the city of Cambridge was bustling. No one noticed me at all as I wandered up and down Massachusetts Avenue.

I needed a place to crash and the afternoon was getting on. One of the elders at the Pig Nation house had advised me, “If you ever need a place to crash, just find somebody with ‘the look’ in their eye and ask them. We’re a secret society.”  I spied about and spotted a strange looking man, with wild, black, mad scientist hair, red face, a beard, thick glasses, and a very mature demeanor.  He had “the look” I was sure. I asked him if he knew of place I could go, and he said “Cmon’, follow me,” and we went down a couple of side streets and up a garbage can alley, in the side door of a three story building, climbed a long flight of stairs and entered into a large open loft space, filled with newspaper and print shop paraphernalia.  He showed me to a cot in an alcove, surrounded by a desk and some bookshelves, then shrugged and told me to make myself comfortable. He said “ You can stay, but you’ll have to leave early.”

I asked how come.

He said “See that poster over there, with the picture of a ship on it?”

I turned and saw it, yeah.

“Tomorrow we’re going to levitate that ship around the world.”

He was in some new organization called Scientology. I’d never heard of it, but all of a sudden I remembered I had to do something out on the street.

“I’ll be right back.” I dashed out and continued wandering.

 

In the early evening I approached a theater with an open ticket booth and a few people entering. There was a sign out front:

“LIGHTNIN’ HOPKINS

TONIGHT! IN PERSON

8PM  General Admission $2.50”

Oh my God! I felt a shock of excitement; I could hardly believe it. I started going through my pockets to see if I still had enough money to get in. I had exactly 3 dollars left, so I paid through the slot in the window to the box office guy, and got two quarters and a ticket pushed back at me. I nearly ran inside.

The theater was already dark and the show was beginning. There he was, sittin’up there in the big spotlight, rockin’ on a steel stringed guitar, Lightnin’ Hopkins playing the blues, Mount Rushmore with a pompadour and shades.

I floated up into the balcony, on a sea of darkness, while the freight train spotlight on the star, and the sound he made, had me instantly hypnotized. He was wearing a suit, the shades were shining, and his hair crested his skull like the prow of a ship. He sang “Mighty Crazy” and “Wonder Why.” Then he told a long story of Mister Charlie’s rolling mill burning down, and when I was lost, blown away, didn’t know what I was seeing, he sang “The Trouble Blues.” “

“Trouble trouble trouble is all in the world I see” and tho’ I’d heard a couple of his records before, and loved them, I never got it until I heard this.

“I ran away from home but no one tried to fetch me back/ that was a long old time ago/held all I owned in a paper sack/ a long cold time fo’ sho’.”

“Poverty knocked and left his card/ said call me when your daddy dies/The good times are way off now/ I  see ‘em everytime I close my eyes.”

I was hungry when I left the show. I didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone, but walked straight down the street and into the Hayes-Bickford Cafeteria, where I got a tray, joined the line and helped myself to some chile con carne and hot rolls, and a for desert a slice of pie, then took a table in the corner and enjoyed it all at my leisure. About halfway through the pie, I remembered that I was broke. When I was done I stood up and ambled toward the front, saw the attendant catch a load of me, and as soon as I pushed through the door and made it to the sidewalk, I turned left and took off running with the guy chasing me right behind. I flew down the steps of the subway, jumped the turnstile, and was lucky to find the train just loading on the platform. I caught it as it was pulling out, and rode it all the way out to Logan Airport where I spent the night sleeping in the American Airlines travel lounge. I didn’t even notice the crowds or flight announcements, until I woke up in the middle of  everything the next morning and went back to town.

I decided to go home then. I got to the turnpike on-ramp and the first vehicle that stopped was a semi-truck sixteen wheeler. I raced up and climbed aboard, said “I’m going to Buffalo,” and the driver, a young Irish looking fellow, nodded, said “Get in I’m goin’ all the way,”  and after all that fooling around and chicanery to get to Boston, it was one clean ride back, eight hours with the sun out in a blue sky  shining into the cab, melting the snowy fields and icicles off the barn roofs, and me and the driver telling stories and having some laughs. I played him some blues on the guitar, and we  listened to country music on the radio as we barreled west, and then for a while I stayed lost and buried in my thoughts, he in his, and then, after many mesmerized hours we got back to Buffalo that night.

We weren’t too far out of town when he asked me “where in Buffalo you going?” and I said “on Route 5 out in Lakeview” and he said “I’m going right by there I’ll take you to your door,” and man, I felt like it was a true legendary return, with the truck pulling in to Idlewood and carrying me right up to our green house, and me jumping out onto the running board with my guitar and hopping down as the driver gave me two long deafening blasts from his horn that rang through the night,  thenyelling “Take it easy, man!” as he drove away.

So I went into the house expecting a hero’s welcome, there they all were, and no one had even noticed I’d been gone.

 

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