When I was a kid John Lennon was one of my biggest heros. At 16 years old I read the Rolling Stone interview, and JL said something like ‘I’m the kind of person, when I have a hero, if I find out they wear green socks, I’ll run out and buy green socks’ and I immediately started to wear green socks myself. Wore ’em for years. I know that’s fucked up.
He did a photo spread in Look Magazine, with Yoko, it must have been around the time of the making of the White Album, and the pictures made a big impression on me. Him and Yoko were posing in a big empty house that they’d just moved into. She was sitting with him and he was playing the guitar, and I just really admired him, with his girl and guitar in a big house where nobody could tell him what to do. It was one of the things that clarified, at the time, my ideas about life. Of course, my image of him was rubbish. He was mad, painfully insane, destroying his mind with drugs, about to break up his great band. But that flux was part of what was great about him. I would consciously, and unconsciously, imitate all of that before too long myself.
I identified with the depth of his problems, as expressed in Yer Blues. That was my favorite for a while. My band ‘Pig Nation’ performed it at every gig we did, through 1969 and 1970. Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan were my other biggest living heros, and that song kind of summed it all up for me.
‘I’m lonely, want to die,’ Pig Nation used to rehearse in my parents basement and my Mom once called down the stairs: ‘Boys, play that nice song about suicide again!’
I’d seen the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show every time they were on. That was the first time I ever talked back to a grown up. My Dad was making cracks about their hair and I told him to be quiet. He got me good for that one! That was the first trouble JL got me in. I still have a 1964 diary somebody gave me for Christmas. ‘Saw the Beatle last night on TV. Mom and Dad think they stink. I think they’re great!’ Then me and a couple guys skipped outta school at lunch, and went downtown. I was 9, what is that, 4th grade? And we stood in the drugstore reading the first Beatle magazines ’til the guy asked us to buy something or leave. My first adventure with truancy, thanks John.
So you see, he was a big one for me. I became a songwriter in 1965, right after ‘I Feel Fine’ came out. Me and George Pope, my first songwriting partner, wrote ‘Stay Away,’ that was my first tune. We played it in my band, The Telstars, and that was it: all I ever wanted to do, after that.
I could go on and on. But I think you see. I spent three years living and playing on the streets of San Francisco. That was sort of my ‘Hamburg’ period. Me and my pals would play 12 or or more hours a day, everyday. During this time, I didn’t give a fuck about anything, just like I knew JL didn’t when he was a young rocker. It was a dark time in a way, but it taught me that I could project rock and roll.
When he died I was in the Plimsouls. That night me and Eddie Munoz had just written our song Shaky City. When the news sunk in, I cried my guts out. What a disaster. Eddie didn’t cry. He just said ‘ They kill all our heroes.’
“Oh, will your magic Christmas tree be shining gently all around?”
-Chinese White (Mike Heron)
The String Band weren’t the inspiration, nor the Beatles. I lay the juggernaut straight to Madison Avenue’s Time Magazine. It was late Spring, 1969, the year I turned 15, and got out of the ninth grade. Time made the psychedelic world sound so beautiful, and a lot of us had become filled with anticipation and desire.
My friend Jeff and I were feeling its power, for the first time, in the yard outside his parents split-level tract home, in the middle class Forest Glen housing development sub-division of Hamburg, New York. I was lying on the lawn along the side of the house, and my girlfriend, Mary Anne, came riding up the sidewalk on a purple Sting Ray bicycle with a white Banana seat. “The little long haired girl,” one of my pals used to smirk and call her, when she first transferred in from the Jesuit school in Buffalo. Now she was wearing cut-off mod striped shorts, some kind of teenage short sleeve blouse, and her straight brown hair spilled over her back and down both sides of her face. She rode right up to me, across the grass, then stopped and peered at me through tiny wire rim glasses, looking very sad. And she was angry with me. I was stretched full, flat out on the ground, face toward the sun, and I couldn’t stop laughing. She stayed for a minute or two, but we weren’t communicating, so she rode off, shaking her head. “You always said you wouldn’t do this” she said, right before she split. She looked like she was gonna cry.
Me and Jeff decided to pull ourselves together and began the trundle into town, walking down a long and busy high road called Sunset Drive, then over to Mike Bannister and Jon Duffett’s place, known to all the kids in town as “The Apartment,” the first and only hippie pad around, where we all used to hang, the grey garage apartment behind a two story house on well-named Pleasant Avenue, a few doors from the old brick school building, right in the center of town.
Bannister and Duffett were my heroes. They were several years older, and had seen the world, surviving on their own terms. It seemed to me like they lived on Mount Olympus. I’d see them walking around the village, in a crowd, with long hair, looking like gypsies, scarves and sashes, and beautiful girls by their sides in likewise colorful clothes, all in rag tag hippie wear, especially Duffett, though Western dapperness was Bannister’s thing, and with cigarettes dangling from all lips beneath shades. Seeing them was like sighting an outlaw version of the Beatles walk by your house, on their way crosstown for some kicks. Just watching them going by was sort of a high. I was sitting on my parents steps as they passed, so I got their attention by blowing some train licks on the blues harmonica, and the procession stopped. Hello. We all became friends, and soon found out we listened to the same music.
“Oh Lord, live and learn
I see your face and know you”
These were the first other Incredible String Band fans I’d met. Mike Bannister was a true rolling stone, and so was Duffett. They were 19 and 18, respectively. Mike was a drummer, and looked like a cross between Brian Jones and Eyore. He had played for a while in a popular and loud, local garage band called the Novas, and was a founding member of a rebellious high school gang called the Fountain Club, which really pulled off some insane and locally legendary hijinks. Once, using jump-ropes they tied an abusive gym teacher to the lockers. I loved that story. Mike also belonged to a dirty-water street-fraternity called ‘Club 69′ who built their own patchwork clubhouse in the woods by the Eighteen Mile Creek, a shack covered with tar paper complete with beds and a refrigerator for their beer. There was nothing too bright about that place, it was a teenage Punch and Judy show, but Mike had picked up some subtlety since then, and jettisoned that crowd. He had a more thoughtful manner now. Maybe it was Jon’s influence. Jon was a folkie, kind of a young beat-generation type and a teenage wino, a slim dark haired handsome kid, who had travelled the breadth of the country already, hitching rides, and jumping empty boxcars, all the way [to through ]and from California in 1967. He played an ancient beat[-]up Martin guitar somebody had laid on him, and was a fan of Dylan, Donovan, Van Ronk, and Memphis Slim. I knew and loved all these artists too, and at 15, tho’ I was a lot younger than him, and pretty green, soon after our meeting we started writing songs together, and performing around the area at basement coffeehouses, freaked out parties, and even liberal church group meetings.
Their place was quite small, and seemed even smaller when it was packed with stoned kids making out and listening to records, the usual story in 1969 and ’70. I spent some of the most formative hours of my youth in that pad, in various attitudes and mental states, and while some of those hours went by in a second, others seemed to last an eternity. The local police had the place under surveillance, and shakedowns were common, along with the occasional full sheriff’s raid.
“‘Whatever you think, it’s more than that”‘
-Job’s Tears (Williamson)
Mike Heron and Robin Williamson were Scottish, from Edinburgh. They looked like gypsy time wanderers from the the 19th century, and played exotic musical instruments no one in rock had ever seen before. They were called the Incredible String Band and every record had a different line up. They’d started out playing Uncle Dave Macon and Carter Family songs, and immediately began to create their own style. After their first album was released the trio became a duo, as legend has it, after their banjo-man made a trip to Afghanistan and disappeared for 10 years. One of the guitarists, Robin Williamson also vanished—took his advance money and, with his girlfriend Licorice, set off for Morocco. He came back months later playing an instrument he’d found there called the Gimbri, a fiddle with a mystically insinuating whine and they used it all over the next records, as well as the sitar and tablas from India, the Arabian oud, the Irish pennywhistle, thumb pianos from Nigeria, and good old funky guitars played in tunings, with banjos and harmonicas grounding and rounding out the sound. Robin, who described himself as feeling at the time more like a “Celtic Barge” than a bard, as they packed this boatload of weird sound makers around the world on tour, was a virtuoso Irish pennywhistler, and a top-drawer a cappella balladeer in the traditional Scottish fashion. He had perfect pitch and a unworldly voice, capable of soaring leaping or spinning on a driven nail. He spoke more than a few languages fluently, and told stories that’d make a bear hold his breath. His partner Mike was a psychedelicized Beat Combo refugee, and together they were magical because they were fearless, and had a great appreciation of chance events. They were courting ancient wisdom, unravelling the mysteries of music, and shooting high dice with pop music and epic poetry, something Bob Dylan recognized and mentioned at the time.
-Bob Dylan quote in Sing Out:
Q: Do you think [The Beatles] are more British or International?
They’re British I suppose, but you can’t say they’ve carried on with their poetic legacy, whereas the Incredible String Band who wrote this “October Song”…that was quite good.
Q: As a finished song–or did it reach you?
As a finished song it’s quite good.
It was their aspirations that characterize their music as something that could soon be called ‘progressive’ in other quarters, though it was a word they never used. They were on a higher, more creative track than nearly anything else in music, and were shattering audiences reliance and expectation on the common forms of song. Verse bridge chorus went bye bye… form was directed purely by content, and, in other words, they did what ever they felt like doing whenever they felt like doing it! And it was powerful good.
Already a big chart hit in the UK, with their third LP, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, they were introduced to American teenagers by the writers of Hit Parader Magazine, which, way back in the 1960’s, was probably the first great rock magazine ever, delving deep into music way off the beaten track,( and I’ve been waiting in vain for years to see reprints.) Their pictures showed them to be charismatic and intense looking attractive “stars” in their own way… they were completely different from anything else on the scene, and, I’d say, completely original (within what we know are the limits of that word.)
All of the mad music was in pursuit of something high and strange and I think it can be pretty well defined in this description of Emmanuel Swedenborg, “the wonderful Restorer of the long lost Secret” (from a book I read recently about William Blake):
“‘there were ancient truths to be revealed, … that which for many Ages has been lost to the World…’ And what was this long lost secret? It is the opening of the gate. It is the sure knowledge that nature and the material world are the vessels of eternity.” (1)
Ok, maybe I was so ripped I didn’t know what they were talking about.
And, on the first day of Summer, as me and my friend Jeff walked along the road shoulder, deep-breathing poisonous exhaust fumes and nearly getting run down by trucks, I was mesmerized by the sight of the flowers at the side of the road, all red blue and yellow, glowing brighter than neon signs. And the trees were breathing, waving above us, the green leaves swirling in a mass, inhaling and exhaling as we walked by below. And the lyrics to these songs kept playing in my head.
“For rulers like to lay down laws,
And rebels like to break them,
And the poor priests like to walk in chains,
And God likes to forsake them”
-October Song, (Robin Williamson)
But by the end of that Summer, I was pretty much out of my mind. I began to experience a lot of problems. Somehow I’d lost my depth perception. It was just gone one day. I could be overcome at any time by strange feelings and huge terrors. And I felt like I was emotionally ripped open all the time, not angry or anything simple like that, but more like ablaze in my chest, and a rollercoaster feeling in the pit of my stomach. My heart hurt from just contemplating the quotidian details of life. All feelings were extremely intense. The fact and idea of death was making me sick. I was in despair, and not just a little bit. I felt like my tongue was hanging out, black. It was then that a seemingly wise and older friend, who was all of 23 years ancient, and had just come back from far away, and a college down South, suggested that I was having a spiritual awakening, and all my mad symptoms were a good sign. I’d never thought of that! He said that people who went through spells like I was having were often destined to be truly religious people. Not like organized religion, he said. He said my sub-conscious was kicking off the fetters of my repressive up-bringing, the look-but-don’t-touch, absurd and lonesome dues and don’ts of my schooling, and suggested that I read, for companionable knowledge and entertainment, the 18th century English poet William Blake. So I started to do just that, and found it helped, and even though I couldn’t understand vast sections of it, I kept feeling drawn in. The poetry was exciting at times, and also could be very soothing. And Wee Tam and The Big Huge by the ISB was on the crummy old record player in the corner of the joint, and it was on A LOT.
I dropped out of the tenth grade that Fall. By then, I could barely function, even amongst the freaks. When I first heard the String Band’s “Changing Horses” LP it was on a trip to the country with friends. They were taking turns walking me about out in the gardens, and then we returned to the house and listened to this record, the ISB, now a four piece on the cover, with their girlfriends Licorice and Rose, all singing a goofy psychedelic boogie woogie about a pig named Big Ted.
I lost track of them after that, and for while in the 70’s. Life got better for me, after it got worse, but it took long time, and I didn’t even hear of them again for several years.
“… if you let the pigs decide it,
They will put you in the sty.”
“No Sleep Blues (Williamson)
As it turned out, the ISB and the popular culture developed in opposite directions– the String Band were literate, melodic, and insanely inventive. Heron, coming from a beat-combo background, was the tunesmith who crafted most of the catchiest songs, while Robin Williamson’s best numbers were like spells. All the arrangements were magical and floating, at times spinning upside down, and often springing loose like a mad music box, with two guitars carooming off each other, while pennywhistles dixielanded insane counterpoint, and backwards grooves were pounded out on bongos, congas and woodblocks, until the whole thing seemed to deny gravity. And Robin’s mastery of his voice and language were no joke, however hippy-dippy they appear at first 21st century perusal.
They were Incredible alright, wowing and charming audiences in the UK and across the US. And they were aspirational, seeing themselves as the first purveyors of what would become known as world music, as wells as lyrics composed along the lines first laid down by the Beats, a philosophy summed up in the idea “First thought, best thought,” a concept later popularied by Allen Ginsberg and Chogyam Trungpa.
Said Robin in an interview:
“It Struck me that you could write a spontaneous, free- form lyric, a la Jack Kerouac. And then you could link it up with spontaneous free form music, drawn from the various regions of the world.”
Form followed content, so, wherever you dropped the needle on the record, you’d be lost for a time, and similar to later progressive groups like Pink Floyd or KIng Crimson, you had no choice but to follow the melodic bread crumb trail out of the enchanted sound forest. And it was wonderful.
But the one thing String Band didn’t have was the BIG BEAT, the hard and fat Dionysian noise on the two and four with the passionate screaming voices and noodling electric guitar solos–the evolutionary development in sound that came to dominate all rock and pop music at that moment, and for the next several decades.
America was being submerged in violence, both on its streets and from it[‘]s foreign policy, Great Britain was going along for the ride, and even the gentlest citizens on both sides of the water were losing their attention span. Did that have something to do with the evolution of the people’s tastes? The U.S. was being led by a man who was busy telling the world he wasn’t a crook. The Beat was King, and the drugs and sounds kept getting heavier.
As Bob Dylan had noticed several years before, the ISB had a true poet in Robin, who could tell you of the world close to your nose in rhymes that led you to see it in a fresh way. Robin could prophesize, telling the present and the future with mythological eyes, but if the public wanted words, they demanded their singers be confessional. And as the sixties hit the end of its road, all the heros died or disappeared, most either shot by assailants with three names, or choking to death while on pain killers. And it was hard for the culture to recognize their poets when words were used all day, everyday, across the radio, television, and in the newspapers, to confuse the populace about its actions products and programs.
“Now there comes a time to every man
When he must turn his back on the crowd
-Log Cabin Home In The Sky (Heron)
But I loved the Incredible String Band anyway, because they went so far the other way, away from the common fixations on celebrity, away from music as sex tonic, away from teenage rock and roll problems, or even the Beatle’s Taxman-type rock-star anxiety musings, and they blazed their own trail, into dreams, to strange hidden valleys of countryside and memory, to isolated hilltop villages, in the gaps between mountain tops, to places where they were bringing their own music, and poetry, and pursuing the quest they felt couldn’t wait, the one for God, while all the time remaining a couple of Scottish wise guys with an outlaw attitude. The String Band enacted a true rejection of the culture, were actual full-service rebels, and always did things at their own speed, in their own style. They had an original sound, and their own voices. Their songs were pitched lighter and lower than what anyone else was or is doing, and much of what we’re used to, far away from the usual bump and grind of the rock of any period. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good bump and grind. But I learned to dig these guys early and it stuck with me. They were psychedelic Woody Guthries, Blakean men of the people, and in fact Wee Tam concludes with a tune Woody popularized: on the end of the song/suite called Ducks On A Pond, they bust into a rousing version of “Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore,” and its not precious, but nuts, with stomping feet, caterwauling voices, an overblown harmonica, raucous…. and comparable to Woody and Leadbelly’s rockin’ team-up with Sonny Terry and Cisco Houston on the Stinson sessions.
There are problems, railroad gates you got to jump if you want to dig them, traces of precious cuteness, excesses of the diminuative, the little clouds, little hedgehogs, and caterpillars for cousins. Maxwell’s Silver Hammer may be the worst song the Beatles ever recorded, but the ISB have a couple as bad as that in their ouevre.
But basically, a couple rambling ragamuffin folk singing guitar players from Scotland introduced what’s now called World music into Pop. While doing this they broke nearly every rule of musical arrangement while somehow maintaining a rootedness in the music that kept it plugged into the earth, to true feeling, spaced but somehow with a foot in traditional forms. They exploded folk music while somehow keeping it alive far beyond its time.
“When I was born I had no head
My eye was single and my body was full of light”
-Douglas Traherne Harding (Heron)
I saw them soon after my arrival on the west coast in 1973. I was on the run from my disastrous teenage life in New York, had said goodbye to my pals Banister and Duffet, and made the bus-and-train journey to California myself. I was at the start of a bold new Western Adventure, the one I’m still on. And there they were, the week I got into town, playing at San Francisco’s elegant Palace Of Fine Arts, to a more than half-empty theater. I was surprised to see they were electric, now, with bass and drums, but found the show to be dynamic, and Robin and new ISB member Malcolm spoke at length between songs, and were very funny, talking spontaneously about America and the coast they’d travelled the length of just the day before. One hilarious rant was a satire of Los Angeles all-night television, including an impression of “Movies ’til Dawn” sponsor, cowpoke- turned-used-car-salesman par excellence, Cal Worthington, walking ‘his dog Spot’ (an elephant) through the lot. This was followed by a rocking fiddle reel version of ‘Black Jack Davy” and when I heard that I knew they were still great.
So the next day, I went to a record shop and purchased the new album, “No Ruinous Feud” took it back to the house where I was staying, played it about twice, and completely lost interest. It wasn’t terrible or anything, but the magic from the night before couldn’t be found in the grooves, nor the songs.
18 years later, I saw Robin play for a full house at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, one of the great folk clubs in the world. He played celtic harp and guitar, sang and told stories, and was brilliant throughout. He had completely turned into the magician-poet he’d always evoked. I met him upstairs after the show. I had a baby asleep on my shoulder, and Robin said, after taking a good look: “You have a very beautiful daughter there.” He was wearing red converse low tops. I went out and bought a pair.
Dedicated to the memory of friends Jon Duffett, 1952-2011, Michael Bannister,1951-2008, Story Bannister, 1993-2015, and Mary Anne Shifferli, 1954-1974.
(1) from Blake: A Biography, by Peter Ackroyd
This piece originally appeared in 2013, in the anthology Yes Is The Answer, published by Rare Bird Books.
Let’s see, it was October 1983 and I was still in the Plimsouls, but we had come in from the road, and had wound down, and I was just knocking about, living alone in a tiny pad up in Laurel Canyon (in the same cottage the Melvins eventually moved into, after I split). I was writing songs for what was gonna be my first solo LP, and felt like I was on the moon, ’cause I was living at night, isolated, kinda living in my dreams & musical ideas, and I didn’t have to show up anywhere or for anything, it was woodshed time.
It was a good time, I was 29 years old, freed up for the first time from a lot of things that had been bugging me.
So I picked up the new Dylan LP at Tower on Sunset, and took it straight back home, and threw it on, and was completely transfixed by “Jokerman.”
The first thing that got me about it was the Sly and Robbie groove, unlike anything I’d heard before: it’s not rock or reggae either, but something new, very open. As usual with a Dylan record you hear every word. He delivers that very clearly.
On first listen the song hits you with a strong sense of life, of what it’s like to be alive in the world at that moment, a sense of NOW. The complexity, color, seductive sensual lure, sense of danger, of freedom, of possibility that one feels in the world, call it the Modern World, is all communicated so vividly, that the flash of recognition I felt upon hearing it, EVEN THOUGH I HAD NO REASONABLE IDEA WHAT HE WAS ON ABOUT, gave me a rush of Companionship. So that’s the first thing about the art of his songwriting, he wins you with the representation of what it’s really like to be alive. And you feel that before you understand it.
I think “Like A Rolling Stone” did that for its time. And the song “Dignity” hit me with that kind of force, when I first heard it on the radio, and had to pull the car over. And it’s a hugely exciting thing.
I’m not sure to this day that I could say I understand the song really. But I find it really moving.
The lines about ships, mist, snakes, glowing eyes, all were like kindling and I went up in flames when he hit “freedom just around the corner for you — but with the truth so far off what good will it do?”
That’s what I mean about him reflecting the true complexity of being alive, instead of the party line, which would be something like, ‘”Gotta get free!” or ‘”I’m free — but with freedom comes responsiblility.” You know, “freedom good!”
I was in a period of my life when I felt a bit of freedom, but the nagging thoughts about the validity of what I was doing were unexpressed, kinda murkily swimming about in my mind, then PRESTO! Dylan’s said it, and I’m pushed into a new dimension of thought. All of this I just felt though on that first listen.
“So swiftly the sun sets in the sky…” yeah especially if like me you’re getting up in the afternoon and turning night into day, “You rise up and say goodbye to no one.” Check.
“Shedding off one more layer of skin, staying one step ahead of the persecutor within.” He does it again with this one, shedding off skin, sounds good, that’s what I was trying to do, reinvent myself, renew my musical vision, evade the weights and mistakes of my past. “One step ahead of the persecutor.” It was like he was reading my mind, I’d been guilty for my impulse to ditch the band and go solo, though it seemed necessary from a purely artistic point of view. So, those lines hit me too, and grilled me. As they would anybody I think, who was actively going through the kind of changes life threw on individuals at that time, which is still THIS TIME, by the way. The struggle of freedom, guilt, knowledge, power, foolishness that we all experience.
It’s a good song; there’s just so much in it. It seems alive, almost.
The chorus is so stripped down, it’s more tricky. “Jokerman,” that’s him singing about himself, and maybe about Jesus in verse three, and maybe about the silence of God at the end. But it’s also anybody, the Fool, jokers, trying to get serious, by that I mean, living with their eyes open, not “asleep neath the stars with a small dog licking your face” an image of a childish, maybe foolish sort, but also attractive in a way, hmm. The nightingale’s tune, it’s been pointed out that that’s like Keat’s Nightingale, the muse, or Imagination, flying high by the moon, that is, almost in the dark, moony, lunar, almost lunatic inspiration, like the subconscious, or unconscious (I mix them up!) which it always seems like Dylan relies on. For example, he always used to insist the songs come “through him” and the creation of his early work had to do with “power and dominion over the spirits.”
Is that clear at all? It does seem like he is singing, at least in part about himself. And it’s relevant to you and me, to the degree you want to apply it.
There’s a great difference between his best work and his other stuff. “Jokerman” is one of his great songs, right in there with the best of the early work, and the best of the ’70s. “Neighborhood Bully” doesn’t have this kind of impact, whatever you think of its message. “Man Of Peace,” likewise. I think “Union Sundown” is a great piece of work, but as a song lyric, though it’s good, maybe someone else could have written it, he merely covers the subject. Another song like that, from a later album, is “Everything’s Broken” from O Mercy. It’s strong, complete, but not necessarily “Dylan-esque,” in that it’s not communicating that super-vivid and 360 degree sense of life, of what it’s like to be alive at that moment. And when you hear the songs that have that quality, it’s like a mirror, or a trick window, you almost feel as if you’re looking through reality, getting a glimpse “behind the screen” and that’s what makes it so valuable.
So some of it is cold, detached, etc. but people need to hear his great stuff. His Greatest Hits, Vol 3 is pretty powerful, for that reason.
If you don’t get Bob Dylan, you don’t get much, in my opinion. Complaints about his voice are a sure sign of ignorance of music and history. It’s not really a matter of taste. It’s a matter of mind or not. I know as time goes on it may be harder for younger people to get in on. But it’s worth trying to find the door in, a whole universe opens up.
A lot of it is down to words. Can you relate to another mind, as related in language. Beyond the either/ors of binary choice. Dem or Republican? Hot/Not? Young/Old? Yes/No on this or that.
Bob Dylan uses roots music to tell his story, his way. That’s what I try to do as well. But you have to know your limits. Dylan is the best at that, he’s got that “bullshit- detector” that lots of people talk about. It better be real or forget about it.
I grew up in a house when blues and jazz and early rock and roll were just coming out, and the records were comstantly being played on our record player, and my sister and her friends (who were all about the same age as Dylan) were attempting to play the music,too, on piano and other instruments. And that ’50s music was all blues-based, or country. And then there was Elvis, who I experienced as a three year old. And he had the feeling on the Sun Records, and the early RCA, and I just soaked it up, but also the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, Link Wray (the first HEAVY guitar) Richie Valens, Fats Domino, the great Little Richard and Jerry Lee on TV shows like Bandstand, and all of that is blues.
Then Dylan and the Stones, Beatles too, and I followed the streams and first heard Muddy Waters, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Carl Perkins, and Buddy Holly. I just loved all of that so much. And it got deeper from there, Howlin’ Wolf, and Robert Johnson, McTell, Gary Davis, etc. I just loved it and listened endlessly. And kept TRYING to play and sing it, and I HATED what I sounded like at 17, 18 years old, so young and white and reedy. It was EMBARRASSING.
The story of all this is in my book, As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport, which I’ve been posting bit by bit for the last few months.
Somewhere in there it all opened up to me, but you still gotta keep a sense of humor, and the bulllshit detector trained on yourself, so look out!
And then you gotta work to be YOURSELF, to sing through the influences.
There is a plane warming up it’s jets on the tarmac. It’s long & white & the windows are all blacked out. It is the Plane That Never Flies. Late at night it pushes back from the gate and heads out on it’s mysterious errands,taxiing down a back runway to the other end of the airport, passing out through a concealed gate and taking to the streets of our streets & states. Once it gets out in the city, it takes on the appearance of an old dumpy off-green ice cream truck. There’s a little song that plays, but don’t be fooled. It’s traveling at mach three, that’s three times the speed of sound,and it bears a crew of 153 highly trained Navy Seals…
No one knows where it goes, why it goes, or even when. No one sees it return, yet in the morning, there it is again, parked at the usual gate, silently embodying all the great enigmas of our time.
The president has received a briefing on the PTNF… but to date, he has never been allowed on board. Oh well, them’s the breaks!
The air whistled through a hole in the hold– a stream of many colored waters pours out of it’s wounded side. The window is cracked only to reveal another cracked window beneath it. This is the only true story of it’s last flight: or shall we say: The Final Flight Of The Plane That Never Flies.
It wasn’t a flight at all, and you and I are the only ones who know. The others look and walk by, as if they’ve seen nothing. That’s the way it is these days. It’s dead around here.
Liquor is the motor for people slow to drop. Confession is the logical extension of knowledge, but guilt is the answer to paradise. The PTNF is on a waterless landing pattern, blessed by the Scotch-Hop General & radically insane: search for the missing Nation and destroy it in it’s Nowhere-ness with Nothing Blasts.
Marshall this you drum-tap fools: you can cook my jaw!
The Plane That Never Flies (pt. 2)
I was husked by age
feet tied together
by invisible bolts
my look is like headlights
on a mountain road
my breath like a bad accordian
my memory is like a wet newspaper
my habits unspeakable
my imagination is a trained bird
one wing clipt
flies in circles round the house
but neer breaks away
into the sunset out by the inlet
when the water flows ’til your pants are wet
& the palm trees sway in a straight line curve
makin’ you wish that once you had the nerve
to get up on top open your shirt
dare all the arrows you lost in the dirt
just once take the chance & bare all the hurt
spit at the words take the long ride
let the world know what yr breeding inside
no hiding inn or retractable pen
this is the trial that you’ve been facing since… when?
I’m thinking about the butterflies, the money owed/ the time elapsed & the time to go/ anger in a face/ beetles and cellar mold/ big plans not quite/ big enough to launch/ a rocket or a row boat? pursued across the ice flow/ tortured with telephones/ threatened with lunch lawyers long distance calls/ why should I care?
Inthe end it seems like nothing is enough. I should live my life more recklessly. I admire the avalanche, good work. At night the hallway by the elevator is lined with ladies in wheelchairs, talking trash. ‘Are we on a boat?’ ‘When are we returning to Alaska?’ ‘Just walk me to the elevator, cousin, I won’t implicate you…’
‘Her old man’s in prison but he’s cool with it.’
What kind of questions do you ask on a day like this? What’s the message? I’m on a train, trying to stay awake. Green pastures, March winds, blue & cloudy skies, so far from home. Connections to make, retreat from engagement into head leaning? What town is this, anyway? ‘I have arrived, only to leave again in the morning.’
I need help & get it. Over & over I’d fall then fly then free all of mine. Over the tundras, the clandestine filaments, primrose, pecked in ordure. Galivant, supreme monochrome, devious & sprouting, troubled & wry, amid soft downpours & other silkings of the nude, the neomeyer, the closure of the Clancy’s modern, and spic & span as an old General.
Newcastle. My friend, I’m lonesome tonight in this cheap hotel, a room far from home, listening to the churchbells, counting their tones, bong, bong, bong, bong. The birds don’t know if it’s day or night. I wish I could sleep but ghosts do calisthenics by the bed. The previous tenant left his marks: used tea cups & towels, soap bar in the sink. There were only 20 at the show & nothing worked–like breaking into a house & playing in the living room.
Here it comes: ‘O Death pass me over for another year.’ A sick feeling in the bottom of my stomach,’where I live.’ Previous obsessions were a six week bout with moral paranoia. I feel dead already, the fear of cancer got me to the doctor in the first place. ‘Here it comes, hits me where I live & I’m dead already, lying in the dark, waiting for some sleep to come.’
It’s a good thing we ain’t on the ninety first floor–cupid’s cubicle & icebox free. Spent the morning casting gems at Shakespeare & walking green like a wayward child–I’m isolated in noise, distracted by the (no) drama–in love with nothing, that is, a vision of me, peaceful, strong and towering. Afraid of this, collecting tinctures & soft words to spread–this headache music for distracted lambs.
Connected in the weary ways & twisted too, like a country boy in trouble, but far & far, over Alamain trusted by deceitists, governed by blue clouds, and crushed in general by scotch work misdemeanors. Call me keen at sobbing, a spin merchant of my own gale, word mischief & battered by misconnects, in the wary weeze of simulacrum, soledad.
It’s been a weeknow of automatic doors, stale odours, trains & plains, skytoppers, faces in front & waters in back. Anxiety balances on a nail, the whole dark brick night set to topple & scream, collapsed to room size & a bare ceiling bulb, but I’m protected by the power of prayer, and by you, love.
The only thing I tried to steal was a picture of myself. Said goodbye to the countryside, also to the village, the town & the city, and heard NADA in reply. Feverish, thirsty. A bit anxious. Awaiting my beverage. No sign of green, no foretaste of April. And I’m in my Autumn? I’m looking forward to another Summer, fatal.
Hoops billyroved my targrave steed & nestled plump round a tingloss window. Weather incensed & multicoloured poured over the sheep coats, the headdown grazers & anxious swallows & squirrels. Up again & rested as the sun falls, the river rolls, time drips & drops, I’m myself & who else? Recuperation is daily, we’re all on a very short rope & it’s nailed to our hearts. Books are comfort. A warm, well lit lonely & carpeted room, between the beds, on the floor, the drawers are breathing, friendly, the bath a casket, sleep a death & now I’m reborn clean, on another highway.
I was nailed to a stick & lifted above the crowd, a clown among clowns, an inflateable fool, nose glowing like a painful red pepper & cheeks rouged- the orchestra played & I was forced to dance: no one fired bullets at my feet- the stage was simply heated & I jumped: the ceiling ripped open by a magic hook on a chain, which was passed through my solar plexus & I was lifted out, to the great relief of all.
In the movie Homeboy, Micky Rourke plays a washed up boxer, punch drunk, on the way down/ but everytime the going gets rough/ he smiles like a child, from the eyes/ an untroubled carefree look/ the crux of the film/ and from here on/ I smile too/ everytime the gloves come out or off/ anytime I’m scared/ whenever I get hit/ ’cause I’m not going down no more/ either.
No train line salve for the mendicant/ Britain. History of coughs. Tea work. In a tunnel, en masses. Chirps of the little men, trash coterie of distant loins, carpetbagged & beligerant. Same old ancient blue with corduroy earmuffs, news of the world & dream tissue. Years of this. No destination, only destinations. This years rubbish & trying ‘to make something of value as you go along.’ I’m wind last, unpaupered, ticketed, shoed, hatted. Vain glorius.
I can’t find my way & it makes me feel ashamed. You’re following me & I’m lost. RED CHORDS unplayed. Champagne melodies unsonged. Dead in the joints/ slow as stone scared as critters, a sick sad feeling like I want to quit, because I can’t tell you nothin’. It’s blowing like crazy, the trees are bent, & that’s my name, my game is laid out & pinned down. I’m shot.
Nerves of steel, they set up a smudge on the prettiest block of green. Black towers & clouds over the trees, at the end of the fields. The people bore up like pack rats, moved down to the seaside, inebriated on cheap twaddle & bowl foam, gargling fine wines. Nels poured his pants full of nuclear steam/ history erected itself/ and there were horses at the ends, taxis beyond, and a fool prince.
5am the highway noise won’t stop ’til the cities on fire. The ticking, every clock set to go off someday. One at a time. The days squeeze away & wiggle slippery. Wriggling with the savage strength of beasts: manta rays, snakes, or moose in the high beams. O Cambria what joyful nights of immigrants, O LA, what sorrows out of doors? O beach towns, what sun dried ignorance what water logged bleaknesses? O body what depths?
Sponge baths & oxygen tanks almost bear the wisdom & a team cheer in the rain, Methodist/ trance fingertip mythology. Brutal weighting of claustrophbia. Beatrice of the party flight, supper & sculked like a dagweed toon, prefigured, gloom ridden, pushed, trimmed by wing sliders & called to Boston, Santa Domingo, & points South.
Eyes like Cleopatra, arms of the Sphinx. Arms like Cleopatra, miles like Muhammed. Diamond sand cast like cannons on a drab civil door, I’m frayed, it’s been too long, please don’t make me suffer he said, but the boxers eyes & kindnesses of the flight control set me free, a little dog at 31, 000 feet, walking like Curly in the tomb.
They’re turning the heat up under me again/ but I’m no junkie/ no drunk/ I pay as many of my bills as I can/ sure, I work on the road/ take care of a sick Mother too/ but I’m just tryin’ to make my way/ nobody’s gon’ take care of me/ except you, Biggie.
Many the little sheepy-sheeps gazing contentedly on the sunlit fields, & the North Sea, grey & white capped & rolling off the end of the rolling hills. We could live here & be satisfied ourselves, in love, with what’s left of each other and the world, as the sky blue clouds gather for a sea voyage. Dark lights on the water, & way out yonder a craft we wouldn’t betray & we’d live in our dreams, giant.
The little things people say like ‘yr mushrooms have sprung,’ ‘tedium is in the eyes of the beheader,’ ‘cut the wigwam,’ driving me outwards. ‘Cliffwork climbers tremble at barroom srategy, catacombs are a mans best fad’ ‘struggle on yr own, crash awake,’ ‘Giggle to yourself, rawhide,’ all the while doors swing wide, trucks flap, calls meander like richman on Sunday, & the chorus unwinds & let’s you have it on the nose. The mouth of eyes. The chin of suffrage. The knees of travel. The final minutes of light.
The atmosphere was all salt. I sang about myself as sailors, doctors, and other adventurers nodded, filled, spilled and shot. Girls held the floor between immaculate teeth, spinning talismans of perceptible doubt. Salinas parted like a politician’s haircut & the night thrilled on. Now I’m sleeping, deeply removed, pounding on the ceilings of heartbrake culled from a poison romance, valentined & loaded, true.
I crowed a temperate break-pest, lent to my own fault & never believed my stones, orbs eyes or slather, but edged reason to silence & spit in the wind of peace
Gathered my senses, stretched my extremities, pursued the drip drip drip of hollowed age bent on kindness but over my bent sensate confusion—or lack thereof
Calasanctious was the school of Gaynelle’s childhood horror & led to her death—the priest who never slept no doubt is sleeping eternally—as is she by her own hand
Particles always another bump down for October ’til the end Time gets out it’s bookends & destructions ticket doesn’t pay ’til the seventh race the one—where your hats on backwards your pants walk by themselves & Gracias
Catapult—shooting irons—the rack—turrets for the king wise treacle sucking K9—thats french for something—out of reach or rhyme for cloistered tenpin challenges blue orange blue green blue yellow green ten to one ’til doomsday
Voices rising from the bottom—deadly traffic indistinguishable hand-riley bomblight—sheila—strengthened by dorm memory & pile on politics creeley fishing for sin to label high rise blow by farce
They sang with grace & stirred the ashes—tales of midsummer early morn & balanced on a chromosome—I bailed early on the off chance of a successful—retreated & nailed myself—guilty—moving backwards—a crab of sorrow—parental club loss—told you to get your weapons but it was church time
The pressure is on or off—the light too—this tiny constricted web—coffee minimalists trick the demimonde—biography fix—Im sad in my broken flesh but upward of thirty times in a garret or behind a wall of flavor & text—woven of fine tongue-lashings & freeways
I’m battling—something’s missing—someone left the party—many died—it hurts in & out—early winter I suppose—shoveling—tender tarpaulin never do that or this—forbidden patterns—money isn’t grubbed at gold rush creek—that isn’t what they do there—silver camp homicide fashion.
Strangled and stuttered shuttered in the green Pennsylvania battleground fields where this & that General hoisted a shot from his pearl handled fire stick—we lost now—move out of the sirens way—carried over fiery pits of furnace girls in boats & clean clear hair & bad music what do I know?
One of ’em had a nose ring, but heck, they all got them—one wore a suit too & a tie—another had a dick suit one dressed up as a flashlight in a dark room—one was painted like a one way street—the boss came dressed as beach noise & a car barn—it was a weird operation.
It meant something before the moon crossed the road carried on a radio wave too tight for my skin but before I got sore—long drives thinking of her—white thighs shiny forehead empty pillbox peanut butter sandwiches rockabilly remnants & memories of the dead dancing behind a glass case to red hot.
Anxious pronouncements of side-seat terror echoing no twisting beam-like travel & I’m coasting after weeks of saturday nights & monday mornings & cross wise miles & torturing hours at the wheels—before lonesome crowds tempted by memory & sprung to achievements beyond my ken—clamber aboard ye pirates we’re going asunder.
A big lie spread & I rode it like a wave—cornered in the crosstown ink stand & shot forth a jelly donut—a Gemini rocket with a Scorpio booster—the struggles of work weigh me down—how to do good in a sloppy showroom.
Stupid things happen in my dreams of gargoyle high school—milk truck rendezvous—nebulous scatter track—shifters—like Darby—Daniel—other ding poppers of speechless sand imperiled frosting lickers—stoned—baleful— crotchety ass kickers “hope I’m not out of line.’
Updates every 39 seconds wipe the story clean but atrophy the flame retardant crime lab switch-eroo & useless video footage we’ll all believe but no one sees scam this you dullards shame coiled in a basket I know yr every catalog empty out those policeman’s britches & freeze
On the T slope & the hum of fans it’s the end of several months today is a skate tremor re-ledge tempest bait scat & throb the medicine, man.
I want to go but there’s no out I want to lay down but there’s no lay I want to climb & splinter but there’s no tootling horns no garbled tracts no voices there are voices no voices & I hear them not now or ever claim the shackles of their memorial dream.
It’s as clear as yesterdays running water as plain as a dreamlike memory slats in a furnace the wrong preview that terrified the first grade covered in arbor jet sounds painted with a honey brush on the homeless & the homed only thing in
common is the falling rainbow.
In the big dusty hot as heaven corral—side long shotgun class concealed humanism of belt free trek—I’m lonesome here scarred for you my children swarm the knotted deck & load the artillery with chamomile edge water memory of their first second & third minute doors to paralysis—I might do some good now if we only could get up.
I sang Exodus like a chosen fool slipping & sliding in between Cumulous nebulous Fabulous endings & brand new dazed behavior like a child or or a wilde beast slinking sinking spraying members with Algonquin knives call it a re-up a revenant —a ghoul line stand.
Groucho of the trap door Morrison of the neighboring bar Liston & Clay on the streamlined product dumbwaiter Ali of the future killed or killing not a conscience or knee wound red & oozing cartwheels of dalliance frothing tenterhooks of and in the vain green scotch drawer shelf aesthetics.
Gathered my sense, stretched my extremities pursued the drip drip drip of hollowed age bent on kindness but bent over my sensate confusion—or lack thereof.
A landscape of bedding & soft light a sound wave of ritual coo & gathering of sore spots & pleasure shortlists—isolate by a silver highway that runs & runs & never lifts a finger around the house—escapee’s transport in question of return a satisfying reprieve the only thing that matters is here & gone.
When I was a kid I read for hours in the local bookstores, working my way through the Hardy Boys detective series, then moving on to Ian Fleming’s secret service novels. I didn’t understand anything about detectives or spies, so it was strictly fill-in-the-blanks, piecing together a picture of the world from bookrack to bookrack, unguided, racing through the set-ups to the death-defying sex scenes.
I loved the nearest branch of the public library too, ever since the Friday night when I was six, in 1960: My pal Pete Damon and I had our first sleepover and brought five or six picture books about bugs back to the house to study by flashlight, all night in bed. That’s still one of the best times I ever had in my life, it was so much fun, reading about walking sticks, and praying mantises, sharing the pictures of anthills and beehives. Life seemed huge, friendly, ancient, inexhaustible.
But the reading experience at Ulbrich’s Books at the local suburban plaza, was different. They had popular titles, the latest things, like The Sport Of Judo by Kiyoshi Kobayashi and Harold Sharp. Me and Pete poured over that and eventually brought it home, learning to throw each other all over the yard, using Advanced Foot Sweeps, and the Major Outer Rear Drop Throw. That was 1965, when I was 10. I still have my copy of that summertime obsession.
Another big bookstore discovery, perhaps the most important, was in February, 1966, when a Dell paperback called Folk-Rock: the Bob Dylan Story, by Sy and Barbara Ribakove, appeared one day on the same rack that held James Bond and Mike Hammer. “The First! The one and only!” shouted the cover in a red balloon. I purchased a copy for 50 cents. The book began with a list of all the times Dylan ran away from home, and told the story of his first flight, to Chicago, when he was ten.
“Destiny appeared in the form of a weathered Negro street singer strumming a guitar. Bob, awed, couldn’t pull himself away. ‘I went up to him and began accompanying him on spoons—I used to play the spoons when I was little.’ …Before the police corralled him and took him home to his parents, Bob spent three months tagging after the street player and his friends, one of whom gave him the priceless gift of an old guitar.” Man, that’s better than Pinocchio.
As I got into my teenage years, I found and read Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, a book that still carries a message for me. Norman Mailer’s Why Are We In Vietnam? amazed me because the story was of a teenage genius named DJ, along on his father’s demented hunting expedition to Alaska. The novels that spoke to me the most were Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey. It seemed like you could base your whole life on those. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island Of the Mind, and Leonard Cohen’s TheSpice-box Of Earth inspired me to make my own poetry. William Blake became important to my survival, and as life got more psychedelic, I had my portable copy. All of these eye-opening texts came my way at Ulbrich’s Books. I spent hours perusing books in the store, but the owners were patient, and never once threw me out.
I grew up, said goodbye to my pals, and got out of that town a few years later. I remember reading Ed Sanders’ book The Family, before I split. It was a terrifying vision of California, and Charles Manson. At the time,The Greening Of America was a sensation as well, though I never bought it, just glanced into it. And Future Shock. Well, everybody was living that one.
Despite Sanders’ warnings, I landed in San Francisco at 18 years old and began living a precarious existence as a wandering street singer for several years, no doubt inspired by my reading about Bob Dylan’s nonexistent friend.
My bookstore of choice in San Francisco was City Lights, an iconic landmark even then. I knew it was Ferlinghetti’s shop, and had read much of the poetry he’d published by Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and others. I’d see him coming and going about his business, as I played on the busy corner across the street.
During the day, if traffic was too slow on the sidewalks to bother playing, or if it was cold or raining, I’d go into City Lights, downstairs into the basement, pick a book out from the shelves, pull up a chair, and read for hours. The Travels of Marco Polo introduced my imagination to the magic, mystery and beauty of the East—what a story! Charles Dickens, and his street characters in Oliver Twist captivated me, with tales of running away into city-wide adventure. I bought Hunter Thompson’s satire of ’70s America, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas and read it straight through, sitting all night at the counter in Hunt’s Donuts at Mission and 20th.
My next trip back to City Lights, I climbed the stairway above the front counter cash register and in the quiet room up there, devoured Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream. But my bible at the time was Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. The tales of Doc the marine biologist, and Mack, the king of the bums, mythically reflected the adventures I was having in San Francisco. All of these books were spellbinders, opening up in vivid ways ideas of life beyond the world I knew.
Back downstairs, in the philosophy section, I was reading Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good And Evil, which left me dumbfounded. What the hell? I would have loved to go beyond that duality, but I didn’t get it. I was struggling, but enjoyed the aphorisms anyway. Martin Buber’s I & Thou—which I was led to believe by a writer named Stephen Pickering had been one of Dylan’s favorites—was about the quest for God. I reached, tried to understand, didn’t get so far. But it was fascinating. I was willing to know more, and that was a start. Not “getting it” was sometimes a major piece of my bookstore education, as I tried to come to terms with concepts that were beyond me. Anyway, I spent a lot of time in there, sometimes even nodded off, but the City Lights staff never pushed me out.
After joining a rock and roll band, I moved to Los Angeles in ’76. My favorite bookstore down there eventually became Dutton’s, where I became friends with a poet, the late Scott Wannberg, and once again spent a lot of afternoons hanging out reading, and talking, though I didn’t quite have the time for that I’d had before.
I’m back in San Francisco now, after years of living in Southern California, and I’m happy to report that City Lights is booming. With online book sales and high rents shutting down bookstores almost daily, that is quite an accomplishment. I still make a pilgrimage there, going up to the poetry room, which is, without wanting to get too saccharine about it, like a visit to a sanctuary, a peaceful spot where life can be appreciated and contemplated, and important and beautiful voices can be heard.
I went there for the 60th anniversary of the store, walked upstairs, and there was the man himself, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 94 years old, pouring champagne for well-wishers and enjoying the day. I had a copy of his new book Time Of Useful Consciousness and I asked him if he would please autograph it. I took the opportunity to thank him for the poetry, as well as the store, for allowing me to read my way through it, in the ’70s.
“I used to go up in that room above the front door, and read. I was homeless at the time, and I want to thank you for your hospitality. Sometimes I’d even fall asleep up there. You and the staff were always so kind. I feel like I got a lot of my education here.”
“Ah yes” he replied, “That was the science fiction room.”