Sojourn

One of the things I discovered in college and grad school was that my past as a folksinger, road bum, and general neer do well was not universally appreciated by professors and peers who had “played by the rules” all their lives. Time spent among the creative dregs of society was not appreciated. The better-off toyed with their hippie infatuation but returned home to Mom and Dad when reality intruded for the payment of rent, food, or treatment of social diseases. After all there are creators and then there are consumers. The more locked down you are the more likely you are to be a consumer, and not a creator.

I learned the truth of Richard Farina’s Sellout Agitation Waltz very rapidly:

Society is never geared

To people who grow a beard

Or little girls with holes in their ears

They’re liable to hunt you down

And dress you in a wedding gown

And offer substantial careers

They’ll buy you a suit of clothes

And pay to get another nose

So no one will turn you away

Well, I was through with the previous lifestyle; it had almost run through me with the final passages spent being on the run from a sociopath with a gun. So with a shrug, I stowed the boots and hid the past. Or at least I tried. Undergrad was easy. Grad school was tough; there were too many Ivy leaguers who’d never worked a day or seen the rough side of life; and thought there was something dirty about it. You consumed life; you did not create it.

By the time I left grad school, I could kind of pass. But, I was a mole in normal society…a sleeper agent for unconformity. So, I found that occasional slips ups were not too noticeable. My sojourn among what passed for the normal was pretty dull. I played games when frustrated. I tied knots in the devil’s tail and loved the double entendre and satire. 

I now find myself in the unique position of well…finding my way out of the maze. The suits and ties are in the closet, and I’m thinking of a bonfire for them one day—a symbolic gesture of peace and freedom. 

The wood in the carving shop doesn’t care about the years I spent making nice. So every night, the guitar Comes out, and I run progressions and song snippets and play around. I am done “playing by the rules.” Life is about making selections; we need to choose wisely.

For those unable to cut loose, I offer a bit more of Farina’s song:

So cut your hair

And never stare

At people who ain’t aware

That every morning they wake up dead

Take off your boots

And find your roots

And join the ranks of the young recruits

Who have a collective idea

Blueser

When I emerged from the egg and arrived in Greenwich Village as a newly minted folksinger, the streets were filled with juvenile Joan Baez wannabees and their male kindred. It was Childe ballad here and soulful lament there on the part of the young women. The earnest young men thought they could get along with old Limelighters, Kingston Trio, and the like. Each train in from Long Island and each subway car from Uptown held a new draft. 

You didn’t need Delphic wisdom to know that most of the trains heading back were equally filled. The new drafts soon realized their peers were doing the same material. All the women with ironed straight long hair like Baez and the earnest young men in chambray shirts soon returned to the burbs and the Bronx, casualties of the mass production of vinyl long-play albums by artists who’d commercialized a specific brand of folk music years before.

I survived out of luck. At that moment, there were not tons of “bluesers” in the Village, and my style was raw enough that I eeked out an existence in the second and third-tier coffeehouses. I was thrilled to do so and didn’t care that I was on the lowest wrung in the Village. Once you were a regular habitue, the real world of life in the Village opened for you. It was a round-robin of singing and playing sessions that went on all night and poetry readings in friends’ apartments. There were potluck suppers, impromptu music lessons, long conversations on Zen and the art of guitar, and plots to flee the East Coast for the raptures of LA or San Francisco.

So why leave all this? Well, the Village was always a big pot of Stone Soup. New additions are continually being made. And then, some of us would leave for other venues, experiences, and lifestyles. We graduated.

I have not returned for over a generation, but I’m sure the pot is still churning somewhere. Radically different because the additions have changed, but still a sort of Bootcamp for creativity.

It was a great place to be from.

Globally

I am innocent. No, I was not there. I was nowhere close by and probably could not have afforded to get in if I had tried to be there. Yes, I was frequently at Newport for the Folk Festival, But that weekend I was not in Woodstock.

Had I ever been to Woodstock? Of course. I used to head out on weekends to play and sing with friends. But the Festival. No. And I have an alibi. I was living in a small apartment on Lyons street in Ottowa. Hours drive away.

Yes, I know that with the addition of a few mosquitos, the mass required to totter the earth on its axis would have been reached. After all, everyone in my generation claims to have been in Woodstock that weekend.

Now it’s true I was in Newport when Dylan went electric. But that did not make the earth wobble – no matter what his fans want you to believe. Nor did it create a new crack of doom. That was the Rollingstone’s Highway to Hell.

No, the sheer mass of Hippies, stone heads, freaks, and wonks affected reality that weekend. Don’t believe the Conservative television hosts. It did not cause the decline in the Patriarchal system. That was Women’s Lib.
Are you ready for the truth? Climate Change the sheer amount of recycled weed smoke, CO2, forever chemicals from patchouli perfume, and unwashed bodies created a palpable shift in the biosphere that exacerbated changes in the local climate and gradually caused climate change. You’ve heard about the butterfly waving its wings? Same thing, just a lot of BO, bad drugs, and idiots slipping in the mud.

I want it clearly understood that I am not responsible; I had nothing to do with it. I was getting a buzz on with Labatt’s beer, and attempting to be debonair. One of the few times I wasn’t going off on some crazy frolicking detour. Now that most of my generation says they were there, may I advise you to confront your parents about their role in creating global climate change?

After all, it’s all about being a responsible adult. Right?

Kept Man

Kept man. Now there’s a descriptor that you wouldn’t generally associate with yours truly. Up until the seventies, I was rail thin. I also had what would be described today as an unruly shock of hair that resembled an anime hairdo. I got up in the morning and ran my fingers through it, and that was it. I was always hungry and either buried in a book or practicing guitar. Not having been to college yet, I hadn’t run into too many young women who found this mix to be very appealing. Oh, and I was penniless. So I had meager little to commend me to any self-respecting woman interested in keeping me.

A few women had looked me over for evaluation as a “project” but found the prospects too daunting. I was too stubborn for proper project material. So there I sat languishing in the distressed property bin until Elise came along. Elise was not overly interested in me romantically. She just hated to see potential being wasted. However, with a good cleanup, proper feeding, and some attention to personal hygiene, I’d no longer languish without a proper girlfriend to instruct me in ways pleasing to females.

Out of the blue, she swept into my life one evening at the Harvard Gardens. I was sitting with my fellow neer do wells from the disepitomable crash pad we called the Folkie Palace. After some brief conversation, she pulled out her most successful pick-up line, “Hi sweetie, how about coming home with me for a home-cooked meal?”
Of course, it was love at first sight. Over the next several weeks, she gradually reintroduced me to barbers, inexpensive fixes to the wardrobe that made me look cool rather than ratty, and she fed me. In return, I found that she loved having the back of her neck kissed, holding hands, and other details not correctly discussed in a PG-12 blog. She didn’t even mind my absences on road trips. For me, it was a relationship made in heaven.

I must have started to “grow” on Elise. After a few weeks, she began to realize that not only was there potential, but why should someone else have the potential when I could be hers; after all, I nibbled on her earlobes with the sort of romantic finesse she appreciated.

Elise did not consult me on what happened next. There was a dinner party at one of her friends, and she decided I could be debuted there as her new boyfriend. So first, I was taken to a hairstylist and then to one of the downtown stores to fit out in casual elegance. The final stop was in Harvard Square, where I was introduced to fine Italian footwear of men. The new shoes were elegant with pointy toes and made from thin leather. My greasy calfskin, D-ring, and engineer boots were carefully wrapped in paper and consigned to a paper bag.

I awaited Elise in her living room on the night of the dinner party. When she emerged from the bedroom, she was in a slender Little Black Thing dress and a pair of stiletto high heels with straps. We looked like an elegant couple. I looked like something out of the popular Italian cinema of the time, and she was delectable in all the right ways.

Everything seemed to go well until the middle of the evening. Then, the new shoes proved to be not only uncomfortable but unbearable. I made the mistake of taking them off and then discovered that I could not get them back on my feet in a subtle and non-public manner. As we were about to leave, I was struggling to put the shoes on and was unable to.

At Elise’s apartment later, she told me to pack and leave. I had humiliated her in front of her closest friends. By this point, I was also mad and threw the Italian shoes at a portrait of Elise with a bit more zeal than I should have.

About a week later, I received a lovely note from Elise. It was written on her elegant cream-laid social stationary. She lamented the unfortunate confrontation but felt that we were not the best coupling. Love Always, Elise.

I moved on relatively quickly, as did Elise. But for many years, whenever I saw an elegant woman in an LBT dress and stiletto heels, the image of Elise would appear before me. A cold shiver would run down my spine, and I would sigh with relief at having avoided becoming a project.

Fred

With some trepidation, I enlisted in the US Navy in late December. Even after I got on the train to Great Lakes Naval Training Station, I was worried that some FBI type would come marching down the train aisle, pull me off, and tell everyone that I was unworthy to be a seaman recruit.
Why? Well, it had a lot to do with Fred.

The reason I was so nervous had to do with a bookstore. But, of course, it wasn’t any bookstore. It was Mr. Lee’s New World Bookstore in Baltimore. Mr. Lee’s was where you went to buy your political literature if you harbored any political sentiment that was left of center in those days. Anarchists, Socialists, Communists, and probably Primitive Democrats gathered at Mr. Lee’s. Political discussions were subdued, and courtesy was the rule. Mr. Lee served a wide gamut and liked to encourage peaceful coexistence. Anarcho-Syndicalists abided peacefully with the occasional Trotskyite.

What was I doing there? I was with my anarchist friends and trying to hit on Liz, a staunch Socialist who would talk for hours about Tito’s “Independent Paths To Socialism.” I would listen to her while trying to get her to come to our apartment for a more comfortable place to converse.

But this isn’t about Liz, Socialism, Anarchism, or any other Ism. It’s about Fred. Fred is the name we assigned to one of the FBI watchers who regularly stood across the street snapping photos of us and making notes. How did we know that they were FBI? Their suits, ties, short haircuts, and evident interest in Mr. Lee’s to the exclusion of other things on the street were dead giveaways. A group of about five rotated camera and observation duty. There was nothing subtle going on. Walk around the block and down the street; there was a non-descript government-issue style car with off-duty cadre members sipping coffee and reading the Washington Post.

If they were to treat us as dangerous fifth column types, we would observe them as idiot neo-fascists. Since they felt free to photograph and watch us, we countered by taking photos of them. The black and white mug shots we hung inside the bookstore. At the bottom of each picture was the name we assigned to each of our shadows. After a while, we could recognize them individually.
They decided to penetrate the store and sent an agent to ask to use the bathroom. On the way out, he chanced upon the mug shots and had a major panic attack when he saw his name and photo. He cried out, “How did you find out my name?” as he rushed onto the street. It was the agent we had named Fred.
Having “made” Fred, we now worked on other detail members. Again, we threw aside caution for guile. During bad weather, we’d take coffee over. The horror on their faces was wildly amusing when they struggled to refuse the coffee and asked that we stop calling them by name.

We decided that we should attempt to ” turn” Fred. Yes, you are aware that we read way too many spy novels as a group. Being that I had exchanged a few words with Fred the day he accepted coffee from us ( “so one lump of sugar or two,” “just one, thanks”), I was chosen to entice Fred into our little plot to frustrate the FBI.

The following day I passed a coffee to Fred with a note taped to the side. ” The central coordinating committee wants to meet you—Druid Hill Park Saturday, ten AM, by the dead oak. Come alone.”

By Saturday, I was in Boston, having decided that my attempt to generate a relationship with Liz was going nowhere and hoping that in Boston, I might have a conversation with a woman that was not all about party doctrine. So, I was not there to watch the agents’ car unload, hunt through the many dead oaks, and search for the Central Coordinating Committee. Instead, my friends informed me by phone that a new group of agents had replaced the ones we had corrupted.

After his disgrace, I had always imagined that Fred had been relegated to the basement of some field office, sorting field reports and filing summaries. If he were like me, he’d be plotting revenge – seeking any mention of me, and selecting the right moment to arrest me for sedition. Animus is a wonderful thing.

And that’s why I had some guilty trepidation on enlistment. Somehow I knew that many photos of me giving agents the finger must exist somewhere and that the Druid Hill Park caper was recorded carefully in some ledger. Also, after doing penance, Fred must be seeking me out for revenge.

Just telling this story may put me in danger…if you don’t hear from me again, you’ll know what happened.

Well spent

Funny, isn’t it how you remember where you were at certain times. You recollect right down to the greasy calf D-ringed engineer boots on your feet, going clump, clump, clump on the stage. You can recall in great detail the set list taped to the top of the guitar and how you wished they’d killed all but the single spot you’d requested. But the one thing you wish you could recall was who she was, waiting off stage with that big grin on her face and her pose and movements hinting at all the pleasure to follow.

Now, this was no joke. I’m sitting here finishing tuning my old guitar, the one I played that night, and my hands start slipping into fingering the ” Black and Tans” :

There’s one thing about my woman. I can’t understand. Hey, hey, Lord, I can’t understand.

Every night we go to bed…she wants to do that old black and tan.

She stands out with a bare hint of a shimmy starting up, and the effect is electric.

I pop back into the present tense like I touched a live wire. These flashbacks are fun, but they can be brutal too. My heart is pounding, but there is an internal ache too. What we’d had was good; it’d burn out within a week of that performance.

I try to approximate the instrumental break, but my fingers seem too fat these days. So I start the last verse knowing in advance how it all ended:

” There’s one thing I sure do hate.

Hey, Hey, Lord, I sure do hate.

Ever since my woman learned the Black and Tan, I can not keep her straight.

I put Charlie, my guitar, back on the stand. Sometimes on hot summer evenings, I can almost touch the sweet fruit of my well-spent youth.

I touch the neck of my guitar, ring an e string, croon it out, and phrase it like the final line of a 12-bar blues – “I can almost touch the sweet fruit of my well-spent youth.”

Ice on the hill

Well, maybe early winter. Or possibly just before Christmas. It’s hard to keep track of events when you’re doing so much weed. And it was why I decided to cut it off, can it, and not do it again. So there we were on top of one of the icy streets leading up Beacon Hill. Just a bunch of stone heads doing what stone heads do; be silly and idiotic.
One by one, we were slipping along the ice, seeing who could slip their way down to the traffic on Cambridge Street fastest. We cheered each other on as we fell, got up, and tried again. It had been a fast early freeze, so the city trucks hadn’t finished scattering salt and sand on Cambridge Street yet, and certainly not on the Hill. So it was a perfect frolic for a bunch of people who’d left their common sense behind in a hashish pipe.
Then Dutchy, followed by me, slid onto Cambridge Street just before a skidding MTA bus. Everything can seem to be in slow motion when you are stoned. But that effect seemed even longer as the driver attempted to stop, and we slid and grasped for traction. Time sped up suddenly as the bus glided past Dutchy’s legs, missing by mere inches.

I helped him get up. Our friends stood by the corner, silently watching. Then, being young, immortal, and stupid, we cheered the bus driver and slipped into the Harvard Gardens for a beer.

After the second beer, we got quiet as what happened sunk in. Then, in a show of bravado, we began to talk about doing it again. But we were eagerly distracted by the hockey game scores, and somehow the moment slipped thankfully away. Instead we finished the process of getting totally bagged on beer.

We often remember it as a great adventure but never found an opportunity to repeat it. And I soon afterward stopped using.

Bright And New

Darned anniversaries. Yeah, the time draws nigh to recall a significant episode in my road bum history. I should have an allergy to anniversaries by now. This one is so old that I have trouble remembering what happened. It was June 5th, and the roses were blooming. I was somewhere near the Conowingo dam and Rising Sun watching the sunrise. A trucker stopped to pick me up, and somewhere along the way, we stopped for breakfast at a diner—a perfect start to a day on the road. I was trying to get to Boston for a gig and mourning the end of my relationship with Susan.

A bright, sun-filled day, the truckers present of a ten-dollar bill, and a good breakfast, helped lift the fug of the broken relationship. Susan and I had been much more than occasional lovers.
Susan and I had been more like performance buddies than lovers. We had begun the journey to adulthood in Greenwich Village two years before. We supported each other through bad performances and homelessness. We had shared ecstatic events, rainy days standing in doorways singing the blues and scrounging for food, drinks, and the cash to buy guitar strings. You know, the essentials of life. We eagerly consumed life and then shared our experiences.
Then one day, the pattern of life parted. No, it did not shatter; it parted. People reach a point where what was once adequate or wonderful is no longer sufficient. And that’s what happened to us.
The parting had started several months earlier when I left to go to Boston, on to Maine, and off to other parts. Telephone calls and postcards did not bridge the gap that grew.

When you are that young, growth can happen at a furious rate. In physical terms, you seem to grow inches in days. Emotionally, you also snowball towards maturity. One night sitting in Rienzi’s, we took note of the growth and realized that we were growing apart. Angry at the growing differences, we decided to split. We realized we could not hold each other for ransom.
That night I was on the road to a gig in Baltimore. After that, it would be back to Boston from Baltimore, avoiding New York if possible.

Standing on the highway later, the sun now far above the horizon, I felt an incredible feeling of opportunity, of beginning, and the ability to enter a broader world then that which I had populated to that point.

So I’ve called that anniversary “Entrance” ever since. And I guess I’m a lier and remember more about it than I said I did. It’s funny how these anniversaries persist, and you look off into a sunrise, hear the traffic on the highway and feel a sense of abiding hope. It’s a gift from years ago, and sometimes it sneaks up on me like it did this morning. And the world stops feeling old and becomes bright and new again.

Plans

Yes, there was a time when a few of my associates dropped the term on me– death-wish Wes. Wes was my performing name and alias in those years. People who knew me then and later became reacquainted with me had issues getting used to calling me Lou and accepting the fact that I was not always on the road and doing nutsy things. Conversely, most who’ve known me since have difficulty getting used to the staid pillar of the community (?!) having been a wild youth.

Truth be known, I have some issues with this as well. Just the other day, I realized that the itchy feeling I had was the urge to take off on some frolicking springtime detour. So, on a whim, depart of the nether reaches of the Hudson, northern Maine, Ottawa, Kansas- well, OK, maybe not Kansas, but maybe Alaska. Meet new people see new things, and play guitar again. When I started thinking about where my old backpack and the guitar case were, my wife called me in for dinner. This made me recollect all the awful diner dinners on the road. Maybe I’d look for the pack after dinner? Then I realized that Charlie – that’s my main ax ( guitar) needed new strings, but the music store was closed for the holiday weekend.
Afterward, I dozed on my nice comfortable bed, hardly even considering it’d be a wet night trying to stay dry on the road with the rain falling.
This morning I fed the cat and dog while I brewed coffee. But, of course, if I were on the road, I’d be searching for a place to get a cup of indifferent brew and looking out for cops seeking out vagrants.

I’ve decided to delay plans for a frolicking detour for the time being. I have to mop and broom out the carving shop first. One must have priorities.

Gentrified

A Flashback Friday offering from May 27, 2020

Gentrified, I could barely believe it—the old haunts on Beacon Hill. 32 Grove Street – the wall to wall folkie palace- clean and freshly painted. The murals on the walls depicting less than orthodox Biblical renderings covered over. The smell of stale beer expunged from the stairwell.
Worse our bar, the Harvard Gardens was serving Fine Craft Beers to a clientele that would have shrunk away from my companions and me.
The Single Room Occupancy flophouse that I frequently had called home was now an upscale residence for college students. Lots to remember, all the buildings were there, but nowhere was there a sign of the old Beacon Hill. It had gotten sanitized.
The only familiar face I saw was the very much older Luigi at Luigi’s store on Grove. He studied my face, smiled, grabbed my hand, and said: “Hey, the five bucks you owe me. You got it?”
It’s nice to be remembered.

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