Names are a touchy subject for me. I had a performing name when I was a second-rate folksinger in the sixties. Through the mid-seventies, some people only knew me only by that name. I did not so much as surrender that name as I grew out of it. I ceased road-tripping, performing, and behaving like a dissipated young rake and ne’er do well.
Frankly, it wasn’t a slump in coffeehouse bookings that did Wes in. Wes and his shenanigans faded out the day after a jealous boyfriend tried to shoot me in a Boston Back Bay basement apartment. Funny how things like that can change perspectives.
However, after many years, I hit the point where I found it flattering to be remembered by old associates who still used the name—enough time had passed that I could accept the younger me more tolerantly. He had never rated as a behemoth of the stage, but he’d done some reasonably amusing and outrageous things. My younger aliased alter-ego was interesting, non-conventional, and non-conformist.
Some older friends maintain that I didn’t so much walk away from my younger self as I reinvented him more maturely. I am still unconventional, non-conformist, and a bit nuts.
This is a Flashback Friday post from the days a few years ago when we were under a Covid lockdown:
Most of us have events that echo through the corridors of our lives. Thirty, forty, and fifty years later, it remains like a rhythm track beating at an intersection from a car seven cars ahead. You can’t make out the song, but you hear the beat. I have that sort of track inside me, and it emerged briefly to thump into action this morning as I emerged from the house into the downpour to go to the store, out of quarantine. It was 1960, something. I was standing in the pouring rain in Hamilton Township, New Jersey, at the White Horse traffic circle. It was me, my soaked clothes, and a guitar. The guitar had some extra clothes wrapped inside the case to keep the guitar dry. I was praying for a ride. Out of the night appeared a large black sedan full of African American Church ladies. I heard one of them holler out to me, “Hurry in, there’s room for one more if we squeeze!” and squeeze we did to Philadelphia. They grilled me: did my mother know where I was? What was I doing in the middle of nowhere New Jersey in a storm like this? It went on, but in such loving terms that I soon broke down in tears. Out it came my life’s current romantic, financial, and existential crises off the rails. Then a quiet voice asked: “May we pray for you?” and pray they did all through the dark wet night from White Horse Circle on NJ 226 to North Philly. Letting me out where I could catch a train, I was told: “You’ve gotten prayed over good. Don’t forget; God loves you.”
OK, it wasn’t my tradition. I’m a Methodist escapee from a Catholic upbringing. But the rhythm, the memory kept returning, and I am in that car with those ladies praying for me. And, as I said, it’s like a powerful rhythm track. I can’t hear the words, but I feel the powerful beat. I am so grateful to those ladies; they prayed over me so well that all these years later, It’s still there.
Being an active Folkie in the 1960s, I get asked if I was at Woodstock occasionally. For the record, I categorically deny ever having been anywhere near Woodstock during that festival. Asking this question is like asking your average Roman citizen alive in 44 BC if they were present when the big guy got offed by his “friends.” No, I was busy picking up my second-best toga from the laundry.” People who see history through a pinpoint hole make me jittery. They seem to lack the ability to see the bigger narrative. In my case, I was on my way traveling across Canada, a journey that was much more transformational than a drug-addled concert in the mud could have been. In short, any time a significant event occurs, other contemporaneous and essential events ( if only to you) are also happening. People like to focus on single important events because it helps them create watersheds, moments when history appears to shift into new patterns.
Even if the events are watersheds, the most important stuff happens downstream, affecting individual lives or the further flow of events. History is flow, not a punctuation.
My trip to Canada resulted in an extended stay in Ottawa and contact with people who influenced me greatly as a woodcarver and human. The events of that time continue to affect my life to this day. I’m on a grand adventure to the future. Excelsior!
The Kingston Trio is responsible for my time in Greenwich Village, assorted dis-epitomable bistros around the States and Canada, numerous barrooms, and many parks and living rooms for sing-ins. Oh, I don’t know. It could have been Coplas, Worried Man Blues, or Tom Dooley. It was probably in 1958 that their influence led to my getting a truly awful Stella guitar and afflicting family and friends with renditions of their songs and my first compositions- early teenage angst. By 1963 I was performing in third-rate coffeehouses, Washington Square in New York, and trotting a guitar case around where ever I went.
Scene? As in making the scene? Digging the scene or maybe splitting the scene? These were essential parts of my life at one point. I have a rather intense memory of a conversation between a group of us who were about to split one scene about where the scene would be in 1988. We decided to meet at that location at that point. It was an intense discussion; so many good locations with great promises to choose from. We never could decide, and the following day, we split the current scene for other places with scenes we were interested in checking out: Toronto, Denver, Frisco, Boston, Philly, and Athens. Eventually, we lost contact, but on July fourth, 1988, I paused on the National Mall in Washington, DC, to think about my friends and where they might be. Of course, the terminology was already years obsolete. Still, I could almost imagine them wandering the Mall during the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife and agreeing with me that this was one hell of a good scene. We’d casually wander into each other and remark, “Hey man, this is it, isn’t it? Where is the party happenin’ later on?” I admit that working for the Smithsonian and helping to create just a tiny bit of that incredible scene was incredible, and it was where the scene was at.
If we had met up, the next thing on the agenda would have been – where next, brother?
Vivid flashbacks are something to avoid. However, I found over the last decade that a few movies and television shows tend to trigger some incredibly real flash temporal relocations; I feel like I’m in the process of being transported. One of these was an early episode of the Incredible Mrs. Maisel. Unfortunately, it was set in a New York City which was entirely too recognizable to me. While watching, my mind filled in the blanks and recreated the streetscape from long-lost memories. Finally, I had to get up and leave the room before being ripped from the current time and dropped somewhere near Greenwich Village, where I might run into a younger version of myself.
Just thinking of this is giving me an anxiety attack.
Around the same time, a movie about a cat and a folksinger on the run came out. Parts of it are set in the Village. I started having evil Deja Vue watching it. It was popular, and I saw clips all over the internet. Friends, knowing my history, asked if I would see it. I just shuddered and said no.
It wasn’t that the times and scenes were so awful, but they were traumatic. As a result, I have no desire to “enjoy” the urges, fears, and joys of a teenage me. Part of the fear was knowing what was in store. The future held the Vietnam War, the drug overdoses of friends, bad relationships, and much joy. Being an aficionado of Science Fiction, I couldn’t guess if I’d be able to change things or just tag along for the ride. Either situation scares me.
Time is the distance I’ve put between me and past events. So I think that in parts of my mind, I see those things as still going on; just I’m no longer there to take part. Time is thin scar tissue that allows me to move on, but as Cormac McCarthy said: “Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”
From the Road-Trippers Guide, Vol2, no3, 1965- Thumbing It!
So you’ve made the big decision to see the opposite coast. Congratulations. Now comes the big choice. How? Air travel is expensive, and we’ve heard bad things about baggage handlers destroying guitars. This is a major bummer if you plan on making some bread while playing in coffeehouses, busking in bars, or on the streets. Conversely, travel by train is not what it used to be as little as ten years ago. As a result, railroads are cutting back on passenger service to less well-traveled locations and sleeping in a coach car with old smelly upholstery stinks. So we advise it only in emergencies. The bus remains a perennial favorite, with Trailways and Grayhound providing excellent service across the continent. Watch out, though, for connections that turn out to be locals. While picturesque, a tour of small-town America can get old over several days. Also, remember that while traveling on the bus, you are always at the mercy of the bus company for where and when you eat or go to the bathroom (if the onboard facilities are not working). You guessed it. We won’t even suggest a transcontinental trip using your fat-tired Schwinn or three-speed Raleigh. Leave the bike at home for the kiddies. Someday they’ll have better bikes for this, but for now, let’s be serious; unless you want to take a year to cross the opposite coast, the bicycle is not a prime choice. We are left, of course, with the easy preference of the professional road tripper, fraternal brother of the road, Pius itinerant, and kings of the road – the thumb. By thumb, you’ll discover that local diners are among the best places to eat, sunsets are more intense, and a bottle of cola at a service station more quenching of thirst. In short, you’ll get up close and personal with America. You look out at the scenery in all the other methods and wonder what’s happening. By thumb, you experience it all up close. You’ll meet people and exchange experiences.
Cautions: 1.) leave the stash at home. Toking up at night by the campfire is not worth a trip to the poke with officer Opie. 2.) Keep a sufficient supply of cash on hand to pay for bus rides out of unfriendly towns. Memorize this phrase: “Hi, officer! Just waiting for my bus. What a lovely town you have! I wish I could stay, but Mom expects me in LA by the fifth.” 3.) when asked about your political leanings, say that you don’t have any, but you’ll be glad to listen to theirs while driving to the next town. Nod and say Uhuhuh to make it seem like you are listening rather than counting the telephone poles. 4.) always remember to pack a towel.
Not being a lothario, nor even deeply into lasciviousness, you might wonder how a clean-cut young folkie like myself wound up hearing these and many more with such frequency that I could reel them off by the handful. Surprisingly it was because I wasn’t as I presented.
On the outside, there I was, scruffy mid-length hair, blue jeans, with Galouise French cigarettes cuffed in the rolled sleeve of the T-shirt. I lived out of a backpack, always had a guitar, and sang a long list of blues and salacious ditties.
According to self-reportage, I was infamous in ten states or provinces, was from New York’s Greenwich Village, and perhaps tomorrow would decamp for the West Coast; grab some while you can, ladies! I am always available.
I attracted those looking for a bad boy, a rebel, and a challenge. There was only one problem, underneath the Folkie threads, music, and all that travel was someone looking for a nice staid domestic relationship.
The kiss of death was that after a bit, the young ladies found that many parents liked me once they knew me. All I needed was a good job and to settle down.
I was told once by someone into anointing that it was necessary to bless and anoint the feet because they carry us into sin. I replied that mine needed a whole barrel full of the stuff because they had carried me into more than my fair share. As I said this, I pointed down at my scuffed greasy calf skin d-ringed motorcycle boots. It was wearing those boots that I hitch-hiked across the States and parts of Canada. On occasion, the boots served as weapons of offense and defense because playing guitar in some places I played, you needed to cover your own six. I made the mistake of leaving them with some of my other possessions at my parent’s home for a couple of months. When I returned, my mother, a presagement of Marie Kondo, had tossed them away. Luckily for her, she had not tossed out my guitar.
I’ve never found another pair quite like them, and I’ve never had a pair of boots or shoes since to which I was really attached.
Money has done an excellent job of standing off a ways from me without encouragement. I do remember the night ,though, that I won a thousand dollars in poker, much of it in silver dollars and American gold pieces. We were at a private gaming night outside Baltimore. The sack of coins was a pleasant weight to throw into my pack as my friend, and I made a getaway from the private party where we had won the money.
Being creatures of habit ( most of it bad), we began hitching home. I can only plead idiocy. There we were with enough bills in our pockets to have hired a limo to take us back home, and we were traveling on the highway with our thumbs out. Our luck did not hold. After entering the city proper, we found ourselves walking through sections we neither knew nor wanted to be found in. After about an hour, trouble found us in the form of a gang. We were rapidly stripped of what was in our pockets. They had no interest in the pack. The one boy who investigated it almost gagged on the combined odor of dirty clothes and some Garlic Venison sausage (hefty on the garlic). Laughing loudly at the two stupid jerks they had robbed, we were told to run and run fast. We did. We ran most of the way to Monument Square and the little apartment I had above the Buttery Restaurant.
Dumping the backpack’s contents onto the floor, we were both almost overcome by the odor. But sitting there at the bottom of the bag was the sack of coins. We promptly dumped the money onto the floor and counted it out. Just then, my girlfriend came in from work, ” What the f— is that odor?” “Gold and silver,” I replied. ” Well, you better wash it off. That money is dirty and stinks.”
Knowing that my girlfriend was studying Roman history and knew Latin, I decided to be a wag and replied, ” that’s not true – gold has no odor…or as Suetonius says, “Pecunia non olet” money does not stink!
We washed the money. I got to sleep on the couch. And over the next several weeks had some great parties.