Needle

It was meant to be a joke present. “I think it’ll be a great joke on Claude. The little fetish doll with the pin stuck right into his you-know-what.” “Say it, Denise, it’s not the 1950s anymore – stuck into his penis! Do you think a little doll dressed up like Claude will send a message to that rotten cheater? Women, to him, are disposable treats.”

I sat quietly, picking out a melody on the guitar. Unfortunately, the tune was easily recognizable as one of my repertoires’s more “adult” selections. The two women began to laugh. Denise looked over to me and said, ” sing us that chorus, Wes. ” 

Willing to play the bard, I began the song’s chorus:

Take your fingers off it; don’t you dare touch it, 

you know it don’t belong to you.”

 Denise’s friend Claire smiled, “Damn, woman. You need a great big needle for that jerk!”

Claude didn’t care much about his birthday present or the knitting needle stuck in it.

Charlie

My most memorable gift stands right behind me as I write. In 1962 My parents gifted me with my Harmony guitar. Over the years, I’ve owned Martin’s, Gibson’s, resonator guitars, banjos, and various other music-making equipment. None has had the endurance of my Harmony, Charlie – the worried man’s companion, the name came from a Kingston Trio song.
Charlie was coddled on road trips when it rained or got cold- clothing and waterproofs were wrapped around it by preference to human warmth or dryness.
It was the cause of more than one nasty fight with people trying to steal it. Steal from me, and you might wind up hurt. Used strategically, it felled drunks in bar fights, which is part of why I avoided performing in stews. Several women have accused me of loving the Harmony more than then – if they couldn’t take the heat in the kitchen, they should have gotten out.

Life for the Harmony probably started as a less expensive copy of a Martin guitar. But the makers overdid it, and the tones accurately imitate a Martin. So it sits in my office today, ready to be picked up and tuned. After all these years, it is enjoying a partial retirement. But every once in a while, the strings seem to chord by themselves. It’s like it’s saying, “hey, remember that road trip down from Montreal in ’69? Damn, it was cold!”

around four Am

Four AM is the best time to catch me playing guitar these days. And I just remembered that it was around four AM that my “day” used to end when I was performing as a folksinger.

So, since August, I’ll have these waking periods while it’s still dark. Then, unable to get back to sleep, I’ll slip into my office, pick up my old guitar and start practicing.

I used to distinguish between practice, which I did daily for two or so hours, and rehearsal, which I did to prepare for a gig. When I lived in Boston, I liked to practice in the kitchen but rehearse on the apartment building’s roof. The two things are similar but different. Practice was playing the guitar. Rehearsal was that, but it was also planning how each set of a gig should be structured because warming up was a lot different than a more mellow set when many in the audience had heard the first set and were interested in what you had. The final set was for winding down, relaxing, and sending home. There were variables you planned for if the house you were playing had a lot of inter-set churn, was rowdy or drunk.

Then there was the patter, the amusing, sometimes dubious stories and anecdotes you told while tuning or just for fun between songs. One of the old goofy ones was the ancient ( among folksingers, anyway) monolog about there being three ways to remove peanut butter from the roof of your mouth. This one was golden if the house was in a goofy mood that evening. Don’t try it in a bar room.

When I traveled, practice and rehearsal happened wherever I was staying. I often stayed with married friends, so “Uncle Wes” was a source of merriment. Dave Van Ronks’ children’s song “Oh Mister Noah” was a hit with many, but I rarely performed it in a set unless there happened to be kids in the audience. Kids in the audience made my life hard because I had a lot of “adult” material in my repertoire.

So here I am, coming on like some Folkie guru of folk music. But that’s my story, and I’m stickin’ with it.

Saint Louie Tickle

Being a bit brazen paid off in the Village. Performers cultivated idiosyncrasies to distinguish themselves . But there were many Dylan, Peter Paul, and Mary, or Joan Baez wannabees. . Walking down Bleeker or McDougal at any given time there were blue Chambray shirts and jeans for the Dylanesque and black turtlenecks and jeans for those more closely allied with the Beats in the neighborhood. The straight ironed-out hair of young women making the scene as Joannie added some visual appeal to Ithe landscape.

I was more of a hardship case. Mr. Dylan was not a role model for me. 

I had casually met and now emulated Dave Van Ronk. Van Ronk, later called the “Mayor of McDougal Street,” was an outsized presence in the Village. His raspy voice is a trademark, and his guitar virtuosity was well known among everyone. Faking Dylan was easy. Emulating Van Ronk, let’s say my friends thought I had a chrome-plated pair even to be at attempting it. I think Van Ronk thought it amusing.

There I was, seventeen and very skinny without the growling chesty voice that was a Van Ronk specialty and rather totally inadequate on the guitar. But the bold in your face put on gathered attention. I was not a clone of the typical stars of our constellation. I had chosen to emulate a real nonpareil.

Then one night, I met “Mother Hibbard.” He was a not-very-successful poet of the Beat Generation in Greenwich Village. We started sharing tables in the back “music room” of Cafe Rienzi. He would work on his poetry, and I’d work on my guitar. One night we were both frustrated by a lack of progress. Looking over at me, he said, “You’re never going to be Dave Van Ronk, and I’m never going to be Ginsburg. But we can take them as inspiration to become better us’s. So if you promise to stop making a mess of Saint Louie Tickle, I’ll promise to stop trying to write Howl.”

Now I realize that this might seem pretty obvious. Of course, we can’t be what we emulate. But it’s familiar enough for people to strive to be what they can’t ever be and never wind up becoming who they indeed are. 

We did not succeed at this right away. But slowly, we drifted away from our models and became ourselves. 

Once in a while, around midnight, I pick up the guitar, stumble across a few bars of Saint Louie Tickle, and then move into a piece I wrote years ago that I genuinely like.

Sandra

It wasn’t Madrid. And it wasn’t the Restaurante Terete.
But it was an OK Cuban restaurant way back down behind Harvard Square. Sandra knew that lunch there might appease my anger; every little bit would help. It wasn’t every day that a fiance informed her promised one that the STD she had given him came from her new boyfriend.
I ate the meal silently, not trusting to speak with anything more than an occasional grunt. But then, Sandra finally gave up trying to find excuses for the infidelity but continued to brazenly insist that she had never meant to give me the Clap.

She fumbled with the check and admitted I’d have to pay. I excused myself and went to use the men’s room. Passing around the small rebate in the corridor, I entered the kitchen, greeted my buddy Carlos, and exited the kitchen door.

The Great Turkey Piñata

Over the years, I’ve seen some funny stuff done to Thanksgiving turkeys. Big birds with extra legs “grafted” on, toy aliens breaking through the breasts of the turkey, and birds with potent marijuana rubs. Delivered to the table for carving, these holiday turkeys distract from anything that might have been done to side dishes.

All these thanksgiving turkeys were spectacular, yes, but safe. I recall one Thanksgiving in the sixties when the turkey was weird and almost lethal.

To start with it has to be remarked that holidays were not big at the Folkie Palace. Most habitues went home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, so there was usually only a cadre on hand who couldn’t afford the trip, were unwelcome at home, or had other pressing reasons to stay on Beacon Hill. The principal winter holiday was New Year, and the less said about that, the better. Not that many of our recollections of those blowouts were very clear.

However, it looked like we’d have a pretty full house in one year. I was unwelcome at home after a fight with both parents. One of my friends had moved back in due to marital problems, and most of the other regulars similarly had reasons that they’d be around. This encouraged our erstwhile chef and sometimes spiritual leader, the Monk, to plan a great blowout of a feast. Wishing to involve as many of the residents of our little end of Grove Street as possible, he thought big. Yes, there’d be an incredible dinner, but with a crew of our “experts in spectacle,” the plan was to make an impressive thanksgiving display.

The idea developed was a gigantic turkey piñata filled with candy for the neighbors, their kids, and passersby. For days we mulched newspaper, smeared and mixed white glue, and molded the birdie. It filled the living room, and eventually, the project had to be completed on the roof because it was too large to fit through the window – our original plan.

After a while, our experts conferred and concurred that the bird could not be broken apart to release the candy by normal means. In making it so large, we had structurally reinforced the construction. It would take a bazooka to blow this birdie to bits. This was where our pyrotechnics experts got involved and the beginnings of all our woes with the project. The Folkie Palace was ransacked for every firecracker, cherry bomb, or other fireworks available. We placed charges strategically, ensuring that the birdie would blow when lit.

We stuffed the paper mache bird full of candy on Thanksgiving morning and prepared to lower it into the street below at sunset. Then, completing this task and believing we had covered all our bets, we went downstairs for the feast.

The Monk had gone for traditional for the feast, no extra legs, aliens, strange sauces, or tricky devices. So there would be plenty of leftovers for days to come. The dinner was anti-climatic, considering that all the while we were eating, we imagined the fun that turkey piñata would be.

As soon as we finished, we hurried to the roof and checked our preparations. The Canary acted as the official timer and started a ceremonial countdown to sunset. At that precise moment, we lowered the giant piñata towards the street, and the crowd waiting below to beat at it with baseball bats.
It was, of course, the battleship of piñatas and barely yielded to the assault. So we decided to ignite the charges. The following events are disputed among the witnesses, but the consensus is that fire and smoke first came out of the turkey’s mouth. Next, the wings appeared to flap, and a giant puff of exhaust was emitted from the tail. Finally, the bird seemed poised to fly off but exploded into a shower of paper mache and candy. The crowd had begun to panic at the smoke and flames but thoroughly enjoyed the barrage of candy. Our giant exploding Thanksgiving piñata was a great success.

Someone ratted on us. Later that evening, Officer Cappucci knocked on the door. While he had no proof, he strongly suspected we were behind the great piñata explosion. It was suggested, firmly, that the City Department of Sanitation find Grove Street in a state of extreme cleanliness on Monday morning, or unavoidable repercussions for littering, shooting off fireworks, creating a public nuisance, etcetera, etcetera would be lodged. And that’s how we spent the weekend following Thanksgiving, sweeping, mopping, and cleaning our block of the street. When the police cruiser swept by Monday morning, Grove Street gleamed.

Freebie

“if you don’t want to do time, don’t do the crime.” This was the advice given to street punks in New York City when I was growing up. I often heard this take on the law from Freebie, a local hustler, sometimes dealer, and loudmouthed critic of everyone else’s behavior. Freebie was called this in the Village because he always sought a free meal, coffee, place to stay, or “touch.”

Now the streets of the Village teamed with people whose intent was to make it big somehow. There were “no talents” who thought a good enough hustle would take them someplace. There were also the wannabees, who believed imitating someone else would allow them to ride the coattails to success. Of course, there could only be so many Joan Baez or Bob Dylan clones, but they seemed not to notice.

But to get back to Freebie, he had his favorite bits of advice, which he’d soulfully share while looking you square in the face. He’d get this intent and piercing look while reciting something like, “if you don’t want to do time, don’t do the crime.” Freebie, it should be mentioned, did enough time for minor offenses in the Tombs, New York City’s infamous jail, that he should have followed his own advice.

On Sunday’s Freebie could be found on stakeout in Washington Square, participating in the free-for-all music, poetry, and political rant that was the Washington Square experience in the early sixties. He’d wander the crowd looking for young people with that lost look in their eyes, offer to take them under his wing, and show them the “real” Village.

I think I fell into a different category than the wannabes or the no-talents. I eventually settled on second-rate talent performing in third-rate dives. After a few months in the Village, I had adopted the same world-wise point of view as all the other habitues of the folk music clubs and coffeehouses. We were all seventeen or so but thought we had seen it all. But at our inception into this life, we had all had our doings with Freebie or someone like him. Freebie gave us our first real tour of Bleeker Street, explained the differences between West and East Village, and introduced us around. We “outgrew” the Freebies and wanted little to do with them after we had become hip. But there was a relationship.

If we wanted a quick drug connection, we would go to Freebie. If you needed to know about local law enforcement, you went to Freebie. It wasn’t like someone like Freebie was a favorite or favored individual. It was just that Freebie was so indisputably useful.

People like Freebie came and went, just like many of the rest of us. We’d sweep into the neighborhood one fall and hitchhike out one spring a year or two later bound for Boston, the Haight, Denver, or Yorktown. For Freebie, it was the luck and bad luck of being a known conduit of information and goods. Sooner or later, something or someone will catch up with you.

In the spring of ’65, I headed for Boston. A year later, I revisited my old digs, and the word at the Rienzi was that Freebie had been caught with his fingers too deep in a drug deal. He was now doing a stint upstate in New York State’s exclusive prison for the incorrigible Sing Sing.

That Sunday, I went to Washinton Square Park to watch the performers, political ranters, and the crowd. Working the mob were Freebie wannabees, ” Hey! You from Uptown? Never been to the Village before? Wow, what a great time you can have. Hey, can I offer a bit of advice?”

Some things never get old, and some roles will always need to be filled. Erase one person filling the role, and another appears.

Pizza Night

They are asking people not to lick the poisonous toads at National Parks, and it’s kind of a back to the ’60’s moment for me. Yes, I was there. The original “let’s try toasted banana peel with cardamon and pepper” days of experimentation. It was a time of little knowledge, great experimentation, and opportunity. Certain reprehensible memorials to those days remain in my mind.

I was a traditionalist. I tended to stick with more mundane products for getting high and moving into exploratory states of mental enhancement. But at the Folkie Palace, we believed that all suburban “wannabees” deserved their chance to explore the more idiotic fringes of the psychedelic revolution. So Saturday night was the big night for kiddies in from the ‘burbs to hit Beacon Hill and try to be cool. And more than a few wound up at our place on Grove street seeking the hip, cool and memorable experience that only our wall-to-wall mattress Folkie experience could give.

Our spiritual guide, the Monk, would start the action with a reading from some esoteric religious text. Then the Teahead of the August Moon would read dramatically from Ginsburg’s Howl. Then, finally, I’d play guitar through the Doxology, and we’d pass the hat before the spaghetti and meatballs would be served. We had the whole thing rehearsed and divided into segments for ease of performance because it was just a performance we put on for the kids from the suburbs.

At some point in the evening, some pimple-faced 18-year-old would ask if there was any possibility of scoring some drugs. Dead silence would follow. I’d get up, saunter over to the door, open it, and check the hallway. The Canary would do the same with the windows looking out onto Grove street. In turn, we’d whisper, “all clear.” Then the Teahead would wander to the fridge and bring out a cardboard box with four slices of three-day-old pizza. “Five bucks a piece, don’t eat them here.” “But that’s just pizza with some green mold on it!”

The Teahead did his best; I’m exasperated at your stupidity look. ” Hey kid, you ever hear about the poisonous frogs?”, “yeah?”, “Well, you don’t eat the frog, do you? You lick the frog’s back. Well, you don’t eat the mushrooms on the pizza. You get it?”
Slowly it dawned that the mold was a sort of penicillin for the psyche, and the cash got paid.
As the wannabees walked down the street, the Monk hollered from the window, ” don’t be surprised if you get nauseous; it’s part of the experience.

But they were so busy licking pizza that they paid little attention.

Scrounger

One of my first stops after getting out of the Navy was in Baltimore. Many friends lived there, and it had been a congenial haven in my earlier “on the road” days. Since I planned on returning to my dissolute ways, it was a logical place to start; good friends, good parties, and a jumping-off place for frolicking detours.

I quickly found myself involved in my best friend’s schemes. My friend was one of those artists to whom success in art came quickly. But he had a problem—no money for materials. That was where I came in. I also had no money. But I was a good scrounger.

Set loose in industrial and commercial Baltimore, I rapidly scrounged discarded costume dummies for a sculptural piece, paints for a mural, and, best of all, a discarded piano that we salvaged for its many materials and repurposed into dozens of pieces. 

I was careful not to alarm any places from which I liberated materials. Instead, I always introduced myself and asked if the article in the alleyway was free for the taking. Later, friends would come in a car to pick up the goodies.

I soon moved up in the organization and became a clipper and trimer for the complex montages that my friend created. As a scrounger, I was always looking for interesting journals and obscure print materials that we could clip for a montage.

One day I scrounged a set of carving tools from a hardware store that was disposing of old displays and odds and ends. My friend suggested that we might venture into making Tiki figures for sale at some of the happenings and gatherings. I was set the job of carving, being that I had done a few pieces in emulation of my grandfather and carved a few things in the Scouts.

About three weeks later, we had an exhibit at a buddy’s bar – my one and only “one-man show.” On display were my first works. The funds raised allowed me to patronize those in attendance with several rounds of drinks.

That was my introduction to the world of “ART.” That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Over The Top

Halloween bashes were so noisy and over the top on Beacon Hill that there was a long quiet lull for weeks after. It was like the party engine had run out of gas. Friday evenings leading up to Halloween had been on the sordid side. Now they seemed quiet and repentant.
Certainly, there was enough trash to be removed and graffiti to paint over. There was also that telltale sour smell of drinking gone bad that hung over the neighborhood. It generally took a heavy rainstorm or two to wash away.
At the Folkie Palace, the holiday featured the canonization of the apartment’s long-time spiritual advisor, the Monk. Yes, there were failed Jesuits students among the residents, but only the Monk had lived monastically and kept to a modified version of his order’s rule. The event was celebrated on Halloween by ritually carrying the Monk around the neighborhood on a platform made from old pallets. He had been equipped with a censor full of beer which he used to bless the faithless.

In the kitchen of the Folkie Palace, the party committee was considering ideas for future holiday spectaculars. An exploding Turkey for Thanksgiving that would shower the neighborhood with candies? A Christmas time face-off with the neighborhood communists; their anti-Christ against our Saint? and a floating Cthulu float signaling the end times for the New Year.
It was hard trying to insult everyone, but the Folkie Palace crew tried hard. Onward.

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