The remaining two weeks of August flew by until it was Labor Day and school would start the day after. Our new school was within walking distance, meaning we weren’t qualified to take the bus, which was fine with us as we felt were too old for that anyway. We were even allowed to go out on our own and buy some new clothes. We took the bus downtown and made a day of it, finding some great bargains at a high-end store called the Stetson Shop, having a hot dog and some coffee (which we never allowed to drink) at Louie’s Red Hots, stopped off at the Central Library, then took the bus back home in the late afternoon, very satisfied with our purchases. Mr. Barnes approved and Mrs. Barnes said nothing for or against, which was the most we could hope for.
We were preparing ourselves for the worst, not knowing very many kids, just those we knew from Little League baseball and football and some from church, knowing how the new kids were treated, but at least we had a buffer zone of sorts with the mile walk, though as we set out we were filled with dread, expecting the worst. As we were leaving Mrs. Barnes warned us to keep our mouths shut, be polite, and, most of all don’t ever do anything to embarrass them, the same thing she said anytime we went some place new. But it was a nice day and we were determined to enjoy the walk.
As I arrived there and looked around at the sea of faces roaming the hallway as I entered, I realized I knew no one. At least Rory and I would be in the same homeroom, that was something at least, and would have to do for now.
First they gave us (the new students) orientation which I needed as I had never been in the building before. The building was a new one-story, popular at the time, with all new furnishings and the latest equipment, but seemed strangely dark inside, as if it was an older building.
Naturally one of my classes on the first day was one I had been dreading since I had seen it on my schedule, Beginning French. I’d never come close to wanting to learn a foreign language, in fact it had never crossed my mind, and I couldn’t believe I was being forced to now, but there it was. I was hoping against hope the teacher (who was known as a real stickler) wouldn’t call on me or make me introduce myself, but I needn’t have worried, the first class merely consisted of practicing pronunciation of basic words as a class, getting the accents (which I felt very foolish trying to pronounce) down.
Relieved when the class let out and it was time for lunch, I went to the cafeteria to meet Rory. Mrs. Barnes no longer packed a lunch for us, instead giving us a quarter each to buy a school lunch, but I usually skipped the school lunch and bought an ice cream sandwich and some milk, or every so often a salad. The rest of the day passed uneventfully and I was relieved to actually be looking forward to the next day. There was an excitement, a feeling that a whole new world was opening before me, with infinite possibilities, something I had never felt at Martin Luther School, which felt so insular, which wasn’t a bad thing as it was exactly what I needed at the time.
I was content to sit back and observe that first year of public school, until we went to the high school on Main Street. We gradually got to know classmates here and there and had gotten reacquainted with kids we’d known from Little League baseball and football but never made any what you’d call “friends.” It was just as well, saving us the embarrassment of explaining why we couldn’t go over to their houses, or they come to ours..
I guess you’d say the only “friend” we had was a kid named Bill and he was at least somewhat interesting, if a marginal character. Rory and I were walking to school one day when he happened upon us. Mind if I walk with you? he asked. My name’s Clifford, but I prefer Bill. I’m new here. Glad to meet you Bill, I said, I’m Wesley and this is my brother Rory. Where are you from? Detroit, he responded. Wow, I said, and proceeded to tell him about our class trip and how we went to the Tigers game. I came to find out his last name was Frank, so Clifford William Frank. Three first names, never heard of that before.
We already had quite the banter going; when we found out he’d played first base in Little League we referred to him as Norm Cash and he’d respond with a simper, Go ahead, say what you want, I could play. Another thing that set him apart from the rest of the kids was the fact that he was already smoking, and non-filters at that. It wasn’t like he was trying to be cool or anything, he did it very nonchalantly, like he’d been doing it for years. When we asked him what his parents thought about it he said they knew and even let him smoke in his room. We couldn’t even fathom that kind of freedom and didn’t know whether to believe him or not. He didn’t use a flashy lighter either, just matches.
When we asked him what he wanted to do with his life he said I’m already doing it, playing guitar and pool, that’s how I’m going to make my living. We didn’t doubt his sincerity but have to admit we were skeptical he’d succeed at either even back then, though we didn’t say so.
When we heard there was a rock band forming at the school we told him he should try out and he said he might. We kidded him about Motown, Mitch Ryder, and Question Mark and the Mysterians, and said, Now’s your chance, you can show these snobs how they do it in the Motor City.
He thought playing rock (it’s three chords he’d say) was simple, he was more into jazz, especially Wes Montgomery, and said he had Wes’s octaves down cold, but we found out later he didn’t know any songs, not even enough to fake his way through a song. We didn’t let on that we knew about that, and when we’d ask him how an audition went he’d shrug his shoulders and say, they couldn’t play man, they couldn’t play, you know what I mean? I somehow felt like an adult around Bill, and had an inkling that things weren’t going to turn out very well for him.
It seemed we had our own little group of emigrants, and most of whom took quite a bit of what almost amounted to hazing. For the most part I was spared, probably because at least some kids knew me, while the others were complete strangers from out of town.
The school was extremely exclusive, everyone nervously trying to fit in, find their niche; some took longer, or never did, others went elsewhere. Things were very posh there, unlike anything we’d experienced before, especially the sports facilities, including a heated indoor swimming pool, which immediately became my nemesis. For some reason (health reasons we were told) unknown to me to this day, the boys had to swim nude on gym days once a week.
This practice was abhorrent to me on so many levels, the least of which was the gym teacher having a penchant for sneaking up behind someone and slapping them in the ass with his clipboard. As if it wasn’t embarrassing enough just to be singled out, the reverberation could be heard throughout the pool area and the gym. Everyone laughed because that was what you were expected to do, though I suspected it was mostly relief at not having been the victim.
It was a matter of us literally keeping our heads above water because every now and then some poor soul would get thrown into the girls shower for kicks at the behest of the same masochistic gym teacher. The victim would be grabbed by the arms and legs and swung back and forth several times before they were released like a bowling balldown the alley. It was best not to fight it as the result was inevitable. I still remember the sound of the naked body sliding along the ceramic tiles floor on the pool deck and the shower, sluicing the water as it went, like pulling a bathmat out of the tub, someone holding the girl’s shower door open to accommodate smooth entry, after which the door was closed but you could still hear the unfortunate shrieking of the girls who happened to be in the shower when it happened.
I wasn’t sure if the gym teacher, who was also the freshmen basketball and football coach, liked me or not. One day he singled me out, making me wrestle the biggest kid in class and said if I didn’t pin him in less than a minute the entire class would have to run laps. Thankfully the kid was harmless, a skinny non-athlete. I merely tackled him and pinned him immediately, my fear of letting the whole class down being superseded by my embarrassment for him, just as the gym teacher had planned.
When I tried out for the basketball team it was a different matter: he acted like I didn’t exist. It was much as we thought it would be, an overall favoritism taking effect, wherein all the football players got the majority of playing time no matter how they performed in practice, and everyone else pretty much sat the bench. I’ll admit I wasn’t the best player because of my height disadvantage, and didn’t like the drills or running the plays, but I could shoot better than most, I knew that much. It was the same for Rory, except that he did like the drills and running the plays and was a natural floor leader just as he had been at Martin Luther.
We at least would have liked to have gotten a chance to see what we could do, because some of the football players had no earthly reason at all to be out there. One, the freshman QB, was so musclebound in the shoulders he had absolutely no touch and each time he shot the ball it seemed in danger of shattering the backboard or clanged loudly off the rim.
Some of these kids I’d known since little league football and here they were, a decade later, still at it, still getting a free pass regardless of the results. And the results were predictably laughable but it didn’t seem to matter. Still, it was better than doing nothing and allowed us to delay going home for as long as possible, thereby avoiding the dread in the pit of our stomach we experienced every day as we did so. I have to admit that by the end of the school year I still hadn’t found my niche, didn’t really know where to look, everything was so different from Martin Luther School, but as long as I wasn’t ridiculed or ostracized I was okay with it. One encouraging development was the realization I enjoyed running and I was good at it, Rory also. Every so often in gym we all had to line up and run a lap around the athletic field, probably a quarter mile or so, and, while most kids hated it, it was a breeze for me, and I finished way ahead of anyone else, as did Rory in his.
A couple of kids came up to me one day after we’d run a lap and asked me if Rory and I wanted to try out for the cross-country team that fall. I’d never heard of cross country before, actually confusing it with orienteering for some reason, which I had no interest in, but said I’d ask Rory and think about it and never followed up on it. Mrs. Barnes had given us enough trouble about trying out for the basketball team, I doubted she’d go for that. As the school year came to an end, all the talk was about going to the high school that fall, which I anticipated as well as dreaded as I did every new experience.
Before we knew it it was time for senior high, which began with a whimper and ended with a bang. The walk there was right up Main Street through the village, the high school being at the very end of it. Once again we got a brief orientation; the school was an admixture of the old and the new, with spacious hallways, and transoms on the classroom doors. The grounds surrounding the building were immaculate, behind the school was the football field with a cinder track enveloping it, and past that the various fields, baseball, soccer, and field hockey.
The school was very crowded, the hallways packed between classes, so it was easy to disappear if one wanted to, and I found that to be the best course of action in those early days. Our sophomore class was on the bottom rung, which we were reminded of every day, and, as in junior high, quite a bit of hazing went on, especially in the gym locker rooms, but I managed to remain unobtrusive enough to emerge unscathed. Still, the anticipation of it on a daily basis was nerve-wracking.
Pretty much the same kids were in our homeroom, which was somehow comforting. For English I had a teacher named Ken Cornell, a bit of an egghead (literally) with bad eyesight, in fact, he had crazy eyes, the kind that whirl around in their sockets intermittently.
It was a very unruly class as Mr. Cornell had lost control of it early on. There were intercom phones in each classroom for calling kids out of class for various reasons (sickness, truancy, discipline, forgotten lunches, crises at home), and one kid in the class, John Chambers, took advantage of the situation, having his friends call him from empty classrooms so he could leave. Everyone knew what was going on except Mr. Cornell as John didn’t try to hide it, standing up and smirking each time as he left. How his friends got in the empty classrooms to make the calls nobody seemed to know because they were supposed to be locked.
I have to admit I certainly wasn’t perfect either; we were reading Silas Marner at the time, and I would pretend I was in a deep sleep during class and couldn’t be awoken, specifically when Mr. Cornell, who I could sense was slightly nervous given the subject matter of the book, called on me. Mr. Cornell always bit obtuse, which the class thought was hilarious, and I got the reputation of being quite the wit, something that carried all the way through my high school years. Not a bad thing over all, though I would never want Mrs. Barnes to get wind of it.
For some reason I still can’t figure out to this day Mrs. Barnes seemed to loosen up a little on the tight rein she had on us. I surmised it had something to do with her drinking (she had begun drinking even more), or the fact that I had a new friend whose father was a minister, giving me credence in her eyes and vicariously Rory. She began letting us go out on our own more often, even allowing us to go to a dance at the Methodist church on Main Street which thrilled me no end. I didn’t really go for the dance, which for the most part consisted of underage drinking, frat fights, and make-out sessions, as there was really no adult supervision (Mrs. Barnes didn’t know that). Eventually the neighbors raised such a ruckus about the goings on those Friday nights the event was discontinued.
For me it was all about the music. There were usually two bands, a more well-known area band along with a band from high school mostly consisting of seniors but sometimes including an underclass prodigy. I always stood in the front row near the speakers, anticipating each song, usually covers of the Stones, Beatles, The Who, sometimes even (if the band was really cool) the Yardbirds, with some Motown thrown in for the girls. The first live song I ever heard was the local band Arthur doing their version of “Can’t Explain,” which was amazing because it was a current song still on the charts, and it seemed to me they nailed it.
Like I said it was about the music; as long as a band was fairly competent, professional, they were okay by me. It often happened that they even surprised me by doing a song I’d never heard of, for example a cover of the Stones’ “She Said Yeah.”
The real litmus test of a band’s talent was if they did their own songs and, even more, if they were good. That was rare, and it was mostly the more established regional bands who did so. But even the guys from the high school band I looked up to, although this particular group clowned around like the Monkees, who weren’t even around yet, and despite that I admired them greatly and listened with rapt attention.
We fancied ourselves quite the music connoisseurs, and indeed it was one of our passions, although strangely I had no desire to take up a musical instrument, perhaps because I had a good singing voice, while Rory did, buying a guitar and even taking lessons, becoming very proficient at it, though he did it for his own enjoyment.
There was a folk music show called “The Inside Out” on Sunday nights on the biggest radio station in the city that I hardly ever missed. Strange that a 50,000- watt station would deign to broadcast such a small market show? Certainly by today’s standards but it was different then, the music industry was burgeoning and could afford to be diverse and experimental in the sixties, something I seriously doubt will ever happen again. Here it was that I discovered Tom Rush, The Youngbloods, Tim Buckley, Tim Hardin, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, and Jesse Winchester, among many others, people you just didn’t hear on AM radio.
Rory never cared for that kind of music though, preferring hard rock, the louder the better, and with rock it was the same thing, we’d gone way past the standard fare, and were seemingly hearing something new every day, between WNIA and constant browsing in the record section of W.T. Grant’s, in this way discovering our favorite groups ever, proud we’d never heard nor would ever hear them on the popular stations. Groups like Moby Grape (Rory heard “Omaha” on WNIA and came rushing home to tell me that it sounded like a group of outlaws riding through town); Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac and, although I was initially attracted to them by the “English Rose” album cover, Mick Fleetwood in drag, it was through this album we discovered what still is my favorite music genre, the blues, especially the slide guitar, as there were several Elmore James songs on the record.
Other great but relatively unknown bands were Savoy Brown (another British Blues band), Spirit, the Irish band Taste (Rory Gallagher), early Jethro Tull, Love, the Allman Brothers, Quicksilver, and The Band.
Then there were the second tier bands (in my opinion) that weren’t played often on the radio so you had to get their albums if you wanted to hear them. Among these were Cream, Steve Miller Band, and Steppenwolf.
Finally there were the bands we would never tell anyone we liked because they were our own discovery (at least their albums were because they did have minor hits on AM radio and were considered one-hit wonders, although we knew better), two to be exact, Left Banke and a group called the Merry-go-round.
We wanted no part of the Grateful Dead, they were too popular and even then their fans too obnoxious. In our minds there were four San Francisco bands to choose from (the Dead, Quicksilver, Jefferson Airplane, and, last but not least, Moby Grape), and each one had their champions, ours being Moby Grape, who very few had even heard of though we may have converted a few to them along the way. We liked every song they ever did, there was a special feeling when we listened to them, they were as familiar as family. Five-part harmony, Jerry Miller (who with Peter Green I thought was the greatest guitarist ever), each member doing solos, we could never get enough of them. In fact, I’ll have it in my will (if I ever make one) that a continuous loop of their songs be the soundtrack at my funeral- no maudlin or religious songs for me, I want to be transported to my next destination on the wings of a Moby Grape tune.
Of course the night I went to see Jimi Hendrix was the pièce de résistance, all the more reason because it was my first concert! Nobody could top that, I believed, and to this day it hasn’t. We already had his first two albums, I’d loved him since the night I’d first heard him, on WBZ.
I woke up one summer night when I was sixteen because I thought the Martians were invading us, just like in the “War of the Worlds hoax”. Turned out it was the sound emanating from the transistor radio under my pillow, tuned to WBZ in Boston. I’d been listening to the Red Sox game out on the West coast, which was the only time the station came in really clear. I was half asleep or perhaps it woke me up, whatever, I’d never heard anything remotely like it.
The disc jockey must have felt the same way. Far out stuff, he said, when the song was over, never heard anything like it and doubt I ever will again. That was Jimi Hendrix and the song is called “Purple Haze,” off his first album “Are You Experienced?” Wave your freak flag high, peoples, and if you ever get the chance to catch his live act, ya better do it, it’s even better than his studio album, ya dig?.
Next morning, to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, I went down to the record store where my friend Louie worked and describe it to him. He laughed and said, Sure, Jimi Hendrix, that guy’s pretty badass on the guitar isn’t he? He led me over to one of the record bins and there it was, the psychedelic purple and yellow album, which I picked up as gently as if it was a rare book, doing my best to keep from tearing off the cellophane cover before I even got out the door.
That in itself was a pleasure unknown today – ever try to unwrap a CD?- stripping off the cellophane in one piece if possible so you could put it back on afterwards and for as long as it lasted, rubbing your hand across the cardboard cover, smooth as a baby’s bottom, then gingerly taking out the pristine vinyl, fingertips on the edges, and setting it gently on the turntable, waiting for that very first sound, like awaiting the dawning of a very important day.
You got so immersed on the first listening it seemed all one piece, then you’d play it over again to begin sorting out the individual songs, already knowing right away what your favorites were, but that could change over the years as you grew with it, and played it day after day time after time.
Did you know he’s coming to town in a few months? Louie asked.
I nodded, but wasn’t paying that much attention because I really didn’t. But as I was leaving Louie told me they’d be selling tickets and if I wanted some he’d set them aside. Primo seats, he said, Now that I heard. I didn’t know what to say because I couldn’t admit here was no way I’d ever be allowed to go, but said, just in case I could, at least two..
I was pretty square back then (not that I’m any cooler now), a callow youth living in the ‘burbs, a product of my environment, which, though it looked pretty normal, was often as zany as it gets.
Bought and sold by my hyper-vigilant parents, but doing my best to keep some semblance of myself to myself, the part that didn’t go to school or church, dress for dinner, get a haircut every month, go to the dentist, visit the relatives, or polish my shoes.
Despite all these strictures I managed to accomplish way more than I or they could ever have imagined, although it was mainly by lying and cheating, which I had to do in order to do things they never would have let me do if they knew, not to mention the corporal punishment that would be meted out for even asking.
It wasn’t special just because it was my first concert, or because of the subterfuge I had to perpetrate in order to go either, though that was part of it, but rather it was because of the veritable awakening I had only glimpsed in church but now experienced in full from music as well as books (although the books were much later), one which lasted for over a decade before it was shuttered once more, which is another story.
The closer it got to the concert, though, the more I wanted to go, and, by the time the week before came, I was frantic. Here I’d gone and bragged about it, and I’d never hear the end of it if I didn’t, even though it probably wouldn’t matter because most of the kids didn’t even know who he was, and looked at me with blank stares when I mentioned it. Not to mention the fact that Louie had set aside two tickets for Rory and me.
Now that things seemed to be settled I began planning my (our) escape. Ostensibly we were going to a basketball doubleheader at the Aud, which sounded plausible enough because local college teams played doubleheaders on Saturday night at the downtown auditorium. No big deal, right? I had, however, stolen (the only time I ever have in my life) a pair of DayGlo screaming yellow wide-flared bell bottoms with blue pin stripes from Mr. Rocker’s clothing store, putting them under my undershirt and walking out calm as can be, also employing the same method when I left the house that night.
In order to perpetuate the subterfuge by taking the bus downtown like we always did when we went to the Saturday night basketball double-header, although we didn’t know anyone driving anyway.
As soon as I got to the top of our street I put my jeans in a plastic bag brought for just that purpose, then carefully placed them in the middle of some nearby bushes and put on my stolen pants (the only time I would wear them), which wasn’t an easy task it was so cold out and Rory was laughing at me. After that things went pretty smoothly and before we knew it we were in front of the Aud.. —–o—–
While Rory went to find our seats I headed straight for the restrooms, which was so crowded I had to wait in line to use one of the pissers. That was a trip in itself with all the freaks there who obviously knew more about Hendrix than I did, describing guitar riffs in particular songs I hadn’t even heard yet as well as other concerts of his they’d been to, and critiquing the opening acts, all the while smoking funny-smelling cigarettes that left a thick haze in the restroom. There wasn’t a person over 30 there I’ll bet you- except for the cops- so everything was cool. Needless to say, I’d never been around a crowd like that, and, though a bit intimidated, was anxious to get to my seat.
Next I was stood in the jam-packed chilly lobby, where the line wasn’t moving very quickly, which I couldn’t understand. I figured Rory had already found our seats so I wasn’t really worried about it. Finally I started wending my way through and soon I was inside the auditorium, which was even colder than the lobby but I didn’t care, I couldn’t wait for the music to begin.
The lights went down and everybody started clapping, but it was only an announcement that the opening act, Jessie’s First Carnival, was snowed in at the airport in Boston, that started the crowd, which was rapidly filling in, grumbling and milling about. In addition, a rumor had begun to circulate that Jimi had shot heroin into his brain and died. While I wasn’t sure how to take this, I certainly didn’t dwell on it.
This all went on for a while as they didn’t have any real backup plan and had about a half hour to kill before the next band came on. They began piping music through the building sound system, which was pretty shitty, if you want to know the truth, what with the feedback and crackling speakers but it was loud enough to know it was The Dead and soon, sure enough, there were some Deadheads on stage grooving and tripping to the sounds of their masters.
By now everyone looked to be getting wasted on alcohol and chaos reigned supreme but I remained calmly in my seat watching everything. A pall of smoke hovered over the whole place, and it wasn’t only cigarette smoke I would soon come to find out when a woman sitting next to me passed me what looked like a cigarette.
Oh, no thank you, I demurred, proud to announce that I didn’t smoke. This isn’t a cigarette, she said, try it you’ll like it. I took it and drew in a huge puff, coughing and sputtering as the acrid smoke burned my lungs and made my eyes water. I then passed it on to the guy sitting next to me who laughed and said, First time to which I replied How could you tell? Because you bogarted it man, but, hey thats cool. He then took a few short hits on the joint hits and sucked in the smoke, holding it in his lungs a while before exhaling. That’s how you do it man, take a few hits, breathe it in, and pass it on. You’ll learn, he said. I doubted I’d have the opportunity again but I was so embarrassed I said, I will. Thank you.
Just then there was screaming-loud feedback from the speaker system and the announcer said, “Please find your seats everyone and sit down. This is a fire hazard and if you don’t sit down in the next few minutes the Fire Marshal will close this place down.” Once again a lot of grumbling but everyone slowly obeyed.
Then came the announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, from Dallas Texas, the Soft Machine. Let’s give them a Buffalo welcome.” No one seemed too familiar with the band, it was obvious they’d only come to see Jimi, so there was a smattering of applause as they took their places on the stage.
Suddenly the lights dimmed and a projector in back came on and I didn’t know it but I was about to see my first light show projected onto a large screen behind the band who had begun playing a jazz fusion instrumental piece that was way over my head. Besides, like everyone else, I couldn’t wait for Hendrix to come on. Some people were digging it and some were pretending to. All in all the crowd was pretty quiet but increasingly restless. I actually began to feel sorry for the band.
I don’t know if it was the grass or what but the light show seemed to consist of paisley patterns that looked like amoebae under glass. All in all, watching it change shapes while the music played in the background was pretty cool. Then I sort of lost track of time and next thing Hendrix was on the stage sans light show, wearing a broad-brimmed black felt hat with a feather in it, black pants with a silver and turquoise belt, brown almost knee high boots, and a brown vest over a paisley flare-collared shirt. I didn’t even notice the drummer and bassist throughout the performance, though I could certainly hear them.
Jimi was warming up, playing left-handed, something I had never seen before, a pale blue Stratocaster, tapping the wha-wha pedal and strumming some scratchy chords through the bank of huge Marshall amps behind him, while people in the background scurried around the stage doing god knows what and the crowd started clapping their hands, stamping their feet, and chanting GIMMEE JIMI en masse over and over again, so loud you could hardly hear anything else and the whole building shook. It sounded like Jimi said “thank you” with his guitar using the wah-wha pedal then immediately launched into “Purple Haze, the crowd exploding with deafening excitement that got louder and louder though seemingly not possible.
After the applause died down when the song was over there was a slight period of silence which was broken by a woman in the cheap seats yelling down: Hey Jimi take your hat off, to which Jimi replied, I’ll take my hat off if you take off your pants. Everyone began laughing and Hendrix then launched into “Foxy Lady”, and the crowd was grooving once more.
He played all the songs off his first album and before you knew it, the show was over. No pyrotechnics, no guitar burning or smashing, just a yoeman-like performance and since I’d been hanging on every note I felt like I’d fallen off a cliff when the music stopped.
I stayed in my seat trying to absorb what had just happened, struggling to get back to reality, oblivious to my surroundings, seemingly for an eternity. So I sat there a while longer, as though I was watching the credits of a movie scrolling down the screen, and finally decided I’d better be up and about.
Rory’d already left to hit the restroom, telling me he’d wait in the entrance to see when the bus arrived; I stayed to watch the roadies breaking down the equipment and packing it to be shipped to the next gig in Cleveland. I could have stayed there longer but the usher told me I had to leave.
When I finally left I had a hard time getting to where Rory said he’d wait for me and when I finally did he was nowhere in sight. I found out later Mr. Chambers had come to get John and drove Rory home too. I wondered why Rory hadn’t waited for me and figured he must have been pretty lit, at the same time realizing I’d never figure out what or how he thought.
I waited a bit longer for the bus, which didn’t come, and when I asked the doorman if he’d seen it he replied it had left 5 minutes ago. Suddenly I began to panic as I wondered how I’d get home, and, not only that, at the same time Rory did. If you want to know the truth I didn’t really want to go home, both because I didn’t want to face the music and didn’t want this surreal night to end.
When I finally got outside I was greeted by a blizzard of epic proportions. All was lost I initially thought, but then maybe not. I noticed a line of people winding around the building towards the back, unperturbed by the wind and snow swirling around them, and figured something must be going on.
Then I spotted two guys walking by the line of people totally unnoticed and realized it was Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding, the drummer and base player which meant the crowd had gathered only for Jimi. Still, they were laughing and cavorting, bending down to grab scoops of snow and fling them toward the sky, only to see them almost immediately disperse in the wind, not unlike a 4th of July firecracker.
I stood against the wall of the building and began forming a snowball, which I threw at a nearby streetlight, hitting it dead center. Then I heard someone say behind me, Make one for me mate! and turned around to see the two of them approaching me. This is a gas, all this whiteness, Noel said, Never seen anything like it. As Mitch prepared to throw the snowball I told him that the most fun thing to do, was aim for at a target, especially a moving one!
You mean like cars? Mitch said. I said I’d done that before and while it was the most fun of all, it was dangerous. Despite this, Noel said, You mean like this? and chucked a malformed snow ball at a passing car that disintegrated before it reached its destination. I packed a solid one and threw it at a nearby light pole. Bullseye! Right on, Mitch said, give me one of your snowballs. I gave him one since I had a few lined up beside me and he threw it at another car, this time hitting the roof. My turn!, Noel said eagerly, and threw another one at a car, hitting the driver’s side window. The driver rolled down the window and cursed at us, and might have come after us but he wasn’t going to lose his place in the long line of cars waiting to get out of the huge parking lot.
As the wind died down the snow, which continued to fall, was now in huge heavy flakes, and beginning to pile up. You are a lucky bloke! Mick said. You can ski, make snow men, snow forts, and go sleighing! Yes I can, I said, and I do. I looked back at the crowd surrounding Jimi, and said, How long will this last? Ah, pretty soon the roadies’ll break it up and then it’s back to the hotel. Hope he brings us a coupla birds.
Where you headed mate? Noel asked. I gotta go home I said, ruefully. But I missed my ride. No way to get home then? said Mitch. Let’s get you a cab. I would but I have no money, I said. That’s all right mate, Noel said and walked up to a nearby cab. How much to get my lad here home? The cabbie asked where he was going and then Mitch handed him some money and I got in the car and the cabbie took off before I had a chance to say goodbye or thanks, managing to avoid all the traffic by going out around the back.
We passed the throng who by now had engulfed Jimi. The cabbie shook his head and said, what’s the big deal about that bush nigger? And look at all that white quim lining up for him.
Suddenly the night grew old, the music seemed a distant memory. I didn’t want to go home, didn’t know what I wanted. Maybe just to be back there throwing snowballs. At least there was something to aim for.
When we arrived at my street I had the cabbie drop me off at the top. My jeans were right where I’d left them so I took off my stolen pants and swapped them with my stiff ice cold jeans, then put the bag back in the same place, thinking I’d retrieve them at a later date, but the very next time I looked for them they were gone.
I ended up getting back only half an hour later and had just enough time to get our stories straight: Rory, coming up from the basement told me he’d told Mr. Barnes he’d gotten a ride home with Mr. Chambers because he’d missed the bus, and that I had gotten on the bus, and I should tell them it was stuck in traffic and the weather made it slow-going, but I’d be back soon, which I was, so they were none the wiser. Rory didn’t believe me when I told him how I got home so he was none the wiser either.
This is the first time I’ve done something like this; it’s not a book review, it’s merely a chance to tell you how much I enjoyed the novella “The Lost Daughter Collective” by Lindsey Drager. I haven’t enjoyed a book as much in years, probably going back to when I read “Stoner” a decade ago. It’s a difficult book (very post modern if you want to put a label on it), but the writing is scintillating and the idea behind the book is endlessly fascinating. I emailed the author (another thing I hardly ever do) telling her how much I enjoyed it and received a very gracious reply. I urge you to read the book, or maybe you’ve already read it, either way I’d love some feedback.
THE LOST DAUGHTER COLLECTIVE / Lindsey Drager (Dzanc Books)
Publication Date: March 7 2017
Paperback: 184 pages
I read about John Sanford probably 40 years ago, remembering that he had been highly praised, and had it in the back of my mind to explore it further, but when I went to to do so, could find very little on him, not surprising as this was well before the Internet came into being. Not helping my quest any was the fact that a guy named John Sandford had written a boatload of very popular books, and, when the Internet did arrive, his was the only name that came up in searches. Still having it on my mind as time went on, I gradually gave up, but must have retained it because, a few weeks ago, having come across a book I hadn’t known existed by Marion Meade called Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney. I immediately took it home and while reading it, was perusing a glossary of people mentioned and the name “John Sanford” immediately caught my eye. The rest is history, but I never cease to be amazed at how things can connect years apart if you just keep reading.
The People from Heaven was published in 1943, and, although this is said of many works, it was truly ahead of its time, the principal reason it never gained traction with the critics, much less the public. As with most original works of art, the book was doomed to failure by critics who couldn’t categorize it, failing to recognize something truly path breaking had been produced.
At the time, the poet Carl Sandburg lauded the book, and poet William Carlos Williams, an early champion, publishing several of Sanford’s stories in Contact, said it’s “the most important book of fiction published here in the last 20 years.”
The title was taken from the cry of celebration purported uttered by the indigenous peoples hailing the arrival of Columbus and the Europeans to their shores, “Come, come to see the people from Heaven!” And how’d that work out for them?
The plot, without spoiling it, centers around Eli Bishop, a propertied white man and chief racist, an American Indian father and son, an independent-minded prostitute, a Jewish refugee from czarist pogroms, and the hero, an itinerant Black woman locally referred to as “America Smith,” who strikes a blow for freedom in her own way.
It stridently portrays and condemns in no uncertain terms racism toward the Negro long before the Civil Rights movement, the Jew a decade before the holocaust, and the Native American which had really never been addressed until the sixties. While containing all the elements of modernism and radicalism, it didn’t fit any of the stereotypes of previous works labeled as such, works like Tobacco Road, Bottom Dogs, Uncle Tom’s Children, Freedom Road, U.S.A.: a trilogy.
Speaking of William Carlos Williams, he is a possible influence based on his use of historical documents in his book In the American Grain, except that Sanford employs it as verse and interwoven with the narrative, consisting of nine poetic commentaries depicting episodes of persecution and oppression ranging from the 15th through the 19th centuries. Another direct inspiration is Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (see my earlier entry regarding that book) for the brief but candid brief biographies of the characters Sanford employs.
Other works it brings to mind would be Our Town, Winesburg, Ohio, even some elements of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” especially as its setting is in the same general area of New York, and for it’s portrait of small town life in that same time period. It captures the immediacy of the time period more than anything I’ve ever read.
Born Julian Shapiro, in Harlem, Sanford was a childhood friend of Nathanael West (born Weinstein), to whom the book was dedicated, and who suggested his friend also change his name, and he became John Sanford from then on. Ironically, the Communist Party, of which Sanford was a member of the Communist Party, condemned his book as too far- left. He and his wife, both screenwriters, were blacklisted in the 50s witch hunts, setbacks from which they (as many) never fully recovered. Sanford lived until he was 98, authored 24 books, including a 5-volume autobiography, half of which were written after the age of 80, he wrote right up until the month before he died.
A noteworthy feature of the book is his employment of colloquialisms, obsolete words, poetic descriptions, and some just laugh-out expressions , so impressive I felt it necessary to list a few so you could get a better feel for the book:
“I’m like a bear-steak…the more you chew me, the bigger I get”
“I’m a three-cornered liar if she wasn’t prettier dead than a live woman sleeping”
“He don’t eat enough to keep a snow-bird alive.”
“He brought the [dollar] bill out of his pocket as if it were a strip of adhesive-tape plastered to his thigh.’
“…you couldn’t drive a prune into me with a mallet.”
“feeling kind of loppy,” ”
“the breeze made fingers in my hair”
“Leaves were flippant in an infrequent wind…”
“…and fireflies were moving stop-lights in the accumulating gloom.”
“Now there’s a prayer that weighs a pound and a half!…”
“sweat like a stone crock”
“…a spiral of fly-paper drilled the smoke-marbled air.”
“I don’t get any more sunshine than a clam.”
“…so bow-legged he couldn’t stop a hog in a hallway.”
“Heads turned like electric fans…”
“…but he stuck around like a fly at a butchering-bee…”
“…either we just run down a pole-cat, or else somebody in this car needs a bath.”
“She pays her rent as regular as you change your drawers, and that’s once a month.”
‘…he ain’t got no more to say about where he’s going than a dish of ice-cream at the Poor Home.”
Be warned the book contains several harrowing passages, one describing Jewish girls being shot from trees; America Smith’s account of her birth and rape; and one of the verse inserts describing the Jesuit Brébeuf’s torture and death at the hands of the Iroquois.
It is a magnificent book, one for which at least two reads are necessary to get the full import, which I suspect will be even more pleasurable the second time around. I’ll let you know.
Just a heads up to announce I have 3 poems in the latest issue of “The Basil O’Flaherty”: http://thebasiloflaherty.weebly.com/
many thanks to them, I hope you’ll give them your support!
Nathanael West, although he died at an early age, has had a tremendous influence on future writers and writing, as I will discuss later. Having published only 4 books, The Day Of The Locust, Miss Lonelyhearts, A Cool Million, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, West, described by one biographer as a “homicidal driver”, was killed in a car crash on December 22, 1944 in California as he was returning from a hunting trip in Mexico with his wife. As he often did, he was most likely extemporizing on one topic or another, not paying one bit of attention to the road, added to the fact that this time he was distracted as his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald (who wrote The Last Tycoon after being inspired by West’s The Day Of The Locust), had died the day before, failed to stop at an intersection in California and drove into an oncoming car. It is the consensus of most critics that The Day Of The Locust is perhaps the most famous of his four novels; I’m not sure what they are basing this on and I beg to differ (it sold only 22 copies during his lifetime), as I believe Miss Lonelyhearts undoubtedly is.
West was born Nathan Weinstein in 1903 in New York City. West, being Jewish, was excluded from fraternities during his matriculation at Brown University and thus it was commonly thought that this was the reason he dropped the name Weinstein, but his brother-in-law S.J. Perelman (the famous humorist) always maintained that this was not case, but dropped the name because he simply wanted a short, recognizable name. An indifferent student, West spent his early life managing Manhattan hotels and writing in his spare time. As the manager of Sutton Club Hotel, Sutton Club Hotel West made many literary contacts, among them Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy Parker, Ring Lardner, Jr., and James T. Farrell. He was known for letting other authors stay for free in empty rooms simply because he enjoyed their company. Although West had been working on his writing since college, it was not until his quiet night job at the hotel that he found the time to put his novel together. It was at this time that West wrote what would eventually become Miss Lonelyhearts, having published two years earlier The Dream Life of Balso Snell, a novel he had conceived of in college.
Several of his ex-Easterner writer friends financed their writing by working on motion pictures, and, tired of living in poverty, when he got a job as a contract scriptwriter for Columbia Pictures, he left for Hollywood in 1933. Once beyond Pasadena, however, the thought never left him that he was prostituting himself, which several friends predicted might happen. At the time of his death, though, West was making money at last. He had just earned $35,000 – around $500,000 in today’s money – for writing screenplays, including for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Suspicion”.
One friend thought him “the most thoroughly pessimistic person I have ever known” yet good company and witty. Fitzgerald once told a mutual friend that he and West were much alike, for they were moralists, wanting “to preach at people in some acceptable form, rather than to entertain them.”
The idea for the novel Miss Lonelyhearts came from an actual “agony” column being published in the Brooklyn Eagle, “Susan Chester Heart-to-Heart Letters,” the letters from which he would later copy, almost verbatim, into his novel. In West’s novel, the eponymously named (although a male) Miss Lonelyhearts, gets letters from readers seeking guidance and wisdom, but to Miss Lonelyhearts they all asking the same thing he is struggling with, the “big question”: the meaning of life. He takes his column seriously and despairs because he cannot help them, or himself.
West examines all the usual bromides: hedonistic pleasure, art, getting back to nature, exotic travel, and drugs, rejecting them all after revealing them to be foolish fantasies. Even suicide is deemed absurd. West reserves the greatest disdain, however, for the consolations of religion. “If he could only believe in Christ,” he writes, “then everything would be simple and the letters extremely easy to answer.” Elsewhere he writes: “Christ was the answer, but, if he did not want to get sick, he had to stay away from the Christ business.”
In an already bleak era (The Depression,the book being published in the year (1933) the national unemployment rate was at its highest), Miss Lonelyhearts went farther than any American novel ever had in its contemplation of despair. Its structure is a tantalizing juxtaposition of the real and unreal, dream and exposition, and often difficult to tell which is which, where West obfuscates the boundaries between Miss Lonelyhearts’ fevered dreaming and his day-to-day life, as is also the case in Day of the Locust. Miss Lonelyhearts, as West himself intimated was his answer to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which makes it ultimately a refutation, where there is no answer for our cry of help. There are parallels of structure (some critics going as far as stating he took his structure, and the psychology which underlies the structure, intact from Crime and Punishment; themes of guilt, superstition, depiction of a hallucinatory world where characters exist in an almost somnambulant state, muttering to themselves; pointing out that both use three narrative devices: the set speech, the confession, and the dream. His boss Shrike (one of the all-time great character names) is presented throughout as the antichrist, and readers have often wondered at the ending (Spoiler alert), where seemingly having rejected Christ, Miss Lonelyhearts becomes a Christlike martyr. Although there are many Christ-like figures throughout literature, the closest to Miss Lonelyheart was Melville’s outsider, Bartleby the Scrivener.
His influence? Indeed, Flannery O’Connor critic Sarah Gordon has pointed out that the closest literary ‘kin’ of her novel Wise Blood in American letters arguably is Miss Lonelyhearts. Another critic believed Flannery O’Connor found a literary model in Miss Lonelyhearts during the long gestation of Wise Blood. In addition, his use of black comedy heavily influenced later writers such as John Hawkes, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., William Burroughs, Robert Coover, James Purdy, and Thomas Pyncheon, among others.
I find it so ironic that Nathanael Weinstein became Nathanael West, went west to survive, and, consumed by it, ultimately died there. Perhaps Dorothy Parker (as she often did) said it best: “Wildly funny, desperately sad, brutal and kind, furious and patient, there was no other like Nathanael West.”