Songs To While Away The Class Struggle By (Kind Of)-In The Time Of Laura’s Time-Ms. LaVern Baker Is In The House- A CD Review
Click on the headline to link to a YouTube film clip of LaVern Baker performing her 1950s classic Tomorrow Night.
LaVern Baker Soul On Fire: The Best Of LaVern Baker, Atlantic Records, 1991
“Tomorrow night, tomorrow night, will you still say the things you said tonight- a line from LaVern Baker’s song Tomorrow Night.
Walking down the narrow stairs leading to the admission window booth at Johnny Fleet’s in good old Harvard Square on this cold Columbus Day 1978 night, jesus 1978 is almost gone already, I was suddenly depressed by this thought-how many times lately had I walked down these very stairs looking, looking for what, looking, as Tom Waits says in his song, for the heart of Saturday night, looking recently every night from Monday to Sunday and not just Saturday. Looking, not hard looking, not right now hard looking anyway after my last nitwit affair, but looking for a man who at least has a job, doesn’t have another girlfriend or ten, and who wants to settle down a little, settle down with me a little. Yes, if you really need to know, want to know, I’ve got those late twenties getting just a touch worried old maid blues.
My parents, my straight-arrow, god-fearing, Methodist god-fearing and that is a fierce fearing, hard-working, lost in some 1950s dreamland parents, my mother really, my father just keeps his own counsel between shots of whiskey and trying to read the latest seed catalogues that keep him and his business alive through the haze, keeps badgering me about finding a nice young man. Yes, easy for you to say you don’t know the nitwits who are out there and they ain’t Rickey Nelson dream jukebox guys, Mother. And then she starts on the coming home, coming home to cranky Mechanicsville (that’s in upstate New York, near Albany, if you don’t believe me) and finding some farmer-grown boy from high school and X, Y, and Z, farmer boys all, still asks about me. No thanks, jesus, that is why I fled to Boston right after college in 1972 (and fled to a far-away, and a no living at home college too but don’t tell them that) and not just because I wanted to get my social worker master’s degree like I told them. And so here I am, a few years later, walking down these skinny stairs again, sigh, yet again.
Johnny’s (nobody calls it Johnny Fleet’s except for one-time people or tourists) isn’t a bad place to hang your hat, as my father always likes to say, when he finds that one or two places in the universe outside of the farm where he feels comfortable enough to stay more than ten minutes before getting the “I’ve got to go water the greenhouse plants” or something itch (read: drink itch). Not a bad place for a woman, a twenty–eight year old woman with college degrees and some aims in life beyond some one-night stand every now and again. Or not a bad place for a pair of women, if my friend and roommate, Priscilla, decides she is man-hungry enough to make the trip to Harvard Square from the wilds of Watertown, and can stand the heavy smoke, mainly cigarette smoke as far as I know, but after a few drinks who knows, that fills the air before the night is half over.
Tonight Priscilla is with me because she has a “crush” on Albie St John, the lead singer for the featured local rock group, The Haystraws. And the last time she was here he was giving her that look like he was game for something although he is known around the Square as strictly a “for fun” guy. And that is okay with Priscilla because she has some guy back home, some guy from upstate New York where she is from near Utica, some fresh from the farm guy who she has known since about third grade, who will marry her if and when she says the word.
Here is the funny thing though alone, or like tonight with Priscilla, this funky old bar is the only place around where a woman can find a guy who is the least bit presentable to the folks back home, wherever back home is. I’ve met a couple of decent guys in here, although like I said before, things didn’t work out for some reason because they were one-night stand guys or already loaded down with girlfriends and I am in no mood to take a ticket, stuff like that. So you can see what desperate straits I am in still trying to meet that right guy, or something close, without a lot of overhead. My standards may be a little high for the times but I’m chipping away at them by the day.
Moreover, this place, this Johnny’s is the only place around that has the kind of music I like, a little country although not Grand Ole Opry country stuff like my parents go for, you know George Jones or Aunt Bee, or someone, a little bit folkie, kind of left-handed folkie, more like local favorite Eric Andersen folk rock, and a little old time let it rip 1950s rock and roll, like the Haystraws cover, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, those guys, that I never knew anything about when I was a kid since I never got past Rickey Nelson and Bobby Darin, darn him, out in the farm field sticks. Upstate New York, like I said, not far out of Albany but it might as well have been a million miles away with me picking my sting beans, tomatoes, and whatever else Pa grew to keep us from hunger’s door.
Not for me this trendy disco stuff, not my style at all, no way, although I love to dance and even took belly dancing lessons although I am not voluptuous, more just left of skinny if I say it but really voluptuous Priscilla calls me just skinny. Also my kind of guy would never, never wear an open shirt and some chainy medallion around his neck. Jesus, no way. Plus, a big plus, Johnny’s has a jukebox for intermissions filled with all kinds of odd-ball songs, real country stuff, late 1950s rock and roll (the Rickey Nelson/Bobby Vee/Bobby Darin stuff) that nobody but me probably ever heard of unless, of course, you were from Mechanicsville, or a place like that.
After going through mandatory license check and admission fee stuff, saying “hi” to the waitresses that I know now by name, and Priscilla does too, and the regular bartenders as we pass by we find our seats, kind of “reserved” seats for us where we can sit and not be hassled by guys, or be hassled if something interesting comes along. I have been in kind of a dry spell, outside the occasional minute affair if one could really call some of the “affairs” even that, for about six months now. Ever since I started to work, work doing social work, my profession, if you need to know. That’s what I am trained to do anyway although when I first came to town a few years ago I was, as one beau back then said, “serving them off the arm” in a spaghetti joint over the other side of Cambridge. Strictly a family fare menu, and plenty of college guys, including a few who I wound up dating, low on funds doing the cheap Saturday night date circuit. All in all a “no tips” situation anyway you cut it, although plenty of guff, a lot of come ons, and extra helpings of “get me this and get me that.”
Before that, out in Rochester in college, and later after a short stop at hometown Mechanicsville it was nothing but wanna-be cowboy losers, an occasionally low-rent dope dealer, some wanna-be musicians, farmer brown farmers, and married guys looking for a little something on a cold night. Ya, I know, I asked for it but a girl gets cold and lonely too. Not just guys, not these days anyway. But I am still pitching, although very low-key. That is my public style (some say, say right to my face, prim but that’s only to fend off the losers).
“Laura, what are you having, tonight honey?’ asked my “regular” waitress, Lannie, and then asked Priscilla the same. “Two Rusty Nails,” we replied together. Tonight, from a quick glance around the room even though it is a Columbus Day holiday night, looks like it is going to be a hard-drinking night from the feel of it. That means on my budget and my capacity about three drinks, max. About the same for Priscilla unless she is real man-hungry. But that is just between us, okay. Lannie, as is her habit, knowing that we are good tippers (the bonds of waitress sisterhood as Priscilla has also “served them off the arm”) brought the drinks right away. And so we settled in get ready to listen to The Haystraws coming up in a while for their first set. Or rather I did the settling in. Priscilla was looking, looking hard at Albie, and he was looking right back. I guess I will be driving home alone tonight.
As I settled in I noticed that some guy was playing the jukebox like crazy. Like crazy for real. He kept playing about three old timey LaVern Baker songs, Jim Dandy of course, and See See Rider but also about six times in a row her Tomorrow Night. I was kind of glad when the band, like I said, these really good rockers, The Haystraws, began their first set. And so the evening was off, good, bad, or indifferent.
About half way through the set I noticed this jukebox guy kept kind of looking at me, kind of “checking” me out without being rude about it. You know those little half-looks and then look away kind of like kid hide-and-seek and back again. Now I have around long enough to know that I am not bad to look at even if I am a little skinny and I take time to get ready when I go out, especially lately, and although times have been tough lately I am easy to get to know but this guy kind of put me on my guard a little. He was about thirty, neatly bearded which I like and okay for looks, I have been with worst. But what I couldn’t figure out, and it bothered me a little even when I tried to avoid his peeks (as he “avoided” mine) is why he was in this place.
Johnny’s, despite its locale in the heart of Harvard Square, is kind of an oasis for country girls like me, or half-country girls like Priscilla (from upstate New York too, Utica, in case you forgot) and guys the same way although once in a while a Harvard guy from the sticks comes around (or a guy who says he goes to Harvard. I have met some who made the claim who I don’t think could spell the name of the college, I swear). This guy looked like Harvard Square was his home turf and if he found himself five feet from a well-lighted street, a library, or a bookstore he would freak out big time. He might have been an old folkie, maybe early Dylan or Dave Von Ronk that nasal hard to understand kind of stuff, he had that feel, or maybe a bluesy kind of guy, Muddy Waters maybe, but he was strictly a city boy and was just cruising this joint.
At intermission Priscilla had to run to the ladies’ room and on the way this guy, Allan Jackman, as I found out later when he introduced himself to me, stopped her and said that her brunette friend looked very nice in her white pants and blouse. He then said to her that he would like to meet me. Priscilla, a veteran of the Laura wars (and I of hers), had the snappy answer ready, “Go introduce yourself, yourself.” And he did start to come over but I kind of turned away to avoid him just in case he had escaped from somewhere (ya, like I said before my luck has been running a little rough lately so I am a little gun-shy). Still he worked his way over.
And this is the very first thing that Allan Jackman ever said to me. “I noticed that you kind of perked up when I played LaVern Baker’s Tomorrow Night. Have you been disappointed when things didn’t work out after that first night of promise too, like in the song?” Not an original line, but close. I answered almost automatically, “Yes.” Then he introduced himself and just kind of stood there not trying to sit down or anything like that waiting for me to make the next move. Then Priscilla came back and said she had run into Albie St. John and he wanted to “talk” to her before the band came back for a second set (she said it with a certain twist like she was doing him this big favor and not like she was practically drooling at the idea. Like I said I am definitely driving home alone today.). She left and Allan was still standing there, a little ill at ease from his look. Befuddled by his soft non-threatening manner, and soft manners, I was not sure if I wanted him to sit down or not but then I said what the hell, he seems nice enough and at least he was not drunk.
So he sat down and gently, very gently shook my hand and said “thank you” for letting me let him sit at the table. In the flush of reaction to that gentle handshake, I swear no man had ever taken my hand in such a manly manner without guile or gimme something before, I relaxed a little and asked him, not an origin question but I was curious, what brought him to Johnny’s. He started to tell me about his country minute, about finding out about the wild boys of country music, about Hank Williams (I winched, that was my father’s music) about this guy Townes Van Zandt and so on.
And then he said he was looking for me. I winched again. Not another crazy. No, not me exactly, but me as a person who he sensed had been kind of beaten down in the love game lately like he had. He said he saw that look in my face, in my eyes, when he kind of half-checked (I made him laugh when I said we were kid-hide-and-seeking earlier) me out at the jukebox. I said I thought he had fully “checked me out” but he would only confess to the half. We both laughed at that one.
And after that opening, strange to say, because being a country girl, and being brought up in a Methodist-etched household to keep my thoughts to myself, or else, or else Pa would have a fit, I started to talk to him about my troubles lately. And he listened and kept asking more questions, not in your face questions, but questions like he was really interested in the answers and not as some fiendish experiment to take advantage of a simple girl. And then I asked him a few things and before we knew it the evening’s entertainment was over and Lannie kept telling us that we had to go. I still had some doubts about this guy, this city boy and his city ways, and his fierce piercing blue eyes that could be true or truly devilish.
As we got up to leave he asked, kind of sheepishly with a little stutter, asked, for my telephone number. No “my place or your place, honey,” or “let’s go down the Charles and have some fun,” or “I brought you six drinks (we had each bought our own) and so I expect something more” or any of that usual end of the night stuff that I have become somewhat inured to. He simply, softly, said he wanted it because he wanted to call me up tomorrow night. We kind of laughed at that seeing the way we met, before we met. I hesitated just a minute and he, sensing my dilemma, started to turn to leave. A guy who knows how to take no for an answer, or the possibility of no, without recrimination or fuss. Wait a minute, Laura. Before he took two steps I blurted out my number. And then put it on a cocktail napkin for him. As I passed the glass wet napkin to him he said he would call about seven if that was okay. I said yes. And then he shook my hand, shook it even more gently than when he introduced himself, if that was possible. I flushed again as he headed to the door. Something in that handshake said you had better not let this one get away. Something that said you had better be near the phone at 7:00 PM tomorrow night waiting for his call. And I will be.