Click on the headline to link to a YouTube entry for Bob Dylan performing Like A Rolling Stone.
Joshua Lawrence Breslin comment:
As I mentioned in the first installment of this series in this space, provided courtesy of my old yellow brick road magical mystery tour merry prankster fellow traveler, Peter Paul Markin, who seemed to think I still had a few things to say about this wicked old world, recently, in grabbing an old Bruce Springsteen CD compilation from 1998 to download into my iPod I came across a song that stopped me in my tracks, Brothers Under The Bridge
. I had not listened to or thought about that song for a long time but it brought back many memories from the late 1970s when I did a series of articles for the now defunct East Bay Eye
(California, naturally) on the fate of some troubled Vietnam veterans who, for one reason or another, could not come to grips with “going back to the real world” and took, like those a Great Depression generation or two before them, to the “jungle”-the hobo, bum, tramp camps located along the abandoned railroad sidings, the ravines and crevices, and under the bridges of California, mainly down in Los Angeles, and created their own “society.”
These sketches have been done on an ad hoc
basis, although the format of this story here follows those of the “Brothers Under The Bridge” series previously posted .The editor of the East Bay Eye
, Owen Anderson, gave me that long ago assignment after I had done a smaller series for the paper on the treatment, the poor treatment, of Vietnam veterans by the Veterans Administration in San Francisco and in the course of that series had found out about this band of brothers roaming the countryside trying to do the best they could, but mainly trying to keep themselves in one piece. My qualifications for the assignment other than empathy, since I had not been in the military during the Vietnam War period, were based simply on the fact that back East I had been involved, along with several other radicals, in running an anti-war GI coffeehouse near Fort Devens in Massachusetts and down near Fort Dix in New Jersey. During that period I had run into many soldiers of my 1960s generation who had clued me in on the psychic cost of the war so I had a running start.
After making connections with some Vietnam Veterans Against The War (VVAW) guys down in L.A. who knew where to point me I was on my way. I gathered many stories, published some of them in the Eye
, and put the rest in my helter-skelter files. A while back, after having no success in retrieving the old Eye
archives, I went up into my attic and rummaged through what was left of those early files. I could find no newsprint articles that I had written but I did find a batch of notes, specifically notes from stories that I didn’t file because the Eye
went under before I could round them into shape.
The ground rules of those long ago stories was that I would basically let the guy I was talking to give his spiel, spill what he wanted the world to heard, and I would write it up without too much editing (mainly for foul language). I, like with the others in this series, have reconstructed this story here as best I can although at this far remove it is hard to get the feel of the voice and how things were said.
Not every guy I interviewed, came across, swapped lies with, or just snatched some midnight phrase out of the air from was from hunger. Most were, yes, in one way or another but some, and the one I am recalling in this 1979 sketch had an off-beat story, hell in this case very off-beat, that brought him down to the ravines. But see he, Allan “Red” Bradley (hereafter called Red, the only name he would answer to from friend or foe alike after about age ten he informed me) out of the low red clay back water tobacco road North Carolina night, like Jean LeBlanc whose story I have already related and a lot of other guys I ran into did not want to talk about ‘Nam, about his war- weary troubles in the “real world” or about how he got himself hoboed up a continent away. He, they, seemed to “enjoy” some amnesia net over that ‘Nam period and who was to blame them for what they saw, and did. No Red wanted to talk about the time just after Vietnam, early 1970s time, the time when he was the be-bop daddy (his term) of the Fayetteville (NC) Fort Meade(MD) and Fort Devens (MA) night with the girls (women, my term), a time when if he had made few right moves inside his head or left before all hell broke loose over his head, or something like that things might have been different. I like to finish up these introductions placing these sketches under a particular sign; no question Red Bradley’s sign was that of the rolling stone:
That night, that night a few months after it had all turned utterly bad back in 1975 maybe a little into 1976, I had dreamed of two brunettes, two blondes and a red-head, jesus, cut the dream cord, cut it quick because I am about to be sick, sick from some jumped up snow, snow the current dream cutter. Yah, it all started with that dream, that five girl, three-colored dream but that was just the candy-coated cover, the real story you don’t want to hear, maybe but it, that dream got me to thinking about back in the day rolling stone stuff (and, no, not the band, and, no, not some mad Dylan troubadour riff thing connecting me with my, his, their generation). But the dream reoccurred, reoccurred with that same quintet, and an absurd mystery about a guy in a hungry night, and nowhere to go, and nowhere to deal with five snow dream figures, what was it, yes, two brown, two yellow, one red, hair color not skin. That was the start, that was the reoccurring start, but that was not the story, not by a long shot. Lets’ call it a snow dream, a dope dream it could have been any addiction- affliction but let’s just call it by its right name, a snow dream, and be done with it.
[Kenny Jackson, whose story I have already related previously and who travelled with Red for a few months around the mean streets of L.A. and was close to him at the time of this story because Red was in Kenny’s words a “colorful guy,” clued me in on Red’s way of talking, of making a grand gesture before he got to serious stuff. When I reviewed my notes to try to bring life to Red’s story I at first forgot about that comment and could make neither heads nor tails out of the following lines until I remembered Kenny’s remark. Of course Red, kind of a smart guy in a street way, maybe half- smart, and we will leave it as that had to preface his whole spiel by making the following remarks which, according to my notes, he insisted be included. The remarks moreover were made after Kenny had gotten Red sobered up for a couple of months so he thought he was king of the world. Sober here, by the way, when referenced by the veterans in these sketches is all inclusive-alcohol, drugs, love, hate, cons, etc. –JLB]
If you, as I do even now while I am out here on the wild streets of L.A. trying to make my comeback, even now when my soul is fresh, every once in a while as least from a comfortable distance need to hear about boozers, losers, dopesters, snow dreams, hipsters, fallen sisters, midnight sifters, grifters, drifters, the driftless, small-time grafters, hoboes, bums, tramps, the fallen, those who want to fall, Spanish Johnnies, stale cigarette butts, whiskey-soaked barroom floors, loners, the lonely, sad sacks, the sad and others at the margins of society then this is your stop. Red Bradley is going to give it to you straight, straight as a crooked man knows how. I was one of them, one of the snow birds, and I fell, fell big time.
My words, maybe, are an acquired taste, but one well worth acquiring when I gather myself up to storm heaven looking for busted black-hearted angels, for blonde girls with Monroe lips or maybe Joni Mitchell falling hair, for brunettes who had sense to quit while they were ahead with or without falling hair, for demon red-heads with old time neighborhood Irish hearts and poet’s souls, for the desperate out in forsaken woods who need to hold on to something, and for all the misbegotten. Christ almighty for all the misbegotten.
Endless tramp, no, bum and note the difference, walked streets, waiting for the next fix. Waiting really for some god miracle, some murmured pray sacrilege and redemption seeking miracle. Waiting for all the accumulated messes of this world, this made world to seep into the gutter. Waiting for all past history, all past memoir better, all past sorrows, given and received, all pass two roads taken, wrong road chosen, all personal hurts, given and taken, all past vanities to break down in the means streets, and closure. No, not closure, relief. Waiting, yah, waiting but to no avail. And so all roads, chosen and unchosen closed, all forward turned back, all value devalued, all this ….
[After that Red got serious-okay]
Jesus, for a few years after ‘Nam I had it made, had it made in the shade with women. Let me tell you before ‘Nam I had a fistful of girls, total, since the time I started noticing them, noticing their shapes turning along with my own desires. Nice big-hearted red-headed neighborhood Irish girls not afraid to smite god late on Saturday night before showing up chaste, virgin mary chaste, I promise, for early Sunday mass, sometimes with me in tow just to prove their conquests and their sullen virtue. Irish girls too, not big-hearted, brunettes usually maybe with some heathen English blood in them ,with a handful of rosary beads in one hand and blushed unfulfilled lust in their hearts, and minus me in tow. Later a few off-hand blondes with loose morals and big time Monroe dreams and nice Jewish girls off on their first goy adventures looking, looking hard, for some fierce blue-eyed devil, and finding him.
I wasn’t complaining about how few I had then and I am not now but after ‘Nam was the best women time. See after ‘Nam, oh around late 1971 and 1972, I got involved with some anti-war stuff, with Vietnam Veterans Against The War (VVAW) stuff because some of the stuff I saw in ‘Nam just freaked me out, and some of the stuff me and my buddies did too. But I don’t want to get into war stories. I want to get into anti-war stories because that is the only way you’ll make sense of what I am saying.
See I would go to G.I. coffeehouses that had been springing up all over the place near military bases around that time and talk to guys still in and all that. I went on speaking tours sometimes and with my southern accent and my anti-war war “cred” guys would listen up to me for a minute. But the real deal was the chicks [read: women] who started hanging around the coffeehouses after getting tired of just marching in the streets every spring and fall and wanted to be around guys who had seen it all and lived to tell about it. Why I still don’t know and I didn’t care as long as they gave me a tumble. I did that speaking and organizing stuff for a couple of years around Fort Bragg down in North Carolina and Fort Meade in Maryland. Then I headed further north to Fort Devens in Massachusetts. [He had been there about two years after I helped start that one. It was weird to meet him in L.A. several years later along an abandoned ravine, right.] That was where things started to fall apart.
See Boston and Cambridge (the nearest big city action to Fort Devens) was filled with women who, like I said before, wanted to be around guys who had seen it all. So it was like taking candy from a baby, sort of. Those were the days when you could be seeing several chicks at one time, unlike back before ‘Nam when unless you were very careful one guy, one girl was strictly the norm out in open anyway. So I loaded up with my standard two blondes, two brunettes, and my always needed one red-head.
The thing though as the American government started to pull everybody out of Indochina the anti-war movement and the dough for anti-war coffeehouses started to dry up. But I wasn’t quick enough on the draw to put two and two together. Hell, I didn’t want to. And here is why. After a couple of soft years and with all the chicks I wanted I began to get a feeling that the world owed me a living, a soft touch living and so I lived off some of those five women in the dream. Sometimes at the same time, sometimes separately.
Then the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or whatever they wanted to call it at the V.A. hospital kicked in. Anyway between the anti-war action dying down and not having much to do otherwise and having my hands full with the chicks I started doing some serious cocaine. Yah, the snow bird, “my girl,” my real girl. I had had a few tastes in ‘Nam but in those days I was strictly a boozer, a whiskey and water chaser guy. I didn’t really like or understand the potheads, opium-eaters and junkies. Not then.
Coke was cheap mainly except you needed about a ton of it to feel alright all the time. And I needed a ton of it because I needed to feel alright all the time after a while. And that is where things really got busted up. I was “borrowing” money like crazy from one chick or another. I had a regular “Ponzi” scheme going at one point. I would borrow a hundred from one, buy my goods, and then borrow another hundred from another chick to pay the first chick back and so on.
I was also running some dope myself through a connection down Sonora way in Mexico “pimping” a couple of so-so girlfriends (not the five) to make ends meet after a while. Christ I was “muling” them and myself a few times just to score some dope. One time I almost wound up face down in a dusty Sonora back alley, like I guy I knew in Cambridge, when I tried to go “independent.” Jesus, that was close and every once in a while I think about that poor bastard who they found face down in that damn alley and think that could have been me. That pimping thing by the way was not some professional thing but just telling the chicks to sleep with some dope-dealers in return for dope. They were serious hopheads too as that was what gravitated toward you, or clung to you, on the way down. Still it was pimping and I am sorry about that part.
At some point the thing got weird, real weird, maybe after a few months as I started losing girlfriends, the real ones, one after the other until one day I finally realized through a snow storm that I had gone from five to zero and the cheap streets of Boston, friendless.
Here is how I remember that descent, or part of it- Five AM, dark turning to a shade lighter, after a hard ground under the Eliot Bridge bed night, cold October cold with all newspapers, Herald, Globe, upscale New York Times used for a pillow and for ground cover yelling about some guy named Jimmy Carter and about how he is saved. [Must have been 1975-76 or there about.] Running for president too. The guy will need more saving that I need I thought. Ironic though, just that minute when I needed to be saved. Lord saved, mercy saved, some humble Marcia (my main squeeze and the one who stuck it out longest, a brunette) saved (although I did not know it, know it for a very long time, too long and too late).
Long walk along the Charles River, supermarket double brown bag (laughed at Mexican luggage we used to call it) for all worldly possessions. A tee shirt, maybe two, underwear, socks, a half rank pair of pants , another shirt to match the one I was wearing, a comb, and a bar of soap, Dial, and done. All worldly possessions reduced almost to grave size.
Long walk to safe downtown Greyhound bus station men’s wash room stinking to high heaven of seven hundred pees, six hundred laved washings, and five hundred wayward unnamed, unnamable smells, mainly rank. My street bathroom, a splash (unlike those ocean wave splashes on ancient dream North Carolina cape wind nights now faded) of water on the face, some precious soap, paper towel for a wash cloth, haphazard combing (hell, I was not entering a beauty contest, jesus, no), some soap under the tee shirt for underarms and done. Worldly beauty done.
Out the door, walk the streets, walk the streets until, until noon, until five, until lights out under some other Eliot Street Bridge bungalow (switched nightly to avoid cop riffs and fellow tramp rip-offs). Walk, stopping for an occasional library break , for a quick nod out, really, and quick read, not some political book though, those days, Genet, Celine, Burroughs, Kerouac (not On The Road magic but Big Sur traumas), and such self-help books. (Ironic.)
And minute plan, plan, plan, plain mex paper bag in hand holding, well, holding life, plan for the next minute, no, the next ten seconds until the deadly impulses subside. Then look, look hard, for safe harbors, lonely desolate un-peopled bridges, some gerald ford-bored newspaper-strewn bench against the clotted hobo night snores. Waiting for the next fix. Desolation row, no way home.
And then, half sneaking out of town, half desperate to get away and start fresh I walked to the entrance of the Massachusetts Turnpike near the Coca-Cola warehouse in Cambridge put my thumb out and started heading west, west anywhere west. With genetic memories of two brunettes, two blondes and a red head permanently etched in my brain to disturb my sleep.
[When I last heard from Kenny Jackson in late 1979 he had not heard from Red in several months. The only conclusion he, or I, could draw was that Red had gone back to his snow dreams. That was the way things were out in the ravine world. After than I lost contact with Kenny (who was putting his life in order) as well so there is on ending one way or the other to this story.]
Labels: brothers under the bridge