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Tuesday, November 22, 2016
*****The Search For The Great Working-Class Love Song - With Richard Thompson’s Vincent Black Lightning In Mind
*****The Search For The Great Working-Class Love Song - With Richard Thompson’s Vincent Black Lightning, 1952 In Mind
From The Pen Of Joshua Lawrence Breslin:
Several years ago, maybe about eight years now that I think about it, I did a series of sketches on guys, folk-singers, folk-rockers, rock-folkers or whatever you want to call those who weened us away from the stale Pablum rock in the early 1960s (Bobby Vee, Rydell, Darin, et. al, Sandra Dee, Brenda Lee, et. al) after the gold rush dried up in what is now called the classic age of rock and roll in the mid to late 1950s when Elvis, Jerry Lee, Buddy, Chuck, Bo and their kindred made us jump. (There were gals too like Wanda Jackson but mainly it was guys in those days.) I am referring of course to the savior folk minute of the early 1960 when a lot of guys with acoustic guitars, some self-made lyrics, or stuff from old Harry Smith Anthology times gave us a reprieve. That Harry Smith stuff, commercial music from back in the 1920s and 1930s saved many a weary folk-singer on a tough night when he or she had run out of ideas and yet the girls or guys were still transfixed and thus provided for a last few tunes.
(One old-time, now old-time folk-singer from the 1960s folk minute who is still performing at small clubs and coffeehouses that small dot the country still in places like Harvard Square, the Village, Ann Arbor, Joshua Tree out in California, Seattle, both Portlands and so on, small dots, made a gradation of folk-singer, male folk-singer expectations-if you knew three chords you could gather young straight long-haired women around you, four or five chords would help fill out your date book, a dozen chords and you could have whatever you wanted. Sounds about right about the times even if you didn’t play an instrument, or sing, but knew about two thousand arcane folk facts, although songs better. Any old-time women folksingers can add their recollections if they were similar.)
The series titled Not Bob Dylan centered on why those budding folkies like Tom Rush, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Jesse Winchester and the man under review Richard Thompson to name a few did not make the leap to be the “king of folk” that had been ceded by the media to Bob Dylan and then whatever happened to them once the folk minute went south after the combined assault of the British rock invasion (you know the yah, yah, Beatles, the no satisfaction Stones, the really got me Kinks, hell, even I’m Henry the Eighth Herman’s Hermits got serious play for a while), and the rise of acid rock put folk in the shade (you know the White Rabbit Alice in Wonderland Jefferson Airplane, the let’s keep trucking Dead, the this is the end Doors, The ripped Who, hell, even the aforementioned non-yah, yah Beatles and non-no satisfaction Stones got caught up in the acid-etched fray although not to their eternal musical playlist benefit nothing that would put then into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame anyway). I also did a series on Not Joan Baez, the “queen of the folk minute” asking that same question on the female side but here dealing with one Richard Thompson the male side of the question is what is of interest.
I did a couple of sketches on Richard Thompson back then, or rather sketches based on probably his most famous song, Vincent Black Lightning, 1952 which dove-tailed with some remembrances of my youth and my semi-outlaw front to the world in that working poor neighborhood where I grew up and the pervasive role that motorcycles played in that world. Additionally, in light of the way that a number of people whom I knew back then, classmates whom I reconnected on a class reunion website several years ago responded when I posed the question of what they thought was the great working-class love song since North Adamsville was definitely a working class town driven by that self-same ethos I wrote some other sketches driving home my selection of Thompson’s song as my choice.
Those later sketches about the world of motorcycles are what interest me here since Thompson gave up the “king of the hill” folk idea. See Thompson at various times packed it in, said he had no more spirit or some such and gave up the road, the music and the struggle to made that music, as least professionally. Took time to make a more religious bent to his life and other such doings. Not unlike a number of other performers from that period who tired of the road or got discouraged with the small crowds, or lost the folk spirit. Probably as many reasons as individuals to give them. Then Thompson, they, years later had an epiphany or something, got the juices flowing again and came back on the road. That fact is to the good for old time folk (and rock) aficionados like me.
What that fact of returning to the road by Thompson and a slew of others has meant is that my friend and I, (okay, okay my sweetie who prefers that I call her my soulmate but that is just between us so “friend”) now have many opportunities to see acts like Thompson’s Trio, his current band configuration, to see if we think they still “have it” (along with acts of those who never left the road like Bob Dylan who apparently is on an endless tour whether we want him to do so or not). That idea got started about a decade ago when we saw another come-back kid, Geoff Muldaur of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, solo, who had taken something twenty years off. He had it. So we started looking for whoever was left of the old folks acts (rock and blues too) to check out that question-unfortunately the actuarial tables took their toll before we could see some of them at least one last time like Dave Von Ronk.
That brings us back to Richard Thompson. Recently we got a chance to see him in a cabaret setting with tables and good views from every position, at least on in the orchestra section, at the Wilbur Theater in Boston with his trio, a big brush drummer and an all-around side guitar player (and other instruments like the mando). Thompson broke the performance up into two parts, a solo set of six or seven numbers highlighted by Vincent Black Lightning, and Dimming Of The Day which were fine. The second part based on a new album and a bunch of his well-known rock standards left us shaking our heads. Maybe the room could not handle that much sound, although David Bromberg’s five piece band handled it well a couple of weeks before, or maybe it was the melodically sameness of the songs and the same delivery voice and style but we were frankly disappointed and not disappointed to leave at the encore. Most tunes didn’t resonant although a few in all honesty did but we walked out of the theater with our hands in our pockets. No thumbs up or down based on that first old time set. However, damn it, Bob Dylan does not have to move over, now.
Which brings us to a later sketch I did based on Brother Thompson’s glorious Vincent Black Lightning. When I got home I began to revise that piece which I have included below.
Mimi’s Glance, Circa 1963
Mimi Murphy knew two things, she needed to keep moving, and she was tired, tired as hell of moving, of the need, of the self-impose need, to keep moving ever since that incident five years before, back in 1958, with her seems like an eternity ago sweet long gone motorcycle boy, her “walking daddy,” Pretty James Preston, although he as long as she had known him never walked a step when his “baby,” his bike was within arm’s length. I knew this information, knew this information practically first hand because the usually polite but loner Mimi Murphy had told me her thoughts and the story that went with it one night after she had finished a tough on the feet night working as a cashier at concession stand the Olde Saco Drive-In Theater out on Route One in Olde Saco, Maine.
That night, early morning really, she had passed me going up to her room with a bottle of high-end Scotch, Haig& Haig, showing its label from a brown bag in her hand while I was going down the stairs in the rooming house we lived in on Water Street in Ocean City, a few miles from Olde Saco. A number of people, including Mimi and me, were camped out there in temporary room quarters after the last of the summer touristas had decamped and headed back to New York, or wherever they came from. The cheap off-season rent and the short stay-until-the-next-summer-crowd-showed-up requiring no lease drew us there. Most residents, mostly young and seemingly unattached to any family or work life kept to themselves, private drinkers or druggies (probably not grass since I never smelled the stuff which I had a nose for from youthful smoke-filled dreams while I was there so coke, opium, speed, maybe horse although I saw no obvious needle marks on arms or cold turkey screams either), a couple of low profile good looking young hustling girls, probably just graduating from amateur status and still not jaded “tarts” as my father used to call them, who didn’t bring their work home, guys maybe just out of the service, or between jobs, and so on. I had seen a couple of guys, young guys with horny looks in their eyes, maybe an idea of making a play, making passes at Mimi but thought nothing of it since they also targeted the hustling girls too.
Since I had never bothered Mimi, meaning made a pass at her, she must have sensed that being contemporaries, she was twenty-one then and I twenty-two, that maybe she could unburden her travails on a fellow wayward traveler. That no making a pass business by the way due to the fact that slender, no, skinny and flat-chested Irish red-heads with faraway looks like Mimi with no, no apparent, warm bed desires, that year and in those days not being my type after tumbledown broken-hearted youthful years of trying to coax their Irish Catholic rosary bead novena favors to no avail over in the old Little Dublin neighborhood around the Acre in Olde Saco.
Whatever she sensed and she was pretty closed-mouth about it when I asked her later she was right about my ability to hear the woes of another wanderer without hassles, and she did as she invited me up into her room with no come hither look (unlike those pretty hustling girls who made a profession of the “come hither look” and gave me a try-out which after proving futile turned into small courtesy smiles when we passed each other). But she showed no fear, no apparent fear, anyway.
After a couple of drinks, maybe three, of that dreamboat scotch that died easy going down she loosened up, taking her shoes off before sitting down on the couch across from me. For the interested I had been down on my uppers for a while and was drinking strictly rotgut low-shelf liquor store wines and barroom half empty glass left-overs so that stuff was manna from heaven I can still taste now but that is my story and not Mimi’s so I will move on. Here is the gist of what she had to say as I remember it that night:
She started out giving her facts of life facts like that she had grown up around this Podunk town outside of Boston, Adamsville Junction, and had come from a pretty pious Roman Catholic Irish family that had hopes that she (or one of her three younger sisters, but mainly she) might “have the vocation,” meaning be willing, for the Lord, to prison cloister herself up in some nunnery to ease the family’s way into heaven, or some such idea. And she had bought into the idea from about age seven to about fourteen by being the best student, boy or girl, in catechism class on Sunday, queen of the novenas, and pure stuff like that in church and the smartest girl in, successively, Adamsville South Elementary School, Adamsville Central Junior High, and the sophomore class at Adamsville Junction High School.
As she unwound this part of her story I could see where that part was not all that different from what I had encountered in my French-Canadian (mother, nee LeBlanc) Roman Catholic neighborhood over in the Acre in Olde Saco. I could also see, as she loosened up further with an additional drink, that, although she wasn’t beautiful, certain kinds of guys would find her very attractive and would want to get close to her, if she let them. Just the kind of gal I used to go for before I took the pledge against Irish girls with far-away looks, and maybe red hair too.
About age fourteen thought after she had gotten her “friend” (her period for those who may be befuddled by this old time term) and started thinking, thinking hard about boys, or rather seeing that they, some of them, were thinking about her and not novenas and textbooks her either she started to get “the itch.” That itch that is the right of passage for every guy on his way to manhood. And girl on her way to womanhood as it turned out but which in the Irish Roman Catholic Adamsville Junction Murphy family neighborhood was kept as a big, dark secret from boys and girls alike.
Around that time, to the consternation of her nun blessed family, she starting dating Jimmy Clancy, a son of the neighborhood and a guy who was attracted to her because she was, well, pure and smart. She never said whether Jimmy had the itch, or if he did how bad, because what she made a point out of was that being Jimmy’s girl while nice, especially when they would go over Adamsville Beach and do a little off-hand petting and watching the ocean, did not cure her itch, not even close. This went on for a couple of years until she was sixteen and really frustrated, not by Jimmy so much as by the taboos and restrictions that had been placed on her life in her straight-jacket household, school and town. (Welcome to the club, sister, your story is legion) No question she was ready to break out, she just didn’t know how.
Then in late 1957 Pretty James Preston came roaring into town. Pretty James, who despite the name, was a tough motorcycle wild boy, man really about twenty-one, who had all, okay most all, of the girls, good girls and bad, wishing and dreaming, maybe having more than a few restless sweaty nights, about riding on back of that strange motorcycle he rode (a Vincent Black Lightning, a bike made in England which would put any Harley hog to shame from rev number one when I looked for information about the beast later, stolen, not by Pretty James but by third parties, from some English with dough guy and transported to America where he got it somehow, the details were very vague about where he got it, not from her, him) and being Pretty James’ girl. One day, as he passed by on his chopper going full-throttle up Hancock Street, Mimi too got the Pretty James itch.
But see it was not like you could just and throw yourself at Pretty James that was not the way he worked, no way. One girl, one girl from a good family who had her sent away after the episode, tried that and was left about thirty miles away, half-naked, after she thought she had made the right moves and was laughed at by Pretty James as he took off with her expensive blouse and skirt flying off his handle-bars as he left her there unmolested but unhinged. That episode went like wildfire through the town, through the Monday morning before school girls’ lav what happened, or didn’t happen, over the weekend talkfest first of all.
No Pretty James’ way was to take, take what he saw, once he saw something worth taking and that was that. Mimi figured she was no dice. Then one night when she and Jimmy Clancy were sitting by the seawall down at the Seal Rock end of the beach starting to do their little “light petting” routine Pretty James came roaring up on his hellish machine and just sat there in front of the pair, saying nothing. But saying everything. Mimi didn’t say a word to Jimmy but just started walking over to the cycle, straddled her legs over back seat saddle and off they went into the night. Later that night her itch was cured, or rather cured for the first time.
Pouring another drink Mimi sighed poor Pretty James and his needs, no his obsessions with that silly motorcycle, that English devil’s machine, that Vincent Black Lightning that caused him more anguish than she did. And she had given him plenty to think about as well before the end. How she tried to get him to settle down a little, just a little, but what was a sixteen-year old girl, pretty new to the love game, totally new, new but not complaining to the sex game, and his well-worn little tricks to get her in the mood, and make her forget the settle down thing. Until the next time she thought about it and brought it up.
Maybe, if you were from around Adamsville way, or maybe just Boston, you had heard about Pretty James, Pretty James Preston and his daring exploits back in about 1957 and 1958. Those got a lot of play in the newspapers for months before the end. Before that bank job, the one where as Mimi said Pretty James used to say all the time, he “cashed his check.” Yes, the big Granite City National Bank branch in Braintree heist that he tried to pull all by himself, with Mimi as stooge look-out. She had set him up for that heist, or so she thought. No, she didn’t ask him to do it but she got him thinking, thinking about settling down just a little and if that was to happen he needed a big score, not the penny ante gas station and mom and pop variety store robberies that kept them in, as he also used to say, “coffee and cakes” but a big payday and then off to Mexico, maybe down Sonora way, and a buy into the respectable and growing drug trade.
And he almost, almost, got away clean that fatal day, that day when she stood across the street, an extra forty-five in her purse just in case he needed it for a final getaway. She never having handled a gun mush less fired one was scared stiff it might go off in that purse although she Pretty James had her in such a state that she would have emptied the damn thing if it would have done any good. But he never made it out the bank door. Some rum brave security guard tried to uphold the honor of his profession and started shooting nicking Pretty James in the shoulder. Pretty James responded with a few quick blasts and felled the copper. That action though slowed down the escape enough for the real coppers to respond and blow Pretty James away. Dead, DOA, done. Her, with a tear, sweet boy Pretty James.
According to the newspapers a tall, slender red-headed girl about sixteen had been seen across the street from the bank just waiting, waiting according to the witness, nervously. The witness had turned her head when she heard the shots from the bank and when she looked back the red-headed girl was gone. And Mimi was gone, maybe an accessory to felony murder or worst charge hanging over her young head, and long gone before the day was out. She grabbed the first bus out of Braintree headed to Boston where eventually she wound up holed up in a high-end whorehouse doing tricks to make some moving on dough. (She mentioned some funny things about that stay, which was not so bad at the time when she needed dough bad, and about strange things guys, young and old, wanted her to do but I will leave that stuff out here.)
And she had been moving ever since, moving and eternally hate moving. Now, for the past few months, she had been working nights as a cashier in the refreshment stand at Olde Saco Drive-In to get another stake to keep moving. She had been tempted, a couple of times, to do a little moon-lighting in a Portland whorehouse that a woman she had worked with at her last job, Fenner’s Department Store, where she modeled clothes for the rich ladies, had told her about to get a quick stake but she was almost as eternally tired at that prospect as in moving once again.
And so Mimi Murphy, a few drinks of high-shelf scotch to fortify her told her story, told it true I think, mostly. A couple of days later I saw her through my room’s window with a suitcase in hand looking for all the world like someone getting ready to move on, move on to be a loner again after maybe an indiscrete airing of her linen in public. Thinking back on it now I wish, I truly wish, that I had been more into slender, no skinny, red-headed Irish girls with faraway looks that season and maybe she would not have had to keep moving, eternally moving.
ARTIST: Richard Thompson
TITLE: 1952 Vincent Black Lightning
Said Red Molly to James that's a fine motorbike
A girl could feel special on any such like
Said James to Red Molly, well my hat's off to you
It's a Vincent Black Lightning, 1952
And I've seen you at the corners and cafes it seems
Red hair and black leather, my favorite color scheme
And he pulled her on behind
And down to Box Hill they did ride
/ A - - - D - / - - - - A - / : / E - D A /
/ E - D A - / Bm - D - / - - - - A - - - /
Said James to Red Molly, here's a ring for your right hand
But I'll tell you in earnest I'm a dangerous man
I've fought with the law since I was seventeen
I robbed many a man to get my Vincent machine
Now I'm 21 years, I might make 22
And I don't mind dying, but for the love of you
And if fate should break my stride
Then I'll give you my Vincent to ride
Come down, come down, Red Molly, called Sergeant McRae
For they've taken young James Adie for armed robbery
Shotgun blast hit his chest, left nothing inside
Oh, come down, Red Molly to his dying bedside
When she came to the hospital, there wasn't much left
He was running out of road, he was running out of breath
But he smiled to see her cry
And said I'll give you my Vincent to ride
Says James, in my opinion, there's nothing in this world
Beats a 52 Vincent and a red headed girl
Now Nortons and Indians and Greeveses won't do
They don't have a soul like a Vincent 52
He reached for her hand and he slipped her the keys