Thursday, September 14, 2017
The Search For The Great Blue-Pink American Night-Part 32-With Western Artist Ed Ruscha In Mind
The Search For The Great Blue-Pink American Night-Part 32-With Western Artist Ed Ruscha In Mind
By Sam Lowell
Just then Bart Webber was in a California state of mind, was ready to chuck everything and go back on the road, the road to perdition to hear his wife, of thirty plus years, Betty Sullivan, tell it when he went off on his tirade about the old days, and worse, the old guys, guys like Markin who had dragged him out West kicking and screaming. Now to hear him tell it Bart was the guy who propelled the sluggish Markin westward. We will get to the why of Bart’s new found interest in retracing his youthful fling in the bramble-filled West, out there where the states are square and you had better be as well on the way to the edge of the continent and the dreaded Japan sea for failure but first the what.
It seemed that Bart had jumped the gun somewhat because he found himself out in San Francisco, the place where he met up with Markin and some of the other North Adamsville corner boys in that fateful year of 1968 when he rode for a few months with the guys on Captain Crunch’s yellow brick road converted school bus come travelling caravan home, at a printing and media conference, what would be his final conference since he was putting his printing business in the capable hands of his youngest son who truth be told had been handling the day to day operations of the shop anyway and was itchy to run the operation himself. While riding on the BART into the city he noticed on a billboard that the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park was featuring a retrospective by the Western artist Ed Ruscha, an artist that Bart had always admire ever since he had seen his series on gas stations and their role in the great post-World War II golden age of the American automobile, the wide open highways and cheap gas.
Taking an afternoon off he went over to Golden Gate Park and viewed the exhibit, a show that had well over one hundred paintings, photographs, prints and petro-maps. One set of photographs taken on one of Ruscha’s trips from his native Oklahoma to Los Angeles via the southern desert-etched route drove Bart to distraction as there he saw gas stations in places like Needles, on the California-Arizona border, Kingman, Flagstaff, Gallup, and a few other places he had passed through on one of his hitchhike or car-sharing trips to California. Saw too coyotes, Native American reservations, buffalos roam. Saw a series of prints and paintings of the famous Hollywood sign that told him the first time that he had seen the sign up in the hills that he had arrived in the land of sun and fantasy. Saw a darkly troubling painting all done in dark somber colors of the death of the Joshua trees in the high desert, a place where he had performed under the influence of serious dope inhalation the “ghost” dance with Markin, Jack Callahan, Josh Breslin and Frankie Riley. Saw plenty of photographs and paintings detailing the degradation of that part of California Ruscha had travelled through on those golden age trips. He was, well-known as a man not to show much public emotion, shaken almost to tears at the vistas that he witnessed. Could not get the thoughts of his old “hippie” minute out of his mind. (That “minute” then signifying that he finally came to a realization after a few months that unlike Markin, Josh, or Sam Lowell another late arrival in California from the corner boys who stayed on the road for a few years that he was a stationary person, missed old North Adamsville and missed old ball and chain Betty Sullivan.)
Here’s how the whole thing played out back then and maybe, just maybe you will begin to understand why Bart was shaken almost to tears for visions of his long lost youth. Despite the urban legend Bart tried to create lately around his role in sending Markin westward Markin, and only Markin was the guy who led the charge west. Had been the guy of all the guys on the corner who predicted, predicted almost weekly from about 1962 on that a big sea-change was coming and they had better be ready to ride the wave. They all, Bart included, blew Markin’s predictions off out of hand because frankly if the subject around Tonio’s Pizza Parlor come Friday night wasn’t about girls, cars, money, getting drunk or any combination of those subjects they didn’t give a rat’s ass as Frankie Riley would say about some seaweed change.
Things pretty much stayed that way all through high school although that didn’t stop Markin from his predictions especially when the blacks down south got all uppity (signifying that the corner boys except Markin didn’t give a rat’s ass about that subject either and maybe worse) and folk music, the urban folk revival as Markin called it, took off. All that meant and this was stretching it was cheap dates with girls who might “put out.” Bart was even less interested in the latter since Betty was still stuck in some Bobby Rydell crush and did not like folk music (and still didn’t so Bart only played it when she was out of the house). Stayed that way for a couple of years after high school as they went their separate ways except the Friday night reunions at Tonio’s to, well, kill time. Then the Vietnam War came on strong which they did give a rat’s ass about, wanted to see the commies bite the dust although except for Sal Russo and Jimmy Jenkins who laid down his head over there and whose name now is on black granite down in Washington and in granite in North Adamsville, they did not volunteer. (Those who were called eventually all went including Markin who lost a lot over there, had serious troubles with the “real” world coming back and in the end couldn’t shake whatever it was that took the life out of him.)
Then in the spring of 1967 Markin did two things, one, the fateful decision to drop out of Boston University after his sophomore year to go “find himself,” a characteristic of the times, of the generation, of the best part of the generation and the other, the less fateful but still fraught with danger decision to head west, to hitchhike west to California after he had read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road about six times and declared that now was the moment that he had been talking about all those Friday nights in front of Tonio’s. So he headed west with no compulsion, wound up hooking up with a caravan out there. The Captain Crunch yellow brick road caravan that would eventually be composed of at least a half dozen North Adamsville corner boys turned “hippies” for varying lengths of time. Bart was pretty late on that “train” didn’t go out until the summer of 1968 after he found out that due to a childhood injury that left him with a pronounced limp despite a couple of surgeries that he was declared 4-F, unfit for military service by the friends and neighbors at his local draft board. That pretty late also meant that Markin who shortly after he got out to San Francisco received his own draft notice and was an additional reason why Bart left the road early since he knew the ropes.
Bart, despite whatever happened later, was happy to be heading out and once he decided to go he also decided that he would hitchhike out like all the other guys except Sam Lowell who to placate anxious parents, really an anxious mother, went out by bus. Even Sam after five plus days on a stinking Greyhound bus with the usual screaming kids left to wander the aisles and the inevitable overweight seatmate who snored and despite a couple of pleasant days from New York to Chicago with a chick who caught his eye and whom he flirted like crazy with said later that he would have rather hitched than go through that again (and all his later trips would be done that way). Bart figured that although the road might be slow with the many false starts and being left in some strange places where grabbing a ride was not easy that it would be interesting once he got past the stifling East and the Great Plains to see what was what in the West (that stifling Ruscha could attest to since he was nothing but a child of the Great Plains, hell, an Okie so he knew he had to head west in that big old Chevy Bart had heard he went out to L.A. in that fateful 1956 year when he went to art school there).
Bart thinking about the experience, that first road out, that always served as a hallmark for every guy’s trip out remembered more or less vividly all those dusty side roads he got left on after his own trip through Oklahoma. Although the big Eisenhower-driven national security Interstate highway system made it easier in the mid-1960s to travel the hitchhike road than all the back roads and Route 66 that Bart had read about in Jack Kerouac’s travel the open road book On The Road that Markin made everybody read when they all were in high school even though he wasn’t much of a reader, didn’t think as much of the be-bop beats as Markin did who thought they were the max daddies he was waiting for even though by their time the beat thing was passe, was old news, ancient history it was actually easier to get rides on the smaller roads where people could see you from down or up the road. In any case you were sure to be left off on more than one back road since that was just the way it was, nobody who was say going to Denver was going to let you off in the middle of Interstate 80 when you saw the sign for Cheyanne where you wanted to go just ahead.
Funny all the strange signs he saw out on the open back roads like the mere fact of putting a sign up would draw people to your Podunk town , or your Podunk store. He had had to laugh when he saw Ruscha’s photograph of a town out in nowhere which probably had a population of less than one thousand but which had a sign documenting all the about ten church denominations that kept the good people of the town on their feet. He had seen more Jesus Save signs and the like than you could shake a stick at the further west he went until they stopped, stopped dead the closer you got to coastal California. Saw more signs for cigarettes, beer, whiskey, dry goods (quaint), no trespassing, no loitering, no anything than he ever noticed back home. He wondered if people travelling through North Adamsville had that same feeling about his own Podunk town. He knew for sure that there were not top-heavy signs about all the religious denominations of the town at least not in the Acre where all you saw was a fistful of Catholic churches, Roman Catholic for the unknowing about differences.
Had seen above all the signs that directed you to the nearest gas stations, almost a ritualistic sign that you were still in the golden age of the automobile, of the superhighway and of cheap gas. Hell even in North Adamsville right across from the high school he remembered the service station owners who had businesses right next to each other would have “gas wars,” would have signs out with prices like 30 cents per gallon versus say 29 cents. Yeah, cheap gas, and plenty of service too. Lots of guys, guys who needed to support their “boss” car habits worked as gas jockeys filling up tanks, checking oil and tires and wiping off windshields. Saw every kind of gas station from the one franchised out by Esso and Texaco to little fly-by-night operations with no name gas, a rundown coke machine that barely worked and bathrooms with stained sinks and broken plumbing and hadn’t been cleaned since Hector was a pup. You had to use your own handkerchief to wipe your hands. Even some of the diners, diners like Jimmy Jack’s back home where all the guys hung out after leaving off their dates if they didn’t get lucky and wind up down at the far end of Squaw Road on Adamsville Beach fogging up some “boss” car into the wee hours of the morning had gas stations or at least pumps out on those long stretch deserted roads so nobody would get stranded in the hot sun (and the owners probably figured that while stopping for gas the little family might as well have something to eat at the high carbohydrate steamed everything counters and booths).
Saw plenty of weird natural formations along the way getting twenty mile rides here from ranchers or farmers going up the road, fifty miles there from high-rollers taking the high side to Vegas, a few miles from high school kids joy-riding to while away the afternoon to avoid the dreaded chores that awaited them at home. Saw every kind dusty dried out tree seeking nourishment from the waterless ground. Saw rock formations hounded by the winds and sheered to perfection. Saw every color of brown, of beige, of grey. Saw too in Joshua Tree of a thousand tears, tears for the creeping civilization that was choking them away and tears one high doped up night when Markin and a few others channeled the shamans of the past in a ghost dance off the flickering canyon walls, hah, walls of brown, of beige, of grey. Bart never got over that experience, never saw what the white man, what his people had done so clearly even if he wasn’t about to do anything about it except load up on peyote buttons and ancient dreams of mock revenge.
Saw above all as he grabbed that last one hundred, maybe one hundred and fifty mile stretch to Frisco town the refuge of the high speed road, the broken glass, the road kill, the busted fences where some fool had gone off the highway drunk or doped up so he didn’t feel a thing, saw stripped off bare truck tires blocking easy passage on the road ahead. Saw the bramble, the flotsam and jetsam of modern day life. Saw too though as he got closer to Frisco, as he could almost smell the ocean, the land’s end, the Japan seas or back home that the West was very different, that those who had make the trek, maybe were forced to make the trek were very different from the East that he knew. But maybe too they would have to run from a thing which they had built.
Later. after he arrived in San Francisco, met Markin, Josh and Frankie on Russian Hill and then joined them on the journey south for a few months (with a couple of trips back home in between) he would see Ruscha L.A. would see those luscious Hollywood signs, and would like any tourist from Podunk image that he had the wherewithal to make it as a star, or something like that name in lights. Got to know L.A. too well, couldn’t handle the freeway craziness, couldn’t handle the sameness of the endless strip malls, the endless rows of tickey-tack houses, couldn’t handle the sprawl that was turning a small town into a mega-town. Yeah he knew exactly what Ruscha was driving at, was trying to chronicle. But still he missed the opportunity to see if he did have what it took to survive in California, to have drunken in the scenes.
And you wonder why Bart just then as he approached retirement as he approached his seventh decade was in a frenzy to repeat his past.