Saturday, April 08, 2017
The Average Joe Fall Guy Falls-With Kansas City Confidential In Mind
By Bart Webber
No question Joe Rolfe, formerly Joey Bops, was built for the frame, built for that frame to fit snuggly around his head. Not that Joe was stupid, far from it he had received his high school diploma and was in his first year of college when December 7, 1941 happened, when the world changed and he was all wrapped in the mess. Not that Joe wasn’t brave either since he received a couple of big military ribbons all shiny bright as a result of his service. And not that he wasn’t good-looking, good-looking to girls good-looking and so always had a girl on his arm in the old days before the war. Still when the deal went down Joey always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, always seemed to be the fall guy falling.
It had not always been like that. Before the war, during high school, during the days when he wore the moniker Joey Bops since he was crazy for swing music, you know Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, guys like that, when he hung around with Frankie Riley, James Riordan, Lefty Kelly, and Rusty Shea in front of Harry’s Drugstore in Carterville, that’s out in “show me” Missouri, he could do no wrong. He and what did they call them then, oh yeah, the corner boys, led by the ingenious Frankie Riley, “Sparks” Riley, would carry out every midnight caper in search of loot that one could think of and never got in trouble with the law, any that would wind up on the books. Not even when the very, very suspicious Carterville police thought they had the lot of them nailed tight for the heist at the Lamar mansion. Yeah those were the days when even nice Catholic girls who went to church every Sunday and for the public record said their rosaries and swore they had a Bible between their knees at all other times would that previous Saturday night give up what they had had to give up, those sweet pussies, when they went out on a date with a Harry’s Drugstore corner boy they knew some nice jewelry or maybe some dough would go with the giving that sweet thing up. And good-looking Joey Bops got all he wanted, even from those Bible-worn girls, maybe especially from them.
But the war, well, the war changed Joey Bops a lot, like I said, Joey had seen a lot of action in Europe, had gotten those medals, those well-earned medals, but he had lost a step, had lost the beat, maybe the be-bop beat of his youth, but most importantly the beat of how to beat the rap on some midnight adventure. Once he got home, after the fanfare was over and he went back to being just average Joey Rolfe citizen, after he decided all he saw and did in Europe made it kind of silly for him to go back to State U even though the newly enacted GI Bill would have pulled him through like it would many other ex-soldiers, he kind of lost his moorings and figured that he would go back to that sweet life of crime. Maybe it was because he went solo (the other corner boys had all dispersed, gone on, except Rusty Shea who was buried over in France during the war after being killed by a German mortar), maybe it was because he had lost the touch, maybe it was because he was crazy to hit a foolish gas station but Joey, Joey Bops of all people, got pegged for the robbery, armed robbery, when he tried to pull the caper just as a cop car was passing by Fred’s Esso station. So Joey got a nickel, did three and that was that.
That was that until he got out, got his probation. Got himself into another town, got himself into the city, the big city, Kansas City, where he picked up a job delivering flowers, simple stuff, but one of the few jobs an ex-con on probation could get-driving a truck. But getting that job turned out to be the kiss of death for old Joey. See one of the delivery stops that he made was to Jones’ Funeral Home, not the one on Center Street in K.C. but over on Main, next to the First National Bank. One day while he was parked out front of Jones’ delivering a rack of roses for some departed soul next door the bank was being robbed in broad daylight by some guys in masks. They got away with half a million in cool hard cash (just walking around money today but then real dough). Got away clean in a sweet job. Naturally the coppers looking around saw Joey’s silly flower truck, checked it and him out, and once they found out that he was an ex-con and had served time they took him downtown (and they had contacted as well the Carterville cops who put the blast on him for all the crimes that they couldn’t prove he committed). There he stayed for a couple of weeks until the coppers found enough information about the robbery plan to know that he was not part of the caper and they had to let him go.
Here’s the lesson Joey learned though from that experience he was never going to be able to go straight if he didn’t find out who pulled the First National Bank caper. (Or if he decided to go crooked again he would always have that fall guy tag on him for any “cold cases” the cops caught nothing on and he would spent many nights before those stupid police lights blaring line-ups.) So hunting down the guys who did the deed was his next “career.” His new reason to get up in the morning. For this he needed a little help, help from the only private detective that he could afford at the time, Philip Larkin. Phil had been a guy that he met in the Army overseas and they had been transported home on the troop ships together landing in New York Harbor, spent a few days getting drunk as skunks and laid seven different ways including Joe’s first blow job in a long time, since before the world when some of those Catholic girls in Carterville who didn’t want to “do the do” would piece a guy off with some head to save their reputations, as virgins and yet at the same time as willing to be frisky, and you can figure what that “frisky” part meant as best you can. They then parted Joe to Carterville and the slammer and Phil up north to Riverdale in Massachusetts to join the cops.
They had stayed in contact via the U.S. mails and Phil had gone out to the Missouri State pen a couple times to visit Joe after he got himself booted off the Riverdale cops for not going along with the cover-up of a vehicular homicide case involving one of the town’s Mr. Bigs. Those were the days when Phil was just starting out in the private detection business before the Altman case which put him in the local headlines for a while. That had been a whirlwind which soon faded and when Joe contacted Phil he was more than happy to help out an old buddy since he had been shuffling along doing key-hole peeping, getting the goods on adulterous guys or gals for their ever-loving spouses in order for those ever-loving spouses to take to court and get divorces and grab as much dough at the traffic would bear from their shamefully unfaithful spouses. Tough wormy work. That and hitting the bottle stashed conveniently in the bottom desk drawer of his dust-filled office a little too much while killing time between jobs.
Here’s the stuff they don’t show or tell you on detective shows on television or in those glossy-covered crime detection novels where the P.I. always outsmarts the public cops. Even on the obvious cases like where the distraught wife has a smoking gun in her hand with three bullets gone into a philandering husband now dead who just so happens to have three bullets in his worthless body. Even they, the public cops, can figure that one out, as long as there are three bullets in the body. Less or more all bets are off. But as a rule a private eye if he or she wants to have any career better either leave the serious crime detection to the public cops or report everything he or she finds out in a case they are handling involving crime to them. That had been Phil’s policy early on in his career and he kept his license no sweat because of that hard fact. What that sound policy had allowed Phil to do for Joe was to get access to the First National Bank job stuff the cops there in K.C. knew about via his connections with a couple of Riverdale detectives whom he had helped out a couple of times.
Funny the layout of the K.C. job was simplicity itself and even Joe had wished he had thought of the plan rather than having been the fall guy falling. See the truck that delivered the bank its working money, say it had a half million or so in the back for such deliveries, arrived at the about the same time as Joe made his fucking flower deliveries to the funeral parlor. What happened was that on the day of the armored bank truck robbery the robbers had a replica of the flower truck to throw the coppers off the scent. The robbers, four in all, all wearing Jimmy Cagney gangster masks, pulled the heist of the armored vehicle leaving two guards severely wounded (they would recover), and taking off for parts unknown in the fake flower truck. Leaving Joe the fucking fall guy of fall guys once the APB went out and his truck was the only one still in sight. With Phil’s information as a guide and stuff he had heard when the K.C. cops were giving him the “third degree” Joe figured to figure the whole scam out before he was done. Joe thanked Phil for his help and that is the last we will see of Phil in this caper because Joe couldn’t afford the twenty-five bucks a day, plus expenses, that Phil needed to stay on the case and Joe was itching to blam blam the bad hombres who put him in that tight spot on his own.
Don’t let the fall guy Joe thing fool you too much, that probation straight and narrow either since Joe who did his drinking at Matty’s Tavern a well know hang-out for hoods and other loose-livers was pretty well-connected to the underworld even if he had to in the over-world play the probation game. Matty, working the bar himself one night when Joe came, gave him the tip that was the first step in getting his handle on the guys who set the frame on him. One of the hoods, name undisclosed, that hung around Matty’s had told Matty that Zeke Zimmer, a low-life gambler who had owed him money, five Gs, had blown town after paying him off, was headed south to sunny Mexico and the gambling joints there. This Zeke was a serious low-life who half the time didn’t have two dimes to rub together and when he did he bet them on the roulette wheel, the blackjack table, the ponies, or the queen of hearts so his having dough was the lead that got Joe going, had him heading down to Juarez and some Touch of Evil madness. This tip was proof positive, as much proof positive as Joe needed to follow the trail south since it was much more than likely that Zeke had been in on the bank heist.
Juarez was and still is a tough town to get anything out of, any kind of information about anything even directions to Rosa’s Cantina and that place to this day is still etched with a huge neon sign so you can see it almost from across the border in El Paso. Back in the 1950s it really was something out of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil you could smell the corruption the minute you got over the international border, the minute you had to hand some foul-breathed Federale five dollars American to let you through without the usual hassle inspection, maybe planting some illegal drugs or other contraband on you if you didn’t fork over the fiver. It got worst from there as every con man, hooker, drifter, and all the batos locos descended on your head looking for his or her piece. Joe, after spending an hour in Senorita Santa Maria’s whorehouse since he had not had a piece of a woman’s flesh for a while and the Senorita specialized in fresh young fluff from the country, made his way to Rosa’s Cantina where there was 24/7/365 casino action, action that an in the chips guy like Zeke would naturally gravitate toward to see how fast he could lose his shirt and begin his usual begging gringos for two dimes to rub together.
Rosa’s like all such places in Juarez in those days was no place to be asking any questions about gringos with money to spend, maybe asking any questions at all so Joe just kind of plunked himself on a barstool, ordered some tequila, and waited until he spotted a low-rent gambler who fit the description given to him at Matty’s. The key piece of information Joe had received had been that Zeke always wore (except when it was in hock) a gold-plated onyx ring with a diamond stud set in the center which you could see from a distance. So Joe waited, waited a couple of hours getting a little blasted on that harsh high-shelf tequila he was ordering (and fending off the barmaids who were offering blow jobs over in a quiet corner if he would buy them a drink, yeah, Rosa’s was that kind of place, you could get anything there you wanted from sex to gold-plated dentures you just had to ask, no, just had to wait long enough and somebody would come by selling themselves or something).
Finally Zeke rolled in and headed to the blackjack table. Joe waited and watched looking for an opening to “talk” to Zeke. About two in the morning Zeke went outside for a breather, went out with a lot less dough that he had come in with. So when Joe approached him with the intend of collaring him to find out who and where the other guys were Zeke surprised him when he asked if he had five bucks he could lend him until “pay day.” Joe flagged Zeke off, gave him the fiver and then quick as a rabbit strong-armed Zeke and force-marched him to a quiet area where they could talk.
Zeke filled with anger, hubris, and morphine was ready to talk, or else as Joe made very clear. Joe was persuasive enough against this low-life punk that he found out that the other three guys were in Sonora further south and that Zeke was supposed to head there in a couple of days to meet up with them and divvy up the rest of the dough. Zeke even under extreme pressure from the gun that Joe had at his head could not come up with the names of the three other guys because they had all worn masks at all meetings and on the job. The only name Zeke knew was of the guy who planned the whole caper, a guy who called himself Mister Big, a lot of help that was. At the meeting in Sonora Zeke was to go to the El Dorado Cantina and present his calling card-a sad ass joker from a special deck of cards Mister Big gave each confederate.
Joe convinced Zeke in the most dramatic way possible that he was going to Sonora with him and that dramatic encounter was enough for Zeke to see the light. The very next morning after some tacos and tomales one Joey Bops and one Zeke Zimmer were seen heading taking a dusty old bus headed south to Sonora. The ride down was uneventful except the endless dust, the locals with their Mexican luggage and their sweaty smells and goddam fowls brought along like children, and the story that Zeke, going slightly cold turkey from the morphine, had to tell.
Tell about how Mister Big put the whole production together. It was Mister Big who had figured out that the similar arrival times of the flower truck at the funeral home and the armored car at the bank gave a few minute opportunity to grab the cash and take off in a “fake” flower truck. They had practiced the route and run about twenty times before Mister Big told them they were ready. It was also Mister Big who thought of the idea of the masks so nobody could fink on the other guys to the coppers if caught and of laying off for a while before splitting up the big dough. It was his caper but they were to split four ways even, and that was why they each had a card from the special deck as identification. (Joe thought to himself knowing stoolies since he was about twelve years old Mister Big was smart enough to know guys like Zeke and the others who were probably dredged from the same barrel bottom would sell their mothers for five bucks and change if they were in a squeeze and were looking to get out from under some rap. This Mister Big would be a tough nut to crack.)
Arriving in the early morning in Sonora Joe checked into the Rio Grande Hotel, which unlike it high class sounding name was a flea-bag joint but which had the best bar in town, a bar that the touristas did not frequent and so adequate for Joe’s needs (naturally with Zeke as his boon roommate and drinking companion). The next morning, late, Joe left Zeke in the room, taking the added precaution of grabbing that joker as insurance for his survival and so that Zeke could not sneak away to grab his dough forgetting about his boon companion Joe and went down to the bar to grab a few quicks shots of tequila that he was getting to like very much. At the bar he noticed a gringa, a good-looking gringa, brunette, blue eyes, a little on the tall side, thin, nice shape, well-turned legs and wondered what she was doing in hot, sweaty dusty, Mexico. He walked over to her, asked her name, she answered Laura, asked her if she would like a drink, she accepted and then he asked her why she was down in dusty Sonora apparently by herself. Laura replied that she was down with her father who was there on business, she was bored and had decided that she would drink the morning away.
As it turned out this Laura, after a few more drinks, was in the time of her time, was looking for little sexual escapade to while away the hours while her father did his business. That was her story to Joey anyway. Joe obliged her, grabbed a bottle from off the bar and they went to her room. They stayed drunk and sexed-up for a couple of days as it turned out. Then coming out of his alcoholic and sex haze he remembered Zeke, told this Laura that he had to check into his own hotel to finish some business but would be back the next day. Naturally by the time Joe got back to his hotel Zeke was long gone. Joe decided that he would sleep for a while and then the next day head back to Laura’s place and figure out how to keep her in tow and go about the business of finding the bank robbers.
Joe needn’t have been in any rush because by the time he got back to Laura’s room the next late morning he was met with a “welcoming” committee of four guys, three in Jimmy Cagney masks, Zeke, and of course Laura. What he had not known although he should have figured it out was that the father that Laura was down in Sonora on business with was none other than Mister Big. See the hood that had given Matty the information about Zeke up in K.C., later identified as Lefty Finley, a known pimp and bad guy to mess with, had been one of the robbers keeping an eye on Zeke who with his morphine habit was the “loose cannon” in the operation. All that special joker card stuff Zeke talked about to avoid stoolies by Mister Big in the end was so much razzle-dazzle for the paying public.
Yeah Joe shouldn’t have been in any rush to see that Laura since a few days later he was found with two big bullets in his head in a dusty back road in Sonora with a joker in his coat pocket and some hundred dollar bills later identified as being from the robbery. Alongside him in that back alley were Zeke, Lefty and the other member of the gang, Bugs Malone, a known drug runner and another bad hombre. They also had special jokers and some hundred dollar bills in their coat pockets. End of case, end of case for the Sonora police, the Federales, since they chalked it up to some Mexican bad guys wasting some gringos trying to cut in on their play. The K.C. cops, having unloaded an unsolved bank robbery and four creeps wrote the whole thing down to what they knew they knew at first. Joe had been the Mister Big of the operation all along and had out-smarted himself somehow. A wise guy double-dipping on that fake flower truck stuff. The real Mister Big and his daughter, Laura, well they were never heard from again as far as anybody knew- if they had ever existed. Yeah, Joe Rolfe, Joey Bops, All-American fall guy falling the big fall.
If You Ain’t Got The Do Re Mi-With Woody Guthrie’s Song Of The Same Name In Mind
By Sam Lowell
Peter Markin, Peter Paul Markin to his mother and a high-brow first wife, Sarah Jenkins of the Puritan three name Boston Stock Exchange Jenkins, who was trying to impress her Wellesley leafy suburban parents, with his three names to no avail since they sensed instinctively he was not to the manor born, not close since he could not recite his family tree unto the fifth generation and had unfortunately one night in his cups at dinner mentioned his maternal bog Irish “famine ships” roots always had a hard time living in California, hell, even his short visits always seemed to go over the edge. The way things worked out, or didn’t work out, which is perhaps a better way to say it, on that marriage business neither did Sarah when she split up with him, deserted him really for a fourth-cousin Puritan three name stockbroker from Connecticut.
Of course Peter, no, let’s call him Markin like all of his corner boys down in North Adamsville did and everybody else thereafter when the deal went down was always on edge financially every time he went out to California, every time he lived there which was sporadically over the course of his short not sweet life, a few months here, six months there. A couple of years straight toward the end but by that time he was knee-deep in the booming and expanding cocaine traffic which he thought would finally end that wanting habit craving for dough that had haunted him since childhood but which got him nothing but that short not sweet life when he mixed with the wrong hard boys down south of the border.
That thought, that California dreaming thought which had driven Markin to make so many wrong decisions, to go off the edge in the end, was what Josh Breslin a guy from Olde Saco, Maine who had met Markin out in San Francisco in the summer of love, 1967 was thinking about when he had one of his periodic Markin moans, moans even forty years after the sainted bastard had passed to the great beyond. Back then Markin had hitched his wagon to Captain Crunch’s big ass yellow brick road converted school bus and was staying in California for what he thought would be an indefinite time once he had broken free from his growing up town and from a couple of years of college to go West to “find himself” as it seemed half his generation was doing just then. Josh who had himself hitched from Maine to “find himself” before heading to freshman year at State U. had also hitched his wagon to the Captain’s travelling commune of a bus as well had gone up to the bus when it was parked on the hill across from a small park on Russian Hill and, green at the time to the ways of hippie-dom and probably acting like the 49ers, the Okies and Arkies later thinking the streets of California were paved with gold, asked the first guy he saw for a joint (marijuana, for the clueless or the too young to know). And that first guy was Markin who passed Josh a big old blunt of a joint and that symbolic transfer started a friendship that lasted until Markin went over the edge.
(It is not too early to say that whatever way guys met Markin, guys who were on the same wavelength, guys who knew Markin, guys like Frankie Riley and Jimmy Jenkins from his hometown of North Adamsville, Bart Webber and Jack Callahan from Carver, down about thirty miles south of that town and of course Josh to this day would get wistful, maybe a little teary-eyed these days when they thought about all the promise he had, about all the funny schemes he cooked up, all his stockpile of two million facts that he laid on an unsuspecting world before his baser instinct got the better of him).
Thinking back Josh thought maybe Markin was guy who never should have hit California, maybe his stars were ill-lined up that way. Maybe he should had done as Woody Guthrie suggested in his California Garden of Eden song Do Re Mi that he had heard out in Concord the previous summer which still troubled him. Yeah, out in Concord where the New England Folk Song Society held its annual Woody Guthrie Tribute at the Old Manse which he had attended in the company of Sam Lowell and his lovely long-time companion Laura Perkins (whom he had had half a flame for since who knows how long but who made it clear to Josh on more than one occasion that she was true blue to Sam although she thanked him for the attraction compliment, damn) Jason Reed had done the cover with the chorus line that would have fit Markin when after busting out the first time he should have gone back to Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia, Tennessee, gone back to his growing up Massachusetts after that first California time in 1967. Maybe stayed the summer and then split and gone back to where no dough guys had a chance to live okay with less filthy lucre than you needed in the Golden State. But Markin was a guy who always seemed to head toward the danger, didn’t always have a good sense of when to back off so he stayed in California that first time until he got his induction notice for the Army in late 1968 (except a for couple of weeks’ worth of trips back and forth to deal with his North Adamsville Draft Board).
But after accepting his induction fate, accepting his cannon-fodder fate (his term), after ‘Nam Markin could not really go back home anymore, had broken off most of his family relationships, particularly with his hard-assed, hard luck, hard scrabble mother, had gotten himself married to that first wife Sarah in a mad frenzy of not being left with nobody left behind but who had essentially abandoned him for that Puritan three name stockbroker after he left for ‘Nam and did Dear John on him before he got back. (Jesus, what a bitch Josh thought since he had met her a couple of times, had disliked her from the start and sensed that if it had not been for the war and Markin’s overweening need to be married in case he died over there was not a marriage made in heaven. And it wasn’t.) So Markin drifted out to California again. Met up in Big Sur in early 1971 with Josh again who had also drifted back to California after he had gotten a half-serious job on an alternative journal in the East Bay. Had met up with first Annie Dubois in Golden Gate Park whom he should have married and gone back to Lima, Ohio with which she had done once she realized that she was not built for the communal vagabond life and then Josie Davis, the latter who turned out to be his second wife and another holy hell of a woman who abandoned him for some guy from Los Angeles who promised her some kind of job in the film industry. Josh agreed though that she had better grounds for splitting once Markin started into his fatal involvement in the international drug trade.
Get this though about the man’s contrary instincts. After ‘Nam Markin was rabidly against the government that had sent him and a lot of guys from places like North Adamsville, Portsmouth, Nashua, New Hampshire, Harlem, Detroit, the prairies of Kansas and the like so he got caught up (as did Josh) with the anti-war struggle, But more importantly, since he and Josh were living in a vaguely communal house on the Oakland-Berkeley line at the time after Josie split, supporting the Black Panthers who were square in the gunsights of the cops from the rabid local Oakland cops to the feds and needed dough, plenty of dough for bail and legal expenses. Of course Markin, as usual had nada for dough to help himself much less the hard-pressed Panthers. That was the first time Markin got caught up in the drug trade. He ran into Rancho Rick, a well-known San Francisco drug-dealer (in those naïve days just grass, marihuana, maybe some bennies, an odd lot of LSD), in Golden Gate Park who got to like and trust Markin after a while. What happened was that Markin became Rancho’s “mule,” the upfront guy who went down to Mexico to bring back the “product” as they called it. Once in a while Rancho would let Markin bring some stuff, a couple of bricks or so, a suitcase full maybe, on his own account. That “independent” dealer thing got to Markin’s head-eventually. What Markin would do was sell his stuff and then give some big percentage to the Panther Defense Fund (they didn’t know the source of Markin’s dough but they probably suspected he was dealing in any case they were so hard-pressed especially around the various BP leader Huey Newton cases that they would not have as Markin said given a fuck about how the money had been made).
That was, more or less, the way that Markin held himself together in those days when everybody knew the ebb-tide of the 1960s was in full play but that California was still a better to live that North Adamsville, Lima, Nashua, Harlem, and so he staked himself on his cunning, and maybe his on some magic karma that he thought he had after doing about fifteen drug deals on his own account and never having been caught. But it was one thing to deal in grass, even smoke your brains out on the product without undue duress but another thing once the cocaine trick started being the new drug of the month choice among the hipper crowd.
See Markin had a crazy mixed psychic make-up. Bright, street bright too, but always with that freaking hunger, worse that sense that he was a moonchild. So as the trend moved to a harder drugs he got caught up doing the product, lots of it. One time so much he could hardly breathe out of his nose and told everybody he just had a cold. Yeah, lost his judgment. No longer were the honchos guys like easy-going Rancho but hard boys from down south of the border who wanted to control the whole traffic. And control it they did, right over Markin’s ill-fated head. Nobody knows to this day what really happened and now it is too long past to worry about. But not to moan over. Yeah, California is a tough dollar if you don’t have the do re mi. Just listen to Woody.
Remembrances of Fair Angelina-With Bob Dylan’s Farewell Angelina In Mind
By Sam Lowell
Josh Breslin, the fairly well-known writer of articles and essays by conscious choice when he first started out in half the unread and coffee table small press journals, magazines and newspapers in America, recently retired from steady writing as a profession and thus given of later to memory thoughts of his youth as part of his plan to write a semi-memoir of his growing up times in the 1960s automatically thought about his big time love affair with fair Angelina. Well maybe Josh had not automatically been thinking about that affair but had been led to those thoughts by two prompts, one good, one bad. The first one, the good one, listening while working on his computer which had become also of late his favorite way to listen to music to one of the never-ending bootleg series CDs of Bob Dylan where a version of his Farewell, Angelina came on. The second, the bad one, very bad for several days, an obituary in the New York Times which reported that the once well-known former 1970s and 1980s movie actress and commercial spoke-person Angelina Farrell had passed away at 70 after a long battle against cancer. That Angelina, his Angelina, Angelina Donnelly, when he knew her before she went into the movies and changed her name was that big affair from his youth that he was drifting back to in memory time. Sad day, sad days.
Looking back from grim memory think Josh thought it funny that probably in no time but the middle 1960s when all hell was breaking loose but all kinds of possibilities were also opening up that he would have run into a woman such Angelina. Josh had met her, met vivacious Angelina Farrell, when he decided to hitchhike west to see what all the commotion was about in the summer of love, 1967 version, just after he had graduated from high school and was aimlessly wandering around his hometown of Olde Saco up in Maine waiting to start college at State U in the fall. That decision had come about as a result of his having run into a wild man “hippie” in full regalia, long hair, pony tailed, wispy beard, the fate of many a youthful male, blue jeans, Army jacket, and bottomed off by roman sandals. No, bottomed off by that wild look Josh was beginning to see on more and more young people which indicated too many long nights around a corn cob pipe full of marijuana, a bong bowl of hashish, a rolled dollar bill of cocaine, or, more probably a Dixie cup full of acid-etched Kool-Aid, you know LSD. He, Lenny Josh thought his name was but don’t hold him to those memory names, had just gotten back from the Coast and had been visiting his grandmother in Portland who told Josh about the doings out there and about what was expected to happen that summer. He was intrigued, so intrigued that he gave up, to his father’s anger, a job working as a janitor in the textile mill where his father had gotten him a job for the summer. Packed up soon after meeting that wild man “hippie” (a term not widely used in 1967 but very descriptive now) and started hitchhiking west to save precious money needed for tuition in the fall, although he lied to his parents and told them he was taking the bus out when they tried to argue him out of such a forlorn adventure.
Of course as anybody who had read Jack Kerouac, the “king of the beats” author of On The Road who got many youth started, well, on the road as Josh had earlier that summer, could tell you the vagaries of the road, of hitching then, maybe now too if any ill-advised person still does that form of travel, was that you would not necessarily get to where you wanted to go in a straight line but where whatever ride on whatever road you hitched and accepted took you. That vagary had been how Josh wound up at Jimmy Jack’s Diner on the outskirts of Steubenville flat up on the Ohio River after being left there by a good guy trucker, Denver Slim (who was neither from Denver, nor slim, go figure) who had originally planned to drive directly to Chicago with his load but had changed his mind when he decided he needed to see his girlfriend who lived in Steubenville (his wife lived in Toledo but that was another story). So Jimmy Jack’s outside out of the way southeastern Ohio it was on that first run out to search for the great blue-pink American West night as another writer he would meet out in San Francisco put the matter. Yes, nowhere backroad truck stop Jimmy Jack’s Diner was where he met Angelina Donnelly from Muncie out in the wilds of Indiana who was serving them off the arm at the diner when he wandered in to grab a quick bit, a bowl of beef stew in the days when he ate meat which had the virtue of being cheap, hearty, in the way diner food was always hearty, and filling, before heading on the road again.
Something about her as she served him his beef stew well before other patrons who were impatiently waiting for their cooling meals on the pick-up counter, something about him with that sly grin spoke to her, spoke to both almost immediately of attraction. Angelina, young, pretty, very pretty in a Midwestern way, a way as he would later put it as fetching to others when she began to appear in films and commercials. Not the drop dead ice queen first female lead who would never disturb your dreams because you could never get through the layers, layers of every possible description to block your way, but the one you think about later, think sexual thoughts about, think about how if you played your cards just right you could probably find yourself under silky sheets. The kind of woman too who once she got you on her wavelength whatever ever she was selling you would buy whether you needed it or not just because she had that effect on you. A look to make a film career out of, no question although such thoughts never passed her lips. The attraction for her, just out of classes in business school, the Bancroft Business School, for the summer in Muncie and looking for “adventure” decided to head East to see what was up there was that he was her very first “hippie,” the first one that she had seen in person and he seemed as she put it later “nice.” She had heard about such creatures, and been warned away from such evil by her parents and friends back in Muncie, but she was curious, very curious about this example of the new breeze the newspapers and magazines were talking about.
So they made a match. Hit it off that very night when after circling each other all day as he took his sweet time finishing his meal and several cups of coffee to make the moments last they “made the roof shake to the heavens” in the cabin up the road from the diner where Angelina was staying with their love-making. Later on good days, on the sunnier days of their relationship they would tenderly refer to that fresh green lust. It was thus not surprising then when a few days later after Josh had worked the dishes at Jimmy Jack’s to grab some quick dough and Angelina worked double shifts that they headed out on the highway together to see what they would see. They had first headed south to Prestonsburg down in coal country Kentucky to see a cousin of hers and then began heading west again. They had their ups and downs on the road, getting short and long rides, depending on where they were let off. (In those days guys travelling with a young woman, a fetching woman, would grab rides much more easily than if alone although the duration might still be long or short depending on the driver’s destination.
That plan westward so Angelina could see the Pacific Ocean for the first time worked out okay for a while, they had fun meeting groups of fellow spirits on the road, spent an interesting week hanging out in the rustic campsite with a bunch of “freaks” where Josh stayed dope high all week (Angelina a true daughter of the Midwest just then still hearing those warnings against the devil’s doings from her parents in her head). They made great tumbling love, sex which Angelina did not heed her parents’ warning about, praise be, as she was curious, willing and resourceful in that regard. But as the weeks went by, as they were making no serious headway west, as she could not wash her hair daily, as she became less enamored of the small tent they had purchased in Louisville for nighte when they had no other way to sleep Josh could sense that Angelina was not built for the road, was built for other kinds of adventures, was built for comfortable beds and silky sheets.
The whole thing started to come to a head during one tough rainy stretch in Moline when they were forced by the continual bad weather to grab a cheapjack motel. That stuck situation strained their good feelings toward each other as Josh got more into being “on the road” the farther away he got from Maine and the less Angelina cared about seeing the wide Pacific. After the rains stopped in Moline they decided to give it one more try but by the time they got to Neola out in Iowa, got to Aunt Betty’s Dinner where Angelina was working for a few days to make some money and old Aunt Betty, a real Aunt Betty began to work on her to go home, the die was cast. The way they left it, left the situation between them Angelina would head back to school and meet Josh who had along the way decided that he would postpone going to college for a year to “find himself” somewhere out on the Coast during her winter break. Josh headed west mostly alone although he had a wild time with some serious freaks out in Joshua Tree channeling the ghosts of ten thousand years before Apache warriors (under the influence of a bunch of eaten peyote buttons). Several weeks later he wound up near La Jolla north of San Diego joined up as part of a traveling caravan, a yellow brick road converted school bus caravan heading north toward San Francisco where the summer of love was going full blast.
Josh had thought that Angelina’s decision to go back to school and then meet him out West during winter break was so much wishful thinking but in December Angelina got a message to him through some people he was staying with outside of LA in a commune that she was coming out to see him as planned. Josh met her in car rented by one of the people who was staying at the commune at the LA airport and they headed up the Pacific Coast Highway to an ocean campsite near Point Magoo which Josh had picked out specifically to show her the ocean. There they frolicked in the ocean in which Angelina, not knowing the wild ways of the waters almost drowned in a riptide she was so happy to be in the water, make great love almost as great as that first night back in Steubenville where they made the roof shake. Angelina had on their second night out there also smoked dope for the first time. Josh said he would always remember that star-filled moon-filled night with the ocean waves crashing just beneath them when they seemed as one, that they had shared a Zen moment even if neither could have articulated their feelings exact way. (She said she too would remember that night and occasionally when he thought about her and that night over the years and specifically after he had read of her passing Josh wondered if she did later when she wound up living most of her life in Southern California not fifty miles from Point Magoo.) But like a lot of things in life, lots of things having to do with timing, with the times, with things that tugged at your whole freaking life parents, home, who you were and how you had been brought up Angelina was not ready to live a nomad’s life and so they departed with some remorse but also knowing that they would not see each other again.
A couple of years later after Josh had had his fill of the road and the nomadic life and was back in Maine in school at State U he saw a movie advertisement on campus with a photo of somebody named Angelina Farrell who looked very much like his Angelina. He went to the theater and couldn’t believe that there she was on screen playing a secondary role but he could hardly keep his eyes off the screen whenever she was in a scene. The story that all the film magazines had when he checked later was that Angelina had gone back to California from Muncie a few months after she had left Josh and had stayed at the commune where he had been staying (he was drifting north to Oregon heading toward Alaska at the time). One of the communards was a budding director, Lance Lane, who saw something in Angelina of film star quality (that fetching and that sexually thoughts stuff about downy billows that Josh mentioned earlier which Josh had sensed when he first saw her behind the counter of Jimmy Jake’s in her white uniform and had his lusts up) and cast her in one of his low budget independent films that an assistant producer for one of the big movie companies saw one night and called Lane up to find out who the hell she was. And the rest was history. She has a decent career playing second and third leads and when that dried out she did even better as an ad spokesperson for everything from Ford cars to female products.
Their paths never crossed again although a couple of times when Josh was on the West Coast on a story he thought to try to get in touch but figured that the studios would block his way as just another Angelina Farrell fan and blow him off. Eventually he heard that she had married a studio executive, had a couple of kids, and gone into retirement, and so his time had passed. After reading of Angelina’s death something gnawed at Josh though. Then he finally figured it out. With three unsuccessful marriages under his belt, years of alimony, child support, and a mountain of debt for multiple college educations for his kids which almost broke him Josh wondered whether if he had had the sense that God gave geese he had grabbed Angelina with both arms and said the hell with the road back then that would have changed the course of his, and her, life. With that thought in mind he played Dylan’s Farewell, Angelina one more time.
The Con Is On-In Honor Of Verbal Kint
By Sam Lowell
One night in Jack’s, the much frequented bar by Zack James’ old 1960s corner boys in Adamsville, he was telling a few of the guys, Jack Callahan, Jimmy Jenkins, Bart Webber, Frank Jackman maybe Kenny Jackson who stepped in for a moment, about a film that he had recently seen, a film that kind of made Kevin Spacey as an actor, titled The Usual Suspects (a title taken, consciously taken, from a line uttered by Claude Rains’ Vichy French gendarme character in the film classic Casablanca). The reason Zack was so hopped up on the film was that it featured Spacey as a very crafty con man. When they all heard that expression, that con man, the assembled crowd lifted their heads in unison. Even some thirty years later, thirty years from the time when they hung around Salducci’s Pizza Parlor and plotted their own cons, they responded that way to a type of criminal mind that they could still relate to even though any such criminal action on their own parts had been given up by the time they graduated from high school as being too hard to keep up once they had opportunities to escape that narrow corner boy con artist world. It was either Jack or Bart who chimed up and asked Zack to give them the “skinny” on the film, see what they had “missed” by not turning pro. See whether they would have worshipped the Kevin Spacey character Verbal Kint like a living god the way that they did the king hell king of the 1960s Adamsville night, Pretty James Preston.
Zack agreed to tell the tale at least in outline although he was not sure that Pretty James Preston was in the same league as Verbal Kint, or would have been if he had decided to stick with con artistry rather than move on to more sullen criminal activity, move on to armed a robberies (and taking virtue from impressible young girls, a subject that was still on his mind whenever he thought about Pretty, especially after Pretty had taken his girl Mimi Murphy away, away to who knows where after he fell down). The way that this Verbal Kint set up his game was to act like a small time con man, you know, taking old ladies for their insurance money, bait and switch stuff, flimflam stuff. Added in to those small time clips was to act the fool, ac the king’s court jester, act stupid and best of all put on the old “crip,” act, you know act all handicapped, disabled, or whatever they call a guy who looks like he would need help just to cross the street, that con men have been doing since Hector was a pup to get others to blow them off as so much wind.
In any case Verbal puts this little scam together, gave the cops anonymous information so that four other big time con men with specialized skills including the ability to work with heavy guns and other weapons, wound up in the same New York City police line-up with him. The key guy, the legendary Dean Keaton, who had been accused of half the big time hustles on the East Coast, was the guy Verbal hooked into leading the expedition. Hooked into the deal since Dean had declared himself out, said he was nothing but a straight and narrow dude. After a little work by Verbal, very little because no con man ever retires as long as he draws breathe, on Dean’s ego he fell, fell in as leader since the others were strictly guys who work aspects of a con, work as hired help, when it gets big, too big for them to plan in their simple blam, blam ways.
So Dean pulled the guys through a couple of capers, soft and easy money like falling rain, got them so they didn’t mind working with each other, getting them to trust each other as much as one thief can trust another which is none too far. Then Verbal sprung his trap. Brought in this guy, a mouth-piece for a Mister Big to tell them if they knew what was good for them they would do Mister Big’s bidding. (That Mister Big had a name which they all recognized, recognized as somebody not to cross, not to say no to if he wanted you for a caper, but Zack didn’t feel the need to say the name since all the guys knew every real caper had some real banker/backer and so the actual name was not important, just the fear he could put on if you didn’t co-operate like with Pretty James Preston when he got his “wanting habits” on as Zack used to call it when Pretty needed dough for some frail or his bike, man, his bad-ass bike) They collectively balked for a minute but once the mouth-piece laid out the plan, or rather the dough involved, a dope deal of course with the numbers his was putting out, and the consequences for them and their loved ones if they didn’t they came on board.
The caper involved an exchange of dough for a boatload of dope with a group of bad guys from Europe and Latin America. The thing went awry as Verbal had planned from the beginning with nothing but gun fire and explosions, all boom, boom around with only Verbal and some other guy surviving. Verbal surviving with all the dough when the deal went down.
Here is the beauty of the caper though, the getting away with it part that always is the tip-off of whether a con works, or some guy named Verbal Kint did a ton of time and they throw away the key for good measure. Naturally the feds, FBI, Customs, once the boom, boom came into play wanted to find out what the hell happened so they interrogated Verbal mercilessly. The FBI offered immunity for Verbal’s story seeing him as the day labor not the boss whom they assumed was Dean Keaton. So Verbal gave them what they wanted, a beautiful story line made out of pure cloth about the whole thing being set-up by a unknown Mister Big under penalty of personal destruction for not co-operating. And the best part as he spinned his tale Verbal giving them Dean Keaton as the Mister Big. And so Verbal walked, walked away from his cripple act too. See old Verbal was really Mister Big if anybody was asking. The Feds had egg all over their faces. Good. As Zack said that the guys ate it up. Jack, who was still hustling Toyotas as Mister Toyota of Eastern Massachusetts and so not so far from his youthful cons as he might have thought but who had a good sense of who had the goods and who didn’t when they were kids said right out of the blue that old Verbal would have had Pretty James for lunch and had time for a nap.
All the time Zack though was relating the story line he was thinking about damn Pretty James and his antics. Not his antics which every guy who hung around Salducci’s (and before that Doc’s Drugstore over on Newbury Street when they were in elementary school and Harry’s Variety Store in junior high school to show the corner boy progression as each grouping came of age) came to admire and wonder at (except when they had been the “victim” of Pretty’s’ con, or had been the fall guys when some scam didn’t work and they had been out some dough that he had inveigled them into “lending” him) but those that cut him personally to the quick. The times when he was a kid and Pretty made a sap out of him more than once but more importantly, more leaving him feeling like Pretty should burn in the gates of hell for what he did to, and with, Mimi Murphy as much as he admired him as a kid.
Sure the sap stuff was kids’ stuff, you know grabbling Zack’s milk money along with the others in order to buy something, maybe rings, and then selling them to the kids, including Zack at a jacked up price although much less than what they would cost at the jewelry store. What nobody knew, nobody but Zack after he figured it out was that Pretty was grabbing the milk money for “walking around” money and doing the “five-finger” discount, “clipping” the rings. (That “Pretty” moniker had been hung on him in elementary school from a remark a teacher had made about him being too pretty, and he was, to be a bad boy, little did she know. He would only answer then to Pretty James Preston or somebody would get a fistful of knuckles as Jimmy Jenkins found out soon enough but later he would answer to just Pretty, especially when the girls called him that.). Or the time in junior high when he started raffles in school with kids’ grabbing tickets left and right to win television sets, radios, recorder players. And then holding the drawings with a rigged tumbler with fake name winners. Pretty just kept the dough because there were no winners, no merchandise either. He had made up all the names in the tumbler and thrown away all the other names. Beautiful.
Here is the real beauty of Pretty though on as he refined that basic scam- when he was running a classic pyramid scheme, a Pozzi deal really. He would sell the tickets say for a dollar a piece, collect maybe fifty or hundred bucks and the hold a “drawing.” There would be one prize some beat Radio Shack transistor radio maybe worth ten bucks and that was that. Of course junior high kids didn’t know how much the damn thing cost could care less, cared only that they had not won. Next day, hell, the very next morning before school Pretty had new tickets ready for the suckers. This drawing though got him a couple of hundred bucks and he distributed a couple of radios and a television. See he had worked a deal with some of the older guys who were hanging around Salducci’s Pizza Parlor before they graduated to something else and were doing the midnight creep around town, the midnight creep being B&E in the nighttime to certain houses which had televisions or warehouses with the same. The deal was they would sell him the merchandise whatever it was and he would cut them into a share of the profits from the raffles. That racket got Pretty most of the way to sixteen, got him plenty of admiration once he took us under his wing and let others be the “suckers” grabbling cheapjack stuff from his raffles.
That sixteen was important because something turned in Pretty, not the con part, no way, he lived for the con, but his whole attitude toward society changed quite a bit from basically seeing the whole world as fair game for his various basically harmless if morally dubious grifts fits to “carrying a chip on his shoulder.” Started see the whole world as his to exploit whatever way he wanted. His scams got more ingenious but also more perverse. Moreover at sixteen he got his big ass motorcycle which he got by some fucked up scheme. Somehow he thought that bike, and it was a great big monster, a British bike not a Harley pig bike make him king of the world. Made him fast, which it did. That sixteen was the year he did his first robbery, armed robbery to boot, nothing big just a local gas station where he scared the gas jockey so much that when it came time for him to identify Pretty he suddenly got amnesia, couldn’t remember what the guy looked like. And Pretty did not wear a mask, and the jockey knew exactly who Pretty was since he would fill up the bike’s tank there all the time. Pretty became an urban legend off of that one.
That sixteen though was the time that Pretty started treating his corner boys like shit though. That would have been okay probably but it still stuck in Zack’s gut after all the years Pretty had been dead and Mimi had been missing that Pretty had taken Mimi away from Zack right in front of his eyes. Zack had been cultivating his relationship with the pretty, nicely-shaped, red-headed Mimi, known around as one of those Irish Catholic girls in the neighborhood who had the rosary in her hand and a Bible between her knees and so Zack had played it slow and by the book unlike with other girls who he tried to fuck the first night, the first date or the second. Yeah he had it bad for her. One summer afternoon between sophomore and junior year Zack and Mimi had been walking along Adamsville Beach when a big boom motorcycle came up behind them and Zack knew it could only be Pretty whom he had not seen in a while since he had dropped out of school in the spring saying to everybody that he didn’t need any more school education since he knew how he was going to make his bones. That was just after the famous armed robbery at the local gas station. Pretty didn’t say one blessed word to Zack or Mimi but just nodded toward Mimi to get on the back of his bike. And just like that she did. That night from the scuttlebutt in the girls’ lav at school according to Zack’s sister who had been friendly with Mimi she let Pretty have his way with her.
For a while, a couple of years, he would see Mimi and Pretty usually on the back of one of Pretty’s bikes (one of them after a while including a big old Vincent Black Lightening another British bike that was supposed to be super-fast) and then he didn’t see or heard anything for a while until the time of the great Riverdale National Bank robbery, or rather attempted robbery, where Pretty was gunned down by a fleet of Riverdale coppers after being winged by some bank security guard who must have thought that the money was his own that was being stolen. The newspaper said witnesses had seen a pretty red-head across the street from the bank who looked frightened at what had happened. She had fled, Mimi had fled and while Zack had heard a rumor that she was for a time up in Portland working as a model or in some whorehouse, or doing something around there he never tried to find out and she never came back to Adamsville even for her parents’ funerals. Zack had to chuckle, a bitter chuckle, as he thought about what Jack had said about how even now old Verbal would have had Pretty for lunch and had time for a nap. Little good that knowledge would ever do Zack though.
Howling At The Moon-When Howlin’ Wolf Held Forth
From The Pen Of Bart Webber
One night when Sam Eaton and Ralph Morris were sitting in Johnny D’s over in Somerville [this night was several years before the recent 2015 announcement that that central spot for the blues tradition and up and coming newer musical genre was closing after a forty year run], over near the Davis Square monster Redline MBTA stop sipping a couple of Anchor Steam beers, a taste acquired by Sam out in Frisco town in the old days on hot nights like that one waiting for the show to begin and picked up by Ralph along the way when drinking his life-time scotch whiskey became verboten after a bad medical check-up about ten years before Ralph mentioned that some music you acquired kind of naturally. A lot of their conversations of late, the last few years as they slid into retirement Ralph giving the day to day operations of his specialty electrical shop over to his youngest son and Sam giving the day to day management of his high volume printing business to his longtime employee, Jimmy Jones, who held the place together at the beginning while Sam headed West with a gang of other Carver corner boys in search of the great blue-pink American West night that animated much of the late 1960s had centered on their lifetime of common musical interests (except folk music which Sam came of age with, caught the drift as it came through Harvard Square where he would hang out to get out of the house when tensions boiled o to some extent but which mostly even with Bob Dylan anti-war protest songs made him grind his teeth.
By naturally Ralph meant, you know like kids’ songs learned in school. Songs like The Farmer in the Dell, which forced you a city kid like Ralph born and raised in Troy, New York a strictly working class town then, and now, although you might not have designated yourself as such at that age to learn a little about the dying profession of family farmer and about farm machinery; Old MacDonald, ditto on the family farmer stuff and as a bonus all the animals of the farm kingdom and their distinctive noises that still rattled Ralph’s head on hard drinking night if he got melancholy for his tortured childhood; Humpty Dumpty, a silly grossly overweight holy goof of the rankest order, an egghead to boot and that didn’t mean intellectual, far from it, who couldn’t maintain his balance come hell or high water although you might not have thought of that expression, that hell or high water expression, or used it in the high Roman Catholic Saturday-go-to-confession-to confess those damns, hells, and fucks that had entered you vocabulary through osmosis and Sunday-go-to-communion-to-absolve-all-sins Morris household out in Troy where Ralph still lives; and, Jack and Jill and their ill-fated hill adventure looking for water like they couldn’t have gone to the family kitchen sink tap for their needs but thinking about it later what were they really doing up there. All this total recall, or mostly total recall showing indeed whether you designated yourself as a city kid or not you were one of the brethren, etc. you have embraced that music as a child in case you have forgotten. Music embedded in the back of your mind, coming forth sometimes out of the blue even fifty years later (and maybe relating to other memory difficulties among the AARP-worthy but we shall skip over that since this sketch is about the blues, the musical blues and not the day to day getting old blues).
Sam nodded his head in agreement then chimed in with his opinion the music of junior high school as he thought, looking behind the bartender’s head to the selection of hard liquors displayed with the twinkle of an eye, about switching over to a high-shelf scotch whiskey, Haig &Haig, his natural drink of late, despite the hot night and hot room beginning to fill up with blues aficionados who have come to listen to the “second coming,” the blues of James Montgomery and his back-up blues band. (Sam unlike Ralph suffering no medical warning about the dire consequences to his system about throwing down a few shots since his health was in better shape than Ralph, Ralph having taken a beating in that department with whatever hellious chemical his government, or rather the American government for which he refused to take any credit or blame, was throwing on the ground of Vietnam from the nightmare skies during that long, bloody lost war).
That “second coming” referring to guys, now greying guys, who picked up the blues, especially the citified electric blues after discovering the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Magic Slim and James Cotton back in their 1960s youth, made a decent living out of it and were still playing small clubs and other venues to keep the tradition alive and to pass it on to the kids who were not even born when the first wave guys came out of the hell-hole Delta South of Mister James Crow sometime around or after World War II and plugged their guitars into the next gin mill electric outlet in places off of Maxwell Street in Chicago, nursing their acts, honing their skills.
Yeah, getting back to junior high, Sam thinking about that hormonal bust out junior high weekly music class with Mr. Dasher which made Sam chuckle a bit, maybe that third bottle of beer sipping had gotten him tipsy a little, as he thought about the old refrain, “Don’t be a masher, Mister Dasher” which all the kids hung on the poor, benighted man that time when the rhyming simon craze was going through the nation’s schools. Thinking just then that today if some teacher or school administrator was astute enough to bother to listen to what teenage kids said amongst themselves, an admittedly hard task for an adult in any era, in an excess of caution old Mister Dasher might be in a peck of trouble if anyone wanted to be nasty about the implication of that innocent rhyme. Yeah, Mr. Dasher, the mad monk music teacher (who on the side in those days, not unlike these days, when teachers couldn’t live on their teaching incomes led an old-time, old time to Sam and his classmates Benny Goodman-style swing and sway big band at special occasions and as a regular at the Surf Ballroom over in Plymouth on Friday nights), who wanted his charges to have a well-versed knowledge of the American and world songbooks. Thus you were forced to remember such songs as The Mexican Hat Dance, God Bless America, and Home On The Range under penalty of being sent up to the front of the room songbook in hand and sing the damn things. Yes, you will remember such songs unto death.
Sam and his corner boys at Doc’s Drugstore found out later that the Dasher was motivated by a desperate rear-guard action to wean his charges away from rock and roll, away from the devil’s music although he would not have called it that because he was too cool to say stuff like that, a struggle in which he was both woefully overmatched by Elvis, Jerry Lee, Chuck, Bo, and the crowd and wasting his breathe as they all lived for rock and roll at Doc’s Drugstore after school where he had a jukebox at his soda fountain. And they were not putting their three selections for a quarter to hear hokey Home on the Range.
Ralph agreed running through his own junior high school litany with Miss Hunt (although a few years older than Sam he had not run through the rhyming simon craze so had no moniker for the old witch although now he wished he had as he chuckled to himself and turned a little confession red although he not been into that stifling confession box on his gamy knees in many years, and it would not be nice either). Ralph added that some of the remembered music reflected the time period when you were growing up but were too young to call the music your own like the music that ran around in the background of your growing up house on the mother housewife radio or evening record player which in Ralph’s case was the music that got his parents through his father’s soldierly slogging on unpronounceable Pacific islands kicking ass against the Nips (his father’s term for the dirty bastard Japanese) and mother anxiously waiting at home for the other shoe to fall or the dreaded military officer coming up to her door telling her the bad news World War II.
You know, guys like Frank (Sinatra, the chairman of the board, that all the bobbysoxer girls, the future mothers of Sam’s and Ralph’s generation swooned over), The Andrew Sisters and their rums and coca colas, Peggy Lee fronting for Benny Goodman and looking, looking hard for some Johnny to do right, finally do right by her, etc. Other music, the music of their own generation, classic rock and rock came more naturally since that is what they wanted to hear when they had their transistor radios to their ear up in their bedrooms or could hardly wait to hear when the jukebox guy came into Doc’s to put the latest selections in (and to have his hand greased by Doc for “allowing” those desperately desired songs onto his jukebox to fill his pockets with many quarters, see he was “connected” and so along with the jukebox hand over fist money-maker cam the hand).
That mention of transistor radios got Ralph and Sam yakking about that old instrument which got them through many a hard teenage angst and alienation night. That yakking reflecting their both getting mellow on the sweet beer and thinking that they had best switch to Tennessee sipping whisky when the wait person came by again since they had moved from the bar to a table near the stage to get a better view of the band if they were to make it through both sets that night (and Ralph thinking, just this once, just for this bluesy night he would “cheat” a little on that scotch whiskey ban). This transistor thing by the way for the young who might wonder what these old geezers were talking about since it was clearly not iPods was small enough to put in your pocket and put up to your ear like an iPod or MP3 except you couldn’t download or anything like that.
Primitive technology okay but life-saving nevertheless. Just flip the dial although the only station that mattered was WJDA, the local rock station (which had previously strictly only played the music that got all of our parents through their war before the rock break-out made somebody at the station realize that you could made more advertising revenue selling ads for stuff like records, drive-in movies, drive-in restaurants, and cool clothes and accessories than refrigerators and stoves to adults).
Oh yeah, and the beauty of the transistor you could take it up to your bedroom and shut out that aforementioned parents’ music without hassles. Nice, right. So yeah, they could hear Elvis sounding all sexy, her word whether she knew the exact meaning or not, meaning all hot and bothered, according to one girl Sam knew even over the radio and who drove all the girls crazy once they got a look at him on television. Chuck Berry telling our parents’ world that Mr. Beethoven and his crowd, Frank’s too, all had to move over because there was a new sheriff in town. Bo Diddley asking a very candid question about who put the rock in rock and roll and offering himself up as a candidate. Buddy Holly crooning against all hope for his Peggy Sue (or was it Betty Lou), Jerry Lee inflaming all with his raucous High School Confidential from the back of a flatbed truck, etc. again.
The blues though, the rarified country and electric urban blues of the likes of Son House, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, James Cotton, and Howlin’ Wolf was an acquired taste. Acquired by Sam through listening to folk music programs on that very same transistor radio in the early 1960s after flipping the dial one Sunday night once he got tired of what they claimed was rock music on WJDA and caught a Boston station, WBZ and later WCAS. The main focus was on other types of roots music but when the show would take a break from down home mountain music, western swing ballads, and urban protest music the DJ would play some cuts of country or electric blues. See all the big folkies, Dylan, Tom Rush, Dave Van Ronk, people like that were wild to cover the blues in the search for serious roots music from the American songbook. So somebody, Sam didn’t know who, figured if everybody who was anybody was covering the blues in that folk minute then it made sense to play the real stuff. (Sam later carried Ralph along on the genre after they had met down in Washington, D.C. in 1971, had been arrested and held in detention at RFK Stadium for trying to shut down the government if it did not shut the Vietnam War, had become life-long friends and Ralph began to dig the blues when he came to Cambridge to visit Sam although he would shutter his ears if Sam played some folk stuff).
The real stuff having been around for a while, having been produced by the likes of Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf going back to the 1940s big time black migration to the industrial plants of the Midwest during World War II when there were plenty of jobs just waiting (and plenty taken away when the soldiers and sailors, white soldiers and sailors came home on the overcrowded troop transports looking to start life over again and raise those families they dreamed about in the muds of Europe and the salty brine of the atoll Pacific). But also having been pushed to the background, way to the background with the rise of rock and roll (although parts of rock make no sense, don’t work at all without kudos to blues chords, think about Ike Turner’s Rocket 88 and Big Joe Turner’s Shake, Rattle and Roll, check it out). So it took that combination of folk minute and that well-hidden from view electric blues some time to filter through Sam’s brain.
What did not take a long time to do once Sam got “religion” was going crazy over Howlin’ Wolf when he saw him perform down in Newport when everybody who was anybody that high school and college kids wanted to hear in that folk minute showed up there. Once Sam had seen him practically eat that harmonica when he was playing that instrument on How Many More Years. There the Wolf was all sweating, running to high form and serious professionalism (just ask the Stones about that polished professionalism when he showed them how to really play Little Red Rooster which they had covered early on in their career as they had covered many other Chess Records blues numbers, as had in an ironic twist a whole generation English rockers in the 1960s while American rockers were basically clueless until the Brits told them about their own roots music) and moving that big body to and fro to beat the band. Playing like god’s own avenging angel, if those angels played the harmonica, and if they could play as well as he did.They both hoped that greying James Montgomery, master harmonica player in his own right, blew the roof off of the house as they spied the wait person coming their way and James moving onto the stage getting ready to burn up the microphone. And he and his band did just that. Yes, that blues calling from somewhere deep in the muds is an acquired taste and a lasting one.