Thursday, November 29, 2018
My Baby's Gone - The Louvin Brothers-When The King Of Rock And Roll Held Forth In The Acre Section Of North Adamsville -And Made It Stick-In Honor Of The Generation Of ’68-Or Those Who Graced Wild Child Part Of It
When The King Of Rock And Roll Held Forth In The Acre Section Of North Adamsville -And Made It Stick-In Honor Of The Generation Of ’68-Or Those Who Graced Wild Child Part Of It
By Zack James
[Zack James has been on an assignment covering the various 50th anniversary commemorations of the year 1968 (and a few in 1967 and for the future 1969 which is to his mind something of a watershed year rather than his brother Alex and friends “generation of ‘68” designation they have wrapped themselves around) and therefore has not graced these pages for a while. Going through his paces on those assignments Zack realized that he was out of joint with his own generation, having been born in 1958 and therefore too young to have been present at the creation of what is now called, at least in the demographical-etched commercials, the classic age of rock and roll. Too young too for any sense of what a jailbreak that time was and a shortly later period which Seth Garth who was deep into the genre has called the ‘folk minute breeze” that ran rampart through the land say in the early 1960s. Too young as well to have been “washed clean,” not my term but Si Lannon’s since I am also too young to have been aware of the import by the second wave of rock, the acid rock period. Hell, this is enough of an introduction to re-introducing the legendary writer here. Lets’ leave it as Zack is back and let him go through his paces. Greg Green, site manager]
Alex James was the king of rock and roll. Of course he was not really the king, the king being Elvis and no last name needed at least for the bulk of those who will read what I call a “think piece,” a piece about what all the commemorations of events a million years ago, or it like a million years ago even mentioning 50 or 60 year anniversaries, mean. What Alex was though was the conduit for my own musical experiences which have left me as a stepchild to five important musical moments, the birth of rock and roll in the 1950s, the quick prairie fire called the “folk minute of the early 1960s and the resurgence with a vengeance of rock in the mid-1960s which for brevity’s sake call “acid” rock, along the way and intersecting that big three came a closeted “country outlaw moment” initiated by father time Hank Williams and carried through with vengeance by singers like Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, and Waylon Jennings, and Muddy Waters and friends blues as the glue that bound what others who write here, Sam Lowell, in particular calls the Generation of ’68- a seminal year in many ways which I have been exploring for this and other publications. I am well placed to do since I was over a decade too young to have been washed over by the movements. But that step-child still sticks and one Alex James is the reason why.
This needs a short explanation. As should be apparent Alex James is my brother, my oldest brother, born in 1946 which means a lot in the chronology of what follows. My oldest brother as well in a family with seven children, five boys and two twin girls, me being the youngest of all born in 1958. As importantly this clan grew up in the dirt- poor working- class Acre, as in local lore Hell’s Acre, section of North Adamsville where my mother, under better circumstances, grew up and remained after marrying her World War II Marine my father from dirt poor Appalachia which will also become somewhat important later. To say we lacked for many of the things that others in that now seen “golden age” of American prosperity would be an understatement and forms the backdrop of how Alex kept himself somewhat sane with music although we didn’t even have a record player (the now ancient although retro revival way to hear music then) and he was forced when at home to “fight” for the family radio to get in touch with what was going on, what the late Pete Markin his best friend back then called “the great jailbreak.”
A little about Alex’s trajectory is important too. He was a charter member along with the late Markin, Si Lannon, Sam Lowell, Seth Garth and Allan Jackson, the later four connected with this publication in various ways since its hard copy start in the 1970s, of the Tonio Pizza Parlor corner boys. These guys, and maybe it reflected their time and milieu, hung out at Tonio’s for the simple reason they never had money, or not enough, and while they were not above various acts of larceny and burglary mostly they hung around there to listen to the music coming out of Tonio’s to die for jukebox. That jukebox came alive in maybe 1955, 1956 when they first heard Elvis (and maybe others as well but Alex always insisted that he was the first to “discover” Elvis in his crowd.) Quickly that formed the backdrop of what Alex listened to for a few years until the genre spent a few years sagging with vanilla songs and beats. That same Markin, who the guys here have written about and I won’t, was the guy who turned Alex on to folk music via his desperate trips to Harvard Square up in Cambridge when he needed to get out of the hellish family household he dwelled in. The third prong of the musical triad was also initiated by Markin who made what everybody claims was a fatal mistake dropping out of Boston University in his sophomore year in 1967 to follow his dream, to “find” himself, to go west to San Francisco for what would be called the Summer of Love where he learned about the emerging acid rock scene (drugs, sex and rock and roll being one mantra). He dragged everybody, including Alex if you can believe this since he would subsequently come back and go to law school and become the staid successful lawyer he is today, out there with him for varying periods of time. (The fateful mistake on the part of Markin stemming from him dropping out at the wrong time, the escalation of the war in Vietnam subjecting him later to the draft and hell-hole Vietnam service while more than the others unhinged him and his dream.) The blues part came as mentioned as a component of the folk minute, part of the new wave rock revival and on its own. The country outlaw connections bears separate mention these days.
That’s Alex’s story-line. My intersection with Alex’s musical trip was that one day after he had come back from a hard night at law school (he lived at home, worked during the day at some law firm as some kind of lacky, and went to law school nights studying the rest of the time) he went to his room and began playing a whole bunch of music starting I think with Bill Haley and the Comet’s Rock Around The Clock and kept playing stuff for a long time. Loudly. Too loudly for me to get to sleep and I went and knocked on his door to get him quiet down. When he opened the door he had on his record player Jerry Lee Lewis’s High School Confidential. I flipped out. I know I must have heard Alex playing this stuff earlier, but it was kind of a blank before. Background music just like Mother’s listening to 1940s stuff on her precious ancient RCA radio in the kitchen. What happened then, what got me mesmerized as a twelve- year old was that this music “spoke” to me, spoke to my own unformed and unarticulated alienation. I had not been particularly interested in music, music mostly heard and sung in the obligatory junior high school music class, but this was different, this got my hormonal horrors in gear. I stayed in Alex’s room listening half the night as he told me above when he had first heard such and such a song.
Although the age gap between Alex and I was formidable, he was out the door originally even before I knew him since at that point we were the only two in the house all the others in college or on their own he became something of a mentor to me on the ins and out of rock and roll once I showed an interest. From that night on it was not just a question of say, why Jailhouse Rock should be in the big American Songbook but would tell me about who or what had influenced rock and roll. He was the first to tell me about what had happened in Memphis with a guy named Sam Phillips and his Sun Record label which minted an extraordinary number of hits by guys like Elvis, Warren Smith, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee. When I became curious about how the sound got going, why my hands got clammy when I heard the music and I would start tapping my toes he went chapter and verse on me. Like some god-awful preacher quoting how Ike Turner, under a different name, may really have been the granddaddy of rock with his Rocket 88 and how obscure guys like Louis Jordan, Big Joe Turner and Willie Lomax and their big bop rhythm and blues was one key element. Another stuff from guys like Hack Devine, Warren Smith and Lenny Larson who took the country flavor and melted it down to its essence. Got rid of the shlock. Alex though did surprise me with the thing he thought got our toes tapping-these guys, Elvis, Chuck, Jerry Lee, Buddy Holly and a whole slew of what I would later call good old boys took their country roots not the Grand Ole Opry stuff but the stuff they played at the red barn dances down in the hills and hollows come Saturday night and mixed it with some good old fashion religion stuff learned through bare-foot Baptists or from the black churches and created their “jailbreak” music.
One night Alex startled me while we were listening to an old Louvain Brothers song, I forget which one, when he said “daddy’s music” meaning that our father who had come from down in deep down in the mud Appalachia had put the stuff in our genes. He didn’t call it DNA I don’t’ think he knew the term and I certainly didn’t but that was the idea. I resisted the idea then, and for a long time after but sisters and brothers look at the selections that accompany this so-called think piece the whole thing is clear now. I, we are our father’s sons after all. Alex knew that early on I only grabbed the idea lately-too late since our father he has been gone a long time now.
Alex had the advantage of being the oldest son of a man who also had grown up as the oldest son in his family brood of I think eleven. (Since I, we never met any of them when my father came North to stay for good after being discharged from the Marine as hard Pacific War military service, I can’t say much about that aspect of why my father doted on his oldest son.) That meant a lot, meant that Dad confided as much as a quiet, sullen hard-pressed man could or would confide in a youngster. All I know is that sitting down at the bottom of the food chain (I will laugh “clothes chain” too as the recipient of every older brother, sister too when I was too young to complain or comprehend set of ragamuffin clothing) he was so distant that we might well have been just passing strangers. Alex, for example, knew that Dad had been in a country music trio which worked the Ohio River circuit, that river dividing Ohio and Kentucky up north far from hometown Hazard, yes, that Hazard of legend and song whenever anybody speaks of the hardscrabble days of the coal mine civil wars that went on down there before the war, before World War II. I don’t know what instrument he played although I do know that he had a guitar tucked under his bed that he would play when he had a freaking minute in the days when he was able to get work.
That night Alex also mentioned something that hit home once he mentioned it. He said that Dad who tinkered a little fixing radios, a skill learned from who knows where although apparently his skill level was not enough to get him a job in that industry, figured out a way to get WAXE out of I think Wheeling, West Virginia which would play old country stuff 24/7 and that he would always have that station on in the background when he was doing something. Had stopped doing that at some point before I recognized the country-etched sound but Alex said he was spoon-fed on some of the stuff, citing Warren Smith and Smiley Jamison particularly, as his personal entre into the country roots of one aspect of the rock and roll craze. Said further that he was not all that shocked when say Elvis’s It’s All Right Mama went off the charts since he could sense that country beat up-tempo a little from what Smith had been fooling around with, Carl Perkins too he said. They were what he called “good old boys” who were happy as hell that they had enough musical skills at the right time so they didn’t have to stick around the farm or work in some hardware store in some small town down South.
Here is the real shocker, well maybe not shocker, but the thing that made Alex’s initial so-called DNA thought make sense. When Alex was maybe six or seven Dad would be playing something on the guitar, just fooling around when he started playing Hank Williams’ mournful lost love Cold, Cold Heart. Alex couldn’t believe his ears and asked Dad to play it again. He would for years after all the way to high school when Dad had the guitar out and he was around request that Dad play that tune. I probably heard the song too. So, yeah, maybe that DNA business is not so far off. And maybe, just maybe, over fifty years later we are still our father’s sons. Thanks, Dad.
The selection posted here culled from the merciful YouTube network thus represents one of the key pieces of music that drove the denizens of the Generation of ’68 and their stepchildren. And maybe now their grandchildren.
[Alex and I had our ups and downs over the years and as befits a lawyer and journalist our paths seldom passed except for occasional political things where we were on the same wavelength like with the defense of Army whistle-blower Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley). Indicative though of our closeness despite distance in 2017 when Alex had a full head of steam up about putting together a collective corner boy memoir in honor of the late Markin after a business trip to San Francisco where he went to a museum exhibition featuring the seminal Summer of Love, 1967 he contacted me for the writing, editing and making sure of the production values.]