Sunday, February 07, 2016
*****Just Before The Sea Change - With The Dixie Cups Going To The Chapel Of Love In Mind
*****Just Before The Sea Change - With The Dixie Cups Going To The Chapel Of Love In Mind
From The Pen Of Sam Lowell
There were some things about Edward Rowley’s youthful activities, those that he thought would bring some small honor to his name, that he would rather not forget, things that defined his life, gave him that “fifteen minutes of fame,” if only to himself and his, that everybody kept talking about that everyone deserved before they departed this life. That “fifteen minutes of fame” business which he thought had been uttered by the Pop-artist Andy Warhol in one of his prankster moments, one of his New York high society put-downs, was fine by him even if it had been the result of some small honor thing.
The subject of that small honor done in the spurt of his youth that had defined a lot of what came later is what got him thinking one sunny afternoon in September about five years ago as he waited for the seasons to turn almost before his eyes about the times around 1964, around the time that he graduated from North Adamsville High School, around the time that he realized that the big breeze jail-break that he had kind of been waiting for was about to bust out over the land, over America. (His world view did not encompass the entire world or what was the same thing the young nations part of that view but later after making plenty of international connections from here and there he could have said he was waiting for that breeze to bust out over the world.)
It was not like Edward was some kind of soothsayer, like some big think tank thinker paid well to keep tabs on social trends for those in charge so they didn’t get waylaid like they did with the “rebel without a cause” and “beat” phenomena or anything like that back then, like could read tea leaves or tarot cards like some latter day Madame La Rue who actually did read his future once down at the Gloversville Fair when she had come to that location with her daughter, Gypsy Anne, one hot August week when he was about twelve. Madame that day read that he was made for big events. The big event that he was interested in just then was winning a doll, a stuffed animal or something like that for dark-haired, dark-eyed just starting to fill out Gypsy Anne at the Skee game which he was an expert at. (For those clueless about Skee, have forgotten or have never spent their illicit around carnivals, small time circuses, or penny-ante amusement parks, the game is simplicity itself once you get the hang of it and play about 10,000 hours’ worth of games you roll small balls, which come down a chute one you pay your dough, or credit/debit card the way they have the machines worked now a days, and you roll them like in bowling up to a target area like in archery and try to get a ton of points which gives you strips of coupons to win a prize depending on high your score is, and what you want. Like I say, simple.) And Edward did win her a stuffed animal, a big one, and got a very big long wet kiss for his heroics (and “copped a little feel” from that starting to fill out shape of hers and he finally solved, no, he solved for that one minute that budding girls turned to women were as interested in sex, or at least being “felt up” as the other guys around Harry’s Variety Store had told him they were if approached the right way) down by the beach when she gave her best twelve year old “come hither” look, not the last time he would be snagged by that look by her or any other women later. No way though that tarot reading when he was twelve left an impression, left him with that vague feeling about the big breeze coming, not then when the hormones drove his big thoughts, and not for a long while.
That big breeze blowing through the land thing had not been Edward’s idea anyway, not his originally although he swore by it once he thought about the possibilities of breaking out of Podunk North Adamsville, but came from “the Scribe,” the late Peter Paul Markin, a corner boy at Jack Slack’s bowling alleys on Thornton Street where he occasionally hung out in high school since he had been childhood friends with the leader of that crowd, Frankie Riley, who read books and newspapers a lot and would go on and on about the thing on lonesome Friday nights when all the guys were waiting, well, just waiting for something to happen in woebegone North Adamsville where the town mainly went to sleep by ten, or eleven on Friday and Saturday night when Jack Slack’s closed late (for the younger set, Doc’s Drugstore, the place where he and Frankie hung in their younger days as well, the place where they all first heard rock and roll played loud on Doc’s jukebox by the soda fountain, every night was nine o’clock at night just when things were getting interesting as the shadows had time to spank vivid boy imaginations and you wonder, well, maybe not you, but parents wondered why their kids were ready to take the first hitchhike or hitch a freight train ride out of that “one-horse town” (an expression courtesy of the grandmothers of the town, at least the ones he knew, mostly Irish grandmothers with corn beef and cabbage boiling on their cast-iron stoves and smirks on their faces, if grandmothers could have smirks over anything, about how dear the price of everything was if you could get it a very big problem, including Edward’s Anna Riley, where he first heard the words).
Here is where that big breeze twelve million word description thing Markin was talking about intersected with that unspoken trend for Edward (unknown and unspoken since the corner at Jack Slacks’ did not have a resident professional academic sociologist in residence to guide them since those “hired guns” were still hung up on solving the juvenile delinquency problem and so as usual well behind the curve and Markin, the Scribe as smart as he was, was picking his stuff up strictly from newspapers and magazines who were always way also behind the trends until the next big thing hit them in the face). Edward’s take on the musical twists and turns back then is where he had something the kids at North Adamsville High would comment on, would ask him about to see which way the winds were blowing, would put their nickels, dimes and quarters in the jukeboxes to hear based on his recommendations.
Even Markin deferred to him on this one, on his musical sense, the beat or the “kicks” as he called then although he, Markin, would horn in, or try to, on the glory by giving every imaginable arcane fact about some record’s history, roots, whatever which would put everybody to sleep, they just wanted to heard the “beat” for crying out loud. Edward did have to chuckle though when he thought about the way, the main way, that Markin worked the jukebox scene since he was strictly from poverty, from the projects, poorer even than Edward’s people and that was going some if you saw the ramshackle shack of a house that he and his four older brothers grew up in. The Scribe used to con some lonely-heart girl who maybe had just broken up with her boyfriend, maybe had been dateless for a while, or was just silly enough to listen to him into playing what he wanted to hear based on what Edward had told him. But he was smooth in his way since he would draw a bee-line to the girl who just put her quarter in for her three selection on Jack Slack’s jukebox (Doc’s, sweet and kindly saint Doc whose place was a bee-hive after school for that very reason , had five for a quarter if you can believe that). He would become her “advisor,” and as the number one guy who knew every piece of teenage grapevine news in the town and whom everybody therefore deferred on that intelligence so he would let her “pick” the first selection, usually some sentimental lost love thing she could get weepy over, the second selection would be maybe some “oldie but goodie,” Breathless or At The Hop, which everybody still wanted to hear, and then on number three, the girl all out of ideas Markin would tout whatever song had caught his ear. Jesus, Markin was a piece of work. Too bad he had to end the way he did down in Mexico now lying in some unmarked grave in some town’s potter’s field back in the mid-1970s which guys from the old town were still moaning over.
That was Markin on the fringes but see Edward’s senses were very much directed by his tastes in music, by his immersion into all things rock and roll in the early 1960s where he sensed what he called silly “bubble gum” music (what high priest Markin called something like the “musical counter-revolution” but he was always putting stuff in political bull form like that) that had passed for rock. Which, go figure, the girls liked, or liked the look of the guys singing the tunes, guys with flipped hair and dimples like Fabian and Bobby Rydell but was strictly nowhere with Edward. The breeze Edward felt was going to bury that stuff under an avalanche of sounds going back to Elvis, and where Elvis got his stuff from like Lonnie Johnson and the R&B and black electric blues guys, the rockabilly hungry white boys, and forward to something else, something with more guitars all amped to big ass speakers that were just coming along to bring in the new dispensation.
More importantly since the issue of jailbreaks and sea changes were in the air Edward was the very first kid to grasp what would later be called “the folk minute of the early 1960s,” and not just by Markin when he wrote stuff about that time later before his sorry end. Everybody would eventually hone in on Dylan and Baez, dubbed the “king and queen” of the moment by the mass media always in a frenzy to anoint and label things that they had belatedly found about out about and run into the ground. But when folk tunes started showing up on the jukebox at Jimmy Jack’s Diner over on Latham Street where the college guys hung and where families went to a cheap filling dinner to give Ma a break from the supper meal preparations it was guys like the Kingston Trio, the Lettermen, and the Lamplighters who got the play after school and some other girls, not the “bubble gum” girls went crazy over the stuff when Edward made recommendations.
He had caught the folk moment almost by accident late one Sunday night when he picked up a station from New York City and heard Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie songs being played, stuff that Mr. Dasher his seventh grade music teacher had played in class to broaden youthful minds, meaning trying to break the Elvis-driven rock and roll habit. So that musical sense combined with his ever present sense that things could be better in this wicked old world drilled into him by his kindly old grandmother, that Anna Riley with her boiling kettles and smirks mentioned before, who was an old devotee of the Catholic Worker movement kind of drove his aspirations (and Markin’s harping with the political and so-called historical slant triggered by his own grandmother’s devotion to the Catholic Worker movement added in). But at first it really was the music that had been the cutting edge of what followed later, followed until about 1964 when that new breeze arrived in the land.
That fascination with music had occupied Edward’s mind since he had been about ten and had received a transistor radio for his birthday and out of curiosity decided to turn the dial to AM radio channels other that WJDA which his parents, may they rest in peace, certainly rest in peace from his incessant clamoring for rock and roll records and later folk albums, concert tickets, radio listening time on the big family radio in the living room, had on constantly and which drove him crazy. Drove him crazy because that music, well, frankly that music, the music of the Doris Days, the Peggy Lees, The Rosemary Clooneys, the various corny sister acts like the Andrews Sisters, the Frank Sinatras, the Vaughn Monroes, the Dick Haynes and an endless series of male quartets did not “jump,” gave him no “kicks,’ left him flat. As a compromise, no, in order to end the family civil war, they had purchased a transistor radio at Radio Shack and left him to his own devises.
One night, one late night in 1955, 1956 when Edward was fiddling with the dial he heard this sound out of Cleveland, Ohio, a little fuzzy but audible playing this be-bop sound, not jazz although it had horns, not rhythm and blues although sort of, but a new beat driven by some wild guitar by a guy named Warren Smith who was singing about his Ruby, his Rock ‘n’ Roll Ruby who only was available apparently to dance the night away. And she didn’t seem to care whether she danced by herself on the tabletops or with her guy. Yeah, so if you need a name for what ailed young Edward Rowley, something he could not quite articulate then call her woman, call her Ruby and you will not be far off. And so with that as a pedigree Edward became one of the town’s most knowledgeable devotees of the new sound.
Problem was that new sound, as happens frequently in music, got a little stale as time went on, as the original artists who captured his imagination faded from view one way or another and new guys, guys with nice Bobby this and Bobby that names, Patsy this and Brenda that names sang songs under the umbrella name rock and roll that his mother could love. Songs that could have easily fit into that WJDA box that his parents had been stuck in since about World War II.
So Edward was anxious for a new sound to go along with his feeling tired of the same old, same old stuff that had been hanging around in the American night since the damn nuclear hot flashes red scare Cold War started way before he had a clue about what that was all about. It had started with the music and then he got caught later in high school up with a guy in school, Daryl Wallace, a hipster, or that is what he called himself, a guy who liked “kicks” although being in high school in North Adamsville far from New York City, far from San Francisco, damn, far from Boston what those “kicks” were or what he or Edward would do about getting those “kicks” never was made clear. But they played it out in a hokey way and for a while they were the town, really high school, “beatniks.” So Edward had had his short faux “beat” phase complete with flannel shirts, black chino pants, sunglasses, and a black beret (a beret that he kept hidden at home in his bedroom closet once he found out after his parents had seen and heard Jack Kerouac reading from the last page of On The Road on the Steve Allen Show that they had severely disapproved of the man, the movement and anything that smacked of the “beat” and a beret always associated with French bohemians and foreignness would have had them seeing “red”). And for a while Daryl and Edward played that out until Daryl moved away (at least that was the story that went around but there was a persistent rumor for a time that Mr. Wallace had dragooned Daryl into some military school in California in any case that disappearance from the town was the last he ever heard from his “beat” brother).
Then came 1964 and Edward was fervently waiting for something to happen, for something to come out of the emptiness that he was feeling just as things started moving again with the emergence of the Beatles and the Stones as a harbinger of what was coming.
That is where Edward had been psychologically when his mother first began to harass him about his hair. Although the hair thing like the beret was just the symbol of clash that Edward knew was coming and knew also that now that he was older that he was going to be able to handle differently that when he was a kid. Here is what one episode of the battle sounded like:
“Isn’t that hair of yours a little long Mr. Edward Rowley, Junior,” clucked Mrs. Edward Rowley, Senior, “You had better get it cut before your father gets back from his job working on repairing that ship up in Maine, if you know what is good for you.” That mothers’-song was being endlessly repeated in North Adamsville households (and not just those households either but in places like Carver, Hullsville, Shaker Heights, Ann Arbor, Manhattan, Cambridge any place where guys were waiting for the new dispensation and wearing hair a little longer than boys’ regular was the flash point) ever since the British invasion had brought longer hair into style (and a little less so, beards, that was later when guys got old enough to grow one without looking wispy, had taken a look at what their Victorian great-grandfathers grew and though it was “cool.” Cool along with new mishmash clothing and new age monikers to be called by.)
Of course when one was thinking about the British invasion in the year 1964 one was not thinking about the American Revolution or the War of 1812 but the Beatles. And while their music has taken 1964 teen world by a storm, a welcome storm after the long mainly musical counter-revolution since Elvis, Bo, Jerry Lee and Chuck ruled the rock night and had disappeared without a trace, the 1964 parent world was getting up in arms.
And not just about hair styles either. But about midnight trips on the clanking subway to Harvard Square coffeehouses to hear, to hear if you can believe this, folk music, mountain music, harp music or whatever performed by long-haired (male or female), long-bearded (male), blue jean–wearing (both), sandal-wearing (both), well, for lack of a better name “beatniks” (parents, as usual, being well behind the curve on teen cultural movements since by 1964 “beat” except on silly television shows and by “wise” social commenters who could have been “Ike” brothers and sisters, was yesterday’s news).
Mrs. Rowley would constantly harp about “why couldn’t Edward be like he was when he listened to Bobby Vinton and his Mr. Lonely or that lovely-voiced Roy Orbison and his It’s Over and other nice songs on the local teen radio station, WMEX (he hated that name Eddie by the way, Eddie was also what everybody called his father so you can figure out why he hated the moniker just then). Now it was the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and a cranky-voiced guy named Bob Dylan that has his attention. And that damn Judy Jackson with her short skirt and her, well her… looks” (Mrs. Rowley like every mother in the post-Pill world refusing to use the “s” word, a throw-back to their girlish days when their mothers did not use such a word either and so everybody learned about sex is some strange osmotic out in the streets, in the school lavs, and from older almost as clueless older brothers and sisters just like now.)
Since Mrs. Rowley, Alice to the neighbors, was getting worked up anyway, she let out what was really bothering her about her Eddie’s behavior, "What about all the talk about doing right by the down-trodden Negros down in Alabama and Mississippi. And you and that damn Peter Markin, who used to be so nice when all you boys hung around together at Jimmy Jack’s Diner [Edward: corner boys, Ma, that is what we were and at Jack Slack’s alleys not Jimmy Jack’s that was for the jukebox and for checking out the girls who were putting dough in that jukebox] and I at least knew you were no causing trouble, talking about organizing a book drive to get books for the little Negro children down there. If your father ever heard that there would be hell to pay, hell to pay and maybe a strap coming out of the closet big as you are. Worse though, worse than worrying about Negros down South is that treasonous talk about leaving this country, leaving North Adamsville, defenseless against the communists with your talk of nuclear disarmament. Why couldn’t you have just left well enough alone and stuck with your idea of forming a band that would play nice songs that make kids feel good like Gale Garnet’s We’ll Sing In The Sunshine or that pretty Negro girl Dionne Warwick and Her Walk On By instead of getting everybody upset."
And since Mrs. Rowley, Alice, to the neighbors had mentioned the name Judy Jackson, Edward’s flame and according to Monday morning before school girls’ “lav” talk, Judy’s talk they had “done the deed” and you can figure out what the deed was let’s hear what was going on in the Jackson household since one of the reasons that Edward was wearing his hair longer was because Judy thought it was “sexy” and so that talk of doing the deed may well have been true if there were any sceptics. Hear this:
“Young lady, that dress is too short for you to wear in public, take it off, burn it for all I care, and put on another one or you are not going out of this house,” barked Mrs. James Jackson, echoing a sentiment that many worried North Adamsville mothers were feeling (and not just those mothers either but in places like Gloversville, Hullsville, Shaker Heights, Dearborn, Cambridge any place where gals were waiting for the new dispensation and wearing their skirts a little longer than mid-calf was the flash point) about their daughters dressing too provocatively and practically telling the boys, well practically telling them you know what as she suppressed the “s” word that was forming in her head. She too working up a high horse head of steam continued, "And that Eddie [“Edward, Ma,” Judy keep repeating every time Mrs. Jackson, Dorothy to the neighbors, said Eddie], and his new found friends like Peter Markin taking you to those strange coffeehouses in Harvard Square with all the unwashed, untamed, unemployed “beatniks” instead of the high school dances on Saturday night. And that endless talk about the n-----s down South, about get books for the ignorant to read and other trash talk about how they are equal to us, and your father better not hear you talk like that, not at the dinner table since he has to work around them and their smells and ignorance over in that factory in Dorchester. And don’t start with that Commie trash about peace and getting rid of weapons. They should draft the whole bunch of them and put them over in front of that Berlin Wall. Then they wouldn’t be so negative about America."
Scene: Edward, Judy and Peter Markin were sitting in the Club Nana in Harvard Square sipping coffee, maybe pecking at the one brownie between them, and listening to a local wanna-be folk singing strumming his stuff (who turned out to be none other than Eric Von Schmidt whose Joshua Gone Barbados and a couple of other songs would become folk staples and classics). Beside them cartons of books that they are sorting to be taken along with them when they head south this summer after graduation exercises at North Adamsville High School are completed in June. (By the way Peter’s parents were only slightly less irate about their son’s activities and used the word “Negro” when they were referring to black people, black people they wished their son definitely not to get involved with were only slightly less behind the times than Mrs. Rowley and Mrs. Jackson and so requires no separate screed by Mrs. Markin. See Peter did not mention word one about what he was, or was not, doing and thus spared himself the anguish that Edward and Judy put themselves through trying to “relate” to their parents, their mothers really since fathers were some vague threatened presence in the background in those households.)
They, trying to hold back their excitement have already been to some training sessions at the NAACP office over on Massachusetts Avenue in the Roxbury section of Boston and have purchased their tickets for the Greyhound bus as far as New York’s Port Authority where they will meet others who will be heading south down to Mississippi goddam and Alabama goddam on a chartered bus. But get this Peter turned to Edward and said, “Have you heard that song, Popsicles and Icicles by the Mermaids, it has got great melodic sense.” Edward made a very severe off-putting “no way” face. Yes, we are still in the time just before the sea change after which even Peter will chuckle about “bubble gum” music. Good luck though, young travelers, good luck.