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) 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 demographically-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 seems 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 three 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 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 so since I was over a decade too young to have been washed over by the movements directly . 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 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 ancient although now 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 in those days 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. Maybe it was true although Seth always claimed that he heard Big Joe Turner’s primo version of Shake, Rattle and Rock earlier and thus first to “discover” the roots of rock and Allan Jackson has claimed without proof that he saw Bill Haley and the Comets’ version in the Chalkboard Jungle and put them all to shame. We will let old wounds fester and move on.
Quickly that experience 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 after the records companies and what he called “the authorities” put a stop to serious rock and gave forth singers , male and female, nay parent could love. That same Markin, who the guys here have written about and I won’t since although he was Alex’s best friend and was over the house a lot I never really knew except nothing good happened in the world without his imprimatur to hear these guys still sing his praises, 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 shortly after to the draft and hell-hole Vietnam service which more than the others unhinged him and his dreams.)
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 to 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 but 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 branch 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 to 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 he startled me 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 my father who got exhausted from life early has been gone a long time now.
[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) few years back when he was involved legally with the case and I was writing copy for the publications. 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.]
What Frankie Riley, the acknowledged leader of the corner boys, and who today is also a successful lawyer would do is con some girl into playing music that he, they wanted to hear when they were sitting at a booth and not hanging out side. (By the way not all the corner boys were successful take Markin’s fate getting killed down in Mexico in some hazy drug deal gone awry and a couple of guys who wound up in state prisons for armed robberies and such.) Frankie made this into an art form. See the girls seemed to have money to play the jukebox, had change, quarters since the play was three for a quarter. What Frankie who almost as well as Markin knew the whole “intelligence” on who was “going steady with whom” and the like would do is maybe go up to a girl who had just broken up with her boyfriend and ask her to play something dreamy, something to play to her angst or something. Then he went to work on the other two selections by asking the girl if she had heard say Jerry Lee Lewis’ Breathless. Alex said it never failed to work. Cute if kind of a hard sell if you think about it.
Alex as is his way kind of mentored me around the various genre that had influenced him on his journey to adulthood. (Funny how the music of your youth sticks through life with you since he and I both agreed after a recent meeting where I was “grilling him,” his term not mine, on the subject of this piece and how I got my influences that we both still favor the music of our youth, still play it with a few off-beat newer things thrown in.) He is the one who informed me about the dearth, the death really of classic rock after Elvis went AWOL from life, Chuck Berry went to jail, and Jerry lee got too cousin cozy and a bunch of record companies caved into the moral authorities and parents and let only god-awful music over the airwaves. Which drove him first to the nascent folk music scene which Markin was instrumental in turning him on to and through exposure to those rooted musics to a serious appreciation of the blues.
He spent many hours telling me about his experiences in the period of the Summer of Love which he had just barely escaped he said in order to go to law school. That music, the dope, the women, and the craziness almost got to him under Markin’s direction. I’let that stuff go for now maybe Alex can pick up the thread but I want you to listen to the music more than run the gauntlet of what was what and why.