Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Roots Is The Toots: The Music That Got The Generation Of ’68 Through The 1950s Red Scare Cold War Night-Billie’s Break-Out Adventure-With Elvis’ Are You Lonesome Tonight In Mind

The Roots Is The Toots: The Music That Got The Generation Of ’68 Through The 1950s Red Scare Cold War Night-Billie’s Break-Out Adventure-With Elvis’ Are You Lonesome Tonight In Mind   

From The Pen Of Frank Jackman 

Are you lonesome tonight,
Do you miss me tonight?
Are you sorry we drifted apart?
Does your memory stray to a brighter sunny day
When I kissed you and called you sweetheart?
Do the chairs in your parlor seem empty and bare?
Do you gaze at your doorstep and picture me there?
Is your heart filled with pain, shall I come back again?
Tell me dear, are you lonesome tonight?

I wonder if you're lonesome tonight
You know someone said that the world's a stage
And each must play a part.
Fate had me playing in love you as my sweet heart.
Act one was when we met, I loved you at first glance
You read your line so cleverly and never missed a cue
Then came act two, you seemed to change and you acted strange
And why I'll never know.
Honey, you lied when you said you loved me
And I had no cause to doubt you.
But I'd rather go on hearing your lies
Than go on living without you.
Now the stage is bare and I'm standing there
With emptiness all around
And if you won't come back to me
Then make them bring the curtain down.

Is your heart filled with pain, shall I come back again?
Tell me dear, are you lonesome tonight?

“I hate Elvis, I love Elvis,” Sam Lowell could still hear fifty years later the echo of his old from nowhere down and out low-rent public assistance  “the projects” corner boy, William James Bradley, also known as Billie. Not Billy like some billy-goat, like some damn animal, as he declaimed to all who would listen, mainly Sam toward the end before Sam had to move away from the neighborhood or get caught up in Billie’s then new found interest in small handle crime when the better angel of his nature fled in horror at his fresh-worn path after the umpteenth failure to get what he thought was his due legally. Billie from the hills, born out in some mad night, born out of some untamed passion in New Hampshire to newly-wed parents just before the shot-gun, some father’s shot-gun, called out in the wilds of Nashua up in live free country New Hampshire. Billie Bradley a mad demon of a kid and Sam’s best friend down in the Adamsville South Elementary school located smack in the middle of that from-nowhere-down-and-out-low-rent-the-projects of ill-fated memory. Sam and Billie grew apart after a while, after those Billie hurts grew too huge to be contained this side of the law, and we will learn why in a minute, but for a long time, a long kid time long, Billie, Billie of a hundred dreams, Billie of fifty (at least) screw-ups made Sam laugh and made his day when things were tough, like they almost always were at his beat down broke-down family house.

Sam thought and laughed thinking that, you know, fifty some years later Billie was right. We hated Elvis, we young boys, we what do they call them now, oh yes, those tween boys, those times before we know what was what in our new feelings, our funny feelings that no one, well, no parent would explain to us, knew what was what about those stick girls turning to shapes and adding fuel to the fire of  our funny feelings, oh what a time of lamenting, especially at that time when all the girls, the young girls got weak-kneed over Elvis  and he made the older girls (and women, some mothers even) sweat and left no room for ordinary mortal boys, “the projects boys” most of all, on their “dream” card. And most especially, hard as we tried, for brown-haired or tow-headed, blue-eyed ten, eleven and twelve year old boys who didn’t know how to dance. Dance like some Satan’s disciple as Elvis did in Jailhouse Rock every move calculated to make some furious female night sweats dreams.

Or when we had to give up in despair after failing to produce a facsimile of that Elvis sneer that sneer that only got them, the girls, more excited as they dreamed about taking that sneer off his face and making him, well, happy. We both, Billie and me, got pissed off at my brother, my older brother, Prescott, who already had half a stake in some desperate outlaw schemes and would later crumble under the weight of too many jail terms, because, he looked very much like Elvis and although he had no manners, and no time for girls, they were all following him around like he was the second coming. I don’t think he cared and he would certainly not listen to me about what I could do to get the girls. When Billie caught up with him later they were not worried about girls, or not principally about girls, but about small-bore armed robberies of penny-ante gas stations for six dollars and change. Christ there really is no justice in this wicked old world, either way.

And we loved Elvis too for giving us, us young impressionable boys at least as far as we knew then, our own music, our own "jump' and our own jail-break from the tired old stuff we heard on the radio and television that did not ‘”speak” to us. The stuff that our parents dreamed by if they dreamed, or had dreamed by when their worlds were fresh and young back before we were born, back in that endless Great Depression night and World War II slugfest that they were “protecting” us against such repetitions, and not succeeding. If they had had time for dreams what with trying to make ends meet and avoiding bill-collectors, dunners, and repo men by the score each and every day.  We loved Elvis for the songs that he left behind. Not the goofy Tin Pan Alley or something  like that inspired “happy” music that went along with his mostly maligned, and rightly so, films but the stuff from the Sun Records days, the stuff from when he was “from hunger”. That music, as we also “from hunger,” was like a siren call to break-out and then we caught his act on television, maybe the Ed Sullivan Show or something like that, and that was that. I probably walk “funny,” knees and hips out of whack, today from trying way back then to pour a third-rate imitation of his moves into my body to impress the girls.

But enough of Elvis’ place in the pre-teen and teen rock pantheon this is after all about Billie, and Elvis’ twisted spell on the poor boy. Now you know about Billie dreams, about his outlandish dreams to break-out of the projects by parlaying his good looks (and they were even then) and his musical abilities (good but the world was filled with Billies from hunger and on reflection he did not have that crooner’s voice that would make the girls weep and get wet) or you should, from another story, a story about Bo Diddley and how Billie wanted to, as a change of pace, break from the Elvis rut to create his own “style.” That was to emulate old Bo and his Afro-Carib beat. What Billie did not know, could not know since he had no television in the house (nor did my family so we always went to neighbors who did have one or watched in front of Raymond’s Department Store with their inviting televisions on in the display windows begging us to purchase them) and only knew rock and roll from his transistor radio was that the guy, that old Bo was black. Well, in hard, hard post-World War II Northern white Adamsville "the projects" filled to the brim with racial animosity poor unknowing Billie got blasted away one night at a talent show by one of the older, more knowing boys who taunted him mercilessly about why he wanted to emulate a n----r for his troubles.

That sent Billie, Billie from the hills, back to white bread Elvis pronto. See, Billie was desperate to impress the girls way before I was aware of them, or their charms. Half, on some days, three-quarters of our conversations (I won’t say monologues because I did get a word in edgewise every once in a while when Billie got on one of his rants) revolved around doing this or that, something legal, something not, to impress the girls. And that is where the “hate Elvis” part mentioned above comes in. Billie believed, and he may still believe it today wherever he is, that if only he could approximate Elvis’ looks, look, stance, and substance that all the girls would be flocking to him. And by flocking would create a buzz that would be heard around the world. Nice dream, Billie, nice my brother.  

Needless to say, such an endeavor required, requires money, dough, kale, cash, moola whatever you want to call it. And what twelve-year old project boys didn’t have, and didn’t have in abundance was any of that do-re-mi (that’s the age time of this story, about late 1957, early 1958) And no way to get it from missing parents, messed up parents, or just flat out poor parents. Billie’s and mine were the latter, poor as church mice. No, that‘s not right because church mice would not do (in the way that I am using it, and as we used it back then to signify the respectable poor who “touted” their Catholic pious poorness as a badge of honor in this weaseling wicked old world), would not think about, would not even breathe the same air of what we were about to embark on. A life of crime, kid stuff crime but I'll leave that to the reader’s judgment.

See, on one of Billie’s rants he got the idea in his head, and, maybe, it got planted there by something that he had read about Elvis (Christ, he read more about that guy that he did about anybody else once he became an acolyte), that if he had a bunch of rings on all his fingers the girls would give him a tumble. (A tumble in those days being a hard kiss on the lips for about twelve seconds or “copping” a little feel, and if I have to explain that last in more detail you had better just move on). But see, also Billie’s idea was that if he has all those rings, especially for a projects boy then it would make his story that he had set to tell easier. And the story was none other than that he had written to Elvis (possible) and spoke to him man to man about his situation (improbable) and Elvis, Elvis the king, Elvis from “nowhere Mississippi, some place like Tupelo, like we were from the nowhere Adamsville projects, Elvis bleeding heart, had sent him the rings to give him a start in life (outrageously impossible). Christ, I don’t believe old Billie came up with that story even now when I am a million years world-weary.

First you needed the rings and as the late honorable bank robber, Willie Sutton, said about robbing banks-that’s where the money is-old Billie, blessed, beatified Billie, figured out, and figured out all by himself, that if you want to be a ring-stealer then you better go to the jewelry store because that is where the rings were. The reader, and rightly so, now might ask where was his best buddy during this time and why was that best buddy not offering wise counsel about the pitfalls of crime and the virtues of honesty and incorruptibility. Well, when Billie went off on his rant you just waited to see what played out but the real reason was, hell, maybe I could get a ring for my ring-less fingers and be on my way to impress the girls too. I think they call it in the law books, or some zealous prosecuting attorney could call it, aiding and abetting.

But enough of that superficial moralizing. Let’s get to the jewelry store, the best one in the downtown of working-class Adamsville in the time before the ubiquitous malls. We walked a couple of miles to get there on the one road out of the peninsula where the projects were located, plotting all the way. As we entered the downtown area, Bingo, the Acme Jewelry Store (or some name like that) jumped up at us. Billie was as nervous as a colt and I was not far behind, although on this caper I was just the “stooge”, if that. I’m the one who was to wait outside to see if John Law came by. Once at my post I said- “Okay, Billie, good luck.”

And strangely enough his luck was good that day, and many days after, although those days after were not ring days (small grocery store robberies later turned to armed robberies and jail terms the last I heard). That day though his haul was five rings. Five shaky rings, shaky hands Billie, as we walked, then started running, away from the downtown area. When we got close to home we stopped near the beach where we lived to see up close what the rings looked like. Billie yelled, “Damn.” And why did he yell that word. Well, apparently in his terror (his word to me) at getting caught he just grabbed what was at hand. And what was at hand were five women’s rings. At that moment he practically cried out about how was he going to impress girls, ten, eleven or twelve- year old girls, even if they were as  naïve as us, and maybe more so, that Elvis, the King, was your bosom buddy and you were practically his only life-line adviser with five women’s rings? Damn, damn is right.

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