Monday, November 30, 2009

Mountain Lays Down the Law

Josh, Corky Laing, Leslie West, Ian Hunter, backstage Bottom Line, NY, 1982
(photo by Peter Hudson for High Times)

Out of a hundred concerts at the Fillmore East, the greatest were the four times I saw Mountain there. Twelve years later, I did this interview for High Times. I hoped to follow it in High Times with a Felix Pappalardi interview. But, alas, the great Pappalardi was gunned down by his wife, Cream and Mountain lyricist Gail Collins, shortly after this meeting was conducted. Reprinted from High Times, April 1983:

From the golden age of concert and album rock, by now a phenomenon of America’s past heritage, rode the folk heroes Mountain. Though only three songs remain FM radio hall-of-famers today—“Nantucket Sleighride,” “Theme for an Imaginary Western” and “Mississippi Queen”—Mountain was the heavyweight champ of crystal-clear, high-volume ecstasy during the era in which they reigned (1969-1972). Leslie West, who could outweigh and outplay planeloads of skinny English guitarists, remains a mythical figure to the drooling, boneheaded beer drunks from Queens who still flock to see him. (Mountain was probably the first hard-rock band to begin with placid hippie music connoisseurs and, through little fault of their own, cultivate a rowdy, beer-drinking audience—which to this day remains associated with their order of rock.)

Leslie’s bass-playing counterpoint in those days, 130-pound Felix Pappalardi, had made his bones quite sweetly, producing the Youngbloods and Cream, though he never fully realized his brilliance until Mountain. Corky Laing rode drums over the unique power triad, cowbell and double bass pedaling him trademark. He was also one-third responsible for the songs and showmanship, breaking thousands of sticks behind Pappalardi’s Beethoven stance and West’s electrical power field. A mysterious fourth member, Steve Knight, added subtle keyboard colorings; his presence assuaged Pappalardi’s anxiety that people might accuse Mountain of copying Cream’s three-man attack. The essential Mountain albums remain the first three: Mountain (Leslie’s “solo” debut), Climbing and Nantucket Sleighride.

Leslie and Corky joined with Jack Bruce after Felix left. West, Bruce & Laing, as they were known, relied on their massive reputations more than the quality of the music, releasing three albums and touring Europe for three years. Eventually the band collapsed, a drug heap of spent rock stars. A handful of solo records ensued, including Corky’s own, and one that was a Leslie West/Mick Jagger collaboration. West fired Mick Jones from his ill-fated “Wild West” band, launching Jones into the high-finance circles of corporate rock, in Foreigner. Corky drummed in a new band, the Mix. Leslie gave guitar lessons.

And so, after traveling with a convoy of semi trucks (one for each rock star in WB&L), the legendary guitarist and drummer worked themselves down to traveling with zero equipment (save for personal effects, guitars and cowbell). West and Laing have seen the glory, fallen from grace and come to a fresh start. At New York’s Bottom Line in October ’82, West’s playing was tighter and more polished than any time since Mountain’s peak. He employed an octave box, echoplex, utilized more feedback than he used to, and seems able to coax the world’s absolute best tone out of any guitar he uses—it doesn’t have to be his old Les Paul Jr. West puts more expression into a flurry of fast notes than anyone, and can still smack out the meanest harmonic in the business. His blues shouting has a sweeter edge now. Corky is, in my opinion, the finest hard rock drummer there ever was, and together, when they’re on, they blend together like nothing else.

The two began playing dates this past year with no rehearsals, equipment supplied in total by the clubs—they walk onstage to a strange drum set and some Marshall amps. But God help us. Says Corky: “We’re on the line. There’s an audience, here’s the equipment. Play. That’s what I mean by war. I adapt to a new kit every night. Leslie and I are never comfortable at a show; we’re pretty fuckin’ scared. Anybody can rehearse. We never know where it’s gonna land. We don’t jam—I can’t stand that fuckin’ word. We concentrate on trying to get somewhere.”

With former Savoy Brown bassist Miller Anderson, they’ve just signed with old manager Bud Prager, and changed their name to LAW.

The fat jokes are unavoidable. Leslie West’s Upper East Side apartment has a skinny entrance way, a claustrophobic elevator and a cramped hallway. Certainly not befitting the ominous size and charisma of a rock star that loomed over his Fillmore audience like Goliath, 12 years ago. The first floor of his duplex is narrow, but this is where the fearsome figure of Leslie West resides in 1983, like it or not. Leslie is actually not that tall, under six feet, and less than jolly to boot. He sometimes catches his temper and instantly reverses to being friendly as pie.

Though Mountain albums line the wall, it looks like the apartment of a man who’d rather be on the road. Leslie rolls about his carpet like a huge puppy, playing his TV video games, grabbing for the wireless phone. He plays a cassette of some new songs banged out in the studio, switching back and forth between this and “Never in My Life.”

“Listen to how flat the old stuff is compared to this,” he jests, dismissing the recording quality of the classic cut from the quintessential Climbing album. “I just want to show ya—I don’t care how great I thought some groups that I saw were—they weren’t shit, it’s just the memory of the show and the magnitude of the artist.”

High Times: How come you’re so much better now than when we last saw you in 1975?

Corky Laing: For good reason. We were strung out then. We were riding the crest of a slump. We were on the way out. It was the end of something, not the beginning. When we came back together, it just kicked in, we had a great time. No ulterior motives, it wasn’t like we wanted to make a million bucks—

Leslie West: I started my guitar school, a couple hundred students. There were amateurs and pros, but no matter who it was, it forced me to play something. I’d have to think back to the most basic thing in the world. I had to give them stuff to work on, and I got so many ideas. After those two years, I told Corky, man, I’m happy doin’ this, I don’t wanna be on the road anymore. I was makin’ a lot of money... But all of a sudden we’ve got more original material.

Corky: My band, the Mix, played with Judas Priest when they were soaring. They’re all motorcycle, Hell’s Angels-type English guys, big boys. The fucking guitar player came rushing in with his bodyguards, cleared the dressing room. I was scared, I didn’t know what the hell was goin’ on. But he said, “I saw Leslie, man, took some lessons, and he’s taught me more, showed me a lot of shit.”

High Times: How do record company A&R men see you now?

Leslie: If we had to start Mountain cold today, I don’t care how good we are, it’s just too much. The record companies are oversigning groups. Polydor wants to be CBS overnight. They don’t know what they’re doing, they think this new wave is going to take them into a low tide.

Corky: You’ve got a lot of these young executives who were big fans of ours when they were kids. If they really liked ya, though, they don’t want to go near ya, they want to keep it that way.

Leslie: I don’t want to meet Eric Clapton, man, and we played with Jack. Corky’s played with Clapton.

High Times: You actually never met him, he still looks that big to you?

Leslie: C’mon, you know what he’s responsible for? Never mind that he hasn’t—

Corky: Same way as I felt about Ginger. I never met him, never wanted to. I don’t say it’s the same adulation with the A&R executives, but they wanna know how we’re feelin’, whether we’re healthy enough to go on the road. The fact is, nobody ever did more roadwork than Mountain. We did 285 dates a year, for three years. Even now, in the past year, we covered the entire country twice, because we carry no equipment.

Leslie: New wave became a fashion. You get all these groups, you throw ’em at the wall like darts to see which ones stick. The Police, Dire Straits, Sex Pistols, they had something to say. But most others weren’t around as long as some of the groups when we started. We were at Woodstock, that was the beginning of Santana, us and sort of Crosby, Stills & Nash. For years before that [with the Vagrants, a Long Island party band] I worked in discotheques, six sets a night. These groups today aren’t old enough, they go to CBGB’s, and the starving record executive is there picking one on their sixth month together—next month they’ve got an album out, and then they’ve broken up.

Corky: The executives never fall in love with music, they fall in love with the fashion.

High Times: What are royalties like now from early Mountain albums?

Leslie: We only get ASCAP publishing royalties from radio, jukebox, not any from album sales. “Mississippi Queen” was the most, it was a hit single. Get a penny every time it’s played in the jukebox.

Corky: Nantucket was the biggest seller, after Climbing.

High Times: What broke Mountain up after the Flowers of Evil album? Was it because you wanted to play with Jack Bruce?

Leslie: Felix didn’t want to work anymore, he didn’t want to tour. He traveled with Ian and Sylvia around Canada, but it wasn’t the same intensity. He was a session guy.

Corky: Leslie and I always loved the road. We come from road bands. The only band he’d ever really been on the road with was Mountain.

Leslie: He did not enjoy the success we had in Mountain as much as we did. When we first got our gold record, he called me up and said, “You’re gonna have your gold record on this day, I guarantee it.” I said, “Well, you will too.” He felt he’d gotten his already, producing Cream; but now he was an artist. Felix was not as much an essential part of Cream’s music as he was to Mountain’s music. Anyway, me and Corky decided to take a vacation in England when Felix decided to leave. We had three more dates to do with Mountain in England.

Corky: Just as an alternative, we called Paul Rogers and Mick Ralphs, and had them come down to jam. We ended up introducing Bad Company.

Leslie: I was thinking to myself, we gotta call a singer, a bass player, or call Jack and get the whole thing solved right now... We went into Island Studios, did a tape, and that was the beginning of West, Bruce & Laing.

High Times: Backtracking a bit, what was Mountain’s reception in England?

Corky: Incredible, we were bigger there than here.

Leslie: Guitar players were more respected over in England, for some reason.

Corky: And also, they were all skinny, little Peter Frampton types, and when Leslie came over, they said we gotta check this freak.

Leslie: And the English groups we toured with—Mott the Hoople, Jethro Tull, Ten Years After—they were our publicity agents. We were all great friends, we talked them up, they talked us up.

Corky: And we helped a lot of them open here—Black Sabbath opened for us.

High Times: When did you first hit England?

Leslie: In ’71.

Corky: Island Records had just released Nantucket Sleighride in England. There was a guy named Peter Rudge who was our tour manager over there. He did The Who over here, but over there, just us. Since then, the Stones picked him up because of how fast Mountain came up in England, he was personally responsible.

High Times: Yeah, but promotion was still beside the point.

Corky: But there was that soft-sell promotion thing, which wasn’t heavy like billboard shit, it was authentic.

High Times: Who came down to see you in England?

Corky: Paul McCartney came down... Dylan and Hendrix came when we did the Fillmore.

High Times: Hendrix mentioned Mountain as the only band he went out of his way to hear, in a posthumous Guitar Player interview.

Leslie: I played with him the night before he died, at Ungano’s Discotheque. He went to England the next day. He played bass and I played guitar. Some stupid fuckin’ magazine reviewed it and said that I played louder than him; I mean, usually guitar is louder than bass. The next day we went to Detroit, and the hotel clerk said, “Another one of you rock ’n’ rollers kicked the bucket.” Just like that. His father called me and asked if I wanted to buy some of his guitars. He called a lot of guitar players—

High Times: Did you take any?

Leslie [registering disgust]: Ugh. I thought it was phony at first, but it wasn’t.

High Times: I think Frank Zappa took some, he boasted of having a Hendrix guitar.

Corky: I’ll bet he did. He’s that kind of guy [laughs].

Leslie: Probably figured it would help his playing, ya know?

High Times: What was your experience at Woodstock?

Leslie: Nervous.

Corky: I played on Ten Years After’s record, the soundtrack of “Goin’ Home.” Ric Lee’s drum mikes fell down and there was twenty-five minutes of bad timing.

Leslie: The drums didn’t come out and Corky had to overdub it.

High Times: Woodstock was one of Mountain’s first gigs.

Leslie: Third. We had to rent our own helicopter, ’cause the highways were jammed, we were on Saturday night; we had a great spot, ’cause our agent was Jimi Hendrix’s agent, Ron Terry. He was holding Hendrix over everybody’s head—“Jimi’s not showing up if you don’t give me a good time for Mountain.” Poor Jimi went on when nobody was left, he wanted to headline so bad. Anyway, in the helipcopter there was a first-aide kit, and I took out an amyl nitrite, a snapper. I saw all them people down there, I looked down and I did it. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

High Times: Did you usually get high before concerts, did you ever trip onstage?

Leslie: No. I never took Quaaludes—

Corky: I’ll tell you something. We used to have such a good time onstage, get so blitzed out. When we got offstage, we’d have to take drugs to hopefully raise us up to that plateau again.

Leslie: You try to relive that onstage moment of high all your life, until you go on again. And it’s impossible to get there, chemically, if you’ve been there naturally. And you’ll try... Trouble is, when you’re so fucked up, and you’ve gone as high as you can get, someone says, “You’re really fuckin’ up, ya gotta straighten out.” And you’re sittin’ there floatin’ away, not listening to them. Finally, I came up against a brick wall, I had no more choice. That’s the only way to really stop. Nobody’s gonna wake up one morning and say, “Yes, I think I’ll clean up today.” Not when you’re fuckin’ around with that stuff.

High Times: Have you been trying to re-create the feeling of an encore at the Fillmore East all these years?

Corky: You can’t. But you try and get back up there again, you try to just inflate it a bit. And you can’t.

Leslie: And ya keep tryin’.

Corky: You know you’re gonna get there when you get onstage.

Leslie: In fact, if you do it before, it’s wasted.

Corky: You sweat it out in about two seconds. Any intoxication is gone in the first five minutes between the lights. I’m talking about any drug. I don’t know how these fuckin’ acidheads did it.

Leslie: The San Francisco groups were on acid, that’s how they were able to play six hours.

Corky: I don’t know how, if you’re touring twenty-four hours a day. We did three festivals a day in the summer. In those days, at festivals, after the first fifty rows, that’s it. You can only see tits and cleavage for the first fifty rows. You keep an eye out for what’s gonna get you off that day, but after that, after the first five or ten thousand people, what are you gonna do, you can’t count them—

High Times: You might as well be at the Bottom Line.

Leslie: The only way you know people are out there is when somebody tells ya it goes back about a mile.

High Times: How did you feel about the notion that Mountain was the natural successor to Cream?

Leslie: A lot of the press said that. People put me down, they said I copied Eric. I idolized the guy. Felix produced him, so there was that influence, and when West, Bruce & Laing came along, Jack was part of Cream, so there was that influence. And it’s pretty hard not to admit to it, because they were my favorite group in the world. The reason we had a keyboard player is because Felix didn’t want to look that way. But the music was that way, that’s the way I played. I didn’t have any roots in old blues, like all of these guys say they did.

High Times: Old articles credited you as coming from the “B.B. King school.”

Leslie: I loved Albert King. But I didn’t learn from him, I learned from The Who and Cream.

High Times: But you were so close to their time, it’s not as though you were brought up on them, they became successful two years before you.

Leslie: Cream changed the fuckin’ business. You had guys strumming away and playing the drums nice—all of a sudden three guys came and played the shit out of these instruments.

High Times: They were the second musical coming of the decade.

Leslie: Hendrix and them, no doubt about it.

High Times: But you were right behind, when only a handful of guitarists could play that way.

Leslie: Behind? That don’t count at the Kentucky Derby... Led Zeppelin only came out about the same time as us... Cream was the first group, as players, to be able to do what The Beatles were doing as singers. John and Paul. Those are the ones. Unbelievable. Ever look at their songs in alphabetical order? Like a fuckin’ yellow pages.

High Times: Sure. Did you hear the recent BBC radio release from 1962?

Leslie: Amazing, huh? But everyone’s excited about it except them.

High Times: Did Mountain play the Fillmore more than any other group?

Leslie: The Who might have played a little bit more. If you count the Fillmore West, I think Grateful Dead might have.

High Times: What was the magic of those Fillmores that’s lost today?

Leslie: It was a church.

High Times: It’s a gay disco club now.

Corky: We could sit here for hours discussing whatever happened to that consciousness. But I can’t blame anyone else but the industry, they’re the culprits. I don’t think they know it, I don’t think they meant it consciously.

High Times: What were Mountain groupies like?

Corky: Leslie had the most beautiful ones. Unbelievable. He always used to fix me up so I’d get the clap. He needed most of them. Leslie got the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen in my life goin’ after him. I don’t know why.

High Times: Where did they congregate at the Fillmore? At Ratner’s?

Corky: As a matter of fact, the Fillmore wasn’t that terrific. It would be after, they would get in touch. They might come back holding their panties, having pissed their pants or fudged their silks, to show their appreciation. Fine, I’ll accept that, if that’s the way they want to demonstrate it.

© 1983, 2009 Josh Alan Friedman

Friday, November 27, 2009

"Resurrecting The Kessler"

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Josh's Lost New York

"Thanksgiving at McDonald's in Times Square"
My first 45 in Texas, in 1988.

© 2009 Josh Alan Friedman

Monday, November 23, 2009

Jack Bruce Follows His Own Path

Reprinted from the Dallas Observer, July 24, 1997:

By the end of Ringo’s “All-Starr” concert at Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth, two adorable 13-year-old girls in braces, accompanied by one’s mom, staked out front stage for souvenirs. When the meat rack of security guards turned awry, the best she could grab was Gary Brooker’s sweat rag. Sensually inhaling of its fragrance, she neatly folded the white-haired musician’s rag.

“What do you plan to do with it?” I inquired.

“Keep it by my bed,” she purred. Once there were millions of such girls—who’d get up and dance before her mother was born—that would faint over the sweaty droppings of anything Ringo. How nice to see at least two were still interested, by association of Gary Brooker.

Ringo Starr also deserves to be knighted, for the good will generated by bringing together such British icons as Jack Bruce, Gary Brooker and Peter Frampton under his “All-Starr” banner—an event that can only transpire under the grace of Ringo’s name.

This year’s tightly rehearsed lineup smoked Billy Bob’s on May 23rd, the consensus opinion being it was Ringo’s best of four All-Starr tours over the years. Jack Bruce and Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker performed with tremendous grace and prowess. Merely because they are middle-aged, scant opportunity remains for them to play rock concerts, an arena they once pioneered. But the music represented by these four revolving frontmen is as much a part of America as mom and apple pie, more sacred here than in Britain.

Jack Bruce says people wrongly assume that British rockers of the ’60s all knew each other (they now seem like an elite club of ex-prime ministers). He met Frampton and Brooker “maybe once in all those years.” (The oft-repeated in-joke onstage was introducing “Gary Brooker from Essex.”)

Unlike Clapton, Jack Bruce didn’t attend any Beatles sessions. “I was never one for hanging out. I first ran into Ringo at Abbey Road when I was doing a session for Paul McCartney’s brother, Mike McGear, who had a band called Scaffold, around ’66.”

Bruce has bonded closest to Gary Brooker on the tour. “We’ve all been through very similar things, everybody has become mates, we're all Brits, apart from Mark Rivera [sax] who’s the token Yank.”

Jack Bruce’s last professional trip to America was in ’93, for Cream’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—another pit stop in the industrial wasteland of marketing. “Like Eric, I wasn’t keen to do it, because it’s just another award, an institution. A lot of people get left out, it’s unfair. I guess you can’t include everybody. Where does rock ’n’ roll begin and end? I was happy to see George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic inducted.”

Does it give a little boost commercially?

“No, not really, doesn't matter. I’ve been following my particular path out of choice for many years. I never really wanted to be a huge commercial success, that wasn't even the plan with Cream. I always wanted to play a lot of different kinds of music, and make a living, which I have.”

Bruce’s storied career shows vast diversity, as any great musician’s should: he’s recently moved between opera, film scoring, concerts in Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Germany with Chaka Khan, a solo piano album Monkjack containing duets with former Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell, a children's musical entitled Little Stars, and performances of commissioned works in Vienna with the Niederosterreichischen Tonkunstler Symphony Orchestra (if indeed, that is its name). He lists nearly 100 albums in his discography.

Like Ginger Baker, he transcends categories, following a more dignified path, rather than wallowing in the stagnant cesspool of pop music. Back when Cream sold 35 million albums, popular music was the glory of the times.

Bruce has no reservations about the greatest-hits, vaudeville nature of Ringo’s All-Starr tour: “What’s wrong with vaudeville? I would love to have seen a vaudeville show. Even I’m a bit young for that. Obviously we’re doing classic songs, it wouldn’t be fair to the audience to do obscure ones. If I’ve got three songs to play, they have to be ones that people know, I can’t do one of the classical piano pieces from my last record.”

As such, we got to hear Ringo, in unison with Simon Kirke, drum on “Sunshine of Your Love,” “White Room,” and Bruce’s emotional show-stopper, “I Feel Free.”

“He’s quite a drummer,” Bruce says of Ringo. “I don't think he does a lot of playing in-between these little tours, he’s not one for a lot of woodshedding these days. But he’s certainly in shape now, having a great time.”

Ringo took the high road, announcing he would spare the audience “Octopus’s Garden,” sticking to Lennon-McCartney songs written for him. The band played a killer “Yellow Submarine.” The evening’s lead guitarist, Peter Frampton, was unable to perform material from Humble Pie (no Top Ten hits in USA), his musical (though not commercial) peak. The balding, white-haired Frampton wore his age more than the others, even donning a bathrobe before leaving the stage during the finale. His Les Paul tone was badly equalized at times—while Bruce’s ever-bold bass had crystal clarity. Associated with the Gibson EB-3 when he was first to make bass a lead instrument in rock during the late ’60s, Jack Bruce now endorses his Warwick fretless, rotating a 1955 Gibson EB-O for earlier tunes.

Sporting a full head of hair, Bruce is still the most forceful and unique blues-rock shouter to ever come out of Britain, Joe Cocker and Rod Stewart included. A five-minute bass solo kept even Billy Bob’s middle-of-the-road audience riveted: “One of the things I play is ‘Burning of the Midnight Lamp,’ which would get a big cheer of recognition at my own concerts.”

The voice and chops are certainly stronger than they were in West, Bruce & Laing, together for several years in the mid-’70s. Bruce had then recently left the Tony Williams Lifetime, with John McLaughlin, which he described as the “musical time of my life.” Mountain, widely considered the heir apparent to Cream, split in 1972. Jack Bruce joined up with Leslie West and Corky Laing in the year’s most anticipated supergroup. The three seemed mired in delusions of psychedelic grandeur and excess at their Carnegie Hall debut, arriving in separate limousines. “West, Bruce & Laing didn’t get the credit it should have. It was very much a trend-setting band,” claims Bruce, yet even he can’t recall a single favorite number from the band’s three albums.

On the demise of Baroque conductor, Felix Pappalardi, who brilliantly produced Cream and lead Mountain on bass, Jack Bruce will not speak. In 1983, the great Pappalardi was shot by his own wife Gail Collins (lyricist of many a Cream and Mountain song, as well illustrator of the latter’s albums). From his unique vantage point Jack Bruce will offer no insight, abruptly dismissing the bizarre and murky tragedy—other than to say “I miss him very much.”

Of Mountain’s legendary 1970 recording of the Bruce/Brown composition, “Theme For An Imaginary Western,” Bruce says “I never liked that version. It wasn’t good, it was very heavy, inaccurate to the music. They made it plodding, less musical. In fact, they were a plodding band. I still think Leslie has the finest sound in rock ’n’ roll, and I was obviously a fan of Felix,” says Bruce, who once pronounced West the greatest guitarist he ever played with, at Carnegie Hall. “But I never thought the band swung, and for me, a band’s gotta swing to get me, gotta have that movement that excites me.”

Jack’s 1960s songwriting collaborator, poet Pete Brown, is “doing quite well, just produced a British blues tribute record to Cyril Davies—one of the first people to bring Chicago blues to Britain.”

Americans tend to assume John Mayall was Father of the British Blues, which Bruce quickly refutes: “By no means, not for 10 or 15 years. He was playing a little club in Manchester when I was with Alexis Korner, and we found him. He’s the next generation. There’s a whole generation of people before him who started the British blues movement in the ’50s, bringing Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy to Britain, even in the ’40s. I was into jazz in the ’50s, my dad took me to see Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald. I wasn't into the blues until later.”

Ella Fitzgerald had a hit single with “Sunshine of Your Love,” Jack Bruce’s most covered song. “When it first came out, it got diverse covers from Ella to the Fifth Dimension. I once had a computer printout of who did my songs. Joel Gray did ‘White Room.’ It's quite amusing.”

“I Feel Free” is likely his second most recorded song, Belinda Carlisle having the most recent hit in Britain. “There again, I didn’t like it, but it went triple platinum. David Bowie did it recently, which I liked.”

“Sunshine of Your Love” is likely the world’s most performed guitar riff, and was used to great effect in Goodfellas’ climactic cocaine paranoia scene. Only in recent years does he enjoy approval for the vast usage of such songs: “I did get a fax from Martin Scorcese’s people roughly describing the scene. But I trust him very much, he’s a great director. I finally managed to get the right to say Yes or No. For many years I had litigation, as many of us did from the ’60s, to get my rights.”

Incredibly, Bruce has little input toward what will appear on an upcoming Cream box set, and can only submit preferences for his own impending Jack Bruce box set on Polygram. Due to song copyrights he does not have final say.

The Cream box will hopefully include an extraordinary Falstaff Beer commercial Bruce wrote, which was never released: “I don't think they ever used it. Fortunately, you can’t even buy Falstaff Beer in Britain, which is about the worst beer. It was when the band was breaking up. Eric and I didn't want to do it, but Ginger needed the money, so we did it for him. We wrote and recorded it in 20 minutes.”

Understandably not wanting to dwell on Cream, he does answer the obligatory question on Clapton, whose music seems uniquely designed for elevators: “That’s true, you do hear it in elevators. It’s his chosen path, that's all you can ever hope for, isn’t it—to be successful at what you want to do? I don’t listen to it. To be completely honest, he does waste his talent. Because he is amazing. The last time he moved me was in the film about Chuck Berry [Hail, Hail, Rock ’n’ Roll]. He did a slow blues that was outrageous.”

Ginger Baker, who now lives in Denver and sat in with Ringo’s All-Starrs there, once declared the deceptively brilliant Ringo as his favorite drummer. Around 1970, the time of Blind Faith, rumors of Baker’s demise as a 98-pound speed freak were rampant—much more so than for robust drummers like John Bonham, Keith Moon or Dennis Wilson. Today, as leader of the jazz-chart topping Ginger Baker Trio, Bruce proudly says Baker plays a mean game of polo and is a member of the Denver Volunteer Fire Department, pronouncing him “very fit.”

Each with his own valet, the Glade Air Freshener-sponsored tour covers 25 cities, using a private plane, booking top hotels. None of these fellows trash hotel rooms, but asked if he ever did in the ’60s, Bruce replies, “I dare say I made the odd mess here and there, but I never saw the point of trashing a hotel room.

“When my 14-year-old was 10, she discovered the Beatles,” says Jack Bruce. “I played a video of Yellow Submarine for the kids, then she bought every Beatles record. Now she’s into gangster rap. I like gangster rap myself, and MTV. My favorite band in Britain at the moment is a band called the Prodigy. One of my sons is in an Afro-Celt rap band. Music moves on.”

© 1997, 2009 Josh Alan Friedman

Friday, November 20, 2009

"Resurrecting The Kessler"

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Josh's Lost New York

"Little Jack Horny was up in the awning
of Howard Johnson's neon glare"

© 2009 Josh Alan Friedman

Monday, November 16, 2009

Nellie Hatt and Her Sons

Nellie Hatt and her sons Ned, left, and Carl on farm at Baileyville, Me., where all were born. If crops are bad, Ned said, “We make do, then. We don’t ask nobody’s help.”

The above caption and photo ran on page 37 of The New York Times, July 2, 1974. It has haunted me ever since. It was taken by Arthur Grace, for a story called “Maine Farmers See Aid in Beef,” by Alden Whitman. The dateline was a town called “Meddybemps, Maine.”

“… away from the coast, on the narrow back roads, are many gray sway-backed, abandoned or unused farms, their stone fences crumbling or their fields inexorably reverting to brush.” And there lived Nellie Hatt and her two sons, one-legged Ned and Carl. I remembered seeing people in Maine just like them during summer camp. Maine was the Mississippi of the North, but without the music or the Negroes. I attempted to write a short story about Nell and her sons, but never could. Fifteen years later, I showed the clipping to my wife, Peggy. For my next birthday, she presented me an original mounted print from the Times photographer, Arthur Grace, which has since hung on my wall. Grace told her he thought I was crazy. But I thought you’d have to be insane not to want a print.

© 2009 Josh Alan Friedman
© 1974, 2009 Arthur Grace

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Josh's Lost New York

"Perched from my upstairs, extra-seating table view,
I saw the lights go on for the All Live Whirly*Girly Revue,
Broadway's worst burly-Q, first time since '62"

© 2009 Josh Alan Friedman

Monday, November 9, 2009

"Come to Papa"

Originally appeared in Blab! #7, Winter 1992

Not the least enthusiastic among Florida’s new elderly folks were Jack and Nellie Leibowitz. “Come on down,” Jack cajoled his shy teenage grandsons, echoing the geriatric hog call that had lured him South. Ned and Dave received boxes of oranges and grapefruits. They were promised legendary meals and tropical fun.

Grandpa Jack’s lust for activity got him elected president of Lancelot Court, an oceanside semiluxury highrise with two-hundred units (don’t even think of applying before you’re 62). He wore his retirement like a badge of honor, something he’d earned after 40 years on the road as a traveling salesman. Grandpa Jackie Leibowitz cherished his senior citizenship as if it were knighthood.

Grandsons Ned and Dave were finally swept into their grandpa’s retirement whirl when they arranged a week’s vacation during the Passover holidays. Ned, now 16, had always loved his grandfather. Once a year, Jack drove through New York on his sales route for a three-day stopover. He was a king of the road. He knew Route 66 like the back of his hand, before the super highways came into being.

Ned would watch his grandpa shave his tough steel-gray beard with an electric razor, then splash his face with Florida Water aftershave. He combed an impeccable part in his silver hair. Ned never saw him without a trusty tanktop undershirt, oversized boxers and matching sock suspenders. He watched him slip into a silver suit and silk tie, while imparting wisdom.

“Always remember the first names off the buyer’s wife and children,” advised Jack, “and bring a gift for the kids.” That was the secret of great salesmanship. On came the cuff links, pinkie ring and gold watch. Jack must have racked up more salesmanship trophies than anyone. He worked the road for a firm called Chicago Surplus. Ned never even knew what he sold.

The boys weren’t interested in becoming salesmen. Ned was so distraught with high school, he decided to drop out. With a cannon to his head, Ned didn’t think he could stand one more day of it. Every morning, in the back of the smoke-ladened bus, his friends would shove a hash pipe in his mouth. He fell into a depressed slumber during Geometry and Spanish, his first two periods. He felt persecuted and demeaned by his teachers, most of them mentally ill civil servants. He begrudgingly attended folk-singing Vietnam anti-war rallies every week, and was expected to burn his draft notice in a couple of years. He hated folk music. The girls who performed it all sang with bad breath, their faces spotted with Clearasil. And his pals were compulsive record buyers, amassing huge piles of circular vinyl as status symbols. God forbid if Ned wasn’t versed in the latest Atomic Rooster, Rhinoceros or Sir Lord Baltimore.

Ned needed to flee his surroundings. To feel some old-time values, ancient customs, to be with his grandparents for some balance and sanity. Ah, old people. Grandpa Jack was appalled by the hippie movement, yet he spoke fervently of brotherly love within his own family.

“You really dropping out?” mumbled Ned’s wide-eyed brother, 13-year-old Dave. Dave was a quiet fellow, seen and not heard, who dreamt of being an actor. He hadn’t done any acting yet, but figured it would all come together when he grew up. “What’ll you do instead of school?”

“I dunno. Let’s go visit Papa,” slurred Ned.

Jack and Nellie came to Florida to live out their days, craving sun and warmth, needing to be near the sea and palms. Yet Southern Florida was no glue factory for the elderly. It was being vigorously reclaimed by Americans born at the turn of the century who had just reached retirement. They fled cold Northern cities. Active “senior citizens,” a generation of sexy, young, freshly retired couples in their 60s ready to cha-cha. They were hungry for those tans, golf courses, to let their career-worn bodies soak up wholesome entertainment at the Diplomat and Fountainbleau.

Hurricane-proof condos had sprung up against the oceanside, the concrete barely dry before their elderly tenants arrived. They were propelled by pensions, social security and golden years savings. They were lured by Borsht Belt entertainers endorsing condos. Golf course TV ad campaigns to buy real estate from Red Buttons, Bob Hope, Red “Come-On-Down-to-Sunny-Florida” Barber, Anita Bryant and the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame.

Grandpa Jack was ecstatic at the arrival of Ned and Dave at the airport. He whisked them to Rascal House, a delicatessen he’d been raving about since he arrived. “These are my grandsons,” he beamed, to other tables of Lancelot Court acquaintances. “Well-behaved, clean-cut boys, straight A’s. They don’t take drugs or any of that crap you read. They love each other and stick together.”

Ned had recently fallen in with a sad clique of heroin snorters, and his hair was beginning to stream past his shoulders. He thought it odd that Grandpa hadn’t noticed. He feared his desire to leave school would be leaked to Papa by his brother Dave. His grandpa couldn’t possibly ever comprehend the reasons. He still hadn’t recovered over the fact that neither boy had been bar mitzvahed.

Ned heard his grandpa whisper “kikes” under his breath as he passed one table. He was 70, in his third year in Florida. The razzmatazz seemed to have faded from his wild and wooly retirement.

“What’ll yooze guys have?” Grandpa belted out. “I wanna see some hearty appetites! We do a lot of eating down here in Florida.”

Grandpa ordered a turkey on rye, Durkee’s sauce on the side. The waiter regretted they were out of the sauce when the order came.

“What! How the hell am I supposed to eat turkey,” said Grandpa Jack, dropping his sandwich on the plate in disgust, “without a goddamn bottle of Durkee’s?” He called for the manager.

It was a fact: they’d run out.

“Who the hell eats turkey without Durkee’s?” shouted Grandpa, pounding the table. His face turned a shade of heart-attack red, an anger the boys had never seen. Throwing up his arms, he ordered the waiter to take back the sandwich and the pickles. Rascal House had occupied a high place in Grandpa’s personal mythology in Florida, but no more.

The boys received overstuffed pastrami sandwiches, glistening with fat, from the “fresser” column of the menu. “Have some, Papa,” they offered. But the old man would eat nothing, just sit there and stew. He became quiet, squinting into the distance, arms folded like a general plotting an invasion of delicatessens.

“This place is nothin’,” he spoke, in a battle cry as the manager passed the table. “Tomorrow,” he said to his boys. “Tomorrow—we eat.”

The five Leibowitz brothers—of which Grandpa Jack was the youngest—grew up underfed on the Lower East Side. Jack often told his grandsons how the Leibowitz brothers “stuck together.” They defended each other like five Yiddish musketeers. If Yussel, Yummel, Yankela, Moishe or Schmuel (their childhood nicknames) were ever threatened by someone who hated their kind, four other Leibowitzes were there in a shot. Manhattan contained rival ethnic gangs, but according to Jack, the Leibowitz brothers were not to be messed with. Born around the turn of the century, their parents had emigrated from Eastern Europe in the 1890’s. Their father was a furniture maker in the old country, who got menial work digging August Belmont’s subway.

A family portrait from 1910 showed an impeccably dressed American family, the skinny boys in knickers. But the father had a tightly wound look of discipline and religious ferocity. Perhaps typical of an old-world shtetl patriarch, he seemed psychotic to Ned. He never smiled or laughed and punished the boys often with a strap. Religious holidays were enforced by the old book. Under their father’s stern watch, the Leibowitz boys prayed for hours over the Seder, before their food. Fifty years later, Ned and Dave found it torture to sit before potato pancakes or gefilte fish for fifteen minutes, during abbreviated Seders with Grandpa Jack. The priorities for survival had completely changed over the decades; the applications of religion from millennia past had no relevance in Ned and Dave’s day-to-day life.

But the Leibowitz brothers were American boys. By the early 1920’s, they were handball champs of Brighton Beach, semi-pro athletes all. One even pitched a few exhibition games for John McGraw’s New York Giants. Trim, sinewy, mustachioed men, they swam and boxed on the beach at Coney Island. Together, they were rumored to have thrown one or two guys off a roof. They sat shiva together as teenagers, when their mother died. Two of them fought side by side in World War I. Through thick and thin, Jack told his grandkids, they stuck together, and most of all, they loved each other.

Ned and Dave’s mom was proud to be a saner parent then her parents had been. In turn, it seemed each preceding generation must have had even more hair-raisingly bizarre and irrational parents. By evolution, each successive generation would be less neurotic than the last. And so, the boys’ mom had high hopes for Ned and Dave.

Jack had recently been reunited with his two surviving older brothers. He convinced Manny and Arthur to come on down for their golden retirement years, and they moved to Lancelot Court.

Ned awoke with pot withdrawals the next morning in Florida. He felt two bright blue eyes beaming over his face. It was Nellie, Jack’s second wife of twelve years, smiling over his bed. She was nearly deaf, but refused to wear a hearing aid, causing Jack to shout for her to hear.

“My boys,” she smiled, in Ned’s face, then turned her smile to Dave. “I’ve got all my boys.” It was the ungodly hour of 7 a.m., and both grandparents were roaming about the living room. Jack was shouting to her in a whisper, as though they were being quiet.

When Dave opened an eye, both grandparents were right on top of him. “We’re gonna have some breakfast,” exclaimed Papa. He was full of piss and vinegar. “Both yooze guys, rise and shine. I’m taking you out for a wonderful meal. Anything you want!”

When Ned and Dave started to fully awake, they found themselves at the Ramada Inn luncheonette down the street. Again, Papa was licking his chops, rubbing his hands together in anticipation of breakfast.

“Scrambled eggs,” said Ned to the waiter.

“What?” came Papa. “Whaddaya wanna get that for, you have eggs back at the house.”

“But that’s what I want, Papa.”

“Okay,” shrugged Jack, totally bewildered. “But we have that at home.”

“And four pieces of toast.”

“Four slices?” said Papa, his blood pressure rising. “I never heard of so many.”

“I can handle it, Papa, really,” Ned promised. Finally, Jack became impressed.

“That’s my grandson,” he said to the neighboring table. “He eats four pieces of toast.”

Lancelot Court was the Leibowitz brothers’ retirement paradise. In the three years Jack lived there, he’d just begun to worry about overdevelopment along Ocean Drive. He led his grandsons like retarded children on a tour, pointing out the aqua-green carpeted lobby with stucco walls and seashell wallpaper. They strolled down to the men’s club poker room.

Ned and Dave, unlike anyone their age, truly enjoyed old folks. They began imitating their walks, their talk. It was like a geriatric acid trip. Ned willingly left his hash pipe at home, the first time in a year. Both boys felt a nagging urge to run out for a quickie bar mitzvah, if one were available. They harmonized an old song written for Danny Kaye:

I like old people

Don’t you?

They never tell ya what ya shouldn’t do
They buy you toys and candy
And extra toys are dandy
I like old people
I like them
Don’t you?*

Papa’s older brothers were new to Florida, but they lapped it up. They all went bowling and played at a “golf course of our faith.” They took gambling cruises to Bermuda, with costume balls. Nellie, Jack would beam, came as “my China Doll,” and she never looked more stunning to him. As icing on the cake, there were few Gentiles around.

Jack showed off his Lancelot stretch of ocean side, where his grandsons wet their feet, then strolled up to the pool. His brother, Arthur, who was 80, waited at the gate. The two old men called to each other:



“Watch your Uncle Arthur,” instructed Jack, as they emerged from the beach. “Watch Uncle Arthur wash the sand off his feet.”

Arthur stood at a hose in his bathing trunks, with a truss underneath. He was truly old, sweet and hollow of voice. He grabbed the hose and began demonstrating, watering down his feet.

“Yout gotta get between your toes, like so,” huffed Arthur, the boys observing. “You don’t wanna track sand to the pool.”

“See that, watch your Uncle Arthur real careful,” repeated Jack. “Can you do it?”

“It’s a cinch, Papa. We can do!”

Already at the pool were Mamie and Manny, Jack’s nearest brother in age, at 72.

“Moishe!” screamed Jack and Arthur.

“Yussel, Yummel!” They shared some deep fraternity of brotherly love, dating back to another era, using their parents’ Yiddish tongue.

Uncle Manny had owned a store in Brooklyn for forty years called Comfy Corner, which sold basic pillows, sheets, bedroom ornaments. He survived two heart attacks, yet he seemed robust and fit. His wife Mamie appeared to be a whole generation younger than her senior citizen peers, strutting about in a sexy two-piece.

“You grew like a stinkweed,” Uncle Manny cracked out the side of his mouth, when he saw Ned and his hair. He rarely acknowledged Ned and Dave, much preferring his own grandchildren.

“The Three Remaining Leibowitz Brothers,” said Ned to Dave, with a wink. “Appreciate ‘em, they won’t be around forever. . . are you appreciating them?”

“Yeah, yeah, I appreciate ’em,” said Dave. Ned felt deficient, he lacked the all-for-one, one-for-all spirit the old men had. There they basted in the sun in pool clogs, old red flesh and gray chest hair, enjoying the good life. They held their arms around each other for a moment. They were golden boys.

“When I was in Mt. Sinai in Miami,” Manny told Arthur, “they took damn good care of me. Pwetty nurses. All the surgeons come by, say hello every day, give ya all the blood plasma ya want. They took some blood, told me you got the reddest, healthiest blood we ever saw. I let ’em take all they wanted. Great food, steaks, desserts. I recommend it for the desserts alone. Ever been there?”

“Naw,” said Arthur, slow and mild-mannered as an old tortoise.

“You should try it. . . Now, St. Francis, Chicago, there’s a hospital. You got an ulcer or somethin’, they’ll cut it wight outta ya.”

“Arrow,” interjected Arthur, “makes the warmest undershirt.”

“Better than Hanes and BVD?” asked Jack.

“Yeah, Arrow. They make a good undershirt. Keeps ya warm in the winter, nice white V-neck. Ya buy ’em three to a pack for five bucks.”

“I prefer Fwuit of the Loom,” interjected Manny, from the side of the pool.

Jack waved his hand. “Nah. . . Gimbels makes one helluva undershirt.”

Ned lay on a sun lounger, his skinny body glistening with lotion. Undershirts: he pondered the concept. Not since the night he became enthralled over man’s simple invention of the toaster had he entertained such cosmic thought. Tanktops were a ubiquitous appendage of old men, like baggy boxer shorts. Even the choice of brand was an emotional decision.

Aunt Mamie emerged from the pool feeling sexy. She began a cha-cha dance with her towel, gyrating much to the displeasure of Jack. Manny broke into a swaying Broadway accompaniment, his voice guttural and phlegmy:

A pwetty goyal

Is like a mel-o-dee

Mamie, with a mischievous smile, undid the back strap of her top, doing a mock striptease. Jack went haywire. He was far more prudish than his older brother Manny, or Mamie, who went to discotheques with her grandchildren.

“Not in front of the kids!” screamed Jack, running over and cupping his hands over Ned and Dave’s eyes. “Stop!”

“Keep your shirt on, Jack,” said Mamie, to the president of Lancelot Court, who was trying to maintain order.

“You keep yours on!” responded Jack, and they all broke up, a simple joy registering on each face. Uncle Arthur and his wife hooted in the shade, like owls.

“Well, whaddaya say we have some lunch?” said Uncle Manny, the former proprietor of Comfy Corner. “Jiffy peanut butter sandwiches, with the chunks in it.”

“Nah, nah,” said Papa Jack, waving his hand. “Who the hell wants peanuts in their peanut butter? I can’t chew that. That’s why they process it into spread. I use Skippy.”

“Jiffy’s better for you, Jack. Real peanuts in it, gives ya all the protein ya want. It sticks to the roof of your mouth. I like it there.”

“Well I say Skippy is good, goddamn it, and Skippy it is in my house,” shot back Jack.



Skippy is Drippy,” sang Manny, doing a little soft shoe, top hat and cane, “but Jiffy is Terrify....”

“Shut up!” came Papa, violently. “Shut up, you!”

“What, shut up? I’m just singin’, Jack.”

“You, you... you’re the problem here!” said Jack.

Manny waved his hand to dismiss Jack, recoiling sour-faced. “You. You give me a cramp in my bowel.”

“Kike!” screamed Papa, losing his brains.

“Shit!” countered Manny.

Boys,” rasped Arthur, swallowed up in his beach recliner, buried under a towel. “Boys, boys. Moishe, you’ll give yaself another heart attack, calm down. For God’s sake.”

Mamie rushed to her husband’s side to muzzle him.

“You sickie!” hammered Manny, one more time, as his wife pulled him away. “Nothin’ but one big sickie!”

“Get outta this goddamn pool,” screamed Jack, “and get away from my grandsons.”

Nellie was thrilled to see her men back up in the apartment.

“We’re going to market,” she exclaimed, hardly containing herself.

“To the mall!” announced Grandpa Jack, another fabled institution in their land. He’d regained his composure from the pool episode. Ned was beginning to feel a creeping sense of lunacy during his Florida vacation. They weren’t allowed to roam out to Ft. Lauderdale at night, where older girls were plentiful. It was Lights Out after Papa watched the eleven o’clock news. He was truly riled by the world going to hell. He voiced opinions. “Bust their heads!” he would exhort Chicago cops, when they scattered anti-war protesters.

Nellie was into vegetating. Her main ritual was reading the stock quotations, while Jack read the rest of the Miami Herald each morning. Jack was her fourth husband, and her favorite, going on thirteen years of marriage. Her first husband “wasn’t a real man,” she discovered. Her second husband was poor, but gave her a son, now in his 40s. She’d experienced enough of poverty and vowed to marry rich when she divorced her second husband. Her third husband left her a bundle of stocks when he kicked, which ballooned up to God knows what since she married Jack. But she never touched a penny, save for the new car they had. He paid all other bills, from his social security and pension.

“Wise shoppers stretch dollars,” she instructed the boys. She often spoke out of turn, from her silent undersea world. She wore an ear plug for TV and was delighted by particular commercials, like the old woman with the spray starch which “...Turns iron drudgery... (harp string arpeggio) into Pressing Play-surre.”

“Yeah, pretty cool,” said Ned, repeating Nellie’s fave ad slogans with her like a mantra.

“Here, you want to try my ear plug?” Dave recoiled as she attempted to insert it in his head. Nellie’s number one TV show was something called Tattletales.

“Do you watch Tattletales?” she asked, in all earnest, with a giggle. Ned and Dave watched an episode with her, its sniggering sexual innuendo an affront to all humanity.

“I like Farm Stores. Do you like Farm Stores?” inquired Nell.

“Yeah!” shot the boys, half sarcastic. Ah, old people.

The four of them ambled through the green indoor astro turf of the mall, Nellie smiling into windows. They cruised at about one mile per hour. Nellie wouldn’t purchase a thing, she just liked knowing it was there. A maid did the grocery shopping once a week.

“We have a gal,” boasted Nellie. “I love my gal.” She displayed an odd Southern Belle racism, having grown up in Atlanta. “My James,” she spoke of her son, “once went out with a colored gal. He would have married her if she was white. But I always believed people who go out with coloreds can’t do any better. Don’t you think? He finally dropped her.”

“Howsa ‘bout Chinks for lunch?” asked Jack, hungry after one length of mall. The foursome entered a cottage on the highway called Canton Song. “Now,” said Jack, “watch your Papa eat. Your Papa has one big hearty appetite, and he never left over anything. Never. And neither will you boys.” Papa proudly applied his napkin as a neck bib, and the boys followed.

Ned didn’t appreciate the threat of having to clean his plate. He was sixteen now, and felt protective over what little personal freedom he could muster. That’s what quitting school was about. He was still a minor and in his grandpa’s custody all week, so the eating order sounded ominous.

“These boys have always been good, hearty eaters,” explained Jack to the maitre d’.

“No, they’re particular eaters,” countered Nellie.

“I don’t give a goddamn what she says. They’re hearty!”

“No, Jack, they’re particular about what they eat.” Nellie held her ground. “Now Jack likes soup, ’cause he doesn’t have to chew. Do you chew well before swallowing?”

The boys reassured her they did.

“Your Papa is famous for eating soup. Always loved soup, always will...and so do my grandsons!” Jack declared, embracing the boys. “How is it here?”

“Gooder than a pig,” said Dave, his favorite expression, though no one quite understood it.

“I wipe his tush,” said Nellie, with a big proud grin, almost naughty. “And I clean his pish off the toiled seat. Don’t I, Jack?”

“Yep,” said Papa, shoveling a spoonful of wonton.

“We go out for pedicures. Jack’s too old to reach down and bite his toenails. Can you?” asked Nellie, beaming. “All my boys. You’re my boys. I’m surrounded by my boys.”

“Yooze guys,” echoed Jack, “the best, most wonderful grandsons in the world.”

The boys wondered what the hell he was talking about. Ned carried a rather massive inferiority complex, with due respect to his age. Papa’s compliments seemed to come from Mars.

“I never eat food that tastes bad,” said Nellie. “Do you? If it tastes bad, don’t eat it, I always say.” She nodded to herself, cocksure.

No real questions were asked of the boys, nothing to indicate the old folks were curious about their hobbies, music or beliefs. Jack related incidents of movies he recently stormed out of. He led a dozen senior citizens out of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, demanding refunds from the box office.

“And we got back our admissions. Lewd, lewd, lewd. You call that enta-tainment? People want good, clean movies, decent enta-tainment, like Fiddler and Mame. Maybe I’m old-fashioned.”

“We agree,” said Ned and Dave.

When the main courses came, Jack rubbed his hands. “Oh boy, oh boy, lookit that. And you’ll eat every drop, just like your Papa.” Feeling threatened by the portions, the boys dug in. Jack’s halo of wonderfulness around them was a bizarre, yet not unlikeable sensation, and they didn’t want to spoil it. If he thought they were grand eaters, then by golly, let them eat to impress him.

Silence overtook the table. But less than halfway through, Jack pushed his plate away. He made a sound of disgust, declaring he was full. His plate contained half-devoured orders of subgum, fried rice and partially nibbled shrimp. Upon delivery of the check, Jack threw up his hands by reflex, like highway robbery.

“Thieves!” he wailed, a moment before looking at the check. “They’re all thieves! They pretend they don’t understand nothin’ when you ask ‘em what’s on the menu, then they cheat you blind on the check.”

“Tomorrow,” he prophesied, his finger raised as the confused Chinese waiter looked on. “Tomorrow we eat.”

The next evening, Ned and Dave were ushered off to a special diabetic Seder at one of the big hotels. A private banquet room had been rented by Lancelot Court’s Passover Committee. Certain members had urgent nutritional requirements, were too old to fast, or would pass out during the prayers.

Uncle Manny, Jack, Nellie and the boys squeezed into Jack’s polished pink Cadillac. Uncle Arthur drove Aunt Mamie and his wife. Against a tequila sunset, Jack led the two-car Passover convoy down Ocean Drive. He cursed every other vehicle on the road under his breath, accusing the Wonder Bread truck of anti-Semitism.

“How ’bout some radio, Papa?” asked Ned.

“No radio in the car,” his grandfather ruled.

“For God’s sake, Jack what the hell difference if the kids wanna hear wadio in the car,” came Manny, playing devil’s advocate. “I say let ’em hear it.”

“And I say the car is not the place for radio,” shot back Jack. “They shouldn’t even install radios in cars.”

“When my grandkids want wadio in the car, I turn the damn thing on,” said Manny, playing the modern grandpa.

“I was on the road for over forty years. I should know whether it’s dangerous to play radio in the car!”

“So keep it low, Jack. Let ’em hear their wock music.”

“Beatles, Rolling Stones, long hair, jumping up and down and screaming? No radio in the car!”

The car began to weave in and out of its lane. The boys gripped the sides of their seats.

“Yes, wadio in the car!” Uncle Manny broke into song:

Stwangers in the night
Exchanging glances
Stwangers in the night
Dat’s what romance is

Jack slammed on the brakes in the middle of the road. He wrenched his neck around to Manny in the back seat. “You goddamn son-of-a-bitch! Shut up! For forty goddamn years I’m on the road, and you’re gonna tell me radio’s not dangerous in an automobile?!”

A half-dozen cars behind screeched to a halt and began honking. Spittle shot out of Jacks mouth, his voice was strained, losing tone.

“Jack, Jack!” screamed Nellie, with God’s fear in her eyes.

“You wanna get us killed?” yelled Manny, at the top of his lungs. “Goddamn you, you dumb bastard!”

“Goddamit! You anti-Semitic kike! Don’t tell me how to drive!”

When the cars reached valet parking at the hotel, the Leibowitz brothers were shaking, their wives calming them down. Oh, how Nellie hated to see them argue so. She would sit there fretting, like a worried hen. At times it made her cry. It put her stomach in knots, she told the boys.

But the Leibowitz brothers entered the ballroom in style. Their white summer suits were natty and perfect in fit, with just a trace of tanktop undershirt showing through their white dress shirts. Embracing friends with mitzvah greetings, they pulled out chairs to seat their wives. They displayed the grace and dignity of retired sportsmen. Ned and Dave felt stiffly out of place in their blue blazer jackets, borrowed from their uncles. The same kind of ill-fitting jackets dispensed from coat checks at formal Chinese restaurants, when you didn’t bring one. Both boys’ hairdos swirled rudely out of the obligatory yarmulkes given at the door. The skullcap gave Ned a strange shiver, perhaps rekindling some ancestral Passover memory of the Exodus from Egypt under Moses.

The banquet table was set with formal silverware, crystal and Passover china. A tray in the center contained sodium-free matzoh, the bread of oppression. The Leibowitz brothers each placed a linen napkin on his lap, and the boys followed. Wine goblets to be sipped during different prayers were set forth by a black waiter.

As leader of the ceremony, Arthur, the oldest man, handed Dave, the youngest, a prayer book to commence.

“Why is this night different from all other nights?” read Dave, blushing when his voice jumped.

“On all the other nights we may eat any species of herbs,” Arthur spoke from his book, “but on this night only bitter herbs....”

Grandpa Jack felt obliged to acknowledge the old black waiter filling wine goblets. “How ’bout that Willie Mays in spring training,” he whispered from the side of his mouth. “Still great as ever.”

“So’s Hank Aaron,” cracked Manny, sitting directly opposite.

“Shhhh!” an old woman scolded.

“Behold the matzoh,” recited Uncle Arthur, “bread of poverty, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.”

Ned noticed his grandpa fidgeting, somewhat out of touch with the proceeding. He finally got something off his chest.

“Willie Mays is a well-behaved gentleman,” declared Jack to Manny, with an aristocratic nod of his head. “And a credit to his race.”

“Hank Aaron dwesses bedda,” came Manny, in a loud interruptive voice. “Aaron wears bedda suits, silk ties, he’s bedda groomed than Mays. And he’s a bedda ballplayer.”

“Mays hit .289 last year, Aaron only hit .287, what the hell you gonna tell me,” insisted Jack.

“Aaron hit 29 home runs,” countered Manny, standing up, jabbing his finger. “Mays hit 23. Mays is slowing down, he can’t steal like he used to, can’t make those long catches.”

“Boys, sit down!” pleaded Arthur, dropping his prayer book. Mamie pulled her husband down to his chair. Other diners tightened up, but Nellie was oblivious, smiling like a deaf hen. Ned told his grandpa to take it easy, as neighbors patted his back for him to catch his breath.

“Now I’ll try to continue,” said Arthur, “our reading of the Haggadah. We celebrate tonight because were Pharaoh’s bondsmen in Egypt, and the Lord our God delivered us with a mighty hand: Baruh atta Adonai, elohenu, meleh ha-olam....

There was merciful silence in the room as everybody lowered their heads in prayer. No sooner had the gathering regained its bearings than Ned heard an almost unbelievable outburst from his grandfather:

“I say Willie Mays is more of a gentleman,” blurted Jack, standing up.

“I ca-ca on Willie Mays,” whined Manny, without losing a beat. “He ain’t got no class. He ain’t got no culture. He talks like a schmuck.” Manny was counting examples on his fingers. “Aaron can outhit him, outdwess him. I say Aaron’s the gentleman.”

“Nah, nah—Willie Mays!” exploded Jack, standing back up.

“Jack! Manny!” rasped Arthur. Each man got to his feet, as if making a toast, to have his say. Mamie grasped Manny’s shoulders, begging him to quit, she couldn’t take it. Arthur’s wife held her ears.

“I believe in potaters,” said Nellie to Ned and Dave, zoning in from Mars with a smile. “Do you believe in potaters?”

“What?” came Jack, turning to Nell with daggers in his eyes. “Potatoes? Will you stay the hell outta this and shut up!”

“That’s enough, Jack, please!” screamed Mamie.

“Hank Aaron!” shot Manny.

“Willie Mays!”

“Mays is a goddamn anti-Semitic Nazi!” yelled Manny.

“What?!” came Jack, apoplectic.

Manny broke into raspy-voiced song:

Take me out to da ball game
Take me out to da crowd
Buy me some peanuts and Cwack-er Jacks—

“Shut up, you! Shut up! He’s gonna sit there like a goddamn schmuck,” screamed Jack hoarsely to the whole Seder banquet room, “and tell me Hank Aaron’s a better ballplayer and gentleman, than Willie Mays?”

“Hank Aaron’s the gentleman, and cwedit to his wace!” yelled Manny.

“Get out!” screamed Jack. “Get the hell away from my wife and grandsons. You filthy mockey bastard!

“You anti-Semitic kike!” screamed Manny.

“Get the hell out, you, goddamnit!” screamed Ned and Dave’s grandpa, fist raised, spittle spraying from his beet-red face, the veins in his neck taut has high wire.

“FUCK YOU! I FUCK YOU!” snapped Manny, at the top of his Brooklyn fabric seller’s lungs. He bolted across the table grabbing his brother’s neck. Manachevitz wine goblets overturned, diabetic matzohs were crushed. Stunned, Ned and Dave held down the white table cloth before the whole Seder came undone. They had a situation on their hands.

Several old cockers rushed to pull them apart. Uncle Arthur was unable to separate his brothers as their hands choked each other’s necks. His old blue eyes looked like a defeated fire chief battling out-of-control flames. Caterers streamed from the kitchen toward the table where the two old men flailed each other’s bleeding faces. They were disassembled from each other.

Grandpa Jack lay on the floor, breathing heavily. His silver hair stuck out in tufts, his white suit torn and smeared in hors derves. Manny was breathing asthmatically as his wife attended him. Ned brought his grandpa fresh linen and a wet towel.

“You okay, Papa?”

Jack turned his head away in shame and started to weep. A dozen elderly Seder diners shook their heads. Uncle Arthur and the head caterer decided the two must be kept apart while in the banquet room, and driven home separately. Several tenants of Lancelot Court offered rides. Dave scooped a gefilte fish off the floor and surreptitously put it in his pocket. The Seder was over.

The next morning, the boys took their last swim in the pool. Their flight was at noon. In an awkward moment, Manny ambled out to the pool, across from Grandpa Jack. Both men had bruised faces, and looked older than the day before. Manny set his recliner next to Jack’s, and within minutes they began to talk about the weather, about what they might have for lunch.

“So, you goin’ back to school?” asked Dave, on the plane.

“I dunno. I’ll have to smoke on it awhile when I get home.” Both boys, traveling together alone, felt a new sense of maturity.

“Papa’s great,” said Ned.

“That’s entertainment,” cracked Dave.

“Maybe we should just move down there to Old People Land.”

“Well, TV sucks in Florida,” said Dave, with a troubled look. “They have bad acting.”

“Whaddaya mean? You got your Addams Family, Munsters, Car 54, Where Are You? reruns. They have great acting, great TV down there.”

“It stinks!” cried Dave. “I couldn’t even visit again.”

They’re nice, old people, they’re nice,” sang Ned, irritating his younger brother.

They tell ya funny stories once or twice
’Cause they’re never in a hurry
You never have to worry what to do—

“Shut up!” said Dave.

© 1992, 2009 Josh Alan Friedman

* “Old People” by Milton Schafer

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Josh's Lost New York

Paradise Bootery.

(photo by Annie Sprinkle)

© 2009 Josh Alan Friedman

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Evening Whirl

Adapted from Spin, Oct. 1986, and Screw, Dec. 19, 1983:

The New York Times front page motto has been printed in granite for over a century: All the News That’s Fit To Print. The Evening Whirl—East St. Louis’s “Uninterrupted Crime Fighting Publication Since 1938”—had this credo: For Negroes Who Care to Know. But shortly after I subscribed in 1982 they actually changed it to "For Jews and Negroes Who Care To Know." I thereafter considered it the second greatest newspaper in America, after the Times.

Likewise, I would personally rank its founder, Benjamin Thomas, third in the pantheon of St. Louis greats, after Chuck Berry and Miles Davis. He was nicknamed “the Baron” since being dubbed St. Louis’s best-dressed man in the 1930s. Thomas wrote, edited and published The Evening Whirl for 57 years, retiring in 1996. He died of Alzheimer’s in 2007 at the age of 94, but as the Whirl’s history reflects, he probably had it for decades.

The paper always stood in good favor with police throughout St. Louis. During Ben Thomas’ reign, hundreds of St. Louis criminals were apprehended from mug shots in the Whirl, and murders were solved from tips. It flouted a total disregard of the white media’s editorial rules and etiquette. Littered with typos, malaprops and blotchy typeset, a feature might be continued on the back page, just to fit in its final word (the forbidden “widow” in typesetters’ jargon). Yet Thomas’ unhinged crime verse and poetic license were so brazen, each issue was a work of art. Sexual obsession inflamed his religious reproach. He might nickname a pedophile “Tongue-em Young,” whose “tongue became a spike,” or recount a rootin’-tootin’ cleaning lady’s fending off of a rapist with non-stop farting. It’s a wonder it wasn’t until the 1970’s when the local NAACP attempted to boycott the Whirl (needless to say, the paper was never nominated for a Black Image Award).

A relaxed standard of fact-checking may have accounted for the following two cover reports in 1993, the second appearing the next week:

We can only hope poor Mr. Green didn’t hang himself before the apology came out.

I once attempted to book a St. Louis trip to the Whirl with my associate, Richard Jaccoma. But Thomas refused to grant us an interview. No matter. It was with relish and abandon that we lost ourselves each week, getting to know the Whirl’s endless parade of bad guys, sexual maniacs, hero cops and church-going citizens. They were outed before the public in the following columns: Dope Eaters and Peddlers; the Hooch Hound Club (for dipsomaniacs); the Gun Club (those arrested for firing or carrying); the Sodomy Club (anyone so much as suspected of participating in the act); and the Wife and Sweetheart Beaters Assoc. The paper also gave extensive coverage to “the Stroll,” a wicked stretch of prostitution in St. Louis.

Thomas felt it his civic duty to embarrass the culprits of his crime-infested ghetto across the river in Illinois, even devoting headline coverage to beer guzzlers busted for urinating on the sidewalk. Also among the East St. Louis demimonde were model citizen advertisers, like Dr. H.B. Woolcock, a spiritual healer (that’s Voodoo, of course) from the West Indies, who got rid of the “jinks” and cured women’s “lost nature.” After years, old Dr. Woolcock’s face in his ad suddenly changed to that of a young, turbaned Sabu-type. Another weekly ad was for Garo’s fish restaurant—where the honeycomb tripe was so soft, you could “leave your teeth at home.”

Perhaps the greatest Whirl stories of the time concerned sadly unnatural love interests. The banner headline from March 29, 1983: MAN CAUGHT IN PARK MAKING LOVE TO A DOG, THEY’RE HUNG; 2 COPS SHINE FLASHLIGHT ON ’EM, SEPARATE ’EM, DOG ESCAPES. The doomed love affair of Kenneth “Dog Man” Edwards, a garbage man, occupied the next four issues. Thomas covered the police’s shock, the community’s outrage, Edwards’ parents’ woe, and ultimately, the true love between man and beast, as described in a jailhouse interview:

“Kenneth says he found more joy in making love to Nancy [the stray dog] than he did his wife.... They would ride to the park. After kissing they would smell and lick. The car was their motel. He bought a special food for Nancy [for which he stole money] and mixed a little bourbon in.... He is protecting his beloved dog-friend and expects someday for Nancy to bear children...”

Ben Thomas wrote send-off poems and editorials to murderers, rapists and burglars—often unconvicted ones—on their way to prison. Dog Man Edwards’ was accompanied by a mugshot of Nancy:

Long live Nancy my angelic dog
If she ever quits me I’ll screw a frog
No woman in the world can take Nancy’s place
She has trained me how to keep the pace.
I kiss the darling’s tongue and lips
And kiss on down till I reach her hips;
There’s a little something there that I like,
It turns my tongue into a spike.

A year later, the Whirl topped the saga of Dog Man Edwards with that of “Horse Man” Pruitt, a stable jockey whose huge equipment scared women away. Pruitt was arrested for “raping and sodomizing four Shetland ponies,” one of whom dropped dead after he “wrecked their sex.” Typical was another headline, from 1987: PREACHER HAD SEX WITH HIS 3 DAUGHTERS, 14 GRANDDAUGHTERS, 8 GREATS AND 12 NIECES. Thomas admonished criminals in the middle of hard-news stories, often prescribing Biblical punishments—like lashing a rapist’s bare ass and pouring hot lead between his buttocks.

Now a modernized color paper renamed the St. Louis Metro Evening Whirl, co-published by Thomas’ son, Barry, it wisely doesn’t even attempt to ape its founder’s style. The Whirl is still homophobic, filled with typos and right wing Negritude. But the poetic brilliance of this weekly crime sheet began and ended with “Baron” Ben Thomas, sui generis in American newspaper history.

© 1983-86, 2009 Josh Alan Friedman