Monday, August 30, 2010

Dancin' With Wilson



Lynchburg Virginia in 1967 was not a great place to be black. However if you were up on stage with a rack of brass horns, a throbbing bass line, a wicked guitar wailing away, and you were singing about the fact that you just “gotta have it”, you were loved.

In December of 1967 when Otis Redding died in a plane crash the one thousand students of Lynchburg College went into mourning. Most of them were dead set against any civil right legislation, but when it came to soul music, well that was a different story.

We drank a lot in college and that made soul music sound oh so good. And when we drank we would dance, and when we danced, we would only dance to rhythm and blues. Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Roofus Thomas, Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gay and Martha Reeves they were our dance heroes.

While people our age were tripping out in California and fighting in the jungles of Vietnam we were drinking Bourbon and Ginger Ale and doing the “Monkey” and “The Funky Chicken to the music of Sam & Dave and Wilson Pickett.”

In February of 1968 word got out that Wilson Pickett would be performing just seventy-five miles west of Lynchburg at a little redneck school called Ferrum College. This was a major deal for all lovers of R&B as the big acts like Pickett usually only worked the larger cities.

Wilson Pickett was 26 years old at this time and at the peak of his career. Like many of the great soul artists Wilson came from the gospel tradition. He had initially worked with a group called The Falcons who were one of the first vocal groups to bring gospel into a “pop” context. After departing from The Falcons Wilson wrote a few minor R&B hits for small independent labels. In 1964 Pickett was signed to Atlantic records and in 1965 he broke into the charts with a song he co-wrote with guitarist Steve Cropper titled In the Midnight Hour.

I had a friend, Ron Monk, who was from southwest Virginia. Between his thick Appalachian drawl and my Brooklyn utterance we could hardly understand each other but we were buddies and we both loved Wilson Pickett. Ron had a sister, Edna, who attended Ferrum and she not only got us tickets to the show but also secured us with dates.

When the day of the concert arrived we were extremely excited. We picked up our three-piece suits from the cleaners, shined up our wing tips and put on our ties. On the way out of town we made an important stop at the Alcohol Beverage Control store to pick up our Bourbon. We had our own unique and original way of applying spirits into our bodies. We employed what we known a “drinking machine” which in a very real sense was an alcoholic bong.

It was shaped like an hourglass. In the bottom we would pour in ginger ale and in the top portion would go the Old Grand Dad or the Jim Beam. It was extremely efficient. Just when the shot of whiskey would become overwhelming, the ginger ale would kick in and quickly deliver the mixture of sugar and grain into one’s vessel. One drink would get the party going, two would alter the senses and three, well you just didn’t drink three shots out of a drinking machine.

We headed west on Route 460 in my pearl white 1959 Buick Skylark and quickly drove the 75 miles to Ferrum College. Before we picked up our dates we decided to have a quick go round with the drinking machine. After our short libation I asked Monk if he know where we were to meet the appointed women. Monk looked at me funny as he was lighting up a smoke and said “well Neal I wrote it down on a piece of paper and gave it to you before we left, didn’t I?” Already feeling the Bourbon kick in I replied “I remember the paper but the last place I saw it was on your desk in the dorm room.” We both gazed at each other in silence and realized we had no idea where our dates were. We stumbled to a phone booth and called Edna. Edna was not in a good mood. Apparently we were to show up at 2:00 to take our dates to a party, it was now 6:00 and just two hours before show time. “Well Ron” I overheard Edna say “you boys can get your sorry asses over to the Omega Nu Phi Delta Lamba frat house and see if Becky and Fran are still available but you know this is a big party night and you just might be too late.” Ron replied “but we have their tickets, they won’t be able to go without us, would they?” I could hear Ron’s sister laugh through the receiver as she said “Ron are you listening to me? There’s plenty of boys over at that frat with tickets and lots of booze, you know what I mean little brother?” Ron nodded as he hung the receiver up and said “let’s give it a shot, maybe they have a live band and some free food.”

There was a band and they were loud and everyone was dancing. We waited for the song to end, jumped up on a ratty old couch and announced that Neal and Ron have arrived from Lynchburg and were looking Becky and Fran. As the music was starting up again we heard a girl’s voice shout out from the crowed “you jerks are three Bourbons and ten songs too late.

We didn’t know if that was Becky or Fran but it didn’t matter. The music got louder and the entire room was doing this thing called “Dirty Dancing” which to Ron and I seemed like some type of South West Virginia mating ritual one in which we were surly not participating in. I turned to Ron and said “well shit what should we do now?” Ron took a drag off his Marlboro and replied “well at least we don’t have to worry about our dates, so lets eat some food and have another round from the drinking machine.” At that stage of the evening it sounded like a very logical idea.

We looked up at the clock and it was 7:30, we looked at each other and said “show time.” With Tennessee whiskey running through veins and food stains all over are now rumbled suits we proceeded to stumble and weave over to the auditorium for our date with Mr. Pickett. Before entering the concert we had one last taste of the drinking machine and we were ready to dance.

Wilson was smoking, he had a 12 piece horn section and they were all dancing in time to the music. He opened with his current hit “99 & a Half Won’t Do” and went right into “6345-789” and when he launched into his classic “In the Midnight Hour” everybody in the hall (which was the school gym) was up and dancing.

Being just two very inebriated men without any female companions Ron and I made our way up to the front of the stage. We then commenced to redifine the entire concept of The Boogaloo, The Philly Dog and The Funky Chicken.

Our inspired gyrations must have caught Wilson’s eye, for inbetween vairious na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na’s he looked down at us and pointed his long ebony finger our way and said “do you feel it, do you feel it?” We looked up at the almighty Mr. Pickett “Yes, yes, we do, yes, yes we do.” Wilson then screamed into the mic and said “then come up here and show it.”

We didn’t bother with the stairs. We hoisted ourselves up onto the front of the stage and after tripping over the moniters and a few mic cables we managed to right ourselves and started to dance on both sides of Wilson. Wilson was in the middle of “Land of A Thousand Dances” and as he sang out each dance Monk and I would try to do it. We might have gotton The Mashed Potatoes mixed up The Pony and the Alligator with the Watusi but we were holding our own. We were up there dancing with Wilson Pickett feeling the power of the horns, bass and drums pushing away at our backs.

When Wilson launched into “Mustang Sally” we figured our time was up but no one came to fetch us off stage so we kept right on dancing. It was hard keeping up with Wilson, as singing and dancing was his line of work. Halfway thgrough “Mustang Sally” Monk and I decided to do The Turtle. It was actually quite a simple dance. We got down on our backs and then kicked our arms and legs back and forth as it we were an upside down Teripen.

Without any warning Wilson then sequed into “The Funky Broadway” and we both jumped back into the bugaloo mode. We could tell Wilson was reaching the end of the set, he was grunting, “ugh I feel it, it feels soooo good, Lord have mercy, oh, hear me talking, ah-ow it feels so good.” He raised his arms up and said “help me boys, help me boys.” It’s funny how R& B musicians always seem to say everything twice. I got under one arm, Monk the other and we helped Wilson off stage. He then darted back on the stage, blew kisses to everyone and came back to where Monk and I were standing in our glowing post performance high. We had danced and sweated so much we were almost sober, but not quite. Wilson looked at us and said “you guys are a gas come on downstairs and I get you some cokes.”

Wilson brought us down to his dressing room (which was the gym looker room). “Hey help yourself to some sandwiches, pop, whatever you like, I got to jump in the shower and then jump on the bus.” Wilson talked to us as he undressed down to his boxer shorts, and as he was peeling off his clothes they were being picked up by his roadie and put in a bag.

Wilson was built like an athlete, he wasen’t a big man but he was tight all over from all that jumping around stage he did every night. Monk and I were almost tongue tied in his presence but the remaining Burbon in our system kept us talking. “So Wilson, where to next?” Monk and I asked at almost the same time. Smiling in just his boxes and soxs Wilson replied “Well we going north the Charlottsville, then across to Richmond, Washington DC, Philly and then to New York where I’ll be working The Apollo.”

Wilson dryed his sweat off with a beach towel. On the towel was pictured a verluptous black women in a bikini and an inscription that read “be my summer playmate.”

When Wilson was finished with the towel he let it drop down on the locker room bench. His roadie then said something about the shower on the bus, Wilson threw on a bathrobe gave us both a thumbs up and a wink and just like that he was gone.

A very short silence of 3 to 4 seconds followed, before we both grabbed opposite ends of the towel and pulled it tight. “Let go Yankee boy” Monk says “this is my home state and when a famous R&B player leaves a sweaty towel behind it belongs to me.” “No way” I said “remember whose car we came in Monk, and whose sister set us up with those lame dates.” At that moment we both let go and took a major tumble. I hit my lip on an open locker and it started to bleed, Monk hit his nose on the bench and it started instantly swelling. Monk’s got up and yelled “don’t bleed on the towel, whatever you do don’t bleed on the towel.” “Ok, ok” I said, lets sign a truce and agrre on it’s ultimate fate when we sober up.

We were sober enough to drive back to Lynchburg that night, Ron feel asleep with the towel tucked saftly in his arm. We knew what a treasure we had. Wilson Pickett’s towel with his real sweat on it. Sweat that transpired as he sung “Mustang Sally”, “In the Midnight Hour” and “Land of A Thousand Dances”.

The next morning Ron and I went down to the Tip-Top diner for buscuits and gravey and we took along a deck of cards. After a few buscuits and two cups of coffee we played five card stud for the towel and Ron won. He promised that wherever he lived I could come and visit the towel any time. We both agreed that it would never be washed.

I lost the towel but I’ll never loose the moment. The moment I jumped up on stage in a gym in Virginia I danced the night away with the Wicked Pickett and his rocking band doing that Funky Broadway.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Canary


With her long thin black fingers wrapped around her Kools she’d draw down hard on her cigarette enabling the smoke to quickly disappear through her lips and into her narrow frame. She’d then lift up her head and with one lengthy exhale she’d release it all out of our ninth story window. I was fascinated by how much paper she would burn on her smoke with just one inhale. It was magic to me. She would continue this ritual and as she did she would sometimes bob her head as if she was listening to a distant melody. I would sit near her and wonder as she stared out the window.

Sometimes when she would catch me peaking at her she would shake her head and say “don’t get any dumb ideas like stealing some of my smokes. I count em’ everyday honey and I would know if you took some. And I don’t think your parents would be too happy with their seven year old son if they know he was stealing their house cleaners smokes, now would they? When she would address me she would always point her long and bony index finger right at my eye level. She could be somewhat scary but I’m sure she never thought of herself that way. I would never disagree with Canary, I’d always shake my head yes and promised I would never put a cigarette in my mouth or adhere to whatever law she was laying down.

Canary would come twice a week to our red brick apartment on New York’s lower east side, to wash the floors, take out the laundry, do the dishes and vacuum the house. Her presence was always a welcomed sight to me as both my parents worked every day. When I’d arrive home from school she always had a sandwich ready and some milk. I loved how she greeted me “how you doing sugar, everything alright in the fourth grade? Did you learn something important today? Hey maybe someday you can help change this old mean world.”

I’d sit up on the table and she would keep working and talk to me as I ate. I only knew her as Canary and at that time in my life I imagined it was her first name. She was very long and very thin and had lines that told many stories as they ran up and down her face. The only thing I really knew about her was that she was around forty, had grown up in Alabama, had two children and lived in Brooklyn.

After setting out a little snack for me she would then draw up a chair in the living room and have her smoke while gazing out at the East River. I would quickly devour my sandwich and take my glass of milk and sit in front of the other window and we would both look out at the ships on the river and all the cars rolling across the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges.

In between drags we would talk a little, never about anything too important. Canary would sometimes say “this is some kind of view you have here, just look at all those cars going across the bridge.” We’d both enjoy seeing the Brighten Line subway make it’s way along the Manhattan Bridge. I’d would say “Canary the subway looks like a rolling snake as it rolls across the bridge, don’t you think?” She’d laugh and as she was drawing on her smoke reply “no honey it looks more like a big old dirty worm, you know what I mean?” And we’d both laugh. In the two years that Canary would come to clean my parents apartment that’s about as close as we would get.

Occasionally we would talk about television. Canary’s favorite show was the $64,000 question. “You know” she would always start as she pulled on her smoke “ I don’t think some of those questions are so hard, I mean I know some of them and so does my husband, do you watch that show?’ I’d nod and reply “oh yeah I think your right but it’s still a little hard for me.” “I know honey, it’s tricky but you’ll see when you get older it won’t seem that difficult. I’ll tell you though, I think something’s really funny about that show, I think they might be telling some of those contestants the answers before the show.” She would tell me that every week and every week I would just nod. She was somewhat disturbed when I told her that I wasn’t allowed to watch Disneyland. She would shake her head and laugh and ask me if my mother thought Mickey Mouse was too scary for me. “No” I’d reply “she says Walt Disney was unfair to working people and he never hired any Jews so we were not allowed to watch the show. “Well I never heard anyone say that before honey and anyway who cares what he thinks you just want to have fun, ain’t that right? I mean you just can’t stop people from thinking, it would be like trying to push a river uphill?” I somehow knew that Canary’s logic made sense but at the same time I knew it wouldn’t change my parents mind. The conversation would always end with Canary letting me know that if I wanted to come to Brooklyn I could watch Walt Disney at her house.

One day just a few months before my family moved away from the lower east side there was a crisis. I would sometimes allow my parakeets out of their cage and let them fly around my room. That afternoon I made the mistake of leaving my bedroom door open just enough to allow a little blue and white bird to escape into the living room. It landed on the couch in the living room and fortunately all the windows were closed. I could hear Canary in the kitchen washing dishes in the sink. I thought of calling to her to help me catch my bird but I was sure I could catch it myself. I crept ever so slowly to my pet and just as I put my hands on the sofa she took off and headed into the kitchen.

I quickly ran over to the entrance to the kitchen and as I did the bird flew around Canary and headed for the window, which was open at the bottom at least five inches. As the bird approached the glass it somehow flew up and then managed to get itself stuck between the lower window, which was raised up, and the rear window, which was lowered down a few inches. And there it struggled, frantically flapping its wings, trapped by a pane of glass on each side of it’s trembling body. If it were to make it’s way down it would fly away and if the rear window were moved up the bird would be crushed.

I started to cry and I grabbed Canary’s forearm and pleaded her to help save my parakeet. It was the first time I had ever touched her. “Please Canary” I said over and over again in a voice that was somewhere between panic and despair “please help, please help Sylvester to get out of the window.”

Canary then said “the first thing you got to do is let go of my arm. You’re not going to help your little bird by squeezing me half to death. The second thing is that you need to do is calm down. The bird is scared enough, look just look over there at the poor thing. Look at it struggle, don’t make it any more nervous by you being crazy ok, you hear what I’m saying?”
I nodded in the affirmative, let go of her arm and backed away from the window. Canary slowly approached the glass, put her long thin hand and arm down through the top and as she did she pulled the front window towards herself as best as she could. Fortunately the entire window and frame were very old and there was just enough give for Canary to perform her miracle. She managed to get her hand under the now exasperated bird and in one smooth motion lift it to the top of the window and back into the kitchen.

She quickly shut the window and in a few minutes I managed to catch Sylvester and place her back in the cage. When I came back into the living room I was still crying. Canary bent down on her knees and said “come here baby and let Canary give you a hug” I made my way over to her and as she held me she said “just be careful with that bird, their so small and so delicate, you know what I mean, baby, you know what I mean?” All I could do was to cry and hold on.

It was the only time that I could remember anyone holding me in that apartment.

In the last few months before we moved, Canary and I assumed our usual places. She would take her break and look out the window and while she smoked and I would sit in the big brown cozy chair read my book, look out the window and talk about school with Canary. I would sometimes wonder what it would be like if she was my mother. Although she always remained a mystery to me I always felt safe around her.

My mother would give her clothes to take home for her children and sometimes offer her food as well. Canary was always polite about the food, but I could tell that the dishes my mother created somehow disagreed with her southern sensibilities.

One morning my mother and I took the subway to Brooklyn. Since my mom didn’t drive we had to leave very early to meet my aunt in Bayridge for lunch. As the express train sped through Hoyt Street Station I looked through the window and noticed the platform was filled with at least a hundred woman and they were almost all black. Many of them wore those white stockings, just as Canary did when she would come to our house. I asked my mother if the women on the Hoyt Street platform were on their way to clean houses. She nodded yes and then I wondered if Canary had been standing there as well. They all stood there so motionless, except for their clothes, which moved ever so slightly from the wind of the speeding express train.

In July of 1958 my parents, my brother and I packed up our things in preparation for our move to Brooklyn. My mother told me to leave anything I didn’t want and she’d give it to Canary for her children. Along with some shirts and pants I put my old tattered baseball glove in the box as an uncle of mine had just bought me a new one. I then realized I might not see Canary before we moved so I wrote her a short note, which read: Dear Canary, thank you for saving Sylvester we will both miss you I hope you son like the baseball mitt. I then put the note in an envelope and placed it in the box with the clothes and my old glove.

I would always look for her when I was on the subway passing through the Hoyt Street station. I never saw her again.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Liberating Richard




The part of my life I miss the most is when I was fearless. Not necessarily intelligent or insightful, just fearless. To be righteously fearless one must have a cause, and mine was the mountain dulcimer. My partner Sally and I wrote Life Is Like A Mountain Dulcimer while squatting in a hikers’ cabin in Squamish, British Columbia. Under the dim but warm glow of an oil lamp we scratched out forty arrangements in crayon and colored pencil. A few weeks after finishing my first draft, I was deported from Canada for working without a visa. Ten days later my little blue Volkswagen bug threw a rod in Winnemucca, Nevada. But I was not one to be stopped by legalities and expired automobiles, for I had a folio full of mountain dulcimer arrangements, and I was going to New York to get it published. I had no doubt that I would succeed.

The publishing industry in my hometown did not greet me as I’d expected. My first three rejections were a sobering experience, and my financial conditions dictated that I obtain some form of work. So I did as many unemployed actors, poets, musicians did—I drove a cab. And I soon concocted a plan to use the cab to help me find a publisher.

A few nights a week I’d put my dulcimer in a case and take it to work with me. I’d then sit the case up on the front seat. On any given night I’d have between 25 and 40 fares, which meant as many as 240 fares in a six-day week. During a given evening many folks in the back seat would ask, “Hey, what’s in the case?” And I’d reply, “ It’s a dulcimer, and I’ve just written a book for this instrument, would you know a publisher who might be looking for a dulcimer book?”

Sometime during my third month of rolling up and down New York in a checker, an attorney who specialized in books gave me a number to call. Within two weeks I signed my first contract with the Richmond Organization for my aptly named book Life Is Like A Mountain Dulcimer. I was now part of the little remembered dulcimer “boom” of the midseventies, which was sparked by the album Blue by songwriter Joni Mitchell.

I was fearless and confident, which basically made me into a mountain dulcimer zealot. And like any inspired zealot I had to keep creating. While driving a cab and living upstairs in my parents’ house in Brooklyn, I decided to write a book of arrangements based on my dulcimer hero, Richard Fariña. This project would be both my homage to the departed bard and a big money-making idea. Who wouldn’t (I thought) want to own a book of Fariña’s dulcimer arrangement and his poetry?

Richard George Fariña was born in 1937 and brought up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, on Linden Boulevard less then a mile from my parents’ house. His father, Liborio Ricardo, was from Cuba, and his mother, Theresa Crozier, was from Northern Ireland. He went to high school at Brooklyn Tech and won a regent scholarship to Cornell University.

While at Cornell he quickly changed his major from engineering to English and began writing poems and stories for the college literary magazine, The Cornell Writer. The junior editor for the magazine was Thomas Pynchon. Fariña and Pynchon soon became close friends and drinking buddies and influenced each other’s work. In time Fariña would dedicate his instrumental composition V to Pynchon, and Pynchon would dedicate his novel Gravity’s Rainbow to Fariña. In 1959 Fariña dropped out of Cornell, went to New York, and worked for a short time in advertising, but he was soon drawn into the folk scene happening in Lower Manhattan.

One evening he saw the Kentucky folk singer Jean Ritchie perform at folk club in Greenwich Village and became smitten by the mountain dulcimer. This, he decided, would be the perfect vehicle for his poetry. He soon married and toured with Carolyn Hester, but the relationship proved a disaster and ended in 1962. Folk legend has it that Carolyn pulled a gun on Richard in their Paris apartment shortly after he flirted with a young girl in a café. There are many stories like that surrounding the short life of Richard Fariña, all of which only added to his mystique.

In the spring of 1962 while still in Paris he met a sixteen-year-old dancer named Mimi Baez, and within a year they were married. The Baez family was skeptical of Richard at first, but in time his charm and wit won them over. Mimi and Richard composed music together on guitar and dulcimer, and by 1964 they were becoming a well-known folk duo. They recorded two wonderfully inspired and well-produced recordings for Vanguard Records—Celebrations for A Gray Day (April 1965) and Reflections in a Crystal Wind (December 1965). Their music consisted of Richard’s songs of political and social commentary as well as instrumentals he created for the mountain dulcimer. Mimi added her soprano harmony and played guitar and autoharp. They reached their peak at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, where even a massive thunderstorm could not keep the crowds from dancing to their music, all in various forms of undress.

Shortly after the Newport Festival Fariña completed his novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, which was published by Random House. In just four years Fariña became a recording artist and a published author with a cabin in Big Sur, and was touring the folk scene with his beautiful young wife, Mimi. Fariña was a contemporary of Bob Dylan, who was living just down the road with Mimi’s sister, Joan.

As with most brilliant souls Fariña had his demons as well. One of them took hold of him on April 30 1966. Shortly after signing books at the Thunderbird Bookstore in Carmel Valley, he jumped on the back of a Harley motorcycle driven by his friend Willie Hinds. Somewhere on Carmel Valley Road Hinds lost control of the bike, and Fariña died instantly while the driver survived. Fariña hadn’t lived to see thirty.

He took the dulcimer out of the Appalachians and made it accessible to city kids like me. To anyone over forty who plays the dulcimer, Richard Fariña has earned patriarchal status. The publisher of my first book was not interested in my Fariña idea, nor was any other music publisher in New York. Being the eager fan that I was I decided to publish the book myself. In order to do so I had to license the rights from Warner Brothers. I can still remember the man at WB smirking the entire time we discussed, or rather he dictated the terms to me. He asked me a number of times why I didn’t want to license someone like Joni Mitchell or Neil Young as it would be the same price. “No,” I would reply, “I’ll pay the 12.5 percent per book for the music of Richard Fariña since I have a handle on the dulcimer world.”

“Suit yourself, kid,” he replied as I signed off on the deal and handed over $750 in advance. I then borrowed $1,000 from my folks and threw in $2,000 from my cab-driving career. I had an artist friend (Jude Brae) from Vancouver do all the illustrations, which were based on Fariña’s liner notes from his recordings.

After having the music engraved, Sally and I took all the music and illustrations over to Faculty Press in Brooklyn. They were an old New York socialist printer who printed Sing Out, The Pete Seeger Banjo Book, and a number of other political journals. The staff at Faculty Press appreciated the fact that we were putting out a book on Richard and Mimi’s music and treated us like kindred spirits. They never charged us for all the prepress work they did. I’m sure it was due to the fact that so many of the songs in the book were political. I printed up 5,000 copies and quickly became aware of how little I knew about book distribution. I soon realized that most dulcimer players were not interested in Fariña. When I left New York City I loaded up all the books and took them back to Canada. Two years latter I loaded them up again for my migration to Santa Cruz.

Shortly after moving to Santa Cruz I made an appointment with Mimi Fariña and drove up to Mill Valley to present her with a copy of the book. As she scanned through the work, I noticed she stopped on the page that had an illustration of a woman in a cabin in Big Sur cooking on an old wood stove. As this image was based on Richard’s liner notes I realized it was she.
Mimi stared at the picture for minute and I could tell she was moved by it. She thanked me for producing the book but told me it was really all his music. “I was nineteen when we recorded these albums, it seems like a different life ago,” she said as we shook hands before I left her office.
By 1997 I still had over 3,000 of my inspired creation living under my bed and in various closets around my home. Then a few small miracles happened.
Shorty after hearing a Richard and Mimi recording of “Reno Nevada,” Douglass Cooke (yet another Brooklyn native) created a Fariña web page and a book on his life. Positively Fourth Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña by David Hajdu was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. In December 2009, I sold my last copy.
Due to the fact that Warner Brothers still owned the material, and there were quite a number of mistakes in the book, I decided to let it go. I now get from ten to twenty requests for it a month.
This April 30 will mark the forty-fourth anniversary of Richard Fariña’s death, and on that day I will liberate Richard. I’ve scanned the entire book into PDF files and intend to give them away both to the Fariña web site and to anyone who wants them.
We were both from Brooklyn, and we ended up in the same area of California playing the dulcimer. We also both broke down in Winnemucca, Nevada. What better zealot is there than I to digitally give to the world some of the classic arrangements of Richard Fariña, which will include “Another Country,” “Bold Marauder,” “One Way Ticket,” “Tuileries,” “A Swallow Song,” “Chrysanthemum,” “Raven Girl,” and “Joy Round My Brain”?


If you'd like a pdf copy of this book write to me at:
nealhellman@gmail.com and I will send you a copy via
Dropbox.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

New Year's Eve

New Years Eve

Sometime around 2,000 BC a group of intuitive and fun loving Babylonians decided to create a holiday to celebrate the first New Moon after the Vernal Equinox. This celebration of the coming of spring was also a logical time to bring in a New Year. The long dark days of winter had passed; and life was renewing itself all around them. The Babylonians then spent the next two weeks dancing, feasting and planting new crops. They had chosen the perfect season to celebrate a New Year, one that we still acknowledge as the first day of spring.

Nineteen hundred years latter the Romans, and their incestuous, wicked Emperors began to do nasty and nefarious things with the calendar. They tampered with it so much that in 46 BC Julius Caesar decided something very radical needed to be done in order to bring the calendar back in synch the sun. So Mr. Caesar decreed that the previous year go on for 445 days and he then named the first month of the New Year after Janus, the Roman deity who was able to look forwards and backwards at the same time.

The entire concept of having a New Year start in the middle of winter is in essence a very incongruous and distorted idea. Yet by 1600 or so it stuck, and most of the occupants of the earth soon adopted the concept of starting a New Year when absolutely nothing new was happening.

However if there were one place on earth to celebrate an incongruous and distorted idea created by the decadent old Emperors of Rome, it would certainly be New York City, The Big Apple, and my hometown.

In keeping with perhaps some of the original Babylonian celebrations I rode the roads of Gotham in my own special chariot. Instead of horses and wheels I commanded a moving yellow vehicle which rolled along on four hard circular pieces of rubber and was propelled by an engine, one which consumed a magic liquid composed of ancient pieces of giant monsters which once roamed the earth long before the Babylonians discovered Spring or the Romans conquered Carthage.

I loved to drive on New Years Eve for this was the night all the residents joyfully reached back into their collective ancestral memories and remembered some of their primal reasons for being on the Earth. Especially the ones that included alcohol, pot, various controlled substances, dancing, laughing, being loud, and enjoying food and sex though not in any particular order.

This was the one night of the year that the entire city seemed to let its collective hair and allow party angel of Gotham to sprinkle them all with urban pixie party dust. Which to a man behind the wheel of a Taxi meant that the clientele was constant and the tips were great. I’d get invited to a dozen or so parties but I would never desert my cab. For my goal was to return home with at least $200.00 in cash in my pocket and if that meant staying out until 3 AM well so be it.

This New Years the Gods of weather were not being favorable to the residents of the great steel canyon. New York had a week of some incredibly harsh ice storms and by 2 AM the streets were deserted. By 2:30 I found myself uptown with only $160.00 on the clock and made the decision to beat the retreat and call it a night. I rolled down Second Avenue hoping to get that last magic fare back to Brooklyn. Just above 60th street a very shivering older couple were waving their collective arms in a frenzied and very bird like fashion to hail me/

The man stumbled up to my window, and as he was approaching the cab I realized he had enough alcohol in his system to pickle each of his organs in a most generous fashion. He smiled a very frozen and potted smile and said “hey listen, you take a nice Greek man and his wife to Queens and I give you thirty bucks, hey you don’t throw the clock just make it for yourself, that’s good eh, that’s good. I’m Nicky and this is Sophia, we’ve just come from great Greek party but we very cold and have to go home now.”

“I smiled at Nicky and replied “that sounds great but I know where your going and it’s miles from Northern Boulevard and your neighborhood is going to be one giant sheet of ice and I’d really like to get back to Brooklyn one piece.”

He tilts his head and says “oh come take Nicky and Sophia to Steinway Street, were three blocks from the B.Q.E, you drop us off and boom you be back in the city or in Brooklyn in no time, hey I still have a half a bottle of Ouzo we could sip it all they way there, thirty dollars we give you thirty dollars that’s good…no”?

He then dips his inebriated head into my cab and looks at my hack license and say’s “hey you nice Jewish boy you know I’m Greek you know we have connection, you know, Jews and Greeks love music and food and dancing, yes I am right yes?”

Visions of Yahweh and Apollo playing shuffleboard were dancing through my mind as I dipped into my history major background to honestly try to remember some great Greco-Judaic connection and indeed I found one. In 1492 when Spain expelled all their Jews, it was the Greeks that offered them sanctuary, many Jews did indeed settle in the Greek city of Thessaloniki. So as loaded, as Nicky was, his inebriated historical pitch did indeed have a whiff of some historical accuracy. Anyhow, they were about to freeze to death and $30.00 for what really is a $7.00 ride sounded just too tempting to me. The other benefit was that $30.00 would make it almost a $200.00 night. I could drop them off, head back in to the city get two more rides and my night would be golden.

“Ok Nicky it’s a deal” I replied with confidence and as much enthusiasm as one could muster at 2:30 am. He once again stuck his head into my cab and tried to kiss me on the cheek. I leaned hard to the right to avoid his Athenian advances but assured him that his friendship was well appreciated. With his head still inside of the cab he said, “ok I go kiss Sofia instead.”

I crossed over the 59th Bridge and traveled up Northern Boulevard. Nicky and Sophia were laughing and drinking the last of the Ouzo and then commenced to enjoy what only can be described as some colorful and creative form of mating behavior. At this point in the evening I was extremely thankful that they only Greek I knew was Spanakopita, Moussaka and the names of a few islands of the coast of Greece.

Well, I thought this is indeed in keeping with the original Babylonian celebration of the New Year. I was very thankful that they were far too drunk to take their clothes off as my cab wobbled and skidded its way through the icy streets. I made sure the partition was closed and I turned up my radio, but I could still hear an unusual form of Hellenistic cooing from the rear seat of my now rolling chariot of love. A feeling of relief came over me as we arrived at their requested destination. I turn my radio down and said in a somewhat high volume, “It’s time for Nicky and Sophia to go to their little castle in Queens.” My request was met with silence.

I then rapped my fist hard on the partition a few times and eventually there was some grunting and movement in the back seat. Nicky stumbled his way out of the back of the cab and shut the door. He weaved his way to my window and shoved $30.00 in my breast pocket and lifted the empty bottle of Ouzo over his head and started to sing a song in his native tongue. He danced and sang loudly out of tune but I was sure Nicky was greatly enjoying himself as he carried on.

Observing Nicky chanting and dancing in the frozen early morning darkness made me wonder if he was truly part of the same culture that created democracy, modern science, the Olympics, philosophy, fooled the Trojans with a wooden horse and bravely defeated the Persian fleet at Thermopylae in the fifth century BC.

I smiled and nodded, rolled up my window, waved goodbye and ever so carefully started my way back through the icy streets of Queens, Nicky smiled as well and waved goodbye to me with an empty bottle of Ouzo.

It’s now starting to sleet, I could barely see out my window but I knew in just a few more blocks I’d be back on Northern Boulevard and then the bridge and soon I’d be rolling back into midtown.

Three bocks latter as I was stopped for a light I heard a voice one that seemed to be coming from the darkened street in back of my cab. I looked through the rear view and noticed that someone was trying to hail me. I quickly turned on my off duty light as I did not want to venture through any more ice covered back roads in one of New York City’s lesser boroughs.

He didn’t give up hailing me. He’s began to run and as he ran he was shouting and waving his arms up and down like some one drowning in the sea. He then began to scream: “stop, you stop, you stop now.” He was starting to catch up to me. Oh God I thought, he’s not slowing down. He’s probably on speed or cocaine and he doesn’t feel a thing. I ran a few red lights but had to keep my speed down to prevent a skid.

There was a full moon that night and as he ran he cast this giant a forbidding shadow on the many red brick apartment buildings that lined Steinway Street. I couldn’t see his face but my in mind all I kept hoping for was that he was unarmed and basically just some loony running around the streets on New Years Eve.

Just three more blocks (I thought) to Northern Boulevard and it’s a straight shot to the bridge. He was just thirty feet behind me when he took the fall. Although relieved I did feel a small sense of remorse when his head hit the ice. I actually thought of stopping my cab and at least drag him off the street. My compassionate side voted for that but my survival side just kept pushing down on that gas pedal and heading for Northern Boulevard.

Ten minutes and on bridge latter I was cruising down Second Avenue looking for that last fare to make my $200 night. There he was pointing downtown, yes he was going to the west village an easy $5.00 fare, and my $200 night was about to be consummated. He opened the door and freezes. With his eyes wide open he yells “there’s a women’s body in your back seat, there’s a women’s body in your back seat.”

Funny it all made sense as I thought that voice screaming behind me sounded a little like Nicky’s. Yes (I thought) Nicky stumbled out of the cab, and closed the door so the sleet storm wouldn’t hit his highly inebriated and now sleeping wife. He then stood there in his own private comatose as I took off. Though this was a somewhat challenging situation I knew I could deal with it.

“Hey listen man” I said to my fare “just jump in the front seat, I’ll take care of her latter.” With a wind chill factor of 10 below zero and no other cabs in sight he saw no other option but to obey my request and hopped in the front seat. All the way downtown he kept turning around and staring at her saying: “maybe she’s dead, do you think she’s dead? What are you going to do with her?”

“No” I replied, “her name is Sophia and she’s just taking a little nap due to her consumption of too much Ouzo, I promise you won’t hear a peep out of her, this I can say with unbridled confidence.”

Being in a playful mood I then said: “when we get to the village help me lift her out of the cab and we can put her on one of those heating grates. You know the ones you see on the sidewalks where smoke seems to be coming out of nowhere. That’ll keep her warm until the Sun comes up and perhaps a nice NYC policeman can help her out. My passenger was shocked at this suggestion.

“Well what if she freezes to death, how would you feel then?”

“Hey listen man” I replied, it’s not my fault her husband and her drank a bottle of booze and now she’s all forgotten in the back seat, hey what would you do?” I was just kidding but apparently failed to see the humor in my statement. He paid his $5.00 gave me a small tip and disappeared into the icy darkness of Horatio Street.

I just sat there for a minute and thought. It was very quiet in the cab though I could hear Sophia snoring in Greek in the back seat. My major ethical question confronting me was whether I should throw the clock again for the ride back to Queens. Figuring that Nicky might not be in the best of moods after his headfirst bounce on the frozen streets of Queens I decided Sophia’s ride back home would be on me.

As I journeyed back over the 59th Street Bridge I felt a sense of elation and purpose for I was bringing Sophia back to the loving arms of her Nicolas I soon found myself humming the theme from Black Orpheus as I was once again navigated the icy streets of Steinway Avenue.

I was fortunate, that I had the presence of mind to write their address down on my log sheet before I started my first journey to Queens. However, upon my arrival there was bit of a logistical problem. There were at least four large red brick apartment houses at this corner and I had no idea which one was hers.

Then I heard him; it was the voice of a post bump on the head Nicky. He runs up to the cab weeping and shouting, “oh thank you God you have brought her back,” and quickly heads for the passenger door.

Sensing her lover’s arrival Sophia awakens from her dance with Morpheus as Nicky ambles helps her out of the cab. They start kissing and hugging and it’s now four AM and I’m witnessing this intense reunion in a wind chill of -30 degrees. Nicky puts another twenty in my pocket, I hug them both, jumped back in my cab and started my way back home to Brooklyn.

As I traveled along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway I reflected. I wondered if there was some old Babylonian New Year’s myth about two lovers renewing their vows and drinking from the sweet nectar while they made love. And suddenly for no reason the trickster Gods separated theses two sweet hearts. Morpheus enchanted the woman to sleep and to dream while her lover was held captive by Dionysus and was forced to dance and sing.

Sensing this injustice the Goddess Aphrodite looked into a golden apple and found her hero. She conjured the heart of a young mortal with long yellow hair and a scruffy beard who traveled the roads of the Metropolis in a golden-checkered vehicle Our hero soon found himself crossing frozen roads and bridges in his yellow chariot to deliver the lost maiden to her lover.

Truly I whispered to myself as I rolled down Flatbush Avenue, tonight I was part of a grand drama, one of both mythical and historical proportions.