Thursday, December 23, 2010

Ooh! My Soul

Sundown, a red glow filled the room, just like I used to see in the bordellos around Macon. They all had red light bulbs under tasseled lampshades in their fancy drawing rooms. But this was the real deal, no mood lighting. The California sun was setting like a fireball over the ocean and spreading through every window in every house in Los Angeles.

And my house, well it took the cake. You know how much this place cost? It cost $25,000 and it was all mine, a real movie star home. It even had a giant staircase with a chandelier! Ooo-wee! Chile, when my mother saw the marble floors and the lavish bedrooms, she just about died. This wasn’t the kind of home black folk lived in down in Georgia. Oh, she was so proud of her baby. Joe Louis, “The Brown Bomber” himself, lived next door on my Sugar Hill Street, Virginia Road. Know who else used to live around here? Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, The Mills Brothers. Now Little Richard himself, the wildest thing around!

And what a wild day we were having. The whole band was there in the living room drinking highballs, smoking reefer and balling. Angel was taking on three of the boys at once. One of them was as long as this donkey my daddy used to have pull the cart he’d load up with the moonshine liquor he’d sell to the local farmers. Oh that Angel, she was just a-wrigglin’ and a-moanin’, havin’ herself a good time. Two guys stood on either side of her and she had their peckers in her hands, slowly moving up and down. I tell you it was something to see.

I watched and watched. That’s what I liked to do. Richard the Watcher, that was me. It was almost too thrilling. And I was playing with my thing the whole time. That’s what I like to do, and I was doing it all right. I met Angel down in Savannah, this lovely girl with big ol' titties and the skinniest waist. She was almost out of high school when I first saw her and asked one of the guys to invite her to our hotel. A few weeks later she joined me in Washington and stayed. She worked as a dancer, a stripper, a nude model. That girl wasn’t shy! She'd show off her fine stuff all the time, and she loved me. Anything I wanted she’d do, even have sex with other guys. She liked it and so did they. Oh boy, did they ever!

I was sitting in the corner on a red velvet throne, touching myself when the door bell rang. Aww man, not now. Things are starting to heat up just fine, but my momma always taught me good manners, and if someone is a-knockin’ for you, you gotta answer. It just ain’t right to ignore people.

I stood up, hitched up my drawers and clacked my shiny shoes on the foyer floor. I opened the door just a crack; there was too much crazy happening in full view and it wouldn’t do to let an innocent visitor peek inside.

“Hi sugar, can I help you,” I happily cooed as I opened the door. There, in front of me, was a man of the cloth. Softly and kindly, he answered.

“Good afternoon son, my name is Brother Wilbur Gulley. Did you know that Jesus loves you?”

“I should think he does honey, ‘cause I am beautiful and sing like an angel!” I cracked myself up on that one, doubling over and smacking my knees. He didn’t laugh.

“Do you read your Bible, Richard?”

“I do, baby, I sure do. It’s my favorite book.” He thought I was joking, but it was true, the Good Book was my main reading. Sometimes after we’d rip it up with an all-night orgy I’d read a passage to those sinners I’d just been messin’ with. It was a hoot. But how did he know my name?

“You know who I am?”

“I do Richard. I’m glad you know the word of the Lord. With your gift you can reach more people at a higher level if you sing about God’s way. I have here some other books you may want to purchase to purify your soul. I have brought many stars to the path of righteousness and holy purity.”

This cat was too much! “Honey chile, I can’t reach no more people than I do now. Let me see some of those books,” I asked playing along for a spell.

Brother Gulley, thinking he’d hooked me, handed me a couple of thick books to look over as he started giving me his rap. “I’m a missionary, out to save the souls of the afflicted. My church, that is, The Lord’s church, is the Church of God of the Ten Commandments. I go door to door sharing the lord’s gospel with those who suffer in hellish sin.”

Suffer? This man was plain crazy. I opened the door wide. Inside, plain to see, was Angel bent over the sofa, one fella behind her, one in front. The room was bathed in a hot scarlet glow. There was yelling and groaning, writhing bodies in a mad fury under a layer of marijuana smoke that covered the room. “The Girl Can’t Help It,” one of my records, was playing.

I looked straight at Brother Gulley, who was staring at the incredible scene in front of him, his jaw dropping.

“Does it look like I’m suffering? Mister, I ain’t never had so much fun.” I was laughing loud and high as he turned red as a tomato. “You wanna come in and have a ball?”

Gulley stammered, his head hung down. “N-n-no, son I don’t think so. I-I-I must be going now. I’ll pray for you, boy. You are lost.”

I slammed that door laughing my head off. Lost? Baby, I’ve never been so found! I was King of the World, Little Richard. I dropped my pants and headed back. We gonna have some fun tonight! Richard the Watcher, back in action.


In early 1957, Little Richard was visited at his Los Angeles home by Brother Wilbur Gulley, a man who had success converting stars to Jesus. Richard was impressed and Brother Gulley led him on a spiritual awakening. On October 4, 1957, in the midst of an Australian tour with Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and The Bluecaps and others, Richard saw the just-launched Russian satellite Sputnik and the ball of fire in the sky “shook his mind.” He turned to God then and soon announced his retirement from rock and roll. The following January he became a Seventh Day Adventist minister. Richard returned to rock during a late 1962 tour of England.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Can’t Be Really Gone

Ah, the exciting life of a ballplayer. Here I am, not even 22 years old, and am I out on the town boozing it up, dancing the night away at some fancy club with a gaggle of sexy chicks hanging on my every word? Nope, not ol’ Tugger. I’m stuck in Jacksonville, Florida on a sweltering night, lying on my couch drinking warm Jack Daniels from the bottle and watching a Beverly Hillbillies rerun. Oh, the glamour!

Don’t get me wrong. The life of a baseball player has its upside, to be sure. And it is the swinging sixties, and girls do like athletes. There’s always one party or another to go to and there’s a lot of sleeping around. Even in a dead end city like Jacksonville, there are a lot of cute girls in bikinis hanging around the pool at the University Apartments, where me and some of my teammates are living during our stint in the minors. I’m just complaining because my arm hurts.

Back on that May night at Shea, after uncorking a pitch to Tommy Harper of the Reds, I heard a minor explosion like the sound you hear watching news coverage of Vietnam. I knew my arm was shot. Man, for a guy making his living off of his left arm, it’s just no good to have it so sore. My fastball stopped going fast, my screwball stopped screwing. The Mets sent me down to Florida to pitch for the Suns, hoping that with extra work my wing would pitch its way back to shape.

So far, rehabilitation has been pretty erratic. Some good outings, some bad. When I’m on, baby, I’m on top of the world. Everything’s good – I’m a star baseball player. Plus, I’m not in the Marines anymore. Just being out of the Marines felt great. That was a crappy winter, I can tell you.

On those good days, Seaver and I fool around by the pool, tossing a football around, missing on purpose to let the pigskin roll near the prettiest girl on a lounge chair. Then we saunter up and, while bending over to get the ball, strike up a conversation. Yeah, it’s a gimmick, but it always works. Especially for Seaver, who’s a handsome guy with the talent sure to make him a star in the big leagues. It even works for me, a goofy looking Irishman with a huge chin. It’s how I met Betty.

Betty’s pretty cute, alright, especially in that tiny bikini she struts around in. She told me she’s 18, but I’m not so sure. She’s still in high school, Terry Parker High, I think she told me. She’s hard to resist though – kind of petite with brown hair. I could go for her. I like how she laughed that when I told her I was baseball player. She thought that was kids’ stuff. She giggled when I told her my name was Tug. Hey, she laughs at me a lot! Not sure I like that, come to think of it.

Anyway, she’s supposed to come down pretty soon from her apartment upstairs. Her mom doesn’t mind that she visits and that we yell to each from our balconies. Right now, I’m not in the mood to see her. Another shelling on the mound today; nothing was working. I just want to wallow in self-pity. When I saw Betty this morning at the Laundromat, where I was bleaching my uniform, and she was doing the family wash, we made a date, but now I wish we hadn’t.

There’s the bell. Gotta answer it. I open the door and there she stands, in a little tank top, mini-skirt and, as usual, barefoot. She looks great, but the throbbing pain in my arm is all I can think about.

“Hey Tug!” She leans over for a kiss, which I return without enthusiasm. She doesn’t notice.

We sit on the couch.

“You want a drink?” I ask.

“Tab, if you have one,” she says. No beer, no whiskey? She’s not eighteen, no way.

As I go to the fridge to see what I have for her, she looks at some of my baseball trophies and pictures, and makes idle chit chat, not really interested in the game. In fact, she seems a little upset.

“What’s up Betty?” As soon as I ask, she starts to cry. She told me her dad had dropped by the apartment and they got into a fight. Betty’s mom had already gone out with her new boyfriend. Her folks aren’t divorced – yet. I could relate since my parents were already splitsville.

We sat together on the couch, really close, and talked for a while about family and friends. Betty was pretty shaken up and, I think she felt vulnerable. We kissed and I held her, but it was clear she wanted more. Things were started getting pretty heavy; clothes were starting to come off. Now, I’m not against having sex whenever and wherever it’s available, but she was so emotional that it felt like I’d really be taking advantage of her when she was most vulnerable. It just didn’t feel right, you know?

I gently pushed her away. “Betty, listen, I really like you, you’re a swell kid, but I think going any further is a pretty bad idea right now, you know?”

She immediately sat straight up. Her expression changed from lust to anger. “You do? You don’t want to go further? You think it’s a ‘pretty bad idea’ do you?”

She stood up, putting her shirt back on. I think she was embarrassed also. That didn’t mix well with how furious she was.

“You should have thought about that before you led me on Tug. Really. You men are all alike.”

She turned to leave.

“Betty, wait a minute,” I said, but to tell you the truth, I didn’t really care. I wasn’t too attached to her, just another girl. Once I get back to New York she’ll be forgotten.

I took another swig of Jack as the door slammed loudly behind her, and turned the dial to the local news.

Tug McGraw, future relief pitching legend for the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies, was doing a stretch during the summer of 1966 in Jacksonville, Florida. It was there he met Betty D’Agostino. They saw each other frequently and Betty would become pregnant (after the one time they had sex), giving birth on May 1, 1967 to Samuel Timothy McGraw. That baby would become Tim McGraw, one of the biggest stars in country music. When Tim was eleven years old, Tug found out he was the boy’s father, although he denied it for seven years. They would become close after Tim’s 18th birthday, remaining so until Tug’s death from brain cancer on January 5, 2004, in Nashville.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Rock & Roll Suicide

Pop star Bowie, one other, killed in blast

Los Angeles, CA, May 17 - The San Fernando Valley was rocked today by a mysterious early morning explosion at the site of famed singer-songwriter Jimmy Webb’s recording studio. Superstar rock and roll chameleon David Bowie was killed, as was the lesser known James Osterberg. Osterberg, known as “Iggy Pop” to his fans, had been recording demos with Bowie, who had become something of a mentor to the young singer. Currently struggling with drug addiction, “Pop” was on a weekend leave from UCLA Hospital where he is registered in a recovery program. Sources close to the two musicians agreed that Bowie was filled with excitement about the latest collaboration with “Pop,” writing new songs and playing electric guitar on some tracks.

The cause of the massive carnage is still unclear, say fire investigators. However, a clue may be found in a recent appearance by Bowie on the television talk show hosted by Dick Cavett. In December of last year, Bowie was a guest on the program and spoke nervously about the potential destruction of, what he referred to as, “black noise.”

Bowie, who was known for his famed glitter-rock persona of Ziggy Stardust earlier the 1970’s, appeared on the Cavett show resplendent in blue long sleeved shirt, suspenders and baggy trousers beneath a flaming swath of orange hair, and delved into his explorations of the devastating power of sound waves. Said Bowie, “black-noise is the register within which you can crack a city or people or... it's a new control bomb. It's a noise-bomb, in fact, which can destroy.” Further, Bowie said he had been looking into ideas for such a device in the French government’s patent office and that they were available for the equivalent of three or four dollars. When Cavett asked about the potential firepower of such a weapon, Bowie replied, “it depends how much money you put into it. I mean, a small one could probably kill about half the people here [in the studio]. But a big one could destroy a city or even more.” The annihilation of Webb’s temporary studio may have been the result of Bowie’s pursuit of a “black noise” bomb.

Dick Cavett, the impish television talk show host, was reached for comment. Reflecting on the interview of December last and its connection to Bowie’s death, Cavett was shocked. “Though I enjoyed David’s songs and found him a fascinating subject, I really thought him ridiculous. His talk of William S. Burroughs, Paris and ‘black noise’ was, to me, silly and affected. I’m stunned to find it was all deadly serious.”

Bowie, born David Robert Jones on January 8, 1947, was the rock and roll equivalent of Lon Chaney, his many faces confusing critics and delighting fans. After changing his name to avoid confusion with Davy Jones of The Monkees, Bowie burst onto the music scene with the 1969 hit “Space Oddity.” In turns a hippie folkster, the King of Glam Rock and, most recently, a clean cut, straight laced purveyor of Philadelphia soul music and dance music, Bowie was a man in constant flux.

John Lennon, who collaborated with Bowie in January on the disco-fied “Fame” (scheduled for a July release), was deeply upset upon hearing the news. From his apartment in New York’s fabled Dakota Towers, the ex-Beatle said Bowie’s death was “a senseless loss, a tragedy. David was so young and had so much to give, musically speaking. To lose him through a pointless act of violence is staggering.”

The career of the emaciated and platinum-haired “Iggy Pop” has been one of underground critical acclaim coupled with the neglect of the record buying public. Hailing from the Detroit area, his band, The Stooges, made three albums from 1969-1973, their last produced by Bowie. Bowie and “Pop” met in 1971 at Max’s Kansas City, a New York music club. From that point forward, Bowie has acted as a career mentor and guru to his troubled, and sometimes violent, protégé. Osterberg was 28.

In May 1975, David Bowie and Iggy Pop began a recording session that included “Moving On,” a free association rant coming straight from Iggy’s deep drug addiction. Though the session was halted, the song would emerge two years later as “Turn Blue,” featured on the Bowie produced Lust for Life album. On December 5, 1974 Bowie appeared on The Dick Cavett Show and spoke at length about the power of a “noise bomb.”

Thursday, November 11, 2010


They sit looking out on the Port Arthur Canal. They sit transfixed in the front seat of the ’56 Chevy pickup he borrowed from a teammate. They don’t talk, they stare to the horizon. They drink cans of Lone Star Beer, tossing the empties out the open windows. They listen to Connie Francis sing "Everybody's Somebody's Fool." They sit quietly, as silent as the smooth surface of the glassy water before them. The glass cracks.

“I just don’t understand how you can treat me so mean in front of everybody.” Janis was upset, hurt, her eyes welling up. But she wouldn’t cry. “I was just minding my own business in history class and you started to give me a pretty rough time. It’s irritating, you know?”

Jimmy turned to face her. She wasn’t pretty, well, not in the way most Texas girls were pretty with blonde bouffants and shapely builds. Janis was kinda funny looking – big nose, small teeth, wild hair. But he loved her for that. She was different, a challenge. He got that same joly of excitement being with her that he got lining up against Port Neches in a big game.

“Janis, I told you why. People wouldn’t understand us, so it’s just better to pretend we don’t like each other, pretend I think you’re weird.”

“But baby, it really hurts when you torture me. And what does ‘Beat Weeds’ even mean? It sounds awful.”

“Oh, I don’t know, Janis Lyn, it just came out. I’m sorry.” He really was, but he was torn between his feelings for Janis and his status as the best football player at Thomas Jefferson High School, an All-State lineman. He gave her a hard time during the day, always laughed and joined in when his pals would harass her as she walked down the hallway, strutting her stuff in black leotards. She was something else, that was for sure, and it’s what drew him to her.

And she knew he was sorry. Just like he was sorry when he didn’t ask her to go the prom. She ended up home, alone, a recluse listening to her Bessie Smith and Leadbelly records, feeling awfully sorry for herself. Reaching out to touch the childhood scars visible under his crew cut, Janis felt a surge of warmth.

“Oh, Jimmy, you’re a sweet little boy. It’s just this town, man. I hate Port Arthur. I’m outta here after graduation. I got no friends, maybe a few people I’ll remember, probably not their names, though. I just want to go where there’s a little understanding, you know, a little more kindness. I want to be liked, even a little, not laughed at, you know?”

Swallowing hard, Jimmy realized this was the moment. He’d been hatching a plan, not sure if Janis would go for it and scared to ask. But now was the time. He grabbed her hands and leaned closer.

“Janis, honey, what would you think of coming with me to Arkansas? It’s a great school, and you can paint, write poetry, sing your folk songs. A college town has got to be more open minded than here, right? People are kind of afraid of you in Port Arthur.”

“Afraid of me? I don’t know, sugar, I was thinking California, San Francisco maybe.” That was a secret of her own she’d been keeping back.

"What? That’s so far away. I’d never see you again.” Jimmy was stunned, his brain swimming, like after a forearm to the helmet. She wanted to leave him? “I know I tease you too much in public, I know that. But I…I do love you Janis.”

Love? Janis looked back out on to the artificial waterway. Love? I care about him, he’s a good man, yeah, maybe I love him too. She knew that love was hurt, that love was work, that this may be her only chance and she didn’t want to lose it. Maybe Jimmy was confusing love with fear; he’d be lonely in college. She had her own plans to attend Lamar Tech over in Beaumont.

“Are you conning me Jimmy? Do you really love me? ‘Cause if you love me, that’s serious, man.”

“I do, Janis, I really do.”

An image flashed before her mind. She saw a mule pulling a cart. The driver held out a long stick with a carrot dangling from a string. That stupid donkey kept walking and pulling that load, hoping he’d reach the carrot. Was she that dumb animal, and that mule driver her man, holding out something that he’s not prepared to give. But love? Love is hard to find.

“If I go with you, you have to promise you won’t be mean to me, ever. You have to swear that we can go out together and everyone’ll know we’re together. And another thing, I still have to be myself and dress how I want and do what I want. I don’t see myself baking bread and having babies. I’m not ready to settle down. Not yet.”

“Yes, Janis, yes, that’s how I want it too. But I also want you to share in my life, go to football games, and be proud of me.” Janis had never attended a high school game; she felt out of place and terrible when Jimmy ignored her, or worse. Maybe it would be different if he wanted her there.

“Well, I’m not much on sports and I don’t like the violence. It’s better to be nice to people then to beat the hell out of them. But if you want me to go, I will.”

Jimmy smiled and reached out for a kiss. He was happy, happy she’d go with him, happy he’d be able to be with her in the open.

“Will your parents be OK with you following me?” Jimmy wondered.

“My parents? Well, they don’t really get me, you know, but they trust me and support me. They know I’m pretty smart. Did I tell you the doctor told my mom that I’d better straighten up or I’d end up in jail or an insane asylum?” Janis laughed loud, a raspy cackle that most kids in school found scary, but Jimmy loved. He laughed himself. “I’ll have to explain the pros and cons of my decision, but they’ll agree. Maybe you should take me home now so I can talk to them about it.”

Jimmy dropped her off at the curb in front of the small pink house under the trees on 32nd Street. Entering from the garage, Janis looked down and saw “Janis” and “JLJ” etched in concrete. She’d done that years ago to make her mark, to make sure everyone knew Janis Joplin was here. But not wanting to lose her man, she knew that she’d follow Jimmy to college and end up stuck down South, as permanently as her childish scrawl in the hard floor.

Janis Joplin and football legend Jimmy Johnson went to Thomas Jefferson High School in Port Arthur, TX, at times ending up in the same class, and graduating together in June 1960. In school, Janis was constantly ridiculed by her classmates for her unique ways. Johnson was a football star, and though he takes credit for tormenting Janis and dubbing her “Beat Weeds,” he has also insinuated that he was sexually involved with her. Both have busts at their old high school celebrating their future fame as rock star and Super Bowl winning football coach.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Where Do Maybe Babys Come From?

When a writer and a historical moment fall in love, they get together and...

Well, it's true. All Maybe Babys start the same way. An important piece of rock history that I’ve already known has entered my mind or, through my constant thumbing through books and rifling through old albums, a new idea comes forward. My neighbor, who suggested I name my sources, was startled when I told her that, really, the only source is the historical fact. Ultimately, everything is made up by little ol' me; only the spark is real.

Once that fact has appeared, the next step is deciding how the story should go. Some Maybe Babys are about things I want to happen (saving Curtis Mayfield); some are about things I'd like to stop (John and Yoko). Some are simply remarkable anecdotes I'd never known and can make into a tale wholly new (The Kinks assault, or the terrorist attack on The Rolling Stones). All Maybe Babys can be divided into four categories: it happened and was good, it happened and was bad, it didn't happen and was good, it didn't happen and was bad. Simple right?

Maybe Baby is as much about writing as about rock 'n' roll. For me, it has become an exercise in stylistic diversity and points of view. Part of the, dare I say, "magic" of it is that I can approach a story from any angle: interviews, first person reflection of the hero, third person historical. Did I interview Ray Manzarek and Paul McCartney in 1973? I was ten years old then. Do I know what Stephen Stills was thinking when he chose to be a Monkee? I couldn’t possibly, and, anyway, Stephen Stills never was a Monkee!

Once the subject and the approach have been chosen, the research begins. Library books, Rolling Stone and Creem archives are summoned. Every Maybe Baby must be grounded in historical accuracy and real knowledge of the characters involved. They must ring true to make their falseness feel real. And the music, don't forget the music. I completely immerse myself in the work of the artist in play and snippets of lyrics morph into bits of dialogue, inflection and manner of speech go from the singer to the text. YouTube helps with getting the patois just right. The reader (that’s you) has got to believe that this fanciful fiction could’ve happened.

The greatest reactions are from readers who aren’t quite sure what’s going on. I’ve been asked if I really did talk to George Harrison, or how did I know what Paul Simon said to Art Garfunkel in a private call? That’s when the stories work the best. And when I get an email from a musician in Minneapolis, or a Tweet from a London reader, I know I’ve hit emotional pay dirt.

Twists are important. A Buddy Holly story may seem to be about saving the bespectacled genius from a plane crash, but don’t be so hasty. It’s more than that. What did happen to Bob Dylan when he departed from the rock scene post-Blonde on Blonde? They end up writing themselves, in about 1 1/2 weeks from idea to final product.

The pictures help. I've found photos that fit perfectly and more than once I’ve been shocked to find a shot that looks as if it were taken explicitly for the story. If I need to change the written description of, say, Ray Davies’ clothes to make the text match the photo find, I gladly do so. It heightens the alternative reality. There’s been a small amount of Photoshopping, but no one here is very good at that.

Oh yeah, the titles are key. They’re either song names that fit, or snatches of lyrics that make the reader get a feel for what's to come. The best title is Maybe Baby itself, which came from Karen (Mrs. Maybe Baby herself). When I thought of putting the stories up as a blog, I told her I needed a song, or lyric, that reflected what I was attempting to pull off, an alternate rock world. It couldn’t be too obvious.

“Maybe Baby,” she said without skipping a beat. It was pure inspiration and just what was needed. The subtitle, You Know That It Would Be Untrue, gives a little more insight into the blog, courtesy “Light My Fire.”

Once the story is written, it’s filed away to wait its turn for posting. Emails to about 150 people provide clues as to what the coming feature will be about. Those emails are used as Facebook and Twitter updates, as well as messages to the occasional fan site. Daily Tweets highlight a piece of rock history and a link to the relevant Maybe Baby story.

And there you have it; a new Maybe Baby enters the world on the 2nd and 4th Fridays of the month. So far, there have been 34 offspring set free. There are many more written, waiting to be officially born.

Read on!

(Thanks to Kate Roth for suggesting this piece).

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Get Back

Staying at home was more enjoyable than John thought it would be. Playing with Baby Sean, baking whole wheat bread for his macrobiotic diet – that would never keep him happy, he thought, but Yoko insisted, so there you are. One of the joys of being around was that he was available when friends came to call. George was in New York for a Monty Python show at City Center, and Paul was going to drop by tonight. Paul and Linda were in town to promote Speed of Sound, Paul’s new album that already had shot to the top of the charts.

Now in April of 1976, John was scornful of the pap Paul was putting out. Well, OK, he liked some of it and was very much tempted to surprise Paul a couple of years back and drop in while Wings was recording Venus and Mars in New Orleans. But Yoko caught wind of it and pulled him back, away from Paul. She wasn’t going to have that again, and word got back to her that John and Paul were getting along very well indeed, the McCartneys having visited John and then-girlfriend May in Santa Monica and New York.

But Paul was visiting and he was allowed to ring John up, which he did. It was nice to have his old mate back and their friendship was finding its way through both the breakup of the band, the endless lawsuits and their different, grown up lifestyles. Paul was churning out the hits and ready to tour, John was no longer riding on the merry-go-round, having bowed out of the scene after his last album in ’75.

Paul and Linda arrived at the Dakota around 9 PM that Saturday and were sent right up. How does he do that, John wondered, traipse through security without a look? He was the only one who could pull that off. John answered the door, looking very thin from his steady consumption of brown rice, Thai stick and heroin. John led Paul, who had brought a guitar, through the apartment to a small room where they could relax, talk and watch TV. Since the birth of Sean in October, a month earlier than the due date by Caesarean section to have the baby’s arrival “magically” fall on John’s birthday, Lennon had been slowly rendered useless in his own home with the addition of a full-time nanny and had retreated to one corner of the apartment. Everything he needed was there – a couch, a color TV and a few guitars. Tonight he was keen to watch John Sebastian, former leader of The Lovin’ Spoonful on Saturday Night Live. Sebastian was in the midst of a comeback after a long period out of the public eye.

In the comfortable company of his old friend, Paul talked excitedly about his upcoming tour and wondered if John would show up for the May dates at Madison Square Garden.

“Everybody’s been asking me if I’ll be there, you know,” answered John.


“I don’t really know. I might, it’s all up in the air with the baby and Mother.”

“Let me know. I’ve asked George as well, but he doesn’t know if he’ll still be here. If you wanted to come up and do a number, like you did with Elton, that would be fine too.” There, Paul laid it out as plainly as he could. If John could join Elton John on stage to sing (and sing Beatle songs no less), then why couldn’t he do it with Paul?

A heavy silence. No answer. John seemed to want to say yes, but hesistated, unsure. He passed the joint to Paul. It was past midnight and the comfort of the evening was gone. Both of their heads turned to the television, tuned to Channel 4 and Saturday Night Live. A young man with a dark jacket sat behind a desk, wood paneling behind him.

“Hi, I’m Lorne Michaels, producer of Saturday Night.”

“Have you seen this show?” asked John.

“Heard of it. Good?”

“Yeah, very funny. Reminds me a bit of The Goon Show and Python.”

“…if I may, to address myself to four very special people-John, Paul, George and Ringo,” said Michaels.

John and Paul heads snapped to face each other, and then back to the TV. At the peak of Beatle reunion offers, some in the tens of millions, here was the producer of a comedy show offering, wait, was that three thousand dollars? The boys laughed.

Michaels continued. Holding up a check from NBC, he laid down the terms. “All you have to do is sing three Beatles songs- ‘She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.’ That’s a thousand right there. You know the words-it’ll be easy.”

“We do know the words John.”

“That we do. Fancy doing it?”

“When did you have in mind? The Wings tour ends in June.”

“Now, I fancy doing it now. It’s live, Saturday Night Live,” John spit out the last word. It was more than 20 blocks from the Dakota to the studio at Rockefeller Center, but the show didn’t end until 1 AM. They had time.

“Let’s go.”

John called down to the lobby to have a cab waiting. The two quickly put on their shoes and hurried to the elevator. In the rush, McCartney left his guitar upstairs.

They arrived in short order. As they burst into the lobby, the elderly security guard looked up, wondering who these young fellows were and why they were in such a hurry. He slowly got up from his stool. Like a flash, Neil Levy, the show’s talent coordinator swept in, having been sent to the door by Lorne as a joke, in case any Beatle showed up. He kept his cool as he escorted John and Paul to the studio.

“Lorne, Lorne, they’re here!” Levy yelled as he made his way through the halls backstage. He found Michaels, who snapped out of the boredom of listening to guest host Raquel Welch belt out “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

John and Paul stood face to face with Lorne Michaels. The producer, though stunned beyond belief, had a show to produce and had to forego any small talk, for now. After the show there’d be time.

“John, Paul. We’ll get you on next. What do you need?”
John, feeling the leader again, spoke first. “Two guitars.”

“Any lefthanders in the band?” asked Paul. “If not, I can play upside down.”

Michaels grabbed one of the assistants. “Get two guitars for The Beatles!”

Word was travelling. Half the cast, still in bee costumes from the last sketch, hurried to see the Fab Two. Even seeing wasn’t believing. They hadn’t performed together for almost ten years.

A commercial break was scheduled, but as Welch sashayed off, the din from backstage led the live audience to suspect something was up. Don Pardo, the show’s announcer, was on mike.

“Ladies and gentlemen, John Lennon and Paul McCartney.” The two entered together, laughed a bit and began to play. Barely heard through the hysterical crowd were the opening strains of “Two of Us.”

On April 24, 1976, Paul McCartney visited John Lennon at his home in the Dakota Apartments. They watched Saturday Night Live as Lorne Michaels presented NBC’s offer of $3,000 to The Beatles, split however they saw fit, in case they wanted to give Ringo less. John and Paul thought about going down to the studio but, as John told Playboy magazine years later, they were “too tired.”

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Even the Losers

I decided to drive down to Florida for spring break in 1983. Not having much success with girls in college, I figured my chances had to be better in Daytona Beach. After all, girls went down there for anonymous sex, didn’t they? At least, that was the premise I was going on, and probably what was on my mind, when I missed the exit off I-75 for the eastbound road to the Atlantic coast.

Let me make it clear that I am not at all comfortable out of the city, let alone in rural Florida. I saw Deliverance and, let me tell you, it left a mark. But, with Gainesville ahead, I felt brave enough to pull off the highway. It was a college town, wasn’t it, and had to be a little civilized.

I was starving and found a McDonald’s drive thru. My gut told me to stay in the car, but I decided to be tough and enter the restaurant. It wasn’t bad. The local crowd wasn’t particularly scary and there were no signs of backwoods hunters forcing strangers to squeal like a pig. Maybe my images of the south were a tad skewed. Could be.

After I finished my three minute meal, I noticed a bar called The Cypress Lounge and, with my newfound inner strength, decided to stop in for a beer. Not my style, I know, and about as out of character as when I drank from the community bottle of Jack Daniels at a Rolling Stones concert. This seemed well thought out by comparison.

The bar was dark and almost empty. It took some time for my eyes to adjust to the dim lights. From the corner, there was the neon glow from a jukebox playing “Bits and Pieces” by The Dave Clark Five. I sat down, ordered a Bud, figuring that was the safest choice. I didn’t want to stand out, you know. Two seats over I noticed a guy with shoulder length greasy blonde hair and the sunken appearance of a skeleton. He looked familiar. Was it Tom Petty? Tom Petty had a couple of great albums a few years back, with some amazing songs – “Breakdown,” “No Second Thoughts,” plenty more. Then he disappeared. I never knew why.

“I love the Dave Clark Five,” I said, hoping to make a connection.

“Uh-huh,” he mumbled into his beer bottle.

“Excuse me, are you Tom Petty?” I asked.

“Yeah, yeah.”

“I’m a big fan.” I stuck out my hand, but he didn’t turn his head. Awkward, but I didn’t catch the hint.

“What’ve you been up to lately? I have both your records. They’re great. I love ‘Hometown Blues’ on the first album.”

He turned slowly to look at me, realizing I knew his work. Maybe that’s what broke the ice.

“Thanks for not forgetting about me, man.”

“It’s not that easy. Those were my favorite albums at the time, but you haven’t done anything in, like, five years. Are you working on something?”

Petty took a swig from his bottle of Bud, placed it on the bar and gave me a ferocious stare. “Don’t read the music magazines, do you?”

I got a little nervous. “Umm, no, I don’t. Sorry.”

It got quiet. “Hey, I’m really sorry if I stepped into something bad. I didn’t mean anything by it. Just curious.”

“Ahh, forget about it.” He paused. “You know anything about the music business? You know that it screws over hungry kids all the time?”

“Sure, I’ve read about guys getting ripped off. The Beatles, Springsteen, everyone, I guess. What can you do about it though, they’re powerful dudes.”

“Yeah, well I thought I could do something about it. Wanna hear about it?”

I nodded. “You want another beer?”

“Sure, you buying?” I said yes.

“You see, we had made those first two records and were doing all right, you know, but I realized I was getting ripped off. They stole my publishing for pennies. I signed those songs away – I thought it was, like, a contract making songbooks or something.”

I laughed, after he did.

“So, I was already screwed, like what more could they do to me, right?”

“Yeah, right,” I quickly agreed. This was really cool, sitting in a bar with a bona fide rock star, listening to his story. I didn’t want to lose the moment.

“Here’s where I fucked up, big time. After, the second album, it was on Shelter, remember, our label got sold from ABC to MCA, but we had a deal that we couldn’t be sold. I was scared to be in the hands of people I didn’t know, and I pushed back, hard. Gotta keep a little bit of pride, you know.”

He was getting a little drunker, and a lot angrier. Who knew how long he’d been sitting at that bar? I never met a guy whose records I had. I was going to keep this going for as long as I could.
“What did you do?” Not a great question, but enough to make him talk some more.

“Well, my manager told me I had no money. I was half a million bucks in debt and, if I declared bankruptcy, I’d be out of my contracts. So I said, let’s do that. I can tell you, the music suits were not happy and came down on me pretty heavy.”

“I still don’t get why you’re not making records anymore?” And I didn’t.

“I’m getting to that. There was this executive board meeting, and this big man comes in and says ‘Let me tell you something, kid. You’re going to forget this whole thing, make your records and shut up.’ I didn’t take to that very well.”

“That sucks.”

“Yeah, it did. So, after hearing that, I pull out a switch blade and look at it menacingly. Then, I look straight at that guy in his expensive office and his fancy suit and say, ‘I will sell fucking peanuts before I give in to you. You can’t make records, you can’t sing.’ Then I got up and left. That’s the kind of guy I was then.”

“That’s cool.” And it was.

“Was it? I really thought they’d cave and I told the band that, but, you know what, they didn’t. They used their lawyers to get an injunction – we couldn’t tour – and they made it clear to every record company that we were through. Blackballed us up and down, there wasn’t a label that would touch us.”

Petty wasn’t angry now, just sad. I could see in his face that being a tough guy, a rebel, may have been a great image for a rock star, but it was a lousy approach to business. He knew it too and lived with it every day. What a wasted life, I thought. Was it worth the fight?

“You still playing?”

“Sometimes, around Gainesville. We started out in places like this,” he waved his beer holding hand in a circle, “and that’s where I’m back.” He got quiet for a while. Then he spoke.

“Hey, can you pick up another round?”

“Sure. I have a few bucks, even on a college student budget.”

We talked long after dark, countless sad stories of a guy who once was king, if just for a while.

Tom Petty’s early career was marked by a series of legal entanglements. First signed by Denny Cordell for Shelter Records, Petty gave up his publishing in return for a record deal. He later sued, and won, resulting in a royalty rate greater than the penny a record deal he was on. Shelter, distributed by ABC Records, was sold to MCA. Petty’s contract contained a clause that he could not be transferred without his approval. He balked at the move, MCA threatened and Petty declared bankruptcy. Since bankruptcy would void all contracts, Petty’s move shook the music industry to its core as scores of artists could follow suit. After a prolonged fight, MCA gained an injunction to stop Petty from touring. With new backing, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers embarked on their “Why MCA” tour and, soon after, a settlement was reached.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

No Future for You

Johnny Rotten was still squirming a bit after the presenter had called him out on his naughty word. Schoolboy humiliation washed over him as Bill Grundy, dapper in his gray sport coat, black shirt and black and blue tie, mocked. Johnny scolded himself – the best you could come up with was “shit.” How weak!

“Good heavens,” said Grundy with false shock, “You frighten me to death.”

Johnny shrank at the ridicule, looking down at his fuzzy black and white sweater that suited a 1950’s pinup girl more than a Sex Pistol. Guitarist Steve Jones sat, smoked and stewed.

Grundy went on, addressing Siouxsie Sioux, standing to his right. After a bit of banter, Sioux took the piss out of the older man.
“I always wanted to meet you,” she said coyly, sarcastically, batting her clownishly made up eyes.

Grundy was repulsed by these dirty punks, but attracted as well. The bleached blond Sioux in her white shirt and suspenders intrigued him. He'd had worse. Imagining her attentions to be pure, Grundy, reeking of gin, pursued.

“We’ll meet afterwards, shall we?”

That was it for Jones. In his sleeveless t-shirt that featured a monochromatic pair of tits, he puffed on his ciggy and let Grundy have it.

“You dirty sod. You dirty old man,” spat Jones contemptuously.

Grundy, sensing a scene, pushed him. “Well keep going, chief, keep going. Go on, you've got another five seconds. Say something outrageous.”

And he did. “You dirty bastard. You dirty fucker. What a fucking rotter.” The other Pistols, Glen Matlock and Paul Cook, laughed. Johnny smiled weakly, knowing Steve had taken the spotlight from him. After Grundy signed off, Steve stood up and after a bit of celebratory dancing, the entourage ran off to the green room backstage for more of the free drink that had greeted them upon their arrival.

Telephones rang. Steve and Sioux picked up the receivers, and were met by complaining viewers, appalled at the foul language they’d been subjected to. “Fuck off, you stupid cunt!” yelled Sioux.

Everyone giggled but John. He was ashamed that he hadn’t risen to the occasion and knew he needed to seize the moment.

“Ah, he thought he bloody had us, didn’t he. Well, we wiped his arse off the floor, didn’t we!”

Steve couldn’t believe it. He’d done the deed, and Johnny, that big headed pain in the ass, wanted all the credit.
“You didn’t say a word, you little shit,” said Steve, gobbing on the carpet in disgust.

Rotten knew he’d been a coward and deflected Jones’s rightful scorn to Glen.

“Me? I said ‘shit’! I started the whole row! It was Glen who said nothing, sitting all neat with his clean cut hair and his poofy sweater.” Rotten turned and lashed out at Matlock, sitting quietly. “You ain’t one of us, Glen. You’re a prim little schoolboy, a real musician.”

Glen got up to protest, but thought better of it. He’d hated John’s guts ever since the press had gone to his skull. On top of that, Glen had already been planning his own group and EMI was interested. He wanted to write melodies mainly and that wasn’t what The Sex Pistols were interested in.

“Fine, I’ve had enough of this.” said Glen. “I quit.”

“Maybe you can join Wings,” Johnny sneered. “You always loved The Bay City Rollers any way.”

Steve and Paul watched with disinterest. Jones never really got on with Glen, thought he was a wee bit poncified, not one of the lads. Once Steve had stolen a bass and gave it to Glen to sell. Poor Glen, innocent as always, hadn’t a clue it was hot and was arrested. Paul met Glen first, when they were kids playing football on Wormwood Scrubs, but he didn’t care whether Matlock was in the band or not.

“You’ll regret this John, you need me,” Glen threatened. “Who you gonna get to replace me?”

“Ah, you’re not so special. It’s easy, we’ll get Sidney!”

Steve and Paul recoiled. Sidney? Sid Vicious? Sid was crazy and couldn’t play a lick. He may have been acting the drummer in Sioux’s band The Banshees, but he couldn’t play. Sid followed John everywhere. Once he was a conservative kid worried about his exams, but Sid became Sex Pistols’ fan number one, transforming into a reprobate, drinking, fighting and shooting up at the gigs he attended night after night.

Jones jumped in. “That nutter? He can’t play bass.”

“Who the fuck cares? He’s one of us,” replied John. “He’s not some suburban geezer like Glen, listening to Paul McCartney and writing pretty little songs.”

“Wait a bloody minute, John. Glen may be a fuckin’ wanker and a tart but he can write and he can play.” Steve looked at Glen, who stared straight back. “There’s no way Sid will join this band. God, you’d be sorry if you brought that stupid fucker in. HE CAN’T PLAY!”

“Does it matter?”

“Of course it matters, you twat. We are a band. Bands need people who can play instruments.” Steve was disgusted with John.

Just as he was put in his place by Bill Grundy, Johnny found himself again contrite, with Steve in charge. He hung his head as Jones spoke.

“Listen Glen, you’re a tosser for sure, but you are the best musician of the lot of us and we can easily make it big. Whaddaya think?”

For a moment Glen was quiet, but quickly realized that The Sex Pistols would be huge if they hung together and Johnny didn’t fuck things up with his massive ego. It was worth a go.

“Just keep Johnny on a leash, Steve, ‘kay?” Johnny remained mute.

Later that night, at the 100 Club, The Sex Pistols put on a killer show, with blistering versions of Matlock’s “Pretty Vacant” and a cover of The Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction.” Out in the crowd, Sid Vicious pogoed, springing up and down doing the dance he created. In a quick, he heaved a beer bottle against the wall and a shower of glittering specks of glass descended on the writhing revelers. Listening to his favorite band, accompanied by the screams of those cut by the shards, Sid grinned like a baby. He was living his dream.

The power struggle between Johnny Rotten (Lydon) and manager Malcolm McLaren would cause a rift between Rotten and Glen Matlock. Matlock, the group’s bassist and primary songwriter, was seen by Rotten as a McLaren stooge. Glen was sacked and, on March 3, 1977, was paid less than £3000 settlement and subsequently vilified by Rotten as conservative and liking The Beatles too much. Matlock would form The Rich Kids with future Ultravox front man Midge Ure. Sid Vicious was brought in as the band’s new bassist, but without Matlock’s writing skill The Pistols hit a creative dead end and broke up in January 1978 after a disastrous tour of America. Johnny regretted bringing Sid into the group and hated him from day one, as Sid and his heroin addicted girlfriend Nancy Spungen annihilated the band.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Beat It

Things were definitely looking up at MTV. Ad sales for the first quarter of 1983 had outpaced those of all of 1982. Video-mania was sweeping the country. Duran Duran, a band going nowhere in the States, had seen a flop album named Rio turn into a blockbuster. Months after its release and teetering on the edge of oblivion, the band, with the support of Capitol Records, had produced a video for “Hungry Like the Wolf,” and the images of the clean cut, androgynous group sailing across the South Seas, drove suburban girls (and boys) wild. The frenzy forced the hand of radio stations and in January 1983, Duran Duran was as hot an act as any.

It was all playing nicely into the hands of the corporate giant that was Warner American Express. MTV was a highly valuable product. There was more gold to be mined, and how to extract those nuggets was the subject of the day’s board meeting.

“People,” began 29-year old Bob Pittman. “Let’s get down to it.” Pittman had been a radio announcer at 15, and had programmed MTV to its present position of musical dominance. Though offered the CEO job at WASEC, Warner American Express’ cable company, he had demurred, accepting, instead, the position as executive vice-president. His charge was to cut the company’s $10 million dollar loss in half, to turn their growing musical supremacy into dollars, and he was certain he knew the way.

As the MTV brain trust sat down, Pittman continued. “Folks, the guys upstairs are really pushing for us to charge cable operators for MTV. They think that’s the way to guarantee a steady stream of revenue. CNN has been charging 15 cents per subscriber ever since they’ve been on the air. The Entertainment and Sports Programming Network is starting to charge as well, and what do they show Australian Rules football and college sports. Our audience wants their MTV and they’ll pay, I’m sure of that. Thoughts?”

Carolyn Baker, head of talent and artist relations, spoke. “Bob, it’s a fine idea, but to make that really pay off we need to dramatically expand our audience. Having a select group of cities broadcasting our network isn’t going to cut it. If we played Michael Jackson’s new videos, I’m sure…”

“Carolyn, stop, just stop. If this is going to be another ‘We need to play more black artists on MTV’ sob story, I’m not interested. We’re doing fine with what we have now.”

“Listen, Bob, you’re wrong. We shouldn’t have passed on Rick James last year. ‘Super Freak’ and ‘Give It to Me Baby’ were huge hits and we snubbed him. It certainly doesn’t help our image when Rick James is out there calling us racists.”

“You’re black Carolyn. How can he call you a racist?” Pittman let out a smug chuckle.

“I’m just saying it’s bad for the network.”

Pitttman demurred. “We didn’t do too badly turning down Rick James.”

“Those were big hits,” countered Baker.

“We didn’t suffer”

“But we could’ve done better. His album sold three million copies.”

The debate about black artists on MTV was a hot one. One faction felt that MTV was rock only, and that most black artists didn’t fit into the format. That made for a small list – Joan Armatrading, The Bus Boys, Prince, Tina Turner. Not many others after that. The other side pointed out that MTV wasn’t merely one of many video outlets, it was the only one, and they had an obligation to desegregate their lineup. This wasn’t FM radio. Plus, cutting off a huge audience just wasn’t smart business.

Pittman answered. “We’ve built up a solid suburban white audience. I won’t risk alienating that demographic.”

“Alienate our audience! Michael Jackson is already a huge star. You do know that, right? Off the Wall sold eight million copies a few years ago. This Thriller album is already a big hit and CBS is pushing it hard.”

That was true. The first single was a duet with Paul McCartney, sure to capture the most airplay possible. It did, screaming to number 2 on the Billboard charts. To keep the momentum going, Epic Records, the CBS subsidiary that carried Jackson, issued two singles in January. “Billie Jean” was a killer dance track aimed at the urban audience, and “Beat It,” with guitar god Eddie Van Halen, was sure to gain rock radio approval. Epic hoped both could hit the Top 40. To push the album that much further, Jackson made a video for each single.

CBS President Walter Yetnikoff knew MTV was not likely to embrace Michael, so he laid down an ultimatum – if MTV didn’t pick up Michael Jackson, they would be barred from playing all of his label’s stars. No more Billy Joel, no more Journey, threatened Yetnikoff.

“Sorry, Carolyn, I’m not buying it.”

“What about Yetnikoff? Doesn’t that concern you?” she asked. Surely she could use CBS’ position as the leverage she needed to open up MTV to black audiences. Michael was just the vehicle to get it started.

“Yeah, right, I can hear Walter now. ‘Oh, Billy Joel, we’re very worried about Michael Jackson’s career and, because of that, we’re not letting you on MTV. Oh, Journey, you’ll just have to help us with Michael Jackson’s sales. I’m sure you understand.’ They won’t stand for that and you know it and Walter knows it.”

“Have you actually seen the videos Bob? They’re groundbreaking. You’ve never seen anything like them.”

“Don’t have to see them Carolyn, we’re not going to put them on. Michael Jackson doesn’t fit into our format and that’s that. He can sell millions of records without us, and we can keep feeding our white kids The Stray Cats, A Flock of Seagulls and Haircut 100. After all, bands like that will last a long, long time. We’ll be fine. I guarantee it.”

Though MTV made Michael Jackson bigger than ever, and, vice versa, the decision to show Michael Jackson on MTV was not an easy one. On March 2, 1983, one week after “Billie Jean” hit number one, the video aired. “Beat It” followed weeks later. Michael Jackson and MTV exploded together. Thriller, which had already sold two million copies, began selling an astounding 800,000 per week. By June it would top the seven million mark. MTV spread throughout the entire country and soon become the first profitable cable network ever.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

You Really Got Me

Things were more chaotic than usual at the Cardiff Police station. Besides the usual tumult, the hustling in of the daily sots, the common hooligan run in for vandalism, there was a buzz in the air. Something else had happened, something that drew the local press gaggle to the station looking for a story.

“So, what’s all the racket, Constable?” asked Sergeant Dalton.

“A bit of mayhem out at the theater, Sir. Terrible scene.”

“A concert?”

“Yes, Sir, one of those rock and roll shows. We’ve got one of them in for questioning, Skipper. A real long haired poof,” the Constable spit contemptuously.

“Now, now, they’re just boys, officer. No need to be so harsh in your judgments.”

“Sorry to be disagreeable, but they’re bloody animals, the lot of them, Sarge. Plain and simple.”

“Well, Constable, perhaps I’ll head back and have a little sit down with the boy. How does that sound?”

"If it suits your fancy sir, have a bash.”

Dalton politely knocked on the door to the interrogation room. He thought he heard a low “Come in” and turned the knob. Entering, he encountered a visibly shaken lad, couldn’t have been more than 20 years old. Oh, he was poncified for sure, with his long burgundy hunting jacket and yellow shirt beneath, his puffy hair sticking up, his sideboards well below his ear looking for all the world like an ancient Roman helmet.

“Have a cuppa tea, son?” Dalton offered kindly.

“Ta.” Not much of a talker, this one.

“What’s your name son?”

“Ray, sir.” Polite though.

“Ray what?” It’s like pulling teeth, Dalton thought as he slid over the steaming mug.

“Davies, Ray Davies.”

“Alright, Ray Davies, care to tell me what happened out there tonight?”
“Well, sir, I don’t really know. We were playing over at the Capitol Theatre tonight and everything seemed fine. We started with ‘You Really Got Me.’ That’s our big hit. Do you know it, sir?”

“Sorry, can’t say I do. Acker Bilk’s more my speed these days.” Dalton smiled.

Ray chuckled. “Yeah, I can see that. Well, I guess Dave, he’s my brother and the lead guitar player in the band, insulted Mick, he’s our drummer, and gave his kit the boot. Mick didn’t care for that, I guess.”

“I guess not,” Sergeant Dalton nodded for Ray to go on.
“We started our second number, called ‘Beautiful Delilah,’ and all of a sudden there was a really loud racket. Next thing I knew, Dave was knocked out cold on the stage and Mick was hitting him over and over again with his hi-hat, you know, the cymbals.”

“Was there bad blood between the two?”

“Funny, there is and there isn’t. They live together in Connaught Gardens, up in Muswell Hill. It’s kind of a den of iniquity, a real orgy palace. Mick’s room is called ‘Spunker’s Squalor,’ Dave’s is called ‘Whore’s Hovel,’ and they…”

“That’s enough, son. I get the picture and I don’t cotton to that sort of talk.” These kids really are a different breed, smutty and offensive and not caring a whit about propriety.

“Sorry, sir, I didn’t mean anything by it. Mick and Dave, well, they drink a lot, and there are always birds, sorry, girls, hanging around. Sometimes they get along quite well, other times they’re chalk and cheese. I don’t know what Dave said to Mick last night in Taunton, but they had a real punch up and Mick won. I’m sure Dave didn’t like that one bit. They were both soused, of course.”

“Do you think that caused tonight’s row?”

“I suppose so, but they always get on each other’s wick about something or other. Could’ve been anything, really.” Ray thought back to the scene, and put both hands in his hair, pushing it up even further. “There was Dave, my own brother, on the stage, bleeding all over, and my best mate Mick, beating the stuffing out of him and slicing at his throat with a cymbal. I didn’t know what to do. I was stunned.”

“Where’s Mick now, do you think?” asked the Sergeant.

“I don’t know. After he leapt off the stage and into the crowd I lost him. He could be anywhere, I suppose.”

Dalton nodded. That Avory boy had committed this fiendish assault in front of a crowd of screaming kids and then flew the coop. He must’ve known he’d be in for it, most likely thinking he’d be nicked for Grievous Bodily Harm with Intent to Kill. There’d be jail time for sure. But Avory couldn’t have known what a bollocks he’d made of his life.

“Sir?” asked Ray meekly.

“Yes, Ray?”

“Where is Dave now?”

“He’s at Royal Cardiff Infirmary.”

“Is he alright then?”

Sergeant Dalton got up from the metal chair and shuffled slowly over to Ray. As he put his hand on the lad’s shoulder, Dalton notice the darker red spots that had spurted from the ghastly cuts that Avory had sliced into Dave Davies as he lay unconscious. They’d made a mess of Ray’s frock. Dalton spoke soothingly.

“I’m sorry son, your brother lost too much blood. Dave’s dead.”

During their 1965 spring tour, The Kinks stopped in Cardiff, Wales, for a show at the Capitol Theater. Dave Davies and Mick Avory, always arguing, had fought the night before. After completing their first song, Dave kicked Mick’s drums. Avory retaliated by smashing his hi-hat stand on Davies, who was rendered unconscious. Afraid he’d killed his bandmate, Avory fled from the scene and went into hiding. Dave Davies was rushed to the hospital, where his head wound required 16 stitches. Dave refused to press charges, saving Mick from sure arrest. Mick said it was part of the act, a new bit where band members would throw instruments at each other. Ray remembers it as the night when “Mick tried to slice Dave’s head off with a cymbal.”

Thursday, August 12, 2010

To the Edge of Panic

“Yo Chuck, tell me again what you worried about.” Flavor Flav tugged on the vertical explosion of hair on top of his head. He looked like a carrot.

“OK Flav, one more time.” Chuck D took off his gray Los Angeles Raiders cap, placed it on the mixing board, and rubbed his head. “This lawsuit could put us out of business. No more Public Enemy, not like we been doin’.”

“That’s some wack shit man. Nobody gonna put us out business.” Flav was really animated now, hopping up and down, waving his arms wildly.

It was most definitely some wack shit. That damn fool Biz Markie always clowning. It’s not so funny now that he’s getting sued for sampling. And who was this white motherfucker, what was it, Gilbert O’Sullivan, suing Biz for some lame ass tune, “Alone Again (Naturally)?” From what Chuck had heard, Biz’ label had asked for permission. That was bullshit, man. Just take what you need, aight. See what happens when you ask the white business world for permission? Fuck that shit!

“They could, Flav, they could. And if we have to pay for every sample we use, you think The Bomb Squad’s gonna be able to make our records the same way?"

“Listen to Flav, man, The Bomb Squad are the most incrediblest people. They’ll be able to produce the dopest records for us.”

Chuck hung his head. Flav just didn’t get it. You can’t make a song with 10 different samples if you gotta pay for each one. We’re through if the judge decides against Biz.

“Chuck. Hey boy! This ain’t no graveyard party, stop actin’ like a tombstone!” Chuck smiled. Flav could always cheer him up. As they sat in Chuck’s recording studio at his house in Roosevelt, Long Island, he thought back to the rise of Public Enemy, how they led the way, never selling their soul. Even when Professor Griff put them through some serious shit a couple of years back, they hung tough. Griff’s anti-Semitic riffing back in ’89, that was something else to deal with. Griff said Jews were responsible for “the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe.” Now why’d he have to say that? It put Chuck in a bad spot, having to fire Griff’s black ass, then bring him back, then disband the group, then bring it back. Chuck thought that was the worst threat to Public Enemy, but when Griff dissed his posse, saying they were all full of shit, well, Chuck had no choice but to get rid of Griff for good. But they survived.

This lawsuit, though, that really scared him. If they couldn’t use all those samples anymore, what would they do? Back at Adelphi, when Chuck was still just Carlton Ridenour, a graphics design major, he’d met a couple of homies at the school radio station and those nights with Hank Shocklee and Bill Stephney, were where Public Enemy’s sound was born. Shocklee would cram those motherfucking samples into PE songs and really create something special. Hank was the leader of The Bomb Squad now. Could he do something different if he had to?

Flav watched Chuck quietly thinking. He rattled the chain holding the giant clock that dangled from his neck, pulled off his oversized orange glasses and hollered.

“Yo Chuck. Isn’t Dre using just one sample over and over again? He ain’t no sample king.”

“Aw man that’s West Coast shit. That’s not us. We’re East Coast all the way,” said Chuck adamantly.

They were. When Rick Rubin heard their first tapes he went wild and signed them up at Def Jam Records right away. Rick was good to them and, even though he left the label a few years back, he stayed in touch, keeping Chuck in the loop with whatever the important happenings. Rick was another dude from Strong Island. Hell, he started Def Jam out of his dorm room at NYU.

“Naw, Dre lays down some phat beats. You wrong about that Chuck. Word up.”

It was hard to listen to Flav’s silliness with this lawsuit on his mind. Man, he should have his own TV show. People would eat that shit up! We all better be thinking about new careers. Figures, the white establishment looking for any way to shut us up, the real voice of the ‘hood. They just want minstrels, old timey Toms saying “Yassuh,” Nosuh.” Not prophets, not strong black men, telling it like it is. Shut ‘em down! That’ s justice right? That’s the legal system – it’s a joke, an anti-nigger machine. Fight that power? You can’t win.

Flav was still chattering when the phone rang.

“Yo, what’s up?” asked Chuck.

“Chuck, it’s Rick.”

“Hey, man, how you doin’?”

“Not as good as you. Did you hear the judge ruled in the Biz case?”

“Nuh uh. What’s it gonna be?” Chuck asked nervously.

“The judge said that the company suing Biz didn’t even own the damn copyright. Business as usual man, business as usual.”

“Thanks Rick, you the man!”

Now all smiles, Chuck faced Flav. “We’re cool, man, we’re cool. Wonder what Griff would say about these Jewish lawyers now!” He placed his Raiders cap back on his head.

Flavor Flav leapt from his seat, hiked up his baggy reddish orange pants and, flashing a mouth full of gold teeth, yelled “We cold lampin’ now boy!”

Grand Upright Music, Ltd v. Warner Bros. Records Inc., was decided on December 17, 1991. While the U.S. District Court ruled that all samples needed to be cleared, the judge noted that Grand Upright did not own the copyright to “Alone Again (Naturally).” Still, Warner Brothers asking Grand Upright for permission indicated that they knew they were violating the law. The ruling changed rap forever, making it financially prohibitive to make records using multiple samples, the hallmark of Public Enemy’s sound. 1991's Apocalypse 91...The Enemy Strikes Black was the last great Public Enemy record. They would go on hiatus during 1993, then, after negative reviews greeted 1994’s Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age, Chuck D retired Public Enemy from touring.

(Cold lamping - To hang out next to a streetlamp)

Friday, July 23, 2010

Don’t Need No Ticket, You Just Thank the Lord

“All great music is soul music. No matter what genre of music it is, it has to contain a little bit of soul. And God knows, nobody ever had more soul than my man, Curtis Mayfield.”

Amen brother! Well said. I clapped and looked around. Here I was at the Waldorf-Astoria, watching Puff Daddy make a speech about Curtis. Puff Daddy! Doesn’t that just beat all. At the next table was Paul McCartney, at another Bruce Springsteen. And me, a 42 year old veteran at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction ceremony. I looked at Curtis, part of the class of 1999, and couldn’t help but think back on how we met and the part I played in his being here.

It started way back in ’72. My folks didn’t have much money, and there wasn’t much luxury where I grew up, in a two room apartment on 149th Street. I used to sneak into the movies as much as I could to escape our rundown building and stay off the streets. They were too dangerous, man, a lot of drugs, a lot of guns. I loved those black flicks like Shaft and Slaughter. But Superfly was number one for me.

Superfly was the real deal. Those were my streets, the gritty, dirty neighborhood that I lived in every day. On every corner a dealer pushing his product, the smooth kingpins sitting in diners, watching their empires through pane glass windows, tugging their fedoras over their eyes if they didn’t want to be seen.

That was the first time I heard Curtis Mayfield. The movie was great, but Curtis’ songs, hey, they were better than the movie itself. I really dug his music, it really got to me. He was talking about some serious shit, really telling it like it was in the ghetto. “Pusherman,” “Freddie’s Dead,” “Superfly” – I knew those guys. I don’t know; it was like Curtis knew me. That was my life. I was 15, with no future, surrounded by bad men.

I ripped off a copy of the album and listened to it over and over again. It spoke to me, made me sad. But there was something in Curtis’ voice, that high crystalline tone, so beautiful, that gave me hope. I felt connected to this man and, even though I didn’t write well, I found a scrap of paper and wrote him a letter, telling him how much his songs meant to me. I sent it off to Curtom, the record label Curtis owned, and that was it.

A few months later Curtis wrote me back. I was knocked out. I never thought he’d have time for me, but he did. I remember it word for word, even now.

Young brother, thank you for your thoughtful letter. Maybe we can meet someday. I always have time for a fan, and, maybe the next time I’m in New York, you can come see me. Keep up the faith. All is possible. Your friend, Curtis.

Wow. That was something, man. For a little child, running wild in the streets, a message from Curtis Mayfield meant something. I taped it on the cracked plaster wall next to my bed and read it every night before I went to sleep. I checked out his older stuff with The Impressions. Those early records were great, though not as funky. I loved the covers, little Curtis with a big ol’ toothy grin, or the three of them pushing a fine sports car.

When I was 18 I joined the Marines and, with a real future ahead of me, I felt the need to write Curtis again, just to tell him what was happening with me and how he was my inspiration. He wrote back again, telling me how proud he was and asked me to stay in touch. I did and we’d write each other every few months, even as his career faded with the rise of disco and MTV. I bought all his new records and, when The Impressions toured in ’83, I was in Lebanon, seeing the heaviest stuff I’d seen since my days living in Harlem.

When Curtis moved to Atlanta he dropped me a note with his new address. We kept writing, but still never met. I left the military, settled back in New York, Brooklyn this time, and by 1990, was pretty settled. Curtis wrote me that he was playing an outdoor show in Wingate Field, over in East Flatbush, on August 13. He asked if I could come, now that I was nearby, and invited me backstage as his guest.

It started off as a nice day, but the sky was getting pretty dark when I arrived around 5:30. I told the guard who I was, that I was a guest of Curtis Mayfield’s and, after checking his pad, he waved me in. I wandered around and spotted Curtis talking to a group of guys that, it turned out, were Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes. They were on before Curtis.

“Umm, excuse me, Curtis, I’m…” I didn’t have a chance to say another word before he grabbed me and squeezed me in a big bear hug. He was tinier than I pictured, but he was a giant to me. His tight afro was flecked with grey and he wore some funky tinted glasses.

“Oh man, it’s so good to meet you at last. Hey Harold, I gotta tell you, this dude wrote me a letter when he was 15 years old, and we’ve been pen pals ever since! Can you beat that!” I couldn’t believe how excited Curtis was to see me. “He went into the Marines, did us all proud and, here he is!” He was bragging on me like he I was his son.

His voice was deeper than his singing voice. That surprised me. He was soft, gentle, caring, everything I hoped he’d be. The show began and the two of us stayed backstage, talking through the whole set.

The wind was kicking up a bit, rain was clearly coming. We talked about life, about music. I couldn’t believe Curtis liked rap, especially Public Enemy. He explained to me his views of music, using it to spread the truth. “Everything’s changed, but ain’t nothin’ changed too much.” He laughed; so did I.

The weather was getting worse and, though Curtis had some time before his set, the promoters were nervously circling around us, hoping to get a word with him.

“Curtis, can you go on early? We’re worried about this rain cancelling the show.”

“No, man, I’m talking to my friend here.” His friend, he called me his friend. I had to smile over that.

They wouldn’t let up. Every minute or two they would ask Curtis if he would go on and Curtis kept telling them no.

I asked him if he thought the weather would be a problem. He wasn’t worried, the show would go on. We kept on talking, when, suddenly, a thunderous crash, a blast from the heavens, jolted us out of our conversation. I figured it was the beginning of the storm, the wind was fierce, but Curtis turned quickly to the stage and said “What the fuck was that?”

He made a step forward and I followed. There, where he would have been standing had he gone on instead of talking, was a 500 pound lighting scaffold which had been blown off its tower and onto the stage. We looked at each other in disbelief.

As Curtis walked onto the stage after Puffy’s speech and began to speak, I thought back on the day we finally met, the day I saved Curtis Mayfield’s life.

On August 13, 1990, a freakish onstage accident left Curtis Mayfield paralyzed from the neck down. Under pressure from promoters to start early to avoid the rain, Mayfield was walking on stage as the band played the intro to “Superfly.” As 10,000 watched, a lighting scaffold was blown off its tower and crushed the singer.

On March 15, 1999, Curtis Mayfield was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, Del Shannon, Dusty Springfield and Bruce Springsteen. Befitting his positive post- accident attitude, Curtis planned to attend the ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in Manhattan. It was only his steadily deteriorating health that prevented him from appearing. Curtis Mayfield died on December 26, 1999 in Roswell, Georgia, at the age of 57.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Even Hate My Rock and Roll

When John got the call Friday afternoon inviting him to perform on the same bill with his heroes, he fought back all nervousness and dove in. Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and John Lennon? At first, when the promoter, some kid named John Brower that Lennon had never heard of, rang up the Apple office to ask if John and Yoko would come watch the Toronto Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival as members of the audience, John was put off. “We don’t want to be the fucking King and Queen, we want to play. Just give me time to get a band together.” Now, three days later, he was thinking he must’ve been out of his head. Perform live for the first time in years with some friends and Yoko? Would it work? Could he do it alone, without The Beatles? He’d been thinking lately about leaving the band, his band, the band that he started, and diving headfirst into a world of Yoko only.

In the motorcade to Varsity Stadium, sitting in the back seat of a black limo escorted by scores of leather clad bikers called The Vagabonds, John had second thoughts. They’d rehearsed a bit on the plane to Canada, he and Eric working out a few tunes they knew, classic rockers like “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” their unplugged electric guitars sounding tinny and weak. Last year, Lennon, Clapton and Keith Richards had done “Yer Blues” together on the Stones’ television show, so they hashed that out as well. Yoko sat close by, silently, and John was a bit uncomfortable with her presence. His shaky confidence was made worse by her clinginess. It would have been nice if George had come as well, but he wanted nothing to do with an avant-garde band, the very thought of Yoko’s piercing shrieks as harmony, or worse yet, some endless jam of screeches and howls, gave Harrison the shivers. It would have provided great comfort to John had one of his band mates stood with him.

Back in the Cavern days, when The Beatles would cover the songs of their favorite rockers, John would never have believed that in a few years he would be topping the bill. Now, in 1969, he was the key attraction of the one day festival. Well, alright, The Doors were actually the headliners, but the makeshift Plastic Ono Band were on right before them. It was just as well, John thought, as he threw up backstage. I’m not ready to be the star by myself.

John watched Bo Diddley work the crowd, Jerry Lee drive them to a cliff, and Richard push them over. It worried him. Man, these guys can deliver, he thought, and here I am with a band that hasn’t even played together before. He felt a wave of nausea roll up to his throat, but he clamped down on the feeling, keeping it deep inside. Yoko stuck to him, her very existence adding more heat to an already warm September day. His stomach revolted.

To a sea of lit matches and butane lighters, the band strode onstage, terrified and shaking. John immediately cautioned the crowd, 20,000 strong.

“Good evening!” he shouted, and, after a blast from his guitar, “We’re just gonna do numbers that we know, because we’ve never played together before.” The warning made, the group began to slog through “Blue Suede Shoes.” In mid-song, Yoko disappeared briefly and returned with a white bag, which she entered. Lennon looked down, his face a stone mask, but his voice gained an added ferocity.

They plodded through the set list. “Money” rolled out at a tempo slightly faster than a full stop, and John was embarrassed. He reached down after the song was over and ruffled through the bag to grab the lyric sheets that Yoko had held and kept with her when she hid. He needed the words. It’d been so long since he played these numbers that he had hastily scribbled the words on scattered white paper that Yoko clutched. At least she would be good for something, but, in his moment of need, she was gone.

“Bloody hell,” John thought. “This is awful. And what the fuck is she doing. Standing too close, out of the bag, inside the bag, back outside.”

When the band launched into the one song they did know, “Yer Blues,” Yoko let out a nasty squawk and kept at it throughout the tune. John was mortified and sheepishly turned to face Clapton, not wanting to meet his gaze. Clapton shot a piercing look at John, clearly disgusted by what was happening on stage. John tried to shake it off, wobbling his knees in a silly dance as a way to keep his sanity, but the weight of shame wasn’t so easily shaken off.

As John sang “Cold Turkey,” Yoko went into full animal howl, causing Lennon to clench his teeth as he sung. He needed to glance at the lyric sheets she was holding, but it was getting harder and harder to face her. Every time he turned he would see Clapton glaring at him. “Maybe Eric’s looking to me for cues,” John mused, but it was obvious the Clapton was irate. John felt a wave of humiliation and, when the song finished and there was no reaction from the audience, he lashed out. “Come on, wake up,” he sneered, but he knew he wasn’t mad at them, but at the crazy lady who hung on him so tightly, his wife.

He counted in “Give Peace a Chance” with a vicious German accent, “Eins Zwei, Eins Zwei Drei Vier.” With Yoko caterwauling and clapping a rhythm that was uniquely her own and in no way connected to the song, John erupted. He leaned over to Yoko. “If you’re gonna clap, try to be on the beat. You’re messing me up.”

He’d had it. Still, Yoko had her number to do and John introduced her with more than a bit of venom.

“Yoko’s gonna do her thing all over you,” he declared to the crowd.

While Clapton played violently, Yoko sang “Don’t worry” over and over again, before she launched into an endless stream of violent screaming. The cacophony was too much. John wondered how he got to this point, playing on stage with an insane Japanese woman. The so-called “song” was excruciating, seemingly endless. Eric stared daggers at John. The band exited, their guitars spewing feedback as Yoko remained standing, "waaahing" alone at center stage. A tsunami of boos surged toward her.

John nervously walked behind the stage, wishing he could disappear, when Eric charged him. Grabbing John by the shoulders he shook him violently.

“What do you see in her John, really? She’s your old lady, I dig that, but she’s not a musician, she has no right being on that stage. She made a right fool of us all.”

There was no point in fighting it. John hung his head. He knew Eric was right.

“You’re right, man, absolutely right. I can’t go through that again, she’s mad as a hatter.”

Realizing that John was hurt by the truth, Eric pushed on, gently.

“Let’s all go back to London and, when we get there, meet with the boys and tell them how much the band means to you, how much you love them and that you need them.”

John nodded his head. His future, musically, was with The Beatles, not with Yoko Ono.

“And you have to tell her where you stand. Now.”

“Do I?” asked John, wide-eyed, afraid of a confrontation. Eric gave him a pat on the back for encouragement and a soft push to send him on his way.

Nervously, John walked to the opposite side of the stage where Yoko had just emerged after 20 minutes of screeching yodels. She was still holding the lyric pages. To do what was necessary, he needed to be nasty John, cutting John, the John that spared no one’s feelings.

“You make a great music stand, luv, but I’m not going to be humiliated again. I was nervous as hell out there and I didn’t need to be embarrassed,” he started.

From where he stood, Eric Clapton could see John shouting, his head down, staring at his guitar to avoid looking at Yoko as she wiped away a tear.

Before arriving in Toronto, John Lennon confided to Eric Clapton and bassist Klaus Voorman that he was leaving The Beatles. Having never heard the boos after Yoko’s performance of “Don’t Worry Kyoko,” Lennon was flush with self-confidence as he returned to meet the Beatles at the Apple offices in Savile Row. During a business discussion, John announced he was leaving the group. While George Harrison and Ringo Starr had each quit previously, Lennon’s announcement was the end. Paul McCartney would be the first to go public with the breakup, publicizing his own departure in April 1970.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Madcaps Laugh

“Interesting group today, eh, Nurse?”

“I suppose, Doctor,” she replied quizzically. The older nurse didn’t get this new psychiatrist. His shoulder length hair made him look like one of those Woodstock hippies, not a staff doctor at Bellevue in 1970. She had no idea why these particular patients were anything special.

“You suppose? You don’t follow rock and roll, do you?” He smirked. “I know, silly question. You’re more a Perry Como type, I bet.”

Insulted, the gray haired woman smoothed out her gleaming white uniform and straightened her cap. “I do like him, yes.”

“OK, sorry, but these guys are famous rock stars. Legends.” The nurse remained unimpressed.

“Well, let’s go in and see what we can do for them, shall we.” He opened his notebook to refresh himself on the facts.

Alexander “Skip” Spence – born 4/18/46. Former drummer of Jefferson Airplane and guitarist for Moby Grape. Schizophrenia exacerbated by LSD intake. Committed to Bellevue under restraint after attacking a band member with a fire axe. Believes he is the Anti-Christ.

Peter Green (Greenbaum) – born 10/29/46. Former lead guitarist for Fleetwood Mac. Schizophrenia exacerbated by LSD intake. In May 1970, left the band he created in order to follow the teachings of Jesus and to divest himself of all his money.

Syd Barrett – born 1/6/46. Former lead songwriter and guitarist for Pink Floyd. Unknown mental illness coupled with LSD intake. Erratic behavior including near-catatonia during performance, public defecation, prolonged disappearances.

The room was spare, empty save for five metal chairs arranged three facing two. The doctor suppressed his urge to be a fan first, and while he managed to stay professional, inside he was buzzing. Man, he had been at the Fillmore East just two years earlier for a Moby Grape show and it was the best he’d ever seen. Peter Green “The Green God” himself, was his favorite blues guitar player, better than Clapton. And Syd? Only the genius who gave birth to psychedelic music. However, the doctor knew he needed to try to help these men come back to some semblance of normality. Along with medication and talk therapy, the doctor had a backup plan, something he hoped would get to the core of who these men were.

Spence, wearing his hospital uniform, could hardly sit, a fidgety mess with darting eyes, a sly smirk and tangled hair. To Spence’s left sat Green, a Jesus manqué, hands folded below a large dangling cross. To keep Peter calm, he was allowed to wear his own clothes, which included a shiny blouse with lace lapels. Syd sat apart, his Medusa hair nearly covering his dark eyes, so deep in the sockets that they were almost unseen. Perhaps he had looked at himself in the mirror and turned to stone. The doctor and nurse sat in the two seats opposite the troubled trio.

“Gentleman, good morning. I’m Doctor Brown. How are you all today?”

“Fine, my son, fine,” answered Green. “Today is another wonderful day thanks to my father, the Lord God.” He pushed back his long matted hair and stroked his flowing beard.

“Ah, that’s bullshit, man, bullshit. God is a pussy, he can’t do jackshit!” Spence yelled. Since being committed to Bellevue in a straight jacket after attacking fellow Graper Don Stevenson with a fire axe, Skip was a man possessed. Literally. In his mind, he fancied himself the anti-Christ. It was for Don Stevenson’s own good that Spence tried to chop through a hotel room door with an axe. He was only trying to protect Don from the evil that had invaded Skip’s soul.

“Skip, if you could relax, please.” Doctor Brown was interrupted by the screeching of the chair on the hard floor. Green had slowly pushed his chair back and stood up. He attempted to lay his hands on Spence’s head to soothe his troubled soul. “My son, you need to lead a selfless life along Christian principles.” Skip pushed Green’s hands away violently, as if sprinkled with holy water while undergoing an exorcism, then turned to face the window.

It was hard for the psychiatrist to keep his clinical cool. Holy shit, he thought, these guys are fucking crazy. In medical school he was taught to avoid laymen’s generalizations, but, come on, THEY WERE NUTS. Turning away for the religious war waging before him, he turned to Syd, who sat quietly, head down and motionless.
“How are you today Syd?”
“Am I here then?” Syd asked sincerely, almost sweetly. Barrett shared none of the aggressive insanity of the others in the group. “I thought I might be disappearing, treading backward on a path, out of focus.”

“Do you often feel like you’re vanishing?” the Doctor asked.

“I don’t feel it; it’s true. I have photographic evidence of it.”

“Tell me what you mean? Could I see the picture?” A physical manifestation of his psychosis? Intriguing, though impossible.

“When the band was ready to give me the sack, they knew I was evaporating. They saw it in the photos. I knew they were right. From then on, I couldn’t be bothered singing or playing. I couldn’t care less.”

That was hard for the doctor to believe. “Couldn’t care less? Pink Floyd was your group. You weren’t hurt when they fired you?”

“I didn’t think or feel at all. I think even less now,” Syd said almost inaudibly. “It’s better that way.”

“That may be, Syd, but you’re here, in this room, with the rest of us.”

“Who knows for sure? Maybe it’s a dream. Maybe you’re dreaming you’re a doctor.” Syd lifted his head and for the first time looked straight into the doctor’s eyes. “You might be a teenager in your suburban bedroom, dozing off as you listen to your records. Maybe we’re not here at all.”

Out of the corner of his eye the doctor could see Skip taunting Peter, giving the “messiah” the evil eye and waving his hands as if putting a hex on Green, who sat serenely with his hands in prayer, eyes closed.

“Skip, please stop that.” ordered Doctor Brown. Skip obeyed and sat quietly in his chair. “Peter, do you feel like Syd does or do you miss playing guitar and being on stage with your band?”

“I’ve got to do what God would have me do. We should love one another, care for one another. Money is not important. Being a rock star is not important. Giving of one’s self to others is everything.”

Skip let out a loud raspberry, and Peter calmly made the sign of the cross over him. Syd remained apart, statue-like.

Clearly, group therapy was ineffective. There was no interaction between the three, at least no positive exchange. This was going nowhere. It was time for the doctor to roll out his plan, earlier than he had hoped. Calling their bluff, making them play music would, he hoped, get to the heart of who they were and bring out their true selves. Then real therapy could begin.

The doctor stood up, walked over to the door and rapped on the glass window to summon the attendants. Three men, burly hulks immaculately dressed in white, arrived and escorted the deranged musicians to the recreation room. As other patients sat stoically, their attention focused toward the corner of the room where a small black and white television was bolted into the wall, the assistants brought Syd, Skip and Peter to instruments that had been placed in the room. A drum kit was set up and a guitar and bass rested on the tiled floor. A few of the more sane turned in their worn cloth chairs to observe the scene.

Doctor Brown stood before the sick supergroup. “Here’s what I’d like to try. Skip, if you could get behind the drums, Syd, pick up the guitar, and Peter, I read once that you could play bass. Now, there’s no pressure here. I simply want to see if you could find some happiness in what you do best, music.”

They were all skeptical except Skip, who leapt onto the stool and started pounding on the toms. Syd dutifully wrapped the guitar around his neck, his arms hanging down lifelessly. Slowly, Peter strummed a few strings.

Suddenly, a savage sound erupted and, like savants, they were off with a bang. There was not a sign of instability as they launched into Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on my Trail.”

Speculation that Syd Barrett was a daily user of LSD has been disputed over the years, but it is clear that his drug use and unpredictable behavior turned off the rest of Pink Floyd soon after the band broke out in 1967. Though Syd was the group’s main songwriter, it was decided to not call him for a gig at Southampton University in January 1968. Officially, Syd’s expulsion came April 6. He lived at his family’s Cambridge home until his death in July 2006.

Skip Spence, after Moby Grape’s classic debut LP in 1967, had a psychotic episode that led to his attack with a fire-axe on band mate Don Stevenson’s Albert Hotel room door. He was jailed in The Tombs, and then committed to Bellevue. Spence recorded his solo epic, Oar, in 1969. For the next 30 years, Spence would be in and out of treatment, sometimes destitute enough to qualify for public aid. He died in 1999.

Peter Green left Fleetwood Mac in May 1970, his financial success with the band causing him inner turmoil. After an LSD binge in Munich, Green, in his own words, “went on a trip and never came back.” Years of psychiatric hospitalization, which included shock therapy, led a vagabond’s life as a recluse. He has toured in recent years but the fire is gone.