The guy breezed into the room—a bit overweight, unshaved, in a belted trench coat (an important detail, and you’ll see why), and absolutely out of breath. He was, I recall, either from Queens or Brooklyn or maybe Long Island, was not noted for any athletic or criminal prowess whatsoever, and was in the process of explaining how he’d buried the body in the park in town.
“What body?” It was the only reasonable question to ask.
“The spy,” he said. “He’d been following me for months.” He patted his pocket. “I shot him dead and buried him.”
“You buried him.”
“I had to work fast.”
My asking where the shovel was only complicated matters. He had answers for everything, as insane people tend to have. He’d buried the gun in a separate place; the shovel was wiped of all fingerprints and thrown in the brook. The spy had been a dangerous man who wanted access to the secrets this fellow student apparently had locked away in his brain. Secrets he’d managed to get from the Russians when he was a double agent. Drugs would have been a handy excuse, but this guy was about as clean as Santa Claus. When the whole universe is located inside your head, there are no mysteries. All is echo, and everything makes impeccable sense.
I’m not sure if it was strictly homegrown or somehow contagious, this madness, or that simply living so far from the major cultural centers of the world gave rise to delusion, but I think many of us succumbed to it and found our own private remedy. All that mattered was how you played it. Me, I took drugs, saw things, heard things, occasionally babbled, but I may also have reached a certain level of sanity and balance, as an alcoholic will drink until his hand is steadied, his mind alert. I bring up this—no names, please—self-appointed spy, because I want to write about my sadly aborted music career. The Spy had absolutely nothing to do with it (though he also fancied himself a lounge singer of sorts, which, if placed on a scale of, say, one to hundred, a hundred being Mel Tormé, would have come in around Jimmy Durante), but he was part of the scenery—a walk-on, if you will, a supporting player, someone to goof on when you’ve smoked a few joints. A little Googling, incidentally, revealed what happened to him in the years afterwards, but I refrain from mentioning it here as he may still be under investigation for a number of other, ahem, “misunderstandings.” In short, once the whole spy business came out he became just a little too spooky even for goofing.
I had gone to college in southern Indiana by mistake. For reasons best known to me I wanted to get as far away from home as possible, and though California would have probably been a better destination (as would have been, say, Argentina or Pakistan), I opted for getting lost in a small town in the Baptist stronghold of southern Indiana. And that was before I smoked a single joint or dropped my first tab of acid. Okay, not necessarily a mistake as much as a misjudgment. In the days before the Internet it was difficult to investigate in advance the places where one was destined to end up. No Google image searches (which would have solved my problem immediately, especially for a town in which the high spots were the Waffle House and Mother Hubbard’s Pizza), no message boards with words of warning (“If you are from the New York metropolitan area please DO NOT COME HERE IT IS NOT LIKE MANHATTAN, THELONIOUS MONK WILL NOT BE PLAYING IN A NIGHTCLUB THREE BLOCKS AWAY FROM YOU!!!”), only a college catalogue with photos of a forbidding gothic building (which, attention wannabe directors, would make a natural location for a movie about monsters, ghosts or, uh-huh, the insane) and happy Midwestern boys and girls, none of whom resembled anyone I’d ever seen before, save on “Father Knows Best” or “Ozzie and Harriet.” Some of them even thought I was weird.
As I’d pointed out in my previous fragment of memoir, this was where I was introduced to drugs, both hard and psychedelic, and so, in retrospect, I consider this a formative and not unliberating time for me. But it was also where I learned a hell of a lot about music, mostly the making of.
In terms of career hopes, I’d just graduated from a private school located on a rather beautiful estate on the Hudson River, overlooking Sing Sing Prison and founded by a banking wizard and his wife, both of whom were patrons of the arts and, when they weren’t having Paderewski around to play piano or Isadora Duncan to dance on their lawn or Sarah Bernhardt to recite, were socializing with John D. Rockefeller and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In my last year there our very cool history teacher decided to scrap his usual course and offer us a year in law. First semester: tort law; second semester: criminal law, the final exam being a mock trial and all the preparation it involved, maybe three months of interviews, evidence-gathering, and, in the case of my three-man prosecutorial group, jury tampering (it lost us a grade point, but, hell, it only cost us five bucks to guarantee a hung jury). That’s when I decided I’d become a lawyer. At around the same time, I’d been chatting with a family friend who’d clerked for Justice Black of the U.S. Supreme Court. He told me to major in English. “The law is really all about language. Learn to use the language well and fluidly and you’re halfway there.” The unstated point being that if you were good with words you could bamboozle anyone.
Of course, once I got to college I came to the decision to become a rock star, which back then was perfectly reasonable career choice, somewhere way up there with “Investment Manager” or “Biochemist.” Note that I put it as “rock star,” not “great musician”, or even a good and respected musician, but a rock star, which often required more attitude than aptitude. There were perks: 1) you look cool, even when not trying to look cool, because, as a Rock Star, as with a Movie Star, no one gives a toss what you really look like because there’s nothing like stardom to lend you a certain stature; in other words, my being short wouldn’t be a problem. I call to the stand Mick Jagger and Keith Moon. It also works for actors. You know who you are. 2) Drugs. Lots of them. At the time this was fine by me, because it meant I didn’t have to drop a line to my connection whenever I needed a hit; these would be handed to me by that other perk, Assistants, these days known as My Posse. 3) women. Duh. 4) ten thousand people shouting “YES!” as you step onto the stage—I’ll take that any day, and I speak as one who has done readings for three old-timers resting their weary Reeboks in a mall Borders, none of whom were even considering laying out the twenty bucks for a signed copy of my kinky, dark and disturbing novel.
Until then I’d played piano. And then only many years earlier. I’d had lessons beginning when I was four with a woman of Greek heritage who would eat chocolates out of my mother’s offered box of sweets and read Time magazine while I struggled through “Papa Haydn.” My lessons went on for several years, interrupted only when I decided I wanted to play the clarinet. There was no earthly reason why I chose it. It’s not a sexy instrument, per se, nor one to which I was unduly attached, and my lessons lasted exactly three weeks. I just didn’t have the breath for it. Nor the chops, as they say in the business.
When I finally got to college I met a guy who’d lived all over the world—his father was in the State Department and he enjoyed the fruits of reassignment. He was very cool, he looked good, he played bass guitar, girls liked him, and years earlier he’d formed a band with his brother—they’d even cut a record in Paris. He suggested he teach me the bass while he moved from bass to lead guitar. We would form a band. There would be drugs. Women. Ten thousand fans!
So we went into Indianapolis (one visit and I understood why it was referred to by some as “Naptown”) and dropped in on a music store (where impoverished musicians sold their instruments for drug and/or booze money) and walked out with a hollow-body Framus bass which looked a lot like Paul McCartney’s Hofner. The only problem being that I didn’t look like Paul nor was I about to play like Paul or be invited to join a band that would become as big as the Beatles.
Which leads me to the whole Beatles versus Stones issue, briefly touched upon in my review published here at The Nervous Breakdown of Keith Richards’s recently-published memoirs, Life. It’s hard to understand these days how very difficult it was back then to embrace both bands, as though one were being asked to support both the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War. This occupied a great deal of our time, especially if one was very, very stoned and had nothing else to do at half-past three in the morning. Some immensely democratic people could wholeheartedly embrace both bands at once, but it wasn’t easy, and they were instantly branded as relativists and phonies. I think we were pretty canny in knowing that the Beatles were clearly drug-fiends hiding behind a wholesome persona, while the Stones were a dangerous street gang hiding behind no persona at all. The Stones were a blues band, plain and simple, and when they weren’t singing they looked as though they might corner you in an alley and tear you to shreds (or at least once cherubic Brian Jones was out of the picture); the Beatles wrote great songs and delivered them, via a brilliant producer and set of engineers, brilliantly on vinyl. Both had the same effect on their audiences. As it was said by the janitor cleaning up after a Stones concert in the north of England: “Very good show. Not a dry seat in the house.”
I was a Who freak back then. This was perhaps the ugliest band in the known universe (by their own admission), which proved at least one of my points about being a rock star. They were aggressive, they got in your face, and when they were finished singing “My Generation” they destroyed their equipment, half the scaffolding around the stage and almost certainly the hearing of anyone within a half-mile radius. I had begun to catch them live, mostly in small clubs, and for three days after each performance I’d hear ringing in my ears. They were very, very loud, and, yes, I liked it. Oh, and Keith Moon once waved to me from behind his battery of drums, perhaps recognizing another small man with high hopes and big dreams.
I was taught the basics by my well-traveled friend, who wisely advised that I learn how to play bass lines for the blues, because then I could play more or less anything. I practiced over and over to Paul Butterfield’s first album (Play it Loud was the admonition on the back of the jacket, and I did), and we played once or twice in the sad little student union that, every week after my ten-to-midnight radio show on Wednesday nights, we robbed blind of half its food, flipping burgers and frenching fries while campus security, a Korean War vet with an arthritic German Shepherd and a two-by-four, sat in his car smoking Old Golds) to a dozen or so people who either stared at us or shuffled in place or gazed at our hair and wondered how they could kill us.
When I was asked to leave this college after two years (“you have been deemed socially incompatible with the ideals and practices of our Baptist college,” a comment which hardly surprised me) I transferred to a college in New England where everyone else was like me—they were either from New York or New Jersey, Jewish or Catholic. They talked with their hands, they liked to eat, and argument and debate was second-nature. A lot of them also drove Firebirds, and many of the girls were named Donna.
It was rumored (and evidence was everywhere) that the place was run by one of the Five Families out of New York. The reason why the Mob would want anything to do with a four-year college became obvious once “The Godfather” was released: just as Vito Corleone wished that young Michael would become a senator or, better, a judge, college bore an air of respectability, and, besides, it was a handy way to launder dirty money. Why New Hampshire? Drive past an open-air cathedral three miles away at two in the morning, and it would have been patently clear that something fishy was going on. When men are unloading a semi and shifting boxes and bags to a number of cars in the dead of night, it’s pretty obvious these aren’t people picking up the groceries for charitable distribution.
Though by then I’d had my Clear White Light experience and was absolutely clean of any drugs whatsoever, my practiced—nay, jaundiced—eyes told me that this was a drop point for the East Coast narcotics trade. It probably linked to Canada in some significant way, and this out-of-the-way place was an ideal location for the transferring of dope. Especially if the local and state cops had been paid off. And with the Mob within shouting distance, well, you get the picture. Or so I conjecture.
The school had a ton of money to throw around. While some small colleges were getting the usual retro acts, washed-up Fifties bands going through the motions and half the titles in their old songbooks, we were able to put cash on the table for pretty much anyone we wanted. We had Santana (before Carlos went solo; when he came into the fieldhouse just off the tour bus he asked me where he could smoke, “man, you know what I’m talkin’ about?”); we had Ten Years After (for whom I and a few friends did the equipment set up and also got to watch Alvin Lee smoke a joint while attending to his toilet needs (“You won’t tell anyone, right, mate?” Yeah, sure, Alvin); we had a gracious and delightful Janis Joplin and various members of The Band and Paul Butterfield, and other bands whom I’ve since forgotten. The Family did us proud, they did.
By this time I’d decided to take up lead guitar. I sold my bass for an alto sax bought second-hand at Sam Ash Music on 48th Street, for a shortlived career as a jazz musician. I discovered that not only is it very hard to play a wind instrument (my clarinet lessons had clearly taught me nothing), but practicing in a dorm brings on furious people with fists banging on doors and walls. I then put in an order with my old drug connection from Brooklyn to locate a guitar for me. He could get you anything, as he liked to put it, wholesale. Speed, acid, smack, grass, as well as household appliances and automobiles.
We met on an elevated subway platform in Bay Ridge. He was sitting there with a very nice hardbodied guitar case. I handed him $125. “Listen,” he said when his train pulled in, “if you’re gonna try to sell it, just make sure you get rid of the serial number, okay?” The guitar was brand-new. It had fallen off a truck. His exact words.
My career as a lead guitarist was doomed from the start. I was a bass player, and nothing I could do would change that. What were meant to be soul-shattering solos that would sizzle the eyeballs of Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page turned into just another mash-up of bass lines. In other words, it sounded like shit. I traded in the guitar for a second-hand Gibson Thunderbass, which at least I knew how to play. It looked cool, which is half the game right there, and it played like a dream. And the music-store owner who took my guitar in trade is probably still puzzling over the fact of a missing serial number.
The band I was invited to join had no name other than that given at birth to the rhythm guitar player and lead singer. It was just something thrown together by a friend of a friend at Harvard Law School. We were hired, sight unseen (or sound unheard) to play at Friday night smokers, as they were called. We’d be paid in cash, amounting to something like $50 per person. We had a lead guitarist, a rhythm guitarist cum vocalist (also a law student there, hence his star billing), and our drummer, an old friend from my days in Indiana. According to calculations, $50 back then had the spending power of around $300 now. It could buy one a pair of Landlubber bellbottoms (eight bucks retail at the time from a shop on Charles Street), books, records, a late dinner at the Deli Haus on Commonwealth Avenue, the rental of an amp and speaker box, and leave you with ten dollars or so to burn through your pocket for the following week.
The venue was a dining-hall in one of Harvard’s law buildings. Our competition was a group of high schoolers, in a similar space on the floor below us, who were a Moody Blues cover band, guaranteed to clear the dancefloor. You cannot move in any meaningful way to “Nights in White Satin,” especially as played by these young wannabes. You couldn’t really dance to what we had to offer, either (it’s tough to dance to the blues, after all), and, should someone ask us to play something we’d just have to fake it. (“Hey, man,” a guy once asked from the floor, “can you play ‘Purple Haze’?” and as we hadn’t run through it, we offered him the Stones’s “Satisfaction” with Jimi’s words.)
The audience for this was what you might expect at America’s top law school, as it was back then. Guys in ties and jackets, many of them carrying their constitutional law textbooks, and their uneasy dates, who expected something perhaps a bit more romantic, or sexy, or at least some great music to enjoy, ambled in, barely paying us the time of day. Getting these people onto their feet wasn’t easy either. As bass player, it was up to me to get their guts vibrating, and when I went to turn up the volume to, say, eight, the rhythm player would shoot his up to nine, and thus we competed throughout the evening, until we reached the very limits of our amps which was not, as it was for Spinal Tap, eleven. At which point our law students were on their way back to their dorm rooms.
The band clearly didn’t have a future beyond the confines of Harvard Law. By the time I got to graduate school, where I was working my way towards a master’s in English, I’d decided I’d devote myself to jazz fulltime. I bought an upright bass with a huge crack in the side, probably caused by some other frustrated musician who’d decide to put the metaphorical and literal boot in, and began to practice, again without much luck. I needed a teacher, and though the university had some spectacular jazz musicians on their staff, among them drummer Max Roach and tenor player Archie Shepp, I was out of luck. Even when, years later, when I began teaching at the same school on the Hudson from which I’d graduated, where I discovered that bass-player Art Davis—who’d played with pretty much everyone in the business, from John Coltrane to Ornette Coleman—was on the faculty, by that time my becoming a musician was a likely as my being elected to the papacy.
As the days of graduate school dwindled I realized that what I really wanted to do was to become a writer, something I’d wanted when I was kid and would leaf through the Saturday Review and the New York Times Book Review and saw all these hip-looking novelists looking cool with their cigarettes and steely three-martini gazes. There were no perks, no groupies, drugs or a multitude of fans in an orgiastic frenzy. No, this was real risk: just one person sitting before a typewriter, clacking out one word after another.
Piece of cake, I thought, as all those years ago I typed out the opening sentence of my first novel.