Sunday, January 15, 2017

Robbie Robertson Remembers Tony Marts - Summer of 1965

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Robbie Robertson – From his autobiography Testimony (2016) – Chapter 12 p. 158

IN THE SUMMER of 1965 we had booked a gig at Tony Mart’s big dance club in Somers Point, New Jersey. Tony’s was a hot spot, a popular club that sometimes had three bands playing on separate stages over the course of the evening. A big round bar sat in the middle of the club, handy for a refill no matter where you were standing. Tony himself was an unusual club owner, a real character.

A bit stocky, no-nonsense, and Sicilian born. Anthony Marrota spoke broken English and hardly ever smiled. He ran his “circus” with a strong hand, wandering through the crowds while yelling order at bartenders and bouncers. Every once in a while he’d walk by the center stage we were playing on and call out, “Hey, turna downa the jukebox!” We took this to mean we were playing too loud for an early-evening crowd.

On the first weekend we were there, you could tell the audience was into our type of music. Conway Twitty and some of his original band were in residence too, which was a nice surprise. When we went on, the place came alive. By Saturday night the club was so packed you couldn’t move. Tony Mart pushed his way through the crowd and called up to us, “Hey, turna upa tha jukebox!” and gave a little grin.

After the first two weeks, Tony asked us to come back for two more weeks later in June. It was very unusual for us to play two stands so close together in one spot like that, but we were glad to plant our feet for a while. And lo and behold, our old road manager, Bill Avis, showed up in Somers Point too, managing a band of lesbians calling themselves the Female Beatles.

In between dates in Somers Point, we would head up to New York City to meet with production companies that had seen us play and were interested in signing us. We listened to songs they thought we could record, but none of them really connected….The acoustic folk setting was thriving in New York. You could feel it goring in Toronto’s Yorkville district, but Greenwich Village was the epicenter of this world.

John Hammond (Jr.) asked me to come hear him play at the Gaslight Club. He talked up Dave Van Ronk, Fred Neil and a couple other guys he thought were very soulful folk singers. The Gaslight had a sign out front announcing the next act that would be performing there – Mississippi John Hurt. I told him about our jam with Sonny Boy Williams, and he said, “Sonny Boy one or two?”

One afternoon John came by the Forest Hotel to collect me for a trip downtown to a hip record store,…then he hit the breaks and said, “Oh, man, I forgot something. A friend of mine is recording around the corner and I promised him I would stop by….”

Before long we were on the elevator in the Columbia Records building heading for Studio A. In the control room people were listening to the playback of a song they had just cut. John said hello to a man in round wire-rimmed glasses with shoulder-length grayish hair.

“Robbie, this is the great music manager Albert Grossman,” Sitting in the corner silently was Dion of Dion and the Belmonts. Then John went over and gave a big greeting to his friend who was recording. He turned to introduce me.

“Hey, Bob, this is my guitar-player friend Robbie, from Canada. This is Bob Dylan.”

You could barely see his eyes through the dark glasses he wore, but there was high voltage in the room coming from his persona.

Bob said hello,a nd then to John. “You want to hear something.”

“Yea, I’d love to.”

Bob teased. “You sure you want to hear this? You never heard anything like this before.”

Albert Grossman and the record producer nodded in serious agreement.

“It’s called ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ Bob said with a little smirk.

Bob was right – I’d never heard anything like this before. The studio lit up with the sound of toughness, humor and originality. It was hard to take it all in on one listen….

By then we’d begun our second stand at Tony Mart’s club in New Jersey, and on our nights off we would slip over to the Wonder Gardens club in Atlantic City, where we caught some of the best jazz-organ combos going. 

Jimmy Smith played there, and we also saw Brother Jack McDufff, whom Garth appreciated for his unusual style. Shirley Scott, “Queen of the Organ,” was a favorite of mine, with her husband, Stanley Turrentine, on sax. Most of these jazz organizats played a Hammond B2 with bass pedals, which meant they could play a lead part with their right hand on the upper keyboard and chords or counterparts (and sometimes lead) with the left hand on the lower keyboard. At the same time they’d be changing sounds and controlling the speed with both hands while playing the bass part with their feet. The whole thing was a remarkable balancing act. And of course the grove and texture of the B3 was sexy cool. It made you want to order Cutty Shark and soda. Garth played a whole other kind of organ, the incomparable Lowrey. Different sound, different touch all together from the Hammond B3, and you could bend the notes like a horn or guitar, which completely baffled a lot of listeners. So great when Garth would kick into a free-for-all jam by himself, with those bass pedals in full effect. Gave you the shivers.

One night after we finished playing Tony Marts, Garth began telling me about some ideas and effects he was experimenting with. He was always devising new modes of ‘hot rodding’ the Lowrey organ and its Leslie speaker to create brilliant new sonic wonders. As he described his research and discovery approach, most of it went over my head, but the results were undeniable. The sounds that came out of Garth’s keyboards or wind instruments had originality stamped all over them. Garth experimented endlessly, like a Harry Partch or Les Paul. He never stopped wanting to expand on his technical abilities inside or outside the instrument. None of the rest of us Hawks was so inclined. Some people wanted to know how a watch works, and other people just want to know what time it is.
Quite regularly on our days off I would head up to New York City, sometimes crashing out with our Canadian pal Mary Martin, who had taken a job working for Albert Grossman’s management company. She was always so supportive and would try to turn us on to new music that was happening, like John Sebastian’s new group, the Lovin’ Spoonful. Sometimes one or two of the other Hawks would join me on these excursions into the city, but it soon became evident that I was the one most drawn to the metropolis….

Of all the groups that played Somers Point in the summer of 1965, Tony Mart’s personal favorite was Levon and the Hawks, though it was sometimes hard to tell whether he like the swampy sound of our music or the ringing of the cash registers.

Towards the end of our stint, our relationship with Tony had grown warm, almost familial. He hired us to finish out the season, which proved ideal for future recording sessions and continued access to the city. Everyone in the band seemed to be in a good place during those days.

The only dark cloud that passed over us that summer (other than the enduring stress of the drug bust in Canada) was when we got word that our dear Sonny Boy Williamson II had passed away from tuberculosis, and that the beautiful dream we had of recording together had died with him.

Soon after I got a message from Albert Grossman’s office, asking me to come up to the city on our next day off to meet with Bob Dylan. I’d only met him briefly with John Hammond when they were recording “Like a Rolling Stone.” I asked the guys if they knew any of Bob’s music. I wasn’t that familiar with it myself, though I remembered a song he’d done a few years back called “Oxford Town.” It rang true, and the tone of his voice really stood out for me. Richard offered that Bob’s record of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” reminded him of Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business.”

“Yea,” I said, “That staccato rhythmic phrasing is reminiscent.”

Albert Grossman’s office set up for me to meet with Bob the following Monday. I couldn’t help but wonder what this was all about.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Sonny Checks In - A Preliminary Retrospective

Sonny Checks In - A Preliminary Retrospective  

To Waiting on the Angels - The Long Cool Summer of '65 Revisited 

Ralph Sonny Barger sat back in the bar booth, an empty shot glass in front of him on the table, a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of beer not far from the other. He was sitting alone on one side of the booth across from three others – Conway Twitty, Billy the undercover biker from Somers Point and the undercover Ohio cop who had infiltrated the Ohio Hell’s Angels and first warned the Ocean City PD that the Hell’s Angels were going to return and retaliate in full force on Labor Day.

Twitty knew Barger, a fan, and was trying to mediate a non-violent solution to the situation when Billy asked Barger why he did what he did and why he had to make an even bigger issue of it.

Barger took a drag from his cigarette, exhailed a big cloud of smoke, took a swig of beer and said, “You have to know me and who I am to understand what this is all about.”

Barger went quiet for a moment and then began again: “I was nine years old when the original 1947 Hollister motorcycle fracas went down. What started out as a sanctioned American Motorcycle Association racing competition quickly got out of hand when riders from early outlaw clubs like the Pissed Off Bastards and the BoozeFighters got drunk and rowdy, racing through towns streets, running traffic lights. This was supposed to be your typical annual AMA national gathering, just like the dozens they’d staged before. But it all went wrong as hell. Raucous biker riders were getting busted for lewd behavior, public drunkenness, and indecent exposure. To hear some of my older friends, you’d think the Hollister incident was America’s first taste of hell on wheels. Looking back, it probably was.”

“The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin, hit the screen in ’54, while I was in high school. The movie was a big hit, based on what took place in Hollister, California, July 4, 1947. An article written by Frank Rooney in Harper’s Magazine in 1951 inspired it. The impact the movie made was apparently strong, the BoozeFighters disbanded after it became a hit, claiming that, thanks to the movie, bike riders now had irreparably bad reputations.”

“When I saw The Wild One, Lee Marvin instantly became my hero. Lee’s character, Chino, was my man. Marlon Brando as Johnny was the bully. His boys rode Triumphs and BSAs and wore uniforms. Lee’s attitude was ‘If you fuck with me, I’ll hit back.’ Lee and his boys were riding fucked-up Harleys and Indians. I certainly saw more of Chino in me than Johnny. I still do.”

“After the Hollister incident cut deep into the AMA’s creed, they labeled rowdy, outlaw motorcyclists the ‘one-percenters.’ According to AMA propaganda, one percent of motorcycle riders were the outlaw clubs giving bike riding a bad name while the other ninety-nine percent were good old-fashioned, ass-kissing, law-abiding citizens. Since then we proudly adopted the name that the AMA shoved on us, the One-Percenters.”

“I get asked a lot about initiations, and there sure have been some wild speculations in this area. I’ll give you one example: to become a Hell’s Angel you have to kill someone. To become a Hell’s Angel, there never has been any initiation rite outside of serving as a prospect. As a prospect, you ‘re basically a gopher for the club, you’re there before meetings to make sure the clubhouse is set up with the tables and chairs, make sure there’s coffee and food at the Oms. When events are over, you clean up the clubhouse, a role that continues until you are no longer the newest member. But prospects can also be the rowdiest of the bunch, with the most to prove. They also seem to have the most fun.”

“The Hell’s Angels is a club that tries to exist with as few rules as possible, including there are meetings once a week at a predetermined time and place, there will be a two dollar fine for missing a meeting without a valid reason, girls will not sit in on meetings unless it is a special occasion, there will be no fighting among club members, a fine of five dollars will result for each party involved, no using dope during a meeting, no drug burns,no spiking the club’s booze, no throwing live ammo into bon fires, no messing with another member’s wife, no stealing among members, prospects must be brought up for a vote by a member, there will be a fifteen dollar initiation fee for all new members. Club will furnish patch, which remains club property. New members must be voted in. Two ‘no’ votes equal a rejection. One ‘no’ vote must be explained. Anyone kicked out of the club cannot get back in.” 

“The Hell’s Angels are an apolitical organization. But when the peace marchers started in the sixties, there were club members who didn’t like the upper-class antiwar radicals’ attitude toward vets like us, so we decided to express our opinions and take a stand against these left-wing peace creeps and went down and fucked with them.”

“Eight of us moved toward the crowd. We fanned out and made our way forward through the protesters who were milling around and carrying signs. At first, the crowd cheered us. They thought we were there to support them. I felt a rage come over me. I was a vet and I loved my country. I was also pissed at the government that wasn’t going to let us win this stupid war. All of the chanting, signs, and speeches weren’t going to do shit for the troops overseas. What good was this gathering? Something inside me snapped, and I responded the only way I knew how, violently. I grabbed a few college kids at random and roughed them up good.”

“We didn’t hit any women or kids, there were more than enough guys in love beads and madras shirts to push around. Some of the protesters scattered while others fought back. There was no heated discussion or emotional political arguments. Our fists and the end of our boots did our talking. We made it clear to the peaceniks, the cops, and the rest of the country where we stood on the war. We dug it. As a vet, I felt we ought to stick up for America. As long as there’s at least two people on earth, there’s going to be a war. If you can’t settle something peacefully, then fight it out. If you don’t want to participate in the war, fine, but don’t yell chickenshit names and throw blood on the guys forced to go.”

“That got me to thinking, so I sent a telegram to the White House for LBJ, offering the services of the Hell’s Angels to fight in Vietnam.”

“Dear Mr. President.

Oh behalf of myself and my associates, I volunteer a group of loyal Americans for behind-the-lines duty in Vietnam. We feel that a crack group of trained guerrillas could demoralize the Viet Cong and advance the cause of Freedom. We are available for training and duty immediately.

Ralph Barger,
Oakland, California
President of the Hell’s Angels

“After that the left wanted to have a sit-down. Ken Kesey, the counterculture writer who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest called me. We arranged a meeting at my house, with Kesey, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. When the group showed up at my house, before the sit-down, Ginsberg took out his Tibetan silver prayer bells and began to chant a Buddhist prayer in an Eastern lotus position. I knew about Ginsberg and his flakey poetry, but it was still a bit weird seeing a robbed and bearded Jewish man meditating and chanting in MY living room. The first thing on the agenda they wanted to know why we beat their people up. We wanted to know why they wouldn’t let our American military fight the war and protect themselves. The meeting must have worked. They didn’t get beat up at any more demonstrations. That first fistfight proved our point anyway. The beer and drugs then came out and we listened to Bob Dylan’s ‘Gates of Eden’ and ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,’ which was okay even though the guy can’t sing. But I dug that skinny little Joan Baez and I even like her music.”

“In 1965 not only did the Hell’s Angels shake up the left with the VDC demonstrations, but we also rattled the cages of the right-wingers too…California Attorney General Thomas C. Lynch, responding to pressure from other politicians, released a report denouncing the Hell’s Angels, claiming we were a menace to society. The sixteen-page report called us ‘disreputable’ and even said you could tell a Hell’s Angel by his patch and his odor. ‘Probably their most universal common denominator,’ said the report, ‘is their generally filthy condition.’”

“Hunter S. Thompson wrote an article in the May 17, 1965 issue of The Nation, about the Hell’s Angels and called it ‘The Motorcycle Gangs, Losers and Outsiders.’ I actually liked the way it was written, even though some of the facts were exaggerated. After the article received a good reaction, Thompson came back to Oakland and hung around the club’s favorite biker bar hangouts until he and I finally met face-to-face. He told me he wanted to ride with the club and me and write a book about us. Since I liked the way he wrote, the Oakland and Frisco chapters let Hunter hang out with the club for a price, two kegs of beer. But as time went by, Hunter turned out to be a real weenie and stone fucking coward. You read about how he walks around his house with his pistols, shooting them out his windows to impress writers who show up to interview him. He’s all show and no go. When he tried to act tough with us, no matter what happened, Hunter Thompson got scared, I ended up not liking him at all, a tall, skinny, typical hillbilly from Kentucky. He was a total fake. When his time came, he got it. He was beaten up by the Hell’s angels so he could say, “I met them. I rode with them, and I was almost killed by the Hell’s Angels.’ He got into some really stupid shit to get beat up.”

“We held a Memorial Day run to hook up with Ken Keseyand his Merry Pranksters again. The Sixties were the best thing that ever happened to the Hell’s Angels. We actually had a lot in common with the hippies.”
“In the beginning days of the Hell’s Angels, we really didn’t travel any great distances. We rarely rode outside of the state of California.”

Newsweek (March 29, 1965): “A roaring swarm of 200 black-jacketed motorcyclists converged on the small, sleepy Southern California town of Porterville. They rampaged through local bars, shouting obscenities. They halted cars, opening their doors, trying to paw female passengers. Some of their booted girlfriends lay down in the middle of the streets and undulated suggestively.”

“As the evening wore on, everybody was partying furiously and having a great time. Motorcyles raced up and down the main street. There were wet T-shirt contests happening on top of the bars in the saloons, and the booze (and drugs) flowed like ice cream and cake at a kiddies’ birthday party. It was fucking heaven. The Hell’s Angels along with the locals and other bikers, were having a wild time.”

“The Porterville chief of police panicked. He felt he and his men were outnumbered, so out went a three-county mutual aid call. In less than an hour, over 250 cops, firemen, highway patrolman (there probably were even some curious forest rangers) swarmed into Porterville. Fire trucks hosed down the main streets and lathered the roads down with soap, making it impossible to race up and down the street anymore. 

Motorcycle riders who tired were then shot off their bikes with powerful water streams. After the first trucks showed up, kids got up on top of the buildings and threw bricks down. We stayed at ground zero. That’s where the real action was.”

“The cops lined up their vehicles and the first trucks and instructed all motorcyclists to leave town in one direction. There were two choices: leave town or get your bike washed over…The Hell’s Angels all met up a couple miles out of town. Pissed off, we pulled our bikes over to assess the whole situation. What the fuck, all we had really done was have a little…fun. Some of the other clubs had decided they had had enough. The party was over…We turned our bikes around and headed back toward Porterville with revenge on our minds. The cops had the main bridge blocked off and we couldn’t get past. So we blocked the OTHER side of the bridge, meaning if the cops wouldn’t let anybody into town, then we sure as fuck weren’t going to let anybody out. The cops threatened to arrest us, and we were ready to fuck ‘em up and fight back. Back and forth, hurling threats, sneer and spit, a true Mexican standoff.”

“Then an officer from the highway patrol came over to talk to us. He had stars on his collar and to this day I’ve never seen so many stars on a CHIP uniform. He came over and wanted to speak to me, Sonny Barger. Was I the man? I was pissed off but calm. I told him the Porterville police still had a few of our guys. All we wanted was to get them back. My deal was this: I’d post twenty-five dollars bail, forfeit it, and then get the hell out of Dodge.”

“We passed the hat, bailed the four guys out, and then all headed back out of town toward the group still waiting for us. We were pretty satisfied with what had gone down. It was getting pretty close to a Sunday sunrise, so everybody started heading out. With 250 cops in the area, they decided to do only what they know how to do and that’s play cop.”

“I got up and stood on the seat of my bike and announced out intention to everyone within ear shot.”

“The Oakland Hell’s Angels are going. Anybody who wants to go with us can go, but when we leave here we’re leaving and not fucking stopping for another fucking ticket. If they stop us, we fight! Anybody who doesn’t want to fight, stay here.”

“We took off as a group slow and easy, but loud, gunning our engines all the way home. It was deafening. If they wanted to stop us then they’d have to catch us, roadblock us, and knock us off our bikes first. Looking back, when I stood on my bike, it was at that moment that the Oakland Hell’s Angels became a force to be reckoned with. We weren’t about to get fucked over. The Oakland chapter assumed a special leadership position within the entire Hell’s Angels club. I learned that when you take a stand against the cops, they know better than to fuck with you.”

“A motorcycle run is a get-together, a moving party. It’s a real show of power and solidarity when you’re a Hell’s Angel. It’s being free and getting away from all the bullshit. Angels don’t go on runs looking for trouble; we go to ride our bikes and to have a good time together. We are a club.”

“Most Hell’s Angels are great riders. A group of Hell’s Angels cruising down the road, riding next to each other and traveling at a speed of over eighty miles an hour is a real sight. It’s something else, a whole other thing, when you’re in the pack riding. It’s fast and dangerous and by God you better be paying attention. Whatever happens to the guy in front of you is going to happen to you….”

“When Hell’s Angels chapters started getting chartered outside the state of California in the sixties, that’s when we first started our cross-country rides like the USA and World Runs. We’d meet up with the new clubs along the way, and they’d join the run. Man, we used to ride from Oakland to New York on those early rigid-frame bikes, and they bounced around so much that if you drove sixty miles an hour you were making great time. The vibration left you tingling and numb for about an hour after you go off your bike. If you covered three or four hundred miles a day you were hauling ass. The other big problem then was we’d have to find gas stations every forty miles or so, since those old-style bikes with small tanks couldn’t make it past sixty miles.”

“The big difference between the Hell’s Angels and the rest of the motorcycle world are our bikes and the way we ride. This is serious business to us. Our bikes are us. We know that. The cops know that, and everybody else should know that too. The law and the road are one. Even today, if the cops know a large group of Hell’s Angels is headed somewhere, they’ll show up in force, alerting neighboring police forces along the way. This mutual assistance pact they set up had been used against us for as long as I can remember…We keep going and they keep coming around with all their surveillance methods and radio equipment watching us and keeping tabs. We don’t look for trouble or have intentions of starting any, but by God, it always seems to be around.”

“The Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club has four or five mandatory runs per year and probably fifteen or twenty parties and smaller runs….Each member is responsible for his own machine. He has to make sure his bike is in good enough condition to make it there and back on a long run…I’m kind of hyper on preparation, so I’ll go around checking bikes a little before we leave. Sort of like an inspection during my Army days. A lot of guys would get kinda pissed off at me for it, but fuck it, that’s what I liked to do.”

“There’s no serendipity when it comes to the way we ride. You can’t believe the rush you feel in your gut when everybody is kick starting their bikes and we’re ready to go. We have a strict formation in the front of the pack. I always ride front left, and the rest of the officers ride in the front of the pack. Usually the vice president rides front right, because he’s the most ‘legal’ person of our group. He carries the bail money. From that point back, it’s a motherfucking free-for-all drag race, jockeying for position.”

“There’s an art to leading a motorcycle pack because you have to be able to anticipate things like lane changes in traffic, shithead drivers, gas stops, and stopovers on the open road. The Oakland club has a long-ass pack that maybe goes on for half a mile. I can’t just think about whether I can make a lane change myself; I’m responsible for the safety of the rest of the riders. Speed limit is a big thing too. We know we can do eighty-five to ninety on an open freeway, but in some regions if you don’t stay closer to the speed limit you’re gonna really get jacked. Finally, you need to know exactly where you’re going and how many miles you can go, knowing what kind of gas takes the others have. After going about a hundred miles, it’s up to me to decide when everyone can gas up. Before we leave a gas station, one guy is in charge of counting up all the bikes. We don’t want anybody left behind or stranded.”

“When the West Coast members go east, we meet a couple hundred more along the way, which gives us a total of about four hundred ready-to-go Hell’s Angels. Man, this is a fucking army now, and together we are going to ride as one gigantic Hell’s Angels pack. We’re gonna be together on the road, brothers, ‘till the wind stops blowing, the grass stops growin’ and the river stops flowin’.”

“I was riding at the front of the entire pack and felt as if no power could stop us. It was like I became Crazy Horse leading the charge with hundreds and hundreds of motorcycles, all going eighty miles an hour. People in the towns heard the roar of our bikes way before they even see us. The local police just look the other way…mothers grab their babies from their yards and run into their houses. Cars swerve over to the side of the road. But others, like the farmers, take their caps off and put them into their hearts and chests, and the local fire departments salute us.”

“We might die if trouble erupts, but at least we will do it with style and dignity, because we believe in our brotherhood and the backs of our jackets. Why is a run important and significant to me? Because it proves that I belong right where I am, with my club. I don’t have millions of dollars and I’m not on the cover of Time magazine either, but what I have is respect. Respect from those who count on me. After all I am Sonny Barger, a Hell’s Angel.”

From: Hell’s Angel – The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club (Harper-Morrow, 2001) By Ralph “Sonny” Barger with Keith and Kent Zimmerman (also authors of Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs with Sex Pistol’s Johnny Rotten). Ralph Gleason Music Book Award

Friday, September 25, 2015

Down at the Crossroads with Dylan, Robert Johnson and the Devil

  Down @ the Crossroads with Dylan, Robert Johnson and the Devil

The day Bob Dylan signed his first recording contract with Columbia Records in John Hammond, Sr.’s office, Hammond gave Dylan a couple of albums of other Columbia artists including Robert Johnson’s “The King of the Delta Blues,”  who Dylan never heard of but blew him away.

The Mississippi Delta is the home and cradle of the blues as much as New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz, and in academic circles blues is considered a branch of jazz, and in fact followed the jazz trail when the musicians and prostitutes were kicked out of New Orleans in the closure of Storyville. The once-legal red light neighborhood was closed by the U.S. Army and Navy, though the righteous citizens of the city protested - “You can make it illegal but you can’t make it unpopular,” the New Orleans mayor said. 

But just as Katrina did a century later, the civic crackdown on Storyville – in November 1917, spread the musicians and the music beyond the city limits, and most of the suddenly out-of-work musicians followed the riverboats upriver to St. Louis, Memphis and Chicago, letting off the bluesmen in the delta where they took root.

Their contemporary offshoots include the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson, James Cotton, B.B. King, Levon Helm and Robert Johnson – the “King of the Delta Blues,” who died broke and friendless at 27 years, said to be poisoned by a jealous husband or lover, leaving behind only 20 some recorded songs and two photographs.

When John Hammond, Sr. and Allan Lomax tried to find him to record him he was already dead, but not forgotten.

Legend has it that Robert Johnson couldn’t play a lick when he first picked up a guitar as a young boy, and was the subject of jokes among the real musicians, until he left town for awhile and came back with a style that shocked and amazed everyone, sparking the myth that he made a deal with the devil, selling his soul in exchange for the musical talent.

“Sweet Home Chicago” was one of the songs Johnson recorded in two sessions at Texas hotels, and his other songs were covered by many artists over the years, but his most famous song is “Crossroads Blues” that Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimi Hendrix and dozens of others have covered and made famous.

According to Dylan, Robert Johnson hit him like a “tranquilizer bullet.” 

Dylan later wrote in his autobiographical Chronicles, Volume 1: “I listened to it repeatedly, cut after cut, one song after another, sitting staring at the record player. Whenever I did, it felt like a ghost had come into the room; a fearsome apparition…masked the presence of more than twenty men….Johnson’s words made my nerves quiver like piano wires. They were so elemental in meaning and feeling and gave you so much of the inside picture…..There’s no guarantee that any of his lines either happened, were said, or even imagined…I copied Johnson’s words down on scraps of paper so I could more closely examine the lyrics and patterns and free associations that he used, the sparkling allegories, big-ass truths wrapped in the hard shell of nonsensical abstraction – themes that flew through the air with the greatest of ease. I didn’t have any of these dreams or thoughts but I was going to acquire them. I thought about Robert Johnson a lot, wondered who his audience could have been. It’s hard to imagine sharecroppers or plantation field hands at hop joints, relating songs like these. You have to wonder if Johnson was playing for an audience that only he could see, one off in the future.”

Dylan discounts “the fast moving story going around that he had sold his sold to the devil at a four way crossroads at midnight and that’s how he got to be so good. Well, I don’t know about that. The ones who  knew him told a different tale and that was that he had hung around some older blues players in rural parts of Mississippi, played harmonica, was rejected as a bothersome kid, that he went off and learned how to play guitar from a farmhand named Ike Zinnerman, a mysterious character not in any of the history books.”

“This makes more sense,” says Dylan, as “John Hammond had told me that he thought Johnson had read Walt Whitman. Maybe he did, but it doesn’t clear up everything…..I would see Johnson for myself in eight seconds worth of 8-millimeter film shot in Ruleville, Mississippi, on a brightly lit afternoon street by some Germans in the late 1930s, but slowing the eight seconds, you can see that it really is Robert Johnson, has to be – couldn’t be anyone else.”

“I wasn’t the only one who learned a thing or two from Robert Johnson’s compositions,” Dylan wrote, “Johnny Winter, the flamboyant Texas guitar player born a couple of years after me, rewrote Johnson’s song about the phonograph, turning it into a song about a television set. Robert Johnson would have loved that. Johnny by the way recorded a song of mine, ‘Highway 61 Revisited,’ which itself was influenced by Johnson’s writing. It’s a strange the way circles hook up with themselves. Robert Johnson’s code of language was nothing I’d heard before or since. To go with that, someplace along the line Suzie (Rotolo) had also introduced me to the poetry of French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud. That was a big deal too. I came across one of his letters called ‘Je est un autre,’ which translates into ‘I is someone else.’ When I read those words bells went off. It made perfect sense….I went right along with Johnson’s dark night of the soul…Everything was in transition and I was standing in the gateway. Soon I’d step in heavy loaded, fully alive and revved up. Not quite yet though.”

And so it was when Hollywood came calling for the movie rights to the P. F. Kluge novel “Eddie & the Cruisers,” and the producers and script writers would eliminate a chapter, the one where the Cruisers drive their ’57 Chevy to Camden to visit Walt Whitman’s house, and in its place Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”  and “singing the body electric” is replaced by Arthur Rimbaud, who reportedly faked his own death  in order to live out his life anonymously, much like Eddie Wilson does in the follow up film.

Is Dylan pulling our leg with the Ike Zinnerman story, a farmhand teaching Robert Johnson how to play guitar instead of making a deal with the devil at the crossroads? After all, Dylan’s real name is Robert Zimmerman.
Supporting Dylan’s version, over the popular myths and legends, is the fact that the devil isn’t mentioned in the lyrics of Robert Johnson’s song “Crossroads Blues,” that makes no reference to a deal with the devil.

Cross Road Blues

I went to the crossroad
fell down on my knees
I went to the crossroad
fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above "Have mercy, now
save poor Bob, if you please

Mmmmm, standing' at the crossroad
I tried to flag a ride
Standin' at the crossroad
I tried to flag a ride
Didn't nobody seem to know me
everybody pass me by

Mmm, the sun goin' down, boy
dark gon' catch me here
oooo ooee eeee
boy, dark gon' catch me here
I haven't got no lovin' sweet woman that
love and feel my care

You can run, you can run
tell my friend-boy Willie Brown
You can run, you can run
tell my friend-boy Willie Brown
Lord, that I'm standin' at the crossroad, babe
I believe I'm sinkin' down

According to the popular legend: “A crossroads or an intersection of rural roads is one of the few landmarks in the Mississippi Delta, a flat featureless plain between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers. It is part of the local iconography. A crossroads is also where cars are more likely to slow down or stop, thus presenting the best opportunity for a hitchhiker. In the simplest reading, Johnson describes his grief at being unable to catch a ride at an intersection before the sun sets. However, many see different levels of meaning and some have attached a supernatural significance to the song.”

Crossroads are also points where people, families, towns, cities and sometimes whole societies reach a point in time where life changing decisions must be made, directions are changed and new destinations are set.
And so it came to pass in the summer of 1965 when America’s national psych came to a crossroads that was a circle – the Somers Point, New Jersey circle that led to many directions, five different roads, each with its hazards and rewards.

Some people want to know why the summer of ’65 was the best tourist season the Jersey Shore has ever seen before or since. Families came, college kids made it cool, hippies thought it was hip, bikers put in an appearance, but as everyone who was there remembers, it was The Place to be at that time. Some say it was the weather, others say the economy was good while still others say it was written in the stars, and it was just the right alignment of people and planets to create the special things that occurred.

And so the summer of 1965 began down at the crossroads, down the shore, the South Jersey Shore, where the crossroads was a circle, the Somers Point Circle, and very close to where all the action would take place and from where, as the sun set on Labor Day, everyone would leave to go in their own way, for better or for worse, to reward or tragedy, their destiny was determined - a fait accompli – but it still had to play out, as it does in Waiting for the Angels - the Long Cool Summer of '65 Revisited. 

Image result for Somers Point Circle

Friday, September 11, 2015

Act I Episode 1 The Hell's Angels Come to America's Greatest Family Resort


A novel by Bill Kelly []

ACT I EPISODE 1 – The Hell's Angels Come to America's Greatest Family Resort

At the Bay's shores just off the Somers Point, N.J. Circle at the base of the 9th Street Bridge causeway.

The summer of '65 began inauspiciously enough with the soft sounds of shore birds chirping and the waves of boat wakes lapping at the bay shores and the strong smell of the salt ocean air brought in by soft bay winds. The natural sounds of spring were slowly over ridden by what began as a soft humm that seemed to get steadily louder. The animals sensed it first, darting their heads as the birds went silent and the squirrels and rabbits scattered away as the humm steadily increased in volume until it was a constant vibration almost running ripples counter to the lapless tide, crescendoing into a thunderous roar of motorcycles that flew by in a blur and a cloud of dust and slowly faded away to a quiet hum and after a few moments the lapping of the tide could be heard again. 

Ocean City police patrolman William Warren was sitting in his patrol car in the parking lot of the Circle Liquor Store, which overlooks the bay and the bridge and was where patrolman Warren was eating his lunch when the swarm of motorcycles sped past him. While he was technically in Somers Point, Ocean City police patrols the causeway and strictly enforces speeding laws. Warren put down his sandwich, reached for the patrol car radio and called it in, and then began pursuit.

As those of you who were there will recall, the summer of '65 began normally enough, hell we didn't even know the Hell's Angels came to town. That was a city and state secret and we only found out about it later because Tom Waldmam the mayor of Ocean City New Jersey was in the thick of it all.

And while we didn't know it at the time, and as we later discovered, the summer of '65 really began when those Hell's Angels came to town.

“There were two entirely different and unrelated incidents,” the mayor later explained. “The Hell's Angels did come to town before Memorial Day, but that and the Labor Day events were two different incidents and were not really connected, and that’s a different story.”

As the mayor explained, “There weren't that many of them. Less than a dozen bikers - Hell's Angels. 
What happened was a black police officer ordered them to pull over and they ignored him. He was probably the first black police officer on the Ocean City, New Jersey police force.”

When the bikers ignored him and refused to pull over on the causeway he radioed ahead so as they cruised in town down 9th Street they were met by a police car roadblock at West Avenue where they were corralled into a vacant lot at the end of the railroad line and what is now McDonald’s.

There, they were just as belligerent.

“They would only talk to the mayor,” said Waldman, who was summoned out of his 8th street travel agency office, picked up in a squad car and taken over to talk with their leader, as legend would have it, was Ralph “Sonny” Barger, the badest Hell’s Angel.

According to Hunter S. Thompson, “Barger’s word goes unquestioned." The father of gonzo journalism called him “The Maximum Leader,” and described him as “a 6-foot, 170 pound warehouseman from East Oakland, the coolest head in the lot, and a tough, quick-thinking dealer when any action starts. By turn he is a fanatic, a philosopher, a brawler, a shrewd compromiser and final arbitrator.”  

The leader of the Hells Angels met Mayor Waldman, the suit and tie travel agent and “maximum leader” of Ocean City.

The mayor said, “Whenever you have a large transient population like we do, you will have exposure to all types, including these violent motorcycle gangs. But you can’t condone it, and you can’t ignore it.”

“We talked, and I introduced them to the black officer,” he remembered, “but they were very racist and weren’t going to take any orders from him."

"I told them he was only doing his job and trying to earn a living for his family. They were very polite, and eventually we all shook hands in the end. But we didn’t go out and have cocktails together.”

Mayor Waldman had Patrolman Warren give a single ticket for speeding to their leader - Ralph S. Barger, Golf Lane, Oakland, California, and the mayor told him if he didn’t accept it they were all going to be issued tickets and their background checked and they would be arrested if there were any outstanding warrants anywhere in the country.

Waldman the Mayor of America’s Greatest Family Resort and Sonny Barger the leader of the Hell's Angels went eyeball to eyeball and the leader of the pack blinked, took the speeding ticket and without saying another word they all got on their bikes and left the way they came..

And there it should have ended. But it didn't. It just set the tone and style for the rest of the summer, which was one that anyone who was there will never forget.