***The Roots Is The Toots-The Music That Got The Generation Of ’68 Through The 1950s Red Scare Cold War Night-One Night With You
From The Pen Of Frank Jackman
Sam Lowell thought it was funny how things worked out in such contrary fashion in this wicked old world, not his expression that “wicked old world” for he preferred of late the more elastic and ironic “sad old world” but that of his old time North Adamsville corner boy Peter Markin who will be more fully introduced in a moment (Markin aka Peter Paul Markin although nobody ever called him that except his mother, as one would expect although he hated to be teased by every kid from elementary school on including girls, girls who liked him too as a result, and his first ill-advised wife, a scion of the Mayfair swells who tried, unsuccessfully, to impress her leafy suburban parents with the familiar waspy triple names).
Neither of those expressions referred to date back to their youth since neither Sam nor Peter back then, back in their 1960s youth, would have used such old-fashioned religious-drenched expressions to express their take on the world since as with all youth, or at least youth who expected to “turn the world upside down” (an expression that they both did use in very different contexts) they would have withheld such judgments or were too busy doing that “turning” business they had no time for adjectives to express their worldly concerns. No that expression, that understanding about the wickedness of the world had been picked up by Sam from Peter when they had reconnected a number of years before after they had not seen each other for decades to express the uphill battles of those who had expected humankind to exhibit the better angels of their nature on a more regular basis. Some might call this nostalgic glancing back, especially by Peter since he had more at stake in a favorable result, on a world that did not turn upside down or did so in a way very different from those hazy days.
The funny part (or ironic if you prefer) was that back then Sam had been in his youth the least political, the least culturally-oriented, the least musically-oriented of those corner boys like Markin, Jack Dawson, Jimmy Jenkins and “max daddy” leader Fritz Fallon (that “max daddy” another expression coined by Peter so although he has not even been properly introduced we know plenty about his place in the corner boy life, his place as “flak,” for Fritz’s operation although Fritz always called him “the Scribe” when he wanted something written and needed to play on Peter’s vanity) who kept the coins flowing into the jukebox at Phil’s House of Pizza. That shop had been located down a couple of blocks from the choppy ocean waters of Adamsville Beach (and still is although under totally different management from the arch-Italian Rizzo family that ran the place for several generations before they sold it to some immigrant Albanians named Hoxha).
That pizza parlor made it among other things a natural hang-out place for wayward but harmless poor teenage corner boys. (The serious “townie” professional corner boys, the rumblers, tumblers, drifters, grifters and midnight sifters hung around Harry’s Variety with leader Red Riley over on Sagamore far from beaches, daytime beaches although rumors had been heard of more than one nighttime orgy with “nice” girls looking for kicks with rough boys down among the briny rocks, Fritz and the boys would not have gone within three blocks of that place. Maybe more from fear, legitimate fear as Fritz’s older brother, Timmy, a serious tough guy himself, could testify the one time he tried to wait outside Harry’s for some reason and got chain-whipped by Red for his indiscretion.) Moreover this spot provided a beautiful vantage point for scanning the horizon for those wayward girls who also kept their coins flowing into Phil’s jukebox (or a stray “nice” girl after Red and his corner boys threw her over).
Sam had recently thought about that funny story that Markin had told the crowd once on a hot night when nobody had any money and were just holding up the wall at Phil’s about Johnny Callahan, the flashy and unstoppable halfback from the high school team (and a guy even Red respected having made plenty of money off of sports who bet with him on Johnny’s prowess any given Saturday although Johnny once confessed that he, rightly, avoided Harry’s after what had happened to Timmy). See Johnny was pretty poor in those days even by the median working poor standard of the old neighborhoods (although now, courtesy of his incessant radio and television advertising which continues to make everyone within fifty miles of North Adamsville who knew Johnny back in the day aware of his new profession, he is a prosperous Toyota car dealer down across from the mall in Hull about twenty miles from North Adamsville, the town where their mutual friend Josh Breslin soon to be introduced came from).
Johnny, a real music maniac who would do his football weight-lifting exercises to Jerry Lee’s Great Balls of Fire, Gene Vincent’s Be-Bop-A-Lula and stuff like that to get him hyped up, had this routine in order to get to hear songs that he was dying to hear, stuff he would hear late at night coming from a rock station out of Detroit and which would show up a few weeks later on Phil’s jukebox just waiting for Johnny and the kids to fill the coffers, with the girls who had some dough, enough dough anyway to put coins into that jukebox.
Johnny would go up all flirty to some young thing (a Fritz expression coped from Jerry Lee and not an invention of Markin as Peter would later claim to some “young thing” that he was trying to “score”) or depending on whatever intelligence he had on the girl, maybe she had just had a fight with her boyfriend or had broken up with him so Johnny would be all sympathy, maybe she was just down in the dumps for no articulable reason like every teen goes through every chance they get, whatever it took. Johnny, by the way, would have gotten that intelligence via Peter who whatever else anybody had to say about him, good or bad, was wired into, no, made himself consciously privy to, all kinds of boy-girl information almost like he had a hook into that Monday morning before school girls’ locker room talkfest (everybody already knew that he was hooked into the boys’ Monday morning version and had started more rumors and other unsavory deeds than any ten other guys).
Now here is what Johnny “knew” about almost every girl if they had the quarter which allowed them to play three selections. He would let them pick that first one on their own, maybe something to express interest in his flirtation, maybe her name, say Donna, was also being used as the title of a latest hit, or if broken up some boy sorrow thing. Brenda Lee’s I Want To Be Wanted, stuff like that. The second one he would “suggest” something everybody wanted to listen to no matter what but which was starting to get old. Maybe an Elvis, Roy Orbison, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee thing still on the jukebox playlist but getting wearisome. Then he would go in for the kill and “suggest” they play this new platter, you know, something like Martha and the Vandelas Dancing in the Streets or Roy’s Blue Bayou both of which he had heard on the midnight radio airwaves out of Detroit one night and were just getting play on the jukeboxes. And bingo before you know it she was playing the thing again, and again. Beautiful. And Johnny said that sometimes he would wind up with a date, especially if he had just scored about three touchdowns for the school, a date that is in the days before he and Kitty Kelly became an item. An item, although it is not germane to the story, who still is Johnny’s girl, wife, known as Mrs. Toyota now.
But enough of this downstream stuff Sam thought. The hell with Johnny and his cheapjack tricks (although not to those three beautiful touchdowns days, okay) this thing gnawing at him was about old age angst and not the corner boy glory days at Phil’s, although it is about old time corners boys and their current doings, some of them anyway. So yeah he had other things he wanted to think about (and besides he had already, with a good trade-in gotten his latest car from Mr. Toyota so enough there), to tell a candid world about how over the past few years with the country, the world, the universe had been going to hell in a hand-basket. In the old days, like he kept going back to before he was not the least bit interested in anything in the big world outside of sports, and girls, of course. And endlessly working on plans to own his own business, a print shop, before he was twenty-five. Well, he did get that small business, although not until thirty and had prospered when he made connections to do printing for several big high-tech companies, notably IBM when they began outsourcing their work. He had prospered, had married (twice, and divorced twice), had the requisite tolerated children and adored grandchildren, and in his old age a woman companion to ease his time.
But there had been for a long time, through those failed marriages, through that business success something gnawing at him, something that Sam felt he had missed out on, or felt he had do something about. Then a few years ago when it was getting time for a high school class reunion he had Googled “North Adamsville Class of 1966” and came upon a class website for that year, his year, that had been set up by the reunion committee, and decided to joint to keep up with what was going on with developments there (he would wind up not going to that reunion as he had planned to although that too is not germane to the story here except as one more thing that gnawed at him because in the end he could not face going home , believed what Thomas Wolfe said in the title of one of his novels, you can’t go home again).
After he had registered on the site giving a brief resume of his interests and what he had been up to these past forty years or so years Sam looked at the class list, the entire list of class members alive and deceased (a rose beside their name signifying their passing) of who had joined and found the names of Peter Markin (he had to laugh, listed as Peter Paul Markin since everybody was listed by their full names, revenge from the grave by his poor mother, and that leafy suburban first wife who tried to give him Mayflower credentials, he thought) and Jimmy Jenkins among those who had done so. (Jack Dawson had passed away a few years before, a broken man, broken after his son who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan had committed suicide, according to Peter, as had their corner boy leader, Fritz Fallon, homeless after going through a couple of fortunes, his own and a third wife’s). Through the mechanism established on the site which allowed each class member who joined to have a private e-mail slot Sam contacted both men and the three of them started a rather vigorous on-line chat line for several weeks going through the alphabet of their experiences, good and bad (the time for sugar-coating was over unlike in their youth when all three would lie like crazy, especially about sex and with whom in order to keep their place in the pecking order, and in order to keep up with Fritz whom lied more than the three of them combined. Peter knew that, knew it better than anybody else but to keep his place as “scribe” in that crazy quill pecking order went along with such silly teenage stuff, stuff that in his other pursuits he would have laughed at but that is what made being a teenager back then, now too, from what he saw of his grandchildren’s trials and tribulations).
After a while, once the e-mail questions had worked their course, all three men met in Boston at the Sunnyvale Grille, a place where Markin had begun to hang out in after he had moved back to Boston (read: did his daytime drinking) over by the waterfront, and spent a few hours discussing not so much old times per se but what was going on in the world, and how the world had changed some much in the meantime. And since Markin, the political maniac of the tribe, was involved in the conversations maybe do something about it at least that is what Sam had hoped since he knew that is where he thought he needed to head in order to cut into that gnawing feeling. Sam was elated, and unlike in his youth he did not shut his ears down, when those two guys would talk politics, about the arts or about music. He had not listened back then since he was so strictly into girls and sports, not always in that order (which caused many problems later including one of the grounds for one of his divorces, not the sports but the girls).
This is probably the place for Sam to introduce Peter Markin although he had already given an earful (and what goes for Peter goes to a lesser extent for Jimmy who tended to follow in Pete’s wake on the issues back then, and still does). Peter as Sam already noted provided that noteworthy, national security agency-worthy service, that “intelligence” he provided all the guys (and not just his corner boys, although they had first dibs) about girls, who was “taken,” a very important factor if some frail (a Fritz term from watching too many 1940s gangster and detective movies and reading Dashiell Hammett too closely, especially The Maltese Falcon),was involved with some bruiser football player, some college joe who belonged to a fraternity and the brothers were sworn to avenge any brother’s indignities, or worse, worse of all, if she was involved with some outlaw biker who hung out in Adamsville and who if he hadn’t his monthly quota of college boy wannabes red meat hanging out at Phil’s would not think twice about chain-whipping you just for the fuck of it (“for the fuck of it” a term Jimmy constantly used so it was not always Markin or Fritz who led the verbal life around the corner), who was “unapproachable,” probably more important than that social blunder of ‘hitting on” a taken woman since that snub by Miss Perfect-Turned-Up-Nose would make the rounds of that now legendary seminar, Monday morning before school girls’ locker room (and eventually work its way though Markin to the boys’ Monday morning version ruining whatever social standing the guy had spent since junior high trying to perfect in order to avoid the fatal nerd-dweeb-wallflower-square name your term). Strangely Markin made a serious mistake with Melinda Loring who blasted her freeze deep on him and he survived to tell the tale, or at least that is what he had the boys believe. Make of this what you will he never after that Melinda Loring had a high school girlfriend from North Adamsville High, who, well, liked to “do the do” as they called it back then, that last part not always correct since everybody, girls and boys alike, were lying like crazy about whether they were “doing the do” or not, including Markin.
But beyond, well beyond, that schoolboy silliness Markin was made of sterner stuff (although Sam would not have bothered to use such a positive attribute about Markin back then) was super-political, super into art and what he called culture, you know going to poetry readings at coffeehouses, going over Cambridge to watch foreign films with subtitles and themes that he would try to talk about and even Jimmy would turn his head, especially those French films by Jean Renoir, and super into music, fortunately he was not crazy for classical music (unlike some nerds in school then who were in the band) but serious about what is now called classic rock and roll and then in turn, the blues, and folk music (Sam still shuttered at that hillbilly stuff Markin tried to interest him in when he thought about it).
That was how Peter had first met Josh Breslin, still a friend, whom he introduced to Sam at one of their meetings over at the Sunnyvale Grille. Josh told the gathering that Markin had met him after high school, after he had graduated from Hull High (the same town where Johnny Callahan was burning up the Toyota sales records for New England) down at the Surf Ballroom (Sam had his own memories of the place, some good, some bad including one affair that almost wound up in marriage). Apparently Josh and Peter had had their wanting habits on the same girl at one Friday night dance when the great local cover band, the Rockin’ Ramrods held sway there, and had been successively her boyfriend for a short period both to be dumped for some stockbroker from New York. But their friendship remained and they had gone west together, gone on that Jack Kerouac On The Road for a number of years when they were trying their own version of turning the world upside down on. Josh also dabbled (his word) in the turning upside down politics of the time.
And that was the remarkable thing about Peter, not so much later in cahoots with Josh because half of youth nation, half the generation of ’68 was knee-deep in some movement, but in staid old North Adamsville High days, days when to just be conventionally political, wanting to run for office or something, was kind of strange. See Peter was into the civil rights movement, nuclear disarmament, and social justice stuff that everybody thought he was crazy to be into, everybody from Ma to Fritz (and a few anonymous midnight phone-callers yelling n----r-lover in the Markin home phone). He had actually gone into Boston when he was a freshman and joined the picket-line in front of Woolworths’ protesting the fact that they would not let black people eat in their lunchrooms down south (and maybe Markin would say when he mentioned what he was up to they were not that happy to have blacks in their northern lunchrooms either ), had joined a bunch of Quakers and little old ladies in tennis sneakers (a term then in use for airhead blue-haired lady do-gooders with nothing but time on their hands) calling on the government to stop building atomic bombs (not popular in the red scare Cold War we were fighting against the Russians North Adamsville, or most other American places either), running over to the art museum to check out the exhibits (including some funny stories about him and Jimmy busting up the place looking at the old Pharaoh times slave building Pyramids stuff uncovered by some Harvard guys way back), and going to coffeehouses in Harvard Square and listening to hokey folk music that was a drag. (Sam’s take on that subject then, and now.) So Peter was a walking contradiction, although that was probably not as strange now as it seemed back then when every new thing was looked at with suspicion and when kids like Peter were twisted in the wind between being corner boys and trying to figure out what that new wind was that was blowing though the land, when Sam and the other corner boys, except Jimmy and sometimes Jack would try to talk him out of stuff that would only upset everybody in town.
But here is the beauty, beauty for Sam now that he was all ears about what Peter had to say, he had kept at it, had kept the faith, while everybody else from their generation, or almost everybody, who protested war, protested around the social issues, had hung around coffeehouses and who had listened to folk music had long before given it up. Markin had, after his Army time, spent a lot of time working with GIs around the war issues, protested American foreign policy at the drop of a hat and frequented off-beat coffeehouses set up in the basements of churches in order to hear the dwindling number of folk artists around. He had gotten and kept his “religion,” kept the faith in a sullen world. And like in the old days a new generation (added to that older North Adamsville generation which still, from the class website e-mail traffic had not gotten that much less hostile to what Peter had to say about this wicked old world, you already know the genesis of that term, right, was ready to curse him out, ready to curse the darkness against his small voice).
One night when Peter and Sam were alone at the Sunnyvale, maybe both had had a few too many high-shelf scotches (able to afford such liquor unlike in the old days when they both in their respective poverties, drank low-shelf Johnny Walker whiskey with a beer chaser when they had the dough, if not some cheapjack wine), Peter told Sam the story of how he had wanted to go to Alabama in high school, go to Selma, but his mother threatened to disown him if he did, threatened to disown him not for his desire to go but because she would not have been able to hold her head up in public if he had, and so although it ate at him not to go, go when his girlfriend, Helen Jackman, who lived in Gloversville, did go, he took a dive (Peter’s words). Told a redemptive story too about his anti-war fight in the Army when he refused to go to Vietnam and wound up in an Army stockade for a couple of years altogether. (Sam thought that was a high price to pay for redemption but it may have been the scotch at work.) Told a number of stories about working with various veterans’ groups, throwing medals over Supreme Court barricades, chainings to the White House fence, sitting down in hostile honked traffic streets, blocking freeways complete with those same hostile honkings, a million walks for this and that, and some plain old ordinary handing out leaflets, working the polls and button-holing reluctant politicians to vote against the endless war budgets (this last the hardest task, harder than all the jailings, honkings, marches put together and seemingly the most fruitless). Told too stories about the small coffeehouse places seeing retread folkies who had gone on to other things and then in a fit of anguish, or hubris, decided to go back on the trail. Told of many things that night not in feast of pride but to let Sam know that sometimes it was easier to act than to let that gnawing win the day. Told Sam that he too always had the gnaw, probably always would in this wicked old world. Sam was delighted by the whole talk, even if Peter was on his soapbox.
That night too Peter mentioned in passing that he contributed to a number of blogs, a couple of political ones, including an anti-war veterans’ group, a couple of old time left-wing cultural sites and a folk music-oriented one. Sam confessed to Peter that although he had heard the word blog he did not know what a blog was. Peter told him that one of the virtues of the Internet was that it provided space (cyberspace, a term Sam had heard of and knew what it meant) for the average citizen to speak his or her mind via setting up a website or a blog. Blogs were simply a way to put your opinions and comments out there just like newspaper Op/Ed writers or news reporters and commentators although among professional reporters the average blog and blog writers were seen as too filled with opinions and sometimes rather loose with the facts. Peter said he was perfectly willing to allow the so-called “objective” reporters to state the facts but he would be damned if the blog system was not a great way to get together with others interested in your areas of interest, yeah, stuff that interested you and that other like-minded spirits might respond to. Yeah that was worth the effort.
The actual process of blog creation (as opposed to the more complex website-creation which still takes a fair amount of expertise to create) had been made fairly simple over time, just follow a few simple prompts and you are in business. Also over time what was possible to do has been updated for ease, for example linking other platforms to your site and be able to present multi-media works lashing up say your blog with YouTube or downloading photographs to add something to your presentation. Peter one afternoon after Sam had asked about his blog links showed him the most political one that he belonged to, one he had recently begun to share space with Josh Breslin, Frank Jackman and a couple of other guys that he had known since the 1960s and who were familiar with the various social, political and cultural trends that floated out from that period.
Sam was amazed at the various topics that those guys tackled, stuff that he vaguely remembered hearing about but which kind of passed him by as he delved into the struggle to build his printing shop. He told Peter that he got dizzy looking at the various titles from reviews of old time black and white movies that he remembered watching at the old Strand second run theater uptown, poetry from the “beat” generation, various political pieces on current stuff like the Middle East, the fight against war, political prisoners most of whom he had never heard of except the ones who had been Black Panther or guys like that, all kinds of reviews of rock and roll complete with the songs via YouTube, too many reviews of folk music that he never really cared for, books that he knew Peter read like crazy but could not remember the titles. The guys really had put a lot of stuff together, even stuff from other sites and announcements for every conceivable left-wing oriented event. He decided that he would become a Follower which was nothing sinister like some cult but just that you would receive notice when something was put on the blog.
Peter also encouraged him to write some pieces about what interested him, maybe start out about the old days in North Adamsville since all the guys mined that vein for sketches (that is what Peter liked to call most of the material on site since they were usually too short to be considered short stories but too long to be human interest snapshots. Sam said he would think about the matter, think about it seriously once he read the caption below:
“This space is noted for politics mainly, and mainly the desperate political fight against various social, economic and moral injustices and wrongs in this wicked old world, although the place where politics and cultural expression, especially post-World War II be-bop cultural expression, has drawn some of our interest over the past several years. The most telling example of that interest is in the field of popular music, centrally the blues, city and country, good woman on your mind, hardworking, hard drinking blues and folk music, mainly urban, mainly protest to high heaven against the world’s injustices smite the dragon down, folk music. Of late though the old time 1950s kid, primordial, big bang, jail-break rock and roll music that set us off from earlier generations has drawn our attention. Mostly by reviewing oldies CDs but here, and occasionally hereafter under this headline, specifically songs that some future archaeologists might dig up as prime examples of how we primitives lived ,and what we listened to back in the day.”
Sam could relate to that, had something to say about some of those songs. Josh Breslin laughed when he heard that Sam was interested in doing old time rock and roll sketches. He then added, “If we can only get him to move off his butt and come out and do some street politics with us we would be getting somewhere.” Peter just replied, “one step at a time.” Yeah, that’s the ticket.