Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Robert Ward: Another Dead Guy....

Another great one gone, Robert Ward died Christmas day, he had been sick for years, been through two strokes and finally his kidneys rotted out. He left his family, including 68 grand children destitute. If you'd like to help them you can bundle up some money, gold or diamonds and send them to his wife at:
Roberta Ward
P.O. Box 217
Dry Branch, GA, 31020
US of A
Ward, who never really had a hit record under his own name was one of the greatest unheralded R&B/soul guitarist and singers of the sixties. He issued many fine sides
on the LuPine, Thelma (run by Berry Gordy's sister) and Groove City labels both under his own name and as leader of the Ohio Untouchables who, after Ward's departure would later morph into the 70's funk superstars/superstuds the Ohio Players. He also worked with the great Detroit vocal group the Falcons, an early super group of sorts led by a young Wilson Pickett along with at various times Sir Mack Rice (who wrote "Mustang Sally"), Eddie "Knock On Wood" Floyd, and Joe Stubbs (brother of the Four Tops' Levi Stubbs) who sang lead on their biggest hit You're So Fine).
Ward was best known for the "watery", tremolo laden guitar sound produced by his Magnatone amp, Lonnie Mack was his most famous disciple, adapting Ward's sound on his early hits on the Fraternity label-- Wham, Memphis, Omaha, et al.
Robert Ward popped out of the womb on October 15 of 1938 in the country side near Luthersville, Georgia to sharecropping parents. He sang in the church, learned guitar from his mother and listened to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Dixie Hummingbirds
and post war blues singers like John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed. He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1957 and upon discharge formed the Brassettes in LaGrange, Georgia eventually finding steady work as albino rocker Piano Red's backing band. In 1960 he relocated to Dayton, Ohio in search of work where he put together the Ohio Untouchables. They were discovered by Detroit record producer Robert West who signed them to LuPine and also used them to back up the Falcons on some incredible 45's including their timeless and heart wrenching hit I Found A Love (perhaps the closest Wilson Pickett ever came to matching the shouts of his idol
Julius Cheeks of the Sensational Nightingales) and other sides including this one: Let's Kiss And Make Up on which Ward solos prominently.
Amongst the Ohio Untouchables' best sides are some monster guitar instrumentals like Uptown, Workout, and Hot Stuff as well as Robert Ward's gospel tinged vocal efforts like Your Love Is Amazing, Fear No Evil, I'm Tired, and The Swim. Finer sides you shall not hear, not in this world, not in this life. His complete 1961-67 discography can be had on the Relic CD Robert Ward- Hot Stuff.
The aforementioned sides failed to sell and Ward ended up playing on many sessions for Motown including hits like the Undisputed Truth's paranoid classic Smiling Faces (Tell Lies) and the Temptations uber-smash Papa Was A Rolling Stone. In 1977 Ward's first wife died of a cerebral hemorrhage leaving him with six children. He moved back to Georgia working outside of music in a lumber mill and in small time crime, eventually landing in the poky (where he played in a prison band with Major Lance). He was rediscovered in the early 1990's by New Orleans' Black Top records owner Hammond Scott who had been searching for him for several years. Scott recorded Ward on the 1990 LP Fear No Evil. I had several friends working at Black Top at the time and I remember hearing the original undubbed tapes of that LP and they were fantastic, Ward playing and singing magnificently. Unfortunately, Scott took the tapes and added all sorts of awful 90's touches like ugly digital reverb and lame horn charts. Ward's talent overcomes Scott's shortcomings as a producer on Fear No Evil but his next Black Top record Rhythm of the People (1993) wasn't very good (although if you want it, try here), although the Black Top discs did help him to find work and a small amount of money gigging including a European tour, the discs however do not do his talent justice. I find Black Top one of the most offensive labels of the 90's blues revival in that they could make lame records with some of the finest artists of all time (Snooks Eaglin being another who comes to mind) by attempting to make their discs 90's radio friendly, as if Robert Ward's record was going to get airplay next to Madonna. Had Scott issued the undubbed session tapes in their raw form he would probably have sold a lot more records, as the non-production success of Fat Possum records later in that decade would prove, the audience for old blues and R&B likes it because it is raw, and attempting to market the old masters in competition with the MTV made celeb-u-tards was simply foolish both artistically and commercially. This of course is one of the reasons Black Top no longer exists, and nobody misses it. It doesn't matter now, least of all to Mr. Ward who led a hard life, and left some beautiful sounds. He must be in a better place now. And, hey, dig that leopard print pick guard on his Jazz Master! Hot stuff indeed.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Is It Still Your Birthday If You Are Dead? Bo Diddley

Bo Diddley didn't live to see his birthday this year (which he shared with Bob Quine who is still dead). I had three brief but amusing run ins with Bo, which I posted on Boogie Woogie Flu blog back in June when he died. If you didn't see it I'll reprint 'em here: 1) I was bike messengering in the early 80's and had some time to kill so I stopped into Show World @ 8th Ave and 42nd St (a three story peep-show porn emporium, now gone) to take in the quarter movies and get out of the cold. Who should be checking out at the counter but Bo Diddley in a long leather overcoat and cowboy hat. He had a big bag of videos so I say: "Bo Diddley!, whatcha buyin' Bo"? He pulls the top video out of the bag and shows me Maximum Perversion Vol. 23. Pix of midgets, women w/snakes, etc. all over it. He had a huge grin on his face. 2) Backstage at Madison Square Garden for some oldies show and there's Bo at the catering table. He gets a huge piece of apple pie and sits down, but before he eats it he butters both top and bottom with about a quarter inch of butter, then picks it up and swallows it in two bites. 3) In 1985 we went down to Camden, N.J. to see Bo w/the Ben Vaughn Combo backing him up (they were perfect, right down to the plaid jackets, Bo hated them) so I brought my copy of Go Bo Diddley to get signed. While I was getting it autographed, Ben asked Bo about the verse in "Who Do You Love" about the ice wagon and what it meant. Bo replied that Leonard Chess made him change the lyrics from the original verse he brought in which was:
"the night was black/the sky was blue around the corner/the shitwagon flew a bump was hit/a scream was heard someone got hit with a flying turd"! By the way, Bo signed the record upside down, so I scanned it upside down in case anyone out there wants to analyze his handwriting. The point being: I know of no artist, not the Stones, not Dylan, not even Jimmy Reed, who made as many fine records as Bo Diddley. In the early 90's Charley Records of England issued an twelve CD set of his Chess recordings including many un-issued sides (you can find it here). There's almost no crap on it at all. Amazing. I wanted to post some of his more obscure tunes here to give you an idea of the depth and scope of his catalogue. He is unfairly remembered as a one-hit, one beat, one riff artist, and that is just utter bullshit. The people who write the history of rock'n'roll are often the most idiotic, misinformed, and laziest writers in the world. Here is a small attempt to change the "conventional wisdom" on the subject of Bo Diddley. Take a listen. Background To A Music Africa Speaks Bo's Dog (live) Billy Stewart- Billy's Heartache (produced/written by Bo, Bo's also playing guitar and singing back-up) Billy Stewart- Billy's Blues Part one Billy Stewart- Billy's Blues Part two (produced/written by Bo, Bo can also be heard on guitar, "Love Is Strange" was based on this record) Marquees (w/Marvin Gaye)- Hey Little School Girl (produced/written by Bo) Congo Cookie Headed Diddley Mr Khrushchev (cold war Bo!) Detour Mama Keep Your Big Mouth Shut Mess Around Moon Baby Pretty Baby (the above was recorded in Bo's basement during a rehearsal) with Chuck Berry- Bo's Beat Two Flies Shank Watusi Bounce Sad Sack Met You On A Saturday Surfer's Love Call Bo's A Lumber Jack Mickey & Sylvia- Dearest (written by Bo, who is also playing rhythm guitar behind Mickey Baker, Bob Quine's favorite guitar solo). and here's one by Bo Diddley's cousin, Bo Dudley (I shit you not): Shotgun Rider Now if we can only find the homemade R&B star porno movies Bo filmed on tour in the 50's and 60's (as described by Etta James in her book Rage To Live (Villard, 1995) see the September posting Etta James Rocks The House for more on Bo's home movies. Should anybody out there see a Yard Sale sign out in front of Bo Diddley's place please let me know. In an old underground comic book called Bop! there was a great story about a teenage garage band circa 1962 who invite Bo Diddley to their house to jam with them. Bo (and maraca shakin' Jerome!) showed up at the kid's house the next day and jammed out with the little twerps. A tape exists of this garage jam and hopefully it will be released in our lifetime (Bo's manager nixed the release of it when Bo was still alive, preferring to attempt to market some sort of hip hop Bo disc). Ellas Otha Bates McDaniel aka Bo Diddley: great guy, great glasses, great rock'n'roll star...maybe the greatest ever.

The Hound's Mystery Disc #1 Blowin' Through Yokahoma

I got an e-mail from Eddie Gordetsky the other day. He said something that really struck me. He wrote-- "having everything available at your fingertips is the same as having nothing", of course he was talking about music and record collecting and the sense that we've lost the mystery of it all. There are very few mysteries left out there. I have met and broke bread with Hasil Adkins, picked Andre Williams up off the floor, snorted dope with Esquerita, bar-b-q'd with Ronnie Dawson, carried Cordell Jackson's amp, shook the hand of T. Valentine, and so many others whose very existence seemed so unlikely a few short decades ago. When I started record collecting you literally had to dig through garbage dumpsters to find an Elmore James 45 (as I did once on Broadway at Waverly Place, a whole dumpster full of Fire/Fury/Enjoy 45's....those were the days). Now you can hit a button and have three box sets containing every second of music he ever recorded delivered to your door in 48 hours. I'm not sure that's a good thing, and I can't explain why. Actually I could, but it doesn't really matter. There are a few real mystery discs left out there, and one of them is this one, one of my very favorites-- Blowin' Through Yokahama Part I b/w Blowin Through Yokahama Part II on the Munro label, of Saginaw, Michigan. Year unknown, but I'd say around '62-3. The song itself, a version of Bo Diddley's Hush Your Mouth which was part of so many bands repertoire around that time (I always loved Dick Dale's version which he called Surfin' Drums) revved up and given a quasi-exotica treatment, along the lines of another favorite (and mysterious) disc-- Ward Darby & the Raves-- Safari (Petite) mixed with the sort of high energy guitar workouts that Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks' where adding to their Bo Diddley covers around the same time (here's their version of Who Do You Love with a young Robbie Robertson shrieking out the blues, he'd go on to learn the value of publishing copyrights at Albert Goldman's elbow and virtually steal the Band's entire catalog from the guys he describes in the Last Waltz as his "brothers", for more on this check out Levon Helm's hysterical book This Wheel's On Fire, William Morrow & Co. 1993). The Medallions you say? Anyone with the slightest interest in Rhythm and Blues or early Rock'n'Roll has heard of the Medallions. They even had a hit, the greaseball classic-- The Letter with it's incredible spoken part ("with sweet words of pismotology and the pupituits of love...."). Released on Dootsie Williams L.A. based Dootone in '58 in never charted but was a strong seller and can still be heard on L.A. radio stations that cater to Low Riders. They made other great records too-- like the flip of the Letter-- Buick '59, Behind The Door, Edna, My Pretty Baby (with Johnny "Two Voice" Morrisette taking over the lead vocal from Vernon Greene), Rocket Ship, and Speedin' amongst them. For the easily confused here's one of Vernon Greene's pre-Medallions records, another of my all time favorites, recorded with the Phantoms on Specialty in '55-- Sweet Breeze, man that one is unearthly. Well, to my ears there's no way the group that recorded Blowin' Through Yokahama is the same as the one that recorded The Letter. In fact, I think the Medallions on Munro where white. Maybe they still are. When I helped compile an early black rock'n'roll compilation for the Atomic Passion label (called oddly enough Blowin' Through Yokahma, issued only on shiny black vinyl, you can buy it from the good folks at Norton Records) it was reviewed in several magazines, including Blues & Rhythm: The Gospel Truth (maybe the best music mag left, of course it has no longer has a U.S. distributor) who all identified the group as being the west coast Medallions, but one careful listen will easily refute such mis-information. I know of no other discs on the Murno label, it's not even listed in Bob McGrath's incredible four volume discography The R&B Indies (Eyeball Productions, 2006), one of the greatest works of musical scholarship in the known world. If anyone out there is in the Saginaw, Michigan area drive by 608 N. Oakley and tell me what's there now. Maybe there's a pile of Munro 45's somewhere on the premises. I'm not sure I've even seen another copy of this disc, which I picked up at a used record store in Pittsburgh in the late 80's. Anyone out there ever seen one? Anyone know anything about a Medallions from Saginaw? Did they make any other records? Start digging....

Friday, December 26, 2008

Johnny Otis

Johnny Otis, born John Alexander Veliotes on Dec. 28, 1921 in Vallejo, California is one of the most influential and profoundly important figures in the history of American music, and one of the last survivors of the golden age of rhythm and blues
and the birth of rock'n'roll. He's also one of the most interesting characters in American popular culture.  Johnny Otis was and is an incomparable musician (drums/piano/vibes), producer, band leader, songwriter, talent scout, painter, sculptor (Dylan's Malibu digs sports one of Johnny Otis' oversize sculptures on its grounds), disc jockey, congressional aide, author, apple juice entrepreneur,preacher and more. The life of Johnny Otis should be the subject of a major biography and I cannot hope to cover more than a small portion of it here (in fact Otis has published two autobiographies, both excellent-- Listen To The Lambs (W.W. Norton, 1968) and Upside our Head! Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue (Wesleyan University Press, 1993) so I'll just focus on my favorite recordings here.
Johnny, born of Greek immigrant parents in a largely black neighborhood of Vellejo, grew up in Berkeley where his father owned a small grocery store. At some point in his youth, taken by music and the vitality of the Afro-American ghetto life around him, Johnny decided that he would become black. With dark, swarthy Mediterranean features he could pass for something like an octaroon, but remember these were the days of Jim Crow, when being black brought more grief than benefits. (For an interesting look at the opposite side of "passing", I suggest Phillip Roth's The Human Stain, Houghton Mifflen, 2000). Music became the most important thing in young Johnny's life, and soon, having taken on the surname Otis, he was pounding drums in a small, proto-rhythm and blues combo called Count Otis Mathews and House Rockers. Johnny remembered most of the set he played the beat that would later be identified with Bo Diddley (also known as "shave and a haircut/two bits"). Unfortunately Mathews never recorded.      The 1940's was the era of the big band and caught up in the excitement caused by Count Basie and Jimmy Luncford's outfits, Otis headed east working his way through various "territory bands" (big bands whose geographic territory ranged through the mid to south western states), playing with George Morrison's band in Denver, Lloyd Hunter's band in Omaha (where he'd meet life long friend and sax player extraordinaire Preston Love, and run with wild man Wynonie "Mr Blues" Harris), and Harlan Leonard and the Kansas City Rockets in Missouri. It was with the latter outfit he hit L.A. where they became the house band at the Club Alabam on Central Avenue in Watts. Soon Otis joined up with Bardu Ali's band headlining at the Lincoln Theater, also on Central Ave. This was his last job working in somebody else's band. In 1945 Otis formed his own big band, eighteen pieces, and they soon recorded for Leon Rene's Excelsior label where they had a hit with their sublime arrangement of Harlem Nocturne. They made quite a few good records before Excelsior went under including this one, a personal favorite featuring female singer Marylin Scott-- Beer Bottle Boogie, but the days of the big bands were numbered, and by 1947 jobs were getting scarce.
   In 1947 along with now business partner, the aforementioned Bardu Ali, Otis opened his own nightclub, the Barrelhouse, located in L.A.'s Watts district at 106th St and Wilmington, spitting distance from Central Ave.  Here Otis come in to his own as one of the all time great talent scouts, he would discover Little Esther Phillips, the Robins (who morphed into the Coasters under the tutelage of Leiber and Stoller), Etta James,
Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John (the latter three all on the same night in Detroit), as well as two of the greatest unheralded guitarists in R&B history-- Pete "Guitar" Lewis and Jimmy Nolan.  It's also around this time that Otis' discography gets a bit confusing, he would record for Modern, Savoy and its Regent subsidiary, Mercury, Peacock/Duke, Capitol, Okeh, King, as well as producing sessions for Ralph Bass at Federal (itself a subsidiary of Cincinnati's King Records), Philo, United Artists, Kent, as well as his own labels-- Dig, Eldo, Blues Spectrum, Hawk Sound. He also moonlighted producing sessions for various members of his band now dubbed The Johnny Otis Show and artists as diverse as Big Mama Thorton, Johnny Ace, Don 'Sugarcane' Harris, and Johnny "Guitar" Watson.
       It was also around this time that Otis, who had switched from playing drums (a bad seat to drive from as Iggy Pop once said) to piano, accidentally chopped off several finger tips working in his wood shop.  This cost him some of  his manual dexterity and he would take up the vibes as his main instrument which gave his band a direct link to the sound of the great Lionel Hampton Band, who along with Louis Jordan's Tympani Five where the most important precursors to the coming small band rhythm and blues  sound of the late 40's and early 50's.
    Shall we now delve into said discography and see what sort of incredible nuggets
Johnny Otis left us?
    Among my personal favorites, on the Regal label where he had a string of minor R&B hits we find:
These records, featuring Little Esther, male vocalist Mel Walker, and guitarist Pete "Guitar" Lewis were all good sellers on the R&B charts, especially in L.A. where Otis was packing them in nightly at the Barrelhouse.  Check out Lewis' phrasing and sensitive touch on "Hangover Blues", you can almost hear his headache.
 Pete Lewis, who was discovered at Amateur Night at the Barrel House had only been playing guitar for six  months when he joined Otis' band.  He'd go on to cut solo sides for Federal including the incredible "Ooh, It's Midnight" (that's Little Esther cooing),"Louisiana Hop", and a few vocal blues like "Chocolate Pork Chop Man". On this 1953  Mercury session issued under Johnny Otis' name, Lewis trades licks with former Duke Ellington tenor sax star Ben Webster, the sound of Lewis' distorted blues licks against Websters warm, foggy, sax tone is pure genius, and I'd say "One Nighter Blues" is one of the greatest sides ever waxed. Lewis would eventually drink his way into the gutter, the last time Otis saw him was during the Watts riots, summer of '66, he was living on the street as a wino. 
     Esther Phillips, another Otis discovery also began her solo career, as Little Esther,
on Federal with Otis moonlighting as uncredited producer on a handful of R&B sides including this one with the Dominoes, my favorite--- "The Deacon Moves In".
Another Otis discovery was fifteen year old Etta James who Otis took to the Modern label, producing her first hit "The Wallflower" an answer song to the Midnighters' "Work With  Me Annie", as well as such such classics as "Nobody Loves You Like  Me" (have you ever heard a bad record with the word Sputnik in it?), and "Tough Lover".*
     By 1958 Pete Lewis had left the band and was replaced by the great Jimmy Nolen.
Here's one of Jimmy Nolen's best solo sides, also recorded for Federal, his version of Erkstine Hawkins' "After Hours" (this was Roy Buchanan's favorite record, and as you can hear, the one he based his entire guitar style on).  Nolen would stay with Otis into the early sixties before joining James Brown's band where he would change his style, loosely choking the guitar's neck and playing rhythm patterns with his right hand, rarely changing chords to create that "chank" style first heard on Brown's "Out Of Sight" and "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag".  Nolen played on Otis' biggest hits, including "Willie and the Hand Jive", "Castin' My Spell" and "Crazy Country Hop", all done in the Bo Diddley style that Otis had been playing since his days with Count Mathews' House Rockers.
   Around 1957 Otis started the first of several labels he would found-- Dig.
Dig and it's Eldo subsidiary issued around fifty singles and one LP (the LP, covers of current rock'n'roll hits circa 1957 can be found here) including some real gems like Preston Love's "Wango Blues", Otis' own "Groove Juice" and "Midnight Creeper" (the U.K. Ace label has four CD's of issued and un-issued Dig material under the name Dapper Cats, Groovy Tunes & Hot Guitars: The Legendary Dig Masters well worth acquiring, even buying).
    From 1952-55 Otis was signed to the Houston based Peacock label (which had just acquired the Memphis based Duke label) run by black/Jewish gangster Don Robey.
Here he cut some excellent rock'n'roll sides, the best being this one-- "Shake It".
At Peacock he had more success as a producer/arranger, working with Big Mama Thorton whose "Hound Dog" he produced and co-wrote  (although he was later screwed out of his writer's share by Leiber & Stoller), and other killer sides like "I Smell A Rat". His biggest hit for Robey, and one of R&B's most enduring and ghostly tunes was Johnny Ace's "Pledging My Love" which hit #1 on the R&B charts in the months after Ace's  1954 death from either Russian roulette or shot by the aforementioned Ms. Thorton, depending on whose story you believe. Sorry I can't seem to keep to a chronological order here.
Otis was still going strong into the 1960's,  he had a minor hit with the LP Cold Shot (Kentand his son, guitarist Shuggie Otis would join the band, replacing Jimmy Nolen.  Shuggie, who Information LP (on Columbia) has become a major cult item among the disco/sampler/funk collector crowd, you can find it here.
     Of his sixties work, perhaps his finest moment came in 1969 when Johnny, Shuggie and singer Mighty Mouth Evans recorded under the nome' du disque Snatch & the Poontangs (Kent) an LP of the filthiest, nastiest, most x-rated rock'n'roll of all time.  It was Otis' successful attempt to preserve the part of Afro-American folk culture sometimes called toasting or the dozens, in which traditional oral history is handed down in the most profane manner possible.  Hip hop grew out of this and field recordings made in prisons in the 1940's and 50's uncovered a rich oral tradition of hilarious boasts and insults.  My favorite track is "Hey Shine" which tells the tale of the black ship mate Shine, the best part of the Titanic story (of course it was left out of the movie). The story of the "Signifyin' Monkey" is told in two parts (part one, part  two), I especially like the "true whore's oath" section of the second part. And cuz I'm a nice guy here's an un-issued outtake from that brilliant disc-- a version of the "Dirty Dozens" which features Johnny's barrel house piano and vibes as well as  lyrics that could make Redd Foxx blush. Otis had quite a backround in stuff like this, the Johnny Otis Show having provided the music for dozens of black comedy  LP's by Skillet & Leroy, LaWanda Page (Aunt Ester from Sanford & Son), and others on the Laff label throughout the sixties.  
    Otis also hosted many radio shows both in the L.A. area and the Bay Area where he returned in the 1990's, settling in Sebastopal, north of Frisco. Here's his theme song. Somewhere I have a funny tape of Frank Zappa as guest DJ, spinning classic R&B discs while Johnny tells personal antidotes about each artist.  Unfortunately I don't think I have  a working cassette deck in the house, but if I get one I'll try and post it.  For a short time he had his own TV show (clips above), he was also an aide to Congressman Mervyn M. Dymally in the 1980's (his younger brother Nick Veliotes was the U.S. ambassador to Jordan and Egypt). 
Otis kept going through the 70's and 80's, touring occassionaly (the last time the Johnny Otis Show appeared in New York City was at Carnegie Hall in the late 80's, I ended up meeting Johnny and Mighty Mouth Evans in the bathroom, they both laughed when I requested tunes from the Snatch & the Poontangs record). He ministered at a church he founded in Santa Rosa-- the Landmark Community Baptist Church, marketed  his own brand of apple juice, spend a lot of time painting (that's one of his paintings on the cover of Upside Your Head pictured above) and doing giant sculptures of African-American images (his artwork can be seen here), and kept himself quite busy. A visit to Johnny Otis World Website is well worth your time.
These days Johnny is in poor health and it's unlikely he'll ever perform again.
Airchecks of his final radio shows can be found here.  I know it's drag to get old and sick, but I sure hope Johnny Otis has a happy birthday, he deserves that and much, much more.  If anybody alive has left the world a better place it's been Johnny Otis.
* I noticed there's a movie out there with Beyonce playing Etta James, that would be like Whitney Houston playing Bessie Smith.  I read the non-fiction book (so bad I refuse to mention its title  or author here) the flick was based on and counted 24 factual errors in the first chapter. Amazing how Hollywood always gets it wrong.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Rockets Redglare: User's Manual (An Autobiography)

I miss my friends. That's because most of 'em are dead. One of 'em was Rockets Redglare, born 1949, died 2001. I didn't see much of him the last year of his life because I had to ban him from my bar lest he croak in the place. A stiff in a bar is bad enough, but a 400lb stiff the texture of jello is even worse. I don't remember when I first met Michael Morra aka Rockets Redglare but it was within the first few weeks of coming to New York City in the spring of '77. We became friends on first meeting as we had many common interests including old movies, books, crazy women and hard narcotics. We worked together at the Club 57 where I was the dj and he did a stand up comedy routine (as did Steve Bushemi). Rockets did well for himself as an actor, he appeared in numerous movies and tv shows including Oz, Talk Radio, Mystery Train, Down By Law, After Hours, Animal Factory, etc. His filmography can be found here. Eventually his addictions and poor health caught up with him. By the end his liver was pumping ammonia, he knew he was dying and was in great pain and had limited mobility, he could easily drink a quart of vodka in one sitting and the local methadone clinic had him at 180 mg. a day, the highest dosage I've ever heard of. In his final months he attempted to write his autobiography, which was to be titled User's Manual. I'm not sure if more than this exists, this may be all he managed to get on paper before his battered and bloated body finally gave out. He was the subject of an excellent documentary by the late Luis Fernandez de la Reguera (who worked for me at the Lakeside tending bar during Rockets final years), the trailer can be seen here. In retyping the manuscript I have corrected only the spelling (for instance, clothes is spelled cloths) but have left the grammar and other mistakes the way they were written. The manuscript ends with the words "to be continued" but I'm not sure if he wrote any more. If anyone out there has more of the User's Manual manuscript let me know and I'll gladly log add it to this.---The Hound
User's Manual: An Autobiography by Rockets Redglare My first memory is one of excessive behavior. In the 50's you could buy a plastic razor, with soap and a brush (to get what was then called a good lather), this was not a toy-not a disposable real razor that adults buy today. This toy came with cardboard blades (double edged) and a mirror. Proudly written across the package was the declaration: “will not cut”. Obviously, the person who wrote this had never come across a shaving fool like a five year old Rockets Redglare. I Lathered and shaved, lathered and shaved for a good seven-eight hours, all the while gazing in the mirror provided and marveling at the close shave I was getting-so close, in fact, that for the next two weeks my face was a raw, sweating scab Unfortunately, this experience set the tone for how I would react to anything I enjoyed for the rest of my life. I Am Born: Bellevue Hospital is located on the east side of Manhattan in the mid-20’s. This is the hospital that most policemen who have been gunshot are taken to. Their trauma center is supposedly fabulous. On any given night it is like a grand guignol of medicine. One the night of May 7th, 1949, a fifteen year old girl who had had no prenatal care and a sizable heroin habit walked into the emergency room. As she was filling out the required forms, her water broke. This girl, who was recently married to an up and coming wise guy, gave birth to a nine lb. plus baby boy. She had the constitution of a horse, as her husband liked to say. The baby also was as healthy as they come, but there was a complication. In the years to follow a the good doctors at Bellevue would be seeing more and more of this particular complication. The baby had inherited his mother’s incredible constitution, but he had also been given his fifteen year old mother's heroin habit. In these days doctors were at a loss to prescribe treatment for a heroin addicted baby. Both mother and child suffered severe withdrawals. These were the days before Methadone. The mother was kicking, the baby was kicking, (as babies tend to). Even so, the baby was so healthy that the nurses teased the mother saying “this baby will be the first to carry is mother home”. How did this lovely Italian fifteen year old come to this situation? Well, and there is no other way to say this, she was wild. Daddy My first memory of my father was seeing him in a strap t-shirt trying to fix something. Unlike most fathers who might be working on a radio or something, I think he was cleaning a gun. In those days the gun of choice was a .38 in New York. It did not go through walls or through people too often; this was the time before Uzi’s, nine millimeters, rocket launchers or assault rifles. Yes, it was a kinder-more gentile time. But the thing that mystified me about “daddy” was his tattoos, those pictures on his arms drawn in colors I had never seen before. These had a very Catholic flavor if you can give me a certain license of description. To this day, I can not tell you what the exact images on his arms were, yet I can see them like the face of a long forgotten lover. My father’s occupation is listed on my birth certificate as “printer”. His real occupation was “soldier”- not for the U.S. Army but for the Mafia; their are some right now who will read this and say “yeah, sure”, but all I can say is that I lived through this and wish it was not true. My father was deported when I was six and my mother was sent to Bedford prison, these are matters of public record. My “uncle Eddie” was probably public enemy #1 did evade the police and the mob for two years, all the while making frequent trips to see me on my birthdays. My father’s partner was my uncle Eddie, or Crazy Joe Donahue or Vinnie Russo. This man was my surrogate father--a five year old boy’s best friend and guardian angel. Sometimes I still think he watches over me and maybe he does. As far as I know, my Uncle Eddie was born Vinnie Russo. He took his first hit out on a woman’s husband who beat her and molested is own daughters. The fee was twenty-five dollars. He did it with a baseball bat. He was sixteen yeas old. The same Saturday my father told me he hit a triple and two doubles in the Little Italy softball league game, with the same bat. Years later, the TV show Naked City would do an episode based on my uncle about a hit man who had gained so much notoriety he was being pursued by both the Mafia and the cops. Strangely enough, my Uncle Eddie had told me the story of the “Bridge Of Sighs”, years later he would escape for that very corridor. A Bridge Of Sighs One day Uncle Eddie took me to Canal St. to “Dave’s Corner”, my favorite hot dog-egg cream emporium. We walked over to the federal building and he pointed to a corridor some fifteen or twenty stories up that connected the two federal buildings, one held the federal courts, the other the federal jail. Uncle Eddie told me that the connecting tube was called the “bridge of sighs” since this was the sound that could be heard from the men sentenced to long federal time being led from the court house to the holding cells in the jail. This very corridor was the place from which Eddie would make his historic and gallant escape a few years later. But, in those days he was free and blissfully unaware that my family was unlike any other in the world. I did not know that families did not eat past with grated cheese for two weeks in a row and then after the father and uncle were gone for a day or two the couch would be covered with hundred dollar bills and their would be new cars and restaurants every night for months and clothes, tailored to fit in an hour, toys from Hammercher Schlemmer along with stupid gadgets that were never used. This feast or famine brand of economics was to haunt me through my entire life. There were times I did not see a ten dollar bill in a week and there were times when I would lay a spray of hundred dollar bills across the bar and keep going until it was gone. All the good times fell apart on a night that was so crystal clear and for some reason seems so super-real I can still still smell the fear. I was watching TV and Mom, Uncle Eddie and Dad were carrying on in the kitchen when their was a loud and insistent knock on the door- it was the FBI. It seems the last time there was general rejoicing in my household, my father, Uncle Eddie and my mother, she drove the car, robbed the Mineola Post Office. Somehow the word had gotten back to the investigating agent that my father and Uncle Eddie had been involved. Several federal agents were knocking at the door, then pounding, then breaking it down. I remember my Uncle Eddie pulling his gun (which I loved, as kids will) and threw on his trench coat, telling my mother he was taking me to my Aunt Fay’s house. He tied the belt of his trench coat around my waist ad e and Uncle Eddie went down the fire escape into the night. An hour later we were at my Aunt Fay’s house. Uncle Eddie had told my Aunt Fay that I had been living there with her and my Uncle Frank and my cousin Madelyn for the past month. Aunt Fay went to the basement, got my clothes (I always had a truck of clothes at Aunt Fay’s, just in case) got my room ready. I was now five years old, I never saw my father again and I would not see my mother till I was eight years old. She would spend the next three years in Bedford Hills Connecticut Family in Upstate New York. My father was deported to Italy where e was born and Uncle Eddie would spend the next few years on the run. Despite the fact that Uncle Eddie was hunted by both the mob and the police, he would still come to visit me at my Aunt Fay’s. One day, he took me into Brooklyn to see the film Pinocchio, on the way back from the show, my Uncle Eddie saw this guy in front of Shermmackers Bar on Myrtle Ave. The guy had been the man who ratted on my father and Uncle Eddie. He put me on the hood of a Buick, turned and shot the guy four times in the stomach-since a gut shot is the most painful and takes longer to kill you. Uncle Eddie then picked me up and said “don’t tell your mother about this”. I was confused by this since I had just seen Pinocchio’s nose grow longer when he told a lie-- I wondered what would happen to my nose, and I never told. My Cat-- Champ I saw a cat that been ripped apart by a dog. He was half dead in the alley behind my apartment. My father and Uncle Eddie tried to help him but he would hiss and scratch at them. I went out with mild and wet clothes and, for some reason, he let me touch him and get him fixed up as much as a five year old could. I begged my father to let me keep him. Since my dad’s hand was still bleeding he did not think it was a good idea for a kid to have a vicious cat. I showed him that the cat “would never hurt me” and I had my first pet-- I called him “Champ” because he was so tough. No one could touch Champ but me- he would maul anyone who came near him. I could swing him by his tail and he’d just purr and cuddle. My mom made a cat box for him, but it was never dirty-- it was not until she found the cat’s scratches on the toilet bowl cover that she realized that Champ used the toilet as he had seen me do. One day I came home and Champ was gone- I’d like to think he found himself a beautiful girl-cat who loved an outlaw cat, wherever you are, Champ, I love you, and still miss you. Aunt Fay, Uncle Frank, Madeline and Stability The years between my mom’s arrest and my dad’s deportation and the arrival of Harry (which explains itself later) were some of the most secure and happy years of my life. I was whisked away from a loving , but horribly confusing environment when guns and drugs and fear were the coin of the realm to a suburban paradise where there was a loving, but consistent presence in the form of my Aunt Fay and a male dominant figure, not an overgrown child who still needed a best friend to validate his manhood. My Uncle Frank was a hard working, honest man. Maybe not the most romantic figure, but a guy who, if he had to, would die for his family. It was not until the last few months of my Uncle Frank’s life that we got along. Even at age six years old, I considered him a square. His idea of right and wrong I saw as antiquated and foolish. How many times I have regretted the way I felt I can not tell you. He reached out to me so many times and I was not there. But, I’ve always had problems with male authority figures. My Aunt Fay was the matriarch of our extended family, she was always the one to host Christmas, Thanksgiving, etc. She had one of the most caustic tongues I’ve ever had the pleasure to hear humiliate anyone. She was everything an Italian other was supposed to be. She was furiously protective of me and my cousin Madeline. Madeline was only born because I was, my Aunt Fay had never wanted children, but when she saw me in the hospital she decided to have one too. Madeline was born ten months later. Figure the math. Unfortunately, my Aunt Fay thought Maddy looked like a baby rat and so she would put a blanket over her face when she took her our in the carriage. Later Maddy would be a model and one of the most beautiful women I could hope to see. When Madeline was a teenager she would complain to my aunt (jokingly) that any deformity she had was due to this smothering of the blanket. My aunt would say “but you looked like a rat, I prayed that gypsies would kidnap you, just come and scoop you up”. The Reach Of The Mob This is not chronological at all, but, it does prove a point--years after y father was deported and Uncle Eddie was dead, this was in the early seventies, I was running an after hours club. It was called The U.K Club and we paid off to “Matty The Horse” Ianello. Some “made men” had a birthday party for one of their own in the upstairs private room. They had hired a hooker to service the birthday boy. I went upstairs to check on things-- there was a full bar, about three ounces of coke and quite a crow. All of them wiseguys. After they brought out the coke, etc. they brought in one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen and she was going to fuck the guy whose birthday was being celebrated. He seemed surprisingly shy about taking his clothes off, but his friends stripped him down When they took off his shirt there was really a drastic change in the mood. I noticed a six by three inch rectangle of shaven hair from his chest. (He was an especially hairy guy-hair on his back, neck, etc.) Two of the guys sent me downstairs and told me to stay at the door. When guys like that tell you to leave it is hazardous to your health not to do so immediately. I mulled the situation over and realized the shaved chest could only mean that this guy had been wired recently. It was obvious that some law enforcement agency had planted a buy on him to record conversations with his colleagues. About a half hour later two guys walked him down with a Burberry raincoat thrown over his shoulders. There was spots of blood seeping through the material. Now, no one had ever let on who it was, but a guy came over and said “you’re the son of Dominick Morra and the grandson of Cryin’ Joe Donahue, do the right thing about this”. He handed me five hundred dollars, I should not even write about this now, since there is now statue of limitations on murder. But, hey, fuck it, this did teach me that things that the mob knows and acts upon and the guy on the street can’t ever conceive of. It had been a good thirty years since my dad had been deported and I was using the name Rockets Redglare, how did these guys know? Obviously information is the greatest asset in any business. The U.K. Club was perhaps the most decadent place on the face of the earth. On many occasions we had as our guests Hells Angels (one who shot the DJ, another who broke a man’s face apart with a hammer). There were mobsters and bank robbers who got blowjobs from transvestites in the bathrooms. A woman who managed a city convention in the morning who blew me in the upstairs lounge four hours before she went to put on her gown. John Belushi freebasing for three days straight and then something down the stairs laughing the entire time. We had a mother and daughter from Connecticut who liked to fuck the same men and pull trains. The celebrities who came through there were Bill Murray, Rip Torn, Chris Walken, Jon Ford Noonan (who wrote a couple of something chicks sitting around something). It was always one a.m. at the U.K. Club. Mom Gets Out Of Jail By the time my mother was released from Bedford Hills Connecticut Facility, I was eight years old, I had spent the last three years living in the bosom of a normal family. My cousin Madeline and I had bonded and were inseparable. My uncle had been a strong male presence and my Aunt Fay , of course, taught me “normal” values. She used to make on exception in her straight arrow approach to life, my Uncle Eddie. My aunt used to say “Uncle Eddie is the most honor-bound man I’ve ever met, except the fact that he kills people for a living”. Now I would be with my mom again, but I was also wary. This was to be a new and improved Mom, though free of dope, mom now had a beautician’s license. She immediately rented an apartment for she and myself. In two years she would own her first beauty parlor, we lived in Brooklyn, she worked constantly and prospered. I was send to a Jesuit boarding school-- Coindre Hall, in Huntington, Long Island. I won the General Excellence medal at graduation from the fourth grade. This meant I he best overall average of any of the lower school (grades four through eight). My mother bought a second beauty parlor. She took me to the Allen Freed Rock and Roll Show at the Brooklyn Paramount. We went back stage and I met Jackie Wilson. He was already a friend of my mothers We went to Greenwich Village and my mom introduced me to Lenny Bruce who was another friend. The thing I remember most about Lenny was that he wore a pair of white jeans and a white Levi’s jacket, but they had been taken to a tailor so they fit perfectly. In the 1960’s prices it probably cost fifty bucks to tailor all for a twenty dollar outfit. What I remember about Jackie Wilson was that he was, without a doubt the greatest performer I’ve ever seen, he gave his heart, soul and guts. He moved like was pure electricity. His performance was like a great film- it took you for a ride on a roller coaster. When he broke into “Lonely Teardrops” you simply wanted those moments to last for eternity. At one point, he was lying on the floor, tapping a tattoo on the microphone singing low and sweet “my heart, my heart”. Somehow I always feared that it was at this point he had his stroke on stage that left him comatose. If he had been upright and fallen; medical help would have been instantaneous and his brain would have gotten the much needed oxygen in time to prevent the coma. My mother also took me to poetry readings, plays (off-off Broadway, off Broadway, and Broadway) and movies. The movies would prove to be the force that would change my life. As a child I wanted to be a priest, years later, while waiting for my mother in Bickford’s Cafeteria on 23rd and 8th Ave (where all the white dope fiends went to cop heroin) I saw a bunch of jazz musicians setting at a table and was so impressed I wanted to be a sax player. But, when my mom took me to see James Cagney’s Man Of A Thousand Faces, the story of Lon Chaney Sr., I knew I had to be a film actor. I also knew that this was a goal that would be almost impossible to realize but, I would try. And so I lived in the theaters. I spent entire days, doing from one theater to the next, this was the day of the double feature, I could easily see four movies in a day. Also in those days, the TV was rampant with old movies. I studied my favorite actors, I read all the criticism I could. I wrote scenes from imagining films and I performed them mapping the shots and soundbites in my head. When I read a novel, it was a movie in my brain. Life was starting to make sense. Mom and I lived in Manhattan or Brooklyn until I was fourteen years old. She worked hard and gave me an unbelievable allowance, I went to a lot of movies. Mom was gone from the home mot of the time (she was working twelve to sixteen hours a day) but, we still spent a lot of time doing great stuff. And then, things came off like a prom dress. Harry showed up. If ever there was an envelope that evil fit in like a chain letter, it was Harry. While in prison, Harry found out that my mother was doing well for herself. This was an incentive for him to contact mom when he was released. Now the real horror began. I was basically a sweet thirteen year old kid. Suddenly my mother is going out with a guy who could care less about me. I knew my mom was lonely and hurting but, Harry was a creep. Firstly, his ex-girlfriend started to call the house and say all these foul things about my mother. I did not know my mom had a drug problem, ever. Yet this woman called my mom a junkie and a whore. The phone would ring at ten p.m.- I’d pick it up hoping it was my mom saying she was on her way home, especially since it seemed that since Harry had come around she was never home--sometimes I’d be left alone for two or three days. Later, I would wish I saw my mother even two or three days. She came banging on the door one night, I opened the door, thinking it was my mother, it was Harry’s ex--she pulled me by my hair and went into the apartment. She looked for my mother and Harry, I was crying by this time, she left a horrible letter on the couch and simply stepped over me. From this point, I thought of Harry as the enemy, an invader. If only I had acted on this even at thirteen or fourteen, I could have saved my mother’s life, and myself untold (until now) grief. The next five years would be a hell on earth for me. I would see my mother go from a prosperous loving and beautiful woman to a prostitute, junkie who would time to time show up to steal whatever meager resources I had managed to put together. My father, who I prayed would come back home, was in Italy, perhaps dead. My only hope was Uncle Eddie, who I knew would kill Harry in a microsecond. I was to find that Uncle Eddie who was actually public enemy number one had been captured, sentenced to the electric chair (one of the last men to be sentenced to die in New York) but, instead the teamsters, who were under mob control, are also the union of the prison guards, was put in a tier of cells with nineteen blacks and himself. When they returned, there was a few black prisoners with broken noses, etc. and Uncle Eddie had been beaten to death. There was no one to help me. The rest of the family chose to believe that my mother was fine. I never told them for fear that she was addicted to heroin. I would be a detective or sorts for the next few years. Always looking for her, I was left alone for weeks at a time. I washed my shirts for Catholic school. I played poker with the older boys so I would be able to eat lunch. to be continued.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Jane Birkin

I completely spaced off Jane Birkin's birthday, Dec. 14. (1946). Well, a belated happy birthday to one of my favorite females. I posted a bit about her back in September so I won' t repeat myself. This is more of an excuse to run more photos of her. While I'm at it I might as well post her only U.S. hit record, recorded with her ex-husband Serge Gainsborough. Je t'aime moi non plus. They also made a movie of the same name together, the above photo of her with Warhol superstar Little Joe Dallesandro is from that very peculiar flick. That's Serge himself directing the action. I can just imagine it. "Plus profond! Harder! Jusqu'à l'arrière"! Speaking of Serge those bottom pix are of his grave, somebody leaves a fresh pack of Gitanes on it every day. I've witnessed it. Serge's music is an acquired taste if you're not French but I do remember being a bit shocked by hearing this on the radio constantly on my first trip to France in the early 80's-- SS In Uruguay features reggae rhythm section Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare among other top notch Kingston session men. He also cut a duet with his daughter, the actress Charlotte Gainsborough called Lemon Incest. I think you can find the video for that one on Youtube. Anyway, if you're too lazy to look up the September posting, Jane Birkin's entire filmography can be found here.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Michelle Phillips

Everybody's got their guilty pleasures, no need to apologize. The older I get the more it occurs to me what a racket the idea of "taste" is. Anyway, one of my guilty pleasures is the Mamas & the Papas. They made some great records, unfortunately I can't post any of their music here without getting the blog pulled but you've heard 'em, at least the hits.* If not, your local used record store has 'em cheap, and if you hate to pay try the Chewbone link on the right. I mean, can you imagine a hit record today with a bone head mistake left in purpose like on the second verse of "I Saw Her Again" when Denny Doherty comes in an entire four bars too early? There's some great album tracks you probably never heard like "Mansions" and "Safe In My Garden". Which is my was of bringing us to today's subject: Michelle Phillips , one of the all time great 60's sex symbols, the ultimate hippy love kitten. She had the perfect bell shaped pout. She looked great in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. I can't think of a modern entertainer even remotely as sexy. Michelle began as a sixteen year old runaway beatnik from L.A. who met John Phillips in the Bay Area, hooked up with him and ended up first in the last remnants of his folk group the Journeyman then with former Mugwumps Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot formed the Mamas and the Papas in L.A. in 1966 (after an acid fueled season of woodshedding in the Caribbean). The group only lasted eighteen months but their career was a wild ride, they were hippie royalty and rode the current for all it was worth. Their last performance was at the Monterey Pop Fest. where their caftans and mu-mu's were already looking dated compared to Hendrix, the Who and Big Brother & the Holding Company. They knew when to quit. Michelle was not only the visual focus (at least to my eight year old eyes), but was also the coolest member of the group, by far. When the group asked her for an idea for a cover song she suggested the Coasters' "I'm A Hog For You Baby" (which the rest of the group never heard of, and when they heard it they thought she was nuts, maybe she should've teamed up with Screamin' Lord Sutch). Eventually they settled on the 5 Royales/Shirelles number "This Is Dedicated To The One I Love", one of Michelle's rare lead vocals and damned if her cracking, reedy, little voice doesn't pull it off. She's sounds fragile enough to break your heart in between cigarettes. She may not have had Cass Elliott's pipes but she had something that couldn't be replaced in the group. When they fired her after the first LP (for having an affair with Byrd Gene Clark and a one night stand with Denny Doherty, she was married to John Phillips at the time) a fan revolt forced them to bring her back into the fold within weeks. When they were inducted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall Of Fame who was that escorting her to the stage? None other than Danny Fields, the same guy who brought us the the MC5, the Stooges, the Ramones, etc. Producer Lou Adler described Michelle as "wanting to be one of the Shangri-Las". I guess that oughta fills anyone's quota for cool credentials. Even her book-- California Dreamin (The True Story Of The Mamas & The Papas) (Warners, 1986) is highly readable, fun, and trashy On paper at least, she's pretty fair minded considering what she could have said about John Phillips (i.e. the truth, the guy was demon), she even makes it a point to say the when she first met him he was a decent human being. But any history of the Mamas & the Papas is bound to have enough sex, drugs and decadence to satiate even the most jaded reader, and she doesn't hold too much back. Speaking of John Phillips (self proclaimed "Wolf King Of Los Angeles" and one of the first people the cops questioned after Sharon Tate was snuffed) and rock literature, his book Papa John (Dell, 1986) is a masterpiece of drug fueled debauchery and right up there with Art Pepper's Straight Life (Schirmer Books, 1979) and Dr. John's Under A Hoodoo Moon (St. Martins, 1994) in the must read great junkie memoirs department. Funny, how of all drugs, heroin has produced the most interesting literature, especially when it comes to musicians. But that's way off of today's subject. After the break up of the Mamas and the Papas, Michelle kicked off an acting career in style with a role in Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie (1971) although she ended up mostly working in TV and b movies (her film credits can be found here). Despite a string of high profile affairs including Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Harry Dean Stanton, etc. she was never able to make the jump to full fledged movie star. Still, she's quite good in John Millius' Dillinger (1972) where she plays opposite Warren Oates and is naked for much of the otherwise unwatchable Ken Russell film Valentino (1977). Besides, she's the only member of the Mamas and the Papas to survive, and with the same liver she was born with. No mean feat.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Photos From The Hound Archives pt. 1 (ie filler day)

Not inspired to write much today but I did want to post these pix. The top photo of course is Brigitte Bardot, it's just there to grab your attention and because I like the photo. The second from the top is another photo of Vince Taylor (see entry below), what's interesting is that the guy with the bass on the right is Stanislas "Stosh" Klossowski, son of the artist Balthus and evidently some sort of Prince, or Count, or something, as well as Keith Richards' best pal. He's just one of those people that always seemed to be at the right place at the right time, and I guess if you were in Paris in 1965 the place to be would have been in Vince Taylor's backing band. The middle photo is the dancing bear shot I promised months ago in my discussion of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Yes, that's the same bear that appears in the bar scene in the last pages of the book, would I lie? The bottom photo? You tell me? Eleven ugly drag queens, six guys in black face and a Victor Bockris look alike out front. Try outs for the New York Dolls reunion is my guess....

Let's Hear It For The Orchestra

Let's Hear It For The Orchestra
copyright Hound Archive