Sunday, July 15, 2012

Hard Travelin'

Woody Guthrie

I learned a whole lot of Woody Guthrie songs for an American history course I took at Harpur College the summer of my senior year.  For my finals project, I used folk music to document the hard times and social injustice experienced by those who had lived through the desperate days of the Dust Bowl.  

Paul was taking the class as well. Paul was a Dead-head.  He was also a member of a benign cult of young psychedelics called the Joses.  The Joses had a signature handshake, one in which they wiggled their fingers above and below each others palms as if they were the appendages of a germaphobic wood-tic.  The Joses also had a trademark.  It was a circular, self-adhesive black felt pad about an inch in diameter; the kind used to cushion the bottoms of wooden chair legs.  Jose members kept a small stash of these "black dots" handy to stick on inviting surfaces sort of the way urban gang members are known to tag walls with their signature graffiti.  I recall finding a black dot in England, pasted to one of the 40 ton rock pillars at the Neolithic temple of Stonehenge!   Somewhere along the line the Joses had gone global. 

Anyway, when Paul wasn't off dotting the acid raves of Grateful Dead concerts, he attended the State University of New York.  I can't remember what he was majoring in but we both found ourselves in the same history class that summer.  Paul was a good guitar player.  I had jammed with him a few times during my sophomore year.  The relationship had culminated in a bar gig, but due to my insobriety, it had gone very badly and soured our friendship. The college class seemed fortuitous and my suggestion that we work on the finals project together a perfect way to make amends.
The search for audio tracks from the years of America's Great Depression led me to WHRW, our college radio station.  I spent evenings there for a couple of weeks, listening to recordings in their archive collection.  In 1935 the United States Congress had passed The Emergency Relief Appropriations Act., freeing up federal money to fund Roosevelt's "New Deal" programs in order to put the nation back to work.  Under the financial umbrella of the Works Project Administration (WPA), musicologists employed by the Library of Congress became the nation's first audio recording technicians, collecting performances from all sorts of little known blues and folk musicians of that period.  Woody Guthrie was undoubtably the most prolific artist on their registry.  

It took me a while to adjust to the limited quality of the mono recordings and the raw sound of Guthrie's guitar and vocals, but little by little I was drawn in by his stories.  Google and Youtube did not yet exist, so transcribing the lyrics and figuring out the cords was a slow process involving countless needle-drops.  In the process, the incredible talent carved into those plate thick vinyl records began to dawn on me.  This was not the music of the The Stones or The Beatles, but it was every bit as powerful.  It was a style unto itself, created by Guthrie to capture those dusty, displaced, Dust Bowl characters who had taken to the road in search of a better life.  It was more than that too.  For me his songs had a philosophic quality, a sort of creed a guy could live by.       

By the time my history final was due, I was sold on Woody Guthrie.  I was playing a hundred dollar EKO six string; an Italian made battle-axe designed to look like the far more expensive Gibson Hummingbird.  I carried it in a black cardboard case and came to class that day wearing a ratty straw hat, a harmonica brace and a faded red bandanna around my neck.  I had a good set of liner notes rehearsed to accompany the songs which described how families of Okies and Arkies lost their farms to drought and bank foreclosures, how entire counties nailed shut their doors and windows and headed west on highways like Route 66 or hopped the "flat rattlers" of California bound freight trains, risking life and limb for a new start beyond the Rocky Mountains in the idyllic, fruit filled valleys of the Pacific Coast.  

Unlike the subjects in Guthrie's songs, I had been raised in the comfort of a brick-faced colonial home in a secure middle class suburb.   Still, I felt strangely qualified to sing Woody's songs.  I had hitch hiked to California the summer I graduated high school so I suppose I felt I'd done a little hard travelin' of my own. Those eight weeks on the road had opened my eyes to a side of America I had never known.  There was the Mexican girl who invited me to stay at her brother's apartment in Denver.  I joined half a dozen family members on the living room floor that night, all proud, generous people who had come north to work. My host took me to the Hilton Hotel the following day and introduced me to his friends and co-workers.  To my surprise, all the signs in the multi-tiered basement of this luxury complex where printed in Spanish; not exactly what I had expected from the cowboy town portrayed by Hollywood westerns.  

As I moved on to the Rockies, then south to Flagstaff, I learned it was the less fortunate who most often gave you a ride or offered you a place to stay; the folks with the big cars and giant motor homes, who peering out at you from behind air conditioned glass, seldom if ever shared anything but their exhaust.  An eighty-dollar Ameri-pass on the Greyhound Bus line was my only motel, an olive-green sleeping bag my only bed.  I was on my own for the first time in my life and even though September would find me safely enrolled in college, my take on American culture would undergo a tectonic shift.   This new perspective expressed itself in countless ways, from the music I enjoyed to the friends I chose.

I met Paul in the spring of 1976 and ended up living in his off campus house for a few weeks during the summer break.  In his room Paul had a huge glass urn where he used to toss spare change; pennies mostly, like it was some kind of wishing well.  One day I borrowed about half a buck's worth of coins from this "kitty" to buy smokes.  It was a loan of course, one which I fully intended to repay.  Cigarettes only cost about sixty cents a pack back then and unfortunately I was hooked.  I felt I had to have them.

I was in the living room practicing guitar when Paul came in.  He was dressed in faded jeans and a loose fitting sleeveless tank top.  A kerchief, folded diagonally, covered the crown of his head.  It was knotted just above the base of his short black pong tail.  A feathered hoop hung from his left earlobe. His smile faded as his dark eyes tracked from my guitar to the filter cigarette left burning in the ashtray.   Paul knew I was dead broke, so when he asked me where I'd gotten the money for the butts, he knew what my answer would be.  I told him I'd taken some change from the big bowl and added that I would be replacing it as soon as I could.  Paul wasn't at all happy about that.  Even university hippies have their limits.   He said I had abused his trust; ripped him off when his back was turned.  My defense was that the few dimes worth of coins I'd taken were simply a loan and that there had been no deception involved. But Paul was a man of principle.  Regardless of my tobacco addiction, the confession and guarantee of repayment aside, in his eyes I was no more than a common thief.

Paul didn't like cigarettes.  True, he was a habitual pot smoker and amateur acid head; he wouldn't say no to a nitrous buzz and was known to use downs as more than a medical necessity.  But screw State or Federal law, the only the rules that applied in the Jose house where his own.   Aware of his own contradiction, he supported his position by quoting Bob Dylan:   "Those who live outside the law must be honest."  Paul was pretty righteous in regard to tobacco.  Herb was cool, but not Camels.  He was a vegetarian as well. I guess he hoped a diet of fresh fruits and vegetables would counterbalance  the negative affects of his illegal drug use.  I happened to dislike most greens, particularly those tasteless, gruel thick lentil dishes college students were famous for.   So Paul and I had our differences. Helping myself to those few coins just added fuel to an already smoldering fire.

Paul let me stay on after the wishing well incident only because we were scheduled to play a paying gig together in Hoosick Falls, New York.  Hoosick was his home town, a tiny village backed up against the Adirondack Mountains and the Vermont border.  Paul wasn't a singer, so I was to carry the vocals and play rhythm guitar, while he did his thing riffing out like Jerry Garcia.  The bar where we were booked was a good two hour ride north.  I didn't own a car and neither did Paul.  Somehow he arranged a ride for himself, but the driver had no room for me, my girlfriend or our instruments.  That meant hitch hiking 160 miles with a woman and two guitars.

Bea, my girlfriend of three weeks, was from the upper Westside of Manhattan.  She was studying film production at New York University, but had taken a job for the summer at a sleep-away camp on the eastern edge of the Catskills. I'd seen the same ad in the New York Times and desperate for money, had taken the LIRR out to Huntington where I interviewed with the director and was hired on the spot.  Anxious to escape New York City, I hitched hiked north to the camp the following day believing the next eight weeks were going to be a little piece of heaven.  To my surprise, camp was nothing like I had imagined it.    

It was raining the evening I arrived and continued to through most of the next day.  In the morning, after a mess hall breakfast of cold pancakes, watery scrambled eggs, and purple colored "bug-juice," I found my way under a leaking barn roof to what was to be the camp's music room.  Not only were there no guitars to be found, there were no instruments of any kind except for a couple rusted tambourines and an upright piano missing half its ivories. The music department spoke volumes of the good things to come, including the cabin of fifteen eight year old boys that I was to spend the summer babysitting.   It was a fucking nightmare.  They were the youngest kids in the camp and all spoiled brats.  During the day they were feral, snarling and snapping, screaming and demanding and at night they would whimper for their mothers and wet their beds.  Within the first week I had yelled myself hoarse.  The damage to my vocal cords combined with rain-forest humidity and lack of sleep lead to a case of tonsillitis which, without health insurance or ready cash and with a pack a day habit,  grew progressively worse.

Camp counselors we were allowed a couple hours off every other evening.  The drinking age in New York was eighteen, so a bunch of us would pile into a car and head to the local bar to pound brews. That's where I met Bea; long lean legs, faded jeans and western-cut saddle boots, a worn cotton T-shirt  and thick black hair to her waist, smoking a Camel straight and sipping a Dewars on the rocks.  I'd never met a girl who smoked Camels, let alone drank pricey scotch, so I was pretty impressed.

That first night we ended up between a couple of cars in the camp parking lot,  pants around our ankles, heels and toes sunk deep in the soggy, rain soaked sod.  A few days later we both quit our camp jobs and together headed for Pennsylvania with another counselor named Rob.  Rob played bass.  I think he had a vision of us becoming the next  Hall and Oats and touring the country with a one song set of "All Along the Watchtower".  Rob also owned a Camaro, had a fat bag of weed and was okay covering his own gas, so naturally I bought into his fantasy and the three of us headed for my family's vacant summer home in the Endless Mountains.

After a week of ceaseless rain, Rob's hopes of collaborative glory had drown and he and the Camaro were on their way back to Long Island.   It had been a heartfelt good-bye.  After all, with Rob went the beer, the pot and the wheels needed to acquire more.  Nearly out of groceries and down to our last cigarettes, Bea and I decided to quit the farm and head north to Binghamton where I assured her we would find the welcoming arms of college friends I'd met the previous semester. That's how we ended up at Paul's, in his tiny off campus house, crashing in the attic room, nipping pennies from the wishing well and further damaging my infected tonsils with daily rehearsals for the upcoming Hoosick Fall gig.   

Back in the early seventies hitch hiking was still relatively safe.  I can't remember the number of times I thumbed from the farm in PA to my parents place in Michigan.  Rides were plentiful and I often made the twelve hour trip in the same length of time as it would have taken me to drive.  It was usually young people who picked you up; counter-culture types with long-hair and maybe a joint.  I made a lot of temporary friendships that way and heard some incredible stories.

It was mainly guys who hitch hiked.  There were women out there too, but they were few and far between and if they travelled alone, they always ran the real risk of rape.  Bea had never hitched before she met me so thumbing rides was a real adventure for her.   It really was a different era in America' social history.  People weren't scared of each other like they are now.  Sure we were taking a risk, but that is part of being young and as naive as it might sound, we felt really safe together.    Bea was a tall, attractive Chinese woman, so she drew attention like nobody's business.   I would sit down in the tall grass above the berm or lean behind a convenient telephone pole while she held our cardboard sign toward approaching traffic.   It never took more than five or ten minutes before some young guy, truck driver or business type would pull over. Then they would spot me, rising from the weeds or stepping from behind the pole with my guitar case and back-pack. Some pulled away immediately, the deception obvious, but most were just kind hearted folks who greeted us with a smile.    

The biggest problem that Bea and I had, is that we both liked to party.  I was all about marijuana while Bea was into liquor and cigarettes.  At twenty, she was already worried about whether or not she was becoming an alcoholic.  That kind of thought never even crossed my mind.  She was beautiful and lots of fun when she was drinking.  As for me, I just figured all men drank.  It was normal to want to have a few beers.

When I was on the road, I always hoped for rides from potheads.  On the trip to Hoosick Falls that afternoon we hit the jack-pot twice.  Unfortunately, by the time we made Albany, my eyes were half closed and my throat was on fire.  Two weeks of jonesin' Bea's filterless Camel's and all those hours at Paul's rehearsing vocals had taken their toll on my throat.  After a  couple of powerful joints, my tonsils were swollen to twice their size.  I looked in the rear view mirror at some point and noticed that they were bright red and spotted with white abscesses. I'd been running a low grade fever on and off for several weeks but that afternoon I was shaking with chills and feeling really light headed.  Nurse Bea recommended gargling with whiskey,  so we picked up a pint of Jack Daniels at a local liquor store before hitching our last ride in to Hoosick.  The whiskey did seem to help, at least for a while.   So did the beers I was soon being spotted at Goobers the bar we were to play for that evening.  We'd arrived at the tavern just after five o'clock and we drank steadily until Paul showed up at around 8:30.  Bea was in fine spirits.  I felt like Hell.    

There was no such thing as a digital tuner back in those days.  You did everything by ear and when you were high, tuning could be a real trial.  But when the room was spinning and the floor warping like a concave mirror, I found it nearly impossible to match tones. When you're young and healthy looking people can be slow to appreciate just how fucked up you are.  During the sound check Paul kept telling me my B string was sharp.  Unable to find the note, I remember glancing over at the two of him and croaking, "Guess I'm a fret too high!"   

And so the gig started.  We opened with a medley of Grateful Dead tunes; "Me and My Uncle" into "Goin' Down The Road Feelin' Bad" and then onto an old Commander Cody song called "Home in My Hand".   These were no brainers for me to sing, but that night my tonsils were so swollen and I was so drunk that it was like I couldn't breath, like someone had their hands around my neck and was trying to twist the life out of me.  The more I pushed to get the vocals out, the more hoarse I became. We were booked to play three sets and by the end of the first I was completely done in.  Solution?  Drink some more.  

I woke up the next morning in a pop up camper van with Bea asleep beside me.  I was drenched in sweat, with the overhead canvas brilliant white in the sweltering heat of the first sunny day we'd seen in weeks.  My head was splitting.  My tongue felt two sizes too big for my mouth.  I had symmetrical lumps the size of walnuts bulging from both sides of my neck.  Swollen lymph glands.  When I went round to the house to use the bathroom, Paul was there but we didn't speak.  He was so pissed off because I'd fucked up the show and made him look like a fool in front of his hometown friends.  I'd completely let him down, but I felt so sick I really didn't give a shit.   I searched the bathroom cupboards until I found some aspirin and then after waking Bea, we headed out for the New York State Thruway and the asphalt ramp that would lead us back to Greenwich Village and Bea's Sullivan Street Apartment.   

I didn't talk to Paul for a full year after that.  It wasn't until we found ourselves in that history class that fate offered us an opportunity to rekindle our friendship.  When we settled on the idea of doing the finals project together, I was determined to make the best of the second chance Paul was giving me.  

Unfortunately, this time Paul dropped the ball.  He may have showed up to class in a straw hat, but the guitar he arrived with was an electric, I think it was a Fender Telecaster.   Although the first manufactured electric guitar dates back to 1931, it wasn't until the 1950's that electrics became popular.  Before that they were more of a novelty incorporated in the big band format.  During the days of the Dust Bowl most rural homes were lit with candles, kerosene and coal oil, (Guthrie's younger sister had died in a house fire started with coal oil) There just wouldn't have been a lot of places to plug in an amplifier like the one Paul had brought along.   

Then there was the issue of tunes.  Paul had learned only one song, a blues number unrelated to the period.  The set list I'd given him a few days earlier had disappeared and there had been no time to run through the songs.  So Paul did what he did best.   He "noodled";  that is, he improvised note dense lead runs over the equally word dense lyrics. Since most of the compositions were solo folk pieces, there were no instrumental breaks or bridges for a rock guitarist to riff out in.  The words required rather precise melodic frames.  In this style of music, competing with or playing over the vocals is considered a major No-No. So after a while, Paul just sort of gave up and strummed along, probably a wise choice considering the circumstances.   

I'll admit I was a bit put off when we shared equally in the  "A" earned for the presentation. I'd worked my ass off learning those tunes and for whatever reason, Paul had just floated through. But as they say, what goes around comes around.  After the wishing well conflict and the fiasco I'd made of the Hoosick Falls show, I told myself we were even.  Yet old failures are fickle.  They can leave scars under which bits of unreconciled quilt lie dormant. You think you've made peace with the past and then something flips a switch in your brain and that suppressed shame morphs into a wave of unexpected spitefulness. This inability to cleanse and heal through forgiveness is a well documented source of psychological trouble. 

Almost a decade past without seeing Paul.  Then one afternoon, over lunch, a friend let me know that my old Dust Bowl buddy had hit the skids in Atlanta.   He had picked up a cocaine habit in NYC and had taken it with him to Georgia.  He lost his band down there and then ended up ripping off his roommate's stereo or TV in order to score drugs.  The roommate, an ex-Jose member no less, insisted Paul check in to rehab or hit the highway.  Paul, with no income, disappeared onto the streets.  

As I listened to the story, the memory of the fifty cents I'd borrowed from Paul's wish bowl came rushing back, dragging with it the bitter taste of that dehydrated, hung over morning in Hoosick Falls.  But instead of feeling remorse or empathy for Paul's situation, I felt the shadow of a grin twist my face.    

In 1990 I was in New York recording an EP when Paul's name surfaced again.  My producer had also been a friend of Pauls.  He recounted a trip to San Francisco made a few months earlier and how he had bumped into him on a side street down around Fisherman's Wharf. Paul was selling CDs and second hand books that he had displayed on an old rug.  When the cab pulled to the curb and the tinted rear window came down, the rail-thin vendor reportedly stepped forward and heard what must have been a familiar voice ask,

"How's it goin' Paul?" 

Apparently not good.   Paul just winced, rolled his eyes away and said  "Hey man, I'm not a mind reader, whatcha need?"

Paul's decent into heroin addiction and homelessness had actually run parallel to my increasing abuse of alcohol and marijuana as a young business man in New York City. The more money I made, the more I drank, and depression and anxiety became constant companions.  I blamed everybody but myself for the pain I was creating in my life.  I was so disconnected from my body that it felt like I was in the audience watching a marionette controlled by invisible strings.  While I denied the damage I was doing to myself I was quick to expose the inadequacies of others.  A sarcastic wit's brutal sense of humor was employed to assuage the issues underlying my increasing alcohol dependence.  

Its a long road, this road to Recovery.  And as Woody Guthrie sang, it's "some hard travelin', I thought you knowd!"   There are parts of us all that are dinged and dented, parts filled with guilt, shame and remorse.  There are angry and destructive components there as well.   The energy of those emotions can propel us forward or it can create an internal gravity that holds us in orbit around out dated ways of thinking.  If we are mindful of the limiting behaviors that arrest our development, we can learn to navigate around the obstacles that would otherwise derail us.   We all have an incredible potential for growth and change if, as Abraham  Lincoln wrote, we call upon "the better angels of our nature".    

The lessons of our past are useful, but memory can also thwart our development.  As in music, poor technique must often be unlearned before a new approach can be absorbed.   That can be a tremendous struggle.

Paul is now heroin free and he is helping others overcome similar afflictions.  Thirty seven years after that summer night in Hoosick Falls, the current chapter of his life reached me.  It has given me cause to rethink a part of my history and a shame I carried these many years.   It has offered an opportunity to apologize to Paul, to Bea, to Rob and to any others I may have wronged along the way.  It has also allowed me the occasion to retire that part of my past so that I can enter the present with a greater capacity to welcome the many wonderful experiences it has to offer. 

Best to you all,


*Bound for Glory 
by Woody Guthrie , Joe Klein
ISBN 0141187220 (0-14-118722-0)
Softcover, Penguin Books, Limited

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