From time to time a story might magically appear here. Who knows, it might even be interesting.
by Robert Ross
When I was about 16 years old, I talked my parents into sending me to the Ted Williams Baseball Camp in Lakeville, Mass., for two weeks. I desperately wanted to be a big-league ballplayer and I told them that if anybody could make a major league hitter out of me, it was the Splendid Splinter, one of the greatest hitters in the history of the sport.
You pick ‘em: Ruth, Hornsby, Gehrig, Cobb, DiMaggio, and Ted Williams. Not necessarily in that order.
After 12 glorious 16-hour days of baseball, baseball and more baseball, Ted finally appeared on the last weekend.
He gave us a little pep talk in the cafeteria. Then he came along with us to a big track-and-field competition against some other camps.
When we got to the field, we were told that an airplane would be flying by and that a parachutist would be jumping out and landing on the field. The sky was gray, and although we could hear the plane pass overhead, we couldn’t see it, let alone the skydiver.
At the age of 47, Ted still retained much of the legendary eyesight that contributed significantly to his prodigious hitting prowess.
As the invisible plane sped away, 60 of us 13-to-19-year-olds stared up at the sky for a sign.
Ted pointed skyward, “There he is.”
No one else could see a damn thing.
“Right there!” Ted bellowed, a little like John Wayne.
The parachute was not yet open. The man was plummeting toward Earth at an astonishing rate of speed for at least 15 seconds before one boy finally yelled out, “I see him, he’s over there!”
In a few more seconds, a few other boys saw him too. Then a few more, and, finally, everyone saw him. Then the chute opened and he gracefully lit down. We were very impressed by Ted’s peepers. This was the same man that once had refused to step into the batter’s box because he insisted that the alignment of home plate was off by one quarter of an inch.
The umpire, respectful of Ted’s 20/10 eyesight, ordered the grounds crew to verify the measurements. They found that Ted was exactly right. This is one reason why he was a top pilot in the Armed Service before the advent of radar. The man could see the enemy coming long before they could see him.
Now it was time for 20/10 to set his sights on me. I was entered in the mile run. There were five of us competing in the event, including an older guy that was built like a tall greyhound. They said he had run a 5:19, which was pretty damn good for a high school miler in those days. There was also a 14-year-old kid in the race who wore no shoes.
I was representing the Ted Williams Baseball Camp in the race and was hell-bent on winning, but the greyhound was just too damn good. He set a blistering pace that I just couldn’t keep up with for long. I fell farther behind with each lap. Soon he had a lead of half a lap. I was, however, still in second place, but Shoeless Joe was on my tail and gaining fast. Around the last turn, Shoeless Joe surprised everyone with a ferocious kick and passed me by with his bare feet flying. I could hear him wheezing and saw the agony on his face. The crowd was cheering him. I could hear Ted’s voice over the din. He was disappointed that I had been overtaken and was about to finish third. Suddenly, I felt a surge of energy go through me. I went into overdrive and quickly caught up to the Barefooted One and passed by him like he was caught in a time warp. When I was about 20 feet ahead of him and pulling away, the vanquished boy stopped running and fell hard to the ground. I could hear the thud his body made when it hit the track and I heard a few groans from the crowd. Although only a few yards from the finish line, I stopped running and turned around to see if he was hurt. One of my coaches instantly ran over to the boy and started yelling and waving at me to finish the race, “Keep going! Keep going! And never do a fool thing like that again.” Shoeless Joe was OK, just exhausted and a little scraped up. I felt fabulous, coming from behind like that in the home stretch in front of Ted Williams to take second place. That greyhound guy was just out of my league.
The day of my greatest achievement at his camp, my idol, Ted Williams, was not there. One evening during batting practice, some guy hit a titanic blast to dead center and I set chase with my head down from right field. I never thought I could catch up to it, but I loved to run, and being the only outfielder, I went full tilt. When I looked up again, I saw that I had overrun the ball by a single step. I had to reach back blindly with my glove behind my head to make the catch. No one else saw it. Even I never saw it go in, but there it was. Best catch I ever made.
On the last day of camp we finally got hitting advice from the Splendid Splinter. One by one, guys would step up to the plate and take batting practice while Ted would critique their swing and pitch selection. Guys who couldn’t buy a base hit with a government grant would suddenly be hitting screaming line drives. Ted would tell one guy, “Son, you’re stepping in the bucket. Close your stance and stride toward the pitcher. He ain’t gonna plunk ya kid. The pitcher’s your friend, kid, remember that. Pitchers helped me earn my salary with the Red Sox. And lay off them high pitches! They may look good, but you can’t hit ‘em, sonny.” All of a sudden the guy’s hitting frozen ropes. Another guy, a big one, stepped up. He couldn’t hit a beach ball with a tennis racket, but he was big. “Kid, you got a little hitch in your swing, that’s all. Keep your hands back, and keep ‘em up high. Don’t let ‘em drop! Cock your bat and when you’re ready to take a cut at the ball, just bring your hands forward and snap your wrists. Just come forward and drive through the ball.” Ted was a hitting professor emeritus. Suddenly the big swisher is getting good wood on the ball. He’s driving it high and far. Moon shots. A star is born. I can’t wait for the doctor to fix what ails my hitting style. Gimme a shot of that magic elixir! Another kid appears in the batter’s box. He’s swinging from the heels, but all he’s doing is stirring up the air. “Kid, first of all, you ain’t all that big, so even if you were to make contact swinging like that, you ain’t gonna hit it that far. You’ve gotta cut way down on your swing and become a contact hitter. You’re also uppercutting the ball. Swing level. Better yet, swing down a little on the ball and just slap at it. Choke up about two inches and just punch it the other way.” Ted made a signal with his hand to right field. By some amazing transference of baseball voodoo, the little guy is now hitting ground balls through the hole and line drives over the infield. He walks away beaming like a halogen lamp. I’m next. I wanna be a feared slugger when I grow up. I take a few swings. I hit a little nubber out to the mound. I foul another one to the top of the batting cage. I swing and miss at the next one. I foul tip one into the catcher’s mask. Okay Ted, do your stuff! Ted says, “Son, you’ve got a perfect swing. I have no idea why you ain’t hitting the ball.” I’m standing there waiting silently for more. Nothing more was coming. “That’s it?” I looked at him like a deer caught in the headlights.
“I’m sorry, son, but there ain’t a damn thing wrong with your swing. Nothing that I can see.”
The dean of demolition had spoken. The world’s foremost authority on hitting had no clue for me. The patient was dying. I’m thinking I had a bad case of no talent. And the doctor just implied it was terminal. I owe my music career to Ted’s analysis of my swing. Apparently in baseball, unlike in music, “It don’t mean a thing even if you’ve got that swing.” So a year later, I decided to swing the blues rather then swing the bat.
One dream dies, and another dream is born.
When I was a kid I thought being an entertainer must be one dangerous profession.
“It’s showtime! Break a leg.”
That’s what people say in show business. They’ve been saying that for like a hundred years. Where the hell does an expression like that start? Nazi Germany? The Spanish Inquisition? The Crusades? Why can’t they just say, “Have a good show,” or “Good luck.”? “Break a leg.” What kind of people tell you, “Go, get hurt. I’ll see you later at the hospital.”
What kind of business is show business anyway? “Break a leg. Break a hip and a spine too already. Hey, why don’t you fracture your skull while you’re at it and finish the job. Go on, get killed. I’ll take care of the funeral arrangements.”
People talk about a great performance they saw. “Wow, that guitarist I heard last night was unbelievable! Fingers were flying off his hands like wood chips at a saw mill. And wow that singer! What a voice! She sang a high note and blew out a vein in her head. It was like a geyser. Then for an encore she hacked up a great big lung. Best show I ever saw.”
And sometimes in show business somebody says to you, “It’s showtime! Go out there and knock ‘em dead!”
What the hell does that mean? I don’t even wanna go there. Hey I’m a pacifist. I wouldn’t hurt a fly. Unless it was during a performance at Carnegie Hall.
“Break a leg.” “Knock ‘em dead .” Look, I could live with a broken leg, and I would voluntarily choose that over the deaths of hundreds of my loyal fans. But, if the ante was raised to include a broken hip and spine, then all bets are off. I would rather knock them dead instead.
Come on, if it’s a choice between you or a crowd of total strangers, who would you choose? And why should I suffer anyway? What the hell did I do? I went to work. I was doing my job. I was trying to earn a living. The audience is just loafing around and drinking beer. Besides, they were asking for it by telling me to break a leg in the first place.
On the morning of June 21, 2001 John Lee Hooker passed away in his sleep surrounded by friends and family. He was 83 years old and was known worldwide as one of the greatest bluesmen in history.
Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1917 John Lee hit the road when he was 14. He settled in Detroit and scored with “Boogie Chillun” in 1948.
Possessing a distinctive and resonant baritone voice, John Lee could conjure up vivid images of both the urban ghetto and the rural south that were at once beautiful and disturbing. His sound was compelling and hypnotic, truly one of his generation’s most recognizable blues voices along with Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and B.B. King. His vocal style has rarely ever been copied, except for his guttural trademark, “How how how how” which you can hear for example, on ZZ Top’s “La Grange.” He was a very gentle and sweet soul, in stark contrast to the persona he created in some of his material.
How odd that John Lee Hooker, who for many, embodied the very essence of the black experience, should die on the same day as Carroll O’Connor, the star of “Archie Bunker.” Mr. O’Connor, who was also an accomplished stage actor, was the exact polar opposite of the ignorant bigot he portrayed to such great effect on T.V. Likewise, the gentle and sweet John Lee Hooker was nothing at all like the street tough persona he created for himself in some of his songs.
I got to play with John Lee on two occasions in 1971. An agent by the name of Charlie Frazier on Long Island, hired me to back him up the Hook at the college in Jersey City and at Buffalo State University. I hired the rhythm section,which was Gary Kollarus on drums and Billy Cadeaux on bass and I played guitar. Without the benefit of a rehearsal, it was just baptism by fire. He was a delight to work with but I must admit there were times when we young guys didn’t have a clue as to what was going on.
John Lee came from the old school. He was used to playing solo a lot of the time and like so many other early blues giants, his personalized and complex arrangements were anything but standard. Some of his tunes were very difficult if not impossible to follow upon first listening. Or second. His spare impressionistic guitar accompaniment provided only subtle cues and included odd meters here and there that could throw you off if you weren’t careful. And we had to play it by ear. Off the cuff. There was one song in particular that really confused the three of us. Neither Billy nor I could decide if the tune was in Bb, Dm, or Gm, which are somewhat related keys. Gary couldn’t decide which was the first beat of each measure. Neither could Billy or I as a matter of fact. Everything about the song seemed to be moving around on us just as soon as we got a handle on it. It was like a musical version of the shell game.
After the show I went in to see John Lee to find out if he was happy with the band. After a few Hooker pleasantries including, “Nice job,” and “Good show,” I took the plunge.
“Ugh, what was with that tune “San Francisco” or whatever it’s called?”
He said, “Yeah, that’s a hard tune. Real hard tune.”
I was thinking, yeah, even he don’t know it, which later made me laugh. Knowing John Lee’s easy going personality and warm sense of humor, I should have just said that right out loud, because he would have gotten a real good laugh out of that. But I was just a kid and didn’t have that kind of nerve. Not yet anyway. A missed opportunity I have long regretted. John was an easy going fella.
My favorite recording by John Lee Hooker is “Live at the Cafe Au Go Go” backed up by the Muddy Waters Band with Otis Spann on piano, Muddy, Sammy Longhorn and Luther Johnson on guitars, Francis Clay on drums, Mac Arnold on bass, and George Smith on harmonica although I don’t remember actually hearing him on the record. The loneliness of “I’ll Never Get Out of These Blues Alive” or “Seven Days and Seven Nights” gets you right in the belly, a feeling akin to falling down a pitch black, bottomless pit. With it’s gut wrenching honesty and imagery, his stream of consciousness lyrics didn’t have to rhyme. These were primordial thoughts and feelings being fashioned into songs on the fly. Real blues. Real blues.
Drinking black coffee and smoking cigarettes
Drinking black coffee and smoking cigarettes
I can’t sleep I know it ain’t no use in tryin’
I’ll never never get outta these blues alive
I’ll never never get outta these blues alive
She gone and left me she said she’d never be back no more
“I’m Mad Like Jesse James” is another classic, this time he uses that voice of his to express evil intent and jealousy. You can imagine the fear that would be induced in his enemy when that frightening voice sings,
Now you don’t see me
I’m the big boss
I do the payoff after they take care of you
In their own way
They may cut you they may shoot you
They may drown you
I just don’t know
I don’t care
As long as they take care of you
In their own way
I’m so mad
I’m so bad this morning
Like Jesse James
It’s a voice that doesn’t shout, but is rather seething, and simmering with rage like Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson. That understated quality makes it even more threatening. He doesn’t have to make an exhibition to scare anybody, he’s just gonna take care of ‘em in his own way. Matter of fact, to the point. Cold blooded. Premeditated.
Of his best known songs, “Boogie Chillun” with that infectious boogie beat that John Lee was so famous for, probably influenced more bluesmen then you could shake a guitar at. Certainly Canned Heat, ZZ Top, Johnny Winter, The Animals, George Thorogood, the North Mississippi All Stars, and Magic Sam immediately come to mind. It is a shame that Norman Greenbaum scored such a huge hit with “Spirit In The Sky” in the late ’60′s with that same groove rather then the original master himself.
“I’m in the Mood For Love” and “Boom Boom Boom Boom” convey a sexual longing and urgency in earthy, unmistakable terms. It don’t get no better then that. Sit in the dark and makes out.
One of the greatest of bluesmen has passed on and the world will be a little less exciting then before. Thank God and Thomas Edison for these recordings which will live on for as long as people love the blues.
Low down and dirty. Back in the alley. Right out of the gut bucket. The blues has lost one it’s greatest heavyweight champions of all time and we mourn his loss.
I got a call from Art D’Lugoff, from the Village Gate in 1979. He was going to bring in Lightnin’ Hopkins from Texas for three nights and he wanted me to play bass and supply a drummer. I was honored that he chose me for the assignment, and accepted immediately, regardless of the conditions.
I hired George Morales to play drums, and borrowed a bass from my own bass player Mark Dann. Mark is four times the bass player I am, but there was no way that they were going to hire a third backup musician for the gig. So I would play bass, and there would be no second guitarist to accompany Lightnin’.
At 9 a.m. on the day the gig was to start, I went to pick him up at La Guardia Airport. He was coming in from Houston,Texas where I guess he lived most of his life. I spotted him while he was picking up his bags and helped him to my car.
He was in his seventies, tall and straight and fun to be around.
The first thing he wanted to do was hit a liquor store. “Lightnin’ gots to have him some Jack.” So we picked up a pint of Jack Daniels whiskey at a local liquor store. The bottle was dry by the time we got to the diner. It was just 11 a.m. now and Lightnin’ was hungry. Me too.
I parked the car in the lot and was about to open the door to get out when suddenly he says, “Hold it right there boy. You got any poultry in this here vehicle?”
I said, “What??”
“You got any poultry? You got any eggs?”
“Poultry? What would I be doing with poultry?” I was thinking Lightning must have struck Lightnin’ in the head.
Then he reaches for his wallet. “Boy I think you’ve got some poultry in this here vehicle, I can smell it. I got a very heightened sense of smell.” He whips open the wallet revealing a very official looking brass badge that said Chicken Inspector on it. It also had a long identification number. It was no toy, Lord knows where he got it. “You’re under arrest boy, come clean, it’ll be a whole lot easier on you if you do.” Then he stared at me for a couple of seconds and when I didn’t say anything he burst out laughing. “I’m just kidding boy, Lightin’ ain’t no chicken inspector. He’s a blues musician, that’s all.”
We had some breakfast and then Lightnin’ wanted to get another bottle of Jack before going to the hotel to rest.
The gigs went pretty good I guess, although it wasn’t the easiest thing in the world backing up old Lightnin’.
For one thing, he didn’t stick very close to the structure of a song. He was from the old school, and was a solo performer for most of his career. He would add a bar here, add a bar there. He would add a couple of beats sometimes before changing a chord. And his arrangements weren’t consistent throughout a whole tune. I don’t know for sure, but I doubt that the arrangements were even consistent from night to night. He would basically make the changes whenever he felt like it and it was up to us to follow.
For another thing, he liked to play games with you on stage. If he played a tune simple and straight so that you could easily follow it, and you started playing it a little too aggressively, rhythmically speaking, Lightnin’ would trip you up by delaying the changes. Or even anticipating the changes. He might cut a bar out, just to keep you on your toes. Oh he had a terrific sense of humor. He also wanted his rhythm section to play behind the beat, with a sort of lazy feel to the groove. He was a great singer and guitarist who will be sorely missed by the people who knew him and admired his music.
I came back to NY after a year in Paris, France in March of 1983 with a recording contract in my pocket.
The first thing I did was to put my band back together with George Morales on drums, and Mark Dann on bass. Then I started to look for gigs, only to find the going rough. So I called Concerted Efforts to see if they could get me some work. I had gotten to know Paul Kahn when I was with Baron Records in 1981 and 1982.
Paul got us three nights in a nice club up in Middlebury, Vermont. I forget the name of the place, but the town was beautiful and there was a big university there that was attended by the sons and daughters of very, very wealthy corporate types.
I figured this would be a great way to tighten up the band for the recording that was scheduled to take place the following week.
So we get up there and set up. The club had a downstairs bar, and an upstairs bar. The stage was one flight up the stairs, and there were maybe a dozen steps. So we hauled our equipment up and set up and played that first night, a Thursday. The band was just beginning to work the kinks out by the time the first night was over. We sounded a little rough, but it was a good start. The club was hopping and everybody had a good time, so there was no problem there. Nice crowd, good bar.
The next afternoon George and I were hanging out in the downstairs bar relaxing, when a giant behemoth of an oger walks in with a damn pit bull on a leash. He ties the dog on a railing right in front of the door, so that anybody who wants to come in or go out has to deal with Sparky. The guy is quite likely a farmer, damn near everybody in this place is this afternoon. He’s wearing a big pair of overalls and boots. He was about 6’4″ and must have weighed about 350 pounds. His arms were bigger then my thighs, his thighs were the size of a tree trunk, his neck was the size of my waist.
Anyway, I overhear this monster talking to some of the guys in the bar. judging from the conversation, I surmised that these guys knew Monster very well. Monster was very politely asking them to please fight with him. I mean he’s actually begging them to step outside so that he could vent his considerable rage on them with his terrifying power. Apparently he was quite feared around these parts, and was having a hard time finding someone to take him on, so he was pleading with people while he was intimidating them. Monster wasn’t too bright I figured, because he was selling something (a fearsome beating) nobody wanted while scaring his potential customers half to death. He should have come into town in a tutu and sucking on a lollipop, then maybe he would have gotten some action. Everybody is trying to calm Monster down before somebody goes flying through a window, or a brick wall. People are scared. Some of these are big strong looking farmers in their own right, but not nearly as big or as mean looking as Monster is.
I’m on the other side of the room when Monster gives up his sales pitch and sits down down at the bar right next to George Morales, “The luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” I think Monster figured, here’s a guy who doesn’t know me, maybe I can talk him into a fight.
Anyway, I thought the worst was over and that the guy would have a few drinks and go quietly home, but I notice that George is sweating profusely over there, mopping his brow with a handkerchief, and frankly, it just ain’t that hot in Vermont in November.
So I figure I better sneak over there on the other side of Monster, and listen in on the conversation. Mind you I’m a tad under 5’10″ and weigh about 150 pounds soaking wet, but this is my friend and drummer, and the two of us ought to be able to handle one overgrown ploughboy. George is only about 5’8″ but is a pretty strong 175, but he ain’t no match for Monster. Hey, the Hulk ain’t no match for Monster, but I didn’t know that then.
Anyway, Monster keeps insisting that George is a “fucking college boy from that faggotty school.” George is saying he’s not, that he’s only visiting a relative here in town or something like that.
That was a very smart thing to say because if Monster thought George had a relative in town then maybe he wouldn’t squash him into coconut jelly. Also, if Monster had learned that George was a musician, playing that very night in the upstairs room, he might have killed him on the spot, or come back later that night. Lots of squares used to hate long haired, music loving, hippies.
Well the conversation isn’t going too well for George when all of a sudden Monster turned around to look at me and said, “What the hell do you want?”
“Nothing, just minding my own business.”
“No you’re not, you’re listening to this private conversation.”
I’m thinking, this guy ain’t as stupid as he looks. So I say, “No I’m not, why would I do that?” ‘Because, asshole, you’re this guy’s friend.”
“No I’m not, I’ve never seen that ugly jerk in my whole damn life.” which was a pretty good ad-lib under the circumstances, sorry George.
Next thing I know two or three other guys attack me from behind and I get flipped over somebody’s back hard to the floor. I have no idea where this guy came from, but I’ve been in bar fights before and it always struck me as funny how the victim is always the one who gets attacked by peacemakers. Except in this situation, the peacemakers are also trying to subdue Monster. When I got up off the floor I saw that there were four guys with their arms wrapped around Monster. One on each leg, one around his considerable waist, and one around his neck.
This slows Monster down some, but he is still very determined to get at George and me. The four men on Monster have a good grip on him, so he isn’t moving too fast, so we have time to think. There’s no way we are getting past that damn dog.
“Let’s go upstairs stairs, maybe there’s a way out from up there. Anyway, he ain’t gonna make it up the stairs like that.” George’s idea was at least as good as mine which ????
So we run up the stairs, and I ‘m saying, “What if this guy finds out we’re in the band and decides to trash our equipment, then what?”
Before George can answer, we hear a noise at the bottom of the stairs. It’s Monster chugging up the stairs with the four full grown men dragging behind him like a Mack truck pulling a double tandem up a steep incline. You know what the truckers say about that low gear, it won’t go fast, but it’ll bring the house with it. He looked just like Frankenstein, only really angry.
We backed up from the stairs. There was no other way out of this building but down those stairs and out the door below, and that meant getting past the Ogre and Sparky. We were not ready to meet the Grim Reaper, hey, we got a fucking record to do next week.
Monster made it up the last step and by some miracle, the four men still held on like those fish that attach themselves to a shark. Then the solution to our problem occurred to George and I simultaneously. We simply dodged Monster and ran back down the stairs.
Monster made a U-turn and dragged his heavy load down the stairs after our asses. I could here the four guys giving each other instructions on how to slow him down. Those guys were saving our lives. It’s kind of funny, Monster didn’t want to kill those guys, or anybody else anymore, only us. Like a lion, or a tiger, he had chosen his victim from out of the pack, and he was locked in. No power on earth was going to stop him or change his mind.
Somebody had somehow untied Sparky from the railing and although the ugly bastard was barking very excitedly, we were able to get out the front door and make it to safety. We kept running till we got around the corner me on one side of the street, and George on the other. We both were peeking out from behind a building to see what was happening when I heard a voice behind me. I spun around fast.
“What’s going on Robert?” It was Mark Dann eating some dairy-less yogurt and enjoying the crisp autumn Vermont air without a care in the world.
“You wouldn’t believe it and you wouldn’t wanna know!”
At that point I turned around again and saw a police car pull up to the bar. The trooper got out of his patrol car just in time to find Monster coming out of the bar without his four man entourage.
“Now you know I’ve warned you about this kind of thing on several occasions. You don’t want to go to jail now do you?” This officer was pretty familiar with Monster, and was talking to him like he was a naughty child, instead of the potential serial killer that he was.
“Now get in this patrol car so I can take you home now, you’ve had too much to drink again. I’m sick of this, this is getting to be a habit with you.”
Monster obeyed his master without a single word. George and I breathed a sigh of relief. Then we told Mark what happened.
“Shit, maybe we should pack up our stuff and get the hell out of here. He might come back looking for us tonight, and find out we’re in the band and destroy our stuff, or destroy us, or both.” Mark had a point.
“Look, I think we should trust that cop. He knows the motherfucker better then we do and he’ll know what to do with him.” I said. Translation: “We needed to rehearse for that recording session next week.”
So we decided to stay and do the gig.
That night the place was mobbed, mostly with college kids. The party was on. Half way through the second set however, we smelled smoke. We kept on playing. Then we saw smoke. We kept on playing. When we saw a lot of smoke the management cleared everybody out of the bar. Somebody had set fire to the men’s bathroom. There was a big hole in the wall and somebody had thrown a bunch of tissue paper in there and lit it up. The owner and the bouncers were panicking. This was a very old wooden building and just perfect for kindling.
We unplugged our guitars and took them outside, but we left our sound system, our amps and George’s drums inside the burning club hoping the fire trucks would arrive in time to douse the flames before it all burned. Fortunately, they did, but the party was all over. The club was closed down. We were told to get our stuff out of there and we were sent back to New York without so much as a nickel.
My very best pal in college was a terrific bass player named Mike Axelrod. We did a lot of jamming and tried to get a band together for about 2 years, but things just didn’t work out.
Seems we never could find a drummer we both could agree to, although we searched everywhere. One night, during Easter vacation of 1968, we went to a Greenwich Village club called The Eighth Wonder (on 8th Street) to hear B.B. King and Chuck Berry. We took our instruments hoping to find a jam session somewhere where we might meet a drummer.
Chuck had his nightly pick up band backing him up, and it just wasn’t what I had hoped it would be. I was a huge Berry fan ever since I first heard his Johnny B. Goode back in 1956 when I was just an embryo. I had also seen him perform a couple of times on Dick Clarke’s American Bandstand when I was still only a fetus. His records are stupendous. His lyrics are witty and he tells a story like few people can. His singing is perfect. His guitar playing exciting, the essence of rock ‘n’ roll. However, on this one night in 1968, what with the pick up band, it lacked some fire.
B.B. King had an amazing band with him that he had obviously been touring with for quite some time. I think it was the same band from the “Live At The Cafe Au Go Go” LP, which is still my favorite B.B. King record. Hell, it’s one of my favorite records by any artist, in any style, of all time, period. B.B.was shouting like a Baptist preacher one minute, then bellowing like a wounded animal the next. Once in a while he would hit a high falsetto note like a choir boy or to imitate a dissatisfied woman. He played soulful melodic guitar licks from right out of this world in between vocal lines. Solos were sweet and playful at the outset. Then they would build in intensity to a powerful climax. Drama baby, real spine chilling drama. The intensity was there to be felt. One of the best blues sets I have ever heard in my life right up to the present.
We heard that after the show there was going to be a jam session, so we stuck around. Al Kooper, Elvin Bishop, and Paul Butterfield all were in the audience and ready to roll. My buddy Mike and I were well armed. We were “packing” our instruments and “loaded” with courage. We decided to stick it out in the hopes of sitting in with the big boys.
A couple of guys came in and brought in a big Standell amp to the stage. A guy then walked in who looked like Jimi Hendrix. You know, big afro, and colorful English threads. but this guy was only about 5’9″ or 5’10″ maybe less, and Mike and I thought Jimi was at least 8 feet tall. Remember this was April of 1968 man and we just weren’t positive this was him.
That is until he started playing. Then we knew.
From the first riff the identity was unmistakable. He soloed for what seemed like an hour or so, flawlessly and magically. When he wasn’t ripping off spellbinding single note runs, he played funky rhythms backing up other soloists. The thing that really blew me away was that he wasn’t using the standard barre chords or even the jazzy 9th chords everyone else was using, and which I had only just learned a year or two earlier. Jimi was using little double note stops and octaves, and the occasional bass notes while strumming out a steady rhythm with his pick hand the whole time. Butterfield, Bishop, and Kooper solos were all overshadowed by Jimi’s accompaniment in my biased estimation. Then, during one thrilling, rollercoaster guitar solo, Jimi hit a bad note. One bad note out of 2,000 ain’t too bad. And even then, I think he did it on purpose just to set up what followed. In his anger at the wayward little devil, he played a riff while mouthing the nasty four letter word we all know and love best. I could easily read his contorted lips. The riff sounded like he was talking. And it was not just executed by sliding up and then down a string like everybody else does it. This was a short, quick burst of notes that was unmistakable as the “F” word. Me and Mike looked at each other in awe.
Mike left about 10 minutes later.
He said it was because it was after 2am and he was tired, but, I think he was a little intimidated. I say that with all due respect to Mike who was clearly the most accomplished musician I knew at the time, and light years ahead of me in every way, shape and form as a musician. Afterall, all I could do was play a little blues in the 3 short years I had been “pickin” up to that point. Mike on the other hand was playing 10 or 12 years already and could play jazz, soul, funk, rock ‘n’ roll, oldies, blues and almost anything else. He could read and write music and he had a great, great ear. Why he was playing with a beginner like me I don’t know. Maybe he saw some raw talent there. I do know we were great friends, maybe that had something to do with it. Mike heard Jimi and immediately knew he was out of his depths, which goes along with his greater experience and wisdom.
I didn’t feel that way at all, I just wanted to play. Ignorance is bliss.
Anyway Mike couldn’t be talked into staying. His mind was made up. So was mine. I decided to stay on even though it meant taking two trains and a bus home at 4 or 5 in the morning rather then get door to door service in Mike’s ’63 Dodge Dart. It turned out to be the right thing for me to do.
After Jimi took a little break, Elvin Bishop played a few songs by himself. I was sitting right in front of him, and after the third tune I asked him if I could sit in. He said he was only going to play a couple of more songs and then he would give me the guitar. I thought I had been blown off, but true to his word, Elvin soon gave me his guitar to play. When was the last time that happened? And don’t forget, Elvin Bishop was a pretty big name at that time. Anyway, Jimi came up and played somebody’s bass, and me and another guy were plugged into B.B. King’s amplifier, a Fender Pro I think.. There was a small reel to reel tape recorder on the floor of the stage right in front of me recording everything. I thought it belonged to Jimi, but I can’t say I remember why I thought it was his. I played a couple of tunes with Jimi accompanying me and then I sat down. Jimi played some more guitar with the drummer from the Soft Machine and a few other guys. He didn’t seem happy with the drummer.
After jamming for maybe 15 minutes more, he got off the stage and started packing up his Stratocaster to go. I went over to him and said, “Hey Jimi, I don’t know why you’re leaving man, but I know that everybody here wants you to stay. You sound great.” I got no response at all, not even a look. His eyeballs didn’t even move to take me in peripherally. Jimi must have been hallucinating that I wasn’t there. He took ignoring somebody to a whole new level, and then walked out the door into the night leaving me with a little egg on my face along with a great memory.
Back in the late 60′s I was going to Queens College. On Tuesdays and Thursdays at 1PM there was a “free hour” and that meant that there were no classes, and everybody would hang out in the CMC Lounge.
There usually was a band performing there. The stage was about 25 feet across, maybe 15 feet deep and at least 3 or 4 feet high. I had heard James Cotton, NRBQ, and a lot of other bands on that stage. It was a very prestigious thing to play there. Your friends would be very impressed, and it gave you a reason to show off a bit for the girls.
I was playing in a band at that time, I guess it was 1969, that consisted of myself on guitar and occasional vocals, Mike Weiss on bass, and Pete on drums. (The name has been changed to avoid any embarrassment). We would basically jam on some blues, or some one chord bluesrock riff.
Mike Weiss was fast becoming a good friend of mine. I remember he was on the small side, he drove an old Saab (first one I’d ever seen before), and worked in a prosthetics factory making artificial limbs, when he wasn’t going to the college. We had been jamming a lot in my basement, and were ready to put something together.
Pete was a good drummer with quick hands and feet. I was hanging out a lot with Pete at school, and we had played several gigs together already with a band called the Tangerine Blues Band. Pete was a very nervous and insecure type of person. He was always apologizing for things that did not require an apology. He even apologized for things that weren’t his fault. It went to such an extreme sometimes that if he just happened to be looking at something when it broke, he became all upset and insisted it was his fault. I really liked Pete a lot, but sometimes I wanted to just shake him and say, “Lighten up man, and give yourself a break.”
Anyway, I arranged for us to play the day before Christmas vacation began, to make sure that there were a lot of people in the lounge to hear us. About 45 minutes before free hour was to start, we arrived at the lounge to set up the equipment. A singer by the name of Aaron Fuchs was there also, and he asked if he could sing with us. We said okay and we all began setting up. Aaron, by the way, stayed in the music business and wrote reviews for various journals and even ran his own hip hop label years later.
There were only a handful of people hanging out at this time, because free hour was not until 1pm. Soon,the place would be jumping.
Mike and I were now ready to rock ‘n’ roll, Aaron had just tested the mic and the sound system, and as Pete was finishing setting up his drum set, people started filing in. It was 1 o’clock now, and most of the students were all done with school until Christmas vacation was over in January. The vibe was great. People were in a great mood, and as they kept coming in I was thinking that this was gonna be one helluva party.
Mike and I strapped our instruments on and Aaron stepped up to the mic, and I was ready to count off the first tune when I realized Pete was not behind the drums. So I looked around, and so did Mike and Aaron. We called his name too. No response. I was a little worried. I was hoping Pete didn’t run off to the bathroom. We only had one hour to play. There had to be 500 people crammed into the lounge and they were all waiting for us to start. I saw a lot of familiar faces, musicians, friends, really cute girls. This had all the makings.
“Where the hell is Pete?” I said to Mike and Aaron.
“We don’t know.”
Then a guy in the crowd who was a good friend of Pete’s and a musician himself called me over.
“He’s behind the drums”
I looked over at the drums. “No, he’s not.”
“Yeah he is, go over there, I think he’s bent over, adjusting the foot pedal.” He assured me.
So I walked over and got just close enough to see over the bass drum at the space between the bass drum and the drum stool.
“He’s not here.”
“He’s gotta be, I saw him. Look better.”
I’m thinking now this guy is making an idiot out of me, but I went behind the drums and took another look. Pete was inside the bass drum! How he got in there I don’t know, but more importantly, why was he in there? He had his hands above his head, either fixing something or maybe just steadying himself in there.
“Is something wrong with that drum Pete?”
Pete shook his head no.
“Are you stuck in there?” This seemed like the next logical choice.
Pete shook his head no again. I’m thinking, he’s not talking. This isn’t good.
“Well if you’re not stuck, and you’re not fixing something, what the hell are you doing inside that bass drum Pete? We’ve got a gig to do.” I was losing my patience with him.
“I’m not coming out of here.” Pete was whispering, and shushing me with his index finger to his lips.
“Why are you whispering?” now I was whispering too.
“Because I don’t want them to hear.” Pete looked at me like I was crazy or stupid.
“Pete, why, what’s the matter?” I was beginning to worry about Pete.
“I can’t play.”
“Are you hurt?”
“No, I’m not hurt. I just can’t play.” He gave me that look again like I was nuts.
“Why not Pete, you’re a great drummer man, they’re gonna love you.” I wasn’t being patronizing, this was true, Pete was a good player.
“No, I’m not. I suck.”
“Oh Pete, no you don’t. That’s bullshit. You’re a terrific drummer. Besides these people are your friends and classmates.”
“That’s just it, I don’t want them to hear me play, they’ll make fun of me.”
“Make fun of you? Why would they do that? They’re your friends, what do you think, they’re gonna boo and throw stuff at you? Come on Pete, cut the crap and come on out of there, we gotta start playing, it’s getting late now.”
“I’m not coming out.”
“But Pete, you gotta come out, we need you. Who’s gonna play drums with us if not you?”
“You can’t use the bass drum.”
“You can’t have somebody play the bass drum because I’m not coming out of here.”
Mike and Aaron are now looking over my shoulder, along with another 500 pairs of eyes.
“Robert, Pete’s not coming out of there, he’s got stage fright. We’re gonna have to start without him.” Mike looked pretty worried because without a drummer, we weren’t really a band.
“Listen, I got a friend in the house who can play the drums, all we gotta do is get Pete out of there.” Aaron said hopefully.
“Listen Pete, if you won’t play, it’s okay. We’ll get another drummer, just come on out of there so we can get started. Okay?” I said gently.
“I’m not coming out, they’ll see me and know I’m scared.”
We had to roll the bass drum all the way off that huge stage with Pete still crouched inside of it. We had to do this very slowly so that Pete would not get hurt, and so that we wouldn’t break the shell of the drum. We also were being very careful not to let anyone see poor Pete cowering inside the rolling drum.
People who by now knew what was going on, were hooting and hollering. Pete’s friends were indeed laughing out loud at him. There were catcalls. It was an ugly scene. Pete was right about his “friends”, but his way of dealing with it just made him an even bigger and more inviting target.
I am a 51 year old blues singer, guitarist, and songwriter. I am also the Public Relations Chairman of the NYBS.
In November a very good friend of mine, and a physician assistant, Hollie Gaynor, suggested that I go for a free prostate screening at Jacobi Medical Center where she works in the Bronx. NYC. Mayor Rudy Guilliani set up these screenings after it was found that he himself had prostate cancer.
Like the vast majority of full time musicians and millions of other Americans, I have no health insurance. Had it not been for this free screening, I never would have been able to afford to have an examination, and if not for the fact that Hollie works in one of the hospitals offering it, I never would have heard about it. My mother urged me, even nagged me to go. Good thing too.
My test results were a bit abnormal and they suggested that I have a biopsy. This procedure was not included in the free screening, but I figured, to hell with the money, let me get this resolved.
It was discovered that I had an early case of cancer of the prostate.
I was shocked. The news scared the hell out of me even though I was assured that everything would be all right.
I don’t smoke, or drink, or do drugs. No one in my family has had either prostate or breast cancer that I know of. I exercise pretty regularly, and have been taking vitamin and mineral supplements for about ten years. I could have asked “Why me?” but I didn’t. Perhaps all of these healthy habits would still end up saving my life. Things could have been much worse I told myself, I would be all right just like the doctors said.
Of course the doctors also told me that they wouldn’t know for sure until they actually “got in there to see what’s cooking.” They would have to look at the surrounding tissue and remove and analyze some of my lymph nodes to make sure there was no spread (metastasis). I would also have to take PSA (prostate specific antigen) blood tests for the rest of my life to make sure they didn’t miss even one cancer cell.
That wasn’t much of a guarantee that I would be all right.
I began having difficulty sleeping and was having bad dreams when I did. Food wasn’t too appealing. Neither was sex. I was scared. I prayed a lot. Would I live or die? Would I become impotent?
This is a disease comparable statistically to breast cancer in women in that it strikes one out of six, usually after the age of 40. Prostate cancer is the most common cancer, excluding non-melanoma skin cancers, in American men. The American Cancer Society estimates approximately 180,400 new cases of prostate cancer will be diagnosed in the United States this year. Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in men, exceeded only by lung cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that 31,900 men in the United States die of this disease a year.
There has been much progress in the treatment of this form of cancer in the last ten or twelve years. No longer are men likely to be impotent and/or incontinent because of the surgery or radiation. The public consciousness has been raised by people sharing their experiences. Consequently men feel less embarrassed (a very apt word) by the examination or stigmatized by the prognosis. We can walk into the doctor’s office for regular checkups with our heads held high. Both of ‘em.
In the past, prostate cancer was usually discovered early on only with a rectal examination, as there are often no symptoms until much later on in the pathology. Early detection is critical to survival. Now with the complimentary PSA blood test, early detection is much more accurate and reliable.
There are basically four treatment options for this slow growing but dangerous disease: surgical removal of the gland, radiation, hormonal treatments, or watchful waiting. Some of these options are fine for men in their 70′s or 80′s who have advanced cases that can’t be cured, or who have other more serious medical conditions that will kill them first. Many older men die with the disease but not from the disease. However, since I am relatively young and in otherwise very good health and the cancer was found at a very early stage, It was recommended that I have it surgically removed. Removal offers the best hope of cure in these cases.
After thinking over the risks and discussing the situation with family and friends, that is exactly what I chose to do. I just didn’t want to have the disease in my body where it might evade other treatment and then grow and spread.
The operation was performed on Tuesday, January 9th and was a complete success. I was out of bed the next day (albeit hobbling around like a wounded penguin) and I was sent home to recuperate 3 days later, on Friday. I was told to take it easy for about a month and gradually return to my normal life. The doctors said there was virtually 0% chance of the disease having spread, and that my survival (cure) rate was approaching 100%.
Phew! And phew again. Thank you Lord.
I have to thank Dr. Winkler, chief surgeon and head of the urology department, as well as his assistants Dr. Rechtshaffen and Dr. Bleustein for their care, humanity and skill. They saved my life. The emotional support of my closest friends and my mother was a huge factor as well.
Jacobi Hospital also helped me to apply for Medicaid insurance to help pay the considerable medical bills I have incurred. I will know if I will be covered sometime in March.
I urge all men over 40 to have a prostate examination including the PSA test once a year. It involves taking a small blood sample from one’s arm, and a rectal examination. It may very well save your life. I know it saved mine. I’m recovering quickly and I feel great, and all of my body parts work. Nothing has fallen off, popped a spring or stripped a gear.
I am back rockin’ and rollin’ already. Come see how well I’m doing.
Peace, Love and Music,