Hi There! I thought we’re long overdue for another installment from my book – Road Trip
Hope you enjoy it! Please, I’d love to hear your comments!
The urge for goin’
We were getting itchy to hit the road again. We had heard there was a music scene in St Louis and an arts community in Gaslight Square – a semi restored Victorian Western ambience with gaslights on the streets, fine restaurants and theaters and a folk music venue of some notoriety at the time. This venue had the unlikely name of the “Laughing Buddha” and was a major stop for touring folk musicians. Yes, we were touring, but not in the finer sense of the word – like Bob Dylan touring or Gordon Lightfoot touring, etc. We were not the elite guard, so to speak – but touring none the less. So, we set sail for St. Louis.
It was warm and breezy with all the windows open in the car. Gif and I were in the backseat “strumming” away on our guitars – the miles seemed to drift by quickly. We hit a few rest areas and set up our busking at the picnic tables – playing for food, drink and cigarettes. I remember it was quite amazing how many people our age were out on the road searching for something or themselves. So we always had an audience and other musicians joining in. Quite festive on occasion as well. It really was a wonderful summer – filled with hope and adventure – the humming of our wheels was the rhythm of it. Our music was our soundtrack. Our laughter echoed for miles! The free spirit actually realized, lived and enjoyed. Southward we sped. I remember that I wanted to stop in Springfield Illinois to visit Abe Lincoln’s house – I think we did drive by it and maybe it wasn’t open for tourists at the time so we didn’t stop.
We stopped under a railroad trestle late one afternoon to spend the night. The road was barely more than a dirt one and there was no one around.
The area was all cornfield, but there was a sign announcing a small village just a few miles up the road. Being low on gas, we decided to walk the distance hoping gas might be available there. We meandered in and out of the cornfields eating our share of fresh uncooked corn, wandered by distant farm houses and barns, eventually coming upon the small village – whose name I can’t remember – seemingly entering into another time – maybe 100 years in the past. So quiet, really quiet. Neatly kept homes all shiny white with shiny black shudders and rocking chairs on antique front porches. I figured that we must be in Amish country – actually it was Menonite country. The store was wonderful! A few horses tied to the porch posts in front and we were unlikely visitors upon entering the store. There were two men and the storekeeper inside to greet us. They did not look down their noses or appear to be afraid of us, but greeted us with smiles. There were wooden barrels with soda crackers in them and a wheel of cheese sitting on the counter. We were offered cold glasses of iced tea! YES YES! Cold glasses of iced tea!! We had our guitars with us, so we sat and played for them and we were rewarded with hearty cheese and tomato sandwiches made with homemade bread. So we sat cradled in the past on the front porch of the store eating our sandwiches and drinking our iced tea – telling our new friends about our travels – and when we left to start our walk back to the car, we felt rested and well fed.
The next morning was bright and sunny and we were awakened early by the glare of the rising sun. We found out at the little store, that gas was available right at the entrance to the thruway – so we were off once again.
1961 – Beatniks
Beatnik – the “nik” derived from sput-nik – implied an out of this world or out of society group of free-thinking people who congregated with like kind at coffee houses and jazz joints during the late 50’s and early 60’s. I soon discovered that I was different from the other kids at school – I wasn’t into sports and flashy clothes – I was into James Dean and the pack of butts rolled up in my T-shirt sleeve, a Brylcreamed slickened DA haircut – hot rods and early rock and roll. In Rhode Island, if you appeared in that James Dean style, you were called a “Mondo” – from where that term came, I haven’t a clue.
Probably a huge influence on me was the TV show Peter Gunn. The theme song still runs through my head from time to time. This marvelous piece of music was written by Henry Mancini and featured the emblematic guitar of one of my favorites, Duane Eddy. His Rebel Rouser hit became an anthem of mine and was one of the first things I learned to play on guitar, and then, of course, the Peter Gunn “lick”. I fell immediately in love with the smoky bar – Mothers – on the Peter Gunn show as well as the smooth jazz accompaniment. Mancini’s Take Five came out around that time – I had the 45 record of it. My first LP was Charlie Mingus – Mingus Ah Um – it was his first album. All I wanted to do was find a place like Mothers, sit around and smoke cigarettes, drink coffee and listen to jazz – my parents were not too pleased, although my father heartily encouraged my guitar playing.
Well, a friend of mine discovered the ideal place. A second floor coffee house in Providence up by Brown University called the Tete a Tete Coffeehouse. A carful of us would go up there – usually on a Saturday night. You would climb the stairway and then encounter the very striking proprietor Justine, with her flaming red hair, sitting behind her counter, glaring at you with superstitious eyes and asking for the 50 cent cover charge. True to form was the smoke filled room with an array of “beatniks” sitting around reading or having hushed conversations, or someone would be reciting poetry from the small stage. If there was no live music, Justine would be playing jazz on her record player which was tucked underneath her counter in the front. There was an enticing menu serving up ginger beer and my favorite, a whisky flavored espresso. I think baklava was also on the menu. And she did it all – it was her joint all the way. And we sat around trying to be cool, but the beatniks – who were older than us and probably students at Brown University, would have little to do with us.
In the next few years, she would soften the jazz and turn to folk music as an attraction – which doubled the popularity of the place. Later, at the University of Rhode Island where I was enrolled, I found out that the Tete a Tete was having hoot nights and hiring folk singers. So Sam – my Café Innisfree partner – and I headed up for a hoot which was on a Friday night. I should note, that at the time, there was no microphone or PA system – just the small stage with a stool on it. People were actually quiet and would listen. That’s when I ended up playing most of the night, because only a few showed up to play. I was received well, asked Justine for a gig, hesitantly, and she hired me to play the following Saturday. I felt like I had made the big time!
A greater influential experience happened a year later – Summer, 1965 – when I heard Eric Andersen for the first time at the Tete a Tete!
Next time – see ya in St Louis!
All the best, Bill