Thursday, January 12, 2012

Freewheelin' In The Bronx 1971 (xxxiii)

By performing at this coffeehouse near Jerome Avenue in June 1971, however, I was able to meet an African-American folk singer named Don, who also wrote his own folk songs. Like me, Don played the harmonica in his harmonica holder, at the same time he accompanied his singing of one song with an acoustic guitar before this coffeehouse audience of mostly neighborhood high school-age teenagers

Don’s harmonica-playing in June of 1971 was much more technically proficient than my harmonica playing would ever be. But the audience that had not paid much attention to me when I had performed my one song also quickly stopped listening to Don, who was as unknown as I was, when he was performing his one song—even though it was probably more unusual for an unknown African-American singer-songwriter to sing before the all-white audience of youths in this particular coffeehouse.

Although I decided not to get into the “open mike circuit” on weekend and weekday nights during the 1970s, when you’re under 30-- like most of the other “regulars” at open mikes generally are—performing at open mikes can sometimes be a way to meet, and perhaps befriend, other unknown musicians of your own generation, who you might not otherwise have bumped into at the time.

So after the coffeehouse open mike session had ended, I invited Don back to my apartment for a few hours to share some wine and sing to each other the folk songs we each had written, since it was still only about 10 o’clock on a Friday night.

Don was a gentle, good-natured bearded guy in his late 20s who then lived in Park Slope near 15th Street in Brooklyn—in the days before the Park Slope neighborhood became gentrified with white liberal or left-liberal yuppies from the suburbs. And the folk songs that Don had written were both melodic and lyrically more interesting than what was then getting played on either the AM or FM radio station airwaves.

Although the great songs Don had written seemed real in terms of being about real working-class neighborhood people and their real feelings, they were less political in their themes than the folk songs I had written and contained no rebel protest component in their lyrics, unlike most of the songs I had written contained. So, not surprisingly, although Don seemed to like the songs I had written as much as I liked the songs he had written, after I sang the protest folk song, “He Walked Up The Hill,” that was written following Martin Luther King’s assassination, Don also kidded me, while chuckling in a good-natured way, “You seem to write a lot of political songs, don’t you?”

Yet even though the great songs that Don had written were less political than the ones I had written and contained no protest folk lyrical component, Don was then no closer to getting any of his songs recorded on a vinyl record album by one of the New York City record companies in 1971 than was I. And besides agreeing that the coffeehouse audience, for whom we had both performed a few hours before, wasn’t the type of audience that would be inclined to respond to our type of songs, Don and I also were pretty much both clueless about how unknown singer-songwriters like ourselves, who lacked both money and music or entertainment industry contacts, could get their songs onto some vinyl record album in the early 1970s.

After a few hours of singing songs to each other, in-between sips of wine, it was time for Don to start back on the long subway trip from the Bronx to Brooklyn. But before he left my apartment, Don wrote down his phone number and his address on a piece of paper; and we agreed that we’d get together sometime to sing songs to each other again for a few hours in his apartment in Brooklyn, later in the month. And a few weeks later I actually did telephone Don and did make the subway journey with my guitar from the Bronx to Brooklyn on the D train to spend a few hours in his apartment singing to each other some more of the songs that we had each written, in-between sharing a joint of marijuana.

But given how long it took to travel by subway from where I lived in the Bronx to where Don lived in Brooklyn, Don’s lack of interest in forming a duo with me that would perform both his songs and my protest folk songs occasionally at some open mikes, and my post-July 1971 escalating financial difficulties, I didn’t follow-up on my visit to Don’s Park Slope pad. And, after late June 1971, I never bumped into Don again.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Freewheelin' In The Bronx 1971 (xxxii)

Another way that I thought I could possibly break into the local New York City folk music sub-culture scene or into local record industry circles, in order to get the protest folk songs and male feminist love songs that I had written onto a vinyl record, was to start singing in June of 1971 at open mikes in coffee houses or at clubs in the Bronx, in Manhattan and possibly in the other boroughs of New York City. So one Friday night in early June of 1971 I took my guitar, my harmonica and my harmonica-holder to a church basement near Jerome Avenue, that wasn’t too far from Lehman College’s campus, where, at that time, there was a coffeehouse that had a weekly open mike for musicians who wished to sing one song apiece before a live audience.

Not surprisingly--since by June 1971 large numbers of people under 30 all played guitar and hoped to earn their livings as musicians rather than as 9-to-5 wage slaves—I wasn’t the only musician to show up at the coffeehouse who wished to sing and perform.

None of the other musicians seemed to be singing topical folk songs or protest folk songs. And since the audience seemed to consist of mostly straight-looking neighborhood high school students who didn’t appear to be anti-war folks who were into Dylan or Phil Ochs very much, I decided that the song I would perform would just be the “Open Up Your Eyes” love song that I had written for Helene in late 1969.

But after I started singing into the microphone, I realized that people in the audience at the coffeehouse really seemed more interested in chatting with their friends, while the musicians who performed at the open mike sessions just provided some background music for their conversations, rather than really being interested in listening carefully to the lyrics that a musician was singing. Unless a musician who performed at this coffeehouse’s open mike session was either a friend of some of the audience members’ or some kind of already-established professional musician or celebrity, it seemed that most of the 25 people in the audience felt that they would rather chat with their friends than listen closely to what was being sung by some unknown performer.

I felt that getting some experience in singing into a microphone in front of a live audience, instead of just singing in my apartment to myself or into a cheap portable cassette tape recorder, was of some value and somewhat interesting. But I did not find it very satisfying or worthwhile to sing in front of an audience that really wasn’t that particularly interested in listening to what the songs I had written had to say.

And it struck me that just as the U.S. mass media had created a false political consciousness among large numbers of white working-class youth in the United States (so that they would not quickly mobilize politically in support of an African-American or radical feminist-led New Left Revolution in the USA in the 1970s), the same U.S. mass media had created the kind of mass consciousness among large numbers of U.S. music fans which would tend to make them closed to responding in an enthusiastic way to any of the protest folk or folk love songs that I had written, when sung by an unknown musician in a coffeehouse or small club setting--unless they had previously been able to become familiar with the songs from having heard them previously on either a vinyl record album or on the U.S. radio airwaves.

It might be conceivable that if I was willing to spend all my spare time writing new protest folk songs and folk love songs, memorizing them and performing at open mikes in coffeehouses, bars or clubs around New York City for the next 5 years, I might possibly be “discovered” by somebody in the music industry who might be interested in putting my songs on a vinyl record. But a lifestyle of lugging my guitar around each evening on weekdays and weekends to perform for free at open mikes before small crowds of mostly apolitical musicians and apolitical rock music or singer-songwriter acoustic music fans seemed like an existential trap.

The point of writing the protest folk songs and male feminist folk love songs was to help change mass youth consciousness in the USA more quickly so that there might be an African-American-led or radical feminist-led anti-imperialist revolution in the USA as soon as possible during the 1970s. The point of my activity as a creative artist was not to let myself be co-opted into a working-class person who spent all his or her evenings--when not in the wage-slave cage--running around--in a careerist way--to every open mike that gave him or her the chance to just sit around for 2 to 3 hours listening to other open mike performers; before performing for 5 to 15 minutes before an audience that was not likely to respond very enthusiastically to the songs of an unknown performer.

What performing every night before an open mike audience for the next 5 years on a steady basis might do, however, would be to give me a heavy experience in figuring out the best way to sing into a microphone before a live audience (without forgetting the lyrics to a particular song) and the best way to possibly use my voice to get an audience to want to hear more songs from me. But since my main artistic objective in June 1971 was more to get my protest folk songs on a vinyl record (with the hope that an already-established anti-war singer--like Joan Baez, for example--might then record a cover version of some of these songs) and reach a mass audience with these songs, rather than spending all my evening time developing into a more skillful performer or entertainer, immersing myself in the world of open mikes for the next 5 years was not the road I was willing to take during the 1970s.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Freewheelin' In The Bronx 1971 (xxxi)

In early June of 1971 the block on Bleecker Street where AJ lived had not yet been gentrified and it looked like a block on which Bowery bums were more likely to hang out and live than would newly affluent yuppies or young Wall Street stockbrokers from the suburbs. Since the bell to the loft in which AJ then lived with his womanfriend or wife did not work, I had to yell on the street “Hey, AJ!” in order to gain entry into the building, before walking up the stairs to the door to AJ’s loft.

After AJ looked out the window of his loft and let me into the building, and I then walked up some stairs, I soon found myself inside AJ’s large loft. AJ and the one or two other freaks he was talking with seemed to be stoned on pot and, after I introduced myself to AJ, he quickly passed me a joint. Predictably, the vinyl album that was being played on AJ’s stereo system in the loft during my visit was Dylan’s then recently-released New Morning album.

There wasn’t much furniture in the loft. But there seemed to be a lot of papers related to Dylan there and copies of Dylan’s Tarantula book. AJ’s womanfriend or wife at the time, a hip-looking woman in her 20s who would have been considered physically attractive by most men and seemed to be some kind of artist, was also in AJ’s loft at the time, although I did not converse with her.

After I mentioned that I was on welfare at the time, AJ mentioned that before he dropped out of the straight world and became a Dylanologist he had held this 9-to-5 straight job at some Manhattan employment agency. But, after seeing how the private employment agency he worked for helped its Manhattan corporate clients discriminate against African-American job applicants or ripped off the job-hunters it did find jobs for, he had felt compelled to quit that job.

Since AJ had come to feel that by 1971 there were so many freaks in the United States that “freaks were now an ethnic community,” when I visited him in early June of 1971, AJ was hoping to get some kind of cable show airtime for a show that would have programming designed for a “freak ethnic community” audience. And, if AJ did get such a cable tv show, it seemed like he was open to having me sing the “A Millionaire” and “Livin’ On Stolen Goods” protest folk songs on such a tv show.

As far as being my “manager” for free, AJ indicated that he thought some kind of master tape that was mixed would probably be needed in order to get some record company interested in recording the protest folk songs. But he’d keep his eyes open for some music industry person who might want to record the songs at some point, and let me know if any interest developed. In the meantime, we agreed that I would mail him cassette tapes (that I recorded on my cheap portable cassette tape recorder) of any new protest folk songs that I might write over the next few years.

Still high from the joint AJ had given me when I left AJ’s loft and was back down on Bleecker Street in front of the building in which he lived, I realized that AJ seemed to be involved simultaneously in so many different Movement projects and activities that he probably wouldn’t really find much time to approach Folkways, Vanguard or Electra or some other record company about recording any of the protest songs I had written. But in June 1971, AJ seemed like both a fun guy and like someone with whom it would be fun to share some of my writing and some of the protest folk songs and folk love songs I wrote during the 1970s—even if no vinyl record album of the songs ever developed from our non-financially-based counter-cultural relationship.

Ironically, by the Fall of 1971, AJ’s Dylan Liberation Front/Rock Liberation Front and the Yippies’ political/cultural freak activism had apparently attracted the attention of John Lennon, after Lennon moved from the UK to Manhattan. And the former Beatle multi-millionaire (who by the early 1970s had written “Working-Class Hero” and decided that he wanted to then write protest rock songs and attempt to now use his musical and songwriting skills to generate more revolutionary mass consciousness among his fans rather than to just entertain them in an “art for art’s sake” way) began to help bankroll some of the Yippies’ anti-war activism and concretely support and promote the anti-hip capitalist perspective of AJ’s Rock Liberation Front.

So AJ (although still interested in things like underground culture and the 1970s Weather Underground, for example) seemed to then feel that it was more politically productive to spend his limited time encouraging Lennon to continue supporting the Yippies and anti-war activism and the Rock Liberation Front in late 1971 and in 1972, rather than to spend much time in a probably doomed attempt to get the protest folk songs of unknown working-class people like myself onto some Folkways, Vanguard or Elektra vinyl record.

But, coincidentally, it was only after AJ and the Dylan Liberation Front had demonstrated at Dylan’s house in the West Village in May of 1971 that Dylan, subsequently, ended up writing a protest folk song, “George Jackson,” that protested against the African-American revolutionary political prisoner, intellectual and writer being slain by guards at San Quentin Prison in California in August 1971.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Freewheelin' In The Bronx 1971 (xxx)

In the Spring of 1971, around the time of Dylan’s 30th birthday, the then-long-haired but beardless AJ—who was then in his mid-to-late 20s—was then a high-energy writer-activist in the Lower East Side’s anti-war, underground press, yippie movement/freak sub-culture and underground freak media world and 1970s counter-culture. AJ had been studying Dylan’s song lyrics as intensely as some of the more culturally-straight and conventional middle-class academics and professors of English at places like Columbia and Harvard then studied the poetry of poets like Robert Burns, John Keats, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, since the mid-1960s. And in the early 1970s—before there was much of a Dylan industry/Dylan studies/pop cultural studies wing set up on U.S. university campuses by the Baby Boom Generation rock music fans who ended up returning to the culturally straight bourgeois academic world to become middle-class academics and professors in order to escape the 9-to-5 work world—AJ, the creator of the Dylanology subject, knew more about Dylan and Dylan’s lyrics, by far, than any other freak or academic in the whole world.

Besides putting together the first Concordance of Dylan’s song lyrics which enabled him to discover that Dylan had apparently become addicted to heroin for a time in the 1960s (long before the mainstream media finally apparently confirmed this fact in the 21st century), AJ also had established a Dylan Archives in his Bleecker Street loft on the Lower East Side that was then the most complete source of information about Dylan and Dylan’s artistic work which existed in the early 1970s.

In the early 1970s AJ also wrote a weekly column for the now-defunct East Village Other (EVO) underground newspaper in which he exposed the way the hip capitalists in the U.S. music industry were enriching themselves in various unethical ways by ripping-off and marketing for their personal, individual profit, the anti-capitalist hippie/yippie/freak counter-culture--a counter-culture which had previously been collectively created by hip anti-capitalist, anti-war and civil rights African-American and New Left Movement activists and artists who had been involved with politically radical groups like SNCC, C.O.R.E., SDS, the Yippies and the Black Panther Party.

For daring to criticize Dylan for ceasing to write more protest folk songs for the Movement after 1965, for not doing any benefits for late 1960s revolutionary groups like the Black Panther Party and for apparently selling out his early 1960s principles in exchange for being rewarded with millions of dollars in song royalties that Dylan’s financial consultants apparently then used to purchase stock in various transnational corporations, AJ apparently enraged large numbers of loyal Dylan fans and Dylan freaks. He also apparently angered many sycophantic rock music industry publishers, editors or writers who apparently felt that no one had the right in 1971 to question Dylan’s moral integrity, since Dylan was such a “great artist” and “creative genius.” Many of the Dylan fans and Dylan freaks who, in the early 1970s, still regarded Dylan as a kind of “prophet” also felt that AJ had no right and no basis for attempting to raise consciousness among anti-capitalist Dylan freaks about the degree to which images of Dylan that the mass media was still marketing in the early 1970s were more myth than an accurate reflection of who Dylan really was.

Yet besides the freaks who detested AJ for writing uncomplimentary words about Dylan’s accumulation of wealth and financial activities and Dylan’s post-1965 political shift in his East Village Other column or for criticizing Dylan from a yippie left freak perspective (whenever AJ was allowed to get some radio airtime on WBAI and other New York City local radio stations), there were other anti-capitalist freaks on the Lower East Side (like Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman, for example, as well as the freaks who hung around the counter-cultural Alternate University in the late 1960s and early 1970s) who agreed with most of AJ’s critical perspective with respect to Dylan’s post-1965 transformation. And by the time that Dylan’s 30th birthday came around in May 1971, there was a Dylan Liberation Front group that soon developed into a Rock Liberation Front group, which AJ led, that actually marched on Dylan’s house in the West Village, to protest the hip capitalist direction that Dylan and the U.S. corporate rock music industry had taken since the mid-1960s.

So around the time that AJ and his Dylan Liberation Front/Rock Liberation Front had begun to make a big impact within counter-cultural circles (even getting some press coverage in the Village Voice, for example), I mailed AJ a cassette tape of protest folk songs, including the “A Millionaire” protest folk song and the “Livin’ On Stolen Goods” protest folk song (that protested against U.S. imperialism)—which I had recorded on my cheap portable cassette tape recorder in my Bronx apartment--and asked him if he felt like being my “manager” for free. Surprisingly, AJ soon contacted me and invited me to stop by for a chat at his Bleecker Street loft a few days later.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Freewheelin' In The Bronx 1971 (xxix)

After reading the transcript of a telephone conversation between Dylan and AJ (the world’s first Dylanologist)--that AJ had recorded and Rolling Stone magazine had subsequently published—I had concluded that, from a New Left Movement point of view, AJ--in 1971--was a more principled person than was Dylan; and that after 1965, Dylan had, indeed, sold out the Movement in order to become a hip capitalist, corporate media-promoted, multi-millionaire rock star. (Or, as Anthony Scaduto’s late 1971 gossipy biography of Dylan would also indicate, “as big as Elvis,” etc.). And I had then written a protest folk song that condemned late 1960s and early 1970s hip capitalism and hip cultural rip-off artists, titled “A Millionaire,” which was inspired by AJ’s early 1971 writing and Dylan Liberation Front/Rock Liberation Front activism, that contained lyrics like the following:

“Oh, pig Nixon
A millionaire
And Bobby Dylan
A millionaire
And Rockefeller
A millionaire
And Mick Jagger
A millionaire.

“You’re such a phony
Just blowin’ out wind
Makin’ like Woody
To win your million
You made me cry
When I was a kid
But now I’m feelin’
You’re just a rich pig.

“Don’t think we fall
For that `working-class’ shit
Give us your money
And then we might talk
We’re sick and tired
Of your ego-trip
Of making millions
While raising your fist.

“Now it seems to me
It is unfair
That some men
Are millionaires
They steal their money
By various means
Yet sing us songs
To show their pity.

“I’m just a poor boy
Without any bread
I feel all people
Should make the same wage

To rip-off culture
From people oppressed
Is just as bad
As burning their huts.”

And the thought also then occurred to me in late May 1971 that perhaps if I had a "manager" it might make it easier to interest Folkways, Vanguard or Elektra in recording my protest folk songs and folk love songs. And that if I needed a "manager," in 1971 AJ would be the most politically and artistically appropriate person to be my "manager"—although, given my lack of money, I could not afford to pay any money to AJ to be my “manager.”