I was never much of an Elvis Presley fan, which may explain my lackluster review of Elvis websites in 1997, on the 20th anniversary of his death (Aug. 15, 1977). Or maybe the websites were lackluster (two years later, a similar review in the Los Angeles Times came to a similar conclusion). I did manage to mention an early legal dispute over fair use of copyrighted content, like music and photos, on the internet, and “Web rings,” an early way to navigate the World Wide Web before Google brought a semblance of order to the chaos.
He may have sold a billion records and starred in 33 movies. His musical blending of blues, gospel and hillbilly may have popularized, if not created, rock and roll. And his swiveling hips may have done as much to usher in a social and sexual revolution as pot and the pill. But on the 20th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, cyberspace commemorated the King of Rock and Roll mostly with Elvis sightings, Elvis impersonators, and, of course, Elvis merchandising.
Exhibit A is “Elvis Lives @AOL,” America Online’s Elvis Web site (keyword: Elvis). By virtue of its 8.5 million subscribers, AOL is the default zeitgeist of the Internet. For its 20th anniversary “memorial” to Elvis, AOL offered some vintage pictures and thumb-sucking essays, but mostly impersonators and sightings, courtesy of Hecklers Online, along with a slide show “in which President Clinton talks candidly about what the legend Elvis Presley left behind means to him.” Oh boy. Not to mention “The Shop,” where you could purchase Elvis sunglasses, CDs and other items.
Elvis gets much the same treatment on the rest of the Web. Consider “Disgraceland,” which is billed as a “humorous tribute to Elvis, his fans, zucchini, Reno and a variety of related and unrelated subjects.” It also boasts of having more Elvis links than the Vienna Sausage Factory.
Some “Disgraceland” links have serious content, but most are kitsch, such as Elvis wedding chapels, Elvis velvet paintings, a zucchini made up like Elvis, and images of the King superimposed on Mount Rushmore and the Sistine Chapel. Especially notable is Friz-Elvis, the world’s first (and hopefully only) budgie Elvis impersonator, i.e., a [Photoshopped] parakeet dressed up like Elvis. There is also a cow tipping page, which doesn’t seem to have much to do with Elvis, but what the hey. And for the 20th anniversary of Presley’s death, The Disgraceland Gift Shop was offering a limited number of original Memphis newspapers from August 16, 1977.
“Disgraceland” is a stop on the “Won’t You Wear My TCB Ring,” or Elvis “Webring,” a sort of guided Web tour where Web surfers can click from site to related site until they return to the first site. The creator of the Elvis Webring is Lex Raaphorst, a Dutch Elvis fan. Other sites in the Webring include one for signing a petition to clone Elvis, “Americans for Cloning Elvis,” and “The Uselessness of Elvis,” which has a link to “The Flying Elvi,” the skydiving Elvis impersonators who appeared in Honeymoon in Las Vegas.
Raaphorst also hosts “Elvex Pages” which is one of the most complete and easy to access repositories of Presley song lyrics, along with a tasteful filmography of the King’s 33 mostly forgettable movies, replete with movie posters, cast and plot summaries.
At the bottom of many Elvis Web sites is the disclaimer that they are unaffiliated with Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc., which owns the trademarks to Graceland, Elvis, and Elvis Presley. The disclaimers are the result of an early skirmish over copyright infringement and the Internet involving “The (unofficial) Elvis Home Page.”
While touring Graceland with her mother in 1994, space industry technician Andrea Berman came up with the idea for a Web page that included a virtual tour of the mansion using picture post cards and sound clips of Presley’s music. Her Elvis home page soon became a popular site. Then the folks who own the real Graceland, Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc., claimed copyright infringement and threatened to sue unless she remove her virtual tour and sound clips. Rather than go through the legal hassles, Berman pulled the items from her site. [Or did she?]
The “Official Worldwide Website for Elvis Presley’s Graceland” <elvis-presley.com> has no virtual tour and no Elvis sound clips. Except for a sanitized biography of the King, along with Graceland tour and gift shop information, it doesn’t have much else either.
There is, however, at least one Elvis site that focuses on the primal Presley, the one before the Beatles, before the jumpsuit, and before the Colonel. The “Elvis Lives In Evil Levis” Web site contains some great photos and interactive content focusing on the ’50s Elvis. The creator of the site, Anne C. Stinehart, is a graduate student working toward a PhD in medieval history at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Go figure.
The death of William S. Burroughs, whose book, Naked Lunch, influenced my writing, inspired me to make my second column about dead beatniks and beatnik websites.
The Beat Goes Online 8/21/1997
by H.B. Koplowitz
Poet Allen Ginsberg and writer William S. Burroughs were seminal figures of the Beat Generation. Both died of heart attacks earlier this year. But their legacy lives online in the Web pages of beatnik aficionados.
Ginsberg, 70, died April 5 in New York City. Considered the poet laureate of the Beat Generation, his raw lifestyle and poems, including “Howl” (1956), embodied the beatniks of the 1950s. In the ’60s, he helped Timothy Leary popularize LSD, attended Ken Kesey’s Acid Test parties, and coined the term “flower power.” A Buddhist and pacifist, he was a calming influence at antiwar protests.
Burroughs, 83, died Aug. 2 at his home in Lawrence, Kansas. The stone-faced author is best known for his experimental stream-of-consciousness novel Naked Lunch (1959). Like “Howl,” it became the subject of a precedent-setting obscenity trial for its explicit sex, drug use and violence. He influenced artists such as David Bowie, Lou Reed and Patti Smith, and in later years became a visual artist, wrote screenplays and appeared in the films Drugstore Cowboy and Twister, as well as a Nike TV ad.
One of the most cited Beat Generation Web sites is Levi Asher’s “Literary Kicks.” Dedicated to Ginsberg and On the Road author Jack Kerouac, “Literary Kicks” has tribute pages to both Ginsberg and Burroughs, with links to other online memorial pages created after their deaths.
The site also has pages on Neal Cassady, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso and other beat luminaries, along with beat news, films about the beats, Buddhism, the origin of the term “beat,” and beat connections to such rock groups as the Grateful Dead, Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan and, of course, The Beatles. There’s also a link to “The Germ,” a Web site on the Pre-Raphaelites, a rebellious group of post-Romantic/pre-Bohemian painters and poets that lived over a century ago in England.
Asher is a 35-year-old computer programmer, Deadhead and fiction writer who lives in New York City. He is part of a loosely knit community of creative writers who have used the Internet as an alternative outlet for their works. His “Queensboro Ballads” website consists of stories and short prose packaged in the form of an early ’60s folk-rock record album.
He also has arranged live fiction/poetry readings featuring other Web writers, and recently co-edited an anthology of Web writings, Coffeehouse: Writings From The Web, that was just published in book form.
“The William S. Burroughs Files” is the oldest Burroughs website, having begun in 1991 as a newsgroup list of Burroughs recordings. Creator Malcolm Humes has turned it into a multi-media Web page cataloging Burroughs’ diverse works, with links to other Burroughs information, audio and video.
The site has a memorial page with a comments/guestbook area for Web surfers to share their thoughts, memories and anecdotes about Burroughs. Humes, 35, dabbles in computers and alternative music. According to his Web page, he lives “in a storefront in Berkeley which makes a nice huge space for playing music and working on other creative pursuits.”
“Like if it’s got anything to do with wild bohemian cats and chicks, you’ll probably find it here,” says Colin Pringle, webmeister of “The Wild Bohemian Home Page.” The site includes a beat generation archive, with articles about or by the beats and beat generation related sites. There’s also a “Hip Dictionary” and Who’s Who of hipdom.
But the site is more focused on the ’60s, with links to pages about hippies, Ken Kesey, the Grateful Dead, Hells Angels, Rainbow Gatherings and Woodstock. Pringle, 44, was born in Glendale, Calif. His family moved to Dallas, Texas, where he gravitated to the hippie scene and altered states of consciousness. He moved back to the West Coast in 1987.
A new cop on the cyber beat is Christopher Ritter, creator of “Bohemian Ink,” which bills itself as “an on-line review of the history and future of experimental literature & poetry.” The site has extensive information on Burroughs and Ginsberg, along with links to other beat artists.
“Bohemian Ink” also keeps up on “Modern Boheme” with news and links to “Indies” and “Current Experimentalists” including Nicole Blackman, Eric Bogosian, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, David Mamet and Henry Rollins. It has links to other literary online publications like “Pen & Sword” and “Alt-X,” and publishers of alternative literature like PsychoTex Books & Music and ZERO Press. There’s also links to sites on neo-futurists, performance art, spoken word reviews and slam poetry (“the bully brother of spoken word”).
According to a bio found in “Pen & Sword,” Ritter is 23 years old and lives in Dayton, Ohio, where he is a full-time student and part-time coffee bar tender who enjoys experimental writing.
From fall 1998 – spring 2002, I taught journalism and advised the student newspaper at a mainly Black and Hispanic community college in South-Central LA. I later turned my experiences into a book called Blackspanic College. This excerpt recalls where I was on 9/11:
Fall semester, 2001
On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I awoke to my clock radio, which was tuned to National Public Radio. Still in a dreamlike state, I heard somber voices saying something about an airplane crashing into the World Trade Center, a second plane smashing into the other tower, the Pentagon being struck by a third, and that every airplane over the entire country was being grounded. At first I thought it was an updated version of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio hoax. I rolled over and turned on the TV, where every channel was showing the Twin Towers crumbling, on a loop. My heart sank. This was real.
I checked my emotions and was relieved I wasn’t feeling a flicker of guilty glee that Wall Street yuppies and the military industrial complex had just taken a hit. We may not like to admit it, but sometimes we secretly root for the bad guys — Bonnie and Clyde, the Unibomber, O.J. — so toppling the dual symbols of capitalist America and poking a hole in the Pentagon could easily have stirred up some anti-American sentiments left over from Vietnam that were recently inflamed by the bizarro election in Florida, U.S. Supreme Court putsch and ascendancy of the right-lurching Bush II junta.
9/11 was one bodacious move. But as I lay there gaping at the TV, all I was feeling was dread. And it was with a sense of shame that I realized, at that moment at least, I was glad that Bush and the ruthless rattlesnakes around him, rather than wishy-washy Al Gore — whom I’d voted for — was in the White House. Suddenly, I didn’t want my mommy, I wanted my daddy.
I wondered what the students at Southwest College were feeling, and tore myself away from the TV to rush out to the campus for my afternoon classes and to rev up my students for the biggest story they would ever cover. I should have known better. By the time I got to the campus, it was nearly deserted.
Finally, one of my new students arrived. I’d assigned Lakita to cover a Black Student Union meeting previously scheduled for that morning. At the time it seemed like a fairly simple meeting story,although I didn’t understand why a school that was 80 percent black needed a BSU (except as a place for former student body presidents to go, as June had become the head of the BSU after losing the rescheduled ASO election to Willie). But Lakita had tears in her eyes and said she couldn’t write the story.
“Why not?” I asked, thinking she was probably upset by the terrorist attacks.
“Because the meeting was all about you.”
“Me?” I said, incredulously. “What are you talking about?”
Some of Jim Bruno & Friends, from left: Terry Mueller, guitar; Mark Soljacich, guitar; Russ Ward, drums; Jim Bruno, guitar and vocals; Dean Milano, bass and vocals; Joe C Castrejon, harmonica; and Robbie Stokes, guitar.
“It’s great to be back in Champaign … just kidding,” Jim Bruno quipped at the start of his bittersweet reunion concert Sept. 17 at the Varsity Center in Carbondale.
Billed “Jim Bruno & Friends,” the lineup included surviving members of some of the hottest bands during the heyday of the Carbondale music scene in the 1960s and ’70s, including Devil’s Kitchen, Scuttlebucket, Pontiac Jones, and the Dixie Diesels. Bruno is a singer, songwriter and acoustic guitarist who lives in the San Francisco area. But he got his start in Carbondale during the 1970s, performing with another aspiring singer and guitar player named Shawn Colvin.
Carbondale in the ’60s and ’70s had been a special time for a lot of baby boomers like myself — I was born there in 1951 and went to Southern Illinois University. (I’d also written a book, called “Carbondale After Dark,” about the protesting and partying during that era on the town’s notorious strip.) One of the best and most lasting things about the ’60s was its socially conscious rock music. The bands that played that music in Carbondale were a big part of what had made the town special, and the musicians performing at the concert had been in many of those bands. Attention must be paid.
Besides, my generation has reached an age that musician Paul Simon calls “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” and spending an evening basking in music and memories from the springtime of my life sounded downright cathartic. Alas, I didn’t think I’d be able to attend. I’d just been to Carbondale to partake in native rituals during a total eclipse of the sun. Then Irmageddon struck, and I, my brother, his girlfriend, and their Yorkie, fled South Florida in my car to Atlanta. We could have continued on to St. Louis, where I could have stayed with friends and family, looked up an old girlfriend, and gone to the concert. Instead, we languished in a hotel in Atlanta for nearly a week before returning Friday. The hurricane had spared our condos.
On Saturday, perhaps suffering from car lag, I got a bad case of the coulda shoulda wouldas. I began to kick myself for not having gone to St. Louis and the concert. That regret triggered an avalanche of other regrets, which are far too numerous, banal and excruciating for me to list here. As I sunk ever deeper into my funk, I actually tried to will myself back in time and make a deal with a God I didn’t believe in.
Earlier that day I’d written to my Facebook friends that I was sorry I wouldn’t be at that night’s concert. When I thought the show was starting, I decided to torture myself some more and got back on Facebook to see if anyone was posting photos or video from the event. Instead, high school classmate and Carbondale guitarist Bill Carter had sent a cryptic reply to my earlier message. He said the concert wasn’t until the next night.
Holy crap. If I hopped a plane, I could still make the show. I knew I’d simply made one of those “wrong day” errors that we all do sometimes. But given my agitated state of mind, it was hard for me not to read something more cosmic into the situation. Even if I hadn’t willed myself back in time, or a God I didn’t believe in hadn’t called my bluff, I had been given one of life’s most precious moments — a second chance. A do-over. I could torture myself for another day about what might have been, or I could take action to erase one small regret in my life.
I checked the airlines, and sure enough, there was a reasonably priced morning flight that would get me to St. Louis in time for the 7:30 p.m. concert. Around 3 a.m. I texted the same “team” I had watched the eclipse with. Mark Kerwath, a high school friend and guitarist who lives on the Merrimac River, provided the transportation. Ruth Ann Levinson, the widow of another high school friend, who plays bass, sings with a group called the Free Range Chicks, and lives south of Makanda, provided the place to stay. It was short notice, but they came through. Mark picked me up at the airport, and around 5 p.m. we met up with Ruth Ann behind the Varsity Center.
Terry Mueller, the author, and “Tawl” Paul Frederick. Photo by Ruth Ann Levinson.
There, we ran into Carbondale icon and blues singer “Tawl” Paul Frederick, who was sitting on a gas meter, sipping a drink and smoking a cigarette. When someone suggested he might blow himself up, he growled that he’d done a lot riskier things and was still here. True that. The former frontman for Pontiac Jones circa 1972 still performs with Slappin Henry Blue (including townies Bill Carter, guitar; T. Thomas, bass; and Charlie Morrill, drums), which over the past quarter century had become the unofficial house band at venerable PK’s on the strip. When I introduced myself to Tawl Paul, he enveloped my hand in a Trumpian grip, said he’d been following my exploits on Facebook, then something about Santa Claus and sitting on his knee.
“I see you made it,” Robbie Stokes, another relic of the Carbondale music scene, hollered when he rolled up in a vehicle. I think Robbie is the best guitar player in the world, but I’m biased. We both went to University High School (Pulliam Hall) in the 1960s, and I was smitten by his first band, the Viscounts, which played a combination of surf and British Invasion music. His next band was Om, and then Devil’s Kitchen, with Brett Champlin, Bob Laughton and Steve Sweigart. They fused folk and psychedelic rock into a sound that took them to San Francisco in 1968, where they played in legendary venues like the Family Dog, Fillmore, and Whisky A Go Go, opening for and playing with members of the Grateful Dead and other San Fran bands. After returning to Carbondale two years later, Robbie played in a gazillion local groups including Coal Kitchen, Vision, Dr. Bombay, St. Stephen’s Blues, Four on the Floor, and the Venturis. He also became a sound technician and founded Robco Audio, which mixes sound for Hangar 9, Shryock Auditorium and many other places.
Another old school chum, Terry Mueller, let us through a back door of the Varsity to have a look around. Terry is one of the unsung heroes of the Carbondale music scene. For many years, he and Bill Carter ran Golden Frets, the town’s primo music store and repair shop. He’s also played guitar and mandolin in a variety of bands, including the original Dixie Diesels.
The Varsity movie theater is a Carbondale relic in its own right. Built in 1940 as a thousand-seat auditorium with balcony for colored folks, it was later split into upper and lower theaters. The building also housed four storefronts and a corner grill. While installing a third screen that replaced the stores in 1981, a construction fire heavily damaged the entire building, and destroyed the main auditorium. Also, the building’s art deco facade was replaced by an ugly stone wall. The theater closed in 2003 and was vacant until 2008, when the nonprofit Jackson County Stage Company acquired the property and turned it into a performing arts center. The third theater is used to stage plays, and the balcony theater was recently renovated and reopened for movies as well as live performances. Some of the original features do remain, including inlaid glass tiles between the balcony steps, and the striking, V-shaped marquee. The theater’s board is trying to raise $3.5 million to rebuild the main auditorium and restore the exterior to its 1940’s art deco glory.
The Varsity Theater as it looked in 1979. — Photo by Karen Majewski.
Terry led us to the balcony theater, where Jim Bruno and Charlie Morrill were doing a sound check. Charlie is a veteran Carbondale drummer with many Carbondale bands, including the Dixie Diesels. Charlie plays drums like a good baseball umpire — he does his job so smoothly that you hardly notice he’s there. He was using the same burgundy drum set he’s had since high school, which was appropriate for the occasion.
We looked inside the ground-floor theaters and saw the three surviving members of Scuttlebucket/Pontiac Jones: Russ Ward, drums and banjo; Dean Milano, bass and vocals; and Mike Potter, guitar, mandolin and bass. Only the late Pete Special was missing. I knew Mike, a quiet, gentle and talented musician, from childhood — he went to Murphysboro High. I’d never met Dean and Russ, who now live and play music in the Chicago area, but in recent years we’d become Facebook friends.
In high school, Dean, Russ and Pete crossed paths playing in bands in the west suburbs of Chicago. Dean and Russ were in a high school band called Grope, while one of Special’s first bands included a drummer named John Belushi. After Dean enrolled at SIU in 1972, and inspired by groups like The Band, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the three moved into a dilapidated house in Carterville, their own Big Pink, where they became Pontiac Jones. They also played bluegrass as Scuttlebucket. After southern Illinois native Terry Ogolini (tenor saxophone), and Chicago Vietnam vet Tawl Paul Frederick (charisma) joined the band, it took off. In addition to playing downtown bars and out-of-town roadhouses, they opened for Paul Butterfield and Leo Kotke at Shryock Auditorium, and Luther Allison at Kilo’s (Carrie’s), a rowdy roadhouse outside Murphysboro.
The band split up in 1975, partly because the bars, including Merlin’s (Golden Gauntlet/TJ McFly’s), went disco and replaced bands with deejays and recorded music. Dean returned to the Chicago area and became a folksinger. Russ and his wife, Diane, also returned to the burbs, where they started a family. Mike helped start the country swing band Dixie Diesels with Brad Davis, a former drummer turned guitarist and singer from the country music trio “Ronnie and the Bossmen.” When the Diesels, including Brad Valentine, Willie Wainright, Ralph “Radar” Hurst, and Shawn Colvin, moved to Austin, Mike went along. He still lives there, where he’s a musician and paints evocative pictures of music legends.
In the early ’70s, Special and Ogolini had discovered “300 pounds of heavenly joy,” Larry “Big Twist” Nolan, playing drums and singing in a three-piece country/R&B band at a rural honky-tonk called Lyin’ Sam’s; he was one of the few blacks playing the roadhouse circuit in southern Illinois. After Twist died in 1990, Special told the Chicago Reader, “When we saw Twist we said, ‘My God, that’s the real thing!’ … He was everything we admired and looked up to; he had that magic.”
Twist, who is believed to have been born in 1937 in Terre Haute, Indiana, had been living for many years in Murphysboro. He began sitting in on some of Pontiac Jones’ gigs, and when the band broke up, Special and Ogolini started a new band with Twist, drummer Denny Best, and a group of black musicians — including singer Martin “Big Larry” Allbritton, keyboardist Ronald West, Sr., and bass player Ron “Tango” West, Jr. — who called themselves the Mellow Fellows. In the 1950s, the Mellow Fellows had been the house band at the New Orleans Bourbon Street Night Club, a famed bawdyhouse in Colp owned by “Ma” Hatchett and her son Junior.
Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows became Carbondale’s premier band until they moved to Chicago in 1978, where they played at blues clubs, toured with The Band and released several R&B albums. After Twist died of complications from diabetes in 1990, the band continued for a few years with Big Larry out front. Then Special got to play with The Band and fronted his own band before his untimely death from a heart attack in 2014. Other Mellow Fellows, including Ogolini, now bill themselves as the Chicago Rhythm and Blues Kings.
Carbondale’s “honky tonk heroes” posing for the cover of nonSequitur magazine in the summer of 1976. 1st row: Larry “Big Twist” Nolan, Jackie “Slo-Jack” Soljacich, Ronny West, Sr. 2nd row: Robbie Stokes, Mick “Rock”, Terry Ogolini, Bob Valentine, Ronald “Tango” West, Jr., Shawn Colvin, Martin “Big Larry” Allbritton, Pete Special, Scott Koerting. 3rd row: Rusty “Radar” Hurst, Kirk Opyt (obscured), Willie Wainright, Mike Potter, Randy Bradle, Denny Best, Bill Desmond, Mark Kerwath and Steve Rodely. Photo by Chuck Fishman.
The reconstituted Pontiac Jones were doing some last-minute rehearsing, so after a brief conversation, my team headed up to Thai Taste in the historic Brush building at Main and Illinois Avenue, where we had a tasty meal despite the fact that days before a car had crashed through the wall facing Main Street. By now you are probably wondering if I’ll ever get around to reviewing the concert. But before I do, let me say that by this point in my mini odyssey, I had realized the show wasn’t going to be as epic as I had built up in my mind.
First of all, it was being held in the balcony theater, which was too small for there to be a mass gathering of Carbondale blasts from the past like I had imagined. Second, there had been a similar reunion show, organized by Bruno and with many of the same musicians, plus a few more, the year before, at the Old Feed Store in Cobden, so it wasn’t a singular event. (Many of the musicians also performed the day before at Blue Sky Vineyard in Makanda and Yellow Moon Cafe in Cobden.) And third, the quality and quantity of Carbondale band members from the 1970s who would not be there meant it could never be the ultimate harmonic convergence, so to speak.
The number of Carbondale musicians from that era who have passed on is enough to fill an Academy Awards Show obit reel, starting with Big Larry (1937-2017), who died just days before the concert. As mentioned, Twist (1937-1990) and Special (1952-2014), had been the soul and heart of Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows. Others no longer with us include the voice of the Dixie Diesels, Brad Davis (1952-2009); Skid City Blues Band guitarist Jack “Slo-Jack” Soljacich (1953-1999); and Coal Kitchen vocalist Carla Peyton (1947-2005), who would have added some gender as well as color diversity to the lineup.
Those still alive but not at the show included saxophonist Kevin Cox of Springfield, IL, who also performed with Coal Kitchen and just about every other Southern Illinois band since the Egyptian Combo; the aforementioned Bill Carter; T. Thomas, who had played with Katie and the Smokers; Greta Mitchell (Tristram), harmonica and keyboards for Skid City, among others (she still performs in New York City); and Billy Desmond, also of Skid City, who now fronts for Billy D and the Hoodoos out of Portland, Oregon. Also: Russell “Radar” Hearst (Dixie Diesels); Terry Ogolini (Big Twist, Pontiac Jones); Alfredo Jahn, (Vision); keyboardist and high school friend and keyboardist Gus Pappelis (oom pah music at Das Fass); and, of course, Grammy winner Shawn Colvin.
No matter. From the moment Bruno and his band walked on stage, he set a mellow mood with his Champaign quip and laconic patter. The smaller venue had great acoustics and provided a more intimate listening experience for the audience. In addition to Bruno, who sang and played acoustic guitar, his cousin, Mark Soljacich (brother of the late “Slo-Jack” Soljacich) played electric guitar; Brian Sandstrom, who was in the Shawn Colvin Band and Skid City, played bass, and on drums, steady Charlie Morrill.
The first set showcased several songs Bruno wrote for his latest album, “Long Short Story.” With a voice that’s not as hard as early Bob Dylan, nor as soft as Paul Simon, Bruno writes what I would call existential love songs. He started the set with a tune appropriate for the occasion, “We’ll Always Remember Tonight,” and later followed up with a song about regret, called “Don’t Listen.” Especially strong was a lyrical ballad called “Marie,” which was enhanced by Soljacich’s note-bending guitar work. Midway through the set, Bruno announced that the author of “Carbondale After Dark” was in the audience, prompting a smattering of applause as I slouched down in my seat, embarrassed and pleased beyond joy.
The reconstituted Scuttlebucket took the stage for the second set, with Russ Ward on banjo, Dean Milano on bass, Mike Potter on acoustic guitar, Terry Mueller on mandolin, and Charlie Morrill back on drums. They began with an old folk standard, “On the Banks of the Ohio,” but I got chills when they next performed “They Call the Wind Mariah,” with Terry’s nimble mandolin playing and powerful vocals by Dean. The song comes from the Lerner and Loewe Broadway musical “Paint your Wagon,” but of course my generation remembers The Smothers Brothers folksong version best. To honor Brad Davis of the Dixie Diesels, they played a couple of Merle Haggard tunes, “White Line Fever” and “The Fugitive.”
For their Pontiac Jones tribute, Russ moved to drums, while Mike, Terry, and Robbie Stokes played electric guitars to compensate for the absence of Special and Ogolini. To excited applause, out strode Tawl Paul, and the band launched into “St. James Infirmary Blues.” Tawl Paul has a unique delivery style, which is part Cab Calloway and part Joe Cocker. Nowadays he sits for some of his performances, but this night he stood. The all-too-short set included two other Pontiac Jones standards, Howlin’ Wolf’s “Wang Dang Doodle,” and “The Weight” by The Band. (Later, Russ reminisced that “St. James Infirmary” had been their “show stopper.” “We started it slow, sort of like this impromptu version, but then kicked it up into a fast rocker. Mike, Pete Special and Terry Ogolini used to tear up the solos,” he recalled.)
Bruno returned with his acoustic guitar for the third set, which was a Carbondale all-star jam that included Mueller, Soljacich, and Stokes on electric guitars, Sandstrom on bass and Morrill on drums, plus “Joe “C” Castrejon on harmonica. Castrejon owns the current music store in Carbondale, Sound Core.
They limbered up with “I Ain’t Got You,” the much-covered 1955 R&B classic by Jimmy Reed, and then played the dance song “Hand Jive,” fittingly, because that had been the last song The Band played at their reunion concert in 1983. Some of the women in the audience began to freestyle on the stoop next to the projection booth, and when the band played another feel-good song, “Hey Baby” (I want to know if you’ll be my girl), a few danced to the front of the stage, to the delight of the crowd.
Next came the highlight of the evening for me. “All Along the Watchtower” was not only a Dylan song, but my favorite tune the Shawn Colvin Band played back in the day. It was the one song I had hoped to hear that night, but thought it would be too cheesy to request. When I recognized the opening chords, I grabbed my iPhone, which had about 7 percent battery left, and began to shoot video. Upside down. But I got it.
It had been a Trump-free evening, thankfully. No jokes and no allusions to 45. On the other hand, the times they aren’t a changin’. The country is as polarized now as it was in the 1960s, split over issues such as civil rights, foreign wars, and a president some say is a crook and a liar. Apocalyptic times. And when the band at the Varsity launched into a 7-minute rendition of the apocalyptic “Watchtower,” I was transported, if not in time, then in feeling, in passion.
Jim sang the verses and Charlie and Brian kept the beat, while Terry, Mark and Robbie traded guitar licks, and Joe C riffed on his harp. The players were loose and kept improvising, extending the song beyond its expected end. Soljacich said something to Bruno and they cracked up laughing. Then Dean Milano appeared on stage, whispered to Bruno, and stepped up to a mic. He raised his arms to get the guitarists to let him take a verse. They almost sputtered to a stop, but were immediately lifted as Dean growled, “All along the watchtower, Princes kept the view…” Sounding more like Hendrix than Dylan, he poured himself into the lyrics. And when he got to “the wind began to howl,” he let loose with an Old Testament howl that brought down the house. Reinvigorated by Dean’s singing, the guitarists reached another crescendo that kept going until Charlie finally ended the revelry with a crash of cymbals.
By the end of the concert, the performers had given their all. But I still wanted more. Throughout the evening, I had been inquiring, “where’s the party?” and nobody seemed to know. Then, I think it was Russ, said he heard where there might be a gathering, and I rolled my eyes at my own stupidity. Where else could an after party for a reunion of old Carbondale bands possibly be held except at the strip’s ultimate relic, the unsinkable PK’s? So my team toked up, I mean walked up, to PK’s, which was nearly empty on a Sunday night. Then the various band members and entourage trickled in, and we partied like it was 1969, if you can believe that.
At one point I was sitting at the bar next to Bruno, and we got to talking about Shawn Colvin. Back in the 1970s, he’d helped Shawn get her start. He set up her first gigs, played in bands with her and wrote songs for her, in Carbondale and the Bay Area, before she relocated to New York and began writing her own songs. They were also a thing for a while. Anyway, he told me about the first time he met Shawn, which was around 1975, at an annual musician campout at SIU ethnomusicologist and folk museum curator Dale Whiteside’s farm. “Lots of music around campfires,” Jim recalled. It got late and he found himself stranded on the farm without a coat or place to sleep. Shawn and her female roommate had a cozy tent, so he went up to her and asked if he could bunk with them for the night. And she said, “dream on.”
Dream on indeed. I reckon I’ll just have to live with my regrets, just as I’ll never be able to recapture my youth. But for one night I could wallow in some ’70s flashbacks, hear the music, share the memories, and mingle with other ghosts of Carbondale past. Was it worth the trip? Hell yes.
The writer and date having photo taken with Dick Gregory for $10. Gregory’s nephew, comedian Mark Gregory, is at top right.
Dick Gregory died Aug. 19, 2017, in Washington, D.C.
Before Richard Pryor, before Eddie Murphy, and before Chris Rock, Whoopi Goldberg and Dave Chappelle, there was Dick Gregory, who in the 1950s and ’60s smashed through the color barrier separating black comedians from white audiences. Once dubbed the black Mort Sahl for his political humor, he is one of the lesser-known pioneer black comedians — or, as he would say, comedians who happened to be black — in large part because he put activism ahead of show business.
On March 26, 2017, the 84-year-old comic, civil rights activist, author and holistic health advocate performed for one of the last times before his death, at a nearly full house at the Improv in West Palm Beach. It was kind of like going to see Bob Dylan, or back in the day, Lenny Bruce. You go to pay your respects, hope they do their best, but prepare for something less, which is what happened at the Improv.
Not that the audience was disappointed. We got to see vintage Gregory. Feisty, contrary, racial, cosmological and conspiratorial. Lots of MFs, b- and n-words. (His nephew, rising comedian Mark Gregory, who served as Gregory’s warmup act, chose to go with the anachronistic “Negro” instead.)
Black, or what in the 1950s were called Negro comedians, took two new paths to break into the mainstream — the old path was self-denigration, as epitomized by Stepin Fetchit. Some of Gregory’s peers, like Bill Cosby, avoided controversial subjects and kept things folksy, similar to Will Rogers, Bob Hope or Jerry Seinfeld. Others, like Godfrey Cambridge and Gregory, took the riskier route of social satire, tapping into a strain of American humor that runs through Mark Twain, Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. Actually, it’s more a matter of degree. To some extent, all comedians combine what might be called silly and serious humor. Like most people, entertainers try to find a combination of representing and assimilating that works for them, professionally and personally.
Richard Claxton Gregory was born into poverty on Oct. 12, 1932, in St. Louis, Missouri. He became a track standout at Sumner High School, and in 1951 he got an athletic scholarship to attend Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, before and after being drafted into the Korean War. (This writer was born and went to college in Carbondale, and local lore has it that Gregory was the first black person to integrate the town’s Varsity Theater, by refusing to sit in the balcony.)
ABC Close Up Report – Walk in My Shoes (1961). Nicholas Webster’s documentary explores the state of urban black America, featuring what may be Dick Gregory’s first TV appearance. His segment begins at (15:16), but there’s also footage of Malcolm X, CORE founder James Farmer, and regular people discussing race and sex, among other issues.
Gregory left school before graduating and moved to Chicago, where he worked at $5-a-night comedy gigs and met his wife, Lil. They had 11 children, including one who died shortly after birth. Because of his busy schedule, he admits to having been an absent father. His stock line is, “Jack the Ripper had a father. Hitler had a father. Don’t talk to me about family.”
He got his big break in 1961, when Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner took a liking to his sardonic takes on race and current events, and hired him for an extended stay at the Playboy Club. Gregory’s disarming sense of humor enabled whites to laugh, sometimes at themselves, while being confronted with inconvenient truths. An example of one of his early jokes is on his website: “Segregation is not all bad. Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?”
From the Playboy Club, he began playing better venues, like San Francisco’s hungry i, and got on Jack Parr and other TV shows. In 1963, his first autobiography, “Nigger,” was published and became a best seller. (In the book, he says he chose the title so that whenever his mother heard the word in the future, she’d “know they are advertising my book.”)
But then he pulled a Dave Chappelle and withdrew from the spotlight. Inspired by leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he joined the Civil Rights Movement and used his celebrity status to address such issues as segregation and voter registration. While contemporaries like Cosby, Cambridge and Nipsy Russell were getting their shots at stardom, Gregory was protesting world hunger and other issues. He went on dozens of fasts, sometimes lasting more than 40 days, and for two-and-a-half years he ate no solid food to protest the Vietnam War.
He ran against Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley in 1966, and as a write-in candidate for president in 1968. According to his website, “After the assassinations of King, President John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy, Gregory became increasingly convinced of the existence of political conspiracies.” With JFK conspiracy theorist Mark Lane, in 1971 Gregory co-wrote “Code Name Zorro: The Murder of Martin Luther King Jr.”
In 1973, Gregory moved his family to Plymouth, Massachusetts, where the once overweight smoker became a nutritional consultant. He says he first became a vegetarian after seeing his pregnant wife kicked by a cop, and not having the courage to fight back. He vowed that he would never “participate in the destruction of any animal that never harmed me.” In the 1980s, he founded a company that sold weight-loss products, and he drew media attention when he started a fat farm in Ft. Walton, Fla., for the morbidly obese.
In 1996, he returned to stand-up with a well-received one-man show, “Dick Gregory Live!” Also in 1996, he picketed CIA Headquarters to protest allegations that the agency had started the crack epidemic by smuggling cocaine into South-Central Los Angeles. He was arrested, as he has been many times over the years.
In 2000, Gregory was diagnosed with lymphoma, a deadly form of cancer. That same year, a three-and-a-half-hour tribute was held in his honor at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., hosted by Bill Cosby, with appearances by Coretta Scott King, Stevie Wonder, Isaac Hayes, Cicely Tyson, and Marion Barry, among others. Refusing chemotherapy, he used alternative medicine to beat the disease, and became a lecturer on diet and ethics.
Wikipedia lists 16 albums and 16 books on his resume, but according to the IMDB website, he has never been in a major motion picture, although he has appeared as himself in several documentaries. His film credits include Rev. Slocum in “Panther” (1995), a bathroom attendant in “The Hot Chick” (2002), and a blind panhandler in the TV show “Reno 911” (2004). Nevertheless, in 2015 he received a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for Live Theatre/Performance.
To the end, he maintained a grueling schedule of up to 150 shows, lectures and interviews a year, many of which are on YouTube, and he had an active Twitter account. Before coming to West Palm Beach, he was at the Improv in Houston, and from Florida he headed to New York City, for two shows at Caroline’s on Broadway.
At the Improv at West Palm Beach, Gregory was, in a word, grouchy. When introduced to the mainly older and black audience, the comedy icon didn’t appear for several minutes, apparently because he was in the restroom. Once he doddered on stage and slumped into a chair, he began muttering. When a woman sitting about 10 rows back shouted that she couldn’t hear him, he snapped back, “you shoulda sat closer,” which got a laugh.
He acknowledged his age but bristled at the term “elderly.” “I’m just old,” he said.
He talked about race, religion, sex and politics, including Obama and Trump. He said he was disappointed that Obama hadn’t gotten more done when he was in the White House, but that comparing him to Trump forever destroys the myth of white superiority.
He made many other wry observations, but like Lenny Bruce, he was less funny the more he indulged his obsession — for Bruce, it was his legal woes, in Gregory’s case, the many conspiracy and dietary theories he has accumulated over the years. He still thinks “agents” are out to get him, and that Oswald didn’t kill JFK.
He had brought along numerous visual aids, including newspaper clippings, magazine covers and photos of himself with MLK and Muhammad Ali, which he used to tell vignettes. He kept saying, “and finally,” but then he would move on to more stories. In an odd reversal, it was as if the performer didn’t want the more than two-hour show to end more than the audience didn’t.
This half-hour clip from Gregory’s March 3 show in New Orleans is similar to the one in West Palm Beach.
Despite the unevenness of his performance, it was great to see a comedy legend still pushing the envelope, still as controversial and incisive as ever. Every comedian who traffics in ethnic humor today — black, white, brown, yellow or mixed — owes a debt to Gregory for paving the way. On the same day as his show, he posted a tweet that described how much the world has changed, and not changed, over the course of his life: