Blurred Time Continues
The War Pipes
A Trip with Ralph
In a Birmingham Diner
When I opened my eyes again the telephone poles were flying past the window. My watch said 4 AM. I figured we were somewhere on I-77 in West Virginia. Vaughn was doing the 3rd shift. I made my way up front and joined him. Everyone else, Rex, Billy, Murph, was sacked out. Billy had headphones on. I could hear tiny snatches of music, munchkin music, leaking out of them. The van was dark, only the instrument lights, and the reflection of the lights off the pavement in front of us. I glanced at the speedometer--80. Vaughn was cruising, back in his seat, one hand on the top of the wheel, the other batting time against his knee. There was no traffic at all, only the very occasional whoosh of a semi blowing past us in the night. Vaughn would click the lights when they got past, and they'd give us a show of running lights in return.
"How's it going," I asked him. He looked at me and shrugged. I thought maybe he was a little wired. I could never tell with Vaughn, he was always so quiet. I lit a smoke and we rolled along.
Vaughn was a puzzle. He was the best musician in the band by far, and a writer too, of real wit and originality. He also listened to different things than the rest of us--British folk music, Gilbert and Sullivan. He had an incredible tenor voice too, so he was always putting in these unexpected vocal parts that just sealed the songs. Women loved him, pursued him. One of these love-struck belles brought him a birthday cake once, all the way to New York, where we were playing, and threw a surprise party for him in the bar. He squished the piece of cake she gave him in her face, but they were laughing. A love-hate relationship I guess. His best songs were about lonely people looking at their ceilings. And death.
"At least the war's finally over," he said. There had been all this stuff in the papers--the last American choppers were pulling out, with people hanging on to their skids and falling off, hundreds of feet in the air. It had been over for Americans for a good while, since Nixon went down in flames. We had been playing a gig the night he resigned. No one showed up. Everyone was partying in the streets.
"I've been wondering what I should do with my life," Vaughn said. "I feel like now I have a life again."
I felt the same way, like a weight was gone, or a gray pile of fine ash that had settled down on all of us, slowly, imperceptibly, burying us entirely over the years, the long years from what, the Kennedy assassination? You can't really tell when things start. Even Vietnam. There was no real beginning, nothing like Pearl Harbor. Just more and more stuff on TV. "Medic, medic, incoming, incoming." Screams. The faces of my generation, with helmets and bloody holes in their chests.
"Not that they would have taken me," Vaughn said. "I got a 4-F. Hernia. Before the lottery."
"Yeah, I got a great lottery number," I said to him. "Three-ten. Everybody always said you were safe above about 150. When I got that good number is when I quit school and lit out for San Francisco."
"I wish we could do a West Coast tour," Vaughn said. "S.F.'s a nice town."
"It's changing a lot," I said. "When I was there, in '69, it was kinda depressed. Seems like lately there's more money." I was in graduate school with Rex before my tour in the City by the Bay. We were studying philosophy. He had already been in the service, pre-Vietnam. He was sitting pretty, having a good time. He and Katherine would throw a big party every Friday night, lots of music, beer, moonshine out in the front yard. After a while they didn't know half the people that showed up, and the cops started sitting out at the end of the road and taking names. I'd go over there, get wrecked, weave home on my motorcycle. Billy was there a lot too. The kernel of the band to be. Like I say, sometimes you don't realize when something has started. The jam sessions were the Big Bang for us. Billy ended up being a C.O. Took the bull by the horns.
San Francisco was like another planet. You'd go to a movie and a joint would just come down the isle to you, like a communion plate. The whole town was tripping on a hundred different drugs it seemed like, crowds of people drumming 24 hours a day in Golden Gate Park, throngs cruising Height-Ashbury, and the constant whisper, "acid, speed, grass," "acid, speed, grass," these insistent whispers, these ragged haunted eyes. I lived out there on almost nothing for almost six months, just digging the scene, wandering the streets stoned or straight. As far from North Carolina as I could get. One night I rode a bus from the Mission where I was living over to the Marina to hear Boz Scaggs in a little bar. What a trip. In the middle was the ghetto, and the Bank Roll Liquor Store, derelict cars and derelict people. I sat there in the bar, when I finally got there, listening to Boz, buying a drink every time this wonderful, beautiful waitress came by until the last tiny bit of rationality in my brain signaled that I was running out of money. I walked all the way back to the Mission.
It was snowing, I noticed. Big thick flakes, spiraling down, splatting against the windshield. It was starting to stick on the road too. About then the road ran out into a detour, and we were back in the real West Virginia, where the roads never run straight. We were somewhere around Beckley I think. Back the night before we'd been doing a gig in this bowling alley restaurant in Sandusky, Ohio.
This is just to show you how good a player Vaughn was. The guy who ran the place was weird. Actually, you have to be weird to consider trying to run a music joint. Anyway, this guy was always doing little things to try to catch us out, like misremembering our arrangement. One time he gave Rex an envelope full of money. Rex counted it, and it was heavy a twenty. Rex was sure the guy wanted to see if Rex would give it back, so he did.
The thing about a piano is, you have
to ask for one to be provided. Vaughn was always getting doozies.
This one, in Sandusky, was a step and a half low. It was so low that
Murph couldn't pull the slide on his trumpet out far enough to tune to
it. So Vaughn just plays the whole gig out of his head, transposing
every piece to a different key. At the end he's boiling, and raises
hell with the bar owner. This is after the bar owner has been congratulating
himself on getting the thing over to the club from whatever garage it had
been residing in. Telling Vaughn and the rest of us what a hassle
it was, how he wouldn't do it for just anyone. I never even realized
Vaughn was doing that either.
"Let's get some coffee," Vaughn said, and we pulled into the lot. When the engine stopped, the guys stirred, looked around. It was about 5 AM now. We all shambled in.
It was a strange place. It seemed to be run by people who should have been in a rest home. Very elderly women and an equally old guy behind the register. They looked a little afraid of us, their only customers. We asked for coffee, and soon it appeared, weak, thin stuff in tiny Styrofoam cups, with packets of powered creamer and wooden sticks to stir the stuff in with. There was no breakfast-like food available.
"We have chicken noodle soup," our elderly waitress said. Someone thought maybe pie might be breakfast-like. "We have banana pudding." I think the way it turned out we had two soups and three puddings. Maybe Rex ordered both. The old lady made out individual checks over at the register, her mouth laboring as she wrote, her brow furrowed. The soup and the pudding were each the same price, fifty cents.
Back in the van, we kept our same places. It was still early, and traffic was light. The flakes were fewer, and it was more like a snow shower, with holes in the clouds. The flakes were pink-tinged from the rising sun. Then we were just driving in the rain.
"Sometimes this seems so stupid, just driving around the country." Vaughn didn't look at me when he spoke. The wipers whacked back and forth, the van jolted in the potholes.
"It's either fun, or it's not," I said.
"It seems like we're in this bubble," he said. "Like there's no time, no tomorrow except the next gig. It makes me nervous sometimes, that's all."
"You could be working at the Paradise Inn," I said to him. We both started laughing so hard we could barely see, and Vaughn had to slam on the brakes to catch a turning light. While we were sitting there I spotted a sign for I-77, and pretty soon we were flying again.
|Red Clay Ramblers Souvenirs|