REFERENCE POINTS - AN ARTISTIC CHRONOLOGY IN PROGRESS
1964-65: Motorcycle Days
Reconnecting with the USA
JT with his Norton motorcycle in Florida in 1964.
The following narrative was written by JT in 2010. Some of the details were gleaned from his notes and diaries from 1964-1965.
Like many other young Americans, the events of November 22, 1963 left me stunned, disillusioned, and confused. The situation was exacerbated by my draft board's decision to send me to Viet Nam. Ultimately I did not serve in the military, but the pressures of this confluence of events shook the earth I walked on. "I am an American," I thought, "and my country is coming apart at the seams. There must be something I can do." I set out to reconnect with America, an America which was still struggling to rise up out of the ashes of dispair which had followed the assassination of President Kennedy. I decided to give up performing and I abandoned my Spanish persona andsold my flamenco guitar. In my confusion, I thought that economic success would provide the identity and connection that I was looking for. I decided to focus all my energies on making money...
In February or March of 1964 I talked my way into a job as a copywriter at a Madison Avenue advertising agency. The starting salary wasn't much but I did have an office of my own and I optimistically believed that I could rapidly move on to being an account executive and would soon have my first million. As one of my first tasks, I was asked to come up with a concept which would land a new corporate client with three to four million dollars of annual billing. When I presented the concept, H-------, the account exec who was assigned to approach the client, rejected it. I saw this as an opportunity. Using the law of "seven degrees of separation" I soon found my way to the chairman of the board of the client corporation and pitched the concept. Even though I felt it best to refrain from mentioning the name of the agency I worked for, the client liked my proposal. But when I returned to the agency and spoke to my superiors about the success of my meeting, I was shot down. "Didn't I realize," my bosses pointed out, "that H------ controlled many important accounts. My initiative was sure to offend H------."
"But I've only been here a few weeks and I've already sold this client," said I. "Can't you see that I'm a go-getter and will bring in lots of business."
"Just stick to writing copy," I was told.
This did not fit with my plans. Perhaps if the agency has been less conservative they might have handled the situation differently. Perhaps if I had been more patient I could have built a career in advertising. As it was, when three musicians from Nova Scotia approached me one evening in a cafe on MacDougal Street and asked me to become their instrumental sideman, I was only too happy to have an excuse to leave the advertising agency. After less than two months on Madison Avenue I was back in the music business and on my way to a month-long gig at The House of Pegasus in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with The Halifax Three, a Kingston Trio type group consisting of Denny Doherty, Pat LaCroix and Richard Byrne.
While in Fort Lauderdale, my relationship with the three Canadians came apart over finances and, when the gig was over, Denny, Pat, and Richard purchased an old hearse and headed north while I stayed on at the House of Pegasus, working as a single. With the money I earned singing I bought a 600cc twin-cylinder Norton Dominator and learned to ride it on the roads around Davie, then little more than a ranch town.
Eventually tiring of Florida, I headed north on highway 301, my Gibson CF-100 guitar strapped to a homemade luggage rack made of plumbing pipe which I had bolted to the Norton's rear faring. Somewhere in Georgia the left-hand muffler fell off the motorcycle but I fastened it back on with two tractor bolts and a coat hanger. I passed through South Carolina without incident but in Fayetteville, North Carolina, while coming out of a gas station after filling the tank with a dollar's worth of gas, I was hit broadside by the driver of an Oldsmobile sedan and knocked unconscious. Fortunately the driver of the car had managed to slow his vehicle down and there was minimal damage to the bike (a slightly dented fork) and none at all to the guitar. When I regained consciousness I paused for only a moment to consider my situation. I was a drifter on a motorcycle who had been in an accident which was probably my fault and I had very little money. This was not the profile most likely to inspire "southern hospitality" in Fayetteville, the home of Fort Bragg. The movie "Easy Rider" was still five years in the future but I previsioned the entire scenario. Getting away as fast as possible seemed the most prudent course of action. Minutes after I awoke I mounted the motorcycle and continued north, stopping only when I had crossed the border into Virginia where I hid the bike in some bushes, lay down next to it, and slept until the next morning.
When I reached Pennsylvania I passed through Kennett Square and then Chadds Ford, home of one of America's two most prominent artistic families, the Wyeths. In Philadelphia, I stopped to perform at The Second Fret, and was encouraged by the response of the audience. Even though some of them had known me when I had performed there in my flamenco days, they seemed to accept the manner in which I had reinvented myself and I was pleased.
Just before labor day of 1964, I continued on towards New York. I stopped for coffee at almost every rest-stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. It was as if I was reluctant to face "the city" again. But eventually I rode through the tunnel under the Hudson and surfaced to find myself surrounded by the cacophony and confusion of 40th Street and 9th Avenue. Heading down to Greenwich Village, I rented a space to park the motorcycle in a garage on Third Street near Sixth Avenue and began to carve out a new career for myself as a singer-songwriter. But before September was over, restless again, I headed for the Boston area. On the way, I detoured north to follow the ridge that divides New York from Connecticut where I visited my childhood home on Quaker Hill near Pawling, NY. This was, after all, a journey of reconnection.
During the fall and winter of 1964 I lived, for the second time, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I performed at The Kings Rook in Ipswich and some other folk venues and found manual labor day jobs to make ends meet. Sometime in the spring of 1965 I purchased an old panel van for $200 and, loading the motorcycle into the back of the van, headed south towards New York. The van broke down a couple of times during the two hundred mile trip and eventually I found himself limited, once again, to what I could carry with him on the bike. After just a few days in New York, I resolved to ride to the west coast. "Maybe," I told myself, "If I can disover America I can discover myself."
I cannot recall anyone who might have noticed my departure from New York in the late spring of 1965. People came and went easily from the "Village scene" in those days. Having only five dollars to my name, I only got as far as Seaside Heights, New Jersey before, in need of money, I stopped to perform at a club called The Quay. From the Jersey shore I moved on to Pennsylvania where I found work with Sonny Pelaquin's "Wall of Death" motor drome which was the main act in a Reithoffers' carnival unit I connected with in the small town of Trooper, not far from Norristown. Working the carnival I was sometimes the outside "talker" and ticket seller and sometimes worked inside the drome, standing in the center of the 32 foot barrel while the riders whirled around the vertical walls so that when they descended I could appeal for donations to the "riders insurance fund."
The next scheduled stop for the carnival, following Trooper, was a shopping mall in Greece, NY, a suburb of Rochester. After I and the rest of the crew had disassembled the drome and loaded it and the antique Indian 45s on which Pelaquin and the other riders rode the wall, onto its tractor trailer, there was no room for my Norton.As a result I rode along behind the eighteen wheeler driven by "Big John" while Sonny and some of the others went on ahead with Sonny's mobile home. About three hours into the nine-hour trip, the truck blew a spark plug right out of the head. As a result the engine lost considerable power and made a great deal of noise and, on a long slow climb up a steep grade near Scranton, Big John was pulled over by the State Police. Finding something out of order with the Alabama plates on the truck, the police gave Big John a ticket and since neither he nor I had enough money to pay the fine, they took him to a jail near Wilkes-Barre. For want of a better plan, I followed the planned route fast as I could, hoping to catch up with Sonny along the way. But somewhere near Watkins Glen I could no longer keep my eyes open and had to sleep for a few hours and so Sonny, having multiple drivers, made it all the way to Greece before I caught up with him and reported the incident. Everyone immediately piled into Sonny's car and headed back to Wilkes-Barre to spring Big John from the calaboose and retrieve the truck and the drome. This time I got to ride in the car but still it was another grueling six-hour drive back to Wilkes Barre, another six hours to get the drome to Greece and eight sweat-filled hours to set it up for the following day's performances.
This adventure took the romance out of carnival life. The work was dangerous, the set-ups and tear-downs were grueling, and the rides between stops difficult. The audiences were meager and my share of the take not enough to live on.. Before long I was on my way to a Coffee House in Baltimore where I knew I could get work singing.
After a week or two in Baltimore, including two or three nights spent in the ritual pick-up circle at Champs on route 40, I placed a ruler on top of a road map and drew a straight line connecting Baltimore with St. Louis, Missouri. I resolved to stay as close as possible to that line as I restarted my journey to the west coast. Following this line took me through West Virginia where I stopped in the hamlet of Norton to send postcards to some of my motorcycle friends. I then continued west through Spencer and Ripley and crossed the Point Pleasant-Gallipolis bridge into Ohio. Somewhere near Willow Wood thre front tire of the motorcycle went flat and I had to detour to Ashland, Kentucky, the nearest place where a new tube could be found. Then it was on through Louisville, across Indiana and Illinois, and on to St. Louis where I looked up the brother of guitarist John Stauber with whom I had shared an apartment in New York. Stauber's brother gave him a place to sleep and I looked for work. I was unsuccessful at finding a singing job so I went to work for Manpower, loading and unloading trucks and freight cars. Most of those work days merged into a haze of fatigue and sweat but one stands out in I's memory. It was the day I and my aptly-named partner Ulysses unloaded a freight car containing eighty thousand pounds of marble chips in 100-pound sacks. Their job was to load the sacks on hand carts, wheel them across the loading dock into a warehouse, and, building a staircase out of the sacks themselves, pile them twelve feet high against the wall. The pay of five cents per sack made it a good day. I and Ulysses each made twenty dollars!
After a month or so in St. Louis, I continued west to Kansas City where I stayed at a commune called Toad Hall which was located across the street from the Art Museum. My next stop was the mile-high city of Denver. At the Folklore Center in Denver I met Pete Smith who later became an important part of my musical life. Pete, I, and some others shared a communal space over an old movie theater on East Colfax. But I was still searching and before long I headed south over the Raton Pass to Taos, New Mexico and then on to Santa Fe. In Santa Fe a kind soul whose name I no longer remember put me up for a few days. I spent a brief guitar-centered time with one of the Romero brothers but my restlessness got the better of me and soon I found myself on Route 66 headed towards Flagstaff. But I had not counted on the quixotic weather in the New Mexico mountains.
Even though it was still fall, somewhere near Gallup I got caught in a blizzard and was forced, covered with frozen snow and ice, to seek shelter in a roadside diner. I must have looked really forlorn, for Ray, a middle-aged man who was heading west in a pickup towing a house trailer, offered to put the motorcycle in the back of the truck and take me as far as I wanted to go. So it was that I rode in style through Flagstaff, Kingman, and through the Port of Entry near Needles, California in rare style. Along the way Ray, who was Ozark-born, entertained me with his versions of the Ballad of Little Omie Wise, Pretty Polly, The Banks of the Ohio, and many other melancholy traditional songs. Somewhere in the desert west of Needles, I got to earn my ride when the house trailer blew a tire. Ray and I loaded the blown tire onto the back of my motorcycle and I carried it thirty-five miles west to the nearest repair shop. There a new tire was mounted on the rim and the wheel was once again loaded onto my bike and I rode the thirty-five miles back to where Ray was waiting by the side of the road. With the wheel remounted and the bike lifted back into the truck, Ray and I continued west.
In Santa Fe I had been given the names and address of a couple in Barstow who would be likely to give me a place to stay so it was there that Ray and I parted ways. I found the house easily but nobody was home when I knocked on the door. I sat down to wait and a few hours later the couple showed up. They were as hospitable as they had been described to be but their resources were limited. I knew that my being there made things hard for them. Two days later I headed for Los Angeles.
My arrival in Los Angeles was as inauspicious as my departure from New York. Completely without funds, I begged for food and gas money outside a music store in Santa Monica or Venice. Later I stayed for a while at the home of Hoyt Axton, a musician I had known in New York. Hungry in more ways than one, I made the rounds, trying to sell my songs and myself as a singer and had meetings with Phil Spector and other record producers. I even gave acting a try, doing a screen test for Doris Day's husband Marty Melcher. Nothing panned out. Eventually I found work waiting on tables at a bar on Sunset Strip named after the protagonist of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Fred C. Dobbs (the role was played by Humphrey Bogart). Because the job didn't pay enough to rent a room, the manager of the bar allowed me to spread out a sleeping bag in one of the storerooms behind the bar. Disappointed at my failure to find any success with my music and further depressed by my dismal living situation, I started drinking. Alcohol and motorcycles are not a good combination and one afternoon the real wheel of my Norton got caught in the trolley tracks on Santa Monica boulevard and I skidded into the rear of a nineteen-fifty-something Desoto, the car's fin opening the shin of my passenger before the bike went down, breaking one of the bones in my foot. The passenger needed fifteen stitches to close the wound. Luckily he had medical insurance. Medical care was out of my reach for me so I stuffed my foot back into my motorcycle boot and didn't take it off until two or three weeks later. But by that time I had left Los Angeles because of a portentous chain of events at Fred C. Dobbs.
It started at closing time a couple of days after the accident. Among the few remaining patrons was an attractive woman who had had more drinks than she should have. Tom, the bartender, offered to drive her home.
"Which is your car," Tom asked when they got to the parking lot.
"The Green VW," replied his companion drunkenly. "The key's in the dash..."
Tom located the vehicle, found the keys, and drove off, anticipating pleasant rewards for his good deeds.
What Tom didn't know was that there were two green Volkswagens in the parking lot, both with the keys in the dash. He and his companion had driven to her home in the wrong one. In the morning, when they realized the mistake, they immediately headed back to the bar. But it was too late. The police where already there and despite all excuses and the fact that there had obviously been an error, Thomas was arrested and taken to headquarters.
Why the owner of the bar sent me to headquarters to post bail for Tom is something I can neither remember nor figure out. But that is what happened andt it was an experience that I still remember vividly.
When I got to the police station the police asked for my driver's license.
”Why," I asked ingenuously, explaining that I was just there to post bail for someone.
"Shut Up and hand it over or we'll lock you up for associating with a known criminal" was the response of the officer on duty. I handed over my license.
I and sat down to wait. Having never had any adversarial interaction with law, I was confused. Minutes turned to hours while the police, presumably, checked on me. During those hours the threat of the officer sank in and my confusion was replaced by fear. Clearly, in Los Angeles, the presumption of innocence was a fiction. It was all about power and the police had the power.
Finally, hours later, my documentation was returned to me and I was allowed to hand over the money for Tom's bail. But the visit to police headquarters had shaken my confidence. The next day I sold the motorcycle for $200 and with just my guitar and the clothes on my back I set out to hitch-hike east. As I left Los Angeles, I thought about the Okies who had traveled west during the great depression with signs on their Model As which said "California or Bust." California had certainly been a "bust" for me.
What I didn't know was that when I had traced the route of the dust bowl refugees in reverse, I would be given a ride from Oklahoma City to Tulsa by one Frank Carbone, a distributor for Paramount Pictures, and that Frank, out of the goodness of his heart, would orchestrate an encounter with a group of his colleagues which would change my life forever.
(to be continued)
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