Not much action at the floating book shop on this glorious winter day. My thanks to the woman who bought four kids books. Despite the anemic sales, I have every reason to feel blessed, as I am in good health, unlike Mark, a diabetic Vietnam vet who’s about to begin dialysis, which is four hours per session and probably twice a week. And when I remarked to the late Amalia’s son on how much weight he’d lost, he revealed he’s battling cancer. Mark is about my age, the other man considerably younger.
Nothing in today’s news seemed fresh, so here’s an excerpt from my recently published collection of short works, Curious Sicilian. Yesterday a Facebook post asked people to name the most memorable concert they’d ever seen, an easy choice for me. It is included in one of the non-fiction pieces in the book. Josephine, whom I’ve never met in person, raved about my choice. I somehow resisted the temptation to ask if she were the young woman in the row ahead of me. The piece is entitled Out of Character. Here is all but the last hundred or so words of it. It’s a ten-minute read at most:
I had the privilege of attending at least three of the rock n shows legendary DJ Murray the K hosted at the Fox Theater in downtown Brooklyn. I hadn’t even known of their existence until they were mentioned by Ralph, a portly, irreverent red-haired teenager I hung out with the summer of 1962 while his best friend was away. I turned twelve in May. Friends warned me he would leave me flat once Carmine returned. It didn’t bother me. I knew I wouldn’t fall apart. And I believed he had a good heart. Maybe I was using him as much as he was me.
He suggested we go. I was surprised my mom let me. All I remember about that first show was the Ronettes, every male teenager’s wet dream. They were in their full glory, decked out in colorful tight dresses whose frills shook as they shimmied. Were they black, white, Hispanic? We argued about it constantly. It didn’t matter to me. I lusted for Ronnie Spector–and there she stood singing not 100 feet from me. I imagine my acne was erupting.
The Eisley Brothers also were an incredible live act. Those of us who saw them insisted they jumped from the piano directly onto their knees, which would have landed even a black man in the hospital. We loved how they twirled their fancy jackets above their heads as they sang.
And then there was Jackie Wilson. So unschooled was I that I did not understand why he was the headliner of the December 1962 show, as the record sales of others dwarfed his. I went with Chucky, who was probably just short of 13. I’m sure I didn’t tell my mom where I was going. Chucky was a lively kid, fun to be around. Short, girls found him so cute, especially his flowing light locks and square-back neckline. Images of that show, Chucky’s first, remain vivid. He was overwhelmed, sitting in an almost fetal position, hands clenched together. He remained uncharacteristically quiet throughout. Two older boys were seated directly behind us. At that stage, I feared our immediate elders, as they often abused those younger than themselves, seemingly a neighborhood tradition. The two seemed like tough guys: leather jackets, cigarettes, arrogance, slick hair that featured a pointed front that hung over the forehead, which we dubbed a “ghee.” They shouted insults at performers and patrons alike, only one of which I recall, a comment so bold to my virgin ears. I was shocked someone would say such a thing publicly. I feared management or one of the artists would come down from the stage and confront him. Perhaps the words were lost in the din.
The two repeatedly called out to a beauty in the row ahead of us, who, although she ignored them, was apparently thrilled her charms were appreciated. The more boisterous of the pair noted my glances in the direction of a purple blouse to my left, who was perhaps 16. To my chagrin, she was smoking. Of course, raging hormones forgave even so vile a practice.
“That girl likes you,” said the one, leaning over the back of my seat. “She wants to go out with you.”
So gullible was I that I gazed at her wondering if it were true. Had the young man detected something in her body language or overheard a comment she’d made? I wanted to believe it was so. My hang ups may not yet have begun.
Wilson took the stage. There was a bulge in his left pants pocket, which we would soon learn was a handkerchief he would use to mop his face, and which may have been as much a prop as a necessity, as he never broke stride or paused when patting himself down.
The irreverent young man cupped his hands into the shape of a megaphone and shouted: “Wilson’s got a hardon!” No one laughed. We were so close to the stage I was certain the star had heard it. If he had, he didn’t show it. I was too naive to the ways of the world to realize he’d no doubt heard far worse. Although I did not laugh at the time, I smile whenever I recall or recount the incident. In all likelihood those guys weren’t toughs but teenagers in the throes of a relentless sexuality for which there was no outlet but verbal release. The sexual revolution was at least five years away. Only a lucky few were scoring, and many of those only because they’d placed an engagement ring on a finger.
Wilson electrified the crowd. It was apparent why he was headlining. I felt foolish, dumb. He was an extraordinary showman, an Eisley Brothers embedded in a single man, energetic, graceful, acrobatic. He did pirouettes, splits and sang passionately to a rhythmic clapping from the audience. He elevated the entire venue, which was half filled. The show alternated with a movie and performances would continue into the night. No doubt the house would be packed during the evening shows.
The two young men reached past us in an exaggerated effort to pinch the magnificent tush of the aforementioned beauty. Caught in the spirit of the moment, I impulsively reached for heaven myself, a move so out of character. I’d given in to the demon inside, gave truth to everyone who likened rock n roll to satanism. The young lady, laughing, turned and hammered me about the arms. I was thrilled. The “toughs” were beside themselves, falling about each other.
Ah, youth. Unfortunately, time has erased that beautiful face from my memory. I have a clearer vision of the girl in purple, now a secondary figure in the scene. She had a doll-like face. How grateful I am that all were there at that moment. It’s a memory that brings warmth, one that momentarily relieves burdensome thoughts, one I’ll cherish until I’m in my grave.
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