Arrested Development Revisited – The Kid Is Back!

The author in a previous life, c.2005

After a nearly two-year hiatus, prompted by common sense, I am back on my longboard skateboard. A New York Times piece on aging boarders got me rethinking my premature retirement from bombing minor hills here in South Jersey. The first outing was a bit shaky, but improvement is happening, and I feel that it won’t take more than a couple more days of riding for me to be back where I left off. That is of course, barring catastrophe.

Shredding With Pop-Pop!

http://youtu.be/WN2iYSdd3mA

Click the link for six-minutes of music and unabashed, shameless senior showing-off.

Look for upcoming “It Gets Better” public service spots in which Pop -Pop consoles struggling beginner snowboarders.

Tell Them I’m Not Home – out now!

Tell Them I'm Not Home

‘Tell Them I’m Not Home’ is a lightly fictionalized memoir of growing up in the Olney section of North Philadelphia in the decade following World War II, a place not unlike Jean Shepherd’s Hammond, Indiana of a decade earlier. The close-quarters life in a blue-collar neighborhood of row-house streets provided the author with a cast of characters, many funny, some scary, as well as a near-endless litany of stories. ‘Tell Them I’m Not Home’ is a ticket back to the Olney & Philadelphia of the late 1940s and early 1950s, a place as singular, colorful and as lost to today as Hapsburg Vienna or tenement New York.

Contact:
olney.memoir@gmail.com

More Info:
www.petebyrne.com

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Buy The Book:

Amazon | Barnes & Noble
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Sample Chapters:

“The Glory That Was Rome
In neighborhoods like Olney, people sorted themselves out along a variety of fault lines. Phillies fans versus those who allied themselves with Connie Mack’s pitiful Athletics, those with Lionel Electric trains against those with American Flyers, the cheaper Father and Son shoes against the pricier Flagg Brothers, Luckies or Camels, and on and on and on. But the defining separation among the people who populated the neighborhood of my childhood was the religious split between Catholics and the Protestants. Among Catholics like us, the prevailing interpretation of Protestantism encompassed anyone who wasn’t a Catholic.  (Click here to continue…)

 

 “Happy Birthday Patsy Mullins”
I was coming down 5th Street when I met Eddie Matthews who was coming the other way. In the course of the kind of conversations that twelve-year-olds, newly minted twelve-year-olds, carry on, Eddie asked if I were going to Patsy Mullins’ birthday party. The question kind of bounced off me. Like what birthday party, and why would Patsy Mullins invite me to her birthday party? In the sexually segregated Irish, Latin, Roman Catholic world of late 1940’s Philadelphia where this conversation was taking place, I was very much aware of young Ms. Mullins. But although we were in the same grade in the same parish school, we had never exchanged more than a “Hi” when passing on the street. Seventh grade boys were on one floor of the school building and girls on the other. In all the years I had spent in the Incarnation of Our Lord parish school, I couldn’t remember any interaction between them and us. The seventh-grade girls could have been Albanians or Martians. (Click here to continue…)

“Kenny Bergman”
On Christmas Day, 1950, Kenny Bergman and I sat on his living room sofa smoking cigarettes. I was thirteen. Kenny’s mother was visible, working away in the kitchen. The house smelled of roasting turkey and the radio was on, Bing Crosby singing carols. On the other side of the room under the Christmas tree a set of American Flyer electric trains moved slowly around a platform filled with little houses, cars and mountain-paper tunnels. Each time the train emerged from the nearest tunnel, Kenny or I would raise his Daisy Targeteer BB pistol and aim for one of the glass Christmas tree ornaments he’d placed in a gondola or on a flat car. Several times, a smiling Mrs. Bergman walked through the living room. She never said a word. I thought I was in heaven. (Click here to continue…)

“Tell Them I’m Not Home”
I got in from school around three-thirty. At a quarter to four, the phone in the living room rings. “Oh shit,” I thought. As my mother moved to pick up the receiver, I shouted down from the landing, “tell them I’m not home, Mom. Tell them I’m not home.” I knew who was on the phone. It was Rudy Bederman, the assistant manager at the A & P on 5th Street, and I knew what he wanted. It was Thursday. I wasn’t scheduled to work until the next day, Friday. Somebody hadn’t shown up and they wanted me to fill in. I had nothing on my afternoon agenda other than walking over to Fairhill Street to hang out with the crowd at Geever’s candy store. My mother was not to be trusted in these matters. To impart a sense of urgency, I kept up my chant. “Mom! Mom! Tell them I’m not home.”  Unfortunately, in the seconds that my mother hesitated with the receiver in her hand, Rudy Bederman heard me shouting that I wasn’t home. (Click here to continue…)

 

“Do You Believe In Magic?”
In September 1954, my senior year of high school had just begun, just barely. I had flunked summer school, my third summer school in as many years. According to the rules that meant I wouldn’t be going back to my high school. I would have to go to a public school and repeat junior year. (Click here to continue…)

all content copyright Pete Byrne 2011

The Golden Age Of The Moniker

Other than hearing them on HBO’s “The Sopranos,” nicknames that overrode a person’s given name seem to have disappeared from mainstream American life. Growing up in a blue-collar, city neighborhood of the 1940s and1950s, I remember nicknames as commonplace.

The essence of most nicknames was that they were almost always off-handedly bestowed, never chosen by the carrier. Nicknames that could stick to a person for a lifetime usually originated in throw-away lines, offered as casual asides. Most recipients of an adhering nickname, after some futile resistance, would reluctantly acquiesce to their new identities. There are men today in their seventies who, were I to meet then on the street or were their names to come up in conversation, would be greeted or referred to reflexively in the often inexplicable nominatives of their schoolyard or corner lounging days. These were not the benign names of contemporary suburbia. There were no cutesy, parentally endowed “Chips” or “Skips.” These were names like “Jiggs,” “Ozzie” and “Nuggie,” likewise “Fat Sam” and “Fat Ralph,” who incidentally was not fat.

We had a “Buzz,” more than one “Ace,” a “Duke” and a “Babe.” There was a “Lips,” a “Joe Guinea” and even a “B. O.,” who smelled no worse that the rest of us. “Roughhouse Ray” was a guy congenitally incapable of putting up his dukes, and “Bones” approached the obese. I knew a “Mouse,” a “Chickie,” a “Pidgie,” a “Jug” and a “Gobbler.” Where that last one came from, I have no idea. “Bull Moose” was an imposingly muscular retarded guy who wandered the neighborhood in silence, and the name “Dippy John” was the price that a kid with minor birth defects paid to belong on the corners. “Dippy John” was in no way “dippy.”

I was present when a co-worker told a low-grade joke about a gay attack dog barking “Bowsie-Wowsie.” From that day on he was “The Bowser,” and none of his resentful objections were to any avail.

A cousin of mine got stuck at the age of seven with the name of his radio adventure hero “Brick Bradford.” The full name morphed to “Bricky” and is still answered to by a man now in his sixties. Fifty years ago, another cousin married a plus six-foot sailor who continues to get “Stretch.” An eighth-grade classmate, whose given name I no longer recall, was tagged with “Uncle Miltie,” and another has carried “Fuzzy” into seniorhood. While nicknames were a guy thing, I can recall a “Bubbles,” a “Cookie” and even a “Jukey.”

A kid named Joe lived across the street and it was my own father who, referencing a newspaper ad for a Yiddish theater production of the play “Yostle the Bum,” hung that name on Joe. The name took instantly and permanently, contracting quickly to just “Yostle” and from there to “Yos.” I doubt that hardly anyone from the neighborhood remembers him as anything other than Joe “Yos.”

For the record, I managed to elude getting a nickname.

Richard Thompson Band, October 26, 2010, Collingswood, NJ

This was the first time I’d seen Richard Thompson in front of a band and wielding an electric guitar instead of an amplified acoustic. It was a full house of aging boomers. I’d put the average age of the attendees at plus fifty, but everybody got what they’d come for. Thompson rocked as only he can. The band was superb, in an unusual combination of Thompson’s guitar, bass and drums plus an electric violin and a sax player who doubled on rhythm guitar and mandolin, a Richard Thompson variation on the Dave Matthews Band. But that’s where similarities ended. While Matthews veers off into faux jazz, Thompson’s band is rooted in rocking Brit folk.

What I had gone for, and it seems most of the audienece came for as well, was to hear him cut loose on an electric. Thompson was identified as a guitar God early on, but got lost amid the Blues-rooted Eric Claptons and Jeff Becks because of his folk rock sound. But he’s a rocker par excellence and his pyrotechinics sure as hell transcend his mastery of technique. He was amazing, awesome, one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. That’s in the context of recently having seen The Feelies, Phish and Tom Petty. Thompson is a singularity. there is no one even remotely like him in the canon of pop music. I noted that what we were experiencing was really akin to hearing Paganini live in the 1830s. And I don’t feel the comparison a stretch.

Liner Notes-My Life Was Saved By Rock And Roll – Part III: Rock Is Dead; Long Live Rock

In the late nineteen-sixties, I began picking up hints of musical things that I had some difficulty digesting. The more pop aspects of the big folk music revival had caught my attention: Simon and Garfunkel, Joan Baez and even Flatt and Scrugg’s “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” I sure as hell didn’t get Bob Dylan. Something was indeed happening, but like Zimmy’s Mr. Jones, I really didn’t know what it was.

I remember being appalled at the dissonance and musical sloppiness of much of the music on the sound track of the film “Monterey Pop. I thought myself far too sophisticated for what seemed to be the faux rock and roll hippie appropriations of earlier and purer forms like the blues. The Beatles were cute, but the Stones were just too crude and ragged around the edges. There are those who, to get their ears and heads, unclogged need just a little help from their friends. To say that in 1970 I was naïve is probably an understatement. The images that came into my mind even that late in the game when the term “pot party” came up were those of people sitting around a fondue pot. I was aware that drugs, hard and soft, played a role, for better and worse in the new popular music, but that sort of thing was utterly irrelevant to the life I was leading.

It was of all people, a cop, a casual friend who then happened to be on the Philadelphia police force, who showed up one evening to drink a few beers and to listen to records. In addition to a stack of records, he brought with him a couple of those small illegal, hand-rolled cigarettes. We were listening to the Crosby, Stills and Nash album when it occurred to me that until that moment I had never heard anything quite so wondrous. The terms marking the experience were all the cliché’s of the times, life changing, transcendent, whatever, but no less true. To make the impact even more intense, that very same evening four decades ago, we took in a showing of the biggest ever pop concert movie ever, “Woodstock.” I awoke the next morning, a man changed forever in terms of my relationship to music.

It took some time for my burning bush experience to root, but root it did. My choices in radio stations began to turn from the all-classical and jazz formats that had defined my tastes, to the then free-form progressive rock stations. I played Van Morrison’s “Moon Dance” and the Steve Miller Band, even Boston and Kansas until my wife would say, “enough, enough.” Like world history and life itself, one thing followed another and another, until my record collection, then my cassettes, then CDs and now my iTunes library grew to encyclopedic densities. For decades, I attended shows and concerts, staying up far too late for my working life. Now in my dotage and retirement the outings are more and more rare, but my I’m on my third iPod with over fifteen thousand songs on file.

My choices in music remain catholic: from classic rock; Fleetwod Mac and Led Zepplin, to indie alternative; Red House Painters, the Feelies, Bloc Party, Wilco and Beth Orton. There’s country and bluegrass, reggae and even classical music and jazz, from Bach and Bartok to Goodman to Coltrane, all of it. And yes, there’s even Bob Dylan now. I think I may know now “what is happening,”or maybe not. But I keep listening, continuously monitoring the DEW line of the culture.


The Twin Atlas, live at Indres Studios, Philadelphia

And as an aside, my listening now includes the stuff done by my own son, a multi-instrumentalist with almost a dozen CDs to his credit. I of course feel that their band’s “psychedelic folk pop” has much too small a cult following. The name of the band is “The Twin Atlas.” They have become one of my default choices for music. Check them out at: http://www.thetwinatlas.com/

Liner Notes – My Life Was Saved By Rock And Roll- Part II: Rhythm And Blues, And All That Jazz

My first musical foray off the path of respectability was my discovery of Rhythm and Blues. Indiscriminate in my pleasures as only a kid can be, I was bowled over by a musical form every bit as foreign to my own life as Scheherazade had been just few years earlier. On a summer evening in1953, standing in front of a jukebox at Chain Bridge, a low-rent swimming place on the Neshaminy Creek in then rural Bucks County near Philadelphia, I first heard the Big Momma Willie Mae Thorton version of Hound Dog. I heard it, and immediately, I loved it. I was as irrevocably changed as one of Mencken’s maidens exposured to Richard Strauss.

At a recent NYU/ New York Times forum on the 1950s, Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick noted that in the fifties, the big cultural changes were on their way, with or without a Mr. Presley. He said that as early as 1953, the music industry was aware that there were white teenagers starting to buy Black music. He was talking about me. I came home late on a Saturday night with my 45-rpm copy of Hound Dog and insisted that my parents sit with me and listen to this new voice of God, as I had come to understood God. They were incredulous.

The only local sources for rhythm and blues were a couple of AM radio stations targeted exclusively to the then Negro markets. WCAM, 1310 on the AM dial, broadcasting from across the river in Camden, New Jersey, put on a three hour rhythm and blues show every evening from seven to ten called “Swinging in the Groove.” The list of sponsors demonstrated that we were not on the station’s demographic target. Between Howlin Wolf and Muddy Waters we were given pitches for Dixie Peach Pomade, Florsheim Shoes and a high style men’s store in downtown Philly. Each song was introduced with a number, the meaning of which I was never to know. A matter-of-fact announcer’s voice would say “Number 128, Joe Turner with “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” or “Number 322, Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters with…” As the years went on and the crossovers multiplied, I responded with a purist’s sneer to the sanitized Bill Haleys, Pat Boone’s and reflexively even to Elvis himself. I had become too cool to be cool. My embrace of Black music gave me one more outsider’s flag to fly, one more way to distance myself from what I believed was a smothering cultural fate.

Bandstand, later American Bandstand, began in Philadelphia in 1952. Two of my “girl” cousins were among the first regulars on the show. I was envious and would have loved to go find out what it was like, but on the path I’d chosen, cool ruled. A kid from my high school class had broken ranks and was spotted on screen. For that for that single indiscretion he endured a merciless and seemingly endless hassling. It was a cautionary tale I heeded.

The mid-to-late nineteen fifties were a golden age for jazz and probably the final chapter for jazz as a broadly popular musical form. The aura of jazz attracted me and yet much of it eluded me. But the cachet of something as hip as jazz was too important to my self-image. I couldn’t allow myself to be left behind by the real hipsters, the people who did dig jazz. My plunging into jazz was not entirely an affectation, much of it, particularly the progressive and Latin-based stuff absolutely knocked me out. In 1954, Latin music seemed to jump across to the Black community, and “Swinging in the Groove” went beyond Fats Domino and Johnny Ace to begin playing Joe Loco’s percussive piano mambos, and then onto the entire pantheon of Afro-Cuban superstars. For a brief period in the mid to late 1950’s, Latin music did a wider series of cross-overs, surfacing not only in Black music, but in progressive jazz, and then on into mainstream pop in the form of cha-cha novelties.

What became known as Progressive Jazz appealed to me in ways that classic jazz, bebop and even Parker and Coltrane only hinted at. At the core of the progressive movement was the Stan Kenton band. I became almost fixated on what was essentially abstract, symphonic jazz. And no wonder, coming off an immersion over my head in classical music, the complexity of the lush, yet austere Kenton arrangements, and the virtuoso solo riffs against choruses of section work, spoke to me of a creative perfection, and orbiting the musical world according to Kenton were people like June Christie, the Four Freshman and a host of other artists in ascending order of obscurity. Even now, encountering anyone who can discuss Kenton, or the work of Cal Tjader or the George Shearing collaborations with Candido can establish bonds transcending the routines of daily life. So many rewarding conversations have begun with a “hey man, have you heard…’” That in itself has become one of the peripheral but significant rewards of an unconditional acceptance of what would become the primacy of music in my life.

The sixties arrived and I continued on, appearing to be and even believing myself, a connoisseur of all that was cool in music. Meanwhile all around me, a new and revolutionary music was coming into its own. But by then I was a grownup, an adult, and all that kind of stuff, the Beatles and such, was for kids. Wasn’t it?
(to be continued)



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