Tag Archives: Atlanta

My Racist Friend

joyriding

When I see the hate-filled faces of the Neo Nazis, KKK, and assorted white supremacists, I feel revulsion, anxiety, and sadness. I also feel familiarity. Like most white Southerners, my family tree contains a carefully taught, particularly intense fear of difference.

My maternal grandmother, Gammie, was in the United Daughters of the Confederacy – her grandfather, Josephus Camp, Sr., fought for the South – and she cleaved to the Gone with the Wind fantasy of “the good old days” of Dixie: the Civil War was about state’s rights, the generals were men of honor with rebel spirit, slaves were often “family,” and the Jim Crow South was when “everyone knew their place,” etc. You can boil down all of the above to fear, learned at her daddy’s knee; fear of difference, and desire to remain separate from, and feel superior to that which is feared.

My estranged father died driving drunk in 1972, when I was seven, and my mother, Mary, never remarried, so she depended on Gammie to help raise my brother and me. For that we were lucky. Gammie loved us, we loved her, she showed up. It pains me to write anything negative about her, lest she be reduced to something she was not. But in truth, among many other things, she was an apologist for the Confederacy.

Interestingly, although raised Southern Baptist, Gammie married and bore the children of Salvatore “Sam” Lucchese, my grandfather, a Sicilian Catholic son of immigrants and lifelong Democrat, not a racist. Her distraught mother would only ever refer to him as “The Wop.” I like to tell myself that an unconscious-yet-engaged part of Gammie, a genuinely good and brave element discouraged and suppressed by her forebears, sought to commingle her DNA with Sam’s to begin the process of breaking the cycle of racism, of hate. If so, it worked. Mostly.

My mom, a Baby Boomer, rebelled against her upbringing. She exposed my brother and me to narratives and morals wildly different from what we saw and heard in Gammie’s house. We were hippie kids, grubby, longhaired, and barefoot, raised feminist (in our house, at least), taught that the absolute worst word in the world was nigger. (To this day I have a visceral reaction when I hear it.) Mom presented the rising multiculturalism of post-Civil Rights Act Atlanta as something to embrace. And embrace it we did.

The times were on Mom’s side. The 1973 election of Atlanta’s first African-American mayor, Maynard Jackson, signaled a shift that felt as normal to me as a change in season. We enjoyed the brief, post-Watergate, welcome novelty of our state’s former governor Jimmy Carter, an erstwhile peanut farmer and blue collar Democrat, rising to the White House in 1976. Other aspects of this environment that shaped us were integrated schools, friends and teachers of color, Jewish neighbors, queer neighbors, immigrant-owned businesses, and pervasive, genre-bending, rainbow-fueled music. Gammie’s politics didn’t stand a chance. They actually made no sense.

Yet somehow, I strayed. For years, when I’ve told told the story I concoct of my life, I’ve omitted an aberrant period of a year or so, when I rebelled against my mother’s rebellion. From age twelve to thirteen, I ran with a rich, charismatic, racist kid. I’ll call him Ricky Green. Today, when I see the so-called alt-right, I see Ricky, and I cringe at the version of myself that maintained a friendship with a kid who routinely said nigger, even as I protested. Especially as I protested.

I wonder why, exactly, I put up with it, as I didn’t before and haven’t since. I can say this: As a child, I was often afraid, obsessed with thoughts of death, made all the more intimate by losing my dad, having him here one day, gone forever the next. I was acutely aware of my connection to other people, and the prospect of another rupture terrified me.

Ricky Green’s cardinal trait was a dumb kind of fearlessness, and engaging with that helped alleviate my fears, of that I’m sure. To thirteen-year-old me, his racism was worth the payoff of feeling unafraid. Until it wasn’t.

~

Ricky’s and my story began in the summer between 7th and 8th grade – the summer of ’78. Quite abruptly, our shoulders had broadened, we’d grown taller, and girls bloomed all around us. They paid particular attention to sandy-haired, movie-star handsome, foulmouthed Ricky, who was not yet my friend, though we’d attended the same school for years. Even as he gleefully popped their bra straps, I noticed how girls nevertheless drank him in, how they convulsively giggled at his quips. How everyone gasped as he talked back to the teacher, even as that teacher hit him with a hockey stick, and pulled him, still seated at his desk, by his hair across the classroom. All the while, Ricky just laughed.

Soon after the hockey stick incident, Ricky seemed to sense my admiration, and invited me to his house. On the way home, we stopped at the Majik Market to play the Kiss pinball machine. Ricky mercilessly made fun of the Pakistani counter guy’s accent (behind his back). My face went hot with shame, but Ricky’s magnetism won out. Even as he whispered nigger in my ear when we passed an African American on the sidewalk – in part because it upset me, which he found hilarious – I continued hanging out with him.

Like me, Ricky was a latchkey kid. His very successful attorney father – who I never saw – had divorced his mother, and she was either not at their splendid, pine-shrouded home in an upscale neighborhood, or she was asleep in her upstairs bedroom, or, as Ricky said, she was “at the fat farm,” leaving us the run of the place. I have no recollections of her present as we raided the pantry, and/or watched R-Rated movies – Ricky called them “fuck movies” – on HBO. (The Greens were the only family I knew with HBO.) She slept so soundly, Ricky could sneak into her room and grab her car keys from her pocketbook.

“Let’s go for a ride in the Caddy!” he said, laughing. “You gotta help me push it into the street, though.”

“You can drive?”

“Fuck yes, I can. I’ll drive us to Kathy’s house. Ally’s there. It’ll be like the panty raid on Happy Days!”

Of course I helped. In the wee hours of the morning, we pushed his mom’s 1979 Cadillac DeVille down their driveway and into the street. I hopped in as Ricky started it up, wrestling with my nerves as he caromed through the suburbs, wind in his hair, laughing, radio blasting Styx and Kansas. We had no drugs or alcohol, just Ricky’s contagious bravado, perhaps the most potent intoxicant I’ve ever imbibed.

Incredibly, we got away with it. This further emboldened us to joyride several times that summer, two thirteen-year-old boys in a Cadillac in the dead of night, dropping in on girls having sleepovers. We were never caught.

Eventually, Ricky got his hands on a bag of pot, and we began to get high, which dampened the impulse to sneak out the Caddy. We just sat around smoking joints, watching HBO, and eating junk food. As I dragged on the joint, Ricky was fond of saying, “Don’t nigger lip it!”

Later, while smoking a joint with my friend Johnny and his much older disco dandy brother, Gus, I aped Ricky. I said, “Don’t nigger lip it!” This was the only time in my life I’ve used that word. Gus and Johnny’s parents had emigrated from Cuba, and I thought Gus was the coolest. He said, “Don’t say that, man. I got a lotta black friends.” He seemed personally hurt, disappointed.

In that moment – an older person acting parental, calling me out, caring – something shifted. It would take a night of wingin’ for me to fully awaken.

Wingin’ entailed hiding in bushes and hurling rocks at cars. These episodes pain me the most, even more than my wimpy protests to the word nigger. Because we endangered people. For fun. The night our mutual friend – I’ll call him Jim – joined us, things escalated. Jim was particularly insecure, desperate to be liked, and would do anything Ricky asked. After a few volleys of rocks at cars, followed by running into the woods, Ricky held up an aluminum baseball bat.

“Wing this at the next car,” Ricky said to Jim.

Jim readily agreed, laughing maniacally. Soon, a Volkswagen Bug much like my mom’s headed our way. Jim flung the bat as hard as he could and it slammed into the car door with a resonant bang. The car screeched to a halt and we bolted into the woods by Ricky’s house.

Instead of my usual adrenal euphoria, I felt a cold wave of guilt. Clueless Jim and Ricky cackled, pushing pine branches out of the way, and once again, we escaped retribution. But for me, the thrill was gone. Was it because the VW reminded me of my mom and reignited what she’d taught me, clarified my shame? Perhaps.

Soon after, Jim told me Ricky was sick of me talking about my dad’s death. My father had been gone for six years, and to my horror, memories of him were fading. And I did, in fact, often mention him as a means of keeping his memory alive, and, quite honestly, to gin up sympathy. As sad as that seems now, I can actually understand how it could irritate a thirteen-year-old. But at the time, I seized on Ricky’s insensitivity toward my grief; I would use it to sever ties. This particular affront produced actionable rage. I challenged him to a fight next to the tire swings at school.

“Don’t say shit about my dad,” I said, as kids gathered to watch.

“I didn’t say shit about your dad!” Ricky said.

Ricky and I grappled and swung for about ten seconds before a teacher broke it up, and gave us a talking to. The teacher made us shake hands, and Ricky said, “Can we be friends again now?” I nodded, but we both knew it was over.

Summer came. I kept to myself. I slept on our screened-in porch, and rode my bike all over Atlanta in the middle of the night, thinking about finally learning to play bass. I’d been procrastinating picking up an instrument, resisting a pull from my future, but I was about to give in. One night, riding in the middle of a deserted road, I nearly wept with sweet anticipation, a sense of destiny. Mom bought me a plywood starter bass, and I immediately devoted myself to it. Within three years, I would be gigging in clubs, a working musician.

The last time I saw Ricky was junior year of high school. He was hanging out with the druggies, waving to me from the smoking area, a glazed Cheech & Chong expression on his face. He would soon either drop out or transfer. Years passed, I moved to New York, and my time with the racist kid faded, in part because I was loath to revisit it, afraid of being judged for having been so cowardly. My brother occasionally crossed paths with Ricky, though, and reported that he had become a restorer of old Atlanta houses, but had subsequently developed an anxiety disorder, become addicted to Xanax, and never left his home. A couple years ago, I learned Ricky committed suicide.

Had he changed in those post-school years? I do not know. Truthfully, I hadn’t thought much about him until I saw those young white supremacists marching, and I recalled childhood time spent with Ricky, thinking we were invulnerable. The pleasure I experienced in his company was in feeling unconnected to others, until I woke up to the painful, beautiful fact that no one really is.

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Sam F. Lucchese, Savior of My Bloodline

Salvatore "Sam" Francis Lucchese, circa 1920

Salvatore “Sam” Francis Lucchese, circa 1920

Today, April 21st, is my late grandfather, Salvatore “Sam” Francis Lucchese’s birthday. I honor him, now more than ever.

My writing gene comes from Sam. As I’ve nurtured it this last decade, communing with the DNA he bequeathed me via my mother, I have connected to a man I never felt close to in life. Most significant, I’ve realized how that writing gene altered the course of my family for the better, pivoting the line away from darkness. I feel that significance, and I am so proud. My grandfather was a quiet, unassuming hero, the savior of my bloodline.

~

Sam F. Lucchese, as he was professionally known, was born in 1900, in Victoria, Texas, to Sicilian immigrants, Giuseppe and Anna. Giuseppe and his brothers were renowned boot makers from Palermo. In the late 1800s, they’d come through the port of Galveston to make footwear for the Army at the Texas/Mexico border.

Sam, however, cared nothing for boot making. For reasons we will never know, when he came of age, he chose to make a life as an American writer. He did not go to college, but rather taught himself.

His cousin, Cosimo, turned Lucchese Boots into a thriving business. (LBJ is buried in Lucchese boots.) Sam, meanwhile, became a typesetter straight out of high school, and worked his way up to editor. In the 20s, he accepted a position on a paper in Georgia. In the Peach State, he met the beautiful, charismatic Genevieve Camp, my grandmother.

I never got a chance to know Sam. Although not unkind, he wasn’t really a kid person. My mother says he wasn’t “a hugger” in her youth, either. I don’t think Sam and I ever had a conversation. Yet, he was always around, a benign, calming presence, easy to take for granted. A diminutive Sicilian-American who loved All in the Family, black instant coffee in a plastic mug, and his poodle, Nicole, a gift from Tony Curtis. As children, my brother and I spent a lot of time in our maternal grandparents’ bungalow home. While our grandmother, Genevieve, aka “Gammie,” was very affectionate and present, Granddaddy spent hours in his musty basement office, focused, tapping incessantly on a manual typewriter. To this day, the distinctive percussion of a manual typewriter reminds me of him.

Before my birth, he primarily wrote arts-related features for Hearst-owned newspapers, most significantly the Atlanta Journal, for which he was entertainment editor most of his professional life. He was the publicist for Gone with the Wind and he interviewed the Beatles when they played the Atlanta Stadium in 1964. He retired from the Journal the year I was born (1965) but did not stop working; he wrote for Variety and other outlets, including the Atlanta Playboy Club’s At the Club publication. His writing put food on the table, paid the bills, kept my mom and her two sisters in saddle oxfords, and put them through college.

After a long decline, Sam died from Alzheimer’s in Atlanta in 1986, just before my 21st birthday. I was touring with the Fleshtones, in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. I flew home to help my brother and cousins carry the casket, my fingernails painted black, Mardi Gras beads dangling from the epaulet of my biker jacket.

~

Genevieve Camp, circa 1920s

Genevieve Camp, circa 1920s

 

Gammie did not speak much of her history until just a couple years before she passed in 2000 at age 94. While she displayed no photos of her family, the Camps, in the Lucchese house, she festooned the walls and surfaces with framed pictures of her and Sam’s progeny – their daughters, my brother, our cousins, me – and many movie stars they’d met on junkets. This lack of documentation of her pre-maternal life aroused no curiosity in me. Until Gammie, in the winter of her years, addled from falling down and hitting her head a few times too many, began to talk of the distant past.

Much is still shrouded in Southern Gothic mystery, but what emerged was a harrowing story of Gammie’s father, Josephus Camp, a hopeless alcoholic, failed attorney, likely bipolar. Darkly handsome. He would eventually blow his brains out in the 50s, and Gammie’s mother would insist she come help clean up the mess, which she did. He left behind a legacy of addiction, shame, and fear; carbons of letters thick with the scariest racism – i.e. hatred from the pen of an educated, eloquent, crazy person.

The Camps were devout Southern Baptist. Gammie’s siblings, Imogene and Joe, were both certified mentally ill; she with paranoid schizophrenia, he with what they called “dementia praecox,” which was likely schizophrenia with excessive manic features. Movie star gorgeous Imogene was able to function in society, but Joe spent most of his life institutionalized in the state mental hospital in Milledgeville, Georgia. Nannie, the febrile Camp matriarch, wrote of their relentlessly stressful life in journals now in my mother’s possession.

I knew none of this until my son, Jack, was born in 1998, and I was thirty-three.

In the middle of the maelstrom was Genevieve, my Gammie, eldest child and caregiver for her entire family. The rock. Yet, I imagine her desperate to find a way out of the doomed drama that was her family, a drama she would not speak of for decades.

To her racist parents’ horror, her ticket out was the short, blue eyed, Catholic, Sicilian writer, Sam F. Lucchese. On top of all those qualities, Sam was a “Yellow Dog Democrat,” meaning he would rather vote for a yellow dog than a Republican. The Camps, diehard conservative Republicans who loathed FDR, would refer to him only as “The Wop.”

According to Gammie, she had two suitors named Sam, so she called my grandfather “Casey.” This nickname would stick for the rest of their lives. Gammie’s parents desperately wanted her to marry the other Sam, a lily white Protestant guy whose parents did not hail from a country so close to Africa. The other Sam was, like the Camps, likely an apologist for the Confederacy, one who romanticized “the old ways.”

But no. Genevieve Camp chose the swarthy Wop. To her parents’ dismay, she converted to Catholicism, and began the process of shutting them out from the family she created: three girls, whose father would be faithful, a solid man who would not be consumed with alcohol-fueled madness about race, religion, or some destructive fantasy about white supremacy.

And Sam chose her. He spirited her away to Texas, where they married among his kin, surrounded by the lilt of Sicilian dialects, excellent food, and hardboiled Texas folk, a bright sun blazing down, my grandfather resplendent in a double breasted white suit, my pale-skinned grandmother holding the hand that would write them into a new life in the New South. The writer. She married the writer, and put her faith in his ability to spin sentences into money. It was an excellent call.

Interestingly, while Gammie converted to Catholicism, she did not convert to the Democratic Party or leave behind the racism that her chronically terrified family carefully taught her. Not hardly. She remained a product of the pre-Civil Rights Act, Jim Crow South. In years to come, she and I would argue about civil rights, unions, and miscegenation, and she would infuriate and disappoint me. I would wonder how the man who enthusiastically voted for Jimmy Carter could live in relative peace with the woman who adored Ronald Reagan. And I continue to marvel at how much Gammie’s love, despite her reprehensible moral and political beliefs, shaped me.

I have come to realize this: by accepting Sam Lucchese’s marriage proposal way back when, Gammie contributed to change almost in spite of herself. I recall how she did not make any great effort to convert anyone to her batshit crazy, backward views, smiling enigmatically as I grew ever more liberal, like her husband and like my mother. I prefer to think Sam appealed to the better angels of her nature, secret forces that helped her take baby steps toward the right side of history, an evolution her youngest daughter, my mom, would continue in passionate earnest, and which her great-grandson, my boy Jack, amplifies with captivating, inspirational vigor.

It all began with Sam F. Lucchese. He enabled the pivot that changed everything. Thank you, Granddaddy. And happy birthday.

Sam F. Lucchese, 1972.

Sam F. Lucchese, 1972.

 

 

 

 

Not A Misspent Youth part 5: Who Wants Gum and Pizza

Once in a while, my past pops up on YouTube. So far, it’s been very pleasurable, and this clip, circa early 1983, is no exception. (Thanks to Julie House for bringing it to my attention.) This is footage of Wee Wee Pole featuring RuPaul and the U-Hauls gigging at the 688 Club in Atlanta. That’s me on bass in the loud sweater. This was one of our first performances. I was seventeen, a senior at Northside School of the Performing Arts, majoring in drama, minoring in music. (I’ve written a good bit about this here and here.) My best friend Todd Butler is on guitar. “Pizza” is the first song Todd, Ru and I wrote together, in the front room of Todd’s house, before Todd’s mom kicked us out. We never recorded it, and prior to this, I thought it was lost to the ether. (More about Todd and me here.)

Like a lot of Wee Wee Pole video (maybe all), this is courtesy of Dick Richards, of Atlanta’s American Music Show. The American Music Show was a public access variety program that chronicled a glorious time in Atlanta’s New Wave Queer Underground. Did Dick and his cohorts know they were creating invaluable documents? I suspect they did. It didn’t cross my mind, though. I was quite in the moment, and not taking time to do much but live, live, live. These clips, a few photos, some boxed-up letters, and the music that survives are as close as I have to a diary of a seismic, charmed time. My gratitude to The American Music Show runs deep.

This video captures the golden age of Wee Wee Pole, when the blush was still very much on the rose. Soon Gina and Chrissy, the U-Hauls, would get fed up and quit, but in this video, it’s all about love and excitement (and Krogering). The interaction between Ru and the gals is priceless. I cannot explain the sweater I am wearing.

Southern Belles, Latchkey Kids, and Thrift Store Cross Dressers for The Bitter Southerner

I’ve posted several times about my time with RuPaul in the 80s, and I’ve written about my dear friend Todd Butler, whose courage and love shaped me at least as much as my own DNA. But it took Chuck Reece, editor of The Bitter Southerner to get me to go deep and find the sweet marrow details of a formative time in my life, a time when those two figures – Ru and Todd – and a third, my grandmother, enriched my life immeasurably.

The Bitter Southerner is a recently-launched webzine promising “a great new story from the South every week.” They’re doing gangbusters, acquiring new subscribers daily. I’d fallen in love with them when I read  Patterson Hood’s essay “The New (er) South.” Like his spoken word piece “The Three Great Alabama Icons,” from his band The Drive-By Truckers’ 2001 masterpiece Southern Rock Opera, Patterson’s musings on “the duality of the southern thing” resonated in my gut. Chuck and Co. launched The Bitter Southerner with “the duality of the southern thing” as a guiding principle. I sent Chuck a note and some blog posts, and we hit it off.

For my essay, Chuck, no stranger to grief and funk and duality, knew my work could be stronger if I knuckled down into the grievous stuff. He kept asking me questions, gently suggesting I amplify aspects of Todd; he wanted more about grandparents’ unusual stories; he suggested I remove RuPaul from the original opening, making him more a supporting character. I did all that, and sure enough, I got weepy. I’d been circling around the painful stuff, treading lightly, for years. But, as ever, that’s where the good stuff is.

As a bonus, sweet Clare Butler, aka Lady Clare, Todd’s widow, unearthed some great pix (a couple below) and my cousin scanned some classic shots of my grandparents from the 60s and 70s.

You can find my essay HERE.

Lucille Ball copy

Lucille Ball with my grandmother, Gammie (glasses), and grandfather. Late 60s.

bistro_show_3

Todd and me rocking at The Bistro, Atlanta, ’83, while RuPaul does a costume change. Pic by Clare Butler

RuPaulbistro_show_1

RuPaul rocking The Bistro with Todd and me, ’83. Pic by Clare Butler.

Wee Wee Pole featuring RuPaul & the U-Hauls (and opening comic David Cross) FIRST GIG, 1983

More Wee Wee Pole action.

Many thanks to Dick Richardson and James Bond (brother of Senator and Civil Rights icon Julian Bond), whose American Music Show captured much of the ’80s Atlanta New Wave Queer Underworld, and, it turns out, a crucial moment in my life. The clip above contains some entertaining segments of the very first “Wee Wee Pole featuring RuPaul and the U-Hauls” gig at the Nitery Club sometime in winter, late ’82 or early ’83. Trash funk combo The Now Explosion graciously invited us to open for them. They’d amassed a substantial fanbase, and Ru and the U-Hauls had performed with them as go-go dancers. The place was packed. Folks were mighty curious about the drummer-less band featuring the two high school kids who’d joined forces with scene-maker Ru. Even then, he was calling himself a “superstar in exile.”

I was 17, barely two years older than my son Jack is now. My dear friend Todd, the redhead Ru introduces as Yettiva Antoinette (or something) was 18. Ru was 22. I have no idea how old the U-Hauls were. They were easily fed up and quit a few months later.

My old friend David Cross, also 18, was on the bill, too. He’d just finished his set, which went great. He and Todd and I were drama majors at Northside School of the Performing Arts. (Todd and I minored in music. Northside was like a college, with a major and minor.) Todd, also a visual artist, had designed a poster that was all over the school. Drinking age in Atlanta was 18 at that time, so technically, high school seniors could get in. And they did.

I think this was David’s first official stand-up gig, although he’d braved some amateur nights. You can see him around the 1:15 mark, putting a cigarette in my mouth. Not long after this he would move to Boston to attend Emerson, then to L.A..

The clip begins backstage, and we’re all goofy and nervous. I’d played clubs with my first band The Latest, but we’d never generated the kind of excitement that was percolating on this night.

Apparently, Dick uploaded this last April. I only just came across it. I envision shelves in his home loaded with VHS (or maybe Beta) tapes. Occasionally he finds time to digitize and upload them, and every once in awhile, a scene from my not-misspent youth pops up on YouTube. These clips always astonish me, brightening the corners of my memory. I really hope he has more (at least I think I do). I recall him being everywhere back then, a huge video camera on his shoulder.

As you can see around 1:20, RuPaul jokes that I’m being “artsy fartsy Athens.” He had my number, that’s for sure. In the early days of the band, I tried to look like I was in R.E.M., while the rest of Wee Wee Pole went for a cross between Prince’s band and Bauhaus, with much attention paid to hair. Towards the end I capitulated, and started wearing a funky hat, which you can see in the video for our local hit “Tarzan.” I’m pretty sure it’s the lowest budget video ever.

The live section in the Nitery clip is our song, “I Gotcha.” The drum machine you hear belonged to Todd’s dad, Jack Butler, who’d had careers as a lounge pianist and writer of piano instruction books. It’s ancient, but distinctive. I retain a vivid memory of looking out during this song and seeing people dancing for the first time to music I was helping make. I was elated. Towards the end of the clip, Ru is backstage, changing costumes into “something sexy” so can re-emerge to sing “Love Hangover,” our one cover. I hope Dick or someone has footage of this. It was a show stopper.

If you want to read more about Wee Wee Pole and see more video, click HERE and HERE. We never released a record, sadly, but Ru used our 8-track demos as the B-side of his 1985 EP Sex Freak, which you you can buy on vinyl for $40.00 here.

You can read about Todd and me HERE.

Thanks again, Dick Richardson and James Bond, for the fun, albeit bittersweet, time travel.

Thrasher Boys – a short story

Hey all,

Below is a short story I wrote a little while ago. I was thinking about it, went back and re-read it, did a little nip/tuck, and decided it should get out in the world. It’s about time I posted something again, anyway. Please enjoy.

Thrasher Boys

By Robert Burke Warren

Chris Shepard’s father Lee, drunk on cheap wine, plowed his car into a ravine on the outskirts of Atlanta, leaving his estranged wife a modest life insurance policy. Chris’s mother CeCe embraces this sad windfall, purchasing a new house, a VW Super Beetle, a dresser drawer of bellbottoms and a closet full of peasant blouses.  On the day she says goodbye to her job in advertising and enrolls in law school, she starts calling herself a hippie.

CeCe encourages Chris, ten, and his older brother Eddie, eleven, to grow their hair. The black kids at school take notice and call them both “cream head.” On Saturdays and Sundays CeCe takes them to arts festivals, Vietnam War protests and communes, often bringing her law books.

On a midsummer evening in 1972, two years after Lee’s death, CeCe piles Chris and Eddie into the Super Beetle and sets off for Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, to visit Lee’s parents at 2978 Shenandoah Drive, AKA Shenandoah House. Grandmother Flossie and Granddaddy Buck haven’t seen their daughter-in-law and two grandchildren since Lee’s funeral. Phone calls, cards, and money, but no visits. Before the death of their only child, Flossie and Buck had seen a lot more of the Shepards.

After an eight-hour drive, they arrive in the cool of the wee small hours. The Kapstone Paper Mill stink wafts over the Super Beetle, awakening the boys in their backset cave of blankets, pillows, Sesame Street puppets and stuffed animals they’ve outgrown. The fart jokes fly.

“It’s the smell of money, kids,” Chris says in a gravelly voice, imitating Granddaddy Buck, who worked at Kapstone for forty years. Eddie makes fart sounds in his armpit. The whole family laughs, punch drunk.

They slip in to the three-bedroom bungalow and hug Grandma Flossie in the dreamy darkness. She can’t believe how twenty-four months have made the boys into “little men.” She gasps at Chris and Eddie’s shoulder-length hair, and laughs as she tucks them in like toddlers. They fall asleep to the sound of Granddaddy Buck’s snores in the next room.

Around 10 the next morning, Chris and Eddie toss a Nerf ball in the piney shade of the neighborhood park. Two barefoot crew-cut boys amble up.

“Hey Travis,” the smaller one says, “think these hippie boys know what a poontang looks like?”

“No, D-Ray,” Travis drawls, stroking the feeble beginnings of a blond moustache, “these two look like faggets to me. Just kiddin’.”

“Yeah,” D-Ray says, “we just kiddin’. Where ya’ll from?”

“We’re from Atlanta,” Eddie says.

“Big city boys,” D-Ray says, nodding. He grins at his big brother, exposing two rows of brown teeth.

“Yeah,” Travis says, picking at a scab on his chin. “Big city boys.”

D-Ray tells his new friends he’s ten, but he looks younger, partially due to a disproportionately large head. His tennis ball scalp sports a wishbone-shaped forceps scar on either side. Faint brows bisected with scars twitch above two hyper-alert, bright blue eyes.

Travis towers over D-Ray, with a significantly smaller head, broader shoulders and slaty, droopy eyes. Burst pimples accentuate his sharp cheekbones.

“Ya’ll can hang around with us,” D-Ray says.  “If you want.”

***

“Stay away from those Thrasher boys,” Flossie says the next morning in the breakfast nook. She scrapes scrambled cheese eggs onto Chris’s plate. Chris raises a cool little glass of orange juice and clinks it with his brother’s.

CeCe sleeps on in the room in which her former husband grew up. Pictures of Lee Shepard adorn the walls around the nook, faded portraits in dusty frames; sailor suits, prom tuxes, dress blues.

“Flossie,” Eddie says through a mouthful of margarine-soaked toast, “what’s the problem with Travis and D-Ray?” He pushes tangled, curly hair from his forehead and reaches for the funnies.

Flossie’s fleshy arms wobble over the table. “Those boys’ve got it hard,” she says. She takes her skillet to the sink.

“They’re trash, white trash,” Granddaddy Buck says as he shuffles past her. “They got ringworm, I bet. God knows what else.” He goes to a shelf beside the open back door and reaches into a large tin of walnuts, pulling out several fistfuls. He drops them into a small, crumpled paper bag.

Flossie acknowledges her husband with a frown. She lumbers back to the table with a pitcher of Minute Maid, which Chris tips to refill his glass.

Granddaddy Buck stands at the screen door and peers through Coke-bottle-thick glasses at the ripening day; leaves and grass shine with dew. The bushes buzz and hum. A rooster crows in the distance.

Flossie sits beside Chris in the nook, exhales the tension from her shoulders and pulls a pack of Benson & Hedges 100’s from the pocket of her pink floral housecoat. Her talcum and old lady scent envelops Chris. She pulls a ceramic ashtray shaped like Florida and a matchbook from the lazy susan.

“The Thrasher boys are like something from TV,” Chris says. “We should call ‘em Jethro and Gomer!”

“Oh stop it,” Flossie grins. The tip of her smoke crackles as she inhales deep. She places it in the ashtray, exhales a plume over the table and wraps her arms around Chris’s shoulders, shaking him.

So glad to see you!” she says with a broad smile. “Love. You. So. Much!”

Water rushes through the pipes below the linoleum as a toilet flushes in the house.

“Mom’s up,” Eddie says behind the newspaper.

Thumping footfalls in the dim hallway announce the arrival of CeCe, long dishwater hair askew, brown eyes at half-mast, knee-length tie-dyed T-shirt serving as a nightgown. Indentations of the chenille bedspread line one side of her face. An unlit Virginia Slims hangs from her dry lips.

“There she is!” Flossie jumps up and throws her arms around CeCe. CeCe crumples into the embrace, taps Flossie’s shoulder and heads for the kettle. She pulls back her hair and lights her smoke on the stovetop’s orange spiral.

“Mornin’, mornin’, mornin’ everybody,” CeCe says, spooning Nescafe into a mug. As the water comes to a boil she glances at Buck. “Time to feed your squirrels, Buck?”

Buck says nothing as he stares into the backyard.

Flossie sits back down in the nook and sighs. She looks over to her husband. “CeCe asked if – “

Buck grunts in the affirmative.

Chris watches his mother stir her coffee. “Come sit with us,” he says.

CeCe smiles from the stove but remains in the kitchen, dragging on her smoke.

Flossie looks to her daughter-in-law and back to the photos on the wall. Her eyes rest on her younger grandson.

“You’re starting to favor your daddy, Chris,” she says softly. “So handsome.”

Eddie lowers the paper. “What about me?”

“You’re the spittin’ image of Buck’s people, black Irish all over you. You’re gonna be a heartbreaker. Ain’t that right, Buck?”

Buck stares into the backyard. Flossie clucks her tongue and looks back to her grandsons. “All those years in the mill, he is deaf as a post.”

CeCe approaches the nook and stands in the doorway sipping her coffee. She closes her eyes. It will take three more cups of Nescafe before she feels “ready to rejoin the human race.” She drags deep on her smoke and turns to Buck.

“I bet the boys would like to feed the squirrels with you, Buck,” she says, loudly.

After a pause, Buck says, “No. They’d be afraid.”

Eddie calls to his grandfather. “I’m not afraid.”

“Me neither,” Chris says.

Buck shakes his head. “The squirrels. Not you.” He gives a little snort.

CeCe and Flossie roll their eyes at each other. CeCe reaches over and ruffles Chris’s wild mane, sticking out her lower lip in a mock pout. “We’ll get some of our own nuts and do it ourselves later,” she whispers.

That will never happen, Chris thinks.

Eddie sighs and goes back to the funnies as CeCe heads toward her room.

“I was up late with my books,” she says, yawning. “I’m gonna go lie down.”

“You’re doin’ a fine job with these boys, CeCe,” Flossie calls down the hall.

“Thank you, Flossie,” CeCe says from the shadows.

The screen door slams behind Granddaddy Buck as he proceeds to his bench beneath the old oak. Startled mourning doves flutter from the withering azaleas. Chris leans up to the stilled window fan and peers through the greasy, linty blades as the squirrels descend the oak and gather around the cracked patio where the mighty roots have buckled the concrete. The marble bench lists to one side on the uneven surface. Granddaddy Buck lowers his thin frame with a graceless plop, reaches in the bag and, as soon as the nut appears, a squirrel grabs it from his skeletal fingers and scurries away. Chris watches his grandfather’s wispy-haired head nod to each little rodent.

***

“Hippies!”

D-Ray jumps out from behind a sap-encrusted pine in the park. It’s the hottest part of the day and Chris and Eddie half-heartedly spin on a creaky merry-go-round. Cicadas chirr in the squat bushes, calling from one side of the park to the other.

D-Ray’s T-shirt dangles from his pocket, his skin-and-bones torso slick with sweat.

“Ya’ll wanna join our club?” he asks. Travis emerges from behind another pine, nodding, also shirtless but thinly muscled, with long cords of veins traversing his shoulders.

“Yeah,” Travis says. “Want to?”

“It’s the PBPH Club,” D-Ray whispers, making a big show of looking around.

“What’s PBPH stand for?” Chris asks.

“Playboy and Penthouse,” Travis says. His eyes skitter to his brother.

D-Ray says, “We found a buncha poon mags in the dumpster!”

“Yeah,” Travis nods slowly.

“So we started a club. C’mon.”

D-Ray takes off running through the pine needles, Travis at his heels. Chris and Eddie stand rooted by the rusty slide for a few seconds. D-Ray stops at the edge of the park and turns back.

“Come on! Ya’ll faggets!”

“This is a bad idea,” Chris says.

“Let’s just do it,” Eddie says. “It’s nothing we haven’t seen before.”

The Shepard boys follow the Thrashers to a tiny, oak-sheltered street lined with broken-down bungalows and trailers. Carcasses of cars litter the curbs and yards. The further the boys walk, the more barks fill the air.

D-Ray turns onto the gravel driveway of a dilapidated brick bungalow in which a wheel-less brown Trans Am sits on blocks. Chris stiffens as a particularly savage bark gets closer. A blaze of fur turns out to be some kind of junkyard cur barreling toward them, teeth bared. Chris and Eddie run, slowing down when the barking shifts to a shriek of pain, followed by Travis and D-Ray laughing wildly.

Chris and his brother stop and turn to see the dog tethered to a taut chain wrapped around the corner of the house. The dog, covered in mud and bald patches, lunges against it, growling and whining as the metal tightens around its raw neck.

“Lady!” Travis yells as he stalks up to the dog. “No, girl, no!”

His bare foot connects with her rump, and Lady flinches and retreats to the backyard. Travis pursues her around the corner of the house, shouting.

D-Ray looks back at Eddie and Chris in the street and smirks.

“She’s in heat is all,” D-Ray says. “It’s just her way of makin’ friends!”

“Keep that goddamn dog away from me and my brother!” Eddie shouts.

“She ain’t gonna hurt you, hippie boy. She likes hippies!”

Travis reappears, wiping black smears onto his jeans. “She’s in ‘er house,” he says. He grins at Chris and Eddie. “It’s OK, hippies.”

D-Ray nods and raises his eyebrows to the Shepards. “Come on then. Ya’ll ain’t scared.”

“She’s in ‘er house, I said!” Travis yells, pleading. “I promise, swear to god, hope to die.”

“Lotta poon up there, waitin’ for you.” D-Ray thrusts his hips.

Eddie heads back up the driveway. Chris waits a few moments, then follows his older brother around the back of the house. The smell of shitty mud baking in the sun is overwhelming.

Lady’s nose pokes through a small hole in a plywood box below the bowed back porch. A chain leash dangles from a clothesline beside two pit-stained brassieres.

A dented above-ground pool dominates the backyard. On the porch, a washing machine agitates while Lady whines and scratches. The back door opens into a dim kitchen visible through a ripped screen. Gnats and mosquitoes swarm over the churned-up yard and slimy, algae-clotted pool water. Travis and D-Ray make no attempt to swat away the pests.

The Shepards follow the Thrashers around the pool, dodging piles of dogshit and mangled, mud-encrusted chew toys until they reach a crumbling board-and-batten tool shed partially consumed by kudzu and forsythia.

“This our clubhouse,” D-Ray says as he pries open the door.

Mold smell rises from the shadows within, burning Chris’s nostrils. He sneezes.

“Bless ya,” Travis says as he and his brother step into the shed.

Sunlight seeps through a vine-curtained window onto a sheet of plywood strewn with soggy sleeping bags, a Coleman cooler, Slim Jim wrappers, two plastic milk crates, and a stack of wet magazines.

D-Ray and Travis hunker down in the halflight while Chris and Eddie stand in the doorway. Chris’s eyes adjust slowly and more details come in focus. About ten centerfolds decorate the walls.

“Welcome to the PBPH Club!” D-Ray sits on a crate, smug and regal. “This meeting is comin’ to order.”

Prior to this, Chris and Eddie had only seen Playboy magazines from the sixties, bound by twine in the attic of their Atlanta grandfather. Round bottoms, the occasional nipple, coquettish looks, bunny ears. The centerfolds of the PBPH club feature much more detail, copious pubic hair and an oily sheen on the pink and red textures. The carnivorous expressions of the women elicit a deeper urge than the old-school, black-and-white, coy postures from granddaddy’s stash.

Eddie enters the clubhouse. “Whoa,” he says, squinting at a spread-eagled blonde. He laughs nervously.

Chris steps in, breathing through his mouth. The centerfolds exert a strong pull; he leans in to a slick photo of a black-haired woman stretched like a cat sharpening its claws, ass raised.

“Close the door, fag,” Travis says. “Just kiddin’.”

Chris reaches for a piece of frayed rope attached to the door. The rusted hinges creak like a thin scream. Then Chris realizes it’s an actual scream from inside the house.

Both the Thrasher boys bolt up from their crates. Lady howls in the distance.

“Mama,” Travis says. He shoves Chris and pushes open the door. “Mama…?” His voice recedes as he crosses the yard. “Mama…?”

Chris and Eddie look to D-Ray. The boy moves to the glassless shed window and peers through the tangle.

“Who’s that screaming?” Eddie asks wildly, the whites of his eyes shining. “Is that your mom?” He moves next to D-Ray and watches the house through the shed window. Chris edges to the door.

“It’s OK,” D-Ray’s face barely moves. “She’s OK.”

Another scream pierces the air. Lady’s barking has re-ignited the canine chorus in the neighborhood.

“We gotta go,” Eddie says. “Sorry.”

Chris takes the cue and exits the shed into a thicket of honeysuckle. Eddie follows, blinking in the afternoon.

“Hey! Hey!” Travis yells from the porch, waving to the Shepards. “Ya’ll know first aid?” D-Ray’s face remains in the shed window, expressionless. Travis sees his brother. “Mama cut herself. She’s bleedin’, D-Ray.”

“Did you call an ambulance?” Eddie calls across the yard. “Call an ambulance.”

“Yeah!” Chris says.

“Hell no don’t do that,” D-Ray says from the window. “Don’t do that, Travis! Don’t!”

Another scream rises from the darkness. Travis runs back inside.

Eddie looks at Chris. “You remember that Boy Scout first aid stuff?”

“I think so,” Chris says. “But we should go. We should call an ambulance.”

“I’ll use their phone.” Eddie heads for the house.

Lady snarls inside her wooden box, shaking it and pushing her entire snout through the hole in the door as Eddie and Chris mount the steps.

Soon the brothers cross a worn threshold into a dark kitchen thick with grease. Plastic wrappers crumple beneath their feet. The theme to The Price Is Right trickles in from another room. An oscillating fan turns on a crusty counter, blowing their hair, now wet against their foreheads. Brown shopping bags folded and stacked in columns reach to a half caved-in ceiling. Flies cluster in the dish-crammed sink. Blotched ceiling tiles hang like scabs from rafters drooping tatters of pink insulation. Schlitz cans tower against the side of an old smudged Frigidaire covered with colored plastic magnet letters that spell nothing. A telephone with a smashed receiver occupies the wall beside the refrigerator. Eddie frowns at it.

“Shit,” he says.

A moan draws them past a blackened stove into a close, darkened room that would have served as a dining area were it not packed ceiling-high with columns of magazines and boxes. Cigarette smoke hangs in the air with the thrift store scent of rotted fabric.

“Hello?” Eddie says into the piles as he flicks the uselesslight switch on the wall.

“Hello?” Eddie repeats. For a moment the unseen television seems to answer him with distorted applause and the thin, cheery voice of The Price Is Right host Bill Cullen. Flickering light seeps from a far corner.

Eddie squeezes through a tiny pathway, his movements creating small avalanches of junk. Boxes cascade to one side, revealing a woman sitting on the edge of a duct-taped La-Z-Boy in front of a window fan. Sweat-soaked tendrils of dirty blond hair blow around her face. A TV occupies the wall opposite, piled high with clothes and a broken-down wicker laundry basket filled with magazines. The Price Is Right casts dancing colored light across a path of carpet between the woman and the screen. Cigarette butts, charred circles and overflowing ashtrays crowd this strip of space. A shiny hunting knife gleams on the floor beside several Schlitz cans.

The wiry woman wears a flimsy waist-length nightie and black underpants. The halogen light of the TV dances over dark splotches on the leathery skin of her knobby knees and thighs. She rocks back and forth in a kind of trance, her left forearm slick with blood dripping from a purple gash on her wrist, tap, tap, tap onto a sodden newspaper on the rug. With her right hand she grasps the crook of her elbow. She gnaws a cigarette, breath coming in short gasps, sending puffs of smoke from her nose into the hazy air. Her tightly closed eyes flutter.

Travis’s head pops up from a doorway on the far side of the room. Towers of clothes and newspapers obscure his body. He holds up the terrycloth belt from a bathrobe.

“Mama how’s this?” he asks. “This a good bandage?”

The woman opens her eyes and scans the room frantically, seeking out her son’s voice. She squints at the Shepards, scans until she finds Travis. Her left breast tumbles from her nightie, the brown nipple like a third eye.

“Ya’ll brought ya’ll’s girlfriends over?” she says to her son. Ash falls from her cigarette onto her collarbone.

“They’s from Atlanta, Mama,” Travis says. “They’s boys.”

“I can make a tourniquet with that,” Chris says, reaching over a pile of Hot Wheels boxes and taking the belt. “I need a stick or a screwdriver or something.”

Travis’s footsteps boom on the floorboards as he runs through the house and rummages in the kitchen.

“I cut myself,” the woman says. “I’se trying to cut some twine so I can bind up some a my cardboard and I cut my wrist. That’s what happened.”

Chris kicks paper cups and soup cans away from the carpet next to the chair and kneels beside the woman.

“Yer a pretty thing,” she says, a yeasty whiff wafting.

A Phillips-head screwdriver enters Chris’s field of vision. He grabs it from Travis, wraps the belt around the woman’s forearm, knots it, inserts the tool into the knot and twists until the bleeding slows. As he binds the tourniquet, Mama Thrasher removes her right hand and pulls her cigarette out.

“Where’s D-Ray?” she asks Travis, blowing smoke into Chris’s eyes.

Travis says nothing for a few moments. He stares at Chris’s handiwork.

“Goddammit, Travis, where’s my D-Ray? You deaf, shit-for-brains?”

Travis snaps to attention. “He’s in the clubhouse, Mama.”

“I want my D-Ray!”

Travis hustles out of the room. The screen door bangs.

“You should get to a doctor,” Eddie says. “Is there another phone in the house?”

“Ha,” the woman says, leaning back. “No sir, no. No doctor. I’ll be just fine now. No doctor. Them doctors don’t know shit, tryin’ to run my life. No.”

Chris remembers his scoutmaster telling him that a tourniquet left on too long can result in amputation. Ruined flesh. He looks to Eddie with silent desperation. Eddie nods.

“OK, Ma’am, we’re gonna go now,” Eddie says and wends his way through the trash, each step bringing a rain of objects.

Chris takes a long look at the woman. Her eyes watch the TV but her mind, clearly, is elsewhere. She bites down on a pack of Marlboros, pulling a fresh smoke from the pack with her teeth. The purple wound at her wrist glistens in the TV light.

“Tell my D-Ray get his ass in here and get me a Band-Aid,” she says through the side of her mouth, her eyes never leaving The Price Is Right.

“Yes ma’am,” Chris says, then turns and follows his brother.

***

D-Ray gazes into the fetid pool, his forearms draped over the edge. Travis stands beside him, hunched over, frowning. He looks confused.

Chris and Eddie approach the Thrashers.

“Uh… D-Ray?” Chris says. The boy does not look up. “Your mom says she needs a Band-Aid…”

Eddie pulls at Chris’s shirt. “Come on, we gotta get going.”

This rouses D-Ray. “I knew ya’ll was faggets. Don’t wanna see no more poon, huh?”

“We’ll be back,” Eddie says over his shoulder while he and Chris walk toward the driveway. When they reach the street, Chris looks back to see D-Ray and Travis standing in the gravel by the Trans Am, watching them go. Dogs bark everywhere, jumping against chain link fences, straining against leashes. The faint paper mill smell laces into the thick summer air.

“Look at your hands,” Eddie says, speeding up his pace as they get further from the Thrashers.

Mama Thrasher’s blood stains Chris’s palms. He wipes them on his jeans and feels his breakfast starting to rise in his throat. He swallows hard against his dry insides and the nausea passes.

When they reach the playground they run, kicking up pine needles. Their bare feet slap the hot, fractured sidewalk when Shenandoah House appears in the distance.

The VW rumbles out front, a puff of smoke rising from the tailpipe. When they reach the car, they find their mother inside, her face streaked with tears, her hands white-knuckled on the steering wheel. She sees them, wipes her eyes and nose with her fingers and forces a fake smile.

“Hey boys,” she says, sniffing. “Get in the car.”

“We gotta tell you something, Mommy,” Eddie says, gasping for breath.

“Yeah,” Chris says, “there’s this redneck lady…”

Get in the car, boys. We’re going home.”

Chris sees their suitcases and pillows loaded into the backseat.

“What? Why?” Chris asks. “It’s not time to go.”

Flossie waddles down the steps, her face pinched.

“CeCe, please,” she says. “Please stay.”

Granddaddy Buck stands at the door, shielded by the screen, bag of walnuts in hand. His mouth quivers in a hard line.

“Ya’ll are too big!” he yells. “We ain’t got the room no more!”

Flossie turns back to him. “Goddamn you, Buck. You are hateful! It’s nobody’s fault what happened! Nobody’s fault!”

“She oughtta be ashamed!” he yells back.

CeCe revs the VW engine. “Get in the fucking car, boys! Now!”

Flossie turns and hobbles back up the porch steps. She steps up to the screen and raises her fist. Buck disappears into the house. She turns back to the rumbling Volkswagen.

“Wait!” she calls. “Wait!”

“That man’s a sonofabith, Flossie!” CeCe says through angry sobs. “Just like his son! I’m sorry! Get in the car, boys!”

Chris and Eddie go to the passenger door, fling it open and crawl into the tiny cave of pillows and blankets.

Flossie stands crying at the driver’s side window while CeCe sobs against the steering wheel. Flossie reaches in and touches her daughter-in-law’s tanned shoulder, bare in a black sundress. CeCe flinches and Flossie withdraws her hand and lowers her head. Tears fall onto her housecoat.

After a few moments Eddie leans in to the front seat.

“There’s a hurt lady in Redneck Town.” His voice shakes.

Flossie’s head jerks back like she’s waking from a catnap. “What honey?”

“The Thrasher boys’ mom cut her arm real bad,” Chris says, squeezing his favorite pillow with sweaty palms.

For a moment the Super Beetle fills with everyone’s labored breathing.

CeCe turns around to look into the backseat, her face puffy, eyes a mess of spidery veins.

“How bad?” she says.

“Yes,” Flossie leans into the window. “How bad? What happened? Are you two OK?”

“We’re OK,” Eddie says.

“It’s bad,” Chris says. “I made a tourniquet.”

“What?” CeCe snaps, annoyed. “Where is she?”

“I know where they live,” Flossie says. “Their daddy died around the same time Lee did. Worked at the mill. Cancer.”

“What happened?” CeCe asks her sons.

“She cut herself with a knife cutting twine,” Eddie says. “It’s real bad.”

“That woman’s always in some kind of trouble,” Flossie says, clucking her tongue. “Those boys’ll be taken away from her soon.”

CeCe laughs drily. “God. What next?”

“I’m gonna make the call,” Flossie heads to the house. “Please wait. Buck’s just in a mood. He’ll get better.”

“No, Flossie,” CeCe calls after her mother-in-law. “We’re gonna go…”

Chris can’t find his Bert and Ernie puppets.

“Mommy, where are my puppets?” he asks.

“Goddammit,” CeCe says, lighting a cigarette, “they’re not back there?”

Chris and Eddie look in the many layers of their hutch. No puppets.

“I’ll go get ‘em,” Chris says. “I think I know where they are.”

“OK,” CeCe sighs. “Better you than me. If I see that jackass again I’ll scream.”

Chris pushes the passenger seat up, exits the rumbling car and heads up the walk and into the dark, cool house.

Flossie speaks on the phone, reading glasses perched on the tip of her nose, telling the ambulance where to go. She licks her index finger and thumbs through the white pages.

“Q… R… S… T… T-e… T-h…here it is. Thrasher. 166 Hawthorne. I know the house. It’s a brick bungalow. Yes. My name is Flossie Shepard… I’ll spell it for you…”

Chris hurries to the breakfast nook, where he’d done a puppet show for his grandmother earlier in the day; sure enough, Ernie and Bert lay on the chair. He reaches down to grab them and sees Granddaddy Buck through the whirring window fan, sitting on the bench, his back to the house. Squirrels surround the old man, little gray bodies tense, beady eyes alert, tails twitching as they wait. Buck pays them no attention. His bowed head rests on his chest and his shoulders shudder in the dappled light of the hundred-year-old oak.

The many faces of Chris’s dead father look down on him from the picture frames scattered along the yellowed wallpaper of the nook. For the first time he realizes all are from Lee Keane’s childhood, when the man was a boy grinning into the future, clear-eyed and confident. There are none from adulthood, when marriage, parenthood and alcohol bore down on him.

Chris leans in to a smaller photo that bears a particularly eerie resemblance to him; a school photo from the fifties. His breath clouds the smeary glass as he squints. My eyes are different, he thinks. My eyes are different.

Flossie touches Chris’s shoulder. He jumps, turns and sinks into her smoky sea smell as she wraps him in an embrace. The VW car horn bleats. Flossie releases him, steps away and meets his gaze. For a moment she seems angry, her teary, dark blue eyes darting from the photos to the window and back to her grandson. She draws a rattling breath and pastes on a smile.

“Mommy forgot to pack my puppets,” Chris says, holding up Ernie and Bert.

“You want to take that picture with you?” Flossie asks, reaching her trembling fingers to the edge of the cheap frame. “If your mama cut your hair, this really could be a picture of you, you know.”

The VW horn beeps again, twice.

“I think my eyes are different,” Chris edges toward the hallway.

Flossie nods and retracts her hand, leaving the photo on the wall. “Yes, you have your mama’s eyes,” she says, sighing. She gathers him in her arms once more, kisses the tangles atop his head and lets him go. He runs to the bright rectangle of light and back into the hot summer day.

50 Bands

This is my version of the “50 Bands I’ve Seen” meme that has been circulating on Facebook. The double-edged sword that is my memory got slightly carried away, but it was a fun little trip.

1. My dad playing guitar at my seventh birthday, 1972. On the setlist was “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “Country Roads,” “Home Grown Tomatoes,” “If I Had a Hammer.” It was raining outside, the screen door banged in the wind.

2. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band at the Great Southeast Music Hall in Atlanta, probably 1973, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” tour. Went with my mom, Grandfather (entertainment editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) and my brother. I was so overwhelmed, I cried. People kept asking what was wrong and I didn’t know what to say, so finally I just lied and said “It’s too loud.”

3. Linda Ronstadt at Atlanta Civic Center, “Hasten Down the Wind” tour, 1976. Great LA band. Went with Todd Butler. We were smitten with La Ronstadt. I thought “That’ll Be the Day” was her song. Sadly, she did not wear the Cub Scout uniform.

4. Kiss at the Omni, in Atlanta, “Love Gun” tour, 1977. Went with Todd. Without realizing it was illegal, we taped the show on a Panasonic cassette player, which I carried under my down jacket. Kiss always said they gave the fans something “different,” which of course they did, but it was all very predictable. The songs, however, were – and still are – great. Inhaled lots of second-hand pot smoke, then got picked up by Todd’s mom. I remember my ears ringing.

5. Rush at The Omni, Atlanta, “Hemispheres” tour 1978. Also with Todd, also ears ringing. The idea of forming a band had taken root and soon would sprout. Rush played Taurus pedals with THEIR FEET while flawlessly playing guitars and keyboards – and in Geddy Lee’s case, singing – in odd time signatures. Like watching acrobats. Somewhat Spinal Tap. But as long as there are awkward teenage boys, Rush will rule. I recently heard they are among the Top 5 album sellers of all time. For whatever that’s worth.

6. Champagne Jam ’79, Grant Field, Atlanta. I went alone, dropped off by my mom in the early morning. Hung out with two charming 20-something hooting and rebel-yelling redneck girls, who took turns riding on my shoulders. I had recently grown to six feet and the sensation of blue-jeaned thighs on my neck was a new one. I did not get lucky with them. On the bill: local bands Whiteface and the criminally underrated Mother’s Finest, the Dixie Dregs, and headliners the Atlanta Rhythm Section. Also on the bill: the Cars and Aerosmith, both of whom sucked. The Cars were gawky and stiff – and everyone thought they were from England. Aerosmith was wasted. Especially Steven Tyler, who could not hit the high notes and gave the audience the finger. I still have a T-shirt from this show. I had just started playing bass, and would spend hours learning the bass solo from the ARS song “Champagne Jam.” It was a sure-fire way to impress the ladies. My mom picked me up around 11 PM.

7. Kansas, “Monolith” tour rehearsal, 1980. I wrote for the local teen paper the Purple Cow, and got the gig to write a preview of Kansas’ upcoming tour, gaining access to their airplane hanger-sized rehearsal space in Atlanta. I kid you not, the stage had a huge backdrop of an Easter Island-looking monolith. My hot girlfriend Paula drove us, and the drummer, who I clumsily interviewed, ogled her as she took photos for the piece. We watched a rehearsal, which included state-of-the-art lights and flashpots. My article was titled “Inside A Kaleidoscope with Kansas.” My first few cover bands would follow – Voyage and Ickee Phudj.

8. Van Halen at the Omni, Atlanta, “Women & Children First” tour, 1980. Took aforementioned hot girlfriend Paula, who rode on my shoulders. We had floor seats and my most prominent memories of the music are of David Lee Roth saying “People ask if those high pitched sounds I make are from machines and I say NO, THEY’RE FROM DRUUUUUGS!” (Wild applause.) Mostly I recall the following: I was nervous because an army of rednecks was giving my girlfriend the hairy eyeball, and, excruciatingly, I remember her on my shoulders grooving to “Dance the Night Away,” then me losing my balance and tumbling over backwards into the row behind us. The only thing seriously injured was my pride. But I recovered, in part because she was sweet and very forgiving.

9. Aerosmith, the Omni, Atlanta, 1980. Went with Todd. Hoping one of my faves would redeem themselves, but no they still sucked. Gotta love them drugs. Notable in that this was a rare tour without Joe Perry, who had quit. Replacement Jimmy Crespo didn’t do much to counter the suck factor.

10. Ruckus, St. Pius X High School, Atlanta, 1980. Premier cover band came and played in the cafetorium. I wish I could say if they really were great. At the time, they were. They played covers by Styx, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and even funky stuff like Hot Chocolate, Wild Cherry, and the Ohio Players. I will say this with conviction: get a bunch of Catholic school adolescents who’ve been taught that the flesh is forbidden in a dark room with loud, live rock and roll playing and very interesting things will happen, with or without alcohol. Just don’t tell the principal Sister Rita you heard that from me. Very influential in spurring me on to form my own band.

11. Bow Wow Wow, with opening act REM, Biltmore Hotel, Atlanta, 1981. Went with Todd. This one was amazing, in part because I had no idea who REM was. Todd Butler and I were big fans of Bow Wow Wow – we loved the raggedy Pirate fashion, the surf-funk-Burundi drums music, the attitude, and not least of all, Annabella Lwin, who was 15 and who was naked on their album cover. Good times. REM’s much-ballyhooed debut single was freshly out, and they came onstage and tore it up. They had their Television/Patti Smith Group thrift store fashion sense down, and they had that elusive, money-in-the-bank greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts four-headed-monster band quality possessed by every great group. And some instantly memorable tunes, which insured their subsequent stratospheric success. Frat guys, new wavers and art students had come from Athens and they all hollered out the names of songs and went nuts. It was what I imagine it was like seeing the Beatles at the Cavern in 1962. One of the only seminal “I was there” gigs on my list. I soon would form my first original band, The Latest.

More on this HERE

12. Method Actors with opening act The Latest at the Strand in Marietta, Ga, 1982. My punky pop band The Latest – featuring drummer extraordinaire Harry Joiner and guitarist/vocalist Teddy Murray – did great before an audience of complete strangers. At least that’s how I recall it. I also recall friends in a local “progressive rock” band checking us out and muttering jealously. Very satisfying, that. The Method Actors had a loyal arty following from Athens, who came and danced to their band’s quirky, loud, attitude-heavy music. The Method Actors were a trio of drums, sax and guitar/sometimes bass. Leader/frontman and Athens luminary, Vic Varney was an impressive perfomer who, a couple years later, would invite me to Athens to play in a new band, Go Van Go. Saxophonist Stan Satin was fantastic and really nice. I would later be in his NYC band Sayso in 1985.

13. The Press with opening act The Latest at the Bistro, Atlanta, 1982. The Press was the hot local new wave band always on the edge of breakout success, getting airplay with their tuneful, non-offensive pop. The Bistro was a pretty tiny club – maybe 300 folks could get in there – owned and run by another “Local Band on the Verge” Baby and the Pacifiers. If memory serves, I totaled my mom’s Volkswagen Beetle en route to this gig. She forgave me.

14. The Now Explosion at the Strand, 1982. I went with Todd, who was literally in love with the Now Explosion and eventually would marry one of its members, Clare Parker. They were a trashy, hilarious, and seriously funky five-piece unfairly compared to the B-52’s. I’d never seen people having so much fun onstage, making up for what they lacked in instrumental prowess with charisma and some solid tunes. When I quit The Latest, they would have a significant effect on Todd and me as we formed the band Wee Wee Pole with then-fledgling superstar-in -exile RuPaul Charles.

More on this HERE

15. Split Enz at the Agora Ballroom, Atlanta, 1983. I was a big fan, particularly of younger Finn Brother Neil – later of Crowded House – who was a teenager. I went to this show alone. When they played “I Got You,” everyone, including me, went crazy. I would soon go in search of the Perfect Pop Song.

16. The Clash at the Fox Theater, Atlanta, 1982. First show after Joe Strummer’s unexpected walkabout in France, on which he ate lots of cheese and got fat. He was tormented by his band’s success, apparently, and had abandoned the “Combat Rock” tour. Returning with a Mohawk, he temporarily resigned himself to success just in time for the Atlanta show. Secret weapon/underrated drummer and, sadly, junkie Topper Headon had quit and headed home to London, so original drummer Terry Chimes/Tory Crimes filled in. It was almost like watching a rehearsal. A disappointment. There was a pathetic attempt by Atlanta punks to incite a riot after the show, but it was quickly tamped down by the cops.

17. REM and Jason & the Nashville Scorchers, Agora Ballroom, Atlanta, 1982. Jason & the Nashville Scorchers gave the Rear End Men/Raving Ego Maniacs (what jealous Atlanta bands called REM) a run for their money on this one. I came in during Jason’s set and almost had my face peeled off. They were intense, funny, and unapologetically country-punk showfolk. I’d never seen anything like it. Jason was a shirtless, sweaty, glorious mess, the band spun and engaged in all kinds of stage moves with total conviction, and the crowd was just this side of out-of-control. When REM hit the stage – with sideman Peter Holsapple – they had their work cut out for them. But they delivered. “Chronic Town” had been released and I played it every day. They had more dynamics than Jason et al, and, of course, they were prettier. And they had those songs. No small thing.

18. Stanley Clarke and George Duke, Chastain Park, Atlanta, 1984. I was a big fan of Stanley Clarke, and I studied his bass playing intensely. I wanted to play fast and funky and he was the king. He’d released some music with keyboardist George Duke that was not my cup of tea – sexless R & B – but I wanted to see him. The show turned into a fiasco – none of Duke’s synthesizer keyboards worked, and nothing looks goofier than a well-respected jazzbo playing a handheld keyboard that does not work (or even one that does). Duke had a tantrum, threw the keyboard down violently and stalked offstage, leaving Stanley Clarke to riff for about 30 minutes. At the end, Clarke lifted up his hands and said “I HAVE LOST MY POWER.” I didn’t think rapid-fire bass playing would ever bore me, but it did.

19. Psychedelic Furs, outside at UGA, Athens, 1984. The P Furs had released “Mirror Moves” – one of the albums that would “put drummers out of work” because of the “amazingly real sounding” Linn Drum. They were great, and Richard Butler had an odd, catlike grace that I’d never seen before. There was some kind of fracas with some “Athens punks” who were being obnoxious. Butler spilled water on them intentionally and the cops escorted them away. Very exciting.

20. The Alarm, outside at UGA, Athens, 1984. Awful. Just dreadful. The singer sort of sang like Bono and they played acoustic guitars that were amplified and sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard. They billed themselves as a cross between U2 and the Clash and they sang about fighting for their rights, etc. Totally obnoxious. And worst of all – no tunes.

21. Waitresses, 688 Club, Atlanta, probably 1982. The only original members were singer Patty O’Donahue and, I think, sax player Mars Williams. They were great and at the climactic moment in “I Know What Boys Like,” Patty, who was a great frontwoman, leaned down to my sweaty face and said “SUCKER!” But she winked and I felt honored. And turned on. A few years later I would chat with her across a NYC bar at which I was working. She was very sweet.

22. The Neighborhoods, 688 Club, Atlanta, 1982. Word on the street was that this Boston band was hot shit on a stick, and they were. They tore the roof off that sweaty little bunker of a club. Amazing, meaty, danceable new wave funk.

23. Red Hot Chili Peppers, 40 Watt Club, Athens, opening band – my band – Go Van Go.1984 I was a huge fan of their first album, which was produced by Gang of Four’s Andy Gill, and I was thrilled when my band got the opening slot. Go Van Go was an arty Athens dance band helmed by Vic Varney in which I played a lot of funk bass. With foxy Tanya Tucker lookalike Dana Downs sharing vocals with Vic, we approximated a X-meets-Gang of Four inensity that, I regret to say, was never adequately captured on tape. I was a disciple of Flea’s bass playing so I went to see the RCP sound check. They’d just driven into sleepy, hot little Athens and they were hungover and pissed off that the club was so dinky and there were no posters up. Later that night, they really burned it up onstage. Flea was Flea and I was stunned at his punky slap bass, Anthony was wearing a black leather jacket with his favorite coffee cup attached to the epaulet, and the late great Hillel Slovak – who had a piece of foam rubber attached to his head – played Hendrix-meets-punk-meets-funk guitar like nothing I had ever seen or heard before. I went home and picked up my bass and practiced until there was blood on the pick guard.

24. Police/Go-Gos, Synchronicity tour, the Omni, Atlanta, 1983. I actually enjoyed the Go-Go’s more than the Police. The Go-Go’s had a lot of garage band attitude and presence and really rocked the joint, making the arena feel like a steamy little club. I wrote about this show for the Purple Cow and was burned in effigy at a keg party by my former band mates in my heavy metal cover band Ickee Phudj for “going new wave.” The Police were tight and professional and had back-up singers and yadda yadda yadda. But I wasn’t all that impressed.

25. Test Dept, the Ritz, NYC, 1985. I have no idea how I ended up at this show, alone. Test Dept were a very mannered English band whose gimmick was that they traveled with no instruments. Rather, they would pick up metal trash in every city and bang polyrhythms on it while a guy played a cornet and another guy projected black and white films of socialists working in factories, etc. The loudest racket I have ever heard.

26. GBH, some underground club, London, 1986. I was traveling alone through Europe, staying at a hostel in London. An Italian kid invited me to “come see a punk rock band!” Probably one of the only actual real punk rock shows I’ve ever attended. The crowd seemed as much a part of the performance as the band, who were excruciatingly loud (DUH) aggressive and dangerous looking.

27. Fleshtones, Lone Star, NYC, 1986. I went with some friends to see this “you gotta see ’em live” quintet at the great old Lone Star club, and I was really taken with them, especially Peter Zaremba, who worked the crowd and the band like a white, heavy-Queens-accented James Brown. They stopped and started on a dime, working the crowd and getting everyone dancing. Within a few months, I would be in the band. But that’s another story.

28. Motorhead, the I-Beam, San Francisco, 1987. On a night off during a tour with the Fleshtones I went to the I-Beam to check out Lemmy & Co., and I was not at all disappointed. They kept blowing out the PA, which was an added entertainment value, as the band would be playing hard, fast and loud, then BAM the circuits would go, and for a few moments, they’d still be rocking out in complete silence except for the drums. Very, very funny. Then Lemmy would scream that the next time they’d bring their own PA. I got the impression he said that a lot.

29. James Brown, a very large hall that I don’t recall, Paris, 1987, with opener the Fleshtones. My first gig in a foreign country. We opened for James at this 5000-seater, and the crowd did not care for us. Someone threw a straight razor onto the stage while we played. Then James came out and, even though he seemed to be phoning it in, he was still great. He had a crack band, of course, including a tall skinny guy who covered for James on some of the difficult vocal parts. The real star was actually sax man Maceo Parker, who came out worked the crowd for 15 minutes as the MC said “The Tower of Power, the Sex Machine, the Hardest Working Man in Showbiz, etc, etc.” over and over like a mantra. We wanted to meet James but it was forbidden due to James having “trouble with his teeth.”

30. Chuck Berry, outdoor concert in Barcelona, 1988, with opener the Fleshtones. Chuck Berry did exactly what I’d always heard he did: He drove up in a rental car, got his out-of-tune-guitar out of the trunk, got paid in cash, went onstage, met the band, and proceeded to suck. We’d opened for him to a massive crowd who received us pretty well. I did not get to meet him. He played all his hits, but never tuned his guitar and never even looked at the hapless band. The band was actually American 70s hit-makes the Climax Blues Band, who were touring Spain and, I guess, needed some extra cash. After Chuck split in a cloud of dust, they played their soft rock hits. VERY ODD.

31. Das Furlines, the Jag, East Hampton, Long Island, 1987. I got to know my future wife at this gig. Das Furlines were a punk polka band inspired by obscure garage rockers the Monks, who were American GI’s living in Germany in the 60s. Way ahead of their time, the Monks.

Like the Monks, the Furlines played proto-punk with a polka beat. The Furlines’ between-song patter was very bawdy, very Benny Hill. An all-female quintet, they dressed like beer hall girls, with bustiers and crinolines and wild hair-do’s and hats. They covered Monks songs and spoke in fake German accents. My wife Holly – aka Holly Hemlock – played a 1958 Fender Jazzmaster and her hair was tinted “tail-light red.” I was smitten. Within two years, we’d be married. Just celebrated 20th anniversary.

32. Waterboys, the Beacon Theater, 1989, Fisherman’s Blues Tour. Went with Holly, as we were – and are – huge Waterboys fans. A revelation, this show. I’d been a fan of their early, dense, chiming, anthemic stuff, and then Mike Scott broke it all down and built it back with a tweedy, rootsy, folky palette and it all worked. His band – multi-instrumentalist Anthony Thiselthwaite in particular – really rose to it. They did the early “Big Music” material as well as the newer, acoustic-y raggedy numbers and everything felt a part of a greater whole. I was disappointed but not surprised Scott couldn’t sustain the intensity of this version of the Waterboys. He hasn’t made a great record since.

33. Leonard Cohen, the Felt Forum, 1992, The Future Tour. Went with Holly. I once read a description of Jakob Dylan that included the phrase “sluggish rabbinical charisma.” Having seen the Wallflowers, I cannot concur on this point – it was a snooze of a show. “Sluggish rabbinical charisma” does, however, apply to Leonard Cohen, who puts on a performance that is unlike any other. There is an intensity that feels like a devotional ceremony, yet there’s humor and sex and hypnotic tunes and, above all else, the power of language to transform a sizeable crowd of people. I’ve never been to show where the words held the collective attention of a crowd so completely. At times it seemed Cohen would implode into the depth of his songs, crumpling into himself, croaking out one compelling phrase after another while his sleek, sexy back-up singers cooed like angels and his yeoman band – a multi-culti lot of Eastern and Western – kept everything on firm ground. Like the Springsteen show I attended sometime later (see # 50) I left feeling like I’d been to a holy site and been filled with spirit. No joke.

34. Midnight Oil, the Felt Forum, 1990, Blue Sky Mining Town Tour. I was a fan of Diesel and Dust and was told that these Aussies were great live, a must-see. Indeed, they were. Not only are they all great musicians – especially the drummer – they all sang with gusto. Sonically, they incorporated acoustic guitars quite a lot, and I’d never heard such a true, pe rcussive amplified acoustic sound. They were riding a wave of radio and MTV/VH1 acceptance in those days, and they had very solid, passionate tunes.

35. U2, Giants Stadium, Popmart Tour, 1997. This was a disappointment. I’m a fan and I’d never seen U2, and the only time I got it together to go was for their only misstep album/tour. Bloated, unfocused. The big lemon that they emerged from – all very ironic and consciously Spinal Tap. I remember thinking crew-cut Bono looked like Jimmy Cagney. Jeff Buckley had just died and they did an impromptu salute to him. Of course a lot of the songs still had magic, but the guys seemed tired and uncommitted. This was no Joshua Tree or Zoo TV.

36. Steve Earle solo, Irving Plaza, 1996. Shortly after getting out jail, cleaning up and releasing the classic “I Feel Alright” Earle played what I recall as the longest solo acoustic show I’d ever seen – probably 2 and a half hours. Although a technically limited player and singer, he put on a riveting show. It was all about the songs and his rapport with the crowd. A true troubadour, perhaps the best I’ve seen.

37. Steve Earle & the Dukes Tramps, NYC, 1995. All of the above but with a great band, less talk and considerably more volume.

38. Townes Van Zant & Guy Clark, The Bottom Line, NYC, probably 1997. Townes was a wreck and, due to the DT’s, could barely play. It was excruciating. The songs were undeniable, though. Guy Clark, whose son played great bass, opened the show with understated professionalism that got on the nerves of some of Townes’ fans. But I was impressed. Again – amazing songs.

39. Levon Helm and Ollabelle, Levon’s Midnight Ramble, Woodstock, NY, 2004. I was a teacher, so, as per Levon’s policy, I got in free (firemen and teachers got into Rambles free in those days). Went with Holly and we were both under the impression that, due to his throat cancer, Levon’s voice was gone. We only expected him to sit in on drums. WRONG. Although he seemed frail and skeletal when he came out, once behind his kit, he came to life, and when he sang, the room filled with energy and he seemed to glow from within. It was a spiritual experience. He duetted a lot with his daughter Amy and the joy was palpable. An amazing night.

More on Levon and me HERE

40. Hedwig & the Angry Inch, Jane St. Theater, 1999. Technically, this was a rock musical – far and away the best rock musical I’ve ever seen, the most seamless example of marrying rock and roll with theater. Writer-performer John Cameron Mitchell was leaving, so Holly and I rushed to see him and we were blown away by the songs, the humor, the soul, the story, everything. I would return to see Michael Cerveris as Hedwig, and amazingly, he was every bit as good. The movie does not compare to the live show, which moved me and rocked me with equal force.

41. Prince, the Bercy, Paris “Sign O’ the Times” tour. 1987. I am now, and have been for most of my life, an ardent Prince fan, and this was the only time I’ve seen him. He did not disappoint. The French LOVE them some Prince, and the Bercy is, if memory serves, comparable to Madison Square Garden, so there really wasn’t a bad seat in the house. Sheila E. played drums and she almost stole the show, coming out from behind the kit to rap at one point (on Alphabet Street) while the Purple One kept the beat. The only downside was that many of his best songs were compressed into medleys. But that’s mere quibbling. A master showman/musician/singer/evangelist with an amazing band. Opening act Madhouse played funk instrumentals shrouded in burka-like robes that obscured their faces. They got the crowd sufficiently riled for His Royal Badness. Rumour was that Prince was the drummer.

42. Dolly Parton, Joe’s Pub, NYC, 2001. Due to Holly’s press cred, we got in to this intimate performance, which featured mandolin phenom Chris Thile from Nickel Creek. Dolly had released her bluegrass CD “Little Sparrow” and I had never been that close to someone who’d had that much plastic surgery. She looked like an alien. And she seemed nervous in the live context. She had a TelePrompTer to help her remember lyrics. But the songs – both new and old- were the real stars. And Thile. I got the impression folks who saw Hendrix at Cafe Wha? in the mid 60s probably felt the same way. I talked to the band afterwards – they were smoking on the street,totally ignored – and asked why Dolly didn’t do more shows. “She’s too busy with her production company,” the guitarist said. “You know that show ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’? That’s hers.”

43. Johnny Cash, Hunter Mtn. NY, 1996. Johnny had June, the Carter Sisters, John Carter Cash and the Tennessee Three at this gig, and it was great. Like going to Mt. Rushmore. Johnny and June’s stage patter was identical when I saw them later at the Ritz in NYC.

44. NRBQ, some underground club in Durham, near Duke University, 1988. The Fleshtones had opened for Jonathan Richman at Duke earlier in the day, and we ended up at this club where this band I’d heard about as another “must see live” experience was playing. They were stunning, easily one of the best bands I’ve ever seen. It was the classic lineup of Big Al, Terry, Joey and Tom, and they played more styles than any one I’d ever seen, and they made it all sound of a piece. One of the most joyous concert experiences of my life. The Fleshtones would later share a bill with them in Martinique, of all places, where no one knew who they – or, indeed, who we – were.

45. Tom Jones , the Buckingham Palace Theater at the Friar Tuck Inn, Catskills, NY, early 90s. This was right when Tom started to become hip again. He’d just covered EMF’s “Unbelievable and Prince’s “Kiss.” He was amazing. He opened with the Richard Thompson song “Break Somebody’s Heart” then did lots more cool covers. In the middle of the set he did all his hits back to back, then went back to the unexpected stuff, like Johnny Winter’s “Still Alive & Well.” His voice was a revelation, very rich and dramatic. And even though his band all had mullets, he rocked the joint, which reeked of Mafia and was filled with middle-aged women.

46. Emmylou Harris and Spyboy, Joe’s Pub, 1999. Another intimate press-only event. I’d been a fan of a lot of her stuff, which Holly had introduced me to, and this gig featured an amazing band with Brady Blade and producer/guitarist Buddy Miller,. We’d seen Emmy at the Beacon with Daniel Lanois and were knocked out, but with Buddy Miller in tow, she really took everyone to another plane. She even made a menopause joke sexy.

47. Van Morrison, the Beacon, 1989. “Avalon Sunset” tour. I got up early in the morning and waited outside the Beacon for tickets. This was an added show which culminated a six-night stint at the Beacon, and it was to be filmed for a concert video. I hadn’t camped out for tickets since I was a teenager. It was worth it. Van’s voice was shot, but it didn’t matter. He had Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames as a band and guests Mose Allison and John Lee Hooker. Holly and I both are huge fans of Van and we were not disappointed. He was not at all prickly – quite engaging and “on.”

48. Richard Thompson, Bearsville Theater, “Rumour & Sigh” solo acoustic tour, early 90s. The best solo acoustic show I’ve ever seen. Also the first time I ever heard “52 Vincent Black Lightning,” my favorite song of his. A real triple threat – guitarist, writer and singer/performer – with great stage presence and patter and jaw-dropping chops.

49. Gogol Bordello, Austin City Limits Festival, 2008. These odd, raggedy, rock and roll gypsies really owned the festival. A big band, with bearded, crazed men singing and flailing away while girls in bicycle shorts pound on big bass drums and do choreography as an intensely tight band executes an Eastern European version of the Pogues-meets-Iggy Pop. They had the crowd enthralled and no one knew what they were singing about. I heard later that they stayed up all night on the festival grounds, singing, dancing, drinking and roasting a pig in the ground.

50. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Madison Square Garden, 1999. This was the tour on which he played “American Skin,” – his song about unarmed Amadou Diallo being shot 41 times by the NYPD. Not only was that song intense and chilling, the whole show was like a rock and roll tent revival meeting. One of the best rock shows I’ve ever seen, if not the best. The songs, the performance, the connection to the crowd, the energy… a spiritual experience. A rare opportunity to see and hear a band that has been together for decades and thus posses a simpatico vibe that can never be rehearsed, only accomplished after untold bus rides, plane trips, hotels, road food, and, of course, simply playing together for most of their lives.