On Viewing “Straight, No Chaser,” Uncut

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4pmPPtKU64

Well, what can one say about Thelonius Monk, looking way back at 1965 from our plasticized 2011 – who was he anyway – that disoriented bearded being floating precisely around airports and clubs and concert halls, spinning like an astounded black bear in an urban forest?  It helps to sip a beer, just in case you’re not naturally high as a kite like he was, when you watch that documentary.  Wear earphones, let him drill down into your soul with his ragged, crackling chords, his disjunct rhythms, his absolutely playful melodic wanderings.  Dig those unearthly flashings of his eyes, those micro-seconds of illumination that sprang from his black shamanic face as if he saw unimaginable things, futures unseen, maybe down into hell, the face of a sorcerer, of a holy man levitating inches above ground, never quite touching down because he breathes music mainly, breathes sound into his lungs, that’s how he lives.  A biological instrument drawing down alien, rigorously logical chords, yet all steeped in 1920s stride piano, earlier than that maybe.  He was like a great magnolia tree with roots down in the plantations, down in the funky soil of Mississippi, down under the hot sun and sweat of the ages, of the blues, the slinky soulful south, so achingly simple in his rural sentiments, but meanwhile his branches reaching up, up, up to the stars, to all the extreme harmonies, wrong notes that feel so right, smashed-out atonalities that make you jump up and twitch feel alive and twist your head around just like HE did.

The black-and-white cinematography is unaffected and real, yet transcendental.  Its sense of intimacy is so vivid.  Charlie Rouse asks Monk, “What notes should I hit here?”  Monk stares off into the void for 20 seconds and finally mumbles, “Hit any of ‘em you want.”  (I mean, come on Charles, it’s Thelonius.)  Then here comes Rouse with his pristine, instantly identifiable made-for-Monk sound, clear as a bell as he knowledgably, serenely peruses the changes with popcorn-tasty, ear-tickling licks to die for.

Got to see it, man, dig this film, dream what it would be like to be that free, possessed and free, hearing the most remarkable crazy chords in your head, then crashing them out into the world like a silver waterfall, like a golden stream of diamonds and pearls – and it’s 1965 now, so they paying you some money for it.  Plus Nellie taking care of you, and the Baroness, you big magical baby, you father-wise godhead, absolutely fearless, slightly terrified, pumped up full of joy, twirling through this world like a polyphonic top.  You can’t take your eyes and ears off him, and now here comes a clean, baby Phil Woods and little Johnny Griffin and all those other heroes of the Age Of Serious Motherfucking Jazz and you wonder  -  is there any chance the dead get a free pass into jazzland?  Even if you didn’t get past the diatonic scales, isn’t there some way, someday to just HEAR all that shit and have it FLOW into your fingers like honey and out into ANOTHER world, like in that dream you had where you were in the twilight-zone club with the badass saxman who blew so cool it made you laugh and say wow, and then you woke up and realized that was you?

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New Dyllenium



So I’m sitting in a hotel room in the foothills of the Japanese Alps, surfing Bob Dylan interviews on YouTube going back fifty years, and here comes 60 Minutes’ Ed Bradley in 2005 asking the singer the same benighted questions they asked him in 1966. He goes on and on, he won’t shut up. “Why didn’t you see your songs as the voice of your generation like everyone else did? Your view of them is diametrically opposed to everyone else’s.”

Dylan, dismayed, grim, mumbles, “Isn’t that something

 A top-tier media sharpie, clueless before our greatest pop artist. Even after adoring Dylan for 40 years and reading his book, Bradley can’t grasp that Dylan will not accept labels and more, that his sensitivity to tragedy and injustice didn’t make him a political operative. Hell yes, he was the voice of his generation, and more than that, but that’s not for him to judge. That crown bore nothing but false responsibility for Dylan. What was he supposed to do in the days of his youth – lead a march on Washington every week until the masters of war surrendered? Could he have prevented the destruction of the New Left by its own bourgeois roots or healed that addiction to worldly pleasure that gave us the Eagles, the Me Generation and Madonna’s hippie kill-shot, “Material Girl?” Could he have somehow stopped Olivia Newton-John from recording “Have You Never Been Mellow?”

Now the week before, I’d seen Bonnie Raitt and the magnificent Delores Huerta talking about the old days - the farm workers strike, the anti-war movement, remembering the fervor, the militancy, the struggles, the defeats and victories. Today the unions have been deep-sixed along with the entire American economy. Now young Afghan boys collecting wood for the winter die on a hillside as helicoptering American video-gamers decide they are Taliban and in cowardly high-tech fashion shoot them to pieces from the air. Just another atrocity.  In the Raitt/Huerta documentary, they flashed a shot of a virginal Bob Dylan on the protest trail, leaning in to harmonize with Joan Baez. It did make me wonder– what if the boy came back? What if he shed his embroidered black cowboy suit and shaved off the stiletto moustache and showed up in front of the Capitol on Monday morning in a work shirt?

But no, he was not born to rescue us from ourselves. His failures are ours, his successes his own. We thought him a revolutionary, but he’s a quintessential American, a born individualist not given to sacrificing his passions for some collective good. Or, in his own words,

I did all I could, I did it right there and then

I’ve already confessed, no need to confess again

 In the Bradley interview, I was struck by Dylan’s inability – it seemed more than an unwillingness – to help Bradley to get it. He could have said, “Look, if I accepted the social activist role I could never have written Like a Rolling Stone. A songwriter touched by that magic had to move on, like a surfer riding a gargantuan wave he never imagined possible. He could say, look, artistic experience doesn’t really belong to this world, certainly not to your world.

 Or maybe he is capable of analyzing and explaining, but is always so irritated by interviewer density that he just blowit off. Maybe he feels like that scientific genius who was asked, “Do you ever wonder why you were born so brilliant?” The fellow answered,in all innocence, “No, I wondered why everyone else was so stupid.”

 Bradley never asks him about the newest albums, the incomparable voice and the terrific, soulful musicians he surrounds himself with. His new players are kick-ass, flaming hot rockersand his sandpaper voice on albums like “Modern Times,” and “Love and Theft,” is delicious, abrasive, dissolute and deadly. The rhythm section is so tight it puts the hurdy-gurdy, out-of-tune guitars in “Bringing It All Back Home” to shame. His “Summer Nights Are Gone” is so filled with joy and rocks so hard you want to hug the old man.

 The old man? Yes, for people as old as forty, he is just this old guy, what Woody Guthrie was in the 60s, a grizzled relic from a legendary time. But if you showed up on Earth before 1955, the aging of such a man seems unreal, something painted on. He’s not really old, you think. He’s got some wrinkles around his eyes, that’s all. To fans like me, relics ourselves, Dylan’s geezery voice seems, like all his others, something he’s conjured up, just another new instrument he devised and is now admiring in an aural mirror. There are a few singers with this capacity. David Bowie had several voices. Paul McCartney would baffle you – was that really him, we asked, in “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” Prince picks voices from his larynx like Elton John pulls outfits from his closet.

 But Dylan’s wolfish character is far more personal, an aural self-portrait carefully integrated into the sunset images of his songs, an ancient, drunken Dionysus, tied to his mast. The sarcastic clarion voice is gone, replaced by something like a sputtering old Buick engine. He used to shout into studio microphones or into the vastness of a dark auditorium. In Chronicles, he wrote of the disaster of losing his sense of voice in the Eighties. Indeed, we’ve all heard him thus, cacophonous, nearly unlistenable in concerts, as if he were taunting us. But by the 90s, a new synthesis had emerged. The shouting and wailing is gone. Now he growls into your ear or roars like a tiger passing your door. He sighs, chortles, his voice cracks and breaks like dry toast. In “When The Deal Goes Down,” he nearly cries. This is a voice and a persona at least as astonishing as any he forged in the past. Dylan feels physically closer now. These gravelly albums are his late Beethoven quartets.

 If what he writes is less incandescent than the poetry of Highway 61, it is not chicken liver. At first, some of it seems pasted-together:

Thunder on the mountain, and there’s fires on the moon

A ruckus in the alley and the sun will be here soon

Today’s the day, gonna grab my trombone and blow

Well, there’s hot stuff here and it’s everywhere I go

 This opening and other lyrics inModern Times” seem an anarchic hodgepodge of random phrases. But sit down and read the lyrics and somehow they rise to another level. His sardonic voice has, not for the first time, distracted us from the quality of his poetry. In the end he sells it to us with his charm and depth of emotion. Only Dylan could shout out to Alicia Keys and get away with it. It’s as if he knows we love him. He has always known he was loved, in the early days for his visions, his poetry and his fragile physical beauty, even if his voice was a harder sell. Today it is his legacy and longevity we admire. The voice is, as ever, an acquired taste.

 In Dylan’s fine “Chronicles, Part I,you revel in his verbal poetics as he recounts the early development of his intellect and discoveries of literature. The literary beat goes on. Leafing through “The Great Gatsby,” I stumbled on the hero’s assertion that he could revive his old love affair with Daisy: “What do you mean, you can’t repeat the past?” Gatsby says. “Of course you can.” Where had I heard that before?

She says, ‘you can’t repeat the past.’ I say, ‘you can’t?

What do you mean, you can’t? Of course you can.’”

 Voila! A great line in “Summer Nights.”  Does this mean Dylan, like Mr. Jones, has read all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books?  (That might be a hip question to ask.)

But Bradley is not through. He inquires, “Can’t you write some songs up to the level of the old days.” Dylan sighs charitably and reminisces:

Darkness at the break of noon,

Shadows even the silver spoon

The handmade blade, the child’s balloon

Eclipses both the sun and moon

 “That was magic,” he says,“where did that come from? Some kind of magic that was.”

 In “Chronicles,Dylan gives a vivid picture of where he came from, an American boy out in the Midwest, listening to and playing the music of the Fifties from Bobby Vee to Chuck Berry. He gigged with Bobby Vee as a teenager. As he talks about later albums and concerts, you grasp that he’s as much musician as musical personality, a musician looking for good sessions with great players that can get him off.

 And it’s worth remembering how little dirt attaches to the man. Dylan’s musician-son has praised him as a good and loving father, this legend who carries the laurels of the wild and wooly Sixties on his brow. No Jaggerian or Morrisonian excesses have been uncovered, no hedonistic rampages. He was not Rimbaud, not Hemingway, not a drugged, hostile Miles Davis. His personal issues remain private. That they do speaks to his integrity.

And for that reason, one wonders about plaintive references like “memories that can strangle a man.” He grieves, “Some of these memories you can learn to live with and some of them you can’t,” and we think, that’s true for me, I’ve fucked-up endlessly, but Bob Dylan? Where does the agony come from? Was his divorce twenty years ago that ugly?  He says he’s haunted by “things he never meant to say.”  Well, “Idiot Wind” might have been over the top, but nobody’s perfect. Somehow, informed by a life-long immersion in American folk and blues music, the cutting insights of his youth have evolved into an exquisite, gutsy sense of human tragedy.

 Like Einstein, Dylan produced an incomparable opus in his youth, but the scintillating work Dylan is doing as he hits seventy possibly outpaces Albert’s at the same age.  It may be a reach to put a singer’s name in the same sentence with a man who transformed the entire cosmos, but what the hell, I just did.

 In his latest album, “Together Through Life,” we hear less slam-bam rock, more drifting along dark blues-shaded mountain trails. There’s less of the ribald gaiety of “Summer Days” or “Tweedledum and Tweedledee,” and it gives one pause. We envision Bob Dylan as we envision ourselves rolling on through the years, but in truth, one must prepare for any album to be his last. The fact is he (and as far as that goes, we) could leave anytime. And on that day will a great howl go up, like the day in 1980 when John Lennon died and his Tolkien-like age of the earth passed away.

    This time it will be less about Beatles and Hobbits, and more about us.   

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Kannon’s Cannon

 

Twice now, Jacob had nearly bought a new bicycle for his wife.  Mieko was using his ancient Schwinn to cart around their two-year old boy, one he’d bought in the early Nineties, long before they’d met.  Little Alex rode in a green plastic seat that slipped under the handle bars in front of Mieko, affording him a front view as they pedaled around Nirasaki, a town in the foothills of the Japanese Southern Alps.  The week before, Jacob almost bought a new American Eagle mountain bike for $160, but he couldn’t follow through on the impulse.  A week later, feeling more expansive, Jacob actually bought a model for over $200, only to find the baby seat didn’t fit that bike.  Embarrassed, they canceled the purchase.  The Japanese clerks smiled and bowed and returned their money.

Every morning before heading to work, Jacob would ride Alex around town or up into the hills to see the big Super Azuza express whiz past.  Alex was addicted to trains.  But lately his father had felt out of balance on the bike, making unsafe moves, almost turning into the path of a car once or twice.  In these moments, Jacob imagined the hand of God on him, a father-deity warning him with these sudden traffic surprises that he was not yet, even at 64, adult enough to responsibly care for this, his first child.  A man who has never protected a child is still one in his guts, the deity, and his own actions, seemed to say.  On Tuesday, Jacob’s muddy front tire slipped suddenly, and he and Alex almost toppled into a rice paddy as they descended a long mountain road.  Going too fast, like I’m fourteen, he thought.  Aware of divine scrutiny, Jacob tried to be careful, but that week he felt like a bicycle dunce.  So many little mistakes.  Or maybe it was the effect of a horrific video he’d seen on the Internet.  A crazy cop in Florida, his patrol car lights off, filmed by another policeman streaking past in the dark at 94 mph, then colliding – detonating – into the side of a car turning left.  Its occupants were killed instantly.  Jake had watched it too many times.  It simmered somewhere in his unconscious.

Friday morning, Jacob and Alex bicycled toward Shichiri-gaiwa, the forested, thirty-mile long tongue of ancient lava that extends south from Mt. Yatsugatake in the north.  The city center lies nearby, below the cliffs where Shichiri-gaiwa suddenly ends.  High above, gazing across the valley as if looking from the prow of a ship, stands a great white statue of Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy.  Kannon’s gender is obscure,  sometimes male but frequently represented as a woman.  This may reflect Kannon’s identity as “One Who is Sensitive to the Sufferings of All Sentient Beings” seems to best fit the female character.  She is, it is said, the Goddess who listens and hears the prayers of the world.    The great Hokuto Kannon was clearly female.

Jacob was a man given to cynicism.  “That’s Big Mama up there,” he explained to his uncomprehending two year-old.  “She’s the goddess of the universe.  First she stomps on you, then maybe she gives you a break.  I don’t know why.  You never know why.”

“Super Azuza,” Alex said.

“Sure thing,” said Jacob, dropping the bike into its lowest gear and turning up a little street that wound up the hill toward the train tracks.  If he could get a little exercise each day, Jacob believed, his heart would serve him far enough into his eighties that Alex could get an untraumatized start in life and remember him clearly, even if they had to bid farewell far sooner than most fathers and sons.

Cars were seldom seen on this twisting, narrow road.  Occasionally an old farmer chugged slowly up or down it on his tractor.  It wound around two curves, then through a tiny tunnel under the tracks.  “Blue Train!” shouted Alex, as the local roared above them at the mouth of the tunnel.  The blue train was a bonus.  The Super Azuza was required viewing.  Now the path ran up a fairly steep incline close by the tracks to a curve that afforded a perfect view of passing trains.  Straining a little – he had skipped a few days pedaling in the hills – Jacob focused on the road just in front of him, then looked up.

Around the curve came, no, screamed, a bicycle.  A boy on it,  just a few yards away.  He wasn’t going to swerve.  Jacob braced himself and yelled, “Shit!” grasping the handle bars tightly rather than throwing his arms around Alex, who sat, as it were, at the point of the spear.

The two bikes smashed violently together, hurling Jacob and Alex backwards and sideways into the retaining wall.  The rider disappeared behind them.  Somehow, Jacob landed with his arm cradling Alex, but of course the toddler began howling in fear and shock.  Almost as quickly, zipping down his little jacket and checking him over, the father intuited the boy was unhurt – as apparently was he.  In the next instant, the kamikaze boy returned, literally crawling up the road, in groveling prostration, as only Japanese can, grasping one arm in pain, moaning, “Gomenasai, gomenasai!  Dai jobu desu ka?  Dai jobu?” His bike lay in the road, farther down the hill.

“Yeah, I think we’re alright,” Jacob muttered in Japanese.  What’s this? he thought, a cosmic cheap shot?  Cold-cocking an old man and his baby son on a little mountain road?  Days later, musing on the Japanese gift for miniaturization and the narrowness of their world, his scab of memory would fall away, and he would accept that what the speeding boy had encountered as he hugged the curve was a man riding his son up the wrong side of the road – this is why they had been thrown against that wall.

It took the two year-old another minute to stop bawling, look up and admonish the older kid, “Be careful!…be careful!” in his high, precious toddler-voice.  The boy, 14, wore a military-style high school uniform (in his mind, a minute ago, he’d been a downhill skier).  Jacob got up and brushed himself off, rested one trembling leg on the guard rail to check a pain in his ankle.  They all stood there stunned for a time, except for Alex, who suddenly began shouting, “Super Azuza!  Super Azuza!” as the train of his dreams appeared and thundered by.  It looked like everyone had survived the crash, but when Jacob twisted his handlebars ninety degrees back to their proper position, he saw the front wheel was bent out of shape.

He had the boy call his mother on his cell phone and was told the woman was going to come – in fact, she was already on her way.  Fifteen minutes later, she pulled up in a van in front of the convenience store at the bottom of the hill.  She was solicitous, if restrained, and Jacob managed to ask her in Japanese to meet him the next day at the local bicycle shop to pay for a new wheel.  Then he wobbled home with Alex and drove off to work.

Saturday morning, Jacob drove to the spot where he remembered the bicycle shop, but it had disappeared.  His wife Mieko was reluctant to involve herself with strangers and balked at helping him deal with the boy’s mother on the phone.  Jacob began to boil.  His right buttock was sore.  He had decided the accident was a result of his sarcastic comments  at the foot of Kannon’s hillside, compounded by psychic imprintings of the Internet cop car accident.  As a child, his Christian Science father had pounded Mary Baker Eddy’s words into him: “Stand porter at the door of thought, allowing only such thoughts as you wish evidenced in bodily results.”  A  close corallary: if you say a local god stomps on people, she’ll stomp on you.  But how tiresome, Jacob thought, his dad’s religious textbook was, and anyway, what kind of nut would deny the reality of the shit that this world is composed of?  He knew the answer. Buddha.  Gotama used to do it all the time, emptying his mind under a tree.

Jacob had been in Japan, the land of forbearance, for 17 years, but he still had not mastered his spirit.  Mieko finally agreed to call the mother, but then it got worse.  Now the father was going to come too.  He leaned against the fence that bordered his little rented house, staring down at the creek that bubbled by.  These Japanese, they don’t trust foreigners.  The guy probably wants to inspect the wheel.  And you can’t get mad, even a little, over here.  An angry man is considered a child.  Stoicism is coin of the realm.

I can’t do it, he complained to both Buddha and Mrs. Eddy.  “I can’t be so fucking peaceful all the time.”  He turned and shouted to Mieko.  “Did the guy apologize for his son yet?”  She glared back at him.  The conversation seemed endless.  Damn sticklers for detail, he fumed.  Everything is difficult with them.  Mieko finally hung up and snapped,

“Why can’t you control yourself? There is a way to do things here.”

Whatever, Jacob thought.  His knee hurt too.  He got back in the car and drove around until he found another bicycle shop.  The man looked the wheel over and said he’d fix it for 7,000 yen.  Then he came home and got Alex, and the two of them walked to the local park to pick up fallen sticks in the early winter afternoon.  Above them, in the west, rose the peaks of the Southern Alps, sprinkled with new snow.  The grass was covered with tawny leaves fallen from the cherry trees.  The air was crisp and clean.

His cell phone rang.  “They’re coming to the park now,” Mieko explained.  “Stay there.”  In another few minutes, Jacob saw the van and waved to the couple.  He turned to pick up Alex and in doing it slammed the top of his head hard into an overhanging cherry tree branch.  A final, angry rap on the head from Kannon.  He knew this instantly.

When the couple drove into his driveway, the husband got out first, a thin, older man who looked at him mutely, apology in his eyes.  He bent down to say a kind word to Alex and make sure the boy was okay, then opened the back door of his van and pulled out a clean blue-green mountain bike.  “We’re not using it,” he explained.  “Please take it. It was a gift from someone.”  Jacob and Mieko looked distressed and made the required expressions of refusal, then agreed to accept the bicycle.  Then the boy’s mother pulled out a 10,000 yen bill for the repair of the other bike.  “Too much!” Jacob mumbled, but the couple was insistent.  Finally came a little pink package, enclosing a mini-backpack for Alex.

“Is your son alright?” Jacob  managed to ask the man.

“Yes, we took him to the hospital to be checked.  Thank you, he’s alright.”  They were ready to leave now, waiting only for a signal of permission from Jacob and Mieko.  In America, Jacob might have invited them in, but Japanese conventions had long ago muted  his American hospitality.  Haltingly, the couple got back in their van and drove away.

Mieko was watching Alex toy with his new backpack.  “Well, now we have two bikes.  It’s funny.  We almost bought a new bike a few days ago.” she said.

“Yeah, that’s strange,” Jacob answered.  “Maybe if we had, this wouldn’t have happened.”

“Maybe it’s some kind of message.”

“So what’s the message?”  Jacob couldn’t tell if it was a lesson on bicycle safety or patience, on not watching accidents or on not being cheap.  One thing he knew: he would watch what he said about Kannon in the future.  Speaking truth to power, he reflected in some incorrigible part of his soul, can get your ass kicked.

“Foolish man,” the thought then came. “Kannon, Goddess Of Mercy, heard you speak of her as you wandered in your mortal darkness.  She touched you with great power but did not harm you.  You have been given, at the doorway to old age, a beautiful wife and an angelic child.  The raucous, dirty streets of Tokyo are behind you, you are enfolded in green hills, you watch these mountains turn green, then gold, then snowy white.  Your job is secure, you can care for your family, and they love you.  Imagine!  This was Kannon Bodhisattva, who can lead us to Enlightenment!  And She threw in a mountain bike for good measure.  Such a deal!”

Jacob looked over at the new bike.  “Honey,” asked quietly,  “Could we get one of those child seats that mount behind the rider?”

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Regarding Brooklyn


 

Legal documents indicate that I arrived into the world at Jewish Memorial Hospital in Brooklyn a few hours after Adolph Hitler blew his brains out in Berlin.  There was a time in my insensible youth when I would tell people this, comb my hair off to the side, use two fingers to narrow my moustache, adopt a manic expression and try to get a reaction.  But the resemblance was marginal, and the idea that the Great Monster of the 20th Century would be reincarnated as a Jewish sax player is intolerable.  My life, though somewhat disappointing, is far too gentle a consequence for the perfect embodiment of evil.  He killed my paternal grandparents and destroyed my European lineage – not to mention the Six Million.  He should drink Drano in the morning forever.

My father was a Dutch-born classical violinist emigre, my mother a budding American popular singer whose career was nipped in it by her marriage to Dad, and my aunt and uncle were famous folk music recording artists.  But my second cousin Andre may have done the most for my personal development.  One of the country’s top radio and TV announcers, Andre Baruch was married to the popular big band vocalist Bea Wayne, but in 1954 he was inexplicaby handed the job of helping to call play-by-play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, teaming up with baseball’s smoothest, most articulate announcer, Vin Scully.  Andre, like most of my family a European immigrant, was out of his cultural depth in the grassroots world of American baseball, but somehow he kept the gig until the Dodgers left Brooklyn for L.A. in 1958.   Those four years were like no others for me.

One Saturday morning in June of ’54, when I had just turned nine years old, Andre pulled up in his new Reo in front of our brownstone on Harrison Street and called up to the second floor bedroom I shared with my older sister.  “OK up there, who wants to go see the Bums play St. Louis?!”

Dad had told me the night before that Andre might come by.  I had hardly slept.  I’d been to Ebbets Field just twice before, once with my grandfather Harry, a frustrated comedian who, with my grandmother, ran a smoke shop on the west side of Manhattan, and once with my Dad, who barely knew a double play from a pop-up.  I was down the stairs, glove in hand in less than 15 seconds.  “Hop in, Arnie, batting practice starts in half an hour,” Andre smiled.  I clambered in next to his son Wayne, a year or two older and what seemed like a foot taller.  I was the shortest kid in my class.

Andre had his own parking spot in the narrow lot behind the left field grandstands.  The three of us walked down Lakewood Avenue to the main entrance, then climbed the stairs to the announcer’s booth.  Scully was already there and gave us a brief, “Hello, boys, you enjoy the game, now!”  in his dulcet Southern tones.  Andre showed me the microphone and his scorecard from the night before.  “Roy Campanella two hit homers, right over there by the Camel sign.  He’s been doing quite well lately.”  I thought I saw Scully grimace, but maybe it was just been the way he took the cigarette out of his mouth.  “Andre, why don’t you take these boys down and get them set up so we can go over a couple things before air-time, all right?”  Andre said OK, and we followed him down to two seats right behind the Dodger dugout.

Paris, the Great Pyramid, the Seven Wonders of the World, forget it.  For a nine-year old Brooklyn kid, this was heaven on earth.  Twenty feet away, there was Campy warming up the young Carl Erskine.  In the batting cage, Gil Hodges was taking his swings, lacing liners wherever he wanted.  There was Jackie Robinson chatting with Pee Wee behind the cage, and everyone knew the story of how Reese had put an arm around Jackie that day in Cincy when the going had gotten really rough for the only Negro player in the majors.  Now had come glory days: they were in first place more often than not, fighting for the pennant every year and only the Yankees, the unbeatable Yanks remained to darken their Octobers.  From time immemorial, Brooklynites had moaned, “Wait til next year.”  Little did we know in 1954 that Next Year was just that.

In the moment, the World Series was not my concern.  Just six feet away, here came a figure wearing a big 4 on his back.  The Duke had emerged from the the Brooklyn dugout.  “Hey, Duke, how ya doin?” Wayne cried.  Snider turned toward us, his bat resting comfortably on his shoulder and smiled.   “Morning, Wayne, how’s your dad doing?”

“He’s okay I guess.  You gonna hit one out today, Duke?”

“I just try to hit the ball hard, son.  Hard to know what’s gonna happen next.  Who’s your buddy?”  I gulped.  He’d noticed me.  I existed.  “Duke, this is my cousin Arnie.  He’s a big Gil Hodges fan.”

I could have killed Wayne, but Snider remained affable.  “Well, that a good choice, Arnie,” he smiled.  “We couldn’t win very often without Moonie.”  That was Hodges nickname.  His face looked like the man in the moon.

“You’re the best, Mr. Snider, it’s great to meet you,” I mumbled.  It was like talking to God.

“Don’t you fellows eat too many hot dogs,” he smiled.  The Duke turned away toward the batting cage.  When Hodges had taken his swipes, he came back to the bench and we exchanged friendly waves with him.  Meeting Snider was about all I could take that day.  We settled back and watched Brooklyn slowly take apart the Cardinal pitchers.  No homers, mostly singles and doubles and Reese and Robinson stealing the Cards blind.  I got to see that Enos Slaughter looked less frightening than I had imagined him on the radio, and Stan Musial’s coiled presence at the plate was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever witnessed.

That summer I was at Ebbets five more times.  When 1955 rolled around, I was 10, and we came to the park so much that most of the Boys of Summer would automatically wave hello to Wayne and me in our regular spots behind the dugout.  In those days they weren’t millionaires – several of them lived within a few blocks of Ebbets.  But that didn’t detract from their allure.  Just to be known by these deities, I figured I was destined for something special in life.  Millions of kids all over country would have given anything to be in my shoes.  I knew I wasn’t bat boy material – too small, a step too slow.  Fred Cameron and Chris Shafter were older and better connected to the players.  I did have one moment of glory in ‘57, when I was twelve.  Hodges swung late and stroked a screaming foul ball right at my head late in a game against the Giants, and I just stuck my glove up in self defense and the ball stuck.  The fans around me gave a big cheer, and Hodges looked up at me with my glove in the air, triumphant, and threw me one of those big smiles of his.  As if that weren’t enough, he took Sal Maglie deep on the next pitch for the three runs that settled the game.

I got in for just one game of the curse-breaking World Series in 1955, with Grandpa Harry, way up the right field line.  Sadly, the Yanks won that one.  But Wayne was with his Dad in the booth at Yankee Stadium when Johnny Podres shut New York out in the seventh game.  I was at home watching with Dad and Mom and Harry and the rest of the family.  That was okay, I had no complaints.  I actually knew those guys dancing around in grainy black and white on the pitcher’s mound after the last out.  And my friends at school knew I knew them too.

Actually, that was sometimes a problem.  When you’re the smallest kid in the 6th grade class at Public School 191, you don’t want to attract a lot of attention.  I got leaned on some after I made the mistake of bragging about my spot behind the Dodger dugout.  Once, a pair of brothers – Italian kids – decided to slap me around after school, not a real ass-kicking, but enough pain to bust up an eleven year-old ego for a few weeks.  The next day, Saturday, I headed down to Ebbets alone to wait for Wayne and Andre in the parking lot.  I was on the ground slumped against the fence, staring at tire marks in the dirt when I heard a voice I knew, the one with just a tinge of the South in it, very clear and calm.

“What’s eating you, Arnie?”  It was Jackie, with that cool, edgy smile of his.  “Somebody give you a hard time?”

“No,” I lied, “I’m just waiting for Wayne.”

“Come on, man, what happened – tough day at school?”

I caved in and ran the slap-down by the Italian boys by Robinson.  The great Dodger third baseman looked hard at me for a couple seconds, and as he did, the irony –though I couldn’t identify it as such at eleven – and then the understanding sunk in.  I saw it in his eyes, saw how much more he’d been through than I had.  He lifted his eyebrows and said, “Look, Arnie, it gets tough sometimes, but one day you’ll be somebody and those clowns will be parking cars somewhere in Flatbush.  Maybe it’s gonna come to punches, and then, well, do not run away, but however it ends up, keep doing good in school and you’ll be okay.  How’s your grades anyway?”

I smiled up at him.  “Mostly A’s,” I beamed.

“Well, there you go, slugger!  I figured you for a bright one.  You’re gonna wind up at Columbia or NYU and leave the rest of us in the dust.”  Jackie reached down and tousled my hair with his big black hand.  “Come on, you can come in with me, let Wayne catch up later!”  So I strolled into Ebbets with Jackie Robinson that day and never forgot either his kindness or his words.  I steered clear of trouble after that somehow, and when I finally picked up a saxophone in the 8th grade, I knew I’d found weapon to assert myself and speak my peace in the world.

Brooklyn’s no-nonsense world insulated me against the facile love-peace-and-brotherhood illusions of the Sixties.  I knew that in the music business it was every man for himself, and I dedicated myself to constant practice, emulating the achievements of Coltrane and Henderson and the other players who, by the time I reached NYU, were blowing withering cascades of notes through the clubs of Manhattan – the Five Spot, The Village Vanguard, the Half Note.  From Jackie Robinson to Coltrane, Snider to Cannonball, the memories are rich and….

Not.

In 1946, when I was just nine months old, our family left Brooklyn and moved to Los Angeles.  Cousin Andre was just a shadowy, distant relative back East.  I didn’t learn about his  job with Brooklyn until much later in life – I’d known he was an announcer on TV and radio, but somehow my parents never told me he announced for the Dodgers, for whom as a boy I had rooted from faraway Los Angeles.  So it was long years later I realized — saw with certainty — that of course, I would have gone to Ebbets Field with Andre and Wayne, that I would have met the Duke and PeeWee and Gil in an amazing alternative universe.  But it was not to be.  Those guys were in Brooklyn, and I was living in Eagle Rock, about five miles from Hollywood.

Until the Dodgers came west to Los Angeles in 1958.

I was fourteen years old then.

That was the year my dad moved the family to Oakland.

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