"BZZZZZZT," shrieked the door buzzer, startling him from a late-afternoon nap.
Who could it be? Carolers? Red Mazzo raced down the dark stairway.
Flicking the porch light on, opening the front door, he beheld two escapees from a nightmare, a portrait in black leather and black denim. Rattled, no holiday cheer, Red grumbled, "I think you have the wrong house."
Recognizing the voice, all fell into place. Mike Foran! Red hadn't seen Mike for a year or two. The last time was right here, Bicentennial summer, before Mike moved to New York City, hoping to pursue a writing career. They wiled away an afternoon listening to The Band, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young, as they discussed Jerzy Kosiński and Joan Didion, Mike’s Ichabod Crane head bobbling on his skinny neck, Red nodding or frowning, pointing with his pipe's stem when making a point. Back then Mike's hair was cut in a shag. And he wore a black cowboy shirt, a white summer-weight suit of elephant bells and wasp-waist jacket, and black boots. He was a dude, especially when compared to Red in worn denim bells, discount-store short-sleeve shirt, and scuffed work shoes. An odd pairing, but they had a history, over a decade of friendship and connoisseurship.
It was a long and languorous afternoon, even if Mike ruffled Red's feathers a few times, hectoring on behalf of Roxy Music and David Bowie, dismissing The Band as "cornball," jabbing at Red for allowing his buggy to mire in Woodstock mud. Red didn't know from Roxy Music, knew little of Bowie. All he knew for sure was that their mutual pal, Jack McVey, referred to the glittery Brit as, "that flamer."
Red and Mike had a brief correspondence after Mike's move to New York. Before he had quit responding, Mike wrote, breathlessly, about attending literary and art parties in Soho lofts, chatting with an avant-garde jazz pianist and Village Voice writers Red had never heard of, spying Bianca Jagger across a crowded room. It all sounded outré to the hermit crab.
That was then. This was something else. Mike had transformed. He sported spiky silver hair, a t-shirt displaying a Luftwaffe insignia that was, thankfully, largely covered by a black motorcycle jacket. The bells were replaced with tight black jeans, knees ripped. And he wore a pair of Keds, one sneaker red, the other green. (For Christmas?)
Confused, Red turned to the gal. Not much better.
"Hey, Red, lemme introduce you to Connie Commie. We've got a band, with our friend, Jethro Jetson. It's called Foran Matter."
Connie sneered at Red. Or maybe it was her notion of a smile? Regardless, her teeth were small, discolored, reminding Red of a small dish of Green Giant canned corn niblets. Like Mike, the ripped jeans and leather jacket. She was scrawny, sunk in her jacket. Happily, no Third Reich logo on her t-shirt, just a band name, Red guessed, something called The Adverts. Around her neck was what appeared to be a dog collar. Could that be right? Add Cleopatra eye makeup packed on with a trowel, hair a shade of shoe-polish black, mousy roots, a half-inch or so, showing.
Red's parents were out, last minute shopping. He hoped they wouldn't return for a while, but exactly when wasn't certain. Nervous, Red said, "Heh, heh. C'mon in." He led them upstairs to his attic apartment. No living room lounging for these two, his mom would have a heart attack if she found zombies in her nest. Speaking of attacks, Mike's t-shirt might set his Mr. Mazzo, the WW2 vet, into a blaze of fisticuffs. Best to whisk them upstairs. How to sneak them out later? "Jesus, help me..."
Red and Mike and Jack had been pals since freshman year at St. Martin's High School, the three drawn together by an enthusiasm for folk music and folk-rock: Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, The Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel, Joan Baez. Eschewing commercial rock and folk, they were serious young men, intent on protest and poetry. Mike had a strong literary bent, one that outstripped Red's. One week he was into Sartre, the next Keats. Whereas Jack or Red might parrot a Bob Dylan line, Foran was more likely to quote Genet or Corso or Swift.
There was a spell when they'd get together on Saturdays to play Dylan and Lovin' Spoonful tunes, Red with his Harmony folk guitar, Jack on harmonica and vocals, Mike manning an autoharp.
"I ain't no hangman, ain't no hangman son, but I'll hang 'round your beehive till that hangman come, 'cause I'm wild about my lovin', likes to have my fun," growled 15-year-old McVey, he who'd only gotten as far as second base, which was a base ahead of Foran, two ahead of Mazzo. He stomped a foot before lurching into a Hohner solo, copying John Sebastian copying Sonny Terry.
They made a pact: the first one to hit the big time would bring the others along. Those were the days when Red dreamed of a life in Greenwich Village, drinking espresso with Happy and Artie, dinner at Richard and Mimi's, entertaining a crowd at Gerde's Folk City with topical songs and tales of ramblin' on the road.
Mike was always a step ahead, even a step apart, from Red and Jack. When The Byrds segued from folk-rock to "Eight Miles High," Mike, unlike Red and Jack, didn't hesitate. August of 1968, Mike dropped acid at a cousin's party, spent September raving to Red and Jack about witnessing gothic blimp works in the sky, of achieving white light. (It was almost another year before Jack and Red even smoked dirt weed, handed to them at a rock concert, it having no psychedelic effect. Jack got a dizzy spell, Red wound up with a splitting headache and mild nausea.)
Marching upstairs to the attic aerie, Mike said, "Foran Matter played amateur night at CBGB a few weeks ago, and Charlie, he's the sound-man and booking agent, promised a gig early in the new year. You should come down to see us!" Red barely heard him, was too worried about his parents seeing these freaks. "Man, oh man, oh Manischewitz," he thought.
Mike and Connie plunked down on Red's bed, Mike laughing and running his hand up and down Connie's leg, from her knee to her crotch, then back to her knee, then up again. Red pretended not to notice, pulled his rocker away from the window, a little closer to them. He asked, earnestly, "What is Heebie Jeebie?" Connie snickered. Red blushed, felt like an antique.
"See Bee Gee Bee, Red. The renowned punk rock club! It's where everyone got their start: The Ramones, Patti, Television, The Erasers, Mars, The Dead Boys, Blondie, The Cramps! Just recently The Jam, from London, played! You need to get with it, Reddy!" Red was at sea, no idea who Mike was blathering about. He ran a hand through his red hair, nodded, pretended he was paying attention.
While Mike lectured, Red noticed Connie remove a safety pin from her t-shirt and stab it into her wrist a few times before flicking it to a corner. She licked blood from her wrist and made eye contact with Red before he glanced away in embarrassment. He was disgusted and angry, but kept his yap shut. His room, his sanctum sanctorum, was invaded by forces beyond his control. He felt like a hostage.
Mike advanced, "Punk rock is the new revolution. All the old hippies are dead! Or they should be! Kill all the bloody hippie fascists, man!" From nowhere, Mike produced a knife, flicked it open with a gesture. The six-inch blade gleamed.
This was insane. Red reached for his pipe. As he lit it, his hands trembled. He wished they'd leave. Soon.
With a triumphant air, chin raised, Connie said, "CBGB is practically our home, man! You should see who drops by! Andy! Lou!"
Red replied, his voice, much to his chagrin, shaky, "Andy Lew?"
Rolling her eyes, Connie scolded, "You know, Andy Warhol and Lou Reeeed."
"Oh... The soup can guy?" He puffed his pipe. He tugged at his beard. He looked at a wall. He looked at the floor. He scratched away at an elbow that didn't itch. He wished it were tomorrow.
Connie grabbed Mike's knife, and dropped it so it went thunk into the floor between her closely spaced sneakers. Again, thunk. "Stop that! You could hurt yourself," Red blurted in a panic, but he was more concerned about explaining blood on the floor or an ambulance in the driveway to his mom. He wouldn't mind it a bit if Connie Commie slit her throat with the knife, as long as it was someplace else.
Gravel crunched as a car pulled in the drive. "God, not my parents, please..." The skidding halt told Red it was Jack. "Thank you, Lord. I think. This could get ugly, too."
"Hey, Reddy! Ya home?"
"Upstairs," Red bellowed. "You'll be, uh, surprised to see who's here!"
Jack McVey burst into the room, a robust young Irishman, reeking of cigarettes, straight from the loading dock, in jeans, a winter jacket and cap, work boots. His hands were bluish from the cold, his Pinto's heater on the fritz. He'd dropped out of the University of Albany, eventually landed a union job.
"Jesus, what th' hell? Foran! Ha ha ha! Have you gone all punk rock on us? Ha ha ha!" They shook hands. Jack began to extend his hand to Connie, but hesitated when she, leaning back on her elbows, wasn't about to stir. She stared at him stonily. The small room crowded, Jack eased onto a corner on the floor, the only remaining space.
After an uneasy silence, Jack said, "Hey, I read all about that punk rock in Rolling Stone. And y'know what, I gave it a fair chance, listened to the punk rock hour on some college station. And I am here to tell you it is 100% USDA BS. That harridan, Patti Smith? As bad as Yoko Ono! I call her Sea Hag. And maybe worse, if that is possible, is The Sex Pistols. They can’t play their instruments, rejects from Ted Mack, terrible. Worse than Alice Cooper. This crap, this so-called punk rock, is the biggest put-on since... since... since I don't know when." He looked at the braided rug and shook his head. "Punk rock, skunk rock, total BS!"
Foran shot back, "For your information, punk rock is the future! It's where you'll find genuine shamans and poets! Dylan is passé! Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti are dinosaurs; maybe Burroughs has some relevance. Today's brave voices are Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell and Susan Springfield! Dylan and Lennon and the rest of those rich old bastards are completely out of touch. They don't know what it's like to scrounge the rent for a coldwater four-story walk-up on the Lower East Side, listening to the guy downstairs retching, junk sick, man! Instead of reading about the scene in that fascist hippie rag, you should try New York Rocker! Or better yet, if you could ever work up the gumption, spend a week in New York, man. Check out the bands at CBGB and Max's!"
"Please! Put some mustard on that baloney!"
"Okay, so who are you listening to these days?"
"Really," Jack spat out, leaning in, angrily lighting a Winston. "Well, lemme tell ya, pally, Gallagher is the best bluesman of all time! He took the Afro-American idiom and raised it to new heights. No one plays as fast as he does!"
"Ha ha! Fast! As if that means anything!"
"And with more soul, dammit! Soul! Something punk rock is utterly lacking. Utterly! Y'know what punk rock is? It's as if you took a 45 by The Ohio Express and ground it up in a Waring blender! Two basic chords in the key of racket!"
Jack McVey was a self-styled blues-guitar aficionado. His entry point to the genre was Mike Bloomfield on Highway 61 Revisited. From there he dug into The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, a quick stop at B.B. King, onto Alvin Lee, then Johnny Winter. But in Rory, McVey found his blues ultimate. Rory Gallagher was sacred territory.
Red noticed that Jack's hand, the one holding his cigarette, was shaking, while his free hand hid in a jacket pocket. His lips were tight and furious.
Connie whined, "C'mon, Foran, let's split..."
As the punkers rose, Red saw Mike's hands were trembling, as well. Mike and Connie beat a mumbled and hasty retreat, no shaking of hands, no holiday wishes. What a reunion. It sure wasn't the halcyon days of 1965. After they left, Jack snarled, "Foran, that pretentious faggot! I always thought he was a phony," stabbing his cig out in a heavy glass ashtray. Red was just greatly relieved that the duo of disaster had left before his parents returned.
After a quiet, if unsettled moment, Red remarked, "Mike's changed. He used to be a pretty mellow guy. I don't get this punk thing. It's like nihilism. Or anarchy. And how can he call hippies fascists when he's wearing a Nazi t-shirt? I'll admit it, I don't get it. What does it stand for? What is punk rock?"
"I'll tell ya what it is, pally! It's BS!"
The air heavy, Jack said, "I know you don't have any Rory, but if you'd play 'Projections' or 'Grape Jam,' I'd really appreciate it. I need something to clear my head, some good blues. Right now, Danny Kalb or Jerry Miller would be like a tumbler of Jameson, neat."
The next day, mid-afternoon, the late-December sky darkening, again the door buzzer, again Red home alone, his parents at his aunt's for dinner. They wouldn't be home until late.
He was surprised to see Connie, solo, at the door.
"Hey," she said.
"Hi!" She was as skanky as he remembered, arguably worse: skin both pale and blotchy, a canker sore on her upper lip, mascara layered on with a broad brush.
"Gonna invite me in? Or what?"
"Uh, how about we go for a walk? I c-can walk you someplace, to w-wherever you're g-going..."
"Nah. Upstairs," she ordered, barging past him, zipping up the stairs.
In his room, Connie browsed a shelf stuffed with poetry books. She picked up a volume of Wallace Stevens, flipped the pages, put it back and said, "Patti is all the poetry I need. And The Clash. They're revolutionary poets, man. Maoists. And Stiv. He is poetry in motion."
Despite his revulsion, Red liked her overbite. Cute! And he could see how, with a square meal and sunshine and a shower, she could be pretty. He wondered what sort of troubled past defined her: a broken home? An abusive boyfriend? Maybe I can save her?
She sat on Red's bed and commanded, "C'mere, boy," patting the spot next to her, as if talking to a dog.
Repulsed yet drawn, he obeyed. His cranium no longer held a brain. His brain was replaced with a fishbowl filled with a hundred tiny goldfish swimming in all directions.
She commenced unbuckling his belt. "For 20 bucks I'll go down on you..."
Red slapped her hands away, clumsily buckled his belt. Flustered, he said, "I thought you were Mike's girl!"
"So what? We ain't married. And even if we were, so what? Commitment is for straights, a bourgeoisie hang-up." Her motorcycle jacket was on the floor, and she'd kicked off her sneaks, pulled the t-shirt over her head and off. No bra. Tiny teats pointed at Red. He saw marks on her arms, figured they were, from what he'd read in magazines, "tracks." Nauseating. She smelled like week-old laundry. Still, it was the first time he'd seen a woman's breasts. It was difficult to tear his eyes away.
He sighed, "Get out of here... Now..."
"Ha ha ha! What's the matter? You queer? Hey, that's cool, man." Leaning back, running a hand over her belly, Connie said, "Tell ya what, gimme 20 bucks and I'll scoot. Or... Mmm, you can introduce me to mummy and daddy. Won't they be impressed?"
"Well, they're not here."
"I can wait."
"All I have is 12."
"That'll do, faggot."
Nervously, grim-faced, he rummaged a desk drawer while she slouched into her clothing. Staring at the floor, Red thrust the cash, his emergency money, at the extortionist. Smirking, Connie Commie made a display of shoving the dough down her pants, walked to his desk, picked up a pair of scissors, then wheeled around, poking the scissors at Red's face.
"Are you crazy! Stop that!"
"Stop! Get out!"
"Ha ha ha! Aww! Are we a man or are we a mouse? A little crybaby mouse? Is mummy is out, not here to protect her little snookums? Ha ha ha!"
She put the scissors down with exceeding and sarcastic care. "I was just goofin'. Can't have a little fun around here?"
As she sauntered to the door, Connie snagged a brass cannon paperweight, something Red had cherished since grammar school, a gift from his late grandfather. Bouncing it gently in her palm, she said, "I'll take this, too," before pocketing it. "Thank you. Faggot." Then she was gone, down the stairs with a Cadillac swagger. Red slammed the apartment door, leaned against it with a shoulder, shaking, before dashing to his window, squinting out to be sure she did, indeed, leave. Then he ran downstairs, locked the door.
A crucifix hung on his wall. Red Mazzo knelt before it, folded his hands, and prayed aloud, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me! Lord Jesus Christ, give me strength!" His knuckles were white.
—Follow J.D. King on Twitter: @jdking_mod.