Born to Run (2016)
I was sitting in my South Street home one afternoon when a knock came at our front door. It was George Theiss, a local guitarist and singer who’d heard through my sister that I played the guitar. I’d seen George around the Elks. He told me there was a band forming and they were looking for a lead guitarist. While I hesitated to call myself a lead guitarist, I had been hard at it for a while and worked up some very rudimentary “chops.” We walked across town to Center Street and into a little half-shotgun house fifty feet up the block from where the metal-on-metal war of the rug mill spilled out open factory windows onto the streets of Texas. In Texas I’d slip on my guitar and join my first real band.
There I met Tex and Marion Vinyard. They were friends of George who had decided to surrender the fifteen square feet of what was called their dining room to local teenage noisemakers. It was a very informal neighborhood, black and white separated somewhat by the rug mill but generally hanging around the streets together, with Tex and Marion’s tiny apartment seeming to be the hub of some sort of neighborhood teen club. They were in their thirties and childless, so they took in “strays,” kids who either didn’t have much of a home life or were just looking to get out of the house to someplace less confining and a little more welcoming. Tex was a temperamental, redheaded, comb-overed, loudmouthed, lascivious, pussy-joke-telling factory worker. Like my pops, he was rarely spotted out of his uniform, khaki work shirt and pants, pocket protector and all. He was also generous, loving, sweet-hearted and one of the most giving adults I’d met up to that time.
Tex and Marion seemed stranded between the teen world and adulthood, so they made a home for themselves and a surrogate parental life somewhere in the middle. They weren’t your parents but they weren’t your peers either. As we howled away, pushing out the walls of their little home with banging guitars and crashing drums, with the neighbors a mere two inches of drywall away (what tolerance!), they made the rules and set the agenda for what would fly and what would not. Band practice started at three thirty and ended at six, taking place immediately after school. Tex became our manager and Marion the house mother and seamstress to a team of misfit townie rock-’n’-rollers. There was a small collection of teenage girls (bring the guitars and they will come). There was flirting, listening to music, Tex’s cackling innuendo followed by Marion’s “Teeeeeeexxxxx . . . cut that out!” Some kissing, hand holding, but not much else, not in the house anyway. George, who bore a resemblance to both Elvis and Paul McCartney (the King AND a Beatle, the true double whammy!), was our resident lothario and did pretty well for himself. The rest of us took what we could clumsily find but it was mostly all about the music.
The band consisted of George, myself, drummer Bart Haynes, bass player Frank Marziotti and a revolving set of tambourine-killing hatchet men. The front man position was one for which few locals qualified at the time because you needed to actually have rhythm and sing. We were all little white boys with weak time and voices, but hey, that didn’t stop the Stones, and the Stones were our Holy Grail and blueprint of cool. We needed our Mick, a guy out front. First we just took the toughest guy we knew and put him out there. He couldn’t sing a note and was visibly uncomfortable as we lessened and lessened his duties until they were reduced to the breathing section in Ian Whitcomb’s wheezingly lecherous “You Turn Me On.” This was a guy who was now in the band just to breathe! We knew it wasn’t working out and drew straws to see which one of us would get a whipping when he brought the bad news. Hey . . . that’s what you have a manager for! We let Tex do it. Our “singer” went peacefully with a sigh of relief. After that we picked the best-looking guy we could find, the guy with the coolest hair in school. He looked great onstage and played a pretty good tambourine but, alas, could not sing. George was the best vocalist we had. He had a real voice and charisma and did the job well. I was considered toxic in front of a microphone, my voice the butt of many of Tex’s jokes, and years later, after selling millions of records, I would visit Tex and he would take grand pleasure in sneering at me, “You still can’t sing. George is the singer.”
Tex was my first surrogate father figure. He was loving in his own twisted way. More important, he was accepting. He cherished and encouraged your talents, took you for who you were and put his time, muscle, money and big black Cadillac, hauling equipment, all in service of your dreams. We’d stand together slobbering into the window of Caiazzo’s Music over a new Shure microphone. Caiazzo’s stood next to Ring’s Barber Shop and just twenty feet across the street from the Vineyards’ front door. At night as we sat on Tex’s tiny stoop, Caiazzo’s windows glowed with white pearl drum kits, metal-flake guitars and enough amplifier wattage to wake that dead, shit dump of a town from its stupefying slumber. Tex would sit there, silent, cigarette smoldering, and finally shout, “Fuck it, when I get paid on Friday, we’re going to bring that baby home,” and he would. Then he’d watch like a proud papa as his “boys” crowed like young roosters into the shiny new microphone and say, “Damn . . . that new Shure, now, that’s a sound.”
There were adults like Tex and Marion all across the United States, real unsung heroes of rock ’n’ roll who made room in their homes and in their lives to cart the equipment; to buy the guitars; to let out their basements, their garages, for practice sessions; who’d found a place of understanding between the two combative worlds of teen life and adulthood. They would support and partake in the lives of their children. Without folks like these, the basements, the garages, the Elks clubs, the VFW halls would’ve been empty, and skinny, dreaming misfits would’ve had no place to go to learn how to turn into rock ’n’ roll heroes.
Our First Gig
The Castiles were named after a brand of shampoo George Theiss used. It was a name that fit with the times. There was still a remnant of the fifties doo-wop groups in it but it would also suit to take us toward the Valhalla of the rock and blues skiffle we emulated. Our set list was a mixture of pop hits, R & B, guitar instrumentals, even a version of Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” taught to us by Frank Marziotti so we would have a diverse repertoire. We even tucked an original song or two in here and there.
Our first gig was at the Angle-Inn Trailer Park on Route 33, just east of the Shore Drive-In. It was a summer afternoon cookout social for the residents. We set up in the shade under the overhang of a little garage and stood in front of an audience of maybe fifty souls. Our equipment was at its most primitive. We had Bart’s drums, a few amps, and a mike plugged into one of the extra channels of our guitar amplifiers. The opening act was a local country group that featured as its singer a little girl about six or seven who stood on a stool singing Patsy Cline songs into a big radio broadcasting microphone. They were pretty good . . . and competitive. When we started making our noise, they got really pissed off because the crowd was responding. Dancing broke out. Always a good sign. Our lead singer did his breathing in “You Turn Me On,” sending George and me into silent hysterics, and we finished up with—you guessed it—“Twist and Shout,” as the trailer court went its summer, down-home version of bonkers. It was a huge success, convinced us we could make music and put on a show. And also that our front man must be fired immediately. I still remember the exhilaration . . . we moved people; we brought the energy and an hour or so of good times. We made raw, rudimentary, local but effective magic.
Frank Marziotti, our bass player, was a veteran of the local country music scene. He was still in his twenties but had the appearance of a rotund Italian wedding singer. He had wavy black hair combed straight back above an ethnic face and looked like he’d just come off the line working next to my father rather than like he played bass in a blistering, young, soul-rebel rock ’n’ roll band. He struck a rather discordant note in our image. He was the only true musician amongst us. He taught me plenty of country-style guitar and played the smoothest bass you ever heard. The only problem was at every gig we’d hear the same question: “Why’s your dad in the band?” It didn’t bother us but it started to bother him, so he made his graceful exit and blond-haired Curt Fluhr—Brian Jones haircut, Vox amp, Hofner violin bass and all—came in to fill the position.
Bart Haynes, our hell-raising drummer, was impossible to put a leash on. He claimed to be mentally challenged and one of his famous quotes was “I am so fucking dumb.” He was a solid timekeeper with one bizarre quirk—he could not play the drumbeat to “Wipe Out.” In 1965, the performance of the Surfaris’ “Wipe Out” was the yardstick for all aspiring drummers. This simple syncopated beat played on the tom-toms was considered the final sign of your mastery. Listening to it now, you can easily recognize it, great though it was, as a part for slobbering morons. But . . . the bottom line was at some point during the evening, if a drummer wanted to go home with his bona fides intact, he would HAVE to play “Wipe Out.” Bart could not. No matter what he did or how hard he tried, his wrists simply refused to tap out that rudimentary rhythm. There was plenty of decent drumming in the blood and bones of Bart Haynes but “Wipe Out” was nowhere to be found. As the nights wore on, the smirking calls would come from competing drummers in the rear of the crowd: “Play ‘Wipe Out.’ ” At first they would be ignored, then Bart would rejoin with a few fuck-yous under his breath. Then . . . worst of all . . . he would be goaded . . . “Go on . . . Go on . . .” He’d say, “Play that motherfucker.” So we would. And the moment of the great drum break would arrive and he would fail, time and time again. His sticks clacking together in his hands, the simple beat somehow going haywire until a stick dropped, his face would run fire-engine red, and the show’d be over. “You fuckers!”
Bart would shortly give up the sticks for good and join the marines. Rushing in one last afternoon, a goofy grin on his face, he told us he was going to Vietnam. He laughed and said he didn’t even know where it was. In the days before his ship-out, he’d sit one last time at the drums, in his full dress blues, in Marion and Tex’s dining room, taking one final swing at “Wipe Out.” He was killed in action by mortar fire in Quang Tri Province. He was the first soldier from Freehold to die in the Vietnam War.
Vinnie “Skeebots” Manniello replaced Bart Haynes and was a swinging jazz-influenced drummer. Young, already married with a child by “Mrs. Bots,” he contributed enormously to the professionalism of our band. From there on out it was YMCAs, CYOs, high schools, ice rinks, roller rinks, VFW halls, battles of the bands, Elks clubs, supermarket openings, officers’ clubs, drive-in theaters, mental hospitals, beach clubs and any place you could set up a five-piece band that wanted decent local entertainment at a cheap price.
To the East
Freehold stood dead center between two socially incompatible teen cliques. The “rah-rahs’ ” turf stretched east to the Shore and the “greasers’ ” territory ran south down Route 9. The floor at a Freehold Regional High School dance was a no-man’s-land of circling cliques, with the rahs in one corner, the greasers in another, the black kids in theirs. There was some communication amongst the upper echelons, in the interest of either stopping or starting a fight, but otherwise it was everyone to their own little world. The rah-rahs danced to pop music, Top 40, beach music; the greasers took the floor to doo-wop, and the black kids to R & B and soul music. Motown was the only force that could bring détente to the dance floor. When Motown was played, everyone danced together. That tenuous brother-and-sisterhood ended with the last beat of the music and everyone slunk back to their UN-designated square of gym floor.
The rahs were the jock, madras-wearing, cheerleading, college-bound, slightly upscale teen contingent who were the homecoming kings and queens and who lorded it over most local high schools. I’m sure they continue to do so today as “preps” or whatever their latest nom de guerre is. You were either in or out. I was way out. The ground zero of rah-rah territory was the Sea Bright/Middletown/Rumson area of the Jersey Shore. There was money there and they did not let you forget it. When we came east to play upon their beaches on hot August afternoons, we were immediately put on notice that we hailed from the wrong side of the tracks. To get to the beach you had to wind your way through the stately homes of Rumson, Central Jersey’s most prestigious and exclusive neighborhood. Old-growth trees and palatial estates tucked behind walls of lush green and iron gates let you know “you can look but you better not touch.” When you hit the shore at Sea Bright, the beachfront was a long strand of private beach clubs serving the well-heeled. A wall of cabanas and parking lots blocked access to God’s own Atlantic Ocean. The sea was there somewhere, but unless you slipped onto the one public beach, you were going to have to pay and pay big to get your toes wet. The teenyboppers, however, needed rabble-rousing entertainment on the weekends to get them off of Mom and Dad’s ass while their parents were getting sloshed on martinis at the beach bar. So . . . east meets west . . . With our rep slowly growing, we were imported from the wastelands to do the dirty work.
First we had to lug our equipment onto the sand, where an extension cord had been laid for us to power up our amplifiers. It was sweltering, mid-August, and we were dressed in our full gear: black denim trousers, black Beatle boots, black faux-snakeskin vests purchased at the Englishtown auction, white tuxedo shirts, long hair (still a rarity) and very white “inlander” skin. We were not the Beach Boys. The response was always the same. The parents were amused and bored, the girls flirty and curious, the boys hostile.
As little tanned bikini bodies lined up in front of us, a grumbling from the crew-cut sportsters rose up behind them. We had only one option: to play. Play until they liked it, until they could hear it and, most important, until they DANCED! You had to get the girls dancing! Once the girls started to dance, everybody got happy and suddenly, you were not some threatening alien presence rocket-shipped in from the rings of Greaserville, you were just “in a band.” We knew our work and the day usually ended on a good note, with the kids talking to us, wondering about the way we looked, where we came from (the dark interior), and occasionally with a hard-ass trying to start a fight. These were pretty well-supervised events and there was always an older lifeguard or an adult chaperone to keep the lid on. The parking lot was where you had to watch your back. You’d be busting your balls trying to squeeze your equipment back into the car and you’d hear, “What’d you say? What’d you say to me . . . ?” Of course, you hadn’t said anything. You were just being set up for a friendly takedown. Time to go home.
To the South
South of Freehold there were other challenges. The greasers were a teen subcult, leather-jacketed, sharkskin-suit-wearing, see-through-nylon-sock-clinging, beat-your-ass-with-an-Italian-shoe, pompadoured, preening, take-more-time-to-get-ready-for-school-in-the-morning-than-my-auntie-Jane, fight-you-at-the-drop-of-a-hat, Italian-descended, don’t-give-a-fuck-about-you inhabitants of their own little terrestrial universe. Many of my better friends were “grease” (so named for their extensive use of hair products and fine, oily Italian skin). They were easier to deal with and understand than the rah-rahs as long as they didn’t hold a grievance with you. These were the kids destined to live the decent hardworking lives of their parents and take up their fathers’ trades, the future farmers, homemakers and baby makers, if they could scoot through these few years of wild pounding hormones without getting hurt or hurting someone else. If they could keep out of jail for this short stretch, most would go on to be the spine of American society—fixing the cars, working the factories, growing the food and fighting the wars.
Also south, down Route 9, stood Freewood Acres, the first subdivision any of us had ever seen. What distinguished Freewood Acres was not just its “first ever” status as a planned community but the fact that it counted as its inhabitants descendants of Genghis Khan: Mongolians. It was a long ride from the Russian steppes, but due to the grace of Alexandra Tolstoy, daughter of Leo of War and Peace fame, they’d arrived locally in the late forties after the war. Alexandra had a foundation that assisted in getting them out of the Soviets’ reach, so, persecuted by Stalin and rabidly anti-Communist, they settled in Monmouth County. It was Siberia or New Jersey, a close one, but they were sprung from Stalin’s cages and ended up literally on Highway 9. Their children became my classmates at Freehold High.
The Mongolians were physically very big Asians and they went strictly grease. Imagine the biggest Asian you’ve ever seen in three-quarter-length leather, dress shirt and trousers, winkle-picker shoes and a slick black pompadour that added another inch or two of height on an already-north-of-six-foot frame. These guys had great-great-granddaddies who rode hard and conquered the world, and their New Jersey offspring looked like they could do it again if pressed.
The greasers copped their whole look from the school’s black community, which they were friendly with while at the same time virulently racist against. They were in deep pursuit of “uptown” style. The pristineness of the suits; the high-collared pink, lime green and baby blue shirts; the high-water trousers—their grooming was precise and not to be fucked with . . . YOU DO NOT TOUCH MY HAIR . . . YOU TOUCH MY HAIR AND WE FIGHT. A sensitive crew. The greasers were led by someone I’ll call “Tony,” a godfather before there was The Godfather. He walked through the halls of school with the most perfect coal-black pompadour you’d ever seen, attired impeccably in a three-quarter-length black waistcoat, with an Italian sex god’s face out of every good little cheerleader’s wet dream. He wore it like a king and was the head of the local gang.
Outside of school you’d see Tony regularly in the teen clubs, often wielding a silver-headed cane (occasionally against someone). He’d drift in, a small-town Caesar, mirror-shiny shoes barely touching the ground, surrounded quietly by his minions. Wherever he walked, people made room.
South, into the greaser turf all along Route 9, was where we went next to ply our trade. Route 9 held a chain of nightclubs and pizza parlors that on weekends catered to the teen set. First there was Cavatelli’s Pizza near Lakewood. It was just a small highway pizza joint where the owner decided to pick up some extra cash on Friday and Saturday nights by turning out the tables and chairs, hiring a band and holding small dances in front of the pizza counter. The place was ruled by a hard-core contingent of greaser girls with teased bouffant hair, white lipstick, white skin, heavy eye shadow, leather boots, tight skirts, dive-bomber bras—think the Shangri-Las or Ronettes crossed with Amy Winehouse. The most powerful of these ladies was a gal named Kathy. You came in, you set up your stuff, you started to play . . . and nobody moved—nobody. A very uneasy hour would pass, all eyes on Kathy. Then when you hit the right song, she’d get up and start to dance, trancelike, slowly dragging a girlfriend out in front of the band. Moments later, the floor was packed and the evening would take off. This ritual played itself out time and time again. She liked us. We found out her favorite music and played the hell out of it. We became officially sanctioned as one of “Kathy’s bands.” It was all great, as long as she didn’t like you too much. That would be very dangerous. Though Cavatelli’s Pizza was to my memory mostly a girls’ night out, there were always guys around the edges, and a murmur, a rumor, a sign of something more than friendship would not be good for your health. Along Route 9 you tried to cross no one.
Finally, we worked our way up to the IB Club. This was the big show down south. A greaser heaven on Earth. The best groups, real hit doo-wop recording acts, played there. Nicky Addeo was our local doo-wop god, with a falsetto that wet many a pair of cotton panties and could send chills up Satan’s spine. He was the real deal and king of the old-school crowd that gathered at the IB. When he sang the Cadillacs’ “Gloria,” greaser church was in session. The dance floor’d be packed and all you could hear was the rustling of sharkskin hard-ons rubbing against cheap nylon stockings. Doo-wop was still the music of choice amongst the rocker contingent even in 1966, years after the British invasion. I’ve sung “What’s Your Name” and the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night” many, many times. Along Route 9 in the sixties, a handful of doo-wop numbers was essential to your survival.
For the Castiles this was a big booking. The floor was awash in leather and we’d tailored our set to satisfy. The secret ingredients were doo-wop, soul and Motown. This was the music that made the leather heart skip a beat. It took the dark, bloody romanticism of doo-wop, the true-to-life grit of soul and just that small hint of possible upward social mobility embedded in Motown to define what this crowd’s lives were all about. Except for their Top 40 hits, the bohemian poses of the Stones or their other sixties brethren held little relevance to these kids’ experience. Who could afford that? You had to fight, struggle, work, protect what was yours, remain true to your crew, your blood, your family, your turf, your greaser brothers and sisters and your country. This was the shit that would get you by when all the rest came tumbling down—when the bullshit was washed away in the next fashion trend and your gal was pregnant, your dad went to jail or lost his job and you had to go to work. When life comes knockin’, it’s the heartbroken doo-wop singer who understands regret and the price of loving, the hard-living soul man who understands “I take what I want, I’m a bad go-getter, yeah . . .” and the Motown divas, men and women, who know you’ve got to play a little bit of the white man’s/rich man’s game. You have to make thoughtful compromises that don’t sell out your soul, that let you reach just a little bit higher until your moment comes and then you set the rules. This was the credo all along Route 9 and you’d better understand it or else you would die an ugly musical death while risking bodily injury on Saturday night.
It was a Saturday night like any other; we were booked into the IB Club and looking forward to a great gig. Though we were now dressing more like a British R & B group (we had outvoted Tex and ditched the uniforms), we’d established a good rapport with the crowd and were popular amongst the locals. It was all cool as long as you stayed away from their girls. We were now on our third lead singer, I’ll call him “Benny,” a significant improvement. He wasn’t great-looking, he was a little older than us and out of high school, but he could sing all right. He was hanging around town, lived alone near me in the neighborhood, had a little bit of an older guy’s cool and savvy, so one thing led to another and he ended up shaking his maracas in front of our band.
The club was full, maybe six hundred people, wall-to-wall leather, teased hair, pompadours and enough grease to keep your local garage in business for years. From the stage I saw the Red Sea part as Tony came in with his crew. It was the usual promenade, fun to watch actually. They filtered through the front door, suddenly changing the pace and temperature of the room. The night was now officially on. The Howell Township police visiting the IB Club for fights was not an uncommon occurrence. Public disturbance was many of the IB’s patrons’ passion and hobby. Hopefully, there were no beefs to be settled and everybody would go home happy and in one piece.
Out of the blue during a band break word filtered to the stage that if Benny did not come down and surrender himself to Tony’s crew, they were coming up onstage within minutes to cripple everything and everyone on it. Huh? What happened?
In Middletown, New Jersey, there were two natural, physical phenomena, Gravity Hill and Thrill Hill. It was a common rite of passage to drive out from Freehold in your car and park at the foot of Gravity Hill, and (due to the “lay of the land”? The “mystical magnetic properties of the Earth”? New Jersey hoodoo?) once you shut your car dead off, it would mysteriously appear to slowly roll itself backward up the hill. I’d sat in my ’60 ’Vette on many occasions impressing some gal on a late-night date with this little blacktop parlor trick.
Thrill Hill was simply a radical and improperly graded rise in the road that when combined with enough speed would lift your car off its wheels, launching you and your passengers into the night for a little “airtime.” The catch was that just over the rise of Thrill Hill was an old, low-hanging steel railroad bridge. The “thrill” was cutting that distance between your roof and the bridge. Too much height and you were going to have a really bad night.
As folklore had it, Benny had been on Thrill Hill one night driving a car of four, the sister of one of Tony’s friends riding along. They supposedly caught enough of the bottom of the bridge to seriously injure his passengers while escaping with limited injuries himself . . . until now. The brother had petitioned the Godfather for justice, and it was about to be delivered. It would all be settled that night in the next few minutes. Benny offered to surrender himself. I don’t think he meant it, and anyway, we wouldn’t let that happen. I knew Tony through an old bandmate, which might save me from a beating, but everything else—band, equipment and all—would go. There was only one thing to do. The last shameful respite of any self-respecting Route 9 denizen . . . call the cops. Now! That’s what the manager of the place did on our behalf. Benny was escorted off the stage and out of the building by police, walking through a gauntlet of hard stares and leather into the township police car and out of our lives forever. He never played another note with the Castiles, his tambourine permanently retired.
The Castiles were now a pretty well-honed unit. We played regularly in many different venues for a wide variety of audiences. Firemen’s conventions, the Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital (where, yes, the inmates sang along vigorously to the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”). One evening we were playing the Surf and Sea Beach Club on the Sea Bright strip, deep in the heart of rah land. We were opening up for a well-known traveling Top 40 cover band. There were a few bands of this type. They didn’t have hits of their own but had gotten so good at what they did, they broke their local bonds and were actually able to make a traveling gig out of playing other artists’ music. The place was packed with surly, suntanned faces, chinos and madras skirts. We came out and started playing our recent concoction of psychedelic blues, and I felt something wet. We were being spit on, literally, way before it was a punk badge of honor. It was only a few guys, but it was enough. We played our set and left, furious. A year later, the same people would be cheering us at Le Teendezvous, a club in Shrewsbury catering primarily to the rah-rah crowd but the best gig going along the Shore, with their girls hitting on us. We’d come back and victoriously play Surf and Sea many times, but not that night. We took our hundred dollars and headed back inland to our lowly townies.
Though I had a group of good rah friends I’d met along the beach, between the rahs and the greasers, I guess I felt I had more in common with my pompadoured brethren back toward home. They would administer swift justice but would not lord it over you the way our madras-wearing, beer-drinking cousins to the east would. I guess it was just a class thing. I could still feel the shadow of that spit that hit me long ago when I moved to Rumson in 1983, sixteen years later. At thirty-three years old, I still had to take a big gulp of air before walking through the door of my new home.
Carrying on, there were battles of the bands, occasional weddings and our first performance for an entirely black audience as the only white act on the Tri-Soul Revue. The Tri-Soul Revue was held at the Matawan-Keyport Roller Drome and promoted by a young black hipster. He liked what we did and booked us. We also opened for and backed the Exciters. The Exciters, a classic early-sixties vocal group, had a big hit with “Tell Him” and were the first real recording artists we’d ever come in contact with. The night consisted of a record hop with an onstage deejay and live music (us). We were set up down on the dance floor amongst the dancers. The Exciters met us in the roller rink locker room, where the gorgeous girl singers stripped down and got into their slinky gold lamé gowns right in front of us. (Teenage heart attacks and rock ’n’ roll heaven!) Then they went out onto the stage, where’d they lip-sync to their records, following it up by performing live versions of the same hits down on the floor, backed by the Castiles. We finished our set filled with soul, soul and more soul. We’d decently won over a black crowd suspicious of the white-boy hippies and backed the Exciters without embarrassing ourselves. We’d been rehearsed that afternoon by Herb Rooney, their singer and group leader. I watched the way he led a bunch of musically illiterate teenagers through their paces ’til they could reasonably back his group. We went home that night adding another notch to our belts for a job decently done, for lessons learned and for entertaining a tough audience that could’ve gone the other way.
My Kent guitar had long given way to a teal-blue solid-body Epiphone, a real instrument. Epiphone, a subsidiary of Gibson, made good guitars just under the price range of the world-class Gibsons. Mine was a sweet hand-me-down from Ray Cichon, lead guitarist of the Motifs, who were local legends and the first real rock ’n’ roll band I’d ever seen.
Walter and Ray Cichon were two brothers from Howell Township, New Jersey. Ray was so tall he was always hunching forward, either over his guitar, which he wore strapped high up on his chest, or over you, raining down a spray of spit from between the gap in his teeth as he spoke. He wore his hair short and slicked back and dressed grease. When he dug into his guitar he had a lock of hair the pomade simply couldn’t hold that would tear loose and come cascading around his ear à la Jerry Lee Lewis when the piano kicking started. He was a big and unusual presence standing at the center of his band. He was uncomfortable with himself in the way of some big guys who are not completely at home with their size. There was never quite enough room for Ray Cichon. Something was always being bumped into, knocked over. He had a tender goofiness and was a fierce and eviscerating guitarist, stunning the local community with his intensity and fluidity.
Ray taught me a lot. We’d seen the Motifs at our local high school dances. They frightened and riveted the crowd with their drama, musical ability and surly stage presence. They wiped the dance floor with the Chevelles, making them seem so painfully old-school they practically hung it up then and there. The Motifs were not high school–aged punks. They were men who made music. When Ray first walked into the Vineyards’ home on a request from Tex, we couldn’t believe our eyes. A visit by Jimi Hendrix himself couldn’t have caused more thunder. Big Ray was there in our neighborhood, in the flesh, gracing our humble dining room practice area (which he barely fit in) with his presence, sharing his great guitar knowledge with undeserving young wannabes like us. Ray had mastered all the riffs the excellent Jimmy McCarty played on Mitch Ryder’s great Detroit Wheels hits and he’d lay them out for you note for note. Ray’s hands were huge and moved effortlessly over the fret board in configurations physically impossible for me to achieve. He would play, his marble-size knuckles bulging, and the sound that would come out of his Ampeg amp filled me with aspiration. The shocker was that when Ray wasn’t inhabiting my local Mount Olympus, shutting down every pretender who thought they knew a hot lick or two, he was a shoe salesman! I visited him once at the shoe store even though the sight, the incongruity, of Big Ray Cichon, my neighborhood guitar god, hunched over trying to squeeze his massive body onto a little shoe stool as he fit some old gal into a size 6 would’ve been too much for me. There he was, smiling, as sweet and polite as ever, bringing out the shoe boxes, asking when I’d be at Tex’s ’cause he’d stop by for a little guitar tutoring.
Ray remains one of my great guitar heroes, not just because of his musicianship but because he was there, reachable, a tangible local icon, a real man with a life who took the time to pass down what he knew to a bunch of not necessarily promising kids. He was no distant guitar genius but a neighborhood guy with all his eccentricities and foibles on view who taught you that with a little help, timely mentoring and the right amount of work, you might be exceptional.
Walter Cichon was another story entirely. The longest hair on man or beast I’d ever seen. The first true star I’d ever been close to. A full-blooded rock ’n’ roll animal with the attitude, the sexuality, the toughness, the raw sensuality pouring out of him, scaring and thrilling all of us who came in contact with him. Walter was not your everyday guy but something vastly different. With his hooded eyes and olive skin, he was perfect in that very imperfect Brando-esque way. He fronted the Motifs like a lost Asian king. We were the supplicants at his feet, there to admire the hard, cool indifference with which he stood in front of his microphone mumbling out the lyrics to the Motifs’ secret canon of R & B juju. A shaman, a rebel, a Jersey mystic and someone you could not completely believe entered the world through the same human loins you did.
It took all the guts I had to wander up to Walter after a dance one night and stutter . . . “Uh, you were great . . .” Walter packed up his percussion kit, muttered something and wandered off. He was living proof that the real thing could exist right there in Central New Jersey. He lived like he wanted. (Walter took no “longhair” bullshit from anybody. Both brothers’ reputations as willing and effective fighters put an end to that.) Walter proved you could stake a rebel’s flag right into the heart of the Shore’s summer asphalt and make it stand . . . if you carried enough personal weight and magic. If you were powerful enough you could be different, your own man. The nine-to-fivers, the straights, the high-on-Mama’s-and-Papa’s-money frat boys would just have to eat it. You could be who you were and the rest would just have to stand down and let it be. Once you got beyond this persona, Walter could be as down-to-earth and funny as Ray, though never as easily approachable.
The Motifs were rounded out by Vinnie Roslin, a spirited, charismatic bass player. He lent the Motifs a degree of accessibility. He played a Danelectro Longhorn bass, dangling at knee level, with his shoulder-length hair covering his face ’til in one moment he’d throw it back, revealing a bright smile and the joy he was getting out of playing music. Vinnie would later join me in Steel Mill. Johnny Lewandoski was their slicked-back-blond-haired drummer, as masterful on his instrument as Ray was on his guitar. Johnny set the high bar for drumming, in Dino Danelli’s Rascals style, in our area for years to come. It was Walter and Ray, however, who had the greatest impact on me and our group. Simultaneously above and amongst us, they gave us a touchable link to the mystic power and possibilities of rock ’n’ roll. No giants from across the sea, they blazed a trail that changed what it meant to be a band at the Shore. More than that, they were righteous figures whose music did not compromise and whose lives were livable, imaginable, within our grasp, but also entirely their own.
Walter and Ray Cichon came to tragic ends. Walter was drafted in the army, where he served as a rifleman in Kontum Province, South Vietnam. There, on March 30, 1968, while attempting to seize a hill, he received a head wound, was examined and was left for dead as his unit was forced to withdraw under enemy fire. However a later body recovery team was unable to locate Walter’s body and there were subsequent reports of an American with a head wound, who fit Walter’s description, captured in that area on or about that date. At the end of the war, Walter was one of the many thousands of servicemen deemed “missing in action,” whose bodies were never recovered.
Years later, Ray, accompanying a friend who had some trouble with some local men, was badly beaten. He came home and died days later from head injuries. No one was charged with his murder. Their deaths anger me to this day; they were our heroes, they were our friends.
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In 1967, I would crush my leg and suffer a concussion after being T-boned on my small Yamaha motorcycle by a ’63 Caddy on my way home up South Street. The bike crunched and slid under the car’s front end. I went sailing (no helmet law, no helmet) twenty feet into the air, landing on the hard-ass blacktop on the corner of Institute and South Street. I was knocked out cold for thirty minutes, all the way from Freehold to the hospital in Neptune. I was hauled into the emergency room and had to have my clothes cut off of me due to the swelling of my leg. While this was going on, I was the butt of jokes amongst a few of the staff about the length of my hair. The next day, as I was laid up in the hospital bed, there were doctors who declined to give me follow-up treatment for my head injury. Back home, as I was unable to move, laid up on the couch, my pops had a barber come in and relieve me of the “offending” locks. That was the last straw. I screamed and swore at him. It was the only time I told my dad I hated—HATED—him. I was hurt and furious, and to make matters worse, I couldn’t work with my band for the rest of the summer for fear the volume of the garage assault of the Castiles might create complications from my concussion. Billy Boyle, the soon-to-be mayor of Freehold, who represented me in our legal case, was so disgusted by my appearance, he told me on the way into the courtroom that if he was the judge he’d find me guilty (of what?), then said, “Doug, how do you put up with this? It’s disgraceful.” My father shook his head and shamefully answered, “Bill, I can’t do anything with him.” We won.