Born to Run (2016)
By 1968 hard-rocking psychedelic blues trios had superseded the beat groups. The era of the guitar god was in full swing. Cream with Clapton and the Jimi Hendrix Experience were having hit records. Long, intense, blues-drenched jams were the order of the day and I was ready. I’d been over to see a friend of Tex’s, an ex-marine who said he had a guitar collecting dust in his closet. Upon my visit, he pulled out an unstrung hollow-bodied Gibson with the longest neck I’d ever seen. I brought it home, cleaned it up and strung it. It was a strange piece. My guitar strings barely reached around its distant oversized tuning pegs. When I plugged it into my Danelectro amp, MAGIC! … The thick chunky sound of Eric Clapton’s psychedelic painted SG came ripping out at me. The “Sunshine of Your Love” guitar sound flooded my little practice room and I was transported into another league. Nobody—nobody—down there in New Jersey was getting this kind of guitar tone. My Gibson only had one pickup and the frets were awfully far from one another, but the sound … the sound said, BRING ON ALL COMERS!
After the Castiles I found a bassist, John Graham, and a drummer, Michael Burke, whom I enjoyed playing with. They were well versed in the techniques it took to play as a three-piece unit. We rehearsed a little and started gigging immediately. From the beginning we wowed the locals. For this new sound we were the only game in town. We had the look, with my Italian Afro and their hair down to their shoulders; the ferocity; and a repertoire of modern blues standards popularized by Clapton, Hendrix, Beck and the like. I took flight as a guitarist; the night was an endless series of long, slashing solos on my miracle Gibson. We were the monster rock kings of our piece of the Shore. We added Bobby Alfano back on organ to give my aching fingers a rest and for a while, we had a pretty nice little band.
The psychedelic era had finally landed at the Shore. The crowd came to sit Buddha-style in front of us for a set and then trance-dance the night into oblivion. One night, some kid who knew his guitars shed some light on the “miracle” in my miracle Gibson. He walked up and congratulated me on the brilliant idea of stringing an old Gibson six-string bass with guitar strings and playing it as a solo instrument. I nodded coolly while thinking, “Holy shit … it’s a six-string bass!” I’d been soloing like a madman for months on a bass guitar! No wonder its sound was so thick and its fret board so impossible. It worked!
Around this time I was starting to write some acoustic music. I’d bought a twelve-string Ovation acoustic guitar and was penning some prog-style, Donovan-and-Dylan-influenced originals that I’d end up singing in the local coffeehouses when I wasn’t thundering through the blues. We had new managers, a couple of college guys, one of whom had just frozen and chopped off the end of his toe to avoid the draft. I figured that was just the kind of commitment we needed, so they started to finance some equipment and book some gigs for us. This occasioned my first trip to Manny’s Music in New York City, guitar Valhalla and home of the hit makers. On a three-grand loan from one of our managers’ daddies, we walked out of there fully loaded and ready to storm the barricades of the big time. An epic Valentine’s Day gig at the Long Branch Italian-American club was followed by a booking in Manhattan at the Diplomat Hotel (a later venue for the New York Dolls). We charged a fee and bused our fans through the tunnel, straight onto the Diplomat’s ballroom floor. It was a great afternoon in the city. As we were packing up I was approached by a Greek guy named George. He introduced himself as a record producer, said he didn’t care much for the band but loved what I was doing. He gave me his card and told me to call him. Finally, a connection to the real music business, somebody who’d actually seen the inside of a studio and could make something happen. “Excitement” isn’t the word. I felt thrilled, vindicated, validated; my head spun with the possibility of actually making something of all this.
I called immediately and was invited to George’s apartment in New York City. I’d never seen anything like it. It had big windows opening out onto the avenue, high molded ceilings and rich wood paneling, all topped off by George’s gorgeous blond girlfriend, an afternoon soap opera star. He had a two-track tape deck we recorded some of my music on. Tim Buckley was a great inspiration for me at this time; that’s why I had the twelve-string. That’s what Tim played, and I did my utmost to ape his vocal timbre and his writing style. That night we went to a session George was producing. I sat in the darkness of a real studio and watched an actual recording session being conducted. I left that night finally feeling a musical future in front of me.
I saw George somewhat regularly. I had some scheduling conflicts because I was still in school. My aunt Dora had pulled some strings and wheedled me a place amongst the Ocean County student body and I didn’t want to blow it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a great fit. In the late sixties the counterculture was still a slow train coming in South Jersey. I was once again one of a small handful of freaks in a low-tolerance zone. Just getting to school and back was trouble enough. I could catch a ride there with a pal for gas money but coming home, I often had to improvise. In the winter, I’d stash myself beside a roadside billboard, waiting in the icy Route 9 cold until a bus appeared over the horizon. I’d move out to the road’s shoulder, wait for the bus to catch me in its high beams, then wave for passenger pickup. It was fifty-fifty, depending on the attitude of the driver. Many a night I’d be greeted by a shake of a crew-cut head and the big wheels would keep on rolling.
Often I had to rely on my usual ticket to ride: my thumb. It was a long, cold hike in the dark that brought its own dangers. I’d had cars slow down as if to give me a lift, then throw open the passenger-side door to knock me into the ditch. You had to be on your toes. I had a wild booze-fueled ride on the back roads between Toms River and Lakewood with a young black dude roaring and laughing, a bottle of Jack between his legs and the steering wheel, until I was spilled out onto the pavement in front of the Lakewood Greyhound station kissing mother blacktop.
My dad would occasionally come to get me but that made matters even worse. In a rage at the inconvenience, he’d haul ass north on Route 9 toward home, pedal to the metal, using our old junker like it was a death-proof weapon of mass extinction. I couldn’t comment. All I could do was ride shotgun on the terror train, waiting for the screeching wail of sheet metal that would signal the end for the both of us. We’d pull in the drive, he’d skid to a stop and, saying nothing, he’d hop out, slamming the door behind him. I’d walk into the house and find him already sitting, smoking, at the kitchen table looking like he’d never seen me before in his life.
It was a transitional moment. My parents wanted me to further my education and I wanted to stay out of the draft. This was 1968, post-Tet Offensive America. The streets were in an uproar, and it wasn’t just the hippies but the truckers too. Informed by Walter Cronkite, the influential news anchor at CBS, the country was getting the idea that Vietnam was a losing game. I’d had two close friends, Walter and Bart, killed at war and I had no intention of joining them.
Back in New York George asked me if I wanted to be a full-time musician. I said, “Hell yeah.” He asked me if I was committed to school. I said, “Hell no.” Then he said I should quit school and dedicate myself to who I was and the music I loved. I said, “Hell yeah, but what about the draft?” I was nineteen and prime cannon fodder. He said, “Guys get out of the draft all the time. You leave it up to me. It’s something we can fix.” That night, filled with new resolve, I went home, gathered my parents in the kitchen, told them about George and about what I wanted to do. They were hesitant, unsure. I heard the arguments about work that was real and steady, the same arguments I’d give my own kids today about the music business, but I was determined. George had given me confidence and I could feel the early light of the success I longed for. Finally, my parents said it was my life and they reluctantly agreed; they wished me well, and “ring-ring goes the bell,” my school days were over for good.
I was never able to get George back on the phone again.
Draft Dodger Rag
Now a full-time musician, I went about my business, playing gigs and bringing home what money I could. One fall morning, I popped the metal lid of our mailbox and saw a letter addressed to me. I opened it. It read, “Congratulations, you have been chosen to serve your country in the United States Armed Forces.” Please report for your physical on such-and-such a date to the draft board in Asbury Park. Here it was—the reckoning. I felt cold in my stomach. Not shocked, but momentarily gut-punched by the real world hitting hard. I was chosen to be a player in history, not of my own accord or desire, but because bodies were needed to stem the perceived Communist menace in Southeast Asia. My first thought was, “Is this real? And what does it possibly have to do with me, my life, my ideas?” The answer to the first question was “You bet your ass.” The answer to the second question, I decided, was “Nothing … nothing at all.” Maybe I was just frightened and didn’t want to die. I was not going to have the chance to find out because I decided then and there I was not going to go. Whatever it took—and I did not know then what that might be—to not go, I was going to do.
I hid the letter from my parents. There was nothing they could do. This was just about me. The induction was a month or so off, so there was time for a little research. By 1968 there was plenty of information on the street about how to beat the draft. In my travels I had met and talked to young men who’d fed themselves fat, starved themselves skinny or mutilated extremities. I heard about the wealthy with their doctor notes specially designed for remaining stateside and safe at home. I didn’t have recourse to anything so extravagant. The irony was I, Mad Dog Vincent Lopez and Little Vinnie Roslin were all to make our debut at the draft board in Newark on the same morning. So, brothers leery of arms, we put our heads together. We had a friend who’d said he’d covered himself in milk and slept like that for three days, and by the time he reported for his physical the stench was so awful they sent him home immediately … sounded pretty good. The one surefire answer that kept coming up time after time with successful local dodgers was “mentally unfit.” Mentally unfit … hell, that was true. We were mentally unfit for Uncle Sam. All we had to do was prove it to them and get that beautiful 1Y mental deferment.
We proceeded as follows:
STEP 1: Make a mess out of your forms. Let them know they’re trying to corral a drug-addicted, gay, pathologically bed-wetting lunatic who can barely write his name into the US military.
STEP 2: Make them believe it. Act the mumbling, bumbling, swishing, don’t-give-a-fuck-about-orders freak on STP, LSD and anything else you can get your hands on—a hippie-outcast, destroyer-of-troop-morale, corroder-of-discipline, much-more-trouble-than-you’re-worth, get-the-fuck-out-of-here joke of a recruit.
STEP 3: Previously, have a bad enough motorcycle accident to truly scramble and concuss your brains, making you a medical risk on the battlefield. Fill in that section of the form truthfully, go home and receive your 4F—physically unfit. (I tried it all, but in the end, that was my classification.)
We drove to Newark that morning on a bus filled with mostly young black kids out of Asbury Park. Almost everybody had a plan. I sat next to a strapping blond rah football player in a quarter-body cast he confided to me was totally bogus. There were draft boards, especially in the South, where this shit would not fly and your ass would be delivered straight to boot camp. But Newark had the reputation of being one of the easiest draft boards in the country. I guess it was. An amazing percentage of the guys on the bus were rejected because they pulled some personalized version of the above-mentioned shtick. At the end of the day, after we’d all driven the US Army around the bend, there was a small table at the end of a long, empty hallway. There sat a bored young soldier looking at you like he was about to give you the worst news of your life. “I am sorry to inform you but you have been judged unfit for military service.” Looking back down at his paperwork, he’d add, “You may enter through the next door if you’d like to sign up for some voluntary service.” Behind that door was one very empty room. You were then handed a ticket that allowed you a free meal, for being a good sport and taking the ride up, at a restaurant two blocks down the street. We all skipped over there, our feet barely touching the ground. We stepped into a lovely sunlit diner. The smiling host at the door greeted us like we were his long-lost millionaire cousins and escorted us to a set of stairs that led down into a dank basement room. There at one long, musty hardwood table with my fellow yella bellies, I had some of the worst food and one of the best meals of my life.
The bus ride out of the city was pandemonium. There were many fine young black women on the summer streets of Newark and my Asbury Park brothers let them know they were appreciated. Many had been called, few had been chosen. The bus door hissed open in front of the Asbury Park train station, discharging Mad Dog, Little Vinnie and myself, all now free men, intact, with our lives, wherever they might lead, in front of us. As the bus pulled away, the street turned quiet. We’d been up together for three solid days. We looked at each other, exhausted, shook hands and went our own ways. I felt relieved but I also felt like crying. I hitchhiked the fifteen miles back to Freehold. With days of no sleep and little food, wired and weary, I walked up onto the back porch and through the kitchen door of my house to my father. I called my mom in, told my parents where I’d been, that I’d hid it from them so that they might not worry and out of embarrassment that New York George and my big music plans had come to nothing. I told them I failed my draft physical. My dad, who often dismissively uttered the words “I can’t wait ’til the army gets ahold of you,” sat at the kitchen table, flicked the ash off of his cigarette, took a puff, slowly let the smoke escape from his lips and mumbled, “That’s good.”
As I grew older, sometimes I wondered who went in my place. Somebody did. What was his fate? Did he live? I’ll never know. Later on in life, when I met Ron Kovic, author of Born on the Fourth of July, or Bobby Muller, one of the founders of the Vietnam Veterans of America, both men who fought and sacrificed, returning from the war in wheelchairs, men who became strong activists against the war, I felt a duty and a sense of connection. Maybe it was another dose of my survivor’s guilt or maybe it was just the common generational experience of living through a war that had touched everyone. It was New Jersey men like them who went and fought in my place. All I know is when I visit the names of my friends on the wall in Washington, DC, I’m glad mine’s not up there, or Little Vinnie’s or Mad Dog’s.