I want to back up briefly to the year 1954. We were still living in the small Westchester town of Hastings on Hudson, in New York. In many ways it was a bedroom community for well-to-do upwardly mobile New Yorkers like my parents. Dad was still running the New York UPA office, though he’d also started a briefly moonlighting in comics. His first attempt was to try to sell a comic strip version of the still hot “Howdy Doody” show to the United Features syndicate. That one didn’t fly, but not long after that he did succeed in selling a property he’d been working on in his spare time called “Terr’ble Thompson”. So for a while he was doing two jobs, until my Mother finally talked him into bagging the comic strip. My parents’ social life was also still going full tilt through all of this. No more formal Friday record sessions, but plenty of parties that had a musical component of records and frequent visits by musicians. They were definitely perceived by many at this time as a kind of ideal couple. And so it seemed. For a while. I met a lot of animation names at these parties too, such as Ernie Pintoff, R. O. Blechman, and young hot shot Jules Feiffer, who my father first met when Feiffer tried out for, but didn’t get, the gig as my Father’s assistant on the “Terr’ble Thompson” strip.
Feiffer came off as rather aloof and above it all in those days. When performers were on deck he’d sometimes bring a pad and sketch, and I still have one of those with sketches of Pete Seeger in it somewhere. He was openly disdainful of my Father’s “moldy fig” jazz tastes and one time, rather haughtily, asked him if he didn’t have anything a little more progressive on hand. My old man pulled out a ten inch LP by the Gerry Mulligan Quartet (that someone must have given him). I appropriated it after my Dad had left us and played the thing to death in my sophomore year at Pratt.
The visiting live performers were generally folk singers. Pete Seeger had relocated to the New York-area by this time and was prominent among them. Another interesting performer who started coming over was a folk singer named Ed McCurdy. He was a big, strapping, good-looking guy who sang in a deep baritone and had some good selling folk LP’s out. He’d actually started out in radio in the forties and for a while had even worked in vaudeville with the seemingly ageless fan dancer, Sally Rand. Ed liked his liquor and one night showed up at one of my parents music parties blazing drunk, loudly insulting everyone in sight. I’d never seen anything quite like that before and was fascinated. It was the last time Ed ever came to our house. I guess he was heading on a downhill slide. Not long after that I saw him show up on a local TV kid’s show as Freddy The Fireman, singing and playing his little Freddy The Fireman theme song. But not long after that he showed up shitfaced drunk to do his Freddy show, insulted all the kids in TV-land and got fired off the show. This was my inspiration for a similar incident in a comic strip I did years later called “The Man Who Would Be Waldo”.
One day, oh, maybe about fifteen or so years ago, my brother Simon and I were sitting around talking about our childhood days when he said, “You know, of all the people and performers who were around back when we were kids, the one I’d be most interested in hearing again is that woman, Connie Converse.” Indeed! Those John Lee Hooker tapes may have already resurfaced by then and I did fly Connie’s name by my old man as another possible lost treasure lurking in his Prague basement on old reel to reel magnetic tape. But he didn’t pay me much heed at first.
Let me tell you about Connie Converse. One night in late ’54 someone brought a guest along to one of my parents’ musical parties. She was a plain looking, but not unattractive, women in her early thirties who wore plastic rimmed glasses. No one paid any particular attention to her at first, as there were other performers on hand who my Father was busily taping. But at some point, whoever had brought Connie along urged her to sing something and with seeming reluctance she did. Well, it was one of those moments you often hear about but seldom witness. At least it had never happened to me before. The tape machine was rolling as Connie launched into a humorous upbeat song called “Rambling Woman”. I was only ten, but even I quickly picked up on the fact that it was about being picked up in bars. She stopped the party cold in its tracks. From that point on the party was all about Connie!
It is really kind of a reach to call what she sang folk music. They were all literate and clever songs she had written herself. They seemed to owe as much to show tunes written by people like Cole Porter and Rogers and Hart as anything else. In a lot of ways she seemed like a kind of forerunner of singers that came later, such a Joni Mitchell, Suzanne Vega and Sinead O’Conner. Well, my parents’ crowd and my parents themselves were, from that moment on, rabid Connie Converse fans. My mother in particular played the tape of her singing that night, and others made on nights to come, incessantly! And here’s the thing: That first song she sang had a jauntiness to it, but more typically her songs, while always interesting, had a certain built in gloominess to them, particularly when heard night and day, as I was soon hearing them. The fact is, over time, these tapes were starting to get on my nerves! It got to a point where I’d leave the room whenever my Mother had them on. Later I came to think of her songs as the ominous theme music that accompanied the rash of divorces that seemed to start picking off my parent’s friends one couple at a time. I think in the end my Mother also did.
But before all that the Connie bandwagon had a few more stops to make. One morning, on the old “Today” show, which was national on live TV, someone among my parents friends had wangled a live appearance for Connie, which I saw. She came on along with Walter Cronkite, who hosted the segment and sang two songs. I remember thinking, “Well, this it. We’ll all be bragging we knew her when pretty soon.” But it was not to be. That was it! I’m not sure I ever saw here again after that. She drifted off and never really made it. Never even made any real records. Although Allen Swift (remember? The Man Of A Thousand Voices?) did make some studio quality tapes of her, but he died last year without ever finding them. Connie, I later learned, came to a bad end. She became increasingly depressed. She never married. If she had any serious love affairs, they are unremembered. In the early 1970s, she sent notes to her friends saying she was going away and, “please do not try to find me.” Then she got into her little VW bug and drove away. No one ever saw her again.
About ten years ago, I did a joint radio appearance with my father to help him promote a new book of his. The show had a musical orientation and he brought a lot of sides with him on tape. One thing he brought and played on the show that afternoon was one of the songs he recorded of Connie Converse! The amazing thing is that this song going over the air that day had a markedly similar effect to the incident I recounted for you when she sang “Rambling Woman” at my parents’ party. It got a lot of people in a lot of different places who heard that show very interested in Connie Converse! Subsequently a CD has been issued of the best of her various taped performances. Hearing them today totally blows me away. To say that they hold up is an understatement. It even has the recording of that magic moment in 1954 when Connie stopped my parent’s party dead in its tracks with her performance of “Rambling Woman”! What I had forgotten about that moment is that one of our cats, Andrea, was in heat at the time and you can hear her howls of sexual longing in the background as Connie sings and Connie makes an ironic aside about it when she finishes singing. Two voices that I never expected to hear again in this life for the price of one! When that Connie CD came my Father sent me multiple copies and asked me to give one of them to my Mother. Last year, when my Mother got packed off to the old folks home I was helping to clean out her apartment. I found the Connie Converse CD still in its plastic wrap, unopened. Apparently it had reawakened no particularly good memories for her.
In 1960, my parents’ marriage fell apart. My father took what was supposed to be a very brief trip to Prague, Czechoslovakia. He became involved with the female production manager of the animation studio he was visiting and that was it! However, my parents were rather vague about it and it took us a while to put all the pieces of the puzzle together as to why Dad wasn’t around anymore. But he wasn’t. It had the strange effect on me of causing me to expand outward in all directions. Tony Eastman was off in college being a frat boy and my Dad was now making pictures in Prague. I was more of a free agent than I had ever been and I started to change. For one thing, out of nowhere, I had suddenly become rather good looking (I sure didn’t see that coming). I started sprucing up and going out with girls. My grades in school dramatically improved. I also started going bad a little bit. I wore a jacket and tie to school every day but I also grew side burns and was wearing my hair in a D A (Duck Ass). I started hanging out with the hood element and it was just dumb luck that I didn’t pick up a police record at that time. Hoody guys that used to pick on me were now becoming my secret associates. I felt like I was starting to really live.
One guy that I started to hang around with at this time was a guy that everyone called Jimmy The Brazilian. His real name was Sebastian Rodriguez Maia. Jimmy, among other things, was a gigolo, one of two that I knew of who were working that angle in Tarrytown, where I was now living. The other was a guy in his forties with a wrinkled face and an elaborate sculpted pompadour hairdo. He pumped gas. Everyone called him Handsome Harry; my Mother said he was a very sweet man. When it came to women, I had gone from backward to fairly advanced. I didn’t have a driver’s license but made good use of the back seat of a buddy mine’s 1948 Chevy on many steamy double dates. I was quietly doing way better than lots of guys who’d recently dismissed me as a nerd loser in that department. But for all of that I still hadn’t gotten all the way to laid (It wasn’t the lead pipe cinch that it later became back then. But Jimmy The Brazilian quickly changed all that. When I was seventeen he fixed me and a buddy up with a black Cuban whore literally on the other side of the railroad tracks on Tarrytowns’s Cortland Street. She did more than right by us and the price was more than right too! We were back for more a week later. Funny thing about that: About a month later I was walking down a hall in my high school when I saw the black Cuban hooker in amiable animated conversation with the school’s young female gym teacher. I caught her eye as I walked by and she gave me a big wink. To this day, I’m still wondering what that was all about.
The other momentous thing Jimmy did for me a few days after I graduated from high school was to turn me on to weed. I would have done it a lot sooner than that if I could have gotten my hands on it. I was definitely under the Thomas Wolfe live-life-lustily, try-anything-once spell by then. So in the backseat of a non-functional 1937 Cadillac limo, Jimmy and his buddy Chet Ryder rolled some joints out of nickel bags and sold them to me for “a dollar a stick”. Later we were chilling somewhere that had a record player. Jimmy and Chet were grooving, dancing in their own individual stoned out zones, to the flipside of a big top-forty record of the day. The hit side was a fairly tired doo wop thing called “What’s Your Name” by Don and Juan. But Jimmy and Chet were grooving to the other side, a hot uptempo thing called “Chicken Necks.” It really moved and, even though I have never heard that side since, the image of those two spontaneously grooving to it is an image that is thoroughly etched in my memory.
A year or so later, Jimmy had a falling out with my brother Simon. You didn’t really want to cross Simon. I don’t know the exact details and even if I did I wouldn’t write them here. But Jimmy got caught in a Police raid shortly after that and got his ass deported back to Brazil! I heard he boogied right up the gangplank of the ship that took him back. I also heard that later he became a famous singing star over there. I can’t say for sure if it’s true, but I wouldn’t faint dead away from shock if it was.
Later in that same summer of 1962, my Father sprang for a trip for me to Europe, starting with a visit to him in Prague. I was enjoying my new swinging lifestyle but I did also miss him, and I jumped at this opportunity. Prague was a trip! Weird old autos were on the road going all the way back to 1920s models! Big band swing was still going on and these songs were still being issued on 78rpm records! And the beer! Let me tell you: nothing less than nectar of the Gods!
And in a delightfully infinite variety of types. Yow! It was a rather uptight visit, though, because I was now finding out, bit by bit, what was going on with my old man and his new girlfriend that he was still not quite officially copping to. The one record I brought with me was a recently acquired 45 of Little Richard’s electrifying record “Good Golly Miss Molly” on the Specialty label. I remember one afternoon in my father’s flat, while he was out, drinking duty-free Scotch I’d bought on my way into town, and blasting “Good Golly Miss Molly” into the sleepy courtyard of his flat on his high tech hi-fi rig. On my way out of town I left the disk for a girl I met there.
I had a ticket and some money to stop in several other European countries before returning to start my first year of art school. I was planning to hit England, France, and maybe Germany. I started and finished in England. I spent most of my time, and just about all my money, in England’s red light district in Soho. What else would most eighteen year olds do on the loose for the first time? One thing that fascinated me about London (a harbinger of things to come) was that good old American rock and roll was very much alive and going strong in merry England. At all the strip joints (most of which had hookers operating just above them) the girls were mostly stripping to good American rock and roll records. I’ll never forget watching one pretty brunette grinding to Buddy Holly’s great “Peggy Sue Got Married”. After five fast and furious days in England, I had just enough money left to get my sorry butt back to New York. My father made an offer to keep me in Prague but it seemed half-hearted and I didn’t want to anyway. I was enjoying myself too much in the good old USA.
I hit art school in the fall of ’62 and stuck a framed photo of Ray Charles up on my dormitory wall. I still had that sullen hoody demeanor, though and I wasn’t really fitting in. There were all the Rah Rah boys and they didn’t interest me much. And the arty, beat-tinged crowd didn’t quite know what to make of me either. Nor was I clicking with girls right away, which came as kind of a surprise to me. I figured girls in art school were gonna be an easy slam dunk for me. I did manage to get my hands on weed pretty soon, though, and gradually things started coming together for me. But here’s the thing. People see old photos of me from that time and often say, “Jesus! A good looking guy like you were. You must have had the dames crawling all over you.” Well, not really. I had average good luck I guess. But what I had crawling all over me, or at least trying like hell to, were gay guys! This was problematic, but not quite the way you might think. No. I was definitely not interested in having sex with guys, but I was soon finding out that many of the brighter more interesting people to know and talk too were gay guys! Ultimately the crowd I ended up hanging with at Pratt were older guys who’d been in the service or for some other reason had been around a little. Many of them already smoked pot and mostly lived in downtown Brooklyn’s Granada Hotel. It functioned as sort of a dorm, but was a lot less strictly policed. And, a lot of the smarter more interesting gay guys also traveled in these circles. The Granada Hotel boys lived more dangerously, which the gay guys found attractive and the non-gay Granada guys were willing to blow off the gay guys’ homosexuality as long as they weren’t getting in everybody’s face about it. It made for a good common ground on which to get to know all of these people.
One of the gay guys who became my friend was named Roger Jacoby. His artistic idol was Marcel Duchamp, who he eventually got to know. After Roger tried and failed to get something going with me sexually, he remained my personal friend and even became my roommate at my dormitory by the end of my freshman year. Through him I also met future underground cartoonist Bill Griffith, who also lived in our dorm. Roger absolutely deplored my taste for rock ‘n roll and gave me a constant hard time about it too. He played rather brilliant improvisational piano and I loved to listen to it. He played classical music LPs and I started to listen to some of that. Walter Geisicking’s record of “Clair du Lune” by Debussy made an impression, as did Beethoven’s Seventh.
I brought in my Father’s old Biltmore reissue of “Immigration Blues” by Duke Ellington’s Kentucky Club Orchestra and Roger was willing to concede that perhaps it did have some rather quaint merit, unlike the crappy rock ‘n roll and r & b records I listened to. I brought in a hand-me-down LP of ’30s Ellington with a very classy 1936 version of “St. Louis Toodlou” with Chimes and nice Cootie Williams trumpet. When I was still in high school I used to put that LP on, sit in my closed closet so my Mother wouldn’t smell the smoke and smoke cigarettes, ditching the butts in an old shoe. Later on Roger met and became the lover of a guy from the Warhol crowd known as the Beloved Ondine and they both died of aids in the 1980s. Roger is a guy I miss.