You know, I never expected this thing to go so long. To be perfectly frank, I didn’t even plan to do it in the first place. It just happened. I think to even characterize myself as a record collector is something of a misnomer. There might have been a period in the late ’70s and early ’80s when that definition might have applied to me. Actually, I was more of a record accumulator and a musical enthusiast. So much for starchy definitions. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that I was way more concerned with trying to figure out how I was going to live my life and too much on the move in those days to be anything so staid as an actual collector of anything, except perhaps experience. In a lot of ways I was beginning to get a bit out of control by the early ’60s. I didn’t quite realize it yet but I was already developing a drinking problem that would develop into full blown alcoholism by the time I was in my thirties. Weirdly, and I guess some people would call this heresy, but at that time I actually think it was doing me some good giving me a certain amount of Dutch courage to do what I needed to do. And that was another strange thing. In some weird loose cannon way, I did seem to know what I was doing. But I recommend it to no one, which I guess is also kind of laughably and predictably prosaic. Nevertheless, the fact is, I’m lucky I got through the following twenty years with most of my whole hide. I am very humbly grateful to the man upstairs for that, too. I’ve always had the feeling that there was some kind of good angel watching over me. Take that any way you want. I’m just trying to tell the truth here as I see it. I don’t give a hang about trying to cut some sort of cool figure. I actively hate that kind of shit and there is altogether too much of it running around loose in this world. What I am trying to do is to do my best to pay off my unusually good luck by living a useful life. I may be some kind of a jerk (I guess it runs in the family), but I mean well.
I almost flunked out during my freshman year at Pratt. I still had no clue as to how to be focused or how to consistently work hard. But I was aware that this was a crucial flaw in my character and was already looking for ways to change that. I forget exactly how it came about, but when I returned to Pratt for my sophomore year I ended up being the roommate off campus of a guy named Bill Griffiths, that “s” at the end is not a typo. This is not the Bill Griffith of subsequent Zippy The Pinhead fame. I’d gotten to know that Bill Griffith a little, but we weren’t exactly what you would call fast friends. Unlike me, Bill was Dean’s List all the way in his freshman year. He was interesting enough but kind of snooty too. And he viewed me with a certain amount of aloof and open condescension. I had similar reservations about him although we did socialize some — usually as an adjunct to my friendship with Roger Jacoby. Roger and I were an odd couple but we really were friends. Well, Bill Griffith flunked himself out of Pratt in his sophomore year and went to Paris. Even then I considered that to be a laughably prosaic move. Bill and I came to be friends later on, but that’s another story.
Getting back to my new roommate Bill Griffiths. He was a couple of years older than me and had already done a hitch in the navy. He was to-the-manner-born gay. What is it about gays and the navy? He seemed to be somewhat in denial about being gay the year we roomed together, which was ok with me. Politically he was a Republican. He took a dim view of modern art and was himself a very good draftsman. He took getting used to, but I liked him. I learned more about the ins and outs of the gay scene than I ever had before. In fact, I used to have bitter arguments about it with him. He’d say so-and-so was gay without knowing him for five minutes, which, at the time, I considered ridiculous. However, in hindsight I would have to say, his observations were pretty dead-on. His taste in music was interesting. He was a huge Billy Holiday fan and had just about all of her albums, including the great four-LP set that John Hammond put together covering her years with Columbia records. He also had a great single LP that covered the stuff she did for the Commodore music shop in the 1940s. That was my introduction to such great standards as, “My Old Flame”. And that Jerome Kern masterpiece “Yesterday.”
He was a big Ella Fitzgerald fan too and tried to get me going on her. Today I would rate Ella vastly higher than Billy Holiday, but just then I wasn’t quite ready for her.
Ditto other favorites of his, Edith Piaf, and that great all time great gay favorite, Judy Garland. I think it is really only been in the last year or so that I started to really appreciate what a fine singer Judy Garland was. All you have to do is hear the way she stops the rather trivial film, Ziegfeld Girl, dead in its tracks when she sings “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.” In a way, Bill’s halfheartedly surpressed gayness actually did wonders for my sex life, and I had a fair amount of girl traffic going on that year.
I figured out how to survive at Pratt and could have easily hung in and graduated. The only trouble was that it was all starting to seem kind of meaningless to me. I didn’t really like the art that was coming out of the place and I didn’t feel like I was on the right track either. One night I was out drinking by myself at some divey bar in Brooklyn. A guy sitting next to me, and about the same age as me, was a Norwegian sailor in the Merchant marine. He spoke good English and we got to talking. He made a good case for the pleasures of a sailor’s life and also how easy it was for almost anyone with a passport to ship out on a Scandinavian tramp. I was fascinated and looked into it. I finished off my sophomore year with okay grades, took a leave of absence and before you knew it I was signed up on a Norwegian cargo ship for an Asian cruise. It was the right thing at the right time for me to do. I knew I needed to cultivate a better work-ethic and figured doing my best to work hard on a ship like that might be a good step in that direction. It was. Then there were the women: an obvious perk for a twenty year-old jerk like me. And in that regard I was not disappointed.
There’s one thing I will always remember. It was the day we shipped out and I was already on board and signed-in. There was about half an hour to go before we sailed. I looked down at two other crew members still standing on the dock. There was a loud portable radio on the ground between them and out of it was blasting just about the coolest r & b side I ever heard! The song was “It’s All Over Now”, by some black group. These two guys were moving and grooving to it. The song stayed with me, although it was more than forty years before I was to hear that particular record again.
Life was interesting on the ship. The food was terrible but I didn’t much care about that. There were lots of fights. Lots of violence. But I soon learned that if you had good manners and did your work, these guys weren’t so hard to take and they seemed ready enough to accept me, too. So that’s what I did for six months almost to the day. The day we hit New York again, I was leafing through a copy of the New York Daily News and saw that Little Richard was playing that night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Well, you better believe I was there that night. I’d been to the Apollo one time before. When I was still at Pratt I went over one night and caught the Eartha Kitt Review. You could get into the balcony of the Apollo in those days for less than two bucks. That first show made an impression. Shows at the Apollo still opened with a line of chorus girls. This night they all danced out with their backs to the audience. Then once they were all onstage they turned around and there was Eartha right among them. She ran to the front of the stage and shouted, “I’ve been all around the world. But it was right here in this chorus that I got my start and I’ll always be a Harlem girl at heart” Not too shabby.