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Archive for December, 2009

The KENTUCKY COLONELS as Axe-bearers/”Good for the Jews”

This,  from writer/historian Jason Odd, when I asked him what  he does that takes him to a place  and time (Southern California, 1960’s) I know well from 50 years ago (Jason,  are you even half that old yourself?):

“I’ve done various freebies online, a Bakersfeild section for the Rockabilly Hall Of Fame, and a   buddy of mine name Thomas Abrunner has a Clarecne White timeline page, I added the info on his bar-band the Roustabouts to the Reasons/Nashville West page: http://www.burritobrother.com/reasons.htm

“It’s a work in progress, the Roustabouts were the forgotten bar-band, which ran parallel to the Reasons/Nashville West, which is the group most historians (well, all really) write about when talking about Clarence’s pre-Byrds, post-Bluegrass career.”

It’s a terrific site, not at all academic-feeling,  but chock-a-block with details and data on the Country Boys/Kentucky Colonels,  as well as other talent.

Sammy Masters, photo courtesy Jason Odd.

Sammy Masters, photo courtesy Jason Odd.

In a follow-up email Jason asked me if I remembered Sammy Masters and Cal’s Corral, a legendary auto dlrship in So. California in the 50’s and 60’s, maybe even in later decades, owned and operated by Cal Worthington, a country-speakin’  spokesman for his company. So, here you go, Jason:

Yes, I remembered the name Sammy Masters,  but not well enough to put a face on him til I saw this one, from you.  And of course I remember Cal’s Corral. My dad  bought three Chryslers there, a ’47 New Yorker Highlander, a ’52 New Yorker two-door, and a ’56 300 C which I sold to Roland White in 1966.

56 CHRYSLER 300C

A '56 Chrysler 300C. Mine was red, white and black and was later sold to Roland White for $300.

I also remember vividly a stint the  Country Boys/Ky Colonels did with Joe and Rosalie Maphis, a real live Country-Vaudeville husband-and-wife  act working the LA area in the early-to-middle ’60’s.  I even remember Clarence co-opting one of Joe’s most terrible licks for a few minutes, ’til Dave Cohen asked him not to. (We, i.e., us Ash Grovies,  were all proprietary about, and  protective of, Clarence’s gift, purists that we were.)

The Maphis couple were truly bad: fast, cornpone and  tasteless. And what made it worse was they were really  country and sincere, unlike, say, Roy Clark, who  was also fast and corny, but sloppy and opportunistic. He seemed not  to give a shit what shape he left country guitar in after he finished using it for his circus act.

The most poignant mental keepsake I have of the Country Boys/Kentucky  Colonels in their Joe and Rosalie Maphis period is of Clarence and Roland putting down their axes in the middle of  a double-time fiddle tune to hand Joe his instruments, one after another, for his own circus act. And you can only imagine how happy Eric White, Sr., who went to nearly every gig his sons played, was with that caper.

I know the Brothers White didn’t like it, either, but they were  still learning what you do and don’t do for your art and your  daily bread in the music biz. (You know, Jason, that the ‘ Boys were often on the balls of their asses,  financially,  during the ’50’s and first yrs of the ’60’s.  Were it me, I  wouldn’t  have done anything different if I thought I’d starve but for gainful employment with the Maphises. But I also knew I’d be getting the fuck out of there as fast as you could smell a Pink’s hot dog with chili and onions on my breath.  I think the ‘Boys might have taken a little longer than that, thinking there might have been some sort of future with the  Maphisim.

Pink’s Hot Dogs (which some of us called,  simply, “Boris”) on La Brea and Melrose,  frequent and required dining at all hours for Ash Grove performers and staff.

Pink’s Hot Dogs (which some of us called, simply, “Boris”) on La Brea and Melrose, frequent and required dining at all hours for Ash Grove performers and staff.


Well, Jason,  that’s the post part of this post.  As  threatened, I’m enclosing another chapter in my proposed book, “Growing Up Jewish in LA.” For my future publisher to see, you understand.

CA

> BTW,  I still remember the Joe Maphis lick Dave Cohen  forbade Clarence to play. In fact, I can actually play it myself, and I will, as soon as I get my price.

And now…

…from the book Growing Up Jewish in L.A.

GOOD FOR THE JEWS by Allan P. Ross

“Joe Louis is good for the Jews.”

This is the unanimous decision reached by the boy’s father, grandfather and uncle as they listen to the Brown Bomber defend his title for the 22nd straight time.

“Is Joe Louis Jewish?” asks the five-year-old boy.

The three men gathered around the radio in the grandfather’s kitchen smile. The grandfather pinches the boy’s cheek and the father brushes a shock of golden hair back from his son’s forehead.

“No, sweetheart,” the father says, “but he is very good for us, and sometimes that’s even better than being one of us.”

The three men are speaking mainly Yiddish, which the boy can only partially understand. But he’s seen the wise nodding and narrow-eyed appraisal that goes with the words “Zol zein guten far wir” enough times in the past to know it means “it’s good for us,” and that “us” always means “Jews.”

Only the day before, his mother had used the phrase in connection with the Presidential election of 1928.

“Everybody in the Home wanted Al Smith,” she’d said, “but it didn’t mean anything, we were all underage.” The “Home” she was talking about was Vista del Mar, a Jewish orphanage in Santa Monica where she and her two sisters and a brother had spent their junior and senior high school years.

“Was Al Smith Jewish?” the boy had asked.

“No, my precious,” she’d answered, “he was Catholic. That’s why he was popular with the Jews.”

The boy had nodded even though he hadn’t understood. His mother had used a certain voice that meant it should be accepted as self-proven. Generally speaking, people and things that were Zol zein guten far wir were self-proven.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was the most Zol zein guten far wir the boy had ever heard of. The mere mention of his name would get nods of approval at all family get-togethers whenever it was invoked.

“No, love, he wasn’t Jewish” the boy’s mother had said, “but people who didn’t like him said he might as well have been.”

This was followed by an exchange in Yiddish with the boy’s father recalling how Westbrook Pegler, a right-wing rabble-rouser, had called the President “Franklin Delano Rosenfeld” whenever he could.

“Do you remember that, Benny?” she’d said to her husband.

He nodded, yes, he remembered.

Over the years, the boy, a beautiful, flaxen-haired, rosy-cheeked youth p Herschel, came to understand the subtleties of the phrase “good for us.” Not that he could explain them easily to an outsider, or even to himself.

“It’s just something you feel,” he would repeat to himself after hearing it from his mother, Zora.

Harry Truman, all New York mayors from La Guardia forward and, until 1945, Joseph Stalin, were considered friends of the Jews, at least in his family. And in the immediate post-War years in Los Angeles, that’s all a young Jewish boy could rely on.

Growing up Jewish in Los Angeles meant being constantly on the alert for anti-Semitism, wherever it could be found. Obviously, that would be amongst gentiles (his mother and father never said Goyim; it was considered prejudiced and in poor taste).

Therefore, the search was always on for Christians who were either overtly or implicitly pro-Jewish. And, since there really were no gentiles who were openly supportive of Jews in 1946, that meant ferreting out those whose policies, works or entertainment content somehow helped the Jewish cause.

Joe Louis, a handsome Black man who did his race proud and beat Max Schmeling, a Nazi, was a major friend of the Jews, even if he didn’t know it. It only enhanced his reputation that he sometimes trained at Gilman’s Hot Springs, one of four Jewish resorts in Southern California, and that Uncle Yankel had actually shaken hands with him. Yankel also and won a bundle on several of his fights.

“Jackie Robinson, now this is a sportsman,” his Grandpa Sam would say, after the Brooklyn Dodger broke the color line in major league baseball. He said “sportsman,” because Shiminu, an elegant, 65-year-old Polish Jew not at all in touch with the pop culture of his adopted land, was never sure exactly what sport Jackie Robinson played. But his son and son-in-law talked about Jackie in revered tones, so he figured it was QED to put him in the lineup of friends of the Jews. By the time Roy Campanella became a Dodger Grandpa Sam had already developed a bottom-line attitude about the issue. “How bad can it be [for the Jews] that a colored man can do this thing?”

Speaking of Poland, the ex-home of the largest concentration of Jews on the planet, it was once good for the Jews, but no longer. It was called “The Old Country” in the boy’s family, and it was agreed that it never really was good for us, that it was always a disaster waiting to happen.

“Why didn’t everyone leave?” the boy would ask his Grandfather, who had left in 1912.

This would bring an exchange of deeply troubled looks between whomever in the family was there, and, sometimes, the start of an explanation. The explanation would be conducted on two levels, one in English with sprinkled-in Yiddish, for the boy, the other in Polish, for the adults still debating what had happened and how could they have been so naïve.

When Motke, his grandmother, was still alive, it would move very quickly through the English and Yiddish to Polish, and would soon be accompanied by tears. Once it occasioned Motke and Shiminu warily pulling out an album of family photos from the Old Country.

“This was my brother, Israel, and his wife, Zora, and their children, Mimi, Shura and Majka,” Motke had said. But she and Shiminu had almost immediately been forced to give up the project. All had been lost in the War.

France, on the other hand, had never been friends of ours. Although admired for its culture, the mention of it would bring tightly-shut eyes, side-to-side headshakes and mouths drawn up in expressions of dismissal.

“At least the French are honest about hating us,” Shiminu would say. “The rest of them are lying hypocrites.” This would include the Hungarians, Russians and Czechs and, from time to time, depending on their position vis-à-vis Palestine (his family didn’t call it Israel), the British; the Austrians (“Worse than the Nazis”); and, of course, the Germans, although Willi Brandt would later become a “fellow traveler,” if not a friend. In truth, however, you could never again trust the Germans, no matter what they did to right their unspeakable wrong, or what anyone said about them. That was emes, i.e., on the level.

The boy could not see a pattern in how his family determined who was and wasn’t their friend for the first seven years of his life. Up to that point, friends seemed to come in in any number of ways, none of them predictable.

For example, Clarence Darrow, after arguing for the principle of evolution in the Scopes trial, was quickly embraced as a friend.

“How could you not like a man who has the nerve to say we’re descended from monkeys,” reasoned his grandfather.

On the other hand, Richard M. Nixon, a gerrymandering, mud-slinging demagogue from Whittier, California, came in over the transom for supporting a Jewish homeland in Israel. In 1946 Israel was a non-event/non-starter in terms of importance and impact on everyone in America except the Jews, and Nixon quickly understood that it would cost him nothing in political cash to be in favor of the proposition, and might win him some friends among Jews, despite their overwhelmingly Democratic voting record. He was right.

Then came 1948, a watershed year for the boy, with two headline-grabbers for the Sons of Abraham.

First came the United Nations recognizing Israel as a sovereign state. This was very, very Good for the Jews. It was the first time in modern history that the official language would be written with Hebrew letters, and the first time ever that Jews could be completely themselves at home, not worrying if they were being too loud in public or if their noses were the wrong shape or too big.

Then came the unexpected victory/election of Harry S. Truman to the United States Presidency. Truman had already been anointed because of his Vice Presidency under Roosevelt and his support of Israel. But very few considered him a real contender for President. His election was like a very gratifying greps, belch, for American Jews.

This time when the boy asked if the friend was Jewish, the answer was a little different than it usually would. His mother looked at him, and the smile was little less wistful and resigned than usual.

“No, my darling,” she said, “but he’s a liberal.”

“What’s a liberal?” the boy asked.

“That’s someone who’s for the underdog,” his mother said. “That’s why Jews voted for him. But it isn’t necessary to tell your friends at school who your father and I supported.”

“But he won,” said the boy.

“I know,” said the mother, “but voting is private and personal. You don’t have to let anyone know how you voted. It’s one of the most important rights in this country. Besides, everyone else in the neighborhood voted for Dewey, and it could…” she paused here, for no reason the boy could see, and her eyes seemed to turn inward.

“Could what? insisted the boy.

She refocused on him, and seemed to come to some decision about how to finish the sentence.

“It just could cause us a little trouble, that’s all,” she said. The boy knew that tone of voice, and knew he’d have to make do with that explanation until he was older, or found out from someone else in the neighborhood.

In the meantime, the word liberal became embedded in his mind as something almost holy, inviolable, sacrosanct for Jews.

The Daily News, the only Los Angeles newspaper to support Truman, was a liberal paper, the last such daily in Los Angeles. It died in the mid-‘Fifties from malnutrition. Until it did, it refused to identify personalities in the news by race or color, when virtually every newspaper east of New York used terms like “a Negro youth saved a white tot from the savage fangs of a rabid dog,” or “12 Chinese Arrested for Gambling.” It also refused to carry any advertising that specified ethnic preferences, and carried the cartoons of Herblock, a card-carrying liberal who knew how to make his marks look like bums, and drew this reposte from Nixon/McCarthy:

Interviewer: Mr. McCarthy, do you really shave three times a day?

McCarthy: Yes.

Int: Why?

McCarthy: Because I don’t want to look like a Herblock character, that’s why.

Being a liberal was really all you had to know about someone, if push came to shove. It was never put that way, exactly, but the boy could tell from what was said and not said, especially between his mother and father, that that was the way things were.

Sometimes, it came in the form of elliptical conversations his folks would have with teachers, at parents’ night, for example, this exchange with Mrs. Colani, the boy’s Third Grade teacher.

Parents (to Mrs. Colani): Some election, wasn’t it?

Mrs. C: Yes, it was.

Parents: We were sure surprised.

Mrs. C: So were my husband and I.

Parents: Everyone was. And what does he do, your husband?

Mrs. C: He’s a police lieutenant.

Parents (sharing private smile with Mrs. C): Then he must be happy.

Mrs. C: We both are.

Parents: Us, too.

The L.A.P.D. was unionized by then, and Truman was a staunch union supporter. Unions were good for the Jews.

All in all, 1948 was turning out to be a banner year for the boy’s family in terms of having friends in high places, although Hollywood was yet to be conquered. Remember, “Good for the Jews” refers primarily to gentiles or gentile situations that are good for Jews.

Until they managed to convince themselves that Frank Sinatra recorded Bei Mir Bist Du Schön, which he didn’t, the boy’s family felt they didn’t have a solid gentile friend in show business. Although they had favorite actors, like Lana Turnip, Judy Garlic and Olivia de Halivah, and Xavier Cugat laced his stage rap with Yiddishisms, and Nat King Cole raised a toast to Chaim Weizman and David Ben-Gurion one night at Frank Sennes’ Moulin Rouge, a big Hollywood nightclub, no one in the business not already Jewish could be tagged as openly sympathetic to Jews.

But Sinatra changed all that.

He made it possible for Bob Hope to lift his entire style from Jack Benny (according to his family), and that was the wedge that opened up all of Hollywood to the Jews. It didn’t matter if they were Republican or Democrat, if they were in “The Industry” they were liberal, and if they were liberal, “Zol zein guten far wir,” it was “Good for us.”

With Truman, Israel and Hollywood in their hip pockets, the members of the boy’s family were more secure than any Jews they’d ever heard of, time out of mind. More secure than they had any right to be. It was the best time ever for the Jews.

That’s why when the mother told her son they were changing their last name from Rosenberg to Ross he knew once and for all he’d never get it right.

BTW, Sammy Davis, Jr., was not considered particularly good for the Jews. But you knew that.

Fahey & Me: Tying the Thong-Knot/”Rebuilt the Valiant”

Attention Jason Odd. To reward your loyal Power Pickers fanship  I’ve tried hard to recount a true John Fahey/Country Al story. It will be  another chapter in the saga, “Country Al & His Ash Grove Buds.”

I was at a party chez Barry Hansen* in Santa Monica, prob. in 1966 or ’67. My girlfriend at the time, singer Alice Gunn, was there with me. Also present, along with  Bob Hite, Blind Al Wilson  (the pair who would later form the nuclei of Canned Heat) and other LA folk music luminaries , were singer-songwriter Marc Levine† and player-student John Fahey.

Flyer for an Ash Grove concert featuring some of the players in this story

We were all students at UCLA in their Graduate Program of Anglo-American Folklore and Folk Music, studying our roots and staying out of Nam with student deferments. It was a rowdy, drunken soiree in a folk-music dept. grad-student way, part picking, part academic be-scene event.

I don’t know what led up to it, or what he said, but at some point in the evening Fahey began insulting Alice, who was still my girlfriend. It surprised and pissed me off, what with John and me being co-dependent with the same department for our IIs deferments.

“I think he was trying to score on her, Country,” said Barry, later.

“And she blew him off so he started potty-mouthing her, right?” I said, also later.

“No, actually, Country, I think she said ‘yes.’”

“B-But she was my girlfriend at the time!” I said, stunned.

“Hmmm,” mused Barry. “About what time was that?”

“Was what?” I said.

“When Alice was still your girlfriend.”

“Who said she was ever not my girlfriend?”

“I don’t know, Country, who?” said Barry. Barry could always put me in the hall of mirrors, and he was in good form that nite.

Anyway, all that came long after the incident. Besides, it wouldn’t have helped to know when Alice had stopped being my girlfriend at the time, because I’d been too high to know when I’d stopped being her boyfriend because I was seen hitting on—aah, forget it. All you need to know is that what I heard, courtesy provocateur extraordinaire Marc Levine, was that Fahey had profaned my girlfriend, and attention had to be paid.

I found John peeing on Barry’s front lawn and called him out on it (his raunch, not the lawn; we were already on the lawn). To my alarm, he took me up on it. Oh, shit, I remember thinking at the time. John was supposed to be a martial artist of sort, maybe Judo or very early karaoke, no one knew for sure. Plus, even tho’ he was drunk and high, like me, he was a lot bigger.

I backed out of the encounter, humiliated. A day or so later, consumed by my bad showing, I decided to do something about it.

So I enrolled in a self-defense class in UCLA Extension, determined to choose Fahey off again, but this time be ready for a fight. Btw, I am grad student at this time.  Can we say immature?

UCLA graduation certificate, testament to my contemporaneous attendance there  w/John Fahey
UCLA graduation certificate, testament to my contemporaneous attendance there w/John Fahey

Tho’ I wanted to give it a chance, the class seemed kind of silly to me. It was full of people, mostly guys and a couple of butch chicks, who looked like they’d had encounters similar to mine, i.e., gotten into situations they wished they could have handled honorably. The instructor reminded me a lot of Sergeant Bilko, tighter in body, but not blessed with the humor gene. Or so I thought.

He started off every session by pairing us into twosomes and then having us try to take wooden clubs  away from each other, while menacing each other with loud noises. Sometimes he also wanted us to butt heads with one another. And  for a special treat he would have us knee each other in the groin (all the guys had to wear cups. Years later I still felt bad for the two women  as cup envy was no less traumatic then as it is today).

At the end of the first day he asked for questions. I had many.

“Where are we going to find assailants that do these things, sir?” I asked.

“What things?” he said.

“Like  yell at us while they try to take our sticks, butt our heads and knee us in our cups, sir?”

“Idiot,” he said, “that’s what you’re supposed to do. They’re attacking you.

“Do they know that? Sir?”

“Know what?”

“I mean, do they have scripts or something, sir?”

“What’s your name, son?”

“Ross, sir

Bilko: “Take a lap, Ross.” A lap was kind of serious at UCLA. It was basically the cross-country course, 1.8 miles long,  over some of the steepest Sunset Hills, around stadia, ballparks and basketball courts.

“I don’t know if I can do that, sir. I’m a heavy smoker.”

“Take a pack of Marlboros with you.” Did I say the man didn’t have a sense of humor? My bad.

If  you were a partner who’d lost his stick,  Sgt. Bilko had lots of things you could do with your now-empty hands. E.g., you could clap both of them, at the same time and hard, over your adversary’s ears, as if his head were air and your palms were cymbals. Everybody liked to do this, hated having it done to them, so much so that they purposely tried to lose their sticks to opponents who didn’t want them.

So what you had there was a gymful of cowards running around with sticks they were trying to force on other cowards who were clapping the air in front of them like seals. It was yrs later before I realized having an assailant fall down laughing in front you wasn’t the worst self-defensive measure you could take.

Then there were the “moves” all males are taught at diff. times in their lives,  guaranteed to disarm axe-murderers, break thick necks and cause East LA gang-members to vomit non-stop while you called the cops.

I always wondered, whether in the Cub Scouts, YMCA or Hebrew school,  how you could get an assailant to freeze in a threatening position, or at least slow down enough so that you could plant one of your legs behind one of his, push him the chest and—bada bing, bada boomleave him writhing on the ground while you again called the cops.

We did lots of laps, which was the best preparation Sgt. Bilko ever gave us, because it was the most practical: we were the type of people who would probably choose flight over fight when push came to shove, no matter how good we got at encouraging stick theft.

Anyway, I graduated from the UCLA academy of self-defense, and began a series of lengthy vigils on the steps of various campus bldgs Fahey and I both took classes in, until one day he came down one of them and we caught each others’ eyes.

I figured it was a moment of truth for me, altho’ I still hoped we wouldn’t get it on, since he was still bigger than me and good at Asian take-down techniques and tile-breaking with hand-edges and things like.  I even hoped  this might disqualify him from punching out with me because his chops would be considered lethal weapons and were prob. registered with the local police station. Yeah,  right.

In the event, I tried to glare at him, tho the best I could muster was something like a yeshiva-bucher frown. I didn’t know how he’d react to this. Shit, I didn’t even know if he knew I’d been in deep training for a rematch he prob. didn’t know about. Maybe he didn’t really see me, after all. But I told myself to be ready for anything, as my self-defense master had instructed me to be. Still, I found myself thinking about laps, and how good one of them looked right then.

Some of the Blues people Fahey love, including Skip James, Son House, Bukka White, Hound Dog Taylor, Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry and Little Walter.

As it turned out, I did catch his eye. But  to my supreme surprise and relief  his body sank into a slump almost as soon as he saw me. He looked at me a long time but  not at all menacingly, sucked in a deep breath and walked,  shaking his head and weeping,  toward  where I was standing. He held out both hands, not, as it turned out,  for ear-clapping but for hugging.

He told me  in mid-embrace  how terrible he’d felt about what he’d said that nite to Alice, how he’d heard about me enrolling in a self-defense class, felt shitty about that, too,  but had just never got around to apologizing for causing it. Now he was blubbering mea culpas all over the place and insisting we go to the Student Union where we would drink coffee  laced with Southern Comfort.  To cement the deal he opened his briefcase and showed me the bottle in it.  (I carried pot in my briefcase. Once I carried a kilo of it, which I sold after school to an Ass’t. Professor I knew.  Ah, the ‘Sixties].

Over coffee and Comfort he insisted on arranging to tie a rawhide thong like the one he, Al Wilson and Henry Vestine (Canned Heat guitarists-singers) wore around their wrists, in a secret ceremony he performed for only his very closest friend. How could I say no, especially since I was soon bawling, too, professing my brotherly love for him and the musicians—Bukka White, Charley Patton and Son House—we’d all come to know about and love, largely thanks to his research and sleuthing.

Canned Heat, a year after this incident went down
Canned Heat, a year after this story went down

It was all a little strange, but I was OK with the outcome, and I do think it gave him some small relief that a wrong in his life had been righted. We walked to the Student Union together, talking about Folklore Dept  Chairman D.K. Wilgus’ most recent whisky binge and bad-mouthing Mark Levine, who we both agreed provoked the incident in the first place.

BTW, I did indeed let him knot a thong around my wrist in a private, but not very arcane, ceremony, held at his house in, I think, Venice. I was never sure exactly what the thong signified, but I think it had something to do with sincerity, brotherhood and Delta Blues. That would make sense.

Scale replication of thong tied around my wrist by Fahey in semi-secret ceremony
Scale replication of thong tied around my wrist by Fahey in semi-secret ceremony

*Barry was to make his bones a few years later as Doctor Demento. His dump at the time this story unfolds was home to more blues, R&B, Rock, race, minstrel, folk etc., etc. records than I’d ever seen before, except at blues scholar Bob Hite’s place. Bob, as you remember, was the eventual co-founder and leader of Canned Heat. He’s kind of important in my own musical journey, because he took an interest in my band, Evergreen Blueshoes, q.v. in other posts in this blog, and got us into the Topanga Corral, thus launching our meteoric rise to the lower levels of public consciousness in 1968 and ‘69.

† I settled my hash with Levine, too,  but somewhat later; in fact, later enough that I felt comfortable recording one of his songs, Amsterdam, with the Blueshoes.

-30-

—————— * —————— * ———————

Yes, Jason, this all happened–the Episcopalians call it  “a true saying”–pretty much the way I’ve set it down here, which took a little longer than I thought it would, what with my psychological insights and everything. I mention this because I have more Fahey stories that I thought I was going to tell you in this post.  Now, they’ll have to wait. But there’s no reason I can’t tease you a little bit with coming attractions.

“How John Fahey Embarrassed the UCLA Folklore Dept. by Getting One of the Earliest M.A.’s They Ever Awarded” (he was a known freak and druggie, remember).

“How John Fahey Got Hisself 86’d from my own Eagle Music Shop at the Ash Grove When He Said ‘This guitar sucks,’ to a Lady Who Was About to Buy it for Her Son.”  It was the first time many of us had ever heard the term.

“Ash Grove Perennial Dave Cohen Wins $10 Bet with Fahey that He Could Imitate Fahey’s Unique Guitar Style, on Stage in a Live Performance, with no practice at all.” Fahey paid off because even he was convinced Cohen had somehow copped his technique. Cohen was a master technician. He could imitate almost any guitarist, tho’ he usually missed their essence. BTW, John and Dave hated each other with a scorching ferocity.

A rare photo of  Dave Cohen checking the oil level in his 64 or 65 Dodge Seneca
A rare photo of Dave Cohen checking the oil level in his ’64 or ’65 Dodge Seneca

Jason, following is the indulgence I give myself to publish short stories that will otherwise never see the light of day. You needn’t concern yourself with them, unless you want to. For the record, I’m proud of them & think they should be published.

From the [proposed] book Growing Up Jewish in L.A.

THE SUMMER I REBUILT THE VALIANT

Allan P. Ross

“Hey, asshole, get off the road, your rings are shot!” were the actual words the biker used to convince me to rebuild my 1961 Plymouth Valiant. I know that sounds like a pretty big cave-in on my part, but he was a pretty big biker.

He’d been eating my smoke all the way down spiritual, twisting Laurel Canyon Road until he could pass me, which he did just above Sunset Boulevard, yelling and snarling and giving me the finger. I was lucky he wasn’t a Hell’s Angel. I considered it an omen.

My life right then was at a low-water mark. My ladylove (and partner in a house we’d bought together in the Hollywood Hills) had left me, my rock career had tanked, my bank account was empty. My student deferment was the only thing keeping me out of Viet Nam, and that was about to end.

But until it did I had to keep driving the ’61 Bermuda Blue Valiant with the maroon driver’s-side replacement-door and roped-down hood. It had over 100,000 miles on it, had never been serviced and smoking was not its worst habit, by far.

Nothing sucks like driving a car that is both unchic and decrepit in L.A. But since I couldn’t afford new wheels I had to do something about the Valiant. The problem was I knew nothing about cars and car repair. I was a member of a sub-section of the population not known for caring how things work or keeping them working: male, pre-law, Jewish.

And yet I wanted to do this, i.e., rebuild the Plymouth. And it was not just because I needed transportation. I wanted to be able to say things like, “Your exhaust manifold is loose,” or, “You’ll need a cherry-picker to get that engine outta there,” and know what I just said. I hated being dissed on the road and not understanding the insult. Worse, I am a hothead, and I hated not knowing what to say back.

I had a resource. Warren. Warren was a retired “salt,” an ex-Army tank driver, construction worker, machinist, gandy dancer, jobs that require using one’s back and hands. Which is not to say Warren hadn’t learned to use his head, too.

In fact, I know he thought of himself as a mind- over-muscles kind of guy. Whenever he’d hear me grunt with strain he’d look at whatever I was doing, bray like a mule, and say, “Muscles are for dummies.”

Not that he didn’t have them. Muscles, I mean. Warren was built like an old-fashioned fullback: thick, sinewy ropes connected his head to his body so that his upper limbs seemed to start at his neck. Popeye forearms and powerful hands spoke of years of picks and sledgehammers swung in short arcs, as is necessary in mining and railroad-tie spike-driving. I once asked him if he’d played football in school.

“Well, since they didn’t have no organized teams until the sixth grade, I guess not,” he’d answered.

In spite of his curtailed education he was a current events freak and had been one for so long he could probably qualify as a history freak, too. The small shack he shared with his wife across the road and down in a gully was bursting with books, newspapers, periodicals and any other non-fiction media he could lay his hands on.

“I was a Wobbly before the Russian Revolution,” he told me, fishing through his wallet and proudly showing me his I.W.W. card.

I’d never met a Wobbly, an Industrial Worker of the World, before, and I was impressed.

“Took some balls to join, didn’t it?” I asked.

He shrugged, but I could tell he was surprised I even what he was talking about. His blue eyes twinkled behind the thick lenses of his “seein'” glasses (he had another pair, very dark, that he couldn’t see out of; Warren was legally blind) and he sucked in the little rivulet of saliva that would always form at the corner of his mouth whenever he got excited.

“For a while there, we had enough members to scare the life outta those sumbitches up in Washington,” he said, winking at me conspiratorially, “you bet we did.

“But I unjoined when Comrade Lenin and Comrade Trotsky took over and tried to get our union to become Bolsheviks. I could see where that was goin’ and I didn’t want any part of it.”

He reminded me a little of Harry Truman right then. He had the clean, square lines of Truman’s face, and his rimless “seein'” glasses focused the sunlight into bright patches under his eyes, just as “Give-’em-Hell” Harry’s did.

“Nosiree. That’s where I disagreed with Big Bill Haywood. He was the Union’s leader, y’see. ‘No sir,’ I told him, ‘you can be a free-thinker and still be an American.’ That’s what I said then, and it’s what I say now.”

He also said he’d be glad to help me with the Valiant, but that I shouldn’t be surprised if it needed to be, well, rebuilt.

I was ecstatic. Up until then I had avoided even using the word, let alone bringing it into a sentence that included me and the Valiant. I half-wished the biker were there, so I could say something like, “It’s not the rings, dickhead, it’s the rocker arm panel (I’d seen that parts description once, by accident), so we’re gonna rebuild the engine.”

And so, one hazy L.A. morning, we parked the Valiant in the dirt field next to my house, jacked it up and put it on blocks (wooden blocks, because concrete blocks can break while you’re under the car, and then you’re just another chuckling auto shop teacher’s story about someone who didn’t take his course).

You could almost hear the neighbors groan when they saw all four wheels of the car leave the ground, because they also knew that moody, Jewish, pre-law draft-dodgers weren’t likely to be handy with tools, and cars up on blocks in front yards may be fine in Georgia and Mississippi but not in the Griffith Park section of Los Angeles. I am sure they prayed every night for Warren’s continued robust health.

You’ve got to understand one or two things about Warren: As I said, he was almost blind. Also, because of some speech impediment or habit, he talked a little like Walt Disney’s Goofy. What he said was almost always clever, but the presentation was sometimes a little comical.

It also may help to understand that I was, as I have said, a monumental hothead with a quick temper and a big mouth, “full of sound and fury, etc.,” but full of shit.

So, what the engine-rebuilding process might have looked and sounded like to the casual observer was Goofy the Dog telling Donald Duck how to build a spaceship.

But the partnership worked, and Warren and I became good friends as a result.

Warren would sit ramrod straight in a kitchen chair that I would set next to the part of the car I was working on, and say things like, “That hose is going to be held onto the pipe with either a spring clamp or a screw clamp. Which one is it?”

“I don’t know,” I’d probably say.

Then he’d say, “It’s a spring clamp; even you would recognize a screw clamp.”

Then we’d go across the street and down into his gully to a rusted-out 1932 Model-A Ford that served as his toolbox, to get a special pliers for removing spring clamps.

This process took time, but I had plenty of that. Also, it was entertaining. For one thing, the tool we’d be looking for almost always came with a story.

“I got these pliers when I was pouring cement for FDR’s Redwood City aqueduct,” is the one that came with the spring-clamp pliers.

“Now, Franklin Roosevelt,” Warren said, looking up from his rummaging, “he was sly dog. He never let the right hand know what the left was doing. The Redwood City dam wasn’t built anywhere near Redwood City, y’know. It was built in Wyoming, a thousand miles away.

“Old Roosevelt, see, he couldn’t get Congress to give him the money for the project in Wyoming—people were still bitching about Teapot Dome; you know what that was, don’t you?—so he renamed the project for Redwood City, in Oregon, raised the money and built the dam in Wyoming.

“Here it is,” he said, holding up the spring-clamp pliers and cackling with glee over FDR’s little hijinx.

Another thing: finding and using special tools for special tasks turned out to be a real confidence builder for me, because it made so many more jobs do-able.

But mainly, special tools brought me closer and closer to the amorphous fraternity of people who can do things with their hands. I loved being able to say, “I think we’ll need a half-to-quarter-inch swivel-drive to get to that tie-rod,” and know what I was talking about.

One day, when the last mount bolt was finally off, and the engine had been pared down to just the naked block sitting inside the motor well, I actually heard myself say to Warren, “We’re gonna need a cherry-picker to get that sucker outta there.” What a moment.

There were other, slightly less glorious moments.

There was putting the water pump back on without a gasket, thereby inventing the first self-contained, under-the-hood, high-pressure car wash.

And then there was the great Pin-bearing Panic of ’69, performed in front of a live audience at sunset, Warren sitting on my lime-green kitchen chair next to the rear fender, me under the back axle, proudly removing the universal-joint while several of my friends watched.

“Arnie, now, you gotta be real careful when you get the plate off the joint; you don’t want to drop those pin-bearings,” Warren said, in a loud, clear voice.

“What are pin-bearings?” I said back.

“Well, they’re right under the plate you’re taking off. They’ll look like a row o’ needles, but they’re just stuck in there with grease, so if you’re not careful as a cat, they’ll—”

“Oh, I see what you’re—”

“…fall right into your—”

Shit!”

I saw what he was talking about.

Certainly the best moment of all had to be a warm, golden October afternoon with all the cherry-pickers and pin-bearings and gaskets back where they were supposed to be, neighbors on porches and front lawns pretending not to notice what was going on in the dirt lot at the end of their road.

Orville was behind the wheel, Wilbur was hovering over the open engine compartment, nose to carburetor, ear to distributor.

“Okay, turn ‘er over,” Wilbur yelled to Orville.

Orville turned the key, and…

“Rhurrr-rhurrr-rhurrr,” went the Valiant.

Wilbur held up his hand immediately for Orville to stop.

He did. It took everything he had not to look up and catch the neighbors’ head-shaking and eye-rolling that had to be going on.

But Wilbur was too busy to notice. In a moment, he held up his hand and twirled his index finger in the air.

Orville turned the key again.

“Rhurrr-rhurrr-rhurrr-rhur-rhur-rhur-rhr-rhr-rh-rh-r-r-r-RHOOOOMMMMM!” went the Valiant.

We had ignition! It was only for a moment, and a very rough ignition it was, the car lurching and pitching in place like a cartoon jalopy. But the engine did turn over, so we knew we’d got most everything back in its place, which to me was tantamount to squaring the circle or curing cancer.

Now I chanced a look at the neighbors. The Chinaman pretended to be going back to raking a leafless front lawn, and the two old gals who lived together at the top of the hill made like they were inspecting the roofline of their red raised-ranch cottage. The little knot of kids that had come out of somebody’s living room where they were probably watching TV were guileless in their lack of pretense.

“Run outta gas?” one of them said, as I let the engine die. “My dad said you don’t know the difference between a screwdriver and a chainsaw.”

Warren signaled me to get out of the car and join him at the engine well.

“This is the part you need eyes for,” he said, handing me his homemade timing light. “I’ll crank the engine and you do what I told you.”

He got behind the wheel while I took off the distributor cap to expose the points. (Just saying these things now gives me chills of excitement.)

“Remember,” he reminded me, “you gotta hold the light steady, or it won’t strobe. Tell me when it’s doin’ that.”

“It’s doing that.”

“Okay,” he said, killing the engine and handing me the key, “get back in the car.”

I did. I turned the key, the starter motor turned the engine, the engine turned the crank shaft, the crank meshed with the universal, etc., etc., and we were off.

Several of the neighbors had overcome their skepticism and were clapping. Mac, who lived across the street and up a couple of houses from me and always seemed to be fretting about neighborhood real estate values, seemed to be crying.

As we took off down the hill I saw another “pre-owned”-type vehicle coming at us, left front fender crushed, muffler ruined, smoke billowing up behind it. It was a winding, narrow street, and when I rolled down my window my face was no more than two feet away from the other driver’s.

I smiled and said, “Hey, asshole, your rings are shot. You really should get that fixed.”

Then I sped off down the hill. Even slumped behind the wheel the guy looked pretty big.

Needs Canned Heat posters, ‘Best in West’ flyer, EGBS poster, Jimmy Reed poster (an East LA bistro. Well, Southeast LA) Something from UCLA. My grad cert? Facsimile of thong.

Attention Jason Odd. For you, now, another installment of “Country Al & Friends: John Fahey.”

I was at a party chez Barry Hansen* in Santa Monica, prob. in 1966 or ’67. My girlfriend at the time, singer Alice Gunn, was there with me. Also present, mixed in with other LA folk music luminaries, were singer-songwriter Marc Levine† and player-student John Fahey.

We were all students at UCLA in their Graduate Program of Anglo-American Folklore and Folk Music, studying our roots and staying out of Nam with student deferments. It was a rowdy, drunken soiree in a folk-music dept. grad-student way, part picking, part academic be-scene event.

I don’t know what led up to it, or what he said, but at some point in the evening Fahey began insulting Alice, who was still my girlfriend. It surprised and pissed me off, what with John and me being co-dependent with the same department for our IIs deferments.

“I think he was trying to score on her, Country,” said Barry, later.

“And she blew him off so he started potty-mouthing her, right?” I said, also later.

“No, actually, Country, I think she said ‘yes.’”

“B-But she was my girlfriend at the time!” I said, stunned.

“Hmmm,” mused Barry. “About what time was that?”

“Was what?” I said.

“When Alice was still your girlfriend.”

“Who said she was ever not my girlfriend?”

“I don’t know, Country, who?” said Barry. Barry was always the best dancer in our crowd, and his feets were sure doin’ their stuff that nite.

Anyway, all that came long after the incident. Besides, it wouldn’t have helped to know when Alice had stopped being my girlfriend at the time, because I’d been too high to know when I’d stopped being her boyfriend because I was seen hitting on—aah, forget it. All you need to know is that what I heard, courtesy provocateur extraordinaire Marc Levine, was that Fahey had profaned my girlfriend, and attention had to be paid.

I found John peeing on Barry’s front lawn and called him out on it (his raunch, not the lawn; we were already on the lawn). To my alarm, he took me up on it. Oh, shit, I remember thinking at the time. John was supposed to be a martial artist of sort, maybe Judo or very early karaoke, no one knew for sure. Plus, even tho’ he was drunk and high, like me, he was a lot bigger.

I backed out of the encounter, humiliated. A day or so later, consumed by my bad showing, I decided to do something about it.

So I enrolled in a self-defense class in UCLA Extension, determined to choose Fahey off again, but this time be ready for a fight. Btw, I am grad student at this time. Nice, huh?

Tho’ I wanted to give it a chance, the class seemed kind of silly to me. It was full of people, mostly guys and a couple of butch chicks, who looked like they’d had encounters similar to mine, i.e., gotten into situations they wished they could have handled honorably. The instructor reminded me a lot of Sergeant Bilko, tighter, but not blessed with the humor gene, or so I thought.

He started every session with us pairing off into twosomes and then having us try to take wooden clubs from each other, whom we were supposed menace with loud noises. Sometimes he also wanted us to butt each other in the head. And, for a special treat he would have us knee each other in the groin (all the guys had to wear cups. I worried about the women, as cup envy is a terrible thing).

At the end of the first day he asked for questions. I had many.

“Where are we going to find assailants that do these things, sir?” I asked.

“What things?” he said.

“Like, yell at us while they try to take our sticks, butt our heads and knee us in our cups, sir?”

“Idiot,” he said, “that’s what you’re supposed to do. They’re attacking you.”

“Do they know that? Sir?”

“Know what?”

“I mean, do they have scripts or something, sir?”

“What’s your name, son?”

“Ross, sir

Bilko: “Take a lap, Ross.” A lap was kind of serious. It was basically the cross-country course, 1.8 miles over some of the steepest Sunset Hills, around stadia, ballparks and basketball courts.

“I don’t know if I can do that, sir. I’m a heavy smoker.”

“Then take a pack of Kents with you.” Did I say the man didn’t have a sense of humor? My bad.

Now, if you were a partner who’d lost his stick, Bilko had lots of things you could do with your now-empty hands. E.g., you could clap both your adversary’s ears at the same time, as if his head were air and your palms were cymbals. Everybody liked to do this, and hated having it done to them, so much that they purposely tried to lose their sticks to opponents who didn’t want them.

So what you had was a gymful of cowards with sticks running away from other cowards without sticks clapping the air in front of them like seals. I guessed having an assailant fall down laughing in front you wasn’t the worst self-defensive measure you could take.

Then there were the “moves” all males are taught at diff. points in their lives, that were guaranteed to disarm axe-murderers, break linebackers’ necks and cause roving East LA gangs to drop to their knees and vomit uncontrollably for minutes at a time.

I always wondered, whenever the Cub Scouts, YMCA or my Hebrew teacher tried to teach me these moves, how you could get an assailant to freeze in a threatening position, or at least slow down enough so that you could plant one of your legs behind one of his and—bada bing, bada boom—leave him writhing on the ground, both arms pulled out of their shoulder sockets, until the cops came.

We also did lots of laps, which I thought was the best move Bilko gave us, because it was the most practical: most of us would probably choose flight over fight when shove came to shove no matter how good we got at stick theft.

At any rate, I graduated from the UCLA academy of self-defense, and began a series of lengthy vigils on steps of various campus bldgs Fahey and I both took classes in, until one day he came down one of them and we caught each others’ eyes.

I figured it was a moment of truth for me, altho’ I still hoped we wouldn’t get it on, since he was still bigger than me and good at Asian take-downs and breaking tiles with the edges of his hands. Maybe, I hoped, this might disqualify him from punching out with me because his mitts were considered lethal weapons and were prob. registered with the local police station. Yeah, sure.

Anyway, I tried to glare at him tho the best I could muster was something like a yeshiva-bucher frown. I didn’t know how he’d react to this. Shit, I didn’t even know if he knew I’d been in deep training for a rematch he prob. didn’t know had been booked. Maybe he didn’t see me, after all. But I told myself to be ready for anything, as my self-defense master had instructed me to do. Still, I found myself thinking about laps, and how good one of them looked right then.

As it turned out, I did catch his eye. But, to my supreme surprise and relief, he seemed to sink into a slump almost as soon as he saw me. He took what looked like a big breath, exhaled and walked, tearfully, over to where I was standing, without a scintilla of menace, shaking his head, holding out both hands, preparatory, as it turned out, to hugging me.

He told me, in mid-embrace, how terrible he’d felt about what he’d said that nite to Alice, how he’d heard about my self-defense class, felt shitty about that but had just never got around to apologizing for causing it. Now he was blubbering mea culpas all over the place, insisting we have coffee laced with Southern Comfort together in the student lounge [him providing the sauce, which he carried around in a briefcase (I carried pot in mine). Ah, the ‘Sixties].

Over coffee and Comfort he insisted on arranging to tie a rawhide thong like the one he, Al Wilson and Henry Vestine (Canned Heat guitarists-singers) wore around their wrists, in a secret ceremony he performed for only his very closest friend. How could I say no, especially since I was soon bawling, too, professing my brotherly love for him and the musicians—Bukka White, Charley Patton and Son House—we’d all come to know about and love, largely thanks to his research and sleuthing.

It was all a little strange, but I was OK with the outcome, and I do think it gave him some small relief that a wrong in his life had been righted. We walked to the Student Union together, talking about the Folklore Dept’s Chairman, D.K. Wilgus’ most recent whisky binge and bad-mouthing Mark Levine, who we both agreed provoked the incident in the first place.

BTW, I did indeed let him tie a thong around my wrist in a private, but not very arcane, ceremony, held at his house in, I think, Venice. I was never sure exactly what the thong signified, but I think it had something to do with sincerity, brotherhood and Delta Blues. That would make sense.

——————————————————————

*Barry was to make his bones a few years later as Doctor Demento. His dump at the time this story unfolds was home to more blues, R&B, Rock, race, minstrel, folk etc., etc. records than I’d ever seen before, except at blues scholar Bob Hite’s place. Bob, as you remember, was the eventual co-founder and leader of Canned Heat. He’s kind of important in my own musical journey, because he took an interest in my band, Evergreen Blueshoes, q.v. in other posts in this blog, and got us into the Topanga Corral, thus launching our meteoric rise to the lower levels of public consciousness in 1968 and ‘69.

† I settled my hash with Levine, too, but somewhat later; in fact, later enough that I felt comfortable recording one of his songs, [Amsterdam-link here], with the Blueshoes.

-30-

—————— * —————— * ———————

Yes, Jason, this all really happened, was what the Episcopalians call “a true saying,” and pretty much the way I set it down here, which took a little longer than I thought it would, what with my psychological insights and everything. I mention this because I have more Fahey stories, and I thought I was going to get to some of them now for you. They’ll have to wait, but there’s no reason I can’t tease you a little bit now:

“How John Fahey Embarrassed the UCLA Folklore Dept. by Getting One of the Earliest M.A.’s They Ever Awarded” (he was a known freak and druggie, remember).

“How John Fahey Got Hisself 86’d from Eagle Music Shop at the Ash Grove When He Said ‘This guitar sucks,’ to a Lady Who Was About to Buy it for Her Son.” It was the first time many of us had ever heard the term.

“Ash Grove Perennial Dave Cohen Wins $10 Bet with John Fahey that He Could Convincingly Imitate Fahey’s Unique Guitar Style, on Stage, in a Live Performance, with no Preparation at all.” Fahey paid off because even he was convinced Cohen had somehow copped his technique. Cohen was a master technician. He could imitate almost any guitarist, tho’ he usually missed their essence.

Written, but not hardly edited.

Jason, following is the indulgence I give myself to publish short stories that will otherwise never see the light of day. You needn’t concern yourself with them, unless you want to. For the record, I’m proud of them & think they should be published.

From the [proposed] book Growing Up Jewish in L.A.

THE SUMMER I REBUILT THE VALIANT

Allan P. Ross

“Hey, asshole, get off the road, your rings are shot!” were the actual words the biker used to convince me to rebuild my 1961 Plymouth Valiant. I know that sounds like a pretty big cave-in on my part, but he was a pretty big biker.

He’d been eating my smoke all the way down spiritual, twisting Laurel Canyon Road until he could pass me, which he did just above Sunset Boulevard, yelling and snarling and giving me the finger. I was lucky he wasn’t a Hell’s Angel. I considered it an omen.

My life right then was at a low-water mark. My ladylove (and partner in a house we’d bought together in the Hollywood Hills) had left me, my rock career had tanked, my bank account was empty. My student deferment was the only thing keeping me out of Viet Nam, and that was about to end.

But until it did I had to keep driving the ’61 Bermuda Blue Valiant with the maroon driver’s-side replacement-door and roped-down hood. It had over 100,000 miles on it, had never been serviced and smoking was not its worst habit, by far.

Nothing sucks like driving a car that is both unchic and decrepit in L.A. But since I couldn’t afford new wheels I had to do something about the Valiant. The problem was I knew nothing about cars and car repair. I was a member of a sub-section of the population not known for caring how things work or keeping them working: male, pre-law, Jewish.

And yet I wanted to do this, i.e., rebuild the Plymouth. And it was not just because I needed transportation. I wanted to be able to say things like, “Your exhaust manifold is loose,” or, “You’ll need a cherry-picker to get that engine outta there,” and know what I just said. I hated being dissed on the road and not understanding the insult. Worse, I am a hothead, and I hated not knowing what to say back.

I had a resource. Warren. Warren was a retired “salt,” an ex-Army tank driver, construction worker, machinist, gandy dancer, jobs that require using one’s back and hands. Which is not to say Warren hadn’t learned to use his head, too.

In fact, I know he thought of himself as a mind- over-muscles kind of guy. Whenever he’d hear me grunt with strain he’d look at whatever I was doing, bray like a mule, and say, “Muscles are for dummies.”

Not that he didn’t have them. Muscles, I mean. Warren was built like an old-fashioned fullback: thick, sinewy ropes connected his head to his body so that his upper limbs seemed to start at his neck. Popeye forearms and powerful hands spoke of years of picks and sledgehammers swung in short arcs, as is necessary in mining and railroad-tie spike-driving. I once asked him if he’d played football in school.

“Well, since they didn’t have no organized teams until the sixth grade, I guess not,” he’d answered.

In spite of his curtailed education he was a current events freak and had been one for so long he could probably qualify as a history freak, too. The small shack he shared with his wife across the road and down in a gully was bursting with books, newspapers, periodicals and any other non-fiction media he could lay his hands on.

“I was a Wobbly before the Russian Revolution,” he told me, fishing through his wallet and proudly showing me his I.W.W. card.

I’d never met a Wobbly, an Industrial Worker of the World, before, and I was impressed.

“Took some balls to join, didn’t it?” I asked.

He shrugged, but I could tell he was surprised I even what he was talking about. His blue eyes twinkled behind the thick lenses of his “seein'” glasses (he had another pair, very dark, that he couldn’t see out of; Warren was legally blind) and he sucked in the little rivulet of saliva that would always form at the corner of his mouth whenever he got excited.

“For a while there, we had enough members to scare the life outta those sumbitches up in Washington,” he said, winking at me conspiratorially, “you bet we did.

“But I unjoined when Comrade Lenin and Comrade Trotsky took over and tried to get our union to become Bolsheviks. I could see where that was goin’ and I didn’t want any part of it.”

He reminded me a little of Harry Truman right then. He had the clean, square lines of Truman’s face, and his rimless “seein'” glasses focused the sunlight into bright patches under his eyes, just as “Give-’em-Hell” Harry’s did.

“Nosiree. That’s where I disagreed with Big Bill Haywood. He was the Union’s leader, y’see. ‘No sir,’ I told him, ‘you can be a free-thinker and still be an American.’ That’s what I said then, and it’s what I say now.”

He also said he’d be glad to help me with the Valiant, but that I shouldn’t be surprised if it needed to be, well, rebuilt.

I was ecstatic. Up until then I had avoided even using the word, let alone bringing it into a sentence that included me and the Valiant. I half-wished the biker were there, so I could say something like, “It’s not the rings, dickhead, it’s the rocker arm panel (I’d seen that parts description once, by accident), so we’re gonna rebuild the engine.”

And so, one hazy L.A. morning, we parked the Valiant in the dirt field next to my house, jacked it up and put it on blocks (wooden blocks, because concrete blocks can break while you’re under the car, and then you’re just another chuckling auto shop teacher’s story about someone who didn’t take his course).

You could almost hear the neighbors groan when they saw all four wheels of the car leave the ground, because they also knew that moody, Jewish, pre-law draft-dodgers weren’t likely to be handy with tools, and cars up on blocks in front yards may be fine in Georgia and Mississippi but not in the Griffith Park section of Los Angeles. I am sure they prayed every night for Warren’s continued robust health.

You’ve got to understand one or two things about Warren: As I said, he was almost blind. Also, because of some speech impediment or habit, he talked a little like Walt Disney’s Goofy. What he said was almost always clever, but the presentation was sometimes a little comical.

It also may help to understand that I was, as I have said, a monumental hothead with a quick temper and a big mouth, “full of sound and fury, etc.,” but full of shit.

So, what the engine-rebuilding process might have looked and sounded like to the casual observer was Goofy the Dog telling Donald Duck how to build a spaceship.

But the partnership worked, and Warren and I became good friends as a result.

Warren would sit ramrod straight in a kitchen chair that I would set next to the part of the car I was working on, and say things like, “That hose is going to be held onto the pipe with either a spring clamp or a screw clamp. Which one is it?”

“I don’t know,” I’d probably say.

Then he’d say, “It’s a spring clamp; even you would recognize a screw clamp.”

Then we’d go across the street and down into his gully to a rusted-out 1932 Model-A Ford that served as his toolbox, to get a special pliers for removing spring clamps.

This process took time, but I had plenty of that. Also, it was entertaining. For one thing, the tool we’d be looking for almost always came with a story.

“I got these pliers when I was pouring cement for FDR’s Redwood City aqueduct,” is the one that came with the spring-clamp pliers.

“Now, Franklin Roosevelt,” Warren said, looking up from his rummaging, “he was sly dog. He never let the right hand know what the left was doing. The Redwood City dam wasn’t built anywhere near Redwood City, y’know. It was built in Wyoming, a thousand miles away.

“Old Roosevelt, see, he couldn’t get Congress to give him the money for the project in Wyoming—people were still bitching about Teapot Dome; you know what that was, don’t you?—so he renamed the project for Redwood City, in Oregon, raised the money and built the dam in Wyoming.

“Here it is,” he said, holding up the spring-clamp pliers and cackling with glee over FDR’s little hijinx.

Another thing: finding and using special tools for special tasks turned out to be a real confidence builder for me, because it made so many more jobs do-able.

But mainly, special tools brought me closer and closer to the amorphous fraternity of people who can do things with their hands. I loved being able to say, “I think we’ll need a half-to-quarter-inch swivel-drive to get to that tie-rod,” and know what I was talking about.

One day, when the last mount bolt was finally off, and the engine had been pared down to just the naked block sitting inside the motor well, I actually heard myself say to Warren, “We’re gonna need a cherry-picker to get that sucker outta there.” What a moment.

There were other, slightly less glorious moments.

There was putting the water pump back on without a gasket, thereby inventing the first self-contained, under-the-hood, high-pressure car wash.

And then there was the great Pin-bearing Panic of ’69, performed in front of a live audience at sunset, Warren sitting on my lime-green kitchen chair next to the rear fender, me under the back axle, proudly removing the universal-joint while several of my friends watched.

“Arnie, now, you gotta be real careful when you get the plate off the joint; you don’t want to drop those pin-bearings,” Warren said, in a loud, clear voice.

“What are pin-bearings?” I said back.

“Well, they’re right under the plate you’re taking off. They’ll look like a row o’ needles, but they’re just stuck in there with grease, so if you’re not careful as a cat, they’ll—”

“Oh, I see what you’re—”

“…fall right into your—”

“Shit!”

I saw what he was talking about.

Certainly the best moment of all had to be a warm, golden October afternoon with all the cherry-pickers and pin-bearings and gaskets back where they were supposed to be, neighbors on porches and front lawns pretending not to notice what was going on in the dirt lot at the end of their road.

Orville was behind the wheel, Wilbur was hovering over the open engine compartment, nose to carburetor, ear to distributor.

“Okay, turn ‘er over,” Wilbur yelled to Orville.

Orville turned the key, and…

“Rhurrr-rhurrr-rhurrr,” went the Valiant.

Wilbur held up his hand immediately for Orville to stop.

He did. It took everything he had not to look up and catch the neighbors’ head-shaking and eye-rolling that had to be going on.

But Wilbur was too busy to notice. In a moment, he held up his hand and twirled his index finger in the air.

Orville turned the key again.

“Rhurrr-rhurrr-rhurrr-rhur-rhur-rhur-rhr-rhr-rh-rh-r-r-r-RHOOOOMMMMM!” went the Valiant.

We had ignition! It was only for a moment, and a very rough ignition it was, the car lurching and pitching in place like a cartoon jalopy. But the engine did turn over, so we knew we’d got most everything back in its place, which to me was tantamount to squaring the circle or curing cancer.

Now I chanced a look at the neighbors. The Chinaman pretended to be going back to raking a leafless front lawn, and the two old gals who lived together at the top of the hill made like they were inspecting the roofline of their red raised-ranch cottage. The little knot of kids that had come out of somebody’s living room where they were probably watching TV were guileless in their lack of pretense.

“Run outta gas?” one of them said, as I let the engine die. “My dad said you don’t know the difference between a screwdriver and a chainsaw.”

Warren signaled me to get out of the car and join him at the engine well.

“This is the part you need eyes for,” he said, handing me his homemade timing light. “I’ll crank the engine and you do what I told you.”

He got behind the wheel while I took off the distributor cap to expose the points. (Just saying these things now gives me chills of excitement.)

“Remember,” he reminded me, “you gotta hold the light steady, or it won’t strobe. Tell me when it’s doin’ that.”

“It’s doing that.”

“Okay,” he said, killing the engine and handing me the key, “get back in the car.”

I did. I turned the key, the starter motor turned the engine, the engine turned the crank shaft, the crank meshed with the universal, etc., etc., and we were off.

Several of the neighbors had overcome their skepticism and were clapping. Mac, who lived across the street and up a couple of houses from me and always seemed to be fretting about neighborhood real estate values, seemed to be crying.

As we took off down the hill I saw another “pre-owned”-type vehicle coming at us, left front fender crushed, muffler ruined, smoke billowing up behind it. It was a winding, narrow street, and when I rolled down my window my face was no more than two feet away from the other driver’s.

I smiled and said, “Hey, asshole, your rings are shot. You really should get that fixed.”

Then I sped off down the hill. Even slumped behind the wheel the guy looked pretty big.