Friday, December 18, 2009

Drinking with Jack Ruby's Girls and Michael Cooney

I wrote this I don't know how many years ago, but it is all true, still. And looooog ...

I thought of Pops Farrar, unavoidably, while driving into downtown Belleville, a place given a convincing lick and promise since I had seen it last. The pub where the lads were playing was just around a handsome roundabout that circles a grand, phosphorescent fountain.

As I entered the pub, the only vacant table was stage-right, just off Pat Egan's strumming elbow. Or, rather, it was the only vacant chair. Opposite me at the table was an older man, who looked lost in his cups, though he wasn't drinking.

The remarkable thing about him, in addition to his odd half-slumber, was an item of clothing – the garish, orange, reflective vest of a roadman on the night shift. (I guessed that he walked home late from bars and wanted to be seen by the drunks operating motor vehicles.) Every so often, he would seem to wake and would shake his fists furiously in rhythm to the music.

I had been telling people for days, and I firmly believed, that there would be no better music performed on Earth that night. Michael Cooney, the keeper of the Irish pipes; Tom Hall, a redheaded piece of the St. Louis blues; and the mournful Irish songster himself, Pat Egan.

As the bartender, Bobby, a veteran of the late-'80s McGurk's glory days, said at the end of the night, "It's like having Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis together."

I was happy to be alone, or alone with your man in the glowing vest, because that left me free to read in the bright pub as the music swirled madly.

I had in my clutches Jack Ruby's Girls, an intimate portrait of the man who killed Lee Harvey Oswald, written by two women who had worked in Ruby's Carousel Club, Diane Hunter and Alice Anderson. The book was a key source for the poet David Clewell in his composition of Jack Ruby's America, which we are scoring.

Jack Ruby's Girls was published by a no-name press in 1970 and is long out-of-print. My reading copy came courtesy of Esme Green, chief librarian for The Skuntry Museum, Library & Beer Cellar, rising bibliographic professional in the Greater Boston metropolitan area, and distant descendent of the Donner Party named for a character out of Salinger (her brother, necessarily, is named Holden).

As I adored my pint of Guinness, perfectly formed, with a foamy, golden brown head and oil-black body, I thought of Esme's husband, Chris Perry, a man born for a perfectly poured Guinness and Belleville's fiercest known admirer.

Perro (as we call him) loved Pops Farrar as much as any of us, having camped out at the old man's spread on the edge of town during a memorable visit to the Lou. Oddly enough, his favorite baseball player, the journeyman Brian Daubach (who was a fan favorite at Fenway over a few productive seasons), is also proudly a Belleville native.

So, as I sipped my pint, I was alone and not alone. I was there with the cry of the pipes, the ghost of Pops nodding calmly under a fishing hat, and Perro and Esme laughing at the thrilling changes in the reels. And Jack Ruby's girls were whispering in my ear.

Their book is a dead-on portrait written in the dead-eye prose of a 1960s Dallas striptease joint. I was reading it to see what I could learn about Ruby's "orchestra," as he called the Carousel Club's combo of "usually four or five pieces," which we hope to recreate for our poetry score to Jack Ruby's America.

The authors identify no players by name, but I did learn that Ruby once lost his left index fingertip to the teeth of a musician from his orchestra, which soured him on the musical tribe. Musicians got the least of his respect after that. The only player even identified by instrument in the book is a drummer, who was ordered to help Ruby drag from the club a loudmouth he had knocked cold.

Apparently, Ruby was a poor judge of talent, especially of dancers, his club's bread and butter, though his inabilities in this regard were captured with a musical metaphor. "Theatrical agents told one another that Jack Ruby couldn't distinguish a flute from a curtain rod," his girls wrote. So, a certain ragtag character to our reconstructed Poetry Scores orchestra might be considered authentic.

Two clues to repertoire and arrangement emerged. Andy Armstrong, the Carousel Club's bartender and de facto manager (a black man, by the way), used to whistle the "Dixie" theme to alert a favorite waitress to the presence at the bar of a sucker with a fat bankroll. Evidently, our poetry score must include "Dixie," whistled by Joe Jonas, the elder statesman of the Dallas blues who contacted us about Rosco Gordon – and who, it turns out, gigged at the Carousel Club as a youth.

The authors also tell the strange story of a dancer who was able to move her breasts independently of one another and with the assistance of no other body part. She was quite a smash at the club.

Eventually, Ruby (remember his tin ear for talent) had her attach a bell to each of her breasts and try to play "The Eyes of Texas" with them. While replicating the exact logistics seems uncalled for, "The Eyes of Texas" arranged for two bells seems fated for some seamy moment in the poetry score.

I soaked in these ideas, along with hours of soaring pipe melodies and a string of pints funded mostly by the musicians themselves, who treated me like visiting royalty. Between sets, they also inspired me to imagine lines for Two Birds in a Field, the play about the plight of the modern itinerant folk musician that Cooney has commissioned me to write.

Michael Cooney (in Act I, after a long stretch of mutual kvetching about how hard gigging musicians have it): So, why do we do it, Tom?

Tom Hall: “I don't know. Do you want to go back to bartending?”

Cooney: “Why, no. It's the wrong side of the bar.”

Hall: “All I have to do is picture myself back at The Orphanage. Where I tended bar. Not my first.”

Cooney: “Bartending job?”

Hall: “No, orphanage.”

Cooney: “You don't mean it ...”

After the last set, Tom Hall pulled me aside. "If you really want to do this play thing," he said, "you have to interview us both about how we met and everything."

"So," I said, "how did you meet and everything?"

"I don't remember," Tom said. "All I know is I always hated Irish music. I hated it. I couldn't tell where one tune started and another one ended. And it didn't have a backbeat. It was just, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2. It was ... so white. Then I was stoned one time with Alice (Spencer), when the (Geyer Street) Sheikhs were still together. And I heard Cooney play a slow air. And I saw it just coming out of his pores, the music. And then I got it. The Irish are the black people of Western Europe."

As we joined Cooney at the bar for last call – "last call" being an extended and fuzzy phenomenon after a session in an Irish pub – a third role wrote itself into the play.

A very drunken young woman from the pub's staff greeted Michael, saying, "Are you Michael Cooney? The Michael Cooney? The person I have been answering the phone for all week? 'When is Michael Cooney playing?' 'When is Michael Cooney playing?' 'When is Michael Cooney playing?'"

I had worked the room a bit that night, trying to sell CDs for the lads, and I had seen her, off-duty and partying hard, seated far from the music, which her table seemed to be ignoring. It was name magic, not music, that brought her to the piper.

Cooney guiltily let himself be paraded to her table and fussed over and made to sign autographs for an entire table of drunken young women. A couple of pints deeper into the last call, the girl who had been answering the phone all week took to calling the great piper "The Coonster."

You devote your life to a few hundred melodies that somehow stayed alive God knows how many centuries in the Sliveardagh Hills of County Tipperary, and you end up "The Coonster" to drunken American youth simply because the pub phone rang off the hook for you.

So Cooney and Hall will be joined in Act I ("A Nervous Waltz") by a young stewardess, and in Act II ("I Buried My Wife and Danced on Her Grave") by a young barmaid, played by the same actor. Her youth, energy and innocence could provide a comic foil to the bitter wisdom and exhaustion of the musicians. I am thinking to imagine her as a hip-hop head, for whom Tom Hall's blues are just as "white" and foreign as Irish music.

When "The Coonster" had escaped back to the safety of the men at the bar, he floored me.

"Chris," he said, "about Sunday night."
We had planned a solo recording session with Roy Kasten for that time.

"I heard every word you said about what you want to do. And I agreed with every word of it. And I have too much respect for what you are trying to do to give you anything but my best. And, geez, Chris, I don't play on Sunday nights. I work all weekend, and then I don't play on Sunday nights. I'd much rather come over to your museum, have a bit of that African moonshine, and talk creatively. I don't want to rush it. I want to come back to town later just for this purpose. I want it to be after a tour, when I'm really ready, I want to have fresh reeds in my pipes, and I want to have it all worked out with you beforehand."

I could see that he was gravely concerned that he was letting me down, but just the opposite was true. I rejoiced at the seriousness with which he was taking one of my longest-standing musical fantasies (along with writing and recording a pop record for Elton John): recording a Michael Cooney solo record. Just the pipes, with the drones represented as forcefully as the reeds, so that the drama between the drone changes and the melodies – which Michael has mastered, and his mastery of that drama is what makes listening to him play such a seasick experience – can stand forth in their full complexity.

And to hear Michael Cooney talking with such gravity about visiting The Skuntry Museum!

I tried to share with him my happiness, fumbling all over myself.

"Thanks, Chris," Michael said, in turn. "You see, I've got to be careful with the music. I don't only represent myself. I represent a lot of other people as well."

That would be the best mission statement of the traditional musician I have ever heard.

A bit tipsy now, from Guinness and the respect of Michael Cooney, I decided to hit Tom up again on the way out the door for another long-deferred dream of Roy's and mine: a Tom Hall solo record. I told him what great sounds Roy has been getting with other artists, like Palookaville.

"Let me finish my blues record first," he said, as he has been saying for five years. "But I want to do it. I keep thinking about it. All originals."

"All originals!" I said. "What's the title?"

"The Life and Times of Huckleberry Jesus," Tom Hall said, as he began to gather up all his gear at the end of another gig.

1 comment:

jessesublett said...

Damn good writing, daddy-o! Nice to find this piece touching on so many things that I, too, have contemplated and written about, and you have the gift for doing it. Cheers, Jesse