Sunday, September 24, 2017

Reflections On A Book Signing: We Came To Conquer Time For Just One Day

When I first approached Dick Schmidt in early June 2014 about using his Blue Crab Grill in Newark, Delaware for a signing for my then forthcoming book, There's A House In The Land (Where A Band Can Take A Stand), I told him the event was pretty much contingent on getting Snakegrinder and the Shredded Fieldmice back together again. This was an iffy proposition since the band had not played in its original form since two shows nearly 25 years ago, and it had been 40 years since they had gigged regularly. 
There were several reasons for wanting to get Snakegrinder back together. 
I had stolen the title of There's A House from a lyric from one of their songs, and the psychedelic-tinged band was closely identified with the farm outside of Newark during its heyday in the 1970s that is the subject of my book.  So I owed them one.  And I figured that the likelihood of an event attracting more than a handful of people with nothing better to do on a Sunday afternoon than skipping a league bowling match to get their copies of There's A House signed by some geezer would be enhanced if Snakegrinder was there to provide a little mood music.  
I also knew that such an event would be the last best opportunity to reunite some of the characters in the book -- members of the tribe who had made the farm their home and lived to tell about it, people who visited the farm, attended its famous Flag Day parties and lived to tell about it, as well as the musicians -- and party like it was the Seventies.  Dick agreed to host the event, Snakegrinder or not.  
Somewhere in the depths of what was left of my mind, it also occurred to me that I might be unleashing a monster, albeit a benevolent one, as well as summoning some long-ago spirits.  Little did I know. 
I next approached bassist Steve Roberts, the keeper of the Snakegrinder flame, about getting the band back together one more time, but he was extremely skeptical about that happening.  
Roberts, guitarist Larry Adams and drummer John DiGiovanni still lived in or near Newark, had played a too brief Snakegrinder set with some sit-in musicians at a fundraiser in May of 2013 and gigged regularly in area bands, but lead vocalist George Wolkind lived in Colorado and hadn't sung outside of a shower for 25 years, while pedal steel player Tommy Eppes' home base was in Las Vegas, although he frequently toured with national acts as the only Snakegrinder member to play professionally.  The sixth spoke in the original wheel, keyboard player Dave Bennett, was even further away in the Philippines.  Nevertheless, Roberts reluctantly said he would float the idea of a reunion to the far-flung flock.
"No way, José gave way to "Well, we'll have to see."  Then Steve made the wise-assed suggestion that we rent a large-screen TV for the Blue Crab stage and play the Stretch Wesolowski-produced video of Snakegrinder's legendary 1976 Christmas-New Years holiday reunion at the Stone Balloon in lieu of the band appearing in the flesh.  
"When pigs fly," I replied.  
I had been a big Snakegrinder fan back in the day, designed a poster or two for them, and occasionally helped lug their equipment to and from gigs.  Band members had not forgotten, and declared that they'd get back together to support my book with the understandable exception of Dave, who was 12 times zones distant and busy starting a computer consulting business.  When I emailed former Stone Balloon owner Bill Stevenson to ask if he would introduce the band as he had that magical night at the Balloon, he got back to me in a heartbeat, saying he'd gladly do it.  After all, he credits me as the source of the story, apocryphal as it may be, that he "discovered" Bruce Springsteen.  Bill has had a pretty good ride on that one over the years.
I set the date of the signing and reunion for 1 p.m. on Sunday, September 28.  I figured it would be a quiet weekend in Newark with no home University of Delaware football game, the Iggles were playing a late game in San Francisco and preparing to break our hearts right on schedule, and the moon was a waxing crescent and transitioning from Scorpio to Sagittarius, which I was told did not foretell gale force winds, an earthquake or a police bust for disturbing the peace.  
There’s A House In The Land went on sale online at Amazon on August 7, a week after I sent out complimentary copies to surviving members of the tribe, friends and family, the members of Snakegrinder (so they at least knew what the book they would be supporting was about), as well as some fellow scribes.  Rave notices started coming in, among them a beyond laudatory five-star review at Amazon written by Phillip "Flip" Bannowsky, a counterculture figure in Newark for five decades, an accomplished writer himself and now an instructor in the university's English Department who, among other things, teaches a class on the Sixties and its impact on the Seventies. 
An excerpt from his review:
The Seventies were the shore the Sixties washed up on. Those who climbed out of the surf were left to rebuild the American Dream, shredded by Vietnam, JFK, MLK, THC, LSD. Who knows how many such islands of self-reliance [like the farm] and rugged individualism there were in America, but few had in residence an amanuensis as talented as Shaun Mullen.    
I blushed when I read that.  
Meanwhile, Steve and Kathy cleared out a room in their house and Steve put together an ambitious rehearsal schedule for he, Larry and John, who were joined in lieu of Dave by the talented multi-instrumentalist Craig "Hangnail Phillips" Smith.  George and Tommy booked airline reservations and were to join rehearsals during the week before the signing and reunion.  In the meantime, George began hanging out a karaoke bars to get the rust off his pipes.  (If you're familiar the Snakegrinder anthem "Love Junkie," you know it's not the kind of song you can belt out cold unless you want to destroy your vocal cords.)
As August begat September, a crisis of a sort suddenly loomed: Based on the reservations people had made, there was no more room at the Blue Crab, and Dick, Steve and I absolutely wanted to avoid turning people away considering that a fair number of them would be coming in from hundreds and even thousands of miles away.  (California, Colorado, Kansas, Vermont and even Elkton.)  A second signing and reunion event was announced for 8 p.m. and it too quickly filled up.  
I blushed when I heard that.   
It didn't particularly matter what the weather would be on September 28 since the event was indoors, but the day dawned brilliantly sunny and seasonably toasty and the parking lot was was aswarm even before the doors opened as friends who had not seen each other for years high-fived, kissed and embraced, as well as oohed and aahed and posed for pictures in front of the immaculately maintained 1937 pickup truck long belonging to tribe member Tom "Catbird" Cunane.  (The truck is beautifully rendered on the flip side of graphic artist Anja Gudic's wonderful There's A House In The Land cover.)
Deborah and I had dined at the Blue Crab many times.  Dick's place has a nice feel, the decor is wonderful and the food among the best seafood I've ever eaten, and I grew up near enough to the Eastern Shore of Maryland that I could crack crabs when I was barely out of diapers and ate soft shell crabs back when this delicacy was available only a few weeks out of the year and not flash frozen and served year 'round as it is these days.  But the vibe -- to use that overused Seventies word -- was something else at the Blue Crab as it filled up and Snakegrinder tuned up.   
I had put together brief opening remarks -- thank yous to Dick and the band, mention of a great one-off Mike MacGuinness poster we were to silent auction to raise money for a charity, and most importantly, reading a list of the Dearly Missed, as Flip put it, some 32 people who had left this mortal coil during and since the Seventies whom I noted wouldn't be with us in person, but certainly would be with us in spirit.
"Hardly a day has gone by in the past two months or so that I have not found myself in touch with a friend from many years in the past, sometimes 40 years in the past," I said in conclusion.  "Today’s event was not intended to be anything more than an opportunity to sell some books and hear a bunch of guys play great music one more time.  But it has taken on a meaning well beyond that because it's so obvious what a great little community we had back in the day, that so many people wanted to be a part of this."  
And so we partied like it was the Seventies.  
Snakegrinder opened with "Sugaree," the Jerry Garcia-Robert Hunter classic, and it was obvious from the first note that they had come not merely to play, but to tear the house down.  The band was tight and George was in fine form.  Dave even joined in from the Philippines, lip-synching on one song via a Skype connection.   And no, it was not like "the old days," although the floor was filled with writhing and ecstatic masses just like the old days.  This is because Snakegrinder played even better.  They were so much older then.  They are younger than that now.
At one point, I was chatting with an old head who lives and dies for bluegrass and nothing else.  This musical snob had been dragged to the event by a girlfriend.  "My god! They're tremendous!" he exclaimed as the band ripped through a cover of Little Feat's "Fat Man in the Bathtub," and soon was dancing himself.  
The afternoon ended on a wonderful, show-stopping note as Snakegrinder encored with "High on a Mountaintop," the folk and bluegrass classic penned by Ola Belle Campbell Reed, the legendary folk songwriter, singer and banjo player, with Alex Reed.    
Ola Belle, along with her son and assorted other members of a pick-up band, had played far into the night at two Flag Day parties at the farm. 
The closing lyrics to "High on a Mountaintop":
High on a mountain top, standing all alone.  Wondering where the years of my life have flown.  
High on a mountaintop, wind blowing free.  Thinking about the days that used to be. 
High on a mountain top, standing all alone.  Wondering where the years of my life have flown .
High on a mountaintop, wind blowing free.  Thinking about the days that used to be. 
High on a mountain topThinking about the days that used to be.  And I wonder if you ever think of me. 
To which Tommy added these tear-invoking words:
When Luna left, it brought a tear to my eye.  But when you put down Bart, I broke right down and cried. 
And one man's story told, brings back all these friends of old.  It tells me Medford and Newark still have got a lot of pride.  
Snakegrinder's second set that evening was, if anything even better.  George's vocal and the backing instrumentals on "Love Junkie" were perfection.  And how about Tommy's Nudie Cohn sequined jacket. (Here's a complete set list.) 
Two hundred or so people did indeed party like it was the Seventies, boogalooing the afternoon and evening away.  They included six members of the tribe and, by my rough count, perhaps a dozen other folks who made cameo appearances in There's A House, including John "Beet" Bailey, who asked band members and others to sign his copy of the book.  Other folks soon did the same with their copies. 
(There are many great photographs of this special day and evening.  Be sure to check out Rhonda Machulski Brown's superb photo album on Facebook.)   
You could feel the love, as one person described it.  And as Tommy told me, "It was particularly rewarding to see how the next generation . . . [including] my daughters and the young staff at the Blue Crab, reacted.  You can attempt to tell kids what it was like back then, but to have them personally experience the vibe is a true gift from the past that will forever enrich their understanding of and regard for us." 
I've had a few days to think about it, and can say with confidence that as I lay in bed that night, my hand sore from writer's cramp, those Dearly Missed were in my dreams.  I could feel their presence.  It was as if they had come to thank me for inviting them.
George Wolkind, of course, summed up the day best in a note he posted on Facebook:
To all of you who came to conquer time for just one day, Shalomaloha. 

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