There are times when on the road of one’s career, one finds that they would benefit from a new direction, a fresh beginning, a jump-start. Such was the 'pit-stop' I found myself in with the music biz many years ago. But I had no idea of just what kind of jump-start it would entail to get me out of the break-down lane I was in and back on the road of my less-than-lustrous musical odyssey.
Let’s roll back the curtain and tweak the knobs of the time machine, shall we, to the dark days of the late ‘70s when disco reigned, punk started making pissed-off noises to drown out the synthesized nu-wave bands, while lanky, big-haired pretty-boys, sporting spandex, strutted and preened. There was some good stuff out there too, but you really had to hunt for it because there wasn’t much of it on the radio (MTV was still in gestation). The folk music boom had mummified to dust. Acoustic musicians and sensitive singer/songwriter types had had their moment to bask in the sun and were now 'sun-burned, or had evaporated, relegated to obscure gatherings of like-minded souls and second-hand record bins (yeah, records - no CDs yet, either).
So what was an aspiring, struggling acoustic guitarist singer/songwriter supposed to do about it? Reinvent himself, that’s what. So here is the tale of my reincarnation as "The Ragtime Millionaire", and his Wild Ride. And I swear, it’s all true. Mostly.
After leaving the rock ‘n roll rhythm guitar role I played in Max Creek for several years, I found myself really getting into the music of Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, Stefan Grossman and Jorma Kaukonen – their guitar playing created ‘a band in the hand’ and I loved it. I began listening to Roy Book Binder, Leon Redbone and Guy van Duser. I practiced my fingers raw and bleeding, but I cared not - I’d found my path and I was on my grail-quest to reveal the uniquely quirky singer and consummate guitarist residing within. I would be a retro-visionary: part antique curmudgeon, part sage. I would become The Ragtime Millionaire (which I thought was pretty funny because I was actually one step from destitution’s door) and the world would embrace me. The world apparently had other plans.
Around this time, my wife and I decided to “get back to the land” and moved to a small farm in the St. Lawrence River valley of NY State. Plan: we would sustenance farm, raise our daughter and I would perform my newfound solo artist thing throughout the northeast. All this led to me finding myself alternately behind the wheel of a 1932 Allis-Chalmers tractor, or encased (often for days) behind the wheel of a 1970 VW camper, grinding gears and ruining tires as I traversed the lonely highways and byways of NY and New England, its cargo area crammed with tattered guitar cases, giant speakers and two-ton amps.
Some interesting times were had, indeed. Like the time I played a bar gig in Lake Placid (was it the Brass Capricorn?) while the French Olympic speed skating team was practicing nearby. After their training sessions we would hang out, miscommunicating in French, goofing on tourists and drinking beer. I don’t know how they did it – I just remember lots of Molsons and HUGE thighs. Somehow, this actually led to a pretty good gig for me during the 1980 Winter Olympics. But I did not skate.
Then there was the time I hooked up with this guy named Barry Freed who, after hearing me play a gig in the 1000 Islands, asked me to help him write a theme song for his new Save The River Foundation. We met again a couple of times, and each time I swore I’d seen him before - I just couldn't place where. I think I made him nervous. We wrote the theme song together and I heard he’d been using it at different rallies and community meetings along the St. Lawrence, but I never saw Barry again. That is, until he suddenly died and it was plastered all over the news that he really was none other than Abbie Hoffman of the notorious Weather Underground and Chicago 7. He’d been hiding out up on the river for years. And I found him.
Or the time I was booked - unheard and unknown – by the late Lena Spence of Café Lena in Saratoga Springs. I was going to open for a Molly Somebody, who, to me, was equally unheard and unknown. I rattled into town in time for sound-check. I met Molly, who sported a crew-cut and men’s clothes, and was a bit, um, distant. Her audience, nearly all female, resembled lumberjacks and gym teachers. I was feeling really uncomfortable. Threatened, even. Anyway, the show must go on, so on I went. And on, and on, and on. My 30-minute opening set was friggin' interminable! I did my little rinky-tinky, plinky-planky ragtime numbers with all their spunky sexual innuendos and clever double entendres, along with some of my best heart-on-my-sleeve ballads. The audience sat there as if embalmed, perhaps contemplating castration. My throat parched. My mind fragmented like a neuroleptic grenade. I forgot my own songs. Time...stood...still. When at long last my final notes decayed, a scattered, anemic applause ushered me off-stage. I cannot recall ever having left a gig so quickly, before or since. Gratefully, Lena provided me with other opportunities to redeem myself.
But I digress. This is the story of The Ragtime Millionaire’s Wild Ride, isn’t it?
My vanity insisted that I needed something different, something unique, which would create a buzz and announce my entrance into a new town. Enter a fire-engine red, customized, tricked-out 1942 Chevrolet Panel Van with a 390 cubic inch high-performance Corvette engine, sucking down gasoline (@ $.73 a gallon!) with its double 4-barrel carburetors and blowing out exhaust through twin, deep-throated glass-packs. This mighty power plant was attached to the original 3-speed truck transmission so it was geared ridiculously long ‘n low, twisting four 'competition-white' deep-dish mags with the rear wheels wearing 20” slicks – not ideal for Adirondak winter roads! The interior had been gutted and its walls paneled with faux walnut, complete with coach-light wall sconces. The floor (and ceiling!) was carpeted in matching brown and cream high-pile shag carpeting. The high-backed bench seat was scavenged from an AMC Gremlin, but it fit perfectly despite its grim lineage. The Chevy’s split windshield cranked completely open allowing a continuous flow of cool air (and insects), so who needed air conditioning? The heater, the size of a cider barrel, hung down below the heavy-metal dashboard and it had two speeds – ‘Off’ and ‘Incredibly Hot’. You could have either the heater or the defroster, but not both. The double rear doors were perfect for loading gear and there was plenty of room to sleep in the back if I wanted to, which I usually did not. I installed a stereo cassette tape player with four speakers and a CB. (That’s CB radio, people, not CD!). And the crowning touch? Hand painted graphics on either side of a large, wildly dancing buzzard. Perfect.
Originally built as a munitions transporter for WWII, the Chevy had allegedly seen action in the North African theatre. I don’t know exactly what was playing in that theatre, but I think it had something to do with Herr Rommel. It had also seen duty as an ambulance. But now - no corpses allowed! - it was gonna rock ‘n roll as the Ragtime Millionaire’s Ride! I sold the VW camper to some farm kid who aspired to be a hippie and readied the Ol’ 42 for its maiden voyage – a trip back to CT to visit family and play a gig at The Old Newgate Tavern in East Granby.
It was a lovely summer morning. I had loaded up the van with all the necessary gear for a gig, a wife and a baby. Arising early, we were on the road by 6AM. I intended to beat any mid-day heat and allow for chance diversions. What had I intuited?
The sun shone brightly, the sky was cloudless and the birds were cheerily singing - or I think they probably were, but we couldn’t hear them over the growl and thrum of the 'Vette's engine and throaty exhaust. We had been gone slightly shy of an hour when the first link in the disaster chain of events busted loose. One of the exhaust pipes, snapping off from the engine manifold, dropped to the rushing pavement below. As it pivoted around on its hanger, announcing its presence with a horrible scraping, grinding noise, the erstwhile pipe punctured the right rear 20" slick with a Hindenberg-like, earth-shattering explosion. We were in East Cupcake somewhere in the Adirondak foothills - no one, nothing around - as I limped the crippled van off of the narrow mountain road. It was at this time that I discovered the jack was missing and I had no wrench to remove the wheel – just a minor oversight. But that was OK, because there was NO SPARE TIRE anyway!
After sitting for nearly two hours, the sun was getting higher and temperatures all around were rising. Except for periodic nasty condemnations from my wife, it was pretty darn quiet. Eventually a farmer in an old pick-up truck came by and helped me remove the tire, but he was not going back to town. So off I walked, back the way I’d come, rolling a flattened, 20” slick in front of me. After what seemed like days, I was picked up by a sympathetic, chain-smoking and probably deranged, woman who took me to Potsdam where I replaced the tire to the tune of $150. From the tire shop, I called a friend who brought me back to the stranded Chevy and helped me reinstall the wheel. About four hours had elapsed since I’d left the van, and my wife’s disposition had not improved much. In fact, my daughter had joined her in her displeasure. I tossed the rusted, broken-off muffler and exhaust pipe into the back and we were off.
About five hours and way past lunchtime later, we approached the sleepy hamlet of Warrensburg. I noticed that the fuel gauge had dropped to nearly empty. I knew the big motor was normally thirsty, but we hadn’t really traveled all that far. I'd grown used to guestimating the amount of fuel left in the tank, despite the gauge needle's engaging in its hyper-kinetic St. Vitus's dance that continuously vacillated wildly between "Empty" and "Full". I spied a Stewarts Shop and eased in next to a gas pump. As my family went in search of repast, I smelled gasoline. Lots of it. Sure enough, fuel dripped ominously onto the pavement from under the tank. I walked a couple blocks to an auto parts store and purchased some sort of Goop stuff and smeared it onto the tank’s leaking seam. I filled the tank only halfway, crawled under to examine and, Sweet Jesus, it didn't leak!
Climbing back into the cab, I turned the key and punched the starter button – nothing! I checked all the battery and starter cables - seemed fine. I figured we’d simply jump start it. My wife, up until now having reigned in most of her smug comments, let a vitriolic volley fly. She had never driven the Chevy before and was begrudgingly forced into action behind the wheel. I got behind the van and began to push – that brute would not move! So, as customers came into Stewarts, I recruited them to help me push, instructing my wife to turn on the ignition, put it in 2nd gear a pop the clutch once we got it rolling.
After several herky-jerky false starts in the Stewarts parking lot, my wife pointed the Chevy out onto the road and again released the clutch – KA-POW! – that 390 cubic inch Corvette engine ignited, startling the small gathering of curious onlookers. My wife, with an adrenaline induced jolt, floored the gas pedal. That fire engine red Chevrolet panel van lit up those 20” rear tires with a smoke show that amazed the astounded onlookers as it leaped over the curb, straddling both road and sidewalk, narrowly missing telephone poles for nearly a hundred yards before it rocketed across the parking lot of the post office, scattering astonished postal patrons, and tore across the manicured lawn of an adjacent funeral home.
I raced down the street in hot pursuit, screaming above the din of the unmuffled engine for her to “Turn off the ignition!”, imagining my little daughter rattling around inside the van like a BB in an oil drum. My wife, bless her heart, located her wits and stepped on the clutch and brake, bringing the out-of-control van to rest, inches away from a flagpole by the town hall’s front entrance. I ran up, flung open the driver’s door and slid her into the passenger seat as I jumped behind the wheel and gingerly extricated the shuddering Chevy from its precarious, very public, position. My daughter, wide-eyed but unhurt, lay strapped in her car seat, Binky pulsating wildly. Without a word, I eased the Chevy onto Rt. 28 and nonchalantly headed south out of town before Johnny Law could learn of our whereabouts.
My own adrenaline-fueled pulse did not calm down until we’d pulled onto the Northway and nosed many miles south between us and Warrensburg. By this time, we’d been on the road about nine hours and still were only about halfway to our Connecticut destination - under normal conditions, a trip of around seven hours. It was late afternoon, but we were thrumming along nicely, front windshield cranked open, allowing a fine summer breeze to cool us as David Bromberg boogied on the stereo. I got on the CB and learned from northbound truckers that we were “clean ‘n green” of police radar southbound all the way to the Thruway. Well, OK!
About twenty-five miles north of Albany, the view from our open windshield began to change as the terrain transitioned from rural to urban, and the sky, all day having been a brilliant, cloudless blue, was turning ominously dark. Greenish, blue-grey clouds were quickly forming and roiling hellishly overhead. Occasional bursts of wind buffeted our cruising van. Suddenly, random splats of rain spanked the windshield. I reached up to the tiny chrome knob above the windshield and turned on the single, vacuum-powered wiper. The little 10” blade began its solo slip-sliding dance over my half of the windshield, its tempo dictated by whether the engine was accelerating or decelerating. The clouds seriously thickened and the rain began to pound in sheets. This was looking less like a passing summer shower and more like a monsoon. Time to close the windshield! Reaching over the tall, vibrating shifter and emergency brake levers, I grabbed the windshield crank and turned. Nothing. Around and around the crank went, but the windshield remained open, spray whipping through the 8" gap. I pounded on the dashboard, hoping to engage the crank, but it could not be heard over the vertically slashing rain, the buckshot cracking of thunder and hail, the rushing of tires over rapidly flooding highway and the roar of an unmuffled 390 cubic inch, high-performance Corvette engine!
Water poured into the cab through the open windshield, cascading over the dashboard, saturating our legs on its way to the floor transforming the Chevy into a land-locked simulacrum of Niagara Falls' "Maid of the Mist". I was worried that the water would flow behind the dash and short out the tangle of wires and fuses hidden within. My wife had pulled out towels and was futilely attempting to plug up the windshield gap. My daughter remained wide-eyed, strapped in her car seat, Binky still pulsating wildly. The little windshield wiper valiantly slashed at the relentless deluge. “That wiper is next to worthless,” I shouted over the din. Apparently hearing me and not appreciating my sentiment, the wiper, as if on cue, flung itself in a 360 degree arc before completely detaching itself from its pneumatic motor and hurled itself sacrificially onto the highway, where, I imagined, it met its untimely demise under the wheels of a Peterbuilt.
Things were going from bad to worse in rapid order. I could see nothing at all beyond the grey, streaked, glass of the windshield. Trying to find a bit of humor in it all, I mused to myself, “So, this is what it must be like to be a marine mammal in an underwater tank at SeaWorld?” Mindlessly, I pulled on the headlight switch, as if turning on those old beacons would somehow enable the blind to see. The headlamps were mere electrical cataracts…next to useless. When the rancid smell of ozone began to permeate the cab, the dash lights began to flicker. The headlights blinked on and off in a schizophrenic Morse code. David Bromberg ceased to sing. And then the engine stopped. Then started. Then stopped. And started again and ran for about a minute before it died with a waterlogged wheeze.
I somehow managed to pull off the highway without impaling ourselves on a guardrail or crashing into a piling. My wife wouldn’t look at me. I leaped from the cab, slammed the windshield shut and raised the hood. Within five seconds I was drenched. I once again checked the battery cables, and wiggled the broiling-hot spark plug wires as if this ju-ju would somehow make things right. Other blinded vehicles were now pulling over as I returned like a drowned rat to the relative moistness of the dripping cab. I sat silently fuming for about five minutes, and then I exploded. I slapped the slimy dashboard with my Goopy, greasy hands, stomped the waterlogged shag carpet with my sloshing boots and screamed like a banshee at the relentless rain. My daughter, duly alarmed by my meltdown, explosively discharged her Binky with a shriek of her own and joined the fracas. The wife remained silently smoldering. I kicked the spindly shifter with its stupid Eight-Ball knob. Then, like a mule, I kicked the emergency brake lever, and - EUREKA! - the lights came on! I kicked the brake lever again. The lights flashed on and off with each accost.
Once again I braved the deluge, this time slithering under the van like a water snake as torrents of greasy, muddy road water broke over my shoulders and filled my pockets with trash and silt. I located the brake lever and noted that, A) the lever had come loose, and B) some genius had attached the vehicle’s ground strap to this loose, vibrating lever! I tightened it up and - voila! - the lights blinked on! I slogged back to the cab and pushed the starter button – nothing. WHAT THE FRIG? Grabbing a screwdriver, I waded back out into the typhoon, raised the hood and located the starter motor. I screamed over the howling wind at my wife to put the engine into neutral and her foot on the brake as I arced the starter with my screwdriver. VRRRROOOOOOM! The engine roared to life!
Back in the cab, engine purring contentedly (at least something was content!), I set the giant heater to ‘defrost’ in the hope of drying off the windshield. As the defroster’s sleepy electric motor gained momentum, hot, steamed air filled the cab and before long the entire interior was transformed into a rolling, roiling Finnish sauna. I was ready to walk to Connecticut - alone! But night was creeping in and we still had miles to go before we schlepped, so we meandered our way around Albany like damp, sightless moles and onto Rt. 90 eastbound.
Despite the sauna-like conditions inside the old Chevy, the remainder of the ride on the Massachusetts Turnpike and through the Berkshire Hills into Connecticut was uneventful, though the mood was decidedly tense and the climate between us unseasonably chilly. Drained and exhausted, we continued along our down-beaten route, illuminated by the two, pale yellow headlamps. It was well past 10 o’clock when we arrived at my in-law’s home in northwest CT. Their quaint, Victorian house was situated on a rather hilly street in a quiet, residential part of town. It appeared as if the entire street had fallen asleep. Surely, no one was quite prepared for what would happen next.
As unobtrusively as a B-52 bomber attempting to land on a carrier flight deck, the fire engine red Chevy with the dancing buzzard graphics roared up to the front drive of the somnolent house. My mother-in-law soon burst from the door screeching “Turn that thing off!” as we rolled to a creaking stop. Up and down the street, bedroom lights could be seen flickering on as I extinguished the van’s lights, set the brake, shifted the transmission into gear and shut down the engine. The silence was deafening as we spilled like sodden rag-dolls out onto the street. I shall not go into the details of the ensuing dialog amongst my wife, in-laws and me. Suffice it to say, if murder were legal, I would not be writing this now.
After settling my daughter into bed and convincing the in-laws that I needn’t be immediately committed, I returned to the street to unload our stuff from the van. But, where was the van? I knew I was fatigued, had probably inhaled way too much ozone and carbon dioxide, but I could have sworn I remembered parking it right in front of the house. Not there. It was then that I noticed a house at the bottom of the street, just where the road took a right elbow turn parallel to the river, was fully illuminated and the silhouettes of several people could be seen running frantically around the yard. I casually strolled down the street towards the house, carefully remaining in the shadows, to investigate the commotion. And there it was - the tricked-out, fire engine red, 1942 Chevrolet Panel Van with the 390 cubic inch high-performance Corvette engine, the deep-dish competition-white mag wheels twisting the 20” slick rear tires (but minus one glass-packed muffler), faux-walnut paneling and matching brown and cream high-pile shag carpeting - sitting balanced precariously on top of the guardrail, hanging out over a ravine where the storm-swollen rapids of the Salmon River boiled below.
Before long, the flashing blue and red lights from assorted police, fire and emergency vehicles had awakened the rest of the neighborhood, announcing that some dummy had driven a relic truck up onto the guardrail and that at any moment it would likely be tumbling into the ravine where it would burst into a fireball to rival Hiroshima. Bedroom lights up and down the street continued to flicker on, revealing the heads of the curious peering from opened windows. I nonchalantly strolled onto the scene as if I hadn’t already a clue as to what was happening. Feigning surprise, I approached a tired-looking police officer and identified myself. I tried to explain what I thought had happened as he incredulously glanced alternately between me and the suicidal Chevrolet. Fortunately, he was somehow related to my in-laws and no tickets were issued. But it took me months to pay off the hefty extrication, towing and storage fees.
Early the next morning I surreptitiously returned to the scene. Sometime during the night, a pair of wreckers had hoisted the errant Chevy from its perch and towed it to a local garage where it was committed for several days' observation. The sun rose dimly as I wearily retraced the tracks of the van’s psychopathic rampage. It had traversed across two adjoining yards, leaving deep, muddy ruts as it gathered up speed, taking with it a length of privet hedge, knocking down a split-rail fence and flattening a three foot fuel oil fill-pipe. The van had averted a neighbor’s porch by mere inches, preferring instead to crush a Big Wheel tricycle and a potted palm before bouncing over the curb and crossing the road (again) before attempting to hurdle the guardrail.
True to its military heritage, that ’42 Chevy was built like a tank. It survived its ordeal with only a few minor scratches. My in-laws, now thoroughly convinced (with NO room for discussion!) that I was a fool, rented a sensible car for my wife and daughter to return home in. I completed my business in CT and returned to the farm – driving the ol’ van – a few days later.
I rode that ol' Chevrolet several more years and thousands more miles, collecting many more adventures. Our relationship actually lasted longer than my marriage did. But I certainly won’t tell you that those years were carefree! Finally, after the barrel heater broke and I spent an entire winter frozen to the steering wheel, I felt compelled to replace the ol’ ride with another, much newer VW van. Still, I just couldn’t bear to part with my old road warrior. It followed me around (unregistered, uninsured) for years until I actually felt sorry for it. The ol' rattle-trap deserved a good home with someone who’d learn to love/hate it like I did. Some guy in upstate NY bought it from me for a few hundred bucks and really hot-rodded it up, painting it lemon yellow. I saw it once in a custom car show a few years later. It really looked sharp and I was glad to see it! But that Chevy wouldn’t look back at me.
Years later, I’m still driving around in a van full of tattered guitar cases and two-ton amps. It is a fire engine red, mag- and wide-tire outfitted, high-performance, four-on-the-floor all-wheel-drive, free-flowing exhaust, sun-roof equipped (no more crank-open windshields for me!) four cylinder Honda Element.
I may still be vain, but now I’m practical.