The other day, I had the pod on and I was dialing from song to song.
I thumbed my way to Joni Mitchell’s remake of “Both Sides Now.” I stayed there. I listened to the entire song. Then I listened again.
I went to the patio outside the studio door and sat in a chair in the weak rays of a late winter sun, and I, in my winter, listened to the song a third time.
The song is a touchstone for me, a transport propelling me away from the present. It would have been the case with either rendition — one recording made when the singer and writer was young, the second made by a mature, wizened soul.
It is a touchstone for me because it takes me back to the first time I heard the song … about clouds, about love, about not knowing them at all.
She sang it to me 45 years ago. Back in my spring.
We were in a room at the Hotel Albert, at 10th and University, in lower Manhattan. She had just written it.
She played it, singing in the high, pure voice she had back then, playing her guitar. When she finished, I asked her to play it again, and she did.
A day or so later, my pal Claudette, the Wiccan from Boston, was with me. We were in that same room, in our ”suite” at the decrepit hotel, and I asked Joni to play the song. She did. I asked her to play it again.
It was March 1967, the counter culture momentum just building, San Francisco briefly blooming; there was a Love In scheduled at Central Park, music was everywhere, spirits were bursting at the seams, the best and the worst was in process, though no one knew it. And New York was where you had to be if you were a musician.
The music scene in New York was at its peak. And I was there, muddling my way through, a drummer in a band of crazed freaks from the mountains, wild folk from the West come to Metropolis to entertain the sophisticates, to stun with barbarity and excess.
We did it well.
And that is how I came to meet Joni, among others. At the Albert.
We were all of us moths to a flame – some destined to catch fire and fall all floating cinder to earth, some ready to move on and up, and some, like me, on the cusp of fleeing, lucky to be alive, ready to go on to other adventures.
That brief time near the flame was spectacular and, now, when I hear that song, old man that I am, my recollections glitter. I cannot remember last names, I cannot recall phone numbers and I forget appointments but, 45 years ago ... that, I remember.
I remember Mick, whose brief romance with Joni brought her into our circle. I remember Mickey, Grady, Steve, Neal. Where once I held them in disdain I now summon them with a strange tenderness. I remember our roadies, especially Chet, with the smelliest feet in New York. I remember the recording studio, recall doing session work, remember one notable session in which I clapped for an entire day, for quite a bit of money.
I can see clearly in my mind’s eye the decrepit basement of the hotel, a labyrinth of dark rooms, most unoccupied, some filled with dirty water and, at the end of the building, a dry room in which the management let us and others practice. Cockroaches were everywhere. A rat sat atop a cement wall in an abandoned boiler room and watched us as we played. The list of names of those who frequented that subterranean space is a who’s who of ’60s music.
I see the rickety elevator in the hotel, the latticed cage door brass, with the patina decades old, created by the hands of hundreds of giants and thousands of sad, small souls. There’s the dwarf who ran the snack stand; the old woman peddled halvah and peanuts for pennies. Often all I had was pennies, so all I had was halvah. I ate so much halvah that, to this day, I can’t imagine eating it again.
I remember the stage at the Balloon Farm on St. Mark’s Place, the stage at the Night Owl, the stage at The Cheetah, uptown at 53rd and Broadway.
If I close my eyes, I can see the long, narrow room at The Trauma, in Philadelphia and I can remember being so poor before payday at that club that Grady and I found broken loaves of bread in a bakery trash barrel and ate the bread sprinkled with sugar we pilfered from the restaurant below the club. I remember all the clubs where we played. I recall the woman with the short, white/blond hair who came to see us every night at the Balloon Farm, dancing alone, in motion all aglow under black lights hung beneath the balcony at the end of the hall. I can still see the crew, and Warhol, running the light show, flashing the lights on us from their perches two and three levels above us in the old Polish wedding hall.
I remember Claudette with her black hooded cape and long red hair — the witch of the Lower East Side casting spells in her search for poets who sold DMT. And there is Raina Love, the Love Goddess of the Lower East Side, a woman with a global erotic mission that ended in venereal disaster. There was the Peace Eye bookstore with Ed and Tuli, the East Village Other with its indecipherable script. I recall the huge lava lamp in the hotel room occupied by the Blues Magoos, and Baby Huey, from Baby Huey and the Babysitters, marching in lockstep with Tim Buckley and Banana, from the Youngbloods. The members of the Jefferson Airplane arrive at the Albert in March, ratty fur coats keeping the chill at bay. The Mothers live in rooms on the fifth floor.
I recall the streets — University down to the square, Bleeker on the way to the League for Spiritual Discovery where Leary and Alpert held court, McDougal and McDougal Alley, East 3rd heading to the alphabet avenues and The Annex. A dose of Sun Ra, anyone?
All of this floods as I hear that song.
I never saw Joni again after I left New York City, fleeing for my life back home to the Rockies, vowing never to sit behind a set of drums again. After all, the damned things nearly killed me. I saw few of the guys I traveled with, made music with. I know some are dead; those left are a mystery.
Joni Mitchell, like me, is a painter. I’d like to see her work in person. In fact, I’d like to meet her again, or at least correspond, to get a taste of what she recalls of that place long ago, of that time when we were barely more than children. Back when we pondered things like clouds and love. And didn’t really know much about them, at all.
It’s all like smoke, risen off a fire long extinguished. Like steam off boiling water.
I hear her song, and I am moved to the mists.
I decide to make a dish that signals those days. Perhaps a sausage and pepper sandwich, like we scored at the stand at the end of St. Mark’s Place between sets at the Balloon Farm, eating the greasy goodies as we sat on the stoop next to the stairs up to the club. We would sit there at two in the morning, part of a crowd including whoever was playing at The Dom, downstairs – Nico, the Velvet Underground, Buckley.
There’s also the omelet at the Tin Angel, the street food bought from guys with carts, the serviceable taste treats from the tiny storefront operations whose windows opened onto the street – knishes, falafel, slices.
Or the eggplant parm sandwich at the University Deli, just down the block from the Albert.
No, the sausage and peppers it will be.
I’ll thinly slice a couple white onions and ever so slowly cook them over medium heat in a heavy pan with olive oil, until they soften and begin to caramelize. I’ll remove the onions from the pan and throw in some sliced green and red Bell peppers. I’ll cook the peppers over medium-high heat until they blister and soften. When they’re done, out they’ll come.
Next into the pan, over medium high heat, go several links of hot Italian sausage, split down the middle. Both sides get cooked until they brown and give up their grease.
That grease is important. Health nuts beware, the grease stays in the pan. The onions and peppers go back into the pan with the sausages … and that gorgeous orange grease. The whole mess stays over low heat for a while, until each element takes on the characteristics of the others. Like memories of days gone by that merge one into the other.
How about a couple slices of provolone, thrown onto an Italian roll that’s been split and toasted?
On top of the cheese goes a sausage and a major wad of the onions and peppers. Make sure to get some of the grease on the mix as well — it needs to drip out when you take a bite of the sandwich.
The sandwich will be best eaten while sitting outside. At night.
Crank up some music when you eat this. Something that takes you back.
Something that reminds you of clouds.