Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Brawling Bickleys

I came across anothe "short story" style piece that's been sitting around -- think I was going for a Winesburg, Ohio style pastiche of stories with this one. That was one book in college that really hit me the right way. I think a lot of us are haunted by the concept of that book because it presents such a romantic view of small-town life, and we know it isn't like that (but want it to be). Maybe it was at that time, in the earlier part of the last century, but so much homogenization has occurred since then, so much becoming depressingly similar. Still, one of the sections was about a pair of brothers who fought constantly, based on a few key people I've known in my life, but not about any one person directly. Nasty kid stuff: enjoy.


Ted and Frank Bickley co-owned the Black Hills Creamery, a small drive-in ice-cream shop that the near-by Dairy Queen just couldn’t kill off. Their father had been the town milkman, driving from house-to-house in his van, wearing a white uniform with matching cap, dropping off bottles of milk in small wire holders and picking up the empties left by his customers. As time went on and chain supermarkets moved into the area, he realized that there was no way he could compete. As he was near retirement age and both his sons were in their 20s and at loose ends, he encouraged them to take over his small dairy farm and turn it into an ice cream shop. He passed on five years later, but in that time, he had managed to build the roadside shop, with the farm out back, so that customers could sit out front eating their ice cream at wooden picnic tables, and then wander out back for their kids to feed hay to the cows in the field. Ted and Frank had been unwilling participants in all this, but when their father died, some sense of obligation kicked in, and both rose to the occasion, going so far as to buy the next open lot to their farm and turning it into a miniature golf course. While they didn’t get rich doing this, they lived comfortably and worked hard to ensure that the locals had a better time at their creamery than at the Dairy Queen.

They lived in adjacent houses down the road from the creamery. Both were married, Frank with a small daughter, and to all the world, they appeared to be the perfect picture of loving brothers. They were, but the kids in Black Hill who grew up with Ted and Frank, now adults themselves, knew that this happy ending had seemed highly improbable for years. It was the nature of so many brothers in town that the older one, usually bigger, loved to beat the shit out of the younger one. And they could be vicious with each other. Verbally abusing each other at the drop of a hat. Searching for any weakness to exploit. A boy’s life – inflict scabs to have something to pick on.

Frank was four years younger than Ted, and they were known as the Brawling Bickleys. Their fights came about during the games the kids played. Ted was a great athlete, the kind of kid who could try any sport and immediately be the best at it. What Frank lacked in skill, he made up for in size. Although most of the kids were older than Frank, he was bigger than they were. Frank was one of those strange kids who didn’t follow the unspoken rule that older kids somehow had to be dominant. No one dominated Frank, except Ted, who was smaller than Frank but much more agile. Every time the kids played whatever sport was in season, Frank and Ted had to be on different sides. Ted was always the team captain, and one of the older boys was the other team captain, which was already an unspoken sign of resentment to Frank. It was understood that Ted would never choose Frank for his team. The point was moot, though -- invariably, because of his size and brute force, Frank would be the first kid picked on the other team.
The games were harsh enough to begin with. Kids doing splits, having their noses broken, being gouged in the eyes. Once, a kid named Troy Boychick broke his neck playing football. The general rule was no blood, no foul, and if there was blood, have a debate on whether or not to penalize. Anything went.

A few minutes into each game, Ted and Frank would start going at each other. If it was baseball, Ted would throw fastballs inside on Frank, and Frank would return the favor by blocking the plate when Ted came around to score from third, even if the play wasn’t close. Football was the worst because they could physically attack each other and get away with it. Ted went on to become the high-school’s starting quarterback, while Frank quit the team in his sophomore year because he considered high-school football too civilized. In the neighborhood games, every kid feared being hit by Frank. The unsuspecting victim would feel a hard wind blow against his back, and then Frank would drive his body into the ground. The last thing the kid would see was the ball rolling away on the green grass. He’d lay there shaking and whimpering like a dreaming dog. All he would remember was being too hurt to cry, wondering if he’d ever walk again. He’d taste grass and dirt in my mouth but not have the power to spit it out. After a few moments, his teeth would start tingling, and then he’d feel a pain in his sides as if he had laughed too hard. Everyone would stand around staring at him. Frank would ask him if he was all right, and he would nod. But the rest of that game, maybe even the rest of that season, the kid would be a non-entity on the field, unless he was on Frank’s side.

Ted and Frank antagonized each other with looks at first, and then words. Trash talking was unusual in Black Hill -- you only did it if you were going to fight someone. Frank would start calling Ted stuff like “hot-dogging faggot.” But Ted got the best of Frank by insinuating that Ted jerked off in the bathroom with their mother’s Ladies Home Journal. The way he said it, not even as a taunt, more as a fact, insinuated that there must have been some truth in it. Frank was also famous for sticking his hand into the butt of his pants then smelling his fingers. It was strange stuff, but most boys did the same thing, only not in public. This gave Ted plenty of ammunition when the taunting started.

The taunting went on until a play came along that gave them chance to go at each other, usually a potential quarterback sack on Ted. Sometimes it was so obvious that Ted would throw the ball directly at Frank as a way of getting the first shot in. Frank would tackle Ted, and they’d start a vicious fight the likes of which no one else in the neighborhood had ever been in. Full swinging, face biting, scratching -- they were worse than women. Both of them would start crying as they fought, sobbing openly as they grunted and cursed. The other kids were so used to these outbreaks that they would gather around and mentally take notes on what to do if they ever got into a real fight. That feeling of a fight -- pure tension and fear -- was never there when Ted and Frank went at it. It seemed natural, like it wouldn’t be a complete game unless Ted and Frank had it out at least once.

After a few minutes, they’d be wrapped around each other throwing painless rabbit punches. At this point, one or the other would start laughing, and the other would join in. Soon, they’d be rolling on the grass or macadam, arm in arm, laughing at each other. They’d get up with their bruises and bloody noses, slapping each other on the back and wiping their tears.

This strange ritual went on for years, until one fateful Saturday in the winter when Ted and Frank went to confession at St. Joseph’s, Black Hill’s Catholic church. The brothers were in the habit of going the first Saturday of every month, just enough time to compile enough sins to make it all worthwhile for the priest. They never knew who was on the other side of the screen. The priests in the surrounding parishes had a way of trading off with each other so that a certain priest wouldn't hear the sins from his own parish.

Most of the parishioners knew enough to whisper their sins. The church was deathly quiet on those Saturday afternoons, with only a few people in the pews whispering their penances, and the rest waiting in line by the confessional booths.

That Saturday, Ted had copped to stealing a bunch of nickels and dimes he had found buried between the sofa pillows after his father had taken a nap there. And, of course, using the Lord's name in vain, which seemed to be every kid's ace in the hole.

As Ted whispered his penance with the other parishioners, he heard Frank reciting the act of contrition in the booth. It was winter, and the church was unusually quiet, with a blanketing snow falling outside. There was Ted, a few other kids and a dozen old ladies in the church.
"Bless me father, for I have sinned ..." Frank started. In the portions where the priest would speak, Ted heard only indecipherable whispers and thought for sure that Frank would be reprimanded for talking too loud. But he went through his contrition and started listing his sins, all of which Ted heard as if Frank were sitting next to him. Ted glanced around, and he could tell that everyone else was hearing this, too, as they tried to hide their faces in their praying hands.
"I stole $20.00 from my father's wallet. I knew stealing $1.00 would have made him suspect me, and I wanted him to blame my mother instead. Which he did, and they had a big fight. I called my brother a bad word. I punched one of my friends in school on the jaw and hurt him. And forgive me, father, but I touched myself every night this week."

There were a few more whispers.

"In the bathroom before I went to bed."

More whispers.

"My older brother's Playboy magazine and two tissues."

Those gentle whispers.

"Forgive me, father. It won't happen again."

Ted was in tears, as were the other kids praying or waiting in line. The old ladies had pretended not to hear and fixed their eyes on the floor, realizing that they would have been out of line to raise their voices over a confession no one but the priest was supposed to hear. Frank came out of the booth, blushing over his sins, not realizing everyone else knew them.

When they got out in the parking lot, Ted cut into him.

“Asshole, that’s Dad’s Playboy you were jerking off to! I stole it from him. I found it hidden under one of the milk crates in the back of the truck. I guess he was too embarrassed to ask around about it.”

“What are you talking about?” Frank asked.

The other kids were gathering around, certain that another Bickley brawl was about to happen.

“Don’t you know everybody heard you in the confession booth? What, did you think I was Jesus or somehow reading your mind? And how dare you take a $20 from dad’s wallet. Forget about God … wait until Dad hears about this!”

Frank’s face turned beet red. He looked around at the other kids, all of whom were too embarrassed, and afraid, to return his gaze. Ted had his chin up. It was as though he were a lawyer who knew all the answers and only asked questions that proved this.

Instead of attacking Ted, Frank started to cry. Not a sobbing cry, but more his eyes watering too hard to stop. He just kept staring at Ted, whom it dawned on that this was no longer funny. The truth was, Ted already knew Frank’s sin of masturbation. Most nights, he would have a dream that he was surrounded by white doves, which after a certain peaceful time, would start flapping their wings and flying away. Ted would wake up, realizing that the sound of wings flapping was really Frank jerking off. He never let on to Frank that he was awake. It just seemed too embarrassing, and he did the same thing, although not nearly as much as Frank did and never with him in the same room.

The other kids started walking away, leaving only the brothers in the snowy parking lot. Eventually, they walked home together, not looking at or speaking to each other.

Ted never did tell his father about the $20, and no one ever gave Frank a hard time about his confession, lest he beat them to death. Besides, it would be hard to hold Frank accountable for something they were all doing like monkeys in a zoo. But after that day at Confession, Frank and Ted never fought. On the other hand, they didn’t seem as close, moving in different social circles. This went on for years, until their father died, at which time, something broke, and they became friends again. Whatever compelled them to beat the shit out of each other as kids no longer mattered, or even existed. It became a distant memory for those kids who grew up with Ted and Frank as they licked ice-cream cones in the cool of the evening while their kids fed hay to the cows.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

One Big Suburb

I’ve never lived in the suburbs, so I can’t truly explain why I don’t like them. The closest I came was living two years in State College, PA, which is not a suburb in any traditional sense, but most of the town, once outside the downtown/campus area, does seem like a suburb. Not quite rural, not quite urban. Higher income level among most people. Chain stores geared towards the upper side of the middle class. Folks acutely aware of property values (and what it quietly takes to maintain them).

No, when it comes to my disdain for suburbs, I’m usually referring to a suburban mentality: the concept of spoiled people living under the mistaken impression that they have the best of both worlds (rural and urban life) when the truth is they’re in some strange, expensive netherworld that didn’t exist until the 1950s. Traffic is often as bad as in the city, as is the feeling of being crammed in. But you can have your little green space, and occasionally be reminded that driving half an hour could deposit you in a truly rural area (where you wouldn’t want to live because you consider yourself somehow superior to those folks).

What alarms me most these days is the realization that New York City, in its white neighborhoods, has become a suburb … of itself. I’m talking that mentality more than anything, but I know when I’m around it. Here’s an instance that happened yesterday on my way to the gym. Sunday morning, hustling, as I always do, to get there early so I can set up the heavy bags. This is on the Upper East Side of Manhattan: very pricey, residential area, I’d guess your average studio goes for around $2K a month? I wouldn’t know. All I know is you need to make truckloads of money and/or be totally nuts to live there. Because the quality of your life will not be equivalent to the amount of money spent on rent or mortgage.

So, I’m hustling along Lexington Avenue, walking briskly. I pass by a bike shop and notice a little kid rolling his bike with training wheels out of the shop. He’s happy, really enjoying himself, has a little helmet on, I feel good seeing him. I walk past him as he’s having a hard time getting his foot/pedal coordination together. After I pass, I can see a middle-aged guy near the end of the block – obviously the kid’s father. The usual prickly-looking, WASP-y Manhattan twat: running shorts, goony bar shades, knit shirt, reeking of self importance, kind of guy who prints out daily agendas for his vacations and gets mad as a hornet when they’re not adhered to. I can hear him berating/encouraging his son: “Come on, Dylan, we’re running late, left foot, right foot, how hard can it be.”

He sounds exasperated, and I can sense the kid’s mood has darkened, now mentally shitting his pants because he’s “making Dad angry.” He eventually finds the pedals and starts picking up speed – I’m hearing all this, not seeing it, listening to the kid whimper “sorry, Dad” and such. I come up on the corner, and the walk light is clearly on – has been for a few seconds, is not flashing. In my peripheral vision, I can see a cab slow down and ease to a halt a few feet from the cross walk. I don’t break stride. No need to.

As I’m going through the cross walk, I hear Dad blurt out in an angry voice, “Look, Dylan! That’s how NOT to cross a street! That guy didn’t even look to see if anyone was coming! Don’t ever cross a street that way! Always look, and look twice, when you cross a street!”

This prick knows I can hear him; I’m only about 12 feet away. He’s barking at his kid loud enough that I could have heard him halfway down the block. And I don’t think this guy is smart enough to realize he’s exposing his kid to a much more dangerous behavior than anything to do with traffic lights. And that is: don’t humiliate strangers, because they might hurt you. Never mind that there was no need for me to do some hokey complete head turn to look at a cab that I could clearly see in my side vision was coming to a halt (and I’d have surely seen a speeding cyclist or runner, too).

What should I have done? Stopped, explained to this putz the wonders of peripheral vision (mine isn’t anything special … we all have it)? Would that have mattered to a guy like this? Run over and deck him? That would be great – possible assault charge, and this poor kid crying while Daddy watches small birds circle his head as he lays cross-eyed on the sidewalk. Indulge in Dad’s assholery and mutter “go fuck yourself” as I pass?

No. I just kept walking. That’s what you do in the city, unless there’s a real need to set someone straight. Nothing would be gained by engaging a douchebag like that in a conversation. There are no conversations with people like that – only monologues. His kid will figure out, sooner or later, that Dad’s a dick. Of course, I’d also wager he’ll be just like him one day, despite many passionate teenage assertions that this will never happen.

It occurred to me afterwards: that whole incident was suburban, not urban. You had a guy in his affluent neighborhood, thinking the world is spinning around him, living a life that is the exact antithesis of the city, i.e., a place where you should innately grasp that danger is always present. A cab stopping at a red light is not dangerous. Saying something derogatory to a passing stranger could be. It speaks to that sort of bullshit “safeness” one moves to the suburbs for that this guy didn’t grasp the possibilities of the situation, that I could have: a. been some nutcase; and b. been some nutcase who went off his nut and rained hell on his life in the next few moments.

I run into this sort of smugness all the time in Manhattan. If I took a time machine back to, say, 1950, or 1978, I would rarely encounter that attitude. (The attitude I’d encounter might be just as offensive, but not this smarmy sort of suburban privilege.) What’s worse, I can surely feel it creeping it into my neighborhood in Astoria. As noted, anywhere you find white folks living en masse in New York City, rest assured, sooner or later, real-estate vultures will start circling, and these suburban vampires will creep in over time and suck the life from any given neighborhood.

I wouldn’t even say “suck the life from” as that’s not what happens. What happens is that slow gentrification osmosis, the renters slowly becoming the property owners, the kids morphing from street toughs into private-school kids in blazers. That takes decades to occur. Right now in Astoria, we’re seeing the ascension of the renting class, the neighborhood swarming with deeply inexperienced white twenty- and sometimes even thirtysomethings who think it’s normal to spend $1K a month on a studio apartment in what’s still a fairly predominate working-class neighborhood. I’d say at first most of these people were made acutely aware of this, and a lot of them moved straight out, recognizing they were in the wrong place. But enough stayed. And then more stayed. Articles got written in all the right places. I’m convinced the Beer Garden just north of Astoria Boulevard has served as a magnet to so many of these people, drawing in that bozo contingent of Manhattanites yearning for their frat-party days at school, and instead finding quiet neighborhood streets for them to piss on at two in the morning after a hard night of beer pong. Like dogs marking their territory, they moved here.

The wrong people moved here. Plenty of white folks moved here before me in 1997, and I can assure you, they got a full dose of Astoria as-is … with the beautiful proposition that since they were living in a gritty working-class neighborhood, they were going to pay sane rent and not have their asses kissed by the locals.

And that’s the crucial difference between “intelligent” folks who moved here back then and in the past few years. We expected to move to a gritty neighborhood and acclimate ourselves to it, become part of it, somehow fit in with the lay of the land. These people expect to move into a place that acclimates to them, which it hadn’t for years, but you can see plenty of retail signs of that slow bending to their will. Their sense of expectation is revolting, like something you’d see in a small, spoiled child. This is upbringing. Values. In short, the suburbs.

What changed? Virtually nothing. The neighborhood is roughly the same. Just more of those wondrous white, college-educated white folks, of which I’m one, although I should point out I’d have never moved here had the rents back then been anywhere near what they have been since 2000 or so. I’ve never been caught up in a gentrifying neighborhood and had no idea how genuinely inhumane this process is, the inherent, putrid racism and classism that’s part of it. The quality of life these folks bring to this neighborhood, to me, is no better than what was already here. It surely isn’t twice as good, thus rents and property values being twice as high.

These people are not desirable: they’re careless, the quality I dislike about them most. They just don’t genuinely give a shit about anything. Not in a dangerous way. In a way that suggests they come from some sterile environment where money to burn is a given with them and everyone they know. And they have no empathy for anyone not functioning on that financial level. (It’s not so much that they don’t empathize – it’s just that poor people, you know, they’re not, like, fun.) Their lives make no sense without monetary value attached to everything, thus the concept of paying far too much for a shithole apartment in an oddly unfriendly neighborhood makes sense to them. (And Astoria can be unfriendly in a strange way – not in a horrifying way, more in an annoying, 718 way – it’s the first thing I felt when I moved here and still have issues with, but I’ve honestly felt that as more of a “Queens” thing I’ve sense in other neighborhoods, too, in the borough.)

Their values, so closely tied in with money, eventually steamroll everything in their path. It’s class warfare of the worst kind (the kind you can’t fight), like a quiet neutron bomb slowly going off over the course of years. The landscape stays the same, but the people who were once there are gone. I don’t think the Greeks here grasp that cold fact and what’s going on. In a few years, they won’t want to live here. The Greek restaurants, diners and social clubs will slowly disperse and fade. The people they’ve known all their lives will slowly pass on or move out. Sure, those lucky enough to own their properties will make a small fortunes selling their over-valued homes, but where do they go? They’re basically going to sell their neighborhood, and their heritage, out from underneath themselves … to a bunch of people who don’t give a fuck about anything but status.

You can see this happening with local businesses. There are empty storefronts all along Steinway, the main shopping drag in Astoria, not because of “the economy” or what have you, but because the chiseling bastards who own these properties are waiting for big-name chains to roll in and pay extortionate retail rents. They don’t want Mom-and-Pop restaurants or delis; they want Bed Bath and Beyond, or Trader Joe’s. You know, shit-ass chain stores for spoiled suburbanites … who want their home transferred straight into the heart of the city so they don’t have to do their real shopping at generic malls when they visit Mom and Step Pop. (Places like Trader Joe’s are just as revolting as Walmart – they’re just smaller, slower on the draw and geared towards an audience that’s essentially dumber than the Walmart crowd because they’re college-educated, but can’t grasp they’re being played the same way. I tip my cap to that chain’s founders for their ingenuity.)

Recently, a longstanding produce stand called Top Tomato closed down on Ditmars Boulevard. It was pretty shocking – the place had been there for years, a long store taking up half the block, open 24 hours, sort of a neighborhood staple. (I didn't like shopping there -- the female [not American] Indian cashiers were oddly indifferent and sometimes flat-out rude.) Why did it close? Their decades-long lease came due, and you know the landlord, these days, isn’t going to say how about a 6% raise? No, I’m guessing their rent would have doubled or tripled. That strip of retail now sits barren, odd-looking in the heart of a neighborhood. But, I’m sure there’s an over-priced coffee shop or suburban chain on the horizon, and you’ll have dozens of people gushing over its arrival, happy that the same sort of bland, pricey junk they bought in college and at home is now just around the corner.

One of the few places I drink in the neighborhood, O’Hanlon’s Bar, just underneath the Ditmars train station, now has a new neighbor in a retail spot that’s changed hands a few times in the past two years. Was originally a small Greek restaurant that made great gyros. Can’t recall what it was after that. But a shiny new bar has opened up, numerous widescreen TVs hanging over the bar, bright lights, wide open doors, booths, glitzy wall hangings, shining taps.

It’s one of those “fuck you” openings, purposely next to O’Hanlon’s, which has been there for decades, and I mean before World War II. Some folks think O’Hanlon’s is a dive, and I’m glad they feel that way, because they don’t know shit about bars. It does attract a more working-class crowd in the late afternoon, guys getting off work, having beers, watching Jeopardy and such. And it shifts slightly at night to a younger crowd, but real people for the most part, not frat-boy goons or flip-flop hipsters. You can walk in there, get a drink, sit back, and no one’s going to fuck with or look down on you. It has a good jukebox. I’ve never had a problem there. (Although admittedly, they’re cheap on the drink specials, so I generally find myself having drinks with friends at various Lower East Side bars that have happy-hour specials ensuring $3.00 pints up to 8:00 pm, which is a great price anywhere for imported beer on tap. And I’m always in the bag by eight.)

Most people who drink at O’Hanlon’s will shun this new place like the plague. I doubt I’ll ever set foot in there either. But I checked a neighborhood website and have already seen folks gushing over it … for no obvious, stated reason … other than that it’s open and it’s geared towards moneyed gentry. The kind of people who would shun O’Hanlon’s like the plague. Not recognizing that bar has more to do with the neighborhood, the heart of where they live, than they ever will. If this new place had drink specials like $3.00 pints and such, hell, yes, I would give it a shot. But it won’t. These places never do in Astoria. I’m guessing the big-screen TVs mean a sports-bar crowd, but who knows. It’s way too flashy and out-of-place for the old neighborhood … but probably just right for people who don’t mind dropping $8.00 on a pint.

Hell, even the older gay bars in Queens have been traditionally neighborhood places. Every Saturday on my way back from the gym, I pass by The Albatross, a gay bar just north of Astoria Boulevard, more than likely a one-stop shop for all the closeted gay corporate gents on their way home on the Long Island Expressway to pop in and remind themselves who they really are. It’s a pretty typical neighborhood bar, no frills, save it has a gay clientele – frankly, if I was gay, I’d be there all the time, just seems like a perfect kick-back place for folks to go to and feel like they belong, without getting gouged or overly stylized.

This goes a lot deeper for me than bars and stores and apartments. The gentrification I’ve seen going on, and have actually been caught up in for once (after years of living in a Bronx neighborhood that doesn’t appear to be in any danger of this happening) just goes against my grain, which is not working class, no matter what you think, but just the simple realization that people with money are no better than people without money. You don’t have to be working-class to see that. If that sounds like simple common sense to you, I can tell you it isn't. Surely not in New York.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Willy DeVille

Back in early August, Willy DeVille quietly passed away from pancreatic cancer a few weeks shy of his 59th birthday.

I’d recommend reading the Wikipedia link for an interesting story. Born William Borsey, Jr. in a working-class part of Stamford, CT in 1950 of Irish, Basque and Indian descent. Street kid, left town as a teenager, rolled around as a musician, New York, San Francisco, London. Eventually found his way back to New York, around the mid-70s when the CBGB’s scene was taking off, and made a name for himself fronting the 70s punk/new wave band Mink Deville. Ran his course with them, went solo, had a minor hit with “Storybook Love” from The Princess Bride soundtrack, moved to New Orleans, then the Southwest, falling in and out with heroin all the while, finally kicked the habit, moved back to New York in the early part of the century, diagnosed with Hepatitis C earlier this year, at which time he learned he also had pancreatic cancer, and he was gone by August.

Those are some of the bare facts. What’s missing is the music, and before a few weeks ago, I was pretty uninformed about Willy DeVille. I only had Mink Deville’s first album on CD, used to have the second, and their last album, Sportin’ Life, on vinyl. Sportin’ Life might have threw me off his track for years. I recall finding it in a cutout bin at Sounds on St. Marks Place for a buck, gave it a try, and it was standard Willy DeVille sounding stuff with a very bad 80s production sheen.

What was the standard Willy DeVille sound? That’s the weird part, and something that should have struck me a lot more than it did until after his passing. He came out of that CBGB’s scene in the mid-70s, yet listening to that album again, I can hear he had nothing to do with that scene, and much more to do with the sound of the early 60s in New York, songs by Doc Pomus, that romantic “street” sound. Think of songs like “Stand by Me,” “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “You Better Move On.” You take those three songs, the rhythms, lyrics and feel, and you have the essence of Willy DeVille when he started. I had no idea where he came from at the time – I had assumed he was a Puerto Rican kid from Spanish Harlem. That was the look he affected: pompadour hair, tough-guy street looks, etc.

I can’t even recall how I came to buy a Mink DeVille album – probably read about it before I had heard anything. All I know is that when I put the needle down on "Venus of Avenue D” and the song shifted gears on the line, “In the back room the boys/They’re talking about you” I was won over. Just one of those moments in rock, the lead guitar kicking in, accenting the pounding drums and piano riff. And I knew Avenue D was a truly shitty part of New York City. (Still isn’t that hot, although gentrification really did a number on Avenues A and B … haven’t walked down past Avenue A in years, but recall a few “instructive” trips in the late 80s.) All he did was update a song like “Spanish Harlem,” writing about light being found in unlikely places in the city, and making it his job to preserve that delicate, unexpected beauty through his song.

It’s plain as day to me now, but since Mink Deville were packaged as punks, I didn’t catch on that Willy DeVille was a romantic revisionist. Those first two albums are a tribute to that early 60s Doc Pomus vibe, the street tough with a heart of gold, think of the working-class guy in “Uptown” by The Crystals who doesn’t make any sense in the world until he’s walking the streets of his ratty neighborhood. While it may not have fit in on the surface of the CBGB’s scene, it did more: reached back to roots stronger and more lasting than what was going on at the time and somehow updated the sound with a more gritty feel. It was about as un-punk as you could get – then again, that was the whole message of the bands who made it big from that scene, they were never all that punk (think Talking Heads, Blondie, Television, etc.). The Ramones were it for punk, and when you get down to it, they were just like Willy DeVille, grabbing onto the past and twisting into something he could call his own.

I never followed up on that initial interest in Mink Deville. I think at the time I pictured the band as being too slick – Willy fancied himself a dandy: skinny ties, European suits, pencil-thin mustache, slicked-back hair. It was a cool image, but it seemed odd to me at the time, just didn’t connect. (At various times in his life, he looked like: a Puerto Rican street kid, an Italian fashion victim, Vincent Price, a New Orleans dandy circa 1890, a biker, a vampire, an American Indian … it goes on.) I frankly never connected with DeVille for a long time. I pulled Sportin’ Life from a used bin on a lark, and it didn’t move me.

My loss. After his recent passing, I started thinking about Willy DeVille a lot. Remembered the promise of those early songs. And in some weird way, I grew into his sound again, this time for real, getting it the way someone who’s spent a few decades in the city can understand implicitly, but more importantly, grabbing onto that romantic sense of respecting the past. (It took me decades to realize the past is always with us, whether we like it or not. Consider it your shadow.)

I poked around the web and found a few treasure chests of his albums. (Email me privately if you want some tips.) And I found many of his albums are now hard to find – either expensive imports or simply out of print. So I was more than glad to do the Rapidshare thing this time, nailing down most of his catalog.

And I feel like I lost a friend I never knew I had. Much like Warren Zevon, DeVille truly took off when people en masse stopped paying attention. He grew. He explored all types of music, and found he could play them. He wrote great songs that are as elemental and true as those of his heroes, songwriters like Doc Pomus. In listening to his albums over the past two weeks, I’ve heard him run the gamut in terms of sounds and influences: Springsteen, Van Morrison, early 60s pop, the Stones, the blues, Mellencampish country rock, Tom Waits, Buddy Holly. He even had a celtic-sounding song! And he never lost it. His last album, Pistola, came out last year, and has a few winners on it. (Try “So So Real” from that album.)

But through it all, and something I never fully understood, he had that underlying latin rhythm to all his work. And, again, that was more tribute to songwriters like Doc Pomus and the sort of lilting rhythms they infused their songs with. “Save the Last Dance for Me” is a latin shuffle. A lot of those graceful ballads from the early 60s were.

That rhythm must have spoken to the Spanish side of DeVille’s heritage. So with that song, you had a nebbish Jewish songwriter writing a Spanish shuffle for a bunch of black do-wop singers. It was that sort of cross-cultural sharing that once made American pop music so great … and is totally lost and destroyed now. DeVille grasped that sort of quiet diversity and used it himself, much more when Mink Deville faded away as a band, and he was left to his own devices. Basically, he recorded albums that were very good, but went nowhere in America. Apparently, they love him in Europe, in France and Spain particularly. I recall a big controversy over Le Chat Bleau, his 1979 album with Mink Deville that was at first rejected by his American record company, released in Europe, did very well, then came out here to critical accolades (but so-so sales). It may sound like a standard album today, but back then, nobody was putting out albums like that. Los Lobos would come around a few year later and have a similar sound, but they didn’t have DeVille’s eclecticism – one song would sound like Springsteen, another like the Drifters, another like Edith Piaf. That sort of shit mows down critics, but does nothing for record companies, who rarely know how to market something that daring.

DeVille was very similar to another European icon who is nobody in America: Chris Rea. If you don’t recall, Rea had a big hit in the late 70s with the soft-rock classic “Fool (If You Think It’s Over).” If that’s where your grasp of Rea ends, you’re missing out on a decades-long career spanning a few dozen albums, with nearly each one sounding new and different, branching off into the blues, traditional European instrumentation, rockabilly, soul, celtic … and so many more influences. He’s had a remarkable career, and you’d be hard-pressed to find his CDs in most retail stores, much less meet anyone who’s even remotely aware of his music.

Like Rea, DeVille somehow found a way to keep making music, and not just punching the clock, putting out really challenging, interesting music. Of course, I’m a bit of a bullshit artist, because none of this was made clear to me until about two weeks after his death. Again, it was like finding a friend I never knew I had. And I’m more than glad now to spread the word. When I listen to Willy DeVille now, I hear someone who should have been a lot more popular than he was. But given that he became harder to pin down musically as he aged, that would have been hard to do without a massive fan base already in place leading up to that sort of exploration. Maybe he was better off that way, at least creatively if not financially. There’s some kind of freedom in not having to worry about what record companies and millions of fans want.

I’ll include three links to MP3s below to give you a sampling of some of my favorites:

“Southern Politician” by Willy DeVille

“Bamboo Road” by Willy DeVille

“Stand by Me (live at Montreux 1982)” by Mink Deville

So long, Willy. You are not forgotten, and sorry it took me so long to come around. You deserved better than what you got. Then again, if you had the chance to make this kind of music and go on living, you were doing something right.