Did he still love her in spite of his knowledge of her? He looked into his weary soul for the true answer, and found it soon enough. Yes, he did, God help him. He adored her, and he would never do otherwise. After all his firmness he has just blurted out as much to her. Whatever she had done, whatever he knew about her, she could never be sordid—she was too beautiful to look at and be with; she was still too incredibly lovely. She just took him that way, and there was no use fighting it. She was not a mercenary slut in Earl’s Court. She was violets and primroses in an April rain, and her cheek and lips, the breath of violets and primroses, lingered on his mouth, stupefying him with pleasure and longing.
Patrick Hamilton, Hangover Square, pp. 269-270
You're so desirable
I just can't resist you
You're so desirable
I have to give in
That firm resolve I made
Has vanished away now
I'm happy to say now
You're so adorable
The moment I saw you
It's just deplorable
The fool that I've been
And yet I'm glad
You've got my heart dear
Like a butterfly on a pin
You're so desirable
I had to give in
Ray Noble, “You’re So Desirable,” sung by Billie Holiday
It is often the case that what can be done in a novel cannot be done in a song, and vice versa. As much as one can string things together—Bob Dylan and Arthur Rimbaud, Jack Kerouac and Charlie Parker, Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck—attempts to commensurate music and writing usually amount to a lot of intellectual grappling. The connection between Hangover Square and “You’re So Desirable” is more psychic than scholarly, as if some unknown force alighted the same feelings in two people separated by sea and by culture. But even psychic forces alight with logic.
“You’re So Desirable” was penned by Ray Noble, a British bandleader who relocated to America in 1934, where he led the orchestra at the Rainbow Room, on the top floor of Rockefeller Center. By all outward appearances, Noble was the opposite of George Harvey Bone, the impotent anti-hero of Hangover Square. Slim and handsome, with a manicured mustache, Noble slowly climbed the ladder of success, working his way from London to New York to Hollywood, where he appeared in television, movies and radio. He wrote several songs that went on to become standards, including “The Very Thought of You,” “Goodnight, Sweetheart,” and “Cherokee,” the last of which became a blueprint for Charlie Parker and the architects of bebop.
“You’re So Desirable” is one of Noble’s less-regarded songs, and one of Holiday’s less-regarded performances. Yet, it is the kind of song in which Billie Holiday specialized. She had an unsurpassed talent for extracting unseen pain from seemingly innocuous pop songs. Holiday’s critics were happiest when she was working with the blues that most clearly suited her persona. “Strange Fruit” and “God Bless the Child” remain her most popular pieces because they write her sorrow in blatant terms. Still, I’ve always felt her power most strongly on pieces like “Mandy Is Two.” It is hard to imagine a more utterly saccharine piece of songwriting, but Holiday opens in it new hallways. In her hands the once-smarmy couplets now suggest a complex history of familial strain. Great singers find the darkness lurking within songs and emphasize it. That is poetry, but Holiday did more. She transformed waste into wealth. That is alchemy.
Noble’s song appears harmless, but it isn’t as vacant as the critics claim. Unlike “Mandy Is Two,” which is no more than drivel on paper, “You’re So Desirable” shows keyholes and compartments. It’s almost as if Noble left treasure buried within his song, hidden to all but the most deserving of singers. There is something genuinely romantic about being struck by hopeless love, and dozens of jazz singers have played songs like this for romance. Maybe Ray Noble was trying for something romantic when he wrote “You’re So Desirable.” But Holiday has only to upturn a series of well-placed stones to elucidate all the ugly business of Hangover Square. Vanished. Deplorable. Fool. Holiday locates these words and hangs the song on them. These are thorns on a rose, the points that cut when you rub a soft song backwards. They gave Holiday the ability to express in two stanzas what Hamilton swam in for 300 pages.
The love described here is not a happy accident. It is a bitter affliction, a slow unwanted doom. George Harvey Bone’s reflection in Holiday’s rendition of "You're So Desirable" might be dimmer if it weren’t for that closing couplet. It seems implausible that an entire novel could be summarized in just a few lines, but one can’t hear Holiday sing these words and not apprehend the whole scope of George Harvey Bone and Netta Langdon, history’s most hateful lovers.
You've got my heart dear
Like a butterfly on a pin
You're so desirable
I had to give in
Ray Noble and Patrick Hamilton were born exactly three months apart and within miles of each other, in Brighton, England. While their careers took sharply different paths—Noble lived to a ripe age after a successful career as a mainstream entertainer, while Hamilton died early, a frustrated, alcoholic and largely unheralded writer—it is certain they were both familiar with the world of clammy pubs and desperate cliques depicted in Hangover Square. If they never met they are at least bound through Billie Holiday, a singer who shared nothing with them but a hopelessness that only she could express with such brief and withering clarity.
Chris Bell: Psychedelic Stuff (demo)
(Recorded at Ardent Studios, circa 1969)
Alex Chilton: The EMI Song (Smile For Me) (original mono mix)
(From the 1970 sessions, 1970)
Big Star: I Got Kinda Lost (demo) & In the Street (alternate take)
(From the #1 Record sessions, 1971)
Big Star: Another Time, Another Place and You (instrumental backing track)
(From the #1 Record sessions, 1971)
Alex Chilton: Oh Dana & Kizza Me
(Live on WLYX, Memphis, 1975)
Alex Chilton: The Lion Sleeps Tonight & Interview segment
(Live on "Rock of Ages," KUT-FM, University of Texas, Austin, October 1978)
For a band that only existed for a brief spell, Big Star left a lot of peripheral material in its wake. As with the lost works of Bob Dylan, or The Replacements, Big Star's unreleased recordings are patchy, but taken as a whole they illuminate the band's evolution as clearly, if not more, than the official output.
"Psychedelic Stuff" is the product of Chris Bell's high-school internship at Ardent Studios. John Fry, Ardent's proprietor, grew fond enough of Bell to allow him to record his own music in the studio on the nights when it wasn't booked. Bell must have felt like a kid in a candy shop. "Psychedelic Stuff" is the sound of one teenager's delirious discovery of the possibilities of the studio. It's more of a science experiment than a song, but you can't help but be charmed by Bell's enthusiasm as he excitedly pastes together mimicked bits from his favorite records by The Beatles, The Yardbirds, and The Who. And yet even as an amateur mash "Psychedelic Stuff" reveals something crucial about Bell's future shortcomings. It came easy to Bell to cook up a dazzling display of guitar parts, but finding the song underneath it all would always be a struggle.
Around the time that Bell was stealing studio hours at Ardent, Chilton was recording his first solo album in the same building. Chilton put together 1970 with the support of his Memphis pals Terry Manning and Richard Rosebrough. The album was Chilton's first attempt to establish himself as a solo artist independent of the Box Tops, and its schizophrenic array of Sticky Fingers-style rock, sarcastic C&W, and vulnerable pop music reflect its author's creative indecision. On some songs Chilton still uses the faux-gruff voice that Dan Penn had indoctrinated in him, but in the "The EMI Song" one starts to see the common ground on which Chilton and Bell would build Big Star. Bell heard "The Emi Song" and instantly recognized a fellow Todd Rundgren fanatic.
"I Got Kinda Lost" is a song that Bell labored over for years, and eventually found release on I Am the Cosmos. Much is made of Bell's Beatles obsession, but "I Got Kinda Lost" betrays his love for Neil Young, specifically the Crazy Horse of "Winterlong" and "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere." (A cover "Cinnamon Girl" was an early staple of the Big Star live set.) The demo is an example of how Chilton could help turn a dull Bell song into a great Big Star song. The guitar solo in "In the Street" is the ultimate example of Chilton's ability to deliver a guitar phrase in 15 seconds flat, as if cracking the top off a soda bottle. No guitarist is so free and so tuneful in the same moment, and in the blazing alternate take of "In the Street" he plays like George Harrison touched by the spirit of Jimi Hendrix.
Though it was never finished, the hypnotic, oscillating rhythm of "Another Time, Another Place, and You" could have brought #1 Record to a perfect close. Excising the sappy "Watch the Sunrise" and the tossed-off melodrama of "ST 100/6" in favor of this pensive, stoned instrumental might have made the all-acoustic second side of #1 Record a precursor to Neil Young's downer opus On the Beach. It would have peeled from #1 Record some of its strained mainstream aspirations, and in its final moments built a bridge between the Bell era and the staggered tempos of Radio City, and even beyond that to the lavish dilapidation of Sisters Lovers.
You could say Chilton's solo career starts with his live radio performance on WLYX Memphis in early 1975. For the band's first public appearance since recording Sisters Lovers, Chilton showed up with Jody Stephens (who delivers makeshift percussion), along with an entourage that included his friends Pat Rainer, Randy Romano and Beth Hudson. I can't say that these renditions of "Oh Dana" and "Kizza Me" best the album versions, but in these performances the songs are wrought for every drop of rage and resentment. On the record, "Oh Dana" is played with a collapsing grandeur. Here it conveyed in chokes and stabs. Meanwhile, Chilton chafes the chords of "Kizza Me" and reduces the groove to a lacerating thrust. Sarcasm and self-sabotage would become hallmarks of Chilton's music over the next few years, but I don't hear irony in these performances. At their core these are violent, spiteful songs that demand malevolence to be played truthfully.
By the time Chilton showed up to play a series of Texas gigs in fall 1978, he was intent on not only destroying Big Star's legacy, but his own reputation as a songwriter and singer. Enamored by punk, Chilton's party line was to be as offensive as possible and his performance on Neil Ruttenberg's late-night "Rock of Ages" program was notable for its inclusion of "Riding Through the Reich," a Nazi satire set to the tune of "Jingle Bells." Chilton played several songs from Like Flies on Sherbert, including "I've Had It," "No More the Moon Shines on Lorena," and "Waltz Across Texas." Inspired by his newfound cohorts the Cramps, Chilton was exploring his love for Fifties rock, and the highlight here is "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," which despite its mangled reading emits the night's only genuine good cheer. The background vocals are provided by a now-requisite gaggle of female hangers-on, which on this occasion included Austin scenesters Donna Rose and Susan Bunn, and New York punk photographer Stephanie Chernikowski.
In the interview segments Chilton enthuses about the art-rock of The Cramps, Devo, and Brian Eno. His speaking voice is unbearable, its jaded, effete tone setting the standard for an oncoming generation of rock snobs. It's always shameful to see musicians admired, and even rewarded for this kind of spiteful, condescending attitude, but there's something especially pathetic about Chilton's interview here. Big Star had helped him to untangle the embarrassing baggage of the Box Tops, but here his personal and creative gains appear lost to a new, bigger black hole of self-loathing and disengagement. Chilton was nearing thirty but punk had given him an excuse to regress to the spoiled insolence of his teenage years.
When Ruttenberg inquires after Big Star, the only response Chilton can muster is to blame the break-up of the band on Chris Bell's homosexuality (which was never public acknowledged, or even confirmed). Bell died a few months after this interview, but that isn't what makes my skin crawl. Anyone can empathize with Chilton's desire to escape his past, but his willful desecration of a band that once symbolized cooperative synergy and optimism was proof that even the heart that birthed "Thirteen" could turn black. Selling his former partner up the river in the name of a crude joke asserts a cynicism so all-consuming and noxious that the spirit of the band would never recover. No amount of reunion gigs can change the fact that this is the moment in which Big Star died.
Big Star: Femme Fatale
Big Star: Downs
Big Star: Kizza Me
From Third/Sisters Lovers
(Recorded in Memphis, Tennessee, late 1974/ early 1975)
Every scene has its own Lesa Aldridge. She is the precocious local barfly, foxy and damaged, always on the arms of the boys in the band. It’s a separate species of groupie from the world’s Nancy Spungens, Anita Pallenbergs, and Courtney Loves, lost causes who attach themselves to rock stars and swallow them like cancer. Aldridge was more like Miles Davis’s Betty Mabry, a catalyzing muse who made talent and trouble indistinct.
The daughter of a Mississippi minister, Aldridge settled in Memphis in her teen years. She was was initially introduced to Alex Chilton, but Andy Hummel was the first to date her. “Her family died tragically and her mother left for a protracted period and it was just Lesa with her two very little brothers and sisters and me hanging around,” says Hummel. “She was a senior in high school at the time. I just hung with her extensively at their house in Midtown and we dreamed dreams of a better life and stuff.”
Lesa entered the Big Star circle through her second cousin, William Eggleston, whose photos were used for the covers of #1 Record and Radio City. Though he is now lionized as the patriarchal dandy of fine art photography, in the macrocosm of 1970s Memphis Eggleston was simply “Bill,” the aging outcast aristocrat who loafed around town on his family’s dime and still drank with the college kids. “Bill was a major hell raiser,” says Andy Hummel. “As were Alex and me at the time. We drank a lot, stayed out all night, and took all manner of drugs. Bill had no visible means of support that I could ever make out. He just drank like a fish, stayed out all night, screwed all the twenty-year-old girls he could find, and took lots of wonderful pictures. I never did understand why his family put up with it.”
During this period Eggleston was hauling a $10,000 large-format camera into bars in an attempt to catalog the faces of Memphis nightlife. In the afterlife of one night’s party, Lesa was comforting her best friend on a floral sofa when Eggleston photographed them. From Smithsonian Magazine:
The details are a bit sketchy now, but everyone agrees the picture was taken in Memphis, Tennessee, on a late summer night in 1973. Karen Chatham, the young woman in blue, recalls that she had been out drinking when she met up with Lesa Aldridge, the woman in red. Lesa didn't drink at the time, but both were 18, the legal age then. As the bars closed at 3 a.m., the two followed some other revelers to a friend's house nearby. In the mix was a 30-something man who had been taking pictures all night. "I always thought of Bill as just like us," Karen says today, "until years later, when I realized that he was famous."
The picture was taken on the night before she left home for her freshman year at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Her mother had made the red dress, patterning it after an Austrian folk costume. At the after-hours party, Karen was crying and "really distraught about some boy trouble," Lesa remembers. In order to talk in private, they went into a bathroom, where Karen somehow managed to fall into a bathtub full of water. After she dried off, she put on a blue velour robe that was hanging behind the door. Then the two camped out in the next room and resumed talking.
"Suddenly, in the periphery, I heard Eggleston say, 'Oh, what a beautiful picture,'" Lesa says. "And then people were setting up lights and it was like Hollywood or something." Neither young woman paid them much heed. "I was just in that little world with Karen," Lesa says. "I was so used to Eggleston taking pictures everywhere we went that summer that it didn't even faze me," Karen says.
In the years that followed, Eggleston became the world’s most famous art photographer, and his untitled portrait of Lesa and Karen became one of his signature images. Though few admirers know her name, Eggleston’s photo transmits Lesa's fragrance, and even the way she wears her watch tells you everything you need to know. Around the time this photo was taken she started dating Chilton, and in those draped curls and unfurled posture Big Star’s last record was born.
By spring 1974, Hummel had left the band, Radio City had been released, and the two remaining Big Star members were both dating Aldridges. Alex had Lesa, and Jody Stephens had Holliday. That fall work started on the third Big Star album, and Chilton and Stephens had re-named their group “Sisters Lovers” to poke fun at their incestuous romantic arrangement.
As it swings from wide-eyed wonder to self-immolation, Big Star’s third album (variously known as Third, Sisters Lovers, or Beale St. Green) mirrors the tumult of Chilton’s affair with Aldridge. By all accounts, it was a doomed inseparability that entailed all-night cycles of fighting, making-up, drinking and drug abuse. Soaked in feverish sex and narcotic terror, Big Star’s third album isn’t the product of a proper band, but incidental accompaniment to the couple’s private drama.
The third LP has been variously credited to Chilton and Stephens, Chilton and producer Jim Dickinson, and Chilton alone, but above all it is the product of Chilton’s twisted partnership with Aldridge. She haunts every song and manifests herself in hidden corners. She sang Nico’s part on “Femme Fatale” and collaborated with Chilton for “Downs,” an avant-garde prank that has Chilton blathering truths about his drug-addled love life:
Flustered and erratic
'Cept when I lie with you
Naked on a Southern love
Any downs at all
Throughout the “Sisters Lovers” sessions Chilton encouraged Lesa’s creativity. Aldridge provided diaphanous deadpan vocals to covers of The Velvet Underground’s “That’s the Story of My Life” and The Kinks’ “Til the End of the Day,” neither of which ever saw release. Following the final dissolution of Big Star in 1975, they formed a cacophonous acoustic trio with Lesa's old pal Karen Chatham and called it Gangrene and the Scurvy Girls. The group made “Downs” sound like The Carpenters and they only lasted a few gigs. The Aldridge-Chilton union ran aground shortly thereafter. Lesa found a new guy, and a dejected Chilton wrote “My Rival,” an anthem for the spurned and incoherent:
I’m gonna stab him on arrival
Shoot him dead with my rifle
My rival, he stole my girl away
In 1980, Aldridge ended the relationship for good when she left Memphis and moved to the northeast with her mom. She is now a mother of three and a high-school English instructor in Nashville. I can only hope that each year when she teaches Lolita, a few of her students dig up the Eggleston portrait and go on to uncover the damaged love affair that lies just beyond its quiet, painterly facade . In his photo Eggleston captured her spell, but its effects are imprinted in the violent gyrations of “Kizza Me,” where Chilton delivers the chorus in an exclamation of exasperation:
I want to feel you, yeah
Though Alex Chilton gets the most attention, Big Star was always Chris Bell’s band. As Chilton explains, “Chris’s band was already in place when I joined. And they weren’t very big on R&B, or black music, at all. So I just sort of did what the original concept of their band was. I tried to present things that were compatible with the concept of this group that was already in place. When I say ‘they,’ I guess I’m really referring to Chris. I just tried to get with Chris’s stylistic approach as well as I could. And then, even after he left the band, I sort of stayed with the basic concept that he originated.”
The Beatles achieved worldwide popularity during Bell’s high school years, but in Memphis, the cradle of black American music, Bell could still wear British pop as a badge of his outsider status. There were frequent dances at Bell’s high school, the elite Memphis University School, but the local bands invariably played R&B and current chart hits. Thus, Christmas Future was born, and the brand of sweetened pop practiced by Bell’s high school group worked as an unlikely act of rebellion. “It was mostly soul music in high school,” Bell explained in a 1975 interview. “So we decided to start a kind of underground movement in order to get a group together; a group that would just play English music. The audience hated most of it really. They would come and ask for ‘I Feel Good’ by James Brown and we would play ‘I Feel Fine’ by the Beatles.”
Bell’s anglophilia extended past his musical interests. He and his girlfriend, Carole Ruleman, spent “a lot of sweltering summer afternoons” watching British imports at the Guild, an art house cinema at Poplar and Belvedere. “We loved Morgan with David Warner and Vanessa Redgrave, and another favorite was Georgie Girl with Alan Bates, Lynn Redgrave, and Charlotte Rampling," Ruleman remembers. "We must have seen it five or six times. First we had to sit through these embarrassing trailers for this voyeuristic erotica called I, a Woman. The actress was nude and studying her body in a mirror to this grandiose voice-over that repeatedly boomed ‘I, a Woman,’ ‘I, a Woman,’ ‘I, a Woman.’ We were such kids. We were both embarrassed. Every time we saw the promo we’d crack up, and find ourselves sinking lower and lower into the seats. Then sliding deeper into the theater chairs was the joke, and we’d laugh and laugh until the trailer was finally over. Then Georgie Girl came on, and we were transported to England.”
The Beatles and Stones grew up lonely in England, idolizing the South's black American blues, while Alex Chilton and Chris Bell grew up lonely in the South, idolizing the tune and whimsy of Britannia. They personified an inverted British Invasion. You could liken Bell’s disposition in 1960s Memphis to a kid in 1920s Harlem being obsessed with Italian opera, but don’t underestimate the importance of contrarianism to the formation of the adolescent identity. Or maybe Bell was just born into a loneliness that naturally guided him toward interests that left him in the minority. Either way, just as Big Star endure as a symbol for every band at odds with its time and place, Bell symbolizes every erudite youth who longs for culture beyond what his town can offer.
Like a lot of bright, restless kids who forge an identity in opposition to life in their hometown, Bell saw himself as exceptional, and felt certain he would make art to match his heroes. His tragic flaw was that he couldn’t enact the talent he saw in himself. Meeting Alex Chilton was Bell’s saving grace, and his downfall. Chilton germinated the great band that Bell desperately wanted but also decimated Bell’s image of himself as a genius-in-waiting.
Everything that Bell wanted seemed to come easy to Chilton. Bell had “Try Again,” Chilton had “Thirteen.” Bell had “My Life Is Right,” Chilton had “The Ballad of El Goodo.” Chilton was a better singer and a better songwriter. Plus, he was cooler. By age 18 Chilton had experienced the world as a rock star. While Bell was at the Guild, Chilton was laying chicks every night, jamming with Beach Boys and Doors, partying in Paris and L.A. Chilton had already tasted success. He didn’t have near as much to prove as Bell, and his wants weren't as clear or as potent. Where Bell was anxious and controlling, Chilton was carefree and self-destructive. For Chilton the art house titillation of I, a Woman would’ve been just another excuse to make it with his date.
Ostensibly Bell’s control freak tendencies and schizophrenic outbursts led him to leave Big Star in late 1972, but his combative behavior only masked the resentment and intimidation he felt in the face of Chilton’s effortless talent. #1 Record is a product of collaborative chemistry (just listen to “Feel” and “In the Street”), but its ingredients are uneven. There is exchange--Chilton gave Bell his band, and Bell enabled Chilton to find his natural voice as a singer--but ultimately it was Chilton that gave the group life.
Bell left the band to prove himself apart from Chilton but his absence only brought the lopsidedness of Big Star into brighter light. When Bell was removed from the equation, Chilton created Radio City and Sisters Lovers, by most accounts the best albums Big Star ever made. Chilton's theft of Bell's band wasn't malicious, or even intentional. The second and third Big Star albums illuminate Chilton's gifts as surely as they overshadow the sad fate of Bell, an architect unable to build his own house, let alone inhabit the designs of his dreams.
Big Star began in February 1971, when Alex Chilton and Chris Bell bumped into each other at Ardent Studios and collaborated on an impromptu recording of “Watch the Sunrise.” The band’s original lineup coalesced around Chilton (guitar, vocals), Bell (guitar, vocals), Andy Hummel (bass), and Jody Stephens (drums). Chilton’s parents ran an art gallery out of the ground floor of the family home at 145 N. Montgomery, in Midtown Memphis. In spring 1971, the new band started practicing in a vacant room in the big Victorian house.
The room had sofas and a grand piano. Track lighting was installed on the ceiling to illuminate the selection of contemporary and modern paintings that adorned the walls. Chilton wore tight-fitting Christmas sweaters from Grandma. These were rock’n’rollers who still ate supper with their families. That is, unless Mrs. Chilton was cooking, in which case the boys might stay over. “Mrs. Chilton used to make the world’s best potato salad,” Andy Hummel remembers, in Rob Jovanovic's book. “Her beef brisket was legendary!”
The freewheeling Chilton had only recently returned to Memphis after enjoying a lucrative, globetrotting adolescence as leader of the million-selling teen group The Box Tops. Bell and Hummel, on the other hand, were still living every kid's nightmare: rooming with their parents and attending The University of Memphis. The above footage was shot on borrowed equipment by Bell and Hummel, who were looking for easy points on a project for their college cinematography class.
What is shown here is only sections of what was originally planned as a 15-minute promotional film that would document the making of the band’s debut, #1 Record. Certain images were intended to be synchronized with songs from the album’s first side. For example, shots of young couples flirting after school would coincide with “Thirteen,” while a mini-drama about Chilton’s troubles with the local draft board would coincide with him fleeing the selective service office to the tune of “The Ballad of El Goodo”: “And there ain’t no one going to turn me round…”
This trailer is drawn from the DVD that came with Oxford American’s annual “Best of the South" issue. For unknown reasons, the footage is paired with “Thank You Friends,” a song recorded long after the living room practice space was vacated and Bell and Hummel left the band. Maybe it’s just as well. “Thank You Friends” is out of place on the skewed, desolate plain of Sisters Lovers. Its compact pop craftsmanship and cracking guitar solo belong to the band that played on N. Montgomery. The song’s sincere refrain is directed at no one specifically but in it one can read a fond farewell from Chilton to Bell, whose descent into drugs and madness culminated with the motorcycle accident that took his life on December 27th, 1978, just a few months after the release of Sisters Lovers.
Erskine Hawkins: Junction Blues
(RCA Bluebird, 1940)
There was one supreme holiday every two years, and there was nothing sad about it. This was not a family affair. It belonged to everybody. The poorest kid in town had as much a share in it as the mayor himself.
This was Election Day.
Months ahead, I started, like every other kid, collecting and stashing fuel for the election bonfire. Having quit school, I could put in a lot of extra hours at it. I had a homemade wagon, a real deluxe job. Most kids greased their axles with sut begged or pinched off a butcher shop, but I was fancier. I scraped genuine axle grease off the hubs of beer wagons, working the brewery circuit from Ehret’s to Ruppert’s to Ringling’s.
I hauled staves, slats, laths, basket-lids, busted carriage spokes, any loose debris that would burn, and piled it all in a corner of our basement. This was one thing the janitor helped me with. The Election Day bonfire was a tradition nobody dared to break. If you were anti-bonfire you were anti-Tammany and life could become pretty grim without handouts from the Organization. Worse than that, the cops could invent all kinds of trouble to get you into. So around election time, there were no complaints up the dumbwaiter shaft about the leaks in our garbage cans.
The great holiday lasted a full thirty hours. On election eve, the Tammany forces marched up and down the avenues by torchlight, with bugles blaring and drums booming. There was free beer for the men, and free firecrackers and punk for the kids, and nobody slept that night. When the day itself dawned, the city closed up shop and had itself a big social time—visiting with itself, renewing old acquaintances, kicking up old arguments—and voted.
About noon a hansom cab, courtesy of Tammany Hall, would up in front of our house. Frenchie and Grandpa, dressed in their best suits (which they otherwise wore only to weddings, bar mitzvahs or funerals), would get in the cab and go clip-clop, in tip-top style, off to the polls. When the carriage brought them back they sat in the hansom as long as they could without the driver getting sore, savoring every moment of their glory while they puffed on their free Tammany cigars.
At last, reluctantly, they would descend to the curb, and Frenchie would make the grand gesture of handing the cabbie a tip. Kids watching from upstairs windows were properly impressed.
About a half-hour later, the hansom cab would reappear, and Frenchie and Grandpa would go off to vote again. If it was a tough year, with a Reform movement threatening the city, they’d be taken to vote a third time.
Then came the Night. The streets were cleared of horses, buggies and wagons. All crosstown traffic stopped. At seven o’clock firecrackers began to go off, the signal that the polls were closed. Whooping and hollering, a whole generation of kids came tumbling down out of the tenements and got their bonfires going. By a quarter after seven, the East Side was ablaze.
Whenever out 93rd Street fire showed signs of dying down, we’d throw on a fresh load of wood, out of another basement, and the flames would shoot up again. After my stash was piled on the blaze, I ran upstairs to watch from out the front window with Grandpa.
It was beautiful. Flames seemed to leap as high as the tenement roof. The row of brownstones across the street, reflecting the fire, was a shimmering red wall. The sky was a great red curtain. And from all over the city, we could hear the clanging of fire engines. Our bonfire never got out of hand but a lot of others did on election night.
Grandpa enjoyed the sight as much as I did, and he was flattered when I left the rest of the boys to come up to share it with him. He pulled his chair closer to the window and lit the butt of his Tammany stogie. “Ah, we are lucky to be in America,” he said in German, taking a deep drag on the cigar he got for voting illegally and lifting his head to watch the shooting flames. “Ah, yes! This is true democracy.”
Harpo Marx, from Harpo Speaks!