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Safe havens for hipsters

I clearly remember the first time I heard the Kingston Trio. It was fall 1958, I was in seventh grade, and I was at my friend Harry Pierce’s place.

The reason I remember it so well is because it was also the first time I’d heard folk music.

OK, if you want to get fussy about it, Jimmy Cracked Corn, Camptown Races, and Kookaburra could be considered folk songs, and I’d heard all them. But for obvious reasons, hearing them sung by a bunch of grade school kids in a music class didn’t have a great impact on me. But the Kingston Trio did.

I’d never heard anything like it. First, there was almost no production — no background vocals, no organ or strings, no drums. It was only two acoustic guitars and a banjo, done in one take. Beyond that, maybe because it was live, their voices had a freshness that didn’t happen in the pop music I’d heard.

Then there were the songs themselves. They were a real mix — some traditional folk songs (like Gue Gue, Wimoweh, and Shady Grove) — popular tunes (When the Saints Go Marching In, They Call the Wind Mariah), and one piece of contemporary sardonic splendor (Merry Little Minuet). The Kingston Trio prided themselves on NOT being traditional folkies, so while they did play folk standards, they played other stuff as well. Not that I cared about the songs’ origins; I just loved listening to all of it.

Now you might ask how some little kid from the sticks had access to such hip stuff. Good question. Pierce was the baby of the family of five boys, spanning over almost 20 years. His brothers were the living paradigms of sophistication (at least to 11-year-old me) and through them we had entree into the world of the alternative, the underground, even the prohibited. There were Lenny Bruce albums, Playboy magazine, books by Henry Miller and Norman Mailer. Folk music was just one of those fabulous gifts bestowed upon me at that ripe young age.

It seemed right after the Kingston Trio became popular, the folk scene exploded. Other performers appeared en masse. Among them were the Chad Mitchell Trio, the Limeliters (with Glenn Yarborough), the Brothers Four. Then came Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Odetta, and on and on.

Of course there had been folk singers before 1958, but the only one I’d ever heard was Burl Ives (who, by the way, I loved then and still do now). And that was probably because he’d crossed into the pop market. But once folk music found its commercial niche, I started to hear Pete Seeger (with and without the Weavers), Woody Guthrie, Theodore Bikel, the New Lost City Ramblers, the New Christy Minstrels, Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt and a bunch of other old timers I can no longer recall.

Smoke-filled rooms

Ironically, while folk music had its roots in the country, when it got popular, its only venues were in cities, almost always showcased in a new phenomenon — the coffeehouse. So for a while the only way I heard folk music was on records or radio. But once the music spread, so did the coffeehouses, and while every town in America didn’t necessarily have one, every college town did.

They all had funky names — The Pit, Laughing Buddha, Cafe Wha?, Cosmo Alley, Cup of Socrates, the Pendulum — none of which were even slightly comprehensible, if they even meant anything in the first place. And while the names were unimaginatively varied, the decor was almost always the same, especially in the low-end coffeehouses (which were the only ones I ever frequented) : Crappy old mismatched tables and chairs, posters on the walls of either a political or musical nature, low lighting, sometimes a makeshift stage of some sort, and almost always no sound system. And if you want to know the atmosphere, I can describe it in one word — smoky.

Then again, those coffeehouses HAD to be bare bones, because they had almost no funds to keep them going. Generally, if they weren’t on a college campus, rent was paid by a church or civic group wanting to give young peeps a place to gather that was safe and alcohol-free. If they charged to get in, it was no more than a quarter. Coffee was almost always a dime a cup, and no bargain at that. And of course, the acts didn’t get paid, so a lot of them were no bargain either. Musicians aside, there was always a kid or two reading either his poetry or “experimental” fiction. But that said, if you couldn’t have a fun time in a coffeehouse, you were a hopeless poop.

Yeah, sure, most of the musicians were mediocre, some were atrocious, and all the poetic and dramatic recitations made my teeth ache. But then again, no matter how small a town and how primitive a coffeehouse, there were kids with real talent as well. Just like there were virtuoso young rock guitarists, there were acoustic folk and blues players who had remarkable skills. And as for the less talented ones? They still got rounds of applause and warm accolades all around, so it was a great, safe venue to them to learn their chops.

A quasi-beatnik near-beatdown

But, ultimately, music and recitations were to coffeehouses what tips were to the icebergs — they were maybe ten percent of what went on there. To me, and I’m sure to most of the the others who gathered in those smoke-filled dens of iniquity, they were places to meet people and shmooze. Most of the time there was no music, and there was never any alcohol, so they were a perfect setting for getting away from It All, and having the freedom, quiet and company to rap to our hearts’ content.

What was talked about was almost never sports, TV, celebrity gossip, and that sort of tripe. Instead, the topics of discussion revolved around things of actual importance to us. A lot of it was political, which wasn’t my thing (and still isn’t, thank Gawd). And a bunch of it was personal — also not my thing. What I liked to discuss was books, and inevitably there were a few compulsive readers there who who wanted to share their brilliant insights into arts, letters, cosmology or maybe just the end of the world.

Having been a fan of the Beat Generation’s writings, I was always looking for someone who’d read the works of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the others. And because the Beats did a lot of their readings in coffeehouses (since by the nature of their writings and personalities, they were pretty much excluded from any mainstream venues), I always ran into someone who knew their works.

Unfortunately, my fascination with the Beats had a downside. My mother, a compulsive reader herself, one day picked up one of my Beat anthologies and started reading it. She didn’t get far. I can’t remember if it was an excerpt from Burroughs’ book Junkie, Herbert Hunkie’s book, Guilty of Everything, or Alan Ginsberg’s poem, Howl, but whatever it was, it shocked her to the core. She then decided anyone who read that stuff was doing drugs.

Never one to rely on subtlety when she could use plain old, in-your-face confrontation, she stormed into my room, waved the book under my nose and asked just what the hell compelled me to read such dreck.

“Dreck?” I said. “Whatta ya mean dreck? That’s some of America’s most innovative contemporary writing.”

“Well, I don’t like it,” she said.

“You don’t have to like,” I said, “as long as I do.”

“So,” she said, her eyes narrowing, which they did only when she was about to start interrogating me, “are you doing drugs?”

“What?” I said.

“You heard me,” she said.

“If you mean coffee and cigarettes, then, yeah, I’m doing drugs,” I said.

Which I might add, was the God’s honest truth and the sum total of my drug usage. But that wasn’t good enough for her, especially if she’d read the opening versus of Howl.

“No,” she said. “I mean hard drugs, like…like…like opium.”

I paused for dramatic effect, then exhaled dramatically.

“Well … uh … you got me,” I said. “Yeah, I’ve done opium.”

“You did?” she said, clearly in shock. “Where’d you get it?”

“From you,” I said. “In paregoric, when I was a little kid and got the trots.”

I let her process that, and then went for the coup de grace.

“In fact, I’m thinking about writing a book about it,” I said. “I’m gonna call it My Mother the Dealer.”

She flushed and then wagged a finger in my face.

“Just wait, Bozo,” she said, using her favorite UN-affectionate nickname for me. “You’ll get yours someday.”

Then she stalked off, ending the only conversation we ever had about drugs.

While my mother was never a creature of levity, she always liked a good joke — as long as she wasn’t the butt of it.

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