Read Another Little Piece of My Heart Online
Authors: Richard Goldstein
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
Goldstein’s Greatest Hits: A Book Mostly about Rock ’n’ Roll
The Poetry of Rock
Reporting the Counterculture
Homocons: The Rise of the Gay Right
In memory of my parents, Mollye and Jack,
known by their friends as Malke and Yankel
Nearly Naked Through the Not Exactly Negro Streets at Dawn
I Don’t Know What This Is, but You Owe Me a Story
Aftermath (or: There’s a Bathroom on the Right)
It’s 1962. I’m eighteen, terrified and turned on by everything. School is the only place where I feel safe. I’m about to enter college, the first member of my family to learn the difference between Hegel and a bagel. I read the way other kids in the neighborhood fuck—constantly (according to them).
I live in a housing project in the Bronx. My parents think of it as a big step up from the tenements of Manhattan where they were raised, but I have a different trajectory in mind. For me, Manhattan is the locus of a better life, the life of guys in corduroy who play the banjo like they come from Kentucky and girls whose breath doesn’t smell like cigarettes; of poets with beards like the one I can’t grow yet, but want to; of “angelheaded hipsters” like the madmen in “Howl,” which I’ve read and recited to myself dozens of times. Every weekend I set out for the streets where such poems are lived, sorting through the clothing I need for the journey, counting my spending money and deciding whether to wear my beret. (Of course I will.) I slip into the grungy sweater I’ve worn every day for a year. My jeans have sweat holes in the crotch—I sweat a lot, and I rarely bathe. I envy the sleek kids, the boys with tail-fin hair who can unhook a bra on a girl as easily as they tie their shoes. I envy them but I don’t want to be them. I’m from the Bronx but not
it. I’m bound for Greenwich Village.
Every week I cross the Bronx, by several buses, in order to reach the only newsstand in the borough that carries the
. I keep a bottle of Dubonnet in the fridge so I don’t have to drink soda with the
boiled chicken and canned fruit we gulp while talking loudly over the TV. Late at night, while my family is asleep, I curl up in the bathtub with my transistor radio tuned to WBAI, a small FM station that features radicals, artists, holy men from the Himalayas, and folksingers. To me these are typical inhabitants of the city whose towers are visible from my window as tiny spires in the distance. I can reach its magic streets for fifteen cents—the subway fare in 1962.
I know every curve and swerve the El makes as it courses through the Bronx, skirting the edges of buildings where people at their windows can almost touch the train, and then plunging into the tunnel to Manhattan. As soon as it goes underground I lose the knot in the belly that is my constant companion in the neighborhood. I’ve managed to pass the test I must take every time I leave the project for the zone of possibility. It’s a danger unimagined by my parents, harsh as their life in the slums was. Thanks to the New York City Housing Authority, I’ve been spared their ordeal of heatless winters, toilets in the hall, dead siblings, and gangsters rubbed out on the stoop. But I have to deal with something nearly as fearsome. I need to get out of the Bronx with my sandals.
Nobody wears sandals in the project. If I dare, the guys who guard the gates of masculinity will see them as a crossing over into faggot territory and stomp on my feet. So when I leave the house my feet are in camouflage—Keds. I keep the sandals in a paper bag, but when I get to the Village I put them on. I don’t care that my toes are freezing or that the straps chafe. One doesn’t wear socks in the Village, or so it seems to me. I’m obsessed with dressing right, since I don’t feel like I belong here. But I do, at least on the three-block strip that runs south from Washington Square. Hundreds of kids like me are clogging the pavement. I’m safe among my peers, seeing and being seen on MacDougal Street.
Generations of bohemians hover over this scene. My heroes, the Beats, look down from placards outside the bars where free jazz once mixed with free verse. Folk music fills these clubs now, and the real Beats have departed for less illustrious digs, leaving MacDougal Street to the wretched refuse of the outer boroughs—us. We don’t know from the ways of Zen or the world of art in Greenwich Village. Our culture is hanging out. For hours we brood, sipping espresso in the recesses of the Fat Black Pussycat, or we wander over to the Square, where a year ago we rioted and won the right to sing. In this swarm of guitars I will find the first incarnation of what is not just a new life for me but a new era for my
generation—a time of sex and drugs, of revolution for the hell of it, and, most important, music. Music will be for us what it always is for youth: a way to know you’re not alone.
I was a fat boy, helpless before my weight. I was so hungry—for food, for sex, for attention—that I could never fill the maw inside me. I would wake up in the middle of the night with the feeling that invisible hands were choking me. My survival, my very breath, depended on the small group of misfits that I called my friends.
They were rich, or so I thought. They didn’t live in the project but in small brick houses with yards the size of beach blankets. Some of them lived in a cluster of apartments that had been built by the Communist Party for its members. The Party called these buildings cooperatives, but we knew them as the Coops, and in 1962 they were a very cooped-up place. The residents led apprehensive lives, never sure that Joe McCarthy was really dead. My best friends were the children of these pariahs.
They were the first people I met who didn’t have the TV on perpetually. Their homes were fascinating to me, with real paintings on the walls and Danish Modern furniture, not Louis-the-Something fakes covered in plastic, my mother’s idea of elegance. There were records by performers I’d never heard of, Paul Robeson and Odetta, and no one minded if we sat on the floor singing loyalist songs from the Spanish Civil War. My mother liked the idea that I was hanging out with radicals. She associated Communism with upward mobility—as a girl she’d made it a point to dance with Reds because she was sure those boys would become doctors. “My little Communist,” she liked to call me with a grin.
The myth that all Jews have intact families didn’t apply to my parents. As a child, my father sometimes lived in foster institutions or on the street. My mother grew up in a “broken home,” and her own mother, who couldn’t read and barely spoke English, struggled to support the brood. I heard endlessly about how this blessed
put out the stove when her kids left for school and sewed all day in the cold flat. There’s an old ghetto yarn about maternal sacrifice, which I often endured. A son cuts out his mother’s heart in order to sell it. On the way to see the buyer, he trips and drops it, and the heart says, “Did you hurt yourself, dear?” I don’t think my mother regarded this tale as even a little over the top, but I saw it as a feeble attempt to induce guilt in me. Now I realize that she
was actually lecturing herself. She strained against a maternal role that thwarted her worldly ambitions. Motherhood was so central to her self-image that she never dealt with her rage at its constrictions, and so she directed a burning ball of drive toward her eldest son. It’s an old story. My father was a frustrated man, and he sometimes took it out on me. In my family, the belt was what the time-out is today. But he also nurtured my creativity. I owe my lust for fame to my mother, and my artistic urges to him. Both traits propelled me toward the role I would play in the sixties.
For much of my childhood I thought of myself as a TV network broadcasting my experiences. Nothing seemed as real to me as entertainment, and my father fed this fantasy by taking me to all sorts of exotic spectacles, from foreign movies with glimpses of tit to Yiddish melodramas that turned on the conflict between love and God’s law. We would leave the Bronx in the morning, when ticket prices were reduced, and catch the stage show at a giant midtown theater. I have a vivid memory of the wild-man drummer Gene Krupa—a jazz precursor of the Who’s Keith Moon—rising out of the orchestra pit, his kit sparkling in the spotlight. I wanted to be a singer until my voice changed. (Fortunately, writing doesn’t require vocal cords.)
My father was a postal worker, and all sorts of high-tone publications passed through his hands en route to their subscribers. He would tear off the address labels so that the magazines ended up in the dead-letter office, and then he would bring them home to me. As a result I read art and theater journals unheard of in the Bronx. Once a month we’d travel to a discount bookstore in Times Square and I’d come home with a pile of classics. He pumped me full of culture, though it was alien to him, just as my mother drilled me in the social skills that meant success, though she hardly knew what they were. The result was a conflict between respect for his modest achievements and loyalty to her dreams. I tried to resolve this dilemma by becoming a beatnik (hence the beret). It was upwardly mobile, but definitely not anyone’s idea of making it.
I can only guess at the scenario that my friends grew up with, but I don’t think it was much different from mine. Mixed messages from our parents were what we had in common—and not just us. In 1962, a huge cohort of kids, whose families barely qualified as middle-class, was about to enter a rapidly expanding economy. As beneficiaries of the
postwar education boom, we felt entitled to be creative, but we were trained to move up, and these clashing desires produced the youth culture that descended on MacDougal Street, among other places in other cities. Folk music was the perfect outlet for our split sensibility. It was proletarian in its sympathies, yet distinct from the taste of the masses. The other kids in my project didn’t know from this music, and they would have found it utterly without the rhythmic energy that signified life. But I found a future in it.
On my jaunts to the Village I frequented the folk clubs, huffing my kazoo (an instrument I chose because it didn’t demand any musical skill) at open-mike events called hootenannies, or I heard the pros play for very little money. In one of those small rooms—Gerde’s Folk City or possibly the Cafe Wha?—I saw Bob Dylan perform. He was well-known to my friends, had been since his first concert at Carnegie Hall in 1961, which we all attended (I still have the program), so I was aware of his legend long before he became legendary. My father called him “the hog caller” and pleaded for relief from his raspy voice on the record player. Dylan would soon be the emblem of my evolution from a folkie to a rocker, as he was for many people my age. But there was a specter haunting me when I left the Bronx for the peaceful village where the lion sleeps tonight. It was the specter of girl groups.
Black girls, white girls, didn’t matter. I was tuned to their voices, especially those sirens of stairwell sex, the Ronettes. Also the Marvelettes, the Crystals, and the Shirelles. Their music snapped like chewing gum. It was everything that tempted me in the project—big hair, fierce moves—and it drove me to fantasies that literature didn’t provide. My favorite jerk-off dream involved Dion, the Bronx-bred singer in the Belmonts (as in Belmont Avenue), fucking
the Shirelles. I’m pretty sure I was the only kid at the hootenanny who knew the words to “Baby, It’s You.”
In high school, doo-wop meant as much as sex to me. It was my link to the gods of the project, the Italian boys. Jews weren’t allowed into the gang system (“It would be like fighting girls,” my friend Dominick explained), but these barriers didn’t apply when we sang together, howling in curlicue scales, as if we were actually momentarily black. This was the only time when I felt truly competent as a male, and the imprimatur applied to all kinds of rock ’n’ roll—not the slick shit from Dick Clark’s stable, of course, but the rough stuff that came from a
personal place or off the street. It distracted me from my anguish in a way that folk songs never could. Certain pop melodies would enter my body and make my mind go blank. I identified with performers as intensely as I did with authors. The gyre that was Elvis, the leaps of Jerry Lee Lewis, the shrieks of Little Richard—to me it was clear: they were as hungry as me.