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Twelve Years a Clerk
"Well now, good morning, Miss Jean. Up early as usual."
"Early is the only way."
"I hear that. So how can I help you today?"
"What’s the name of this song you’re playing young man?"
"Strange Fruit, ma’am."
"Ah yes, Lady Day, but this early in the morning?"
"I know, but it’s one of my favorites—Anyway, how you doing this fine morning?"
"You know, it’s been a long time since someone asked me that with such enthusiasm and sincerity. I appreciate that. How are you doing, young brother?"
"I’ll tell you after you tell me."
"Oh, forgive me. I’m blessed."
"Life is good?"
"All the time. But not for everybody, everywhere. You hear me?"
"I hear that. Berkeley is Berkeley. Is there anything I can help you find today?"
"You do this every morning, this early?"
"Sunday through Thursday, 8-4, yes ma’am."
"It’s always this empty?"
"Until about 11, yeah."
"You’re the manager here?"
"No, I’m the supervisor."
"Okay, Mr. Supervisor. What’s your name?"
"Mark, and if you have any questions, I’ll be right here sorting these used C.D.s."
"Oh, I always have questions, Mr. Mark."
"Well I just might have some answers."
"Well, look at you, Mr. Answers. Alright, Mr. Mark Answers. This is a tough one for so early in the morning. I won’t think any less of you if you can’t find the answer."
"Oh, I’ll find it."
"I’m looking for an album whose title I can‘t remember and whose musicians I can’t recall."
"Well, when’s the last or first time you heard it? Or better yet, what’s it sound like?"
"The first time I heard it, I was still living in the West Village on Bethune. Honey, in those days, I was into everything. I mean all things. I had been there since late ‘49, or was it early ‘50? Anyway, it was maybe late ‘57 when I first heard—you know what’s a fact?"
"What’s a fact?"
"In the blizzard of ‘57, I saw a polar bear on 5th avenue waiting on the M5 drinking her coffee and smoking her cigarette, blowing her smoke right in my eyes. You hear me?"
"I hear you."
"That night it must have been ‘59 because Jeanie was there and she didn’t get back from Berlin until late ‘58. So yes, Jeanie and Doris and I headed to this laid loft in Soho, to indulge in what everyone was calling, the new thing. It was then, as it is now and shall forever be in that marvelous city, all about the new thing. And so the new thing then was some new group of young men from Texas who were making everybody lose their cool. So because it was the late fifties and my organization investigated youth culture, we were assigned to observe this recent development."
"Investigated youth culture?"
"Oh it gets deeper, honey, but not this early in the morning."
"So what about the music—"
"The performance was in one of those shabby artist lofts on Spring and Broadway where all the painters lived. Everyone sat on the floor, in the typical fashion at those bohemian gatherings. The loft was dim and dingy. Hipsters back then were all reefer and incense and two dime wine—"
"They still are."
"Are they? Well, the whole loft was a cloudy shoebox. Or perhaps, that’s just this cloudy memory of mine. Anyway, this scrawny quartet of brothers in cheap tacky suits didn’t even introduce themselves or their numbers. They just went to racing, wailing and squawking on their instruments, like brass birds alerting the industrial jungle that predators cometh. And the drummer, have mercy on my ears, was the personification of anxiety and frustration in the world."
"Sounds like Free Jazz."
"Child, free is not the word, nor the feeling. That drummer sounded like pots and pans and cans and bowls rattling around in the cupboard during an earthquake and from time to time crashing, shattering onto the linoleum."
"You hear me? And it wasn’t any piano. A band without a piano was unheard of in those days. Unless we were at a chamber concert, you know. I felt so sorry for those poor young men up there with those instruments embarrassing themselves—"
"What was the instrumentation?"
"Are you a musician?"
"Of course not, you’re too busy working at this record store and being a liar, sigh."
"Sigh? Was it a trumpet or—"
"It was saxophone and trumpet and upright bass and drums but, Jeanie said, 'Girl they sound like bad children who just found them instruments laying around and walked on out here, set to get on our last nerves.'"
"That’s Jeanie; she never knew how to be any other way. God bless her honest soul. You know she used to date Bird."
"Maybe you aren’t a musician."
"Yes, of course, that’s why he left Chan, well that and…But in the end she refused to play consort to his implosion. Plus she couldn’t stand the Baroness, and nor her, she…the Baroness. That heifer was so damn jealous. You like stories, good stories?"
"Well Good lord, the Baroness, now there’s a many good story in that creature’s file. You know who I’m talking about when I say the Baroness, Mister Answers?"
"Um, I think I might of…. Oh right, there’s a documentary on her—"
"You might have what? Either you know or you do not know. Mary Lou Williams used to always say that. Then Monk revised it, 'Always know.'"
"Yeah, I’ve heard that Monk one. Never heard the one by Mary."
"Well you’re wearing the shirt. What’s his middle name?"
"Well, now we can talk. So Jean was just altogether done with these young brothers and their sore music. She called it sore. She said, they’re really abusing the brass."
"That’s too cold."
"I mean they just did whatever they wanted to do, no regulations, no craft at all. Just sloppy and over indulgent. No selection, no consideration for what’s important, no focus, they just played everything and anything that came to them. No filters. As if the only purpose of playing was to see how much, and for how long one could let it all out. Noise endurance and nothing else. The three of us were all sighs. Doris christened it, Sound Vomit. And who wants to be vomited on, let alone have to sit there and examine someone’s vomit? Several people in the audience left. The dynamics seemed to accelerate with each one that abandoned ship. Jean flicked her cigarette at the band and shouted, Mutiny, before she left. Doris went to get us some drinks. We were drinking doubles of scotch neat; it allowed us the detachment necessary to do our jobs: to give things a chance."
"A double always does that for me, too."
"‘Tis the nature of the beast. As I waited for my drink, something in the music settled with me. Left alone with it, I began to look in between the clouds. I noticed each member of the quartet drenched and glowing under the flood lights. Furthermore, they were so unconcerned with their appearance and their audience that they took on an enchanted quality. They were instantly interesting, simply because something extremely important was happening to them. I could feel it. My skin was goosing. I wanted to know what was happening. They cared so much about something, I wanted to care about it, too. It was something about their unwavering obedience to their task too, I mean really, they were un-distract-able and completely blind to all other things in existence. Where were they? Where had they gone? Would they ever come back? How long could they hold on to it? Their eyes sealed, strained, terrified in some nightmare bracing themselves, unable to wake. When their eyes opened they were on fire and hypnotized by some apparition perhaps. What were they seeing? Why wasn’t I seeing it? They shook, they swayed pushed by some angry ghosts. Their faces were clenched fists, their veins bulged from their foreheads, forearms, hands and necks, I waited for their faces to burst. I wanted to dance but there was no consistent beat. I wanted to move, I wanted to yell, I wanted to smoke, I wanted to slap the drummer. I lit my cigarette and studied them. Now mind you. I didn’t like or agree with this music one bit, but something was happening to me, something new. They suddenly looked so familiar. Deja Vu to the highest degree. I couldn’t stop staring at them struggling to get those agonizing sounds out of themselves. Letting all of that wrong free."
"What’s that, honey?"
"What else were you asking yourself about them?"
"Why were they hurting themselves so badly for it? Why were they making it so hard on themselves? As a child in Texas, I watched men struggle all day dragging puptrees for miles, no matter the weather. Except those puptree men would take breaks from time to time. You know, that’s how it was really, each man’s solo was like watching a man pulling pupwood, in those woods in Texas where I grew up. But those men in Texas had to do that, you see. While those men in that loft made a choice."
"I don’t hear a Texas accent from you though."
"In my day we had restraint darling, and class. A lady who wanted to make something of herself took elocution classes. I still have my accent, that, you’d better believe. It’s just not for show, it’s an intimate detail, reserved for those who deserve to know. You, on the other hand, love to showcase your southern accent. All of you Bay Area children do, and that’s alright."
"So where was I?"
"Them pupwood pullers—"
"So they conjured the pupwood draggers in me, and I do not allow for the pupwood to be dragged to surface, ever. You see, my uncles, my brothers, my cousins, my father, and even my grandfather used to drag pup. Nevertheless, they used to sweat and shine, you hear me. So something in that music made something in me spread its wings just beneath my skin, spread and shake off all the bureaucratic dust, political mites, bitter lovers, ruthless regrets, goddamned guilt and I never even asked for any of it. You see, I was not adequately dressed for the pity party. So, as you can imagine, those elements of oneself are never to get loose, there are cages in our zoos for good reason, you know. So something was happening to me and when those auditory tragedies finally stopped, thank Athena, Doris returned with our drinks. I sipped and lit another cigarette and before I could exhale this lone solo saxophonist disturbed my horizon with a dusty Texas lullaby. My throat and stomach knotted and the back of my eyes set on fire. Whatever that new sound was, it was too dangerous to be a part of my life. To be naked in public in the South was one thing, but to act like that outside the family walls was not permitted, ever. I mean, bottom line, these madmen, refused to dress it up. They were doing what Beauford and Jimmy always promoted, but they themselves were not classless enough to do, I remember Baldwin once told me to, 'Let it all hang out!'"
"Alright now. "
"Don’t be so excited about that, Mark. One is best off in life when discerning against letting it all hang out, then or now, in any field, in any craft, in any professional reality, as I am sure you know. It is not only dangerous for oneself, it is dangerous for all others who may, by some unpredictable swing of events be encouraged to themselves abandon the stale state of affairs known as existing in the zoo. And we all know what happens when the residents of zoos learn to pick locks. But I digress, forgive me. "
"Please, digress as much as you want. You’re making the minutes fly."
"Aren’t you just the kind of liar I’ve been looking for all my life. So, when I was a child growing up in Paris, Texas (have mercy on the dull mind that named that city) in the ‘20’s, I heard music, a sincere divine music, the likes of which I’ve never heard since, ever, until I stood there, in that loft. Now, the music I grew up on had no particular note, no harmonic center, no consideration for fitting into any scale or calibrated system of refinement. It was all a matter of the inevitable spontaneous expressions of our spiritual security guards or spiritual weaponry, tortured, tormented, bent, broken, baked, hunted, survivors, seekers of transformation. Or worse yet, the ones who knew nothing of transformation or redemption. The agony of the truly trapped but never defeated. The defeated but never trapped. All of those conflicting contradictions hollering into the humid Paris, Texas mornings and evenings and sunsets. Back then, I didn’t question it. I just knew there were Church songs and work songs and house songs and play songs and folk songs and blues. The blues belonged to grown men and a couple mad women. Grown women owned gospel. But when I became acquainted with Jack and Jill I learned how contrary and dangerous those attitudes in much of those songs are to maintaining the sonic social order of the Black and Gold. "
"Black and gold?"
"Child, when I pledged at Hampton in ‘44, that’s all it was about; restraint, proper conduct, obedience, cleanliness, sharpness, precision, to be perfect and know thy place in the upper echelon of the pyramid above all those sloppy, raggedy, pupwood pushing Negroes, hollering like animals in heat. Beating their peonage blues into the railroads and houses and coal mines and well, you know our history. So you can see why I couldn’t believe my eyes or my ears when all the way in New York City, I found myself baring witness to a group of puptree runaways, half naked, sweating and shining hollering puptree lullabies—abruptly, all the ruckus ended and the brother with the sax let out a delicate melody that developed into a vulnerable, naked, happy puptree-man love song in front of all those white folks, unashamed and proud."
"You think it would have been different if you were in Harlem?"
"Honey, Harlem wouldn’t tolerate no sentimental field trash like that."
"Not even at Mintons?"
"Mintons? Child, I was at Mintons almost every night from ‘49 to ‘73. Those men, in those times- many of whom were my dear friends—were never puptree men, those were refined, restrained, physicist, mathematicians, alchemists and the whole world knew then and knows them now. These little bad children yelling their unfocused inexpressible hardship into their poor instruments, could only get away with that mess downtown. So anyway, there it was, there they were and there I was on the verge of sincere tears all on account of their awful music."
"It has that effect on lots of people."
"I am not lots of people darling. I am an Eastern Star, Sigma Phi Beta. And as soon as I remembered who I really was, I stomped out my cigarette, finished my drink and grabbed Doris and split, in the middle of his little sentimental lullaby. Doris said, “Enough of this sentimental shit. Sigh and goodbye.” Doris was something else, I miss her like she misses me... You know what the most pathetic thing about being this old is—"
"Old? You call thirty-five being old?"
"Bless your heart Mr. Answers but I am a proud eighty-nine years old and walking all by myself. "
"Not a day over thirty-five."
"So like I was saying, the thing about being this old, is that every single day I wake up with different difficulties. Lord, I wakes up every morning wondering how close am I getting to walking back through that door into that loft and really letting myself listen to those puptree men?"
"There’s two or three people from that period you’re describing in Free Jazz, miss—"
"No, it can’t be. It can only be those four young brothers in their tacky suits."
"I hear you. Now, did you ever hear anything else about them?"
"Well, of course. They actually did become the new thing. So I would hear things about music like that all the time, and naturally I attributed it to them. But you see, I never had any interest in experiencing music that took control of me like that. You know, I grew up on Gospel and Swing and cool Jazz, a little Blues here and there and those foreign movie scores, a little bit of traditional European stuff too. I knew all the boppers. Oh, when I was in Spain and Morocco I fell in love with real gypsy music and that enchanting Amagzigan ceremonial music- do you have any of that sort of music here?"
"Absolutely, miss. I’m really into those kinds of world music, too. I just ordered in this great group of traditional recordings from—"
"Don Strawberry or something like that was one of them."
"They had real silly names, those folks in that group. You know what; I did hear them again… The last time I heard them was at a gallery opening on the Upper East Side in the late ‘60’s or early ‘70’s."
"We: Doris, Jeanie and I were at one of those museums in the 70s or 80s. Are you familiar with New York?"
"Yes, somewhat. I lived there for a time."
"Good for you. Now, name some of the galleries on the Upper East Side?"
"Galleries or museums?"
"The one that Frank did?"
"Of course, the little ugly spaceship we used to call it. So it was an opening there, for Yayoi and—have you ever been to an opening at the Guggenheim?"
"Oh, you must attend before your life ends. They were fabulous then. Yayoi made a whole thing of it. She had the phallus chair then and people were enjoying it. Everything was so glamorous. She was another one selected to give birth to the new of that moment. You know Yayoi, yes?"
"Really, you know Yoko, yes?"
"But you don’t know Yayoi? Such is the way of the day! So anyway, I was on the top floor admiring the swirling effect of the staircase and Yayoi’s intricate snow dot paintings. The dots transported me back to that snowy night in the village. And then I heard that abrasive tone, that hollering naked man struggling and shining, dragging that pupwood past that white church with my mother inside in her white gown, with her white hair and white gloves and white cane and all those sounds coming from that white stage and the white benches and white pews and not a single white or black note ever met or touched that sound. Everything was all around it, outside it, above it and buried in the middle of the tunings. All that in there mixing with the grunts, deep breathing and hollers of those pupwood pulling men. Too much. I tore myself from the paintings but the piercing holler chased me all along Frank’s spiral like an electric current racing up a coil. That magnetizing, jagged, glaring tone pulled me down into the atrium were the same damned band was playing from that night in the village. I said out loud, Somebody shoot the drummer—"
"Same earthquake drummer—"
"Earthquake, honey; it was avalanching that day on account of the acoustics of Frank’s spaceship. The whole band was magnified in there, all the horror expanded, multiplied, absolutely no linearity, no consistency, most unreliable music I had ever heard. And what of melody, had they no concern for melody? I had never seen black men with no rhythm. I mean no rhythm at all, no discernable beat what so ever, just random noise. They were even worse than in the late 50’s. Development in reverse, child."
"Did you at least get to see what they looked like that time, or maybe catch a glimpse of their names on the poster or pamphlet?"
"Poster or pamphlet? Honey, I was running for my life to get out of there. Besides myself and those squealers, we were the only Negroes there, do you understand. It is all fine and dandy for them to play that way for those people, but for Negroes in my position, if ever we even let on that we were capable of grasping the behavior exhibited in that music, that that music could ever have any effect on us, at all, that our minds in anyway could relate or even converse with a mind that behaved like that, dealt with the rules of the system that we operated within, like that, we would officially lose not only our minds but our positions. Do you understand what I am asking for?"
"Yeah, Don Cherry or Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler, I wonder who’s on the drums?"
"Yes, that’s it! They all had absurd names too. Like codenames. But that’s how it is. That’s how it has to be if you intend to get something important done."
"What do you mean by that?"
"About code names and intentions to do something important?"
"What’s your real name, Mister Mark Answers, Supervisor."
"Mark Uriel Monk."
"You give yourself that name?"
"So what’s your real name?"
"So you see, Mark Davis works here at Rasputin Record Store, in Berkeley California Sunday through Thursday 8 in the morning until 5 in the evening, but Nine, Nine intends to do something important doesn’t he. Where’s Nine work? What’s he working on? You hear me Nine?"
"So who is Nine?"
"He’s a rapper."
"So why isn’t he rapping?"
"Because I can’t anymore."
"You can do anything you want to do Nine. If something happened to you, it happened; it’s over. Now you determine what happens next. You hear me?"
"So that’s what I mean. Anyway, in my day, I was into something else altogether young brother. But now that you mention it, I guess you could say advertising was definitely a part of it."
"Advertising? Okay, so here’s the section with Ornette and Don, but Ornette and Don both have their own sections too, and Albert starts it all off, so luckily for you they’re right next to one another in alphabetical order."
"Why is order lucky, for moi?"
"Easy access, you know what I mean; it’s all right there for you to explore and enjoy."
"Well, isn’t that always the truth, Mr. Answers."
"Would you like to listen to one of their albums?"
"Isn’t that why I’m buying it?"
"I’ll play it right now to make sure that it’s the one you’re looking for?"
"Can we do that?"
"It’s okay. I’ll play it off the vinyl."
"Yeah, I’m sure you noticed when you came down here, all these records."
"As a matter of fact, I did. But I said to myself, it must be decoration, and left it at that."
"Oh, it’s much more than that now. You know vinyl made a huge comeback."
"I see. You have more records here than CDs."
"Records sell more than CDs now."
"I would have never imagined that by 2016, records would still exist, let alone outsell CDs. I don’t even own a record player. Who buys these damned things now?"
"Yuppies and hipsters and of course DJs."
"What sort of DJs?"
"You know, I once had a lover who was an absolutely marvelous DJ. I was much older than he, then. It was a fling really, but we’ve maintained our friendship. He was an incredibly inventive young man. You’d probably know him."
"That’s a story I’ve got to hear. So which one of these Ornette albums would you like to hear first."
"That one right there. That’s that pitiful suit I was telling you about."