Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Wooden Nickel

I would like to tell some stories about the Wooden Nickel, just because there is a reunion next weekend. I am going, and hope that I recognize someone. I used to go there almost every day during the mid 70s. I can't remember going there to hear bands, but at some point I think that bands started playing there. I usually went there in the afternoons and early evenings. It was a great place to drink a beer. I think my best story is about the day they cut down the trees and I went off the deep end. I remember very clearly sitting at the bar and drinking myself into oblivion. The rest is a blur.

Otherwise, I was pretty well behaved and unbesotted for most of my visits there. Maybe after the reunion I will recollect something more memorable and interesting.

The Wooden Nickel (which was very laid back and earthy) morphed into The Nick (edgey and grungy) at some point while I was living in Macon. The building is still there but the vibe is no longer the same. I am glad it wasn't just abandoned or torn down. It has resiliance just like some of its patrons, those of us that survived.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Red Volkswagon Bus and Adventures on the Gulf Coast

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is just another reminder that we had paradise just a few hours away from the Southside of Birmingham, a paradise that has been slipping away for the last 30 years.

I recall: In very early childhood, my mother would pack me into the back seat of the car, and my parents would drive down to Ft. Walton late at night to a house on the bay. We went often so they could deep sea fish and relax. The beach getaway was a natural counterpart to the stiff, churchy, regular life-style in Alabama. Happy times those! The house was a free perk that came along with my father's job, so when he changed jobs, we had to go elsewhere. We started going to Destin.

My most favorite childhood memories are of the pure white beaches at Destin. Destin was completely undeveloped back in the early and mid 60s. There were only two motels that I remember, the Cornado and the Silver Sands. We always stayed at the Silver Sands.

I can recall in detail ocean swims in pure azure waters, softly lapping waves and purest white- crunchy sand that squeaked when you walked on it; the wondrous swimming pool that felt especially good at night- the lights in the pool, and the feeling of being suspended in that heavenly place or practicing dives over and over and trying the most daredevilish back dives, somersaults and even backwards somersaults! The shuffleboard court and the horseshoes court, the fresh seafood for dinner and the strange, strange music that I found on the radio- must have been New York cosmopolitan. Sometimes we drove over to Panama City and went to the amusement park or to play Goofy Golf.

I could go on, but I was going to write about the last road trip in the VW bus.

The VW bus was purchased in 1976 after I sold my camper truck, before I moved to Macon. I made some custom curtains for the bus and we were ready to roll! It was a perky red and white minibus camper- a little late on the curve but still a sought after sign of a bohemian lifestylye nonetheless. It had all the amenities- a little stove, a sink, a refrigerator, beds, and a port-0-potty.

We had a friend who owned a piece of property at Laguna Beach in Panama City and we were going to park the bus there and camp out. Panama City Beaches were gorgeous, but the area was more redneck than Riviera. There were lots of homes on the beach, along with small motels, assorted restaurants and bars, and lots of trashy touristy attractions.

I had been going to the gym for a while at that point, and I was at my most buff. I was hanging out in my bikini, just enjoying the atmosphere and setting up camp when we were ousted from the property. Evidently the rules are that you only stay inside a place, not out in the yard (the trailer was rented to someone else who did not want us to stay- imagine)

Ok, ok, so we moved on. It turned out to be even better though. We drove down to a park at St. Joe where there was no one in sight. The beach went on forever, and we found ourselves in perfect solitude amongst the dunes and sea oats. Thousands of sea shells washed up on the beach. The only drawback was the no-see-ums (tiny biting bugs that would eat you alive). We had to get inside the bus as soon as the sun started to go down to escape them. I felt so very much alive and in perfect peace there at St. Joe in the outdoors.

I must point out that we were in a 60s VW bus. You practically had to drive it like the Flintstones with your feet, using every muscle in your body to strain it forward. Happily we did not have to climb hills, so it ran along smoothly in its VW puddling way. It had a huge steering wheel and a long handled gear shift that was impossible to manage. It was always a roll of the dice everytime you shifted- kind of like a key that has to be tilted or jiggled in a certain way to get the door open. Riding or driving in one can't be described- it is a matter of feeling (and smelling). Ah, such sublime joy.

It is hard to recognize the areas that we used to visit on the Gulf now. I still am shocked when I see huge high rise condos and million dollar houses on the beach. There are a lot of pretty places like Seaside that want to look like they are not bespoiling the landscape. At least up until now the beaches have remained beautiful, in spite of erosion and construction.

I hope that the Gulf is not destroyed. It is still a bit of paradise just a few hours away from Birmingham.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Allman Brothers (and Sisters)

I was priviledged to go to the homecoming show at the Macon Auditorium to see the Allman Brothers perform for the extended family last Friday night. It was also the grand opening of the Allman Brothers museum- The Big House- in Macon, Georgia.

What does this have to do with Southside? Well, after my Southside days began to wither and wane, I met up with someone who asked me to come to Macon to visit. When I saw Macon- especially the area around Orange Street where I spent the first night in an antebellum mansion with 18 foot ceilings- I knew I had to move there, so I did. I arrived just past the peak of the brothers, and that is a whole 'nother story.

I was a fan of the Allman Brothers when I lived on the Southside. As I may have said before, the first time I heard them, I didn't know who they were but I knew they were fabulous. The music was instantly captivating. I never lost interest in them, and with the relatively recent addition of Derek Trucks to the band, they are still compelling.

Needless to say, the concert was great, the museum a must see for all Allman Brothers fans. The Big House has been restored, and the displays are lovely. In addition to being a musical hub, the museum will partner with local schools and other community folks to provide musical instruments, musical education, etc. to those who may not otherwise have the means to explore the arts.

I think that the lingering essence of what was happening in Macon in the early 70's was part of the attraction for me, albeit not on a conscious level. You can still feel the magic there. Really.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Last Rafting Trip

I mentioned before that whitewater rafting was one of my activites in the mid-seventies. We knew no one doing this kind of thing, and had to search out everything we needed to do it- without the internet, of course! The raft had to be ordered from out West- from Montana I think. The huge gray rubber raft was like a creature from another time and place, far, far away.

In addition to the raft itself we had to find life jackets- they were beautiful, lightweight and bright yellow. They were nothing like the heavy orange canvas lifejackets I wore as a child on the lake. This was a new exciting time for outdoor gear. I used to ponder and ponder the REA catalogue as if I were studying a sacred text. The oars were also lightweight and nothing like the heavy wooden oars used for canoeing. At the time, plastic river sandals were hard to find, but we finally scored some. They were just right for protecting your feet, and the rubbery texture was essential for jamming your feet under the sides of the raft to help anchor you and keep you inside and seated. Then you could wedge yourself and use the leverage to increase the power of your stroke with the oar. I learned a most valuable lesson on life on that raft: "Keep your oars in the water". Think about it.

So off we went to try it out. We never attempted the Locust Fork of the river nearest to us in Birmingham, since it was only navigable after heavy spring rains. We went off to North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee to raft. I think we did Section 4 of the Chatooga River first. It was challenging- it took all day, and there were Class III and IV rapids. We had no guide, and no real idea of what was around each bend so to speak, but we were foolhardy and adventurous enough to go for it. The river in that section alternates between rapids and calmer stretches. Some areas have to be walked around. There was also a deadly rapid that had claimed many lives- sucking people down in a hole that held them until they drowned. It was off limits, and we abided by the rule. We made it down the Chatooga just fine, and at the end of the day paddled blissfully across the placid lake back to my truck/camper. Ah, what a feeling!

The Nantahala River is nice and easy compared to the Chatooga, so after getting that one under our belts we tried out the Ocoee. The Ocoee doesn't mess around. You get on the section of the river with the Class III's and IV's and you don't stop or even know what has hit you until you come out the other end. It was killer, and also didn't take as much time as the Chatooga. The Chatooga is nicer in that the scenery is gorgeous, and you are rafting through a wilderness area. The Ocoee runs next to the road a lot of the way, so it is different- but the ride is so wild you don't know or care if you are in the wilderness or in the middle of Manhattan- there's no time to think about it.

So we went back to the Ocoee a lot and took along unsuspecting friends to enjoy the experience with us. We needed a 4 person crew for each trip. We also camped out, enjoyed the outdoors and explored the areas nearby. We spent every available minute outdoors in those days.

The last trip was like any other. We brought along our Ananda Marga friend and crashed and plummeted down the river as usual. By this time we knew the river and where the big hidden rocks were and knew how to avoid them and also get the best ride. As we were nearing the Class III rapid near the bridge, we were coming up on a big hidden rock and for some reason we hit it too dead on. The front of the raft rose straight up and I remember thinking "this is gonna hurt". It threw all of us out backwards into the rapids, then hurled us down an 8 foot drop.

Oh yeah, another good thing about the Ocoee is that there were usually other people around- sometimes watching from the road, and sometimes fellow travelers who were also rafting, canoeing or kayaking.

I distinctly remember going under for the third time, thinking "this is it", when a kayaker yanked me up to the surface. I was happy to be alive, and then I looked back at the bridge and saw where my raft was- wrapped around the pylon with tons of water rushing at it, pinning it to the pylon. It was hopeless to try to get it, and we all knew right then and there that that was the end of the rafting trips.

We had done it, had mastered it, and the river had reclaimed the vessel for itself and we respected that.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Worbs just worbs

I started thinking about the expressions we used back in the 70's. They were far out man. It's a gas!

There were many ways to try to get across what was going on- like the term mind expansion! or that we were blown away, ripped, tripped out, tripping, freaking, freaked out, gorked, zonked, blasted, high, gassed, juiced, bombed, righteous, flying, turned on, rushing, out of sight, groovin, in the groove, digging it (can you dig it?), mellowed out, stoned, stoned out of your/my/our gourd(s), smashed, flipped out. You were either tuned in or tuned out, turned on or square, on the bus or off the bus. You made the scene, and were part of the happening, the teach-in, the love-in, the be-in, or the sit-in. You were blown away or maybe you just split. You might be ragged on or hassled by the unhip or by anyone or anything's bad vibes. Good vibrations, however, were a magnet. You could grok the vibes, man and just groove with it. The hipsters became hippies. The beatniks became beatles.

We snorted, toked, bogarted and stepped on various substances. It was cool to drop. It was also ok to drop out. It was a bad scene when someone got busted. Uncool to get caught holding. Some people were narcs!

The term psychedelic was invented to describe the effect of mind expanding drugs. It was easy to go over the edge- spaced out, freaked out,uptight, bummed or bummer, bad trip, rip off, and downer described the trip or tripper when it was not going so well.

We were in a new game with new bags to get into or out of. Hang ups were to be avoided, hanging out was what you did. You did your THING.

Words that referenced women were also curious. Old lady is my favorite- at once hip and quaintly precious. We were chics and birds, too. Not very liberating. Women were also heads, but that term was reserved as a reference to men only. Hmm. We wore granny dresses, Native American beads and love beads, macrame vests and bags, bell bottoms, India cloth shirts, embroidered clothes galore, and costumes of all imaginable types.

Things were hip, cool, rich, far out, freaky, kinky, geaky, weird, strange and free. Our minds were to be open- thus the term head. We tried to set our souls free. We let our hair grow and refused to wear bras or make up (didn't need it back then anyway). We raised our consciousness. We protested and marched. We took to the streets. Theatre and politics were one. Guerilla theatre! Bring it back!

We had the Gong Show- have you ever seen it? Compare to Idol. Says it all.

We had black lights and strobe lights. We painted everything Day-glo colors. We flashed the peace sign and posted the peace sign.

You know what is striking about the birth of all these new ways of expression? The only way to say love is still love. All you need, after all, is love.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Drop back again

Let's back up to around 1974. Setting: Crestline ultra-hip bohemian pad with assorted characters and misfits, intelligentsia and academics, dead-heads, pot-heads and pin-heads, and just plain Heads.

One of the nicest and most talented people I ever met was Howard Cruse, the cartoonist, who was from Birmingham (later moved to New York). Howard was just publishing his Barefootz comic books. He was a starving artist at the time, so I gave him $50.00 to do a large piece of cartoon art. It was splendid. It had a strange conglomerate creature looking rather bewildered at the top of an existential staircase that opened up into a universe of everything imaginable and then some. I managed to hold on to that maserpiece all these years until my son begged it from me to put on his wall in his own Southside apartment. That was the last it was seen. I guess it is only fitting that it has disappeared on the Southside. I can only hope that it is still hanging on the wall in some ultra-hip bohemian pad being admired by various characters and misfits that one always finds, even to this day, on the Southside of Birmingham.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

From the Ashes

The timeline is a bit fuzzy now. Somehow, I have reported on 1973-75, and am now heading into 1976- 77. I am getting into the glory days (for me) of Southside.

I went back to work, and moved into a very nice one-bedroom apartment on Highland Avenue.
I remember that it had one black wall that I hung my large vanity lights on, with posters underneath. I put my 50's style chaise in front. It was kind of glamorous.

I was getting better physically and mentally. My own rehabilitation coincided with the rehabilitation nursing I was doing at the University of Alabama's Spain Rehabilitation Center. I worked on the spinal cord unit and found that I enjoyed the pace of rehab much better than the crisis-like atmosphere of intensive care. I was still in my early twenties so I could relate to the mostly young guys with injuries suffered as a result of car, motorcycle and diving accidents. They were the risk takers and the partiers that weren't so lucky. In those days, patients could stay at the hospital for months, so we had long term relationships with them and their families. It was all about teaching and creating independence- what a far cry from today's insensible medical "care".

One day near the hospital after work I ran into a friend's younger brother that used to come by the enclave in Crestline. He was working in the pharmacy at UAB as a tech. We started hanging out a lot and decided to go in together on a large apartment near one of the parks further down Highland Avenue. It was the top half of a big house, and it included a large attic that could be used as a room as well- later the site of many late night jam sessions.

In the back of the house was a large concrete courtyard that backed up to the side of the steep hill behind us. The hill was covered with gorgeous 60 foot tulip poplars. Sitting in the kitchen looking out the back of the apartment, all you saw was trees and a small cottage that housed an older man who had lived there for many years- he was a holdover from when his family took care of the house and grounds that we were renting. He had a hat collection and he rode a bicycle. He was very quaint but very quiet. We were respectful of him and his little house. God only knows what he thought about us and our raucous parties. I guess we were somewhat acceptable- we both had good jobs and were not dealing drugs!

The house was great, and just called out for parties and gatherings. We had them a lot. We would have double keggers- one would be out back in the courtyard and one on the first floor of the house. I can't remember any of the crowds of people that came to those parties other than my close friends. I had acquired so many record albums that we got several large heavy duty plastic tubs. I could stand the records up in the tubs, and then could easily flip through them to find what I was looking for. Unfortunately, when we had parties and guests over, they must have helped themselves to my records, because many went missing.

The place also had a claw foot bathtub. I loved getting in there and soaking.

Sometimes things were rather straightforward, sometimes things were crazy. In that one location, upstairs and downstairs, with all the people who were in and out, there were enough stories to fill several volumes. Two of the more endearing and interesting roommates we had were Ananda Marga devotees. One gave me a cookbook called Cooking for Consciousness. He saw more potential in me than I was showing at the time I am sure. He was raising his little girl, Angel, and she lived in the house, too. The next door neighbor worked in nuclear medicine but he knew everything about plants and had tons of them. It was a renaissance kind of culture and we were in the middle of it all.

I bought a Chevrolet pick-up truck with a camper top. We outfitted it with everything we could- carpet, curtains, and electrical outlet, speakers, a porta potty, and all our camping gear. We went camping and hiking everywhere within a days ride. I bought a raft and we started going white water rafting on the Chatooga, the Nantahala and the Ocoee Rivers. No guides, no lessons- we just started riding the rivers. We hiked the Appalachian trail.

Our dog JC (Joe Cool) was as much a Southsider as any of us. He was part collie, part border collie and part Gordon setter. He was beautiful and just the right size. He was so friendly and smart that he was genuinely loved by all, so he could go anywhere he wanted to. I imagine he fathered some Southside puppies, too.

We started having regular musical gatherings that would last for hours into the night. We would sing John Prine songs, Neil Young songs, Crosby Stills and Nash songs. Once a week we had craft night, and my girlfriends would come over and do macrame and needlework. See the twin peacocks shirt embroidery that I did during this time. I started listening to reggae music. We would put on Bob Marley or Toots and play their music all day. Katy Lied by Steely Dan and Sweet Forgiveness by Bonnie Raitt also stand out from that time.

Our neighborhood was a succession of parks so we could walk down on Sunday afternoon and play volleyball or play with the dog or go for a stroll. It was a relatively safe and pretty serene scene (discounting the night we had a party that got so wild that everyone started howling like wolves).

The trees, the people, the times were wonderful, but the times they were a-changin.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Mostly Madness - The L& N Cafe

I am sure there are people with unclouded memories who can say a lot more about the L&N- who owned it, who worked there, when it opened and closed. I keep hoping that these folks with find my blog and fill in some of the details someday. I will keep plugging away meanwhile with what few fragments I have remaining of a very fragmentary time of my life.

It is hard to describe a dreamscape. Having just seen Avatar, I realize that words on a page are hardly adequate. I am going to try.

Playing in the background are leftover riffs and phrases- Al Kooper, Staple Singers - and I am jamming with Electric Ladyland on the piccolo. The telephone and all the telephone wiring is flung into the frontyard. The sound of napalm bombings and cries of wounded soldiers and Vietnamese on the television provides the drone sound. I remember the exotic feel of the cassette tape spoken tour of American Samoa that John sent.

I tried to reconnect with some of my friends who had scattered, running from the craziness that I had fallen into. They had also descended into their own madness. Everyone was wasted. I think that is why the L&N was so appealing. It was the most "anything goes" place at the time. So I started going regularly with Caveman and friends. His household included his very smart artsy girlfriend, his roomate and my best drinking and hanging out buddy Bobby, some monkeys and other assorted creatures. He was actually an intelligent guy who went on to get several degrees-don't know where he is now. We payed Go and Mastermind and listened to Miles Davis and Charlie Parker when we weren't at the L&N.

At the L&N we would get a booth and start drinking huge mugs of beer that soon slopped all over the table. Each table had a large candle. We started a tradition of making melted wax art on the table top that was easily picked up and then plastered on the wall. After a while we could sit at our favorite booth with our own wax artwork surrounding us. That was carousing at its finest. How I drove after that is a miracle and something that still sends shivers down my spine. I was in a blackout most of the time. I do remember looking up at the bar one night just before closing, and a la Ugly Coyote, there were dancers up there, but all guys, who suddenly as a group- mooned us all.

I don't know why I quit going, or if the bar just closed. The curious thing is that I cannot recall a single memory of music from the L&N. It remains a dark and mysterious chapter in my life.