My first exposure to a beatnik coffeehouse was at a place called the Id. The jernt’s name was meant to be a hip reference to Freud’s word that describes the seemingly unorganized section of the brain that houses all the basic instincts and drives of the human animal. The Id seeks only to pleasure us, delivering our basic needs for food, shelter, and procreation. I dug the concept.
The lighting in the room was dim and multi-coloured. The tables were small, just large enough to hold a few coffee cups. The chairs were a collection of junk rescued from a landfill. A surreal fresco painted in fluorescent paint filled the walls surrounding the small stage. The signature scrawled in the right-hand corner of the painting read Tim O’Neil, a local artist I assumed. A single floodlight bathed the stage in red. The instruments for my cousin’s band stood silently on the stage, their amplifier’s red eyes glowing like evil demons.
I sat alone at a table waiting for the show to begin. I wasn’t much of a coffee drinker at that point. I ordered it anyway because that’s what everybody else was drinking and I wanted to fit in. Most of the crowd were high school age and above. I entered using a complimentary pass issued by my cousin that saved me a dollar at the door. This was a high priced concert for 1966.
First up was a poet from the local college who droned original beat poetry lamenting the death of a goldfish or some shit like that, immediately forgettable. Friends of his in the audience wrapped their knuckles on their tables and said things like “yes”, and “dig it” and “tell it” and “yeah, man”. I wasn’t sure if the material was over my head or just plain bad.
Up next came a pleasant surprise. It was Oscar Deutsch. The audience cheered and clapped as the Queen of the North End took the stage. Forever true to himself, Oscar was decked out in his queer finery, dangling earrings, long immaculately painted fingernails, hair flying madly in all directions, and even lipstick and a tasteful touch of rouge.
“Tonight, I have a special tweet for you,” Oscar lisped. “I’m going to perform Howl.” Hoots and hollers greeted his announcement, general knowing acknowledgement.
This was my first introduction to the poem penned by Allan Ginsberg back in 1956. It wasn’t the type of material that my dad would have exposed his young son to. In fact, beat poetry was scarcely known other than liberal Mecca’s like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Madison, or New York. I didn’t realize it, but I had been bombarded by beat philosophy my entire life. My realization, acceptance, and understanding of the beat movement began that night with Oscar’s recitation of one of the most influential literary writings of the day.
Oscar turned away from the audience and waited for quiet. He let anticipation build in that room until it was thick and nearly unbearable. Finally, he whipped around.
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix; Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,” Oscar recited in an excited, staccato, quivering voice.
I listened as fast as I could while Oscar read, seldom taking a breath, except to annunciate passages like “fucked in the ass” and “cocksuckers” describing a litany of illicit drugs and sex, both hetero and homo sexual. I sat transfixed with the crowd drinking in as much as I could, mind wide open, basking in the lurid imagery spewed forth by my Queen.
Oscar read relentlessly for 20 minutes until he finally stopped and bowed to the audience, his audience. At first there was complete silence as we processed what we had just seen, then, pandemonium leading to a standing ovation for the sweat-drenched man. All were awed by the performance we had just witnessed. I’m certain that Ginsberg would have applauded the performance.
I scratched quick notes in my little notebook reminding me to research Howl at the university library, the only place that I hoped to find such controversial material.
Oscar danced on the stage, thanking all profusely for our adoration. Then, he announced the band, Anything New. I would have walked out at that juncture had this not been my cousin’s band. I felt euphoric; my head filled with thought and imagination firing synapses at light-speed. I didn’t want to spoil my mood.
The band started out playing many of the same tunes that Loading Zone covered. Songs such as Louie, Louie, Johnny B Good, I Want To Hold Your Hand, etc. They played the songs well, nothing special, most didn’t measure up to our treatment. Finally, my cousin took over the microphone to sing his songs, the first being a new song by Percy Sledge called When A Man Loves A Woman. I was amazed by the quality of my cousin’s voice. His smooth emotional tone possessed a level of passion that lifted the song to heights that had girls wiggling and swooning at their tables, making moony eyes at their dreamboat. Dancers clutched each other closer, grinding their pelvis together into one. I have no doubt that my cousin helped many a young get laid that night.
Next, he stepped out from behind the Vox Continental organ he’d been playing to take center stage. His performance of James Brown’s “I Feel Good” was stellar, including falling to knees as he screamed. He bounced around the stage like a madman during songs that included “Paint It Black”, and “Land Of A Thousand Dances”. Man, my cousin really cooked. He gave a stirring, no holds barred performance that made me glad that I stayed and thankful to my grandmother for the great genes.
The band really caught my attention with House Of The Rising Sun by the Animals. This was the first time I had heard the song performed like the Animals played it. House had been a chart topper in 1964, long before I started listening to rock radio. I was intrigued by the organ solo and that the song was about New Orleans. I marked in my notebook that this song was a must to learn. Over the next 40 years that solo would expand into one of my signature songs.
After the first set I decided to explore another room called the passion pit. At first glance I saw how the room got its name. The room was filled with teens making out. I quickly turned around and headed back into the main club. I went to a corner where Oscar was holding court. I gave him a big hug. He planted a big kiss on my cheek in return. Kids in the court glared at me wondering who the fuck this young Indian kid was. I turned and looked for my cousin, but he was nowhere in sight.
It was weird, Danny Pulaski was my cousin but we looked nothing alike. He didn’t even look like an Indian. His build favored his Polish father. Danny was truly handsome. He was self assured bordering on arrogant. No, he was arrogant, so arrogant that he chose the stage name Rock. Not like Rock Hudson the movie star, Rock the music genre. He pretended to stand for Rock & Roll stars everywhere. Now, that is arrogant. He was handsome, charming, and possessed great charisma. Essentially, all the things I was not. I had pangs of envy and admiration for my cousin, Rock.
The bands show was much better than their music.
A few nights later my dad told me that Rock had gotten his ass kicked by some kids out in South Superior where he lived. They had made fun of his Beatle boots, Beatle haircut, and Beatle sideburns. My dad named the kids. They were wasicu kids I knew from school or their older brothers. The next day I told Loraine what had happened, and in turn she told her brother Buster who called for a tribal meeting down in North End that same afternoon.
At the meeting, Buster handed out bus tokens and described the plan that we were about to execute. We filed down 3rd street to Tower Avenue where 15 of Indian boys caught the bus to South Superior. We got off the bus at 56th and headed to a small ball field where our targets were hanging out. We fanned out in several directions, and then converged on the kids that bruised my cousin, and kicked their sorry asses, bloodied their noses, dented their nuts. This activity took less than 10 minutes to accomplish.
Meanwhile the bus we rode out drove to the Village of Superior, a tiny community immediately south of South Superior, sat for a few minutes, then U-turned and headed back north.
Once the offenders scattered we ran back to the bus stop to catch the same bus we rode out on.
It wasn’t exactly West Side Story, not quite the battle of the Jets and Sharks, but my cousin was never bothered again. Well, not until years later when a jealous husband caught him in flagrante with the husband’s wife.