They’re all gone, but me.
I have a photo, a black and white pastogram.
A group of five young men gather atop a pile of rubble, in front of a single-story brick structure in Boulder, Colorado. A sign fixed to the building indicates the place is occupied by Rolands Beauty Salon.
It is late winter, 1966.
The photo is of a group of musicians that, with one departure and two arrivals, would become the Pleasant Street Blues Band, taking the name from a street in Boulder. The band would end up playing little blues music and there would be few things pleasant about it.
Standing in the photo, from left, are Mark Kincaid (who had the good sense to depart before things got thick, eventually ending up with a California band called The Electric Prunes) and Mick Durbin.
Next to Mick is Grady Waugh.
At the far right is Steve Hacker.
Kneeling at the front of the group at Rolands Beauty Salon is a bespectacled fellow, wearing his prep school sport jacket.
Mick and Mark had been members of a popular Boulder/Denver band called The Children.
Grady was a high-strung, math-genius guitarist and singer from Scottsbluff, Nebraska, once a band mate of Randy Meisner.
Steve was a tall, quiet, red-haired bass player — a young bass player (no one knew how young until he was asked for an ID one night at a club and he didn’t have one. He admitted that night he was seventeen).
Steve and I were debris cast from one of the worst wrecks in the history of music: The Night Walker. That band also included a Pentecostal lead guitar player; a tambourine specialist with a Beatles haircut, a terrible case of acne and bad teeth; a piano player with a Fender Rhodes missing eight keys; and a female singer, Nancy, whose drinking habit got the best of her right around the time she first menstruated. The Night Walker set sail on the Colorado musical seas then promptly hit the rocks and sank when, one night at a club in Aspen called the Mad Dog, after she was carried to the stage from the dressing room by the tambourine player, Nancy approached the microphone and projectile vomited an incredible amount of Vodka and partially digested Chef Boyardee ravioli onto the audience below. This might have worked to our advantage in 1977 but, in 1966, Nancy was way ahead of the curve.
Mark ‘s place was taken by guitarist and singer Micky Emeson and another guitarist and singer, Neal Jordan, joined the herd.
Micky had been the front man of a top-draw Denver band, The Galaxies. He had perfect, long hair, and an arrogant manner and swagger that translated to a great stage presence. If his lead guitar work was not the best, he made it seem as though it was.
Neal was a friend of Steve’s. Neal was tall, sweet natured, strong, simple; he could carry heavy items, play rhythm guitar and sing fairly well. And he owned a Cadillac hearse. The hearse sealed the deal.
Once all was in place, a brief but intense adventure began, emblematic of the times as they were below the ever-popular but thin iconic surface of the Sixties. Ours was the Sixties without flowers and painted faces, love and bubbles in the air. Ours was a Sixties of anxious cool, driven by the fevered need of privileged and selfish adolescents to speed things up, to break from the dullness of the previous decade, the cozy but repressed world of the “We saved civilization” crowd. We were self indulgent, not much for bubbles. We were about high volume, enflamed nervous systems, sex and drugs, crazy notions, no boundaries, hitting the highest possible RPM. Mayhem.
The Pleasant Street Blues Band.
They’re all dead.
Until 2011, I regarded the fellows in Pleasant Street the same way I did the boys I knew at the private school I was forced to attend as an adolescent: people to be avoided. I had no desire to communicate with them, no urge to trade stories and remember times that produced little more for me than trouble, pain and failure. What I recalled was enough and, with the power of memory to smooth edges and erase unwanted details over the course of decades, I had decent material to serve me as a writer. I didn’t need more; I had no desire to make the adjustments in personal history required when you hear someone else’s stories about experiences you shared.
But, I cracked and set up a Facebook account on the advice of friends who said I needed to engage social media to promote my painting and writing. Once I was on Facebook, I couldn’t help myself: it’s a deep pit filled with a sticky muck that, once you step in, takes hold and pulls you down. I began to search for names I remembered from days past. Few searches produced results.
One did: Mick Durbin.
An old acquaintance became a new “friend,” the two of us joined again after nearly fifty years, digitally. Durb and I began a series of exchanges that passed for communication —disjointed messages, most short.
Mick had picked up a heavy motorcycle jones over the years and, still seeking speed, seemed to devote much of his energy and attention to fast bikes, air races and bike-loving friends, many of them in England. Turns out, though, Mick was ill. He didn’t mention it, but a few of the photos posted on his page the last couple years made it clear. The guy was dying.
In one post, he noted that someone had stolen his guitar. Back in the day, Mick owned a beautiful, ivory-colored Telecaster. He carried it in a factory issue case, had a Fender Reverb amp and packed a bag with his harps – harmonicas, mainly Hohner Marine Bands, several kept in glasses of water set atop the amp during performances. Now he owned a fleet of sleek, dangerous looking motorcycles and, in one photo on his page, displayed a knee mangled in an accident. Somewhere along the way, he acquired the nickname “Ratty.” He liked firearms.
He told that he had played music with Steve a number of years back; he wrote that he had seen Micky as well, a decade before. He said both were dead.
He, like me, was an old man.
But, in 1966, Mick was the band’s glamorous front man, a couple years older than the rest of us: sophisticated, hip, smooth, stylish, a seductive presence in more ways than one. Women loved him, wanted to be with him; men wanted to be like him, be his friend. He wore ties, and boots with heels. He had an odd depression in the center of his chest. He wrote poems and executed lunatic, detailed drawings with a rapidograph.
Over the last year, Mick’s Internet messages to me grew shorter, less expressive, studded with capital letters and exclamation points, sometimes exhibiting frustration and anger, with a bitter edge to many of them.
But, in 1966 he was a prince, articulate and magnetic. I remember sitting on the bandstand at Galena Street East, in Aspen, setting up my kit, watching Mick as he stood at the bar, drink in one hand, the other hand on his hip, wearing a vest under a corduroy jacket, hair to his shoulders, seducing a barmaid nearly twice his age, his raspy laugh echoing in the near-empty basement room. It worked. He was a charmer and, on stage, he projected that quality and a hipper-than-thou attitude as he gyrated and gestured. People ate it up. He sang from the throat and regularly lost his voice, trying after to recoup his asset with tea and honey.
Mick was the sleek, gleaming hood ornament on a vehicle out of control, soon to veer off the road and tumble off a cliff. I was in the back seat of that vehicle: The Pleasant Street Blues Band.
People came out in good numbers to watch us and listen to us. Mick, Micky and Grady were entertaining, Grady off to the side, twitching, yanking the neck of his guitar like a farmer with hives strangling a rooster, edging sideways to the microphone. Hootchie Cootchie Man, Smokestack Lightning, Midnight Hour. Micky worked the floor pedal, looking up to smile at the crowd, turning and laughing as Mick leaned into the mic while locking eyes with a woman in the crowd, pointing at her with his free hand. All was loud, fast, bloated with feedback, crashing sound, sex electric and bonerbound, fueled by methadrine, acid and weed. Bright stage lights shone on my mates: the silhouettes.
Every set of music was designed to crescendo to a still point, a huge silence that signaled its end.
Me, I sat behind the others, in the shadows, clip-on shades affixed to my specs, wired to the tits, smoking cigarettes.
I was the intoxicated voyeur, monitoring my mates, checking dancers as they gyrated and jumped, sweat soaking hair and clothes, the smell in the room a mix of lust juice, alcohol and cigarette smoke. I fixed my gaze on people at tables, at the bar, me unnoticed, all the while pounding out a beat a little behind the beat, pinning the bottom, pulse racing, keeping the beat, in the shadow. A minor league Charlie Watts.
The band paid its dues, honing the act in clubs in Colorado, many of them the notorious 3.2 bars in cities and college towns where kids 18-21 gulped down huge amounts of 3.2 beer, danced, yelled over the music, barfed, felt each other up, smoked and started fights. We played them all, as well as regular dates at a number of higher-end clubs, in particular in Aspen and Denver — places like The Exodus, Galena Street East. We played psychedelic melees in university ballrooms, at lightshows, at clubs in Greeley and Cheyenne during rodeo weeks (we did not mix well with cowboys). Mick and Micky, fueled by our growing affair with stimulants, instigated a few brawls and near riots with comments about people in the audience; we burned an Aspen bar’s upstairs living quarters; we started a melee in a Western Slope town that required half the police force to quell; we were chased from small towns by convoys of irate ruffians determined to kill long-haired invaders, cultural pirates; we flew in a dual-engine plane manned by an ancient Mormon pilot who, when we lit up joints in the cabin, fell asleep for a few minutes at the stick as we crested the Divide; we drove mountain passes during blizzards in a failing Econoline van and a Cadillac hearse, lived with runaways in rat hole apartments in Denver’s Capitol Hill.
It was our Sixties. Illusions were commonplace so, inevitably, we were ready for fame.
In New York City.
Members of another Denver band, Lothar and the Hand People, made the trip east a few months earlier and Mick was determined to take us to the coast. Riches waited. Some of the guys in Lothar suggested we, like them, take rooms at the Hotel Albert, then the favored roost for most of the emigrant musicians in NYC. They helped us get a booking when we arrived.
We left Denver with several underage groupies and an aging child film star wearing a black cape with a red question mark painted on the back.
We left with an abundance of ambition, and no discipline. It’s hard to say if we had talent – we never practiced enough to know.
What we did well — in fact so well that people in The City came to see us play after hearing the news — was walk on the ledge, crazy, teetering with a suicidal abandon. We were whacked, max RPM doomed.
We left the ledge in short order.
We had our moments, among them gigs at the Balloon Farm on St. Mark’s (soon to become the Electric Circus), gigs at The Trauma in Philly, a date at The Night Owl and The Cheetah, studio work midtown.
But, in terms of creating something distinct, something original? Something profitable? Nothing.
Nothing but a single, original song written by Micky: sappy, slogging dreck detailing his infatuation and affair with the girlfriend of a Brooklyn-born, singing pseudo ranch hand. Polly. Beautiful Polly. The cowpoke sat on the floor outside the door to our rooms one day and cried, his forehead against the door, his hands clenched in little fists. The song was titled “The Princess is Mine.” We never played it in public and the princess deserted Micky after but a short time together in the castle.
Me, I had been an art student during the little time I spent in college, so I was interested in paintings, art galleries, MoMA, the Whitney, the Guggenheim. A red-haired Wiccan beauty from South Boston smote me, but I contracted a vicious case of the clap from Raina Love, the Love Goddess of the Lower East Side, as a result of an indiscreet coupling, and the Wiccan flew. All I had was the art.
Grady was drafted soon after we arrived, was carted off to Fort Leonard Wood, had a breakdown, got chucked in the psych ward, then discharged. He returned in time to play our last two or three gigs, a shaky soul starting his mornings with a pilfered bottle of Romilar with codeine.
Mick? He hooked up with Joni Mitchell, moved in with her and lost interest in the rest of us. She sang songs for us on occasion, as a test I suppose, and we traveled on the train with her to gigs in Philly, but we were flies on her wall. Not Mick, though: he wooed her with his mountain-boy act. She wrote a song about Mick (Michael) and, not long after, the two went their separate ways — Mick back to Colorado, her on to better-known lovers and fame.
Micky and Steve decided to go in search of other band mates — a search that lasted a month or so before they followed Neal back to Denver. Neal had made the trip home in the hearse in record time, the first to leave, shooting meth at rest stops and yelling at demons as he rocketed across the Kansas prairie.
One by one our mates abandoned the band and the suite of ratty rooms at the Albert, until there was only me and Grady, the two of us eating stale halvah we shoplifted from a nearby deli and wondering how we would make it to the next day. Then, when we were out, management put a new lock on the door and left a notice: pay up or we sell everything in the place. “Everything” consisted of my set of beat-up red sparkle Ludwigs with battered and bent Zildjians and a bass drum head featuring a sun sign painted by Mick, a moldy pea coat and a pair of mismatched socks.
Everything? It’s yours.
Grady and I had eight grams of Nepalese hash given to us by a charitable trust baby who stalked the clubs clad in a vintage British 11th Hussars dress coat. We got on the phone, long distance, and begged. Enough cash was wired by family members to buy two, one-way tickets to Denver.
That was that.
We bought the tickets, ate the hash at the airport and hallucinated our way back to the mountains.
The adventure was over.
We all got hepatitis from shooting up.
I never had the desire to play the drums again, though I can’t help tapping and slapping on tabletops and the arms of chairs when I hear music with a beat, my feet working imaginary peddles on the floor. My experiences in the galleries and museums in Manhattan sharpened my desire to make art, to paint, so I went back to college and studied literature and philosophy, knowing art is born anywhere but in art class. Mick, too, painted, and he wrote poetry. He found a job at the University of Colorado. He was somewhat cryptic about the nature of his work there, but I deduced it had something to do with buildings and housing. He retired a couple of years ago.
I began to write while in school, edited a college literary journal and went from there in search of ways to make money as a writer to support my painting habit. I had enough sense left to eventually marry a woman who was much better at making a living than I.
I saw Micky and Steve at a club in Denver a couple of years after I returned to town. They had formed another group and they played Beatles’ covers. Back in the USSR. Not counting me and a friend, there were six people in the audience that night. It was sad. Micky and Steve said hello from the stage. I never saw them again.
Grady took off for San Francisco and Los Angeles where he played on a number of occasions with Janis Joplin. He came back to Colorado in the company of a beautiful but vacant vegetarian named Shrinking Violet and her German shepherd, Steppenwolf. I was living alone in a small house on the mountainside above Central City, eating Jell-O, reading Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, making paintings and collages. Grady left the woman and dog with me, saying he had to go to Denver to buy guitar strings. He never returned.
Violet stayed with me for several weeks, force-feeding me homemade yogurt and brown rice, then wearied of me when I wouldn’t take long walks or drop acid and watch Gilligan’s Island with her. One day she announced that her father, an officer in command of an Army base in northern California, was sending money and when it arrived, she was on her way. I dropped her and the dog off at a highway intersection near Blackhawk, she and Steppenwolf hitchhiked to Denver, and I never saw her again. I imagine she married an ophthalmologist who enjoyed Gilligan’s Island re-runs, and that she drove her kids to school in a new Volvo or BMW.
Neal died first.
Then it was Mick’s turn.
His posts and messages ceased. His final message to me was a question related to a photo of a painting I posted. He wanted to know how long I had been painting. I told him, since 1968. There was no reply.
Then, a comment on Mick’s home page by one of his friends: Ratty’s not doing well. Liver or something.
I send Durb a message. I get no reply. In my mind’s eye, I see him dancing, onstage, laying out moves he used when he worked in NYC for three days in 1964 as a backup dancer on the Murray the K Show.
Then, a comment by an acquaintance on Mick’s home page: In a hospital in Boulder. Comments appear, many of them from folks in England. Get well, soon.
Then, he’s gone.
Several things have happened in the last decade that brought focus to my awareness of my mortality, to the fact time is growing short: prostate cancer and surgery, and the news the surgery didn’t work; a son-of-a-bitch neurosurgical adventure to remove a pituitary macro adenoma from my noggin; the birth of two grandsons who, with my granddaughter, delight me while simultaneously reminding me by their mere presence that I am in the fourth quarter of the game and will not return to the locker room.
In the last fifteen years, two of my best friends died, causing me to mourn and to look at the scoreboard clock each time.
And now, Durb, that beacon at the near edge of adolescence, the last living reminder of an experience that nearly killed me but planted a wild weed in me that has not entirely withered.
Mick made it to the still point, to the silence that ends the set.
So, I’m the last one.
Here in the dark.
Keeping the beat.
Watching, and waiting.