Billy’s Mojo

I think I first met Billy Ruane in 1988 when I sat in with a friend’s band at the Middle East upstairs. I was back from college on a winter break that turned into a year long hiatus in which I attended a bunch of Billy’s shows. At that time, The Middle East Downstairs was still a bowling alley and until recently, the entertainment upstairs had been mostly belly dancing and other light cultural fare. In the legendary Boston rock origin story, Billy Ruane changed all that in 1987 and lit the fire that still burns in Central Square. In the family of Boston rock, Billy was the crazy uncle who always came with arms full of gifts (even if they were sometimes as mysterious as a trunk full of scavenged biology texts).

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The other night as I wallowed in Pabst Blue Ribbon while watching old footage of Billy at the closing of Mojo Records and making a mix tape in his honor, who should walk in but Roger Miller. In a moment of chance that seems divine, sitting there on the top of the pile of Human Sexual Response, O Positive, Neighborhoods, Lyres, Treat Her Right, Throbbing Lobster, Limbo Race, Wrong, The Dark and Morphine records was Roger’s own 1987 release The Big Industry. Not only is this a significant record for me personally (Roger played twice at my college around this time and was nearly attacked with a machete in my dorm after a show), the release party for this record was the first real rock show at the Middle East. Billy had already been trying book bands in the restaurant’s back room but they had been reluctant. Roger beat him to it for the release of The Big Industry and Billy came back to the Middle East upset that he had been scooped. The next month, in November 1987, he convinced them to let him book bands there for his 30th birthday party. It has remained a hub of the Boston music scene ever since.

Here’s the mix of mostly 80s’ post punk and pop rock I made in Billy’s honor. In fact, I’m not sure he even liked any of these songs. It’s just a mix that reminds me of him and expresses some feelings about his loss that I could not express better in any other way. Plus, its just a bitchin Boston mix. My favorite kind.

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Track List:
1. Unba Unba – Human Sexual Response
2. Houses R Falling Down – The Dark
3. Manic Depression – Roger Miller
4. Sin City – Treat Her Right
5. Sharks – Morphine
6. Talk About Love – O Positive
7. /one/blue story/ – Wrong
8. Down and Backwards – Limbo Race
9. Boys Town Work Song – Christmas
10. Prettiest Girl – The Neighborhoods
11. I Think She Likes Me – Treat Her Right
12. Yesterday – Swinging Erudites
13. No Reason – Treat Her Right

Over the years, Billy paced me (and passed me often) throughout the Cambridge music scene. A dervish dancing like it was a Dead Kennedy’s show to the mild mannered Kora player he had booked at the Green Street Grille. Shirt open to the navel always. Beer barely in hand. A dapper disheveled Boston rock impresario racing through Cambridge with his heart on his suit jacket sleeve leaving a trail of musical madness in his wake. Who will teach the children to slam dance in their slippers and nightshirts? He booked the Pineapple Ranch Hands and so so many other bands over the years. Hell, I even interviewed him for my dissertation on Boston nightclubs.

Although we were not close personally, we knew each other well after 20 years of bumping into each other at shows. For so many people, Billy was the best friend you saw too little and always had the best time with. Maybe the closer you got, the more likely you were to get burned from his intense heat. But from my safe distance, Billy was a comet that streaked through most of my adult life. Usually when I was having the most fun.

Though I always met Billy over music, in the end I knew him best through records. Over the years, I encountered him often on my rounds. At a yard sale here. At a Goodwill there. Often at Mojo Records in Cambridge. In March 2006 Mojo closed. I was there filming between Sunday March 19 and Tuesday March 21. Billy was there too. Every day. In the end, it came down to a race between Billy and the Goodwill Guys. I guess it always did. This time, I got it on film. Billy was never quite so Billy.

Boston will never quite be the same without him.

The revolution will not be televised

But it might be shown on YouTube. After a peaceful first day of G20 protest up here in Toronto, things got ugly yesterday. What began (and remained) a largely peaceful affair turned nasty when a small group of Black Bloc anarchists swarmed through downtown Toronto smashing (mostly) major chains and symbolic establishments like Starbucks, McDonalds, banks and the like. In one hilarious moment, they apparently pelted a strip club with mannequin arms and legs they had looted up the street. Despite not supporting their violent methods, I have to give them some credit for tactics and irony. I mean, despite 19,000 cops and security personnel, a few hundred kids were able to take over downtown Toronto for a few hours and thereby dominate coverage of the event. Hmmm. Maybe they were allowed to? It sure made for “good” coverage.

Sadly, their hour of mayhem allowed the media to focus almost exclusively on images of burning cop cars, protesters smashing windows and the like. Let me tell you, I was there off and on all day and I only saw them once. To me, it seemed like a hard core group of about a hundred folks with perhaps another hundred friends and curious copy cats. There were at least 11,000 other people up here peacefully demonstrating yesterday and we got almost no attention. Not only that, the cops were pushing and pushing all day. I watched all day and night as they surged against crowds of peaceful demonstrators on foot, bike and war horses. I met people who had been beaten. I heard a girl was trampled by a horse and almost killed. Tear gas was used in Toronto for the first time ever. It was a scary display of state power up here people, let me tell you. If you don’t believe me, watch the videos and decide for yourself.

In a strange bit of personal poetry, local record stores (which unsurprisingly remained unscathed) served as a backdrop for many poignant images throughout the day. (Although I heard after the fact that the iconic Steve’s Music sign melted from the burning police car nearby). Meanwhile, Kops records (I could not make this up) did a nice revolutionary window display in solidarity. My favorite moment was watching the reflected march in their window seeming to burst forth from the cover of Gil Scott Heron’s album “The revolution will not be televised”. Beautiful.

Although his words remain as true now as ever, it seems with the (temporary?) democratization of digital media production and distribution (think cellphone videos from Iran and YouTube posts from Toronto), perhaps we have a chance at a real people’s media before the state takes over all channels. They were blocking cell coverage at times up here and folks tell me that legislation is trending toward making it illegal to film cops on duty. As my man Wayne warned me, guard your grill folks (and more importantly, your YouTube account).

Get out. Get involved. Post your findings. Before its too late.

peace

Cuz Faulkner’s Books Bibles and Records

Cuz Faulkner's 1965 Desk Close

Rob Chalfen came by recently to listen through some more of the Lexington 78 haul. Along with the Brian Rust book, he brought some recently discovered pictures of his original Wax Vallhala – Cuz Faulkner’s Books Bibles and Records on Columbus Ave in Boston, MA. (Close inspection of the picture of the facade makes me think it was 979 Columbus).

Cuz Faulkner's 1965 Front

As any reader of this blog knows, Rob is both a good friend and a walking encyclopedia of early music of the African diaspora. By the age of 12 he had absorbed his family’s pretty extensive 78 collection and was taking trips from the family home in Newton down to the South End to dig for old jazz and blues records in the prodigious piles at Cuz Faulkner’s.

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I was particularly struck by the confluence of pictures and dates here. All these shots are from a trip Rob made in March, 1965 with his dad (who brought the family camera). He was 12 1/2 and already knew more about early jazz than most of us will absorb in a lifetime. Rob pointed out the MLK calendar above the desk and noted that it was jut one month before he was to arrive in Boston to lead a march of 50,000 on Boston Common.

Cuz Faulkners 1965 Chalfen Diggin

Sitting here this MLK day 2010, with with images of Hati and Cuz Faulkner’s crossing paths on the internet, it feels like the world is simultaneously imploding on itself and launching new technoutopic wonders distractions by the moment. I stare into these old photos longing for a simpler place and time. Of course, that moment was no less horror filled (Kennedy was killed in ’63 and the cascades of calamities in ’68 were a mere three years hence). But somehow, the notion of a white pre-teen record geek from Newton taking the trolley down to sift through Cuz Faulkner’s 78s in search of the origins of jazz provides some strange solace. I guess it just makes me long for a dusty room full of records, the optimism of youth and the sense that the future was yet to be written. For whatever reason, sitting here at the end of history, this little window into a not so distant past feels comforting. Like its not so far away after all.

Anyway, I have been so fascinated with these shots and struck by the timing that I e-mailed Chalfen asking for more detail. Who told you about this place? How did you wind up with a Nat Hentoff curated record collection as a 12 year old? What do you remember about Cuz Faulkner and his place. Here’s his reply.

[Snip]

Lessee…. I think Henry Schwartz, the great Boston Expressionist painter & pal of my dad’s hepped me to it. He was a classical 78 collector & prob discovered it trawling around for Columbia Vivatonals…My dad dropped me off / picked me up on the occasion when he took these shots, but often I would just schlepp in there from Newton Corner on the trolley, hauling my portable phonograph…The owner had a helper who lived nearby on an upper floor, who’s name I think was Milton or Mr Milton, a thin, hangdog older black man – i would yell up at his window & I even tossed gravel up to his window to wake him up, no doorbell…after a spell he would slowly make his way down & open the place up for me…I could easily spend 5 hours in there without any consciousness of time whatever…Next door was a black barbershop – I wandered in there once on a break from my record trance, looking for small talk, and all conversation ground to a halt upon the the intrusion of the white boy. I only met Cuz on a few occasions…I recall him in a 3 piece suit, cigar, of somewhat florid speech, a neighborhood pontificator; or that could just be an artifact of my reconstruction. He always had a few friends hanging out in the front of the shop, shooting the shit; what they made of me I can’t imagine. On the date shown in the photos he regaled my father about how unusual I was, most kids today have no appreciation etc etc, while I clutched the bag of that day’s gleanings, one of my best hauls ever. When I got it home I found I had taken the wrong bag, or it had been switched on me, I never found out which. I got a bunch of Nat King Cole records of no interest to me whatever. Calls back to the place discovered nothing, or so they said. Evidently it had been sold to someone else. I was devastated. I can still remember some of the records I lost. Curiously, Nat King Cole died almost immediately therafter.

My mom was a typical hit parade/big band swing fan bobbysoxer of the late ’30s…she got the discarded records from the jukebox at her dad’s resort in Gloucester when the were changed over by the distributor, at least once a summer, mostly white big band stuff, Goodman, Miller, Dorsey. (Though I think her copy of “South” by Benny Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra (1928) came from it too). Her girlfriend dated Nat Hentoff when they lived in Dorchester, c ’39/’40, while he was at Boston Latin, see Hentoff’s excellent “Boston Boy – a memoir”, Knopf 1986. Hentoff was already doing radio in Boston at WMEX and wrote jazz reviews while at Northeastern. He was the jazz guru of their set, leading forays to the Savoy Ballroom and other live jazz venues, making sure they were steered away from Commercial Crap and towards the Real Thing. He would lead expeditions to Boston Music Company, Kreys and other downtown record outlets and recommend what was hep amongst the new releases, mostly the 4-record sets then being reissued of classic ’20s jazz for fans of ‘real’ (small combo) jazz, jazz record collectors and other unfortunates: King Oliver, Armstrong Hot 5, Bessie Smith, Frank Teschemacher, Ellington’s Cotton Club band, no Bix for some reason. Sets of early New Orleans Revival stuff like Bunk Johnson. Also misc stuff like pre-war Chicago blues (Big Maceo, Art Hodes), and then-current 52nd St small combo jazz (Cozy Cole, Jerry Jerome & his Cats & Jammers, Chu Berry/Roy Eldridge, Big Joe Turner, Basie, Ellington, Billie Holliday, Eddie Condon, Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, Muggsy Spanier, Boogie Woogie (Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis), Capitol’s 1943 New American Jazz set, Coleman Hawkins. This constituted the bulk of her collection, prob @ 200 records, which I discovered in waves at various points growing up. So to a great extent my formative musical consciousness was curated by Nat Hentoff. Plus my dad’s classical piano playing & records. Plus the jukebox.

My folks would stack them up on the changer when I was bored on rainy days, age about 4, and I would watch them spin with hypnotic fascination. ( I could go on in this mode but that’s prob another essay, this is only part of the tale of my wax obsessions)

[Snip]

Peace on this MLK day 2010 and thanks to all the people trying to bridge the false divisions among us. Keep the dream alive.

pace