I can’t believe I’ve lived in Calgary for as long as I have and have never, ever been to the Folk Music Festival. Not sure exactly why–time of year, crowds and the inherent hassle that comes with a big event (not that that’s stopped me before), a lineup that hasn’t stopped me in my tracks–you know–the kind of acts where you say–that’s nice, but is it worth the effort?
So this year, when the lineup was announced, I took a look, as I always do, and one of the headliners caught my eye.
Joe Jackson. No, no relation to Michael, as I had to explain to my mother. Joe Jackson, the British blues-jazz-new wave-all around talented musician.
It wouldn’t be first time I’d seen him…
(what follows is a modified version of a short piece I wrote about a year and a half ago; yes, I’m a little…..what word do I want…embarrassed, uncomfortable, self conscious? telling this story but, I think it’s a good one…and hell, I was in my 20’s and up for anything…and in fairness, the blinds were up.)
Flashback, 1980, ’81, ’82, ’83….. I was living on the east side of Manhattan, not really the Lower East Side, not really the East Village, not even Gramercy Park, or Stuyvesant Town or Peter Cooper Village, the complex of residential towers spanning from 14th to 23rd street and containing more than 11 thousand apartments–my street was sort of a no-man’s land between them all.
I lived on a tree-lined block with mostly low rise apartment buildings–no more than seven or eight stories, most of them tenement buildings, as they are called; some are private houses (rumor had it that Stevie Wonder lived somewhere on the block), but most of us lived in walk ups with small living spaces, window air conditioners and fire escapes front and back, a stoop where you caught up on the neighborhood gossip and comings-and-goings in the morning with a coffee or at night with a beer in a bag (back then you had to hide your alcohol in public–no idea what the rules are now), a “tar beach” on the roof and fire hydrants up the block that, when the temperatures spiked in the summer, were opened with regularity (if you’ve never run through a fire hydrant, you should try it sometime).
My place was at the back of my building on the second floor, a little two room railroad flat (one room after another): kitchen and living space in the front room, long hall with a bath and then a small bedroom with a loft bed and a burglar-bar covered window looking out onto the weedy backyard below. And it had cockroaches. Blech.
I worked just a few blocks away, in a neighborhood bar and restaurant, with the police precinct station house right around the corner and the police academy down the next block.
So there were cops, yes, but there were also a lot of neighborhood people, who represented a little bit of everything: actors and actresses, guys who worked for the papers, professional photographers, stock brokers, blue collar guys, transient construction teams, a bookie or two and other people up to things that weren’t exactly legal, well dressed men and women who came from their uptown and Wall Street jobs each day back to their home base for a beer or a glass of wine and some friendly company.
Many of us became family-away-from-family. We hung out together and we always had each other’s backs. It was a good time in a good place.
The bar is gone–closed down less than a year after I left the city. Makes me kinda sad–it’s like your parents moved as soon as you left the house, or they tore your high school down when you left for college…so I’ve always felt a little rudderless.
But when I go back, I do still stroll the neighborhood on occasion (notice this is all in American spelling today), and very early on Easter Sunday last year, when it was quiet and the sun was just beginning to spill over the rooftops of the Stuy Town buildings and onto the streets, I found myself wandering down Second Avenue.
My building’s still there, but it looks as though maybe someone has bought it and tried to clean it up a bit–most likely reflected in rents I can’t even fathom. Or maybe someone paid a million bucks for a couple of rooms, who knows?
That morning, I cut into a quiet cross street a little further down Second that felt familiar, and I remembered in a flash that I once knew people who lived on this particular block.
My dear friends Paul (rest in peace) and Kenny lived in walk up apartment halfway down the street. Roommates–I think they met in the bar–Paul was a graphic designer and Ken a freelance writer from Canada (yes, put two and two together–he is the one who talked me into moving to Canada).
I’d only been there to hang out with them once as I can recall. Must have been 30, 35 years ago; the buildings at that end of the block are still there, which is a miracle in itself.
So back to the early 80’s we go: One night at the bar, the three of us were sitting around drinking and talking (I was a bartender for a few years). It was a quiet night, probably a Monday as I would have been off; we may have been the only three people there. Looking for some level of amusement we obviously weren’t finding at the bar, we got into a discussion about what else there was to do in the neighborhood, without much success.
You know, it was one of those frustrating “what do you want to do?”, “I dunno, whatever you want to do…” kind of conversations. And it went on for a while.
Until one of them, I can’t remember which one, said, “Well, you wanna go watch Joe Jackson?”
Turned out these guys happened to look out their apartment windows one night and, directly across the street in the building across the way, lived Jackson.
Well this sounded very intriguing, and it was certainly more interesting than what we were up to. So….we bought a six pack (and I dunno, maybe some other stuff too) and we climbed the stairs to their apartment, popped open our beers, and turned out the lights.
Sure enough, a short time later, there he was, walking into his place. Joe Jackson. Now, this was when he had just become famous, so this was pretty cool.
He was tall and thin, wearing jeans and a white t shirt with a black jacket on over top; his hair was short, and he smoked. A lot. He was alone.
He just walked in, tossed his keys down, and moved back and forth, in and out of his rooms, doing normal things.
We only watched him for a little while, probably because a) it was a little creepy and b) it was boring, because he was normal and c) we had most likely run out of beer.
I mentioned this to Kenny just a couple of years ago; while what I remembered was watching Joe Jackson by himself, all he could remember was the stunning, long legged models who were often entertained by Jackson….’course he lived there, so I’m sure he saw more than we did that night.
That’s it. That’s the story, as I remember it. And it all came back to me that Easter Sunday morning on the Lower East Side.
OK, so back to 2018. My chance to actually see Joe Jackson perform, and he was wonderful. Played for more than an hour and a half, voice as strong as ever–some songs I knew and some I didn’t, really great vibe from the crowd…makes me wonder why I’ve waited so long to see the FolkFest.
And Joe Jackson.
(sorry, I was leaning on the fence and people were dancing all around, hence the shakiness–yeah, that’s what it was….also be patient–may take a while to buffer) The lyrics on Is She Really Going Out With Him are particularly pertinent to this post.