On July 5, 1979, I moved to Washington, DC.
I had been here three times previously: a family car trip in 1965, a “Teen Tours” trip in 1969 that my grandfather sent me on, and while at UVA in 1976 I came up from Charlottesville to help run the sound system for the People’s Bicentennial, an alternative to the regular rah rah rah July 4 celebration. The main music memory of the Teen Tours trip was the cowbell intro to Honky Tonk Women on a transistor radio in the hallway of the Harrington Hotel at 11th and E, NW, where we stayed. For the Bicentennial, in addition to clambering up scaffolding to help with the sound system, I contributed a cassette mixtape with tunes like US Blues by the Dead, American Song by Paul Simon, and I forget what else, maybe Country Joe’s Fish Cheer, but I recall feeling pretty good about my playlist as it came blasting out of the speakers. For all three of these visits to DC, humidity and thunderstorms figured prominently in my memory.
When I arrived in DC this time, however, I knew a grand total of two people. The first was Hal Bernard, an old friend of my father’s - they had met in the early 1950s working for the architectural firm Pereira & Luckman doing electrical wiring diagrams for the brand new CBS Television City in LA. Hal had a job for me at his Hazardous Materials Control Research Institute setting up conferences on hazardous waste and the soon-to-be Superfund regulation for abandoned waste sites. I was fresh from getting my public health masters degree at Berkeley. Hal was a brash New Yorker who was energetic and very into his work but also verbally abusive. I lasted 6 months. So, I am grateful to him for two things only: 1) a starter job, and through his connections 2) my next job at an environmental consulting firm, at which I met Mel Paret, with whom I am still close to this day. When I first arrived in DC in July of 1979, I was living upstairs above Hal’s office in a cottage at the intersection of Georgia Ave. and Seminary Rd in Silver Spring, Maryland. Georgia Ave., going north and turning on to Viers Mill Rd into Rockville, may be the second ugliest road I have ever been on; I used to drive it regularly to deliver things to a printer on Hungerford Dr. The first ugliest, however, hands down, is Rockville Pike. Ugliness as in an almost violent assault on the senses. I just want to give credit where credit is due to the forward thinking of the urban planners.
I bought a Motobecane 10-speed bike to get around. I took the Metro (subway) everywhere, which at that time meant only from Dupont Circle to Silver Spring on the Red Line or out to Foggy Bottom on the Blue/Orange. Later, I bought a used car, a Datsun B-210 and kept it going for as long as I could. I went downtown to museums and loved the summer thunderstorms. I remember walking down M St., NW in Georgetown and hearing The Knack’s My Sharona blasting out of the window of a cruising car. I took myself out for my 26th birthday (September 19, 1979) to The Bayou nightclub in Georgetown (K St., under the Whitehurst Fwy), to see The Urban Verbs, and local band 4 out of 5 Doctors opening. Urban Verbs were local new wave favorites that flirted with national recognition, featuring Roddy Frantz, brother of Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz. Roddy’s yelping vocals, searing guitar work of the late Robert Goldstein, Robin Rose on atmospheric synthesizer and the excellent Danny Frankel on drums were positively life affirming for me. I remember in particular their song The Good Life, with a churning, propulsive wall of sound and the lyrics “1 am (then 2 am, 3 am, etc) Eastern Standard Time.” I was so happy to be there, surrounded by this glorious noise, at home in my new home and, dig this, I was on eastern standard time! These were my people and I was going to be alright. The band was so good and just what I needed at that particular moment. After that, in October, I moved to a group house on Park Ave. in Mt. Pleasant area of NW DC. I remember one housemate couldn’t understand my glee at the first snowfall; I guess I wasn’t trying to drive through it yet. I went to see Ray Charles at the Howard Theatre in Shaw district DC and it felt like I and the guy I went with were the only white people there, but that’s probably an exaggeration. It was a great show. While in Mt. Pleasant, I would walk to nearby Adams Morgan to see zydeco or blues at Columbia Station and hang out, sometimes returning at 2 or 3 am.
The second person I knew when I moved to DC I actually didn’t know but was simply given his contact information when I left LA. He was Richard Spector, a clinical social worker specializing in LGBTQ issues, poet, and socialist who was a cousin to the husband of my father’s first cousin. I referred to him as a distant non-cousin. He obsessively pined for his ex-wife Ann Becker, who was/is an excellent poet. Richard had a dog named Tatateeta, whom he regularly took to see a dog therapist. It was through him that I fell in with a community that has stuck with me to this day. He passed in 2007.
That community revolved around Everyday Theater of which Richard was a member. Everyday Theater was a street theatre troupe, founded by Susie Solf, Nicki Burton, and Genni Sasnett, which performed plays about racial and economic injustice in Washington, DC. I was in their first play, The Arcade, about housing displacement (gentrification) and organizing a tenant association; I was a bus driver and a blues musician, alongside “Harmonica” Phil Wiggins, who played for many years in the Piedmont blues tradition with the late John Cephas. Everyday Theater also created Ghost Story, a powerful play about gentrification in Southwest DC, the roots of which go back to Eisenhower era “urban development.” Nicki is still writing plays and books today (see www.nicolejburton.com).
Alas, try as I might, I wasn’t meant for the theatre and there was something comforting about simply crossing that option off my list. I am, however, a funny, funny guy.
Susie Solf was married to Joe Stork and they lived a few blocks down the hill from me in Mt. Pleasant. I would wheel my Ibanez guitar and Yamaha amp down to their house on a portable luggage cart and jam with Joe (stand up bass) and his friends Frank Haltiwanger (fiddle) and Bill Brubaker (piano). I learned a lot from Joe; his even keeled demeanor and deep love for and knowledge of American music, as well as (at Human Rights Watch) a passion for defending the rights of the Palestinian people. Joe, Frank, and Bill introduced me to a lot of old country and soul gems from the 1950s, like Johnny Cash’s Hey Porter, I’m Just a Bad Boy by the Jive Bombers, and Just Because by Lloyd Price. We called our group The New Jive Bombers. I enjoyed learning and playing these tunes, but it was a challenge because I felt like a fish out of water with my rock blues roots. To stretch, though, is to learn and learning is good.
Well, one thing lead to another. Genni Sasnett's boyfriend was Marcus Dinsmore (see photo #25), an old (although only 30 at the time) 1960s radical who had been involved with the student activist organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the underground radio station at Georgetown University, WGTB. He had been a reporter for an alternative news group while with WGTB and covered the Indian uprising at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. He was also a musician and a Jew who became an older brother to me. I love my actual blood older brother, but Marcus was the brother I chose. He was stylishly hip, politically astute, and fearless. He was not handcuffed by guilt or anxiety the way I could be and was open to any new thing. And, although I would observe him occasionally show off a textbook knowledge of Marxist ideology, he was refreshingly non-intellectual. He sported a gold cap on his front tooth and once was a barker in San Francisco for a girlie bar at Columbus and Broadway. Marcus was proud of his affiliation with the Weather Underground, which was the more radical arm of SDS. He wore a skirt at a women’s and gay rights protest in Boston to express solidarity. His early forays into music included David Bowie Space Oddity style cosmic ballads. I also liked that he was into funk and soul, and that he used to go see James Brown and others perform at the old WUST radio music hall, where the 9:30 club is today at 9th and V, NW.
This community also brought me to Jim Landry, who was dating and would eventually marry Nicki Burton. He was a bundle of energy and a great musician with a dark style of songwriting. He played piano, loved Prince, and had a Minimoog synthesizer. He was also, like Marcus, open to any new thing.
So, Marcus, Jim and I talked about starting a group. While Marcus played guitar, he was willing to switch to bass so it would be me, me, me on my beloved guitar. Now all we needed was a drummer.
In the style of the end of each chapter of Howard Garis’ classic Uncle Wiggily children's books: If the radio doesn’t talk in its sleep and wake up the alarm clock before it’s time for breakfast, in the next story I’ll tell you about Shelly Loconto and the birth of Acrylix.