Thursday, May 9, 2013

12- Officer Moonbeam And The Duh Dah Parade

Officer Moonbeam And The Duh Dah Parade

Freedom Street
Sam, Danny, Chuck and Wade
The Big House on Central
In the fall of 1969 I began a graduate assistantship in Film at Memphis State. That’s when Wade, Danny, Sam and I first met, moved into the Big House, and formed Freedom Street. The three of them, new in town from California, were looking for a keyboard player and a place to stay but not necessarily in that order. I had just come off a summer tour in Wisconsin with The King Leers and a short side trip to Michigan when I got back to Memphis ready to start grad school but without a second job or a place to live. An old dilapidated southern mansion known to the locals as the Big House, with a large ballroom to practice in and low rent rooms was offered by a guy who had introduced us and was now interested in managing the band. The Big House wasn’t free but it was cheap. As the only one gainfully employed, my university salary was all that kept the band alive for the next few months as we rehearsed and auditioned at local clubs. That’s a story itself, where and when Freedom Street became a band and how and why it fell apart. There’s more than one version of what happened but basically, after Beautiful Sounds producer Dan Penn signed the band to a recording contract, Wade and I were offered additional contracts as artists and writers. Danny and Sam were signed as part of the band but that was it. It would have helped if they’d been writers too or if Wade and I had worked harder to include them in our music or even if we all had more in common with each other, but bad feelings over those contracts were a major contributor to the breakup of our group. Egos and outside influences fired up the arguments which became louder and more frequent. I’ll only argue to a certain point, and then, when I see it’s a waste of everybody’s time, disengage. Finally, by early summer, Wade and I moved out of the Big House and Danny and Sam found other bands. Another band wasn’t on our horizon so Wade and I weren’t playing with anyone outside of the studio musicians who came and went with each session, but that was enough for us at the time. It was a great musical experience even if it didn’t do much to put food on the table. After I resigned my assistantship at Memphis State, our only income was a small monthly draw toward future royalties and a few dollars extra Wade picked up for maintenance work around the studio. Everyone told us we were on the road to fame. And we believed fortune, while not exactly in hand, had to be just around the corner.
Wade mixing at Beautiful Sounds Studios.

The link is to Freedom Street's, "Ride on Mother"
 made from a copy about 6 generations removed from the lost original.

Wade and Chuck
Working at the studio was a hoot and the value of rubbing shoulders with the likes of Joe Cocker, Leon Russell and B. J. Thomas couldn’t be measured in money, neither could the jam sessions or the demo days when we got to record our own music. We watched history being made. We loved the scene and sessions and were writing a lot of new material but something was wrong. We were trying to make a living as song writers but we felt like our songs weren’t really getting shown to anyone. We were young and impatient and we were hungry and broke. It was frustrating being so close to opportunity and so unable to make anything of it. We thought we were spinning our wheels. We had good reason to feel this way but let’s just keep the whining to a minimum and say it hadn’t gone as well as we’d hoped. By September, the sweet sound of the West Coast music scene was calling and we were listening. We planned to travel to LA, make the rounds of the recording studios, show ‘em our stuff, make some new contacts and then, who knows? The open highway looked like a window into the future and we dove through it with all of the exuberance and inexperience youth had to offer. After LA we’d make our way back to Memphis, probably just to collect our stuff, and then move to California resuming our journey toward rock and roll stardom.
Wade's Dad gets married in Fargo
We weren’t on a schedule except Wade’s Dad was getting married in Fargo North Dakota (It’s complicated) so that became a part of the planed journey as well. Swinging that far north and then on to Chicago on the way back to Memphis seems kind of convoluted now but at the time it made perfect sense. It was all just part of the adventure. We were both looking for song writing material anyway. There really was no wrong way to go…

( Hey, jot that down. It’s not a bad closing line for a chorus:
When you’re hitchin’ on the highway
You can take another road
But there really is no wrong way to go)

In college I enjoyed hitchhiking and traveled that way many times between Memphis and Chicago. I thought it was safe and certainly economical. Being short of funds as usual we planned to hitchhike the whole way to California and back until I saw an ad in the classifieds. A U-Drive-It company wanted a vehicle delivered to a location in New Mexico. We had to pay for the gas but we could take several days and vary, somewhat, off a straight-line course to the delivery point. It sounded like a plan but some simple math dictated a third traveler would be needed to share expenses. Wade and I were a little concerned about finding someone with money enough to split the gas, as well as having room for them on the long ride, but we needn’t have worried. The vehicle turned out to be quite roomy and we had several offers when potential fellow travelers saw what a unique ride it was.
An old friend Fred, only a few weeks out of Uncle Sam’s service, joined up with us. I’d known Fred from a college fraternity we’d both been associated with. We were each into Memphis music and early into the hip scene on Highland Avenue when Fred was drafted into the Army. He was back now and said he went through his entire Viet Nam experience with the words “Thank You Chuck” written in his helmet because he’d first smoked weed with me in the Magic Truck; a 1946 Chevy panel truck I’d bought from “Magic Cleaners” and lived in my last full year of college in 1968. He said smoking weed was the only thing that got him through the war. I wondered how much of himself he’d left over there. I had other friends that came back a little different. It was too early yet to tell with Fred. However he had the interest and more important the money to make the journey with us and that’s what counted at the time.
The vehicle, as it turned out, was a beautiful dark shade of blue with  that wonderful new-car scent plus something else. Perhaps it was the glint from the stainless steel gurney in the back, that made her so special. And of course there was that magical red flashing gum ball on top we dared ignite for only a few seconds at a time, and even then, well off the main road, way back in the desert.
Big Blue was the real thing all right. She was freshly customized and just off the detailing line; an official UNITED STATES AIR FORCE AMBULANCE, siren, insignias and all.
That’s, of course, why every lawman who laid eyes on us wanted to know why three hippies were driving her. And there were 3 very good reasons:
 1) The US government needed that ambulance delivered to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.
2) We were the ordained facilitators of that delivery.
Chuck and Fred
3) We were carrying the paper work to prove it.
Case closed.
Big Blue rolled south out of Memphis Tennessee in early October with me behind the wheel, because my name was on the paper work and the thought of anyone else driving her scared the hell out of me. Besides I had a fresh supply of LA Turn-a-rounds from Dr Nic and was up, so to speak, for a drive anywhere.
Wade had us doing the family thing in Fargo with his Dad, so it seemed only fair to swing by Shreveport Louisiana for a quick visit with my folks as well. Fred, laying on the gurney in back and playing his guitar, had already said his goodbyes to family in Memphis so that had taken care of one stop on the list. We headed south on I-55 through the kudzu covered Mississippi countryside turning right at the Capitol, Jackson, onto Interstate 20. We crossed the Big Muddy at Vicksburg and continued west passing through Monroe Louisiana. In the previous six years I’d played in towns all along these roads with The Regents, The Crescents, Me and the Rest, Freedom Street, Bill Black’s Combo, Joe Davis and the Guilloteens or  varieties and combinations of other bands and musicians. So, up until Texas, the territory was very familiar to me and  I still felt pretty close to home. We made good time on the interstate in the big ambulance, making it all the way to my parents house in Shreveport on the first day. I hadn’t seen them since I graduated from Memphis State two summers earlier. My parents and I hadn’t always agreed on music’s place in my life but they were always glad to see me because they thought God might have intervened, since whenever our last meeting was, and made me come to my senses. One look at my companions and it was obvious they were in need of prayer too so that kept Mom and Dad pretty busy during the short visit. My parents' house was interesting too. I’d never seen it before.  It had been a funeral home at some time before it was remodeled and they moved in. The overly large living room was actually kind of nice. It would be great for parties and social functions but the very large bathroom, with the oversized slightly sloping drain in the middle of the room, was kind of creepy. One night was enough and the next morning after a big southern breakfast I hugged my folks goodbye and the boys and I made the short drive into Texas and on to Dallas. We could see the skyline ahead for miles as we approached Big D from the east. Without ever being there before we were drawn to what we thought of when the city’s name was mentioned. The first thing we did was find Dealey Plaza where Kennedy had been shot. Very strange feelings. It had only been six years since he’d been killed. It was still very fresh to us all. We were so young. The downtown was empty and quiet. Maybe it was a weekend. Maybe I just didn’t notice if there were others around us. We soon left. It looked just like the pictures in my memories, before and after.
With Big Blue we never had a problem finding anything. People were eager to offer directions and advice and it was always reliable. We had to be careful about leaving her unattended as she always drew attention but we were never broken into, probably because we didn't stay anywhere very long.
Fred and Wade
Once we got away from the downtown, Dallas was wonderful; so much energy. I remember hanging out for a while at Lee Park with the freaks. There were drinks at a couple of neighborhood bars that afternoon and lots of comments about our cool, over the top, Air Force wheels in conversations with an interesting selection of people.  And then this dazzling blond, with large beautiful eyes, mesmerizing smoke and a promise of a place to stay that evening, became the center of everything. Sometime after that I think Wade and Fred voted to keep driving but I said it was safer to get some rest and stay where we were. I may have had only the third vote but I had the keys. We opted for rest and Wade and Fred slept in the ambulance. I should have too. Within six months I’d be back here marrying those large beautiful eyes. But that’s a whole ‘nother story about Dallas, and short hair and big bucks… And this story’s still about a road trip. So early the next morning we pointed Big Blue toward Ft. Worth and headed out again.
By this stop we had the routine down pretty good.
Now in 1970 it took a lot of attitude for three hippies, wearing long hair, beards and bell-bottoms, to drive that Air Force ambulance through the Deep South, but attitude we had. We were stopped by the authorities 13 times between Memphis and New Mexico, each encounter engendering a show Ken Kesey would have been proud of. Just one look at the three of us in that shiny new ambulance was enough to spark the curiosity of even the most complacent deputy on even the warmest and sleepiest of sunny southern afternoons. As for us? The show was on. We were pretty animated. As I presented my driver’s license to the inquiring officer, Fred sometimes played a little guitar as Wade offered up the official papers then snapped a picture or two with his camera. This was pretty unnerving for most of the lawmen that stopped us. They didn’t know what to think but I noticed they always kept a hand on or near their holstered pistols just in case. Usually they’d demand we stand still and remain quiet until asked a question but we had lots of questions ourselves and, while remaining still, we asked our questions when we felt they were appropriate. They seemed annoyed that we weren’t afraid of them. We knew we weren’t holding anything and, as long as we seemed harmless and a bit humorous, we didn’t believe they’d bother us; not with the government keeping an eye on our progress, through those wonderful papers, smoothing any wrinkles we might be encountering along the way. Mostly the police checked us out and quickly let us go, often with a free escort to the edge of town, but a couple of them were more thorough; one in particular, Officer Jim Pain of the Snyder Texas Police Department.
(Now, I’ve changed his name here to protect his identity, in case his relatives now know him as Officer Moonbeam or something.)
 Officer Pain didn’t know what he had on his hands but he wasn’t about to let anything slip through his fingers either. He was probably only a few years older than us and certainly not long out of the military. Eyeing the US Army dress hat I was wearing, he carefully looked over the US Air Force papers Wade handed him then asked us to follow him back to the station saying he wanted to check out a few things. I was kind enough not to salute as he turned away. He said it would only take a few minutes. That few minutes lasted for over five hours as he had taken a keen interest in Fred’s military accessories. He wanted to know more about Fred’s Army issued coat and hat, the one I’d been wearing, and where Fred had served and been stationed when discharged. There was no law saying Fred had to keep his discharge papers with him but I guess neither was there anything saying Officer Pain couldn’t hold him until he made sure Fred wasn’t a deserter either. As for Wade and me, well we were with Fred. Right? “And as long as you boys are gonna be here at the station for a while, we’re gonna take a better look at that ambulance of yours,”
Now Officer Pain struck me as a fair man and I told him so. I said we’d be fools to carry any contraband in a vehicle so sure to be stopped, and he agreed, but I wasn’t sure to what part he was agreeing. I told him I had nothing to fear and I was sure he’d conduct a fair search, which we’d like, very much, to observe. He thought about it for a moment then gave the ok, probably so he could watch our reaction during the procedure.
The big search at the Snyder, TX Police Department
Well it was an education for us all right. Officer Pain and his cohorts tore into that piece of government property with all the gusto they could muster. Had that been my vehicle, I’d have had serious concerns about their ability to put it all back together again. But joyfully, it wasn’t my vehicle. Under our watchful eyes, however, they took the side panels completely out and pulled open the dashboard examining every screw-head, feeling for burrs and scratches that might indicate tampering. They lifted the magical red flashing gum ball on top. They searched under the hood and in the wheel wells, even letting some air out of each tire so they could smell it, as they glanced back over their shoulders at us. And all the while we just stood there watching and smiling. By now Officer Pain was beginning to realize those smiles weren’t going away and, if delayed too much longer, Uncle Sam might take an interest in how his property was being treated.
“Am I going to find anything in here?” he asked me. “Not unless someone plants it in there, and we both seem like honorable men.” I replied sincerely. “Any smoking that’s been done, was done well outside of the vehicle.” And that was pretty much true.
Just 5 more hours and we're out of here.
Back in the squad room Officer PainurtPainPain seemed to expedite his inquiries about Fred’s status with the Army. But not before he’d satisfied his latent curiosity about us and our life style. I don’t think he’d ever talked to a hippy before. The Summer Of Love was only two years earlier. Not many flower children got up this far north of Interstate 20, and the few that did didn’t talk that much. The next two hours were amazing. We told him everything we knew about drugs, sex and rock and roll and made up the rest. He seemed enthralled. He wanted, in particular, to know about LSD and we told him it was the best thing ever invented and he should give it a try. We told him about the Big House, the commune we lived in back in Memphis, our band and our musical ambitions. He took it all in and, you know on some level, I think he actually wanted to be free of at least a few of his responsibilities. He mostly asked questions and listened but he talked a little about his life and hopes too. I actually got to like the guy a little bit even though he said we’d all be in a cell now if he’d found even a single marijuana seed. He seemed very “by the book” but all in all, it wasn’t a bad experience. He even gave back my diet pills from Dr. Nic without stealing any. Of course he called the good doctor’s office, back in Memphis first, just to be sure it was on the up and up. Wade nearly choked when I asked Officer Pain if the jail might be a safe place for us to spend the night but it wasn't until I requested, with a straight face, a formal note of some kind vouching for our, recently investigated, good character that he just gave up, finally realizing we had much more time for this than he did. Time wasn’t money back then like it seems to be now, and we had lots of it; “twenty four and there’s so much more” as Neil Young bragged about us while we were rushing headlong into old age.
For the remainder of the trip I sent post cards, from where ever we were, back to Officer Jim Pain of the Snyder Texas Police Department. It was my intention to keep him abreast of our adventures and to leave a trail of encouragement for him should he ever decide to leave it all behind someday, change his name to, oh say, Officer Moonbeam  and follow our doo dah parade into the west.

The delivery is complete