"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: john ed bradley

BGS: Bards of the Bayou

[From my man John Ed Bradley. Dig his 1991 GQ story about the Neville brothers.]

Neville_Everest_RAS_191

Tipitina’s in the warm blue fog, squatting beneath a crescent moon so sharp and clean you could shave a wild hog with it.

Art Neville enters the famous New Orleans honky-tonk wearing a hipster’s suit and studded leather boots, his wife, Lorraine, in hand. What resembles a fishing lure dangles from his ear, a spinner bait designed to attract bass. At 53, Art’s the eldest member of the Neville Brothers, a hometown band legendary for the kind of musical voodoo it practices on whoever comes to catch its midnight show. The Nevilles play Tip’s and a spooky magic happens: Fruit juice becomes a Hurricane cocktail, the fat of foot can suddenly hoof it, the blind, by God, can see.

“I’m tired,” Art moans, upstairs now, in the roped-off section reserved for VIPs. “I mean, I’m tired tired. I’m hurting tired.”

“He got in from Europe yesterday,” Lorraine says, “and at midnight we had a candlelight dinner: a big turkey with all the trimmings. It was very romantic, even if he could hardly keep his head up.”

Like his three brothers, Art, the Nevilles’ keyboard player, has his thing on the side—the Meters, the band he took to Europe. Saxophonist Charles has a jazz group called Charles Neville & Diversity; Cyril, the percussionist, has a funk-reggae outfit called the Uptown All-Stars; and Aaron, the one with the golden pipes, has himself.

“Been four, five, months maybe, since we played Tip’s,” Art is saying. “I don’t know how long it’s gonna go tonight. We start at midnight and we’ll probably play until around four. In the old days it sometimes was daylight before we got out of here.”

Downstairs, a band called Def Generation, composed mostly of Neville progeny, is killing the hour before the brothers come on. The opening act, their sound is part jazz, part rap, part second line, the bluesy brass-band music that traditionally accompanies black funeral processions through the streets of New Orleans.

“Don’t do drugs,” one of them keeps barking into a microphone; and an occasional drunken echo from the crowd barks back “Just say no!”

It’s so god-awful loud in here you have to shout to be heard. So Lorraine shouts: “This is their place, you know. The Nevilles play Tip’s and it’s crazy. They own it. So prepare yourself. I mean it.”

Tipitina’s opened about 14 years ago, the same year the Neville Brothers formed. Named after a song by the late New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair, the club was started by a group of folks who liked to party hard and “gator.” To the uninitiated, gatoring is a dance that imitates coitus: It’s dry humping to a drumbeat. But to these people, it’s a religious rite ranked right up there with First Communion—or Mardi Gras.

The Nevilles played their first gig at Tip’s, to an audience that gatored so long and furiously, the beer lights dimmed and dust rained loose from the walls. The Nevilles’ music, inspired by the ancestral rhythms of their city, is mostly pop, funk, and soul. One moment they’re likely to sing an original composition about wild Injuns or yellow moons, the next a Cole Porter standard or The Mickey Mouse Club song. A rap anthem lamenting racism and urban violence might follow, or maybe some gospel bit rarely heard even in church anymore. Their repertoire apparently knows no limits, nor does their energy onstage. While the debut at Tip’s is now regarded as damned near mythic, few people actually remember it. Most everyone, I understand, was drunk or stoned.

“Buy me a beer,” someone is saying now, “and I’ll give you everything you need to know about these guys—everything!

The man introduces himself as Tyrone Lewis, a singer of gospel music. For enthusiasm alone, he’s awarded a draft with a two-inch head of foam. He winks, smacks his lips and frantically drains the go-cup.

“My new album’s called Look for God,” he says. “Me and Aaron’s son Ivan—you know Ivan, he’s a recording artist himself—we grew up together in the thirteenth ward. We used to steal shit from the Winn Dixie supermarket.”

A commotion has erupted in one of the dressing rooms, sparing me more reminiscences from Tyrone. On a wall already covered with graffiti, someone has written “AARON NEVILLE WEARS PANTYHOSE.” A couple of ladies, standing on tiptoe, are scribbling over it with eyeliner and lipstick.

“He’d laugh about it,” one of the women says. “But best he doesn’t see it at all.”

If Aaron Neville wears pantyhose, then I go for those pointy Madonna bras with little link chains hanging from the nipples. Aaron is a devotee of professional wrestling who drives an all-terrain vehicle and sports tattoos on his face, chest and arms—arms that from any angle resemble dimpled Sunday hams without the honey glaze. In 1967, he had a hit song called “Tell It Like It Is,” and two summers ago he scored big with Linda Ronstadt on “I Don’t Know Much,” a Grammy award-winning ballad that in one clean stroke seemed to resurrect the Neville name from oblivion. In the more than twenty years between the two hits, Aaron managed to pull a couple of hitches in jail, for attempting to rob a Los Angeles furrier.

Tonight he’s dressed all in black, except for his white half boots. He walks around muttering “Yeah, all right” to all the friends and family members who have come to celebrate the band’s triumphant return to Tipitina’s. He hugs his sister, Athelgra, hugs his daughter, Ernestine, hugs his niece Arthel. A man in a pinstriped business suit approaches and digs into his pocket. “Let me give you my card, brother.”

“Yeah, all right,” Aaron says.

“I tried to call you.”

“Yeah, all right.”

“But I never could get through.”

Apparently Aaron is in no mood for business cards. He accepts the token without looking at it, brushes past the man and walks right by the painted-over pantyhose rap. He enters a back room, sits at a round café table and sips from a bottle of mineral water. A curtain of smoke billows a few feet above his head, hugging the ceiling. In a minute he’ll yodel like the singing cowboys in the movies he loved so much as a kid. This, while limbering up his voice box, also demonstrates his range, which, in the idolatrous prose of than one music critic, sounds like that of “an angel singing unto the Lord.”

“Aaron and his brothers want to give a tough image,” a friend of the group’s is telling me. “It’s part of the mystique—like they could blow down the walls if they wanted to. But they’re really very nice men. They’re pussycats, in fact. You stroke them a little and they all start to purr.”

Before they cleaned themselves up, the Nevilles were thieves, thugs, and junkies. Practically everyone here tonight knows this, and most are delighted by it. The music is best heard live, and though it would be great played by a bunch of priests from nearby Loyola University, coming from a clutch of reformed outlaws it takes on an element of mystery and danger. Except for Art, the Nevilles were heroin addicts and alcoholics—hoodlums, even they have often said. Back in the neighborhood, it was not uncommon to see one of them on any given weekday morning sitting on the hood of a junked car, holding a gallon jug of high-proof wine. They fought a lot and stole things. They dressed like rogue gangsters and talked through tightly clenched teeth.

“Why didn’t Art mess up like all the others?” one of his pals is saying. “Because he was far too busy playing his music and screwing women is why.”

Def Generation is doing an encore, and the brothers, crammed into the back dressing room, are going over the payroll, ripping out checks and handing them to band members. Charles walks over to the corner and loosens up with some T’ai Chi Ch’uan exercises, Cyril’s making sure his Mother Africa outfit is all zipped and tucked, and Art, still full of midnight turkey, tries to keep from falling asleep.

“Showtime!” a yellow ponytail says now with more zeal than seems necessary.

Aaron stands and tugs at the bottom of his denim vest. “Yeah, all right,” he mutters, then follows his brothers out of the room, down a rickety flight of stairs and into the crucible.

* * *

It’s a few weeks earlier, and the brothers are staying in a Los Angeles hotel just up the street from the bare-assed Hollywood Hills. This is one of those incredibly hip places that looks like a low-rise apartment building. A hotel with attitude. Limousines line the curb; enormous men with walkie talkies mill around the lobby, looking for heads to crack. The Nevilles have come to town to play the Universal Amphitheatre as Linda Ronstadt’s opening act. This is high irony, that four hardened soldiers of the street have been embraced by a fading pop queen, but apparently yuppie chic knows no shame.

All their rooms are up on the third floor. Charles, on this resplendent morning, is telling me his life story. He’s wearing his usual beret, tie-dyed T-shirt and parachute pants. Charles is 52 and a great-grandfather, which in terms of simple mathematics is quite a feat. He has just finished relating the part about how he worked for a time as a porter in a bowling alley and how in the early ’70s he spent three years in the Louisiana state pen for possession of two joints of marijuana.

“I started using drugs when I was in the navy,” he is saying. “I started with morphine and codeine, then went to heroin. It took me more than 20 years to get out of it. When I started playing music, in the ’50s, if you were going to play bebop, you almost had to do it because all the other musicians were. To support my habit I stole; I was into shoplifting and got busted a couple of times for that. I’d steal clothes, whiskey, meat. Once, I put on a khaki shirt with ‘GEORGE’ over the pocket. I had a clipboard with a yellow piece of paper on it and a pencil over my ear. Me and this other fellow went to a store on Canal Street, strapped a refrigerator onto a hand truck and walked right out with it. One of the people who worked there actually held the door open to help us out. Just some black cats in khaki, they figured. They couldn’t be stealing.”

He tells a few more drug stories, then walks to the closet and returns with a load of books. One is on African primal religions, another on the tao of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, another on the path to total rejuvenation.

“I practice T’ai Chi every day,” he says. “It’s a martial arts form as well as a Chinese internal-healing system. T’ai Chi is internal and soft, versus karate, which is external and hard. T’ai Chi teaches you how to identify your internal life source and guide it with your mind, how to manipulate it to rejuvenate your system. Exercises in the system are called chi kong. Kung fu is not the name of a martial-arts form; it means ‘something with diligent applications.’ To learn a martial art requires kung fu.”

By now I’m so overwrought with chi‘s and fu‘s and kong‘s and kung‘s that my eyes have about crossed. But the point of it all is that T’ai Chi, along with a number of drug rehab programs and the loving support of his family, helped Charles Neville get off heroin and start his life again.

He’s talking about the music now. “I never really cared about recognition. Doing the music was the reward. I started with a minstrel show, making eight bucks a night, three nights a week. But even then there was a link with the others in the band, and it cycled around to the audience and came back, and that was the reward. It was a religious experience, and later it occurred to me that this was my way of communing with God.”

The phone rings and it’s Art, down the hall. “He wants to see you,” Charles says. “I think I’ll do more reading now.”

* * *

Art’s in room 346, talking to a maid in a neatly pressed uniform and a cardboard hat. For the last hour or so she’s been trying to get into his room to clean it. “Come back later,” he tells her. Then to me: “They’re just trying to do their job, I understand that. But I think I’ve finally learned how to keep them away.”

“How’s that?”

“Just answer the door without any clothes on. That’ll do the trick every time.”

The maid leaves, carrying her vacuum cleaner.

Art’s wearing a New Orleans Saints cap. Sitting in the den now, he says he’s a little concerned about the team’s quarterback situation but that there are too many other things in the world to worry about. The Persian Gulf mess, for one.

“It’s scary where our country’s going. I have to believe the end of the world is coming.”

Lorraine enters the room and puts a frozen cocktail on the coffee table. For the moment, at least, everything seems fine with brother Art. No war, famine, pestilence, disease, and all the hell else. But Phil Donahue comes on the television, and who is he talking about but Saddam Hussein.

“It’s all in the Bible, the Book of Revelation,” Art says. “You can see it all right there in black and white.”

As a kid Art went to Catholic schools, so it would follow that he’d know about that sort of thing. His first gig was with a drum-and-bugle corps put together by the parish priest. They marched through the neighborhood, everybody running outside to see what the racket was all about. He started a group called the Hawkettes, which in 1954 recorded “Mardi Gras Mambo,” a song still popular around New Orleans. In 1966, he formed the Meters, a hometown group that recently re-banded and is touring again. Art isn’t quite sure whether to trust the good fortune that has finally caught up to him and his brothers.

“In Europe, they always went insane over our stuff,” he says. “But here in America, no one would book us, except in Louisiana and Texas. We had a gold record in France and were practically unknown here. Even Japan paid more attention. Once we played in Seattle, and this Japanese group was there, and it sounded just like the Meters. A girl singing with the group said, ‘America is a wonderful country, but they don’t recognize and appreciate their own treasures.’”

A commercial comes on and Art calms down. He’s sounding more optimistic. “If I had to say what really got the Neville brothers to be a group,” he begins, “it’s our Chief Jolly, our uncle George Landry. He knew that if we got together as a family, it would happen. They called him Jolly because he was always happy, singing and whistling. When he died, all the black Mardi Gras Indians came out and kissed the ground in front of his house. He had one of the biggest funeral parades I’ve ever seen. I’ve got it in my head that I’m going to have one before I die—a second line, I’m talking about. That’s if I can afford it. I’ll be up in front with an umbrella, dancing. I figure you just as soon live to see your own funeral. If the end’s coming, why not have some fun?”

Maybe Art isn’t feeling so optimistic, after all. Presently, he gets onto the subject of David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klansman from Louisiana, now a state representative, who received nearly 44 percent of the vote in a losing bid for a U.S. Senate seat and is running for governor this fall.

“When l heard you were a white guy and from home, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to talk you,” Art says. “You didn’t vote for ‘the boy’ did you?”

“’The boy’?”

“Duke.”

“No,” I say. “I did not.”

“It just shows you where the spirits and minds and hearts of people, where they’re all going.” Art and his brothers have threatened to move out of Louisiana if ever Duke were elected to a higher office.

“When you have family, you can pull together in times of crisis,” Art says. “Family is what’s important. Every time I look at my brothers I see all the people that’ve passed but are still with us spiritually. l see my uncle Jolly, my mother and my father. They’re all there, as my hands and feet are there. Two of my grandmothers lived at home with us when us I was growing up, and they’d always say, ‘Son, your pa ain’t never gonna die as long as you’re alive.’ I didn’t know what they were talking about until I had my son Ian, who’s 9 years old now. I have another son, 31, and a daughter, 28. But the little one, l see immortality in him. He will never forget about his father, the way I will never forget about mine.”

Yes, Art is hopeful now. The world might not end tonight after all.

The maid is at the door again, ringing the bell.

“Come in,” he calls to her. “Please, come in, come in . . .”

* * *

The next day, Cyril shows me the books he’s been reading. They’re all there on the coffee table, lined up in a row: The Holy Bible, The Egyptian Book of the Dead, The KoranThe Gospel of the Red Man, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, The Choice: The Issue of Black Survival in America.

As he reaches to pick one up, his star-shaped Malcolm X medallion clatters against his necklace of wooden beads. People say this about Cyril: At 42, he’s the most outspoken and politically active of the brothers; he’s what conservative whites called a “militant black” 20 years ago. Ask him about the weather, and he’ll pound you with tales about white racism. Cyril dresses a little like a Rastafarian and almost always wears a hat, an expensive Italian job with a black velvet band and a red feather. While the hat is the kind Uncle Jolly used to wear, it also covers up Cyril’s ever expanding bald spot.

I have been in his room less than three minutes when Cyril commences what will be a two-hour-long history lesson. “Ethiopia,” he says, “was a Christian nation 150 years before Rome took it over.”

Ten seconds later, he adds, “The worship of the Black Madonna existed long before Michelangelo ever painted his things.”

Cyril is a teacher, he says, determined to pass on what he calls “the black people’s story” to future generations. Yellow Moon, the Neville Brothers’ 1989 album, includes a song he helped write thanking Rosa Parks for refusing to sit in the back of the bus. Brother’s Keeper, their latest, contains a creation of his that canonizes a list of New Orleans musicians whose work inspired him and his brothers: “Saint Shine, Saint James Black, Saint James Booker, Saint Professor Longhair and Saint Gerald Tillman.”

“At one point,” he says, “I considered wearing a vest of dynamite and going into a police station and blowing up myself and as many cops as I could. Millions of black men in my generation have gotten to this point of total frustration, of committing revolutionary suicide.”

He explains that his anger is a result of the racism he witnessed as a youth. “I couldn’t walk a block away from my house without being harassed by the police—I mean humiliated,” he says. “In school I couldn’t go for them teaching me that everything evil was black and everything pure was white. The meanest person I ever met in my life was a white nun. Whatever desires you had as a young black person, the Catholic schools would pump it out of you. This is why I write the kind of stuff I do. One of my punishments was to kneel before a big white crucifix of Jesus, and sometimes it felt like the blood was dripping off of him and right onto me.”

One of Cyril’s oft-quoted lines is this: “The first shit I ever learned how to read was a ‘WHITES ONLY’ sign.” And he repeats it now, his voice filled with rage.

“I still fear for my life when I walk out of my house in New Orleans,” he says, “and I fear for my son’s life. I deal in reality, and I know that collectively in America the white man is the black man’s enemy … I have legal tablets full of names of people—black people—who are dead, locked in the penitentiary for life, or a member of the walking dead.” He points to his chest and taps it. “I could have been one of those casualties.”

This is one of the last things he tells me: “On every level, we as blacks are being attacked. At some point in the future the white Anglo-Saxon male ego will submit to the truth, and fairness will be shown.”

Cyril folds his hands into tight, hard knots and beats them quietly against his knees.

“Two hours have gone by,” I say, “and we still haven’t talked about the music.”

“Sometimes that happens with me,” he replies, sounding almost apologetic.

* * *

Aaron, down the hall, is in a different mood altogether. He looks as if I’ve just awakened him from a nap.

“No. I was watching Fred Flintstone on TV,” he says, muting the volume with the remote control.

Earlier this morning he and his wife, Joel, went driving around Beverly Hills, looking at all the beautiful houses, the palm trees that chase the sky. They themselves recently moved from Valence Street in Uptown New Orleans to a suburban-type subdivision in the eastern part of the city. Joel is here in the room, over by the bed with Aaron’s sister, Athelgra. They’re folding clothes and putting them away.

Asked if, like Cyril, he was harassed and humiliated as a kid, Aaron says, “Some drunk boys from Tulane threw eggs a few times, riding in their cars through the neighborhood, but nothing else I remember.”

He sits with his elbows on his knees, his jailhouse tattoos a pale blue against the field of copper flesh. Aaron wears sleeveless denim vests because he can’t stand to have his muscular arms confined. Of the four brothers, Aaron, 50, is easily known, mainly because of his work with Ronstadt.

“Success to me,” he is saying now, “is being together as brothers and still looking out for each other. We lived together as kids, and now we’re taking care of each other as men. I may get more attention than them, but it’s still Neville, it’s still the Neville name.”

* * *

Unlike Charles and Cyril, Aaron doesn’t have any books to show me. He likes to read, though.

“What’s the kind I like?” he asks Joel now.

“Inspirational and positive-thinking,” she replies, then names a couple of authors.

“The Greatest Salesman in the World,” he says. “You ever hear of it?”

“No.”

What about The Greatest Miracle?”

“I don’t know that one either.”

Aaron is a writer himself. Over the years, after playing Tipitina’s until early in the morning, he would scribble things down on scraps of paper and toss them under the bed. Years went by and all those scraps did was gather dust. Then his friend Dynne Batson typed them up and arranged them by subject matter. Poetic Works by Aaron Neville, she called the 4 a.m. scribblings, and placed them between cardboard covers.

He’s remembering when he first became aware of his voice, the power, the wonder of it. “I used to go to basketball games and to movies, and I’d sing to the cat at the door to get in. I had a friend named Buckwheat, and he could sing, too. They all knew us. ‘Sing us a song and we’ll let you in.’ I used to sing ‘Wheel of Fortune.’ It was pretty.”

I tell him I don’t know the song. And he starts to sing it, filling the room with his sweet, fragile tenor, shifting to a falsetto that cuts straight to the heart.

“Singing is an art,” he says, “so I guess I’m an artist. I used to sing just to do it, but then Art put together a doo-wop group. They used to sit out in the park and harmonize. I’d do a cappella. We’d beat on hubcaps and Coke bottles. We’d win talent shows at the theater. Back then when I’d try to hit a note, everybody’d say, ‘Get on out of here.’”

When he was 17, Aaron went to jail for six months for stealing a car. He sang a lot there, too, figuring it was better than the other thing people did to kill time, which was to fight. After he got out, he married Joel and landed a recording contract. Then, in 1966, he cut “Tell It Like It Is,” at a small French Quarter studio run by a fellow named Cosima Matassa.

“When I first sang it, I thought it was okay but not the best I could do. It was a simple song, real simple. And I was looking for something more up-tempo. But my brother Art was with me and he could feel it. He knew I had something. Now when I hear it, it’s like brand-new all over again.”

The single climbed to No. 2 on the charts. Aaron toured the country with Otis Redding and played the Apollo Theater in Harlem. But a year later he was back home in New Orleans and back on the docks, handling freight on ships bound for the Gulf of Mexico.

“I got paid for personal appearances but not for the record,” he says. “I don’t have time to be angry about it. I’m not vindictive. Sometimes now I see the guys who got all the money. I don’t tell them anything. They were friends then. But when the record came out and it was time to get paid, everyone all of a sudden claimed bankruptcy.”

He and his brothers continued to play music in a number of different bands—sometimes together, sometimes apart—mostly at college fraternity parties and high school proms, before small but enthusiastic crowds whose applause only served to remind Aaron that, come Monday, there would be another boat to load or house to paint or ditch to dig.

Like Charles before him, Aaron got hooked on heroin.

“I think back on them days and it was all supposed to be so hip,” he says. “l was taking that stuff for about ten years. l quit cold turkey a couple of times. I went through a methadone program and it helped, but then you get hooked on that. What finally kicked it for me was that I got tired of seeing all the people around me deteriorating. You saw guys with hands as big as boxing gloves from shooting up.” He pauses and holds his hands out in front of him.

“The worst time of my life was when I was separated from my wife and thought I would lose her. Then I started praying real hard. I’d go to the grotto at St. Ann’s Shrine. This is where you go up the steps on your knees. I prayed to St. Jude for hopeless cases. I made novenas. Finally, I was saved, and I can tell you it wasn’t for nothing.”

The Nevilles’ mother died in 1975, and about a year later Uncle Jolly talked them into helping him record The Wild Tchoupitoulas, an album of New Orleans party music that still is regarded as some of the best work the brothers have ever done. Of the many things old man Jolly would tell his nephews, none was more vital than this: “Your mother and father always wanted to see you work together as a band. Why don’t you do it?”

“All the stuff that me and my brothers went through to get to where we are now,” Aaron says, “now we can tell people behind us, ‘Hey, man, it ain’t cool to steal and do drugs, it don’t work.’ We’ve been saved for something, and we’ve got a message. People tell me, ‘Man, I hear your voice and it’s like medicine to me.’ I say, ‘Yeah, it’s like medicine to me, too. I can hear it, and even if I don’t have any money, I feel rich.’”

He’s been traveling for months now, he says he misses New Orleans, his own house and bed. When he returns he’ll drive around the old neighborhood in his Ford Explorer, play with his grandkids, sign autographs for all the schoolchildren, who call him “Mr. Aaron.” During the afternoon and evening hours, he’ll watch professional wrestling on TV. “I know when they’re going at it and when they’re not. I’ve seen them where there’s real blood squirting out of their heads.”

He is happy; the thought of the stars of the National Wrestling Association seems to invigorate him. “If ever I give up my music,” he says, “you might see me on the tube one day with a hood over my head climbing into a ring.”

“What would your name be?” I ask him. “You’ll have to have one, you know.”

“The Spoiler,” he answers. “I already got it picked out.”

Over by the bed his wife and sister are nodding their heads.

“He’d do it, too,” Athelgra says.

“Just you watch,” warns Joel.

* * *

Back at Tipitina’s, the brothers step onto the little piece of ground they know best, entering with arms raised. A man with a bushy black mustache is shouting into a microphone “Welcome back to Tipitina’s”—but the crowd, pressing close, drowns out the rest.

Sleepy-eyed Art gets behind his piano, Charles behind his horseshoe of saxophones, Aaron behind his mighty red tambourine and Cyril behind his congas. “Hey Pocky A-Way” is what they start with, a local favorite that Uncle Jolly helped make famous. The song is mostly chants accompanied by whatever noise the brothers choose to make, but it electrifies. A capacity crowd of about 1,000 has stuffed itself into Tip’s this night, and every last one is standing. Upstairs in the balcony, they’re doing a kind of stand-up version of the gator. I tell myself to keep still, goddammit, but there I go.

After a few minutes of this wretched nonsense, Tyrone Lewis sidles up to me and throws a hand on my shoulder. “How much is this magazine paying you? Anywhere in the vicinity of $20,000?”

“Depends on how big a vicinity you mean.”

“Lookee here, my man. For 50 bucks I’ll give you the rest of the scoop. Anything you want to know, it’s yours. I’ll tell you what Aaron’s like at home by himself. I idolize the man, I’ll even tell you that.”

“Leave me alone,” I say after a while, leaning in close. “Can’t you see I’m trying to dance?”

 

[Photo Credit: Tim Rasmussen via  Hey Reverb]

BGS: Father’s Day

This week I ran a series of posts over at The Stacks to honor Father’s Day. Here are pieces by Paul HemphillPat JordanMark Kram Jr.Glenn StoutLarry L. KingEric Neel, and Yours Truly.

And now, wishing a Happy Father’s Day to all the dad’s out there, dig this excerpt from John Ed Bradley’s wonderful memoir, It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium:

You should’ve seen my father’s arms. He didn’t lift weights or do push-ups or exercise them in any way, and yet they were packed tight with muscle. When I was a boy and he lifted his high-ball in the evening for a sip, a round knot the size of a softball came up under the skin and slowly flattened out when he lowered the glass back down. I loved his arms so much that I memorized every vein, sinew, and golden hair. I knew the wrinkles of his elbows.

In the summer, when he worked for the city’s recreation department, supervising the baseball program at the park, Daddy liked to come home for lunch and a nap. He had lemonade and a BLT, then he had me lie close to him on the sofa, and he draped an arm around me. “One … two … three … ” he’d count in a whisper, and then he was out, sleeping that easily.

I lay there wondering if I’d ever have arms like his. I needed both hands to travel the distance around his wrist, the tips of my thumbs and fingers barely touching. I felt the hardness of his forearm. I saw how his wedding band fit him like a strand of barbed wire on a tree whose bark had grown around it. He smelled of the grass and the sun, of green and gold days that started early and ended late.

“Were you a good player?” I asked him once as he was coming awake.

“Was I what?”

“A good player.”

“You want to know if I was a good player?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What kind of question is that?”

“I don’t know. Did they run your name in the paper a lot?”

He looked at me in a way that let me know he wanted my attention. “None of it matters, John Ed. Was I a good teammate? Did I do my best and give everything I had to help the team? These are the questions you need to be asking.”

I wondered how to answer them, these questions he found of such importance. Many years would have to pass before I was old enough to join a team. He pulled me close again, as if he’d just remembered something. “John Ed?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Always be humble.”

The rest of the year he worked as a civics teacher and coach at the high school in town. The town was Opelousas, on the road between Alexandria and Lafayette, and it was just small enough, at about twenty thousand, to be excluded from Louisiana state maps when TV weathermen gave their forecasts in the evening. In the morning, my father left home wearing coach’s slacks with sharp creases and a polo shirt with a Tiger emblem and the words OHS FOOTBALL printed in Halloween orange on the left breast, the lettering melted from too much time in the dryer. A whistle hung from a nylon cord around his neck. It was still hanging there when he returned at night and sat down to a cold supper—the same meal Mama had served her children hours earlier. “You don’t want me to warm it for you, Johnny?”

“No, baby. That’s okay.”

Sometimes in the afternoon, Mama drove me out to the school. She parked under the oak tree by the gymnasium, pointed to where she wanted me to go, and I walked out past a gate in a hurricane fence to the field where my father and the other coaches were holding practice. Four years old, I wore the same crew cut that my father wore. I stumbled through tall grass and out past the red clay track that encircled the field. At home, my father didn’t raise his voice, but here he seemed to shout with every breath. A team manager took me by the hand and led me to a long pine bench on the sideline. I sat among metal coolers, spare shoulder pads and toolboxes crammed with first aid supplies. I waited until the last drill had ended and the players came one after another to the coolers for water the same temperature as the day, drunk in single gulps from paper cups shaped like cones. The players took turns giving the top of my head a mussing. “You gonna play football when you grow up?”

“I don’t know.”

“You gonna be a coach like your daddy?”

“I want to.”

Already I was certain that no one mattered more than a coach. I would trade any day to come for a chance to be that boy again, understanding for the first time who his father was. Give me August and two-a-days and a group of teenagers who are now old men, their uniforms stained green from the grass and black with Louisiana loam. Give me my father’s voice as he shouts to them, pushing them harder than they believe they can go, willing them to be better. Give me my father when practice is over and he walks to where I’m sitting and reaches his arms out to hold me.

[Photo Credit: Mark Reis]

The Banter Gold Standard: L.T. and the Home Team

John Ed Bradley played football at LSU and was a rising star at the Washington Post in the 1980′s before he left the newspaper business left to write novels. He’s written some fine ones too, including Tupelo Nights, Smoke, Restoration and My Juliet. He also wrote It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium, a wonderful memoir about playing ball at LSU.  In the meantime, he’s been a first-rate magazine writer, notably for Esquire and Sports Illustrated.

Here’s one of his best Esquire stories, first published in December 1985, and reprinted here with the author’s permission.

 

“L.T. and the Home Team”

By John Ed Bradley

Out one night last summer in Williamsburg, Virginia—a night that started warm and breezy but quickly turned as hot and rank as old meat—D’Fellas quit talking about local trim for a minute and somebody started on God. Eric Stone, gazing cow-eyed at a sky only half as big as his dreams started on God but soon let Pritchett figure it out. Pritchett was smart and he thought he could figure everything out. Even that outsize belly of his—brought on, everybody said, by the wife’s collard greens and smothered pork chops and whatever fruit pie happened to be in the cupboard—Pritchett liked to figure the extra girth was really only a stretch of “clogged tool,” and he told D’Fellas so. He patted his big gut and hiked up his britches and let his chin multiply into a fleshy mosaic.

“Preacher man,” Lawrence.Taylor had told Dylan Pritchett earlier in the day, “you’re fatter’n Fat Albert…. How much is it you been weighin’ these days?”

And Pritchett had said, “I’m tellin’ you it ain’t fat. It’s an extension of something else. Backed way up my belly…. I’m a gigolo, man.”

Now, at about 1:00 in the morning or a little after, Taylor was working a shaggy pinch of long-cut between cheek and gum, looking off in the direction of town. He started, “You’re just bogartin’ again, Pritchett, Preacher Pritchett runnin’ his head”—and saw it coming, growing way off in the distance, moving at a ridiculously happy clip. There was a single white eye in the head of the machine, a light more yellow, really, than white. Arid the sound was of wild unrest, of steel on steel, dark and real and terrible.

Cosmo, who sometimes went by the name of Glenn Carter, pulled his hand off his crotch, where he’d been working an itch, and pointed for everyone to see. He said, “A coal train, boys. Look at that damn thing.”

And someone else, probably L.T., who had returned home to see D’Fellas and spend one last night on the town before his fifth season with the New York Giants took him away for at least six months, said, “It’s magic, I’m telling you, fellas. It’s like every old thing that ever used to be.”

Besides the single white beacon from the engine, there was another wash of lights, this from D’Fellas’ party van parked in the middle of the dead-end road, and you saw how Taylor stood in it. Farm-boys big at six feet three and 250 pounds, the best player in football wore tight gray gym shorts that made his butt look like two great humps of meat grafted onto legs that can cover forty yards in 4.5 seconds. He wore a white straw hat with an olive-colored linen band, the brim tipped down low over the eyes, and his shirt was cut loose around the belly, giving him room to breathe.

“This is nice,” Taylor suddenly felt inclined to say. “I mean, this is really nice. All it was ever supposed to be.”

Then, with his eyes on nothing at all, down on the pea gravel at his feet: “So many things, mostly the good ones, D’Fellas were part of. It never goes away, either. That feeling, l mean, of being together again. You see that train, and you see all of us, standing here again. l’in telling you, it never goes away.”

L.T.—THERE HE WAS, SAME OLD BOY, running with the same old boys he had run with since second grade—had come home again. hardly seemed to matter that he’d moved way the hell up north and made something of himself, earning in the neighborhood of $1 million a year. He might take home about $85,000 a game, as one of his defensive mates once figured out on a pocket calculator, but after watching him break through a double-team block and dump a quarterback in a great, whining heap, or intercept a pass and take it down the pasture for a touchdown, it was never hard to understand why even his enemies said he was worth every damn penny.

During Taylor’s NFL career more than a couple of coaches have wondered aloud how someone playing on the buck-ass end of the defensive line can so dominate a game. As an outside linebacker, Taylor has been known to chase down running backs, fleeing in the opposite direction, like some hard dog after his own tail. He has put the fear of permanent disfigurement in all offensive people who look too good and smell too sweet, winking at them as he often does from across the line of scrimmage, seconds before the snap of the ball. They have called his game make-do and creative, mainly because he behaves as he pleases out there, sometimes forsaking the coach’s music he picked up in camp for the primal song that makes him go. Coming from the “weak” or “blind” side of the line, he often emerges on quarterbacks preparing to pass like some awful wave of terror. He seems to focus on a point two feet behind his target, blow right through what meat, bone, and heart stand in the way, and come out screaming on the other side.

“We don’t know the difference in L.T.,” Pritchett once professed. “We see a good tackle and it’s a good tackle. But whether he plays well or not, we’re there. We’re still his brothers, man. We’re blood, you know.”

Taylor, D’Fellas back home always said, never forgot where he came from, even though he kept a fancy place in a subdivision in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, a big two-story brick house with a lawn that was more garden than yard, and a gold Mercedes-Benz parked out front. He kept the house, his wife, Linda, said, but you could never keep him in it, not even during the off-season, when he liked to shoot hoops in the sun and play a little golf and take an occasional trip south to Williamsburg, in the southeastern heel of the state, to visit the boys.

There were only six of them in the whole world—D’Fellas—and each founding member owned a plaque proving it. Only three, Cosmo, Pritchett, and Stoney, still lived in the town where they grew up. The one Taylor seemed to miss and admire most, John (J.D.) Morning, managed a seafood place in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Eric (Doc) Pruden earned his living making Busch beer in Virginia Beach.

Earlier, driving around with no place in particular to go, somebody had said it felt as if every clock and calendar in the Virginia countryside had been turned over on its face, as if time no longer mattered. Having drunk more than a few bottle of beer at the Green Leafe Café near the campus of William and Mary, even L.T. owned up to finding himself overcome by a flood of lost time. So they had taken a craze of narrow back roads to a place on the edge of town, where a bridge made of creosoted railroad ties had once crossed a great divide and where a freight train still passed every few hours, whining like a pack of rabid wolf-hounds hot for the kill.

The old Mooretown Bridge, directly above, had barely been wide enough for two small cars to pass. D’Fellas had called it the Motown Bridge, because they had come time and again to lean against its rickety railings and sing the blues and talk about God. And about women and football Friday nights at Cooley Stadium and about what it meant to be young and alive and in no great hurry to grow up.

Now, on a rag-ass Sunday night that lent more moon than stars, Taylor stood behind the hurricane fence and heavy iron rail sealing off the short stretch of blacktop that had once led to the treacherous expanse of warped and buckling boards, and remembered the night the bridge burned. Stoney, who works at:the firehouse, had driven out with the water trucks and seen it engulfed in flames. Little orange chips of wood and ash had climbed in the night air, and no one but D’Fellas figured it was a bad thing. Too many people had died on the bridge or thereabouts. And Taylor, who rarely looked back on his days with D’Fellas except to laugh, saw this: the time an old drunk had tried to walk across the bridge with his eyes closed, nursing a bottle of cough syrup. The man had said he was Jesus Christ come down to save tile world. Then, not five minutes after announcing that he could walk on water, the man had lost his footing and fallen. He had fallen all the way down to the tracks and lain there in a silent, unmoving heap.

Taylor told the boys, “Crazy nigger thought he could walk on water. He couldn’t even walk straight.”

And who, L.T. said he wondered, could figure how many people had died trying·to negotiate the curve leading up to the bridge? Seemed like every Friday and Saturday night somebody missed the turn and drove clear into the void. L.T. once joked and said the Motown Bridge killed more poor colored folks than the Klan ever did. But there was good about it, too.

There was this to look back on: that one impossibly cold night when he and D’Fellas stood in the middle of the expanse, huddled against the snow that fell in hard, white sheets. The headlight of a train had appeared up ahead, moving in the direction of the pottery factory. As it drew near, you could see the dark chunks of coal in the open-top cars. dusted over with snow. There was a fabulous blue winter light that seemed to come from no particular source. Years later Stoney would pick a little fleck of something off the tip of his tongue and ask if anything on this earth had ever looked as pretty.

That night, the cold had made their lips feel useless and rubbery; their lungs burned, but they had sung their songs anyway, until about 6:00 in the morning. Taylor provided bass, deep as grubworms in a canna bed, and Stoney was static. He sounded like nails on a chalkboard, and everyone looked for Doc and J. D. to make pretty as choirboys at Sunday service. Sometimes Cosmo got so high, the boys said, he could do it better than a castrated man, but you tried not to hear Pritchett, who this night was moaning like a sick calf on the way to the sale barn. One blow, a pretty one that applied, went:

Gawnna leave all the crowds
Climb to the clouds
Anna look at life the way we use’a doo

Now Taylor wanted to know, “Who was it that pissed on the train as it went by that time it snowed so damn much?” But you could barely make out his voice over the thunder of the train down below.

“This is some serious memories,” Pritchett said. “Some serious memories. I used to ride my bike all around here. I remember how the bridge smelled. It ain’t the same. I’m used to feeling it under me.”

“Was it you that pissed?” Taylor asked no one in particular.

And Stoney started, “You can’t reach out and touch it anymore. There was only four or five feet between the bottom of the bridge and the top of the train cars. You could remember the feeling in your feet—that feeling that what you stood on wouldn’t be there very long and when it went, it would take you with it. And you went to bed at night feeling that feeling, wondering at it like some kind of mystery.”

Then Cosmo, half shouting atTaylor, let on, “I remember how you’d climb down to the tracks and say you were going to stop the train. We believed you could stop it, L.T. ‘That train ain’t nothin’,’ you’d say. And it would get pretty close before you jumped off the tracks. Then we’d all take turns, climbing down the rocks and standing on the tracks. ‘That train ain’t nothin’,’ you’d say. And Pritchett went, ‘Go on and stop it then, Cosmo.’ And I told him, ‘Who do you think I am? I ain’t no L.T.’”

“It might have been me that pissed,” Stoney said finally. “Hey, Taylor. I think it was me that pissed.”

Then Pritchett figured, “It wasn’t only you, man. It was all of us. It was Taylor, too. Shit, it was all D’Fellas. We did everything together.”

D’FELLAS ALWAYS caught L.T.’s games on television when the Giants went national, and the made it up north to New Jersey and the Meadowlands three or four times a year to watch their old friend perform in person, before great crowds that sometimes chanted, “Elllteee! Ellltee! Eltee!” when number 56 came up with a big hit. He always put D’Fellas up at home, in his house, and on Saturday nights before the games, when he had to turn in early, he gave Linda some money and the car keys and insisted she drive the gang to New York, where there were things to do.

The boys flew out to Hawaii for the 1985 Pro Bowl, and L.T., who had been a unanimous all-NFL selection since the Giants chose him first in the 1981 draft, put them up in individual hotel suites with king-size beds, living rooms, and private liquor cabinets. He took care of their expenses and introduced them to strangers on the beach as teammates. Even Stoney, who was built like a tired old catcher’s mitt, signed a round or two of autographs.

D’Fellas were proud of L.T.’s success and read countless reports saying he had emerged as the most dominant player in professional football, if not the very best, but they preferred to remember him as the wild-eyed boy who worked at the Dairy Queen in the summer when he was seventeen, eating all those free sundaes and Dilly Bars and going home to Iris, his beautiful, picture-book mama, and asking what’s for supper. He was just that way when he was growing up: eat anything. As a high school junior he stood only five feet ten and weighed 180 pounds. But coming into his senior year, he grew more than five inches in three months and grew mean in a way that would make him rich and famous and, arguably, the finest linebacker ever to play in the National Football League.

D’Fellas preferred to remember him the night they were going down Richmond Road in Pritchett’s car, Pritchett driving the limit if not a hair more. It was broad daylight when the good preacher man—who really wasn’t a preacher at all, but a supervisor of the black-history program at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation—ran head on into a pair of German shepherds copulating in the middle of the road. Both dogs, worked up, as they were, in primal heat, died on the spot. But what you remembered was Pritchett driving off as if nothing happened and thinking that Taylor, if provoked, could hit you just as hard. He’d take your damned head off, everybody said. He’d take your damned head off and spit in your neck. Then, if further provoked, he’d crawl down what was left of your throat and do a little tap dance on your tonsils.

While at the University of North Carolina, one of only two schools to recruit him out of high school, Taylor spent more than a few nights terrorizing frat boys. He liked to go downtown, into Chapel Hill, and pick fights with people who didn’t look right. He took to chewing tobacco and spitting a lot. He cut classes and hid out in the student union, shooting pool until he ran out of quarters or out of luck, whichever, came first. He once said, “I’m the kind of person who refuses to allow any damn good thing in life to pass me by.”

But during his junior year in college something changed him. The boys said it all started when he met Linda. She was so beautiful, you imagined her picture on some neon board above the city, wearing silk, wearing velvet, and holding a silver goblet to her lips. Looking the way she did, you imagined her drinking a mint julep and saying something like, “Goes down good,” to a world gone bad.

She asked Taylor, “Why do you keep pushing people around?” Then she called him a monster and a bully.

It was not hard to figure why the young man, then only twenty, became love-sick so bad. More than one night, he had sat alone in his dormitory room, waiting for the telephone to ring; the girl on the other end to speak his name. Hi there, baby. Something had changed him, all right. Something had tamed him too. L.T. discovered that the best way to earn someone’s respect was out on the pasture, on the football field, where playing the hoodlum had its rewards. His coaches, aware of his enormous potential as.an outside linebacker, decided to turn him loose. They let him rely on instinct more than any hardline technique that might have come up during a head session, and their thinking paid off.

His junior year, Taylor made eighty solo tackles and caused seven fumbles. The next year, 1980, he made fifty-five solo hits and accounted for sixteen quarterback sacks on his way to winning honors as the outstanding player in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He made all-American, easy, and was the second player chosen in the draft, after Heisman Trophy-winner George Rogers of the University of South Carolina.

As a rookie in the NFL, Taylor was so impressive people started comparing him to the finest defensive players in the history of the game, linebackers such as Dick Butkus, Sam Huff, and Ray Nitschke. His contribution on the field was so significant, he helped lead the Giants to the play-offs, their first such trip in almost twenty years. Back home in Williamsburg, D’Fellas had no trouble taking L.T.’s good story in stride. They knew Taylor was bad, but it had always been good to be bad when they were coming up. They liked to remember what L.T. did that day to poor old Nathan Merritt, who might have become one of D’Fellas had he not died in a car crash out on Longhill Road, on the way to school.

It was just something that happened at Lafayette High School one morning, back when D’Fellas indulged in a lawless game of rough-and-tumble called Chester. The way it worked, you walked around campus with your chest exposed, and one of the boys, by right of charter membership in D’Fellas, could lay a hard right hand into your open titty. Whenever the aggressor landed a big hit, he was supposed to say, “Chester’s back in town,” and clear out as quickly as possible, before his victim was able to regain his senses and take retaliatory measures. One day poor old Nathan Merritt opened up on Eric Stone, then only a freshman, and hit him way below the breastbone, nearly knocking him unconscious. L.T., who saw the cheap lick and came running, pinned old Nathan Merritt to a run of lockers and tried to press him through the slats in the louvered door. There was a storm of fussing in the hall, and L.T. started shouting, “Who the hell you think you are, shithead, hittin’ my friend so goddamned hard?”

Taylor was just that way: good to the people he loved and hard on those he didn’t. The kind of love that made him and the boys different, it was fierce and final. They had a time saying it, but D’Fellas were family in a way that ran deeper than any old blood, in a way that would last the sum of six separate lifetimes, and not a day longer. It was forever, but only for now. They often said their children would carry on the line and form their own little clique, the second generation of D’Fellas, but they said this with little conviction. Their children, growing up in different parts of the country, would probably never know how it feL.T. to be shoulder-to-shoulder in somebody’s living room on Saturday night, playing a hand of spades by lamplight and sharing the same tall quart of Miller beer. D’Fellas had created a separate kinship, a new order, and it was a whole lot more than just six good men running the streets together.

“I know a few things,” Taylor often told the boys, “but D’Fellas’ honor is the greatest thing I know.”

Theirs was a democracy, and there were rules. Once, at about 3:00 in the morning, D’Fellas went to the drive-in window at an all-night burger place and ordered twelve dollars’ worth of food. All Taylor wanted was fries, a Coke, and a plain burger, with nothing on it. D’Fellas in the van heard him tell the girl who was working the register that he would not tolerate a burger with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, mayonnaise, ketchup, or mustard and she assured him that she would handle it, there was no reason to worry. L.T. paid for everything, then told Eric Stone, who was driving, to head out for the bridge, he wanted to flush out the silt in his pipes and sing some Motown.

They were less than a mile down the road when Taylor discovered lettuce, tomatoes, onions, mayonnaise, ketchup, and mustard on his burger. He said, “Turn the hell around. i want my food right.” But Stoney said, “I ain’t turning around, home. You should have looked your thing over at the place.”

Taylor felt wounded, then angry. He had told the girl exactly what he wanted and she had said not to worry, she would take care of it for him. She had looked him in the eyes and told him that everything would be okay. Didn’t she know who he was? Shouldn’t she know? He was Lawrence Taylor—L.T., goddammit, the best player in football.

“I can’t eat this shit,” he said. Then he screamed out the window, “and i won’t eat this shit.”

“That’s too bad, home,” Stoney said, digging into a bag of fries.

“If I can’t eat,” Taylor said, “nobody eats,” and took all the food, stuffed it back into the paper sack, and threw it out the window, into the wide, empty street. Some of D’Fellas turned around and watched their supper disappear to the back window. The soft-drink cups rolled down into the gutter, but the burgers looked as if they’ve been blasted by a cherry bomb. Only Eric Stone had managed to save a cup of Coke, and he was sucking it down with a straw. Taylor said, “Excuse me, home,” grabbed the drink from his friend’s hand, and threw it out into the night.

“If I don’t drink,” he said, “not a damn one of us drinks.”

BEFORE L.T. was born, his old man, Clarence Taylor Sr., Worked as a janitor at the college in town. After that played out, he got on as a trucker in the Newport News shipyards, about 40 minutes away, and was on the road each morning by 5:30, glancing back at the place and the people he loved in his rearview mirror. Some days he didn’t return home until after the late-night news, when his three sons had already gone to bed and his wife had cleared the kitchen. Clarence and Iris Taylor had had married in their teens—”too darn young,” he said—and the boys had come one right after the other, quickly filling up their little frame house set off Highway 60. They lived in just another one of those places you see out in the country, with a big, beat-to-hell sign standing on the front edge of the property celebrating the grand opening of some new chicken shack in town, and with moonvine choking every last inch of earth not already occupied by a chinaball tree.

“In those days, you never caught us talking about money,” Mr. Taylor like to say. “Mainly because there was never any money to talk about.”

L.T., muleheaded as he was, always said there had to be a better way. One morning, watching his old man drive off in the half-light of another cheap dawn, he promised his mother he’d be a millionaire before he turned twenty-one and vaguely smiled when she said, “Go on, boy.” To make money, he bought cinnamon toothpicks and packs of Juicy Fruit at Happy Stout’s grocery, then turned around and sold his goods to schoolmates for a big profit.

His father said, “If you want to see the boy do something, tell him he can’t do it.”

When it finally happened, when he made his first million, he was 22. “So what?” He told the folks at home. “I said 21. My timing was a little off. ”

Two years ago Taylor signed a six-year contract with the Giants worth $6.5 million, but only after becoming embroiled in a nasty dispute with club management. Taylor was the most visible and outstanding player on the team, but he was sick of losing; he wanted more money or he wanted out. In 1982 and 1983, his second and third years in the league, the Giants went 4–5 and 3–12–1. Taylor grew sullen and, at times, obstinate. He refused to talk to reporters. Before practice, he spent hours at his locker, mumbling things like, “Get me out of here,” and hiding his face under a cowboy hat. Tired of carrying the load for a team that couldn’t wait, he committed himself to play for the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League. Donald Trump, the generals owner, offered to pay him $3.2 million over four years, starting in 1988, when his option year with the Giants expired. Trump also threw in a $1 million loan, interest free. But when the Giants came back with an even better offer, Taylor asked to be released from his contract with the Generals. After two weeks of negotiations, Trump gave in and Taylor agreed to return the loan, with a $10,000 interest charge tacked on. The settlement also call for Taylor to pay back $750,000 over the next five years.

“The money,” Taylor said, “I need lots of money. But I’ve also got lots of people hitting me up for it, people I hardly know, some I haven’t seen in years. D’Fellas, they know they can get any damed thing they want from me, and yet they never ask. When I want to give, I’ve almost got to force it on them. You say, ‘Here, home, take this crap. Take it, I said. Take it. Take it because I love you and because if you don’t take it, I’ll break your damn face.’”

L.T. bought his parents house not long after signing with the Giants in 1981. He took great pleasure in knowing it was the biggest house on the street, with a two-car garage, fenced-in piece of backyard for the dogs, “Florida room,” so named by his father, who dressed it up with rose-colored shag carpet and rose-colored blinds and rose-colored bottles of liquor set on glass shelves. You could bet your life savings nobody else in Williamsburg, Virginia, owned the room like it. On top of that, there were plenty of extra bedrooms upstairs for L.T.’s wife and two little babies, and the grass stayed green even in winter, which really tickled Mr. Taylor, who enjoyed pushing a mower.

When L.T. came home last summer, he spent only an hour or so with the new house before borrowing his father’s party van and rounding up D’Fellas. There was so much to come back to, and the last thing he wanted to make sure and see before calling it a night was the crib off Highway 60, the old place. It amounted to only three acres set hard by the road, but a real estate man in town had thrown a money figure at his folks, hoping they’d bite and turn it over for development as a housing subdivision. L.T. asked his parents to hang on to the property; he figured $20,000 or $25,000 would be enough to fix it up. And money, hell, he had plenty of that.

There was a greasy, iron dark about that night when the boys finally rode down the driveway to the old house, running clean over a little chicken tree just setting roots, and around potholes full of mud that looked white against their headlights. Taylor rounded the corner of the house and parked in front of two old heaps, a light blue Maverick with a Mr. Peabody air-freshener hanging from the rearview and a two-tone pickup with four flat tires. D’Fellas, in a hurry to turn the woods into their private latrine, wrestled getting out of the van, and Taylor let the lights wash over the whole back lot, which was overgrown with knapweed and baby sycamores.

“Some serious memories,” Dylan Pritchett said, pulling on the fleshy folds under his chin. “This is some serious damn memories.”

Taylor pushed the brim of his straw hat out of his eyes and ran his hands over the roof of the old Maverick, tearing at the rot of a million leaves. Both headlamps on the car appeared to have been shot out by a pellet gun, and the hood latch was stuck. “If this bitch could talk,” L.T. said, pointing at the car, “we’d all be in trouble.”

Stoney said, “What was the dogs name? You had a dog.”

“It was Kojak,” Cosmos said.

“He lived to be fifteen,” Taylor said. “When I bought Mama and Daddy the new house, he moved to the subdivision and thought he had a big dick. Old Kojak was all right.”

Stoney said, “I remember when those old boys from New Kent—they thought they could shoot hoops with D’Fellas—used to come out here and we’d kick ass all over the place. Everybody used to come. Like I said, we were bad.”

“See that big tree over there?” Taylor said, nodding his head at a brace of giant hardwoods. “I remember when it was little. That one there. Looked like a twig in the ground.”

“Kojak,”, Cosmo said, “he’d bark and never bite. The dog thought he was human. And shit, he was like everybody else. He thought he had what it takes to be one of D’Fellas.”

“I remember that tree and that tree and that tree,” L.T. said. “I even remember that one over there.”

“Goddamn, “Pritchett said. “This is some real shit. I mean, this brings it all back. Brings it all back home.”

“I remember all these trees,” Lawrence Taylor said. “I remember every last one of them.”

[Images Via: Garmonique; fuck yeah freight trainsBevin; Charlie Simokaitis; Sports Illustrated]

A Real Find

I got an e-mail from my pal John Ed Bradley the other day with an attached image of this painting:

I bought the picture at auction in Florida last week. It’s by an artist I collect named Reeves Brace. She died in 1932 at age 34. Her name at birth was Virginia Reeves. She used her last name as her first name when she became an artist and married Ernest Brace–an eccentric but nice touch. Most people just called her “Reeves.” Her husband was a fine writer named Ernest Brace; his brother helped start the publishing firm Harcourt Brace.

Reeves was a member of the art colony up in Woodstock, and she often worked in NYC. She might’ve painted this scene as a magazine illustration. I’ve been collecting her work for years although it is difficult to find and rarely comes up for sale. Her obscurity is largely a result of her early demise. Distraught as a result of a failed marriage and the stress of surviving as an artist during the Depression, she hanged herself by her silk stockings from the bathroom door of a hotel room in New York City.

She was quite the beauty, too. She still had a steady hand when she painted this canvas. I find her fascinating and have long hoped to dig deeper into her life and write about her. For now, I content myself with her oil paintings that hang in my writing studio.

The auction house didn’t identify the location but I think this is Yankee Stadium circa 1930. I think some of the artist’s details tell the story and might help us determine the year it was painted. The ads along the outfield wall (Mrs. Wagner’s Pies, Singing Shaves), the buildings in the background…all should provide clues.

Did deep outfield really have a hump like that where warning track now would be? The artist also gives us the depth of the fence in right and shows how the lime stripe tracked up what looks like a board pole.

I love how the figures with their backs turned to us are dressed. Everyone has his or head covered. The men in fedoras, one with a flower or a card or something in the band. They appear to be wearing jackets.

I asked Glenn Stout–winner of the 2012 Seymour Medal for “Fenway 1912″– when the picture could have been painted and he pegged it somewhere between 1932-34. The “Mrs. Wagner’s Pies” sign was up from ’32-’35, he told me. “Google tells me that a sign that read ‘Ever Ready Blades for Singing Shades’ graced the fence in 1932 (see listing at bottom of page).”

It was either the spring or the fall because the fans were dressed for the cold weather but since there is no bunting it wasn’t a World Series game. And:

There is no warning track, but there always was at Yankee Stadium – an actual running track, and the feature was later adopted elsewhere one they realized it was useful. There was , actually, a short, mild rise in CF and Right Center – past the warning track and the stands – the track didn’t skirt the edge of the stands precisely , but was an oval, so it was in front of the stands in CF and fight center, to stay even. So the painting is not accurate, but merely representative.

Of course, I was able to identify the batter.

What a find by John Ed. I thank him for sharing it with us.

Reeves Brace, third from left: New Paltz, N.Y., 1930

Much Ado

I don’t know from college football but one of my favorite books is about the college game–John Ed Bradley’s memoir, “It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium.” If you haven’t read it, put it on your holiday wish list, you won’t be sorry.

Tonight, there’s a big game between LSU and Alabama. I won’t be watching but when I check the score I’ll be thinking of John Ed, hoping the Tigers make him happy.

From Ali to Xena: 48

The Circle Home

By John Schulian

I went from vanishing to vanished in the speed it took me to drive away from Universal for the last time. There was no talk of an opening on another writing staff, no phone call from my worthless agent to buck up my spirits. The truth was, my spirits didn’t need bucking up. I’d done what I’d set out to do. I’d worked in Hollywood and lived to tell the tale. I’d been part of the game, and now I wasn’t. That was fine with me. Hollywood never defined my life. Maybe that’s why there are days now when it feels like it never happened.

And yet it was a thrill each time I drove onto a studio lot. It didn’t matter which one – 20th, Warners, Paramount, Universal, old MGM – because miracles were the coin of the realm in them all. The real world was something that wasn’t supposed to get past the guards at the gate. They stood between the public and the buildings named for Jerry Lewis, Clara Bow, and Abbott and Costello where I tried to navigate a business that can make you Malibu royalty or leave you like driftwood on the beach.

At lunch one day in the Universal commissary, I saw Paul Newman get a big hug from Lew Wasserman, who was then the most powerful man in show business. I scribbled dialogue on a legal pad or typed it on a computer screen and watched actors use it to give life to characters who sprang from my imagination. I embraced the silliness when an assistant producer on “Hercules” told me why she couldn’t get an actress’s breasts to stay submerged in a milk bath and keep the censors off our back: too much silicone. Most of all, I’ll never forget the kindness of two actors on “L.A. Law,” Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker, who sought me out to say thanks for the script I’d written. I blush at the fact that I didn’t tell them it was Steven Bochco they should be thanking, but maybe they already knew that. What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that even with the rough patches I hit, I wouldn’t give back a minute I spent in Hollywood.

I loved the work when it was just me and a piece of paper. As for the rest of it, I wavered between ambivalence and outright hatred. But I could never hate it for long because I didn’t know when luck might start breaking good for me again. Even now, eight years after from my last TV job, I’ve got an idea for a screenplay rattling around inside my head. A friend with big screen credits planted it there after he read a short story of mine and saw the makings of a movie. I’ve made notes on it, toyed with how to structure it for the screen, come up with dialogue while I’ve been out on my daily walk. I’ve also put it away, but always with the caveat that I can take it out again. That’s how the business works for most of us: once seduced, always seduced.

But let me not get carried away by dreams and nostalgia. I’m no longer part of the show-biz whirl with its non-stop talk about movies and TV pilots I’ve got to see, actors and writers and directors I’ve got to be aware of, and salaries that will make my head explode. When I’m around friends who are still in the game, it takes me half the night to get up to speed and the other half to forget what I’ve heard. There are too many names I don’t recognize or need to remember. And if there are any executives who remember me, they would probably just say, “Oh, yeah, the sports writer,” and move on to the next subject.

By the time I arrived in Hollywood, I had downgraded sports writer to the pejorative. It was a label that stuck to me like gum to the sole of my shoe and I resented it. I was sick to death of games and athletes and the words I lavished on them. But no sooner did I leave the Philadelphia Daily News than Sport magazine asked me to assay Sugar Ray Robinson for its 40th anniversary issue. Never mind that I’d not been closer to him than a TV screen. I wrote the piece. When I went to buy the magazine, convinced that it contained my unofficial farewell to sportswriting, I could hear practically hear a booming old-fashioned score in the background, something by Dimitri Tiomkin or Max Steiner or one of those Newmans who are related to Randy. Show business had such a hold on my brain that it wasn’t until years later I understood that the true significance of my ode to Sugar Ray. It stood as proof that part of me would always belong to sportswriting.

In 1988, when a screenwriters’ strike lasted five months, I wrote a spec screenplay that eventually ended up at the right studio at the wrong time, but I also wrote an essay for GQ about how the American male gets his first lessons in personal style from athletes. In 1992, when I came off my first unhappy year in TV, I regained my balance by doing a bonus piece for Sports Illustrated about L.A. when it was a minor league baseball town and an essay for the L.A. Times Book Review about my two favorite boxing novels, “Fat City” and “The Professional.”

Strange how I was taking refuge in something that just a few years before felt like a noose around my neck. And it felt as if I were writing better than I ever had. I don’t know how much, if any, of that I can attribute to my work for the screen, but I certainly felt more confident and more comfortable with the language. Maybe screenwriting–and the myriad smart people who did it for a living–opened my mind to ideas that enriched my prose. Just as important, I was no longer too good to rewrite something, and not just once either. What I once would have turned in as a finished product was now being constantly rewritten, tinkered with, and buffed to a shine until I had to turn it in or miss my deadline. That would have been unthinkable with a four-times-a-week sports column. In any case, it was a joy to be writing for magazines and the occasional newspaper again. Even when I was up to my ears in alligators on “Hercules,” I would write 1,000-word GQ essays not just on sports but on my favorite guitar shop, the joy of greasy-spoon dining, and why white-collar criminals deserve the death penalty. Never once did those pieces feel like work. They were a tonic. You might even call them a salvation, just as TV was a salvation when I bogged down as a sports columnist.

In the lulls that grew longer and longer as I neared the end in Hollywood, I wrote for old friends at SI, GQ, and msnbc.com and new ones at the Oxford American magazine and the New York York Times. Yes, finally the Times – but I arrived in its pages not as Red Smith’s successor but as the author of a piece about a reclusive country singer named Willis Alan Ramsey. Vic Ziegel, whose death last year left a hole in a lot of lives, thought that was hilarious. “A shitkicker?” he scribbled on a postcard.

It was guys like Vic, Bill Nack, Tom Boswell, and Dave Kindred who over the years made certain I didn’t forget the ballparks and boxing halls where I’d battled deadlines, the all-night diners where I’d eaten too much too late, and the friendships without expiration dates. I heard from John Ed Bradley once in a while via a predictably courtly hand-written note, and talked on the phone with Peter Richmond, and had dinner with Leigh Montville when he was in L.A. I wondered if Charlie Pierce was ever going to come this way again and provided lodging for Mark Kram Jr., Phil Hersh, and my favorite editors at SI, Rob Fleder and Chris Hunt. And always there were the old sportswriting friends who had become L.A. guys, too – Mike Downey, Randy Harvey, Ron Rapoport. They were conduits to my past, the lot of them, and to my future, too.

Oscar Charleston painting by Michael Hogue

In Hollywood I rarely thought beyond my next job. But when there were no more jobs for me, it seemed only natural to write a piece for SI about Oscar Charleston, the black Ty Cobb, and to begin putting together a collection of my baseball writing called “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods.” No trumpets blared, no one hailed my return, and that was as it should have been. The days of need I’d experienced as a columnist – the need for acclaim, money, and a chunk of space in the paper to call my own – were gone. I was seeking something different now, a chance to recapture the joy I’d felt when I was a kid alone in my room, listening to Little Richard on the radio as I wrote for an imaginary newspaper or sketched scenes for a movie that would never move beyond a wish. I couldn’t recapture such innocence, of course, but that kid still lived inside me just the same. I counted down from three and stepped into the wind.

Click here for the full “From Ali to Xena” archives.

Don’t You Need Somebody to Love?

The wife wants a bulldog. I want a Bernese mountain dog. Instead, we have two cats.

But here is a beautiful little essay about a bulldog by John Ed Bradley.

[Photo Credit: Funny Pet Wallpaper]

Lighten Up, Francis

A trip to the SI Vault brings us this gem on David Cone by my man John Ed Bradley. From the 1993 Baseball Preview issue:

In Kansas City they make a top-notch steak and some fine barbecue. And first-rate music if you go for jazz. And maybe a decent sportswriter or two—they make that. Or used to. Wasn’t it Hemingway who had a start there, long, long time ago? But hot young baseball talent…they just don’t make much. And, no sir, they never have.

When David Cone was a kid living in a blue-collar neighborhood on the northeast side of Kansas City, he never imagined he would grow up to be the best-paid pitcher the game has ever known. He told people he wanted to be a scribe, like Oscar Madison, the irascible slob in The Odd Couple. Have a beat and lots of dizzy dames. Have an apartment and keep it ear-deep in filth. Have a drink and a smoke before getting out of bed in the morning. Have whatever, since Oscar Madison didn’t seem to give a hoot.

Have a ball, in other words.

Love the nutzo picture of Coney on the cover. Man, it’ll be refreshing to have him back in the YES booth this season, huh?

As I Lay Dying: The Anatomy of a Failed Minor League Career

mccarthy_matthew1

It’s that time of year again, time for the new crop of baseball books to hit the shelves.  The Joe Torre/Tom Verducci book made a splash several weeks ago, and Selena Robert’s forthcoming biography of Alex Rodriguez is sure to make the best-seller list when it comes out in mid-April.  But there are a bunch of other interesting titles set to drop this spring as well, including “As I See ‘Em,” Bruce Weber’s book about professional umpires; “Heart of the Game,” S.L. Price’s account of Mike Coolbaugh, the minor league coach who was killed by a foul ball in 2007, and “Odd Man Out,” Matt McCarthy’s evocative and entertaining look back on his brief minor league career with the Angels.

McCarthy pitched at Yale, played for a year with the Angels, and then moved on to a career in medicine.  He’s now an intern at Columbia Pres uptown, just a stones throw from where the New York Highlanders once played.

Last week, Sports Illustrated ran a long excerpt from “Odd Man Out”, and on March 3rd at 6:00 p.m., Matt will  be at The Corner Bookstore (1313 Madison Avenue at 93rd street) to talk about the book.  I was fortunate enough to get together with Matt recently and talk about his life in professional baseball.

Enjoy.

BB: John Ed Bradley wrote a terrific memoir about playing football at LSU called “It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium.” His experience might have been unique, but he describes the bond between his teammates almost like something soldiers feel. But I don’t get that same sense of being a team in baseball, even in college. Did you?

MM: Minor league baseball is a unique environment. It’s hard to be a good teammate when your primary goal is to leave the team- to be promoted to a higher level. And I was as guilty as anyone. If I pitched two scoreless innings and our team lost, I was relatively happy. No one makes the big leagues solely because they were on a winning minor league team. College baseball couldn’t be more different. We rooted for each other and still do. I still get a dozen texts every time Craig Breslow (my teammate at Yale who now pitches for the Twins) gets a big strikeout.

BB: Can you talk about the arrested development of the clubhouse culture. How do boys become men in that world?

MM: See: Kotchman, Tom. The Angels are very fortunate to have Kotchman. He could easily be a big league manager but instead he’s chosen to coach a rookie ball team. He’s able to influence players who’ve just signed very large (and very small) contracts and instill in them a culture of winning and for that the franchise owes him a large debt of gratitude. I don’t know if there are many guys like him still around, but I hope there are. That lucky charm of his- a large black dildo with two baseballs glued to the base- is something I’ll never forget. And the same is true of his Andrew Dice Clay impression. I’ve been out of baseball for six years and I still think about the Dice Man. He’s mentioned in recent interviews that he’s planning to retire from coaching sometime soon to become a full time scout. As I say in the book, I hope he reconsiders.

BB: Some of your teammates busted your chops about coming from Yale and assumed that you had a privileged life set up for yourself as a fallback in case baseball didn’t work. While they were wrong about you being on any kind of gravy train, you did have another career to turn to. How aware were you of that while you played?

MM: When you’re on the bottom rung of the minor league ladder, you can’t help but be aware of how expendable you are. That life after baseball is not just a possibility, but a reality. I was surrounded by guys who were coming to that realization and it was interesting to see how they responded. The realization came to me rather quickly- the first pitch I threw as a professional resulted in a bases-clearing double. I’m not sure if I ever recovered.

(more…)

feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email
"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver