NEW JERK CITY (but ya gotta love it)

We arrived on the Greyhound, having left our car back on the California desert. Our possessions were even more pared down, but I still had my baby and my guitar, and a bag of dirty diapers. And my ever-more-burdensome load of ambitions. I also had an introduction to ALBERT GROSSMAN, the manager of JOAN BAEZ, who’d just come out with her first record. So now, if this were a novel, I would really be on the superhighway to success. That’s what I hate about novels.

New York in summer is so hot it’s hard not to take it personally. It seems to surround you, crush you, pant on you. You step out of a roasting bar onto the sidewalk and that heat hits you with a grin, “Hey-oh, here we are again!”

Albert Grossman’s apartment, a short walk from my father’s, was as New Yorkie as could be. Wide old dirty windows opened down onto the street where cars honked and cabbies yelled. Smells of exotic cooking from every other apartment, all commingling out there in the heat. A fan in every window. People, people, people—so different from L.A. where people tend to avoid walking. And Al himself—see how I am? Already ‘Al’—in sweaty shirtsleeves and crumpled slacks, was like a corned beef and pastrami sandwich on rye with sauerkraut and a dill. In the sense, I mean, that he was quintessentially New York.

That’s all the excitement I can provide about Al Grossman. He could have been a major character in the story of my life, but he made his own decision, which was to listen to a couple songs, nod sagely and tell me he already had Joan Baez in his stable so why did he need me? So, out he goes.

Except that a while later my old friend Avril, who used to dance to my Jewish songs and who never got over being a Jew because she really was one, came to New York, and within two weeks she was telling me about this new boyfriend; she thought she might like him or not, Bobby Dylan was his name, he had just come to town from some weird midwestern place and was an opening act at Gerde’s Folk City and wasn’t necessarily all that good of a boyfriend but time would tell. Al Grossman became BOB DYLAN’s manager, probably right about then. And there went Bob, and Joan too, off on that superhighway to success.

Meanwhile, back at the pitiful poorhouse…..It’s a funny thing, but in New York I met very few musicians. I was off my turf. Los Angeles was my turf. I went into a music store in the Village one day and could have been a ghost; not even a ‘May I help you, miss?’ Like a Hell’s Angel in a Christian book shop, or more like a Christian in a Harley shop. I did manage to get them to sell me a capo, of the sort classical guitarists use, with a wooden peg. But I didn’t meet anyone, get any gigs, or even be a paying customer at Gerde’s Folk City.

One thing I did do was play in a small frat club, where halfway through my set some guy in the back yelled, “Hey, you’re no Joan Baez!” I was quite shocked: This was supposed to be a bad thing? Nothing against Joan, but I was KAJSA OHMAN.

Another thing I did was go to a Pete Seeger concert. And I mentioned earlier that I would have more to say about the song, ‘My Children are Laughing Behind My Back.’ Which Pete sang that night.

My mother—it’s time to give her a name. ELEANOR OHMAN. My father bought her a pretty blue and pearl accordion after she laid aside the guitar, and this she did learn. It suited her. She wrote ‘My Children are Laughing’ on the accordion in a natural sort of way; it’s so easy to segue from major to minor on an accordion because you just have to move your two chording fingers a speck to the side and you’re in minor. Why those lyrics, though? What was she thinking? Of me? Here’s how they go: (Think, oomp-pah-pah.)

My children are laughing behind my back (2)
They loll their tongues and they roll their eyes,
They’ll yell and sing when their old ma dies.

My children are laughing behind my back (2)
They’ve blown out the candles that burned by my head
They’ve rolled in the coffin to set by my bed.

My children are laughing behind my back (2)
For my eyes are blind and my lips are blue
And my children they think that my life is through.

But I won’t die for a long long time,
I’m gonna live on for a long long time,
I’ll sit by the window and drink my gin
And be as old as my grandma been.
I’ll sit by the window and I won’t cry—
I’ll LAUGH LIKE HELL when my children die.

Anyway, that’s my mom. As it happens, she died. I’m the one drinking gin by the window. Not laughing, though. Still a little disgruntled about the song.

So there’s Pete Seeger, up on the stage before a large Swarthmore audience, doing this song and saying, “It’s a strange old ballad, no one knows where it came from,” and I knew. Ha. I knew and I would tell him.

I’d tell him and he’d be impressed and want to know more, were there any other wonderful old songs I knew, and I’d say, oh you bet, just listen up. Listen to me. Listen to me! I NEED TO BE LISTENED TO! Ahem, yes. Anyway, I went backstage after the concert, where there was already a half-mile line of people wanting to be noticed by Pete Seeger. Poor saps, I felt sorry for them, none of them having a mother that wrote a song Pete wanted the origin of.

After a long, long time suddenly it was my turn. I was in front of him. I was inside his aura, a thing I hadn’t known he had—and it was completely flattening. My knees went weak, my mouth couldn’t speak. I’d never experienced this kind of thing before, the way a person who’s used to living in the public eye becomes so much larger, brighter than ordinary people. Guess that’s why they call them stars. I barely managed to not faint as I told him about my mother writing the song. But he was kind. Mildly excited even. He jotted down her name and said he was glad to know. Did he believe me? Did I, all at once, believe my mother?

I do believe her. The song is her. It’s her voice. She was always producing weird stuff like that. And as I say, it could only have been written on an accordion. Who writes songs on an accordion? Songs like that?

[The one other time, by the way, that I experienced the paralysis of star proximity was when I met RONALD REAGAN. I’m sorry. But I gotta be honest. I was secretary for a news correspondent in the California state house then, and Reagan was governor. My boss was granted a brief sidewalk interview; the governor was en route to a TV studio and already had his pancake makeup on, which looked slightly creepy. At one point I found myself being introduced, and Reagan looked at me. Looked AT ME. All-inclusive, with even a little merry glint for my miniskirt. The look was so perfect, so impeccable. So practiced. And, again, I was flattened, speechless. Now, I’m not comparing ‘Pete’ to ‘Ron.’ I can’t see any other similarity—but they both were stars, and they both knew it. I’ve met stars since, but never, never ever wish to feel that response again. I have my pride. In future let me be the emanator of stardust, thank you]

Meanwhile, my personal life was going to hell in a hand basket. I’ve intended to stay away from personal history that’s not to the point, the point being guitars and guitar players, but that turns out to be hard to do. I feel I have to say that I was stuck in New York, with no visible musical future; already I was nearly 23, and life was passing me by. #1 and I were not proving out well. He had a drinking problem—I had a shrieking problem. He had a breaking-things problem—I had a bolting problem.

When things were about as bad as it seemed they could get, suddenly Ed Pearl reappeared on the horizon—not in person, but with a series of engagements he had lined up for me without my knowing. The tour would ramble me back across the country, ending up at the MONTEREY FOLK FESTIVAL. So I left my little son with an aunt in Vermont and got back on the Greyhound, ‘alone again, naturally.’

Look out, DETROIT.


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Traveling musician

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