Rock and Roll Heaven I: Hamden’s

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by Ed Davis on June 24, 2014

“If there’s a rock and roll heaven,
Well, you know they’ve got a hell of a band.”
—The Righteous Brothers

(In September, 2014, my novel The Psalms of Israel Jones will be published by West Virginia University Press, a novel set inside the world of professional rock and roll, which has me, at 62, contemplating my own musical past. For the first time in forty-five years, I’ve given myself permission to take a look at a critical period of my life, from age 16 through 19, when I lived for one thing and one thing only . . .)

As a teenager, did you have a public place where you could hang out anytime from dawn to dusk six days a week, smoke cigarettes, drink pop, eat junk food, play pinball, listen to a jukebox with the latest tunes, see all your pals and, most importantly, find out if a new band was forming and whether they might need a bass player, lead guitarist or drummer?

A place with a back room where, if you were discreet enough, you could even play cards, maybe even grab enough privacy to break up or hook up with a member of the opposite sex? A place where you could even “be trusted for” a meal by management, if you happened to be broke until your next gig? A place practically lacking adult supervision where, in effect, you and your bunch of street orphans and social misfits ran the show and were allowed to shout, laugh, cuss and make mistakes that would mature, hurt and maybe even kill you?

From 1967-1970, I experienced this Garden of Eden in my hometown of Princeton, an exit right off Interstate 77 at the southern tip of West Virginia in the shadow of East River Mountain, whose tunnel shoots you right into the green, rolling hills of Virginia, a world away from the Mountain State, at least the state I grew up in.

Most of the images from my earliest childhood in Bluefield, literally the last exit before you’re in Virginia, are in stark black and white: heading off after dawn in a near-blizzard for school, where the playground was a steep asphalt hill; selling newspapers after school in second grade:  buy ‘em for two and a half cents and sell ‘em for a nickel; accompanying my mom to find my dad sitting in his taxi to beg him for money. In contrast, Princeton, the town ten miles away to which we moved from Bluefield the year after Kennedy got elected, appears in Technicolor with stereophonic sound, especially after 1964, when four working-class lads from Liverpool (a town about as grimy as Bluefield) delivered the altar call. Soon we new believers needed a church, and only by the greatest gift of grace we found one.  Hamden’s Snack Bar:  rock and roll heaven.

Three Hamdenites hang tough, setting up for the gig

Three Hamdenites hang tough, setting up for the gig: (left to right) Ed Davis, Nick Bassett, and Willie Phillips.

Housed in downtown Princeton in a building that was once a clothing store, Joe Hamden’s restaurant opened at six and closed at nine every day except Sunday (when we hung out at the much less welcoming Susie Q). There were booths and tables in the brightly-lit front room, two pinball machines and a few more booths in the dim back room. Joe and his jolly (until you crossed her) wife Marie fed a lot of us teenagers at lunchtime, but a smaller minority, including me, came in an hour or so before school for a pop, coffee or egg sandwich; returned at lunch for a hasty burger, pop and candy bar; and returned after school for more of the same, plus a pinball game or two. The really hard-core even came back after supper and stayed till closing. (I’d get the scoop next day on what they did.)

Almost all true Hamdenites played an instrument. It was said that someone needing entertainment for his club came in one Friday afternoon and found enough unemployed musicians to put together a band for that night. While the story may be apocryphal, it certainly could’ve happened.

While there were chrome stools at the counter, booths and jukebox, Hamden’s was not Arnold’s Diner on Happy Days. In my memory, Hamden’s was dark—I’m thinking of the back room, separated from the front by a half-wall partition and further blocked from sight by the pinball machines. Amazing, today, to contemplate teens being allowed to populate such a public den of iniquity, smoking and swearing as much as we wanted. The only thing sweet, mild-mannered Joe didn’t put up with was card-playing (which certain of us did on the sly). And fighting.

The back room was a man’s world. Whenever girls entered the place at all, they almost always confined themselves to the front booths. Maybe it was an unwritten law, legislated by Joe or maybe even by us. Hamden’s was not about girls; it was about the holy family of rock and roll. It’s taken me four and a half decades to acknowledge the great gift of Hamden’s Church of Lost Souls and Holy Rockers; a gift of time and place that offered me the chance to grow up fast.

I’m finally ready to tell those stories of great joy and great loss, which turned me from a rock and roll survivor into a writer. Writing Israel Jones, a novel that borrowed heavily from my own rock and roll past, has somehow given me permission to tell the tale (it’s now or never!), beginning with my next blog. It’s the story of a band of sons and brothers, of a thousand or so sacred days that occasionally offered grace if not salvation and got us farther down the road—at least those who survived.

Post image by Tim Kiser and made available under a Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 license.)

 

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Cyndi June 24, 2014 at 3:54 pm

What memories! So happy you’ve found a publisher who appreciates your words.

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