Rock and Roll Heaven III: Dusty’s Dream

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by Ed Davis on July 7, 2014

The Visions. Front row, left to right: Ed Davis, Tookie Marcus. Back row: Dusty Thompson, Bob Booth, Wayne Jenkins.

 

(The following continues my rock and roll coming of age in southern West Virginia in the 1960s. In September, 2014, my novel The Psalms of Israel Jones, set inside the world of professional rock, will be published by West Virginia University Press.) 

“He’s a real nowhere man,
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans
For nobody.”

—Lennon-McCartney

My Generation . . .

There we are in our plush suit jackets and ties:  your typical working-class rock and roll band of the mid-1960s. And the Visions did work every weekend: Moose, Elks and Eagles clubs, plus bars ranging from dangerous to dull. I was hired as the bass player (front, left), and at first the group played all Ventures-style instrumentals—which was a big adjustment for me, having most recently played with The Kings English, a mostly-Rolling Stones cover band. But gradually Bob, lead guitarist and CO, encouraged me to sing. Since I’d backed up the lead singer in the English, I knew at least a verse or two of many songs. I was suddenly lead vocalist.

. . . My Little Town

But it’s not me I want to talk about; it’s Dusty. He’s the tall, handsome one standing behind me on the left. Dusty passed away a long time ago, though he’s vividly alive in my memory. When he died he couldn’t’ve been much more than forty, the same age as his idol John Lennon when the ex-Beatle was assassinated. I’m wondering if Dusty’s brief life might tell me something essential about my generation in a particular place and time:  Princeton, West Virginia in the late 1960s—a small town which Interstate 77 passes by on its way to more important places.

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Front left to right: Bob Booth, lead guitar; Nick Bassett, rhythm guitar; Ed Davis, bass; Wayne Jenkins, sax. In back: Brian Maloney, drums.

. . . and Its Heroes

I see Dusty in metaphorical if not mythic terms, but also, insofar as I knew him, as an extraordinary person who in a way lived the dream we Appalachian rockers all inherited:  the same dream that Bruce Springsteen embraced when he played that “goddamn guitar” in defiance of all his father stood for: safety, security, and above all, a good job. Those of us saved (or ruined, depending on your perspective) by rock and roll gave our time—a lot of it—to hone our dubious craft often at the expense of academics and extracurriculars. Dusty gave his life.

The Big Question

Hamden’s Snack Bar was ideal for rock and roll marriages, especially the pinball machines that formed the boundary between the front and back rooms. I was a sophomore, Dusty a senior, when the moment finally presented itself. One day after school, with the place cleared out, I offered to let him play one of the two flippers on the machine I was currently renting for a nickel. I didn’t wait long to pop the Big Question.

“So who’s your favorite band?”

It was 1967. The British Invasion was ancient history, Elvis was as good as dead and American soul music reigned supreme among most Hamdenites.

Dusty took a drag off his Winston and sent the pinball hurtling before answering. Would this cool stranger let me down? But with his long hair curling behind his ears, he didn’t look like a soul man to me.

“I know everybody around here likes James Brown,” he drawled, keeping his eye on the ball, “but I still like the Beatles.”

Yesss! Here was a man who hadn’t been seduced by glittering saxophones and superficial showmanship! (The day awaited when I’d succumb to all things Motown, but just then my faith lay in “A Hard Day’s Night” rather than “Cold Sweat.”) I had a lot of growing up to do, and maybe I thought Dusty could help me with that. I knew I was off to a good start when my new friend took me home with him.

The Moment

Eventually we wrenched ourselves away from Dusty’s Mom, a frizzy-permed firebrand in cat-eye glasses, to cloister ourselves in his bedroom, where an even bigger moment loomed than the one at Hamden’s pinball machine. He’d already told me he played guitar, and there it lay on his bed:  the same Harmony hollow-body he’s holding in the top photo (later he graduated to a Fender Telecaster). Perching on the edge of the bed, he picked up his instrument and went to work changing my brain’s wiring the way the fab lads had three years ago.

The only song I remember him playing was one he’d written himself:  an original composition. Today it’s mandatory for young bands to write and perform their own songs. But not in 1967. Not in Princeton, West Virginia. Only rock gods wrote songs. It was enough—in fact, often way too much—for us to learn to play their songs. But while I sat, senses trembling, Dusty played for me (me, in private concert!), an original song using the same chords Dylan would employ to such devastating purpose in a year or two in “All Along the Watchtower.”

Ticket to Ride:  The Way Out

The specifics of Dusty’s song—the dumb lyrics, the tinkly-trite intro—don’t matter. What mattered was his delivery. He played his own song with a seriousness I’d never seen this close. The only word that comes to mind is authority. All the rockers I knew mimicked; we hoped our chords were right, hoped that someone who played better (always a faster gun!) wouldn’t rip the guitar from our hands and shame us, hoped that we’d be the ones chosen to make a record, get lucky and wind up on Ed Sullivan. But I could tell that Dusty believed it could happen. For him, there’d be no other way out (I’ve read that John Lennon believed the same thing). But out of what? Out of Princeton High School, out of a stifling, segregated, classist and hopelessly conservative Appalachian small town. Out of his own mind and into the world’s.

 “Fly Away, Little Birdie” was not a great song, but it was his. I’d hear a lot better out of him during the next year or so: tunes that could’ve at least been album songs for Gerry and the Pacemakers or Herman’s Hermits. Dusty had the Liverpool sound down (too bad it was in James Brown’s town). He planted his flag and aimed his sword at unbelievers. I write; therefore, I am.

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Left to right: Wayne Jenkins, Brian Maloney, Nick Bassett, Ed Davis.

Fly Away

When my band the Visions needed a new rhythm guitarist, I recruited Dusty. He quit way before I did; he wasn’t a Visions kind of guy who’d be content with blue velvet jackets and military discipline:  No smoking on-stage! No sitting on your amp! Plus, the music was too tame for him—and he didn’t need the cash like I did. He needed to make art. He needed to fly away, so he did.

A year or so later, Dusty invited me to join him and his new soul-mate Darlene for a working music session, but by this time, I was in college, had a girlfriend and was working on my own version of Getting Out. If he’d hoped to lure me away from the Visions, it didn’t happen—lightning didn’t strike that Sunday afternoon. Maybe if, instead of learning a boring Jefferson Airplane song, Darlene had torn loose on “Piece of My Heart” or some blazing Dusty original, my own history might’ve taken a different turn.

The Last Beatlemaniac

Dusty and I parted ways and I didn’t hear a word about him again until five or six years later. I was married, in graduate school, devoting myself to academics the way I had to music (I’d sold my amp) when, in Princeton for a rare visit, I ran into Roger, the Kings English’s former guitarist.

“All Dusty does,” he told me, “is sit in the apartment listening to his old Beatles albums all day.”

I could imagine my old friend drooping around a dingy place, eating canned soup, sleeping among cockroaches on the floor, chain-smoking while “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” shook the walls. I think it hit me harder than news of his death would’ve.

Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse?

—Bruce Springsteen, “The River”

Great question, Bruce. In Dusty’s case, it was worse, much worse, though my friend apparently never questioned the path determined by his passion; and he met his life (and death) accordingly. It wasn’t long after I received Roger’s news that Dusty was dead.

Others’ Drummers

It’s taken me forty-five years to realize what I should’ve been able to intuit that day in the bedroom of a revolutionary and doomed dreamer: you don’t need anyone’s permission but your own to be an artist. I almost missed my calling while playing to the beat of others’ drummers. Immediately after I earned my master’s in English, I contemplated a Ph.D. and might’ve wasted time trying to become a scholar but for getting hired by a community college. There I found working writers—fictionists and poets—who, like Dusty, plied their art with passion and originality—and authority. They became my new Hamden’s crowd.

Still, in ways, life never got any better than wailing away with three chords (maybe four) in a live band while people leapt, lunged and swayed in front of us. I’m still wailing, but guitar and vocals have morphed into paper and pen, keyboard and printer, chapter and verse. I write; therefore I am. Dusty didn’t compromise. He just wanted to play that crazy rock and roll the same way his hero Lennon did, feet firmly planted, hands wrapped around his battle-axe, bawling into the microphone and screw you if you don’t like it. I can only hope some of their spirit lives on in my writing as well as my life.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Cyndi July 10, 2014 at 1:06 am

Fascinating stuff. I’ve been contemplating the parallel paths of writing and music myself recently.

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