Highway 61 (1st installment of a 5 part series)

 

In April of 1968, against her better judgment, 17 year-old Cheryl accepted a ride with a 40-something, long haul trucker whose route took him through Chapel Hill. She never did find out what happened to the jerk—a friend of Samantha’s—who was supposed to meet her at the bus station in Winston-Salem. If that wasn’t enough she’d had to sleep (or tried) last night in the Asheville, NC bus station.

The guy put her guitar and backpack behind the passenger seat and spent the next hour and ten minutes whining about his wife and ex-wife and how the women in his life were always expecting too much from him. All he wanted when he was home from the road, was to kick-back, drink beer and fall asleep in front of the TV. I mean why was that so hard to understand?

“You’re a girl—a female—what do they want from me?”—he grumbled as he glanced in his west coast mirrors and changed lanes. “What do I have to do to get them to leave me alone?”  Cheryl had barely been listening—she was so tired from being on the road for almost 36 hours she kept nodding off. She said the first thing that came into her mind.

“By her a card that says something like ‘I love you just because you’re you,’” she offered, trying to sound serious. “Give it to her with a box of candy—whatever her favorite is.”

The trucker shut up, shrugged in a manner that suggested, “What the hell,” and appeared to be giving it serious consideration.

The concrete, cars and overpasses flew by in a blur as she lapsed in and out of consciousness. Tired as she was, and barely aware of the trucker’s C-B patter with other truckers and urban cowboys, Cheryl drifted in a sort of exhausted exhilaration.

She had finally pulled it off.

The small, clean, quiet town she’d grown up in and the countless people who had failed or disappointed her were beginning to seem like a fading dream. There were only two people she missed—an uncle who was murdered by racists for his civil rights advocacy when she was 14 and a boy she dated for a few months.

Her uncle largely raised her and was the great, pure love, the one perfect thing in her life. He was man of extraordinary talent and infallible wisdom. He frequently would tell her, “Even after I’m gone I will love you. My body may be gone but my love for you will always be there.” Once when she was about 8 she asked him, ”Where—where will your love be when you are gone? to which he answered, “In the silence between your heart beats when all is well, but mostly in the darkness around you when times get tough.”

When he died she was shattered and astounded at the viscious stupidity men were capable of.  She found herself staring into a bottomless abyss. It didn’t seem possible that everything beautiful, important and comforting in her life could be thrown away like dryer lint. It was as though the most sacred part of her was trash—to be discarded without a thought.

The boy, who she believed loved and wanted all things wonderful for her, was now in basic training and in a month or two would go to Viet-Nam. The only boy with whom she shared the most important part of herself—the place where she kept her uncle’s loving spirit—in a few months would die in a place she wasn’t even sure how to spell. The day he left for basic training she decided to leave herself. 

It was time for death and re-birth.

The trucker let Cheryl out at an interchange on the edge of Chapel Hill and she walked the last 3 miles to the house on the edge of the UNC campus. The sun was setting, lights coming on in the strange homes she walked past. The guitar seemed to weigh a hundred pounds, the backpack weighed at least a thousand. She was so tired she wanted to scream but didn’t have the strength. Every muscle ached, she was starving, she had blisters on her feet and she stunk.

END 1ST INSTALLMENT

Highway 61-Second installment

Stopping to rest on a bus stop bench in front of huge auditorium, she collapsed on her back staring up at the stars. She was getting what she wanted—dying and being born at the same time but most importantly, she was much closer to that incredible perfect something out there in the hazy somewhere she was destined to find. And when she did, in that moment of blinding, exquisite realization it would all make sense—everything—all the emptiness, suffering and suffocating stupidity would be worthwhile.

For a few months she thought it was the boy who had gone off to die but she decided knowing, loving and losing him was just a milepost on the journey—the one her uncle often spoke of saying things like, “We’re all traveling through life, Cheryl—and we’re

usually the ones who decide how tough the trip is. We can and should, love and help each other as we pass through this world, but you decide what your trip is about—only you can make your journey—don’t look to others.”

The memory of her uncle’s wisdom and death-transcending love—was proof in her heart, the spiritual fulfillment of perfect love was possible. The stars, in their beautiful, shining indifference, did not encourage her but they did light the way—they were doing their job. Her job was to live through the suffering of the moment and keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Samantha was delighted to see Cheryl standing like a bedraggled, lost puppy on her front porch and apologized for her friend not showing up—something about a pool game and a lot of money riding on the outcome. 

After a bowl of canned stew and a shower, Cheryl passed out on the couch and slept 14 hours.

The next day (early afternoon actually) twisting restlessly on the couch, she drifted in and out of a dream about her and the boy back home making love to Jim Morrison’s “When The Music’s Over.” The haunting, dissonant chord progressions and dark invocations blending with passion and physical gratification, connected her to the entire existence of humanity. Unconscious dreams and unremembered memories gave color and substance to Cheryl’s mystical yearning for a sense of grounding in a secular world of nihilistic illusion. Love was possible and real but always fleeting. Life was about moments of clarity and astonishing joy separated by centuries of emptiness and pointless existing. So often it was not a matter of whether love could be had—but how much were you willing to pay.

In 1968 the America Cheryl lived in was a deeply divided and conflicted society. The country’s youth were demanding the impossible from the established order—freedom from and repudiation of a self-congratulatory, middle-class materialism and the vicious arrogance of a military-industrial complex bent on exploiting and tyrannizing the world.  The outraged members of the established order, who had wrested their comfortable, hypocritical Arthur-Godfrey values, suburban homes, cars and TV sets from the bloody chaos of world war two, hated the filthy hippies, the communist-bastard protesters, the morally corrupt free-lovers and wanted them crushed and flushed.

If—for so many American youth, the smugly complacent, Eisenhower-Nixon-Norman

Rockwell All-American banality was not what their nation should be about—what then was the new America young people were demanding—about?   All around and within her was dissatisfaction, conflict, turmoil and change. After the death and re-birth—if it happened—what would America be? Who would she be?

Many young people, and some not so young people, in various ways, set off on a search for national and personal identities. For Cheryl, the sensual, outrageous and enigmatic Jim Morrison with his uncompromising contempt for middle America and powerful anti-establishment art, seemed nothing less than a beacon in the midst of an endless journey into American darkness.

END 2ND INSTALLMENT

Highway 61-Third Installment

She awoke to the stink of burning, home-grown pot and realized the Morrison recording was playing in the room. 5 or 6 girls, most several years older than her, were bickering over which of the Motown girl groups had the cutest hairdos and best harmony.

Desperately needing to use the toilet Cheryl stumbled down the hall to find some guy passed out face-down on the bathroom floor. He appeared to be in his thirties and coincidentally looked a lot like Morrison after he grew the beard and longer hair. There was no other bathroom in the house—Cheryl couldn’t move the guy—she ended up using the toilet with her feet on his back.

Being a guest Cheryl sat quietly on the couch eating her bowl of Cheerios while the group continued their debate which was becoming a bit agitated.

“Cheryl,” one of the girls almost shouted, “You play guitar—who has the best harmony—I say the Shirelles.”

Startled one of a group of strangers knew her name, Cheryl almost choked on her cereal, remembering her name was prominently printed on the guitar case and of course Samantha had told the others living in the house.

After swallowing she said the Shirelles were great but she liked the Ronnettes. She put down her bowl and pulling out her guitar, demonstrated the chords Estelle, Veronica and Nedra sang in the chorus to “Be My Baby.” Somebody turned off the stereo—Cheryl

sang all three parts and demonstrated how the Ronnettes blended their voices. She also explained how Phil Specter put together his “Wall of Sound” style of recording.

The girls, ranging in age from 18 to 21, were astonished at this 17 year old’s voice, presence and instrumental skill.

As she finished the song there was loud clapping from the hallway to the bathroom. The passed out dude that looked like Jim was applauding—he too was impressed.

“Hey Kid—where’d you learn to sing and play like that?” he asked as he tucked in his shirt. “A lotta girls 10-15 years older than you would kill for that kind of talent.”

Embarrassed, Cheryl said an uncle began teaching her guitar when she was 12 and, beyond his teaching, she picked up the rest listening to the radio and records, copying and imitating what she heard and playing in a series of garage bands with other kids back home.

The Jim-looking guy’s name was Gerry Botic. He was a drinking buddy of Aaron Ramadis, a sometime talent agent for Murray the K. As such he had contact with a

number of big names—Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Crosby, Stills and Nash. He said he’d met Dylan and was once present in the room when Paul Simon walked in.

No—that was not the moment of Cheryl’s discovery as a rock star. Botic gave her a card

and told her to give him a call if she was ever in New York.  Or Atlanta—he sometimes hung out there. He said he knew people who were always looking for new session musicians.

Samantha returned from class later that afternoon to find Cheryl and two of the other girls

(voice majors) working on their own rendition of  “Be My Baby,” and damned if they didn’t sound great.

Cheryl wasn’t just welcome in the house—she was an immediate sensation. Some years ago Cheryl’s uncle told her people will like you if they think you’re like them. People will think of you as being like them (older for example) if you let them do most of the talking, keep good eye contact, at least pretend to take them seriously and don’t talk too much yourself.

A shady friend of one of the girls living in the house crafted a fake ID for her. And, with

a few hair and make-up changes, another girl got Cheryl a job waiting tables at a local Bistro and club—The Celibate Stone. In the ‘50s the Stone had been a beat coffee house. Since the mid ‘60s it was a local hang-out for stoner intellectuals—mostly grad students and arty types—almost all of whom took it for granted by the time they were 30 they would have altered the course of Western Civilization for the better.

END 3RD INSTALLMENT

Highway 61 Fourth Installment

During the day Cheryl schlepped burgers and fries, tofu and bean sprouts to self-important guys in full beards, shoulder-length hair and wire-rimmed glasses who were patiently waiting for a befuddled world to recognize their genius. They were usually accompanied by humorless girls in ankle-length, tie-dyed muumuus, long, straight hair, sun-glasses and a world-weary, cynical attitude. It seemed like there was always at least on person in the restaurant reading Das Kapital as they waited for their food.

Though she saw through its pretensions, Cheryl liked this new place—everybody here was searching for something and at least had a vague idea what it was. Where she came from no one was looking for anything and they all seemed to like it that way.

At night Cheryl returned alone to the restaurant or with a few others to cover girl-group songs and folk rock artists such as Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez. She earned ten bucks a set and less than a month after her arrival, had something of a local reputation. Frequently she was asked to sit in for a singer or guitar player absent from area groups—rock, folk-rock groups and the occasional country-western band.

Six weeks after limping into town Cheryl quit waitressing and devoted all of her time

to music. Playing 4 or more sets a day, 7 days a week she honed her craft to a razor-edge.

Her life had undergone enormous and rapid change—Cheryl was certain she was moving forward on her journey toward that shining moment when it would all come into focus

and maybe she would be happy—maybe not—but at least it would all make sense.

It was only a matter of time before a number of disaffected members of other bands approached Cheryl—who was now considered something of a prodigy—about starting a band of their own.  In late June of 1968, a new house band opened at The Celibate Stone—“Highway 61,” an homage to Dylan’s album, “Highway 61 Re-visited.”

Highway 61 did not “explode onto the scene” as Cheryl and the others might have liked but did quite well as a college-town house band and maintained a fairly steady play

schedule around the Research Triangle area—Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill. Everybody in the band was able to eat and pay their bills. With Cheryl playing lead guitar and singing lead vocals their reputation as a solid, entertaining, professional band grew steadily—they were even able to buy a van and trailer.

By January of ’69 Cheryl and the other members of “Highway” found themselves opening for promising groups on the east coast college circuit headed for the big time—groups like Pentangle, Fairport Convention and Alan Stivell.

Following the last set at Mitch’s Tavern, a small club in Raleigh, Graham Nash came out to the alley where the band was loading their equipment and expressed his appreciation for their performance. Nash asked Cheryl what artists influenced her (other than CS&N of course). Cheryl could not understand why she was instantly drawn to Nash—she had met a few other fairly famous musicians and didn’t react this way. A total stranger—she almost felt as though she loved him.

She said her performing style was influenced mostly by Judi Collins and Carole King but her creative energy and artistic inspiration came from Jim Morrison. The other band members were surprised to see their lead singer gushing, her eyes sparkling, like a school girl (which she really was) as she shared her feelings about Morrison with someone who might know him. Nash listened thoughtfully, nodding silently. He said he had to go but as he turned to leave said something like,

“I know Jim a bit—and if I may be so bold Cheryl—you shouldn’t confuse talent with its owner. Art and the person who creates it are not the same. Jim has his own trip through life—he’s chosen a tough path. You have your own Cheryl—only you can make your journey—don’t look to others.”

Cheryl was momentarily stunned—for a second she thought her knees would buckle when Nash said—“only you can make your journey…” Shaken and moved, riding back in the van—Cheryl realized it was not just Graham Nash talking to her in the dark alley behind Mitch’s—it was her uncle.

END 4TH INSTALLMENT

Highway 61 Fifth Installment

On Valentine’s Day in ‘69, Cheryl received a call from Gerry Botic—now a booking agent in Atlanta. He asked Cheryl if the group would be interested in opening for “The Doors.”  The band was scheduled to play one concert in the University of North Carolina’s Carmichael Auditorium March 4th.

Cheryl later learned Highway was not Botic’s first choice.  Graham Nash had turned him down but recommended Highway. No matter—when Cheryl told them, the band was astonished and euphoric. The drummer turned white—the bass player mumbled about panic attacks at the thought of working the same gig as Morrison.

The group descended into a twenty-four-seven frenzy of anticipation and preparation. All bookings for the next 2 weeks were canceled—a committee of music industry friends went to work finding replacements for all the dates the band declined. Cheryl started working on learning Mason William’s “Classical Gas,” and the group as a whole decided to master a scaled-down version of “MacArthur Park,”—several members of the university chorus volunteered to provide choral back-up.

For the next two weeks Cheryl was obsessed with the very real possibility of meeting Jim

Morrison and what might happen on that occasion. When she wasn’t practicing or sleeping from exhaustion she was consumed by the sense that this was it—this had to be it—the incredible something that her life was moving toward. The thought of meeting, speaking to, touching Jim Morrison seemed to be the moment she had been moving toward since the hour of her birth. Across the entire spectrum of her psyche Morrison towered and permeated like an unstoppable force of nature—he was darkness and light at the same time.

On a previous occasion—a few weeks after she arrived in Chapel Hill—Cheryl discovered what a comforting space Carmichael Auditorium was when it was empty. She knew of a freight elevator that was never locked—on various occasions when she needed to zone out—detach from the swirl and crush of her new life—she would go there alone.

She had a favorite seat way in the back of the highest section she always went to. This was her personal power place—a secret spot in the world where she could see all of her life clearly and thoughtfully. Late at night, several times during the weeks before the Doors concert, she would go to the facility and imagine—not just what the concert would be like, but how her life might change—who she would be—after her encounter with the Lizard King.

Cheryl smoked pot infrequently but on one occasion, seeking a break from the ceaseless rehearsing, she got seriously stoned and, listening to “Break On Through” (to the other side) on headphones, was pulled into the shadows where Jim peered with godlike omniscience into the most private corners of her longing and filled every weeping

emptiness, every taboo and animal lust with overflowing satiation. Every molecule of her being was glutted with drowning passion until even her immortal soul cried out for mercy.

On March 1, 1969, at a near-riot concert in Miami, Florida, the papers and TV news reported an even-more-than-usually drunken Jim Morrison exposed himself to twenty-thousand screaming kids. The concert at Carmichael Auditorium was immediately canceled.

The other girls in the house said what a shame. The other members of the band went to a cabin somewhere and got brutally wasted—one was hospitalized.

Cheryl went to Carmichael Auditorium sitting for a long time in her favorite seat looking at the empty, dark stage where there was nothing—nothing to be seen, imagined, postulated or anticipated. The stage at Carmichael, which had become the center of the universe, the destination of her life until that moment—was empty, silent. Death had come a third time to her life but now there was no bus she could get on and leave town. Once again she sat alone peering quietly into the abyss listening to Morrison’s music in her mind and remembering fully Nash’s—and her uncle’s words. Morrison’s hostile art, his angry genius, spoke for itself. His personal behavior, his  self destructiven lashing out fueled by hatred–how was that any different than what those morally diseased men did to her uncle?

Finally she left the building to walk back to the house. At the edge of the vast parking lot by the street, she recognized the bench she had rested on when she first hobbled into town many months before. She again lay down looking up at the midnight heavens—hoping to lose herself in the stars—trying to assess her American journey. She repeated to herself, some of the lyrics from “The End,”

“This is the end—my only friend, the end,

of our elaborate plans, the end.

I’ll never look into your eyes—again…”

For a moment she was 8 years old again and heard her uncle telling her where his love would be after death—“In the silence between heartbeats when all is well, in the darkness around you when times get tough.” She whispered his words to herself and, tears streaming down her cheeks, felt his love flowing around her on the soft Carolina breeze.

In the caring wisdom of her uncle finding its way to her through Graham Nash, she recognized truth—real love does not die, but the journey goes on. The only worthy goal is not something out there, but the journey itself and the love within, where all journeys of spirit begin and end.

She set aside the disappointment and sadness for a moment, letting the night sky fill her vision and heart.

The stars, in their beautiful, shining indifference, did not encourage her but they did light the way—they were doing their job. Her job was to live through the suffering of the moment and keep putting one foot in front of the other.

END 5TH INSTALLMENT AND END STORY

FacebookTwitterDeliciousGoogle GmailGoogle ReaderDiggShare

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge