After the late local news, I click aimlessly through channels, settling on one of those music specials that seem to universally signal pledgedrive, as if audiences, the PBS folks believe, can't possibly see and hear too many times the black-and-white Roy Orbison show, the Springsteen concert, the Johnny Cash tribute, or, and so much worse, the pudgy and forgotten stars of sixties pop, fifties doowop, Motown, or wherever. This one is new to me though, a made-for-the-BBC stage show hosted by the Rolling Stones, originally recorded, I've since found out, in December 1968. Guests include many of the usual suspects-Eric Clapton, The Who, John and Yoko, Marianne Faithful, Taj Mahal, Jethro Tull, and, of course, the Rolling Stones themselves. For some inexplicable reason, the audience has been decked out in orange or yellow slickers, so that they look more like a conclave of Tibetan monks-or maybe monastery dropouts-than the clowns or acrobats that might be expected in keeping with the show's Rock-and-Roll Circus theme.
The appearance of John Lennon's "supergroup," featuring Yoko Ono's diagnostic performance-art keening, is a sure sign that the lordly Beatles were already just about gone, never to honor the nearly constant calls for their restoration. Marianne Faithful was picking up a hint of the voice-of-the-already-damned edge she achieves on Broken English. Mick Jagger looked, if not handsome, at least young. Keith Richard-his name would have been without the terminal s at the time-echoed the crowd in bizarre orange vertically-striped pants. Brian Jones was there, though the Circus proved to be his last public performance. The Stones played numbers like "No Expectations" and "You Can't Always Get What You Want." Beggar's Banquet had already been released; Let It Bleed and their masterpiece, Exile on Main Street, would be their next studio albums. They were, in short, entering the period of their greatest glory, when they took on their own version of the abdicated Beatles' crown. But the Stones were not the Beatles. Their evocation of American rhythm-and-blues was paradoxically both more deeply felt and more studied. They brought a tough, weedy quality to the flower power generation. In all likelihood, they weren't especially nice. But they had "been there." They had a depth of soul that enabled them to flourish through times of disappointment, or maybe they simply lacked the Bobby Kennedy imagination required to see the world as anything but what it was. If love, as it turns out, is not all we need, then we all surely need someone we can bleed on. Though they would never match the boys from Liverpool in breadth of appeal or originality, they were soon to be universally recognized as "The World's Greatest Rock-and-Roll Band."
I saw the Stones three times in the late seventies and early eighties, during the height of my own "rock-and-roll age." Sometimes I still play that music, though it's an indulgence I don't always want. I have no desire to become a creature of the past. I've got no expectations, after all, to pass through there again. I don't have a CD of Exile though I've considered buying one on many occasions. Maybe I already have it pretty much memorized, maybe it really wouldn't sound as good without the scratches. I still have the vinyl, but can't do anything with it because the cats chewed through the turntable cord and I haven't gotten around to fixing it. The only Stones music I have on CD is a greatest hits compilation my son gave me. I'm listening to it now. Recently an undergraduate at a student art exhibit, assuming I would know, asked me what it was like to live with disillusionment over what happened to the sixties. So it goes.
By the time I got to the sixties, it was already the seventies. Like Boone Caudill in A. B. Guthrie's The Big Sky, who arrived at Fort Union, according to his Uncle Zeb, "ten year too late anyhow," I got there when it was all over. I was a sheltered kid from the suburbs. My sister had hit Beatlemania head on, but as she was four years older than me, her high school life was her own; until the end of the decade, I was still at St. John the Evangelist parish school, sporting my official school tie with the SJS logo in the middle. I had fallen, as it were, out of the loop. I remember hearing "Get Back" on a transistor radio and thinking so that's what they sound like now. Of course, like everyone else, I had seen television images of medics crouching, holding their helmets, hauling bloody stretchers toward helicopters angled just off the ground, and of long-haired youths my sister's age, bedraggled but smiling, holding flowers and flashing peace signs. I had no doubts about which picture represented the better way to live, and, it seemed, the inevitably dawning future. But all that happened far away from the Rochester suburbs, where I was busy playing neighborhood pickup baseball and, later, worrying if my hair was too long to get by without rebuke at my Catholic high school. Still, I guess I bought into what amounted to the core values of my childhood-creativity, response to nature, tolerance-things that seem so naïve today, that were already naïve in the seventies when Elvis Costello was singing "What's So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding."
I came to Brockport from the nearby Rochester suburbs "right out of high school" in the fall of 1973. Unlike the amorphous sprawl where I grew up, Brockport prided itself on being a "real" place, a village on the Erie Canal, the fabled waterway that was just then escaping into anachronistic romance by ditching the prosaic New York State Barge Canal moniker. Brockport was in some ways typical of such canalside villages. It had a corniced Victorian downtown, lift bridges, lots of shade trees, even a property that had somehow grandfathered in the right to keep a couple of horses. But it also had people like me, a demographic associated either directly or indirectly with the State College.
Brockport, probably along with lots of similar college towns, served more or less unintentionally as a kind of wildlife refuge for sixties people, whose habitat, with the end of the hated Vietnam War, was, ironically, dissipating. My arrival in Brockport was several years after the Rock-and-Roll Circus was recorded. After Woodstock, after Altamont. The heady atmosphere of that decade, full of positive transformation in the face of disaster, was soon to disappear altogether, sending the Aquarian Age's less adaptable denizens underground into hippie enclaves and cementing its aura into lingering informalities of language and attire; self-absorbed forms of faux spirituality and community; and, I suppose, the ghostly persistence of "classic rock" icons like Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, eventually John Lennon. The landmarks of this descent are now clear, culminating perhaps in the development of the compact disk, which left black vinyl and cardboard jackets obsolete, the music translated, remastered, deluged in outtakes, sometimes re-ordered into "best of" compilations, with album cover art and liner notes reduced in size and scope or eliminated altogether. The dawn of the CD might not comprise the day the music died, but it does mark the point when the music became middle-aged. And it goes without saying that the sixties generation was inseparable from its music. The Stones powered on, and still do, their faces growing more and more lithic, as if they were becoming their own name. Still a force to be sure, each album routinely characterized as their best in years. But they were selected as a safe choice for the Super Bowl halftime show following the Jackson-Timberlake affair, which must mean something I don't think I want to know. Other sixties groups, in the tradition of country singer Jim Reeves, built extended if somewhat ghoulish careers out of their endings. The Band, for example, made its own death the subject of a Martin Scorsese movie and a triple LP that eventually swelled into a four-CD set. And, of course, until 1980 the four Beatles had only to be in the same country to fuel rumors of a Phoenix-like rise from the ashes. Death itself proved no barrier for those anticipating the return of Jim Morrison.
I couldn't have known much of this when I started school at Brockport, ready to take my place in the uninhibited, creative life that seemed solidly in place as the legacy of the sixties revolution. I had no idea what my place would be, but finding out-personal development, if you will-was what education was all about. At first I commuted to classes, or at least to the Student Union, moving to campus a couple of years later when my parents sold their house and relocated to the far side of Rochester. For a time I was an indifferent student, cutting classes, experimenting in dilettante fashion with various majors. But in spite of my lack of dedication, I learned a few things I remember to this day, and met friends I still visit in Upstate New York. What I now see as my quintessential college experience, however, was squeezed into the few years between my return to Brockport in 1978 after a year in Rochester and my departure-for good-from Upstate New York in 1982. Since I was still in my twenties, those years seemed like, still seem like, a long time indeed.
All told, I had eight or nine successive Brockport addresses, the last and most definitive of which was a blue two-storey village house on Adams Street, a place that came to be known among a fair-sized group of Brockporters as "the Dada Hotel." The original Dada cast formed when my friend Keith, a wry, soft-spoken New York City transplant with an undergraduate degree from St. John's University, and I were looking for a place one August, our respective summer arrangements coming to a close. I don't recall exactly what I was doing that summer, but it seems in retrospect that I was mostly sitting on my porch waiting for visitors; Keith, on the other hand, appeared to be perpetually walking the village streets, headed to or from irregular shifts at the sub shop where he worked. It was, I'd guess, on the porch of my summer rental that we decided to look for an apartment for the school year, eventually throwing in our lot with two other students: Pat-athletic, spiritually-minded, a bit mercurial-and Kenny, who had been rooming with one of the town's few genuine communists, their floor littered from wall to wall with papers ranging from half-finished songs to drafts of flyers advertising political rallies. It all came together, so to speak, when we discovered an anthropology professor with a house, or at least most of a house, for rent. When she had tenants, Marjorie lived in an apartment in the back, sometimes with a son and/or a beautiful exotic-looking daughter, both of whom, I suppose, were in college or working in another town, visiting their mother when they had time off. The apartment was also home to a blind, superannuated rabbit that sat in its litter box all day but hopped out to deposit pellets on the surrounding floor. The family seemed to live in vague apprehension that the missing father, last seen somewhere in Africa, would emerge from wherever he was and repossess the furniture. Perhaps the prospect of additional eyes around the place made trusting the house to college students more palatable. For whatever reason, Marjorie was willing to put up with the late night rock-and-roll carousing of the Dada with only an occasional complaint about noise, after which we'd try sincerely but mostly ineffectually to lower the volume of our late night gatherings. The son did take exception when our nomadic friend Matt started getting mail at the house without being an official renter, but we could hardly blame the young man, probably close to our own age, for looking out for his mother's interests. We fed the rabbit when the family was away, and our relations remained generally good. Once we invited Marjorie downstairs for dinner, which went well enough, though we had to cut paper towels at the last minute when we realized we had no napkins and just two sheets left on our roll.
I don't remember how, but I managed to grab the best digs in the house, a large upstairs bedroom at the front end of a long hall. I had three windows, and best of all, a small nook suitable for a writing desk. (Evidently I wasn't the only one who found my secluded quarters desirable. During one kitchen conversation, a question somehow arose concerning who had experienced sex in my room. I was surprised, though only momentarily so, to see hands shoot up from every one of the six or seven people present). Keith's room was near the top of the stairs. A door to Marjorie's apartment was at the back end of the hall. Downstairs, Pat had a bedroom off the kitchen. Kenny's room was the "sun porch," hard by the front door, separated only by a suspended blanket from an entryway that led to the living room. He maintained his cheerful disposition with virtually no privacy and no shelter from the stereo, often blasting to the best of its ability the dulcet tones of, say, Bob Dylan singing "Queen Jane Approximately." In fact, Kenny was known to come dancing out of his room when the music woke him up, wearing the torn black pajamas that doubled as the stage clothes he donned to sing with the Party Dogs. But more on that later.
One of the "power nodes" of the Dada was the living room, furnished only with our poor excuse for a stereo, records leaned against a wall, a lamp or two, a television, and the obligatory sofa. I don't remember much about the sofa, probably because all Brockport living rooms were equipped with such a couch. I couldn't tell you what color it was-maybe a faded green-but it was almost certainly a swayback affair, with a hollow in the middle reflecting years of service in the cause of student housing. Long enough to accommodate three, sometimes four, people, the couch was stationed against the far wall from the front door, in a corner where a recessed fireplace created a kind of alcove. When you walked through the entryway, past the sun porch and into the living room, the sofa was the first visual indicator of the energy the house was sponsoring at that moment. Sometimes the couch would be empty, a bit forlorn but also restful, a reminder that the house predated us; with luck, it would outlast its stint as the Dada Hotel. On a Saturday afternoon, one or two of us might sprawl listlessly before the smallscreen black-and-white TV coaxed by a coat hanger or a makeshift bow-tie antenna into providing an old movie or Big East basketball game. If it was late at night, a small party was likely to be grouped around the couch, leaning into the music which we were really trying, after all, to keep at a reasonable volume. We might be listening to the Stones, or maybe The Basement Tapes, or maybe even the Party Dogs demo.
The real center of house energy was the kitchen table, a high island affair surrounded by standard wood-finish cabinets, linoleum counters, and the requisite appliances. In the morning there would be coffee, later beer, and always cigarettes. It was quite possible to spend an entire day, continuing well into the evening, around that table. Occasionally, our "pet" mouse would emerge from a stove burner and circuit the counters, disappearing at another convenient mouse portal. Once or twice we even set up an obstacle course with a reward at the end, though the mouse's appearances were too unpredictable to plan for. During the latter Dada days, the mouse was trapped by Tim, a fastidious newcomer who had replaced Kenny; this action was seen as a kind of betrayal of the spirit of the house, and Tim's tenure turned out to be brief, his departure more an acknowledgment of incompatibility than the result of bad blood, which wouldn't have been in keeping with the Dada's anything-goes atmosphere.
All four of the original Dada residents were writers. SUNY-Brockport had a respectable creative writing program-through the MA level-that we thought didn't get the credit it deserved. This, of course, provided an outsider frisson that made it even better. Not that the program had gone completely without notice. An endorsement by Archibald MacLeish proliferated ubiquitously throughout the college publicity materials, an excerpt appearing even today as an epigraph for the village website's portrait of Brockport life in 1979. But with New York City at the other end of the state, Rochester, much less Brockport, was at a distinct disadvantage as a cultural center, a situation emphasized by the dismissive attitudes of many students from the city and Long Island who found their way to the college because it was both in-state and far away from home. In New York State, there's always some tension between Upstate and Downstate interests; colorful New York City mayor Ed Koch's 1982 bid for governor was derailed when he made derogatory comments about Upstate farmers. The other, related, background tension in Brockport was the unavoidable conflict between college people and "townies," the predictable result of subjecting a dependant local population to a transient, careless student body. As a "non-townie" local from Rochester, I was perhaps less attuned to that particular conflict, though I knew it was there. Neither tension was more than a minor annoyance, and no demagogue arose to fan the resentments into hatred. I had many friends from Downstate, and visited New York City myself several times during those years, to this day my only first-hand experience of the city, except for airport layovers. A fair chunk of what I know about life in New York, I suppose, was gathered in conversations that took place in Brockport.
Poetry-Deep Image poetry specifically-was coin of the realm. We were surrealistic pastoralists by day, rock-and-roll partiers by night. This may seem strange in retrospect, but we were basking in what was left of the penumbra of the sixties, before the Reagan revolution succeeded in branding as hokey any notion that nature had a spiritual energy vital to human creativity and happiness. Our tastes and aesthetic backgrounds weren't identical. Kenny, for example, brought to Brockport a sensibility forged by the Beats and by other counterculture movements with which he had had some measure of first-hand experience, and Keith, with his St. John's degree, was more well-versed in the work of canonical European literary influences ranging from Aesop to Chekhov. But if you leaf through a copy of The Brockport Review, our student literary magazine, it's pretty obvious that there was a "Brockport style" shaped in the image of Robert Bly and James Wright.
Those Brockport years were my one and only experience of being part of a "scene." Life was vivid. We borrowed typewriters, edited magazines, talked until far in the night, even occasionally gathered in candlelit rooms to read and listen to each other's poems. Kenny and a friend created a tabloid, receiving the obligatory submissions from Lyn Lifshin-then the most published poet in America-almost before the periodical got beyond the sitting-on-the-couch planning phase. My friend Tony enlisted me in the formation of a small press. We published several poetry chapbooks and broadsides (the broadsides were my department). The press, in fact, is still in operation, without me, as Mammoth Books, a gag name for a tiny concern, but inspired by a hair from a recently-thawed woolly mammoth exchanged as a gift between the college and Russian poet Andrei Voznesenski, though I'm not certain who gave it to whom. I vaguely remember it being presented to Voznesenski, though it seems more logical that it would be the other way around, as mammoths are much more likely to emerge from the snows of Siberia than the countryside of Upstate New York (mastodons, on the other hand, are an Upstate specialty).
Of course, as these things go for young people in a basically undemanding college environment, we wasted lots of time, with more thinking about books, talking about books, than actually reading them. Time for that later. But there was creativity. Poems and songs were written. Kenny came up with a novel. We did enough work to maintain something like the hopes of our professors, most of whom trailed their own long histories of accomplishments and, perhaps, dissolution. We believed in our teachers for the most part, considered them mentors, though we knew some of them to be at times petty, sexist, judgmental. Kenny, particularly, was often singled out, even feared, for his pro-technology, antipastoral sensibility. And female students had to "prove themselves" in a male-dominated milieu punctuated by stereotypes-one faculty member told me that he thought most women, necessarily more conscious of their socioeconomic status, had yet to reach the higher stages of mystical awareness that characterized the greatest poetry-and of a male-oriented social milieu of poker nights and smoky bars. What strikes me now as remarkable is that the women among us were generous enough to put up with it all and perceptive enough to see that our mentors, despite their faults, had much to offer young writers regardless of gender.
Although neither we nor our teachers would have appreciated or understood the comparison, like the Stones the Brockport faculty had a range of life experience that far exceeded our own. They had been there, and we knew it, and most had even met with at least some degree of recognition beyond backwater Brockport. There was Bill Heyen, whose book jackets proclaimed him one of the major young poets of his generation. A Long Islander by birth who had been a soccer star as a Brockport undergraduate, he was a commanding reader who could electrify a classroom through sheer force of personality. Tony Piccione, not to be confused with the Tony of Mammoth Books, was gruff but infinitely patient, and taught all of us a way into poetry. He lived in a farmhouse outside of town, and was, despite his girth, a formidable racquetball player. His was the first doctoral dissertation completed on Robert Bly. While he methodically built a reputation as a poet, publisher, anthologist, and translator, Al Poulin's cynical wit kept the romanticism of the others in check. Versatile, open-minded, hard-working, genuinely humble, Stan Rubin, the story went, had turned down a chair at Columbia to be with us. He had so many admirable qualities that one of my friends used to say that if he ever had kids, he wanted them to be just like Stan Rubin. The four of them divvied up the poetry workshops. Fiction was handled by Stan and by Gregory Fitz Gerald, who walked with a limp, wore ascot ties, and endowed a cash-award student fiction contest that Kenny won after agreeing in advance to split the prize with myself, Keith, and someone else-Tony maybe-a gesture reflecting solidarity and our confidence that one of us was likely to win. In 1967, Fitz Gerald had founded the Brockport Writers' Forum, a reading series that spawned a library of videotaped interviews frequently shown in our classes and still considered a major resource of its kind today. There were other influences-literature professors, summer workshop leaders, the college in general. And the most ubiquitous influence on any of us, I suppose, was each other. The sense of community among students was deeper and more sincere than in any other academic environment I've been a part of. We may have been distracted, lazy, immature, a shade arrogant, but we knew that we belonged.
Except for me, the Dadas were also musicians. Eventually, there was a band, the Party Dogs-named for a cheap brand of frankfurter-which pretty much was Brockport's local Punk/New Age scene, and which eventually evolved into the Bulus, a respectable component of the bigger and considerably more urban, if just as complacent, live music community in Rochester. The Rochester BandWEB, chronicling the history of the city's rock groups since the seventies, calls the Bulus a "seminal Brockport NY band."
The Party Dogs had an easier time getting gigs in bars than they did finding a place to practice in the residential village, so each performance was an adventure. And the equipment was-well, not exactly what the Rolling Stones would use. The Dogs played original material-songs with titles like "Romping through the Jungle" and "Glad Handed"-mixed with the occasional cover. Pat was the drummer, the "human metronome" as a poster once proclaimed him for his ability to maintain a relentless beat. Matt, a homegrown punker from the lake plain countryside northwest of town, played lead guitar and sang versions of "Wild Thing" and Lou Reed's "Vicious," though he never sang and played at the same time. Hughie, whose musical sensibility was quite different but whom everyone liked, played bass. Except for Matt's trademark covers, Kenny was the lead singer, stalking ungracefully about in his black pajamas, all scruffy, spontaneous energy laced with irreverent wit. At one show, after Kenny introduced the band members someone in the audience shouted "Who are you?" Kenny's response was a too-good-natured-to-be-called- a-sneer smile, and one word: "Hinckley!" the name of the would-be Reagan assassin. At the end of each performance, everyone exchanged instruments for a version of Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night" culminating in "to do is to be / to be is to do / dooby dooby dooby dooby dooby dooby do / Jean Paul Sartre is dead." Of course, you had to be there.
Sometimes the Dogs were joined onstage by friends. Keith played harmonica and sang, allowing the group to incorporate a more traditional bluesy sound, and even occasionally to evoke the spirit of the legendary Grateful Dead, Brockport's favorite sixties band. Quashi was a professional Nigerian percussionist who, it was said, had played with the likes of B. B. King and Stevie Wonder, but who was stranded in Brockport after falling out with a mentor he had followed there; he had a set of congas with him, and a legendary roomful of instruments he couldn't get to somewhere in Germany. He had adopted an English name-Geoffrey Chaucer-and sat in with the Dogs. I sometimes acted as manager, which gave me something to do even though I possessed none of the background or business savvy that went with the position. I put up posters, worked the door, and parceled out what little money was in the kitty, occasionally slipping a few extra dollars to Quashi to keep him reasonably happy, considering.
Brockport was a walking town, at least for us, since none of the Dadas and few of our village friends had cars. Hughie had a VW Beetle. Alone among Party Dogs, he also had a genuine dog, a skinny lab mix named Evelyn-after the dog in the Frank Zappa song-he had inherited from a former girlfriend. I knew Evelyn before I met Hughie. Since animals were so scarce in our lives (well, there was the rabbit), I was never sure which one of them it was that I was happier to see, and I made sure that Evelyn got a bowl of water as quickly as Hughie got a beer. But Evelyn usually showed up during the day. Most nights, unless we had visitors from Rochester, if we wanted to go somewhere (which we almost certainly did), we, including Hughie, walked, and walked home later in whatever state we happened to be in.
Typically, early evenings at the Dada were quiet. Except for occasional days when we stayed at the kitchen table through dinner, it was rare for all or even most of us to be home. After eleven, heading off from wherever we were, we hit the myriad bars in town, returning at two a.m. with a six-pack, maybe several, of the cheapest brew and whatever eclectic mix of friends, stragglers, hangers-on, overnight visitors from out-of-town, etc, we happened to find ourselves among. The Dada would spring to life, quietly we hoped, with music; smoky blazes in the fireplace fed only by newspaper and six-pack cartons; more conversation, albeit somewhat disjointed and confused.
Imagine it's a typical night in, say, 1981. Let's make it a Wednesday, right around eleven (except for Pat, who pulls bent spoons out of garbage disposals for an apartment super, most mornings we can afford to sleep in). A left at the sidewalk leads us toward downtown. We might be with Keith, or maybe Matt, who spends almost as much time at the Dada as those of us who live there. Just as likely though, it's only me, along with the fictional you in this case. It's a scene, after all, and we'll find each other. The journey of a few blocks follows a familiar route, but that doesn't mean that it's without a tingle of anticipation. We might first look in at the Rox-the Roxbury Inn that is-a dank, sticky cavern quarried out of a house that had once belonged to a United States ambassador. Vaguely suggesting the grand diplomatic hallways of the past, the entry is lined with polished columns, looking almost passable in the murky darkness. Directly ahead of us is a claustrophobic corridor leading to equally cramped bathrooms. The bar is to the right, to the left a large high-ceilinged room partially divided into front and back sections. One winter night in that room, at a heavy, round, graffiti-etched wooden table, probably that one over there in the front corner, I was sitting with a fellow student, a woman with whom I was spending a prodigious amount of time-mostly sitting at tables-when it occurred to us that the music had shifted to a long unbroken set of Beatles songs. Then Kenny was there, a stunned look on his face. That was December 8, 1980, the night John Lennon was killed in New York.
But this is a different night, and it's the Rox itself that's dead, so we head downtown, passing the Brockport Diner where we might have eaten supper a few hours earlier. Every so often, we brush by a small group of students wandering, as we are, from night spot to night spot. Perhaps we should try-we usually do-Jim Higgins' taproom, newly renamed Priority One in a half-hearted attempt at hipness. The Dogs play here, at the stage end of an undecorated hall furnished with two widely spaced rows of cafeteria-style tables and separated from the bar by a paneled wall with window cutouts. Tonight stage and tables are empty, leaving a few barstool patrons and the barkeep, a bald argumentative fellow with a withered arm. He owns the place, but he isn't Jim Higgins. I don't remember his name.
Two or three doors down from Higgins' is Barber's-on the corner, everyday lighting, tin roof. With its greasy pancake-like burgers, it might be a quiet neighborhood after-work pub, and it probably was at one time. But now, patrons pack the aisle between stools and booths, and jockey for the attention of a couple of harried bartenders stationed behind glass-decanter taps placed soda-fountain style at the front of the bar. There, across the aisle on a booth table, sit a pitcher of beer and a scatter of cigarette packs open for everyone, surrounded already with earnest talk about classes, poets, music, dance, occasionally politics or sports. The night has begun.
If, still maintaining the illusion that it's 1981, we take the same walk downtown in daytime, we can get a better sense of the lay of the village as it was in the days of the Dada. If it happens to be spring, our walk will be punctuated by the sound of passing geese, in summer cardinals and, maybe, a wood thrush fluting from somewhere in the deep light-transmuting green of northeastern hardwoods. If it's autumn, the same shade trees will be in high color, mostly an explosive yellow. If we are walking at noon on a clear January day, the sidewalk will be icy, the yards bright with snow. Most likely, though, it's between seasons, the sky an even gray, the air cool with a hint of rain. As we did last night, we turn left from the Dada, walk up Adams, then turn left again on Main-Route 19. We're heading north, with the here-gentle rise of the Niagara Escarpment behind us. Lake Ontario is about a dozen flat, apple orchard miles ahead. We pass under the railroad bridge; if you look back, you can see "Lionel" painted in convincing white model-train-set stencil letters. Then past the convenience store, then the Rox. No point in stopping there. The door's just open to air the place out so it won't smell quite so much like stale beer tonight, at least at first.
The traffic signal at Main and Erie (which changes to State Street east of Main) marks the beginning of the two-block downtown, with the Brockport Diner on the left and the art deco movie theatre kitty-corner across the intersection. This is one of few junctions in town where the roads on either side of Main line up without a jag, the local legend explaining that Brockway and Seymour, the village founders, didn't get along. Seymour's mansion on State is still in good shape, but the Brockway house a few blocks to the west is semi-abandoned, many of its windows boarded up.
The light happens to be green, so we might as well cross here, our destination of the moment the Lift Bridge bookstore. The Lift Bridge's bread and butter is its role as an alternate textbook supplier, but there's also a splendid poetry section with books by all our profs and guest writers, lots of limited editions, even Mammoth productions. After checking for anything new in stock-maybe a small-press chapbook of Lucien Stryk's Issa translations or a new release from Poulin's BOA editions-and inevitably pausing to compare notes with whoever else is browsing the poetry section, we continue our walk, glancing across the street at Higgins' and Barber's, until we pass the ice cream shop and reach the north end of downtown, just before the bridge. There's not much of interest on the other side, so, following an iron railing, we descend a few stairs to a kind of sidewalk by the canal, really just a landing for the building's fire escape. That's where, sitting on a concrete wall close against the green water one summer afternoon, the two Tonys and I hatched a scheme to drive down to Juarez, snag a letter press, and bring it back north. Piccione knew where presses could be had cheap, at least when he was an undergraduate in El Paso. Of course, we'd have had to get to Juarez, which is probably why we never did it.
The Erie Canal at Brockport was mostly abandoned, and for half the year sat empty, reduced to a muddy ditch. The municipal government saw the hollow channel as a convenient place to dump truckloads of snow after winter storms. But each spring the canal would spend a day or two refilling in preparation for the occasional stray boatload of tourists reenacting the historic journey from Albany to Buffalo. In addition to the lift bridge on Main, there was another a block away on Park Avenue. When a motorboat or cabin cruiser did show up, an attendant perched in a "control tower" would raise one bridge, then jump in his car and drive over to raise the other before the boat arrived, reversing the trip to lower the bridges after it passed.
The old towpath was a pleasant place to walk, its buffer of thickets and shrubby trees providing something like a village park, home to cottontails and cedar waxwings. Going west from downtown, the path led to a lawn in front of the college dormitories that was used for sunbathing and frisbee games. There a guard gate protected the village from unruly pulses in the narrow channel during times of flood or when the canal was being filled or drained. If the gate was raised, you could climb a ladder and catwalk across to the other side, though the top of the gate was exposed and sometimes windy. The elevated walkway was the best place in town to watch the stars. One autumn night, I sat with my back against the iron frame for as long as I could stand the cold while northern lights played across the sky.
Between semesters and especially during summer, Brockport, being a college town, emptied out, and those of us who stayed all year thought we had a special claim on the place, as if fidelity made us honorary townies. During one of these quiet periods, my friend Charlie, who read Carlos Castaneda and was much given to "adventures," and I got into the habit of climbing fire escapes to the flattop downtown roofs to peer over the cornices at the nighttime panorama of empty sidewalks and closed shops. This gave us a perspective that, we thought, even few real townies had experienced. Eventually, we found a ladder that led through a well-like opening into abandoned sections of the upper stories. Inside were decades-old newspapers, shriveled apples, a bedspring-a veritable rustic hobo jungle. Then one night I opened a sliding door and found myself inside the backroom storage area of a shoe store. After that, we stayed away from the rooftops. When perspective was wanted, I would settle instead for the view from a downtown corner apartment rented by one of our friends, the editor of The Brockport Review . That's where two distinguished, elderly Chinese writers visiting campus ended up spending the night after finding themselves accidentally locked out of their motel room with no desk clerk on duty; not to worry, they explained, during the Cultural Revolution they had had to sleep "in a dung hill."
Somewhere on those flat roofs, nighthawks nested; on early summer evenings they coursed the canal, their Tuvan calls filling hollow spaces in the solstice twilight. For mysterious reasons, their population had plummeted all across the Northeast. Mary Oliver, conducting a summer poetry workshop with Stan Rubin one year, commented on their presence. Maybe they had vanished from around her home in Provincetown. Maybe she sensed that they, like us, were refugees of a gentler, more sustaining set of circumstances that was in the process of unraveling elsewhere.
It's hard for even me to believe, but I can still recall Mary Oliver's comment about nighthawks, made in passing one summer afternoon almost thirty years ago. Yet other Brockport conversations, including a few that went, well, not where I would have chosen, are still so vivid in memory that I can replay them in their entirety-almost-even if they no longer seem especially momentous. But memory finds them, always, in their own time. If something was left hanging, it's still unfinished, like a figure on a flawed urn a Greek potter tossed in his dustbin before it could be beheld by Keats. The unresolved relationships, the intense, ephemeral friendships that slipped away, were and remain an inexorable part of the scene.
Every so often, Bill Heyen would bring out his collection of what he called "the real rock 'n roll" recordings-songs like "She Cried" by Jay and the Americans-from the pre-Beatles sixties, from, I suppose, his own Brockport student days. At such times, he'd listen with an odd blend of ecstasy, melancholy, and ironic humor. He had taken a job at his undergraduate college, and had brought Tony Piccione, whom he'd met in graduate school at Ohio University, with him. Though he's since retired, as far as I know he still lives in Brockport, a place that must by now be haunted by geological layers of loose ends. If you can deal with it, says a Party Dogs song, you can live forever. "Insects, why cry?" says Issa, "We all go that way."
Those of us who called the Dada home were not consciously anachronistic. We were too young to adopt the "halcyon sixties" attitude portrayed ambivalently a few years later in The Big Chill. We weren't displaced hippies, though there certainly were such people among our acquaintances. But we might spend a whole week listening to a rediscovered copy of The Basement Tapes, and a new release by a long-standing talent like the Stones was a cause for celebration. Kenny played David Bowie's Scary Monsters over and over for days, focusing on each song until he thought it had become part of him. Though an old hand, Bowie was always changing, and such open-minded movement was an important component of our understanding of intellectual and spiritual life. Rochester was close enough to New York City to occasionally attract bands-the Cramps, the Ramones-that would more typically be found at CBGBs or the Mud Club. We caught concerts when we could afford to, and not uncommonly an LP by the Clash or the Talking Heads made its way onto the Dada turntable. For someone who grew up with the music of the Beatles and the Stones, the Punk and New Wave acts were, in a sense, traditionalists, trying to recapture the creativity and excitement of the British Invasion. If the Fab Four couldn't be reunited, perhaps they could be reinvented. Welcome the Party Dogs.
In a way, we were like less self-conscious, less monumental versions of World War One Modernists; aware on some level that we were at the tail end of what we took to be the normal state of human culture, we lived among the fragments, making them new as best we could. Even Brockport's favorite poets-Galway Kinnell, James Wright-had gained their greatest acclaim in the late sixties and early seventies. Kenny once told me he had trouble reading anything written before 1990-it was 1980 at the time-but Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Leary held places in his pantheon, and he would later write glowingly about life in the "shadow" of the sixties counterculture. Of course, things look different from today's vantage point: futuristic optimism isn't what it used to be. In retrospect, Kenny's faith in the progressive evolution of the human intellect seems a bit, well, quaint-perhaps even to him-like a more profound, brainier version of Star Trek utopianism. I can't remember the last time I heard anyone who wasn't selling something talk about how great the future looks.
And what did happen to the sixties? The generally accepted answer, of course, is the seventies, when sixties people grew up, had children, gradually morphed, like Jerry Rubin, into responsible adults, giving up their shallow ideals and recognizing that the pursuit of wealth and status constituted an acknowledgment of reality. But for me, since so much of my sixties happened during the seventies, a better answer would be the eighties, which saw the repudiation of much that I had taken for granted. In 1986, I started teaching composition classes as a graduate student at Purdue, after having been away from the academic environment for several years. It was when I saw how eagerly and proudly my students decked themselves in corporate logos on their way to their future cubicles that I realized that the world, my world anyway, had changed.
I'd like to think that American society naturally swings between liberal and conservative poles, each correcting the excesses of the other, but with the general direction revealing a progressive tilt when measured across decades or centuries. I can picture a sixties conservative-let's say my eighth grade teacher, who seemed like a genuinely decent man with sincerely held right-wing beliefs-holding his breath and waiting for the country to come to its senses, and I can accept that it's now my turn to do the same. This morning, walking to my office, I passed a truck with a bumper sticker proclaiming the owner a "proud member of the vast right-wing conspiracy." I can see that as a gesture not essentially different from the flower power slogans that popped up everywhere during the Vietnam War. It means that the bearer of such a message is with the flow, or, as the expression went, "where it's at." And if time waits for no one, than it also follows that time is on my side, that the pendulum is bound to swing back one of these days.
But the current rightward tilt has lasted for more than a quarter century, and, despite the art student's question, I really haven't been spending all those years lamenting the societal failures of politics past. Frankly, I'm more worried about the present. As for the future, the saving grace there is that no one really knows what will happen; even the most educated guess is likely to be wrong. What does seem safe to say is that each of our lives is moving toward something we might as well call completion, in which case if I have things to do, I'd better find out what they are and do them. Outside it's spring in Billings, Montana, a late snowfall melting in the bright sunshine, and the first thing I have to do is turn off the CD player and take my dog for a walk.
It is, after all, pointless to regret the false steps and missed opportunities of one's youth. Keith and I agreed on that, a few years ago, sitting at a patio table outside the community college writing lab where he works, watching Orlando traffic back up on the interstate in the distance. We hadn't seen each other for over two decades. Until he told me in an e-mail that he lived just an hour away from my home in Lakeland, I thought he was teaching English someplace in Asia. I had kept in regular if infrequent touch with Pat, who had moved to Rochester after leaving the Dada. I knew that Kenny had become something like famous in California under a nom de plume, or alter ego as the case may be.
Pat's marriage, as it turned out, was the beginning of the end of the Dada days. Kenny left about then too, Keith shortly after. I guess I must have been the last of the originals to move on. My Rochester friend Glenn took Pat's old room, beginning a succession of others-fussy Tim in place of messy Kenny; a couple of nice enough Long Islanders; Jamie, who suffered from what his brother Matt called a "bad brain," sending him sometimes to jail, sometimes to the Abbey of the Genesee, sometimes just into a haze of marijuana smoke and Marty Robbins records, eventually to suicide. A couple of years after our Florida reunion, Keith and I saw Kenny read from his recently released book at a New Age store-"your headquarters for occult gifts"-in Tampa's Ybor City, the closest we've come to a Beatlesesque reunion. He signed my copy of the book "All hail Party Dogs!"
Kenny has, for the most part, stayed on the West Coast, where he helped usher in the "cyberculture" of the nineties, editing a magazine that bears an obscure but generally acknowledged relationship to Wired . He appeared on Donahue and Nightline, discussing, I think, virtual reality, and has even run for President. He wasn't on the ballot in my state-or any other, for that matter-but, all things being equal, he'd have had my vote. Pat made a career teaching in Rochester schools, starting by substituting at the city's toughest buildings. Over the years, he has earned a reputation as, according to BandWEB , " a stalwart of the Rochester scene." The demo he put together around 1990 to showcase his lyrics features a cross-section of area talent appropriate to the range-from country blues to pop to rock-of the songs themselves. One of his sons is a well-regarded Rochester rapper with CDs of his own. Keith is still in Orlando, having returned stateside from Saipan so his son and daughter could experience the world beyond the island. After a spring training baseball game, he fired off some observations to an old friend who writes a sports column for the New York Daily News, and since then he's been a kind of informal on-the-scene correspondent whose annual observations are, no doubt, enjoyed by millions of readers. Last summer, I moved from Florida to Montana; I've lived in ten states all told, looking for that home I hoped I'd find. And I've moved closer to some things with older and more resonant claims on my soul than any "scene," spending long days outdoors in the open air for one. Though I can't claim to be a systematic scholar, I've even gotten around to reading at least a few of those books we used to mostly talk about. Not enough, though, never enough. Lost time is not found again.
The house on Adams Street in Brockport has been repainted a somber deep brown. My guess is that no one currently associated with it has any inkling that it was once the Dada Hotel. The village has become something of a historic site, the canal having caught on as at least a minor tourist attraction. With sidewalk tables where we planned our letter-press raid on Juarez and a new dockside visitors' center, a spruced up Brockport, proclaiming itself "the Victorian Village on the Erie Canal," caters to pleasure boaters as well as college students.
Most of our professors are at least retired with emeritus status. The never-healthy Al Poulin died young, and Tony Piccione wasn't much older when he too passed away. Stan Rubin directs a low-residency MFA program in Washington State. Despite the inevitable changes, Brockport's creative writing program, staffed by new and undoubtedly capable people, is still a going concern. I suppose today's students must have a kind of historic familiarity with Poulin, Piccione and the others-look at their hair, the way they dress!-from watching Writers' Forum interviews now and again in their classes.
Like I say, I don't dwell on the past. Or maybe I do. I've found myself writing essays about growing up in Rochester, about leaving Upstate New York. I know that the Brockport years were as important, formative even, as anything that came before or since. But unlike other times, Brockport claws at an edge; reliving those years is vaguely painful in ways that, maybe, I'm just beginning to understand. It's a familiar enough story, something to do with being young, with struggling to come to grips with who I was, and maybe who I was not. I don't know if anyone could live through their twenties without garnering a complicated collection of losses, not the least of which is that one is no longer there. If I think of my past as a series of boxes, the Brockport box is the hardest to open, even though, for one brief shining moment, I was part of a scene. And that really meant something then. Or maybe it didn't, and maybe I wasn't, and maybe the part of me that still lives in that box is really regretting that the Age of Aquarius pulled away like a bus named Further with my younger self a commuter running futilely behind and my older self waiting like a character in Ghost World for its return. Or maybe that me is still wishing I had had the guts to ask so-and-so to come back to the Dada Hotel, or that I had or hadn't said or done this or that on one of those nights I can still so clearly envision. You can't always get what you want, especially if it's already gone.
The third time I saw the Rolling Stones was at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, a couple of hours west of Brockport on the New York State thruway. I was with Pat, his brother-in-law Jack, and someone else. Maybe two someones. We ate at a Lebanese fast-food restaurant that played bizarre Middle Eastern muzak versions of Beatles songs. We were, I remember, strangely disconcerted by the city, perhaps because Brockport had become so much our world. I went to Rochester fairly often to spend time with my family and older friends, but somehow Syracuse, which really isn't all that different from Rochester, seemed cold, impersonal, artificial, that day. As individuals, we functioned in various environments, but as the Dadas, we belonged, it seemed, in Brockport.
At the concert we had to roam the grandstands to find a spot where Pat could see Charlie Watts; I think we ended up sitting in a stairway, at least until the staff made us move. By that point in their lives the Stones were unassailably themselves, ranging across a suitably outrageous stage set, replete with oversized, suggestively angled, unapologetically adolescent phallic guitars. The Glimmer Twins were newly wireless, and relished the freedom with cherry pickers and runways. But more than that, they were comfortable enough to wander freely through their last decade and a half, even playing "Satisfaction," which Jagger had famously said he hoped not to be singing when he was middle-aged. That night the Stones played like the World's Greatest Rock-and-Roll Band, and I was confident at the time that I could say that, having seen a pretty fair sampling of the best. But I've never seen the Stones again.
I play other music, read newer (and sometimes older) poems. My son in California tells me he's been listening to The Basement Tapes, and I have too. I still buy each new Dylan album, maybe because he has allowed growing old to be as important as being young. Alternatively, the Band, like the Beatles, found a paradoxical immortality set in time, unlike the less fortunate performers doomed to the eternal twilight of the PBS special. As for the Rolling Stones, they've been around too long to be reunited as a maudlin nostalgia act. They'll play "Satisfaction," "You Can't Always Get What You Want," "Jumpin' Jack Flash." They'll play them all, new songs too, because that's what they do, because in rehearsal someone will say "let's do that one," and someone else will say "yeah, let's." Determination and perseverance, which they must have swallowed whole along with the vocal stylings and instrumental licks of people like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, are their greatest gifts. And even if I usually let their records rest on the shelf, it's nice to know that the Stones are still out there. In fact, I might say, quoting a Party Dogs lyric, it's a groove.