Meanwhile, the heroes of the 60th precinct are bashing in the head of the official band photographer who has innocently wandered beyond the barricades, much to the consternation of the lead guitarist who pleads for less brutality. This man is obviously not familiar with Brooklyn…. “
by mike morgan
This cop is standing on the corner of Union Street and Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn one morning and a truck rolls up at the red light with a gaggle of penguins herded onto the open flat-bed in the back. The copper pulls the driver over. “What’s all this then?” he demands.
“They’re penguins. I’m taking them to the zoo.”
The policeman reads him the riot act, rattling off ordinances prohibiting the transport of wildlife in an urban area without the proper papers. He issues the truck driver a stern warning and finishes off with “I don’t care what you do, just take them somewhere else.”
The next day, the same officer is standing on the same corner when the same truck trundles by. This time, the penguins are all donning Ray-Ban shades and clutching rainbow-striped towels. He again forces the vehicle to the curb.
“I thought I told you to take these penguins somewhere else,” the angry cop bellows.
“I am,” replies the truck driver. “Yesterday, I took them to the zoo. Today, I’m taking them to the beach.”
I have never been much of a beach person, despite growing up in Durban, South Africa, considered by the Hang Ten devotees as a surfer’s paradise. The surfing community in Durban left little to be desired back then. They were a true tribe, exclusively white, snobbish in their treatment of the non-surfers, exuding ownership of the sand and the sea. They talked an in-bred gibberish language, replete with words and phrases like “stoked,” “wave-hog,” “bummer,” “strue Bob” (meaning “I shit you not”), “wipe-out,” “dude” (before that term enjoyed a rebirth amongst hipsters some twenty years later), “waxin’ up,” “you shoulda been here yesterday, man” (reserved for the stoned ones), “howzit, my bra” (how are you, my brother) and “ho-dad.” The surfers mostly rode Yamaha, Suzuki or Honda street-scrambler motorcycles, single-pot bikes that made a whole lot of noise and flashed plenty of rubber tread, and they would wheelie and rev-up on the dunes, clad in their baggies and flip-flops, babbling on in their foreign lingo which only fellow tribal members could comprehend. They were an all-together obnoxious lot, primarily the offspring of rich suburbanites, and they acted under the self-delusion that they were walking on the wild side, even though their behavior was tolerated by the police.
Thus it was a boost for morale during that endless summer of 1973 when the Johannesburg Hell’s Angels, another less obnoxious yet decisively more dangerous and genuine outlaw clan who were hated by the police, stormed into town on their big-iron Triumphs, Nortons and Beezers. For the fun of it before their first night of gang-induced debauchery, the Angels beat the living snot out of the surfers in broad daylight on their own turf, Durban’s South Beach. The bikers, forever fastidious and zealous in their craft of inflicting optimum damage, created what could best be described as a scene out of Cornel Wilde’s WWII Pacific island invasion cinematic bloodbath “Beach Red.” Nobody fucked with the Hell’s Angels, least of all a bunch of pretentious, spoilt beach bums. The Angels drew their own thin red line.
I always assumed my non-identification with the beach mentality had to do with my perception of myself as both the thug and the victim in the Charles Atlas commercials. The choices seemed far too finite and extreme…either become a bully and kick sand in other people’s faces, or become a sap and be at the receiving end. I wanted neither of them. So I sought a beach identity outside of the prescribed ones, and I implemented this new program by going there at night. The positive results were immediate. The only sound was the roar of the industrial Indian Ocean pounding away at the shore. There were no gormless surfers, but instead couples seeking privacy and darkness, dagga-smokers evading the police, homeless beach-combers looking for a spot to bed down away from the prying eyes of the law, and nighthawk boozehounds. Despite apartheid, the beach managed to become multi-racial at night, as sparse as this population was. In this universe, I created my own beach fantasy, and the music of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys was never too far away and helped fuel my dreams. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” was no longer a song about wishing to be grown up and spending the rest of your life with the one you loved without any outside interference. It became much more than that. It spoke of hope for a different world than the one you knew and were experiencing. For a young, confused white person in a place like South Africa, this was big medicine.
Last summer, I skipped out of work a tad early and caught the F train out to Coney Island Beach. En route, I hooked up with a few comrades and together we journeyed into the dusk towards the land of the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel. On my regular commute from Prospect Heights, Brooklyn to the city for the daily grind and then back home again, I rely on the numbered subway trains. No Fs, Qs, Rs, or Ds for me. They always drop me that one block farther from the job or plonk me out at the other side of the neighborhood. But sometimes, you’ve got to go that extra mile and forsake the 2s, 3s, 4s and 5s. With the passing of the years comes routine, and it’s both comforting and depressing all at once. Yet there is always that welcome disruption, especially when the light at the end of the tunnel is Brian Wilson, rather than Bowling Green or Eastern Parkway.
The free music concerts at the Asser Levy Seaside Park on Surf Avenue in Coney Island are the brainchild of Marty Markowitz, the Brooklyn Borough President. Marty Markowitz is your consummate political hack, a true product of the Brooklyn Democratic Party machine. He’s a backslapping schmoozer, a name-dropper, perpetually sucking up to his big-money punters in an extremely annoying, servile way, constantly allaying the perceived or real fears of that large white voting mass whose support he relies on, being just inclusive enough to cater towards the black constituency, and never too shy to trot out his Brooklyn credentials. Lately, he’s managed to recruit a whole new corps of opponents by enthusiastically sponsoring the mega-developer Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards Project, a gargantuan stadium/high rise building monstrosity that, if ever completed, will devour friends’ apartments, the local pub, and open the tip of my neighborhood to an all-out invasion by the well-heeled and the corporations. Marty Markowitz is likely to be one of those peculiar New York political animals, like Ed Koch or Rudolph Guiliani, who seem able to survive Tsunamis of corruption and anti-popular decisions all around them yet still come out on top. Suffice to say, he’s an irritant. Socialist revolution is probably the only guaranteed way to permanently get rid of him.
Coney Island is set for demolition and radical surgery, the property having been bought up by a development company that wants to turn it into a Vegas style tourist-trap establishment, with shopping malls, five-star hotels, casinos, prohibitively expensive restaurants and bars, and theme parks. The old character will be gutted out of existence. Mayor Michael Bloomberg is leading the charge here. Not so surprisingly, Marty Markowitz, Brooklyn’s so-called favorite son, is a strong proponent of the plan. The irony of this is that the Coney Island amusement complex was originally designed for the working person to enjoy, albeit that the composition of working stiffs back then excluded the entire black sector of that class. It’s soon about to become a different kind of playground, reserved for those who can afford it.
Marty Markowitz has been hosting these shows for over twenty years, previously in a high-school playground in Midwood, Brooklyn, but now in a park in Coney Island. His musical tastes would best be described as somewhere in the area of Frankie Valli meets Connie Francis meets Neil Diamond. If their music is played regularly on the oldies station, they’re on Marty Markowitz’s hit list. So there’s Marty Markowitz holding forth on center stage, our own elected Cousin Brucie Everyman whether we want him or not, sporting his loud Hawaiian shirt, his white bucks, and introducing a legend. The performer is Brian Wilson, former Beach Boys’ songwriter, a musical titan whose life has seen the highs of creative genius (read “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”) and the lows of human despondency, insanity and addiction (read “the Sandpit”).
But Brian Wilson is taking his time. To fill in, Marty Markowitz is ad-libbing away behind the microphone, fielding questions as to possible future acts for his circus. “Billy Joel…love to get Billy, we’re working on it. The Eagles…they’re always on top of my list. Richard who? Richard Thompson…never heard of him. Barbara Streisand…my people are busy talking to Babs’s people.” This who’s who of boring old farts in the pop entertainment field is interspersed with recognition of the local nobs and uniforms present. “There’s Shelly…ladies and gentleman, Sheldon Bernstein, the vice chairman of Dime Savings Bank, Brooklyn’s own and your own bank. Let’s not forget the brave men and women of the NYPD from the 60th, my favorite precinct…my heroes. Is that Morty? A big hand for Morty Schnauser, a true patron of the arts and chairman of ‘I See It, I Like It, I Take It, Real Estate, Inc.’ Where would we be without old Morty?” The banter is inane and seemingly endless.
Five busloads of Jewish old-age pensioners are shipped in from the local senior citizens’ center and they slowly hobble or are wheeled to their own reserved space. Marty Markowitz is in his element. This is what you get for having survived eighty years of life and being of the same religious persuasion as the Brooklyn Borough President yet too feeble to respond, free seating at a free concert. And then it was finally time for Brian Wilson.
Brian Wilson looks like a stroke victim. Medicated up the ying-yang, he sits behind an electric piano, but it’s a mere prop. He barely lays his fingers on the keyboards. Occasionally, he strings a guitar around his neck, but this too he hardly strums. His voice is not strong enough to carry a song on its own. His falsetto ability is all but gone. None of this matters. He is surrounded by a spectacular band, some members of his older crew, others youngsters. There’s a Ms. October on the vocals. There are two keyboard players, two guitarists, two horn men, a percussionist and the rhythm section. Most of these players can sing and sing very well. They are honored to perform this music. Brian Wilson reaches deep into his songbook. The results are magical. Smiles all around.
Between each song, Brian Wilson has just enough gas left in his tank to blurt out short introductions, many of which are priceless in their simplicity and absurdity. He kicks off the show with a Beach Boys’ classic, “The Girl I Once Knew,” a song which has a sort of Hong Kong Gardens type intro. “Here’s a Chinese music.” As the concert picks up speed, he guides us through the menu…“This one has a kind of a rock beat”… “You might like the lyrics here”…“Number one song, 1966, by the Beach Boys”…“If I can stand up for this one, so can you.” At a certain point, he implores the crowd to do the cigarette lighter routine. He tries to count the flames. He comes up with a total of six. Meanwhile, the heroes of the 60th precinct are bashing in the head of the official band photographer who has innocently wandered beyond the barricades, much to the consternation of the lead guitarist who pleads for less brutality. This man is obviously not familiar with Brooklyn.
Brian Wilson stories abound, but one of my favorites was recorded in an interview in the music press back in the late eighties, when he released the terrific “Love and Mercy” comeback album that was produced by his shrink. The verdict is still out as to whether the psychiatrist, Eugene Landy, fried his brain even more or saved him. The interviewer spent the better part of the day with Brian Wilson at his home in Oak Park, Chicago (the Frank Lloyd Wright neighborhood). The journalist described his frustration with the process, because Brian Wilson kept on demanding breaks and then could not remember what was being talked about before the interruption. The conversation drifted onto the topic of the current music of the day and Brian Wilson’s take on it. He praised the work of his younger contemporaries and noted a particular song that caught his attention. The song, “What a Fool Believes,” a ghastly pabulum number by the Doobie Brothers, was hardly current. It was a hit in 1979, ten years earlier. So much for the miracle healing techniques of the shrink.
The show is now in full swing, and the band is delivering tune after tune that I never imagined hearing live. “Heroes and Villains” is a complicated song, it has plenty of stops and starts, frilly French horn bits and harmony pieces that, to this person’s ear, seem impossible to replicate from the original studio recording. But they pull it off without skipping a beat, and then they launch into the real hymns, “In My Room” and “Surfer Girl.” It’s akin to being in church with the full-blown choir. By the time they get around to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” I’m either in heaven or back on Addington Beach in Durban around midnight.
Brian Wilson and his band are finally out of steam. As the concert ends, our little group bids each other contented fond farewells, off to catch different letter trains to the wrong ends of our respective neighborhoods, it being a school night. Ben and I pair off, deciding to prolong the Coney Island experience with a beer at the Freak Bar on the boardwalk.
My pal Ben Carlin was born and bred in Brooklyn and he bleeds it. On his left arm, he wears the tattoo of George Tilyou’s leering “Funny Face,” the logo prominently displayed when Steeplechase Park, promoted as “The Funny Place,” opened in Coney Island in 1895. At the Freak Bar, Ben tells me of a friend of his, a former member of the Freak Show ensemble, whose act still takes place in a small rickety auditorium adjacent to the bar. The performance consists of skits by rubber-men contortionists, burlesque divas, escape artists, jugglers, fire eaters, hot coal walkers, and nail-bed recliners. This particular acquaintance of Ben used to work in an upscale eatery in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He was fired when a yuppie patron espied him through the kitchen door swallowing the carving knives. Moving on up to the Coney Island boardwalk was his obvious career choice.
Whenever I’m at Coney Island, I’m reminded of the 1979 Walter Hill film, “The Warriors.” The movie tells of a large gathering of all the five borough street gangs in New York. Gangs of every size, creed and ethnicity assemble in a Bronx park at the behest of Cyrus, leader of the most powerful gang, the Gramercy Riffs. He has called a temporary cease-fire between warring factions. At the meeting, Cyrus, a Mussolini type character, is assassinated by a rival power-broker. The Warriors, a small multi-racial gang from Coney Island, are wrongfully blamed for the killing. They then have to retreat from the North Bronx all the way back across the city to their home terrain in Brooklyn. The peace pact is nullified and all bets are off. Every gang in town, including the New York Police Department, has the Warriors in their sights. There are gangsters on roller skates, and gang-bangers dressed in New York Yankees pinstriped baseball uniforms and armed with Louisville Sluggers gunning for the Warriors. The Saracens, the Moon Runners, the Van Cortland Rangers, the Furies, the Turnbull A.C.s, the Jones Street Boys, the Lizzies (all young women), the Riffs themselves, and even the lowly Orphans are amongst the legions of street toughs attempting to waylay them. After a night of hot pursuit and rumbles, above and underground, the Warriors, their ranks somewhat depleted, finally make it home. As they disembark from the train at dawn, Swan, their War Lord, gazes over the residential skyline of Coney Island and says, “This is what we fought all night to get back to?”
On the train home, Ben and I pass the time swapping yarns. The discussion turns to Brian Wilson. I confide to Ben that I bought my first record ever at the age of eleven years and it was the seven-single “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys. Brian Wilson and his band had done justice to this very song less than an hour before. Ben shares his secret with me. His first vinyl purchase was “Thriller” by Michael Jackson. We differ in years, but Ben has the savvy of a veteran and he knows the history, the music, and that somebody like Brian Wilson, despite the ravages of age and life, deserves righteous kudos. That’s how legends are kept alive and vibrant, whether on a beach on the Southern tip of Africa, or on a subterranean train traveling from a beach in the largest city in North America.
After seeing an ex-Beach Boy perform on Surf Avenue in Brooklyn, what does the future hold in store? Perhaps Eric Burdon and the Animals will play at the Bronx zoo. Or Country Joe and the Fish, together with the Turtles, will do a double-billing at the aquarium. Maybe the Grassroots can appear at the botanical gardens. Thank you, Brian Wilson. You’ve done your bit. You’ve helped ease the pain. Don’t worry baby, everything will turn out alright.
A Brooklynite by way of Wales and South Africa, Mike Morgan is the founder of Burrow Magazine and serves as one of its Senior Editors and Contributors. In addition to these duties, he has been and continues to be at the heart of a thriving literary, art and music scene and is a regular at several neighborhood bars, where he can be found discussing global and local affairs, rock and roll, various New York sports teams, and whatever books he happens to be reading at the time. More from Mike Morgan can be found in the Vault of Smoke.