A couple of days later Phoebe suggested dinner near Bear Mountain and we drove up from Teaneck in the late afternoon, along evergreen-covered ridges, through some of the most unspoiled scenery the Garden State offers. "Charlie and I drove up to Bear Mountain on his 20th birthday," she said. "As a matter of fact, there are some words in 'Harpo's Blues' that he sang that day. He used to have these little impromptu songs that he would spout and he would do things like make me sing with him. 'You have to sing these words or get out of the car right now,' he'd say. Anyway, we got lost and he started this song that went 'I'm lo-o-ost again.' By the time we were through it had as many verses as '99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.'
"There's a little something about him in almost every line of the Harpo song. Like where it says, 'I wish I was a soft refrain/ When the lights were out I'd play and be your friend.' He had a library of tapes, all meticulously logged with the dates he'd recorded them and cross-referenced in alphabetical and chronological order. Mostly jazz, everything from early Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines doing 'It's Tight like That' to Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday, who is still the one as far as I'm concerned, Fats Waller, Charlie Parker and then we would listen to Dinah Washington, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Mavis Staples, Aretha. The impact of all that on me was enormous, and it was Charlie who'd really sought it out; I was just a lazy little fat thing, waiting for it to come to me. But we would get into listening and he would just shake me and go, 'This is where it all started!' And I'd say, yeah! I mean, that was the music I'd been looking for all my life. Where was I? Oh, 'Harpo's Blues,' right, every time he would play his music for me the lights would be out. 'You have to listen to it in the dark,' he'd say. He was a heavy cat."
We arrived at Guido's Alpine Lodge as the sun was setting. It was a long, rambling structure with peaked roofs and eaves like a Swiss ski lodge, but the grounds were a little ... strange. Beyond the parking lot stood a huge ruined gazebo, half its roof hanging to the ground in strips, a few posts lying in the rubble on its floor. Moss hung, from the thickly bunched trees behind the gazebo and an evening mist was creeping along the ground. "During the last year of Charlie's life," Phoebe was saying, "he stopped writing his silly little poems, he stopped playing the clarinet and washtub bass and spoons – he was really hot on all of 'em – and gradually his whole creative flow just tapered off. I'm afraid he must have been living all his musical fantasies through me, probably because I was more developed just on a technical level. He sure did push me. He'd say, 'You're going to play the Bitter End on talent night,' or, 'You're going to go audition for Dick Waterman,' who was Junior Wells's manager and Bonnie Raitt's, and at the time I was still playing mostly blues and really looked up to Bonnie Raitt. Charlie and I would practice together with him playing harp and he was good at that too. Then one day he just said, 'No ... I'm not good enough.' And he put up his harps and went home.
"There were four years of on-again, off-again relationships, me being madly in love with him and him usually having other girlfriends. The fifth year I didn't have very much to do with him until the last couple of weeks of his life, when we started seeing each other again on a very platonic level. He began to open up and talk to me at that point about things that were bothering him, and I thought we were making some headway. But every time we got into it he would get to the climactic point, where he was going to explain why he was so unhappy, and he would stop in midsentence, he just wouldn't be able to let it out. Was I doing dope? Yeah, not shooting up or anything but smoking and taking a lot of different kinds of pills. I remember being so bombed on quaaludes I set my hair on fire trying to light a joint. I remember once I took a whole bottle of speed and all my friends thought I was going to die. They made me eat something and throw up and they kept walking me around to keep me alive. When I came out of it the first thing I did was call Charlie and babble it all out to him and he freaked and went, 'No, don't tell me that, I don't want to hear that!'"
The gazebo had disappeared in the deepening gloom; inside Guido's it was warm and loud, cheeks were pink and ruddy, bellies were bulging with seafood stuffing and steak. Guido himself dropped by our table to tell us he'd served Joey Bishop and London Lee recently. His daughter, who'd been one of Phoebe's friends since the Charlie years, took our orders and raised her eyebrows at the snatches of conversation she heard. "Charlie would become someone totally different from the person you were sitting with five minutes before," Phoebe continued. "That could be frustrating, especially when he got into being Harpo. You'd be in a romantic mood and all of a sudden he'd pull out a seltzer bottle, or at exactly the right slapstick moment you'd be sitting on a pie or have shaving cream all over your face. I mean, he was awful, he really was. When he died, which was in late '72, it was the heaviest thing that ever happened to me. I've gone through a lot of changes about it since then. I remember when I recorded 'Harpo's Blues,' I got there and Teddy Wilson was actually in the studio, and I just went in the ladies' room and cried because Charlie wasn't there.
"Later I decided that he was there. That came from reading a book by Jane Roberts, called Seth Speaks. Actually, Jane Roberts dictated the book while she was in a trance and the person who was speaking through her claimed to be the entity Seth. He said he existed on a plane other than the physical, on another astral plane, so I guess you'd call him a spirit, or a ghost if you want to be really blunt. One of the things he said was that the physical body you inhabit serves as no more than a vehicular thing to get you around the earth plane, which you chose to live on at that time. Now remember, I had always been insecure about not having the perfect body, the perfect face. My body had been a source of constant disappointment to me. So that idea just knocked me out. I've studied parapsychology a lot since reading that."
To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here
CULTURE 14 Gonzo Masterpieces
Picks From Around the Web
blog comments powered by Disqus