Rock & roll history was made in Charlotte, North Carolina, –under cloud-swept skies as the sun moved into the last decan of Aquarius. On Sunday, February 18th, to be exact, seven formerly unknown musicians calling themselves Dr. Hook stumbled onto the stage of a cavernous dance hall called the Midnight Sun.
The rest is fodder for the Historians of this Troubled Age.
Dennis Loccorriere, the bearded 23-year-old lead singer——in his alter-ego role as Larry the Times Square wino——spoke at a record-breaking 27 motherfuckers per hour and was cheered roundly for this feat. People threw joints at him. He moved like an abuser of the drug alcohol, lurching around the stage, grabbing at the microphones, and slurring his often indelicate words.
The big thing in rock, he claimed, is “all guys dressed up like girls,” and if that’s what it took, “I’m as big a fag as any of them guys.” He claimed to have a garter belt holding up his boots and boasted that he took a closet on the road with him. Pointing to Ray Sawyer, the eye-patched Dr. Hook of the group, he proclaimed, “And Ray’s an even bigger fag than me!”
Microphones wobbled, Dennis lurched and stumbled and Ray did the sensual strut. To visualize the way Ray moves, you have to think of the chicken-scratching music played on the great hillbilly situation comedies to introduce a rural scene, and then imagine someone dancing to that. Temper this vision with the knowledge that for almost four years Ray was the only white singer with any number of soul bands playing the raunchiest clubs in Chicago and Mobile.
The music was loud and good and the harmonies were all there, as surreal and inept as the band’s physical appearance. Billy Francis came out from behind the keyboard, gangly and slinking. He moved like Ray and the two men gangled and slunk at one another until Ray drove the taller man back behind the keyboard. Dennis almost fell over. At least one microphone hit the floor. People in the Midnight Sun were standing and screaming and elbowing their way forward.
Stage front, three beefy guards, not one under 200 pounds, took turns watching the band and the crowd. One of them, a man who seemed less experienced than the others, was bobbing and weaving with excitement, bouncing playful punches off another’s arm.
“These motherfuckers are crazy,” he said.
The man taking the punches was tensed with fear of the crowd. “It’s going to be tough after this one’s over,” he gritted, eyes glazed with hysteria praecox.
“Think it will be rough as the Grass Roots?”
“Rough as the Grass Roots!” he snorted. “This is going to be ten times as rough as the Grass Roots!”
History had gone down.
* * *
Dr. Hook has been on the road for nearly 18 months, which means a year and a half propped up on pillows against Holiday Inn bedboards, chain-smoking and choking on cigarettes and watching one inane television program after another: family shows where a lovable but mischievous raccoon knocks over Aunt Bea’s priceless vase, precipitating a family crisis which is eventually ironed out and teaches one and all the value of animal tolerance, ending in a scene at the dinner table where the lost raccoon walked proudly in through the back door followed by a lot of little raccoons and Dad decides that its name will have to be changed from Fred to Frieda and everyone laughs insanely until fade-out and titles.
Touring, then, is a lonely highway, and there are those young ladies even in the Bible Belt states who know this and offer the entourage the Christian solace of spiritual conversation. In the private shop talk of the Hook band, if she stayed with you one night, you fell in love with her. If she stayed longer, or followed you to the next town, you got married. This leads to conversations in dining rooms that have endangered the hard-won sanity of waitresses the country over:
“Remember that big tall girl you fell in love with in Asheville?”
“Fell in love? I married her.”
“Well, she’s got a big funny lump on her left breast.”
* * *
The Ibogaine-Adrenochrome plexi-tab began to take hold somewhere near South Hill, Virginia. Vanadium-taloned pterodactyls wheeled and shrieked above the sea-green impala: gruesome madness inside a snot-colored car fish-tailing at 100 miles an hour towards New York and a taping for ABC’s In Concert series.
It had started as an ordinary enough day. I had downed the plexi-tab with my morning pint of avocado juice, and was feeling pleasantly fucked-up and not at all delirious as we left the Charlotte Holiday Inn. Producer-manager Ron Haffkine sat in the back seat along with Dennis and Ray. Drummer Jay David drove. At the freeway entrance we passed two familiar female faces hitching north. “We’ll be in Fayetteville next week,” someone yelled and the two smiled and waved.
The instruments were on their way to New York in a van driven by roadie Robert Woolridge who had long since legally changed his name to Nine Year, for impenetrable reasons. We pulled into a Charlotte pawnshop, Reliable Loan, and waited edgily in line behind a crowd of junkies who were selling their color TVs. Dennis picked up an inexpensive Japanese nylon string guitar. He and Ray were going to work on songs 650 miles straight through to New York.
I listened to the new song written for the group by Shel Silverstein, a chorus of which goes:
Some folks love ham hocks
And some folks love pork chops
And some folks love vegetable soups.
Roland the Roadie loves Gertrude the Groupie
And Gertrude the Groupie loves Groups.
There was a spoken fade-out: “Come on in here baby, there’s only about ten of us …”
Dennis and Ron helped Ray on the songs he was writing, tuneful tales like “Lily Pearl, Whatcha Gonna Name Your Baby,” and “Life Ain’t Easy,” and a new ballad called “Nudie Suit” in which a spangled rock star, coincidentally named Ray, deflowers a 16-year-old admirer and drops her after three days. She appears at the next gig, tears in her eyes, a gun in her hand. As she pulls the trigger, “the crowd goes wild …” History before it has been made: the first rock and roll assassination.
“You know,” Ron said, “I was talking to Shel the other day and he said that when he heard you guys had written a song, he found it charming.” Silverstein had written all the songs but one on the first two albums. “When he heard you were writing more, he said he found it alarming.”
Jay turned on the radio and a hundred miles later we heard “Cover of the Rolling Stone” described as “a biggie burger on the whiz line.” Jay looked for a country station, muttering folklore about George Jones, Hank Williams and Merle Haggard. Eventually the radio went off and they sang some George Jones songs, harmonizing in mountain thirds, with a surprising depth of feeling and absolute honky-tonk funkiness. A suspicious depth of understanding, in fact. Ray began to talk about his teenage days in Chickasaw County, Alabama. “There was these three brothers who were friends of mine and they liked to fuck cows. They had a special stump, just like you’ve always heard about. Anyway, one day the one had his two brothers back the old milk cow up to the stump and hold it there. He was just about to marry that cow when he saw his sister coming up over the hill. So he’s standing there on the stump and his two brothers are holding the cow, so he quick jumps on the cow’s back and hollers, ‘All right, boys, let her go.’ “
Ron added, “Ray thought chickens were little girls with feathers until he was 14.”
The conversation drifted naturally to the job opportunities in Chickasaw County. “You ever seen them out in the potato fields?” Ray asked. “It’s really a desolate-looking thing, seeing them out there, digging under the bareass sun. They make just enough to come into town at night and get drunk.”
Dennis started a song: “Dig tater, go downtown, y’all.”
“That’s good,” said Ron. Within two minutes they had a lyric: “Poor boy digging taters under the noonday sun/He ain’t smilin’ ’cause it ain’t fun/Two more rows and he’ll be done …”
One hour and a hundred miles later there was a siren and the car began the belly-bursting swing to the side of the road. Ray emptied the contents of a Holiday Inn envelope into the wind.
“You, out.” It was a big Virginia State trooper with SIC SEMPER TYRANNIS arm patches, and he wanted Ray.
“Sounds like up-against-the-car city,” Dennis whispered in the cluttered back seat.
Ray stepped out with a bag of pistachios in hand.
“What did you throw out?” Sic Semper Tyrannis demanded.
Ray held up the bag. “Pistachios,” he said with lamb-eyed innocence. “Uh, you want one?”
“No.” He checked the car registration and Jay’s license. Ordered everyone out of the car. Checked the empty car. Looked inside the milk cartons and rummaged distastefully through the debris.
“You guys wanna slow it down,” he said finally. Then, turning to Ray, he asked——friend to friend, as if it were a big joke——”You sure that was pistachios and not a little bit of grass?”
“No, they was pistachios,” Ray said, smiling as only a born performer can.
During the next hours of driving we told each other what happened several times. I told Ray I thought it was risky offering Tyrannis the pistachios.
“You woulda hadda open the bag.”
“The bag wasn’t open?”
Ron told about the time they’d had to slip out of Biloxi under threat of arrest for a profane show. Dennis told about his recent bust in Hampton, Virginia. He had said “motherfucker” several times in the act and the promoter got word to him in the middle of the show that the police would arrest him if he said it one more time. Instead Dennis said “shit” which was apparently enough to constitute profanity in a public place. A Captain Champion and a Lt. Nichols caught up with the band in a restaurant, but Ron and Dennis tried to tell them that the man who said the bad words wasn’t really a member of the band and was, at that very moment, on his way to Mexico.
“It got to be an ego hassle then,” Dennis explained. “They blocked the airport and the roads. When we got back to the motel, there were police cars with their lights flashing at all the entrances and exits. At least four of them. I gave myself up and they fined me 26 fucking dollars.”
Dennis broke into an improvisational song to the tune of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”:
Oh you can’t say fuck on Sunday
In a place where people eat
The folks inside don’t dig it
And might even call the heat
Oh you can’t say fuck on Sunday
It really blows my mind
You can’t say fuck on Sunday
Or any other time.
Ray, who for years was the only white in any number of Chicago soul bands, confessed to an intense desire for some soul food. We stopped at a place called the Southern Barbecue, where there were a lot of hostile stares and the waitress who brought the food asked for immediate payment: “Because I have to leave.” But she didn’t leave and we soon found that everything——the yams, the collard greens, the ribs——had been smothered in peppers and tabasco. The only person watching us try to eat was a five-year-old black girl with face so filled with hatred that it was chilling. We left a big tip and backed out the front door.
Not until we hit Washington, D.C., did anyone feel like talking. It was Dennis who said, “That was a good thing that happened. It gave me a little balance. After all those people screaming last night.”
“Did you hear that guy who kept screaming ‘Strahk up the gyaddyam bayand.’ “
“And the other one, right in front that kept screaming, ‘Play “Marie La Vaux.” ‘ “
“How about the people in Ohio that pulled Billy off the stage.”
“Or the guy who ran up onstage and yelled in Jay’s face.”
“He had tears in his eyes and he was yelling, ‘I love you sons of bitches.’ “
“So,” said Ron, “things like this show you that Rock and Roll is only an infinitesimal part of the world. What happens in the show is that you come out and act naturally and that opens up a Pandora’s Box. If you talk to them like they’re friends, then they think they can talk back to you. And they’re right. So you have to be prepared for anything because of the way we do the show.
“Because you’re not acting too good for them, or hipper than they are, they love you and they scream for you. But a thing like what happened back there is good because it gives you perspective. You don’t run the world. The Hitlers and the Churchills and the Nixons run the world.
“When this whole thing is over there are two things we want out of it. The first is everyone in the band is going to have financial security. We’re not going to be buying Aston-Martins and $26,000 worth of cocaine. And when anyone does that, then I’m out.
“The second thing is dignity.” The car was passing the Smithsonian. “Hey,” Ron suddenly sitting up bolt erect. “That’s where they have Dillinger’s dick. 18-inches long, in a pickle jar. Anyway, I’m not talking about our dignity. Everybody has dignity and when we start thinking we’re big stars, start treating people like shit, then it’s Spangle Time and time for us to get out.”
“We’re not going to forget who we are, Ronny,” someone said.
The Virginia Highway Patrolman was still on Ray’s mind. “Did you see the look on his face? He was really sad because he knew I was clean and couldn’t bust me. I was really sad because I threw away my stash.”
“Well, uh …” Jay sounded embarrassed. “I happen to have these three uh …” He held them up. “I was going to toss them and tell the cop I was a Mormon and smoking makes me feel so guilty I throw away three cigarettes for every one I smoke. I figured he wouldn’t buy that.”
Later, when the three were gone, Ray used a new thumb-pick on the guitar, but the nylon strings didn’t respond, so he fell into a simple flamenco strum. And since the peppers and tabasco were smoldering in everyone’s stomach, he started singing, “I got those fucking heartburns and I don’t know what to do.” He tried it with a chicano yodel on “do-oooo.” People began singing along and laughing.
“Boy,” Ray was saying, “this wacky weed makes me nuts as a bunny.”
It was clear these men were sick, but not into serious madness.
“Jesus!” a part of me was thinking. “I could blow this interview.”
* * *
The band was anxious to stay not in New York, but in Jersey, near the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel in a place called the Chateau Renaissance——a place considered to be the utmost in class in the choking industrial wasteland. Dennis, who grew up listening to rumors about gangsters in the upper floors, loves the hotel. It’s the kind of place where everything is red and the cigarettes cost 65¢ a pack.
In the parking lot, we pulled our gear from the rent-a-car. Ray had the guitar and someone noted that we looked like a band of gypsies. Ray obligingly hit his flamenco strum which reminded everyone of “I got those fucking heartburns,” and, without any conscious effort to offend or cause a stir, everyone sang that song on the way into the lobby. The man behind the desk, to give him his due, looked up from his work without a flicker of expression and said, “Dr. Hook, I presume.”
* * *
I tell You, Tim, what we’re dealing with here is nothing less than The Apotheosis of a Bar Band! And since you’re the first reporter to show sustained interest in us, we’re going to take you around the Union City, New Jersey, Transfer Station and, uh, show you our roots.
(Thus spoke Dr. Hook——not in so many words——but rather as it was made evident in the mind of our reporter as he moved from bar to bar in the wake of the band, picking up an undeniable Dennis-like lurch toward the end of the evening.)
The Transfer Station is a huge bus terminal just across the river from New York City. Here commuters transfer to buses taking them to Hoboken and worse. In the early Fifties, when burlesque was getting a legal boot in the ass in New York City, the old girls bused over to Jersey and there they bumped and ground until the early Sixties when they died an unremarkable death as the dollars stopped flowing. There were, at the time, as many as 20 bars in about ten blocks, and the competition was fierce.
Joey Dee, a local boy, left the Transfer Station for the City’s Peppermint Lounge and 15 minutes of stardom, as “The Peppermint Twist” made it big. Station bar owners shifted gears. Music sold more beer than flesh. Every bar had to have a band. In the middle Sixties it was a great town for working musicians.
George Cummings, Hook’s steel guitarist, played the meanest roadhouses in Mississippi and Alabama before making the move north. He played through most of ’64 and ’65 at Transfer Station bars. Dennis, about 14 at the time, used to hang out on the front stoops of those bars and listen to George play. He was in the process of getting kicked out of high school and his major recreation was to take an upper and bus over to the Times Square terminal and watch people all night. It was there he developed his fascination with bums and winos. He can mimic, down to the finest detail, the walk, the talk, and the pitch of any number of specific terminal cases.
One night Dennis and a friend went out to the Bowery and put a dime on every drunk in every doorway. On the way home the two of them realized that the first bum up was going to have a bonanza, walking down the street and picking coins off his colleagues. “I was so dumb,” Dennis says, “I thought all bums got up at the same time, like chickens.”
Dennis’ favorite wino is Legendary Larry, the Times Square rasper. Larry stands in one Times Square doorway or another and insults people in his raspy wino voice. “Ya smell like shit,” Larry yells, or “Ya wife’s a cunt.” Dennis can do a perfect Larry. Half the time Dennis is onstage, he is Larry.
While Dennis was studying this alternate lifestyle, Ray was in Alabama, singing in the soul clubs. Billy won one of the talent contests Ray used to run and the two of them sometimes jammed with George. Billy learned Ray’s moves, and has lived pretty much the same kind of life as Ray.
The big time, for Ray, was Chicago where he did wine and ups. He had a sock full of ups. He used to hide them in the nooks and crannies of the clubs he worked so he would be sure to have them when he needed them. He even shot pool for ups. In the bars in nearby Cicero, if the bartender knew you, you could buy ten bennies in a roll for a buck if you asked for a “tootsie roll.” Ray used to stay up for days, playing the guitar, singing, grinding his teeth. Sometimes he would have to take a friend to the hospital, like the time one guy tried to do 80 ups at once. Most mornings when he woke up, Ray found himself crying.
He went to Portland and took a job as a lumberjack, trying to straighten himself out. Back in those days, before the accident, Ray had the hooded eyes and the slicked-back hair of the meanest cat in Portland. And he couldn’t stay away from wine and ups. One night he was sleeping in the passenger seat of a Corvair while an equally fucked-up friend drove. Down where the road meets the Columbia River, they hit a guardrail. Ray woke up with blood in both eyes. The right front wheel of the Corvair had pinned him up against the seat and just before he passed out, he remembers the flashing lights, someone giving commands, and someone else cutting him out with a blowtorch.
He spent a year in the hospital and another six months back home in Chickasaw, getting well. They had removed his eye and put a steel brace in his leg. The time in the hospital got him off wine and speed at last.
George was back from Union City, and Billy was around, so Ray joined them and the three formed a band and played the South. They broke up in Chicago and George went back to Union City to check the market. The Station was still booming and George called Ray and Billy and asked them to join him. This was 1969 and Dennis was old enough to come in and listen. One night George let him play bass and Dennis was an official member of the nameless band.
“So what’s the name of my band,” the owner of the Bandbox wanted to know. “Yez guys got an hour to come up with a name.” George, figuring Ray had the strongest image, came up with Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.
“Hey boys,” the bartender would yell at them, “do that one yez recorded.” They’d play “Proud Mary,” and the bartender would tell whoever he wanted to impress, “I’m gettin’ ’em for 80 bucks a week.”
Like any number of other bands in the area, Dr. Hook had made a demo tape. A 34-year-old producer named Ron Haffkine heard it one day by happenstance. Haffkine was a friend of Shel Silverstein’s and Silverstein had been commissioned to write the music for a film called Who Is Harry Kellerman. He refused to do it unless Haffkine produced and Haffkine, after a visit to the Transfer Station, refused to produce unless Dr. Hook did the music. (About this time the band picked up drummer Jay David. The original drummer realized he was getting in over his head.)
The film was a flop but the soundtrack resulted in a Columbia contract. Haffkine, spending a good deal of his own money, put the band up in a large house in Connecticut for a little over a year. Under Ron’s supervision, they worked on their act and their music seven days a week and sometimes 15 hours a day. Rock and Roll boot camp is what they called it.
In San Francisco to record they picked up Ric Eldridge (guitar) and Jance Garfat (bass). “Sylvia’s Mother” was an immediate AM hit and the album got substantial FM airplay. The tour was on.
“Right there,” Dennis is saying, “where it says ‘Go-Go Girls Nightly,’ it used to say ‘Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, Tonic for the Soul.’ ” We were standing out in the parking lot where the drunken truckdriver from Texas shot it out with the police while they played “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” inside. Down the street there used to be a place called Phil’s Kitchen where Jay caught a beer bottle above the eye playing drums one night. He has a good-sized scar to show for it, but feels lucky because not too many months later, he saw a guy stabbed out in front of Phil’s. In the bar across the street, Pete, one of Dennis’ favorite winos, died quietly in a back booth over a ten-cent beer. In that parking lot over there, Dennis and Ray were pulled over by a cop who talked like Elmer Fudd.
“Aw wight fewwas,” he said, “wet’s see your wicense and wegistration.”
“Can you imagine that cop in a dangerous situation,” Dennis was saying. “Can you hear him yelling ‘Aw wight fewwas, dwop those wifles.’ “
We were standing outside of a place called the Sands, where Dr. Hook had played for nearly eight months.
“When we go in,” Dennis said, “listen to George the bartender. Last time we came in he said, ‘When yez cocksuckers gonna pull ya shit in here and give us a night? Whatsa matter, yez fucks too big for us?’ ”
Inside the Sands there is one of those revolving multifaceted mirror globes with colored lights bouncing all over the room which was decorated with murals of fluorescent palms. In the center of the horseshoe bar, a go-go girl undulated to “Superstitious.”
“Hey,” said George the bartender, “It’s youse guys. Hey, I seen yez on television. I said, ‘That’s them.‘ “
There were only a few people in the large room and one of them was a 60-year-old man in a neat sweater and golf cap. Ray and Dennis and Jay and Billy took turns shaking hands very formally with the man. They introduced him to me as their greatest fan, Smitty.
“I used to tell the people,” Smitty said, “I said, if you don’t like the band … tuffshinsky. I’ll squash your nose.”
“So when yez cocksuckers gonna pull ya shit in here and give us a night?” George said.
“We’ve been on the road for about a year and a half.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
“We were thinking of doing a live album from the Sands, George, honest.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
But no one could buy a beer. It was on George.
The girl finished her dance and everyone applauded loudly. Smitty leaned over and told me a secret. “Those girls go through all the motions, but when you get right down to it, it’s tuffshinsky.” He turned to Ray. “So whatever happened to that song yez sent Presley?”
“Aw, that was a long time ago, Smitty. He didn’t want it.”
“Well when ya see Presley, kick him inna knee. Tell I said tuffshinsky.”
“I’ll do that, Smitty.”
Smitty fell into a boozy melancholy. “What’s the matter?” Ray asked.
“Ahh, when ya tell Presley I said tuffshinsky, he’ll probly say, ‘Who’s he?’ “
Ray put his arm around the man’s shoulder. “Smitty, you know who you are, right? That’s what’s important, right?”
“Yeah, you’re right, Patchy.”
“George, get Smitty another beer.”
“I seen yez on television,” George says.
Smitty adds, “These guys is as good as the Beach Boys, any of them, I always knew that.”
Several shots and several beers later it was time to go. There was a television taping the next day, then it would be back to the South for more touring.
Smitty’s eyes were misting over with tears. He shook hands solemnly with everyone, then grabbed Ray at arms’ length, both hands on his biceps. “Patchy,” he said, and the tears trickled slowly down his cheeks, but the voice was solid and strong, “when yez see Presley, you tell tell Smitty from Joisy said: … Tuff … shin … sky.“