Very late that night, riding home on the train as it shoots past the graffiti-washed vacant stations on the local track, they stare straight ahead, unable to explain or articulate the sense of dread that fills them both except by reference to the lateness of the hour, or the ebbing of the drugs, or the onset of a cold. The nearly empty train is going too fast, and it leans around curves as if the wheels on one side have lost contact with the track, and the lights periodically wink off for as much as a minute at a time. They sit slumped in a double seat next to a door. Whenever the train stops at a station the doors open and nothing comes in, an almost palpable nothing. Neither bothers to look because they can feel it slide in and take its place among the already assembled nothing. The air is heavy with the weight of an earlier week, when it was still summer in the streets above. The light breaks up into particles. Down here the night could last forever. The song is “Florence,” by the Paragons.
Mind if I play it for you? Here it is, on The Best of “Winley” Records, volume seven of “The Golden Groups” on the Relic label, an ancient copy with varicolored stains on the back of the sleeve and a skip in the middle of the cut in question. The skip is annoying, but it also feels like a part of the fabric, along with the hollow-centered production, the dogged piano like the labor of the accompanist at a grade-school assembly, the groans of the four supporting Paragons, and the agony of Julius McMichael’s falsetto lead. It’s a daredevil performance, a miracle of endurance–he sounds as if he will dissolve into coughing and retching or perhaps even drop dead before the end of the track. The song wants to be a ballad but keeps turning into a dirge. It’s so ghostly you can’t imagine it ever sounding new. But then doo-wop is a spectral genre. It actually happened on street corners; what transpired in the recording studio, afterward, might sound posthumous.
“Florence” happened below street level. It happened in a cave, in an abandoned warehouse, in an unknown room eight stories under Grand Central Station at five o’clock in the morning. Probably it took place in an impersonal studio off Times Square panelled with that white pasteboard stuff gridded with holes, with folding chairs and ashtrays and demitasse-size paper cups of water and a battered upright piano. Probably the Paragons got a twenty-dollar advance apiece, if that, and then they took the subway home to East Tremont or wherever it was they came from. “Florence” has reached our couple two decades after its release through the medium of oldies radio–a medium of chattering middle-aged men, audibly overweight, short-sleeved even in the dead of winter, who are capable of putting on the spookiest sides without seeming to notice the weirdness as they jabber on about trivia before and after. Doo-wop became “oldies” in 1959, when it was still kicking, a premature burial but a phenomenon that allowed records that had sold a hundred copies in the Bronx when new to suddenly go nationwide and become phantom hits a couple of years later. But “Florence” cuts through the format with its breathtaking weirdness. The piano, the groans, the keening falsetto–it comes on as Martian. “Oh, Florence, you’re an angel, from a world up above,” raves the singer in a dog-whistle register that symbolically indicates the purity and intensity of his passion, while an Arctic wind blows through any room where the song is played.
Naturally our couple don’t know that each has “Florence” playing on the internal soundtrack, not that either would be surprised. The hour, the chill, the sticky yellow light, the vertical plunge from a high–all call down “Florence.” The moment could feel merely depressed, small-time, pathetic, but “Florence” in its strangeness lends it magnificence. They feel heroically tragic in their stupor. “Florence” places the moment in the corridor of history, makes it an episode, emphasizes its romance and fragility and proximity to heartbreak, suggests that a contrasting scene will follow directly.
Now they have emerged into the weak pre-dawn light of the street. The place is empty except for garbage trucks. The traffic light runs through its repertory of colors to no effect. They still haven’t spoken, not in an hour or more. Words feel too huge to shovel onto their tongues. The lack of traffic is convenient, since their reflexes are too slow to negotiate any. They walk, side by side, down the street of shuttered stores, each plodding step a small conquest of space. The apartment seems impossibly distant, their progress the retreat from Moscow. At this hour time doesn’t exist, actually. The hour just before dawn looks like night, but with all of night’s glamour stripped away, and although habit assumes that dawn will soon arrive and peel back the sky, there is no real evidence of this. Darkness clutches the world and will not give it up. The calendar year is an even flimsier proposition; only the 24-hour newsstands maintain it, here and there shouting it into the void like street-corner proselytizers. The year is a random set of four digits that may or may not coincide with the information imparted by the posters wheat-pasted on the windows of empty storefronts. In all probability, “Florence” has not yet been composed or recorded. Our couple has imagined it. When they awaken the following afternoon, they won’t remember how it visited them.
Historically, she got off the bus. Most of the rest is conjecture on my part, but she did get off the bus, in the aquarium depths of the lowest platform at Port Authority, a bus of the Pallas Athena line, from someplace in New Jersey–western New Jersey, she insisted, out near the Red River declivity, where the mesas begin, “the biggest sky you ever saw.” West of Trenton, even. She claimed there were fourteen people in her family and that she had to leave because they needed her room to lodge hands for the pea harvest. She carried a large plastic suitcase and an army duffel bag reinforced with duct tape. They were too heavy for her, so she dragged them along, past all the chaotic intersecting lines of people waiting to get on other buses, past the black nun with a basket on her lap at the foot of the escalator, past the lunch counters and drugstores and necktie displays, past the hustlers and the plainclothesmen and the translucent figures who came to the terminal just because they liked the smell of people.
She marched through the main hall and out the glass doors onto the avenue, and then, I imagine, she unhesitatingly turned right and started downtown, because she wasn’t one to dally. I can see her plowing down the avenue with her twin cargo containers angling out behind her, scattering the lunchtime crowd like bowling pins. She cut quite a figure at five foot nothing in boots, although I don’t know if she yet had the black leather Perfecto jacket she was to wear in every possible kind of weather. Her hair was long then, gathered in one braid like the heroine of a Chinese proletarian opera. She hadn’t yet started on her campaign–spectacularly unsuccessful–to make herself unapproachably ugly, so her glasses were delicate wire things rather than welder’s goggles with perforated side-pieces. She looked about fourteen, maybe even nine in certain kinds of light, and yet there was something about her, some kind of juju she emanated, possibly the adamantine stare that seemed to precede her into a room, that caused grown men to tiptoe around her. Whatever she was wearing, nobody would have given her any guff about running over their toes with her ten-ton bags.
“Finally have enough ideas for my own things to work on that I can see the advantage of not having to work. Not that I ever wanted to have a full time job but it was a little mysterious to me what I’d do w the free time besides get fucked up etcet. On saying that I suppose I’ll promptly dry out. On the other hand, sometimes I get sick of imposing myself on my environment. But I console myself by saying its merely a matter of degree since you can’t stop that jazz except by getting dead anyway. All trottoirs lead to the junkyard.”
“Got offered a job in Montana as cook on a ranch–explained my job situation, was told to call collect in the spring if still interested. May vy well be. What passes for the advantages of the city don’t impress me. Meantime I start teaching Monday, me and S. planning an interior house painting biz, may have silkscreening/photo jobs freelance. Lots of film to mess with and some collage ideas still intact. Got a Greek dictionary the better to write to my grandmother. D’ like to start making casts, finish my videotape, learn how to use a gun, buy a bicycle, play better pool, do more architectural drawings & keep my dirty socks out of my work room, my newspapers & bus transfers out of my bed, & myself out of shitty klubs. Am going to try vy hard to have no more catatonic afternoons/hung over mornings (starting day after tomorrow). The odd dates are all New Year’s Day, the evens the day of atonement. Well, no, I really am in more control of things. Don’t give a shit about any particular end pts as long as the process is satisfying. One life to live–organ break here. Then ad for disposable razors.”
“I hope I don’t get dull out here. I consult myself periodically to see if I’m ‘done,’ ready to leave. I’m anxious in a way to have this period behind me, to be frivolous is a social embarrassment. But at the same time the theme of the period is to wish away nothing so I can’t regret it.”
“Walking to work through the neon in the Stockton tunnel at 6:30 A.M. it occurs to me that I’m a PRODUCT OF EVOLUTION. But I’m not satisfied. I suppose its no better than even odds you’d believe I’m working the morning shift in a restaurant in the financial district for minimum wage.”
“Someone gave me a blue black pearl earring so I got my ear pierced & am wearing it. Its vy beautiful & looks good but makes me look vy fem(me) (?) & seems unnatural almost perverted to me for me.”
“So a new legs been added to the graph of moods & it’s a goat’s leg. Expect to be bored to death today at the liquor store. Had a marvelous day of filling a brick wall w cement yesterday.”
“I have an outrageous calligraphic scar on my ass that I got fr accidentally leaning on the grill of the beloved Sahara heater when it was red hot & I was stark naked. Its one of my favorite things abt myself along w my gold tooth.”
“The birds are singing, the 4:30 A.M. ones.”
Let me play you “Arleen,” by General Echo, a seven-inch 45 on the Techniques label, produced by Winston Riley, a number one hit in Jamaica in the autumn of 1979. “Arleen” is in the Stalag 17 riddim, a slow, heavy, insinuating track that is nearly all bass–the drums do little more than bracket and punctuate, and the original’s brass-section color has been entirely omitted in this version. I’m not really sure what Echo is saying. It sounds like “Arleen wants to dream with a dream.” A dream within a dream. Whether or not those are his actual words, it is the immediate sense. The riddim is at once liquid and halting, as if it were moving through a dark room filled with hanging draperies, incense and ganja smoke, sluggish and nearly impenetrable air–the bass walks and hurtles. Echo’s delivery is mostly talkover, with just a bit of sing-song at the end of the verse. It is suggestive, seductive, hypnotic, light-footed, veiling questionable designs under a scrim of innocence, or else addled, talking shit in a daze as a result of an injury: “My gal Arleen, she love whipped cream/ Everytime I check her she cook sardine….”
General Echo, whose real name was Errol Robinson, was prominent in the rise of “slackness,” the sexually explicit reggae style that began to eclipse the Rastafarian “cultural” style in the late 1970s; his songs include “Bathroom Sex” and “I Love to Set Young Crutches on Fire” (“crotches,” that is), as well as “Drunken Master” and “International Year of the Child.” He had his first hit in 1977, put out three albums and a substantial number of singles–an indeterminate number because of the chaos and profusion of Jamaican releases, then as now. Along with two other members of his sound system, he was shot dead on the street by Kingston police in 1980; no one seems to know why.
I bought the record at the time it was on the Jamaican charts, from some punk store in downtown Manhattan. I first heard it at Isaiah’s, a dance club that materialized every Thursday night in a fourth-floor loft on Broadway between Bleecker and Bond. This was a few years before the enormous wave of Jamaican immigration to the United States, which was mainly a phenomenon of the later ’80s and a result of the kind of violence that killed General Echo. Nevertheless the club regulars were more than half Jamaican transplants, nearly all of them men. The walls were lined with impassive types wearing three-piece suits in shades of cream and tan, and broad-brimmed, high-crowned felt hats that looked at once Navaho and Hasidic, with their locks gathered up inside. They danced as if they didn’t want to dance but couldn’t entirely contain themselves–the merest suggestion of movement: a shoulder here, a hip there. It was hard not to feel judged by this lineup; I kept ratcheting down the enthusiasm level of my dancing. But they didn’t even see me. Whatever else might have been going on in their lives they were, in immemorial fashion, bachelors at a dance, and this gave the club a taste of the grange hall. Sometimes I went there with a girlfriend, sometimes with a group of people. We smoked weed and drank Red Stripe and sometimes inhaled poppers, which would lend you huge brief bursts of euphoric energy and then foreclose, leaving you in a puddle. I hardly ever made it to the 4 AM closing because the next day I had to work, and four hours’ sleep made me feel sick. As a result I missed all the incidents involving guns, which invariably occurred at the end of the night. The club would have to shut down, for weeks or months at a time–it was anyway unclear what went on in the loft the other six nights and seven days; maybe people lived there. Eventually the owners installed a metal detector, the first one I ever encountered, little suspecting they would one day be ubiquitous.
We went there for the bass, and the trance state resulting from hours of dancing to riddim that stretched forever, the groove a fabric of stacked beats fractally splitting into halves of halves of halves of halves, a tree that spread its branches through the body, setting the governor beat in the torso and shaking its tributaries outward and down through shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, feet so that you couldn’t stop except when you collapsed. Most often I went there with E., who danced like a whip, and who could keep on well past my exhaustion limit, and because I needed her I did so, too. Dancing was our chief mode of communication, an intimacy like two people sleeping together in different dreams, our bodies carrying on a conversation while our minds were in eidetic twilight. Neither of us really trusted language with each other, so we found this medium of exchange that trumped it, precluding silence and misunderstanding. She had a small body whose axis was set on powerful hips with an engine’s torque, while above the waist she was all moues and flutters, a belle minus a carnet de bal, so that the sum of her was exactly like the music: the massive horsepower of the bass below and the delicate broken crystal guitar and plaintive childlike melodica above.
We lived in that place called youth where everything is terribly, punishingly final day by day, and at the same time tentative and approximate and subject to preemptive revision. We broke up and got back together, again and again, we lived together or we lived at opposite ends of the island, then she moved west and didn’t come back, and I went out there but elected not to stay. Then her body betrayed her. She became allergic first to television, then to television when it was turned off, then to inactive televisions downstairs or next door, then to recently manufactured objects, then to so many various and apparently random stimuli she became her own book of Leviticus. Then her muscles gave way and she couldn’t dance, then couldn’t walk, then couldn’t speak, and in the end became just a head attached by a string to a useless doll’s body before she stopped being able to swallow and soon after to breathe.
I went over to M.’s to retrieve my letters and whatever else from the four big crates of stuff she salvaged from E.’s apartment when E. entered the nursing home a few months before she died. It took me a few years to work up the courage to ask. I wanted the letters, I justified, because they were probably the closest thing to a diary I ever kept, in the key years 1979-1983. In other words I was exercising my usual dodge, which is to turn all of life into research materials. M. was game if not exactly eager. One corridor of her apartment is choked with boxes–the rest consist of her father’s belongings, and they will undoubtedly soon be joined by her mother’s. She hadn’t opened any of the crates since hurriedly packing them more than four years ago. Late in the evening, after dinner, we began to dig. It was quite literally like entering a tomb. There was E.’s Perfecto jacket; there was a small box containing a gold tooth and a lock of her hair; there was a whole box of her eyeglasses. There were boxes and boxes of collage materials, of her photographs and negatives, of notebooks. There was copious evidence of her study of botany (she took university classes in the subject at some point), of her various pursuits of therapy, of her adherence to Buddhism (much more serious and longstanding than any of us unbeliever friends realized). And there were many bags and boxes of letters. This was just the stuff M. kept–I understood firsthand the harshness of trying to make those sorts of decisions, in a hurry and under major psychological stress, and my parents’ house didn’t even reek overwhelmingly of urine.
Going through the boxes caused me to enter a state that I suppose was not unlike shock. I took my letters and nothing else, went back to my hotel and read all of them, then couldn’t sleep. On the one hand I wasn’t wrong; the letters are indeed the only real record I have of those years, and I have nothing to cringe about concerning their style or expression–E. always brought out the best in me that way. They are full of detail about those days, that is when they don’t consist of naked pleas. Reading them felt vertiginous, like being admitted back to that apartment on First Avenue for fifteen minutes of an afternoon in 1979 and experiencing all over again the despair and optimism and boredom and love and fun and heedlessness and anguish of that time. And it brought her back into a kind of three-dimensionality that I’d forgotten–my jealousy rushed right back. There were a few unmailed letters from her to me, too. One of them, from after her last visit to New York in 1990, may be the most romantic letter she ever wrote me. I can’t help but speculate on what would have happened had I received it.
She was getting crazier and crazier as well as sicker at the time. Photographs of her from before she became immobilized by her illness show her grinning wildly with a missing front tooth, aggressively unkempt, looking like someone who’d hit you up for spare change in Tompkins Square Park. Could I imagine myself nursing her until her death? But she wouldn’t have permitted that anyway. M. reports that at her memorial the room was crowded with people, few of whom knew any of the others. She needed to compartmentalize her life, and that was one of our chief stumbling blocks as a couple. Of course I understood, since I have similar tendencies, but that didn’t stop me from wanting her exclusively. I can’t begin to account for the chaos of emotions this has all raised in me, the sheer number and variety of them. Part of me wanted to take those four crates–M. doesn’t know what to do with them. They are E.’s life, her complexity, her unbelievable array of talents and their utter dissipation. She’s going to haunt me for the rest of my days–do I wish I’d never met her? But that’s like trying to imagine my life as another person. She changed me, totally and irreversibly.
Interesting to hear M. say that as far as she’s aware E. cracked at some point in her last year of high school, and was never the same again. A banal incident–she backed over a row of metal garbage cans while trying to drive (she was always an awful driver)–sent her over the edge. M. dates E.’s cruelty to her (she was consistently vicious to M.), among other things, to that time. That sounds too neat, but who knows? In my experience she didn’t start seeming or acting weird until we’d been together about nine months, maybe sometime in the spring of ‘75. Here’s a random snapshot of E.: One time during her next-to-last New York visit (’87?), M. and her boyfriend of the time were going to a club and invited E. to come along. She insisted on stopping to get some takeout food, and then, to M.’s and boyfriend’s dismay, insisted on bringing it into the club to eat. You didn’t do things like that in clubs by that point. To me the story graphically illustrates an aspect of her. She specialized in the inappropriate. You’d constantly be wondering: What’s the deal, exactly? Is it that she wants to accommodate her own needs and conveniences regardless of whatever social codes are in effect? Does she mean to provoke? Is she oblivious to the reactions of others? Does she want to reorganize the whole world, starting here and now? Is she deliberately doing something gauche as a way of wrestling with her feelings of inadequacy and gaucheness? It may have been that all of those things were true, and that even ranking them in order of importance would be irrelevant. I could go on, but I won’t.
“Sally Go Round the Roses” is a strange song that can seem as though it is following you around. A writer somewhere called it an ovoid, and that seems apt. The instrumental backing is functionally a loop, a brief syncopated phrase led by piano and followed by bass fiddle and drums, that repeats as often as a rhythm sample. It makes the song float, hover like a cloud. Sitting on top of the cloud are girls, a lot of girls, at least eight of them in multitracked call-and-response, at once ethereal and obsessive. The chorus tells Sally to go round the roses, that the roses can’t hurt her, that they won’t tell her secret. It tells her not to go downtown. It tells her to cry, to let her hair hang down. It tells her that the saddest thing in the whole wide world is to see your baby with another girl.
The record is credited to the Jaynetts, although that seems to have been a label applied by the producers to various aggregations assembled in studios on various dates with varying results. There were other songs with that attribution; they left no mark on the world, nor did they deserve to. This one made it to number two on the charts in 1963. Even the first time you hear it, it sounds as if you’ve always known it. It comes over you like a glow or a chill. It comes over the couple as they sit, shivering, on the rooftop of an old building in Chinatown. It is August, but that does not prevent the air from feeling glacial. They’ve been talking all night, at cross-purposes. Each feels that only a personal failure of rhetorical skill prevents the other from embracing the correct view. But every clarifying or corrective word widens the gulf.
How many Jaynetts were there? Did they ever appear before an audience? What did they look like? Did they wear bouffantes and long gold lamé dresses, or kerchiefs and sweatshirts and three-quarter-length pants? How was the song heard by its first listeners? How is it heard today? Did everybody but us mistake it for an ordinary anodyne pop song? Where did the song really come from? Was the song actually written by someone who sat down at the piano one day? Was it sung to the pretended author in a bar by a stranger who thereupon dropped dead? Did it just somehow materialize, in the form we know today, on a reel-to-reel tape with no indication of origin? Why does it seem to resist the grubby quotidian context from which all things come, particularly pop songs aimed at a nebulously conceived teenage audience? Is it simply a brilliant void like those that periodically inflame the popular imagination, which allow their consumers to project any amount of emotional intensity upon them and merely send it back in slightly rearranged form, so that it can seem to anticipate their wishes and embody their desires and populate their loneliness and hold out a comforting hand, when it is in reality nothing but a doll with mirrored eyes?
Now they’ve stopped talking, from fatigue and futility. They’re drained, and that in concert with the cold air makes them feel as if they’re drifting, carried by breezes far from their rooftop and away over the city, over its skyscrapers and bridges, flung this way and that, speeding up and slowing down, weightless as a couple of feathers. There are trucks moving below them, and pigeons at eye level, and up above is the contrail of a jet. There are few lights on in windows, no visible humans anywhere. They sit, or float, atop a dead city, enmired in a darkness that does not even manage to be satisfyingly black. Just then the sun’s first rays point up over the horizon and begin to describe a fan, each separate ray distinct, almost solid. It is the dawn as represented in nineteenth-century anarchist engravings: the advent of the new world. Silently they regard this phenomenon. It seems cruelly and pointlessly ill-timed, purely gratuitous and designed to mock them. It is the earth’s epic ritual enactment of beginning, and they are at an end. They become aware once again of the song, hovering over the rooftops, emanating from some unseen radio. Sally goes round the roses and keeps going around them: it is a circle. It has no point of entry or exit. They have no purchase over it, no more than they have power over the sun. It, whatever it might be, will continue beginning and ending, over and over and over again, per omnia saecula saeculorum.