Saturday, May 16, 2020

See you on the dark side: Tolkien, Pink Floyd, and the Claremont Diner

The coronavirus shutdown has resulted in our literal confinement to interior spaces. But for me it has also meant that, without the welcome distractions of friends, libraries, concerts, bookstores, museums, parks, and my usual wanderings around the city, I've been increasingly confined to my own head. Like many of us, perhaps, as each day settles into a predictable repetition of an endless present, I've found myself thinking more about the past. And the internet is an amazing aid to memory: details that have long been fuzzy can be almost immediately clarified (although the collective memory, like my personal memory, can sometimes be unreliable, as you'll see below).

Mass market paperbacks of The Lord of the Rings trilogy; covers designed by Barbara Remington (1965). Image source: New York Times

Tolkien. One summer when I was approaching or in my early teens I discovered J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I had been an avid (but pretty much indiscriminate) reader before this: I read everything from Wilfred McCormick's Bronc Burnett series to Sherlock Holmes to James Bond to science fiction. But Tolkien's books took me into a very different imaginative realm, one in which ordinary, comfort-loving protagonists found themselves unwillingly caught up in a titanic struggle between good and evil. [1]

The story had everything to appeal to an adolescent boy: adventure, terror, chases, magic, deep caverns, dark forests, impassable mountains, and (not enough) beautiful elf-maidens. That summer I immersed myself in Tolkien's world and was so captivated by it that when in mid-summer I reached the end of LoTR, I started over again from the beginning and re-read the whole thing. [2]

Pink Floyd. This was also the summer I immersed myself in Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. Its atmospheric music was the perfect soundtrack to my reading. Every day I would put the album on our cheap portable stereo, curl up on the comfy old couch in the family room, and rejoin Frodo and Sam on their quest; when the record reached the end of a side I would get up and flip it over. I would do this for hours, probably to the dismay of any family member within earshot.

I owed the discovery of both Tolkien and Pink Floyd to a friend of my older sister whom I'll call Dale. He was a flamboyant character: his black hair was shoulder-length and frizzy, held in place by a headband, and he favored vests worn over tie-dyed t-shirts. He started coming over to our house regularly to visit my sister, but she would usually refuse to leave her room when he stopped by. That left Dale and me to entertain one another.

Perhaps Dale thought that the way to my sister's heart was to be kind to her younger brother; if so, I could have disabused him of that notion. But despite Dale's continued lack of success with my sister, a pattern developed: he would stop by once or twice a week in the afternoon, bringing two or three albums with him. We'd sit around that portable stereo while he played what he had brought: prog-rock bands like Yes, Jethro Tull, Traffic, ELP, and King Crimson. [3] Given that my listening until then had been largely AM-radio-driven—I had a small cube alarm-clock radio that I tuned into New York stations at very low volume late at night when I was supposed to be sleeping—Dale's music was ear-opening. [4]

His favorite band was Pink Floyd. Dale would play "Careful With That Axe, Eugene" (from Ummagumma), and wait for the moment when he could whisper the title phrase followed by a bloodcurdling scream. Or he'd play the 23-minute "Echoes" (from Meddle) and narrate the scenes from Lord of the Rings that the sounds evoked for him (which is probably what established the connection for me between Pink Floyd and Tolkien). But once he brought over Dark Side of the Moon, it was the one we played most often. Later I managed to acquire my own copy (perhaps at my next birthday).

The concert. Memory is fallible, and I don't remember how the possibility of seeing Pink Floyd live came about; Dale must have arranged the whole thing. The band was appearing at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, which was a good 45 minutes away by car. I have no idea how Dale talked my parents into allowing me to go. They must have paid him for the ticket, as well, because I couldn't have. This stub shows that the price of a ticket was $7.50—pretty steep in those days [5]:

However it happened, the afternoon of the concert I found myself in a car filled with Dale and a group of his friends, most of whom were, like Dale, several years older than I was, heading down the highway towards the gritty industrial cities that lined the Jersey shore opposite Manhattan. Dale had assured my father that I'd be back around midnight.

We got to the venue fairly early, while it was still light, and in our inexperience parked as close to the stadium as we could get. (Better, we realized afterwards, to park near the exit.) We entered and took our seats, which were in the stands almost directly opposite the stage. A huge white pyramid/prism floated over the stage, and there was a large circular screen looming over the band, on which films would be projected during the second-half performance of the entirety of Dark Side of the Moon. There were wires stretching from the stage over the audience to the roof of the stadium behind us; during "On the Run," a large model plane with sparks shooting from its engines would slide down the wire (according to one story, it got stuck before crashing into the stage and fizzled out over the audience; I do remember being puzzled by the effect). [6]

Here is the opening song of the very concert I saw: "Raving and Drooling (I Fell On His Neck With A Scream)," an early version of "Sheep" (later issued on Animals, released in 1977)):

The lyrics are hard to make out, but this is what I hear:
Raving and drooling
I fell on his neck with a scream
He had a whole lot of
Terminal shock in his eyes
That's what you get
For pretending the rest are not real
Babbling and snapping at faraway flies
He will zig-zag his way back
Through memories of boredom and pain
Raving and drooling
I fell on his neck with a scream
He was caught in the middle
Between the illusion
Of safety in numbers
And being brought down to his knees
The whole first half of the concert was unfamiliar (here's the complete set list, and if you like you can actually listen to the entire concert). I learned later that the music they performed during that first hour was not only new, but unreleased material, a brave choice by the band: after "Raving and Drooling" came "You've Got To Be Crazy" (an early version of "Dogs," later issued on Animals), "Shine On You Crazy Diamond Parts I-V," "Have A Cigar," and "Shine On You Crazy Diamond Parts VI-IX" (all later issued on Wish You Were Here, released three months after the concert). I now know that the entire first half of the concert featured songs about Syd Barrett, the band's co-founder and original lead guitarist and singer, the "mad genius" who had been forced to leave the band and later was briefly institutionalized due to his erratic behavior. [7]

"Now there's a look in your eyes / like black holes in the sky": Syd Barrett in the late 1960s (left) and during the Wish You Were Here recording sessions in 1975 (right). 
Image sources: Mick Rock, YouTube (left); Nick Mason, Wikipedia (right)

During (I think) "Shine on You Crazy Diamond," spotlights were aimed at a mirrored circle that had risen over the stage; the reflected beams were quite spectacular in the twilight, shining through the haze of fog and pot smoke. A fair proportion of the latter was generated by the people sitting in the row directly in front of us, who seemed to be toking constantly from the time we arrived until the end of the concert. A stiff breeze was blowing straight into our faces, carrying their smoke into our eyes, noses, mouths, and lungs. I didn't get high—at least as far as I can tell judging by later experiences—but I can't vouch for the other members of our group, and we all got hungry. Perhaps our hunger wasn't chemically aided, as we had left for the concert in the late afternoon and by the time the concert ended, after the encore of "Echoes," it was nearly 11.

That encore infuriated Dale: "That wasn't 'Echoes'!" he insisted as we tried to find our way back out to the car. Listening to the recording of the concert I do hear an added saxophone solo by Dick Parry, which didn't fit with the gestalt of the song as we knew it, but then, couldn't the band change it as they saw fit? For Dale, a purist in these matters, the answer was no.

Once we found the car it took us more than an hour to make it out of the parking lot (that half the drivers in the place were stoned probably didn't help), and when we finally got on the road we immediately took the wrong freeway entrance. We'd been driving for at least 15 minutes when someone finally realized we were travelling in the wrong direction. It took more time to find an exit and get ourselves turned around. By the time we made it back into familiar territory it was well after 1 am. We were all starving, and someone had the brilliant idea of going to the Claremont Diner.

Image source: Cooky Cat

The Claremont Diner. At the intersection of Bloomfield Road and Route 23 in Verona stood the Claremont Diner, one of those stainless-steel-clad 1940s diners that stayed open around the clock. The Claremont served a legendary cheesecake, baked daily on the premises, and we all ordered a slice. We were long-haired, tired but giddy teenagers, must have been reeking of secondhand pot smoke, and as rambunctious teenaged boys were probably not the quietest or most well-behaved group; we were treated with wary skepticism by the weary night-shift waitresses. The cheesecake and coffee that we were finally served revived us, and as we were about to leave I took a slice of the cheesecake to go, thinking that I would enjoy it for dessert the next day. [8]

Claremont Diner cheesecakes awaiting customers. 
Photo by Jeffrey J. Jensen, son of the Claremont's pastry chef. Image source: MyVeronaNJ

When I was dropped off at home it was about 3 in the morning. I tried to be as quiet as possible as I crept up the walk and inserted my key in the lock of the front door. Before I could turn it, though, the door suddenly opened and I was face to face with my father, dressed in his bathrobe. As he lost no time in informing me, he had been waiting up all night for my return, and was not happy about the hour.

I could sense that he was about to pronounce my doom and that I would be grounded for weeks (or the rest of the summer!), when I had a brainstorm. "I'm late because we stopped at the Claremont Diner," I said, "and—I brought you a slice of cheesecake." I held out the cardboard container containing the precious offering. My father grumbled that this didn't make up for my lateness, but he sat down at the kitchen table and ate my cheesecake while I watched, concealing my disappointment as best I could.

The cheesecake worked its magic, though, and the dreaded punishment never materialized. In fact, a few weeks later I was permitted to go with Dale and his friends to a local movie theater to see Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I'd learned what sacrifice I would need to make to appease the angry god on my return: a slice of Claremont Diner cheesecake.

Coda: About two months after the concert I attended, a nineteen-year-old named John Lydon was walking down King's Road in London wearing a Pink Floyd t-shirt. Only, he had slashed holes in the silk-screened band photo and written "I HATE" above it in red marker. The manager of a new band approached him and asked him if he wanted to audition as the singer. Later that night Lydon mimed to Alice Cooper's single "I'm Eighteen (and I don't know what I want)." As the band's guitarist remembered it a couple of years later, "we thought he was really funny, I thought he was hysterical. And like he probably did—he thought we was a bunch of idiots.  So we went on from there." [9]

Image source: Vintage Everyday

With John Lydon renaming himself Johnny Rotten the band went on to be the Sex Pistols, whose visceral three-minute blasts of confrontational anger were the musical antithesis of Pink Floyd's melancholy space music (although the musical differences disguise a shared lyrical theme of alienation). I would discover the Sex Pistols and other punk bands a few years later, and perhaps that discovery will be the subject of another post.

Last time: What is happy?: The Cowsills in concert

  1. If somehow you haven't read the books or seen the Peter Jackson films: the sorcerer Sauron, the Dark Lord who rules the blasted land of Mordor, suspects that the Ring of Power that will enable him to conquer Middle Earth has fallen into the possession of a hobbit living in the bucolic Shire. Sauron sends his armies of evil to find the ring; meanwhile, the hobbits and their small band of allies, the Fellowship of the Ring, learn that the Ring can't be used for good. The only way to defeat Sauron is to destroy the ring by hurling it into the fires where it was forged: Mount Doom, deep within Mordor.
  1. Books were precious and expensive commodities. When I started LoTR, probably at Dale's recommendation, I cautiously bought only the first volume. When I finished it I rode my bicycle down to the local bookstore with my carefully saved allowance and counted out the coins to order the next. I should have rationed my reading so that I didn't finish a volume before I had saved enough money to order the next one, but I'm not sure I was so self-disciplined. In 1965 Barbara Remington had designed a set of covers for the mass-market paperbacks that, when placed together, formed a continuous image. But by the time I started reading the set the paperback cover art (and the cover price) were changing, so I wound up with a mismatched set. I recently found a boxed set of the paperbacks with the Remington covers at a book sale for 50 cents. I bought the set, even though I don't plan to re-read the novels—although if the coronavirus shutdown continues I may reconsider.
  1. Dale also brought records by more obscure groups. Evidence that the internet is astounding, Exhibit 111,279,637,948: I remembered one album with a nautical/pirate theme and a gatefold cover, but that's all I could remember. In a couple of minutes of surfing I found it: allows you to filter by cover type (gatefold), year and genre. It was Dinosaur Swamps by The Flock.
  1. Number 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1974 included 34-year-old Ringo Starr singing "You're sixteen, you're beautiful, and you're mine," Terry Jacks' version of Rod McKuen's "Seasons in the Sun," Ray Stevens' "The Streak," Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods' "Billy Don't Be A Hero," Paper Lace's "The Night Chicago Died," and Paul Anka's "Having My Baby." The competition is stiff, but it may qualify as the single worst year in pop music.
  1. The ticket seems to read "Sat Jun 14 1975; Rain date June 15." The concert was not postponed by rain (the New York Times for 14 June predicts the weather to be "sunny and warm") but several internet sites and YouTube videos claim Sunday June 15 as the date of the concert. Unlikely: it's inconceivable that my parents would have allowed me to attend a concert on what would probably have been a school night (school wouldn't have ended until at least a week later).
  1. The animations for the Dark Side of the Moon songs were by Ian Emes, and can be found on YouTube.
  1. The words are attributed to Roger Waters, the band's bass player and lead singer after Barrett was forced to leave the band in 1968, in Nicholas Schaffner's Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey (New edition). Helter Skelter, 2005, p. 14.
  1. Alas, a little more than a year later the Claremont Diner burned to the ground. More about its history (and the famous cheesecake) is available on the MyVeronaNJ blog.
  1. Quoted in The Sex Pistols: The Inside Story, compiled and edited by Fred and Judy Vermorel, Universal, 1978, p. 15.