Jimmy Webb was attending an opening night party in Las Vegas for Nancy Sinatra, coinciding with closing night for Elvis Presley in August 1969.
I laughed and wheeled around to devote my attention to the gold veins in the black mirror behind the bar. “These Boots Are Made for Walking” was just short of deafening on the sound system as I felt rather than sensed, a person immediately to my right.
A familiar baritone bourbon voice reverberated in my ear: “Jimma!”
The guy had bent over and put his elbow right down on the bar to talk to me. I eased my head around cautiously, not sure who had managed to move in so close.
“Jimma!” he said again, and I found myself nose-to-nose and eyebrow-to-eyebrow with Elvis Presley.
“Hey!” I shouted involuntarily, as all my ass-kissing solenoids kicked in at the same time. I skewed the barstool around to face him. He was wearing dark glasses, a white shirt open at the throat, jeans, and a black velvet jacket.
“Don’ geddup, Jimma,” Elvis said. “I jus wonna talk to ya fo a minute.”
I mumbled something about that being an honour and asked him if he wanted a beer.
“Nah, I don’ drink.” He laughed and I laughed, too, as if I knew the joke but I fuckin’ didn’t.
“Jimma, I jus wanna ask you how many French horns you use in your orchester.” I didn’t think of myself as someone who “had an orchestra” like Harry James or Nelson Riddle, but so earnest was his expression and tone of voice that I let that slide.
“Well, I tell you, Elvis,” I said, “when I first started out I used three because there’s basically three notes in a chord.
He snorted. “Yeh, I know that!” His lip really did curve up on one side, like a friendly snarl.
“Well,” I continued, “when I started writing more complicated chords I found out three French horns just didn’t always get a full rich sound.”
Now, I was talking to the guy about something I cared about. He thought about it as I studied his reflection in the bar mirror.
“Okay, Jimma, that seems about right to me, too.”
So the big E lies in his giant white bed and thinks about orchestration? Mind-blowing.
“You know,” I added, as I nodded toward Mr. Sinatra across the room, “Nelson Riddle uses four French horns.”
Elvis slipped off the black glasses and reached over to shake my hand.
“Hey, Jimma, thank ya vermuch. Just wait’ll yuh hear ma new orchester.”
He smiled and I said, “Hey, anytime!”
And then like a wraith, he was gone. I mean gone. I did a 360-degree scan of the gigantic lobby and there was no sign of him. All my life I’ve felt a moment passed, a chance to say: “I mean anytime, or anything! Any of those monsters you’re wrestling with, ‘cause I have monsters in my closet, too! I like you. I would like to tell you every goddamn thing I know about music! I think I could turn you on to stuff. . . .” But he was gone, and like Melville’s Moby-Dick I would only see him again once more.
Category Archives: Non-Fiction
Jimmy Webb was attending an opening night party in Las Vegas for Nancy Sinatra, coinciding with closing night for Elvis Presley in August 1969.
On the 22nd February 1964, the Beatles returned from their first tour to America, arriving at Heathrow airport to be met by a press conference, and several thousand fans.
Alistair Taylor, Manager Brian Epstein’s assistant, was tasked with arranging their ‘escape’ from the airport and their fans.
John, Cynthia and I dived into the back of the faithful old Austin Princess. John was shaking with fear as we slammed the doors behind us and he yelled, ‘For fuck’s sake, get us out of here. Let’s drive.’ The driver sped out of Heathrow as fast as he could and we gradually started to relax. We had been told to drive along the perimeter road alongside the runway and we were followed by a frantic horde of fans. Some were running and we soon lost them but others were on motorcycles and scooters. We seemed to have the biggest tail of any of the Beatle cars, probably because the Austin Princess was pretty famous by then.
‘Put your foot down and lose them,’ I yelled at the driver. Well, I always did enjoy Z-Cars. And we accelerated away from most of them. We started to relax, but after a few minutes the driver said, ‘There is a motorcyclist following us. He has been behind us from the airport.’ We looked back to see this sinister lone figure all in black leathers, carefully keeping a safe distance behind. I didn’t like the look of this guy at all and I ordered our driver to shake him off. The Princess launched into a sequence of dramatic manoeuvres which succeeded only in making us all feel sick. The motorcycle was powerful and it was still on our tail.
I was concerned and even more worried when John said ‘Oh fuck it. Stop the car and let’s see what the guy wants.’ I was still trying to work out if I had the authority to countermand John’s order when the car drew to a halt, and he opened the door.
‘Come on, mate,’ he said. ‘Why are you following us? Hop in the car, and let’s have a chat.’
The stranger took off his helmet, put his bike on its stand and stepped into the car. He had a look of amazement on his face as if he was stepping into a flying saucer. He was a bit scared but he wasn’t going to miss this for the world. John pulled down the occasional seat which faced the back seats and asked him to sit down. Then they had a conversation that ranged across the Beatles, the tour, the bike, and a host of other things for several minutes. John signed his autograph and the stranger shook hands, his day made, and drove off on his bike.
John was jet-lagged from the flight, pissed off from the press conference and still shocked from the scare at the airport but he still had the ability to sit and be charming to a mysterious motorcyclist. I was horrified at the risk he had taken but John Lennon was his own man and I think he admired the bottle of the guy on the motorbike and felt he had earned himself a special one-to-one chat. For me, it was a nightmare. I was supposed to protect the guy, which is hard when he invites complete strangers into the car.
Siggelkow got so blotto one night while drinking with Ringo and several others at the Russian Tea Room that he stood up and promptly fell back on the table behind him.
“And seated at that table was David Rockefeller. And I looked up, and there he was, looking down at me. And I looked up and I said, ‘Oh shit, I just spilled soup all over this guy.’
And Ringo turned around and came over and David Rockefeller looked up and said ‘Ringo Starr.’ And it was like all was forgiven.
It was like, yeah, I spilled soup on Rockefeller’s lap, but Ringo trumped all that.”
Sometime in 1964, John had arranged that an Art School friend of he and Cynthia, Helen Anderson, would make his family a leather coat each.
Harrie was his aunt (his mother’s youngest sister), and David her son.
Nanny (one of his mother’s older sisters), and Michael her son.
Julia and Jackie were John’s two young sisters, at the time being 17 and 15 respectively.
We went to the workshop the next day, as promised – John, Cynthia, Harrie, David, Jackie and me. Nanny was there with Michael too. There were large tables like school desks, covered in skins, and the leathery smell was powerful. David chose a black leather three-quarter-length coat. Michael chose a grey leather one. Jackie’s was lovely dark green leather and knee-length. They all had linings that would match the coats. Then Helen turned to me, standing quietly at the back. I was thinking that my coat would be too difficult to make, I explained what I had designed in my head and showed her a drawing. I expected her to laugh and offer me a black leather coat, but she studied my sketch, turning her head this way and that, grinned and said, ‘That’s lovely, I think it will have to be antelope.’ And so it was.
When the best coats ever made on the planet were ready, there was another surprise. Each coat had with it a matching Beatle cap, just like John’s. How cool was that! What a lovely brother.
And while our big brother was caught up in the most frenetic year of his group’s meteoric rise to global stardom, our lives of quiet domestic and school routine couldn’t have been more of a contrast. We watched John’s progress with fascination and pride, and loved it when he came back to Liverpool and we saw him. Those times were increasingly rare, but despite what was happening in his life John never seemed any different. He was just John.
When I was in elementary school, there was a young Irish boy named Mike Hennessy. He’d been left back a few times; he wasn’t much of a student. That’s putting it mildly, he was a Neanderthal. He had blue eyes, heavy black brows and black hair, he was somewhat stunted in growth, about the size all of us in the sixth grade were, when he should have been in the eighth. I was tenth, because I’d been double promoted once. He was fourteen and had to shave. The joy in his life seemed to be taking the joy out of my life. He was a real bully. I spent all my recesses running around the school building trying to escape Mike Hennessy. One time he caught me, turned me upside down, pushed my head into the toilet and flushed it. I’ve never felt comfortable being in water since.
I hadn’t thought much about Mike Hennessy in almost ten years. He left that school, or I moved away, I don’t know which. I didn’t care too much as long as he was gone. They might have thrown him out of school, or he ran away; maybe they put him in reform school, he was always stealing things, letting air out of tyres, breaking windows, general mischief. He definitely needed reforming. But just by accident, while I was in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, I met Mike Hennessy in the PX. He was easy for me to recognise. I’ll never forget that brutal low-browed, long lipped, Irish face. He was in the Twenty-Eighth Division.
We shook hands, and here we are, both grown up, more or less, and he’s two or three inches shorter than I am, and he actually even weighs less than I do. It doesn’t seem possible. Even though the relationship of elementary school is gone, we could never be friends because he’s as vulgar and stupid a man as he was a boy. He’s almost drunk when I meet him, on three point two beer, yet. He’s very definitely not the kind of person I can relate to. But we have a beer together for old times’ sake. I realise he couldn’t have been in a reform school or the army would never have drafted him, but he still looks like someone somebody ought to reform.
When we come up to relieve the Twenty-Eighth, on that steep hill near Metz, we all know what’s happened and are scared. Luckily, someone has finally gotten smart, checked with the French and found how, for this particular fort, the one we’re going to attack, Fort Drion, there are only two water sources, or wells. The sources fill great reservoirs dug inside the hill. These forts are really underground warrens. There’s even an underground railway for moving guns and equipment. We find that out later. There are holes dug out in the sides of the hill to concrete bunkers. The sight of it is enough to scare anybody.
All of us in I&R are convinced they’re going to send some of us up that hill to snoop around, find out where the bunkers are. We don’t sleep much.
But the French tell us where the hidden springs are, so we poison them. Just like that. The glories of war. I don’t know how, but somehow the Germans find out, maybe because people are dropping dead all around them and somebody guesses.
As soon as we arrive, the first thing I do is go see if Mike Hennessy has survived the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’. I go asking around the busy grave registrars on the Twenty-Eighth. Finally I find someone who knew him and is pretty sure he’d been hit. They’ve pulled most of the bodies down from the hill, I believe they even arrange a sort of truce for doing this.
Sure enough, there’s Mike Hennessy stretched on the ground, his head sticking out of a body bag. It’s a terrible shock to see someone who’s been such a menace in your childhood, such a symbol of violence, unfairness and fear, who took so much of the joy away from your life, lying there empty, bloody, spattered with dirt particles and shrapnel pitted into his skin. He’s white and blue, his whole shoulder blown off and his arm more or less tucked back in beside his body. The body bag is, in reality, a fartsack. He’s still wearing his wool knit cap over his dark curly hair. One of his dog tags has been jammed in his mouth between his teeth. I’m not even nineteen years old yet, and Mike Hennessy is dead. Some things are hard to live past.
The climax came at noon one summer day. Pease called me to his workbench; to get to him I had to go between two narrow benches and stand with my back against a wall.
“Richard, I want to ask you something,” Pease began pleasantly, not looking up from his work.
Reynolds came over and stood blocking the narrow passage between the benches; he folded his arms and stared at me solemnly. I looked from one to the other, sensing trouble. Pease looked up and spoke slowly, so there would be no possibility of my not understanding.
“Richard, Reynolds here tells me that you called me Pease,” he said.
I stiffened. A void opened up in me. I knew that this was the showdown.
He meant that I had failed to call him Mr. Pease. I looked at Reynolds; he was gripping a steel bar in his hand. I opened my mouth to speak, to protest, to assure Pease that I had never called him simply Pease, and that I had never had any intention of doing so, when Reynolds grabbed me by the collar, ramming my head against a wall.
“Now, be careful, nigger,” snarled Reynolds, baring his teeth. “I heard you call ’im Pease. And if you say you didn’t, you’re calling me a liar, see?” He waved the steel bar threateningly.
If I had said: No, sir, Mr. Pease, I never called you Pease, I would by inference have been calling Reynolds a liar; and if I had said: Yes, sir, Mr. Pease, I called you Pease, I would have been pleading guilty to the worst insult that a Negro can offer to a southern white man. I stood trying to think of a neutral course that would resolve this quickly risen nightmare, but my tongue would not move.
“Richard, I asked you a question!” Pease said. Anger was creeping into his voice.
“I don’t remember calling you Pease, Mr. Pease,” I said cautiously. “And if I did, I sure didn’t mean . . .”
“You black sonofabitch! You called me Pease, then!” he spat, rising and slapping me till I bent sideways over a bench.
Reynolds was up on top of me demanding:
“Didn’t you call him Pease? If you say you didn’t, I’ll rip your gut string loose with this f–k–g bar, you black granny dodger! You can’t call a white man a liar and get away with it!”
I wilted. I begged them not to hit me. I knew what they wanted. They wanted me to leave the job.
“I’ll leave,” I promised. “I’ll leave right now!”
They gave me a minute to get out of the factory, and warned me not to show up again or tell the boss. Reynolds loosened his hand on my collar and I ducked out of the room. I did not see Mr. Crane or the stenographer in the office. Pease and Reynolds had so timed it that Mr. Crane and the stenographer would be out when they turned on the terror. I went to the street and waited for the boss to return. I saw Griggs wiping glass shelves in the jewellery store and I beckoned to him. He came out and I told him what had happened.
“Then what are you standing there like a fool for?” he demanded.
“Won’t you ever learn? Get home! They might come down!”
I walked down Capitol Street feeling that the sidewalk was unreal, that I was unreal, that the people were unreal, yet expecting somebody to demand to know what right I had to be on the streets.
My wound went deep; I felt that I had been slapped out of the human race. When I reached home, I did not tell the family what had happened; I merely told them that I had quit, that I was not making enough money, that I was seeking another job.
That night Griggs came to my house; we went for a walk.
“You got a goddamn tough break,” he said.
“Can you say it was my fault?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“Well, what about your goddamn philosophy of meekness?” I asked him bitterly.
“These things just happen,” he said, shrugging.
“They owe me money,” I said.
“That’s what I came about,” he said. “Mr. Crane wants you to come in at ten in the morning. Ten sharp, now, mind you, because he’ll be there and those guys won’t gang up on you again.”
The next morning, at ten I crept up the stairs and peered into the office of the optical shop to make sure that Mr. Crane was in.
He was at his desk. Pease and Reynolds were at their machines in the rear.
“Come in, Richard,” Mr. Crane said.
I pulled off my hat and walked into the office; I stood before him.
“Sit down,” he said.
I sat. He stared at me and shook his head.
“Tell me, what happened?”
An impulse to speak rose in me and died with the realization that I was facing a wall that I would never breech. I tried to speak several times and could make no sounds. I grew tense and tears burnt my cheeks.
“Now, just keep control of yourself,” Mr. Crane said.
I clenched my fists and managed to talk.
“I tried to do my best here,” I said.
“I believe you,” he said. “But I want to know what happened. Which one bothered you?”
“Both of ‘em,” I said.
Reynolds came running to the door and I rose. Mr. Crane jumped to his feet.
“Get back in there,” he told Reynolds.
“That nigger’s lying!” Reynolds said. “I’ll kill ‘im if he lies on me!”
“Get back in there or get out,” Mr. Crane said.
Reynolds backed away, keeping his eyes on me.
“Go ahead,” Mr. Crane said. “Tell me what happened.”
Then again I could not speak. What could I accomplish by telling him? I was black; I lived in the South. I would never learn to operate those machines as long as those two white men in there stood by them. Anger and fear welled in me as I felt what I had missed; I leaned forward and clapped my hands to my face.
“No, no, now,” Mr. Crane said. “Keep control of yourself. No matter what happens, keep control . . .”
“I know,” I said in a voice not my own. “There’s no use of my saying anything.”
“Do you want to work here?” he asked me.
I looked at the white faces of Pease and Reynolds; I imagined their waylaying me, killing me. I was remembering what had happened to Ned’s brother.
“No, sir,” I breathed.
I’m scared,” I said. “They would kill me.”
Mr. Crane turned and called Pease and Reynolds into the office.
“Now, tell me which one bothered you. Don’t be afraid. Nobody’s going to hurt you,” Mr. Crane said.
I stared ahead of me and did not answer. He waved the men inside. The white stenographer looked at me with wide eyes and I felt drenched in shame, naked to my soul. The whole of my being felt violated, and I knew that my own fear had helped to violate it. I was breathing hard and struggling to master my feelings.
“Can I get my money, sir?” I asked at last.
“Just sit a minute and take hold of yourself,” he said.
I waited and my roused senses grew slowly calm.
“I’m awfully sorry about this,” he said.
“I had hoped for a lot from this job,” I said. “I^ wanted to go to school, to college . . .”
“I know,” he said. “But what are you going to do now?”
My eyes travelled over the office, but I was not seeing.
“I’m going away,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“I’m going to get out of the South,” I breathed.
“Maybe that’s best,” he said. “I’m from Illinois. Even for me, it’s hard here. I can do just so much.”
He handed me my money, more than I had earned for the week.
I thanked him and rose to leave. He rose. I went into the hallway and he followed me. He reached out his hand.
“It’s tough for you down here,” he said.
I barely touched his hand. I walked swiftly down the hall, fighting against crying again. I ran down the steps, then paused and looked back up. He was standing at the head of the stairs, shaking his head. I went into the sunshine and walked home like a blind man.
Some of the Congolese sisters at the convent arrived about 3pm (all time from now on was judged by the sun). They had come with bread and butter, and some black coffee and sugar. The women were allowed to eat, and we ate hungrily. The men were not allowed a thing; the Simbas said they no longer had need. The Congolese sisters whispered that they had seen the fathers through the windows. They had been told of the sentence of death and were very calm and resigned. They added that they were worried about them. So were we. The sisters added, “For you, we have no fear, but for them there is no hope.”
The bread finished, the Congolese sisters went back to the convent, and we returned to our prison-room.
Suddenly at about 4pm we heard shouts, and people running, and somebody screaming hysterically, “Give them the command,” followed by a loud cheer. My blood ran cold. The sisters did not know what the “command” was, but I knew it was the special Simba torture. It seemed as if my heart was trying to burst out of my chest, and going so rapidly and loudly, I was sure it could be heard.
The man in the room opposite was dragged out, and the Simba guards kept us informed with a running commentary. The priests were dragged out into the street and “the command” was administered. How they stood it is beyond any human comprehension. As the ropes were tightened on their legs and arms, making their bodies into a backward arch, one screamed, the first we had heard.
Some of the sisters were crying, but most were like marble statues, and their moving lips alone showed that they were indeed alive. They had known some of these men for years, in the course of their work and their worship. Some of the men were old; two in particular were over seventy and had long white beards. Some were young, the youngest was only twenty-four, others in their late twenties and early thirties.
A truck pulled up, more beatings; the truck moved away, and shortly afterwards was silence, an uneasy silence. Our guard told us the men had been released from their bonds, stripped naked, and were being marched down to the river Rubi. How we prayed for those men; words are inadequate.
After a short while, more shouts, this time in the distance; then the rattle of machine-gun fire and we knew the thirty-one men were in eternity. The time was 5:30pm. The sisters surreptitiously crossed themselves. I asked the Lord to forgive the Simbas. Later we heard they had been lined up at the river, then called upon one by one, a stab into the left chest, when they fell, machetes to their necks. Any still living when they were in the water were given a coup-de-grace by Simbas in canoes, which explained the machine-gun fire we had heard.
The population of Buta, realising the enormity of the crime, fled to the forest. An unnatural silence fell on the town.
It must have been about 6:30pm. The light was on in our room, nobody had moved or spoken since the men had been shot about an hour previously. Suddenly the door opened, and before our horrified and sickened gaze, there stood a half-naked Simba. The perspiration was running down his body in rivulets. He held a dripping leg of a white man! It had been crudely severed at the knee. His long two-edged hunting knife was in his other hand, still bloody. I wanted to take my eyes off the leg, but could only stare at it, transfixed. Nobody in the room had moved, but we were each conscious of the reactions of the others.
He advanced into the room, still out of breath with running. He stood there, holding the leg for all to see clearly. He asked what it was, and not getting an answer, asked again, directing his question at me, as I was nearest. My equilibrium quickly restored, I answered the obvious thing, “It is a white man’s leg.” Satisfied that it had been identified as white, he asked another sister what she thought of it; she calmly replied that the man was dead, and that this was only the body, and it didn’t matter. He then thrust the leg into her hands, and made us all in turn hold it in two hands, even the children. Chantal asked her mother, “What is it?” And Madame answered “It is something they killed today,” giving the impression it was an animal. The children were satisfied.
The man put the leg on the floor, and gave us a long talk on the fate of those who communicate with the National Army.
Manley was the first stricken. His temperature rose to 104 degrees, and he shook uncontrollably – it was malaria. “This is too much for me,” he muttered to Murray. “I can’t manage it.” Unable to stand, Manley lay on the muddy bank, trying to let the sun bake the fever out of him, though it did little good.
Next, Costin contracted espundia, an illness with even more frightening symptoms. Caused by a parasite transmitted by sand flies, it destroys the flesh around the mouth, nose, and limbs, as if the person was slowly dissolving. “It develops into . . . a mass of leprous corruption,” Fawcett said. In rare instances, it leads to fatal secondary infections. In Costin’s case, the disease eventually became so bad, as Nina Fawcett later informed the Royal Geographical Society, that he had “gone off his rocker.”
Murray, meanwhile, seemed to be literally coming apart. One of his fingers grew inflamed after brushing against a poisonous plant. Then the nail slid off, as if someone had removed it with pliers. Then his right hand developed, as he put it, a “very sick, deep, suppurating wound,” which made it “agony” even to pitch his hammock. Then he was stricken with diarrhea. Then he woke up to find what looked like worms in his knee and arm. He peered closer. They were maggots growing inside him. He counted fifty around his elbow alone. “very painful now and again when they move,” Murray wrote.
Repulsed, he tried, despite Fawcett’s warnings, to poison them. He put anything – nicotine, corrosive sublimate, permanganate of potash – inside the wounds and then attempted to pick the worms out with a needle or by squeezing the flesh around them. Some worms died from the poison and started to rot inside him. Others grew as long as an inch and occasionally poked out their heads from his body, like a periscope on a submarine. It was as if his body were being taken over by the kind of tiny creatures he had studied. His skin smelled putrid. His feet swelled. Was he getting elephantiasis too? “The feet are too big for the boots,” he wrote. “The skin is like pulp.”
Only Fawcett seemed unmolested. He discovered one or two maggots beneath his skin – a species of botfly plants its eggs on a mosquito, which then deposits the hatched larvae on humans – but he did not poison them, and the wounds caused by their burrowing remained uninfected. Despite the party’s weakened state, Fawcett and the men pressed on.
Q.109. A dewdrop
Why does a dewdrop on a blade of grass shine so? Is it not a beautiful thing to so?
‘The daisy, by the shadow that it casts,
Protects the lingering dewdrop from the Sun.’
A marvellous affair of Nature. The sunlight enters the drop – suffers many internal reflections and emerges in a bundle of light. We can even see the colours of the rainbow in it. It glitters like a diamond – but I would rather have a dewdrop. And when at break of day I see the wetness on my grass I recall the poet’s line:
‘Early, bright, transient, chaste as morning dew.’