Wednesday, November 3, 2010

You Know Me Blues



Denise Evans was my first true love and for a time the Bonkeenies were the house band for the California School for the Deaf.

Denise, a beautiful freckle-faced redhead was officially my girlfriend for about a week back in 1969 when she was in the 9th grade and I was in the 10th. That was back in the days when our after-school hangout was Montclair Park in Oakland. Even though we went to different schools we'd always see each other in the afternoons at the park. She broke up with me...don't remember why. But it broke my heart and I never got over it.

Denise Evans, June 11, 1969 (last day of school)
Life went on, as it has a habit of doing, and a few years later - in 1974 - an aquaintence of mine mentioned that the deaf school, which was then  located in what is now the Clark Kerr campus at U.C. Berkeley, needed a band for a dance - and they paid well. He passed me the contact person's name: Joyce Brochini When I called Joyce I was surprised to discover why her sounded so familiar to me. She was Denise's mom. We arranged to meet at her house to go over the details.

I arrived at Joyce's the house in the Oakland hills with my scrapbook of Bonkeenie pictures and newspaper clippings, parked in the driveway, walked up the steps and knocked on the front door. The house was built into a hillside and the front door was actually downstairs from the main part of the house. I heard footsteps approaching and the door swung open - and Denise herself stood in front of me looking as surprised as I was. She was every bit as beautiful as she was when I'd seen her for what I thought was the last time 5 years ago. I was under the impression that she was away at college and would not be home when I came to talk business with her mom. But here she was in the flesh. We fell into each others arms and kissed - one of the all-time sweetest kisses of my entire life. Finally we separated and she said: "Sparky! What are you doing here?" I was speechless - my head was spinning - I didn't answer right away. Jane yelled from upstairs, apparently having heard my arrival: "He's here to see me".

Denise took my hand and led me upstairs to the living room. I had been to their house a few times and it looked pretty much the same. Joyce, pretty much an older version of Denise, was sitting on the couch looking extremely amused. "Well, I see you two found each other" she said, smiling. Debbie led me to a chair, sat me down and then sat on the arm still holding my hand. "Why didn't you tell me he was coming?" she asked her mom. Jane chuckled. She was obviously enjoying herself. "I wanted it to be a surprise." I was completely overwhelmed. I just stared at Denise, then at her mom. Finally Denise leaned over to me and asked me if I was all right. I looked her and could only say what was on my mind: "I love you..."

(opening riff is played over first 3 lines)
I was on my way to get my business straight

I didn't intend to stay out that late

But when you open up the door

Well, you nearly had to pick me up off the floor
A                    E               A                             E
You were so nice to me - you even kissed me hello
                B                                                 A
I'm gonna hang around your window like an alley cat
B                                                A
Sniff around your doorway like a dog
B                                             A
You might think you know me better than that


Denise, Joyce and I looked through the Bonkeenie scrapbook as I told them stories about the band's adventures. Denise and I reminisced about school days  and caught each other up on the comings and goings of our old friends. Then she stood up and said: "Sparky, let me show you something". Joyce got up and wandered into the kitchen as Debbie led me downstairs to her bedroom.

Denise's room was just off the entry hall where I'd first seen her. We stepped into the dark room and she turned on the light. The was an easel by the bed holding a painting-in-progress. The walls of her room were covered with drawings, paintings and sketches. Most were of people's faces, some were landscapes and all of them were quite good. Denise was proud of her work. "This is what I do" she said, gesturing around the room. I put my arms around her and we kissed. "I had no idea ..." I said. Denise had been frozen in time for me for the last 5 years as the beautiful girl I loved who'd broken my heart. And now here I was with her in her bedroom.

"Who's car is that in the driveway?" came a young girl's voice just outside the door. I recognized it right away as Glendora, Denise's younger sister. Denise went to her doorway and stuck her head out. "You'll never guess..." she started to say, but Glendora saw me over her sister's shoulder. "Sparky"?!" she pushed past Denise and hugged me. Before Denise and I had started going steady Glendora and I had been briefly involved. She had become quite angry with me when she realized that I was in love with her older sister. That seemed to be forgotten now as she held me and kissed me on the cheek. Denise smirked at us. "Just like old times, huh guys?" she said. Glendora shot her sister a look, disengaged herself from me, left the room and ran upstairs, shouting "Good to see you!" at me over her shoulder. The two sisters looked nothing alike. Glendora was short, freckle-free and had curly brown hair.

And when you showed me those pictures you'd drawn
Well, I never thought you had it in ya
It just goes to show that you've been carrying on
While I've been spending my life trying to win ya
You were so nice to me
You even kissed me goodbye
I'm gonna hang around your window like an alley cat
Sniff around your doorway like a dog
You might think you know me better than that

Back upstairs with Joyce, Denise and Glendora, we continued looking at the Bonkeenie scrapbook and chatting about old times. Denise went down to her room and came back with a couple of long-form love letters I'd made for her - they were like visual mixtapes where I'd use pictures, song lyrics, magazines articles, collages and art to express my feelings for her. One was called "On The Way Home" after the Buffalo Springfield song. We laughed about the rainy night I'd shown up out of the blue (well, gray) to deliver it to her. Glendora pointed out that I'd really broken her heart that night.

Joyce explained to me that the kids at the deaf school love loud rock music because they could feel the vibrations. Also some of the kids weren't entirely deaf. I agreed to play at the school Christmas party which was about 2 weeks away. With the contract signed, Denise walked my down to the front door. I glanced at Glendora as I was leaving and our eyes met. I started to say something and she put her finger to her lips in a hushing motion, then waved goodbye. At the doorway, I turned to Denise and kissed her again. "I've never stopped loving you", I said. "It was great to see you," she responded, "but you're  married and I'm engaged..." "Doesn't matter" I said, before bounding down the stairs, "I'll always love you". When I reached my car down in the driveway, I turned around to see Denise standing on the porch looking down at me. "You're still crazy!" she shouted. "About you!" I yelled back before jumping into Little Keenie (my red '69 Bug) and driving away.

By December of 1974 the Bonkeenies consisted of me, Arlene, Steve Hanamura on bass and a revolving cast of drummers. Since Olga and Greg had left the band months before it had been dying a slow death. I was less than a month away from beginning work on what would ultimately be Won Out and stepping away from live performances. The idea of playing for deaf kids appealed to My sense of irony and the absurd. We would literally be 'the best band they never heard'! We found a drummer, Leroy Silva, through the musicians union and set about teaching him our songs. Since there was very little time, we'd just do the loudest simplest longest songs we knew. Fortunately, Leroy turned out to be a very talented drummer and a quick study.

Since the Melissa debacle in '72 I'd been pretty faithful to Arlene. We were at this point living in a cozy little cottage behind a large house in the hills above Mills College (another one of Arlene's amazing finds). It was clearly time for me to make an absolute fool of myself.

I showed up, quite drunk, one evening on Joyce's porch, knocking and ringing the bell. Glendora answered, sized up my condition and pulled me into the house. She tried to look stern and said: "Denise isn't here. She's out with Bill". Bill, I assumed, was the guy she was engaged to. I leaned against the wall and laughed. Joyce came downstairs to see what the fuss was. "Oh, Sparky..." she said, shaking her head, "I'll go make some coffee". She went back upstairs. Glendora's room was right across from Denise's off of the entryway. She pulled me in and sat me down on the bed. Standing in front of me, she folded her arms across her chest and smiled. "You really really hurt me, Sparky" she said, "It took me a long time to get over you. I really fell for you and it broke my heart when you started chasing Denise" I was sobering up fast. I don't know what I was expecting, but was not expecting this. I looked  into the distance just over her left shoulder. "I'm sorry", I said, and I really was. "Well, you're drunk", she said, "and I know you're looking for my sister and you probably won't even remember this...". But she was wrong. I remember every minute of those days.

I went to see you but you weren't home
So I talked to your sister instead
She was really kind to me
She gave me the wall to lean on
She was so nice to me - she didn't make me leave
I'm gonna hang around your window like an alley cat
Sniff around your doorway like a dog
You might think you know me better than that

In Montclair park back in 1969 I got a note from Denise, delivered by a friend of hers. It read: "Sparky I am breaking up with you. We can still be friends. Love, Denise". I remember staring at it, reading it again and again, thinking, this must be wrong...this must be wrong. I then heard that she was going out with a friend of mine. For a while there were rumors that he and I were going to fight. I laughed when I heard that. It was her decision to break up. Beating up (or getting beaten up by) her new boyfriend would accomplish nothing. Denise was my dream girl...I gradually stopped going to Montclair park. I didn't see, hear from or even hear about Denise until I went to her house in December of 1974 to talk to her mom about a gig. But I never stopped thinking about her.

A                 E
Something is wrong
           A                               E
I gotta try my whole life to convince ya
        A                                  B
And nothing's been the same since ya....

Gave me that message about 5 years ago
And you even came to see the show
I didn't see you ';cause I was singing
You were so nice to me
I didn't notice 'cause I had been drinking
But until I hold you in my arms like a vise
Or get into your blood like a disease
I'm gonna hang around your window like an alley cat
Sniff around your doorway like a dog
You might think you know me better than that
But you don't..

The deaf school show was at the Marriot Hotel in Berkeley in a large banquet room. The kids were very well behaved and really enjoyed themselves. It was weirdly silent until we started playing. We learned the signs for 'fast' and 'slow' and would let the kids know what kind of song we were playing so they could dance accordingly. Groups of kids would stand in front of the p.a.speakers and hold their hands out to feel the vibrations. It was a strange, but fun, experience. Greg Reznick came along and played guitar with us. It was great to see him again.

Denise and Glendora were at the dance. Denise was with her fiancĂ©e Bill - I remembered him from high school! - and Glendora was on the arm of a long-haired bearded fellow who I gathered was her current boyfriend. They were not there long - I only caught a glimpse of Denise standing in a doorway. Glendora ran up and kissed me on the cheek, then disappeared.

So, the song "You Know Me Blues" is a literal transcription of those days put to a slightly twisted blues progression. I wrote it during the sessions at Chris' house in January and we recorded it with me playing my Ovation Custom Balladeer. The version that appears on the album was recorded during the "Trucks in the Sky" session in 1977. The song that we are segueing into at the fadeout is Neil Young's "Don't Cry No Tears". How appropriate.

Although I never saw the girls again, the Bonkeenies continued to play dances for the School for the Deaf through the next year. I don't remember why we stopped.

Years and years (and years) later I ran into Debbie Pirak, a classmate of Denise's and an old friend of mine (we'd actually gone steady for a few weeks after Denise and I broke up). Her son was going to the same school as my son, Ian (yep, more about him later). We talked for a bit about "what become of..." and finally she said, without any prompting from me: "I'm not in touch with Denise, but last I heard she was married." I didn't reply. We were standing in the schoolyard and young children, among them our own, were running around us having fun, completely oblivious of the two adults and their memories. Suddenly, Debbie's son ran up and threw his arms around her waist. She laughed and nearly fell over. Then she said: "I know you really loved her..". The change in her voice made me look away from the running, laughing children in the play yard. Her eyes had suddenly filled with tears. Her son let go of her and ran to catch up with his friends. "I did," I said, and we embraced, crying together over years of stored up sadness; me for mine and she for hers.