When I was six years old, The Gear Clashers, a hot rod club in my Brooklyn neighborhood, had their headquarters/clubhouse in the basement of the building two doors down. As soon as I'd get home from my day in school, I'd go sit on my stoop and watch these guys (gods to be worshiped, really) with their lanky hoodlum hair and sideburns and their packs of Lucky Strikes rolled up in the sleeves of their plain white T's, working on their Oldsmobiles and T-Birds. Every now and then, one of them would wave at me or say something like "Howyuhdooon?" I'd shyly wave back and inwardly swoon. One day, two of the guys from the club rang our doorbell. When my mom answered it, they handed her about 50 hot rod magazines. They'd been cleaning up their space and thought that the little first grader who stared at them every day would enjoy perusing these periodicals. From that moment on, and to this very day, I've been kindasorta obsessed with Little Deuce Coupes, chopped and channeled tuck 'n' roll Mercs, Caddy bullet taillights, fuel dragsters, Big Daddy Roth, George Barris, flat black, and candy apple red.
So, for the last decade or so, driving up the Hudson Valley to Rhinebeck, New York (Congrats, Chelsea!) for the annual Good Guys Rod and Custom Show has been a sacred ritual for me. But, four weeks ago, on the Friday night before I was due to leave on my hot rod pilgrimage, my 8 year old Infiniti G35 started spewing antifreeze out of a cracked pipe. A visit to my mechanic the next morning made it clear that I was staying home this year. DANG!
So, what's a macho Moon-Equipped souped-up lake-piped triple-carb metal-flake gear-head to do instead? Why, go the Gay Pride Parade, of course!
I must say, it was entertaining and enlightening to see flamboyant trompe-l'oeil trannies, topless tattooed "dykes on bikes," glistening body-builders in two-sizes-too-small Speedos, Village People leather boys, marching and mingling with Proud Parents of Gay Children, AIDS researchers, members of a wide assortment of ethnic minorities who are no doubt ostracized by their own communities, staid gay couples with their children in strollers, New York politicians, all along side enormous elaborate crassly gay-centric floats hyping chewing gum, soft drinks, radio stations... Anyway, it got me thinking about the night that Gay Pride was actually born and my own firsthand experience on June 28, 1969...
It was Saturday night. High school had let out for the summer just the day before.
July and August stretched out luxuriously in front of us. How to spend that first night of total freedom? Let's go record shopping in Greenwich Village!
I was part of a gang of guys, maybe 8 or 9 of us, who were total music freaks. None of us spent money on anything else, other than pizza and the occasional issue of Playboy. We hadn't hit the cool little import and specialty shops in several weeks. On a Saturday night, they'd all be open late. The House Of Oldies, Free Being, Robert's Records, Music Inn, Discophile, Broadway Al & Bleeker Bob's Village Oldies... all were on our itinerary. On that late June evening, most of the vinyl junkies that made up our cadre decided at the last minute to bail on the idea and spend the night sitting around doing nothing instead.
So, around 9pm, just me, Anthony and Andy, three suave and debonair little Brooklyn-ite rock band snobs, began our ritual trek by getting on the Lexington Ave IRT train at Boro Hall and headed to Astor Place in the East Village. Once there, we walked east to 2nd Ave and St. Mark's Place to start with Free Being (literally the first used record store in the USA. I'm proud to have worked there for 18 months some 9 years after this adventure) and then head back west, hitting all our favorite spots. What were we looking for? The usual unusual... import albums by British bands with weird names that neither we nor anyone else States-side had barely heard of, but who looked cool on the LP jackets... old out-of-print blues albums by guys that a Keith Richard or an Eric Clapton might've mentioned recently in an interview in Rolling Stone or Hit Parader. And, maybe the most fun, we played the "Look What I Found For 99 cents" game... cut-outs of albums by acts we hadn't wanted to spend full price on the year(s) before or ones we'd completely missed. Now and then, you'd hit something in one of those bins that was just a mind-blower of a collector's item... for a buck!
We could and would spend as much as a half an hour in a store the size of a large bedroom, combing through every bin. That night, Robert of Robert's Records, pulled four different sealed Freddy King albums on King Records (the same Cincinnati-based label that James Brown originally recorded for) out from under the counter as if they were contraband and told me he'd been saving them for me. What a score! At the time, Freddy was a Blues Myth to young guitarists like me, thanks to a few blistering instrumental covers on John Mayall records. I still have those four albums and have never seen one of them anywhere else ever.
Anyway, by about midnight we'd done every shop east of 7th Avenue, and so the three of us started heading west on Waverley Place towards the Christopher Street/Sheridan Square subway station. As we approached that intersection, we could hear shouting, sirens, and the distant sound of glass breaking. But, because of the kink at the intersection created by Waverly Place's northern slant versus Christopher Street's southern slant, we couldn't see what was going on.
Excited, we ran to the elbow of Waverly and Christopher at 7th Ave. where we were greeted by the thrilling but unnerving sight of a Volkswagen Beetle upside down on it's roof (!) in the middle of Christopher St. just west of 7th. Scattered around the immediate area were about 4 or 5 trash cans blazingly aflame, thick smoke filling the air. Sweaty shirtless guys in short-shorts were hurling bottles, a window shattered, men and women were standing in the middle of the street cursing and chanting at the top of their lungs. Traffic was snarled. Cabs were trying to back 7th Avenue in reverse, fire engines and cop cars were arriving in full scream... Full-blown CHAOS!
Stunned, I turned and looked uptown and that's when I noticed two absolutely drop dead gorgeous women dressed from head to toe, in the late June heat, in immaculate heavily studded biker black leather. They were leaning against a parked car, lighting each other's cigarettes, about 30 feet north of us, casually ignoring all the hell that was breaking loose around them. Both were in their early 20s. One of them kinda looked like a hard-edged Twiggy and the other kinda like an even harder-edged Kim Novak. Both had the same dyed white-hot blond hair and both wore it in an exaggerated Elvis ducktail... like The King's '68 Comeback Special look mixed with a prescient Ziggy Stardust over-the-top-ness.
Suddenly, through my dazzlement, I realized that "Kim" was now staring back at me, narrow-eyed, with real menace. Even though she was smaller than me, and female, I was instantly genuinely intimidated. She pushed herself off the parked car and slowly started walking towards me and my two record-buying goofball teenager friends, all the while malevolently glaring directly at me. And, at that moment, it hit me like a bolt of lightning... Oh My God... All these rioters were... GAY! (although, truth be told, back then, it was the "F" word this politically incorrect pup used). "Ms. Novak" was one pissed off beautiful leather lesbian who didn't appreciate little 'breeder' boys ogling her and her girlfriend.
"Guys, we gotta get outta here... RIGHT NOW!" squeaked little teenage me.
Dopey Anthony, Mr. Bravado, retorted "Hell no, I'm stayin'! This is cool!"
At that moment, a thrown bottle exploded into glass shrapnel less than 20 feet away. Without another word, my pals and I turned 180 degrees and started running full-tilt back towards 6th Ave, the D train, and the safety of sleepy old Brooklyn.
Yes, forty one years ago last month, for about three minutes, I was in the middle of The Stonewall Riots!