Excerpts from "Too Much Fun: A Life of Music and Mayhem"
By Billy C. Farlow
Decatur, Alabama - 1955
I was seven years old. Occasionally I would go on morning walks with my grandfather. We would always find our way over to the funky side of town, over on Bank Street, Lafayette Street (Death Alley to the old timers) or Vine Street, down by the L&N tracks that divided the white part of town from the black.
Bank Street had once been the main street in town but was going to hell in the name of progress and civic growth. Once prosperous businesses had faded and pawn shops, junk shops, and store front churches had taken their place. The area was full of old southern river town characters and Big Daddy, as we called my grandfather, seemed to know most of them. (He'd come from Greece before WWI, opened a restaurant and raised a family. A nagging wife and memories of his younger days drew him back to Decatur.) There was Big Red of Red's Pawn and Loan where in a few years time I'd try but fail to get him to come down on the one dollar price of my first mouth harp. There was an old black fellow that I couldn't understand a word of who juggled balls and danced and had a monkey on his back that didn't do a damn thing. There were old Legion buddies with missing parts and worn out hustlers and gamblers who sat in the lobby of the Lyons Hotel and smoked all day.
But there was no more Abe Powell; everybody told me that over and over. Honest Abe Powell, the bootlegger who rowed illegal spirits across the Tennessee River by night, who raised a son who never went to school and lived in a home-made house trailer in the alley behind the American Café', Big Daddy's old restaurant. Abe Powell who, while blazing drunk on his Indian one night saw two telephone poles and tried to go between 'em and ended up with two bad legs and a morphine addiction he couldn't shake - though he did run his doctor out of town on a threat of death. No, there was no more Abe Powell. He drowned in '38.
Then there was the guitar man, an old partly lame black fellow who played up and down Bank Street for tips. Usually he could be found sitting in the shade up next to the Old State Bank: the only building in town the Yankees didn't burn down when they came through in 1863. He'd lost his left hand (either in the War or a cotton gin, take your pick) and had some kind of metal deal attached so he could do a bottle neck style on the guitar. I was fascinated by the way he slid that bar up and down the neck and made it sound like a train whistle or sometimes a howling dog with lots of movement and rhythm, all the time smiling broadly and working his audience for nickels and dimes. I remember his repertoire as being gospel, which I knew then, and up-tempo jump blues, which I knew nothing about but made me want to get up and shout. His clothes were ragged and his teeth yellow or missing and his guitar cheap and cracked, bound with tape and held together by makeshift carpentry. Don't remember his name or if Big Daddy knew it either. But I saw him playing on the sidewalks many times over the next several years. The last time was sometime in the early 60's.
He looked pretty worn, and I remember hearing him say he was gonna walk the twenty miles to Huntsville to see his girlfriend. I never saw him after that. When I visited Decatur from San Francisco in the 70's, I went down to Bank Street to look for him. Bank Street had changed, again for the worse. Renovation had slicked up the area and now trendy restaurants, overpriced antique stores and a chain hotel dotted the street. The L&N station had closed and the Hummingbird no longer stopped in Decatur. No more crowds of travelers and shoppers to throw change, no loafers to shoot the shit with, to pass a bottle around with, no American Café' to get a cup of coffee, no more Abe Powell. And no more guitar man.
Winchester, Indiana - 1958
Dad and the preacher liked to bowl on Saturday nights. Don't ask me why. Could have been the wildest thing they were allowed to do within the three-strand barb wire confines of their fundamentalist moral values or maybe it was the almost total lack of anything else to do in that little crossroads farm community. I'd usually go with them, not to bowl, just to watch or wander around the snack bar and listen to the jukebox. I remember Duane Eddy's "Rebel Rouser" and Jack Scott and, of course, Elvis. I wished I had side burns and a sneer like Elvis. I got the sneer down through I wasn't sure what to do with it. The side burns would have to wait until puberty.
Now this particular bowling alley, the Randolph Lanes and Grill, was located on a side street just off the town square and sat between two shady establishments, one of which was the notorious Anchor Bar and Grill. The Anchor featured live entertainment on weekends and was looked upon by God-fearing locals as a haven of sleaze, vice, corruption, and good old fashioned down home sin. Have mercy! It was rumored around town that Wanda what's-her-name had licked hog oil (it was probably chocolate syrup) off the stiff tool of the soon- to-be late Big Walter Burris, president of the Satan's Servants motorcycle club, right on the dance floor of the Anchor not two weeks after she was crowned Queen of the Annual Tomato Festival and had ridden on a huge float in the parade. But people were always saying stuff like that about the place and Wanda seemed like such a nice girl&ldots;One Saturday night I was feeling a little more adventurous or restless than usual and slipped out of the bowling alley, something I was specifically warned not to do. But the night was warm and the smell of frying grease made me feel good and made me forget about Dad and the preacher.
Four Panhead Harleys in front of the Anchor caught my eye and I wandered over to check them out, awestruck by the chrome and leather and their vast, powerful bulk. I stood there wide-eyed for sometime when suddenly two characters busted out of the bar and hopped on their choppers and tore off screaming into the night. I retreated from the curb while this was going on and, alone again on the sidewalk, I found myself up next to the big front window of the infamous Anchor Bar and Grill. Of course I looked in. It was a real education for a ten-year-old boy who had never been anywhere but school, church and the root beer stand to study drunks at play. And what a time they were having! Laughin', cussin', stumblin', shovin' and fallin' all over themselves and everybody else. Factory drones, farmers, truck drivers and the women - Lord have mercy - cheap lookin' mamas with lots of lipstick, tight pants and bee hive hairdos, dancin' way closer than I ever imagined anyone would ever want to.
Then the band came on - four greasy lookin' dudes with two guitars, dog house bass and drums wearing loud red matching western shirts. The music hit me hard. It was good, solid, primal rockabilly and country, and I noticed as I pressed up against the big window with the neon anchor on it that the singer had the side burns I wanted so badly! And he had Elvis' moves too and jumped around when they played "Shake Rattle and Roll" while the crowd hollered and hooted their approval. They did "Jambalaya" and "Hound Dog" and some stupid slow ballads I never liked. The guys took turns dancing with the hard looking women and everyone kept on drinking.
All of a sudden - wham! - three dudes on Harleys (I think two of them were the ones who had left a few minutes earlier) flew around the corner and stopped in front of the Anchor and strode inside. The newest of the three was big, fuckin' blonde - haired Rex Straley, known to all as the badest son-of-a -bitch in the county, a legend among young boys who thrilled when he walked past making sparks fly from the taps on the heels of his motorcycle boots and the nemesis of every law enforcement officer in that end of the state. Rex's favorite stunt was to get real drunk and ride his Harley around the square while sitting backwards then elude the local cops in a high speed chase through the quiet Hoosier countryside. He'd been involved in fatal crashes, knocked up several girls, and reportedly disfigured a gas station attendant in Hubb City over 35 cents. For kicks he and his buddies would ride over to Muncie or Dayton to "beat up niggers" as he put it. There were lots of people around that just plain hated his guts!
Well he must have had a bone to pick this night because he wasn't inside that bar one minute before a heated discussion could be heard over the music. I couldn't see a thing for all the people in the way but real quick-like the conversation turned into a damn bar room brawl. Women screamed and ran out the door and the band stopped. I heard a loud sound like a guitar amp with reverb crashing over like someone fell into it.
The crowd parted and I could see five or six burly maniacs duking it out in the middle of the room with fists, bottles and chairs. I tell ya' I was too damn scared to run! One guy's face had blood all over it from broken glass, but he fought on. Another was down and getting kicked in the teeth by a steel-toed boot. The singer in the band got his nose blooded and his nice western shirt nearly ripped off and was being mashed into a corner by a big hulk with tattoos all over his arms.
Then, right in the middle of it all, Rex Straley picks this dude up right over his head and to my horror, lunges over to the window where I'm watching and chucks the chump right by me through the plate glass window and onto the sidewalk. Believe me he stayed there! But everyone else split like the devil was after 'em. I could hear sirens in the distance. Rex and one or two others jumped on their bikes and got the hell out of there. The rest just ran bleeding and yelling down the street. The racket had emptied out the other joints along the street including the bowling alley. Dad and the preacher found me right in the middle of everything and yanked me by the arm to the car as the cops and ambulance arrived. I knew I was gonna get the ass-whippin' of my life. And I did later - after a long and loud harangue by Dad on disobedience and lack of respect for elders and a heart-clutching sermon from the preacher on the evils of alcohol and smoking and what will happen to you if you hang around places like that. But I was in a daze. I had a strange far-away look in my eyes. I had rubbed up against disaster and lived. I had been given a glimpse of a mythical other world. Motorcycles, alcohol, violence, sex and rock and roll. My life would never be the same.
Booking Info: Billy C. Farlow - 256-729-6985
Copyright © 2001 Billy C. Farlow