Bo Diddley done had a farm

Johnny Byrd and I were in Los Angeles over the weekend for the Book Expo of America (aka BEA). I’ll write about that craziness later. Per usual, we didn’t try to get a hotel room until late, but I pricelined.com a decent rate at the West Hollywood Hyatt Hotel. It’s smackdab in the middle of Sunset Strip. Aka Sodom and Gomorrah, as Johnny said. It’s a decent place, the noise factor is not bad and the price wss right. Besides, they put us on the 11th floor with a window overlooking Sunset and downtown L.A.--a very good place to think about America.

Down the street is Mel’s Drive-In Restaurant, a retro-50s place where every morning Johnny and I ate our breakfast. Mel’s has good food and a wonderful jukebox. Every morning I got swamped with memories of the music of my Memphis growing up. I even wrote the prose poem (not to worry, it’s still in draft) that I’m pasting below. Friday morning, our first morning for the BEA, the jukebox played Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man,” along with some James Brown and Gene Chandler’s “The Duke of Earl.” Four mornings I listened to that kind of music while I sopped my toast and potatoes in the gooey yellows of my over-easy eggs. Listening to those old songs made me start remembering how that music changed my growing up. So by Monday morning I was ready for the news--Bo Diddley had bought his ticket to the other side.

I saw Bo Diddley perform twice in Memphis, once at the legendary Clear Pool Inn and later, in 1957 or 58, at the Armory on Central Avenue. Both times I was with my friend Jimmy Walker. We had our ritual, just like Bo Diddley. We started off slow and listened and drank whatever booze we had at hand and by 11pm when the band was really getting hot, Bo Diddley banging away at his bizarre square guitar and singing about Bo Diddley having a farm or being a man, we would be pretty well soused and dancing and sweaty. We climbed on the stage and danced with him and his band. Others followed us up. Even a few girls, which was strange for back then. The band was cool with it, they wanted the crowds to go nuts. And we did. We danced until Bo Diddley sent us home with the peculiar anthem of our adolescence:

Oh, when the saints…
Oh, when the saints…

Oh, when the saints go marching in
Oh, when the saints go marching in
Lord, how I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in

Baby, want you drive my car?
Baby, I’m gonna be a star…

Monday morning, June 2 2008, and I was at Mel’s Diner on the Sunset Strip for breakfast. Two eggs over easy, toast and potatoes, coffee, 1950s retro. The jukebox played Earth Angel, Earth Angel, will you be mine? It was a summertime backyard Friday night party. A box with a big stack of 45 rpm records was dangling at the end of a long extension cord. A pretty girl in a white shirt and pink shorts sat next to it, guarding the music from her parents. I was dancing with Julie somebody. We were 14 years old together. I had at least two JAX beers in my belly. Jimmy and I had stashed some more in the front yard bushes. Julie was pressing up against my body, her thighs leaning into mine. Surely she knew. The parents were watching. They didn’t like the music, and they didn’t like us kids dancing like this. They worried that we had broken the code. We were going places they didn’t want us to go. The huge Memphis trees were black holes in that darkness. The lightning bugs, the lightning bugs—the chemicals had not eradicated them yet. And the stars and surely some kind of moon. I was sweating and happy. We were all white kids but Bo Diddley and Little Richard and James Brown were preaching the gospel. Why would I want to go to Korea? Why would I want to go to Vietnam? Now it was the Beatles on the jukebox. That’s another story. My coffee was done, the bill was $6.45 and my plane was leaving for El Paso at 2pm.

My darling dear, I will love you until the end of time.

--in memory of Bo Diddley who died yesterday

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