There really is no way of saying this without it sounding something like the product of a typewriter in carnal congress with a sewing machine tumbling down a mountain: I walked on the Earth with people who walked on the Earth during the Civil War, and I am walking on the Earth with people who will walk on the Earth in the 22nd century. Verbal acrobat training camp and your calculator aside, that’s a deep concept to my easily-amused mind. I came of age during an era for which my own offspring has expressed envy. “I wish I would’ve grown up in the 70s.” And I have heard the same from others in her age group. For all their sakes I’m glad they didn’t, and apparently we’ve somehow managed to romanticize the devil which is our faults, but what can you expect from people who came up in the 70s? Nonetheless, I emerged from that mess and for some reason I probably wouldn’t trade it. Not without a few guarantees.
I hitchhiked. Not as the grown-up derelict I was setting up to become, but as a kid. A child. Twelve—hell, eleven—years-old. Imagine something like that now. Picture yourself as a cop in a cruiser; you’d be on that shit right quick. Good-hearted 21st-century adults would pull over, although in the capacity of a rescue effort—The poor boy’s doomed for a target!—then keep going after thinking it through—But what suspicions will this cast on me? It wasn’t an unusual thing to do, though, hitchhiking wasn’t, in 1970; nor was the sight of a kid with his thumb out evocative of any special ponderations for non-degenerate people. It’s how we got around. No cabals existed then of neighborhood mothers setting neighborhood standards for dress, speech, birthday soirees, vehicle purchases and child-rearing. Not that hitchhiking was sanctioned by my parents or others. It wasn’t for the most part. But sometimes parents know which battles to choose; and as a suburban version of a street-smart kid, you catch on quickly how to prepare for conversational contingencies long before you go home for the night. Frank’s mom gave me a ride. Sure, you remember Frank. And so forth.
When I was thirteen I discovered a place called Volker Park. Volker was Kansas City’s Haight-Ashbury, except with fountains, grass, and evergreen groves rather than building-fronts and hidden passageways. Drugs and music and guys with hair down to their knees speaking words of wisdom. The music was limited to Sundays, but it was especially cool because the only electricity was provided by somebody’s generator and the hat had to be passed through the crowd each week for gas money for the machine. I don’t know how bands got gigs there, or how organizers got bands there, but everything was voluntary, and at eye-level at least, it worked pretty well. The first time I ever heard Chain of Fools was there. A cute girl was bringing it home out in front of her band. Forever after, I’d have this thing for chicks who could sing. I remember thinking how fun that must be, to stand up there and do that.
What I don’t remember is how I even learned about Volker Park or how long it had been happening, but my friends and I would hitchhike down there of a Sunday in groups of three or four or five and we always got rides. The only humans younger than our kaleidoscope-eyed selves at Volker were toddlers, and you didn’t see a whole lot of those. People sold things there: Crafts, artwork, fresh fruit, and back in the spruce groves, substances. We, the gang, might pool our money, or one of us may have saved his paper-route income to be treated as the day’s hero, and we’d follow the call of the sirens straight back to the woods, to those mystical, soulful, druidic trees that grew so incredibly high. (And if you didn’t get that reference, you won’t get the one I’m omitting about Itchycoo Park, either.) And in their cedary, shadowy, evergreeny midst, the pagans would have set up shop. Over here, the affordable Mexican goodies. There, the pricey Colombian. A few steps farther, Jamaican. Ounces, my friend, and three-finger lids. Dime-bags, nickel-bags, and for the likes of a growing thirteen or fourteen-year-old boy, there would always be the one guy on his blanket, his nimble fingers busy rolling up joints with one hand and collecting two bucks with the other. “Are you ripping me off?” I was compelled once by my peach fuzz world-wisery to ask the guy as he tucked my two bills into his purse. “Yeah, man. Yeah. I’m ripping you off.” Well, he better not have been because I was nobody to trifle with. Clouds of smoke enveloped those evergreens like mists in the fjords. But that’s not all, my child. Come this way. I bought my first four-dollar micro-square of Scotch Tape in those trees. Except I bought it under a different label and the culprit didn’t stick around to groove on the virtually-free music while I was learning what adhesive tastes like. Target indeed.
Sometimes I would hitchhike my determined little way there by myself if no one else was into it. Or if I was into no one else going with me. The mesmerizing Volker milieu super-charged my burgeoning awareness. And accommodated my fogginess. And I met people. I met people just passin’ through as the T-shirts and VW bumper stickers and junior-high notebook adornments would say in those clever 1970s. Some of the hippies were disinclined to opine for the amusement of a punk kid, but others didn’t mind so much. They came from all over the country, from the Black Mountain hills of Dakota to Tucson, Arizona. I asked a guy from California, a guy driving to some state in the East for a big outdoor concert, how he knew to come to Volker Park. “I don’t know, man. I just heard about it.” Insignificant as that was, I was impressed enough to remember it four decades in the future. And I remember a little Sunday-comics-like handout publication that you could find anywhere in and around Volker called “The Westport Trucker.” It had nothing to do with trucking, though. If I remember right, it had to do with local Birkenstock-and-ponytail graphic artists and humorists moving the boundaries. Seeing what they could get away with. A comic book for the substance-based life. A showcase for the F-word. Far out drawings of bouncing boobies and dancing dongs. It was an element of Volker Park.
In time, without anybody really noticing, the Trucker and Haight-Ashbury and hippies and head shops and Volker Park went away. By 1977, by the time Elvis took his final dump let’s say, the Park was just…just grass that city workers had to mow in the summer. A stroller, a Frisbee, maybe a blanket, maybe some sweat pants, a paperback on someone’s knee. Maybe nothing at all. No more riding on that merry-go-round. Then, on the 8th of December in the Anno of our Domini 1980 and all that…boom. Instant karma. This dumbass shot and killed John Lennon. It was a big deal. Probably not JFK big, and certainly not 9-11 big, but we remember where we were when we heard the news that day. Ohhhh boy. A split second of time passed, and no matter what else happened, there never again would be The Beatles. Not in our maybe-random slice of history. Heavy, man. I don’t know who initiated it, but word went round regarding a candlelight vigil—whatever the fuck that was—at Volker Park, not to mourn the death, but to celebrate the life of…aw, whom the hell were they kidding? It was to mourn the murderous passing of John Lennon into eternity. So I loaded up my guitar in somebody’s car and a bunch of us went to the ol’ haunt to see what a candlelight vigil was.
We were bummed—deep-in-the-gut, we’ve-been-had bummed—to find out it was nowhere, man. The park was crowded enough—more than any time in the past it was crowded by the old crowd with a contingent of new crowd added into the count—but outside of somebody somewhere playing a Beatles 8-track through speakers on his car roof while a few candles were waved over heads…nothing. It was boring. It was boring, it was dark, it was cold. Screw this.
The bands who played at Volker on those sunny Sundays still fresh in our memories had set up near the fountains, and that’s where I took my guitar. That’s where my would-be sweetheart sang chain chain chain and that’s where I plopped my ass down cross-legged and commenced to unleashing Beatles and John Lennon masterpiecelets. Hooray for me. People dug it. They sang along. Louder and louder, more and more into it. By the time I got to A Day in the Life, a wide circle had formed with me and an old acoustic in the middle. Applause, applause. And candles. “Do you know Strawberry Fields?” Yep. A blonde girl with glasses ran up and pinned a gold-colored strawberry on my jacket for that one. Another girl slipped a card with a quote by Carl Sagan into my chest pocket. (?) Another one—another girl, hell yeah—gave me a piece of scratch paper with her number on it (which for whatever reason I never followed up on) and we all had a pretty good time for an ash spreading. That night, John Lennon and Volker Park—and I suppose if I want to get philosophical, an era—were ushered out in my town with more of a bang (unintended, John) than the whimper it was all destined to be. Damn right.
Volker Park is still there, but it’s not. Not really. It has a different name now, a name I don’t even remember. Okay, I do but I’m not going to say it. Just like I didn’t say the name of the dumbass who shot John Lennon. Not because the Volker zeitgeist was some great crucible of human virtue deserving of veneration—not by any stretch of the Scotch Tape-powered imagination—but because, well, you know. Because he might be unruly and not house-trained, and probably has rabies, but who the hell are you to rename my puppy?
And a great trailer for a documentary about Cowtown Ballroom in Kansas City, Missouri a few blocks from Volker Park during the same era. http://youtu.be/1OFsE2uyxE8
- For Me, December 8 is John Lennon Day (thewritesideof50.com)
- The murder of John Lennon (rannveighrik.wordpress.com)