The Astoria Blues Society

In the introduction to The Mansion on the Hill (1997), baby boomer author Fred Goodman relates a story from his youth about how you sized up a new friend musically, back in the 60s. First you checked them out on the popular radio bands (Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys, etc.), then the more esoteric album-oriented artists (e.g., Dylan, the San Francisco bands). The last yardstick he offers up is that “anyone who was into the blues pre-John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers was an intellectual.”

By Goodman’s standards, the Astoria scene I grew up in was a goddamn graduate school. Continue reading “The Astoria Blues Society”


Gil Schwartz

I started playing guitar in late November 1965, at the age of thirteen. Johnny Richardson, a middle-aged Black man from Jamaica, Queens came to our apartment in Astoria and gave me four lessons. I had a funky pawnshop nylon string at the time. In the first lesson, he showed me how to play Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side.” I practiced four hours a day for the next week and got it down. By the time the December holidays came, I had learned a number of simple chords, a few songs (all by Dylan) and one rudimentary folk strum.

I spent the next year and a half flailing around, teaching myself a bunch of other Dylan songs (often with the wrong chords), attempting rock rhythm patterns (I particularly liked Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones)…and dreaming of playing like Michael Bloomfield. Even though I was listening to a lot of top shelf urban blues guitar (Buddy Guy, BB King, Otis Rush, Hubert Sumlin) and the hottest guys in rock (Danny Kalb, Harvey Mandel and, of course, Bloomfield), I had no idea how to get there.

Until I met Gil Schwartz. Continue reading “Gil Schwartz”

Slices of the American Dream

The reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.
                                                                                                                — George Carlin

I. On the C Train in Brooklyn, late morning, 2017

It is one of those subway moments where you’re glad you have a book. Glad might not be the right word. Some combination of relieved and protected captures it better.

A thirty something dark skinned Black woman with a short cropped Afro is haranguing an almost empty car. She is pacing back and forth. Her voice is intense. She is not screaming, but it seems inevitable that she’ll get there. Her two girls and a boy, age six to nine, sit semi-frozen next to each other. She periodically throws a discipline glance at them.

She is making an almost reasoned argument. The authorities expect her to control her boy, but they won’t give him the right meds to keep him calm. She pleads with no one in particular to understand her plight.

Her boy, who seems the youngest of the kids, is sitting still, eyes shifting. Every time she gets near him, he raises his arms above his head. I’m thinking: this is not a good situation. I feel powerless.

Now she’s pointing at him and raising her voice. He starts to cry. She shouts: see what I mean? She continues her diatribe about the meds. He is wailing now. As she approaches him, her girls slink away down the long plastic seat. She’s on him now, shaking his shoulders.

All of us in the car are now watching. His shrieks are almost drowning out her voice, as she proclaims: they’re going to take my children away. She starts to bang his head against the seat. I exhale an involuntary groan and shout: Stop!

She doesn’t. She’s in her own family world. They get off at the next stop. Continue reading “Slices of the American Dream”