Twilight of the Townie
By the summer of 1981, mid to late 70s townie civilization was expiring. With its stoners and its stoner jocks, with its shambolic, rusting sedans, with its macho denim slackers blasting Molly Hatchet from cassette decks, as the day cooled down into the weed-smell of evening, and all through the muggy afternoons guys polished their cars under shade trees and drank beer and worked under jacked-up Oldsmobile chassises, blasting Hatchet from paint-spattered boomboxes, in clapboard streets, in a Hudson River village's old neighborhoods, while their mothers in housedresses stood in the screen doors and shook their heads, and late nights everyone drifted into the hills to drink and feel up girls. By the summer of 1981, all of this was on its way to the grave. I witnessed its last efflorescence before time swallowed it up.
Late summer and I'm almost 10, and I'm messing around on the sidewalk, banging with a brick on a roll of caps or something, and the silence that settles down among the sagging houses gets blasted open by some scandalous noise at the end of our shady dead-end block?there's a sedan rolling my way under the huge sticky oaks?and my eyes widen and the day's pulse quickens, and the boys are coming home from football practice, the late-summer preseason two-a-days. ZZ Top's blasting. Townie vans with lush shiny flanks. Big, fat, townie secondhand land-yachts, so that you could ease back, your spine at a 40-degree angle to the surface of the earth, your arms jammed straight out, almost yanking themselves out of their sockets as they strain to reach the wheel, and your eyes are rimmed red from the weed-smoke that salves your sore body after a day's worth of running into tackling dummies in the heat. Post-hippie station wagons with Deadhead stickers and mag-wheeled Camaros.
Townies: dudes in overalls and white stoner-pimp mustaches and Allman Brothers roadie hair, and Marshall Tucker concert t-shirts with the arms hacked off, dressed like they ran guitar rigs for Skynyrd?and big-ass cowboy hats, and canvas sneakers, and, like, peacock feathers sweeping back from hatbands, and buzzed smirks and smiles, and stoner bellbottom dungarees, and lines of speed to snort up before football games, because fuck it. Lounging on porches in flannel shirts thrown open, with headbands and shit, leather vests, untied workboots, and everybody spilling down off the porch and onto the lawn, Little River or Live Rust thumping and waddling out from living-room stereos through screen doors.
Anyway, the song in question is "Powderfinger," by Neil Young & Crazy Horse, and I mean the live version of the song, from the great live album Live Rust, the greatest live rock album ever recorded. Huge shambling Crazy Horse power, and Young spinning off into those gorgeous Les Paul solos that by the time I was 10 had already been seared deep into my brain.
I loved the whole frontier redneck ideology that became common during the late 70s: the redneck stoner rock with its redneck stoner politics, the American Highway romance that informed the pop culture, whether we're talking about Southern rock or the CB radio craze or the Smokey and the Bandit movies (and of course you had Charlie Daniels drawling about how he gets stoned in the morning and drunk in the afternoon, and kinda likes his ol' blue-tick hound). I loved that stuff. My jock townie older neighbors, wasted and loose-limbed after football practice on their porches, at the end of a loose, ragged era in a ragged village?that was the way they lived.
Neil Young's music with Crazy Horse wasn't "Southern rock," technically?but with its organic, ruralist vibe, it was a close ideological cousin to it. And "Powderfinger" especially?given how its amazing lyrics evoke an ambiguous scene of frontier violence?fits into the shaggy, wasted, macho, romantic spirit of the time. What's that song about? I mean, specifically? White boat comes up the river, and it's a bad situation, Daddy's gone, my brother's out hunting in the mountains, Big John's taken to drink, they've left me here to do the thinking, and I've just turned 22, damn, Daddy's rifle in my hands feels reassuring, but when the first shot hit the docks?etc. And red means run, son, numbers add up to nothing. And shelter me from the powder and the finger?etc.
What, in the end, happens? Does the kid get shot dead?
Whatever happens, "Powderfinger" was everywhere on my block back then, rollicking out from screened windows, drifting out of the crowded porch hangouts from which guys called out to each other across the street. Everybody was playing the song, and so much so that it was almost our block's theme song, and the reason for that is because our block thought of itself that way: as a doughty clan, an insular gang, poised against the assaults of interlopers, capable of violence when it needed to be. All of which was true. Someday I'll write a book about feared, legendary townie royalty and how it can impact and dominate a village. Because I lived among such royalty. It was amazing, and only a book could do justice to it.
But if it was true, it was also all a lie. In the end, people grew up (and some of them turned into local cops, inevitably), and also a couple members of the gang were for various reasons excommunicated, and the 1980s happened, and the music changed, and everything fell apart. Besides, when you're the youngest member of a group you find out fast the limits of a group's loyalty, because when a 10-year-old's not required, which is often, there's nothing he can do about it, except stand in the middle of the street and watch the taillights of Lincolns and Camaros recede into the distance.
That slack, townie civilization, that shining, slovenly, woolly summer moment in time?it's gone. This isn't just nostalgia talking. It's a sociological reality. The rivertowns of southern Westchester aren't as culturally distant from the city as they used to be. Magazine editors move to the rivertowns now from the city, attracted by the prospect of big, drafty ancient houses with grand views over the Palisades, Haverstraw Bay and the Tappan Zee, and by a 35-minute Hudson Line commute. The villages have become acceptable locales of bourgeois bohemian aspiration. The townie world of summer is either dead or dying.
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