Gene Palma: The Street Musician of Taxi Driver

gene-palma-street-musician-1971-CW-001Anyone who has seen Martin Scorsese’s 1976 neo-noir classic, Taxi Driver, will remember the short scene with Street Musician Gene Palma. It’s one of those little bits that remain with you long after the film ends. Palma’s slickly combed shellac like black hair and red makeup made him a unique figure on the streets of New York back in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Palma would flip his drumsticks banging out his music on drums, vending machines or anything else that was available in the Times Square area. Palma’s big dream in life was not only to play like Gene Krupa, he wanted to be Gene Krupa.

Some years back I posted on my Twenty Four Frames Blog, a photograph I took of Palma one afternoon while photo hunting on the streets of New York. Though with only one photo and a couple of written lines from me, the post has become one of my most popular, engaging and informative with many people posting their own memories of Gene. The comments by various contributors were most informative and told part of the drummer’s story of which little is known. I felt the comments deserved more exposure, so I  thought I would incorporate some of them here, giving credit where credit is due.

Palma’s film career was short. After Taxi Driver he appeared in the John Ritter starring Hero at Large for which he was paid $30. He received  $172.50 for Taxi Driver. According to IMDB he had a small part as himself in the documentary  Not a Love Story: A Film about Pornography.

 In a February 1981 article from the Lakeland Ledger, Palma said, he plays in the street five days a week and could make a living do that. In the winter, he needed to find other work. It was too cold for him to do his tricks with the sticks.  I have posted the Lakeland article here so you can read it direct instead of me rehashing it. My thank to Shawntok for providing the original link to the article.

Gene DePalma (1 of 1)Below are some of the many interesting comments that were left on my original post. They fill in a few holes in the life.

Again with the memories. I feel like Forest Gump when I read your New York based posts. I used to see Gene in Times Square often back in the ’80s. During that same period, I worked at a coffee shop on 6th Avenue and 57th Street called Miss Brooks and Gene came there often; really nice guy, but that hair smelled like hell. – Michael A. Gonzales – Writer

I moved to NYC in June of 1970 and began working in a small ad agency on the top of 580 5th Aveune (47th street). I was previously an amateur drummer and played some R&R in college, etc, and was the biggest Gene Krupa freak on earth (saw him perform live twice before his young death at 64 in 1973). The ad agencies in those days had dozens of deliveries back and forth from “stat” houses (long before computers). Stats were hi quality b&w copies of existing artwork needed to make new ads. Our office was on the top floor of the building and shortly after I began the job, several times a week I found myself riding the elevator with a curious delivery man from one of the stat houses. He would hold those large flat rigid stat envelopes in two hands, and endlessly play the most astounding cadences with his finger tips, right there in the elevator on the backs of those envelopes. Over and over again I was blown away, crippled by what I heard, since I actually recognized dozens of his riffs. Krupa, Belson, Hampton, Rich, you name the drummer, he was right there keeping up with them. In the two years I had that job (1970-72), I must have ridden in the elevator 40-50 times with this mystical man who never said one word to anyone, never made any eye contact and was totally oblivious to the effect he was having on the people who stood with him in those elevator cabs. Imagine how astounded I was four years later when completely out of nowhere, that wonderful guy miraculously appeared on screen as I sat idly watching Scorsese’s epic Taxi Driver! So yes, I can testify that for at least a couple years, Gene Palma delivered stats to New York ad agencies, but all the while his entire being was simultaneously consumed with breathtaking drum cadences. Bravo to Scorsese for bringing this wonderful personality a little immortality on the big screen. – Michael Adams

I remember seeing gene back in the early 80s when I use to cut out of school and go to TS . When I first saw gene he scared the daylights out of me. I found an article on Gene Palma in the LEDGER dating back to February 12th 1981. A reporter spotted gene in Atlantic City and interviewed him. I don’t have the link but if you google ” Gene Palma wants to be Gene Krupa ” I guarantee you will find it – Gary

Last time I saw Gene was in 2002-2003. He was living in a special adult home on 8th ave in Chelsea next to a Burito place called Blue Moon Cafe. I had numerous conversations with Gene over a period of 8 years. Nice man. Good drummer. Liked pastrami. Ate the middle out of pastries. Carried a small suitcase with a pressed suit and shoes inside along with coloring books given to him by Jehova’s witnesses. – Paul Corrigan

I met Gene in the Early 90’s while living in Chelsea. I would see him walking around the neighborhood with his leather jacket and briefcase, head tilted down. I always wanted to photograph him and would say hello when I could. One day he invited me up to his apartment in ’95…I have a half of a contact sheet in the archives somewhere. He was always a kind fellow and a charismatic guy. We took a few photos that day.

btw Mr/ Fisher ‘s photo is exceptional, thank you for sharing that. I am so happy this post exists as well, I was too thinking about Gene and wondering is he is still around. – Robert Adam Mayer – Photographer

Used to work in orange Julius while attending BMCC in 1972 or 73, the one on 7th ave. and 47th, later on 42nd street, that was some experience in gritty Times Square, lemme tell ya. I saw Gene several times around that area, I was a young immigrant, utterly fascinated by this character playing the drums on anything. I was floored when I saw him in taxi driver, then I would see him on the streets, more people around him after the movie came out. That hair, jet black, tinted, seemingly, by a gallon of dye. To me, he is the background music while I remember the TS of that time. – Joe

Does anyone remember a short film involving Gene that ran on Public Access channels in the mid to late 1980s? It chronicled a couple of young people who took an interest of Gene and tried to get him off the streets and into some assisted living program (unsuccessfully I might add.)    – Michael

Saw Gene in June ’77, after having watched Taxi Driver six times (in the theater). Was really thrilled to see the featured drummer on a Manhattan street corner during my first visit to NYC! He had a hand-written sign saying, “as featured in the movie, Taxi Driver. My traveling companion, Ray, and I wondered about his life so we actually followed him one night during our seven day stay. – jrh1254

There are more comments and a few more links on the original post which you can find here.

My thanks to all those who commented and shared their experiences with Gene.

 

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Hail, Hail Chuck Berry

 

BerryEarly rock and rollers like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis have made claim to the title of king of rock and roll music, a title usually associated with Elvis. However, if there one rocker who can make a legitimate argument for the title, it was Chuck Berry.

berry1Unlike anyone before him, Chuck Berry wrote about and spoke to teenagers. Songs like School Days, Sweet Little Sixteen, Roll Over Beethoven, Rock and Roll Music, You Never Can Tell, Reelin’ and Rockin’ and much more addressed the world of America’s youth. Berry’s music, along with new film stars James Dean and Marlon Brando helped create the teen market as a dominant financial force to be reckoned with. While adults brushed aside the teen years as a phase that one would grow out of, the world of rock and roll said it wasn’t just a phase, it was a new world order where the youth market would emerge as a not just an economic force, but political and racial. White teens were listening to Chuck and other black rock and roll musicians. They purchased their records, made friends with blacks and found the world wasn’t going to end. Berry did not do it by himself of course, but he was an important spoke in a wheel that was just beginning to get rolling.

Across the Atlantic in England during Berry’s early days, a group of wannabe rockers heard Chuck’s music and knew that was the world they wanted to be part of. One of those young kids was John Lennon; another was Keith Richard. Lennon once said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, it might be ‘Chuck Berry’.” Early Beatles recordings paid tribute to their idol with cover versions of Roll Over Beethoven and Rock and Roll Music. One of Lennon’s greatest honors was performing with Berry on the Mike Douglas Show back in 1972.

 

After hearing Chuck Berry’s music, a teenage Keith Richard knew what he wanted to do with his life, play the guitar like Chuck Berry. In 1986, for Chuck’s 60th birthday, Richard assembled a backup band that included Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, and Robert Cray for a birthday tribute concert in Chuck’s hometown St. Louis at the Fox Theater. Fortunately, it was all filmed and preserved for us to see. Released in 1987, Chuck Berry: Hail, Hail Rock and Roll, directed by Taylor Hackford is a must see.

Thanks, Chuck and long live Rock and Roll!

Remembering Lennon

   john%20lennonPhoto by Bob Gruen

  On December 8, 1980 I was watching the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson when a news bulletin interrupted the program; John Lennon was shot in front of the Dakota, where he lived, as he and Yoko were returning home after a late night recording session.

    I was in shock!

   I grabbed my small transistor radio and turned it on. The dial was already set on WNEW-FM, then one of the premiere progressive rock stations in New York. It was true. Lennon was shot and soon pronounced dead. The station was jumping from one report to another. It was a combination of  shock, disbelief and horror. I had a hard time sleeping that night.

  Over the next days, weeks and months tributes poured in, memories were talked about, dedications were made all trying to keep the dream alive. There were also the hucksters who sold phony memorial pins, posters and tribute magazines. A slew of quick paperback writers pasted together “biographies” that fans gobbled up.

    In the end though, and what remains with us today, thirty-six years later, is the music and its message.

  Sometimes art is at it best when it seems so simple, yet it carries a message that gets more powerful and important with each passing day. Imagine is such a song.

 

Blue and Lonesome – The Rolling Stones

blueandYesterday, I listened to The Rolling Stones first studio album (Blue and Lonesome) in ten years and its one of their finest works in a long time. A return to their Blues roots, the album, all covers, was recorded about a year ago in a three day period in London. Mick Jagger’s voice is still strong and grittier than ever and Keith and Ron’s guitars are on fire.

The album’s birth came from the band’s custom of warming up in the studio playing early Blues based tunes,  the kind they loved as young kids just starting out. The album is soaked mostly in Chicago Blues with cuts written by Willie Dixon, Little Walter, Magic Sam, Memphis Slim, Jimmy Reed and others.  They do not ignore the music’s Southern roots either, represented here by Otis Hicks, aka Lightin’ Slim, Hoo Doo Blues. Believe it or not, this is The Stones first all Blues album.

rolling-stones-to-release-new-album-blue-lonesome-500x310The three opening tracks, Just Your Fool, Commit a Crime and Blue and Lonesome set the mood and it never lets up. There is not a weak track on the album. Guest musician, Eric Clapton, plays slide guitar on Everybody Knows About My Good Thing and guitar on Hoo Doo Blues. Legendary session man, Jim Keltner  was on percussion for the Hoo Doo Blues track.

There’s a sense of been there and seen all that, that only comes with age and experience. The Rolling Stones have been traveling on that road for fifty years and unlike in many of their early Blues recordings, they are not imitating their heroes. It’s their own voice. You can feel it in Mick’s voice and the band’s music.

Book Review – Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero

 

bloomIt was back in 1962 when Michael Bloomfield heard Bob Dylan’s first album. He didn’t think much of it.  A year later, Bloomfield met Dylan and watched him perform when the folk singer was appearing in a Chicago club. This time he was knocked out by him. They spent some time jamming and evidently got along well. They met again in 1964 when Bloomfield was in New York for a recording session with John Hammonds Jr. In June 1965, Bloomfield received a phone call from Dylan saying he’s making a new album. Would he like to play on it? Bloomfield, at the time, was part of the still unrecorded Paul Butterfield Blues Band quickly agreed and flew to New York. The album would turn out to be Highway 61 Revisited. He didn’t play on all tracks, but his guitar was featured on Like a Rolling Stone, Tombstone Blues and Maggie’s Farm.   It was the start of a personal and professional relationship that lasted on and off almost until Bloomfield’s death in 1981.

1965 would turn out to be a pivotal year for the guitar man. Recording on Dylan’s historic album was only the start. During those sessions he met Al Kooper who would become an important part in Bloomfield’s career later on. The year would also see Bloomfield play at the famous Newport Folk Festival, not only as part of the Butterfield Blues Bland, but as part of  Dylan’s band during his infamous “going electric” set. Later that year, The Butterfield Blues Band, up to this point only known in their hometown of Chicago, would record their first album.

Ed Ward’s revised biography, Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero is an aptly titled, essential and absorbing read for anyone interested in the history of rock and roll. This edition includes new interviews as well as the complete Rolling Stone interview. Born to a upper middle class family, Bloomfield. like many artists, was an outsider growing up. By the time he was 15 he was frequenting Chicago’s Southside nightclubs where blues singers like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf performed.  The black musicians didn’t take him seriously at first and he admits that in the beginning he wasn’t very good. He learned quickly and he had the talent and style to convince one and all.

Bloomfield made two albums with Butterfield before differences between the two made him leave the group. Fortunately, that was not before the second Butterfield album, East-West, added to Bloomfield’s growing reputation.

After leaving Butterfield, he formed the Electric Flag which included Nick Gravenites and Buddy Miles. Their first project was the soundtrack for Roger Corman’s The Trip. They appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and also released their first real album. However, for  Bloomfield, it would not last long. He left the group soon after.  In 1968, he reunited with Dylan session player Al Kooper, and along with Stephen Stills, unintentionally formed what was essentially the first super group. Their album, Super Session, was an artistic and commercial success. It was followed by The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, recorded live at the Fillmore West. Bloomfield felt the albums were “scams” and calling it “super” was just a way to sell records.

Ed Ward (Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll) chronicles Bloomfield’s career with plenty of first hand accounts from family, friends and fellow musicians plus interviews the author did with his subject. Like many musician’s of the era, Bloomfield was plagued by drugs. Insomnia was also a life long problem he had since his teen years.

Compared to many of his contemporaries, Bloomfield is less remembered today than he deserves. One only has to listened to his work on Highway 61 Revisited or Super Session to realize this is a guy who could give Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix a run for their guitar money. This book, along with the 1984 album, Bloomfield: A Retrospective, which includes 27 essential tracks as well a documentary film, hopefully will remedy that.

On February 15, 1981,  Michael Bloomfield, like Hank Williams,  was found dead inside an automobile. He was 37 years old.

 

Going to the Movies with John Lennon – Sorta Of…

john-lennon-yoko-ono_650It happened on September 30, 1976. Martin Ritt’s film, The Front, starring Woody Allen, opened that day at the Coronet theater in New York. I have been, and still am, a huge Woody Allen fan since his standup days when I first saw him on the Ed Sullivan Show.

coronet44At the time,  I was living and  working in New York. Being the Woody fan that I was, I took a half day off from work to go see The Front. The Coronet theater was located on Manhattan’s Eastside. The Coronet, its sister theater, the Baronet along with the Cinema I and Cinema II were high end  theaters. All the studios and distributors wanted their big films to be booked into these theaters.  Foreign films like Bergman’s Cries and Whispers and Antonioni’s Blow-Up to domestic works like The Exorcist and The Graduate had their premiere engagements at one of these fours theaters located on the Upper East Side. The four theaters filled the entire block, between 59th and 60th streets, except for  a Bookmasters store in between.

baronet-coronet-theatres_cr1The theater was fairly crowded for a weekday afternoon. In New York, Woody was always a big draw. After the film ended,  everyone began filing out. It was at this time, I suddenly noticed walking out right in front of me among the crowd were John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Growing up in the 60’s, and a Beatles fan, I pretty much stood there stunned. In truth, while I saw the both of them, it was Yoko who I first recognized. I had to take a second look at who was standing next to her. Of course,  it was Lennon.

They and everyone continued to slowly leave the theater.  A few folks said hello and he returned the acknowledge. Most people just looked and gawked, like I did. Some, I am sure didn’t even recognize them, though they are hard to miss. New Yorker’s can be a jaded bunch and seeing famous people in the street is not an uncommon experience. A few famous people though can even shake up the jaded New Yorker. Lennon was one of those.

 I purposely stayed a few steps behind them all the way out of the theater until we all were out in the street. For those who are unaware, that block of theaters were located directly across the street from Bloomingdales. That was John and Yoko’s next destination. They crossed over 3rd avenue and disappeared in the department store. I stood by the theater watching them, cursing to myself that I did not have my camera with me. This naturally was in the days long before cellphones.

I never saw The Beatles in concert, but over the years I did get to see Paul, George and Ringo separately in concerts. Never did with John, however, I did get to go to the movies with him. Sorta…