Sunapee, New Hampshire, was where I spent my summers as a
kid. Driving up to Sunapee we'd go past Bellows Falls and Mom would say, "Bellows Falls? Fellow's Balls!" There was so much to
my mother. Like the way she'd get me to eat my peas. "Whatever
you do, do not eat those!" And I gave her a frog smile.
A few years later, say around 1961, when I'd call for my
mother from the other side of the house, my mom would go,
"Yo! Where are you? Where'd you go?" Now I wonder where
she's gone. She was a beautiful Philadelphia Darby Creek country
girl who came to the city to bring us up, let me have long hair
in school, argued with the principals, drove us to our first club
dates, and loved and nurtured me—the whoever I was and/or
wanted to be.
In the '50s, it would take us seven hours to go from New
York up to New Hampshire because in those days it was all on
back roads (there were no highways). But the ride up to Sunapee
was filled with fantastic roadside attractions. A giant stone
Tyrannosaurus rex on the side of the road, wooden bears, Abdul's
Big Boy, and the Doughnut Dip, with a huge concrete doughnut
Trow-Rico, our summer resort in New Hampshire, was
named after Trow Hill, a local landmark, and Tallarico, my
father's name, just smushed together. It was a bed-and-breakfast
summer place with lunch and dinner slash housekeeping cottages
on 360 acres of nothing but woods and fields. It was my
grandfather Giovanni Tallarico's dream when he came over from
Italy in 1921 with four other brothers. Pasquale was the youngest,
a child prodigy on the piano. Giovanni and Francesco played
mandolins. Michael played guitar. They were a touring band in
the 1920s—it's where I get my on-the-road DNA. I've seen brochures
for the Tallarico Brothers—they performed in the giant
classic hotels with huge ballrooms in places like Connecticut and
Detroit. They went from New York by train to these hotels all
over the country and played their type of music, to their type of
people. Sound familiar?
My mother's father—that was another story. He got out of Ukraine by the skin of his teeth. The family owned a horse-breeding ranch. The Germans invaded and machine-gunned the family down in front of my grandfather. "Everyone out of the house!" Bb-r-r-r-r-a-t! They gunned down his mother, father, and sister. He got away by jumping down a well and managed to grab the last steamer to America.
Trow-Rico is where I spent every summer of my life until I
was 19. On Sundays my family would throw a picnic for
the guests. My uncle Ernie would cook steaks and lobsters on
the grill, and we'd make potato salad from scratch. We served all
the guests—which came to what? eight families, some 20-odd people—
in our heyday. After dinner, while the sun was
going down, we'd fill in the trailer with hay, attach it to the back
of a '49 Willys Jeep, and take everybody on a ride all over the
360 acres. We also had a common dining room where we served
them breakfast and dinner, and guests would do lunch on their
own, all for, like, $30 a week. Sometimes $6 a
night. And when the people
left, my whole family got pots and
pans out of the kitchen and banged them all together—behold
the origin of your first be-in!
As soon as I was old enough, they put me to work. First it
was clipping hedges. When I snapped back, "What do I have
to do that for?" my uncle said, "Just make it nice and shut up."
He used to call me Skeezix. He'd spent most of World War II in
the Fiji Islands, so he knew how to take care of business and
anything else that gave us any trouble. I helped him dig ditches
and put in a water pipeline over a mile of mountain and dug a
pond with my bare hands. I washed pots and dishes at night and
mowed the lawns with my father when I was old enough to push
a mower. I cleaned toilets, made the beds, and picked up all the
cigarette butts that the guests left behind.
We would rake up the hay with pitchforks and put it in
the barn below the lower 40. The downstairs of the barn was
empty except for maple syrup buckets and wooden and metal
taps for the trees that some family had left before we lived there.
It was quite an adventure going down there—full of spiderwebs, stacks of buckets, glass jars, and artifacts from the '20s and '30s—all those dusty, rusty things kids love to get into—me in particular.
Upstairs in the barn, there was a hayloft door with an opening
where you'd load the hay in and out. I could climb up there
and jump down from the rafters of the ceiling. I did my first
backflip in that barn, because the hay was so soft, it was like
landing on, well, hay. I always kept an eye out for pitchforks left
behind. Land on one of those suckers and I would have learned
how to scream the way I do now...20 years earlier.
Before I could go to the beach with the rest of the guests, I
had to finish doing my chores. After a while, I came up with a
plan. It was called: get up earlier.
Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday during the summer
my father played the piano at Soo Nipi Lodge along with my
uncle Ernie on sax. They had a trumpet player named Charlie
Gauss, a stand-up bass player named Stuffy Gregory, and a
drummer who will go unnamed. Soo Nipi Lodge—which today
would probably be called Snoop Dogg Lodge—was one of the
classic old hotels, like the one in The Shining: all wooden and
splendiferous and huge, with dining rooms and decks outside
with rocking chairs and screened-in porches. Chill central by
today's standards. They began building these resorts in the 1870s,
when horses and buggies brought the guests from the train station
to the hotels. The only thing missing was the musicians to
play music and entertain the guests—and this is probably how
the Tallarico brothers came to buy the land there.
During Prohibition, people would take the train up from
New York to Sunapee, and the booze would come down from
Canada. Some folks drank, some didn't. Maybe they came up
for the weekend to see the leaves turn, but I have a funny feeling
they got on the train for a quick weekend away—take horse-and-buggy rides, stay at the big hotels, and cruise in the old
steamboats. The ones in Sunapee Harbor today are replicas of
the original ones from a hundred years ago. Very quaint.
On Sunday nights, Dad would give recitals at Trow-Rico.
People from miles around would come over to hear him, and my
grandma, my mother, and my sister would play duets. All the
families that came up had kids, and Aunt Phyllis would holler,
"C'mon, Steven, let's put on a show for them!" Downstairs from
the piano room was the barn's playroom: ping-pong, a jukebox, a
bar, and, of course, a dartboard. There was also a big curtain across
one corner of the room that made a stage where my aunt Phyllis
taught all the kids camp songs like "John Jacob Jingleheimer
Schmidt" and the "Hole in the Bucket" song. I would pantomime
to an old 78 recording of "Animal Crackers." It was an evening
of camp-style vaudeville. For the finale, we hung a white sheet in
front of a table made from two sawhorses and a board. Someone
from the audience would be brought back to lie on the board, and
behind them a giant lamp cast shadows on the sheet. My uncle
Ernie would perform an operation on the person lying down, pretending
to saw him in half and eventually pull out a baby—quite
horrifying and hilarious to the audience. It was all very tongue-in-cheek but certainly the beginning of my career.
We must have done 150 or more of those
shows over the years. I was a serious ham. I'd do cute things kids
can get away with—especially to adoring relatives. It was like
something from a Mickey Rooney movie. I'd learned all the lyrics
to that Nat King Cole song "Ke Mo Ki Mo."
Ke-mo ki-mo stare-o-stare
Ma-hi, ma-ho, ma-rump-sticka-pumpernickel
Soup-bang, nip-cat, polly-mitcha-cameo
I love you
And then it goes on to something like Sticky sticky stambo no so rambo, had a bit a basket, tama ranna nu-no. What the hell was that? The beginning of my love for real out-there music and crazy lyrics.
Before I got involved in doing chores at Trow-Rico, before
I discovered girls and pot and playing in bands, I had a great life
in the woods with my slingshot and BB gun. As soon as we got
up there, I'd be gone in the woods and fields. And never came
back till dinnertime. I was a mountain boy, barefoot and wild. I
walked through the woods, looked up at the trees, the birds, the
squirrels—it was my own private paradise. I'd tie a stick to a rope
and make a swing from any tree branch. I was brought up that
way, a wild child of the woods and ponds. But of course, nobody
believes that about me. They don't know what to think when I
say, "You know, I'm just a country boy."
No waves, no wind. If you go into a recording studio that's
soundproofed, something just feels wrong to your ears. Especially
when they close the door—that's sound deprivation; it's
anechoic, without echo, without sound. Not so in the woods. In
that silence I heard something else there, too.
I lost all that mystery when I was on drugs. Coming out of
that din I was able to feel my spiritual connection to the woods
again. Drugs will steal you like a crook; spirituality over, I could
no longer see the things I used to see in my peripheral vision. No
periphery, no visions.
I used to go up there and sit by myself and hear the wind
blow. As a kid, I'd come across places where the woodland creatures
lived. Tiny human creatures. I'd see mossy beds, cushions
of pine needle, nooks and crannies under the roots of upturned
trees, hollow logs. I'd look around for elves, because how could
it be that beautiful and strange and nobody live there! All of
this tweaked my imagination into such a state that I knew there
was something there besides me. If you could sleep on moss that
thick it would be bliss. I'd smell that green grass. I would see a
natural little grotto in the woods and say to myself, "That's where
their house must be."
A few years ago, I found a moss bed for sale at this lady's little store in New London. The place was full of nature stuff—and has a big wooden arch in front and giant bird wings. The bed is made of twigs, with a moss mattress, grouse feathers for
pillows, a wooden nest, an ostrich egg cracked in half with a little
message on it, and the prints of the fairies that were born on the
bed. We kept it in the house so my two children, Chelsea and
Taj, would see it and just know that fairies were born on that bed.
They'd say, "For real?" and I'd say, "For real."
I bought the two fields I used to go walking in. I haven't
gone out into the woods lately to see if they've been touched;
I'm afraid to find out if it's all still there as I remember it. But I
grew up with these creatures. I was alone in the forest, but I was
never lonely. That's where my first experiences of otherness came
from, of the other world. My spiritual ideas didn't come from
the Lord's Prayer or church or pictures in the Bible, they came
from the stillness. The silence was so different from anything I
had ever experienced. The only noise that you heard in a pine
tree forest was the gentle whistling sound of the wind blowing
through pine needles. Other than that, it's just quiet...like after
a fresh snow...it really quiets down in the woods...cracking
branches...nothing. It's like when I took acid—I felt the wind
brushing against my face although I knew I was in the bathroom
and the door was closed. This was Mother Nature talking to me.
I would walk through the woods and walk and walk. I would
find chestnut trees, fairy rings of mushrooms, bird's nests made
with human hair and fishing line. I would imagine I was in the
jungle in Africa and climb up on the gates at the entrances to
the big estates and sit on the stone lions (until someone shouted,
"Get down from there, kid!").
That's where my spirit was born. Of course, I got introduced
to spirituality through religion, too, from the Presbyterian
Church in the Bronx and my choir teacher, Miss Ruth Lonshey.
At the age of 6, I learned all the hymns (and a few hers). I fell
in love with two girls on either side of me in the choir. And of
course they had to be twins. I remember being 5 and sitting
next to my mother in a pew at that church, looking up at the
altar that held the Bible and a beautiful golden chalice, with the
minister looming over it. There was a golden tapestry that hung
down to the floor with a crucifix embroidered on the front. I was
all wrapped up in the tradition of getting up, sitting down, getting
up, singing, sitting down, praying, singing, praying, getting
up, praying, singing, and hoping all this would take me somewhere
closer to heaven. I thought for sure God must be RIGHT
THERE under THAT altar. Just as I'd thrown a blanket over the
dinning room chairs to create a fortress, a safe, powerful place,
kinda churchlike, with the added bonus of imagination. WOW,
all of this combined together in one beautiful moment of ME,
feeling GOD. But then I'd met Her once before in the forest.
I would walk in Sunapee with a slingshot in my back pocket
over the meadow and through the woods until I got lost...and
that's when my adventure would begin. I would come upon giant
trees so full of chestnuts that the branches would bend, bushes
full of wild blackberries, raspberries, and chokecherries, acres of
open fields full of wild strawberries in the grass—so much so
that when I was mowing the lawn, it smelled like my mom's
homemade jam. I would find animal footprints, hawk feathers,
fireflies, fairy rings of mushrooms in the shape of Hobbit
houses that I was told were left by Frodo and Arwen from Lord
of the Rings. Incidentally, those were the same mushrooms that I
would later eat and that would magically force my pen to write
the lyrics to songs like "Sweet Emotion." In choir, I was singing
to God, but on mushrooms, God was singing to me.
I pretended I was a Lakota Indian with a bow and arrow—"One shot, one kill"—only I had my BB gun—"One BB, one bird." Me and my imaginary buddy Chingachogook, moving silently through the woods. I was a deadeye shot; I'd come back after an afternoon of killing with my slingshot and Red Ryder
BB gun with a string of blue jays tied to my belt. That part wasn't
imaginary. I had watched every spring how blue jays raided the
nests of other birds and flew away with their babies. My uncle had told me that blue jays were carnivorous, just like hawks and lawyers.
I'd go out fishing with my dad on Lake Sunapee in a 14-foot, made-in-the-'40s, very antique, giant wooden 270-pound rowboat that only a Viking could lift. The handles on the oars alone were thicker than Shaq at the urinal. You're out in the
center of the lake, sun beating down like the ass end of a camel in
the Sahara. You're burning; you can't go any farther. By the time
we rowed out to the middle, where the BIG ONES were biting,
we all realized we had to row back. We being ME. A-ha-ha-ha! I
became Popeye Tallarico. Mowing the lower 40 acres once a
week gave me the shoulders to row back to shore (and to carry
the weight of the world).
Up in the woods from the lake there were great granite
boulders pushed there by glaciers during the Ice Age. There were
caves up above the road I lived on in Sunapee with Indian markings
on the walls—pictographs and signs. They were discovered
when the town was settled back in the 1850s. The Pennacook
Indians lived in those very caves. After killing off all the Indians,
the whites built and named a 75-room grand hotel
after them, Indian Cave Lodge, the first of three grand hotels in
the Sunapee area and the first place where I played drums with
my dad's band back in 1964—also just a half a mile away from
where I first saw Brad Whitford play.
In the town of Sunapee Harbor, there used to be a roller-skating
rink. It had been an old barn; they opened up the door
on the right side and the door on the left side, and they poured
cement around the outside of the barn so you could skate around
the barn and through the middle out the other side. As a kid, it
was a great little roller-skating rink. And back then, you could
rent skates on the inside of the barn along the back wall and
buy a soda pop, which they would put in cups that you could
grab as you skated on by. Later on they put a little stage where
a band could play behind where they rented the skates. By the
next summer, not only could you roller-skate, but you could also
rock 'n' roller-skate to your favorite band. It was the first of its
kind. Across the street was a restaurant called the Anchorage.
You could pull your boat up and after a long day of water-skiing,
sunbathing, or fishing with no luck, get fish and chips. ...
And speaking of chips, no one made french fries better than one
of the cooks that worked at the Anchorage—Joe f***ing Perry.
I went back there to shake his hand, and there he stood in all his
glory, horn-rimmed black glasses with white tape in the middle
holding them together. He looked like Buddy Holly in an apron.
I said," "Hi, how are ya?" Or was it, "How high are ya?" At the
time I was with a band called the Chain Reaction—and little did
I know that my future lay somewhere between the french fries
and the tape that held his glasses together.
At the end of each summer, I'd go back to the Bronx, which was a
180-degree culture shock. A return to the total city—tenements,
sidewalks—from total country—where the deer and the antelope
rock 'n' roam. Haven't met many people who experienced that degree of transition. Where we lived was the equivalent of the projects: sirens, horns, garbage trucks, concrete jungle—versus
the country—rotted-out Old Town canoe bottoms from the
early 1900s, remnants from the last generation who once knew
the original Indians. Holy shift! By September 1, all the tourists
who made New Hampshire quiver and quake for a summer of
fun had fled for the city from whence they came like migrating
birds. Welcome to the season of wither. One was grass, green,
and good old Mother Nature and the other was cement sidewalks,
subways, and switchblades. But somehow I still found a
way to be a country boy, so even in the city I could be Mother
Nature's son—but with attitude.
© 2011 by ecco, an imprint of HarpersCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.