Stories

Stories from Stony Brook Days “Waqidi and Jay Songwriters”

From Waqidi

In 1964 Jay Rosenberg and I published 9 songs with Pera Music (now Peermusic), one of which, “Price Of Freedom”, is now available on this website in the original published sheet music.

Jay and I met as freshman students at SUNY at Stony Brook in late 1962.  We initially collaborated as song writers but also performed together on several occasions as a comic singing duo and as part of a larger folk singing ensemble. Our performances included college concerts and several fairly large venues in the New York/New Jersey area.  For the nine songs published by Pera, Jay was the lyricist and I wrote the music (except for two of the published songs, Northern Star, which I wrote and Bomb Shelter Blues, written by Jay).  We also wrote a sizable number of other songs, several of which are in the compilations on the site (There Seems To Be So Much of You, Mind of My Own).  One of the best songs we wrote together is Price of Freedom.  Another song that was well received was “One Man” which we performed for the Kennedy family after the assassination of President Kennedy.  A third song “Sandy”, somehow made it to Germany and was the only one for which we received royalties.

President Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963 and before, in September 1963, four young children were killed in a bomb blast in a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama (16th Street Baptist Church Bombing).  The earlier event was the catalyst for Jay writing the lyrics for Price of Freedom.  By 1964 the civil rights movement was in full swing in the US, and Peter Paul and Mary were musical ambassadors for the movement (Peter, Paul & Mary).  Sometime in 1964 we were approached by PP&M and their manager, Albert Grossman, with a view to performing some of our songs.   ( If you look at the Price of Freedom, its lyrics, melody and chord structure, you can see why they liked that song.)

Jay and I got to meet with Grossman (and a few of his colleagues) in an office space above the Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village.  Grossman who died in 1986 had, as some stated, “an enormous presence” and, as some others said, a manner which “could generate hostility” (see Wikipedia).  Dylan’s biographer, Michael Gray said of him “…many people loathed him” and  “Albert Grossman was a breadhead, seen to move serenely and with deadly purpose like a barracuda circling shoals of fish.”  According to Jay, who remembers the meeting with Grossman with better acuity than myself, I was not enamored with Mr. Grossman.  In short, I nixed the deal with him.  In  hindsight I think I made a mistake as, even though I did not trust Grossman, he apparently was a brilliant music entrepreneur.  The fact remains that our songs simply were relegated to the storage bin at Pera.    So even if we weren’t ripped off by Grossman (and I have no idea if he was in fact dishonest) at least we would have had a chance for our songs to be heard.   I do remember one thing about our missed opportunity with PP&M.  I was invited to meet Peter at an apartment in Manhattan which  I believe was his.  Unfortunately, he never showed up and I got tired of waiting in the hall and left.  So now you know the story of the songs that almost were part of the repertoire of Peter Paul and Mary.

I might add that I was not initially a fan of another one of Al Grossman’s performers.  I met Bob Dylan in the basement of Gerdes Folk City in the early 1960s before he was famous.  I had a cheap guitar with me which Dylan asked to play.  I sat opposite him while he strummed my guitar and sang.  All I can remember of it was his scratching the top of my “junky” guitar. This incident colored my view of him as a performer and it took some time for me to give Dylan the respect he deserved (although one of the films he acted in was one of the worst movies I have ever seen.)   If I had kept the guitar, I probably could have auctioned it off on eBay for a lot more than my parents paid for it!

From Jay

Waqidi and I met as part of the first freshmen class at SUNY, Stony Brook, Fall 1962.  SUNY was built on the transplanted seed of the State University College on Long Island, based in Oyster Bay , an exclusive,  Long Island Mini MIT.

In 1962, SUNY had all of 600 students, live-ins  and commuters.  SUNY had no library, and only building skeletons, giving the campus the appeal of a bombed out World War II factory complex.  At night, the unfinished buildings were alive with writhing students; dormitory visits were strictly regulated with rules like dorm room doors  could not be closed if a visitor was present.   It was skipping distance to Setauket, its cove with waves lapping at the foot of Sun Wood Estate, the SUNY President’s domicile estate.  Sun Wood extended to a peaceful beach, its sands, spent sea shells and watery surface reflecting gently at night, any captured light into the aerial swirls of swallows, dog fighting insects for  their meal, insects diving for their survival.   SUNY denizens were in constant contests with  the long island potato and produce farmer families,  and locals, who resented all students.  There was also  a high end Girls’ school (now the coed Knox School), nearby, which had an ineffective perimeter fence, with cobbled access mechanisms made by, but not exclusively by, SUNY engineering students, testing their penetration skills.  Vociferous complaints from the academy’s headmistress were registered with SUNY deans, which only increased the bidirectional trysts.  Jay’s roommate was a foreign PhD engineering student, both legs supported with heavy metal braces from childhood polio. Despite that, he was drafted and served in the South Korean Military, which country, fresh from civil war, had a policy of  no excuses.  His family routinely sent him packages of sun dried- on-the-dock,  thinly sliced fish, a greyish Korean lox, with an odor that was not contained despite numerous layers of plastic wrappings.   Stony Brook’s residential homes were built in a race to catch up with the University’s  expansion, and $12,500 bought a fee simple 4 bedroom residence. Coming from Astoria Queens, where Con-Edison’s twin  coal fired towers would haze entire neighborhoods,  I was mesmerized by the raw, pristine nature on and surrounding the Campus.  We lived Spartan student lives,  beneath clearly visible and  enumerable zodiac stars, breathing air that tasted fresh, with a woodland  head.  The bay in front of Sun Wood had  shallow  reed patches, in which huge mussels poked two tips of their black shells above the sand, asking to be harvested. Obligingly I scooped them up.  I had many delectable diners of these mussels, steamed in a pail, with perhaps an illegal clam or two, having no clamming license. No SUNY coed took up my offer to share the feast. The newest immigrants to NYC fished the Sheepshead and Jamaica bays and the Harlem River.  Thus,  the students from the Jewish crescent around Manhattan were warned by their parents against local food gathering and gatherers,  which indicated  low income and low class. So I dined alone. Cooking mussels, however,  masked my roomie’s  draws full of desiccated Korean fish.

The transition from Oyster Bay into a premier academic container for Nobel laureates such as CN Yang (Physics) and notables such as Phillip Roth,  before his Portnoy’s Complaint,  as not smooth.  In the surrounding farmers’  fields were immigrant farm worker families,  multiple families living in abandoned and rusting school buses. Our naivety and youthful dealism only slightly cloaked and assuaged our guilt knowing first hand the destitute lives, as reported on CBS Report’s “Harvest of shame”  documentary. It was the last documentary narrated by the still cigarette smoking,  famous,  gravel voiced, Edward R Murrow.   We were conscious of  the many Americas, that was America, and more so, with most students being only a generation removed from their relatives’ European genocide.  In an ironic contrast to the immigrant workers, twice a year,  the town of Stony Brook, had an authentic fox hunt, here well groomed horses trampled through back and front yards, with hounds. Riders were adorned in black and red jodhpors, riding jackets,  caps, eloquent boots, breeches and addles with their inscribed ivory horns, and brass stirrups.  The hunt carefully avoided crossing any school bus abodes, although there were more fox dens in the fields of Fall farm stover, than the residential lawns.  It was written into the property deeds, that  nothing physically nor no one, could fetter this English tradition, securing the local estate holders their  prerogative. To them it was an earned right to flaunt their  heritage  via tradition, and insinuate, a British parliament, with one house reserved for the rich nobility, was the superior  system.

When we entered Stony Brook University, it was  an isolated, middle of Long Island boondock; an embryonic environment, where Waqidi and I collaborated as song writers and performers. We performed on several occasions as a comic singing duo or as part of a larger folk singing, or hootenanny  ensemble.  Our performances included college concerts and several fair venues in the New York/New Jersey area. We were the warm up group for middling, but  known performers, proud of their 45 RPM monaural records, perhaps a long play 33 RPM album. Some concerts we played even had color flyers of the artist. Having a voice more objectionable than a braking Long Island Railroad diesel,  I was the natural spokesperson, and comic.  What I said, is gone with the fox hunts, but, was cynical, political, spur of the moment, and invoked laughter. In one Nothern NJ gig, I tipped my instrument, a one string wash tub base, and a land  turtle called “supper”, walked out, trotting like a scared lizard towards the audience, comically looking back, giving a disapproving turtle stare.

Our collaboration produced nine songs published by Pera, I was lyricist and Waqidi  wrote the music.  The song “Price of Freedom”, which is now available in sheet music on this site, was a reaction to the tumultuous social vortices of the 1960’s. “One Man”, followed as a tribute to John F. Kennedy.  Both were well received and timely. The latter was performed for the Kennedy family, at the Robert Kennedy for Senate campaign HQ, in NYC.  We visited the Brill Building often, New York City’s music Mecca headquarters. We were rejected by quite a few publishers, ultimately finding through the help of Gene Goodman (brother of Benny), a Pera Music agent, who took 9 songs. We also wrote other songs, several are on this site such as There Seems To Be So Much of You, and Mind of My Own.   Somehow, a song about an unfulfilled love, “Sandy”, made it to Germany on some music media,  and was the only one (we know of) for which we received a royalty.  

The dual tragedies, of President Kennedy’s  assassination (November 1963) and the  Baptist Church bombing,  murdering four young children (September 1963 Birmingham, Alabama1were  events which catalyzed  writing the Price of Freedom lyrics.  Immediately upon Kennedy’s assassination, students in our under construction, flagpole-less campus, cut down a pine tree, removed its branches, and affixed an American flag, half way up. Every student in both G and H dorms, stopped everything, stood in circles holding hands, oblivious of the cold, and crying. A few raised this memorial and everyone gave a farewell salute with words spoken under their breadth.

By 1964 the civil rights movement was in full swing and Peter Paul and Mary were its musical ambassadors4 . Waqidi and I frequently commuted to NYC, as it  was the hotbed for Art and Artist. The SUNY art climate was stogy,  where the “thing” was to stage “A happening”.  In 1964 we were approached by PP&M and their manager, Albert Grossman, with a view to perform our songs.  We were invited to present to Albert Grossman, who also managed Janice Joplin (“Take another little piece of my heart, now baby…”) and other notable singers, with his entourage,  in an office above the “Cafe Wha?” (“?” is part of their name). There were dozens of folk café’s  in NYC’s Greenwich Village,  or simply, “The Village”, dotting  Manhattan’s  lower East side. Two generations earlier this area was a decrepit coal heated tenement barrio filled with European immigrants; for many SUNY students’ families, it was their first stop ‘off the boat’. The neighborhood still retained the aroma of Eastern Europe, stores with copious wooden barrels of pickles or schmaltz herring;  sidewalk racks of clothing and things for sale, signs in German/ Polish Yiddish.  More permanent successes remained, such as Katz’ Jewish Delicatessen, or Kleins 14th street department store, remained. Katz’ was a working man’s sit down, as opposed to Jack Dempsey’s in Time Square, for the more established, here longer. Every Village waiter aspired an acting or singing career.  The Village’s Washington Square Park, was an open stage, and magnet, rife with  aspirants, practicing their craft or waiting to be discovered. Some visiting talent was undeniable such as Jose Feliciano, and  overflows from the ‘method acting’ Schools, and actors’ studios. These schools foregone the classics in favor of Stanislovski’s real life concept: such as acting as an unemployed father, cooking a lone piece of bacon, in his kosher home, when his wife  came home early ..  In hindsight the park also  served as  a gathering post for traumatic stressed veterans. They talked to and fed the many pigeons. Some  wound up homeless, kicked further down  the bowery, as a result of rising rents from gentrification.  Many returning vets sold their GI Bill education benefits, to a non-vet wanting higher education. The non-vet took the vets name, and acquired a quality NYC college education. Employers knew the ruse, paid them less, but got the special skills required to run their post war factories or enterprises.

Albert Grossman,  died in 1986, was a mogul and magician advancing the best folk talent, who almost single handed opened the folk music space, replacing bubble gum singers and music tastes, with talented stars, many showcased at Woodstock. Albert had  a Rasputin-esque presence. But as many great barrier breaking men, perhaps because he charged at and changed the music paradigm,  generated hostility3 . Bob Dylan’s biographer, Michael Gray, said of Albert “…many people loathed him  .. Albert Grossman was a breadhead, seen to move serenely and with deadly purpose like a barracuda circling shoals of fish.”  Waqidi had a spiritual conflict upon meeting Grossman, and there was a forceful and immediate exchange of fish eye stares, after he sang our first song. Our music stopped abruptly, as their two spiritual vibrations filled the office without words; a guitar case snapped shut holding our best material, which in a few giant strides went with Waqidi out the office door.    In  hindsight he thinks  that was a mistake, overreacting to Grossman’s style and persona. We lost his services as the brilliant music developer, and entrepreneur he was.  Our songs were relegated to the storage bin at Pera, as both our  lives and careers moved down other roads.   Could our songs have been promoted by Grossman to tier one artists? Even if we weren’t agented by Grossman we would have had a better  chance our songs would have been recorded by known artists.

So now you know our story, some history, and how our songs were almost part of Peter Paul and Mary’s repertoire.  Songs serve as historic time capsules, medicine and advice, for all those whose generation and impact are still to come.

1 (16th Street Baptist Church Bombing)

2 (see Wikipedia).

3 (see Wikipedia).

4 (Peter, Paul & Mary).

Jay Rosenberg and Waqidi Falicoff © 2014

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