eHarlem6334Introduction

“Nights on Broadway” is a hip-hop story in every sense of the word. Not only does it take place in the world of graffiti during the years that Kool Herc and company were creating new sounds from old records, but it is also a remixed version of another story I wrote a few years ago. Entitled “The King of Broadway,” it originally ran on the provocative Afro-arts website Nat Creole.com in 2005.

Although the stories are relatively the same, the major difference was adding the blue-eyed soul element of the Bee Gee’s song “Nights on Broadway” to this New York tale of school kids in 1970s Harlem and Washington Heights. Growing-up in these same areas during that same period, the funky white boy groove was one of my favorite jams.

Hearing the track one night in a Brooklyn bar thirty years later, memories of former pop station WABC and school friends from St. Catherine of Genoa made me want to revisit my story. It was then that I decided to do a textual remix in the tradition Grandmaster Flash, Marley Marl, DJ Premier Rza and DJ Shadow—just to name a few.

Without a doubt, these master turntablists had been an influence on my writings as much as the countless writers, journalists and filmmakers I consume on a daily. In my mind, doing a cool remix of an existing story was a way of paying homage to the sonic scientists who introduced me to the concepts of Black futurism, deconstruction and the rhythmic power of noise. Though I am proud of both pieces, it is the remixed version that I prefer.

The beautiful illustrations for this story were done by the late Baltimore artist Larry Scott. A fellow Cancerian, we met at a coffee shop called Xandos, which was across the street from the Baltimore Museum of Art. Introduced by New Jack City screenwriter and former Harlem resident Barry Michael Cooper, who had relocated to B-more in the ‘80s, Scott and I became fast friends.

Art critic and curator Franklin Sirmans was one of the many folks turned out by Scott’s work. Reviewing the artist’s 2005 show “Evolution of Depression,” he wrote, “The drawings almost feel like he’s working 3-D constructing forms with the line. Then there’s the almost abstraction of the work. The thing that hooks me is the simplicity/complexity of the black and whites..they just look mad original and damn good.”

The same year, the alternative weekly The City Paper voted Scott the Best Visual Artists in Baltimore. A few months after his show, I asked Larry if he would be kind enough to add his visual brilliance to my story. Without hesitation, he promised to give me something in a few days.

Though Larry wasn’t of the hip-hop generation, having grown-up a fan of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, he had recently began listening to Tupac, Biggie and 50 Cent and using their gritty poetics to jump-off a new series called “Ready to Die…?”

Come the following Friday, when Larry told me to meet at the usual spot at six o’clock, I was shocked when he gave me an envelope containing twelve separate pen and ink drawings. Though not an art expert, I know what I like and Larry’s work had an effect on me. Like German-Expressionism, film noir and East Coast hip-hop, Scott’s work had a sense of urbane despair that embraced the decadence and danger of the city.

Studying his masterfully atmospheric drawings, I almost cried at the sheer perfection in which Scott captured the pain and joy, laughter and anguish of these characters. Flipping through the dozen related images, one could feel the power of Scott’s vision as he created his own flavor of be-bop/beat-box visualizations.

Although we often spoke of future collaborations, this was not to be. In November of 2007, after leaving the coffee shop portfolio in hand, Larry Scott suffered a fatal heart attack. His body was found sprawled on the sidewalk the following morning. A husband and father, Larry Scott was 50 years old. This remix is dedicated to him and the beauty of his work.

Nights on Broadway

by Michael A. Gonzales

copyright © 2009

Blamin’ it all on the nights on Broadway

Singin’ them sweet sounds

To that crazy, crazy town.

— The Bee Gees, “Nights on Broadway” (1975)

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Gray clouds drifted overhead that cool autumn afternoon in 1978 when po-po (back then, called ‘pigs’ or ‘fuzz’) discovered my homeboy Blaze strange-fruit-swinging from a sagging oak tree. Below dangling Pro-Ked-footed feet, Blaze’s black graffiti sketchbook laid open in the dead grass. Swaying from the old tree inside stately Trinity Cemetery on 153rd, Blaze was still dressed in his shabby Catholic school uniform.

Hours earlier, me and the crew (C.C., Voodoo, and Smokey) had waited for Blaze at Jesus (unlike the son of God, the owner’s name was pronounced ‘hey-zeus’) Candy Store. In our minds, we were a combination of the Wild Bunch without horses, the Wild Ones without motorcycles, the Dirty Dozen without a war, and the Bee Gees without a record deal.

Still clad in our own Catholic boy monkey suits, the candy shop was our crew’s official hangout spot. Sloughing in front of the flashing lights of the Kiss pinball machine (years later I met Gene Simmons, moments after shaking his monster, in a record company bathroom), Smokey asked, “What’s taking Blaze so long?” After his long fingers flicked the flippers with the expertise of Elton John’s cinematic pinball wizard, Smoke finished speaking. “I’ve spent most of my quarters and I’m almost ready to roll. What’s takin’ that fool so long, anyway?”

“He had to finish a high school admission essay,” I answered. “Sister Marquez was helping him out.”

Next year, we would all be graduating from St. Catherine of Genoa’s, climbing aboard rickety subway cars and overcrowded buses. No longer would we saunter to school ranting about Good Times episodes, the Fonz jumping sharks, or Walt Frazier busting butts at Madison Square Garden.

Of course, we would still hang out, playing basketball at the Battlegrounds or sliding down to Riverside Drive in the summer months to check out local sensation DJ Dynamite.

Already, I had been accepted into Rice High School, Voodoo had planned on going to the badlands of George Washington High, and Smokey was drippling over to Cardinal Hayes to shoot hoops. Crazy about drawing pictures, both Blaze and C.C. had developed wildstyled portfolios to present at Art and Design.

If Blaze had lived long enough, future rap legends Slick Rick and Dana Dane would’ve been his classmates.

Being graffiti comrades, Blaze and C.C. often chilled in the scruffy Broadway and 145th Street station. The sullied white porcelain walls were a testament to their personal rebellion.

Caught-up in their own artistic desperado mindscape when they was painting (or, as they would say, ‘writing’), Blaze and C.C. existed in an alternate universe where supreme aerosol artists were royalty and the rest of the world were merely toys.

Dressed sharp in earth-toned sheepskins or Corderfield coats, straight-legged Lee jeans and stylish suede kicks, they trooped through the dank tunnel where the trains were laid-up. An underground train yard that extended from 145th Street to a 137th Street, the trains laid-up there after hours.

With Woolworth-stolen cans of Krylon, Red Devil, and Rustoleum, Blaze and C.C. avoided the 11,000 volts of the third rail as they crept through the tunnel. Once the duo was submerged in the semidarkness of the station, they boombox-blasted Blaze’s favorite songs by Kiss (“Beth”), Led Zeppelin (“Kashmir”), Queen (“Sombody to Love”), and the Bee Gees’ hypnotic “Nights on Broadway”.

Somewhere in Blaze’s polluted mind, he believed “Nights on Broadway” was influenced by the train track swagger of graff kings. Without a doubt, the blue-eyed funk of the Bee Gees inspired Blaze to greatness in his works. Like funky honkies Elton John wailing “Bennie and the Jets” and David Bowie’s majestic “Fame”, these Bee-boys had a ghetto pass as far as Blaze was concerned.

Afterwards, chilling at the overground 125th Street station, Blaze and C.C. sat on the splintered bench with a crew of writers. Holding boxy Kodak cameras, the graff crews snapped shots of the many multicolored pieces when the subway finally roared into the station: Sky High 149, PESO 131, STAN 153, MAG 151, LSD 3, Lee 163, Crash, KOOL AID 131, and countless others.

“You watch, one day I’m going to be one of the Kings of Broadway,” Blaze declared, as though his name be Barry Gibb.

Bro was always pumped with adrenaline after those bench sessions. “Brothers soon gonna be talking ’bout my style. I’m on some McFadden & Whitehead shit now,” he joked. Bugging out, Blaze stood-up and spun on his sneakers like a Soul Train dancer. “No stoppin’, no stoppin’, no stoppin’…no-stop-in!”

Everybody laughed. Sure, Blaze had his problems, but that crazy cat always had jokes.

* * *

Munching from a greasy bag of Wise chips at the candy shop, Voodoo Ray sniggered. “Maybe Sister Marquez wanted Blaze to do more than make up that test.” Sloppily, he sprayed moist crumbs onto the Space Invaders screen.

“Hey, have some respect,” Smokey snapped. “Don’t you know you can go to hell talking bad ’bout a nun.” For a stone cold player, Smokey acted more like a protective priest whenever anyone ranked about Sister Marquez.

Staring at Smokey with amused eyes, Voodoo remained silent. Everybody knew that Smoke had a short fuse, and it didn’t take much for him to go boom on your ass.

“You know Blaze could be anywhere,” I added, and everybody nodded. They knew it wasn’t weird for Blaze to drift away on a solo mission, his smooth Latino face lost in a crimson cloud of red spray paint vapors, hovering in front of a blank wall like a ghetto Picasso.

* * *

Blaze and I had known each other since the days when we both reeked of spilled milk and soiled diapers. Being his homeboy, I was well-versed in the sordid gospel of his family, the infamous Garcia clan. “I just get tired of all their shit,” he once confessed. “I wish I could get away from all the screaming and arguing. You know, do a Huckleberry move and just sail down the Hudson on a raft.”

On those few occasions when I still went up to Blaze’s sloppy sixth-floor apartment, angry Latina screams erupted through the closed door. Over the din of thunderous shouting, I cringed as Blaze’s parents argued over money and jealous allegations. Once Blaze’s bitter mom’s started ranting that was God punishing her, he would stuff his sack full of comic books and flee.

Silently we walked to a 153rd Street, towards Blaze’s sanctuary, the crumbling Trinity Cemetery. Constructed over a century ago, its grey stones sparkled under the sun’s glimmer. Wild ivy scaled the walls that surrounded the vast cemetery from Broadway to Amsterdam. A rusty wrought-iron design on top was supposed to keep the riffraff from climbing over.

Many evenings Blaze and I roamed around the ancient tombstones, throwing rocks at vicious squirrels and puffing potent Buddha Bless. We trooped past celestial cement angels, massive marble mausoleums and giant trees.

“Don’t you think this is kind of bugged?” I asked, as we strolled through the labyrinth of grassy paths. Carrying our hefty school bags, we looked for the perfect spot to park our butts. “Why you wanna hangout in a graveyard all the time is a mystery.”

“You sound like one of those punk kids from a Disney movie,” Blaze teased. “Don’t worry, I got a ghost repellent gun stashed in my bag,” he laughed, squatting next to one of decayed mausoleums.

“Yo, I’m not afraid. This is just weird.”

“Chill out,” he said, tossing a few new glossy covered comics in my lap. “It’s spookier in my house than it is in here.”

“Alright, sorry.” Instead of talking, we flipped through the four-color wonderlands of his newest comic books; a crew of new artists that included Vaughn Bode, Jim Steranko, Barry Smith, and Neal Adams had taken the graphics to a different level. Blaze studiously studied their styles and later incorporated visual bits into his own art.

Pulling his black sketchbook and a pack of magic markers out of his book bag, Blaze experimented with different (robotic bubbles, wildstyle characters) letter styles. The more weed we smoked, the more fantastic were the graffiti theories that tumbled from his tongue: “It’s all about style, you see.” Blaze passed me the sketchbook. “Brothers who don’t experiment just taking up space on the trains. Like homeboy Vulcan once told me once, ‘Style is the thing that separates the men from the toys.’ Maybe all that ordinary stuff was cool in the days of Taki 183, but I want to change the world.”

“You gonna pass that joint first?” I joked. Although I did my share of scribbling, for me writing on walls just wasn’t my thang. Unlike Blaze and C.C., I never yearned to be the king of nothing. “Yo, what’s up with that scrub Blax 178? Heard ya’ll had still had beef?” Not that anyone we knew ever saw that dude Blax 178, but for some reason he had started crossing out Blaze’s tags with his own infantile scrawl.

“That toy scared to surface,” Blaze laughed. “He crossed out another one of my pieces on the A train. Then he got nerve to put crowns over his name like he thinking he a king or something.”

“Smokey thinks he might be down with the Ballbusters,” I said, referring to the street gang that sometimes terrorized our hood.

“Man, that cat ain’t down with no Ballbusters,” he screamed. “Dude just trying to absorb fame off my name.” Blaze beat on his chest like Tarzan. “Can only be one king in this jungle, man. That’s me.”

* * *

Twilight approached, and the crew was bored hanging in the candy store. As the sun dimmed, lucky Smokey won another free game of pinball, but passed it off to a goofy kid wearing a Planet of the Apes T-shirt. “Maybe we should walk over to the school and see what the problem is,” I suggested.

“It’s freezing out here,” C.C. sneered, buttoning his sheepskin coat. It was almost four o’clock and darkness slowly spread across the dreary sky. Yet no matter how frosty it might have been outside, our hood still managed to sustain a festive flavor where hustlers lounged in gaudy rides, grandmothers dragged shopping carts, and corner boys shot dice against a tenement wall.

“Wait up a sec,” shouted Voodoo, stopping in front of the weed spot. His older brother Red had recently moved up in the world from a loose joint hustler to opening a black door storefront that specialized in uptown herbals. “We got that shit now,” Voodoo howled, running out of the store; even Smokey smiled in anticipation of taking a blast.

As we walked down the street smoking bud, a car sped past blasting the Bee Gees’ funky anthem of stalking in the maddening metropolis, “Nights on Broadway”. Hell, so what if they were bubblegum crooners, we was feeling that pale-faced trio.

Indeed, even before the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack aurally blew brothers away, me and Blaze was saying dumb stuff like, “When I get grown, I’m going to grow my beard like Barry Gibb”. To this day the funk of Arif Mardin’s production, Barry’s soaring falsetto (first introduced on this single) and the endearing lyrics (“…singin’ them sweet songs, to that crazy, crazy town”) still plays in my head, reminding me of that bleak evening.

It was C.C. who first spotted the police cruiser parked on the corner of 153rd Street. The red light atop the car rotated in its glass dome. “What’s going down now?” he wondered aloud, and flicked the joint into the gutter.

The deeper we walked into the block, overflowing with fat-bellied cops and a wagon from the coroner’s office, the more our world began to tilt like one of Smokey’s beloved pinball machines.

“Those are his friends!” screamed Mr. Mancini, the Italian janitor from St. Catherine. “Dese boys…dese boys are his friends.”

Staring at our bloodshot eyes, a baby-faced rookie ushered us through a blue barricade into a surreal circus of chatter and tears. Quietly, we moved through the muttering crowd.

It was then I saw the swinging silhouette of Blaze’s skinny body dangling from the tree. Instantly I vomited, splattering bile on my Pro-Ked sneakers. Smokey, C.C., and Voodoo stared as though trapped in a nightmare.

Blaze’s poppi, a distraught Miguel Garcia, held his wailing wife tightly. “My baby, my baby, my baby…”, she madly repeated. “Please God, please God, please God….” She broke away from her strong husband’s weakening arms and flung herself to the ground. Sister Marquez stood nearby, praying silently and clutching her rosary beads.

“Get these kids over to the side,” a gruff black detective snarled. “They don’t need to see this.”

Before we were led away from the rustic gates, a beautiful gold and black butterfly fluttered above Blaze’s head. Expanding its divine wings, the powdery dust on the butterfly seemed to glow. Indeed, if only for a moment it seemed as though Blaze had finally earned his crown. ”

All hail the King of Broadway,” I whispered, as the Bee Gees harmonized in my head.

THE END

Uptown native Michael A. Gonzales has published articles in Vibe, Essence, The Source, XXL, The Village Voice and New York magazine. His fiction has appeared in Bronx Biannual (edited by Miles Marshall Lewis), The Darker Mask: Heroes from the Shadows (edited by Gary Phillips and Christopher Chambers) and Tell-Tales 4: The Global Village (edited by Courttia Newland and Monique Roffey. He blogs at http://soulsummer.com/ and http://blackadelicpop.blogspot.com/.

For More Info On Larry Scott, go to:

http://www.citypaper.com/arts/story.asp?id=14840

http://www.citypaper.com/bob/story.asp?id=10894

http://www.citypaper.com/arts/story.asp?id=10064

http://juyc.info/youth/index.html

For the original mix go to:

http://www.natcreole.com/no4.htm#lit

Writer’s Photograph by Martha Cooper