![Dana Powell. “Rocket” (2017). Oil on linen. 20” x 16”. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles. ](https://global-uploads.webflow.com/62ee0bbe0c783a903ecc0ddb/6472d7621c74efe294ce856f_TBG22887.jpeg)
Dana Powell. “Rocket” (2017). Oil on linen. 20” x 16”. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles.
I was too young for the Summer of Love, but not too young to hear about it, to see the pictures of the hippies in _Life_ magazine, to speculate with my prepubescent friends exactly what Free Love might actually mean. Did you ordinarily have to pay for it? What exactly was Love anyway? My awakening came at 14, the war in Vietnam was coming to an end, but the war inside my hormone-poisoned body was raging.
My city was a small one in Upstate New York. The Western Border was the Hudson River, a giant chemical sluice where you could fish out giant four-eyed carp. Long abandoned factories were strung across the opposite bank and in the winter one would inevitably burn down. We would sit and watch the fireboats pump the noxious water out of the river and spray the ancient structures into submission. Come the dawn, the structure would resemble a Gaudí fever dream; tons of ice forming a psychedelic exoskeleton. It was an annual highlight. There was a giant railroad yard and three steel mills on the Northeast border. One by one, they closed down, and the small dark bars that were seemingly everywhere started to fill up earlier and earlier, desperate men drinking cheap beer in lieu of going to work. That was where I grew up. We were not exactly bred in the bone locals; my father moved us there when he was working on a massive rebuild of the New York State Capitol complex. Houses were dirt cheap, and my dad liked to spend his money on drinking and gambling, so cheap was perfect.
I was a good kid, destined to graduate as Valedictorian in my high school and go to college on a full scholarship, but some of my friends were another story. They felt the full brunt of the city’s reversal of fortune. Multiple generations of mill workers with good paying jobs, benefits, and two weeks paid vacation all disappeared in five or six years. There was a general feeling of, if not despair, certainly lassitude among my fellow teenagers, and they adopted a look to represent it. Long stringy hair, army surplus jackets; they existed outside of my fairly stable and comfortable bubble. How could you rarely go to school? How could you mouth off to grownups? How did you always have a $10 bag of Mexican shake, and why did so many girls find your glassy-eyed, slack jawed countenance so appealing? Although I was dreaming of a bigger life away from there, I could read the tea-leaves and realize that the shortest route to the rock and roll lifestyle was rolling with these guys, even if I was balancing it against my nagging fears. Fear of being arrested, which I assumed would lead to a lengthy prison sentence and effectively ruin my life, up against the fear of being found out as a poseur, a faux delinquent, who would be mocked, ostracized, and whispered about, effectively also ruining my life. A fine line indeed.
I had two things going for me; we had a well-stocked bar and my parents were rarely home on weekends, having been bitten by the racehorse bug. It had become a full-blown obsession—they were partners in a breeding farm and spent two or three weekends a month on the road, watching the horses race from Philadelphia to Montréal. Overnight trips soon expanded to Thursday to Monday excursions, and there I was all alone, when no other kid I knew had any privacy at all. I would finish soccer practice, rush home, do my homework, hide the valuables and then crack a beer, dump half down the drain (I didn’t like beer, still not my favorite), take a big swig, and pretend I had been casually hanging when the guys showed up.
There was Chris my best friend forever, Robbo, Bart who everybody called Baggy, Larry’s little brother Paul, Jack, who had actually been in Juvie, and Tony, who was way more wise guy than hippie and ended up turning state’s evidence in a big mob trial in the early 90’s. There was a certain sameness to these get-togethers; sneak shots of Galliano or Sloe Gin, smoke some weed (outside only), listen to records, laugh at nothing in particular, and repeat as necessary. Sometimes I would tell them that my parents had not left town so I could just break out of the routine, maybe read a book or something.
Chris had an older cousin who was a DJ at Oberlin College where he was a philosophy major. I cannot recall his name but it was his mission to mold our musical minds, so he mailed us records he swiped from the station. Captain Beefheart, The Velvet Underground, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Brian Eno, Iggy and the Stooges, and Frank Zappa were our benchmarks. That same year, _The Way We Were_, by Barbra Streisand, battled Blue Swede’s _Hooked on a Feeling_ and Jim Croce’s _Time in a Bottle_ for chart supremacy, so we were operating in a different sphere altogether.
All of this—the weed, the music, the hair, and the army surplus jackets, were all secondary to what we were really interested in. Girls. We boasted of non-existent conquests, rudely rated girls in our neighborhood and on television. What we didn’t do was ask questions about relationships or sex. No one wanted to reveal their total ignorance on those topics, and no one had ever really even talked to girl. Now that we were practically adult 14 and 15-year-olds, this was going to have to change. Fortunately, there was a magic bullet that could turn any gangly, pimply teenager into a silver-tongued rock star. Alcohol.
Usually this space is dedicated to revealing the culmination of vintner and distiller’s crafts. Today, we are celebrating youth, and the drink of my youth was Graves and Grape. Here is the recipe: one bottle of Graves to six bottles of grape juice and ice. Graves is grain alcohol, made in Maine, 190 proof and was illegal to sell almost everywhere except for Connecticut; a gallon cost twelve dollars and you can still buy it today, although I assume the price has risen. \[Ed. note; a 1.75-liter bottle now costs about $35—still a bargain\]
Most kids in our town drank beer—to be specific, Genesee Cream Ale, $4.49 for a case, on sale. We figured out a secret so wondrous, so basic, yet seemingly unknown that we felt like demigods for realizing it. Girls don’t like beer. They want something sweet that disguises how drunk they might be getting until they’re already swimming in the deep end. Grave’s and Grape was perfect. We test drove it at a few parties and finally the opportunity came for an all out foray into the belly of the beast. In a month, just three hours from our quiet upstate New York town, there was going to be an all day rock festival. We paid Baggy’s cousin $10 to drive to Connecticut to buy 2 gallons of Grave’s and began to dream about what would surely be the best day of our young lives.
Jack’s brother drove his Econoline Van; there were plans to totally trick it out, we discussed it endlessly, but so far it only had two coats of black house paint on the outside and some dark blue shag carpeting on the inside. The carpet was filthy; the smell when somebody dropped a lit cigarette or joint on it was toxic. We were headed to Jersey City. Roosevelt Stadium. Mountain, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Grand Funk Railroad and, Pink Floyd.
Traffic was at a standstill about a mile from the stadium’s parking lot, so we pulled over on the side of the road and walked like so many lemmings; packed tight and following a mythical leader towards the crumbling stadium. We had appropriated my parent’s 15-gallon metal drink cooler, added the Grave’s, a block of ice, and topped it off with Welsch’s Grape Juice. It was heavy. Two of us carried it for a hundred yards or so, then we stopped, drank, and switched off. Having a giant vat of rocketfuel on a hot afternoon was a good call. We traded thirsty travelers drinks for weed and psychedelics. Miraculously we also attracted some girls, Beth, Paige, and Beth’s cousin (Kelly?) joined our merry band. We traversed the parking lot and looked for a way in. I, of course, was the only one who had bought a ticket, and was wondering if I should just wait outside with them, when we saw that the truck gate was wide open and people were pouring in. As Mountain tore through “Mississippi Queen”, we tossed down a blanket and set up shop. We were at the far end of the stadium; you could see there was a stage, but what was happening was anybody’s guess.
Sound quality was surprisingly good, Leslie West’s fat fingers were flying as Jack rolled joints, Chris poured drinks, and I carefully tore a small bit off a small square of paper printed with Nixon’s face and prepared to drop my first hit of acid. Paige looked at me as she popped an entire Nixon into her mouth. “That’s all you’re taking?” “Of course not, it’s just a, um, ritual I have.” I placed the whole thing on my tongue knowing there was no way back.
Ninety minutes later time had stopped. We pounded the Grave’s like water and chain-smoked the cheap Mexican weed like some other thing that involves smoking a lot.
I announced to everyone that Grand Funk were geniuses and possibly the greatest band in the world. Those that could still talk agreed with me, the others stared up at the darkening sky, mesmerized while I marveled how the complexity of their three chord songs sounded so simple, or possibly the other way around.
As it does, it got dark. “We’re an American Band” came on with massive pyrotechnics rocketing from the stage. Many in the audience had brought their own fireworks and soon roman candles, bottle rockets, and some bigger stuff was flying over our heads and into the crowds. Paige stood up and grabbed my hand. “We have to go up front.” A girl was holding my hand. I could feel her warmth, her whole soul, pulsating out and into me. We walked; or rather she walked and I floated behind her like a balloon being pulled through a tornado. I don’t know how close we had gotten when the lights on the stage suddenly went black and an eerie synthetic prelude emanated from the massive speaker system.
Multi-colored lasers rose from the stage, they slowly spun and twisted, bathing the crowd and the night sky in their modern glow. I froze transfixed: this is what it meant to be alive, to be young, to be in Jersey City. I remembered to look at Paige and she had the same expression I imagined was on my grill. I could see the reflection of the lasers in her eyes. I was about to turn back to the stage when she suddenly grabbed my face and we began frantically making out.
Ok, now _this_ is what it means to be alive, to be young and all the rest. This was really real, I thought. I am sharing my first kiss with 100,000 people and Pink Floyd. The set was probably about two or so hours long and I don’t think I saw more than a minute of it—we shared one two-hour-long kiss, occasionally coming up for air when a song we knew started. We kissed all the way through the encores and only when the crowd really started yelling did we look up. A giant inflatable animal (she thought raccoon, I thought chicken) had broken free from its tether and was floating slowly up over our heads, out of the stadium, and into the Jersey night.
The music stopped, the lights came on, and there we were. We held hands and wandered back to where we thought the blanket had been. It was gone along with our friends—only a small mountain of paper cups remained behind in mute testimony. A brief moment of panic swept over me. Where was I? Where were my friends? How was I going to get home? Paige was completely tranquil, and this calmed me down. She grabbed my hand and we began slowly moving outside.
I dreamt of us possibly being together forever; I could lie about my age and a get a job here in Jersey City. We could find a cheap apartment and spend our night making out. As scared and confused as I knew I should be, I instead possessed an inner calm knowing that I had found the love of my life and that everything was going to be different as of this day. We got out of the parking lot and into the street. Paige turned and kissed me gently on the lips. “OK, I’ll see you.” and disappeared into the throng. Like a pillar of salt, I stood welded to the sidewalk, vaguely aware of the crowds pushing by me.
You know how weird things happen when you drop acid? Well, after an eternity fused in my spot, I hear a horn beeping and someone yelling “Dollar!” That was my nickname and my friend Chris was doing the yelling. I climbed into the back of the van. “Did you bring the cooler?” “Yeah, but it’s empty.” “That’s OK.” The van’s back doors were open; I leaned out and began throwing up. It was, I thought, the loveliest shade of purple.