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Almanack redux
[Being the Compendious History of a Journey from Providence, in ye Colonie of Rhode-Island, to Washington during ye Reign of William Jefferson Clinton — with Sundry Ruminations on the Prodigious Importance of ye NewPaper and Providence Phoenix]

I. Letter Introductory

Terrifying to admit, but my connection to the Providence Phoenix/New Paper goes back all the way to the beginning of its existence. And to some extent, my own. By that I mean my wobbly first steps to build a career around words, history, and memory. "She came from Providence," warbled Don Henley, gratingly, on one of the Eagles’ more obscure songs. And so, once, did I — before an odd peregrination that took me from Rhode Island to the Clinton Administration and beyond.

I was flattered to be asked to venture a new version of my old column, "The Rhode-Island Almanack," for this anniversary issue. But as I searched for a forgotten historical episode to write about, I thought: Why not the creation of the NewPaper itself? Because it was a slow day, I went a little overboard on the word count. For readers looking for a quick thrill, please turn to the "Adult" section of this newspaper. For those of you with a little time on your hands, relax in the Barcalounger while I reflect on the origin of the NewPaper and the ripples that followed the moment when it dropped like a stone into the pure sparkling waters of Rhode Island journalism.

Ah, magical 1978, year of Jim E. Carter, Buck E. Dent, and Rude E. Cheeks. Things were so different in that prelapsarian time — perhaps not as good as a nostalgia freak would insist, but nowhere near as bad as so many celebrants of Providence’s shiny-happy "Renaissance" now suggest.

There are so many things to object to in our Potemkin Renaissance — the oversized monstrosity of Providence Place; the boxy buildings crowding up vacantly against the beehive of downtown; the foreshortening of the once-magnificent State House lawn to build a deeply ordinary train station. But chief among my complaints is the imaginary notion — promulgated at every turn — that Providence had to recover from disaster before building all these boring new showpieces. You see it in almost every piece written about Buddy, whether Mike Stanton’s fine biography or the lame essay Philip Gourevitch wrote in the New Yorker a year ago. Cianci wanted people to think Providence was a Dantean inferno before he rescued it and turned it into Venice-on-Seekonk. But that’s not the way I remember it.

II. A Proud But Misunderstood City

Providence ruled in the ’70s! There was no place like it. To say it was "depressed" is to completely miss the point. Yes, in some sense it was lacking in a certain glitz — you did not see a whole lot of pointy glass buildings or corporate headquarters with big parking lots, if that’s your idea of what makes a city vital. But you got so much more in other ways.

Providence in the ’70s was a city that H.P. Lovecraft would still have recognized — and perhaps Poe as well. Earlier decades, long discarded by the rest of America, still hung heavy in the air. The ’30s and ’40s were especially alive, as if the great changes of the ’50s and ’60s had stuck in Providence’s throat, only to be expectorated like a piece of gristle at Thanksgiving dinner. The economy was industrial, befitting a city whose skyline was dominated by the Industrial Bank Building, and the same factories that had churned out goods for a century were still wheezing along in the outlying districts of Olneyville, Central Falls, and the like. Was there a more beautiful sight on God’s green earth than the plumes of smoke belching out of Rhode Island smokestacks?

Going downtown was a great urban experience. There were huge department stores like Shepard’s and the Outlet, where the entire glittering world of 19th-century capitalism opened up before your eyes. Those behemoths gave life to a thousand small dependencies — little stores on the side streets, owned by old men, where you could get your shoelaces replaced or your pants cuffed or your nostril hair trimmed. There were still hatters and haberdashers — does anyone under 40 even know what a haberdasher is? Watchmakers kept time as the city sped up in the morning and slowed down in the afternoon. Booksellers crowded up against bookies. Until maybe 10 years ago, a little wooden building stood right in front of city hall, selling racing programs. It had a single sign: "Dog Books." It always made me feel like I was standing inside a Walker Evans photograph.

I can still remember going downtown to Christmas-shop at Shepard’s around 1970, as a child, and thinking that I was in the largest city on earth. Calcutta, Shanghai, Lagos, Lima: they had nothing on us. Here were hordes of people walking up and down Westminster — children, grandparents, spinsters, bachelors, all humanity. Santas and Salvation Army bands loudly competed for attention on every corner. Buses disgorged their passengers every 30 seconds into the chaos of Kennedy Plaza. Providence was clearly the center of an empire — the kingdom of Southeastern New England. Like Sparta under the Greeks, a part of New England, but also a little different, adversarial, with its own customs.

The food — cornucopia! Haven Brothers was in its usual spot, of course — it has been there since the Narragansett Indians had a short-order teepee on the site. In addition, you had Mike’s Diner and the Silver Top and the Ever Ready Diner on Admiral Ave. and Elwood’s on Eddy. That’s not even counting real restaurants like Luke’s Luau Hut behind City Hall or Winkler’s Steak House on Washington (which we always called the "Teak House" because the S had fallen off the sign years earlier). With a little ingenuity, you could get anything you wanted, any time, night or day.

The bars — cornucopia is too weak a word. On every side street of downtown Providence there were two or three Narragansett Beer signs hanging over ancient holes in the wall with evocative names that screamed Providence. The Standard Tap. General Von Steuben’s. Best of all, the incomparable Mike’s 17, at 17 Snow Street, owned by Pete Pirolli, host to a permanent, extraordinary gathering of tipplers straight out of Damon Runyon, but better. They must have had real names once, but they were no longer needed. Instead, it was just Porky, Obie, Joe Chicken Man, Joe Tomatoes, Silly Putty, and so on. There was a wide selection of beer: Narragansett (lager) and Narragansett (ale). Women were not really welcome (the C-class bars — the old man bars — only admitted them after they were forced to in 1975), but every now and then one would sneak in, barely tolerated. The same with teenagers — it’s amazing that these guys let me and my friends hang around them when we were finally old enough (18 was the age then — that meant 15). But we idolized them. Those old stalwarts — mostly World War Two veterans — were the funniest, liveliest, smartest old buzzards you could ever want to meet. Providence is a smaller city without them.

In other words, Providence was a living, breathing organism in 1978 — like Lovecraft’s Charles Dexter Ward, occupying a body from a different century, and a little green around the gills, but still giving off healthy vital signs.

III. Enter the NewPaper [The Swinging Genius Movement]

Befitting such a lively city, there was a proud newspaper tradition, including great luminaries like A.J. Liebling. Back then, there were two great papers — the Providence Journal in the morning and the Evening Bulletin in the afternoon. They were owned by the same family, so they were not exactly democratic, and there were occasional labor difficulties, but still, the fact that the papers were homegrown gave them a relevance that is now sadly lacking. They covered our little ant farm of a state with absurd thoroughness. They even sent correspondents around the country. Why print a wire story when you had brilliant Journal writers to cover it from a Rhode Island point of view? For reasons related to out-of-state ownership (what Dallas exec is going to demand a story on, say, rising water rates in Burrillville?), and also to declining print standards everywhere, the current Journal is a shadow of its former self. Its atrophy does not exactly square with the usual definition of a Renaissance.

Despite the excellence of the old Journal, which illuminated so much of the Rhode Island universe, there was one area where it was deficient. Like the Hubble Telescope, it could only see in certain directions, and ignored what may have been the most interesting story of the mid-to-late ’70s: the emergence of a thriving, outrageous subculture of artists, rock and rollers, and swinging geniuses that transformed Providence forever. That’s exactly where the NewPaper came in.

As the old industrial Providence of the ’30s and ’40s was fading away, this group of creative visionaries celebrated everything about the disappearing world, and injected it with an anarchic, creative energy that Providence had never known before. As far as I can tell, the ’60s were relatively boring around here, but something powerful was unleashed in the curious decade that followed. It drew strength from 1) exciting changes gurgling in the plumbing of rock and roll, 2) the same springs of dark humor that were fueling National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live in New York, and 3) the natural cynicism of Rhode Islanders everywhere.

Who were these swinging geniuses? There are too many to name, and I will surely forget some. They did not all know each other. Most had pseudonyms, adding to the confusion. But a few spring to mind. To begin, the Mad Peck, creator of the famous Providence poster. As Dr. Oldie, he also ran a great radio show on WBRU that exhumed forgotten tunes from the dawn of rock and roll. He was also involved in a monthly record exchange — a gathering of rock obsessives who would pool together vinyl from the five counties of Rhode Island, ensuring that all citizens had a right to obscure music by Sam and Dave, Chad and Jeremy, or whoever.

Also in the cartoon/rock world, a little later, came Doug Allen, musician (with Rubber Rodeo) and creator of the hilariously misanthropic Steven cartoon, which debuted in the NewPaper and ran through most of the ’80s, and which often featured scenes of recognizable downtown locations. A cartoon is by definition 10 times funnier if it includes the Providence skyline in the background.

Then there were the people behind an unusually eclectic group of outlaw restaurants, bars, and nightclubs — crucial for any scene to gel. Lupo’s was in the forefront, but I’m also thinking of the old Met Café, the old Living Room, and Leo’s. Each had its own personality — R&B at the Met, old-time rock and roll and hippie rock at Lupo’s, new wave/punk rock at the Living Room, gossip and innuendo at Leo’s.

Finally, towering above the rest (because they wore platform shoes), the Young Adults galvanized the scene like nothing before or since. The missing link between the New York Dolls, punk rock, and Ethel Merman, they forged an exhilarating music that has never been completely captured on records. They were the perfect Providence band — flaunting their flea market finds (has any city ever offered more?), celebrating Rhode Island (they played before a giant school map of the state), and utterly irreverent.

Providence in the ’70s may not have been Paris in the ’20s, but something exciting was happening here. It was the electricity of this netherworld that the NewPaper tapped into when it arrived unheralded 25 years ago. It served up an alternative Providence, when the word "alternative" meant something truly different and adversarial, not a lame Dave Matthews-like sensibility. The NewPaper not only described this subterranean city, but offered employment to its denizens. The star example is Rudy Cheeks, singer and saxophonist for the Young Adults, known to millions of Rhode Islanders as Phillipe (or is it Jorge?) and Dr. Lovemonkey. He can tell this story far better than I can.

IV. Finis

It would be hard to overstate the impact of these revelations on a teenage reader like myself when the NewPaper started coming out. I can’t say that I remember the first issue of the NewPaper, but I started reading it soon after its maiden issue. Suddenly, a new continent opened up — portal into another dimension. There was no Internet then, so simple facts like club listings and rock reviews were important. Though I was slightly too young to enjoy the heyday of the scene, the paper let me vicariously experience some of its excesses. Week after week, I pored over its hieroglyphics like an Egyptologist, trying to penetrate the Rosetta Stone of the Providence underground. That so many of these messages were slightly furtive — like the difficulty of finding the Young Adults’ single in record stores, or of knowing exactly when Dr. Oldie’s radio show would be broadcast — did not detract from their excitement. On the contrary, the slowness with which the details were revealed made them that much better. Thomas Pynchon could not have written a more peculiar world. If H.P. Lovecraft had lived a few more decades, there is no doubt that he would have been slumped over the bar at Lupo’s at last call.

Soon, I was a convert, haunting the secret places where interesting records and books were sold. And not long after that, I began to grasp that these superstars were real people, and that they were even approachable. Rudy Cheeks was periodically sighted by my friends walking the streets of Providence with an enormous cigar. Jeff Shore, the Young Adults’ pianist, could be glimpsed behind the counter at Geoff’s, the sandwich shop on Benefit Street that employed about five generations of my friends. The Mad Peck actually said hello once on the Angell Street bus. One of the great things about Greek mythology is that gods and mortals talk to each other. It was just like that.

Once a portal opens, of course, there’s only one thing to do, and that’s to climb through it. So in a different way, I went for it. I soon fell in love with Rhode Island history, buying up books by the score at places like Cellar Stories, still my favorite bookstore. I formed a series of bad and good rock bands, including one, the Upper Crust, that played on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. In all of my bands, I cribbed shamelessly from the Young Adults, combining the three ingredients that never fail: 1) good rhythm guitar, 2) wigs, and 3) platform shoes. In fact, my platform shoes, which must have been five inches tall, were borrowed from Jeff Shore after I got to know him (he bought them new in Pawtucket around 1975). Like Dorothy’s magic slippers, they made me a better person than I really was, and my rock career ended about one week after they were stolen following a gig in New York (the thief was obviously a transvestite).

And I slowly tried to write. I ventured into the NewPaper’s offices around 1981, finding work as an intern for about two days (I can’t remember why I left, but it was nothing serious — probably just had to go to my dishwashing job). Then I got a regular job as a columnist, writing "The Rhode-Island Almanack" between 1989 and 1997. Each column began with an old illustration from a Narragansett Beer ad and ended with a quotation from Roger Williams’s brilliant study of the Narragansetts, A Key Into the Language of America. That simple column, which described the never-ending series of pratfalls one can find in Rhode Island history, gave me discipline I had never had before. One thing led to another, until by a sequence of events that I will save for a future column, but which involves The Simpsons and the president of Guatemala, I was offered a job as a speechwriter for the President of the United States between 1997 and 2001.

Unfortunately, my new life as a history teacher has taken me far from Rhode Island. But I have found, as Roger Williams did before me, that you can always build a private Rhode Island, no matter what shore you wash up on. Our state is a moveable feast. Thanks to the Young Adults, the NewPaper, and a thousand other idiots and geniuses I encountered in Rhode Island between 1978 and 1989, I will always inhabit that place, feeling a healthy skepticism toward official information, a deeper interest in heroic failure than boring success, and an abiding love of fried clams. For that, I’m eternally grateful.

"This Key, respects the Native Language of it, and happily may unlock some Rarities concerning the Natives themselves, not yet discovered. I drew the Materialls in a rude lumpe at sea, as a private help to mine own memory, that I might not by my present absence lightly lose what I had so dearely bought."

— Roger Williams, A Key Into the Language of America, 1643

Former Rhode Islander Ted Widmer is now director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College. Between 1997 and 2001 he was special assistant to the president and director of speechwriting at the National Security Council.

Issue Date: October 24 - 30, 2003
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