Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Chapter Thirty Seven: "Ace Frehley Vs. The Outlaws of Cave-In-Rock."

These two books have it all: Cocaine, rock n roll, girls, murder, drunk driving, guitar solos, river pirates, beheadings, Spacemen, shock treatment, bandits, whiskey, rural terror...and more cocaine.

I've been a KISS fan since 1986, but have never read any of the KISS autobiographies. After inundating myself with KISS knowledge via pop magazine articles and interviews, reading everything I could get my hands on for years as a teenager and young adult, somewhere in my head I lost the desire to add more. I basically lost the desire to really give a shit about what Gene Simmons or Paul Stanley had to say, and whenever Simmons release a book about the foundations of KISS or how he invented heavy metal, my eyes kind of glaze. Since Stanley and Simmons have kept the KISS machine running for forty years, and have acted as the mouthpiece for said organization, the PR they write as as the official scrolls of its re-imagined histories and their ideas of it just have little interest to me at this period in my life.

However, when my drummer pal Stephen lent me original guitarist Ace Frehley's 2011 autobiography "No Regrets" (co-written with Joe Layden and John Ostrosky; Gallery Books/MTV Books). I was intrigued simply because it was from one of the members who spoke up much less in the interviews during the existence of KISS. I mean, Ace wasn't Mark St. John-level silent during his combined 16 years with the band, but he was most often overshadowed during interviews by Simmons and Stanley, as are all members. Seems original drummer Peter Criss is also about to release his own autobiography in the Fall of this year. To hear other side of things seemed interesting. Plus, sure, its a behind-the-scenes of the decadent 70s rock-n-roll lifestyle; why not? And Ace was the first concert I ever saw while he was on tour of his first post-KISS solo tour in the mid-80s.

In fact, I don't think I've ever really read many full backstage autobiographies of folks in big arena-rock bands. I went into this full speed (which is pretty slow). It all starts with Carl Frehley, who marries Esther Hecht, both kids of German and Dutch immigrants, and have Paul Frehley in the Bronx in 1951. Ace dives pretty quickly into the rough nature of his early life. His father was already 47 when he was born, and was often inattentive. Paul eventually found fun and friends in gangs, music and girls. There were fights and small brushes with the law, but he eventually dropped out of both high school and the gangs and started drinking, playing guitar, watching (and sneaking backstage at) all the coolest rock bands in the 60s, and apparently messing around with every girl in NYC.

The earliest half of the book is the most interesting, with Frehley explaining his life before he eventually joined and helped create the biggest rock band of 1970s. This section of the book contains the most interesting descriptions of his life, before he had fame, unlimited money, and access to everything. His memories of his first concerts when he saw Mitch Ryder, Wilson Pickett, Simon and Garfunkel, the Young Rascals, Phil Ochs, the Who and Cream at a series at the RKO 58th St Theatre in Manhattan in 1967. How seeing Townsend and Clapton and Jim McCarty onstage when he was a teenager blew his mind (along with some weed). How he started his first band (the Four Roses) when he was 13. How he met his future wife Jeanette Trerotola, and the inspiration she gave him to keep trying with bands. He writes about the joys of sneaking backstage in 1970 and accidentally getting to help Mitch Mitchell set up his drums before the Jimi Hendrix set at the New York Pop Festival. These stories are good, fun, pure insight; they're entertaining. And all lead to that one story that has been told a thousand times: the answering of the ad in the Village Voice for a guitarist "with flash and ability."

After the book gets passed the formation of KISS and the recording of their first few albums, every chapter eventually starts to read a bit formulaic. There are definitely some nice explanations of certain legends that have accrued concerning his songwriting contributions to the band and the development of his guitar style and onstage persona. It was interesting to read Ace's side of stories that I've only heard Simmons/Stanley describe, even down to the reasons for his mismatched sneakers during his audition for the band. It's all here and it's all for us KISS nerds who obsessed over these facts for decades. His stories about the immediate marketing ideas for the band before it had even started playing out are great. I especially enjoyed his take on the making of the controversial concept album "Music from 'The Elder'" KISS released in 1981, and what lead to his quitting the band at that time. In fact, Frehley does a good job debunking a lot of the revisionism KISS has spun for the last 30 years. Who's telling the truth? Who cares?

The problem is, the formula gets a bit boring. After Ace got money and fame, well, every chapter basically becomes story after story of how many girls he fucked at once, how many times he got fucked up on coke and crashed his car, how many times he blacked out and missed a plane, how many times his bodyguards and money bailed him out. During the period concerning his lifestyle in the late 70s all the way until the late 80s, there are so many sentences peppered throughout that read "I know a lot of guys have only dreamed of doing this...and I did it."  The bragging about the girls almost outweighs the bragging about the drugs, money and alcohol. Ace was apparently a ladies man, and he brings that up a lot more often than I expected. Being used to hearing Simmons brag and brag and brag...and brag, I didn't think Ace would head down that lane.  

I'm not knocking the book for the direction it goes in; this was Ace's life, and he tells it. There are moments when he comes off as an arrogant spoiled prick, sure. Especially the part when he drunkenly slams his Ferrari into a another guy's "$200 used piece of shit" in a parking lot. Hey, I drive a used piece of shit. I would have been mad, too. And many of his exploits end with a thank you to the "guardian angel" he claims is always watching over his shoulder; to me that guardian angel was having the money to basically do anything and get away with it. It eventually becomes regular rock star fodder. But, what can you expect from a guy that was in one of the biggest bands in the world.

But, this is also why I don't read too many rock autobiographies.

I also haven't read too many rock biographies that were actually about rocks, but felt the need to check out an old tome written in 1922 by Otto A. Rothert called "The Outlaws of Cave-in Rock" (Southern Illinois University Press). Part of the beginnings of this blog were dedicated to a travelogue documenting my obsession with the Ohio River that I trekked along and wrote about here last year. My travels in following the Ohio led me into Southern Illinois to a small town called Cave-in-Rock that I stopped at for water and to do some spelunking. Well, not real spelunking. Cave-in-Rock itself a state park that features a large-mouthed cave in a high bluff overlooking the river. No guides are necessary; you can simply wander down to the shore of the Ohio and walk on in the cave. It's a humongous 55-foot wide opening that leads several hundred feet back.

After exploring the cave, I began to drive out of the town of Cave-in-Rock and stopped and talked to a couple of men selling vegetables who immediately gave me much more information than any pamphlets I had gathered at the state park. The town and cave itself contains a very interesting history, and the two gentleman added that there had been two books written about the sorted, bloody early days of both. Their recommended title was "Satan's Ferryman: A True Tale of the Old Frontier," written by J. R. W. D. Snively and Louanna Furbee in 1968. This book remains out of print, and copies are expensive. The other history of the area was Rothert's original 1923 publication, which has been reprinted a few times.

taken in July 2011 during my visit

Rothert's history, despite being written 90 years ago, is very lively and compelling, giving a history of the cave itself, a limestone behemoth that eventually began housing criminals, bandits, murderers and river pirates from about 1795 to 1820. He begins in detailing the earliest accounts of the cave, which dates back to 1744 by Charlevoix in his "The History of New France." It began appearing on maps in 1778, and was eventually converted into an inn by Samuel Mason, a former officer in the Continental army, in 1797. The cave offered a clear view up and down the river, allowing those occupying it to see boats and travelers long before they were upon it. The cave at first served as a stopping point for people traveling to new areas of the country, until eventually it became twisted into use by "banditti" who saw it as a as a perfect "a scene shrouded in crime."

One of the biggest dangers to pioneers sailing down the Ohio in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were river pirates. Often the pirates would act as stranded folks needing help. Once taken aboard the ships, the robbers would commence to all sorts of devilry to get what they wanted, resorting to whatever viciousness was necessary. With the use of Cave-in-Rock to serve as a decoy as an inn and resting spot, the river pirates became even more crafty, luring victims to its insides with a promise of supplies and drink (water or alcohol), even gambling and prostitution. The cave itself served as home to murder and what-all, according to Rothert. This book details crime after crime.

The main focus of the history Rothert offers, however, centers on two stories of bloody murder and deceit. Several chapters are devoted to the famous Harpe Brothers. Big and Little Harpe are considered the first serial killers of the United States, having started a murderous spree that cut through Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois. Rothert quotes Judge James Hall's 1824 accounts of the Harpes, who describes them as feral killers who had a "savage thirst for blood - a deep rooted enmity against human nature...Plunder was not their object...they destroyed without having suffered injury, and without the prospect of of benefit."

The Harpe Brothers

The tales of the Harpes take three chapters, and the further adventures of Little Harpe spill into subsequent chapters. Big Harpe was renowned for being the most savage, with one legend sporting him bashing his own daughter's head against a tree because she wouldn't be quiet. One story deftly recounted in the book, as well as related to me on the side of the main stretch in Cave-In-Rock by the kindly vegetable salesmen, was how they robbed a small boy carrying a bag of flour. Instead of merely taking he flour, they split him with a knife, filled his chest with rocks, and threw him in the Ohio. It's hard to say what's legend and what's all true, although Rothert had done his research. The stories of the Harpes are still passed around, especially in that area of Southern Illinois and Western Kentucky. The eventually tried to find shelter within Cave-In-Rock, but were driven out by the "aggregation of outlaws" living there because "in the Harpes they found two human brutes beyond even their toleration."

Another chunk of Rothert's lessons tell of Samuel Mason, he who had maintained an excellent military record in the American Revolution, but eventually became "one of the shrewdest and resourceful of outlaws." Instead of murder, Mason excelled in thievin', founding a traveling gang of scoundrels that roamed the wilderness stealing and the like. Cave-in-Rock was a perfect formation to create a den of gambling, prostitution and robbing. Mason avoided his fame by hanging a large sign on the river bank: "Wilson's Liquor Vault and House for Entertainment." Many stories surround his escapades, as well.

The history of Cave-In-Rock is pretty brutal, but damn interesting. Rothert's account backs up and adds to all of the things I had already heard about the place. If you go to the cave now, you can still ancient graffiti carved into the rock. True, a lot less cocaine (although I find it hard to believe the Harpes didn't party), but a riveting story nonetheless. Very few bodyguards and royalty checks to save the pioneers then.

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