Almost Fiction: Jerry Lee and the Vespa

By Sam Jones

Do you want to go home again? I don’t mean home as in back to your apartment. Do you want to go “Home” where you were a kid, where you were warm and safe, to the place you left a lifetime ago, a childhood ago, an adulthood ago? People say “you can’t go home again,” that no one gets to go back home because you took it with you and it disappeared the moment you left. Maybe that’s true… maybe not!

In a very small way last weekend I put a lie to that and did go home if only for a couple of moments. I went home twice.

The first time snuck up on me at the International Motorcycle Show in Long Beach, California. There I was checking out the new Hondas, and Urals with sidecars, and Indians, and Harleys and Triumphs. They’re shiny and the salesmen and saleswomen tell you how wonderful each model is and how much better they are from last year’s and why you’d be really lucky to buy one. I listen and look and wander in a daze wondering if I need another motorcycle and if there is room in my shop for another bike. Of course you need another one and of course there is always room for one more.

Somehow, without thinking about anything particular I found myself stopped at a booth staring at a bright yellow Vespa motor scooter. “Jeez, they looked out of place in a real motorcycle show.” But there I stood gawking like a silly Italian school boy who had just seen what he wanted Santa to bring him for Christmas. Finally, a pretty saleswoman came over and said, “Can I answer any questions?”

“Huh. Ahh, not really. I was just running the clock back about a hundred years remembering conversations I had with my high school buddies about Vespas.”

“What were the conversations?” She was very pretty and seemed as though she really wanted to hear about me and my buddies back in high school. So I gave her the medium to long version of my history with all the exaggerations in four-part harmony. She listened and at the appropriate places made witty comments from her own history that dovetailed nicely with mine.

As seniors in high school my friends and I talked about what we were going to do with summer vacation before we went to college or the Army or got a job. We were going to Europe and buy Vespas. They would be decked out with luggage racks and wicker picnic baskets filled with French bread baguettes and Bota bags topped off with Spanish wine. We would meet beautiful women who would ride sidesaddle. They would wear straight black skirts and espadrilles, black and white striped boat-neck shirts pulled down low to show a lot of shoulder and tie their hair back with a ribbon. I would wear a hand-embroidered Basque vest and a black beret.

It was an image, a portrayal and incarnation from some risqué, black and white, subtitled, sexy foreign movie we had seen starring Bridget Bardot.

When she interrupted my history with bits and pieces of hers it became evident that my Vespa saleswoman had seen the same movie and made the same plans as my buddies and me.

As it turned out, even though our plans to go to Europe had all been sworn in a blood oath, none of my friends went, neither did she and neither did I. However, sitting with this pretty Vespa agent, sharing a moment over a cup of Convention Center coffee, for several moments I was back in the senior quad, plotting with a friend to tour Europe on a Vespa. I was back to “teenagehood,” to the plans of youth and “Home”… if only for just a few minutes.

The second time I was able to go back home came just the day later. At the Cerrito’s Center for the Performing Arts, Jerry Lee Lewis was appearing and I had been holding in my hot little hand the ticket I’d purchased six weeks earlier. “The Killer” had been my hero long before I’d planned a European Vespa tour.

Center, front row balcony, the tickets were $100 apiece and I have never paid that much for anything. I’m cheap, but this was OK. This was Jerry Lee.

The gig started on time with a warm-up band but we didn’t need warming up. In fact most of the audience wanted to get it on and get home so they could drink a nice cup of warm milk and go to sleep early. There wasn’t a person there who if they asked for a senior citizen discount at Denny’s would have been turned down. These were spectators who started every conversation with “remember when.” But, by being there tonight we all agreed, to hell with those smart-ass young punks who listen to techno-pop and don’t have a clue about real rock and roll.

Then, there he was, this frail, little old man in a sparkling coat that reflected and ricocheted the lights better than any disco ball tottering out toward center stage.

“Jeez, I hope he doesn’t fall down and hurt himself.”

There was no need for me to worry. He sat down and with his incendiary style beat the shit out of the piano. If you closed your eyes he was the same, “The Killer” destroying the audience, burning up the songs and reinventing rock and roll just like he had in 1957. He was the original force of nature, the architect for rock and roll. He came before everyone else and taught the likes of Elvis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry.

For an hour Jerry Lee took everyone “Home.” We were all back to high school listening to music that our parents, teachers and pastors all told us would take us right straight to hell. It took us somewhere all right; we didn’t care where then and we didn’t care now. This was genuine. It wasn’t a copy. It wasn’t modified. It was the real deal and I was right there with it. We were all right there with it. Sure 90 percent of our heads were bald, all our hair was white and in order to protect knees and hip replacement everyone held tight to our seats but no one complained even for the occasional spontaneous standing ovations. We were in church; this was the gut-wrenching, rock-and-roll sacrament and of it we were all partaking.

And then Jerry Lee Lewis, “The Killer,” did his trademark; defiantly kicking the piano stool away, he finishes with “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”

While he performed those two songs I stood in Marty’s Music Mart, it was 1957 and I was buying them, the first two records I ever bought with my own money… and… I had gone “Home.”

One thought on “Almost Fiction: Jerry Lee and the Vespa”

  1. Sam,
    I love your tales, always have since when I would go down to the bike shop on the third Thursday and pick up Reg’s rag. Somehow, as things do, I got out of picking up the swindle sheet. Maybe because tastes and choices change a bit and one knows what they want and we all have plenty to read. Good to catch up and I am still waiting for the book. Mine will be Brian’s Occasional Bathroom Reader because Almost Fiction is taken.

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