Saturday, April 09, 2005

ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HEAVEN IN STATEN ISLAND: THE HOUSE OF BILLIARDS MARTY STUART “COUNTRY” AT A COOL POOLROOM

UP FRONT News April9, 2005
Published by Tom Weiss
Editorial Advisor: Willard Whittingham

“The paper that can’t be bought and can’t be sold.”

Earlier this year, I wrote an article about my discovery that Staten Island – at least via some of its juke boxes – may qualify as capital of rock ‘n’ roll purity (as distinct from such genres of “popular” music as disco and hip-hop) in New York City. I somewhat hurriedly cited a couple of bars in St. George as examples. While their juke boxes are definitely worthy of attention musically, the bars (two on Bay Street, one on Hyatt Street), themselves are only of interest if one is into, for example, cocaine.

That is quite evidently not the case at The House of Billiards, a spacious pool hall; address 305 Front Street, in Stapleton, with its entrance on Wave Street. The establishment has a computerized juke box with thousands of selections, many available by downloading, including – praise god! – a bunch of tunes by Marty Stuart, a man who is a legend in country rock just about anywhere in this country – except in New York City. Stuart, who was born and raised in the notorious town of Philadelphia, Mississippi (where the bodies of the three murdered civil rights workers, Goodman Schwerner, and Chanay were found buried in a levee) began playing stringed instruments at a very, very young age, mentored by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. During years of performing as the lead guitarist for Johnny Cash, and, for some years, as Cash’s son-in-law, Stuart became – in my opinion and in that of a lot of other people one of the true greats of pure American rock ‘n’ roll. His “Me and Jumpin’ Jack” flash a blues poem describing a visit with Hank Williams in “Hillbilly Heaven” seems to stop first-time listeners, regardless of previous musical preferences, in their tracks. That tune is followed by “High on a Mountain Top”, a rock ‘n’ roll gospel infused anthem with Stuart singing, playing guitar and the mandolin. Those tunes come off an album entitled “This one’s Gonna Hurt You.” There are several tunes from a no-weak-cuts-at-all-album, “Pilgrim”, including a lush rock ‘n’ roll tune, “Chains of Love.” I still haven’t met the person who doesn’t really like Marty Stuart’s music and who does not recognize that his gifts with, in particular, the electric guitar, are very special. In a past UP FRONT News piece, I felt justified in dubbing him the Mississippi Mozart. And he can sing too.

The juke box at The House of Billiards also has some music by a fellow named David Lee Murphy, a practitioner of what some ladies could understandably call “hunk rock”, just by looking at the album cover. This fellow – playing pure heartland rock ‘n’ roll with a superb band with a great electric violinist – might be the next Early Elvis. The juke box also contains by now somewhat obscure classics like Teacher Teacher by an early Nick Lowe band called Rockpile and ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man.” Lynnyrd Skynnrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” and Conway Twitty’s heart-wrenching “It’s Only, make Believe” get regular use from me, and, I hope soon, from others.

The House of Billiards is also an art gallery of sorts with an absolutely compelling fresco by a Staten Islander named Scott Lobato (sp?) depicting the opening pool shark confrontation between Jackie Gleason in one of his greatest roles as Minnesota Fats facing off against Paul Newman in “The Hustler.” The painting, done in black and white, faithfully depicts every wrinkle of the faces and cue-wielding hands primal competitors. I don’t (yet) play pool. The House of Billiards juke box, aided and abetted by a most pleasant management and staff, keeps me happy.

Somebody who wants to make a two-borough tour of juke box rock ‘n’ roll heaven might start from the “Raccoon Lodge on Warren Street in Tribeca (geographically “Ground One”), which has Marty Stuart’s totally captivating rendition of Billy Joe Shavers’ rock ‘n’ roll gospel plea to Jesus for redemption called “If I Give My Soul to You” off Stuart’s very difficult to find “Love and Luck” album. Although not in the Raccoon juke box the CD also contains a piece of Stuart instrumental virtuosity called “Mary Stuart Goes to Mars.” The traveler might then walk a few minutes downtown to the free Staten Island Ferry, check out the Statue of Liberty and the sea gulls, then walk perhaps 15-20 minutes Along Bay Street, make a left on Wave Street, and head for the House of Billiards.

As the Rolling Stones might say – for sure on the Billiards box – “Start Me Up.”

Tomsupfrontnews@yahoo.com
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