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The Kool-Tones were giving the show of their lives, singing like they’d never sung before. They didn’t expect that they might attract otherworldly interest . . .


Flying Saucer Rock & Roll

by Howard Waldrop


UFO Doo Wop
Photo illustration by Robert K. J. Killheffer. Images: MNatalia Charkesava (avisdemiranda / 123RF Stock Photo),
mik38 / 123RF Stock Photo, and fulya / 123RF Stock Photo.



They could have been contenders.

Talk about Danny and the Juniors, talk about the Spaniels, the Contours, Sonny Till and the Orioles. They made it to the big time: records, tours, sock hops at $500 a night. Fame and glory.

But you never heard of the Kool-Tones, because they achieved their apotheosis and their apocalypse on the same night, and then they broke up. Some still talk about that night, but so much happened, the Kool-Tones get lost in the shuffle. And who’s going to believe a bunch of kids, anyway? The cops didn’t, and their parents didn’t. It was only two years after the President had been shot in Dallas, and people were still scared. This, then, is the Kool-Tones story:

Leroy was smoking a cigar through a hole he’d cut in a pair of thick, red wax lips. Slim and Zoot were tooting away on Wowee whistles. It was a week after Halloween, and their pockets were still full of trick-or-treat candy they’d muscled off little kids in the projects. Ray, slim and nervous, was hanging back. “We shouldn’t be here, you know? I mean, this ain’t the Hellbenders territory, you know? I don’t know whose it is, but, like, Vinnie and the guys don’t come this far.” He looked around.

Zoot, who was white and had the beginnings of a mustache, took the yellow wax-candy kazoo from his mouth. He bit off and chewed up the big C pipe. “I mean, if you’re scared, Ray, you can go back home, you know?”

“Nah!” said Leroy. “We need Ray for the middle parts.” Leroy was twelve years old and about four feet tall. He was finishing his fourth cigar of the day. He looked like a small Stymie Beard from the old Our Gang comedies.

He still wore the cut-down coat he’d taken with him when he’d escaped from his foster home.

He was staying with his sister and her boyfriend. In each of his coat pockets he had a bottle: one Coke and one bourbon.

“We’ll be all right,” said Cornelius, who was big as a house and almost eighteen. He was shaped like a big ebony golf tee, narrow legs and waist blooming out to an A-bomb mushroom of arms and chest. He was a yard wide at the shoulders. He looked like he was always wearing football pads.

“That’s right,” said Leroy, taking out the wax lips and wedging the cigar back into the hole in them. “I mean, the kid who found this place didn’t say anything about it being somebody’s spot, man.”

“What’s that?” asked Ray.

They looked up. A small spot of light moved slowly across the sky. It was barely visible, along with a few stars, in the lights from the city.

“Maybe it’s one of them UFOs you’re always talking about, Leroy,” said Zoot.

“Flying saucer, my left ball,” said Cornelius. “That’s Telstar. You ought to read the papers.”

“Like your mama makes you?” asked Slim.

“Aww . . . ,” said Cornelius.

They walked on through the alleys and the dark streets. They all walked like a man.




“This place is Oz,” said Leroy.

“Hey!” yelled Ray, and his voice filled the area, echoed back and forth in the darkness, rose in volume, died away.

“Wow.”

They were on what had been the loading dock of an old freight and storage company. It must have been closed sometime during the Korean War or maybe in the unimaginable eons before World War II. The building took up most of the block, but the loading area on the back was sunken and surrounded by the stone wall they had climbed. If you stood with your back against the one good loading door, the place was a natural amphitheater.

Leroy chugged some Coke, then poured bourbon into the half-empty bottle. They all took a drink, except Cornelius, whose mother was a Foursquare Baptist and could smell liquor on his breath three blocks away.

Cornelius drank only when he was away from home two or three days.

“Okay, Kool-Tones,” said Leroy quietly. “Let’s hit some notes.”

They stood in front of the door, Leroy to the fore, the others behind him in a semicircle: Cornelius, Ray, Slim, and Zoot.

“One, two, three,” said Leroy quietly, his face toward the bright city beyond the surrounding buildings.

He had seen all the movies with Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers in them and knew the moves backwards. He jumped in the air and came down, and Cornelius hit it: “Bah-doo, bah-doo, bah-doo uhh.”

It was a bass from the bottom of the ocean, from the Marianas Trench, a voice from Death Valley on a wet night, so far below sea level you could feel the absence of light in your mind. And then Zoot and Ray came in: “Ooh-oooh, ooh-oooh,” with Leroy humming under, and then Slim stepped out and began the lead tenor part of Sincerely, by the Crows. And they went through that one perfectly, flawlessly, the dark night and the dock walls throwing their voices out to the whole breathing city.

“Wow,” said Ray, when they finished, but Leroy held up his hand, and Zoot leaned forward and took a deep breath and sang: “Dee-dee-woo-oo, dee-eee-wooo-oo, dee-uhmm-doo-way.”

And Slim and Ray chanted: “A-weem-wayyy, a-weem-wayyy.”

And then Leroy, who had a falsetto that could take hair off an opossum, hit the high notes from The Lion Sleeps Tonight, and it was even better than the first song, and not even the Tokens on their number-two hit had ever sounded greater.

Then they started clapping their hands, and at every clap the city seemed to jump with expectation, joining in their dance, and they went through a shaky-legged Skyliners-type routine and into: “Hey-ahh-stuh-huh, hey-ahh-stuh-uhh,” of Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’ Stay, and when Leroy soared his “Hoh-wahh-yuh?” over Zoot’s singing, they all thought they would die.

And without pause, Ray and Slim started: “Shoo-be-doop, shoo-doop-do-be-doop, shoo-doopbe-do-be-doop,” and Cornelius was going, “Ah-rem-em, ah-rem-em, ah-rem-emm bah.”

And they went through the Five Satins’ (I Remember) In the Still of the Night.

“Hey, wait,” said Ray, as Slim “woo-uh-wooo-uh-woo-ooo-ah-woo-ah”-ed to a finish, “I thought I saw a guy out there.”

“You’re imagining things,” said Zoot. But they all stared out into the dark anyway.

There didn’t seem to be anything there.

“Hey, look,” said Cornelius. “Why don’t we try putting the bass part of Stormy Weather with the high part of Crying in the Chapel? I tried it the other night, but I can’t —”

“Shit, man!” said Slim. “That ain’t the way it is on the records. You gotta do it like on the records.”

“Records are going to hell anyway. I mean, you got Motown and some of that, but the rest of it’s like the Beatles and Animals and Rolling Stones and Wayne shitty Fontana and the Mindbenders and . . .

Leroy took the cigar from his mouth. “Fuck the Beatles,” he said. He put the cigar back in his mouth.

“Yeah, you’re right, I agree. But even the other music’s not the —”

“Aren’t you kids up past your bedtime?” asked a loud voice from the darkness.

They jerked erect. For a minute, they hoped it was only the cops.

Matches flared in the darkness, held up close to faces. The faces all had their eyes closed so they wouldn’t be blinded and unable to see in case the Kool-Tones made a break for it. Blobs of face and light floated in the night, five, ten, fifteen, more.

Part of a jacket was illuminated. It was the color reserved for the kings of Tyre.

“Oh, shit!” said Slim. “Trouble. Looks like the Purple Monsters.”

The Kool-Tones drew into a knot.

The matches went out and they were in a breathing darkness.

“You guys know this turf is reserved for friends of the local protective, athletic, and social club, viz., us?” asked the same voice. Chains clanked in the black night.

“We were just leaving,” said Cornelius.

The noisy chains rattled closer.

You could hear knuckles being slapped into fists out there.

Slim hoped someone would hurry up and hit him so he could scream.

“Who are you guys with?” asked the voice, and a flashlight shone in their eyes, blinding them.

“Aww, they’re just little kids,” said another voice.

“Who you callin’ little, turd?” asked Leroy, shouldering his way between Zoot and Cornelius’s legs.

A wooooooo! went up from the dark, and the chains rattled again.

“For God’s sake, shut up, Leroy!” said Ray.

“Who you people think you are, anyway?” asked another, meaner voice out there.

“We’re the Kool-Tones,” said Leroy. “We can sing it slow, and we can sing it low, and we can sing it loud, and we can make it go!”

“I hope you like that cigar, kid,” said the mean voice, “because after we piss on it, you’re going to have to eat it.”

“Okay, okay, look,” said Cornelius. “We didn’t know it was your turf. We come from over in the projects and . . .

“Hey, man, Hellbenders, Hellbenders!” The chains sounded like tambourines now.

“Naw, naw. We ain’t Hellbenders. We ain’t nobody but the Kool-Tones. We just heard about this place. We didn’t know it was yours,” said Cornelius.

“We only let Bobby and the Bombers sing here,” said a voice.

“Bobby and the Bombers can’t sing their way out of the men’s room,” said Leroy. Slim clamped Leroy’s mouth, burning his hand on the cigar.

“You’re gonna regret that,” said the mean voice, which stepped into the flashlight beam, “because I’m Bobby, and four more of these guys out here are the Bombers.”

“We didn’t know you guys were part of the Purple Monsters!” said Zoot.

“There’s lots of stuff you don’t know,” said Bobby. “And when we’re through, there’s not much you’re gonna remember.”

“I only know the Del Vikings are breaking up,” said Zoot. He didn’t know why he said it. Anything was better than waiting for the knuckle sandwiches.

Bobby’s face changed. “No shit?” Then his face set in hard lines again. “Where’d a punk like you hear something like that?”

“My cousin,” said Zoot. “He was in the Air Force with two of them. He writes to ’em. They’re tight. One of them said the act was breaking up because nobody was listening to their stuff anymore.”

“Well, that’s rough,” said Bobby. “It’s tough out there on the road.”

“Yeah,” said Zoot. “It really is.”

Some of the tension was gone, but certain delicate ethical questions remained to be settled.

“I’m Lucius,” said a voice. “Warlord of the Purple Monsters.” The flashlight came on him. He was huge. He was like Cornelius, only he was big all the way to the ground. His feet looked like blunt I-beams sticking out of the bottom of his jeans. His purple satin jacket was a bright fluorescent blot on the night. “I hate to break up this chitchat” — he glared at Bobby — “but the fact is you people are on Purple Monster territory, and some tribute needs to be exacted.”

Ray was digging in his pockets for nickels and dimes.

“Not money. Something that will remind you not to do this again.”

“Tell you what,” said Leroy. He had worked himself away from Slim. “You think Bobby and the Bombers can sing?”

“Easy!” said Lucius to Bobby, who had started forward with the Bombers. “Yeah, kid. They’re the best damn group in the city.”

“Well, I think we can outsing ’em,” said Leroy, and smiled around his dead cigar.

“Oh, jeez,” said Zoot. “They got a record, and they’ve —”

“I said, we can outsing Bobby and the Bombers, anytime, any place,” said Leroy.

“And what if you can’t?” asked Lucius.

“You guys like piss a lot, don’t you?” There was a general movement toward the Kool-Tones. Lucius held up his hand. “Well,” said Leroy, “how about all the members of the losing group drink a quart apiece?”

Hands of the Kool-Tones reached out to stifle Leroy. He danced away.

“I like that,” said Lucius. “I really like that. That all right, Bobby?”

“I’m going to start saving it up now.”

“Who’s gonna judge?” asked one of the Bombers.

“The same as always,” said Leroy. “The public. Invite ’em in.”

“Who do we meet with to work this out?” asked Lucius.

“Vinnie of the Hellbenders. He’ll work out the terms.”

Slim was beginning to see he might not be killed that night. He looked at Leroy with something like worship.

“How we know you guys are gonna show up?” asked Bobby.

“I swear on Sam Cooke’s grave,” said Leroy.

“Let ’em pass,” said Bobby.

They crossed out of the freight yard and headed back for the projects.

“Shit, man!”

“Now you’ve done it!”

“I’m heading for Florida.”

“What the hell, Leroy, are you crazy?”

Leroy was smiling. “We can take them, easy,” he said, holding up his hand flat.

He began to sing Chain Gang. The other Kool-Tones joined in, but their hearts weren’t in it. Already there was a bad taste in the back of their throats.




Vinnie was mad.

The black outline of a mudpuppy on his white silk jacket seemed to swell as he hunched his shoulders toward Leroy.

“What the shit you mean, dragging the Hellbenders into this without asking us first? That just ain’t done, Leroy.”

“Who else could take the Purple Monsters in case they wasn’t gentlemen?” asked Leroy.

Vinnie grinned. “You’re gonna die before you’re fifteen, kid.”

“That’s my hope.”

“Creep. Okay, we’ll take care of it.”

“One thing,” said Leroy. “No instruments. They gotta get us a mike and some amps, and no more than a quarter of the people can be from Monster territory. And it’s gotta be at the freight dock.”

“That’s one thing?” asked Vinnie.

“A few. But that place is great, man. We can’t lose there.”

Vinnie smiled, and it was a prison-guard smile, a Nazi smile. “If you lose, kid, after the Monsters get through with you, the Hellbenders are gonna have a little party.”

He pointed over his shoulder to where something resembling testicles floated in alcohol in a mason jar on a shelf. “We’re putting five empty jars up there tomorrow. That’s what happens to people who get the Hellbenders involved without asking and then don’t come through when the pressure’s on. You know what I mean?”

Leroy smiled. He left smiling. The smile was still frozen to his face as he walked down the street.

This whole thing was getting too grim.




Leroy lay on his cot listening to his sister and her boyfriend porking in the next room.

It was late at night. His mind was still working. Sounds beyond those in the bedroom came to him. Somebody staggered down the project hallway, bumping from one wall to another. Probably old man Jones. Chances are he wouldn’t make it to his room all the way at the end of the corridor. His daughter or one of her kids would probably find him asleep in the hall in a pool of barf.

Leroy turned over on the rattly cot, flipped on his seven-transistor radio, and jammed it up to his ear. Faintly came the sounds of another Beatles song.

He thumbed the tuner, and the four creeps blurred into four or five other Englishmen singing some other stupid song about coming to places he would never see.

He went through the stations until he stopped on the third note of the Monotones’ Book of Love. He sang along in his mind.

Then the deejay came on, and everything turned sour again. “Another golden oldie, Book of Love, by the Monotones. Now here is the WBKD pick of the week, the fabulous Beatles with I’ve Just Seen a Face.” Leroy pushed the stations around the dial, then started back.

Weekdays were shit. On weekends you could hear good old stuff, but mostly the stations all played Top 40, and that was English invasion stuff, or if you were lucky, some Motown. It was Monday night. He gave up and turned to an all-night blues station, where the music usually meant something. But this was like, you know, the sharecropper hour or something, and all they were playing was whiny cotton-choppin’ work blues from some damn Alabama singer who had died in 1932, for God’s sake.

Disgusted, Leroy turned off the radio.

His sister and her boyfriend had quit for a while, so it was quieter in the place. Leroy lit a cigarette and thought of getting out of here as soon as he could.

I mean, Bobby and the Bombers had a record, a real big-hole forty-five on WhamJam. It wasn’t selling worth shit from all Leroy had heard, but that didn’t matter. It was a record, and it was real, it wasn’t just singing under some street lamp. Slim said they’d played it once on WABC, on the Hit-or-Flop show, and it was a flop, but people heard it. Rumor was the Bombers had gotten sixty-five dollars and a contract for the session. They’d had a couple of gigs at dances and such, when the regular band took a break. They sure as hell couldn’t be making any money, or they wouldn’t be singing against the Kool-Tones for free kicks.

But they had a record out, and they were working.

If only the Kool-Tones got work, got a record, went on tour. Leroy was just twelve, but he knew how hard they were working on their music. They’d practice on street corners, on the stoop, just walking, getting the notes down right — the moves, the facial expressions of all the groups they’d seen in movies and on Slim’s mother’s TV.

There were so many places to be out there. There was a real world with people in it who weren’t punching somebody for berries, or stealing the welfare and stuff. Just someplace open, someplace away from everything else.

He flipped on the flashlight beside his cot, pulled it under the covers with him, and opened his favorite book. It was Edward J. Ruppelt’s Report on Unidentified Flying Objects. His big brother John William, whom he had never seen, sent it to him from his Army post in California as soon as he found Leroy had run away and was living with his sister. John William also sent his sister part of his allotment every month.

Leroy had read the book again and again. He knew it by heart already. He couldn’t get a library card under his own name because the state might trace him that way. (They’d already been around asking his sister about him. She lied. But she too had run away from a foster home as soon as she was old enough, so they hadn’t believed her and would be back.) So he’d had to boost all his books. Sometimes it took days, and newsstand people got mighty suspicious when you were black and hung around for a long time, waiting for the chance to kipe stuff. Usually they gave you the hairy eyeball until you went away.

He owned twelve books on UFOs now, but the Ruppelt was still his favorite. Once he’d gotten a book by some guy named Truman or something who wrote poetry inspired by the people from Venus. It was a little sad, too, the things people believed sometimes. So Leroy hadn’t read any more books by people who claimed they’d been inside the flying saucers or met the Neptunians or such. He read only the ones that gave histories of the sightings and asked questions, like why was the Air Force covering up? Those books never told you what was in the UFOs, and that was good because you could imagine it for yourself.

He wondered if any of the Del Vikings had seen flying saucers when they were in the Air Force with Zoot’s cousin. Probably not, or Zoot would have told him about it. Leroy always tried to get the rest of the Kool-Tones interested in UFOs, but they all said they had their own problems, like girls and cigarette money. They’d go with him to see Invasion of the Saucermen or Earth vs. the Flying Saucers at the movies, or watch The Thing on Slim’s mother’s TV on the Creature Feature, but that was about it.

Leroy’s favorite flying-saucer sighting was the Mantell case, in which a P-51 fighter plane, which was called the Mustang, chased a UFO over Kentucky and then crashed after it went off the Air Force radar. Some say Captain Mantell died of asphyxiation because he went to 20,000 feet and didn’t have on an oxygen mask, but other books said he saw “something metallic and of tremendous size” and was going after it. Ruppelt thought it was a Skyhook balloon, but he couldn’t be sure. Others said it was a real UFO and that Mantell had been shot down with Z-rays.

It had made Leroy’s skin crawl when he had first read it.

But his mind went back to the Del Vikings. What had caused them to break up? What was it really like out there on the road? Was music getting so bad that good groups couldn’t make a living at it anymore?

Leroy turned off the flashlight and put the book away. He put out the cigarette, lit a cigar, went to the window, and looked up the airshaft. He leaned way back against the cool window and could barely see one star overhead. Just one star.

He scratched himself and lay back down on the bed.

For the first time, he was afraid about the contest tomorrow night.

We got to be good, he said to himself. We got to be good.

In the other room, the bed started squeaking again.




The Hellbenders arrived early to check out the turf. They’d been there ten minutes when the Purple Monsters showed up. There was handshaking all around, talk a little while, then they moved off into two separate groups. A few civilians came by to make sure this was the place they’d heard about.

“Park your cars out of sight, if you got ’em,” said Lucius. “We don’t want the cops to think anything’s going on here.”

Vinnie strut-walked over to Lucius.

“This crowd’s gonna be bigger than I thought. I can tell.”

“People come to see somebody drink some piss. You know, give the public what it wants.” Lucius smiled.

“I guess so. I got this weird feelin’, though. Like, you know, if your mother tells you she dreamed about her aunt, like right before she died and all?”

“I know what feelin’ you mean, but I ain’t got it,” said Lucius.

“Who you got doing the electrics?”

“Guy named Sparks. He was the one lit up Choton Field.”

At Choton Field the year before, two gangs wanted to fight under the lights. So they went to a high-school football stadium. Somebody got all the lights and the P.A. on without going into the control booth.

Cops drove by less than fifty feet away, thinking there was a practice scrimmage going on, while down on the field guys were turning one another into bloody strings. Somebody was on the P.A. giving a play-by-play. From the outside, it sounded cool. From the inside, it looked like a pizza with all the topping ripped off it.

“Oh,” said Vinnie. “Good man.”




He used to work for Con Ed, and he still had his I.D. card. Who was going to mess with Consolidated Edison? He drove an old, gray pickup with a smudge on the side that had once been a power company emblem. The truck was filled to the brim with cables, wires, boots, wrenches, tape, torches, work lights, and rope.

“Light man’s here!” said somebody.

Lucius shook hands with him and told him what they wanted. He nodded.

The crowd was getting larger, groups and clots of people drifting in, though the music wasn’t supposed to start for another hour. Word traveled fast.

Sparks attached a transformer and breakers to a huge, thick cable.

Then he got out his climbing spikes and went up a pole like a monkey, the heavy chunk-chunk drifting down to the crowd every time he flexed his knees. His tool belt slapped against his sides.

He had one of the guys in the Purple Monsters throw him up the end of the inch-thick electrical cable.

The sun had just gone down, and Sparks was a silhouette against the purpling sky that poked between the buildings.

A few stars were showing in the eastern sky. Lights were on all through the autumn buildings. Thanksgiving was in a few weeks, then Christmas.

The shopping season was already in full swing, and the streets would be bathed in neon, in holiday colors. The city stood up like big, black fingers all around them.

Sparks did something to the breakdown box on the pole.

There was an immense blue scream of light that stopped everybody’s heart.

New York City went dark.

“Fucking wow!”

A raggedy-assed cheer of wonder ran through the crowd.

There were crashes, and car horns began to honk all over town.

“Uh, Lucius,” Sparks yelled down the pole after a few minutes. “Have the guys go steal me about thirty automobile batteries.”

The Purple Monsters ran off in twenty different directions.

“Ahhhyyyhhyyh,” said Vinnie, spitting a toothpick out of his mouth. “The Monsters get to have all the fun.”




It was 5:27 P.M. on November 9, 1965. At the Ossining changing station, a guy named Jim was talking to a guy named Jack.

Then the trouble phone rang. Jim checked all his dials before he picked it up.

He listened, then hung up.

“There’s an outage all down the line. They’re going to switch the two hundred K’s over to the Buffalo net and reroute them back through here. Check all the load levels. Everything’s out from Schenectady to Jersey City.”

When everything looked ready, Jack signaled to Jim. Jim called headquarters, and they watched the needles jump on the dials.

Everything went black.

Almost everything.

Jack hit all the switches for backup relays, and nothing happened.

Almost nothing.

Jim hit the emergency battery work lights. They flickered and went out.

“What the hell?” asked Jack.

He looked out the window.

Something large and bright moved across a nearby reservoir and toward the changing station.

“Holy Mother of Christ!” he said.

Jim and Jack went outside.

The large bright thing moved along the lines toward the station. The power cables bulged toward the bottom of the thing, whipping up and down, making the stanchions sway. The station and the reservoir were bathed in a blue glow as the thing went over. Then it took off quickly toward Manhattan, down the straining lines, leaving them in complete darkness.

Jim and Jack went back into the plant and ate their lunches.

Not even the phone worked anymore.




It was really black by the time Sparks got his gear set up. Everybody in the crowd was talking about the darkness of the city and the sky. You could see stars all over the place, everywhere you looked.

There was very little noise from the city around the loading area.

Somebody had a radio on. There were a few Jersey and Pennsy stations on. One of them went off while they listened.

In the darkness, Sparks worked by the lights of his old truck. What he had in front of him resembled something from an alchemy or magnetism treatise written early in the eighteenth century. Twenty or so car batteries were hooked up in series with jumper cables. He’d tied those in with amps, mikes, transformers, a light board, and lights on the dock area.

“Stand clear!” he yelled. He bent down with the last set of cables and stuck an alligator clamp on a battery post.

There was a screeching blue jag of light and a frying noise. The lights flickered and came on, and the amps whined louder and louder.

The crowd, numbering around five hundred, gave out with prolonged huzzahs and applause.

“Test, test, test,” said Lucius. Everybody held their hands over their ears.

“Turn that fucker down,” said Vinnie. Sparks did. Then he waved to the crowd, got into his old truck, turned the lights off, and drove into the night.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the Purple Monsters . . . ,” said Lucius, to wild applause, and Vinnie leaned into the mike, “and the Hellbenders,” more applause, then back to Lucius, “would like to welcome you to the first annual piss-off — I mean, sing-off — between our own Bobby and the Bombers,” cheers, “and the challengers,” said Vinnie, “the Kool-Tones!” More applause!

“They’ll do two sets, folks,” said Lucius, “taking turns. And at the end, the unlucky group, gauged by your lack of applause, will win a prize!”

The crowd went wild.

The lights dimmed out. “And now,” came Vinnie’s voice from the still blackness of the loading dock, “for your listening pleasure, Bobby and the Bombers!”

Yayyyyyyyyy!

The lights, virtually the only lights in the city except for those that were being run by emergency generators, came up, and there they were.

Imagine frosted, polished elegance being thrust on the unwilling shoulders of a sixteen-year-old.

They had on blue jackets, matching pants, ruffled shirts, black ties, cuff links, tie tacks, shoes like obsidian mortar trowels. They were all black boys, and from the first note, you knew they were born to sing:

Bah bah,” sang Letus the bassman, “doo-doo duh-duh doo-ahh, duh-doo-dee-doot,” sang the two tenors, Lennie and Conk, and then Bobby and Fred began trading verses of the Drifters’ There Goes My Baby, while the tenors wailed and Letus carried the whole with his bass.

Then the lights went down and came up again as Lucius said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Kool-Tones!”

It was magic of a grubby kind.

The Kool-Tones shuffled on, arms pumping in best Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers fashion, and they ran in place as the hand-clapping got louder and louder, and they leaned into the mikes.

They were dressed in waiters’ red-cloth jackets the Hellbenders had stolen from a laundry service for them that morning. They wore narrow black ties, except Leroy, who had on a big, thick, red bow tie he’d copped from his sister’s boyfriend.

Then Cornelius leaned over his mike and: “Doook doook doook doookov,” and Ray and Zoot joined with “dook dook dook dookov,” into Gene Chandler’s Duke of Earl, with Leroy smiling and doing all of Chandler’s hand moves. Slim chugged away the “iiiiiiiiiyiyiyiyiiiii’s” in the background in runs that made the crowd’s blood cold, and the lights went down. Then the Bombers were back, and in contrast to the up-tempo ending of Duke of Earl they started with a sweet tenor a capella line and then: “woo-radad-da-dat, woo-radad-da-dat,” of Shep and the Limelites’ Daddy’s Home.

The Kool-Tones jumped back into the light. This time Cornelius started it off with “Bomp-a-pa-bomp, bomp-pa-pa-bomp, dang-a-dang-dang, ding-a-dong-ding,” and into the Marcels’ Blue Moon, not just a hit but a mere monster back in 1961. And they ran through the song, Slim taking the lead, and the crowd began to yell like mad halfway through. And Leroy — smiling, singing, rocking back and forth, doing James Brown tantrum-steps in front of the mike — knew, could feel, that they had them; that no matter what, they were going to win. And he ended with his whining part and Cornelius went “Bomp-ba-ba-bomp-ba-bom,” and paused and then, deeper, “booo mooo.”

The lights came up and Bobby and the Bombers hit the stage. At first Leroy, sweating, didn’t realize what they were doing, because the Bombers, for the first few seconds, made this churning rinky-tink sound with the high voices. The bass, Letus, did this grindy sound with his throat. Then the Bombers did the only thing that could save them, a white boy’s song, Bobby launching into Del Shannon’s Runaway, with both feet hitting the stage at once. Leroy thought he could taste that urine already.

The other Kool-Tones were transfixed by what was about to happen.

“They can’t do that, man,” said Leroy.

“They’re gonna cop out.”

“That’s impossible. Nobody can do it.”

But when the Bombers got to the break, this guy Fred stepped out to the mike and went: “Eeee-de-ee-dee-eedle-eee-eee, eee-deee-eedle-deeee, eedle-dee-eeedle-dee-dee-dee, eewheetle-eeedle-dee-deeedle-dee-eeeeee,” in a splitting falsetto, half mechanical, half Martian cattle call — the organ break of Runaway, done with the human voice.

The crowd was on its feet screaming, and the rest of the song was lost in stamping and cheers. When the Kool-Tones jumped out for the last song of the first set, there were some boos and yells for the Bombers to come back, but then Zoot started talking about his girl putting him down because he couldn’t shake ’em down, but how now he was back, to let her know . . . They all jumped up in the air and came down on the first line of Do You Love Me? by the Contours, and they gained some of the crowd back. But they finished a little wimpy, and then the lights went down and an absolutely black night descended. The stars were shining over New York City for the first time since World War II, and Vinnie said, “Ten minutes, folks!” and guys went over to piss against the walls or add to the consolation-prize bottles.




It was like halftime in the locker room with the score Green Bay 146, You 0.

“A cheap trick,” said Zoot. “We don’t do shit like that.”

Leroy sighed. “We’re gonna have to,” he said. He drank from a Coke bottle one of the Purple Monsters had given him. “We’re gonna have to do something.”

“We’re gonna have to drink pee-pee, and then Vinnie’s gonna de-nut us, is what’s gonna happen.”

“No, he’s not,” said Cornelius.

“Oh, yeah?” asked Zoot. “Then what’s that in the bottle in the clubhouse?”

“Pig’s balls,” said Cornelius. “They got ’em from a slaughterhouse.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know,” said Cornelius, tiredly. “Now let’s just get this over with so we can go vomit all night.”

“I don’t want to hear any talk like that,” said Leroy. “We’re gonna go through with this and give it our best, just like we planned, and if that ain’t good enough, well, it just ain’t good enough.”

“No matter what we do, ain’t gonna be good enough.”

“Come on, Ray, man!”

“I’ll do my best, but my heart ain’t in it.”

They lay against the loading dock. They heard laughter from the place where Bobby and the Bombers rested.

“Shit, it’s dark!” said Slim.

“It ain’t just us, just the city,” said Zoot. “It’s the whole goddamn U.S.”

“It’s just the whole East Coast,” said Ray. “I heard on the radio. Part of Canada, too.”

“What is it?”

“Nobody knows.”

“Hey, Leroy,” said Cornelius. “Maybe it’s those Martians you’re always talking about.”

Leroy felt a chill up his spine.

“Nah,” said Slim. “It was that guy Sparks. He shorted out the whole East Coast up that pole there.”

“Do you really believe that?” asked Zoot.

“I don’t know what I believe anymore.”

“I believe,” said Lucius, coming out of nowhere with an evil grin on his face, “that it’s show time.”




They came to the stage running, and the lights came up, and Cornelius leaned on his voice and: “Rabbalabbalabba ging gong, rabbalabbalabba ging gong,” and the others went “woooooooooo” in the Edsels’ Rama Lama Ding Dong. They finished and the Bombers jumped into the lights and went into: “Domm dom domm dom doobedoo, dom domm dom dobedoobeedomm, wahwahwahwahhh,” of the Del Vikings’ Come Go With Me.

The Kool-Tones came back with: “Ahhhhhhhhaahhwooowoooo, ow-ow-ow-ow-owh-woo,” of Since I Don’t Have You, by the Skyliners, with Slim singing in a clear, straight voice, better than he had ever sung that song before, and everybody else joined in, Leroy’s voice fading into Slim’s for the falsetto weeeoooow’s so you couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began.

Then Bobby and the Bombers were back, with Bobby telling you the first two lines and: “Detooodwop, detooodwop, detooodwop,” of the Flamingos’ I Only Have Eyes for You, calm, cool, collected, assured of victory, still running on the impetus of their first set’s showstopper.

Then the Kool-Tones came back and Cornelius reared back and asked: “Ahwunno wunno hoooo? Be-do-be-hoooo?” Pause.

They slammed down into Book of Love, by the Monotones, but even Cornelius was flagging, sweating now in the cool air, his lungs were husks. He saw one of the Bombers nod to another, smugly, and that made him mad. He came down on the last verse like there was no one else on the stage with him, and his bass roared so loud it seemed there wasn’t a single person in the dark United States who didn’t wonder who wrote that book.

And they were off, and Bobby and the Bombers were on now, and a low hum began to fill the air. Somebody checked the amp; it was okay. So the Bombers jumped into the air, and when they came down they were into the Cleftones’ Heart and Soul, and they sang that song, and while they were singing, the background humming got louder and louder.

Leroy leaned to the other Kool-Tones and whispered something. They shook their heads. He pointed to the Hellbenders and the Purple Monsters all around them. He asked a question they didn’t want to hear. They nodded grudging approval, and then they were on again, for the last time.




Dep dooomop dooomop doomop, doo ooo, ooowah oowah ooowah ooowah,” sang Leroy, and they all asked “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” Leroy sang like he was Frankie Lymon — not just some kid from the projects who wanted to be him — and the Kool-Tones were the Teenagers, and they began to pull and heave that song like it was a dead whale. And soon they had it in the water, and then it was swimming a little, then it was moving, and then the sonofabitch started spouting water, and that was the place where Leroy went into the falsetto “Wyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy,” and instead of chopping it where it should have been, he kept on. The Kool-Tones went ooom-wahooomwah softly behind him, and still he held that note, and the crowd began to applaud, and they began to yell, and Leroy held it longer, and they started stamping and screaming, and he held it until he knew he was going to cough up both his lungs, and he held it after that, and the Kool-Tones were coming up to meet him, and Leroy gave a tantrum-step, and his eyes were bugging, and he felt his lungs tear out by the roots and come unglued, and he held the last syllable, and the crowd wet itself and —

The lights went out and the amp went dead. Part of the crowd had a subliminal glimpse of something large, blue, and cool looming over the freight yard, bathing the top of the building in a soft glow.

In the dead air the voices of the Kool-Tones dropped in pitch as if they were pulled upward at a thousand miles an hour, and then they rose in pitch as if they had somehow come back at that same thousand miles an hour.

The blue thing was a looming blur and then was gone.

The lights came back on. The Kool-Tones stood there blinking: Cornelius, Ray, Slim, and Zoot. The space in front of the center mike was empty.

The crowd had an orgasm.




The Bombers were being violently ill over next to the building.

“God, that was great,” said Vinnie. “Just great!”

All four of the Kool-Tones were shaking their heads.

They should be tired, but this looked worse than that, thought Vinnie. They should be ecstatic. They looked like they didn’t know they had won.

“Where’s Leroy?” asked Cornelius.

“How the hell should I know?” Vinnie said, sounding annoyed.

“I remember him smiling, like,” said Zoot.

“And the blue thing. What about it?”

“What blue thing?” asked Lucius.

“I dunno. Something was blue.”

“All I saw was the lights go off and that kid ran away,” said Lucius.

“Which way?”

“Well, I didn’t exactly see him, but he must have run some way. Don’t know how he got by us. Probably thought you were going to lose and took it on the lam. I don’t see how you’d worry when you can make your voices do that stuff.”

“Up,” said Zoot, suddenly.

“What?”

“We went up, and we came down. Leroy didn’t come down with us.”

“Of course not. He was still holding the same note. I thought the little twerp’s balls were gonna fly out his mouth.”

“No. We . . . ,” Slim moved his hands up, around, gave up. “I don’t know what happened, do you?”

Ray, Zoot, and Cornelius all looked like they had thirty-two-lane bowling alleys inside their heads and all the pin machines were down.

“Aw, shit,” said Vinnie. “You won. Go get some sleep. You guys were really bitchin’.”

The Kool-Tones stood there uncertainly for a minute.

“He was, like, smiling, you know?” said Zoot.

“He was always smiling,” said Vinnie. “Crazy little kid.”

The Kool-Tones left.

The sky overhead was black and spattered with stars. It looked to Vinnie as if it were deep and wide enough to hold anything. He shuddered.

“Hey!” he yelled. “Somebody bring me a beer!”

He caught himself humming. One of the Hellbenders brought him a beer.


[ THE END ]



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This story copyright © 1985 by Howard Waldrop. Used by permission. All rights reserved.



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