Sittin’ on the wall in front of Hong Kong House
Listenin’ to Electro playin’ Son House
— “Tate Street Blues” by Bruce Piephoff
Word of his return coursed through the coffeehouses and bars like an exhilarating current in early September 2016.
Electro, the legendary street player, raconteur and bluesman, was coming back to play the Tate Street Festival. He’d been living in a small trailer outside of Roxboro in rural Person County, where he’d taken care of his mother before she passed away, and now at the age of 69 and in declining health himself, his visits to Greensboro had become more and more infrequent.
Pam Cooper, the manager at the once divey but now vaguely upscale College Hill Sundries, recalled seeing him the day of the festival at the house she shares with her boyfriend, the bass player Mike Duehring.
“He came to the house and sat down,” she said. “You could tell he didn’t have the energy. Some friends of ours took him back. He really wanted to play some music at the Tate Street Festival. That was his plan.”
The two-block commercial strip known as Tate Street hugging the eastern flank of UNCG has churned with creativity and social upheaval for at least half a century. Its legacy as musical epicenter begins with future country superstar Emmylou Harris’ first foray into live performance, and the various clubs on the street nurtured local luminaries like Scott Manring and Bobby Kelly of the revered Sentinel Boys, folksinger Bruce Piephoff, guitarist Sam Frazier, Muddy Waters sideman Bob Margolin, avant-weirdo banjoist Eugene Chadbourne and the punk band the Othermothers, while catching touring acts like REM and Black Flag at the peak of their powers.
The counterculture crystalized around Tate Street in the late ’60s with the growing protests against the Vietnam war, and when the drug culture took hold it became a haven for all sorts of dropouts, a place known for a relaxed and free atmosphere despite frequent pushback from local merchants and occasional interventions by the police.
For at least 30 years, Electro was perhaps Tate Street’s most ubiquitous presence. If his history, even during his mainstay years from 1969 to 1995, seems murky, it’s probably because by his and others’ accounts, he was always coming and going, hopping trains in and out of Greensboro, camping by the tracks or crashing on friends’ couches. Electro’s tenure is so long that it’s difficult to fix him in a particular period, and his many acquaintances retain different pieces of his story.
“Electro could walk into certain bars and the place would light up,” said Duehring, who was 14 or so when he started hanging out with Electro on Tate Street in the early ’90s. “It was like Michael Jackson — he was a superstar.”
As the 2016 Tate Street Festival approached, the old-timers had two reasons for excitement. The first was that Amelia Leung, who once operated the fabled Hong Kong House restaurant, would be tabling with her new, aptly named cookbook Hong Kong House Cook Book. Hong Kong House was perhaps Tate Street’s most important institution, because as Piephoff noted: “All the musicians hung out there. Amelia took care of everybody and fed everybody.” Leung’s role is notable for another important reason: She leased the basement of Hong Kong House to an employee, Aliza Gottlieb, who opened the Nightshade Café, a focal point of the music scene.
The other reason for excitement was the rumor that Electro would be in town.
“Electro bills himself as ‘Tate Street’s last hippie,’” said Jim Clark, an old friend who directs the UNCG MFA writing program. “When he comes back, something comes back alive that so many of us miss so much.”
“I love that man,” Pam Cooper said on a recent Saturday morning as she prepared to visit Electro. “I made him some lasagna last night.”
“She doesn’t even make me lasagna,” Mike Duehring, her boyfriend, chortled. Then, alluding to Electro’s cancer diagnosis, he added on a more serious note: “He needs to eat because the chemo makes you not want to eat.”
She met Electro at College Hill when she started bartending in the early 2000s, Cooper recalled, as she aimed her Honda Pilot east on Wendover Avenue, heading for Electro’s digs near Roxboro.
“We connected,” she said. “We’ve been pen pals for several years.”
More than an hour later when they pulled into his driveway, Electro was sitting in front of his trailer. He took a drag off a cigarette and gazed ahead with a look that flickered between wariness and amusement as his visitors piled out of the car. It was a warm day, and birdsong lilted in the air. Pines towered around the small home site and beyond the tree line a newly plowed field unfurled along a gentle ridgeline. Dressed in a flannel shirt, ripped jeans, thermals and black New Balance sneakers with red-and-yellow trim, Electro appraised Cooper as she approached.
“I brought you some lasagna,” she said.
He nodded. “You can put it in there in the refrigerator.”
Electro’s arrival in Greensboro almost 50 years ago was largely accidental, and his dry recounting that day in front of his trailer accorded it little apparent significance.
“I was on my way to Los Angeles,” he said. “I had a friend of mine who knew some people in Greensboro. I’d never been to Greensboro before. We stopped there, and we just started partying.”
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