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.”

(Read more by clicking page 2 below)

By the time Electro — born Harry Wilton Perkins Jr. — happened on the scene on Tate Street, he had finished a stint in the Air Force as a radar technician stationed in Iceland. He’d acquired the name Electro thanks to his propensity for playing loud electric music in a band he had in the service called the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Electro’s assignment in Iceland gave him the opportunity to travel to London, where he got to see Pink Floyd and the Zombies.

“One place had flowers that would spray out this perfume,” he recalled of his visits to London. “They had all kinds of nifty s***.”

David Little, a former student organizer in the anti-war movement whose father owned Little Bi-Rite grocery on Tate Street, remembers that Electro “was a really good guitar player even back then.” In the late ’60s, Little recalled, there were two distinct camps, with the student activists in one and the hippie musicians in the other. Electro was decidedly in the latter camp. Little lived with his best friend, Curtis Fields, in a house on Aycock Street on the other side of UNCG’s campus. A native of Thomasville, Fields earned an MFA in the UNCG creative writing program, but his primary focus was playing the saxophone. Electro was enamored of Fields’ playing and became a frequent visitor at the house on Aycock Street. Fields eventually moved to New York.

Years later, Electro recalled that “Curtis was a great sax player” and that the two would play gigs together in New York under the moniker the Tall Toads.

He and Electro were more acquaintances than friends at first, Little recalled, “but then in the ’70s there was this period in which Electro and I, for some reason we would meet and sit on a curb and drink Red Rooster wine. I would sit and listen to Electro’s stories about his crazy goings-on. I would tell him my paltry stories about my more timid goings-on.”

Little had lived in Texas at one point, and he had a disassembled motorcycle there that he wanted to retrieve.

“I decided to drive an old panel truck to Texas to get the motorcycle,” Little recalled. “Just on the spur of the moment Electro said, ‘I’m going with you.’ We laid in a supply of Red Rooster. I did 90 percent of the driving because Electro was drinking most of the time. We stayed in Tyler, Texas for a while, but we got run out of town. I think Electro grabbed a bottle of wine he didn’t pay for. The manager of the store didn’t see the humor in it.”

The upheaval on Tate Street attracted Jim Clark, a Duke University divinity student who showed up around 1970. Clark’s initial visit to Tate Street took place at the behest of parishioners at a church on West Market Street who asked him to track down some runaways.

“When I first started going to Tate Street I figured I’m going to find people sticking needles in their arms, like this really dark scene,” Clark recalled. “I would go down there, and I thought this was one of the most creative, beautiful places in the world in terms of art and music and ideas, the kind of thinking people were doing. I think a lot of the kids in this town discovered Tate Street, and realized there’s something special down there. Of course, there was drugs, too….”

Eventually, a consortium of church leaders came together with doctors, lawyers and restaurateurs to give Clark financial backing to launch a social outreach and political organizing project.

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Electro was Clark’s primary liaison with the street community.

“I went around talking to people, and asking who’s who around here,” Clark recalled. “More fingers were pointing to Electro than anyone else. He really became my guide to life on the street. I explained to him what I wanted to do in terms of organizing people around justice and fairness. I was down there for 10 years. He became my mentor. Hardly a week went by when I didn’t talk to Electro.”

Under the auspices of Clark’s Ministry for Social Change, the Tate Street community launched a free clinic, free kitchen, drug counseling unit, draft resistance center and newspaper, most of which took place in a small accessory dwelling resembling a treehouse across from St. Mary’s House church on Walker Avenue. Clark would often run his ideas past Electro to see if they were viable, and then enlist Electro’s help to get buy-in from the street community.

“At that time it was outright war between the Tate Street street people and the police,” Clark recalled. “There were a lot of big marijuana arrests. We were for decriminalization.”

A riot just north of campus in Lake Daniels Park in 1971 touched off when police said they found marijuana in a biker’s saddlebag; it resulted almost 60 injuries, according to an account in the Greensboro Sun newspaper that Clark and his friends published. The Ministry for Social Change collected photographs and presented them to the Greensboro Police Department as evidence of excessive force, and unsuccessfully pushed the city to set up a police review board. Despite the animosity, Clark also looked for opportunities to broker peace between the police and the street people, and he found a willing partner in John Patterson, an African-American officer who headed the department’s community-relations division.

“He said, ‘Can we make some overtures to bring the police and the community together?’” Clark recalled. “I talked to Electro about it. This was not a popular idea. The idea of war with the police was popular. Electro helped get that going to where we were able to get some relations going with the police.”

Along similar lines, Clark organized a street cleanup to ease relations with local merchants.

“I said, ‘We’ll spiff the place up and show the merchants that we’re not a lot of dirty, lazy, dope-smoking hippies,’” Clark recalled. “They said, ‘Well, we are dirty, lazy hippies.’ It was a kind of thing like, ‘What’s in it for us?’ I said, ‘There’s a lot of tension. Let’s show that it’s our street as much as theirs.’ That didn’t go over well. I went to Electro, and he listened. He must have talked to some people because on Saturday morning, I saw some people dragging in with brooms and bags. We had a pretty good little group.”

The treehouse-like accessory dwelling on Walker Avenue, known as MSC House, became a sanctuary.

“People who were on the run, as long as they got in there, the police, sheriffs and FBI wouldn’t bother them,” Clark said. “It was modeled on the idea of sanctuaries in the Middle Ages. If you got in there, nobody would come after you. None of the law enforcement would come upstairs. They would come to me and say, ‘We understand that so-and-so is possibly upstairs at your place. Is it possible we could talk to them?’ Once they got into that space they would not be seized by law enforcement until we had negotiated things like lawyers and bond. It was draft resisters, people who were AWOL from the military, some people on the run for drug charges, some for supposedly political crimes like making pipe bombs.”

As often as not, the person taking refuge at MSC House wasn’t a draft resister or revolutionary, but Electro.

“I’d go up there and down on the floor under the table where we put the newspaper together he’d be sleeping,” Clark recalled. “He’d be surrounded by books. Electro loved books. I would come in there in the morning, and it was obvious that he had stayed up late reading books.”

During the same period, Electro was a fixture in the local music scene.

“Back in the early ’70s, during that time, he was playing in a lot of the same joints I was playing in,” Greensboro musician Bruce Piephoff recalled. “He was really into the blues, country blues, Son House, Lightnin’ Hopkins kind of stuff. He was around during the period [the late] Billy Ransom Hobbs was around. I knew both of them and played music with both of them.”

Keith Roscoe, who opened a guitar repair shop upstairs from the Hong Kong House in 1972, would run into Electro at the Nightshade Café or whatever party was going on that offered a place for musicians and artists to congregate.

“I kind of can’t remember a time when he wasn’t around,” Roscoe said. “When I would come down to get lunch at Hong Kong House I would see him likely as not strumming a guitar and trying to talk to a college girl. Why not? Fun guy.”

Around 1977 Sam Frazier started taking guitar lessons from Roscoe. He entered UNCG and fell in quickly with the music and social scene. Eventually, Frazier rented an apartment on Tate Street above what is now East Coast Wings, and Electro was his neighbor down the hall.

“I didn’t know him all that well,” Frazier said. “I’d drop in to say hello to a friend of mine that lived where I used to. He was just a character that played slide guitar. Or I’d hear him from down the hall.”

For Frazier, the Sentinel Boys — the band that included Scott Manring and Bobby Kelly — set the standard.

“They were the guru,” he said. The Tate Street music scene in the late ’70s was “pretty fecund,” Frazier recalls, but for him Electro “was more of a peripheral guy.”

When others from the ’70s cohort were professionalizing the music, starting families or taking day jobs, Electro continued the tradition of picking the guitar at late-night parties. By sheer ubiquity and perseverance his music and personality became the lantern for a new generation of rebel-seekers that started appearing on Tate Street in the early ’90s.

“I met him down on Tate Street sharing 40 ounces and stories,” recalled Josh Johnson, aka Pinche Gringo, a garage-punk musician who plays in Paint Fumes and Wahyas. “We would drink in public down there when you could do that without getting in trouble. Two cops was about it. One was an older guy, and he wouldn’t do much as long as we weren’t endangering ourselves or acting a fool.”

Electro turned Johnson on to early blues and ’60s rock.

“He kind of took us under his wing, making sure we were staying out of trouble, but staying in trouble — the good kind of trouble,” Johnson said. “He was keeping us out of sight of doing things that would harm us later in life — hard drugs. We were pretty young. He would talk to us about stuff like that, that our parents couldn’t tell us about.”

Electro once rescued Johnson and another kid named Jimmy from a storm sewer.

“Electro was sitting and playing on the street one night, and he heard this, ‘Heeeelp,’” said Cooper, who has heard the story before. “And Electro pulled up a sewer grate on Tate Street so they could get out.”

“That sewer grate was heavy as hell,” Electro said, taking up the tale. “That’s how me and Jimmy met. [I] jerked him out of the sewer, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Like Johnson, Mike Duehring started playing in punk bands. It wasn’t until about five years into his friendship with Electro, when Duehring got interested in country, blues and rock and roll, that the two started playing music together.

One time Electro was visiting Duehring at an apartment on Spring Garden Street, and Electro picked up an old, beat-up guitar that Duehring considered worthless.

“Electro picked up that guitar and made it sing,” Duehring recalled. “I said, ‘Electro, how did you do that?’ He just said….” And demonstrating, Duehring vocalized an uproarious laughing-braying-purging sound.

“He taught me how to bend notes,” Duehring said. “‘If it don’t sound right, you have to make it sound right,’ he would say.”

Electro drafted Duehring and Johnson into a group that they billed as Electro & the Circuit Breakers.

“We kind of hung out on a daily basis,” Johnson said. “He slept on a rooftop or in a field where he would camp out. Sometimes too he would stay at my house on Dillard Street.”

As with housing, Electro maintained a reputation for itinerant travel. During his friends’ visit at the trailer outside of Roxboro, Cooper prodded him to tell a story familiar to the regulars at College Hill. Electro and some friends hopped a train in Greensboro with the intention of going to Chicago.

“We had a bunch of homebrew,” Electro recalled. “We passed out and thought we were rolling down the [track].”

The journey only lasted three blocks, and when they woke up the next morning they found themselves next Beef Burger, the stalwart restaurant on what is now Gate City Boulevard.

“Damn, I didn’t know there was a Beef Burger in Chicago,” Electro quipped.

The contrast between low and high living with Electro was exhilarating for Duehring.

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“We would be sitting on Tate Street at 2 o’clock in the afternoon drinking Wild Irish Rose,” Duehring recalled of a period in the early 2000s. “And then that evening we would be playing for college students at the Exchange and drinking top-shelf scotch. It was like one moment we were homeless and then the next moment we were the talent.”

Jim Clark had long since traded in his radical street ministry for a teaching position at UNCG by then. Clark said one of his proudest moments was when Electro showed up in his office and announced that he had enrolled in college.

“He took golf as an elective,” Johnson recalled, “but I don’t know what he majored in. It was kind of bizarre seeing him walking around campus with his golf bag and book bag.”

As more and more of Electro’s time was claimed with taking care of his mother in Roxboro, his visits back to Greensboro became events of music, excitement and drinking.

Mike Duehring, Pam Cooper and Josh Johnson lived together in a house owned by David Little on Tate Street.

“We were always on the porch,” Johnson recalled. “Electro would come over. He didn’t drink when he took care of his mother. He would come into Greensboro and drink. You would see the best and the worst. You were glad to see him come and glad to see him go.”

Johnson holds a fond memory of Electro visiting him later in Chapel Hill, where he lived at the time. Johnson set up a weeklong residency at the Cave, and Electro came to stay with him. Members of Southern Culture On The Skids, who had been intrigued by Johnson’s stories on tour, came to listen. At the end of the run, Johnson took Electro back to Roxboro so he could celebrate Mother’s Day with his mom.

“I had a tiny garage studio apartment with a kitchenette,” Johnson said. “The bathroom was so tiny if you were taking a s*** your legs would be in the shower. I would come in and find him there, so I’d just go outside for 20 minutes and let him do his morning business. Good times. I always enjoyed my time with him. Parties. College kids. People would look at us like, ‘Who are these guys?’ We knew we weren’t wanted there, but they were too scared to kick us out.”

(Read more by clicking page 3 below)

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“I realize I’m not the life of the party, but I’m working on it,” Electro says, as one of his cats, Punky, pokes his head from around the corner of the trailer (his other cat is called Brewster). His prescribed morphine is taking a while to kick in.

Cooper has been preparing to celebrate a grand opening of her new retail store in Greensboro with live music and food trucks in the coming months. Duehring tells Electro they would be happy to come pick him up and bring him back if he wanted to be there.

“Be something to think about,” Electro ventures.

Cooper and Duehring discuss the many changes on Tate Street in an attempt to get Electro to talk about what it was like back in its heyday.

“The thrill’s about gone,” Electro says.

“There’s four different pizza places,” Duehring says with an air of incredulousness.

“Damn,” Electro says.

He tells Duehring and Cooper that he quit drinking two weeks earlier. A friend in the neighborhood regularly took him to the grocery. His chemo treatments had been discontinued, and he had a scheduled visit to the VA hospital coming up.

“I quit smoking for a while, but I started back,” Electro tells Duehring.

“Did you find yourself needing something to do with your hands?” Duehring asks.

Electro nodded.

“Who’s your friend — your boon companion?” he says, answering with a question.

They make small talk, Duehring discussing a recent solo trip to Asheville to play a gig when his bandmates couldn’t make it.

“Musicians, they piss me off,” Electro says. “I had a show booked at the Cave one time when the band backed out. But I had to rise to the occasion. I did the whole f***ing show by myself. The show must go on.”

As the hour drifts by, the conversation between Electro and his friends becomes more relaxed and affectionate.

“I think my pain medication is starting to kick in,” he says. “Feeling better.”

Then he asks, “You got a place I can crash?”

“Yeah,” Duehring responds. “You just got to make sure to bring enough oxygen. I don’t know if I can score that for you on Tate Street if you run out.”

Electro picks up a cordless phone and punches in some numbers.

“Hey Josh,” he says when Johnson’s answering machine picks up. “We all down here in ever-fabulous Roxboro. You want to pick up?”

If anyone has figured out an explanation for the enduring myth and legend of Electro, it’s probably David Little.

“He was a dose of wildness, and everywhere he went he was a reminder that we can be wild, unapologetically wild,” Little said. “That seems to be his role.

“Electro never bought into anything,” he added. “All he cared about was being wild and free. He was willing to pay whatever price had had to do that.”

Electro admitted to Duehring that he hadn’t felt like playing his guitar much in recent weeks.

“I’ve got to get back in the spirit of things,” he said. “It’s hard to do. If you’re not in the spirit, you can’t do nothing.”

Duehring and Cooper could tell that Electro was getting tired, and they each gave him a hug.

As they started walking back to the car while turning to wave, Electro rose unsteadily. When his body was fully erect, he raised both hands in the air, making twin peace signs with his fingers.

“Peace and love,” he said.

Electro Mike Pam

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