The following is an excerpt from my memoire, "The Kid Who Got Away" — The Jesse Moore Story
Marvin Gaye, lean and dressed elegantly in a grey sharkskin suit and matching tie strode into the room. He was the essence of cool as he leaned against the he wall, talking with the members of Smokey Robinson's group, The Miracles. Eddie Kendricks and Melvin Franklin of the Temptations followed. They all introduced themselves and looked to the Miracles’ Bobby Rogers, the guy that had arranged all of this.
Then in comes Marv Tarplin, Smokey Robinson’s bandleader. Melvin is relaxing on the couch, big bass voice rumbling the room as he chats with us. My teenage singing group had been practicing our home-brewed blend of Motown and soul hits non-stop in preparation for this, honing our harmonies to a smooth blend.
Out of the bathroom, wearing a doo rag and what looks like his wife’s silk bathrobe, strides the man himself: William "Smokey" Robinson. He heads to the dressing room sink and starts washing his socks, his back to us.
These were my heroes! I could have sung each one of their songs, word-by-word, line-by-line. Then it hit me: I'm auditioning for Motown Records.
I AM AUDITIONING FOR FREAKIN’ MOTOWN RECORDS!
Everything got quiet. They all stared at me. Marv Tarplin cleared his throat. I counted off a few beats and we began to sing. We had chosen, after much deliberation, a song of Smokey’s, the B-side of his hit “Shop Around” titled “Who’s Loving You.” I started singing and the harmonies kicked in. We sang our young hearts out and sounded better than we ever had during rehearsals or in the hallway of our home, the Farragut Projects in Brooklyn. We almost fell over when all those Motown stars broke into applause!
Everyone, that is, except Smokey. We all looked towards him as he said,
"Sorry, kid. You sound too much like me."
A dream come true and a dream shattered. All in one night.
That’s OK, I had lots of them.
Six years later it was summer of ’69. I found myself alone in Bangkok, broke and wanted by the Tokyo Police. The Thais were considering extradition. The American Consulate wanted nothing to do with me. The promoters had fled town without paying us. The band I'd traveled there with had all left me with the entire bill for a one-month stay. Things were not looking good.
The charges in Japan were either attempted murder or drug possession, trumped up by our thieving manager back in Tokyo. Well, rushing across his office, grabbing him by the throat and dangling him halfway out the window of his 8th story office while the band was trying to pull me off had contributed some. That was only after I'd asked him for the 100th time to show me the money and he'd come up with his 100th lame-assed excuse. We were on a stipend of $750 each a week (a whole lotta money in 1969 Tokyo) but I knew we were making tons more for him. Unbeknownst to everyone present, I was dating his accountant. I knew he had been robbing us blind for years.
So there I am broke and on the lamb in Bangkok. Hmmm...what's a kid to do? Somebody had mentioned in passing that a guy up in Laos might want some music in his club. So, I borrowed some money from the Indonesian chick I'd been dating (who would eventually marry me and give me four beautiful children and die young), somehow talked the hotel into letting me go and headed up to Vientiane.
Laos was a war zone. I knew this. I took the chicken bus ride some 18-hours up to a tiny outpost in the jungle near Nhong Kai. I got my visa, crossed in a rickety old fishing boat to Tah Do on the other side of the Mekong River and headed for this guy's club. I walked into Sam Black's office where he sat with his feet propped up on a table and a stogie in his face. On the table was the biggest mountain of hashish I had even seen. Also on the table was a shiny .38 caliber revolver.
He calmly took his feet of his desk, pointed the .38 at my heart and asked, "Who the fuck are you?”
I said, "I heard you need some music.
Turns out that every country in the world either wanted Sam Black or had extradition agreements with countries that wanted him. Corrupt officials had sold him a Laotian residency visa. This was his last bus stop. This man was a real outlaw, a wanted man. He was also insane.
I was only up there a month. It was a pretty adventurous month. He introduced me to a Laotian general one day. After a brief discussion, the general walked around the corner. We heard a big "Boom!" We looked around the corner and discovered the general strewn all over the street in lots of small pieces. We fled.
I smoked "Red" opium from a 10-foot long bong with a bulb of cognac attached to the bottom. I went to my first real, just-like-in-the-movies opium den. I learned what to look out for while hanging out with a mad man in a war zone. I watched "USAID" workers smuggling planeloads of opium and silver on Air America to the corrupt government in Bangkok. I was almost killed by a rampaging water buffalo in a rice paddock. I existed solely on French baguette, vitamin pills and opium, losing 33 lbs. in 13 days.
I was staying in a little bungalow in the jungle, running up the tab, wondering when I was going to get started with the music and get paid. It never happened.
I HAD to get out of there but how? EVERYBODY was armed to the teeth but me. How? HOW! It had to be soon. Papasan, King of the Compound I stayed at, had visited my cabana two days earlier with a couple of his “backups” as he called him. Anyone on your payroll as heavily armed as this guy was definitely ready to back you up.
He wanted the rent and he wanted it now. I did some fast-talking and promised I’d get his dough to him day-after-tomorrow. He nodded reluctantly and said, “OK, I see you two days.” His goons looked like he preferred a more immediate solution, like maybe tearing my heart out and eating it.
The next night I rode back from the club after another confusing, frustrating, “here we go ‘round the crazy man’s brain” evening trying to get Sam Black with the program. When I left, he’d had that look in his eyes that he got when I thought he was mulling over killing everybody he knew, including himself. I grabbed this girl, got a cab and headed back to the compound.
In Vientiane, as in just about anywhere in the Far East, you barter with cab drivers. After giving him your destination you open the floor for bids. He had a buddy with him and I could see he had an Army issue .45 caliber automatic, bigger than shit, sitting on his lap. No big deal. I was getting used to this. Like I said, everybody was armed to the teeth but me. I had my guitar. We agreed upon a price and off we went.
When we reached the compound, the driver stopped and asked for more money than we had agreed upon. I begged to differ. He wasn’t in a negotiating mood. He demanded his money and, being a kid from Brooklyn and tired of all this insanity, I said, “No” just as firmly. His compadre turned around and gave me “the look.” I gave him “the look.” The girl whispered in my ear, “You give him what he want or nobody ever see us again.” I looked at her. She was genuinely scared.
I thought to myself, “Hmmm, He’s got a .45 and I’ve got a guitar. 45…guitar….45…guitar.” I thought of the general and all those body parts all over the street. I gave the driver what he wanted plus a tip. We got out. They drove away. I realized I had to get out of there but quick. That night I planned my escape.
The plan was, “I don’t have the foggiest fucking idea how I’m getting out of here.”
The compound was surrounded by a high, chain linked fence. There was a lot of barbed wire along the rim. There was only one way in or out. It was narrow, just about wide enough to drive a really small Toyota truck through. Overlooking the entrance was a bamboo tower maybe eight feet off the ground. It was always manned and he was always armed.
The goal was to somehow get from my cabana, across the compound to the entrance, past the guard, down a long dirt road through the jungle to the main street, find a cab and get to the crossing point on the Mekong where there was a little hut that housed the office where you could get your passport stamped and hire a tiny fishing boat with an engine the size of a Waring blender to take you across the river to Thailand. All of this in the dead of night before Papasan knew I was gone.
Piece o’ cake.
It was a black night, moonless and starless, with enough cloud cover to block out any light. I grabbed my gig bag and a backpack. I noticed a scorpion about the size of my hand in the corner of the room, tail flaccid but ready. I don’t like scorpions. Bad sign. I took a deep breath and headed out the cabana door.
The next time you hear “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and the woman sings “…In the jungle, the quiet jungle…” call bullshit. The nighttime jungle is often filled with sound. Insects the size of jackfruit singing love songs, four legged creatures in the underbrush that see you as part of the food chain and, in this case, little guys in pajamas with M16s that see you as target practice. Luckily for me, the cacophony kept my footsteps relatively unnoticed as I crept towards the bamboo guard tower.
I couldn’t see a thing through the darkness but I could hear something. It was deep and rhythmic and coming from the direction of the guard tower that loomed over the entrance to the compound. My mind was on fire as I imagined what that terrifying growl could be. I knew that very large Indochinese tigers roamed the night. As I tiptoed through the blackness, I expected the source to pounce, probably tearing my throat out. In a flash I realized what it was. It was the sound of the tower guard snoring away, dreaming of whatever heavily armed Laotian guards dreamt of, maybe killing guys like me. Though I had a long, long way to go to freedom, a smile stretched across my face.
I honed in on his snoring and it led me right to the entrance. I hugged the tower and made it onto the dirt road outside the compound. I was on that road for what seemed like forever. I couldn’t move too fast or some little guy in a rice hat and pjs might take a shot at me. I had to move steadily. If they caught me, my story would be a very short one. Every inch away from Papasan and his henchmen meant another step towards survival
When I finally got to the main road, I made a beeline for the bar the CIA guys hung out at along with the war correspondents. There were always cab drivers ready to overcharge a drunken foreigner a bloated fare. I grabbed one and told him to head for TahDoo. I had a pocketful of Laotian kip adding up to about five bucks. That would be enough to pay the cabbie, bribe the official at the crossing, hire a boat to cross the Mekong, get an entrance visa on the Thai side, sleep at the bus station and get a ticket on the next chicken bus out of town. The dollar went a long way in a war zone.
As we approached the “Customs” hut, I began to feel a special kind of relief. “I just might make it out of this alive.” I reached for my passport. All the air was suddenly sucked out of my lungs and off into the sweltering night. My heart stopped. In my rush to get out of my hut, I’d forgotten the one thing I had to have besides my cash and guitar: my passport.
I couldn’t think. My legs grew weak, my body numb. My brain was frozen. I had been so very close. I had to think. THINK, DAMNIT! I ordered the cabbie in my limited Laotian to slam on the breaks and turn around. He took me a little too literally. I almost went through the windshield. We headed back to what was almost certain death. THINK, DAMNIT THINK!
A quarter of a mile before we reached the compound, I told him to stop and wait for me. As I approached the guard tower, that same sweet sound of snoring greeted me again. The same smile that had lit up my face on the way out, clicked back on. I snuck back across the compound, grabbed my passport and headed back out towards the exit. It was then that my luck ran out.
Just as I passed the tower, I stepped on a loose piece of bamboo or something and the snoring abruptly ceased. I heard the guard grunt as he stirred back to life. It was now or never. I took off down the road. He was slow to awaken but as I looked back, I could see him stand up and point his gun at me as I disappeared into the darkness. I knew that he and his boys would be after me in short order.
I jumped in the cab and screamed, “Move!” He did, tires screeching, dust flying, his eyes as big as rice bowls. I had never been in a car chase before but I was certainly in one now. Though I couldn’t see them yet, I knew they would be in a jeep and heading my way soon, if not already. Luckily, I knew where I was going. They didn’t.
There were times during that ride, swerving around corners and slower vehicle, not a seatbelt in sight, where I thought, “I’m done for.” My luck was returning. I could see the Immigration hut just up ahead and no jeep behind. We slowed down but my adrenalin was pumping and I came out of that car as if ejected from a toaster. I paid the cabbie and, for just one second, our eyes met and we chuckled. He wouldn’t soon forget this fare.
I got my passport stamped and found a little fishing boat with an old guy asleep in it. I swear the outboard motor on it was the size of a softball. I told him where I was going. Getting into that boat (I use that term loosely) was as tricky as getting out of that compound alive. With the weight of two people, there was maybe a foot from the rim to the water. I grabbed the sides and held on for dear life.
The river was as black as the nighttime sky. The current was swift. The water was deep. My life was in the leathery hands of a sleepy old fisherman. If I went over, it was over.
Just like the walk down the road outside the compound, it seemed like we were in that boat forever. My fear was tempered by the relief I felt having escaped with my life. Once again, my relief was short-lived.
The water suddenly came alive all around me. The water suddenly came alive all around me. The boatsman’s eyes popped out big as saucers like one of those Wiley Coyote cartoons. I thought, "Paraná!” That’s all I needed, the boat tipping into a river full of flesh-eating fish. It was then that I heard the chatter. I turned and saw them. Upriver, way off in the distance, I could see the muzzle flashes. Papasan’s hooligans had figured it out and the jig was up. I froze. There was nowhere to go. Any sudden movement could capsize the boat and dump me into the murky darkness below. So I sat there, bullets zinging by my ears, and waited as the chatter became more distant.
When my old fisherman friend dropped me off, I sat in the sandy dirt. I was never so happy to feel dry earth under my feet. I looked back at where I’d just been and saw only blackness. No more chatter. All I could hear was the river lapping on the banks and the jungle sounding off. It all came tumbling down. Sitting on a log alone in the darkness, I wept like a baby. I thought to myself, “This kind of shit isn’t supposed to be happening to me in some far off jungle. I’m just a kid from Brooklyn!”