“It was basically Rednecks vs. Hippies, for awhile” he says.
An escalation of police violence ironically brought the two sides together. Shootings were taking place; people lost their lives on both sides of the cultural divide. One of Joe’s friends was shot and killed while standing in his kitchen. The police had allegedly fired on him. The outrage of the community to this and other acts of police provocation brought about more violence.
The community fought back. It got to the point where the police wouldn’t dare enter the neighborhood.
“You had free reign after the cops left,” Joe said.
But the void in law enforcement proved to be short-lived. The cops began to come back, this time in squads of two and three patrol cars, and with a renewed vengeance—very similar to the times I remember in the late sixties in Isla Vista, a small community adjacent to the University of California at Santa Barbara. Following a series of protracted riots between students and police, the rioters burned down the Bank Of America one night. After years of frustration over the Vietnam War, Nixon, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the lid had finally boiled over. The police left for a few days. But rather quickly, upon their return, I.V., as we called it then, turned into a virtual Police State. That was the situation Joe’s neighborhood found itself in.
As a kid, Joe Frank (Frankie) Rocco used to accompany his grandfather, Shorty, to Produce Row at North Market and Broadway in St. Louis. Shorty, who was all of five feet tall, worked at a produce stand next to the Italian market. This was young Joe’s introduction to the world of commerce and to what would ultimately bring him to Little Feat, truck driving.
Joe started driving trucks when he was eighteen. His cousin, Vince Palazzado, who Joe went to work for after his stepfather passed away, was a mentor of sorts. He threw the keys at Joe and told him to start driving.
Joe said I don’t know how to do it. Vince said you’ll learn.
Vince did give him some tips: such as getting out of the truck before backing up to see what was behind him; when you turn the wheel two times to the right you need to turn it two times to the left to counter act the action. This keeps you straight when backing up.
“Most truck drivers don’t know how to back up. You need to keep your left corner always in view, otherwise you are in big trouble,” Joe says.
“The size of the truck is not the problem. Driving a truck is like playing pool, it’s all about the angles,” Joe tells me at dinner one night at a hotel in Stroudsburg, PA. We’re sitting next to our bus driver, Jonathan Parker, and feat guru/HMFIC (it says so on his baseball cap), Denny Jones, our road manager. The road stories start to come out. Denny asked me if Joe’s told me about “moving the boulder.” I’ve heard the story but ask Joe to tell it again:
“I had driven up the mountain in Aspen.”
“I forgot a fundamental rule: mountains and semis don’t mix,” he says.
He kept driving up the mountainside looking for a place he could turn around. Wasn’t finding it, kept going, up and up. He had driven himself into a bind. No one there to help.
He knew he was in trouble. His only option was to turn around before it got any worse. He spotted a driveway with a boulder at the end of it. He took a long hard look at it and thought he could just make it, but he had to really be careful because of the sheer drop-off on the other side of the street.
“The tandems—the two rear tires—hit the boulder and pushed it off its foundation as I tried to swing the rear of the truck around it.” The wheels pushed the boulder out unto the street and continued to push it about a half a block down the road.
“The guy that lived in the house had heard the commotion earlier and was watching me negotiate the turn in his driveway. When all hell broke loose he came running after me in his sweats”
Joe tells me waving his hands.
“I thought I’d see how far he might want to run.”
“He chased me for about three long blocks, I finally stopped,” he tells me laughing and somewhat embarrassed.
“The guy was screaming, wheezing and carrying on.”
Just then the maintenance man came out from behind the building Joe had stopped near. He wasn’t happy.
“The two of them conferred a bit, then went back up the street to move the rock.”
Joe drove slowly back down the mountain, as no one was there to give him any further guidance.
Amidst much laughter and bravado at the dinner table there is a real sense that night of family and camaraderie; though family didn’t always have the same meaning for Joe growing up.
A few weeks before we sat down to talk Joe provided me with a snapshot of his life: Single mother, older brother by one year, lived with mom in the city, 6-9 years old; lived with grandparents first 6 years; children’s home 9-12 years old; back home to mom at 12 years old. He was all over the map, basically.
During the time Joe lived with his grandparents, his 20-year-old mother was a single mom trying to raise two boys and at her wits end. He told me a story about his grandfather, Shorty, going to Sicily to find a new bride after his grandmother passed away. Upon coming back to the states, he introduced his bride to the family. Shorty’s son didn’t care for her. Joe, then known as Frankie, was about six or seven. His new grandmother didn’t speak English. Little Frankie’s uncle asked him if he would like to talk to his grandmother, and that he would teach him something to say in Italian to her. Frankie went up to her in the kitchen, tugged her dress, and when she turned from cutting the vegetables to asked what he wanted, he dutifully recited what his uncle had taught him to say–a steady stream of the most insulting and crude language one could imagine. (He thought he was saying hello and how happy he was she was there.) She became absolutely livid, screaming back invectives; she picked up the knife and chased the boy out of the house. A few months later she packed up and went back to Sicily. Frankie never saw or heard from her again.
A few years later he was sent to live at a children’s home where he was put up for adoption. He felt like a rent-a-kid—going off with someone for the weekend to see if he “fit in.” He wasn’t buying any of it. “I wasn’t adoption material,” he told me with a soft laugh. “These people were not my parents. I was waiting for mom to come get me,” which three years later, she finally did.
Joe is a misfit, like the rest of us in the band and crew. It takes someone a bit off center to survive, let alone embrace a world of work, play, team mentality tethered to loneliness and constant travel.
“I’d rather laugh with the sinners than die with the saints,” Joe tells me; he goes on to say, “That’s from a Billy Joel song, I guess.”
“I was a thrill seeker, let it fly, kind of guy. Jumped off the equivalent of a three story building into the water once. I was always trying crazy things. You know the old redneck joke just before he dies, ‘Hey y’all, take a look at this!,” he says to me laughing. And in the next sentence with dead seriousness, “I learned the art of commitment early.”
If driving a truck is nothing else, it certainly involves the art of commitment. A lot can go wrong rather quickly. You have to have a cool and calculated view of what your options are. I’ve heard the stories of how he put the truck into places everyone said would be impossible to do. I ask him how he learned to become such a good driver.
“I learned by doing,” he tells me. “Of course I was taught certain things, but you know how you were taught how to play piano,” I nod yes.
“You start to put it together for yourself after awhile,” he says.
I understand exactly what he’s saying.
When Joe first started driving at Produce Row, he had to constantly back the truck into position to do the pickup. That’s how he learned to back a truck up. Kind of like practice, practice, practice. To this day when he sees another trucker in a tight spot, he’ll get out and help the guy as a second set of eyes. He knows what it’s like to be in a jam. He says he’s basically a self-taught driver.
“A diesel motor has a certain rhythm and feel to it. I could hear the tone, knowing where to shift, feel the rpm’s.”
He says he rarely looks at the tachometer or speedometer, he just listens and feels.
I tell him he sounds like the horse whisperer. He acknowledges that he thinks of his truck almost in human terms.
“My truck is like a friend. You know when she needs a little boost. It’s alive once you turn the key.”
This is man who is acutely aware. He’s got to be.
“It can be unforgiving because of the torque and horse power. You’re in control of the machine,” he tells me. “Any fool can blow and engine up, but it should last if you treat it right.”
He describes an incident where the motor didn’t sound right and that he knew something was wrong. He took it to the shop, told them what he heard coming from the engine didn’t sound right. They didn’t believe him.
“The guy was using a dyno machine to check it out. Kept telling me there was nothing wrong, he couldn’t find anything.”
Joe nailed him on it, insisting he keep looking.
“Just listen to it,” he told the fella.
Finally, they sorted it out. One of the cam lobes in the fuel rail was gone.
I ask him if he has any favorite roads or drives.
“Not really,” he says. “I just like to keep mobile. Doesn’t matter where I’m going as long as I’m moving.”
The tattoos on his arms are testaments to that sentiment. On his right wrist he has FEAT in red letters. There’s a beautiful tattoo of a red streamliner (yes, taken from the song), on the top of his forearm. On the bottom of the forearm is the word Willin’ emblazoned on the side of a truck. He has other tattoos on the both arms with different meanings to him—a couple are named after his two daughters, Sandy (right arm) and Jesse (left arm). There’s a jailhouse tattoo behind his left shoulder of some mushrooms, two eagles copulating on his right arm.
A fan of Little Feat from almost the start, he was introduced to our music from a friend and the airwaves of KSHE radio in St. Louis, which, of course, ties right in with Gary Bennett’s Feats At Five. The circle keeps widening.
The twists and turns in Joe’s life are as varied as the highways and back roads he has driven.
He’s built motor bikes: high handle bars, rigid frame, a real hot rod bike. He partnered up with Edward Collier during this venture, and many others. They improved on the idea of a dyna glide solid mount bike, eliminating about 75% of the vibration using a rubber mounting on the frame.
He hauled boats for six to seven years in Florida. Was involved with Ed in a demolition company in ’98 that proved successful. He worked digging holes for a water-proofing company. But his true love has always been driving trucks.
“Driving gives you a chance to think about things,” he says.
“You don’t have to make snap decisions. You can look at something from a variety of positions.” He also tells me, “It’s better to think about what you’re going to say, and the time spent in the cab gives me that opportunity.” In general, he’s more prone to listening than talking.
The stories surrounding Joe’s driving are already turning into legendary status.
Denny Jones, who has seen it all, simply replies, “That’s Joey!”
I have personally spoken to folks at the gig who have seen this man work miracles in parking a truck where everyone said it couldn’t be done. For instance, at the Minneapolis Zoo he was told to unload the truck next to the elephant dung pile. A smaller truck or van would be used at this point to bring the gear down to the stage, about a quarter mile away. Joe walked down the hill, took in the angles, came back up the hill, jumped into his cab and drove the truck neatly right to the back of the stage for immediate off-loading. One of the crew for the venue told me he had never seen anybody else able to accomplish that feat. The stories are mostly the same…couldn’t be done, impossible, why try, on and on,….Chicago, Coos Bay, New York, San Francisco…many miles and trials.
Joe Rocco is a romantic living out a dream. As long as he’s moving he’s fine. He plays a big role in what literally moves this show from day to day, through the night, and throughout the year. We are more than fortunate to have this man in our family. And although I don’t doubt the ghosts of his past whisper in his ear from time to time on those long, lonely stretches in the wee hours of the morning, he seems to have the ability to keep most of it under the radar, where all is forgiven.
En route to Pittsburgh (5:30 a.m.) on the big red bus