The Guitar / The Band / Dave Blackburn (Bonus Video Friday)
The Guitar, The Band, and Dave Blackburn are condensed, Reader’s Digest versions of the third, fourth and fifth installments of A Life Of Rock & Roll. Refer to The Bathtub and The Transistor Radio earlier in this blog for installments one and two…..
My dad bought me my first guitar for Christmas in 1968. A guitar was not the kind of present given in my family. I think Dad was so heartened by the fact that I wanted something which inferred an interest in the outside world and the people in it that he would probably have bought me a Gibson Les Paul if I had asked for one.
That first Christmas guitar was a fairly cheap acoustic. The next summer, when the neck separated from the body of the acoustic from constant use and Dad could see I was really serious about playing, he bought me a second-hand white Kalamazoo electric guitar. It looked just like the Fender Stratocaster that Jimi Hendrix played at Woodstock, only cheaper. My brain exploded. It was more than I ever could have hoped for. Dad rewired an old World War II vintage radio we had in the basement so I could use the huge built-in speaker as an amplifier. I was in seventh heaven . I was in sonic heaven. I was alive and amplified.
I sat in that basement for months, playing along to the radio or to the 45-rpm singles I bought at the Lazarus department store or Marco Records in downtown Columbus. I know I must have eaten and slept and gone to school during that period, but I have no clear memory of those things. I got good. But there was no such thing as solo rockers in 1968. There were folk singers, but I really wasn’t interested in that scene, ya know? Even at that early date, Pete Townshend and Keith Richards were my inspiration, my heroes, my gods.
I had to find a band.
Late spring, 1969: Dennis O’Dowd sat next to me in first period history class our junior year at Bishop Ready High School. He was the bass guitarist in one of the bands that played at the school functions I was still lurking in the dark corners of. One Monday morning after they played a Saturday night dance I turned to him before class started and said, "You know, I play better than the guitar player in your band." He stared back at me for a moment and replied, "I didn’t know you could even talk." (That abject shyness thing was still going on, but was very soon to change.)
We started talking about guitars and bands we liked and after class Dennis told me to come to his house Wednesday night. He’d have the guitar player stay home and I could try out. The rehearsal went great. I blew the guy out of the band in one night. That was how things happened in those garage band days. I don’t even remember his name.
We played out the next weekend, at a party in a well-to-do classmate’s rec room. I already knew all of the songs from those months in the basement. We went over great. Between sets people talked to me. They smiled at me and asked me if I knew songs they wanted to hear. They asked me if I needed a Coke and wanted to know when and where we were playing next. Girls wanted to make out with me. Wait a minute, let me repeat that sentence – it’s important to the story. GIRLS WANTED TO MAKE OUT WITH ME. I didn’t at first because I had no clear idea what I was doing in that department, but eventually I fell into line.
Quite literally overnight I went from being completely invisible to immensely popular. I had to invent an entire new personality just to talk to people, just to deal with that recognition. Later, of course, I came to resent those people for treating me differently simply because I had a highly-amplified piece of wood with steel strings on it hanging around my neck, but that was at least a year away. At that point I just smiled and basked in the warmth of learning the game.
Over time I became the lead singer of that band, partly because they got an even more hot-shot guitarist than me and partly because the old lead singer couldn’t remember enough lyrics to play three sets a night. I had already started to write lyrics, mostly by putting new words to songs we already played, but nobody in the band wanted to write music to my lyrics so we could play originals. Even in those days you could get more gigs and make more money playing covers than by writing and playing your own material.
I didn’t like singing lead. I wanted to play guitar. And I wanted to create songs nobody had ever heard before.
It was time for a change.
Dave Blackburn and I met halfway through junior year in English class. I think we hit it off immediately over our love of books, but I don’t really remember talking about music all that much at the beginning. I knew Dave played in the school marching band and was big in the Drama Club – he was the lead actor in at least one of the plays produced that year – but I didn’t know he was into rock & roll. I remember him at a couple of dances and parties we played through the summer of ’69 (insert Bryan Adams joke here), then just before senior year began, late in August, we ran into each other at the aforementioned Marco Records.
I had just finished talking to a couple of girls from our school. I must admit, by that point I had started to enjoy the attention and status that playing in a band afforded. I don’t think I had quite reached the arrogant point, but the painfully shy kid of a year earlier was long gone. I nodded, "Hi," to Dave and he said, quite simply and quietly, "You know, that band you’re in is shit." I thought about that for a second and admitted, "Yeah, I know."
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
There’s a song for and about Dave on my demo CD entitled "If All My Heroes Are Losers" in which I state that everything I know about music I learned from Dave. That is precisely and entirely true. I knew one little window of rock & roll covering maybe 1958 to 1969. Dave knew classical music, he knew jazz, he knew Broadway show tunes, he knew blues, and he knew where they all fit into rock & roll. He taught me how to LISTEN to music.
We would lie on the floor of Dave’s room on the West Side of Columbus, Ohio, at the end of the 1960’s, with our heads pressed between the record player speakers because we couldn’t afford headphones and Dave would show me things: Like how John Cale’s viola IS the heroin shooting up Lou Reed’s veins in that Velvet Underground song. Really, try it at your house; cue up "Heroin" and listen from 4:18 until the end of the song as the smack of Cale’s viola slides up Reed’s spine to a center in his head. I could have listened to that song for twenty years straight and would never have arrived at that kind of insight without Dave’s guidance. I listen to music differently to this day because of those sonic tutorials.
Before all that could happen, though, I had to split from the cover band. One night in early September, at a birthday party gig in some girl’s basement, during our last set of the night, somebody requested The Beatles’ "A Day In The Life." The band knew the song but I had repeatedly told them I couldn’t and wouldn’t sing it: Couldn’t because John Lennon’s vocal was way too high up out of my limited range, and wouldn’t because even at that point in time I knew the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album was an overrated, pretentious slab of vinyl that would forever doom, displace and ruin the raw, primal rock & roll I loved.
One of our classmates in the audience volunteered to sing the song and Gary, the rhythm guitarist and founder/leader of the band, told him to come up. I told Gary and Dennis that they had better make sure the guy knew all the lyrics to all the rest of the set, because if he set foot on the stage I was leaving. The band thought I was bluffing. They were wrong. I walked off the makeshift stage and sat at the top of the basement steps long enough to make sure that the band and their impromptu lead vocalist truly butchered the Beatles classic. And sure enough, they did. I smiled at the resultant musical train wreck, ignored the tearful pleadings of the birthday girl to finish out the party (I truly had become a prick by that point), walked out of her house and into the night.
Dave and I started writing songs the next day. I wrote the lyrics, Dave wrote the music. We finished about 13 songs in the first week. It was that kind of firestorm of creativity you can only command in your teens, in that first burst of finding your true voice and the best friend you’ll ever have. It was symbiosis. It was synergy. I’d start a verse and Dave would finish it with just the perfect chord. We wrote songs like you take a breath.
I’ve tried to think as I’m typing this if I’ve ever in my life met a more intelligent or more creative person than Dave was at that point. I haven’t. I’ve never met a funnier person either. (That includes Hamell On Trial and that is saying something, high praise indeed.) Dave could take the bleakest hour of your life and somehow have you laughing through it. He taught me that humor could both defuse or ignite any situation. And that combination of intellect and humor guaranteed a scathing swath of between-song banter at gigs.
Dave sang lead and played guitar, keyboards, and saxophone. I played lead guitar and sang the songs Dave played sax on. Dave was the star, I was the sidekick. (For most of senior year I was referred to as "the guy with Dave" much more often than I was called by my given name.) I was finally exactly where I wanted to be: On the side of the stage, bashing out chords, anchoring the sound for a truly gifted lead singer, on songs I helped write. It was no accident that the best band we had together was called Crash & Sideshow. I was Sideshow.
We sounded like The Kinks backed by The MC5. Dave brought the smart, inventive melodies, I brought the rock & roll rama-lama testimony. We went through a succession of bass players and drummers who either never quite got what we were saying or who simply couldn’t keep up. We were hippies for about 20 minutes. We were working class kids and it was hard to take The Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead seriously when you could be blasted by The Stooges in a small college auditorium one town over. We kept it together through 1972. Then Dave (purposely) flunked out of Ohio State University and moved first to Boston to play music and then to New York City to become an actor. I stayed in Ohio and played guitar. Someday when my rock & roll memoir is published you’ll read all about it. For now, let me just say this: Crash & Sideshow was the best band that you never saw. Dave, all of this is for you. I salute you, my brother.
As mentioned above, in the 1960’s, we – Dave Blackburn & me and all of our friends – were hippies for about 20 minutes. It was hard to be a hippie on the West Side of Columbus, Ohio, back in the day. But while we were hippies this was our band. Damn, but it’s hard to remember that Stephen Stills and Neil Young were once good-lookin’ bad-ass guitar-slingers and singers. (David Crosby, of course was always a useless hippie/zero.) If anybody should’ve died in a plane crash the day before their 30th birthdays it was all these guys.