Saturday, April 13, 2013

I Love Distortion (a rock & roll novel in 12 chapters) - April

(previous installments of I Love Distortion appeared in January. February & March 2013)

I Love Distortion - chapter four

"That girl, she moves just like a daydream
Her style, Sunday ballerina sheen"
- Sean Richter, 1978

April 1978 is when things really started to get interesting.

I had started hanging out with Billy Ray and his band right after seeing them the previous February (see blog entry I Love Distortion - chapter 2, February 2013).  It was ostensibly a journalistic pursuit, so I could write about them in my fanzine and get them some publicity but really I was just trying to find a way in to insinuate myself into the organization.  Even at that early juncture I could tell Billy Ray was my best way out of the West Side and into the more lucrative campus music scene, if only so I could play originals without being ignored, patronized or crucified.

If that sounds calculated, it was.  I had been in bands ten years at that point, and if I faced facts I hadn't  gotten a really good band to a stage in four years, since losing Danny Summers (see blog entry The Apartment, March 2012).  Forming a band in Columbus, Ohio in the 1970's was not like it is today.  You couldn't just write three songs and get half a million hits on your first YouTube video.  There was no internet to connect to like-minded people to start a band with, you just had to be lucky and observant.  You had to go up to people in a music store who had cool boots on, or up to somebody in a record store who was wearing a button on their jacket of a band you thought nobody else in town had heard of, start a conversation with them and hope for the best.

Most of all you needed song material, a LOT of song material.  If you had any hope of playing bars you had to have three 45-minute sets of songs worked up.  That meant a minimum of 36 to 40 tunes.  Most bands, of course, just played covers.  They threw together a bunch of Allman Brothers, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and/or Bad Company songs, stuck in a fuckload of interminable guitar solos and hit the stage for beer and cash.  (If they were really adventurous they'd throw in a Pink Floyd tune, but certainly not "See Emily Play.")   

Being around Billy Ray and his bandmates changed all that for me.  I can't convey to you or stress enough how much I learned from Billy Ray in those months between February and April; about songwriting, about rehearsing a band, about just plain rock & roll hustle.  Billy Ray was EXPLODING with ideas and I just went along collecting up the shrapnel and applying it to my own situation.

The first thing I determined for Nicole's and my projected band was NO MORE WEST SIDE BAR GIGS.  I had been having the rock & roll life sucked out of me for six years playing those thankless shows and enough was enough.  (Plus, at 18, Nicole was too young to legally play those bars.)  My plan was to become the "little brother" band of Lovely & Sonic; The Stooges to their MC5, Television to their Patti Smith Group, The Standells to their Paul Revere & the Raiders.  Wherever Lovely & Sonic played, we would open.  I'd tailor the band to complement what they were doing without directly competing.  (Which truthfully, I couldn't really do anyway, Billy Ray was simply just too good to directly compete with.)

The second part of the plan was all new material.  I threw out every song I had written to that point - ten years worth of material - and started from scratch.  It was Year Zero to me; everything I had known previously was wrong, every decision I had made had been flawed, every move I would make from then on would be brand new.  "That Girl's a Daydream" (quoted above) was the first song I completed for the new band, and it was great.  I took everything I had learned from Billy Ray - hooks, forward propulsion, crafting truly memorable intros and interesting exits, THINKING about the song instead of just writing it - and applied it to my writing method.

"Teach me to dance in the dark
Give me soul flash/flame/spark
I love the touch of your perfume on my hand
And I love it when you wind up
With your eyes all shined up
And your eyes don't throw out that doubt
I always hear people shout
But I've never heard a quiet girl sing"
- Sean Richter, 1978

More songs followed quick & easy: "Homemade Rock & Roll," a set opener that detailed our intention to  dismantle, destroy and render quaint & useless the dreaded "corporate rock" that was then infecting my beloved rock & roll; "They're A Lovely Couple," about two street people (now we call them homeless) who used to pass the parking lot where I worked years earlier when I was in college at Ohio State, a song not considered "heavy" enough for any of my previous male lead singers to essay; "I've Never Heard a Quiet Girl Sing," about Nicole's initial shyness about singing for me back when we were still just casual cafeteria friends.

"Realize I find a place in you
I'm fine and full of grace for you
I shine my secret face for you
Sad Sundays without you"
- Nicole Page, 1978

I took two poems complete and intact from Nicole's workbooks - "I'm Only Funny In The Comics" and "Sundays Without You" - wrote music to them, and had six finished songs in the first week.  I hadn't written six songs in a week since high school and, truthfully, those weren't that good.  Nicole and I collaborated on two more - "Lonely Lonely Rock & Roll" (whose chorus, "Who is your god / Who owns your soul / Lonely lonely rock & roll" came straight out of the poem quoted in the March's installment of I Love Distortion); and "Rise From The Suburbs," a song about Nicole's aching desire to be more than a housewife & mom that would later come back to haunt me.

And just like that we had a working repertoire of ten new original songs.  Ten really good new original songs, I couldn't believe it, my head was swimming with possibilities.  It was time to find a rhythm section.

My first call was to Jeffrey Jay, the bass player from my band The Survivors from around 1976.  He was blonde, quiet and knew how to take directions.  He also liked staying in the background, which was perfect for this group incarnation.  All of my bands to that point had been straight-up copies of The Who - bass player, lead singer, guitarist across the front, drummer in back.  In this configuration Nicole and I would be upfront - side by side in the middle - the bass player and drummer would be relegated to the second line, as it were.  Somewhere in the midst of our first writing sessions I discovered Nicole was actually a much more than serviceable guitar player.  She couldn't write any of her own parts, but anything I showed her on guitar she could play straight through without fail her second try.  This opened up any number of new onstage possibilities.

The entire time we were writing songs and putting the band together I was starting to roadie for Lovely & Sonic.  I think my first job was running lights at the Columbus Agora, a 1300 capacity venue, when Billy Ray and the guys opened for some small time national touring act I don't even remember.  (Later Lovely & Sonic would open shows for The Ramones, David Johansen and The Talking Heads, those shows I remember.)  I had never run lights anywhere, let alone at a huge ballroom-like venue, but Billy Ray's reasoning was that I knew all the songs and could compliment the changes from verses to choruses to bridges and pick out the solos, so I was appointed to be the lighting guy.  I was petrified, but damn if I didn't nail the assignment.  It was just another of those charmed sets of circumstances that happened on those April nights, circumstances that gave me the confidence to believe I could do no wrong at that point, that indeed, anything was within my reach.

All through that period Nicole and I had started to go out.  It was touch and go at first; she was certainly aware I was married, I was wholly cognizant of the fact she was engaged.  At the beginning we just (somewhat childishly) refused to admit or confront the situation, we just simply ignored it.  Guilty as we were, we felt like innocents.  We existed in a bubble of poetry, rock & roll and romance.  We pretended we were the only two inhabitants of our precious, precarious, private little planet.

All of our early writing sessions took place at Drake Union on the Ohio State campus.  The building sat right on the river; we would loll on the couches passing my acoustic guitar and our writing notebooks back & forth, watching the water flow past, lost in the music and in each other.  I make no excuses and ask for no forgiveness for our actions during that period - Tommy was an abusive asshole who deserved no better and Melanie and I had been on totally divergent paths for most of our marriage.  Nicole and I were two people who fell in love at an extremely inopportune time, but that timing didn't make it less real or any less heartfelt.

Nicole's and my first kiss was on the bridge right outside Drake Union.  Later, in the summer of 1979, in a grand romantic pyrrhic gesture I threw every letter, poem & song I had ever gotten from Nicole, all the tapes of our songs & live shows and every picture I had of her off the exact same spot on that bridge, into the dark waters of the Scioto.  (Otherwise we might have had SoundCloud postings here instead of lyric quotes.)  Do I regret that action?  Not really, because at that moment in time all of those words and all of those memories were killing me alive.

But on that warm April evening - at the very first moment Nicole's lips met mine on that bridge - all I could feel, all I could sense, all I could taste, all I could see was six lanes of open freeway to the future.  We walked over that night from Drake Union to a High Street bar called Cafe Rock & Roll to see Brownsville Station - a band I had loved since high school and desperately wanted to show to Nicole - and right there, in the opening band, was Jake, the drummer we would eventually talk into being the fourth piece of our little rock & roll puzzle.

It was just that kind of night.  We had a band.  We had our band.

© 2013 Ricki C.

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