Monday, May 27, 2013

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

(I Love Distortion (a rock & roll novel in 12 chapters) appears monthly in
Growing Old With Rock & Roll; January to December, 2013)

I Love Distortion - chapter five

Sweet satisfaction
I've got my favorite action
Givin' you satisfaction"
- Nicole Page, 1978

My divorce wasn't finalized until sometime in 1982 - Melanie really strung out the process on that (which, all things considered, I guess was fair enough) - but my marriage ended on Memorial Day, Monday, May 29th, 1978.  I was working at K-Mart that day, pulling in some time-and-a-half holiday pay to pay for new music gear when Nicole came in for a surprise visit after spending the holiday with her friends on a boat at Hoover Reservoir.

She was wearing the tiniest pair of blue denim shorts I have ever witnessed on a human being to this day and a white tank top, and she was so sunburned that every exposed inch of skin (of which there were many, she was five foot seven) was actually glowing a hot pink.  Folks, I'm not gonna lie to you or sugarcoat it; right at that moment my marriage was DONE.  I remember thinking, quite clearly, "Okay, I'm finished fighting.  I surrender.  It really doesn't matter what else happens from this point on, I am going to make love to this girl and those marriage vows I took are OVER." 

Things hadn't been exactly chaste to that point on Nicole's and my part, but it was under control; the songwriting and band activities definitely took preference over making out.  (But truthfully, not by much, the entire process was kinda inextricably linked.)  And both of us had broken things off entirely more than a couple of times, thinking we could nip the affair in the bud, slow down or stop the inevitable destruction of Nicole's engagement and my marriage.  Kissing my lead singer goodnight after band rehearsal was one thing, committing the actual sin of adultery was quite another.  I was, after all, a Catholic boy.  But at that moment, in that K-Mart toy aisle, looking at Nicole's sunburned face, spinning into her laughing eyes, I was done, cooked, over.

Meanwhile, things were getting hot as Nicole's sunburn on the band front.  We worked up the ten songs detailed in last month's I Love Distortion installment (blog entry April 13th, 2013) and opened a Lovely & Sonic show at Drake Union.  We played pretty well too, there were no train wrecks during the set and audience response was definitely positive.  And then Billy Ray and company came on, kicked ass, maimed, killed, destroyed and made the audience forget about us in the first ten minutes.  I really don't think Billy Ray did it to be malicious, but I do think he was trying to send a message regarding upstarts and bosses.  It was obvious we were gonna have to raise the stakes.

We hadn't really performed at that first show.  We'd pretty much stood still, concentrated on hitting the notes, played the songs the way we'd written them.  And wound up coming off like a cream tea.  That would have to change. 

The most immediate need was for a dedicated set-ender; a "My Generation," a "Street Fighting Man," a "Rosalita  (Come Out Tonight)."  I truthfully cannot remember what song we ended that first set with, but whatever it was it didn't go.  Consequently I went back to Nicole's notebooks, remembering a poem I had loved that very first night (see blog entry I Love Distortion, March 13th, 2013).  I added a simple chorus, we wrote a last verse together, I worked out the music and we had a set-ender;

I Love Distortion

I've got the power
To come on at will
I have the ability
To kill
Got no obsessions
Got no desires
I want reprieves
And soul fires

And I love distortion
Oh, I love distortion
Oh, I love distortion
How I love distortion

This is insanity
In vain I fear
My mind cries out
My eyes tear
Off the top of my head
I spin my tale
Drums bash out the noise
And guitars wail

And I love distortion
Oh, I love distortion
Oh, I love distortion
How I love distortion

No one knows
No one understands
Only we count now
Only we count right now

So much better together
Than we ever were apart
And I've loved distortion
Right from the start

Sweet satisfaction
I've got my favorite action
Givin' you satisfaction

- Nicole Page & Sean Richter, 1978

The very first time I played the song through on acoustic guitar in my basement when I was writing the music I knew I had something.  The riff played off a simple E >A > D chord progression, another mutant variation on "Gloria" and it was gonna sound GREAT onstage.  The first time I played it to Nicole her face lit up.    When we brought it to the band Jake & Jeffrey were actually excited, and Jeffrey never got excited about ANYTHING. 

Originally the song was going to end with a feedback-laced Jeff Beck Yardbirds guitar solo after the line "And I've loved distortion right from the start."  But then I remembered a stage bit Blue Oyster Cult used to do back in 1975 during their encore cover of Steppenwolf's "Born To be Wild."  Lead singer Eric Bloom and lead guitarist Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser would rub the necks of their guitars together over their heads, creating a true sonic onslaught, something I knew would be a perfect ending for "I Love Distortion."  Nicole and I adapted the routine, though, rubbing our guitars together at groin level rather than over our heads.  It created just as sacred a din but added a sexual component I don't think those Blue Oyster Cult boys ever entertained any notion of.  (I think David Bowie & Mick Ronson had an inkling of it back in the Ziggy Stardust days, however.)  When we enacted the bit we'd further meet at center stage to kiss and make out like crazy.  That's when Nicole added the "Satisfaction / sweet satisfaction" coda and we had ourselves a nifty little set-ender.  It was a truly great finish to a set of rock & roll.  (A coupla months later, when a local music rag reviewed one of our opener gigs, it was described as a "wanton display of simulated sex."  We were so proud of that review we hung it on the refrigerator in the apartment by that time I was sharing with Jeffrey.  But more on that in a later installment.)

We prepared for our second opening gig with Lovely & Sonic like a military campaign.  We had played the first show in t-shirts & jeans, this time we put Nicole in a short skirt with petticoats and a beat-up Cheap Trick t-shirt of mine.  She looked great, Midwest innocent but deadly; the sweet little girl next door fronting a kickass rock & roll band.  I was in straight-leg black jeans, black t-shirt and a black pinstripe suit jacket.  We left Jeffrey and Jake in bellbottom bluejeans just for contrast.  (Yeah, that was kind of a prick move, but they really didn't care, they didn't wanna dress up, they just wanted to play.)  That night we also debuted our punk attack on the Bay City Rollers' "Saturday Night" (a tune Nicole and I discovered we both loved when it came on the radio on some late night car ride somewhere), deployed "I Love Distortion" at the end of the set and the crowd went CRAZY!  I don't know if it was the hale of feedback, the guitar grinding, the onstage making out or some combination of the three, but when we dropped the still-feeding-back guitars on the stage and wandered off, leaving Jeffrey & Jake to bash the song to a close with a musical quote from The Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" riff, WE NAILED IT.

Billy Ray had to delay his set 45 minutes to let the audience calm down.  And we got a month's suspension of opening shows for our audacity at upstaging the headliner, but man did we feel great leaving Drake Union that night.  As we walked out of the gig hand in hand into a warm spring night and Nicole leaned her head on my shoulder I said, "When you came to me you brought e-lectricity."  And without missing a beat Nicole replied, "Someday every word we'll say will be poetry."  It was the start of a whole other new song.  That night belonged to us.

In the month we had off from Lovely & Sonic shows we started playing rich kids' house parties, starting with one of the Upper Arlington grads who had attended the second Drake Union show.  It was weird for me at first; it had been exactly ten years since I'd started playing in bands and here I was back playing at parties.  Except in 1968 I was playing basement rec rooms for West Side high school kids eating potato chips and drinking cokes.  Now we were playing in dens and formal dining rooms for rich college kids snorting coke with bowls of quaaludes instead of chips and parents who were mysteriously absent, nowhere to be found.  And those parties paid WAY better than West Side bars.

We also borrowed a van from a heavy metal buddy of mine and played our first out of town show; opening for a band called The Gremlins in Bloomington, Indiana.  The Gremlins were the brainchild of the staff of a fanzine called Midwest Punk Press with whom I had corresponded while publishing my own punk fanzine.  They were having a record release party for their first e.p. and invited us out to open.  They'd sent me an advance copy of the record and, truthfully, it wasn't great.  The band couldn't really play and the three(!) lead singers couldn't really sing but the songs were kinda cool.  It was almost like a 1960's hippie jugband trying to play punk rock.  But an out of town gig was an out of town gig, so we pointed the van west and made the trip.

At the Saturday afternoon soundcheck I knew The Gremlins were in for a LONG night.  The drummer who had played on the e.p. had quit, possibly because his marijuana haze momentarily lifted and he actually heard what the rest of the band sounded like.  The new kid was lamentable.  He either didn't know the songs, hadn't rehearsed, had never touched a drumstick that wasn't attached to a turkey before that day, or some combination of all three.  That poor kid couldn't have found the beat if it fucked him in a closet.  The guitarist didn't know how to tune his guitar, the bass player was shaky and overall the band had a problem changing chords and starting & stopping songs all at the same time.  Even so, given all of that, at the end of the trainwreck soundcheck the Leader Guy Editor said, genuinely enthusiastically, "Great job, guys, we're gonna give 'em hell tonight."  Nicole, Jeffrey, Jake, our roadie Greg and I all exchanged a glance, we truly couldn't believe our ears.  These guys actually thought that display of musical ineptitude had gone great?

It was around that time I started to realize the straitjacket that punk was creating for itself.  The Gremlins thought The Sex Pistols and Johnny Thunder's Heartbreakers were the godhead; that all you needed to do was make some noise, adopt a sneering punk persona stance and everything would come out all right in the end.  We aspired more to be The Dictators or Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers; a lean & mean rock & roll band that played fast, loud, hard 3-minute songs with a take-no-prisoners attitude and no trendy safety pins & garbage bags dress-up aspect.

When it was our turn to soundcheck we just line-checked the instruments and mics to make sure all the equipment worked and played snippets of a couple of tunes, we didn't play a single song all the way through.  I was afraid if we did they wouldn't let us play that night.  When I came offstage there was a sharply-dressed guy with a black leather jacket and a great short haircut standing there.  He looked vaguely familiar and then it clicked, we're in Bloomington, Indiana.  I walked over to the guy and said, "Johnny Cougar, right?  You made Chestnut Street Incident, I bought your album."  He laughed and said, "Oh, you're the one."  I talked to the future John Mellencamp for a few minutes, introduced him to Nicole (who had no idea who he was, this was pre-Big Hits.)  Even at that point John was the Local Boy Made Good With A Major Label Record Deal and The Gremlins had asked him to come and introduce them at their record release party.  When he was leaving he said, "The Gremlins, they're not the hottest bunch of players around, are they?"  "No," I replied, shaking my head, "no they're not."  He said, "You guys dig The Who, don't you?"  "Yes, we do," I smiled wickedly.  "It's gonna be a bloodbath tonight for the hometown boys," I heard Cougar say to his buddy as they walked away.     

To make a long story short, we DESTROYED The Gremlins record release party.  We had the audience in the palm of our hands from the very first notes of "That Girl's A Daydream" - which we played as a trio with me singing lead so Nicole could make a Big Entrance.  She strolled on from the side of the stage, Greg tossed her a guitar that she caught one-handed, effortlessly dropped over her shoulder in one smooth motion and we were off into "Homemade Rock & Roll" and "Stupid Games."  We never let up once, played all 13 songs we knew at that point and pulverized the crowd at the end with an all-out destructo rendition of "I Love Distortion."

The Gremlins never knew what hit them.  As soon as Greg, Jeffrey & Jake had cleared our gear off the stage they went right on, instead of hanging back and letting the energy from our set dissipate.  The drummer counted off the first song, the guitarist and bassist started two or three notes apart and the lead singer missed the first cue to come in.  Instead of powering through, they stopped AND STARTED THE FIRST SONG OVER AGAIN.  The second time the drummer dropped a stick thirty seconds in, lost the beat and the guitarist & bass player just stopped playing, leaving the lead singer to render the song a capella.  He kept waving for them to come back in but by that time they didn't know where they were in the song so they finally had to stop AND START THE OPENING SONG OVER FOR THE THIRD TIME.  I couldn't believe my eyes. I hadn't seen anything like this since my high school days in the 60's in somebody's garage on Sunday afternoon, and this was The Gremlins RECORD RELEASE PARTY, for which I'd anticipated they might have rehearsed.  I've had performance nightmares where my rem-sleep imaginary band didn't play that badly.

Nicole couldn't bear to watch the onstage debacle unfold and just walked out the stage door.  "Pack the van," I said over my shoulder to the guys, unable to take my eyes off the Gremlins' meltdown, "we're leaving."  By the third song - as I suspected might happen - the audience had started to yell for our band to come back on, only we had already played our entire repertoire and I didn't want to shatter our Illusion of Invincibility.

I saw Mellencamp as I was leaving and he came over to shake my hand.  "It's good you're taking off, this isn't likely to get any better." he said, nodding at the stage.  "Yeah, I know.  I don't really wanna face 'em." I replied.  "Is that your girl doing the singing?" John asked.  "Yeah," I said.  "She's good," he said.  "Is that a wedding ring on your fretting hand?" Mellencamp inquired.  I put on a sheepish smile and said, "Yeah, it's a long story."  "It's gonna get longer, my brother, it's gonna get longer," Mellencamp said, with the laughing wicked gravity of a man who knew whereof he spoke.  He clapped me on the shoulder and we went our separate ways down the road.

That May Nicole and I lit the fuse and in June everything exploded.

© 2013 Ricki C.

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