Tuesday, July 30, 2013

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

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

(An early draft of this month's entry appeared previously as that story about yellow springs
way back on January 11th, 2012.  It's not a rerun, I'm not running out of material,
this story was always intended to be part of I Love Distortion.)

I Love Distortion - chapter seven

"As he held her and tasted her, and as she curved in further and further toward him, 
he was thankful to have an existence at all, if only as a reflection in her wet eyes."
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender Is The Night, 1933

"Nights on the freeway and your soft summer kiss
F. Scott knew a lot, but he never knew this"
- Sean Richter, 1978

There were times now at gigs when I would look to the left down the neck of my rosewood Fender Stratocaster at the sight of Nicole belting out the songs we had written together and I would have to try to figure how I had fallen into this dream.

After I moved out of the apartment I shared with Melanie (see blog entry I Love Distortion - June) EVERYTHING became about music.  Jeffrey Jay and I could work on guitar and bass parts whenever we weren't at work, Nicole was over all the time and we could write songs at any hour of the day or night.  We were finding our true voice: I began to learn how to write from a feminine perspective for a female vocalist, Nicole picked up on how to sharpen her poetry down into the razorblade intensity of rock & roll lyrics.  We were expanding outward from our punk-rock base to a Who-like grandeur I had long ached to capture.

We now had every night of the week to play gigs or to do our homework - going out to see other bands.  Gorgeous July evenings with Nicole melted into nights, warm nights into dawn-splattered mornings.  I had it bad.  I was completely, irrationally, unconditionally in love with that girl.  Between January and July Nicole had gone from being a casual workplace-friend to being my lead singer, songwriting partner, confidante, best friend and lover.  We consummated that last bit one night at a Red Roof Inn in Miamisburg, Ohio, after a gig in Dayton opening for the Greg Kihn Band, not that you're going to get any details of that here.  This is not a sex blog.  I'm not Roman Polanski.  Or even Kim Kardashian.  (Let's just say that making love with Nicole felt just like "Candy's Room" by Bruce Springsteen SOUNDS and leave it at that.)    

We started to make regular trips out to Yellow Springs, Ohio, to work on new material.  In 1978 Yellow Springs was a tiny hamlet housing Antioch College, a small liberal-arts school.  Actually, "liberal" might not be a strong enough term.  "Radical" might have more accurately fit the bill.  The first time I visited Yellow Springs in late 1969 or early 1970 with my high-school best friend and bandmate Dean Blackwell, we signed up for a course at the Student Union called "Making Molotov Cocktails."  I am not making this up.  At Antioch College, utilizing emptied wine bottles filled with gasoline and detonated by oil-soaked rags to start fires or to blow things up was a legitimate college extension course at their New School.  I loved higher education in those long-lost hazy hippie halcyon days.

When Nicole and I first landed in Yellow Springs in spring 1978 (after an abortive trip to Dayton, where a David Johansen Band show had been cancelled) it still seemed to be 1969 there.  That was heaven to Nicole, who at 18 years old desperately longed to be a part of The Sixties counter-culture and "The Revolution" that she felt she had missed out on.  I might be forced to admit here that at least some part of Nicole's attraction to me was my former college revolutionary rocker credentials.  However, at 25 years old I still retained a fair share of my smouldering dark good looks, so it wasn't all radical chic she was responding to.  That first night, as we wandered the Antioch campus, we happened upon a perfectly laid-out miniature Japanese garden.  A Japanese garden in the middle of a small-town Ohio college campus.  We felt it had been put there just for us.

The building that housed Antioch’s music department had these cool little rehearsal rooms with pianos in  them and truly great acoustics.  Nicole and I went there to sequester ourselves and finish new songs before we presented them to Jeffrey Jay and Jake.  (And let's face facts: the progression in our music had started to bring out certain deficiencies in the rhythm section.  Jeffrey Jay couldn't handle complicated and Jake couldn't play subtle.  We were essentially trying to play punk-power-pop with a heavy-metal grounding, neatly and definitely unintentionally anticipating grunge by at least 10 years.)  

So one lovely July Friday evening Nicole and I headed to Yellow Springs with five new songs we had written that week.  I had actually penned three of those five compositions in one day, something I had never accomplished before that and now 35 years later have not accomplished since.  And these weren’t throwaway tunes, they were really good, strong songs that we added to the set the next weekend.  Nicole and I were running on pure uncut inspiration then.  Rock & roll meant everything to us, we thought we could do no wrong.

We were running through the new songs in one of the rehearsal rooms, working out arrangements and harmonies, passing one acoustic guitar back and forth.  That was the point in The Twilight Kids when Nicole was actively trying to slow the songs down, so that she could apply at least some of the considerable melodic gifts she brought to our little enterprise.  I wrote everything at tempos so fast she could barely get all of the lyrics in, let alone get any kind of emotion into the presentation.  It was really warm out and at one point I was sitting in the open window of the room playing guitar while Nicole sang.  A group of about ten kids had gathered on the front steps of the music building to listen and started yelling up at us to come down and play for them.  I wasn’t really up for that.  I was a rock band guy.  I felt like we required our amps, bass and drums to put the tunes across.  I needed volume.  Only folkies played acoustic.  Nicole, however - given her background as a harmony singer in her four-piece family country band - was all for it. Plus she was a born performer.  She craved those stages and lights, even when the stage and lights were only the front steps of a college lecture hall under shimmering summer stars.  Everywhere all the time was a show for Nicole.

Over the next hour or so we wound up playing just about every song we knew together as the crowd on the little plaza grew to more than a hundred students, townie kids and faculty.  Looking back it was probably the biggest audience we ever played to.  And we killed ‘em.  It was like we could do no wrong.  I never would have believed we could have sounded as good as we did with just one unamplified acoustic guitar and Nicole’s lovely voice ringing out through the velvet night air. We debuted all five new songs we had just arranged that night.  One of those tunes - Go West, Young Man - with its chorus of "Go west, young man / At least as far as Yellow Springs" was a natural to hook that crowd.  Nicole turned it into an audience participation sing-along at the end.  She deployed that patented rock & roll stage bit of dividing the crowd up into competing halves and having them sing against one another.  It was great.

Finally, somewhat inevitably, around 11 pm the Antioch campus cops - who to that point had been standing unobtrusively around the outskirts of our impromptu little music happening - came up and asked us to move people along.  There was some desultory shouting at the cops, pretty obligatory at Antioch, but no molotov cocktails got thrown, thankfully.  The cops even let us pick our ending song.  We finished, as we always did, with I Love Distortion; our set-ender, our theme song, our anthem, but it wasn’t quite the same on acoustic guitar, in soft warm moonlight, with no feedback, no crashing drums, no punk-rock heavy-metal thunder, as it were.

A bunch of people shook our hands or high-fived us before they melted away into the beautiful July night.  They thanked us for playing, a couple of people gave us hugs.  It was truly heartfelt.  We never again played as well as we did that night.  And it never occurred to me to play in that configuration again; just Nicole and me, acoustic pure & easy.  What was I thinking of?  We could have been Richard & Linda Thompson.  And in some ways, that's exactly who we wound up becoming.

I remember us making out later, leaning on Nicole’s car kissing.  I came up for air at one point and the streetlights on that quiet campus street were glowing all hazy.  I said out loud to Nicole, "Is this love or oxygen deprivation?"  She just grinned and brought her mouth back up on mine.

"this town’s got you spread all over it
like a fine layer of art
made to break my heart"

- Sean Richter, that song about yellow springs, 2001
© 2013 Ricki C.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band "4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" (Bonus Video Friday)

Seriously, given all of the other content of this blog, where else would we wind up our July Bonus Video Friday series than here?

inspirational verse; "Sandy, the fireworks are hailin' over Little Eden tonight /
Forcin' a light into all them stoned-out faces left stranded on this 4th of July"
- Bruce Springsteen, 1973

(sidenote; Have I ever or will I ever in my life hear this song without thinking about my
 high-school friend/crush Sandy Cahill and seeing her lovely, smiling 16-year old face? Not likely.)

© 2013 Ricki C.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Aimee Mann "4th Of July" (Bonus Video Friday)

Our July theme continues.......

inspirational verse; "Today's the 4th of July / Another June has gone by /
And when they light up our town I just think /
What a waste of gunpowder and sky" - Aimee Mann, 1993

(sidenote; In 1983, on one of my Boston Weekend Rock & Roll Jaunts (see blog entry Flying to Boston to See the Rock & Roll - The Neighborhoods, January 13th, 2012) I was in a Newbury Comics store (I wanna say it was the Harvard Square location, but I can't swear to that, I had only recently stopped drinking then) buying Mission Of Burma's vs. album.  The young girl who rang up my purchase that day was Aimee Mann.  I knew who she was, I had read about The Young Snakes in Boston Rock and I'm pretty sure she had already formed 'til tuesday, but I had never heard them.
Folks, I have to tell you: Aimee Mann, on that day, behind that counter, at that cash register was one of the five most beautiful women I have ever seen up close in my entire life.  She was stunningly gorgeous.  Her hair was teased up just like on the cover of the first 'til tuesday record AND THAT WAS JUST FOR HER DAY JOB AT THE RECORD STORE!  When she picked up my purchase to ring  up she said, "Oh, Mission Of Burma, great choice. I love these guys!" beaming like a little girl. 
I was struck so shy by the sight of her I'm not sure if I even managed to stammer out a reply.   

I saw 'til tuesday live years later, when they opened for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers on the Southern Accents tour, but somehow it just wasn't the same from the 40th row in the Ohio Center.

© 2013 Ricki C.


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Radio Radio - part two, the 1970's and beyond

I started listening to the radio in 1958, when I was six years old, 55 year ago.  Admittedly, I had something of a head-start advantage over other children my age.  My brother and sister are seven and ten years older than me, 13 and 16 years old in '58.  They were glued to their transistor radios and I was fortunate enough to be blanketed in the atomic fallout of those early years of rock & roll.  The first song I remember hearing and falling in love with on the radio was "Peggy Sue" by Buddy Holly & The Crickets, and I love it to this day.

By the time I graduated high school in 1970, top-40 radio was beginning to lose its luster.  The wacky AM DJ patter I'd found so fresh, new & hilarious in 1966 was now starting to sound like what it really was - middle-aged men talking down to teenagers to sell us pimple cream & jeans.  At the same time, "progressive" radio had started its ascendency.  I related in a much earlier blog (a people's history of rock & roll; part one, The Sixties, February 3rd, 2012) how quickly trends turned over in 60's rock & roll: the British Invasion, garage rock, folk-rock, country-rock, heavy-metal and laid-back "confessional" singer-songwriters all happened in five years' time, from 1965 to 1970.

Then, after Woodstock in August 1969, Big Business started to realize, "Hey, look at all these kids with cash, there's money to made here."  I fully admit it, I'm a Baby Boomer, a card-carrying AARP member.  I am part of the generation that helped ruin rock & roll, but it's not my fault, I just followed the radio.  I followed the smooth-talking, enlightened-stoned DJ's as they spun Van Morrison, Leon Russell and Steely Dan tunes, telling us, in essence: "Forget all that crazy, protest Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young "Ohio" revolutionary-stuff, kids, just be laid-back, suck on that bong, and buy some incense at Waterbeds & Stuff.  Do not be metal, be mellow."

I followed "free form/progressive" radio from 1970 - when DJ's had The Power, the power to choose their own music, to program whatever they damn well pleased: to play Sly & The Family Stone followed by Joni Mitchell followed by Mountain - right through to 1975, to the last nail in the coffin of radio: the Lee Abrams years.  Lee Abrams (and his partner Kent Burkhart) pioneered Album Oriented Radio (AOR) - essentially, play only HUGELY popular bands (Fleetwood Mac, Eagles, Moody Blues) and play 'em OVER & OVER & OVER.  Their mantra - "Play only really familiar, well-known songs and nobody will EVER change the station to hear a lesser tune." - worked so hugely well with the stoned masses of mood-ring-wearing/streaking/pet-rock buying 1970's kids that it effectively eliminated the thrill of discovery that had always been a part of The Magic Of Radio to me.  (Plus it made it incredibly simple for the Big Record Companies to milk Big Records - Rumours, Hotel CaliforniaFrampton Comes Alive - for YEARS at a time.  Big rock acts now routinely took two or three years between album releases.  The Beatles recorded and released 12 albums - one of them the double-record White Album - and a fuckload of non-LP 45-rpm singles between 1963 and 1969.  In a comparable six-year period - 1975-1981 - the Buckingham/Nicks-era Fleetwood Mac recorded four records, one of them a live album with virtually no new material, so that hardly counts.)

Eventually AOR radio ground inexorably into the Classic Rock Radio format that still rules the Baby Boomer Airwaves today, 40 years later.  It's the reason punk never happened in America.  Abrams & company were much more interested in purveying the corporate-rock hip easy-listening dentist-office fluff of Journey, Foreigner, Toto and their ilk.  It's the reason my Baby Boomer generation settled into a nice, safe, somnabulistic sonic womb where only Bob Seger, The Allman Brothers and Pink Floyd exist, to waft us to sleep in a warm room where The MC5, The Stooges, The Modern Lovers, The New York Dolls, The Dictators, The Patti Smith Group, The Ramones, Elvis Costello & the Attractions, The Pogues and Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros never existed.

No more power, no more passion; just Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" for all eternity.

Go to sleep, my Baby Boomer brethren, go to sleep.

I suppose I should go into the rise of "alternative/modern-rock" radio in the 1990's, when the U.S. economy tanked sufficiently for punk to finally gain in a toehold in America as it had in England in the 70's, but that's a whole 'nother blog for a whole 'nother time.  And satellite radio like XM or Sirius in the 21st century?  You think I'm gonna pay GOOD MONEY to listen to Mumford & Sons and/or The Black Keys?  You better think again, manchinko. 

video appendix to Radio Radio - part two, the 1970's and beyond

inspirational verse;
"Some of my friends sit around every evening and they worry about the times ahead /
But everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference and the promise of an early bed"
- Elvis Costello, 1978

© 2013 Ricki C.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Radio Radio - part one, the 1960's

If I ever really let myself remember how good I felt in 1973 I would probably put a bullet through my head.  My lovely wife Debbie HATES when I say things like that, and I can hardly blame her, but the fact remains unfortunately true.  1973 was a pretty great year - it was the year I moved away from home and got my first apartment; it was the year Mott by Mott The Hoople, Aquashow by Elliott Murphy and the first New York Dolls album all came out; and it was probably the last year that the radio didn't suck.

The radio was a lifeline for me when I was a little kid.  (see blog entry The Transistor Radio, January 2012)  It's virtually impossible to explain to anybody under the age of 55 how great radio was in the 1960's.  You could hear ANYTHING.  Forget about The Beatles, that's a little too obvious.  You could hear The Rolling Stones doing "Satisfaction."  Just listen to that song again and think about how SCANDALOUS a line "She tells me, 'Baby, better come back, maybe next week, 'cause you see I'm on a losin' streak'" was in 1965, bringing the topic of menstruation, and its impediment to Mick Jagger scoring female companionship, to AM radio for all the little rocker boys & girls to hear.  And that song was played on the radio EVERY COUPLE OF HOURS.  (Plus that's another great point, even Stones singles didn't get played every hour, there were actually 40 tunes in rotation, so you didn't immediately get sick of songs you really liked.  Only new Beatles songs got played every hour, and that was only in the first week or so they were released.)

(sidenote; I was home from sixth grade with chickenpox when "Eight Days A Week" by The Beatles came out.  I had a fever and was sick as a dog and that song played EVERY HOUR.  I was too weak to even get up and turn the radio down or off, and to this day I hate that song and get queasy when it comes on oldies stations.)

A random sampling of twenty 45-rpm singles I pulled out of my vinyl collection tonight in 2013 that I bought between 1965 and 1967 because I heard and fell in love with them on WCOL-AM here in Columbus, Ohio:
  • "Gloria" by Them (we were lucky in Columbus, we got the Van Morrison-growled original version rather than the more watered-down "safe" Shadows Of Knight cover);
  • "Secret Agent Man" by Johnny Rivers
  • "Just Like A Woman" (Dylan cover) by Manfred Mann
  • "Psychotic Reaction" by Count Five
  • "Can't You Hear My Heartbeat" by Herman's Hermits
  • "Hey Joe" by The Leaves (to this day a song that rocks harder than ANYTHING in "alternative-rock," including my beloved Jack White tunes)
  • "With a Girl Like You" by The Troggs
  • "I Am A Rock" by Simon & Garfunkel
  • "If I Were A Carpenter" by Bobby Darin
  • "Follow Me" by Lyme & Cybelle (absolutely SUBLIME folk-rock tune, Warren Zevon's first record ever, which he also co-wrote)
  • "Where Were You When I Needed You" by The Grassroots
  • "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" by The Bob Seger System (whose "2 + 2 = ?" was an even MORE savage rocker/protest song
  • "The Pied Piper" by Crispian St. Peters
  • "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Anymore)" by The Walker Brothers
  • "Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White" by The Standells
  • "Talk Talk" by The Music Machine
  • "Little Black Egg" by The Nightcrawlers
  • and, finally, "Walk Away Renee" and "Pretty Ballerina" by The Left Banke, either one of which just might be my favorite song of the 1960's
(sidenote; Not one of these singles listed is by The Dave Clark 5, The Who, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Lovin' Spoonful, The Yardbirds, The Doors, The Turtles, Bob Dylan, etc., whose every single release I bought religiously.)

All of them hits, all of them and hundreds of others, all of them on the radio.

The other thing to keep in mind about 1960's radio was CONTEXT.  You just never knew what you were gonna hear next, or in what bizarre, great new juxtaposition.  As great a song as "Like A Rolling Stone" by Bob Dylan is, it was an even GREATER tune when all six rocking, revolutionary, lyric-spewing minutes of it came on the radio in between "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me" by Mel Carter, "Unchained Melody" by The Righteous Brothers and/or "Houston" by Dean Martin - all three of which it shared the Top 20 with in September, 1965.

By 1970, when I graduated from high school, AM-radio had already started its long, slow slide toward irrelevancy and "free-form/progressive" FM-radio was on its way.  More on that next time in Radio Radio - part two, the 1970's.

© 2013 Ricki C.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Dave Alvin "4th Of July" (Bonus Video Friday)

Hmmmm, perhaps a theme begins to emerge for July Bonus Video Fridays.......

(inspirational verse; "On the stairs I smoke a cigarette alone /
Mexican kids are shooting fireworks below / Hey baby, it's the 4th of July" - Dave Alvin, 1994

(sidenote; There are probably better versions of this song on YouTube (check out the live one
from Austin City Limits) but there are was something about the cheesy, mid-1990's vibe of this one
 that hooked me today.  It brought me back to a time in the dim, dark past when even rockers like
 Dave Alvin were forced to make videos that would then be summarily ignored by MTV in favor
 of some jag-off English synth-pop act the likes A Flock Of Seagulls or The Human League.) 

© 2013 Ricki C.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Watershed "5th Of July" (Bonus Video Friday)

I really couldn't resist running this for Bonus Video Friday today.......

inspirational verse; "So come on, come on; there's a riot goin' on /
Girl, it's you and me and Sly & The Family Stone" - Colin Gawel & Joe Oestreich, 2005

(sidenote; I've always loved that line because in 1970, instead of attending my senior prom
I went to see Sly & The Family Stone at Vet's Memorial with my sophomore girlfriend,
Linda Finneran, who was not permitted at the junior/senior event.)

© 2013 Ricki C.