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.

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