I Know It’s Only Rock and Roll

October 9, 2011

Rock and Roll was born shortly after I was. We kind of grew up together (though use of the term “grow up,” for the both of us, is relative). Rock and Roll has been with me and a part of me from my earliest years, and it is still present as strong as ever as I enter my sixty-third year.

I always remember music being in my life. This came from my mother’s side, where many family members played instruments (my Uncle Joe professionally) and everybody sang. My mother learned to play piano by ear and was quite good. Any family gathering was an excuse for a spontaneous outbreak of music.

We had a large wooden cabinet radio/record player in the living room in our house on which my mother would play her thick, clunky old vinyl LPs of Mario Lanza, Perry Como, and Eddie Fisher. Repetition embedded some of these early songs forever in my brain (“When the moon hits the sky like a big pizza pie, that’s amore…” ). This fare was augmented by my own little collection of red vinyl Disney kiddie records, hits such as “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” and “When You Wish Upon A Star.”

The smaller cream-colored plastic Emerson radio in the kitchen was my initial conduit to the beginnings of what was to become Rock and Roll. We had no TV for the first decade of my life, so the radio was my portal to the entertainment world. At first the pop standards of the day caught my ear; Patience and Prudence (“got along without you before I met you, gonna get along without you now…”), Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John” (which my sister and I performed in a neighbor’s garage show), and other such “safe” songs were typical. However, subversive inroads were being made by the likes of Bill Haley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and of course, Elvis.

I really got rolling when I got my own room. The normal procedure was for me to be sent there to do my homework. Instead, through the magic of the technological miracle of the transistor radio and earphones, I spent my time listening to the rock and roll shows of Murray the K and Mad Daddy and Cousin Brucie. I learned quite a bit, though not exactly what school had in mind. Ah, the lessons the Shirelles, Ronettes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and Young Rascals taught me.

Captain of the submarine race watchers club

Shortly after the “British Invasion” occurred in the early 1960s, a musical battle developed between fans of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. It was kind of like the Yankees and the Mets. Even though John, Paul, George, and Ringo won most of the sales wars (and the hearts of teen girls), the Stones funkier blues based sound and bad-boy image had a hard-core following, too (I counted myself firmly in this camp). This time saw an odd proliferation of styles getting air time, from Motown to the British sound to bubblegum. But, as Dylan said, the times they were a’ changing.

Going off to college in 1966 plunged me headlong into these changes. FM radio became the primary vehicle for ground-breaking music during that time. The “free form” station WFMU from Upsala College was the “underground” station of choice, but WNEW was at the vanguard of this upheaval. A new wave of DJ’s came into being forging their own particular styles and shows: Jonathan Schwartz with his story-telling, Allison Steele, “the night-bird,” with her mysterious but soothing late night rambles, and Rosko and Scott Munie, the old guard joining the revolution. This is where I first heard the sprawling songs that ranged far beyond the limitations of AM radio’s restrictions both in time and subject matter: The Door’s “Light My Fire,” Richie Havens’ “Follow,” The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” Cream’s “Spoonful,” and Bob Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” Previously unheard of bands with crazy names exploded on the scene: Pearls Before Swine, 13th Floor Elevator, Procol Harum, Big Brother and the Holding Company, The Electric Prunes, Strawberry Alarm Clock. Dorm rooms were bedecked with psychedelic posters, and the smell of incense was pervasive.

groovy, man

I couldn’t wait to create or at least mimic this music, and in my freshman year, the opportunity to learn how to play the guitar arrived in the form of a fellow freshman down the hall, Mike Collins (who, I later found out, was a receiver on the South River High School football team when Joe Theisman was the quarterback — pretty cool). He not only played but owned a guitar and agreed to teach me some basics. My first “song” was the repetitious bass line from the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin.” I played that duh-duh-duh-duh, DUM over and over until my novice fingertips bled. Shortly thereafter, inexorably hooked, I headed to a New York hock shop and bought myself a cheap beat-up steel stringed acoustic guitar, warped neck and all. I learned some chords and started banging out every Dylan song I could master, not letting my lack of a good singing voice hold me back (much like him, some would say).


An unexpected rock and roll source arose in the Student Center, a room set aside as a “music appreciation” room. It had a state of the art stereo system and sound proof walls. The intent, I suppose, was for a wide range of “wholesome” music to be enjoyed by all, but it was taken over by the “rock and roll element” who dominated it virtually from the time of its inception. These students would be found at all hours sprawled on the carpeted floor as Janis Joplin, Muddy Waters, and especially the transcendent Jimi Hendrix washed over them. I must admit that I was often amongst them, further enriching my rock and roll heart.

Are you experienced?

The Fillmore East had opened in New York, and many trips were made with my buddies during its heyday. One of them, Joe Duke, was captivated by Grace Slick of the San Francisco band Jefferson Airplane. On the way to one of their Fillmore shows, he made us stop so he could buy a rose, which this normally mild-mannered lad from Connecticut proceeded to throw on the stage as the band entered, wildly screaming “I love you Gracie!” Miss Slick, who clearly had been sleeping on her surrealistic pillow beforehand, was pretty much oblivious to this display of raw adulation so typical of rock and roll fandom. Another memorable Fillmore show featured The Doors who debuted their anti-war film for the song “The War Is Over.” Nobody could launch into a primal scream like Jim Morrison. This amazing venue afforded us the chance to see these great bands as well as a wide range of acts from Neil Young to Miles Davis to The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (who was carried in on a litter by torch-carrying half-naked bearers).


In the summer of 1969, the seminal concert of all rock and roll became part of music history: Woodstock. When it was first advertised, no one had an inkling of how huge a deal it would become. My good friend Peter, a true music junkie, and I bought tickets for the Sunday show, but by the time we left, it was announced that the Thruway had been closed. We ended up driving to south Jersey to a venue called the Music Tent in Lambertville to see Richie Havens, fresh off his Woodstock-opening triumph. That was the closest we got to “three days of  peace and music.”

sigh…what might have been

The first two years of the 70’s became an unusual hiatus as I lived eight thousand miles from home in the Philippines suffering through the likes of  local bands’ renditions of “Tiny Bubbles” and “Tie a Yellow Ribbon.” Fortunately, friends sent me cassettes that kept me going: Marvin Gaye, the Grateful Dead, Hendrix and Buddy Miles in their Band of Gypsies.

Shortly after my return, a new onslaught of rock permutations was introduced to me. My temporary job consisted of loading pallets with batteries at a Ray-O-Vac warehouse in Englewood that had mostly West Indian employees. There I discovered the entrancing and hypnotic rhythm of reggae in its many varieties, from Toots and the Maytals to The Mighty Diamonds to the incomparable Bob Marley and the Wailers. The influence of this infectious sound later infiltrated a new British wave of ska bands like the Specials, the English Beat, and later The Clash.

Rock next exploded with the one-two punch of punk with the Brits (led by The Sex Pistols) and America’s own Ramones followed shortly thereafter by New Wave. The return to hard-driving, stripped-down, bare bones rock was merely the inevitable (and welcome) swing of the pendulum. This period introduced me to my all time favorite, Patti Smith.

The first time I heard Patti on the radio, I was painting my bedroom ceiling. As soon as “Gloria” started playing, I froze in my tracks. What was this? I had never heard anything quite like it before; I had to find out who this was. In the style of 70’s FM, this involved waiting for a long string of  songs to finish before having the artists revealed. Finally, there it was: The Patti Smith Group. When I later heard for the first time “Horses,” “Birdland,” and “Free Money,” I didn’t need to be so informed. Her unique music was riveting. Patti was the synthesis of all things I admired in rock, the poetic sensibility of Bob Dylan, the dramatic presentation of Jim Morrison, the wild abandon of Jimi Hendrix and the Stones. Along with John, a fellow fanatic, we attended every show possible, from a former dinner theater in Cedar Grove, NJ, to the uncharacteristically staid Princeton auditorium to her home turf at CBGBs in the city.  I remember one performance in particular at the opening of CBGB’s new venue, an actual theater (as opposed to the derelict dive bar of the original).  She went on stage and announced that she would sing “You Light Up My Life.”  The raucous audience voiced their objection to this Debbie Boone schmaltz, but she proceeded — with great gusto and more than a few expletives —  to explain why the song was worthy, in her opinion. “Hey, have you ever listened to the words?” she demanded. The impassioned delivery of the song that ensued made converts of them all. Unfortunately, the show was ended prematurely when the fire department stormed in and shut it down because of fire code violations (which made me wonder if they had been to the other establishment).

Patti Smith

Rock and I are both six decades down the road, and we are still alive and kicking. As time has passed, the door opened as it always has to further evolution. There are still surprises around the next corner and pleasures in looking back. In the famous and pertinent words of the Stones, “I know it’s only rock and roll, but I like it.” Perhaps I will not be quite as able to keep up with the beat or be aware of the latest trends, but as the new generations come of age, each with their own contributions to this American institution, the music will live on, and that makes me happy.

You can say that again!


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