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It’s Only Rock and Roll

July 26, 2015
But I like it!

But I like it!

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 in my life as strong as ever.

My introduction to music first came in the form of a large wooden cabinet radio/record player in the living room in our house on which my mother would play her 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.”

However, the small plastic Emerson radio in the kitchen became my initial conduit to the beginnings of what was to become Rock and Roll. At first the safe pop standards of the day caught my ear such as 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 Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons.” Then the flow accelerated with Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, and of course Elvis Presley.

But then I got my own room, and the floodgates opened. 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 did learn a lot, though not exactly what my parents had in mind.

During my teen years, the “British Invasion” began. To most this primarily meant the Beatles, and rightly so for they heralded a new era. In their wake a multitude of English groups filled the airwaves including the likes of Herman’s Hermits, Freddie and the Dreamers, and Gerry and the Pacemakers. Amidst this pop fluff was an undercurrent of harder hitting rhythm and blues revivalists, and these were the bands that caught my attention: the Animals, the Troggs, the Yardbirds, and the Spencer Davis Group. But the undisputed kings for me were the Rolling Stones. No music had ever captivated me like this.

Satisfaction!

Satisfaction!

From the opening reverb of “Mona,” I was hooked. “Little Red Rooster” and “Not Fade Away” and “I’m a King Bee” — I had never heard stuff like this before. Little did I realize that this music originated right here in the states, but because of the race barriers pervasive in both society and the music business, it never got played on mainstream radio. It took a round trip across thousands of miles of ocean and rerecording by white artists to be “discovered.” But discovered it was, and the Stones’ covers of this previously unknown American rock kept me hungry for more. Following the 1966 release of Aftermath, their first album of all original songs, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards unleashed a seemingly endless torrent of tour-de-force Stones songs that still have me turning up the volume decades later: “Satisfaction,” “Paint It Black,” “Under My Thumb,” “Jumping Jack Flash,” “Street Fighting Man,” “Sympathy for the Devil” — the list goes on and on (and happily so).

Mixed in on the radio with all the UK imports was an odd conglomeration of styles from Motown  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. At the vanguard of this upheaval were WNEW and the “free form” station WFMU from Upsala College, the “underground” station of choice. 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

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 from down the hall, Mike Cox (who, as it turns out, had been a receiver on the South River High School football team when Joe Theisman was the quarterback — pretty cool). He not only played but actually 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 enamored, 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.

icon

icon

Bob Dylan’s music, perhaps more than any other, captured the essence of those times, and it drew me in completely. I had to learn as much of it as I could if only to play to myself in the echoing stairwell of the dorm. An enigmatic character who could spin a poetic ballad as well as a vitriolic condemnation of society’s ills, he became an icon on campuses everywhere. His influence has been profound, and he was the first of a musical one-two punch for me during this period. The transcendent Jimi Hendrix was the second.

An unexpected rock and roll source arose in the Seton Hall University 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 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 all the varied shades of rock (Muddy Waters, Moody Blues, Janis Joplin) washed over them (myself included).

It was here that I first heard Hendrix — “Purple Haze” to be exact — and my very concept of rock had been turned on its head. Not only did he create searingly intense songs of his own, but he infused his own being into his interpretations of fellow artists  (just listen to “All Along the Watchtower,” “Hey, Joe,” or “Just Like a Woman”). He remains in my personal pantheon of rock idols, a guitarist like no other and a creative genius who forged new ground in this distinctly American art form.

Are you experienced?

Are you experienced?

During this time, the Fillmore East had opened in New York, and it became a mecca for East Coast rock fans like me who finally had a venue to be exposed to live music that previously had been available only on vinyl or the radio. The psychedelic standard-bearer Jefferson Airplane became a staple there, and one of my buddies, Joe Duke, stricken by Grace Slick, made us stop on the way to one of their shows 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 his display of raw adulation. That and so many other memorable Fillmore shows highlighted our weekends, none more so than 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. The mystique of the charismatic Morrison and the eerie lyrics of his songs permeate my recollections of my college years.

Graaacieee!

Graaacieee!

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. Along with my good friend Peter, a true music junkie, 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

sigh…what might have been

After a two year hiatus in the early 70’s living eight thousand miles from home in the Philippines suffering through the likes of local bands’ renditions of “Tiny Bubbles” and “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” I returned to a new onslaught of rock permutations. My temporary job at the time 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 blaring from boom boxes, from Toots and the Maytals to The Mighty Diamonds to the incomparable Bob Marley and the Wailers.

jammin'

jammin’

Rock next exploded with the punk of the Brits led by The Sex Pistols and America’s own Ramones. The return to hard-driving, stripped-down, bare bones visceral rock was merely the inevitable (and much welcomed, for my money) swing of the pendulum. One branch of punk morphed into New Wave shortly thereafter, and 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 Mick Jagger. I attended every show possible, from a former dinner theater in Cedar Grove 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 supposed fire code violations (which made me wonder if they had been to the other establishment).

Patti Smith

Patti, always searching

Well, 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 continued pleasures in looking back. Perhaps I will not be quite as able to keep up with the beat or be aware of the latest trends as the years roll on, but as the new generations come of age, each with their own contributions to this American institution, the music itself will live on. I certainly understand that there are many other more important things in life, but in the famous and pertinent words of the Stones, “I know it’s only rock and roll…but I like it, like it, yes I do!”

You can say that again!

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