Archive for the ‘music’ Category

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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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The Accordion Door

June 28, 2015

My father was a very handy man but also very traditional, so when he was finishing my little room in the dormer he built atop our house, I was surprised when he installed the accordion door.

All of the other doors in the rest of the house were the traditional swinging wooden kind. So why an accordion door? In hindsight, it made good sense. The opening to my room was at the very top of a steep staircase. A traditional door swinging out would clobber any unsuspecting person at the top of the steps or block off the only window on that side of the upstairs. There was little room for it to swing inward, the end of my bed reaching the space by the opening on one side and a bookshelf filling the other. The accordion door did not swing either way. It folded up sideways. Problem solved.

Another created, however, at least in the eyes of a twelve year old in search of a private life. Space saving though it may be, the accordion door was noisy. Its unmistakable rumbling sound could be heard throughout the house, making it impossible to enter or exit without announcing it to the rest of the family or any guests who may have been present. Especially in the quiet of the night. Every bathroom run or late night refrigerator raid could be detected from the start because of that door.

There was no way to prevent this racket. The tracks would not accept any kind of lubricant (I tried). Speed would only alter the tone and duration. There was no way around it. It was like having those peacocks that guarded the Turkish prisons, innocent looking until you tried to get past them, and then the squawking alarm would sound. Now, I was not really doing anything so surreptitious that I should worry over this, but the mind of a twelve year old boy is a strange thing indeed.

What made it worse was that I actually played the accordion back then. I absolutely hated it. One could not ask for a more dorky instrument to play. Well, I take that back. My sister played the glockenspiel for a time. That had me beat.

My mother was a huge fan of the Lawrence Welk Show, and one of her favorites was the accordion player, a straight arrow named Myron Floren. Myron! What was his mother thinking! He was destined to play the accordion (or the glockenspiel) with a name like that. Anyway, it is my belief that my mother wanted her ugly duckling son to grow up to be the next handsome young accordion star of the airwaves. I, on the other hand, had my mind set on being the next star center fielder for the Yankees.

For better or worse, neither came to pass. But I’ll bet you one thing; Mickey Mantle never had any accordion doors in his bedroom.

the aspiring center fielder takes a detour

the aspiring center fielder takes a detour

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When I’m Sixty-Four

October 7, 2012

“When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now…” This line is from the famous Beatles song “When I’m Sixty-four” which came out in 1967. I was nineteen years old at the time. It is 2012, and I am just days from sixty-four, so the “many years from now” part no longer applies. What once was inconceivable has come to pass.

Sixty-four. How could this possibly be?

Oscar Wilde once said, “The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young.” I think I know what he meant. When I look out upon the world, I do not see a balding, gray-haired old guy, for inside I am still the me that always was, just with more experience and hopefully some additional wisdom. Whenever I see photos of my high school classmates, I think to myself, “Man, does he look old!” not thinking of myself in that way. But each time I look in the mirror, I am forced to face the shocking reality: I, too, am old.

One piece of wisdom on which I still need to work is that which Henri Frederic Amiel voiced so well: “To know how to grow old is the master-work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living.” I am finding this out first-hand; aging gracefully is a far more challenging pursuit than I had thought.

Lately I think I often act like a cantankerous old coot in spite of that ever-youthful internal image I continue to entertain. I can no longer run because my knees and hip object quite adamantly. Watching Saturday Night Live is out of the question, or if I do manage to attempt it, I am snoring on the couch by the end of the opening monologue. This same guy who got as close to the stage as possible at CBGB to listen to Richard Hell and the Voidoids now had to retreat to the back of the balcony at the Wellmont because he couldn’t handle the volume of The National. My lifelong role as a teacher has changed radically from a full-time professional to a part-time volunteer. I get senior citizen fare on NJ Transit. Well, okay, that last one isn’t so hard to take. But these changes snuck up on me, and what once seemed slow and almost imperceptible is now quite obvious and unavoidable. But in spite of this, I cannot ignore this ageless me that dwells within.

Several of my closest friends are in the same leaky boat as I. Recently I burned a CD mix for one of them (at least I am still conversant in that arena) composed of pivotal songs, benchmarks along the way of our many years together. Though several of the artists I included met their untimely demise before their time (Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones), many others such as Neil Young, Lou Reed, Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, David Byrne, Bob Dylan, and of course Bruce are still out there, vital and creative to this day despite their years.

I think of my father, too. When he was sixty-four, I was twenty-eight. He had arthritis and a heart condition, but he and I put a new roof on my house (or rather, I helped him put it on; he did twice what I could manage). The clear conclusion: age in itself is not necessarily the obstacle some (me?) make it out to be.

I had a difficult time deciding on which Neil Young song to put on that CD for my friend. It turned out to be “Hey Hey My My (Into the Black).” I’m not sure whether or not my subconscious meant to slip in a subliminal subversive message by including lyrics that proclaim, “It’s better to burn out that it is to rust,” though I choose to content myself with the idea that rust is not necessarily an aspect of age but rather disuse. As I long as I make myself useful in some way, I’ll at least retain my immunity to that particular fate.

I prefer to focus on a different line in the song which says, “There’s more to the picture than meets the eye.” Although the picture may only look like that of a sixty-four year old man to most, perhaps it really does contain more than meets the eye. Look inside for a bit. Just maybe you’ll see a glimpse of that young guy still in there.

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Dancing in the Dark

September 20, 2012

Two significant and wholly unexpected incidents occurred this week. One involved a rock concert and the other a You Tube video sent to me by a former student. As it happens once in a great while, this confluence of events led to an epiphany.

During the spring, my wife Bernadette announced her desire to go to the Bruce Springsteen concert at the Meadowlands. Since her birthday is in May, I figured this was a perfect opportunity to kill those two proverbial birds with one stone. However, since I am rather a dinosaur in such matters, I did not know exactly how to go about purchasing tickets to such an event. Since my experience is firmly lodged in the days of the Fillmore East ticket window or free concerts in Central Park where one simply showed up, I bungled the operation and could not obtain them. My eventual present proved quite lame in comparison to What Could Have Been.

However, I received a reprieve when the announcement came that extra shows would be added in the fall. Armed with information from a friend-in-the-know, I got tickets for the Wednesday night opening show. Bernadette’s desire would be fulfilled, I would be redeemed (better late than never), and we would see Bruce again for the first time since the 70’s when both he and we were still young.

The concert date arrived, and the afternoon began with a harbinger of sorts. We had a late lunch at a funky little spot in South Orange called The Blue Plate Special, kind of like eating in a hip thrift shop. Our waitress, a Russian girl who moved to Alaska at age four and ended up in New Jersey for college, told us that she had recently graduated from Seton Hall University just up the block. We told her that we had too, only four decades earlier.

“Did you meet there?” she asked, eyebrows raised in astonished anticipation.

“Yes, we did. And we’ve been together ever since.”

“Oh my God, that’s so cute!” she exclaimed in honest admiration. “That gives me such hope,” she added.

Bernadette and I spent the rest of the meal immersed in nostalgic recollection of that first chapter of our lives together.

us, 1970

We took the train to the Meadowlands from the South Orange station. It was my first trip to the stadium and my first arena event. I had seen many concerts of varying types over the years, but never one this size. I fretted about how Bruce, almost the same age as I, would perform, and apprehension over how the venue might affect the experience tempered my excitement. Not so my wife. She squirmed in her seat like a teenager at her first Beatles (or, I suppose, Justin Beiber) show. I watched as the people filed in. The huge crowd consisted of mostly older folks. This shouldn’t have surprised me, but it was unsettling to realize that I am one of them. In my mind I’m still the twenty-something guy going to see Bruce at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic back when he was still “the future of rock and roll.”

My fears proved to be unfounded. The show turned out to be nothing short of fantastic. Bruce did not concern himself with trying to recapture lost youth or relive past glories (as, unfortunately, some aging stars do). He didn’t have to. He did what he always has done, putting his heart and soul into his performance and reveling in the excitement of the moment. Playing old songs and new, he rocked and crooned and told stories and danced for almost four continuous hours. It was sublime. My initial discomfort of being amongst all the balding heads and paunchy bellies of my generation dissolved in the dark, loud, rock and roll night.

The next morning I received a recommendation for a You Tube video of Death Cab for Cutie’s song “Stay Young, Go Dancing.” This came from a former student, one who is an astute connoisseur of music as well as one of the most brilliant young writers I had ever encountered in my forty years of teaching. The theme of the video tenderly reflects a line from the lyrics, “And I’m swallowed in sound as it echoes through me, I’m renewed, oh how I feel alive and through autumn’s advancing, we’ll stay young, go dancing…” It instantly made a connection to what had transpired the night before.

The Death Cab video blew me away. Watching the wistful “Stay Young, Go Dancing” crystallized all of my conflicted emotions about my present stage in life. I have been writing about many of the past experiences of my life in this blog over the last year. I have said I was doing it to occupy my time or to record these stories before I start forgetting them. But I realize now that it is my way of trying to come to grips with this disconcerting period of transition in which I now find myself. As I watched the video, I thought too of my former student and her present place in this circle of life, of how inconceivable it is to think that one will ever really become old. And that is as it should be.

But just as each stage of life has its pitfalls, each also has its great joys, and this video reminded me of one of the greatest of these, traveling through the years arm in arm with someone you love. Bruce ended his show Wednesday night with “Dancing in the Dark” (he knocked it out of the park), and all the oldsters stood swaying and singing along with every bit of passion they could muster. The next morning I began the day with the gift of “Stay Young, Go Dancing” which soothingly intoned, “As the music plays, feel our bodies sway, when we move as one, we stay young,” so eloquently affirming the passion and beauty that can magically take place at every point during this journey.

So thank you Bruce for helping us to acknowledge rather than bemoan the passage of time and celebrate the present moment for what it is. Thank you Death Cab for evoking this reflective wonder which transcends age, and thank you Cara for being the perfect herald of this revelation. Most of all, thank you Bernadette, for you still keep me alive and swaying as we move as one, dancing together in the dark of the advancing autumn.

us, now

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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).

icon

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).

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. 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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Little Darlin’

September 26, 2011

Music is a constant part of our modern lives. The radio is on in the car or the kitchen. Records, then tapes, CDs, and now MP3s are played everywhere. Even elevators and shopping malls contribute to the perpetual immersion. In this backdrop of music, certain songs tend to become connected to events in our  lives, embedded forever as part of our personal history in our brains. That song which brings back the summer when you first met him or her. The one when you broke up, the one from your  wedding. The one that makes you think of a special time or place in your life.

Little Darlin,’ the door-wop song made famous by the Diamonds in 1957, is one of those songs for me. I heard it while visiting a friend’s shore house this past weekend. Immediately my thoughts traveled back to that night in Catanduanes.

Catanduanes?

the bustling isle of Catanduanes

Yes, Catanduanes. Catanduanes is one of the thousands of islands that make up the Philippines, this particular one located in relative isolation off the bottom tip of Luzon. It has two claims to fame. The first is its small rocky guardian islands honeycombed with caves in the volcanic rock, reputedly providing hiding places for pirates in years gone by. The other is that it’s smack in the path of fierce typhoons that sweep up through the Pacific. But for me its unique distinction was being the unlikely site of a reunion with a revered college friend.

John Dumm was two years ahead of me at Seton Hall and a member of a small group of intelligentsia in my dorm whom I admired and came to know. After John graduated, he joined the Peace Corps. He was stationed on the other side of the world in the Philippines. We communicated a few times by mail while I was still in school.

As fate would have it, when I graduated and pursued my own Peace Corps dream, I was assigned to the Philippines as well. Despite the incredible coincidence (the Peace Corps was in 59 countries at the time), it seemed rather far-fetched to imagine our paths would cross there. I wasn’t even sure anymore exactly where in the country he currently was located.

As part of our initial in-country training, the new volunteers were sent out in small groups to visit an experienced volunteer to garner some insights into our new lives in the tropics.

“You’re going to ferry over to Catanduanes,” said our Provincial Director. “There’s a volunteer there who has been working on designing typhoon-proof schools, and I think you’ll learn a lot from him. His name’s John Dumm.”

Eureka! What were the chances!

PCV Sharon and fellow ferry passenger

John only knew that five of us newcomers were on our way, so when he saw me walking down the ramp from the ferry amidst the baskets of fruit and squawking chickens, surprise was the order of the day. After introductions to the other new volunteers, we spent time catching up over lunch in Virac, the port at which we landed.

Since John lived in a small house in the countryside, it had been arranged for us to stay in a hotel  in Virac, the capital of the province. Now, Virac is not exactly a cosmopolitan haven for nightlife. As a matter of fact, there was none, not the ideal place for a group of twenty-one year olds in search of a good time after an arduous  journey. But wait, you say, weren’t you in a hotel? Wasn’t this a capital city? Well, yes and yes, but in a backwater area of a third world country, so the reality didn’t quite live up to the terminology.

Therefore, we found ourselves on the verandah of the “hotel” with several chairs, a few bare light bulbs (having electricity at all was the one luxury afforded us), and, luckily, a large supply of San Miguel beer. There was also a record player with, for some unknown reason, only one record, an old American 45 RPM single. It happened to be an old favorite of mine from the 50’s, “Little Darling.”

As the night wore on and the San Miguel bottles emptied, “Little Darling” played on, over and over and over again. It was at first a bad joke, but as the hours marched on, it became a soundtrack to this surreal tropical night. By the time the refreshments had been exhausted and we stumbled to our beds, the song had woven itself into our psyches as though it were a thread in our very being.

So if you see me at a lounge or at a party with a faraway glazed look in my eyes and a strange bemused smirk and you hear, “Eye, yi-eye-eye-eye, Yi-eye-eye-eye, Ya-ya-ya-ahh, Little darlin’ (bop-bop-bop shoo-wah-wah), oh, little darlin’ (bop-bop-bop shoo-wah-wah), Oh-oh-oh where a-are you?” it is probably best just to leave me alone for a while. And maybe go get me a bottle of San Miguel.