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FIFTY YEARS IN ROCK&CARS
I like to tell people that all personality development was arrested in my case by age 12, That’s reasoning backwards from this: Although trained in the law I have spent most of my adult life working on two things that obsessed me as a pre-teen—cars and rock music. The short of it is, I’m 56 years old now and—probably like many of you—still can’t think of anything better to do with my time than drive and listen to rock music. So I write for car magazines and manage rock bands, two fine and compatible occupations as long as you don’t mind chronic job insecurity and erratic workmates to go with your long hours and low pay.
Half a century seems like forever ago in both cars and rock. One keeps thinking something should have come along to displace them, but it hasn’t. Digging deeper you realize that to survive both have evolved dramatically over the years, while somehow also remaining true to their original formula and intention. Just as cars continue to be metal machines with engines driving rubber-tired wheels, usually four of them, so, too, a rock band is today fundamentally as it always was, requiring in most (but not all] instances a singer, a guitar, a bass and a drum kit, working together, amplified and usually in four-fourths time.
Fifty years ago, I woke up to cars in a big way with a trip to the New York Automobile Show at the old Coliseum on Columbus Circle. This was also the same year rock music first grabbed me by the shirt collar and started shaking me up and down. So I start my own truncated, idiosyncritically incomplete and personal rock history in 1964 and not with the actual beginnings of rock—I did not experience it because I wasn’t born yet, proving it is a very mature form, indeed. I end my review in 1987, the year I went to work as a manager of bands and joined the Rock Wars, forever changing my relationship with music. Because I find my opinions hopelessly swayed by my allegiances to the bands I represent and have represented, and because I am so longwinded I quickly used up all available space, my war years will wait until another time.
THE SIXTIESl In any event, the essential moment for me came in 1964, when I was 6 years old, the night my dad brought home a new KLH stereo set and a copy of The Beatles’ new long-player, «A Hard Day’s Night.» In our living room, I experienced with my younger sister, Suzy, stereo sound and the Fab Four both for the first time, and it blew our total minds. By 1965,1, along with much of the country, was firmly of the view that summer afternoons spent indoors listening to the Beatles’s new LP, «Help,» were days well spent. The indelible sounds of youth also came to include Herman’s Hermits’ single «Henry the 8th,» a big hit on the AM transistor radio at the Fire Island beach in summer 1965. Freddy and the Dreamers’ «I’m Telling You Now» was major. And Shirley Ellis’ «The Name Game» also appealed strongly to 7- (7 bo-even, banana-fana fo-feven, 7-) year-olds, unsurprisingly.
On the other hand Elvis seemed kind of silly, king in name only. Giants like Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Bobby Darrin, Jerry Lee Lewis: We respect them immensely today, same as Elvis, but they didn’t move us much then. Their careers weren’t over, but their best days as hit makers seemed behind them, stopped in their musical tracks by the British invasion stuff—the Beatles, Dave Clark Five, Rolling Stones, et al.—increasingly ruling the airwaves. Kids tended to lump old chart idols in with radio-cum-television «stars» like Arthur Godfrey, Jack Benny and Milton Berle,- they were famous, but nobody knew why. The country looks back fondly now, but only later with the introduction of oldies radio into my pre-teen life, did I find out I had soft spots for the old-timers mentioned above, plus Dion and the Belmonts, Roy Orbison, Lou Christie, Neil Sedaka, Fats Domino, Lesley Gore, Hank Ballard, Gene Chandler, the Coasters, Bill Haley and dozens of others whose glory days preceded my introduction to rock.
Bob Dylan started registering with me and seemingly everybody else around this time, propelled on his way deep into the country’s subconscious by those who would cover him: The Byrds (an all-time favorite], The Turtles (still much admired] and Peter, Paul and Mary (two out of three ain’t bad). The Beatles were always in good taste with the Stones gaining ground, but we were easy marks for the southern-California sound the likes of the Beach Boys and the underrated Jan and Dean popularized a few years earlier. (To this day harmony never fails to slay me, and these guys had it down.) Their automotive enthusiasm, more overt than their British counterparts’, was another winning point for budding gearheads. Consider Jan and Dean’s «Little Old Lady From Pasadena»: The Little Old Lady From Pasadena (Go Granny, go, Granny, go, Granny, go).
Has a pretty little flowerbed of white gardenias,-(Go Granny, go, Granny, go, Granny, go) But parked in a rickety old garage, There’s a brand new shiny red super-stock Dodge. Today it brings back memories of a long-ago time when love songs about cars, even ones written for TV commercials, were hit records. They were credible. Were that ever to happen again, you can be sure the auto industry would be pleased.
We watched «Hullaballoo» and «Where the Action Is» on television after school in the second grade and developed a powerful fascination with Paul Revere and the Raiders, (their Pontiac GTO commercial, available on YouTube, is not to be missed.) We loved Petula Clark’s «Downtown» and Dionne Warwick’s renditions of Burt Bacharach songs. Few remember seeing New York’s Simon & Garfunkel on television. But our copy of their album «Bookends»—my sister and I listened to it approximately 1 million times—was a perennial favorite long after we’d worn out its grooves. Then came The Monkees—we forced our parents to crank up «Last Train to Clarksville» on the car radio as they drove on New York City’s West Side Highway and everywhere else we went in fall 1966 in our 1960 Plymouth Valiant Suburban. Motown— The Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin, the Temptations—was all over the radio and so consistently good we basically couldn’t believe it. The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Righteous Brothers, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, The Seekers’ «Georgie Girl,» Lulu’s «To Sir With Love»—a lot of hit singles came to kids by way of a hi-fi-loving older cousin …
Thanksgiving 1966, and things were getting hip. Your parents drove a station wagon, and by this time the major record labels were descending on San Francisco to sign the new hippie bands: the first step in what became corporate America’s near complete co-option of the counterculture. 1967 was the so-called Summer of Love. Frank Zappa’s contemporaneous masterpiece, «We’re Only in it For the Money,» best captured the time; it was a mordant confection skewering the vapidity and vulgar, underlying commerce of it all, in real time. Chrysler offered a purple hue it called «Plum Crazy» in the late ’60s, and the staid Ford Motor Co. went to market cataloguing a green shade called «Anti-Establish Mint» and another called «Counter-Revolutionary Red.» Talk about turning on a dime.
Back in New Jersey one evening in 1967, we were left in a tough new baby sitter’s care. She arrived with a copy of the Jefferson Airplane’s debut, «Surrealistic Pillow» in her bag. «Somebody to Love,» sung menacingly by Airplane (ex-Great Society) lead singer Grace Slick, struck us hard. I remember it, 47 years later, like yesterday. It went off like an air-raid siren; startling, jarring and slightly terrifying, it flipped a switch in me—I’d heard the new sound, and it could not be denied.
In fact, slightly terrifying describes my experience of most of the 1960s. It was a scary, violent and confusing time in America for kids, and psychedelic music was par for the course. As hard as it was to get next to the Vietnam War and the horrendous civil rights situation, it was just as difficult for the young to comprehend drugs and the revolution we were told was coming. Even the Strawberry Alarm Clock’s «Incense and Peppermints,» a spot of bub-blegum psychedelia with vague, malevolent overtones along with its LSD-lite lyrics.
It’s hard to fully wrap your head around any revolution when you’re young and not sure what’s going on in the first place. Hippies kind of scared us —but that’s the way it was with the whole psychedelic era, generally: intriguing and repulsive at the same time. Fortunately the movement happened to produce an incredible amount of good music and cool cars. In 1969, the U.S. watched Janis Joplin on «The Ed Sullivan Show.» I watched with my dad, who managed through the decade to keep vaguely abreast of popular music. Before throwing in the towel in the ’70s, he’d turn me on to Arlo Guthrie’s «Alice’s Restaurant» and Smothers Brothers TV show writer Mason Williams’ surprise instrumental hit «Classical Gas» and in 1971 to Don McLean’s «American Pie.» Though Joplin also seemed a bit dangerous and overwhelming on a Sunday night in 1969, watching her perform my dad assured me she was a great singer.
The famous Woodstock festival seemed exciting and disgusting, but we learned it was a financial disaster and in time we all learned the hit album by heart. They shut down and permanently shuttered the high school in-house radio station when my friend Bobby Klapisch and I kicked off the first programming day of our maiden season’s lunchtime music hour for students in the cafeteria jour only audience, in truth) by playing Country Joe and the Fish’s «Fish Cheer.» «Give me an Т/ give me a ‘U/ give me a ‘Cee (Cue sounds of a tone arm being dragged across a turntable and detention slips written out in longhand.)
In addition to Joe Cocker and all bands who made the cut to appear on the Woodstock album, acts catching the country’s ear then were many: Creedence Clearwater Revival, Blood Sweat & Tears, Steppenwolf and the Doors. The Cream, Blind Faith. Grassroots, the Youngbloods. Joan Baez, Ms. Collins, Janis Ian, Laura Nyro, female singer songwriters by the dozen came and went and came again, some like Carole King and Joni Mitchell stuck around longer. Before long the soundtrack album from the musical «Hair» filled many a living room, as did covers of its songs by The Fifth Dimension and The Cowsills (real-life basis for TV’s «The Partridge Family» show,- we watched it religiously.
THE SEVENTIES: I heard The Kinks’ «Lola lying in bed on a Sunday night in 1970 dreading Monday morning, when suddenly it rang from the speaker of a crummy AM radio near my pillow. In an instant, I became a lifetime Kinks fan, as I connected this new hit with previous favorites «You Really Got Me,» «Well-Respected Man» and «All Day and All of the Night.» It was a formative step on the way to becoming a fan of all melodic, slightly fruity pop bands with nasal vocal stylings, advanced harmonic properties and clever, left-of-center lyrics. This jibed with everyone’s fascination for The Who’s «rock opera» «Tommy» and led to a lifetime appetite for taproot ’60s English rock bands The Animals, the Small Faces, The Zombies and those they influenced. Every self-respecting semi-literate teen thoroughly enjoyed The Jackson Five on the AM dial. We began reading Jan Wenner’s Rolling Stone and The Stereo Review to keep up with new and established bands, including some not on radio—at the same time, the emerging FM album rock format was greatly expanding what might be heard.
T. Rex, the f. Geils Band, Gram Parsons, Poco, Harry Nilsson—new talent flooded the scene. We took Bruce Springsteen’s «The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle» out of the public library. The words of this underdog’s soon-to-be manager, Jon Landau, writing in Rolling Stone—he’d «seen the future of rock and roll,» and it was his future management client—were a little overheated. But Bmce’s bank account tells us Landau was right.
Jimi Hendrix’s sound had been heavy. The Cream, MC5 and Led Zeppelin were no slouches in their rock attack, either, but heavy metal was born in 1970 with Humble Pie. Black Sabbath, Deep Purple—a lot of it was enjoyable primarily in an ironic way—ditto America’s Grand Funk Railroad and that ’60’s UFO from Iron Butterfly, «In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.»
Sexual indeterminism came to rock in the 1970s. Putting aside earlier outliers like Liberace and Little Richard, there was now Alice Cooper (who, in fairness, worked a variety of transgressive angles with his snake and sex carnival road show.) David Bowie’s cross-dressy cover of his brilliant «Hunky Dory» really freaked some kids out. Ziggy Stardust—it might have been an even better album— saw Bowie grow ever more sartorially strange on his way to making a million bucks many times over. The New York Dolls, then Queen, followed on his high heels. Before it was over, Gary Glitter, Slade and just about everybody else would stand taller thanks to their shoes. Makeup and role-playing became more prevalent, too, culminating in the amusing cartoon characters KISS.
Owing to my birth date, most likely, for me some of the greatest musical moments in the ’70s came finding stuff I’d missed or that had been grandfathered in from the ’60s. Being of an archival bent, I kept on hand a well-thumbed copy of the «Schwann Catalog/’ a guide to tens of thousands of records to advance knowledge of older rock discs. The Byrds, Traffic, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Sly and the Family Stone, the MC5, Led Zeppelin. Jethro Tull, The Move, the Band, the Grateful Dead, Alice Cooper. Joni Mitchell, Buffalo Springfield, the Mothers, Van Morrison, Rod Stewart and The Faces, Donovan, The Youngbloods, Cat Stevens, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, the Velvet Underground, the Nazz, Johnny Cash, the New York Rock & Roll Ensemble, Dr. John, the Guess Who, and countless other ’60s refugees, many came alive for us in the ’70s.
«Super Session,» with Stephen Stills, Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, still made essential listening when I got to it five years after its 1968 release. In the sheer length of its tracks, it was a metaphorical 7 minutes, 49 second step ahead of all the new longer stuff making so many exceptional demands on our time in the ’70s. From the interminable drum solo in Derek & the Dominoes otherwise excellent «Let It Rain» to the noodling, prog rock bombast of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, from Gentle Giant and Rennaissance, on through the clinical noodle excellence of Steely Dan and the longwinded concept noodling of Genesis, songwriters were given license to go lo-o-ong. Once upon a time, Pink Floyd’s «Dark Side of the Moon» seemed the height of innovation, along with many supergroups big back when people actually knew the names of the players in the band.
Singer-songwriters James Taylor, Jackson Brown, Loudon Wainwright, Phil Ochs, Randy Newman and Harry Chapin were inescapable, too, as was Neil Young’s «After the Goldmsh.» First came Elton John, then Billy Joel and Peter Frampton. Though time would dull their luster, it’s important to remember all three of these singer-songwriters were deeply credible once upon a time. The hugely talented Richard Thompson, who’d arrive later in the decade and was quite the ax-man, as well as a talented songwriter, never achieved a patch of their success but managed in relative obscurity to stay cool forever.
Through it all, increasingly The Who collared my attention. When I was 15, «Who’s Next» was my social set’s anthemic, musical totem; but for me the follow-up, «Quadrophenia,» was the one. For 15 days in 1975,1 could not bring myself to listen to anything else. It seemed so rich in meaning I signed my dog up for a Record Club of America subscription («get 10 records for a penny!») and ordered five identical copies of this double LP as part of her signing bonus. I gave a gift-wrapped copy to my dad for his birthday but I have good reason to believe he never made it to the second disc. I’d go on to quote a lyric from it opening a college history paper in 1977; mercifully, I cannot find it. Unremarked at the time, in retrospect the passage must have stuck out like a transplanted sore thumb. In spite of «Quadrophenia»‘s towering triumph, by the mid-’70s the sense was coalescing, to paraphrase Pete Townshend himself, that rock was dead. The Eagles were no longer edgy and instead had begun suggesting by deed that the marriage of country music and Laurel Canyon rock, once so hopeful, had been a tragic mistake. The Who’s follow-up hits weren’t great, the Allman Brothers were off the boil, and Steve Miller’s Top-40 smashes were a finger in the eye of his former persona, though we’d loved the Space Cowboy’s previous lesser-known gems and figured he deserved some money. Even the Kinks seemed to lower their collective brow in the mid-’70s for their imminent return to the charts. We forgave them their eventual success, but not for me the ersatz rockers (Richard Marx) and hair-band precursors (Journey, Toto) beginning to emerge with an extra whiff of corporatism. The Stones, whose «Sticky Fingers» was an early ’70s highlight had quickly descended to embarrassment status though their great 1978 album «Some Girls» marked a surprise and temporary return to form.
I wasn’t overly concerned with cutting-edge cool in those days—my continued championing of the Four Seasons, Bee Gees and Everly Brothers left me open to a lot of curious glances in the ’70s. But while every previous year had brought so much good new music, suddenly it seemed like the volume of quality rock was slowing down (Roxy Music and Brian Eno notwithstanding), and then it stopped. Established stars were out of gas. The industry seemed lost.
Then from the ashes arose punk and New Wave. People would argue into the night in 1978 about whether they were one and the same or a Venn diagram of occasionally overlapping conditions. There is too much to say here about that, but suffice it to recall there was a time when Devo’s «Mongoloid/ Jocko Homo» 45 was the coolest record to have on a college campus, bar none. Bands like The Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Stranglers, Gang of Four, Television, The Ramones and Talking Heads relit the flame of rock, and it was good. I spent summer 1979 abroad and when I returned to New York was delighted to find a new type of music on the commercial radio. Elvis Costello, The Police, Joe Jackson Devo, The Clash, Gang of Four, XTC, Patti Smith, Television, Blondie, The Jam, В-52’s, Madness and Squeeze. I’d have lost a bet that Sting and The Police would be the ones we’d continue to hear too much about, 30 years on. And then there is the matter of U2, but the feeling was optimistic.
THE EIGHTIES: One day in the early ’80s, I saw a college double bill with Jefferson Airplane spinoff Hot Tuna and the English Beat together again for the first time—starkly presenting the changing of the guard. For me in Boston, attending law school, I’d belatedly come to the dBs, Talking Heads, Neil Young and Big Star, as well as REM, The Bongos, Prince albums and old Al Green. Kurtis Blow and the Sugarhill Gang were many of our first rap purchases on vinyl. Michael Jackson’s «Off the Wall» spun late into our nights, with the Talking Heads «Burning Down the House,» The Replacements and Husker Dti, the Smiths, the Pixies, Camper Van Beethoven, Young Fresh Fellows, XTC, Motley Criie, Elvis Costello and The Housemartins—the stuff of a format they’d come to call modern rock and, later, alternative rock—all conspired to disturb your neighbors.
The biggest truth? Through this point there were two ways as an artist to deal with up-and-coming talent and your own aging. Neil Young and Pete Townshend felt they had to respond to punk rock’s rising spectre and its threat to their own credibility, now that they were older, richer and less angry than they’d been as young men. Where Young reached out to his juniors in 1979’s thoughtful «Ballad of Johnny Rotten» («It’s better to burn out than fade away») Townshend was sniffy. In the end, Young was embraced to the point where he remains an icon of cool decades later. Meanwhile, Townshend, who’d written easily as many good songs or more, was relegated to a slightly sad siding. Of course, he stopped writing good songs around the same time, and Young had a few more hits left in him, judiciously and career-enhancingly doled out over the course of the ensuing 20 years.
It’s appropriate I stop here. On March 20, 1987, I began managing rock bands when I started working with a young duo I’d befriended some years earlier via a college friend. They were called They Might Be Giants, and for me the rest is history. I entered the Rock Wars and today am a grizzled veteran. I’d go on to manage bands and artists including The La’s, Beautiful South, the Trashcan Sinatras, Meat Puppets, Pere Ubu, Violent Femmes, Moon Hooch … the last just entered Billboard’s modem-jazz chart, though with hand on heart I say this saxophones-and-drum trio is a rock band.
That ought to give you an idea of what I—and the country—listened to. Of course, there’s other stuff I love personally but resent professionally, the more so the better it is. You have your favorites too, no doubt.
It’s a competition when you’re not just a fan but in the music business and every record—or should I say, stream or download—someone else moves is one you didn’t. When you get close, music, like cars, becomes a business. And that’s why I have to say, like the Beach Boys once did, «Shut if off, shut it off, buddy going to shut you down.»
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