Sunday, December 1, 2013

New Book Review: NOTHIN' TO LOSE: THE MAKING OF KISS (1972-1975)

My latest book review appeared this week in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. I write about the latest in a long line of biographies of the band KISS. You can read it by following the link.

I wrote about my experiences at the opening show of the Kiss Dynasty tour in an earlier blog. You can see it HERE.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

New Book Review: Queens of Noise: The True Story of The Runaways

My latest book review appeared this week in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. This time I write about Queens of Noise: The True Story of The Runaways by Evelyn McDonnell. You can read it at

I received an email from Ms. McDonnell thanking me for the great review. She reblogged it at her site. You can see that at

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Nerd Exchange Podcast

I was interviewed on the Nerd Exchange Poscast this week. Host Tim Sedwick and talk about comics history and comics business and the nature of collecting. Thanks Tim!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

New Book Review: What You Want Is in the Limo

I review the new Michael Walker book, What You Want Is in the Limo in yesterday's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. You can read it HERE.

Friday, October 11, 2013

New 5 Star review for Bedivere: The King's Right Hand

Posted on Smashwords:

Review by: Ilaria on Oct. 09, 2013 : star star star star star 
I miss 20 pages to the end but I wanted to write something about it immediately because I am really loving this novel and my review may not be perfect, because I am not English, but I am extremely glad I could read this story.

The novel is the first of a trilogy (I suppose) which I hope will continue soon. It is about Bediere who is narrator and protagonist. In the story an old Bedivere, post Camlann, decides to write down his memories of Arthur and Camelot.
One of the things Ioved a lot of this way of narration was how Bediere often compared reality to the legend, talking about what people say happened and what really happened. Sometimes the narrator doesn't remember everything, being Bedivere quite old, and trust the legends or what his friends told him (for example in a point, he says "Tristan said that... it seems strange to me and I didn't rememeber it, so I asked Tristan what he said. But we all know that Tristan is a liar" or something like this). The book narrates from Bedivere's childhood, alongside his best friend Arthur, Arthur's adoptive brother Kay and Ector to Arthur as king, in his first years of kingship.
I would absolutely recommend this book to everyone. Of course there were things I didn't like, for example how sometimes the characters talked in a bit unrealistic way just to give information to the reader, but generically speaking it's a good book.

And now

I appreciated immensely how Guinevere and Morgana were 'of the guys'. Let me explain.
in a lot (all of them?) books I've read, Arthur and male friends meet each other when Arthur becomes king and the Guinevere arrives (and Morgana arrives etc.). Here instead Arthur meets Tristan, Lancelot, Guinevere, Morgana, Gawain and Agravain before he finds out about being king. Guinevere is part of the group, she is still a child but she is part of the group even more than Morgana who has less adentures with them. Also, both of them are wonderfully described round characters.
The author also manages to narrate a story that I don't think I have never seen in modern arthurian retellings: the giant of Mont Saint Michel. Convinced by Guinevere's reasonings and compassion, the gang of guys decide to save a girl and his brother from a cruel king and in the story Bedivere loses his hand. Also the sword in the stone is retold in a very imaginative way.
I still have my doubts about Merlin, because in this novel he travels and lives with different identities with each one of the characters to create them, instruct and educate them for the future he wants and both Morgana (who is Arthur's lover) and Nimue (who appears by the end) are seers so know of that future. I am not a fan of 'I slept with my brother because it was destiny that Mordred killed him' buy we'll see!
Bedivere is a wonderful protagonist, with the right balance (at least for me!) of post-losing-hand angst and loyalty for Arthur and need to fight. I can't wait for the next books, to know what will happen to them and especially to Guinevere who in this novel is clearly infatuated with Bedivere (who is uncomfortable with the tought knowing she is a child).

As someone who likes to collect arthurian novel and who read a lot of arthuriana I can say that I am immensely glad to have had an encounter with this one!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

New Book Review: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

I review the new Stephen King book, Doctor Sleep in today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. You can read it HERE.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

New book review: Turn Around Bright Eyes by Rob Sheffield

I review the new Rob Sheffield book, Turn Around Bright Eyes in today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. You can read it HERE.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

I'm Gonna Rock Six Times, All Right! (Part 3: Adam Ant)

The first time I ever heard of or saw Adam Ant was on the televison program Solid Gold in 1981. I was hooked immediately. He performed the song Stand and Deliver, which is still one of my favorite Ant songs. The driving beat of the double drums, the overlapping lyrics and yodel-like howls; the sheer energy and fun of this song is hard to dismiss. But it was more than that.

I can't embed the video, but you can watch it here:

It was the clothes.

I'm pretty much on record in understanding that a lot of my musical tastes started with image. I've said here many times that what my list of favorite artists, Bowie, Alice Cooper, KISS, etc., all have in common is costumes and makeup. Adam fell into this category pretty easily. The tri-corner hat, the great cloak, the slash of warpaint... how could I not fall in love with this. KISS remined me of superheroes. Adam Ant reminded me of an old Disney series I had watched as a child called The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, which featured masked heroes in Revolutionary times. This was a comic book come to life.

In the early 80s I was scrambling around looking for new music. KISS had taken off their makeup and I was feeling a little burned out with 70s Rock. The new batch of Rock bands like Motley Crue and Def Leppard just weren't doing it for me (I've come around since then). I flirted with some Punk, what little of it I had access to in my small county. I listened to a lot of the New Wave stuff. MTV was, of course, a pretty big factor in pointing me in the direction of a lot of this stuff.

But Adam clicked with me more than most. After the Solid Gold appearance I went out and bought Kings of the Wild Frontier and while I like the album a lot I was disappointed that Stand and Deliver wasn't on it. I did find the single eventually, but the song didn't appear on an album until the next one, Prince Charming.

I became something of a completist with Adam. This was the first time I was exposed to the idea, more prevalent in Great Britain than here, of there being b-sides to singles that were not included on the albums. This launched a search for the singles as well as the albums, which is exactly the plan of the record labels. This has come back to bite me with several artists since then.

Adam was part of the early wave of British Punk Rock. He knew and hung out with the Sex Pistols and Siouxie and Billy Idol and lots of others who were on the scene at the time. He was originally managed by Malcolm McLaren, the same guy who once managed the New York Dolls and then went back to England to launch the Sex Pistols. The story goes that Adam couldn't take his shit and left to form his own band (McLaren teamed the original Ants with 13 year old Annabella Lwin to form Bow Wow Wow).

His first album, Dirk Wears White Sox, was not originally released in the States. It was the first import record I ever bought, on my 21st birthday.

I kind of obsessed. I bought singles. I bought picture discs. My friend Fred was into him as much as I was and he bought all this stuff as well. We made tapes of the b-sides so we could listen to them all together (the record label eventually did the same thing and released a compilation called B-Side Babies... We were so ahead of that curve).

Twice I dressed in Adam Ant costumes. The first was for a Halloween dance where my costume wasn't really Adam-like, but the streak of makeup and the ribbons in my hair were pretty obvious.

This also served as my Dungeons and Dragons
Rogue character costume.

The second time was for a talent show. I was working as a counselor for the Upward Bound program at my college and spent a lot of time with the drama teacher. We were tasked with creating a talent show for the high school students in our program. There were improv skits and some music by a couple of genuinely talented people, and some comedy routines. I dragged out my love of the lip synch, just like with KISS and Cheap Trick (actually going back to a 7th grade performance as Alice Cooper doing School's Out on the last day of school, now that I think of it. I talked a couple of other people into joining me and we “performed” Strip, Goody Two Shoes, and Stand and Deliver.

Don't you ever,
Don't you ever,
Stop Being Dandy,
Showing me you're handsome.

I saw Adam twice at the Stanley Theatre in Pittsburgh, both times from the balcony. The opening bands were The Romantics, and Patty Smythe and Scandal. I remember enjoying the shows, but being a little disappointed with Adam's voice. His energy level and performance were great, but his voice sounded weaker than on the records.

That wasn't true this past Friday at Stage AE. I was about three people back from the stage this time and he sounded incredible. He's older now, but his energy and performance and charisma are intact. The setlist dug pretty deeply into his catalog and featured lots of those b-sides I tried so hard to track down, as well as a good chunk of stuff from the Dirk album. Everybody was singing along to Goody Two Shoes. I was pretty much on my own singing along with Never Trust a Man (With Egg on his Face).

As my friend Bonnie (who snagged the setlist for me), pointed out, I was quite the fangirl that night.

Setlist: Pittsburgh 8/23/2013

This was probably the only concert I've been to in my life where the women outnumbered the men. I noticed this first when we were going into the venue. We were broken into two lines for the pat-down, men and women. My friend Bud and I went through the men's line quickly, because there wasn't really a line. Kate and Bonnie, who we had been standing with outside the venue didn't make it in to join us for another 10-15 minutes. I shouldn't really be surprised. Adam had a larger female fan base than a lot of artists at the time. Though he came out of the Punk world he quickly embraced his success and became a Pop idol. By the time of his album Strip it was pretty obvious he was courting a younger audience, including female fans. As a fan I remember being aware of this. The tour book that I purchased at the Strip show was full of cheesecake (beefcake?) photos of Adam. I never apologized for the stuff I loved, but I was hard-pressed explaining this fetish to my harder-rocking friends.


I think he and Prince were shopping
at the same store at the time.
Johnny Depp shops there now.
The crowd loved him. I think part of the reaction is just that we never expected to ever see Adam perform again. Once more, for the third time in a week, I was struck at how music united everyone there. Here was a musician and a bunch of songs that I had claimed as my own a long time ago. Other than a single friend, this wasn't a fandom I shared with a lot of people. These songs were part of my soundtrack. They are tied into very specific pieces of my life. I know I couldn't have been completely alone in this. Adam Ant or Cheap Trick would not have had careers if I was the only one who listened to them. Cherie Currie couldn't find an audience today if The Runaways hadn't made an impact.

When we find that thing that moves us we make it our own, unknowingly sharing it with uncountable others. The memories and associations we have with this music are personally specific, but the song remains the same.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

I'm Gonna Rock Six Times, All Right! (Part 2: Cheap Trick)

During my senior year of high school I participated in a talent show. Based on the idea of the then popular Gong Show we had teachers as the judging panel who would strike a gong for any act they didn't like. I don't really think they actually gonged anyone. This was the second year for this event. The previous year four friends and I had made fairly elaborate KISS costumes and got up and lip-synched two or three songs to a crowd of our fellow students who played the part of crazed fans. This was to be the closest to being a Rock Star I would ever come.

For my senior Gong Show my friend Richard and I memorized the entirety of the Abbott and Costello Who's On First Routine. I'm pretty sure there were lots of people who got very tired of hearing us rehearse. We didn't win the contest, but we pulled the routine off without a hitch.

Photo by Lisa Amos Gerhart

The problem that night was that we didn't really have enough acts signed up to fill the allotted time. At show time those of us who were organizing the event were scrambling to figure something out. Richard and I did a spur of the moment lip-synch to the Blues Brothers version of Shout. With fedoras and sunglasses in place I pretended to know the words while Rich did the Dan Ackroyd gymnastic moves on stage.

We closed the show by lip-synching a couple of Cheap Trick songs.

I had only recently gotten into them thanks to my friend Howard (see my previous post). My only awareness of Cheap Trick prior to this was from a magazine article that had lumped them into the Punk movement. I was pretty resistant to this at the time, so when he played the Heaven Tonight album I can't say I was looking forward to hearing it. The album opens with the song Surrender and I was hooked immediately. That song is the anthem of my senior year.

I had only seen pictures of them at the time, so I'm sure our “performance” at the Gong Show didn't really do their live act justice. But Rich stood behind the mic as Robin Zander (he too was short and blonde) and tried to hide the fact he didn't know the words. I pulled my pants up to flood level, put on a sweater and a baseball cap and did the best Rick Neilson impersonation I could at the time. Like the previous year the crowd dutifully played their part as fans, though with slightly less enthusiasm. Cheap Trick weren't as well known as KISS.

We did three songs. The show must have been running really short for this to be tolerated, but the crowd did keep cheering for more. I'm pretty sure we only planned two but got the go ahead from the panel. We did Surrender, of course, followed by I Want You to Want Me which was starting to get some radio play thanks to the At Budokan album. The extra song that ended the evening was California Man, which for some reason was one of my favorite songs on the album at the time. Looking back this was kind strange considering it would be another twenty years before I actually set foot in California.

This all came crashing back into my memory last week when I heard them do California Man less than twenty-four hours after I returned from a trip to California.

This was the third time I saw Cheap Trick. Once a decade seems to be the pattern. I first saw them on the All Shook Up tour on February 16, 1981 at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena. UFO opened. This was when they were still able to fill arenas. I drove into the city with my friend Greg and we sat in the nosebleed section. If memory serves, bass player Tom Peterson was not with them on this tour. The second time was on July 27, 2000 at the I.C. Light Ampitheatre as part of the Pittsburgh WingFest. I think it cost $5 to get in and eat hot wings, and oh yeah, see Cheap Trick. Nash Cato of Urge Overkill opened.

Last Wednesday they played the slightly larger outdoor venue at Stage AE with Freddy Nelson as the opening act.

Photo by Camille Lurie

I understand attendance was low ( Ain't that a shame, because they put on an amazing show. One of the highlights came during Need Your Love when they were accompanied by the perennial Pittsburgh fireworks display from Heinz Field. The climax of the coincidental light show lined up perfectly with the high energy final msuical break of the song. The amusement of the band at this synchrony was plain on their faces.

They dug really deep into their archives for a high energy Rock and Glam Metal show. Part of their appeal is that they have always crossed the boundaries of musical styles. I first heard of them in an article on Punk, though they have never really been part of that scene (like The Runaways, who they toured with a lot in the 70's, they were lumped into that category simply because of the time period and the venues they were playing in). They can play convincing hard rocking tracks and then follow up with the unapologetically bubblegum of I Want You To Want Me. They do it all with a nod and a wink and a sense of humor that borders on the camp but never lets you forget they're a rock band.

The shared nostalgia I mentioned in my previous post was true here as well. In 1979 I was the only real Cheap Trick fan at my small high school. Richard didn't really know the songs when I talked him into his Gong Show performance as Robin Zander. I Want You To Want Me was getting some traction on the radio but most of my hard rock friends thought it sounded silly and the disco fans had no time for it at all. But Heaven Tonight is one of the seminal albums of 1979 for me. Then, Surrender was My song. Just hearing the intro brings back a flood of memories and makes me feel like a teen again (the same is true of the intros to Rebel Rebel and School's Out). But thirty-four years later I find myself in a crowd of screaming fans, all of us singing along, just seeming a little weird. It wasn't just My song. It belonged to all of us who loved it, and we all have the same kind of stories and memories encoded in its sound.

Disparate lives and experiences give way to harmony as we sing our song.

It's all alright. It's all alright.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

I'm Gonna Rock Six Times, All Right! (Part 1: Cherie Currie)

It's been a remarkable week of music and nostalgia. I saw three shows in seven days on opposite sides of the country. Two of them were bands I thought I would never see again and the other tied into both a current obsession and a minor teenage crush.

On Saturday, August 17th I saw Cherie Currie, formerly of the seminal female rock band The Runaways, at the Red Devil Lounge in San Francisco. I didn't travel there just to see her. The timing of her show was a happy coincidence with a vacation I had already been planning for months. On Wednesday, August 21st I saw Cheap Trick here in Pittsburgh at the Stage AE outdoor venue less than twenty-four hours after getting off the plane from the west coast. I waited to get tickets until the day of the show in case I was too jet-lagged or tired to go. I wasn't, so I went. On Friday, August 23rd I saw Adam Ant at the indoor portion of Stage AE.

On Saturday I slept.

I first heard The Runaways with their second album, Queens of Noise. My friend Howard was much more adventurous with music than I was back then. While I bought a lot of records most of my music money went toward completing my collections of KISS and Queen. I was something of a completist for those two bands and in the years between 1975 and 1980 they put out a lot of product. It didn't leave much money to experiment with bands I had never heard of on the radio. I don't think Howard had heard much about some of these other bands either. He just picked up stuff that looked interesting to him. He made some choices I understood. I heard my first complete Aerosmith album from him, Rocks, as well as A New World Record by Electric Light Orchestra. He would eventually be responsible for me being a fan of Rush for awhile. He turned me on to a relatively unknown rock band called Starz that we saw open for Rush. They are now a band that many of the Hair Metal bands of the 80's, specifically Motley Crue, cite as an influence (the title of this blog comes from one of their songs... I saw three shows, not six, but if you count the opening bands I rocked six times this week. All Right!).

These are all easy to understand in the context of rural America teen music in the 70's. But then he started picking up albums by bands I had barely heard of. Punk bands! I was vaguely aware of Punk Rock at the time. I remember seeing news reports on the Sex Pistols. I read an issue of one of the 70's rock magazines that had a special feature on this new music phenomenon. There was a large section that spotlighted many bands I had never heard of, bands with names like The Stranglers and The Dead Boys. Each band had a half page article with a picture and a bio. In addition to the aforementioned bands I specifically remember that both Blondie and Cheap Trick were included (Blondie makes a certain amount of sense, but Cheap Trick? The writer obviously just lumped them in because they didn't know how else to categorize them). The magazine may have been Creem, or Circus, or Rock Scene. I wish I could remember because I would love to see that mag again. All of this felt pretty removed from my experience and interests, so I was pretty dubious.

Howard played The Ramones Rocket To Russia for me and kind of blew my mind. How could anybody play that fast? That sounds kind of ridiculous now, but at the time it seemed to be a legitimate question. I obviously wasn't quite ready for a Teenage Lobotomy. The only Sheena I knew was a comic book Queen of the Jungle, not a Punk Rocker.

Something about The Runaways stood out to me though. Howard didn't really like it very much, so he gave me the disc. With the benefit of hindsight and research I now know the girls in the band were much more influenced by Glam acts like T.Rex and Bowie, as well as hard rock like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. Their career coincided with the rise of Punk, so they were lumped into that category at first. I think I latched onto them more quickly because the music was more in line with the kind of stuff I was already into.

Or it may just have been that they were five pretty hot girls my age playing rock and roll. A lot has been made of their exploitation as underage girls in the world of rock music. They were certainly marketed as jailbait. None of that crossed my mind at the time. I was sixteen. Every crush I had was on a teenage girl.

Like most teenagers I had delusions of being a rock star. Never mind my near complete lack of musical ability. Something about getting on stage and performing seemed like an ideal. Here were a bunch of girls doing it! I don't really think I understood the cultural impact of an all girl hard rock band. Sure, I had never seen it before, but more important to me was simply that kids my age were doing something this cool. I had listened to the Osmond Brothers and the Jackson Five of course. They were about my age, but something about this felt more real to me. Probably because I had outgrown the demographic that Puppy Love and ABC was aimed at.

It was Cherie Currie who drew my eye. I'm pretty sure I pronounced it Cherry at the time. She was in the center of the band photos on the album cover, so she was meant to be the center of attention, so that was part of it. She was the lead singer, so that helped. But let's be honest here... she was a pretty, skinny blonde, all things I was drawn to at the time (Goldie Hawn in a bikini on Laugh In was a big factor in my sexual awakening, so that's where that attraction was born, but that's more of a story for my therapist, I'm sure). Crush is probably too big a word for what I felt, but there was definitely a fascination with her specifically.

I'm not sure of the timing of all this, but it's likely Cherie had left the band before I ever heard the album. I played it, but not as much as other stuff I owned. They didn't get a lot of coverage and still no airplay. This one artifact of their existence wasn't enough to hold my attention for long.

When Joan Jett hit it big a few years later I remembered her having been in The Runaways and briefly wondered what had happened to Cherie. When Lita Ford started getting airplay I'm pretty sure I didn't even make the connection at first.

Like a lot of people, my interest was renewed by the Floria Sigismondi film starring Dakota Fanning, Kristen Stewart and Michael Shannon. I went back and listened to the albums. I read Cherie's biography that inspired the film, Neon Angel. I read an unauthorized biography of Joan Jett called Bad Reputation by Dave Thompson. I've been researching and reading a lot of stuff on Glam music for a project I'm working on and this tied in. Like a lot of things in my life, passing interest can easily turn to obsession for short periods of time.

Coincidence also smiles on me from time to time.

In July Joan Jett played at Mountainfest in nearby Morgantown, West Virginia. I drove down to see the show. After watching Foghat in the pouring rain with my niece Joan took the stage and played an amazing show. I had never seen her before and with my newfound knowledge I think I appreciated the experience more than I would have before. When the set ended most of the crowd drifted away back to the rest of the events of the festival. We were still hanging out near the stage talking when we heard a commotion. Joan was standing behind a chain link fence greeting fans. There were maybe a dozen of us who got to shake her hand and say hello. It was brief and I have no pictures, but I did get to meet this person I had been reading about for months.

Joan at Mountainfest.
Photo by Jessica Smith

Exactly three weeks later I met Cherie Currie.

Photo by Michael Chemers

Though she has played a number of shows over the last ten years or so this the first time she has launched a major tour since leaving The Runaways. Her set consisted of a lot of Runaways tunes, some great cover songs and a couple of brand new songs she has recently recorded for a new album (though the fate of that album seems up in the air right now). I fully expected Cherry Bomb, her signature song, to be the closer for the evening, but she surprised me by launching into a cover of Bowie's Rebel Rebel, dedicated to “The man who made me want to do this.” That was one of the first 45 singles I ever owned and very few opening guitar riffs affect me the way this one does.

She is still a powerful presence onstage and if you compare her current performance with videos of her when she was sixteen you can see that this is still the same woman. She exudes more adult confidence now, of course. The main thing that struck me was how happy she looked to be up there again. She was gracious with her fans and after the show spent a tremendous amount of time hanging out to meet everyone, sign memorabilia and take pictures. She says she appreciates the continued interest after all these years and wants to reward the fans. I believe she would have stood there talking to us until morning if she had needed to.

This not my video but it is from the show I saw.

Perhaps I think too much about these things, but I'm fascinated by the pathways that lead to these meetings. Cherie and I are peers, at least in terms of age and the time period we grew up in. There are scenes in the Runaways movie that speak completely to memories and experiences I had as a teen in the 70's. But really, her life, even before her experiences with the band, couldn't have been any more different than mine. Rural Pennsylvania is a long way from the Sunset Strip. But the music unites us. The soundtrack that played over the speakers at the Red Devil Lounge before and after her show was the music of my youth. We grew up loving the same bands. Thirty-five years after I had a fascination with a pretty blonde girl on a record sleeve, someone who might as well have been a fictional character, and there we are in the same space, flesh and blood, sharing memories of Bowie.

Are we connected? Not in any real sense, no. But when she introduced a new song called Rock 'n Roll Oblivion she talked about this exact idea. Those of us of that era, those of us who shared that time and that music, share a similar experience. I don't wallow in nostalgia very much. I don't feel trapped by my past, even though this series of posts are about nothing so much as nostalgia for the music of my youth. I'm always looking for new things to experience, in music and art and books and in people. But it's grounded in the things that formed me very early on. I think every generation has that same experience. When she introduced the song it was like she was talking directly to me.

Isn't that the way the music you love is supposed to make you feel?

This is not the show I saw. I couldn't find a video
of this song from that night.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

My New Hero

I usually think of myself as someone who follows his own path without a whole lot of concern for what others think of me. Many old friends have complimented me on holding onto the dreams of my youth and continuing to pursue them throughout my life. I have had many people tell me they admire my ability to follow my interests and live my life the way I want to even when it seems to go against the current and against the expectations of other people and the world.

Now, I know these things are not completely true. I like to think of myself this way, but I know that there are many times when I succumb to peer pressure and expectation. At times I know I worry a little too much about what others think of me.

I still have a long way to go in the “not caring what people think of me” department. This was made apparent to me on the 4th of July this year when I witnessed someone who truly doesn't care what the world thinks of him. He may be my new hero.

Like a lot of people in my neighborhood I walked over to the the 40th Street Bridge in the evening. Though they are distant you can watch the downtown fireworks display from there.

I saw him there, shirtless, sweaty and out of shape. He wore a pair of cutoff sweatpants that kept sliding down as he walked, enough so that it was obvious he was wearing nothing underneath. He was drunk and loud and carried a can of beer with him. He walked back and forth across the bridge either unaware or uncaring of the traffic that continued to drive by, giving the finger to anyone who came too close or that honked a horn. He was with an entourage of others who were also drunk and loud and kind of brazenly stupid, but he was the Alpha male of their little troop.

This guy truly doesn't care what anyone thinks of him. He is the Lawrenceville-Laureate of not giving a shit. If you travelled to the farthest reaches of mystical Tibet, hired silent sherpas to lead you along hidden paths to the highest and most remote mountain peak in search of the wisdom and secret knowledge of how to live your life without worrying about what other people thought of you, this guy would be there, sitting on a keg of PBR and giving you the finger.

I like to think I don't care what other people think. Obviously I still have a lot of work to do.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Riding in cars with 8-Tracks

I saw Peter Frampton live at Stage AE in Pittsburgh a couple of days ago. I feel like I've finally earned some kind of long delayed child-of-the-70's merit badge or something. Most of the evening was spent in a fog of nostalgia. I hadn't planned on going but tickets fell in my lap (thanks, Jami!). He played all of the hits you would expect, as well as some great surprises, including being joined onstage by Don Felder of the Eagles for a couple of numbers. I have to say I was really very surprised at how much I enjoyed the show.

Surprised because I wasn't really that big of a fan back in the 70's. Oh, I owned the record, of course. Everyone did. It was 1976 and I was fifteen years old, so it was kind of required. It's a little known fact that in the 70's there were certain albums that, if you were a teenager, government agents came to your house and made you buy them. Frampton Comes Alive was one of these albums. So was Rumours by Fleetwood Mac and the first eponymously titled album by Boston. I apparently wasn't home on the days that Hotel California and Bat Out of Hell came out, or I was above the cutoff age for record-buying compliance, because I never owned these. But Frampton... Oh yeah. That vinyl sat on my shelf.

In the spring of '76 you just couldn't avoid hearing cuts from this album if you listened to Rock Radio at all. I remember hearing about it for quite some time before I finally heard the whole thing. The first time was on an 8-Track tape at a cookout at Allen and Phillip's house (not their real names. I'm going to refer to them as Allen and Phillip in what is no doubt a failed attempt to conceal their identities since anyone who knew me back then will immediately know who I'm talking about. Some of the following may be incriminating, but I trust that the statute of limitations, for anything illegal as well as for my caring what anybody else thinks at this point, are well past). It was long and drawn out and other than the singles, kind of forgettable. I remember wondering what the fuss was about. At the time my favorite bands were KISS, Alice Cooper, Queen, and The Sweet, so Frampton simply didn't have enough makeup, costuming or sparkle to hold my attention for long. He was a guitar hero, not a superhero. But I bought it anyway.

Allen and Phillip's family ran a small farm. The raised some cattle and grew some crops. Compared to the giant farms in the midwest this was a really modest operation. It did provide me with some summer work as I helped them put up hay, milk cows, and repair fences. Every summer we would plant three acres of sweet corn and spend part of the summer picking and selling it from the back of a truck in nearby Waynesburg.

Phillip and I were the same age so ostensibly he was my best friend. Allen was three years older and honestly I had more in common with him. Phillip was more into sports than I ever was (and partially responsible for my one year on a Little League baseball team). He also had a lot more enthusiasm for Southern Rock and cows than I could muster. Allen didn't share my fondness for Glam, but in the long run his musical taste was more influential in molding my 70's Rock experience. We listened to a lot of radio together. In the Pittsburgh market that meant WPEZ and 13Q and WDVE, which by the way still plays the same songs today that it did then.

We all come to music fandom and music culture by our own routes, based on exposure and locale. All we had was the radio. There were no all-ages clubs in Greene County, or clubs at all for that matter. I'm sure jukebox hits were being played in the bars we couldn't get into, and probably even some live bands. These were all out of our reach. I read about that time period in other parts of the country and world and feel some sense of envy over scenes that I know would have completely blown my mind if I had been exposed to them. This was the era of CBGB's and Max's Kansas City, though I wouldn't have been old enough to get into them either. But there were places like Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco in Hollywood, and the Sugar Shack where people like Joan Jett and Cherie Currie of the Runaways would go and hang out and discover music (and alcohol and drugs and a certain level of fame). Those girls were only a couple of years older than I was. Allen was older than them and I hung out with him and his friends. Why wasn't there something that cool going on around me? All we could do was listen to the radio in our rooms, or cruise around the back roads with the radio cranked. Apparently life on the Hollywood strip was a lot different than life in rural southwestern Pennsylvania.

Who knew?

When Allen graduated high school in 1976 he got a car, a little red Chevy Nova with an 8-Track player. Now we drove around those back roads with full rock albums blaring from the speakers. Well, blaring as much as the sound system of a little red Chevy Nova could blare, with momentary silences as the player would switch between tracks, sometimes in the middle of a song if it was too long.

And it's this part of the story where I become a 70's cliché. You know that kid in the movie Dazed and Confused? Mitch, the fifteen year old who spent the movie riding around getting high with the older kids? Yeah, that was me. If you can picture the character of Hyde from That 70's Show you now have a pretty good picture of Wayne circa 1976-79.

I was just that much too young to have picked up those early albums by Led Zepplin and Deep Purple and Black Sabbath (and if I'm being honest here, Black Sabbath kind of weirded out my back woods Methodist upbringing). I heard the songs on the radio, of course. You couldn't grow up around here in the 70's without hearing Stairway to Heaven and Black Dog until you were sick of them. It took me a lot of years to be able to go back and listen to these bands with an unbiased ear.

So while I missed some of the earlier 70's Classic Rock albums there are perhaps a dozen or so 8-Tracks that are burned into my teenage brain in ways that no other music in my life is. Most of these... no, None of these would ever make a Favorite Albums of All Time list. But they are in my synapses, every note, every word, every guitar solo. Frampton Comes Alive was one of these. Others included the aforementioned Boston, Slow Hand by Eric Clapton, Leftoverture by Kansas, Bob Segar and the Silver Bullet Band's Stranger in Town, Sixteen Greatest Hits by the James Gang. A few years ago I picked up a used copy of Four Wheel Drive by Bachman Turner Overdrive and though I swear I hadn't heard the entirety of that album in nearly thirty years I knew every word.

Allen was also responsible for another significant aspect of my teen years. In addition to Rock and Roll, it was Allen who introduced me to those twin fears of parents everywhere, drugs and alcohol. Now let me go on record here and say that I never indulged in either of those two activities to the extreme extent that many people do, nor have they ever caused problems in my life. But, I was a teen in the 70's. There was a modicum of indulging that I seemed to have been more successful in covering up than many of my contemporaries.

Being eighteen was more significant then than it is now. The legal drinking age in Pennsylvania was twenty-one at the time, but in nearby West Virginia it was eighteen. There was a place just spitting distance over the state line in a small village called Rock Lick. I would hazard a guess that almost everyone from my home school district got their first legal taste of beer from Patty's Place. Not that I was legal yet.

But Allen was.

So one night we were camping out in the cornfield in a small canvas tent and Allen decided to sneak up to the farmhouse after his grandparents went to bed to go get beer. He “borrowed” their car, so this must have been before he got the Nova, so I'm thinking summer of '75. He made the twenty or so mile trip to Patty's Place and returned bearing a six-pack of something cheap. So, sitting around a campfire in a dark cornfield, I had my first beer. Can't say I was very impressed with it. Still not a fan, truth be told. Phillip and I, after our single beer apiece (Allen finished the rest), took a long walk in the middle of the night on a winding dirt road, both of us believing we were a lot more drunk than we actually were, freaking out that we were going to get caught. When the only car of the evening went by we jumped a barbed wire fence and hid in some bushes, giggling like the drunkards we weren't. The next morning we were tired from lack of sleep and Allen was probably a little hung over. We picked a truck load of fresh corn and sold it the next day at 90 cents a dozen.

Yeah, Rodney's English Disco it wasn't.

When Allen went away to college in the fall of '76 he discovered pot, and of course he had to come home and share it with us. I was far more hesitant to take this step than I had been with the beer, but peer pressure and curiosity won out. I was never a pothead the way some people were. I never bought it on my own or ever owned any that I brought home with me. But if Allen was around and had some I would indulge. We would pull our stash out of the little plastic bin we called the Toybox, shove the cartridge into the player, and by the time Frampton was asking everybody if they feel like he do, we did.

So in the Holy Trinity of Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll I was two for three. Meat Loaf would sing that two out of three ain't bad, but given the choices here I would gladly have given up the pot and bad wine for a little loving. The 8-track was never going to be the soundtrack of a love life for me. The first couple of girlfriends I had were simply into very different things than I was, so it would be years before I met anyone I truly shared this passion with.

Allen spent more and more time at college and Phillip and I drifted apart. I started hanging out with another pair of brothers and transferred a lot of the same behavior patterns to them. No 8-tracks were involved, but we played a lot of records. They shared my obsession with KISS and that proved the basis for a lot of our friendship at the time. We put on the KISS makeup and made pretty bad costumes for a community Halloween party. We skipped school together on the day we went all went to our first concert, KISS at the Civic Arena in January of '78. Later that spring we made much better versions of the costumes, donned the makeup and lip-synched our way through Firehouse and Black Diamond for a school talent show.

In the early 80's I had a used blue Ford Granada. It came equipped with an 8-track player. In spite of the years hanging with Allen I never actually owned any 8-tracks, and it was a dying technology by this point. Luckily for me the previous owner had left a copy of Heroes by David Bowie in the car. By this time I was hanging with a new friend who shared my interests in music and comics. Younger than me he was possessed of either more self-control or more fear when it came to illicit substances. The alcohol and pot pretty much left my life entirely while we were hanging out.

Bowie occupies a strange place in my music history. Today I am a huge fan. Rebel, Rebel and Fame were two of the earliest 45 singles I ever owned. With his makeup and costumes and sparkle you would think I would have been all over Bowie. But, the heyday of Ziggy Stardust was over by the time I was really getting into buying my own albums, and he wasn't getting a lot of coverage in the admittedly sparse music press I had access to. Though I was aware of Diamond Dogs when it came out, on my limited budget I somehow never picked it up. His Berlin years went by pretty much unnoticed by me and the radio stations I listened to.

So Heroes was a complete surprise when I slotted the cartridge. It was weird and challenging, but even though I quickly installed a cheap tape deck in my car instead of investing in more 8-tracks, I still listened to that one a lot, and it quickly led me to picking up a lot of his back catalog.

The car cassette player was a must from then on. In the 90's I bought adapters so that I could plug my portable CD player into my car stereo. Today my mp3 player is plugged directly into my car. I have a tough time driving anywhere without some tunes.

I blame the 8-track. Over the years I have picked up most of the albums that were seared into my brain (still don't have that Bob Segar record. So much for Old Time Rock and Roll). There have been other albums, many of them, that I like better than these, that mean more to me, that are the soundtrack to other parts of my life. But, if I really think about it, every era of my life has these kinds of albums. These are the ones that are important at the time, that provide a backdrop to life but that slip away over time. It can take years to be able to listen to them again and recognize their importance.

And some of them, in this case Frampton Comes Alive, continue to exert influence in ways I would never have expected. At the concert I stood near a couple of teenage boys. I was surprised to see them singing along with all the hits. At one point during Show Me the Way one of them lifted a lighter into the air. Not his cell phone... an old fashioned lighter. The songs are as burned into his brain they are in mine and this will be a part of his personal musical history.

Hope they blasted their car stereo on the way home.