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.
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.