don't know why i'm writing this viciously long thing, but Deej asked for something personal.
Why I Do This, Part 1
Back in the day, before I ever concieved what media was, before I ever considered such a thing as a recording budget, definitely long before I ever set foot in an airport, I knew I wanted to play improvised music.
One of the first people whose music I’d heard and loved as a child was John Hartford. My parents had one of his records, and -- between his appearences on the Smothers Brothers’ and Glen Campbell’s shows -- he was on TV pretty frequently. My first purchase of a record with my own money (five bucks I got when I turned four) was the album with “Gentle On My Mind”, Earthwords And Music. Still have it. Autographed.
But the Hartford album that “snapped the bough” (his expression) for me was Aereo Plain, which he cut in 1971 for Warner Brothers. The record features John on vocals and banjo (and some guitar), Vassar Clements on fiddle and viola, Tut Taylor on dobro, Norman Blake on guitar, and Randy Scruggs on bass. I loved every note of every song. It was ostensibly a bluegrass album, but it wasn’t “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”. It was bluegrass that knew from Rubber Soul.
As I wrote this, Vassar Clements is undergoing chemotherapy, and the fourth anniversary of John’s passing went by recently.
I think Vassar’s and Tut’s playing on that record sparked me as much as John’s. The way everyone bounced off one another was a miracle to me. I could hear the response and reaction between the players. I was only eleven years old when I encountered that record, but I knew what time it was from the opening notes of side one. I understood immediately what was going on in that record the same way some kids see a basketball game and figure out why it works. I was never athletic enough to do basketball. Good thing I had long fingers from an early age and could finger that D chord.
A guy who lived up the street from my family, Dave Richter, was a 23 year old Deadhead with a wife, two kids (whose names -- Melissa and Duane -- belied a love for the Allman Brothers, which he immparted to me), and a killing record collection, including a complete set of Hartford albums, as well as David Bromberg, Vassar Clements, Joni Mitchell, Dave Van Ronk, the Highwood String Band, Merle Haggard, and all kinds of great stuff. Also during this time, I -- ahem -- liberated a copy of Pete Seeger’s book The Incompleat Folksinger. Between Dave’s unselfishness about making me cassettes of his records and the Seeger book, I got a great basic education.
Because of my interest in “newgrass” -- Hartford, Bromberg, Old And In The Way, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken -- I was drawn to the local folk coffeehouse scene, which was accessable because it was all ages and generally near public transit.
This put me in regular touch with live music for the first time in my life, and I was hooked. It also placed me inside a community of musicians who were all older than me and very willing to share and teach and hand down all the chords, licks, and tunes they knew. I learned about Rev Gary Davis, Doc Watson, Martin Carthy, John Prine, Woody Guthrie, and more. I learned all those classic Tom Paxton songs that everyone played, learned a lot of Dylan, and acquired a little repertiore of my own -- about 40% Hartford, a couple Gary Davis, “Paradise” by John Prine, and a few other things I cribbed together. I signed up for every open stage and did my ten minutes and looked forward to the day when my voice would break and I could sing just like David Bromberg, whose punchlines I stole outright in my own little open stage performances.
None of my records back were by new rock’n’roll bands. I hated the rock of the seventies pretty much. All that remote prog crap I hated. All that despicable corpo shit. God, did Styx suck or what? Thank God for black music, otherwise all of radio would have sucked except for Dr Demento.
Elvis died in August ‘77. Groucho Marx died the same week.
But right around the time I turned twelve, I saw something in a music magazine about this new group from England that grossing out and offending everyone, who turned out to be the Sex Pistols. I looked through different magazines and saw something about a band from New York called the Ramones. They sounded like they were worth knowing about, and I sought out and bought the single of “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker” and things were never the same.
Aside from my love for folk music, Dr Demento, and the soul music on the radio, I loved oldies. I trashpicked tons of old singles around the neighborhood. The mother of a schoolmate from first grade had every Elvis album, and Elvis clubbed me like a baby seal. Even his crappiest movie songs have a bit of magic to them. When I was eight, my grandmother took me to see him live. Saturday, June 23, 1974, 3 PM, at the Spectrum, Philadelphia. That was the experience that shut me off from anything other than music.
John Hartford and Aereo Plain gave me ideas for my maps (thanks Uncle Dylan). The immediacy of of the folk scene in Philly gave me an aesthetic. The corpo-prog bullshit music of the period -- “Dust In The Wind” my ass -- violated everything I believed in. I got a paper route and started buying a lot of records.
Punk rock was the godsend I needed. It tied together my love for folk music and early rock’n’roll. The spirit of protest and community that Pete Seeger personified met the loud rebel bomb that was early rock’n’roll. The Ramones, Pistols, Clash, Richard Hell, Jam, Gen X -- it was the new folk music to me. It was immediate and wasn’t afraid to get angry. I didn’t see it as being away from folk music at all. I looked at sommething like “Anarchy In The UK” as the new “I Ain’t Marching Anymore “ material. The coffeehouse guys who clung to Tom Paxton and Bill Staines didn’t exactly follow me to that conclusion.
(I still hold that punk rock and hip hop should be part of every folk festival, but we’ll save that for some other screed.)
By the time I was 15, I had joined a new wave band, and the other guys in the group were all 21or just over 21. The lead singer, John Torres, was a natural born salesman and always talked my way into the bars I was clearly too young to be in. One show he got me into was the Slits at Emerald City, Halloween 1980. They were dark and intense and rhythmic and churning.
Before too long, I was kind of a club kid, going regularly to shows at Omni’s and the East Side Club, which were Philly’s two main clubs. If someone a little bigger than those clubs could handle came through, they’d either play something like an all ages show at the Elks Center (16th and Fitzwater) or the Ripley Music Hall on South Street, where they carded for real. If you were underage, you really needed heavy paper -- either amazing I.D. or a backstage crew pass.
The punk scene in Philly was amazing on any nuumber of levels. We had great bands. We had a lot of motivated self-starters who found ways to put on shows. We had better-than-usual fanzines, especially Steve Fritz’ mag Terminal, which was really welll-written and had terrific original photos. And we had great punk rock radio, between Lee Paris on WXPN and a slew of punk shows on WKDU. Between the East Side, Omni’s (before it burned down), and the Elks Center shows, it was all that and more. Plus, our proximity to NYC made Philly an essential stop for everybody who toured the Northeastern Corridor. I saw everyone and then I saw everyone I missed the first time they came through.
Somewhere in 1981, I was at Gola Electronics, a record store at 10th and Chestnut.
(For those of you who missed the era in Philly : Third St Jazz was the most well-stocked record store, Gola -- which burned down -- was cheaper and had a deep new indie/punk selection, and Sound of Market, which was also cheaper and had a deep rhythm’n’blues stock, plus the biggest selection of reggae. Armand’s Sound Odyessy in Cherry Hill Mall and Record Museum in Deptford Mall were also great sources for import singles. Then there was Booktrader, whose used record store was manned by Bob Dickie and Jacy Webster of King Of Siam, and those guys really shaped a lot of my taste.)
Rick, the guy who sold me my records at Gola, took out this album with a big clenched face on it.
“You need this.”
Back then, we didn’t have internet, and the fanzines weren’t even done on a computer. Desktop publishing was primitive, and fanzines weren’t always really timely. Nobody had cell phones, so the bands were often interviewed while they were touring their album, which meant the press often came a month or two after the show. So the record store guys were a powerful source of information. They knew you, what you bought. Rick knew I bought all the rockabilly stuff on Rollin’ Rock I could find.
So I plunked down my $5.29 for the record with the face on it: The Blasters. On the subway home, I opened it and read the lyrics on the innersleeve. The words to “No Other Girl”, the second tune on the record, spoke to me like no other lyrics I’d ever heard since “First Girl I Loved” off Aereo Plain. Merle Haggard and John Prine so far came closest, but this Dave Alvin guy knew the world of a crappy factory town like nobody I’d ever encountered. There I was, in Audubon, NJ, where everyone’s dad but mine worked at RCA or Campbell Soup. My own father’s glamour profession was bus driver.
Audubon was a bedroom community of Philadelphia. When I was going to school there, it was blue collar lower middle class. Everything sucked. Everything looked washed out, like it had been left out all summer. It was a place designed to crush ambition before your feet hit the floor upon waking.
Dave Alvin’s songs addressed the inevitable disappointment the working class was facing. It had just become the Reagan Era, and we were at the dawn of a Whole New Winter in America. Addressing the upcoming joylessness of the time was probably a good idea.
The Blasters were the greatest band of my generation. Henry Rollins was right: they were too much talent for one stage to contain. Phil Alvin’s voice was clear and forceful. Dave Alvin’s guitar was sparse and full of the kind of energy that connected Chuck Berry to the Ramones. Gene Taylor’s piano playing was full of Pete Johnson and Jimmy Yancey. The saxophone section of Lee Allen (who played on the Little Richard and Fats Domino hits) and Steve Berlin was sharp, and both guys took great solos. And the bass/drums team of Bill Bateman and Johnny Bazz was just vicious good. And they had better songs than anyone. Even their cover tunes outclassed everybody else.
The Blasters gave sense to my entire musical education up to that point. They were impacted by blues, country, folk, old rhythm’n’blues, and all the other stuff I loved and was raised on. But they were definitely taking all that music through punk rock. I saw more of what I wanted to “be when I grew up” in Dave Alvin than in anyone else at the time.
I was also a huge fan of X and Wall of Voodoo. But the band that most affected me in the wake of the Blasters was the Minutemen, who were from San Pedro.
Although the Blasters, X, Voodoo, and other bands I liked had improvised solos, but the interaction factor was not quite on the Aereo Plain level. Then someone played me the Minutemen, probably Buzz Or Howl Under Influence Of Heat, and I was pretty blown away by them. They had the funk quotient of the English bands I most liked at that time, Gang of 4 and Pop Group mainly. But their politics were most like mine. And d boon (their frontman) was intense. And the bass/drums hook-up Mike Watt and George Hurley had was like nothing in punk rock up to that time. They were the Steve Swallow and Pete LaRoca of punk rock. They had a funk approach to jazz interaction, and boon’s guitar playing was right in there. How he could sing over top of what he was playing still kills me.
Around 1982, I noticed something different starting to happen in “our” club, the East Side. Major label bands -- like Duran Duran and the Stray Cats -- were starting to do gigs there. The audience was full of guys who worked for major labels and big commercial radio. The same cocksuckers who wouldn’t program the Ramones were infiltrating. And the music was starting to get weaker. More synth bands started popping up. The hardcore punk scene got less attractive as it got more violent, and a lot of us started drifting away from that. The Philly Elks banned punk shows after the Fear gig where some boneheads decided it would be fun to rip out urinals. Trash a bank if you got real balls for real.
Between hardcore violence and crappy synth bands, I faded out. I started going to see more of the older guys, like James Brown, Wilson Pickett, and whichever Philly soul guys played down at the riverfront. I got hired by a wedding band, and I spent a lot of time sitting in my room waiting for some music that was going to finally give me the voice people’s music gave Pete Seeger, that roots music gave Dave Alvin. I even returned a bit to the folk scene.
Fortunately, a guy with a Mose Allison album was just a few feet away, looking to corrupt me to the next degree.