Monday, June 23, 2008

Faded Glory

Fame is fleeting. That’s the old saying, but sometimes it depends upon what your definition of fame is - and how well-made your bumper stickers were.

I lived in Dorchester, right on the border of Mattapan, for 37 years. I moved to Watertown 14 years ago. If you walked up to everybody living in Dorchester and Mattapan today, showed them a picture of me, and asked them if they knew who it was, you might find a double handful that could identify me. There are probably a few folks who remember me running for state rep, and another two or three who bought grass from me (NOT while I was running for state rep, by the way) and perhaps one or two of my old friends still live in the area.

On the other hand, if you were to ask every resident of those areas if they knew who Jimi LaRue was, I’d be willing to bet big money not a single one of them would have the slightest idea. That’s too bad, because there is actual physical evidence still extant concerning Mr. LaRue’s doings during the year of 1981. Before we get to that, though, here’s some necessary back-story.

In 1979, I was 22 years old, unemployed, and rapidly becoming a decent bass guitar player. I spent the better part of every day stoned and banging on the instrument. As a result of the many hours invested in those pastimes, I had become very good very fast.

I had been in a band already – and you could read about it here and here - but as a keyboard player/vocalist. If you don’t feel like going to the links, I’ll condense the story of that band thusly: The band sucked and so did I. It was fun, though. And while I was in that band, I did what I always did in every band I’ve ever been in. I played everybody else’s instruments as often as possible. Whenever there was a break, I’d jump behind the drums, or pick up a guitar, and try to learn how to do something with them.

From the time I was a kid, I’d always been drawn to musical instruments. I could usually pick out a tune on anything with keys or strings. I was no idiot savant (well, not the savant part, anyway), but I had some innate talent for it. So, as I said, I fiddled (hah! fiddled!) with everybody’s instruments and got so I could at least fake my way on drums, bass, and guitar, as well as the keyboards, which I was already faking my way at.

After leaving that band, my girlfriend of the time told me about a friend of hers willing to sell a bass guitar for $10. I bought it. It was worth every penny of $10, too. It was a hideous instrument, and it was basically (BASSically! Hah!) strung with rusty cable. I didn’t really know any better, however, so I figured if I was really going to learn how to play it, I’d better just buckle down and get on with it. I played it and played it and made my fingers literally bleed. I built up mighty calluses on my fingertips. You can still light a match under them and all I’ll feel is a little bit of warmth.

Then, in 1980, I came into possession of a real bass guitar, which also happened to be a short scale. I was amazed at how easy it was to play. I had been used to stretching my fingers to reach notes on the long scale and pressing down hard on a fretboard that had frets I should have filed down. The strings, aside from having the texture of 16-grade sandpaper, were too tautly strung. This new thing in my hands was a bass? No. This new thing in my hands was HEAVEN! I came to the realization that I had given myself the equivalent of about 5 years training in the space of one year, simply because I had been teaching myself on such a hideous beast of an instrument.

Along about that time, a knock came on my door. It was opportunity, in the body of a fellow named Marty Murphy. I had never met Marty. He was the friend of a guy who lived across the street from me. He had been talking to this friend about how the bass player in his band was leaving to go to college. That friend told him about this guy across the street that constantly played the bass – loud enough for my neighbors to constantly hear it, apparently, and if any of them are reading this, I do apologize - and he said that this guy sounded decent. So, on the off chance that I actually WAS decent, and might be interested in playing with his band, Marty knocked.

I thought I was good enough to play in a band. As is usually the case with me in life, though, I didn’t really know where to take my talent to put it to use. I had vague notions about starting my own band, but no definite grasp of what to do to make it happen. About the only way I was going to truly get into a band was if someone knocked on my door and asked me to do it. Since Marty had done exactly that, I was thrilled.

Without so much as listening to me play a single note, Marty arranged that I’d meet the band the next night. I would go to where they were currently rehearsing, in the basement of the drummer’s parent’s home in Hyde Park. Their departing bass player would be there, playing a few numbers with them prior to leaving for college. Afterwards, they’d run through the same numbers again, this time with me on bass. Then they’d decide if they wanted me. Fair enough.

That night, I dressed in my best black t-shirt, boots and jeans. I drove to Hyde Park. When I got to the street, there was little chance of going to the wrong house. It sounded like someone was using the basement to land a squadron of F-15s, and not always right side up. It was loud, fast, immoral, and destructive. In other words, it was exactly the kind of stuff I liked to play.

I went inside and watched them perform. The name of the group was Live Wire. They were all 17 and 18 – four to five years younger than me – and they were all friends from high school and the neighborhood. It was obvious to me that I was a much better bass player than the guy I was being asked to replace. He wasn’t totally horrible, but he had made the right decision to go to school rather than try and make his fortune in music. I knew as soon as I got a chance to plug in and start playing, the gig was mine. And that’s what happened. They were all smiles while I played, and they offered me the spot immediately afterwards.

(I later found out they were worried that I wouldn’t want to play with a bunch of teenagers. They were afraid that I was going to tell them thanks, but no thanks. For my part, I was worried that they might think I was too old, and not want to play with a guy who was an ancient 23. When one of them asked me how old I was, I shaved my age and said 21. The dumbass I was going with at the time, who had accompanied me to the rehearsal, said, “Jim, what are you talking about? You’re 23!”

I shot her a look that said, “Do you have anything approaching a brain in your head?” but since she didn’t, the look meant nothing to her. Not having any other choice, I then blushingly fessed up to being 23. Aside from looking like a right idiot to my new bandmates, it didn’t hurt. As I say, it turned out we were all worried about the same thing, for opposite reasons, so no harm. We all had a good laugh, except for the girlfriend. She still didn’t get it.)

Me, on stage (possibly the Nu Pixie Theater, Hyde Park)

This was about as perfect a band as I would have imagined forming on my own. They were fresh, totally unjaded, wrote decent pop hooks, had some actual talent, and were all truly nice guys on top of it. They played some covers, but wanted to play mostly originals. Since I wanted to play nothing but originals, I was OK with that. I figured we needed the covers to fill out sets in bars – true – and that we could concentrate solely on originals (including my own) as time went on.

The band members, aside from myself on bass, were Ronnie Bower and Ron Frattassio on guitars, Steve Giusti on drums, and Marty Murphy (the fellow who knocked on my door) as the singer. Marty didn’t have the greatest voice in the world, but he was a hell of a showman. People really liked him. He was also something of a jack-of-all-trades instrumentally, playing a bit of sax, flute, guitar, and harmonica on various songs.

This being 1980, and somewhat the tail end of the original punk movement – Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, et al - Marty had decided to take the stage name “Marty Sucks.” He explained that this way, when the audience might say it, instead of insulting him, they’d just be advertising him. Made sense to me. As we became somewhat popular, people would often shout it out between songs – “Marty Sucks!” - always with a smile and some sincere love. It was pretty cool, actually.

Now, my given name is Jim Sullivan, and I’m glad I was given it, too. It’s a good solid name. No problems with it, really. However, at that time there were at least two other people named Jim Sullivan with some small measure of fame. There was a guitar player with Tom Jones’s band named Big Jim Sullivan. Of more import to me, there was a local writer in Boston, doing concert reviews and such, named Jim Sullivan. I didn’t want to be sharing a name, and since he had gotten it into the spotlight first, I decided to change mine. I went with Jimi LaRue. I thought that it came off of the tongue nicely, had a slightly ambivalent sexual feel to it (I grew up listening to Alice Cooper and other such androgynous freaks, so…) and I had a mistaken understanding of French, so I thought that it meant “The Street”, which was certainly a decent bit of cred to shoot for. The affectation of “Jimi,” as opposed to “Jimmy” or “Jim,” was a fairly obvious rip-off, but what the hell. So far as I knew, I was the first person to rip it off, so it was somewhat original in it’s non-originality.

I could go on for quite some time with stories about this band, and I’ll definitely tell more of them someday for sure, now that I’ve given you the background, but right now I want to eat dinner, so I’ll get to the point of this post and then start cooking my macaroni.

We were solid, we developed a loyal following in the neighborhoods we came from, and we played some semi-big venues around Boston - The Beachcomber in Wollaston, etc. We earned a small-but-steady check as the sort-of house band at a bar/club in Mattapan Square called McCarthy’s. It was a decent-sized joint, holding maybe 200 when filled to capacity, and we did fill it whenever we played there, which was pretty much two weekends a month.

As we gained some fans, we decided to do some self-promotion. We had t-shirts made, the possible only surviving example of which can be seen on this rather large and dirty white teddy bear.

In case you can’t quite make out the lettering, here’s a closer shot.

The tag line is “High-Voltage Rock ‘N Roll.”

We sold a few. After we had done so, however, there arose an argument in the band concerning our name. It seems that one of the guys – I forget who – had come across an album by another group named Live Wire. They were no longer in existence, but they HAD been popular enough to have actual recordings, so this led to an argument concerning whether or not we should change our name. I was of the belief that it didn’t really matter. These other guys weren’t around any more, so who cared? In the end, though, the opposite opinion – that we should be totally original - carried the day, so we discarded Live Wire. We wanted to have something similar, with which we could use the same tag, so we finally decided upon POWERLINE.

Once we changed the name, we had bumper stickers manufactured. We gave these away at our first couple of gigs at McCarthy’s following the name change.

McCarthy’s – now defunct, in case you’re wondering - was located almost directly across the street from Mattapan Station, a trolley and bus terminal. Many of our fans, after seeing our show on a Friday or Saturday evening, did the right thing and took public transportation home, rather than drive drunk. So, they’d roll themselves down to the station and wait for the bus or the trolley. As you might imagine, some folks taking a trolley won’t have any real use for a bumper sticker, or at least no car to put it on. So, not wanting to waste it completely, one of them did something that has turned out to be the only remaining public vestige of our former semi-stardom. He (or she) climbed a pole and put our bumper sticker on a street sign at the River Street bus ramp to the station.

For the past 27 years, it has remained on that sign. Rain has beaten it, snow has frozen it, sun has faded it, and thousands upon thousands of people have passed by it, some on foot, some on busses, some in cars. These days, most have no more clue concerning who the group was than I would if asked about a Taiwanese oompah band. The most amazing thing, to me, is that nobody from the T (the Boston transportation system, owners of the station and, of course, the sign) has ever seen fit to try and remove it, or to even replace the sign. There’s at least one person who’s glad they haven’t. I find it comforting to know it’s still there.

Hey, you take your glory where you can get it. That person could have scrawled “Black Sabbath Rules!” on the station wall with a magic marker, or perhaps spray-painted “Ramones!” Instead, there’s our bumper sticker.

God bless you, anonymous despoiler of public property! You’ve made my day, more than once, for 27 years now.

By the way, just as the original bass player had given me an opening by leaving for college, in 1982 the drummer decided to go to college and that's when the group disbanded. Higher education giveth, and higher education taketh away.

Soon, with more better stuff.


Sarah said...

awesome story, jimi...thanks for making my morning seem a little more mundane in comparison :)

lime said...

that's so funny that the sign and bumper sticker have remained for such a long period of time. thanks for sharing such a terrific story. i love it. my fingers winced in pain at the bit about a bass strung too tightly with rusty wires! what a way to learn!

Jeni said...

As always, I very much enjoy reading about your current, as well as your past life. Great story!

Chuck said...

Cool story there, Jimi.

"Move over, Rover, and let JIMI take over!"

John-Michael said...

The energy and 'life-juices' that you were so immersed in is something that I have no reference for. I can only imagine how enjoyable all of those experiences and relationships must have been for you. Far too intense for this recluse! But so enjoyable to hear about! Thanks for opening up, yet another, window into your life and world Jim. Let's make sure that some 'diligent' civil service person doesn't let that last vestige of the past go the way of your Dad's 'Sullivan' street sign. I think that it will make a cool 'over the bar' accoutermente for your home. (late night raid in order)

Love Ya SulDog Man.

Janet said...

How much fun is that? The Mountain Man's various family members have discussed forming a band - I play piano, he plays guitar and harmonica, and then amongst the inlaws and outlaws are more guitars, a drummer, flutes, some tambourines, and Da Wizard's wife offered to paint the bus. We were going to call ourselves "Don't Quit Your Day Job."

~Fathairybastard~ said...

That was a great story. I love the shot of you doing the splits there, up on stage. Classic pose. I knew a few guys in highschool who were supposedly savants with a guitar, but I've never heard of ether of them goin' anywhaere with it since. One dude probably ODed,, being too much into that part of the rock and roll life. He could play anything he heard, perfectly, but maybe he couldn't come up with anything new. Who knows? Lost touch with those folks a long time ago.

Sandra Ree said...

Stuffed animals and music. This post seems familiar in some strange, connected way... should I pretend that it's good? ;)

Great shot of you jammin', Sul! I think if we had been in the same area back in the 70's, I probably would have been one of your band's groupies.

Buck said...

GREAT pic of you on stage, Jimi! You sure as Hades looked the part... and I have no reason to doubt you delivered, as well. And the sign? Too, too cool. It ain't forever, but 27 years ain't chopped liver, either.

Hilary said...

Awww what a great story! I love how you weave a tale. Jimi LaRue (how come mistakenly? It truly does translate to "the street") quite reminds me of my younger son, with his passion for guitar and quest for a decent group. I love that you still see that sign to this day.. what a wonderful feeling that must be. Thanks for sharing this tale.

Mushy said...

Closest I ever got was the fame from my "air guitar" career!

Rock on dude!

I'm impressed!

Suldog said...

Thanks, folks. A couple of quick replies...

Sandra - If you had been one of my groupies, I'd still be in music now.

Hilary - Well, see, there you go. I know so little French, even when I think I'm mistaken, I'm not. Hmmmmm. I know I got the idea somewhere that I had it wrong, but I can't recall now why. Oh, well. If I had known I got it right, and Sandra was one of my groupies, I'd still be in music now.

Well, either that or dead from sexual exhaustion :-)

Chucka Stone Designs said...

What a fantastic story and such a fun time you had so mnay years ago! Now your bumper sticker can live on forever even if the sign does come down someday.

You guys must have been pretty big. Even if you are trying to be modest, they didn't just let anyone play the Rat.