Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Four Dreams - #3

As we continue the approach to my 50th birthday, here’s another tale about how a dream of mine turned out. You can read the first two entries HERE and HERE.

I never gave much thought to music, one way or the other, until I smoked marijuana. Sure, I enjoyed music as much as the next guy, I suppose, but it didn’t light a fire inside of me. That all changed after I smoked weed for the first time.

If there’s one outstanding reason why I’m an advocate for the legalization of marijuana, it’s because of what marijuana did to enhance my listening pleasure. I don’t know exactly what happened inside of my head, but I liked it. On a lesser scale, I’d equate it to a deaf person suddenly being able to hear. Whereas I previously only heard the music, after pot I was inside of the music. I found myself able to concentrate on specific instruments, riding the sound and feeling the textures. I could “see” tones and timbres. On an almost instinctual level, I suddenly understood melody, harmony, counterpoint and song structure. I was born again, musically speaking.

(I think one or two of you may be scoffing. This is probably because of my professed love for heavy metal, punk, and other forms of “primitive” music. I won’t deny that love. I have it. Along with awakening that portion of my brain that processed music, dope also gave me a strong liking for the adrenaline rush of powerful and/or fast music. That power and speed tends to manifest itself more often in metal and other less-complicated styles. I also dig classical, jazz, swing, and other forms. It’s just that I can find larger supplies of what I’m looking for in metal and such. And I’m willing to sift through the crap inherent in those forms in order to find a big old diamond now and again.)

Anyway, I smoked dope and I became hooked – on music. Get that straight, if you don’t mind my using that word in connection with a drug. Grass is utterly non-addictive physically. Music, on the other hand...

As much as I enjoyed listening to music – and I enjoyed it a lot, as witnessed by how quickly I blew through every penny of my paychecks on records and weed – I now wanted to create that music even more. I wanted to be in a band. There was just one problem. I couldn’t play a single note on any instrument.

Well, that’s not quite true. I had this little keyboard at home.

(I could have said I had a little organ, but I’m not interested in getting sidetracked in those sorts of jokes just now.)

It was a cheesy-sounding little keyboard, with a range of two octaves. It had been my grandfather’s at one time. I picked out simple one-finger tunes on it prior to having ingested THC. Now I started trying to copy Jon Lord licks with my stiff little fingers. I recorded the results onto cassette tapes - some of which I still have - and was that ever a Godawful sound! At the time, I thought it was hot stuff.

Even as doped up as I was - and as subject to delusions of grandeur as I was and still am – I knew that that little keyboard and my fairly non-existent talents couldn’t make it in a band. I had to come up with something better. So, I decided that I was a singer. Yeah, that’s the ticket! My instrument is ME!

Not that I had ever shown any vocal talent prior to that point. What the hell did that matter, though? If I could fake my way into a band, I’d wing it from there and it would all work out.

You know what? It did, more or less. I talked my way into a band with some guys I had met at a church in downtown Boston. We called ourselves WORLD’S END. A guitarist, a bass player, TWO drummers, and me screaming. After a little while, my Dad – God bless him for this – bought me a good electronic keyboard, a Farfisa. I don’t know that I had shown any particular talent in his presence, but he was willing to give me a chance to develop some. Maybe he liked what he had heard on the cheesy little organ. Or maybe he just loved me. In any case, he did it and I was one happy little stoned musical camper.

Once I was in that band, I took every opportunity I could to play the other guy’s instruments as often as possible. Every time someone took a break, I sat down at the drum kit, picked up the guitar, or plucked a few notes on the bass. I discovered, much to my delight, that I did actually have some natural ability to get decent sounds out of any instrument that was handy. I wasn’t some sort of idiot savant, able to play sonatas out of the thin air, but I could always figure out what to do well enough to fake it. I could always get by for a few minutes before anyone caught on to the fact that I didn’t really know what I was doing. By doing this – that is, making myself a pain in the ass to the other band members – in every group I’ve ever been in, I’ve actually become proficient at both drums and six-string guitar.

(A few good stories about World’s End can be found here. If I retell them in this piece, it won’t be ready to publish until my 51st birthday. For the purposes of this story, you should know that I finally ended up playing the bass, not the keyboards.)

I learned the bass while I was unemployed following the break-up of World’s End. I still had my Farfisa and an amplifier. I latched onto a bass from a girlfriend at the time. Some friend of hers was willing to sell it for $10 - and it was worth it, too. The thing was basically strung with rusty cable, but I didn’t know any better. It was hard as hell to hold those strings down or to pluck them, but I wanted to learn the thing and I figured if I was going to, that’s what I had to do. So, I did it.

That turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me musically. I didn’t realize that I was giving my fingers a much more intense workout than a beginning player ever would have had if he took actual lessons. By the time six months had passed, and I had been playing that hideous axe every day for two or three hours, I had callouses on my fingers that were so thick you could light a match under them and I wouldn’t feel the heat. When I had a chance to obtain a REAL bass from my former bandmate, Sean – who was moving on to six-string – I found out that I could pretty much do anything I wanted on it with ease. I had put myself through such an intense apprenticeship on the crappy bass that I had inadvertently progressed to where a third or fourth year player might have been.

My neighbor across the street at the time, having often heard me bashing away, recommended me to some buddies of his who were looking for a bass player to replace their current one – he was leaving to go to school, the silly bastard. I went down to the basement where they were rehearsing at the time, sat in on their originals, and improvised well enough for them to immediately ask me to join permanently. I was now a real live bass player.

The name of this group was LIVE WIRE, but after a year or so, we changed it to POWERLINE, when we discovered that there had been another group, with actual record(s) released, named Live Wire previous to us. I argued that nobody knew who the hell they were, so why should we change our name, but I was outvoted.

(My cousin Joe had tattooed his arm with the name of our band, too. He should have had a vote.)

We played a mix of covers and originals – about 50/50. I was always pushing for more originals. I wanted the band to be more than a bar band. Some of the guys were interested in no more than that, so they pushed for more AC/DC, Judas Priest and the like. Aside from those philosophical differences, though, we all really liked each other and had a grand time together.

We played venues such as The Beachcomber on Wollaston Beach – imagine us playing on the same stage that had once hosted Louis Armstrong and Rosemary Clooney. We played a few small theaters, capacity of 600 or so - places like the Nu Pixie in Hyde Park.

Our best gig, I suppose, was as the house band at a joint called McCarthy’s in Mattapan Square. We played a couple of weekends a month, three or four sets a night. As a result, we worked up a pretty lengthy song list to fill that much time. We rocked the place on a regular basis, the last set of each night composed of almost all originals, since everybody was well-oiled by that time. We filled the place to capacity; I guess 200 or so every night.

After a while, the regulars knew our song lists as well as we did. At certain points during the night, they’d call out the songs and we’d play ‘em. With some of our originals, they had set actions they’d do. During one of our songs, for instance, the floor in front of the bandstand would fill with people doing The Worm a “dance” wherein everybody lay on their backs and wiggled violently. It was loads of fun.

My only studio experience with a band happened with this group. We went into a place in Boston called STUDIO B and cut three sides. Nothing ever came of it. I personally was not enamored of the recordings. They were too thin overall, the bass was sickly-sounding, and the power and excitement of our live performances was nowhere apparent. The producer tried to turn a hard-rocking garage band into power pop. It didn’t work.

The band broke up fairly soon after that because of the same reason why I got a job in it in the first place. One of the guys – the drummer - decided to go away to college. At that point, there were a couple of arguments about whether to stick together, what direction to go in and so forth, and what finally happened was that Ronnie Bower (one of the guitarists) and I decided to form our own band and do nothing but original material. We recruited a drummer and a lead guitarist, both friends from other bands we had shared rehearsal space with, and CITY LIMITS was born.

Well, stillborn, really, as we never got beyond rehearsals. Ronnie and I wrote a few decent tunes together, and this was probably a more talented group overall than LIVE WIRE cum POWERLINE had been, but we just never jelled completely.

I was then recruited to play with another band that I knew from our old rehearsal space in Hyde Park. They had a couple of gigs coming up and their regular bassist had split for some reason. The name of this congregation was P.S. WILD. It was with this band that I performed at the most famous venue I ever played during my career, such as it was. We played a gig at The Rat in Kenmore Square.

Those familiar with Boston will know that name, but you might not if you’re from out of town. Think CBGB, but in Boston, if that helps. Great local dive, famous for launching a few decent acts to a fair amount of fame. Not in my case. It was still great fun, though, and it does give me a small amount of cachet among those who knew the place in its heyday.

From there it was pretty much downhill, but I hadn’t been all that high – in the figurative sense – to begin with, so I didn’t get hurt too badly. I played with three or four other bands, but never anything more than dances or small private clubs. I had some fun, and enjoyed the people, but that’s about it.

Do I have any complaints? No, not really. I suppose I wish that I had some better recordings – or even just more recordings – of the bands I was in. I only have a couple of cassette tapes of rehearsals, one or two live tapes, and the previously mentioned studio recordings that I never liked. I still play, but only for my own pleasure. I haven’t actually played with anyone for years now. I even still write songs. If I have one regret, it’s that I pretty much know they’ll never be played by anyone but me.

Overall, though, I had one hell of a good time. I lived the rock and roll lifestyle, albeit a sort of pauper version of it. I had some minor league groupie action. I had fairly large crowds of people cheering me. Unless you’ve had the thrill yourself, you have no idea how intoxicating it is to have someone yell out the title of one of your compositions because they desperately wanted to hear it RIGHT NOW. Major rush, that was.

I guess I’ll end this with one of my lyrics. See you tomorrow with the fourth dream.

It’s rough and tough
It’s mean and clean
It’s a fast-talking, smooth-walking killing machine
It’s into sin
It’s out of love
It don’t give a damn when push comes to shove
Heart attack in black
Stare a clock stand still
A pill-popper, no-stopper, thrilled to kill
With fame to claim
To be filthy rich
For a self-starting, cold-hearted son of a bitch
It’s rock and roll, son
It’s rock and roll
And I love it

Go To Dream #4


Anonymous said...

Whoa, sporting the requisite big hair and everything. On the plus side you didn't die young (highly overrated) nor did you burn out. Though having more mementos of your time in the spotlight would have been nice.

Myself, I had brief aspirations of being a rocker. I played guitar through my senior year of high school and then through college, but then I just gave it up. No good reason at all, really. I just figured it was time to leave it behind.

I still have my guitar and keep thinking about going back to it, but since its been six years since I played it'll be back almost to scratch for me. Maybe it'll be worth it anyway...

Urbie said...

Hey -- you played at the Rat!! That means that not only did you play at a venue that had hosted Armstrong and Clooney, but you also graced the same stage where yours truly once played double-bell euphonium with an acoustic blues band! Well, actually, I'm guessing you were probably downstairs -- the acoustic band was upstairs. But was the same club, anyway! My gig there was around 1990 or '91. -- Urb

Suldog said...

James - I was starting to go bald even then. You can't see the bare patch in back.

The toughest part is toughening up your fingers again. I found that out after I stopped playing for a period of about five or six months. Took me three weeks or so to build up my callouses to the point where it didn't hurt to play.

Urb - Most excellent! It seems our paths (or, I guess, pathways, since we're talking different time periods) have often crossed. I really look forward to getting together with you someday and talking in person.

Urbie said...

Hey, just to add another common thread, I was a pitcher in little-league ball -- that was in 1975. Also in '75, my dad and I attended this famous game... I kid you not: -- Urb (I misjudged Fisk's ball, and thought it was going to be off the wall)

Unknown said...

Great story Suldog. You've lived a rich life full of experiences and memories.

Anonymous said...

You've inspired me to dust off my bong and my recorder, get stoned out of my gord and blow out some "Mary Had A Little Lamb"

Anonymous said...

OK...all read and so appreciated and thanks for taking the time to point them out for me. You thoroughly answered my wasn't about finding love, getting hitched, having kids...these are less dreams and more expectations, I think.

I shall email you just to let you know that I have read, and love your words. You're a star, so don't get all 'aw shucks, you don't know me so what are you saying.' Believe me, the real you shines through, no matter how hard you try to be hard.