Saturday, May 4, 2013

Been a Long Lonely, Lonely, Lonely, Lonely, Lonely Time

It started the way, it seems, that just about anything good ever does:

"Ah One-Two-Three-FOW!"

That was the Big Bang of "I Saw Her Standing There", the first rock 'n' roll song I remember hearing.  No, it wasn't even the first cut on Meet The Beatles, and I was already familiar with pop radio by age - what, seven or eight? - but this was the first song I can remember feeling something different, guitars and drums, digging in, hittin' it, movin', groovin'... like a Sex Machine.  So that's rock 'n' roll, to me, and that's where it all began.

I grew up in a culture rich with music, but not in a musical family.  Trinidadian by birth, I knew the sounds of Calypso and Steel Band from early on.  But the only things my parents played were records, and my mother, though young, had a taste for crooners like Johnny Mathis and Engelbert Humperdinck (seriously!).  Her younger sister, Aunt Nancy, was more attuned to the swingin' North American ways of the early 70s once we moved to Canada, and when her albums were in our house, and I dropped the needle on Meet The Beatles, and the soundtrack to A Hard Day's Night... that was it, the start of a lifelong education. 

I ate those records up, dissecting everything.  It was the first time I'd really listened to a four-piece rock band, and without even knowing what I was doing, I know now that I was figuring out who played what.  The way the guitars weaved together; the bass locked with the drums; the voices joined in harmonies that made two sound like five.  Everything else I'd ever heard had been large-band orchestrated to that point; The Beatles showed you that four guys could do this together and sound amazing.  And more importantly, Rock.

Because that's where it went next.  Sure, Nancy had lots of other stuff.  But Santana and Chicago were still too complex for my ears; it would take me decades to begin to understand what that stuff meant.  Buried in all of it was a 45 RPM single... yes, it had a hole in the middle of it that you had to stick a little "spider" in so you could play it... by the Rolling Stones, called "Honky Tonk Women."  Something else was going on there, man.  That intro with funky cowbell, then this nasty-ass Guitar!  My first exposure to Keith Richards.  I'm fairly sure I never played that song when my parents were in the house, because the Rolling Stones, after all, were dirty people.  I knew nothing about dirty at the time, but that guitar was something I felt in a place The Beatles didn't get to.

I realized years later that most people learn their rock 'n' roll music from older siblings.  Well, I didn't have one, so you'll see my personal journey took a lot of strange twists and turns back on itself.  We used to have little dance parties in primary school classes, Grade Five and Six, I think, and there was one guy who always used to complain that we didn't play any Deep Purple because his brother had told him Deep Purple was the best.  Certainly the teachers wouldn't have played Deep Purple, but they didn't have any problem when someone brought in the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar... that kinda rocked, and as I found out years later, was played on by many of the fellas in Deep Purple.  So there.

But once I started hanging around with Mike... who is still my best friend to this day... music became a bigger part of our friendship than I'd realize.  Mike's parents were musical song-and-dance veterans, and he had an older brother Brian with a gigantic record collection.  So that was a whole lot of different things to listen to... more Beatles albums!... and someone else with whom to continue the business of figuring music out.  Mike and I learned to work out those harmonies together, kick the sounds around.  A lot of British Invasion stuff, like Herman's Hermits, of all things... and Monkees re-runs on TV were an influence, too... but since we were growing up in the mid-70s now, pop radio started to infiltrate our listening patterns.  However, neither of us played instruments, so the heavier sounds didn't appeal to us quite just yet.

It was all quite innocent times till we got to junior high.  Different school.  Different, suburban kids.  All the angst, turmoil, and high school confidential taking effect.  It was 1976, the hair was long, the flares were getting wider, and everyone was trying to grow a mustache.  The guitars were being turned up in everything.

I was still into radio pop, Top 40.  And I liked to sing.  So the first step I took into the world of rock was via the reigning heavyweight champion at the time, Elton John.  Greatest Hits was the very first LP I bought, and to this day if I had to sing a song to save my life I'd probably pick an Elton number.  And then the second album I bought was Captain Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy.  First album to ever ship platinum.  Elton got my foot in the door with his harder rocking stuff, like "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting."  I was about the right age to start learning about Saturday nights.

I suppose Elton's showmanship had an effect on the style of rockers I liked, because what happened next had very little precedent, other than Elton's ridiculous costumes and hundreds of glasses - which seem hard to remember now.  A couple of brothers turned me on to KISS Alive - which, when you think about it, is pretty much a grade-school rock-by-numbers kit.  The power of a straight four-piece, guitars, bass, and drums.  Bluesy solos, big drums, grinding riffs.  The dinosaur had been awoken.  And yes, I actually liked them for the music - it wouldn't be till 1997 that I saw the true, original KISS live.  But the noise, the smoke and lights, the poses and the preening were new to my fandom.

In 1978 I entered high school... a world pulsing to the soundtracks of Boston, A Farewell To Kings, Led Zeppelin (most people call it IV), A Night at the Opera, Some Girls, Aja, Rumours, and Saturday Night Fever.  One thing blew my mind, much later, when "That 70s Show" premiered on TV in the '90s... they got everything right.  The hairstyles, the family station wagons, roller rinks, and especially the StonerCam.  With no older siblings, I would dig into the music of the day, then have to find my own way back to where it came from.  I suppose that's why I'm a bit of a musicologist; I've always had to discover where things came from for myself.

My parents were divorcing at the time, and I was now living with my mother, who'd bought a house with Aunt Nancy... which brought her record collection back under the same roof.  I'd often listen to her music more than mine, digging into things like Stevie Wonder's Songs In The Key Of Life.  And of course in the late 70s, I was into the groove of disco too.  It wasn't all guitars, after all.  Unlike others who relished the rock vs. disco wars, I found there was room for both.  Music has to have some groove.  And it has to have heart, too.  I found out about this guy, Bruce Springsteen.  His music was tough, operatic, and his lyrics were gritty yet romantic, not just about chicks and beer.  I wanted to write like him.  I still do.

I was that age when rock music takes over your mind, if you let it.  I started reading Creem, Circus, and Rolling Stone.  Video hadn't blown up yet; if you wanted to see or know about your faves, you had to do it in print.  Then, just a block away on Bank Street, my local second-hand record store opened up.  I have no idea who those freaky guys running it were, don't even remember the name of the place, damn it.  But that shop opened up the door for me - wide open.  Buy, listen, learn.  That's how it was done.  And it was good to save a few bucks doing it by buying second hand, when you were working at a library after school.

And then in 1980, the bombs went off.  A new decade.  A vaguely frightening new American President.  Punk and New Wave.  I saw my first real rock concert that year, The Ramones - with opening acts B.B. Gabor and Nash The Slash.  (I say real because I had actually been to an Olivia Newton-John show back '76 or '77... but we won't talk about that.)  Then John Bonham died.  Then John Lennon died.  All very significant things, but it was another death that resonated far longer for me.  Someone I didn't even know of, till much later.  Some Australian reprobate singer who drank himself to death.  His band kept going, found a new singer, and released an absolutely monolithic slab of crank they named Back In Black

I'd liked guitars before.  I loved them now.

You've played Guitar HeroAll my heroes became guitar heroes.  Angus.  Edward Van Halen.  Jimmy Page.  Alex Lifeson.  If it had a power chord in it, I bought it.  I can now say that Back In Black was the most influential album I've ever heard, because it sealed in stone my definition of Rock based on the Holy Riff.  Then you started finding out about other guys, like Ritchie Blackmore.  Remember I talked about Deep Purple earlier?  Right, now it was time to work my way backward.  Even back to the Rolling Stones.  Yep, I didn't really start listening to the Stones until after Tattoo You came out.  It was an education in reverse, not unlike the white blues kids of the '60s who'd only wanted to be black blues kids of the '40s and '50s.

And here's another funny part.  As much as I loved guitar rock, I knew there was no way I could play a guitar.  Never really tried it in earnest - too complicated.  Too many notes!  Naturally, I bought a bass guitar, and became a bass player.  Or at least, I learned to do it a little.  And here's something I really believe, courtesy of Rush lyricist Neal Peart, who exposed the secret for all in the song "Limelight": 

Those who wish to be must put aside the alienation
Get on with the fascination
The real relation, the underlying theme

Plain and simple, Peart said that if you want to be a rock star, learn to play, start your own band.  Because you're just like us, too.

That would come later.

So it was the 80s and I was part of what had become the MTV Generation.  The bands came out from the pages of the magazines and onto our TV screens.  England had brought a whole New Wave to the pop scene too, so all the clothes became more colourful and ridiculous, and the hair equally colourful and ridiculous.  Michael Jackson and Prince took over the pop scene, along with bands like Duran Duran (who I liked before they became popular) and Simple Minds.  It was literally a circus.  Guitar rock was pushed to the margins, even though it kept thriving behind the scenes... till someone and everyone discovered what I consider The Sound of Canada.

Back in the 70s, there'd been a West Coast band called Prism.  They'd had radio success with a string of singles, most of which were mainstays at our high school dances, but due to revolving door lineups and... well, being Canadian... they never really hit the big time.  But Prism spawned a number of other bands and influential careers, including those of songwriter Jim Vallance and producer Bruce Fairbairn.  And Prism's sound was something I consider truly Canadian, from all the way back to Randy Bachman's Guess Who... big rock riffs with power pop hooks and choruses.  Long before the New Wave of British Heavy Metal; long before Bon Jovi (produced by Bruce Fairbairn - get it?); Canadian bands figured out that you could rock hard and sing great songs at the same time.  April Wine, Streetheart, Red Ryder, Stonebolt, Harlequin, Trooper, Max Webster, Coney Hatch, Loverboy... these bands created the sound that blew up in 1985 into what became known as Hair Metal.  So naturally, I was front row centre for it.

The great and really embarrassing thing about loving hair metal and guitar playing was the sheer amount of terrible albums by terrible bands I bought over the next few years.  A little bit of an education, really, seeing the trash that the record labels began to sign trying to cash in on the latest trend.  I would later see the pattern repeat itself in genres like grunge and rap-rock.  What would happen was that I'd read about some hyped-up newcomers, buy their album and realize they couldn't write a decent song of any kind.  Just more of the same whuppita whuppita widdly widdly noise.  The good thing is that exposing yourself to enough crap, if you have any kind of a brain, makes you realize just what makes the good stuff so good.  And as much as I liked the heavy metal flash, I ended up leaning more back toward the blues based things.  Round about the end of the 80s, I'd had enough of the sidelines.  I'd dabbled in singing onstage, and with a little encouragement from those who should have known about such things, and some serious vocal training under my belt, it was time to try my hand at joining a band.

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