Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Nurse the Hate: Discovering Rock Music

I have two (2) distinct memories about discovering that I liked rock and roll.  I am not sure which came first but I suspect that the first was when I was in the passenger seat of my father's company car, a majestic Grand Torino station wagon with faux wood paneling.  The seats in that car were not built for a strapping lad of five or six.  They were some type of fake leather which meant that you instantly stuck to the seat like flypaper and burned your legs in the summer, or slid across the bench seat on the smallest turn in cooler months.  This being the early 70s, the seat belts were shoved down into the fold of the seat allowing me to careen across the car in full freedom.  We lived for danger in the 70s.  No seat belts and all adults smoking heavily in the car at all times.

I was driving with my father to get sand for a sandbox he was building my brother and I.  This remains the apex of my father's engineering history, only threatened in scope by a birdhouse shoddily installed later that decade.  I was baking in the sun's rays like a broasted chicken, the open little triangle side window offering little relief.  My father had the radio on.  It was a music station, which was odd.  Normally he listened to the Phillies get the shit kicked out of them, though he seemed to have no emotional investment in the team whatsoever.  I can't remember liking the music coming on.  While the 70s garner very nostalgic feelings amongst anyone that wasn't there, let me assure you that the 70s sucked.  Everything was ugly, it smelled vaguely of chemicals, the food was terrible and almost all of the music sucked.

My musical knowledge was extremely limited.  My parents somehow got through the 60s with no impact being made upon them from the counterculture.  Their tastes ran towards moldy Broadway musicals.  "Abbey Road" had come out three years ago and they were listening to an original cast recording of "Bye Bye Birdie".  I had three records.  The Jackson Five's Greatest Hits, Michael Jackson's "Skywriter" and The Osmond Brothers "Crazy Horses", a strangely subversive record from a group of Morman teenage boys.  Other than that, I was dependent on hearing snippets of songs that snuck on Network Prime Time variety shows or wafted on radios left on in public.  I didn't even know what was out there.  I was five!  Cut me some slack!

We turned the car down a gravel road, the stones crunching on the tires.  This was when the big moment happened.  On the radio the chorus of "American Pie" kicked in.  That absolutely perfect hook of that chorus sunk into me.  Taking your Chevy to the levee, and then finding the levee was dry?  Good old boys drinking whiskey and rye?  I didn't know what any of it meant, but it sounded highly adventurous.  I wished I was in that Chevy driving to the levee, I will tell you that.  I bet your pale little legs don't get burned up on fake leather in that Chevy.  And how can you drink rye?  It's a bread dammit!

We stopped in front of the gravel/outdoor supply business and my father turned the car off.  American Pie disappeared.  I spoke up and asked him to put the radio back on.  He was confused as to why this normally shy five year old was demanding the radio come back on and tried to clarify my request.  I started to lose my shit.  As he was hemming and hawing, the song was escaping.  Every second mattered.  Time was of the essence!  He finally understood what I wanted and I heard the last 15 seconds or so of the song.  The song ended.  OK.  We can get the sand now.  It left me in a haze.  What was that?  How do I get more of that?

I would not hear that song for another decade.  It was like my white whale.  I always remembered it.  The only thing I could recall the details of was the "chevy to the levy" part and how it made me feel.  I wanted to shout along to the chorus.  It felt like when you went speeding down a steep hill on your bike, going faster than you could pedal, the thrill outweighing the danger.  It was about as an exciting as things get for a five year old.  It seems impossible now, but I would not hear "American Pie" from 1972-1983.  The song came on a "K-104 Top 500 Songs Of All Time Labor Day Weekend" when I was in high school.  I shot up and excitedly said "That's it! That's it!" to my incredulous friends, who all wanted to know how the hell I couldn't know the title of "American Pie" despite being heavily into obscure English New Wave bands.  It was a valid point.

The second big incident happened at the Pennypacker Swim Club, to which my family were proud members.  Boasting three pools, the largest having a high dive for teenage boys to prove their mettle, it was the home base of every area kid under the age of 16.  This was where life happened from June through August.  Like all important facilities catering to overstimulated children, the Pennypacker Swim Club had a snack bar.  The pools had one of those shitty PA systems with beige plastic horns playing music everyone could agree on, which translates to "music no one likes".  However, in the snack bar, the staff had their own radio turned to whatever the crappy Top 40 station was at the time.              

There was no job with higher status than to work at the Pennypacker Swim Club snack bar.  Well, at least to a five year old like myself.  The teenage girls behind the aged wooden counter dripped with cool disconnect as they poured fountain drinks into wax paper cups and fetched hot dogs from the roller cooker.  Dripping wet kids hopped back and forth trying to stave off pissing themselves as they waited for their food refuel as mandated from their stern mothers.  These kids would then jam the hot dogs down their throats as fast as possible, and then painfully endure the one hour moratorium on re-entering the pool.  That pool was Studio 54 to a kid.  It's where it ALL happened.  To be on the sidelines waiting for your food to settle made time stand still like Xmas Eve.  Yet, we all knew that death was a certainty for any poor child that dared enter that water at even 59 minutes past eating his or her lunch.

I was standing in line thinking about my order.  I wanted to make sure and impress the girls at the counter, so I would likely order something worldly like a Birch Beer.  Ah, look at the little gourmand.  I pictured it in my mind.  "Oh, that young man ordered a birch beer?  Well...  He's something special isn't he?"  This would result in me somehow being accepted into the cool clique of teenage girl snack bar employees.  I walked up to the counter and it happened.  A song came on the radio and it blew my fucking five year old mind.  Heavy guitar chords came crashing through the tiny radio speaker.  I felt like busting the room up.  What the fuck was this?  How come no one else is freaking out?  This is AMAZING!

The song was "Smoke On The Water" by Deep Purple.  It was like the first time you had a piece of Bubble Yum or had a bowl of Lucky Charms.  All limits that you thought existed were wiped away.  That riff was the coolest thing I had ever heard.  I was transfixed.  I bet my mouth was open like a lobotomy patient.  "Hey!  Kid!  What do you want?"  I had become so entranced by the song that I didn't notice I was up at the counter.  I babbled out "I'll have a coke" like a goddamn fool.  The girl put her nose up to retrieve the flat wax paper cup 8 oz coke like an irked supermodel.  I took my flat coke and loitered over by the plastic trash can, trying to appear laissez faire as I silently rocked the fuck out.  As the song played, I wandered over by the counter, playing it cool.  Well, as cool as a five year old with a wax paper cup of coke and a damp pair of swim trunks could be.  I stared at the teenage girl trying to will her into noticing me.  I must have looked damaged or at worst like a lost puppy.

"Do you need something?"  Umm... Do you know who this song is?  As she was probably a 15 year old girl focused in on David Cassidy, she had no idea.  She scrunched her nose up and gave me a dismissive "I don't know" while at the same time suggesting a condescending "isn't the little boy so precious" quality.  Then, a miracle.  The DJ came on the back tag.  "Deep Purple smoke on the water coming at ya on a party Friday weekend kickoff!".  (Seventies DJs spent a great deal of time "coming' at ya"). The good news was I had the information.  I was in the ball game.

After a week of pestering my mother about the immediate need to get to Grant's Department Store, she finally acquiesced.  Grant's had a wooden bin in the front of the record shop area where all of the Top 40 singles were available via 7 inch records in largely white paper sleeves.  It never would have occurred to me to get Deep Purple's "Machine Head" LP as it was much too expensive at $5.98 and frankly a bit much for a five year old to wrap his head around.  Nobody needs a little kid whacked out of his head on "Space Truckin".  Instead I got the "Smoke On the Water" 45 which featured a live version on the B-side.  The ultimate record company scam, this "live" B-side turned out to be nothing more than the studio cut with fake crowd noise dropped on top of the mix.  It didn't matter though.  I would play the record, flip it over, and then play the "live cut".  You came over to my house to play with Legos, and you just might get your head rearranged with "Smoke on the water" followed up by a little "Crazy Horses".  Don't tell your Mom.

It's hard to ever recapture that type of enthusiasm and excitement with music.  The band has been writing new songs lately which has been challenging.  As I am not having any real experiences, it's hard to find the inspiration.  Ideas that normally just present themselves like little Easter eggs are more carefully hidden in Pandemic World.  Yet, last week as we worked through some new material, these little flashes of excitement came across at some of the new things the four of us are creating.  Something that didn't exist minutes before is now a living thing and the energy that we are all putting into it comes back to you in greater force as you absorb the other member's ideas.  These little flashes, more rare with the passage of time, are still there if you let them in.  I'm still the little boy with the wax paper cup of coke, excited by a new riff.