“Hey…” a voice in the darkness whispers. His hand is over my mouth as I struggle to wake up. “What time is it?” I mumble, half asleep. “Midnight… Just come on. I gotta show you somethin’.”
As my brother Dan and I tip-toe softly out of my bedroom in the dark, the thrill of doing something really bad starts churning in my stomach. We will definitely get in big trouble if mom and dad wake up. This is exciting, and I have no idea what’s going on. “What are we doing?” I whisper to his back, as we sneak out of my bedroom.
“Huggybear…” is his only response. “Huggywhat?” I say to myself as we close the door to his room down the hall. Under the sheet, lit by only a small flashlight and the glow from a cheap Sylvania AM radio, I finally begin to understand what he’s on about. A voice comes out of the radio, “This is Dick-Hugg-Huggyboy, bringing you the real R&B live all night long from Dolphin’s of Hollywood. And here’s the man himself, the one and only Little Richard with…” and out jumped, “a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom.” I was stunned. This wasn’t anything like the music I’d been hearing during the day, and the fact that I could only hear it after midnight, under a sheet, made it the coolest shit ever!
I was 7 years old and it was 1955. The year of Rock n Roll. And while Dan insisted The Coasters, The Platters, Fats Domino and some doo Wop were “the truth,” my bigger brother, Bobby, had a completely different idea on the subject; and also a huge musical influence on me too, turning me on to Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, music the radio would even play during the days. (I like to say now that I was raised on two distinct “cradle languages”: “Rock-a Billy” and “R&B.” And though Bob and Dan were somehow divided by a culture of distance, the one thing they both totally agreed upon was the King, Elvis Presley.)
In those days, I was what folks now-a-days would call a “latch-key-kid.” That meant I’d get home from school first and get to spend an hour or two alone before the rest of the gang came straggling in. Often mom was last home, as her job at McKay’s Drugs kept her there till 5:00. Often dad had sales meetings, and wouldn’t be home till even later. That gave me the better part of an hour and a half to explore my brothers’ record collections before I had to start heating the Swanson TV Dinners.
“Hound Dog” was undeniable. Brenda Lee sang “I’m Sorry” over and over again, and I believed her. She could even be persuaded to sing it at 33 1/3 or 78, just to see what would happen. All the morality, all the Rebel Without a Cause stuff was lost to me at 7 or 8. All I heard was the sound of pure joy. Freedom. Aliveness.
(Years later I would tell Senator Alan Cranston, “You wanna bring Communism down? Send Rock ‘n Roll. Nothing speaks to personal freedom more eloquently!”)
Of course, playing Danny’s records was strictly forbidden, cause that was “his stuff,” he was four years older than me, so he had every right to kick the pucky out of me if he caught me. I should have been in training to become a master thief; at least I thought I was that sneaky. To this day Dan insists he knew every time, and only gave me a pounding every other offense.
But his treasure among all his treasures was the Kay nylon-string (then called “gut strings”) Guitar that, for some reason only known to him, he decided to hang on his wall in his room instead of play. I never saw him actually try to play it. A travesty I could not endure. It just hung there, day after day, calling my name. What was I to do? I had to sneak it down and learn to play it, being extremely careful to hang it back up on the wall in EXACTLY the SAME POSITION he left it. He would actually assess it’s proper position by whether or not I’d moved any dust! Years later, it was that same Kay I played to audition for Jimmy Messina. (He would comment on what a bizarre piece of shit I was playing.)
Dan and Bob’s arguments over which genre was actually the superior rock and roll were temporarily assuaged by the advent of folk music, which somehow we all seemed to agree on; and my suddenly found talent on the guitar was, magically, now welcome. Singing together was totally cool, and to this day I have to insist Dan had the better voice and ear. He taught me to harmonize and sing counterpoints. But from the Kingston Trio on, the folk ride got bigger and all inclusive over night. Suddenly Big Bill Broonzy is on Hootenannay, Marianne McKaba sings, and all African music is cool. Even country stars like Merle Haggard were falling under the umbrella of “Folk music.”
The romanticized memory of Woody Guthrie set the stage for Bob Dylan, who’s song “Blowin’ in the Wind” I learned from a songbook before I ever actually heard Dylan warble a note himself. Joan Baez was the heart of simplicity and femininity. And then suddenly, out of nowhere, as if by magic, “right here on our stage… The Beat-les.”
That was all she wrote. All our folk groups immediately disbanded and in came my first electric guitar. It looked like a formica table-top with about 30 buttons on top, most of which I would never figure out. And talk about heavy! It weighed the same as a Desoto, only harder to play. (The man said it was “a lotta guitar for the price…$100!” and he wasn’t wrong.) But I formed a new band of fellow Beatlemaniacs, and since it was somehow decided I would be our “John,” I had to start writing our original material. (None of which I hope for your sake you are ever forced to hear.) If you look hard enough you’ll find me somewhere as The Second Helping, but by that time I was a senior in High school and well on my way, having won our share of “Battle of the Bands.” (Well actually we usually lost, because my neighborhood preferred Thee Midnighters to The Stones). But I was undeterred.
I quite Pasadena City College when I realized I was spending 90% of my time learning a trade to fall back on (“Radio and TV Announcing”) and 10% doing what I love, that was music. And when a chance to join a real-live touring group The Electric Prunes, reared it’s ugly head, I was outta there. The Prunes hadn’t quite finished auditions (I was officially a “second generation Prune”) when we were forced to go on the road by our manager, under the threat of a law suit, so of course we wore black arm bands and told the club owners this was a tour in memoriam of our recently deceased drummer. It worked for a while.
I remember one show, however, where everyone in the audience walked out on us during the show. Everyone! I remember looking up the first time as we went on and seeing a full house, and the next time I looked up… nobody. Maybe two people applauding. Oh, the pain.
By that time I was already performing House at Pooh Corner and Danny’s Song, so the rejection was quite a hard lesson to learn. Ironically, Danny’s Song would always get me in trouble (read “laid”) even if all that was left to hear it was the club staff as they bussed the tables.
“Strange days indeed.”