It’s something that’s as familiar to me as waking in the morning: the grasp of the hand on the neck, the microphone waiting for a voice, the restless, expectant crowd, the plugging in and the first note. I check my tuning. Close enough, for rock ‘n’ roll.
Tonight it’s Hank’s Saloon, on Atlantic Ave. in Brooklyn, not far from where I heard my first rock ‘n’ roll songs as a preteen growing up in Flatbush. But pick any night in the past 50 years and it could be anywhere: The Zoo, my collegiate band, at the Student Center, taking a stab at raga-rock after a set of Stax favorites. Link Cromwell at the Barbarian Club, singing that non-hit single, “Crazy Like A Fox.” A bar in Block Island with Jimmy the Flea, a loose-knit collection of my friends who just show up and jam, get really loud and are tossed off the island by the owner. A night at St. Mark’s Church in February 1971 accompanying an avant-poet and simulating a car crash on my Melody Maker. With Jim Carroll, dodging stage-divers. Within a studio, behind the board, listening to a record grow before my ears. The dank rock clubs and the formal concert halls and the sprawling festivals, and most of all, late night when it’s just me and the guitar alone together, trying to find a song that needs singing.
I raise my glass to a golden jubilee I never expected, celebrating the 50th anniversary of my first show with a band. To mark the occasion, I have taken on a week-long assortment of random gigs that have come to me unbidden, without really trying to book a show or schedule some self-congratulatory after-party. I wanted to be playing. And almost without rhyme or reason, the week of my anniversary unfolded as these things do: better than I could have planned. Kind of like my life in music.
It was on November 7, 1964, that I first took a pick to the strings of an electric guitar and sang for an audience — which, at that moment, consisted of drunken college students swimming in beer on the floor of Chi Psi fraternity at Rutgers. I was playing in a band called the Vandals (“Bringing Down the House with Your Kind of Music” was what it said on our blue pearloid business card) and at that moment, we’d been working the two chords that comprise “Shout!” for 20 minutes. The song’s lyrics urged us to keep going: “a little bit louder now/ a little bit softer now…” Among our repertoire of Jerry Lee Lewis and the Kingsmen and “Harlem Nocturne,” we’d added a new song we’d heard on the radio, so we could be the first on our circuit to play it: “You Really Got Me,” by the Kinks. And then we segued into “What’d I Say,” with the lyrics skewed to suit our target audience: “See that girl from Trenton State/ That’s where they teach you to masturbate…” It was college humor, for which the word “sophomoric” was invented. Fitting, as I was a sophomore in college. We played four sets and split $100 among five guys.
I never thought I’d be playing music for the next half a century, or, as I like to say, I would’ve learned to read music. But I did absorb the soundtrack of my time, using it to define who I could be, much like any other mutant teenager in the dawn of the mid ’60s who saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. A year before, I’d learned my folk chords from a Sing Out songbook bought at Izzy Young’s Folklore Center on MacDougal Street. I began with the G chord, in hopes of being an introspective folksinger in the backyard, or maybe a tenor in a doo-wop group. But then everything changed.
It’s hard to measure the impact of the British Invasion on my musical imagination. Previously, the local bands in New Brunswick, New Jersey, were mostly instrumental, modeled on Johnny and the Hurricanes or surfer combos from California. The Renegades played smoky basement social clubs in the Hungarian section of New Brunswick; the Driftwoods over at the Linwood Ballroom in Edison at chaperoned teen socials. But the Beatles, and their subsequent seismic shift in role model, changed the game. I bought an electric guitar from a friend who’d only had a passing interest in learning — a cherry-red Gibson Les Paul Special, and a true-vibrato Magnatone amp of the sort Buddy Holly played (both then little appreciated in a world where Fender ruled) — and by the summer, I was playing along.
But who would have figured I’d be playing this long? On the week of my anniversary, I start lighting the celebratory candles at Hank’s Saloon, which is more than appropriate because it’s a down-home honky-tonk, just like I was promised when I began: nothing fancy, just a place to play loud and louder. It’s a stopover on booker Frank Wood’s annual nine-day birthday party which runs a circuit through the underbelly of rock venues in New York. It’s a tour itinerary about as local as you can get, just the way I like my live music. There are 44 bands total, and I’m headlining Friday night on my own, singing a smattering of songs from a body work that stretches back to when I began. Looking out at the colored lights, the reflected faces, hearing the amp break up in back of me, I ride the dynamics of playing solo, adding a pick-up rhythm section for “You Really Got Me.”
Two nights later, I’m at Tom Clark’s Treehouse in the upstairs room of 2A on the Lower East Side. Tom and I go back a couple of decades, and our shared reference points always erupt in simultaneous hollering when the regular show ends and the jamming begins. We like to call ourselves Tom Collins and Slim Beam, and so we salute our forbears: Lefty Frizzell, the Everlys, Badfinger and Nick Lowe. He can always talk me into playing some Ricky Nelson, and I can always urge him to segue “Poor Little Fool” into “Coney Island Baby.” We play far too long into the night, which is the indulgent point, until only a few hardy souls remain to see us try to remember more than the first verse and chorus of any song that’s requested.
It’s only a couple blocks and a day later over at Joe’s Pub on Lafayette Street, but a world away in terms of venue and presentation. James Gavin has just written a heartfelt and lovingly-detailed biography of Peggy Lee, Is That All There Is, and for the book launch on Monday night, he’s organized a tribute with many stars of the cabaret world, including Barb Jungr and John Coltrane’s favorite vocalist, Andy Bey. I’ve been invited to back up Tammy Faye Starlite, who has channeled such icons as Nico and Loretta Lynn. As she sashays out into the audience for “Big Spender,” I twist my fingers to play the jazz chords on an archtop Epiphone 295, challenged by the meticulous musicality of the New Standards from Minneapolis, ex-punk rockers gone standard serving as the house band for the parade of Lee wannabees. When Baby Jane Dexter comes onstage to do a sultry version of Lieber-Stoller’s “Woman,” my solo must beguile, just like the ineffable Peggy herself.
From the gal in the nightclub to the gals in the garage: On Thursday I’m at the Bowery Electric to whoop it up with the Cocktail Slippers from Oslo. They have an album produced by Little Steven and a stage presence that puts a femme-fatale spin on Nuggets; I leap at the chance to join them for the encore. The tune is “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” a Rolling Stones song that I’ve never played, surprisingly enough, over 50 years. We follow it with Eddie Cochran’s “Something Else,” and for me, the very notion of “something else” has provided motivation on my journey as a musician: Keep playing. That’s the way to do it.
No rest for the weary, or the hung-over. The next morning I set out for the wilds of Millheim, Pennsylvania, to headline the seventh-annual Harry Smith Festival. Smith was a 78 collector who curated one of the most important compilations of folk-and-related song in the late 1940s, singlehandedly providing the hymnal for the midcentury folk revival that would provide an entire cast of characters centered around Bleecker and MacDougal. I was too young to be involved in that scene, but its sense of tradition and heritage have always been close to my own philosophy of music-making.
Millheim is in the farmlands of Pennsylvania, midway across the Keystone state and far enough off I-80 that it is has the feel of a hidden Shangri-la. Amish buggies slow the pace of traffic. The town is nestled between ridges and hills where the songs collected in Henry Shoemaker’s Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania were once found in abundance. Dave Bialenko and Christine Smith of Marah, a band from Philadelphia, have relocated here, and recently made an album bringing those songs to life.
I ask them to provide the rhythm section for an impromptu Saturday night show at the Elk Creek Café. We take on some modern folk-songs: “For Your Love,” “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” a medley of the Boxtops’ “The Letter” into the Velvet Underground’s “Run Run Run” and, of course, “Gloria.” As we play, Amish teenagers gather outside to dance along.
For the festival itself, on Sunday, I choose to go even further back in time, to some of the earliest recorded examples of Appalachian music. The songs put me in touch with the long heritage I am privileged to share, and my own humble placement in the great tapestry of popular music as it unwinds through the past hundred and more years. There’s “Down on the Banks of the Ohio,” “West Virginia Gals,” a romping version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “John the Revelator” featuring 11-year-old Gus Tritsch on fiddle that brings out the latent hip-hop feel of early blues, Bing Crosby’s “Where the Blue of the Night,” and to close out, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.”
Around and around I go. Now for the next 50.
Top left photo by J.J. Koczan; second photo from left by Karen Shorter; top right photo by Alain Lahana