[Don’t forget, next week will be devoted to “The Tales of the Tune.” If you have one to contribute, let me know. SB SM]
Here’s a personal Tale of the Tune:
On February 9, 1964, my sixteenth birthday, The Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. I bought a used Harmony guitar and spent the summer of 1964 in a boy cave teaching myself to play the requisite four chords required for rock and roll. When school started in September, I found that my classmate Mason Watson had done the exact same thing. Inevitably, we started showing each other what we knew. Today it’s called peer-to-peer learning. Back then it was just “foolin around at Mason’s house.” Initially, Mason had a four string tenor guitar. He was left-handed and played upside down, that is, with his base strings towards the bottom. Despite his unorthodox style, he was really good, a fact that I attributed his older brother, named Sedgewick, who also played. Sedgewick (sounds like a villain in a Disney movie) had a solid body electric guitar. Soon, Mason had one too, and not long thereafter, so did I. Mason had a Gibson Les Paul Junior with a sunburst finish. I had a white Fender Mustang with a red jeweled pick guard and dual toggle switches for the pick-ups. He taught me the standard chord progression that is the foundation of 90% of blues and rock songs. He taught me about bar chords and about changing keys.
After a while we started sounding … well, not quite good, but ok. Then, one day in the spring of our junior year, Mason asked me if I wanted a job playing music with him at a Brown fraternity party on Saturday night. We’d make $25 each, a not insubstantial sum when you could fill your gas tank for less than $5. I sputtered that I had never played in front of actual people before … that I wasn’t ready … that we only knew a few songs. Mason managed to cut me off at every objection. I’d be fine, he assured me. Just watch and follow along, as I did in his bedroom. He had already recruited a drummer–another kid from our school–and was committed to playing the party. He wasn’t about to let me off the hook. Just pick him up at 7 pm. Buoyed–or was it beguiled–by Mason’s confidence, I agreed.
Saturday night arrived without so much as an intervening practice. As we set up to play it was obvious that the drummer was even more nervous than I. The basic plan of attack was that Mason would start each song, I’d join in as soon as I recognized the key and chord progression, and Bob, the drummer, would keep time … nothing more. Our repertoire–ha!–consisted of Louie, Louie, already a rock ‘n roll cliche by 1965, Twist & Shout, a bunch of Chuck Berry songs to which Mason played almost identical intros, Moondawg, a Beach Boys surfing’ tune that I was allowed to sing on and make barking noises as if howling at the moon. Since we didn’t have many songs, we’d stretch them out, typically doing first verse, second verse, instrumental, final verse, instrumental, final verse, even longer instrumental, final verse … you get the idea. We were to play from 8 pm to 11 pm. I was completely self-conscious, and spent the entire evening staring alternately between Mason’s guitar neck and my own.
ILuckily, these were college kids on a Saturday night. They were undoubtedly drinking like crazy. Mason, to his credit kept the music loud, fast, and moving. There was little time for tuning up or dicking around between songs. We had exhausted our repertoire midway through the first set when Mason called out the next tune, Screwin’ Around in G. Wait a minute … that wasn’t on the set list … too late, Mason was already into the intro. I followed along, tentatively at first, but with a little more confidence as I recognized the familiar pattern of the standard blues progression.
Our single mike stand was knocked over a few times by over-zealous dancers, and our shoes were sticky from the spilt beer, but no one seemed to mind. Because we repeated ourselves so many times during the evening, the songs got better as the night went on. Ironically, the one I thought sounded best was Screwin’ Around in G.
That proved to be the only time that Mason and I played in a band together. It wasn’t until years later that I figured out that Screwin’ Around in G was not a real song, but was, in fact, screwin’ around in the key of G.
But it wasn’t long until I was in another band. A classmate Ed (Ollie) Matson was a bass player, a horrible bass player, I might add. My schoolmate Greg Morrison and I had begun playing together, and Ollie hooked us up with two guys from Warwick, Rhode Island who went to Bishop Hendricken High School, Bill Gannon and Ralph (Randy) Smith. Our first official act as a band was to kick Ollie out of the group in favor of another Warwickian, Steve Fales. Ladeeze and gentlemen … The Van Goghs:
Here’s a history of the Van Goghs, condensed to a merciful 44 seconds. The music, alas, is not ours. It’s much better:
As wannabee British Invaders, however, we knew that we had to write our own tunes. It was time for me to step up to the plate, and in 1965 at the age of 17 I penned my first sure-to-be-a-hit, No Remorse. I hadn’t had a real girl friend yet, but that didn’t stop me from “Lovin’ ’em and leavin’ ’em.”
I left the band in the Fall of 1966 at the age of 18 to go off to college. Yes, I turned my back on the riches and fame, the screaming girls, and the adulation to become a scholar and the eventual creator of Silverback Digest. For the Van Goghs, it was straight to the top. They eventually signed with Mercury Records who renamed them the Penny Arcade and repositioned them to capitalize on the burgeoning (for about six seconds) Bubblegum Craze in pop music. Remember Sugar Sugar? I do, but I wish I didn’t. What happened next with the Van Goghs? That’s another story.
(post script: Guess what my boys bought me for a 70th birthday present …