Grew up rough in the Bronx. A baby with an MIA daddy in a cardboard box for a cradle, diagnosed with a heart condition at 8. They told him he would be lucky to clear 16, he died at 37. Not an old man by any stretch, but he packed a lot of living in that mortal sandwich. Movies, TV, hit records, married to Sandra Dee, America's sweetheart at the height of her beauty. No time to lose.
The thing about Bobby was that he could rock, he could swing, and he could croon, sometimes all at once. All of it concentrated into being the best Nightclub Performer he could be. Before it could've possibly been considered ironic, Bobby Darin was a lounge singer. By choice, and very proud of it. He started in clubs, went around the world and did everything else, then ended up back in the clubs. He loved the immediacy of it, he loved being a song and dance man.
This clip is one of my most favorite things on the planet. This was from his last filmed performance. He went in for heart surgery shortly after this and never came back. He could barely walk, talk, or function as this point. He was breathing through oxygen tanks. Exhausted. But he got up there and he did this. Watch at 4:24 as he goes from clowning around to dead serious when the groove changes directions. Always gives me chills.
Those of us in the "flyover states" away from big cities filled to the brim with different kinds of people feel alone with this feeling in the early going. Before the internet created ways for us to find each other, huddle together, and keep in touch. When I was a kid in High School going around with my hair duded up and wearing my cuffed jeans, engineer boots, and black leather jacket, chasing Gene Vincent compilations around town, I had no reason to believe I would ever meet anyone else doing what I did. I think people thought I was just doing those things so that I would stick out. That wasn't the case; I had just found something that spoke to me and thoroughly embraced it.
It was sheer serendipitous luck that I came to find out about David Loher's Annual Rockabilly Rebel Weekend, held in Indianapolis every summer. Three nights of bands from all over the country -the world, even- at the lovely vintage Fountain Square Theater, affectionately referred to by all in the know as "Indy." I went to my first one in 1997, mere weeks after my High School Graduation. I never knew it, but I was a part of something. Here it was. Life changed considerably after that.
That weekend is a blur for me, it felt like I had gone down the rabbit hole. Sensory overload. There's two particular things that stand out: 1) Ronnie Dawson, a story for another day 2) The Atomics. The Atomics blew my mind. I hadn't given up on the latter third of the 20th Century and had imagined where the sound of the Big Beat could've gone. Band leader Thommy Burns had also. I wanted to have a band like The Atomics before I knew that they existed and had beat me to it, done it better than I ever could have. They had played "traditional" Rockabilly all through the 90's, had helped to create and played at the first Indy Weekend, but they allowed their sound to develop into this new thing.
Their reward? Indifference at best, hostility at worst. It was Dylan going electric. Irony being that most Rockabilly people held contempt for any period of Dylan on general principle (full disclosure, I kind of do, too). Their magnum opus was an album called Sterling Park Accent.
It turns 15 this month, and after a several year absence you can now download it or buy it outright from cdbaby. This is one of my favorite albums ever and I'm very excited and proud to get to promote it again. To celebrate, Thommy Burns was gracious enough to grant me an interview. I got to ask him some tough questions and got very candid answers in return. As follows:
R: Where would you be without Rock & Roll?
T: That's impossible to imagine. I have no idea. From the second I told my parents that I didn't want to be on the soccer team any more all I did was play my guitar and dream of having a band. I would never have met my wife or any of the friends I have now, all of them former band members or fellow musicians or people I met at gigs. Every memory I have is tied to what was going on musically at the time. I could answer that I'd be playing hot jazz instead or something but hot jazz isn't what made me pick up an instrument and dream big.
R: The Atomics were one of the only bands playing Rockabilly in the 90's, before the internet could help pull a scene together. You were instrumental in the first Rockabilly Rebel Weekend. What was it like then? When you played different towns for the first time it had to feel like you were leaping into a cold pond in the middle of the night.
T: It was really exciting then, but going from being the only Rockabilly band in the world to sharing the spotlight had disadvantages. When we started discovering other bands playing Rockabilly I went through an awkward period of trying to meet expectations, it took me a while to find my own groove. We had been playing up and down the east coast for several years before we reconnected with our extended family over in Chicago - the first Atomics bassist Chris Freeman had formed a band in PA with Dave Sisson and they played around Pittsburgh before moving on to Chicago. Chris stopped gigging but we all stayed in touch and met up in Fairmount in Feb. of 1993 and the idea of "let's put on a show" started there. It was overwhelming. The world became much bigger. I was wide eyed and frenzied, there was almost too much to discover, Rockabilly was all around the world and we were part of it.
R: The first time I saw the Atomics was in 1997 at that summer's Indy. I'll never forget, when you guys came on half the crowd walked out to smoke or get a beer or whatever. The other half, myself included, huddled around the stage halfway through your first number and got very into it. I'd never seen anything like it, it felt like a movement inside of a movement. How did it feel to be the guy doing something so divisive? We think of RAB fans as "our people." Did you ever feel betrayed? Who was the intended audience, or was it all just stuff inside you that needed to come out?
T: I hated the Rockabilly crowd after a time and hate isn't too strong a word. I felt acute performance punishment, I felt as if we had stuck our necks out and that our brothers and sisters had gone cowardly, it was like it wasn't ALLOWED to like the Atomics in the Rockabilly scene. I remember the crowd huddled in front of the stage, I distinctly remember saying "thank you for being so loyal" and I remember it hitting me like a tank that if the Rockabilly scene was made up of outsiders, then these (and we) were the misfits among outsiders. I thought half of the flames and dice bands that it seemed "OK" to like were such shit and I got so resentful. People would whisper in private that they liked us and I thought "thanks for that but quit being so afraid to be different". We all got into Rockabilly and we were different from everyone else, and then I saw us all afraid to be different from each other. We packed up and took the show to Europe, and later NYC.
R: I've always called The Atomics "progressive rockabilly." Does that sound about right? there's "rules" that you broke all over the place gleefully. Lyrics about complex things, songs longer than 3 minutes.
T: We called ourselves "Modern Rockabilly" after the Rockats, and then Original Cool fanzine coined the term "Alterna-billy" for us. "Progressive, modern, or alternative" all fit. I got to a point where Rockabilly was a pristine china shop and I was the biggest bull on the planet, smashing everything in sight. I grew to revel in the fact that we couldn't be easily defined as "psychobilly" or "neo rockabilly". I loved being difficult to categorize. And I knew there had to be someone somewhere who would get it.
R: Where did Sterling Park Accent come from? My theory is that if you live with Rockabilly for a very long time it becomes such a part of you that you can do anything you want and it will still have that Rock (so to speak) inside of it. How did these ideas develop for you?
T: I was a Rockabilly kid. I loved slapping bass. I loved Eddie Cochran. I cut my teeth on that, but when we recorded SPA I was obsessively listening to Suede, The Beatles and The Smiths. So it almost seems just that simple - here is what happens when a Rockabilly band plays music inspired by Suede. I started writing SONGS not "Rockabilly Songs", and so lyrically a lot of personal stuff came out on SPA. Then there's Boz Boorer. Any thing on SPA that really pushed boundaries was the Boz angel and the Boz devil on our shoulders blessing and damning the Atomics, pushing us to burn the rule book, really encouraging us to take the extra step further into new territory. He had mixed Fallen Like Her Angel and had a lot to do with the sound of it, but with SPA he was in the studio with us every second and deserves a lot of credit for the sound and feel of it. But as far as songwriting for that it was really the first time I WASN'T thinking "OK this has to have slap bass on it" or "this has to be like what Eddie Cochran would do in the 90's".
R: "Nobody listens when I do my thing, but everybody listens when I shout and scream" was a line in Atomic Age, the album after SPA. After The Atomics, you developed a kind of Ranch Party Hollywood Cowboy personae, like a pose turned up to 11 where the stuff you did before was very real and immediate... Was that intentionally ironic?
T: That line in Skyways was consciously written about the Indy crowd. After several years of a big happy Rockabilly family out for kicks, the Atomics were strictly verboten. SPA was "my thing" but I knew if I played Eddie Cochran covers all night we could fill the dance floor. It was almost soul destroying, and in retrospect Atomic Age comes off kind of like a last gasp. Immediately after the Atomics I did the full on traditional Rockabilly trio with the Steubenville Knights and I did it as a tribute to my Dad. I wasn't consciously trying to please the purists, but I did need to get that out of my system. Then came the Hollywood cowboy phase and looking back I don't know what I was thinking - it's not that I don't enjoy and appreciate that stuff it's just that it seems ridiculous now to think that the Atomics front man could be reinvented as a Singin' Cowboy. It wasn't intentionally ironic at the time, but looking back I called the band the Sterling Cowboys which was a deliberate SPA reference. I was casting about, I went from that to doing Jimmie Rodgers style yodels and stuff. 12 years after the Atomics split I'm finally writing and demoing new original stuff.
R: What are you like now vs. then? Any new music you like? Any new music you're making?
T: I am now a huge Eddie Cochran fan who listens obsessively to The Smiths and The Beatles...and now I can thank (or blame) Kirsty MacColl for getting me writing again. I was always aware of her and her connection to Morrissey and Marr, but I only recently started listening to her and she got me off my ass and made me remember what it meant to have something meaningful to say and to express yourself and maybe even rock out once in a while doing it. It's been a long time since I felt music really moving me and changing the way I looked at things, and God bless Kirsty for that.
With Atomics drummer Deron and guitarists Jason Hicks and Mark Lawrence I'm now playing slap bass in a band called Speedway Operator. We were going to Portugal to record with Boz this month but made the difficult decision to postpone until we were really happy with a good batch of new material. We're writing and playing what you could possibly call "progressive Rockabilly" if that even means anything in 2011! Hopefully we'll have something to show for it soon.
R: Thanks for doing this. It'll be good.
You can now download Sterling Park Accent or buy a CD from cdbaby.
One of my earliest memories was of my dad pointing at his Marantz receiver that I now own and saying "You hear that? That's The King of Rock'n'Roll." I was hearing Chuck Berry for the first time. This would be the first time music drilled into my Soul. Not too long after that I saw Great Balls Of Fire, the movie about Jerry Lee Lewis. I was a kid in grade school, but I was a Rocker already. I knew who Elvis was. Mainly that his movies on WDRB were stupid and that fat people look bad in white, but most importantly, that my dad didn't like him.
In middle school I made off with the Old Man's Beatles tapes. I got into Queen really heavily just before Wayne's World hit, and I spent a couple years and alot of my allowance getting all of their albums on cassette.
I saved for last the Flash Gordon soundtrack because I knew that it was shit, and so the summer between my Freshman and Sophomore year of High School left me hungry for something to get into. I wouldn't have to wait around for long.
Robert Rodriguez did a made for Showtime movie called Roadracers. It was the first thing that had Salma Hayek, and it was before anybody knew who Rodriguez was. It's a dumb but endearing movie about a Greaser called "Dude" fighting The Man and raising Hell. He was a for real Rocker, and he hated "Sock Hop Soda Pop Shit." To my pubescent mind it was Citizen Kane, and set an example to be followed.
This was in no small part because of the music in it. Link Wray's Rumble weaves a mighty spell, and although Gene Vincent wasn't in it, his song Race With The Devil was. i had to have this stuff. The end credits said there was a soundtrack available, but there wasn't. I searched hard for it. Or as hard as you could in a small city with a handful of music stores before the Internet. I didn't find out until much later that it never actually existed in the first place.
Now I consider it very fortunate that I couldn't just buy one easy CD that summed up my new obsession in a perfect square. Since I couldn't, I had to go looking. I had to research and hunt, and conjecture and imagine. Around the same time I discovered The Sex Pistols and Punk Rock, and a book called England's Dreaming by Jon Savage. I bought it from a book store with 20 bucks in quarters I had laying around. It has a discography in the back that lays out the subversive music of the 20th Century like a road map. Here, I was forging an identity.
This was the height of Grunge and Alternative, which looking back, that was a very vital and healthy time for Popular Music. So many different bands and different kinds of bands. But none of them really spoke to me at that time. Still, it may've been the wide open Pop Culture of that moment that allowed me to go to school the first day of Sophomore Year with a black leather jacket in 80 degree weather and my hair all slimed up looking like the Fonz.
I didn't want to look like the Fonz, mind you. Or one of the guys in Grease, West Side Story, or -God Forbid- Elvis. Nothing kitschy, campy, or corny. Nothing safe. But I looked way more like the above than the following: Brando in the Wild One, pulp novel covers about Wild Teen Gangs, or Dude from Roadracers. I looked clean and wasn't a badass. I grew up happy and well looked after. I didn't project the danger and tragedy of Ducktailed teen Warriors from poverty and broken homes that I was romanticizing and emulating. I would deeply resent when someone would make a crack in my direction about Elvis or Danny Zucco. But resent it was all I'd do, I didn't ever hit anyone with a wrench or try to run them over in the Hot Rod I didn't have.
But I was still an Angry Young Man. Mainly because I had stupid teachers. I would like to now reflect back as an adult and say they weren't bad, but in fact, they were probably worse. I spent alot of time in trouble because I resented authority. There was a particular incident in a psychology class that summed things up well.
Teacher: Who can tell me who invented Rock'n'Roll?
Me: Rock'n'Roll's not like a lightbulb, it's not something that can be "invented."
But most historians agree that it was Ike Turner producing a single called Rocket 88.
Teacher: No. It was Little Richard.
Me: So you saw a thing on PBS where Little Richard the piano player said that he invented an entire genre of music. Only you and Little Richard believe that.
Teacher: I was there. It was Little Richard.
Me: You have no idea what you're talking about. And I do, on this subject. I can only imagine what you've been telling me about psychology is also wrong.
I recently talked to a mom and her son, who had been screwing up in school. I said to the kid "Being an adult means you're free from being told what to do by losers who can't do, so they instead teach and get their kicks pushing kids around and trying to break their spirits. You have to play the game somewhat to get out from under them. And once you've done that, you don't have to do anything you want. I could go rob a bank and then drive my car to Mexico. But then tomorrow, I'm a wanted fugitive in Mexico and once I get locked up, I'll be back getting bossed around all the time by stupid people."
My mid to late teens were well served by my often mean spirited and self righteous routine, which had a perfect soundtrack in the Rockabilly and Punk Rock cocktail I was drunk on. These were Good Days. I had fun. I was pissed off and moody, but that just meant nobody was getting the best of me. I was emerging from childhood as a person that I liked.
Maybe a little bit too well.
Pulp Fiction came out the same year as Forrest Gump. If you were square you liked Gump, if you weren't square you knew somebody else wasn't either if they were into Pulp Fiction. In Pulp Fiction, Tarantino said (through Uma Thurman as Mia Wallace) that you are either a Beatles person or an Elvis person. You can like them both, but one or the other is going to be the greater symbol of who you are. At the time I would've said Beatles man for sure, but now I know that you don't really have to pick. But also that I'm tied to Elvis like a hook on a lure. Luckly, I learned to like it.
Now, I am Rocko. Rocko Jerome, and I could be nobody else. And I'll tell you what that means. I'm a grown man. I like flashy clothes and pretty girls. That I'm a big guy who eats alot of fatty food, much of it fried. I'm sorta whacked out, so I take pharmaceuticals to keep the edge off. I'm un-self consciously heavily into Black Culture. Especially old stuff. More than any other white person I know. Music. I Live by Music. I love to perform. But when I made Music, it never came out the same as the way I heard it before. I make corny movies. I love Captain Marvel. I use a whole lotta slang. People look at me when I want them to. And I want them to.
First time I went to Memphis, I didn't go to Graceland. I went to Sun. And that was Mecca. Went by where Stax had been, at that time it was a big pile of rubble. My heart broke a little bit. All these tourists going by the busload to the place where Elvis croaked on the bathroom floor and gawk at his backyard grave while the whole rest of the city runs backwards. Saw a statue of Elvis and imagined a much larger one of Howlin' Wolf, perhaps even a giant robot, with his giant metal foot hovering over the head of the white dude, about to crush him into rusty dust.
See, I resented Elvis. It's not hard to, if you love all the characters that withered and died in his shadow. Jackie Wilson is buried in a grave with no marker someplace. He lived about 10 years in a coma before that. He's one sad story in an encyclopedia full of others. Carl Perkins was in the hospital when Elvis did Blue Suede Shoes on Ed Sullivan, where it forever became an Elvis Song.
But Elvis died way before Carl, and I got to meet him. Right around the time of Pulp Fiction. He had a book out, and me and my dad went to see him. I was real excited to meet him and not paying attention to the other people there. They all just seemed to want to ask about Elvis, anyway. I tuned out, but Dad didn't, and he heard someone say something about a shop called C's Records.
I guess I was 16 at the time, as I recall we first went to C's as a driving lesson, me with my learning permit behind the wheel of the wine colored Plymoth Reliant that did well by me for some wild years. Looking back, Dad could probably sense that I was getting the itch to kick up dust and knew that musical pursuits would put traction under my ass and cut down on the chances substantially of me getting my young dumb ass killed. Young men survive ages 15-25 by the Grace of God anyway.
Clarence Lidster was a real folksy guy. He kinda looked like Paul Sorvino, who was Pauly in Goodfellas. He had a small shop, but it was loaded with crazy looking CDs filled up with Rock'n'Roll. They looked oddly homemade, but they'd be loaded with tracks that weren't usually anywhere else to be found. I'd soon figure out that these were Imports. Cats in foreign country love American Music more than most Americans do. The Germans are keeping the Johnny Burnette catalog afloat where American labels would've crashed it out long ago. This is true of many more, too voluminous to list. But if you know, you know.
Me and C got to talking. "You like Rockabilly? I like Rockabilly too." From there, we went on and on with it. Dad left to go up the road and do an errand, came back, we were still at it. This song, that singer, record labels, timeframes. Who did what, what came first. he got me, after several weeks of pestering, a Gene Vincent boxset. Gene was my favorite then. He had Evil to him, as I imagined I had to me.
I'd spend many more hours and days at that shop. The thing that was challenging was that Clarence really loved Elvis. by this time I had a collection of the Sun Records stuff, and as a young knowitall, I'd conjectured that this was the only good stuff. Authentic. Then I actually heard Heartbreak Hotel in it's entirety someplace, and bought the CD that had his first singles collected on it. Ok, this was better than the Sun stuff, even. I felt like I'd betrayed Chuck to even think for a moment that this was great, but it was. Luckily, as the Legend has it, Presley wilted from there. He was a "Sell Out." He was wild and young but gave it up to be a movie star, then got old and fat and died.
I had alot to learn. About Elvis, but also about the World, Life and how to live it. But most of all, about myself.
John Lennon said "I didn't want to even say or think anything against Elvis Presley, even in in my mind." I sort of encountered the opposite. Think about Chuck Berry and my Dad and the Marantz.
So I got the Sun sessions and the 1956 compilation, and said this is it. This is all the good stuff. Then I finally got around to talking myself into asking Clarence for the complete 50's box set. He pulled it up from under the counter. "It's been down here waiting for you. It's next to a 45, I wasn't sure which one I was going to have to pull out first. And I don't mean a 45 record." I found that I was best served to skip the covers that had stolen the thunder from other Rockers and focus on the songs that were written for him in those days. Which were usually ballads or very showbiz tracks, like the stuff from King Creole. These were things that were not Wild and Furious, then my bread and butter. I felt conflicted. I surmised that it was joining the Army that had put him away.
It felt oddly subversive to be getting into Elvis. I wanted to sort of keep it undercover. People talked to me about Elvis all the time, because I was a teen in the 90's dressed like a teen in the 50's. I had to object on principle. I'd say Elvis was OK, but there were others I liked much more. Howlin' Wolf or Johnny Burnette or Billy Lee Riley or Gene Vincent or Link Wray, I was on to something else. Music and musicians who never received their due, and never will, who never turned their back on wreaking havoc and Teen Drama, never betrayed The Spirit of Rebellion.
I should now say that to me and people like me, there is no Higher Power than Music. Churches and religion are constructed by humans and based on dogma, but sound is something we can only harness like Fire. It can always get away from us, it tends to choose us instead of the other way around, It speaks of things we cannot quite touch, it communicates and amplifies every feeling we can have. This is all stuff to take very seriously.
But not too seriously. As young men tend to take themselves.
I met other people after High School who loved old Rock'n'Roll like I did. I discovered that without my knowing it while isolated in my small city, I was part of a subculture fixated on the same sounds that sent me. It was even a "lifestyle." This was when things got interesting, and when I started to really get into shit.
I started a band and sang Rock'n'Roll. I put my issues into the music and Exorcised some Demons for live audiences. Having done that, and having learned the machinations behind the magic trick of a Rock'n'Roll band and grew a bit wiser and finally more mature, I found a warmer home with Soul Music. Singers like Sam Cooke and David Ruffin painted with a wider palette than what I'd been immersed in for years. By the time I was 20, Rock'n'Roll started to mean less and less to me. It seemed like a creative trap, or like children's music.
Without marketing, Rock'n'Roll is just meaningless words. It was first used as a way to dilute what had been called Rhythm & Blues and sell it to kids. Particularly white kids. As this dawned on me, I started to get a new perspective. I might've been losing my Religion. Or at least, it was changing.
Clarence and I probably discussed this as just abstracts. It's only looking back that I can see it this clearly. It was in this time that C took the opportunity to sell me Elvis Is Back.
This was the record Elvis produced and recorded after his stint in the army was finally over. He's smiling and glowing on the cover, looking very safe. This was what I would've recoiled against as a 15 year old. But 5 years later was another story, and I found that this was my favorite yet from the guy. It wasn't the crazyass stuff that made me want to kick down doors. But I didn't need that anymore, so my ears tuned in differently.
However, I wouldn't think of any of this again for another 5 years of adulthood. On another trip to Memphis I practically got dragged to Graceland. I enjoyed everything inside the house, but once out of it and where they've buried him, I started to feel sick to my stomach. It's all just tasteless exploitation.
They had rebuilt the Stax building by this time and made it into a museum. This was what I really found exciting. But on the tour, there was a spot where I learned that Elvis had recorded at Stax. This was revelatory. How many people know that?
I was embroiled in Darkness at this time in life. There was no time that music spoke to me more than this, but I was not well. It's all blurry. Looking back, I was struggling to not spiral out of control. These weren't bad days, but they were dangerous ones. I fell out of touch with Clarence, as well as mental stability. the bottom would eventually fall out, and before my Demons could get the better of me, I figured out how to think my way out of my troubles. With a little help from my Friends.
It was around this time that I saw the 68 Comeback Special. It was a Revelation.
The 68 Comeback Special is legendary, and it moves plenty of units. It shows Elvis do something I've never seen anyone else do in any capacity ever. He stands on a small, square stage with an audience surrounding him and a band behind that audience, and he sings his ass off. The band is large and lush. There's horns and back-up singers. Far from the dirty and wild sound of the bars and Honky Tonks where Rhythm and Blues used to roar and stomp. This was something else, something more refined. Something nobody ever bothered to break off into a subgenre to try to describe it and capture, thus capitalize on it. Unless, then again, we called this genre "Elvis."
EPP (Elvis Presley Enterprises) as an entity does not care if you ever figure out that Elvis recorded his strongest album in 1969 as a grown man in his thirties. It's a Soulful, adult piece of work, full of lush instrumentation and depth. It's called From Elvis In Memphis. It's not even in print. They also don't care if you ever learn that although he had worked hard and had often produced his own recording sessions to that point, he was widely disdainful of most of them. He particularly felt that way of the primitive Sun Records. Because even before there was a thing called "Rock'n'Roll" or "Rockabilly" it already wasn't really that big a deal to Elvis. The first famous thing he ever said was "I don't sound like nobody."
You also wouldn't have been likely to know that in 1970 when Elvis went to the International Hotel in Las Vegas to do a run of shows, he personally put his large band of All Stars together. If you heard this huge band and separated Elvis himself from it, you would have to be amazed by it's artistry. Also, and this is important, he orchestrated every sound the band made. He built a band and a show that would build and expand as it progressed, and touch on and blend all kinds of music into one Epic Show. I know this because they filmed it and I saw it. But not in the film release documentary called That's The Way It Is that the footage was filmed for. Instead, I saw him goofing off and a bunch of scary, scary Elvis worshippers saying creepy things, distracting you from the songs they showed clips of in between.
I saw a photo of EP from this period when I was in my teens. I didn't recognize him at first, but he looked cool. When I realized it was Elvis I was looking at, I was confused and disappointed. It meant I might have had to start liking him, I guess. I had to work pretty hard at it until I realized Chuck Berry didn't care who I was.
Elvis Presley the Legendary Icon cast a long shadow. Not least of all over himself. As a man, an artist, and an entertainer. Fame and adulation smothered and killed him. There are few people who ever lived who demand your attention and almost certainly some strong reactionary opinion. And ironically: He is entirely misunderstood. By almost everybody who knows his name.
Rock'n'Roll isn't a place or dominion. It's certainly not a hierarchy. It's not the invention of a "creator" or an "architect." There is no King. All of this is just publicity. And none of it truly matters, it's just static that distracts you from the Real Deal. From hearing the stuff that mattered.
And I'll tell you what the Real Deal was. Elvis was a famous boy who grew into a man. He liked flashy clothes and pretty girls. He was a big guy who ate alot of fatty food, much of it fried. He was sorta whacked out, so he took pharmaceuticals to keep the edge off. He was un-self consciously heavily into Black Culture. Especially old stuff. More than any other white person. Music. He lived by Music. he loved to perform. But when he made Music, it never came out the same as the way he heard it before. He made corny movies. He loved Captain Marvel. He used a whole lotta slang. People looked at him when he wanted them to. And he wanted them to.
I went out to see Clarence one more time before he closed his store. I run my own store now, using much of what I learned from him. Particular things about music, but mainly just observing how he worked. I went to buy a bunch of records from this new period of Elvis that I just discovered. "Bless your heart" he said. And then told me to put my wallet away.
The last time Elvis came up when my Dad and I were talking, I told him "I've heard things you never have." He nodded.
His mom, my grandma, loves Elvis. Maybe it just skips a generation.
My grandma has since died, and unfortunately she was no longer lucid by the time I came around. That could have been a dynamite conversation. I never would've thought it could happen. As Chuck Berry said, "C'est la vie say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell..."
This might read like egotistical bragging, but I'll say it's not. Because I didn't make "Salisbury Snake" up. I drive this Cadillac like I stole it, because that's exactly what happened. Years ago somebody posted a comment on a video or article or something I came across, thought it was clever, filed it away in my brain. I thought up other names that I could slap on this thing, but ironically, everything I came up with on my own had already been done by someone who thought of it first (my compliments particularly to cultureshark) and nobody was doing anything with Salisbury Snake, so...If the original is reading this, send me a note and I'll cut you in on my profits. So far I'm $0.00.
One guy who ripped shit off and didn't pay anybody a dime was Roy Lichtenstein, famous fancyass Pop Artist. Made millions selling and promoting enlarged, crude, simplified versions of comic book panels that he shamelessly copied. I might be reaching or somewhat blinded because this kind of thing tends to piss me off, but I would venture to guess that most of the people who bought this guy's work looked down on comic books and would never begin to think of them as "art" at all, highbrow or lowbrow. To make matters this much worse, a great portion of the artists he stole from never got credited for the comics they did in the first place. A guy named David Barsalou has a great website on the matter. One of the panels I've chosen to show here (I could've chosen from a great many that are much more disgraceful, unfortunately) was ripped from Jack Kirby, one of the greatest comics artists of all time. Of course, there's also the irony of the "Image Duplicator" line.
Say, is that Little Richard? Nope. That's Esquerita. Richard got to the recording studio first, but this ballsy cat was going around bars and juke joints down south doing that act which, it's said, was witnessed by producer extraordinaire Bumps Blackwell who crafted Richard's style that shot to the top of the pops. In fairness, I like Little Richard better, and he and Esquerita were pals.
So here's hoping this site is more of a Little Richard than a Lichtenstein.
I'll preface this article by saying it was written years ago and I was a bit more, ah, passionate? I wouldn't use some of the language I used here now, at least not in public. Hopefully it just serves to get my point across. I apologize in advance if it offends your sensibilities, and if you're prone to that type of thing, you might sit this one out.
It's also worth noting that it's been over 3 years and WAKY 103.5 is still swinging.
Every so often someone at the store will ask me why radio sucks. They’ll usually be checking out something they read about in Mojo or one of those, or grooving on something I laid on them. I always point out that WKRP in Cincinnati was a show about the impending end of real radio and it was 1978 (The year of my birth) so we’re way past the good ol’ days by now. Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap played the records they wanted to play, and the voice on the radio was the voice of the cat who was sent by what’s sending you. And it was that simple concept, of a disc jockey playing what he wants, that brought us Rock’n’Roll in the first place. Now there’s this robot playlist approved by Clear Channel or whatever and the voice you hear is most likely that of a yappy lackey who knows 2 kinds of music. Jack and Shit.
In today’s climate, we never would’ve gotten Rock’n’Roll to begin with. Stop me if you’ve heard this one, in the first place the term "Rock’n’Roll" was a Blues song euphemism for sex. Nothing else. In another world, Rock’n’Roll could’ve been called Bonin’n’Crackin, Fuckin’n’Suckin, Slappin’n’Ticklin’. You can make up your own. That’s Blues. If you think "one eyed cat peepin’ in a sea food store" is about an injured kitty cat poking his head inside the door of a Captain D’s, you are square as a box full of Rubix Cubes. Blues is code. Which means Rock’n’Roll is code, which means you need to get hip.
Alan Freed was hip. It was he who coined the term as a genre to get the good shit on the air and in the ears of white kids in the newly formed suburbs in and around Cleveland, which spread from there to the rest of the planet, and it’s been Buck Wild ever since. Try that shit now. The Man had to stick some stupid rap on him to get him down. "Payola." As in "Hey my man, we can shoot this record straight to the top of the pops tout suite if you make with the bread, dad. Put a little Payola in my pocket and we’ll talk mano y mano." Then the squares in short sleeved white dress shirts and black ties decipher that code I was talking about and figure "Payola" is grounds for a bust. Pay for play. Routine today. You think you’d know who the fuck Britney Spears is if not for some serious money changing hands well before the recording process even began? Of course you don’t, because you’re smart. Just like how Ice Ice Baby was a ripoff of Under Pressure and 5 years later I’ll Be Missing You is a remix of Every Breath You Take. This is what we call evolution. To quote Rick James talking about Can’t Touch This ganking Superfreak: "I’m not impressed with that bullshit."
I had a friend who worked in radio back in the day, he was a disciple of the same Church I go to. I’m not talking about any praying or mumbling on your knees in a man made building, I’m talking about hooting and hollering and the raw Pentecost of real music burning it’s name on your brain. Front on that shit. When he died after that long fistfight with mortality you can only lose, the man at his memorial said the best thing anyone could say about anybody: He fought the Good Fight.
I wake up at around 2 PM most days to the alarm clock, and after I woke up to the Johnny Rivers version of Tears of a Clown one too many times on WRKA I strolled down the aisle a little bit and landed on Be Bop A Lula on a station out of Radcliff. You have WRKA wherever you live. The letters might be different, but you have the exact same format and the exact same playlist wherever you are in the US of A. It’s only the Motown songs as heard on the Big Chill soundtrack, only pre rubber Soul Beatles, lots of Johnny Rivers, and it’s been the same 100 or so songs every day like that since at least 198fuckin7, since I started tuning in from the back seat of my mom and dad’s Saturn. Only minus all 50s tracks as of about 2000. I had to find Gene Vincent on my own circa mid-90s. So to actually hear Gene Vincent on the radio was like a minor miracle.
Imagine my chagrin when this station I’d found, the call letters I could never quite recall, was threatening to change to an all Country format on a certain date. New, watered down, sanitized, lame Country radio. Which didn’t play award winning new records from the likes of Johnny Cash and George Jones. What a kick in the mouth. So as I wrapped up a shower and heard clips of Kenny Chesney trumpeted as the coming storm in ads bumped between Eddie Cochran and the prophet Chuck Berry, I was glad I at least have a shitload of records and CDs and run a music store and kinda grew up in a couple.
But suddenly, instead, there was this thing called WAKY. Not only were they playing gems from the 50s that the comparatively lame programmed channels never touched even when they played the real Rock’n’Roll, they were playing the good shit from farther up the timestream. Hearing Johnny B. Goode followed by Immigrant Song followed by Otis Redding’s original Respect followed by the Temptations Wish It Would Rain (the author of which I recently read in Mojo offed himself the week after the record hit) solid sent me.
I started talking about WAKY to people I knew would appreciate it, and I was met by broad smiles and teary eyes. Turns out, WAKY used to kick Louisville’s ass. They came on the air somewhere in the 60s playing Purple People Eater for 12 hours and then got crackin’ jamming out Top 40 back when that meant shit, and the DJs knew what was up with what could make you get down. And now today, they’ve brought it back, playing a mean trick on all of us who can appreciate that which is slipping away. Pulling a quarter away and giving us a dollar bill. They’ve got the old DJs back in, one of which does his act on the phone from a nursing home. sometimes they play stuff I don’t even know. Slugging it out against the Big Giant Programming Head that wants to cram Billy Joe Royal’s fucking Down In The Boondocks straight in your ear all day every day when what you really need is Maybelline. Can you dig it?
Of course, it’s a losing battle. WAKY will go away again. The cup’s 7/8ths empty, it’s a minute to midnight, and those of us who really give a shit are in the minority. But if that stops you, you’re a fucking pussy and you need to get your balls out of your mom’s purse. I’ll be dead a whole lot longer than I’ll be alive, but as long as Rocko lives, so shall Rock’n’Roll.
Into this climate, we hear more and more gloom and doom about flagging CD sales. It’s nothing I didn’t do. I run the place every night like I started the joint. My own CD on sale at the counter, Sam Cooke and David Ruffin thick in the Soul spot, the Twilight Singers complete discography, a mandated "Oldies" section rechristened as "Rock’n’Roll" (what else?) and fully represented by all the names you Need To Know, all big ass sellers on the daily under my watch. All this technology bullshit of sitting in your room staring at a glowing screen and file sharing or whatever the fuck you do instead of shagging your ass out to where the shit is sold in a form you can touch and hold in your hand and talking to someone who knows what the fuck is going on. And yeah, I mean me. Evolution. To quote Rick James: "I’m not impressed with that bullshit."
So my mantra tonight is Fight the Good Fight.
Sam Cooke hit the glass ceiling as a Gospel Star, so he took the way he had been singing about Jesus and sang about girls instead. He is called "The Man Who Invented Soul" by some. A lofty claim, as if Soul is the light bulb, the electric can opener, or the car door power window and could be decisively constructed or built for the first time by somebody. Perhaps it's impossible to credit any one person with a kind of music, but if you can, Sam's the Man. Beyond his undeniable voice and brilliance as a songwriter, Sam was possessed of a kind of sharp intellect and obsessive ambition that led him to forge a career unheard of before or since.
So why do you so rarely hear about him anymore?
I think that a big part of why Sam Cooke's legacy has been in deep freeze, putting aside the fact that he got shot 3 times with his pants off in Watts, is that his catalog of hits is spread over three labels, and there are many sides to Sam Cooke. His records were designed to appeal to as many people as possible. Sam was a Gospel Singer, a Pop Singer, but in his truest heart of hearts, I'd like to think he was the pure, visceral Soul Singer that is unleashed like a Panther from a cage on the recently re-released "One Night Stand: Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club." If you hear this record and don't dig it I don't wanna know you. This thing is an exaltation of life sung with such conviction and such pure power, with an audience that is so very involved and enamored that it will make you dizzy. It'll make bad times good and good times great.
Sam could emote on a level that is untouchable. I heard Sam sing about Jesus and I could believe in Jesus, in every miracle ever heard of. I heard Sam sing of love and I thought of when I had fallen in love, and I saw it as if Michelangelo had painted it. Got it, don't got it, want it, don't want it, it doesn't matter-Sam could sing them all. And he wrote them all-he was a master of writing songs the way people speak but to still capture and amplify the poetry of things, sometimes mundane. "You say it's time to go and she says yes I know/But just stay one minute more/That's where it's at." Steinbeck couldn't have written something so true and yet so simple.
Sam's personal story is one that fans of Greg Dulli's lyrics couldn't fail to find compelling. A charming ladies man who was sometimes a master manipulator who would "walk past any nice girl to get to a whore." a cunning prince of a man who could make anybody feel great who met him...if he wanted them to feel that way. Sam was drop dead supper club cool at the Copacabana in New York City, a fiery Soul Shouter in the Harlem Square Club in Miami, a preacher in Chicago. A womanizer, family man, deadbeat dad, civil rights activist, entrepreneur. All these things at once, always on his own terms, and always a mystery-for the Real Sam Cooke remained a mystery as tight as the occurrences at the hour of his death. The only thing we know for sure was that he was somewhere he shouldn't have been doing something he shouldn't have been doing, and we all paid for it.When I think about Sam a lot in one sitting, I inevitably get angry with him for leaving the mortal coil in such a foolish way. After living such a brilliant life.
Sam ended up owning and running his own label, SAR, at a time when a black guy couldn't eat at a restaurant. He owned his own publishing rights and master tapes at a time when nobody did, black or white. His songs literally did not leave the charts from the time he went pop with "You Send Me" to his posthumous hit with the incredible "Change Is Gonna Come." He had conquered the world. He had it all and he earned it all but somehow it wasn't enough and he blew it for no reason and left us all to wonder why forever. And if that's not America...
S.H.I.E.L.D. (Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division) is the Marvel Comics equivalent of U.N.C.L.E. (as in, The Man From...) or any number of heroic fictional organizations designed to defend the people from a villainous foe, usually also in a group with a clever name. In this case, HYDRA. Which is comparable to SMERSH, Quantum, Cobra (the 80's G.I.Joe was originally pitched as a version of S.H.I.E.L.D.), you get the gist. Spy-Fi was all the rage in the early sixties, so Stan and Company figured it would make for great comics. Especially if said organization existed in the same world as Spider-man, Thor, The Hulk, the X-Men, Iron Man, Captain America, the whole gang.
While most far out spy stories use the organization the main guy is part of as background material, S.H.I.E.L.D. stories would focus on the man in charge: born in Brooklyn, tough as nails, WWII vet Nick Fury. Beyond that, he already had some credentials with readers. There had been the WWII stories in Sgt.Fury And His Howling Commandos, allegedly published as part of a bet between Stan and the great Jack Kirby that Marvel could have a success even with a horribly stupid title. They did, so as a reward, Nick got modernized. First to somewhat lackluster results by Kirby (the rare disappointment from Jack), and then by Jim Steranko, who took not just Nick Fury but the comics medium itself boldly into a new state of consciousness. You can read about his sixties heyday here.
When I say modernized, mind you, I'm talking about stories created in the sixties. Which instead of dated actually look futuristic, thanks to comic book special effects being limited not by technology or budget constraints, but only by the imagination of artists. Fury was a dynamo, all about riding atomic powered motorcycles, psyching out the enemies with LMDs (Life Model Decoys, robots that look and act exactly like people), hanging out on the Helicarrier (like an aircraft carrying warship, only it flies thousands of miles above the Earth), and kicking ass in a sleek leather action suit. He meant business, and although he hobnobbed with superheroes, he never was one himself. A big part of those early stories was that he was a mortal man, sometimes painfully aware that he was past his physical prime.
Unfortunately, time wasn't kind to the concept. Since Marvel Comics continually take place in whatever passes for "present day" and it was such an instrumental aspect of Fury that he had been in WWII, there was a contrived explanation that there was this "Infinity Formula" Nick was taking so that he would effectively be immortal. Sort of takes the wind out of the whole concept, doesn't it? I guess if it was my dime I'd just say he fought in Desert Storm, then 15 years from now you could still just say "Iraq," but nobody asked me.
In the current crop of refreshingly great movies based on Marvel Comics, Nick is portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson. The name has changed a bit, he's now the head of Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division. That's not the only difference. You might have noticed that Sam looks quite a bit different than the classic depiction (he's bald!), but the most important thing to the character is that he's cool. Mr.Jackson was a hell of a lot cooler back before he became a parody of himself, but it's hard to be tough on the guy who was Jules in Pulp Fiction, and he hasn't done anything stupid in his Iron Man movie cameos so far. So, what the hell.
The art on this page is by, top to bottom, Steranko, Bruce Timm, and Francesco Francavilla. Many more great interpretations can be found here.
The word "legend" gets tossed around with alarming regularity, but there's one neglected Rocker in particular who qualifies. Not just because he was great, but because most of the stories about him sound wonderfully, ah, "embellished." That's the only disclaimer you're getting, here. His music obviously stands on it's own, if you don't know that already, here's hoping you'll get it from the clips attached. They speak more than stories and rumors ever could. Not that I'll let that stop me. Just know that the music is real. Some of the stories...maybe not, but they're fun.
Tall Tale #1: It was reported that the Colonel didn't worry about any other Rockers taking the place of Elvis when he got shipped off to Germany. He said none of the others had the combination of charisma, talent, and ability to make girls swoon. So long as you didn't count Eddie Cochran, who the Colonel considered courting and promoting while E slept in the barracks. A possible Plan B. One thing Eddie had over Presley- he wrote his own songs and played his guitar for real. He wrote rollicking tunes that captured the Teenage Rock & Roll Dream, only Chuck Berry could do it better.
When you take a tune like Summertime Blues, it often slips in one ear and right out the other; you associate it with the oldies station on your clock radio or piped in at Carnival Shoe Store or someplace. Old and considered inoffensive. You might barely even notice that it's on. But when you listen to Summertime Blues on purpose on a good stereo, you can hear the things inside the production going off like firecrackers. That beat is ironclad. It's a real cruise of a song, you can feel the wind in your hair from the rolled down window. You recall the troubles you had if you were a typical kid, and how really nothing was all that bad. You were just itching to be grown up, and the world from the perspective of an 18 year old seems like a kind of clarity later life tends to slap out of you.
Tall Tale #2: Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran were great pals, that much is certain. They met on tour and became fast friends, you could figure they had much in common. The backstory was already written. They ran wild. It was said that the both of them carried pistols everywhere they went, and would sometimes stand on either end of long hotel room hallways and quick draw their guns at each other, High Noon style. Minus the trigger action, of course. Eddie always won. Luckily they never got so blown out that they shot anybody. That we know of, anyway. Gene later said "We were as close as two guys can get without being queer."
Eddie won the heart of a songwriter named Sharon Sheely. Or she won him by virtue of her jeans, if the ad is to be believed. Either way, they were a talented couple. She had written Poor Little Fool, which was based on her experience dating one of the Everly Brothers. Ricky Nelson had his first hit with that track, putting a nice paycheck in her purse. Her and Eddie worked together in the studio, and they were a good fit. In pictures of them together you can see the young love, one could easily imagine them on their way to great things.
As the 50s drew towards their close, gigs started drying up as Rock & Roll began to drift out of favor. The deaths of Buddy, Ritchie, and the Bopper cast a long shadow. Touring in those days was a shady proposition for those young guys. The record labels saw them as part of a fad at best, potential public relations problems at worst. Town to town they would face angry protesters, you'll recall Rock & Roll was still controversial "Race Music" at that time. Promoters left them out to dry in horrible conditions, the law of averages was against anybody traveling like that so frequently back then. Eddie had premonitions of an early death. And besides, he wanted to stick around the studio. He had been producing sessions. Instrumentals, Pop Songs, Doo Wop, it was wide open. The outtakes of recordings from that period are revelatory. Here was a kid, no more than 20 at the time, calling the shots with men twice his age. But the money wasn't rolling over fast enough, and America was tightening up. Gene and Eddie went off to Europe, where they were greeted as conquering heroes. To this day they're held in higher regard there than anywhere in the US. During my time in the UK my heart swelled with pride when I found that record stores held more stock on either of those two than they did on Elvis. Can you imagine how these two guys ripping through White Lightening put the zap on the heads of those British kids?
This brings us to Tall Tale #3, one of the saddest stories I know. One night Gene, Eddie, and Sharon found themselves piled into the back of a cab, racing away from a gig. The driver hit a bump, the car flipped, and Eddie leaped to protect Sharon, to cover her body with his. He was thrown from the car, busted his head, and died a day later. Sharon suffered a broken pelvis and a heartbreak from which she would never quite recover. Gene's already crippled leg was further destroyed. He was delusional in the hospital, kept seeing Eddie around every corner, waiting to jump out and yell "surprise!" It was a broken and crushed Gene Vincent who returned home.
It was April, 1960. Eddie Cochran was 21 years old.