Just Your Basic Learner’s Guitar

Intro:  Admittedly, this story may be strictly a shrug-inducer for those who are not guitarists or have never been in bands with guitar players.  But if you are an axe-slinger or a musical associate of one, hang on for “the big reveal.”

My sister Sandy–living in a nearby duplex with her future husband Rich until days before–had packed up the essentials, the couple now permanently moved to Florida.  After they’ve settled in, Sandy phones to tell me Rich left his guitar behind for me, it resting atop some discarded carpets in the garage they shared with the upstairs tenants.

This came as a double-surprise.  First off, I’d been in a hundred bands (or so it seemed), but never played guitar…though I appreciated the kind gesture and had knowledge of what constituted a quality guitar, via hanging around with (at least) a hundred guitarists.

Secondly, I had no idea Rich played.

“He took lessons long ago, but didn’t stick with it.”

Okay, I’m figuring it’s a beginner’s acoustic, and almost blow off picking it up.  Then I thought, “I have screwed around with friends’ guitars a bit; maybe someone will teach me a few chords, and I can have a bit of fun with the thing.”

Guitar-clipart-free-music-graphics-image-0

Over to the duplex I go, surprised and concerned that I was able to make my way to the garage without encountering any locked doors.  Anyone else could have done the same, easily swiping the instrument.  Or, for that matter, one of the upstairs tenants may have already done the deed.

Fortunately, neither occurred.

But, hmm, this guitar case with a generic brand name emblazoned on it seems too small to house an acoustic.  As soon as I lift it, the weight confirms my suspicion.  That’s cool.  I already have an amp for my synthesizer and would much prefer to goof around on an electric, regardless of whether it was an off-brand.  It’s not like I need a “genuine rock star guitar.”

generic Lles case

Still, curiosity inspires me to pop open the case then and there rather than when I get home.  I immediately learn why it weighs so much, having spent decades helping bandmates lug this model around.

Because it is a LES PAUL!!!

Good thing those carpets were there to prevent my lower jaw from hitting the concrete floor.

The Paul

Once home, I run the serial number through the identification engine on the Gibson website, to confirm it isn’t merely a knock-off, as they abound.  Nope, on top of it being the real deal, it is a rare model called “The Paul,” only produced from 1978 to 1982.  (Mine is a ’78.)

Because Rich didn’t play it very long, it has no pick scratches or buckle rash, and the neck is super-straight.  There is some minor oxidation on the Humbuckers, though it isn’t enough to affect the sound.  And I believe it even has the original strings(!)

Guess it was a pretty wise decision not to blow off fetching it, huh?

guitar-clipart-gitr11

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Meeting Moog

MEETING MOOG

 

All dressed up with no place to go.

It’s the mid-Seventies glitter-rock era, and I am drumming in a band with keyboardist Dominic and bassist Art.  We somehow got wind of a music store opening that very night, it being a unique enterprise at the time:  the store stocked nothing but electronic keyboard instruments.

So, it was off to hoity-toity Ardmore for the three of us, blending in as well as Joe Pesci’s character in My Cousin Vinny.  Which was especially ironic considering, other than us and the store employee, the place was filled with Main Line snobs who were there supporting their moneyed friend, the owner, and wouldn’t know a clavinet from a clarinet.  In short, we three were the only ones present that even remotely stood a chance of ever patronizing the business.

We were a flamboyant lot, used to disapproving sneers and not ones to let it annoy or intimidate us.  Also wise enough to recognize when we were on someone else’s turf and, consequently, to remain on our best behavior.  Dominic even played a bit on an electric piano, making it clear we were musicians, not some riff-raff there to rob the place, or whatever these bluebloods imagined “our kind” got up to.

Still, when the owner locked the doors (with us inside the store), there was a touch of trepidation on our part.  It was all for naught, as the real reason for doing so was the start of the private Grand Opening ceremony, with a special guest speaker and demonstrator.

When the owner introduced Dr. Robert Moog, three jaws hit the carpet simultaneously,

robert-moog at work
Dr. Moog at work

Although it was early days for synthesizers—so much so, developers had yet to figure out how more than one note at a time (e.g. chords) could be played on the instrument—we tuned-in Future Rock Stars knew we were in the presence of a certified genius and a pioneer in a whole new form of sonic expression.

In 1968, performer/composer Wendy Carlos sent shock waves through the recording industry with the release of the triple-Grammy-winning album “Switched-On Bach,” classical music with a MAJOR difference—every note was created by a Moog synthesizer.

Following her lead, more-experimental rockers such as Frank Zappa and Keith Emerson had begun exploring the possibilities of the original Moog synthesizer, a large panel loaded with an assortment of wires plugged into it, more resembling a telephone switchboard than a musical instrument.

The Minimoog synth, a compact, simplified version of the original rig had recently been released, and major musical acts were gobbling them up, both for the new sounds they produced and the portability that made the Minimoog ideal for a touring band.

The synthesizer had yet to revolutionize the music and movie industries (more on that later), but it had made enough inroads that Dr. Moog’s presence was A Very Big Deal to my trio, despite the remainder in attendance being oblivious.

original synth
The original Moog synthesizer was a monster!

“You won’t believe what happens next!”

Bob, as he preferred to be called, was a very affable host, going around the room explaining, in laymen’s terms, how some of the electronic keyboards worked, including the mellotron (which, to this day, those writing about music often get wrong.)

This, of course, built up to him showcasing his invention, demonstrating how the Minimoog could mimic the sound of a traditional string instrument, play unending rhythmic sequences with a touch of one key, make all the boops and beeps of a UFO landing, and so on.

Art, Dominic and I occasionally made jocular comments to each other; and, during one particular sequencer passage that closely resembled a drum beat, one of my bandmates ribbed “We don’t need you anymore.”  Little did we know what was to come.

After demonstrating the vast variety of sound the keyboard could trigger, the good doctor remarked “I know there’s a drummer in the room”—apparently overhearing the earlier wisecrack—and, with that, produced a small drum that plugged into the synth.

Then invited me to play it!!!

With someone holding the drum in place, I tapped away with my fingers (there were no drumsticks present) as Bob threw various switches and twiddled dials, creating all sorts of sounds beyond those expected to come out of a drum.

Your humble narrator was already a very advanced drummer by that point and thus I adapted my riffing to beats best suited for whichever tone Dr. M conjured up.  At one point, after we had really gotten in synch, I glanced up, only to catch Bob smiling and bobbing his head to the rhythm.

So, for just that brief moment, I stood there completely awestruck, thinking “Hot damn, I’m jamming with the inventor of this revolutionary drum, it’s Robert freakin’ Moog—and he’s digging what I’m doing!”

And all of this transpired simply because we got a tip-off about a store opening and casually decided to kill an hour one bored evening, before getting up to our usual shenanigans.  Crazy, huh?

Mini Moog Synth
The Minimoog

Prologue

It was no hyperbole when I mentioned how the now-deceased Dr. Moog and his invention changed the world of entertainment.

You know how a different musical style will come along and be considered “a new sound”?  Dr. Moog (and a few others on the same path) quite literally created new sounds, ones that had never been heard before in the entire history of mankind.

Eventually, polyphonic—meaning multiple keys could be played simultaneously, like an organ or piano—synthesizers were developed.  As were pre-sets.  In simple terms, rather than having to set dozens of knobs and switches in order to change over to a desired sound, the player could dial up an assigned number.

This combination was a tremendous boon to live performance.  No longer did a keyboardist have to fumble around in a mad dash under poor lighting between songs, hoping to replicate a desired tone.  Or worse yet, the band having to attempt to play along with a tape, often a disaster.

Instead, Kenny Keyboard can calmly flip to Preset 3, press both hands on a group of keys and fill the hall with the lush sounds of a string section, then swing over to Preset 9 for a “flute” solo.  If you have attended a rock, pop or hip-hop concert with a keyboard player onstage, you’ve likely experienced a synthesizer “in action.”

Though you may not realize it, synths are employed in many hit records, as well as familiar TV and movie theme songs.  But it goes well beyond theme songs.  Synthesizers often create background sounds and music, and simulate storms, battlestar shootouts, and so much more.  They are also incorporated in radio and television commercials, and may even be heard over the sound system at the local supermarket.  In other words, odds are quite high that synthesizers are a part of your daily life.

None of which may have ever come into being if not for some extremely bright individuals seeking to wed electricity to sound.

So, yeah, THAT “Robert  freakin’ Moog.”

 

PUNK ROCK Never Mind The Even Further Bollocks

Was just reminiscing about (picture temporarily goes out of focus, harp arpeggio plays) all us Mohawked young lads jumping in the mosh pit at CBGB, spit flying everywhere, during the punk rock explosion.

The reason I added the cinematic touch to the above is because, in real life, except for the punk rock explosion itself, none of this ever happened.

At least not at first.

Unless you were one of two members of The Plasmatics, you didn’t have a Mohawk on the 1977 New York punk scene (England being a different kettle of fish and chips.)  There were no mosh pits. And if you spat on someone, you were liable to get decked.

I don’t care what you “heard.”  Or even what you may have seen in the movie CBGB, loaded with utter nonsense such as Genya Ravan being a key player on the burgeoning punk rock scene.

I knew Genya at the time and even did some freelance work for her Polish Records label.  She adamantly turned down my crew’s invitation to join us when we were venturing out to catch acts at the punk/new wave venues.

And the reason I knew the New-York-based Raven is because I, a member of the Philly punk rock scene, spent an average of two weekends a month in NYC, spending every single night checking out multi-band bills in all sorts of holes in the walls.

Was also a musician, so saw thing from that side of the equation as well.

Now, you can trust the account of an actual participant in the real punk rock explosion, or shake your head like an imbecile, too stubborn to believe you got conned by:  revisionists; people who weren’t even there but are trying to “look cool”; a music journalist that never heard of The Clash until “Rock The Casbah” became an FM radio hit; or similar frauds.

If you chose the second option, beat it.  No one will miss you.  As for everyone remaining, let’s examine facts.

First off, some odds and ends.  Although I’ve focused on the scene in New York—a city on the brink of bankruptcy and with the Son Of Sam on the loose at the time—there were also vibrant punk scenes in Philadelphia, DC, Baltimore and Boston.  I’ll use OPR to represent “Original Punk Rocker” and generalize a bit for the sake of a manageable word count.

New Wave, though you’d never know it from current coverage, was just as big as punk rock, with emerging bands such as Blondie, Devo and The B-52s.  There were also bands on the cusp, like XTC and Magazine, i.e. they weren’t as poppy as the New Wavers but more musically complex than, say, The Dictators and Ramones.

All of the above (and their lesser-known contemporaries) played the same venues, were equally far from the mainstream, only seemed to get airplay on select college radio stations and press in a small number of niche publications, and, if they had a record deal at all, it was almost always with a small indie label. As such, I’m putting them all under the punk rock umbrella for this piece.

 

OPR Appearance

If you were a young man in the first half of the Seventies and didn’t have long hair, you were likely a puss still under your parents’ thumbs, a straight-arrow, a sell-out for some Squaresville job, or maybe even a narc.  You were distinctly in the minority and definitely not cool.

From the Sixties hangover through the Glam/Glitter Rock period, you didn’t see much more than the lobes of ears, male or female.

And that’s why chopping off your flowing mane was a Very Big Deal.

Shearing your curls was making a major commitment because you knew, if you regretted doing it, there was no reverse switch.  It may take a year or more to grow back your luxurious locks.  In the meantime, you’d have the appearance of a narc or any of the other above undesirables.

Furthermore, with the relative brevity and the haphazardness of the typical punk rock ‘do, you looked like someone who either just woke up or got electrocuted, and unlike anyone else around, be they a short- or a longhair.

Prepare for the stare.

Which was fine, despite the rudeness of others, because your hair was a statement, not just some new fashion trend, in plain sight around the clock:  “I reject conforming to the norm of the squares and the hipsters, and hope you don’t like it.”

It took guts to walk around figuratively flipping off the general public, quite intentionally adopting an appearance hardly anyone else had at the time.

Of course getting that look was a challenge in itself.  When I decided to shed my full Ital-fro, I brought along the latest Punk magazine (issue 6, published June, 1976), it containing a photo-illustrated comic-book-style story featuring punk pioneer Richard Hell visible at many angles.

Punk Magazine cover w Hell

And why did I do this?  Because virtually nobody outside of the minute OPR circle had ever heard of punk rock in the Bicentennial year!

I was going to a pricey crimping establishment at the time, with some of the top stylists in Philly, not Joe The Barber with a little shop around the corner.  And when I mentioned punk rock, it drew nothing but blank stares.

Additionally, I knew of only one store downtown where I could get my leather jacket.

That should give you an idea of how underground the scene was when it was first breaking, and the effort it took to adopt the look.

As far as shirts and blouses, you might rummage through thrift shops and fine some dayglo shirts at an Army-Navy/hunting store.  Better still, alter your existing tops via tears, cuts, staples, chains and burns, so they were suitably repulsive to those you were hoping to offend.

Maybe you were lucky enough to know someone adept at silkscreening, who could make something offbeat.  And it was fairly common on the UK scene to break out a felt tip and write right on the fabric.

DIY—Do It Yourself—was extremely significant in the early days, whether it was decorating your jacket or making up posters for a band’s upcoming show.  On one hand, this inspired a lot of creativity.  On the other…well, you had no choice.

There weren’t any Hot Topics or home PCs on which to create slick graphics and iron-ons, no internet or eBay.  Unless you were a trust fund baby, you couldn’t afford a professional service.  So, DIY it was.  Besides, mass-produced was the antithesis of what punk rock stood for.

IN OTHER WORDS, currently having neon-colored hair like ten million others, and buying a Joan Jett T-shirt at the mall does not make you any more “punk rock” than your 10th grade homeroom teacher.

Some OPRs are old enough to have kids who have kids.  Meaning you may be dressing and wearing the same styles as your grandparents.  Oooh, how “rebellious”!!!

CBGB Ramones onstage NO MOSH PIT
The Ramones at CBGB, circa ’78.  No mosh pit.

The Rock Portion Of The Equation

Aside from glam, in the early portion of the decade, the music scene of the Seventies sucked more than all the Hoovers in a vacuum-machine store combined.

Prog kings Emerson, Lake & Palmer were playing football stadiums, accompanied by a full orchestra.  Fleetwood Mac spent a million dollars—a million!—taking a year to record “Tusk,” an album so cutting-edge that college marching bands were performing its title track.  Former Bowie and Yes keyboard man Rick Wakeman toured with a full ice show presentation. And once-radical Jefferson Airplane morphed into Jefferson Starship, releasing radio-friendly horrors such as “We Built This City On Rock And Roll.”  (Sure you did.)

Then there was the vehemently despised–by OPRs and diehard rock ‘n’ rollers alike–disco, assembly line dross cranked out for self-centered zombies who didn’t know they were dead.

“Weeee, the world has turned to shit, but we can slip into our official disco uniforms, snort some coke and dance, baby.  Screw everyone else!  Look how much fun I’m desperately trying to have.”

By 1975, rock bands who were once fresh and innovative had settled into a safe formula; replaced key members with hired hands; adopted clichés like the automatic encore to play their big hit, and the arms-around-each-other-then-bow-to-the-audience patronizing exit move; and, grown rich and flaunted it with private jets and limos—and/or died.

The vibrant inventiveness of the late Sixties had gone full-corporate, musicians attending board meetings, fortunes being at stake and spent.

You and three friends decided to buy instruments and form a band.  Even after you got competent enough to perform a set-full of songs, what chance did you have of even getting considered for a recording contract or played on the radio, when competing against established acts with a half-million-dollar light and sound rig and a string section? Especially with record companies and radio station programmers also in full Playing It Safe Mode, more interested in clones than in anything breaking the mold.

Worse yet, you could no longer relate to one-time heroes, there was such a vast chasm between the high-living rock gods and your crowd.

Punk rock and New Wave came in and said, to quote Johnny Rotten, “Fuck this and fuck that.”

It was all about streamlining the bloated mess rock had become.  Short, simple, fast and loud, and most of all, fun to do.  Never mind if the guitarist didn’t know a diminished ninth (chord) from a vodka fifth.

So much about punk rock was a reflection of the times.  And the mid-Seventies weren’t pretty.  New York City verged on collapse, and the streets were mean in many other urban American cities.  Our British brethren were getting out of school and going straight on the dole, there were so few “career opportunities” offered.

BETTER ford_to_city_drop_dead-819x1024
The infamous October 1975 NY headline after the President announced he was refusing the city any Federal assistance

The “fall of Saigon,” signifying the inglorious end of the Vietnam War, did not occur until April, 1975.  That in turn meant young men of punk’s Blank Generation had had the “opportunity” to be drafted into the Army when they were age 18; and if they lucked out and weren’t selected, they’d spent years seeing friends and family return from Nam in a box, maimed or carrying a nasty heroin habit.

Both sexes of the Blank Generation were too young for the Summer Of Love and Woodstock.  Instead of the utopia of freedom and free love slightly older Baby Boomers filled our adolescent heads with, by the time we reached adulthood, we got stuck cleaning up the garbage left behind by embittered, sometime drug-addled flower children turning in their beads and incense for a three-piece suit.

Watergate and Tricky Dick Nixon’s shenanigans destroyed any remaining trust in the US government.  Britain’s monarchy was considered a not-so-funny joke.

So, what you had circa 1976 was a group of disillusioned, understandably hostile young adults with either no or entry-level, minimum-wage going-nowhere jobs. (I worked for the local municipality, climbing down manholes to place bricks of rat poison.)

Alienated from society as a whole, loaded with youthful energy and no outlet for it, and no longer buying into hippie hyperbole about peace, love and understanding.  A volatile mix in very bleak times.  Little solace in music anymore, either.

Here’s the VERY important part, younger readers.

If the first half of the Seventies “sounds brutal”—which it was—imagine living it 24/7.  And imagine is all you can do because YOU DID NOT LIVE IT and therefore cannot fully grasp what it was really like.

Sure, you may have conjectured.  But that’s all.  Additionally, the information you based your impression upon may be inaccurate, wildly exaggerated, romanticized or wishful thinking.

Before you break out the Grandpa Simpson memes, this is not “You kids today have it easy, sonny boy” or “Yelling at clouds.”  It’s about context.

The late teens through early twenties is no joyride, regardless of birth year.  I am not claiming everything is sunshine and lollipops today.  Nonethless, some periods of history are much worse than others—and the mid-Seventies blew.

We were irate young people who got tired of hearing crap from others and decided to get aggressive.  Screw being defensive. It was time to be offensive.  “You don’t approve of my red no-name sneakers and this girl’s torn-up fishnet stockings?  Good!”

The thing is, punk rock was OUR reaction based on OUR environment.  If you weren’t around for it, get your OWN damn sound and look reflecting YOUR environment.  Wearing Doc Martens and a Mohawk as a youth in 2019 makes you no more “punk rock” than donning moccasins and a feather headdress makes you Native American.

If we agree cultural appropriation is a serious offense, what do you think you’re doing?

“But, Stately, times have changed.”

Precisely—but you haven’t, mimicking the sights and sounds of an explosion that detonated forty-plus years ago!

You know who’s more “punk rock” than you?  For starters, the people behind the Giphy GIF-creating site.  It’s about streamlining, DIY, not merely accepting things as they are, and being creative, as well as simple enough that anyone can do it.  That’s a hell of a lot more punk rock than wearing the same ripped jeans Johnny Ramone did in 1977.

 

The original spirit of the punk rock movement was about rejecting tradition and “acceptable” appearance, not establishing them.

 

Postscript

We had a party—which, incidentally, ended decades ago (a whole different story)—and unless you were a young adult in the late Seventies, you WEREN’T INVITED.

None of us has a choice of when we are born.  As such, maybe you missed out on the legitimate punk rock movement.  Conversely, we missed out on growing up with all the fantastic digital technology half-taken for granted by all of us.  Those are the breaks.  Doesn’t make one group better than the other.  It simply separates reality from fantasy-based posturing.

You might be, say, 23 full of vim and vigor, and “living in shitty times,” much like we were.  Understand I do “get” the frustration that spawned punk rock persists.  I will also readily admit it’s not like we invented and thus have some sort of patent on youthful rebellion.

Like you, we believed we inherited a crappy world from our elders, Just like the beatniks did in the Fifties to early Sixties.  And the founders of biker gangs did, post-WW2.  And groups of people before them throughout history.

That didn’t give us the right to wear berets and shabby sweatshirts, play bongos at coffeehouses and call ourselves beatniks any more than you have the right to claim to be punk rockers.

Don’t like reading that?  Too bad.  What makes you think I care?

Go do something we OPRs didn’t do.

“Wild-eyed boy imprisoned….” (nearly) Going to Jail With David Bowie

If you’ve read my Sigma Kids recollection (http://bit.ly/293BtGs), you already know I was friendly with David Bowie and members of his band, during the mid-Seventies.

Bowie et al returned to Philadelphia in late 1974, as part of the tour introducing the world to Young Americans and the singer’s new direction.  As could be expected, I attended the concerts.  Before one show, Elaine, a very attractive Sigma regular but not one of the small group eventually invited into the studio, introduced me to her acquaintance Debbie,

So, our story picks up after said concert, outside the Barclay hotel, where David and the musicians are once again lodging.  To my surprise, Debbie, who I’d never seen at any of the Bowie fanatic activities in the past, showed up at the hotel.  To my dismay, it was minus Elaine.

Still, Debbie was cute, we were both single, the ice had already been broken via the earlier introduction, and we were mildly flirting.  Bowie guitarist and super-nice guy Carlos Alomar came out of the hotel, greeted me and then informed us (presuming Debbie was my girlfriend, I suspect) “Don’t tell anyone, but we’re having a party at a place called Artemis, if you know where that is.  And you can come as guests.”

I most certainly was familiar with Artemis, a Center City side-street watering hole where the lights were always way down low (read:  “cheaters bar”.) The narrow establishment had an upstairs area with a full bar and sound system, occasionally rented out for private parties and never open to the public.

And as you can imagine, I was not about to blow off such a superlative invitation.

carlos kinda small
Carlos Alomar

Jump forward one hour.  David and his paramour Ava Cherry were seated at a table with a few others from his entourage, so I didn’t get much change to interact with him beyond a wave and a “hello.”  Nonetheless, drinks were flowing, good music was playing, and Debbie and I were among those dancing, the overall mood being quite festive.

Until the Philadelphia Police Department decided to crash the party.

This was during the Police-Commissioner-turned-Mayor Frank Rizzo era, when the cops were as hard-nosed as their boss and had a national reputation for playing rough.  Music suddenly stopped, lights turned up and strapping lads with guns and badges at the door had everyone on edge.

I was under the legal age to be drinking alcohol in a bar, had a joint in my cigarette pack, and my pocket contained a taped-up chain I carried for protection at the time—otherwise known to the legal system as “carrying a concealed weapon.”  Backup singer Tony Hinton was terrified, telling me he had not registered for the military draft, a federal offense.

Nobody had the slightest idea what to do.

Even the normally very composed Bowie looked (understandably) nervous and frightened.  As he snaked through the crowd as though looking for another exit, I called out “David” when he got near, eliciting a highly out-of-character curt “What?”

When he looked over and saw it was me, I went “You’ve got…” miming “something on your face,” it being a lipstick trace.  Knowing I could be trusted, due to the whole Sigma party secrecy pledge, his tone softened as he asked if I wouldn’t mind wiping it off. After I complied (yes, fans, I have touched David Bowie’s face), he smiled slightly and said “You’re all right!” which just about made my decade.

We all essentially stood around or meandered, no one wanting to run the risk of antagonizing the police by attempting to slip out.  It remained a mystery why they were even there.  The music was not loud enough to disturb the few neighbors, there were no fights or similar security issues, Artemis was fully licensed, and it’s certainly not against the law to throw a private party.

Granted, a few of us were underage. However, since there wasn’t any “probable cause” for the cops to intrude, any resultant arrests would have been thrown out of court.

But who the hell wanted to spend the night in jail, regardless of celebrity company, and have to hire a lawyer to sort out the mess?

bowie hassled by cops for blog
Bowie meets the Boys In Blue

Ultimately, the Artemis owner worked his magic with the police, and we—nerves frazzled, tired and resentful over the unwarranted intrusion that sucked all the life out of the room—were “allowed” to leave, none of us in handcuffs.

Oh, and after such a hot “first date,” Debbie did become my girlfriend.  At least until she returned to her coven in Salem.

 

(This completes my “Bowie trilogy.”  The first being the aforementioned Sigma recollection; the second, found here:   http://bit.ly/29ahKUM.  Oh, and there’s also a brief story about spending time in David’s hotel room, it within this article:  https://bit.ly/2JxkHCn)

Make Your Music-Listening A Skillion Times Better For Chump Change

Let’s start out with a few basics.  This article is for the average person with a standard stereo receiver, not a snazzy Surround Sound set-up. It concerns markedly improving your enjoyment of music on CDs/vinyl/radio, though it could also apply to the enhancement of movie audio, if you have your DVR plugged into said receiver. Oh, and “a skillion” might be a tiny exaggeration.

The presumption here is you have satisfactory speakers already hooked up to the Front Speaker inputs in the rear of the receiver.  There’s also a fairly good chance that, when you performed that wiring, it was the last time you looked in the back of the unit and have since forgotten (or paid no attention to the fact) there’s also a pair of Rear Speaker inputs.

However, now that you’ve been re-enlightened, the fun is about to begin.  Being no dummy, you figured I’m going to tell you “Go out and buy a pair of top-grade speakers to mount as rear speakers.”  You’d be correct…and also wrong.

Yes, you will need to go grab a pair of speakers to locate on the back wall.  BUT, I recommend getting small moderate-priced speakers rather than the equivalent of what you already have serving as front speakers.

First off, this is where the “chump change” comes in.  Secondly, they weigh tens of pounds lighter, a major consideration when it comes to mounting them and feeling confident they won’t be ripping massive holes in the plaster and/or tumbling down to destroy whatever lies beneath.

speaker-door-shot-a You can also use door moulding as a sturdy prop.

For my personal set-up, I got a pair of small triangular shelves, put them in the corners, and supported each with a few medium nails; and the speakers have remained safe and in place for over a decade.  Placing them on a corner shelf versus flush to the rear wall also allows for pivoting, a desirable option for “tuning” them to the room.

(Naturally, it’s better to have the sound waves aimed more towards the listener, particularly because the main speakers will be overpowering the secondary ones.  It’s just physics.  Or science.  Or something.)

Now comes the primary reason you go for the little cheaper speakers.  If you moaned, “But not getting matching speakers all around means the rear ones will sound different than the front,” I reply “PRECISELY.”  (And quit whining.  It’s annoying.)

Your economical new best friends will most certainly not have the bass oomphs of their big brothers nor will they be as loud.  This is a very good thing.  As they say in Berlin, “Viva le difference!”

Remember, these additional speakers are designed to supplement the front ones.  That’s the key to the whole shebang. 

What you now have is a pair of rear speakers that are more sensitive to the highs and midrange tones on the recording.  Most of the time, you won’t hear anything specifically coming from a rear speaker, though it’s plenty cool when you do.  Instead, you’ll notice, for example, a high-hat pattern that sounds like it’s on your left and three feet from the back wall, or maybe a synthesizer riff on your right and much more prominent (than with just front speakers), seemingly floating midway between front and rear.

Although the original albums weren’t recorded in quadraphonic sound, you are more or less replicating it to a fairly high degree.  I use “more or less” because the effect varies from album to album and, due to the dynamic nature–that’s fancy talk for which instruments are used and how prominent they are–of the recording’s mix, the effect may even vary from track to track.

In other words, with the four-speaker set-up, you will hear an ear-pleasing difference in each tune, but not every song will suddenly blow you away.  Just want to clarify that in order to avoid creating unreasonable expectations.

Nonetheless, you’ll occasionally come upon a track that will sound ASTOUNDINGLY better and quite quadraphonic-y, as if the best recording engineer in the world—that would be my pal Bob Clearmountain, by the way—got hold of the master tapes and created a fantastic new mix.

speaker-and-lighter-meh-shotThis should give you an idea of what I mean by small-size speakers.

Two other tips.  Get yourself some quality speaker wire.  For some bizarre reason, the thicker the gauge, the lower the number; and after doing some homework, I upgraded to 14-gauge for the rear speakers.  Originally had generic thin wires, and there was a marked difference upon swapping them out.

Secondly, none of the above will mean a hill of Mister Beans if you don’t set your receiver to be pumping the sound to both sets of speakers.  This is achieved by the highly technical process of pushing a button on the front of the damn thing.

 

 

The Kink(s) And I: An Audience Of One

Originally posted on my other blog in July of 2015, this seemed more appropriate here.

The Tower Theater in Upper Darby, PA (on the western border of Philadelphia) was a year-round movie house for decades, and going back even further, presented vaudeville acts after opening in the late Twenties. Seating three thousand, and with remarkable acoustics, it became a rock palace in the early Seventies, and is situated two blocks from the Upper Darby Municipal Building.

That’s where I come in. I carry a badge.

Okay, Dragnet fans, it isn’t a badge per se; it’s an Upper Darby Health Department inspector’s ID card. And I no longer carry it. But I was a member of the Department on January 28, 1977, when the following took place. No names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Certain higher-ups in the Township hierarchy were not keen on the Tower as a concert venue, for all the usual reasons. I, on the other hand, considered it the greatest thing to ever happen in the history of my hometown.

Wow, major acts in a relatively intimate setting–versus the mammoth downtown hockey arenas that were standard in that era–performed ten minutes from my home! I was a “walking encyclopedia” of rock at the time and absolutely CERTAIN I was going to be a rock star myself in the near future. How cool would it be to receive a standing ovation for a blistering drum solo on the very same stage upon which I graduated high school a few years earlier?!?

As much as a few local bigwigs frowned upon the Tower, the remainder of the health inspectors dreaded the site considerably more. A proper inspection meant not only eyeballing the concession stand, but also looking over every row in a building with a steep double-balcony as well as large subterranean lounges. My coworkers averaged about 35 years older than your narrator, so scaling Mount Tower for an hour was no treat for aging legs at the end of a shift. (One could only gain access to the Theater on late afternoons on concert dates, as it was locked up and unattended all other times.)

My elders saw the dreaded Tower inspection as one huge pain in the ass. I, being too young to legally buy a beer in the burg, and an adamant supporter of having concerts in my backyard, saw it as an opportunity.

I could serve as an unofficial liaison between the local administration squares and the powerful Electric Factory (who owned and operated the Tower) and perhaps get a chance to schmooze with Genuine Rock Stars. As you may have guessed, the remaining inspectors were to a one overjoyed when “the kid” of the Department magnanimously volunteered to be permanent Tower inspector year-round.

[FYI, to avoid any allegations of corruption, inspectors were assigned different areas of the township on a rotation that changed every three months, meaning each would eventually be assigned to the district including the landmark theater. Thus, the unanimous approval.]

I thoroughly enjoyed the Tower inspections, with occasional bonuses such as hearing Mott The Hoople playing a brief soundcheck, and signing autographs for hysterical Bay City Rollers fans who insisted I must be “somebody” because, after all, I was carrying a clipboard and just walked out the door of a building containing the Rollers’ equipment(!)
Nothing, however, topped the time I was the sole member of the “audience” for a Kinks performance.

There I was, flashlight in hand, in the otherwise-dark second mezzanine, dutifully ensuring the building had been cleaned thoroughly since the last concert. While I was protecting the public from the hazards of empty soda cups and lost lighters, The Kinks came onstage and plugged in; and as a long-term fan of the band, I was delighted over the prospect of hearing two or three tunes.

After the first song, I heard a familiar voice half-joking about whether there were ghosts in the balcony, the speaker having seen a ball of light floating around in the upper deck…which, of course, was me and my trusty flashlight making the rounds.

Pointing the light at myself, I waved a friendly “hello.” I don’t recall specifically what was said next, but it was delivered with what Yanks might call “that extremely polite method mastered solely by Englishmen.” Translated into Philadelphian, the message was “Yo, pal, your light is really gettin’ on my nerves.” With that, the man at the mic asked if I wouldn’t mind just having a seat while they continued.

I willingly complied, for three reasons. First, it was Ray Davies; secondly, I’m a wonderful human being; and, thirdly, IT WAS RAY FREAKING DAVIES.

Holy frijoles, a bona fide legend was asking me to do him a favor…and that “favor” involved being the only person in the audience as The Kinks performed live. Didn’t exactly need my arm twisted by roadies.

What could possibly be better than hearing another song or two from a band I greatly admired?

Well, I would eventually learn the Tower show that night was the first on their U.S. tour, and in order to be sure all the equipment made it overseas in working order and to familiarize themselves with the P.A. they had rented, Davies decided they should perform the entire set.

By the time I got out of there, it was dark, the Health Department office had been closed over an hour and I’d missed dinner. But who cared? I was far too excited to have an appetite anyway. Besides, I had to phone every Kinks fan I knew, to ask them to “guess what I did today.”

(And, hey, if you want to get technical about it, I actually got paid to listen to a Kinks concert as an audience of one. Not a bad day at the office.)

 

Sigma Kids sequel: My Breakfast With Ava

Here’s a brief addendum to the lengthy Sigma Kids recollection you can find here and should read first: https://onmanorsmind.wordpress.com/2016/06/14/sigma-kids-somebody-up-there-likes-me/

devotees.spell Bowie ORIGINAL send from Dagmar
Spelling “Bowie” with our bodies

The trust between the artists and the Kids grew to the point where we could be depended upon for occasional errands and to provide rides.

My “personal highlight” of the Sigma Sound vigil came one dawn when Ava Cherry popped out of the studio on a mission to get a round of coffee and pastries for some of the people still recording.  You can guess who leapt forward to volunteer to take her to the seedy White Tower—the only nearby place open 24/7—a half-mile away.

We must have been quite the sight to the bleary-eyed truckers and the like, propping themselves up on the diner counter: Ava, the gorgeous black woman with short blonde hair and very stylish clothing; and her “escort,” a 5’8” 138-pound starchild.

The return trip was equally as adventuresome.  We were passing through the strip that housed various peepshow and porn magazine venues, when Ava decided it would be a laugh to pick up some, um, “adult reading” for David.

In all honesty, if she asked with a smile, I would have driven her to Bermuda.  The problem was, parking was forbidden on that block; and, furthermore, it was about to switch from two- to one-way traffic to accommodate the morning rush–and we were facing the wrong direction!

I sat nervously in the car with the engine running, not exactly sure what I’d do if someone gave Ava trouble in the shop or one of Rizzo’s stormtroopers rolled up and insisted I move along while she was still inside.

Was slightly relieved when the beauty came back to the car unscathed…but that was only because she didn’t have much cash left after paying for the breakfast goodies and needed to “borrow” the whopping seven dollars I had in my pocket.

A few minutes later, we were back on the way to Sigma, narrowly averting the traffic-direction-change deadline.  Not only had I proven myself to be trustworthy, made a new striking friend and had a fantastic story to tell, but I’d also earned a bonus.

After the full album recording session ended, Ava confessed she had fallen in love with yours truly, dumped David and we began living together in Paris.

 

Mojo Sigma COLOR shot w Photo Credit
The two men in Ava’s life, me (far left) and the soon-to-be-cuckolded Mr Bowie

Okay, that didn’t happen.  But what did transpire was:  the next time the band appeared in concert, Ava waved to me from the stage.  Jaw somewhere around my navel, I pointed to myself as if to ask “Are you waving at ME?,” eliciting a nod and laugh from the singer.

My sister, seated to my right, gently nudged me to also confirm it, at which point I was ready to fall off my chair.  Swoon, swoon.

Sigma Kids—Somebody Up There Likes Me

Despite what one may have been misled to believe by revisionist historians, the Seventies was not one wacky moment after another for carefree youths in zany clothing.

Philadelphia in the summer of 1974 was no exception.  Frank Rizzo, the former Police Commissioner who made his bones as a hardnosed, head-knocking cop, had been elected Mayor, to illustrate just how blue-collar conservative the city was at that point.  Hardly a warm environment for the sort of young person who preferred gold-painted platform shoes.

The hippie movement sputtered to its death in the early third of the decade, and there was a new freak in town, the glitter rock kid.

It can’t be overstated how integral rock music was to the vast majority of youth culture in the first half of the Seventies.  The subgenres that appealed to them may have differed, but only the squarest of the squarest did not have an extensive album collection and regularly attend concerts.

Obviously, much was the keystone; but it transcended notes blaring out of a loudspeaker.  You styled your long hair and chose your clothes based on doing your best to look like the very rock stars you idolized.  It wasn’t simply some weekend warrior costume; it was a lifestyle and commitment.

 

Back in early-Seventies Philly, glitter (more recently called “glam”) had taken off, spearheaded by the god of the theatrical rock scene, David Bowie, who had twice sold out a string of back-to-back concerts at the Tower Theater.  Alienated adolescents from all parts of the city and its environs finally had a rallying point.  Bowie owned this town by the summer of ’74.

I was in a band and had befriended our keyboard player’s brother, future culinary wizard Danny Liberatoscioli, whose group of friends was fanatical about all things Bowie.  Your narrator was a moderate-level Bowie fan, and that was only a recent conversion.  However, they were a lively bunch and mostly female, so I gradually began spending time with them on assorted evenings.

August 8th.  Danny et al were practically levitating over some exciting news that trickled down the Bowie grapevine:  David would be returning to town to record new music at the legendary Sigma Sound studio!!!

[Said grapevine also always knew which hotel the Bowie entourage would be occupying, regardless of the city.  The FBI should be so proficient!]

I should also point out that the average age of the group was sixteen and most had neither driver’s license nor car—which makes the following more extraordinary.

Full of vigor and with nothing that could possibly be of higher priority, we packed into a car, heading to Sigma in an attempt to confirm whether the rumors were on the level.  Something was definitely up; upon arrival, there were already several Bowie diehards milling about and a Cadillac limo parked directly outside the studio.

Little else to do but wait around and see what happened next.

Sigma Sound was located a few blocks north of the commercial district of Center City, just outside the Chinatown section, and the rare passerbys from dusk til dawn were primarily “winos.”  We, all dolled up like Martians recently beamed down from the mothership, blended in about as well as a My Cousin Vinny family reunion on a dude ranch.

Nonetheless, the anticipation was electrifying and it was a kick being around so many fellow kooks from remote corners of the region.  And when a certain British crooner emerged—“Oh, my God, it’s true, he’s really here!!!”—it was impossible not to get caught up in the excitement, especially while immersed in what was very reminiscent of those old newsreel scenes of Beatlemaniacs losing their minds when face-to-face with the Liverpool quartet.

I had never been within reaching distance of a REAL ROCK STAR, fully intend to become one myself, and idolized several.  So, even though I had yet to become a staunch Bowiephile, this encounter was a Very Big Deal to me.

Thus it began.

 

Bowie booklet six stripi cropped A

For a stretch of fifteen days, from evening to the wee smalls, a rotating tribe of what was to be dubbed “the Sigma Kids” kept vigil outside of the Barclay hotel when David and the musicians were there, tailed them to the studio, and waited for hours on end, sitting on the sidewalk and steps outside Sigma until the session was over and we could get another glimpse and a moment of small-talk.

After a few days, the lot of us providing no indications of being a nuisance or threat, the Kids and the performers developed a genuine rapport.  Carlos Alomar and wife Robin Clark were as caught up in the whirlwind as most of us and extremely fan-friendly.  Carlos had established himself on the R&B circuit but this was his first foray into the colossal rock scene, thus it was a bit of a culture shock, albeit a highly enjoyable experience.

Same could be said for the then-unknown Luther Vandross who, although he didn’t spend as much time associating with the Kids, was always very personable.

Of course there were the Bowie “veterans” as well, such as guitarist Earl Slick, David’s longtime friend and singer Warren Peace, and backup singer (and Bowie paramour) Ava Cherry, on whom I immediately developed a massive crush.

Bowie’s personal assistant Corrine “Coco” Schwab—who got her job by answering a newspaper ad!—was another entourage member who grew comfortable among us and I believe was a liaison of sorts, ensuring her boss we had nothing but good intentions.  (This would be crucial for what was to occur later, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

BowieaSWMchat
David and your narrator converse outside the Barclay

Although there were a few dozen Sigma Kids in total, we weren’t all there constantly.  On the average, I’d say the head count was fifteen at the studio, maybe one-third of that at the hotel.  Oh, and about four-to-one female-to-male.

Some of the girls were age 14—but only chronologically—and I oft wondered what kind of (if any) fireworks went off when they returned home at 3 a.m. after spending six hours loitering around Skid Row.

There were roughly a dozen who made up the core of the vigil-keepers, i.e. the ones most frequently present, and we eventually settled into a groove.  A couple of people brought blankets so we wouldn’t have to sit directly on the filthy pavement; someone always seemed to have a radio; everyone got used to each other after a while; and we were relatively quiet, patiently awaiting the next flurry of activity.

Sigma owner Joe Tarsia was more bemused than annoyed by us, eventually earning the nickname “Uncle Joe.”  And later in the vigil, one of the engineers would occasionally open a studio window while they were listening to a playback, kindly giving us a special reward for our perseverance.

Then things got REALLY interesting.

 

August  23.  Bowie had been fairly satisfied with the tracks they had laid down, and that night’s session would be the last.  As such, he had a treat in mind that would enormously eclipse any engineer opening a window for a few minutes.

David personally approached those of us he recognized as comprising the core and extended an invitation that had been unprecedented in music history:  When the session that night concluded, there would be a listening party…and we were invited!

There was also one stipulation.  “This is only for the people I invite.  If anyone else shows up, it’s off.”

The party itself.  The session didn’t wrap until very early in the morning (one report said 5 a.m.), and much to the invitees’ relief, all kept their promise to keep the party hush-hush.  We were ushered inside, where Bowie’s bodyguard frisked each of us and checked handbags for recording equipment.

Some folding chairs had been placed around the studio and there were cups of red wine on a tray.  I selected a seat where a few chairs were centered midway between the speakers.  When the rest of the Kids sat closer to the front, I didn’t want to be “that guy” who sat secluded towards the back like the official party wallflower, so I moved up a few spots towards the front, perching on a piano stool.

The music began playing, and it was nothing like we expected, starting with what would be the album’s title track “Young Americans.”  When the Beatles reference came through the speakers, I turned to see if anyone else “got it”…and, sure enough, there was the author sitting in one of those chairs I’d abandoned.

Yes, I inadvertently blew an opportunity to be sitting right next to David Bowie the very first time anyone heard one of his classic recordings.  The Simpsons didn’t exist yet, but I may have originated the emphatic “Doh!” that very moment.

BowieBugsSWM
“Yeah, I’ll just move up a couple of seats so I won’t be sitting by myself.”  Brilliant!

Turned out David was quite keen on gauging our reactions.  As everyone knows now, Bowie was taking his music in an entirely different direction, and he had no idea whether it would be accepted by the audience currently wearing a groove in his latest studio effort, Diamond Dogs.  We weren’t ass-kissers from the record company or media.  We were that very audience he was concerned about.  We were quite literally the young Americans.

After all the material was played, including some that never made the album, there was a brief silence.  I believe it was a cross between digesting what we just heard and the feeling of “So what do we do now?”

We were impressed by the music—who wouldn’t be?—but no one wanted the party to be over.  Then one of the Kids uttered the magic words that broke the spell.

“Play it again!”

It was as though everyone exhaled simultaneously.  “Play it again” they did, and we began dancing, performers and Kids together, like giddy, slightly buzzed friends at a wedding reception.  Photographer Dagmar snapped away, and unbeknownst to us at the time, those pictures would end up on the front page of the Sunday paper, in several magazines and book over the years and even in the 2007 Young Americans reissue’s CD booklet.

[One shot captured me dancing with Ava Cherry, and to my very very deep dismay, although processed (but unused) for the Sunday newspaper story, it apparently has disappeared.  Ah, well.]

Bulletin front page shrunk  tweaked to read clearer

By the time the second run-through ended, it “felt right” for the party to break up.  The adrenaline that had us wide awake and shaking our butts at 5 a.m. had dissipated, the sun had begun to rise and none of us wished to make a pest of himself.

Thank Yous and Goodbyes were exchanged, and all the Kids went home.

I doubt any of us slept when we got there.

 

Sidebar regarding getting invited to the listening party:  Sigma Kid Stewart and I were the only two standing outside the Barclay the afternoon we received our invitations.  When our future party host moved on, Stewart and I just looked at each other like “Wait, we just got invited to a party by David Bowie, right?” as if to reassure each other there was no misinterpretation or hallucination involved.

Stewart had short spiked hair tinted with henna to give it a reddish tone and, if I remember correctly, shaved eyebrows.  Needless to say, he was a hardcore Bowie fan.  He also no-showed the party.

Surprised?  What you need to understand is, David Bowie touched people in a very special way and was Messianic to many young folks at a confusing age in a challenging time period.  There were certain Sigma Kids who were literally struck speechless and too overwhelmed to get closer than several feet from David when he entered or left the studio.

Stewart wasn’t like that, but all I can presume was that the thought of actually socializing with his idol was more than he figured he could handle.

 

[Please peruse the brief “sequel” My Breakfast With Ava. Thanks.]