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.”


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?


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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


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.



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)

Close Encounters Of The Rock Star Kind

Back when I was a Future Rock Star—or so I thought—I occasionally interacted with musicians well ahead of me on the stairway to the stars.  None of these is a Great Moment In Rock History.  Just thought I’d briefly sum them up and have ‘em in one handy place.  Perhaps you’re a fan of one or more of the name-dropped.

(Incidentally, the considerably longer tale of my encounter with The Kinks can be found at http://bit.ly/2aEKjYO)


Lou Reed

Walk into the record shop where a bandmate works, and he tells me Lou Reed is at a nearby music store.  I suddenly get an urge to buy another pair of drumsticks at that very store.

Lou had recently bought a guitar synthesizer, and the staff was helping him understand how it worked.  No one seems to mind me silently hanging around after my purchase—although I’m a little leery, due to Lou having a reputation for being very nasty.

As the owner of a Moog synthesizer, I legitimately was serious about the new guitar-based invention, I also knew from first-hand experience, when you find a sound you really like, it is essential to record the exact settings of the multiple dials and switches, as there was no way you’d stumble upon the precise combination again. (At least not until you got very proficient with the machine.)

This is done by notating said numbers and positions on paper templates provided when you buy the synthesizer.  Over time, a player accumulates a good number of these pages, each very easy to lose during the constant relocating a musician does.

Again, from personal experience, I knew Lou needed some sort of binder, leading me to finally speak up.

Me:  Are you going to be here a little longer?

Lou (suspiciously):  Why do you want to know?

Uh-oh, I poked the bear.  I quickly explained about being a synth owner and the need for a binder, which appeared to satisfy his curiosity.

Dashing to a nearby stationary store and back, I was relieved Lou had stuck around.  Still vaguely suspicious—not that I blamed him, knowing people constantly attempt to hustle rock stars—he asked what I wanted in return for the binder.  When I told him it was a gift, he seemed sincerely touched and softly said “That was very nice of you.”

(So much for the reported ogre—a rep I came to believe was based on his notorious dislike for music journalists, who, in turn, vengefully made him out to be insolent to everyone.)

At that point, I added “Just have a good show tonight,” i.e. that would be reward enough.  Didn’t bug him for a ticket, already having one in the front row, in the middle of the left section.

Flash forward seven hours, and Lou is indeed in fine form, performing some old favorites as well as songs from his latest album, Street Hassle.  During one tune with a lengthy instrumental section, Lou roamed away for center stage as he strummed his guitar, pausing directly in front of where I was seated—and gave me a cool-guy head-nod “hello.”

Which pretty much made my entire day.

And week.

And month.


John Cale

The late Seventies.  The REAL punk rock scene in New York City.  All Mohawks and moshing, right?

Dead wrong.

I’ll go into the gross misconceptions revisionists have concocted, some other time.  Maybe.  But for now, here’s the short form.

The original American punk rock–and its blood brother, the equally vibrant new wave—scene attracted a sizable percentage of collegiate types, drawn to the fresh energetic no-nonsense music being played in small venues by relative unknowns.  Dress was comfortable. Men’s hair more Johnny Ramone than Johnny Rotten.  And no stinkin’ most pits.

Dig up vid clips of, say, The Dead Boys and Television performing in NYC, and see for yourself.

In addition to the above and the leather jacket contingencies, there was a spattering of what I’d call stray weirdos.  Guys, invariably by themselves, a bit on the nerdish side, likely attracted to the “alienated youth” theme of a scene that didn’t discriminate.

My bassist, George, had only recently gotten a drivers license (in his early twenties), loved to drive and didn’t drink.  New York being a reasonable distance from our Philly base and us both being heavily into the burgeoning scene meant we’d hit NYC a couple of weekends each month, catching bands with a lot of buzz and maybe a small-label single playing on college radio stations.

George was especially taken by a new act called The Talking Heads, who were opening for former Velvet Underground member John Cale, in a small club.  We were both familiar with the headliner, a gaunt Englishmen, from his impressive post-Velvets solo LPs. Cale rarely played out, making this a must-see double-bill. Off to New York we went.

Partway through the Heads’ set, a stocky “stray weirdo” with long hair, wearing an off-white jumpsuit, decided to admire the band by standing almost directly in from of me.  He then opted to step back, at which point I gave him a good forearm shove.

Not because of his appearance.  Live and let live, ya know?  But because he was STANDING ON MY F’n FOOT!

He immediately turned his head and sincerely said “Sorry,” making an appropriate apologetic gesture before returning his gaze towards the stage.  No harm done.  Everything was cool.  Back to watching David Byrne et al for me as well.

That was when George, who had witnessed the whole minor incident from a few feet away, came up to me, laughing hysterically.  I was completely baffled, furrowing my brow as George pointed at my foot-crusher and mouthed “That’s him!”

George then informed me the “stray weirdo” I just gave the hearty shove was in fact the no-longer-thin John Cale.


David Bowie – a different story

Long story long, I was once on a first-name basis with David Bowie, our earliest encounters chronicled on this very blog at http://bit.ly/293BtGs.  Some visitors here are already aware of it; but what you probably don’t know is that I was once a guest in the late-great’s hotel room.

Am not going into great detail about what transpired there, primarily because it would be in questionable taste and violate the trust that came with the invitation.

However, I will share one bit that is neither of the above.  To quickly set the table, joining me were two local women I was friendly with, this being at the Holiday Inn in Center City Philadelphia, David having earlier performed a concert on the Station To Station tour.

Consider the following “joined in progress.”

When David casually mentioned having spotted me in the audience that night—my seat fairly close to the stage—my reaction was a very polite equivalent of “Yeah, right.  Pull my other leg.”

I made my own performing debut at age five, had been in a number of bands and shows since, and knew that stage lighting practically blinds one from making out audience members.

Bluff called, David provided proof, replying “Yes, you stand like this,” mimicking the admittedly strange and subconscious way I slightly hunch over and cock my head when listening intently.

All I could do was laugh.   Impetuous youth calls out rock star, places foot firmly in mouth.

Our host graciously let it pass…and I always suspected the reason I got approval to attend a band-and-friends-only party after the Young Americans tour stop and this eventual private audience in the hotel room—an honor most Sigma Kids never had, let alone fans in general—was exactly because I wasn’t a star-struck fawner who would hang on his every syllable.

I imagine it must be a great relief for someone in that position to be treated casually, what with the extraordinarily high percentage of zealots and angling hustlers a star of that magnitude must endlessly encounter.

So, yes, I made a slightly embarrassing faux pas.  Nonetheless, countless people have imitated David Bowie; but how many can claim he imitated them?


The Plasmatics

The Hot Club was Philadelphia’s equivalent of CBGB.  And if you don’t know what that implies, may as well stop reading this segment right now, as the remainder won’t make much of an impact of you.

Anyway…the long-gone punk and new wave club hosted virtually every East Coast act in both genres as well as breaking British bands with a newly minted recording contract and an optimistic label to foot the tour bill.  That included everyone from future hotshot Elvis Costello, to, well, yours truly.

Formerly a modest corner café, a “packed house” at the Hot Club meant maybe 200(?) people crammed in, which usually wasn’t the case unless a hot NYC or British band was performing.

Bear in mind, this was when punk/new wave was in its embryonic stage and most folks would just give you a blank stare if you mentioned either term.  So few true punk rockers in a city of two million should provide a clear indication of just how “underground” the movement was in the States at the time.

The Plasmatics were something of a hybrid:  part punk, part metal, part theatrical rock a la Alice Cooper.  They were getting bookings in the punk venues, went over well, and their stunts such as chain-sawing an electric guitar in two truly captured the punk spirit.

It didn’t hurt that the saw-wielding lead singer was Wendy O. Williams.

Simply put, Wendy oozed sex.  A brickhouse body sparsely clothed.  A little rough in the mug, well-suited for her snarling no-smiles delivery.  She’d even done live sex shows and porn.

A genuine tough chick who moved her barely clad bod provocatively and couldn’t care less who approved, Wendy inspired a lot of impure thoughts.  And women dug her because she wasn’t about to take any crap from pushy men.

Not surprisingly, the twains eventually met—The Plasmatics were booked to play the Hot Club.

Local musicians tend to befriend visiting ones, and vice versa.  The small group of us who practically lived in and occasionally performed at the Hot Club because unofficial VIPs after a while, and were thus allowed access backstage, a tiny dressing room and hallway with about a half-dozen wooden chairs.

Somewhere earlier in the evening, my guitarist buddies Jay and Michael befriended a couple of Plasmatics.  Ice officially broken, that mean the three of us were cool to hang with the two of them in said backstage hallway.

Chugging champing between snorting huge lines of coke as groupies serviced us, the party was on!!!

Naaah, if you believe that is traditional backstage behavior, you’ve seen too many Led Zeppelin documentaries.

What actually went down is as follows.

Before McDonald’s spread its tentacles in the Northeast, the far-superior Gino’s was the burger joint to visit in the Baltimore-to-Philadelphia region.  The chain had a tie-in with another promising up-and-comer, introducing the area to a new sensation called Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Plasmatics drummer Stu Deutsch evidently made his first Gino’s stop that day, and liked it.  A lot.  A whole lot.

Plas guitarist Richie Stottes—an imposing presence onstage, standing about six-foot-four, with a blue Mohawk (before anyone other than Travis Bickle wore one, regardless of color) and sometimes donning a female nurse’s outfit—sat quietly smiling, as though accustomed to Stu’s tangents.  But here it was, hours after the latter’s visit, and Stu was still gushing over the greatness that was Gino’s.

Apparently, Stu’s burgergasm must have started while still at the fast-food establishment and been fairly demonstrative, as Stu was wearing one of the pointy hats that are part of the Gino’s employees’ uniforms!

(Am guessing either: the Gino’s personnel were so taken by the drummer’s display, they gave him the headware; or, he snatched it off a counter-person and they were too scared of the lunatic and his giant crazy-looking pal to object.)

I was seated in the lone chair facing Jay, Michael and the two visiting rockers, we three locals enjoying the antics of our new wild friend.  Suddenly, a female shoe was on the edge of my chair, its wearer standing behind me.  From the waft of perfume, I knew it was Wendy.

I’m unsure which bit of her tiny outfit she was adjusting, but will swear to this very day that slack-jawed Jay’s eyeglasses steamed up.  (And this was a guy who was no stranger to women.)

My kingdom for eyes in the back of my head!

Prologue:  Michael so enjoyed the band’s performance, he was keen on seeing them again a few weeks later, when they played CBGB.  So off he, his wife and I went, up the New Jersey Turnpike to NYC.

By the time we got into town and found a parking spot, CB’s was packed, and the best we could do was squirm our way about halfway to the stage, off to the very far left.  The view was okay and we were just glad we could get in; therefore, no tears in our beers.

Maybe ten minutes into the set, Plasmatics manager Rod Swenson, who we also met when the band was in Philly, spotted us and made his way through the crowd.

“Wow, you guys came all the way up here just to see us again?”

When we nodded to verify it, Rod waved us on to follow him, leading us all the way up to the stageside area—normally a verboten zone for audience members—so we could have the best spot in the house to watch the rest of the show.

How cool was that?

RIP Jay – RIP Wendy – RIP Michael


Wishbone Ash

The setting:  the posh Barclay Hotel, one of the rare times the staff took no exception to a non-guest (namely, me) sitting around the lobby awaiting David Bowie and his band, encamped there while recording Young Americans.

Although the Barclay was considered more of a permanent upscale residence for older Philadelphians with old Philadelphia money, the word must have gotten around that it treated guests regally.  I say that because, much to my surprise, in walked the members of Wishbone Ash, who booked rooms at the Barclay during their two-night stint at the Tower Theater, 20 minutes away.

Though their music owed as much to electric British folk, Wishbone Ash is usually categorized as a progressive-rock band.  For reasons unclear, “prog rock” has become an object of derision in the years since, but Ash filling the legendary Tower for two straight nights is a testament to the genre’s popularity at the time.

Furthermore, I was quite a fan of the group, becoming deeply enamored upon being introduced by a bandmate to Ash’s classic album Argus…which included three tracks we (half-)successfully covered.

As could be expected, going from playing the songs to actually meeting the musicians who wrote and recorded them was quite a treat for your youthful narrator.  Although it didn’t start off very well.

Me to guitarist Andy Powell and apparent flunky, as Andy entered carrying his instrument:  Wow, where did you get a flying-V case?

Powell:  At the flying-V case store

…his cackle only topped by that of the sycophant.  Okay, there’s drummer Steve Upton, who can’t possibly be as much of a creep.

Me:  Hi, Steve.  I play drums, too.


…well, I can’t tell you what he said, his accent so thick, it was obvious we weren’t going to communicate.  At least he wasn’t rude.

Fortunately, bassist Martin Turner was not Strike Three.  Just the opposite, in fact.

Martin was very attentive when I introduced myself and stood there conversing with him for about ten minutes.  At that point, Bowie’s personal assistant Corrine Schwab entered the lobby, gave the bassist a big hug and said something along the lines of “I see you’ve met my friend.”

With me having Coco’s seal of approval, Martin then sat and chatted for another half-hour-plus, until he and a few of his crew headed out for the night for some post-show celebration.

Before he left, I asked “If I bring my copy of Live Dates (their latest release) with me tomorrow, will you sign it?” to which Martin kindly agreed.

Now comes my sheepish confession.  Although I did put the album in my car, I no-showed the hotel the next night.  Something big was brewing at the studio where Bowie et al were recording, and I got too caught up in the excitement to think about leaving for the Barclay.

So, if you somehow see this, Martin Turner, please accept my sincerest—and VERRRRY belated—apology.


The Ramones

As with so many other fans, the Ramones’ debut album was love at first listen for me.  Such a sonic relief from the bloated over-produced rock albums of the time.  And funny!

The punk movement was relatively new and I was all aboard, including venturing to New York to see The Ramones live, becoming even more of a fan.

Naturally, when they got booked to play a small auditorium on the Penn campus, I leaped at the chance to see them again within a brief drive of my home.  Icing on the cake:  the opening act, The Secret Kidds, was a local band I drank with nightly.

Concert over, I made my way downstairs, to what were makeshift dressing rooms.  The Secret Kidds always threw a post-gig beer bash with all friends welcome, slightly raucous but never getting ugly.  A group of musicians and their closest personals celebrating a good show.  Lot of camaraderie, maybe some goofing around, everyone having a lively time.

I poked my head in to the next room, and The Ramones were essentially just standing around quietly by themselves.  Yes, the same Ramones who would later conquer the world and even co-star in a movie named after one of their songs (albeit with a different drummer.)

Must admit I was flabbergasted.  This is the freakin’ Ramones, American vanguard of a great new music movement.  Hundreds just watched them perform.  So where are the well-wishers, autograph-seekers and so on? You college kids afraid of guys in leather jackets?

I, a notoriously horrible icebreaker, walked into the room carrying a small brown bag.  Went up to Dee Dee and presented him with its content–a T-shirt I got printed, reading “1-2-3-4”–and mumbled something about hoping it was the right size.  He acted very thankful; but since it never turned up in a skillion photos published since then, I’m guessing it would up in a dumpster.  (Dee Dee was quite a character.)

Gift presented, I momentarily became the fifth guy standing there speechless, before bidding the boys goodbye and returning to the beer bash.

The Kidds and all but a few of our crew were not punk rockers.  And since it was not my band hosting the party, me being strictly a guest, it was not my place to invite four strangers to join in, though I would’ve loved to have hung out with The Ramones and strongly doubt they’d be treated disdainfully.  If they even accepted my invitation.

Very awkward situation.

In hindsight, I regret not taking The Kidds aside and simply asking if they were cool with me inviting the other band.  But that’s all beer under the bridge now.  Fortunately, the Brooklyn quartet went on to massive global stardom and perhaps at time wished they could be left alone after a show.


The Doors

I initially met The Doors while on a first-grade school trip to Los Angeles.  They were quite literally starving musicians at the time, rarely booked and only getting paid $50 a gig.  Their financial situation was so dire, they were considering breaking up, for the simple reason they needed but couldn’t afford a bass player, splitting their meager payoffs five ways being completely unaffordable.

I approached the singer and said, “Jimbo, why not have Ray play the bass parts with his foot pedals and a second keyboard, leaving the band free from hiring a bassist?”

Mr. Morrison gushed, “You are a Boy Genius!  In fact, we voted on making you the fifth Door and cutting you in for five percent, if we ever do make any money.”

Not only would The Doors honor the agreement throughout their prosperous run, but also, when Jim faked his death, he lived with me for three years in the country house I bought with “Doors money.”

Okay, none of this is true.

Farthest west I’ve ever been is New Orleans.  But I did drink bottles of Budweiser there, a beverage featured on the inside art of the Doors album Morrison Hotel, so, close enough.