Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Cover of the Week 19

In 1983 my friend, Danny and I tried to ditch this neighborhood misanthrope when he stepped into the Harbor Deli. We discussed and the decided just running, willy nilly, with no destination in mind other than “away.” Billy G. stepped out of the deli, looked left then right, saw us scattering in the back alley and chased after us. He caught Danny, who was already up to 2 packs a day by then and started pummeling him, asking loudly voiced rhetorical questions such as “what the fuck?!” and the expanded “why the fuck were you guys running?!” Stupidly, or out of loyalty, or out of stupid loyalty, I stopped and came back to try and reason with Billy, who, as I remember it, started swinging his stocky muscular arms at me. As Danny and I were reminiscing over at Facebook recently, he thought he was the only one hit. He may be right, maybe I was just such a pussy and scared into thinking I was hit as well. But I seem to remember taking at least one to the cheek. The point here, at least one of the points, is that two kids got their asses kicked by one kid, even with a pretty sizable running start.

As I have mentioned in this space already, I moved from Huntington, Long Island, New York, to Medfield, Massachusetts when I was 16. Perhaps not so coincidentally, the neanderthal bully Billy was originally from Massachusetts and his footbal coach father was what I came to know as that type that we in the Boston area refer to as a "Masshole." During these last couple of years of high school, I would often take the train back down to visit the kids I grew up with. I had been in bands in Huntington starting at around the age of 13. The very first iteration was a trio of us 13 year old boys heavily smitten with classic rock (back then it was merely “rock,” the “classic” modifier coming in the mid-‘80s) and its very popular sub-genre, southern rock. Toward this end, we chose the band name 200 Proof, y’all. Because at 13, we knew a lot about pounding down 100% alcohol. We were surely whiskey rock & rollers. But you know, sad to think back, but from the tender age of 13 it is only a mere year or two out from my actual drinking and then another year into my drinking-in-earnest.

Those intervening years are the ones that seem to change everything. I am not telling you anything you don’t already know, but as the years fly by, to think back on the teens, the upheaval seemed to last for decades and the bittersweet changes take on a more acute sort of agony.

The Internet has changed almost everything as well. I imagine, for example, that it is far easier to be a private detective (private detective overcoat or none) now than it was 15 years ago. Google aside, grown adults (myself included) are decreasingly private in the age of Facebook and so on. I have spent embarrassing hours playing the nostalgia game with people I grew up with but in some cases have not seen in 25+ years. And, aside from some tweaks, they are the same personalities that were forming in those years. There was about a week of commentary flowing on this one picture from a junior high Sadie Hawkins dance:



As you can see, it is daylight. In a sort of Virgin Suicides episode, a girl trying to cross the street in front of the school during the last dance held after sunset was hit and killed a car. All subsequent events were moved into the afternoon in the way that all such draconian bureaucratic school board moves make perfect sense. The guy all the way to the right in this picture, swigging the C&C Cola that we are all drinking and loved so well with our cafeteria burger pucks, was named Dennis. He and I lived a couple of houses away and met in nursery school. We remained best friends right until I switched high schools. He was working at Cantor Fitzgerald in the WTC on 9/11 and left behind a wife and toddler the same age as mine.

The posting of this photo, from 1978 or ‘79, by Danny (the second-to-last one on the right, next to Dennis and recently sprung from Catholic grammar school for a 2-year furlough before being re-incarcerated Catholic high school) brought out other such painful memories but also much hilarity. By the way, in case you have not noticed, I am the twerp in the center, pretty much wearing the same style I adhere to now.

It is photographic evidence such as this that demonstrates why the short-lived TV show “Freaks and Geeks” hit so close to home. Clearly, I fell into the second classification, though we really wanted to be “freaks,” which was an actual social class in our town. The two warring parties were the freaks, who were refried burnouts that were the late-70s leftover lifestyle iteration of hippiedom, with flannel shirst, long hair, concert T's, and workboots or sneakers being the uniform. And there were the “hitters.” These were the flashier velour-wearing disco enthusiasts who tended to be a lot tougher. The hitters group was mostly made up of more working class kids and a lot more black kids than the freaks, who tended to come from the upper middle class. The town (which is more of a township) ran the gamut of extreme wealth up along the north shore, to the projects and poorer families in the southern, more inland part of the town. There was a lot of overlap of these groups, though, in the middle class. You could go either way – freak or hitter. Or you could just end up like the silent majority of us, some sort of wannabes that were more of a cliquey outcast sub-strata more than one affiliation or the other. In discussions with other friends who grew up in this era, I have learned that this sort of social organization was not uncommon and almost all larger suburban towns had similar classifications, “freaks” being the more consistent term while the term for the other side being the more idiosyncratically named group. Nowadays it seems kids have way to many Balkanized groups. For example, I think there are now multiple variations of goth/industrial/trenchcoat mafia…

I have already discussed in this space what the changing music scene meant back in those years. So for someone who wanted to live all the decadence of the Stones, Skynyrd, et. al. but who looked as I do/did in photo Exhibit A, the coming of Elvis Costello was a godsend. Just was we were also starting to develop enough of a sense of irony and self awareness to realize that we had to change our band name from 200 Proof to something as goofy and self-mocking as the Plastic Peach, here comes a guy actually cultivating the geeky look and writing angry but arch lyrics over a pummeling musical onslaught, but with non-ironic and tender ballads such as “Alison.” With the relative dearth of live music on TV (there was "Don Kirshner," "Cal Jam," "Midnight Special," and a few other shows) "Saturday Night Live" was a lifeline and glimpse into new music. Back then, they had everyone from Joe Cocker, the Stones, and Tom Waits to Fear, B-52s, Talking Heads and Devo. And seeing Elvis, with the big old horn-rimmed glasses, tight suit, and pigeon-toed stance was revelatory. I can indeed still be a rock star, thought I and millions of other geeks like me. As David Lee Roth quipped reacting to the negative press Van Halen got back when they started, (paraphrasing) “Well, music critics like Elvis Costello ‘cause they all look like Elvis Costello."

Elvis, along with Talking Heads, the Clash, early U2 and some others, was one of the threads that kept me connected and sane during my extremely tumultuous move from Long Island to small-town Massachusetts in 1982. It was cool to see all my open-minded friends having their musical horizons broadened back home and it was such artists as these that helped me make new simpatico friends up in Medfield, which for a small town, had some (some) really broad-minded (musically) kids eager for new records. The football players in my old town like Loverboy, Rush and pretty much any other lame act, Canadian or otherwise. But the jocks in my new town were into Elvis and the Clash. The cheerleaders were into the Violent Femmes. This would have been unheard of back on LI.

It was also right around this time that Rolling Stone magazine came out with Elvis on the cover, and his new record Imperial Bedroom came out to a lot of critical acclaim. A copy of the same magazine cover I kept on my own imperial bedroom wall for years also hangs at Q Division studios, where I spend a lot of my time. It meant a lot to us geeks who grew up to still play music in our middle age. Costello grew in leaps on this record. The lyrics felt so grown up and I felt like I was growing up too, though clearly still had a long way to go to understand these songs. In fact, for some fans, Costello got a little too clever on this record and never really returned to the primal urgency that made him great on this early records. I disagree and see IB as a pinnacle of al of the above. It stands as one of my favorites. While earlier records had us periodically scrutinizing songs like “Oliver’s Army” to learn more about Cromwell or Oswald Mosley, Costello was pretty easy to follow. This new record saw him compared to Gershwin and Porter. While I feel he later did start to gather more of a “standards” approach on subsequent records, such comparisons regarding Imperial Bedroom must have come more from the melodic/structure aspect, as the lyrics are actually as dense as Geoff Emerick’s production. Porter and (Ira) Gershwin were clever, yes, but their turns of phrase were clear and in the service of easily understood songs. Just as the Beatles, with whom Emerick had worked as a young engineer, had a previous generation digging to discover the significance of “Blackburn, Lancashire,” I wanted to know more about these “pretty things of Knightsbridge” and why “love is always scarpering or cowering or fawning.” But I definitely understood “you drink yourself insensitive and hate yourself in the morning,” all from this installment of Cover of the Week, “Man out of Time." We have been playing this at the Toad shows, but here it is acoustic.

Man Out of Time MP3

10 comments:

RickHankey said...

Beautiful cover of what may be my favorite Costello song. A fine job sir. Top notch. Top notch! I salute you and your part time dedication to rock. Hi to Chris and Tom.

rich L. said...

Bill, always great to hear you reminisce about you days on Long Island and get the backstory of your time here and your life after LI. As a long time BT/Jano fan I've wondered about the why's and wherefor's of your move to MA. As a person who grew up on the hard street of Commack, Long Island, and who spent many a drunken night in the town of Huntington in my late teens and early twenties, at places like the Artful Dodger and New York Ave., I can kinda relate. I'm sure you listened to WBAB which may have shaped your early musical tastes by playing Led Zepplin, The Who, Rush, the Stones, etc. over and over and over again. Yup, WBAB still exists, if you didn't know, and still play the same 200 or so song rotation as they did in 1985. They play some great songs but I am virtually unable to listen to the station...many too many years of the same old songs.

You do have a few years on me Bill (5 or so, I think) but it was a similar era. It doeas seem as though your move to MA enabled you to experience a broader spectrum of music and for that I am grateful because I don't think BT would have existed if you remained here. Obviously you wouldn't have met Tom and Chris and all that, but I do agree with you that Long Island at that time was no place to expand your musical tastes. It truly was, or at least seemed to be, "All Stones, all the time" as Denis Leary might say. I know your a big Stones fan, but I think you know what I mean.

With that being said, I do wonder what kind of music you might be playing if you had stayed on Long Island or what these covers might be. Perhaps some "Rocket Man" (as you've played before) or some "Comfortably Numb" might bring you back to the days of figuring out which baseball card would end up making that cool sound in your spokes.

Anyway, thanks for these spots of sunshine in an otherwise bleak and seemingly hopeless time for our country. (I like to keep it real, as the kids say).

Paul Janovitz said...

There is much here that resonates for me. The story itself brings the reader on somewhat of an emotional roller coaster. I feel as though I heard the story about you guys trying to ditch your "friend" and I'm pretty sure I have.

I have very fond memories of Huntington and often desire to go there alone and walk around and recall all that was my formative years.

Remembering Dennis is at the same time a tremendously warm experience and one of infinite sadness. He always treated me so well and for that I am eternally thankful.

I too had quite the experience with Elvis. I had heard some of his early stuff and liked it. But it wasn't until hanging out in Peirpont in the mid 80's when Jamie Newman walked into the room just as we were trying to decide what to listen to. Everyone was thrilled to see Jamie and I found out why almost immediately. When you asked him what he wanted to hear he went right to Elvis and grabbed "Get Happy" to which you replied "The Duke wants to get happy so we'll all get happy" And "happy" we all got indeed. Particularly me as it was my introduction to that record (notice I didn't say CD). I went home at the end of that weekend and went directly to the Walpole mall to Strawberries (I think that was the name of the record store but I am certain you will correct me if I'm wrong). I went to the C's and saw "Imperial Bedroom". It was the only LP of his they had on cassette so I bought it in lieu of "Get Happy." I got in the car and popped it in the deck and was immediately entranced. How could I not be when it starts off with Pete Thomas moaning "Ohhhhh" as he counted off the first to beats on his hi-hat going into "Beyond Belief"?

I sat in the parking lot and listed to the entire record. I was scared shitless by the haunting production and subject matter and moved so much that I needed to get out of the car and have a smoke. I sat in that old Shit brown Buick LaSabre for two more listens through. It was the only record I listened to for at least a week.

You mentioned the lyrics "...you drink yourself insensitive and hate yourself in the morning..." Amazing!! Also as profound on the same topic was "...battle with the bottle is nothing so novel..." This record completely changed the way I viewed songwriting. It now was truly to be looked at as an art form.

I'd like to add that this is a well written story and the performance of "Man Out of Time" is a great one at that particularly from a vocal point of view.

Lastly, I apologize for the length of this posting but "I'm the Town Crier" after all.

Greg W said...

Well besides WBAB, where you only went to get your fill of Zebra, and Fingers Metal Shop... there was WLIR which later became WDRE...who could forget Malibu Sue?..or when WAPP went commercial free that summer? For the most part NY radio is unlistenable...they even messed with WCBS FM. Glad to here it was much better in MASS.

Greg W said...

Oh and +1 for mentioning Freaks and Geeks...what a tremendous show and incredible sound track...shame it lasted barely one season,,while shows like According To Jim get 9 seasons...WTF?

Chris_Giordano said...

Thanks, Bill. It's my favorite Costello tune as well. I've always loved the line: "Love is always scarpering or cowering or fawning".

Danny said...

Bill-- that was good... ha ha ha!!! Well done....

Brendan and I were in "JT Carrington's" the other night-- that was the bar where the older "Hitters" hung out. We saw some of the old hitters there. They were listening to disco music. I said to Brendan, "How could we let those guys who liked that awful music beat us?"

We both shook our heads in disbelief.

"Billy" also hated birds. He'd go around the neighborhood with his BB-gun looking to kill anything with wings. Just to add a little more "insight" to his personality.... ha ha ha!!!

Bill Janovitz said...

Thanks, Danny, Paul, Rick, friends, Romans, Countrymen! I'm just glad anyone is reading/listening!

Danny, I will someday have to tell the story of Edui, the scariest of all bullies. But, as I have not even mentioned Billy's last name, you can see these goons jaunt me to this day and I fear retribution even now!

Randy Reichardt said...

Bill, my apologies for responding late this week, it's been insanely busy and a downer at times. I can relate to bullies, having been bullied mercilessly for years in school. I know I've never recovered fully from it either.

"...but as the years fly by, to think back on the teens, the upheaval seemed to last for decades and the bittersweet changes take on a more acute sort of agony." I don't know what to say, except that this is so true. I hope you consider, one day, writing a book of essays or commentary, because clearly those of us following your C(s)otW also come here to read your well-written back stories.

I love the picture of you and your friends, and relate to the tradegy of loss of one or more. Agony indeed. (This week I learned that the third member of a quartet of good friends of which I was a member in high school perished tragically in a house fire in Vancouver in February. The other two had passed earlier from cancer, in 1998 and 2007. I'm the only one left, and I feel displaced and numb. This is not supposed to have happened by 55.)

There is no privacy with the Internet. I have friends who cannot be found online, but it is only because they have common names. I've always said that if you didn't want to be found online, never work for a publicly-funded institution (as I do), because your name WILL be listed on that institution's web site *somewhere*.

Recently two friends from the early-70s in Winnipeg found me via Facebook, and as you suggest with those you have found, my friends' personalities are still pretty much the same. And I love them for it.

The guitars on this song sound rich and gorgeous, and the vocals are solid. Are you using two different guitars, or just recording two different tracks with the same acoustic?

I'm sorry if this response seems to be less than coherent, but as always simply wanted to thank you again for your weekly gift to us of the CotW. What a treat. And the video of your kids rocking out to Mott is priceless and a true smiler.

Wishing you a great week.

Chad H. said...

Your insight into social circles in your formative years is really great! I love Freaks and Geeks for the same reasons. But, your description seems so spot on. It makes me very nostalgic. Interestingly, I find "Let Me Come Over" to be one of the most nostalgia invoking albums I own. Great writing Bill!