If you ain’t rockin’ it, don’t be knockin’ it
A couple weeks ago I wrote a column about the rock music of my Gilded Youth, which elicited an interesting ADE Guest Commentary. In it, Steve Lester of Lake Placid attempted to explain why the music most people like is that of their adolescence and early adulthood.
His source was a book, “This Is Your Brain on Music” by Daniel J. Levitin, “a neuroscientist (and former rocker).” According to Mr. Levitin, it has to do with “adolescent brain development,” which if I remember my adolescence, sounds like an oxymoron. Anyhow, paraphrasing Mr. Levintin very loosely, at around age 14 our brains really ramp up, so the music we hear then and, a while after, leave not just the greatest impressions but lifelong ones.
As far as theories go, it sounds like a good one. But it’s not one I agree with — at least not when it comes to me and my peers and our music. I think the reason we still love old rock ‘n’ roll is because, no matter how you cut it, it’s flat-out fabulous.
To me, rock ‘n’ roll had two distinct eras — BB and AB — Before Beatles and After Beatles.
Clearly, Elvis kicked of the whole rock scene in 1956, but he didn’t originate the genre. Country, blues and what we quaintly called “soul music” were rock’s roots, and Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly were the ones who merged that music into a new form. As proof of the role Berry played, check out early Beach Boys’ stuff, and you’ll see it’s less Chuck Berry-influenced than an out-and-out rip-off.
As for Buddy Holly’s contribution? The Beatles took their name as a play on Holly’s group, the Crickets. ‘Nuff said.
But here’s the thing about so much early rock ‘n’ roll: Not only was it great music, with good lyrics, accompanied by wonderful voices (Fabian to the contrary) — it HAD to be. The competition was too fierce for mediocrity to last, let alone prevail.
A very small sample of the talent: the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bobby Darren, the Vogues, the Duprees, Barbara Lewis, all the girl groups, Dion and the Belmonts, Jay and the Americans, the Platters, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Connie Francis, the Drifters, Mary Wells … The list may not be literally endless, but I could easily devote the rest of this column just to naming the greats and near-greats and I wouldn’t be halfway through it.
And if you’ve forgotten how good those performers were, or you’re too young to remember, go to YouTube and give a listen to the Fleetwoods’ “Mister Blue,” Timi Yuro singing “Hurt” or Brenda Lee singing anything. If they don’t move you, you’ve either got a heart of stone or no pulse.
After Elvis, the Beatles were the next scene-changers. They invaded the colonies on Ed Sullivan in February 1964, and rock ‘n’ roll (and all of us) were never the same. In a very short time they went from basic “Wanna Hold Your Hand” fare to thought-provoking ballads (in “Rubber Soul”) to full-blown psychedelia with “Sgt. Pepper.” And they swept the rest of pop music, and damn near the whole world, along with them. As pop music changed in style, form and content, so did everything else, and by 1967 it seemed the world I grew up in was a long-lost civilization, and the one I was witnessing was going to hell in a handcart.
We bopped till we dropped
Don’t get me wrong. I love a lot of the AB music, right into the late 1970s. But I’ve a special fondness for the earlier stuff for one reason beyond its quality alone: We had direct and constant contact with it, thanks to our local and regional bands.
The ’50s and ’60s were times when handcrafts were ubiquitous. It seemed we tried all sorts of crafts: leathercraft, sewing, knitting, woodcarving, painting, drawing and so on. And almost all of us, like the generations before us, tried to play music, so there were a lot of kids who played one instrument or another. Thus when rock stormed in, bands sprouted almost overnight, like mushrooms after a big rain.
As one might expect, their skills varied, but they all had one thing in common: All of them were sure to get a gig, and an audience, somewhere. Remember, back then our only “sound system” was a jukebox. Plus, home phonographs and radios couldn’t put out anywhere near the power and fidelity of today’s car CD player. So live music was IT!
A bunch of the bars and roadhouses had bands on the weekends, but you had to be 18 (or at least LOOK 18) to get in. But the soda and zit crowd could hear music in the high school dances, private parties and of course in the Teen Canteen.
I left town in 1964, and since a lot of the kids in bands were younger than me, I was gone when they were gigging, so I never heard them. Luckily, a call to my childhood pal Bernie Branch filled in some of the lost chapters. Bernie and his brother Bumper were in a bunch of those bands, with unforgettable names like the Fugitives, the Madmen, the B-Fours and Old Spice. Bernie also remembered a Tupper band he labeled “great” — Penthouse Suite. Of course, there were a lot of bands and musicians he didn’t mention, but had you stood in Berkeley Square in those Glory Days and thrown half a brick in any direction, you would’ve hit at least one rock star wannabe.
Interestingly, a bunch of the kids in those bands became accomplished lifelong musicians, among them Bernie and Bumper, Al Sutphen, Bruce Arnold, Gary Ryan and Skip Outcalt. Bernie himself is not only a fine musician and singer, but an entertainer as well, and one I try to catch every time he’s in town.
Most of the bands came and went, and names and lineups changed, but they were all popular. If a band could play a barely passable rendition of “Louie Louie,” they had their fair share of fans, shakin’ their groove thangs till closing time.
With all those bands around, it was inevitable some of them would be first-rate, and that sure happened in the North Country. In Malone, it was the Falcons. In Plattsburgh, it was the Thunderbolts. And in My Home Town, it was the Persuaders. And was it ever!
The Persuaders were a quintet — Doug Kenny on lead guitar and vocals, Al Sutphen on sax and vocals, Brian Patnode on rhythm guitar, John Kains on bass and Terry Tyler on drums — and they rocked the house … EVERY house. Not only were they the tight, skilled and dynamic rock and roll group you had to love, they LOOKED the part as well, in slick lapel-less suits with pegged pants and pointed shoes.
For a four-hour gig, they were paid a hundred bucks, which sounds like peanuts, but it’s not. Catch this: They gigged seven nights a week, so each guy made $140 a week, which at the time was more than any of their fathers made. Peanuts, indeed.
My favorite place to see them was in the K of C hall (now the Elks Club) every Thursday during the summer of ’64. It was also their favorite place to play, since hundreds of us paid a buck apiece to get in, making it the band’s most lucrative venue. The joint was jammed to the rafters with kids from all the Tri-Lakes, every one of them having a ball.
My favorite song by them was the Gerry and the Pacemakers classic, “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.” If there was ever a better song to close a dance, and a better band to play it, I never heard it.
So when it comes to why we love our favorite music, Daniel Levitin has his pet theory, and I have mine. And in the case of rock ‘n’ roll, I think mine is better.
How dare I doubt someone with such advanced and specialized education?
It’s simple, really.
Mr. Levitin is a neuroscientist, which gives him lots of creds. But in my book, being a FORMER rocker takes those creds away.
And history supports me on this, as is evident by the ancient Latin phrase I just invented:
“Numquam etiam veteris ut petram et tortamque!”