Jukebox Hero 2: I Will Follow

June 29, 2017

To break things up, I’m occasionally posting chapters for the memoir I wrote a few years ago about my adventure with rock stars. Here’s one of two about U2. Chapter 1, about the Runaways is here: Queens of Noise

Chapter 2:  U2 (Part 1 of 2) – I Will Follow

Soundtrack song: “Sunday Bloody Sunday”

The great thing about working at a record store was you got to get the new music first and listen to it for free. Before I got the job at Turtles, I would find out the release date of a new album and what time the store got its shipment and be there with bells on. In 1979, I was there to get new LPs by The Cars and George Harrison out of the box. First person in Stone Mountain, Georgia to hold a copy of Gary Numan’s Pleasure Principle in his hands. When I started at Turtles in 1981, this became a biweekly thrill; Tuesdays and Fridays. I had gotten the job thanks to David Riderick. David was the bass player for Riggs (who had two great songs on the Heavy Metal soundtrack in 1981) and worked at Turtles. When I was just a fan, he’d let me into the new shipments first. Finally he convinced Jimmy Cisson, the manager, to just hire this kid and let him open his own damn boxes. I’ll never forget opening the box for Michael Jackson’s Thriller in 1982 with a crowd of fans lined up at the door. I wasn’t the only one who needed the music ASAP.

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Most of the world got U2’s first album, Boy, in late 1980. For obvious reasons (it was Stone Mountain), it didn’t show up at the Memorial Drive Turtles until early 1981. I was immediately interested because it was produced by Steve Lillywhite, who had recorded some XTC albums I was obsessed with (and my favorite Siouxsie & the Banshees song, “Hong Kong Garden”). It was exciting seeing how punk was evolving in the new decade. And I loved “breaking a new record;” selling an album or single to people who didn’t know they wanted it. Maybe that was a bit of my dad, the salesman, at work. A single by Diesel, “Sausalito Summernight” was a huge hit in America in 1981 largely because of my convincing people in Stone Mountain to buy it. Also, the success of The Go-Go’s. That was me.

I loved the ringing guitars and emphatic vocals of “Bono Vox” on Boy. The album just seemed important and I played it constantly in the store (and refused to play REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity). Jeremy Graf, the lead guitarist from Riggs, was working part-time at the store during a big sale and hated the record. He’d tell me the band was “whiney” and would never go anywhere. Riggs was a great rock band and I’ll just leave it at that. Boy was a hard sell in Stone Mountain. We were selling tons of Kim Carnes records, but not much U2.

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I could write a whole book about how the older Turtles, like Jeff Aronoff, Eric Wiggle, Nan Fischer, and David Remy, turned me on to real music. They would drag me to shows like B.B. King and say, “Randy, Eric Clapton is not the blues. THIS is the blues.” So I was thrilled when I saw that U2 was coming to the Agora Ballroom. The Agora was a small downtown venue across the street from the Fox Theatre that you had to be 18 to get in to. When I was in high school, I’d sit outside the stage door and listen to shows by The Pretenders, The Police, AC/DC, and The Clash (there is a picture from that show on the back of London Calling). My fake ID turned 18 on February 20, 1980 (my 16th birthday), and I became a regular at the Agora. The chance to bring my fellow Turtles to see my new favorite band would pay back all the great music they had turned me on to.

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On May 6, 1981, The Agora was maybe half-full but U2 filled the place up with sound. Bono’s stage presence was hypnotic. On “I Will Follow,” he dramatically threw his cup of water into the air and it landed on Larry Mullen’s drums, bouncing off the skins. The band embodied the punk ideal of erasing the barrier between bands and fans. I knew that this would be another of my “I saw them when” moments. No doubt the 200 who were there still talk about that night in 1981. And one of the nice things was that at clubs like that, it was relatively easy to meet the performers. After the show, the band came back to the stage to break down the equipment. We talked to Bono about the show and how we were pushing Boy at the store. When my enthusiasm got the better of me, my workmates described me as the “baby Turtle.” I picked up a Penrod’s matchbook from the floor and asked him to sign it. He wrote, “To Randy, the baby Turtle, Bono.” I still have it inside my copy of Boy.

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When their second album, October, came out, I got deep in to its mysticism. Was it a Christian album? I had wrestled with the wisdom of rejecting my Presbyterian roots, deep in the Bible Belt, for something more “spiritual.” I only knew that a rare airing of the “Gloria” video was the only reason to find MTV (which wasn’t available in much of the South yet). They opened up for the J. Geils Band and the Atlanta Civic Center on March 11, 1982. J. Geils had finally made it, thanks to their song, “Centerfold,” and U2 was still pretty unknown. Older rockers in the audience told me to sit down when U2 opened their set with “Gloria” and I leapt to my feet. By the last song, “Out of Control,” they had won over the crowd. After the concert, I tried to find my “friend,” Bono by the stage door but the opening band was long gone.

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In the summer of 1982, I went off to school in London. I wanted to get away from Stone Mountain and get closer to the music I loved (especially all things Beatle-related). I had finished my freshman year at Oxford College and when the opportunity came to study in London, I caught the first flight from JFK to Heathrow. I saw a million shows that summer, from the massive to the tiny. I caught the Rolling Stones at Leeds, The Clash in Brixton, and The Lords of the New Church in a hotel bar in Hammersmith, where I had my arm pulled out of the socket while slam dancing. When I saw that U2 was opening for The Police up in Newcastle on July 31st, I went to a West End ticket office and a bought ticket for the show and the coach to ferry me up there. Seeing U2 playing to the huge arena of people who seemed to know every word was both super-cool and a bit sad. I knew I wouldn’t be watching them play at the tiny Agora again.

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When I returned from London in the fall, I immediately began planning my return to the UK. If I had my summers off from college, there was no reason I couldn’t spend them in London, seeing bands and shopping for mod clothes on Carnaby Street. I’d work double shifts at Turtles and bank the money. Fortunately, I could use my employee discount on new albums, like U2’s third release, War. I really dug War because it was more political, like a Clash album. It captured the fear of living in Ronald Reagan’s Cold War, where the world could end at any minute. It only takes a second to say goodbye.

I was 19 and dating a women who was six years older than me with a young son. Reneé was a bartender at the 688 Club, the famous punk venue I was pretty much living in by 1983. Reneé’s best friend, Babs, was back from living in London for a bit and let me know her boyfriend, Steve, was the violinist on War. He added the chilling bit on “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” among other accompaniment. When I mentioned to Babs that I was planning my return to London, she mentioned that she and Steve lived in a squat in Brixton (sight of the 1981 Brixton youth riots where I had gone to see The Clash play in the year before) and I was welcome to crash there. Perfect; a free crash pad in London with a guy that plays with U2.

After catching U2’s big headline show at the Atlanta Civic Center, with The Alarm opening, (I still couldn’t get backstage) I headed back to London. I caught the Victoria line Tube to the last stop, Brixton and walked down Electric Avenue to a massive abandoned apartment building. Squatters had taken over the flats on Cold Harbour Lane and if London had a ghetto, this was it. I stood in the rain and loved it, The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” playing in my head. It was late and Babs looked a bit surprised when I knocked on the door, like, “Holy shit. This kid actually showed up!”

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I instantly hit it off with Steve Wickham. He wasn’t just a name on a U2 record, he was a sweet funny Irish guy who loved American music. Since it was summer, the flat was never too cold and two more Irish roommates and a cast of visitors made my new home seem very warm, even if the hot water only came on once a week. I had taken to my punk lifestyle, dying my hair fuschia and getting tips from German punks who used egg whites to keep their spikes up. The French girls next door would occasionally dress me and I played Velvet Underground songs with the Irish buskers and, one night, told stories about hobbits during a party where everyone was on LSD but me.

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Life on Brixton in 1983 was brilliant. There was a constant flow of reggae music bubbling up from windows and the market. There was a Marxist bookstore and an almost daily rally against South African apartheid. The squat was like a 24-7 scene from The Young Ones, with punks, mods, and Irish musicians showing up with cider and buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken. I learned how to ride the Tube for free and would be yelled out by little old English ladies for blasting UB40 tapes out of my boombox in the subway.

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The highlight of the summer was going to be a trip to Dublin. U2 was wrapping up their War tour with a big show in Phoenix Park on August 14 with Simple Minds, the Eurythmics, Big Country, and Steel Pulse. Steve left a week early to rehearse with the band. I took the coach to Holyhead, Wales with two Irish flatmates and their French girlfriends and then headed across the Irish Sea. It was the beginning of a long odyssey in Eire that would open my soul to the true power of music and revolution.

In Ireland, Steve had been reunited with his band, In Tua Nua. They were headquartered on the island of Howth, just to the east of Dublin. Drummer Paul Byrne had a cottage on the sea that was my crash pad for the week. The quaint place, on a high cliff above Balscadden Bay, also housed band member Vinnie Kilduff, who played the Irsh uillean pipes on War. In Tua Nua were about to be signed to U2’s new record label, Mother Records, with their new singer Leslie Dowdall (who had replaced one Sinéad O’Conner).

After getting settled, Steve and I hitchhiked up to the top of Howth, to The Summit pub. At the time, The Summit was really the only place to get a pint of the black water (aka Guinness) and some Irish bonhomie on the island of Howth. There we ran into Bono, who was relaxing in the days before the big homecoming concert. Steve was going to introduce me when Bono walked up and said, “Randy, the baby Turtle!” remembering our brief meeting in Atlanta two years earlier. This was my first glimpse into Bono’s sponge-like brain. We enjoyed a pint, talked about whatever country Reagan was overthrowing that week, and shared excitement about Saturday’s Phoenix Park show.

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The concert was incredible. I spent some of it backstage (hanging out with The Alarm) but I was a big fan of every act on the bill. I was impressed at how European crowds sang along to every song and the Irish were twice as enthusiastic. The fans cooled the hot August afternoon by drinking from big mylar bags of cider that had been ripped from their cardboard boxes. Clouds of sweated-out cider and beer steam hung over the throng (I don’t think I ever went to a show in Europe were there were actually “seats”). When U2 hit the stage, the crowd was frenzied. It was like slam dancing with thousands of people. And when Steve and Vinnie joined the band, everyone cheered at two more of their hometown boys in the big league. I got to meet the rest of U2 after the show, Larry, Adam, and Edge, but it was all a blur. I was too excited to remember any of it.

I returned that fall to begin my junior year at Emory and have other musical adventures. I became the entertainment editor of The Emory Wheel and kept in touch with Steve and Babs and started saving for my trip back. After getting married, Babs and Steve left the squat in Brixton and moved to Dublin where Steve was going to devout his full time fiddling for In Tua Nua. It was agreed that I should plan on spending the summer of 1984 in Dublin and I could work as a roadie for the band.

June couldn’t come fast enough. Flying into Dublin from New York was much different than flying into London. The plane was filled with Irish souls heading home. There was much drinking and singing on the flight. Fiddles and whiskey were passed across the seats. It was a dose of the Irish muse that follows the Irish around, getting them through the hell of their history. Babs and Steve met me at the gate and we headed to their new flat on Rathmines Road.

The flat was small, but I had a little pallet in the back to sleep on. I figured I could earn my keep by telling tales of life in America, playing the latest cassettes, and, in general, being entertaining. There was also some big news that I knew about in advance. First, U2 was working on a new album at Windmill Lane Studios and Steve was going to lay down some violin parts. And second, my hero, Bob Dylan, was playing a massive outdoor concert on July 8 at Slane Castle. In Tua Nua was on the bill and I was going to be the drum roadie.

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In the past year, I had become a student of Irish history and “the troubles.” When I was a student in London in 1982, the IRA had set off a series of bombs. One was under a bandstand in Regents Park where I often studied. I had a marginal bit of knowledge, mainly from two songs from 1972, John Lennon’s “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” and Paul McCartney’s “Give Ireland Back to the Irish.” I quickly added Eire to my radical history crash course after that, especially after my quick trip to Belfast in 1983, when British soldiers took the film out of my camera for taking pictures of the wrong thing (British soldiers). Slane Castle was on the River Boyne, near the site of the 1690 Battle of the Boyne. It was there that the Protestant King William defeated the Catholic King James, beginning a long history of foreign rule of Ireland. The concert would be a chance to experience the intersection of Irish and rock history.

I rode to the show in the van with In Tua Nua past the 100,000 people who wanted to be in the same physical space with the legendary Bob Dylan. The band teased me about wearing shorts and I informed them that this appropriate attire for a roadie at a festival. UB40 and Santana were on also on the bill. In Tua Nua, who had put out a wonderful 12 inch single on Mother Records, was now being courted by U2’s own label, Island Records. An A&R man from Island, known as The Captain, was waiting for us backstage. The Captain was a guy named Nick Stewart who had signed U2 to Island in 1980. But we were all more excited about being close to Dylan.  He was a mythical character and none of us really knew what he looked like up close. I had seen him in 1980 at the Fox Theater, but I was about twenty rows back and the clouds of pot smoke and Frisbees were in the way. At one point, a guy that looked like the man walked by and a friend shouted out, “Welcome to Ireland, Mr. Dylan!” He turned around and with a smile said, “I’m not Bob but I’ll tell him you said so.” A guy that knew Bob Dylan, that was pretty close!

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I was about to go bother Carlos Santana, who was standing alone on the banks of the Boyne when Paul Byrne asked me to come to the stage and help set up his drum kit. I was working after all. The crowd was the biggest I’d ever seen and when In Tua Nua started the set they roared in approval. Leslie looked great in her black leather skirt and very un-Irish tan. Steve lept about the stage wearing a polka-dot shirt I had found in the basement of Walter’s Fine Clothes in Atlanta. The band was tight and my big job was to make sure Paul’s vocal mike swung in when he had to sing background vocals. Being on stage with the band, hearing the music through the monitors, and looking down on the huge crowd was such a rush. If only I had a bit of musical talent that would justify me stepping out of the shadows.

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After their set, Steve and I headed up the castle to watch the UB40 set. U2 had been recording there with Brian Eno, so it wasn’t that surprising that we ran into Bono in the VIP area. He gave me a big hug and we talked about how great the In Tua Nua set was. Steve snapped a picture of us there and I have the goofiest look on my face. It was such a great day and about to get better. As much as I loved UB40 and Santana, I only remember hanging on Bono’s coattails, hoping he would introduce me to Eno. However, my All Access Pass meant that I could watch Dylan from a castle on a hill or from a few feet way.

I found a perfect spot in front of the stage, in front of the barrier that separated Bob from 100,000 screaming Dylan fans. I think the Irish cared more about Bob than the Americans did because, unlike TV obsessed Americans, the Irish actually care about poetry and politics. Bob was still in a bit of a lost phase (that he really wouldn’t emerge from until 1997), but when he opened with “Highway 61 Revisited,” you would have thought that he was the fucking messiah. I was ten feet from him the whole time, snapping pictures and hoping I wouldn’t run out of film before something major happened.

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At the end of the show, Dylan announced a special guest and the patron saint of Irish music, Van Morrison walked on stage and the Boyne Valley erupted in jubilation. Bob and Van the Man dueted on “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “Tupelo Honey” and you could just feel the cosmic synergy. Then it was over. But the sweaty Irish masses demanded more. The summer sun was still up and there were a million more Dylan songs to get to. So out comes Bob and tells people there is another special guest, “Bono from U2!” But he pronounced “Bono” like “Bozo,” like “Bono the Clown.” The crowd loved it. It wasn’t just Bono out their with Dylan. Leslie and Steve were on stage too! And of course, I was out of film. Bob launched into “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat.” Bono and Leslie, not knowing the words (who does?) just sang “leopard skin pill-box hat” at odd moments and Steven fiddled away.

Bob played three more songs but I raced behind the stage to meet up with Leslie, Steve, and Bono, all who could not believe that they just performed with the actual guy that every busker in Ireland was trying to become. The sun was now down and I helped pack up the bands gear, wishing I had worn long pants.

After the show, we went to the Pink Elephant basement bar to celebrate the great gig. It was a classic 80s small disco bar with plenty of mirrors and colored lights. I would regularly see Def Leppard there. They were living in Ireland as a tax dodge and would huddle in a booth together with their pints of lager. Dublin in 1984 seemed like the least heavy metal place on earth. I got a kick out of telling them that my little brother (not me) was a big fan. They seemed to be happy that anyone knew who they were. I spent the rest of the night dancing to Frankie Goes to Hollywood songs with Sinead O’Conner. But that is another story for another chapter.

I think reuniting with Bono at Slane gave Steve permission to bring me down to Windmill Lane Studios, where U2 was working on their new album. We stopped in the Temple Bar first where we ran into Adam Clayton, the bass player. He was wearing a printed shirt with images of the Ku Klux Klan and burning crosses. I told him about growing up in a Klan town in Georgia and he talked about how the new album was going to be full of themes about American culture. Forget being the first to get the record out of the box, I was going to hear this album before it was even made!

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In the studio, Bono was working on a song about the heroin problem in Dublin. He didn’t have any words for it but it would evolve into the epic, “Bad.” The band’s backing track played and Bono yelped and hummed and found words that fit the vibe. “Let it go!” The band was interested in Steve laying down some soulful lines on his fiddle and Bono gave him a demo tape to work with. I noticed a few cassettes in the trashcan and quietly slid them into my pocket. Bono seemed glad I was there and I later asked Steve if he could get me a job as a gofer in the studio so I could have a legitimate reason to hang out and watch the sessions. I got a call at Rathmines a few days later, while I was watching Miami Vice, to go pick up some bass strings for Adam. That was enough. And there is a song on Unforgettable Fire with a great bass part that are played on strings I bought.

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Skimming the edge of the U2 inner circle was a thrill, but I had my own rock career to nurture. Since 1983, I had been helping out a great Atlanta band called The Nighporters that I will write more about. (They were the band that morphed into Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, the band that would dominate my rock n roll lifestyle for years to come.) By the summer of 1984, The Nightporters had a single, were selling out shows at 688, and had opened for The Clash. So I spent a good bit of time trying to break them in Ireland. I gave Bono a copy of a tape and I’d hunt down RTE DJs at the record station’s commissary and put the 45, “Mona Lisa,” in their hands along with a photocopy of a picture of the marquee at the Fox Theatre with The Nightporters’ name right below The Clash’s. To my credit, “Mona Lisa” blasted out across the Irish airwaves one night that summer.

My love of underground bands was the source of great interest for Bono. He knew there were scores of brilliant bands that would never have the success that U2 had. We talked about the Paisley Underground bands in LA, the hard-core bands in Washington, DC, and the drunken post-punk bands in Minneapolis. Bono hit on the idea of using Mother Records to get some of these groups more exposure and deputized me to collect demo tapes from unsigned bands that would expose the real sound of America. This was an easy task for me as there was a vast underground of music sharing that had nothing to do with computers. Bands would come through town, sleep on your couch and leave a handful of cassettes, like musical Johnny Appleseeds. I was actually looking forward to my return to the States to begin my job as Bono’s hipster A&R man.

The rest of the summer was filled with music and travel. I went to London with In Tua Nua to meet with The Captain at Island and watch the signing of the record deal. Nick and I had bonded after the Dylan show. We spent the next afternoon running up and down Grafton Street looking for a leopard skin pillbox hat for Leslie to commemorate her song with Dylan. At Island, there was a large white board with hand-written info about tours and releases from various Island acts. Standing in front of the wall was a big haired guy I recognized as Mike Scott of The Waterboys, another Island band.

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I cut loose from the band to visit some students at my old London dorm. I made a trek down to Brighton in my parka, like a mod Hajj.  A friend from college took pictures of me on the beach, trying to recreate the images from Quadrophenia. Then I headed off to Paris (in the days when you had to go across the English Channel, not under it). I ended up meeting some American girls from Colorado on the Champs Elysees and watched the L.A. Olympics in their hotel room while they smoked hash and asked me what it was like to be Irish. I put on my best Irish accent in the hopes it would charm them into letting me crash on the floor. Or in a bed.

One of the girls, Debbie, seemed to like all things Irish, including U2. I told her about life in Dublin and working with the band and told her she should visit some time. She was on a package trip and they were headed to London next. We made plans to meet in a few days. As I waited her outside her London hotel on Piccadilly Circus, a female copper tried to get me to move away, assuming I was trying to meet a prostitute. In Piccadilly Circus? Fortunately, Debbie came out in time and I gave her an Irish boy’s tour of London, careful not to drop my brogue I had been practicing all summer. I gave my address in Dublin (really Steve and Babs’ address) and sent her off on her package tour of Europe.

When I got back to Dublin, I decided it was time to head back up to the North. I took a train up to Belfast. I learned my lesson after my trip the previous summer and vowed to be more discrete around any soldiers. This time I was armed with books about the IRA, the loyalists, Green Republicans, and Orange coppers.  On August 12, I took a train across the border into the North. This happened to be the same day that Martin Galvin was headed to Belfast. Galvin was an Irish-Lawyer who had been banned from entering Northern Ireland because of his leadership of NORAID. NORAID was an American group that provided supported financial aid to the IRA and Galvin was a major thorn in the side of the British government.

When I showed up in the Catholic neighborhood in Belfast where Galvin was going to speak with a bag full of books on Irish nationalism, I learned a quick lesson about global politics. I assumed that my American passport gave me international immunity from local conflicts. When the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) saw me snapping pictures of British soldiers (a serious transgression as the IRA targeted known soldiers), they questioned me, took my camera and my passport. They asked me if I was with NORAID. I tried to explain that my name was Czech, not Irish and, as much as I hated saying it, I was a tourist. That wasn’t good enough and I was held for questioning.

That might have been a good thing, since shortly after that, the RUC opened fire on the crowd that Galvin was speaking to. A guy about my age named Sean Downes was killed by a plastic bullet. The RUC questioned me on a side street. Once they realized I was a dumb American who had just listened to too many U2 records they let me go. They did wait until after the last train for Dublin had left and trailed me as I looked for a Bed & Breakfast to camp out in. The couple who ran it delighted me in tales of the “English savages.” When I made it back to college in the fall the whole experience became a part of my senior honors thesis, “A Marxist Analysis of the Irish Conflict.”

When I got back to Dublin from Belfast, there was a postcard from Debbie. She was coming to Dublin to see me. I went into a panic. I had pretended to be Irish because I thought being a kid from Stone Mountain, Georgia in Paris wouldn’t really get me anywhere. I explained my charade to Steve and Babs and they fell all over in hysterics. I begged them to help me keep up the act so I wouldn’t look like a complete idiot. When Debbie knocked on the door of the flat I quickly pulled her onto a bus for Grafton Street. Steve and Babs tagged along, constantly quizzing me on my Irish lineage and how Randy Blazak was actually a “very Irish name.” It was torture, We seemed to run into everybody the next few days. They all had the same puzzled look when I began to speak in my fake Irish accent. I’m not sure what Debbie made of it. Probably that I was an idiot.

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That fall, back at college, I busied myself helping The Nightporters and finding tapes of cool bands for Bono. It was always cool when a letter from him would show up in my Emory PO box. When The Unforgettable Fire came out in October it just blew me away. It was such a departure from the strident War album. I would listen to the hypnotic “Bad” in my dorm room and think about the early version I heard Bono working on in Windmill Lane. And I knew the tour was going to be a major event.

During the spring, I was on top of my game. I had become the leading campus activist, leading demonstrations against apartheid and whatever Reagan was up to that week. I was flying to LA to hang out with rock star friends. I was loving my “Philosophy of Marxism” course, taught by a Catholic priest. The dogwoods were in bloom and my little clique of campus freaks had colonized the steps of Cox Hall. And on one sunny day, while I was organizing a protest, or a road trip, there was Debbie from Colorado. “Randy! What are you doing here?”

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How I Learned to Stop Fearing Teenage Girls and Started Loving Harry Styles

June 8, 2017

I love the new Harry Styles album and I don’t care who knows.

Obviously gender socialization has played a role in the music I’ve loved (I was a sergeant in the Kiss Army in 1977, after all), but it has also played a part in the music I am supposed to hate. So much of the “Disco Sucks” movement in the 70s was steeped in deep-rooted homophobia (and racism). Real (white) guys liked ROCK and anybody who liked the Bee Gees must be a “fag.” I chanted “Disco sucks!” with the rest of the boys but secretly thought “Staying Alive” was a pretty damn good song.

This was especially true with teen idols. I was taught to hate them the most. If teenage girls loved them, they must be devoid of any musical quality whatsoever. Those screaming girls care more about their haircuts and cute smiles than their musical chops. I mean, seriously, what kind of name is “The Beatles”? What will they ever accomplish?

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So here’s a secret. Circa 1973, 9-year-old Randy was seriously into The Osmond Brothers. (If you’ve never heard “Crazy Horses,” listen to it now, loud.) They had a cool Saturday morning cartoon (as did the Jackson 5 and Rick Springfield), and since there was no MTV, it was how I first “saw” my music. I would put their records on on my parents’ hifi and go into my bedroom and pretend “my brothers” were rehearsing in the living room. I was the Osmond they never talked about, Randy Osmond. I even had Donny’s album, My Best To You, so “Puppy Love” played in my house.

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I would read Tiger Beat magazine to keep up on all the latest news about my Saturday morning stars, including Michael Gray (Shazam!), Vince Van Patten and Kristy McNichol (Apple’s Way) and Johnny Whitaker (Sigmund & the Sea Monsters). I even learned a bit about religion. The Osmonds were Mormons and the Jackson 5 were Jehovah’s Witnesses. (I’m not sure what Sigmund and the Sea Monsters were. Lutherans?) That was until one day in late 1974.

I remember it as clear as a bell. I was standing in the hallway in our house with a copy of Tiger Beat trying to pull out a pinup of some fresh faced star (Anybody remember the DeFranco Family?). I already had one of David Cassidy on my wall. Then my 32-year-old father said, “Randy, you know those magazines are for girls, right?” It was a gender bomb dropped on my world. He signed me up for Boy Scouts, got me a subscription to Boy’s Life magazine and I quit the Osmond Brothers and switched my allegiance to Elton John. (I really hope you can see the irony in all this.)

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It was the beginning of bashing of all things teen idol related. Selling my soul to rock and roll was, at least in part, a way of publicly affirming my masculinity. When teen heartthrob Leif Garrett set a concert at Six Flag’s Over Georgia my friends and I made plans to go and throw tomatoes. (We didn’t.) And it’s been like that for every moppet that’s come along since then. Bay City Rollers? How about the Gay City Rollers. O-Town? More like O-Crap.  N’Sync = N”Suck. All the way through to Justin Bieber. I started a Twitter account to troll him called “Justin Bieber’s colon” and the Biebs himself started following my snark.

Now I couldn’t name you a single One Direction song. I know the tween lassies went potty for them in the early 2010’s, so they must suck, right? I just knew that they had stupid haircuts (unlike the stupid haircuts I had at that age that were perfectly cool). Just that week’s version of the Osmond Brothers filling the need for poster material in Tiger Beat.

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Then I saw the one with the stupidest haircut perform a track from his “solo” record (barf) on Saturday Night Live. It was Harry Styles and the song was “Sign of the Times.” Fuck me, it was good. Really good. Like Elton John good. It’s the kind of music that has been missing from Top 40 radio this millennium. Could there be more? The second song on SNL, “Ever Since New York,” was even better. Young Harry was playing guitar and there was a serious Badfinger influence. I wanted more.

When the album came out I wanted it and so did my wife. We were at Music Millennium Record Store and I completely chickened out and made her buy it. What would these lords of vinyl think of me if I plopped this CD down on the counter? Even if I stuck it between CDs by Sun Ra and Flogging Molly. Guys don’t buy this kind of dreck. She was slight angry at me about that one.

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Harry Styles has been spinning non-stop ever since. Pure pop bliss, with a dose of T. Rex and 70’s flair to sail over the heads of the One Direction Fan Club. It’s still the modern production formula with teams of songwriters helping Harry write the songs (Beyoncé does the same thing), so you never know if the sentiment belongs to the artist or one of the other five other guys credited. The producer is the guy who gave us “Uptown Funk.” There are plenty of reasons to hate it out of gate, but somehow it works. Every song is a gem and I am fully out as a Harry Styles fan.

The whole thing has caused me to reflect on over 30 years of a knee-jerk reaction that anything embraced by teenage girls is, by default, crap. It’s steeped in patriarchal thinking that somehow the musical tastes of 13-year-old boys are inherently superior to their female “teenybopper” counterparts and that the tastes and emotional lives of girls are irrelevant and to be devalued and mocked. Writer Barbara Ehrenreich once wrote that the wave of Beatlemania that swept America in 1964 was the first real flush of feminism for many baby boom girls. They were loudly proclaiming their sexual freedom as a collective voice. “Ringo! We want to rip your clothes off!” When I see the boys in the crowds at those Fab Four mob scenes, I always think they must really have been secure in their fledgling masculinity to be there (and incredibly lucky).

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Evolving is all about checking the crap you do without thinking. It’s time to stop writing off music because “girls” like it. I bet there might be a New Kids on the Block or Jonas Brothers song that’s not too bad. Frank Sinatra and The Monkees were in this category once. Maybe I actually should be paying more attention to what these screaming girls like. They were right about The Beatles. So thanks, Harry, for helping me to see the light.

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Jukebox Hero 1: Queens of Noise

In 2011, I started working on a memoir about some of my crazy stories with rock musicians and the songs that saved me, called Jukebox Hero. I was deep in the drama and writing was an outlet, so I wrote about my relationship with Bono and how I ended up on an Eminem song, and a bunch of other crazy tales. I thought this blog might be a good place to publish some of the chapters. The first one is about being a punk fan in rural Georgia and discovering The Runaways. I’ve already written about this revolutionary band and am now proud to include bassist Jackie Fox in my circle of social media friends. Since memoirs are all the rage (I’m reading Hillbilly Elegy right now), here’s where mine starts. (I should note that I wrote this piece before the disturbing allegations surfaced about the rape culture surrounding the young band,)

Chapter 1: The Runaways – Queens of Noise

Soundtrack song: “Neon Angels on the Road To Ruin”

Being a young rock fan in a rural southern town, like Stone Mountain, Georgia, in the 1970s pretty much sucked. The drinking age was 18, but that might as well have been 30 when you were 13. Besides, there were no rock clubs, let alone all-ages ones. There was no satellite radio, no iTunes, no MTV, nothing. If it weren’t for 96 Rock on the FM dial and some older kid’s copy of Circus magazine, you might as well have been living behind the Iron Curtain. You were stuck on Hee Haw Island with a bunch of rednecks who thought radical fashion was clogging with tap shoes on. You know the movie Deliverance? These people were not cheering for Ned Beatty. They were cheering for the other guys.

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Stone Mountain was about 10 miles away from Atlanta, but it felt like a thousand miles from the exciting metropolis, whose motto was and is, “The city too busy to hate.” We had moved into one of the new subdivisions in 1972, when I was 8. Housing developments, like Woodridge, were popping up all over the whispering pine forests outside Atlanta. Each one would have about four or five styles of homes that would just repeat. Along with them came strip malls anchored with Eckerd’s drug stores and Big Star grocers. There was no suburban planning that envisioned places for young people to go or venues for musicians to play in. My house on Birch Ridge Trail was only near other houses exactly like it. The only good news was that they hadn’t invented video games yet, so we ran wild in the streets, the woods, and the half-built houses.

There were also really no ethnic or youth subcultures of any sort, other than the jocks and freaks of Redan High School. It was a time when if you didn’t listen to Ted Nugent or Waylon Jennings, you were branded a “pussy.” I remember in 1978 wearing a T-shirt by a new Australian band I had been getting into. I learned about them in Creem magazine. I was coming out of Spanish class and some longhaired redneck cornered me in the hall and said, “AC/DC, what is that? Are you some kind of a fag?” In those days, “AC/DC “ was slang for “going either way.” David Bowie was AC/DC. It’s not slang anymore. A year later I saw that same asshole in an AC/DC shirt. “OK, Blazak, you were right on that one.” Actually, I think he called me “Gayzak.”

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There was plenty of rock to find if you were willing to look. I got into The Who and the old mod bands I read about in rock history books and dreamed of Vespa scooters. The Beatles were my fantasy band. I was a sergeant in the Kiss Army. You couldn’t really see any of this music, up close at least. I went to my first concert when I was 9-years-old. My parents had the wisdom to take me to see Elvis Presley at the Omni Coliseum. I was hooked. My first real rock concert was when I was 12; Queen with Thin Lizzy opening. 1976. Brilliant. For my 13th birthday in 1977, my mom took me and some friends to see Kiss. It was the Love Gun tour and my head exploded. I pretty much went to every single concert after that.

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But at those shows, you were always a million miles from the stage. And this is long before Jumbotrons. Now you can go to a big concert and watch it on TV for only 150 bucks. In 1977, you paid $10 for a ticket and watched in through a cloud of pot smoke and firecrackers. Around that year, I began reading about this thing in Creem called “punk rock.” There was an article about a club called CBGBs in New York. The band on the low stage was called The Ramones and the guitarist’s Converse sneakers were hanging over the edge of the stage. People in the crowd were touching him. I didn’t know what it sounded like, but this was what I wanted, an end to the barrier between the musician and the fan.

There was really no way to find this music in Podunk Town in 1977. The radio was blasting big anthems for big arenas. Boston, Yes, ELO. And disco was creeping in, threatening to destroy every electric guitar in sight. I didn’t know that there were hipster record stores in Atlanta, like Wax N Facts and Wuxtry, that my mom or dad might’ve taken me to. I just knew that there were bands with names like The Dead Boys, The Jam, and The Sex Pistols that were playing music that I needed to hear. Some of it slipped through on Dr. Demento’s comedy radio show (I can still remember his playing of the Tuff Dart’s “Your Love is Like Nuclear Waste”). Some of it popped up on TV shows like Rock Concert and Midnight Special, where you might catch Mink Deville or Blondie. Hugh Hefner’s girlfriend, Barbie Benton, had a show called Sugar Time! That had an episode called “Punk Rock.” Her singing group, Sugar, decided to “go punk” and dress in trash bags but didn’t like people throwing trash at them (which is what punks did, according to the network).

A local UHF show called The Entertainment Page (live five days a week!) was a lifeline from Atlanta. They interviewed local and touring bands and showed videos long before there was an MTV. Groups like The Motors and Generation X blasted out of the TV in the family room. What I could hear was exhilarating! The guitars were loud, jagged and up front. The vocals were snotty. The songs were short and desperate. No endless guitar solos. In 1977, with some fellow eighth graders, I went to see Led Zeppelin at the Omni and fell sleep during “Moby Dick.” Boring.

Suddenly, salvation fell out of a magazine. I was reading Rolling Stone and an insert ad fell out on to the floor. The deal was this; you taped a penny to the card, mailed it in, and you could get twelve albums! There was something about buying a certain number of records over the next few years. Who cares? The albums listed in the ad were OK, some I already had. I needed to find another member of the Columbia House Record Club and get access to the database (again, music websites were almost twenty years off). My friend David Coston (and fellow Kiss Army member) had some of the monthly catalogs. I was ready to find 12 punk rock albums. Unfortunately, there were no punk rock albums. No Television. No Sex Pistols. But “punk” in those days was much broader. It included Patti Smith, Blondie, and The Talking Heads, all of whom would make it to the record clubs.

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So I used my 12 spots to fill out my record collection. A few Kiss albums, A Rock N Roll Alternative by the Atlanta Rhythm Section, Cat Scratch Fever by Ted Nugent (I didn’t want to my ass kicked). I had 11 and needed one more. There was an album called Queens of Noise by The Runaways. I had read about them in Creem or Hit Parader. They were all girls but they looked serious. It seemed pretty punk to me so I put the catalog number (271338) in box #12.  All the music I had listened to had been boy bands who liked to wack off on endless solos. Maybe an all girl-band would be my ultimate punk weapon against Nugent bully masculinity.

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When the twelve albums arrived, I quickly forgot about the other eleven. The snarling teen chicks from the Sunset Strip were my ticket into the subterranean world of underground rock. Loud, fast, rules. The booming bass of “Neon Angels on the Road to Ruin” drove my neighbors in the Woodridge subdivision to drink (or crank up their Waylon Jennings). I stared at the picture of Joan Jett, Jackie Fox, Cherie Currie, Lita Ford, and Sandy West, on the cover of Queens of Noise, and dreamt of escaping with them into the backstreets of Hollywood. I would never again feel the need to listen to what everyone else was listening to. I was on my own.

I continued to follow The Runaways as my identity as the lone punk fan at Redan High School evolved. David lent me his import copy of The Runaways Live in Japan and I leant him Waitin’ for the Night. Soon I got my hands on those Ramones records. I talked to Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie on The Entertainment Page and they gave me tickets to the Parallel Lines show at the Fox Theater (with Rockpile opening). I started dressing more “new wave” (which caused endless taunts). I would sneak a safety pin on to my Blue Oyster Cult concert shirt; peg my flaired Levi’s from The Gap with mom’s sewing kit.  I found import singles at record stores by bands with funny haircuts. I told people I went to the Sex Pistols show in Atlanta, but you had to be 18 to get in and I was only 14. I did see The Runaways with The Ramones that year and lots of people (including myself) trying to be “punk.” I was sad when singer Cherie Currie left the band and then The Runaways split up. But when Joan Jett’s first solo album came out in 1980, all was forgiven.

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By 1980, I had become a bit like Mike Damone in Fast Times At Ridgemont High. I wasn’t making out with girls to side one of Led Zeppelin IV (or any other music). But I was the guy with the great concert tickets. For whatever reason, my parents seemed perfectly OK with letting their teenage son camp out just about anywhere for concert tickets. In 1979, I dragged a sleeping bag and a lawn chair outside a Rich’s department store in the blackest part of Dekalb County (to insure a smaller line because all the white kids were at Lenox Mall) for the Kiss Dynasty tour (2nd row). In 1980, I camped out downtown in the freezing winter for Springsteen’s The River tour (20th row). That summer, I was back downtown camping out for Who tickets, for three days (8th row). Good seats meant I could usually find a date. I had front row center for AC/DC’s historic Back In Black concert at the Fox Theater and took the first girl who said she wanted to go.

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Joan Jett’s Bad Reputation was one of the first cross-over records from the underground. The Talking Heads and Blondie were on mainstream radio but they did it by sounding more commercial (even, gasp, disco). But Joan did it by sounding more like Suzi Quatro. Bad Reputation rocked hard. Even better, the girls who ignored me (unless I had front row tickets to see The Kinks) dug the female voice blasting out of the speakers in my 1973 Gran Torino. It was actually cooler to listen to Joan Jett than Christoper Cross! 16 was going to be my year. When I landed the job at Turtles Records on Memorial Drive, the geeky kid who liked “fag rock” suddenly was on the inside. I would be selling tickets to concerts I used to camp out for. I could sell cool music to the indbred, Nugent-loving rednecks to blast out of their Trans Ams. And I sold a shit-load of Joan Jett.

One of best parts of record stores in those days was the in-store appearance. Artists promoting their latest release would hang out in record stores and sign autographs. There’s a great scene in the film FM of a young Tom Petty doing an in-store at the Tower Records on Sunset.  I skipped school in 1980 with a few other new wavers to meet the B-52s at an in-store at Oz Records in Stone Mountain. Before that I stood line for an hour to meet the Ramones at an in-store at Peaches. Turtles had plenty of in-stores. I got to organize appearances by Missing Persons and Iron Maiden. When Joan Jett released I Love Rock N Roll in 1981 I prayed we’d get the in-store.

I Love Rock N Roll became a smash hit pretty quickly. It had the same Gary Glitter-turned up to 11 sound as Bad Reputation, but by 1981, rock radio was tired of Nugent and Styx and all that wanking. The kids just wanted to rock. So they began to play more of the gritty new sounds from “independent” artists. Joan had been turned down by 23 record labels for the Bad Reputation album and just decided to create her own record label, Blackheart Records. By 1982, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts were all over the airwaves and featured regularly on the new craze, MTV. I got to do a lot of the “I knew her when,” thing. Like tales of when I saw Joan with The Runaways play with The Ramones in a wrestling hall in 1978.

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My store didn’t get the in-store. Instead it went to the Turtles #12 at Northlake Mall. But I was there with an armful of Runaways albums to prove that I knew her before MTV. I wore my green satin Turtles jacket and yellow Turtles T-shirt. I didn’t want to be confused with the screaming fans that hadn’t heard of Joan before 1981. I was an insider. An industry person. An 18-year-old fanatic. I tried to be super-cool with her but in the photo of our encounter you can see a big streak of Clearasil on my jaw that I forgot to wipe off. So I wasn’t that cool, but Joan seemed impressed that I was a big Runaways fan in Podunk. And she had the coolest leather jacket.

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My fandom of Joan hardly waned over the years. I was excited to see her on the bill with The Who later in 1982. There was no stop in Atlanta so a fellow dorm-mate from Oxford College named Chris Jones and I drove down to Orlando to see the November 27th massive concert at the Tangerine Bowl. The Blackhearts were on the bill between The B-52s and The Who. When the Florida rednecks saw me in my mod gear (similar to what The Who themselves wore in 1965), I got shit like “Faggot!” and “You must be here to see the B-52s, you faggot.” But nobody asked me if I was AC/DC. Chris and I got as close to the stage as possible. It was an open field even though 11 fans had been crushed to death at an open-seating Who concert in 1979. It didn’t matter, I had to be as close to the action as I could.

When Georgia’s B-52s (who recorded “Rock Lobster” at Stone Mountain Studios!) hit the stage, the few hip kids cheered but the Florida rednecks were having none of it. The booed and shouted homophobic slurs, but that Athens party band partied on. Then some geniuses began taking their shoes off and hurling them at the group, ignorant to the fact that their beloved Who were viewed with the same curiosity less than twenty years earlier. Shoes began raining down on the new wave combo and the B-52’s began to look nervous, like they were going to be devoured by an angry mob of backwater zombies. Then this biker momma to the left of me reached into her purse and pulled out a rather large dildo and flung it towards the stage. It hit keyboardist Kate Pierson straight in the face. The rednecks howled in approval and the B-52s walked off the stage.

When Joan Jett and the Blackhearts took the stage, the hillbillies started up again. They paid full-price for their tickets and didn’t want to see any “faggy” bands. They wanted The Who. When the first pair of sneakers hit the stage, Joan stopped mid-song, gave an intense glare, and shouted out, “Fuck you, asshole!” Then she walked back and turned up her guitar amp. The band launched into “I Love Rock n’ Roll” and the crowd went nuts. She tamed the savage redneck with a black eye-liner stare and power chord.

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I saw Joan again in 1995 after I moved to Portland. After the brutal 1993 Seattle murder of Mia Zapata of The Gits (seriously, one of the most balls out rock bands unknown to the masses), Joan jumped into the effort to find the killer. She formed a band with the surviving Gits called Evil Stig (Gits Live backwards) and did an album and tour to help fund the investigation. When they played at LaLuna, Joan was bald and as mean as ever. Evil Stig played the best of The Gits and The Blackhearts, including “Crimson and Clover.” I’ve always been impressed with Joan commitment to supporting the issues of women and sexual minorities through kick ass rock. Her 1993 song, “Activity Grrrl,” about the Riot Grrrl scene is required listening in my Youth Subcultures class. She’s a true hero and I have her autograph.

The other members of the Runaways have had a more challenging time. Lita Ford was on top for a while in the MTV days, thanks to Sharon Osborne. Her hair was massive, and, for a brief moment in rock history, she beat the headbangers at their own game. Jackie Fox went to Harvard and got her law degree. I was in L.A. in the late 1980s with Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, the band I managed, and we caught Redd Kross doing a show at the Ford Amphitheater and they brought Cherie Currie out on stage. She had appeared on their crazy Tater Totz album (a vanity project rooted in Yoko Ono absurdism). They brought the house down with The Runaways’ “Cherie Bomb.”

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In 1998, I was in LA for a sociology conference or something, and staying with my friend Jim Barber. He became Drivin’ N’ Cryin’s manager after I was fired, and later he was Courtney Love’s boyfriend (which means he’s in this book). I noticed in the LA Weekly that the Runaways’ drummer, Sandy West, was playing at The Coconut Teaszer on Sunset and had to go. I was with Christina, my first wife, who was about to learn about my Runaways obsession. The show in the tiny club was great. Sandy wasn’t the teenager I saw 20-years earlier in the wrestling hall, but she rocked full on, banging the drums like a construction worker (which she was at that point). And the night took off when her old vocalist, Cherie Currie, joined the band for a run through of some Runaways classics. I was back in my bedroom in Stone Mountain, staring at the cover of Queens of Noise. Amazing.

After the show, the members of the band, including Sandy and Cherie, hung out on the patio in the warm West Hollywood night. I talked to Sandy about how much I enjoyed the show and how great her drumming was. Then I told her the story about how Queens of Noise was the random 12th pick for the Columbia House Record Club in 1977 and it changed my life. Sandy loved the story so much she dragged me over to Cherie and made me repeat the whole tale. I added that it was that record that gave me the confidence to stop listening to Ted Nugent and start finding other underground music.

I’m so glad I had that moment because Sandy was diagnosed with cancer in 2005 and died the following year. And now, thanks to the Dakota Fanning/Kristen Stewart film, everyone knows about The Runaways.

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I attended the Portland premiere of The Runways on April 5, 2010. It was a benefit for one of my favorite Portland organizations, The Rock N Roll Camp For Girls. (My 40th birthday party was a fundraiser for the camp.) Sandy West’s sister was there and so was Cherie Curie. During the Q&A, I mentioned that I saw The Runaways with The Ramones in 1978 and it was a big punk rock event. I asked Cherie if she thought they were a part of the punk rock phenomenon and she just made a face. “I didn’t know what punk rock was until we went to London and saw all these people with pierced faces and spitting on each other. It was disgusting! No, we were just a pure rock and roll band. We just wanted to rock.”

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As she made her way out of the Hollywood Theater, I cornered her with my Queens of Noise album, the one I got from the record club in 1977 that Joan Jett signed in 1982. I tried to tell her about meeting her with Sandy in Hollywood in 1998, but the other fans began to move in. I was happy to get her to add her signature and pose for a picture. Even if it meant missing out on free tickets to see Joan Jett and the Blackhearts because I missed my raffle ticket being called. The fact that the film brought a whole bunch of kids the music of The Runaways is good enough.

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2011 Postscript: After the 2010 meeting, Cherie Currie accepted my friend request on Facebook. I love that your childhood heroes can now share your random thoughts and vica versa. However, Cherie’s random thoughts tended toward ragging on President Obama and generally trying to be the female Ted Nugent. I found it strange that the woman who still brags about having sex with Joan Jett would turn out to be a right-wing asshole.

In June, Cherie reposted a YouTube video I had linked to my page of nutjob Arizona governor Jan Brewer claiming that illegal immigrants were coming to America just to have babies (Brewer later claimed that they were all drug mules and beheading people). Cherie’s comment on my video read:

It amazes me that a woman doing her job and protecting her citizens give her the title a right-wing bigot. I give her the title of ‘Stronger and more American then the man we made President’.

When I tried to engage her and her teabag army in some civilized debate about the Arizona immigration law, she defreinded and blocked me. Sometimes it stings to find out your rock idols are true douchebags.

2017 Postscript: I put on Queens of Noise when I posted this. (I streamed it on Spotify because my autographed vinyl copy is framed.) Christ, it sounds as good did 40 years ago. “Born to Bad” is a monster anthem, Jackie’s zooming bass on “Neon Angels,” and Lita Ford shredding on “Johnny Guitar,” lordy. Why isn’t this album in there with the rest of classic albums? Oh, yeah, chicks. Now excuse me while I play some air bass in my kitchen. 1977 = 2017 FTW!

QON

 

 

Chuck Berry told Jim Crow to roll over

March 18, 2017

Many times over the last several years I’ve reminded my friends that we live in the same world as Chuck Berry. Like people who lived in the time of Beethoven, we lived in a world where Berry still walked among us. Now some kid will have to sing, “Roll over, Chuck Berry.”

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There are people (and one President) who think America was great in 1954. We call these people “racists.” America was in the wicked grip of Jim Crow, slavery’s bastard offspring. Then on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court decided the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case and institutional racism of “great” America lost one important pillar. And three years later, skinny Dorothy Counts would be escorted into a high school in North Carolina while white students spit on her. But the writing was on the wall.

The summer of 1955 Chess Records released a single by an R&B singer from St. Louis named Chuck Berry who played guitar and wrote his own songs. He sang confidently and black legs spread wide. “Mayballene” hit #1 on the R&B charts and was the #3 song for the year on the Billboard chart. The world BCB (before Chuck Berry) was over. White kids were buying “race” records like there was no caucasian tomorrow. The children of the Baby Boom were smashing the wall of American segregation and “Johnny B. Goode” was their battle cry. I bet even some of those kids in the “White Citzen Council” who spit on Dorothy Counts would, sooner or later, own some Berry records.

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And it it wasn’t just American kids. The lads in the Beatles and the Rolling Stones sold their Anglican souls to become like Chuck, so much more than Elvis. Both played sets heavy in Berry-penned songs, including his B-sides. Listen to the Beatles’ version of Chuck’s “Rock and Roll Music.” John Lennon slyly changes the line, “It’s got a backbeat” to “It’s got a black beat” as they played in places where promoters wanted their audience to be racially segregated. (They refused to play segregated shows. They were playing a black beat, after all.)

Without Chuck Berry, there would be no Beatles or Stones, and perhaps no 1960s as we know it. Those 1950s white teenyboppers who snuck copies of “Sweet Little Sixteen” on to their parents’ hi-fi became the countercultural rebels of the 1960s, listening to John Coltrane albums and heading to Mississippi to register black voters that “Freedom Summer” of 1964, and then on to join SNCC and the whole movement to deconstruct the immoral order. You don’t have Lennon singing “Give Peace a Chance” in 1969 without “Mayballene” in 1955. And you don’t have anything that comes after. It would be 60 more years of the same, Truman to Trump.

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I was reflecting on this shortly after I heard the news today that Chuck has left us. As I am sometimes compelled to do, I scratched out some words as his first 1957 album, After School Session, blasted on from my turntable.

Earth BCB

There was a wall

Created by slave traders and Indian killers

One drop plus

The world was black and white

White against black

There was a wall

A partition between the waltz,

even the hillbilly one

and the boogie woogie

and a midnight rendezvous out back

One nation

Two halves of a whole

One race

Two people trapped

Walled off in a divided land

Then a back beat came

and the wall cracked

It had a black beat

and the white kids saw him

A brown-eyed handsome man

Out of a St. Louis shack

Give me Memphis Tennessee

Down to the delta

Then across the nation

A sound as black as coal

The wall fell

There would be no more before

The century turned on a dime

dropped right into the slot

Hail, hail rock and roll

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Chuck Berry goes back as far as I can remember.  My dad had a copy of “Johnny B. Goode” and I would visualize this strange character who could play a guitar just like ringing a bell. When I was 8, Chuck was back on the radio with his novelty hit, “My Ding-a-Ling,” but I already preferred his back catalog. I watched Chuck on the Mike Douglas Show with John Lennon, who said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” When NASA launched Voyager 1 into deep space forty years ago, I remember how smart they were to include a Chuck Berry record to demonstrate to some alien race that were an evolved species because we had Chuck Berry. (Leading to the hilarious Saturday Night Live Weekend Update tagline, “Send more Chuck Berry.) By the late seventies, Chuck’s music was rediscovered by punk rockers. His “School Days” was a favorite moment in the Ramones’ movie, Rock n Roll High School. And then in the 80s, thanks to Back to the Future, we learned that Chuck was first inspired my Michael J. Fox. Chuck Berry is the eternal time loop, up in the morning and off to school.

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It seems like he’s always been there. I was born in 1964 (shortly after his release from prison) so I guess he was. Anyone born after today will will have never shared the planet with Chuck Berry. How will they know that this wasn’t just a guy with a guitar? How will they know that his black beat changed a nation still chained in Jim Crow apartheid? How will they learn about the jukebox jumping with records back in the USA?

It’s not a tragedy to die at 90, especially if some of those years were spent locked up. There will be plenty of salacious details rehashed. Maybe they’re relevant. I just know this world would not be as it is if not for one brown-eyed handsome man named Charles Edward Anderson Berry. Hail, hail.

(Photo:  Jazz Fest, New Orleans 1994 by BP Fallon)

Note: This isn’t meant to a feminist analysis of Chuck Berry’s life or his music. That can come another day. The father of rock and roll is dead and the mother was never even named.

Father Randy’s Top 20 LPs for 2016: Back to Vinyl

December 27, 2016

Near the end of my tenure at Portland State University, the provost instituted her “challenge,” called reTHINK PSU, designed to encourage the growth of the use of technology to expand the university . She invited a speaker to get the faculty onboard the move to online education. He repeated the Nathan Harden line, that in fifty years half the brick and mortar colleges and universities in the country would be history, replaced by websites (probably run by some kid in India). The message was get on the train or get left at the station. He tried to make the point by claiming that CD technology had replaced vinyl records, so get ready for college professors to go the way of the Foghat album.

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Ironically I was listening to this talk sitting in my office in Cramer Hall as it streamed on the university server. If I had been in the room, I would have jumped up to say that CDs sales were tanking, but vinyl was making a massive comeback, growing even faster than downloads and streaming music. Fortune magazine reported in April that vinyl album sales were at a 28-year high. Turns our kids want their Taylor Swift on wax (and their teachers in the goddamn classroom). Sometimes the old way is the best.

I say this because I really fell off my hipness high horse this year. The arrival of the baby in 2014 got me out of the cavalcade of live shows and endless hours in record stores. In 2016, between a rampaging toddler, the effort to return to work, busting Trump’s tiny balls, and finishing my new novel, The Dream Police, I just abdicated my staples for side-lined music aficionadodom. My favorite podcasts,  All Songs Considered, Sound Opinions, and Alt Latino, went un-downloaded. Our local weeklies, Willamette Week and The Portland Mercury, remained in their boxes on NE Alberta Street. An occasional breeze or hip kid would blow in to let me know what was up, but I missed so much. Did you know that Radiohead put out an awesome album in 2016? Of course you did.

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Where I kept things real was on the vinyl front. A large chunk of the new releases I bought this year were on vinyl (including a bootleg vinyl release of Frank Ocean’s long-awaited follow up to the brilliant 2012 release, Orange). I couldn’t stop buying vinyl, at Amoeba Music in LA and Peaches in New Orleans, and a dozen record stores in Portland. Old, new, kids’ records, 45’s, and even Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass from the 50 cent bin at Everyday Music. Solange just sounded better on vinyl and Bowie had to be experienced deep in the ruts. The ghost is the grooves, not the machine.

Andrea and I took our love of LPs into the sharing economy. Our basement just became an AirBNB called the Alberta Vinyl Den. Each guest lets me know his or her music tastes when they make a booking and I stock the room with a dozen albums from my massive collection. So guests get to feel like they are staying in the record store of their dreams, complete with a turntable and a refrigerator full of beer.

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2016 was a still a great year for music. With the blessing of babysitters we did manage to see some great shows, including some true classics; Patti Smith, Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Bruce Springsteen, and the Electric Light Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl (a double bucket list item). We saw some good world music, like Bomba Estereo and Bombino. We saw a wildly drunken gig by Greasy Alice in New Orleans and caught a show by old friend Chris Robinson that took us down a rabbit hole. I just caught Georgia underground pioneers Pylon at Mississippi Studios. (Last time I saw them was at the Agora Ballroom in 1983.) Earlier in the year we caught a barely attended show there by Sir Paul’s son, James McCartney and got to chat after the gig. Other than the Cuban band we saw every Sunday during our summer on Isla Mujeres, I think my favorite show of 2016 was Father John Misty at Edgefield in the pouring rain surrounded by a thousand other dudes with beards. It was perfectly Portland.

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So here is my Top 20 favorite albums of 2016, recognizing that I’m surely missing a ton I will discover in 2017 or 2027. (Nick Cave’s new one? Someone said it was killer.) I really think we’ll be talking about the Beyoncé and Solange albums 50 years from now.  A serious thanks to the gang at Music Millennium for pointing me in the right direction on some good stuff.

  1. David Bowie – Blackstar
  2. Beyoncé – Lemonade
  3. Y La Bamba – Ojos del Sol
  4. Solange – A Seat at the Table
  5. Drive-By-Truckers – American Band
  6. Miranda Lambert – The Weight of These Wings
  7. Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate
  8. Frank Ocean – blond
  9. Rolling Stones – Blue & Lonesome
  10. Bombino – Azel
  11. Patti Smith – Horses: Live at Electric Ladyland Studios
  12. The Beatles – Live at Hollywood Bowl
  13. Bob Dylan – Fallen Angels
  14. Carla Morrison – Amor Supremo
  15. The Bangles – Ladies and Gentlemen…
  16. A Tribe Called Quest  – We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
  17. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
  18. Chris Robley – The Great Make Believe
  19. Ages and Ages – Something to Ruin
  20. Cheap Trick – Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello

Here’s to more music on vinyl in 2017. And more professors in classrooms.

Writing to Live: The birth of the “rock novel”

December 14, 2016

The second edition of my 2011 novel, The Mission of the Sacred Heart, just came out so I thought I’d write a little about the hell of writing it just in case you had a tortured artist on your gift-giving list.

The twentieth century ended not with a bang but a whimper. I was in the throes of a classic Randy heartbreak. (I hadn’t yet accurately identified the pattern or the appropriate response.) I was going through a divorce with a woman I had met in a poetry reading in Augusta, Georgia. We got married after the Atlanta Olympics and I brought her to Portland, mistakenly thinking that I was ready to be in a partnership and that she was ready to settle down.

I tried to comfort myself with the idea that it was just a “starter marriage” (A Gen X hot topic at the time), but there was a trip to Cannon Beach with the thought of hurling myself off an appropriately dramatic cliff. Long story short, I didn’t, but got into therapy and got on an anti-depressant called Zoloft. There was other suicidal behavior in my family so I began to wonder what that impulse was about and, more importantly, what was it that stopped most of us from actually doing it.

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Since I had been pretty successful as a spoken word artist in Atlanta, I thought it was time to write something longer than a poem. It was musician Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles who had given me a copy of Sophie’s Choice to encourage me to follow my fantasy of becoming a writer. Now I had the start of an idea for what might be an important book – Why is it so hard to kill yourself?

It’s not a rock opera

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Someday I’ll write a whole thing about the joys of locking yourself in the room in the days before the internet and even MTV and listening to record albums. Suffice it to say, I did it a lot in the 1970s. When I was 13, one of my favorite albums was A New World Record by the Electric Light Orchestra. For those out of the loop, ELO’s schtick was that they played rock music with a string section (like how Chicago had a brass section). Very Beatle-inspired pop that infected the airwaves. This album had songs with compelling characters, like opera singers and a guy on a telephone and an alien, and a mother on a corner with a baby.

My teenage brain, alone in my room, strung all the songs together into one long narrative. Maybe I was listening to The Who’s Tommy too much but I believed I was listening to a “rock opera.” It all seemed to fit together to well.

When I got a CD version of the album 20 years later I realized it was just a bunch of songs, not a concept album. But then I thought, “What if someone were to write the story I first heard all those years ago? It could be a rock novel!” Adding a few contemporary themes, like homeless youth and turn-of-the century-depression, and you have a new genre!

Late night on the iMac

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Between preparing lectures, going to shows, occasionally sobbing, and inhabiting Portland dive bars like I was Sinatra with an ungodly thirst for Jack Daniels, I’d write away. I was translating my funk and the world it existed in, trying to find the answer to this question. The ELO album played over and over as I used it as a template for my story about a small group of Portland creatives, a gutter punk with a baby and a dude who may or may not be an alien. I’d bash away at my aqua iMac as I lived with these people; Zak, Lenny, Cozy, Telly, and Lucinda.

By the last chapter, I had the answer. Why we hold on. And a wonderful story about the power of music to move us through the tar pits of our lives. On December 31, 1999, I took a draft of the manuscript into the desert at the Warm Springs reservation and read it as the sun set on the century. I burned the pages to keep warm and hoped my hard drive back in Portland was safe from the Y2K bug.

It was really the writing of it that saved me. During that period I also co-authored a great book on suburban delinquency, bought a house, weened myself off the Zoloft, and took a visiting professorship at Emory University. I suddenly didn’t need the book, until I did again. That’s when I self-published it in 2011. It’s done pretty well, getting some amazing attention, and now it’s been optioned by a screenwriter in Hollywood for a future film project. And it all came out of a moment when I thought there might be something better to do than throw myself into the sea because my heart got beat up.

Why we stick around

The answer that I reached on the last page of The Mission of the Sacred Heart is that we stick around to see how things turn out. In our deepest moments of sorrow, sometimes it’s hard to see the countless moments of joy and lay ahead of us. If I had jumped I would have missed so many blissful moments; drives across the country, being inches away from Patti Smith as she sang “Gloria,” seeing Andrea walk into a room for the first time, hearing Cozy say, “I need to poop,” and more to come. Why walk out before the movie ends? Even Speed 2 had a pretty cool ending.

The sequel to Mission, The Dream Police, is now out and getting a positive response. I thought it was time to clean Mission up a bit, fix the cover, and take out a few less evolved terms in the story. (Sorry history, “retarded weathermen” and “big boobed Asians,” as funny as they sounded, have been revised.) Mission had an important impact on some folks who were going through the same thing I was, so it has served its purpose, but it’s still a timeless story about those moments and how we survive them with the power of a good song.

I’m not intending to write a trilogy. The Dream Police may be the last time we see Lenny, Zak, and Cozy. But who knows? I just want to get these books to people so they can be as good friends to them as they were to me.

The Mission of the Sacred Heart is available here on Amazon and Amazon Kindle.

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The Dream Police Are Inside My Head

October 6, 2016

How do you go back in time and fix a mistake to change the course of your life? How do you channel all the things you are passionate about into one story of redemption or escape?

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These were the questions I faced when I sat down to write The Dream Police early last year. The follow up to The Mission of the Sacred Heart was published this week and the Kindle version is available today. Like Mission, it is rooted in the true events of my life. Like Mission, it is a “rock novel,” a work of musical fiction, inspired by a classic rock album from my youth. And like Mission, it is a complex piece of literature that can’t easy be described in a quick elevator speech. But I think it is an important work that emerged from the plasma in my veins and the neurons in my synapses. So let me try to share with you why you might be interested in this story.

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First and foremost, anyone who reads this will probably be able to understand why I had to leave my tenured position at Portland State University last year. There is a sexual paranoia that has invaded college campuses. Disguised as the important and real work that is earnestly meant to stop sexual harassment and aggression in an institution that often turns a blind eye, it is a form of fake feminism that undermines actual feminism. It sees all women as victims and all men as aggressors and ignores the agency of women and the complexity of the sexual dance between consulting adults.

As a male feminist, I’ve wanted to write about this sticky swamp for years. Then it happened to me. I was the subject of a witch hunt that stopped cold the important work I was doing at the university, including raising awareness of the importance of dismantling patriarchal power. The question was what to do with my anger at the real villains in this true-life tale. I didn’t want to go on a workplace shooting spree (Who would the local media ask to comment on it?), so I chose to write this story.

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Second, as a Portland sociologist, there are a host of sociological issues I confront on a regular basis. Portland has been named the most gentrified city in America. My neighborhood tienda is being turned into an artisan salt shop as I write this. My first academic  publication in 1991 dealt with issue (although I called it “yupification”). Gentrification is changing the face of urban America and I feel like I’m in a good position to write about it. It becomes a metaphor for how are lives change around us in ways we both love and hate.

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My research on white supremacist groups began moving into prisons about ten years ago. White prison gangs, like the Aryan Brotherhood and European Kindred, have become a growing problem outside prisons, including a recent murder just outside of Portland. A former racist skinhead incarcerated in an Oregon prison instigated my nightmare at PSU, so it was a perfect opportunity to bring a bit of light to the issue.

There are plenty of other issues floating around, including how your favorite rock song becomes your least favorite commercial, the backlash against unionization, the grieving process following the death of loved ones, and the dangers of spending too much time online scrolling through your social media. All this gets folded into The Dream Police.

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Then there is the unifying theme of lucid dreaming. If you could be conscious in your dreams, what would you do? My first thought is that I’d go see The Beatles play. Maybe I’d revisit the woods I played in as a child. How about a beer with Karl Marx and Halle Berry? It’s wide open. Some people lucid dream every night. Andrea and I practiced it while I was writing the book and had some cool experiences. Zak and Lenny, the central characters of The Dream Police, use lucid dreaming to visit some musical landmarks, but also revisit moments in their own lives to explore alternative paths. Zak’s pregnant wife was killed in a car crash, so he’s fixated on going back in time to change just one small thing.

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Finally, this book is about music and how music moves us forward in life. When I was teenager, I spent a lot of time in my room listening to albums. This included Cheap Trick’s 1979 Dream Police LP. The record was a whole world to me and I constructed this book around that themes in that album and dozens of Cheap Trick songs. The book also deals with the growing voice of women in rock and the shrinking opportunities for musicians to capitalize on their own music.

I think it’s important to tackle the minefield of gender politics. I was honored to do it in the classroom for over twenty years. Social research and punditry are also forums for it and fiction is another. I was thrilled to be listed as one of the representatives of the new genre of musical fiction in Wikipedia. It’s a great opportunity to be like my teenage heroes, The Clash, and use a good backbeat to get people to think about big issues.

In the end, I just want to tell a good story and maybe take readers to some unexpected places. Author Brian Paone, in his review, wrote, “Blazak pushes the reader through an endless web of a chess game that every time you think you have checkmate, a pawn appears out of nowhere, sending everything you thought was real into a tailspin.” In the last few years I’ve been through a lot. I’ve also thought a lot and grown a lot. It all goes into a story that reflects the complexity and dream-like state of my own journey. It feels good to have created a piece of literary fiction that my daughter could read some day. I hope you will read it now.

NOTE: Because, as a parent I feel I have to do something about the children of Aleppo, 10% of all book sales are going to UNICEF’s Syrian relief fund.

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