Let’s face it, friends: Rod McKuen had it going on. The ‘70s-era troubadour-poet-ubiquitous game show contestant moved some serious product (books and records), made some serious coin (Benjies galore) and attracted the attention of some serious artists (The Chairman of the Board, the Man in Black, the White Queen of Soul).
Hundreds of thousands bought McKuen’s records and books and read his poems, Hollywood casting directors put McKuen in some of their movies, and television game-show producers recruited him as a star contestant.
Not a bad bit ‘o’ business for Sir Rodney, wouldn’t you say? The fans said “yeah,” but the critics said “meh.”
McKuen was pilloried by such tastemakers as Nora Ephron and a famous poet whose name I can’t remember, but who would you rather have liking your work: the cognoscenti, or Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash and Dusty Springfield?
The latter three all recorded songs written by McKuen, Sinatra an entire album of them. That alone is one helluva line on a resume.
He survived a nightmarish childhood, navigated a world that still looked askance at anyone, like him, with non-“traditional” sexuality, and created a self-mythology worthy of a rock star, which he would have been had he been under 30.
Apparently he also was a decent human being.
None of which explains exactly the derision that came his way from We With Better Taste.
Stay tuned for my theory, from someone who once considered himself in that taste category but perhaps has learned better since…
I’ve come to the conclusion, after the first two episodes of the Let It Roll podcast’s current season that a great rock band without proper management is akin to an airborne 747 with a chimpanzee at the controls.
I’ve also concluded, after listening to those two episodes a couple of times and thinking about the learnings therein — the theme this season is rock documentaries — that a great rock band with proper management is akin to an airborne 747 with a chimpanzee at the controls, with a humanoid behind him in the cockpit offering helpful instructions.
By the time adulthood and sanity beckoned in relatively early adulthood, I had played drums in three rock bands. The third one — the one in which I made the least money, helped make some decent, original music and almost lost my mind — came closest to having proper management.
The two guys we tried to recruit as managers in that third band did not work out, but the bandleader was really the manager anyway and taught me and my buds more than we never wanted to know about how the music biz really worked.
The irony in this enterprise known as rock ‘n’ roll is that the minute you put a leash on it and charge money to see it, that chimp is handcuffed and now has to fly the jumbo jet with his feet. Which may be just as well. . .
But there are way worse things to do with your money and time, especially if you’re 12 and the world is turned upside down because you’re about to turn 13 (details to follow in the book I have to finish writing by spring).
And even though Chicago ain’t the MC5 and Grand Funk ain’t the Stooges (and there are connections betwixt and between, mark my words, and Chicago is the more bogus of the two in this regard, and I may ever forgive them for firing the great Danny Seraphine), they worked in a pinch, and theirs were the first records I put on when I began learning to drum with the headphones on.
And now please excuse me while I land this jumbo jet with my feet. At least I ain’t 13.
Starz really should have joined the cavalcade of rock bands that broke big in 1976-‘77, which coincided with my “maturation” as a certified hard rock consumer with a new drivers license and the means to purchase records and attend shows (lawn mowing, the Golden Arches and an ushering gig at Atlanta’s Fabulous Fox Theatre).
Based on nothing but my teenage concert-watching experience, I get the feeling Starz shot themselves in the foot with one bold move: They showed up in Atlanta in September 1976 not as the latest opening act on the make - just like KISS, Aerosmith, Styx, Blue Oyster Cult, Bob Seger and Ted Nugent before them, but as instant headliners at the 4,000-seat Fox, where I’m job that’s nigh was guarding a row occupied by the parents of Starz front man Michael Lee Smith.
Starz had their first album out and some attention from Creem magazine, but their headliner status was unearned—it was a free, radio station-sponsored performance. So while the place was packed and the band kicked ass, it was not how almost every breaking rock band — maybe every one of them — earned their stripes.
I always meant to go out and get that first Starz album, but right after that show Skynyrd’s live album came out, then a hot new album from this unknown band called Boston two weeks later. (It was the ‘70s, and I was 15, whaddaya want?)
That Starz album became an afterthought, and it did not help one bit that even the radio station that sponsored the gig gave them little if any airplay.
I was reminded of that era and Starz’ part in it by this week’s episode of Let It Roll, which examines the milieu that produced Starz, Aerosmith, KISS and Cheap Trick (as well as the bands I just listed, plus several others).
And, yes, as recalled by Nate about his older brother’s purchase of Aerosmith’s “Draw the Line,” what a depressing waste of vinyl that album was and a depressing time for hard rock in general — late ‘77, Skynyrd crash still fresh, the truly strange band Ram Jam has a big hit with “Black Betty” and “Saturday Night bleeping Fever” is right around the corner.
Starz, we hardly knew ye!!!
Too bad Kim Fowley and Barry Keenan did not join forces under the auspices of some sort of rock ‘n’ roll enterprise.
No half-stepping for either of these jokers, they went big and went often, even when pointed directly at Ground Zero from 500 feet while going 500 mph.
These were a couple of seriously formidable Southern California cats, each with that unpredictable but vital combination of durable plus somewhat unmoored.
Together they had all the goods necessary for a long-term search-and- destroy mission in the rock ‘n’ roll biz.
Fowley’s musical and commercial instincts could have been freed up for maximum effect by Keenan’s business acumen and World-Class hustle; the combo would have armed their unit for grizzlies.
Separately, they both did some serious damage, to themselves as well as to least a few notable others (read: Frank Sinatra Jr. and Sr., the Runaways).
But I salute these two for making it into this season’s Let It Roll discourse two times each so far. This past week’s episode marked Appearance #2 this season for Keenan.
Rock on, gents! (Keenan’s still alive; Fowley’s still rockin’ somewhere, I bet.)
Ah, to be young, moneyed and musically inclined in late-1950s Southern California.
With wealthy, Hollywood-connected parents, the golden beaches right around the corner and plenty of similarly “privileged” friends around, what couldn’t be yours if you really wanted it?
If you were a teenaged Kim Fowley just out of the hospital after your second bout with polio, a place to live might have been a good start. But Fowley’s dad wasn’t interested, so the gangly teen — who’d already lived in foster homes as well as Hollywood mansions during childhood due to his parents’ “approach” to raising him — crashed with a buddy.
Then he started bunking with his buddy’s mom. (No word on his buddy’s reaction).
Fowley was privileged the way Southern California was Eden, and we have a lot of great rock ‘n’ roll to thank for both of them — Fowley and his stomping grounds, I mean.
I learned this from the latest episode of the Let It Roll podcast, which for the second consecutive week includes mention of Fowley and his contributions to popular music emanating from the Los Angeles area.
Aspiring record man Lou Adler sure did appreciate Fowley’s star-spotting and hit-making talents. Adler signed Jan and Dean right out from under Fowley, then produced a second version of the song “Alley Oop” after Fowley discovered it and helped make it a hit. Adler also snagged another Fowley discovery, the Mamas and the Papas.
I wonder if Adler ever had any musical ideas of his own. Or was Fowley already so unlikable that he asked for it, considering his well-documented villainy?
Far be it from me to determine who was the bigger a-hole and when—that exercise is liable to take forever and end up leading all the way back to the original Eden, at which point we’re still left with that age-old question, “whose big idea was it, letting the snake in?”
The Runaways in their heyday keep reminding me of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the latter of whom I have long considered the Baddest Band in the Land in the summer of 1976.
The Runaways were pretty damn bad then, too, and by “bad” I mean what Isaac Hayes was talking ‘bout when he said Shaft was a “bad mother-“ only to be interrupted by the backup singers.
I was reminded of that halcyon summer this week when I listened to the latest episode of Let It Roll. I was 15 and I knew about the Runaways by then because I had a subscription to Creem, and I was certainly intrigued but they never got any radio airplay so I didn’t take the plunge.
Then that fall they — the Runaways, not Skynyrd, who were never on any magazine cover, ever — showed up on the cover of Crawdaddy, all of them staring out at me like a gang of toughs about to kick my ass for stumbling into their gathering in a back alley somewhere.
Later on Creem ran a beach photo, all of them in bikinis, and my life was complete. Ok, not really, but think about it—they were enduring, they hung around for a goodly while and I salute Old Dominion University for booking them in the spring of 1978, perhaps as far into the Deep South as the girls — who surely were women by then — ever got.
I never saw ‘em live, and, like the New York Dolls, I sure do wish I had. But I did get to interview Joan Jett once, she then invited me to the gig where I met her and Kenny Laguna as well, and now maybe my life really is complete.
Charlie Watts should have charged admission.
His Audience of One, otherwise known as Mr. Keith Richards, surely could have afforded it.
The sight of Richards digging Watts and his pre-concert, dancing-in-place warmup routine from many years gone by is now playing on YouTube accounts across the universe. It’s made all the more poignant, of course, by the sad news this week of Watts’ passing from this temporal sphere at the age of 80.
How Richards will go on without his Partner in Crime and Riddums will be on display for all the world to see in a matter of months, when what’s left of the Oldest Show on Earth, otherwise known as the Rollin’ Stones, goes on tour yet again, but this time without Watts and his lovely stick work.
Someone much wiser than me once said that grief is the price we pay for love, and it is a price I am most willing to pay for the decades I have loved Charlie Watts and his drumming. But it hurts, baby!
Much more steep will be Keith Richards’ final bill of sale, Richards having loved and appreciated Watts’ inestimable gift to him, his bandmates and to us for something in the range of 60 years right about now.
To paraphrase Keith’s old running buddy, author Stanley Booth from Waycross, Georgia, there ain’t enough drugs on this planet to cover up the feelings from this deep a loss.
But for Keith, playing with the Stones was always the best medicine, and here’s hoping that seeing them one more time, in this age of Boomer Mortality, will do same for the rest of us.
We will miss you, Charlie, but we have all those drum beats on record to dig, which will surely keep us in good time and spirit till we someday see you again in that rockin’ Stadium in the Sky.
Until then, keeps those hips shakin’, baby!
I don’t remember anyone ever calling it a shuffle, and I’m certain no one ever jumped on stage and yelled, “LET’S SHUFFLE!”
But by the spring of 1974, the shuffle had returned to rock ‘n’ roll with a certain up-tempo, twangy vengeance.
I know this because at the time I was 13, learning to play the drums and beginning to pay attention to such matters.
What I did not know but learned this week was that the shuffle as a rhythmic conveyance (i.e. beat) for rock ‘n’ roll songs had fallen out of favor as the British Invasion commenced a decade earlier.
LItR guest Ned Sublette, author and astute musical observer, shared this tidbit of information as part of a much wider-ranging but no-less-fascinating discussion of the Cha-cha-cha’s collision with rock via “Louie Louie” and “Satisfaction.”
Sublette has cracked a musical code or two in his life, his insights are beyond astute, and his comments regarding the shuffle reminded me of the times between ‘74 and ‘75 when I, as an aspiring teenage drummer, first attempted to play a shuffle on the drums.
And here’s the rub: It wasn’t called a shuffle in 1974, at least the shuffles that came to my attention in those years.
They were boogies. As in “are you ready to boogie?” As in “THE INCREDIBLE BLACK. OAK. ARKANSAS!”
As in, BOA’s boogie-on-steroids version of “Jim Dandy.”
Followed soon after, across the rock radio landscape, by “La Grange” (ZZ, I mean), “Can’t Get Enough” (Bad Company), “Some Kinda Wonderful” (Grand Funk—a heavy, lumbering boogie, their penultimate hit) and “Tush” (more ZZ, don’t you know).
And onward we went, “boogie” becoming the shorthand for this kind of song and the bands that played it, circa 1974-‘75.
The shuffle had returned, and it boogied.
Listening to a recounting of Marvin Gaye’s life reminds me of a YouTube video I made the mistake of watching one recent eve right before turning in for the night.
Various jumbo jet crashes was the theme of this particular uplifting bit of viewing (ironic pun not intended, but boy does it fit), and let’s just say the 10 minutes of watching giant airplanes with people in them falling from the sky did not lead to a long winter’s nap.
That’s kinda my overall reaction to the Marvin Gaye saga, of which I was reminded while listening to the Marvin Gaye episode of Let It Roll.
If you’re reading this, you probably already know at least the basic details about Marvin’s life, music and tragic death. If you don’t, listen to the podcast first.
You will hear much of what I heard the time a friend read David Ritz’s 1985 biography of Gaye, a veritable litany of suffering every bit the equal to poor Marvin’s prodigy of musical greatness.
And just as I would argue (if anyone disagreed) that nobody had it worse, I’m pert near sure no one ever did it better.
My friend could not resist yelling me some of the nightmarish details, which is probably why I never read the bio myself.
It’s Greek tragedy, Shakespearean drama and Biblical prophecy all rolled into one, marching most any tale, mythical or true,
But his life was as spectacularly troubled as his artistic output was
Apparently Marvin himself prophesied the worst of it, or was this a prophesy self-fulfilled?
So were the agonies he put himself through. The story is full of agony and ain’t just one jumbo jet going down here—it’s a veritable fleet of them, coming right off the assembly line at the Boeing factory and making a beeline towards Mt. Rainer.
Yeah, it’s that bad—and, at least in part, why Marvin’s creative output was so great.
There was no “off” position on that genius switch, but neither were there many other “off” positions on other switches.
And why I doubt I’ll ever read David Ritz’s biography about Gaye. I also won’t be going overboard on the reading list when the 9/11 20th-Anniversary remembrance commences in about a month, and why I’ve probably read all I need to about the Altamont tragedy.
All of ‘em, awful, tragic and — while we can debate the inevitability of it — needless from the standpoint that pain is inevitable but self-inflicted suffering is optional.
And that is where the Marvin Gaye saga reminds me all that other apocalyptic stuff. Yeah, some of it — his dad’s issues, his upbringing --was baked into the cake, but at some point Marvin took what was bad and made it worse all by his lonesome.
Once the fan is turned on and the shit is heading toward it, the kids start showing up at Altamont Speedway and the planes have been hijacked...
Which brings me to Marvin and the sad state of affairs that brought him to a needless and tragic end.
But as usual the devil is in the details, and the details suck.
The Beatles needed a place to play, David Bowie needed a place to crash, and Frank Zappa needed a place to...well, there’s no elegant way to put it: Frank needed a bathroom break.
The place was Washington, D.C., and environs, the time was rock ‘n’ roll’s second and third most formative eras (1964-‘67, ‘67-‘73, not necessarily respectively—name yer poison!), and on hand to take it all in were the Oberman Brothers, successive popular music writers for the Washington Evening Star.
Between them, the Obermans — Ron the elder, Michael the younger —interviewed and/or witnessed, in action, every important pop musical artist or act of those fruitful eras.
That’s because, in spite of the Capital Region’s reputation as a one-trick pony town, no one skips D.C.
Back in the day, some aspiring rockers even showed up before even going on tour, just to get the lay of the land.
One such aspirant was David Bowie, and on the first night of his first U.S. visit, he crashed at the Oberman lads’ parents’ home in Silver Spring, Maryland.
There is so much to this and the brothers’ other adventures, I cannot even begin to describe them in this blog. I recommend starting with this recent episode of Let It Roll and then maybe check out Michael Oberman’s new book, a collection of his music writings for the Star that he discusses in the podcast with Our Man Nate.
Only then will you learn the true nature of Francois Zappa’s restroom experience when he and the Muthas performed at the U. of Maryland. . .
I can’t remember if they talk about the Beatles’ first live U.S. concert, but rest assured both Oberman bros were there.
Ed Legge (@freebirdyeller) is a life-long musician, long-time journalist and sometime corporate dweeb who’s writing a book about originating rock ‘n’ roll’s most absurd tradition.