Memories are those things that sometimes pop into one’s head in a seemingly random manner, but there is just something about music that tends to trigger very specific memories in my brain. When others refer to ‘the soundtrack of their life’, it makes me think of things that I associate with certain songs. For example, everytime I hear Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love, my thoughts turn to the little blue plastic transistor radio that I had in the mid-1960s. While some kids tented up under their bedspreads with comic books and flashlights, I put in my single ear bud and fell asleep many nights listening to Top 40 radio. The first time Sunshine of Your Love came on, it bolted me wide awake because there was nothing else like it playing on the radio at the time. So it goes with other songs that take me back to some specific time and place, usually in association with the first time I heard the song.
During the three summers I worked at the Huron Mountain Club, there was always music on the radio (and later my 8-track player) to keep me company on the commute between Marquette and the Club. During the second and third summers I worked there, it was a life saver on those early morning drives back to the Club after Knockdown gigs in various parts of Marquette County. With the music blasting and the windows open (no AC in the car back then), I managed hundreds of late night miles without putting myself in the ditch. All the while, I kept collecting new music to associate with the memories of those busy days. Brandy by The Looking Glass was one of the tunes I associate with that time. To give you an idea how specific this memory is, I can tell you that I was halfway between the Club gate and Big Bay when I heard it on the radio the first time and I thought, ‘Wow, that guy has a different voice, but that will be a hit.” The Hollies’ Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress is another Big Bay song. We had just pulled up to the Lumberjack Tavern to have a Tombstone Pizza one evening but I couldn’t shut the car off until I heard the whole song play out. You Don’t Mess Around With Jim by Jim Croce was a song I first heard on the gravel road between the Club gate and the Club proper one evening returning from my day off.
Going back a little further, Inna Gadda Da Vida was one of the songs I heard the first time at a high school dance. The first edition of the popular Marquette dance band East of Orange played the expanded version replete with the extended solo sections. I ran out and bought the album and couldn’t believe how faithful their cover was to the original. A little further back in time, a cover band whose name I can’t recall gave me my first dose of Steppenwolf. Playing a summer dance at the Bishop Baraga High School gym, the band not only aped Steppenwolf in appearance (paisley tunics, love beads, and stylishly long hair), they blasted Born To Be Wild and instantly added Steppenwolf’s eponymous first LP to my shopping list. One more step back in time, and the Theme from The Monkees appeared on TV just head of their first single The Last Train to Clarksville and the Jr. High me (who was just learning how to play a drum kit) began collecting 45s by the Prefab Four. I didn’t realize at the time that I was learning to play drums along with studio ace Hal Blaine (and not Micky Dolenz) when I picked up my first ever LP. As soon as I saw The Monkees on TV, it was the music that sucked me in. Dolenz had the goofiest looking drum kit set up I had ever seen (no doubt because he was an actor and not a real drummer in the early days), I do give him credit for becoming a decent drummer as he went along).
School chum Jeff Lewis introduced me to The Doors on a weekend visit to his house in Shiras Hills. When his folks were occupying the top floors of their house, Jeff and I spent a lot of time listening to (and occasionally trying to play) music in their lower level rec room. Jeff was a keyboard player and though his little reedy organ wasn’t exactly the Albert Hall Pipe Organ, we played and warbled The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summer in the City and it sounded pretty good. The first time he played me the organ intro to Light My Fire, it was like, “Whoa, do that again!” He had the 45 rpm record, but Jeff soon hatched the grand plan that we should pool our resources and buy and share custody of The Doors first eponymous LP. The plan may have been of an excuse to get his mother on board (“See, Ken’s mom doesn’t mind”) because looking at the Baby Grand piano they had in the rec room, I am not sure how his mother and father felt about him dabbling in rock and roll, let alone The Doors. When it was my turn to take the record home, I learned all the songs on it but for some reason Jeff and I never did play any of them together. Come to think of it, girls became Jeff’s obsession so that is where his mind went while the majority of my attention revolved around acquiring more songs to learn. When The Twig began adding songs to our playlist, The Doors’ Twentieth Century Fox and I Looked at You came together quickly (even though we were a three piece band with no organ) because I already knew them inside out.
My old buddy Nick became a big fan of Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa. While Beefheart never really clicked for me, Zappa became an acquired taste. The first time Nick played me Zappa’s Peaches and Regalia, he thought I had slipped a gear because I said, “Oh, so THAT is what that song is called!” When my dad joined the State Police back in the 1940s, he bought his folks back in Wakefield a new refrigerator that came with a Philco radio that sat on top. It was an old tube job that used to hum for 30 seconds before the tubes warmed up enough to work. The electronics were housed in a cream colored Bakelite shell with a curved bottom. When my first transistor radio crapped out on me, dad offered me the old Philco for my bedroom, explaining that the curved bottom matched the top of the long deceased refrigerator. Not convinced that this vintage radio could possibly replace my hi-tech transistor, I plugged it in and found that it brought in a host of radio bands. It was much more sensitive than my cheap Japanese transistor (yes, back in the days when technologic items imported from Asia where considered ‘cheap’), allowing me access to many more stations than were previously available. It was on this very dinosaur radio that I found a rather avante garde station that played anything but Top Forty pop songs like the Zappa tune mentioned above. “You could not possibly have heard Zappa on the radio,” exclaimed Nick, but I assured him that Zappa and a whole lot more could be found on this station (that I have long since forgotten the call letters for).
We had a classmate named Cindy who was probably the first ‘hippie chick’ we ever associated with. She lived in the neighborhood by Lake Superior, close to Picnic Rocks. We were aimlessly wandering around town one Saturday afternoon and stopped in to say hey. “You have got to hear this!” was Cindy’s greeting. “This” turned out to be the Jefferson Airplane’s seminal masterpiece Surrealistic Pillow. White Rabbit and Somebody to Love were already getting substantial airplay, but this was the first time Nick and I had heard the whole album. Cindy insisted we listen to the whole thing through twice and am pretty sure if we hadn’t escaped, we might still be there listening to it to this day. ‘First album listens’ became an event for us.
Nick was responsible for broadening my musical horizons a lot. Beyond Zappa and Captain Beefheart, our listening sessions at Nick’s house ranged from Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass to The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and for comedic effect, albums like Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Please Pass the Pliers by The Firesign Theater. The Herb Alpert stuff was great because we played tunes like Tijuana Taxi in pep band and knowing the songs inside and out put me on the fast track to playing the ride cymbal and snare parts at many, many ball games. It was also through Nick that I met fellow high school band member Dwight Cater. Another drop by listening session at Dwight’s proved to be my first introduction to The Chicago Transit Authority (who most folks will recognize more readily from their shortened moniker ‘Chicago’). Horn bands were already in my field of interest and hearing Chicago only added fuel to this fire.
Oddly enough, my college age sister’s boyfriend was inadvertently responsible for introducing me to the Motor City 5 (or MC5, another band with a popular shorter version of their name). Ron loaned my sister a Sony reel to reel tape player. I was somewhat familiar with the model because Nick’s father had the same type and we used it to record our own Firesign Theater-like comedy bits. The minute the coast was clear (as in “nobody home but me and the Sony”), I hit play to see what the college frat boys were listening to. The first track out of the box was Rattlesnake Shake by Fleetwood Mac. This wasn’t a first as I had heard the song on my magic Bakelite Philco radio. The second track on the tape turned out to be Ramblin’ Rose by the MC5. I must have rewound and played the song a half a dozen times before I let the rest of the tape play through, which provided another string of ‘first time heard’ moments. The x-rated introduction to Kick Out the Jams left me more than a little slacked jawed (as did the rest of the MC5 album which comprised the rest of that side of the tape). By the time the kids at school were talking about Kick Out the Jams, I had the album pretty much memorized.
There were many songs that we learned in The Twig that were new to me when Mike or Gene brought them to band rehearsal but it would be difficult to sort out these from our 70 some song playlist. I do remember we were just putting together Yellow River by the band Christie when the phone rang. When we finished our run through, mom called downstairs saying there was a call for me. The voice on the other end said, “Hey, cool song, can I talk to Mike?” It turned out to be Randy Tessier from Marquette’s legendary band The Walrus looking for a bass cabinet to borrow for a gig (something that regularly happened with their volume happy bass player Kim French).
Mike and Gene just about died when I told them that Randy had heard us working up Yellow River and didn’t quite believe me when told that he had complimented our still rough take on the song. There were too many new songs brought to my second band Knockdown for me to recall, but our guitarist Ray ‘The Human Jukebox’ was known for leading us through obscur requests at the NCO club. Some were added to our regular playlist and many were played once, never to see the light of day again.
When we found it necessary to clear out the old homestead after mom and dad moved to assisted living, it never dawned on me to reclaim the old Bakelite Philco. When my wife and I were dating in the late 1970s, she got me a new clock radio for Christmas. Upon hearing this, my dad asked for his Philco radio back and it sat on his workbench in the basement for another 35 years doing what it was meant to do. The Philco had been my bedside radio from high school right through my first couple of years teaching in Ontonagon. The last time I saw it, it was covered with sawdust and still pumping out music. Okay, dad’s stations were playing The Harmonicats and Slim Whitman, but the fact that it was still humming along after 75 years still amazed me. My one regret is that I didn’t think to reclaim the Philco that someone may have snatched up at the final yard sale. If it didn’t get sold, it ended up in the landfill because someone didn’t recognize it for what it was: an antique radio that still worked! Just having that sitting on my workbench shelf would trigger a flood of musical memories, even if it was never plugged in. It is a good thing I did think to nab the extension speaker from our old Magnavox stereo. I am thinking that I could set it up in the basement and go back to playing along with records like the old days.
Top Piece Video: Nope, did NOT see Jack Bruce wearing the furry hat when I heard this on radio!