We Deserve To Be Rocked!

The late Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Bluebeard, which came out in 1987 and which I read a few weeks ago, isn’t one of the best books I’ve ever pulled off a shelf. I mean, the plot is not particularly compelling. And whatever points Vonnegut was trying to make don’t congeal. But sometimes I’m a forgiving soul! And this was one of those times. Meaning, I enjoyed Bluebeard (though there’s no arguing that The Sirens Of Titan and Cat’s Cradle, among others, are better Vonnegut creations). It’s a breezy read. Its witticisms and absurdist underpinnings kept me flipping the pages. And eventually the book found its way into my heart when it helped to spur the production of this essay. See? It can pay to read a mediocre book!

Bluebeard is the supposed autobiography of septuagenarian Rabo Karabekian, a once-acclaimed but now-forgotten abstract painter who, through no real efforts of his own, has become ridiculously wealthy. But his riches mean little to Rabo. Hell, just about everything means little to him. He isn’t a basket case, but he passes through his “golden years” with emotions that rarely jump above a flatline pattern. Rabo would do well to allow joy to enter his life a whole lot more often.

I’ve incorporated Bluebeard into this opus as a result of my attention having been turned to one of the first pieces I wrote for this website. That occurred when I noticed, on my WordPress statistics page, that somebody in our big, old world recently had taken a look at said story, upon which I had bestowed an incredibly ungainly title:  Are We Just Boring As We Get Older? Jackson Browne, And I, Say It Ain’t Necessarily So (click here if you’d like to read it).

Well, last week I read that Browne essay to relearn what it’s all about. Shit, like I should have been able to recall something I penned almost five years ago? I’m lucky when I remember which drawer I keep my underpants in. Turns out that the piece is about the power of music to improve your life. Browne, a primo singer-songwriter who has been going strong in the music biz for over 50 years, has clear thoughts on the subject. Here are his words from my story. They are what he had to say, back in 2014, to interviewer David Dye when asked if people become boring in later life: “As you age, you look for ways in which to sustain yourself . . . Music is restorative, the act of doing it, the act of listening to it. Man, it’s good for you. It can really make the difference in how the rest of your life goes, and especially how you feel physically.”

Right on, Jackson! I couldn’t agree more. Music can calm you down. It can take your mind off your troubles and woes. And, way better from my perspective, music might lead you to inner regions that are so pure and enchanting, you can’t believe your good fortune in being there. Jackson’s quote put me in mind of Rabo Karabekian. Music seems to be absent from Rabo’s life, and he’s all the poorer for it.

Rabo aside, I’d guess that music plays anywhere from a reasonably big to a real big part in most peoples’ lives. Speaking personally, which I sure do a hell of a lot of in this publication, I’d be one sorry f*cker were music to be taken away from me. Listening to music sometimes makes my day. At the least, it helps to get me through each day. Unlike in my youth and middle age, I don’t need to hear tons and tons of music (like Rabo and Jackson, I’m into my 70s), but not a day goes by without a healthy dose, at minimum, of tunes greeting my ears.

And most genres of music suit me just fine. Jazz, blues, reggae, soul, classical, you name it. But more than anything, I like to be rocked. Rocked, that is, by loud, pulsating rock music, the varieties of same that prominently employ electric guitars. This doesn’t happen too much in my house, where my wife Sandy prefers music to be on the more sedate side of the spectrum. But I’ve made it a point over the past 12 months to attend concerts that rock me to the bones. I hadn’t done enough of that in the previous 10 or so years. Paradoxically, Sandy often accompanies me to these shows.

Rocked I was, and mightily, on January 11 when my much-better half and I went to a four-hour, five-band rock concert at City Winery, in Philadelphia. The bands took no prisoners. Nothing resembling a ballad was played that night. I liked each act, but one was head and shoulders above the rest. Namely, Joe Grushecky And The Houserockers (Joe is from the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area, has been rocking and rolling forever, and is pals with Bruce Springsteen). During long passages on each of their songs, the singing stopped and the group’s three-guitar attack took to the skies. Closing my eyes, I let the dense, rushing waves of sound bring me as close to “heaven” as I’ll ever get.

Joe Grushecky And The Houserockers (Joe has the red guitar. Some band members wouldn’t fit in the photo.)

Yes, music, whether you’re a listener or performer, can be a nourishing force that opens hidden doors. And it’s not the only one, of course, though I have to think that it reigns supreme. For some people, painting or sculpting might take them to magical places. Or skiing. Or playing basketball. Who knows how long the list is. I believe that, consciously or not, we all crave more than the everyday, no matter what our age. And that, at least now and then, we want to soar. Man, we deserve to be rocked, in a good way of course, musically or otherwise. Damn straight about that. Our time on Planet Earth is limited, after all.

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The First Time I Saw Springsteen

Before today I hadn’t mentioned the words Bruce or Springsteen anywhere on this blog. But you know, this article about The Boss probably won’t be my last. That’s because I’m a big fan of Bruce’s. I’m not one of his fanatical followers, not one of the myriad folks who own every recording he has ever issued and have attended Springsteen concerts in the dozens and above. But big enough. I consider Springsteen to be a huge talent. For decades he has been a superb singer, songwriter and guitarist, and an in-concert performer blessed with off-the-charts charisma and energy. On January 16, he and The E Street Band will be hitting the road for the umpteenth time. When I read recently about their upcoming tour, my mind wandered back to the first time I saw Bruce on stage.

Springsteen got his start in the late 1960s. By 1973 he had developed a fairly big fan base in a few locales, such as the New Jersey Shore communities and the greater Philadelphia area. Part of this was due to his relentless gigging around the USA. Back then if you toured enough you were bound to catch on somewhere, especially if some radio stations played your tunes. But overall he and his E Street Band still were little known. For the most part he played in small venues until finally breaking through nationally in 1975. Global superstardom would follow some years later.

I moved to Philadelphia in February 1974 and soon started hearing Bruce on WMMR, the city’s premier rock station at that time. They played tracks from his first two albums, both of which came out in 1973: Greetings From Asbury Park followed by The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle. It didn’t take me long to become a Bruce devotee. I bought both albums and especially liked what was on The Wild. Who wouldn’t have? The songs, every one Bruce-penned, are fabulous. They are literate and intriguing stories put to wonderful melodies. Rosalita (Come Out Tonight), Incident On 57th Street, Kittie’s Back . . . man, the seven songs on the record sound as good today as they did all those years ago. There was no question in my mind that Springsteen carried the goods. I wanted to see him in person.

The Bottom Line (photo by Peter Cunningham)
The Bottom Line (Photo by Peter Cunningham)

In July 1974, Bruce and The E Street Band played six shows in Manhattan at The Bottom Line. Three nights of music, two shows per night. Long gone, The Bottom Line was a magnificent small club in Greenwich Village, magnificent not because of its décor but because of its wide-ranging musical menu. I was there with my brother Richard at one of the early shows. Richie wasn’t as ardent a rock lover as I was, but somehow I had convinced him to come along. I suppose I’d known about Bruce’s Bottom Line gigs via announcements on WMMR. I can’t imagine how else I’d have heard.

Springsteen a few months before I saw him (Photo by Burton Wilson)
Springsteen a few months before I saw him (Photo by Burton Wilson)

How much of the show do I remember? Well, to put things in perspective, I’m probably exaggerating on the high side when I say that I recall about 0.0001% of my adult life. Pathetic and depressing, but true. And yet I  do have some memories of that summer evening nearly 42 years ago. I can picture Richie and me seated at a table. We were 20 or 30 feet from the stage. I remember the start of the show. The house and stage lights went dark, and then one spotlight illuminated a small section of stage. Springsteen stood in that focused light, a big floppy hat tilted on his head. And he began to sing Incident On 57th Street. Quietly.

Spanish Johnny drove in from the underworld last night/With bruised arms and broken rhythm and a beat up old Buick, but dressed just like dynamite/He tried sellin’ his heart to the hard girls over on Easy Street/But they said “Johnny, it falls apart so easily, and you know hearts these days are cheap.”

The E Street Band whispered behind Bruce. And as the vocals gradually intensified, the band followed Bruce’s lead nimbly and powerfully. For this song, The Bottom Line, just like that, was transformed into a tough part of town where sorrow and longing prevailed. The reports that I’d heard in Philadelphia were true — that Springsteen, on stage, enveloped a song like few others, tapped into a cache of emotions that were invisible to most vocalists, and that The E Street Band was scarily good. I knew that I was at what would be the best concert I’d ever attended.

Bruce and the boys danced through maybe 10 or 11 more songs before leaving the stage, and they never let go of the audience’s gut. The concert was an exhilarating and spellbinding ride, a trip to rock and roll heaven. The only other tune that I specifically recall being played is Rosalita. It was rollicking and wild. Delirious. Amazing. There was nothing that Bruce, Clarence Clemons, David Sancious, Garry Tallent and the other E Streeters couldn’t do.

Richie was as stunned as I was. I don’t think he’d had any idea what the night held in store for him. To this day I rank Bruce and band at The Bottom Line as one of the ultimate shots of live music in my life. It gave me shivers. It made me shake my head in disbelief. It sent me out into the streets with a buzz that still echoes.

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