Tuesday, April 18, 2006

No Sugar Tonight

What does it mean that the first rock song that I ever really realized was something different than whatever played on the AM radio ("Windy" or "Take a Letter, Maria" or "Last Train to Clarksville", etc...) was a song not by Brits or Americans, but by a Canadian group? I can clearly remember the day that this realization broke on me. It was springtime of 1970 and I had gotten a little transistor radio with a dial on it. The only station that came in well inside the house was a easy-listening
station, but it was warm enough that my antennae and I could go outside and sit on the swing. If you pointed your
body towards Detroit, you could pick up a pop station and so I remember hoping to hear something by Jackson 5
or Sly and the Family Stone (because, after all, the station was catering to a Motown-loving audience) and instead,
I got this great "na na na na na na na na na na" in Burton Cummings' raspy growl. Aow! What the hell was this
and where had it been all my young life?

My brother is nearly twelve years older than me. He loves rock and pop with a passion and was building an enormous
record collection during my infancy and childhood. Not just the Beatles and the Stones and the Who, but
hundreds of LPs with one worthwhile song apiece just because he always had a band and needed to learn the chords
for the covers. So we had plenty of disposable pop, from Herman's Hermits to Paul Revere and the Raiders ("Kicks"
was the first song I ever saw him perform, complete with the tire-pump leg action familiar to people who saw PRR
play live...) and it was all very pleasant. My parents continued to take us to see the big touring country acts of
the day -- Porter and Tammy, Buck Owens, Carl Smith (who was a foul-mouthed drunk the night we saw him) -- and
I took it all in, not discriminating between genres other than by the clothes that the singers wore. (Porter
Wagoner wouldn't be caught dead in a Righteous Brothers or Beach Boys-style cardigan, even if the hairstyles were
eerily similar.)

The Guess Who was my first clue that something was up. (My brother didn't like the Kinks, so I guess I hadn't
heard the guitars in "You Really Got Me.") It was about that point, sonically speaking, that we became a house
divided. My father hated Iron Butterfly and Zep, thought Joplin was a fat sloppy braless "lezzie," (whatever that
was...that was the sole reference to the existence of homosexuality in my house until I went to college -- though
surely my mom must have been strangling on her silence during my enthusiasm for watching disco
dance shows on which the Village People featured prominently).

As for me, the louder, fuzzier, and drummier the better. I read everything about rock I could get my hands on, even
at a very early age. My brother was among the original subscribers to Rolling Stone. He would take me to the
library to read what I guess must have been the Village Voice, although I don't think I knew where the Village
was. Anyhow, I became a pint-sized Lester Bangs, the kind only 1960s blue-collar Cleveland could produce.
My parents had some "Jesus in the temple" moments with me when I'd wander off into the crowd wherever
my brother played and hang out with the bigger kids, swapping insights into who was deriving what riff
from the B side of what obscure import and politely declining the joint as it passed. (C'mon. I was only
6 or 7!) My head is still filled with rhythm and lyrics, obscure facts (such as....did you know that "Can't
Explain" was produced by the manager of the Kinks, which might account for the similarities between
it and "Really Got Me"?) and radio call numbers, on-air jingles (I can still sing the CKLW call letters...
hey, maybe *that's* why I heard so much Canadian rock-and-roll, because of listening to the Windsor
superstation as it bounced its signal across Lake Erie!). These tumble out at awkward times, making
my freakish enthusiasm for rock and pop obvious. And I went completely off the deep end (predictably)
for punk and wave, without which I could not have matured into a sane human being. Elvis Costello
alone gave me reason to live when nothing else could sustain me. (You think I exaggerate.
I assure you, I do not. I literally decided that despite all evidence to the contrary, the world who
had created such an artist was good or at least benign and I had to make it until his next album. Which,
luckily, was a good one.)

There are big gaps in my knowledge. I'm sound on funk, soul, and R & B, but I'm touch-and-go on rap.
Some rap artists made hardly a ripple, especially in the pre-video age, whereas others
like LL Cool J and the Sugarhill Gang are part of my sonic landscape. I checked out for a while
during grunge/grad school/early motherhood. The more punk the current alt-pop scene becomes, however, the more
I'm tuning in again. Stripes, Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys. I find that I have the
tastes of an 18-year-old punk boy.

Today, I heard the Guess Who on the radio. And I still got that thrill.


listmaker said...

My brother, too, is a decade older than me. I grew up on the music of the 50s and 60s. I also remember taking my transitor radio outside for better reception and walking up and down the road listening to hear what song would be number one that week. For the most part, I stopped listening to the radio when I had kids (except for NPR), but am now discovering some new music, mostly through college stations.

imfunnytoo said...

Another great side effect of blogging...you learn something new about someone you've known nearly 24 years...

Another CKLW junkie! And she happens to be one of my best friends...I was blasted from sleep every morning by CKLW..the jingle was supremely cool, the music great, and the traffic reports (of course) obscure. [ Where in the *** was 8 mile, and why should I care, get back to the tunes!] WIXY, the most fun of the Cleveland AM statitons couldn't even come close.

I had my FM favorites too, that came later, but CKLW was the best of the AM in the area by far.