AC/DC was the first band I ever got truly obsessed with. I was 11 years old and at the cusp of maybe, possibly wanting to learn to play guitar. Anything with crunchy, choppy, standout guitar would catch my ear. I put my mom and dad’s Aerosmith’s Greatest Hits cassette through the ringer, listening to “Last Child”, “Kings and Queens”, and “Sweet Emotion” over and and over. But the band that stoked that guitar playing fire more than anyone was AC/DC. My parents had Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap and Highway To Hell on 8-track and I remember specifically wanting to hear “Beating Around The Bush” constantly. That song in-particular was like cat nip for me. It was rough, tough, badass, and that riff was as heavy as anything that was coming out of the Bay area in the early 80s or the Lower East Side in the mid-70s. There was just something very visceral and physical about the rhythm guitar work on those AC/DC albums.
The summer before my 6th grade year I had some chore money saved up(probably some raking for my dad) and my mom took me to Big Wheel, which was a retail store in town where you could pretty much buy anything(precursor to Walmart.) They had a pretty decent collection of cassettes so I snagged up High Voltage by AC/DC and by the time we were 20 seconds into the drive home and “It’s A Long Way To The Top(If You Wanna Rock ‘n Roll)” I thought I’d heard everything I’d ever need to hear in terms of guitar music(in some ways, that statement is still very true.) That staccato rhythm Malcolm Young built that song on was like the Pyramids of rock and roll, where hard rock built its civilization upon. Of course everything else about that song was amazing, but for a fledgling, wannabe guitar player it was as if the curtain had been lifted and I was shown that a simple flick of the wrist and just the right amount of volume from a Marshall plexi head could blow minds.
In that summer of 1986 I quickly amassed a collection of cassettes from AC/DC that covered ’74 Jailbreak up to Who Made Who. By the time I’d gotten my first guitar at the end of that summer I was already learning “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap”, “Ride On”, and “Hells Bells” thanks to the AC/DC songbook that came home with me. Malcolm Young made playing rhythm guitar seem deceptively simple, yet he had a very deft touch that would take a few more years to somewhat crack(though I never really cracked it.) Everyone talked about Angus and his schoolboy uniform, his stage antics, and yes his raw, bluesy lead playing. His sound was perfect after all. It was electric, buzzing, and always on point. But when you get older and you can look back on those old AC/DC records you see and hear the true secret ingredient to those albums was Malcolm Young’s rhythm playing. He laid a solid foundation, along with Cliff Williams and Phil Rudd, on which Angus could bewitch us with his SG wizardry.
I can’t imagine anyone else playing “Kicked In The Teeth”, “Dog Eat Dog”, “You Shook Me All Night Long”, “Beating Around The Bush”, “TNT”, “Who Made Who”, “Highway To Hell”, “Back In Black”, “Gone Shootin”, “Shake Your Foundations”, “Bedlam In Belgium”, or ANY other AC/DC tracks with the same amount of restrained, simple dexterity and spot-on timing than Malcolm Young. He, along with legends like Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry, Chet Atkins, James Burton, and Jerry Reed elevated the rhythm guitarist into as vital a role in rock and roll as the front man. Malcolm turned being a rock and roll rhythm player into an art form.
Malcolm Young died today. He was 64 years old. It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll, but Malcolm Young made it. He even added a few floors above it.
I find myself looking back at little moments that at the time seemed to be difficult and time consuming, but now I think of them and long for those moments. Little things like putting the kids in a stroller and walking the neighborhood in the fall. Bedtime stories, either out of a book or made up by me, told in the confines of a blanket fort. Bike rides in the summer complete with Spiderman and Barbie helmets. That inevitable walk down the toy aisle at Walmart or Meijer before we leave with groceries knowing there would probably be a Lego set, superhero action figure, or Barbie doll leaving with us as well.
One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the afterschool pick up at Lincoln Elementary. The last three years I’ve been the main pick up parent. When my wife started taking school photos for a living I was the one given the task of picking up the two youngest. Sure, they could ride the bus but it was an hour of their lives stuck on a hot bus with stinky, noisy kids every afternoon. If I picked them up they’d be home almost a whole 30 minutes sooner. More time for homework and unwinding, so I really didn’t mind. Sure, if I went home I would’ve had a whole hour and a half of wind down time myself. Time to get dinner going, have a cup of coffee, workout, or just space out in my favorite chair with a new record spinning. Instead of doing that, I’d hit the gym and work out before heading to the pick up line and waiting for the kids to be excused from the gym. It was time I could be doing something for myself, but I grew to enjoy the time sitting in the car and winding down from the day at work and the workout. And if I didn’t go workout on a certain day I’d hit the local bakery and grab a donut and coffee and indulge a bit as I listened to public radio in the car while various mini-vans, pick up trucks, and SUVs lined up behind me.
It was an annoyance that turned into habit. A habit I learned to enjoy.
Now, the kids are all too old for Lincoln Elementary(go Lincoln Lions!) The last one to attend Lincoln was my son who graduated 6th grade last year. He’s now in Lakeview Middle School, while my 14 year old is a Freshman and my 17 year old is a senior two hours away at a private high school for smart kids(she gets it from my wife.) The old Lincoln Elementary was torn down last year and replaced with a new school that has no pizzazz or character. The pick up line is gone. No more classic brick building with its reader board and flag poles in front, nor the sidewalk that laid in front of the school for 50 years. The open, grassy field where my wife conducted the Race For Education Walk-A-Thon for five years in a row(2011-2015) is filled with a new, bland school and a parking lot. Those memories can’t be triggered by seeing that field anymore, as the field is only in memories and pictures. I suppose this is progress, but progress doesn’t take memories into account. History. Emotions.
At least not mine, anyways.
It is what it is, I suppose. Time moves forward, kids grow up, buildings fall, men go balder by the year, and some memories and moments remain like ghosts in your brain to haunt you when you least expect it. I find myself driving by the school and trying to find those feelings and moments once in a while. It’s just not the same. The street remains, but a street with a gaping hole where something that meant a lot to me once used to stand. A place where my kids grew up, parent/teacher conferences occurred, school carnivals transpired, school musicals went on too long, and kids walked in a field while I played top 40 hits to entertain them(and the teachers) on sunny Friday afternoons in October. It was a place I used to sit in my car every day between 3:00 and 3:40 listening to Fresh Air on NPR, drinking a coffee and waiting patiently for my little ones to jump in the car and tell me how their day went.
Those days are gone, and I guess I’ve gotta deal with that.
Another season begins to wind down. Another set of ups and downs, highs and lows, “down low you’re too slows”. I’m not sure I’ve ever been a summer kind of guy so I’m okay with the endless summer coming to an end. I sweat too easily and don’t look all that good shirtless mowing the yard. Pasty white and love handles are never something you want to see walking in formation behind a lawn mower in the front yard. No, I’ve always been more of a Fall fella. Even as a kid I’d count down the days until I could break out the Chicago Bears jacket my mom bought both my brother and I at the Concord Mall. Way back when it wasn’t considered politically incorrect to worship two hillbillies driving around in a Dodge Challenger with the confederate flag painted on the hood. Back when Reagan was still in his first term and no one had yet succumbed to the cuteness of an adorable little orphan named Punky Brewster.
I longed for rosey cheeks and seeing my own breath as I walked to the bus stop. I looked forward to the grass crackling under my feet because of the frost. There was something quite grand about walking the aisle of 3D and looking for the Halloween costume that would up the ante at the inevitable night of trick-or-treating. When I was really young you could buy them in a box that contained a fragile plastic shell of a mask and a meat cutter’s apron fashioned into the body of Darth Vader, Strawberry Shortcake, or Michael from Knight Rider. As I got older I opted for the thick latex jobs that were formed into the bloody mug of an undead goon, a vampire with blood trickling from the side of his mouth, or some sort of alien creature with a severed human hand hanging from its extraterrestrial mouth(all of these were ones I’d owned.)
One year when I wasn’t quite small enough for the all-in-one box and waited too long to pick up the faux Rick Baker special I went as a robber. I wore an old ski mask, the aforementioned Chicago Bears jacket, and carried along my A-Team-certified M-16 toy rifle. This was the early to mid-80s, so this was acceptable. Nowadays that get-up would get you sent to jail or shot dead by some sweaty, trigger-happy cititzen. But at the time no one batted an eye.
“So what are you supposed to be, son?”
“Oh my. Take two then.”
For me, both then and now, fall felt like the inevitable step towards an end. An end to summer, an end to another year, an end to green leaves and grass. For some that might be depressing, but in my head with an end there’s a beginning to something else just around the corner. A new year, a new chance to make your mark at school, and a new fall line-up on TV. The season of wither was open to so many possibilities. Brisk fall walks traipsing through the woods behind my house, Halloween decorations ornamenting nearby neighborhoods, and the smell of burning leaves and pine needles in the air that pushed me to some otherworldly level of childhood contentment. It was that feeling that though things were beginning to wither and die off, the windows could be opened and the ghosts of summer could escape. That touch of chill in the living room as you watch some old horror movie on late night TV…there’s nothing like it.
I welcome fall, and all the disintegration it brings.
The last week and a half have been trying times, for those of us here in the states and for those abroad that have been through this kind of social and political upheaval. I haven’t said much regarding what happened in Charlottesville and the reaction of President Trump. Mainly because I don’t know what to say. I’m appalled by the fact that there are American Nazis marching the streets of an American city in the year 2017 and by the fact that the President of the United States can’t even call them out for what they are. He stoops to straw man arguments about “Well the alt-left are just as bad”. How do you justify that? How do you say that there were some “fine folks” in that sea of sweating, swastika-toting Nazi ghouls? There’s no justification for that behavior and our President’s blase faire attitude towards it. I won’t say I’m ashamed to be an American, because I’m not. My grandfather liberated Jewish prisoners from concentration camps in 1945. My dad served in the Army Reserves in the late 60s, and I had two uncles that fought in Vietnam. I’m a man conflicted by the actions of my government(both with this administration and past ones), but I’m not conflicted about who I am and where I’m from. I don’t take for granted the opportunities allowed to me for being born and raised an American. I don’t think there’s a single nation that doesn’t have its share of nasty skeletons in its closet, and has not put its best foot forward in regards to electing officials from time to time.
I know that we’ll right the ship. Those that wore blinders to the voting booth will(hopefully) see what a mistake they made in voting in who they did. When “your guy” is emboldening men to take off the hoods and walk freely putting up Nazi salutes, carrying torches and yelling “BLOOD AND SOIL!!” and “JEWS WILL NOT REPLACE US!!” in your average American city, things are coming off the rails. We’ll get it back on track. Not without some serious soul searching and looking this existential crisis right in the eyes, but we’ll do it. We’re not all blind to the insanity here. I promise you.
What am I getting at here? I don’t know. Fall is approaching. Things will start fading and withering. With endings come beginnings. Let’s hope for some new beginnings this season of wither. Let’s go for a brisk walk on the trail and say nothing because we don’t have to say anything. Let’s tell our loved ones we love them. Let’s teach our kids differences are strengths. Let’s walk through the fall afternoon and take the smell of burning leaves home with us in our jackets and hats.
Let’s go buy a goddamn Darth Vader Halloween mask and have some fun.
It’s been close to 30 years so my memory may not serve me correctly, but somewhere in the vicinity of the spring of 1989 I got to see and meet Mr. Big guitarist Paul Gilbert. Why do you care? “Paul who? The Mr. Big dude? Yeah, so what?” Will you please let me finish? Thank you. So in the spring of 1989 my guitar teacher heard that Paul Gilbert was doing a guitar clinic at the now defunct Music Spectrum in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Spectrum was the who’s who or what’s what of local music stores. Neal Peart got kits from this place(check some of the late 70s/early 80s Rush albums for the liner notes “thank yous” to MS.) Gilbert was touring the country doing clinics at various music stores for Ibanez, and my guitar teacher Tim Bushong had the forethought to load a few of his in-training guitar slingers into his car and drive us 50 minutes to see Gilbert do some shredding. My older brother at the time was taking lessons from Tim as well, so it turned into a big brother/little brother bonding experience.
So to give you a little history into Paul Gilbert. Gilbert was from a small suburb outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was born in 1966, and by the time he was 15 years old he’d sent a tape to Shrapnel Records owner Mike Varney about auditioning for Ozzy Osbourne. Varney was blown away by the 15 year old from Pennsylvania. Gilbert moved to Los Angeles and attended GIT(Guitar Institute of Technology) and by the time he was 19 he was an instructor there. Soon after he joined the metal band Racer X and put out some premier shred albums. But in 1989 he left Racer X and formed Mr. Big with Billy Sheehan, Eric Martin, and Pat Torpey.
I owned one Racer X cassette. Second Heat was the one Gilbert album in my collection, and to be honest it was just okay. His playing was out of this world good, but musically it just wasn’t my thing. It was too heavy for its own good, in my opinion. Most of the Shrapnel Records roster was like that. Guys that grew up on Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, and most of the AOR-ready rock we hear on classic rock stations now, but in order to show off the speed and neoclassical riffs the band pumped up the metal. When I’d read that Gilbert was in a new band with David Lee Roth’s bassist Billy Sheehan I was pretty excited to hear what they would do.
So on a Thursday evening my brother and I headed to Fort Wayne with our guitar teacher, along with a couple other students, to Music Spectrum to see Paul Gilbert in the flesh and hear some virtuosic guitar playing and mentoring. We arrived and the place was packed. There wasn’t any open carpet anywhere in the place. Mulleted teens and men alike(even a few guitar-slinging chicks if I remember correctly) filled the place to its capacity. Gilbert had a stool set up in the front, along with a 4-track cassette recorder and some PA speakers. I didn’t know what to expect from the guy, really. I guessed by the looks of him he was maybe my brother’s age(he’s actually a year older than my brother, born in 1966), but I’d never seen any interviews with him. After an introduction and some energetic clapping Gilbert walked to the front with his Ibanez guitar and so began the clinic.
Now I can’t remember specifics, so I’ll hit some highlights:
Gilbert played some pretty eye-popping licks for us all to guffaw at. There was a portion of “Name That Tune” where Paul displayed his array of music history knowledge. During this part my brother yelled out and correctly guessed The Beatles’ “Martha My Dear”, to which Gilbert was impressed. Gilbert also previewed a track from the debut Mr. Big album which hadn’t been released yet. With the 4-track cassette player, he played the backing tracks to “Addicted To That Rush” and perfectly followed along with the rest of the band trapped in the confines of the multi-track recorder. I believe there was a Q&A as well, but I can’t quite recall(a lot has happened in 30 years.) It ended with everyone getting in line so they could personally meet Gilbert and get his autograph. I brought along that copy of Second Heat and Paul kindly signed it. One of Tim’s other students brought his Ibanez guitar and Gilbert signed the back of the guitar neck. I thought that was kind of ridiculous, but whatever.
I walked away from that guitar clinic a fan of not only Paul Gilbert’s guitar playing, but of Paul Gilbert the dude. He came across like someone my brother might’ve hung out with and brought over to the house to listen to tunes with. The guy was as relaxed sitting in a room playing and chatting in front of a room full of hungry wanna-be guitar heroes as he would’ve been had he been chatting in a living room with a couple friends, strumming on his six-string. There was no pretentious, “I’m better than you” attitude coming from this guy at all, yet he’d earned it by being one of the best guitarists in the world at the time.
I went on to buy that first Mr. Big album and thought it was a great mix of superior pop hooks, prodigious playing, and pristine metal-lite that could be played loudly in one’s bedroom or on a family trip in the car without any strange looks from the parental units. The guitar/bass combo of Gilbert and Sheehan was a force to be reckoned with. Pat Torpey was a great drummer in his own right, while singer Eric Martin had the perfect mix of sweet and gruff in his voice as to pull off both great pop melodies and the come hither swagger needed to be a proper late-80s rock outfit. I bought their 1991 follow up Lean Into It as well and that one topped the debut. It had the acoustic singalong “To Be With You” on it, but the highlights were “Green Tinted Sixties Mind” and the hefty “Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy(The Electric Drill Song). That album made Mr. Big a household name(sort of), and I played that album for the most of junior and senior year.
And then that was it…for me, at least.
Seattle took over and I discovered The Kinks, Procol Harum, and Brit pop. The urge to be a guitar slinger was tampered by the urge to be a songwriter. The Shrapnel Records cassettes I’d amassed were designated to an old shoe box, along with those late-80s hard rock cassettes. CDs were in and so was a new era of music for me.
But I never forgot about Paul Gilbert. Despite changing tastes over the years, I’ve always liked Gilbert and his playing. I’d look into what he was doing every once in a while, but it wasn’t until last year that I’d really starting digging into my guitar slinger past and found a treasure trove of Paul Gilbert videos on Youtube. For the past 30 years Paul Gilbert has never stopped making music or doing guitar clinics. In the many that I’ve watched, these videos show a guy that’s never stopped loving playing for people. He seems to still be that 17-year old kid from the suburbs of Pittsburgh playing UFO covers in his room, or excitedly playing his guitar with an electric drill. He still has that urge to share and show others what he’s learned. He still comes across as a dude coming by the house to listen to records and jam in the basement. I love that.
I think one of my favorite videos that I’ve discovered is of Gilbert on a Japanese game show where guitarists name a band and another guitarist has to name the guitar player in that band and then play a portion of one of their songs in that guitarist’s style. It was Paul Gilbert, Marty Friedman, and a Japanese guitar player. Gilbert pretty much ruled the game. To me it shows just how much Paul Gilbert loves music in general.
I won’t be on a buying spree for Mr. Big and Paul Gilbert albums(at least not yet.) But it’s great I can jump into the wayback machine while watching his instructional videos or live performances and be reminded once again how much I like the guy. And you should check out his most recent album, Stone Pushing Uphill Man. It’s mostly instrumental cover versions of some of his favorite songs. It’s pretty great. His cover of The Police’s “Murder By Numbers” is particularly awesome.
All this talk of classic horror films from when I was a boy in short pants has me reminiscing about Friday nights of my youth. The Friday night video rental, to be exact. It was a semi-regular thing for my parents and I to go out after my dad got home from work and go grab a pizza at Pizza Hut, stuff ourselves, and then head to Video World and rent some movies for the weekend. Of course, I’d head straight to the back room(not THAT backroom, you perv) and start perusing the horror and sci fi. Video World had a back room dedicated to nothing but horror, sci fi, music docs, and weird odds and ends. That’s where I spent a good portion of my time. This was my formal education into the world of the undead, vampires, alien creatures, soulless slashers, and general weirdos that I’d carry around in my memories for years to come. At first it was an appreciation for being scared, but then it changed. It was the whole aesthetic that I loved: the effects, the music, the set designs, and yes even the stories that were attempted. Some were better than others(much better at times), but each movie carried with it something endearing, no matter how horrible the film was. If it was really bad it would sometimes transcend into something even greater than scares. The horror film that tried so hard but missed the mark would become something else: parody. Something so bad that it became a completely different genre. Even a lousy movie could make for fun viewing.
This Friday night ritual continued on through high school. One of my best friends and I would crash at either my place or his, grab a Tombstone pepperoni pizza from the store along with a bag of Cheddar and Sour Cream Ruffles, hit Video World for the newest horror film(by this time we’d rent from either Video World or Video Plus), and spend Friday night distorting our minds(and our intestinal tract with that Tombstone Pizza.) Oh, and if you hadn’t guessed, we weren’t the partying types. Were we dorks? Nerds? I don’t think so. But we definitely weren’t “popular kid” material. Listening to Rush and Joe Satriani and pining over Daphne Zuniga didn’t win us any cool points, but we were cool with that.
I don’t think much has changed for me(except I make my own pizza nowadays.) The video store has turned into renting movies off of Amazon, and Fridays are also shared equally by watching movies and spinning records. If I’m going to waste time, I might as well waste on things I love to do, right? I do miss the video store, though. The strange cast of characters that haunted the aisles: whether it was parents and their kids looking for something to watch together, teens looking for something they shouldn’t watch, or the creepers disappearing into the “other” back room. And of course the folks working behind the counter, renting to the folks hungry for entertainment on a Friday evening. Spending their weekend making ours a little more interesting. I had much admiration for them. I was one of them, as I started working at Video World when I was 18 and worked their for nearly a year. A great year it was, too.
So here’s to Friday rentals and making the most of those little moments.
Last week we had my parents over on Valentine’s Day to share a massive pizza and some cake with. It was a nice evening of chit chat and laughter(it usually is with them.) After we ate we were in the living room talking when the conversation went to my childhood. My dad made the comment “You could be peculiar at times. You always got upset when we weren’t acting “normal”. When things were out of place it really bothered you.” At first I laughed, then I realized he was right. What shocked me was that my dad remembered this about me. I’d always known this to be true, that if things were off or my parents weren’t acting like my parents that I’d panic. But I never realized they noticed my (erratic)behavior. I guess parents notice more than you think, kids.
I can remember being 5 or 6 and trying to wake my mom up. She was on the couch and had fallen asleep. It was close to 11pm and I’d woken up from a bad dream. I’d gone out and found her on the couch with TV on in the dark. She was snoring(family trait) and I tried waking her up. My mom was a heavy sleeper and was prone to talking in her sleep. She slowing opened her eyes and seemed to be talking nonsense, which made my already nervous state even worse. I was half crying telling her to wake up when I think she was awake and looking at me like I was insane. I turned around and my dad was up and getting ready for work(he worked third shift at the time.) They both looked at each other like “WTF??”
I suppose this is something you don’t forget as an adult.
There were other instances. Complaining in a restaurant about a pizza not having enough meat on it(valid complaint, but in my 8 year old brain I thought “What if people look at us?”). On a pontoon with my parents and grandparents and we run out of gas in the middle of Lake Manitou. They were all a little on the intoxicated side and my dad started yelling “Help me! Help me!” in between bouts of laughter(we made it to shore unscathed.) I was horrified. And there were the late night games of Monopoly and UNO that would go on till midnight, on a school night. My brother and I had to finish the game regardless. “Finish what you started, guys.”
My parents didn’t seem like my parents in those moments. They just seemed like these people I resembled physically. They weren’t the loving couple that helped me with my homework, took my brother and I to amusement parks in the summer, fed us, clothed us, loved us, and generally made our lives pretty amazing.
They were just these people. People acting like other people than my parents.
I can remember having nightmares when I was really young that my parents were taken over by strange entities. I’m sure a lot of that came from watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers and V as a kid. One dream I remember was being at a construction site and I was inside a house that was just framed out. I was lost and couldn’t find my mom and dad. These people show up and they were outlined like two adults that could’ve been my mom and dad, except that the shapes were filled with television static. Outlines of two bodies walking towards me, but within the outlines was just analog static with occasional sparks of lightning inside. They spoke but it was in these buzzing tones. They were supposed to be my parents, but obviously they weren’t. It was terrifying to my pre-science fiction-loving mind. I’d had another dream around the same time where I’d woken up in the middle of the night and walked out to the kitchen and found my dad making coffee. I immediately ran into my parents bedroom and my dad was also in their bathroom shaving. Two dads, identical, in two different rooms of the house. Which one was the real dad? Who do I ask for a glass of water?
Now, being 43 years old and having read more than my share of psychology books I can see that it was a fear of change and a fear of losing my parents. I think its a pretty normal thing for kids, it just manifests itself differently with different people. And I can also look back and see that in those moments when my parents weren’t acting “normal”, they were just being themselves. At that young of an age I only knew mom and dad. I didn’t know them as individuals. I didn’t want to see them “having fun” or “goofing off”, or as just people(or not paying attention to me, dammit.) That’s confusing! But now that I’m in those shoes I can completely understand. You can’t lose sight of who you are. Sure you’re mom and dad, but sometimes mom and dad need to be individuals. You lose sight of who you are deep down, or who you once were and things get a little complicated. Maybe you’ll start resenting yourself and what you’ve become.
Hell, I don’t know. I’m not a psychologist.
So yes, I was a peculiar child. When things weren’t as they should’ve been I’d kind of freak out. I might be that way a little still, but at least the nightmares stopped(all but those back in high school nightmares.) And strangely enough I’m relieved that my parents saw how peculiar I could be, and yet they still seem to think I’m okay. Same with my family.
I think I’ve made my normal self as the dad that listens to vinyl, drinks micro-brews, reads comics, makes music in the basement, and loves science fiction. My kids would worry if I started reading the paper daily, watching football, drinking light beer, and going to church. Over the last few years I’ve made a concerted effort to “be me” in all aspects. Maybe that’s the difference between me and my parents. Parenting was more of a role 30, 40 years ago, as opposed to who a person was. I was used to the roles and not the individuals. Hopefully my kids know me as dad and that guy spinning records.
Or just the neurotic guy that sits in the living room often typing on a Chromebook.
I can remember for a good portion of my childhood (at least that portion that didn’t include a cassette player in my bedroom or in the car) that radio was my friendly companion. From driving from our home to my grandma’s house 30 miles away to just driving into town to get groceries or my mom plopping me down near the window at the women’s clothing store to play with the hand-me-down toys while she tried on clothes. Radio was the voice that kept me company. From the time I was 4 or 5 years old to when I’d turned 10 the radio provided me with sounds, songs, and melodies that would, for better or worse, stay with me my whole life.
Now I’m sure everyone feels this way, but pop music in my childhood seems so much better than the pop radio of “now”. Sure, there were plenty of pop artists in the early 80s that were nothing more than a shell regurgitating tunes a slew of songwriters wrote for them, but there were also a lot of artists writing their own songs AND performing them. Real artists. Maybe you didn’t dig the neon sheen and overuse of synthesizers, well that’s a matter of taste. Point is, you had some pretty interesting bands invading the top 40. I don’t think it’s quite the same these days. That’s a matter of my taste.
One of those bands that soundtracked my childhood was Genesis. Songs like “Misunderstanding”, “Turn It On Again”, “No Reply At All”, “Mama”, “That’s All”, “Home By The Sea”, “Illegal Alien”, “Taking It All Too Hard”, “Just A Job To Do”, “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight”, “Land Of Confusion”, “In Too Deep”, and “Throwing It All Away” were all huge hits and played ad nauseum on the local pop and rock stations. There were plenty of songs that played ad nauseum that caused my pre-teen heart to turn black each time I heard them, but for some reason I never wanted the station turned when “Misunderstanding” or “That’s All” or “No Reply At All” came through the car radio. Dare I say I got a little agitated if the station got turned in the middle of the song.
There was something kind of comforting about the Collins/Banks/Rutherford trio to an awkward kid like me. They weren’t donning the cover of Teen Beat or Circus Magazine. Their songs weren’t cookie cutter stuff, in that you couldn’t just sit down with an acoustic guitar and muddle through. Despite being radio fodder it was still very progressive. Unlike so many other bands in the 80s Genesis didn’t seem to take themselves all that seriously(unlike their earlier incarnation.) I could see them playing Knebworth and I could also just as easily picture them on The Benny Hill Show running around, sped up and being chased by Hill and that little bald fellow. They were a ballads band, for sure. But their ballads enthralled me as a kid, as opposed to making me run in the opposite direction like most ballads did. There was a middle-aged malaise to their sad sack songs that connected with me, even at 8-years old. Sure, hearing Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” on Miami Vice certainly caused me to appreciate the guy. But their video for “Land Of Confusion” did more to solidify my childhood love for these three progressive rock survivors.
So let’s jump in the time machine and travel from 1983 to 2017. I recently streamed Genesis’ Genesis from 1983 and I was pretty taken aback by just how much I loved that album. It’s pretty much jam packed with great songs. Catchy, earworm tunes that take me back to car rides, Sunday mornings listening to the top 40 countdown, and late Friday nights watching Friday Night Videos on mom and dad’s Zenith 25″. Yes, nostalgia does play a big role in my affinity for the album and band, but there’s no denying their songwriting prowess here. This led to revisting Abacab and Duke. Both are exquisite chunks of pop radio confection with a nice mix of progressive musicianship throughout. I perused Invisible Touch as well. This came out in 1986 when I’d hit middle school, guitar lessons, AC/DC, and a newfound affinity for the opposite sex, so tracks like “Invisible Touch” and “In Too Deep” weren’t what I wanted running through my brain(though, I can neither confirm or deny a few melancholy bus rides home from school a little heartbroken while “Throwing It All Away” played from the school bus radio.) While Touch was a little too digital and synsonic-sounding for my tastes, it hit some nerves as well.
But Genesis, to me, is the quintessential 80s hit record. Sure, and then there was three, but man could those three make some great songs. I think they realized they weren’t going to hold onto the grizzled, hardcore progressive rock fans of albums like Trespass, Selling England By The Pound, Foxtrot, and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. The missing combo of Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett was just too much to keep up the concept album facade. It was time to start thinking bigger. Radio hits and securing a second wind of a music career. It started with Duke and continued with Abacab, with their full powers coming to fruition on Genesis. Invisible Touch and We Can’t Dance gave them even more radio hits and success, but it also spelled overexposure and burn out. Plus, the progressive tendencies had pretty much been washed out of the sound. Gone were songs like “That’s All”, “No Reply At All”, and “Home By The Sea”.
Also gone were actual “bands” that were musicians as well as songwriters showing up on the radio. Boy bands, boxed R&B, and the oncoming train wreck called alternative 90s had been filling up the charts with schmaltz and over-produced songs written by small armies of songwriters. There were no more bands like Genesis; middle-aged veterans with musician and songwriting chops going into a studio and bashing out records. Everything became machinated in the music industry. No wiggle room to screw up. Sometimes those screw-ups gave us the best stuff.
Oh well, enough old man whining. I found a NM used copy of Genesis at my local record store earlier this week. I brought it home after getting groceries and threw it on the turntable. Damn. It still hit all the buttons for me. My wife came home and said “I thought this sounded like Phil Collins.” I replied “Yeah, I bought this for $4 at Karma Records today. I never realized how much I loved early 80s Genesis.” After about 30 minutes and a second run through my wife was singing along to “That’s All”, after which she said “I guess I never realized how much I loved Genesis, too.”