Monday, February 04, 2008

Freeze Frame!

A very musical few weeks here. I broke down and bought an iPod, the aircraft carrier of iPods, the 160GB model. (I already have a 60GB Creative Nomad player that I’ve filled up to 52 Gigs via 3-4 years of assiduous creation of gigantic folders encompassing the best of my CD collection and various other sources, cough.) The game plan, once I got over the giddiness of a major purchase, became first buying a 500GB external hard drive to house all these and future MP3 files, and then the transfer of the files my old Nomad player to the external drive, and finally to the iPod.

Two weeks! And that was with me gunning it, every night after work, all weekend long, carefully re-tagging files that got screwy in the transfer. (I’d say 80% of the 10,000 files didn’t need any refiguring … leaving 2,000 MP3 files I had to slowly and carefully rename.) I have to admit, I love the iPod, and this after years of having my doubts. It’s a great machine. Something the size of 1/3rd of a deck of cards with the capability to hold more music than I know what to do with. Took me three years to build up 50 Gigs – something tells me this thing will never be filled up, unless I get seriously into video.

All the while, I’ve been pulling together albums and such for the first band I ever saw in concert but really don’t know all that well, even today: The J. Geils Band.

Let me take you back to the winter of 1981, leading into 1982. Last year of high school. Musically, I’m in the throes of all those 60s British bands – Beatles, Who, Stones, and especially, The Kinks. While everyone else is going around listening to Van Halen, Journey and Styx, I’m mainly into 60s Brit Pop and new-wave, which isn’t winning me any popularity contests. New wave was “fag” music back then. I still remember trying to sell one of the guys in gym class on Elvis Costello. He laughed at me: “Just look at the guy! You know he’s a fag by the glasses! They’d be steaming up while he blew me!”

Never mind that this guy had a full length poster of a heavily made-up Freddie Mercury in a silver lame unitard posted in his locker that was probably the gayest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. We were all willfully na├»ve about such matters back then, but everyone intrinsically sensed new wave was for fags and nerds. (Although a few years ago, I did an informal survey for the Class of 82’s favorite song based on choices from our yearbook, and it turned out to be “I Love Rock and Roll” by Joan Jett and The Blackhearts – a big choice among stoner chicks with feathered roach clips and the occasional stoner dude/nonsexist rocker. I’m jake with that song being the top choice. It rocks.)

Into this atmosphere stepped The J. Geils Band. I knew about them from their last big hit, “Love Stinks” – a great song, surely their best. Until that point, for me, they had been a vague, seedy blues rock band with a weird lead singer. I wasn’t on the scene for the glory days of their first few albums in the early 70s. (And in the past few weeks, I’ve found that after the first three, they really fell off a cliff for the next few albums, thus precipitating the vibe that “Love Stinks” followed by the Freeze Frame album was a comeback of epic proportions.) I knew “Give It to Me” from hearing it on the AOR stations (WZZO from Allentown, WMMR and WYSP from Philly), but that was about it. I picked up a greatest hits album around that time, of which their live cover of the Motown classic “Where Did Our Love Go” registered, but most of it seemed like warmed-over blues rock.

While I didn’t go particularly nuts for the Freeze Frame album, my friend George did, buying it on cassette and wearing it out. The band had huge hits with the title track and “Angel Is the Centerfold.” The album itself was clearly geared towards a more teen audience as the band aged and recognized they had to change to survive. George was particularly enamored of the last song, “Piss on the Wall,” in which lead singer Peter Wolf disregards world events as he tries “to hold it steady while I piss on the wall.” A dumb, juvenile song that I have a hard time listening to today … but it made perfect sense to a bunch of disaffected 17-year-old kids.

Freeze Frame became the cruise tape for that part of our senior year. Of course, George was a strange guy to begin with. Any time we pulled into one of those sleepy Coal Region towns in his souped-up 76 Nova (with flaming tailpipes), it was customary to roll down the windows and play the ultimate freakout song on his cassette player: “Baby Elephant Walk” by The Lawrence Welk Orchestra. All kidding aside, that is a great piece of music, written by Henry Mancini, I believe … but not something a kid who was otherwise dogging the hell out of the first two Ozzy Osbourne albums would be prone to listening to. He also had a cassette of The Ink Spots greatest hits borrowed from his dad, so we’d just as often use something like “I’m Not Trying to Set the World on Fire” as the freakout song.

George also had a yen for Frank Zappa, thus Joe’s Garage is another album that immediately brings back 1982 to me, the title track and “Catholic Girls” in particular. George leaned more metal than my pop rock tastes, but at least he was listening to cool shit in general, along with the inevitable Sammy Hagar albums that sounded like ass even then.

At that time, my neighbor, Bubba, was in his first year at an electronics school (I think?) in the Lehigh Valley, just outside of Allentown. He was living in a nondescript apartment complex just outside the city limits with another guy from our home area who also was a low-level drug dealer. Their place was a shambles, which is what you’d expect from two 19-year-old kids on their own for the first time. Both would later transfer to a school in Ohio that would sort of fizzle into a false lead. The roommate, whom I’ll call Ray, was a nice enough guy, big, friendly. He often told the story of one of his customers being so desperate for pot that she’d regularly fellate him while he was on the toilet. Pretty ragged stuff, but in light of his legendary bowel movements, this became even more gruesome. I have no reason to doubt this wasn’t true … who would boast about such a thing?

The only thing I can recall about their apartment is a Conan the Barbarian movie poster on the wall. I’m sure there was furniture, but whatever it was, it came from the family rec room or basement, the local Salvation Army.

How I came to see this place was George scored tickets to see The J. Geils Band at Stabler Arena in Bethlehem. It was perfect timing. I can’t recall the exact date, but I’m suspecting it was right about this time of year in 1982. The week of the show, the Freeze Frame album went to #1 in the Billboard charts, the band’s first and only #1 album. Son of a bitch. I just googled this and came up with the album going to #1 on February 6, 1982. How’s that for accuracy?

Thus we knew they’d be psyched to play that show, a hard-touring bar band from Boston who finally hit it big. My parents decided it was OK for me to go – I’d never been to a rock concert. Older brother M had flamed out on rock and roll and drugs in his wild-and-wooly teen years, so my parents were acutely aware of the present dangers, but probably figured I wasn’t going to go down that path. (They were right, although I was constantly surrounded by kids who did.)

George had four tickets. (I can’t recall the price, probably less than $10.00 per ticket, which is how my mind, even now, relates to how much one should pay to see a band … I felt like an asshole spending $65 to see Springsteen a few years ago.) So, we were clearly going. None of the other guys in our circles of friends seemed to give a shit. Most were surprised that I wanted to go, but The J. Geils Band struck me as probably being a damn good live band, on top of which I had started to genuinely like the album. So, a few phone calls were made, and it was decided that Ray and Bubba would take the two remaining tickets, and would let us use their place as a launch pad/rest area for the show. My parents made it clear: this was no overnight visit, see the show, and come straight back. This would entail getting back at around 1:00 or 2:00 the next morning, as Allentown was a good 1-1/2 hour drive south. This would be one of the few nights of our senior year George and I didn’t kill endless hours shooting pool at Holiday Lanes (which is now a pierogie factory).

I remember there was snow on the ground, and being mildly shocked that Bubba was living in such a hovel, but in retrospect, his place was surely no worse than many other student apartments I’d see in the next few years at Penn State. Kids willfully lived like bums, couldn’t afford good furniture and were clearly set-up for a transient existence with maybe a few youthful touchstones – posters, bongs, stereos, albums – thrown in to make it more “homey.”

Ray and Bubba took us out to dinner (fast food), and the whole time, Ray was smoking hash. I didn’t have any. I didn’t need to have any. The simple act of breathing the same air in a closed car in the middle of winter gave me a contact high. It was a giddy hash high, a lot of laughing, spacing out. We got stupid. But at one point we got out of the car on a rural back road to take pictures with a camera one of us must have had. I should also note that we were all blasted on hash, and I had discovered a bunch of brown plastic flower pots in the backseat that, when worn on our heads, looked exactly like the futuristic hats that Devo wore as part of their stage show.

Lord, I wish I still had this picture. Somewhere, there’s that picture of me at seventeen, rake thin in a huge navy peacoat, leaning against a used car in the country, snow all around, sun is out, wearing my Grandmother’s cat-eye shades and this asinine flower pot on my head, a stoned smile on my face, arms crossed. If I could get that picture back, I’d frame it and call it “Youth” – because even thinking about that picture makes me recall the best aspects of being a kid: directionless, weightless, having fun in the moment, maybe $30.00 to my name, a Bad Company cassette blasting from the Sparkomatic, three other guys in the same head making snow angels in some farmer’s field just outside of Allentown.

That giddy feeling extended to the show. I can’t recall what substances were being imbibed. I know Bubba and George were drinking beer, although I can’t recall what brand. I think I might have had a beer or two but honestly wasn’t drunk. (They had broken me in the previous summer – read about it here for an epic “first drunk” story that’s surely hard to beat.)

This was how concerts went back then: everybody got stoned. Beer was the least of it. Most people were high as kites, hours before the show, and barely able to stand at the show. I recall being incredibly excited as we got there. There was literally a pot cloud hovering over the crowd – it was impossible not to be high in some sense unless you wore a gas mask. For better or worse, that’s how I remember arena concerts from the 80s – I’m sure they were even more druggy in the 70s. I’m not even sure if beer was sold at these shows, as they were mostly kids and young adults. Everyone self lubricated in the hours leading up to the event. (This would grate on me when I saw The Kinks there twice later in the 80s and realized most of their newer fans had the demeanors of fucking frat boys.)

Jon Butcher Axis was the opening band, and they sort of came and went. I recall liking them, but not rushing out to buy their album. (A year or two later in the same arena, I’d see a defiant INXS get booed off the stage while opening for The Kinks, shortly before they took off like a rocket. “Don’t Change” was their minor hit at the time, and they would shortly dominate the pop world for a few years there in the mid/late 80s.)

Lights went out minutes after the Butcher loadout, and the crowd started howling in anticipation. Stage exploded in flashpots, with Peter Wolf hopping around the stage like a frog, to the tune of “Come Back” a vaguely disco-sounding song from their Love Stinks album. It was exciting as hell. The band had it down. Wolf was a consummate front man, had a variety of dance moves he used throughout the show (his favorite seemed to be rapidly circling his hands in front of his stomach and finishing the flourish with a jump or 60s dance move). Their harmonica player, Magic Dick, had a visual presence with his big white-boy afro and, I didn’t know it at the time with nothing to compare it against, really played well. During the song “Musta Got Lost” – a minor hit from the mid-70s I hadn’t known – Wolf jumped into the crowd and got passed around like a returning hero. The band was over-joyed to finally have a #1 album. On top of having a #1 single that fall with “Angel Is the Centerfold,” this was as good as it got for them. (Wolf and the rest of the band had an acrimonious breakup a year or two later, with Wolf having middling success as a solo artist and the rest of the band putting out the regrettable You're Gettin' Even While I'm Gettin' Odd, featuring the non-hit "Californicatin," that I foolishly bought.)

I should note here that we never stopped wearing the flower pots on our heads. Normally, this would cause consternation, but seeing as how we were surrounded by stoned people and arena employees who had “seen it all” in some sense, some weird teenage rednecks with flower pots on their heads wasn’t that big a deal. I recall Bubba and I going down to our section entrance a few times and square dancing.

In short, the concert was a blast, in retrospect, one of the better shows I’ve seen. I also think that was the only time I’ve ever seen a band with a #1 album on the charts – my tastes were such that this was never much of an issue, although I’m sure David Bowie had a Top Ten album with Let’s Dance when I saw the Serious Moonlight tour a few years later at Hershey Park Arena.

The concert ended with the band forming a human pyramid onstage, with keyboardist Seth Justman, the smallest guy in the band, climbing on top to extend his right hand, palm up at the audience – the band did the exact same thing in their “Freeze Frame” video. A palm/hand print had been the band’s insignia since featuring it on the cover of their Sanctuary album a few years earlier.

For how exciting all that was, heading back to Bubba’s and Ray’s apartment was a bit of a letdown. Everyone was wasted physically now, after getting blasted in one form or another for a good part of the day. I don’t know why I did this, but I pissed in their bathtub. This must have been around 11:00 or midnight. I hadn’t forgotten that I promised my parents I’d come home after the show. It didn’t appear that this would happen. George was blotto. Bubba was pretty gone, too. Ray was stoned. If I had any sense, I’d have called my parents and weaved some yarn about everyone being too tired to drive back, and it would make better sense to come back tomorrow morning, could I stay overnight please? All things considered, it would have been the safest option.

Instead, I busted Bubba’s balls. If I’m recalling this correctly, George hadn’t driven his souped-up Nova to the show. Bubba had been home that Saturday and drove all of us down in his car … and thus was expected to drive us back. I think part of the problem also was Ray was a bit of a nut. The guy was large. I knew he was a drug dealer. While he was friendly, he also put out a strange vibe while stoned, the sort of thing that made you feel like you might wake up with a steak knife in your back and him laughing maniacally in the corner. I didn’t want to deal with it.

While I didn’t pitch a fit, I laid on a thick guilt trip (“Dude, you made a promise to get us home tonight, now keep it!”) and wouldn’t let up. I recall walking with George along the shoulder of the nearby interstate that ran just feet from their apartment, and he was pretty pissed, too. We wandered like that for a few minutes before we finally saw Bubba emerge from the skanky apartment and call up, “All right, I’ll take you home. You bunch of pussies.”

And that was that, a muted ride home after a strange, stoned day and a great concert. Actually, I think once Bubba got behind the wheel, we were fine. The driving helped re-focus him, and I suspect had we crashed out there, I would have awoken the next morning to the sound of Ray’s gurgling bong, and another half day of fucking around in a stoned haze before getting out of there. By the time we got back, I was glad I had busted his balls, and I gathered he didn’t mind taking a long ride with his childhood friends as a brief respite from the wacky lifestyle he had going on at the time.

But that was it, the first concert. When I hear of parents taking their kids to concerts, all I can think is how wrong that is on so many levels, the key one being that by a certain age, surely no later than his teen years, a kid should be encouraged to develop his own identity, especially in terms of music. Have some genuine adventures, and let the chips fall where they may in terms of how the kid handles himself – if you haven’t raised a horse’s ass, probably better than you’d think. Aging KISS fans in full make-up taking their kids to KISS concerts? Son of a bitch ... this is hell. If you had approached these 13-year-old boys in 1977 and told them this would happen one day, they’d have thought you were nuts. They’d have rejected the concept of their own parents attending a show with them in 1977, and rightfully so, even if they’d have been too selfish to grasp that their Big Band and 50s Rock parents would rather eat shit for two hours than watch KISS. (Actually, I felt the same way as their parents in 1977 and still do now!)

Then again, so much has changed with concerts, slowly evaporating like that marijuana cloud that hovered over every show. If only Mom hadn’t thrown out that $15 concert (long black-sleeved) shirt I bought that night, featuring The J. Geils Band in that pyramid on the front, and the big hand print on the back. Along with the Bowie Serious Moonlight muscle shirt I later bought, I could have E-Bayed those things for at least $50 a piece to some retro-seeking hipster. Then again, I’m spared the depression of trying the thing on and having it fit me like a tube top.

Bonus: if you've read this far, treat yourself to a free copy of the aforementioned live version of "Where Did Our Love Go" by The J. Geils Band.

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