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Flight-Deck, Gutbucket, Down-Home Galvanic Soul

Whoah. That’s some Nehru jacket-pageboy-haircut-1968 goodness during the introduction. The singer is Jamesetta Hawkins, who played Boggle with her name and dyslexied it up to Etta James.

That’s a Muscle Shoals production. It’s the greatest band in the history of ever. This is when they were banging away at Fame records, before they moved across town and started their own thang without Fame’s producer and owner Rick Hall. Clarence Carter had a hit with the song already, but Etta took it up a notch, and it made it to number 10 on the Billboard R&B chart, and 23 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

I’m not sure the junior-high-schoolers in the audience were ready for their full dose of flight-deck, gutbucket, down-home galvanic soul, but you have to start somewhere.

I’m Decidedly Not In With the In Crowd

Aw yeah. That’s 1964. Dobie Gray on Shindig, one of the many musical variety shows on TV back then. It was only broadcast for a couple of years, but managed to showcase lots of good artists. The first show had Sam Cooke, The Everly Brothers, and The Righteous Brothers, for instance.

The In Crowd had several popular iterations. Dobie’s was the first. A little later, jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis decided it would make a fun jazz cover.

Jazz was very big in the fifties, but rock ‘n roll steamrolled it in the sixties. Despite that, The Ramsey Lewis Trio had a big hit with it, sold a million copies, and got a Grammy for their trouble. The song has more or less become a jazz standard on the back of Lewis’ version. In the seventies, Bryan Ferry from Roxy Music took a run at it, and made the hind end of the charts again with a… a… well, a Bryan Ferry sort of version of it.

The three versions couldn’t sound more different. Dobie sounded playful singing the song. Ramsey sounded sophisticated. And Bryan sounded like he had a pocket full of rohypnol, and was cruising a louche bar in Marseille.

Hey, Want a Virtual Tour of the Minuteman ICBM Launch Control Center? I Thought You Would

This is a Minuteman ICBM, on its way somewhere with its cargo of canned sunshine:

ICBM of course an acronym for Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. It’s called a Minuteman because it’s got solid fuel in the rumble seat instead of liquid propellant. You’d have to fill up the tank just before launch if it relied on liquid fuel, and you’d feel pretty silly getting an incoming missile on top of your head, what with you standing there with the gas pump nozzle in your hand.

America has three kinds of ICBMs. Minutemen missiles are the land-based leg of the stool. Trident submarines are loaded up with missiles, and skulk around the world’s oceans waiting for Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman to agree to turn the keys at the same time. Bombers carrying nuclear weapons are the third leg.

Minutemen are old tech. They’ve been in service since 1962. They got upgraded to deliver multiple warheads from the same missile in the ’70s. They’re due to be replaced by something else ghastly in 2030. I wouldn’t stand on one leg and hold my breath expecting the replacements to be delivered on time, however. Many Ukrainians currently have one leg, and have decided to permanently hold their breath, while waiting for munition deliveries from our Military Industrial Complex, for example.

So if you’ve ever wondered what it was like sitting in an underground bunker, waiting for the president to drop the nuclear football and step on the button, here’s a virtual tour of one from aerospaceutah.org. Press anywhere on the photo to visit the interactive wonderfulness.  One word of caution: it starts making noises right away:

I’ve worked in a defense plant, so I’m used to these sorts of drab surroundings. The cheap toaster oven on the counter is a nice, human touch. And far be it from me to wonder why a facility that can end the world has about the same amount and quality of equipment you’d find in your average college radio station. Better chairs, though.

Never mind all that. Poke around with your mouse, and zoom in here and there, and you’ll discover just how serious this whole procedure became. Over in the corner, in someone’s duty bag, you’ll find this:

Nuclear Armageddon could turn out to be a long slog. Best pack your fuzzy doggie slippers.

One of These Things Is Not Like the Other

Let’s examine two sides of the same coin. In 1967, Warren Beatty produced and starred in Bonnie and Clyde. In 2019, Netflix produced The Highwaymen with Kevin Costner as the lead.

Here’s a trailer for Bonnie and Clyde:

Bonnie and Clyde is famous for a lot of things, mostly the wrong things. The American Film Institute ranks it 42nd on their list of the 100 Greatest Films of All Time, which it decidedly and manifestly is not. It wasn’t much like other movies when it got made, which was its appeal I guess. The actors wore packets of Karo syrup, tinted with red pigment, which are detonated to appear like bullets striking people with a spray of blood. That was a novelty, of a sort. Sam Peckinpah and lots of other bad directors took notes, I gather. Even Monty Python noticed the cheap new frisson of gore gone wild on the screen:

People like to point to the birth of splatter as the reason why Beatty got to be a sort of demigod in Hollywood, but that’s not it. No one would produce Bonnie and Clyde. The studios thought the idea reeked of George Raft and James Cagney and was twenty years too late. It was originally pitched as a kind of comic spoof, almost slapstick. With no interest, Beatty could buy the rights to the movie and became the producer. They made a mess of a movie on a a $2.5 million dollar budget. It made $70 million dollars for reasons that really can’t be explained by watching it. Beatty’s cut was 60 percent. That, and only that, is how you get to be a big deal in Hollywood. Moolah.

American filmmakers were warming up fast to the idea of the anti-hero at the time, and Beatty was out in front by a nose.

antihero /ăn′tē-hîr″ō, ăn′tī-/

noun

    1. A main character in a dramatic or narrative work who is characterized by a lack of traditional heroic qualities, such as idealism or courage.
    2. A protagonist who proceeds in an unheroic manner, such as by criminal means, via cowardly actions, or for mercenary goals.
    3. A protagonist who lacks the characteristics that would make him a hero (or her a heroine).

I’m not denigrating the entire idea of antiheroes. Outsiders who act as the hero if you squint hard enough have an important literary and societal purpose. You don’t have to squint all that hard at Clint Eastwood, for instance, he’ll do all the squinting for you. Let’s also remind ourselves that everyone from Don Quixote to Huckleberry Finn could be called an antihero.

Well, the real Clyde Barrow was certainly unheroic, mercenary, cowardly, and criminal. He was also a pervert, which wasn’t often included in a dramatic antihero’s curriculum vitae. Bonnie wasn’t any better. But they’re not really qualified to be antiheroes. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Bonnie and Clyde were just plain assholes. They were unadulterated by any redeeming qualities whatsoever. They were made into heroes in the first place by newspapers, investing them with anti-establishment credibility out of whole cloth. The papers have always been covens of arseholes as far as I can tell. Then Warren and Faye made them into antiheroes all over again with Bonnie and Clyde.

In a weird way, Kevin Costner kind of reminds me of Warren Beatty. They’re both sleeping on mattresses stuffed with $100 bills, so I expect they’ll be immune to any criticism from me. But they were both himbos who went their own way in Hollywood, and picked up dumptrucks of money, random gold statues, and girls along the way. Neither one can act, as far as I can tell. In the opening of The Highwaymen, I turned to my wife and opined, “Kevin Costner can’t even act like he’s doing nothing.” In every movie I’ve ever seen him in, he sounds like he’s reading a phone book. Warren was great in Shampoo, but that’s because he’s just playing himself, a ridiculous lothario bouncing around Los Angeles. He got Robert Towne to put some interesting words in his mouth in between boinking sessions, and he allowed Jack Warden to steal the show. He made another bazillion producing that one.

I’ll lay the success or failure of The Highwaymen at Costner’s door, if you don’t mind, because the project is his, no matter who the director or writer was. Woody Harrelson plays his sidekick, but at our house, he’s had a dry spell since tending bar in Boston. He’s playing an annoying, slightly humorous fellow in the picture, so I guess he fits the part.

Like Bonnie and Clyde, no one wanted to make The Highwaymen. The script idea from John Fusco had been kicking around Hollywood so long that the original leads were supposed to be Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Fusco objected to the way Frank Hamer, a real, commendable person, had been defamed in Bonnie and Clyde, and wanted to portray him properly. The Highwaymen does.

In the same way Clint Eastwood was born to play William Munny, and everything before was warming up, and everything after a coda, Costner was born to play Hamer. Hamer was as rigidly upright and subdued as Calvin Coolidge on Seconal, and Costner’s range extends to mumbling and grunting. He’s also got the perfect Texas sunblasted skin for the job.

Right at the getgo, a pack of hyenas newspaper reporters accost Texas governor Ma Ferguson and try to fill their paper with their desired slant. She ain’t havin’ it:

“Some folks are saying that Parker and Barrow are heroes, calling them Robin Hoods. Are they Robin Hoods, Ma?”

“Did Robin Hood ever shoot a gas station attendant point-blank in the head for four dollars and a tank of gas?”

Ah yes, the old somepeoplesay gambit. It never gets tired, does it?

So John Fusco, the screenwriter, and John Lee Hancock the director, and Kathy Bates, and Kevin Costner, and oh hell, Woody too, succeed in turning the tables around and making Frank Hamer the hero, or more accurately, the antihero of the story, if there is one, and push Bonnie and Clyde back into the rancid petri dish Warren Beatty pulled them out of. Hard thing to do. Needs doing more often.

Manos arribas.

It’s a Groove Thang

Back in the ’80s, I used to play in blues and R&B bands, at least until I got tired of making no money. I surrendered to the zeitgeist, and started playing whitebread pop covers soon after. Happy Hour shite. I was instantly swimming in money and free beer and chicks, of course, but I still can’t hear three or four bars of a Beach Boys song without breaking out in hives. I specified three or four bars because that’s all I ever hear, before I plunge whatever’s making Beach Boys noises into the nearest tub full of water. This has led to problems when it’s a live band. Whatever. They all have it coming.

Da blues was really popular in the ’80s. Well, sorta. There was a lot of it, performed mostly in front of next to nobody. In the bar band world, the dividing line between straight blues and R&B was pretty much erased. I played electric bass, so I actually had something to occupy myself during R&B songs. The grooves were heavy on bass and drums.

We used to mine a weird little store that sold ’45 records used to load jukeboxes. It was cheaper to buy singles than whole albums when all you needed was an individual, audience-recognizable track. The original records were twenty or thirty years old already, and sometimes hard to lay your hands on back then. We were in cover bands, so we never played anything obscure, so the juke box guy always had what we were looking for.

This, I believe, is the granddaddy of all R&B groove thangs from that milieu. The Rosetta Stone of the genre. Junior Walker:

That’s James Jamerson playing the bass on the record. He’s in low earth orbit compared to the intergalactic stuff he played on later records. You could do worse than to learn Jamerson bass lines. He’s ranked Numero Uno on Bass Player Magazine’s 100 Greatest Bass Players list. Hmm. That’s news to me. Not that he’s number one. I’d rank him 1-10, and start the rest of the list on 11, but that’s just me. I’m only expressing surprise that a magazine thought bass players could read. And there are more than 100? I could barely play the thing, and I always worked. I thought there were only like forty of us.

Shotgun is about the first song I can remember learning on the drums, too. Big right foot, there. Of course the guitar part was also seminal. Learn that sharp 9, shangalang chord and you’re ready for bidness. It’s fun to watch Junior Walker sing and play, or at least mime Shotgun in that video. He was on Motown, and they were still in their Andy Williams sweater and business suit mode back in the early sixties. Everybody Frug!

It’s amusing to read that Junior was just supposed to play saxophone on the record, but the singer that Berry Gordy hired didn’t show up to the session. Junior offered to sing it to supply a reference track they could record over later. They liked it so much they released it that way. It was a big hit. Number One on the R&B singles chart, #4 on the Billboard chart.

People still recognize this song. They put it in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002. However, V-neck sweaters and skinny ties no longer need apply, I gather. Look what someone recently did with Shotgun using AI animation. Alice From the Hood Pulp Fiction Grand Theft Auto Wire in Wonderland:

Yikes. Hey, getting back to playing in front of nobody, the song made it all the way to RomCom movies in Norway. Let’s watch Public Enemies have a frosty go at it:

The song itself is truly a groove. There are essentially no chord changes. It’s all based on rhythms. James Brown would perfect this approach shortly after this. Lots of other musical people (who could afford the whole albums) mined the groove thang for their own sound back in the ’80s too:

So Shotgun was the Ur-Groove-Song for me, and I suspect plenty of other musicians. Not just Norwegians, either. That is, at least until Wilson Pickett showed up with this:

Lawd have mercy.

Littel Known Fact

You know, you can just wander over to NASA and see about a zillion photos from the moon mission. I was just a little kid at the time, but I remember gathering around the teevee set to watch… to see… well, I’m not sure what we were looking at. It was a blurry black and white video of a guy in a white deep-sea-diver-looking space suit climbing down a ladder. I think. On a tiny teevee screen, it was essentially a Rorschach blot for each viewer to puzzle over.

The still photos, however, are very detailed, and wonderful to look at. According to NASA, this is the most popular image they’ve got:

That’s Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon. You can see the first man, Neil Armstrong, reflected in Buzz’s visor. Buzz’s real name is Edwin Eugene, so I’m not surprised he wanted to be called Buzz. Buzz is like a lot of the first astronauts. He went to West Point and got a degree in mechanical engineering. Then he became a fighter pilot during the Korean War. He flew 66 missions and shot down a couple of MiGs. After that, he got a doctorate in astronautics from MIT and became an astronaut. If you’re wondering who used to be astronauts, imagine if the captain of the football team was also the Valedictorian and a combat jet pilot.

His doctoral thesis was titled: Line-of-Sight Guidance Techniques for Manned Orbital Rendezvous. I don’t have any inside information here, but I’ll bet dollars to donuts that it wasn’t plagiarized from Wikipedia. Well, that’s a pretty safe bet, as it was maybe the late 50s, but he didn’t copy it out of the Encyclopedia Britannica, either. People used to have to do something original to get a doctorate. And if you have a skeptical soul, and wonder if  maybe some MiG kills are just tall stories from fighter pilots, remember that even back then, they put cameras on the guns in Sabre jets:

Buzz got featured in Life magazine with that one.

You can do a lot of interesting things with images now that weren’t possible just a few years ago. A fellow decided that he’d remove the gold tint from the image of Aldrin’s visor, and see what he could see in the visor. This is what he discovered.

 

Let’s zoom in a bit:

Yup. That little blue dot was me, watching on the teevee. Littel Known Fact: I’m the first person to photobomb a moon mission image. Although, for some inexplicable reason, the Guinness Book still disputes my claim. I guess I’ll have to eat 66 grapes in three minutes using my feet. Again. I did it before, but I didn’t know there was a contest.

Way Back When

That’s Bola Sete playing the Spanish guitar with the Vince Guaraldi Trio way back when, in 1963. It’s about as pleasant a half hour as you can spend.

Bola was from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. His real name was Djama de Andrade. The name Bola Sete is a kind of in-joke. It means Seven Ball in Portuguese. The seven ball is the only black ball on the snooker table. People used to have more of a sense of humor way back when.

His family was dirt poor. He had six sisters. Every member of the family played a musical instrument, because music used to be more important in regular life way back when. Bola first learned to play on a Cavaquinho, sort of a cross between a Spanish guitar and a ukulele. He eventually got a real guitar, and learned classical music. He had a heavy duty musical education, despite his straitened circumstances. A well-to-do couple sponsored him at a school in Rio, and then a conservatory in Sao Paolo. People used to look out for each other way back when.

Eventually he started playing samba music in Rio. He toured all around, Italy, various places in South America, Nueva York, and San Francisco, mostly in Sheraton hotels, because there used to be good live music in hotel lounges way back when. Dizzy Gillespie heard him play and invited him to tour with him. People used to catch breaks in recognition of their talent and effort way back when. After a successful stint at the Monterey Jazz Festival, Bola hooked up with Vince Guaraldi.

Of course everyone recognizes Vince Guaraldi from his Charlie Brown Christmas album. He was one of those guys that seemed square, but in reality was very hip indeed. There were a lot of talented, but somewhat overlooked guys like him way back when.

Vince and Bola both died young. Guaraldi died of a heart attack when he was only 47. Bola died of cancer when he was 63. It’s a good thing they had cameras and microphones way back when.

Interestingly, The Shatner Admirals Is the Name of My Herman’s Hermits Tribute Band. But I Digress

I’m a little late to this party, but I take things as I find them. I’m confused, however, how to “take” an Elvis impersonator who’s built an exact replica of all the original Star Trek teevee show sets in an abandoned dollar store in Ticonderoga, New York, and sort of inhabits them.

For all of you with, ahem, suspicious minds, I assure you I didn’t make this up:

James Cawley really liked Star Trek. Really really liked Star Trek. By the power of Landru and re-runs, (he’s younger than the show is), he was hooked on a show about bombing around the galaxy and groping green chicks, while listening to logical advice on why you shouldn’t, and doing it anyway. You know, because Shatner.

Cawley has built his own Desilu Xanadu, using mostly his own money, money earned as an Elvis impersonator.

Why would an Elvis impersonator build Star Trek sets? I dunno. You’re asking the wrong guy. I don’t know why an Elvis impersonator would do anything, including impersonating Elvis. I can’t visit that mindset without pharmaceutical help, and a fried banana and peanut butter sandwich. But Cawley knew what he was about. He wanted to make his own Star Trek episodes, and did it:

I suppose I could jest about it, but it does have a million views on YouTube. I was a little kid when Star Trek first came out, and I’m not sure a million people watched an episode back then. Everybody was watching Bewitched or something. Star Trek was “out there” in more ways than one, and not everyone wanted to see a doughy Canadian actor with a Christopher Walken delivery wrestle a guy in a dollar store tyrannosaurus Halloween costume over a patch of unpaved Burbank backlot. But give it its due: it spawned a zillion imitators.

However, sooner or later, the suits come for you. CBS/Paramount at one time looked the other way when people made fan-fiction type stuff, like Cawley’s bargain basement Enterprise enterprise, but eventually they cracked down on the whole scene. It wasn’t Cawley’s fault. He was doing it because he loved it. But others tried to make real coin with Star Trek homages, and they pissed in the whole Gene pool.

But the Elvis gene runs deep. The King don’t quit, until he makes it to the bathroom, anyway. Kirk has any number of Kobayashi Maru tricks up his sleeve. And Cawley is both of them, remember? He figured if he could make deals with Klingons on his show, he could certainly make deals with Gene Roddenberry’s copyright successors. So he did.

After a long lunch with more than a few Romulan Ales, no doubt, the salt vampires in the legal department at CBS/Paramount decided to let Cawley have his fun. In return for a cut of the action, I’m sure. Why not let Space Elvis Cawley give tours of the stomping grounds of Space Elvis Shatner? So they do. And now that real money is involved, real Shatners are involved, too.

It’s a Corbomite Maneuver for money for a lot of people now:

Hey, don’t sleep on Clint Howard, just because captain Kirk is holding court on the bridge with all the high rollers. Howard appeared on The Andy Griffith Show, Star Trek, and Seinfeld. Even Spock couldn’t compete with that, although inventing Uber and driving the Bangles to Liverpool was a strong career move, you have to admit.

Teevee and movies and other media masquerade as entertainment, but there’s a lot more going on there. Half-hour situation  comedies like Andy Griffith and Dick van Dyke are closer to Aesop’s Fables than jokes stapled onto depictions of quotidian life. They usually contain little parables, and become a form of guidance for the general audience. They normally contain a morality test of some sort over trivial affairs that the characters work their way through in 24 minutes or so. Homily-length redemption ensues with 6 minutes of soapsuds commercials mixed in. Women start dressing like Laura Petrie and men start acting like Rob Petrie even though they might not be aware they’re doing it. That’s why teevee got so destructive, as the ghouls who make the shows looked for new thrills to peddle. Gilligan found himself in desperate straits, but he didn’t start cooking meth in his hut to get by.

TV shows like Star Trek are a form of replacement for passion plays for a couple of generations who thought the Beach Boys were an improvement on Giuseppe Verdi, and Andy Griffith was John the Baptist. Real passion plays, or pageants (paging Cecil B. DeMille), were:

The Passion Play or Easter pageant is a dramatic presentation depicting the Passion of Jesus Christ: his trial, suffering and death. The viewing of and participation in Passion Plays is a traditional part of Lent in several Christian denominations, particularly in the Catholic and Evangelical traditions; as such Passion Plays are often ecumenical Christian productions.

Passion Plays have had a long and complex history involving faith and devotion, civic pageantry, religious and political censorship, large-scale revival and historical re-enactments.

In a very real way, the entertainment biz replaced all forms of religion in American life. Newspapers, a form of entertainment, killed the Catholic church dead, for instance. And remember, the government is just showbiz for ugly people. It wasn’t a unanimous move into another thing, of course. There’s some overlap, but there’s a definable Star Trek sect, with schismatics taking their hyperdrive schematics and forming a Star Wars splinter denomination. In old-fangled passion plays, Jesus has to work through some things in Gethsemane. If you boldly go where no man has gone before, you have to be tempted by a hot galactic strumpet with a bouffant and a Reynolds Wrap bikini before you get down to brass tacks and dilithium transubstantiation and kick some Klingon ass. But it’s all wrapped up in an hour, and everyone goes home blessed.

So I guess it’s not all that odd that a prophet in a spangled jumpsuit and pompadour would appear out of the wilderness of upstate New York to become the patriarch, an interstellar Billy Sunday, for the one true religion that America has produced: Elvis in Space.

Wait a minute; yes it is.

Telling Tales of Drunkenness and Cruelty

That’s the Kinks, from 1966. They’re an odd and wonderful outfit. In some ways, they’re the proto-Steely Dan. Don’t get me wrong;  the music they’re making has nothing much in common with Fagen and Becker, but they had the same knack for composing lyrics that had never been heard before, and would never be uttered by anyone else afterward. Delightfully misanthropic and wry.

Guitar Hero Sandwich

We had a light-hearted look at heavy metal guitarists the other day. It got me to wondering. Where did the guitar hero idea come from? I decided to answer my own question. Who else can I trust?

For purposes of this exercise, I should warn you that I’m not going to do any research. It sounds too much like work. Like a true guitar hero, I’ll be blasting away with little concern for anyone else’s input or what the audience wants to hear. Shooting from the hip, as it were.

I guess we should define “guitar hero” before we start. I’ll take a stab at it. A guitar hero plays the guitar to impress people with his guitar playing. That sounds like a bit of a tautology, but it’s really not. Many guitarists are more interested in being musical than being impressive. Jimmy Vaughn is a more musical guitar player than his little brother, who’s in the running for exhibit A in the guitar hero pantheon. Guitar heroism is usually the musical equivalent of weightlifting, not ballet.

So, how did we arrive at this state of affairs? Tell us, oh Sippican! Lay some more of your ill-considered opinions on us!

OK, I’ll bite. I think it started with Django Reinhardt.

Django made his guitar heroism all the more intriguing by the fact he only had two functional fingers on his left hand. It got burned, and his ring finger and pinky were formed into a kind of claw. But man, he could fly. In the video you can see the kind of guitar army he often fronted. Those old Selmer acoustic guitars were made for cabaret music, and they didn’t have the punch needed to get over in a loud world. When he started out, amplification was kind of non-existent, but small orchestras make plenty of noise acoustically. Django used a heavy plectrum to get maximum sound out of the box, and to elbow his way to the front of the pack. Let’s see what the Wikiup says about Django:

It wasn’t until 1938, and the Quintet’s first tour of England, that guitarists [in the U.K.] were able to witness Django’s amazing abilities. His hugely innovative technique included, on a grand scale, such unheard of devices as melodies played in octaves, tremolo chords with shifting notes that sounded like whole horn sections, a complete array of natural and artificial harmonics, highly charged dissonances, super-fast chromatic runs from the open bass strings to the highest notes on the 1st string, an unbelievably flexible and driving right-hand, two and three octave arpeggios, advanced and unconventional chords and a use of the flattened fifth that predated be-bop by a decade. Add to all this Django’s staggering harmonic and melodic concept, huge sound, pulsating swing, sense of humour and sheer speed of execution, and it is little wonder that guitar players were knocked sideways upon their first encounter with this full-blown genius.

Bang! There it is. It’s little wonder that other guitar players were knocked sideways. That’s a music critic talking. He kind of elides the fact that Django was endlessly musical, despite blowing all the other guitarists’ doors off. He gets right down to the meat of the matter, at least for guys like him. Django was impressive.

By the way, when your kids want to undertake something hard to prove their chops, Django beats Knopfler any day:

So where do we go from here? We’re drunk on cheap wine in pre-war Paris, and the greasy cigarette smoke is making us nauseated. What’s next?

The USof A, and Charlie Christian, of course.

That ladies and germs, it the electric guitar, blazing away, a true soloing instrument at last. He played in Benny Goodman’s band, and they featured him right out front. If you’ve never had the treat of standing in front of a Swing band before, you… you… you probably still have some of your hearing. Those bands were loud. I played in the back row of a few of them, and I still have a slight headache.

Pop a transducer in the sound hole of a guitar, plug it into a suitcase with a speaker and some tubes, and all of a sudden even the drummer can’t keep up. Charlie’s playing jazz, of course, but the whole idea of electric guitar soloing over background chord changes popped out of Charlie Christian’s very short stint on the stage. Died young and tubercular. So young there isn’t any video of him anywhere. Jazz musicians, and all sorts of other musicians, talk about Christian in hushed tones. Miles Davis said he wanted to play the trumpet like Christian played the guitar. Even rock musicians mention him, sometimes. They might have no taste, but they recognize a volume knob when they see it.

Now, the next step if fraught with peril. The 1950s has rolled around, and guitarists are thick on the ground at this point. Less well-informed observers might jump in here with any number of really good players who inspired lots of kids to take up the instrument, like Scotty Moore, or Eldon Shamblin, or  T-Bone Walker, or even Chuck Berry, but wowing people with blazing licks wasn’t their top priority. Besides, in a way, we’re assigning blame for how guitar hero ethos turned out, not credit. If we’re going to find the pedigree of  it goes to eleven malefactors, we’re going to have to go through Les Paul:

 

If the solid body electric guitar has a true father, he’s it. There may be twenty-zillion brands and models of guitars, but honestly, there are really only two kinds that matter for the purposes of our discussion. Les Pauls and Fender Stratocasters. Gibson made Les Pauls, but he invented them, and lots of other stuff to do with amplification and recording, including multi-track recording, so guitar showoffs could solo over themselves to increase the solipsism. Lots of guitarists went to an intermediate way-station on the road to shredding, using a semi-hollowbody guitar like the Gibson ES 330 or 335, but Les changed the whole scene for everything

Fender Strats are like boat oars compared to a Les Paul. They’re born from a country tradition, like the Telecasters that predated them. Blues heroes love’m. But a Les Paul guitar is a Lambo compared to the Fender musical delivery van. The neck is really thin, but the fretboard is a little flatter than a Strat. It’s got multiple pickups and volume and tone knobs. It’s made for showing off, and at flight-deck volume if you get a big enough amplifier.

So now it’s beginning to really look like the arms race we’re trying to define. Everyone was going to need bigger amplifiers and more necks on their guitars and maybe even some music lessons to keep up with the times. We’re going to get the musical cuisinart humming and dump in blues and country and swing and Broadway and torch songs and whatever else is hanging around.

Oh boy. Now we’ve run smack dab into the side of the 1960s. You’re going to demand I mention Hendrix or something. But we have to stick to the topic. We’re not just identifying showoffs. We’re talking about enablers and prototypes here. Lots of Millenials and Zoomers don’t understand Boomer affection for bands like the Beatles. They hear things like George Harrison’s lugubrious guitar solos and compare them to Eddie Van Halen or somebody. They’ve been taught that Rock Music is a thing, so the Beatles and Van Halen and Sade and Roxy Music and Weird Al Yankovic should all be compared to each other, and on the same merits.

Like I said, it’s the ’60s. The Stones and the Beatles and the Beach Boys et. al. gotta make a mint with pop music and some pedestrian guitar solos. Until we get to here:

It sounds woolly because they’re standing in front of walls of very crappy amplifiers to make all that noise. Real sound reinforcement got invented to replace the ad hoc arrangement you see here, and to keep up with the size of the venues and amount of decibels they demanded. The average wedding band in 2000 had a bigger PA system than the Beatles had to play Shea Stadium. This is why.

If you want to hear clearly what’s going in in that last video, let’s drop in on Tim Pierce and hear it done with all the equipment you could possibly want. It helps if you can play like crazy, too. Tim invited our son over to his house once, so he’s aces with us:

That Cream video was from 1968.  It led directly to the end of our search, the go to Guitar Center, go directly to Guitar Center, do not pass out of the garage, do not collect a $200 advance from the record company, the true adumbration of the guitar hero ethos:

Everyone heard Crossroads, and thought to themselves, if I could play like that, maybe I could make time with George Harrison’s wife, too.

Sorry kids, like Marty DiBergi said in Spinal Tap, “Let’s talk about your music today…uh…one thing that puzzles me …um…is the make up of your audience seems to be …uh… predominately young boys.

Tag: 1960s

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