Cacoethes, Indeed

I can really date the ninth grade as the moment when crotch reached cranium and music became more than just a sing-song round the campfire with the local church group. There was a confluence of many factors, some just pure luck and some very likely serendipity. Just like I hate colons bisecting book titles--the dumbest idea ever, for dumb Americans, who need a dumb joke set up, followed by a dumb punch-line, followed even further by a dumb explanation of that dumb punch-line...I mean, if the antecedent to the colon was clever enough to warrant committing to print in the first place, why follow it with anything else...but as I was going to say, the currently overworked phrase is "a perfect storm" and here I am harking to it. But, indeed, coming of age, the change in popular musical scales, girls (soon to become hippie chicks in my eyes), not to pretermit Dr. Timothy Leary and a few other potent influences, all swirled together at once to make ninth grade truly remarkable. How or why? I don't know, but it really happened.

I could tell music was changing at a break-neck pace. Something new was definitely a-brewing. First it was the Dave Clark Five sneaking in a heathen beat, then the Monkees (or at least their nameless surrogates from the Wrecking Crew) going way beyond three chord structures, followed by Paul Revere and the Raiders electrifying AM radio with a new-old musical scale which would forever change rock and roll. And it was all suggesting sensations out there worth looking into. Even then, I lived for sensation. Did I ever tell you that my middle name is Dorian?

What was up?

Two things, really. There were two musical groups which caught my attention and became instructors. The first urged to go for the gusto, and the second said that gusto doesn't come along free to imbeciles. If a person wants to rise above coarse animal instincts, which aren't all that satisfying in the long run, then prepare to do your homework. Let's check out the first, by returning to West Junior High, sometime in early May. I'll save the second for the next entry.

I mentioned that parties had now become ambrosia. They always included semi-dimmed lights, just enough illumination to change the mood, but not so much that a rigid shop teacher (and I don't mean that in a literal sense--this guy found his sole ecstasy in pedaling a bicycle up the steepest hills whilst in high gear) or the miasmatic American history teacher would worry about chance brushes against a nubile blouse, which might just lead to straying fingers elsewhere. Throw in a very hot and humid night, all too common in my hometown, perhaps setting the stage unconsciously for my exodus northward. Here is the spring hop.

The dance floor was in fact the basketball court, darkened at the outset, the only illumination coming from a couple feeble flood lamps, three primary colors, off the stage on which some guy was going to be spinning a phonograph. Still vinyl records in those days, which is probably why we all (at least the guys, and no doubt Rhonda, Doris, Connie and a couple others from the western side of town) were getting hot and a-bothered. It all caught up with Doris; by senior year she had already been to Puerto Rico twice for a you-know-what. America was very different then. Thank Gauss she didn't grow up in Brownbackistan or she'd be nursing an enormous brood right now. But at least they'd all be Christian and could continue the process all over again in perpetuity.

The janitor, a nice guy with a hideous complexion framed by the most orange hair I've ever seen straight out of The Adventure of the Red-Headed League, is sprinkling some sort of wax beads on the floor, supposedly to make it easier to dance. The crowd is starting to assemble now, girls on the "Away" team side of the court, boys on the "Home" side. Some of the girls looked pretty cute, a few in frilly skirts redolent of Sissy's in Animal House (do they even make that nylon mesh crap for buoyancy underneath anymore?), the real wildcats in blue jeans and tee-shirts. I'm glad knee-high knit stockings went by the wayside, though the cheerleaders, who were notorious for never putting out, seemed to think such hosiery was cool.

The DJ, no doubt under strict instructions, fires up the first record and hits the anemic lights. We're all excited and ready to make our undulatory moves until we recognize the moth-eaten strains of the opening notes:

In a word: saltpeter.

Ah, but that was just the warm-up and we shouldn't have been concerned. For then our vibrant compère cut loose with the really wild stuff:

Oh my...this was going to be a long night.

After an hour or so, the chap spinning platters got the message; this wasn't a party but more akin to a final visitation to send the dear departed off to meet his maker. I don't know if the DJ took it upon himself or not, but he finally removed the chastity belt from the P.A. system and we all had blessed release. Here we go with the group we had been waiting for, unlike the prior stuff guaranteed to appeal only to our parents (Steve and Eydie, anyone?), with surely one of the songs which changed American music. And, when the medley switched to
Jenny Take a Ride, well, if that doesn't make you think of something particularly naughty (and illegal in Texas among consenting adults) nothing will and maybe you should stick with your Andy Williams records.

Did you catch what Mitch did in C. C. Ryder? Instead of the usual 12-bar progression in the instrumental parts, he dropped two measures, making it 10-bar. An unusual touch which lends a certain "let's get on with it" feel. Most unusual, given how strongly multiples-of-four are ingrained in our collective unconscious.

Incidentally, in these recent blog entries, I've been touching on groups and tunes, knowing full well they won't necessarily appeal to you the same way they do me. Your taste and my taste have nothing to do with it. Instead, I offer these comments in the sense of what was going on in American music, and who planted the seeds of what was to come. So, while Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels might not be on everyone's fav-list, I'll bet you a majority of the groups you do enjoy built upon the changes in musical modes they introduced. Unless you're still listening to Andy Williams.

That night, the West lads were definitely loosening their thread-bare skeletal black neckties about now and even unbuttoning their heavily starched Arrow shirt collars. Before Rip and Reba could halt the maelstrom, the DJ followed up with an even steamier hit from Mitch:

That's all it took! Within seconds, under the staccato pulsating shafts of a clearly homemade and primitive light show (six bulbs procured from the nearby Rexall drugstore in all likelihood), my best friend Tommy was prone on the slippery waxed surface, gatoring like nobody's business in his garish purple-with-two-inch-white-polka-dots polyester shirt. So was Bob, a recent transfer student housed within a physique rivaling Hercules.

With alacrity, Tommy was ejected from the festivities, though Bob remained, which always made me suspect there was some sort of caste discrimination going on in the background. I still miss Tommy and will always remember those warm spring and summer days growing up together. In the near future, I'll relate the tale of how we blew up his basement and what his mother said in response. He's gone now, but not from my mind where he ever lives. I was always pained for Mrs. L., losing two sons by violence: one in Los Angeles, the other in Viet Nam. I wonder which war was worse and if either could have been prevented.

But back to the party, sans Tommy now. As the night progressed, things got racier and racier. After multiple dares from my colleagues, I was finally the one egged on to ask Mary  for a dance. All the rest were too chickenshit. Kids are always so cruel, but let's not mince words here. No one else would ask Mary to dance for she was anything but comely. All the boys knew it, the rest of the girls knew it and certainly she knew it. That's why I got taunted into escorting her to the dance floor. My gang suspected I would be the only one to take the bait. Ever gullible when girls are involved.

Don't ask me why, but what the hey--it's a party. I did it, and became a hero among my pals.

I'm certain you're way ahead of me, but here's the tune which brought us together. While this song was surely the Glen or Glenda of rock music, in a strange way it had a major impact on what was to come. Its overtones were apparent at Woodstock, as even a cursory view of the eponymous documentary film makes apparent.

Some fifteen years thereafter I ran into Mary and she gushed:

"Studs, the one thing about you is that you were always a gentleman."

Seriously! She was talking about me! That's hardly the way I would paint myself.

I won't claim that I had the best of intentions in cutting a rug with her, but as we all get older, I guess it's nice to look back and remember some pleasant incident from the past. She recalls a dance (her one and only that night), and I remember Tommy slithering on the dirty waxed basketball court. And the heat and humidity. And growing up.

And I recollect those uncanny syncopations from Mitch Ryder's drummer, the slightly flatted (intentionally) piano intro to Devil with a Blue Dress, and most of all, the pentatonic scale pressed into service to modulate keys in that song. Did you notice all those?

Music had changed and so had I.

Postscript: A couple years after writing this, I returned to it for some minor revisions. Upon listening to the Mitch Ryder clips again, a couple things leaped out I hadn't noticed before. 

First, the drum style is insanely advanced for the era. In fact, the next (and only time thereafter) I've heard anything similar was from Jerry Edmonton of Steppenwolf, although Ginger Baker came close in Cream. The similarity is uncanny, leading me to believe Edmonton may have heard the group and picked up on the mode unconsciously. This is hard to describe, but it's as if the drummer is going to lose it and miss the start of the next measure, miraculously recovering at the very last moment.

And then, did you notice how in both of the Ryder songs, the guitars and organ drop out for entire verses at a time? Leaving a voice, drums and bass only. This is just another instance of how important gaps are to serious rock music. How can one appreciate light without dark?

Next installment: Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny 

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