The Agent Infernal

I've read in so many books how a dainty young lady in Victorian times would fondly remember her "coming out ball" as a giddy swirl of lilacs, silk and cherry blossoms. Years later, she'd retrieve the pressed corsage from the huge dusty old dictionary in the study, maybe stumble upon the carefully filled-out but faded dance card, or from her jewelry box espy the beryl pendant once worn round her slender alabaster neck that romantic night, sigh wistfully, and think of the romance that far-away age engendered.

I know the feeling. Last summer, walking with a friend, recalled to mind a song from my own storied coming-of-age. 1969 was indeed a pretty potent year in many ways. Replaying the tune mentally, I was instantly taken back to that milieu. Simultaneously and serendipitously, Joe Friday popped in to remind me of the confluence of so many forces at work in those heady times. It was the perfect era in which to grow up sociopathic.

Prowling my hometown at night, in search of no good was always rewarding, especially on weekends. Freedom! Carousing in the drizzle, The Gang worked its way from church to church for a bit of pranksterism, perhaps pausing long enough on the ISU central campus to set off a cherry bomb midway between the stately Beardshear and Curtis Halls (with guaranteed reverberations between the twain).

Something just remembered: since I grew up a mere one block from campus, it was always my playground, kindergarten on. I recall a whistling buzz-bomb hidden in a forsythia bush near the Botany building during a college open-house one warm May day. That sent a naïve family of father, mother and two young girls packing big time, no doubt expecting flak and shrapnel at any moment.

Not far away, four lads, Armpit, Fake-Nose, Dugg Bedd, and I, watched with much merriment as the timed reaction kicked in. What made this escapade so entertaining was how loudly and shrilly the infernal device shrieked before its final report. For the record, this was a new invention of mine: frozen glycerin layered on top of potassium permanganate, packed into a tiny glass jar with several jagged holes punched in its metal top. (The rough and ready punctures provided the excellent sound effects, and the frozen glycerin made an admirable time fuse as it thawed.) Anyway, we gave those rural visitors a day to remember at ISU. I'm sure they thought it was an anti-war statement and in a way, it might have been.  However, anything to disrupt is ever a worthy recreation among teenagers.

Campus was always good for some hoots. Among my favorite haunts was the Student Union. Words fail to describe just what this place meant to me then. My summer job there, before being summarily dismissed for language and tobacco infractions (not to mention the pocked ceiling tiles, disrupted dish conveyor belt, foreign substances introduced into the coffee machines, unobserved freeloading in the kitchen, hundreds of hours clocked in when not present for duty, and--of course--constant risibleness in the lavatories) well, it was paradise on earth. 

And oh, I mustn't forget the hippie chicks always in attendance throughout the Commons: tied-on blouses colored in a Gypsy manner, exposed midriffs, no brassieres in attendance, blue-jeans. Sigh. Let's not mince words. Priapus beaming down from Olympus would have been proud of me.

It was rare then (as now) that a biblical passage should occur, but the concluding clause of Psalms 23:4 comes to mind. My only concern in those days was if I would wear it out...

So anyway, while feeding yet another #10 brass washer into the vending machine in The Cardinal Room of the Union (I learned that trick from Abbie Hoffman, one of my real heroes, in his masterpiece of sociopathy,
Steal This Book!) I glanced up at the clock. Almost 10:30 on a Sunday night. Time to dash up Lynn Avenue under the drizzle--my favorite weather--one block, to plop down in front of the boobtube for something I never missed then, and for the following couple of years. It was my matriculation to the crazy new world opening up before me at age sixteen.

Joe Pyne Show.

Should you not be familiar with the chap who literally created a phenomenon, you need to know that he was arrogant, abrasive, intelligent and exceedingly literate. Few conservatives can boast the last two credentials. Pyne had lost a leg in World War II, and so wore a false appliance which he generally tried to hide behind his interviewer desk.

In one episode he had the misfortune to cross sabres with Frank Zappa, who was sporting lengthy black locks:
Pyne: "So I guess your long hair makes you a woman."

Zappa: “So I guess your wooden leg makes you a table.”
But tonight's episode on that fateful rainy Sunday evening: Marijuana. Joe's guests were Sam Yorty, mayor of Los Angeles and some youthful and addled pothead out of his depth in making his case before such a stern inquisition. I quickly appended Mayor Yorty to my list of culpable adults. (Indeed, and truthfully, I deliberately morphed it from Mayor Yorty to Moriarty; brother Bill laughed uproariously at my turn of phrase). Joe Pyne I wasn't so sure of, since he at least had introduced me to Anton LaVey, head of the Church of Satan, and quite a few other rascals who made the Age of Aquarius so exhilarating. Supposing you're unfamiliar with the sense of the times, you'd be amply rewarded to see those two charlatans have at it: 

Sigh. Satanism is just as foolish as Christianity. But I wax tautological.

Back to the marijuana debate with Joe, Sam and the hippie, which turned into a washout. I'm not totally convinced Pyne cared one way or another, but Mayor Yorty made his case that marijuana was the greatest evil America had ever seen. (Somehow Viet Nam and felonious presidents didn't even make the bottom of his list). The poor, mostly silent, pothead was trashed in the fracas. This is what they call a squash match in the Kayfabe language of professional wrestling. Clearly, the producer should have sent in the brilliant Dr. Timothy Leary to shore up the opposition.

Anyway, it was quite a to-do. Fascinating. And just like
my appraisal of Dragnet, the more the enemy thought it was making its case, the more I realized how wrong it must be.

Another detour. In junior year of high school, several classes were pooled together into a large room to watch a film on the evils of marijuana. Get this! It was narrated by Sonny Bono, apparently with the idea that we'd view a "hip" guy like that as one of us. I think it was the ivory curlicued brocade-like embroidering up the inseams of his earth-toned paisley bellbottoms that I found so repugnant.

And then in the gripping dénouement of a film worthy of George Weiss (I bet they even had the poster first), a teenage punk takes a puff on a reefer, looks into a large ornate mirror and turns into a werewolf. I kid you not!

I wonder how that would play out in this day and age of medical cannabis:
Cancer Patient: I've been shaving four times daily between doses.

Oncologist: I'm afraid it's lycanthropy. Or at least, stop masturbating before it spreads.
About the same time, Dragnet aired its immortal classic, "Blue Boy," suggesting that narcotics are what ail America. Pay no heed to the 55,000 Americans and some 2 million Vietnamese dying needlessly on the other side of the planet. Not to mention that the most evil man running the show in that century, who hung out with a very rough crowd indeed, one who should have known better, of whom Barry Goldwater (from the same political party) lamented had even lied to his own wife, yes with Nixon it was very easy to choose the opposite path, no matter where it might lead.

If you should happen to have a half-hour free, and should you happen to wonder what made lysergic acid diethylamide  so popular in this country during its introduction, then I encourage you to see:

I am convinced Jack Webb was the major agent for the narcotics explosion in the sixties. He single-handedly made altered consciousness appealing, way more than anyone else.

Now do you see why my generation was so interested? Given the cynicism of today, I've often wondered if Professor Albert Hoffman, Dr. Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey and others might not have supplied the advertising money to Dragnet. Sounds like something Jesse Ventura would buy into. It makes me think that the manufacturers of Anacin would have sold way more if only they could have gotten a conservative (preferably of a Calvanist persuasion) to revile it on television. I regret the day America found religion. It was such a fine start without it.

But to resume my narrative, I give high praise and thanks to Joe Friday, Sonny Bono, Joe Pyne and Mayor Sam Yorty for making illicit drugs so alluring. The pothead alluded to earlier simply couldn't have done so professional a job of touting the product.

Whew! This has been one hell of a preface, hasn't it? So, let's get on with it, I hear you plead.

It's probably only fair to commence by letting you hear the song before I launch into the blather. That way you can form your own conclusions free of any preconceptions; I wonder if you'll hear what I did? Anyway, here we go:

I think just about anyone would agree it's a great song that can easily stand on its own merits. But in my typical descent into egomania, I felt then (and still do), that the Pied Piper played a few grace notes just for me. Although I can hear it plain as day, this is going to be a genuinely difficult entry to pen, to convey all that I sensed, in much the same way that the Victorian debutante mentioned earlier might be hard-pressed to fully describe the intensity of her romantic evening. I'll try, focusing more on the music now than the zeitgeist painted earlier.

To begin, I knew fairly early on that I was going to hoe my own row, certainly from junior high days. But it was meeting Steppenwolf, during the time of bridging the chasm to wider vistas at high school when I needed the extra kick. 1200 students now! No point in following others; the time had come to excel at something, one way or another, and sociopathy seemed like a good bet.

Born to Be Wild was the dangerous illegal diet pill that originally got the ball rolling. Truly the most important admixture of drums, chords, words and sensuality in my life--ever. Not only that, it wasn't lost on this 16 year-old kid that its songwriter Mars Bonfire expressed so many stanzas in his anthem as imperatives. Did you notice that? I was mightily sick and tired of Presbyterian deliberation and vacillation foisted upon me for way too many years. The new axiom rapidly became: do it!

While pondering that a bit, if you'll permit one more tangent, another thought occurs. The rock music I've considered lily-livered always seemed to consist of lyrics penned in the subjunctive mood. He-man rock-and-roll spouts its message in the indicative mood, especially as imperatives. Hmm...that might be worthy of research by some linguist.  

But anyway,
Born to Be Wild certainly drew my attention to the composer and performers who shaped my outlook in so many ways. And then along comes Don't Step on the Grass, Sam.

I suppose John Kay's rhythm guitar work caught my attention first. While this is ostensibly a psychedelic piece, his guitar part is actually rooted firmly in standard Chicago blues techniques, the hammer-ons really standing out in that regard. I had never noticed that until I learned to play the song myself.

And if you listen to the bridge between verse and chorus, you'll hear what in many ways became Steppenwolf's signature: the E-A-E7 pattern, but with that ever-present additional augmented 9th on the latter chord. They used that honey--always suggesting illicit relations to me--in a number of songs, most notably
The Pusher. I have a feeling they got the chord from Mars Bonfire who wielded it in his epic Ride With Me Baby, but Jimi Hendrix was also using it around the same time. Notably, Hendrix and Steppenwolf crossed paths both in New York and San Francisco.

But it was the bass part that really inflamed my privates. Ah, me, Rushton Morever; what a bassist! For starters, notice what he does in the verses. While the rhythm and lead guitars as well as the organ are in many ways tracking each other, Rushton opts for the drone effect and works against them; that insistent E note (but hammered-on from a full step lower for the sexual punch) provides the foundation for the changes going on. Less is more. And really impressive is the fact he groups his eighth notes five at a time. A prime number so important to Dave Brubeck. The pentagram. Look at the album cover again.

Another aside: did you know that the Pythagoreans viewed the number 2 as woman and 3 as man? Ergo, they concluded that 5 (the sum) must be whoopee...

Do you believe in subliminal messages? 

I did then, and I do now.

But that's not all! When the chorus comes in, Rushton then goes for complete and solid afterbeats throughout. That is, the other four musicians play right on the beats (1-2-3-4), but he plops his exceedingly low bass notes in between each, on the hyphens as it were. It's sheer genius. Again, though I couldn't explain it back then, I felt the sexual tension inherent in what he was up to. Listening to
Don't Step on the Grass, Sam in Armpit's basement while playing pool (in a cloud of blue-gray smoke I might add) is indelibly etched in my being. Ejaculation has never been the same.

Ah, Rushton: you gotta love a guy whose girlfriend was named "Animal."

And that was when I, (a) formed a love affair with the bass guitar, and (b) decided it was more profitable to believe in Steppenwolf than Yahweh.

Another point of fascination for me was that insane Hammond organ instrumental break near the middle. Never before or since have I heard anyone get that kind of effect from a Leslie rotating speaker, sounding for all the world as though organist Goldie McJohn was playing it while submerged in an overflowing swimming pool.

I'm pretty sure it was that part which became the favorite of the Micro Blue Dot crowd I ran with.

One final thing that so impressed me in those days was how often the lead guitarist, Michael Monarch, would emphasize the major third of a chord at the end of a phrase, letting it hang on distorted, with a bit of finger-wiggling vibrato. I mean, back then, nobody had the courage to conclude a passage that way; you either ended on the root or the fifth, but nowhere in between. It was a deliberate attempt to keep the chord somewhat unresolved, surely a metaphor for the Summer of Love or the musical equivalent of upending the missionary position. 

I liked rule-breakers. Still do.

Perhaps you consider me all too clinical in my analysis of a pop tune. For rebuttal, I think of it like this: how would Chapter One of
The Picture of Dorian Gray strike you if all the adjectives had been redacted by some heavy-handed editor with a black Magic Marker?

And finally, with all the prerequisites out of the way, we're ready for the climax. As the primary exhibit, I ask you to inspect the lyrics of this fine tune carefully and see if you don't recognize some of our dramatis personae.

I always marvel at how stupid "leaders" can be. Supposing hypothetically for a moment that their cause is laudable,  trying to prop up a sagging argument with dubious claims has never been effective.
It's the old "start with the conclusion, and the premises will take care of themselves" routine. 

Does anyone remember when LSD continued to explode across the country, despite all the dire warnings from on high? When nothing else worked, the establishment (with the support of the media, I might add) pulled out their trump card: dropping acid breaks your chromosomes and your progeny will turn out deformed. In not so many words, we all knew this conclusion wasn't reached by a randomized double-blind experiment incorporating statistical controls. And, anecdotally, I don't seem to recall the Haight-Ashbury daycare facilities being overrun by monstrosities.

Anyway, if they really wanted to scare us, the heat should have pulled out Frank Zappa's zinger:
Drugs will turn you into your parents.
The same old trick continues to be attempted year after year. (Remember the late Nancy Reagan's valiant prise de fer?)

It's useful to see how the other half lives, so I thought I'd try my hand at this game. Here's my contribution to ending teenage pregnancy. Let's just tell the kids that orgasms aren't fun.

Next installment: On Patience

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