|Nothing Like the First Time||from L.A. Style|
We only knew how to play one song/But sometimes it lasted over four hours long
-- Ben Vaughn Combo
The only other member of this ensemble was my best friend, Brian Carlson, who played the clarinet and saxophone with what seemed to me thrilling control; he also plucked, violently, the bottom string of a beat-up Spanish guitar (with a microphone thrown down the sound hole for gritty amplification) and operated a tiny make-it-yourself electric organ he never got around to putting a keyboard on -- he just ran a bare wire across the contracts. (This instrument figured heavily in a piece about flying saucers.) And he owned a reel-to-reel stereo tape recorder, by which means we solidified our necessarily improvisational genius -- "necessarily" because not only could we not play a song the same way twice, we couldn't even play the same song twice. Yet once recorded, "Captain Kangaroo," "The End of the World" and "The Immortal Words of the Peanut Butter Cookie" were as fixed and final as if they'd actually been thought out beforehand.
Thirteen is magic. In the religion to which I'm heir, it's the age a boy officially becomes a man, a passage celebrated in my old neighborhood with white cake, accordions and saving bonds. But even without such a ritual, which after all only marks what happens naturally without it, 13 is pivotal. Childish things are put away, or at least less frequently (and less conspicuously) employed; one becomes an apprentice adult. At 13, you're old enough to seriously believe your parents (as emblems of all grownups with authority over you) know less than you do. Hormonal time bombs start to go bang: Out come the razors; a young man's fancy turns, and I suppose a young woman's does too. Not only sex, but cars, work, drunkenness and other big-person pursuits beckon from a rapidly advancing horizon. Having come to see oneself finally as an individual, one sets to work filling in the outlines -- various personae are shuffled on and off, images are explored, experiments are made. And yet an atmosphere of let's pretend, if childish playacting, hangs on, coloring even the most seriously assumed teenage postures.
It's a good time to get into a band.
My second band was called the Steam (not the Steam that cut "Na Na H ey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye"), in a kind of vague parody of the Cream, in whose honor we also named our "album" (a tape recording in a silver spray-painted box) Wheels of Crud. Steam was basically the Plague, with an extra member -- Bob Braude, who played the upside-down plastic trash cans -- and a little bit more sophistication: I had by this tine learned two guitar chords, which I arranged in as many ways as possible -- one way and... the other way. And instead of singing words off the top of my head, I would sit down and type them out -- off the top of my head -- and then sing them: "I've got that Sunday Monday blues thing/It's on my Wednesday Thursday spy ring" are the only lyrics I remember, and I'm not at all sure why I do. Like the Plague, the Steam had no existence outside of Brian's bedroom; the only audience we ever had was Brian's mother, gliding past in the hall.
Human beings, and perhaps young ones in particular, have a wonderful capacity for fantasy -- a capacity not always to the good, obviously, but not without its benefits. For one, it's what allows us to blunder along, thinking we're nearly upon a goal when by any objective standard we're still miles away, and thereby keeps the learner from discouragement. A kid who knows only three chords on the guitar, and who takes several fumbling seconds to change from one to another, and who can pick out a melody only slowly and with great squinty concentration, may nevertheless hear in his or her flailing the shadow of Eddie Van Halen, of Eric Clapton or The Edge. In fact, there is a thrill to the first steps that later, more rarefied breakthroughs rarely equal, for they signify not merely the refinement of talent, but the development of an identity. "The first day I can remember lookin' in the mirror and standin' what I was seein'," Bruce Springsteen told Time, "was the day I had a guitar in my hand."
Now, there will always be a prodigy or two around to humble the less gifted tyro, but shut safely behind your garage door with a few pals and a little amplification, they're easy enough to ignore. The really, ah, American thing about a rock band is that you don't actually need to be any good to play in one; you just need to find other players who are just as bad (and as willing) as you are, or who at any rate don't care that you can't play barre chords or can only solo on the E-string. When this democratic ideal is taken out of the garage and into the streets, you get something like punk rock, a music of pure desire, which prizes ingenuity over technique and energy over both; then it no longer matters how far you are from being Eddie Van Halen. And though rock has its slicked-up, sophisticated side, and does well by it, it's been the various incarnations of punk (from the early Who to the Stooges to the Sex Pistols) that by harnessing and identifying with the energy of that adolescent search have kept rock honest and alive, kept it from collapsing under the lofty pretensions and empty technique that periodically return to tempt it to professionalism, kept it most of all available -- punk throws out the rules, opens the door to the hoi polloi, to kids like me. It makes possible not only super-loud, triple-time thrash screeds, but also the sing-songy They Might Be Giants, a goofy duo who demonstrate, with such songs as "Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head," the commercial and artistic possibilities of the junior-high, guys-in-a-room-making-up-dumb-stuff aesthetic -- they're the Plague "grown up." And rap, the black equivalent to punk rock, is even more open, requiring at bottom only a voice, a sense of rhythm and a rhyming dictionary
My third band was called the Ducks, and it was the first band in which I played electric guitar -- a second-hand Rickenbacker that had supposedly once belonged to a member of Steppenwolf. We specialized in endless versions of Neil Young's "Down By the River," which had the benefit of being slow enough in the original for us to manage a fair likeness. (Young, a pre-punk punk rocker and the Johnny One-Note of the lead guitar, is the hero of ten-thumbed pickers everywhere.) We would gather in airless rooms, plug in and play, sweating dark moons onto our shirts and getting lightheaded on volume and synergy. I would regularly shear off my right thumbnail trying to strum windmill-style like the Who's Peter Townshend. The Ducks performed in public only once, at somebody's sister's birthday party -- a combination debut and swan song. I'm pretty sure we were horrible.
That was a long time ago, and in the interim I've been through a number of bands -- better bands, able bands, less accidental in their effect. I've played on actual records, and for paying crowds in real nightclubs, and have heard myself on the radio (college radio, okay, but radio all the same), and have even seen myself on television -- cable and broadcast -- making rock & roll. And these moments have had their certain, sizable rewards: transcendence, good fellowship, pocket change. But there's nothing quite like the first time, as has been said of another, not wholly dissimilar activity, and though I am ever so much more musical than before, it's been a good long while since I've been in a band that only knew one song and played it for four hours, and I can't say I don't miss it just a little.¶