By the summer of 1982 I was 22 years old. I’d played in front of my pre-band friends at our old haunt, the Mudd Club, the year before, after previously staring at that same stage. I used to read about Leee Childers in Circus Magazine when I was a 14 year old Mott The Hoople fan. Now I considered him my friend and drinking buddy. I used to stare at Bowie & Lou Reed record covers and now I’d had numerous photo sessions with one of their best known photographers, Mick Rock. I’d met Billy Idol, Glen Matlock and Ozzy Osbourne, and jammed with Johnny Thunders. I’d met industry veterans Richard Gottehrer, Jerry Brandt, Chris Blackwell, Mike Thorne and Tommy Mottola. I’d even met Leroy Neiman, he of Playboy Magazine, Sports Illustrated and handlebar mustache. I knew all of the Go-Go’s, and played on bills with the Clash, the Romantics, the Cramps, Tina Turner and the original Pretenders (half of whom are now dead). I had a cute little, model girlfriend, and, as musicians were wont to do in the pre-AIDS early ‘80’s, an occasional something on the side. It should have been satisfyingly, mightily cool.
But I was also impatient, and arrogant. I’d gone to my old place of work to gloat. I’d ignored Alex Chilton in Memphis because I had no patience for his sad drunken state. I’d discounted a friend’s band’s lead singer because she had a retail job to pay the bills (sorry Cindy Lauper), made fun of Sylvia Miles (too long of a story to tell), and in a move worthy of high school, stopped being friendly with people my band mates didn’t like (sorry Ann Sadler).
But much of what’s classified as “cool” is fleeting. What’s in one year, is out the next. I was interested in other things besides rockabilly and onward I went. And anyway, my pink drums had been stolen, my pink pants were claimed by Dibbs (he says Jerry left them to him so I didn’t argue), and Jerry’s shoes just disappeared into the ether. Where the hell did they go?
Fast forward to 2007: Levi and the Rockats are having a reunion at a 50’s fest in a Casino outside of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Although I’d stopped making music or caring much about being cool years before, I went at the behest of Smutty who was living close to me in West Seattle at the time. I figured I’d see Dibbs, Danny, Levi, and Dig (formerly Buzz), and have a laugh about the old days. What I didn’t realize was that there were tens of thousands of people coming to this event from all over the world, who for three days would be living in an alternative 1950’s reality…just like I did in 1980. I thought this world had ended in 1984 when the Stray Cats faded from view but it must have just been in a lengthy hibernation period because now they were out in droves.
There were booths and stalls selling all types of retro fifties gear: hair pomades, creepers, cowboy shirts, pants and jackets, garter belts and fezs. One guy’s even selling fifties luggage and camping gear. And the people are dressed the part. There’s the ‘Leave it to Beaver’ look with glasses (Smutty called them “the Mayberrys”), the hot rod/biker look (occasional leather jacket which is the preferred choice of the Japanese standard bearers), there are also Mexicans with 40’s looking zoot suits, big hats and bow ties, the clean cut western suited guys who would have been welcome in Hank Williams’ band at the Grand Ole Opry, as opposed to the suited Brooklyn guys who look more like something out of the first 30 minutes of Goodfellas. Ladies have the sex bomb look, the bad girl look, the 40’s look, the 50’s poodle skirt look, and the Bettie Page look. Of course, if they wear glasses, it’s got to be cat eyes. And there are lots of tattoos. It seems everybody has a tattoo. These are tribes, tribes of which I am no longer a member.
There’s not an Emo or a Goth in sight. No hip-hop, punk, crunk or funk, although there was a guy selling DVD’s that had some 60’s collections with James Brown on it. No spiky hair, Sketchers or long t-shirts under a short sleeved one. But make no mistake about it, these are the ultimate metrosexuals. They spend loads of time in front of the mirror getting their look just right for their tribal rights of passage.
There are endless fifties and Rockabilly bands on multiple stages in multiple rooms. Most of the bands look just like the audiences although there are some acts to whom this is just another casino gig. They look like something you’d see on a PBS pledge special. The older guys who actually played in bands in the 1950’s use lots of hairspray and even have mustaches.
There are bands from all over the world. There was one three piece band who all wore overalls, flannel shirts and straw cowboy hats. They looked like total hillbillies. They played Hank Williams and Johnny Cash numbers note for note. Dibbs’ joked that they’re probably from Finland. He was wrong. They were from Denmark. I met Robert Gordon, Slim Jim from the Stray Cats and guitarist extraordinaire Chris Spedding. I ran into the Collins Kids in an elevator, although it took a minute to realize it because they were in their 60’s and no longer kids. And Lemmy was there too. I’ve read that he’s very approachable but I thought I’d leave him be. Now THAT guy is cool!
Now don’t for a second think I’m knocking the scene. I admire the dedication. I like some of the fashion and dig the original music too. I’m more stunned by it. Where do these people get all the time and money to live this life?
Me? I’m wearing faded jeans, track shoes, a jacket from a running suit and my hair is too long. Nonetheless I kind of like the outsider view. It’s a Jewish tradition. I admit I started to comb my hair back on the sides as the days wore on, and bought a motorcycle t-shirt to wear, but there was no way I’d fit in. Probably the only person more out of place was Levi’s original drummer Dean Thomas, who has a beard and a hippie girlfriend, and only agreed to do the gig because there was a Chinese herbalist convention nearby that he was going to speak at. Sweet guy and a solid drummer, but I don’t think there were a lot of of people at the casino concerned about the amount of sulfides in their ginseng.
I stick out like a sore thumb. In fact, somewhere on the trip Smut was ribbing me about not being cool anymore. But then, he stopped suddenly and said, “Ya know, you made the right choice. You’re taking care of your family and preparing for your future. You did the right thing.”
That’s right folks. There was no faking it or denying it. I gave up the cool. For family and future. I guess I did the right thing. The boring thing, but the dependable thing. And my shrink would be very proud of me for stating something that shows such healthy self-esteem.
You see I take a lot of pride in all of the records I’ve made. But the ones that I think are the best, really had the least amount of pretension. They weren’t part of a scene and didn’t have much of a look associated with them. They were just made by a few guys who cared deeply about making music they thought was great. We were our own little dedicated scene. So, maybe Ed Shaughnessy was right?
Oh, you’re probably wondering who Ed Shaughnessy was. He played drums with Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie and Billie Holiday among others but is best known as the drummer with Doc Severinsen on the Johnny Carson show for over 30 years.
Ed stood out for more than just his drumming. He had large mutton chop side burns that competed with his equally large Swifty Lazar glasses and the giant medallion he always wore around his neck. I guess it was the only way he could compete with Doc’s loud jackets. He had a curly perm of a hair doo, two bass drums and basically looked ridiculous to me. But his skills as a drummer were without question. So, in 1977, during my one full semester at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, I jumped at the opportunity to see him at a workshop he was giving at a local drum shop.
Ed looked just the same as he always did. He talked about studying in India with Allah Rakah, the Indian tabla drum master who often accompanied Ravi Shankar. Ed told us how he learned to play 7 against 4 time from him and then demonstrated it for the audience. Now, at this time in my life, I was disillusioned with Berklee and Jazz and ready to leave to pursue drumming in the punk rock world. Studying how to play 7 against 4 from an Indian tabla master was not on my “to do” list. It was not cool in my world.
Begrudgingly, I stayed through the whole presentation. Ed finished up with a Q&A session and somewhere along the line a conversation started up as to what was hip or not. What Ed said has stuck with me to this day:
“People try to tell you what’s hip and what’s not hip. I’ll tell you what’s hip. Whatever you think is hip, that’s what’s hip!”
Sage advice from the man with mutton chops and a medallion.
© Curt Weiss 2015