My Rock “Career” Was Determined by Drawing Straws
It was early 1964 and I was a freshman in high school. The country was only a few months removed from the Kennedy assassination and people needed some good news. Needed a reason to feel good again.
The Beatles had just exploded on the scene with “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” The two main fan bases in the U.S. were Beatles fans and Dave Clark Five fans. I had to be different. I was a Rolling Stones fan because I liked the Chuck Berry song (“Come On”) I’d heard on an EP…before “Satisfaction” changed the world in ‘65.
I was a teenager and my hormones were steering me in a new direction. I loved sports, baseball in particular, but there was no doubt that girls were more interested in rock musicians than baseball players.
One afternoon three of my closest friends—John, Chris and Paul—met in Chris’s basement. It was on that day we made a decision that changed our lives: We decided to form a rock band. We were all in the same grade in school, except Paul, who was four years older and in college. This turned out to be extremely important, especially to him, because unlike the rest of the band, he could grow his hair long. High school restrictions prevented the rest of us from doing so. Paul’s “cool quotient” rose from average guy to “that cool long-haired rock and roll dude.”
There was only one impediment in our plan’s path: None of us played an instrument, except Chris, who played piano. Actually, I played violin but that was not much use in a rock band. Not then anyway.
Somehow we must have sensed that this was a momentous decision, because we took the decision-making process seriously. We drew straws. The shortest straw got to learn to play guitar. The middle straw would learn bass, and the longest straw would learn to play drums. John pulled the longest straw, Paul the middle straw and, thank God, I got the “guitar straw.”
That fateful bit of luck quite literally changed my life, and it affects me in a positive way to this very day.
The first thing I did was buy a guitar. I’d never purchased a guitar and I had no idea what to look for. My only prerequisite was that I must be able to afford it. Sadly, even then there weren’t a lot of guitars for under $10. The fret board and strings on the guitar I bought looked a lot like a bow and arrow. Because the strings were so far from the fret board, my fingers actually bled occasionally. My learning curve was steep and painful, but I was undaunted. I taped a flat-faced microphone on the back of the guitar and plugged it into a $10 amplifier, which wasn’t really supposed to accommodate an electric guitar. It was more like a large tabletop radio adapted to be a guitar amplifier.
Our first practice was odd, but memorable and, in retrospect, quite hilarious. Paul appeared with an inexpensive newly purchased Danelectro bass. John showed up with a pair of drumsticks, which he proceeded to bang on an empty Peter Pan album cover. Thankfully, Chris played his piano so at least there was some actual music activity involved.
By the time we had our first gig, I had purchased an entry-level cherry Gibson solid body guitar, on a payment plan, from the local music store, and a Silvertone amplifier from the Sears catalog. You have to be an Old Guy Still Rockin to remember Silvertone amps. But man, at the time, they were really cool.
Within a couple of months we looked like a rock band. Even though we didn’t sound like one. We called ourselves The Caesars. We had publicity photos taken and we dressed alike. We even had a fan club.
Soon we started playing high school dances and other social functions, including a parking lot dance at the local Penny’s. We even got chased down hallways by female fans. Thinking back on it, this probably explains a lot about my personality.
We weren’t very good, but we were first. And we were loud. When other bands arrived on the scene—bands with guys who could play their instruments—our star faded. But it was great while it lasted.
Eventually The Caesars broke up and we all went on to play in other bands and on our own. Chris and I continued to play in bands off and on—though not again with each other—our entire lives.
From 1970-72 I ran The Morning Glory Coffeehouse in Toledo, Ohio. I played guitar with lots of people, including a bunch of famous people who would stop by the coffeehouse. This was because when bands played at the University of Toledo there was literally nothing open after midnight. We were open till 4 am. People like members of Chicago, Badfinger, and many others stopped by and jammed. For free. One night I was in the musicians’ room upstairs jamming with some people, getting ready to go downstairs to the main stage when some guy stuck his head in the room and said, “You got an extra guitar?” It was Country Joe McDonald of Country Joe and the Fish.
My guitar seemed like a passport to another life.
I came to Los Angeles to make it as a rock star. I didn’t, but I played for a couple of years in clubs around town and had brushes with a few “almost-there’s” and soon-to-be-famous rockers. In 1980 I bought an Ovation guitar with part of the advance on my first big novel. In 1989 Garth Hudson, keyboard player with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame group, The Band (famous for being Bob Dylan’s backup band), played on my album (“Trick of the Light”). In the 90s I put music I wrote in a film I wrote and directed, “Street Crimes” starring Dennis Farina. I recorded a couple of albums since then.
When we moved from LA a few years ago, I started playing guitar with the guy who sold us our house. He and I started a band. We play out regularly now—or at least we did before the Coronavirus—and last month we played a Valentine’s Day dance for 140 people.
I now have my own studio. Over the past couple of years I’ve recorded, mixed and mastered about 50 new songs, some of which you can listen to here. I enjoy getting together with other musicians and playing, as well as occasionally recording other musicians and bands.
The bottom line is that writing and playing music shaped my life in so many ways, and that has never been truer than it is today. In fact, my love of music, playing guitar, and the camaraderie that comes with playing music with others prompted me to start Old Guys Still Rockin.
I don’t think music would have played such a big part in my life had I not drawn the “guitar” straw.
And my life would have been much the poorer for it.
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