A number of years ago I started writing stuff about 70’s rock and growing up, and it turned into a fun flashback and heartfelt tribute to my good friend (and guitar-God) Lou Pastalone (RIP). I’ve been added bits here and there in between novels and short stories, and I thought I’d post some in case anyone was feeling nostalgic. Here’s the beginning.
Alongside a Prodigy
What my life was like before, during, and after
my collaboration with guitarist Lou Pastalone,
(the great one few would ever know about)
Know up front that this is a love story.
Not in the usual sense, and I’m sorry to disappoint anyone who would expect me to get into some sort of sentimentalist melodrama. As a novelist I don’t run away from scenes of tenderness, but as a baseboard sort of admission, I should say up front that my genre of choice for writing is horror. Literary thinking horror. I am a professor of English and more a believer in the power of paradox than the highs and lows of emotional currency.
Still, this is a love story just the same.
It is a story about a love of life, of childhood and coming of age, of music, and the smoky, electric sounds of the 70’s. It is a celebration of youth I still remember and the songs back then that put patterns in my mind that painted the world full of colors and dreams, a testament to how aesthetically enabling it was to wake up in the morning without social media, without microwave ovens, without bank cards, or cable, or cell phones, or computers. In many ways we were the pioneers of the New Social Modernism. Just as Hemingway left behind the horses, carriages, and overblown Victorian prose, so did we break away from our parents with the most powerful technology on the planet besides radar, rocket ships, and muscle cars.
We had rock.
And we had it different than the 60’s and The Beatles, far more advanced, though not many experts seem to make this distinction. Almost like foreshadowing, Elvis, in his ’68 Comeback television special, spoke of The Beatles not so much as equal musicians, yet more the ones at the state of the art in terms of technology. Still, to make The Beatles some sort of stopping point on technical grounds is wholly inaccurate, as they were more the centerpiece in the greater analogy. Elvis was to The Beatles as The Beatles were to Led Zeppelin. That being said, I would argue that Zeppelin’s contribution to the “New Social Modernism” was more about writing and improvisation than technological evolution, just as I would claim that the double album Frampton Comes Alive (1976) was more about setting the post-Beatles blueprint for image, packaging, and concert promotion. Arguably, the best band of the 70’s was The Eagles, first with their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) released in 1976, and then Hotel California (1976), but the band that blew everyone’s doors off metatextually so to speak was Queen with their groundbreaking masterpiece – Night at the Opera (1975), taking genre, structure, and electronics to amazing new heights. So much for analogies.
I remember listening to this particular Queen album in absolute astonishment. Admittedly, I had heard “Killer Queen” from Sheer Heart Attack (1974) in passing, and I distinctly recall thinking it strange, kind of cool, yet rather “girly” and inconsequential. Here in this new work however, there was multi-tracking of vocals no one had ever heard before, (hundreds actually in Bohemian Rhapsody and The Prophet’s Song) and guitar work that exhibited a sort of melodic sustain so unusual they chose to put a disclaimer on the record claiming no synthesizers had been utilized. There were a variety of arrangements that were classical, beautiful, progressive, sassy, and somehow heavy as lead boots on a magnet…techno-socio-aesthetics to the max, with a stage show rivaling Wringling Brothers, a 4th of July fireworks finale, and New Year’s Eve in Times Square! We had it in the palm of our hands, and some of our parents didn’t know how to react. Fuck cable, computers, bank cards, and Facebook. We had rock like it had never been heard before, and while today kids have their parents’ and grandparents’ music on their I-phones like old bedrocks to fall back on as well as VH1 documentaries more detailed than an AP history class, in the context of the time, tech, and social construction through which my generation came to awareness, we had something different, something real, something all of our own.
While many critics look harshly on the music of this time period, calling it “Corporate Rock” (whatever that means), I believe the thing they forget is how very new it was at the time, how state of the art in terms of writing and recording techniques, how much joy it brought to teens slumming through high school.
I realize how cliché and childish this sounds, but the music of the 70’s was just happier than that of today, even when it was “sad” somehow. Not to get too far down the flowchart (or rather the rabbit hole) where all the genres and subgenres have developed over time, it is relevant to note here, that hard rock (or metal) has become what my son presently calls “sad-as-fuck” with most of the platform solos squeezed down and replaced by incredibly fast, but repetitive riffs backing the vocals on lower strings doubling the bass, with screamo-growl vocals in said verses, and traditional singing in the chorus work, usually bouncing off a lot of minors and melancholy climaxes.
Hey. I love Five Finger Death Punch too, but back in the day it was uplifting from a different angle with a different vibe, different strike-points.
Between my years of 15 and 17, there seemed a distinct move in the music industry toward brightness and fun, and we purposefully forgot about the “legitimacy” of the garage and “protests” and “hippies” and “politics.” Not that we didn’t love the living hell out of zoning to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (1973), which had wonderful garage simplicity, spacey leads, and enough psycho-social context to satisfy anyone’s post-sixties therapist…but we also shamelessly rocked the living shit out of “Freebird” Lynyrd Skynyrd – Pronounced (1973) until we were seniors. We made out to Fleetwood Mac (The White Album) and Rumors (1975 and 1977 respectively), tore donuts in the high school parking lot blasting Ted Nugent’s “Cat Scratch Fever” (album of the same name– 1977), ripcorded cold Genesee beers to “Tush” (ZZ Top – Fandango – 1975), and did all of the above to Toys in the Attic (Aerosmith – 1975). With gusto.
That being said, during those awesome formative years between 15 and 17, I distinctly remember being especially affected both musically and culturally by Boston (1976), Kansas Leftoverture (1976), Foreigner (1977), and Styx Grand Illusion (1977).
Not to get in a pissing match…
I mean, guys. Gals. Stop. Settle down. I do realize that this document, or reminiscence, or memoir, or whatever you decide to call it, will come off as overly opinionated, sometimes unfounded, questionably pretentious, and fatally subjective. Guilty as charged. Still, I’m painting a picture here, there’s a method to my madness, and I would hope that you would kindly suspend disbelief, argument, and genuine (and admittedly valid) disdain for my one-sided viewpoint. I will make it make sense with shape, context, and purpose, and by the end of this thing I hope to at least make some new friends despite my bad attitude. Thing is, to understand Lou you have to “get” me, and at the risk of giving more primary attention to myself as opposed to the more talented and relevant, I have to lay down some groundwork.
Please understand that Lou Pastalone was a true prodigy, and I am attempting to be the mouthpiece that articulates his legacy. Since there is a historical element to this that requires a certain legitimacy, I am forced to be brutally honest. This is not story narrative, so the prose should be blunt. And this is about rockers, so hence, there’s the attitude. In other words, if I am going to talk about Lou I have an obligation to keep it real, warts and all, presenting material that would possibly interest some of you, and quite probably offend many others.
Jerry Maguire called it brutal for a reason.
So let’s have it, out in the air and out of the way. I never could stand New Wave (skinny ties and bad vocals on purpose), Grunge (flannel and unwarranted depression with no lead guitar to speak of), 90’s metal (dissonant reworked Grunge and by the way…Metallica has average drums and shitty vocals), and Hip-Hop (please…), but understand that this doesn’t mean I sit here arguing that these genres don’t translate to legitimate art forms. I write horror and many people shun me because of it. My wife liked the movie Wild, (gag me with a fucking crowbar), because it “spoke” to her,” so who am I to judge?
I am a realist, and in my own (very) small way, an artist “in the business” with my horror books. In concrete terms art can be anything, and in business terms (they do call it show business after all), we must give street-cred to anything a bunch of people throw money at. It is the way of the world.
But back in the 70’s we didn’t see it as “corporate” or “falsely manufactured.” It sounded good. It was fun. It…spoke to us.
The intellectuals liked Jethro Tull, Emerson-Lake-and Palmer, and Yes. The rebels wearing untucked flannel and engineer’s boots liked Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, and The Outlaws. The drinkers liked George Thorogood, Aerosmith, The Who, and the Doobies, and the heavies dug Sabbath, Purple, Blue Oyster Cult, and Montrose.
But even that is a generalization.
We all loved them all. We still do.
There were only two major “rock” projects in this particular time period that I just never understood, at least from the standpoint of talent, performance, studio production, and technique: The Grateful Dead and Bruce Springsteen. In terms of the former, sure, they improvised, but as mentioned, Zeppelin did it better. The Dead’s guitars lacked finesse and distinction, and none of the lot could play a fucking blues scale. The package, vocals included, sounded like a reach to me, like bad, blurry country music, and to this day, I honestly feel they were invented for people who simply didn’t know anything about music, or so little that they thought themselves deep if they learned an open chord or two on the acoustic.
And Bruce? Muddy romanticism with bells and shit in it. Not my thing. I saw him once at the Vet before they tore it down, “Born in the USA” tour (I know…not too legit coming in so late in his odyssey, my apologies to the die-hards). He was good. I enjoyed myself. Never bought the album and never will. Lou (again…I’ll get to the big guy in a hot minute) called Bruce Springsteen “Loose Bedsprings.” I always thought that was rather poetic.
So here is my testament. I have no right to be the “chosen one” penning this and I want you to know that I know that up front. Plainly, I was the guy who was around, the one with access to a great one. I’m sorry you didn’t inherit a more qualified historian, but I’ll give you the best that I’ve got.
Warts and all.