Friday, May 19, 2006


Today would have been Joey Ramone's 55th birthday, and in New York, that is not a milestone that goes unnoticed. There is a long sold-out Joey Ramone Birthday Bash 2006 at Irving Plaza. Proceeds will go to the new Joey Ramone Foundation for Lymphoma Research, raising awareness and money to help find a cure for the form of cancer that took the punk pioneer's life April 15, 2001.

The show and foundation, heralded by Joey's mother, Charlotte Lesher and brother, Mickey Leigh, features a number of the musical kin and spawn of the Ramones, including Richie Ramone; the Strokes, Glen Matlock, the Alarm and members of bands from the Ramones' original CBGB era: the Plasmatics, the Dead Boys and the Dictators.

The most fascinating artist on the show may be Tracy Thornton, who will open the concert with his authoritative versions of Ramones songs played on steel pans, the tinkly-sounding percussion instrument often found in Caribbean tourist joints that feature calypso. Thornton, a former punk rock drummer from High Point, N.C., who had his Ramones epiphany in 1988, has released "Pan for Punks: A Steelpan Tribute to the Ramones." It's a remarkable project. Thornton transposed a chunk of the Ramones repertory note by note, and plays it with great heart and skill. (The album also includes a video of "Blitzkrieg Bop.")

When we think of Ramones songs, we think of three chord/two minute blasts of rhythm. Pan for Punks brings out the rich, elemental melodies that buoyed songs like "Teenage Lobotomy" so that you'd remember it even if you had one. For days I've been humming "The KKK Took My Baby Away," "Rockaway Beach" and "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend."

I was recently going through my back pages and found a cover story I wrote for Newsday—probably the first one I did at the start of a nearly 20-year-career there—from Jan. 25, 1976. It may have been the first major mainstream newspaper story to identify and try to understand the phenomenon. The article mentions numerous bands: Tuff Darts, Talking Heads, Television, the Shirts, the Planets...But for the cover of that Sunday entertainment section, along with the simple two-word title: "Punk Rock" was a photo of the most emblematic group, the Ramones.

It still sickens the heart to remember how stubbornly the industry—especially once all-powerful radio, and later MTV—insisted that the Ramones were not "musical" and that their image was all wrong for whatever their medium. A Columbia Records A&R man—a friend of mine at the time, who just didn't get it—says in the article, "In this situation, 'avant-garde' becomes a code word for 'awful' and 'crude' translates into 'basic rock and roll'...I mean, jeez." But another A&R rep, rock scholar Richard Robinson, saw major label cluelessness as almost a necessity for the development of these bands, many of which were 'crude,' but in a good way.

"It would be tragic if record companies started exploiting these bands," said Robinson, who had produced Lou Reed's first solo album for RCA. The labels hadn't yet figured out Patti Smith, whose "Horses" was already a weak-selling masterpiece: Robinson felt whatever was fresh and interesting about these bands would be mauled by the machinery of the industry. "It's the difference between music performed for 100-200 people and that made for 20,000," Robinson said. What we loved about the early CBGB days was being part of that 100 or 200, as each band began to grow up on that stage.

Ten years later, the Ramones could draw 20,000 people in South America, though they never got beyond the theater level in the U.S. "The Ramones" debut album in 1976 peaked at No. 111; "Rocket to Russia," widely and properly recognized as one of the great albums in rock history, made it all the way up to No. 49 in 1977.

History has proven the Ramones and their believers—their original manager, Danny Fields; CBGB owner Hilly Kristal; and Sire Records' founder Seymour Stein, who signed the band, among them—to be visionaries. And "Pan for Punks" reminds you why the Ramones' were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Behind the aggressive stance was a sound that was not just intense. It was beautiful.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


How It Might Have Been: The Early History of Bob Springs (aka Bruce Springsteen) and the Seeger Sessions

Fiction, by Wayne Robins

This summer, as we celebrate the 41st anniversary of the classic 1965 album, “We Shall Overcome: Bruce Springsteen & the Seeger Sessions Band,” it is worth taking a moment to consider the history behind this groundbreaking musical event. It is hoped that the following will convey the essential “truthiness” of the early days of rock and folk music. Any resemblance to real people or events is for satirical purposes only. No string instruments were hurt in writing this.

When Elvis Presley was drafted into the United States Army in 1958, the artist now known as Bruce Springsteen was a struggling rockabilly singer performing under the name Bobby Springs.

Recording for the Tupelo, Miss.-based Rebel Yell label, Springs was one of a number of Elvis-soundalikes trying to fill the King’s shoes in the late 1950s, including Conway Twitty, Ral Donner and Conrad Birdie. When Presley’s dear mother Gladys passed away on Aug. 14, 1958, Springs’ recorded a heartfelt tribute, encouraging Elvis to be strong for his family and country. The song, “Elvis, Kill A Commie for Your Mommy,” was a minor regional hit in scattered parts of the South in the fall of 1958.

Springs would have remained little more than a footnote in the history of rock had fate not stepped in. In the early winter of 1959, Springs was part of a package tour in the upper midwest. In early rock’s most mourned tragedy, three rising stars—Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens—died in a plane crash the night of Feb. 3, 1959. The next night, the surviving tour members, who had taken a bus, performed a tribute concert at the next tour stop, Fargo, N.D., where a local teenager named Robert Velline, just shy of his 16th birthday, warmed the crowd with his close-enough-for-comfort approximations of Holly’s style.

Backing Velline that night was the Big Bopper’s bass player, Robert Zimmerman, another teen from relatively nearby Hibbing, Minn., and Bob Springs on guitar and vocals.

Bob Springs manager, Major Tom Parker, took on Velline as a client that night as well. Just as he had created the stage name Bob Springs (Springs’ given name was Bruce Springsteen), the Major dubbed Velline “Bobby Vee.” (The manager would later become immortalized in David Bowie’s song, “Space Oddity,” with the refrain, “ground control to Major Tom.” These were supposedly the last words from the Fargo airport control tower acknowledging that the plane with Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper had disappeared from radar.)

Vee, Springs and Zimmerman hit it off, and decided to continue to tour and record together as Bobby, Bob and Robert, though some pressings of their 45 rpm singles identify the group as Bob, Bob and Bob. And one song, a cover of Valens’ “La Bamba” that was a minor regional hit in a few counties of South Texas and Central California, was credited to Los Tres Robertos.

There’s no question that Bobby, Bob and Robert were ahead of their time. They were the first group to utilize three electric guitars, the first to intentionally use feedback and distortion for effect, the first to transcend the limitations of the three minute single. (One early signature tune, a tribute to jazz musician Charlie Parker, was called “Free Bird.”)

But their 1959 concept album, “Ore,” a set of songs by Zimmerman and Vee about the heavy metal unearthed in Upper Midwest’s Iron Range, was thought to be deranged by their label, and never released. Furious and depressed, the band broke up.

Zimmerman went to Tennessee. He stopped at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios and cut a track called “Memphis Blues Again” that, remarkably, got airplay on influential black stations like Memphis’ WDIA. When WDIA dj (and Sun artist) Rufus Thomas met Zimmerman for the first time, he was struck by the shy guitarist’s damp, limp handshake. “It was like shaking hands with a pickle—a dill hand,” Thomas joked. Zimmerman himself was amused. In need of a stage name, he considered Robert Dill Hand, then Bob Dilland, then, finally, settled on Bob Dylan.

Vee, of course, became a major pop star, with Holly-inflected hits like “Rubber Ball” and tinkly ballads like “Take Good Care of My Baby.”

But what of Springs? Aimless for a few months, he joined the Army. While Elvis had had a soft, highly publicized posting in West Germany, Springs was part of a top secret “Black Ops” team in Southeast Asia; they were among the first U.S. “technical advisors” to the South Vietnamese military.

Upon his return, he made a few attempts at reviving his rock career. Visiting a buddy who was an ex-Navy Seal in Norfolk, Va., Springs got up to sing in a club where hometown hero Gary “U.S.” Bonds was performing. Riding high with “A Quarter to Three” and “Seven Day Weekend,” Bonds tried to help Springs launch a rock’n’roll career. But derivative tracks like “Half Past Four” and “Eight Days A Week” never penetrated the charts in the U.S., though the latter especially became a cult favorite in the U.K.
Springs was feeling not just dissatisfaction with his career, but dismay at what he had seen in Vietnam. He began singing and writing songs about his experiences there.

Deciding to break with what he felt was the “phoniness” of his past, he reclaimed his name, Bruce Springsteen. Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and a harmonica held on a brace, Springsteen’s debut album for Columbia Records, “Greetings from Pnom Penh, Cambodia,” made him a darling of the Greenwich Village folk music circuit.
Soon, every folk singer from Gerde’s Folk City and the Bitter End in New York to the Ash Grove and the Troubadour in Los Angeles was singing Springsteen’s poetic, topical songs, like “Sown’ in the Wind” (“the seeds of freedom are so-wn’ in the wind”); “Think Twice, It’s Not All Right”; and the title song of his third Columbia album, which had the stirring line, “Those masters of war, baby they were born to kill...”

Springsteen was quickly adopted as a protege by the great political folk singer Pete Seeger. In 1963, they sang “We Shall Overcome” at the historic March on Washington, led by Dr. Martin Luther King. (It was one of the few times Springsteen ever sang in public with his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Joan Baez.) In 1964, Seeger and Springsteen performed together at the Newport (R.I.) Folk Festival to universal acclaim.

Yet Springsteen’s evolving musical curiosity would strain his relationship with Seeger. The following year at Newport was the debut of Bruce Springsteen and the
Seeger Sessions Band, an 18 piece lineup with fiddles, banjos and horns. Fistfights broke out among the usually peaceful throng: Some found the broad arrangements of the folk songs an adventurous, exciting tribute, while others thought the use of a horn section on folk songs to be sacrilege. Seeger himself was mortified: “It sounds like Benny Goodman,” he was heard to mutter backstage. Springsteen and Seeger didn’t speak for many years, although the venerable folk singer would ultimately make his accord with rock’n’roll in the 1970s, with a string of hits by Pete Seeger and the Silver Bullet Band.

And in that summer of 1965, as Bruce had written a few years earlier, “The Tide Was A Changin’.” Former folk singers like Barry McGuire of the New Christy Minstrels had antiwar, pro-Civil Rights songs like “Eve of Destruction” on the charts; L.A.-based folkies Jim McGuinn and David Crosby and their band, the Byrds, hit the top of the charts with an electrified version of Springsteen’s “Mr. Tangerine Man” and followed it later with a ringing rendition of Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn.”

In the early 1960s, Bob Dylan had moved to Nashville at the behest of his friend, Johnny Cash, writing songs such as “Desolation Music Row” that totally mystified traditionalists. But in the summer of 1965, he ended his isolation with an unexpected series of hard rocking hits: Wearing a white jumpsuit, colorful scarves, a black toupee and doing karate moves onstage, Dylan became not jus the most charismatic stage performer of his era, but achieved what was once only a pipedream in his 6-minute-long hit single, “(I’m Gonna be a Big Star, Baby) Like the Rolling Stones,” which endured a furious chart battle with the Stones’ own “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”

All these great records, not to mention hits by the Beatles, the Animals, the Beach Boys, the Supremes and other Motown stars, had to compete for No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. For in 1965 into 1966, top 40 supremacy belonged to Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band, with five consecutive No. 1 singles from the album: “John Henry,” “Erie Canal,” “Pay Me My Money Down,” “Keep Your Eye On the Prize” and “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep.”

As you’re reading this, the 41st anniversary edition of “The Seeger Sessions” is no doubt rising on the album charts, while the single “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” stands at No. 2, just behind Neil Young’s “Let’s Impeach the President” at the top of the top 40. This week’s Greatet Gainer: the Rolling Stones’ revision of an oldie, “Jumpin’ Jack Can’t Afford the Gas Gas Gas.”

Rumors of a Bob, Bob and Bob reunion have surged through cyberspace, although some listeners to Latin radio swear that the reggaeton hit, “Presidente Puerco” is in fact performed by Los Tres Robertos.

Asked for comment, Springsteen simply said: “Don’t look back.”

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