“That Shit You Call Music” – Before New York, Part 1

Before I get rolling, I probably should say something about the title of this post. When I moved to Minneapolis from Iowa City in the Fall of 1973, my first apartment was only five or six blocks from what quickly became my go-to record store, Oar Folkjokeopus, more commonly known as Oar Folk. They had a comprehensive selection of mainstream rock and punk rock records. One day there was a handwritten notice taped to the front door. I don’t remember what it was for, but it may have been announcing an upcoming event, possibly written by Oar Folk’s owner. The only thing I remember of its content was the words “that shit you call music.” I think this was meant as a joke (maybe), but it stuck with me, and at last I’ve found a use for the phrase.

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Getting Primed

I don’t recall precisely when I first became interested in rock ‘n’ roll, but it would have been in the mid-1950s, probably by sixth grade. We didn’t have a record player in my home, though at some point we did get a portable that played 45 rpm singles and extended play 45s. There were two radio stations that played top 40 records – KWMT out of Fort Dodge, Iowa and WLS out of Chicago. When I did get interested – which seemed to happen overnight – I listened to these stations constantly.

“Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets was released in 1954. I probably was aware of the song then, but when I heard it blasting during the credits of  Blackboard Jungle (1955), it hit me right between the eyes. This was the first time a rock song had been used in this way on film. I knew something had changed (I would have many such moments in the years to come). “Rock Around the Clock” was irresistible. Per Wikipedia, it is “…widely considered to be the song that, more than any other, brought rock and roll into mainstream culture around the world.”

Note that the label above refers to the song as a “fox trot.” Boy, did they get that wrong. The following clip shows Haley and his band doing the song on a television show in 1956. The visual quality is poor, but I think that just adds to the abundant energy and authenticity of the performance. Definitely not a fox trot.

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Should also mention that my folks, especially my mother, loved big band music from the 1930s and ’40s. After we got that 45 rpm record player, they bought Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert on an EP (Extended Play) 45 rpm record set. This definitely broadened my horizons.

Here’s a great cut from that album, “Don’t Be That Way.” There’s a short intro by Benny Goodman recorded for the record, then the number kicks off. I love the two explosive drum solos by the great Gene Krupa. Though brief, they take the piece to another level.

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Going into high school I remember being quite taken with Duane Eddy and his breakout single, “Rebel Rouser.” Eddy’s thing was his “twangy” guitar. I really loved this record.

At some point after getting my drivers license, I learned that he was going to give a concert in Fort Dodge, about 40-50 miles east of us. It was a priority that I be there. I went with a date, though I have no memory of how that came about. The concert was going great when my date announced that she had to be back home by a certain time. She hadn’t told me this beforehand, but what could I do, there it was. The problem was that in order to make it back by her curfew, we had to leave right then, before Duane Eddy had stopped twanging. This wasn’t the first or last tragic disappointment in my life, but I sure remember it.

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Another musician I liked in high school was Sandy Nelson, a drummer who made a series of instrumental records featuring percussion. Per Wikipedia, he “was one of the best-known rock and modern jazz drummers of the late 1950s and early 1960s, had several solo instrumental Top 40 hits and released over 30 albums.” Who doesn’t respond to drumming? It’s primal.

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Cobblestone Ballroom

For at least a couple of years, an important part of my life was the Sunday night teen dances at The Cobblestone Ballroom in Storm Lake, Iowa, about 12 miles north of us. Located in the Lakeside community on the east side of the lake, the Cobblestone opened on New Year’s Eve 1929. In its heyday, musicians performing included Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, and Lawrence Welk. The teen dances were dry, since beer and liquor could not be sold on Sundays. Lots of soft drinks instead. These dances were often the high point of my week. Many rock and pop acts played there, including the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Bobby Vee, The Ventures, Jerry Lee Lewis and many others of the day, some on the way up, some on the way down.

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The photo below shows the dance floor, stage, and a row of booths to the right. Other the other side of the wall next to the booths was another area with two or three additional rows of booths.

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On Sundays, when a national act had not been booked, regional bands filled in. These were usually so-so draws, but the one I remember as being a definite cut above was Myron Lee and the Caddies, a group out of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Here’s what they sounded like. And yes, it’s fairly derivative, but they seemed likes pros to us. (Don’t be mislead by the publicity shot below. Don & Phil Everly were not in the band.)

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A group I saw at least twice here was The Ventures, a guitar-heavy instrumental group that was very popular in the 1960s due to such songs as “Walk, Don’t Run” and “Wipeout.”

If you’re old enough, this will take you back. Of course, they’re not actually playing in this clip, just following along with the recorded song. Their guitars aren’t even plugged in, and this was decades before wireless.

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One of my high points at the Cobb (as it was often called) was the night Jerry Lee Lewis played. This was a big deal for me, and as far as I was concerned, he did not disappoint. At some point, however, he stopped in the middle of a song to say that someone was throwing pennies on the stage and to please stop it. Two or three more times he’d break and say to please stop throwing pennies on the stage, please. Growing angrier every time. Finally, near the end of his set, he swiveled on his piano stool said to someone I could not see, “Little lady, I’ve got eyes in the back of my head, and if you throw one penny on the stage, I’m going to come down and wrap this microphone stand around your neck.” He sounded like he meant it. With that, he finished his set, thanked the audience, and marched off the stage. We knew there wasn’t going to be an encore. I ruahed back to the side of the bandstand where I knew he’d come off. When he did, I thanked him and said how much I’d enjoyed his music. Without breaking stride, he shook my hand and said, “Thank you, son, I’m glad you did.” I meant what I said, but I also think I wanted to make sure he knew we weren’t all small-town doofs who threw pennies at the band. Quite a night.

Below is a video of Jerry Lee giving a somewhat wilder performance than he did at the Cobblestone. Of course, he was playing to a television audience as well as a packed theater. This is from a 1958 Dick Clark special, which would put it probably two to three years before I saw him in Storm Lake.

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University of Iowa, 1962-1966 & 1970-1973

What I remember:

Walking into the student union cafeteria lounge in 1963 and hearing the opening chords of The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the jukebox. I’d probably heard it before, but this felt different. The instant I stepped down into the lounge, the music kicked in, announcing itself, almost a movie moment. Looking back on it now, it’s like the message was: Things are changing – pay attention!

Catching a ride to Northwest Iowa for a holiday break, hearing one Beatles song after another on the car radio.

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Riding in a car on campus in 1965 hearing the opening chords of the Stones’ “Satisfaction” on the radio. Again, something different had announced itself.

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Going to a loft apartment in downtown Iowa City where this guy played the first Velvet Underground album, the one with Nico produced by Andy Warhol. You knew this was different right off the bat.  I thought this had happened before I went in the Air Force in the Fall of 1966, but I see that the album wasn’t released until ’67,  so I either heard it when I was back on leave or not until after I got out in 1970. The timeline is wonky. Memories are imperfect. Whenever it was, I know their music was really out there, cutting edge – and still is.

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Waiting for the new Dylan album to come out, then gathering in someone’s apartment to hear it, every lyric punctuated by an awestruck “Oh, wow!” from our crowd. Highway 61 Revisited was released on August 30, 1965.

This was when albums were often awaited with great anticipation, especially those of Dylan and The Beatles. Rubber Soul was released on December 3, 1965, Revolver the following year on August 5. I remember walking by a record store in Iowa City and seeing Revolver on display in the window with that great cover by Klaus Voormann. Listening to “Eleanor Rigby” with my good friend Don Pasquella, and marveling at the lyric “Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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For a few months before I went into the Air Force in October 1966, I stayed in Don’s apartment above a grocery store in downtown Iowa City, sleeping on a mattress in the front room. During that time, Don had taken a trip to New York City. When he returned, he had with him the first two albums by The Fugs. Hearing them for the first time was quite an experience. The Beatles they were not. More like a proto-punk folk rock garage band. They were an important part of the ’60s underground scene and counterculture. As proof of this, an FBI file from 1969 refers to The Fugs as the “most vulgar thing the human mind could possibly conceive.” High praise indeed. Though the early songs were often crude and juvenile, Ed Sanders’ witty sensibility and silliness set The Fugs apart. Below, “Boobs a Lot” is a good example. And below that, “Nothing,” written by Fugs co-founder Tuli Kupferberg, an existentially profound statement if there ever was one. Seriously.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I hadn’t heard Leonard Cohen’s music before seeing Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), surely one of the greatest films of the 1970s or any other time. The songs fit the film so perfectly that I assumed they’d been written for it. I was surprised to find out that they were from Cohen’s first album in 1967, Songs of Leonard Cohen. You can’t imagine McCabe and Mrs. Miller without those songs. As much any other component, they define the feeling and emotion of the film. I was hooked from the very first moment of the opening credits.

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I remember standing in line at the Iowa Memorial Union at 5:00 am with my girlfriend in the middle of Winter  to get tickets for a Grateful Dead concert at the Field House on February 24, 1973. Our seats were in the upper stratosphere of the arena, so we missed getting trampled when the crowd below us rushed the stage.

I remember the strangeness of seeing Captain Beefheart in the Main Lounge of the Iowa Memorial Union a few months earlier in 1972, though at that time I hadn’t heard his recordings and didn’t know how exceedingly strange he really was or how bizarre appearing in this venue must have been for him. ** The album below was released in 1969. Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, and Frank Zappa shared similar sensibilities and the need and skill to go way outside the envelope.

I love the title of the cut below, “Bat Chain Puller.” What does that mean? Who knows? It’s a good example of the Beefheart method. I suspect that if The Fugs weren’t enough, this might be where you draw the line. Then again, maybe I should have more faith.

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 I have too much material to stuff into one post, so this chronicle will be continued when I return next week from a trip home to Iowa for a high school class reunion. The trip will also give me the opportunity to go to Storm Lake and check out the Cobblestone Ballroom to see if anything’s changed. I read recently that someone had bought the property, with plans to restore and reopen. Apparently all the interior furnishings, including dishware in the kitchen, are still there and intact. Makes for a kind of ghostly vibe. Here’s what it looked like a few years ago when I was there.

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That’s nearly all for now. For those who’d like a little more, I’ll close with a video of a Jerry Lee Lewis gig in London in 1964. It runs approximately 20 minutes and is energetic, to say the least. Jerry Lee uncorked in his prime is something to see. Until next time, stay safe. — Ted Hicks

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About Ted Hicks

Iowa farm boy; have lived in NYC for 40 years; worked in motion picture labs, film/video distribution, subtitling, media-awards program; obsessive film-goer all my life.
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7 Responses to “That Shit You Call Music” – Before New York, Part 1

  1. David M Fromm says:

    This was great fun and brought back memories.

  2. Kimball Jones says:

    Good collection, Ted!

  3. Vic Losick says:

    What can I say? We’re the age!

  4. Phil Strawn says:

    Good memories. Music weaves it all together. A date, a concert, a breakup, there was always a song that brought those memories back like an 8×10 photo. I was a teenager in the 60s and played in a rock band in Texas. Lots of good fun and met some great performers along the way. I too suffer from rock n roll recall.

  5. Paul Arents says:

    The Ventures was my favorite group.

  6. ManInBlack says:

    Sir, I must thank you for the Duane Eddy mention in this great article. My dad was a huge fan in the 50s (still is) which he passed onto me as a child. It’s a shame you didn’t get to see the whole gig back in the day but I hope you corrected that later in life. 😉

    We saw him a few times in recent years here in the UK, including his final ever British show at the London Palladium in 2019, where he brought out Bruce Welch of The Shadows to join him on “Shazam” (which the Shads covered as a B-side in 1963).

    Also, a trivia note about The Ventures – they had a few hits here in the UK but whist Walk Don’t Run was their biggie in the US, it was the follow up “Perfidia” which was their biggest UK hit. My dad had some of their albums, singles, and EPs too! In fact, he was a big guitar/instrumental fan, and his record collection has other acts like The Shadows, The Spotnicks, The Dakotas, Johnny & The Hurricanes, The Hunters (British group), Sandy Nelson, and Chet Atkins. 😀

    Anyway, thanks for the article and keep rocking! 🙂

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