Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Start me up!

As anyone who's known me for a long time can tell you, I'm in no danger of becoming an old fogey.

This is because I've always been one.

I was born a fogey.

I was a teenage fogey, I was a college boy fogey. I was a fogey when I was a young man and I'll be a fogey when I die.

I think there were about two years in my early twenties when I was hip, with it, and cool.

Those two years occured after Elvis died, well after the Beatles had broken up, and about 10 years after, I thought, the Rolling Stones should have hung up their guitars and hypodermic syringes and called it a day.

I think I was more of a fogey when I wasn't a fogey, if you know what I mean.

Being young and judgmental and convinced of my own superior wisdom and the fact that I was going to live forever and never grow old, I was actually repulsed by the idea that any one over the age of 40 had the nerve to rock and roll.

Mick Jagger wasn't returning my phone calls at the time, but if we'd been speaking I'd have lectured him like the young man in the Lewis Carroll poem scolding Father William.

At that time there weren't a lot of old rock and rollers, and the ones who were still alive and going strong had survived by turning themselves into nostalgia acts.

The creepiest sight in the world were the forty and fifty something members of Paul Revere and the Raiders, their jowly faces grinning out hideously from under their ponytailed wigs, their pot bellies straining the brass buttons of their waistcoats.

Even creepier were the Beach Boys, who didn't look that silly, but who because all their songs are about hanging out with 16 year old girls in bikinis came across as a pack of leering pedophiles on the prowl.

Learned from Nance today that the Rolling Stones are on tour, again.

They're doing a concert in her neck of the woods, but she's making no plans to go. Been there, done that, she says, and doesn't even mention buying the t-shirt.

I saw the Stones in 1975, at the Akron Rubber Bowl. I guess it was the "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll" tour, because Jagger sang "Fingerprint File." I had to go to the first aid tent to get a drink of water, because the water pressure in the stadium was so low the drinking fountains weren't working. I don't recall what the ticket cost, but I'm sure it wasn't cheap. Spend a fortune, sit among tens of thousands in profound discomfort, pee in a non-flushing toilet, beg for water from medics -- it's only rock 'n' roll. And I don't like that, not anymore.

I wouldn't be tempted to go either.

They're not even the Rolling Stones anymore.

They're Rolling Stonesmania.

Not the Rolling Stones, but an amazing, if decrepit, simulation.

That's not the old fogey in me talking. Like I said, when I was 20 I thought they were past it.

I thought most of the great rock and rollers were past it, though. The Who, the Dead. Everybody but Neil Young, for some reason. If the Beatles hadn't already broken up, I'd have wanted them to.

At the time I didn't know it was possible for a rock and roller to age gracefully.

Back in Syracuse I did a feature story on a local rock and roll legend who'd come back to town to play a gig at one of his old stomping grounds.

Jimmy Cavallo. He was Syracuse's almost claim to rock and roll fame. In the 50s Cavallo came close to the big time. Alan Freed had him headlining shows. But Cavallo had come along just a little too early, when a sax player could front a rock and roll band because rock and roll was still the bastard child of jazz and cousin to the blues. Cavallo was on his way and then Buddy Holly sang Peggy Sue and all the club owners and all the record producers and all the promoters and all the DJs became convinced that rock and roll was something that could only be done with three guitars and a drum set. Jerry Lee Lewis? Never heard of him. Jimmy Cavallo, yesterday's news, man.

There was also that Presley kid.

At any rate, overnight Cavallo became as square and out of date as Connie Francis, with whom he made good money for a while as her warm up act.

Too bad. Cavallo was good. Syracuse, believe it or not, was a hot music town. No Austin or Memphis, but in the 50s, 60, 70s, and 80s it was a little piece of rock and roll heaven. It was also a jazz town. There's an excellent jazz festival there every summer, but not as much is happening on the local scene anymore. Still, a lot of good jazz musicians have come out of Syracuse and Cavallo was one of their heroes.

I heard a local musican tell him, "Man, first time I heard you play, I went out to my backyard afterwards and buried my ax."

Cavallo kicked around for a while as a novelty act, had a brief revival in the 70s when American Graffiti and Grease made the 50s cool again, and then settled into the life of a jazz man, playing clubs down in Florida, the career he probably should have and would have followed had rock and roll waited a few more years to be born.

But he came back to Syracuse to play a gig as his old, rock and roll self, and the club where I saw him was packed that night with his old fans, and if they all weren't having such a great time the sight of them would have depressed me no end.

A room full of grandmothers in poodle skirts and saddle shoes shrieking and swooning for their old idol. Cavallo was pushing 70 at the time, but he was handsome, and he could still play, and it was a great show. In his prime Cavallo was known for ripping his shirt off and playing his sax while knee dancing down a bar top and you can imagine how those grandmothers shrieked and swooned for him when they were kids.

Somebody yelled from the crowd, hoping for the old magic, "Go crazy, Jimmy!"

And Jimmy yelled back, "Go crazy? With the sciatica? You're out of your mind!"

It was the coolest moment of the show.

Cavallo wasn't there as an aging rock and roller. He was there as a musician. He was there to play. He'd found the secret to growing old in rock and roll. Make it about the music, not about you.

So it can be done, and it has been done. It's being done. Dylan, who for a while looked as though he was going to become a clown, has turned himself into some fierce old man version of the poet he started out as, and appears willing to spend the rest of his life playing small clubs if that's where he has to play to keep it real and alive.

Springsteen's going to be around until he's 80. I haven't heard him say it, but I'm sure his model's Johnny Cash. Those three and four hour shows like the one I saw him do in Chicago 15 years ago are his past. He's on to other and, to him, better and more important things. Rock and roll is just the sound, not the point.

The Stones never heard of Johnny Cash.

(Recommended blogging by Lester Bangs wannabes: Bill Altreuter saw Dylan play last month and liked the show so much he posted about it twice. There's only one link though. You'll have to scroll down. Look for Thursday April 14 and Saturday April 16.

And Tom Watson is still bowled over by Springsteen's new album, Devils and Dust.

Tom's also good on a recent club appearance by what's left of the New York Dolls. And, oh yeah, he saw Dylan too.)


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