Sunday, February 24, 2008
"Boys, I think it's time to make a record."
I vaguely remember uttering this trite sentiment; and I meant it too. We were so hungry for gigs and we absolutely needed a demo if we were going to get any.
Serious professional musicians don't just sit around in a musty basement pretending they're Bono, Michael Stipe, Simon Le Bon, and Bryan Adams. No, serious professional musicians went into the studio and cut demos of songs that those artists had made famous.
And that's exactly what we did.
But first, we would need a producer.
Jerry G. Yes, that's the guy.
Jerry G. was a friend of mine. He coincidentally had a lot to do with me playing rock guitar. Or rather, his brother, Dave did. Dave was much older; almost out of High School a couple times over.
Dave had a silver Gibson Les Paul. It was the guitar. I'd come over to Jerry's house a lot to hang out and play Atari. Dave would always be rocking out in his smoky bedroom; sunglasses on; with the door shut and a towel rolled up to keep the sound in. I remember it smelled really weird in that bedroom. It was the same foreign smell I remembered from various Sha Na Na concerts my Aunt had brought me to throughout my youth (I saw them probably 20 times). When I would mention the funny smell, she would always contest that she didn't smell a thing. Anyway, I asked Dave to show me a couple of Jimmy Page riffs on his silver Les Paul. He had it plugged into something called a Pignose. It sounded damn good for an amp the size of shoe box. Maybe that's what I needed. A Pignose. Better save up for the electric guitar first. For now, the acoustic would do. I had been playing pretty much exclusively John Denver stuff on my guitar; a little Dylan, maybe a bit of Peter, Paul and Mary-simple 3 chord stuff-but mostly Denver; the Bard.
Dave showed me what I had been missing: The nasty 3 chord stuff. Zep, Sabbath, Deep Purple, and The Stones (up until then I was a Beatles boy. The Stones had always sounded so Alpha.)
And one of those nasty chords was sometimes a minor. That flatted third was almost as exotic as fresh peas.
I'd like to admit that Dave taught me how to play "Stairway to Heaven" right then and there, but strangely, I already knew it.
I had heard it in music class in Middle School a couple of years before. Our teacher, Mr. Nadeau, had come in pretty hung over that day and I think he needed a good long record that he didn't have to explain, so he busted out the big guns.
I had never heard the masterpiece which is Led Zeppelin IV. How could this have happened? One of the best selling records of all time and it was all new to me. It was 1982, and for the past 11 years I had pretty much subsisted on Sesame Street, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, John Denver, The Beatles, Blondie, John Williams, and The Captian and Tennille. Robert Plant scared the hell out of me; all that wailing and moaning. What kind of music was that? Phooey! I was practically an 80 year old man masquerading as a 12 year old kid in a nice roomy pair of Osh Kosh B'gosh's.
Well, Mr. Nadeau put that record on that day and I heard all of side one for the first time ever. It was magnificent. It was one of those old school turntables with the speaker built in, and the name of our school in big black marker to keep other schools from stealing it.
It was a mono player of course. Sweet, simple mono. Booming out of that little 5 inch speaker with midrangey pushiness and bouncing around the massive room.
The music room was a thing of beauty. Dark, dusty, cob-webby, mahogany lined and high up the stairs on the third floor to the right of the cafeteria. The perimeter of the room itself was dark due to the old wooden walls. The blackboard dared the low wattage incandescent bulbs to shine on its depressingly practical surface. But the middle of the room, the part where we sat on heavy, metal, dark-green, folding chairs, was brightly lit via the large east facing windows striated with safety wire. Studios pay big bucks to have production designers re-create rooms like this for movies. All I had to do was walk down President Avenue and haul my books upstairs in my red B.M.C. Durfee book bag. And then, all that was required of me was to sit and listen.
Mr. Nadeau nervously dropped the giant tone arm onto the black pool of plastic. It caught a groove and settled in. The muted, meaty chug of Jimmy Page's Les Paul threw me off. Then Plant stated his intentions in that high pitched yell:
"Hey, hey mamma said the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove..."
OK. If you say so Mr. Plant.
Sounds like Phys Ed. to me. I had that two periods ago, but I'll give it a chance.
Then the off time guitar/drum line. One of the best freaky jams ever. I almost slid off my chair. What the hell? Now this, I like. And it's called "Black Dog?" What was that supposed to mean?
See, I was used to comedy records. And a comedian's career is contingent on the agreement with the listener that you understand everything that he or she is saying; that you can relate. This disconnect would take some getting used to.
"Rock and Roll" came next. Heavens. Those drums. And all that guitar. And the singer again with the yelly high voice. A short, powerful number. Rock and roll indeed.
"The Battle of Evermore" threw me a curve. Mandolins were rare in rock and roll and still are. They're like midget actors. You don't see a lot of them, but when you do, they're usually really pro. And they almost always make you feel good. Not too many hack mandolin players or midget actors out there. Good thing too. Life is so short. "Evermore" was a foreboding, spooky song with a female harmony to add tension. It was enough to put you in a trance.
Looks like the that's exactly what happened to Mr. Nadeau. He had fallen asleep in his chair with his History of Western Music teacher's edition splayed over his giant belly; his snores rumbled along with the thunderous noise made by these heroes of rock and roll.
Then came the show stopper: "Stairway to Heaven."
I had to admit I had heard the song before, but it was usually halfway done by the time I paid attention to it. This time I was ready. The acoustic guitar sounded so warm and full with Jimmy's fingers audibly squeaking over the strings, confidently securing the correct position on the fret board.
The recorders chimed in; two of them. Who uses two recorders in a rock song? Balls. Big, rock balls. I tells ya.
At this point, Mr. Nadeau's book had fallen on the ground and roused him from a deep slumber. He did a nice job of feigning innocence, but couldn't quite pull it off as his glasses were just about falling off of his bulbous red nose.
And then, the twelve string. Another underused weapon in the world of rock. It was so nice to hear all those strings chiming at once. So smooth.
Still no drums. We're well into the song and there's no drums yet. Oh, there we go. Now we're groovin'.
We get to the pre-solo and it's so regal. That slashing D chord. I can picture knights and Kings and Queens and people from villages near and far gathering for a joyous occasion. It really is something special, and it brings us right to the main guitar solo.
Jimmy's lead begins a marked turn of emotion from introspection, vulnerability and celebration to one of attack. His technique is muscular and perfect. It sounds to me like a sorcerer on a mountaintop casting a bolt of lightning down into the valley. The sorcerer bringing darkness upon two armies at the ready. It truly is a beautiful piece of guitar playing; expertly crafted and executed with a low slung swagger. It's one of my all time favorites.
And then the vocals appear over the three chord end figure; a minor chord, followed by two majors; that flatted third sounding as exotic as fresh peas. Round and round, back and forth, until we arrive at the battleground with the drummer pounding away and instilling fear in our opponent; with Robert Plant shrieking into the ominous night with such force and emotion it feels as if the heavy rains which Mr. Page has just summoned might sweep us away if we don't grab on to something. Anything.
And just as quietly as side one began-with only the muted, meaty chug of Jimmy's E chord-we are left with Robert Plant's expressive voice solely executing the resolution. It not only starkly contrasts with the outro but it maddeningly leaves us with a perplexing sentence fragment:
"...And she's buying a stairway to heaven."
End of side one.
Time for lunch.
That day changed me forever. I went home that afternoon, threw my books on my bed and grabbed my acoustic guitar. I learned that intro riff-the one everybody goofs on-without any music in front of me; neither on paper or grooved vinyl. I picked out the notes one by one; the main melody first, then the bass, then the chords on the first position. It was an amazing dance my fingers learned that day. Part ballet, part Celtic traditional, part medieval, and one hundred percent practical. They should teach this stuff in school.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot, the demo.
We got Jerry G. to come over to our practice space and record five songs on his Tascam Porta-2 four-track.
He came over, set up some mics, and pressed record.
"The red light means go."
Whatever you say.
I'm not going to tell you that these were good versions of some classic songs, but I will say they were as good as we could do at the time; twenty four years ago. Hard to believe.
I'll be putting up a new one each day for the next 5 days starting this moment (4:41 am). I hope you enjoy them now as much as did then.
Thanks for reading.
PS- Song one is a track you may remember from a very funny movie about a black cop in Beverly Hills c. 1984. Yes, that song..
Posted by F. Alex Johnson at 2/24/2008 01:40:00 AM