Category Archives: Gramercy Park

#155 – On The Road Again

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#155 – On The Road Again by Willie Nelson

– My wife Cowgirl Debbie and I are sitting next to each other at a table on Willie Nelson’s tour bus. Yeah, that’s pretty cool in itself. But to make the scene even cooler, sitting across from us is Willie Nelson himself. I’m kind’a fumbling around for something to say that will keep him interested in our conversation. I hit on something, his face lights up and Cowgirl Debbie says…

Okay, now that I might have you somewhat interested, we’ll go back a couple decades before continuing with this scene.

In the late 1970’s I had a pretty cool apartment in New York City. I’ve talked about it before in these Classic Rocker ramblings, but to be brief it was in the Gramercy Park neighborhood, had three levels and a small terrace. For NYC it was living in style. However, since I was still basically a just-graduated college student trying to figure out what I was going to be when I grew up, most of my funds went into paying rent.

The furnishings consisted of whatever my parents didn’t want anymore and how much of it I could stuff into a station wagon for my move from Ohio.

My first big splurge of spending money for pure enjoyment was a subscription for Manhattan Cable Television. It’s now sort of a laughable starving artist memory since the only television I had was another parental castoff small enough to be balanced on my stomach while lying in bed. It also scores high on the memorabilia meter since it can be described by another castoff term – black and white.

As Ralph Kramden often said in a black and white sitcom classic called The Honeymooners: I was living in the lap of luxury. And as another piece of memorabilia for dedicated NYC television viewing veterans from the era, that show was aired every weeknight at 11 pm on Channel 11.

I know, because I watched.

HBO’s Finest!

With my cable television subscription, which included an extra length of cable in case I wanted to put the television on a table next to the bed instead of on my stomach, came a relatively new network called Home Box Office (HBO). This was revolutionary since movies and special features (comedy and music concerts come to mind) were broadcast without any commercials.

Hey, if they could land a man on the moon only a decade earlier, why stop there? Commercial free paid television was the next logical step.

After a few years of progressively improving personal finances I eventually had a color television in the living room with added cable networks like MTV, ESPN and Cinemax. But HBO was still the go-to for watching movies if you didn’t feel like heading out to a theater and paying an exorbitant seven dollar ticket price for a first-run feature.

But HBO didn’t seem to have an exorbitant amount of feature films at that time. In other words, they seemed to air the same movies over and over and over

But that was okay if the movie was really good or – even better – if it was really bad. The frequently run HBO classics that immediately come to mind during the early 1980’s fitting both requirements were Can’t Stop The Music with The Village People (and Bruce Jenner!), Thank God It’s Friday with Donna Summer and Honeysuckle Rose starring Willie Nelson.

Yeah, there were others. But this trio of music flicks were aired so often during my insomniac late nights they’ve been burned into my lasting memory.

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Speaking of memory, On The Road Again joined the subliminal category of this Dream Song list on October 21st. There’s no other explanation for its inclusion other than my burned-in memory since I don’t own a copy and probably haven’t heard it since we saw Willie Nelson in person the evening we sat with him on his tour bus.

To connect all the dots between the movie memories and our in person Willie Nelson experience…

Real life Honeysuckle Rose

On The Road Again was the Academy Award nominated theme song written by Nelson for his 1980 movie Honeysuckle Rose that seemed to be on HBO over and over and over… And of course, the title of the movie was also the name of his tour bus both in the movie and real life.

Got that? Okay, then one final classic movie note…

Not only was Willie Nelson the romantic lead in this “on the road” country-music-flavored film, but his co-star was one of my favorite American actors, Slim Pickens. Yeah, I know, a quirky choice on my part. But he made my personal all-star list with roles in the films Dr. Strangelove (riding on an atomic bomb into glory), Blazing Saddles and 1941. After playing these burnt-into-my-mind roles, I found it a bit unreal to watch ol’ Slim as a guitar player in Willie’s band, which is probably another reason I found it impossible to switch on a different cable channel whenever the film came on HBO during another late night round of sleepless viewing.

Two decades later, in 2002 to be exact, I wasn’t quite grown up yet (I’m still working on that) but was doing something I could’ve never dreamed or predicted when I made the long ago decision to splurge on Manhattan Cable Television. I was writing a weekly country music column for a newspaper in northern Ohio. Again, I’ve mentioned this in past Classic Rockers and how it gave me a fresh outlook on music I hadn’t paid much attention to previously.

Press Pass

It also brought me face to face with the country legend and star of Honeysuckle Rose on his tour bus. And though I’m not sure his 2002 updated traveling home shared the same name, I’ll go ahead and say it did just to keep you somewhat interested.

With two review tickets for Nelson’s July 22nd concert in Cleveland and a confirmed post-show interview, Cowgirl Debbie and I were psyched for a somewhat interesting evening. Debbie’s reason was based on her being a big country music fan (hence the name) and me because…

Well, come-on. I’m sure you’d also think it’s pretty cool to meet Willie Nelson.

Willie and his band played all his classic hits, but I somehow felt disappointed Slim Pickens wasn’t standing next to him playing guitar. On a sad note, Slim passed away almost two decades before in 1983. On a techno-psychological note, that shows the lasting power of cable television on the human brain.

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After Willie walked off stage following an encore or two, we flashed our media passes at a security guard and were escorted behind the outdoor venue to a closed off parking area and a large bus. Another guard stood outside protecting the open door.

After checking our passes, he told us to go inside and have a seat.

Willie’s living room

The front section of the bus was a living room that included a table with booth seating big enough for four people to have dinner or a card game. Then there was a closed door dividing what I assumed were private sleeping quarters in the back. The decor (if I remember correctly) included wood paneling and dark red curtains over the bus windows.

After just a few minutes the closed door opened. Willie Nelson walked in, said hello and sat at the table with us.

Doing my best Ralph Kramden impression from The Honeymooners, I probably started my newspaper interview with, “Homina, homina, homina…” BTW – veteran Honeymooners fans will know exactly what I’m referring to.

But as I should have expected, Willie Nelson was very cool. Soon we were talking about the concert, his tour, music and… well, it could have been somewhat more exciting than that. It was obvious to both of us I was asking – and he was answering – questions he’d heard countless times before.

So I went with something else:

What would you have done if music didn’t work out?

Willie looked at me, smiled and said, I’d like to be a professional golfer.”

Willie Nelson & The Classic Rocker

That takes us back to the beginning of this epic rambling story. Cowgirl Debbie, who had been uncharacteristically quiet (trust me on that) up to this point, saw his face light up and said…

On what? The Senior Circuit?

Okay, obviously Willie didn’t look like a teenager – even back in the days of filming Honeysuckle Rose. But Cowgirl Debbie’s remark was like a sucker punch to his funny bone. Willie started laughing and might have pretended to be offended by her age-related joke. But it didn’t matter since the timing, delivery and his reaction had all three of us cracking up.

After that ice-breaker the rest of the interview goes down in my memory as fun time. Willie was a genuine nice guy with a great sense of humor. And I’m sure if we had asked, he would’ve let us ride on Honeysuckle Rose with him to the next tour stop.

Okay, probably not. But the idea of us on the road (again?) with Willie Nelson might have kept you somewhat interested enough to read this far.

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading – and keep rockin’!

Here’s a 1983 video of Willie Nelson performing On The Road Again.

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Dave Schwensen is The Classic Rocker and author of The Beatles At Shea Stadium and The Beatles In Cleveland. Visit Dave’s author page on Amazon.com.

Copyright 2019 – North Shore Publishing

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#161 – Sultans of Swing

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#161 – Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits

 – For some, moving to New York City can be like relocating to Ork. Now, if you get that reference you’ll want to continue reading. If not, go for it anyway and you’ll understand…

I was looking through photos of Manhattan taken in the late 1970’s. There was the famous skyline with The Empire State Building and Twin Towers of The World Trade Center, along with the various neighborhood highlights of theaters, diners, restaurants, stores and parks. It was everything I love about New York City.

But there were also photos travel agents from that time would never choose for a tourist inspiring vacation brochure. I’m talking about abandoned buildings, crime-ridden areas, graffiti everywhere, sinister looking gangs and scenes of poverty only a short walk away from wealth and luxury. Many city blocks looked dark and ominous, while the subway looked dangerous and filthy. Streets were jammed with traffic and sidewalks were filled with people.

These shots made the city image look dark, dirty and crowded. But without benefit of any brochures that might have changed my decision, I knew New York was the only place I wanted to live. So, in May 1977 I walked off a train in Penn Station with a copy of The Village Voice apartment listings and went looking for adventure.

I found it and it lasted for more than thirteen years.

My first vivid sense memory walking along West 34th Street between Macy’s and Gimble’s and into Herald Square was the strong smell of urine. It was a little offsetting for a Midwestern-raised guy in his early twenties to see homeless camped out in the park while at the same time people were leaving the department stores with big shopping bags.

Welcome to New York.

NYC 1979

Following advice from my cousins on Long Island, I focused apartment hunting to the Eastside of Midtown. But after three days of walking and disappointment I couldn’t find anything I thought affordable, even after a solid year of working and saving after college. I was mentally giving up and resigning myself to a permanent return to Ohio when walking on East 22nd Street to the subway I passed a renovated building with an “apartments for rent” sign.

As a last-ditch attempt, I went into the rental office. After being shown a small triplex with a very small terrace and located around the corner from Gramercy Park, I asked how much and held my breath waiting for the bad news. I’ll just call it The Miracle on 22nd Street because it was within my budget.

I signed a lease and moved in.

Okay, without any previous city life experience my budget planning wasn’t exactly accurate. I would’ve been broke by the end of summer, but I hustled through a few jobs and made it work. And the payoff was worth it and almost immediate in giving me a real New York City experience. Within the year I had lived through The Summer of 1977 Blackout, The Blizzard of 1977-78 and a garbage strike.

Yeah, I became a real New Yorker real fast.

Mindy & Mork

The first few months my budget was tight. There were lots of frozen dinners and staying in watching shows like Charlie’s Angles, Happy Days and Mork & Mindy on my small black and white, pre-cable television. Why did I just mention these three shows? Well, Angels was on when the blackout shut down the entire city, I thought The Fonz was cool, and Mork will play a part in this story.

But that’s coming up later…

For me, New York has always been two very different cities. There was the daytime with people rushing around with their nine-to-five jobs, packed subways and traffic jams. Then there was the nighttime, which is what I gravitated to right away.

By the fall of 1977 I was already into my pattern of working in theaters, bars, restaurants and nightclubs. And on my off-nights I started performing in the small folk music clubs in Greenwich Village. I had a close and growing circle of friends, made decent money and by that spring had a steady girlfriend.

In other words, life was pretty exciting and I loved New York – especially at night.

These late 1970’s memories come back whenever I hear Sultans of Swing, which is my excuse for this rambling sense memory since the song was running through my mind on September 20th. I hadn’t heard it in awhile, so it moves into the subliminal category of Dream Songs. And it reminds me of this special time in my city life because it was on just about every jukebox in just about every club we hit (and we hit quite a few) during the winter of 1979.

The song also reminds me of my girlfriend at the time, who for one night got to play Mindy to Robin WilliamsMork. But first, that claim needs to be set up…

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Most of my favorite memories of New York are on the dark side, but that’s only because we inhabited the night. I’d normally leave for work in the early evening and finish in the middle of the night. Then more often than not, that’s when we’d go out and meet up with our friends. Clubs and bars were open until 4 am (and later if you knew where to go), there were plenty of 24-hour delis and diners, street lights kept everything from being too dark and ominous, and you could always find a taxi.

My girlfriend was from New York, which made her very different from the girls I’d dated in Ohio. Growing up in the Bronx, she had street smarts and also wasn’t afraid of adventures. Her goal was to be an actress, which meant she also worked in a restaurant. And by the way, that’s an inside joke meant for fellow creative artists. I’m sure you’ll get it.

We decided we could make more money working in television commercials, so during winter 1979 we took a course together in Midtown Manhattan. We learned how to read copy (words), audition, and work on camera. I actually booked a few local commercials, but nothing that earned enough to quit my night job.

Outside Grand Central Station 1979

Our weekly class was the last one on Friday afternoons, so afterward we’d kick off the nighttime in a dimly-lit bar located on a grimy-looking block under the traffic overpass on the north side of Grand Central Station. I have no memory of the name, but it had a fun vibe with locals and commuters and happy hour prices.

It also had Sultans of Swing on the jukebox.

But every night couldn’t be a hanging out night and I still had rent to pay. So, three nights a week I bartended at a place just two blocks from my apartment. One off-night, which means a Sunday in Manhattan, I was stuck behind an empty bar while my girlfriend went out for adventures with her girlfriends. Sometime around midnight she called me on the bar’s payphone, which is a term today’s youngest generation will find confusing. Not only were we still decades away from cell phones, but public telephones still had rotary dials and cost a dime to make a call.

Where are you?” I asked.

At The Improv comedy club hanging with Robin Williams,” she answered.

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Even though I was still only working on my second year as a transplanted New Yorker, I had learned you never knew who you’re going to run into. Especially at night. But I just didn’t think the star of television’s top sitcom filmed in Hollywood would be hanging around a local club on an off-night. I was still a few years away from finding out how often that actually happens.

Yeah, right,” I said before added a healthy dose of sarcasm, “now tell me a western.”

The Fonz and Mork

Yeah, that’s exactly what I said. It was a cool put-down line going around in 1979, basically meaning you’re making it up and I don’t believe you. As comedy fans we had been to The Improv on West 44th Street and I didn’t doubt she was there, but hanging with the star of Mork and Mindy? Maybe he was in NYC and had performed on stage, but the hanging out part seemed to be stretching the story a bit.

Then about half an hour later…

I was standing behind a still-empty bar on East 20th Street when the door opened and my girlfriend walked in.

Behind her was Robin Williams.

Thanks to earlier budget conscious evenings in my apartment I had seen a few episodes of Mork & Mindy. But that shouldn’t have been an excuse for acting like a… well, I guess Orkan would fit this situation. That’s probably the best term because I stood at attention and flashed Robin the Nanu-Nanu hand gesture he did on the show as the alien Mork from Ork.

Yeah, I know… But I couldn’t think of what else to do. Let’s just say I was a little surprised.

No jokes,” he said.

Okay,” I answered, relieved I didn’t have to embarrass myself anymore.

They sat down at the bar and I gave my girlfriend a beer. Robin asked for club soda.

1979

Then we hung out and had a regular conversation. We talked about the actor’s strike going on at the time, which shut down production on Mork & Mindy. Rather than hang around Hollywood, he flew to New York and was doing sets in comedy clubs. We also talked about other stuff, but that’s what I specifically remember. He was heading downtown, shared a cab with my girlfriend and came in to prove she hadn’t been writing a western.

It was all very normal for New York City nighttime, which is my way of saying the experience was far from Nanu-Nanu. We hung out for about half an hour and then he had to leave.

Since the restaurant was deserted, the three of us walked outside to Third Avenue. It was cold being winter in NYC, but also nighttime so Robin had no problem hailing a taxi. It was one of the big, yellow Checker Cabs that used to be as synonymous with the city as the Brooklyn Bridge but were phased out in the 1980’s. We said good night and he climbed into the back seat.

That was when the entertainment portion of our program started.

Robin Williams

Rear seat windows on NYC cabs only opened halfway. While the driver waited for the red light to change, Robin rolled down the window, stuck the upper half of his body outside and presented us with a LOUD Robin Williams comedy shtick (for lack of a better term). This included facial expressions, different voices and accents, wildly swinging arms and a glimpse of Mork from Ork. The light turned green and my girlfriend and I stood there laughing, not only in disbelief over what was happening but also because he was very funny, as the cab took off down Third Avenue and eventually out of our hearing range.

Even though it was a Sunday night off-night in The City, I remember my pals and some customers coming in later to hang out at the bar until last call at 4 am. And I had a pretty good story for them.

You should’a been here earlier.

And I also remember Sultans of Swing. It was 1979 and was on just about every jukebox in just about every club, including the one where I bought Robin Williams a club soda and actually saluted him with Nanu-Nanu. Yeah, I’m such a nerd… Uh, I mean Orkan.

Have a comment?

Please use the form below – and keep rockin’!

Here’s Dire Straits with Sultans of Swing, providing a soundtrack for 1970’s nighttime in NYC.

 

 

To purchase The Best of Dire Straits with Sultans of Swing visit Amazon.

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Dave Schwensen is The Classic Rocker and author of The Beatles At Shea Stadium and The Beatles In Cleveland. Visit Dave’s author page on Amazon.com.

Copyright 2019 – North Shore Publishing

#163 – It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me

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#163 – It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me by Billy Joel

 – When this song came out in 1980 boomers were still controlling the music scene, but something strange was starting to happen. Our rebellious nature had been focused on the older generation, but now we were feeling the push of a generation coming up behind us. They were tagged as Generation X and many of us considered them too young to be of any real notice as we continued to groove through our late twenties. It was noticeable when the punks and new wave bands of the late 1970s (with members born in the boomer generation) started calling our favs like The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles and The Who “dinosaurs.”

I’ll go ahead and lay the blame on the newer and younger record-buying age group for pushing the latest vinyl 45 rpm singles to the top of the music charts during the late 1970s. My age demographic had been album-oriented since the late 1960s and the current singles really didn’t interest us.

If a new group didn’t have an album worth buying, we didn’t notice.

But teenagers were buying the singles, making them hits and influencing the latest styles. Since sales equals profit for record companies hoping to stay in the black (vs. going into the red and out of business) they focused on their new audience. And like boomers during our era, the latest look was influenced by new artists, which meant both the music and fashion trends were shifting away from us.

We had to adjust or join the pack of dinosaurs that risked going out of style and being labeled old.

Here’s what I mean:

In the late 1970s you could still be psyched about the latest album from your favorite band that had formed in the 1960s. Fashion-wise you could still maintain some type of cool looking like one of The Eagles from Hotel California, a disco freak from Studio 54, a punk rocker or Keith Richards. As a side note, the Keith Richards look always allowed for admittance into the other groups.

By the time we hit 1980 there was a major shift in music and fashion sense.

I was already three years into my New York City residency when I realized this new trend was taking over. Hippies were past tense, the Woodstock era no more than a memory, disco was dying, and punk was… well, for punks.

The music consisted of more electronics than guitars and the beat came from drum machines. To be fashionable and anti-prehistoric, the guys had ditched bellbottoms for skinny legs and shirts with skinny ties topped with loose jackets. Hair on girls would continue to get higher throughout the decade while the guys went shorter.

But again, the fault didn’t lie with my demographic of baby boomers. The younger crowd was coming into spending money and the music and fashion industries were catering to their newest and profitable big market.

It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me was a protest song about this.

A hit during the summer of 1980, Billy Joel defended our taste in music while still succumbing to a fashion statement in the song’s video that wouldn’t make him seem like a dinosaur. His shorter hair and skinny tie made that perfectly clear.

The song rocked enough to make adulthood challenged boomers still feel relevant while also signaling the end of our musical dominance. The 1980s would’ve only gotten worse for us if we hadn’t been saved by the advent of Classic Rock Radio. At least our hits would still be on the airwaves while it would be decades before our fashion sense became retro.

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It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me hit this Dream Song list on September 18th. I own a copy and it’s not an unfamiliar addition to my weekly playlists. But it hadn’t been recently. For that skinniest of reason, it goes into the subliminal category.

As a musician I was still playing what I felt was rock and roll at the time, even though it was a far cry from the rock and roll I lived for as a teenager. Over the previous decade bands like Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who and yeah… even KISS had given it more volume, power and flash.

If you wanted to be in a rock band in 1980 you had to adjust.

I strummed here a few times!

After a couple years strumming an acoustic guitar and going nowhere fast in Greenwich Village folk clubs, I bought a bass and decided it was time to turn up the volume. Along with my pals Tim on guitar and Bobby on drums we formed a hard rock, high volume trio that we called Rox. I found out years later another band had used the same name and released an album, so in the end I guess they own it. But I also maintain we were first.

It’s just that no one outside of our NYC neighborhood ever heard of us.

As a band we spent more time rehearsing and recording than we did playing live shows. I thought it was mistake then and still do. Playing live really was the only way to be seen and hopefully discovered, but the others disagreed. Their logic was to record an album worth of original songs and sell it to a record company.

Rather than debate the merits of that decision let’s just say it didn’t work out.

But thanks to a good friend who worked as a producer of radio jingles and had been a fan of my earlier music in the Village clubs, we scored quality time in a state-of-the-art recording studio in Midtown Manhattan. She basically “piggybacked” us onto scheduled jingle recording sessions. If she had booked four hours for a jingle and it only took three to complete, we inherited the remaining hour. The result is that I own about three-quarters of a finished LP by Rox that no one outside the three of us and a few family and friends have ever heard. And to be honest, it’s pretty good.

Someday I should do something with it. But in the meantime…

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The few live shows we did were more concerts than club gigs. When the mood struck us, we’d rent a large loft near Gramercy Park, rely on friends to help build a stage (and I have no idea who donated the lumber for these “raves”), use a photographer friend’s lights, and borrow a sound system from another band. We’d schedule an opening act, print up flyers and end up packing the place.

These were hot, sweaty, energetic and LOUD performances. The crowd reaction was always great and called for encores until we ran out of songs. But instead of keeping the momentum going, my two band mates were content to spend weeks in rehearsal studios and hours recording our “breakout” album.

Again, it didn’t happen.

Fighting for Rock ‘n’ Roll

It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me was on the charts and video airwaves while all this was going on with Rox. And it reminds me of one live performance that was far from a concert since it was an audition for some type of talent show that was supposed to help us be seen by record people.

It was a Saturday morning (not the best time for rock and rollers) during the summer of 1980 when we carted our equipment via a NYC taxi to a studio in The Village. We set up in a room to play in front of a panel of about six people who would decide if we’d be part of this industry showcase.

Billy Joel’s video comes to mind because we played rock and roll but bowed to the current fashion trend. I remember wearing tight pants, white Capezio dance shoes, shirt with skinny tie and a white cloth jacket with the sleeves pushed up. I’m not sure what the other guys wore, but guessing it wasn’t too far removed from my look. The only real difference from Mr. Joel was our long hair.

The 80’s hadn’t changed us that much – at least not yet.

We were a loud and heavy band, but for some reason Tim and I had written the first – and only – slower, ballad type song we would ever do. It was called Forever and I played a very melodic bass line while Tim floated a flanged guitar effect sound over the top. Bobby kept a simple time on the drums, and I sang lead. By the end of the song it built into a heavier sound that I thought then – and still do – was very cool and more classic rock than ’80s hip.

When we finished the song, we were very pleased with how it went. However, one of the judges came over and asked if we could “turn down the volume” for our second song.

Say what?!

Turn it up to eleven!!

That definitely wasn’t what we were about as a band. We also realized, based on the judges looks (80’s hip) and attitudes (turn it down?) that this showcase wouldn’t be right for us anyway. The three of us came to a quick decision, scratched the idea of doing a more pop song we had planned and turned the volume on our amplifiers up to eleven.

We played one of the hardest rocking songs we’d ever written and recorded called Love On Wheels. I maintain we sounded like Guns ‘n’ Roses at least six years before any of us had even heard of Guns ‘n’ Roses. We also extended the ending lead guitar jam into what we called a Wall Of Sound and pretty much shook the building down to its foundation.

I remember a few of the judges walked out during our performance. I have a feeling their 80’s hipster ears were bleeding to the sound of Rox.

After finishing, we didn’t even wait for the “don’t call us, we’ll call you” decision. Laughing and giving each other high-fives, we dragged our equipment out onto the street, hailed a taxi and made it to our local neighborhood hangout for lunch and beers. A crowd of our friends turned the afternoon into a party and we never thought again about auditioning for a showcase.

We ended up doing one more huge loft gig that year before we split up – staying friends – for other career paths. In my case, my microphone and small practice amplifier were the only equipment needed to start a popular comedy club in our same neighborhood hangout that ended up taking me places and providing experiences I would’ve never dreamed of while protesting the “new sound” by being a rock ‘n’ roller in 1980.

Have a comment?

Please use the form below – and keep rockin’!

And speaking of protesting and defending rock ‘n’ roll in 1980, here’s Billy Joel doing just that:

 

To purchase The Essential Billy Joel with It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me visit Amazon.com

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Dave Schwensen is The Classic Rocker and author of The Beatles At Shea Stadium and The Beatles In Cleveland. Visit Dave’s author page on Amazon.com.

Copyright 2019 – North Shore Publishing