There was a time when I was the youngest of everyone I hung out with. That lasted a few years while I got my start playing music.
The Insomniac was a weekend after-hours club in downtown Syracuse, and everyone from our rural area who was into “new music” went there. I’d barely started drinking beer, and people were doing drugs, having sex; I felt very much a guest in someone else’s home. I was 15, watching bands and man, were they weird! I had to have a band, everyone in this circle had a band, it was like new wave dancing, skinny ties or buying old suits at the thrift store: you just did it.
I remember how difficult it was to get a band to sound like anything at all. It did make a leap forward once we brought in a drummer. We played at the state fair at ten in the morning, and I was on cloud nine the rest of the day. Were we any good? Who knows, doesn’t matter. I was hooked, as horrifyingly scary as it could be.
The band became The U-Turns, a three piece with bass player Ted Boone, my main buddy who lived just over the highway. The drummer Jeff lived in Baldwinsville, the next town over, and he knew a guy there with a studio in his basement. We would pay by the hour, and we’d have to go in for four hours, Jeff said.
“Four hours!” I said, eyebrows raised. “Our songs add up to about twenty minutes.”
“You don’t just go in and play through the songs and leave, stupid.”
The date was set for Sept 21, 1981 to record four songs with John Madill. Ten years older than me, he was the manager at the Radio Shack in town. We didn’t ask to see the place, sit around and talk about our music, ask a million questions about the gear—like most of my clients these days—and then maybe book some time. We just went over there with our guitars in a rainstorm. John had a TEAC 4-track, a Tangent mixing board, and the rest of the equipment was from Radio Shack. He’d built a triangular drum room with a mic up in the corner, proudly demonstrating how he only needed one microphone for an entire drum set. I played and sang with headphones, the guitars recorded right into the board, which gives them a slinky rubbery sound instead of the amplified tone most rock recordings have.
We did our basic tracks, went to lunch while John dubbed that performance down to one track, leaving three open channels for guitar and vocal overdubs. That tedium and compromise of track limitations has gone the way of the manual printing press. We resumed work on the overdubs and then the electricity went out...then back on, almost. The storm could now be heard. John quickly turned everything off and said we were having a brownout, which I’d never heard of. Session over. A few hours later the power was fully restored, phone calls were made, and we went back and finished. I remember as we were settling up, John said, “Ah, I’ll give you that last hour for five dollars.” As so many clients do, we left without the multitrack master, so all I have now is a cassette.
Our classmate Ed Palmer promoted a battle of the bands (more of a ballet, really) at the old Firebarn club in Syracuse, a proper nightclub with booze. It was a festival of sorts, featuring just about everyone we knew on our version of the new wave scene, which were the bands that didn’t really draw for big shows on their own.
The Syracuse University radio station had the bands in each night to promote the show. We had no idea how to speak on air. Our host Patti DiSalvo was cute with her downstate accent and kept us on topic. We were afraid to say on air that I was barely 16 years old, as if the entire world would know I was underage once it was broadcast on WAER.
The night of the show, January 23, 1982, a snowstorm raged as usual. Some big guy named Orbit was wearing shorts and carried around a surfboard all night. The U-Turns started early, followed by Phoenix, NY alumni Dress Code, The Trend (another band from my high school, I saw them debut with Bob Goldthwait as their lead singer), Machine + Hummer, The Wics (Marty Rapaski), and The Tearjerkers (Tomcat Kenny). If you want to win a contest like this, go on last.
More recently, I operated sound for a “school of rock” end-of-year showcase; the students got to play in an adult rock club. The audience was full of cheering, supportive parents, their kids hamming it up for the video cameras and iPhones, like every other life event such as learning to walk or the first day of school. I was uncomfortable, not exactly sure why, and at first I chalked it up to feeling envy that I didn’t get that kind of attention as a kid. Thinking again, I realized I had plenty of childhood photos and attention.
What bugged me was the idea of kids getting their rock n’ roll on with their parents standing right there like it was Pop Warner football. Did these dads think their kid was cool? Or did Dad think he was cool because he had a child playing a Ramones cover (and whose idea was that)? The last thing we’d have wanted was our parents around, monitoring our peer activity. Playing music, having a band, writing songs was our thing, it was part of developing our identity in the way we knew how. In our little musical corner of Oswego County, each tried to be unique from the other, although for some reason we all covered the song “Slow Down.”