Before I had Converse sneakers, I wore the knock-off copies from W.T. Grant. Same with pants and underwear; Levi’s and Fruit of the Loom were something I’d only heard of. I had an off-brand bicycle that became my prosthetic legs for a few years. It had sparkly gold paint and a banana seat, with high handlebars and reflectors that immediately fell off. The ride to anywhere required climbing a hill that would give most of my friends a heart attack nowadays. I wanted to put a ski on the front wheel so I could ride in the wintertime. I cobbled a platform to attach a transistor radio on the handlebar stem. I could get AM stations WHEN and WFBL, and I couldn’t really pull in WOLF. Whoever was playing “Get Down” by Gilbert O’Sullivan or anything by Chicago had my ear. Nine-volt batteries were expensive even then, and they didn’t last long, especially if you accidentally left the radio on all night.
By the age of nine, I had destroyed a handful of record players. I wound up the spring on a Victrola until it snapped. I removed the tonearm on a player in order to place it on larger items like pie tins and serving platters, in case there was music in them to play. I remember standing upon the turntable of one, trying to spin around, just as my mom walked in the room. That was after I had spent my pre-phonograph years dancing to imaginary music coming out of dresser drawers and paper plates nailed to trees.
I had a probation of sorts after standing on the record player, but eventually I was again allowed near records and turntables. I rehabilitated myself and learned everything from my brother about handling and caring for LPs and would walk with him to the record store, having already decided what to buy. It was a while between album purchases, and usually they were back catalog or cut-out bargains. We got used 45s out of an East Syracuse biker bar jukebox.
I had my records, my brother had his, and we assumed tacit possession of our mother’s LPs. We both had cassette machines, so I’d tape his records when we weren’t fighting over them. My brother figured out a way to record without using the mic (don’t do this at home): The speaker wires have about 15 strands in the cables, so he stripped the wires, took 2-3 strands from both the plus and minus wires then shorted them together. This created a crude negative feedback circuit that attenuated the signal to where it wouldn’t distort the input of the tape recorder auxiliary input.
My brother divided his listening time between Old Time Radio shows and rock music. I pretty much stayed on the rock, although I could get down with the Bickersons now and again.
Once I started finding music friends, hanging out after school, sleeping over, then the musical discoveries came into view. This was when I discovered that people you really like can be into music that you absolutely hate. I can’t say I hate any particular music now, but the Southern Rock craze that hit my hometown was appalling. I still don’t really understand why everyone loves Freebird so much; must be the guitar solos. I was told by an older guy to stay away from KISS.
The best way to enjoy music was to listen repeatedly and often. With twenty records or so at the most, I got to know all of them intimately. I had to learn to like the songs that I wouldn’t otherwise have the patience for. The best example of that is the 4-LP boxed set of Chicago Live at Carnegie Hall. I have recently seen reviews stating this is considered one of the best examples of a ‘70s bloated overrated overpriced piece of crap. The band disowns it, saying the horns sound like “kazoos.” I paid retail for it, and damn me if I wasn’t going to savor every bit of it.
Before I started playing my own music, I’d hang out with older friends who had real gigs in clubs. I’d take the S&O bus down to the Syracuse University district where I’d end up sitting on the floor in a dingy basement watching my friends rehearse. By 10pm, I was so tired from waking up early for my high school classes that I’d fall asleep, and that could be anywhere. As much as I liked joining in on the bar nightlife and band scene, at that age, I loved the idea that I was sleeping away from home.
We come of age within whatever surrounds us. I didn’t have any negative connotation to Grants sneakers (W.T. Grants...the initials unfortunately could be conjured as White Trash; they went bankrupt in 1976) until long after I’d started wearing Converse. I thought the Grants sneakers had a better curve to them, although my feet weren’t a foot long yet. Led Zeppelin (or even Yes) is considered way more hip than Chicago. I suppose one could blame Pete Cetera’s pop career for that.
I’ve spent endless hours contemplating the music of Chicago horn arranger Jimmy Pankow’s "Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon" and can say that I’ve only lost a game of chess listening to Led Zep’s "What Is And What Should Never Be."
Michael Israel - Drums; CVS- Guitars, bass and singing.
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