Like Young

ZZ Top, those Southern Dukes of Riff Rock, will be at Harrah’s Rincon Casino a week from this Saturday night, the tenth. I’d like to go, but it is a bit more bother for me to get there than it’s worth. I always liked them, but they trigger memories of an unfortunate ex-brother-in-law; and while that isn’t their fault, it makes me wonder who else I might boycott simply because of some random association.

A better and more convenient bet would be the following Wednesday at the Casbah. Steve Poltz, Joey Harris, and Mojo Nixon are a wacky triumvirate pretty much guaranteed to crack me up while I catch some excellent guitar playing under Nixon’s incorrigible jackass antics. Nixon, a rudimentary and okay, mostly acoustic player, will, I imagine, be fronting two more accomplished musicians whom I know somewhat and like. I’ve met Mojo as well, and he seemed very much unlike his Don-Henley-Must-Die persona. More the kind of guy once referred to as “a swell gent.” Yesiree, Bob, this trio spells entertainment! I hope the Casbah feels free to lift that quote and use it as a blurb for an ad. My tribute to Peter Travers.

I’m writing this on a Saturday morning and thinking, already nostalgically, about last night, hobbling around Hillcrest on only one crutch now. (Yes, yes, the whining; at least that will be coming to an end soon.) I’m not a nostalgic man usually, but the older one gets, the more difficult it is to avoid that indulgence. Nostalgia, not whining. After all, the brain cells — what are left — are largely occupied with what has happened, pretty much edging out, at any given moment, what is happening now and almost thoroughly eclipsing what’s going to happen next.

My memory bank, like Paul McCartney’s (oh, the parallels are endless), is almost full and contains a freaking lot of music and memories surrounding the listening to or the performance or creation of same. The jukebox at the City Delicatessen at Sixth Avenue and University was laying in wait for me last night; its contents a diabolically conceived minefield of music, each song selected like individual bits of shrapnel to be detonated in a chronologically primed memory bank. Here are just some of its contents waiting for a single quarter.

Satisfaction, Under My Thumb, and Jumpin’ Jack Flash, the Stones; Green Onions, Booker T. and the MGs; Don’t Be Cruel, Hard Headed Woman, Elvis; How High the Moon, Les Paul and Mary Ford; Mickey’s Monkey, Tracks of My Tears, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Rebel Rouser, Duane Eddy; How Sweet It Is, Marvin Gaye; She’s a Woman, the Beatles; Walk Right In, the Rooftop Singers; Sleepwalk, Santo and Johnny (I know, but stay with me); Boom Boom, the Animals; and Crystal Blue Persuasion, Tommy James and the Shondells.

The corned beef sandwiches aren’t as thick as they used to be at City Deli, but it is still a damned good American menu. The jukebox (a modern reproduction of some beautiful art deco monstrosity with little booth installation satellites around the room) would have to be in the top three best of anywhere in San Diego. I did not have to sink a single quarter. The titles alone were Proustian madeleines, and other patrons were thoughtful enough to ply the jukebox for me. Without intending to, I was staring through my paperback copy of Joseph Conrad’s Victory, not comprehending a word. Instead, I was in the backseat of a 1959 Rambler in an abandoned airfield outside of Antioch, Illinois, in 1966, reeking of gin, my face plastered with the transferred lipstick of Colleen Skow. Then, during Boom Boom, I was again onstage at Like Young in Chicago’s Old Town in 1967, wearing gold lamé bell-bottoms. During Jumpin’ Jack Flash, I was experimenting (in my lab coat) with LSD at the Kinetic Playground, again in Chicago, in ’68.

It was not long before I began to detect a personality behind the jukebox selections. One growing suspicion was that the author or editor of this electric (if not all that eclectic) anthology was a guitarist. The first clue was the inclusion of Les Paul. The suspicion grew to certainty by the quality of rock guitar work — not necessarily solos — on so many of the offerings. Many of these singles were songs I imitated in my earliest guitar years.

I have written, here and elsewhere, about my lifelong love affair with the (mostly) electric guitar and my conclusion over the years that I was good, maybe very good, but not great. Accompanying that thought was the certainty that this was common among white men my age. I drew guitar configurations on my notebooks in grade school and high school. To lull myself to sleep, I imagine holding, say, a Gretsch Country Gentleman, focusing on the mere feel of it rather than any riff or chord pattern specifically. This is often followed by dreams of trying to wrench music out of a melting, flawed, broken, or otherwise impossible instrument disintegrating in my hands. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and I don’t think these dreams have much to do with waning sexuality. I’ve had them for decades.

I wonder how many others share this syndrome. Once at Centre City Music I asked Saul, an owner, “Who pays several thousand dollars for those beautiful, double neck, ivory Les Paul SGs with 12- and 6-string necks, or the exact reproduction of Jimmy Page’s guitar complete with pick scratches where Page’s are?” His answer more or less was that they tended to be guys my age making a lot of money in law, real estate, software, etc. Not professional musicians.

It may be odd to write a column inspired by the jukebox in a regionally famous local diner, but I’ve written odder things. Here’s a Friday night for middle-aged white guys who might have related to the preceding paragraphs: dinner at City Deli, then, if it’s still playing at Landmark Hillcrest, see Young at Heart. On the free pass I picked up here in Hillcrest, there’s a photo of two, age-gnarled hands knitting a wool sweater to fit snugly on a Fender Stratocaster. The sub-head reads, “Rock ’n Roll Will Never Die.” I haven’t seen the movie yet, but it piques my curiosity. I’m sure Peter Travers has good things to say about it. If it sucks, my apologies. Afterward, try the famous pastries at City Deli and a cup of coffee. While not absolutely necessary, and depending on how the movie leaves you feeling, you might want to bring a roll of quarters.

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You are lucky, John. At so far as music goes. Though time is burning me down to ashes, too, my first memories of "youth music" was during the awful car-crash intersection of disco and punk and hair-rock. So Led Zepplin gave way to Lipps Inc giving way to The Clash. The older music was purer and better---and fun, even when it had sadness.

My age group didn't get The Beatles the ways your did. We got Rod Stewart (who was very cool in Faces and singing with Jeff Beck) donning Spandex and too much hair product.

I teach 18 year olds in college, and it is interesting to listen to their music and talk about it with them. They see it as money oriented and overproduced (both of which it is). Then I play them some Jimi Hendrix and it is interesting to watch their mouths drop. Then some Clapton.

And though you may laugh, John, the music that most reaches them is the latter stuff by Johnny Cash (who I call "OG" for "Original Gangsta").

I then break out the blues music that you taught me about long ago, Brother John.

So I enjoyed hearing about your music, from your youth. My parents had a record player, but they would only play Country Western music. And I don't mean Cash or Hank Williams. I mean Kenny Rogers.

Thus, I didn't explore music until leaving home.

Have a great week....

Eric -- I guess we don't really need to telephone each other the way this is going. Although, I do remember laughing an awful lot and riffing on the phone for 20 - 40 minutes -- back and forth when you were doing research down here, LIVING here. Even when you were teaching in L.A. I look forward every Wednesday to your message. They're all complimentary. Maybe you should be more critical, brutal. You know, "You've outdone yourself again with this infernal whining. Buck up, man! Suck it up! For godssakes, old age isn't for sissies like you!" What do you think? Actually I heard that last line delivered by Manly Wade Wellman just before he died, at a convention in Berkeley. -- Brizz

Truthfully, John, I have done a lot of thinking about this. My nature is not positive, so I work hard to "fake it until I make it" as the saying goes. Another friend of mine told me once that constant praise has no value. That may be true. I may be guilty of that, if you will forgive the psychodrama.

But the other thing I have learned as I grow older is that most people are doing the best that they can, given who they are and the location of their lives. We live in a culture that has utterly no problem complaining about things, but tends to stay silent when it comes to appreciating the accomplishments of others.

Yes, I wish you could be more positive (while in no way claiming that you haven't earned the right to feel bitter about many things). But you are far more positive than you were a while back---and I am trying to encourage that trend. You have so many positive aspects to yourself, yet you remain your most flint-hearted critic.

You are far kinder to me than you have ever been to yourself.

90% of life is showing up. I haven't been able to be present when you needed a friend since I moved. So perhaps I am trying too hard. Mea maxima culpa.

As for Manly Wade Wellman, he was the OG of horror. He died by inches of gangrene (multiple amputations due to bedsore infections). But I have entire bookshelf in my little library devoted to his work.

You didn't whine very much at all in this week's installment. And I do enjoy reading your stories. Even if you did an in depth analysis of the inventory of the medicine cabinets of ten randomly chosen people---because you would find a way to make it funny and poignant.

Sorry for going on about this, my friend.

John, did you make it to the Adams Street Fair last night?

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