MERCHANDISE - MEMOIRS
I am a 60's person, not a person in his 60's, but a person who embraced the decade of the Twist, Dylan, The Beatles, drugs and sex (not necessarily in that order, but close). A Baby Boomer through and through, with the flashbacks to prove it. Whenever my wife Nancy can't fall asleep, she asks me to tell her a story about my youth. The stories are all true; at least I've convinced myself they are.
About three years ago I read two books. (I read more than two, but the others have nothing to do with this overview.) One was "High Fidelity" by Nick Hornby, the other was "Lost In Music" by Giles Smith. I loved every word of these books. They were honest, nostalgic and damn funny. I never thought of attempting to write a book until Nancy convinced me to put stories of my past on paper. I thought about how much I enjoyed those books and how maybe I could capture some of the joy and magic I experienced growing up in the 1960's. They say if you can remember the 60's, you weren't there. Well I'm pretty certain I was there and I'm almost positive I didn't imagine this stuff. But if I did dream it all up, I wouldn't change a thing.
There's an old adage -- if you don't have anything nice to say, write a book. This is not one of those. The stories within these pages are rosy reflections of what went down in the life of an aspiring musician when rock'n'roll reigned.
I have a wealth of wild tales to tell from a life of music, love and mischief-making. The stories are laid out chronologically, except where there's a lapse (remember, I'm a 60's person). There are plenty of names being dropped, mostly of the more successful songsters of the day that I stumbled across in my quest for rock stardom, so total strangers will stay interested. What more can I say except...I've read worse.
October 2001, NYC
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"The Big Deal"
Disc-o-teen was a music TV show that broadcast weeknights out of Newark, New Jersey. It aired on Channel 47, which was a UHF channel. I believe UHF stood for Unstoppable Horizontal Flipping, at least that's how it looked on our TV. The host was a ghoulish character named "Zacherley". Every night was Halloween with Zacherley, camping it up in his vampire outfit and shadowy make-up, which was a carry over from his days of hosting horror movies on TV here in New York. He also happened to be an extremely sweet and gracious man, always willing to take a minute or two to chat with the kids before, during and after the show.
Occasionally a famous group appeared on Disc-o-teen. One night the Doors were on and Jim Morrison decided to be a mute during their interview with Zacherley. Every question was greeted with stony silence and a blank stare into the camera. At least it wasn't radio. Zacherley, ever the good sport, caught on and turned it into a comedy routine, leaving the sullen singer looking simply silly.
The show featured a live studio audience of teenagers frugging to the latest pop hits. A different group from the tri-state area performed each night in a year-long battle of the bands contest. The Ascots, appeared on Disc-o-teen several times as part of this competition.
Not every band took to the post-British Invasion mentality. As a matter of fact, I recall the majority of local groups who participated in the contest as more "greaser" than, for lack of a better term, de-greased and long-haired. One particular band from a town in North Jersey had the requisite matching tuxedo jackets, probably in brilliant blue or putrid purple (though I couldn't swear to it since the show was broadcast in black and white), and enough hair oil among the four members to rival the Exxon Valdez. They actually performed a rarity -- an original song. This was something even the Ascots didn't possess in their arsenal at the time. So one of the guitarists from this slicked-backed-coiffed aggregation steps up to the microphone, and in perfect Jersey greaser-ese proudly announces "now we're gonna do a song I made" as if he built it in shop class.
The Ascots sailed through the first round into the semi-finals, and then came the big day, the showdown with the two other bands who'd made it to the final finals. We had an ace up our collective sleeves for this ultimate occasion. You see, the day of the show, "Paint It Black" by the Rolling Stones hit the shelves of Gregory's Music Store in Plainfield and our guitarist Willy was there to snatch it, rush it over to my house on Kenyon Avenue, like a severed limb to be reattached, with the team of musical microsurgeons, the Ascots, assembled to perform the delicate operation and join it to our repertoire. This may not sound like much to you, but believe me, it was an impressive and bold move. The song wasn't even on the radio yet, nobody had heard it, and we were going to perform it live on TV. A coup. We could have even claimed it was a song we "made". After deciphering the code of Mick Jagger's mumbling, we tackled the weird eastern neo-Hindu music, ran through it a few times, hopped in our VW van, and dashed up to Newark for the broadcast battle.
Lo and behold, the Ascots won the Battle of the Bands Contest for 1966. First prize was a recording contract with the prestigious Bell Records. A few weeks after our grand victory, the Ascots went into New York's Bell Sound studio to cut our first record. The producers of our recordings were known as The Jerome Brothers, who had hit with the Left Banke's "Walk Away Renee" and "Pretty Ballerina".
No one in the band had written any songs -- I don't think it ever crossed our minds. We were happy playing the Stones, Animals, Yardbirds and Kinks songs that were topping the charts in those days. So it wasn't a surprise that we were given a song by the producers to record. The shock was that the song we were asked to lay down as our debut single was a little ditty with the none-too-promising title "Rhoda Mendelbaum". Even I at fourteen knew this was a lost cause. We did what we could to toughen up this slice of lame-osity. Mike Scavone gave it his best garage band sneer, and Mike Farina played a cool guitar riff. They put Willy on a rented harpsichord and then they subsequently added a string section, much to our astonishment. Mike Caruso on bass and your's truly on the drums just did our usual bump and grind.
Around this time, we changed our name to The Doughboys (the World War I type, not the Pillsbury). My father drove us into the city to look for Doughboy uniforms. It's amazing to think how in 1966 you could go into a dozen or more vintage clothing shops in the East Village and find authentic World War I Army uniforms. Today, all that's left in the so-called vintage stores are tacky, mile-wide-lapel-ed sports coats from the 70's that nobody wanted in the first place. We each purchased a Doughboy jacket, a pair of spats, and a hat. Why we did this and why we thought it was a good idea completely escapes me, though let me go on record right here by saying, it wasn't my idea. I think it was our over-ambitious new manager's. When we won the battle of the bands on Disc-o-teen, the show's director decided he wanted to manage us.
We had a VW van and I quickly learned how insane the other Doughboys were. We traveled to and from the city several times in the course of recording our two singles for Bell. On these trips Mike Farina and Mike Scavone thought it was fun to take a page from a newspaper, crumple it up, light it on fire and throw it at whoever happened to be driving. One particular return trek, we let Mike Caruso's younger brother Frank drive the van. Frank did not have a license, was not even old enough to have a license, and barely knew how to drive even if he had had a license. While speeding through the Lincoln Tunnel's narrow lane, Frank bounced the van off the wall a few times while I prayed in horror. Mike Farina felt this would be an ideal time for a fireball fight. Flaming newspaper balls were being hurled back and forth between the front and back of the van. When he got tired of that, he'd put his hands in front of the driver's eyes just because...I knew then I was way out of my league in the insanity department. Ah, good times. It's amazing any of us are here to talk about it.
When the dubiously titled "Rhoda Mendelbaum" was released to an unsuspecting world, we hoped nobody would notice how ridiculous the song was and maybe we'd even have a hit and become famous. Nope. They noticed.
We struck a little deal with WMCA, the New York-based AM station. If we would play their WMCA Good Guys shows every weekend while the record was out, they in turn would give us airplay. Which they supposedly did. I never heard it, but some people say they did. There'd be about fifteen acts on the bill, with everyone sharing the drums and amps to perform their latest release plus two or three other numbers. The whole Good Guys shows experience was well worth the shlepping to and around the far reaches of New York's five boroughs, for we got to play with some fantastic acts. We shared the stage with Neil Diamond singing "Solitary Man" with only his acoustic guitar for accompaniment, The Music Explosion, The Syndicate of Sound, The Fifth Dimension, The Tokens, fellow Jerseyans The Critters, Terry King & The Pack, Fontella Bass, and so many others.
We also opened up for the Beach Boys, whose current single "Good Vibrations" was doing a tad better than "Rhoda Mendelbaum". Also on the bill were The Buckinghams, who had a string of hits to their credit. We of course opened the show and we wanted to make a big impression with our final number "Bo Diddley". Mike Scavone was a fine drummer in his own right, so for our big closer, I'd come up front with my floor tom, and Myke (as he spelled his name at that point) would play a second floor tom. We both used a pair of maracas to pound out the "Bo Diddley" beat. For some reason we had forgotten to bring the other floor tom, so we asked the Buckinghams if we could borrow their's. When they refused, we mustered up the courage and had the chutzpa to ask the Beach Boys if we could use their drum. To their credit they said yes, and we went on to do our set. As planned, I went up front and Myke grabbed hold of the coveted borrowed tom. So here we go. Now you have to realize we were what has become known as a "garage band". We played raw, savage R&B-tinged rock'n'roll. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Bo Diddley beat, it is a relentless barrage of wild shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits mania. At least that's how the Doughboys saw it. Our mission was to drum the song into submission. Usually the maracas would shatter before too long and the legs on the floor toms would loosen from the intense vibrations. As expected, halfway through the number, the two drums collapsed under the pressure, and Myke and I sat on them as if riding on a pair of bucking broncos.
We were hitting the last notes of this mayhem when out from the wings of the enormous stage, seemingly out of nowhere, the Beach Boys' drummer Dennis Wilson stampeded into Myke Scavone. Before anyone can even utter fun fun fun, Dennis is throwing punches and wrestling down our front man to the floor. The curtains haven't even closed yet. Members of the audience have that look of astonished horror and bewilderment for that moment before the curtains came together. Then all hell broke loose. The two of them are in full street fight mode. The suntanned Californian and the tough East Coast Italian. People from both camps pry them apart. Again, my fourteen-year-old eyes and ears are in shock. It was bad enough that one of the headliners had started a rumble on stage in front of thousands of people, but I was completely disillusioned by the fact that Dennis Wilson, famous celebrity, was screaming at the top of his lungs "You goddamn sonofabitch motherfucker, ya fucking bastard piece of shit", etc. I couldn't believe it! I mean, I had no idea that famous people knew those words, used those words and would be yelling them at my good friend Myke Scavone. Dennis Wilson, for Christ's sake. I had his picture on my wall. I've seen him on TV. Tell me it isn't so. This can't be happening. The capper was, and I'll never forget these words from the middle Wilson brother -- "It's bands like you who ruin it for us." With that, Dennis was restrained by his people, and the two warriors were dragged back to their respective corners. The Doughboys packed up their equipment in a daze. We found out later that Dennis was in a bad mood because his brother Carl was about to be arrested for draft evasion, and they apologized and went on to give a spectacular concert, Dennis' floor tom being a little bit worse for wear.
The Doughboys recorded a second single, "Everybody Knows My Name", written by Bob Gaudio of the Four Seasons. And thus began another round of WMCA Good Guy Shows, only this time we had a song we believed in. Myke did a beautiful vocal, gliding effortlessly between full voice and falsetto. The backing track and harmonies were performed with a confident power far superior to our debut.
For a moment we thought we were going to have a hit. It didn't turn out that way, but I can still put that record on today and feel proud of the job we did.