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I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org).  As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia!  Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton.  I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times.  I also wrote the liner notes for the four THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me?  My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored.  Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.

Friday, August 26, 2016

THE EVERLASTING FIRST, Part 4a: My First Exposures To Some Singers And Superheroes



Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock 'n' roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it's the subsequent visits--the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time--that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every love story still needs to begin with that first kiss.

TODAY'S LETTER IS D



THE DAMNED

Phonograph Record Magazine figures into my first exposure to British punks The Damned, but a larger role in that introduction was ultimately played by a green-eyed girl named Mary Ellen. We'll get to her in just a sec, but we'll start with PRM.  Phonograph Record Magazine's coverage of this exotic, scary, mysteriously intoxicating music called punk captivated me as a senior in high school, 1976-77. I didn't know what any of it sounded like, but I was aching to find out.

I was intrigued by so many of these bands that PRM name-checked so casually in its tabloid pages. The Ramones! Blondie! The Sex Pistols! Eddie and the Hot Rods! Chris Spedding and the Vibrators! It was a long, long list of acts I'd never heard of before, from The New York Dolls, The Dictators, and Milk 'n Cookies through Cheap Trick, Elvis CostelloTom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Yesterday and Today (later shortened to Y & T). I was desperate to learn more.

Even if you're my age or older, it may be difficult to remember just how different the world was just four decades ago. Today, if you encounter a reference to some new musical act, the great 'n' powerful internet can put that act's complete c.v. at your disposal instantly. YouTube, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and a bunch of other cloud-borne resources that would have been the stuff of science fiction during the Bicentennial are now humdrum, banal fixtures of everyday living. Hell, a YouTube video was likely your introduction to this new act in the first place. The thrill of the hunt has long since been replaced by the smug, jaded smirk of entitlement.

Heh. I'm a curmudgeon at 56.

With that all said, I have to admit I enjoy the convenience of easily-accessible information. But there was something intangibly thrilling about the sheer mystique and wonder conjured in a young man's mind by the hype and glory of fevered ramblin' in the pages of mid-'70s rock rags like PRM. You couldn't hear the music; you could only imagine how amazing it must sound.

The Damned were among the many loud and angry punks mentioned in the pages of Phonograph Record Magazine. I don't recall the group necessarily getting a lot of ink in the few PRMs I was fortunate enough to grab, but I do remember Flo & Eddie discussing (and dismissing) one of The Damned's singles--either "New Rose" or "Neat Neat Neat"--in their Blind Date column. Flo & Eddie were not impressed with British punk on first exposure.



In the fall of '76, I met Mary Ellen at the ESSPA (Empire State School Press Association) Convention in Syracuse. I was there with a cadre of my fellow North Syracuse High School literary insurgents--Dan Bacich, Tim Schueler, and Sue Caldwell--representing our school literary magazine, The NorthCaster.  At the banquet and awards ceremony, we shared a table with a group representing a magazine from a Rochester area high school, and Mary Ellen was part of that group. I think their magazine was called Brown Bag, and I'm pretty sure they won top honors at ESSPA that year.

Our two groups hit it off pretty well, and it turned out that Mary Ellen was a big rock 'n' roll fan. She was especially fond of The Who; I'd remembered reading ads for some Who bootlegs (probably in The Buyer's Guide For Comics Fandom). I said I'd send her the information, and we exchanged addresses.

She wound up writing to me first, saying she was listening to Montrose and slipping into the terra incognita, a favorite phrase of hers. Starry-eyed teen that I was--I was kinda like Davy Jones on any random episode of The Monkees, except usually without reciprocation--I immediately began to imagine True Love. I was--what's the word?--an idiot. On a January bus ride from Cleveland to Syracuse, traveling back home solo after visiting my sister, I daydreamed about Mary Ellen, about singing Beatles songs together and maybe exchanging a playful kiss.

But this was all just fancy on my part. I wrote her a long, presumably witty letter, devoid of any attempt at romantic content--I wasn't quite that much of an idiot--and she responded with delight. Further correspondence revealed that we would be switching neighborhoods in the fall; I would be starting college in Brockport, a mere 19 miles from Rochester, while she would be attending Syracuse University. She sent me her phone number at SU.

One fall evening in Brockport, I called Mary Ellen, and we spoke on the phone for about an hour. It was a breezy, banter-filled conversation. I remember mentioning The Raspberries (whom she didn't know all that well) and The Bay City Rollers (which horrified her, since she saw them as not far removed from the dreaded "D-I-S-C-O!"). We had both discovered punk. I don't know how The Damned came up in the conversation, but she asked me if I'd heard them yet; I hadn't, so she cranked up the stereo in her dorm room and played The Damned's LP track "Stab Yor Back" for me. So that was my true, lo-fi introduction to the music of The Damned.

We mentioned earlier how much easier it is nowadays to find out about something or anything. You wanna know what else has changed since 1977? The cost of long-distance phone calls. My 60-minute call to Mary Ellen cost a whompin', stompin' fifty dollars, which is an awful lot of money to spend for a few seconds of The Damned. My parents weren't real happy about paying that bill for me, so that was my Christmas present that year; they threw in a copy of the Alive II album by KISS, because they were really great parents.



But that phone call (and, I think, one subsequent shorter one) were my last positive communications with Mary Ellen. I tried to get in touch with her the next time we were both in Syracuse, but she'd figured out by now that I mighta possibly had hearts in my eyes, and she didn't need that at all. And honestly, I can't blame her. In any case, I was soon involved with Sharon, a girl I met in Brockport, and then also with Theresa (another girl I met in Brockport), and significant complications loomed on my immediate horizon.

It was more than a year until I would be in the same room as a Damned song playing on a damned stereo near me. In the Spring of '78, a friend at school loaned me a compilation album called New Wave. New Wave included The Damned's debut single "New Rose," and I liked it a lot. It turned out that there would be a number of songs by The Damned that I like a lot, especially "Wait For The Blackout" on the group's 1980 LP The Black Album. I'll have to try listening to that over a $50 phone call some day.

DOC SAVAGE



I wish I could remember where or how I first heard of Doc Savage. In the early '70s, even before reading about The Man of Bronze in Steranko's History Of The Comics, I somehow already knew Doc was a precursor to Superman. But I hadn't had any exposure to the character, and I knew nothing at all about him.

When I was 11 or 12, maybe as old as 13 or thereabouts, I would occasionally help my Dad when he worked in the visitors' clubhouse at MacArthur Stadium. MacArthur was the home of our AAA baseball team the Syracuse Chiefs, and Dad ran the clubhouse for the visiting team's players. Dad was responsible for keeping the place clean and stocked, unpacking the players' uniforms and arranging their individual lockers, and making sure there was an ample supply of food and beverage. Dad did this for years and years, and it was something he loved doing. Someday, I'll tell you more about how this connection gave me an opportunity to meet Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, and Whitey Ford, among others. My older brothers had helped Dad at the clubhouse in previous years, so I also gave it a shot when I grew old enough to try.

God. I was inept.

My recollection is that Dad was pretty patient with my woeful efforts to do the damned job. I tried, but I was just too slow. Still, I spent a lot of time at the ballpark, and I unearthed a few treasures in my spare moments. I found an old Detroit Tigers uniform, which I combined with a skull mask one year to create a Halloween costume as The Ghost Of Ty Cobb. And one day, I found a paperback novel: specifically, a Doc Savage novel, The Land Of Terror by Kenneth Robeson.

I had never read a pulp novel before. My heroes were the heroes of comic books, with strict codes against killing. So I was surprised to read this early Doc Savage adventure, and to see our hero Doc dispense with a bad guy. Permanently. Clearly, this was not how The Justice League of America would handle things!

Subsequently, I learned that the character of Doc Savage would himself regret this early use of fatal force, and would later eschew killing entirely. This copy of The Land Of Terror was missing a page, but it served as my initiation into a whole new world of heroic fiction, a world in which I would immerse myself through much of the '70s.

Doc Savage had flourished originally in the 1930s and '40s, the star of his own pulp magazine. Each issue of Doc Savage featured a complete purple-prose pulp adventure novel, credited to the Kenneth Robeson pseudonym, and usually written by main Doc Savage scribe Lester Dent. In the '60s, Bantam Books began a very successful line of Doc Savage paperback novels, each book reprinting one of Doc's old pulp adventures, generally wrapped in a stunning new cover painted by James Bama. Bama's chiseled, gritty rendition of Doc looked nothing like Doc's original likeness in the pulps, but it was irresistible, and it sold a lot of paperbacks.



I couldn't tell you the name of my second Doc Savage novel, but I sure read a bunch of 'em. My parents even got me a box of them as my Christmas gift one year, and that was really cool. As noted above, I read more about the history of pulp magazines in Steranko's History Of The Comics, and learned about just how much Doc Savage influenced the creation of Superman, right down to both characters having the same first name ("Clark Savage, Jr., meet Clark Kent. Kent, Savage. Savage, Kent."). The Man of Bronze and the Man of Steel even shared a fondness for Arctic retreats, which they both referred to as a Fortress of Solitude. Doc's fightin' entourage, which Bantam hype referred to as "The Fabulous Five," was also a big influence on both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, especially on their earliest work with The Fantastic Four.

Doc Savage's paperback success was sufficient to prompt Marvel Comics to license the character for his own comic book series in 1972, and a feature film, Doc Savage: The Man Of Bronze, was released in 1975. I liked the comic books, and really wanted to see the movie (starring Ron Ely, who had been TV's Tarzan in the '60s), but I don't know if it even played in Syracuse. My cousins in Florida saw it and loved it, but reports that it was a campy take on the character dimmed my enthusiasm. I have yet to be able to sit through the film in its entirety.



I never exactly lost interest in Doc Savage, but I did kind of move on. The Shadow became my favorite pulp character, manifested in a terrific DC Comics series and some paperback pulp reprints courtesy of Pyramid Books. Bantam's Doc Savage books had those gorgeous James Bama covers, but Pyramid's Shadow books offered equally eye-popping cover paintings by Steranko. The '70s were a golden age of vintage paperback pulp, with Doc and The Shadow joined on drugstore spinner racks by the likes of The Avenger, Tarzan (with cover art by my then-favorite comics artist, Neal Adams), The Phantom, Flash Gordon, The Lone RangerOperator 5, and G-8 And His Battle Aces. I can't tell you how much I loved this stuff at the age of 15. I wanted there to be new Batman pulp novels, and I wanted to write pulp novels. In high school, I wrote two short stories starring The Shadow for publication in The NorthCaster, and I even started writing a pulp novel called The Snowman. (The only decent, original pulp work I ever finished writing remains The Undersea World Of Mr. Freeze, which was completed for this blog.)

But it all started with a Doc Savage paperback, a battered little book I discovered when I probably should have been cleaning or sweeping or unpacking a visiting player's bag. That was my Fortress of Solitude.

Say, I've been a bit wordy today, haven't I? We'll save the Quick Takes For D for tomorrow's post.