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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 4, 2017

TIRnRR # 4, Track By Track: The Rubinoos, "Nowheresville"

This is part of a series of short pieces discussing each of the 29 tracks on our new compilation CD This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio, Volume 4The CD can be ordered at Kool Kat Musik.

11. THE RUBINOOS: "Nowheresville"

Think back to high school.

Charles Dickens might have described it as the best of times and the worst of times, if he had been an American teenager instead of being, y'know...Dickens. It's a time of crushes, lust, bravado, insecurity, promise, doubt, achievement, failure, secrets, lies, hope, futility, stolen kisses, broken hearts, acceptance, rejection, and exams filled in with a # 2 pencil. It is life in microcosm, all its inherent drama heightened by the fact that you're 17. You're a big man on campus. You're a square peg that fits in precisely nowhere. In with the in crowd, out with the outsiders--either way, this is your life. The best of times. The worst of times.

The music we listen to as teens can resonate throughout our lives, etched in memory alongside every eternal snub and accolade. In 1977, I was a seventeen-year-old senior at a high school in Syracuse's northern suburbs. I liked oldies better than most then-current music--The Beatles, The Monkees, The Dave Clark Five, The Animals, and my recent discovery, The Kinks--but I was also looking for new. I liked KISS. I liked "Cherry Baby" by Starz, and "Isn't It Time" by The Babys, "Carry On Wayward Son" by Kansas, Boston's debut LP, Sweet's Desolation Boulevard, and Rumours by Fleetwood Mac. Spurred by intriguing things I read in Phonograph Record Magazine, I would become a fan of The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, and Blondie before the end of the year, as this high school senior transformed into college freshman. But before The Ramones, or the Pistols, or my nascent hormonal devotion to Blondie's Debbie Harry, one group stood as the great teen hope. That group was The Rubinoos.

The Rubinoos were young, not much older than I was. They were on the radio, with a hit cover of Tommy James & the Shondells' "I Think We're Alone Now," and (on freer-form WOUR-FM) with a delectable album track called "Wouldn't It Be Nice." They were on TV, lip-syncing "I Think We're Alone Now" and "Rock And Roll Is Dead" on American Bandstand. They were revered in the pages of Phonograph Record Magazine, and they were one of the subjects of My First Rock Journalism. Their eponymous debut album was an absolutely essential purchase for me. God, I loved this band. That has never changed over the ensuing crashing and passing of four freakin' decades. I love The Rubinoos. I will always love The Rubinoos.

The Rubinoos only lasted long enough to release two full-length albums in the '70s; their second, Back To The Drawing Board!, included the all-time power pop classic "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend," the # 1 Top O' The Pops Blockbuster Hit Single that paradoxically failed to chart at all. But The Rubinoos returned in later years, as strong as ever, the spark of youth undimmed by time, fortified by the certainty of experience, yet still connected to an exuberance that can surely mature, but need never age. They are still boys who fall in love with girls. Girls still break their hearts. The boys still fall in love again.

For about as long as we've been doing This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio compilations, The Rubinoos have been near the top of our wish list. We could not connect on previous attempts. Then suddenly, I received a message from Rubes guitarist Tommy Dunbar (which ranks on my spectrum of pleasant surprises up there with the day in 1994 when I got an unexpected phone call from Joey Ramone). Looking at TIRnRR playlists, Tommy had noticed we were using what he felt was an incorrectly-mastered source for the group's '70s recordings; preferring the best of times to the worst of times, Tommy sent me the boxed set Everything You Always Wanted To Know About The Rubinoos, and that has been the show's resource for vintage Rubinoos ever since.

As noted, though, latter-day Rubinoos is just as good as Me Decade Rubinoos. So I asked Tommy for some of that latter-day Rubinoos mojo for a new TIRnRR compilation, pretty please. He responded that they didn't really have anything new or exclusive, but granted permission for us to sift through the existing catalog and pick out what we wanted.

The sheer volume of A-list choices was dizzying. We didn't even consider any of their '70s-era gems, figuring that most pop fans worth the stars in their eyes had to already own at least some of that. Perhaps something from Automatic Toaster? That album's wonderful "I Pity The Fool" had made our year-end countdown of most-played songs in the not-too-distant past. Paleophonic? Twist Pop Sin? Biff-Bop-Boing? 45? Finally, we elected to snag something from the 2013 This Is The Rubinoos EP. Although available digitally, that set had only been issued on CD as a limited-edition Spanish release. To many of our listeners, any track from that EP would almost be like brand-new.

From This Is The Rubinoos, we initially selected a track called "This Is Good," a frothy li'l pop tune whose title provides its own spot-on review. But another song on the EP kept haunting the ol' consciousness. "Nowheresville" can best be described as pop noir, a shotgun marriage--well, more like a .45 automatic marriage--between a hardboiled crime paperback and Tiger Beat, Mickey Spillane meets Shaun Cassidy. And even that sells it short. It is a fully-realized slice of pure pulp, made pretty in spite of itself by the talent of The Rubinoos. Jon Rubin's unmistakable, irresistible voice soars, Tommy Dunbar's guitar twirls tastefully, while the lyrics could serve as a summary of something published by Gold Medal Books in the '50s or Hard Case Crime today. The one they call Honey was slurring her words/"Oh, why should we have to cut this thing in thirds?/I know the perfect patsy/Yeah, a pretty little bird/Who better to take the fall in Nowheresville?" Man, I would read that book, battered cover to battered cover, right now.

The juxtaposition of these extremes is somehow natural and flawless. How did The Rubinoos pull this off? In the words of Mike Hammer in Spillane's I, The Jury: it was easy. And it was an easy decision for us to replace "This Is Good" with "Nowheresville" on This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio, Volume 4.

I recently attended my 40th anniversary high school reunion. I have not generally looked back at those years with much fondness, but my attitude and my awareness are evolving, and evolving for the better. There were friendships that have lasted, positive memories that have endured, even through the crucible of teen miasma and all that followed. High school may not have been the nowheresville I once insisted it was. The best of times, the worst of times. Then and now, The Rubinoos remain a cherished part of the best of times. Who better to catch our fall in Nowheresville?

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