Author: Martin, George

My life as a drug-addled rock 'n' roller
My life as a drug-addled rock ‘n’ roller

Today’s column from George Martin
Thursday, Jan 11, 2008

“Ooo-eee, ooo-eee baby,
Won’t you let me take you on a sea cruise.”

-- By Huey “Piano” Smith, 1950s hit recording by Frankie Ford

The smooth, contoured body of my 1963 Fender Jazzmaster was tucked in close to my side. I was holding a barre chord with my left hand while my little finger was going up and down in the classic 1950s rock ‘n’ roll bass riff. My Fender amp was cranked, spitting out the sound at high decibels.

Off to my left, my friend Jerry was doing a fair Jerry Lee Lewis imitation on his then-brand-new Yamaha DX-7 keyboard. Ken was pounding the drums, my friend Courtenay was thumping on the Fender bass and my then (and still) singing partner Pauline was playing rhythm guitar.

We were outdoors on a warm summer night in the Sacramento Valley. In front of the band sweaty dancers were gyrating under lanterns strung from poles around the periphery of the dance floor. The lanterns overpowered the light of the stars, but the moon could still be seen.

Through my little pinpoint eyeballs I could look across the dancers and see my teen-age son and his buddies sitting on the fence. I fancied I could read their minds: “Jeez, Gwillym’s dad rocks pretty good for an old fart.”

When I left the Oakland Tribune for the San Francisco Examiner in 1979 I wasn’t currently playing in a band. And I wouldn’t be for many years, because my job at the Examiner started at 8 p.m., pretty much precluding band practice. I did have Fridays and Saturdays off, but I didn’t see a lot of my family during the week, so getting involved in a time-consuming hobby didn’t seem like such a good idea.

But a lot of people knew I was a musician, and a few times a year I would be asked to put together a band for a wedding or other function. Frequently it would be a bluegrass band, and I wrote a few months ago about how these odd pickup jobs caused the late Rich Wilbur to call me “king of the off-the-wall gigs.”

There was a young woman at the Ex named Jane who was the night wire editor. She arrived each night in the middle of my shift and sat near me. The Ex had an instant-messaging system on its pre-PC computers (they were green-screen, dedicated word processors designed for newspaper production) and Jane and I enjoyed trading little oddities from the wires (on her part) and clever headlines and wisecracks (on my part).

The Examiner night copydesk was a fun place to work, especially for a person like me who enjoys wordplay, puns and such. Like the time the Spinal Tap band played a live show in San Francisco and my headline was: “How Can We Myth Them If They Won’t Go Away?” Or one year when it rained so bad when the 49ers were in the playoffs, and we ran a photo of Candlestick Park sitting in a virtual lake with my overline: “ ’Stick in the Mud.”

Jane was an adventurous young woman. She suba dived and went skiing a lot in winter and one day she announced she was going to learn to skydive. She came back from that adventure all excited about the adrenaline rush, and became quite the devotee, eventually falling in love with her instructor. They planned a parachute wedding: the actual marriage would occur on the ground, but then the groomsmen and maids of honor and the new hubby and wife would pile into planes, fly up and jump out and form two big linked rings in the sky as they plunged earthward.

She asked me to get a band together for the affair and offered me an adequate budget to hire some people, and off I went.

The year was about 1981, which would make my older son 15 years old at the time. He was in the heavy metal phase of his life; he and his friends had a band called Crude Impulse. Gwillym always wore a heavy black motorcycle jacket with buckles and zippers and chrome conchos all over it. For formal occasions he added a studded leather collar and studded wristbands. Long hair, of course. Thank God he wasn’t into tattoos.

Our basement was the Crude Impulse practice studio. There was an old couch, a drum set, amps and mikes, band posters and such on the walls. Twenty-something years later there is still a Metallica sticker on the sewer pipe that crosses the area.

(I had a sort of secret weapon in the generational wars. I suppose Gwillym was just as rebellious as any teen-ager, but he had to treat his father at least decently because I owned the mikes, the PA system, the bass and bass amp, the guitar amp and the van that carried it all.)

Every afternoon about 3:30 you could hear the basement door open and close and then about five minutes later a roar as the band fired up for practice. I’m not much of a heavy metal fan; I never could fit that music into any pattern that I knew of. It seemed to me that it didn’t matter what chord followed what chord as long as everyone in the band was on the same chord at the same time. Instead of building musical tension and then resolving it, the metalists seem to just pile tension on tension. I think it’s a teen testosterone thing.

But the kids worked hard on their music (if you want to call it that) and I got the bright, proud-poppa idea of offering them a set at the parachute wedding. It was their big chance to break out of the garage band world and play for actual people, and they jumped at it.

The deal was my band would play a set of country music, then Crude Impulse would do a set of metal, and then the grown-ups would return and play some old rock ‘n’ roll.

The big day rolled around and we loaded all the stuff in the van and drove to the country outside of Davis where the parachute ranch was. We set everything up and they did the wedding, and the bride stuffed her gown into a padded jump suit and traded her bouquet for a helmet. The planes revved up and took off and presently high above us we could see tiny black dots emerge from the two planes.

The dots converged and linked up and for 20 seconds or so there were two rings in the clear blue sky. Then someone gave a signal and the rings broke up and the dots (bigger now) bloomed into brightly colored parachutes of red and orange and blue and glided back to earth. About that time the barbecue was ready and soon after that we started playing some classic country songs for the dancers.

After about an hour our band took a break and the kids moved in and put on their instruments. My son (who I would like to remind everyone is currently a respected internal auditor at a large and well-known insurance company) approached the mike in his torn T-shirt, long hair and studded leather accessories and said something like, “Some of you might not like our music. That’s because you are f----ing OLD! So f--- you!”

And he hit a very loud power chord and the drummer started pounding and they were off to the races.

Back where we were taking a break, the piano player said, “Man, you ought to try some of this before the next set,” holding out a little vial of white powder. My experience with nose candy was minimal; I took a sniff once when I was on my way to a bluegrass jam because my companion said it would help me play better banjo. It made me feel kind of buzzy but I didn’t feel it helped my music much, plus the stuff was kind of expensive, and me being a bit of a cheapskate I never tried it again.

But that night, I thought, “Oh, what the hell...” and inhaled a couple of lines. Plus a drink or two.

So the kids ended their set and we started to rock. It seemed to me that although cocaine hadn’t done much for my banjo, it didn’t hurt my electric guitar technique at all. It certainly made me feel like a rocker. For whatever reason I was flying, singing Chuck Berry songs, Buddy Holly songs, some Elvis songs, “Proud Mary,” even a Ray Charles tune or two (I’m glad I don’t have a tape or video of that). And making the Jazzmaster scream with every h
Posted:  1/10/2008

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