Beatles or Stones?

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Haven’t seen Not Fade Away yet, but I’m super interested in this just-released attempt at capturing the garage band movement of the 1960s, although the initial reviews are not great, so I guess it won’t be creating a new franchise for Sopranos creator David Chase.

Immediately after Beat Street, I tried to launch my own garage band movie, and even had a great script titled The Runaways. I have a habit of walking away from energy centers at peek levels, and could have had a successful career as a professional hip hop journalist, but, instead, right after Beat Street and my book Hip Hop came out, and inspired by my new South Bronx friends, I decided to return to the music of my roots. In both cases (garage, hip hop), huge creative vibes were unleashed initially by kids age 14-16, with no one else involved, except our inspirations, which, in my case, initially emanated from England mostly (although Amsterdam had a scene just as good as Liverpool’s or London’s). Yes, it was the Beatles who made me want to pick up a guitar, but when I finally got that guitar, it was Rolling Stones songs I actually performed on stage with the Knight Riders. I was still in junior high when I saw their first performance at a sock hop at the end of the school year. I had no idea a bunch of kids my age could engineer such a mind-blowing rock sound. They only played one or maybe two songs, but I was changed forever. I didn’t recognize the song at the time, but later discovered it was Get Off My Cloud, although it could just as easily have been Gloria, the chords are similar and that now famous garage rock anthem from Them and Van Morrison was actually picked up by a local band in my town before the Shadows of Knight covered it. Within a year I was playing bass in the Knight Riders.

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So when I talk about the 1960s garage band movement, I lived it, not as a star, but as a teenager struggling to take on a new cultural identity against intense resistance, mostly from my own father. They call it a “generation gap” today, but it was really a generation war.

Although I’d later learn to embrace non-violence, that wasn’t the way it started, and if you read my first short story (East Village), which is free on smashwords (and now illustrated with my art from the period), you can get inside my 16-year-old mind, and it was certainly chock full of violence, the love of which may have been initially planted by the mainstream media. Many teens of the era, me included, had to run away in order to become ourselves. And those adventures often led to big cities, like New York, where some freaky movies and weird shit always went down. After some of those adventures, we became jaded, cynical, old souls pretty quick.

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My next short story, also on smashwords, and also recently updated with photos and illos from the period, covers my climactic battle with my parents, which occurred in 1967. The cover photo (left), taken by Bugsy, reveals my regular uniform at the time: black double-breasted leather jacket, jeans and long-sleeve white shirt. I think every black kid in my high school coveted that jacket, and some even warned me never to leave it in my locker unguarded. The fact it was double-breasted is what made it so distinctive. If you want to experience the raw emotions unleashed during the era, you will find them here, although it will cost 99 cents, as I need to get something back from all this art I’ve created. The next one, however, is free.

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My final short story in this trilogy from the 1960s, is a dispatch I wrote while hiding out from the Vietnam War in Stockholm, Sweden, where I had a wonderful apartment and gorgeous girlfriend (left), and a brief gig as an extra in a film (Joe Hill), but still felt strangely empty upon being separated from my beloved homeland for such a long stretch. This was near the zenith of my nihilistic tendencies, and the story lapses back into the black humor of East Village, a much needed relief from the trauma of The Steam Tunnels.

Hopefully I’ll soon post my original garage band script that bounced around Hollywood for over a decade. I almost got a low-budget version done through High Times, and even had a cast assembled and a $100,000 budget drawn up, but then the funding fell through. The main thing about this post though is if there are any people out there interested in 1966-9, you might want to check out these three eBooks because they were written during the period. In other words, it’s the real deal. Us hippies were a lot tougher than you think.

True Origins of the Finchley Boys

I might never have met Eric Swenson if my big brother Paul hadn’t decided to learn to play the cello. My mom wanted Paul to have the best teacher possible, so pretty soon he was going over to the Swenson’s house for lessons, where he discovered his teacher (a member of the famous Walden Quartet) had a son his age also attending Urbana Junior High.

Eric and Paul joined the Dramatics Club that year and got speaking roles in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The star of that production, however, was Brian Ravlin, who at age 13 was already an elfin creature from another dimension perfectly cast as Puck.

But talent-wise Eric towered over everyone; he matured faster and developed his immense artistic energies in multiple directions at once. Unfortunately, Eric’s mom was bipolar (long before any of us knew what that word meant—we just called ’em “crazy” back then.) She also had a serious drinking problem. She’d stay up all night several nights in a row, then go bonkers eventually and start banging pots and pans at 3 AM just to annoy Eric’s dad.

Eric told me he and his dad got so pissed they urinated on her while she was passed out on the couch after one of these all-night sessions. Eric laughed when he told the story.

She disappeared one day, and you thought things would get better, but Eric quickly inherited the illness from his mom, going into rages, smashing everything in sight.

He wasn’t like this often, just an hour or two every three months or so. His father padlocked his bedroom and let the rest of the house turn to total shit. The sink was filled with the same dirty dishes for months on end. Most of the other interior doors were broken off their hinges. You understood the depth of Eric’s demons when you realized he could tear a door out of its frame. Eric stopped going to school and started eating all his meals at the local diner, Mel Roots, where his father covered the tab.

Eric had a life we all envied, following his every fantasy wherever it led, staying up as late as he wanted, doing whatever he pleased all the time. The nearby University of Illinois provided a lot of stimulus for him to explore. He was a rising star in the local community theater at 15, playing roles twice his age with ease.

He developed a comic alter-ego named Swafford, named after a detested math teacher at Urbana Junior High. (Many years later, I’d stumble onto Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry, the pioneering work of absurdist theater and realize Ubu Roi was an exact replica of Swafford–right down to being based on a middle-school teacher of Jarry’s).

Eric invented incredibly complex Swafford routines and acted them out in Swafford’s inimitable voice, elements of which were influenced by The Three Stooges. Some of these were so popular we made Eric perform them over and over, and they got more complex and more hilarious the more he worked on them. One of the grand episodes concerned a foreign-exchange student coming over to Swafford’s house for Thanksgiving, but when the turkey came out of the oven, Swafford’s immense greed was instantly activated and he quickly turns on the student in a rage rather than share his food. I remember snot flying out Swafford’s nose after he removed the imaginary turkey from the imaginary oven, smelled the aroma, and then flipped into a paranoid frenzy.

Swafford was the sort of character who’d stare you in the eye and say “the sun is shining” when it was pouring outside. You couldn’t trust a word he spoke and Swafford was always hustling some con-job.

When the Beatles arrived, Eric had become an instant fan. He liked Ringo the best, so he got a set of drums long before any of the rest of us had real rock instruments. One night in 1966 at the Tiger’s Den, Eric was watching a local band with Mark Warwick, when they both discovered they were practicing to Beatles’ records at home on their own. They decided to get together the next day at Eric’s. They were both 15. It was the beginning of the Finchley Boys, who would eventually become the most famous garage band of central Illinois, although Eric’s participation would end after just one gig.