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  August 2008
Columns
volume 6 number 2
 
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David Banuelos
Mary Bonina's Living Proof
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Jerry Garcia
Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature
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  a personal history of rock 'n' roll
G. Murray Thomas
My Favorite Band in High School
 
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G. Murray Thomas August 2008
   

 

My Favorite Band in High School

    A: Identity

    I’m betting that when you were in high school, you had some favorite musical artist, one that represented everything you liked in music. In fact, they probably represented more than that -- your favorite artist was probably tied into your whole notion of who you were. Your identity and your favorite band were probably intricately linked, if not so tied in together it was difficult to tell where one ended and the other began. I know I had such a favorite band.
    Further, I bet that today you are, at the least, mildly embarrassed, if not totally mortified, to admit to this favorite band.
    Why do we do this? What is this need for some favorite artist, to pour all of our musical fandom into?
    And why, later in life, are we so often embarrassed by our adolescent choices?
    Certainly, much of this has to do with our early attempts to determine our identity. George Bernard Shaw said, “Life isn’t about finding yourself. It is about creating yourself.” But in our teens we usually don’t have the self-confidence to create ourselves, we usually don’t even realize it is an option. So we look for our identity in the external world; we attempt to create our identity by copying someone else’s.
    People have always used art to understand themselves better. That is one of the purposes great art serves. We’ve all experienced that Aha! moment, when a character in a novel or play does something, and we suddenly see ourselves, often from a new, revealing angle. Great artists understand human nature better than the average person, and they express that understanding better. So we look to them to explain ourselves; ie: to discover our identities.
    Adolescence is a particularly ripe time for this, as we are both actively engaged in the process of discovering who we are, and are usually quite inarticulate about describing said discoveries. Even as we begin to understand ourselves, we often cannot express what we understand. So we look to others to express it for us. We are especially liable to grab onto some song lyric and say, “Yes! That’s exactly how I feel.” (The band Lush have a great song, called “Heavenly Nobodies”, about relating (too) closely to a band’s lyrics.)
    For a teenager, music is often the first place to look. Music is such a huge part of popular culture that there is no way it wouldn’t be part of that search. In addition, popular music, more than any other part of our culture, certainly more than literature, but even more than movies or TV, claims to speak directly to, and even for, youth.
    Rock musicians have always been a kind of older brother or sister to their (teenage) fans -- someone who understood the world at large, and could explain it to you, but who, unlike your parents, and most other adults you encounter) understood what you were feeling and going through.
    Of course, in our adolescence, we are also quite prone to misinterpret lyrics, to assign them meanings based on our own experiences and perspectives which are far from what the musician intended (and this is assuming we even hear the lyrics correctly, as far as the actual words). I believe that such “misinterpretation” doesn’t matter. If the lyrics, in our own interpretation, whatever it might be, help us to understand ourselves, and our lives, better, then they have done their job.
    But lyrics are certainly not the only factor in choosing a favorite band; in fact, they are usually not even the primary factor. There are many other ways to identify with a band.
    A band (or a musical genre) can give us a peer group. In our teens, identity is often a group thing. Certain musical tastes (such as punk or goth) almost come with a built-in identity these days, complete with instructions on how to dress, who to hang out with, even how to act and feel. Others are subtler in their dictates of taste and fashion, but we will often find that those with similar musical tastes are similar to us in other ways.
    Consciously or not, our choice of a favorite band often makes a basic distinction -- am I a conformist or an independent spirit? Is our favorite band the same as everyone else’s, or is it a band no one else is championing (perhaps even one most people have never heard of)? I would bet that this simple question can be a remarkable predictor of the eventual direction of one’s life. (Perhaps I should take a poll.)
As for why we are so often later embarrassed by our favorite band, not only does our musical taste change, our whole identity changes as well. As we grow, we may discover, or create, an identity far removed from who we (thought we) were as a teenager. We may well be embarrassed by our previous conception of ourself, and everything which went with it, including our musical taste.
    Of course, we also may just have had shitty musical taste as kids.
    Which brings us, finally, to my favorite band in high school. Yes, I’ve been rambling theoretically and avoiding admitting it. Am I embarrassed by it? It seems like I should be. In fact, it strikes me as a prime example of youthful taste, the type of band one avoids mentioning later in life.
    My favorite band in high school was... Blue Oyster Cult.
    Are you done laughing yet? Because I’m not really all that embarrassed by it. I’ll be the first to admit BOC went downhill in their later years, but their first three albums are some of the finest hard rock ever recorded. They were tight, ferocious, complex and melodic, all at the same time. I still listen to them (in fact, I’m listening to them as I type this).
    My personal favorite of their albums is their second, Tyranny and Mutation, but that may have much to do with production as either the songs or the playing. The production of their first, self-titled album, is a bit thin, and the third (Secret Treaties) is just a bit too polished for my taste. Unluckily, on their later albums, that polish totally took over.
    I still remember the first time I heard Tyranny and Mutation. My friend Ricky played it for me in his basement bedroom. He knew I’d like it, and he was right. They became my favorite band almost from that first spin.
    The album design added to the appeal. The cover featured a bizarre geometric design, all black and silver, which seemed to carry many hidden meanings (as I would soon discover was the case with their lyrics as well). Even the fact that on the B-side of the record the usual red Columbia label had turned black seemed significant. This band promised mystery and dark power before you even heard them.
    Blue Oyster Cult played intelligent heavy metal. I know that may sound like a contradiction in terms, but it’s true (and wait until I start talking about intelligent punk rock). Their songs were written intelligently, and played that way. Their songs were actual compositions, not just riffs, like much heavy metal. They were complex, and made room for all the musicians in the band to strut their stuff.
    Primary among them was lead guitarist Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser, who had a unique style -- fluid, clear, yet fierce. His solos, especially on the live material, built logically and smoothly, yet he could also spit out rapid fire notes like Eddie Van Halen would do a few years later.
    While no one else in the band was a virtuoso like Roeser, they were all talented, and melded those talents into a solid and, as I said, complex whole.
    Although the music snared me, I quickly became enamored of their lyrics. Lyrically, they were a challenging band. They used lyrics by people such as Richard Meltzer (noted rock critic) and Patti Smith, who was going out with band member Allen Lanier at the time. My first introduction to Patti Smith was through the lyrics to their songs “Baby Ice Dog” and “Career of Evil.” Even the lyrics penned by the band showed an intelligence above that usually found in heavy metal, although they did deal with typical heavy metal subject matter. That is, various forms of evil, ranging from motorcycle gangs to serial killers, Nazis to drugs, Satanism to simple jealousy.
    But the real challenge, often, was figuring out just what they were singing about. Their albums did not come with lyric sheets, but they did provide an address where you could write for the lyrics. When I wrote, (of course I wrote off to them) I received a computer print out, which I rapidly set to deciphering. Many of the songs were obvious; often they told little stories about drugs deals gone bad, and bomber pilots on their last mission, and fugitives on the run.
    On the other hand, many of them were not obvious. They dared you to figure out what they were about. In the tradition of the best poetry, there always seemed to be more going on in the lyrics than they said on the surface. There were hints at secret societies, occult worship, drug rituals and other mysterious goings on that were never fully explained. Further, there was a sense of a meta-narrative, some larger story which tied all their lyrics together. (Although here I may be, again, trying to read a deeper meaning into song lyrics than the writer intended. The meta-narrative I looked for was probably an illusion. However, much like the “Paul is dead” thing, I suspect it was a cleverly created illusion; they knew what they were doing when they repeated names and images from song to song.)
    At this point I have to stop, and reconsider the whole thesis of this essay. For as I look back, I have to wonder what Blue Oyster possibly has to say about my identity, either as a teenager, or its later development as an adult. Why was I drawn to all this negativity? I’ve certainly never been a violent person, never been drawn to Satanism. In fact, I’ve really been an optimistic, positive person for most of my life.
    I can offer some quick answers, without even touching the question of evil and negativity. Hard rock always appealed to me because of its energy level; energy has always been a key component of my musical taste.
    And then there’s that question of conformity. While I had friends who always appreciated the band, I knew nobody who also considered them their favorite. It was a way of establishing my unique taste. Of course, I expected everyone to catch up to my taste eventually; I kept waiting for them to become the biggest band around. Ever since I saw a friend come into our 9th grade classroom carrying a copy of Alice Cooper’s “Killer”, I wanted to be the one who was ahead of the curve.
    The lyrics were another appeal. For a budding wordsmith, BOC lyrics contained much to like, and much to learn from. The challenges of the lyrics, their seeming mysteries, provided me with hours of entertainment, attempting to decipher them. Although I wasn’t really looking for writing lessons, I’m sure I learned a lot about how to make words mean more than they said on the surface (or, at least, how to make words seem to say more). Even the straightforward stories were lessons in economy of detail (“Then Came the Last Days of May” tells the story of a drug bust with just barely enough details to clue you in to what’s happening).
    While both of these are certainly indicators of the person I became, neither explains why, specifically, Blue Oyster Cult. There were plenty of other bands which could have confirmed my outsider status, and, to be honest, much better examples of lyrical complexity and mystery.
    Part of determining who you are is finding out who you are not. Music (or any art) can be used to explore parts of your personality which are not dominant, to experience vicariously actions and emotions you would never indulge in reality. You can find out as much about yourself through this as through listening to songs which you relate to completely.
    Throughout my life as a music fan, I have found myself enjoying music which expressed the opposite of my overt personality. That is, negative, nihilistic music. This is especially true in my later adolescence, when I discovered punk rock (and I will go into it in much ore depth when I discuss Iggy Pop in my next installment). It seems I was looking for something in music which I did not find in myself. It was a combination of experimentation (could I possibly be this negative person? or do I at least possess a strong negative side?) and catharsis (working out my negative impulses in an acceptable manner, loud and late at night in my bedroom). Of course, at the time I never thought it through in such detail, or really any detail at all. I just liked negative music, and then went on my smiling, optimistic way.
    Although, in the end, Blue Oyster Cult were not really evil. They were middle-class white guys playing at evil. They were intellectualizing it. Just like me; I had (have) a tendency to intellectualize everything. So maybe they were, after all, a perfect fit with my personality.

    B: Judgment

    I finally got to see Blue Oyster Cult in February 1974. (Hey, it felt like “finally,” they’d been my favorite band for a year already. Besides, they were a New York band and, unlike, say, The Rolling Stones, played Rochester regularly.) They opened for Black Sabbath. I walked around for a month before the concert bragging about how they were going to upstage Sabbath.
    In my opinion, they did. That is, in my opinion as a fanatical 16 year old BOC fan. Sure, I could justify my opinion; in fact I did writing in my journal that BOC was the more complex band, that Sabbath were simplistic and repetitive. And I found support in the review in the local paper (Rochester Democrat and Chronicle) which not only agreed with me, but actually used the same word, “complex,” to describe BOC.
    I’ve had no occasion to revise my opinion since. But do I even have the ability? My memories of the concert are so colored by my taste at the time that they are incomplete. That is, I barely remember anything of Sabbath’s set; I have just a vague memory of thudding noise. I suspect that, having already seen the band I came to see, I didn’t even pay full attention to them. (Although I do maintain my bragging rights to having seen the early, Ozzy-led Black Sabbath.)
    I next saw BOC a year later, opening for Rod Stewart and the Faces, a mismatch so off the charts that comparison is meaningless. I know I enjoyed BOC more, but I also remember that the Faces put on a great show themselves -- an explosion of sloppy, drunken glory. My memories of this concert are further colored by historical considerations -- it was Stewart’s last tour with the Faces, by summer Ron Wood was a Rolling Stone. So I almost feel obliged to upgrade the Faces show to match its significance.
    A year later the roles were reversed -- Blue Oyster Cult was now the headliner, over a relatively new Rush. This was the best BOC show I ever saw. With the extra time the top spot allowed, and some maturity as a band, they really opened up. Roeser’s solos had a clarity and development I had never heard in them before. I remember a long, and, frankly, beautiful solo on “Astronomy” that seemed the epitome of a well-controlled composition.
    And now I got to listen to other people talk about how great Rush was, about how they had totally upstaged BOC. By now I had also acquired some degree of maturity; rather than argue I just nodded my head knowingly.
    A year after that, I saw my final BOC concert. This time, they were definitely the ones upstaged. This was a huge stadium concert, and they were again headlining, over Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ted Nugent and some really sucky band called Starz. Even as a huge BOC fan, it struck me as a little strange that they were billed over Skynyrd.
    There were two problems. One, even Nugent put on a more energetic show than BOC. Actually, that shouldn’t be too surprising -- energetic shows were Nugent’s forte, and he did not disappoint that day. But BOC seemed particularly lacking in energy.
    But the real problem was that BOC’s big finale, with which they closed every show, was to get everyone in the band, even the drummer, lined up on the front of the stage jamming on guitar. Even if it wasn’t the musical highlight of their show, it was an impressive piece of showmanship.
    But Skynyrd closed their set with a four guitar rave-up on “Freebird” which was impressive musically, and would have been hard to top. So BOC didn’t even try, they just dropped that part of their show.
    Besides, my musical taste was changing by then. I wasn’t so enamored of Blue Oyster Cult any more. I would also argue they were changing. Agents of Fortune, their latest album, had been a disappointment. Musically, it was much more polished, almost poppy. And their lyrics had become less subtle, more cliched, almost a parody of their earlier songs. And their new single, “Godzilla”, only continued this trend. It was a cartoon song about a cartoon character, and I felt them almost turning into a cartoon themselves.
    Although Lynyrd Skynyrd weren’t really my taste either (punk rock was only months away at this point), I was more capable of some objectivity now. Skynyrd simply put on a better show, and I recognized that.
    So now it’s time for some grand statement on musical taste and objectivity, can we really be objective about our musical tastes? But I let you draw your own conclusions.
    I will say that very soon David Bowie and Iggy Pop had taken over as my favorite musical artists (and have remained there). I still enjoy BOC (especially those first three albums), but they are consigned into a chapter of my musical history labeled high school.

    Postscript
    After writing this essay, I saw BOC again, for the first time in almost thirty years. They played a small hall (The Grove, in Santa Ana, CA). All the pretension was gone. The best way I can explain this is to point out that, instead of black leather, they all wore blue jeans. They still put on a great show, with lots of soloing from (a now balding) Buck Dharma. They played a variety of songs, drawing from their entire catalog, but especially the first couple of albums. My overall impression was that they were happy to still be playing music after all these years. That they still put on a great show because they still enjoy it.

copyright 2008 G. Murray Thomas

   


G. Murray Thomas


author's bio

    G. Murray Thomas is the author of Cows on the Freeway (1999), and My Kidney Just Arrived (2011). Although not a musician himself, he has been in two bands: a punk band called MX and the Cruise Missiles in college, and more recently the spoken word combo Murray.
G. Murray Thomas