By Brian M. Howle
(This column originally appeared in the 6-7-2001 issue of Alternatives NewsMagazine; 48 previous columns were lost in the computer crash described in the opening paragraph.)
There are those particular times in our lives where fate simply slams us into the throes of a seminal moment. A moment where all that was before is changed forever; becoming obscure and distant in the light of discovery, and where all that will be is unequivocally decided and changed forever.
My moment sorta came in two parts, four years apart. The first moment came at my sister’s 16th birthday party on December 5, 1959. My folks had rented out the National Guard Armory in Andrews, and it was quite an event. A “Big Band” dance band entertained the guests throughout the evening. I remember being entranced by the small lights that were clipped to the music stands, as I watched the trumpet player belt out his leads like Harry James.
Then my parents tapped me on my shoulder and leaned down: “Would you like to sing a song with the band? As a birthday present for your sister?”
I looked out at the huge crowd, then looked at the band leader, who was motioning for me to step up to the microphone. At six years of age, I never blinked.
“Sure, why not?” I replied. My parents huddled with the band leader for a moment, then asked me what song I wanted to sing. Since it was December, there was never any doubt. I told them my selection and the band started flipping through their sheet music, as the band leader announced my impending performance to the guests.
The fact that I never had a single moment of stage fright should have been a sign to my parents, but when you’re small, freckled and sorta cute, those things don’t come to the fore. Following a smattering of applause, I stepped up to the mic and shared my rendition of “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer”. When it was over, there was a thundering ovation that I never expected – but that I found incredibly satisfying. The seed was sown.
That second moment was one shared by millions of others. But for a few hundred thousand of us, it was much more than a mere event of popular culture. It was a blinding beam of enlightenment; an epiphany of direction and dreams unimagined.
On February 7, 1964, my family gathered around the old black and white television – as did most of the nation – to watch The Ed Sullivan Show.
Ed’s variety line-up for the night included Fred Katz, an eastern European magician; impressionist Frank Gorshen (later to become immortalizdd as The Riddler on the campy Batman television series); Harry McDormett, a medalist from the Winter Olympics; Tessie O’Shea, a British comedian; two scenes from the Broadway production of Oliver! including a rendition of the cast singing “I Will Do Anything As Long As He Loves Me” (which, in a twist of mega-irony, featured then-unknown chorus member Davy Jones, who became one of Beatlemania TV clones, The Monkees, a few years later); and a group of Swedish Acrobats (without a doubt, the most bizarre act of the night).
Oh, yes – and a quartet of lads from Liverpool, England, known as The Beatles.
My brother, Jack, and his best friend (seven years my senior) were of high school age at the time. They elbowed most of the family out of the way when Ed introduced the Fab Four, appropriating front row seating mere inches from the glimmering screen. His friend, Jimmy, carried on like a kid on Christmas morning, continually slapping my brother on the back and saying, “Howle, these guys are unbelievable! I’ve never heard anything like them!”
Jimmy had an amazing grip of the obvious.
For the most part, our parents watched in detached silence, shaking their heads and looking at each other with that “The end of the world is near’ look that parents of every generation give one another when confronted with things that lure their children away from those safe, comfortable, and known entities that they have come to understand in their lifetime.
As for me, I was pretty much oblivious to anything going on around me in the room. I was glued to the images and sounds emanating from the television. The look, the sound, the harmonies, the electric guitars – all combined to overload my leetle tadpole brain’s comprehension. Well, except for one thing:
The hundreds of screaming, crying, trembling, hysterical young girls all aflitter in the studio audience.
My my own admission, I was not exactly the brightest coin in the change drawer as a child. I’m sure there are those who would attest that to remain true even today. But at that moment, somewhere between “She Loves You (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah)”, “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” – for the first time in my short life – I absolutely, positively knew what I wanted to do.
The next morning, I called my best friend, “T” Gamble, and laid out the plan. As plans go, it was incredibly simple: we needed to acquire electric guitars. Pronto.
My parents had given me an inexpensive little plastic guitar the previous Christmas, in which I initially showed little interest. I zoomed right past it, pursuing the assortment of toy cars that captivated my attention. When my mother asked me if I was going to play my guitar, I looked at it quizzically. I didn’t know how to play a guitar; I was taking piano lessons, and learning to play trumpet in the school band. To give me incentive, she picked it up and started saying stuff like, “Look, you can be the next Elvis if you learn how to play this thing”, mugging for the family as she crooned her version of “You Ain’t Nothing But A Hound Dog” while strumming air chords.
Now, I liked Elvis in his movies, mostly because they usually involved lots of cars and Ann Margret. But I didn’t have the heart to tell her that – as a singer – I thought Elvis sucked. As it turns out, Frank Sinatra and I were on the same page on this one: Elvis implemented a singing style that embraced a complete lack of enunciation. I also realized that this was heresy in the South at the time; I more or less kept my opinion to myself. And so, the plastic guitar soon became fodder for “T” and me to engage in our impression of “Quick-Draw McGraw’s” cartoon character “El Kabong”, where it was “kabonged” into little pieces with delightful vigor.
But now, there was an urgency in wanting to learn everything about a guitar. I enquired around school that day and discovered someone had a Sears & Roebuck Silvertone electric guitar stashed away in the band’s instrument room. I received permission to use it, then sought out John Ranson, a high school guitarist who had a little three-piece band. I’m sure he had better things to do than while away the hours. showing a little kid like me how to play guitar, but he took enough time to show me four chords.
Thirty minutes. Four chords. The mold was cast.
I wasn’t able to take the Silvertone home, so “T” and I practiced on a ukulele he had. That eventually turned into a bit of a handicap, as learning how to play four strings didn’t exactly carry over to a guitar with six strings. So, for a long time, I never played the low “E” or “A” strings.
But this didn’t really matter. As Rod Stewart once told Barbara Walters during one o her interviews, “I hate to dash your dreams, love, but almost all of my songs consist of three or four chords. That’s it. It’s not rocket science, love”.
As “T” and set about mastering the guitar via the ukele, we began to search for friends who wanted to form a band. No, not just a band – a rock ‘n roll band.
I don’t remember exactly how it came to be, but we recruited our friend, Van Wright, to play bass. Not long after that, we convinced another friend, Ronnie Talbert, to become our drummer.
And just like that, doggone if we didn’t have ourselves an honest-to-goodness rock ‘n roll band.
Well, it may have been a little presumptuous to have called ourselves a band in the beginning. We made a lot of noise, that’s for sure. And if nothing else, we were loud; because everyone knew if you wanted to be good, you had to be loud.
I think Van bought the first amplifier in the band. Actually, he built his rig; it was a kit from the Heath Electronics cataglogue. After switching from guitar to organ, “T got a little Realistic P.A. amp from Radio Shack. I was the only one still “unplugged”.
And so began the relentless assault on my parents consciences as Christmas bore down on the Howle household. I implored them to save me from the taunting and ridicule of those accusing me of being a “poser”; to allow me to define my dignity with my own guitar and amp. For the first time in my life, I volunteered for yard work, or housework, or anything that might put me in their good graces by Christmas Day. And I prayed a whole bunch.
When that Christmas morning came around, I broke tradition from my usual “It’ll be there when I get up” routine and nervously approached the den. I inhaled deeply and closed my eyes before entering the room. Then I faced the tree and opened my eyes, still holding my breath.
And there, nestled against the tree, was the most beautiful sight my leetle eyes had ever beheld.
It was a beautiful Teisco Del Ray ET-220 double-pickup, solid body, cherry sunburst guitar, with a Mother-of-Pearl Flower inlay pickguard, and a tremolo tailpiece. Sitting behind it was a 5-watt solid state amplifier; complete with vibrato, glistening with sparkled grill cloth and simulated leather vinyl cladding. It was exactly like the one I had circled in the Bennett Brothers of Chicago mail-order catalogue.
I think it was the only time I ever cried on Christmas.
– Next Issue –
The Birth of The Trio Conspiracy
The previous series of articles originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, 2000.