By Brian M. Howle
(Note: To bring you up to speed from the last installment: My first band, The Trio Conspiracy, had just finished recording our first original songs over at radio station WKYB in Hemingway, with the patience and encouragement of their Program Director/DJ, G. Stephen Green. He gave us a copy of the tape, and told us our songs would be played on the air the next afternoon. We were all giddy with anticipation, thoroughly excited at the prospect of having our masterpiece compositions shared with the rest of the free world.)
We had been practicing and playing for about three years, and now the big “payoff” was upon us. Gigs were booked with regularity around our little town. And while we may not have been the greatest band assembled, we were doing pretty darn good for a bunch of kids in a small Southern town in the late 1960’s.
All in all, life was good.
There was one nagging little thing that kept eating away at me, though. It flared up every time I saw any band on television, lip-syncing their latest hit. And it really, really ticked me off to see those guys, faking their own recorded music, with those huge amplifier stacks behind them.
Because, you see (and anyone not in a band usually didn’t), they weren’t even plugged in to those huge amplifiers.
Now, poser T.V. bands didn’t bother me. As David Spade once pointed out in reference to “The Partridge Family” T.V. show, “Laurie Partridge, smiling and singing, not really playing her keyboards, not even plugged in.” I knew how that deception worked.
But I would see the Rolling Stones or The Doors or The Turtles or whoever; smiling, lip-syncing and playing air guitars. And those huge Marshall or Fender or Vox amp stacks just stood there, nothing more than silent, expensive stage props. I would glower across the room at my little 2’x2’, 3.5-watt amp and simply fume.
No doubt about it. I wanted that look. And that sound.
Well, it had been a couple of years since I pestered my folks into giving me my guitar and amp from Christmas, so the push was on. There was no way I could keep my sanity until the next Christmas. In my mind, the only thing keeping me from sounding like Jimi Hendrix was that puny little amp. Of course, figuring in talent and ability didn’t come near my equation process, but, hey – as I’ve said many times before – I wasn’t a particularly bright kid.
And so, while wandering around Sam Soloman’s Merchandise Showroom on East Bay St. in Charleston on a shopping trip with my folks, I spotted an inexpensive amp (compared to real amps like Marshalls or Fenders) in their electronics department. It was a “piggy back” style amp that had a big, twin-12” speaker cabinet, and a separate amp head that sat on top. It was some off-brand called Norma (I never saw another Norma amp in my entire life), and it was only 40 watts – but that was 36.5 more than the one I had grown to loathe.
After months of moaning and begging, my parents finally gave in. They asked my brother (and personal hero), Jack, to take me to Charleston to buy the amp, and gave him the money. Cooler still, we left the morning after our very first – and only – recording session over in Hemingway, S.C., at WKYB-AM radio station.
On the way down, I was ecstatic. The band was happenin’, our songs were going to be played on-air that afternoon, and I was finally gonna get my “stack”. Then my brother dropped a colossal “bummer” on me when he matter-of-factly mentioned in passing, “Well, I just hope for your sake that they haven’t sold it already.”
Gee, thanks, bro. I really needed to hear that.
When we got there, I raced into the store in a panic. Zooming past shoppers, I negotiated the aisles until I turned the corner where the electronics were on display. And then, my frayed nerves, rapid pulse and labored breathing smoothly, blissfully returned to normal.
For there, towering above the baby amps and seemingly beaming a heavenly glow, was my beloved amp stack.
I ran my hand over the smooth vinyl covering, leaning in close to savor the smell (sorta like “new car” smell) – allowing it to meander through my olfactory receptors and flood my senses – as one might employ while swishing around a brandy sniffer.
By the time my brother caught up with me, I had pinned down a salesman. I immediately asked for a new, boxed amp, and he retreated to the stockroom to check. Continuing to run my hand over the vinyl, my fingers encountered a ragged edge, and my glee was momentarily tempered by a small cut on the top edge of the amp head. It wasn’t huge; it didn’t affect the performance in any way, but it was a defect nonetheless. No biggie; after all, this was just the floor demo.
It went from “no biggie” to a major problem when the salesman returned. “Sorry, that’s the only one we have in stock,” he began, “and, we bought this line last year as a one-time deal, so we can’t order another one.”
Just as I was about to have a hugely premature stroke, my brother sensed my angst and chimed in. “Well, sir, there’s a small cut on the covering of this one.” Jack said, showing off his shopping savvy and wisdom for his little brother. “Do you think you could you give us a break on the price, like when you have a ‘scratch & dent’ sale?”
My hero came through again.
The salesman thought for a second or two, and then said, “Well, I don’t see why not. This is a discontinued model, and (he looks around like we might be spilling national security secrets or something and then leans back in) it’s been here forever … Sure, I’ll tell ya what I’ll do; I’ll give you five dollars off. That O.K. with you?”
I looked at Jack for approval. He nodded in the affirmative.
“Let me check it over one more time, then,” I replied, as I moved the lighter amplifier head from atop the heavy speaker cabinet. Jack reached into his pocket for the cash that my parents had entrusted in him, as the salesman began to write up a receipt. But, when I turned the unit around, I discovered another small cut on the back of the amp head. Not only that, I found four more on the back of the speaker cabinet.
Before I spoke up, I had a moment of deviant brilliance.
“Oh wow, gee, hmmm … Sir, there’s another cut on the back of the head. Do I get another five bucks off for that, too?” I implored, using my best “poor-little-nearly-devastated-kid” look and assuasive tone.
He immediately looked at my brother, and figured another five bucks wouldn’t hurt. “Sure, kid,” he smiled, “today it’s five bucks for each imperfection, O.K.?”
“REALLY? Oh, that’s way cool, bud,” I merrily exhorted. “Oh wow, look … there are more cuts on the back of the speaker cabinet. Let’s see … one, two, three, four .. plus the first two … O.K., so that’s $30 off, right?”
The salesman was speechless. He stood there, mouth agape, searching in his mind for a way out of this. Then, Jack looked up from behind the cabinet and said, “Well, you did say five bucks for each imperfection. And there are six of them, right?”
Wiley double-teamed and outwitted by the Howle brothers, his body language reflected the defeat. “Yeah, O.K., sure, whatever,” he muttered, as he demonstratively scratched through the writing on the receipt, hurrying to close the deal before I could find something else wrong with the amp.
We triumphantly carried the amp and speaker cabinet out to the parking lot, and carefully loaded it in the trunk of Jack’s GTO. I was absolutely beaming.
“Well, Brian, dad gave us $100 for the amp,” Jack began coyly, “so we have $30 left over. What would you like to do with it?”
I softly closed the trunk lid and smiled at him. “I think I’d like to treat my brother to lunch.”
We thoroughly enjoyed our meal at Morrison’s Cafeteria, congratulating ourselves on our wheeling & dealing skills. As we left Morrison’s, I noticed the time, and we jumped into the GTO and headed back towards home. It was about 4:35 p.m., and our songs were scheduled for air at 5:00 p.m. I nervously dialed in WKYB’s frequency on the AM dial, as it occurred to me only then that we were over 100 miles from their broadcasting tower. I became very nervous, because WKYB had a meager 5,000 watt transmitter.
An avowed Ford man, I sang the praises of General Motors and their Delco electronics division as the GTO’s radio pulled in the signal, strong and clear. A few miles outside of Charleston, G. Stephen Green “ramped” an intro to our tunes, a taped tympani drum rumbling in the background.
And then – just like The Beatles – my buddies and I were having our songs played on the radio.
The reality of driving down Highway 41 with my brother at my side, with my new amp in the trunk, listening to my band on the radio was overwhelming. There simply are no words that could fully described the plethora of emotions I experienced during that 14 minute set. Jack quietly shared in my joy, waiting until the last notes of the final song faded away before finally speaking up.
“I guess you know that, since I’m the one who drove you guys over there and all,” he dryly emoted, “that I get a percentage of your royalties for that.”
“No problem, Jack,” I grinned, “Any record company that signs us up, you’re our agent. Until then, I’ll give you half of everything we make from it … which, right now, is nothing!”
As the ‘60s came to a close, most of America was being torn apart by civil strife, political upheaval and the war in Vietnam, and the music scene was morphing to reflect these changing mores. But, for the most part, we had stayed aloof from the hot-button issues of the day in our quiet little town.
The protective sheltering of simplistic life in Andrews was torn away from me when Jack graduated from Wofford College. An ROTC cadet, he accepted a commission into Officer’s Candidate School, and was sent to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. Upon completion, he got his orders for duty in Vietnam. Very early one still Carolina morning, my dad, Jack’s best friend, Jimmy, and I drove through the pre-dawn darkness to Pope Air Force Base in Fayetteville, N.C. We attempted upbeat, polite conversation – but the foreboding seriousness of what my only brother was about to undertake was palpable and inescapable. For me, the concept of personalized mortality was foreign and vague, at best – until now.
We stood in the bluish-purple glow of dawn, shaking his hand and hugging him as we bid him good luck, and then silently watched him board the C-130 military transport. Then the propellor-driven giant lumbered down the runway, slowly lifting into the air, banking to the left and disappearing behind the clouds – and we prayed. My dad, a WWII veteran who was always gregarious and full of corn-pone humor, was uncharacteristically quiet. We kept our silence all the way back to Andrews.
That afternoon, I plugged my guitar into my new amp and began strumming random chords. All that happiness and unabated, selfish joy from celebrating the radio debut and buying the amp – just months before – was gone.
It’s probably important to note that, unlike the differences that were tearing the nation apart at the time and broadcast on television every night, people in my little town didn’t share in that view. I’m sure there were those who disagreed, morally and politically, and who were members of the “loyal opposition.” But they didn’t feel the need to violently demonstrate, scream obscenities at or spit upon anyone in uniform, or burn the flag.
I sat down and wrote an inspired song called “Leaving,” and introduced it to the guys that day. They all quickly learned their parts.
Shortly afterwards, during a club-sponsored fashion show at school, we were once again the “entertainment” portion of the production.
Partly as a goof; mainly as a tribute to him, I wore one of Jack’s Army uniforms and became the finale of the fashion show. I wrote the copy for the M.C., and sauntered onstage replete with McArthuresque dress hat and Pattonesque lighted cigar in hand, as the M.C. descriptively evoked:
“Brian Howle is fashionably attired for a full day of killing communists in a snazzy little ensemble that’s very popular in our country today among young men, 18-30. Rugged and long-wearing, it is available in green or blue only, but comes with complimentary laundering and a two-to-four-year guarantee.”
The students and teachers all hooted and hollered in laughter. Then I joined my bandmates for the closing song. We debuted “Leaving,” an ode to the possibilities of death while serving one’s nation; questioning how anyone could attack not the government’s role in war, but the character and bravery of those who were called upon to put their lives on the line. It was written as a conversation between a soldier on the eve of shipping out to war and his stupid, hippie girlfriend. Who knew I had scooped a plot-point in Forrest Gump 30 years ahead of the movie?
It started out with a guitar lead playing “Reveille,” the iconic bugle tune for waking up the troops, and then turned into the song:
“I’ve got some things I need to say, ‘Cause come the morning, I’m going away;
I’m going off, to Viet Nam, to do my duty for Uncle Sam;
Your eyes are telling everything on you, For once, they’re showing me the real you;
You hate the establishment and don’t know why, And yet, for you, I may well die.
Well, I’m leaving, going over there;
Yes, I’m leaving, to do what’s fair;
I’m gonna fight for democracy;
Even if it means I lose an arm, or if I can’t see …”
It ended with the guitar lead turning into “Taps.”
The whole school cried.
And I discovered the cathartic release of composing, and the joy of touching the souls of others through words.
– Next Issue –
The Great Williamsburg Electric Co-Op Show Blackout
The previous series of articles originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, 2000.