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  • Writer's pictureGary Gruber

Thanks for the Memories…

Music is transformative. It has the power to elevate the soul above the fray of the day-to-day faster than almost anything else we experience. It can take us back to a simpler time, permitting a re-examination of events we may not have had the capacity to appreciate during the moment.

Back in 1963 I had to maintain my sanity while listening to my mother (who couldn’t carry a tune in a paper bag) warble offkey every day to Johnny Mathis singing “Chances Are”. Even at 14 I knew whatever destiny lay in store for me would evaporate if I couldn’t counter this madness.

Enter The Beach Boys. Me and Dave S. caught them at the Kingston Armory in 1966. I heard “Help Me Rhonda” on the plane ride back from South Korea that summer. Listening to that pounding over the cheap PanAm headphones over and over and over again helped me reconnect to my life in the U.S.A.

It was early December while pulling up to Marc G.’s house in my mom’s ’63 Dodge Polara that “Good Vibrations” began to bellow across the tinny speakers beneath the dash. Something was changing but I couldn’t articulate it. Marc was cold and wanted to go inside but I insisted on hearing the song through. I guess it was a foreshadowing of what was to come.

While I’m still stuck listening to surfing music, my wife-to-be had been at Shea Stadium in ’64 to see The Beatles. ‘See’ is precisely what she described, because the young girls in the stadium were too busy screaming to ‘hear’ anything. It was about the time I was discovering Simon and Garfunkel when she and her best friend were in Greenwich Village watching Jimi Hendrix open for The Monkees. She spent her weekends down there listing to Bob Dylan while I was busy changing the oil on my motorcycle. Talk about a sheltered life…

It was September of 1967 when everything changed, turned on the proverbial dime. I walked into the student union at Duquesne University and “Sunshine of Your Love” was playing at full volume on the jukebox. I stopped, I neatly folded up the Beach Boys and quickly stuffed them into my back pocket, where they stayed for the next 30 years or so. It was a good two weeks of listening to “I am the Walrus” before I asked someone who was doing that catchy little number. I thought they were yanking my chain when they told me it was The Beatles.

I didn’t need anything else. “Somebody to Love” rounded out the trifecta, and until two of my muses (Sally and Tinker) woke me up at 2am to hear “Both Sides Now” over the telephone while they chimed along in a way that only dead-drunk-on-Ripple-women could do at that hour, I only needed those three songs to keep me going.

Unfortunate circumstances brought me back to Wilkes College for my second year, and had it not been for Dave and Barry, and their influence on my musical tastes, it might have been a totally lost 12 months. Dave started me on the road to a life-long fascination with The Who. In fact, when I made the journey to California in 1974, each morning began the same way, with “Who’s Next”. Baba O’Riley kickstarted me further west every time I played it.

Barry taught me about The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin. I wasn’t really collecting albums at this point in my life, because the $1.15/hour I earned working at Camera City didn’t take me that far. Shirley and I danced to Steppenwolf over at Kings College every Saturday night – I could also do the entire 17 minute version of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida without missing a beat or fading away on the dance floor.

Life exploded for real in 1969 when I made it to Syracuse University. Non-stop concerts were the order of the day. I saw Led Zeppelin on their first U.S. tour – they opened for The James Gang. What I thought was guitar playing was actually Robert Plant singing. That was impressive. My friend Steven bought The Stones “Let It Bleed” the week it dropped and played it over the loudspeaker in the control room at the dorm. That is still one of my all-time favorite albums. Eight perfect songs, no filler. Incomparable. Never equaled by anyone, anywhere…

Elton John in a small venue was electrifying. It was the beginning of his career and nary a peep was heard as he blazed through number after number. Being five feet from Nils Lofgren as he performed “Slippery Fingers” was, well, as spiritual as I could get at 19.

At the Munich Pop Festival (summer semester abroad) I watched Ozzy Osbourne bite the head off a live chicken. The applause was only surpassed by his salmonella the next day. I’ve been to the graveyard outside of Paris where Jim Morrison is buried – a fitting resting place indeed.

When I met Phyllis the next year, I took her to see Ten Years After. She fell asleep. To my knowledge, no one in the history of the world has ever fallen asleep at a live, acid rock concert. I checked, I did the research, no one else. Bonnie Raiit actually shook the foundation of the venue on campus when she performed with Randy Newman. I had never heard a female do slide guitar before, and I haven’t heard anyone equal her performance since then.

Phyllis and I went to Madison Square Garden in NYC to see Johnny Winter and Alice Cooper. We opted for a fire exit at the end of the show – a big mistake – because the doors actually kept getting smaller and smaller as we descended each successive flight of stairs, until we came to about a 24 inch square exit in the basement. We panicked and ran back up the six flights to where we started only to find the doors only opened one way, and it wasn’t our way. 20 minutes of pounding on the steel door finally drew the attention of one helpful soul who saved us from certain death that night – being trapped in a rabbit hole of our own choosing.

Watching Papa John Creach sizzle on the fiddle at the Filmore East with Hot Tuna was outrageously good.

Phyllis’ brother was in the music biz, so our arrival in California saw us getting special access to many concerts. One night at The Troubadour, Little Feat was playing, one of his acts. Lowell George came over to our table to say hello. We rattled off a list of songs we wanted to hear – and Lowell made his playlist that evening from our suggestions. The Troubadour was a small, informal setting for a concert, so when we scored Elton John tickets, we were elated. Being a long time blues fan, listening to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee at the same venue was just short of bliss.

We watched Prince open for The Rolling Stones at a raceway outside of Los Angeles, and promptly get booed off the stage by his second number. A limo took us to the after party for the premiere of Prince’s “Purple Rain”, and we were knee deep in music celebrities for hours. I photographed him during the production of his first MTV music video. One Saturday afternoon I was at Buddy’s house in Encino (Phyllis’ brother), and he asked me if I wanted to Fly to Los Vegas to catch Earth, Wind, and Fire, another of his acts. We shared a limo to the hotel with football player / actor / celebrity Jim Brown, who had two young women in tow. They so thoroughly embarrassed him during the ride that he unceremoniously dumped them as soon as we reached the hotel.

While Earth, Wind and Fire were great, the highlight of the evening was whizzing next to Cheech Marin in the men’s room… I was flying solo one Saturday evening and managed to score a front row seat for Arlo Guthrie in Santa Monica – but never managed to find my way to it. A roadie befriended me and got me a backstage pass. We sat less than 10 feet from the piano as Arlo performed.

McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica had the most intimate venue we found anywhere – well under 100 seats. Before they built a raised platform for the acts, we sat about four feet from John Hammond Jr. as he belted out the blues. Lost track of the number of times we drove the 140 miles from our home in the desert to listen to Ray Wylie Hubbard and Jorma Kaukonen, two of our favorites. I believe we made at least seven trips to San Diego to catch Kenny Wayne Shepherd, undoubtedly our much-loved guitarist. George Thorogood and Z Z Top made yearly visits to the desert, and we never missed them.

We voraciously consumed as much live music as we could. Every time I bought a car the first item in it was 4-6 speakers and a mucho gusto amplifier. An iPod became my weapon of choice. In 1997 at our 30th high school reunion I had 4500 songs on that miniature music machine. Carol M. became by music muse after an offhand remark she made to me that night inspired me to fill out my collection. 20 years and several gigabytes later, that list swelled to over 13,000 songs. Blues, Rock & Roll, Country, Bluegrass -- even a touch of Pop made its home there.

Every day starts the same way: While I’m sitting in the driveway waiting for the car to warm up, I choose one playlist to warm up my blood. As my mood swings from here to there as the hours pass, so does the music.

“When the music’s over, turn out the lights…”

Prince, 1980

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