Laziness…Luck…or something else?

unidentified junior high-age hillbilly kid with makeshift drumkit (including homemade parts and broken cymbals) in undisclosed rural house with no indoor plumbing, circa 1979

Driving back to the house last night, Danny volunteered from the back seat:

“I don’t think I can be a Formula One driver.”

I immediately asked the obvious question – why? – and his response surprised me a bit.

“I think I’m probably too lazy.”

That sparked a conversation about why he perceived himself in that light, and a pretty lengthy discussion about the roles that talent and opportunity play in the arc of a persons’ life, and whether it’s fair to self-identify as “lazy” when the truth is probably closer to the notion that he lives in a world mostly devoid of opportunity to pursue such things.

Wendy (Danny’s mom) has often said of herself that she’s intimidated by trying things if she can’t do them at a certain level of proficiency right out of the gate…it’s not a fear of failure as much as a fear of humiliation, and Danny certainly shares that.  His frustration boils to the surface almost immediately if he doesn’t meet his own standards in pretty short order, and if he falls too far short of his expectations, it can get ugly.  

None of this is to say that I don’t fall on my own sword on a regular basis when I don’t live up to my own expectations…I’ve never exactly been a bottomless well of self-confidence at any point in my life.  I think that the difference might be that I channel that frustration into anger and use it as fuel to push myself to get as close to my own standards as I can (with some things, anyway…fiddle – as fate would have it – was not one of them).

As we were talking last night, though, I think I realized two things that had never really occurred to me before.

ONE – there’s literally zero reason I ever should have had ANY degree of success whatsoever in the music business.

(and yeah, the whole “definition of success” wormhole is right there, waiting for whoever wants to descend into it to take that leap…for the purposes of this conversation, I define it as “learning to play several instruments, training my ear to the degree that I’ve been able to play in bands, write songs, record in studios and make records that I love for artists I love and for myself”, yada yada…” – seriously, none of those things should have been available to me.)

I was born in Savannah, Tennessee in 1965 and spent my formative years there…other than being just across the state line from Muscle Shoals, there was very nearly NO musical community there.  A few bluegrass pickers and hobbyists here and there, but it was very nearly non-existent.  By the time I reached my teens, I’d managed to find a few like-minded folks here and there, but there were a total of maybe three bands in my hometown…even then.

When the band Alabama played at the football stadium in my hometown in 1980 or so, I think every local band within an hours’ drive was also on the bill as an opener.

My transformation from a comic book-and-baseball obsessed kid into a radio-addicted pre-teen and teenager was one hundred percent internal.  I would stand at the magazine rack at the supermarket and read Circus and Creem and Hit Parader while my mom pushed the cart up and down the aisles.  I listened to the radio incessantly, formulating hundreds of questions in my head about why this band sounded different from that band, I formed allegiances at junior high school based on music and…well, not much else, really.  It’s pretty much all I gave a shit about, so I didn’t really want to be bothered hanging out with kids who didn’t love it as much as I did.  Thank God I found a few.

The fact that I managed to overcome all that and learn what I did and put that information to use is…well, the more I think about it, the more it kinda blows my mind.  I’ve thought about it quite a bit, into the wee hours this morning and throughout the day today as I’ve mulled it all over.

There’s no rational reason it ever should have happened for me.

And, yet…

OK, TWO – in my formative years, I was literally too naive NOT to take wildly unlikely and ridiculous chances.

I had a relative – Loyd Stricklin – who worked in radio as an announcer, and when my mother told me about him, I wouldn’t shut up until she introduced me to him…and I became a pain in his ass.  This is not up for discussion, and I won’t be convinced otherwise…there’s just no way the poor bastard didn’t groan inside when he caught sight of me.  Yet, to his credit, he must have seen something in my boundless curiosity and enthusiasm…because he answered all my questions, he suffered my hounding with a great deal of patience, and he even brought me a box of 45’s from the attic of the radio station.

Later, when he opened WKWX, he’d allow visits while he was on the air…and after the other announcers got to know me, they’d let me watch over their shoulders while they worked as well (well, except for Mel Carnal…I don’t think he disliked me, but he certainly didn’t have the patience for my bullshit that Loyd had.

One morning, I was at the radio station when two guys came in – both with long hair and beards, one blond and one brown – bringing copies of a record they’d just made at their brand new recording studio THAT WAS IN MY HOMETOWN.

I couldn’t believe that there was an actual rock band IN SAVANNAH that wasn’t a bunch of old guys in cowboy hats playing Flatt & Scruggs songs or country gospel quartets that played at church on Saturday nights…and here these guys were, in the lobby of the radio station, hawking their new record.

Did I have questions?

I had questions.

And again, they couldn’t have been nicer.

“So do you guys have a drummer?”

“Well, yeah…his name is Korgy.”

“Korgy?”

“Yeah…it’s actually a box with buttons on it…it’s made by Korg, so we call him Korgy.”

The TL:DR version of the conversation – they weren’t actually playing live shows, so for the time being they saw themselves as a songwriting and recording entity more than anything else…they were trying to get the studio going as a profitable entity, and they were making their own records both to promote themselves and their music AND to try to get the studio on the map.

But I was too young and too green not to go ahead and ask:

“So do you guys hire session musicians?”

They both looked at each other, then back at me and said, “Sure – when we need them.  Did you want to audition?”

So these guys gave me their phone number, the address to the studio, directions, and told me what nights they were usually there, and to call when I’d be able to come by and we could play a few songs together and see where I was.

Now, at the time, I was a drummer.

I was a drummer who didn’t really own a legitimate set of drums, but as far as I was concerned, I was a drummer.

These guys didn’t have to give me the time of day, but they did.

I guess they figured that if I had the balls to ask, that they weren’t gonna piss in my cornflakes and tell me I couldn’t…that’s what I tell myself all these years later, anyway.

But, I mean…not only did I not own a gig-worthy set of drums…I didn’t really know how I was gonna get to the studio.  We didnt’ have a car.

But again, because I wasn’t really capable of shame, I suppose…I got my mom to ask my Aunt Betty to drive me from Walnut Grove to Savannah at the appointed hour and she sat and waited for me while I was inside.

I knocked on the door and Frankie Briggs invited me in with his trademark giant smile and re-introduced me to Pat Durbin, who’d accompanied him to the station – and to their guitarist, Jerry Opdycke…who seemed a little irritated at the time at the disruption, but cordial enough. 

Jerry “Opie” Opdycke playing his Ovation acoustic and sportin’ his Gruhn Guitars t-shirt

It was the first time I’d ever been inside a recording studio, and it seems quaint now to think about how awestruck I was by what was essentially an exercise in floor-to-ceiling carpeting with mic stands hanging from overhead and XLR jacks in the ceiling…but I didn’t want to leave.

the control room at Savannah Sound Studios

They sent me into the drum booth and we played three of their original songs and a cover of “Two More Bottles of Wine” and my life was both saved from an inevitable impending mediocrity and irreversibly scarred at the same time.

I already had an inkling of where I wanted to go, but after that night, I was all but certainly useless to whatever academic pursuit of a “career” might have been forced onto my plate later on in school.

nowadays, you can do the work of this equipment with your phone or a laptop. then…totally different story.

Now, I hear you asking yourself already…and I appreciate your indulgence…

“Did I ever get a call from them for a session?”

Well…no.  No, I didn’t.

I went on to play drums in my friend Jeff’s family band and toyed around with a few garage bands in my early teen years, but they never called me for a session.

They called me and invited me to join their band.

It was several years later, and they’d run the studio as best as they could, but they’d decided that they wanted to start playing live shows…and they wanted to hire a drummer and a keyboard player.  

They still had my name and number on a card on the wall of the studio.

So they read me off a short list of songs to learn over the phone, and I went down and got the gig.

Opie, the disgruntled guitarist, became a lifelong friend, hero, role model, confidante, and – later in life – my head cheerleader as things started to go well for me.

When he died almost seven years ago, I learned that he’d left a handwritten note in the case of his beloved Fender Stratocaster leaving the guitar to me.

When I went to his house to help his partner clean out his belongings, she gave me a bunch of his other stuff as well…books, photos, notes…but before I left, I asked her what she was planning to do with the stuff hanging in the closet.

She mentioned that it’d probably end up going to Goodwill, so I grabbed a dozen or so of his shirts from the closet and kept them.  

I don’t think a week has gone by in these past seven years that I haven’t worn one of Opie’s shirts over the course of a Sunday-to-Sunday span.

I actually wore one to work today, and I’m wearing it as I finish scribbling this story down.

If there’s anything to be taken away from listening to me recount all this, hopefully it can simply be that opportunity comes in a LOT of forms.  Sometimes disguised, sometimes accidental, sometimes created out of nothing because we have no idea what the hell we’re doing.

If I hadn’t been green and naive enough to create those opportunities out of those random, serendipitous moments, I’d never have had the life I’ve had.

But if we put ourselves out there and prepare as best as we can for the moment when talent and luck intersect, you never know what will come of it.

Fingerprints and B Sides

The great thing about 45RPM records was that you were getting two songs for the price of one – or at least that’s what it often felt like if you were inclined to flip the record over.

Being a redneck welfare kid for whom records were scarce, I made a habit very, very early on of flipping them over to see what had been thrown in for the price of admission – I didn’t get the chance to buy records often, but when I was old enough to keep a little money that I’d earned from working on my Pop’s farm, I’d prowl around and see what I could find…there was one record store in Savannah, and it didn’t last long, so it was whatever was available at the department store, when I was allowed to go. Otherwise, the occasional yard sale or maybe trading with friends who were sick of their copy of Kansas’ “Carry On Wayward Son” (still have it).

It was by flipping over my copy of Firefall’s “You Are The Woman” that I heard Larry Burnett’s “Sad Ol’ Love Song” and started figuring out the difference between their songwriting and storytelling styles. I had bought a copy of “Barracuda” by Heart in a yard sale batch and discovered “Cry To Me” on the flip side…I don’t remember where I got Nicolette Larson’s “Lotta Love”, but her cover of the Louvin Brothers’ “Angels Rejoiced” on the flip side remained my mother’s favorite song for years and years.

As I got older and found my way around, I started building up a little collection, and I might’ve been exceedingly lucky – I don’t know, because I don’t know many people as weird as I am when it came to this kind of thing – but I often found B-sides that were just as impactful, if not more so, than the flagship song on the record.

I remember over 15 years ago, doing a short tour in the northeast with Jim Photoglo and sheepishly admitting to him that when I bought “When Love Is Gone”, I ended up listening obsessively to “Faded Blue” from the B-side, to the extent of lifting the record changer arm and pulling it over and away from the center of the turntable so the song would repeat, over and over again…if it made him uncomfortable, he never said so – and we’re still friends, so I guess it wasn’t too terribly ill-received.

When I reached my mid to late teens, I started pushing my boundaries – I was never going to be content to work with my hands, and I knew it before anyone else did. I had a cousin who was a partner and on-air announcer at a radio station in town, and when they’d have some reason to go into town, they’d drop me off at the station for a visit – I’d sit, quiet as a mouse against the wall behind the turntables and watch him work, listen to him talk, learned the logs…the whole bit. Later, I finally got a weekend gig working for a competitor in town – the comically-named WORM-FM.

Yes, I’m serious. Here’s a stolen copy of a 10CC 45 with the station stamp on it:

The great thing about WORM (to me, at the time) was that it was a country station that had BEEN a Top 40 station, and there was a bounty of records in the attic that no one had bothered to lay claim to. Sure, all the Grand Funk Railroad stuff was long gone, but I found a ton of records up there that I still have to this day…my copy of the “Half Moon Silver” 45 by Hotel came from an attic raid at WORM, and that song has legitimately left a mark on my life. I found Florence Warner’s Epic records debut in a stack without a sleeve – it had covers of Kenny Loggins’ “Till The Ends Meet”, Todd Rundgrens’ “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference”, Dan Fogelberg’s “Song From Half Mountain” (I hadn’t even heard his version yet, that’s how long ago it was)…as well as an unreleased-to-this-day Fogelberg song called “The Lady Loves The River” and a piano interlude on side two that I’m convinced is his work.

I didn’t have the cover, only the vinyl itself – I used to fantasize about what she looked like…what kind of face that voice came from, and why I never heard anything else about her. TO THIS DAY, there’s almost no information about her anywhere on the internet, I’ve Googled the shit out of her as recently as a few years ago…I did finally find another copy of the album with a sleeve, but no liner notes.

The WORM Attic was a wealth of undiscovered gems, though…and as you might guess, a lot of B sides that I probably wouldn’t have been remotely curious about, were it not for the fact that I’d formed a habit of routinely flipping them over because I had so few records to listen to as a fledgling, obsessed music junkie.

I started to put a few things together – sometimes there were great songs on the flip side, and sometimes it turned out to be something of a contractual fulfillment. If there were two primary songwriters in the band, you could count on the flip side being written by someone other than the person who wrote the single. Sometimes they were filler – songs given to a singer who wasn’t the primary vocalist, instrumentals (“High Sierra” on the flip side of “Ghost Town” by Poco, “Tramontane” on the flip side of “Double Vision” by Foreigner)…but I listened anyway.

One of my favorite B-side bands was Little River Band. THEY DID NOT DICK AROUND WITH B SIDES.

You bought “Lonesome Loser”? Congratulations, you also got “Shut Down Turn Off”!

You bought “Cool Change”? Awesome, you also got to take home my second favorite LRB song of all time, “Middle Man”!

(My favorite song remains “Too Lonely Too Long”, which was never a single, but you can find it on the “Live in America” album…but I digress. Still, listen to this badassery right here…)

I remember being at a friends’ house who had a copy of “The One That You Love” by Air Supply and flipping it over and dropping the needle on a song called “I Want To Give It All” and falling in love with this four note descending arpeggiated guitar part that’s still one of my favorite songs.

The achingly beautiful “Hearts and Crafts” by Dan Fogelberg was a B-side to a single from his Greatest Hits album and didn’t resurface until his “Portrait” box set well over a decade later. Likewise with “Along the Road”, the flip side of “Longer” from the “Phoenix” album – never would have been a single, but was a gift to folks who bought that record.

It’s important to note, however, that for every gem you unearth from the rubble, there are some truly, truly TERRIBLE B-sides out there, as well. If there’s a worse song that “I’m A Marionette” (flip side of “Take a Chance on Me” by ABBA), I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it.

OK, that’s not true. There’s Nicki Minaj.

ANYway…

When I started working in radio, it was still – in my hometown, anyway – very much a vinyl-driven enterprise. The songs you heard on the radio were records, because that’s what we played. It was very much pre-digital, and even though we used cart machines for commercials, we didn’t use them for on-air music like many stations had begun to do by then. But I also found that the records that were sent to radio by major labels DIDN’T HAVE B SIDES! There’d be a mono version on one side and a stereo version on the other, and that was a disappointment, to say the least. I remember getting the white-label MCA copy of “Sea of Heartbreak” from Poco’s “Cowboys and Englishmen” and sure enough…mono and stereo. The only redemption was that not every label cared to service small-market radio stations in towns the size of Savannah, Tennessee, so we’d often have to go out and buy stuff that was charting in the major markets – because HEAVEN FORBID we not be playing what was charting in the towns we looked to in order to reinforce our inferiority complex…so now and then, a retail copy of something would come across the desk.

The last year I spent in town before leaving to join the Navy and never come back, I ended up back at WORM after having left there to work for WLIC in Adamsville and WKWX through the end of high school. My old boss, Tom Wood, had asked me to come work middays for him when he took over at WORM, and I jumped at it…I was out of school and in the DEP (Delayed Entry Program) but Tom welcomed me on anyway.

The cool thing about working for that station at that point in time was that while we were only serviced by a few of the majors, we’d get stuff from indie labels ALL THE TIME…and being a fledgling musician myself, I’d listen to everything that came in the door, and if I liked it, I played it. I played a song called “Music Machine” by a guy on Handshake Records named Mark Gordon Creamer until I started getting requests for it…I don’t know if it ever charted nationally or not, but there were a handful of folks in Savannah who seemed to like it. I’m sure there were other songs that I played that never turned up elsewhere, either – but I learned much later in life that Q-107 in Florence, Alabama did much the same thing…music recorded in Muscle Shoals got priority treatment and a lot of songs that I’d grown up thinking were national hits were a big question mark to people who’d grown up elsewhere. I was just playing songs that I liked…and that Mark Gordon Creamer record had an a cappella intro, and I love me an a cappella intro, so I played the shit out of it.

There was a weird metamorphosis going on, as WKWX was trying to edge into the country market without making a full-on format change, so WORM began creeping towards the middle as well, to the point where both stations were very nearly playing the same songs. You wouldn’t hear George Jones on K-93, but you wouldn’t hear Duran Duran on WORM, either…but there was a lot of shared territory.

As if to illustrate just how far they were willing to go in that direction, Tom comes in one day with a picture sleeve copy of “Physical” by Olivia Newton John.

I thought he was nuts.

He was dead serious, though…he put it in rotation.

I thought “Physical” was bullshit – I’m not gonna lie. Seemed like a gimmicky song recorded by someone who’d largely had their day, and was using a sexy video to rejuvenate her career…so I refrained from playing it.

But I flipped it over.

I’m willing to bet there are folks in Savannah to this day that never want to hear “The Promise (The Dolphin Song) again as long as they live…and to those fine folks, I apologize. Still, that was the song that I gravitated to from that record (that, and staring at the picture sleeve).

When I heard the news today that she’d finally lost her battle to cancer on the day after losing David Muse of Firefall to his own battle with the disease, that song was one of the first to come to mind (as well as “Suspended in Time” and “Whenever You’re Away From Me” from Xanadu – both contenders for B sides in and of themselves).

She’s not prone to repeating this particular sentiment, but I attribute it to her nonetheless when it crosses my mind – Wendy’s notion of “how lucky are we that we ended up here at the same time as this person, or this sports team, or this TV show” and how, at some point, all this will be lost to all but the most voracious historians…but we were here when it was all around us.

In a lot of ways, this post has nothing to do with Olivia Newton-John, but it’s also all about her…and what you might discover if sometimes you’re willing to dig even the slightest bit.

We’ve all lost a lot these past few years…and it seems like I’m saying goodbye to someone every time I sit down to leave a thought here. I guess that’s the cost of growing older, and I have no doubt that it’ll get worse before it gets better, but they’re worth remembering.

This is how I’ll choose to remember her…hopefully sharing a dance with Gene Kelly somewhere tonight.