by Jack Alcott
I wasn’t sure what he meant about the band. I mean, I got that he wanted me to play bass and I vaguely recalled that the original bassist had died in some drug mishap that led to their breakup. But I’d only just graduated high school and was headed to college in the fall, so I figured gramps wanted me to fill in temporarily until he found a permanent and age-appropriate musician. But as I was to learn later on, and much to my parents’ consternation, that was not his program.
Gramps always said rock ’n’ roll would never die. And though it wasn’t his intention, for me that phrase always conjured images of the undead vigorously partying and frugging, or whatever they called it, to a really noisy bar band in Hell. Robyn Hitchcock and his ancient rocking Egyptians, or maybe The Ungrateful Dead, which is how I thought of them, tweaking the name of one of gramps’ favorite bands from 1 million B.C.
The day the Beatle bass arrived, I was in gramps’ basement helping him turn it into a music studio, really just a rehearsal space with some prehistoric analog recording gear he’d dusted off and tinkered with until he got it working again. A Fed Ex deliveryman brought the axe right to gramps’ door. It came in one of those old rectangular “coffin” cases and when I opened it up, there lay the instrument on a gorgeous bed of purple crushed velvet. I mean, from where I stood, that electric bass was a work of art.
“It’s a brand new reissue,” gramps said. “Exactly like the original but with better electronics... Kind of like me!”
I could only stare with awe at the thing, with its orange and whiskey sunburst and thick, cable-like strings. Now gramps had taught me a few chords on guitar and I had a good ear, he said, for picking out single-string melodies — but I’d never played a bass, and it looked intimidating.
“C’mon kid,” gramps finally said. “Quit admiring her and let’s plug her in.”
I picked it up out of the case and right away could feel how sleek and smooth the neck was, and how easily the strings pressed against the fret board. It played with a certain silky, tactile perfection and I felt something electric shoot through my fingers even though it wasn’t jacked into an amplifier yet.
Excitedly, I plugged it into a 1960s silver face amp. Gramps had several vintage amps and speakers scattered about the studio, with various guitars on stands and cables snaking everywhere across the floor. A blue-sparkle drum kit was set up on a maroon oriental rug in one corner and an electric piano, its black and white keyboard like a long gap-toothed smile, waited in another.
Several microphones were also set up on stands around the room and all the equipment and wires gave the basement a laboratory kind of feel, as though an experiment was about to begin that might bring something new and different, something even monstrous and galvanizing, into the world. Something fun! There was electricity in the air and suddenly I felt creative and alive; I was ready — dare I say it — to rock.
Gramps taught me a bunch of old songs and basic progressions that day, and he was relentless. We practiced for hours until my fingers felt stiff and arthritic. I finally had to tell him I had to quit, my fingers were numb. Here I was seventeen years old and my hands felt like a geriatric’s. Meanwhile gramps, who at that point looked about forty, was crackling with crazy skinny energy. He was in constant twitchy motion, strumming, singing, throwing down lead guitar hooks and twiddling amp dials. No way I could keep up.
“You’re young, kid. Don’t worry about it,” he told me. “Your fingers will be fine tomorrow when you come back, same time as today. We’ve got a set list to work on if we’re going to make that gig I’ve got lined up in a couple of weeks.”
He walked me to the basement door, and I noticed he’d picked up an open bottle of bourbon along the way.
“Not for you, kid,” he said when he caught me looking at the bottle. “Maybe when you’re twenty-one. Bad for your health — but it takes the edge off my nerves. I’ve always had nerves.”
He opened the basement door onto his grassy backyard and brilliant late afternoon sunshine. “Peace, man,” he said somewhat jokingly, flashing the two-fingered sign and taking a drink straight from the bottle. “The band’s going to be great.”
I remember thinking that maybe reliving the youth you always wanted to live wasn’t necessarily a good thing, and I made a mental note to keep a close eye on gramps. I was already worried that maybe he’d go too far.
And that’s how it went for the rest of the summer. I was in gramps’ rehearsal space and jamming every day and gramps was right — it all came easily and it wasn’t long before I was completely sucked into the whole scene.
Unless you’ve played in a band, it’s hard to explain the feeling you get when the music comes together and everything is clicking. Especially with electric instruments, it’s like the juice just flows right into your body and brain, lighting up every cell and synapse. And then there’s the volume and the power which surges around and through you and blasts you along, propulsive and divine. For some, it’s an out-of-body experience; for me, it’s like surfing a tsunami across an ocean of sound.
Gramps and his band mates from yore, now in various stages of youth restoration, were my fellow surfers and guides. Tater was on rhythm guitar, whanging away on a smoke-green Gretsch hollow-body. His shoulder-length chestnut hair had all its color, but his hairline hadn’t quite returned; he had this Mongol-invader kind of look that he augmented with a greasy Fu-Manchu mustache. They called him Tater — a contraction of “potato” — because when he was a kid he was kind of pale and attenuated like a tuber and rarely went outside, happy to play guitar and indulge his bookish side.
RayMan — his real name was Raymond Mahon — was on keyboards. He was actually the oldest guy in the group, in his late nineties when he got jagged. Now he looked to be in his mid-thirties. As a kid in his early teens in the 1950s he used to hang out in all these Greenwich Village jazz joints.
Later through the 1960s he still sported a goatee and beret, peppered his speech with “y’know man,” and would toss all these bebop riffs and improvised musical meditations into a tune. Here it was decades later and he was still a latter-day beatnik. A ragged, crumbling paperback copy of Kerouac’s Dharma Bums was always positioned like a good luck totem somewhere near his antique Hammond B-3 organ.
Then there was Buzz Burr, the lead vocalist. I’d originally thought gramps was going to handle the singing duties because I’d heard no one knew what happened to Buzz, or where he was. But gramps found him. Buzz was a legend not just in his own mind, but at least in several others, mostly fellow band members.
Gramps blamed the failure of the band back in the day on Buzz. He said he was a self-destructive narcissistic clown who’d do anything to get attention, which was mostly good for the band’s notoriety — except when it wasn’t. Like the time Buzz got totally ’faced at a show when he knew record execs were in the audience.
As if rolling around on the stage and moaning instead of singing wasn’t enough, he had one of his girlfriends — there were many — bring out two big buckets of live fish. Mackerel, gramps said. As his band mates watched in horror but kept the power chords going, Buzz began flinging the live and flip-flopping fish into the audience.
Pretty soon dozens of silver-flashing fish were arcing through the air every which way, and pandemonium broke loose. It was a great and delirious rock ’n’ roll moment — but it was only a moment. One of the fat mackerel smacked into the top exec’s head, getting him right in the eye. He had to be rushed to the hospital for surgery. End of the band’s career, or so gramps said.
Photos from the time show Buzz in all his bizarre glory. For starters, he was six feet seven inches tall, wore his hair in a modified beehive the color of a Creamsicle and had a tattoo of Curly from The Three Stooges on his right bicep, Moe on the left.
In the late 1960s, his preferred stage wear included sleeveless black shirts, pink velveteen bell-bottoms and yellow lizard-skin cowboy boots. The boots and the beehive hairdo added at least another foot to his already precipitous height. Now this doesn’t sound particularly outrageous by today’s standards, what with all the inter-species fin-and-fur DNA grafts that teens are sporting, but back in ’68 it was an eyeful.
So, okay, what happened to that legendary madman Buzz during the missing years, where did he go?
How about he became an investment adviser for a major international bank? Yep, that’s where gramps found him, wearing a nice suit and still working as a consultant. Turns out, old Buzz was able to fall back on some pretty formidable math and computer skills at the beginning of that whole paradigm shift. Did pretty well for himself, too.
But how does one find one’s inner rock monster after all those years moving petrodollars around the globe or whatever? This was a quandary, and the Buzz that first showed up at rehearsal — and we’re talking the newly young Buzz — had all the charisma and badass attitude of a certified public accountant. He was dressed conservatively in khakis and a white polo shirt and actually wore cordovan-tasseled loafers. The goofball tattoos had long since been removed and the orange beehive was now a crew-cut.
So it was quite a shocker the first time I met Buzz. We were all assembled in the basement, fiddling around with our various amps and instruments, noodling along on a couple of new songs — gramps was writing originals again, and I’ll come back to that later.
In fact, when Buzz first arrived, I just kept playing on the bass; I thought he was an insurance salesman or something, and it didn’t occur to me he could be the Dionysian rock god of gramps’ near mythological stories. He just looked like any other middle-aged square to me. Since I’d picked up the bass, I’d started to adopt a hipster outcast persona myself; if you’re in a band, it’s inevitable.
When gramps motioned for me to stop playing and then introduced me, I was dumbstruck. I mean, I’d been hoping for this amazing legend to show up, blow us all away, and take the band to the next level. Instead, here was this wimpy guy with skinny legs and arms stretched out like taffy, a crew cut and tasseled loafers.
A glance around the room told me the other guys were equally miffed.
Gramps scanned their faces, peered down at the floor a moment, and laughed.
“All right,” he said when he looked up again. “Buzz needs some reprogramming, but he’s gonna be fine. Wait and see.”
Then gramps pulled out the bourbon bottle from its hiding place behind his amp, took Buzz by one of his rubbery arms and guided him out the back door. “We’ll be back in a while; keep playing,” he ordered as he closed the door behind him.
We all looked around at each other, puzzled and wondering if this was the end. Without a great front man, we were just another band.
“Not to worry, boys,” RayMan said from behind his Ray-Bans. “Cliff will get him fixed up and in the proper mode, so to speak. He knows what he’s doing.”
Then he began tinkling away on his keyboard and we all joined in on a new spacey number gramps was calling “Future Sapien.”
An hour later or so, gramps and Buzz came stumbling back in, both the worse for wear. Gramps had grass stains all over his white Nehru shirt and a black eye. Buzz had a bloody nose and the sleeves were ripped off his oxford button-down. He was barefoot and had a skinned knee that was still bleeding. They both smelled of bourbon and pot, and their eyes were unfocused and wild. But they were both laughing uproariously and didn’t seem able to stop.
“Let’s go, Burr — buzz a while,” gramps yelled at him, throwing in an uncontrollable “hah, hah, hah.”
Buzz lurched toward the mic stand in the middle of the room, miscalculated, and sent it hurtling in my direction. As I ducked to the side, I caught a glimpse of Buzz’s snakelike arm flicking out and snatching the stand before it hit me. And just like that, we were off and running on “Future Sapien” with Buzz ad-libbing great gouts of lyrics and diving and plummeting around the room as we jammed.
* * *
So gramps had finally coalesced the band he’d been dreaming of for more than fifty years, and he was young again, and so was everyone else.
It was a new world; it really was. When I say everyone, I mean everyone everywhere was young again. You either hadn’t got old yet, or you were on the jaggers. And this epochal change literally happened in the space of a couple of years. The reverberations around the globe were, to use archaic slang, mind-blowing.
First off, all the fears about superannuated baby boomers and X’ers wrecking the economy evaporated. Where once millions of addled grayheads were wobbling inexorably toward extinction with a detour through expensive nursing homes — depleting Medicare and Social Security and so on — they were now once again young, fit and free.
Sure, it wasn’t all good news, and there was some blowback as society convulsed. Suddenly millions of able-bodied men and women were dumped back on an already stagnant job market, and it was rough for a while.
But some of the billions that would otherwise have gone to pay for health care was used to tune-up the oldsters flooding the market. The colleges were filling up again with old-timers, now physically in their twenties and thirties, getting retooled for a new era.
And these folks were veterans of just about every human condition and vocation, and many had led successful lives well into their dotage. Now, most were ready to start over again — no, they were ecstatic to start over — using their renewed vigor and knowledge to kick-start economies all over the world.
Then there was Mars. The colony was booming and the newly young were shipping out in droves, even some of them in their sixties and seventies, although the government didn’t require anyone to leave Earth until they were eighty-nine; then it was compulsory.
The oldsters got a new lease on living and the government got a ready source of labor to terraform the rowdy red planet. Making another rock in the Solar System habitable for the species was an awesome human endeavor, and life was an adventure again, albeit a dangerous one.
So how did the band fit into all this? Well, in gramps’ groovy grand scheme we were going to conquer Earth with our music — and then Mars. Two whole planets! Nobody had done that yet. But he didn’t have much time; eighty-nine was only eight months away for him. That was the deadline.
Copyright © 2013 by Jack Alcott