Friday, June 17, 2011

It Was Only Rock 'n Roll

Woodstock. It happened. And everything that happened there became bigger than life because... because, they made a movie about it and they made an album about it and they made a memory shrine of it. Not only do we remember the groups, we remember the little things that were said between songs because they got repeated again, and again.

One thing I remember about Woodstock (no, I was not there) is thinking to myself what a potpourri of acts this was. You had legends like The Who and Hendrix, and then you had someone like Richie Havens and a group like Sha Na Na. Where did those guys come from?

Sha Na Na was a Fifties style retro group that was so relatively new that by the time they appeared at Woodstock they still didn't even have an record label yet. You no doubt recall their shimmery gold outfits and lively whirl through "At the Hop." It was all about putting on a show. It's the entertainment business, and promoters will throw anything together if it can turn a buck. Hendrix followed Sha Na Na, making famous his unique rendition of the Star Bangled Banner to a dawn desolation littered with the debris left behind by the Woodstock Nation. No matter. The album captured it for posterity.

A few years later, while in college in Ohio, I got to see another Rock 'n Roll revue that was on tour, again with Sha Na Na in the lineup. This road show was a far more cohesive team in terms of the music and acts that performed. They were bringing the Fifties to the Seventies. Headliners included Chuck Berry, The Coasters, The Shirelles, and Sha Na Na among others. Unlike the Folk Festival the year before, which included Mary Travers and the Youngbloods, there were no Viet Nam War protest overtones. This was that "canned innocence" that rock 'n roll was supposed to be with sock hops and bobby soxers.

I was in a funky blue mood that evening though. My seat for much of the concert was in the front row, behind the stage. It gave me an almost jaded viewpoint as I watched some of the setups and saw the way the groups worked the crowd. The gold outfits of Sha Na Na had loose threads like they were getting worn out but didn't have the money to replace them. And Chuck Berry looked like he was getting a little tired of doing that ever popular bent-knee leg kick strut across the stage. It's a little like three year olds when you give them a big toss up into the air, and they laugh and say, "Again!" Sometimes crowds are so easy to please.

In short, I had a cynic's take on the night. Rock 'n roll shows like this one were a strange bubble that people could escape into. And yet, the music these people gave us... it's been woven into the fabric of our lives in so many ways. The old classics always give us a lift.

All these memories come to mind because I read a small news story yesterday that Carl Gardner, lead singer and co-founder of The Coasters, just passed. You probably know a few of his songs. "Poison Ivy" was big way back when. "Charlie Brown" is hilarious fun. "Why's everybody always pickin' on me." And the classic, "Yakety Yak." "Don't talk back!" Yakety-yak, yakety yak.

Gardner loved being a performer, his career in entertainment running fifty years. Thank you, Mr. Gardner, for the fun you brought to so many lives through your music.

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