Making Music

Discovering Dean Atkinson’s now-defunct web site chronicling the homegrown rock bands of Coronado in the 1960s brought back a lot of fading memories that I had better write down before they disappear altogether.

Somewhere in Gr. 8 or 9, maybe, my first group formed—the ‘No-Counts.’ We took the name from a Kingston Trio lyric (“Some people call me a no-count, others say I’m no good”), suggesting both that we would have liked to be seen as dangerous and scruffy (which we were not) and that we had a modest and ironic sense of our own talents. I didn’t own a drum kit, so I had to borrow a snare drum and cymbal from the school bandroom when we played. That’s right, no bass drum. No bass guitar, either, just two guitars and part of a drum set—though we did add a sax later on. These were the days of Silvertone guitars and amps from Sears. Jerry Bowen was the leader. Mike Bradshaw played bass lines on his six-string guitar, and later Bob Mauhar joined us on sax.

I bought a cheap Japanese drum set on installment—$10 a month—and slowly my equipment, and everyone else’s, got better.

The No-Counts didn’t last long. We only played the simplest songs, and mostly instrumentals. We didn’t have a bass player or keyboardist, and we didn’t have much singing talent. I think Jerry Bowen must have moved. But it was a start.

Around Gr. 9 and 10—1965/66/67—everything evolved to a new level. My second group, the Towne Criers, included two guitars, keyboards, bass, and drums. I think the name came from a Paul Revere and the Raiders song title. 1965 was a huge year: “Satisfaction,” “Wooly Bully.” We could play anything we heard on the radio. In our heyday we played at least once every weekend, often twice—school dances, the Yacht Club, the city pool, the VFW hall, even the enlisted men’s club on North Island (a U.S. Naval Air Station). I remember making $15 for a 3-hour gig and thinking, “I’m getting paid to have fun!” For a long time that $5/hour, tax-free, was the best money I had ever made.

The first songs I played with the No-Counts were Ventures tunes: “Walk Don’t Run” and “Pipeline.” I realize now I never owned a single Ventures record, but their influence on us was huge. We played “Wipeout,” “Apache,” “Telstar,” “Let’s Go,” and covered the same songs they covered: “Caravan,” “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” “Green Onions,” “House of the Rising Sun,” “Secret Agent Man,” “Tequila.” Another popular instrumental, by the Marketts, was “Out of Limits.” Later, the Towne Criers kept playing these standards and added more. All the groups played “Money” and “Johnny B. Goode,” and the surf songs that didn’t require too much singing talent: “Surfer Girl” is the one I remember best. When Paul Revere and the Raiders became popular, we covered their songs, and all the songs they covered. The #1 standard, of course, was “Louie Louie.” Not too many groups played Beatles’ songs—they were difficult—but everyone covered the of Rolling Stones: “Time Is on My Side,” “Under My Thumb,” “Get Off My Cloud,” “Heart of Stone,” “It’s All Over Now,” “Mercy Mercy,” “Not Fade Away,” “Spider and the Fly,” “Stupid Girl.”

I didn’t sing, but I do have a memory—I’m not sure whether it was with the No-Counts or early on with the Criers—of singing back-up one time on the Paul Revere and the Raiders tune, “Just Like Me.” I had a tiny tape-recorder mic taped to a music stand, plugged into god-knows-what. “Aah, ah. Aah, ah. Aah, ah. Aah, ah.” We finished the song, the last in the set, and as I was climbing down from the stage a kid came up to me and said, “Wow, man, who was singing the background vocals? It sounded just like the record!” I nearly fell down laughing.

The Criers were a very talented group. Richie Heinz, our bass player, has been playing music around San Diego ever since. Robert Mansueto, rhythm guitar, became a dentist but has remained an amateur musician whose interests moved towards jazz as he grew older. John Chambers was from Chula Vista. As I recall he first came into the Coronado scene with Dugan Richardson. Soon thereafter the Criers got together, and as I understand John has been playing music for many years now as well. John started out playing the accordion but then bought a Farfisa organ, and adding the keyboard really changed what we could do, compared to other bands that only had guitars. By far the greatest talent in the band, however, was Danny Orlino, our Guamanian lead guitarist: a genius, as you will see. All four of them could sing, too.

My mother was very strict, and I needed a car to carry my drums to and from gigs, so early on she would drop me off and then pick me up. Later I would get a drive from somebody who had a car and a license, but I didn’t turn 16 until the summer before Gr. 11, and by then my professional career was over, so I was pretty out of it socially. I played the gigs, then I went home.

We got together for mid-week practices to learn new songs. As soon as a new song hit the charts we would learn it and add it to our repertoire. In those days, no one wanted to hear original music: they wanted to hear their favorite songs from the radio, and they wanted them to sound exactly like the radio. That’s what we did. I remember that we got along fine except at practices, where there was always some kind of argument that resulted in somebody quitting the band. By the weekend, though, they would have cooled off and we kept playing.

It was with the Towne Criers that I reached my peak as a musician. I remember one night playing a school dance in the high school quad when I was ‘in the zone’. I sort of woke up at the end of a complicated fill and thought, “Wow, how did I do that?” Years later I saw the great be-bop vibist Bobby Hutcherson play in a small club in Portland, Oregon. At the end of a long, scorching number that left him gasping for air, somebody called out, “Hey Bobby, what key was that?” “I don’t know, man,” he said, “I was playin’ all of ‘em.” When the technique disappears and you just play what you feel, that’s when it’s magic.

By the age of 15 I had seen a lot of drunks and smoke-filled rooms. We played many times at the Enlisted Men’s club on North Island, where every sailor in the Navy, it seemed, was from Oklahoma. We played “Wipeout,” and for a laugh the rest of the band just left the stage when my solo started, leaving me up there pounding away for what seemed like hours. Afterwards one of the drunken swabbies expressed his overflowing admiration. “You shor’ can play the hell outta them drums, kid!” Good times.

I can’t remember why we did finally break up, but sometime after that I was riffling through albums in a record shop and found the first Jimi Hendrix release, “Are You Experienced?” I had never heard of these guys but the album cover intrigued me so I bought it. After one listen at home I called Richie Heinz: get over here right now! When he heard it, he said something appreciative like “Holy shit!” and we decided we had to play this music.

Here’s where you get a glimpse of Danny Orlino’s talent. We got together at school for one practice. Danny had never heard Hendrix before, but within an hour he had figured out “Purple Haze” and we had it down note-for-note. It was awesome! We got permission to perform at lunchtime, and set up against the wall of the auditorium inside the concrete-and-stucco quad. The lunch bell rang, hundreds of students poured out of classrooms, and at full volume we launched into “Purple Haze.” The crowd went wild, as they say. We played it four or five times in a row. I never had so much fun in my life. And I never got over how quickly Danny learned to play Hendrix.

The Criers had a coda, however: one last gig, at a cowboy bar in Imperial Beach. Strictly for the money. We entertained ourselves by playing Jimi Hendrix tunes and watching the cowboys’ reactions, and then fooled around playing requests like “Lonesome Me” that we had never played before (Neil Young wouldn’t produce his brilliant version for a few years yet). Our first break lasted about an hour. All in all it was a somewhat sad and seedy conclusion to what had been a really impressive run.

Jimi Hendrix was one of the great transformers who changed the music forever. By the time he arrived on the scene I was a bit bored with the straight 2-and-4 of most rock songs, so playing like Mitch Mitchell was glorious, almost a non-stop drum solo. Of course, just as Charlie Parker spawned thousands of boring, endless sax solos by untalented imitators, so Hendrix’s pyrotechnics led to a whole lot of really bad music. But Hendrix also helped me to recognize that a musical career was not in my future.

One weekend evening I got myself smuggled into the Junior Officers’ club on North Island to hear the Centaurs, who were to me legendary superstars. They had a new drummer, Carl Spiron. He was 4-5 years older than I, but he had only been playing for a couple of years, whereas I had started in the school band program when I was eight years old. He had good time, but didn’t do much that really impressed me. During one of the breaks we got chatting and I showed him the Mitch Mitchell lick from “Little Miss Lover” that I’d been working on for 2-3 weeks. “Do that again,” he said. In less than five minutes Carl had it down pat and could play it faster than I could. I knew I was done. Not too long after that Carl was playing with unbelievable chops in the power trio, Framework.

I believe it was that same night when I heard Drew Gallahar, the Centaurs’ bassist, say that Big Brother and the Holding Company played ‘trashy’ music. The remark (which embarrassed Drew when I shared this memory with him) stuck with me because I had such respect for Drew and the rest of the Centaurs as musicians. They were well-trained, and highly skilled; they read and composed music, and more than one of them played multiple instruments. So Drew’s passing remark really made me think about popularity vs. quality, about the importance of musicianship, and about the way a ‘trashy’ song like “Louie Louie,” recorded as a demo in one take by the The Kingsmen, could become a classic and could have an energy that made its obvious shortcomings as a piece of music irrelevant. Meanwhile, really superb musicians might never reach such success. And then, of course, people like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix might combine musical genius with great popularity and musical success.

One more Hendrix-related story: Dave Vaughan was a couple of years older than I, a very talented drummer blessed with good looks and a great drum kit. He could play circles around me. One night there was a gig with lots of musicians jumping in and out, and for some reason both Dave and I played on “Purple Haze,” more or less back-to-back. Somebody came up and told me I had played it better than Vaughan, which was flattering in a wishful sort of way, but I knew the truth: I played it exactly like Mitch Mitchell, while David played it his way.

A lot of these talented musicians got their start in the school band program. When I was in Gr. 4 Mr. Granzer, the junior high band teacher, visited our class with a bunch of instruments and gave us the pitch. I took the form home and showed it to my mother, who figured that whatever I chose, it would last no more than two weeks, so better to choose the cheapest option, which turned out to be drums: a pair of sticks and a practice pad. Five years later the poor woman was living with a rock ‘n roll drummer.

After that I had regular lessons with Mr. Granzer until Gr. 7, when I joined the junior high band. The man who inspired us all, however, was Lauren Sanders, the high school band teacher, who created a jazz band in addition to the regular school band. His senior groups amazed the whole community in their concerts, won competitions all over Southern California, and even recorded albums. Many, many people benefited enormously from his work. In band class, we rushed to arrive early so that we could ‘rock out’ playing Mancini’s “Peter Gunn” theme before Mr. Sanders called us to order. The drummers in the back were always raising havoc, practicing twirls and bouncing sticks off the floor while waiting for the woodwinds to get their act together. We had weekly challenges in which the younger players got to challenge for the ‘first chairs’; it was very hierarchical, and we loved it.

I ‘retired’ sometime late in 1967 when I was in Gr. 11. I had realized the limits of my musical gifts, and at the same time the music changed. Hendrix changed it one way, and the Beatles changed it in another with “Sgt. Pepper,” which was so complex that even they couldn’t perform most of the songs live. The Doors changed it, too, injecting a European expressionist sensibility with themes of murder, incest, and despair. The common denominator for all these shifts? LSD, of course. The early acid fantasies of the Summer of Love and Peter Max and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” quickly turned into the mayhem of Altamont, the Manson murders, and Kent State. Jimi asked us, “Are You Experienced?” and the answer was no, we were pretty innocent, actually, and in retrospect we were a lot better off that way. The acid trip was a bummer.

The musicians’ attitudes about playing music changed, too, around the same time. Before, we were just out to have fun. Now everyone wanted to find an agent and sign a contract and hit it big—which I thought extremely unlikely.

I got a taste of this in the one gig I played with the West Coast Iron Works. They were looking for a new drummer, and I was interested enough to give it a try. The gig was a San Diego State frat party in a private home up in the hills somewhere. These guys were giants—swimmers and football players—and were consuming oceans of beer along with a toxic mix of “192” and grapefruit juice. I spent the night literally pouring out the booze that was pooling inside my drum rims and fighting off drunken Cyclopses who wanted to play my drums “just for a minute.” I had to think fast. “Hey, man,” I would say, “I’d love to let you play, but my insurance policy strictly forbids anyone but me playing on this equipment. I’m really sorry.” When we finally finished I couldn’t believe I’d made it through the evening in one piece. I started carrying my drums out to the truck and found utter chaos: scores of cars sliding down slopes in various directions. Gridlock + total inebriation + total darkness + steep inclines. Yikes!

Somehow we got out onto the freeway and I thought my troubles were over, but then we blew a tire. It was a long, long night. Gary Carter wanted me to join the group and contribute all my earnings to the band’s purchase of a new sound system. They were looking for an agent, or had one, and had big plans. I, however, had no interest in owning one-seventh of a P.A. system. Finally he gave me my cut, and that was the last time I played music for money. Sometime after that they recruited David Vaughan to play drums for them.

At least, that’s how I remember it. I’d be happy to be corrected.

Good Habits, Good Students

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