Well, kids, here’s the deal: (A) I’m 51 – and – (B) I grew up on a little island off the coast of Maine.
Welcome to my world.
What (A) means is: I’m old enough to be the father of many of you folks who are reading this. [Unfortunately, where I come from (B), that could mean any of you younger than 35.]
For you, knowing (A) and (B) will undoubtedly inspire you to ask: “What is this out-of-touch old dub doing writing about jambands?”
Well, gather ‘round the woodstove, kids, for I have a story to tell – a story about what it was like to be in your teens in the mid-70s and be inspired by something … different .
The first radio I ever owned – bought with money earned form lobstering during summer vacation sometime in the late 60s – was a transistor set. All grey and fake-chromed plastic, the little bugger would suck in the hot AM stations out of Boston (WMEX and WRKO) giving me access to the hits of the day. Casey Kasem told us what the hot songs were every weekend and that was that. You didn’t look any further – that’s just how big the world was.
At least, you didn’t until you got to be in your teens and began picking up copies of magazines like Crawdaddy and Creem and Rolling Stone when you were on the mainland (at the Mr. Paperback over in Ellsworth, a good hour’s drive inland). And then … whoa … hold on a minute …
It turned out there was more to the world of music than what you were hearing on American Top 40 … and it wasn’t just the music – it was a whole different way of thinking about things, too. Something was happening here … but how to find it?
I don’t know if it was on the advice of someone on the island who was way cooler than I was, or if I blundered onto it by accident, but FM radio was the key. And finding WBLM, an FM station that, at the time, was waaayyy up on the far end of the dial, changed a lot of things for me. Officially, their format was referred to back then as “free-form rock and roll.” To me, it was the link to a much bigger musical experience than I’d ever known.
I can’t tell you where the transmitter for WBLM actually was; it doesn’t matter, anyway. The feeling was what counted – tuning into 107.9 back then (they changed frequencies in later years) took you to a world inhabited by what you imagined R. Crumb characters sounded like if they could talk and had commandeered a trailer on a mountain somewhere.
In my mind’s eye, the whole staff was just a bunch of furry freaks having a blast playing WHATEVER THEY WANTED TO PLAY … and they knew their shit, too. If and when they managed to reel off the play list of what you’d been listening to for the previous hour or so, they knew stuff about the various bands and what the members were up to. (Of course, you didn’t always get a play list – heck, sometimes, the record might have a skip with the needle etching a trench down through the vinyl for long periods of time. You knew people were calling the studio phone trying to get the DJ’s attention … but you also imagined the phone ringing to an empty trailer; the jock out in the field having a pee in the noonday sun – or a nice smoke beneath the stars.)
It was all too cool.
Now, here’s the part where we really start to make that jamband connection, kids. The following is an example of what an average WBLM set might include (I can honestly say these were all tunes I first heard there):
•“Sweet Jane” – Lou Reed (The live version from Rock & Roll Animal with a pair of majestic guitars winding ‘round each other for the first few minutes, spiraling and soaring until you hear the crowd react to Lou stivvering out on stage, at which point we descend into a dark world of dog collars and eye makeup and junkie monotones.)
•“Sailing Shoes > Hey Hey Julia > Sneaking Sally Through The Alley” – Robert Palmer (Before he got too cool to be staggering around in some nasty alley with Sally.)
•“Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” – Waylon Jennings (Uncle Tupelo wished they’d sounded this burnt and road-weary.)
•“Montana” – Frank Zappa (Put brain in heavy-bottomed saucepan and heat on low, stirring frequently – be careful not to burn.)
•“Memo From Turner” – From the Performance soundtrack (Mick Jagger all pouty-lipped camp, but maybe Ry Cooder’s greasiest slide solo of all time.)
•“The Intro And the Outro” – The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (Featuring “Legs” Larry Smith!)
•“St. Stephen” – Yes, the Live Dead version.
•“Cool Blue (Stole My Heart)” – Joan Armatrading (Absolute stone-cool standup bass and acoustic piano.)
•“Smoke! Smoke! Smoke!” – Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen (Because the world needs some pedal steel every hour or so.)
•“Get Up, Stand Up” – Bob Marley & The Wailers (I’m sure WBLM was my first exposure to reggae.)
•“Emotional Weather Report” – Tom Waits (Just to provide some stability.)
Besides the music, there were bits of Firesign Theater routines and Monty Python skits woven in like weird ham radio signals skipping in from distant lands.
It was great.
My world suddenly got much bigger.
For a few years, anyway.
And then you grow up and life goes the way it goes (in my case, spending the majority of my time between the ages of 18 and 28 offshore in the Gulf of Maine or in some New England port – then coming ashore and spending the next ten years or so of my life trudging along earning a living and paying the bills.) There wasn’t much seeking out of new music and off-the-beaten-path artists … there wasn’t much of anything except put your head down and go.
We all got a little older.
WBLM got more business-like and did what it had to do to feed the family. (I’m not faulting them – so did I.)
I’d stopped looking for Crawdaddy and Creem and they didn’t take it personally – they just didn’t exist anymore.
It seemed like there weren’t any surprises for a while. But it wasn’t like I was looking for any, either.
And then my friend Byron who ran a record shop in Camden, ME, did me a great favor one day. He, being wise beyond his years, collared me and said, “You should listen to this.” “This” was The String Cheese Incident’s Carnival ’99 album.
And because he’d asked me to, I did.
Hey! Whoa! Neat Wayback Machine, Mr. Peabody! Here we were on the front porch stomping our feet – but wait! What’s this wild-arse Calypso thing sneaking up on us? Hold on: redneck barroom time! But then: “Take Five”? And now we’re shaking it down Bourbon Street! Yes!! YES!!!
That old feeling of “I-can’t-wait-to-see-what-they-play-next” was back … the adventure of starting down a musical path and knowing that the direction taken didn’t necessarily have anything to do with order or logic – just feeling and vibe.
Just like those fabulous furry freaks I imagined in their trailer on the mountaintop 25 years or so ago.
It’s been a decade now since Byron did me that favor. SCI has grown, leafed out, and become a number of other things. Byron’s since moved on, but the business lives (Wild Rufus Records, relocated to Belfast – say hey to Nathaniel for me). In the meantime, the world of jam is limited only by the time you have to experience it – the walls and borders separating genres are lower and thinner than ever, to the point of being almost non-existent … and that’s a good thing.
So, there you have it, kids: the age thing is just a reference and the Maine thing is just where I happen be … the feeling is the feeling; the vibe is the vibe.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for band practice. I want to talk to Peter, our pedal steel player, about a segue from “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke!” to “Get Up, Stand Up.”
I know it can be done.
Brain Robbins is our latest (but not our oldest) columnist.