Hell’s Bells, A Camaro, And A Girl

An extremely vivid memory from the past popped into my head this morning as I drove The Clark Boys to school.

David wanted to hear AC/DC’s Back In Black on CD while we drove; when the first song “Hell’s Bells” rang its way in, I was immediately transported to 1981, and a club in North Seattle called Mister Bill’s. One night like many nights those days, a friend and I were cruising in his Nova SS. We ended up at Mister Bill’s parking lot, near a beautiful red 1969 Chevy Camaro parked across two spots. I didn’t know the owner, a guy in his early 20s, but I knew his leather-clad copilot: a 15-ish year old classmate of mine who I hadn’t seen at school for a few months. Her coat was black, her brown hair was feathered, and her jeans were wide. All perfect for the time, down to the heavy Joan Jett makeup. To this day I don’t recall her name. She was cagey about why she hadn’t been at school. Talk turned to his Camaro, then Hell’s Bells came on the guy’s stereo.

With the windows down, the bells in the song echoed across the parking lot and attached that time and place permanently to my brain.

He explained all the work done to the car – fast motor, sound system, red lacquer paint, Crager S/S rims, and a suspension rake that had 1979 written all over it. The car was beautiful, and presumably fast. “Yeah, it gets me in a lot of trouble,” he explained. “Cops pull me over all the time, just because it’s red.” Since that night I’ve always wondered if that was a myth, because I’ve heard arguments from both sides. Still, I can close my eyes and see that car – jacked up in the rear and gleaming under the parking lot lights. And the girl leaning against the front fender. I always remember the girl.

And whenever Hell’s Bells plays, I see her in my mind – all over again – and wonder whatever happened to her.

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An Evening With Gruntruck

©1992 John Leach / Licensed under Creative Commons

©1992 John Leach / Licensed under Creative Commons

One day in 2010 I rediscovered a Gruntruck CD I have owned forever.

A quick “where are they now” search on the Internet showed that Ben McMillan the lead singer had died a couple years before that – in 2008. How tragic; he was only two years older than me. Finding the disc and reading the obit reminded me of the time I saw the band in their element, and a unique moment of acceptance I experienced during that show.

I saw Gruntruck with my wife and friends at the Crocodile Cafe; the actual date of the show is lost to history.

I only recall that it was a Saturday night, probably in 1994. I don’t remember much about the opening band, only that there was one, that their brass section was unbearably screechy, and that the club was mostly empty during their set. But as the night got later (and the interior hotter) the facility started to fill up. When Gruntruck finally came on stage, the house was packed wall to wall. The energy level was very high, and the first note was like an explosion. It was almost too loud to enjoy. Almost. With the first song Gruntruck established their rule over the crowd by playing tight and embracing the energy already coming from the floor. For the rest of the show, band and audience were one.

The mosh pit started early around me, with the crowd moving back and forth as a single organism. Not big on that kind of thing, I steered my way towards the edge of the crowd while my wife and friends hung onto the stage front. I ended up near the band’s friends and girlfriends, to the left of the stage. A couple minutes later a girl in a floppy hat lit up a joint and took a big drag. She raised her chin, exhaled slowly, turned to me, and offered it up; I respectfully declined. Without missing a beat she smiled, grabbed something out of her pocket, and offered me a piece of gum instead; I gratefully accepted.

It was the best piece of gum I have ever chewed.

From that point on the show carried a different vibe. This wasn’t just a show; this was a band and an audience who were connecting like regular people. For an hour we were all just like each other. The only difference seemed to be the surface on which we stood – stage or floor. While the show’s set list is lost on me now, the show’s experience is still with me to this day. That night I felt connected with a crowd of people who were easily 8 – 10 years younger. I felt that – even though I was not a pot smoker – I was still able to find common ground with others to the sound of ear-shattering grunge. And most of all, I felt part of a local music scene more than I ever had – before or since.

R.I.P Ben.

Chance Meeting With A Pro

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“What film camera is that?” the lady asked as I stood outside Studio 7 in Seattle’s SODO district.

“It’s a Canon AE-1,” I answered, holding up my 30-year old axe for her to inspect. That night it was equipped with the very best lens I had that fit – a 50mm with f1.4 aperture capability. There was also a wide 24mm lens tucked in a pocket so I could photograph an entire stage. I had the AE-1 with me to get film shots of the rock show I was attending that night. It was locked and loaded with black & white film. The lady smiled.

“I’ve shot a lot of film in my time,” she said. “I have a FM10 that I love, but haven’t touched in years.”

We talked some more about cameras and film. She was about five feet tall and in her mid-to-late 50s. She was dressed like she had just gotten off work at the convenience store – unassuming and utilitarian. On the street a person would never combine this lady’s appearance with the photography knowledge that was coming from her mouth.  “What’s that one,” she asked pointing to my DSLR. “Canon 20D,” I replied.I was hoping that – between film, digital, best lenses I had, and a cameraphone – I would be able to document the night’s concert successfully. It was going to be hard, because the lighting inside sucked; I would be pushing the limits of both film and digital shooting a poorly lit stage. I commented to that fact with her.

“Believe me I know,” she said. “I’ve been shooting in this club for years. The lighting is horrible. ISO3200 minimum. This is one of the tougher clubs to shoot. In fact I’ve been at it since 1979. You a photographer?”

“Blogger,” I said, never comfortable identifying myself as a photographer. “A friend helped produce this show tonight, and I came to get my feet wet taking rock photos. I often upload the pictures to my blogs.”

“Where at?”

“I have a reader-blog on the Seattle-PI plus some personal ones. I also upload a lot of stuff to Flickr.”

She smiled and lit a smoke. “Then you need to get out of that line and come talk with me for a while. Heard of photographer Annie Leibovitz? I’m her without the fame.”

She pulled out her iPhone to prove that she had the chops to chronicle the music scene as a pro.

Inside there was a folder crammed with rock shots she had taken, compiled from shows going back 25 years – digital and film – and covering all sorts of venues and bands.

“Lindsey Buckingham calls me whenever he’s in the area to shoot his shows. I’ve shot Sting at so many shows with the same bass guitar that I can document the wear patterns on the bass body. I’ve shot Billy Idol tons of times.” I passed a picture of Snoop Dog.

“Snoop had his pot on stage, and security guards to defend his pot. It was funny.”

The stories continued. The photo collection was like looking through a digital copy of Rolling Stone. Robert Plant, Sting, Crosby Stills and Nash, Melissa Ethridge, Carlos Santana and others were all in her phone. “That one was film,” she would say on one. “I was lucky to get that shot,” she would say about another. There were 81 photos in all; I was blown away, not only by the content but the quality.

“Like I said, I’ve been doing this since 1979. What film do you have in the AE-1 right now?”

“Kodak TX400.”

“That won’t do in there. Too dark.”

“I agree,” I replied. “I’m pushing it to IS3200 and using the best lenses I’ve got. Wish me luck.” I smiled.

“You have a card?” she asked.

I happened to have one last business card in my wallet.

“I’m going to put you on my mailing list,” she said after I handed over the card. “I send out notices when venues are looking for photographers. You can get photo passes if you contact them. They’re available to members of the press.”

“But I’m a blogger,” I commented. “I’m not the press.”

“You ARE the press,” she replied. “Really.”

We finally headed inside, me with my ticket and she by simply walking in the door. She was there for the entire show, cradling two Pro-Level Nikons with hard-core lenses on a pair of shoulder straps – all with a street value estimated at $10k or more.

Meeting her was truly an unexpected contact.

All Hail The Mix Tape

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Long before MP3s, iPods, downloads, streaming audio, and playlists, an entire generation of kids grew up making and listening to Mix Tapes.

The cassettes were small, convenient, and easy to carry from the car to the party. They also sounded great for how small they were, which lent well to the Sony Walkman players we all had. And if the tape got trashed or a crazy ex-girlfriend took it, it was easy to just record a new one. I was part of the battalion who recorded their LPs onto cassettes, as a way to keep from wearing out the records.

I also worked hard to create that perfect blend of songs that would capture and then prolong a mood.

In a way, making a mix tape back then was like an art form. Recording both sides could take two hours or more, depending on how much care went into the mix. I considered many of my mix tapes to be crafted works, because I put a lot of thought into choosing what song should come after the one that just ended. I wasn’t one to just chuck a bunch of stuff together.

The mood had to flow.

Sadly, the ability to put a human touch on that smooth movement from one song into another is now lost to technology. Of course, playlists can be created to compile songs under one genre or keyword, but that only goes so far. Finding the nuances, the delicate similarities, and emotional ties of two songs just doesn’t happen in a CPU. I have yet to find a current technology that allows me to mix mood like I did on a tape back in the day – one song at a time in a layer that will build the emotion and carry it to the end.

Maybe it’s time to just go back to making tapes.

I found the above cassette in 2011 when I was putting away some baseball cards. Gentle Sticky Wind was created around 1986 as a mellow mix tape, using a Maxell UD II High-Bias 90-minute cassette – the best-sounding tape I could buy. This one still plays great – twenty-five years later. GSW was mixed on Side A only, using tracks from my record collection; Queen’s 1978 release News Of The World was put on Side B, recorded from a 25-cent LP I picked up at Cellophane Square in 1985 (I still have that LP).

While I’m not certain why I wanted to create a slow sorrowful mix tape that day 25 years ago, I suspect it had something to do with a relationship that had recently ended. That aside, I managed to blend Genesis, Nick Kershaw, KISS, George Benson, and a couple of surprises onto a side of slow mellow songs that pulled every ounce of emotion out of my album collection. When I listened to it earlier today, the memories of mixing it down popped out of the dusty edges of my brain – reminding me of how much work I put into choosing each song to share a mood with the previous one.

Making a mix tape was fun, even if it wasn’t very simple.

There was a lot to think about and to coordinate. I had to be in control of two very-different pieces of equipment: the turntable and the tape deck. My weapons of choice: Technics Direct-Drive Turntable (still have it), Realistic 100-watt receiver (RIP), and an Audiotechnica Cassette recorder that I bought for $50 in the Bargain Basement at the SODO Sears Store (now Starbucks HQ).

The first song was always the most important, because it set the mood.

Every song after that somehow related to the first. I would often just start with Track 1 / Side 1 of an LP, because record companies started their albums with something catchy. While the recording commenced, I would look through my record collection for the next song – all the while making sure the recording levels on the cassette deck wouldn’t “peak” and saturate the tape. When the track was done recording, I would pause the deck, swap the album and find the track I wanted. Then I would stage the track by finding the beginning and then turning the record back by 1 ½ rotations. I released the record, then released the deck’s pause button at ¼ turn before the song started. Bam. Done. Repeat.

Doing that over and over made the process smoother than it sounds.

Usually I would christen a new mix tape with a drive, to see how it sounded on the car stereo. Good times. Check out this vintage playlist:

1. Play The Game by Queen – Track 1 Side 1 on Queen’s 1980 release The Game worked perfectly for this. Soaring harmonies and solid talent. Straight up.

2. Sister Christian by Night Ranger – Every time I hear this now I think of the movie “Boogie Nights.” But back then it was just a mellow song that got a lot of rotation on the radio. Towards the end of the track I did something that seemed like a good idea at the time; I pressed my finger down on the record to slow it intentionally for a brief period. I also ended the track early, because I discovered that the last note of Sister Christian was in the same key as the first note of…

3. Beth by KISS – Blending this song with Sister Christian was really fun, and not quite as easy as it sounds. The timing for the note had to be perfect. I think I got it right on the third try. Still made me smile today when I heard it again. Find it just after the 8:20 marker on the MP3. This is the quietest KISS song ever; from their 1976 release Destroyer, it was followed on the album by the raunchy final track Do You Love Me.

4. Wouldn’t it Be Good by Nik Kershaw – Borrowed this from a friend. Cute track, very 80s. I goofed the beginning of the track a bit, and it comes in too strong. But during the recording I backed off the levels.

5. Only You by Yaz – Had no idea who they were, but at the time I was stopping by radio stations and taking their bins of discarded Demo records home. This was probably one of them, and I probably still have it somewhere.

6. Spellbinder by Foreigner – Classic rock slow-song goodness. One of my favorite early Foreigner tracks. Lou Gramm could sing a grocery list and make it sound like a hit.

7. I’m Always Gonna Love You by Gary Moore – Awesome 80s rock ballad, courtesy of Irish guitarist Gary Moore. He had a long career, starting in 1969 and eventually gaining fame with Thin Lizzy and on the solo circuit. He opened for Rush at the Tacoma Dome in 1984-85, and blew the Dome away. He recently died of a heart attack while on tour in Spain. Rest In Peace, Gary.

8. Fade Away by Bad Company – Obscure final track off 1976 album Run with the Pack. Bluesy and heartfelt. Interesting effects on Paul Rodgers’ voice.

9. Take Me Home by Phil Collins – A coworker said this evening, “If that was an 80s mix tape, I’m pretty sure there was Genesis on it.” He was nearly right; I added this solo work from Phil.

10. Unchained Melody by George Benson – From the 1979 release Livin’ Inside your Love, this album was in a collection I found in a dumpster behind a record store, along with a copy of The Beatles White Album. This cover of Unchained Melody, while kind of long, is one of the smoothest I’ve ever heard. I could listen to George Benson’s voice and guitar licks all day long.

I really enjoyed re-finding Gentle Sticky Wind; in fact I loved it so much that I decided to digitize Side A of the tape. But I didn’t digitize the tracks individually, rather I recorded Side A as a single 45-minute track before converting it to MP3. Now I have the 21st equivalent of a mix tape, because I can pause, rewind, or go forward on the MP3 – just like I could on the cassette. For the record (no pun intended), it’s a mix best played after hours. Anyone who wants experience Gentle Sticky Wind for themselves, in glorious Mono, can get it at these links below.

May Gentle Sticky Wind glue you to the 1980s. Enjoy!

Listen to Streaming Audio

Download the MP3 File

Play it on Youtube