I had a meeting Friday morning near Austin, following a Thursday hearing in Los Angeles. Because my meeting was nearly an hour east of Austin, and because I have an aunt and uncle who live an hour from the place in which my meeting was being held, I elected to drive down.
This turned from triumph to disaster, as at Round Rock I hit a patch in which the traffic literally moved only inches in forty five minutes. When I was a young lawyer, Austin was a small city with routine traffic which did not "kick up" until one was well in the city. Its growth, which started, I imagine, around the time that Dell Computer moved in, renders its traffic even more difficult than the "worse than Los Angeles" Houston traffic. I will never drive down I-35 through Round Rock again, even if I must take ranch roads past the little creamery at Brenham well to the east to avoid doing so.
I did get to see my aunt and uncle that afternoon, who live in a Sun City development near lovely Georgetown. We had a nice visit, and then my uncle went with me to get supper, while my aunt stayed home and rested. I am glad we all got a chance to visit. It's so easy, somehow, to neglect to get such visits in, despite the avowed best intentions. The hill country and hill-country-adjacent parts of Texas are so very lovely, and there is something to be said for being chaffeur-driven in a golf cart under warm skies past deer feeding on a golf course on a March evening. It was good to catch up with my uncle and aunt on that part of our family, and to do the kind of visitin' that I don't get to do so often in the city. My uncle left the small town in Arkansas in which he grew up and never looked back--I left mine and looked back often, but will never, in all likelihood, move back. The stories always interest me.
On the drive back Friday night, I stopped by a truck stop, where, as ever, the CDs on sale surpassed those at any record store. Last night the "cool cheap things" on sale were two editions of the fabled FM "King Biscuit Flower Hour", a live concert radio show that literally saved many a rural boy's life, musically, including my own. Each show, for those unfamiliar with this form of radio evangelism, featured a simple, unadorned, live-mixed concert by a road warrior band giving it their all. I purchased two albums, recorded within eighteen months of one another, which summed up rock during the 1970s, my youth. One was a live set by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and one was a live set by the Ramones.
ELP is the kind of band that critics loathe and kids love. What is not to love? A great keyboard player who spun his piano in mid-air while he was sitting in it, a great drummer with a gong, the fellow from King Crimson (who is not even in the band) writing the hard-bitten, allusive, and era-appropriately-cynical lyrics, and a truly odd man, also an art rock survivor, named "Greg Lake", wanting to sing ballads that might be at home in some wigged out Elizabethan version of Bread married to Steeleye Span, if only Greg Lake sounded like David Gates rather than like a refugee from the flower-bombing of a renaissance faire. After all, any band with an album titled Brain Salad Surgery must be all right.
Early ELP showcased the band's love for piano jazz, showtunes, and ragtime, while mid-career ELP involved a lot of lovably ponderous adapations of classical pieces, and peak period ELP rocked out with a Hammonds, monophonic synths, and sheer, wonderful bombast. Bands like ELP were so much fun and so very unexpected that kids, always secretly conservative, ultimately retreated from them into retro bands who played three chord songs and sneered a lot, as if being a mod were relevant at all in 1977. It was the times--Reagan and Thatcher came to power in that era, because hep kids sneered about social revolution instead of voting,while other kids voted right. Music mired down in an exciting but ultimately reactionary era of bands no more revolutionary than Sha Na Na called "UK punk" bands, although some of them were wonderful bands indeed. Fortunately, post-punk soon redeemed this era, liberally robbing the graves of progressive bands whose era the punks had more or less ended.
ELP was a blast, no matter what happend with the vogues. Greg Lake aside, ELP differed from the other bands of their era because they never wished to live in Rivendell, they never had an inferiority complex about their best rocker ditty being an Aaron Copland classical instrumental about a rural square dance, and they never saw an experiment they didn't enjoy trying. They were wonderfully weird, in a way that only the Residents and Magma matched, and none exceeded.
The "King Biscuit" ELP album is amazing, from the opening strains of the "peter gunn theme" through the pulsing wonder of "Hoedown" (the best rocksong of all time propelled by an organ and a primitive synth), all three impressions of "karn evil 9", and an amazing version of the piano classic "Little Rock Getaway". The poor folks at King Biscuit apparently didn't realize that 6 songs were played at the end of "karn evil 9", as all the songs were categorized as a "track 12" which went on for days. I was enrapt.
The King Biscuit Ramones album, though, proved to be pure wonder, a barrage of perfect caliber. The Ramones were, in many ways, everything good about the late 1970s underground US bands, excluding, perhaps, the work that Television was doing. Unlike the retreaded rockers and mods spawned by alterantive marketers in London, the Ramones understood the joke in what they were doing, understood how reactionary they were, and laughed at themselves, with themselves, and just laughed in general.
The Ramones, of course, were the antithesis of progressive rock. They saw themselves as a kind of purer alternative. As Dee Dee Ramone said:
"Punk rock was there since rock and roll started. Rebellious rock and roll was punk rock. Gene Vincent, Elvis Presley. That was punk rock. The Beatles in Hamburg, before they put on their suits and were wearing their leather jackets. But by 1974, progressive rock had diluted rock and roll. Everyone had gotten so overindulgent. All of a sudden, we started playing, and other bands saw us play and were inspired. Our main influences would have been the early and mid-'60s British movement, the Beach Boys, and surf music -- pure rock and roll."
Rock, and in particular punk, have always thrived on this sense that there is a "real" rock, a rock which is simple and basic and stripped down. This view is not my own view, as I think that rock always dresses up, whether the outfit is jeans and a leather jacket,
a three-piece suit, or even, as with Mr. Gabriel, as a kind of giant flower. The Ramones therefore do not represent a salvation of rock for the reasons they supposed--a rejection of the progressive bands--but for a simpler set of reasons: their songs lasted two minutes each and they had the energy and wit to sell their style. No less than the progressive bands, they created an alternative universe which did not really exist at all--a pantheon of comic book godlings in which Dick Dale, the Ventures and a hundred great garage bands smiled down on mortal men who sang with conviction about baseball bats and sniffed glue. The King Biscuit CD shows them at their rapid-fire best, heavy satire and dental-drill-direct music, in some ways the inspiration for a set of noise bands who are the natural descendants of....progressive rock. In reality, of course, both NY punk and progressive (and, for that matter, even the worst excesses of UK punk) were not really opposing movements so much as one massive gestalt in a time when people were scared of progress, and rock musicians, of all people, seemed like the frail bearers of hope for a better day. There was no revolution, although there was Television. We're all lighting candles now for that better day.
The King Biscuit album is so tight and so together, it's easy to understand why the Ramones had such a loyal fan base. They knew their stuff, and put it into a sound that really worked. The King Biscuit album is far better than the other Ramones live album I own.
I believe that any evening spent with kind relatives and then followed with a darknight drive alternating "Hoedown" with "Blitzkrieg Bop" is an evening well spent. I'm glad I got to drive down to the Hill Country, and rock out all the way home.