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THE EVERLASTING FIRST: The Damned

Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock ‘n’ roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it’s the subsequent visits–the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time–that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every love story still needs to begin with that first kiss.

This was originally posted as part of a longer piece covering both pop music and comic book characters. It’s separated here for convenience.

Phonograph Record Magazine figures into my first exposure to British punks The Damned, but a larger role in that introduction was ultimately played by a green-eyed girl named Mary Ellen. We’ll get to her in just a sec, but we’ll start with PRM.  Phonograph Record Magazine‘s coverage of this exotic, scary, mysteriously intoxicating music called punk captivated me as a senior in high school, 1976-77. I didn’t know what any of it sounded like, but I was aching to find out.

I was intrigued by so many of these bands that PRM name-checked so casually in its tabloid pages. The RamonesBlondieThe Sex PistolsEddie and the Hot RodsChris Spedding and the Vibrators! It was a long, long list of acts I’d never heard of before, from The New York DollsThe Dictators, and Milk ‘n Cookies through Cheap TrickElvis CostelloIggy PopTom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and Yesterday and Today (later shortened to Y & T). I was desperate to learn more.

Even if you’re my age or older, it may be difficult to remember just how different the world was just four decades ago. Today, if you encounter a reference to some new musical act, the great ‘n’ powerful internet can put that act’s complete c.v. at your disposal instantly. YouTube, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and a bunch of other cloud-borne resources that would have been the stuff of science fiction during the Bicentennial are now humdrum, banal fixtures of everyday living. Hell, a YouTube video was likely your introduction to this new act in the first place. The thrill of the hunt has long since been replaced by the smug, jaded smirk of entitlement.

Heh. I’m a curmudgeon at 58.

With that all said, I have to admit I enjoy the convenience of easily-accessible information. But there was something intangibly thrilling about the sheer mystique and wonder conjured in a young man’s mind by the hype and glory of fevered ramblin’ in the pages of mid-’70s rock rags like PRM. You couldn’t hear the music; you could only imagine how amazing it must sound.

The Damned were among the many loud and angry punks mentioned in the pages of Phonograph Record Magazine. I don’t recall the group necessarily getting a lot of ink in the few PRMs I was fortunate enough to grab, but I do remember Flo & Eddie discussing (and dismissing) one of The Damned’s singles–either “New Rose” or “Neat Neat Neat”–in their Blind Date column. Flo & Eddie were not impressed with British punk on first exposure.

In the fall of ’76, I met Mary Ellen at the ESSPA (Empire State School Press Association) Convention in Syracuse. I was there with a cadre of my fellow North Syracuse High School literary insurgents–Dan BacichTim Schueler, and Sue Caldwell–representing our school literary magazine, The NorthCaster.  At the banquet and awards ceremony, we shared a table with a group representing a magazine from a Rochester area high school, and Mary Ellen was part of that group. I think their magazine was called Brown Bag, and I’m pretty sure they won top honors at ESSPA that year.

I have no photo of Mary Ellen. 

Our two groups hit it off pretty well, and it turned out that Mary Ellen was a big rock ‘n’ roll fan. She was especially fond of The Who; I’d remembered reading ads for some Who bootlegs (probably in The Buyer’s Guide For Comics Fandom). I said I’d send her the information, and we exchanged addresses.

She wound up writing to me first, saying she was listening to Montrose and slipping into the terra incognita, a favorite phrase of hers. Starry-eyed teen that I was–I was kinda like Davy Joneson any random episode of The Monkees, except usually without reciprocation–I immediately began to imagine True Love. I was–what’s the word?–an idiot. On a January bus ride from Cleveland to Syracuse, traveling back home solo after visiting my sister, I daydreamed about Mary Ellen, about singing Beatles songs together and maybe exchanging a playful kiss. 

But this was all just fancy on my part. I wrote her a long, presumably witty letter, devoid of any attempt at romantic content–I wasn’t quite that much of an idiot–and she responded with delight. Further correspondence revealed that we would be switching neighborhoods in the fall; I would be starting college in Brockport, a mere 19 miles from Rochester, while she would be attending Syracuse University. She sent me her phone number at SU.

One fall evening in Brockport, I called Mary Ellen, and we spoke on the phone for about an hour. It was a breezy, banter-filled conversation. I remember mentioning The Raspberries (whom she didn’t know all that well) and The Bay City Rollers (which horrified her, since she saw them as not far removed from the dreaded “D-I-S-C-O!”). We had both discovered punk. I don’t know how The Damned came up in the conversation, but she asked me if I’d heard them yet; I hadn’t, so she cranked up the stereo in her dorm room and played The Damned’s LP track “Stab Yor Back” for me. So that was my true, lo-fi introduction to the music of The Damned.

We mentioned earlier how much easier it is nowadays to find out about something or anything. You wanna know what else has changed since 1977? The cost of long-distance phone calls. My 60-minute call to Mary Ellen cost a whompin’, stompin’ fifty dollars, which is an awful lot of money to spend for a few seconds of The Damned. My parents weren’t real happy about paying that bill for me, so that was my Christmas present that year; they threw in a copy of the Alive II album by KISS, because they were really great parents.

But that phone call (and, I think, one subsequent shorter one) were my last positive communications with Mary Ellen. I tried to get in touch with her the next time we were both in Syracuse, but she’d figured out by now that I mighta possibly had hearts in my eyes, and she didn’t need that at all. And honestly, I can’t blame her. In any case, I was soon involved with Sharon, a girl I met in Brockport, and then also with Theresa (another girl I met in Brockport), and significant complications loomed on my immediate horizon.

Complications. My man Archie understands.

It was more than a year until I would be in the same room as a Damned song playing on a damned stereo near me. In the Spring of ’78, a friend at school loaned me a compilation album called New WaveNew Wave included The Damned’s debut single “New Rose,” and I liked it a lot. It turned out that there would be a number of songs by The Damned that I like a lot, especially “Wait For The Blackout” on the group’s 1980 LP The Black Album. I’ll have to try listening to that over a $50 phone call some day.

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