DEAR SUPERGUYS (or: I Was A Teenaged Comic Book Letterhack)

I’m not sure exactly when I wrote my first letter to a comic book editor. I know I wrote a letter to DC Comics in the summer of 1970, when I was ten years old, asking if the good folks there would be willing to send me a copy of Superboy # 129 as a reward for bypassing fifth grade on my way to sixth grade that fall. Presumptuous? Duh. My letter did not merit a prompt response. I don’t think it was my very first attempt at a “Dear Editor,” but it’s the earliest I can remember with any precision. If there were indeed earlier missives, they were also inquiries about securing elusive back issues from DC, albeit with a promise of appropriate payment. I got yer twelve cents; I got yer twelve cents right here.

In the ’60s and into the early ’70s, I was a near-insatiable fan of comic books, particularly superhero comic books, particularly DC and Marvel superhero comic books. I also read books from CharltonArchieHarveyGold KeyDell, and later from Atlas and Warren. Besides my cherished costumed crusaders, I read funny animal, war, Westernhumor, monster, and eventually some horror, too. I confess to occasionally peaking at romance books, because the girls were cute (and the artwork often gorgeous). Sad SackWhere Monsters DwellStar Spangled War StoriesThe Mighty Marvel WesternForbidden Tales Of Dark MansionTomb Of DraculaUncle ScroogeSgt. Fury And His Howling CommandosThe Lone RangerThe PhantomThe Phantom StrangerMaster Of Kung Fu. VampirellaThe ScorpionArchie’s Pals & GalsDennis The MenaceThe Super Cops. TarzanConan The BarbarianFruitman, God help me. Plop! SpoofDoomsday + 1. I read ’em all, and loved ’em all, right alongside my Justice League Of America and Avengers.

By the time I was 15 (and probably earlier), I was identifying myself specifically as a DC Comics fan. I continued to buy, read, and enjoy Marvels and others, for sure, but my primary allegiance was to the boys at 909 Third Ave and (later) 75 Rockefeller Plaza. Why DC? Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, for starters. The work that writer O’Neil and artist Adams did on Green Lantern/Green Arrow and Batman (the latter often ably penciled by the underrated Irv Novick instead of Adams, all of it inked to stunning effect by Dick Giordano) just knocked me out, and the afterglow of that stuff kept me in DC’s thrall. I dug Jack Kirby‘s Fourth World stuff, Len Wein‘s scripting on JLAeditor Joe Orlando‘s stewardship of Adventure Comics, O’Neil with Mike Kaluta on The Shadow, the return of the original Captain Marvel in DC’s Shazam!, and the plethora of vintage reprints in DC’s 100-Page Super Spectaculars. I still loved Marvel, but I was clearly a DC guy.

Which, I guess, is why all of my letters of comment went to DC books. As adolescence and early teens brought me a sense that I might want to become a writer, I sought the recognition and ego-stroke of seeing my name in print in DC Comics letter columns. I evolved from my previous letters asking how I could track down copies of The Spectre‘s 1966 appearances in Showcase to attempting fannish praise and pithy commentary. My reach far exceeded my grasp, and my hand-scrawled drivel was justifiably ignored by DC’s editorial staff.

(I was only, like, twelve or thirteen when I began writing these letters in earnest, but I cringe to look back on them now. No physical copies survive, thank Rao, but I remember the sheer pimply cluelessness I exhibited therein. I wrote a letter to The Brave And The Bold‘s editor Murray Boltinoff, demanding that he explain his editorial policies to me, ‘cuz I di’n’t like his and B & B writer Bob Haney‘s disregard for continuity. I recall a letter to JLA which casually used profanity to make this immature soul seem mature. I signed off most of my letters with “Thanx,” an attempt to create a signature gimmick for what I hoped would be an abundance of published letters of comment. Not a one of them saw print, nor did they deserve to see print. I cringe at their memory, and recognize them as the work of a square-peg kid in dire need of a girlfriend.)

I did begin to receive some form letter replies, and some form letters with annotation added. I recall a reply to a heartfelt letter I’d written to Batman editor Julie Schwartz, begging that The Batman’s atmospheric noir adventures never again succumb to the campy approach of the mid ’60s. Some time after that, our local hero Mailman brought me a letter ostensibly from The Batman hisself: a form letter with a classic Carmine Infantino Batman drawing and a note “Thanks for your nice letter, from The Batman.” A more personalized postscript was typed in following The Batman’s signature: “…who will eschew camp like cyanide from now on, rest assured!” Cool! Plus, I learned a new word with “eschew.” I figured this meant my letter would soon see print on an imminent Letters To The Batman page, but it was not to be. I guess a letter from The Batman was all the recognition I required. Thanks, citizen!

Middle school passed by. High school commenced. I continued to buy and read comics, to try to write comics, and to write letters to the comics’ editors. I walked home each day after school, and often made a side trip to the nearby Gold Star Pharmacy to see if any new comics were in. A pretty girl from my school worked there, but I never bothered trying to flirt with her while buying my comics–what would have been the point?–and she remained friendly and professional. Yvonne. Not her real name. One day during the Spring ’75 semester, I stopped at Gold Star for my weekly fix. Among the haul was Superman # 289, and that contained my first published letter of comment.

Over the friggin’ moon, man!

The letter itself was perhaps not much less embarrassing than my earlier, unpublished attempts. But no matter! Though it was just a silly letter gushing about how great Superman # 277 had been with its dazzlingly clever doppelgangers of Ernest Hemingway and Mason Reese–a combination one would rarely see otherwise–it was technically my first nationally-published piece of writing. It was a piece of something all right, but I was thrilled.

And again: no, you get a life.

For dramatic purposes, the part of Yvonne will be played by Ms. Yvonne Craig

I don’t think I showed it to Yvonne at the drug store, though I did show her a subsequent letter published in Adventure Comics # 444. She was very polite. Somewhere in there, a letter in The Brave And The  Bold # 120’s letter column mentioned in passing that “Carl Cafrelli” wanted to see Batman team with The Shadow, a request I do not recall making, but probably did. I don’t know how many more letters of comment I wrote, but I do know I was trying to concentrate more and more on my own writing (and my collection of rejection slips from DC), so my letterhacking likely petered out around this time.

Then it was off to college. Nascent independence. An illusion of maturity. GIRLS! Success with girls, even. And, y’know, punk rock. I continued to read comics well into my freshman year at Brockport, 1977-78, but finally abandoned my four-color friends when Steve Englehart stopped writing Batman in Detective Comics; everything that came after that was a disappointment to me, so it was time to quit.

I mean, after I wrote one more letter.

My final letter of comment of the 1970s appeared in Detective Comics # 479, extolling the virtues of what Englehart and artist Marshall Rogers had done with The Batman, a short run that remains my all-time favorite series of Batman stories (even above O’Neil and Adams). With that, I was done with comics for the remainder of my college career.

(My love of comics did help me snag one little bonus perk in college. No, it wasn’t a girl, though–oddly enough–my ostensibly hilarious impression of former DC Comics star Jerry Lewis did somehow convince a girl I already knew that I was suddenly irresistible. Ah, if Yvonne coulda seen me then…but I digress. During my freshman year, I wrote about comics and other topics in my assignments for Dr. Burelbach’s Popular Fiction class. The following September, I wanted to get into a Fiction Workshop reserved for upperclassmen, so this mere sophomore had to plead his case to that course’s instructor, Dr. Fitzgerald. Dr. Burelbach happened to be there in Dr. Fitzgerald’s office when I arrived, so I mentioned that I’d taken his Pop Fic class the previous semester. This made for a much shorter interview than I was expecting. Fitzgerald turned to Burelbach and said, What do you think, Fred? Burelbach nodded toward me and said, Well, he’s a brilliant writer. Fitzgerald turned back to me, smiled, and said, All right, you’re in. Score one for the good guys.)

I returned to comics after graduating (early) from college in 1980. My return was slow and tentative at first, but eventually resumed with a fervor to match the fannish enthusiasm of my adolescence. In the ’80s, I had a few letters published in Green Lantern and/or Green Lantern Corps (when Englehart was writing it) and in Batman (when Doug Moench was writing it), and I wrote an unpublished rant complaining about gratuitous violence in Justice League Of America. I started freelancing for the fan magazine Amazing Heroes in 1984, and I didn’t write many letters of comment after that. I had one published in an issue of The Power Of Shazam! in the ’90s (even though I didn’t intend it as a letter of comment, just a note to accompany my request for Mr. Mind‘s Venusian Decoder Card), and finally my first and only published letter to Marvel Comics in 2016’s Invincible Iron Man # 11. Marvel still has letters columns in its books; DC does not. I read ’em both anyway.

But I’ve always been a DC guy at heart. I have the letters to prove it.


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The Other Side Of The Hit (B-side Appreciation): Surfing And Spying

Before mp3, CD, and cassette singles, a hit record was always a 45. The A-Side had the hit. The B-Side? Sometimes it was a throwaway. Sometimes it was something more.

THE GO-GO’S: “Surfing And Spying”IRS, 1981; A-SIDE: “Our Lips Are Sealed”
I don’t really consider myself a collector. I know, I know–there is an abundance of evidence to suggest I’m delusional when I say that. I have stacks and stacks of records (LPs and 45s, CDs, cassettes, some flexi-discs, one Bay City Rollers eight-track), books, comic books, magazines, DVDs, VHS tapes, and probably some other miscellaneous ephemera I’ve forgotten in the moment. I like stuff, cool stuff. Nonetheless, I’m generally more into the heady experience such stuff intrinsically supplies–the sound of the music, the thrill of the word, the rush of images on screen, the BAM-SMASH-POW!! of the comics page–than I’m concerned with accumulating multiple variant copies of the same thing over and over. Yeah, I bought all four variant covers of the Archie Meets Ramones comic book–I am as God made me–but that’s an exception. Usually, if I buy a CD reissue of an LP I already have, I ditch the LP; if I buy a later expanded CD reissue of a disc I already have, the earlier CD goes out the door. It’s a rule of thumb, its application varies, but more often than not, if I have one copy of some great thing, I don’t feel a need to keep two copies of that same great thing.
This was always true of my 45s. Well, sorta–I didn’t really ditch those singles even when I later bought the LP. But if I was going to get the LP, I needed a reason to also buy the single. I needed a non-album B-side. There were a lot of those, justifying my purchases of singles by artists ranging from The Beatles and The Monkees through The RamonesR.E.M.The Records, and Joan Jett & the Blackhearts. One of my favorites was a surf instrumental called “Surfing And Spying,” the B-side of “Our Lips Are Sealed” by The Go-Go’s.

The first Go-Go’s album Beauty And The Beat knocked me out, a near-perfect confection of confident, irresistible pop music. I heard “We Got The Beat” in 1981 (possibly the original import single version) on a Sunday night alternative-rock radio show, I heard the live version on a 2-LP various-artists soundtrack album called Urgh! A Music War, and I was a spontaneously-generated Go-Go’s fan. Other than Urgh, I think my first Go-Go’s purchase was the Beauty And The Beat album, followed by the “Our Lips Are Sealed” single. I needed that B-side.

The early ’80s represented a continuation of my ongoing education in the wonders of pop music. I describe the years 1976-78 as the crucible that forged my tastes, as I expanded from a 16-year-old who worshipped The Beatles (as I still do today) into an avid fan of punk, power pop, and new wave, but still always with an eye and ear out for the beguiling sounds of the past. Post-crucible, a college graduate in 1980, I became enthralled with the guitar-bass-drums appeal of the legendary instrumental combo The Ventures. The Ventures’ “Walk–Don’t Run” knocked me out on oldies radio, prompting an essential purchase of The Very Best Of The Ventures. Somewhere, probably in the pages of the fine rock ‘n’ roll magazine Trouser Press, I learned that Go-Go’s guitarist Charlotte Caffey wrote a song for The Ventures. Well! Had to have that, didn’t I? There was no ready option for me to buy “Surfing And Spying” by The Ventures, but I cowabunga’d and hung ten for the chance to own a version by its author’s own rockin’ band. (If pressed, I would concede the possibility that I mighta maybe had a little crush on all of the individual members of The Go-Go’s, particularly bassist Kathy Valentine. Sorry, Ventures, but ya just can’t compete with that.)

Even considered apart from my prerequisite girl-pop swooning, The Go-Go’s did a helluva job crafting and capturing a Ventures-type song. I loved the record, and played it often. I don’t understand why it was omitted from the expanded CD reissue of Beauty And The Beat, nor why its only CD appearance seems to be on the two-disc Return To The Valley Of The Go-Go’s anthology set. It’s an important song for me, and it was important for the growth of my awareness and appreciation of ’60s instrumental rock. Before “Surfing And Spying,” I had my Ventures best-of and the 45 of “Beatnik Fly” by Johnny & the Hurricanes; after The Go-Go’s, my scope expanded to include latter-day instrumental groups like The Raybeats and Jon & the Nightriders, and classics like “Mr. Moto” by The Belairs, “Penetration” by The Pyramids, “Pipeline” by The Chantays, and the incredible “Miserlou” by Dick Dale & his Del-Tones. In later years, I’d learn of Link Wray, and of British instrumental gods The Shadows. It was all music simply too good for words.

I saw The Ventures play live at a club show in the late ’80s. I never did have a chance to see The Go-Go’s. I don’t remember whether or not The Ventures’ amazing live set included “Surfing And Spying,” but if it didn’t, it should have. It’s a great song, and it deserves to be considered right alongside recognized Ventures essentials like “Walk–Don’t Run,” “Hawaii Five-O,” and “Slaughter On Tenth Avenue.” And honestly, I think Beauty And The Beat would have been perfect (rather than just near-perfect) if “Surfing And Spying” had replaced “Automatic” on the original LP. SURF! SPY…! Some records are just plain meant for the collector in me.

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I have developed a few specific brand-name loyalties over the years. To the diminished extent that I still drink soda, I drink Coca-Cola, not Pepsi. I buy Ford cars; I haven’t owned any other type of car since 2006. I wear Wrangler jeans. I can be promiscuous in my at-large consumption of potato chips, but when I’m getting a bag of chips to eat at home, it’s gonna be a bag of Lays Potato Chips. No one can eat just one, and I don’t consider purchasing any other brand.

My most steadfast daily exercise in brand loyalty is my coffee: Chock Full O’ Nuts. That Heavenly coffee. Better coffee a millionaire’s money can’t buy. This was just the result of a choice I made many years back to pick a brand of coffee and stick with it. Decades ago, Billy Miller and Miriam Linna wrote in Kicks magazine of their affection for (or addiction to) Chock Full O’ Nuts, and I figured that was as good a recommendation as any. Great choice. I favor the dark, bold taste of its New York Roast, and I enjoy a 20-ounce mug of it each and every morning. I’m not kidding when I say there are some nights when I go to bed looking forward to my cup of Chock Full O’ Nuts as a reward for getting up to face the day. I’m not a coffee snob at all. When I’m out ‘n’ about and in the mood for a cup, I readily go to war with the coffee a diner has, not the coffee I wish it had. I’m also quite fond of Paul DeLima coffee. I think the coffee at Starbucks tastes like it was made with hair. 

Most mornings, especially work mornings, I have a bagel for breakfast. The fact that I’m fine with store-bought, pre-packaged bagels from Thomas’ or Wegmans destroys any hope I could ever have of achieving bagel hipster status. I slather the bagel with peanut butter, and in that regard, I’m a choosy mutha: I choose Jif. I never buy any other kind. 
(My favorite bagel overall would, of course, be a real bagel, preferably an everything bagel. I want it with lox, cream cheese, and capers. But there is no element of brand loyalty in play here.)
As a proud Central New Yorker, my chosen brand of hot dog is Hofmann, period. Hofmann is the brand served at the locally-iconic Liverpool, NY hot dog stand Heids, and there just ain’t no substitute for Hoffmann. I recall a period years back when Heids stopped using Hofmann hot dogs, and I saw a customer buy a birch beer from a Heid’s stand at Great Northern Mall, then move over to a competing stand to buy a Hofmann hot dog. Ouch! Heids and Hofmann have since reunited, and it feels so good. Taste tells.

Those are my primary examples of brand loyalty. I think Kasteel Winter Ale is the best beer I’ve ever had, but it’s not to be had, so I settle for others (usually Blue Moon) while occasionally experimenting with random choices, preferably of Belgian derivation. I tend to buy Progresso soups, but I’m not opposed to Campbell’s. When treating myself to a chocolate milk–a smile in a glass!–I use either Bosco or the more readily-available Nesquik rather than Hershey’s syrup. And, as noted in our opening paragraph above, if I’m buying cola, it’s Coca-Cola, ideally the Mexican variety made with real sugar. It’s the real thing!

Although I have my loyalties and preferences, I’m really not all that picky, honest. We all have our likes and dislikes, but I try not to be militant about mine. Hell, sometimes when I’m at a restaurant and in the mood for a cola, I’ll even order a Pepsi if the joint doesn’t have the good sense to offer Coca-Cola.

I’ll drink it under protest, mind you, but I’ll drink it. Cheers, then.

But given a choice? No Pepsi. Coke. And a cheeseburger while we’re at it.

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Guilt-free Pleasures: “I Never Thought It Peculiar,” by The Monkees

There is really no such thing as a guilty pleasure in pop music. Unless you happen to love neo-Nazi ditties or glorifications of hatred or violence, I’d say it’s okay for you to dig whatever you wanna dig. Yes, even the hits of The Eagles. Why? BECAUSE THEY’RE POP SONGS! Guilt-Free Pleasures (A Defense Against The Dark Arts) celebrates pop songs. The guilty need not apply.

THE MONKEES: “I Never Thought It Peculiar”
I never thought it peculiarThat you never gave me a smileI wasn’t socially suitedTo make it worth your whileOh, no….
Our own paths through the landscape of pop culture are directed by quirks and idiosyncrasies. We may have points of common ground–a hit movie or TV show everyone within our peer group saw, a top record we all heard on the radio in heavy rotation–but there are also less-shiny pop artifacts only some of us know, experienced in less-than-universal circumstances. There are TV shows we loved as kids that no one else seems to even remember much, if at all. There are records our memories insist must have been ubiquitous mega-smashes, because we remember ’em, in spite of the fact that they never occupied a second of AM or FM airspace on any radio known to boy or girl. They are the flowers in the dustbin (as The Sex Pistols would say). The world at large may be indifferent to their charm, but they matter to us.
And I never thought it peculiarThat my heart always beat like a drumEach time I would see you walk by meYou were as pretty as they come
Within the cavalcade of memory and impression I recall from being a kid in the ’60s and into the early ’70s, it seems to me that The Monkees had more hits than Billboard chart histories insist. Wasn’t “(Theme From) The Monkees” a hit? Howzabout “She?” “Papa Gene’s Blues?” “Gonna Buy Me A Dog?” C’mon, “(Look Out) Here Comes Tomorrow” must have been huge; how could it not have been…?!
But these weren’t hits, nor were they even singles. They were LP tracks I heard on my brother Art’s copies of the first two Monkees albums in 1966 and ’67, catchy ditties I likely also heard on The Monkees television series. Their everyday familiarity to me fooled my brain into thinking they were chart-toppers like “Last Train To Clarksville” and “I’m A Believer.” 
They were not. Yet I loved them as if they were.
Ain’t that peculiar?
As popular as The Monkees had been in the ’60s, the rock establishment in the ’70s was determined to toss the group and its legacy lock, stock, and little red maracas into the dustbin as well. By the time people tried to tell me that I couldn’t possibly like The Monkees, I already loved The Monkees, and I’d already determined that nobody could ever dictate what I could or couldn’t like. I’ve told that story elsewhere, notably in my account of seeing The Monkees live and of wishing to induct them into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. The Monkees transcend my concepts of the guilty or even guilt-free pleasure.

n The Monkees’ canon, a clunky little number called “I Never Thought It Peculiar” is the closest thing I have to an exception.
Yeah, there aren’t an awful lot of folks who love this one. “I Never Thought It Peculiar” was written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, the ace tunesmiths who created a number of classic songs for The Monkees, from the TV show’s theme through “Last Train To Clarksville,” “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” “She,” “Words,” and “Valleri,” among many others. As performers, Boyce & Hart appeared on the TV shows Bewitched and I Dream Of Jeannie, released a bunch of singles and albums, and scored a # 8 hit in 1967 with “I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight.” 

“I Never Thought It Peculiar” was something of a throwaway. It had been written and recorded during sessions for second album More Of The Monkees, and relegated to the vaults, unreleased. The track had no discernible sense of cool. As sung by heartthrob Davy Jones, it was guileless pop fodder, music hall, the sort of chirpy but forgettable dreamy-eyed luv song a teen-idol pinup could sing sweetly to his smitten little Tiger Beat girl (and vice versa). It didn’t appear on a record until it was unceremoniously exhumed to fill dead space at the end of Changes, the 1970 Micky Dolenz-Davy Jones vehicle that was the final album released under the Monkees brand name, after Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith had already left Monkeeshines behind them. It was not a hit record by any definition.

Making my own way through the ’70s, I discovered over time that The Monkees had released more albums than the mere two I remembered. There wasn’t much information readily available regarding The Monkees’ discography, but watching reruns of the TV show proved there were more Monkees songs out there. Through flea markets and friends, I filled in a lot of the gaps.
I had never seen nor heard a copy of Changes until the fall of my freshman year at college in Brockport, NY, late 1977. I was interested in joining the campus radio station WBSU–because, y’know, playing records–and took a tour of the studio. It was there that I saw this Monkees album I didn’t know. Changes

It was the only Monkees album the station had. I looked it over, but didn’t recognize the songs. I figured (correctly) that “Oh My My” probably wasn’t the Ringo Starr hit with the same name. I scanned these unfamiliar titles, “I Love You Better” and “99 Pounds” and “Midnight Train,” and settled my gaze on the album’s final track: “I Never Thought It Peculiar.”
And I began to sing that song to myself. I remembered the song from…hey, where the hell could I have remembered that song from…?! I knew I’d never listened to Changes. I was pretty certain the song hadn’t been played on the radio, and I was likewise sure it wasn’t among the few Monkees records I’d cut off the backs of specially-marked boxes of Post Honey Combs cereal. But I knew the song! I did!
Over the next few weeks, I pestered WBSU DJs with request after request, mixing urgent pleas for oldies by The Dave Clark Five and Paul Revere and the Raiders with fevered demands for the punk/new wave sounds of The Ramones and Blondie. And I often requested “I Never Thought It Peculiar.” The first time I heard that on WBSU confirmed my memory of it, from whatever secret place that memory was spawned. 
(My taste in rockin’ pop was decidedly out of sync with most of my fellow students, including most of the jocks at WBSU. There were exceptions, but most of ’em disliked my oldies, and really disliked my punk. And they hated The Monkees more than they hated any of the rest.)

Hating The Monkees. I’m sorry, I could never understand how anyone could hate a sound that made me feel so happy. But I did have to concede that “I Never Thought It Peculiar” wasn’t particularly hip. It was gawky, square, as awkward as unrequited love. I wrote its goopy lyrics in my notebooks, fighting for space alongside the words from lovelorn gems by The Rubinoos and Freddie and the Dreamers, the presumed soundtrack of an earnest love affair yet to be: a college girl whose eye I would catch, whose hand I would hold, whose lips I would kiss, a girl whose heart would beat next to mine. Peculiar? Infatuation’s like that. Love’s for damned sure like that, too.
So I sent some flowers to your doorstepAnd wrote on the card, “I love you”I don’t know whyBut I do know that IHad a feeling that you liked me, too

Her favorite Monkees song is “Oh My My,” from Changes. Peculiar together!

Changes isn’t much of an album, but it has its moments. “Oh My My” is a fantastic little chunk of strutting hard pop with a bubbly soul, Dolenz’s breathy vocals delivering an AM-ready juggernaut that should have been a hit. “I Love You Better” is agreeably reminiscent of Neil Diamond. The rest is marginal, culminating in the terminally uncool but somehow engaging trifle “I Never Thought It Peculiar,” the song that I knew somewhere.
I wouldn’t figure out the mystery of my forgotten introduction to “I Never Thought It Peculiar” until a few years later. Although I was old enough (if barely) to watch The Monkees’ TV series during its original 1966-68 prime time run, my true immersion in the Monkees experience came when the show was rerun on Saturday mornings from 1969 to 1973. Around 1970, when Changes was released, suits at Colgems Records hoped to capitalize on this TV exposure to spur sales for new Monkees product, so tracks from Changes replaced some of the older tracks previously heard playing behind Monkees romps on individual episodes. One of those freshly-inserted songs was, of course, “I Never Thought It Peculiar.” The song sunk its gummy hooks deeply into my ten-year-old psyche, and slumbered there until jolted awake when I was in college.
So I never thought it peculiarWhen you stopped to ask me the timeAnd I don’t think it’s terribly peculiarThat now, little girl, you are mine
There are no guilty pleasures in pop music. It’s pop music ferchrissakes. As I approach my 60th birthday, I’m still the boy who loved The Monkees, the boy who fell in love with girls, the boy who learned that love is defined by those who love, not by those who look on. I’m still a bit peculiar myself, and adamantly unlikely to change. My path remains quirky and idiosyncratic, and I’m still fascinated by flowers in the dustbin. The Sex Pistols wound up covering The Monkees, by the way. These flowers still bloom, for all who care to see. Peculiar? Proudly so.
VERDICT: Innocent, not guilty.


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Diamonds Are Forever

Play ball!

My peak years of interest in baseball were the early ’70s, say 1970 to 1973 or so, fading away a bit after I turned 13 in ’73. Although I obsessed over baseball with an intensity similar to my prevailing (and better-known) passions for comic-book superheroes and rock ‘n’ roll. even then I didn’t necessarily follow the game all that closely. I saw our Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs as often as I could, but as far as the major leagues went, I was more familiar with players from decades past than I was with the then-current state of the pennant race. I constantly read baseball histories, and developed a pseudo-nostalgic attachment to departed teams the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. I had a Duke Snyder baseball bat, which I discovered while rummaging in our basement o’ treasures. But there was never any question about my favorite big-league team: of course it was the New York Yankees.
There were a lot of reasons why it had to be the Yankees. Part of it was geography and community; in Central New York in the early ’70s, most baseball fans were Yankees fans. Nowadays, there are nearly as many misguided Boston Red Sox fans in Syracuse as there are Yankees fans, but that did not seem to be the case during my baseball years. At the time, the Yankees were the parent team to the Chiefs, reinforcing that connection to the pinstripes and allowing the locals a glimpse of the Yankees for one exhibition game against the Chiefs every year. It was not an environment conducive to one becoming a fan of, say, the Cleveland Indians or the Houston Astros. Maybe the Mets. I liked them, too.
My Dad worked as a clubhouse manager for the Chiefs, so I had ample opportunity to see Chiefs games–I left school early for Opening Day every year–including the annual Chiefs-Yankees game. I occasionally “helped” Dad in the clubhouse–no, I tried, I really did!–and I saw Chiefs who would go on to become Yankees. Dad’s connections within the organization allowed us to see a couple of games at Yankee Stadium when we visited New York in the summer of ’72. And that included a trip to the Yankees’ clubhouse on Old Timers’ Day.
When I had to deliver Dad’s eulogy in 2012, I recalled that Old Timers’ Day, that enchanted afternoon from four decades gone: I remember my first visit to Yankee Stadium in 1972, and how Dad being who Dad was, the doors just magically opened for him wherever he went. So we found ourselves in the Yankees locker room on Old Timers’ Day, and we got to meet Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford and Dad’s own hero, Joe DiMaggio. One person there, puzzled by how a 12-year-old kid got into that locker room to begin with, asked me who I was. Puffed up with pride, I answered, “I’m Bob Cafarelli’s son.” There was a brief pause, and then the guy said, “Who’s Bob Cafarelli?”Yeah, try to beat that day for a baseball memory. 

Old Timers’ Day ’72. I bought a Brooklyn Dodgers pennant from Manny’s Baseball World, right across from Yankee Stadium (the guy at the counter repeatedly and irritatedly calling back to inattentive co-workers Brooklyn DODJUHS pennant! BROOKLYN DODJUHS PENNANT!, just trying to complete my order.In addition to Dad’s opportunity to meet his hero Joltin’ Joe, I saw my hero Mickey Mantle hit a home run. Former Syracuse Chief Ron Blomberg, by then a proud pinstriper himself, recognized me from his minor league days, grabbed me, and lifted me up, bellowing, Hey, how ya doin’? I ain’t seen you in a long time! Blomberg also hit a big home run during the official game, bookending Mantle’s exhibition-game four-bagger. The crowd booed when a taped message from Yogi Berra concluded that he couldn’t be there because his Mets (whom Yogi managed at the time) were playing in San Francisco. In the public area, somewhere between the concessions and the Yankee history exhibits, Dad and I ran into Phil Rizzuto, who wasn’t suiting up with the Old Timers, but was there to call the game as a broadcaster. I asked him for an autograph, but my pen had run out ink. Oh, the humanity! Undeterred, the Scooter said, Wait here, kid, went into the private press club, and emerged with a fresh pen. Here ya go, kid!, and he signed my baseball and wished us well. No one should ever even think of badmouthing Phil Rizzuto in my presence.

I tried to play baseball myself. I played Little League, and I tried out for Roxboro Road Middle School’s team when I was in seventh grade. But I just didn’t have it. I later umpired some Little League games, but my baseball career was coming to a close.
In high school, I didn’t really give baseball much thought, occupied as I was with the social drama, angst, and thoughts of how elusive girls seemed to be. Oh yeah, and writing. That I could do. As a freshman in college in the fall of 1977, I got caught up in the fever again, rooting for my Yankees and Reggie Jackson in the World Series, and delighting as Mr. October channeled my memories of Mantle and Blomberg to hit ’em outta the park when they most needed hitting. Ladies and gentlemen, your World Series champion New York Yankees!

GREAT candy bar, too!

But that was it for baseball and me, really. I rooted for the Mets over the Red Sox in the 1986 World Series. I caught the occasional Chiefs game after moving back to Syracuse, though the Toronto Blue Jays had long since replaced the Yankees as Syracuse’s parent club. (The system later shifted to the Washington Nationals, and the New York Mets eventually bought the Chiefs outright.)
Something drew me back into baseball in 2007. I don’t know why, but I started watching Yankees games on TV, even listening to games on the radio, waiting for announcer John Sterling to end with his trademark Ballgame over! The Yankees win! THEEEEE Yankees wiiiiiin! It was the summer that my body turned on me, the fall I wound up in the hospital with a spine in dire need of immediate repair. In between hospital stays, I watched the Yankees, and I watched DVDs of ESPN‘s The Bronx Is Burning, retelling the stories of the Son Of Sam and the ’77 Yanks, all to a soundtrack by The Ramones. Back in the hospital with a blood clot, I watched from my bed as insects on TV swarmed in from Lake Erie, engulfing Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain and handing the win to the Cleveland Indians. I healed, but the Yankees’ post-season hopes did not. When the Yankees fired manager Joe Torre, I swore off baseball again.

When Dad passed away, my siblings and I decided we would all honor his memory by wearing baseball caps to the gathering after his funeral. The night before the funeral, right before I finished writing the eulogy, I went to the mall to buy myself a new New York Yankees cap. I broke down in tears at the counter. I wear that cap often now. I may not be an active Yankees fan, but the Yankees will always be a connection between me and my Dad, even across the barriers we mortals don’t yet understand. The Bronx may not look like Heaven. But it has a direct line. Dad would approve. Who’s Bob Cafarelli? He’s the biggest Yankees fan in Heaven, that’s who Bob Cafarelli is. I can hear him cheering from here.

Your blogger, musician Ray Paul, and my This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio co-host Dana Bonn before a 2017 Paul McCartney concert in Syracuse.
A lovely Phillies fan models my Yankees cap.

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The Greatest Record Ever Made : Lies

Jimmy Walker
 of The Knickerbockers passed away last week. This is a chapter from my forthcoming book The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1).
An infinite number of songs can each be THE greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Today, 

THE KNICKERBOCKERS: “Lies”Imitation and inspiration are two very different things. We generally have less regard for the former, but recognize that nothing worthwhile can be sparked without the latter. And some imitations are inspired. Many Beatles fans adore The Rutles, and also Utopia‘s Deface The Music, both of which are able and engaging tributes, copying familiar Beatles songs, rewriting them, and reframing them as something almost new. The result is sincere flattery, but compellingand interesting sincere flattery. 
The Beatles inspired more than just imitation, though. The Beatles certainly drew from their own gumbo of influences–Chuck BerryLittle RichardBuddy HollyCarl PerkinsThe Everly BrothersThe ShirellesArthur Alexander–and evolved from imitation to divine inspiration. Some acts set out to imitate The Beatles in some way and became inspired to be more than imitation: to become The Byrds, to craft the sublime majesty of Pet Sounds, to invent ’70s punk rock as simply as a rapid-fire count-off of 1-2-3-4!  Let’s be The Beatles, lads. And then let’s be something we can call our own.
Most would think of “Lies” by The Knickerbockers as imitation, a greed-driven attempt to recreate the sound of The Beatles, maybe even to fool the gullible into thinking it is The Beatles. When I first heard it, my immediate reaction was that it sounded more like The Beatles than The Beatles did. So yeah (yeah yeah), I guess it is imitation. But it’s imitation with a vision, and it is still so much more than just that.

At first glance, The Knickerbockers would seem an unlikely source for rockin’ pop transcendence. I don’t mean to be disrespectful when I say that The Knickerbockers never looked cool, because–let’s face it!–I’ve never looked cool either. The group started out in Bergenfield, New Jersey in 1962, and they were not in any way ahead of their time. They were a cover band. They imitated. They got people to dance, which is good, but they could make no claim to greatness. 
Until, suddenly, they could make that claim.

Founding members Beau Charles and John Charles–brothers, on guitar and bass respectively–were joined by newer Knicks Buddy Randell (sax) and Jimmy Walker (drums) in 1964. They were still primarily a covers act. Their first two albums, Lloyd Thaxton Presents The Knickerbockers and Jerk And Twine Time (both from ’64), were without distinction. Either or both could be erased from history without affecting the time-space continuum in the slightest.
Given that: where the hell did “Lies” come from…?!

The Beatles were pop music in ’64 and ’65. There were lots and lots of other great stuff happening, from James Brown to Paul Revere & the RaidersMotown to girl groups, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass to Wilson PickettThe Rolling StonesThe KinksStax, and Louis Armstrong, even. But The Beatles ruled, by perception and acclaim, their fab reign and domain reflected in influence, imitation, and inspiration. Beatlemania inspired The Knickerbockers.
“Lies” was written by Buddy Randell and Beau Charles. The Knickerbockers’ previous records had been competent and bland, bordering on the anonymous. Coming after those forgettable works, “Lies” seemed to scream with moptopped frenzy, Let’s be The Beatles! Was it a conscious ambition? Man, it must have been.  What working rock or pop performer in 1965 didn’t want to be The Beatles? Maybe Quincy Jones didn’t want to be The Beatles. Everyone else did.
It’s one thing to want; it’s quite another to achieve. “Lies” magically distills everything–everything–great about Beatles ’65 into one single 45 side. Originally, it was the wrong 45 side; Challenge Records, The Knickerbockers’ demonstrably clueless label, stupidly relegated “Lies” to the B-side of “The Coming Generation,” an earnest and boring track not destined to ever trouble the Top 40. Clearer heads prevailed when DJs turned the record over. “Lies” was a hit. And you know that can’t be bad.
The track’s obvious debt to The Beatles makes it tempting to dismiss “Lies” as ersatz Merseybeat, a copy and nothing more. Except that it’s not a copy, and it is more. “Lies” is not a ripoff of any Beatle record. There are general elements taken from Lennon and McCartney, but really more in terms of a general feel, an accomplished and successful attempt to channel Meet The Beatles and A Hard Day’s Night and “Thank You, Girl” without resorting to thievery. It didn’t hurt that Beau Charles’ lead vocals were so damned convincingly reminiscent of John Lennon. “Lies” doesn’t sound like any one Beatles record. It sounds like all of them. Audaciously, triumphantly, a band from Jersey had pulled it off. For one shining moment, The Knickerbockers had effectively become The Beatles.
Released in late ’65–pop music’s best year ever–“Lies” should have been a # 1 smash. It peaked at # 20 in ’66, and it was The Knickerbockers’ only big hit. They deserved better. After the dull banality of their earliest records, The Knickerbockers willed themselves into becoming a dynamic beat combo, capable of having a rave-up and having a wild weekend eight days a week, right alongside the best of the British Invasion. In 1966, they released their third and final album Lies (credited to “The Fabulous Knickerbockers”). The album was schizophrenic. Side Two was awash with big balladry, a pseudo Righteous Brothers sequence that squandered the fab rush of “Lies” (and presaged Jimmy Walker’s subsequent departure from the Knickerbockers to replace Bill Medley in the actual Righteous Brothers). But Side One? “I Can Do It Better,” “Can’t You See I’m Trying,” “Please Don’t Fight It,” and especially “Just One Girl” demonstrated that The Knickerbockers should not have been merely one-hit wonders, their lack of follow-up chart success notwithstanding.

n 1994, I picked up a Knickerbockers compilation CD called A Rave Up With The Knickerbockers. I already owned a handful of Knickerbockers discs (including reissues of Lies and Jerk And Twine Time), but this was the first to really demand my attention. A Rave Up With The Knickerbockers eschewed the ballads, ignored the early covers, and concentrated on The Knickerbockers’ uptempo gems. Well, fine, it did include “Coming Generation,” but that was okay in context. I already knew and adored “Lies,” of course, as well as its terrific non-LP follow-up “One Track Mind,” a great cut called “She Said Goodbye,” and the other tracks from Side One of Lies. Putting all of that (minus the Lies track “Please Don’t Fight It”) on one disc, combined with unfamiliar treats like “My Feet Are Off The Ground,” “Rumors, Gossip, Words Untrue,” “High On Love,” and the flat-out amazing “They Ran For Their Lives,” served to provide a fresh revelation. Knickerbockermania!
“One-hit wonder” is often taken as a pejorative term. I never intend it that way. To me, it refers to a missed opportunity, a chance the public didn’t get or never took to hear more from a great act that dazzled the country once, and was probably capable of dazzling yet again. Some one-hit wonders merited much greater notoriety than they received, more praise, more adulation, more airplay, more hits. The Bobby Fuller Four should not have been just a one-hit wonder. The Knickerbockers shouldn’t have been that either. Still, even if “Lies” had been the only track The Knickerbockers ever recorded, its transcendent celebration of an American Beatlemania delivered on its own self-assured terms…well, that would be reason enough for idolatry, cause enough to worship the group that created this essential work of wonder. Someday I’m gonna be happy, but I don’t know when just now.Because it’s no lie: imitation can lead to inspiration. Inspiration is timeless. And it sounds fabulous.

A tip of the hat toBruce Gordon, whose own Let’s Be The Beatles studies have gone in far greater depth than I could ever manage.TIP THE BLOGGER: CC’s Tip Jar!
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The Everlating First: E-Man

The Everlasting First: 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.

The late Nicola Cuti is one of six posthumous recipients of the 2020 Bill Finger Award, honoring comic book writers who created a body of work that has not received the recognition it deserves. The award is named for Bill Finger, the long-uncredited co-creator of Batman. Cuti joins Virginia Hubbell BlockLeo Dorfman, Gaylord DuBoisJoe Gill, and France Edward Herron as this year’s slate of honorees. My favorite Cuti work was a superhero called E-Man, originally published by Charlton Comics in the ’70s.The Charlton Comics line eschewed superheroes after the demise of its Action-Hero line in the late ’60s. By the early-to-mid ’70s, Charlton’s only superhero book was The Phantom, plus Popeye if you wanna stretch the superhero tag to broader parameters. Revivals of Blue BeetleCaptain AtomThe PeacemakerJudo Master, and Peter Cannon…Thunderbolt were unlikely, and it was equally unlikely that Charlton would create any new costumed heroes to take their place. Charlton editor George Wildman was amiable, but firm: superhero books did not sell for Charlton.
So the 1973 appearance of two new action series from Charlton was, to say the least, unexpected. Yang was a martial arts series, so that made commercial sense amidst the frenzy of the kung fu craze. But there was also a new superhero book–a quirky, energetic, unique superhero book, drawing more inherent inspiration from the Golden Age charm of Plastic Man or the original Captain Marvel than from anything else DC or Marvel was doing at the time–but it was undeniably a superhero book, a bona fide Charlton superhero book. It was E-Man, created by writer Nicola Cuti and artist Joe Staton.

For most of these entries in The Everlasting First, I’ve been able to call to mind some specifics about when, where, and how I first became aware of the pop subject at hand. But my initiation into E-Man fandom is a jumble of tangled, thorny, conflicting memories. E-Man debuted at a time when I was become ever more active in seeking out new comic-book superhero thrills; it was a little before the short-lived Atlas Comics line, so Charlton’s return to the superhero wars stood out even more. I think I remember purchasing an issue of E-Man (and definitely an issue of Yang) at a convenience store in Clifton Park. I remember a coverless E-Man scored at Van Patten’s Grocery in North Syracuse. Later on (1974? ’75?), while traveling with family from Southwest Missouri to the Florida panhandle, I know I bought an issue of E-Man during a pit stop somewhere in Arkansas. How did I first hear of E-Man? What was the first issue I saw, and/or the first I read? That memory is lost. All I can tell you is this: however I came on board, I was an E-Man fan instantly. I tracked down all the back issues, bought each new issue, and was crushed when it was cancelled. Superhero books did not sell for Charlton.
E-Man deserved a much, much better fate. This book was simply unlike anything else on the stands at the time. Jim Hanley‘s Captain Marvel pastiche Goodguy came closest, but that was a black-and-white strip that appeared sporadically in fanzines (and I would really love to see that stuff collected in book form!); DC’s Shazam! (starring the actual Captain Marvel hisself) never quite gelled, and Simon & Kirby‘s The Sandman was weird and kinda fun, but still more weird than fun. By contrast, E-Man sparkled with the positive energy promised by its hero’s insignia:

(And E-Man’s constant companion Nova Kane was the sexiest character in mainstream comics in the mid-’70s. I mean, sure, she was an exotic dancer, and that reinforced her pulchritudinous appeal. But her comic book appearances somehow avoided pandering for the most part. Nova was never, ever portrayed as any kind of bimbo or sexpot, and was usually the smartest and most sensible person in the room at any given moment. She was capable, and in control, simultaneously good-natured and wordly. Nova was the heart of E-Man.)

E-Man lasted for a mere ten issues at Charlton. Hard-boiled private eye Michael Mauser was introduced in E-Man # 3; presumably intended as a one-off character, Mauser eventually became a key member of the E-Man cast, and has appeared in solo adventures as well (initially as a back-up strip in Charlton’s Vengeance Squad). Nova acquired super-powers in E-Man # 8; I thought this detracted from the engaging interplay of the grounded, sensible, street-wise Nova and the cosmically naive E-Man, but I grew accustomed to the idea over time.
And I did have time to grow accustomed to the idea; First Comics purchased the rights to E-Man from Charlton in the early ’80s, and began a new series of E-Man adventures. Joe Staton returned to the art chores, but Cuti was unavailable; his replacement, Marty Pasko, had done some fine work for DC (including a delightfully goofy run on The Metal Men, with art by Staton), but his E-Man didn’t seem quite right to me. Cuti returned to his co-creation with First’s E-Man # 24. First Comics withdrew from the comics biz years ago, but E-Man, Nova, and Mauser have continued to pop up from time to time from various publishers. One of these days, I need to go back and re-read the lot of ’em. And I’m delighted that there were a few new latter-day adventures of E-Man by Cuti and Staton published within the past few years in the Charlton Neo series The Charlton Arrow
Nicola Cuti passed away in 2020. The work lives on. You can’t destroy energy.

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Badfinger: Day After Day

Badfinger was my favorite act on the radio in the early ’70s. It’s no coincidence that the first entry in my series The Greatest Record Ever Made! was Badfinger’s “Baby Blue,” nor was there ever any likelihood of me choosing any other song to open my eventual GREM! book
Have to repeat the mantra for those who came in late: An infinite number of songs can each be THE greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. “Baby Blue” stands out as my favorite among Badfinger favorites, and if I had to pick just one–ONE!!–song and stick with it as GREM!, “Baby Blue” would be among the finalists. But I loved all of the Badfinger songs I heard on the radio when I was in middle school. “Come And Get It,” the song Paul McCartney gave to the lads, was wonderful, but the singles written by the group’s own Pete Ham were better. “Baby Blue,” of course. “No Matter What,” which many think of as Badfinger’s signature tune. And this irresistible ballad “Day After Day.”
I am not generally a ballad guy, except on those occasions when I am. I’m infinite, too. “Day After Day” just soars, its heartfelt tale of devotion and longing propelled by a sound taken straight from Abbey Road, a sliding guitar that seems to mourn and hope at the same time, piano that proclaims ’70s pop music in all the best ways, harmonies, the experiences of love, wishes, dreams, regret, and AM radio all made as one.

The Fab Five: Arty Lenin, Gary Frenay, Dave Miller, Dave Novak, Paul Davie

In 1994, Syracuse musician and promoter Paul Davie organized a live event to commemorate the 30th anniversary of The Beatles‘ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Paul’s own British Invasion tribute combo The Fab Five would play a set of period-appropriate covers and a set duplicating The Beatles’ performances for ol’ Stoneface Sullivan back in ’64. The Fab Five would also back up Terry Sylvester of The Hollies and Badfinger’s Joey Molland in separate sets.

Screen Test in the ’80s: Arty, Tommy, Gary

The Fab Five at that time included Gary Frenay and Arty Lenin from The Flashcubes and Screen Test, along with Davie, local music legend Dave Novak, and veteran drummer Dave Miller. As mentioned in my liner notes for the Screen Test anthology Inspired Humans Making Noise, Dave Miller wasn’t as familiar with the Badfinger material as he was with the rest of the evening’s rockin’ pop syllabus, so NYC-based ‘Cubes/Screen Test drummer Tommy Allen agreed to come back to the ‘Cuse for a Screen Test gig on Friday night and the Badfinger portion of the British Invasion show Saturday night. Joey Molland also showed up at that Friday night Screen Test show, and he joined the lads for an unplanned, incredible rendition of “No Matter What,” setting a high bar for Saturday night’s show.

Joey Molland, Gary Frenay

The next evening’s show met that bar, maybe even surpassed it. It was neither the first time nor the last time I saw Molland perform, but it was without question the best time. Molland just cooked with the fab quintet of Screen Test plus Davie and Novak. Our Joey acquitted himself well on Badfinger’s hits and album tracks, singing most of the leads, including those originally done by the late Pete Ham. But for “Day After Day,” Molland ceded the lead mic to Arty Lenin.
And Arty friggin’ owned it.
I was 34 years old, a drink in one hand, my lovely wife Brenda on my arm. But I was also 11-12 years old again, my ears stapled to WOLF-AM and WNDR-AM in ’71 and ’72, hearing music that promised something better than my adolescent doldrums, my preteen angst, looking out of my lonely gloom, day after day. It was…everything, the good and the bad, with good winning out in storybook fashion. I was nearly speechless. After the set, I found my voice and walked up to Arty to say, “Dude, you are Badfinger!”
Pop music is a time machine. It’s not just memories, and it’s not just the past, because all the things we saw and heard and felt and tasted and dreamed and cried over or bled for remain with us. Always. The records don’t remind us–we would remember anyway–but the sound connects us, then and now, now to then. I don’t want to be 12 again. I wouldn’t mind having a little more hair, a few less pounds, and a better back, and it sure would be nice to skip one or a hundred of the heartbreaks along the way. But living is now, ending in -ing rather than -edEvery day, my mind is all around you. Turn it up. Every day, I feel the tears that you weep. It’s okay. Night after night. Day after day.

We have time.

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This is a piece I wrote in 2016, right after Hamilton won its barrel full of Tonys. Thanks to Disney +, I’m finally set to enjoy my first view of Hamilton this month. And the opportunity prompts me to think back to when I first became aware of the play and its phenomenon, and its peripheral connection between me and and an old college friend.

Leslie Odom, Jr.

This year, for the first time in many, many years, I watched the Tony Awards broadcast.
I don’t watch a lot of awards shows.  Neither the Oscars nor the Emmys hold any interest for me; I record the Grammys and the American Music Awards, but I fast-forward through the looooong stretches of each that bore me to tears–left to my own devices, I can watch a three-hour Grammy or AMA show in twenty to thirty minutes, maybe forty minutes, tops.  Middle-aged power pop fans are just not the target demographic of these shows.
But one of the things that did catch my interest on this year’s Grammys was the performance from the Broadway sensation Hamilton.  Honest to God, I just thought it was captivating.  So I tuned into this year’s Tony Awards show to try ‘n’ soak up a bit more of that Hamilton buzz; and, more specifically, my wife Brenda and I wanted to root for Leslie Odom, Jr., the actor who plays Aaron Burr in Hamilton.  Now, we’ve never actually met Leslie; but–a very long time ago–we knew his Mom and his Dad.
First, a bit of background about me and The Great White Way.  I’ve spent a lot of time writing about rock ‘n’ roll, punk, bubblegum, pop, and power pop.  It may surprise some to learn that someone like me–whose all-time favorite musical acts are The BeatlesThe Ramones,The FlashcubesThe Kinks, and The Monkees–also loves Broadway.  But there were always Original Broadway Cast albums around the house when I was a kid, so I was exposed to this music, immersed in it, since even before John, Paul, George, and Ringo paid that first visit to ol’ stoneface Ed Sullivan one Sunday night in ’64.  As a toddler, I would accompany my parents on shopping trips to J.M. Fields or K-Mart, and I’d randomly sing snippets o’ show tunes while sitting in the shopping cart.  This could border on the awkward and embarrassing, like when I would suddenly bellow, Here’s to the son of a B–tra la! from Carnival, or re-enact the domestic quarrel scene from Gypsy, concluding that I was gettin’ my kids and gettin’ out.  Hello, Child Protection?  Yeah, there’s this kid in the department store, and you won’t believe what’s comin’ outta his mouth…!
West Side Story.  The Music Man.  Camelot.  Funny Girl.  Carousel.  And, my favorite, Carnival.  I heard all of these, and many more, and they were ultimately as much a part of my formative musical alchemy as the British Invasion and The Monkees.  The lure of rock ‘n’ roll was ultimately too much competition for musical theater to withstand, but I never exactly stopped loving Broadway, either.  I’ve never seen a play on Broadway, but I did see an Off-Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973, and I saw Wicked in London’s West End in 2010.  I’ve seen many, many local theatrical productions, both professional and amateur; Brenda and I have even been known to attend high school musicals, and I mean high school musicals where we didn’t know any of the student performers–we were just there to enjoy the play.

This ongoing love of music and musicals also led me to a short-lived TV series called Smash.  Smash ran for two seasons, from 2012 to 2013, and it was kind of a mess, really.  But it had its moments, and I never missed an episode.  And I noticed an actor who had a recurring role on Smash, and I called Brenda in while I watching him on the show.  Hey, Bren.  This actor’s name is Leslie Odom, Jr.  It could be a coincidence, but damn–doesn’t he look a little like Les?
I met Les Odom in college at Brockport, in Spring of 1979, I think.  Les was friends with a couple of the guys I lived with, Truck Thacker and Ray Ramos, so I saw Les here and there in our dorm suite–partying, kibbitzing, listening to music (with The O’Jays‘ live “Wildflower” a particular favorite, as I recall).  Les was from Queens, so he was on the school’s charter bus to New York City during Spring Break; I was also on that charter bus, accompanying Brenda back to Staten Island, where I would be meeting her parents for the first time (and, of course, also making a side trip to see The Flashcubes play on the Bowery).  That bus trip was a bacchanalia on wheels, a mobile version of dorm life, and enough fun that I only minded a little when all these downstaters kept putting down my home town when the bus passed through Syracuse.  You call this a city?  Man, this ain’t even big enough to be a borough!
(And this may be a case of my memory rearranging facts to suit my narrative, but I do believe it was Les who said, Naw, man–come on!  It seems like a nice place.  Leave CC be!)
When I graduated from college in 1980, I decided to stay in Brockport while Brenda completed her studies.  We got an apartment in the village, and were surprised to discover that Les and his girlfriend, Yvette Nixon, were also living in the same small complex, Villager Apartments.  We were never really tight, but we renewed our friendship nonetheless, and spent some time hanging out over the course of that summer. I have a specific, vivid memory of Yvette making dinner for us in their apartment one night, and we spent a lovely evening drinking and partying, alternating between watching Ted Kennedy’s firebrand speech at the Democratic National Convention and listening to James Brown’s Live At The Apollo LP.  I remember it as a happy, happy time.
But Villager Apartments didn’t seem to remain a happy place for Les and Yvette.  Brenda and I both remember them as a really cool, very nice couple, and we all got on quite well.  But Villager’s manager, Pete–who lived next door to Brenda and I, and was also a friend of ours at the time–may not have shared our affection for Les and Yvette.  It may have been racial (which is an easy stone to cast, even when it’s not true), or it may have been a simple matter of friction between tenants and an apartment manager.  I didn’t see any of it.  All I know is what Pete told me: that Les was banging on Pete’s door late one night, presumably to report a problem with Les and Yvette’s place, and Pete opened the door and pointed a gun at Les.  Les shouted, No, Pete!  It’s me–Les!  No shots were fired, and no one was hurt, thank God.  But Les and Yvette moved out not long after that.  We never saw them again.
When we saw this Leslie Odom, Jr. on Smash, we knew in our hearts he had to be Les’ son.  Had to be.  Odom’s a common name, but the resemblance was strong enough.  Now, Les was a big guy, and Leslie, Jr. didn’t seem to be as physically large–well, on TV, anyway.  But Yvette was of slighter build, so it was plausible. I did the Google Stalk thing that everyone does now:  Leslie Odom, Jr. was born in August of 1981 in Queens–roughly a year after we’d last seen Les and Yvette, and in Les’ home town.  But no matter how much we researched, we couldn’t confirm the identities of this actor’s parents.  Well, yeah, we knew his father was Leslie Odom, Sr–we are indeed that well-versed in the time-honored art of deduction–but we didn’t know his mother’s name, and we couldn’t say with absolute certainty that his Dad was the Les we used to know.
When we saw the performance from Hamilton on this year’s Grammys telecast, we noticed Leslie Odom, Jr. in a prominent role.  The performance was intriguing; the idea of “a hip-hop musical” wasn’t intrinsically attractive to me, but this seemed so powerful, so well-executed, so goddamned irresistible, that it just knocked me out, man.  My budget wasn’t likely to accommodate a trip to New York and Hamilton tickets any time soon, but I kept my eyes open for further TV glimpses.  Everyone knew Hamilton was going to dominate the Tonys.  And that meant Brenda and I were going to watch the Tonys.
The awards show itself was amazing, actually.  Host James Corden was fantastic, the comedy bits and musical numbers were endlessly engaging, and–unlike the Grammys or the AMAs–I never felt like fast-forwarding through anything except the commercials.  It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening of television.  Watching the scene from Hamilton, I found myself mesmerized; the only comparison I could think of was The Beach Boys‘ masterpiece Pet Sounds; not because Hamilton is in any way reminiscent of Pet Sounds, but simply because that’s what comes to mind when something is as good as it gets, nonpareil, a summit of achievement and accomplishment.  Tough to make that pronouncement based on a couple of numbers seen on a 32″ TV screen, but screw objectivity anyway.  There was a giddy joy in surrendering to the moment, and letting it sweep all cynicism away.
When it came time to award the prize for Best Actor In A Musical, we knew that Leslie was up against Hamilton‘s creator and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and we figured Miranda was a lock. But Leslie won!  We whooped and hollered as if he were one of our own.  And, in the conclusion of his acceptance speech, Leslie, Jr. acknowledged, “Leslie Odom, Sr., Yvette Odom, and Elizabeth Odom taught me well as well.”
And there it was.  Confirmation!  I’m not embarrassed to admit that Brenda and I both screeched like young teens at a One Direction show. And we’re pretty sure we saw Les–Les, Sr.–in the audience, pumping his fist in jubilation, proud of his son. It felt so damned good.
They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway.  Sometimes that harsh glow can be blinding, too much to take in; but sometimes, there really is magic in the air.  That magic can manifest in music and art, and also in friendships long gone, but still remembered fondly.  That glitter never rubs off.  It never will.


Movies In My Mind / Jukebox Express (1958)

Movies In My Mind is a celebration of films that don’t exist, never existed, and were never planned. This is fiction. 

Ginger Grant as Kirby Lee in Jukebox Express

Jukebox Express (Stark Pictures, 1958)

Directed by Carl Denham

Produced by Howard Stark

Story by Roscoe Kane

Screenplay by Clay WashburnGeorge McFly and Alan Brady [with uncredited assist by Tom Miller]


Sophie Lennon

Stan “King” Kaiser

Kathy Selden             

Jenny Blake

Simon Brimmer             

Larry Davis

Christine Marlowe

Lucky Day

Simon Trent             

Johnny Fever

Ashley St. Ives 

[uncredited]Special appearances by; 

Conrad Birdie                                     

Ricky Ricardo                                     

Otis Day & the Knights                                     

Danny Fisher                                     

Bobby Fleet and his Band with a Beat 

 The Cry-Baby Combo

Sven Helstrom & the Swedish Rhyth Kings


Ginger Grant                   

Troy Chesterfield

Leather Tuscadero

Sophie Lennon

Jukebox Express was an odd little film trifle which relatively few have ever seen. Although it was made at the height of comic Sophie Lennon‘s popularity in 1958, legal complications severely limited its original distribution. It has never been issued for the home video market in any format, and Lennon’s estate has determinedly blocked any effort to rectify that. It is not on YouTube. Even bootlegs are rare, effectively non-existent. Only a handful of prints are known to exist, and those prints are not being shared with anyone, anywhere.
While Jukebox Express doesn’t have quite the cachet of such unseen celluloid legends as Orson Welles‘ The Batman or The Beatles in Up Against It!, it’s nonetheless something a handful of dedicated rock ‘n’ roll fans and film buffs have been aching to see for a long, long time.
We still can’t see it, but a new book offers the public its first real chronicle of the story behind this niche Holy Grail of beat flicks. Mallory‘s Jukebox Express: The Story Of The Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Movie You Never Saw (Rocket Media) is an exhaustively-researched journey behind the scenes of a lost cinematic work.
Although Mallory is primarily known as a mystery novelist, his attention to detail and evident affection for his chosen subject matter serve him well in nonfiction, too. The Gun Was Silenced, Mallory’s biography of his hero, hard-boiled detective writer Roscoe Kane, was as compelling a page-turner as one of Kane’s own pulp potboilers. Mallory’s interests in pulp fiction, early rock ‘n’ roll, superheroes, pinup girls, and 20th century eccentrics prompted his previous books about writer Clay Washburn (Wordsmith), the hard-traveling combo Bobby Fleet and his Band with a Beat (Mayberry Jailhouse Blues), noirish costumed TV crimefighter The Gray Ghost (Beware The Gray Ghost!), heartthrob actress Jenny Blake (Jenny And The Rocket Man), and inventor and entrepreneur Howard Stark (A Cool Exec With A Heart Of Steel). All of these individual interests dovetail in Jukebox Express. It was inevitable that Mallory would choose that film as his next subject. Mallory provides us with this summary of Jukebox Express and the story behind it:

In Stark’s crowded, busy mind, concepts always raced with daunting velocity. These fevered notions could and would range from potential breakthroughs in cutting-edge technology to how to make a better pastrami on rye. Stark’s mental maelstrom of creativity conjured the idea of a movie about this rock ‘n’ roll music that was driving the kids crazy. He figured an entertaining rock ‘n’ roll flick should feature the beat and its stars, sure, but he also wanted gangsters and gumshoes, broad comedy, romance, pretty girls, more pretty girls, and a train. The movie had to take place on a train. And the movie would be called Jukebox Express.
With a springboard and a star, Stark needed a script, a director, and more players. To concoct the story, he brought in an old drinking buddy, Roscoe Kane. Stark Pictures had successfully adapted some of Kane’s novels, and Kane had in turn worked a bit on the first entry in the studio’s Western series Kid Colt, Outlaw. Kane came up with a framework to unite Stark’s kooky ideas. That story was turned over to pulp veteran Clay Washburn, by then an experienced screenwriter, and a new science-fiction writer named George McFly. McFly was an odd choice to help write a film with no science-fiction aspects whatsoever, but Stark was impressed with the kid’s imagination and enthusiasm. Comedy star Alan Brady added jokes to the dialogue, possibly with additional ghost-writing from his own gagmeisters Buddy Sorrell and Sally Rogers. (Of course, none of these writers had much–or any–familiarity with rock ‘n’ roll, so a music publicist named Tony Miller was recruited to add beat music verisimilitude, albeit uncredited verisimilitude.)

Carl Denham

The director was Carl Denham, another old Stark pal. Denham’s once-promising film career had floundered back in the ’30s, following his disastrous attempt to build a show around a giant ape he’d brought to New York from a remote tropical island. Denham persisted and rebounded, thanks in part to behind-the-scenes support from Stark; by 1958, he was once again a respected film director, though nearing the end of his work. Denham owed Stark, and worked with him often. Jukebox Express would be their final collaboration.
The plot of Jukebox Express centers on Kirby Lee, an attractive secretary and girl Friday to Archibald Toby, a young, would-be music impresario bitten by the rock ‘n’ roll bug. Miss Kirby Lee is smart, savvy, and competent, so she generally does most of the work her hapless, klutzy boss can’t quite accomplish, but she secretly (okay, not so secretly) loves him anyway. Through Lee, Toby has discovered an exciting new female rock ‘n’ roller, and she just may be Toby’s ticket out of perpetual debt and into the big time. Right now, though, Toby owes a fortune to gangster Rocco “Death” Manzetti, and about 37 months’ back rent to his kooky but kindly landlady Rose “Mama” Mammamia. Lee comes up with the only-in-a-movie idea of a rock ‘n’ roll train tour, “Jukebox Express,” to promote their new rock ‘n’ roll queen alongside other a-rockin’ and a-boppin’ artists, all making whistle-stop appearances on the rails across this great country. Manzetti and his hoods tag along to protect (and, if need be, violently collect on) his money. Manzetti’s moll Cupcake O’Hara tags along to keep tabs on Manzetti. Mammamia tags along because, well, of course she does. Toby’s mother tags along because she likes Lee and is worried that her idiot son is going to mess things up further. And police detective Danny Mammamia–Rose’s ex-husband–tags along to finally find evidence to send the Mazetti gang off to the hoosegow. (Officer Mammamia views it as hazardous duty, and tries to keep as far away from his ex-wife as possible.) Further hijinks ensue as Toby starts to fall for his comely rock ‘n’ roll singer, but Lee makes him see the light–by force, if necessary! Show business success is achieved when superstar variety TV show host Whizzy Matthews discovers the Jukebox Express and arranges for a live broadcast from Grand Central Station. The Jukebox Express winds up crashing into the station, but the show goes on! All past debts are paid, Rocco Manzetti asks Mama Mammamia to marry him, Detective Mammamia locks lips with Cupcake and rips up the warrant for Rocco’s arrest, Whizzy Matthews asks Toby’s mom out, and both Kirby Lee and their new rock ‘n’ roll stargirl shower a deliriously happy Archibald Toby with kisses. Mama shouts out, “That’s rock ‘n’ roll!,” Kirby purrs, “And that’s the end!” And it is, in fact, the end.
What nonsense. What delirious, glorious, infectiously fun nonsense.

Stark wanted nascent teen idol actor Dash Riprock to play Toby, but Mammoth Studios wouldn’t budge, insisting that their contract player was not going to appear in a Stark Pictures release, no way, no how. Stark considered buying Mammoth and just firing everyone there, but started flirting with a meter maid and basically forgot about the whole thing. The role was given instead to a then-unknown Troy Chesterfield. Chesterfield had appeared in small roles on a few TV series (The Purple AvengerMr. DowntownPleasantvilleInvitation To LoveCaptain Spaceman) and had been a contestant on the popular game show The $99,000 Answer. But long before he became a household name as Terry Legend on the hit ’60s series The Vindicators, before he co-starred with Gina Lollobrigida in 1964’s Out Of This World!, before the record six times he guest-hosted The Hollywood Television Showcase, before co-starring with Joanie Janz in the underrated comedy classic The Wolfgirl Meets The Vampire In The Old West, before Oscar-nominated turns in Jessica Fletcher’s The Messengers Of Midnight and Blood On The Badge, and before the scandals that nearly ended his stardom, Chesterfield’s feature film career began with Jukebox Express. With no disrespect intended to Chesterfield’s many other roles, his effervescent portrayal of Archibald Toby will always be my favorite Troy Chesterfield performance.

The rest of the cast was assembled by Stark and Denham with an eye largely toward veterans that one or the other (or both) knew and trusted. Stark thought comic Sophie Lennon’s on-stage persona was hilarious, but he detested her personally; however, she was a friend of Denham, so Stark deferred. The casting of TV comedy legend Stan “King” Kaiser as Rocco Manzetti was inspired, and Kaiser chewed all scenery in sight with remarkable comic efficiency. Former radio detective Simon Brimmer provided a surprising comic flair as Officer Mammamia. Terry Embrose, a dancer who’d initially found fame during World War I, was initially sought to play Toby’s mother; she was unavailable, so the role went instead to film star Kathy Selden. Selden was known as a singer, so a scene of her dueting with Broadway star Christine Marlowe was added; Marlowe played an investigative reporter theoretically covering the Jukebox Express, but really hoping to get a scoop on Manzetti. Comic Larry Davis effectively played a much more obnoxious version of himself as Whizzy Matthews. Silent film star Lucky Day and young actor Simon Trent played Manzetti’s thugs. And veteran actress Jenny Blake was both stunning and hilarious as Cupcake O’Hara. (Although uncredited and unknown at the time, future porn star Ashley St. Ives has a small non-speaking part as a young rock ‘n’ roll fan sneaking aboard the Jukebox Express. DJ Johnny Fever appears as–wait for it!–a DJ.)

As riveting as Leather Tuscadero was, they still needed more music to make this all into a rock ‘n’ roll movie. A number of acts were recruited to lip-sync performances sprinkled throughout the film. Some of these were plainly not rock ‘n’ roll. Stark was a fan of the champagne shuffle of Sven Helstrom & the Swedish Rhythm Kings, and he insisted they appear in Jukebox Express. Cuban bandleader Ricky Ricardo also performed, and had a scene with Christine Marlowe’s reporter. The rest of the film’s musical guest stars were firmly within the rockin’ field. This was about a year before rock ‘n’ roll superstar Conrad Birdie was drafted; his rendition here of “Honestly Sincere” brings the house down, and his duet with Leather Tuscadero on “Fever” just simmers with pure heat. Danny Fisher is electrifying, performances by both The Cry-Baby Combo and Bobby Fleet and his Band with a Beat make one ache to see more than the few known filmed appearances by each, and rhythm ‘n’ blues kingpins Otis Day & the Knights are flat-out amazing, especially on two performances with Leather Tuscadero. This movie rocked, Sven Helstrom notwithstanding.

And it was absolutely doomed at the box office.
Part of the initial problem stemmed from what would have seemed a commercial advantage: Sophie Lennon. Lennon was enormously popular, but her fans didn’t want to see a rock ‘n’ roll movie; a backlash against Lennon within more Bohemian circles–Lenny Bruce actively hated her–may not have mattered all that much, but it dovetailed with a potential controversy in her own career. It’s difficult now, decades later, to guess what Lennon was thinking at the time, but whatever it was, she did her best to quietly discourage people from going to see Jukebox Express. Stark never forgave her. Denham broke off his friendship with Lennon, and they never spoke again. His relationship with Stark was strained, but not destroyed. Stark and Denham parted company, but they parted amicably.
But that was not the film’s worst obstacle. Moral watchdog groups, already concerned about the threat of rock ‘n’ roll and race music, sought to protect impressionable (white) youth from its potentially corrupting influence. The Ku Klux Klan condemned it for scenes of the pretty Caucasian Tuscadero singing closely–too closely!–with the black Otis Day. You know you’re doing something right if the KKK doesn’t like you, but parroting of the hate group’s talking points via like-minded emissaries hurt ticket sales in the South, and elsewhere–the Northern states weren’t necessarily as forward-thinking as some pundits would pretend. The film’s final shot, depicting Toby’s face covered with lipstick kisses from both Kirby Lee and Leather Tuscadero, was decried as a scandalous suggestion of menage a trois–a stretch even within the close-minded parameters of strict ’50s morality. Detective Mammamia’s failure to arrest Manzetti was criticized as a slap against law enforcement. And frankly, a lot of folks just hated Howard Stark, and didn’t believe he was innocent of the spurious charges of treason that had been hurled at him a decade before.
Howard Stark was a fighter until his dying day. He could have taken Lennon down, and was surely tempted to do so. He might even have been able to mount a publicity campaign to counteract his stodgy opposition, one that could have convinced movie fans and rock ‘n’ roll fans to flock to theaters to see Jukebox Express. But it wasn’t worth it. There were hundreds of other projects awaiting his attention, from cocktail waitresses to fortifying the nation’s defenses. Jukebox Express was done.
In my book about the film, I delve more deeply into the behind-the-scenes drama of Jukebox Express. The stories range from silly disruptions in shooting caused by Lucy Ricardo‘s efforts to be included in the film with her husband (and her consternation with him appearing in a scene–albeit a non-romantic one–with Christine Marlowe, who was a virtual twin of Lucy Ricardo) to more dire interference from genuine criminal elements. The biggest by-product of the story is simple regret: I regret that you will never have a chance to witness this film for yourself. Jukebox Express is the greatest movie you’ll never see.
That’s rock ‘n’ roll. And that’s the end.

WHO ARE ALL THESE PEOPLE ANYWAY? Here’s annotated guide to The Fictional Players In Jukebox Express