Flashcubes On Fire!

These are my liner notes for Flashcubes On Fire, a new CD preserving the Flashcubes‘  incendiary live show at the Firebarn in Syracuse on May 26, 1979. I’ve been waiting more than 42 years for this. You wanna know why the Flashcubes are up with the Beatles and the Ramones in the pantheon of my all-time favorite groups? This CD offers an invigorating glimpse at the answer.

Writing about the Flashcubes brings out the best in me. Syracuse’s own power pop powerhouse. It’s a Saturday night in Syracuse. Get ready. Get set. 

FIRE! 

FLASHCUBES ON FIRE

At its best, live music is alchemy in action, capable of transforming the air around us into pure gold. This mystic process is fueled by so many ingredients, both physical and phantasmic. Sweat. Love. Lust. Hate. Alcohol. Hunger. Ambition. Greed. Generosity. Divine inspiration. Betrayal. Heartbreak. Laughter. Tears. One pill that makes you larger, one pill that makes you small. Amplifiers, power chords, the beat of the bass and drums. Voices rising in anger or exultation. Taking a sad song and making it better. One for the money, two for the show. NOISE. Beautiful, transcendent noise. The sound of gold.

In 1979, I was 19 years old. I reveled in this golden sound. My preferred alchemists were a fantastic rock ‘n’ roll group called the Flashcubes. My go-to goldmine was the Firebarn.

The Firebarn Tavern, a former fire station, was on Montgomery Street in Syracuse. In the mid ’70s, before there were Flashcubes, the Syracuse Cinephile Society held screenings upstairs at the Firebarn; my cousin Maryann took me to see films starring Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn, and my parents endured a long evening indulging me for all twelve chapters of the 1941 Adventures Of Captain Marvel movie serial. 

From the age of 18 on, I saw tons of bands at the Firebarn: the Fast, New Math, the Dead Ducks, the James L. Cortland Band, Distortion, the Most, the Battered Wives, and others that the generous flow of beer blocks in my memory. I was not among the tiny group that witnessed the Flashcubes share a 1978 Firebarn gig with a new British group called the Police. But I was at the Firebarn a lot. The bartender recognized me as I came in, and had an ice-cold Miller ready by the time I got to the bar. 

And then: upstairs! The movies weren’t upstairs anymore. Upstairs was for bands.

That’s where you’d find the Flashcubes, bending air into gold. They were gonna be the biggest stars in the whole goddamned world. I knew it. If history contradicted me, I regret nothing. I wasn’t wrong. The world was wrong.

But in 1979, the world was poised to get it right. There was an undeniable buzz. When the Flashcubes debuted in 1977, they didn’t seem…normal. Punk rock? Power pop? Original songs? Cover choices that favored the Sex Pistols and Television rather than Zeppelin? In Syracuse…?! 

Things evolved. In 1979, The Syracuse New Times‘ Mike Greenstein proclaimed the Flashcubes the local band of the year. Gigs drew exuberant crowds. On this very set, you can hear future GRAMMY-winning recording engineer Ducky Carlisle introduce the Flashcubes with confidence: “One day, very soon from now, all you people are going to be able to say ‘I saw this band before they were famous.'” 

As the summer of ’79 approached, that day seemed imminent. Gold. Syracuse’s phenomenal pop combo. Gary, Arty, Paul, and Tommy. Like John, Paul, George, and Ringo, or Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee, and Tommy, the ‘Cubes were a fab and ferocious four:

Bassist Gary Frenay sang sweetly, played commandingly, and crafted surefire radio-ready confections, Central New York’s songwriting answer to Eric Carmen, Emitt Rhodes, and Paul McCartney. 

Guitarist Arty Lenin lived at the left of the dial before anyone heard the phrase, a six-string (and twelve-string!) shaman preoccupied with a million thoughts at once, from William Faulkner to jazz LPs to Miss September. 

Guitarist Paul Armstrong was this town’s first punk and # 1 rock ‘n’ roll fan, driven and hard-working, the individual most responsible for bringing that energy to the Syracuse scene, and described in local fanzine Poser as “Dennis the Menace all grown up.” 

Drummer Tommy Allen could have appeared on the covers of 16 and Tiger Beat, while simultaneously wielding fast and lethal sticks like heavy artillery in the battle for your heart and your wallet. 

Gold. Precious metal formed by British Invasion, maximum pop, absolute rock ‘n’ roll, the edgy sound of the underground, and the rush of AM Top 40 when AM Top 40 was cool. Put ’em all together. Let ’em play.

The Flashcubes were loud. The Flashcubes were invigorating. And the Flashcubes were on fire.

On May 26, 1979, the Flashcubes recorded a Firebarn show on multitrack, their only 1970s show to be preserved with that level of oomph. You can hear the sweat. The Firebarn’s upstairs could get hot. It was never hotter than this night. Bright lights. Guitars, bass, drums. Volume. Your ears are gonna be ringing for days. Ladies and gentlemen, The Flashcubes!

The tape is the Flashcubes’ greatest hits, live, from Arty’s Playboy appreciation “Taking Inventory” through the one-two bludgeoning of Paul’s “Got No Mind” and the stalwart “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” a Larry Williams song the Beatles taught us, with a little Link Wray to chase us home. It’s got Arty’s gorgeous treasure (and the Flashcubes’ first single) “Christi Girl,” Gary’s urgent “Wait Till Next Week” (their second single), Paul’s angry “Sold Your Heart,” pumpin’ covers of fave raves by the Raspberries, Big Star, the Kinks, the Who, Eddie Cochran, and Arthur Alexander (via a Beatles bootleg), and so much greatness from the Flashcubes’ own songbook. 

“She’s Leaving.” “Gone Too Far.” “No Promise,” which should have been their third and biggest single. Arty’s lost song “Cycle Of Pain” and Paul’s likewise-lost “You For Me,” both making their over-the-counter debuts here. Gary’s “Suellen,” later a single for Gary, Arty, and Tommy’s ace post-‘Cubes outfit Screen Test. “Muscle Beach.” “Beverly.” “Boy Scout Pinup.” “Girl From Germany.” “You’re Not The Police.” “Angry Young Man.” And Paul’s “A Face In The Crowd,” a rock ‘n’ roll fantasy performed by a group THISCLOSE to making it all come true.

Gold? Oh hell, yeah. The Flashcubes were pristine ‘n’ dirty gold. Stars? In 1979, the brass ring wouldn’t even know what grabbed it. As the summer beckoned, the Flashcubes shopped their demo to record labels. They did shows with the Ramones, Joe Jackson, 999, David Johansen. They had interest from high-powered management. My God, the Flashcubes were about to go big time.

And it all went away. 

Bad luck. Bad advice. Bad decisions. Gold traded for pyrite. Paul Armstrong was no longer a Flashcube. The Flashcubes were still great, but one could argue that they were no longer the Flashcubes, not as we knew them. The four would reunite in later years. They would play, they would tour and record, they would become legit legends of power pop. But that flashpoint when material gold was within reach, when the dreams written so large in the sky were near enough to touch and taste and take to the bank, THAT moment….

Gone. Like it was never there. But it was there. I remember it.

In 1979, the Syracuse summer was electric with promise. I was 19, a shy, misfit teen from the Northern suburbs, home from college until the fall, and having the time of my life. I was in love, falling ever more deeply in love with a girl I’d met at school. We saw each other every weekend. I had a full-time summer job, putting a little cash in my pocket. So there was romance, money to spend, and a giddy sense of freedom.

And there was gold. The summer could have lasted forever.

Even nostalgia can’t erase the bad times. By the end of that same summer of 1979, my favorite band had split, and one of my best friends was dead by his own hand. I thought the world would just crush me at that point. 

Yet I still look back on that summer as the best I ever had. See, there will always be heartbreak; there will always be tears and sadness, and there will always be an abyss that taunts us. But there will also be love, and there will also be music. In 1979, the Flashcubes were among the best live rock ‘n’ roll acts anywhere. My ears are still ringing. The moment lives on.

Flashcubes On Fire documents that precise moment, that pyrotechnic spark when the Flashcubes were at their peak: a quartet of rock ‘n’ rollers dead set for the toppermost of the poppermost. If you were there, you’ll never forget it. If you weren’t there, just close your eyes, open your imagination, and breathe in the gold. 

GOLD. You’re there now. You’re one of us, upstairs at the Firebarn. Grab a beer on your way up. Welcome to this golden world of promise under the bright, bright lights.

Carl Cafarelli

Syracuse Summer 2021

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This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio with Dana & Carl airs Sunday nights from 9 to Midnight Eastern, on the air in Syracuse at SPARK! WSPJ 103.3 and 93.7 FM, and on the web at http://sparksyracuse.org/ You can read about our history here.

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THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE: Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting

This was written for my long-threatened book The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1), but is not in the book’s current blueprint.An infinite number of songs can each be THE greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Today, this is THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE!

ELTON JOHN: Saturday Night’s Alright For FightingWritten by Elton John and Bernie TaupinProduced by Gus DudgeonSingle, MCA Records, 1973
Somebody’s gonna get their head kicked in tonight.
In 1973, I had never heard (nor heard of) the song with that title. “Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight” had been the non-LP B-side of Fleetwood Mac‘s “Man Of The World” single in 1969; for that rockin’ B-side (written by Mac guitarist Jeremy Spencer), the group used the pseudonymous nom du hooligan Earl Vance and the Valiants, perhaps to establish plausible legal deniability for its intent to bash in craniums with mallets aforethought. Years later, it became something of a punk rock standard via a cover by the Rezillos. In ’73, relatively few Americans knew the song. Hell, in ’73, I had barely heard of Fleetwood Mac.
Oh, but I betcha Elton John and Bernie Taupin knew it. They didn’t copy the valiant Mac, but the pugnacious spirit of “Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight” drinks at the same bar as a song Elton and Bernie wrote and Elton released as a single in 1973: “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.”

Elton John’s big hit singles were among the highlights of my prime AM radio days, commencing with “Crocodile Rock” in 1972. I discovered (and embraced) his previous nuggets “Your Song” and “Rocket Man” shortly thereafter, and rode right along with his subsequent hits “Daniel,” “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting,” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” I hated “Bennie And The Jets”–I still do–but was otherwise all in for whatever our Reg was doing on the radio. There was a TV special called Goodbye Norma Jean to promote his Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album; I loved the documentary and I was intrigued by the album (especially the [then] less-familiar “Candle In The Wind” and the girl-girl enticement of “All The Young Girls Love Alice”), even though I didn’t get around to owning a copy of that album until many, many years later.

No, my sole contemporary EJ artifacts were his Greatest Hits album and later his “Philadelphia Freedom” 45, the latter purchased because my friend Jim Knight told me its B-side featured John Lennon in a live performance of the Beatles‘ “I Saw Her Standing There.” SCORE!! Greatest Hits allowed me the chance to play my Elton favorites again and again. I memorized Bernie Taupin’s lyrics for “Your Song,” and they became among my preferred passages when I was practicing typing, mentally dedicating the sentiment to every pretty girl I ever knew. (On the other hand, my choice for another practice typing piece–a quote from the 1940s comic book superhero the Sandman–kinda illustrates why I didn’t have a girlfriend.) 

“Your Song,” “Rocket Man,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” But my # 1 was “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting,” its rat-a-tat percussive opening and furious tempo oddly presaging the interest I would develop in punk rock just a few years later. That borders on the ironic, since punk is a large part of why I lost interest in Elton John’s music in the late ’70s. Still, other than “Crocodile Rock,” I’ve never relinquished my affection for the Elton John songs I loved in my teens. 

Especially this one. 

I didn’t pay particularly close attention to its lyrics. If I had, I might have been put off by its stated endorsement of drunken bar brawls. But I was 13; what the hell did I know about bar brawls? I had been in my share of fistfights at school, none of them drunken, all of them stupid and ill-advised. No heads were kicked in during the making of my middle school years. Nor was I much aware of the British pub experience, the Us v. Them scene combusted from the volatile mix of football and alcohol. The belligerent approach of “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” was in the tradition of aggressive records by the likes of the Rolling Stonesthe Who, and the Faces. And by Fleetwood Mac, alias punters Earl Vance and the Valiants. Somebody’s gonna get their head kicked in tonight. It is, after all, Saturday night.

So yeah, let’s have a drink, and raise a cheer for our side. Don’t give me none of your aggravation. Get a little action in. Elton John’s alright, alright, alright…!

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This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio with Dana & Carl airs Sunday nights from 9 to Midnight Eastern, on the air in Syracuse at SPARK! WSPJ 103.3 and 93.7 FM, and on the web at http://sparksyracuse.org/ You can read about our history here.

The many fine This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio compilation albums are still available, each full of that rockin’ pop sound you crave. A portion of all sales benefit our perpetually cash-strapped community radio project:

Volume 1: download
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Volume 4: CD or download
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THE EVERLASTING FIRST: The Easybeats

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.

Building upon our influences plays a large role in shaping who we are, and what we become. As a kid in the ’60s, and as a teenager in the ’70s, my personality, and my likes and dislikes, were molded in part by the pop culture I absorbed via TV, comic books, movies, and AM radio. A Hard Day’s Night. BatmanThe Monkees. Pulp paperbacks. Jukeboxes. DC ComicsMarvel ComicsGold Key Comics, all kinds comics. WNDR-and WOLF-AM in Syracuse. Throw in some baseball, some random 45s, some more TV (from Gilligan’s Island to The Guns Of Will Sonnett to Star Trek to Supersonic), some books on World War II, some DisneyMarx Brothers, and Jerry Lewis flicks, and some surreptitious glances at Lorrie Menconi and Barbi Benton in Playboy, and you have a partial portrait of the blogger as a young man.

Y’know, it ain’t polite to stare, mister!

And throw in some rock ‘n’ roll magazines, too. I’ve already written at length about the importance of the ’70s tabloid Phonograph Record Magazine, and I will still have more to write about PRM in future posts. I saw an issue of Circus some time in the mid-’70s, and I fell in love with Suzi Quatro when I saw her on the cover of the Rolling Stone. Later on, I’d immerse myself in Trouser PressCreemNew York RockerRock ScenePunkThe Pig Paper, and also a little thing called Goldmine, for which I freelanced for almost twenty years. But the most important single issue of any rock mag I ever read? No contest; that was the February 1978 issue Bomp! magazine: the power pop issue.

The way I read and re-read and re-re-read that issue, it’s a miracle its cover is still attached. I was 18. I was a fan of The BeatlesThe MonkeesThe KinksThe Raspberries, and The Ramones. I’d just seen The Flashcubes for the first time, so I was already a fan of theirs, too. The power pop issue of Bomp! was Heaven-sent, a manifesto for what I already believed, but couldn’t yet articulate. And its pages contained scores of recommendations for more acts I should check out as a nascent power pop acolyte, bands like The Flamin’ Groovies (whom I’d already heard, but needed to hear more), The CreationThe Dwight Twilley Band, and The Nerves; and there was quite a bit of coverage of some band called Big Star, and some group from the ’60s: an Australian band named The Easybeats.

Greg Shaw and Gary Sperrazza!, the auteurs behind Bomp!‘s power pop extravaganza, cited The Easybeats alongside The Kinks and The Who as power pop’s founding fathers. That’s pretty heady company to keep, so I certainly wanted to learn more about The Easybeats. If there were any Easybeats records in print in the U.S. in ’78, I wasn’t aware of them; I don’t think I could even find an Oldies 45 reissue of the group’s lone American hit, “Friday On My Mind.” So Easy Fever had to be deferred for me.

It may seem odd in retrospect that I’d never heard “Friday On My Mind,” but I don’t think I had. I finally heard it in–I think–the summer of ’78. Tip-A-Few, a bar on James Street in Eastwood, specialized in playing oldies while thirsty patrons tipped a few (or, sometimes, more than a few). The DJs at Tip-A-Few were armed with a massive collection of 45s–no need for LPs, because they would only play hit oldies–and I was there with decent frequency, tippin’ a few while requesting singles by Gene Pitney, The Beau BrummelsThe Knickerbockers, and The Fireballs. And, one night, I requested “Friday On My Mind” by The Easybeats.

I liked it, of course, It wasn’t immediately revelatory, but it was catchy rock ‘n’ roll music, and that was fine by me. That fall, I picked up a used copy of David Bowie‘s covers album, Pin Ups, which contained the former Mr. Jones’ take on “Friday On My Mind.” That track was, in fact, the very thing that prompted me to buy my first Bowie album, so yes indeed, thank you, Easybeats! I did eventually score an Oldies 45 of The Easybeats’ “Friday On My Mind,” a record which I grew to love more and more with each easy spin.

It took me a while to expand my Easybeats stash beyond that one 7″ single. In the mid-’80s, Rhino Records‘ The Best Of The Easybeats rewarded me with a glimpse into the true and enduring greatness of The Easybeats. “Friday On My Mind” was their only Stateside hit, and on some days I’ll agree it was their best track. But most days, I’ll dig in my heels, and I’ll insist, Yeah, “Friday On My Mind” is great, but “Sorry” is better!  “Sorry” struck me as the perfect melding of The Monkees and the early Who, so sign me up for a new religion based on those Australian pop gods, The Easybeats. “Good Times.” “Made My Bed (Gonna Lie In It).” “St. Louis.” “She’s So Fine.” “Sorry.” “Friday On My Mind.” Scripture. Chapter. Verse. Easy!

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THE LOVEABLE LUNKHEAD RETURNS

This was originally distributed privately to patrons of this blog on December 1st, 2018. This is its first public appearance. You can become a patron and support Boppin’ (Like The Hip Folks Do) for just $2 a month.
A recent online exchange about DC Comics Silver Age characters, cosmic crisis crossovers, and a popular real-life entertainment figure who starred in his own long-running DC Comics title inspired this flight of fancy. 

It was yet another crisis. You’d think such things would be rare, but they seemed to happen every summer, sometimes even more frequently. The world, the universe, multiple universes in danger, and the superheroes must save us. Worlds will live. Worlds will die. The universes will never be the same. Again. And again. And again.

But this crisis was different. This time, they invited me.

I’m usually excluded from these things. I used to be as big a star in our four-color world as any of the big guys. I don’t mean just my (if you must) “real” world counterpart, the comedy legend with the telethons and the movies and the temper, the adoring fans in France, the gurgled cries of LAAAAAAAAAYdeeeeeee! I mean me–the comic-book me–mingling with the Caped Crusaders and the Man of Steel, the Amazon Princess, the Scarlet Speedster. I was the Lovable Lunkhead. I met the prettiest girls. I had amazing, silly adventures, and the kids kept coming back for more, every other month. I did all right: Forty issues with my martini-guzzling ex-partner, and then 84 more–that’s 84!–without him, a total of 124 issues from 1952 to 1971, That was a longer sustained success than most of the superheroes in the freakin’ League, man. I was a king of comedy in the funnybooks.

Funnybooks. Nobody calls ‘em that anymore. No one wants any comic in their comic books. They just want another crisis. The real me was celebrated. Comic-book me was forgotten.

I don’t know what made this crisis du jour unique from the infinite previous crises. Maybe because all the heavy hitters were taken off the table before the action even started, out of commission at the hands of a mysterious grandmaster pitting champion against champion for the fate of all reality. Or something like that—I’ve never really understood the macguffins tossed around in these secret superwar things. I only knew that I’d been called to battle, as had dozens of presumably lesser heroes. It was like sending in the walk-ons during an NCAA basketball tournament. The bench was empty; we were the last hope standing.

I’m not a fighter. I’d tell you I never shied from a fight, but one look at my flailing panic in desperate situations would expose that lie. We chosen champions (such as we were) were supposed to fight each other—God knows why—in order to save the multiverse or some such mishigas. Most of the others were bona fide superheroes and adventurers; they expected me, a comic-book avatar of a popular film comedian, to compete with that? Oy….

My pesky nephew Renfrew and my housekeeper Witch Kraft accompanied me, though Renfrew disappeared immediately—knowing him, I figured the little monster was probably working up a high-stakes gambling pool—while Witchy zeroed in on some hero’s sturdy sidekick to flirt with. Everyone presumed I’d be dusted in the first round; presumed I’d be dusted in the first round. This never happened to Buddy Love, man.

My first opponent was a superhero, a stalwart member of a whole Legion of such people, but get this: his super power? He could eat anything. That’s it, I swear, hand to God. He could eat metal bars, walls, and plants and birds and rocks and things. Especially rocks. Man, even I wasn’t afraid of that. He charged at me, and I bent down to tie the loose laces of my sneakers. Safety first. Mr. matter-eatin’ boy overshot, and went careening into our picnic table, landing face-first into Witch Kraft’s Super Secret Recipe mocha, jalapeño, and sardine potato salad á la mode. Even an ability to eat anything wasn’t enough to spare my opponent the gastronomic indignity of that concoction, and I had won my first round.

Then I won my second. And my third. My fourth…?! Crazy. I would trip and my opponent would knock him- or herself out. Slapstick is my super power. I made it to the final round, and I knew that would have to be the end of the line for me.

Why? Because my opponent in the final was the daughter of that badass Dark Knight guy and the buxom cat burglar who used to cause strange stirrings in his utility belt. Trust me; it was a thing that led to a fling, and a second-generation superhero. Little Miss Batcat was one of the fiercest hand-to-hand fighters ever known. My luck had run out for sure.

She whispered something in my ear before the battle. At first, I was thinking to myself, You smooth Don Juan–if only Dean could see you now! But then I heard what she was saying, and I understood my role.

I came out fuming. Bellowing! Beating my chest and swaggering the swagger of the clueless and doomed. She remained tightlipped, all business, making it look good. I tried to make it look good, but my sheer haplessness hampered my façade. I nearly decked myself, not once, not twice, but three times, oh LAAAYdeee! She rolled her eyes behind her mask, but managed to keep saving me from myself. Finally, I seemed to have gotten in a lucky shot, and she crumpled to the ground, apparently defeated.

I had won.

I HAD WON!

The crowd was speechless, dumbfounded. From behind a cosmic curtain, the hidden orchestrator of this contest emerged, masked and hooded, hopping mad. YOU?!, he cried in anguish. YOU won this double-bag super-duper crossover crisis mega event? YOU? He was much shorter than I would have expected a cosmic criminal mastermind to be. I lost a friggin’ FORTUNE in bets on this! YOU WERE AT A BILLION TO ONE ODDS! The only way I can maybe break even is to destroy the universe and do a reboot…ULP!

The miscreant’s dastardly soliloquy was cut short by a savage blow from my former opponent, the Batcat chick. Yeah, she’d thrown the game, but for noble purpose, giving herself the opportunity to play possum and then get close enough to bring the bad guy down. With the dramatic flourish of a true comic book champion, she unmasked the mastermind as…

…Renfrew? MY NEPHEW RENFREW…?!

That kid just ain’t right in the head. Another get-rich gambling scheme. Ponzi had nothing on Renfrew, lemme tell ya. And rest assured: after Witchy and I got Renfrew home, he wasn’t able to sit down for a solid week.

The crisis was over. The vanquished champions recovered, and even more champions from across the multiverse showed up for the after-party. Hell, I think Dean was there, which was my cue to exit. Always leave ‘em wanting more.

I don’t get to participate in crises. Maybe that’s best. I’m a hero—no, scratch that, not a hero. I’m a comic book star from a different time. Fans look back and think because people laughed I must have been a joke. But I wasn’t a joke. I was an A-list star. Readers loved me, and my comic book ran for almost twenty years. They were good comics, too. It’s a shame so few will ever read them again. So I fade away. There’s no dark and gritty revamp of me. There’s no back-to-basics retread, no breathless hype that everything you thought you knew about the Lovable Lunkhead is wrong. There’s just the memories. I’d thank you for those, but that line belonged to another comedian turned comic book star. Instead, I sing: When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high. You’ll never walk alone.

Oh. And I have a hot date tonight with the Batcat chick. The ladies still dig a guy that can make ‘em laugh. The Lovable Lunkhead rises. The Lovable Lunkhead returns.

***

Thanks to Michal Jacotfor providing the spark.

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Our new compilation CD This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio, Volume 4 is now available from Kool Kat Musik! 29 tracks of irresistible rockin’ pop, starring Pop Co-OpRay PaulCirce Link & Christian NesmithVegas With Randolph Featuring Lannie FlowersThe SlapbacksP. HuxIrene PeñaMichael Oliver & the Sacred Band Featuring Dave MerrittThe RubinoosStepford KnivesThe Grip WeedsPopdudesRonnie DarkThe Flashcubes,Chris von SneidernThe Bottle Kids1.4.5.The SmithereensPaul Collins’ BeatThe Hit SquadThe RulersThe Legal MattersMaura & the Bright LightsLisa Mychols, and Mr. Encrypto & the Cyphers. You gotta have it, so order it here. A digital download version (minus The Smithereens’ track) is also available from Futureman Records.

THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE: Lay Down (Candles In The Wind)

An infinite number of songs can each be THE greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Today, this is THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE!


An earlier version of this chapter from my forthcoming book The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1) appeared as an entry in my weekly 10 Songs feature on 1/5/2021
This slightly expanded version was previewed in my weekly GREM! video blog (GREM! # 18), and makes its first complete printed appearance today.

MELANIE WITH THE EDWIN HAWKINS SINGERS: Lay Down (Candle In The Rain)Written by Melanie SafkaProduced by Peter SchekerykSingle, Buddah Records, 1970
My Mom hated Melanie. I mean, it wasn’t anything personal; if Melanie Safka had shown up at our house or something, I’m sure Mom would have offered her a bite to eat and a chance to sit and relax for a bit, all the while politely begging Ms. Safka not to sing. The distaste was based purely on artistic grounds; when Mom was working at a factory, Melanie’s 1971 hit “Brand New Key” came on the radio. It came on the radio repeatedly, as hit records are inclined to do. Over the clang ‘n’ clatter of hardware and machinery, the waifish voice trilling I got a brand new pair of roller skates, you got a brand new key reached Mom’s ears like Trotsky’s icepick. Mom thought it was the worst approximation of music she’d ever heard. Experiencing the song again at a later time–outside the factory, away from the industrial thrum and bang of assembly work–did not improve Mom’s initial impression, nor did any subsequent spin improve Mom’s view of the song. Noise. This is pop music?

I was eleven years old at the time. And while I may have enjoyed teasing Mom about this song she disliked so much, I didn’t have any particular love of it, either.

But. 

Although “Brand New Key”‘s hit reign in ’71 was the first time I recall hearing Melanie’s name in connection with a song, it was not the first Melanie song I knew. In September of 1970, when I was entering sixth grade, one of my favorite radio records was “Look What They’ve Done To My Song Ma,” which was written by Melanie and a hit for The New Seekers. Listening now to both The New Seekers’ single and Melanie’s own recording of that song, I’d swear it was actually Melanie that I heard on the radio as middle school beckoned. That doesn’t likely; it was almost certainly The New Seekers getting airplay on AM Top 40 in Syracuse, my stubborn contrary memory notwithstanding.

But I betcha I also heard Melanie’s first Top 10 hit, “Lay Down (Candles In The Rain),” earlier that same year, when I was still safely ensconced in elementary school. What a terrific, uplifting song, with the sanctified might of The Edwin Hawkins Singers lifting Melanie up to soar as high as the angels above. I’d had no real use for the straight black Gospel sound of The Edwin Hawkins Singers’ huge 1969 hit “Oh Happy Day” when I was nine, but “Lay Down” effortlessly mingled their celestial sound with Melanie’s folk-singer vibe, and it all wound up as pop music. Irresistible pop music. Forget the damned roller skates. “Lay Down (Candles In The Rain)” is the key, right here.

“We were so close/There was no room/We bled inside each other’s wounds.” Well, the lyrics pin this one to the Viet Nam War era. “Lay Down (Candles In The Rain)” was inspired by Melanie’s performance at Woodstock, a song written to express how it felt for her to see this massive crowd–perhaps not really a half a million strong, but giving the impression of a large, large number–as she sang and played her own songs of peace. The rain came down. You can hear her on the Woodstock Two album, performing “My Beautiful People” and “Birthday Of The Sun,” dedicating her music with a giggle to the beautiful, wet people. You can hear her smile. You can hear her belief. 

After Woodstock, Melanie took all of what she’d seen, all of what she felt, and turned it into “Lay Down (Candles In The Rain).” Raise the candles high. If you don’t we could stay black against the night. The Edwin Hawkins Singers provide amazing grace, immortal soul, an oh-happy-day’s journey into night. Raise them higher again. We could stay dry against the rain.

In the ’70s, I listened to my sister’s copy of Woodstock Two, transferring Melanie’s “My Beautiful People” (along with tracks by Jefferson Airplane and Joan Baez) to cassette mix tapes I made by placing my little deck right next to one of the stereo speakers. You can laugh at my lo-fi approach, but I’m still pretty sure that’s how K-Tel did it. In high school, I bought a cutout copy of the two-LP compilation Dick Clark 20 Years Of Rock N’ Roll, a collection which included Melanie’s “Lay Down (Candles In The Rain).” It was the first and only Melanie track I ever owned. The set also included “Oh Happy Day” among its varied treats by DionOtis ReddingThe Shangri-LasFats Domino, and Tommy James and the Shondells. It did not credit The Edwin Hawkins Singers on the Melanie track, and I doubt I even realized it was them singing those heavenly Lay down, Lay down!s behind our Melanie. I didn’t appreciate Hawkins and ensemble at the time. I do now.  

I did appreciate Melanie, and I confess that it wasn’t just on account of her singing. I was a boy. When “Brand New Key” was still a recent radio memory, I saw some photographs of Melanie for the first time, and the notion of lying down with her seemed very appealing to this eleven-year-old. 

I don’t think Mom would have approved.

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All The World’s A Stage

This celebration of columnist Carl Cafarelli’s history as a fan of live theater originally appeared at Boppin’ (Like The Hip Folks Do) on September 17, 2019. As you may have noticed, the world has changed a bit since then. Cafarelli adds this 2020 preface:

“When I wrote this in 2019, live theater was active and vibrant. I had recently made my first-ever trip to see a play on Broadway. I was looking forward to continued exposure to local theatrical productions in Syracuse, and my wife and I hoped to make Broadway jaunts an annual event. The quarantine scene squashed that plan for now. We’ll get back to Broadway someday.”

I have always loved the theater. I have no specific recollection of my first experience as a theater-goer, though it was probably something along the lines of an elementary school production of How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Mrs. Richards’ third grade class at Bear Road Elementary used to put that one on every year, a tradition which ended after I took on the lead role myself as a third-grader in 1968. I guess I broke it. Sorry…?

As a budding li’l narcissist, I certainly liked the idea of being a star of stage and screen. But I left the footlights and floorboards behind me after sparring with all the Whos down in Whoville in ’68. My love of theater continued to grow nonetheless.

Granted, I was mostly a passive fan; I went along with parents or siblings to whatever school production or community theater extravaganza they wanted to see. But I was a willing participant, and I enjoyed most of these outings, maybe even all of them. It wasn’t Broadway, but it was captivating.

The details blur in memory. I recall seeing my cousin Maryann play the lead in The Pompeian Players’ staging of The Unsinkable Molly Brown; I later saw a TV rerun of the film version starring Debbie Reynolds, and sniffed dismissively that Maryann was the better Molly Brown. I saw at least two Famous Artists Playhouse presentations put on at Henninger High School, Three Men On A Horse (with Bert Parks and Abe Vigoda) and Dames At Sea (with former TV Catwoman Julie Newmar). I think my sister Denise had small parts in both; she was definitely in Three Men On A Horse, playing an intrepid newspaper reporter, crying out, “What a story!” See, acting ran in the family. There was also a Cicero High School production of Carnival–one of my favorite musicals–which I think we went to see just because we wanted to see it.

Julie Newmar wore a slightly different wardrobe for her role in Dames At Sea

All of the above plays were presented to me in the early ’70s (though Carnival may have been a tiny bit later in the timeline). An eighth grade class trip to New York City in 1973 added Jesus Christ Superstar to my theater-goin’ resumé, an off-Broadway production that was as close as I got to the Great White Way. They say the neon lights were bright on Broadway, but I could not verify that claim firsthand. 

Seeking (and failing) to appear more cool than I actually was, I think I distanced myself from plays while in high school; if I did in fact see any musicals during my sentence at North Syracuse Central High School, the memory of it/them is gone. I wish I had been more willing to participate, whether as an audience or an unlikely actor, but I had walls to build around me, and that took up most of my time.

The interest started to rekindle slightly in college at Brockport. I saw a campus production of Pippin, and although I didn’t really like the play itself, at least I went to see it. A Shakespeare course brought me to Geva Theatre in Rochester for Twelfth Night; I was suffering from pink eye that night, but somehow managed to enjoy the play anyway. I took one analytical theater course, and it seems like we must have seen a play in connection with that; maybe it was Pippin? Can’t remember. I retain three chief memories of that course: a theater-major classmate’s fairly accurate imitation of the professor; the enticing prospect of the class meeting the playwright Eugène Ionesco (a meeting cancelled because Ionesco fell ill); and a late-night study session with a female classmate. The latter was probably not what you’re thinking; although we goofed around and giggled like the teenagers we were, we were platonic pals, and we actually did study. (Though I confess that, looking back, I’m not sure if she may have been afraid I was going to try to kiss her, or hoping that I would. The former is more likely. No boundaries were breached in this session.)

For dramatic purposes, the parts of my theatre classmates and Eugène Ionesco will be played by Miss Julie Newmar

It was really after graduating from college that I started wanting to see plays again. I moved into an apartment in Brockport with my girlfriend (and eventual lovely wife) Brenda, and we were occasionally desperate for something to do on the weekends in that small village. We saw movies, we caught two area rock ‘n’ roll bands (The Insiders and The Party Dogs) on the too-rare opportunities they played within walking distance, and we enjoyed beer. 

And we saw plays when we could. Carousel at the college. Brigadoon and It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s Superman at Brockport High School, and I think Bye Bye Birdie at the high school, too. Somewhere in there we saw The Rocky Horror Show on a visit to Syracuse. I don’t remember any more than those, and I don’t remember seeing any plays when we lived in Buffalo 1982-87. But the interest had been re-established.

We’ve lived in Syracuse since 1987. During that time, we’ve seen plays whenever we could. High school plays. Community theater. Syracuse Stage. Touring companies. Shakespeare in the park. Children’s theater, when our daughter Meghan was young. Fiddler On The RoofThe Grapes Of WrathLa Cage Aux FollesYou’re A Good Man, Charlie BrownThe Sound Of MusicThe Music ManOliver! Guys And DollsGreaseThe Pajama GameDamn YankeesHairThe Last Five YearsThe Tempest. Brenda, Meghan, and I saw Wicked at the Civic Center, adored it, and we got to see it again at the Apollo Victoria Theatre in London in 2010. Brenda has seen it a total of three times, and Meghan has seen it four times. And we have been changed for good.

In the summer of 2019, I finally–FINALLY!–saw my first play on Broadway. Brenda and I had been talking for ages about taking a bus to New York, seeing what matinees might be available at the discount ticket booth, and then catching a return bus to Syracuse the same night. We got up early, made it to Manhattan, and grabbed tickets to see Oklahoma! at Circle In The Square. A wonderful, thoroughly exhausting day, and a dream at long last come true. Broadway. It was daylight, but I do believe the neon lights were bright regardless.

We’re going to try to do that again, maybe make it a once (or twice?) a year treat. And we’re going to continue to see plays in Syracuse when we can. This past Sunday, we saw Keenan Scott II‘s powerful new work Thoughts Of A Colored Man, which we believe is Broadway-bound and will eventually be Tony-nominated. We really, really hope to see Hamilton some day. The play’s the thing. Musical, drama, comedy. We will stand and applaud. Theater. Welcome to the theater.

Ken Wulf Clark and Hanley Smith in The Last Five Years at Syracuse Stage, 2019

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Fans of pop music will want to check out Waterloo Sunset–Benefit For This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio, a new pop compilation benefiting SPARK! Syracuse, the home of This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio with Dana & CarlTIR’N’RR Allstars–Steve StoeckelBruce GordonJoel TinnelStacy CarsonEytan MirskyTeresa CowlesDan PavelichIrene Peña, Keith Klingensmith, and Rich Firestone–offer a fantastic new version of The Kinks’ classic “Waterloo Sunset.” That’s supplemented by eleven more tracks (plus a hidden bonus track), including previously-unreleased gems from The Click BeetlesEytan MirskyPop Co-OpIrene PeñaMichael Slawter (covering The Posies), and The Anderson Council (covering XTC), a new remix of “Infinite Soul” by The Grip Weeds, and familiar TIRnRR Fave Raves by Vegas With RandolphGretchen’s WheelThe Armoires, and Pacific Soul Ltd. Oh, and that mystery bonus track? It’s exquisite. You need this. You’re buying it from Futureman.

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Hey, Carl’s writin’ a book! The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1) will contain 100 essays (and then some) about 100 tracks, plus two bonus instrumentals, each one of ’em THE greatest record ever made. An infinite number of records can each be the greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Updated initial information can be seen here: THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE! (Volume 1).