What's a Muleskinner, anyway?

My name is Deke Dickerson. I'm a full-time musician, with lots of interests. One of those interests is writing. I write for guitar magazines such as Guitar Player, Fretboard Journal, and Vintage Guitar. I also write music articles, liner notes, and books that accompany box sets.

Once, a long time ago, I thought it was weird to have your own web site. Then, I thought that myspace and Facebook were immature (turns out I was right about that one, but I'm on them anyway). When I heard the word "blog," I decried I would never have one. And yet, here I am. Enjoy...

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Why I am not a Punk Rocker

I like punk rock.  But I'm not a punk rocker.

Growing up being a guitar player and being into music, there were really only two types of people you could hang out with: heavy metal dudes and punk rockers.  They were the only two groups where the guitar players mattered (back in those days, it was synthesizers and keytars if you wanted to be "popular.").

Popular music, 1986:

The metal guys were better musicians, and actually studied theory and harmony and stuff.   They were usually very serious when it came to music, and didn't have a sense of humor.  I remember the local metal guys being really mad when 'This Is Spinal Tap' came out, because in their words "It MADE FUN of Rock and Roll!"

Punk rockers, on the other hand, were guys who really couldn't play but wanted to be in bands anyway, to get some modicum of "glory" and of course to get girls.  They didn't take anything seriously, for the most part, but there was a lot of posturing and pseudo-political ranting.  I didn't fit in with either group, but wound up hanging out with both just by virtue of the fact that I played guitar.  I was literally the only guy in Columbia, Missouri who was into rockabilly guitar, so I had to find my friends where I could.

I wanted to be cool, but I just didn't have it in me.  Myself and my buddy Mace (who wound up being the bass player in my first band, The Untamed Youth, and who is now my step-brother) used to go see punk rock shows all the time.  We were nerds, total losers, and the punk rock shows were where the disaffected youth showed up to bond with other outcasts.  The only problem was that Mace and I were such losers that even the outcasts didn't want us.

We saw such bands as The Circle Jerks, D.O.A., The Descendents, Fear, Flipper, Husker Du, JFA (Jodie Foster's Army), MDC (Millions of Dead Cops), Toxic Reasons, TSOL, and a bunch of local bands like Three Legged Dog, Bloody Mess and the Scabs, Lurking Fear, First Bank of Christ, etc.  

The bands that I really liked, though, were the most uncool--The Ramones and The Dickies.

Mace and I went to see The Ramones and the Dickies on a double bill at Mississippi Nights in St. Louis in 1986.  At the time, both bands were considered total has-beens.  The Ramones could still fill the place, but everybody talked about how they were "over" and how their last few albums had sucked.  The Dickies were a band from L.A. that had several albums out in the late 1970s, but by 1986 they were not considered a viable band anymore.  It didn't matter to me.  I loved both the Dickies and the Ramones from the minute that I saw them.  Both bands were loud, fast, and STOOPID!  No political posturing, just basic rock and roll with lyrics that bordered on the moronic.

Mace and I were so inspired by seeing the Ramones that we made our own movie in high school, that we submitted as our humanities project.  Our teacher, Linda Harlan, gave us an "A" not because it was good, but because we had been so ballsy in taking over the entire school to make our silly movie.

Below: Behold the horror of my 1986 senior year Humanities project, "ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL."  

Yes, that's our actual high school principal, Dr. Wayne Walker.  I still marvel at how we got him to say our stupid lines and have Mace give him the Nazi arm salute.  The "Rock and Roll God" was played by our good friend and bad influence Joe Bargmann, who was several years our senior and a wise-cracking smart ass journalism student at the University.  Joe got us into more fun and more trouble than we ever would have on our own.  Joe loved the Ramones as much as we did.  Joe was the Untamed Youth's "secret weapon" for several years until he moved away.  The drummer was our good friend "Rabid" Rick Carter, who played in my earliest rockabilly band, The Rockin' Tailfins.  "Rabid" Rick had an Elvis museum in his mobile home that included a Red Hot candy (in a picture frame) that he had plucked from in between the seat cushions on one of Elvis' Cadillacs at a museum in Memphis.  He swore it had been Elvis' Red Hot.

Note: In the movie, I'm playing my 1967 Gibson ES-335 guitar.  You literally could not get LESS punk rock than a Gibson ES-335.  I played the same guitar in high school jazz band and our teacher used to ridicule me by calling me "Conway" (as in Conway Twitty) to make fun of my choice of guitar.  My punk rock "fashion" statement consisted of a pair of old jeans I had ripped up doing chores in my parents back yard.  Mace, of course, wins first place fashion prize with his bi-level haircut and earring--ha ha ha!  

The funny thing I remember about all the punk rock shows back in the 1980s was how caveman primal everybody acted.  This was before you could google "How to be punk rock" or "Who is cool right now" on your Iphone, so the only way to learn was to hang out and observe, and when the time was right, ask questions.  All these outcast high school and college kids would get together in some garage or basement or small club, and just hang out, waiting for someone to do something, or something cool to happen.  It was very much like 'Lord of the Flies,' in that there was always some guy who wanted to be the leader, and some guy who wanted to fight him to be the leader.  All the girls were so immature it was usually thug-like fighting behavior among the males that impressed them.  Even though the punk rock scene was supposed to be about progressive views when it came to racism, it was still pure troglodyte when it came to male-female relations.  You were always afraid to talk too much because somebody a few years older than you would always cut you down and make you feel stupid.  There were a lot of kids who were into punk music because it was "alternative" and not in the mainstream, but they were really hippies with nowhere else to go.  This made for an interesting mix of really aggressive kids who either did speedy drugs or needed Ritalin along with a bunch of stoned hippie punk kids who could barely move.  In the corner of the room, leaning against the wall, there stood Mace and myself, completely ostracized from the rest of the ostracized kids. 

It may sound like I didn't like the punk rock scene, and I guess that's probably true.  I didn't care too much for the "scene," but I dug the music.  The music was fast, loud, and dangerous, three things that were desperately needed after all the peaceful, mellow, BORING music of the 1970s.  

How I remember the 1970s:

For that reason, punk rock was very important.  It was a musical version of sweeping out the cobwebs and starting over again with a clean house.  I have since learned to appreciate a lot of music from the 1970s, and I don't really mind hippies that much, they're generally cool people.  But at that time, man, we NEEDED punk rock music to get rid of all that peaceful easy mellow patchouli bearded naked incense hippie stuff that had been piling up for the last ten years.  So in that sense, yes, I really liked punk rock and what it stood for.  But I just wasn't a punk rocker, no matter how hard I tried.

The defining moment of my non-punk-rockness occurred the night that Black Flag came to town.

Black Flag was one of the most legendary and most influential "hardcore" punk rock bands from California.  The band formed in 1979 and went through several lead singers before finally finding Henry Rollins as lead vocalist in 1981, and he remained the band's lead singer until they broke up in 1986.  Black Flag were one of the most popular, if not the most popular, hardcore punk band of the 1980s.  When they came to town, it was a very, very big deal.  They were scheduled to play the Blue Note and there were fears of rioting and the show getting shut down.  It was scary and dangerous and exciting.

Lead singer Henry Rollins was a muscular, sinewy young dude with an angry look on his face all the time.  Even when he smiled he looked pissed off.  Some people hated Henry Rollins, some people loved him.  Because he was so beautifully sculpted and yet so angry, girls went crazy for the guy, which probably made the dudes hate him even more.  He started out with a skinhead look, but by 1986 the whole band was wearing long hair.  I thought the long hair look was weak.  It was as if the hippies had won!  What did I know.  Even at 17 years old I was balding, I wasn't going to be able to join the hair-rock club even if I wanted to.

I always wanted to hate Henry Rollins, but I quite enjoy his writing, especially the must-read book "Get In The Van--On The Road With Black Flag."  In fact, one quote from the book has always stuck with me, for I had a similar epiphany in my own life.  Describing the way he felt before he joined the band, when Black Flag came through Rollins' home town of Washington, D.C:

"They (Black Flag) stayed at Ian's house after the show and left the next morning.  I remember watching their van pull away up the street and wanting to be in it.  It was amazing to me how they pulled in, played, hung out with the locals and then took off on the next adventure.  I had to hurry up and get to work.

"As I walked down the hill toward a long night at the workplace, I started getting depressed.  Black Flag was a bunch of guys who were out there winging it and trying to do something with their lives.  They had no fixed income and they lived like dogs, but they were living life with a lot more guts than I was by a long shot.  I had a steady income and an apartment and money in the bank.  But I also had a job where I got yelled at when things didn't go right.  I had to be there all the time.  I saw the same streets and the same people every day.  My job took over a lot of my waking hours.

"After I had hung out with the Flag guys, I saw that there was a lot more out there to be seen and done and I didn't think I was ever going to do any of it.  That night at work, everything in my life felt meaningless.  I knew that somehow I was blowing it.  I had a low level panic attack.  I got a glimpse of something that made it impossible to bullshit myself.  I wished it didn't open my eyes so much and make me see so clearly.

"I saw my life stretching out in front of me.  Same town, same people, same everything.  It felt as if I was getting tied down and beaten by life.  They had guts.  The way they were living went against all the things I had been taught to believe were right.  If I had listened to my father, I would have joined the Navy, served and gone into the straight world without a whimper.  I'm not putting that down.  But it's not the life for everyone."

--Henry Rollins, "Get In The Van--On The Road With Black Flag"

I had many similar experiences going to see bands play at the Blue Note club.  I was 17 and working a crappy day job (Henry Rollins worked at Haagen-Dazs Ice Cream, I worked at Mizzou Bar-B-Q--same difference), and I would go to see bands who drove up in their vans, rocked the locals, bedded down a few of our local girls, and partied like it was 1999.  The next day their van would pull away and they would be off to have more fun and make more music.  I was in high school and working my job, and all I could think about was pulling away in that van with a band of my own.

Mace and I went to see Black Flag play at the Blue Note.  Thanks to magic of the internet and obsessed fans, I can tell you exactly what date that was: Tuesday, May 6, 1986.  Thanks to the Dementlieu Punk Archive for that!

Richard King and Phil Costello, the owners of the Blue Note, were some adventurous and open-minded dudes.  Thinking back now, there's no way I would host punk rock shows at a venue I owned.  They were real supporters of the arts, and had everything there from jazz and blues and alternative rock to punk rock and rap.  King and Costello had one thing on their side: the original Blue Note on the Business Loop was a real shithole.  There wasn't much that could be done to destroy the place.  They prepared for the punk rock onslaught by completely emptying the room of chairs and tables and anything else that could be thrown.  This made it seem dangerous just upon walking in the door--holy crap!  They took out all the chairs and tables!  What do you think might HAPPEN tonight?  This was exciting!

Mace and I stood against the back wall of the club, our normal place to hang out and observe.  The opening band was playing (I forget their name) and the dance floor was deserted.  Everybody was waiting for the main attraction--Black Flag!

Henry Rollins walked in during the opening band's set, preening, posing, looking around the room with a big scowl on his face.  He stood in the middle of the room, on the empty dance floor, looking disaffected, blank.  He removed all his clothes, got butt naked, and then put on his signature gym shorts and tennis shoes, getting ready for the Black Flag show.  Mace and I looked at each other and thought one thing about this very public display--"Man, I wish my dick was that big so I could do that!"  Looking back at it now, that was a pretty genius way to display your wares to the local ladies.  

Black Flag started playing, and this is EXACTLY how I remember that show.  This is how everything looked and felt and smelled and tasted.  It makes perfect sense, because this video was shot a few weeks before I saw them at the Blue Note:

During this time period, I was really trying to feel out what I should do with my life.  I was really into rockabilly, surf, 1960s garage, and other music genres from bygone eras.  I felt like the odd man out in the world.  There was nobody in Columbia, Missouri that shared my enthusiasm for Jerry Lee Lewis alternate takes and the nuances of the original Chuck Berry and Link Wray guitar styles.  I was trying to decide if I should quit being the weirdo "Retro" kid and get into something that was now and new and happening and current.  I seriously considered becoming a punk rocker.

I was 17, just about to graduate High School and turn 18 and enter into the next phase of my life.  I thought to myself, maybe I should get a punk band together, something that straddles the Ramones and Black Flag and all this stuff with some poppy hooks and catchy melodies....maybe that would be successful?  Maybe I should hop on a bandwagon for once, it occurred to me.

The Black Flag show was intense, hot, and loud.  I really got caught up in the excitement.  Henry Rollins was like a panther on stage, you never knew if he was going to sing or beat the crap out of someone.  The mosh pit was insane, about 80 aggressive dudes slam dancing in a giant circle to the music of Black Flag.

For the completely uninitiated (Mom?) who are reading this who don't know what I'm talking about, punk rock dancing started out with innocent little stupid dances like the "pogo" (jumping up and down) into a brutal form of dancing known as "slam dancing."  Slam dancing wasn't really dancing, it was just running around in a pit getting out all your agressions on other guys that couldn't get laid.  It wasn't really fighting, and there was a code of ethics (you were supposed to help up anybody that fell down), but it sure looked like a bunch of dudes fighting to the untrained eye.

Slam dancing was done in something called "The Mosh Pit" ("Moshing" was another term for slam dancing).  The Mosh Pit was where you did NOT want to be at a punk rock show, because if you were just trying to watch the band, you'd get hit by some dude's elbow or fist as they ran around like wild hyenas in the pit.  I saw many fragile little females get knocked off their feet by aggro punk rock slam dancers, an uncomfortable memory to this day. 

There was an entire episode of "Quincy, M.E." devoted to how old, normal people couldn't understand why these punk rockers would do this to themselves:

Really, though, slam dancing was just a way for young suburban males to take out their aggression in a somewhat approved manner.  Since fighting, stealing, murdering, and other ways were frowned upon by parents and authorities, at least a punk rock show offered the opportunity to get in the Mosh Pit and have sweaty, aggressive, latently homo-erotic contact with a bunch of like-minded high energy dudes.

I watched Black Flag and I thought to myself--screw it, I'm getting in the pit.  I had always been too chicken to join in.  I thought, I'm going whole hog or none!  My way has always been to jump into the deep end and see if you drown.  Maybe this punk rock thing was for me.  I needed to know.

I got in the Mosh Pit and tried to emulate what the other guys were doing.  I went around and around in the pit for about 3 minutes and then--WHAM!--some guy hit me upside the head.  I was stunned for a second and then I realized that when I got hit in the back of the head, one of my contact lenses had fallen out.  

There I was, Henry Rollins screaming like a maniac, the band raging at top volume behind him, and 80 sweaty punk rock guys swarming in a circle around me, most of them wearing combat boots.  I was looking down with my one good eye for the better part of 15 seconds looking for my lost contact lens.

15 seconds in a Mosh Pit is approximately 30 years in normal human time.  I frantically looked for my contact lens, thinking about how pissed off my parents were going to be when I told them.  It occurred to me, how am I gonna drive home, I don't have my glasses!  Finally, I realized what a foolish move it was to try and find a tiny contact lens on the floor of a Black Flag mosh pit in a dark club.  I broke free of the pit and went back over to where Mace was standing.  He laughed at me.

I can't remember if I stayed around for the end of the show, but I do remember driving home.  I had to hold one hand over my eye where the contact lens had fallen out so that I could see to drive.  The whole time, I was thinking to myself, well, I guess I'm not a punk rocker!  I tried.  I really did.

Every now and then some young kid will talk about punk bands and I'll throw in, "Yeah, I saw Black Flag in 1986."  They are always impressed that I witnessed them with my own eyes.  I leave out the part about losing a contact lens in the Mosh Pit.

I decided then and there that I was not a punk rocker.  I had to abandon any thoughts of going in the punk direction, and turn my energies back to what I liked--old stuff.  Maybe I could't ever sell a million records, but dammit, I was going to be the best "Retro" rocker that I could be.  I was going to learn everything about it and play as well as I possibly could and meet as many of my heroes as humanly possible.  It was somewhat akin to realizing that I was never going to be a rich farmer with a fertile field and giant mechanized modern farm equipment.  Instead, by choosing roots-rock music as my career, it was like taking an old broken down mule and wandering into an unplowed rocky desert field where a garden couldn't be grown.  I didn't care, I just got to work with my old mule and I plowed the shit out of that impossibly rocky field.  Here I am, 27 years later, and I've pretty much accomplished everything I set out to do.  I saw a lot of farmers with fancy equipment go out of business during that time, and I'm still here.

Besides, it was 1986, punk rock was considered over and done with commercially.  The tour that I saw Black Flag play was their last tour, and they broke up a few months later.  Punk rock was probably a terrible career option, and I made the right decision.  I mean, there's no way that my concept of Ramones mixed with Black Flag with poppy hooks and catchy melodies would ever work.  That was a stupid idea.


The defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.

The footnote to this story:  Recently I was asked to back up Marky Ramone of the Ramones at the Viva Las Vegas festival.  Even though I am old and fat and wear a cowboy hat, I jumped at the chance.  Jumping the timeline from the 1986 high school version of "Rock and Roll High School" to this year's performance with with Marky, really, very little has changed.  I still love the music.  But I'll never be a punk rocker.

Monday, April 22, 2013

More than you ever wanted to know about the Gene Vincent song "B-I-Bickey-Bi-Bo-Bo-Go"

When I was in tenth grade, I was really feeling my oats about who I was and what my place was in this world.  Mostly, that entailed being a jerk to any authority figures in my life, including my parents, teachers, school authorities, etc.  This is natural behavior for the male species in that awkward time of their life when they have tons of testosterone flowing through their bodies, but no money, no car, and no girl.  Such was the predicament I was in back in 1984, when I was a sophomore at Rock Bridge High School in Columbia, Missouri.  I had squat, except for a lot of testosterone and a love of 1950s American Rock and Roll music.

How I perceived myself:

How I actually was:

My English teacher at the time was a very nice guy, but a real square cat.  He seemed ancient to me but in retrospect he was probably thirty or thirty-five at the most.  Balding, button-down shirt, sans-a-belt slacks, comfortable shoes--he represented everything in life that I despised.  I lived in a world where turned up collars, sharkskin jackets, gabardine slacks, two-tone shoes, and bright colors designed to offend the sensibilities were the ideal.  I always was a weird kid.  I just thought that 1956 looked a lot cooler, and I guess I still do.

One day the aforementioned English teacher asked us all to write a paper about a song that meant something to us.  He said it could be any song, as long as it meant something.  In my rebellious world, I thought that the rock music that had been popular since the late 1960s hippie movement was the worst thing that had ever happened in the history of the world.  In my mind, before Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play, everything had been cool, fun, unpretentious, and exciting.  After the Beatles, the Doors, Bob Dylan, and all the Fleetwood Mac-era pretenders followed suit, all I could see was a bunch of pretentious, self-important rock star "artistes" who were really serious about their "lyrics," and who were always talking about peace and love and a bunch of other subjects that had nothing to do with me getting laid.  I had no use for this so-called "important" rock music.

In a grand act of rebellion, I wrote my English paper about a Gene Vincent song, cut in 1956 and released in April, 1957, entitled "B-I-Bickey-Bi-Bo-Bo-Go."  It was a nonsense song.  The lyrics meant nothing.  My English paper reflected the fact that I thought it was important to have some music that was about fun and nothing else.  I pleaded that not all music had to be "important" and needed dissection of the lyrics like some mopey art school student.  I wish I had kept the paper, because as I remember, it was quite well-written.  I made my case as well as a 15-year old free thinker iconoclast could.

Below: my original 45rpm copy of "B-I-Bickey-Bi, Bo-Bo-Go."  I found it at a radio station in Jefferson City, Missouri.

Hear the song: "B-I-Bickey-Bi-Bo-Bo-Go" by Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps.  This song rocks!

The teacher took my finished paper and gave it a quick read.  He could have given me an F, but to his credit, he just rolled his eyes back in his head and said, "I'm sorry, this assignment has to be about a song that MEANS SOMETHING!"  He handed the paper back and gave me instructions to start over.

I went home and wound up writing my paper about the Blasters song "Border Radio," written by Dave Alvin.  I guess that song had enough meaningful lyrical content in it to barely squeak by, and I remember getting a B+.  As fate would have it, eventually I wound up knowing and becoming friends with Dave and Phil Alvin, and the rest of the Blasters.

Years went by, and music became my career.  Although my music tastes expanded and I learned to love many different and varied types of music, rockabilly music and 1950s rock and roll stayed close to my heart.  I've been lucky enough to meet and play music with most of my musical heroes.  The legacy of Gene Vincent's music remained important to me.  Although Gene Vincent died in 1971, I have been able to play with Dickie Harrell, Johnny Meeks and Russell Willaford of Gene Vincent's Blue Caps band, and I have spent time with other Blue Caps, including Tommy "Bubba" Facenda, Paul Peek, Jerry Merritt, and Bobby Jones.

Below: Gene Vincent (laying on the stage), Paul Peek on guitar, Dickie Harrell on drums, 1956.

Below: The author shows his respect to Gene Vincent's legendary drummer Dickie Harrell:

After moving to Los Angeles in 1991, I wound up meeting many of the key players in the Gene Vincent legacy.  I interviewed 96-year old Ken Nelson, the A&R man who signed Gene Vincent to Capitol Records in 1956.  I bought records from Cliffie Stone, another important man in the history of Capitol Records, who also published a great number of songs through his Central Songs Publishing Company (which, as it turns out, was secretly owned by Capitol Records' Ken Nelson).  I knew Ronny Weiser of Rollin' Rock Records, who had recorded Gene Vincent singing acapella right before he died.  I worked with Billy Zoom of the punk band X, who had backed up Gene Vincent at several gigs in his final, declining years.  Gene Vincent was also buried just outside of Los Angeles, at Eternal Valley Memorial Park in Newhall, and visiting Gene's grave was a necessary stop of any visiting Rock and Roll fan.

Below: The author and Capitol A&R man/producer Ken Nelson.

Below: The author and Capitol A&R man/Central Songs publisher (not to mention a great entertainer and bass player in his own right) Cliffie Stone:

Below: Gene Vincent's grave, Eternal Valley Memorial Park, Newhall, CA

Among all the music people that I met after moving to Los Angeles, one of the fringe guys on the Hollywood music scene was a jazz drummer named Roy Harte, who owned a drum store on Santa Monica Boulevard called Roy Harte's Drum City.

Below: Roy Harte's Drum City, in the 1990s.  This is how I always remember it looking.

Roy Harte's Drum City was on a seedy stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard populated by transvestite gay hustlers, who walked the Boulevard night and day in a zombie-like trance, waiting for their next fifty dollar trick.  Drum City was a store that had obviously seen better days.  It had a large gravel parking lot (see photo above), and the whole place had the general odor of decay.  Roy Harte held court inside his store, where he had watched Hollywood go from glamorous heyday to a dirty, dangerous place where only homeless runaways and German tourists dared to walk the streets.

I loved Roy Harte.  He was a genuine jazz drumming legend, and I liked him because he had played on several Tennessee Ernie Ford and Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant sessions (his quote stuck with me: "Those hillbilly cats could play ANYTHING, man!")  I went into Roy Harte's Drum City half a dozen times, always in search of some rare vintage drum part that I couldn't find any place else.  Somewhere, Roy always had what I needed, in a bucket or a coffee can or a tray full of miscellaneous junk.  When I tried to pay him, Roy always said "DON'T WORRY ABOUT IT!  BRING ME A BEER NEXT TIME!"  I brought him a few Bud 'Tall Boys,' but wondered how the hell he paid the rent all those years if all he took in were cans of beer.

Below: Roy Harte, in his prime.

Roy Harte played a tiny, tiny part in Gene Vincent history.  When Capitol Records held a contest to find a new drumming sensation to record a drum-themed album, Dickie Harrell of Gene Vincent's Blue Caps won the contest, and the recording contract along with it (despite the fact that he had already been a Capitol Recording Artist with Vincent).  Roy Harte played alongside Harrell on the album, and the album's colorful cover was taken inside Roy Harte's Drum City.

Below: Photo from the back of the "Drums and More Drums" album.  The author may have the only copy autographed by both Dickie Harrell and Roy Harte.  Note Roy's awesome signature: "WE BOTH KNOW THAT WHEN IT TRIES TO SWING, WE LET IT! --ROY HARTE"

The last time I went to Roy Harte's Drum City, I was once again in search of an impossibly rare part for one of my vintage drum kits.  When I got out of my car in the gravel parking lot, my eyes focused on what was beneath my feet.  At first, I didn't know what it was I was seeing, I just knew it was different than the gravel I was used to.  Then it dawned on me what I was seeing, and it gave me a sickening sensation in the pit of my stomach.  On top of the gravel throughout the entire parking lot were broken bits of 78rpm phonograph records.  Thousands, no--make that tens of thousands--of records had been smashed up and used to create a new layer of asphalt.

I rushed inside and asked Roy what the deal was with all the records smashed up in the parking lot.  His reply was to tell me that he was going to be leaving the building and going out of business, and he had a room upstairs filled to the brim with "worthless" (his words) 78's.  I asked if they were for sale, and he replied they were--25 cents a pop.  I walked upstairs to a room that smelled of mold.  It was dark, dingy and in complete chaos.  There were records on shelves on the wall, in piles on the floor, and everywhere else you looked.  I settled down and got to work.

A good record hound knows that chances are, if there are a thousand records in a pile, there has to be one good one in there.  I started looking through the rubble, hoping for that one prized needle-in-a-haystack disc.  Most of it was not stuff I was interested in--78's of classical music, and lots of copies of jazz releases on Nocturne Records, a label that Roy Harte had co-founded in the 1950s.  I kept digging.

After about three hours of digging, eventually I found a small stack of acetates--one of a kind records cut directly on a lathe, usually for demo purposes.  Acetates are fun finds for a record collector, because when you find an acetate it's usually the only copy of whatever it is in existence.

One of the acetates was on a Central Songs demonstration label.  Central Songs was Cliffie Stone's publishing company, secretly owned by Capitol Records' Ken Nelson, who published a lot of the songs recorded by Capitol artists.  The label only said "B-I-Bickey-Bi-Bo-Bo-Boo" in crude cursive handwritten letters.  I thought to myself, that's weird, because the Gene Vincent song of a similar title ended wth "Go," not "Boo."  I bought the acetate for 25 cents and took it home, not knowing what it was I'd found.

Playing the acetate at home, I was pleased to find that it was indeed a crude original demo for the Gene Vincent song.  Instead of a wild and frantic rockabilly number, the original version was more of a hillbilly song, performed by one guy with a guitar.  The title was indeed "B-I-Bickey-Bi-Bo-Bo-Boo," which seemed just plain strange after hearing Gene Vincent sing it differently for so many years.

I contacted some of my record collecting friends and asked them what they thought of this acetate.  Eventually I was put in touch with David Dennard, who was compiling rare Gene Vincent material for a disc of unreleased live and studio performances, "The Lost Dallas Sessions," for his Dragon Street label.  David had unearthed some mindblowing stuff and was doing a lot of research on the years that Gene Vincent had based himself in Dallas, 1957-1958.

David was also putting together a compilation of original versions and demos of Gene Vincent songs, and he lost his mind when I told him the story of finding the "B-I-Bickey-Bi-Bo-Bo-Boo" acetate at Roy Harte's Drum City.

I had heard of songwriter Jack Rhodes before, but until David told me the story, I was unaware that quite a few of Gene Vincent's songs (and a bunch of other great rockabilly songs) had originated in Texas under what can only be described as bizarre, primitive circumstances.

Jack Rhodes lived in the small East Texas town of Mineola, about 90 miles east of Dallas.  There was nothing particularly interesting about the town except for Jack Rhodes himself and his hillbilly musician buddies.  As with so many entrepreneurs in those days, Jack Rhodes decided to get into the music business utilizing not much more than mere bluster and brash self-confidence.

Below: a vintage postcard for Jack Rhodes' Trail 80 Motel.

Rhodes managed the "Trail 80 Motor Courts," a small motel, restaurant, and gas station complex just off the highway in Mineola.  From the manager's office, Rhodes set up a primitive recording studio with one microphone and a Magnecord tape recorder.  Although it seems unlikely in today's world, in the wild and wooly era of post-war country music, a guy like Jack Rhodes had as much chance as anybody else, as long as he shook hands and hustled songs and wrote letters and greased palms.  It was a different era, to be sure.

Good songs began to flow out of Jack Rhodes little motel studio.  After scoring minor hits with Jim Reeves and a monster smash with "A Satisfied Mind" for Porter Wagoner (also recorded by Jean Sheperd for Capitol), a flock of amateur songwriters and performers began making their way to Mineola to become a part of Rhodes' hillbilly empire.  Dick Reynolds, Don Carter, Jimmy Johnson, Derrell Felts, Johnny Dollar and more hopefuls all became part of Rhodes' operation.

Jack Rhodes became involved with Ken Nelson at Capitol Records and Cliffie Stone at Central Songs publishing, and for a time in the mid-to-late 1950s, Central Songs had the first right of refusal on any songs that Jack Rhodes came up with.  Although Jack Rhodes and his buddies were country-western fans to their core, when Elvis Presley started selling millions of records with his wild Southern blend of rockabilly music, Jack Rhodes and his songwriting stable took a stab at the new music.

Jimmy Johnson, a country singer who recorded a great slice of hillbilly bop with Jack Rhodes' band in 1952 for Columbia Records ("I've Lived A Lot In My Time"/"Eternity") got the rockabilly bug first, recording a killer two-sided primitive bopper on Starday Records in 1956, "Woman Love"/"All Dressed Up."  The Starday record sold poorly, but "Woman Love" caught the attention of Ken Nelson and Cliffie Stone, who decided it would be a good candidate for a Capitol Rock and Roll release. (Author's note: the forgotten flip side "All Dressed Up" has become a rockabilly standard in recent times, and it has become a staple of this author's live performances)

Gene Vincent (real name: Vincent Eugene Craddock) won a singing contest in his hometown of Portsmouth, Virginia, and subsequently demoed a song he had written called "Be-Bop-A-Lulu" for local country DJ "Sherriff Tex" Davis (real name: Wilfred Douchette).  Davis took an acetate dub of the song and sent it to a better-connected DJ from Atlanta, Georgia named Bill Lowery.  Lowery sent in Vincent's crude dub of "Be-Bop-A-Lulu" to Ken Nelson at Capitol Records.  Nelson thought the song was okay, but heard Elvis Presley-type potential in Vincent's voice.  Nelson thought Jack Rhodes' "Woman Love" was the song with potential, and he wanted Vincent to record it.  Arrangements were made to meet in Nashville at Owen Bradley's studio two weeks later.

Despite the fact that Vincent was an amateur singer with only a few local appearances to his name, "Sheriff Tex" Davis promoted Vincent as the next big thing over the phone to Ken Nelson.  It was a prudent move, as Capitol Records was desperately seeking a Rock and Roll singer to sign to their label.  Elvis Presley was breaking all sales records in the industry, and Capitol Records was a label whose roster was filled with hillbilly and pop artists.  Being in the right place at the right time put small time players such as Jack Rhodes, Bill Lowery and "Sheriff Tex" Davis into a feeding frenzy, throwing stuff at the wall, hoping it would stick.

Gene Vincent and "Be-Bop-A-Lula," as it was subsequently retitled, would stick.  The song went to the top five on the national charts and became a well-known rock and roll standard still remembered today.  It was such a huge hit for Capitol Records that the label kept releasing singles and albums on Vincent until 1963, even though his sales declined sharply after his very first release until his last.  Gene Vincent was a rock and roll legend, and even had his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (paid for by Capitol Records), but he would forever chase the high tide of "Be-Bop-A-Lula."

Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps, "Be Bop A Lula" (from the movie "The Girl Can't Help It," 1956:

Jack Rhodes' "Woman Love" rode the coattails of "Be-Bop-A-Lula" as the B-side of the single.  It attracted little attention from DJ's or the buying public, but did gather significant attention when a rumor began (possibly started by a publicist) that Vincent had sang the line "huggin' and a kissin'" as "fuckin' and a kissin'."  The copious amounts of slapback tape echo on the recording make it hard to hear exactly what he was singing, but it does sound 'dirty' even if that wasn't Vincent's intent.  A story has persisted for years that Vincent was fined $10,000 in absentia for public obscenity in a court case over the song, but there is no record of such a court case ever actually taking place, so the story was probably fabricated.

"Woman Love" by Gene Vincent can be heard here:

Jack Rhodes and his group of East Texas troubadours continued to pitch songs to Capitol Records and Central Songs.  Rhodes' stable of artists also demoed other songs for Gene Vincent--"Five Days, Five Days" was demoed by Jimmy Johnson, "Red Blue Jeans And A Ponytail" was demoed by Freddy Franks, "Git It" was written by Bob Kelly and demoed by an unknown R&B vocal group--and Don Carter wrote and demoed a novelty song called "B-I-Bickey-Bi-Bo-Bo-Boo."

The acetate I found buried in the stacks at Roy Harte's Drum City turned out to be an original Don Carter acetate of "B-I-Bickey-Bi-Bo-Bo-Boo."  I sent the acetate to David Denard and the track wound up being used on his compilation of Vincent original songs and demos.  All of the above-mentioned songs and more can be found on the excellent compilation of Jack Rhodes-recorded Texas rockabilly called "Gene Vincent Cut Our Songs" on ACE Records (also released on vinyl by Norton Records under the title "Shake It Up And Move").  (After the ACE release, I sold the acetate on eBay, which is why I don't have a label scan here.  I hated to sell it but I got over six hundred dollars for my 25-cent investment--such is the obsession of Gene Vincent fans)

Below: Don Carter, author and crooner of "B-I-Bickey-Bi-Bo-Bo-Boo."

The acetate I found probably wasn't the only copy made, as it undoubtedly was originally recorded on tape and a few acetates cut for reference purposes.  I'm guessing the copy that I found was the file copy sent to Central Songs for publishing purposes.  (Interestingly enough, I researched the publishing information on BMI's website (BMI is one of several songwriter and publisher organization that collects royalty payments) and the song is still registered as "B-I-Bickey-Bi-Bo-Bo-Boo," despite the fact that Gene Vincent had changed the name of the song when it was cut in 1956)  The copy of the acetate that I found, though, was the one that survived the decades, and the one that was used on the reissue "Gene Vincent Cut Our Songs."

As a music historian, I felt proud of that fact that I had discovered a lost relic of Gene Vincent history.  From a personal standpoint, I had to chuckle that I had done so much research and effort and learned so much about a song that my 10th grade English teacher told me didn't mean enough to write a paper about.  I don't know why I always do things the hard way, but in ornery defiance, I had used a lifetime of experiences, research, and knowledge to prove to that English teacher that he was wrong--the song really did mean something.

After many years, I recently learned something new about the song, myself.  After hearing Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps perform "B-I-Bickey-Bi-Bo-Bo-Go" a thousand times, after discovering Don Carter's original songwriting acetate demo of the song, after thinking I knew everything I could know about this silly novelty rockabilly number, I discovered where it all came from.  It turns out that Don Carter had taken his inspiration from a higher source, the rockabilly trio known as Moe, Larry, and Curly--The Three Stooges.  I guess my English teacher was right after all.

Below: The Three Stooges, "Swingin' The Alphabet"--from the 1938 short film "Violent Is The Word For Curly."

Friday, April 20, 2012

Bigsby Files and a new book in the works...

Sorry folks, it's been quite a while since I posted anything here on the Muleskinner blog.  I've been busier than ever!

I haven't been resting on my laurels, though.  I created a new blog about Bigsby guitars that took a lot of my brain space away for a spell.  Check it out at www.bigsbyfiles.blogspot.com

Also, I have a book deal with Voyageur Press for an upcoming book of Guitarcheology called "The Strat Under The Bed."  I've been surgically attached to my laptop trying to compile the best guitar stories for a really fun book on the art of digging up old guitars.  I can't post those stories here, because they're paying me to write a book, but look for it soon at a local bookstore--Voyageur gets their stuff everywhere.

More fun Muleskinner musings when I get the time....

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Runes of The San Fernando Valley


I’m fascinated by the history of civilizations, and the signs and symbols they leave behind.  Just turn on the History Channel and watch endless hours of programming deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics, Norse runes, Paleolithic cave paintings, and other mysterious forms of communication that humans left as proof of their existence.
With all the attention given such ancient artifacts, given a sense of perspective one can’t help but realize that these amazing glimpses into previous epochs were no big deal to the people who lived in those times.  Cave paintings?  Undoubtedly the graffiti of some bored everyman stuck in a cave during a cold spell.  Rune stones?  The ones that have surfaced tell of general events of the day, the scratched-stone equivalent of a local newspaper.  Egyptian artifacts?  The Egyptians meant for their dead to stay buried, not looted by thieves and dissected by scientists.  The point is, none of these people thought that they were leaving something behind that would be intensely studied by future generations, keen on unlocking the secrets of their society.
With that in mind, I began wondering to myself about the present.  We as Americans have been raised at birth to think of ourselves as the center of the universe, but other than a few marble monuments and presidents carved into the side of a mountain, what symbols and signs would we leave for future generations to decipher who we were?
The answer, I came to realize, is that in the last two hundred years or so, most of what we’ve left behind are things made of paper, plastic, wood, and other mediums that will not survive into the future the same way that rune stones and cave paintings have.  For instance, McDonald’s restaurants are undoubtedly the most revealing look into American eating habits of the present day, but would any evidence of McDonald’s survive two thousand years?  I suppose if you count the Styrofoam containers they used to put McDonald’s hamburgers in back in the 1980's, you’re probably right.  The legacy of the McDonald’s brand, however, is a different story.  The buildings, advertising, and products themselves are made of stucco, particle board, paper, cardboard, and other things that wouldn’t survive a couple of bad winters, much less a millennium.  I’m guessing a thousand years from now some kid will dig up a Happy Meal toy of the Hamburglar in his back yard, and it will be sent to a university for study of its meaning (this assumption based on the hopeful premise that McDonald’s will have disappeared from the planet in a thousand years).
Now that much of our society and human interaction has gone online and digital, the distinction (and the shelf-life) is even greater.  Just try reading some of your old floppy disks from 12 years ago, if you can get your monolithic PC to work at all.  Undoubtedly much of the written word in the next hundred years will be lost with one nasty solar flare on the electrical grid, gone in one digital blip.
With all that in mind, I began thinking about my surroundings.  What was there in my civilization that signified what my culture was about?  What symbols were there that I could recognize as signs of my society?
Laugh if you must, but in the midst of this soul-searching, a journey for my own sense of place in history, I believe I have discovered the runes of the San Fernando Valley.
The San Fernando Valley is the sort of place that baffles city planners and is spoken of with disgust by the East Coast effete.  It is the great American suburb run amok, expansion that happened so quickly and turbulently that now we are left with an area that would be America’s fourth largest city, if it were to secede from greater Los Angeles.  In the Valley’s great area of population, there is no central gathering place, no downtown, no real sense of self—just a hundred little villages from the earlier part of the Twentieth Century that all grew into each other to form one dazzlingly large single-cell organism, like a fungi of unbridled capitalism and humankind.
Across the hill in the greater Los Angeles basin, Hollywood hipsters have the luxury of walking out the front door to find piss-soaked winos in their doorway, or the window broken out in their car, stereo removed.  In exchange, they are allowed to live within earshot of the thumping loud dance club down the street.  This particular logic might appeal to the displaced East Coaster, but I always felt at home in the middle of Super-suburbia, knowing that if I wanted to go see a show or attend a movie premiere, I just had to drive 15 minutes over the hill. After all the Big City excitement, I could drive back to my quiet little street in the Valley, and if I accidentally forgot to lock my car doors, everything would still be there in the morning.  For me, Midwestern transplant that I was, the Valley just made sense, city planners be damned.
The San Fernando Valley was, up until the middle of the last century, a fertile valley for farming and livestock.  Huge ranches and orchards took up giant chunks of acreage, with small pockets of civilization popping up around its perimeter (Ventura Boulevard, for example).
The Valley stayed mostly farmland, due to an annoying habit of massively flooding every ten years.  Developers waited, drooling uncontrollably, until the city planners devised a solution—to contain the Los Angeles River within a concrete waterslide diverted directly to the Sepulveda Flood Basin in the middle of Valley.  The “channelization” project, as implemented by the Federal Army Corps of Engineers, started in 1938 and was finished in 1960.
Once the river had been contained—now a humorous trickle down the middle of a series of cavernous concrete flood channels—the law of supply and demand took over.  After World War Two ended, the San Fernando Valley expanded at an incredible rate, bursting from the South end of the Valley to the North, over the years taking over the ranches and Orange groves and putting hundreds of ranch-style homes in their place.  Everyone had jobs, everyone had money, and these people needed places to live.
At first glance, it is hard to imagine a place in the United States less suited to societal study than the San Fernando Valley.  After all, the Valley is less than a hundred years old, and it’s unremarkable in terms of historical events, architecture, and population makeup. What is there, if anything, that resembles a rune stone, a cave painting, or hieroglyphics?
It took me years to absorb my surroundings in the Valley.  The untrained eye would simply dismiss the entirety of the region as generic housing for the masses.  In many cases it was, but then I started noticing the symbols.  Silly as it may seem, upon closer inspection, these were what I had been looking for—the secret symbols of the San Fernando Valley.

I started seeing them everywhere once I finally noticed them.  The most common one was a square or rectangle with branches on each side, framed by a larger square or rectangle.  There were variations, dozens and dozens of variations on the same theme.

Once I noticed them, I started photographing them.  In the course of two or three years, with a frenzy of real estate “flipping” and remodeling, many of these symbols disappeared, replaced with generic Home Depot windows, made in China by the millions.
I realized, as I watched these things disappear, that the San Fernando Valley symbols were never going to make it to another millennium.  These symbols were going to be remodeled into oblivion.  I thought about how many rune stones had been repurposed into making buildings or stone walls, and how they used to have so many mummies in Egypt that you could actually buy ground-up mummies to use as paper pulp, brown dye, and a medicinal supplement (true).  The whole trick with a society and their symbols is that when that society was active, these things were commonplace.  The symbols gain meaning when the society disappears, and there are only a few examples left of their symbols to study.

I began to search to see if the San Fernando Valley’s symbols had any real meaning.  After doing a fair amount of research, I couldn’t find any exact corollaries with the Valley symbols.  A complete perusal of Symbols.com and SymbolDictionary.com found several close matches, one of which pointed to an ancient chemical symbol for Vitriol, another that revealed an ancient Mariner symbol for a Buddhist temple, and another that indicated the design of an ancient Swedish board game.  None of these seemed like the San Fernando Valley homebuilder’s intent.
It’s possible that the design was borrowed from a generic architect’s vision of a Buddhist temple symbol, but in true L.A. fashion the symbols are on houses with an Oriental theme, as well as houses with a Colonial flair, and on houses that look like a 1950’s flying saucer.  If there was supposed to be an Asian motif behind the symbol in the first place, these builders apparently didn’t seem to care.
I tend to think that the designs are meant to be Asian, or in that great California way, meant to make you feel an Asian feeling.  On the other hand, the only time I've seen something eerily similar was on a trip to England, on a random house outside London.

So, if anything, what do they mean?  Perhaps they don’t mean anything.  It very well could be that the homebuilders of the 1950’s and 1960’s just needed quickie decorative elements on the outside of the houses they were throwing up in slapdash fashion.  Maybe, but the amount of variation and creativity displayed in the many designs suggests there is more to it than that.
I prefer to think that in some “Mad Men” architect’s office fifty years ago, there was an operative of the Illuminati whose mission it was to impart a campaign of secret symbols throughout the Valley.  Several hundred years from now, some author will write a ‘Da Vinci Code’-type novel based on the secret symbols of the San Fernando Valley, finally deciphering what these ubiquitous, yet mysterious, symbols were trying to tell us all along.

After this blog article was first published, my friend Sean Noble offered this explanation, the best one I have heard yet: "I got the following from 'Understanding Formal Analysis' off the J. Paul Getty website concerning the nature of lines: 'Horizontal and vertical lines used in combination communicate stability and solidity.  Rectilinear forms with 90-degree angles are structurally stable.  This stability suggests permanence and reliability.'  So this design gave the San Fernando Valley home owner a sense of strength and stability in an undeveloped, arid, earthquake-ridden wilderness."  Brilliant!

In the meantime, as I walk these streets (who am I kidding—as I drive these streets), I see them.  Hundreds of them, like silent sentinels, guarding their tract houses like ancient lamb’s blood on the door.  Whatever they are supposed to mean, these runes of the San Fernando Valley are disappearing with every passing day.  I hope to bring attention to them, before they are all gone.
When I saw how quickly the symbols of the Valley were disappearing, I decided that in my own small way, I would help to preserve them.  When my garage window became so ravaged by time and sun that it needed replacing, I decided to fill it in with something else--a brand new secret symbol of the San Fernando Valley.

What’s in your Valley?  What objects do you walk by every day?  I hope that wherever you live, you find something that represents a symbol of your society, no matter how unexplainable and potentially silly they may be.  Open your eyes and let the possibilities exist.

Deke Dickerson, Northridge, CA

Below: More examples of the mysterious San Fernando Valley symbols.  Do you have more to share? Email the author here.

Conspiracy alert--note the railing of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis at the scene of Martin Luther King Jr's assassination!