When I was in high school and my late teens-the years I lived in California-I listened to mostly terrible music. That’s an exaggeration. I listened to a mix of decent and terrible music, whatever was playing on AM radio. But I bought mostly terrible music.
I became enamored of John Denver and music of his ilk. I don’t understand the attraction-truly. I even less understand this kind of renaissance of interest in his music. For every decent song he wrote, there are a dozen stinkers that are soaked in superficial sentimentality, and stuffed in a giant, white bread bun smothered in snoozola. Honestly, Dr. Seuss was a much more interesting teller of stories than John Denver. I’m so ashamed.
But it just so happened I lived in the same house with my cousin Kim, who spent her high school years with us. It’s a long story. But looking back, Kim was the keeper of all musical coolness in our house. She listened to Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and various examples of Southern rock, some good, some-Black Oak Arkansas-less than good. But while I was listening to “Rocky Mountain High” and “Annie’s Song,” Kim was listening to “The Needle and the Damage Done” and “Freebird,” (which didn’t seem so overplayed when it first came out.)
But Kim had one other record I liked to run off and listen to, E Pluribus Funk by Grand Funk Railroad. It came in a round album jacket, of all things, and a had a cover of Little Eva’s “Locomotion” that was kind of cool. Really liked that.
On the whole though I avoided Kim’s music and the anti-establishment messages it all conveyed. I was very conservative in those days–and damn, so was John Denver. No wailing guitars, long hair, Led Zeppelin stories of conquest. He was easy. “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” and “Take me Home Country Roads” seemed less threatening than “Bridge of Sighs” and “Bitch.” My girlfriend’s extremely conservative parents didn’t like him but they couldn’t object to his image. And that’s what was important
Forty plus years later, of course, things are different. Music I dismissed when I was younger I absolutely crave today. On vinyl, of course. There are a couple of bands I never fully explored I’d like to take a deeper look at today. One of them is the previously mentioned Grand Funk Railroad. This was partially spurred because my lovely wife brought home a couple of Grand Funk records from a yard sale-their Live album from 1970 and the previously mentioned E Pluribus Funk from 1971. Neither of these albums are particularly brilliant, but one gets a sense of who these Flint, Michigan rockers were–straight up, heavy blues-based rock, lacking the political direction of MC 5, but creating a sound that would influence American bands like Aerosmith and Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band.
Today I picked up a copy of We’re an American Band. It’s first rate 1973 era hard rock leavened with some rocking Hammond organ, produced by Todd Rundgren. It is probably their best record. The band is tight and well directed and the singing duties are split between guitarist Mark Farner and drummer Don Brewer. Some of the songs wouldn’t pass PC muster today, but still some great rock and roll. Grand Funk’s records remain available and relatively cheap.
With their entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I’ve also decided to take another look at a band I discarded long, ago: Chicago. When I was in high school I was really interested in their music. From their first record, from when I was still in Seattle, until they recorded their massive live collection at Carnegie Hall. But “Question 67 and 68,” their cover of Spencer Davis’s “I’m a Man” and “It Better End Soon” from Chicago II were songs that really caught my attention. However, it felt that as Chicago III morphed into Chicago IX and Chicago 17 (yes there really is one,) the band with the awesome supporting horn section evolved into meaningless Peter Cetera sung pop pap.. My wife likes it, but me, not so much.
I’ve decided to pick up their first three records. Actually just Chicago Transit Authority, their first double-album, and Chicago III featuring “Sing a Mean Tune Kid.” I actually have their second record. These early recordings were gritty, political, and interesting. Why did they shorten their name from Chicago Transit Authority to Chicago? It seems CTA holds the copyright to the name and the band had to shorten lest it run into proprietary violations. Who’d a thunk it?
Not sure what my cousin Kim thought about Chicago. My guess is she could take or leave ’em. But one thing that’s clear is she shaped my thinking about music-perhaps a little later than it should have taken hold. For that dear cousin, I thank you.