July 31, 2007

You could tell something was up with the weather today when the morning dawned bright and blue, but with a breeze. Very unusual for around here this time of year. The day was hot, and the clouds took their time developing, but soon the mountains to the east and west of us were blue and covered in a variety of cloud cover – some dark and threatening, some wide and flat like a huge pizza crust suspended above.

The afternoon became still and hot as the clouds continued to gather and the humidity increased. Around 5, the sky darkened and the wind chimes outside signalled the arrival of the weather. The temperature dropped about 15 degrees, thunder pealed, and the wind began to made whipping sounds through the mesquite and palm trees. A few fat drops, then nothing. A few minutes later, more fat drops followed by some smaller drops, then, suddenly, some straight-line winds around 50 mph blew through, accompanied by sheets of rain that seemed to come from out of nowhere. Standing under the tiki bar with a glass of Pinot Grigio, it truly was a wonder to behold – you could almost hear the trees and bushes sing a Hallelujah chorus to the Almighty for the wondrous wet gift they received.

The storm continued to gather above us but slowly passed to our south and east, turning the sky a Crayola shade of midight blue, occasionally punctuated by orange streaks of lightning. The humidity returned like a wet sponge, and the sky above us slowly gathered itself into a soft blanket of battleship gray. The rain stopped for a half-hour, but the wind chimes stirred uneasily, softly tinkling as a new breeze began to gather, this time from the east. And then, softly and slowly, a soaking rain began to fall, filling the air with the musky scent of Texas sage. As darkness closed in, everything became cloaked in a blanket of wet – soft, soaking, and dripping.

I sat under the patio roof and watched the puddles in the swimming pool dancing with every new gift from the sky and reveled in the reflection of the backyard lights on wet concrete. What a nice change and a perfect end to a mid-summer Arizona day.

Filed in: Uncategorized by The Great White Shank at 01:58 | Comment (1)
July 30, 2007

Think it’s those mean-spirited old Republicans and Christian conservatives that want to impose their own version of free speech on the American populace? Think again. Here is an article by the AP’s David Bauber (Hat tip: Drudge) that ought to send shivers through any prospective 2008 presidential election voter, no matter what side of the political aisle you sit on:

Liberal activists are stepping up their campaign against Fox News Channel by pressuring advertisers not to patronize the network.
MoveOn.org, the Campaign for America’s Future and liberal blogs like DailyKos.com are asking thousands of supporters to monitor who is advertising on the network. Once a database is gathered, an organized phone-calling campaign will begin, said Jim Gilliam, vice president of media strategy for Brave New Films, a company that has made anti-Fox videos.

The groups have successfully pressured Democratic presidential candidates not to appear at any debate sponsored by Fox, and are also trying to get Home Depot Inc. to stop advertising there.

At least 5,000 people nationwide have signed up to compile logs on who is running commercials on Fox, Gilliam said. The groups want to first concentrate on businesses running local ads, as opposed to national commercials.

If this article wasn’t so chilling by its very nature, one could look at it and simply shake their heads in wonder. After all, outside of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, virtually every major daily newspaper (NY Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, L.A. Times, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, etc. etc. etc.), every major television news network (NBC, CBS, ABC), every other major cable TV network (CNN, MSNBC, CNBC), and every major wire service (AP, Reuters, UPI) are not just Democratic-leaning and liberal in their political philosophies, but unabashedly so. I should also toss NPR and Time and Newsweek in there as well. And what do conservatives have? FOX News Network (a channel I would hardly describe as overly conservative, but then again, if you deviate one iota from the Democratic-leaning mouthpieces of all the organizations and institutions I just listed, you’re automatically tagged as “right wing”) and, by and large, syndicated talk radio. And that’s it.

(Note: It would be easy to dismiss the Moveon.org effort as a bunch of kooks, but remember that it is the Democrats in Congress who have recently raised the idea of bringing back the Fairness Doctrine – all because they know that conservative talk radio is the only remaining media they don’t own just yet. They weren’t able to succeed in the talk radio market with their pathetic and juvenile Air America initiative, so now they want the government to force that kind of crappy lunatic programming on independent broadcast stations.)

So what to make of Moveon.org’s effort? In short, they’re afraid – afraid that 1) people are waking up to the fact that the only thing right the government has ever done is the U.S. Postal Service and that it is a cesspool of waste and fraud, 2) that our elected officials – from both parties – have never been more clueless or reckless with the taxpayers’ money, or 3) that the Democratic Party is philosophically bankrupt, still treading out the same old tired ideas left over from FDR’s “New Deal” and Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society”. In the end, what liberals fear most is the marketplace of ideas and individual thought. Don’t believe me? Why, then, are liberals and progressives so in bed with the trade unions, the public school system, and organizations like the United Nations? It’s because they’re afraid that in a free marketplace – practically and philosophically – people know the public schools suck and would gladly take their children elsewhere if given the opportunity to do so, that the only thing labor unions care about is fleecing the pockets of their members and preserving their own protected (and declining) state of affairs, and that the United Nations is nothing but a bunch of money-grubbing, corrupt hacks supporting tin-pot dictators from the crappiest places on this earth.

(This is not to say that Republicans or conservatives don’t have their own personal and/or perfect agendas – they do. But conservatives and Republicans by nature [there will always be exceptions to the rule and wackos in every political stripe] have, by and large, never been afraid of sharing their ideas as part of a bigger marketplace, whether it’s the free-market economy or the marketplace of ideas.)

The fact that left-wing organizations like Moveon.org are seeking to stifle that marketplace at the same time their influence in Democratic Party politics has never been greater should be enough to give everyone pause; if they’re doing this kind of thing now, what would happen if they take control of the White House along with the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives?

Just something to think about.

P.S. It’s not just me who sees the absurd irony in this; Pejman Yousefzadeh does as well.

Filed in: Politics & World Events by The Great White Shank at 01:11 | Comments (0)
July 29, 2007

This story from the July 18 Boston Globe, passed along to me by Goodboy Goose, BTW, (thanks, Goose!), illustrates the severe challenges being faced by the powers-that-be in today’s Episcopal Church (TEC) as it desperately seeks to hang on to its once-considerable prestige, influence, and power in the face of challenges both old and new – challenges that seem to confront it almost on a daily basis.

Ah, the good old days! There was a time when TEC, like all other mainline Protestant churches (Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, etc.) were pretty much battling the same forces faced by most religious denominations in the 1970s and ’80s – declining membership resulting from various societal changes and trends coming out of the ’60s and early ’70s, and an inability to articulate an effective, coherent, and relevant message in response to those trends. The Episcopal Church of the post-Vietnam era, especially, prided itself on promoting a socially-progressive Gospel that – at least at the start – distinguished itself in a number of ways, especially when it came to worldwide mission and permitting and promoting the ordination of women as priests and bishops.

Somewhere along the way, however, TEC began to lose its way, as it slowly and increasingly became infiltrated by people – men and women, bishops and lay people – possessing a radical anti-Christian bias (go figure!), a progressive view of human sexuality, and a watering down of the Church’s sacramental traditions and teachings on sin to the point where not only was it OK to be gay or lesbian and a priest or bishop in the church, but a non-celibate gay or lesbian to boot. This radical agenda reached its apex in the ordination of the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003; since then, the worldwide Anglican Communion (of which TEC is a member) has increasingly drifted towards schism, and TEC has become a den of controversy and infighting to the point where so-called “orthodox” parishes and priests have found themselves increasingly under attack by progressive bishops and TEC’s new Presiding Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori. Since then, requests by orthodox members of TEC seeking alternative Episcopal oversight by other TEC bishops and/or Anglican churches have, by and large, been rejected as Schori and her progressive hardliners seek to stamp out every vestige of orthodoxy in their midst. And why not? After all, the altar she and those like her worship at – the altar of the god of tolerance, acceptance, and diversity – wouldn’t, well, tolerate or accept such a thing!

Enter several African churches of the Anglican Communion. These churches, growing by leaps and bounds on the African continent even while living on the bleeding edge – literally – given their close proximity to radical Islam, have become increasingly bold in asserting their own increasing power, influence, and voice in response to TEC’s attack on those TEC priests and parishes who believe as the Africans do, and the Africans have even begun ordaining Americans as bishops in their churches and planting congregations within the boundaries of TEC dioceses. The Boston Globe story mentioned above provides the latest instance of this kind of thing happening:

The Rev. William L. Murdoch, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in West Newbury, will fly to Nairobi next month for his consecration as a Kenyan bishop, then return to Massachusetts to minister to other disaffected conservatives who are leaving the Episcopal Church over its 2003 decision to ordain an openly gay priest as the bishop of New Hampshire.

The extraordinary act is part of a new national movement, in which a handful of Episcopal parishes and priests are leaving the 2-million-member Episcopal Church USA and affiliating with the more conservative Anglican churches, called provinces, of Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Uganda.

To the dismay of the Episcopal Church, the African provinces are now developing church organizations in the United States to reach out to those looking for an alternative.

Will it work? The fact is, the African churches stand for and boldly proclaim a Gospel that celebrates a traditional Christian message and view of the Church’s sacraments and moral teachings – teachings increasingly lost or forgotten in today’s TEC churches. TEC’s increasingly bold acceptance of the radical gay, lesbian, and transgender agenda, to the rejection of every moral teaching and sacrament traditional Christianity has ever stood for, needs to be shown for what it is – a pathetic and losing message promoted by worn-out has-beens of the 1960s counterculture seeking to celebrate their own narcissistic worldview and alternative lifestyles. Like teenagers left alone for a weekend by their parents with kegs of beer to keep them company, these so-called “progressive activists” are drunk on their own freedom and corrupt view of the world, and now that they have the power in TEC, they want to make sure anyone who stands counter to them are destroyed.

Fortunately for traditionalists, conservatives, and orthodox Episcopalians, they don’t have to put up with these juvenile idiots anymore. The power of the Gospel has come into their midst and to their rescue in the face of these African churches, and for TEC, life will never be the same again. Welcome to the marketplace of ideas and religious choices, Bishop Schori – in such a marketplace, your and TEC’s watered-down Gospel and oh-so-tired message of tolerance, acceptance, and diversity stands no chance. For you and those in TEC who think like you, the intervention of African churches and their powerful message of traditional Christianity serves as a one-way ticket to continued, assured irrelevancy and slow institutional death.

And it couldn’t happen to a better bunch of people.

Filed in: Religion & Culture by The Great White Shank at 01:20 | Comments (2)
July 28, 2007

…sad news about that tragic helicopter crash that occurred today in central Phoenix. When I saw the photo up at the Drudge Report, it was strange to see the helicopters – just after they apparently had collided – behind the building I used to work across from – that blue glass building is the centerpiece of the Gateway Center complex where our Phoenix office is located.

When things like this happen, it just makes you realize just how fragile our hold on life is. We all have a tendency to go through life as if we’re somehow indestructable and immune from all the kinds of tragedies – big and small – you read about and hear about on TV. And we always seem to think stuff like that only happens to someone else – it’s just human nature – and act as if we’re the center of our own little universes. Today, I was in a meeting with one of our customers, and their CIO is being a total jerk – I mean, an absolute total jerk, and while he’s going on about everything, I couldn’t help but think how little all of this really matters in the end. Think about the four men killed in those helicopters today – they got up, did their normal thing, and went to work not even realizing he would never see his home ever again.

You just never know – life is incredibly fragile.

Filed in: Politics & World Events by The Great White Shank at 01:38 | Comments (2)
July 27, 2007

After two long hard days of work it already seems as if the Goodboys Invitational weekend was a month ago, but the shine of that weekend and all its fun and reindeer games hasn’t worn off just yet.

A big thanks to Vic Cugini for his fabulous five-part series on my old band Top Priority. Haven’t yet seen any big money tossed our way for a reunion tour or a movie deal, but I figure that can’t be far behind. Now if we can only get the Kittyhawk Productions & Top Priority store up and running for his book, T-shirts, and CDs we’ll be all set!

Our new rabbit Cosmo seems to be starting to settle in pretty well. As a two year old, he’s full of bunny adolescence and enthusiasm, and we’ve learned he has quite an ability to jump – over cages, on tables, and 2-ft. dances and spins in the air. He’s quite the character, and Marble Jr. (our oldest rabbit and a female, no less!) would love to try and rip him to pieces. So much for bunny love!

Glad to see the heat has subsided a bit around here – since we’ve entered the monsoon season, the bright blue skies of June and early July have given way to afternoon clouds and the occasional dust storm, thundershower, or brief passing of rain. The temps have dropped into the upper 90s, but the humidity’s around 60 percent, so you can’t win.

I’m reading a great book, The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan, all about the people and land that suffered through the incredible “Dust Bowl” years of the Great Depression. You want to talk about character and an amazing willingness to persevere in the worst possible conditions, this book serves as a reminder of a hardy and stubborn American character that is a long way, indeed, from the soft, whiny, coarse, and narcissistic culture our modern society has become. Certainly things are better for everyone, and no one would ever want to return back to those days, but I can’t help but feel that somewhere along the way, amidst all the progress and prosperity, we’ve not only lost our way, but a part of our collective soul and identity as well. It’s a wonderful book, and one I’d highly recommend.

Filed in: Uncategorized by The Great White Shank at 01:07 | Comments (0)
July 26, 2007

(Last in a five-part series)

8. Postscript and Legacy

The end of Top Priority came in the spring of 1977 amidst a flurry of band member departures: first, guitarist “The Cat” enlisted in the Air Force, then, shortly thereafter, drummer Mark enlisted in the Army. For a time, the cellar in Tewksbury that had served as a ‘band headquarters’ for the better part of the previous three years lay dormant and empty except for a few remaining pieces of leftover musical equipment.

But the music hadn’t died completely. “Even with The Cat and Mark leaving, Keys still wanted to keep the music thing going, so he put another band together”, recalls Doug. “I had met some new friends and a horny chick at work, and had recently been exposed to an entirely different social circle – one outside the Merrimack Valley – but he needed a bassist, so I reluctantly agreed to hop on. The new band had better players than we ever did with Top Priority – not exponentially so, but good enough that I knew I had to work on my chops. The lineup included a couple of horn players, I think – trumpet and trombone, with Jerry’s brother Tom one of ‘em – and they started out wanting to play a mix of Top Priority’s old repertoire with stuff having a harder, funkier edge – Boz Scaggs, Steve Miller, Heart, Boston – y’know, that kind of late ‘70s stuff…

And now Doug had some serious musical equipment in order to play that kind of music: “One day, these two huge boxes arrived by UPS at our house addressed to me. When I opened them up, it turned out to be a brand spankin’ new Fender Bassman 100 amp that Mark had purchased through Boston Music Company from wherever the hell he was in Army basic training. I was flabbergasted – I mean, this was REAL musical equipment, with a sound that made my cheesy violin bass now sound like a total bad ass. I remember I could keep the volume at 2 and still blow the whole neighborhood away.”

One day in early 1978, a shadowy figure from the new band’s musical heritage appeared out of the shadows of days long since passed. Doug remembers the event clearly: “It was a call that came out of the blue. I picked up the phone, and Ken Sandler was on the line. He said he had been thinking of us and was wondering if we still had the band together. I told him the group had recently folded, but that a new one was getting together, and that we could use an experienced guitar player like him. I told him the kind of stuff we were doing, and you could tell he was genuinely excited on his end. He asked when the next practice was, and I told him when and how to get there. He said he’d see me there, and that he couldn’t wait, but then he never showed. That was the last I ever heard from him.”

The new band (called Cotillion) played several gigs that led Doug to begin considering whether it was still worthwhile to pursue his music muse. “We played a dance at Tewksbury High School which was a huge success. Jerry and I had worked out an arrangement of the old Beatles’ tune ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ with horns, just like the one featuring John Lennon on the flip side of Elton John’s ‘Philadelphia Freedom’ single. That would be my designated featured performance during the shows; otherwise, I just played bass and tried to keep up with the rest of the players.”

The last live gig Doug would ever play was a freshman dance at Essex (MA) Agricultural College. Doug recalls: “The band was starting to look to getting bigger and better gigs, and it was all starting to intimidate me a little. This was a much better band than I was used to playing in. Anyways, I remember the Essex Aggie thing well – we started off with our usual Top 40/pop stuff, but the crowd didn’t seem jacked or even interested. I just remember a lot of rumbling and grumbling. Anyways, I look at Jerry and say, ‘time for ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, whereupon he nods in agreement and we kick into it. Well, we proceeded to blow that house away. The band cooked, the horns sounded great, and the crowd suddenly snapped into it. I was the hero that night. From that song on, the place was ours and the dance ended up really well.”

The band soon changed some personnel and its musical direction, setting their sights on bigger things, more ambitious goals. Even with his new equipment, Doug had a sense that he was in over his head. “We were starting to play harder stuff – Heart’s ‘Barracuda’, Boston’s ‘Foreplay/Long Time’, Kansas’ ‘Carry On My Wayward Son’ – that kind of stuff. I think the band renamed itself ‘Virgil Sims’, or something weird like that. Me, I was still into the Beach Boys but starting to get into the Warren Zevon/Linda Ronstadt mid-‘70s California thing, punk stuff like the Ramones and Blondie, and even starting to like country-and-western music a little more. I remember suggesting to Jerry that we get ourselves a steel guitar player and play gigs as an alter-ego band called Jerry ‘Red River’ Palma and the Saddlesores – which I still think would have been a great idea – but Jerry thought I was daft; he was really getting into the hard rock scene and all the glitter that came with it.”

With the band’s change in musical focus, Doug could sense his days as a musician drawing to a close. “I remember a rehearsal where we had been told the week before to learn some new stuff – Aerosmith‘s ‘Walk This Way’ and Steve Miller’s ‘Swingtown’ were two of the songs, I think – and there was talk of the band getting a gig at Mr. C’s Rock Palace – a club in Lowell that would be bigger and a harder rock kind of thing than I had ever envisioned playing. Anyways, I couldn’t really get psyched enough to practice those songs all by myself sitting in the cellar amidst the old Top Priority stuff that had never been fully cleared out, so when I showed up I wasn’t very prepared. We played the songs and recorded them for playback, and it was pretty embarrassing – hearing me trying to keep up with these better players was a pretty humbling experience – for both me and them, I think. So, after the rehearsal, I told Jerry that was it, I was leaving the group immediately. He didn’t sound disappointed, so I sold all my equipment a few weeks later and never looked back. We both went our separate ways and never spoke again.”

Top Priority – The Legacy

Three decades have passed since the band Top Priority faded into the mist of rock music’s forgotten past, although no one seems to have noticed it. The only actual evidence that the band ever existed has been reduced to a number of faded photographs and three beat-up cassettes – evidence now necessary to help jar the memories of its former band members who otherwise would have seen their own memories of a special time in their lives lost to antiquity, forever.

The Top Priority story did not need to be told. After all, their story is hardly unique among any number of thousands of garage (or cellar) bands that have populated the land ever since folks like Bill Haley, Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly blazed upon the rock n’roll scene half a century ago. Yet their story serves as one documented example of the power of dreams – dreams that are realized not by the millions of dollars made through gold and platinum sales of recorded products, or multi-city tours sponsored by corporations aggressively hawking their wares from boardrooms far removed from the bands they have aligned themselves and their products with.

No, it is the dreams realized by the simple joy of your band starting and finishing a song at the same time, and even playing it well. Or the joy of seeing people dance to your music, and smile or applaud after hearing a song your band has played. And the hassle of dragging your own equipment from one place to another, with no professional ‘roadies’ to help you out, but getting paid to do it. And the bitter disappointment and the dashing of those dreams when you and your fellow band members realize one day you’re simply not good enough to make a living off of doing something you love most. If there is a story to be told of Top Priority, it is just that – humble dreams dreamed, kindled, realized, celebrated, and dashed, with no apparent effect on anything or the lives of anyone except those of its own band members. And sometimes, that’s a worthy enough story in and of itself to tell.

That’s why I wrote this story.

If there was one legacy left by Top Priority, it was the absence of one: rock music was never bothered or even slightly imprinted by anything the group ever did or attempted. It never recorded professionally, never sold any records, never caused even the slightest ripple in the rock music scene inside the Merrimack Valley, let alone nationally. But there are no regrets. As Doug says, “It was a fun thing to do while it lasted – we came, we played, we departed. No one got hurt, we made a couple of dollars doing it, and I still have fond memories of those days.” Mark seconds his brother’s assessment: “Look, we were just a little combo with marginal talent that had a lot of fun playing music together for a little while. I don’t know about anyone else, but that’s good enough for me.”

Not surprisingly, there have been no clarion calls in recent years for a Top Priority reunion, so it seems clear the members of the group are more than content to allow the non-legacy of the band that didn’t change rock to remain as it always has been – anonymous and forgettable. Well, at least it was until now.

(End of the series)

—————–

Excerpted from “The Band That Never Changed Rock: The Definitive History of Top Priority” by Victor N. Cugini, soon to be published by Permanent Press.

Filed in: Top Priority by vcugini at 01:39 | Comments (0)
July 25, 2007

gb Well it was quite a weekend for the Goodboys Invitational, with perfect weather, good spirits, a lot of laughs, and some challenging golf and humiliation bets mixed in to make it memorable. While I’m pleased to say that yours truly and partner Steve “Killer” Kowalski (center) emerged as 2007 champions, everyone, in fact, was a winner, for a good time was had by all. I’m sure the fellas at The Grey Goose 19th Hole will provide their own commentary on how things went from the golf point of view in a later post, but for now, an e-mail sent today from fellow Goodboy Kevin “Goose” Dwyer just about says it all:

It was an outstanding weekend! Memories from GB XVII…

* Arnold’s and the realization of Ron Myerow, Super Agent / Man of Mystery
* The Beachcomber, Marganita’s and amazing Wellfleet Oysters
* The Viking Helmet 3-putt rule (or was that a Rhino?)
* The Bunny Hop (time to retire that sucker)
* The room 110 “wallpaper” (Thanks Ben)
* Harry’s, The Love Dogs, and all of the dance floor participants
* To Killer & TGWS sucking a little less than everyone else and winning the prized trophy.
* To getting off The Cape at 4:30 pm on Sunday and hardly hitting the breaks.
* Even the weather cooperated all weekend!

…I might add that Saturday night’s din-din at The Roadhouse Cafe was an excellent choice by Goose, and a wonderful way to load up on carbs before the jump jivin’ jumbo at Harry’s. Kudos once again go out to The Captains Golf Course in Brewster for not only putting up with the Goodboys and their foolish bets, but also for providing the usual tip-top shape golf courses for us to ply our trade.

All in all, an excellent time had by all, and a great weekend of fun. Thanks, Goodboys!

Filed in: Goodboys by The Great White Shank at 01:18 | Comment (1)
July 24, 2007

(Part 4 of a five-part series.)

7. The Post-Bouch Era: 1976-77

In the summer of 1976, the country was coming together for it’s Bicentennial celebration: groups of ‘Tall Ships’ were arriving to huge crowds packing the Boston waterfront, and towns and cities across America were celebrating its 200th birthday with concerts, parades, and fireworks shows. It was a celebratory time. For the members of Top Priority, however, relations between lead guitarist The Bouch and the rest of the band were at a low ebb: disagreements over the band’s musical direction were starting to come to the fore, and there was an overall feeling of weariness over playing the same tired songs at the same kind of tired venues.

Ken “The Cat” McDougal would later admit, “It was a low point for everyone. There were differences – differences over what we were going to play, where we were going to play, even what we should be wearing when we played. After a while, there came a point where we just weren’t as concerned about [Boucher's] feelings as we once were. He was a nice enough guy and all, but the whole commercial wedding scene had started getting stale for us.”

As Mark remembers it, the primary area of dissatisfaction was on The Bouch’s playing: “There was this practice where my friend John Ellis recorded us on his 8-track recording system, and one of the songs we did was, ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’. Hearing it played back with The Bouch taking the lead was, in a word, laughable – I mean, his guitar had this clipped, twangy elastic band sound to it. Remember, we still had that recording with Ken Sandler playing that same song, and hearing the two together played back to back was like night and day. One of the main reasons we had kept him on as long as we had, to be honest, was the fact he owned a van, which made playing gigs a lot easier, but after weighing the pros and cons of it all, we knew he had to go. I think that recording just affirmed to us what had to be done.”

Jerry Palma would later recall: “What did The Bouch bring to the band? An idea. A concept, perhaps, that after a while we just weren’t able to buy into. I mean, the guy had virtually no stage presence whatsoever, which, if you wanted to play rock and roll back then, you just had to have. He’d just be up there, content to pick away in the shadows, shuffling back and forth, and we’d kind of get on him because of that whenever his back was turned. As a guitar player, he knew the chords OK, but we needed more from a lead player. He had this big Gibson that made kind of a twangy sound – it probably would have sounded fine backing Loretta Lynn or someone like that, but for the kind of music we were playing, it didn’t add much, and, in our view, became expendable after a time.”

Doug remembers a conversation between the four band members following a particularly uninspiring practice. “There was a moment of clarity. Not just as far as The Bouch was concerned, but for us as a band. I mean, it suddenly became clear to each of us that we were never going to be anything better than what we already were, so the feeling was, why are we dealing with this CB-toting, disco dude whose guitar leads sounded like an elastic band being plucked? So, when an opportunity for another gig came up – I think it might have been some dance in Bedford – we just didn’t tell him about it. Then, after it went over really well, we just avoided the whole issue by telling him we were folding the group. I think we all knew the whole [Top Priority] thing was starting to go south, and we figured, if that were the case, we might as well enjoy it while we can.”

The Cat would later recall the Bedford dance as an important stepping-off point for the group: “We were asked to play this dance. I remember Doug’s and Mark’s cousin manning the lights and our performance being very well received. We opened with ‘California Girls’ just as The Beach Boys would do in concert, and we played a number of songs we never would have done if The Bouch was with us. What I remember most is the crowd asking us to play an encore – which was very neat and something new to us. I remember being totally psyched about our performance that night.”

For a period of time, the group considered adding a new replacement guitarist. Doug remembers: “Mark doesn’t remember him, but I do. There was this guy where I worked named George Duda, who said he played guitar. We actually had him come by for a couple of practices (pictured: Duda, The Cat, Doug, and Keys), but I think by that time we were pretty happy just (if you’ll pardon the expression) playing with ourselves, and really didn’t feel like having to go through the hassle of breaking in another new guitarist. He did have some decent equipment, I recall. Why we didn’t invite him in I don’t remember – mighta been us, mighta been him.”

With their problem guitarist now out of the scene, the band began a series of intense rehearsals, both indoors and outdoors, in order to rework their playlist, dropping a number of Boucher-era songs and adding new ones into the mix, emphasizing songs the band enjoyed playing instead of those more identifiable to dance audiences. The realigned group then unveiled its new look and new repertoire at a backyard concert played on the Palma’s back deck. There, playing before an enthusiastic crowd of friends and neighbors, the band played one of its better performances. Mark remembers the day well: “It was probably my favorite gig we ever did. The Bouch was gone, so we were able to recapture some of the feeling of those pre-Bouch days, where we played music simply for the joy of it. I remember we played ‘Good Vibrations’ and ‘California Girls’ – fairly ambitious pieces for us to be sure, but they went over very well with the crowd.”

With two well-received performances under their belt, Doug felt confident enough about the band’s new lineup and repertoire to volunteer it to provide live entertainment at the Billerica Masonic Lodge for the Lodge’s theater group following its final show that year. Doug remembers: “The band was looking for some more opportunities to play without The Bouch, so when this opportunity to play came along, I volunteered us. There’s a cassette tape of that performance around somewhere.”

Indeed there is. And, hearing the tape three decades later, one gets the sense that this is a band not at all in transition – quite the contrary, they’re coming from nowhere and heading the same place. The two sets played are a mix of uninspiring pop instrumentals (“Let Me Be There”, “Yesterday”) combined with passable Top 40 pop covers (“Get Back”, “Ventura Highway”, “Saturday Night”, The Eagles’ “Take It Easy”), all played to a lot of background noise and conversation: clearly this was a crowd that could care less about the band and its performance. A request by some young girl asking for Golden Earrings’ “Radar Love” – a current hit of that time – can be heard above the din, but it seems apparent that the band is content to play what it knows and what it wants to play, and then then get the hell out of out Dodge – and fast.

The last live performance of Top Priority took place just before Christmas 1976, and, ironically, it was one of their best. Doug recalls: “We were contracted to play a Christmas dance somewhere in Lowell or Tewksbury, and once again we brought along our cousin Gregg to run the lights. Keys also brought his brother Tom (we called him ‘TP’), and he and/or some other guy he brought along with him might have played the trumpet or some kind of horn. Whether it was because of the lights, or the horns, or the setting, or the vibes, I recall we played a very good dance – one of our best. We ditched the wedding crap, rocked a little harder, and played the kind of stuff we always wanted to play – a few obscure Beach Boys tunes – ‘Do It Again’, ‘Back Home’, and ‘Don’t Go Near The Water’, I think, and, as I recall, a fantastic bluesy-version of ‘White Christmas’ done in a ‘Scat Jacobs’ kinda vein. I think Tom Palma might have played a backing horn on that one.”

The Christmas dance turned out to be Top Priority’s “Candlestick Park” moment; by that time, the band had ceased actively pursuing gigs, and none magically appeared before them, either. While occasional practices still produced some new fine original work – Jerry’s unreleased “Rhythm and Blues, Parts 1 & 2″ was one – by the spring of 1977, it was becoming clear that the clock was starting to run down. The band was starting to put something less than ‘top priority’ on the music, and, as Doug remembers, its members were starting to think about larger things. “Mark and I would go to Mac’s Two Lounge in Billerica – this was before it became a strip joint – or the Band Box and just talk about life – you know, where we wanted to go, what we wanted to do – that kind of thing”. Everyone was starting to think about their futures and getting restless, wanting to make a big change.”

As Palma would recall later: “Around [1977], we were getting together less and less as a band to practice. Both The Cat and Mark were feeling the need to change their lives in a big way. Sometime in late spring, Ken told us he had enlisted in the Air Force, then a few months later, Mark enlisted in the Army. By late August, both were gone.” Doug adds: “I remember things pretty much falling apart on their own. I don’t recall anyone shedding any tears over the band’s demise – we had had a good time, and had made some money playing dances. It was just time for everyone to move on.”

Next: Postcript and legacy

—————–

Excerpted from “The Band That Never Changed Rock: The Definitive History of Top Priority” by Victor N. Cugini, soon to be published by Permanent Press.

Filed in: Top Priority by vcugini at 01:17 | Comments (2)
July 23, 2007

(Third of a five-part series.)

6. Glory Days: 1976

A few paid gigs during this era stand out in Doug’s mind: “We played the Dom Polski Club in Lowell one cold and rainy Friday night, and I remember we played OK. We also did a wedding at some social club in Lowell where the bride was ready to drop at any time and the food was pot luck, brought in by everyone who was invited – it was really pretty pathetic. I remember Jerry hit a bad note during ‘Here Comes the Bride’, and whole hall cringed – we just laughed. And there was this Saturday afternoon gig we did at the K of C hall in Tewksbury where the stage was a tiny ‘T’-shaped thing; Mark had to locate his drums behind us to the point where he couldn’t hear what the rest of us were playing, as we couldn’t afford a sound system that included on-stage monitors.”

Having to actually get to and from their live appearances was both time-consuming and wearying, as Mark recalls: “The problem was, whenever we’d have to play a gig, there’d be this little cellar window that we’d have to slide all our equipment up through. Fortunately, The Bouch had a van – I think that was the only reason we put up with having him in the band as long as we did – but outside of a few times where we’d have people to help us – my friend Doug Luciano, my cousin Gregg, or Jerry’s brother Tom perhaps, all the carrying, lugging, setting up, and tearing down would have to be done by us. Then, after the gig was over, all our stuff would have to be passed back through that tiny window late at night when we’d return. We’d all be exhausted, but all that equipment still had to be carried over from the driveway and passed back down into the cellar – sometimes through snow and mud. Once the newness of it all wore off, it started to become a royal pain in the ass.”

Kittyhawk Productions

For even the most humble of garage bands, music is an expensive pursuit. Everything costs money, and none of it is inexpensive. For a fledging band like Top Priority, where none of the members had a lot of money, creativity oftentimes was as important as talent in order to keep the band functioning; hence, Kittyhawk Productions was formed. Mark remembers: “Kittyhawk Productions was our gem – an operation designed to help the band prosper and allow us to do whatever we wanted to do under our own names.” Doug adds: “The best way I can describe it is that we were dreamers. Kittyhawk Productions was our operation, created initially to help support the infrastructure of the band, but we also envisioned a time where if Keys or The Cat wanted to go out and do their own thing, they could and would under the ‘Kittyhawk’ umbrella. It was like our Apple or Brother Records…”

It was under the Kittyhawk banner that Top Priority’s stage setup was designed. Taking their queue from the Beach Boys concert they had attended in late 1975, fake palm trees and cheap oriental rugs became just as important to the band’s practice headquarters as their own equipment, and lighting and sound equipment would soon follow – all designed to enhance the band’s image and identity when it came time to go out on the road. “The PA system was our own design”, remembers Mark. “We had seen an ad in the Lowell Sun for a cheap, second-hand PA system head, and we built two speaker cabinets out of particle board with five speakers in each, bought from Radio Shack. We then covered the cabinets in blue naugahyde. Was it the best PA system around? No, but it was the best we could afford.” Looking back, both Doug and Mark agree that, if there were a “smoking gun” when it came to the band’s less-than-professional live sound, all fingers would point to the PA system. “But you have to remember”, says Doug, “we didn’t have a lot of dough – I was just two years out of high school and the others were still in it. And none of our parents had a lot of money to support our muse, either.”

The group also knew that if it were going to start playing dances and other kinds of gigs, music alone wasn’t going to be enough to get them noticed, so once more Kittyhawk Productions was called in to put its creative thinking cap on – the result being, the band’s own light show. Doug recalls: “Mark figured out a way to build two ‘light towers’ out of 2x4s and metal poles. Each ‘tower’ had a red, green, blue, and yellow floodlight on it, and he jury-rigged a control box out of an empty 8-track storage box – pretty amazing, when you think about it! – with switches that could turn the lights off or on as needed. I remember him spending a lot of time getting that damned thing to work right, but once it did and we took it out on gigs, we felt like we were friggin’ superstars!”

Scat Jacobs and the Manhattans Featuring Sonny Williams

There had been from the very start a chasm between the musical tastes of the other band members and those of The Bouch. Eventually, this started to manifest itself in different and interesting directions once The Bouch would leave practices to head home, upon which the group would stay behind to fool around on their own. It was the result of this that an alter-ego of the band began to take shape: something the group called “Scat Jacobs and the Manhattans Featuring Sonny Williams”. As this entity, the group felt free to experiment with the various adult and pop standards it would normally mix in with their Top 40 repertoire at weddings and dances, accentuating the corniness of the songs for the purpose of exploring more inventive and bluesy kinds of interpretations. “I think we were influenced by seeing this group of old guys playing music one afternoon at the Hampton Beach hatch shell”, remembers Doug. “They were playing Van McCoy’s disco hit at the time, ‘The Hustle’, but playing it with a swing/shuffle beat! That absolutely slayed us, to the point where we wanted to do the same kind of thing to every disco tune we had ever learned. It also inspired us to trying giving that same kind of over-the-top treatment to boring things like ‘Tiny Bubbles’ and ‘Hawaiian Wedding Song’ – Keys really got into that kind of stuff…”

The group also began to use this time to begin developing some original songs on their own, two of which, “Rhythmic Blues” and “The Boucher Shuffle”, rank at the top of their very best work, leaving one to wonder why the band didn’t try and take this kind of musical direction more seriously. Hearing it on an old, beat-up cassette tape marked “Handle with Care” three decades later, the unreleased “Rhythmic Blues” stands out as something both unique and apart from anything else the band ever attempted, and the results are fascinating to behold: it’s as if the band were inspired by hidden forces to take the ‘Scat Jacobs’ persona to an entirely different and more serious level.

There’s a hint of expectation as the song begins: Doug’s doin’ a slow and easy ‘walking bass’ line to lay the foundation, when a sharp chord on the backbeat from Jerry, accented with just a hint of sneaky wah pedal from The Cat, usher in Mark’s drums – the latter accentuating the downbeat with a simple snap of the snare. This is pure and simple 12-bar blues, sounding as black as night by a group of white boys from suburbia. Upon the second verse, Jerry’s piano takes on a more forceful role, starting with a few well-placed chords to complement the rhythm, but gradually taking over to the point where his instrument assumes the role of primary accompaniment to The Cat’s instrumental, which serves as the song’s third verse. The song is cooking now – walking bass, snap snare, piano, and wah pedal lead.

…And then suddenly it all drops off, leaving Doug and Mark with the song’s underlying rhythm. Doug’s bass continues its slow easy walk, and Mark adds to his snare a hushed cymbal hissing its quiet approval at the song’s blue simplicity. By the time Jerry’s piano and The Cat’s guitar re-enter for the final verse and ending flourish, the song has become this alter-ego group’s signature – unlike anything Top Priority would have ever thought of attempting with someone like The Bouch. Doug remembers playing it for a co-worker of his at the time: “The guy’s name was Willie Mayes; a big black guy who was one of our company couriers. I played the tape for him and he was very impressed. I remember him saying something like, ‘you boys got something there – work it out and get that damned thing down on tape in a professional studio!’, but we never did. It was all really just for fun.”

The band’s other significant original at this time, “The Boucher Shuffle”, unlike “Rhythmic Blues”, was actually performed live; it was added to the band’s repertoire immediately after The Bouch’s departure. The song, primarily a Palma creation, features two distinct sections built on the idea of Boucher’s onstage foot-shuffling tendencies becoming a world-renowned dance – a rave-up on the idea of ‘The Twist’. The first section is a straight-ahead, 4/4 rocker, with lyrics that make no bones about its humble intentions, a Palma lead, and a chorus featuring Doug’s and The Cat’s playful background vocals:

“There’s a brand new dance catching on all over the world
It’s done by every single boy and girl;
You shuffle your feet, that’s all you need to do
You’re doing ‘The Boucher Shuffle’ and it’s really cool…

(chorus)

“Do ‘The Bouch’ (Boucher alive!)
Do ‘The Bouch’ (Boucher alive!)
Do ‘The Bouch’ (Boucher alive!)
(Do ‘The Bouch’!) That’s a big 10-4…”

After a second verse telling listeners of the varying ways ‘The Boucher Shuffle’ can be done (“when you’re all alone”, “when you’re on the phone”, etc.) the chorus repeats, but the music stops after the third “Do The Bouch!”, upon which Palma sings, “That’s a big 10-4″ slowly, enabling some extended Mark drum fills to usher in the second section – a rollicking 12-bar blues reminiscent of the ’50s hit, “The Stroll”. Here, Palma takes an extended solo on piano while Doug and The Cat happily chirp “Do The Bouch!” between piano fills, allowing the guitarists time to perfect their own ‘Boucher Shuffle’. Just when you think the song is beginning to lag, the music drops off and Palma begins to half-sing:

“It’s late at night and you’re out on a date
You look at the clock and it’s getting late
Your girl says baby, it’s a quarter to two
You say, sorry but I’ve got some more shuffling to do…”

Upon which the band repeats the chorus from the song’s first section, except here the word “Bouch” is repeated over and over until the chorus starts all over again, with more repeated “Bouch’s” over some additional drum fills by Mark. Another repeat of the chorus, and here comes the song’s big finale: the band drops out, there’s a few ascending tinkles on Palma’s piano, and a final sustaining chord – a popular way for bands to end songs back then. A kitschy close to a more than kitschy song? Not quite, as Palma finally ends the proceedings with an abbreviated sour chord, as if the band is telling the world not to take the song seriously. As if it ever could be.

While different songs by nature, both “Rhythmic Blues” and “The Boucher Shuffle” have one significant trait in common: they are both creative and inventive recordings, revealing by their very nature a band weary of the same old Top 40/wedding and dance routine, and hungering for a new direction. As they saw it in that steamy and pivotal Bicentennial summer of 1976, there was only one barrier preventing them from dedicating themselves to that new musical direction – their lead guitarist. A decision had to be made, and quickly.

Tomorrow: The Post-Bouch Era: 1976-77

—————–

Excerpted from “The Band That Never Changed Rock: The Definitive History of Top Priority” by Victor N. Cugini, soon to be published by Permanent Press.

Filed in: Top Priority by vcugini at 01:17 | Comments (0)
July 22, 2007

Before I get started, let me say this experience only has to do with one single Episcopal Church parish; in the grand scheme of things, all this serves as is anecdotal evidence, but I can’t help but wonder if it in itself isn’t a sign of some weakness or arrogance on a grander scale – after all, when it comes to today’s Episcopal Church, ya never know. Anyways, here’s my story:

Back in March, I started attending the 5 PM Saturday Eucharist at the Church of the Epiphany in Tempe, Arizona. It’s a nice enough church – very modern in design, very Eucharist-centered (the weekly bulletin mentions this several times), with an apparently good-sized (I can guesstimate from the number of people on their parish prayer list) and vibrant congregation. (I haven’t attended any of their Sunday morning Eucharists because the Saturday service has a contemplative feel with no music, allows me to sleep in on Sunday mornings, but – more importantly – has more of a monastic feel to it, which I both enjoy and, at least at this stage in my own Christian journey, seems to feel better in my soul.) Anyways, I started attending this service fairly regularly, and even began the practice of writing a check out for my weekly contribution to the plate. (I should also mention here that my checks contain my name and full address on them.)

Anyways, here’s my beef: at no time since I started attending this church have I ever had a member of the Saturday congregation take the time to personally welcome me to their parish or even ask my name. The priest seems to be a decent enough fellow (while his sermons are hardly what I would call either stirring or thought-provoking, they’re well thought out and interesting enough to sit through) and seems always glad enough to see me, he hasn’t either. Keep in mind, I’m not someone who has been showing up only once a month; until a few weeks ago I had been attending the Saturday service regularly. Now, while I understand it takes two to tango, in this case, the church has had someone attending who in his past has done virtually everything a church member can do short of celebrating the Eucharist; I’m no piker when it comes to parish service. And yet, I’ve never received a welcome letter, phone call, or invitation to a chat or conversation. They have no clue where I came from, where I live, wjhat my relationship with the Episcopal Church is, why I chose that particular congregation, or what – if any – my interests or desires for parish ministry – if any – are.

What’s particularly disconcerting is that, after attending Saturday services regularly for a good 2+ months, I hadn’t been able to attend services for several weeks, but did I get a phone call or letter expressing any kind of concern? No.

Look, I know there are far more important things to concern one’s self with these days, but I can tell you this – if I were the priest in that parish, I would make damned sure every new visitor was made to feel as if their attendance was important to them. And the fact they haven’t tells me one of two things – 1) they don’t care, or 2) they don’t have any kind of new visitor or welcoming committee who oversees these kinds of things. And, in a day and age where the marketplace for church attendance is extremely competitive and the Episcopal Church is hemmoraging members, you would think the parish and its priest would pay attention to this kind of stuff. Now, whether I would accept any invitation to take a more active role at the church is another thing altogether, but if someone like me were to be allowed to come and go without any kind of welcoming response, God knows who else has come through the doors and then left without ever being seen again. In short, it’s bad practice, sloppy Christianity, and a sad state of affairs if this is the kind of thing that happens regularly in the Episcopal Church.

It may sound arrogant to say this, but someone like me deserves better treatment as a prospective parishioner than that. And it’s not just me – whoever walks through that door does. Maybe it’s time to take my business elsewhere, but believe me, it won’t be before I have a word or two with that priest!

Filed in: Religion & Culture by Doug Richard at 01:36 | Comments (0)

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