happy birthday david!
friday random ten, 1968 edition

the wolfman and the new guys

Twenty-five years ago tomorrow, I attended a concert that was both excellent and odd. The excellence came from the performers; the oddness came because the two acts were not an obvious match for a double-bill.

The headliner was the J. Geils Band. I guess this band is mostly forgotten now … groups like Aerosmith and ZZ Top are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but while there are rumors of J. Geils champions within the Hall that argue for their inclusion, I'd be surprised if they ever made it. They weren't exactly critical favorites … they don't make the Acclaimed Music list of the 1000 most-acclaimed artists, have no albums on the top 3000, no songs listed at all. They only had two albums to make the Top Ten of the Billboard charts (one, Freeze-Frame, made #1 … it's the album they were touring behind 25 years ago) and one #1 single ("Centerfold" from Freeze-Frame). For all I know, they're mostly famous now because lead singer Peter Wolf was married for a time to Faye Dunaway.

None of this changes the fact that they were one of my favorite bands. Second-tier, sure … we're not talking Bruce Springsteen or Sleater-Kinney, not Hüsker Dü or Prince or the Clash. Their albums were erratic … they're the perfect band for the day of shuffle play, you can just rip the good songs and ignore the rest, and there's a helluva greatest hits album to be found amongst their best work. More importantly, though, they were a great live act, one of the best-ever, at least among rockers you barely hear of. A lot of that was Peter Wolf, one of the great dynamic front men ever. Wolf was born Peter Blankfield … like much of the band, he was Jewish (the best musician in the band, harmonica virtuoso Magic Dick, carried the "real life" name Richard Salwitz … he had one of the biggest white Afros of all time) … Wolf was a Boston DJ in the late 60s, playing blues and R&B, the music that he loved. Eventually he started singing in a band, locked up with the J. Geils crew, and the rest was rock and roll history for more than a decade.

Wolf raised interesting questions about white appropriation of black music. He loved the music, that was evident, and those of us who found his singing and stage persona thrilling didn't really consider any of the implications, but some argued that Wolf was … well, Christgau once called the band a "marginally offensive boogie cartoon." It's hard for me to say … whatever it was, I was a sucker for it. Nick Hornby wrote about the band in Songbook, describing his first trip to America and what happened when he first heard a J. Geils record, that gives a good feel for their appeal:

I'd never heard of them, and I'd never heard anything like them; in those days, before they had a big pop hit with "Centerfold," they played white-boy R&B, like the Stones in 1965, but much louder and much faster, with a berserk irreverence and an occasionally terrifying intensity. On the live album, Peter Wolf, the lead singer, shouted out funny, weird, or incomprehensible things in between songs: "On the licking stick, Mr. Magic Dick!" "This used to be called "Take Out Your False Teeth Mama … I Want to Sssssuck on Your Gums." And something that sounds like "Are yougonnagetitmoodoogetitgoomoogetitmoodoogoomoodoomoo getitalldowngetitallrightgetitoutofsightandgetitdownbaby?"

Most of their best music was covers … my own faves include the live "Looking for a Love" from Full House, where Wolf's screams cross way over beyond offensive parody into what Hornby quite rightly calls terrifying, and the immortal "Love-Itis," which Robin has really really tired of over the years because I must have told her a zillion times that I had love-itis. But there were some hit originals, too … obviously "Centerfold," their biggest hit, but also a song that is an out-of-leftfield (for an R&B-based rock band) killer, "Love Stinks." It's simultaneously a pop song, a great singalong, and a bitter wail against the perfidies of love. It's a classic: "I've been through diamonds, I've been through minks. I've been through it allllllll …. Love Stinks" followed by the irresistible chorus, "LOVE STINKS! YEAH YEAH! (love stinks)." (The Adam Sandler version doesn't quite get it.)

I saw them live several times in the 70s, with 1982 being the last time (the band was on the verge of breaking up as they finally hit it big). J. Geils weren't a punk band, so they were out of style, and while I loved them, the truth is, they were never really good enough to earn the title "American Stones" (they were better than Aerosmith, though). That last time, 25 years old, I took psychedelics before the show … can't remember what, mushrooms, mescaline, something. They were as good as ever (the band, and, I guess, the drugs, too).

And yet I probably wouldn't have mentioned all of this if it wasn't for the opening act. They were pretty good … their lead singer was also a fine front man, and even though their music was quite unlike that of J. Geils, they won over the crowd (not an easy thing … J. Geils fans wanted to see J. Geils, and since we all knew that J. Geils played marathon concerts, opening acts just made us antsy, so that I can recall such fine bands as Los Lobos being totally ignored by the we-want-Geils folks in the audience). They were from overseas, and had released a couple of albums that farted around the lower reaches of the Top 100. We knew who they were, maybe even looked forward to having them open the show, but they weren't exactly big stars, so it was fun to see how well they did and how successful they were, as opening acts go, at pleasing the rabid Geils audience.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention their name: U2.