Courting the Queen

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Excerpt from my memoir, Hardly Working

©Roger Bain 2020

Note: A couple of years into starting my ad agency, Roger Bain Communications, I followed up on a lead that the Chicagoland/Northwest Indiana DQ account might be worth pursuing. Circa 1995:

Part I: The Big Meeting

I phoned the guy named John and before I could finish outlining my experience, he stated, “We need new blood.” I told him that my blood was in that category. The two of us then proceeded to have one of those animated conversations where you’re coming up with a new idea every thirty seconds and they’re all good and it becomes obvious you’re on the same marketing wavelength and the timing is perfect.

John wanted to give the lethargic local DQ ad program a kick in the ass and I would be the kicker. He arranged an introductory meeting with the Chicagoland/Northwest Indiana Dairy Queen ad committee. The local group was dissatisfied with their current advertising and appeared eager to try something new, but they were skeptical that Corporate would allow me to have the account. Wait a minute, thought I. Corporate? What? This was the first time I realized that it would not be the ad committee’s decision to engage me. It would be up to the corporation. John had failed to disclose that important bit of information. I had been speaking with committee members, not decision makers.

After some behind the scenes negotiating between John, the ad committee, and Corporate, the IDQ (International Dairy Queen) team begrudgingly decided to “allow” me to make a presentation at the big annual franchise meeting for Chicagoland/Northwest Indiana Dairy Queen. In attendance would be franchisees from 155 stores, a slew of folks from DQ’s corporate marketing department, and a half dozen account, media, and creative department representatives from the current DQ ad agency, Campbell Mithun.

Campbell Mithun and International Dairy Queen were both headquartered in Minneapolis. This client/agency relationship was as tight as it gets: two corporations holding hands. Representatives from each company sat on the other’s boards—a lot for me to overcome if I was going to get a piece of the account. The franchisees would have to exercise some newfound power instead of acquiescing to whatever the corporation dictated. My partner in crime, John, was wildly enthused at the new path he was spearheading. I looked forward to the opportunity with a mix of confidence and the anxiety of the unknown.

At least 150 people crowded into the large, generic meeting room at the Holiday Inn in the far south Chicago suburb of Matteson to witness this real-life David vs. Goliath showdown: a gigantic national ad agency with thousands of employees versus a solo ad agent. Six besuited C-M soldiers were prepared to do battle with me.

First up, the big agency boys. The Campbell Mithun suits gave their stunningly blasé presentation with pie charts and flow charts and stiff shirts and weak humor—basically the same presentation the franchisees had seen for years. They mailed it in. The room had little reaction. How much does a DQ operator want to hear about gross ratings points and cost per thousand?

After the Campbell Mithun presentation, John gave my introduction.” Here’s a guy with a different approach. I think we should hear what he has to say.” Showtime! I strode up to the microphone with my guitar slung over my shoulder. I was wearing slacks and a shirt, the only presenter not in business attire. The audience of franchisees was also casually attired. I was dressed like they were. Major franchise drama unfolding.

I stepped up to the microphone and surveyed the franchisees. “People already know who you are. You are an American icon. Dairy Queen means fun. Your advertising should be fun. Not contrived. It should be memorable and bring a smile to your face. Music on the radio is an efficient way to remind folks of your iconic, beloved brand. Rhyme, repetition, and melody are some of the most important tools we have to break through the drivel of advertising clutter. Songs about DQ will make people smile. Not jingles. Songs. sixty-second songs.” The franchisees were listening to the bald guy with the guitar.

And now I unveiled my secret weapon— Miss Rhoda Jean Kershaw. She was a redhead country singer I had previously collaborated with on a Tool TV song and she overflowed with genuine good spirit and a downhome voice. “Hi y’all”, she waved to the crowd. The room murmured “hi” back. I voiced a one-two-three countdown—just like at a corner bar gig—and Rhoda Jean launched into a song that I had just written, The Cake You Don’t Have to Bake, incorporating the current “Think DQ” tag line.

The room dug it! Whoops and hollers and applause. The franchisees were finding their voice. The suits at the back of the room conferred and huddled and attempted a vibe of indifferent nonchalance.

Other dramas were also playing out. During the performance, the bearded, truck driving, jeans wearing, outgoing local franchise ad committee chairman—he had just been voted out of office—was in the lobby bar sucking down his third beer, loudly and profanely getting in the face of some IDQ corporate players. This hubbub had wafted into the conference room and added a noticeable tension. When Rhoda and I began to sing and play, though, the room had lost its tension. The franchisees could sense something different brewing after years of corporate despotism. (With a tad of irony, Something Different became a new tag line a few years later.) I thanked Rhoda Jean, I thanked the franchisees, I thanked the corporation, I even thanked “the team from Campbell Mithun.” With my guitar again slung over my shoulder, like a working man with his pickaxe, I sauntered back down the aisle to the rear of the room as the sound of real applause delighted my ears. A successful performance. A successful song.

As I joined the crowd standing at the back of the room, a silver-haired account super for C-M—a guy with over thirty years of industry experience—complimented me with a bemused look of…envy? Or so I thought, though he may also have been thinking that it was not fair that I got to have more fun at my job than he did. “Nice tie,” I told him.

Especially abhorrent to the corpos was the fact that I was proposing that we use radio. This was sacrilege! IDQ and Campbell Mithun—and all big agencies— prefer TV because it’s “sexier” than radio, production budgets are more lucrative, it’s easier to buy and creative directors get to travel to LA for the commercial shoot. If you’re a hot shot creative director and you don’t have cocktails at the Chateau Marmont or the Polo Lounge a few times a year, why are you working?

IDQ and Campbell Mithun were singing from the same hymnal. I was singing a different tune. No matter how much the franchisees dug my presentation, there was still plenty for me to overcome.


I went on to create a couple of dozen DQ songs with my producing partner Chuck Kawal, Here’s a snippet of one of my faves, featuring Rhoda Jean and me in a call and response ode to the DQ Chili Dog.:

The Fabulous Johnny A

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Excerpt from my memoir, Hardly Working.

I was probably practicing a guitar lick in my Church stall, on a day the waterbed store was closed, when George called me to come downstairs for some cake. It was his birthday. As I descended the stairs, I heard a note from a pitch pipe followed quickly by the opening lines of the most over-the-top, enthusiasm-on-steroids, opera-style rendition of “Happy Birthday” I had ever heard. Belting it out was a short, sweating gentleman dressed in a blue blazer and red bow tie, his eyes ready to jump out of their sockets, his dark hair slicked back. The performance was post-eccentric. The volume he achieved was astonishing. Could have filled an auditorium. “Ozzie,” said George. “I want you to meet John-John.” John was an opera singing tenor who could hit high “C.” He was a friend of George’s from his Baker University days in Kansas—just the sort of person who would fall into George’s orbit. George had served as John’s protector from the louts who populated the pin ball parlor near Baker. He was the kind of person who had been mocked all of his life for being too boisterous, too different, too unique, too much.  

Look around where you are right now, then proceed ten years into the future. How could I have possibly known that a decade hence I would utilize John’s talents to promote a television channel that no one had yet conceived, in an industry that had barely been born. At this moment, I was not conceiving anything beyond the birthday cake that John was devouring. This guy could eat.  

Here is a compilation of some of my work with John Andrews, one of the most sincere and indefatigable performers I have ever encountered. The first video is pulled from Not For Chowderheads, the 1982 special produced by KTWU, Topeka. The videos that follow were part of a seasonal campaign for MTV while I was marketing director at Sunflower Cablevision in Lawrence, KS.

Pandemic Sunset

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Live long enough and you will experience something new. America’s election of a black president was certainly in that category, but that was something I voted in favor of. The coronavirus was something new over which I had no control: an unseen enemy that lurks everywhere, that shapes the daily life of the world. Look out the window and all appears “normal.” But a collective uncertainty permeates the atmosphere.

A nagging feeling that life is passing me by set in, that simple things like shaking hands, hugging, inviting friends into your home, going to restaurants and music clubs, was now becoming a part of the past—with no clear understanding of when these social constructs would resume.

I was in Key Largo as the pandemic began its grip on our daily life. As I played my guitar each night after dinner ( often fresh yellow tail snapper), I had a clear view of the sunset. It looked and felt the same as it had the month before and the year before and the years before that. But the feeling was different. Because I knew. We all knew. Was it still possible to be funny? To laugh? Would laughter be best practiced alone, where droplets wouldn’t reach a fellow human?

I wrote many verses, tried several different chord progressions and melodies, before ultimately finishing the song in early summer after I had returned to my home in Arlington Heights. I recorded a version into my phone which I sent to son, Anthony, who suggested some edits to streamline the lyrics.

Lyric work sheets

In August, I drove to Geoff DeMuth’s Little Pink home studio and recorded acoustic guitar and vocals. (Usually I take Metra but wasn’t keen on taking public trans.) Good thing that Geoff has a vocal booth that allowed for safe distancing. We wore masks the rest of the time and never got closer than six feet. In the ensuing couple of months, Geoff recorded Jim Seidel on upright bass, Victor Camacho on percussion and finally, his own pedal steel part. It’s a nifty little four-piece band. There is a tropical feel to the tune because the tropics is where it gestated.

In the Little Pink vocal booth

Something that should have brought us together has torn us apart. Be kind, everybody. Enjoy the song!

My Two Bean Songs

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Songwriters write about anything you can see, feel, taste, or think. Thousands of songs are about love, but two of mine are about the love of beans. I composed a brace of bean songs mid-decade during the 1970s and thought I had discovered a new genre of songwriting. Maybe I did.

Both of my bean songs feature the pinto bean. The songs are quite different in musical style, yet each professes bean love. Pinto Bean Blues is played in the style of Blind Lemon Jefferson. The other song, Frijoles, is a Slavic march sung in Spanish.

I had been introduced to the wonders of pinto beans by an amiable fellow I hung out with in San Francisco in 1971, John Lopez, who was from East LA. John taught me to barely cover the dried beans with water, add salt, pepper and cumin, bring to a simmer and keep adding water as needed until the skin furls off when you blow on one. Usually takes a couple of hours depending upon altitude and kitchen vibe. John frequently made a pot of pintos, then refried them—mashed them in hot oil in a skillet. Spread this delightful result on tortillas with some chopped onion, shredded cheese, avocado and salsa and you’re set.

The inspiration for Frijoles! came in 1974 while Linda and I were staying at the Hotel La Riviera in Playa Rodedero near Santa Marta, Colombia.  An eight-year-old girl from Bogota, Olgita, was vacationing at La Riviera with her dad and uncle at the same time. The hotel was situated a block from the beach next to a rubble pile with a trash heap across the street. It was lovely.

I conjured Frijoles! as entertainment for Olgita. After playing it one time, she and her drunken uncle made constant requests for encores. They were wild about the song. The uncle, a medical doctor from Bogota, would sit there plastered on afternoon rum and request a performance: “Rogélio. Toca Frijoles!” I am certain that Olgita, now a grown woman, would still remember Frijoles!

A person sitting on a bench next to a body of water

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With Olgita at La Riviera Hotel circa 1974

Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Clarendon hills, the beans we ate were green, often from a can. Nice that we have expandable palates. Long live legumes!

Campaign Promise Realized

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RB News

At a recent campaign rally in MAGALAND, the President requested volunteers to be shot on 5th Avenue in New York City. The entire rally crowd raised their collective hand. From the throng, the President’s re-election staff selected one hundred participants for the campaign stunt. The next day, at taxpayer expense, the lucky 100 were flown to JFK airport, where they crammed into a large MAGA bus and were driven to a spot in front of the President’s tower on 5th Avenue. There they huddled in an area roped off for the joyous occasion.

The mood was festive as the presidential “beast” pulled in front of the crowd. Some raised “Lock Her Up” signs. The President, accompanied by his attorney general, lumbered out of the back seat. The unhealthy looking AG handed the President a holster and pistol, which, after some fumbling, the President managed to strap around his ample waste. “Are you ready?” shouted the President. The lucky 100 roared their readiness. The President first gave a rambling update on the wall he was building to make the country great once more, how the press was out to get him, how anyone opposed to his rule was a traitor, how climate change was a Chinese hoax, how he was clearly the most magnificent specimen the species has yet produced…then drew his pistol and shot into the crowd. His aim was high, and the crowd instinctively ducked. The bullet found no patriotic volunteer but instead smashed through the glass of the President’s tower and embedded into a new issue of Time magazine that perched on a rack in the tower’s fake news stand. The President looked at his attorney general. “What do I do now?” his expression seemed to ask. The AG whispered into the presidential ear. The Pres nodded, took a few steps toward the crowd, aimed the pistol at the head of a red-hatted supporter and squeezed the trigger from near point-blank range. Click. Nothing. The gun had been loaded with but one bullet.

“I know how the fake news media is going to cover this,” shouted the President. “Does anyone have a loaded gun?” inquired the leader of the free world. Many of the lucky 100 pulled out their concealed pistols. The luckiest one was selected by the President. “For the sake of American greatness,” proclaimed the President, as he blasted the gun owner in the face with his own gun. Bits of bone, gray matter and blood splattered the crowd as they roared their approval. Many seemed disappointed that they had not received the presidential bullet.

As the dead supporter lay in a pool of blood, campaign aides swarmed though the crowd with non-disclosure agreements for all witnesses to sign. The President shambled back inside “the beast” and was driven to an awaiting helicopter that took him to his nearby golf resort.

News of the shooting quickly overwhelmed social media. Opinion was divided along partisan lines. The opposition party condemned the shooting and called for the President’s arrest. The President immediately tweeted that he had done nothing wrong. “The shooting was perfect.” During a break at the impeachment hearings on capitol hill, reporters solicited reaction from members of the President’s party. “Democracy is a messy business,” said the senator from South Carolina, while rushing for the nearest exit. “Another promise kept by our President,” tweeted a senator from Texas. “All presidents have done this. Get over it,” opined the head of the RNC. “It’s troubling if it’s true,” offered a Senator from Utah. “This is a nothing burger,” said the President’s son. The White House miscommunication director floated the idea of similar events in the future. “ Let’s see if this lifts our poll numbers,” said the rinsed out spokesblonde. “If not, we’ll spin it as a suicide.”

The stock market remained flat at the end of the trading day. An iPhone update was rumored.

Eating Garbage

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Eating Garbage

Hey. I’m the Bossman. That’s book, baby.

Naismith Hall, Kansas University, Fall 1966

excerpt from my memoir, Hardly Working.

“We will never run out of food,” stated a brochure for Naismith Hall, a newly opened, private dormitory named after basketball’s inventor, James Naismith. I was a big basketball fan—one of the reasons I attended KU—and in the fall semester of my freshman year, Naismith Hall seemed like a good place to work. This would be my first job in the food service industry. I had no qualifications other than the fact that I was a student with a pulse who had properly filled out an application form.

The promise of delicious, plentiful meals was a motivating factor for choosing to work this gig but once hired, I was given a choice of compensation: either $1.00 per hour or free meals. Though $1.00 an hour was below the federal minimum wage standard, the state of Kansas didn’t bother with such trivialities. I chose the money option. What 18-year-old didn’t want an extra $10 or $15 bucks in their pocket in 1966?

It rankled me, though, when I witnessed trays of perfectly good chicken fried steak, that moments before had been served to the darlings, now must be thrown out. These were the rules. But rules are for fools. When nobody was looking, I planned on feasting.

One of my duties was trash detail. I was instructed to throw out everything that had gone un-eaten except pie and cake, which had a two-day shelf life: A costly lunch item one minute, became garbage the next minute. My system was simple: I lined the inside of an empty five gallon can of vegetables or fruit with paper napkins, nonchalantly filled the can with uneaten cheeseburgers—the most popular lunch item—carefully placed the can in the trash barrel, wheeled the trash out to the garbage dock, pulled out the can of cheeseburgers, then took one bite of 25 different burgers. Seemed less wasteful then eating two entire burgers and throwing away 23 whole ones. I also ravaged the day-old cakes and pies.

When the staff bakers made banana bread for the dorm, I requested they save the peels for me. Time magazine (I think) had published an article about various methods that “today’s youth” were experimenting with to catch a buzz. The inside of the banana peel was purported to have a psychedelic component. The baker ladies thought I was crazy, which I was just beginning to realize—I was. I scraped the insides of a dozen peels, put the scrapings on a tray, baked them for a few minutes, emptied the tobacco from a filter cigarette, filled it with the baked inner peel stuff, went out on the back dock and proceeded to give myself a sore throat. Much more pleasure could be derived from actually eating the banana. The same magazine article also suggested cigarettes soaked in vanilla extract and some concoction of rotted green pepper were buzzworthy. They weren’t. Obviously, I had no weed connection yet.

The food service manager at Naismith was a short guy with a crew cut named Preston. This guy was an archetype of a square. There was not a molecule of hipness in his DNA. I’m sure he went through life without listening to Miles Davis, visiting Amsterdam or ingesting DMMDA. He had a white face and rosy cheeks and always wore a gray suit. Or maybe every suit turned gray when he put it on. I had just turned 18; he was about 28. He thought I was some cool guy because instead of saying “cool,” I would say “boss,” a term I had picked up listening to WVON (the Voice of the Negro) in Chicago. Then he found out my nickname, recently given to me at my fraternity, was Bossman. He called me Bossman and thought he was cool by doing this.

During one back dock feast, after I had shoved an unbelievable amount of food into my always hungry mouth, Preston burst through the back-dock door. I jumped off the dock with my back to the boss. “Hey, Bossman,” he said. “Do we need to do something about all the sweat bees out here?” My mouth was too full for a reply, so I began to furiously swat at imaginary sweat bees while flailing around the dumpster, where I bent down low and spit out the contraband. “Yes, the bees are bad today,” I answered with a straight face, licking a smear of chocolate from the corner of my mouth.

Being a wise ass, I decided to coin a new adjective just for Preston—book. Man, that’s book. I wanted to hear him exclaim that something was “book.” When one day he informed me that he was feeling book, I felt that I had learned something about human behavior but wasn’t sure what.

A Brief History of the Barking Geckos

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Adapted from the memoir, Hardly Working

The Barking Geckos hatched in 1975 during lazy Kansas afternoons spent catching a buzz, listening to Bob Marley, banging pots, pans, and tambourines and singing along with the Wailers albums. We began as a ragtag aggregation of non-professional music lovers with varying degrees of musical acumen, joined together by a lack of inhibition and the absence of demanding employment. We never advanced much beyond that stage, but we became legendary. Almost mythical. At least in our own minds.

Somehow, it all mades sense. Or nonsense. Melinda, Linda, Eileen, Kurt, Brian, Doug?, Roger

Our raggedy improvisations were punctuated with frequent, spontaneous outbursts of joyous barking and yipping. My mission was to remind all that conformity is not a pillar of freedom. Absurdity is truth. The songs I was writing careened from the preposterous to the unconventional with an occasional dose of blues or rock. The Geckos were a perfect vehicle for the nonsensical.

We were the opening band on the opening night of Off the Wall Hall. It was not a paying gig because there were too many of us to pay. Our motivation was based in joy. It wasn’t monetary.

The lineup was Brian and I on guitars, an ever-changing cast on bass, drums, mandolin, harmonica plus a vast array of rhythm shakers that often ended up in the audience. As many as five Geckettes provided percussion and background vocals, though being on key was never a primary goal. Linda was a Geckette and would be the first to admit that she has trouble singing on key. We weren’t an on-key band. Geckettes roamed the stage yipping profusely between songs which in turn caused the audience to bark. Spontaneous barking was our signature sound. At times, I had to politely ask the Geckettes to quit barking and yipping.

The Gecko look was influenced by thrift stores, the Marx Brothers, Sgt. Pepper’s, the Beggar’s Banquet photo shoot, and a host of mind-altering substances. It was anything goes. When Jaw Harp Joe spent a dollar on a box of fifty aprons at a yard sale, he donated them to the cause. I wrote a song now lost for the ages, “Cheap Apron Fashion Show.” Each Geckette improvised a way to showcase her apron at our next gig, either as an anti-fashion statement or as a giveaway item for the audience, a gaggle of tripping hedonists assembled to witness a myth in the making.

Melinda, Suzie, Linda, Eileen and Sally. Geckettes forever!

For one gig, the Geckettes dressed as nuns in homemade pastel hued habits. At another, they stood behind ironing boards, playing kazoo and washboard. At another, a bagpipe player led them around the block as the rest of the band joined the goofy procession, gathering curious potential fans as we advanced through sleepy downtown Lawrence. I often wore pajamas and a pencil thin fake mustache above my lip. Our drummer wore a gas mask, just in case. Brian sported pantaloons tucked into high boots as he meandered about the stage tuning his axe before, during, and after each song. Jaw Harp Joe wore reflecto mirror shades and a towel wrapped high on his head. Others wore fake noses, leopard skin prints, and garish un-matching outfits picked from Salvation Army bins. The audience yipped and yapped and held up signs. Mimes circulated. I gave away fake puke and other novelty gag gifts from the stage. The whole thing was wonderfully life affirming

National Surrealist Convention 1976, Off the Wall Hall, Lawrence, Ks.

Our most noteworthy gig was at the National Surrealist Party Convention, a brainchild of Firesign Theater founding member, David Ossman and his wife, Tiny. Firesign Theater was an absurdist group that began in the 60s and had recorded a few well-known comedy albums. The Surrealist candidate for President was George Papoon, a guy with a brown paper bag over his head. His campaign slogan was “Not Insane”.

Presidential candidate George Papoon makes his case.

The national presidential candidates in 1976 were eventual winner, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald Ford, whose running mate was Kansan, Bob Dole, who we referred to as Bob Dull. The Surrealist Party Convention was an antidote to Dullsville. We were in opposite-land, at the far reaches of time and space. I have no idea how the convention came to Lawrence but when Ossman saw the Geckos he knew we were of the same cloth. And it wasn’t polyester.

You had to be there. And maybe you were.
Can anybody identify this drummer?

The Reformation

The Geckos re-formed in 1980, a bit more rehearsed and elaborate. We had two shows, both at the Lawrence Opera House. The first performance, in 1980, was staged for Randy Mason’s “Bringing It All Back Home” blockbuster cable show on Sunflower Cablevision. All of the band members were different than the first Gecko iteration except for myself and Kurt Sigmon (RIP). We were on to something and should have continued but life got in the way. Tell your kids about the Barking Geckos!

Trading riffs with Mitch Fabulous during Halloween 1980 show.
Range Wars
Mike Barlow illustration of the 2nd generation Geckos.
My Plastic Inflatable Companion with Pete, Ardys and Mary
Eek eek it’s a Dead Mouse Resting on my Conscience.
Follow That Cab
At Sunflower Cable. Directed by Randy Mason. Live mix by Kent Elliot.

I Fell in Love with a Young Young Girl

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The first time I took Linda on a west coast road trip, we left Carbondale with $300 and stretched it nearly three months, thanks to the kindness of friends, acquaintances, cheap gas, free rides, hitchhiking and a diet of canned tuna, avocados, cream cheese, peanut butter and jelly, pinto beans, hard rolls, and eggs. A reader might think that surely this is an exaggeration: only $300 for an entire summer road trip of thousands of miles? This was 1972. We had no car, no rent, no insurance, bought no clothes and never went to restaurants except for a truck stop apple pie or fried rice at the Moon Café in San Francisco, which cost a dollar.

(excerpt from my memoir, Hardly Working.)

This song chronicles our adventure.

Not a care in the world.

Is it Art or is it Magic?

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Making music. Is it art or is it magic? Certain performances/collected works/bands/songs hit the notes of magic. Profound, mysterious, other-worldly. Running Dry and Helpless, by Neil Young, have always aroused the hairs on the back of my neck, invoking a sense of longing that exceeds the flaccid emotion of most pop songs. Moonlight Mile, by the Stones, transports me to a different, shimmering, druggy world. When I hear Billie Holiday’s recording of Pennies From Heaven I hear a voice that is a true musical instrument, like she’s being played by an unseen hand. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos warps me to the 17th century, at the intersection of music, math and creativity.

Ry Cooder’s cover of the Blind Willie Johnson instrumental, Dark Is The Night,  gets me every time. When I first heard it, I thought, this is why you learn to play guitar. Emotional. Profound. Moving. Perfect. Is it the simplicity, the complexity or the utter mastery of the guitar strings that creates my sense of wonder?

Every band or project of Ry’s is bit of magic—Sticky Finger-era Stones, Early Captain Beefheart, Paris Texas soundtrack, the collaborations with musicians of Cuba, Africa, India, Mexico, the American south and folk and blues.  If you’re a fan of Ry, you’re a fan of musical history, politics, anthropology and the connection we have with each other. Seeing him play live or being interviewed, he seems to be a regular dude.

The pathway that led me toward Ry Cooder began when my Dad put Green Door on the turntable, sometime in the early 1950s. I noticed how enthused my father was. He dug the beat. Pop music was on the cusp of rocking. I felt it, too. Then Elvis came, and my life—American life—was never the same. Music has shaped me.

Elvis was a big deal because he looked cool and he had the moves and sang some crazy songs; a sneer with sideburns. At the same time, Chuck Berry at Chess Records was exploding, and though his catalog is as important as any American songbook ever, Chuck couldn’t compete with the Elvis package. Chuck was black. It was 1956, the Jim Crow era.  Also, Chuck had done three years for armed robbery. It took years before I learned that the early rock & roll of Arthur Big Boy Crudup never reached a mainstream audience because Crudup was also the wrong color for the times. So, it was Elvis who introduced young white people to a new way of life. The opportunity to express pleasure by shaking your hips. He was the right guy at the right time to codify the potent combination of gospel music, country music, teenage insolence, sex, blues and rebelliousness.

To be a cultural force takes frequency—just like advertising. James Dean was a rebel without a cause, a sneering young movie star adored by the same demographic as Elvis, but Dean didn’t turn the culture upside down as Elvis did, because Elvis was on the radio every day. You could spin his record on your turntable at will. His first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show reached an 82 percent share of the television audience. This dwarfed the movie audience. Elvis had constant visibility. You want some Elvis? Put him on your turntable whenever you want. The radio played him all day and all night. You want some James Dean? Find a movie theater that’s featuring one of his movies and buy a ticket, because there is no VCR and no American Movies Classics and no Netflix. Elvis had the technological advantage over James Dean.

I was hooked on rock & roll as soon as I saw Elvis. I have a hazy recollection of my dad taking me to a record store somewhere on the west side of Chicago— there were no record stores in my tiny suburb of Clarendon Hills—to buy the Elvis 45, “Money Honey.” In 1956 the young rock and roll record industry relied mainly on 45 rpm singles. The “A” side was deemed the hit or potential hit, the “B” side was the toss off, the neglected sibling. The 33 1/3 rpm, long playing (LP) disc had been introduced the same year I was born, 1948, but that format was used primarily for classical music. Elvis was the first rock & roller to release an album’s-worth of singles. This first LP included “Money Honey” but I can only assume that we got the 45 because it was cheaper or maybe our phonograph didn’t have a 33 1/3 rpm speed setting.

Like Lou Reed would sing, my life was changed by rock & roll. In 3rd grade, I took a blonde wooden hair brush to school and often excused myself to go to the washroom where I could wet my hair and attempt to fashion an Elvis do. My hair wasn’t quite long enough, though, and I didn’t use Brylcream to give it the proper greasy look. The teacher must have thought that I had a weak bladder.

There could be only one Elvis, and the groundbreaking effect he had on our culture—to be fair, white culture—was at least the equal of other pop kings like Michael Jackson and even The Beatles. Young girls called bobby sox-ers, had screamed for Frank Sinatra in the 1940s but not quite as wantonly as they did for Elvis. And although the young girl screams would be more deafening for the Beatles, the venues were a hundred times larger and the young girls screaming for the Beatles were screaming because the cuddly Brits were so cute. The young girls screaming for Elvis was because he aroused them sexually. That made him dangerous.

In 1956, I had not yet been exposed directly to the Blues but “Money Honey” and “Don’t be Cruel” and “Jailhouse Rock” evolved from the blues. It became inevitable that I would make the path backward to this source. You’ll understand where rock & roll originated by listening to the early blues of Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson, black music for a black audience—they even called it race music. These country blues performers were the influencers of the Chicago blues beginning in the late 1940s/early 1950s. Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Buddy Guy were the bridge between the country blues of the south and the rock & roll that was about to sweep the nation. Call it a migration.

When I finally picked up an acoustic guitar at age 21, it was this early country blues that captivated me: The same holy grail that snared Mick and Keith and Eric Clapton and Ry Cooder. I learned the guitar styles of Blind Lemon, Blind Blake and Mississippi John Hurt from records, perfecting my technique on lunch breaks, back porches, saggy couches, VW mini vans, train stations and straight back chairs, while on the road in Lawrence, Kansas and Carbondale, Illinois, South America, Europe, Minneapolis and San Francisco. 

When you begin playing guitar—and you’re serious about it—you sense your progress, you sense how your skills plateau and then lurch forward. I learned to break things down and play them slowly before trying to play at the speed or the singular rhythm of the masters. I remember the liberating feeling of being able to bounce my thumb between the bass strings while my other fingers pinched and picked the trebles on Shake That Thing by Mississippi John Hurt. I was certain that I would play guitar for the rest of my life and that nothing would ever be more important to me. Time has confirmed this.

Magic enchants the supernatural part of our soul. The languid sustain of a long, drawn out note from Miles Davis triggers the many layers of consciousness. There’s more going on than meets the eye; or the ear. What was his trick? How did he do it? An insane amount of dedication and practice. Slight of hand.

Music is a big magical deal. I am thankful that I have been able to both live and craft a living with my guitar being either at the center of or dancing around the edges of my career, magically. I recently saw Ry Cooder perform at Thalia Hall in Chicago with my wife and son. It was magical. Long live rock & roll. Long live the blues. Long live magic.

©2019 Roger Bain

More Money Than God

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“He has more money than God.”

We’ve all heard this description applied to somebody who is well off, often uttered by somebody who wishes that they were as well off. It is the ultimate praise in our capitalist society. God is rich but this person is richer. The richer you are, the more god-like. God is money. God could replace Bennie Franklin on the $100 bill, if only we could figure out how to illustrate God’s likeness. A stack of Benjamins would become a stack of Gods. Cocaine sniffed through a rolled up hundred would, in a way, have God’s blessing. Or, at least, HIS assistance.

Does God have mortgage payments, pay for Impossible Whoppers, owe membership dues at Augusta, possess a garage full of vintage Aston Martins? Does God owe back taxes? Child support? No. God has none of these markers of wealth. A need to be transported in a helicopter? Overdue health insurance premiums? No-no-nah-no-noh! God has a credit card with no limits.

On reflection, don’t we all have more money than God? Forget it. That was a stupid notion. God is so well off that he doesn’t even need money? God is a penniless, omniscient presence who owes nothing, oversees everything, who is worshipped by billions. The poor one in the family was God’s son. He was notoriously poor. But he developed a lot of followers. He went viral. Since his passing, trillions have been raised in his name. It is a thriving business because there are a lot of customers with an insatiable demand for the product.

You know who has more money than God? Who is rolling in dough? The devil. Here is a mischievous dude adept at the financial arts, able to live high on the hog by whatever means necessary. The colloquial saying should be: “He has more money than the devil.” That is a more accurate statement. If you really have a lot of money, the devil is your guy. Like God, the devil needs your dough.

Remember. God never picks up the tab, but the devil might buy you a few drinks. Maybe even a nice dinner and a show. Would you rather be in Vegas with God or the devil? Would God frown on your gambling or would he turn a blind eye, which of course is impossible because God sees everything at all times.

The next time someone say, “She has more money than God,” keep this in mind.

Photos by Dave Clark