Those of us in the Boomer cohort have a certain smugness about some things. A T-shirt, generally seen in size double XL, proclaims “I may be old but I saw all the great bands.”
Yeah, I heard plenty of them, and I know a few things about the, shall we say, raffish way that rock and roll came to exist for us. I was going to say “disreputable” but that’s showing disrespect for some of the best artists in popular music. Some of them have interesting beginnings, and the stories suggest that the way to creative brilliance is to first get in the door where all that brilliance is created.
Consider Tico and the Triumphs. Never heard of them? I thought not. They had a modest, only-in-New-York-City hit of a song called “Motorcycle.” It was a doowop tune about a motorcycle, recorded in 1961, and it peaked at Number 101 on the Billboard magazine chart in early 1962, a listing which technically only includes 100 selections. It is available on YouTube, and if you go there, listen to the lead singer crooning about the virtues of his motorcycle. He used the stage name of Jerry Landis.
Jerry Landis was Paul Simon, who soon got together with Art Garfunkel – who used the stage name Artie Garr for a while – then recorded “Hey School Girl” as Tom and Jerry, and about a year and a half after that motorcycle, were famous as Simon and Garfunkel, inspiring sensitive guys and long-haired girls to purchase guitars and get artsy and profound, generally portending the Emo genre which came about 30 years later. Yes, boomers and those who follow in their wake, the brilliant and culturally relevant Paul Simon got his start singing about motorcycles. With doowop backup singers.
It’s an indication of how to get started on the road to being significant: start small, start anywhere. Get noticed. Then be brilliant, whether you have a Garfunkel or not.
Boomers placed high emphasis on music. Many anecdotes about growing up in the Sixties center on record stores, places where you actually purchased music. Unlike the streaming concept of today, the record buyer actually invested in his or her favorite artists by claiming something tangible, with cash – you listened to the Beatles by buying the Beatles and then bringing the Beatles home with you, essentially owning a piece of the band — and some of us collected, curated and stored recordings by the ton. A forgotten element of this record frenzy was the “soundalike” recording.
Pickwick Records, which hitherto was known as a producer of recordings for children, was the leading exponent of this stuff, albums of songs a listener would recognize from the radio but did not sound quite right, because the performers were not the original artists. The musical arrangements were identical and the singers attempted to sound like their more famous counterparts, but something was off. It was cheaper to produce such merchandise, and that was factored into the lower price to the customer. Most buyers avoided soundalike records; others bought them to shut their kids up, and some never noticed the difference.
A notable album of this stuff was Pickwick’s “Soundsville!” anthology of debased versions of the hits, issued around 1964, and an uncredited musician on that album was Lou Reed, who several years later founded the immensely influential band Velvet Underground, of which it was said that very few people purchased its albums but everyone who did started his own band.
Lou Reed in his youth, fresh from studying philosophy at Syracuse University, started out playing this junk before getting noticed.
Thus did Paul Simon and Lou Reed, before moving on to bigger things, grater acclaim and more influence, get their starts. We might regard these matters as lamentable, embarrassing; I prefer to think of them more like a peek into whatever Leonardo da Vinci drew as a teenager.
I attended an opening at a small art gallery once – that’s the first night of an artist’s work on display, and featured all the winer and cheese squares you could handle — and met the artist a few days later. She was operating a cash register at a Target store. Nonetheless, she had her start in the art world, presumably the place she would rather be. I wonder if Paul Simon was thinking about parsley, sage, rosemary and the sounds of silence while harmonizing his way through that motorcycle song.