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Almost Famous in a 1969 Cover Band



Looking back, it’s hard to believe we survived. Between 1968 and 1969 the world seemed to tear itself apart. Nothing was sacred, especially to a high school senior about to enter a frighteningly real world. Nothing was sacred except the Top 40. In the chaotic Sixties, a rock band was the safest place to hide.




ALSO:  Rooming with the Love Generation  

Who can forget the Crystal Prison?  

I have a recurring nightmare. At first it's just a tension dream. In it, I become increasingly aware that I never graduated from high school. Thirty years ago I must have skipped a class, or the guidance counselor tallied my credits wrong. The math is fuzzy. Anyway, in this dream, I've got to take some horribly boring course over again. Sitting still at a little metal desk, listening to my old teacher droning on from his ancient lecture notes is excruciating.

There's a heavy sense of powerlessness too. My life is not my own. Those of you who have a boss or a family know how it feels. Worse, no matter how many dreary courses I take, I cannot seem to matriculate. Whatever the teacher says doesn't stick. I can't even remember what subject this is and a big test is coming up. If I fail, the truth will get out, my college degree too will be revoked, and my entire life will have been a nasty rotten lie.

I twist in my sleep and claw the pillow.

On the day of the big test my legs are like iron pillars. It's taking forever to inch toward the classroom door, up the long empty hall. The bell rang long ago. Then it dawns on me that I'm on the wrong floor, in the wrong wing, possibly at the wrong school. Now I'm running, drenched in perspiration, legs numb. I'm moving faster now, heart racing, but to where? I've forgotten the room number and the name of the teacher. If I don't pass that test, I'll end up here forever running down halls of green concrete.

crystalprison01.jpegThat, in a nutshell, is how much I hated high school. Apparently my subconscious still does. That's probably why I joined a rock band. For those parents planning to hide this column from their teenaged kids, relax. This is a moral and uplifting tale. I graduated fifth in a class of nearly 400. For those readers straining to see what this all has to do with history, relax. I'm getting to that too.

Two recent events triggered my old nightmare. First, I saw the film "Almost Famous" again on cable TV. It’s about an innocent 15-year old journalist who writes a cover story for Rolling Stone magazine in 1973. This "coming-of-age" movie resonates with the truth of the times. Despite the hormone -injected drug-addled images of the 60s so often depicted, some of us made it in one end and out the other unsinged. You can hear more dirty words on a grammar school playground or prime time TV show today than I heard playing in a rock and roll band back in 1969.


Life was safer in a rock band in 1969 

Secondly, by sheer coincidence, I made contact with Bill Partlan, our old lead guitar player. Someone found him on the Internet working as a theatre director and living in Minnetonka, MN. I sent an email and back came photos of the old band and a cassette recording. I don't have to close my eyes to see Bill with his Gibson wailing seriously into that big Electrovoice microphone, a thick lock of shiny hair dangling against his tall thing face. It was a diverse group of urban white boys. Bill and his older brother Jay, our drummer, went to private school at a new place called Derryfield. Bassist Vin Pelletier attended a vocational school. Our pretty boy rhythm player John Dewyea was from Central High, and I hailed from Manchester West on the other side of the tracks.

I wouldn't be surprised if we played well over 100 gigs in the last few years of that turbulent decade -- town halls, high school gyms, frat parties, sleazy clubs. I remember an audition at a strip club in Salisbury Beach, though we were all well below the drinking age. We often played until early in the morning at parties were the beer flowed so freely that we had to lift the amps onto blocks of wood to avoid getting electrocuted. We dragged equipment through the snow, up third floor landings, and packed ourselves so tightly in the front seat of a borrowed truck that the doors popped open as we sped down the highway. It was very hard work.

We were practically the house band at a roller-skating rink called the Swing Thing in Bedford. We'd play our guts out, sometimes, for a half dozen little girls, cigarettes palmed in their tiny hands, who stood up close to the stage and a dozen shame-faced boys in polka dot and paisley shirts who huddled near the back of the room an acre away. All band members wore tight-pegged white pants, Beatle boots, shimmery dark blue shirts with gold ties. "Ladies and gentleman", the announcer shouted, "welcome the Blue Lancers."

crystalprison02.jpegWhen I met the four-piece band they were just coming off their Ventures phase in which they played mostly instrumental music like "Walk Don't Run," "Telstar" and "Lonely Bull." Later they added microphones, the kind that came with your Radio Shack tape recorder, tied onto a broomstick stuck into a bucket of cement. It was a budget band, but it was a good band. Eventually they needed a keyboard player for songs like "96 Tears" and 'Light My Fire" and anything by Paul Revere and the Raiders. I had a Baldwin mini-compact portable electronic organ, years of piano lessons, but no amplifier.

We rehearsed endlessly it seemed, in either a basement in Manchester's North End or a garage next door. In the 60's, originality was not in fashion, not if your band wanted to make money at least. Kids wanted to dance to recent oldies and the hottest Top 40 tunes. Working bands were entrepreneurs and functioned like live AM radio stations. Whatever hit the charts, we copied note for note.

The Blue Lancers was a top notch "cover band". We sounded hauntingly like the Turtles, Rascals, Stones, Beatles, Fish, Byrds, Monkeys, Cream, Who, Animals, Troggs, Yardbirds, Doors, Beau Brummels, Hollies, Moody Blues, Kingsmen, Kinks, Dave Clark Five, Mindbenders, Buffalo Springfield, Zombies, Airplane, Orpheus, Barbarians, Zeppelin, Steppenwolf, Miracles, Coasters, Pacemakers, Hermits, Dreamers and dozens of one-shot wonder boy bands that only show up today as trivia questions on Rock & Roll Jeopardy.

The cassette tape is playing now. I have it cranked up loud. One side is from a dance in 1968. The band is good, but nobody applauds. Songs are short, tight, diverse. The second side of the tape was recorded in 1969 at my old high school -- the one where, in nightmares, I still wander the concrete halls.



This is where the history part comes in. Somewhere between 1968 and 1969 the world's emotional tectonic plates really began to shift. That's when we added Bob Drew. He was 25, an ex-Marine, and the oldest young man I'd ever met. We looked, I suppose, like the Osmond Brothers backing up Joe Cocker. Bob had a wife. He had kids. He had long hair and a beard and a tattoo on his forearm of a skull pierced by a knife blade. At the West High gig I wore a button down white shirt, blue jeans and a brown leather belt, pretty much what I'm wearing today. Bob had on purple pants and a colorful shirt right out of "Godspell." My high school principal didn't like his looks. It took all my influence as an honor student and president of the student council to get Bob past the gym door.

By 1969 our cute danceable tunes had turned long and trance-like. We played the long version of The Beatles 'Hey Jude," the 20-minute version of "In a Gadda Da Vita" and the extended version of "Keep Me Hanging On" by Vanilla Fudge. We had changed our name too, dropping the Blue Lancers for the oxymoronic "Crystal Prison." The band, like America, was getting "deep and heavy." We were now, according to our business card, playing "blue-eyed soul." On the tape, when he hits the right notes, Bob sounds like a husky Janis Joplin, another white male imitating a white female imitating black blues singers.

Reality check. Martin Luther King, for those who were not there, had been assassinated in between the two sides of this audiotape. So had Bobby Kennedy. 630,000 American soldiers were in Viet Nam. Richard Nixon was President. We were in the year of the moonwalk, peace at Woodstock, death at Altamont, the Manson Family murders, the end of the Beatles and the end of our high school cover band. This was our last performance. When we struck the final chord on "We Gotta Get Out of this Place" - our signature closing song - we really got out and found ourselves on a dark new planet. We broke up, I tell people today, the same year the Beatles broke up. That is our only claim to fame.

Within a year we'd all be issued draft numbers, grow beards and wear bell bottoms. Janis Joplin would die. College campuses would shut down. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin would suggest we kill our parents.

And yet I wriggled through to my high school graduation alive and still a kid. I made it without tasting a single drop of alcohol or toking a single joint. I didn't say a single swear word. The sexual revolution seemed to be everywhere that I wasn't. I may have been the only one in the band, maybe the only one in the Universe, who can make this outrageous claim to innocence in 1969, but those are the facts.

I wasn't in a band for sex, drugs, fame, money or even the rock and roll. In retrospect, I'm convinced it was all about sanity. High school didn't make any sense to me at all. Even at 15 I knew nobody ever really learns anything sitting at a desk. Education is about experience and experience is about trying, falling down, dusting off, and trying again. That's what we did in the band, rehearsal after rehearsal, gig after gig.

In 1969, the world really felt like it was coming apart at the seams, except in the band. The band was our safe harbor. There six guys learned new songs, honed them, played them for larger and larger crowds. We showed up on time, fixed every busted wire, learned every new chord, movement and voice inflection. We were a hundred bands in one. If high school was a nightmare of doubt and discomfort, the band was a dream of confidence and belonging.

I used to regret that the band broke up, so close to grabbing that brass ring. We didn't make it big, but we made it through. We got on and we got off the merry-go-round in one piece. A lot of kids and a lot of bands weren't so lucky.

(c) J. Dennis Robinson. Oroginally published in 2000, reprinted in 2008.



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