Summer of Sixty Nine (Part 3 of a 6 part series)

This is part 3 of a 6 part series–if you’re just joining us you may want to read the 1st 2 installments then come back.

The summer of 1969 was the summer we graduated from garage band to the real thing. And it was the summer I learned what the term “feminine mystique” really meant.  Cheryl was the most beautiful, most feminine girl I’d ever met and yet I discerned early while she knew exactly how attractive she was to men her physical beauty was never an important area of focus for her–it was a neutral fact. She could turn on the allure and sensuality if there was a reason to–or not.  She was completely in charge of her life and her beauty in no way determined her behavior, life-style or attitude.

As soon as I told her about our band she asked to hear us play–I was excited–almost euphoric at the thought of spending time close to her.  At first, every moment we were together I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. I studied and memorized every detail of her face–the perfect cupid-bow lips, the twelve small, light freckles around her nose, the sparkling depth of her eyes. At first I thought maybe  she had decided to work with the band because she was bored just hanging around town but later she told me that really wasn’t why she was interested. It was because she felt an immediate connection—like being right there was where she was supposed to be and working with us was what she was supposed to do.  The 3rd day we worked together she took me aside and in a very matter-of-fact but caring manner told me the reason she was in my life and the lives of the others in the band was because of that sense of connection and larger purpose–not to be romantically or sexually involved with me.

And that was the end of it. After that I put aside my physical love for her and related to her (as much as I was able) as a friend, colleague and mentor. I know that sounds hard to believe but with this incredible woman–there was no other way it could be.

The first day she attended a rehearsal she listened to us play for 10 minutes than starts tearing down everything we were doing–starting with the way I played guitar. She simply told me I had to learn much more difficult techniques and taught me beautiful new chord progressions. As the days went by she worked intensely with the other band members—pushing them to do more and more difficult stuff—even making the drummer—Astor—start working out with weights to strengthen his arms and hands. Everybody except me hated her. She pushed us to exhaustion but I could see right away we were moving to a new level.

In the year before Cheryl came, the band had played at parties and church basement dances—always out of town—we didn’t want to get laughed at by people we knew. Small potato stuff yeah—we almost never got paid—and when we did it was just gas money—but we were working–we were making music.

Samantha’s father knew some guys in a really clunky, old-people-dance-band called the Mellow-Masters. She said they sounded a lot like Guy Lombardo—whoever that is. They played a lot of American Legion, Moose Club dances, weddings and parties—that kind of stuff. I guess for what they did they were pretty good. Sam’s dad was able to get us the use of the band’s amp and speakers when they didn’t need them for a gig. After a while we started going with the band to their play dates. Astor took over for their drummer for a few gigs while the old guy was recovering from surgery.

During their breaks we would set up and play a few numbers. There were usually some kids and younger adults at these things—it usually wasn’t just old people. The first few times we played the older people smiled at us like, “Oh—they’re so cute.” But the kids laughed at us, booed and flipped us the bird. In fact that’s what they called us—“The Birds” and “The Fingers,” and instead of “Copperhead,”–“Shithead.” One time I thought we were gonna have to fight—we had to sneak out the back of the building—some guys were waiting for us out front.

Cheryl came along a few times to check out our stage presence. She explained everybody sucks at first. You just have to keep practicing and play the gig no matter how people treat you—that’s the only way you get better. “If you want to be in the club,” she said, “you have to pay your dues.”

Whatever we had trouble with she would make us work on it—relentlessly. The more she worked us the more the guys hated her but they all knew she was right. She was especially brutal with me making me play “Classical Gas” and the lead from “Layla” so many times I could have knocked them out in my sleep. Our sound, execution and presence improved—and with it our confidence. You want to be in the club—you pay your dues.

We didn’t just make progress the summer of ‘69—we exploded into a new band.

By the end of that summer we sounded like a real band. We worked up a version of “Proud Mary” that really kicked ass. We didn’t start out with the slow intro that Ike & Tina Turner used—we took off right away with the fast beat—knocked ‘em on their butts right from the jump. And they loved it. Whenever we played a hall we’d played before and started into “Proud Mary,” kids, who had seen us previously, would start screaming but when I stepped forward and opened up with those first chords from “Layla” they went nuts—you’d have thought Eric Clapton was on stage.

End part three

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