Becoming a Hoopleholic

Due to the increased popularity of this blog (mind you, I measure popularity by the amount of spam I get on this site) and questions on how things get started and influenced, I wanted to relate a coming of musical age memory. I must’ve been thirteen and in eighth grade. Until then, my tastes pretty much stopped at the Beatles and whatever was on AM radio at the time. My parents hadn’t sprung for FM in their car as yet, so any drive was confined to classical music on WQXR, or Top 40 on WABC, both in full glorious mono, ambient static on tinny car speakers. I also had a small transistor radio which, in the time-honored tradition of anyone from my generation, I would listen to after it was assumed I’d gone to sleep.
In the back of the library of my junior high school, where study halls were scheduled, I discovered tape recordings of recently released rock albums that one could listen to on headphones. The first one I tried was Sticky Fingers by the Stones. There were already a handful of songs from this record in constant Top 40 rotation and I soon went to uncharted waters. I liked the one song I knew by David Bowie, ‘Space Oddity’, so I checked out the Ziggy Stardust album and it was as if I found the answer to a question I never knew existed. It became an immediate obsession for the next month until I moved on to the next record on the list, this one by a band I’d never heard of before.
All The Young Dudes by Mott The Hoople. I had no clue that this attitude, this swagger, could be expressed musically without the use of sheer volume or aggressive guitar tones. Though this is without a doubt a rock band, on record they don’t come off especially heavy. The record opens with their cover of the Velvet Underground’s Sweet Jane, singer Ian Hunter coolly intoning Lou Reed’s lyrics and guitarist Mick Ralph’s (who later left the band to form Bad Company) overdubbed intertwined guitar leads far outstripping the original. Next comes Momma’s Little Jewel, the semi-cryptic lyrics trying to convince a young lesbian to try hetero sex. Then the super cool effect of the record grinding to a halt, only to crest into the soaring lead intro of the irresistible title track, the biggest hit of their career. When I bought the record a week later, read the credits on the back cover and saw that this song was written by Bowie, I knew how Columbus felt when he first spotted the new lands. This couldn’t be mere coincidence. Track after track of this record burrowed into my consciousness. I had discovered not only new music, but apparently there was a whole scene going on that none of us eighth graders was aware of and I was granted pioneer’s credit. The striking visual aspect was missing at first, aside from small photos of the musicians on the back covers of the albums. This is waaaaaay pre-MTV or anything remotely like it. No one had any idea that these were glam bands or what they looked like, though once we found out, it only added to the cache.
Fast forward to early 1974. A full-blown fan and growing my hair out, I had bought their next two records, as well as the back catalog, consisting of four records. While I liked the first four and there were certainly many good moments, I was still partial to the more recent releases. The songs spoke of social unrest, individuals taking on the world alone, and loose women in such an enticing, exotically British way. One Sunday I opened the New York Times Art Section and saw the full page ad proclaiming that they would be playing 5 nights at the Uris Theater. The first rock band to play Broadway! I’m not sure if this somehow legitimized it in my parent’s eyes, but I managed to convince them to buy tickets for my first concert.
Along with a couple of friends, we took our seats in the balcony after buying t-shirts. I still have the tattered remnants of that shirt. It resembles Dr. Bruce Banner’s clothing shortly after he loses his temper and becomes the Hulk, but one can still make out the band faces drawn over the New York City skyline. I wish I’d kept the program from the show, but it disappeared sometime in my teenage years. I was all set for Mott to hit the stage, but this being my first show, I didn’t realize there is usually an opening band before the headliners, some unknowns trying and failing, in most cases, to make a name for themselves. I certainly never had heard of these guys, some English band named ‘Queen’, but they turned out to be pretty good. I was totally unprepared for the massive wall of sound, especially from the guitar, but my synapses adjusted after a couple of songs. The singer also had an engaging way of working the crowd and they were well received.
Finally, after the intermission, the stage went dark. A narrow spotlight fell upon the microphone stand in center stage and Ian Hunter stepped into it, wearing his customary shades. From the darkness a piano played quietly and he started singing the first verse of ‘American Pie’, much to my surprise. To the last line ‘and that was the day the music died.’ he added: ‘or did it?’ Then the piano, still shrouded in darkness, started pumping the boogie intro of ‘Golden Age of Rock and Roll’ from their most recent record. The big difference was that on the record there are multi-tracked saxophones playing the main chords and the whole feel is like a 1950’s rock n roll revival, whereas when the band kicked in live, the whole stage suddenly lit up, with two overdriven guitars and the primal, thunderous, galloping rhythm section, it’s a miracle that the back wall of the Uris theater didn’t blow straight out onto 52nd street. As I mentioned earlier, Mott records, aside from the attitude, were not very aggressive sounding. However, live and at full throttle, it was a sonic barrage. I could describe the rest of the show, the wild interplay between singer and force of nature lead guitarist Ariel Bender, the incredible stage outfits, the total, absolute confidence this band had in its ability to perform song after incredible song, but the best way to put it is I fell in love, and hard.
Fast forward once again, this time to early 2009. That 1974 tour was the last the band would ever play in the US. Ian Hunter left to go solo the next year, taking Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson, who had briefly joined Mott at the end, with him. I’ve caught pretty much every show he has played in New York over the years. At the age of seventy-three, he still tours and records regularly and what’s most impressive is you never feel that his best work is behind him. Each new recording contains gems and he’ll be releasing another one sometime in 2012. The internet has served Hunter and Mott well, as an online community developed, globally uniting fans. After many failed attempts at reconciliation, the band announced in February that they would play five nights at the Hammersmith Apollo in London in October as a one-shot. Never having been to London, I thought the perfect fiftieth birthday present to myself would be to go and see if memory would serve me. There is a big risk in attempting to recapture the past. You may only see mad shadows. Once again, they far exceeded expectations. Though it wasn’t the visual extravaganza it used to be, the music was potent, mature and still retained its punch, amazing since they hadn’t played together in thirty-five years. It was a blast and not just from the past.
I’ve been consistently inspired by their music for so long that I included my own little homage to them in my novel, Trial of Tears. Most of the characters in the book are named after either Mott band members, road crew or the names of song characters. Also some location names, even though the story is set in Manhattan, are lifted from other songs. For me, their whole career can be summed up as the Golden Age of Rock and Roll.

About chris

Chris Semal was born in New York City in 1959 and has lived there all his life. He is aware that other places exist and likes to visit them from time to time, but the city is a hard mistress to resist and he keeps going back to her. A musician, singer and songwriter, he has played pretty much every rock club in Manhattan at one time or another since the late 70s and went to school at the University of Miami to study Music Engineering, coming back north to do the only obvious thing possible, becoming a municipal bond broker and eventually working as a consultant building financial models. In the early part of the millennium, between both consulting and band gigs, he thought it might be interesting to see what would happen if he expanded on the 80 or so words he used in writing song lyrics and went for the 80,000 he would need for a novel. And so Trial Of Tears was born, along with a passion for developing plots and characters.
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