I was just turning 16 when my bass addiction really took hold. It just so happened that I had completed Driver’s Ed on schedule, and passed my driver’s test. I got my license sometime in July of 1977. This opened up another avenue for me to pursue my newfound love of music: FM radio, and cassette tapes in the car. Since I was in the Detroit area, there were 3 Rock stations clustered together on the radio dial. Two of them were album oriented, which meant they weren’t Top Forty. They played B Sides, and stuff that was so arcane, there was virtually no audience for it. Therefore, it was cool, and I loved it. There was R&B. There was Jazz. There was Motown. There was every kind of genre you could name, and then a few more you couldn’t name. Detroit radio was a gift to me, and I marvel today at what amazing diversity there was back in those days. I would record albums onto cassette tapes and listen to them through the off brand tape deck we had installed in the 1973 dark green Gran Torino. Rock and Blues became my constant companions. I would drive by myself and just crank the stereo and revel in the autonomy that was so new to me. Maybe it was just coming from a crowded house that made me appreciate this privacy and chance to be alone with music I loved, but in any case, it was a huge step forward in growing up.
So, all of this listening had to go somewhere. And it wound up going into my head, heart, and hands. I would instinctively play what I heard, or at least attempt it. Not just bass lines, but other parts, vocal lines, guitar riffs, horn sections, and drum beats. It all came out of my fingers. I remember sitting down in my sisters’ room and trying to learn a straight-up twelve bar blues: the Mahogany Rush cover of Back Door Man. I spent hours going over the same part over and over until it clicked: the bass player was playing an illogical bass line. Straight chromatic notes that simply ascended a half step at a time. This didn’t fit any scale or “real” music theory that I knew, and it opened my musical vocabulary up immensely. I now looked at music as an art form with some science to it, but feel would ALWAYS trump theory from this point forward. I became a master at playing the bass part in twelve bar blues, and learned to improvise at a very proficient level. It also sounded really, really cool. I learned a lot of other Rock, Soul, Funk and Blues tunes as well, but I was now a purist: anything I was going to play had to have some blues/black gospel groove to it. I play this way to this day.
Now all I needed was people to play with. This was a problem, as I had very limited social capital. My sister Shawn was my closest friend, and we talked music ad infinitum. She is also one of the most hilarious, brilliant, and thoughtful people that I know, but aside from my sisters and brother, I had but few friends, and none of them were musicians. It was a freakish twist of fate that saw my musical career begin. My brother played a little guitar, and some of his friends put a band together. So, he asked me to sit in on bass with them. There were two guitars, a vocalist and a drummer (Dean Plait). We played in Dean’s basement and were nothing special, but I remember the thrill I got as I played my bass through Dean’s stereo ( I didn’t have a large enough amp to be heard). I sounded good. Surprisingly good. I was aware that my bass added a lot to the tunes we played. The tune that really solidified me as a bass player was Fly by Night by Rush. I played that Geddy Lee bass line note for note and it just sounded amazing. We played a party at Dean’s house, and it was my first performance. We didn’t stink, and we actually got some compliments. Even I got some compliments. This was new territory for me. I was hungry for more.
Now things started to jell. I was 17 and had hit my growth spurt. I was now over six feet tall and lost my baby fat and midriff rolls. I was now athletic in build and tall. I got some contact lenses and was free from the glasses that had defined me for eight years. This made a huge difference in my appearance, and also my self-esteem. I grew my hair out, and it started to look surprisingly good. I went totally counter-culture in my clothes. I had never bought a stylish article of clothing in my life. I remember buying my first pair of Levi’s. I went to Sagebrush at the Tel Twelve Mall in Southfield and bought a 30 x 36 pair of bell bottom blue jeans. They weren’t pre-washed, so I had to break them in. Now this was 1978, and nobody wore bell bottoms anymore. It became my trademark, along with a black turtleneck. I rolled up the sleeves because my arms were too long for it. I then bought a black Fender Jazz Bass with a black pickguard and a rosewood neck with pearl block inlays. This thing was bad to the bone. I bought a hulking bass rig with a Peavey head and a 2 x 15” cabinet that was painted bright red. My bass rig was typical of the day: big, loud, iconic, heavy, and hard to move. I was ready.
Then, I got the call. Dean was forming a new band, and asked me to be the bass player. I accepted, and a band was born. Al Shippey played guitar and provided the vocals, Richard White played guitar, Dean played drums. We started to jam in Dean’s basement at night, and we got pretty good. These jam sessions and practices were also great for just being one of the guys, and partying in the basement was a huge part of growing up. We called ourselves Toads on Parade, and the self-deprecating tone was a hit with people. They really liked us. We believed ourselves to be the best party band this side of J. Geils, and had a bit of swagger. Strange, as we weren’t great, but it somehow worked very well. We played a number of parties in rapid succession, and response was always positive. Then something else very wonderful happened.
It was in school. Groves High School that I hated because nobody would give me a chance. It was now my senior year, and when I showed up, it was as if the old Tom had died and been buried. Good riddance. I was now tall, thin, free from my coke bottle glasses, long haired, bell bottomed and……cool. How did this happen? The metamorphosis was stunning. My first friend in my new life was Mark Benner, who I will always be grateful to. He treated me like a human being even before my metamorphosis, and remembered me in 12th grade. We started to hang out a bit, and it was through him that I met Bill Bowman. Bowman was a popular guy with a real strong counter-culture/punk attitude. He was also hilarious. We hated each other at first, but somehow we got to talking one day and I asked him if he ever heard of Rory Gallagher, the blues guitarist. He hadn’t, so I gave him a tape. He came back the next day converted. He wanted to hear more. It just so happened that Rory was coming to the Royal Oak Music Theatre that November and I asked him if he wanted to go. At this time, I had renewed a friendship with Don Askew and Rob Glass from my Elementary School years, and they were also into music. We all went to see Rory (along with my sister Shawn), we were blown away by the concert, and our friendship was cemented. We were inseparable my whole senior year, and we grew as musicians. Don played guitar, Rob played drums, Bowman sang. I was finally accepted as a person, and I had an identity. I was the bass player. School was no longer a living Hell. It actually became enjoyable. I had no interest in studies, but the opportunities to see my friends and hang out was now a huge draw.
I don’t want to get all preachy, but I have to say, there are many people that you know that are locked up in a cocoon like I was. If you are confident and accepted, be like Mark Benner, and give some loser a chance without judging him. It made all of the difference in the world to me.
This story gets better.