Built for Speed Reading

Ridin' writin' for rolling rockers and travelin' fans

Hey, hit the highway. Get outta town. Life is a field trip. The adventure never ends. On the road. Again.

And there exist a thousand other buzz phrases mating trips (sans drugs) with rock music. I remember a few years ago, cruising up the New Jersey Turnpike about 10:00 at night. Every few yards there appeared another exit, but none of them led anywhere. No towns, just exits, except one, which had a liquor store at the end of the ramp, so we stocked up and pushed on, eager for rest but motel-less, told nothing about where to go by the booze clerk. As we drove straight into night we saw the sign, marking an endless patch speckled with a few white-light dots: FREEHOLD. We didn't actually see the town, but we could feel it, a sprawl of darkness on the edge of the highway that was the birthplace of Bruce Springsteen -- his hometown.

We felt chrome-wheeled and fuel-injected (even though we were running a rental) as we bore east toward the shore. The next day in the crystal glow of morning by the ocean we strolled the boardwalk, stared stupidly at Madam Marie's, hit the arcade where those crazy boys played pinball all night and all day. I intentionally use the past tense because Asbury Park, even then, was as dead as a stone pony.

Every step we took in Asbury Park was buoyed by a remembered riff, a verse or lyric, each memory more real than popular music has any right to be. I swear to God there was a crazy lady on the boardwalk screaming at the ocean, that it was on fire, but we could only pretend fireworks were falling over little Eden, which wasn't difficult to do, not when you're young and in love and born to run. Rock and roll, believe it or not, has a place in this world.

Dave Walker's is so big a rival publisher feels compelled to comment that it "won't fit in a glove compartment." It's 260 pages in the seven-by-ten-inch format. His rival's is 229 pages at six-by-nine inches. A small consideration, but Joyce Stein at Pharos Books, publisher of A.M. Nolan's Rock 'N' Roll Road Trip, brings it up nonetheless. "Ours is more of a travel guide," the chipper publicist says. "It's easier to put in a travel bag. I put mine in my glove compartment because I never know when I might be in Connecticut or New Jersey, looking for something to do."

The size difference is less important than sheerly amazing coincidence number one: Two authors on opposite sides of the nation each come up with an idea for a first book. It's the same idea, a good idea: put rock and roll (and related musical forms) on the map. Walker's American Rock 'N' Roll Tour and Nolan's Rock 'N' Roll Road Trip both deliver vacation icing drizzled coast-to-coast for anyone who craves traveling music trivia that sometimes maybe isn't so trivial.

There is very little, but some, overlap, such as the first entry in both tomes' Miami sections:

Walker's Tour: "Cedars of Lebanon Medical Center, 1400 NW Twelfth Avenue, Miami. Reggae great Bob Marley died here, of cancer, in 1981."

Nolan's Trip: "Cedars of Lebanon Medical Center, 1400 NW 12th Ave. On May 11, 1981, Bob Marley died here of cancer -- seven months after he was first diagnosed with the disease."

The clearest disparity in the two writers' approaches is that Walker's is funnier and broader in tone, Nolan's more detail- and underground-oriented. Many of Walker's entries read like compressed feature stories, including the tale of how the Ronettes were discoverd by Murray the K while working with Joey Dee and the Starlighters at what is now the Crab House on the 79th Street Causeway. Nolan, on the other hand, cites Churchill's Hideaway as a landmark, mentioning the Goods, the Mavericks, and Charlie Pickett.

One lesson here is that you can't get enough of a good thing -- it's worthwhile to pay the toll for both books (Walker's is listed at $13.95, Nolan's a dollar more). There are few better ways to taste reality than to simply hit the road. Of course, a soundtrack doesn't hurt. And these guides certainly help make the cruise more interesting. Ironically enough, neither author actually drove around to the various cites -- Walker took airplanes, Nolan used Amtrak.

Another lesson is that there's no such thing as an original idea. "All around the country you could hear foreheads being slapped by palms," says Walker from his office in Phoenix, Arizona. "`Jeez, that's a good idea.'" Nolan, a New Yorker, says, "I love music. I love to travel. And I hadn't seen anything like this done before. A friend was going to Minneapolis, and we thought how great it would be to know where the Replacements or Prince did this or that."

Sadly, no one involved sees anything conspiratorial or juicy, a rip-off or spying, or a possible script pitch for All My Children or Another World. "I had the idea about three years ago," Abby Nolan says. "I finally got around to doing the proposal in the summer of '91. I have a friend who's an agent, and the idea was sold that summer. Then I started trying to find information from any source: books, newspapers, magazines; I tried to interview some of the main people, tried to get great photos, any means necessary."

Walker has endured the grueling challenge of writing for New Times during the past eight years, at the chain's flagship paper in Phoenix. In the summer of 1990 the honchos there sent Walker to Miami New Times to, um, help out. For the August 15 edition he filed a feature titled, "Dave's Truly Cool Tour of Miami," some of which can be found in his new book. "It basically started with that article," he explains. "But it didn't look like a book to me until about a year later. I was just burnt on my job. After seven years here, it was either take some time off or climb a tower with a carbine. So they gave me a leave of absence, or sabbatical, but I still needed an excuse. I put together a proposal and sold it with help [from a young editor friend who became his advocate at Thunder's Mouth]. I had sent it to five or six houses and gotten good responses from two or three. Thunder's Mouth was immediately interested, and within a few weeks I had a deal."

Nolan and Walker both commit the mortal sin of journalism, indulging heartily in actual research, and they document their subject with the enthusiasm and care of a doctor who really believes he can save people. "I went to the Phoenix library," Walker explains, "and read the bios, went page by page through the music reference books, and tried to come up with a representative amount of history. Then it was a matter of narrowing down what to put in and what to leave out. What to call a landmark. I consciously decided to try mid-Fifties through mid-Eighties, guitar-bass-drums rock bands. And important roots stuff, although there's not as much in there as I'd have liked. I decided to go for the big mass of rock and roll and rock and soul, metal, a little rap. In ten years there'll be a good book like this in just rap."

In the Florida section alone, Walker hits on blue-collar rock (Dub's, the defunct Gainesville topless joint where Tom Petty's band once backed strippers), Southern rock (Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, alma mater of Lynyrd Skynyrd members), reggae (the aforementioned Marley entry), soul (The King of Hearts Club in the Liberty City area, where Sam and Dave met, and which is now a parking lot), disco (how the Bee Gees' career was salvaged by a bumpy SoFlo byway), R&B (The Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine, attended long ago by Ray Charles), and of course, rap (the old Skyywalker studio where As Nasty as They Wanna Be was recorded).

My favorite Miami entry is the classic tale of the Beatles' visit to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 16, 1964. "According to a review of the broadcast in the next morning's Miami Herald," Walker writes, "Mitzi Gaynor stole the show." Walker goes on to note that the Fab Four took in a Don Rickles live show, saw their first drive-in movie (Fun in Acapulco), ate roast beef at Miami Beach Police Sgt. Buddy Dressner's house....

While Walker selects most of his landmarks on the strength of their stories -- the readability, irony and humor, occasional pathos -- Nolan chooses comprehensiveness and pragmatism. Walker's is more fun to peruse from your easy chair, Nolan's will actually get you to more places. In Miami she, like Walker, notes Criteria Studios, the Dinner Key Auditorium where Jim Morrison did something or other, the Deauville/Ed Sullivan/Beatles anecdote, the Sam and Dave hookup. But she adds unlikely "landmark" candidates such as Churchill's, Southwest High School (a focal point of alum Jeff Lemlich's book Savage Lost and your humble narrator's own alma mater, although, for some reason, the latter isn't metioned in her book), Open Books and Records....

My favorite Miami entry in Nolan's chronicle is about Thee Image, where the Collier brothers booked acts such as the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, and the Mothers of Invention, while also staging local bands like 7 Of Us (now known as NRBQ) and Blues Image, which, she relates, was signed to a deal after Jimmy Page caught one of their sets at the club and dubbed theirs "the most dynamic sound in the country."

Walker says he considers his "more of a travel book, and so does the publisher," adding that retailers are currently stocking the volume under both the music and travel genres. "I pretty much just lay it out," Walker says. "There's not much aesthetic discussion. As much as I'd loved to have done that, I don't know that much about music." He wrote some music journalism for his college paper at Arizona State University, claiming he "was never good at it." (Walker is also the drummer in a rock band called the Zonies -- a derogatory term for people from Arizona -- that plays covers and "a few humorous originals," he says. "We haven't practiced since the Bay of Pigs. We don't play that much, but when we do, we play loud.")

"I think it was to my benefit," the author goes on, "to not be a music critic. I wanted to do a book that fans would enjoy. It's not for cultists, because cultists already know where these places are. I had to be subjective in some ways -- there are no sites related to Styx. Maybe I used too many Springsteen sites, but he's a personal favorite. On the other hand, maybe there aren't enough Journey sites." (Actually the book cites no Journey sites, which is plenty.)

Nolan says hers is "more of a music book. I tried to turn it into a travel book, tried to cram every sort of piece of information about local scenes and how they affected other bands that may have gone on and gotten bigger, how they were encouraged in that forum to play in the big time." Sheerly amazing coincidence number two: Nolan is also a drummer. "I've been kicked out of lots of bands," the 27-year-old Harvard grad says, "including Trip Shakespeare and Raw Youth and others I'm sure will become famous."

And when they do, one hopes Walker and/or Nolan will be around to document where they started, where they were discovered, where they were arrested, whatever. Walker wants to know if Hurricane Andrew obliterated any of the sites he mentioned (it didn't), adding that he'd love to update and revise his book. Nolan feels the same way. "I'm very interested in doing subsequent editions," she says. "I left a lot out, and you can always find more."

Even with two guides, it's obvious there's plenty more to include, and rumor exists of a third author writing another such book even now. "I think these two books," Nolan offers, "are complementary. If you're interested in cities as cities, you want mine. His has more out-of-the-way places."

Walker pretty much agrees, although he finds it "weird" that the two books arrived in print independently and simultaneously. "It's an aberration," he points out, "that two publishers were suckered into doing this at the same time. Maybe a country-music book is next. There's already a good jazz and blues lovers' guide" [see sidebar]. As for a sequel, Walker asks, "Why not?" noting that certain aspects of clubs, such as their transient nature, eventually require updating. "And you know the Chess studios building [in Chicago] is not in good shape," he says, referring to one of the longest entries in his book. "It's pretty much at risk of being sold or torn down or fucked up. They sent a recording of `Johnny B. Goode' into space. Someday someone will come down from Alpha Centauri to see where `Johnny' was recorded, and they'll be mighty pissed off if it's not there."

And not too happy either if it's still there but they can't find it because they don't know where to look.

Sometimes it seems more people write about music than play it. On the other hand some of us, me especially, find it impossible not to share the semi-relevant aspects of the lives of those whose purpose on this planet rests mainly in soundwaves. One of those aspects is the "where." Biography might be the only history, but geography is the only reality. Bruce Springsteen slept here, and while Springsteen is what you make of him, a bed is a bed is a bed.

Back in the mid-Eighties I idled into an idol, the only Elvis sighting that ever mattered to me. Elvis Costello had booked two nights at Sunrise, and I had gone early to get good seats to the first show. A couple of days later we won a pair of tickets to the second night's concert. We took I-95 up to Broward and checked into a Holiday Inn, made a weekend of it. As we drove over to K-102's headquarters (WCKO-FM, 4431 Rock Island Road, Fort Lauderdale) to pick up our free tickets, we heard the DJ say that Costello would be on the air presently for an interview. At the station we had to wait in the lobby while someone tracked down our ducats. As we did we listened to Elvis talk about All My Children and other stuff on the air.

We sat and we waited, and by the time the guy found and handed over our tickets, the interview was over. Costello came barreling out of the studio toward his limo, parked out front and surrounded with fans who were not allowed into K-102. Elvis had to hustle right by me to get out the door, so I stopped him. I'm proud to say I didn't drop to my knees. "So, Elvis," I asked, "do you think Jenny's gonna die?" That, at the very least, got his attention, and we indulged in a brief chat about All My Children.

Okay, so it's not a great anecdote. But at least it's documented.

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