I gave myself over to rock ‘n’ roll the same way so many others have: young, full of hope, and surrounded by a group of completely nude musicians. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It was fall 1985, I was 13 years old. I'd been invited by my best friend Jon Beller to join him and his mom for some wholesome New England-style fun at the Topsfield Fair, a 10-day event held every October about 20 miles north of Boston. The centerpiece of our day was to be an early-evening performance in the makeshift amphitheater by doo-wop legends the Drifters.
It was an easy sell by Jon: “They sing ‘Under the Boardwalk,’ Danny. One of your favorites.”
Right, “Under the Boardwalk”! That was on the oldies mixtape I loved at the time. I didn’t know any of the singers’ names on the cassette except, I think, Little Richard. And that was only because Jon had shown me a part in Little Richard’s biography about how when Richard was growing up in Georgia there was a guy who hung out by the docks and had a hole in his abdomen that all the neighborhood kids would use for sex. That kind of image tends to rattle around in a 13-year-old’s head.
The mixtape went everywhere with me. I vividly remember a dance party in Jennifer Hines’ basement where I almost induced a hate crime by stopping someone’s Phil Collins cassette mid-“Sussudio” and popping in my beloved Maxell to unleash Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” on everyone. I was instantly met with a roomful of disapproving faces (“You stopped a song by a 34-year-old bald British drummer for this?’’). It’s worth mentioning that this was a full year before Top Gun came out and gave the Killer his due. Boy, did those jerks eat crow in ’86.
But yeah, my favorite song on there was definitely 1964’s “Under the Boardwalk.”
Because I was not bright, I used the word “Spanish-y” to describe it. What I think I meant is that it had the same chord progressions and late-in-the-measure thumps that were common to Latin American music. And of course there was that beautiful flamenco guitar noodling over it the whole time. The voices seemed infinitely layered to my young ear, and the best part was when the instruments would drop out at the end of each chorus: “Boardwalk.. .boardwalk! ”
But most of all I loved that the song was about eating hot dogs and riding rides and doing fun summer stuff and then oh yeah at some point we’re gonna DO IT.
Wait. Really? We’ll be makin’ love under the boardwalk? I am unfamiliar with this particular brand of beach day, but needless to say, I’m in.
How we doin’ on sunscreen?
Of course, I remember very little about that Drifters concert except that it was life-changing. Though they hadn’t had a hit in over 20 years, they knew exactly how to work the crowd—especially me, a wide-eyed misfit whose only prior exposure to live music was seeing Liberace at Radio City Music Hall when I was 10. Coming off that, the Drifters were downright badass.*
The show ended. “Save the Last Dance for Me” hovered in the air. I asked Jon’s mother how I might go about meeting these gentlemen—these gods—who had just rearranged my molecules and then walked off stage.
“I think that’s their trailer over there, Danny. Here’s a napkin and a pen, go see if you can get their autographs.”
I slowly approached the trailer, alone. I took a deep breath and knocked on the door. It swung open instantly. Standing before me were five of the nakedest adults I had ever seen in my life.
“What do you want?” one of them asked.
The fellas took a beat, looked at each other, and proceeded to crack up. Sure, one or two white towels were quickly snatched off the floor and strategically placed, but overall these guys were chillin’. “C’mon in, kid,” said the Drifter who had opened the door. I vividly remember one of them shaking his head in opposition but still laughing his ass off. The napkin was passed around and I was politely ushered back out to rejoin my friend and his mom. So why am I sharing this story—so dear to me— with you, our beloved CREEM readers?
Because I learned more in those 30 seconds with the naked Drifters than I had in all my previous 13 years combined. About hero worship, about humanity, about camaraderie, about laughter, about the power of rock ’n’ roll to transform the weirdest of moments into something beautiful and life-affirming. About how ripples that lead to massive identity shifts can emanate from something as frivolous as a mixtape.
CREEM magazine, to me, is about celebrating that mixtape—and then adding to it, making it even more perfect.
I’ve had lots of cool brushes with rock ’n’ roll giants in the years since, and not just through my work. There was the time in 1991 when, as a college student in Hadley, Mass., I looked out the window of the farmhouse I shared with two buddies and spotted Matt Dillon (1) directing a Dinosaur Jr. video in a field across the street. In 2004, a good friend of mine (hi, Texas Janet!) with a family connection to Dolly Parton smuggled me backstage before a show in New Jersey, where in my nervousness I somehow managed to set my camera to “blurry with a weird time stamp’’ just seconds before getting my arm around Dolly (2). And in 2005 my own country band opened for none other than CREEM spirit animals the MC5 at a party in Las Vegas (3). I hadn’t slept in 36 hours, but I like to think the set went over great.
(I was originally asked to write only about that MC5 show here, but unfortunately the totality of my recollection is contained in the previous paragraph. Sorry, John, that’s all I got.)
One of the perks of working at CREEM is that, every now and then, I get to stand among giants again. The Drifters napkin is long gone, sad to say, but the wide-eyed kid remains. And “Under the Boardwalk” is still my all-time fave.
*I now consider the Liberace concert to have been badass as well.