Rockin’ My Way To Oblivion
By Mike Greenblatt
The year was 1968. The 1910 Fruitgum Company was a band from Linden New Jersey. The guys in my band, The Rock Garden, thought they were awful. We also thought they were jerks. Yet they were signed to Buddah Records and their first single, “Simon Says,” rose all the way to #4 in America and #2 in England. We thought the song stunk. Bubble-Gum shit. Linden was the next town over from where we practiced in the Hillside basement of our drummer’s house where his parents made us cookies and we tried to hide the smell of pot.
We did Stones, Young Rascals, James Brown, Otis Redding, Temptations, Righteous Brothers, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Spencer Davis Group, Four Tops, Animals, Zombies, Vanilla Fudge, Hendrix, Cream, Doors, McCoys, Buffalo Springfield, Byrds, Troggs, Sam Cooke, Buckinghams, Shadows Of Knight, Eddie Floyd, Parliaments and one original. We had guitar/bass/drums and Artie Ruben on a cheap old Farfisa organ that he had used at his former gig at a roller-rink.
I was the singer.
Since we were all still in high school, the venues we could play were limited. After assiduously practicing, we gigged at colleges, temples, hospitals, high school dances, the YMHA, public swimming pools and a homeless shelter. We spent a whole summer once at the Granit Hotel in the Catskill Mountains of New York State performing for the kids, teaching the old ladies how to pool-side boogaloo in the afternoon, and sneaking into comedian London Lee’s late-night stand-up act. We also played at numerous Sweet 16 private parties of the girls we had met and made out with at the hotel.
The one “original” in our set was supposed to be the follow-up to “Simon Says” by the 1910 Fruitgum Company but “London Bridges” was so bad, even they rejected it. We knew the guy who worked with them, though, and he gave it to us. His name was Arthur, and he also bought us matching white Nehru Suits, Beatle Boots, peace signs and love beads to wear around our necks and a used Hearse to drive around in. I had my naturally curly hair processed so it would fall limp across my forehead like The Beatles. Arthur paid for a recording session where we cut a three-sided single, “London Bridges,” a slowed-down, heavily psychedelized version of “She’s Not There” by The Zombies and “He Was A Friend Of Mine” by The Byrds. Since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated, Arthur made us change the focus of the song from Kennedy to King.
We lost a Battle-Of-The-Bands to our hated rivals, a bunch of assholes who always showed up at our gigs to hoot and holler at us. That hurt. We really thought we played better and I bet we would’ve won had not drummer Farley’s bass drum kept sliding away from him as he tried to play.
The Rock Garden ended when the drummer and organist left for college, I started a new band called Grate with the bassist that ended before it started when we let a friend who we didn’t know smoked meth keep our equipment in his house and he wound up selling all our stuff and leaving the country. Now I had no band and no PA system. But I answered a “Musicians Classified” ad in the back pages of the Aquarian Weekly and joined Lazarus (mainly because they had their own PA).
Lazarus played a lot of Southern Rock: Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie, The Charlie Daniels Band, plus blues and Elvis. Our lead guitarist Roy was a genius. He was also totally insane. No, really. We had to pull him out of Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Parsippany on a weekend pass just to play gigs. He had tried to kill his mother and then himself by purposely ramming his car into a tree. But, boy, could he play every note of Duane Allman’s “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed,” a 20-minute instrumental where I got to drink, smoke and chat up the girls.
Lazarus had a good thing going before they wouldn’t let us take him out of the mental hospital for weekend gigs anymore. That’s when bassist Bob Sorce and I formed Airborne. We had a female keyboard player who doubled on flute so we could do some Jethro Tull. Our agent, Mrs. Paul, kept telling us in order to work, we had to do the radio hits of the day, some disco shit and bad pop. We hated it but we learned ‘em. Yet when Mrs. Paul booked us into a Brooklyn bar called Grandma’s Confusion, we were hooted at (“Go back to Jersey!”), had chairs thrown at us, and even had the jukebox turned on in the middle of our first set. They wanted Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top and we were playing “Shake Your Booty” and “Play That Funky Music, White Boy.” We got through the first set as people started seriously drinking and talking but we huddled in a corner of the room wondering how the hell we were going to survive five sets of 40-on, 20-off in this room. As we plugged in for our second set, some loudmouth shouted “you suck” and the whole room exploded in laughter.
Our last night together as a band came at a Rutgers frat party in New Brunswick. Things turned violent when I kept refusing a pimply-faced loudmouth drunken frat boy the opportunity to sing. It got so bad that the lead guitarist slammed his guitar down in disgust and quit the band right there. His wiring got caught up in my wiring and it brought my mic stand down with it. The drummer up and left. The girl organist started to cry. Hey, there’s no crying in rock’n’roll! Bob and I looked at each other as if to say, “what do we do now?” The answer was nothing. So we sheepishly just went home.
In-between bands, bitterness set in and I sneered at every local band I encountered at bars and clubs. I felt trapped on the wrong side of the stage. No singer sounded good. My next-to-last band consisted of Deadhead stoners but I liked their material of Kinks, Who, Yardbirds and Creedence Clearwater Revival. I didn’t even last one gig with them. We had played set #1 in a gymnasium to about 12 people. Prior to the second set, I made the mistake of smoking a big bowl of hashish in the car. The gym had filled up and there must have been 100 people sitting on the hardwood when we gingerly made our way to the set-up under the basketball hoop. I took the mic and those first few chords of “You Really Got Me” really got me. I started singing on the offbeat. This messed up the whole tune. Little did I know their original singer was sitting stage left and these boys had no problems in literally throwing me from their ranks into the laps of the first row while their original singer jumped up and finished the song. It was my lowest point yet. Imagine being fired mid-song!
By 1974, it was all over.