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Friday, August 17, 2012

My First Band ► Cobwebs And Strange ► Nostalgia Ain't What It Used To Be

When I was growing up, like every other kid in 'Merka, I wanted to be in a band. The Beatles had just broken worldwide and it seemed like the easiest thing in the world. All you had to do is grow your hair long and shake your head every once in a while, right? No, it turns out being in a band actually involved learning an instrument. That's where I fell down on the job.

We had a crappy acoustical guitar in the house and I would spend hours fumbling on it trying to make it sound like a guitar. It never sounded like a guitar in my hands. That's when someone suggested I take lessons. Lessons?!?!?! Who knew?

I took many lessons and never seemed to improve. I'd practice for hours V-E-R-Y  S-L-O-W-L-Y and could pull it off the runs and scales. However, the second I tried to speed up it all started to fall apart on me. I could never make my left hand do what I wanted. Eventually my guitar teacher, as gently as he could, told me to give it up. Now keep in mind: he was getting paid for these lessons and could have strung me out forever, earning money on my fumbling. Yet, he was honest enough to tell me that in his career he had seen a couple of people like me before. Slow, I could play anything he gave me. However, the minute we tried to speed it up to anything resembling music, it all fell apart. I had an uncoordinated left hand that wouldn't obey commands from my brain. I was heartbroken.



It turns out that time proved him right. Over the years I have learned that my left hand is pretty useless for most tasks. When I smoked I couldn't even use my left hand to hold the cigarette because I managed to drop it so many times. Trying to use a remote with my left hand? Forget it! I'm the EXTREME opposite of ambidextrous. Hell! I'd give my right arm to be ambidextrous.

I was heartbroken until I saw bands like The Turtles and The Rolling Stones and The Doors. Those bands had lead singers who only had to know how to shake a tambourine. So, I bought a tambourine and I practiced shaking it, for hours on end. When I felt I had that down I added my next signature move: I'd shake the tambourine, occasionally hitting it with my left hand. Once I perfected that I moved on to Lesson Three: Hitting my thigh with the tambourine. That was much harder because on Day One of Lesson Three I created a huge black and blue bruise on my thigh.

Eventually my right thigh toughened up and I could bang a tambourine with the best of them. It was time to find a bunch of backing musicians.

Dean Donaldson, my childhood friend from Gilchrist Avenue
The truth of the matter is the band kind of fell together organically. Across the street from me lived Dean Donaldson who had taken up the drums. I can still remember how excited he was when he got his first pair of drumstick and a practice pad, before he ever got his first drum set. He came over to the house and put his practice pad on our kitchen table and said, "I can play 'Downtown'," the Petulia Clark hit that was at the top of the charts right then. Then he started singing and banging on the pad. Every syllable was punctuated with a thud, alternating hands: ♫ WHEN YOU'RE A-LONE AND LIFE IS MA-KING YOU LONE-LY. YOU CAN AL-WAYS GO [pause] DOWN-TOWN ♫ and at this he did a little para-diddle. It sounded like real drumming to me. What did I know? I had just perfected the tambourine.

I went to summer camp with a fellow named Mark Levine, who played Farfisa organ, and another kid named Howard Deitch, who played guitar. Both were not only proficient on their instruments, but had real equipment with real amplifiers too. That was almost more important than being proficient in those days.

So, now I had a band and we needed a name. One of my favourite songs at the time was a demented instrumental by The Who, written by Keith Moon, called "Cobwebs and Strange." I don't remember how I convinced the rest to name the band after this song, but they went for it and Detroit's "Cobwebs and Strange" were born. Actually, I know why Dean voted for it, because we also did the song and he got to do some wild soloing during that song.

Here's The Who version. Ours was never recorded for posterity.


The set list was, for the most part, mine. It had to be. I was always the final determining factor for any songs we did, because the song had to be in my very limited vocal range. We did a lot of Doors, The Who, Animals, and Mothers of Invention, The Turtles (which is ironic, due my later friendship with Howard Kaylan; we even did Happy Together and I didn't have to pay Howard 17 cents either). All those influences were mine, as were the Frank Sinatra covers we did.

Mine, mine, mine!!! ALL MINE!!!

Why am I obsessing over a band I started 45 years ago this year, Daylight Savings Time? Because there's a web site out there called "My First Band" with a page on Cobwebs and Strange in which I was totally written out of the band's history, even though I formed the band with my childhood buddies and had the most influence on our set list. Under the rubric of "Cobwebs and Strange/The Greenhalgh Band" it says:

Bill, Howard, Dean and Mark formed "Cobwebs and Strange" in 1967. They won a battle of the bands contest at Cobo Hall (Detroit), winning some equipment. The band did a lot of Doors, Who and Mothers. Also some Motown and Moby Grape.

Dean, Bill, Howard and Mark in 1969, after I
had already left the band. I never knew Bill at all.
There is no mention of me anywhere on the web site. I have on 3 separate occasions written to "John Kanaras" for a correction to no avail. He provided the information to "My First Band," and replaced (according to his own suspect band biography) Mark Levine in Cobwebs and Strange in 1969, having come from Johnny and the Junglemen, which (I'm guessing) was later called The Greenhalgh Band. I have never gotten a response.

Writing to the owner of the web site would do no good. Aside from the fact that he says "we're no longer taking submissions," he has a very cleverly worded disclaimer:

The publishers of My First Band™ do not check facts submitted by contributors. All information is expected to be as truthful and factual as possible. My First Band™ is not responsible for any lapses in memory, lack of good taste, assassination of character, disparaging remarks on musicianship, outing of sexual preferences, public exposure of alcohol or pharmaceutical abuse, paternity suits, or any other kinds of vindictiveness festering over 40 years. Information submitted is the sole responsibility of the contributor.

My First Band™ accepts no responsibility for erroneous or fabricated information concerning the bands or individuals listed as members of said bands, so if you're out to humiliate that guitar player that got all the girls and kicked you out of the band, piss off, we're just trying to have a little fun here.

A version  of Cobwebs and Strange I was never in
"Having a little fun here" was the whole reason I started the band in the first place. That and the fact that deep down inside I was a frustrated musician after not being able to play guitar. Maybe that's why I later went into music promotion and managed several bands.

By 1969 I had already left Cobwebs and Strange because I went to be a councellor at Camp Tamakwa in Algonquin Park, Ontario, Canada and, by the end of that summer, had met a Canadian gal I eventually married. I didn't live in Detroit a whole lot of time after that and spent 35 years in Canada before returning to the States to take care of Pops.

Me onstage on the venerated El Mocambo stage (where
The Rolling Stones also played) with Drastic Measures.
I love this pic because it appears as if I am singing with
Drastic Measures. I am not. I'm just introducing the band.

The sad, sad truth of the matter is Cobwebs and Strange were probably better off with out me. I am, to be generous, a mediocre singer with a limited range. When I do Karaoke, there are some songs I can nail. I do a mean "Sixteen Tons;" have great fun doing the Otis Redding arrangement of "Tenderness," rocking out at the end on the stuttering part; but my favourite is to do the Louis Prima arrangement of "Just A Gigolo/I Ain't Got No Body" with my Louis Armstrong voice. These 3 tunes always go over big because I have 'em down pat. But more importantly, they are in my range and don't require me to harmonize. I can't harmonize worth shit.

Once I was visiting my friend Tony Malone, who I also had the honour of managing when he was the leader of Drastic Measures. He was building up tracks on a song at his home recording studio and asked me if I wanted to add a backup vocal. I was thrilled because I'd finally be on a Tony Malone song. He played me the song and then sang me the part I needed to sing as harmony to his main vocal. I had no trouble singing the part he wrote for me to sing. That is, until he hit playback. Every single time I fell off my harmony line and sang the main melody that the recored Tony was singing. He gave me a nearly a dozen attempts and I did the same thing every time. Without the playback, I had no problem singing that very simple harmony. With the playback, I was a total vocal idiot. Frustrated, Tony gave up on me and sang the harmony line in ONE TAKE! One fucking take!!! I felt humiliated. But I also knew I was watching a true professional at work.

Anyway, that's my story of My First Band and I am reclaiming my history starting NOW.

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