Local writer Steve Hyden explained in his delightful book “Twilight Of The Gods: A Journey To The End Of Classic Rock”, the concept of musical anchoring. It proposes that there is a certain age, usually in our mid to late teens, where if we’re going to develop a passion for music, something hits us and locks in. Musical taste becomes a big part of who we are. Where we go and who become our friends. The music resets our compass.
All of us have a song, or a band, that when heard for the first time is indelibly stamped into our memory. Like the Kennedy assassination, Neal Armstrong saying “That’s one small step” or planes crashing into the World Trade Center. We were shaken to our very core and the smallest details of where we were, what we were doing, who we were with are all preserved.
It’s no wonder different generations will immediately jump into the fray when debates about best music eras begin. According to Hyden, correctly in my opinion, this is an argument which can be won. It’s possible to identify those eras which were the greatest in which to come of age. Forget Jeffrey, the Dude in The Big Lebowski. You can’t just respond:”Well, that’s just, like, your opinion, Man”.
It isn’t about record sales. There’s a reason Monet is hanging in The Louvre and your kid’s best art project isn’t. It’s about innovation, realization of a vision and future influence. When that occurs, some kind of magic happens and the artists become bigger than life. They become demi-gods. Hyden and I also agree that the period of the early ’70’s may have been the greatest of all.
I have vague memories of The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. I more clearly remember debating with middle school friends who was the coolest of The Monkees. I know the first single I purchased was the Hollies’ Long Cool Woman. I moved through high school enamored with The Who and CCR. But in none of those cases do I have a moment when I heard a song and was frozen in time.
On a chilly autumn Friday evening in 1973, following a high school football game, I settled into the battered green chair in my parents’ basement and turned on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. The color was always a bit skewed. Tint to the left in order to dampen the green. A band, improbably called Mott The Hoople, walked on stage and pounded out All The Way From Memphis. I was floored. Power, attitude, the look, utterly original.
Mott The Hoople was on the curling wave of Glam Rock. Ian Hunter’s signature sneer presaged Punk. The hooks were huge. There was the clear homage to Bob Dylan, as well as Jerry Lee Lewis. While we US baby boomers were growing up with our white picket fences and belief that Walt Disney was mapping out our future, it was a different reality in England; where post war rubble was still being cleared in London. Where there wasn’t much in the way of rules. Simply because there wasn’t a proverbial brass ring waiting for young people to grab, if only they’d toe the line and work the system.
So bands like Mott simply seemed to say: “Screw it! We’ll do whatever we want.” To me, that rebelliousness was seductive. It was the very soul of rock and roll. All of this is simply preface for my contention that Mott The Hoople was one of the greatest rock bands to ever stomp the terra.
It all happened in a brief five years. Certainly, Ian Hunter has kept the mystique and music alive with a stellar career which has spanned the last 40 years. So when, out of the blue, Hunter reconnected with lead guitar player Ariel Bender and keyboardist Morgan Fisher to hit the road and commemorate 1974, I viewed it as the opportunity of a lifetime. Like the wonder of Jurassic Park. This wasn’t the skeleton of a T Rex. It might be the living beast. The only question was whether it was just re-animated or ready to rip us limb from limb.
I don’t know if there were any tickets left by the time Twin Cities icons The Suburbs kicked off the festivities at 8pm. When First Avenue is full, it’s full. Arrive early and you’ll get a spot with desirable sight lines. Then you do your best to endure the packing. Arrive later and the sight lines may be a bit compromised. The packing sensation eases off just a bit. When our crew walked up to the club at 7:45pm, lines still stretched half a block in both directions.
The place was packed. I can only remember one other show where it felt as full. Later, the light bulb went on in my head. Those of us who were banging our heads to Mott The Hoople in 1974 have grown. Literally. The majority of us have something like an additional six inches or so over what we walked around with back then. We’re bigger than the typical Millennial concert goer. Do the math. If you add six inches to over 1000 of the 1500 attendees…tight, right?
Chan Poling’s Suburbs were magnificent. A nine piece powerhouse and a catalog of songs that stretches back to Jay’s Longhorn and the Minneapolis punk wave. I hesitate to call the band Minnesota’s most beloved senior citizens. But you know what? They are! That doesn’t mean they are in any way, shape or form compromised. These are tried and true rockers who have kept creating wonderful music. Along the way, Poling’s brilliant songwriting has evolved, experimented and refined. From sound tracks to The New Standards to orchestral work, this one time punk has become the mayor of the Twin Cities rock scene.
I love the range of this band. One moment they can be in your face with early stuff. The next they are channeling the Talking Heads or Bowie. Then a quick shift to the beautiful and heart rending, like Turn On The Radio, Poling’s ode to his late wife. To me, the best shows are dynamic. Rather than being force fed a diet of similar fare, we are offered a tasting party.
Talking with friends, we all agreed how much we love The Suburbs. Each of us wouldn’t hesitate a second to buy a ticket to see them in The Mainroom, State or Orpheum. The regularly sold out Christmas run is proof positive about how highly we regard Poling. How much better could a night get with an opener like this?
Chan Poling succinctly teed up what was to come as the band moved into their last song. “When the call came asking if we would be interested in opening for Mott The Hoople, I thought about it for almost one millisecond. Then I said: Fuck Yeah! Fuck Yeah!”
Screen came up. A scratchy radio David Bowie overdub, introducing this new band called Mott The Hoople that had all the kids so excited. Onto the stage walked Ian Hunter, Morgan Fisher and Ariel Bender backed by Hunter’s 5 piece Rant Band.
Hunter is timeless. At 79, he doesn’t look like a granddad who fills his days puttering around his shop or garden. He’s lean, the curls still tumble from his head. The signature shades in place. Fisher and Bender looked more their age. Yet, the elf-like guitarist still dressed the part of a rock star.
Quietly, Hunter began to sing:
“A long, long time ago.
I can still remember
how the music used to make me smile.”
We all smiled with him. He continued American Pie and came around to the end of the second verse:
“I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride.
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died….”
Then the classic Hunter sneer…”Or did it?” Before launching into The Golden Age of Rock and Roll.
The years fell away. This was no nostalgia trip or late life money grab. This was three bona fide rock stars back together to make some noise. Backed by the Rant boys, a crackerjack band in their prime, they packed the firepower. They wasted no time before turning to the early Hunter solo tune, Lounge Lizard.
Next up was the tawdry Alice. A story of a down and out street walker from The Hoople, followed by one of my favorites. I Wish I Was Your Mother remains a timeless, yearning ballad in which the singer wishes with all his heart that he could know even more deeply the girl he loves. She is everything he’s not. Surrounded by people who love her. If only for a minute, he imagines being a family member who knew her and played with her as a child.
As Pearl n Roy finished, I found myself thinking that this was certainly pleasant. A walk down a happy memory lane. Truly, how could one expect heat from a rock and roll fire from some dudes on the north side of age 75? It was enough to see the icons and to hear the songs.
But that first 25 minutes was simply the warm up. The prelude to the storm. It was like somebody lit the fuse and the band began to get loud, animated and charged forward. This was the band that was banned from Royal Albert Hall because they incited their fans into such a frenzy that they cracked the masonry. There was black powder left to burn.
A grouping of Roll Away The Stone, Sweet Jane (transcendent) and Rose before reaching for an even bigger bombast with Walking With A Mountain. Then the tune that changed my life, All The Way From Memphis and the punk prototype, mini opera Marionette.
By now Ariel Bender was at full throttle. Prancing, posing and ripping tried and true solos. Nobody in the Mainroom was having more fun in the joint than he was. Hardcore Mott The Hoople fans know that while the band itself existed for many years, the golden age was a brief five years when Hunter fronted the band. For four of those years, the guitars were handled by Hunter running mates Mick Ralphs and Mick Ronson. In that final year, 1974, Bender stepped in for Ralphs.
Ariel Bender may be the greatest stage name in rock and roll history. His real name is Luther Grosvenor and he was no stranger to fame. His band Spooky Tooth was a Who’s Who of rock royalty. It included musicians like Gary Wright (remember the hit Dream Weaver?), Mick Jones who would go on to Foreigner and Humble Pie bassist Steve Ridley. The name was bestowed by Hunter after a recording session when he watched Grosvenor walk down the street outside the studio. Snapping the radio antennae on all the cars that lined the curb.
After blasting out Marionette, the three original members looked a bit winded. They paused for a moment to get a drink. Fisher dunked his hands in cold water and shook them out. Hunter stepped to the mic and announced that this was it. Last one. Well, I guess in one sense it was. Twenty minutes can be just one, right?
A medley that just kept building. Jerkin’ Crocus, One Of The Boys, Rock and Roll Queen (why isn’t anybody covering that killer tune?), Crash Street Kidds, Jerry Lee Lewis’ Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On. Right into the classic Cleveland Rocks which was conveniently re-worked as Minneapolis Rocks before finally devolving into the chaos of Violence.
In a nod to current times, Hunter made a subtle change to the chorus of that last song: “Violence, violence. It’s the only thing which will make you see sense” to a more benign “It’s the only thing which makes no sense.”. I guess that stage persona of being the baddest street kid on the corner has faded by your eighth decade. This is a different world and time from when it was written. A time and place when Pete Townshend was also writing Quadraphenia, his opera about street fights between the Mods and Rockers.
The wait for the encore took awhile. We joked about recovery times and enlarged prostates. Then sheepishly admitted we would love to get to that age and still be roaring like Hunter, Bender and Fisher. As we ticked off all the hits, we could only come up with three that had yet to be played. To complete the journey. We got two of them. Only Angeline was missing.
The encore opened with a song that a young Hunter wrote as he prepared to leave the band. Already looking back and understanding that an era was coming to an end; that it was time to move on. Saturday Gigs. Beautiful, reflective and shot through with nostalgia.
“Do you remember the Saturday gigs?
We do. We do.
Don’t you ever forget us
We’ll never forget you
We’re going to sleep now
You better be good, right? (ha ha ha)
See you next time
So long for now”
Nothing left now, except for the anthem of a generation. All The Young Dudes remains one of the most recognized and revered ballads of all time. It came as gift from David Bowie, who dearly loved this band. Despite Mott’s legendary reputation as a live act, they were struggling in an era where fame and money came through album sales. The band was anything but commercial. They needed a hit. And with Dudes they got it. One for the ages.
Following the show, the crowd was slow to exit. It was as if none of us wanted it to end. Along with my wife and friend, we attempted to connect with our sons prior to heading home. Steeped in classic rock, I suspected they’d be headed for the merch table in search of something to say they were here. Each of my three boys was flushed with excitement. Each had decided to give up food for a couple of days in order to buy an overpriced tour shirt or poster.
Their friend commented that only one other First Avenue show in his experience compared. My wife looked and me and said: You know during Dudes when Ian pointed out and sang: All the young dudes (Hey, you in the glasses) Carry the news (I want you!)…he was pointing at me! He was talking to me!”
Alright, my dear. You’re not exactly a dude. But I understand completely.
Walking to our car, I reflected back on I Wish I Was Your Mother. About the yearning to understand someone more deeply. Or the yearning to be more fully understood. I finally had the opportunity to see Mott The Hoople, or at least enough of it to count. And I did so with the most important people in my life. Maybe they will now better understand a teenage me, struck like a bell and lifted up 45 years ago. A moment frozen in my memory.
I came face to face with the Tyrannosaurus Rex. It lived and breathed. And roared. Another moment that may freeze in time. It was truly the Golden Age of Rock and Roll. For a couple of hours last night in the Mainroom, for many of us, it came to life once more.