Monday, September 28, 2009

Soundtrack September Selection # 7: EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS

One of the last selections of the month comes from Jason Kennedy - a musician and friend from when I lived in Greensboro, NC close to a decade ago. Also known as "Hook" or more recently "Pinball", Kennedy puts a spot light on a supreme soundtrack that many have overlooked:


"First there was Star Wars. Every kid my age had that one. Then there was Raiders of the Lost Ark. Not everyone had that one; but once your best buddy, Mike Edwards, told you how terrifying the “Well of the Souls” track was, well you kind of had to get it. 

Yet those were first and foremost souvenirs. There was nothing inherent in the music that particularly moved you other than the mental image of Harrison Ford hurling through space or running through the jungle. All that changed the moment Eddie Wilson showed up. To a budding teenager in the early eighties summer break meant being stuck at home for 3 months with no mobility, few resources and even less company.

These were the days before Beta fell to VHS; before Hulu or the internet; before Netflix or Blockbuster. There was one main source of entertainment, and we called it plain old TV. And on TV, HBO was King. And that’s where I first found Eddie, lurking in the pages of the HBO guide, with a summary paragraph and a detailed listing of every time I could see him day or night, a cruel reminder of what little else I had to do.

I was interested in rock music well enough by this time. I had bought some records (Police, Men at Work), perused my older brother’s vinyl collection (Rush, Reo Speedwagon) and purged hours of time watching MTV (a fellow King for sure, albeit from another place entirely). Yet Eddie and the Cruisers afforded me something that I just couldn’t buy at any record store. For in addition to just liking the music, I was increasingly interested in the idea of the band itself.

The instruments they used; the songwriting process. The rehearsals and the sound checks and the dealings with shady managers. And all of a sudden, here was a glimpse behind that curtain. The faces that once only stared back from an album cover suddenly had names and personalities; they began to live and breathe. You mean people in a band argued with each other? They made moves on each others girlfriends?? They took drugs and died from them???

Why on earth would anyone in a successful band want to do anything but smile for the camera and count their money? These were the questions that the Cruisers suddenly had me asking. And while much of that may have shaped the tunes, it would be an insult to let it define them. So as Eddie would say, let’s get on with the music.

Only one album ever saw release during Eddie Wilson’s too brief career, 1963’s Tender Years. Keyboardist/lyricist Frank Ridgeway (the band’s own ‘quiet one’) modestly described it as “one album, twelve cuts, a big deal about nothing”. Except that in the summer of 1963 “On the Dark Side” was the number one song in the country. And twenty years later John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band returned it there.

With that original album 20 years out of print (look for a copy of the LP in the film), director Martin Davidson needed someone to reinvent the Cruisers sound for the big screen. Cafferty and Co., a fledgling Rhode Island bar band with a healthy Springsteen fixation (the Boss may well have taken notice of the Cruisers himself, cribbing both the concepts of a sax wielding musical foil and a girlfriend/wife vocal accompanist for his own E Street Band) were the perfect choice.

“On the Dark Side” was the first song written after Ridgeway joined the band to provide lyrics to Eddie Wilson’s music; it was also the band’s crowning commercial achievement. Starting life as a plaintive ballad, it quickly transformed into an edgy expression of universal angst and uncertainly at the hands of an unattainable and more than likely non-existent lover. That initial DNA of Ridgeway lyrics and Wilson music coursed through the remainder of the album. “Wild Summer Nights” and “Down on My Knees” were both up beat rockers detailing the lustful pursuit and acquisition of teenage dreams, and the sober morning after reflection of what price one is willing to pay for them.

The ballads “Tender Years” and “Boardwalk Angel” traded these insecurities of what may or may not be for a more romanticized idolization of what could and should be, if only life would stop getting in the way. The album was padded out with several workman-like covers of contemporary rock and roll; songs with little agenda save for keeping dance floor feet from losing the beat or skipping a step.

The soundtrack culminates with a song not found on the Tender Years record. “A Season in Hell” was to be the title track to the Cruisers’ follow up album. Satin Records (anticipating a “Dark Side” redux no doubt) refused to release it and effectively destroyed the band in the process. Sonically and thematically years ahead of it’s time, “A Season in Hell” was a portent of many things to come in those next few formative years for rock and roll. Backwards tape masking? Hendrix was listening.

Lyrical gravity coupled with surrealistic imagery?? Dylan noted it. A controlled chaotic crescendo??? It took the Beatles 3 more years to get there with “A Day in the Life” (note the similarly prepositioned titles). It was Eddie and the Cruisers’ masterstroke, and the world wouldn’t listen. How many geniuses does that remind you of?

I guess it all sounds quaint today, when anything you’ve ever wanted to know is a mere keyboard click anyway. But for a kid who knew next to nothing about the world and even less about how it worked, Eddie and the Cruisers was a revelation of style and substance, a guilty glimpse into the inner workings of this thing called rock and roll that would go on to shape my life in ways that I’m still trying to figure out. I can’t recall the last time I actually listened to this soundtrack, but that’s of little consequence.

I listened to it enough then to last a lifetime. For that one brief period of time, the Cruisers were the light and the way. Eddie lives."

More later...

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