Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Please welcome - from Detroit! The ROMANTICS!!!

This weekend in Tucson, I'm going to see one of my all-time favorite bands, The Romantics. It's the first chance I've had to see them play in over 14 years. Here are some little-known details about the early days of the group: It was around February of 1977 at a record collector's convention in a Detroit suburb when I was approached by a polite young man who wanted to tell me about the band he and his friends had just formed. At the time I was putting out a rock & roll fanzine that had received some favorable reviews in BOMP Magazine. The guy asked me if I might want to do a story about their group, and when I asked what kind of music they did he said their biggest influences were 60s British bands like the Kinks and the Yardbirds. He said their group didn't even have a name yet, and I told him we'd be happy to give them some publicity once they picked a name and started playing gigs.
During that time one of my favorite groups to see live was Sonic's Rendevous Band which featured former MC5 lead guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, ex-Rationals lead singer Scott Morgan, original Stooges drummer Scott Asheton and Up bassist Gary Rasmussen. In August of '77 I went to an SRB show at Ann Arbor's Second Chance, and the warm-up act was a new Detroit group that was getting alot of positive talk on the street called The Romantics. When they came out to play I was happily surprised to see the young man I had met at the Record Con walk out and take his spot on the left side of the stage - it was lead guitarist Mike Skill! The band proceded to launch into a frenzied 10-song, 35-minute set that blew me and everyone else in attendance away. 9 of the songs were wild stomping rockers, interrupted briefly for the group's first ballad (pre-dating "Tell It To Carrie") with Mike on the Rickenbacker called "Stop Fooling Around." Several of the other songs they did that night were never recorded by the band - tunes like "So Fine," "No Responsibility," "I Hope Your Satisfied," "You Really Got Ahold Of My Heart" and "Change My Mind."
Also at the show that night was John Koenig, then the publisher of the fanzine Cowabunga and currently the editor and publisher of Discoveries Magazine. He was even more impressed than I was. When the Romantics' set ended, he came running down the stairs from the Second Chance balcony yelling "THEY'RE BETTER THAN F---ING SONICS!!!" And judging by their latest CD, they still are. Can't wait to see 'em again on Saturday night!

Monday, October 25, 2004

The Legend of Forsythe Hill

I'd like to tell you about one of my favorite places. To the casual observer it's nothing special, just a landmark in the neighborhood where I grew up. But as for me, I feel more at home when I'm at this spot than at any other place. This is the legend of Forsythe Hill.
Forsythe Hill is located behind Forsythe Middle School in northwest Ann Arbor. It's right next to the tennis courts and overlooks the school football field. When I started kindergarten at nearby Wines Elementary School in the fall of 1959 there was no Forsythe yet, so it was just "the hill." There was a path we walked on that ran from Hillridge Street past the hill and all the way to the Wines parking lot. A year or so later, around the time that Forsythe was built, a sidewalk was put over top of the path.
Several years later when I was a big bad 6th grader I got a kick out of hearing the younger kids saying to their friends "I'll meet you at the path." They weren't old enough to remember when it was a path, but they had picked up the nickname from us older kids.
I attended Wines School for 7 years, and Forsythe for 3. During grades 1 thru 6 we went home for lunch, meaning we walked down "the path" 4 times a day. Quickly doing the math, I figure that my friends and I walked by the hill nearly four thousand times just going to and from school. No wonder it feels like home!
I began "hanging out" near the hill a lot when I was in the 2nd grade. Wines School was overcrowded and the new Forsythe building had some extra classrooms, so our class met over at the junior high for that entire school year. A group of us guys designated one of the trees at the base of the hill our "fort" and we would gather there until the bell rang.
I think that one of the attractions of the hill back in those days was that we kids considered it to be ours. Teachers and administrators ran the schools, our parents were in charge at home, but the hill was our territory. During junior high if you heard there was going to be a fight after school, you knew it would take place on the far side of the hill, out of the view of the adults at the school. And if you were lucky enough to convince a girl to go for a walk with you after the Friday night school party, the hill is where you would go to smooch.
Do I have any bad memories associated with the hill? Just one, and it also goes back to my days as a student at Forsythe. Whenever our physical education class would meet outside, we knew what was coming. Once we had finished our main activity of the day, whether it was baseball, track, touch football or tennis, we could count on our coach (Andy Anderson, Don Horning or Dick Dehn) to say "OK, take one lap around the football field, up over the hill and into the showers." We HATED having to run over that hill at the end of gym class!
Everybody needs a refuge, some place where you can go to ponder ideas, think things through, and be inspired. Remember on the TV show Dobie Gillis when the star of the show would go sit by the statue of The Thinker to try and figure out his life? The Forsythe Hill is where I went to do that.
In more recent years I have come to associate the hill with one of my favorite holidays, the 4th of July. When I was a kid we always spent the evening of the 4th on the other side of town to see the annual Buhr Park fireworks display. But later when the show was moved out to the airport and then cancelled altogether, I began going up to Forsythe Hill at dusk on the 4th. Back in the 70s and 80s it was a great spot to sit and watch the Barton Hills fireworks display. By some amazing stroke of luck, there is a break in the row of trees on the other side of the tennis courts that is right in line with the spot where Barton would shoot off their skyrockets. The first time I went to the hill on the 4th I was the only one there, but in subsequent years I was joined by other folks from the neighborhood.
Barton stopped holding their fireworks show about a decade ago, but I kept going to the hill because it was still a great vantage point to see fireworks that people in the neighborhood were shooting off in their own backyards. Then a couple of years ago a family started bringing some big skyrockets that they had purchased out of state to shoot off on the Forsythe football field. This "unofficial fireworks show" has drawn a big group of neighborhood residents to the hill on the 4th lately.
There have been a lot of changes in my old neighborhood over the past half century. Most of the people who built their houses there in the 50s and 60s have either moved or passed away. New houses stand where vacant lots used to be. Trees that used to be nothing more than little twigs now tower over the streets and homes. But I've always been able to take comfort in the fact that the hill is still there, looking exactly the way it did 40 years ago. The next time I come back to visit Ann Arbor, it will be one of the first places I'll go. Then I'll truly be "home" again.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Getting emotional about sports!

Attending or watching a sports event that you have a rooting interest in is always great fun, and it's even more dramatic when there are 2 games going on at the same time that you have a strong interest in. I can think of a number of times during my "career" as a sports fan when I've been at one big game, while at the same time following the progress of another important contest going on simultaneously. For example:
December 30, 1964 - I was at the Michigan Coliseum that night for an Ann Arbor High hockey game, but it seemed like most everyone there had a transistor radio with them to listen to the Michigan-Princeton basketball game from Madison Square Garden. People at the hockey game were actually applauding when Michigan would score a basket! And as fate would have it, the two games ended at almost exactly the same time. As the icers skated off the rink, people in the stands huddled around those with radios to see if Michigan could finish off their remarkable comeback from 18 points down. It was the legendary battle between Cazzie Russell and Bill Bradley, and I can still hear Tom Hemingway's description of the last shot - "Russell in the corner with a shot at the buzzer - IT'S GOOD!!!!" A big cheer went up in the Coliseum, and as we walked through the lobby on our way out, the atmosphere was electric!
November 20, 1965 - It's hard to believe that there was ever a Michigan-Ohio State game where the fans seemed more interested in another game, but such was the case this day. Michigan State and Notre Dame were battling that afternoon in South Bend, and most portable radios brought to the stadium were tuned not to Bob Ufer on WPAG but to Bob Reynolds on WJR describing the other big game. I was rooting for Notre Dame that day - it was sort of like having to choose between the lesser of 2 evils, like Bush or Kerry. For whatever reason, most people at the UM-OSU game were pulling for the Spartans and a big roar went up when MSU scored the clinching touchdown. Oh yeah, and in the game we were watching the Buckeyes kicked a late field goal to win, 9-7.
November 22, 1969 - Now don't get me wrong, there was only one game I was interested in that afternoon, the one that resulted in the greatest win in Michigan history 24-12 over Ohio State. But there was another sports event played in Ann Arbor that day and I went to that one as well. Pioneer played Windsor Riverside that evening at the Coliseum and the delirium that engulfed Ann Arbor following Michigan's win was still very much in evidence. When I walked in the rink there couldn't have been more than 100 people in the building but there was this buzzing sound in the air as eveyone talked exitedly about the football game. Then when it came time for the national anthem to be played, as often happened back then the announcement was made, the lights were dimmed - but no music - somebody in the office either misplaced or forgot to put the record on. But what happened next was amazing - the Pioneer cheerleaders sitting in the front row began to sing acapella "Oh, say can you see..." and soon the whole crowd joined in. It was such a remarkable and moving moment that Pioneer coach Art Armstrong wrote a letter to the Ann Arbor News detailing what happened and stated that it was "the biggest goal scored all night." As for the goals scored on the ice, the winning one came off the stick of a sophomore forward who would go on to star for the Michigan football team and ironically would never taste victory over Ohio State - his name was Don Dufek. But that night the Pioneers prevailed 2 to 1 - how could an Ann Arbor team possibly lose on that day!
November 23, 1985 - It was a tough choice for me to make - in Lansing that day my favorite football team, the defending state champions from Ann Arbor Pioneer were playing Traverse City in the state play-offs. Meanwhile in Ann Arbor it was the annual showdown between Michigan and Ohio State. If Pioneer had been playing in the state championship game that day I would have been there, but it was the semi-final round for the preps so I went to the Big House. The high school game wasn't on the radio but they announced the score twice at the Michigan game - at halftime, and then the final. Pioneer was trailing at the half and at the time the announcement was made, Michigan was down in their game too so it was shaping up as a potentially disasterous day for me. Fortunately the maize and blue came back to win 27-17, though Pioneer didn't get a victory that day.
March, 1992 - This was my favorite. I went to Joe Louis Arena to see the Michigan hockey team take on Northern Michigan in the NCAA Regionals. At the same time, the Michigan basketball team was playing Ohio State in a March Madness regional final. Late in the second period things looked bleak for the Wolverine icers, trailing 6-2. When an announcement was made that the Michigan basketball team held a slight lead with about a minute remaining there was a stampede of Michigan fans up the aisles and out into the lobby to watch the end of the basketball game on TV. You may recall that OSU took several shots in the final seconds but couldn't score, and when Michigan came down with a rebound to seal the win the fans in the lobby let out a roar. I walked back into the arena just in time to see Michigan score a goal with 1 second to go in the second period, narrowing Northern's lead to 6-3. There was still hope, and during the intermission the Michigan pep band played "The Victors" with renewed vigor. Then the impossible happened - in the third period, Michigan scored 4 unanswered goals to win 7-6. I and the other Wolverine fans in attendance were delirious. In about an hour's time we had seen the Michgan basketball team qualify for the Final Four and then saw the hockey team rally to qualify for the Frozen Four! But my great night wasn't over yet - driving out of Detroit on the freeway I had the radio tuned to a show called "Back In The 60s" hosted by legendary Motor City disc jockey Lee Alan. It was a Sunday night and it brought back memories of listening to Lee's Sunday Night Solid Gold show nearly 30 years before on that same freeway. As a child we would often go to Detroit on Sundays to visit relatives, and I'd listen to Lee's show on my little Sony transistor in the back seat as we headed home Sunday evening. As I listened to him in 1992 I was thinking "it doesn't get any better than this!"
But it did. About a week later I met someone new - a woman named Vicki who would become my wife!