all for the love of r&r
by tony c., new york
I grew up the youngest of four kids living in a four room apartment in Queens, New York. Being born in 1955 and having older teenage siblings meant I was exposed to rock & roll from the day I was born. I definitely spent more time playing my brother’s 45s than I did playing with toys. I learned shapes and colors by matching the record labels to the songs (red & black meant Atlantic, blue meant Chess, beige meant Josie, etc. etc). I then taught myself basic reading in order to distinguish the different songs that may have been on the same label, such as finding Don’t Be Cruel vs Jailhouse Rock.
As such, it was inevitable that listening to R&R became my life. Collecting records was my connection to the wonderful world of rock / pop and indeed became my passion which still exists to this day.
Growing up in NY in the 60’s and 70’s exposed me to all sorts of music from rock, pop, soul, folk, etc. I was also fortunate to be living in the right place at the right time when the NYC “punk” scene broke loose in the mid 70’s. The number of clubs that were available for bands to perform made each weekend more exciting than the last. The weekly ritual began every Wednesday when the Village Voice newspaper would go on sale, and we would check the club listings to decide what bands to go see the upcoming weekend. The bands all became either famous or infamous and the scene spread around the globe. Dolls, Ramones, Television, Talking Heads, Blondie, Heartbreakers, Dead Boys, Dictators all blending their personal influences to create sounds that were both familiar yet excitedly fresh.
It may sound crazy, but, going to shows during that time would cost anywhere from $3 to $5 dollars depending on the night and band. What a bargain!
One of my first visits to CBGBs was to see Wayne County perform in March of 1976. This may have been either the first or second time my friend Lewis & I went to CBGBs to see bands perform (and there were many many more visits to come). We were still in our infancy of going to these clubs and really did not know what to expect. NYC in the mid 70’s was not as safe as it is today and CBGBs was not in the best of neighborhoods, on top of which it was located adjacent to a men’s shelter. Most nights the men from the shelter would be hanging out in front of CBGBs along with the punks. Combine that with the fact we were entering into “a scene” which we were not yet a part of and the whole thing at first was a little intimidating to say the least.
We were not yet familiar with the bands, but Wayne County had certainly been around for a while and he / she was still a novelty of sorts. We wound up sitting at a table towards the back of the club as we were not yet familiar with when to arrive and where to sit to best see the bands. We brought along a cassette recorder to tape the show since we were both into collecting music, but only randomly placed the recorder on the table and did not go through a lot of trouble to make a great recording. We wound up taping both Wayne and the opening act. At the end of the night we both agreed that we enjoyed the opening act better than we did the headliner….. the opening act turned out to be the Tuff Darts. Even though we were sitting towards the back of the club, we were both impressed by the band. Unfortunately we were not close enough to the stage to really take in the interaction of the band members or really familiarize ourselves with any of the individual members. In the next few weeks we would listen to the tape we made, became more familiar with these new songs and looked forward to the next time we would see the band.
As it turned out we did not have to wait too long to see the band again. The reunited NY Dolls made their triumphant return to Maxs Kansas City in May of 1976. There was a lot of excitement in NYC that night and the line wrapped around the block of Max’s. And who should be the opening act that night…. The Tuff Darts. We again had our tape recorder ready for the show as we were there to tape the Dolls. The Tuff Darts did not fail to disappoint and played to a crowd clearly there to se the Dolls… but the crowd loved the TDs. Again we were sitting about half way back so we were still unable to really familiarize ourselves with any of the band members. Although, we did start to realize that the lead singer Bob Gordon was clearly one of the better lead singers we had seen in a while.
** (Note – a few months earlier we attended the Dolls new years 1AM show at the Beacon Theater in NYC and Jim Morrison, the Tuff Darts drummer, came out on stage dressed in a Frankenstein costume as the Dolls performed “Frankenstein” so there was clearly a friendship between the two bands).
During this period it was not unusual for a new band to play as an opening act and then quickly become a new favorite of the scene, and this was certainly happening with the Tuff Darts. They were a great band, had a great set of songs and also a great lead singer. We were certain that this band would make it big and we just felt fortunate to be getting to see them up close & personal before they would most certainly begin headlining at arenas.
My friends and I became veterans of the scene within a few weeks and were at a point where we knew what bands to see, when to arrive at the club and where to sit. We got to see the Tuff Darts a couple of more times in the upcoming months and became very familiar with “Bob” Gordon. Although the bulk of the local bands playing in NYC during this period were “punk, The Tuff Dart songs were simply a great R&R band, with clever tunes delivered by a tight knit group with a great lead vocalist. They had stage presence and really could deliver a great performance. The songs were great…. Fun City, Attacked Seduced And Abandoned, Slash, You Stepped In It (where Bob would instruct us to “listen to the words”) all were great tunes. You can get a good feel for what the band was like during these days if you have heard the couple of songs they perform on the “Live At CBGBs” album that was released on Atlantic records in the late 70’s.
Bob started sprinkling some cover songs into the TD sets…mainly old R&R songs like Be Bop A Lula and Heartbreak Hotel. These songs fit in fine with the TD original songs and it never struck us as unusual that the band was playing these old cover songs since most of the local bands would include covers of older R&R songs in their sets. For example, the Dolls used to perform “Aint Go No Home” and “Something Else”, the Ramones did “Do You Wanna Dance”, and so on.
Around this time a lot of the NY bands started landing record deals (mainly with Sire) and the buzz was that the TDs were being looked at. But that did not seem unusual back in those days as every band would claim that they were recording a single or making an album or were signing a record deal…… many of which never materialized.
We got to see them a few more times at CBGBs and Maxs and each performance just got stronger. They were now headliners and had developed quite a following. Most shows as I recall were pretty much packed and I would say that they were one of the top draws in NYC at the time.
You can imagine the shock when we learned that The Tuff Darts lost their lead singer and that Bob was going solo. I for one assumed that Bob would continue performing the same type of music he was doing with the Tuff Darts. I also assumed that the Tuff Darts would be back soon with a new vocalist and they would continue on their way.
Well, if you are reading this recollection of mine, then you already know I was wrong on both counts. The Tuff Darts did reform and played a much anticipated return performance at CBGBs. I recall that the place was really packed and everyone in attendance anxiously awaited the band to hit the stage and perform for the first time in quite a while. I also recall the fans disappointment with the new vocalist. I cannot recall his name at this time (it was before Tommy Frenzy) but he was no Bob Gordon. I never attended another Tuff Dart performance after that show and they were once solidly in my top 5 list of bands.
The next Bob Gordon appearance came in April of 1977 at Maxs, except now Bob was being billed as Robert. We had heard that he was going to be leaning towards Rockabilly, but I was not sure what that meant. We also heard he had hooked up with a legendary guitarist from the 50’s, but I had never heard of this guy Link Wray before. When the rumors started spreading that Robert was going Rockabilly I was expecting his new set to be mainly like the R&R covers he used to perform with the Tuff Darts. I remember attending the April 77 show at Maxs and initially being surprised at the strong C&W influence in the set. But, Robert really poured his soul into the performance and I still recall him dropping to his knees during one part of the show. ( I think it was when he sang the line “I Wanna Be Loved Just Right” during “I Sure Miss You”). Of course the big song of the night was when we heard “Red Hot” for the first time. And Robert’s debut was a success. As I recall it the room was still talking after his set was finished…. the crowd loved it.
There were many more shows to see Robert and Link perform. One particular show that sticks in my mind is the summer performance at CBGBs which happened the night after NYC had just experienced a major power blackout. It was a typical hot summer day in NYC and I was driving home from seeing my friend Fern…… all of a sudden the car radio stopped playing and after about 2 minutes of silence, the DJ returned to the air to announce that the power had gone out in all of NYC. The next day there was no work since all the business had no power, so we went to the beach in the day time. We already had plans to see RG and Link at CBGBs that night, but were not sure if the performance would go on as planned due to the blackout. We called CBGBs and learned that the show was still on. CBGBs was fairly empty that night due to most people still dealing with the aftermath of the power situation. If you listen to the tape of the show, you can hear RG make a comment after Link strikes a loud chord on his guitar… something like “Link did that
The sets with Link started to become fairly predictable as RG would perform the opening few songs, then Link would do 2 or 3 solo songs and then RG would close the set. I honestly found the Link portion to be sort of boring. But, it was not unbearable and we applauded his efforts since after all he was a “living legend”.
For me the highlights of the sets back then were typically “Summertime Blues” where Link would start wailing away on the guitar while RG handled vocals. The few times I saw them perform “Endless Sleep” was also terrific, again with Link wailing away. But the one thing I still recall to this day is the drop to the knee move that RG did the first couple of times I saw him perform “I Sure Miss You”. That first time he did that at Maxs sent chills up my spine…
Another memorable appearance was when RG & Link performed at the auditorium at NYU in December of 1997. This was not a typical setting for a R&R show and most of us in attendance had never previously attended a show here. But the place was packed and RG & Link put on a good performance. I was hoping that Robert would surprise us and do a Christmas song, seeing as it was already December. Instead of a Christmas song, this was the show where Bruce Springsteen joined them on stage to perform Heartbreak Hotel. This combination all of a sudden transformed the show from just another performance to an “event”. Although Bruce was only on stage for about 5 minutes, people still talk about this appearance to this day. And the R&R magazine of the day “Rock Scene” had photos of the show in their next issue so news of the event became well known.
Speaking of guest appearances, as I mentioned earlier, the NY bands were all a pretty close knit bunch. There was no competition between them and all the bands seemed to support one another. It was not unusual for one band member to jump on stage to join another bands performance. I was fortunate to see RG join other bands on a number of occasions….
Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers had gone off to Europe to join the Sex Pistols on the infamous “Anarchy” tour. They had been gone from NYC for quite some time and their return to NY was quite a big event. They sold out 3 nights in a row at the Village Gate for the return shows. The place was packed and people were really pumped for these shows which indeed were very frantic performances. The Heartbreakers could do no wrong in the eyes of the fans during these return shows. During the end of the 2nd night, Johnny introduces RG who joins them on stage to perform a couple of songs. RG carried his own and this unusual mix of talents performed well together as evidenced from the bootleg tapes of the show.
Another time RG joined another ex-Doll Sylvain, Sylvain on stage at Maxs during a performance of Sylvain’s Criminals. The Criminals were a fun band and Sylvain always tried to have a good time on stage. They were not the tightest of bands, but they had a fairly good set of original songs and Syl had a great knowledge of older R&R songs that they would cover. RG added a lot of excitement to the time I saw him join them on stage. And it seemed like RG enjoyed jamming with the band.
I also seem to recall RG joining David Johansen after DJ had started performing solo. I think it was at a club in New Jersey called “Creations”. I don’t recall too much about the set but for some reason I remember being surprised that RG was in NJ, as after all, it was not the most convenient place to get to. I don’t think that a tape of this jam exists, but I could be wrong.
I started spending less time at the clubs in the late 70’s as I started dating the woman I would eventually marry. She was not too found of loud music which meant I carefully selected the shows I would attend in order to still maintain a relationship. One of the shows I will never forget is one late night at Maxs in the Summer of 197x. During this particular year, Maxs would occasionally schedule themed jam shows, where various NY musicians would form the main unit for the night and then other random musicians would get on stage to participate in a song or two. I can’t recall all of the various themes, but it would be something like “British Invasion Night” or themes like that. The night I went the theme was a tribute to the Stones. He nucleus of the band that night consisted mainly of Richard Lloyd of Television and Lenny Kaye of Patti Smith. During the night various musicians participated in the tribute. I believe that RG came on stage and did Susie Q. Unfortunately, I really don’t remember much about RGs performance that night since something else happened at the show that wound up becoming my main memory of the whole night. Johnny Thunders was on stage playing with the band. James White of the Contortions started to walk on stage to do a song. Apparently Johnny did not know James and started to ask people to leave the stage since it was getting crowded. James had a legitimate reason for being on stage and did not leave, presumably due to thinking that JT was not addressing his request to him. But, JT again made the request and this time pointed at James to leave. James refused to give back the mic and a struggle broke out to gain control of the mic. If you are not familiar with James, he was sort of slim and not very big. But, he refused to give up the mic and at the end of the scuffle he still had the mic although he was all disheveled from the struggle. At which point he announced “now due to popular demand, I will sing Route 66… ready band!”, The band started playing and James started singing, but then some asshole decided to jump on stage and grab the mic from James again. This time a full fist fight broke out spilling into the tables in the front room of Maxs. We never did get to hear James finish Route 66 that night, but it sure was a memorable show. But, I still cannot recall how RG did that night.
I really did not attend too many shows during the 80’s since I got married in 1980 and between raising a family and working there was little time available to go to clubs. I lost touch of the local bands but still was able to get some tapes of live shows occasionally from my friend Lewis who continued to attend shows. Of course I was still collecting records so I kept buying all the new releases from my favorite bands and of course kept on purchasing all of RGs new releases during this time. I was now living on Long Island and becoming way too lazy to go into New York City to attend shows. And eventually all the good clubs started to close down.
Then one day around the mid 90’s I was read a local Long Island newspaper and saw an ad that Robert Gordon was going to be appearing at a local watering hole (The Long Island Brewery Company) about 10 minutes from where I lived. I had no one to go with, but it was too convenient to pass this opportunity up. So I went to this club and found my way to the front of the make shift stage and stood my ground at the front of the stage. (The platform that was laid down was probably no more than 6 inches off the ground). I had to endure 2 opening bands, but then it was finally time for RG. It was so great to see him after all these years. I was surprised with his appearance as I would describe him as looking unhealthy, but I later learned about the attack on him that took place in NYC and understood why. It was a great show and I was standing about 3 inches from him as he was performing. As I said, he was no more that six inches off the ground so he was right in my face as he performed. He kept sticking the mic in my face during the typical songs where he asks the crowd to sing along, but he would turn off the mic as I screamed (I mean sang) along with him. I remember thinking that while he did not look too healthy, he sure could still sing. After the show I started to leave the club but found RG standing downstairs talking to someone whom I presume was the club owner. Although I usually will not pester performers and interrupt conversations, I knew I had to tell him how great his performance was. There was finally a break in his conversation so I eased up to him and told him how much I enjoyed the show…… he said “thanks buddy”. Normally I would think that a person was just being gracious but I got the feeling that he meant it. I did not bring a recording device to that show…. I don’t know why, but now I wish I did.
I can’t recall the next time I saw him perform, but I have been seeing him on and off since the early 2000s. Now that my daughters are all grown up and I have some more flexibility with being able to go to shows, I try to catch him as often as I can. He still has a great voice and I especially enjoy his off-stage patter in-between songs. I especially enjoy his laugh which is infectious. When he laughs his laugh, I just can’t help but laugh along even though most times I don’t know what the joke is. And yes, he is still in my top 5 list.