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RockNotes: Bowzer vs. The Replacements

1. If you met Bowzer from Sha Na Na, would you be "star-struck"? Moreover, would you do his political bidding? Apparently bowled over by the who-knew star power of the 1970s doo-wopper, that's what legislators in 10 states have done, according to the Associated Press, which reports that Tennessee, the birthplace of rock 'n' roll, has passed Bowzer's Law (my name for it), which makes it illegal to pass yourself off as an original 1950s vocal group.

bowzer.jpgThe report says Bowzer celebrated the Tennessee Legislature's unanimous passage of the new law by performing the single most famous doo-wop riff, the bass part of the Marcels' 1961 hit cover of "Blue Moon," before "star-struck" state officials. You'd think that with all the music industry icons tripping over themselves around Nashville, it would take more than an appearance by a nearly-60-year-old faux greaser to get the girls at the Capitol to throw underwear. But then, maybe Kenny Chesney and his posse don't work their way up the hill very often.

Bowzer is in charge of an effort by the Vocal Group Hall of Fame Foundation to make sure that original doo-wop outfits like the Platters, the Drifters and the Del Vikings don't get ripped off by the seeming legions of imposters out there that go around exploiting the good names of the original artists. I guess I didn't know the county fair circuits were still in the market for doo-wop groups - apparently so much so that the army of cheap knock-offs it has spawned requires special laws to keep them in check. The Great Pretenders, indeed.

I suppose I agree that these early R&R pioneers need all the help they can get - they were basically robbed blind by unscrupulous producers, record labels and venue managers from one end of the boardwalk to the other, and it would be nice if the survivors were able to scratch out some coin without their names being cheapened by yet more skullduggery. I guess it's just the idea that it's up to someone from Sha Na Na, which launched the tradition of imitating these artists in the first place, to protect them. The irony is as thick as the grease in Bowzer's hair.

2. While Bowzer is fighting for them in the political trenches, ancient pop stars like the doo-wop era people are also seeing a bit more money thanks to the coming of the digital age. iTunes and Rhapsody are proving instrumental to introducing '50s and '60s rock and pop to new audiences thanks to the fact that consumers can buy singles again, just like the original fans of the Chiffons and the Drifters did. Albums killed the doo-wop stars, after all. Their medium was the 45 rpm buck-a-copy single. Now it's back at a buck-a-download.

The Los Angeles Times says online sales of "deep catalog" songs jumped more than 100 percent between 2005 and 2006. Maybe that's proof that the tight playlists on corporate-owned so-called oldies stations are doing a huge disservice to younger listeners, depriving them of a chance to really find out about their musical and cultural roots. The Times says this phenomenon is helping to once again line the pockets of some all-but forgotten pop stars like Frankie Avalon and members of The Archies. It probably isn't helping the likes of the original mostly black doo-wop groups, who lost the rights to their performances long, long ago.

My hope is that the Internet will eventually break the depressing, self-fulfilling cycle of ever-shrinking, ever-worsening music choices being offered by the half-dozen multinationals that are conspiring with lawmakers to control everything we hear and see. I hope The Man can hear me: Don't cut us off from our Archies heritage, or The People will rise up!

3. As some of you may know, I cut my music geek teeth in 1980s Minneapolis, where as a grad student at the University of Minnesota (and especially at its student newspaper, The Minnesota Daily), I roamed the byways and highways of the city searching out and eagerly devouring anything that smacked of punk rock. In that way I was able to take part in something pretty magical - something that felt very strongly of being almost historic, in its own scruffy, homespun kind of way. It was indeed Seattle before there was a Seattle.

Anyway, a little later on in the '90s, pretty much after the hype had passed, there came a Minneapolis band called Lifter Puller that really caught my fancy, almost totally because of its singer, Craig Finn. He had a unique, dangerous sounding kind of talk-singing that was so strange and powerful that I knew right off it marked Lifter Puller as a fine successor in the long line of local punk bands that included the Replacements and Husker Du. And now it's official: Finn's current band, the Hold Steady, has been anointed "this year's buzz band" by The Guardian. And to celebrate, Finn has penned perhaps one of the best tributes to my so-beloved '80s Minneapolis scene that I have ever read, as a guest column for the British daily. It's an emotional account of how those now-infamous local bands inspired him as an early teenager to break free of the ennui and mediocrity of his wealthy but soulless suburb and find his (truly weird but wonderful) voice through rock 'n' roll.

You can read the whole piece here, but here are a few of excerpts that I most identified with:

craig_finn.jpg"Early in the summer before the eighth grade, a friend had hipped me to a band called the Replacements. Apparently his older sister knew the bass player, Tommy Stinson, who was just a few years older than us. He told me the band lived in nearby south Minneapolis, and was 'sort of like the Ramones.' I picked up their Hootenanny album. It was sloppy and fun rock 'n' roll, with wild lead guitars and a great sense of humour. The second song on the record, 'Run It,' advised recklessness in the form of running red lights, naming south Minneapolis streets: 'Lyndale, Garfield, Run It!' It was a revelation that such excitement lived so close to me, just a few miles east, an easy bicycle or bus ride. I picked up their remaining records as quickly as I could. It took a 45-minute bus ride to south Minneapolis, to a shambling record store called Oar FolkJokeOpus (diagonally opposite from the CC Club, where the Replacements supposedly drank). But the journeys into the city were part of the excitement, and part of the folklore that existed around the band, both for real and in my head.

"October 1984 brought a change to my life, and also to Minneapolis. It was around this time that I started noticing the graffiti of the local street gangs the Gangster Disciples and the Vice Lords, our local chapters of the national Crips and Blood gangs. Within a year, they had murdered a high school girl in Martin Luther King park, and many years and many murders later, The New York Times dubbed my hometown 'Murderapolis.' Our city's biggest celeb, Prince, had finally become a megastar with Purple Rain. And the Replacements released Let It Be, which still stands as my favourite ever record.

"Like most records, it arrived on a Tuesday, but I wasn't able to get to the store until Saturday. The anticipation was killing me. I didn't even know what the cover looked like. I convinced my father to drive me to the store, and he did me one better by buying the record for me. Even he could tell this one was 'important.' The cover art was a thing of beauty, the coolest known band in the universe just sitting on a roof, looking disheveled and uninterested. I scanned the song titles: 'I Will Dare,' 'Favorite Thing,' 'We're Coming Out.' My father raised his eyebrows at the title 'Gary's Got a Boner' but still shelled out. The record store clerk was kind enough to turn down the volume and point to each of us: 'Cool dad. Cool kid,' he said. I am sure my father doesn't remember that, but I always will."

Thanks for the memories, Craig.


Comments? Send them to Don Jacobson at


Posted on May 11, 2007

MUSIC - Britney's IUD.
TV - Vizio's Best Product Is You.
POLITICS - UIC: Soda Taxes Work.
SPORTS - Locked Out And Loaded.

BOOKS - Foxconned.


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