My introduction to that strange Midwest celebration of air guitar as art came at a time when I wasn’t sure what kind of musical path I wanted to follow.
I wish I could say the air guitar competition I observed at Uncle Sam’s in Minneapolis on July 23, 1981, helped me settle that decision at all. What it did, however, was show me how much diversity I wanted out of my music, and that variety was on display throughout the evening.
I was at the club to see Squeeze. The world was changing. John Lennon was murdered in December 1980, and I wasn’t sure I could enjoy music at all anymore. Six weeks after Lennon’s murder – and it seemed far longer than that, like maybe forever – I saw Elvis Costello in concert for the first time. Squeeze was the opening act. The extent of my knowledge about Squeeze at the time was they had a name I made fun of regularly.
A couple of friends owned a record store in Rochester, Minn., and were far more aware of the music scene exploding around them than I was. (The first time I was aware of The Replacements was seeing the autographed copy of “Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash” that they displayed at the front of the store.) My thrill was them bringing in hundreds of import albums, and hundred of used albums with a variety I’d never imagined.
(In fact, I worked briefly at the store. When the part-time hours proved too difficult for me to manage along with my full-time work, I announced my decision to leave the record store. Because I had liberally taken advantage of the employee discount buying records, I had to work without pay for three weeks just so we’d be even.)
Lennon was murdered on a Monday, and I lived in a fog for the rest of the week. On the Saturday of that week, I wandered into the record store. My friends were at the front counter on the phone, and I waved and started my walk through the store.
Immediately, they were on either side of me, walking with my as I found my way to the new releases area. “You OK, buddy?” one asked. “You all right, Tim?” the other asked. “We were just trying to call you.”
They were worried about how I was handling the news, certainly because the first reason they were aware of me was as the long-haired guy who bought all the Beatles imports.
Their obvious concern for my well-being was touching. And they followed through with more a week later.
They were as aware of my worship of Elvis Costello as they were of my Beatles passion. Costello was going to play a Minneapolis theater in a few weeks time. We, they pronounced, were all going to go.
I wasn’t sure what the make of the idea. More than a year previous, I’d decided live shows were to programmed for me. I sat through an arena show where the opening act played exactly 45 minutes, and after exactly 30 minutes, the headliner played for exactly 90. The performances were fine. But the method seemed too constricting, and I thought if that’s what it had all turned into, I wasn’t so interested anymore.
I agreed, though. I knew enough about Costello by that time to know that his concerts could be kind of dangerous. I’d read about 30-minute sets with every song played double time, I was aware of a man who seemed to have a contempt for a portion of his audience, and his music felt wildly dangerous. I didn’t know what I was going to see, but I was fairly certain it wasn’t going to be 45 minutes of an opening act, 30 minutes of switchover time, and 90 minutes of headliner.
And Squeeze was the opening act. My record store friends were convinced I’d love the band. They were right, of course, but they had to shove vinyl into my hands and demand I listen to convince me.
Fortunately, this was at a time when record companies were doing crazy things to get the attention of customers. My friends pointed me toward the oddly-named “6 Squeeze Songs Crammed Into One Ten-Inch Record.” It was in the odd 10-inch format, had an odd die-cut cover, and (probably most important) was available at a discount price. It was enough of a taste to get me interested in the ban. But it wasn’t until seeing their phenomenal stage show that I became a convert.
Obviously, that show helped convince me music and I could still have a relationship. And that’s what brought me to Uncle Sam’s six months later to see Squeeze again.
But before Squeeze came on was one of the lead-ups, an air guitar contest. I thought this was an odd one-off until a few years later, when I became friends with someone who led a group that had success competing in these for a while at the same period of time.
It was brilliant. My friend and his mates cut their “instruments” out of cardboard, but there were dozens of other ways to equip your band. At the Squeeze show, two guys my age “strummed” tennis rackets and mimed to The Clash’s “White Riot,” shoving each other away from their unwired microphone as they alternated lines. Another guy used a broomstick and dervished his way through The Clash’s “Big Black Cadillac,” punctuating his performance by running at a dead sprint from the back of the stage and leaping down to the club’s dance floor, landing perfectly and never missing a beat.
More than Clash songs were mimed. Four comically clean-cut and identically dressed individuals sashayed onto the stage holding hairbrushes for microphones and miming Manhattan Transfer’s “Operator.” (Pretty well, too, actually.) To show what an accepting group was attending the show, they received applause. And more important, the act that won the competition performed an even more unlikely tune: AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.”
I’d been trained to think that Squeeze was punk/New Wave. (They seemed the same to me at the time, and included The Knack, Costello, Tom Petty, Dire Straits, Blondie, Squeeze, and many more about which I was clearly confused. Essentially I’d arrived at the conclusion that if they were new and I liked them, they were New Wave.) And punks and New Wavers hated that stupid metal shit. And Led Zeppelin and The Eagles and Pink Floyd.
The problem was, while I wasn’t really nuts about AC/DC at the time, I really liked Led Zeppelin and The Eagles and Pink Floyd and some of the other stupid metal shit. I was not only surprised to see some guys get up on stage and make us listen to AC/DC, I was taken aback to see they appeared to be enjoying themselves, and so did the audience.
Again, we had tennis rackets, and no real attempt to resemble the actual band in any way. The “drummer” sat with a plastic bucket between his legs and pretended to whomp on it. To complete the ridiculous nature of what we were seeing, he wore a mop on his head. Literally. A mop.
It was a delightful hour or so. I was taken by the fun people were having onstage and in the audience. And while most acts didn’t try to look like the acts whose song they were miming, I appreciated the effort of the Manhattan Transfer people.
And one other one, the band I thought should have won. The only thing I heard when they were introduced was “Graham Parker and The Rumour.” I was suddenly interested, following a couple of mediocre efforts. I looked up and saw … Graham Parker and The Rumour. They looked exactly like every photo I’d seen of the band.
And the music started, something I didn’t recognize. I slowly realized it was “I Want You Back,” which I only knew as a Jackson Five song. I didn’t know Graham Parker had ever recorded it. And I didn’t know he’d recorded it so well. And the guys doing the miming were perfect.
They didn’t win. But I did. I was eventually able to find Parker’s recordings of the song (live and studio), not an easy task in those pre-Internet days, where I struggled to figure out performers’ discographies and origins. (Who the hell were Ducks Deluxe, anyway? Took me a while to even find a bootleg live recording.)
I love the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back.” But the version I hear in my head is always Graham Parker’s.
(I don’t do it much anymore, but there was a time when my go-to karaoke song was “I Want You Back.” But I was never paying tribute to Michael Jackson. It was always Graham Parker.)