A chord left of NORMal

[A revised version of this essay was published in the May 2013 issue of Radius Magazine.]

Rock and roll is dead, and let’s not bullshit ourselves.

It’s not that rock doesn’t still exist. But, as far as I’m concerned a band is no longer at the vanguard once they’ve released a greatest hits album, and I can pick up a Foo Fighters compilation at the supermarket. Three decades-plus after Bruce Springsteen concurrently graced the covers of Newsweek and Time, it’s MIA or Lady Gaga in The New York Times. The White Stripes are done – and their “groundbreaking” work was only a quirky reinterpretation of Zeppelin licks. Radiohead can still shake and stir, but they shook the “rock” moniker long ago.

I’m not bitter about it, but I’m not happy about it either. I came of age on a steady diet of The Beatles and Hendrix as Pearl Jam and Nirvana became titans. Most of my work today involves teaching, playing or writing about rock music. And I’m telling you, it’s dead. Despite even how many great local bands there are right now, it’s still headed to the museum wing next to jazz. Rock and roll is music based on the pentatonic scale, and we’ve wrung every decent riff out of those five notes.

The only question that remains, then, is, what made it so vibrant, and so important, in the first place? Why was it the predominant musical style and huge cultural force it once was? Was it actually the sounds or some sort of spirit, some passion or zeitgeist, which embodied itself in rock and roll for a couple of decades before moving to a new host?

It’s a question I ask myself often, especially on Sunday nights – because that’s when I see Norm.

One could say that walking into Norm’s house is like walking into a time capsule. Nestled in the Tacony section of Northeast Philadelphia, the faded wallpaper, decades-old TV, 70’s Flyers memorabilia and shelves upon shelves of vinyl records certainly represent times past.

But, that would be a cheap trope, and off the mark. Let me back up.

Norm Russell hosts open mike night every Sunday at a place called Reale’s near his home. Like his house, he himself seems transported from a different era. His graying mustache and round haircut and make him look like an extra from Mean Streets who never updated his look. He plays and old acoustic guitar with an external pickup, as opposed to more recent, popular models with electronics built into them. The music from which he reads is either handwritten or photocopied from old books. I think the most “modern” song he plays is Follow You, Follow Me by Genesis. One time, a friend and I had to explain the game Tetris to him.

Not Grand Theft Auto. Not even SkyrimTetris.

Yet as out-of-date as he sounds, he’s far from a novelty. On Sunday night, kids who were infants when Nevermindcame out stop what they’re doing when Norm plays his Simon & Garfunkel medley. At 31 years old, I’m one of the older regulars. The night normally ends with him accompanying a 21-year-old girl singing the Mamas and the Papas – although occasionally he’ll cave to our chants for him to play Zanzibar by Billy Joel, even though the bar is technically closed.

One band comprising people in their mid-twenties insists Norm joins them on Chicago’s 25 or 6 to 4 –with no trace of irony. When he does, we all cheer. We yell “Yeah Norm!” to anything he plays. Hell, we cheer “Yeah Norm!” when we see a friend’s band play on a different night in a different bar. It’s like a code, an insider’s password.

Sunday nights are The Clubhouse. We take pictures and post them on our Norm fan page on Facebook (which, of course, he doesn’t know exists). We affectionately impersonate Norm’s sheepish demeanor, and crack jokes all night.  My friend Jeff says his face aches on Monday mornings from smiling so much.

Again, one could easily talk about Norm bringing out the music lover in all of us: he can play the same song every Sunday for a year, and his raw, earnest joy will put those huge smiles on our faces. And, the music certainly takes on a life of its own: when the mood is right, people will plug in their guitars and play along with other acts. Singers will harmonize on familiar songs, and occasionally a second drummer will commandeer half the set.

But again, that would be a cheap trope. There’s more to it than that.

Back to Norm’s house. We go there sometimes after Reale’s closes to sip rum from novelty shot glasses: a mini-martini glass, a tiny shoe. It’s like drinking with Monopoly pieces.

Norm owns literally thousands of vinyl records. The majority are in his upstairs hallway on floor-to-ceiling shelves spanning the length of his house. There are more in a few crates in the crowded living room, and tucked away in oddly-placed rooms that were clearly carved out of larger spaces years ago. His house is like a labyrinth of music. He’s got a system wherein he can tell if he’s gotten a chance to listen to a record based on the position with which he’s shelved it.

At four AM one morning, 10 of us crammed in an octagonal room on the second floor filled with amps and more shelves of records. Three people here are 21. Big Tim is 26. His band mates are all younger. Yet here we are, hanging out with a guy twice as old as some of us, as if we were all in a college dorm with our immediate peers.

Norm asks us to guess what band is playing. It’s clearly from the late sixties but sounds ahead of its time. Someone says it sounds like a modern band trying to sound retro. Another observes it sounds like a cross between east and west coast 60s pop. It turns out to be The Nazz, Todd Rundgren’s old band. The first time I was there, Norm ceremoniously played a rare test pressing of Abbey Road.  This time he plays Bookends for me, my favorite Simon & Garfunkel record. The song Old Friends instantly floods me with memories from a half decade ago, when I’d listen to it almost every day on my way to work.

As the night rolls on, conversations fragment: a dissertation on early Frank Zappa albums here, a discussion about Ozzy Osbourne there. Norm floats through each one, adding to them either more information or his trademark admission: “Wow. I did not know that.”  At six AM, I begrudgingly left because they were about to listen to Pet Sounds all the way through, and even though I should have already left a while before  I knew I wouldn’t leave once the needle dropped.

Rock and roll is dead, and that’s okay. There was always community behind great rock and roll, a rallying point: the rebellion against conservative ‘50s culture; the progressive social changes of the ‘60s; the DIY punk aesthetic that launched in the late ‘70s. The spirit that gave it vitality hasn’t dissipated.

Norm – and his house and his records – are our rallying point. We all knew rock and roll, and we all played music before we met him. But, we were, at best, just a bunch of musicians scattered around Northeast Philly. Norm and his Sundays made us more than that. Today most of us gig regularly and share a rehearsal studio. We set up shows together, sub for people when they can’t make a gig, and borrow each other’s equipment. When newcomers become regulars, they often end up with one of the “veterans” in their band. And, whenever anyone has a show, least one of us will be in the audience to yell, “Yeah Norm!”

Rock and roll is dead, and that’s okay. Even if style of music in which we work is in decline, the passion and sense of community we’ve tapped into never will.

PS: I’m not kidding about our Norm fanpage. You can find it here.

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