Posted: Feb. 2, 1999

Then and Now

by: Joe Wajgel

Except for Charlie Feathers and the Rock'n'Roll Trio, there were no rockabilly artists/bands in the fifties/sixties. There were only rock'n'roll bands who performed a variety of styles. But we knew not of rockabilly back then, only what we liked, which, much like today, was usually whatever our parents disliked. And dispite what you tend to believe from reading the many books about the era, the real big shows were few and far between and more expensive than most of us could afford. Believe me when I say that I collected Coke bottles for the deposit so I could go to the movies ($0.25 + $0.10 for popcorn and/or Coke). Deposit was $0.02 per bottle, so I needed about two dozen for a night out. A concert back then (I'm not looking this up, so I may be off a bit) was probably $1.50-2.00 per person, plus transportation and goodies. You're looking at collecting several cases of Coke bottles, which was unlikely (many Saturdays I was unable to find the required movie quota).

As for "scenes" there were basically three: The Greasers (tough, gang- types and wannabes); The Preppies (honor-rollers & sports heroes); and The Nerds (no change from today). I was, as you may expect to hear, not a member of any one of these groups, but all of them. I could easily move between one group to another without a problem. I can't exactly explain why, but that's how it was. As such, I can tell you that for fun quotient, the Greasers were far ahead of the others. Greasers listened to Conway Twitty, Carl Perkins, Ronnie Hawkins and (believe it or not) R&B! The Preppies (so-named because they were preparing for college) listened to Perry Como and all those Frankies and Bobbies that proliferated after rock'n'roll died. The Nerds listened to the Brothers Four, Peter, Paul & Mary and later Bob Dylan. (Yes, I still have my B4, PP&M and BD albums).

Wamma know about clothes? What you see on Happy Days is pretty much correct. Fonzie would have been a Greaser (but do you see how he's able to move across the line to the other groups?), jeans & white shirt (none of us could dream of affording a leather jacket). Preppies wore the basic costume Richie & his sister appear in. The Nerds wore what ever they had in their closet, usually hand-me-downs.

What did we do for fun? Well, once my allowance got up to $0.50, I'd blow half of it on weekend dances. These were held at the YMCA and (mostly) Catholic churches. I am not Catholic, but held a card that allowed me entrance to the CYO (Catholic Youth Club) dances. These had only recorded music, usually spun by a parent, no DJ chatter, just record after record. The YMCA offered more live music, but only local bands. The music these bands played varied from what we now call rockabilly (Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent) to Doo-Wop, and everything in between. There were three main purposes to go to these events (besides their being the only thing to do except watch TV): Pick up girls/guys; Get drunk, or: Enjoy the music (this is what the Nerds did if they even bothered to go out on weekends). I almost never listened to the music, being occupied with picking up chicks while getting drunk.

Until I was sixteen, I'd walk to/from these events, probably 2-3 miles each way, with a side-trip to meet up with a buddy, depending upon who and where he lived. Then I got my driver's license and everything changed. I had a radio I could listen to as loud as I wanted and no one complained. I could visit surrounding towns and go to their similar activities, and I could haul my booze around and pick up chicks much easier than afoot. Most frequently I'd have to take one of those aforementioned buddy's with me for gas money, but that's what the back seat was made for, wasn't it? Gas was $0.20-0.30 per gallon, and my cars usually got 10-12 mpg, so we didn't go that far most of the time.

Then I got a job, a real one that paid real good money (union scale). I thought, this is great! I can now afford a better car, unlimited gas money, records, clothes - I had it made (I thought). Problem was, I had to work every Friday night (not many girls out after 10pm, but there was still the booze), and every other Saturday night (until 12 midnight, no chicks, and really too late for boozing). When I did have the alternate Saturday night off, I had a steady girlfriend who I was required to take to the movies and a pizza afterwards. Not much time for fun, and by then the concerts sucked, being the early to mid- sixties.

Yes, there were times between girlfriends that I had a blast, spent the weekends going to dances & concerts (still primarily local bands) and generally boozing it up (I was already mostly into beer by this time, as I recall). But lots of times, my buddies weren't between, and had dates, so sometimes it meant being a third wheel, which was not that much fun then, anymore than it is now. Then I entered the Armed Services (Vietnam era), and it was all "California Dreaming" and "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" (with the occasional "96 Tears" for relief). By the time I got out in 1969, everything back home had changed (for the worse, I might add). Buddies were married or dead (Vietnam again), girlfiends were married (not that it mattered), and the music sucked. It sucked so bad that Don McLean's "American Pie" was about the best we could hope for.

From there to today is a straight line. I'm still working every Friday and Saturday night, my friends are (mostly) married, and the old gang is scattered all over the planet. I've been fortunate that some of them have kept in contact, and are still great people to be with, but others have either disappeared or bore me to death. Some have already attained old-age, believe it or not. Me, I'm still cruisin' and boozin', just like the old days (I didn't say good old days, did I?). And I'm now able to rediscover (and sometimes discover) the music that I loved back then, which I knew only as rock'n'roll but now is called rockabilly. Oh, I also love good Doo-Wop, and there is such a thing as basic rock'n'roll, which I also enjoy. They say hindsight is 20-20 and memory is blurred, but what I hear on those import booglegs from Collector, Buffalo Bop, Lucky, et al is what I call real rock'n'roll music, and I'll continue to search for it until I'm satisfied.

In August of 1998 I was blessed with the opportunity to attend the first reunion of a band called the Matadors who performed only live and locally from around 1961-1965 in my hometown of South Milwaukee, Wisconsin. These guys were strongly influenced by The Legends, who are becoming legends as more and more people hear their music, now available on CD. This trip was a highlight in my life, in that we were all (five of us) instantly connected to each other in a way I cannot discribe. It was as if 1965 were yesterday. I have since been able to keep in touch with the other four, and we are planning to make a CD in the near future of the songs they performed back in the sixties. For me, this is the best that there is.

-Joe Wajgel

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