Life in the Key of Bang -August 2013
by: J.A. Stanton
Listen to “Mississippi Queen.”
Dig out your old records or find it on the vast digital record collection out there on the Web. TURN IT UP LOUD. Do it now. This magazine story will be here when you get back. Listen to the cowbell, to the first piercing notes of the guitar riff, the driving rhythms, the clash of cymbals. Remember the way the music lodged itself in your chest when you were young and rang in your ears later, as you walked the late-night streets, after the clubs closed. TURN IT UP LOUD.
CORKY LAINGisdrumming, but not loudly. He puts down his toast in the middle of breakfast at Fog Island and softly drums on the table-top with his hands, changing the beat to match a story about the way the art of making music by banging a drum has changed from the power trios of the 1970s, to the disco of the ’80s, to punk, to heavy metal. He is 65 years old, no longer the skinny kid shattering drumsticks as he pounded out the beat for bands like Mountain and West, Bruce & Laing.
It is a long road from 1967, when Laing was the drummer for a band called Energy, playing sweaty summer nights at the late, great, island music club Thirty Acres, to that day when people began tagging the word “legendary” to his name, as in “legendary rock drummer Corky Laing” and the music he helped create in his youth began being called classic rock. It is a long road.
In between there were two gold records with the power-blues band Mountain, and a handful of attempts at Mountain redux. There were chances to make music with some of the people who defined rock and roll. There were good times involving the infamous sex, drugs and rock and roll philosophy. There were bad times involving the infamous sex, drugs and rock and roll philosophy. There was money made and money lost. There were friends and band-mates lost. There were probably a few too many nights playing “Mississippi Queen.” All the while Laing managed somehow to stretch himself as a drummer and a songwriter, as an artist, never afraid to try new things.
His next new thing is a one-man show about how to survive that long, often out-ofcontrol, rock and roll road, “Corky Laing: Best Seat in the House.” The show will be on-island Aug. 19, at Bennett Hall, for one night only.
Conversations with Laing have the habit of turning into verbal riffs that somehow manage to loop back to the original point and are filled with a sense of wonderment that one thing led to another and he was there to see it all. This one included stories of rock excess, life on Nantucket in the 1970s, rockers facing middle age, the strange experience of being called professor by college students, and, somehow, biogenetic engineering.
Rock and roll might be considered a sort of sonic historic marker, or at least the soundtrack for the Baby Boomer generation, but the idea of rock stars turning into university professors is a bit jarring.
Corky Laing: My brother Steve is a professor of marketing at McGill University, in Montreal. One day he asked me to guest-lecture about record promotion and marketing, because I had spent some years working at Polygram and knew some things about the record industry. So I did a few of those guest lectures and they went pretty well. The funny thing was that the professors seemed to enjoy them more than the students. Pretty soon I was asked to do the same thing at the University of Western Ontario. They have a course called Advanced Entertainment Studies, and in 2009 and 2010, we made a series of online lectures about the ethics of living a rock and roll lifestyle.
Jacob Brackman, who wrote music for Carly Simon, once said that, “In the 1950s to be a teenager was to be nobody, then in the 1960s to be a teenager was to be everybody. It was the beginning of the youth movement.”
The lectures began being about that sort of identity and then they became about lifestyle. In the end I think it just came down to the fact that I still have a pulse and a lot of musicians from those days don’t.
When I was doing the guest lecture at McGill the people who really came back afterward to talk were the professors, who were 50, 60 years old. During a Q&A session after one of the lectures, there was this girl in the front row. At the very end she raised her hand and asked, “Who are you?” After that whole lecture, she honestly had no idea who I was (laughs).
At the University of Western Ontario the students have to call you professor, even if you are a guest lecturer, and the first time that happened it just blew my brains out. It was just very funny.
Nantucket Today: The band Energy was you on drums, George Gardos on bass guitar and Gary Ship on the organ. The story of how “Mississippi Queen” was conceived during a show at Thirty Acres is one of those moments that can be said to be part of the island’s sonic history.
CL: It was August in 1969. We were playing at Thirty Acres. Roy Bailey had a girl who was from someplace down South and they were dancing and she was just beautiful. Right in the middle of a song the whole island had a blackout. There was one of those emergency lights and it seemed to be shining on me. I had the only acoustic instrument, so I just kept riffing on the drums and making things up, hollering thing at Roy like, “Mississippi Queen, if you know what I mean.” We got fired right after that and managed to get a gig in New York and I ran into Leslie (West) and Felix (Pappalardi) there. We worked on the song, with Leslie’s guitar riff and it was on the first Mountain album.
Energy was the summer band at Thirty Acres from 1967 to 1969. You learn a great deal when you play from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. You get to learn how to play for an audience, how to reach an audience. You know that thing about 10,000 hours? (In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell famously suggested that it takes 10,000 hours of work to develop your talent). My 10,000 hours came at Thirty Acres. I’m not sure how much actual talent we had, but we really tried to get into a magical place and that fueled the music.
Nantucket, in those days, was not just a place, it was a little world and a lot of great creative people passed through that world. There were people hanging around like Frank Conroy (who in 1967, at 31 years old, had just published “Stop Time”) and David Halberstam. Frank helped me write some of the songs on a record called “Making It On the Street.” That guy could write a novel in a couple of lyrics. And the guys at the VFW let me use the place to rehearse. (That 1977 record includes work by Eric Clapton and Dickey Betts, and the cover art is a very Nantucket scene, complete with cobblestones leading down to the ocean). The ghosts of Thirty Acres go back to all the bands they had there, not necessarily the music but the vibe, the freedom. It was a very creative time for me. In the first two albums with Mountain, when Felix would let me fly with some songs, all of that came out of Nantucket.
In 1969, Laing left Energy and joined Felix Pappalardi, on bass guitar, and Leslie West, on lead guitar, in Mountain, replacing drummer N.D. Smart. Pappalardi had worked as a producer for Cream, beginning with the album “Disraeli Gears.”
The band’s first album “Climbing!” earned a gold record, as did their second album, “Nantucket Sleighride.” In 1972, Mountain broke up (for the first time) and Laing and West joined former Cream bass player and vocalist Jack Bruce to form West, Bruce & Laing.
NT: Those early 1970s days with Mountain and with West, Bruce & Laing seem like the apex of the sex, drugs and rock and roll days. How do you go about telling both the high points and the low points of those days?
CL: The stories in the show are told with humor, but are told by somebody who managed to live through that lifestyle. At that point drugs broke up a lot of bands. They changed everybody’s disposition, especially when combined with the excesses of the music industry, and I’m talking about the money, the drugs, everything. Inflated egos and insecurities went hand in hand, it seemed like. All of that affected the pace of living on the road. I think it was Dizzy Gillespie who said, “I don’t get paid to play. I get paid to travel.”
Felix was on top of the world. Cream set the standard for rock trios. He was a brilliant, brilliant, musician. But his ego got out of control. He would drive around Nantucket in his Rolls Royce and shoot out electrical resisters on the power lines on Eel Point Road. Somehow he never got into trouble. But it came to a point where we used to have to disarm Felix when he came to my place for a barbecue.
I got out of it because I had bought the Nantucket house and had horses and would come back off the road and essentially have a rehab here and was able to keep myself together.
NT: What has happened to rock and roll since those days?
CL: Advertising people got involved. It’s everywhere, in commercials these days, food, hotels. It ain’t the way it used to be. There was a mystique to it back then. You didn’t know what was going to happen and that could lead to very magical moments. Now I don’t think it really means anything anymore, at least not what it used to mean. I call it rock without the roll. There’s a great quote from Leonard Cohen, where he says that there came a time when people just didn’t want to listen to the words. And sometimes I think we are getting to that point.
But you know, these days there are a lot of interesting acoustic bands. It’s almost like people want to see things done the old-fashioned way. Even vinyl records are coming back. I keep working on the drums to stay ahead of myself. These days when kids think of drums it’s that house-music beat, which is really a disco beat.
NT: How different is it being on stage as a musician and on stage as a theatrical performer?
CL: I feel I went from being a drummer to being a musician. But when you step out from behind that drum kit and walk up to the front of the stage, it feels like it's 1,000 miles away. John Shea really helped me with that, to try and become a performer.
I tried it out in a bar called Barfly, in Montreal, one night. I kind of just walked in. I was in Montreal for the jazz festival, so we were able to set something up. The first show was just a disaster, but a few people who were there saw something in it and I began to think it might work, if I did a lot of rewriting.
We worked on it in Dix Hills, Long Island, and then took it to Finland to a rock club called On the Rocks. It’s unbelievable there. There are more heavy-metal bands in Finland than anywhere else in the world, I think. I mean at a show you see grandmothers as well as their grandkids. I think it is because they have so many rules there that they see rock as a celebration of life without rules. I really never considered myself a heavy-metal drummer, but I guess they do.
Basically, I just hang out and talk about things and mix in some music. It’s like reinventing yourself. I had been getting complacent, playing in a rock band and getting paid and going home to pay the bills. You get so secure behind that drum kit.
When you get to a certain age everything has happened. It’s not like when you’re young and everything is about to happen. The show looks at some of those things that happened. And despite all the B.S., there was a joy in it.
Laing did a stint as a record-company executive, working for Polygram Records between 1989 and 1995. There have been more than a few reincarnations of Mountain, but in 1999 former Jimi Hendrix Experience bass player Noel Redding and former Spin Doctors guitarist and vocalist Eric Shenkman joined Laing, on drums and vocals, to form the band Cork. Their first album “Speed of Thought” caused one critic to call them “a pan-generation supergroup.”
NT: You were somehow able to stay viable as an artist, to try new bands and new sounds over the years. And now a rock opera about bioengineering?
CL: I really don’t know what to say about that (laughs). It’s really hard to explain. Basically, I got a call from these professors who said, “we have an opera we are trying to put together called ‘Playing God,’ and it's about ethical decisions facing bioengineering. Do you want to write the lyrics and music?”
I wouldn’t call it a rock opera. That sounds too pretentious. It’s more of a musical.
It’s way on the other side of the spectrum from what I do, but they wanted a heavy rock vibe. The ideas are complicated and they wanted the music to be simple. I have no idea why they asked me, but that’s as close as I can come.
It takes place in a town called Happyville and the main character is a junkie jazz musician named Jake. Some of the plot has to do with cloning. I wrote 22 musical snippets over the last year and a half and we were in Paris a couple of weeks ago, presenting a PowerPoint version of it to 40 or 50 philosophy-department heads. It was pitched as a tool for teaching bioethical studies, to use the conflicts in the drama as an outline and as a teaching tool. Do I think it will work? I have absolutely no idea. But after Paris we were asked to present it at universities in New York and Tel Aviv.
They just told me this versus that and I put it into lyrics and put music to it. It’s so ambitious. Will everybody get it? No. I’m still working on getting it, myself. It’s the heaviest challenge I’ve had in a long time.
NT: How does it feel when you look back across at those years?
CL: Well, Felix got killed. (He was shot by his wife, Gail Collins). Steve Knight (former Mountain keyboardist) just died. Leslie lost a leg to diabetes. I feel like I’m the last drummer standing. Malcolm Bruce, who is Jack Bruce’s kid, said that I had lived long enough to be the Ancient Mariner of rock and roll. I can live with that. I’m 65 and cannot believe I’m still doing it. My success is that I’m still alive and still playing the drums.