That I would spend my life writing and playing music was evident in my childhood. It was already how I spent my life.
That I would eventually be radicalized was less obvious. It is not the inevitable fate of North Alabamians, though it is not unheard of: Helen Keller was a Socialist by age 18.
Maybe Keller woke up younger than I did, but there were signs abounding.
At the age of twelve I wrote a letter to Dr. Werner Von Braun, expressing my interest in the planet Uranus and inviting him to share whatever igovernment informationi he possessed.
A few weeks later an official-looking envelope arrived at our house on North Washington Street. I tore it open eagerly and found a letter from the Selective Service, ordering me to report for a physical. I had been drafted.
Afraid to show the letter to my parents, and convinced that my interest in the mysterious planet beyond Neptune had drawn Uncle Samis attention to me, I became Americais youngest draft dodger. Obviously Von Braun had fingered me, and for a long time I expected ithemi to come for me. Had I stumbled into some secret Project Uranus and asked the wrong question? Would they apprehend me at school and take me away? Would my family even be told what had happened to me?
I was to cross paths with Von Braun on several occasions (unbeknownst to him). He and my band were both present, some years later, in the studio when Huntsvilleis television station went on the air with its first broadcast. He sat at one end of the room, holding forth on the historic significance of the occasion. Another German scientist, Karl Ferdinand Braun, had invented the first cathode ray tube device in 1897.
Occasionally the announcer would interrupt Von Braunis musings and call for a musical interlude. My band would erupt into an instrumental called iJupiter C,i originally recorded by Pat and the Satellites. We were, I am pleased to say, considerably louder than the rocket engine tests to which Von Braun was accustomed, and he did everything but dive under the desk when we hit the opening chords.
That my father, a former POW and survivor of Omaha Beach, would wind up taking care of Von Braunis automobile at Redstone Arsenal is one of the more grotesque (and disturbing) ironies I have encountered: The scientist who had used concentration camp slave labor to build his V2 rockets using a disabled American veteran to polish his car. But like me, Wilburn Vest knew nothing of Von Braunis Nazi past.
iI Aim for The Stars,i Von Braunis his film bio was called. It presented him as a victim of discrimination.
In those early days of rock and roll, a band could just pull up to a TV or radio station and offer to perform. The stations were glad to see them coming, most of the time. If you had a record, the DJ would cue it up while you told him about it and then give it a spin. If two or three people called the station and said they liked it, it got played again and again.
WVOK, down in Birmingham, had a Saturday program called the Dixie Jamboree. We recorded a reel of tape and drove the hundred miles of two-lane road to get it on the air. Our plan was to sit in the car outside the station and hear ourselves on the radio, an unimaginable thrill. Alas, none of us knew anything about tape and heat. By the time we arrived at the WVOK, our recording had practically melted.
The trip was not a total loss. Live in the studio that day was one of the greatest bands I have ever heard: James McDaniel and the Rhythm Rockets. What I wouldnit give to have a recording of that band.
After high school I left home and headed down to Birmingham, hoping to catch on with a band like that. Two weeks later I was a member of The Esquires, Jerry Woodardis band, playing seven nights a week, from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m., at Pappyis Club, out on the Jasper Highway.
Woodard had made some popular records, one for RCA Victor, making him a regional star. We cut some new sides for Heart, a local label, and took the show on the road to Florida.
By late 1961, it was becoming harder to get anything that sounded like rock and roll on the radio. Truth to tell, rock musicians were afraid the age of rock and roll was over. You hardly ever heard anything that sounded like a band playing anymore. The days when you could turn the dial and hear Gene Vincent or Little Richard were gone. Once in a while you could still find Fats Domino or Roy Orbison.
Since radio was still the only way you could hear any music in your car, this made driving a constant outrage, as you listened hour after hour trying to hear something good. The whole band used to scream at the radio.
Television was much worse, of course. You could watch American Bandstand for months and not see anybody you wanted to see. If you wanted Carl Perkins, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, Dale Hawkins, Wanda Jackson, Bobby Blue Bland, you were out of luck. You got Bobby Rydell and Fabian.
If you had ever heard what I had heard, you could never be happy with that crap.
In early 1958, when I was still 14, I had gone to the old National Guard Armory in Huntsville for a Carl Perkins/Roy Orbison/Johnny Cash show. Orbison didnit make it; his wife was having a baby that night. Cash was cool enough, with the Tennessee Three. But Carl Perkins was a life-changing experience.
From the instant he hit the first note of iMatchbox,i my life was on a new course. I had never heard anything like it. I still havenit. I am still waiting for a rock and roll show that rocks harder than Carl Perkins did that night. If you never saw him live, Iim sorry for you. You had to feel it to believe it.
I saw Jerry Lee Lewis in the same building a few months later. A much tamer show. And somehow I had convinced my mother to let me go down to Birmingham and see two or three great rhythm and blues reviews. Those shows were segregated. They played for the white kids in the afternoon and the black kids at night. For two dollars one afternoon I saw Big Joe Turner, Sammy Turner, Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley, Lavern Baker, Big Maybelle, The Drifters (with Ben E. King), The Coasters, Barrett Strong, Sam Cooke, Clyde McPhatter, Hank Ballard and The Midnighters and Lloyd Price.
Now I was almost 18. I had met Elvisis dad, Vernon (that story is on ). I was jamming in Pensacola with Bill Blackis Combo and I wasnit about to listen to any Frankie Avalon.
On New Yearis Day, 1962, we did a TV show in Mobile in the morning and a concert with Roy Orbison. There was a problem: the promoter had forgotten to inform the local media that there was to be a matinee as well as an evening show. Only a handful of people showed up for the afternoon concert. The opening acts went on, and I was in the dressing room with Roy when the promoter came back.
iThereis nobody out there. Letis just give eem two or three songs and go get some early supper.i
iI canit do that,i said Orbison. He didnit want anyone to be able to say they bought a ticket to see Roy Orbison and got ripped off.
Roy Orbison walked onstage and did his whole set for an almost-empty hall. He held nothing back. The power of his voice was astounding.
iThat was amazing,i I told him when he came offstage. iYou sang your heart out for about 50 people.i
iThey bought a ticket,i he told me. iAnd every one of them paid the same price they would have paid if the place was sold out.i
It was a lesson I hope I never forget.
DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He is a poet and piano-player for the Pacific Northwest’s hottest blues band, The Cannonballs.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit his website at http://www.rebelangel.com