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Roads Not Traveled

My lost chance for rock glory

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As Robert Frost suggests, everyone has a road not traveled. Either by fate, circumstance or conscious decision, at sometime in our lives we turned away from one path and focused on our present course.

I was vividly reminded of my life not lived at Amos' in South End where my wife and I, with many friends, enjoyed the 25th anniversary performance of the legendary Charlotte rock band, The Spongetones. These four excellent musicians, Steve Stoeckel, Jamie Hoover, Rob Thorne and Pat Walters (no relation, as far as we know), are so finely tuned to each other's talents that their skillful performances are driven by harmonious intuition as much as rigorous practice. That night they were alternately raucous, rocking, and romantic, and their version of Cream's "White Room" brought the house down. Somewhere, I thought, as my insides were rearranged by Steve Stoeckel's thundering bass, back in the England of some parallel universe I, too, am up on stage with three other middle-aged guys hammering out the classic hits of the 60s and 70s.

Forty years ago, I spent months sitting in the back of a battered Bedford van, stopping my stack of drums from toppling over as Larry Harwood, Pete Fields, Ivan Matthews and I barreled across country to our next gig at some dance club on the south coast of England. Johnny Brilliant and the Dynamic Diamonds were on the road again, earning a modest living from the summer crowds of tourists along the English Riviera. This time we were headed for the seaside resort of Teignmouth (pronounced TIN-muth), to line up with Doctor Dark and the Surgeons in the ballroom at the end of the pier. It was 1964, and I'd dropped out of high school, given up plans to become an architect, and nurtured dreams of life as a rock & roll drummer. Charlie Watts was my idol. As cover bands went, we were pretty good, but as we warmed up audiences for big touring groups like the Kinks, we each secretly hoped we'd get noticed and signed to play in bigger, better beat groups.

These were heady days. If you were English, four in number, had shaggy hair, a Hoffner violin base and two Fender guitars -- Stratocaster for lead, Telecaster for rhythm -- plus a set of Premier drums, two Vox AC-30 amplifiers, a T-60 base amp, a reverb box, and a couple of microphones, the continent of Europe lay at your feet, ready for the British invasion.

Our band was part of an entertainment agency run by a bowtie-wearing, Brylcreem-slick impresario named Trevor George. It was he who named us. "You have to be Someone and the Someones," he insisted. "It's by far the best formula. The fans expect it." He thought for a moment. "You have to shine and sparkle," he mused, "like diamonds, all glittery." He swung round. "That's it!" he shouted. "Brilliant! The Diamonds . . . that's who you are now. Johnny Brilliant and the Diamonds. No, wait. Make that Johnny Brilliant and the Dynamic Diamonds!"

Within days the posters and flyers were plastered along the South Devon Coast with pictures of us in our red, sparkling waistcoats. My feeble argument that we didn't have a separate lead singer who could be Johnny Brilliant cut no ice with Trevor. "Just take it in turns," he ordered. "Be creative. And make sure you wear those waistcoats I got you. You've got to glitter under the spotlights. Just like diamonds. Get it?"

Trevor George filled our summer nights with solo bookings and double bills with other bands, and we always enjoyed our gigs with Doctor Dark and the Surgeons. This quartet wrote the book that Alice Cooper followed. Dressed in white surgical outfits, they pretended to decapitate chickens on stage, sloshed buckets of fake blood around liberally, and as a finale, Doctor Dark swooped low over the stage on a wire waving a blood drenched-scalpel and a severed head, dripping gore. In these double headers, we always insisted on playing first, as the stage looked like an abattoir when their act was over.

For a brief time it seemed as if we might actually make the big time. Rumors of a properly organized European tour were floated. We checked our passports and Musicians' Union membership cards, but when our lead guitarist got hauled into court for failing to pay alimony to his ex-wife, the group fell apart. Our bassist joined the Royal Navy, our rhythm guitarist enjoyed brief TV fame with another group, and I slunk back to school to repeat my exams and go on to study architecture at university.

The rest, as they say, is history, but I'm sure that somewhere back home, someone like me is laying down the raunchy, rolling beat for the Stones' "Don't Fade Away" like he's been doing it all his life.

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