TERRE HAUTE —
Arctic air bled into the Wabash Avenue post-hippie-era diner-pub every time the wooden door swung open.
Frost covered the front windows, as I recall. Winter far outmatched the heating system huffing and puffing inside the 19th-century building in early 1981. In the drafty air, people kept their coats on as they sat at the tables, munching food and sipping drinks. I was sweating bullets, like the cook back in the kitchen.
I wasn’t making hoagies, though. I had an electric guitar strapped over my shoulder. In a few minutes, our rock band — a foursome of longtime friends who’d taught ourselves to play — would step onto the plywood platform stage, plug in and play. For the first time. The place was a college hangout called Bacchi’s. People had to walk around the band to get to the restrooms. This was Terre Haute, not the Hollywood Bowl. Still, the room was full. Some folks had come specifically to hear us, but most had ventured in to rock-and-roll all day (and all night) at a Bacchi’s multi-band, mini winter-fest.
For us, it was a big deal. Nobody could save us. The picks, drumsticks and microphones were in our hands. The stage was ours. The sound-making was all up to us. We were about to succeed or fail in front of dozens of friends, family and strangers.
Then, just as we’d rehearsed a hundred times, my sweaty hand stroked the opening chords of The Who’s “I Can’t Explain,” the drums, bass and rhythm guitar joined in a bar later, and it happened. I remember the reverb on our chiming guitars echoing off the walls, a thirtysomething couple dancing around their chairs to a song they probably hadn’t heard live since LBJ was in office, and the cool rush of relief I felt when people clapped at the end. Trust me, such responses don’t always occur, which we discovered over the years. Sometimes a killer rendition of “Light My Fire” yields only stares, until some guy yells, “Play ‘Boot Scootin’ Boogie!’”
I revisited that memory last week as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted its class of 2014. Of course, our little band fell light years short of the heights attained by those inductees — Kiss, Linda Ronstadt, Cat Stevens, Peter Gabriel, Hall & Oates, and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. Yet, even those smaller-scale moments of performing music before real, live human listeners — in a pub or coffeehouse, on a theater stage or a flatbed truck trailer, at a home-improvement store grand opening or a celebration of life, or for a crowd of kindly nuns or rowdy country fans — instills an appreciation for the talent and tenacity of the musicians honored by the Rock Hall.
They make it look easy. It isn’t.
The arguments over who should, and shouldn’t, be Hall of Famers is always amusing. I like the debate, too. Voters passed over Kiss 14 years in a row, until finally opening the door to the painted, fire-breathing arena rockers. By contrast to Kiss, Ronstadt and the other Class of ’14 inductees, 1990s Seattle grunge trio Nirvana got in on its first year of eligibility. Fans now have a ceremonial voice in the selections, thanks to an online poll; Kiss and Nirvana were their top choices.
It’s hard to imagine any serious Rock Hall selectors bypassing Ronstadt, even once. A friend and I drove to Champaign, Ill., to watch her perform in the fall of 1980 on the University of Illinois campus. Her band, anchored by veteran guitarist Danny Kortchmar, played razor sharp. As for Ronstadt, well, as Jackson Browne once crooned, that girl could sing. Anything. Powerfully. From “Blue Bayou” to “That’ll Be the Day,” “You’re No Good,” “When Will I Be Loved,” “Hurts So Bad” and “How Do I Make You,” Ronstadt and the guys behind her owned every note. That mastery didn’t happen overnight.
Growing up in Tucscon, Ariz., she heard her dad play Mexican songs on guitar, while her mom strummed a ukulele. By the time I saw her belting out hit after hit at Champaign, she’d been performing in public since her early days of college at Arizona State, 15 years earlier. This spring, she released her 31st album — “Duets,” a compilation. Now 67, that start to her musical path is now a half-century in the rear-view mirror.
Lots of miles, long hours and bus and van rides, plane trips and hotel food, in countless cities, all were part of that trip, no doubt, along with the fame and money.
It was tough to hear Ronstadt had to skip Thursday night’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony in New York. Parkinson’s disease has limited her gifted vocal chords, and travel abilities.
In all those big and small towns where she and her troupe of musicians played, somebody remembered how they sounded that night. The same goes for the other Rock Hall inductees, who showed the gumption it takes to stand up and make sounds to entertain us in creatively unique styles.
“It’s So Easy,” Ronstadt sang in one of her biggest records.
When it comes to making music, anyone who’s tried knows that’s not the case.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or email@example.com.