“Certain songs,”Craig Finn sang on The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me, “they get scratched into our souls.” That’s the basis of our latest feature: a look at the songs that have done just that. These aren’t necessarily our favorite songs or the songs that we think are the best, but rather songs that — every single time we hear them — instantly transport us back to a place and time in which that song is forever intertwined. This is one of the reasons we so hate the RIAA’s attempted stranglehold on the dissemination of music: you never know where that next certain song is going to come from.
It’s around 5:00am on a balmy August morning in 1981, and I’ve not yet been to sleep. I’m in the passenger seat of Larry’s car — a light blue Dodge Colt with a long white CB antenna mounted on the back bumper — and we’re driving back to Fresno from L.A. after a marathon concert by Bruce Springsteen. Tim is asleep in the back, and as we approach Fresno, the sun starts peeking over the Sierra Nevadas.
And the song that’s blaring from the cassette deck: “Ramble Tamble.” I think about this every time I hear that song.
Here’s the other thing: I’m almost positive that this memory is false.
Every single one of those details above absolutely happened in one detail or another, but probably not in the combination I described above. But that’s OK, because it really isn’t about the specific memory, per se, but rather what that memory represents: when I had all of the godsdammed time in the world to take a couple of days just to see someone play music for a couple of hours.
You may not believe it, but in the early 1980s, Fresno, California wasn’t considered a primo concert destination for the biggest acts of the time. Not only were there only a couple of larger concert venues — the venerable Ratcliffe Stadium and the ear-busting Selland Arena, but Fresno apparently had a reputation as a tough place to play.
One story, which may or may not be apocryphal, was that Led Zeppelin came to Fresno after their first album, and was so poorly received that they vowed never to play there again. Bruce Springsteen was scheduled to play the Warner’s Theatre on the Darkness on The Edge of Town tour — which, judging from the bootlegs, was the tour where he became perhaps the greatest live rock performer ever — and sales were so poor that he canceled.
And gods forbid if you were an opening band for Van Halen: I watch both the Fabulous Poodles and The Fools both get treated just brutally as opening acts for David Lee & the boys. Though, in both cases, the opening acts were so mismatched that it’s like Van Halen did it on purpose.
In any event, back in the early 80s, if we really wanted to see anybody, we needed to take a road trip.
Every few months for the first half 1980s, Tim & I (and whomever else was interested) would hop into someone’s beat-up car and head down to Los Angeles or up to San Francisco to see a band that just wasn’t ever coming to Fresno. The Who. Monty Python. Bruce Springsteen. The Jam. Tom Petty. The Rolling Stones. The Grateful Dead. The Kinks. U2. The US Festival, on and on and on. (Including, for some unfathomable reason, REO Speedwagon.)
Who knows how we could afford it? Naturally, in the pre-Tickemaster monopoly days, tickets were cheaper, but in the early 80s, gas really wasn’t in relationship to what we were making, so every one of these trips was done as cheaply as possible. Sharing hotel rooms was one way, but the novelty wore off, so there was a lot of crashing on couches, but the best way, of course, was the high-speed all-nighter road trip. Drive up, watch the show, drive back. I could do that pretty easily in my early 20s, especially when I was amped on caffeine and whatever was playing on the cassette deck.
Which was the key: having good driving music. These road trips would have been unthinkable without the crappy cassette decks that we all had, that played tinny-sounding songs from worn-out tapes at volumes that could never quite compete with the roar from 4×60 AC we used to desperately attempt to keep the car cool.
The rule, of course, was “driver chooses the music,” which was why I drove as much as I could, and when I wasn’t, cajoled and lobbied, always looking for that perfect mix of song and time and place. But naturally, it was usually music that everybody loved, which meant that it was heavy on classic favorites: either mix tapes of artists like The Who or The Rolling Stones, or just straight-out albums where we knew every word to every song: Quadrophenia, Catch a Fire, Let It Bleed, Abbey Road, and of course, Cosmo’s Factory.
Cosmo’s Factory was my favorite of all of the Creedence Clearwater Revival albums — their most consistent record, always defined for me by the moment where you had to turn the record over / flip the tape to get from “Run Through The Jungle” to “Up Around The Bend.” And it led off with “Ramble Tamble.”
Ah, “Ramble Tamble,” now that’s a song. Along with “Born on the Bayou,” the best thing they ever did. Two light-speed choogles bookending a Beatles-meet-Velvet Underground mid-section that to this day doesn’t really sound much like anything before or after. And lyrically prescient, as well: John Fogerty was decrying “actors in the White House” a good decade before Reagan took office.
No wonder that Steve Hyden of the A.V. Club called it the most rocking song of all time.
Who know how many times “Ramble Tamble” was played on one of these road trips? But it was just that once that I remember, even if it really didn’t happen that way at all.