As my songwriting career continues to gain traction these days, I sometimes think about my first paid musical gig. It was a long time ago, 1967, and the music world has changed a lot since then. So have the audiences.
My brother had a house in the little town of Strathmere, New Jersey, which is on the shore between Ocean City and Sea Isle City. Strathmere was located on a very narrow strip of coastal land, with less than a half mile between the bay and ocean in some places. The town had a couple of bars and restaurants. A favorite local haunt was a place right on the bay called Twisties. It’s still around today and looks like a nice little gourmet restaurant and bar. Back in 1967, it was just a bar with bar food. And it was packed every night during the summer season.
1967 was quite a musical year for me. I had been at the Monterey Pop Festival and saw Jimi Hendrix play live there and also saw him in London. I played guitar every moment I could. I had made enough money to buy a Gibson Blue Ridge acoustic guitar, which I still have and play today.
I decided I wanted to play music in public. There were a lot of little coffee houses opening up in the little town of Glassboro, home of Glassboro State College, now called Rowan University. I found them to be too “snobby” for me. They catered to an upscale crowd of professors and affluent students. I auditioned at one and played music from Charlie Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, John Hurt and other blues legends along with some traditional folk music. They were not impressed, saying their customers wanted the music of Simon and Garfunkel, the Mamas and Papas, the Beatles and other popular artists of the day. While I liked their music, I didn’t want to play it exclusively back then.
I was staying at my brother’s place in Strathmere for a few days in July. He went to Twisties one night and I went with him. Although I should have not been allowed in the place because I was 16, I looked a lot older than I really was. I created a very convincing fake ID that said I was 21. No photo licenses back then, so it was pretty easy to create a fake one.
I didn’t drink back then, even with the fake ID. I had witnessed my brother and other family members getting drunk on a regular basis and had no desire to become a younger version of them. (I have the same aversion to drunks today.) We were sitting there, watching the sun set over the bay when a group of people in the bar started to sing an acapella version of “Tom Dooley.”
My brother suggested that I get my guitar and accompany them. I did and came back while they were singing “Michael Row the Boat Shore.” I was able to use a capo to find the right key and I started to play along with them. When they finished, they asked me what other songs I knew. Along with all the classic blues songs I had learned, I knew most of the traditional folk songs that from all the public domain music records and music books my grandparents had. It didn’t hurt that I was a big Kingston Trio fan either.
I played for a couple of hours while the crowd, which now filled the place, sang along. Some of them did a nice job of harmonizing. They gave my brother free drinks, which is probably what he was counting on when he told me to get my guitar. As we were leaving, they offered me a nightly gig at the amazing sum of $25 a night plus tips and a free dinner (aka cheeseburger). I was able to afford a room at a local motel and get away from my brother and his in-laws, who, like most of my family, were raving drunks. The motel was very nice and right on the bay about 2 blocks from Twisties.
It was a great summer. Along with the $25 salary, I made almost double in tips every night. I was the accompaniment for a group “karaoke” sing. One night, an attractive lady started talking to me during a break. She was recently separated and didn’t have any children. I figure she was in her late 30’s or early 40’s. She had long and curly hair, which has always been my weakness. When I finished that night, she approached me in the parking lot. I was walking back to the motel since I wasn’t old enough to drive in New Jersey. She offered me a ride and that night I had my first sexual encounter. She had no idea that I was underage since I was playing music in a bar.
We dated for a few weeks and then she decided to go back to her husband. (I will not take credit for that!) However, although I have never been what anyone would call attractive, because of my gig I had several other encounters with women that summer who had no idea that they were dating an underage teen.
I had groupies! Hendrix and me, except I’m sure his groupies were younger and much prettier. And none of mine wanted to make a plaster cast of my junk. (And it’s not like it would have taken that much plaster.) But I was 16 and getting laid on a regular basis! It was amazing!
The gig went very well. People packed the place. Back in 1967, folks at the Jersey Shore really liked the idea of singing together in a bar. While karaoke nights abound these days, I’m sure the idea of getting together with fellow patrons to sing traditional songs would be out of the question. It’s sad, because the audience really enjoyed themselves back then. Sometimes change is not a good thing.
(I did have a similar incident in Scotland one night in the 90’s, playing traditional Scottish songs in an Edinburgh pub while the patrons sang along. I didn’t get laid but they bought me enough single malt Scotch to float a barge. I drank it to be polite and fell asleep, waking up in the pub the next morning. I don’t remember much about the night except that the crowd, mostly male, cried when they sang some of their traditional favorites.)
After the summer of ‘67, I returned to the little inland town of Williamstown, New Jersey. I still couldn’t get a local gig and soon became much more interested in recording and radio than performing. I returned to Twisties the next year and they hired me again, this time for $35 a night. Seems a lot of their regular patrons were asking for me. Tips were even better this year and I was able to save some money after paying for the motel room. I am proud to say we were “standing room only” almost every night that summer. I had added a 12 string guitar and banjo and had learned to play the harmonica. I was pretty good, considering I was still a teenager.
My sexual encounters continued. Hey, I was a musician and had a pretty cool car, a red 57 Chevy convertible, a gift from my Uncle Ed.I even had a couple of threesomes with some of the female patrons. The sexual stamina of a 17-year-old male is something you have to see to believe. As my song, “An Older But Wiser Kind of Guy” says – I used to do it all night, now it takes all night to do. Man, I miss the 60’s. Again, I had groupies. Sure, they were all about twice my age but back then that put them in their 30’s and 40’s. Today, that would make them cadavers.
I didn’t return to Twisties the next summer. I had been hired as a toll collector on the Atlantic City Expressway. As much as I loved performing, the toll collecting gig paid a lot more money. Plus it was a new adventure and I even had the chance to work the security detail at the Atlantic City Pop Festival in 1969.
Twisties is still there. Next time I’m in New Jersey, I’m going to check it out and probably have dinner. I’ll take my guitar and see what happens. Let’s see, it was, “Hang down your head, Tom Dooley, hang down your head and cry…” Okay, bring on the groupies! Of course now they’d be wearing Depends. No worries, so would I.