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Tough All Over and Tommy Conwell

We all have our own ways of coping with the dying spasms of democracy. Yet another Trumpian buffoon has taken the reigns of a major power. So as Boris Johnson and his hideous mane tramp across Britain making dumbness great again, I’ve given up on the future completely and retreated into the past, diving into my childhood memories via music. With the help of my new Spotify account of course.

It’s all there. Every teen-era memory I can conjure up has a soundtrack accompanying it….and I’ve been pulling them up one at a time and smiling and longing for a time when our national IQ prevented such things like a viciously cruel fascist racist mentally deranged narcissist being elected dog-catcher, much less President of the United States. And having such a thing inspire other nations who think….”wow, if the US can do it imagine the fucking idiot we could put up.” But whatever, we’re here now and completely doomed and I don’t even pretend that we’re going to be able to redeem ourselves in the eyes of our children…..who will have to clean up the mess we’ve left them, assuming the planet doesn’t simply die from supreme neglect before they get old enough to vote, or be taken over by rampaging Nazis in khakis carrying tiki torches. Our kids are gonna toss all of us into decrepit nursing homes and never visit us, which is what we deserve.

Album_cover_for_Tough_All_OverSo it was the mid 80s……and it was the summer. Beer and girls and bon-fires and boom boxes, 4 of the greatest things in the universe. On magical weekend nights they’d all converge and time seemed to stand still. We laughed and sang and cried and thought things were gonna be like this forever….friends and warm summer nights and music and the water from the creek rolling by….promising eternal youth. And at the end of the night we’d break into groups….finding our way home….always on foot. Giddy from the beer, holding hands….with the free one clutching the boom box as we danced our way down  the street that curved like an S past the police station and the projects, singing John Cafferty’s Tough All Over….over and over again. We’d have to stop dancing and rewind the tape…..and then we’d be off again. Another 3 minutes plus of pure bliss. There was nothing special about that night….it was like 100 others…..except the memory is tied to that particular song. It’s a good song…..not groundbreaking…..but a solid bar-band song with a great chorus…..and I’ll forever be grateful that it exists because without it those special nights might have disappeared into the ether. For those few hours….or those few minutes….I don’t think I ever felt more alive.

Tommy_ConwellOne more memory……and that was this kid from Philly. My sister Eileen came home with this tape one day (I have no idea how she heard about him….but her tastes were impeccable so it was worth stealing). Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers. Walking on Water. It was a cassette. An independent release. This kid and his band were tearing up the Philly area….and she and her friend traveled out there one weekend night and caught his live set, which had become legendary. Climbing on tables…..the works. All word of mouth. She said the shows were Springsteenesque in their intensity. Word was that Conwell was gonna be the next big thing. He then released an absolutely killer song called “I’m Not Your Man” and those of us who were there on the ground floor felt superior to everybody else, smug in knowing what was coming next. Major labels came calling and all the attention apparently fucked with Conwell’s head…..and his second major release tanked (despite a brilliant song called “I’m Seventeen”) after 100 different industry types convinced him that he needed co-writers and a famous producer and famous guest stars and that he needed to get rid of his band and work with studio pros, and not to do what he had been doing which was strapping on his guitar and fronting a killer band of friends, and killing crowds with catchy songs and manic energy…and that was pretty much that.

He recorded another record that the label refused to release….and he was dropped. Conwell got a job as a teacher and eventually settled in to work for his Dad’s fencing company. These days he’s still haunting Philly bars….his 80s golden locks replaced by…well…nothing. A trucker’s hat covers his bald head….but word is that he ain’t mailing it in. He goes all out. He’s one of the great what-ifs that I know of. I wish him nothing but the best.

Hell, for all I know he may not have any regrets. But maybe I do. I remember how his music made me feel. And you probably missed it. The world would have been better if you didn’t.

In a bit..



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