What is Bass?

At the end of 1986 we moved, yet again, to a new neighborhood. For the previous 2 years, we lived in an apartment in Castor Gardens, a Jewish neighborhood in Northeast Philly. From there, we moved to Frankford, just a few blocks north of the last stop on the Market-Frankford elevated train line. By some very strange coincidence, my very good friend Brian McPherson moved 2 blocks away at the same time.  Brian and I had ridden the school bus together in 6th and 7th grades and were good friends. We talked about hard rock and heavy metal music for hours during our daily bus trip, which meandered through the crummiest parts of Kensington, where he lived. He loaned me Led Zeppelin 4 at some point and that really changed my life for the better. Brian’s mom was a total witch and yanked him out of the school we went to and sent him to some Church Farm school in Exton PA. It was like a reform school, I think; a place to send problematic children. That lasted for a year, through all of 8th grade. I guess I talked to him on the phone while he was out there, and he told me his mom had moved while he was away. When he told me where they moved to, I was thrilled! As soon as summer time came, we’d be neighbors!

Summer came and we hung out just about every day. At night we wandered the neighborhood together, pool hoppin’ and clothesline shoppin’. Same thing on the weekends, we’d hang on the corner and in basements with a couple other heads and some girls who liked to play spin the bottle.  Some of them were gross and some of them were super hot and some of them were in between, spin the bottle and see! Brian had a younger brother and sister that he had to babysit so he had to stay in his house during the day. I didn’t care. His mom didn’t mind me being around when she wasn’t there, so in the daytime during the week we just hung at his house a lot. We’d listen to his albums. He had a lot of good stuff. I’d bring my records over too and we’d spin them. Lots of Beatles from my end, Revolver, Magical Mystery Tour, always The White Album. A lot of his albums were his mom’s and a bunch he inherited from his uncle, Rabbit. Lots of Pink Floyd, Queen, The Who, The Stones, Aerosmith. Being away at reform school for a year exposed him to some punk rock and college rock that neither of us probably would have heard otherwise. He had a cassette of the first Violent Femmes album which absolutely blew my mind. He told me the whole album was made with acoustic guitars, which I think is not exactly correct, but it made sense at the time and accounted for their dorky yet captivating, edgy sound. He also had a cassette dub of Can I Say? by Dag Nasty. The fact that these were taped from albums meant there was no album cover, no liner notes. That only made them more exotic and mysterious to me.

We’d also hang at my house a lot. My parents liked Brian, so he was always welcome to hang out and watch movies or eat dinner with us. He even went to the shore with us on vacation, I think.  When we were at my house, we’d mess with my guitar. Neither of us could really play, but it was still fun.  He told me that his uncle played the bass, and that he had messed around with his uncle’s bass at some point. He said it was fun and a little easier because it only had 4 strings, but that it was also a little harder because the strings were really thick.  I just nodded my head and said “cool”, but I really don’t think it registered at all. I had been to guitar stores and seen the basses hanging there. I knew in my mind that Paul McCartney was the bass player of The Beatles and that John Entwistle played bass in The Who and that the bass was lower than guitar, but I had never handled a bass guitar and I really didn’t understand what the bass sounded like. I also didn’t understand why it wasn’t spelled b-a-s-e.

One day I went over to Brian’s house and he told me he had just scored a bunch of Black Sabbath albums. I don’t know where he got them, but he was super excited.  It seemed that maybe these were his albums that had been borrowed or were missing for a long time and he was reunited with them or something, because they weren’t new to him.  He already knew all of the tunes and he was psyched to turn me on to them. I was already an Ozzy fan. I think I had already borrowed Bri’s copies of Blizzard Of Oz and Bark At The Moon and totally loved them. We got Ultimate Sin when it came out, but we found it to be disappointing. Even the cover art was kind of corny (even by Ozzy standards!).  I knew that Ozzy Osbourne was the singer for Black Sabbath, but I had never heard their music. None of that shit got played on the radio back then, and I think if I tried to bring a Black Sabbath album home from the store, I’d get some hassle for it being too satanic or something. Remember, this was the late 80s.  Satanists were the American thing to be afraid of, like Muslims are now. He put on their first album, the self titled, Black Sabbath. It began with the sound of rain and an ominously heavy riff, so righteous. I was tasting a forbidden fruit! Ozzy began to sing and the hairs on my arms stood up as he described a figure in black pointing at him. This was the real shit! He’s fuckin’ singing about satan! On the cover, he’s standing in front of a witchy little house in the rain. He’s supposed to be the devil and I’m loving it. So dark. So fuckin’ heavy.

A few more songs play and I’m starting to feel like a real metal head. You know what I mean? Like the way you feel when you finally have some confidence in that thing you’ve been going after. I’d been listening to heavy rock and metal for a few years at this point, but I also liked The Beatles and a lot of the crap from the radio and even Run D.M.C. and Beastie Boys. However, I never felt like a real metal head until that day when I heard that first Black Sabbath album.  It was bluesier than I thought it would be. It was easy to connect with. It was about Lucifer, but it wasn’t in any way frightening. It was totally engaging, and kind of like The White Album in that, there was all this mystique around these dark records, but when you actually got them and played them, they were just really good music. Then, Brian says, “Check this out, bass solo. Fuckin Geezer!” And from out of the fading beat of Behind the Wall of Sleep,played Bassically and the intro to N.I.B and now I could hear the bass all by itself! I could finally understand! Round and deep, with a slight warm distortion, not like a guitar, but in it’s own domain entirely. From then on, I could begin to hear the bass parts in my records. I started to hear the little bass runs in My Generation and I’ve Seen All Good People, which I could hear 4 times a day on WMMR and WYSP during those years. The full picture of what makes a rock and roll band was beginning to come into focus in my mind.

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