Move Like a Cat, Charge Like a Ram, Slip Like an Oaf
Or: How my rock n' roll fantasy took a knee
Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the release of T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy” single, which is easily one of my favorite rock n’ roll songs by anyone ever.
As with so many other great Marc Bolan bashes — “Ride a White Swan,” “Hot Love,” “Children of the Revolution,” etc. — I’d read about “20th Century Boy” years before I actually ever heard it; US radio basically considered T. Rex a one-hit wonder (give or take the occasional FM spin of “Jeepster”), and the band’s non-album UK singles (of which there were many) were all but unobtainable on these shores in the days before the Internet. In fact, I probably heard The Replacements’ 1984 cover of “20th Century Boy” a good two years before I finally discover the original via an import collection called Solid Gold, which somehow turns up in a thrift store on Chicago’s North Clark Street.
Jagged Time Lapse is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Once I meet the real deal, though, it’s love at first listen. The brash boogie strut, the heady air of celebration, the winking braggadocio of the lyrics (“I move like a cat/Charge like a ram/Sting like a bee/Babe, I wanna be your man”), and most of all that beautifully crunching guitar riff — it’s everything I want from a T. Rex single, or from a rock song in general.
And, like most of the T. Rex catalog, it’s pretty easy to play. So over the subsequent years, whether in band rehearsal or in casual jams with friends, “20th Century Boy” becomes one of those songs that I always pull out of my back pocket whenever we’re stuck for inspiration, even if I don’t have the requisite feather boa to go with it…
I pull it out again in February 2013, when I’m on assignment for Guitar Aficionado magazine at the Rock n’ Roll Fantasy Camp in Las Vegas. I’m posing as a “regular camper” while gathering color and soaking in the experience for my eventual feature article, which means that I have to come up with some ideas for songs that my hastily-assembled “band” can play together when we perform at the “Battle of the Bands” a few nights later at the MGM Grand’s Rouge Lounge. And “20th Century Boy” certainly fits the bill.
I’ll admit that there was a time when the notion of going to a fantasy camp of any sort would have been a massive turn-off. It seemed to me like the very definition of clichéd middle-age male wish fulfillment… until a 2010 trip to Cubs fantasy camp (a year-end bonus from the company I worked for at the time) roundly disabused me of such cynicism. I met some incredible people during that experience, and learned some pretty profound things about baseball and my own self in the process; so when Tom Beaujour, my editor at GA, offered to “embed” me at RNRFC, I readily took him up on it. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the star guest of this particular camp session was Roger Daltrey, especially considering that a high school viewing of The Who documentary The Kids Are Alright was pretty much what made me want to pick up a guitar in the first place.
The other special guests for this camp session are Dave Navarro and Stephen Perkins of Jane’s Addiction, and Richie Furay of Buffalo Springfield and Poco; but like Daltrey (and Who second guitarist Simon Townshend, who tags along with him), these guys just show up for a brief jam and/or Q&A session. The “counselors” — the folks we really spend quality time with — include Kip Winger (of Winger fame), Ozzy Osbourne/Quiet Riot bassist Rudy Sarzo, Alice Cooper’s muscleman guitarist Kane Roberts, Heart guitarist Howard Leese, Dio/Black Sabbath drummer Vinny Appice, and keyboard player Teddy Andreadis, who has worked with everyone from Carole King to Guns N’ Roses.
Teddy is my band’s counselor/leader, and he proves to be a lovely chap — but he’s also very serious about whipping us into shape for the Battle of the Bands. “Teddy’s bands always win,” I overhear someone saying during our lunch break, and I can see why. I’m probably the weakest musical link in our band, which includes Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm stand-in Rolly Devore on drums, retired Oracle co-founder Edward Oates on guitar, and a Tourette’s Syndrome-afflicted professional Rod Stewart impersonator named Danny Dzialo. (Danny’s Tourette’s outbursts only happen when he’s speaking; it’s all smooth-sailing when he’s singing, though, and he really does sound like Rod.) But Teddy has a way of getting us all to play to our individual strengths while molding us together as a musical unit… and while deftly deflecting Danny’s repeated requests to sing nearly every song in the Rod/Faces catalog.
By the time Day Three and our chance to jam with Roger Daltrey rolls around, we’re already a well-oiled musical machine. Every camp band picks a specific Who song to do with Roger and Simon, and we’ve chosen “Baba O’ Riley” — so it’s serious goosebump/teenage The Kids Are Alright flashback time as I hear Roger belting out the words “Out here in the fields/I fought for my meals” while I’m cycling those mighty I-V-IV power chords.
It’s an incredible experience, but it’s also an insanely stressful one; not only am I worried that I’ll screw up the iconic lead break that comes in just before the “Teenage wasteland, it’s only teenage wasteland” part (I thankfully don’t), but I’m also trying to work my way into position next to Roger so that the camp photographers can get a pic of us together onstage for the magazine — and that fucking Danny dude keeps blocking me from getting anywhere near him.
(The above pic is finally taken after we’ve already finished playing and are packing up our gear to make way for the next band; I literally run over to Roger, say “Hey Roger, look at the photographer!” and strike an F chord. Not exactly real rock action, but it works well enough for the mag’s purposes.)
As with baseball fantasy camp, you learn a lot about teamwork at Rock n’ Roll Fantasy Camp. On any other week in my life, I would rather saw my hands off than play Bob Seger’s hoary “Old Time Rock and Roll” or Stevie Ray Vaughn’s bar-band blooze “The House is Rocking’” in front of a live audience; but during this camp session, I’ve come to the oddly-mature realization that how well my bandmates and I play together is much more important than my own musical likes and dislikes. And anyway, Teddy now has enough confidence in my singing and playing abilities that he’s asked me to lead the band on two songs during our Battle of the Bands set — Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl,” and of course “20th Century Boy” — which will nicely redress the artistic balance.
During our performance at the Rouge Lounge on the final night of camp, we go straight out of “Cinnamon Girl” into the T. Rex number; and as we boogie confidently towards that song’s close, I remember something Teddy told me in rehearsal: “Dan, it’s your song — you decide how we end it.” I lock eyes with Rolly behind the kit, and leap rapturously into the air for a Pete Townshend-style final chord flourish. Unfortunately, I land on something slippery — probably ice or liquid from someone’s spilled drink — my right knee wobbles out from under me, and I finish the song writhing painfully on the floor in a squealing-feedback face plant.
As if the agony and embarrassment of the moment aren’t enough, I am now confronted with the completely surreal vision of Kip Winger — the guy I used to see singing “Daddy says she’s too young/But she’s old enough for me” on MTV during my senior year of college — crouching attentively over me like some sort of battlefield medic. “Which knee is it?” he asks, trying to help me to my feet. When it becomes clear that I can’t stand up of my own volition, he and one of the camp’s roadies pull a barstool onto the stage, prop me on top of it, and position my microphone in front of me. “You’re gonna finish this set,” Kip intones meaningfully, slapping me on the back like he’s my high school baseball coach leaving me on the mound to close the game.
I spend the rest of our show perched upon said stool, chunking out chords while alternately cursing and laughing at my absurd predicament. Every time I gingerly reach down with my left foot in order to kick my boost pedal on or off, I’m desperately wishing that the footswitch is actually a do-over button. No dice, though.
And just as I never dreamed I’d ever jam with Roger Daltrey, I likewise never imagined that Kip Winger and Kane Roberts would one day lift me off of a stage and into a waiting wheelchair. I unfortunately spend the entire “end of camp” jam sequestered in a service hallway behind the lounge getting examined by paramedics, who finally determine that I don’t appear to have broken anything. (I later learn that our band won the Battle of the Bands, but I’m unfortunately too busy icing my massively swollen knee up in my hotel room bathtub to celebrate with my bandmates.)
So yeah, go figure — I’m the guy who survives baseball fantasy camp without sustaining anything worse than a few ugly bruises, but leaves Rock n’ Roll Fantasy Camp in a wheelchair. Still, I kinda figure Marc Bolan would’ve wanted it that way.
The Phoenix has risen again--resiliently. In it’s own time. With so much wisdom, gathered along the way. Jagged to be sure. But linear is the loser. “Linear Time Line”? Foggedaboudit! 😎🤜🤛