ON THE MIC
I was born in the early sixties in Southern California, first son of an unlikely pair: a self-professed Texas cowboy and an immigrant fleeing the poverty and devastation of postwar Europe.
Music was always in our house, but not a lot of Rock n Roll. My dad favored country, with a small dash of early Rock n Roll—a big Johnny Cash fan. Mom couldn't stand the stuff, preferring the soothing sounds of Nat King Cole and Englebert Humperdink—still her favorite! I adore my mom; she is still around and for that I am very grateful. But when it comes to my love of Rock n Roll, well that didn’t come from her.
Looking back decades later, it’s pretty obvious I was waiting for something to come along and hook me. It could have been anything: I’ve always been a very driven, borderline-obsessive kinda guy. Fortunately for me and for everyone else, it was music—Rock n Roll music—that hooked me first and hooked me hardest.
And I am still hooked.
I was more than ready to take that baited hook. On the surface, I was a normal, suburban middle-class white kid. Until my parents divorced when I was ten, which hit me hard, much harder than I realized at the time.
When I was twelve, three significant events turned my black-and-white world to living color. On my birthday, I was given an acoustic guitar. Then my aunt got a new stereo, and handed me down my first record player, along with a few old albums. Among them: The Beatles’ “Red Album” and “Blue Album” greatest hits collections. And one fateful evening my sitter let me stay up late, and I watched David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust on the Midnight Special. Immediately I knew I wanted to be a singing space alien.
When I was sixteen my parents moved three times. When we finally settled in, there I was, the new kid on the first day of school. Someone asked me: What did I REALLY do? You know, beyond school. Sounding much more confident than I felt—a skill that has served me well throughout my life—I announced, “I'm a Rock n Roll singer!”
I had never really tried to carry a tune outside my bedroom. But even as I blurted out those words, I knew this was where things were headed. My new friend told me he knew of a band that needed a singer. The fates conspired: the next evening I auditioned and joined this band.
Over the next fifteen years I attempted to become that person I declared on that fall day.
Now I was not born a natural singer and I certainly didn't have any training or experience beyond yelling at the top of my lungs, bouncing on the bed with air guitar in hand. I had drive and attitude, and I had my records. I put in the hours and studied on my own. I listened intently, read voraciously, talked about it constantly. I picked pieces from everyone—Beatles and Stones, Pistols and Ramones. By the time I was eighteen, every square inch of wall and ceiling in my bedroom was covered with pictures of all my musical heroes.
In my twenties I gave it a hell of a run. I sang and played and wrote songs, put together numerous bands—a couple of them were actually pretty good. I did odd jobs, hustled, mooched off my parents and my girlfriends, lived in my car for a while. I sweated out sets on the famous stages of clubland—LA and Hollywood.
But in the end, my talent was limited and the star-maker machinery wasn't interested in what I had to offer. As I said, I gave it a good run.
So I traded in my leather pants and mike stand for a suit and tie, and moved into the tech world. In some ways this still served my artist’s heart. What is a salesman after all: an actor evangelizing his wares, a lead singer egging on the crowd? I can do that, I thought. Sure I can.
And I have been fortunate, I was in the right place and right time. I caught the tech boom on the upswing, and I got out at a good time. I’ve done okay with it, made a few dollars. So even if it was my second choice in life, I won’t put it down. It worked out pretty damn well, really.
Performing music was folded up nicely and put away in a drawer like a cherished concert t-shirt. For over a decade that shirt stayed in the drawer. But it was always there, I always kept it. No longer a starving artist, I could afford to see all the great bands as they came through on the latest tours. I traveled widely, and added new names, new sounds, new places, to my palette of experiences. A different, wider education. My music collection grew enormously.
I found a new and deeper love for the classics of Rock n Roll. I picked through my father’s old records to get to the rockabilly. I found the soul music groove, felt the heartbreak from the singer-songwriters, stayed up late with the artsy angst of the New York scene. One song led to another and another and another.
In early 2004, I was asked to record some new songs with some new friends. I laid claim to having been a singer—once upon a time. So they took me up on it, called me out. Okay.
I was astounded by the leaps technology had made—a home studio that was better than the Record Plant or Olympic or Abbey Road, where my heroes had cut their tracks—all on an inexpensive home computer. I found myself wanting to perform again and one day just decided to just do it, form a band.
I knew a couple of guitar players, we talked about starting a coffee house trio. Within a month that turned into a full-fledged rock band. The first day of rehearsal: July 5th, 2004, fifty years to the day from when Elvis walked into the Memphis Recording Service to record “That's Alright” for Sun Records.
I guess the stars were aligned properly or something, because that band is still going strong 11 years on. And I am still mining the old greats and attempting to learn more of the history of Rock n Roll, seeking ideas and inspiration to incorporate into my stage act.
It’s been great, but I feel like I have more to offer, more to share.
Once again I burn with a desire to share music. Not as a performer this time, but as a fan who wants to share the passion, the power, the art. Find where it fits, feel it and search out the history; describe how it shaped me as a person, how it shapes the world I know.
As 2015 began, I considered possibilities. The one that stuck, the one that seemed most natural, the one that made my heart soar and made me feel alive again was the Rock n Roll Archaeology Project.
In recent years, I have become an ardent fan of the podcast medium. I’m a history buff, and I especially enjoy raconteurs like Dan Carlin or Robin Pierson who offer up deep discussions of history, who have different, unconventional perspectives.
So it wasn’t a big leap for me to wonder, where’s a good podcast about Rock n Roll history? Man, wouldn’t that be great? I looked, I really did. I found lots of good commentary, album reviews, fan podcasts about bands and artists…but who was digging in, really looking at it? Where was the Rock n Roll version of Dan Carlin?
I decided to create it. I pitched the idea of the Rock n Roll Archaeology Project, centered around a podcast, to my longtime friend, Richard Evans. Richard’s a capable writer and all-around thoughtful guy who has always shared my passion for Rock n Roll. He loved the idea, and we started putting it together.
The rest is in the show. We hope you enjoy it.
Christian L Swain
Pacifica, California, October 18, 2015
BEHIND THE WORDS
For some time now I’ve wanted to stretch out a little, write in a different format. A longer, deeper format, with room to tell stories, engage in commentary, and explain some of the technical nuances. So the podcast medium was already on my writing radar.
I’ve always enjoyed writing about rock music. It’s got all these great elements: big themes, rags to riches stories, larger-than-life heroes and villains. All backed up by a killer soundtrack. That last one was a big attraction; I have always tried to pay attention to how my writing sounds.
About a year ago Christian pitched me on the Rock n Roll Archaeology Project, asked me to be the “idea guy” behind it. I was highly intrigued by the topic and format—this was a crystallization of things that had been swirling around in my own mind for a while now.
I started writing. Christian started recording. The rest is Rock n Roll Archaeology.
I enjoy writing for it. I hope you enjoy listening to it.
October 18, 2015 Sacramento, California
ROCK N ROLL LIBRARIAN
I was born in San Francisco, but grew up in Los Angeles. Very early on my parents installed a piano in the house, and the kids took lessons. My dad modeled the joy of music through his trumpet chops in an amateur Dixieland band. As a teen I took up the flute, and enjoyed singing in school groups. But my heart wasn't really in classical music. As soon as I graduated from high school I headed back up to the Bay Area, where I studied at UC Berkeley for my undergraduate and graduate degrees. I changed my musical course, taking up the electric bass because I wanted to experience playing the rock music I loved. I became a librarian at the San Francisco Public Library over 33 years ago, where I continue to enjoy a very interesting career filled with books and open minded comrades. I have been fortunate to see some great musicians in my life and have played music with family and friends from time to time. I'm now learning to play the guitar well enough to support my love of singing. I married a fantastic guitar player and have nearly survived the raising of two teenage sons.
I love reading about the lives of rock musicians as a kind of vicarious thrill! It's exciting to have the opportunity to combine my love of books and music into something new as one of Rock N Roll Archaeology's first diggers!
Shelley Sorenson, San Francisco, February 3, 2016
Disclaimer: The views expressed here by Shelley Sorenson are made in her capacity as a private citizen, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the San Francisco Public Library or the City of San Francisco.
THE AMAZING SOUNDS
Jerry Danielsen is our podcast sound designer and contributes occasional incidental music composition, plus a fan of Rock n Roll and it’s history.
He is also a producer, filmmaker, performer, educator, poet and interdisciplinary artist. He has extensive experience recording rock and alternative music, contemporary classical works, jazz, commercial and experimental – as well as composing/recording/producing music and sound design for film and television and theatre - words and sounds for audio books, radio and more.
For more info, please visit: Busy Signal Studios.