All across America, pimply teenagers armed with Stratocaster and Les Paul guitars, Fender basses, synthesized keyboards and drum kits large enough to accommodate an overnight visitor, stand before banks of Marshall amplifiers crowding their parents’ garage. With visions of rock gods like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and others, they toil into the night, testing the limits of amplified sound, their neighbors’ patience, and the sensitivity of Richter scales thousands of miles away. All in the name of Rock ‘n Roll.
Little do these nascent Mozarts realize that, in addition to providing a comfortable living for thousands of otolaryngologists – and untold misery to millions more – their musical roots trace back to a little-known band of collegiate undergraduates.
In the mid-1960s in Boston, four intrepid lads with side-parted bowl haircuts, black Coke-bottle eyeglasses, and enough change among them to sate their daily pizza pie-a-day habit, invented what is today known as the garage band.
Calling themselves Mass Way, named partly for the avenue that traversed their campus and mostly because they either couldn’t spell or pronounce the word “avenue,” they practiced in the basement of an underused college supplies depot – until they were forcibly ejected by campus police. The erstwhile super group then moved on to various basements in row houses, restaurants and finally a church (where the nightly tithe ate considerably into their pizza budget), practicing arduously until the inevitable appearance of a blister or an episode of Star Trek forced them to call it a night.
Now, prodigies possess true talent; it is an inherent ability, a measure of genius. And there are few prodigies – musical or otherwise – who are recognized as such. The members of Mass Way were not among this group. They could not read music. Coming together as they did from the four corners of the globe, they could barely understand one another, choosing to communicate with a series of grunts, whistles, and a perverted form of American Sign Language.
What they did share, in addition to a dorm room, was a love of American music. Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Johnny Mathis – even Lawrence Welk made the list, though he was later dropped when the band realized that playing the accordion led to a more celibate lifestyle than they had hoped.
After hours of grueling practice, the quartet was finally ready for its debut at a college mixer – filling in for a phonograph that had succumbed to a broken needle. But this band did not shrink in the face of humiliation. Despite pleas from their friends, college administrators and the theology school that was conducting choir practice next door, Mass Way plunged headlong into its first song: a cover of Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.
Students who owned (or borrowed and never returned) the original album knew the song would last 9 minutes and prepared themselves for an epic night of dance, choosing the most ravishing partners they could find. What no one in the audience had foreseen were the music stands set up before each of the band’s members. On the stands were notebooks with the chords to the song printed in longhand.
What no one in the band had foreseen was that the house lights would be off.
Unable to read the notebooks, and with no innate sense of rhythm among the four of them, Mass Way proceeded to play from memory. Imagine that smart alec in Catholic school who would stand by the light switch, rapidly flicking it on and off until a nun cuffed him upside his ear. Mass Way proceeded to give the first musical rendition of this annoying act: stopping abruptly to allow fellow band members to catch up, or arguing over what chord should have been played. The audience, being collegiate (translate: high and/or inebriated), responded with what many who were there perceived as threats of bodily harm if the band continued. But Mass Way, unperturbed and unable to understand the words being hurled at them, played on.
Thirty minutes later, the music, such as it was, had finally stopped. The Fire Department was dousing the remaining embers of what were once the band’s instruments, campus police were rounding up the remaining students who had chosen to shed their remaining clothes, and Mass Way were last seen running from the Student Union, arms covering their heads to shield them from the assorted debris being hurled by students and administrators alike.