BY FRED MILLS
An oral history of exactly what the subtitle announces, There Was A Time makes for a relatively quick read, although if you don’t have a vested interest in hearing about or chronicling scores of long-defunct garage bands, it’s not for you. For those who do care, though, and there are plenty of us out here, authors Berger (a longtime Charlotte musician with ties to the era) and Coston (a music writer, documentarian and award-winning photographer) have done a huge service.
Aside from the pair of Tobacco A-Go-Go compilations that came out ages ago, no one has ever really attempted to shine a light on the Tarheel scene of the sixties beyond the occasional newspaper or magazine article. Those two artifacts from the original vinyl era now command reasonably impressive prices on the collectors market, an indicator that the sounds remain highly prized. Now we’ve got the sights—and voices—to go with the tunes. Coston and Berger set the stage in chapter one, “The Sound Before the Storm,” detailing some of the musical goings-on during the ‘50s as the region inched “towards a musical re-birth in the 1960s,” something worth underscoring because, while not even the deepest pockets of the Deep South would remain immune to the Beatles and the British Invasion, things often took awhile longer to happen compared to urban centers elsewhere in America. (Yours truly recalls taking a thumping one afternoon from a couple of buzz-coiffed rednecks who jumped me after school, taking exception to my long hair—which was about an inch over my ears and collar—as it was no doubt indicative of emerging Communist and homosexual tendencies on my part.)
From there they hand the bulk of the narratives over to their respondents, Berger additionally weighing in frequently, since he was himself on the scene at the time, and we learn of teenage garage bands and their venues (from basement parties to school proms to local afternoon television programs), the occasional foray into a recording studio and even—as we reach the hippie era—big “happenings” featuring multi-band performances in Charlotte’s sprawling Freedom Park. Said respondents’ memories are remarkably strong and clear-headed, among them Mitch Easter (whose comments on Winston-Salem during the ‘60s will be of particular interest to fans of Easter and The dB’s), Americana legend Phil Lee and members of the Brit-rocking Spongetones. Eight pages of period photos appear in the book’s midsection, and among the gems is a paisley-and-white-slacks-attired band called the Hodads onstage at a 1966 battle of the bands hosted by local AM station WAYS, and a rather hirsute group of youngsters from ’69, the Good Bad & The Ugly, looking suitably Morricone-esque in their denims and western hats and squinting into the sun.
All good things come to an end, of course, as did the Sixties. “Things were changing,” muses Dave Long. Before things got heavy, and drugs changed everything. Before we had to grow up. Back then, we had raging hormones, someone had a guitar, and someone else had a driver’s license.”
Ain’t it always so? Adds Steve Stoeckel, “We grew up when the best music was being made. The music was what molded me.”
An edited version of this review appears in issue 14 of BLURT.