Monday, November 30, 2009

And They Say You Can't Go Home Again (Or That'll Learn Ya Reunites)

There is a room in an old sea-weathered beach shack. It is a very large room, perhaps the size of a small barn. This shack could have been a house on the water. But it is a bar. A beach bar. To my mind, THE beach bar.

The Ocean Mist.

This is a review of a rock show that took place in that room. A room which, because of some equipment and a raised stage on the wall furthest from the waves, becomes a club. But first and foremost it is a room. Rooms are personal places. They hold memories.

My memory of That'll Learn Ya haunted me for 20 years. Now I have a new memory that is laced over the old, a memory that somehow ties all the others into a great big Thanksgiving bow.

I would tell you to read my post from January of 2008 about my decades long obsession with a That'll Learn Ya song called 'Robert DeNiro Movies' but since it is a story I love to tell I will briefly recap it here.

Long story short.

I had a beat up That'll Learn Ya cassette with a copy of 'Robert DeNiro Movies' on it. I think it got stolen out of my car one night when I was apartment hunting in Providence in 1993. I didn't know what tapes were in the tape briefcase that got nicked.

During the ensuing 15 years I have searched for that cassette. I tore my parents house from top to bottom, finding old Graham Parker tapes, old Neutral Nation 45's, Channel Three albums, Carl Yastrzemski posters and boxes of letters from every girl I ever loved.

But no tape.

Technology evolved to the point where I could start a blog. I raved (mostly to myself and a few friends) about music shows I'd seen, albums I loved, books I'd slogged through.

One morning I decided to write about 'Robert DeNiro Movies'. At the least I thought maybe someone out there would have a copy of the cassette and they could copy it. I wish I could say that my post turned out to be the impetus for what eventually occurred but if it was it is only in that string theory/quantum physics/the secret kind of way.

Some time after that post, Facebook started. And one day I saw an old high school friend on there...Kurt Friel. Kurt now lived in Boston and was part of a kick-ass rock band himself, slinging bass lines for Minky Starshine, a band determined to reclaim power pop's good name that has been sullied by countless charlatans. We friended each other and that was that. Or so I thought.

Then one day in my news feed I see a name. Al Valatka. Mind you, I had GOOGLED AL VALATKA to try and get in touch with anyone from That'll Learn Ya a year earlier. Nothing had come up. And now here he was popping up on my computer. I instantly friended him (a verb I love and use unabashedly).

The reunion I attended Saturday, November 28, 2009 was already in the works. Kurt had wrangled these cats into a night out on the town. He convinced them to strap the axes back on and reclaim their catalog. They agreed. Kurt, when you read this, I am asking you to write up your side of this story and send it to me so I can post it here...when you got the idea, how, etc. etc.

They met in basements as if it were 1988. As if 20 years hadn't passed at all. As if they'd never broken up.

I must digress for a moment...this post is going to be all over the map because the show crystallized this time line that holds so much of my life. I believe I was at the very last That'll Learn Ya show...Club Baby Head or it might have already changed to The Rocket (or vice versa, can't remember which was first...).

That'll Learn Ya was opening for someone and I remember being psyched because I hadn't seen them in quite some time. I went to the show early just to catch TTLY. About 15 minutes into the set Terry Fallon picked up his backpack which was next to the mic stand and jumped off stage, exiting the club through the audience. The rest of the guys soldiered through the rest of the set and waved good bye.

I hate to bring up what must have been a painful memory for all involved but I simply can't ignore that I held onto their music in my head from that moment until they triumphantly took the Ocean Mist room by storm on Saturday night.

Nostalgia doesn't make good rock and roll. So while there were waves and waves of it rolling through the crowd and between Al, Ted, Dave, Rick and Terry on stage, not a shred of it entered the music. They were as vital as they'd been when I'd seen them at the height of their popularity, whipping an outdoor crowd on URI's quad into a veritable frenzy.

Minky Starshine opened the night with a finely honed hook ridden harmony laden set of sing along rock and roll. Much of the crowd knew Kurt's place in arranging the possibility of the evening itself so there was immediately a sense of urgency and connection in the air. Minky took that and ran with it, priming the pump with their own unique brand of sturdy flash.

Two Guys and Another Guy followed, another throwback to my college years and their bratty snotnose thrash pop was like a cup of coffee the morning after an all-night study session that devolved into a keg party. I'd seen them play in a windmill and was so college drunk I only remember the blades of the windmill and the spiral staircase I stumbled down. And I might have invented the spiral staircase.

The moment had come. That'll Learn Ya ambled up onto the riser to face a room filled with joy at the present moment mixing with a wistful view back to earlier shows, the collective echo of another lifetime.

They did not rest on their laurels.

From the very first note the power that they'd had way back when was back with a vengeance. My three favorites ('Robert DeNiro Movies', 'Pulling Up The Night', and 'When I Go Down') were delivered with an undiluted ferocity that never slid over into sloppiness or generality. I don't want to sound like I didn't expect greatness from the show but I was rather blown away at how cohesive and NOW the music sounded. There was absolutely NO sense of cobwebs or age to the sounds pouring down.

My three sisters were there with me, along with my best friend and two childhood friends. Between them they have witnessed my life since birth. That kind of context can be quite powerful, especially thrown on top of the turbulent two years my family has had and the O'Malley reunion that had happened earlier that day. This band used to play in the Memorial Union during coffee hour. I'd then stroll a hundred yards and pop in to see my Dad in the library where he worked for 42 years.

These are the kinds of thoughts that were running through my mind as these five guys gave everything they had. I'm sure the same can be said for the rest of the crowd. The mere fact of the performance could have been enough but That'll Learn Ya seemed bent on cutting through that sepia-toned barrier, diving back into the material and infusing it with the passion of TODAY. They kept knocking the past out of my head and reminding me that I was seeing a great rock and roll band.

So while many rooms flashed in front of my eyes as That'll Learn Ya roared and snorted, rooms like my father's office, rooms like the Green Room at Will Theater, rooms like my basement where my band played the night of my birthday when my parents took everyone else to Canada and I refused to go because The Replacements were playing The Living Room and I had to see my heroes...

While those rooms flashed, That'll Learn Ya gave the present room the same power. They created a new memory, one that wasn't tethered to the past, one that lived all on its own.

There was the ocean. There was the mist. There was That'll Learn Ya at long last.


Siobhan O'Malley said...

you are amazing brendan! what a picture you create--and you really captured in the evening. love you!!

Siobhan O'Malley said...

sorry it came up twice. i just meant it THAT MUCH!

Al said...

Thanks so much, Brendan. It was great to meet you(again). This is easily the nicest thing anyone has ever said or written about TLY. I think I'll print it and hang it on my refrigerator.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Superb. I'm in tears. It was a great great show.

Brendan O'Malley said...

I will be honored to hang on your fridge! I will now be on my mother's fridge and your fridge Al.

Kurt Friel said...

I'm overcome with emotion and nostalgia. This blog really made me think of my motives for the first time. When i recover, I'll send you my story. Thanks for the kind words.

Buffy said...

Great and meaningful review. I've always loved the timelessness of That'll Learn Ya's music, which to me means agelessness as well. Makes me really wish I could have been there. Magic at the Mist! - Buffy

Rockin' Rob said...

Hey, Brendan..Rob George, here. Great to see you the other night. Glad you enjoyed the show so much. As the show's producer, it is really awesome to hear that the Amazing Rockstravaganza was able to reunite people like you with long lost friends and rock & roll memories. What I told you outside the club is for real, I now live to fact, I live now by what I call the Trident of Rock Philosophy (one I highly recommend to all fans of the rock): my goal in life is To Rock, To Bring The Rock To The People, and To Bring The People To The Rock & Roll. Sounds like all of us (the musicians) were able to fulfill these ideal for you and the rest of the patrons on Saturday, and that, my friend, truly ROCKS! My hat is off to you and especially to my fellow rockers who all put on great shows and made some musical history last Saturday. Thanks again to all who performed and all who came to the show, and thanks to you, Brendan, for caring about RI Rock so deeply - Never under-estimate the power of the Rock & Roll.....Peace & Love to all, Rob.

Brendan O'Malley said...

Thanks Rob...that night continues to reverberate. Look what happened! I ran into you! What a trip. I mean, good lord. I had childhood friends, college friends, first apartment out in Providence friends, literally people from every facet of my life there.

So great to run into you there and so psyched that you are doing your part to fill this world with the real shit, the art tip, the deal we all need the most.

Now that the ice has been broken I'm sure I'll see you again next time I'm back in Little Rhody...

Brendan O'Malley said...

Hey Buffy...timeless is a good word for it indeed. They could be from 1967 or 2009. Just a killer band. Thanks for reading the blog post...I invite you to scroll through and find other music stuff you like. I run the gamut!

Anonymous said...


Well done. I really enjoyed reading this and re-living those days in my mind.

Stephen Dolinich

Brendan O'Malley said...

Thanks Dolinich! Thanks for reading.

Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.

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