After a couple of months our household goods arrived. The first thing I went for was my guitar. I only had the guitar a week before we moved to Pakistan and I could only play one basic tune on single strings. My fingers were itching to get down to business. As luck would have it, I met a kid named John Hutchinson who was also an aspiring guitar player. In terms of music history it was “Pre-Beatle”. The songs that were popular with us kids were mainly instrumental hits by the Ventures and Dick Dale.
The military station had a low power closed circuit television transmitter which broadcasted for a couple of hours during the evening. Primetime viewing was year old reruns of the Tonight Show featuring Johnny Carson. John Hutchinson and I got to know the Airman who ran the television station. He thought it would be great if we would play a guitar number on a live show he was putting together to boost the morale of the several hundred Airmen who were starved for entertainment.
John and I worked hard learning and rehearsing “Walk Don’t Run” until we could play the song with barely any mistakes… we were ready for primetime! The Airman producer wanted a Las Vegas style performance with all the glitz of Wayne Newton, including the combined moves of Elvis and choreography of the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes.
When the big day came we were nervous to say the least. I felt like Chuck Berry when he said, “I’m not going to play in front of strangers!” When the ON THE AIR light went on both John and I froze like road kill in headlights. I think John might have twitched a little, but I became statuesque in the literal sense of the word. We played “Walk Don’t Run” as mechanically as two robots trying to survive three excruciating minutes. I still remember the glaring eyes of the poor producer as he watched his career reach a new low point. As a farewell he suggested we, “Run Don’t Walk” out of the studio.
That was the only time that I performed publicly without my brother Dan for many years. Dan took an immediate interest in the guitar and we soon realized that one guitar did not make for peaceful brotherly relations. Seeing that we were both enamoured with the instrument, my parents let us order two Silvertone electric guitars and a dual input amplifier out of the Sears and Roebuck catalogue. The wait seemed like forever but after many trips to the mailroom our guitars finally arrived.
There is something magical that happens when family members make music together. Mom and Dad often treated us kids to vocal duets; mainly old ballads and popular songs of the day. When they harmonized together on the song Danny Boy, you could feel something that transcended this world. Their example set a benchmark, an unspoken assurance that music was in our blood.
Dan and I started learning at an accelerated rate and bounced ideas and songs off of each other. Family members can anticipate and somehow feel the moves of each other before they happen. This is especially noticeable in singing harmonies. There are music critics that can actually pick out harmonies that are being sung by family members. The Everly brothers and the Louvin brothers are two outstanding examples of the phenomenon.
As you may have gathered, there was a dearth of entertainment at our air station in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan. The Officer’s, NCO’s and Airmen’s clubs were strictly divided in clientele by military rank.
The NCO club was fortunate to attract some really good musicians from station personnel. Mainly Country and Western music was favoured by the NCO’s. Being hungry for any and all exposure to guitar music, Dan and I would sneak into the NCO club and pick up as many licks and tricks as we possibly could.
The Airmen, many only 17 and 18 years old, were desperate for Rock and Roll. Dan was 13 and I was 15, but as the saying goes, “have guitar will travel.” The problem was, to do a gig at the Airmen’s club you needed to play for four hours. The good news was that we could each make $10.00, every Saturday night! When we had ten rocking songs ready to go, we released our band on what was in reality a captive audience. We calculated that we could stretch our 10 songs out for one hour. After some algebra, we made a rule that we would never repeat a song more than 4 times a night (unless by popular demand).
We named our band the “Cyclones”. We used whatever drummer we could find, the main criteria was that he possessed at least one drum. Cymbals were a luxury we managed to do without. Our third guitar player was Bob Featherstone. Bob was a young Airman who looked like Ricky Nelson and was a great role model for us kids.
While we were, “getting our act together” so to speak, the Beatles hit the fan. There they were on the front cover of the Saturday Evening Post magazine. They had the look and the look is what we took.
The way to get shoes in Pakistan was to go to a shoemaker. He would draw a line around your foot and a week later your shoes were ready. So, we took the Post magazine and pointed to Ringo’s shoes… black high top “Beatle Boots”. We even one-upped the fabulous four when I placed an order with Amir the tailor for four Nehru jackets made of gold brocade with blood red highlights.
Our 10 song repertoire and tasteful garments served us well. We were soon Saturday night regulars at the Airmen’s club. There was usually at least one chair throwing fight every night which required the presence of the Military Police. We learned to duck behind an air-conditioning unit when things got too hot.
A major coup for our band came when we were hired to play for a high school prom. 186 miles from Peshawar, a complete modern town was built to house American construction workers and their families working on the Mangla Dam project. A bizarre juxtaposition, it was a prefabricated Californian suburb in the middle of the Punjab. We were offered the astronomical fee of $120.00. After the expense of hiring a car, that would leave us each the princely sum of $25.00!
Getting there (and back) was half the fun. The rental car was a dark green 1952 Chevrolet complete with Omar, our driver. The car had seen better days and Omar had too. After we loaded all of our equipment, we realized that there was no room left for the spare tire. We debated leaving it behind but since all four working tires were completely slick, Dan volunteered to hold the spare on his lap.
So, off we went down the Grand Trunk Road. By modern standards 186 miles is an easy journey, but in 1964 the Grand Trunk Road was not all that grand. There was a potholed strip of paved area wide enough for one vehicle in the middle with a dirt shoulder on either side. The idea was that courteous drivers would yield the middle to oncoming traffic as necessary. Fine in theory, but traffic consisted of massively over laden trucks and buses interspersed with pedestrians, donkeys, and frequent camel caravans; all vying for ownership of the center of the road. As a safety precaution, the last camel usually, but not always, had a red lantern hanging from his or her tail.
It was a harrowing experience with us swerving drastically over, around and even down the middle of the road with wanton abandonment. We nearly “bought the farm” when one of us under-aged smokers flicked a cigarette out the window which blew back into the car and lodged under Omar’s salwar kameez. He slammed on the brakes, jumped out of the car, and left us stranded in the “fast lane” while he extinguished the blaze. We had a lot of respect for Omar after that incident. He didn’t hold a grudge and really took it like a gentleman.
After an eleven hour journey we arrived at our destination. The gig was the next evening so we spent the night with the family of one of the prom goers. Omar slept in the car.
The next day, before setting up for the prom, we got to know some of the kids and enjoyed some tasty water buffalo burgers at the bowling alley. It was just like being in a Gidget movie. These American kids were up on the latest styles and oozing teenage angst. Especially the girls!
Back at the air station, there were only two eligible females – and several hundred extremely lonely guys. Here, prom girls were in surplus and we were considered big time musicians, especially when we put on our gold brocade jackets with blood red highlights!
The prom went off like a dream. We played better than we had ever played before and even got to dance with a couple of our new fans. Bob even managed to get temporarily engaged to a ravishing beauty.
After packing up our equipment, there was only one thing left to do – collect our fee. The organizer of the prom thanked us for doing a great job and paid us in Pakistani rupee notes. One US dollar equalled approximately 100 rupees. We were each handed a giant wad of bank notes measuring about three inches thick. Not only did we feel rich, compared to the endemic poverty experienced by local people, we were rich.
Call me paranoid, but when I saw Omar’s eyes bug out, I started to get worried about us flashing our stash in public. After all, how well did we know Omar? In this remote area of Pakistan it was not unusual for travellers to vanish without a trace.
It was a long night. Maybe sleeping in the car the previous night had not agreed with Omar. Every 20 minutes or so, he would stop the car and splash cold water on his face. That, in itself was not too worrying… except when he called out in Urdu to someone out there in the darkness. To this day, I don’t know if Omar was just saying his prayers or what. There were a couple of times that night when I really thought “our time is up!”
We were all happy to see dawn arrive. Omar hugged us when we gave him his own personal wad of rupees for services rendered.