Wednesday, April 07, 2004


Kurt Cobain's suicide 10 years ago this week shook me, even though I'm a generation older than the generation for whom he'd been deemed a spokesman. His death was on my mind that next summer when I went to Lollapalooza in Phoenix. After all, before the suicide Nirvana was considering an offer to headline Lollapalooza.

The night before the concert , I was with a group of folks that went to hear doo-wop pioneer Gaynel Hodge play his happy hour set at a hotel lounge. Kurt's ghost tagged along. This is the oddball Lollapalooza review I wrote for the paper:

Originally published September 2, 1994


Gaynel Hodge said he'd like to go to Lollapalooza, but he didn't think he could make it. He had a dental appointment that day.

Besides, being in his 60s, Gaynel undoubtedly had no desire to stand out in the un-airconditioned sun for hours with thousands of navel-pierced white kids listening to music that he had helped to create some 40 years ago, but which had mutated beyond his recognition.

Chances are, unless you have a Ph.D. in Doo Wop, you have never heard of Gaynel Hodge. But surely you have heard his song, "Earth Angel," which in 1954 arose like a trapped spirit of the underworld, eventually becoming part of our civilization's collective unconsciousness.

Actually, Gaynel is one of three authors listed on "Earth Angel"'s credits, the other two being Jesse Belvin, (the silken-voiced crooner of "Good Night My Love") and Curtis Williams, a member of The Penguins, the group that made the song famous.

Gaynel himself never made it big, although he still earns his living playing music. The night before Lollapalooza he was playing happy hour at the Quality Inn bar near downtown Phoenix.

That's right. Happy hour at the Quality Inn. Phoenix, Ariz.

Sounds like your archetypal rock 'n' roll sob story, right? Kurt Cobain blew his brains out partly so he'd never end up playing happy hour in a hotel lobby. Cobain also assured that Nirvana would not headline this year's Lollapalooza, thus propelling Smashing Pumpkins to headliner status.

As fine as the Pumpkins sounded, I couldn't help but think about that fact throughout their set. Cobain's ghost also seemed to be flitting about the Quality Inn as Gaynel sang his hit along with covers of Ray Charles, James Brown and Little Richard songs.

Try to imagine the year 2033 with Billy Corgan or Kim Deal or Green Day's Billy Joe in some cocktail lounge, serving up '90s nostalgia with piano- bar renditions of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Disarm" and Pearl Jam's "Alive."

Doesn't seem likely, but it could happen. And if it does, would any of them handle it with as much grace and humor as Gaynel?

All in all, I'd rather be Gaynel Hodge than Kurt Cobain.

In some ways, Gaynel's gig is closer to the democratic spirit that nurtured the Lollapalooza bands. Ironically, the "alternative'' acts on the main stage are big rock stars now, separated from the audience by a fence and a small army of security guards. All that comes between Gaynel and his fans is the free hot-wing spread.

And fans there were. There were the ladies who usually caught Gaynel at a neighborhood bar called Chez Nous (nicknamed "Cheese Nose'') where until recently he played with his own combo.

And there were a couple of bozos on holiday who had a berserk fantasy about taking him to Lollapalooza where someone - probably some graybeard in George Clinton's entourage - would recognize him and hustle him up to the stage, where he would win over a new generation with his ageless hymn to teen-age passion.

Surely the kids would recognize the secret links between "Earth Angel" and the Pumpkins' "Cherub Rock." If they could appreciate the grandfatherly Clinton, maybe they could relate to Gaynel.

It was a well-meaning fantasy.

Roseanne Cash probably was right. Earlier this year when there was talk about Johnny Cash playing Lollapalooza, Roseanne worried that the same people who stormed past security guards to mosh to Green Day would not show her dad proper respect. Johnny didn't sign.

Gaynel promised his new friends he would call them if he could make it to Lollapalooza.

He didn't.

Gaynel Hodge with fans


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