Oi, You Alright?: The Rock 'n' Roll Journey from India to America

by Sriram Dayanand

4 Jul 2011


“Hell yeah! But it took a while!” says a rock and roll survivor from India.

“No Alcohol or Firearms” read a perplexing but ominous sign near the entrance. Then I remembered, we were in Arizona.

The jostling to get through to the turnstiles was rowdy, but the mood still had a tone of booze-soaked cheeriness about it. Surrounded on all sides by what looked like Hell’s Angels with their leather-clad vixens, we waited in the long line as it inched forward. An uncomfortably thorough full body search later, we were in. By this time the looks we were getting were making us uneasy.

Clinging to our plastic cups of beer we gingerly made our way through throngs of sprawled bodies, grinning uncomfortably at the stares from our fellow concert goers. The damned Arizona sun took its own sweet time setting. After what seemed like an eternity the lights went out and it was in the comfort and anonymity of darkness that we finally found our voices.

Lacking a mullet and tattoos had meant bucking the fashion trend that night, but being the only three Indians dressed like nerdy graduate students (which we were) we had stuck out like…like three church ladies at a biker convention. Yes, the darkness was our friend.

At that time Ted Nugent was still a ways off from the right-wing nut job he eventually morphed into. He was yet to take his U.S Army sanctioned celebratory crap in Saddam Hussein’s palace in Baghdad (“I shat in his bidet” he proclaimed), call Obama a “piece of shit” and evangelize the recreational hunting of baby deer with assault rifles. Here he was, fronting an attempt at resurrection by forming the pompously touted super-group Damned Yankees. Alongside him was Tommy Shaw, who had inflicted on us the aural enema of Styx’s Too Much Time on My Hands. Too much time indeed!

And Bad Company. Little did we know then that Paul Rodgers would eventually blaspheme his way into rock and roll hell by fronting a reincarnation of Queen concocted by a delusional Brian May. His over-earnest voice, famous for crooning limp arena anthems, was to end up playing to busloads of Japanese tourists politely nodding their heads to Another One Bites the Dust. Roll over Freddie!

So, that night in Arizona it was a double-bill of two bands well past their expiry date. But desperation born out of deprivation is seldom a bulwark of good taste. It was desperation that had led to our nabbing tickets the day the concert was announced. A desperation born out of growing up in the cooler. In solitary confinement. In complete sensory deprivation.

I grew up in Bangalore, India and Bangalore (or anywhere in India) in the 1980s was not exactly frothing at the edges with concerts of the cream of the world’s best bands. It was a black hole of live music – no one toured India those days.

In fact the black hole ran deeper. Coca-Cola and IBM were the iconic outcasts of India’s perverted economic policies in the 80s. Protectionism ran rampant, with astronomical import duties being heaped on anything and everything manufactured abroad. I hated the taste of Coke and had no use for computers (yet), but the fallout of India’s policy delusion hit closer: music got caught in the crossfire.

It made it virtually impossible to walk into a record store and buy an album of a band you cared about. No major record company had a presence in India and a visit to HMV (our version of Tower Records) would yield nuggets fit only for a retirement home. An entire generation got shafted by the hanky-panky of bigger powers – something I resent even to this day. For it left the nurturing of musical tastes to chance and the musical pedigree of one’s social circle.

But it was also a time when Indians were zealously setting roots in universities across the United States. At any point in time everyone knew someone who was heading off to a Stanford or Notre Dame. It wasn’t just the higher echelon of American academia that got infiltrated, we had brothers available to browse and scrounge around for music even in Butthole, Arkansas. Screw Silicon Valley, we now had access to CCR and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

You just had to know the right people. Or the people who knew the right people. It was an elaborate dance of procurement. You classified your friends into dealers, pushers, hoarders, misers and philanthropists. Sucked up to the dork you would normally sneer at only to get your paws on his Black Sabbath tapes. Tolerated the dude who was obsessed with the Moody Blues just because he knew a guy who had Rush tapes. Rode your motorcycle across town when the phone call came that a new recording of Metallica had just arrived from Texas. Hung out with the idiot who couldn’t get enough of Foreigner, for his brother had good quality Bowie and Cream recordings.

Yes, these “procurers” were your life and proceeded to set your music tastes in stone. In those days it went like this: if you attended engineering school in India, it automatically consigned you to a life of Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, Black Sabbath, Dire Straits, Jethro Tull and of course, Pink Floyd. The rest of the kids were classified into: the smart-asses who dug Dylan, The Clash and Lou Reed; the nancy-boys who listened to Duran Duran and George Michael; bottom feeders who moaned over bilge like Journey and REO Speedwagon and the enlightened ones who were into Kraftwerk and Frank Zappa.

I attended engineering school and was surrounded by the rest. And I begged, borrowed, copied, stole from and traded with every one of them. But, I had never met anyone in my life who had attended a concert of any of these bands. It is vicious when you can’t even live vicariously. Occasionally, a tattered copy of Rolling Stone would materialize (airport purchase of a vacationing brother from MIT probably) and we would pore over reviews of concerts in it. Bruce Springsteen’s four hour shows were already legendary in our minds.

The closest I had come to a watershed moment was when Shakti - the fusion band with John McLaughlin and three Indian classical music gods - played a show in Bangalore. It was a brilliant night, but it just heaped more evidence on our heads that there was voodoo and some seriously bad mojo at work. Mahavishnu showed up in Bangalore with his guitar picking hand in a cast, having broken it in Bombay in a freak accident! Soon after I would arrive in Arizona for grad school. Yes, there was the small matter of a PhD to contend with but I had no inkling of what would happen next.

Just months after landing in Tempe, an acquaintance – another Indian graduate student, a nice enough guy who always looked at me with pity (possibly disdain) at what he considered a pagan lifestyle - let drop that he knew a girl who worked as an event coordinator at the ASU Activity Center (now the Wells Fargo Arena), the Arizona State University basketball stadium that doubled as a concert venue! I was on my knees in an instant, begging for an introduction. And to my utter surprise (bless his geeky little heart) he obliged.

The job of an usher at the stadium was as follows: armed with a flashlight, you directed concert goers to their seats. Once the show started, you kept watch on the crowd in your section (ergo, you stood with your back to the stage) looking for lowlife lighting up spliffs surreptitiously. I instinctively knew I was over-qualified for this and proceeded to make an ass of myself, aggressively convincing Susan (the event coordinator chick) about my dexterity with flashlights and commitment to eradicate the use of weed for recreational purposes. Maybe it was pity again, but I had walked out delirious with my first (non-paying, mind you) job in the US of A.

I almost got fired on my very first night on the job. When Robert Plant launched into Black Dog I must have completely lost it. Lost it badly, for Susan was livid at the end of the night. Dereliction of duty was the accusation. But do you know how hard it is to look up at rows of seats stretching into oblivion in darkness and pin-point where the tell-tale flash of a lighter came from? I had dished out the odd “Hide it man, don’t get caught” advice but did she really understand what it meant to stand there in the presence (the freakin’ flesh!) of Led Zeppelin? Did she know of the years spent conjuring up visions of Dazed and Confused and The Immigrant Song lying in bed back home in Bangalore?

Turn my back to the stage and look at the crowd? You gotta be shitting me.

Crosby, Stills and Nash followed a few weeks later but I could muster up only a tepid interest in it; would have been a completely different matter had it been CSNY. Or just the Y. There were a few oddball events. Hank Williams Jr. turned out to be a hoot – I knew squat about country music, but could not believe how insane the crowd was! Yes, the levee was well and truly broken.

Susan read the riot act to us one night: “Those planning to break a leg, come down with chicken pox or attend a funeral next Saturday are warned. Anyone skipping that show is scratched off the list automatically for AC/DC that follows.” Gulp!

I had shown up early for Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Liza Minnelli and it turned out to be a surreal night. The security was astonishing: Men In Black style dark suited secret-service men with earpieces combed the empty stands. They were everywhere, jogging in front of the arriving limos like Clint Eastwood in In the Line of Fire. Mob hit fears for Ol’ Blue Eyes, I had reminded myself. My dad would have enjoyed the show.

The sellout crowd was in some kind of religious frenzy when someone grabbed my shoulder. I turned my flashlight on a sweating and quivering face in the throes of panic. “You better come with me,” he said, grabbing my arm and dragging me up the steps. We stopped mid-row in the nose-bleeds, and I shone my flashlight on another sweating face - as she leaned back in her seat, almost horizontal, her legs apart.  She looked unconscious. “Her water has broken and she seems to be in a lot of pain. Do something!” yelled sweaty face No. 1 in my ear. “Go. Make yourself useful,” trumpeted a smart-ass elderly gentleman behind her.


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