The Tompo of the Ringing is a charmingly disarming everyman’s memoir of a rock ‘n’ roll life spent on the fringes of the record machine. Had it a narrower arc and more lurid cast, author and musician Tracy Santa’ chronicle might have been titled Confessions of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Townie, calling to mind worlds portrayed in rockabilly-drenched teen film epics like Robert Rodriguez’s 1994 Road Racers and the 1958 low-budget classic and Jeff Beck inspiration, Hot Rod Gang (Lew Landers, 1958). Instead, this amiable gambol conveys with affection a wryly self-deprecating collection of inductions into the mysteries of rock ‘n’ roll, each leaving you, like a stoner with a bag of Doritos, hungering for the next.
Santa’s dropped-needle-on-vinyl-LP retelling of his rock ‘n’ roll years carries his reader through an optimistically infused string of bands, gigs, and venues—from New York’s Bethlehem of punk, CBGB, to San Francisco’s legendary Mabuhay Gardens—and quirky, well-reviewed, obscure record label recordings. There’s an uncommon mode of sight in this personal history which traces from Santa’s roots in a fading industry town, Shelton, Connecticut, where his Junior High School band quests to find the complete lyrics to “Louie Louie”, to nine years in San Francisco where he and his band, 84 Rooms, evolve into minor culture makers. It’s a way of seeing that reveals rock ‘n’ roll as community, as quest, as inquiry, as hopeful practice, and as path, one that imbues Santa’s singular tale with broad appeal and larger relevance. Besides, it’s just plain fun.
The early bits of Santa’s recollection of his life in music kindled in me the same warm affection for dissipated, weed smoking, Friendly’s Ice Cream serving, rock ‘n’ roll loving New England townies that I feel each time I watch Michael Corrente’s 1999 film, adapted from the Peter Farrelly novel, Outside Providence. Perhaps that’s because I booked some growing-up time in the Nutmeg state. Before The Tompo’s Act One curtain dropped, I had been transported so completely to the rock ’n’ roll world of my Connecticut youth that I wanted nothing more than to fire up my beater of a Datsun 510, turn up Stoneman playing album sides on WPLR, and head out to Willimantic to catch James Cotton at the Shaboo Inn, where I’d gorge on 90 cent cheeseburger grinders before scooting over to Waterbury to take in a set by Eight to the Bar, drop down to New Haven for some workingman’s rock ‘n’ roll with Savoy Brown, and close out the evening at Toad’s with North Haven locals, the B Willie Smith Band jump-bluesing the night away. Perhaps this process of wide-eyed discovery situated in the vernacular is quite universal. And perhaps that is why The Tompo of the Ringing chimes so brightly.
In the book’s forward, Warren Zanes, late of the Del Fuegos, notes,
rock and roll stories tend to hinge on the detail…it could be, the guitar player’s nose, which needed blowing, on the night in Worcester when he attempted to negotiate payment with a drunken club owner known for underworld ties.– Warren Zanes
Zanes’ observation resonates because the rock ‘n’ roll life grows out of fiercely parochial small-town culture. There’s a post-concert scene in Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous (2000), in which budding journalist William Miller and the charismatic guitarist of the fictional band Stillwater, Russell Hammond, are approached by a VW microbus and invited to a party by the driver who asks, “…do you want to hang with some people looking to have a good time? We’re just some real Topeka people man.” Shortly after, they pull up to a suburban ranch house, its driveway filled with partyers’ cars. On entering the house, Russell’s face lights with a joyful burst of recognition as he sees a pair of dated department store end table lamps, “Oh my God! Holy shit! Fuck! I grew up with that lampshade!” Though that scene is set in Kansas, it’s the same world, the same hometown rock ‘n’ roll culture found in the suburban Texan setting of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993), and in the place where the Housatonic River merges with the Naugatuck, the town in which Santa grew up,
Santa, of Wild Hares, playfully transmits this rock ‘n’ roll local ethos from the get-go. In tween vignettes recounting middle-school life before the author takes up an instrument, Santa expresses, at times with embarrassingly funny humor, the naïve, accidental, nominally criminal behavior of small-town kids reaching for an elemental connection with something larger.
…when we camped out in the backyard, we would strip buck naked and roam for miles around town in the middle of the night…. unsupervised and on our own, like rolling stones—we elected to get out on the town in the altogether…Running down the middle of the road bare-ass was electric, the pavement still warm on our feet from the summer sun. Baby dada steps. No harm, no foul, no clothes, no clue.– Tracy Sasnta
Santa’s spry anecdote adroitly reverses the premise of John Cheever’s classic short story, “The Swimmer” (1964). Unlike Cheever’s depiction of an emotionally lost middle-aged man pool-hopping his way from estate to estate in Greenwich, Connecticut, Santa’s story is not wearied. It’s not desperate. It’s not broken. The Tompo of the Ringing is innocent, naïvely subversive, alive, and filled with possibility. By age 12, running naked through the streets, Santa’s already a rocker, one who would be instantly familiar to the aging character in James Maddock’s affection-filled song from 2017, “The Old Rocker”. Now the kid simply needs a proper outlet, which he finds in a band whose sole ambition is to play a youth dance at St. Paul’s church.
Rock ‘n’ roll for Santa is how we make our possibilities. Its meaning as a way of being for musicians who continue well past the point of reasonable expectation that they will become rock stars is a centerpiece of Santa’s narrative, for his is the story of a musician in love with everything rock ‘n’ roll is and can be. His is the story of kids finding the music that frees them from the constraints of the narrow worlds they inhabit, kids in garages trying to make the music of their heroes, kids discovering and expressing their voices, kids experiencing tribal unity in the music they share, and kids with guitars standing before an audience simply there to rock ‘n’ roll.
The symbiotic expression of love between musician and audience articulated by Santa forms the chain that links rock ‘n’ roll culture from t-shirted junior high schoolers playing dances in church basements to rock ‘n’ roll heroes playing before arenas filled with devout followers. The notion that rock ‘n’ roll is a phenomenon grounded in reciprocity is eloquently illustrated in Jonah Raskin’s 2012 book, Rock ‘n’ Roll Women: Portraits of a Generation. In this short collection, Raskin delivers a string of poems pairing women who have populated his life with rock ‘n’ roll icons. His verse portraits both contextualize and elevate these hitherto unknown women through the artists with whom he has connected them: “Marie and Creedence”, “Sue and Elvis”, “Anjelica and Janis Joplin”, “Sadie and the….Sex Pistols”. Or, perhaps, it is the other way around, stars receiving context and power from the fanboys, rock ‘n’ roll women, garage bands, and journeyman artists who live to rock.
As a cultural phenomenon, rock ‘n’ roll appears as a vast ecosystem, eyes focused on its apex predators, but it is not through this lens that one enters its mysteries. Passage into rock’s subtle realms results from lived experience and the stories it gives rise to. By carrying us down the stumbling path he follows from ages 12 to 33 and sharing with warm humor the revelations this journey brings, Santa leads us to the realization that rock ‘n’ roll and its enduring joy reside in the process of becoming. And that is no small gift.
As for the meaning of The Tompo of the Ringing, well, you’ll just have to read the book.