TRUE TALES OF THE ROAD: Grandpa Banana and the Great Chicago Snow
This man – real name: Lowell Levinger – is at least partly responsible for a gem of one-hit wonderment, Get Together. This is the kind of rare song that doesn’t just set the songwriters and their descendents up for life. It affects an entire generation. The song lives forever, becoming far more famous than its creators and eventually ascending into mass consciousness, maybe even “public domain.” You can still hear the thing everywhere. And it still holds up.
Vietnam vets were particularly moved by this breezy ode to peace and love – a minor hit in 1967 and a much, much bigger hit in 1969. Grandpa Banana will play the song in Edmonton Friday, Feb 25 at the Blue Chair Cafe – part of the Winter Roots and Blues Round-up II running at various venues through Monday. He says it’s his “duty” to play it. Besides, his fans would kill him if he didn’t.
Banana is cooking chicken soup when reached on the phone early in the morning at his house in San Francisco, where he runs a website devoted to vintage musical instruments. Chicken soup for breakfast? No, he explains, you have to make it in the morning if you want it to be good by supper. He calls it “Jewish penicillin,” which he says will fortify him for his trip to the frozen north.
He speaks from experience. When Banana is asked to ponder the worst thing that’s ever happened to him on the road, he trips back to the terrible winter of 1966-67. The first Get Together record was still a year away, but they were already playing their new song at gigs and starting to get a “buzz,” so to speak. The band drove from New York to Chicago to play some fleabag hotel bar Banana can’t even remember – and arrived just in time for the Great Chicago Snow. It was a terrible storm: Bitter wind, snow, wind, sleet, ice, just like Edmonton with not nearly enough snowplows. Every form of transportation was stopped dead. You couldn’t drive. Trains were stuck. You could barely walk. Chicago was paralyzed. Needless to say, the gig was cancelled and the fledgling Youngbloods were stuck in a ratty, drafty hotel with no money for an entire week.
Banana recalls that all they got by with a supply of Romilar, a popular cough syrup that was taken off the market in 1973 because a lot of people like the Youngbloods were using it recreationally. The musicians subsisted on burgers and fries on a tab the hotel manager was not pleased about extending for much longer. There was nothing to do.
Banana says, “We had to keep phoning our manager in New York: ‘Can you please just send us another 60 bucks? We need food.’ (Guitarist Jerry Corbitt) got sick immediately. He just went down. It was miserable. We did some writing. (Drummer Joe Bauer) and I would just go outside, walk around among these huge snowdrifts, walk down to the lake, walk back, have some Romilar.
“This is how it worked with us: (Singer Jesse Colin Young) often had connections, with women, actually, that he hung out with in the various towns. Jerry would kind of tag along with him. And then Joe and I hung out together. We were rather adventurous and outdoorsy types. The other guys just stayed in the hotel.”
No one threatened to quit. Aside from a touch of the flu, no one had a meltdown. While it is simply not true that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, it seemed to be the case here. And while Banana himself claims that the only valuable thing they got from the experience was a story, they would shortly go onto fame and fortune and assure themselves a place in rock ‘n’ roll history.
BONUS FEATURE: WHO NAMED THE GUY?
Banana remembers: He and a friend were studying theatre arts at Boston University in 1962 and were stage hands in a production of On the Town. At this point in the interview, Banana sings a big chunk of New York, New York (It’s a Helluva Town). Sadly, he doesn’t think it’ll be in the set at the gig. So anyway, it’s rehearsal night, and he and his buddy are hidden uncomfortably inside a prop taxicab, waiting for the cue to slide it across the stage. There are technical difficulties. They wait a long, long time, become delirious and come up with what they think is a funny band name: Harman N. Banana. They form a band and that’s that: Banana, later Grandpa Banana.
Says he, “It seemed like a good idea at the time and it’s too late to turn back now.”