If, as they say, life is simply a grand illusion, complete with magicians deluding the unwitting into believing the impossible, enticing the unaware into fixing on the right hand while deceiving with the left, then popular music of the ‘60s just may have been one of history’s most monumental hoaxes.
That’s not to say that the endless list of English bands that “invaded” American shores was without talent. But while most of us were taking our eyes off the ball and obsessing over anything and everything with a British accent, The Rascals were quietly selling millions of records, racking up chart topping singles and making an indelible mark on rock and roll history.
While Felix Cavaliere, Gene Cornish, Eddie Brigati, and Dino Danelli may not be household names like that “other group,” The Rascals are without question one of the most influential and artistically important American bands in the annals of rock and roll.
In a time dominated by the rock acts of the “British Invasion,” the band not only survived but thrived. The immensely talented foursome pioneered “blue-eyed soul,” effortlessly blending pop melodies with the muscle of R&B and soul.
The band released a remarkable number of top ten singles in the mid- and late-‘60s, including “How Can I Be Sure?,” “Come On Up,” “You Better Run,” “I've Been Lonely Too Long,” “A Beautiful Morning,” and the no. 1 hits “Good Lovin’,” “Groovin’,” and “People Got to Be Free.”
The Rascals were much more than just a musical force as the band was a subtle yet powerful voice for civil rights. Though they never brandished their politics like some of their peers, they truly lived theirs, fighting discrimination by refusing to tour without a black act on the bill at each of their concerts.
Perhaps no one has recognized The Rascals’ historical significance more than The E-Street Band’s exceptional guitarist, Steven Van Zandt. A long-time fan of the band, Van Zandt inducted them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.
And “to do justice to The Rascals’ importance,” Van Zandt recently wrote a show for the band that “is just as unique as they are.” “Once Upon A Dream” is an extraordinary fusion of a rock concert and a Broadway show, a “rock n’ soul dance party meets the Jersey Boys” so to speak.
Far beyond the usual concert experience, the history of the turbulent ‘60s is brilliantly dramatized through The Rascals’ music, combining narration, filmed scenes of key moments in the band’s history, news footage, and archival footage of the band.
Phoenix concertgoers get to witness the remarkable show – at which Van Zandt vowed to “remind audiences how uniquely inspirational, entertaining, and historically important The Rascals’ music is” – at the Orpheum Theatre for a five-night run on Oct. 14, 16, 18, 19 and 20. You can get tickets at www.rascalsdream.com.
The only ones more excited for the shows than Van Zandt and Rascals’ fans are the melody makers themselves. In advance of the sure-to-be-sold-out five-night run, Brigati and Cornish took the time to chat with me.
Cornish’s exhilaration was unmistakable as he described the show. “This particular play, it’s a very high level, unique production. It’s unlike any other to date because of the components of it. It rivals any reunion concert ever conceived. The personal part of it is included as a movie. There’s an interview of us in it. It tells our story. We play these songs wrapped in stories.”
“But the people go away every night saying, ‘Okay, they did that song. They did that song too. Wow, I didn’t know they did that song.’ And it comes back to you immediately. I personally invite people to come and have the joy of it.”
The upbeat Brigati was eager to “enlighten” any less than familiar concertgoers as to the breadth of The Rascals’ catalog. “Oh geez. The Rascals put out seven albums in five years and we did over half a million miles and maybe a thousand performances or show ups. And the audience always had the same response to us.”
“There were times when we didn’t blast the stadiums but we were never really marketed. I think the ball was dropped in that end of it. But having the success that we had and are having, the ball was only temporarily misplaced or hidden or dropped or whatever. It’s a new ball, it’s a bigger ball.”
“We’re not household names like The Beatles. Nobody knows us but they all know our songs. We’re kind of rag tag guys, you know? There are no leading men, so-to-speak in Hollywood terms. But the coming together is what makes it. It is powerful but it’s powerful in a beautiful way.”
“The Rascals showed the compassion, they showed the understanding part of it and I'm proud of it. I'm still proud of it and every night I go on stage and I look up and I go, ‘Wow, did we do that too?’”
Brigati talked about the special vibe of getting together with his bandmates for the breathtaking production. “Yeah. Never quite like now. It’s never been on this high of a level. We’ve matured a bit in those 40-something years (laughing). But Steven has done an incredible job. He has patience, he knows every note, and he’s put in a lot of time and love. He’s really a champion for us.”
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t really ever look at the whole picture about how inspirational our original work was. And it’s matured and mellowed and marinated up until this point. It’s really a gift for it to happen to us. It makes me realize that we’re just catalysts of that original spirit. We were kids and we wanted to put our best foot forward.”
“And I think one of the highest compliments we've gotten, especially from Steven, is that our work never went dark. We went dark but our work didn’t (laughs). But I think that’s the gist of it, the cooperation, the innocence, the intention to make things better.”
“If you remember, Vietnam was really a heavy crisis and division. The spirit of this is that you take that poison and you change it – the Buddhists turn poison into medicine – but you take the negativity of it and you try and bring it to a positive level. And when you’re kids you don’t even think about it, you just do it.”
When I remarked that I did in fact remember Vietnam and the ‘60s, with a chuckle Brigati channeled George Carlin and gently suggested, “Then you weren’t there.”
Given the troubled times and constant focus on life-changing events, it’s somewhat understandable that The Rascals were taken for granted. But even Brigati and his bandmates are learning new things about their timeless music.
“Yeah, about how talented my fellow cohorts are, how diverse we were, how complex we were – (laughing) and are. And whether it’s your family or your religion or your business or whatever, cooperation is the only answer.”
“Philosophies are free to vary. But when you get to that one thing and you use it and you harmonize it and you’re all on the same note and you’re all repeating the same mantra, that song brings you all together. And then the audience has it and owns it. That’s the high point of the whole opera. Life is drama, you add music, and you have opera.”
And if the overwhelming response to the show is any indication, Rascals’ fans must love the opera. Brigati confessed to being pleasantly surprised at the response.
“Absolutely. I was supposed to be in a nursing home 15 years ago. You know what it is? You have your feelings and your fears and all these things going through your head and the history and the news on the television and your apprehension. And you get on stage and you go, ‘Wow, what am I doing here?’”
“Then something goes down and you get flooded with love. You get flooded with people with intentions and the whole theater is pouring their energy into you. That’s what our original goal was, to affect each other.”
There’s no denying that The Rascals affected people. The band risked commercial backlash by demanding that black acts appear with them as part of the bill at their shows. But Cornish professed that they wouldn’t have done it any differently.
“We would see a large percentage of our audience was black and we said, ‘Wait a second, let’s do something positive here.’ And we did. We did Carnegie Hall and had The Staples Singers open for us. We were doing a lot of shows with Tommy James. We were doing a lot of shows with different acts and we said, ‘We really need to come out in spirit and in our hearts where they really belong. It was very costly at some point for us. Some of the promoters didn’t like it but we didn’t care.”
There’s no better instance of The Rascals’ social insights than their ’68 chart topper “People Got To Be Free,” their horn-punctuated plea for racial tolerance written in the wake of the assassinations of Senator Robert F. Kennedy and Reverend Martin Luther King.
Astoundingly, Cornish said that the band was criticized for the song by some that felt they were “too white to understand.”
Brigati talked about the wonderfully melodic petition for equality and the progress that has occurred in the last 45 years. “It wasn’t a protest song. It was a suggestion (laughing). The world is made up of positive and negative. That’s a given, the double helix. You’re never gonna completely change that dynamic. You’re not going to change that dynamic, you have to work with it.”
“So the more educated we are, the more compassion we show to each other. There will always be the horrors and the terrible things. But what you participate in as an individual, that’s really all you can do.”
“I love the idea that we keep it together. People are scary sometimes to me (laughs) and I'm sure I’ve scared my share. But the point is, once you know what it’s like to be nice or get help or help somebody, that philosophy goes into your work, it goes into your music and people pick up on it.”
Here’s to keeping it together…