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I Got the Fire: Remembering Ronnie Montrose

March 13, 2012

My daughter often asks me my favorite music artist and each time I find myself struggling to identify one.  I can easily list a bunch of groups or musicians whose tunes are guaranteed to reach me whenever I hear them or whose recorded output I own in bulk and whose new stuff – if and when it exists – I would be unable to imagine not buying within days of it becoming available.  As for a specific favorite however, I am at a loss in 2012, and my listening habits bear this out.

In my current 22,000-song, shuffle-all, iPod-centric world, at any given moment I am as likely to be grooving to Rick James’ “Below the Funk (Pass the J)” as I am to be rocking out to Judas Priest’s “Hell Bent for Leather,” swinging along with Frank Sinatra’s “Makin’ Whoopee,” or rolling my eyes at Pink Floyd’s gratuitous  “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict.”  You’ve got as good a chance finding me rejoicing to “The Christian Life” by The Louvin Brothers or “God Makes No Mistakes” by Loretta Lynn as you do catching me mesmerized by “In League with Satan” by Venom or “Public Display of Dismemberment” by Slayer.

But in my late 70s/early 80s high school years, it was different…

Starting work at age 15 ½ as an usher/ticket taker at the Orpheum Theater in Ogden, Utah, was awesome.  The movies were second-rate at best so there were seldom big crowds, and thus seldom much actual work.  The 18- to 21-year old bosses were pretty much just kids like me, more worried about meeting girls and obtaining booze than running a tight ship.  Some of the “candy case” girls were hot and not stuck up. (I still remember clearly and with giddy pride a couple times when one candy-caser or another complimented me on my hair or my “Angel Flight” slacks.)   The local 20-something paramedics hung out at the theater and were always good for tales of car wrecks and heart attacks, and the married ticket booth ladies had no qualms about sex talk with minors.

The theater’s lobby hosted both Asteroids and Space Invaders videogame machines when they first came out, and we were allowed to either open up the machines to hit the switch or use a quarter on a string to rack up as many free plays as we wanted.  The building itself – the keys to which were sometimes entrusted to me! — was a maze of abandoned apartments, tunnels, dressing rooms, backstage pits, and more just begging to be explored.  The whole thing was a teenager’s dream.

The most long-lasting impacts on me from that time came as a result of hanging out with 21-year old Orpheum co-manager, and coincidentally my down-the-street neighbor, Rick.  Rick was cool because he was a drummer in the local band Profound Silence they played my senior-year Winter Dance and dedicated a song to me and my date! – but also because he was a returned Mormon missionary who nonetheless had lots of pre-mission girl-getting and drug-taking stories to share.  Why the hell he was willing to hang out with a punk 16-year old I’m not sure, but I imagine it had to do in part with my being a willing, hero-worshipping apprentice seeking to benefit from his life skills expertise.

Rick let me be a “roadie” for a Profound Silence gig at Lagoon amusement park, let me pluck the strings on his multi-thousand dollar Flying-V electric guitar, took me to my first two rock and roll concerts, sold me my first vehicle — his 1956 Chevy pickup — for $300, set up the deal in which I bought my used Fender Mustang electric guitar and Pignose practice amp, taught me how to stalk a girlfriend through permitting me to observe him do it to his, helped me work on my motorcycle, showed me how to make an excellent homemade speaker system using cast off woofers and tweeters suspended over empty buckets and paint cans, and made me begin thinking that going on a Mormon mission did not necessarily mean surrendering all aspirations of being cool.  But above all this, Rick was responsible for introducing me to the two guitar players that would become my musical “chosen” throughout high school and beyond, Robin Trower and Ronnie Montrose.

I have had reason over this past week to reflect deeply on the importance of one part of Rick’s two-fer, Ronnie Montrose, in particular.  I came to Ronnie through the first album from Gamma, Ronnie’s second successful band, shortly after it was released in 1979.  Rick played Gamma 1 for me on his home stereo, convinced me of its awesomeness by pointing out and replaying over and over all the little guitar tricks and monster riffs Ronnie was laying down, and then personally drove me to the record store to score my own copy.  I played the album incessantly, knew all the lyrics, strummed along on air guitar at expert level, and marveled at the “feeling” in the screaming guitar solos.  But my education had only just begun.

  

Once he was sure of my worthiness, Rick and I stayed late at the Orpheum one night after work to utilize the theater’s massive sound system for our own purposes.  Rick seated me alone smack dab in the middle of the generally closed balcony, turned off the house lights, and headed into the projection booth to set up the cassette player.  He had previously instructed me to close my eyes and imagine a slow trip through outer space, slowly leading to a floating stage upon which one-man sat on a stool with his head down and his guitar plugged directly into the cosmos themselves.  Rick then played in succession through the Orpheum’s earth-shaking speakers the first four songs from Ronnie’s all-instrumental first solo album, 1978’s Open Fire, ending with Ronnie’s instrumental version of the song “Town Without Pity.”  I still remember it clear as can be; I was traveling through outer space and Ronnie Montrose was my pilot.  I bought the Open Fire album the next day.

Some weeks later, Rick and I drove his van to Bud’s Drive-In on 2nd Street in Ogden to get a couple “YGTBK” burgers (pronounced “Yaaa” and standing for “You’ve Got To Be Kidding”).  As we pulled in, Rick shushed me and told me to check out what was emanating from the stereo of the Camaro parked next to us.  (Geez, I still remember this with utter clarity three decades later.)  As I listened to the raunchy, distorted guitar-driven hard rock exploding out of the Camaro, I confirmed to Rick that I was intrigued.  YGTBK indeed!  Rick let me in on the news that the Camaro’s long-haired occupants were in fact pumping out the 1973 first album from Ronnie Montrose’s first band, Montrose.

In those days before the internet’s instantaneous access to any humble fact about every obscure topic, fetish or person in the universe, I had no idea that there existed a Ronnie before Open Fire and Gamma 1.  To learn that not only was there more of Ronnie’s amazingness out there, but that it was in the form of a band called Montrose was my teenage version of a powerball lottery win.  I owned the first three Montrose albums within a couple weeks.  In less than a year, I was a Ronnie Montrose prodigy, and I certainly no longer needed any hand-holding from old guy Rick or anybody else to know the deal when the Gamma 2 album came out in 1980.  As neither Gamma, Montrose, nor Ronnie Montrose’s solo stuff was widely known among my Ben Lomond High School peers at the time, I quietly thought myself to be doubly cool and secretly superior to all of them because I was in the know and I “got” it, even if they all just saw me as the chubby smart kid.

 

By late 1980 or early 1981, the Orpheum job had ended, I had my own driver’s license and truck, and I saw less of Rick as he got serious with the girl he eventually married (yes, the stalked one).  I remained nevertheless a first-class passenger on the Ronnie Montrose train.  As a dishwasher and then pantry cook at Ye Lion’s Den restaurant, also in Ogden, I introduced Masters Trower and Montrose to my line-chef colleague Dennis, and the two of us spent many good times blasting the tunes and mutually confirming each other’s recognition of the breathtaking talent, emotion, and power inherent in them.

I eventually went on my own Mormon mission, returned financially-strapped and somewhat out of touch with “the new music,” and worked my way toward a college degree and wonderful married/family life, all without ever renounncing my role as a Ronnie devotee.  Once I started a full-time career and put school debt behind me, I slowly started picking up all the Ronnie Montrose solo albums I had missed during my self-induced economic exile.  I discovered more and more gems, such as Ronnie’s 1994 bursting-with-sentiment instrumental ode to bass fishing in the song “Largemouth” and the all-acoustic 1999 album Bearings, among many others.  I tracked down his ambient and blues-leaning 1996 soundtrack for the Mr. Bones videogame on eBay and downloaded a recording of Ronnie playing a Christmas melody on a live radio show.

By the time I read on a website in 2000 that Ronnie was getting Gamma back together to record a new album nearly 20 years after the last one, it was all I could do to keep myself calm and patient until Gamma 4 finally came out in 2001, allowing me to buy two copies of the CD, one of which is still immaculate in its plastic wrapper for reasons even I don’t quite grasp.   When Bearings was stolen from my wife’s car about ten years ago, I sprinted immediately to Ronnie’s website with fingers crossed that it was still available for sale.  (It was, thank heavens.)

Over the last few decades, Ronnie’s songs have regularly imposed themselves onto compilation tapes/CDs I’ve made for various folk.  In sum, Ronnie Montrose has repeatedly brought my sorry ass some serious joy since Rick so altruistically let me into the club back in ‘79.

  

On Saturday, March 3, 2012, Ronnie Montrose took his own life.  He was 64 and had battled depression and prostate cancer in recent years.  It was a bummer to learn of his passing (from my Montrose-digging and therefore obviously correctly raised 21-year old son).  Ronnie is still present however in the 186 songs by Montrose, Gamma, and Ronnie Montrose uploaded onto my computer and copied onto my iPod, and those tunes still can be counted on to make me happy.  And that’s cool…

RIP Ronnie

From → Music

5 Comments
  1. “…my Montrose-digging and therefore obviously correctly raised 21-year old son”. Fabulous.
    For my scion, it’s Kraftwerk.

    I want to head straight to that theatre and hear what you heard. What a great story. I’m making a mental list of the albums I’d love to spin through that theatre system and hear filling the vastness of the universe…

    • Wow, all the way back to the birth of my “Victim”hood ! I really appreciate you being interested enough to travel here. The wonderful thing is that now I can’t help but hear those songs just as I did then regardless of the “system” from which they emanate. The mind is a beautifully manipulative thing…

      As for manipulating guiding our offspring, I think yours is the more impressive achievement. Kudos!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Who Puts Women, Children, and Candy-O First | Victim of the Fury
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  3. Doubt Every Meaning: A View to Lou Reed | Victim of the Fury

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