January 1, 2017

Forget the Gears & Do the Work

Sometime in the early Sixties, Tommy Jackson saw a South Bend, Indiana rock band play a song called "Hanky Panky." The tune stuck with him and back home in Niles, Michigan he worked it out with his high school garage band, The Shondells. "I really only remembered a few lines from the song, so when we went to record it, I had to make up the rest of the song…I just pieced it back together from what I remembered."(1)

Tommy and his Shondells recorded it at local radio station WNIL and Snap Records released it in ‘64. It sold well in Michigan, Indiana and Illinois, but without national distribution the single disappeared from the airwaves. Tommy moved on, finishing high school in 1965 and The Shondells broke up.

Cut to 1966: An out-of-work Tommy Jackson got a call from "Mad Mike" Metrovich, a Pittsburgh DJ who’d been playing the Shondells’ "Hanky Panky" 45 on the radio. With the single now a regional hit, Tommy decided to re-release it, hired a Pennsylvania band to become the "new Shondells" and changed his name to "Tommy James."

James took the master tape of the WNIL recorded track of "Hanky Panky" to New York and sold it to Roulette Records. "The amazing thing is we did not re-record the song. I don't think anybody can record a song that bad and make it sound good…I think if we'd fooled with it too much we'd have fouled it up."(2)

Roulette released that original mix and “Hanky Panky” soon became the Number 1 song on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks in July 1966.  Tommy James and the Shondells would go on to have several hit records throughout the Sixties, including “Mony Mony,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Crimson and Clover” and others.

What can we learn from this little footnote in pop music history? The machinations of the recording industry and its concomitant relationship with radio in the 1960s are rife with intrigue and scandal. However, the story of Tommy Jackson and his unforeseen hit record has little to do with that. When Tommy's record and band petered out he probably thought his career was over, not knowing about those other events that were afoot to give the little single an unexpected life. Clearly, Tommy's commitment to act on his stroke of good luck made the difference and launched his career.(3)

What I want to talk about is how events and actions that are taking place completely without our knowledge may intersect with our lives to change our very destiny. For artists, this is a powerful idea that has to be recognized. The simultaneity of our lived experience with hitherto unknown events that might just alter our life path are a gift from the Universe. Our acceptance of this theory is simple: forget about what unknown gears are turning and continue to make your work.

Several manifestations of this alternative destiny trope have affected my own life, and with positive results, fortunately. The most powerful example is a chance telephone call I received from a woman living 2,500 miles away who would later become my wife. Moreover, her belief in and comprehension of this unknown factors of the Universe theory has schooled me about the importance of maintaining calm focus as I proceed as an artist.

Most recently, I was engaged in dialogue with a curator about an art proposal I had submitted for her planned exhibition. My proposal was to travel to the site and construct my participatory installation; I also offered to give public talks and to launch the installation at the opening reception.

Several weeks had gone by with no email or call from the curator. I was anxious so I mentioned to my wife I was going to send an email to learn about my proposal's status. She said: "There are events occurring in the Universe that you know nothing about. People are talking and things are happening. Just be patient."

This wisdom was incredibly calming and I took her advice to heart. Sure enough, within a few days I got an email from the curator. She accepted my proposal with genuine excitement, and guaranteed me airfare, hotel accommodation and per diem; she also organized talks with art departments, local artists  and the public.

This truth about trusting the Universe and moving forward with what you do is all the more potent when it is learned first-hand. But whether or not "success" or "fame" comes to you, the essence of what you do - the art you make, the music you play, the poems you write - should remain your focus and goal.

Simply put: Forget about the gears turning and the events occurring that are unknown to you - just do your work.

IMAGE/LINK: The Shondells original release of "Hanky Panky" on Snap Records in 1964; video accessed via CrisVangel1958 YouTube channel.    

1. The song was originally composed by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich for The Raindrops. Barry has said "As far as I was concerned it was a terrible song. In my mind it wasn't written to be a song, just a B-side." 

2. Bronson, Fred. The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, New York, 2003, p. 203.