Everyone's got their rock n' roll story. And Tom Kohler wants it.
And everyone knows that when Tom Kohler wants something, you give it to him or miss out on whatever awesomesauce he's cooking up, and this pot's a boiler.
Along with a formidable team of volunteers, this spellbinding king of community has masterminded Savannah Rocks!, a multi-pronged spectacle that will culminate with an epic rock show at the American Legion on Feb. 7.
Before that, however, there is the 30-foot long crowdsourced mural currently up at the Sentient Bean, festooned with musical memorabilia from the last 50-plus years.
"Ticket stubs, posters, pictures, bring it," Kohler has commanded over the last few weeks, an edict to which Savannah has stepped lively: Already the Bean's walls flutter with layers upon layers of faded drawings of clean-cut sax players in matching striped suits, photos of shirtless young bucks with '70s sideburns and skull-spangled flyers for aught-era metal bands.
Loosely chronicled and gleefully chaotic, the collective result evokes a giant party that started in 1957 and is still screaming along full throttle. With the hands-off curation strategy, it won't be long before the mural comes to resemble the dungeonous recesses of a teenager's room.
"It's going to get bigger and bigger and messier and messier," cheerfully nods the man whose beard remains the envy of many a scruffy hipster. "Just like rock n' roll."
Last Friday's kickoff brought out local music glitterati both current and exalted. Soap's Antar Ellis and Eric Curl (double-representing in a Cusses T-shirt) admired their band's placement next to the Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love's callipygian poster nymph.
Kylesa frontwoman Laura Pleasants tacked up posters as Kevin Rose of the once-and-future legends Superhorse made the rounds with his wife, Danielle (who plays theramin in the all-female tour de force The Silver Machine), their kids in tow.
And oh yes, the tunes: Superhorse lead singer Keith Kozel manned the DJ station, punctuated by radio personality paragon Gloria "Ms. Soul" Wright. Seventies' soul man Lil' Willie Johnson performed some impromptu a cappella, and Savannah Arts' freshman axe slinger Declan Berkeley anchored the new generation with a solo rendition of "Here Comes the Sun."
An apropos choice, young Declan, as those who witnessed that precise moment — when rock 'n' roll tore through the plaid fabric of staid post-WWII conformity and funneled a society's rage and lust into three chords and a trap set — will tell you it all started with the Beatles.
"Nothing was ever the same," my esteemed colleague Bill DeYoung wrote recently of that February 9, 1964 Ed Sullivan Show broadcast when John, Paul, George and Ringo turned American culture on its ear.
A Beatles scholar of impressive proportions, Bill has instilled in me an even deeper appreciation for the cultural salvo caused by the advent of the Fab Four (who made an unscheduled appearance at Johnnie Ganem's liquor store after Hurricane Dora diverted their plane from Jacksonville in Sept. 1964. Perhaps Rose Ganem might offer up to the mural a copy of the autographs she procured that stormy night?)
Suddenly, every garage on the block caterwauled with long-haired boys and maybe a few girls — and in a few short years a revolution in the way America viewed race, civil rights and women's societal roles followed. Though too often lumped into the radical triumvirate that includes sex and drugs, rock 'n' roll will always be the true catalyst.
Those of us not quite venerable enough to have been there still bask in the legacy. The music got louder and the hair got bigger, but we'll never go back to a time when self-expression isn't the norm.
"Every town has the same story. This is Savannah's version of that," explained Bill, sweeping his arm along the walls of the Bean.
Which explains why this usually-mellow coffeespot rocked with raucous memories: My boss Jim Morekis tossed out that he saw Def Leppard before drummer Rick Allen lost his arm. Local guitar picker Tommy Holland topped that with a Black Sabbath show in 1971 (I would have thought Ozzy and his bats would've been too much for Savannah back then, but there is no record of any church lady protests.)
Under the riotous colorworks of Panhandle Slim (aka Scott Stanton, himself an old school skatepunk rocker), a cluster hotly debated whether it was The Guess Who or Three Dog Night who played the long-gone (and fondly remembered) spring festival Night in Old Savannah.
Though I sported some serious claw bangs back in the day, I lamented that I don't have a single scrap to put on the wall. My formative years were spent acquiring stories elsewhere, and I'm pretty sure my mom threw all the mementos away. (Most regrettably a backstage pass to a 1986 AC/DC show in Tempe, AZ, where I discovered that guitar god Angus Young was a pocket-sized fellow who barely came up to my elbow.)
So I turned my sights to my hometown husband, who likes to brag that he saw Cheap Trick open for Foreigner on the Jukebox Hero Tour of '81 at the Savannah Civic Center. (Perhaps the new Westside arena will usher in another big name band era, when and if it's ever built?)
I dragged him over to his childhood home, where I believed a trove of unexcavated rock 'n' roll treasures lay moldering in his old attic bedroom, virtually unchanged since he left in 1988. It's now a depository for the rickety furniture of deceased relatives, but the yellowed posters still hang — the Doors, Led Zeppelin, both early and late-era Beatles, John Lennon smiling down from the slanted ceiling as both a fresh-faced lad and a bespectacled, bearded sage.
Surely here, hidden amongst the decaying term papers and papasan chairs we could find some small token to contribute to the mural and fulfill Tom Kohler's mandate.
As we sifted through a dresser drawer filled with the detritus of outgrown teenage life, a yellow folder caught his eye.
"What's that?" I grabbed, hoping for an autographed Journey poster.
"Nothing. My senior year English journal," he grumbled, settling back on the blue shag carpet to read.
Three drawers later of rifling through the letters from old girlfriends and certificates for perfect attendance, I had not found anything promising. My guy wasn't a musician in high school, he was an athlete. (And a durn good one, apparently; next to his bar mitzvah certificate there was a stack of curling newspaper articles with his name in the sports section.) If Tom Kohler wanted a mural of satin first place ribbons and photos of dudes in shorty-short polyester uniforms with sweaty feathered hair, we'd be in business.
My spouse occasionally broke his absorption to read me excerpts from his 17 year-old self: The time he felt his knee pop during a scrimmage. Learning that instead of dominating the league as team captain his senior year, he would be having surgery on that knee. Facing the reality that rather than a full scholarship to college, he was looking forward to a year of rehab.
After that, nothing was ever the same.
I was thinking this scavenger hunt had gone way south when my fingers alit upon a promising scrap.
"Ah-ha!" I exclaimed, holding up a ticket stub, torn and faded to a pale pink, for REO Speedwagon at the Civic Center, Aug. 21, 1985.
He examined it closely. "Yup. I went with Paul Alderman before his parents got divorced. I wore a purple Izod." He thought a minute.
"Cheap Trick opened," he said, handing the pink stub back to me.
"I thought Cheap Trick opened for Foreigner," I murmured.
"They opened for everybody," he shrugged.
It occurred to me that after his knee surgery, my guy spent a lot of time up this attic bedroom, listening to Jim Morrison and Robert Plant and other modern philosophers counsel him on matters of the soul. I like to think it was rock 'n' roll that got him through that hard and lonely year, that it opened up a world beyond who he thought he was meant to be. That it showed him — as it did the rest of us — that life is bigger and messier than we can imagine.
Maybe it was rock 'n' roll that planted the seeds of possibility and courage that pulled him out of Savannah all the way to California, where he met a quirky girl from Arizona with a VW bus and kindred aching in her heart.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Rock on.