After writing this post about Significant Songs of Generations Past, I flashed on “Smokin’ in the Boy’s Room,” the great dumbass anthem of 1973. If you are a Listener of a Certain Age, this song brings back all kinds of associations, few of them good.
AM radio was everywhere, and playlists were so tightly regimented you could set your watch to them. (“Terry Jacks is singing ‘Seasons in the Sun’? I better run or I’ll be late for homeroom!”) It was a time when cigarette-smoking was virtually omnipresent and socially acceptable — in fact, you were considered a rude sorehead if you objected to people making your house stink like a topped-off ashtray. Schoolteachers were rewarded for their idealism, commitment and professionalism with rock-bottom wages and, as an extra-special bit of humiliation, mandatory rounds of “potty patrol” to keep their youthful charges from firing up coffin nails in the school toilet. I’m sure it did wonders for a teacher’s self-esteem to teach poetry and algebra to bored teenagers after spending forty-five minutes standing by a urinal and sniffing the air.
And, to top it all off, they had to endure the prospect of turning on the car radio during the drive home and hearing Brownsville Station hammer away at standard-issue blues changes while Cub Koda sneered, “Teacher don’t you fill me up with your rules.” It’s a wonder one of them didn’t come to school with a machine gun and start blasting away at anything with bell-bottoms or feathered hair.
Still with me? Good, because now the story gets better. Brownsville Station called it quits in 1979 but bandleader and guitarist Cub Koda spent the next two decades cementing a reputation as a highly knowledgeable blues scholar and journalist whose work served as the cornerstone for the All Music Guide to the Blues. He also continued playing and recording music, most of it blues and roots music with a Dr. Demento-ish sense of humor. In fact, “Random Drug Testing,” done in the style of a Delta field holler — “Well, the boss man said you gotta pee in the cup, pee in the cup, pee in the cup . . .” — achieved its widest audience through the good doctor, who underneath his goofy image is one of the most consummately serious music lovers around. If his sense of humor and showmanship offended the sensibilities of what Koda called “blues nazis,” so much the better:
I’ve never understood how someone can obviate their own personality to crawl inside somebody else’s skin,” he continued. “If I can’t bring something of my own self to it, it just doesn’t make any sense to me. And, to me, you should throw your heart and soul into that music. The thing I don’t agree with with the blues nazis is, ‘Oh, you’ve got to play it just like the original Checker 78.’ If you mummify something and just turn it into a museum piece, it won’t live. That music’s vibrant, and you’ve just got to play that stuff like you’re killing rattlesnakes in your backyard–with a vengeance.
In the years before his untimely death in 2000, Koda played a series of Christmas season shows that were a local institution in his home base of Ann Arbor, Mich. Though he never disavowed “Smokin’ in the Boy’s Room” or the white-jumpsuit and platform-heels days with Brownsville Station, Koda did occasionally allow that “We were very much of our time.”