Mike Cosgrove, Basement Guitar God, and Be Bop Deluxe, Part 1
Chops, desire, love, devotion, aspirations, and ultimately identity… Awkward yet endearing… Slightly embarrassing yet moving… Your kid out on the ball field or performing in a school play… Part 1 of a 2-part joint entry on the Overlooked Gems of My Lifetime hopes to touch on these themes.
We’ll start in 1979, the year some of us began preparing for a transfer from a fantasy life in sports to a fantasy life in rock ‘n roll. My neighborhood friend, personal Babe Ruth League catcher (what a calming influence this guy had on me behind the plate!), and original guitar foil, Mike Appice, introduced me to a neighborhood friend of his, Mike Cosgrove, who’d long been registered in the fantasy rock ‘n roll program, leaving sports behind before it was necessary to wear a cup.
Appice and I were in the intense process of forming our first band with my oldest friend from school, Andy. I’d been bused away from my neighborhood my entire school life, and I’d long been a snobbish outsider on what should have been my own turf. Baseball was my only link to neighborhood kids, and the band would become my only link between a neighborhood friend and school friends. I recruited Appice (whose hormones had also readied him for catching the midnight showing of The Kids Are Alright as often as possible) from the neighborhood to join a band with my school friend. I started teaching him guitar and began inundating him with the punk and new wave records that only I among my middle-class, Philadelphia rowhouse neighborhood of Who’s Next-, Dark Side-, and ZoSo-loving dudes seemed to know about. Appice was a good student, and he quickly surpassed my horrible technical skills, threatening to take over the Mick Jones parts from his subordinate Joe Strummer rhythm role on basement attempts at covering “Clash City Rockers” and “Police and Thieves”. His tastes weren’t as refined as I liked to think mine were, which sometimes led him to gravitate toward attempting to play The Romantics’ “What I Like About You” more than, say, a cool album track from This Year’s Model. For a guy from my neighborhood, though, he was a gem, a rare bundle of energy and good humor.
So this guy Cosgrove lived around the corner from Appice. If memory serves, they’d known each other for a while, and the more Appice developed a fondness for actually practicing his guitar chops, the more he started hanging out in Cosgrove’s basement, where Mike Cosgrove, Basement Guitar God, would put on his show.
Cosgrove couldn’t play Appice cool, underground punk records like I could, but he could show Appice licks, honest-to-goodness rock licks, the kind that got played on the radio. His specialty was the bag of licks used by Pete Townshend, and even a budding punk rocker had to respect that. Appice introduced me to Cosgrove, and I’d accompany him on weekly visits to Cosgrove’s basement. Cosgrove had the hard-to-find Who songbook with reproductions of handwritten chord charts, tabs, and notes from Pete himself on the tricks behind his most-stunning riffs! The day we learned Pete’s exact voicings for the intro of “Substitute” is one I’ll never forget.
Cosgrove was one of these tall, thin, slightly nerdy blonde guys, with long bangs and the sort of large, plastic-framed, slightly tinted glasses that today only British politicians wear. He didn’t do a lot of talking, not with his mouth anyway (if you know what I’m saying, Joe Perry fans). I was never much for actually learning how to play guitar, but this insider knowledge was worth sitting through what would follow. Here’s where I’d get a little scared. He’d inevitably close up the Who songbook, strap on his Gibson SG copy, turn on his Univox amp, and switch on his Pioneer stereo system. Then, he remove his well-worn copy of The Who’s Live at Leeds album from its sleeve and gently place the record on his turntable. In our meat-and-potatoes, proto-Classic Rock part of Philadelphia, not only owning Live at Leeds but knowing it inside and out was a tad bit radical. It wasn’t like owning punk rock records, but it was along the lines of owning and actually listening to Ummagumma. Cosgrove not only knew every bit of stage banter between tracks, he could play every stinking lick Townshend played on the album, including whatever noodlings Townshend played during the stage banter bits. It was amazing, and scary. As Appice and I sat at his feet, he’d lay the needle down and begin to play along with Townshend throughout side 1.
Things would always start well as Cosgrove played the dazzling, visceral, and unintentionally hilarious riffs from “Young Man Blues”. Now my idea of The Who was (and still is) centered around the Meaty, Beaty, Big, and Bouncy stuff, when they were a supercharged, concise, testosterone-fueled bundle of pimples and engorged members. As much as I also loved the epic anthems of Who’s Next, this Live at Leeds stuff (and their appearance in Woodstock) marked the turning point for me in the band’s ability to consistently deliver. Daltry started shouting beyond his voice’s natural capacity. Townshend’s guitar tone and playing started to get exposed (I never found him to be that interesting for more than a few seconds of single-note soloing; I missed his reliance on inverted chord riffs). The band’s Look was no longer as cool. The fringed suede jacket thing worked for real hippie bands, but not for The Who. Mods don’t wear fringe. (The problem, I’ve since come to realize, is that sometime between Tommy and Woodstock, the band members started to get laid with too much ease. Was it Mickey who said to Rocky, “Women weaken legs!”) So I’d giggle delightedly through “Young Man Blues” and then enjoy the rumbling of the live version of “Substitute”. I never cared for this version as much as the single, but it’s hard to go wrong with this song.
Like I said, while the goofy stage banter played between songs, Cosgrove would play along with any incidental guitar noises that were coming from Pete that night. “Summertime Blues” was, for me, the album’s raison d’être, and “Shakin’ All Over” was pretty cool as well, but it was sometime during this Johnny Kidd & the Pirates cover (as I would learn during my advanced Who studies) that things got hairy. By this point in the performance, the bloated nature of the band as captured during this performance would start to get to me. By this point in the performance, Cosgrove’s complete absorption and lack of humor about the whole affair would get uncomfortable. As much as Appice was eating up the program’s educational content, even he would start to squirm. Cosgrove seemed to have no idea how weird it was to go through this in front of two fellow teens on a weekly basis. And how much practice time had gone into this performance before we walked down the steps to his basement? (And where were his parents during all this?)
Next in the program was, for me, the deal breaker, the 14:27 version of “’My Generation’.” I quote the song title's quotes because this version, if you don’t know it, contains a medley of Townshend’s assorted riffs from Tommy. It was all meant to climax in the instrumental “Sparks”. For Appice, this was heaven. For me, it was torture. “Sparks” is undoubtedly cool in the way that a guy riding a unicycle is cool, but I don’t want to hear it more than once a year, and I sure don’t want to see some future look-alike of a British Prime Minister play along to it. The entire experience of the Cosgrove performance, at this point, crossed the line from trying to pick up some cool guitar licks from the foot of a master student to observing a monk in prayer.
I would eventually decline invitations to Cosgrove’s basement. Appice and I would eventually butt heads and part ways over his desire to incorporate more instrumental passages into our music. I would eventually transfer what sports credits I could over to rock ‘n roll fantasy university and lose both a great catcher and friend.
How this ties into ‘70s, British glam/prog-rock band Be Bop Deluxe is a story for Part 2!