The Vagrants’ “I Can’t Make A Friend”
A lot of folks today probably don’t remember, but back in the ‘70s, Leslie West – still treading the boards 40 years later -- really was one of the best ‘Meercun rock guitarists. A fat Jewish kid from Forest Hills, Queens, he had a voice like a Mississippi bluesman and one of the most distinctive guitar tones of the era: just roll all the treble off your amp and try hitting the string with the edge of the pick just so to get that squealing harmonic.
He got famous playing in Mountain with Cream’s producer Felix Pappalardi (who’d employed Les on a session with obscuro Boston outfit Jolliver Arkansaw that included future Fort Worthian and Juke Jumper Jim Colegrove) playing yin to his yang on bass and vox. Their televised performance at the Cincinnati Pop Festival, while not as iconic as the Stooges’ or Alice Cooper’s, was still a potent signifier for my 13-year-old self. He was even invited to join the Who back around the Who’s Next time, and damned if you can’t hear his influence on Townshend’s lead in the live version of “Baby Don’t Do It” they released as the B-side of “Join Together.” (A studio version with West actually playing lead appeared as a bonus track on the ‘90s CD of Who’s Next.)
Before that, Les (b. 1945) had started his career with the Vagrants, who all went to the same high school as the future Ramones did. As much as I love Scott Morgan, I’ve gotta admit that the Vagrants’ West-sung, Pappalardi-produced cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect” (which I first heard on Lenny Kaye’s original Nuggets compilation back in ‘72) cuts the Rationals’, which appeared around the same time in ’66, all to heck. Both of those versions predated Aretha Franklin’s, and while she was a Detroit gal, the Vagrants were on the same label as she was (well, its Atco subsidiary anyway), so you decide who influenced whom.
Speaking of influence, Joe Carducci, who wasn’t there but whom I trust implicitly, claimed in Rock and the Pop Narcotic that it was seeing the Vagrants that inspahrd Long Island bar band the Pigeons to go heavy, and as the Vanilla Fudge, those ex-Pigeons would teach their ’69 opening act Led Zep a thing or two about the uses of dynamics and bombast. And indeed, the Vagrants’ live-with-feedback-and-Whoesque-autodestruction-finale version of “Theme from Exodus” is legendary, although sadly unrecorded.
The Vagrants’ total recorded output consisted of just six singles: one released on the tee-tiny Southern Sound label in ‘65, two for folkie label Vanguard in ’66, and three for Atco in ’67-’68. All but the first were compiled by Arista as The Great Lost Vagrants Album in ’86, when nobody cared. An ’88 reissue, Distortion Records’ Blue Album, included all six singles plus an 18-minute live version of Stones’ “Satisfaction.” Now Light In the Attic, praiseworthy for releasing the Monks’ oeuvre back in the ‘90s, has released all the Vagrants’ studio tracks on vinyl as I Can’t Make A Friend 1965-1968.
The Southern Sound single, "Oh Those Eyes," immortalized in Youtubedom as a result of its appearance in a cheesy beach party B-movie called Disk-O-Tek Holiday, sounds like the Ventures backing the Zombies, with an uncharacteristically treble-happy solo from Leslie.
"I Can't Make a Friend," included on numerous sub-Nuggets garage compilations, was co-written by Vagrants organist Jay Storch and Trade Martin, whose 2010 single "We've Got To Stop the Mosque At Ground Zero" was hailed as "the worst song in the history of recorded music" on fark.com. In spite of that association, it's not bad at all -- an archetypal garage pounder.
By '67, the Vagrants had gone psychedelic, in the manner of contemporaries like the Frost and SRC, and you can hear Les' guitar getting more hard-edged, although the vocal sound (with the less-individuated Peter Sabatino singing lead, as he did on every side they cut save "Respect") was still harmony-laden, with Storch's storming Hammond B-3 a key element of the sound, as it was for loads of bands in those days when the Young Rascals ruled the Long Island scene. It's noteworthy that Les was still playing the Vagrants' "Beside the Sea" when he appeared at Woodstock with Mountain in '69.
Besides being great on its own terms, this release puts Leslie's later accomplishments in context, the same way the Barons tracks on the Fort Worth Teen Scene comps do for John Nitzinger or the early Bob Seger singles on Cameo-Parkway (which deserve to be compiled, too, dammit) do for his later work. I'll be real happy to have this example of the Lawn Guyland rockaroll aesthetic around to slap on in between spins of Leslie West/Mountain and Climbing! So there.