Essay by Walter Crockett
1972. The fans
are 19, 20, 21 years old. Second half of the Baby Boom generation poured into
a working man's roadhouse, the Blue Plate Lounge, in Holden, Massachusetts.
Long-hairs and short-hairs, nurses and painters, grad students and
weed-dealers packed 200-tight in a room built for maybe 70.
tables, dancing in place, rocking the foundations and bouncing the dance floor
like a trampoline, as the trio on stage plays songs no one outside of
Worcester County has ever heard.
with three-part harmonies. Just a pounding electric piano and a strummed
acoustic guitar, and maybe a tambourine, laying down this mongrel cross of
folk, country, blues, rock, pop. Gorgeous, bouncy, dark and joyous songs of
love won and lost, green river rushes, moonlit nights, the month of May
sleeping in my bones, and a place somewhere over the rainbow that never seemed
more real, more here, more now. Marvelous harmonies that flow together
without calculation, like water to a mountain stream, and this amazing young
woman who makes every song her own whether she sings lead or background,
riffing like a bluebird over the strong male voices, frisking like a colt in
April, aching, just like a woman, to run free, to be free, to love.
It was eighteen
years since the river of rock 'n' roll tumbled headlong into the river of
time. Sixteen years after Elvis released "Hound Dog." Nine years after JFK
went down. Eight years since the Beatles played the Ed Sullivan Show. Just
three years after man walked on the Moon, and only months before the drinking
age would drop to 18 in Massachusetts.
It was the most
prosperous time in American history. You could drop out of college and get a
job, go back to college and get an education. Stay up half of Monday night
dancing to Zonkaraz and sleep-walk through work the next day. You could catch
the Celtics at the Garden for $10 bucks on the day of the game. See Hendrix or
the Dead at Clark University for less.
exploded as the generations changed. There were live rock 'n' roll bands
everywhere, playing for real money three, four, five, six nights a week.
There was rock, folk-rock, country-rock, blues-rock and schlock-rock and you
could hear it all on the same radio station. This generation shared a common
musical vocabulary, they had money to spend, beer to drink, brain cells to
burn and their whole lives in front of them.
Zonkaraz was born and rose to local fame, is often called a "gritty industrial
city" because people are too polite to call it plain ugly. But Worcester is
above all a melting pot, a cauldron of ethnicity on gray streets just minutes
from the wooded hills of Central Massachusetts. Out of this cauldron came
Zonkaraz, a group that melded the city's already dissolving ethnic and
religious divisions: Ric Porter, son of Jewish parents, loved to fish and
hunt, never finished high school, lived in a teepee in the woods. Paul Vuona,
son of Italian-American parents, graduated from University of Miami in fine
arts, worked in construction. Joanne Barnard, old-line Anglo-Saxon, dabbled in
college but she was born to sing.
Vuona, on piano,
was the musician of the trio, and became the godfather in the years when the
band grew large. He combined a flair for wistfully romantic songs with a
pulsing, no-prisoners boogie-woogie style. In the early days he'd handle the
bass lines with his left hand, and drive the melody home with his right,
pumping out solo after solo for the dancing crowd. The buoyant "Morning
Sunrise" and "Chico Chico (A Cuban Love Song)," are among his tunes.
Porter, the band's most prolific songwriter, brought a
rocking blues influence and a folk-country sound to the group, with classics
like "I've Been Thinking 'Bout You" and "East Virginia." And he was the master
of writing hauntingly beautiful songs like "Moonshine Mama" and "Different
Song." Porter brought the simplicity and sensitivity to his songs that he
found in his love of the outdoors.
Barnard was a
work of nature. Preternaturally sensual. Sexy just breathing. Gifted with a
belting lower register, a silky, keening falsetto and vocal quality that would
be distinctive on any stage. But the biggest gift of all was the emotion that
filled her sound. This was no finely tuned and tinkered machine, this was a
natural woman singing of love and heartache, hope and despair.
Vuona and Porter
got together first, playing the London Towers lounge at Worcester Airport.
They bonded right away. Each of them had a colorful, distinctive voice and
each was writing great original tunes. They played some songs with Barnard at
a wedding and she blew them away. The wedding led to a Blue Plate gig and
suddenly Zonkaraz was rolling.
like no other local band. They wrote whatever songs came to mind, and many of
them became instant classics. They needed a roadie, so they added high-school
dropout Paul "Spider" Hanson. With moves like Mick Jagger, Spider took up the
tambourine and maracas and spent the rest of the band's eight-year run
doubling as rock star and roadie.
Within a few
years they eased from a trio into a full band. They needed a bass player to
hold the sound down and they lucked into Jon Webster, a monstrously melodic
player who could sing any harmony and hit all of Barnard's notes in rehearsal.
From the beginning, everybody was dancing to Zonkaraz, so the drummer was
inevitable. Dennis Wright joined, along with second percussionist/roadie Mitch
Sephlin. Walter Crockett followed on lead guitar in 1975. A year later, Wright
and Barnard left and were replaced by Tom Grignon and Nancy Roche.
And the band kept
growing. On Monday nights in 1977 they would draw 500 people to the Last
Chance Saloon. That's more people than you could find in all the music clubs
in Worcester put together on a Friday or Saturday night 10, 20, or 30 years
Crockett left in '79 and was replaced by Larry Preston. Roche left in '80 and
was replaced by Kim Page. Not long after, the wave had crested, the drinking
age rose back to 21, the Baby Boomers started families, the music scene
fragmented into disco, heavy metal, and punk. The Zonkaraz era was over.
But the songs
live on. These exceptional songs, these danceable, romantic songs are as
compelling today as they were in 1972. And the players and singers haven't
lost a lick either. Sometimes you can go
Editor's note: for the double DVD set memorializing the reunion concert at the Hanover Theatre, November 13, 2010, click here.
The Paxton Tapes The "Paxton Tapes" consist of several
half-inch, four-track magnetic tapes recorded in the spare bedroom of a suburban
ranch-style house in central Massachusetts, in 1972 and 1973, on an AMPEX 440
Gil Markle engineered these sessions, which were animated mainly
by the original Zonkaraz musicians Paul Vuona, Ricky Porter, and Joanne Barnard. Many of
these songs were recorded direct-to-stereo, mixed on the fly. If there's
a hum anywhere, it's probably the dishwasher in the kitchen.
Remember the Night
Never Thought That I'd Be Sad
It's a Lovely Feeling
It's a Lovely Feeling Alternate version.
Jack Frost Signature by Mike Forhan.
Go With the Flow
I'll Be Thinking About You
Movin' Up Country
Tell Me How You Feel
California Album version, Nancy Roche, lead
vocal, Bill Halverson, Prod.
California Extract of refrain, original version.
California Long View outtake, Joanne Barnard, lead vocal, Gil Markle, Prod.
California "First Night" reunion concert, December 31, 2006.
Playback requires a
(free) RealOne Player.
"First Night" reunion concert, over thirty years later, of this central Massachusetts mega-band.
Streaming broadband only. Stereo. 45:51.