George Friend loves to play his guitar. He has been doing it for 25 years in a career that put him onstage with such Detroit bands as the Twistin’ Tarantulas, Black Beauty and the Jive Bombers before he relocated to the West Coast a few years ago. It’s not the same scene there, says Friend, who’s back in town for a bit to reconnect with old musical friends.
“In Michigan, I am 38. In L.A., I’m always 29,” says Friend of the little deceptions that go with the youth-obsessed, glammed-up music scene in L.A.
Friend, who grew up in Marquette, started out the way most pubescent rock ’n’ roll lovers of the ’70s did — in a punk rock band. He cut his teeth on three-chord anthems and basic guitar math. All this would seem like child’s play once he discovered and began to study jazz artists like Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk.
“I was a high school beatnik,” says Friend.
It turns out his affinity for the music that charged the Beat generation would be the key to getting him started in the biz. In 1981, poet Allen Ginsberg was a guest speaker at Friend’s school. As part of his presentation, Ginsberg requested jazz accompaniment. Friend got the gig. “It was an experience I’ll never forget,” he says.
The serendipitous gig would later develop into a mini-tour. Friend explains, “I lived in San Francisco briefly after high school. I heard that Allen was going to be in town, so I wrote him a letter … unbelievably, he remembered me.” He must have been impressed, because after making contact, Ginsberg would ask him to tag along for some West Coast tour dates.
Seems that despite growing up in the cold climate of northern Michigan, the kid from Marquette had developed some serious heat.
After moving to Detroit in the early ’80s, Friend entered the jazz studies program at Wayne State University. He would end up accompanying another infamous American poet — the writer-band manager-political prisoner-activist John Sinclair, who was then teaching at the university.
“Sinclair was doing a lot of his Robert Johnson and Monk-influenced stuff at the time,” he explains. “I knew all the music.”
He lived in Cass Corridor and made ends meet with a variety of guitar gigs. Eventually, playing became his career.
Bands like the Jive Bombers (a funky bugaloo outfit), the Sun Messengers and Spanking Bozo, a group that Friend would jokingly describe as “popular with stoners,” would become his bread and butter.
But in 1992, something cracked open.
It was the dawn of a retro-1940s and -1950s fad that would send throngs of bored young people back onto the dance floor. Movies like Swingers and a resurgence of Rat Pack idolatry had swept the country, and jump jivin’ music was a cult fave. Timing being everything, Friend, along with bassist “Pistol” Pete Mitgard would start a band called the Twistin’ Tarantulas. Their rockabilly sound was steeped heavily in the blues and jazz and undeniably, Friend’s guitar playing shone. He stayed in the band for five years. Though they remain a beloved local band, the Tarantulas never fully recovered from his departure.
After his time with Tarantulas, Friend began to focus on his own project, Black Beauty. Named after his custom-made 1954 reissue Les Paul guitar, Black Beauty became another popular Detroit act. They were often seen backing up singer Thornetta Davis, and in 1999, released a debut album called Señor Smoke on Barro Music.
On a roll, Friend and his wife decided to seek out greener pastures. They moved to L.A.
“We figured we would just go there and explore.”
He had no idea what he was in for.
“In Detroit you could always make a living playing guitar,” he says. “In L.A., real musicians are starving.”
A subtle pining for home lingers when he speaks about the Golden State. The music scene in L.A., he says “has no history anymore,” he says. “It’s nothing like Detroit.”
Despite the problems here — including having his beloved Black Beauty ripped off — he has made a mark for himself out West. He now makes a living playing with L.A.-based blues women, Janiva Magness. He loves the job.
But he is still determined to put out his own music. Next year, Friend will release his solo album, Looka Here! on Blues Leaf Records.
As for his latest collaborative effort, Friend and his wife, Ophelia, are expecting their first child next summer.
George Friend performs at the Music Menu (511 Monroe St., Detroit) with members from his old gang, the Jive Bombers, Friday, Dec. 26. Call 313-964-MENU for further information.Eve Doster is the listings editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.