- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 21, 2006

Tomorrow, the Virgin Festival lands at Pimlico Race Course, bringing a lineup that includes the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Who, the Raconteurs, the Eels, Flaming Lips, and Gnarls Barkley. And for one shining moment, however brief, Baltimore, the town that rock forgot, becomes the center of the rock ‘n’ roll universe.

My hometown isn’t Motown, it’s Mobtown — a nickname we earned after street riots broke out at the beginning of the War of 1812 and because we turned politicking into a vicious blood sport in the mid-1800s.

An ill and disoriented Edgar Allan Poe was thought to have been “cooped” — rounded up with drunks, vagrants, out-of-town farmers and sailors on leave — and forced to make the rounds of the polls, shortly before his death in 1849. Yeah, we got your “rock the vote” right here.

No, the list of Baltimore-bred rockers will never max out yourIPod.

Still, Baltimore can proudly claim Frank Zappa, David Byrne, Cass Elliot and Tupac Shakur, not to mention the seminal doo-wop group the Orioles, who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.

And native son Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which Jimi Hendrix famously reinvented with screaming guitar and ballistic feedback during his festival-closing set at Woodstock.

The Sex Pistols? The closest they got to Charm City was a scheduled date — a date which was soon canceled, along with the band — at the Alexandria Roller Rink.

Baltimore may be the paltry opening act alongside nearby Washington’s headliner punk, funk, folk and hard-core scenes, but it has its local favorites: the All Mighty Senators, the Kelly Bell Band, Mary Prankster (whose tune, “Blue Skies Over Dundalk,” is a Baltimore “hon”-grown classic), Carl Filipiak, The Cheaters and the Hypnotic Panties.

If Baltimore merits any national distinction as a rock historic zone, it might be as the town of the near-miss, the eternal bridesmaid. Over the years, Charm City has spawned many righteous acts poised on the cusp of stardom that somehow never made it anywhere near the top of the charts.

Look w-a-a-a-a-a-y down the bottom of some concert posters and you’ll find Baltimore’s best musical acts. Do you remember Kix, Bootcamp, Ebenezer and the Bludgeons, or Tommy Vann? Didn’t think so.

How about Crack the Sky, the ‘70s progressive rock, big-hair band positioned to be the next Roxy Music or King Crimson? Rolling Stone declared its 1975 self-titled album the disc of the year, but distribution and promotion problems kept them from busting out of anything but their spandex pants. They now hold sold-out reunion shows in Baltimore, usually on Thanksgiving weekend, and are too obscure even to pop up on a “VH-1: Where Are They Now?” segment.

Baltimore’s steadfast refusal to let go of the bouffant earned it recognition as the hairdo capital of the world, and ‘80s rockers the Ravyns gave Flock of Seagulls a run for their hair gel in the cantilevered coiffure department. This might have been a factor in their making it to MTV, largely on the strength of the song “Raised on the Radio,” which was featured in the movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

What about Lungfish? Formed back in 1988, Lungfish is one of the longest surviving emo (emotional hard-core) bands and a mainstay of D.C.-based Dischord Records — only Fugazi has been on the label longer. While they’ve been compared to everyone from PiL and Gang of Four to Black Sabbath and Tom Waits, Lungfish remains a low-profile band with a loyal, if eccentric, fan base.

Then there was Laughing Colors in the late ‘90s. Everyone thought it was the band that was going to put Baltimore on the map for something other than the City That Bleeds, a nod to our impressive yearly body count.

They played on the Warped Tour, with Good Charlotte and Rage Against the Machine, but went on “permanent vacation” in 2004. Talk about never getting cut a break: The Laughing Colors song “War on Drugs” — with its chorus “Whatever happened to sex, drugs and rock & roll?/ Now we just have AIDS, crack and techno” — is frequently attributed to Guns N’ Roses.

Say it out loud, Baltimore, we’re tone deaf and proud.

So, Washington, you can keep your go-go music, your Joan Jett, Tori Amos, Nils Lofgren, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Link Wray and Marvin Gaye. In Baltimore, it is not so much a matter of spawning music — we are music. The velveteen shudder of Poe’s poems, the meaty thwack of Cal Ripken at bat, the trailer trash, Spanish Fly buzz of a John Waters movie. Those are our rhythms, baby, and they are not available in any store.

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