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Water Mains, Music and Springsteen

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Springsteen, Mercuro and Erickson
Springsteen, Mercuro and Erickson

In Verona, we don’t typically think of a water main break as a good thing. It’s a nuisance causing road closures, discolored water and no water. But for two graduates of the Verona High School class of 1970, a water main break on a cold January day led to school closures, a lifelong friendship and a shared interest in music.

More than 40 years ago, Al Mercuro, who had just moved to Verona from Piscataway, was on his way to VHS for his first day in a new school in a new town not knowing about the water main break. While walking, he ran into Paul Erickson and a few of his friends who were enjoying the day off.

Mercuro learned two things that day: His first day at VHS would have to wait, and that Erickson shared his admiration for a band. At a time when most teenagers were into the Beatles and the Temptations, Mercuro and Erickson appreciated those same bands, but were heavily into the Byrds and, more specifically, Roger McGuinn’s 12-string guitar.

Roger McGuinn
Roger McGuinn
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Many of us are aware of the award-winning Maroon & White marching band, concert band and jazz band at VHS, and the accolades and awards received by the various H.B. Whitehorne bands. But before these contemporary accolades, there was a cohesion between music and education at VHS. Ed Willard, VHS’ principal from 1959 to 1971, endorsed and supported cultural performances by local bands at the high school.

According to Erickson, “students appreciated the balance of music, art, literature, and culture with academics. Teachers supported the balance in education as well.” 

For morning cultural performances, Willard brought in a few bands for a friendly competition in the auditorium–a Battle of the Bands of sorts. At the time, Mercuro and Erickson recall, two of those bands were the Q.E.D. and Mario & the Immortals. Billy Gene Liska, of West Essex High School and a member of the Q.E.D., was also heavily influenced by Roger McGuinn and played a 12-string guitar.

Tom Petty and his crew with Mercuro and Erickson
Tom Petty and his crew with Mercuro and Erickson

Paul Erickson is now a marine biologist, photographer, author and journalist living outside of Boston. Al Mercuro is a rock historian, music promoter and vice president of Montclair’s Outpost in the Burbs. Both Erickson and Mercuro were among the many Verona High School students following the influx of rock & roll musicians in the 1960s. But their true admiration for music was along the rhythms and stories connected to American folk music, and a 12-string guitar–a sound that was so different from any other sound coming out of a guitar at the time. A sound and music style so unique that it influenced artists like Tom Petty, Eric Clapton, Joan Baez and David Crosby.

Forty years later, Roger McGuinn is still playing folk music with his 12-string guitar over at The Folk Den. It’s become his personal effort to ensure that American folk music doesn’t die out. Recently, Erickson had taped a concert by McGuinn in the Boston area. Following that event, McGuinn reached out to Erickson via LinkedIn and the two discussed creating a documentary film, entitled Roger McGuinn, Stories, Songs, and Friends about American folk music and its influence on rock & roll.  Erickson brought in Mercuro, and the two got to work.  The most amazing thing about the process for Mercuro was that it was easier than he expected to get interviews with rock stars like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Judy Collins. These musicians had also been influenced by McGuinn and were happy to contribute to the film.  According to Mercuro, the interviews were, “totally fun with nice people with no ego.”

McGuinn, Mercuro, and Erickson
McGuinn, Mercuro, and Erickson

In a town like Verona where music  is so prevalent, it can be rewarding to see how it crosses genres, decades, and serves as a foundation for communication in a common language. For Mercuro and Erickson, it was the basis of a lifelong friendship and led to an incredible opportunity to meet some amazing musicians. Roger McGuinn, who was likely more influential than he realized for several musicians, will be giving a concert at Mount Hebron School in Montclair on April 25, 2015 at 8 p.m.

 

 

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