Thursday, November 13, 2014

William Claxton, Photographer

For the first year or three of this blog, I regularly tested the familiar mathematical formula regarding the respective worth of pictures and words--too few of the former, too many of the latter--so when BlogSpot.com made posting pics a snap for even us computerrors, I was what you might call "Jazzed" to be able to make the mini-essays more visually arresting. In particular I compiled sample galleries representing certain artist/photographer/designers, the best of whom had turned LongPlay album jackets into 12-inch-square artworks suitable for framing.

Francis Wolfe and David Stone Martin, Herman Leonard and Burt Goldblatt,
William Gottlieb and William Claxton and scores more, their names forgotten or revered, but creators nonetheless of whole record libraries, hundreds of memorable covers emblematic of the beauty or excitement etched in plastic within.

First up from said Archives... Mr. Claxton, whose elegant b&w photos (a selection here, with several more in this visual piece) pretty much designed the look of West Coast Jazz.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman: Burrito Brothers

In the annals of Rock Music, the most historically significant interview I ever conducted came during the brief tenure of the Flying Burrito Brothers original foursome: Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman, Chris Ethridge, and Sneaky Pete Kleinow. Ironically, since the underground newspapers that printed the interview (much shortened) carelessly omitted my credit, I got no strokes from its publication. But I had the last word eventually, and literally, because in this blog in 2007 I finally uploaded the never-before-revealed, three-times-longer, complete version.

Much has been written (too much, according to Hillman) about Parsons as the "flawed genius" creator of so-called Country Rock--which Gram high-falutin'ly, maybe tongue-in-cheekily designated "Cosmic..." something-or-other... "American Soul Music," maybe. No doubt I've been guilty of some hagiographing too. A&M Records sent me a promo copy of the Burritos' debut album, The Gilded Palace of Sin, and I was fascinated by it and soon sought out the band when they played Seattle on three different occasions early on.

My mother was born and raised up in rural south Georgia, a whoop and a holler from Macon, on a farm we visited regularly in the 1940s and '50s. I felt some kinship with Southern charmer Gram, and we hit it off, briefly; he came to dinner, I interviewed Hillman and him, separately and together, and he subsequently vouched for me with Jim Morrison... which led to a strange afternoon, an encounter also documented in the IW Archives. (More on that some other time.)

For Rock historians, Parsons fans, and regular readers with stamina, here's the complete saga in five sections--beginning here, continuing in Part 2, diverging in the third segment, shifting briefly for Part 4, and then finally concluding.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Which Rick Nelson?

Over the course of his four-decade, yet tragically crash-shortened career, rocker Rick Nelson managed to do some creditable acting too, from teen heartthrob Ricky courtesy of Ozzie and Harriet, to cast-against-type rapist (for an Eighties TV movie, I think); whether a young gunfighter backing John Wayne (in Howard Hawk's great Rio Bravo), or a Navy lieutenant in some Jack Lemmon shipboard comedy circa 1960, or years later the guy who keeps bursting into the wrong sitcom-family kitchens ("Hi, Mom... I'm home!") in a brilliant early Saturday Night Live skit.

Still, Rick was happiest and most comfortable on stage, singing, initially in his rockabilly combo with guitar-great James Burton, then stuck doing country-ish
Pop tunes for too long, before finally fronting a fine country-rock band in the Seventies performing mostly his own songs, from "Restless Wind" to "Garden Party" and beyond.

I got to spend a weekend hanging out with Rick the country-rocker for an interview piece that appeared in Fusion, Boston's then-answer to S.F.'s Rolling Stone. Forty years on, I still think of him as the friendliest, most easy-going star/celebrity I ever had the pleasure of meeting. He was sometimes accused of being wooden and withdrawn (and later had drug problems), but I believe he was just shy and private, a likeable, rather ordinary guy thrust into more limelight and folderol than he really ever wanted.

I've been thinking of Rick in these latter days, when Parkinson's symptoms and the side effects of meds leave me embarrassed and unhappy out in the public eye.
People want to be helpful, and no one's pointing at me and snickering but, pace Greta Garbo, I just want to be ignored and left alone. (Soon I'll be walking around like Frankenstein's monster, with electrodes in my skull, wires down my neck, and a pacemaker-like device in my chest, as "deep brain stimulation" attempts to stall some symptoms for a few years.)

Whether I stutter then, or stumble, or somehow stand taller, I guess I'll still be some version of Ed. But... I'd rather folks remember examples of the good fortune and good times I was granted--including my take on Rick Nelson, archived partly here and the rest here.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

John Hammond's True Blues

I do quite like the idea of "3"... it's the most basic "family" unit (that is, source parents plus child), the minimum number of voters for a democratic resolution, three of a kind, three on a match, trouble in triplicate, the trio rhythm section of Jazz, baseball's least common hit, Christianity's Holy Trinity, three to get ready, ménage a trois (although three's also a crowd), number of storied Bears/Musketeers/Wise Men, even 3x3 to produce an extra-lucky integer. I also consider it the minimum number of items to fashion a representative sample of something, which is why I often provide three examples rather than a barebones one or a not-convincing-enough two.

Moving through this "Bereaved Knew Whirled" of Parkinson's dissed-ease has me, for now, mining the IW Archives to entertain you reader. Recently I dredged up... I mean, carefully selected, three posts of poems celebrating animals. Now I offer you--again, one per each new post--a threesome of meaty-beaty interview-portraits from my venerable rock critic days, back when I got to hobnob with the hoi polloi of musicdum.

First up, the then-younger Bluesman often identified as John Hammond Jr., even though his middle name does not echo that of his famous music producer dad. In three parts (but of course!) Hammond holds forth here... and hear-to... and then here.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Odd Duck

Welcome to the Club... Mister E-for-Ed's Animalia, a happily brief mini-series of odes and en-souciants, past posts and pesky poems. ("A Horace is a Horace, of chorus, of chorus.") Step right up for the third piece in our first set, meaning the last of our Zoo's Who of dejects, come-downs, and weary reinstatements, this one written donkey's years ago during my around-the-world journey to enlightenment--of wisdom (that's pronounced whiz-dumb) and world ways, of waistline and wallet.

Mention the word "duck" these days, and folks are likely to think of one particular merry band of bushy beards, camouflaged weirdness, and crazy-like-a-fox Right Wing redneckery. But, pre-Dynasty, there were other coots and drakes, pin-tails and mallards, not to mention Daffy and Donald and--if you go back far enough, if you really dig deep Down Under--the oddest duck of them all, a certain sexually confused, Antipodean throwback with a lot on its plate.

But enough squawk'n'quack. Ladies and gentlemen, this way to the egress...

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Grin and Bear It

As my life stalls, so do these musings.

I will live to write again, but at present am On Leave. A few fill-ins, best-ofs, and brought-backs will accordingly show up here in the meantime, unfamiliar to most who pass by, pause briefly, and then move on, through empty space, time of no time, aether renewal, cloud of unknowing, or mere nothing at all, to the next non-stop in and
of the Blogisphere. (Blog-a-Sphere?) (Blog-is-Fear?)

But I digress. (That way lies madness.)

Here lies and then rears its ursine head another of the creatures I once created...

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Po'Ed's PoEdtry PostEd

The dog days of August are upon us, and I'm on hold, caught up in health issues and surgical decisions (with in-cisions likely to come). But way back in 2007, I posted a piece that relates to the blog's most recent one (the previous post just below).

Brought forward now for anyone who might be amenable to sampling my work of lighter, happier days, here's the link you might follow...

Sunday, July 27, 2014

And Grateful Too: Louis MacNeice

"Between the Wars"... that's what the Twenties and Thirties in Great Britain came to be labeled, defined in retrospect as a time of quiet hope and noisy Charlestons, of outspoken restless workers and the last gasps of the ruling class, the collapse of Weimar and the main World economy and the quick-march of national Fascists.

The younger generation of British Isles poets (led by W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender), and some older ones too ranging from William Butler Yeats to John
Betjemen, wrote overtly political poems in those years that a number of them later repudiated and tried to hide away, embarrassed by the bold statements and (mostly) leftist attitudes, the images of power grids and machinery, of wheatfield sickles and new dawns.

But those leaden lyrics weren't always a waste of paper and pen. Auden was just plain wrong self-critically to suppress his famous 1939 onset-of-War poem; and whether it was craft or sullen art, Dylan Thomas was wise to hang onto his angry death-by-bombing lament, and Henry Reed to expand his "Lessons of the War."

Another personal favorite--influential on the word music I try to write--is largely forgotten now. "The Sunlight on the Garden" is a poignant, rolling rhythm and chiming rhyme, goodbye-to-all-that period piece by Northern Irish (Scotch/Irish, I suppose) poet Louis MacNeice, a grand example of the playful, prancing "bagpipe music" he was writing in the tumultuous Thirties. I've thought of it often over the past year as a fine way to say farewell...

The Sunlight on the Garden

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold;
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.









Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.











The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying













And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.









(Visuals copyright Southwest artist Ed Mell.)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

RecommendEd

I, Ed, witness now poorly standing, do herewith and hear-abouts, by means of quick peeks at certain under-praised (if not outright overlooked) peaks of Pop Culture, impartially recommend the following items for your pleasure and attentive consumption:

1) Child Ballads (Wilderland Records CD WILDER 002) presents vocalists Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer reviving, entwining, and breathing new harmonic life into seven of those expansive, even epic, medieval-and-after British Isles tales of passion, savagery, and magic--musically mesmerizing story-songs most frequently set in the Border Country between Scotland and England, over 300 of them as compiled in the 19th century by Francis Child, but the diverse texts only, with folk singers before and since supplying suitable tunes both ancient and modern to match the words, and the combined ballad songs then transmitted/sung/"handed" down orally rather than read on the printed page. To the distinguished mid-20th century lineage of recordings by Anne Briggs, Ewan MacCall and A.L. Lloyd, Joan Baez, and then Fairport Convention, Nic Jones, Maddy Prior and June Tabor, we must now add Mitchell and Hamer, whose
heartfelt readings and gorgeous harmonies will make your trumpet sound and your welkin ring.

2) Muscle Shoals (Magnolia Home Entertainment DVD 10634): From Child ballads to Deep Soul ballads is more quiet hop than giant leap--love requited or un-, passion spent or new, living easy or hard and sometimes tragic, and usually bearing some of that old Black magic... well, I've written often about the simple unsegregated synchronicity of music made in Memphis and Muscle Shoals and captured in the grooves of recordings cut in those two locales during the Sixties and Seventies, when Black singers and White session cats and horn players of all stripes and colors worked (played!) happily together, creating hits for Stax and Hi and Fame and the bigger labels that hired their soulful skills.

Think Booker T and the MGs, Aretha loving a man her way and gaining Respect, Percy Sledge both loving and respecting his woman, Wilson Pickett beating the Beatles' Jude by grace of guitarslinger Duane Allman, the great long separate careers of (husband) Clarence Carter and (wife) Candi Staton... all but the first in that role call came courtesy of the tiny, funky Muscle Shoals recording studio
simply named Fame. Watch this artfully photographed, intelligent yet emotional documentary film to see and hear from all the folks mentioned and then some--Bono, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Etta James, Atlantic's Jerry Wexler, Dan Penn and Spencer Oldham both, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Stevies Wonder and Winwood, the famously mostly-anonymous Shoals session men themselves, Fame studio head Rick Hall, and marvelously more.

3) and 4) All the attention accorded the dark, cold, often snowbound mystery-thrillers written by folks with last names like Mankell, Nesbo, Indridason, Larsson, Sigurdsdottir and, for all I know, Yggdrasilsden--these and others lazily lumped together as "Scandinavian Noir"--has stolen the thunder due a duo of police-detective series set in the sunnier climes of the boot-shaped peninsula farther south. If you're weary of grey skies, bleak lives, and serial killers, I commend to you Donna Leon and Andrea Camilleri, two masters of... let's call it... "Nero Italiano,"
meaning cop-shop mysteries marked by awakened taste buds, passionately expressive personae, political corruption Mediterranean-style, and writing that mixes subtle plotting and deceptively sweet passages, but also resigned irony and bitter sarcasm--a blend that seems just right for Italy in the Berlusconi Era.

Leon's lead is the decent and clever Commissario Guido Brunetti, who loves deeply, but casts a cold eye on, the blind alleys, clogged canals, touristed squares, and nightmare bureaucracies of slowly sinking Venice; his feisty academic wife, teenage children, and trusted equal-if-underlings at headquarters all contribute to the often heartbreaking "solutions" that end each novel. (The latest, By Its Cover, involves stolen maps, scarce manuscripts, and soulless murder. Book 'em, Donna!) Meanwhile, ex-newspaperman Camilleri keeps his Inspector Montalbano busy on the Africa-facing seacoast of Sicily, in a fictional town called Vigata--a sun-drenched sleepy region
that still manages to produce sufficient Mafiosi, official greed, illegal immigrants, varied smuggling, and careless murder to whet the imagination and appetite of perennially hungry Montalbano. A handsome, courteous and crafty, occasionally sardonic man, the inspector is yet hapless around women, who regularly make him sweat and escape for a brisk walk or a long ocean swim.

Montalbano is also played to cool yet vigorous perfection by Italian actor Luca Zingaretti in a terrific series of feature-length films (2 or 3 episodes per MHZ/Rai Trade DVD; 28 wry tales so far), with scenic Sicily, eye-popping food, governmental chicanery, shapely misses, and lively characters to be found in each and every novel and film. (Leon's Brunetti is less well-served by a recent television series shot in Venice but made for German TV--an awkward misfit collision of
languages, kunst und kultur!)

5) File this final recommendation under "Guilty Pleasures." I've become a great fan--via Netflix instant downloads--of the on-going Canadian TV series Heartland, which for eight successful seasons now has combined, oh, say, My Friend Flicka, Little House on the Prairie, and a not-so-nasty Dallas, and gorgeous footage of ranches and Rockies (it's set and shot on location in Alberta). Faithful watchers have witnessed on-going changes in the lives of a handful of main characters--a cute-as-a-button high school girl sensitive to horses and their ailments (Amy), her business-trained older sister Lou, Jack the aging cowboy/gruff grampa who owns the Heartland ranch-turned-horse haven, plus Ty the all-around stable lad who's also Amy's beau, and precocious motormouth Mallory, a young teen who practically lives with them and has become the wiseacre Greek chorus able to see through all obfuscations. A half-dozen other friends and near-lovers provide regular support
for plots that can involve horse healing, bronc busting, or basic stable mucking; a downed small plane, a threatened wild horse herd, or a mountain lion on the prowl; calf roping, barrel racing, and other rodeo craziness; broken-down farms, blizzard conditions, and wedding plans gone awry; rich horse breeders, crooked oil frackers, or troubled runaway kids; teen angst, middle-age muddle, or First Nations wisdom. (You can also just immerse yourself in all that beautiful horseflesh and scenic splendor.) C'mon, newbie... cowboy up!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Hall of New Hampshire

Twenty-six years ago now--in late Spring of 1988--Sandie and I were settling in. We’d been back in the States for several months, had gotten married spectacularly in February, and by late April she’d landed a job in the world of Antiques, while I was still searching hard for both a teaching position and a sympathetic editor or two who might give my poems a hearing and a place in their magazines.

I’ve been revisiting those days gone by because, a few weeks ago, I found and bought a signed copy of The Old Life, one of the many wonderful books of poetry (and not forgetting his prose works) by venerable and venerated, yet still under-rated and too-little-known, author-for-all-seasons Donald Hall.

Man-about-pond (Eagle Pond, on the farm of that same name), poet of New Hampshire and the world, Hall in a long and distinguished career has written honored children’s books and baseball books (Fathers Playing Catch with Sons); guides to writing and reading; collections of his own varied poems (lyric and witty, dark and elegiac, stoically autobiographical); reminiscences of farming, his “live free” forebears, and famous elder poets he knew early on (Their Ancient Glittering Eyes); always-pithy essays by the hundreds, eagerly-awaited letters by the thousands and, for all I know, cookbooks, travel guides, biographies, and helpful hints on the path to spiritual enlightenment.

No, you can strike out that last one; Hall’s too cranky and earthy and wise-with-age to pretend he has answers. Though a believer and regular rural-church attendee, he has his doubts and sees the ironies and lies awake at night wondering why he lives on while his much younger wife, poet Jane Kenyon, and other sorely needed men and women are killed off hourly.

Back in ’88, Hall was New Hampshire’s poet laureate. (Two decades later he became the 14th poet laureate for the entire U.S.) Because I admired his plain-spoken, free-flowing poems, I wrote him a fan letter, which led to a brief flurry of messages back and forth. But starting before and then continuing much beyond our exchange, Hall’s life became an epic-length study in pathos and odd circumstance... Lately divorced, he took up with and then married a graduate student named Jane Kenyon who was herself a poet already short-listed to become great. The couple moved from the University of Michigan to Eagle Pond Farm, near Wilmot, the Hall family’s ancestral farm that Donald remembered vividly from his childhood. Then Hall was diagnosed with some sort of incurable cancer, and Ms. Kenyon vowed to see him through the long slide... except that a bizarre thing happened: Hall lived on and on, and Jane became the patient instead, her own deadly leukemia diagnosed too late.

During those dreadful months the two poets wrote brief lyrics and longer works both that were harrowing and sorrowful, love-stricken and life-affirming, death-resisting and then, exhausted, broodingly accepting--poem collections that were widely acknowledged and honored: Hall’s The Happy Man, The One Day, The Museum of Clear Ideas, The Old Life, and following Jane’s death, the coruscating Without; Kenyon’s books were Let Evening Come, Constance, and the posthumous collection Otherwise. (She also enjoyed a few years as another poet laureate for New Hampshire.)

Kenyon died in 1995. In idle ignorance I had assumed Hall to be dead too, but the Internet insists that he's still up there in New Hampshire, alive and ticking if not exactly kicking. He reportedly had eased into withdrawal mode, gradually turning reclusive, restricting himself more and more to Eagle Pond Farm. He’d watch the seasons come and go and write about whatever was on his mind, from brindle cows to the language of poetry, from the snakebitten Red Sox to the foibles of multi-celled creatures. He kept publishing--mostly prose; he said the urge for poems had moved elsewhere--and he lived on...

And he is still there today, two decades past Kenyon's death, observing, scribbling notes, eighty-five years young. Speaking little. Writing. Cared for in 2014 by some other woman, but always remembering Jane.

In honor of his stoic and astonishing quarter-century, I am reproducing the most expansive letter from our brief correspondence--thoughtful, newsy, chiding me gently. So here’s to Donald Hall, splendid writer, remarkable man, stubborn old cuss; loving husband and living poet:





(I began this post a year ago while having reproduction problems with BlogSpot host--never did figure out how to fix the visuals, or present the letter correctly. But anyone who actually wants to read Hall's words--and why wouldn't you?--can expand the letter image area to 300% and make out fairly well. My apologies for computer ignorance.)



Friday, May 16, 2014

Fathers and Sons

I have a good friend named Kim Krummeck. He's an attorney who works on behalf of neglected service veterans and benefits-denied workers. His father died recently and, because Kim liked a poem that I wrote long ago but read a decade back at my own dad's military interment, he asked me to read something at his father's event--which would be a combination of low-key ceremony and Navy "wetting" wake.

The request resonated, I guess. Mortality has been on my mind for a while now.

My father, Ed Senior, was a quiet and generous old-style Midwest conservative who got caught up in WWII and Korea, and so made a best-of-a-bad-deal career out of it. Dad and I got along fairly well even though we disagreed mightily on Vietnam; he really only got angry with me when I mouthed-off too much to my more rabidly right-wing Mom.

But relations between fathers and sons have been troubled since Abraham and Oedipus, D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce. Kim and his father had some rocky times, I believe, but eventually arrived at their own version of détente. I couldn't decide who or what might be appropriate to read; but since I never knew Kim's dad any more than cursorily, I knew that the sort of poem I wrote for my father was too personally limited, with a level of specific detail I could not discover or invent for Kim's own complex situation. I also ruled out reading some famous elegy conveying other responsibilities, other mores, other times.

Instead I wrote a new piece, brief and insignificant in any grand scheme of things, but which still attempts verbally to be both light and heavy, metaphoric yet
mysterious, linking family matters, sub-atomic matter, and a dash of the "dark matter" of the infinite Universe as well. If that sounds foolishly pretentious, so be it, I plead guilty. I'd just add that some possibly pertinent wordplay lurks in this "Krummeck Sonetta" too:


Sonetta for Ken Krummeck

Particles, burning, rise...
eclipsing their old orbits,
forestalling all the days
a family's grief forgets.

Charred constellations fall
through night's starfields of light;
apparent strength turns frail:
the universal fate.

We breathe, we speak some word,
each sentence ends in death;
a burnished soul remembered
will walk the ancient path.

Dawns break, and spent suns cool;
love, hard-earned, makes one whole.


* * * * *
This piece is published post #302 at the blog labeled I Witness. I'm mulling over options and pondering the future; you'll know more, reader, when I do.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Altamont Aftermath

And Death shall have no dominion.

The Grateful Dead bailed; and the Stones came late to their own party--delayed (we were told later) by the absent Bill Wyman, who missed the chopper flight and had to get to the site on his own. Bikers cleared a path for the band from chopper to star trailer. Then an hour and more dragged by as twilight gave way to full dark. The tension continued. More crowding, more scuffles, more restless motion, like a herd of cattle as a lightning storm rumbles closer.

The strangest vignette I saw was this: At some point the naked fat guy was standing near the Stones' trailer door, swaying in place. Suddenly the door opened part-way
and Mick Jagger stuck his head out like a turtle emerging bit by bit from his shell. He turned his head and froze at the sight of the bloodied man, the two of them--Jumping Jack Sprat and his stripped, blubbery brother-under-the-stretched-skin--staring uncomprehending at each other for a good twenty seconds. Then Mick pulled his head back in and firmly closed the door.

The rest of the story is sadly well documented, in the immediate newspaper write-ups, in the Maysles film Gimme Shelter, and in the history books with commentaries citing Altamont as the end of the hippie dream, the grave marker for the Sixties social revolution...

At any rate, the Speedway Fighting Men raged on when/while the Stones finally played--songs starting and stopping, Jagger weakly remonstrating with the unruly roiling mass, the drugged would-be stage-climbers and demon securitans rippling back and forth in time to "Sympathy for the Devil"... until one barely conscious fan, a Black man in a lime green suit, tried to clamber up on stage, was thrown back into the crowd, and then reappeared waving a gun. The bikers acted swiftly, grabbing the gun arm, forcing him to the ground, and at least one Angel stabbing him repeatedly. Again the music stopped while the latest victim was carried away. Then the band played on, though not for much longer.

From my spot backstage peering out at the black mass and floodlights, I could
perceive only movement. I could no more see that fatality than I did the others of the long day, from drug overdoses and a hit-and-run driver--four deaths in all, but with a couple of on-site births as well. I learned of these developments via portable and then car radio as we four writers, weary and subdued, trudged back to the car and then headed west in line with the other retreating traffic, down from that barren terrain.

I wrote a brief, bitter review of the whole sorry experience for Fusion, but signed it with a pseudonym, foolishly fearing retribution from the Hellboys. Meanwhile, Greil played a major role in the extensive Rolling Stone coverage that followed; and Darlington gave Altamont brief mention in a personal reminiscence he published later. I don't know what Winner did with his impressions of the day, but I believe we determined at the time that I was the
only one from our carpool who had spent extensive time out front viewing the on-going carnage as it happened.

Via post-event public perception the Maysles' documentary footage was instantly re-evaluated, transformed from tour-film puff piece to you-are-there cinema verite wonder, a supposedly hard-hitting expose showing the Stones as venal and befuddled, albeit unlucky: hapless hosts at the begging-for-trouble banquet. One Gimme Shelter cameraman did capture split-second glimpses of both the (not loaded) gun and murderously wielded blade, but the Angels were eventually cleared of major legal charges since they did after all function as the authorized security force, however over-zealous, protecting those performers from possible harm. Even so, the Speedway fiasco for 45 years has remained symbolic of stupid-youth drug culture and commonplace rock 'n' roll violence... probably a heavier burden than
that one dumb day truly merits. I'd say there've been way too many similar days and deaths since then, too many drugged celebrities and copycat fans, to blame it all on Altamont.

Besides revisiting the cultural history that Monterey Pop and Altamont represented, I admit I was also curious to see if I could spot myself in any of the crowd shots in either festival film... but no such luck. "Right place, wrong time," as they say.

Kinks leader Ray Davies has a song that goes, in part, "People take pictures of each other just to prove that they really have been there..."

Maybe I wasn't really there at all.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Hell's Broke Loose in Altamont

"...on the Night's Plutonian shore!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."


When a gang of bad-juju biker thugs swinging pool cues and shoving shivs into drugged-up fools are ostensibly "security" at the Rock festival, it's time to holler, "Feet, beat the retreat!"--at least that's what I decided late in the afternoon of December 6, 1969, at Altamont Speedway in the Northern California foothills 30 or 40 miles east of the East Bay urbs. (Probably not much more than a hundred thirty miles north and east of the sleepy coastal town of Monterey, but worlds apart in time and species.)

In the wake of Monterey's blissed-out Pop Music festival, would-be copycat events--large or small, outdoors or in--were mounted at venues across America. The middle
portion of Western Washington was especially active, hosting two "Sky Rivers" and a "Seattle Pop" ahead of that culminating woolly mammoth, the merry music, muddy mayhem, massed-(counter)culture manifesto known as Woodstock. (Forgotten fact: there actually was an earlier fourth event, held in advance of Monterey Pop, a mini-fest hosted by Sonny and Cher and staged at Seattle's Green Lake Aquatheater.)

The Old World was stirring too, with the new Rock Music shaking Europe's cultural roots, students rioting in the streets of Prague and Paris, and the Rolling Stones doing their damnedest to prod London past No Satisfaction and Devil Sympathy on to Street Fighting meant to stretch from Carnaby to Fleet. By 1969, Brian Jones had
been ousted from the group he'd help create and had soon after that drowned. Suddenly the outdoor concert the other Stones had been planning became a Hyde Park-sized wake for Jones--which was followed over the fall by the band's first big-venues tour of the States, Madison Square Garden to Miami and the L.A. Coliseum to... um, somewhere in the San Francisco area, a free all-day concert-slash-festival added by the boys at the last minute as a big "Thank You" to America. Sharing the billing would be Santana, Jefferson Airplane, the Flying Burrito Brothers (led by Gram Parsons, Keith Richard's latest amigo for drinkin'n'druggin'), and the Grateful Dead.

A mammoth free concert with such a potent line-up called for a sizable security force too, but the last-minute negotiations to settle on a site, and the massive overnight staging effort required after that, meant that some "creative" approach to security would be needed. Participants and critics and fans alike have argued ever since as to who should get the blame for what ensued...

Several months after Monterey Pop I had begun doing some minor writing for the Rock mag that had started a couple of weeks before that festival; Rolling Stone (as was, early on) seemed content to accept my sometimes esoteric record reviews, and I was soon writing too for Boston's equivalent mag titled Fusion and for Seattle's underground newspaper, The Helix. I was scheduled to do an interview piece on Creedence Clearwater Revival for Fusion on December 5th and was able to secure
Press credentials for the Stones' bash too. Rolling Stone's Greil Marcus and his lovely wife offered to put me up, and I flew down to the Bay Area on December 4th.

We were four jolly journalists in the car driving east on show day--Greil, his friend Langdon Winner, me, and Sandy Darlington (later the owner/producer of New England's excellent Folk Legacy Records). We joined the miles of cars ascending to the Speedway: the sun was out, and two or three hundred thousand Rock fans were gathering, like iron filings to a magnet or, more accurately, lemmings drawn to the cliff edge.

Once admitted backstage, we each set off independently, planning to compare impressions later. I wandered about taking mental snapshots and talking with, among others, Burrito Brother Gram, Johnny Winters' twin brother Edgar, and (I think) their manager, whose name I've forgotten but who was stylishly garbed in boxer shorts and a kimono. Even more dapper was the birthday suit worn by a stoned fat Latino guy, who was stumbling about confusedly like a curly-nobbed Humpty Dumpty on stilts. (This lad reappears later.) I didn't realize it then, but I was seeing a sad representation of the Altamont audience.

Around 2 p.m. I heard Santana warming up on stage and crawled under and through the metal platform and out to the area right front of the stage near one stack of amps. People had been sitting on the ground, but now no one could hold a space without standing up and then being pushed forward, packed tighter and tighter. There was no area reserved for the Press, just a crushing, unruly crowd, the milling front ranks of a sweeping downward hillside avalanche of tens of thousands. And these weren't the happy hippies of Monterey Pop and San Francisco Be-Ins; this was a hostile mob of restive zombies, cloudy- or empty-eyed, mean dispirited creatures zonked on acid, meth, bennies, poisonous grass... who knows? But shoving and dissatisfied and spoiling for a fight.

They soon found it.

This much is known: the Grateful Dead had friends among the Frisco contingent and likely recommended them. The Stones had used a mild-mannered motorcycle club as security at a London event... Hyde Park, was it? The Bay Area headman--headsman? skullman?--and the Stones' advance man-cum-road manager reached an agreement: in exchange for $500 in beer, a phalanx of Hell's Angels, some thirty or so, would protect the stage and the Stones from any overeager encroachers. Armed with fists, knives, biker-chains, and sawed-off pool cues (whipping overhead they looked plenty damn full-length to me), and fortified by beer and bottles the Angels were ready to rumble.

From my vantage point and notes jotted down: (1) Santana's set, oye como va, amigos, brings minor scuffles only, weapons not yet required. The mob's leading
edge subsides, grumbling quietly.

(2) Minimal turbulence for the Flying Burrito Brothers' brand of catchy Country Rock. A few of the walking dead actually attempt to dance.

(3) The afternoon drags on. More thirst. (Water bottles were not yet appendages in 1969.) More warm beers. More mystery drugs. More zombie jamboree.

Now (4) Jefferson Airplane takes off, propelled by Grace Slick's edgy whine. The phony revolutionaries re-engage the zonked. Two Angels insist on riding their bikes through the crowd left of stage. The fights are real, pool cues whirling through the late afternoon light. The naked fat guy gets clobbered in the face and is led away, his nose streaming blood. I'm feeling the crowd's sullen paranoia myself...

Too much happening. Grace harangues the fighters, then Marty Balin leaps off the
stage trying to stop one brawl and gets coldcocked for interfering, knocked unconscious for a minute or two. I'm crouched down near the amps thinking seriously about scooting under the stage when suddenly one long-haired Angel is knocked straight diagonally down into my lap. I start to help him up, then jerk my hands back, afraid his snarling attention will shift to me, but he scrambles up back into the brawl, and I scurry on my knees straight through the metal works, very glad to be clutching a Press pass.

Backstage the chaos is better controlled--roadies and technical worker-bees bustling about, medical volunteers tending to the casualties from drugs and the fighting out front, still small clusters of curious musicians and their groupies, photographers and journalists and other hangers-on standing about, blocking the paths between tents and trailers, trading rumors, a few of which will prove to be true: some woman has given birth... the Grateful Dead arrived but, told about the continuing violence, decided that distance was a wiser course than performance...
the Stones have been delayed and may not be coming at all...

No sign of my car mates, so I drift about alone, eavesdropping on the hushed conversations and scribbling impressions of this weird and heavy day, as late afternoon yields to twilight and then to night. It will be a tense and seething two-hour wait before "live" music resumes.

So far, so bad.
* * * *
In still-to-come final Part 3: casualty numbers rise, the film Gimme Shelter demands attention, and the naked fat man almost sings.