I think my favorite band of the mid-60s was the Dave Clark Five. I admired Denis Payton, their tenor sax player. Scott, Sal, and I even tried to duplicate the Dave Clark sound (as well as the Beatles). Scott played guitar, I played sax along with a bass guitar plugged into a tape recorder for an amp, and Sal played drums fashioned from a set of hassock covers. We weren’t quite ready to be featured on Cousin Brucie’s radio show.
In the latter part of the 1960s, AM radio was still king. My favorite station, WABC, played your basic Top 40 hits, which included the Beatles, great but far from the earth-shakers they were a couple of years earlier. Other musical styles forced their way onto the charts, bands like Steppenwolf and the Stones, and folk duo Simon and Garfunkel; but bubble gum music (à la 1910 Fruitgum Company and Ohio Express), essential pop from Tommy James and the Shondells and Gary Puckett and the Union Gap; and future Muzak staples like MacArthur Park (Richard Harris), Love Is Blue (Paul Mauriat and his orchestra), and This Guy’s in Love with You (Herb Alpert) dominated the AM airwaves.
Then, one afternoon, Scott came over. His face shone like Moses coming down from Mount Sinai; maybe not literally, but Scott had visibly been in the presence of something holy. He burst through the back door and said,
“Do you have an FM radio?”
“Beats me. Why?”
“WABC has an FM station, and they play stuff nobody plays on AM. It’s like underground stuff. I can’t explain it. You’ve gotta hear it.”
I told Scott that Pop had a little box on top of the hi-fi, and it may have been some kind of radio that hooked into the record player. No one ever used it, but we could check it out.
“Oh my God,” Scott exclaimed, momentarily forgetting the Second Commandment, “Your dad has an FM receiver!”
We turned it on, and switched the hi-fi to “on” without putting a disk on the turntable. And then we listened.
“Oh my God,” I uttered under my breath, momentarily forgetting there even was a Second Commandment.
I was hearing Cream’s White Room for the first time. I might as well have been standing at the Grace Church altar for the first time, waiting for the Spirit to fill me. And filled I was.
For the next two years I planned my day around that FM receiver. I exulted in the protest songs of Joan Baez and Country Joe and the Fish. I laughed at the tongue-in-cheek rock of Frank Zappa and folk of Tom Paxton. And then I heard a style of music that totally, in 1968 vernacular, blew my mind.
A twangy guitar and plunky piano introduced a song about someone who “pulled into Nazareth,” feeling “‘bout half-past dead.” What was that? The vocals were spectacular, but they weren’t quite right. Voices in harmony but not in synch. Instruments sounding like they came from somewhere deep in the woods. I didn't like the sound, but I loved the sound. I wanted more. By this time, I had my own stereo, a portable with speakers you could detach from the turntable and separate from each other by about twelve feet. I’d sit dead center between them and feel the music shift from side to side. I asked Pop to find Music from Big Pink by a band called The Band.
“That’s what I asked,” said Pop with more than a hint of exasperation. This was becoming an Abbott and Costello routine.
“The Band. That’s the name of the group. And the album is Music from Big Pink.”
“I know it’s a stupid name, Pop, but that’s the record’s name. Please get it for me. I’ll pay you back. Oh, if they don’t have it, I’ll just wait. Don’t surprise me with something else. Please.”
Pop arrived home that night with a square, flat package. He said,
“I asked the guy at Sam Goody about Big Pink. He didn’t know what I was talking about. But he checked the catalog, and he came back with this.”
And there it was. No Buggs. No embarrassment. I had my own copy of the Holy Scripture of underground radio.
I have to admit the first few notes of the first song, Tears of Rage, put me off a bit. It was more backwoods-y than I had expected. But by the time I reached their cover of the country classic Long Black Veil, The Band had secured a permanent place as my favorite band. A year later, Scott and I saw them live at the Felt Forum in Manhattan. Tom Rush opened for them in that intimate little space deep within the confines of Madison Square Garden. I know heaven exists because Scott and I spent an evening there.
The following spring, Scott and I made plans to attend a music festival being planned for upstate, something called Woodstock. We could afford the tickets for three days, and we figured we could sleep in the car and buy food on site. What a plan!
Mom said, “Ask Pop.”
Pop said, “No.”
I’m sure the same conversation, with slight Yiddish overtones, took place at Scott’s house. We never got to Woodstock. Four hundred thousand other kids, including a friend or two from P.S.114 days, did get there and scattered around Max Yasgur's farm in lower upstate New York. Of course, if you counted all the people my age who say they were there, the number by now has reached into the millions.
Scott and I made it to a lesser rock event a year later: the New York Pop Festival on Randall's Island. Nobody talks about that one, but it happened. You can Google it. I think even the bands that showed up (and many didn't) now claim they weren’t there that weekend in July 1970.
Some of the same headliners from Woodstock were there. John B. Sebastian, formerly of the Lovin' Spoonful, kicked things off. Steppenwolf was there—John Kay wearing the tightest leather pants I'd ever seen—as were Grand Funk Railroad, Jethro Tull, and some others. Van Morrison was slated to be there, but I don't think he showed.
It was supposed to be three days of music, like Woodstock, but in a more secure environment than a pig farm. The festival was held in Downing Stadium, a decrepit concrete arena where semi-pro football teams played and city-wide track meets were held. The stadium sits on Randall's Island, smack dab in the middle of the East River in the shadow of the Triborough Bridge. Instead of 400,000 hippies in a muddy field, we were 25,000 mixed up New York kids on a football field or on the concrete seats.
The New York Pop Festival of 1970, before it was erased from people's memories, somehow acquired the sub-title "ill-fated." Seems some radical groups like the Black Panthers and the Students for a Democratic Society, among others, were promised mic time. They just took it upon themselves to decide when and how much of that time to self-promote. As political groups jockeyed for space on the stage (and in front of those mics), some of the bands did their own fighting. Jimi Hendrix's people almost pushed Jethro Tull's roadies off the stage because Hendrix wanted to follow Steppenwolf the first night. After the concert promoters and security people broke up the fight, Hendrix decided that only he would choose when he would play. (Well, he might've been a bit of a diva, but he was one of the absolute greatest guitarists ever.)
Eventually, by late Friday night, the first night of the festival, everyone had played or preached or fought except The Jimi Hendrix Experience. We knew he was there, but he just wasn't playing. We sat around waiting, sometimes napping, as Friday evolved into Saturday. It was sort of fun. Scott and I sort of slept on the 30-yard line. And I sort of got to see a rather pretty girl's breasts through a semitransparent red blouse. (There's a first time for everything, they say.) Finally, damp and tired, Scott and I moved into the concrete bleachers, still hoping Hendrix would play.
Sometime after 4:00 a.m., while most of us were sleeping, smoking weed, or having sex, Jimi Hendrix took the stage. He played through a set that included Purple Haze, All Along the Watchtower, and Hey Joe. He played a lot longer than the original one-hour time allotment.
None of us cared that it was now almost morning. We were mesmerized by the master guitarist's music and his antics. Creating semi-melodic feedback by playing his Fender Stratocaster directly into the speakers, using his teeth as a pick, striking chords then swinging the Strat round and round his neck while the chords swung round and round the concrete walls of Downing Stadium before flying off into the night.
Then it happened. The notes I'd been dreaming of all night began their ascent into the now graying sky.
At Woodstock, Hendrix had stunned the crowds with his hyper-feedbacked rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. He hadn't played it much since, but we hoped he might play it on Randall's Island. Then again, maybe not. Rumors were spreading that he was tired of the song. But there it was—Ta ta dum dum dum dummmmmmmmmmaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhwwwwwwwaaaaahhhhhwqwwaaaahhhhwaaaah-CRASH--The Star-Spangled Banner replete with rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air, all from one left-handed Strat.
Somewhere in the middle of the anthem, the first rays of sunlight peeked over the stadium wall and shone right on Scott and me. We thought we'd gone to heaven. (Who could have known then that in two months to the day that's where Jimi would wind up?) As the sun came up, Hendrix's final power chords were still reverberating through the ancient arena. Nobody moved. Nobody even cheered. Twenty-five thousand people were silenced by the wizardry of Jimi Hendrix in perfect tune with the fireball rising in the east.
It was heaven. It was life.
Why did my jaw drop the first time I watched Goodfellas? Find out in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
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