Top 20 Desert Isle Television Shows

My friend Mike at Ticket 2 Ride recently wrote about an old television show we both enjoyed.  Since I’m now in “desert isle” mode, I thought I’d continue my series by listing my top 20 television shows.

I enjoyed these shows as a kid, and some hung over until my teen years in the 1970s. But unlike many that I can’t stomach as an adult (e.g. Lost in Space, The Monkees, Gilligan’s Isle, The Brady Bunch), at age 63 I still get a charge out of those listed here.  Even Batman, which was unashamedly targeted toward juveniles, has adult appeal…at least, if you appreciate outrageous, high camp like I do.

Some of these shows had radical cast changes over their duration.  For those, I specified my preferred time period.

NOTE: unfortunately, a lot of parents still use television as a pacifier or babysitter for their children. (Today, electronic “pacification” is compounded thanks to video games, the internet, and computer phones.) I’m sure Captain Kangaroo and Romper Room held some educational benefits when I was little, but I’m inclined to agree with former FCC chairman Newton Minow, who famously told the National Association of Broadcasters in 1961 that most television is a “vast wasteland.”  Fast forward sixty years and look at how that wasteland has turned toxic.

Television is one of the main reasons my parents felt compelled to send me away to boarding school.  I’m still scratching my head why they didn’t just unplug the boob box.

But this essay is intended to be a fun, baby-boomer nostalgia trip, so I think we can temporarily sideline Mr. Minow’s words.

Listed in order of air date: 

Lassie (1954-73) (Forest Service years).  Our family had a collie dog, and my mom had one as a girl, so Lassie…about a dog with human intelligence and emotions…was always special in our family.  The fifth longest-running prime-time show in history, Lassie is sticky-sweet beyond belief, but some of the sugar dissolved when in 1964 the producers ditched the kid for Ranger Corey Stuart, and boy’s best friend became man’s best friend.

Leave it to Beaver (1957-63).  Unlike similar period sitcoms that centered on a suburban American family, episodes of Leave it to Beaver were written from the kids’ point of view, using the slang of the time, and this might explain this show’s iconic status.  Another crucial ingredient is TV’s version of James Dean: the mildly delinquent Eddie Haskell, who provided a perfect foil to all-American Wally Cleaver.

The Rifleman (1958-63).  Each episode is a small morality play involving a widowed father and his adoring son in 1880s New Mexico territory.  The chemistry between actors Chuck Connors and young Johnny Crawford, a former Mouseketeer, lifts this show above other television Westerns.  And it has great theme music by Herschel Burke Gilbert.

The Andy Griffith Show (Barney years) (1960-68).  This show’s popularity never wanes, probably because of its relaxed rural simplicity, the writing quality, actor Andy Griffith’s talent, and character Barney Fife, who like Eddie Haskell is now a television icon.

My Three Sons (pre-Dodie years) (1960-72).  I didn’t latch onto this show until the family adopted Ernie, my favorite character, with his gargantuan teeth, glasses, and dry earnestness.  I also like the earlier “Mike” years, but lost interest toward the end of the show’s duration, when dad Steve Douglas remarried.  Nothing against the little girl who played Dodie, but the character grates my nerves.

The Avengers (Emma Peel years) (1961-69).  Gorgeous Diana Rigg, as Emma Peel, was the second of three actresses to play opposite Patrick McNee’s suave private eye John Steed, and the first to appear on American TV.  This English show is suspenseful, witty, and sophisticated, with dramatic theme orchestration that drips 1960s Swinging London.

Combat! (1962-67).  Not just your standard WWII actioner, this show emphasizes character development and raises moral questions practically every episode.  Vic Morrow is superb as jaded Sergeant Saunders, who leads a floating five-man army unit across the French countryside.  As one critic said: “At times, you can see the tombstones in (Saunders’) eyes.”

The Outer Limits (1963-65).  I devoted a whole blog post to this groundbreaking horror/sci-fi show (click here).  Only on for two seasons (the first season is much better), it scared the daylights out of me both then and now.  Back then it was the monsters.  Now, it’s the realization that grown-ups can be monsters, capable of immense stupidity and destruction.  Yet more great music, by conductor/composer Dominic Frontiere.

Petticoat Junction (1963-70).  I did a separate post on this show, too (click here).  The scripts are lame and redundant, and the overt bias against all things urban becomes more pronounced as the series progresses.  But its cornpone quality is kind of relaxing with the chaos that goes on today.  And the Bradley girls are fun to look at.

Jonny Quest (1964-65).  All kids, and many adults, love cartoons, but Hanna-Barbera’s Jonny Quest is significant because it’s an action drama involving humans, not animals, yet is without a superhero.  Jonny’s voice is provided by Tim Matheson, who appeared in two episodes of Leave it to Beaver and who still has a lucrative film career. (His most visible role was “Otter” in National Lampoon’s Animal House.)

The Munsters (1964-66).  Produced by Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, who also produced Leave it to Beaver.  I prefer this show to the similarly macabre The Addams Family because the family is more down-to-earth, working-class.  Like The Addams Family, it’s funny because the concept of the ideal nuclear family is turned upside down: they’re all freaks who consider themselves perfectly normal.  Come to think of it, sounds like my mom’s side of the family.

The Wild Wild West (1965-69).  Another show with clever theme music and graphics that kids with budding testosterone glands can truly appreciate.  A Western with espionage and sci-fi elements?  I’m on board!  Lead character Jim West is almost as cool as Sgt. Saunders.  He certainly gets more women.

Get Smart (1965-70).  I get more laughs out of this than any other show, except maybe Barney Miller.  The non-stop gag humor is courtesy of comic legends Buck Henry and Mel Brooks.  My favorite moments are the close-ups of the Chief’s baggy-eyed poker face whenever Max says something dumb…which is most of the time.  Surprisingly, the show stayed fresh even after Max and Agent 99 got married.  The introduction of robot Hymie probably helped.  

I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970).  Not sure why I prefer this to the similarly themed Bewitched, which is also good.  Maybe because Jeannie is single and slightly hipper and sexier than housewife Samantha Stevens.  Actually, I think it’s probably Larry Hagman’s acting.  He mastered the art of appearing nervous and flustered whenever Jeannie misuses her magic.

Green Acres (1965-71).  A Paul Henning production, along with Petticoat Junction and The Beverly Hillbillies.  For me, this is the funniest of the three.  I love Oliver Douglas’s stuffed-shirt bewilderment at the zany characters that continually plague him: Eb, Mr. Haney, Mr. Kimball, Alf and Ralph, and his own beautiful but low-IQ wife.  And can’t forget Arnold Ziffle, a genius hog.

Batman (1966-68).  In second grade I had a bigger stack of Batman trading cards than anyone in school…then Alan Lamb stole it.  But I think I’ve only watched one episode since 1968.  Despite this, I have great memories of this fast-paced, over-the-top, technicolor spectacle where serious dramatic actors portray cartoon characters.  A standout is former silent-film actor Neil Hamilton’s ham acting as the Gotham City commissioner.  “Quick, Chief O’Hara, call up the caped crusader!”

The High Chaparral (1967-71).  One of television’s later Westerns, I like the southern Arizona locale, theme music, and several of the characters, especially happy-go-lucky Manolito, raggedy Buck Cannon, and ravishing Victoria Cannon…although the constant battles with Apaches, most of whom were portrayed by white actors, got a bit tiresome.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77).  Somewhat revolutionary, and reflective of the times: a situation comedy about a single, working woman succeeding in a man’s world.  I never considered this aspect during the show’s heyday, I just liked the scripts and characters.  Immature and egotistical news anchor Ted Baxter is, in my opinion, one of television’s funniest creations, along with Barney Fife.

Columbo (1971-78 on NBC, then 1989-2003 on ABC).  Most television cop shows have a standard formula.  Columbo stands tall due to the title character’s eccentricities and actor Peter Falk’s talent.  All of the scripts deal with white-collar homicide, but there is a twist: the viewer knows who is guilty from the start.  The enjoyment of this show is watching Lieutenant Columbo slowly unravel the case as the murderer, smug and self-assured at first, becomes increasingly panicky.  The earlier NBC episodes are the best.  The later ABC shows feature lesser actors and introduce more sex.

Barney Miller (1975-82).  Probably my favorite sitcom on many levels.  It has interweaving sub-plots spiced with ingenious dialogue by a rotating cast of writers; memorable regular characters (a black cop who’s the best-dressed, most cultured guy in the squad room; a slow-witted but sensitive Polish cop who’s always getting laid; a humble, thoughtful cop forever displaying his genius IQ; and others); hilarious semi-regulars (gruff, old-school, foot-in-mouth Inspector Luger; perennially frustrated Inspector Scanlon of Internal Affairs, who despises Barney’s spotless record; the overtly homosexual jailbird Marty); and despite being a comedy, many real cops have cited it as being the most realistic cop show on TV.  Unlike most TV series, Barney Miller improved with age.  And like Woody Allen films, which also use New York City almost as another character, there’s an intellectual edge to Barney Miller that probably limited the viewership.  But for me it’s the best sitcom ever made. 

Honorable Mention: I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, The Twilight Zone, Rawhide, Bewitched, Hawaii-Five-O, All in the Family, Police Story, The Waltons, The Bob Newhart Show.

Thanks for joining me in this jump back into time.  Now it’s your turn!

(And a shout-out to TheWriteLife61: How Pop Culture Influences Us, which specializes in classic television and the people involved.)

Top 10 Desert Isle Songs

My blogging friend Mike at Ticket 2 Ride recently listed what he considered the ten best British rock bands.  For me, lists are like catnip to a feline. I’m an inveterate critic and love them.  “Best of” lists are great to create, and stimulate debate (rhyme intentional).

Taking Mike’s cue, I decided to formulate my own list, but instead advertise the ten songs I’d want if I become stranded on a desert isle—assuming my isle has electricity.

If stranded, I’d want lots of melody accompanying my surf and sun, and all of these songs are very melodic.  All except one were recorded in the 1960s.  Yes, I’m a product of my time!

So here goes…the soundtrack of my head and heart, listed in order of preference:

  1. “Light My Fire” by the Doors.  The lyrics are juvenile (“wallow in the mire,” “love become a funeral pyre”).  But Ray Manzarek’s gothic organ, Robbie Krieger’s acid-dripped flamenco guitar, John Densmore’s jazzy snare, and Jim Morrison’s other-worldly vocals still give me chills since hearing this song on AM radio in 1967.  A bossa nova version by Jose Feliciano also was popular, and I can actually play that one on acoustic guitar, minus the solo…and acid.
  2. “’Til I Die” by the Beach Boys.  Written by Brian Wilson (of course).  Even Beach Boys fans rarely mention this obscure jewel, featured on the Surf’s Up album released not long after Wilson’s masterpiece Pet Sounds.  Classic layered group vocals, an unusual calliope organ, simple but penetrating words, sad and haunting melody, and beautiful fadeout coda. It’s a heart-piercing song.
  3. “Yes it Is” by the Beatles.  A John Lennon composition, the B-side to the “Ticket to Ride” single, with perhaps my all-time favorite vocal harmonizing.  It’s one of only three studio songs by the group where John, Paul, and George sang live three-part harmony (the other two being “This Boy” and “Because”).  Lennon dismissed it as a failed attempt to redo “This Boy,” but I think it’s a better song, colored by George’s volume pedal guitar.
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Burt Bacharach, in a familiar pose
  1. “A House is Not a Home” by Burt Bacharach-Hal David, sung by Brook Benton.  Okay, I’m a romantic, a softy, and this oft-covered Bacharach-David classic always chokes me up.  A Dionne Warwick version was released the same time, and both are good, with a very tricky bridge vocal, but I prefer Benton’s deep, aching rendition (and being male, the lyric hits me so much harder).  Luther Vandross did yet another, more exaggerated R&B version in 1981, and it became a big hit, but Benton’s interpretation has much more integrity.
  1. “Wichita Lineman” by Jimmy Webb, sung by Glen Campbell. Webb was a master of melody. He also wrote “Galveston” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” for Campbell, as well as “Up, Up, and Away” for the 5th Dimension.  In addition to the melancholy arrangement and velvety strings, I love Campbell’s twangy guitar break.
  2. “Itchycoo Park” by the Small Faces.  The British mod group’s only hit in America, reaching #16 in early 1968.  A lovely song for summer and a perfect example of “flower psychedelia.”  Ronnie Lane wrote most of it, but singer Steve Marriott contributed the memorable “It’s all too beautiful” section.  One of rock’s greatest bands, compatriots of the Who, but unfairly overlooked in the states.
  3. “Orange Skies” by Love.  Another luscious summer song by the first integrated rock band (along with Butterfield Blues Band).  Like Small Faces, a seriously overlooked group, from L.A., who directly inspired the Doors.  Singer Arthur Lee was the leader, but guitarist Bryan MacLean, a former roadie for the Byrds, wrote several memorable songs, including this ingenuous beauty about “orange skies, carnivals, and cotton candy.”
  4. “Penny Lane” by the Beatles.  I prefer mid-period Beatles (A Hard Day’s Night through Rubber Soul era), but a late-period Lennon-McCartney song is imperative, and this is my favorite, half of a double-A-side single and one of the two greatest singles ever released (the other being “Paperback Writer”/“Rain”).  Many people prefer the flip side, John’s “Strawberry Fields Forever,” but I like this Paul song for its buoyant melody and George Martin’s elegant orchestration.  (BTW, I rode a bus through the real Penny Lane a few years ago…on my way to Strawberry Fields.)
  5. “My Cherie Amour” by Stevie Wonder.  Do you have a song where you remember the exact place and time you first heard it?  I heard this in the waiting room of the allergist’s office on Woodward Avenue in Detroit in early 1969.  (I told my friends about it later that day, but they didn’t appreciate my enthusiasm.)  It was the first 45 rpm single I ever bought, and I still have it stashed somewhere. I think everyone loves Stevie Wonder.
  6. “Anyway,” music by Maggie and Suzzy Roche.  I discovered this minor miracle of a song by two of the three singing Roche sisters about 10 years ago.  I upload it to Facebook every Christmas.  The lyrics (author unknown) are a sort of non-denominational “prayer” about being honest, hardworking, forgiving, and maintaining faith.  The music consists of about seven or eight small, dissimilar arrangements that build in intensity, and end in a warm wash of mellotron.  Took me a couple listens, but now I’m hooked for life.

Like most lists, mine has many honorable mentions (in case a large wave pounds my Top 10 into the sand). Here are a few: “Don’t Go Away” by the Zombies; “You Baby” by the Turtles; “I Saw Her Again” by the Mamas and Papas; “Urge for Going” by Joni Mitchell (the Tom Rush version); “Northern Sky” by Nick Drake; “Running from Home” by Bert Jansch; “Blues Run the Game” by Jackson C. Frank (the Jansch version); and easily a half-dozen more Beatles and Bacharach songs.

Hopefully some of these songs will strike a “chord,” or perhaps lead you to investigation. Now, it’s your turn.  Click on “Comments” and send me your own desert isle list.

An Ohio Yankee Visits Liverpool, England

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[An Apology: in my last post, I wanted to humorously discuss absurdity and pettiness in the office. (For you young people, it happens more often than you might think.)  Sort of a Dilbert-styled satire with a casual nod to the classic short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.”  But my wife, who reads my stuff occasionally when she has the stomach for it, characteristically sidestepped the gist of my essay and, instead, took exception to my reference to urinals.  Also, my friend Tad politely noted some double entendres that were—believe me—entirely unintentional.  Anyway, I’m sorry if I offended anyone, and I promise today’s post will go nowhere near porcelain fixtures.  No guarantees about double entendres, though.]

When I decided to fly to Glasgow to visit my daughter’s family, one of my first actions was to open my world atlas and check the distance from Glasgow to Liverpool, England. In 1964, my friend John Hire and I became fans of an exciting musical group from Liverpool. I think this was concurrent to John instructing me about his older sister’s body parts.

I’ve been marveling at and studying The Beatles’ music…and the physical attributes of the opposite sex…ever since.

But in addition to visiting the home of The Beatles, I was also curious about Liverpool as a famed seaport city. During the 19th century, Liverpool was a thriving port for American merchant ships delivering cotton to textile factories in northern England, and also a busy departure city for immigrants. In the 20th century, U.S. naval sailors took shore leave in the city and sold their blues and early rock ‘n’ roll records to working-class English youth hungry for anything with a backbeat.

American writer Herman Melville (“Bartleby,” Moby-Dick) was a young merchant sailor who visited Liverpool in 1839 and wrote stirringly, in his book Redburn, about the profound poverty of this mecca of the Industrial Revolution:

Every variety of want and suffering here met the eye, and every vice showed here its victims…Old women, rather mummies, drying up with slow starving and age; young girls, incurably sick, who ought to have been in the hospital; sturdy men, with the gallows in their eyes, and a whining lie in their mouths; young boys, hollow-eyed and decrepit; and puny mothers, holding up puny babes in the glare of the sun, formed the main features of the scene…But these were diversified by instances of peculiar suffering, vice, or art in attracting charity, which, to me at least, who had never seen such things before, seemed to the last degree uncommon and monstrous.

Ferry Cross the Mersey

Ohio Yankee, looking for ferries on the Mersey

“Uncommon and monstrous.” Hard to believe it’s the same city. Liverpool in 2019 barely resembles the city of Melville’s time, or even when the Fab Four were growing up. The dock that existed in 1839 is now below ground about 200 yards inland from the River Mersey, the water having been “reclaimed” by land. In 2008 Liverpool was recognized a European Capital of Culture by the European Union (EU), which helped encourage urban renewal, exemplified by Liverpool ONE shopping complex. Liverpool is now a top tourist destination in the UK.

Since I had a limited amount of time in Liverpool, I listed my top priorities. John Lennon’s boyhood home at Mendips, Menlove Avenue, Woolton was the bullseye. If you don’t know who John Lennon is, he’s famous for being the only person to have his name on a major British airport.

Second to this was the Cavern Club, where The Beatles first made a name in 1961-63 while playing an astonishing 292 dates (little wonder that ensemble was so tight). Third was the location of Old Dock. Fourth was St. Peter’s Church in Woolton Village, where John and Paul McCartney first met at a garden fete on July 6, 1957. And if I had time, Strawberry Field, Penny Lane, and Paul’s boyhood home in Allerton.

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St. George’s Hall, from Lime Street station

I exited Lime Street Railway station and was confronted by the neoclassical splendor of St. George’s Hall and a sea of people and buses.  I poked around Liverpool City Centre toward what I hoped would be the Mersey. It took me a while, but I eventually found Albert Dock and Merseyside Maritime Museum. The museum receptionist told me about the reclaiming that turned Mersey water into land, and that the only way to see the original 1716 Thomas Steers’ dock, the world’s first commercial wet dock (later called Old Dock), was to take an underground tour. I didn’t have the time or inclination, but I did manage to get a peep at history through a viewing window on a plaza near the Hilton Hotel.

Staring through a glass capsule in the middle of a hotel plaza while a musician absentmindedly played Beatles songs on a cheesy organ, it was a minor struggle envisioning 20-year-old Melville squeezing his way through emaciated beggars and cripples in 1839 after disembarking his vessel St. Lawrence. But for a fleeting second, I was there.

Old Liverpool Dock

Old Dock…buried under the edifice of a luxury hotel

Close to Old Dock is Mathew Street, where the Cavern Club is located, although I didn’t immediately know it. I just wandered through streets and alleyways until stumbling upon a small crowd in a curving pedestrian alley. Then…boom. There was John Lennon, lounging against a wall.

Or, at least, a life-sized statue of him. It was positioned next to a sign indicating this was the CAVERN PUB. Not to be confused with Cavern Club…but so many businesses in this area try to link themselves with The Beatles, the proprietors may want you to be confused, just to get your business. There was also a wall of bricks with numerous band names inscribed on them, some famous, some unknown. Each band had performed at one time at the Cavern Club, which existed from 1957 till 1973.

I saw a man gazing at the wall for a long time. He appeared somewhat misty-eyed. I asked if he wanted me to take his photo.  He thanked me but declined. After chatting with him a little, I learned his name was Ken, and he was looking for his band’s brick. He said he was once in a group called the Heartbeats, and it had performed at the Cavern Club on three occasions in 1966.

Liverpool Ken of the Heartbeats

Ken the Heartbeat, in front of Mathew Street Wall of Fame

Ken let me snap his photo with my own camera.  After he left, I spent a good ten minutes looking for his brick myself, but with no luck. Ken was very nice, and I really wanted to find his brick.  But it must have tumbled through the cracks of time.  (NOTE: a Manchester band called the Heartbeats did exist in the Sixties, and they later became Herman’s Hermits. But Ken never said anything about being a pre-Hermit.)

Getting back to the Cavern Club…the Club, not Pub, is actually across the alley and downwind about a hundred feet. Or, at least, a facsimile of the original club. Believe it or not, the Liverpool home of The Beatles was demolished in 1973 to make room for a proposed underground (subway) air shaft, which never materialized. The basement club was later resurrected, but with a different entrance location, interior, and stage.

I don’t consider many things sacred, but on the stupidity scale, a demolition project like this ranks with a construction project on the U.S.-Mexican border.

The original entrance is marked by a black-and-white mural with photos and a club history. Another statue is here: Cilla Black (1943-2015), who was a Cavern Club hat-check girl, then began jumping onstage to sing, then became friends with The Beatles, then forged a very successful recording and television career.

While near Mathew Street, I tried to locate the site of the record store which genius Beatles manager Brian Epstein (1934-1967) owned when he first heard about the group. It was on busy Whitechapel Street. I asked a few people, but all appeared under the age of 75 and didn’t know anything. (Some, sadly, didn’t even know the name Brian Epstein.) As for the store, it may have been swallowed by a London or U.S. land shark wearing designer clothing.

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Brian Epstein

Well, if I’m gonna visit Johnny L. at Mendips, I’d better get scooting. I made one more trip to Albert Dock, to the office of the “Magical Mystery Tour” (which conducts a guided bus tour) to get a map of Beatle sites. The price of the map was typically outrageous, and the tour folks typically tried to sell me a tour ticket, since “It’s really the only way to properly see all the sites.” I smiled and told them You say ‘Yes’ but I say ‘No,’ then headed to the city bus station for my own ticket to ride.

But not before dropping into the spanking new Museum of Liverpool. As if on cue, the museum was at that moment hosting a limited-run exhibit devoted to John and Yoko. I spent about a half hour here. Yoko had a big hand in the presentation, much of which was devoted to her and John’s social activism, which I was already fairly knowledgeable about (bagism, hairism, bedism, and other peace-isms).

What really hit me was coming off the elevator, turning the corner, and hearing “Imagine” at the moment I stepped up to the photo below.

Though a deserved classic, “Imagine” isn’t one of my favorite Lennon songs. But I must say, I got a little choked up. (I kept my tears in check, though, as I didn’t want the security guard embracing me.)

There was also a large wall with upwards of a hundred handwritten notes. A pencil and a pile of blank pieces of white paper were on a small table with a sign encouraging people to scribble anything about Lennon, The Beatles, the world, universe, jelly babies, or anything one had a mind to. All the notes would eventually be delivered to Yoko.

I kept it simple and just told Yoko that her late husband’s group has been a bright piece of an Ohio boy’s life since 1964, when he lived on 142 Sherbrook Road.

Then I walked toward the elevator.  I descended, left the museum, and made my way…a sentimental old man in a foreign city, haunted by memories…to 251 Menlove Avenue.

 

John and Yoko exhibit, Liverpool 2

 

Grappling with Woodstock in 2019

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Nobody back in the 1960s or 1970s could have imagined anything this fucking awful—Joan Baez, on America during the age of Trump

The Woodstock 50 extravaganza crashed like an overburdened shuttle copter somewhere between Maryland and organizer Michael Lang’s attorney’s offices. But Woodstock Nation crashed many years ago.

First, the planned anniversary concert. It was a dumb idea from the get-go. Not only since you can’t replicate—or pretend you’re not replicating while trying to replicate—the original 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair festival, either musically or sociologically. But doing so in an age when the host country of America is a global village idiot is beyond laughable.

Maybe it’s come down to getting stoned on corporate-sponsor beer and flashing the peace sign while posing for social media selfies. The peace sign used to mean something, but I guess we needed a war to remind us.

And Woodstock Nation? I’ve seen the documentary of the original Woodstock multiple times. It is a strange experience for one who shares the ideals of many of the organizers and festivalgoers, in theory if not always in practice.

The music, of course, is always a rush.  Richie Havens singing of “Handsome Johnny” marching to the Concord war, with skeletal scaffolding and descending chopper framing his intensity. Or Joe Cocker screaming his lungs out in front of his half-million friends.  And a former army paratrooper, delivering the most searing and honest version ever of “The Star-Spangled Banner”…honest because there were no words or sentimentalities to muck it up, and the song is open to interpretation, although I think I know what he was saying.

But outside of that…well, one minute I have tears welling up at the innocent promise of that incredible weekend. And in the next, my head is in my hands, sad and disgusted at how that promise was frittered away, with hard drugs, disco, and Reaganonomics, with yuppies snoring and snorting and stashing their wealth while the vulgarians stampeded through the gate.

No, I didn’t expect a subculture could change the world overnight, or do it without making mistakes along the way. But like Baez said, no one could have foreseen the backlash that caused this.

In 1969, I was too young to pilgrimage to Bethel without being listed a missing child or runaway.  But like many, I’ve visited numerous times in my mind: pitching a tent in green trees behind Filippini Pond; hammering nails through the night to prepare the stage; rolling joints backstage with Jerry Garcia; serving granola and smiles with Wavy Gravy and the Hog Farm; searching for Holly and Wheat Germ’s medicine bag…all the while unearthing directional arrows for the adult path ahead of me.

Now that I’m a grandfather and see nothing but a landscape of mud and garbage awaiting my grandkids, I ask myself: have we lost all our directional arrows?  Are we insane, stupid, greedy, or all the above? To find “the garden,” will I have to wait till I mix my ashes with those of Richie Havens?  And if so, will the vulgarians put up a gun shop or Chick-fil-A along Hurd Road in view of Richie and me?

All we can do is continue to hope for fewer slogans chanted and more trees planted. Hope for fewer concealed-carry classes and more Kundalini yoga classes.  Fewer Animal Farms and more Hog Farms.  Fewer police forces and more Please Forces.

Then, maybe after another 50 years, we’ll have finally gotten ourselves back to the garden.

By then, I’ll be long time gone.

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Newsboys on the Loose!

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Blogging buddy Phil Brown recently did a piece on his days as a paperboy up in Ontario, Canada. I thought it was a great slice of (North) Americana. Phil gave me permission to do my own Norman Rockwell-styled dip into yesteryear, so here is my throwback tale of stomping over hill and dale in north-central Ohio, U.S.A. (the other side of Lake Erie from Phil) delivering non-electronic newspapers (such newspapers being folded sheets of 54-inch web-width, wood-pulp newsprint paper with printed ink that informs about current events. They lacked audiovisual accompaniment, pop-up ads, and “click bait”).

Here’s my story:

Joe Hamrick and I were shooting baskets in Joe’s driveway in the fall of 1969 when the station wagon pulled alongside the curb. She was a middle-aged woman who said her name was “Frances.”

“Would you boys be interested in delivering newspapers?” she asked us.

“Yeah!” we gasped, as if we’d been chosen to start the Indy 500.

A few months before, while our family lived in Detroit, I had a taste of being a newsboy when I filled in for Jon Longo for two weeks delivering the Detroit Free Press. Had to rise before the cock crowed, then pedal my Schwinn Stingray from house to house in frosty darkness, the melody of a Stroh’s Beer commercial dancing between my ears. It was a new experience, my first sincere responsibility. I owed it to Jon to do a good job. After we moved back to Ohio, I got a check and a nice note in the mail…so I guess I came through for him.

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Red Schwinn Stingray, with high-rise handlebars and banana seat (mine was a 5-speed)

Anyway, not long after meeting Frances, I discovered Joe wasn’t as enthusiastic as he initially seemed, because he backed out even before we started. (Much later, I heard he received a less-than-honorable discharge from the Marine Corps.) So…it was my route.

We lived on Vicksburg Drive, but the route was several streets away. It covered Cliffside Drive and Morrison Avenue. “Cliffside” gives you an idea of the terrain. Both streets sloped at least 45 degrees. Couldn’t pedal my Stingray up those hills.

Frances would drive her station wagon to the bottom of Cliffside and leave several tightly packed bundles of papers in the grass, waiting for me. I’d mosey over from Vicksburg and use a small pair of wire cutters to open the packs. Then I’d stack as many papers as possible into my burlap tote bag, sling the load over my bony 11-year-old shoulder, and trudge from house to house. Then return to the corner and stuff more papers in. I allowed each shoulder to take a turn. Several turns.

As I write this, the heady aroma of burlap and newsprint paper comes back to me.

Some subscribers wanted their paper inside the screen door. Others wanted it under the doormat. I had to remember who these people were. If I goofed up, I might encounter a frowning man wagging a fat finger at me. My favorite customers, obviously, were those laid-back folks who didn’t care where I placed their paper. I think these people later supported McGovern.

There were the usual dog encounters. Maybe it was during this period that I developed a dislike of Boston terriers. The teeth marks from “Chief” are branded into my ass flesh.

Even more irksome than surly dogs, though, was the weather. I hated delivering in the rain. And I’m sure my customers hated receiving soggy paper. (In those days, we didn’t seal everything in plastic.) Then, when fall turned to winter, I had to deal with Lake Erie-effect snow. Try to picture a freckled kid weighted down with thick Sunday newspapers—enhanced by slick, colored ads and comics—trudging up and down two small mountains in eight inches of wet snow.

Could I have foreseen summiting Mount Whitney 49 years later?

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1969 Mercury Marquis Colony Park station wagon

Dogs, hills, weather…what else? Oh yeah: collecting. Like most 11-year-olds, I was shy around adults, so ringing doorbells for money could be excruciating. I usually waited until the last minute to do this, such as Sunday afternoon or evening. Most folks were home, eating a formal dinner, and the door usually opened. But for many it was a rude interruption.

“Could you come back in an hour?” some would ask with unconcealed irritation. “We’re eating dinner now.”

“Okay,” I’d reply, as dots of perspiration formed. Often, on Sunday night, I didn’t get home until long after dark.

Once, the Rosslands from Michigan visited us. I still remember being slumped on our couch, cursing that I had to go out and collect. While getting ready to leave, Mr. Rossland walked over and said “Peter, when I was your age, I had to walk five miles every day before school to deliver newspapers.”

I couldn’t fathom this Abe Lincoln-like feat. I do remember my parents smiling in the background after Rossland made his remark. It was a long time before I realized that adults thought it was great fun delivering this white lie to kids.

I had a few special customers. At the bottom of Cliffside, last house on the right, lived the Grassels. They had four kids, and the oldest, Doug, was rhythm guitarist in the Ohio Express. This was a “bubblegum” pop band that had a worldwide hit in the 1960s with “Yummy Yummy Yummy.” (Yes, there actually were song titles like that back then.) Joe and I sometimes heard them practice while doing cannonballs at nearby Walnut Hills Pool.

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“Ohio Express.” Doug Grassel is the John Lennon lookalike on far left.

Although I never saw Doug—maybe he was always on tour—Mrs. Grassel was really nice. She always invited me in, probably so I could see the framed photos of the band she’d arranged in the foyer.  Bug-eyed, I’d scan the ruffled shirts and long hair while she scoured the house for the $1.50 she owed me. Years later, after I became a rock ‘n’ roll animal, I learned that “Ohio Express” wasn’t their real name, and they didn’t sing or play on any of “their” hit songs. They just fronted tunes that several hotshot New York suits wrote and sang in order to cash in on a fad. Another childhood bubbleburst.

And then there were the Malones. Ah, yes, daughters Pam and Cindy. I still dream of Cindy, with her creamy, amber hair and pale jeans that clung to smooth thighs like painted watercolor. Here’s the standard conversation after she opened the door:

“Can I help you?”
“Uh…hi.”
“Hi.”
“Hi…um…(gulp)…I’m here to collect.”
“Collect what?”
“Uh…dues for the News Journal.”
“Oh. How much do we owe?”
“Uh…let me see…” (nervous fumbling)
“Okay, take your time.”

This woman was like the goddess Venus to me. If only she’d have invited me inside and indoctrinated me into the ways of things. It would have headed off a lot of stress in the coming years.

Cindy was a co-ed at Kent State. I’m assuming she was there on May 4, 1970. Every time I see that famous photograph, I think of her, and what a rotten fricking world this can be.

Near the Malones lived the Hofstadters. Tom Hofstadter had the paper route before I did. He was a year older, raced a mini-bike (small motorcycle), and if I remember, was a rabble-rouser…which is maybe why Frances took the route away from him. Tom’s younger brother Mike was better behaved. Like me, he collected Topps football cards. Toward the end of my delivery career, Sunday evenings were spent crouched in Mike’s hallway with dozens of cards spread out. We bartered for probably an hour, with a bad moon rising outside the kitchen window while I should have been collecting newspaper money, not football cards.

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Topps 1970 card of Detroit Lions cornerback and Hall of Famer, Lem Barney. My dad got his autograph for me while on business in Detroit.

“Got some extra Tom Keatings, Hoyle Grangers, and Jim Tyrers,” I would inform Mike with expectation. “Need any?”

“No, already got those guys. They’re a dime a dozen.”

The real gold were the wide receivers: “Bullet” Bob Hayes, Lance Rentzel, Lance “Bambi” Alworth, Paul Warfield, Charley Taylor, Otis Taylor, and both Gene Washingtons (49ers and Vikings). Today, I have all these cards and more, though I’m still looking for a near-mint Tom Dempsey. He was the Saints kicker who nailed a then-record 63-yard field goal…with half a foot.

Our Topps trading must have influenced him, because Mike was a longtime TV sports anchor in Columbus, Ohio. A few years ago, I visited the old hometown and asked Mrs. Hamrick (Joe’s 80-year-old mother) about Mike. She told me he’d married a (quote) “very black” African-American woman, then taken a job at a small station in a small Amish-Mennonite town in rural Pennsylvania. A bold move, Michael.  Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner premiers in Hooterville.

***

My paper route ended some time in spring or early summer 1970. The wear, tear, and miserable Sundays—excepting the Hofstadter hallway—became too much. Although not a “real” job, delivering newspapers in 1969-70 was my first paying one. And I wouldn’t trade the experience for an entire collection of near-mint Topps cards.

In case you’re wondering, I bequeathed my route to Kurt Grassel, Doug’s younger brother. He was a year below me, and didn’t race mini-bikes. Not sure how long he lasted. Or if he joined the Marine Corps.

(Some names here were changed to protect the innocent, and to protect me. Also, thanks for the idea, Phil.)

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Basking in the Land of the Zombies

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If a group like the Zombies appeared now, they would own the worldTom Petty, 1997

Thanks, Tom, longitudes agrees.

Here’s a list of reasons why the Zombies would own the world, plus some tidbits about a beloved band on the eve of their long-overdue induction into the seriously flawed Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (in the same induction “class” as…wait for it…Janet Jackson):

  • Hailed from the city of St Albans, Hertfordshire, north of London
  • Formed in 1961 when the members were just 15; broke up in 1967
  • Consisted of five schoolmates: Rod Argent (keyboards), Chris White (bass), Colin Blunstone (lead vocals), Hugh Grundy (drums), and Paul Atkinson (guitar)
  • Lineup remained intact, and friends, throughout career
  • Won a song contest in 1964, then signed to Decca Records by infamous Dick Rowe (aka MWTDB, or “Man Who Turned Down Beatles”)
  • Covered American R&B songs in beginning, like most early ’60s Brit bands, but soon concentrated on self-compositions
  • Two U.S. number one singles with “She’s Not There” (1964) and “Time of the Season” (1969)
  • A U.S. number three single with “Tell Her No” (1965)
  • A critically acclaimed album, Odessey and Oracle (1968), released just after they disbanded (U.S.-released only through efforts of Al Kooper)
  • Appeared briefly in Otto Preminger-directed movie starring Laurence Olivier, entitled Bunny Lake is Missing (1965)
  • More popular in America than their homeland (part of the “British Invasion“)
  • The first pop band in which electric piano was the main instrument
  • A lead singer (Blunstone) with a distinctive, smoky voice and movie-star looks
  • Not just one, but two songwriters of exceptional talent (Argent and White)
  • Didn’t do drugs
  • Didn’t destroy hotel rooms
  • Didn’t impregnate groupies
  • Didn’t follow gurus or dabble in occult
  • Did perfect the two-and-a-half-minute pop symphony
  • Did amass a cornucopia of non-charting symphonies that remains undiscovered outside of Zombie enthusiasts.

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The Zombies.  L to R: Hugh Grundy, Colin Blunstone, Chris White, Rod Argent, Paul Atkinson (Photo: Fremantle Media/REX/Shutterstock)

I’ll confess, though, that I was also a bit late joining the Zombie cavalcade. For years, I’d considered them a three-hit wonder: five middle-class English geeks in matching suits who made a few classic singles…brief candles who flickered momentarily during a whirlwind era.

Thankfully, I evolved.  While vacationing in Florida in 1986 with my brother, Steve, he played a 90-minute cassette of Zombies songs while we basked on the beach. The cassette included their three hits, of course, but it also had a beaucoup of superb songs I’d never heard. It was a eureka moment. “This band is more than meets the ear!” I remarked to the startled bikini strutting nearby, between applications of Panama Jack SPF-15 while scoping the “scenery” with binoculars.

(To this day, I never visit the beach without bringing along the five Zombies…and SPF-30, if not the binoculars.)

The Zombies only recorded for four years, disbanding in December 1967 just when the rock “revolution” was occurring. Thus, their beat-band and media-perpetuated square image—executive outfits and librarian glasses—remained static, while select other British Invasion bands had an opportunity to become “heavy.” This fact undoubtedly hurt their standing with the emerging hard rock crowd and the rock music press that followed.

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Odessey and Oracle album from 1968, with “Time of the Season” (and colorful artwork by Terry Quirk)

They also lacked a distinctive lyricist, right when words were becoming important in rock. After their initial success in 1964-65, the public seemed to turn away, despite their cranking out numerous carefully crafted songs.

Amazingly, “Time of the Season” became a surprise hit over a year after they broke up, reaching #1 on Cashbox 50 years ago this March 29 (coincidentally, the same day as the Hall of Fame induction spectacle). By that time, leader Argent had formed his hard/progressive rock band, Argent, with White along as a co-writer (notably on the Top 5 single “Hold Your Head Up” from 1972). Columbia Records begged him to reunite the Zombies to capitalize on the success of “Time of the Season.” But to his everlasting credit, he refused.

Like Argent, Blunstone continued as a recording artist, finding great solo success in Europe.  Chris White continued writing and producing, and Atkinson and Grundy became music A&R reps.  Atkinson sadly died in 2004, but the other four miraculously reunited in 2008 for the 40th anniversary of Odessey and Oracle, performing the entire record on stage for the first time ever…and, unlike most such reunion affairs, the singing and musicianship was immaculate. Presently, Argent and Blunstone record and tour together under the Zombies name.

Music File Photos - The 1960s - by Chris Walter

(Photo: Chris Walter/WireImage)

If melody and harmony still count for something in popular music, the Zombies earned their PhD, and they’re at the top of the iceberg of 1960s British Invasion bands. Only the Beatles and Hollies achieved their harmonic depth, and only the Beatles managed such caramel-coated melodies and marbled arrangements. While their lyrics were less clever or astute than, say, Lennon-McCartney or Ray Davies (the Kinks), they blossomed on Odessey; one only has to look closely at the words to Rod Argent’s “Care of Cell 44” or “A Rose for Emily,” or Chris White’s plaintive song about a soldier’s emotions during WWI, “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914).”

If you’re unfamiliar with the Zombies beyond their three hits, and you’d like your own eureka moment, I humbly recommend Odessey and Oracle (especially vinyl), one of the great lost jewels of the ‘60s, and the Zombies’ singular contribution to the canon of classic rock albums (despite the misspelled title!). If this tickles your fancy, then proceed to the affectionately compiled CD box set Zombie Heaven, or newly released vinyl set Complete Studio Recordings; pure pop bliss of the like we will never hear again. You’ll be as pleasantly surprised as me when I heard that cassette, on the beach, way back in 1986.

While it may defy logic why it’s taken so long for the Zombies to enter the dubious Hall, and while they disappeared from the rock radar way too early, this is certainly their year, and it took a long time to come.  And below is a link to my favorite Zombies song, the moody 1965 B-side “Don’t Go Away,” written by Chris White. Note the velvety “oohs” and “aahs,” and unusual A-B-C-C-A-B structure.

Mark it on your calendar: March 29, 2019 is worldwide Day of the Zombies.

 

Bright Flower at Woodstock: An Interview with Rose Simpson of the Incredible String Band

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It is Saturday, August 16, 1969. As the helicopter whirs in the smoky grey sky above the farmlands of upstate New York, U.S.A., a small group of musicians huddle inside in anticipation of another festival. They peer hesitantly through the large hole in the side of the copter. The machine suddenly turns and dips sideways. The musicians grip each other, momentarily startled…not just from the sudden turn, but also the ground below. The kelly green farmland has changed. It is now a massive multi-colored tapestry. A very large mosaic, a blanket of miniscule, colored dots on the earth’s canvas. Could tha’ be the same festival c’rowd?, the musicians undoubtedly wonder. ‘Tis a bit lairger!

The blanket below, indeed, is a crowd of people. They’re gathered for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair Festival, in White Lake, Bethel, New York, and road gypsies are still arriving. The merry little foursome from the British Isles, who squirmed through traffic jams for a sneak preview the day before, and are now returning by air for its Saturday performance, has no way of knowing that the three-day event, which will climax at a then-record half million people—whom it will soon sit in front of—will become a defining moment in cultural history.

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Who are the musicians? They are two confident and prodigiously talented Scotsmen; a liquid-eyed, slightly detached Scotswoman who is missing a front tooth; and a slender, raven-haired English sprite with a mild overbite and a glowing smile. They are accompanied by a hip, young, Harvard-educated American manager/producer. The musicians are, collectively, The Incredible String Band. The Englishwoman, formerly a student at the University of York—where she was head of the mountaineering club—has only recently learned how to play bass guitar. Her name is Rose Simpson.

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In a few months, it will be exactly fifty years since Woodstock. There will be facsimile festivals, with musicians and concert-goers unborn when the original occurred, many of whom will be clueless as to the 1969 event’s significance, and its repercussions (positive and negative). There will be, and already are, retrospectives, tributes, nostalgic paeans, and a few critics lobbing grenades at something that still eludes, confuses, or enrages them. As that American manager, Joe Boyd, aptly told Scotland’s The Herald on the festival’s 40th anniversary: “Right-wing politicians still turn purple with rage when we talk about the Sixties. So we must have been doing something right.”

One of those right things is the music of the Incredible String Band (ISB). This band recorded twelve albums between 1966 and 1975. More esoteric than their British folk-rock peers, with serpentine arrangements and weird, off-key phrasings, their early records on Elektra are undefinable, showcasing a potent concoction of original songs imbued with Celtic balladry, English folk, Indian raga, American blues and country, Middle Eastern flourishes, Middle Earth imagistic lyrics…and often with a sly humorous sheen. And sometimes all in one song. The ISB influenced Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, who occasionally dabbled in folk. Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney praised them, and Judy Collins and Jackson Browne covered them. The ISB were antecedents of the World Music trends made popular by Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon, but offered a rich lyricism.woodstock poster3

The Incredible String Band’s most fruitful years were 1966 through 1971. This fertile period produced the highly regarded folk-psychedelic relic, The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion (1967), and two aural masterpieces: the evocatively titled The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (early 1968) and the sprawling Wee Tam and The Big Huge (late 1968). The core group were just two people: string wizards Robin Williamson and Mike Heron. But from ’68 to ’71, two others were official members, coloring the tunes with percussion and rhythm, providing ringing vocals, and mesmerizing audiences with their woodland-witch charm: Williamson’s girlfriend, Christina McKechnie (try “K’dist-INE-a Mc-CAKE-nee”), who went by the name “Licorice,” or “Liccy,” or…well…”Lic”; and Heron’s partner, Rose.

In most of the photos and videos I’ve seen of ISB, Rose practically jumps out. It’s not only her dark beauty. It’s also a look that appears to say, “I’m here accidentally, but I’m having a groovy time!” Intrigued by her, I recently got in touch. She is now writing a memoir tentatively called Scattering Brightness, and was kind enough to share her insider, fly-on-the-wall story of ISB with me, including their moment…This Moment, “different from any before it”…at Woodstock.

Here, then, is longitudes interview with the Rose of Woodstock.

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longitudes: Rose, until you met Mike Heron of the Incredible String Band in early 1968, you were leading a fairly conventional life in northern England. You were studying English at University of York, and headed the school mountaineering club. How did you become acquainted with ISB, which at that time consisted of Mike, Robin Williamson, and Christina “Licorice” McKechnie?

Rose: I went to Scotland to do some snow climbing on the mountains. The snow was avalanching, so we stayed with a climbing lady, Mary Stewart, and spent time there. Robin and Lic were living there, and Mike was visiting.

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“The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter.” Rose is in center, clutching the tree branch.

longitudes: Mary Stewart’s children are pictured on the sleeve of the ISB’s third, acclaimed LP, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. And I believe you’re one of the older “forest hippies.” Did you participate in any of the music on this record?

Rose: I think I maybe joined in on a chorus or two as one of the various people who were around, but certainly not in any formal way.

longitudes: But after a while, you did become a regular band member, contributing vocals, bass guitar, and more. How did this occur?

Rose: Mike bought me the little silver Syrian drum, and I played that at home alongside him. I’d learned violin a bit—badly—at school. Mike and Robin were playing a gig at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Lic and I were with them, and we just sort of joined in, wandered on the stage with them, and carried on just as we would back home. Then, one day, Mike appeared with the Paul McCartney bass and suggested I play that, too. That was a major delight for me! Vocals were more problematic, because I was not tuneful. Joe Boyd and careful mixing helped that out. I did improve as time went by.

longitudes: ISB manager/producer Boyd, in his revealing 2010 book White Bicycles, said that “One of the most remarkable acts of pure will I have witnessed was Rose’s evolution into the ISB’s bass player.” How long did it take you to learn to play bass?

Rose: I can’t remember, I just enjoyed doing it, and it just happened along the way. I like learning new stuff. Still.

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The Incredible String Band. L to R: Mike, Rose, Licorice, Robin

longitudes: Robin and Mike wrote incredibly exotic songs and were extraordinarily talented multi-instrumentalists. Since you were so close to them, how did they create their amazing music? Did they crawl into a hobbit hole, cast spells, then woodshed for months on end?

Rose: They were both very different, and circumstances changed (their) techniques. Robin was more fluid and automatic. Sometimes he dreamed songs, he said, and they came complete and finished. He didn’t really spend hours repeating and reworking, but enjoyed the spontaneity. Mike was more of a craftsman, and he did want the space and silence to work. But for both, the music was their language, and that’s how they talked through the days. They didn’t need to make spells, it was just them. Very rarely they deliberately sat down and made new music, and then it usually wasn’t their best. Obviously, working a song out together was more planned and deliberate, but the original songs flowed from their days.

longitudes: You, yourself, progressed musically as well, and for the band’s fourth record, the double LP Wee Tam and the Big Huge, you play a delightful fiddle on the Cajun-influenced song “Log Cabin Home in the Sky.” Can you recall any details about participating on this song?

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Mike and Robin, Scottish mystics and gifted artists, pictured on “Wee Tam and the Big Huge”

Rose: I could play it tomorrow! The songs became so automatic. I always loved that, because it was so much a celebration of home and a homely relationship that had a spiritual dimension, too. I also used to enjoy how Robin’s fiddle playing spun and danced around my own. So I ended up sounding much better than I was because of his skill. It also reminded me of a holiday we took together in log cabins in New Mexico one time between gigs.

longitudes: Speaking of band social dynamics, manager Boyd says you and Liccy—Robin’s girlfriend, a percussionist, and the other backup singer, who had a languid soprano—had very different personalities. Liccy seems very mysterious. How close were you to her offstage?

Rose: Very close in daily living and the physical proximity of touring. Very far away in understanding and personality. But I admired her, too, and never did manage to break through her mystery.

longitudes: You earlier mentioned joining ISB on stage at the venerable Royal Albert Hall. ISB concerts were, from what I’ve heard, intimate gatherings, and you had a devoted following, including at Bill Graham’s Fillmore ballrooms in the states. Audience members sometimes left gifts onstage, and Boyd said they especially adored you. Can you describe a typical ISB concert?

Rose: (They were) like an evening at home, with all our stuff around, talking to each other and the audience, laughing, sometimes crying together, colour and lights all making magic around us. We were closer onstage than off it, really. I so adored their music, and watching them play, that I felt also part of the audience in some ways. And I had a great fellow-feeling with the audience, because I was pleased and happy they were there. It was the highest high, I used to say. I always felt, in the good times, that being onstage you saw the best of us all, with the daily nonsense stripped away. And it was natural for all of us, not a performance of someone else, but a projection of the people we would have liked to be all the time. But then, life gets in the way of utopias.

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Rose, with McCartney bass on her lap

longitudes: “Utopia” is a key word. Younger people today, or those who might have more traditional backgrounds (both then and now), might have trouble understanding the appeal of Eastern spiritualism, mysticism, TM, organic and communal living, casual nudity and sex, and, of course, hallucinogen use. The ISB—one of the most hippie of all the hippie bands, on either side of the Atlantic—was at the vortex of all of this. But it wasn’t all youthful naiveté and hedonism, was it?

Rose: It was naiveté, but informed naiveté. We all knew very well what a tough old life it was. But if you don’t have shining visions of what could be, then it’s “Goodbye Cruel World.” We had read all the poets, etc., inspired by (what you listed) above. We understood the theory of it all, in a vague way, and we were already influenced by a post WW1 generation who had also been faced with world chaos and destruction, and saw the way forward through the same things as we did. We didn’t think through where that had taken them.

It definitely wasn’t hedonism for us, not when ISB was what we all now think of it as. We took drugs to enhance visions and learn universal truths. Sex was the way to union with the physical forces which moved the universe, as well as affirming human bonds. Nudity was unashamed closeness to each other and the physical world of nature. Communal living should realize the theories. OK, it didn’t work, and the glory fell victim to the outside world, but we did mean it and did believe it.

longitudes: You verbalize this well, and it’s a good preface to my next topic. On August 16, 1969, ISB performed at the Woodstock festival. (You may have been the only Englishwoman there!) You were slotted to perform with the acoustic acts, such as Richie Havens and Joan Baez, at 11 pm on Friday. However, due to a threat of rain that night, and the fact that Mike and Robin wanted to plug in, ISB insisted on performing Saturday, and ended up sandwiched between two raucous blues bands, Keef Hartley and Canned Heat. Boyd says one of his life regrets is that he didn’t force ISB to perform on Friday, when you might have made the cut for the soundtrack or film, which would have reinvigorated your career. Do you agree with his thoughts?

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Backstage, probably soon after arriving at Max Yasgur’s farm on Friday, August 15, 1969 (Photo: Epic Rights, Inc.)

Rose: Yes, definitely. But also “reinvigorated” is a good choice of words. We were getting worn out by touring, fame was influencing the way we were, spoiling us and our relationships with each other and the audience. So, if we had gone back to ISB as it was when I met them, willing to try anything, and happy with acoustic, we could have done it. For that one time, and on that unique occasion, we could have lived again how it was…So it wasn’t Joe’s fault that Mike and Robin wouldn’t bend to circumstance and throw themselves on the kindness of the unknown masses. “Career” isn’t a good word. We had lives, not careers, but by then that was changing/changed, and soon it began to alter the whole nature of the band.

“It was naiveté, but informed naiveté…if you don’t have shining visions of what could be, it’s “Goodbye Cruel World.”

longitudes: A few of the six songs you did for Woodstock are now on the internet. The music isn’t as strong as on ISB records, but I thought the performances had a sweetness, and showed a gentler, more pleasant side of the hippie counterculture, which at the time was such a threat to so many people. What is your remembrance of your time on stage that hot August day in 1969?

Rose: As a group, we just wanted to get it over with. We knew that it wouldn’t work with all the audience hyped up on volume and power and superb musicianship, after a (Friday) night of chaos and confusion. We had another gig in New York that night and had to get out and away. We did sort of recognize that this was special, and that the New World was dawning in some ways, but we, too, had had an awful sleepless cold and miserable night. As a group, we weren’t doing drugs to get over that. But still, to see that audience and hear a bit of what they were achieving was wonderful and amazing.

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Rose, in sheer chiffon dress, during ISB’s set at Woodstock festival

We were also sweet and gentle most of the time, and that was how we saw the hippie culture. We always worked, were not parasitic, and cared for our immediate environment and each other. We hoped for an end to war and the outrageous exploitations of capitalism, for equality amongst all people and genders, and care for the natural world as part of ourselves. As well as seeing ourselves as part of the eternal cosmic flows, etc. The time onstage was just another gig, bigger audience, but that didn’t make much difference. We didn’t get the fellowship and affection, but then that was our fault.

longitudes: Despite the difficulties ISB had, do you have any anecdotes about being backstage at Woodstock, such as meeting other musicians, which readers are probably curious about?

Rose: Not really, apart from spending the night in a wet tent with loads of people. I was told John Sebastian (of Lovin’ Spoonful) was one of them, but can’t confirm. There are anecdotes, but I don’t have time right now to think it out! We didn’t, in general, hobnob much with other bands when we were on tour.

longitudes: A couple years after Woodstock, you played bass on Mike’s 1971 all-star solo LP, Smiling Men with Bad Reputations, and accompanied drummer Keith Moon of the Who. Moonie is considered one of the greatest and most flamboyant drummers in rock. That sounds like it might have been a rattling experience.

Rose: I remember him playing, but don’t think I played with him on that LP. I did play with Dave (Mattacks) from Fairport (Convention, another Boyd-managed band), I know, and I was at the Keith Moon session, but his drumming was a solo effort with earphones, not a group effort. If I did play that track, it would have been separate, anyway. He was totally out of it when he came in, dragged through the door almost. But at the drum kit it was like a switch threw, and he was absolutely there, and as perfect and creative as his reputation confirms.

longitudes: Steve Winwood was impressed enough by your bass playing that he wanted you to play on one of his albums, I’m guessing with his band Traffic. Why didn’t you accept his offer?

Rose: I wasn’t a competent enough musician and Joe knew it. Joe put him off, not me, but I was grateful.

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Robin, Liccy, and Rose, onstage during Woodstock. (Note Robin’s harlequin pants and his guitar paintings.)

longitudes: Going back a bit…at the end of 1968, the band, always spiritually inclined, became converts to L. Ron Hubbard’s controversial Church of Scientology, which eventually had a profound effect on the group and its music. Could you please touch on this experience?

Rose: I can tell you I was never a convert. I went along with them for a while, because it was that or leave ISB. I never wanted to do that. In the end, I could stand it no longer and left. I didn’t and don’t have any time for cults, and that was not a good one in my eyes. It is also uncomfortable to say these things publicly, because it does bring repercussions…and that’s not ungrounded paranoia.

longitudes: Thank you for your candor with this delicate subject. Then you left ISB in 1971, after the Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending album?

Rose: Yes. They had changed in a direction I didn’t find OK, and they couldn’t accept my non-compliance with Scientology. I was running fast and loose for a while, before.

“ISB was all the good things that people remember happily, but we were also real people and led real lives…The people shimmer and shine, but they also have feet of clay.”

longitudes: Today, Robin and Mike continue to make music, separately. But Liccy disappeared mysteriously around 1990, and even her family has been unable to locate her. Mark Ellen of Mojo magazine wrote (probably apocryphally) that Liccy was last seen hitchhiking across the Arizona desert. Robin thinks she’s a happy mother of three, with her cult of choice. What are your thoughts?

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Liccy and Mike, scattering brightness at Bickershaw Festival, near Manchester, England, 1972 (Photo: Michael Putland/Getty Images)

Rose: Could be any of those. I tend to think it ended unhappily and that it did end. Lic was a musician in her way, and would have taken the opportunities that have arisen since to resurface and pursue that life. So I think she probably fell apart under the pressures of a life she was unsuited for. She was not one to accept compromises and would find an ordinary life where she couldn’t pursue her own ways (to be) a difficult one. Years with ISB probably didn’t help that, either. But she definitely could be living in some corner somewhere as a different person. Only trouble is that you need money to stay alive, and that means social contact on their terms, not yours, which was not her forte.

longitudes: Since leaving ISB, you raised a daughter, earned a PhD, became fluent in French, German, and Welsh, and were Mayoress in the seaside, university town of Aberystwyth, Wales. A staggering journey. You’re now writing a memoir with the working title Scattering Brightness. Without revealing too much, what can we expect from this book, and—pardon the pun—is the hippie bloom still on the “Rose” that once flowered with a group called Incredible String Band?

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Manager Joe Boyd, Rose, Mike, Liccy (Photo: Joe Boyd Collection)

Rose: My whole aim in writing the memoir was to make the record straight. Other people write me as part of their lives, but I did have one of my own, too, and that was different from theirs. ISB was all the good things that people remember happily, but we were also real people and led real lives. For a girl, at a time when women had very limited freedoms of expression unless they had some social privileges—which I didn’t, at first—it was a strange life to be part of a famous band on tour. I worked it out for myself one way or another and enjoyed it a lot. I can’t see much hippie bloom on a woman my age, but I’m not going to paint it on, either.

Just as then, I value authenticity and what I think is truth (as opposed) to physical experience. I also know that memories are constructed from imaginative interpretation of events, too, however much I try to get it straight. I guess I have written what I would want my granddaughter to know if she ever decided to run off and join a band. It isn’t a magic life, although it may be a wonderful and exciting one. The people shimmer and shine, but they also have feet of clay. I don’t want to concentrate on that or destroy lovely dreams or illusions, but I just want to make us real. That should bring people closer, not distance them. They should know us better and see the weaknesses as well as all the strengths they generously attributed to us. And I don’t usurp any of the creative talent and charisma that belonged to Mike and Robin. They were the music of ISB, but Lic and I were part of the band, and we earned our keep.

longitudes: Thank you, Rose, for your time.

Rose: You’re welcome.

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(I’d like to also thank Joe Boyd, for helping arrange this interview…dedicated to Licorice.)

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Pearls Before Swine: “Balaklava”

50 years

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Last February, I wrote an obituary/tribute to a gentleman named Tom Rapp (see A Knowledge of Ashes). Rapp was a singer-songwriter and recording artist from 1965 to 1976 who retired from music to become a civil rights lawyer. He was a musician of uncommon intelligence, with an unyielding commitment to social justice, leavened by the unexpected humorous wink. His music was too cryptic and melancholic to ever earn a listing on the Billboard Hot 100.  So if you’re unfamiliar with him, it’s understandable.

To put it another way, James Taylor or Dan Fogelberg, Tom Rapp was not. But artistic ambiguity and professional obscurity have never prevented longitudes from recognizing someone. In fact, they often indicate a vision too luminous for most of us to process.

Fifty years ago, Rapp released his second, most ambiguous, and arguably best album, credited to his band Pearls Before Swine, on the underground label ESP-Disk.  It’s called Balaklava.

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Tom Rapp

Scholars of European history might recognize Balaklava (also spelled with a ‘c’, “Balaclava”) as the name of the place where a famous British cavalry charge occurred in 1854 during the Crimean War. The poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson immortalized it in his poem about valor, The Charge of the Light Brigade. The truth was that this charge was an unnecessary military action, a suicidal maneuver that dissolved 40 percent of an entire brigade. Valor in suicide. Irony, like this, was a Tom Rapp specialty.

The year 1968 had a similarly senseless military action going on, this one in Southeast Asia. More irony: Rapp dedicated his record to WWII soldier Eddie Slovik, the only U.S. soldier executed for desertion since the American Civil War.

“Some people thought (my) songs were hopeless…I was being realistic about the pain that’s out there. If you say life is wonderful, people know it isn’t true, but if you talk about the pain, someone will listen.” (Crawdaddy, December 2008)

Tears are often jewel-like…

The first thing that makes Balaklava different from other records is its unusual sleeve art. Album reproductions of paintings later became popular, but Balaklava is one of the first examples, and the painting chosen partially relates to the music inside. It’s a reproduction of Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s 16th-century, apocalyptic oil panel “The Triumph of Death,” with typewriter characters of the band name and album title stamped across the top…as if this record is a dispatch being wired from the abyss below.

Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik, Shot for Desertion 1944

Private Eddie D. Slovik, shot for desertion in 1944

The back cover features surreal illustrations by French avant-garde writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau. Also, a quote from American philosopher and poet George Santayana: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” And yet more irony: a photograph of a freckle-faced girl wearing a shy smile, with a daisy protruding from her plaid dress, and a button reading “Pearls Before Swine.”

(The photo was snapped at a peace rally by photographer Mel Zimmer. The girl’s button actually said “Flower Power.” Zimmer identifies his photo as “Molly Stewart.”)

So, the listener has an idea where this record is headed even before the needle strikes the wax. The packaging is deliberate and unapologetic. As Dante wrote in “The Inferno:” All hope abandon, ye who enter here.

Another striking thing about Balaklava: the music is introduced by a ghost. The first “song” is titled “Trumpeter Landfrey,” and is the actual voice and bugle call of a survivor of the Light Brigade charge, a man named Martin Leonard Landfried. With brimming pride, Landfried announces, “I am now going to sound the bugle that was sounded at Waterloo, and sound the charge that was sounded at Balaklava on that very same bugle, the 25th of October, 1854.” Landfried’s scratchy voice comes from a cylinder recording from 1890 that was reissued on a vinyl record that Rapp owned.

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Martin Leonard Landfried (Photo: Friends of Shoreham Fort)

Landfried’s bugle notes smoothly segue into the strummed guitar notes of “Translucent Carriages.” Wikipedia calls this one of Rapp’s “most enduring songs,” a shivering tune whose title again harkens to yesteryear, and whose languid music includes ghostly background whisperings. One of them is the Herodotus quote “In peace, sons bury their fathers / In war, fathers bury their sons.” Another is the Rapp quote “Jesus raised the dead / But who will raise the living?”

The recurring chorus goes “Every time I see you, passing by, I have to wonder…why?” The identity of the “you” can be interpreted differently. Are they ancient carriages, perhaps Roman? Hearses? Maybe a woman? Is Rapp referring to Jesus? Or the pointlessness of war?

“Images of April” burrows deeper into the murky surreal. It features vocal echoes, flute, bird songs, and even frog croaks to paint a world of desolation, where springtime exists in fleeting images that only memory can summon. If you’re open to something strange, hypnotic, and completely different:

As unconventional as is “Images of April,” the next song, “There Was a Man,” is totally conventional—the guitar/vocal music, that is. The words, maybe less so. They relate a story about a stranger who one day arrives in a village. The stranger has a scar on his head, “where there used to be a crown.” He amazes the people by doing wonderful, magical things. Then the stranger leaves, sadly, suddenly. He has heard “the news from the war.”

“I Saw the World” is maybe the most passionate song on Balaklava. Rapp pleads, with palpable emotion in his voice, that he’s seen the world “spinning like a toy,” and “hate seems so small compared to it all.” A melodious cello and piano passage helps boost this song to another plane.

Rapp was an admirer of songwriter Leonard Cohen, and the “Swine” honor him with a rendition of Cohen’s “Suzanne.” They supposedly recorded this song in one take, while sitting on the studio floor, in the dark, with candles burning. (Yes, very Sixties.) The hushed ambience they created must have succeeded, since this is one of the most respectfully rendered versions of this acclaimed song.

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Florence Nightingale

Other titles include “Guardian Angels” and “Lepers and Roses,” both of which further the odd, time-frozen quality of Balaklava. At the end of the record, there’s another vintage 1890 recording, this one of Florence Nightingale, who oversaw the nurses during the Crimean War. She prays that her Balaklava “comrades” will all return “safe to shore.” The record trails off with Trumpeter Landfried’s opening again. It’s a reminder that everything is a circle, that everything “comes back again,” both love and hate.

***

While not a perfect record, and certainly not for every ear, Balaklava’s best moments overflow with a perceptiveness, mystery, and beauty not usually occurring in rock music. Today, we hear the word “alternative”—which means “different” or “unconventional”—applied to a certain style of music (for the sake of convenience, branding, and marketing).  But Pearls Before Swine’s Balaklava defines the word alternative.  There’s not another record like it.

Even more, the record is a unique and fervent indictment of the idea that warfare is some kind of glorious endeavor. It is music with meaning. But unlike most anti-war artists of the Sixties—idealistic and well-meaning, but who relied on anthems or derivative platitudes about peace and love—Tom Rapp used irony, surrealism, and religious and historical allusions to present his worldview. He drew from a war in 1854 to indict a war of 1968, which still resonates in 2018.

We’re all familiar with that line in Tennyson’s famous poem…that universal expression of blind patriotic duty, which goes “Theirs not to reason why / Theirs but to do and die.” Tom Rapp and Pearls Before Swine question that sentiment with Balaklava. And, I think they’re also saying…shouldn’t everybody?

molly stewart by mel zimmer

Photo by Mel Zimmer

 

 

The Small Faces, “Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake”

50 years

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Longitudes certainly enjoys 50th anniversary specials. But can you blame me? I was a nipper in the 1960s, so I have fond memories of that time. And in 1968, I lived in Detroit, Michigan, when Motown music ruled the world, and the Detroit Tigers took the World Series. I can claim that I actually knew hitting legend Al Kaline, because his kid got shot up by the same allergist as me.

1968 was a violent year in America, but there are some good things that occurred.

However… this latest installment in ‘60s nostalgia boards the QE2 to sail “across the pond.” It profiles a record by a Brit band that pulled the difficult trick of marrying style with substance, which are usually mutually exclusive, and very few rocksters have been able to combine both. Elvis, the Beatles, James Brown, Hendrix, Bowie, Roxy Music, and the Clash come to mind. All made great music but were also visually dazzling.

Another is the Small Faces, a limey band that literally “carried the colours,” at least in England, for the mid-’60s British Invasion jump-started by the Beatles and Rolling Stones. Four working-class geezers, three of whom hailed from London’s rough East End, the Small Faces were the prototypical Mod band.

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The Small Faces. L to R: Kenney Jones, Ian McLagan, Steve Marriott, Ronnie Lane

“Mod,” short for modern, was an English youth movement that began in 1959, similar to American subcultures like beat or hippie, but smaller, and less threatening to the status quo. Mods wore flashy clothes, drove Vespa scooters, listened to soul music, and took speed drugs. Mod gave an identity to English working-class kids. Pete Townshend documented Mod culture with the 1973 Who album Quadrophenia.

The Small Faces were Mod to the core, but could also play instruments. The band members were lead singer/guitarist Steve Marriott, bassist Ronnie (“Plonk”) Lane, drummer Kenney Jones, and organist Ian McLagan (who replaced Jimmy Winston early on). All four stood under 5 feet 5 inches tall. (Eric Clapton, upon meeting them for the first time, said they all looked like little “haw-bits.”) Their short stature, mischievousness, and stylish Carnaby Street threads made them the most eye-catching band in England for a time, especially beloved by screaming young girls (“birds”).

For music fans, between 1965 and 1968 the songwriting team of Marriott-Lane churned out a basketful of sophisticated pop hits in the UK, one quasi-hit in the U.S. (“Itchycoo Park,” which reached #16 in ‘67), and one LP masterwork, released in May ‘68. Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake is considered a classic by “those in the know,” but often overlooked when classic rock albums are bandied. I could give several reasons, but I’d rather just rave on.

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Move over, Lennon-McCartney

The first evidence that this record is a cut above most is the packaging, as visually arresting as the band’s Mod bob haircuts, tangerine and lime-green blazers, and winklepicker shoes. Ogdens’ was the first record released in a round sleeve, designed to resemble an old tobacco tin, and the name parodies an 1899 brand of tobacco. The sleeve unfolds to four circles with moody black-and-white pics of the band members (photographer Gered Mankowitz).

Musically, Ogdens’ is equally mind-blasting. After the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, Ogdens’ was the first “concept album,” preceding both S.F. Sorrow by the Pretty Things and The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society by several months. The second side is a Ronnie Lane-inspired musical fairy tale about “Happiness Stan,” who goes on a quest, assisted by a friendly fly, to find the other half of the “dangly” moon. Linking various musical snips is daft narration by English comic Stanley Unwin, who combined the Small’s cockney slang with his own nonsensical “Unwinese” speak. (Unwin supposedly influenced John Lennon’s absurdist lyrics and poetry.)

As “knees-up” as side two of Ogdens’ is, the heavy hitters are on side one. The title song opener is an instrumental that explodes with Lane’s thunderous bass, McLagan’s altered Hammond organ, and sweeping woodwinds that include cello.

“Afterglow” showcases ace-Face Marriott’s wailing voice. In a non-racial world, Marriott’s soulfulness would be held in similar regard as Ray Charles and Otis Redding. I know what some of you are thinking: he’s bloody white, mate! But I say: bollocks, mate! Great pipes is great pipes. None other than Keith Richards and Ozzie Osbourne have cited Marriott as one of their favourite singers, and those two blokes know something about singing (amongst other things, wink-wink).small faces 2

“Long Agos and Worlds Apart” is one of only two numbers Ian McLagan wrote with the band. (The other is “Up the Wooden Hills to Bedfordshire.”) Like the Who’s John Entwistle, McLagan wasn’t prolific, but his two songs are highlights of the band catalogue. He has a world-weary voice that contrasts Marriott’s full-frontal assault. This song has a loping instrumental line that I can’t determine is organ or guitar. But it’s an intoxicating arrangement, with a dollop of appropriate psychedelia.

“Rene” is an ode to a waterfront prostitute, “groping with the stokers from the coast of Kuala Lampur.” Marriott, as cockney tour guide, leads us into working-class East London. If you think you’ve suddenly ducked inside an English music hall, it’s because, before discovering rock ‘n’ roll, Marriott was a precocious child actor/singer who starred as the Artful Dodger in the London stage musical Oliver! (He was also in several films, one of which starred a pre-Clouseau Peter Sellers.) “Rene” is a rousing singalong tune, the second half a chugging instrumental where our hyper tour guide goes berserk on distorted guitar and blues harp.

“Song of a Baker” is a Ronnie Lane special. Though an inner-city lad, Lane had an affinity for rural life, and later moved to an isolated farm in Wales. “Song of a Baker” is a heavy rocker, but its heart is in the country. Some of the album’s best lyrics are “I’m depending on my labour / The texture and the flavour” and “So I’ll jug some water, bake some flour / Store some salt and wait the hour.”small faces 6

Side one closes with one of the band’s best A-sides, the theatrical “Lazy Sunday.” Marriott wrote it after his neighbors had him evicted for noisemaking. He was always trying to distance himself from his acting roots (which fortunately managed to slip through in the music), and didn’t want this song on the album, but Immediate Records had final say. It’s quintessential English, slice-of-life escapism. (Think “Penny Lane,” the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” the Hollies’ “Bus Stop,” the Zombies’ “Beechwood Park,” and the Smalls’ own “Itchycoo Park.”) The bouncy melody is broken by cockney-esque poetry like “Cor blimey, ‘ello Mrs. Jones, ow’s your bird’s lumbago?”

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Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake reached #1 on the UK Albums Chart and stayed there for six weeks. (America had too much on its plate in ‘68, and missed the boat.) Due to the record’s complexity, including orchestration, the group never performed it live. This fact contributed to their demise. They knew they could never top Ogdens’. Also, Marriott wanted to get into guitar-heavy, R&B-styled rock and distance himself from the teen-scream scene (though one of the special things about the Small Faces was their playful irreverence). So, he quit the Smalls seven months after the album’s release. He joined with guitar hotshot Peter Frampton (ex-Herd) to form Humble Pie. The other three were briefly adrift, but eventually hired Ron Wood and blond, sexy Rod Stewart, both much taller and recently exiled from the Jeff Beck Group, to become the Faces.small faces 3

Whilst not as artistically satisfying as the Small Faces, both Humble Pie and the Faces achieved the popular success in North America that had escaped the Smalls.

Drummer Kenney Jones is the only Small left. Steve Marriott died tragically in a house fire in 1991; Ronnie Lane succumbed to multiple sclerosis in 1997; and Ian McLagan died of a stroke in 2014. If you fancy rock bios, you’ll be gobsmacked by McLagan’s book All the Rage, which is one of the best fly-on-the-wall rock bios I’ve yet read.

As for Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, it’s been rereleased several times, on CD and vinyl, with music and packaging variations. The original UK vinyl version with the round gatefold cover is the one to get. But you may have to put your home on the market, or place one of your children into indentured servitude to afford it.

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NOTE: Perhaps you noticed I didn’t mention Hall of Fame (HOF) inductions or Rolling Stone (RS) magazine lists here. It’s become fashionable to do this—as if a coterie of music-critic aristocrats with crabs in their beards decide which music is worthy of being anointed for artistic posterity. Cor blimey, I’ve even cited their shite once or twice! But never again, mate. Inductions, lists, polls, rankings, and record sales are poor indicators for determining what is “good” music and what isn’t, by gor, and a lot of these HOF and RS critics are daft, anyway (and get dafter every year). Therefore, longitudes says “rubbish” to all of it.

By the way, I’m right chuffed to say that longitudes has deemed Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake the 19th greatest rock record ever, Steve Marriott the 9th greatest rock vocalist, Marriott-Lane the 4th greatest rock songwriting duo, and the band is in the longitudes hall of fame as a separate act from the Faces, which was a totally different band, musically.

Now, are we all sitting comfy-bowl? Good, then I’ll meet you at the Crown and Anchor, mate. I’ll be wearing pink winklepickers.

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A Knowledge of Ashes: A Tribute to Tom Rapp

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“If you can’t be universal, you can at least be ambiguous”
– Tom Rapp

In 1994, I wrote a letter to Tom Rapp after reading an interview with him in Dirty Linen magazine. I don’t usually write fan letters, but I made an exception with Rapp. It was a typically obsequious fan gush: “I love your music,” “Listened to Balaklava non-stop one entire summer,” etc. I didn’t hold out hope for a reply.

A few weeks later, I got one. Rapp not only thanked me for me thanking him, but he sent a cassette of two unreleased, alternate versions of my two favorite songs of his: “Another Time,” and “Translucent Carriages.” I still have the letter and cassette.

I hope that my letter made him smile. Rapp was an enormous talent, wickedly funny, by all evidence kindhearted, and he deserved better than what this world offered him. He died of cancer February 11 at the age of 70.

***

Tom Rapp started life in 1947 in Bottineau, North Dakota, a speck of a town on the cold northern prairie, way up near the Canadian line. His father was a teacher who was blacklisted for union activities, and who then became a loan officer. Fleeced for $15,000 one night, he disappeared into the woods for a month without telling his family. The disappearances continued off and on, and when Rapp’s father was home, he was frequently drunk. Rapp’s song “Rocket Man,” written on the day of the first moon landing, but about his father, talks about a man who flew between the planets, while his lonely wife and son went outside only when it was cloudy, and the stars couldn’t be seen.

(Bernie Taupin claimed he and Elton John wrote their own “Rocket Man” after hearing Rapp’s composition. Both are great songs, but totally unlike. Two major differences: one song made lots of money, and the other made nothing. Also, the John-Taupin song is about space. Rapp’s song occurs in the human heart.)

Sandra Stollman

The first Pearls Before Swine lineup. L to R: Lane Lederer, Tom Rapp, Roger Crissinger, Wayne Harley (Photo Sandra Stollman)

When he was ten, Rapp did a cowboy-Elvis Presley impersonation for a talent contest held in Rochester, Minnesota. He took second place. First prize was won by a baton twirler in a red sequined dress. Fifth-place honors went to an older Minnesota boy named Bobby Zimmerman, who later changed his last name and became somewhat famous.

(Wouldn’t it be great to locate the girl in the red sequined dress? Or track down one of the judges? Wouldn’t it be great if we could prove justice is real?)

Dale Rapp whisked his family out of the flatlands for Minnesota, then Pennsylvania, then Eau Gallie, Florida, where his son graduated high school. In 1963, after hearing Peter, Paul, and Mary’s version of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Tom became intrigued with the song’s author, Bob Dylan. He had no idea they’d earlier performed on the same stage.

He began writing songs himself. On a lark, he and three friends made some rough demos, then sent them to New York-based ESP-Disk Records, an experimental underground label that had helped pioneer free jazz.  They’d also recorded the infamous Fugs, rock’s first leftist revolutionary band, which featured Beat poet and political agitator Ed Sanders. ESP-Disk invited Rapp and the boys to come up and make a record. In those days, things like that happened.

So, Rapp had to find a name for his band. Cocky, erudite, and only 19, Rapp chose “Pearls Before Swine,” taken from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. It may be the most honest band name in history, and it actually has meaning – albeit ambiguous:

“Give not that which is holy unto the dogs; neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.”

The name was also prophetic.

The first Pearls Before Swine album was titled One Nation Underground and recorded in only four days in the cheapest NYC studio available. Visitors to the studio included Sanders, Peter Stampfel (Holy Modal Rounders), and a standup comic and clown named Hugh Romney (later “Wavy Gravy”), who tried to ply Rapp with LSD tabs, to no success. Like Melville’s Ishmael, Rapp chose to wander through the weird happenings and times as an omniscient narrator only.

One Nation Underground was released in 1967 at practically the same moment as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper. Both albums broke ground in popular music. But whereas the Beatles effort was polished to perfection and had a world audience waiting, the Pearls debut was jagged, challenging, defiant, and burst like a green shoot through pavement cracks.

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(Family Photo)

It included one of the first anti-Vietnam War songs, “Uncle John,” directed toward Lyndon Johnson, where Rapp ended up on the studio floor screaming into the mic. “Another Time” is a haunting song, the first Rapp ever wrote, about a horrific car crash where he survived with only minor cuts. While in the cop car on the way to the hospital, he overheard, on the police radio, reports of people drowning and being burned to death. He surmised that “the universe doesn’t care at all.” But…

“Did you find, that if you don’t care… this whole wrong world will fall?”

“(Oh Dear) Miss Morse” is the humorous flip side to Rapp’s “constructive melancholy.” In this song, he adopts a Victorian persona and attempts to seduce a very proper and very sexy lady, using Morse code, and sounding out the letters F-U-C-K. “Dit-dit… dah… dit” etcetera. Over the years, Rapp loved to recount the story of how deejay Murray the K played this song and was bombarded by angry calls from Boy Scout leaders, the only listeners who understood the code.

One Nation Underground sold about 200,000 copies, surprisingly good for a debut album of psychedelic baroque-folk on a shoestring underground label. Some of its success may have had to do with the eye-catching sleeve art: Rapp chose the apocalyptic “Hell Panel” from Hieronymous Bosch’s 15th century painting “Garden of Earthly Delights” (the hard rock band Deep Purple later used this for its third album, and longitudes also borrowed it for its series on Nazism).pearls

Encouraged by this modest success, Rapp made a follow-up album with ESP-Disk. I’d review Balaklava here, but I’m straining my space limit, and I plan to cover it later this year on its 50th anniversary. So, I’ll merely say it’s arguably the best record by the Pearls/Rapp, an existential concept album about war (Vietnam, again) with moments of astonishing beauty. For Balaklava’s sleeve art, Rapp chose “The Triumph of Death” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

ESP-Disk seemed like the perfect vehicle for Tom Rapp’s music. It was a label that allowed the artist total creativity, no restrictions, whose studio floor was littered with exotic instruments like celesta, marimba, vibraphone, clavinette, Nepalese sarangi, and “swinehorn,” and whose owner, Bernard Stollman, was an energetic advocate of the universal language Esperanto. Problem was, Rapp didn’t make a dime (things like that happened in the ‘60s, too). He would later humorously claim that Stollman was abducted by aliens, who washed Stollman’s memory of where all the record profits went.

Rapp soon disbanded the original Pearls and jumped to the mainstream label Reprise. By this time, all sorts of rumors had arisen about the band, since there were never any photographs or interviews. Some fans thought all the members were geriatrics. Others believed the drummer was a dwarf. While on Reprise, Rapp’s songs became less strange, but tighter. He wrote beautiful songs, such as  “Rocket Man,” “The Jeweler,” “Island Lady,” and “Look into Her Eyes,” the instrumentation and presentation cleaner, the songs no less transcendent.

Eventually, after several lineup changes and paltry earnings, Rapp dropped the Pearls Before Swine name and used his own, jumping to Blue Thumb Records for two albums.  He opened for many of the top names in the 1970s: Pink Floyd, Gordon Lightfoot, Patti Smith, and much earlier was invited to the original Woodstock festival, but declined because he was living in The Netherlands and couldn’t afford to make the trip.

A typical show was like the one in Philadelphia in 1974, during Watergate, when he appeared with Genesis and Wishbone Ash. He was told backstage that he only had a few minutes to perform, but that he could back out while still being paid. Rapp insisted on going on. And he made a bet with someone that he’d get a standing ovation. After walking out on stage, Rapp asked the crowd “If you believe he’s guilty, please stand up and cheer,” without even saying who “he” was. Rapp easily won the bet.Bill O'Leary

It’s not difficult to see where this is headed. It was a matter of time before Rapp was serving popcorn in a Boston movie theatre, his young family surviving on oatmeal. Surprisingly, he was happy. “I knew at the end of the week, every single week, I would get $85. I was insane with joy!”

With an indomitable will, he put himself through college, attending classes by day and working nights. He earned a law degree at University of Pennsylvania. He joined a law practice in Philadelphia, continuing his ‘60s work by fighting for social justice, this time in court on behalf of people who’d been discriminated against. His briefs often deviated from standard judicial dryness. One of them, filed for a man who was fired after contracting AIDS, reads partly: “In a civilized community, it is an intolerable wrong to abandon the sick and put them out to die.” Classic Rapp.

In the late 1990s, Rapp made a mild comeback. He was lauded by various British journalists and musicians, including The Bevis Frond and This Mortal Coil, and appeared at several small music festivals (why do the Brits always have to show us Yanks what we’ve ignored in our own backyard?). He also made a remarkable album, his first in 26 years, entitled A Journal of the Plague Year, with the wrenching “The Swimmer (for Kurt Cobain).” Rapp borrowed the evocative album title, characteristically, from a book by 18th-century novelist Daniel Defoe. Assisting him with the music were members of the American group Galaxie 500, Bevis Frond, and his son, David.

He also lost his job. Now living in Florida, Rapp and another lawyer became litigants, charging age discrimination, just like some of the people he’d once fought for.

***

Rapp appreciated history and the old things. He understood that old things have value. He sang about people who were flawed, physically or psychically: lepers, old Jews with lisps, lonely jewelers with cracked and bleeding hands, strangers with scars on their heads from wearing crowns. He chronicled and championed insignificant people who were lost in the ashes of time.

He undoubtedly saw himself as one of them.

bill o'learygetty

(Photo Bill O’Leary/Getty)

(Special thanks to the Washington Post and Gene Weingarten, who wrote the best article on Rapp I’ve yet read)

A Conclusion: Tom Rapp’s Lesson of the ‘60s:
(shared by longitudes)

Love is real.
Justice is real.
Everything is not for sale.
Honesty is possible, and necessary.
Governments have no morals, and you’ve got to kick their ass.
And, most importantly: never buy drugs from a policeman.