Saturday, May 11, 2013

My Post-Musical Life

When I was 10, mesmerized by the movies, I wanted to be an actor.  "Drown him," advised Uncle Ted, my father's twin who had acted on Broadway in Jose Ferrer's 1952 production of "The Chase" (Jason Robards was his understudy).  So I turned my attention to the clarinet and decided to become a musician (my second instrument was the alto sax, not the tenor pictured which I borrowed for a jam session at Guitar Player Magazine).  My career goals were never very practical.  In the years before rock and roll, I was devoted to jazz and my ambition was to play in Stan Kenton's band.  He released an EP called "This is an Orchestra" in which he introduced the members of his band, all well-known jazz musicians on their own.   I wanted to hear myself included among their number.  In my teens I had some success, playing in a dixieland band and winning a contest with my own jazz combo. But, as I wrote in my last post, after a car accident the first week of college, I was confined to my bed with a broken leg for six months.  In some respects, this was the best thing that could happen to me.  I discovered a love for for solitude, for reflection and spiritual speculation, and for reading and writing.  I concluded that I would never be as good a musician as I wanted to be, and put my instruments up for sale. These are the stories about what happened after I gave up my musical ambitions.

Kingston Trio
My new ambition, after having written about music for a teen section in the local newspaper, was to pursue a career as a writer.  Music would be my initial vehicle.  The field was changing rapidly. In the beginning of my trajectory it was Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole (whom I interviewed at his home). Folk music entered with the Kingston Trio (interviewed at  TV station) who built on the accomplishments of the Weavers and Pete Seeger.  Rock was evolving through the popularity of Bill Haley and Elvis Presley (who I did not initially appreciate) in the encounter of white musicians with black rhythm and blues, the music I had listened to in high school. Jazz, too, was changing with the atonal sounds of Ornette Coleman (I had the same reaction to Coleman as with Presley). I loved most forms of contemporary music and particularly liked the free records my status as a reviewer allowed me to accumulate.

Phil Ochs
After going through a train crash on the Texas-Louisiana border and watching the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination on TV at my parents' house in North Carolina, my first wife and I finally made it to New York City.  Our possessions included a record player and Bob Dylan's 2nd LP.  One night we listened to Dave Van Ronk and Mississippi John Hurt at the Gaslight in the Village and found ourselves afterwards in the Kettle of Fish next door where Phil Ochs was holding court and telling stories.  Jack Elliott needed a place to stay and we offered him our couch.  He left his guitar at our apartment for a week.  I wrote a series on folk music for my employer, Radio-TV Daily, and got press credentials to the 1964 Newport Folk Festival where we rubbed elbows with the leading lights. From the press section in front of the stage we saw Seeger, Dylan and Baez, and Peter, Paul & Mary up close and personal (it was the year before Dylan went electric and everyone was still friends). One night at our friend Alicia's apartment we watched the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show.  Seeing "Hard Days Night" soon after, it was obvious that the musical world was changing.  In high school I'd had a pen pal in Scotland who'd sent me tapes of "The Goon Show."  In many respects, the Beatles were the Goons put to music (Monty Python is the end result of the Goons).

The following year, in search of adventure, we moved to London where I persuaded the journalist's union to give me a work permit to write for TV World, the program guide for commercial TV in the Midlands around Birmingham (but published from London offices).  I wrote about American TV shows syndicated in England, like "The Fugitive,"  and also covered the music scene with another journalist. At the taping of one show, I met Donovan who had been hired to write an original song each week about the hit parade even though he'd not yet released his own record.  I thought he was trying to imitate Dylan too closely. Written on his guitar was "This Machine Kills."  I pointed out that Woody Guthrie's guitar had "This Machine Kills Fascists" on it.  Donovan told me he thought there were no more fascists.  I wrote a short piece about him in my magazine and invited him to dinner at our apartment near the Portobello Road where we talked about folk music and the story I was writing about Rambling Jack Elliott for Sing Out! in the states.

Jack Elliott and Derroll Adams
Jack rambled to England in the 1950's and invited his friend, banjo player Derroll Adams, to join him.  They busked around the continent for food money and recorded a couple of now classic albums.  When Jack returned home, Derroll stayed on and became a legend.  My wife was pregnant with our first child when we crossed the channel and we eventually tracked him down at the Welkum Cafe off the main square in Brussels.  The writer of "Portland Town" (copyright stolen by John Stewart when he was with the Kingston Trio, who then sold it -- he told me -- to a mafia music publishing company) Derroll spoke and sang in a soft voice surrounded by admirers.  We strolled in a group around the city to different bars and several performed for drinks.  Not long after we returned to London, Derroll showed up on our doorstep, hungover and destitute.  He lived with us for a period of time and we tried to help him get back on his feet.  Alcoholism was his Achilles' heel.  He got together with Donovan and they can be seen in one scene of Dylan's film "Don't Look Back."  Derroll was drunk.  Before he returned to Belgium, I wrote about his life for Sing Out!  After meeting his wife Danny and settling down in Antwerp, Derroll straightened out his life and was highly acclaimed for his influence and inspiration by musicians everywhere before his death in 2000.

Colin Wilkie and Shirley Hart
The British folk scene in the mid-1960's was booming, with clubs, usually connected with pubs, on every corner.  Paul Simon, on the verge of success with his recording partner, performed solo at the Troubadour in Earl's Court.  We became friends with Colin Wilkie and Shirley Hart, a popular folk team and they introduced us to their crowd, including Alex Campbell from Scotland, and Guy and Candy Carawan from Georgia.  Through Derroll I met the Pretty Things as well as Alexis Korner who was an influence on the Rolling Stones. Other friends included an Australian duo, Lyn and Graham McCarthy, who had recorded several LPs. Folk singers from America came over to appear on TV and I interviewed Buffy Sainte-Marie, Carolyn Hester and Julie Felix, among others.  Weston Gavin, who'd sung with Woody and with Derroll in Topanga Canyon in the 1950's (his name before Subud was Jimmy Gavin), became a close friend.  He had a bit role as a villain in the first Superman movie.  I wrote about folk music for English publications.  Attending rehearsals for music TV shows, I got to listen to the Byrds and Sonny and Cher who had taken London by storm, somewhat reversing the influence of the British invasion of the U.S. But one day I wandered into an art gallery (owned by Marianne Faithful's husband, the exhibit where John met Yoko) and saw a copy of the Los Angeles Free Press and learned about the hippie revolution in California.  A few months later we returned to the U.S. with our newborn son.

I imagined a job in the movie business but I ended up in public relations.  The first firm had an office on the Sunset Strip at the same time as the riots, sung about by the Buffalo Springfield in "For What It's Worth," were taking place.  With one child and another on the way, I felt on the other side of the generation divide from the hippies whose presence was growing stronger every day.  I wore a tie and made up words to put in the mouths of our celebrity clients.  Because I had lived in Pasadena, I was given the Art Museum as an account and told to provide a Hollywood gloss for the opening of a show by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein.  The firm had the bright idea of unveiling a billboard for TV cameras on La Cienega's art gallery row which I had to oversee.  Roy and his manager Leo Castelli were gracious but I felt mortified.  Not long after I quit the PR company with a dramatic "fuck you" letter and went up to the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco to spend time with the hippies.

Fatherhood kept me from running off permanently, and I resumed my job as a reporter and music columnist at the Pasadena Star-News.  I covered acts at the Ice House and reviewed shows at a converted ice rink featuring groups like Strawberry Alarm Clock and Alice Cooper.  The Grateful Dead played the Civic Auditorium and marijuana joints flew through the air; it seemed like they only played one long song. The studios of KPPC, one of the pioneering FM stations, was in the basement of a church next door to the newspaper and I interviewed musicians that visited the radio station.  One day I had an appointment with the British group Ten Years After.  But they came instead to the editorial room, leader Alvin Lee and his British band along with a couple of scantily clad groupies.  We huddled in a corner of the City Room but all activity around us stopped, the normally noisy typewriters silent.  The press liaison for a festival at Woodstock called one day and tried to cajole me into coming east for what she said would be a memorable event.  I laughingly declined and will eternally regret missing that defining moment of my generation.  After writing about a forgettable British group with a record on Atlantic Records, I got a call from the company's head of publicity in New York.  Would I be interested in a job as Atlantic's west coast publicity officer?  It was the last month of 1969 and my life was about to change.

Peter Wolf of J. Geils Band greets me and my friends

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