Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Memory Lingers On

Stan Kenton and his orchestra
The song is ended but
The memory lingers on.
Irving Berlin, "The Song is Ended"

The philosopher in me resists simply saying "I love music."  Even plants love music and reportedly grow faster when the greenhouse is wired for sound.  I was raised on a musical diet of "Warsaw Concerto" and George Clooney's aunt singing "Come On-a My House."  My genealogy contains no musicians, my DNA is bereft of tonality.  There is no charisma in my off-key voice. The clarinet attracted me because to my 10-year-old mind it looked and sounded cool.  Practice and performance early on generated praise and encouragement.  I opened my ears. As a teen my favorite songs included "One Mint Julep" by the Clovers, "Lullaby of Birdland" by Ella Fitzgerald, and "My Funny Valentine" by the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker.  I hated hillbilly, Hawaiian and classical music.  The counter-cultural aspects of being a musician appealed to me, as well as the possibilities of fame and fortune.  I got a tiny taste of it before deciding I could never make the cut, and got rid of my clarinet and alto sax.

Me and Peggy Lee
As a reviewer of records in a local newspaper, I valued the tangibility of free LPs and 45 rpm singles almost as much as I appreciated the sounds of music they contained.  Discs could be treasured, or traded and sold.  Seeing my byline over a column of judgements that might induce or dissuade a consumer from a purchase gave me a sense of power.  Musical criticism, while always subservient to the performance, had ample rewards: free tickets to concerts, backstage passes, the best seats in clubs, and a way to meet and play like friends with the famous.  I was courted by record companies and press agents looking not for my opinions but for unpaid promotion for their artists.  It was a slight seedy game.

Mike Ochs and I at the Whisky A Go Go
The last act of my musical life took place in the 1970's when I became a rock and roll press agent in Hollywood.  For five years I worked for Atlantic, Fantasy and MCA records, as well as the hip PR firm of Gibson & Stromberg. Only in my early 30's, I consumed copious quantities of alcohol and drugs in pill, smoke and powdered form.  My marriage foundered and I neglected my kids.  Access to rock stars was almost unlimited and I watched concerts by The Who, Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young from the side of the stage.  It was a non-stop express of a life that required uppers to wake up and downers to sleep.  I smoked dope with Willie, Jerry Jeff and Waylon in Austin, inhaled a speedball before flying first-class across the country with Al Kooper, took acid with guitarist Lenny Kaye in a Vermont stream, watched the Stones record in Jamaica, celebrated Atlantic's 25th anniversary in Paris where Stephane Grappelli played dinner music, and got thrown in jail with The Who in Montreal after my hotel suite was trashed by Pete and Keith.  In the end I was unceremoniously fired by the gold-chain wearing head of Atlantic's west coast office and told to turn in my company credit cards. I fled to Northern California to nurse my wounds, and it took me a year or more to recover from the cocaine-fueled fantasy years.

David Geffen and Joni Mitchell
In my experience, there were two classes of blood suckers in the music business who clustered around the famous and wannabe entertainers.  On one side there were those who saw an opportunity to become rich off someone else's creativity.  David Geffen is the ultimate representative of this breed. Making money off those you supposedly served usually required lying, stealing and cheating, all at the same time.  On the other side were dopes like me who loved the sound of the music as well as the spark of excitement caused by proximity to power and fame.  While I had a sizeable expense account, and could host press parties that cost thousands of dollars, I spent all my earnings and left the scene almost penniless.

Aretha and Wexler
Atlantic's office when I started at the beginning of 1970 was on Sunset Boulevard in the heart of Hollywood. I introduced myself to Jerry Wexler, the label's celebrated producer, with a letter describing the role his work (Ray Charles, Aretha, the Drifters, Wilson Pickett) had played in my musical upbringing; he liked it. In my first month the company's annual convention for record sellers and DJs was held in Palm Springs and the headliners were Delaney and Bonnie and friends featuring Eric Clapton. It was the era of "house hippies" when longhairs were hired to keep the record companies hip, or at least give the illusion of it. In that role I was sent to Goddard College in Vermont, in June to represent Atlantic at the now-infamous Alternative Media Conference.  Our artists Dr. John and J. Geils Band performed, Ram Dass and Jerry Rubin talked, and on the last day everyone took acide while Wavy Gravy and the Hog Farm rode around the campus in their bus throwing vegetables to the crowd.

Crowe at left, Led Zep in SF, 1973
My job was to cultivate the press. As a house hippie, I refrained from hyping the company's schlock and fortunately there was only a little of that (Iron Butterfly was the most successful). My tribe consisted mostly of other rock and roll flacks and we shared records and invited one another to our functions involving music and booze.  Among the young writers I encouraged were Lester Bangs and Cameron Crowe, two kids from San Diego.  I accompanied King Crimson to their city and Cameron introduced me to the girl who would became Penny Lane in his film "Almost Famous" about the years I knew him.  Lester, like another San Diegan, Tom Waits, whose first bio I wrote, arrived in Hollywood not fully formed and took on a new persona; it killed Lester but made Tom famous.

Bette Midler and Ahmet
Occasionally I accompanied Atlantic's president Ahmet Ertegun around town to meet and listen to aspiring recording artists.  I recall one trip in his rented convertible with the top down, and a singer whose specialty was unrecorded Dylan songs.  I was one of Ahmet's "ears" on the coast but rare heard anyone he might find interesting other than a retired Monkee looking for a resurrection and a scary drummer who played his knees.  Another of his ears was Diane, a publicist friend who was also Chuck Berry's main squeeze.  At the Palm Springs conference I tried to put her in a room with John Carpenter, scene maker and music editor of the Los Angeles Free Press, but learned quickly that he was gay, an alcoholic and a drug addict.  John was a much loved, larger than life character who ended up living near me in the Santa Cruz Mountains and he was killed one night while walking drunk down the center of the highway.

Jann Wenner in the early years
Not long after joining Atlantic, Jann Wenner offered me the job as Los Angeles correspondent of Rolling Stone.  Legendary critic Ralph Gleason, who had helped start the magazine, had recommended me because I got to know him while taking dictation at the San Francisco Chronicle when he was covering the Monterey Jazz Festival.  Carpenter had been the first LA editor and Jerry Hopkins, the second, was leaving, but I had to turn Jann down.  Dave Felton, who accepted, had written about comedy with me on the teen section of the Star-News.  He got to cover the Manson trial and later helped start MTV. Rolling Stone was then in San Francisco and when our acts played the Boarding House or one of Bill Graham's venues, I visited their offices often to talk with John Burks (a colleague from a few years earlier on the Daily Cal), Ben Fong-Torres or Ed Ward.

Music critic Ralph Gleason
Gleason called me again after I'd been with Atlantic for a couple of years and offered me a job as publicity director with Fantasy Records in Berkeley, the label made rich by the success of Credence Clearwater Revival.  During negotiations, I was guiding Wexler through interviews around Aretha's appearance at the Fillmore (a fantastic show in which she was joined onstage by Ray Charles), and he never forgave me for dealing with the competition.  Fogarty and company were embroiled in lawsuits with company head Saul Zantz when I arrived and he was laying plans for the film company that eventual produced a string of critically acclaimed films. Gleason, it turned out, had little interest in publicity.  I became friends with Tom Fogarty and went to hear him jam at a small club with Jerry Garcia and keyboard player Merl Saunders. My greatest accomplishment at Fantasy, however, was starting a poetry magazine with Pat Nolan who worked in the warehouse, and we printed it secretly on the company's mimeograph machine.

A younger, less flashy Elton
During the music daze of 1970-74, I worked only six months for Fantasy and an equivalent time with MCA Records which included The Who's Quadrophenia tour of the U.S.  I also traveled briefly on the Starship with Elton John whom I'd first seen at his American debut at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, before the costumes and huge glasses.  I fell for "Your Song" which is now a staple in elevators.  Elton's British LP had made legions of fans before it was ever released in the U.S.  After resigning in exhaustion from MCA, I took a gig with Atlantic following the British group Yes to several concert auditoriums and taking DJs and record store owners for a ride in a hot air balloon decorated with Roger Dean's famous art work.  Either high winds or too many obstructions in parking areas made the project impossible. So I went back to doing PR out of the Hollywood office.

Not hip enough? Barry Manilow
In addition to publicity, I was also assigned A&R duties, which meant recommending to the powers any potential money makers for the record companies that I heard, at Troubadour's "Hoot" night or elsewhere.  Quite often artists on the labels I preferred, like my favorite singer Judy Mayhan, were not commercially successful.  While traveling with Ahmet's discovery Bette Midler I got to know her pianist and musical director Barry Manilow.  He'd made a pile of money writing commercials for McDonald's and other brands, but he wanted his own career.  I really liked "Could It Be Magic" which he played in Bette's show.  When Barry brought me a completed record he'd paid for on his own, I sent it back to Jerry Greenberg, then heading the company, with a strong recommendation.  His response?  Not hip enough for Atlantic.  Although he's ertainly no Otis Redding, Manilow has done quite well since then.  Another discovery was Holly Near, an actress in several films and a spokeswoman for feminist issues.  Our west coast office went to see her perform her songs at the Ash Grove and tried to get the company to sign her.  She was rejected, however, and went on to establish her own company for artists considered marginal.

Me on the verge of R&R blowout
During my final days in the music biz as the songs were ending, I locked myself in my office,, which contained only a couch and coffee table rather than a desk (a style perfected at Gibson & Stromberg) and played my favorite music at aircraft volume.  This noisy retirement resulted from a combination of too many drugs and an aversion to the new boss, brother to the New York toad who had rejected Manilow as not hip.  Bob, with his string of gold chains, was the essence of not hip, and a sure sign of Atlantic's decline from the peak of hipness. I went home to pack and a week later was traveling with my girlfriend up to the Santa Cruz Mountains to begin a new life.  We broke up a month later.  I went back to Hollywood one more time, but after three days of debauchery, I woke up to realize that getting out of Dodge was my only survival strategy.  It worked.

With Roberta Flack
My career in and around music ended in 1975.  A good many of my friends on Facebook today were my companions in the music business during the early 1970's, so the memories linger. My closest friend in Bangkok, in fact the reason I came here almost 10 years ago, is Jerry Hopkins, chronicler of Elvis, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix and more.  Often we reminisce about the glory days.  His biography, which he refuses to write, would be much more interesting than mine.  Before I left America, I gathered together on an iPod all of the music that was memorable in my life, from jazz to rock, country to classical, and all of the hybrid genres in-between.  My eldest son sometimes clues me in to the latest of his musical finds, but for the most part I'm ignorant of the current scene, other than icons like Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber.  I bring YouTube videos of some of the newest stuff Thais like to my class so the monks, students of English, can write down missing words in the lyrics of the song as it plays.  They like this teaching exercise. And so do I.


tmac said...

I enjoy reading your blog. You are able to write from the soul about some bittersweet personal situations. It seems that later in life you were able to find true contentment. You have lived a full, rich life!
As a fan of the groups that you mention, I would love to hear more about your adventures in rock and roll. Perhaps I will listen to a symposium with you and Jerry Hopkins from Bangkok one day!

Ed Ward said...

Oh, yeah, I remember some of that stuff, all right. I do, however, think you're not fair to Lester. What killed him was who he'd been all along, although it was also the shock of some bad (but legal) pills (bought illegally) hitting his newly-clean system. Lester was always evolving, and was on his way to a new life when the one he was inhabiting ended.

suninn said...

I enjoy reading your blog too.

max bittle said...

Wow, don't still have any of those cool old t-shirts do you?