How San Francisco Recording Studios Dealt with Early Punk Rock Bands

This story was first posted on the KQED Arts website’s new series Into The Mix, which focuses on little-known stories from the Bay Area music scene’s past and present. Reproduced courtesy of KQED.

When San Francisco punk group Crime recorded their first single, “Baby You’re So Repulsive”/“Hot Wire My Heart,” the band “knew only that they wanted the resulting recording to be loud,” says Henry Rosenthal, a drummer who later joined the band.

“Apparently, the band kept turning up knobs on the control board, pinning meters and creating that most beautiful of sounds known as analog distortion,” Rosenthal says. “The exasperated engineer was ignored, and finally got up and ran out of the control room, washing his hands of the whole mess, saying, ‘You do whatever you want! I give up!’”

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Less than 10 years after Bay Area psychedelic bands rewrote how rock was recorded, a legion of punk and new wave groups from the region were upending the rulebook yet again. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Crime, the Avengers, the Dead Kennedys and dozens of other acts cut sounds as rude and crude as any being made in the country. Sometimes they met hostility in the studio; sometimes they met bewilderment. Most often, the musicians, engineers, producers, and studio owners worked together to make records that somehow captured the scene’s vibrancy in the absence of major label backing, time, or money.

There were no favored one or two studios for the new breed. Sessions were snagged whenever they were available and affordable (or, if they were lucky, free) at studios such as Hyde Street, Different Fur, or even facilities at Mills College in Oakland. Failing that, as producer John Cuniberti notes, “Many early punk records were recorded literally in a garage or basement. My first recordings with the Dead Kennedys took place in a converted mom-and-pop grocery store on a 16-track for $25 an hour.

“The bigger studios like the Record Plant or Fantasy insulated themselves from low-budget unsigned bands, punk or otherwise, by keeping the rates high and catering to the major labels,” says Cuniberti, who in addition to much of the Dead Kennedys catalog also engineered legendary punk discs by Victims Family and Flipper. “[However] by 1980 there were a handful of small one-room studios popping up all over the Bay Area. Most of them were owned and built by musicians who wanted to record themselves, their band or their friends’ bands.”

Gary Hobish saw different ends of the recording spectrum when he recorded as guitarist and bassist in hard-edged Berkeley new wavers the Jars. The band’s first 7″ was recorded in a studio in the building housing Target Video (itself important for its films of numerous early punk acts) between 17th and 18th Streets on South Van Ness Avenue in the Mission District.

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“We had a song called ‘Electric Third Rail,’ and at one point we wanted the sound of somebody being electrocuted,” Hobish remembers. Engineer Mike Fox “came up with the idea of running the tape at half speed, and we took a bunch of aluminum beer cans and crinkled them at half speed. When we sped it up, it was fairly electric.”

Yet when the Jars were invited to make a demo for Fantasy Records, famed for their hits with Creedence Clearwater Revival, at Fantasy’s Berkeley studios, “I don’t think they got it at all,” says Hobish. “The engineers were sympathetic, but they would try to clean it up in terms of, ‘Well, this is how a recording should be done.’ It was no animosity there, but it just wasn’t really the right approach for a lot of bands.”

“Most punk bands in the beginning were only capable of performing their live show in the studio,” says Cuniberti, who later worked with Chickenfoot, PJ Harvey and Joe Satriani. “The recording was pretty straightforward and never required much ‘production.’ Singles were made in a day, and LPs in a week or less.”

Avengers singer Penelope Houston tells of her band recording their debut 7″, exemplifying how and why some early punk classics were cut so fast: “When we did ‘I Believe in Me’ I made up the verses during a scratch vocal take, and when I was done and it was time to do the real vocal, I said, ‘Oh just keep that.’ We were broke, jobless musicians who shared the same flat. We couldn’t imagine recording, let alone releasing, a full LP.”

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Over time, some of the longer-lived bands could spend more time and money in the studio, a difference reflected in the growing sophistication of their records. For example, the Dead Kennedys “were all business in the studio, and knew what they wanted,” Cuniberti says.

“However, capturing the energy of their live show in a studio setting was difficult. The vibe would vanish after a few takes of a song, which required an engineer to have his shit together on the first take. The Dead Kennedys’ early 45 singles like ‘Too Drunk To Fuck’ had very little ‘production’ but a lot of energy and intent. It wasn’t until their second album, Plastic Surgery Disasters, that the band moved away from the formula punk sounds of the ’70s,” Cuniberti says. “By 1982, the band was well-known and selling tickets, records and T-shirts, and could now afford ambitious studio recordings in more expensive studios. With more studio time available, their imaginations ran wild. The third album, Frankenchrist, went even farther with irreverent amounts of reverb, echo, and layered guitars and vocals.”

When Gary Hobish worked as an engineer on the debut LP by legendary San Francisco oddballs the Mutants in the early ’80s, a balance had to be struck between punk and polish. “The first set of sessions, they had brought in a well-known producer and Hollywood engineer,” says Hobish. “Some great recordings were made, and a lot of it is on the album. But the band sort of rebelled against things being a little too sterile, or looking for that perfect take, when they didn’t feel ‘perfect’ was really one of the requirements.”

“They could have made a great record with just that material,” Hobish adds. “But they waited about six months and then they brought in [San Francisco-based guitarist] Snakefinger to produce another set of sessions, and that essentially filled out the album [with], I guess, 40 percent newer material. They reacted a bit better to that, possibly because they felt that Snakefinger was sort of one of their own from the same scene from his involvement with The Residents,” the San Francisco avant-garde outfit with whom Snakefinger often collaborated.

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But Hobish, who has mastered vintage releases by the likes of the Avengers and Flipper for CD reissues, believes that despite their desire for both distortion and a lack of polish, those punk bands wanted to make “good recordings.”

“The fact that a lot of the recordings from that era are very rough has more to do with wanting to get things done quickly, or not being in the most professional situations, or just wanting to capture some raw live energy, than it did with having any sort of disdain for proper recording techniques,” Hobish says.

But, as Henry Rosenthal remarks, it’s that very energy, and to some extent the primitive conditions, that fueled the power that makes those records endure today.

“When Crime started, the punk moniker didn’t exist yet, so there were no rules for recording the music,” he declares. “The band considered itself elemental rock ‘n’ roll. As a result, Crime’s best recordings were those made under the most adverse and restrictive conditions.”

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Unreleased Fleetwood Mac 1968 BBC Performances with Peter Green

After unexpectedly high-volume reaction to my post about the most essential Peter Green recordings (mostly done with Fleetwood Mac), I’m spurred to do another post about an entirely different set of tracks he cut with the band. These are found on the recent bootleg The Complete Unreleased BBC Anthology 1967-1968. You can’t get this in stores, the quality is a little hissy, and there’s no annotation. But they’re notable, commercially unavailable performances, sometimes of songs not found on any of their releases, studio or otherwise. They deserve extended comments, and in the absence of any that I’ve found, I’m taking on the job.

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There are a lot of Fleetwood Mac records from the time Peter Green was in the group, from mid-1967 to spring 1970. Besides the three albums they issued during that time, there are several non-LP singles; tracks that only showed up on the US album English Rose; two albums of mostly improvised material with Chicago blues musicians in early 1969, issued under various titles; several live albums released long after Green left; and many, many outtakes and BBC performances that have shown up on archival compilations. For all the wealth of material already out there, there are quite a few BBC tracks that still haven’t made their way into official circulation. That these are often of songs that can’t be found elsewhere is a testament to the band’s wide repertoire, not only of numerous covers, but also even of some original compositions that never found a place on their studio releases.

Even with nineteen tracks, The Complete Unreleased BBC Anthology 1967-1968 doesn’t include anywhere near all the unissued tracks they cut for the BBC before 1969. (It also doesn’t include anything from 1967, though I’ll elaborate on that in a bit.) Still, it covers a fair bit of ground, and more than half of the songs aren’t in their official catalogue. In the majority of these cases, those were covers of American blues and rock’n’roll songs, and I’ll compare Fleetwood Mac’s versions to the originals in these notes.

1. Sweet Little Angel (recorded January 16, 1968). “Sweet Little Angel” is one of B.B. King’s most well known classics, making #6 in the R&B charts in 1956. Fleetwood Mac do the expected good job on this number, Green taking lead vocals. This is well up to par with most of the songs they covered on their early albums. Maybe they thought it was too well known to do on an official release. That’s the only reason I can think of as to why they didn’t elect to record this in the studio.

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The question “can white men play the blues” sparked controversy at the time and up to the present, but for the record, B.B. King wouldn’t have been one of the guys taking Fleetwood Mac to task for covering his material. Green, King told British rock journalists Roy Carr and Steve Clarke, was “the only living guitarist to make me sweat. He’s got the sweetest tone I’ve ever heard.”

Incidentally, although this bootleg is titled The Complete Unreleased BBC Anthology 1967-1968, as noted earlier, there are no tracks from 1967. All of them were cut between January 16 and August 27 of 1968. They did record six songs for a November 7, 1967 session, but none of them are here, though fortunately all appear on the legit double CD Live at the BBC.

2. Bee-I-Bicky-Bop Blue Jean Honey Babe Meets High School Hound Dog Hot Rod Man (recorded January 16, 1968). The title alone is fair enough warning that this is one of Jeremy Spencer’s spoofs of early rock’n’roll, which he’d make staples of their live performances, even if they seldom made it onto their studio sessions with Green. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m less of a fan of these satires than some other early Fleetwood Mac devotees. As the long title announces, he throws in lots of elements of early rock. The “Bee-I-Bicky-Bop Blue Jean” in the title, by the way, is inspired by rockabilly great Gene Vincent, one of whose 1956 classics was “Bi-Bickey-Bi, Bo-Bo-Go”; “Bluejean Bop” was another of his early songs.

3. Where You Belong (backing Eddie Boyd, recorded January 16, 1968). The only song on this collection that’s not really a Fleetwood Mac track, as here they back American bluesman Eddie Boyd. Boyd first did this in 1959 as an obscure 45 on the Key Hole label, taking in a little rock’n’roll to his blues with a shuffle beat and saxophone solo. Fleetwood Mac’s arrangement isn’t quite as good, but does have a neat rockabilly-tinged guitar break. This number, by the way, is not on the 1968 LP Boyd did using Fleetwood Mac as backing musicians, 7936 South Rhodes.

4. Mean Old World (recorded February 26, 1968). A highlight of this batch, “Mean Old World” is a tight, dynamic shuffle with fine Green vocals and economic stings of his guitar. T-Bone Walker recorded the first version of “Mean Old World” in 1942 (though it wasn’t released until 1945), and blues harmonica great Little Walter’s 1952 version became a#6 R&B hit. Fleetwood Mac’s version, however, is probably based on the one done by B.B. King (who retitled it “It’s a Mean World”); recorded in 1961, it became a small R&B hit shortly after it was issued as a single in 1966. Dare I say Fleetwood Mac’s is better, speeding up the tempo and allowing Green space to shine on lengthy solos. This is another song not found elsewhere in the band’s catalog, though it’s better than quite a few of the blues covers they put on their first pair of LPs.

B.B. King's "It's a Mean World" was included on this oddly-covered compilation.

B.B. King’s “It’s a Mean World” was included on this oddly-covered compilation.

5. Please Find My Baby (recorded April 9, 1968). Fleetwood Mac put quite a few Elmore James songs, or Jeremy Spencer songs heavily based on the Elmore James sound, on their early albums. “Please Find My Baby,” first issued by James on a 1953 single, was not one of them. Like many a James tune, it’s based around the riff most famously deployed in “Dust My Broom.” The James original is better than this Spencer-sung cover, but Jeremy doesn’t do a bad job of it, though it offers nothing you can’t hear on the James covers or James knockoffs he helmed in the studio. Here’s guessing the piano on this version is by Christine McVie, then still known as Christine Perfect and two years away from joining the band after Green’s departure.

6. Black Magic Woman (recorded April 9, 1968). One of Fleetwood Mac’s classics, obviously, and the most famous song Peter Green wrote, in large part due to the cover by Santana, whose Carlos Santana counts Green as one of his biggest influences. There’s not much to say about this version, as it’s very close to the one they put out as a 1968 single. It’s strange that it wasn’t included on Live at the BBC, as the fidelity is up to acceptable release standard, and the performance strong.

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7. Peggy Sue Got Married (recorded April 9, 1968). “Peggy Sue” was one of Buddy Holly’s biggest hits. Its sequel, “Peggy Sue Got Married,” was both musically similar and not as good. It was a #13 single in the UK in 1959 (after Holly’s death), however, and so would have been quite a bit more familiar there than in the US. Jeremy Spencer, of course, takes the lead on this acceptable but non-thrilling cover. “Peggy Sue Got Married” was reworked with different lyrics as “Buddy’s Song” (on which Holly’s mother was given the songwriting credit) on the first LP Fleetwood Mac recorded without Green, 1970’s Kiln House.

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8. That Ain’t It (recorded May 27, 1968). A basic blues shuffle, sung by Peter Green, that doesn’t appear on any of their other releases. Green’s also responsible for the harmonica, which he occasionally played during his time in Fleetwood Mac. I haven’t been able to find a previous version of this, so I’m guessing it’s an unreleased Green original. Whatever the case, it’s rather routine blues, and it’s not a great loss they declined to do it in the studio.

9. Psychedelic Send Up Number (recorded May 27, 1968). Although it’s called “Psychedelic Send Up Number” on this bootleg, Christopher Hjort’s chronology Strange Brew: The British Blues Boom 1965-1970 gives the title as “Intergalactic Musicians Walking on Velvet.” As both titles signify, it’s a psychedelic rock satire, and, unexpectedly given my uncharitable view of Jeremy Spencer parodies, quite funny and successful. As hard rock/distorted guitar chaotically whirls around a swirling rhythm section, Spencer intones dead-on silly psychedelic non sequiturs like “I am here and you are there and we are all going nowhere.” His vocal sounds like it’s fighting to keep from drowning in a sea of overindulgent noise, which is entirely appropriate to the genre it’s lampooning.

This spoof might have not have worked too well for repeated listening in the midst of their early blues LPs. But as an oddity in their early oeuvre, it’s quite funny and entertaining, down to the drawn-out climax that Spencer concludes by blowing a raspberry. Jeremy would take on hippie rock again, and also to good humorous effect, on “Take a Look Around Mrs. Brown,” one of the tracks on his obscure 1970 self-titled solo album.

Jeremy Spencer's 1970 solo album.

Jeremy Spencer’s 1970 solo album.

10. Dead Shrimp Blues (recorded May 27, 1968). From the same session, but in a far more serious mood, is this cover of one of the handful of songs Robert Johnson managed to cut before his death, recorded 1936 and released in 1937. Green sings and plays this solo, with no backing other than his acoustic guitar. While not remarkable, it’s a respectful and respectable interpretation, done when Johnson was just starting to get recognition among white rock musicians and listeners.

One of numerous Robert Johnson compilations that contains "Dead Shrimp Blues."

One of numerous Robert Johnson compilations that contains “Dead Shrimp Blues.”

11. Sheila (recorded May 27, 1968). Not a Buddy Holly cover, but as close to one as you could get, since this Tommy Roe song (a #1 hit in 1962) was so obviously based on Holly’s “Peggy Sue.” This Jeremy Spencer-sung cover isn’t a satire, but a straightforward version that’s faithful to the original, and competent if unexciting.

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12. Evenin’ Boogie (recorded August 26, 1968). This Spencer-penned instrumental was on Fleetwood Mac’s second album, Mr. Wonderful, which had just been issued in the UK when this was taped for the BBC. It’s a decent, fast-paced number with good Elmore James-inspired guitar from Jeremy, who might have been kind of a one-trick pony with his guitar leads, but could do James-like slide with panache. This arrangement lacks the saxophone heard on the studio version, and the brief burst of enthusiastic crowd noise at the end indicates it might have been done before a live audience.

13. You Need Love (recorded August 27, 1968). The unquestioned highlight of this CD, from both musical and historical viewpoints. “You Need Love” was a fairly obscure, if very good, 1962 single by blues great Muddy Waters, penned by fellow blues great Willie Dixon. It’s more famous, or infamous, for providing the basis of much of Led Zeppelin’s hit “Whole Lotta Love.” It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that Dixon was awarded part of the songwriting credit for the Zeppelin track, also getting a settlement after a lawsuit on his behalf.

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It’s little known that about nine months before Led Zeppelin recorded “Whole Lotta Love,” Fleetwood Mac performed “You Need Love” on the BBC. It’s a terrific version, with dual guitar riffing, a jittery propulsive beat, and one of Peter Green’s best vocals, alternately commanding and playful. Running over four minutes, this absolutely should have gone on Mr. Wonderful in place of one of the one-too-many Elmore James covers and/or knockoffs that LP featured instead.

It’s interesting to speculate what might have happened if Fleetwood Mac had put it on one of their studio releases before Led Zeppelin’s version came out. Although Fleetwood Mac were far bigger in the UK than the US, their records were, in the late 1960s, much more well known than early-‘60s Muddy Waters singles. Had Fleetwood Mac issued an official version, the similarities between Dixon’s “You Need Love” and “Whole Lotta Love” would have been picked up on and widely publicized far earlier than they were.

Another major 1960s group, incidentally, adapted “You Need Love” before either Fleetwood Mac’s BBC rendition or “Whole Lotta Love.” On their self-titled 1966 debut LP, the Small Faces used it as the basis for “You Need Loving,” a storming mod raveup. The composition was credited not to Dixon, however, but to Small Faces singer Steve Marriott and the group’s bassist, Ronnie Lane. One would guess that if Fleetwood Mac put “You Need Love” on one of their official discs, they would have credited Willie Dixon as the writer.

14. May I Have A Talk With You (recorded August 27, 1968). Fleetwood Mac’s August 27, 1968 recordings for the BBC marked their first with new guitarist Danny Kirwan, who made the band a quintet after he joined just a week prior to the session. He takes lead vocal on his composition “Talk with You,” titled “May I Have a Talk with You” on this bootleg, though it was just “Talk with You” when it was recorded for the band’s Blues Jam at Chess in early 1969. It’s a basic but pleasing grinding midtempo blues tune, and I prefer this earlier BBC performance to the studio one, as it has a far looser, more relaxed groove.

One of several albums that draw from tracks Fleetwood Mac recorded with blues musicians in Chicago in early 1969.

One of several albums that draw from tracks Fleetwood Mac recorded with blues musicians in Chicago in early 1969.

15. Bo Diddley (recorded August 27, 1968). It’s no surprise that Jeremy Spencer takes the lead vocal on this faithful rendition of Bo Diddley’s 1955 self-titled hit, which remains one of Diddley’s most famous songs, and was the one that did the most to establish his trademark rhythm. You’re not going to beat Bo at his own game on this, but this is a respectable, respectful interpretation that plays it straight, with no hint of a parody on Spencer’s part.

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16. Wine Whiskey and Women (recorded August 27, 1968). About as down and dirty a blues as Fleetwood Mac ever managed, “Wine Whiskey and Women” was originally released by Papa Lightfoot as “Wine, Women, Whiskey” in 1954. It’s a testament to the band’s diligent record collecting that they even found this obscure track, though I’m guessing they might have come across it on some various-artists compilation that was easier to obtain than the original 45. Spencer does well with the raw’n’ready vocal, and there’s good harmonica (presumably played by Green). But Papa Lightfoot’s original—which is about as raw and earthy as mid-1950s electric blues got—gets the decisive edge over this interpretation. Unfortunately there’s a blast of static at one point that, though brief, makes this perhaps the least likely track to gain official release if there aren’t any other tapes of the performance.

17. Crutch and Cane (recorded August 27, 1968). Although it’s titled “Crutch and Cane” here, this is the familiar blues standard “Look on Yonder’s Wall.” It was first recorded by James “Beale Street” Clark in 1945, but Fleetwood Mac almost certainly learned it from Elmore James’s 1961 version, lead singer Jeremy Spencer being such a James fanatic. Fleetwood Mac take it slower than James did, and since there’s harmonica (probably by Green) and it’s almost certainly Spencer on the James-style guitar, maybe that’s Christine McVie guesting on the rollicking piano. This wasn’t one of James’s better recordings, and it’s not one of Fleetwood Mac’s best James covers. But it’s okay, even if yet another James song is hardly the kind of discovery to get the most excitement out of hardcore early Fleetwood Mac fans.

One of the Elmore James compilations containing his version of "Look on Yonder's Wall."

One of the Elmore James compilations containing his version of “Look on Yonder’s Wall.”

18. If You Be My Baby (recorded August 27, 1968). Not a terribly obscure tune, this slow blues appeared on the Mr. Wonderful LP, where Green and manager Clifford Adams were credited as the co-writers. It’s actually quite a bit different from the studio version, which has brass and a generally peppier uptown soul-tinged feel. I prefer the BBC arrangement, which puts the accent on doleful harmonica instead of the B.B. King-styled guitar licks spread throughout the studio track. It’s not that great a song in any case, but at least the BBC performance is notably different from the studio counterpart.

19. Crazy For My Baby (recorded August 27, 1968). Titled “Crazy For My Baby” on this CD, this is actually Danny Kirwan’s “Without You,” a fine haunting slow blues whose moodiness verged on despondency. This BBC version predates the studio version, which would first appear on the US-only English Rose LP (and later on the UK edition of Then Play On), by about six weeks. It’s not much different from the English Rose arrangement, but it’s a fine performance, and does, notably, have graceful piano—Christine McVie, if I can guess for the last time?—not used on the studio counterpart. There’s also a keening harmonica solo in the instrumental break, instead of the smooth guitar one featured on the English Rose take. Kirwan wasn’t much of a lyricist, and like many of his songs, has words that are basic to the point of banality. That doesn’t matter, however, when they’re wed to music with this somber power, ending this collection on a high note.

Back cover of the English Rose LP.

Back cover of the English Rose LP.

Why hasn’t this material been issued? It’s kind of hissy and thin (though occasionally approaching release-quality), as I say. But it’s not so bad that some sonic cleanup could probably make most or all of the tracks releasable. There’s also the possibility that better-quality tapes of the same performances exist somewhere. As there’s not much duplication with songs on their studio discs, that makes it all the more desirable for fans, and not just hardcore completists.

Another cover used for The Complete Unreleased BBC Anthology 1967-1968.

Another cover used for The Complete Unreleased BBC Anthology 1967-1968.

It is intriguing, incidentally, that there are a few other songs Fleetwood Mac played on their 1968 BBC sessions that are not on this bootleg or official releases. These include some nifty-sounding items like B.B. King’s “Worried Dream” and “How Blue Can You Get,” Slim Harpo’s “Buzz Me Baby,” Otis Rush’s “I Have to Laugh,” Elvis Presley’s “Hard Headed Woman,” and Buddy Holly’s “You’re the One.” I don’t know whether they’re not on this CD because the tapes were too lo-fi, or there aren’t any existing tapes. Assuming some tapes of those missing performances do exist in quality comparable to the ones included on this hour-long bootleg, there would be enough material to do an official nearly 80-minute CD of previously unreleased 1968 sessions. And there are yet more BBC performances from the Peter Green era in 1969 and 1970 that have yet to find official release, perhaps providing the basis for a sequel of sorts to this bootleg in the future.

My book Fleetwood Mac: The Complete Illustrated History was published in September 2016.

My book Fleetwood Mac: The Complete Illustrated History was published in September 2016.

Patti Smith Exhibit at Mills College Art Museum

Lots of cultural institutions and events charge a high fee these days, and not many such things are free. It’s a pleasure to report, then, that the Patti Smith exhibit that just started at the Mills College Art Museum in Oakland (and runs until December 11) is free to the public. The parking’s even free and easy, though it does help to have a car to get there. More important than the free admission, however, is the quality of this collection of Smith memorabilia, which is high.

Patti Smith singing "Gloria" on Saturday Night Live.

Patti Smith singing “Gloria” on Saturday Night Live.

The exhibit has lots of photos, press releases, concert posters, vintage clippings, flyers, and such from the mid-1960s to the present. There’s also a video room showing short films of the Patti Smith Group doing “Gloria” on Saturday Night Live back in the 1970s and more recent items, like a clip for “People Have the Power” and one that follows Smith’s visit to Jean Genet’s grave. There’s a table with about a dozen of her poetry and photography books if you have a lot of time to browse. There are also rare 1970s recordings taken from four sources (more details below).

The exhibit, though assembled with as much care as those at major museums, seems to have been underpublicized in the San Francisco Bay Area. I only found out about it from an online post by a friend near San Diego. I went on the fourth day of the exhibit, and had the space to myself for the first forty minutes or so, though four or five people came in toward the end of my hour-and-a-half visit. Yes, it was a sunny Saturday, but almost no one I’ve mentioned this to had yet heard about it. One of the staff said 150 people were at the opening, but I think there are many more than 150 people in the region who’d want to see this.

As an indication that this is a lower-key setting than your usual museum trip, photography is permitted. Here are a few snapshots of some of the items of most interest to me, most of them from before 1980.

Some of the early photos are from the years when she was primarily known as a poet, and had yet to properly begin her musical career. (One shows her with playwright Sam Shepard in 1969.) Here’s a flyer for a poetry reading on December 4, 1972 at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Note the “rated X” lettering underneath her image:

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Another flyer for shows Patti Smith did, with Television also on the bill, at Max’s Kansas City in August and September 1974, before either act had done an album:

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Songbooks, usually only bought by musicians and hardcore fans, sometimes have text—often by the artists—that’s not printed elsewhere. Here’s a songbook page for “Birdland,” with comments by Smith:

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Here Smith observes, “One moment I looked out of the vocal booth and behind the control board was [producer] John Cale crashing his head against the hard melodic keys of an accoustic [sic] typewriter.”

Some of the press releases, articles, and Patti Smith fan club notes have bits of interest for aficionados. One fan club article describes how she and Ivan Kral were hassled for double-parking in California, Kral getting hauled off to jail before getting bailed out, much to the consternation of Patti, who feared he might be deported. A press release for Easter states that Kral had the idea “that the next big thing after the Stones would be a girl,” Smith commenting, “That’s why he’s with me. [He] told me, ‘You’re going to be the first real girl rock and roll star.’ I said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’”

Most rock stars would prefer to pretend bootlegs didn’t exist, or worse, chastise fans for buying them, and critics for writing about them. As a refreshing contrast, this exhibit virtually celebrates them, with many bootleg LP covers on display on a wall of her records (also including some rare official releases).

youlight onesheloves liveinlondon hardnipples

Among those was one that rang a special bell for me: Teenage Perversity and Ships in the Night, a used copy of which I bought for $7 back in 1983 at Rasputin’s in Berkeley, less than ten miles from this exhibit. Taken from a tape of a January 30, 1976 performance at the Roxy in Los Angeles, this is in my view the best live rock concert that has yet to be officially released. Gotta say that my version—a subsequently issued variation with no title, though the musical contents are identical—is a darn sight prettier than the original (both covers are on display):

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By the way, one of the non-bootlegs was a radio sampler LP for Todd Rundgren’s 1978 album Back to the Bars that, unusually, has “a conversation with Todd Rundgren and Patti Smith” on side two. I’d never heard of that before.

Smith retired from music for almost a decade at the beginning of the 1980s, so I was interested to find this poster for poetry readings she did on October 9-10, 1981 in Ann Arbor. Also on the bill were Sonic’s Rendezvous Band, with her husband Fred Smith:

sonicspoetry

The rare recordings, which you can listen to on headphones, include a December 25, 1971 poetry reading at St. Marks in New York; a few poetry readings from an unknown venue in 1973 on which Smith’s voice is backed by sparse instrumentation; a 1974 show at Max’s Kansas City in which she’s started to make the transition to rock, with guitar by Lenny Kaye and piano by Richard Sohl; and an October 20, 1977 poetry performance in Köln, Germany. You’d have to hang out for at least a couple hours to hear all of it, though if the attendance is as sparse as it was on my visit, it shouldn’t be a problem to do so if you’re really dedicated.

I just sampled a bit of the ’71 poetry reading and the 1973 poetry tracks (of which there are only three). “Brian Jones,” one of the 1973 recordings, backs Smith’s ode to the dead Rolling Stone with creepy avant-garde guitar and saxophone. I heard most of the 1974 recordings, which are really primordial Patti Smith Group ones lacking bass and drums, though unfortunately the performances are lo-fi. Among the more unusual items from that tape is a cover of the Marvelettes’ “The Hunter Gets Captured By the Game”; “Piss Factory,” which was Smith’s pre-debut LP single; the obscure original “Harbor Song”; and a version of  Bessie Smith’s “I’m Wild About That Thing,” given the sardonic introduction “This is from our last album [though Smith had yet to release an LP], Patti Smith Sings the Blues.”

Patti Smith in the "People Have the Power" video.

Patti Smith in the “People Have the Power” video.

Note that these rare recordings are accessed by using a couple iPods. I guess it’s betraying my age to admit I don’t own iPods, but I got a crash self-taught course in how to use them. It’s a little unfortunate that the other exhibit in this hall has some multimedia components whose sound occasionally drowns out what’s coming through the headphones. It’s a minor inconvenience for an exhibition well worth the trip—and far more affordable than the $40 ticket I’ll be paying later this year to see the big exhibit the Rolling Stones have mounted to themselves in New York later this year. Bet Smith’s performance of “Brian Jones” isn’t part of that.

The exhibit Root Connection: 20 Years of the Patti Smith Collection is at the Mills College Art Museum until December 11. The museum is at 5000 MacArthur Boulevard in Oakland. Hours are Tuesday-Sunday 11am-4pm (11am-7:30pm Wednesday). Admission is free.

Biking and Hiking in Kauai

Since I started this blog, all of my posts about hiking and biking (except one for Reno) have been about places to do so in the San Francisco Bay Area. So why a post about where to do it in Kauai? It’s a five-hour flight away. True, but I was there in early September, I took a bunch of pictures, and San Francisco is about the closest US city to Kauai. And as pretty as San Francisco is, you’re not going to find pictures like these walking around the Bay Area:

Ke'e Beach, viewed from the Kalalau Trail.

Ke’e Beach, viewed from the Kalalau Trail.

That’s from the Kalalau Trail on the island’s northern shore, overlooking Ke’e Beach. It’s a popular trail, though not overcrowded. Since the parking lot at its southern entrance also serves Ke’e Beach, it’s pretty hard to find a space there—and you probably will need to drive, since public transportation doesn’t go this far north. There’s a very rough dirt parking lot a quarter mile south, and a few dozen other places to leave your car on the side of the road within a half mile.

The Kalalau Trail runs eleven miles in all, and it’s not going to be possible to go all the way out and back, unless you camp at the northern end. It’s enough of a challenge to go five miles in and five miles back, as I did. Walking ten miles isn’t a problem for me, but this is a hilly trail—it has to be to get high enough for views like this:

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There are also a lot of rocks to clamber through at points; a stream to fjord (or just take off your shoes and wade through, as I did) after a couple miles or so; and a lot of mud. So much so that most hikers spend at least a couple minutes washing themselves off at the outdoor beach showerheads after coming out the Ke’e Beach end, as well as thoroughly dousing their shoes (and sometimes, other clothes). Unless you have high-end hiking boots, consider bringing a pair of worn-out shoes that won’t be good for many more hikes anyway, as I did. In fact, the shoes I wore won’t be good for any more hikes after this one.

Much of the trail cuts a narrow path through jungle-like terrain.

Much of the trail cuts a narrow path through jungle-like terrain.

There are other hikes on Kauai, but with only a week and so much swimming and snorkeling to do, I didn’t take any others. There are some in or near incredible canyons like this one that I’ll try if I go back:

Waimea Canyon.

Waimea Canyon.

Biking, like hiking, takes a distant place behind snorkeling and swimming on Kauai. You have to use a road that rings much of the island to get most places, and there’s a good amount of traffic, especially when it goes through the town of Kapaa, where I stayed. I did see some triathlete-types bicyling the road (really a highway), but most recreational cyclists stick to the Kapaa Bike Path, which runs about seven miles. Most of them stick to the four miles or so that run close by the ocean north of town.

A stretch of the Kapaa bike path.

A stretch of the Kapaa bike path.

The good news: there are plenty of bike rental places in Kapaa, and while I didn’t do a price survey, the one I used, the Kapaa Beach Shop (which is just yards away from the path on the northern edge of town), charged a very reasonable $10 for the entire day. The not as good news, though hardly bad news, is that the bikes rented by all establishments seem to be clunky three-speeds. If you’re used to eighteen or so speeds as you whiz around paths connecting to the Golden Gate Bridge, as I am, it’s slow going. That’s not a big problem, though, as the path is pretty level with only very mild gradations, and you don’t really want to be going that fast with the ocean views on your right anyway. (Or going that fast considering there are a lot of tourists on bikes who might not be able to handle higher speeds too well.)

Short shaded inland detour off the main bike path, at its northern end.

Short shaded inland detour off the main bike path, at its northern end.

Since it’s not that long, and not that much of a workout, I’ll consider actually walking the path (as many do, in part or whole) if I return. However you navigate it, there are periodic shaded shelters to lean your bike in, close to views like these:

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But as much as I hike and bike at home, I have to say you should prioritize swimming and snorkeling if you’re coming all this way. (The Kapaa Beach Shop also rents snorkeling gear at very reasonable rates, and the friendly, straightforward staff did not, like the first place I used, try to sell me things I didn’t ask for and in which I wasn’t interested.) Ke’e Beach, photographed below, and Tunnels Beach, which is only a mile or so south (though again presenting parking challenges), are the most highly recommended spots:

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There’s other stuff to do and see in Kauai besides outdoor exercise, though I’d do that as breaks between the ocean. Here are a few:

The Hanapepe Swinging Bridge.

The Hanapepe Swinging Bridge.

The river the Hanapepe Swinging Bridge overlooks.

The river the Hanapepe Swinging Bridge overlooks.

Talk Story in Hanapepe, "The Westernmost Independent Bookstore of the United States" (as it proclaims on the lettering at the bottom of the awning).

Talk Story in Hanapepe, “The Westernmost Independent Bookstore of the United States” (as it proclaims on the lettering at the bottom of the awning).

Rock gardens in Kukuiolono Park.

Rock gardens in Kukuiolono Park.

Peter Green: The Ideal Imaginary Compilation

To most people—certainly most people in the US—Fleetwood Mac are most known, indeed often only known, for the lineup that produced massive hits from the mid-1970s onward, especially the Rumours and Fleetwood Mac albums. Many people—again, especially Americans—are wholly unaware that Fleetwood Mac began as a much different blues-rock group, and had a lot of success in the late 1960s before undergoing a bunch of lineup changes. The first major change was the loss of Peter Green, their original principal guitarist, singer, songwriter, and overall visionary.

Peter Green on the cover of the UK magazine Beat Instrumental.

Peter Green on the cover of the UK magazine Beat Instrumental.

As a guitarist, Peter Green was the master of a biting, sustain-laden bittersweet tone. As a songwriter, he celebrated both joy and despair (if more often the low than the high) with a naked honesty rare in rock, and the equal of the African-American blues greats who’d inspired him to become a musician. While his singing was on the rough and husky side, it excelled in projecting idiosyncratic character and personality as unvarnished and devoid of pretense as his songs.

Peter Green was a major figure in late-‘60s rock, and one who still hasn’t achieved the recognition he deserves, even though a few of the songs he wrote and sang with Fleetwood Mac were big British hits. In part that’s because memories of his time with the band have been superseded by the much more famous records they made after Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined. By that time, the main remaining similarity with the band’s early days was the Fleetwood Mac name.

Yet it’s also in part because Green’s 1967-1970 recordings with Fleetwood Mac were quite uneven. The best early Fleetwood Mac tracks were those on which he sang (and, when they weren’t covering other people’s songs, wrote). These are interspersed, however, with quite a few sides featuring Jeremy Spencer as lead singer/guitarist and/or writer, and some (after mid-1968) on which Danny Kirwan takes those roles. Some of those are pretty good, but the distance between their abilities and Green’s is substantial.

This comment won’t endear me to some fans of the band, but some of Spencer’s tracks are quite mediocre and repetitious. Even Jeremy himself conceded in an interview with me that by the time the group recorded their third album, 1969’s Then Play On, he’d run his Elmore James style of blues into the ground. The best of those tracks in that mold were good, but he was limited to that form of blues and early rock’n’roll satires that aren’t all that funny, at least on record. Someone who was there at their early concerts once scolded me for offering that opinion, declaring that if you were in attendance, they were hilarious. Well, I wasn’t there (I was seven when They Play On was recorded), and maybe that’s my loss, but Jeremy’s rock’n’roll parodies can be a comedown when interspersed with Green’s penetrating blues-rock.

Kirwan’s songs were not so much comedowns in company with Green’s as slighter than the leader’s. As they’re usually lighter in mood, they make for nice contrasts with Peter’s material. But they’re not as close in distinction to the main act’s primary songwriter or songwriters as, say, George Harrison was in the Beatles, and Peter Tosh was in the Wailers. Kirwan also had a fairly high percentage of original material on the releases in Green’s latter days with the band, which makes for imbalance and lack of consistent quality. Perhaps in time, Kirwan might have grown more into his responsibilities, and the gap might have narrowed; Peter and Danny were already a formidable lead guitar team of sorts. But we won’t know what might have happened, since Green quit Fleetwood Mac in early 1970, less than a year after Then Play On.

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Peter Green on a poster for a January 18, 1970 Fleetwood Mac concert.

What’s the ideal disc, then, to get a concentrated dose of Green’s talents? There isn’t one, actually. All of the Fleetwood Mac discs on which he played are still in print (along with quite a few live concerts and BBC sessions). But all of them, even the compilations, mix Green-dominated tracks with ones, often notably inferior, on which other guitarists and singer-songwriters have the spotlight. And some of the cuts with Green at the forefront aren’t that great, though these are largely confined to Fleetwood Mac’s second album, Mr. Wonderful, and some of the band’s many outtakes/live tapes.

With today’s technology, however, you can make your own ideal CD-length playlist of the best Peter Green. What follows is the track listing, with annotation, of mine, clocking in at just under the 80-minute limit of commercial single-disc CD releases. Of course every fan would compile a different selection of tracks given his or her rein, and many would object vociferously to the some of the inclusions, omissions, or sequencing on the one I assembled. I do think this disc comprises a solid summation of Green’s greatness, or, as some hucksters would have it, “all killer, no filler.”

This disc goes in roughly chronological order, though I made a few exceptions when I thought a non-chronological ordering simply sounded better. I also took the liberty of including a couple outstanding tracks from his brief time (between about mid-1966 to mid-1967) with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, which kick off this imaginary compilation CD.

1. The Super-Natural (from A Hard Road by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, released February 17, 1967). Although most of the tracks Green did as part of the Bluesbreakers featured leader John Mayall as lead vocalist, there were some that gave Peter the spotlight. This highlight from the sole LP Green did as part of the band, A Hard Road, is a splendid fierce instrumental showcasing Peter’s trademark searing sustain. It was also a huge influence on Carlos Santana, who wrote in his autobiography The Universal Tone (co-written with Ashley Kahn and Hal Miller), “On ‘The Super-Natural’…Green’s guitar sound was on the edge of feedback. That track left its mark on me. I think it was the first instrumental blues that showed me that the guitar could really be the lead voice, that sometimes a singer is not necessary. And I loved that tone.”

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2. Out of Reach (B-side of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers single “Sitting in the Rain,” released January 1967). Written and sung by Green, this was a magnificent despondent downer of a blues classic, both for Peter’s tortured vocal and the icy, reverberant guitar tone that would become one of his trademarks. As it didn’t appear on LP at the time, and subsequently only appeared on rather out-of-the-way compilations, it’s still not nearly as well known as it should be. In-the-know fans of British rock did pick up on it, however. When Trouser Press did a reader’s poll quite a few years later for the best B-sides that were better than their A-sides, “Out of Reach” was one of the top picks.

A few other tracks on which Green played (and sometimes sang) with the Bluesbreakers, like the outtakes “Please Don’t Tell” and “Missing You” (first released in 1971 on the John Mayall compilation Thru the Years), were also good. The rest of these selections, however, were recorded by Peter as part of Fleetwood Mac.

3. I Loved Another Woman (from Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, released February 24, 1968). With its minor-keyed melody and Latin-flavored beat, the arrestingly haunting “I Loved Another Woman” quickly demonstrated that there was more to Fleetwood Mac, and more to Green specifically, than standard 12-bar electric blues. It also anticipated the Latin flavor of another, much more famous song he’d soon record with the band, “Black Magic Woman.

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The cover of Fleetwood Mac’s first LP.

4. Looking for Somebody (from Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, released February 24, 1968). For this track from Fleetwood Mac’s debut LP, Green didn’t even touch his guitar, delivering a doleful lyric to an equally doleful harmonica and the stuttering sparse, hypnotic beat of the McVie-Fleetwood rhythm section. Though close to standard blues in form, this has a lackadaisical irreverence that sets it apart from the Chicago blues he and the band obviously revered as their chief influence.

5. Black Magic Woman (single, March 29, 1968). The first of these songs to be familiar to the average rock listener—though this specific version isn’t well known to the average rock listener. Indeed, most people don’t know that the original version of “Black Magic Woman” was not by Santana, who had a huge hit with it in the early 1970s, but by Fleetwood Mac, and written by Peter Green. “Black Magic Woman” developed the tentative Latin-minor blues he’d explored on “I Loved Another Woman” into a tour-de-force. His wavering sustain wove a sorcerer-like spell wholly in keeping with the magic woman lamented in the lyrics—actually Green’s real-life girlfriend Sandra, whose own spell of celibacy was causing Peter no end of frustration.

Although it marked a definite break from the 12-bar blues that had been Fleetwood Mac’s mainstay, “Black Magic Woman” had definite roots in the unusual minor-keyed blues of Chicago blues great Otis Rush. The rolling Latin rhythm, and even the break into a more evenly spaced shuffle near the end, strongly recall the tempos employed on Rush’s 1958 single “All Your Love”—a song Green undoubtedly would have been familiar with, as it kicked off John Mayall’s 1966 Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton LP (on which Fleetwood Mac bassist McVie actually played).

Even so, Peter and the band put a lot of their own personality into “Black Magic Woman,” which has an almost basement garage feel in comparison to the much more famous cover by Santana. Featuring the lead guitar work of a star who counts Green among his greatest influences, Santana’s version reached the Top Five in the US at the end of 1970. Inexplicably, the original version made only #37 in the UK (and failed to chart at all in the US), and many fans of both bands remain unaware to this day that Fleetwood Mac did it first.

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6. Need Your Love So Bad (single, July 5, 1968). A cover this time, this one of a mid-‘50s R&B/early rock tune by Little Willie John, though Green decided to record it after hearing a version by B.B. King. As both a concession to commerciality and an adventurous wish to explore something beyond the blues barriers, strings were used in the arrangement (by American guitar great Mickey Baker, who as half of Mickey & Sylvia had a big 1957 hit with “Love Is Strange”).

There was still plenty of blues and soul in Green’s vocals and delicate, heart-rending guitar. Recorded, like “Black Magic Woman,” without Jeremy Spencer—something that would happen more and more at Fleetwood Mac sessions as the ‘60s drew to a close—it did hardly better than “Black Magic Woman,” peaking at #31 in the UK, and not even getting released in the US.

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7. Fleetwood Mac (from The Original Fleetwood Mac, released May 14, 1971). We’re out of chronological sequence here, as this was actually recorded around mid-1967 before the band had properly formed, and not released until the 1971 outtakes collection The Original Fleetwood Mac. Nonetheless, it’s a propulsive, moody instrumental that assumed more historic importance when Green used the title of the song as the name of his new band with fellow ex-Bluesbreakers Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, Fleetwood Mac.

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8.  Love That Burns (from Mr. Wonderful, released August 23, 1968). One of the few highlights from the generally disappointing Mr. Wonderful album, “Love That Burns” was a slow-burning soul ballad with horns. It was very much in the mold of “Need Your Love So Bad,” but this tune was an original, not a cover, with a woozy sadness that took it into yet more melancholic territory.

The unbeloved cover for Fleetwood Mac's second LP, Mr. Wonderful.

The unbeloved cover for Fleetwood Mac’s second LP, Mr. Wonderful.

9.  Homework (from Blues Jam at Chess, released December 5, 1969). Actually recorded in early 1969, the super-session Blues Jam at Chess, on which Fleetwood Mac recorded/jammed with Chicago blues stars, was like many such combinations more disappointing on record than it looked on paper. The one exception is the magnificent version of Otis Rush’s anguished “Homework,” featuring stinging, wailing Green guitar and vocals, Otis Spann’s piano being the only non-band augmentation. Rush’s obscure original version is good, but this is at least its equal.

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10. Albatross (single, released November 22, 1968). A huge #1 single in the UK, yet a near-total-misfire in the US (where it just missed the Top 100, peaking at #104), “Albatross” was very much a departure for Fleetwood Mac. Not yet even a year and a half old at the time this was released, the group were nonetheless very much known as a blues band. Even more than “Black Magic Woman,” this was a single that was bluesy in feel and spirit without sticking to the rigid melodic or structural format that typified much classic American blues.

Recalling Santo & Johnny’s similarly dreamy 1959 instrumental smash “Sleep Walk,” the meditative mood of “Albatross” was drawn out by a throbbing undercurrent of mallets and cymbal washes that built to periodic crescendos. Recorded at their first session with Danny Kirwan (who made the band a quintet after joining in August 1968), it was also an influence on the biggest band of all, George Harrison citing it as “the point of origin” for the Beatles’ “Sun King” in an interview with Musician. Here’s a little known footnote that’s not in my Fleetwood Mac book: this was used on the soundtrack of noted German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1973 science fiction film World on a Wire, long before it was common for classic rock to be used in such a fashion.

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11. Coming Your Way (from Then Play On, released September 1969). Almost all of the tracks on this fantasy compilation feature Green as singer and/or songwriter. I made an exception for a couple items from the band’s most outstanding LP, Then Play On, which was almost evenly divided between compositions by Green and Danny Kirwan. Kirwan’s “Coming Your Way” opened the album with near-tribal rhythms and snaky guitars that curled to anguished climaxes.

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12. Closing My Eyes (from Then Play On, released September 1969). If only in retrospect, much of Green’s material on Then Play On hints, or downright states, his growing dissatisfaction with the superficiality of rock stardom. “Closing My Eyes” might have reflected some restless discontent, but did so with beguiling serenity, like an oasis within the storm of Peter’s newly chaotic rock-god life.

13. Showbiz Blues (from Then Play On, released September 1969). If the hints of discontent in “Closing My Eyes” were subtle, in “Showbiz Blues” they were in your face. “Tell me anybody, do you really give a damn for me?” Peter scoffs on the sparse and scary “Showbiz Blues,” with some of the most keening slide blues guitar to be heard on any recording.

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14. Although the Sun Is Shining (from Then Play On, released September 1969). The second of the trio of Kirwan-penned-and-sung selections, featured some exquisitely sad guitar. Though superficially chipper, “Although the Sun Is Shining” hints at the demons that would drag Danny down and out of the music business, much as Peter was slightly before him.

15. Rattlesnake Shake (from Then Play On, released September 1969). Almost as if to consciously puncture the oft-downbeat mood of Then Play On, “Rattlesnake Shake” is an all-out exuberant rabble-rouser, more in line with the macho hard blues-rock of just-emerging British bands like Led Zeppelin and Free. They performed this on one of the relatively few surviving film clips of the Peter Green lineup on January 8, 1970, on the syndicated TV show Playboy After Dark, hosted by Hugh Hefner. That’s not as unlikely a forum as it seems; Playboy After Dark had quite a few rock star guests, including the Grateful Dead, Deep Purple, Linda Ronstadt, and Country Joe & the Fish.

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16. Like Crying (from Then Play On, released September 1969). While Fleetwood Mac were usually a pretty loud and raucous electric blues band in the Peter Green era, they could also play material more in line with the rural blues that was electric blues’ direct ancestor. The third and final of the Kirwan-penned songs here is a good-time low-key near-country blues that nonetheless masks some underlying anguish.

17. Before the Beginning (from Then Play On, released September 1969). Another track that shows Green’s knack for minor-key blues, “Before the Beginning” concludes Then Play On with despondent eloquence, as if he’s making his farewell statement almost a year in advance of actually leaving the band.

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18. Man of the World (single, released April 1969). A #2 hit in the UK, “Man of the World” again showed the band stretching out beyond—even way beyond—the blues into a flowing, melodic rock that was blues in feel but not in form. Sung with grace by its writer, Peter Green, this was another song that was in retrospect an expression of his growing discontent with stardom and its phony trappings. Unlike the lyrically similar tracks on Then Play On, however, it steered clear of gloom with a relatively upbeat melody that was more pensive than sad, the laidback verses exploding into a hard rock bridge.

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19. The Green Manalishi (With the Two Pronged Crown) (single, released May 15, 1970). One of the most unlikely Top Ten singles of the classic rock era (at least in the UK; it didn’t make the US charts), “The Green Manalishi (With the Two Pronged Crown)” was an unrelentingly ominous, grinding track with stop start-tempos and angry flurries of hard rock guitar riffs. Set against a full moon and dark night, the words were just as menacing, and at times downright fearful in their anxiety. Just after its release, Peter Green quit Fleetwood Mac, unwilling to continue in what he felt was the hypocritical music business. The music business is still hypocritical, but very few people act on their feelings and cut their ties with it at the apex of their stardom, as Green did.

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20. Oh Well (Parts One and Two) (single, released September 26, 1969). Although “The Green Manalishi” was the final Fleetwood Mac release with Peter Green, the epic “Oh Well” makes the most suitable closer. Issued as a two-part single, the first half of the song was a tense modified boogie of sorts built around a captivating circular hard-rock riff, the instrumental breaks corkscrewing to unsettling climaxes. The lyrics were certainly unusual for a big hit (as this was in the UK), Green painting a most unflattering self-portrait (“I ain’t pretty and my legs are thin”) and questioning whether one could know what anyone was thinking, even when God himself was queried.

As offbeat as this portion was, it in no way prepared listeners for the second half of “Oh Well,” which bore more resemblance to flamenco-flavored classical music than blues or rock. Purely instrumental, its mournful melody featured Green on nylon-string and electric guitars, timpani, and cello; his girlfriend Sandra Elsdon on eerie recorders; and Jeremy Spencer, finally making a useful contribution to a 1969 recording session, on elegiac piano. It could have hardly been more different than “Oh Well (Part 1),” as the first half was titled when it was used on the A-side of a single, the second part being used on the flip as “Oh Well (Part 2).” Yet the pieces complemented each other well, as if the band (and particularly Green) were finding some measure of peace after nearly getting swallowed by the storm. It was not only the peak achievement of the Peter Green era, but as fine a track as Fleetwood Mac recorded in any era, and as notable as any rock recording by anyone in the late 1960s.

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In the rock history courses I teach, I periodically pause upon some figures to emphasize that they have not gotten the mainstream media coverage they deserve and are more important than most mainstream rock histories give them credit for being. Gene Vincent, Link Wray, and Sandy Denny are just a few examples. Peter Green is another. As he was just 23 when he left Fleetwood Mac, one almost weeps to consider what he and the band might have achieved had he stayed with them longer. One also almost weeps to survey the sporadic, artistically nearly negligible records he’s sporadically done since leaving Fleetwood Mac, none of which remotely approached the majesty of his best work with the group. The tracks on this imaginary CD should have been just the beginning of a lengthy string of achievements. But for reasons that still elude easy comprehension, the beginning was all there was.

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My book Fleetwood Mac: The Complete Illustrated History was released earlier this month (September).

Hiking on the Marin Headlands Coastal Trail

There are several trails near the Golden Gate Bridge that even long-time residents, let alone visitors to the Bay Area, have seldom or never trod. I’ve written about them in previous posts about the Pacific Overlook Batteries to Bluff Trail and hiking from the Golden Gate Bridge to Rodeo Beach. Some take a few miles more to get to by bike and car, like the one down to Black Sands Beach, and the Marin Headlands Coastal Trail near Rodeo Beach, which I walked for the first time in late July.

Coastal view near the beginning of the Coastal Trail.

Coastal view near the beginning of the Coastal Trail.

Here’s one perk that Bay Area residents will appreciate straight off: parking is easy in the lot or on the road near the trail entrance at the north end of Rodeo Beach, at least on a weekday. (It’s not hard to bike there if you’re in good shape, but it’s hard to park your bike there; a note on that at the end of this post.) The trail is pretty well marked and doesn’t require any special gear or footwear. It is pretty steep in parts, so it’s not recommended if you’re not in decent shape or have knee/leg problems.

Be aware that most of this is uphill until you get to the part of this walk that takes you back down to the parking lot. Also be aware that if you strictly follow the signposts for the Coastal Trail that stick to asphalt for its first part, you’ll miss some of the prettier parts and better views. Before you get to the post early on that puts you on wide asphalt, instead detour for the far more scenic, narrower dirt one nearer the water that takes you much closer to the bay. It’s only about ten minutes out and ten minutes back, but you’ll see truly coastal views like these:

Outcropping near the end of the branch of the Coastal Trail that runs near the water.

Outcropping near the end of the branch of the Coastal Trail that runs near the water.

Going back to the main asphalt part of the ascending trail, you wind past a couple batteries – not my main thing – before stairs take you to the highest point in the trail. Even if you don’t have significant health problems, some hikers might find those more daunting than they’d like for a pleasant stroll:

Steep stairs leading up to the highest point on the Coastal Trail.

Steep stairs leading up to the highest point on the Coastal Trail.

But here are some of the striking views you get at the top:

Fog-shrouded top of Golden Gate bridge, with Marin Headlands in foreground.

Fog-shrouded top of Golden Gate bridge, with Marin Headlands in foreground.

Sutro Tower in San Francisco, seen from the Coastal Trail, with the bay blanketed in fog.

Sutro Tower in San Francisco, seen from the Coastal Trail, with the bay blanketed in fog.

Yes, it was a foggy day on the bay when I went. The pictures are a bit deceptive, though, because though there’s lots of fog down yonder, it was actually pretty comfortable and sunny on the trail – breezy and in the low-to-mid seventies.

Strange graffiti on strange shelter-like pit on the trail.

Strange graffiti on strange shelter-like pit on the trail.

Not long after you take the trail past this spot, you have the option on continuing on the official Coastal Trail – which actually isn’t that near the coast for much of the way – or bearing right a bit to go on the Wolf Ridge Trail, which after 0.7 miles hits the Miwok Trail, which will take you back to the parking lot. Not immediately, by any means: it’s almost two and a half miles from the Coastal/Wolf Ridge intersection. One day I want to walk the Coastal Trail to Muir Beach, but you probably need to coordinate with two cars (one parked at either end) to do that, especially as there isn’t bus service back from Muir Beach.

Mountainous vista near the intersection of the Coastal Trail and the Wolf Ridge Trail.

Mountainous vista near the intersection of the Coastal Trail and the Wolf Ridge Trail.

Foliage on brief uphill section on the way down.

Foliage on brief uphill section on the way down.

Though not as majestic as some of the Coastal Trail, the Wolf Ridge and Miwok Trails are pretty enough, and all downhill. I do mean all downhill. It might be easier on your lungs, but it’s actually harder on your legs than the ascent. There’s a somewhat disappointing stretch of a third of a mile or so when you reach the road leading to Rodeo Beach, as the trail runs alongside traffic for a while. But then the homestretch gives you this view of the beach, at the end of which is the parking lot where you began:

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If you have a car, getting to Rodeo Beach is easy enough. It’s possible by bus, but your options are limited – San Francisco’s MUNI runs a #76 bus to the beach, but only on Sundays and holidays. It’s not too hard to bike there (though some hills are inevitable no matter where you’re coming from), but it’s disappointing there are no bike racks in the vicinity of the beach or trail entrance. A park ranger told me I wouldn’t have a problem if I locked my bike up to any structure that wouldn’t intrude on public facilities, but unless you have a big chain, a U-lock will be difficult or impossible to put around the stationary poles/fences/railings. There’s a visitor center almost a mile away that has bike racks, but that adds a lot to a walk that’s rather long as it is.

Rodeo Beach.

Rodeo Beach.

Top Ten Rock Music Works of Fiction

Just like there aren’t that many good movies based on a fictional story that takes place in rock music, there aren’t that many good fiction books based around rock. I’ve tried quite a few, and given up on quite a few. Part of the problem is one that also hinders attempts at rock fiction films. It’s hard to convincingly portray a successful rock band when the band doesn’t exist in real life, and often doesn’t sound like anything people would especially want to hear, whether it’s being described in prose or actually played in a movie. It’s not a coincidence that the most successful rock movies have been of the greatest group essentially playing themselves (the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night), or satires with flawed or failed bands whose music has to be bad or silly to work (Spinal Tap or the more obscure punk send-up Hard Core Logo).

To compile this post’s list of top ten rock fiction books, I had to stretch the concept (some would say cheat) to actually fill up the list with ten titles. Only a few of these are actually novels in which rock plays a part. There are short story collections and, taking more liberties, fiction by rock musicians. There are even film scripts and poetry.

But I think it adds up to a more enjoyable list than it would if I forced matters and put on so-so novels or ones that are hard to finish. The #1 choice is a quite famous one that would show up near or on the top of many such lists, because it’s that good.

1. High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby (1995). I knew this was popular, and that sales might have been jacked up by the subsequent 2000 movie based on this book. But it still surprised me to find out online that this has sold more than a million copies, which might be the equivalent of selling ten million copies of an album. The main characters aren’t in rock bands (and the one started by one of the guys is kind of a joke), but this very accurately and humorously captures the banter and obsessive behavior of record collector and record store employees. Because Hornby is himself a huge rock fan, the historical references to all sorts of records, rare and otherwise, are accurate—something you can’t take for granted in fiction books (or movies, for that matter).

Hornby

Even as someone who’s sensitive to film adaptations that screw up some/much/or all of what are good about the books on which they’re based, I liked the film version of High Fidelity. I still prefer the book version, in part because it’s based in the UK, and the decision to move the locale to Chicago seemed kind of arbitrary (though it did make room for Jack Black to play the acerbic record clerk). Also, the movie is, as you’d expect, missing some good and funny scenes from the novel, like the one where a jilted wife tries to sell the protagonist her husband’s incredibly valuable record collection for pennies. (That scene was filmed but not used, and can be seen as an extra on the DVD release.)

Now that it’s twenty years since the book was published, it’s a little painful to think that it would be much harder to find real-life stores like the one portrayed by Hornby. For the general shrinkage of physical product in the music business has meant that many such shops—which even in the mid-1990s were surviving on a shoestring—have closed.

Hornby has, by the way, made rock music a minor or major part of some of his subsequent novels, especially Juliet, Naked (in which a reclusive cult singer-songwriter strongly figures) and A Long Way Down (one of whose suicidal characters is an American rock musician). I’ve liked most of his post-High Fidelity books, or at least liked some aspects of them, but never nearly as much as I like High Fidelity itself.

2. Glimpses, by Lewis Shiner (1993). If you’re not a science fiction fan, the premise of Glimpses might sound daft. The protagonist is an obsessive rock fan who develops the ability to travel back in time through his dreams, where he tries with mixed success to help the Beatles, Brian Wilson, the Doors, and Jimi Hendrix complete their unfinished masterpieces. (Those being Get Back, Smile, Celebration of the Lizard, and First Rays of the New Rising Sun.)

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Part of what makes this work is that Shiner really does know a lot about these legendary aborted records, and a lot about rock in general. He also knows a lot, or went to the trouble of learning, about how the artists actually spoke and acted. The dialogue featuring Jimi Hendrix, for instance, is very much in the fractured and somewhat stoned way in which he spoke, in interviews and on stage. Like a lot of time travel stories, his efforts to change history don’t quite work out the way the main character intends, though you’ll have to read this to find out why.

3. Waterloo Sunset, by Ray Davies (1997). This short story collection isn’t nearly as well known as it should be, even to big Kinks fans, some of whom remain unaware that it exists. It didn’t help that it didn’t come out in the US until two years after its UK publication. I don’t think the American distribution/publicity was that good, as I just had to go online to confirm it came out in the US, not remembering ever seeing an American edition.

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Anyway, Davies is a very good writer—by any standard, not just a “good for a rock musician” one. As you’d expect from his songs, he stories are witty, sad, and poignant. Some of them are about fictional rock musicians, and no doubt some of the characters and stories have roots in Ray’s real-life experiences. But there are good stories that have little or nothing to do with music. In fact, the stories are better than his post-1970s music, even as they bear similarities to the best songs he’s written and sung.

Some readers, by the way, would contend that Davies’s semi-autobiographical X-Ray should be on this list, as some of the fantasy sections are obviously fictional. Yet although I liked X-Ray very much, the core of it seems pretty much an actual autobiography (and a very good one) of his life with the Kinks in the 1960s, not a work of fiction—even historical fiction.

4. Show Business, by Kevin Coyne (1993). The late Coyne was a cult rocker with odd, sometimes creepy songs that split lines between blues rock, singer-songwriter music, music hall, prog rock, and more. Show Business is a short story collection with engrossing vignettes, musical and otherwise, that detail peculiarly British character neuroses with both menacing humor and subtle compassion. There’s a nastier streak than there is in the character sketches of Ray Davies, but that’s fine—there’s room for more than one kind of British rocker who can also tell tales on paper.

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Dark with a comic bite, Coyne’s stories often mercilessly satirize the experiences of the touring rock band—the neglected sidemen, the has-beens undergoing cosmetic surgery, the one-shot wonder being milked dry by greedy relatives. If a musical play based on squabbles in rock’n’roll heaven between Sid Vicious, Janis Joplin, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison strikes you as tasteless, you may be better off giving it a miss. If you like your rock’n’roll fiction with both savage wit and a dose of all-too-true realism, however, Coyne’s your guy. “All I know is that the musicians who’ve read it have laughed their heads off,” Coyne told me in an interview. “I must be reaching somebody and doing the right thing.”

Coyne’s literary ambitions, incidentally, predated the publication of Show Business by more than twenty years. The January/February 1970 issue of ZigZag reported that “Kev is writing a book about rock’n’roll.” Coyne explained to the magazine, “I feel that the subject has never been covered properly. It’s either written about by people who don’t really know enough about it, or else by people who insist on dragging out obscure artists and saying how fantastic they were, like someone has just come out saying that some guy called Charlie Feathers was better than any of the other old rockers. As far as I can see, the best people were the ones that were the most popular—like Fats Domino.” In a sense, Show Business could be said to be his history of rock’n’roll, but from a fictional first-hand perspective that, to its credit, does not look at it from the view of the musicians who “were the most popular.”

5. Tales of Beatnik Gory, by Ed Sanders (1990). Sanders is known to rock fans mostly as the leader of the Fugs, and to the general public mostly as the author of his history of Charles Manson’s cult, The Family. This is a big (almost 550-page) collection of short stories that, as he wrote in his introduction, “are set in the Lower East Side of New York City, where I lived from 1960 to 1970.” No doubt many are based to some degree on his personal experience, he (and the Fugs) almost epitomizing the bohemian Lower East Side to the world. Mostly quite short (there are about thirty stories in all), these tales are witty reflections of life on the artistic edge at the time, when the neighborhood was teeming with figures like Sanders who were somehow surviving as ambitious poets, writers, activists, and general counterculture innovators. It’s also a reminder of a vanished era when such young men and women could get by in any part of Manhattan on a low income. Sanders has also written a non-fiction memoir focusing on his 1960s days in the Fugs, Fug You, which is highly recommended.

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6. Vinyl Cafe Unplugged and Vinyl Cafe Diaries, by Stuart McLean (2000 and 2003). McLean is the host of CBC Radio’s The Vinyl Cafe on CBC Radio, in which he performs comic story-monologues about a Toronto record store owner and his family. More genteel and family-friendly than Davies (and certainly Coyne), he might be something of a Canadian Garrison Keillor without nearly so much sentimental corn. Not all of his stories revolve around or even involve main character Dave’s record store, but some of them do, which makes them qualify for this list.

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To give you an indication of how rare records can figure into the stories, one of them actually mentions a tape of demos Syd Barrett made for the Purple Gang during his Pink Floyd days. Barrett did tape such material, which doesn’t survive and hasn’t been bootlegged, though Dave actually possesses a copy in the story. (Which, also in the story, is provided to him by myself, though I assure readers that I don’t have a copy and have never heard it.) And yes, more than one volume is listed in this entry, but as they’re all collections of short stories, I think it’s okay to consider them of a piece. McLean has also issued some spoken word CDs of live performances of stories from his program, if you want something offbeat to play in the car (especially in the US, where he’s not nearly as well known as he is in Canada).

A la High Fidelity, it’s uncomfortable to think of what might have happened to Dave’s record store in real life. The kind of store he runs in the stories was on the verge of becoming an endangered species by the early twenty-first century, though some of the ones that specialized in vinyl have made a comeback in recent years.

7. Poetic Licence, by Martin Newell (1996). Should poetry count as fiction? Why not, at least for the purposes of this list, when it’s good and funny? This is a slim but humorous collection of about forty poems published in The Independent by Martin Newell, the quirky cult British indie pop-rocker who’s released records on his own and as the figurehead of Cleaners From Venus. Not all of the poems are about music, but quite a few of them affectionately take the piss out of sacred cows like Eric Clapton, Shadows guitarist Hank Marvin, Pete Townshend, Ringo Starr, and the Beach Boys. Sample speculation of how one Beach Boys lyric would have read if Brian Wilson had been born in the English seaside town of Clacton: “She’ll have fun fun fun till her daddy takes the tea-bag away.” On Ringo: “Took a glammy second wife/Having had a hard days life.”

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8. Sick of Being Me, by Sean Egan (2003). On the gloomier side of things, we have this novel about a troubled rock musician who doesn’t quite make it to sustained success, getting done in by troubles with drugs, women, a depraved upbringing, and his own psychological demons. Written in the first-person, it’s a harrowing look at rock’n’roll’s seedier aspects, in which using the music as a cathartic enlightenment doesn’t work as a springboard to stardom. Light moments are few, but Egan does know the rock world of which he writes, as he’s a respected rock historian who’s written fine books on the Animals and the Creation, among other musical subjects.

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9. A Cowboy Like Me, by Thomas Edward Shaw (1992). Thomas Edward Shaw is Eddie Shaw, who played bass in the Monks, the mid-’60s cult group formed by ex-American servicemen in Germany to play furious minimalist pre-punk. Their very interesting story is told very well by Shaw in his memoir Black Monk Time (co-written with Anita Klemke). Far less known is this collection of short stories, which take place not in the Monks days, but in his earlier youth in Carson City, Nevada. Not as dark as Sick of Being Me or even Show Business, these are pithy tales of a bygone time in which personal and social turbulence was bubbling under the surface of placid, conformist American small-town life. They’re not as dark as the Monks’ music either, but in their way they also probe into disquieting parts of mid-twentieth-century culture.

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10. This Is Spinal Tap: The Official Companion (2000). It’s stretching things to put a film script on a list like this. But when I realized that I did not own and couldn’t quite fully remember a contender for the bottom of the list that I won’t name (but did read, via a library copy), I thought it better to go with something you can vividly remember and enjoy. This book has the script to what most viewers, spanning several generations and musical tastes, would agree is the funniest rock satire. It also has lyrics to Spinal Tap songs, a Spinal Tap timeline, and (the actual bulk of the book) an A-Z of listings/descriptions of people (real and fictional), songs, albums, and so forth in the Spinal Tap saga.

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10. The Beatles in Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night: A Complete Pictorial Record of the Movie, edited by J. Philip Di Franco (1977). Tied for tenth is an even more outrageous cheat. This has the script for A Hard Day’s Night, linked/accompanied by many stills from the movie. Since the Beatles were essentially playing themselves in A Hard Day’s Night, some would argue it isn’t even fictional, let alone a fiction book. But the movie was fiction and not a documentary, as much as it boasted a cinema vérité style, and as much as some scenes were close to those they went through in Beatlemania. The book is more valuable than you might think from this description, as the script includes quite a bit of dialogue and shot instructions that were cut from the final film (and are clearly marked as such). There’s also a lengthy interview with director Richard Lester, and intros by producer Walter Shenson and film critic Andrew Sarris. Although it’s been out of a print for a long time, it sells online for quite reasonable prices, usually between $10-15.

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Honorable Mention: Pete Townshend’s short story that is printed on the inner sleeve of the Who’s Quadrophenia is untitled, very short, and not a book or anything close to it. But it conveys the essence of Quadrophenia’s plot and protagonist very well, and fits very well within the spirit of Quadrophenia’s music.

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Some Favorite Non-Rock Books on Rock Music Culture of the 1960s and 1970s

Throughout its history, rock music has always been deeply affected by sociocultural changes in the larger world of which it’s part. In my books, classes, and even my blogposts, I’ve concentrated on the music of rock, whether the performers, the records, or rock books and movies. I’m not often asked by rock fans to recommend books that aren’t strictly about rock music. Nonetheless, I’ve asked myself: what are some non-fiction books about the 1960s and 1970s that are not exactly about rock, but have much that relates to rock, or reflected how rock music changed the world?

There are many that could qualify on at least some grounds, even discounting fiction books that had a substantial influence on rock culture, like the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Ken Kesey’s work. Here, however, is a rundown of some of my favorites. Music figures strongly to slightly, but I’d recommend all to readers who want a sense of how rock’s effects—or energy similar to that driving changes in rock—rippled throughout our entire culture.

Many of my list-review combo posts rank them in order of quality, or at least my favorites. I find that hard to do with books that are in many ways so different from each other, so I’ve just put them in the order that flows best to me, with no numbers attached.

Season of the Witch, by David Talbot (Free Press, 2012). It’s refreshing when a book is both very popular and very good, like most of the best rock music used to be at its peak. That’s the case with the most recent entry on this list, Season of the Witch, which covers the changes undergone by the city of San Francisco in roughly a decade and a half, between the late 1960s and early 1980s. The Summer of Love and Haight-Ashbury are discussed, of course, but that’s just a part of the text, which moves on to how the ideals of the counterculture (and Establishment efforts to repress it) spread into community activism of all sorts in struggles over development, social justice, and the empowerment of ethnic minorities. The dark side of fringe radical movements is not ignored, with sections on Jim Jones, the assassination of Harvey Milk, and the SLA. It seems a bit strange to hone in on the 49ers’ 1982 Super Bowl victory as a triumphant/redemptive point for the city’s turnaround, but this is an engrossing read that weaves together many strands of San Francisco’s evolution during these crucial years, including its rock music.

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The Haight-Ashbury: A History, by Charles Perry (Wenner Books, 1984). This is the best account of the neighborhood more identified with the psychedelic movement and the Summer of Love than any other. Music’s a big part, of course, but this focuses more on the Haight, the drugs, the radical groups who took root there like the Diggers, and the changes (or decline, really) the area went through as the Summer of Love passed. Perry was there as a participant and as a journalist (which included work at Rolling Stone), and this is unlikely to be surpassed as a social history of the Haight in the 1960s.

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Rolling Stone Magazine, by Robert Draper (HarperPerennial, 1990). Although this covers the first twenty years or so of the history of the most famous rock music magazine, much of it’s devoted to the publication’s beginnings in San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That puts it on the border of a book that’s as much about music as it is about publishing or other things. But it’s much more about Rolling Stone itself, how it reported on music and the counterculture, and how it changed drastically after it moved to New York in the mid-1970s than it is about rock. A very entertaining read heavy on anecdotes about major musicians and rock journalists, especially Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner. Like many such books, it also, sadly, reflects how ideals that fire a worthy enterprise at its genesis often get diluted and commercialized as time passes, particularly after success arrives.

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The Rice Room: Growing Up Chinese-American from Number Two Son to Rock’n’Roll, by Ben Fong-Torres (University of California Press, 2011). The autobiography of longtime music critic and San Francisco media personality Ben Fong-Torres isn’t solely about rock’n’roll. But it has a lot of material about reaching adulthood in the midst of the Summer of Love, and becoming one of Rolling Stone’s first editors shortly after the magazine was founded in San Francisco. There’s also a lot about his family, and how rock and the radio were instrumental in making him take career paths and personal lifestyles that his parents did not expect or, at least initially, always endorse. Originally published in 1995, this recent reprint is slightly updated and expanded.

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Days in the Life: Voices from the English Underground 1961-1971, by Jonathon Green (Pimlico, 1998). Moving from San Francisco to London, this 450-page oral history is by no means exclusively devoted to ’60s British rock music. But it has a lot of coverage of it nonetheless, and is great for the context of the counterculture in which UK psychedelic rock was born and thrived. About 100 figures are heard from in this absorbing volume, from musicians and producers to figures involved in the era’s British film, design, underground press, visual arts, clubs, literature, promotion, management, political activism, radio, TV, and more.

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Give the Anarchist a Cigarette, by Mick Farren (2002, Pimlico). This verges on being a rock memoir as Farren was a cult rock musician as a member of the underground band the Deviants. But he was also a funny and talented writer, and this account of his career on both fronts in the 1960s and 1970s is a triumph of both style and content. It continues the story well past the Deviants (who are discussed quite thoroughly) through his time as a star NME writer in the ‘70s, all the way up to the punk era. Besides his memories of performing music, there’s a lot about the British underground press (in which he was actively involved) and the overall underground UK counterculture of the late 1960s and 1970s.

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In the Sixties, by Barry Miles (Jonathan Cape, 2002). Another key figure in the British underground was Barry Miles, a personal friend of Paul McCartney and later author of McCartney’s own pseudo-memoir of the time, Many Years From Now. This is his own memoir of the period, during which he edited London’s leading underground paper, International Times, and ran Apple’s short-lived spoken word/experimental label, Zapple. (His time at Zapple is the focus of another book, the 2015 release The Zapple Diaries: The Rise and Fall of the Last Beatles Label.) As a book, this is less sharply honed, funny, and penetrating than Farren’s, but it’s still worthwhile.

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Your Face Here: British Cult Movies Since the Sixties, by Ali Catterall & Simon Wells (Fourth Estate, 2001). This isn’t so much a general survey of British cult movies since the ‘60s as it is a collection of essays about a dozen particularly notable British cult movies spanning the 1960s to the 1990s. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and this has outstanding pieces, totaling 300 pages in all, on films that are worthy of in-depth study: A Hard Day’s Night, Blow-Up, If…, Performance, Get Carter, A Clockwork Orange, The Wicker Man, Quadrophenia, Withnail & I, Naked, Trainspotting, Get Carter, and (in the only questionable inclusion) Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels. Some of these, obviously, had quite direct connections to rock history (A Hard Day’s Night, Quadrophenia, Performance); some others caught the era’s rebellious or taboo-smashing ethos (If…, A Clockwork Orange), or at least used rock on their soundtracks. These aren’t conventional film critiques, but place most of the emphasis on telling the stories of how the films got made, spiced with plenty of behind-the-scenes stories and first-hand interviews with many of the actors, directors, writers, and other principals. What’s more, in many cases the authors identify specifically where famous location scenes in the movies were filmed in Britain, knowing that the kind of people likely to read these sort of books are precisely the kind of cultists that like to visit the actual places in the films if possible. The hard information is balanced by some insightful criticism, as well as some sharp general observations about what makes a cult film “cult,” and why these films struck particularly devoted chords that have enabled them to build staunch followings over the course of years.

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Take 10: Contemporary British Film Directors, by Jonathan Hacker and David Price (Oxford University Press, 1991). It’s more scholarly and less breezily accessible (though still highly readable) than Your Face Here, and not as geared toward films with a cult or cult rockish sensibility. But Take 10 is still worth attention for those interested in the cutting edge of British film in the latter part of the twentieth century. There are essays on and interviews with ten filmmakers, some of whose work is also discussed in Your Face Here, such as Nicolas Roeg and Lindsay Anderson. Other directors featured include one who was quite actively involved (in his 1977 film Jubilee) in documenting the UK punk scene, Derek Jarman, as well as other big names like Stephen Frears, Bill Forsyth, Kenneth Loach, and John Schlesinger.

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Creative Differences: Profiles of Hollywood Dissidents, by David Talbot & Barbara Zheutlin (South End Press, 1978). Though perhaps not as oriented toward the counterculture as Your Face Here, this has extremely interesting profiles (incorporating first-hand interviews) of directors, actors, and others in the film industry who struggled to make more personal, political, and ideologically meaningful movies than Hollywood wanted or accepted. It extends from the Cold War/McCarthy blacklist era through the 1970s, two of the more famous subjects being Medium Cool director Haskell Wexler and Jane Fonda. It was not until writing up this listing that I realized co-author David Talbot is the same guy who wrote, quite a few years later, Season of the Witch (see first entry).

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Woodstock: An Inside Look at the Movie That Shook Up the World and Defined a Generation, edited by Dale Bell (Michael Wiese Productions, 1999). Not as well known as it should be, this is a fascinating inside look at Woodstock, the movie—not Woodstock, the rock festival—from the perspectives of those who worked on and produced the film. Verging on an oral history, it has extensive memories from directors, producers, camera operators, and, yes, musicians who played the festival. Like the festival, the movie was a seat-of-the-pants operation that needed some miracles to get pulled off. Histories of Woodstock usually emphasize the music, but it was the film that did the most to pass it into legend, and here’s the story from the other side of the camera.

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Woodstock: The Oral History, by Joel Makower (Tilden Press, 1989). Despite its considerable heft (350 pages), this too does not focus especially on Woodstock’s music. Instead, the concentration is on Woodstock the event, as told from the perspective of the organizers, promoters, medical staff, food vendors, political activists, area residents, and yes, occasionally the musicians. In fact, there’s not much material here from the musicians, which might disappoint some readers. But Woodstock, for both good and bad, wasn’t just a big music festival—it was an epochal happening, recounted here only about two decades after it happened, when memories of what took place were at least somewhat sharper.

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Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years, by Michael Palin (Thomas Dunne, 2006). Monty Python have been sometimes hailed, rightfully I think, as something of the Beatles of comedy, combining great individual talents into an entity more than the sum of its parts. Their irreverence, first on TV and then with their movies (and some various side/solo projects), was as groundbreaking and taboo-breaking in its way as what was often taking place in rock music. Some of their biggest fans were rock stars, some of whom helped fund Monty Python & the Holy Grail. As one of Monty Python, Michael Palin was right in the middle of it. Remarkably, considering how busy he and his group were, he found time to keep extensive diaries for their first decade. Some of the early ones, unfortunately, were lost, but in any case, they became much more extensive and reflective as the 1970s progressed. The ways in which Monty Python helped change the status quo, and were themselves changed into something bigger and unpredictably influential, in some ways mirrored the same process at work in rock bands like the Beatles. Palin documented it with the same kind of verve and wit he brought to his work in Monty Python, though this is naturally a good deal more serious and less silly than some of the group’s famous sketches.

Palin’s next two volumes of diaries, covering 1980-1988 and 1988-1998, just aren’t as scintillating, much as reading about the Beatles’ solo years isn’t the joy you get from reading about the years in which they worked together. Other worthwhile Python books that are more standard biographies or oral histories include The Pythons Autobiography By the Pythons, a coffee table first-hand oral history that’s kind of their counterpart to the Beatles’ similarly formatted Anthology; David Morgan’s Monty Python Speaks!, another oral history with entirely different contents; and Kim “Howard” Johnson’s more fan-oriented The First 20 Years of Monty Python, which still has much fun behind-the-scenes details of all of the episodes of their TV programs.

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The Prisoner, by Alain Carrazé & Héléne Oswald (Virgin, 1989). Just as Britain gave us the two best rock groups of the 1960s in the Beatles and Rolling Stones, so did it give us the two best TV programs of the time, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the much different, far graver The Prisoner. The Prisoner brought up many of the issues rock music and the counterculture were also examining in the 1960s: the questioning of authority, rebellion against conformity, the abuse of power, and the nebulous nature of reality itself. There have been a few books about the series, and my favorite is this sumptuously illustrated coffee table one (translated from the original French) that details and examines each of the seventeen episodes. Also good, if more modest in production values and fannish in approach, is Matthew White and Jaffer Ali’s The Official Prisoner Companion.

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Ball Four, by Jim Bouton, edited by Leonard Shecter (Turner, 1970). A sports book, in a post devoted to books that reflected how rock was changing and changed by larger society? True, there’s not much rock music in Ball Four (though there’s some; check out one of my previous posts for the lowdown). Yet Ball Four—still, almost 50 years later, the most famous sports memoir—brought something of the era’s rock rebellion into the wide world of sports, a much more conservative one than the music business, even if many ballplayers were (like most of the era’s rock musicians) in their twenties. Bouton was, like many rock musicians, nonconformist, willing to speak his mind with unpopular opinions, and irreverent toward conventions that wanted employees (i.e. athletes) to keep their mouths shut and not rock the boat. He was also very funny—something that distinguishes Ball Four from other tell-all memoirs as baseball loosened up in the next few decades. Some other memoirs have been hailed as worthy cousins to Ball Four, and I’ve tried some (such as Bill Lee’s), but none seem, to use baseball terminology, even in the same league. Maybe part of that well-written wit is down to sportswriter editor Leonard Shecter, whom Bouton has never shied away from crediting as a collaborator. I have to think, however, that much of it is down to Bouton just being a naturally funny and insightful storyteller who’s not afraid to shoot sacred cows. This has come out in various slightly expanded editions with afterwords going over some of his post-Ball Four life, the latest (and presumably last) one being 2014’s Ball Four: The Final Pitch.

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Loose Balls: The Short Life of the American Basketball Association As Told By the Players, Coaches, and Movers and Shakers Who Made It Happen, by Terry Pluto (Fireside, 1990). Along the same lines, we have this less famous oral history of the ABA, which in its way brought a rock’n’roll sensibility to pro basketball and all of major league sports. It jazzed up the game with three-point plays, dunks, flamboyant stars, and flag-colored balls, even as it perennially teetered on the edge of disaster with its fly-by-night organization and finances. Some of the players had excesses on par with rock stars too, especially Marvin Barnes. My favorite story, related by Bob Costas in the book, is when Costas asked him for an interview, which Barnes said he would grant if he’d drive him to visit some friends. When Barnes didn’t come out of his hotel room, Costas called, only for Marvin to tell him, “Listen, Bro, why don’t you go see those dudes without me?” To which Costas pointed out, “Marvin, I don’t want to go see those guys, whoever they are. I don’t even know those guys.” To which Marvin responded, “Oh…yeah.”

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Growing Up Underground, by Jane Alpert (Citadel Underground, 1990). Alpert spent four years in hiding for her role in New York bombings by radical groups. I’ve found most of the memoirs I’ve read by radical ‘60s/‘70s activists to be self-righteous justifications of their behavior, often for some mistakes they made that hurt others. Alpert’s autobiography is an exception, as a more balanced and thoughtful portrait of why she and others felt it so urgent to take drastic steps for social change, acknowledging in hindsight the missteps, dogma, and naive ignorance that often hindered their progress. There’s not much about music, but an interesting passage notes how she played Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline—not one of his biggest hits among critics even at the time of its 1969 release, though it was pretty popular with the public—over and over again. Perhaps she found in it a mirror of her own hoped-for-journey to the end of the rainbow after the revolution had eradicated global injustice. As she observed, “In the beginning of his career he [Dylan] had struggled so hard to be himself that his voice had always been strained, his lyrics contorted and difficult…. Now, at 28, he was a survivor, had fallen in love again, had discovered that life could be startlingly, lyrically easy.”

Another memoir that I’d give more a more qualified recommendation to is Cathy Wilkerson’s Flying Too Close to the Sun: My Life and Times As a Weatherman, which also is willing to examine the flaws of the movement along with its strengths, and integrate some interesting personal autobiographical detail with the more political material.

JaneAlpert

And an honorable mention to:

There’s a Riot Going On: Revolutionaries, Rock Stars, and the Rise and Fall of the ’60s, by Peter Doggett (Canongate, 2007). This does cross the boundary of being more about music than society or another subject. But it’s a large (nearly 600-page), extensively researched, and acutely perceptive examination of the relation between rock and revolutionary politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s, equally emphasizing the music and the social activism. Doggett’s more recent Electric Shock: From the Gramophone to the iPhone: 125 Years of Pop Music is more about music than society, but also often draws on cultural context to examine the many stylistic and technological changes that popular music has undergone since it was first reproduced and sold.

Doggett

Biking and Hiking in Reno

Time was when Reno, Nevada was known — like Las Vegas and the entire state of Nevada — for its casinos. A town where, as Richard & Mimi Fariña sang in their song “Reno, Nevada” (done better by Fairport Convention a few years later on the BBC and on French television), “The odds have been doubled, and it ain’t worth the trouble/And you’re never going nowhere at all.” And to look outside my hotel when I visited in late April, you’d think that nothing had changed.

The street scene in front of my non-smoking, non-gaming hotel.

The street scene in front of my non-smoking, non-gaming hotel.

Yet these days Reno, Nevada is a lot more than a casino city. In fact, you could easily visit, as I recently did, and not come across casino culture at all, most of it being contained within about three or four square blocks. Reno’s also a fairly liberal place where biking, hiking, and outdoor activities in general thrive, as does a decent arts scene.

Reno’s not too big, and it’s just a ten- or fifteen-minute drive to the Huffaker Park and Mountain Trail. No, these are not going to challenge the vistas and greenery of the many fine parks in the San Francisco Bay Area, my home base. On the other hand, it’s nice to walk around for an hour or so on a weekday morning, as I did, and come across no more than a couple other people. The trail’s narrow and rocky, but gives you some good looks at Reno’s compact downtown and the surrounding area, though the solitude’s sometimes interrupted by the sound of airplanes landing at the nearby airport:

Note airplane coming in for a landing at the far left.

Note airplane coming in for a landing at the far left.

If you want to get some biking miles in (I do) and don’t care to do some rugged mountain trails (I don’t), the flat and mostly well-paved Truckee River Bike Trail runs twelve miles, and can easily be picked up bang in the middle of downtown:

The bike trail in downtown Reno.

The bike trail in downtown Reno.

Opulent homes overlooking the river in downtown Reno.

Opulent homes overlooking the river in downtown Reno.

The best views are on the four miles or so that run west of downtown, passing through some of Reno’s well-to-do neighborhoods, including some small well-kept parks:

Near the western end of the bike trail.

Near the western end of the bike trail.

Bridge near the western end of the trail.

Bridge near the western end of the trail.

Idlewild Park, west of downtown.

Idlewild Park, west of downtown.

The eight miles east of town are a little rougher, both in physical character, as the paths are sometimes gravelly, and in physical appearance, often running right alongside industrial parks and trailer parks just to the north. There’s also a tent city of transients a mile or two to the east of downtown, near the Grand Resort and Casino skyscraper:

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You wouldn’t guess that there are run-of-the-mill (to put it gently) industrial/trailer parks on the other side of this trail from some of the views of the south side:

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Though the trail does come to an inglorious halt at its eastern end, butting right up against a highway and railroad tracks:

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If you’re looking to watch sports as well as engage in them, Reno is home to the Arizona Diamondbacks’ AAA team. The stadium’s just a couple blocks walk from downtown, and $20 gets you a ticket eight rows back of the dugout. It looked like a good place to see a game, but I didn’t actually see a game here, though I had that ticket, as it got rained out:

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Reno, viewed from a bridge just east of downtown.

Reno, viewed from a bridge just east of downtown.

Rock at Home: The Non-Generation Gap

On this Mother’s Day, and with Father’s Day coming up next month, it’s now been more than five years since both of my parents passed away. As more time passes, I think about ways in which I’m similar to and different than my mother and father. As much of my professional life has been devoted to writing about music, I naturally think about our similarities and differences in that area.

More so than most of my family, the life I’ve led has been different than that of my parents, who were much more conservative in lifestyle, though politically fairly liberal. This extended to my musical and artistic tastes. Born in the mid-1920s, they were of a generation way past their teens when rock exploded in the mid-1950s. Even before that, my impression is that they were not big fans of the pop music of their youth, which was dominated by big bands and crooners. Their record collection, probably running somewhere between one and two hundred albums, was dominated by show tunes and classical music, genres for which I’ve never had enthusiasm.

A representative LP from my parents' collection.

A representative LP from my parents’ collection.

On the other side, they had no interest in rock music, the form that dominated the popular entertainment of their children’s generation. To their credit, however—unlike many such parents—they made no effort to stop me from listening to it. From the age of five, I had a radio (AM only until 1972) in my room that I could listen to pretty much whenever I wanted. As a consequence, I’m familiar with almost all of the big AM radio hits from the end of 1967 through the 1970s from first-hand experience, not just from oldies radio or records. The first one that stuck in my mind was the Beatles’ “Hello Goodbye,” which makes sense as the radio arrived in my room around the 1967 holiday season, only a month or so before I turned six. I knew the song very well before I even knew it was by the Beatles.

More remarkably, I was allowed to stay up until 9:30 as a first-grader, and increasingly later with passing years. In part that’s because until I was eleven, I shared a room with a brother four years older. But when my first-grade teacher went around the class asking what students’ bedtimes were, that still sparked a puzzled, perhaps even worried expression on her face, given that virtually everyone else had a bedtime 60-90 minutes earlier. Many adults in the late 1960s (and even now) would view this as excessively permissive. In hindsight, my guess is that by the time I—the last of four sons in nine years—arrived, my parents were too busy supporting and raising the family to even think much about setting and enforcing bedtimes.

Around the time I entered high school, with my own record collection and interest in music of the past rapidly expanding, I became more curious about whether there’d be anything of interest in my parents’ collection. By this point they rarely played records, though they had more space to do so now that I was the only child left at home. But time was not bringing our interests closer together. There were exactly two LPs that piqued even mild curiosity on my part.

One was this #1 album by Harry Belafonte from 1956:

Belafonte

It’s a testament to how huge that record was that my parents, who did not seem to be even slightly aware of pop trends, had this in the household. It was #1 for 31 straight weeks. My point of entry into the album, such as it was, was its opening track, the #5 hit “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).” It was, every so slightly, influenced by—or at least an influence on—early rock’n’roll. It was a few years before I learned that Bob Dylan made his first appearance on a record as a guest harmonica player on a Belafonte LP (the title track of the 1962 album Midnight Special). It wasn’t until quite a few years after that that I grasped the full impact of Belafonte upon the pop and folk scene, even if his contribution to the folk revival was on its poppiest side.

The other was the first album by an act that was at the very center of the folk revival:

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There were some other albums by Peter, Paul & Mary in their collection, but this (with the hit “If I Had a Hammer,” though not with their biggest early-‘60s hit, “Blowin’ in the Wind”) was the strongest. To my recollection, there were no other records by folk revival artists among their LPs. As with Belafonte, this is a testament to just how huge Peter, Paul & Mary were—they sold albums to people who weren’t even folk or pop fans. I don’t have the empirical evidence to back this up, but judging from how popular and well known they also were among my parents’ friends, my guess is that Peter, Paul & Mary probably sold more per capita among suburban middle-class Jews than any other artist.

Although they rarely discussed popular music with me, my guess is that my mother was by far the more driving force behind listening to any sort of roots-tinged pop than my father. She still had some records—from back when “albums” were actual 78s grouped in photo album-like packaging—by Paul Robeson, though these were too fragile and harmful to styluses on modern equipment to play often, or at all.

In contrast, in one of his few memories of listening to music as a boy, my father admitted that when his friends raved about big band stars like Tommy Dorsey, he’d say something like, “yeah, that’s alright,” but more to be part of the gang than out of passion for the sounds. The only record I recall him singing along with was “What Kind of Fool Am I,” from the Broadway soundtrack LP to Stop The World—I Want to Get Off. (My response to that, had I known about the record at the time, would have been to play the Electric Prunes’ garage-psychedelic classic “Get Me to the World on Time.”) Response to rhythm and soul seemed deeper on my mom’s part, and maybe that was passed on to me, or at least more from her than my dad.

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What about my parents’ reaction to my collection, or what I played on the radio? There was virtually none. Again, with hindsight they were likely just too busy working and family-raising to think much about it. The only time my father came into my room to turn the radio down was when, circa early 1973, it was playing Timmy Thomas’s huge hit “Why Can’t We Live Together.” That might not seem like the loudest or rowdiest tune from the time to get upset over, but my radio was directly on the other side of the wall from my parents’ bedroom, and the high organ squeaks were driving him up the wall.

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The only time he had a specific comment about a record I was playing was equally unpredictable. On a visit home from college when I was about nineteen, I had Nico’s Chelsea Girl on the turntable. It might have been playing the song “Chelsea Girls.” In comparison to much of the rest of my collection, Chelsea Girl is for the most part a very low-volume, folky LP—and not one that many other people my age in 1981 would have had (not that he would have known that). But Nico’s voice strikes many as pretty peculiar, which is why he walked into my room and asked, “What is he [sic] singing about?”

I was not about to explain that it was about residents in New York’s Chelsea Hotel, where junkies and other hangers-on in the Andy Warhol scene engaged in bouts of depravity. I did point out, however, that low-voiced Nico wasn’t a he, but a she. Puzzled, even uncomprehending, he just shook his head and walked out of the room.

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An awkward night of music-watching was spent with both my parents on March 22, 1978. That evening, Eric Idle’s brilliant Beatles satire The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash was broadcast on NBC. This was before the days when home videotaping was common, and that night I had to be traveling with my parents. I insisted that we watch it in our hotel room. Which we did, and neither my mother nor my father—neither of whom were Monty Python or Beatles fans, more out of lack of interest or comprehension than distaste—laughed once. Very few of the inside jokes for which you needed some knowledge of the Beatles’ story to appreciate—and there were many—would have been caught by either of them. My father did redeem himself the next day, when he unexpectedly brought up the scene in which the Beatles play Che (instead of Shea) Stadium, named after Che Guevara. That was pretty funny and clever, he observed.

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The lone instance in which my mother commented at any length on a record I was playing was equally unanticipated. This was during a brief stay after I graduated from college and before I moved to California. More than thirty years later, it’s hard to envision a time when Muddy Waters’s catalog wasn’t extensive or all that easily available, which is why my Muddy album was a 14-song budget compilation issued in 1982, Rolling Stone. It was a good one, though, with some of his core classics like “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” “Tiger in Your Tank,” “Got My Mojo Working” (the Newport 1960 version rather than the original single), and “Rollin’ Stone” (an “unreleased alternate take”).

When I went downstairs, she asked what I’d just played, and I told her, though I don’t think the name Muddy Waters would have meant anything to her. “That’s my favorite kind of music,” she said, unexpectedly. Music with kind of a Dixieland, New Orleans feel, she elaborated. Yes, I knew full well by then, and had for almost ten years, that Waters was a giant of Chicago electric blues, and had moved to the Windy City from Mississippi. But there was no lecture from me about his history. She was close enough. And with its stop-start rhythms and rolling piano, “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” to take one song from that compilation, isn’t all that far from New Orleans R&B, or even from the earthiest Dixieland.

Waters

When it got to the point where I was writing about music for much of my living, and then writing books (not always about music), my parents remained fairly puzzled and uncomprehending about the actual music, but supportive of my efforts. As a final music-related incident worth recounting, when I was about eleven, I’d ask for Beatles LPs for gifts (and did manage to get all of their significant US ones by the end of sixth grade). Around this time my mother remarked to one of her friends, with me present, that it was just a phase I was going through. It wasn’t a phase, however, for me or other rock fans, some quite a bit older than me. She didn’t live to see me teach a Beatles class at the University of San Francisco in front of 200 students aged fifty and older (sometimes quite a bit older), but that would have been quite a full circle to close.

My mother might not have been a rock fan. But she, much more than my father, was a reader of books, with a strong interest in art, which she sometimes taught in schools. On this Mother’s Day, I’d like to think that she passed at least some of that sensibility on to me, even if I’d use it in ways that she could never have predicted.

Author Richie Unterberger's views on vintage rock music; San Francisco Bay Area biking and hiking; socially responsible living; and baseball.