Day 998: Crossing Abbey Road

originally published September 24, 2014

This Friday marks the 35th anniversary of what I believe to be the greatest album of all time.

Before you flick lint in my beer or pelt me with wads of Big League Chew for not designating this title to Pink Floyd’s Piper At The Gates of Dawn or Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Too-Rye-Ay, allow me to point out that there are many albums that are flawless – sometimes in spite of a number of actual flaws. Nary a wayward note blemishes Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key of Life, and Paul Simon’s Graceland is among the few utterly perfect slabs of 1980’s vinyl. For me, “the greatest” combines not only artistic and technical brilliance, but the subjective distinction of having served as the soundtrack to many of the most fantastic moments of my life. Your results may (and probably do) vary.

The story of Abbey Road is one of pure, primal mirth, flecked with auburn specks of encroaching melancholy. It is the last glorious and romantic trip to Maui for an otherwise doomed marriage. It marks the greatest rock band in history (an assertion I’ll stand by as wholly factual) producing one final brushstroke upon their legacy before heading their separate ways.

This is not a happy group.

In January of 1969, the Beatles were moving in four different directions, and had been for over a year. Their plan was to return to the studio, record a back-to-their-roots album, perform their first concert since the summer of 1966 (the Pyramids in Egypt were a proposed locale, as was a barge adrift in the Atlantic), and film it all for posterity. This attempt to reconnect resulted in a cavalcade of arguments, the grandiose concert reduced to a noon-hour gig on the roof, and the temporary quitting of George Harrison.

It wasn’t pretty. This heinous atmosphere can be seen in the resulting film, Let It Be, which is probably why Apple – the company that still controls the Beatles’ legacy – hasn’t officially released Let It Be on DVD. The album was scrapped (though later pieced together for release in 1970), and the band could very easily have signed the papers and moseyed into the rock ‘n roll sunset. Then they were saved by this guy:

Producer George Martin had overseen just about every recording session since the band first stumbled wide-eyed into EMI Studios in London back in 1962. He had been shut out during those January sessions (and happily so – four sniping Beatles made for cruddy company in the studio), but he was eager to record one more album like a group, under the strict condition that he be allowed to wander through the thick fog of their monstrous egos to take his rightful position at the helm of the project. The band agreed.

John Lennon and Paul McCartney had spent an affable day together in April recording “The Ballad of John & Yoko” without either of the other Beatles, so the hope was that the two would play together nicely for the new album. There were still concerns; Paul wanted another semi-conceptual epic like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, while John just wanted to record a regular goddamn album. There was talk about stashing Paul’s songs on one side and John’s on the other. The infamous side-2 medley (which John later claimed he despised) was the compromise.

Matters weren’t helped when John and his new bride Yoko Ono got into a nasty car crash in June. John escaped relatively unscathed, however Yoko was committed to bed rest. Rather than condemn Yoko to the indignity of recuperating at home, John had a bed brought into studio 2 at Abbey Road so that she could continue to oversee the recording sessions, something that didn’t sit well with the other band members.

It was an environment which might have been more conducive to explosive fistfights than creative mastery, but somehow Abbey Road was completed. The original title of the album was to be Everest, which would have included a quick jaunt to Nepal in order to shoot a snapshot of the band beside the massive mountain, but that was scrapped. They just wanted to get away from one another, so to keep things simple they spent ten minutes walking back and forth on the crosswalk outside the studio while photographer Iain MacMillan stood on a stepladder and took one of the most iconic shots in rock history.

Then there’s the matter of the music.

“Come Together” landed Lennon in the fetid legal broth of copyright infringement, courtesy of Morris Levy, who owned the rights to Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me.” Most folks with a deft ear hear more of an homage than a rip-off, but that’s all muddy water and Ono sideball under the bridge now. Chuck never achieved the swampy, sloppy groove that carved this song into the cave walls of rock brilliance. As an aside, Paul did indeed sing the harmony vocal in the verse, despite engineer Geoff Emerick’s claims to the contrary. Geoff was right about the chorus though – that’s John harmonizing with John.

George Harrison finally tasted the top of the charts with “Something” – the first and only Beatles song to reach that high with George’s fingerprints all over the music and lyrics. Frank Sinatra called this “the greatest love song of the past 50 years”, though when he sang it, he altered the line “you stick around now, it may show” to “you stick around, Jack, she might show.” George must have liked the change; whenever he sang the song in concert, it was with Frank’s amended lyrics.

That blurry dude on the left is Mal Evans, who had been the Beatles’ roadie since the days when they’d sleep stacked on top of one another for warmth inside a frozen van. He finally showed off his supreme musicianship by pounding on the anvil for the chorus of Paul’s song, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” a piece that John dismissed as “more of Paul’s granny music.” Which it totally is – fun, but fluffy. George called it “fruity.” Ultimately, Paul’s insistence on perfection on the track allegedly drove the other Beatles to loathe the song.

Far from reviled is “Oh! Darling,” a song so steeped in Louisiana swamp-pop, locals in the region apparently believed upon their first listen that it had been recorded by a local artist. John claims the song is better suited to his vocals, but fuck that; this tune is indelible evidence of the cosmic magnitude of McCartney’s rock voice. The story goes that Paul arrived in the studio early and recorded a single vocal take. He repeated this every day for a week in order to capture that perfect early-morning grit in his throat. While the song was never a single in the UK or USA, Robin Gibb’s cover from that wretched Sgt. Pepper movie hit #15 on the Billboard pop charts. Ugh.

Ringo Starr’s second published song (albeit written with a good chunk of help from George) often gets dismissed as a kids’ song. But as with most Beatles recordings, there are treats to be found within the textured grooves of “Octopus’s Garden”. Perhaps the funkiest recording tweak involved Paul and George’s vocals getting crammed through compressors and limiters until they sounded downright subaquatic. That, or George blowing bubbles into a glass of milk for a low-tech sound effect.

The song that Guitar World claimed to have possibly launched the genre of doom metal was John’s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. The finished song is actually a joining together of two separate pieces, one recorded way back in April (and featuring Billy Preston on Hammond organ), before the sessions for Abbey Road had picked up momentum. The abrupt cut-off that ends the track (and the side) comes courtesy of John, who selected the exact moment for the crescendo of instrumentation and Moog-synth-induced white noise to sever, leaving a jarring void as the needle shimmies into the inner groove.

The month of April, 1969 featured a record number of sunlight hours for England, fresh off a brutally cold February and March. That, along with George’s exalted relief at having a morning to chill in Eric Clapton’s lush garden rather than deal with the prattle of business at Apple, propelled him to write what many consider to be his masterpiece. “Here Comes The Sun” almost featured a guitar solo – in fact, one was recorded by George before being scrapped. If you’re a fan, it’s worth watching this clip of his son, Dhani, grooving to the recently unveiled solo with George and Giles Martin.

The song “Because” was infamously penned by John Lennon upon hearing Yoko play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”. He asked her to reverse the chords and a song was born. This isn’t exactly true – or perhaps Yoko didn’t succeed in matching the structure in reverse – but it’s a good story. Paul and George have both claimed “Because” to be their favorite track on the album, most likely due to its ethereal triple-tracked, triple-stacked vocals. Listening to “Because” is like floating on a river of pudding whilst getting massaged from the inside out. There are endorphins in the brain that are only triggered by the pure bliss of hearing this magnificent song.

Now to the medley. “You Never Give Me Your Money” is but one song, though its suite-style arrangement makes it feel like three. Money had been at the heart of the Beatles’ woes all year, as they risked losing the publishing rights to their own songs (and eventually would), and became mired in conflict over the band’s finances and the finances of their fledgling record label / ludicrous hippie vision, Apple. The backing track was actually recorded at Olympic Sound Studios, not Abbey Road. But we’ll let that slide.

According to George, “Sun King” was the Beatles trying to pull off Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross”, a stunningly atmospheric instrumental that had been released into the wilderness of rock earlier that year. The poetic-sounding foreign lyrics at the end of “Sun King” consist of a handful of Spanish words that Paul knew, mixed with some Romantic-language-sounding gibberish and the term “chicka ferdy”, which was an old Liverpool childhood taunt.

“A bit of crap I wrote in India” is how John described “Mean Mr. Mustard.” Indeed, on its own it isn’t much. But it’s a fun 66 seconds, and features a spine-throttling fuzz bass played by Paul. One of John’s efforts to acquiesce to Paul’s medley idea was to change Mr. Mustard’s sister’s name from Shelly (as can be heard in an early take on the Beatles’ Anthology 3 collection) to Pam.

“Polythene Pam” was, in fact, a real person. A man who John claimed was “England’s answer to Allen Ginsberg” invited John over years earlier and introduced him to a woman who dressed completely in polythene (a British variant of the term ‘polyethylene’). That might be the story. Alternately, the song could refer to ‘Polythene Pat’, a fan from the Cavern days in Liverpool who used to eat polythene. Either way, it’s a messed up story.

Jessica Samuels claims that she was the one who came in through the bathroom window. One of the so-called Apple Scruffs – the obsessive fans (who may now be your grandma!) who staked out a perpetual patch of land outside the studio and the Beatles’ homes – Jessica says she climbed up a ladder into the bathroom window of Paul’s home in St. John’s Wood, then opened the door so the entire gaggle of fans could steal some photos and try on Paul’s pants. Why Paul was moved only to write “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” instead of pressing charges is a mystery.

“Golden Slumbers” is Paul’s tiny dalliance in ‘borrowing’ from another artist, in this case from the poem “Cradle Song” by 17th-century dramatist Thomas Dekker. He spotted the sheet music for the piece at his dad’s place, but not knowing how to read music he simply wrote his own and tweaked the words.

There isn’t much to say about “Carry That Weight”, though it was one of the songs that propelled that homeless weirdo to camp out on John’s property in the Imagine movie. It blends seamlessly from “Golden Slumbers” (which it should – they were recorded as a single track) and incorporates elements of “You Never Give Me Your Money” to create a thematic continuity for the medley. The Bee Gees covered this song twice. Why the hell they did this, I have no friggin’ idea.

“The End” is the resounding thud that slams the door on the Beatles’ incomparable recording legacy. They gave Ringo a drum solo (which he’d never really wanted to do), then launched into a trade-off of guitar solos, cycling through Paul, George and John in that order. The guitar solo roundtable was recorded in one take, with all three playing live against the pre-recorded backing track. It was the Beatles’ version of the late-60’s jam band scene, packed into a tight 2:20 song. This is the kind of song that rattles a ribcage to the point of nearly splintering – enthusiasm and discipline wrapped in a lettuce-leaf of magic.

The album should have ended right there. “Her Majesty” was a mistake; the song had originally been placed between “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam” in the medley, but Paul instructed tape operator John Kurlander to cut it out. He did so, but because he’d been trained not to toss anything out, he tacked it onto the end of the tape, in case Paul changed his mind. This explains the 14 seconds of silence before the song, whose final note is buried beneath the opening guitar of “Polythene Pam” and whose initial note is in fact the thunderous conclusion of “Mean Mr. Mustard.” Paul heard the happy accident and loved it, and so the song was allowed to stay. It sounds to the untrained ear like the simplest little ditty on the album, but just try to play that bastard.

The magnificence of Abbey Road wasn’t enough to keep the Beatles together – John would inform the group of his departure precisely one month after the album’s final mixing session. Indeed, the critical response to the album was tepid at first, though it has since grown to become many critics’ favorite album, and remains the best-selling Beatles album to this day.

Perfection takes a winding, sometimes emotionally brutal path. In the case of the Beatles’ Abbey Road, we are all better off for their journey.

Day 987: Wolfgang Mozart’s Love Of Poop

originally published September 13, 2014

The deeper I claw through the muck-pit of history, the more perverse and bizarre clumps of trivia get crammed beneath my fingernails. And just when I think I’ve scraped the scabby floorboards of curiosity, I stumble across the intensive breadth of study that academics have placed on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s apparent obsession with poop.

I’m not judging, mind you; it’s not like Mozart was passing off his digested lunch as foie gras at cocktail parties, and he certainly never pooped in a janitor’s mop bucket or anything – he simply had a penchant for scatological humor, that’s all. And don’t we all? Isn’t there an inherent absurdity in the most gastronomically magnificent entrée becoming the same wretched stink-pile you would have made had you snarfed a box of Pop Tarts? Just as a well-timed emission of flatulence can crumble even the most stoic of facades, every soul on the planet can share in a clever poop joke.

Not according to some historians and psychologists though; it’s not acceptable to assume that Mozart simply hit a few grounders for his fellow aficionados of the low-brow. No, a man who has crafted some of the greatest melodies in the history of sound must also possess a ribald wit and sophisticated gauge of appropriate merriment, right?

Guess again.

What some have interpreted as a slight defecatory obsession on Mozart’s part has been the subject of much debate and even some concealment by historians and scholars. In 1798, when a batch of his letters were posthumously sent to publishers Breitkopf & Härtel for a biography they were compiling, his wife Constanze expressed in her accompanying letter that while Mozart’s letters to his cousin were chock full of wit and wackiness, perhaps they should be somewhat downplayed in the finished book. You know – focus more on the music and less on the turd-gags.

The gags, such as they were, wafted into numerous letters – a total of 39 that have been released for scholarly consumption – as well as into snippets of his immensely respected musical oeuvre. To those who consider his masterful Classical-era pieces to be Serious (yes, with a capital ‘S’) music, in stark contrast to the crude and unaffected piffle of the 20th and 21st centuries, this is blasphemous drivel of little import. But to the rest of us, it’s something worth celebrating. The superlative fingers that first plunked the sacred Requiem into the world had a knack for the grotesque, just like we lesser people!

Perhaps we can blame this guy:

18th-century European theatre was heavily influenced by the Italian school of commedia dell’arte, a style which is packed to the wings with identifiable stock characters who represent the early tropes of mid-millennial European life. In Germany, one of the popular characters in theatre was Hanswurst, a merry doofus developed by Joseph Anton Stranitzky to play the low-brow buffoon for cheap laughs. Hanswurst’s gags were sexual or scatological in nature – the Steve Stifler of the 18th century. One of Hanswurst’s bits was demonstrating his insatiable appetite by devouring something massive, like a whole calf. Then he’d struggle with the other end of the digestive journey, much to the merriment and delight of the tasteless masses.

There is no specific link between Mozart and Hanswurst, though undoubtedly as a patron of the Viennese arts scene he would have been familiar with the character. And the political ramifications of this revered cretin probably did not escape Mozart’s anti-authoritarian tendencies. One of his letters pokes particular fun at the snobbish uppity-ups in his world, identifying a group of aristocratic audience members at one of his shows thusly: “the Duchess Smackarse, the Countess Pleasurepisser, the Princess Stinkmess and the two Princes Potbelly von Pigtail.”

I’m starting to like this guy.

His cousin, Maria Anna Thekla Mozart, was the fortunate recipient of many of Mozart’s finer scatological musings, as was his dad, his mom and his sister. This little verse, which will probably never end up in an anthology of great works, was forwarded to Maria on November 5, 1777:

Well I wish you good night

But first shit into your bed and make it burst.

Sleep soundly, my love

Into your mouth your arse you’ll shove.

The man knew how to touch the soul. His mother, Anna Maria Mozart, sent a similar slice of poetry to her husband about a month earlier, and even his straight-laced dad got in on the action in at least one letter, suggesting this was a family shtick. The Mozarts were regular Aristocrats, if you catch my (rather grotesque) meaning.

“…you demand, you desire, you wish, you want, you like, you command that I too, should could send you my Portrait. Eh bien, I shall mail fail it for sure. Oui, by the love of my skin, I shit on your nose, so it runs down your chin.”

That’s another excerpt from one of Mozart’s letters to Maria Anna, his beloved little cousin. Those who are familiar with the pretzel-prose of John Lennon in the mid-60’s may see a resemblance. But Mozart also stretched his love of sphincter sphunnies into his music.

He penned a number of rounds – songs where voices sing the same lyrics one bar apart, like that insipidly happy song about boat-rowing – with a scatological nature. Also, there’s the famous canon in B-flat major known as “Leck mich im Arsch”, which literally translates as “Like me in the ass.” Mozart’s posthumous publishers changed the title to “Let us be glad”, but the historical record clearly notes that yes, Mozart wrote this piece as an apparent invitation for analingus.

Well, sort of. The phrase translates colloquially as similar to “kiss my ass”, meaning that Mozart comes off as a little less creepy, and a little more like an R-rated version of Flo from the sitcom Alice.

Which makes it all the more hilarious that subsequent generations have attempted to pin some sort of psychological ailment upon Mozart, strictly based on this line of jokes. Austrian writer Stefan Zweig sent Mozart’s letters to Sigmund Freud for analysis. Freud was not particularly intrigued by suggestions of coprophilia in the great composer. But this still merits a discussion in some circles. At least four authors in the last 30 or so years have suggested that Mozart may have suffered from Tourette’s Syndrome.

Does the frequency of Mozart’s poopisms suggest a psychiatric condition in the composer? Or was he just the type who gardened for giggles among the unclean and vulgar? I’m leaning so heavily toward the latter I may fall out of my chair. These letters are clearly written by a man with a sense of humor, with a willingness to allow shock and potential offense to dance upon the page like some pre-modern Seth McFarlane. The fact that he also composed Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute just shows that even the most brilliant among us can get our kicks on the ground floor.

Plop Stephen Hawking down in front of some Three Stooges and see if he doesn’t emit a few robotic chuckles. Mozart was human; we should stop trying to psychoanalyze him and just be happy we have evidence of his inner goof.

Day 960: Day Three Of Peace & Music

originally published August 17, 2014

“And maybe it’s the time of year, yes, and maybe it’s the time of man.

And I don’t know who I am but life is for learning.”

As the bone-soaked and weary revelers packed together their tin-foil hash pipes, their mud-crusty jean-shorts and their near-sentient hangovers to leave the festival, one wonders if the historic weight of their experience could be fathomed among any of them. Leaving a grisly wake of discarded garments, blankets so infused with dirt and sweat they could never be clean again, and a weekend’s worth of rubble from the small city that rose and fell upon Max Yasgur’s farm over four days, they likely had other things on their minds.

Would their parents be worried? Those whose jobs necessitated a Monday appearance had likely been trapped in Bethel, New York until the crowd was ready to disperse – would they still have employment upon their return? No doubt a handful were wondering how they’d describe the wondrous soul-swoosh of the previous weekend to their friends and family serving overseas in Vietnam, or if they’d ever get the chance.

Judging by the overwhelming jubilance witnessed in the Woodstock documentary film, some may have tasted the optimistic truth that such massive accumulations of good vibes are possible, and that a few more parties like this might end the war and straighten up humankind’s preternatural bent toward self-destruction. Could any of them have foreseen the generation’s collective retreat from idealism and decay into boring ol’ adulthood?

For those of us who grew up in the shadow of the Love Generation, when Free Love meant death from AIDS, when the only war we could protest was the UN’s righteous removal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, and when drugs were not – as we were told – a liberating force, but rather the egg goop that would sizzle upon the frying pans of our brains, Woodstock became an ideal. We watched the movie, we found the music more engaging than M.C. Hammer’s instructions of what we can and cannot touch, and we subsequently glorified the festival and its citizens. Where was our Woodstock?

We found activism in the burgeoning environmental movement but we lacked the commitment and the cohesiveness. Expedited planetary damage doesn’t spark the heart to action like the constant flow of body-bags from a ludicrous overseas conflict. Drugs fueled parties, not causes. The zeitgeist was splintered, with a generally peaceful coexistence between the grunge crowd, the holdover-80’s preppies and the myriad of other sub-cliques, but no one really cared what the others were up to. There was no unity, no luminous beacon of our generational message.

Can you blame those of us who saw Woodstock as an exaltation unreachable in our lifetime?

The effort to belittle the festival’s significance began almost immediately. Journalist Bernard Collier claimed he’d been pressured by his editors at The New York Times to pen an overtly negative report of the weekend in Bethel. Bernard threatened to write nothing at all rather than falsely condemn Woodstock, at which point his bosses relented. Most of the media focused on traffic jams, on landscapes of mud and garbage, and on the cascading throngs, with less attention placed on the cooperation, the lack of violence and the positive nature of the concert-goers. I suspect writing about the disastrous Altamont concert four months later would have been easier for them.

For Bethel’s electorate, that weekend was a disaster. The town supervisor was tossed from office, and the town (along with New York state) passed a law to prevent future mass gatherings. Max Yasgur left his farm for Florida not long afterward, and the subsequent owners went to lengths to ensure hippie visitors would be deterred from visiting the site. Bethel wanted zilch to do with that moment of its history. Lawsuits were filed against festival organizers. The attendees may have meandered away from the site with dazed, wiggly smiles, but for those who remained, it was all scowls and bitterness.

Then, as time welcomed a few years’ worth of altered perspective, the meaning of Woodstock changed. No subsequent music festival ever scratched that weekend’s magic, the hippie promise of the Age of Aquarius lay unfulfilled, and a reactive nostalgia painted those increasingly grainy images of flower children. As yuppiedom and suburban domesticity overtook the focus of those who were going to save the world, society looked back in reverence upon that time when hope appeared poised to leap over the great waterfall of the future in a splendific display of color and light.

A plaque was placed upon the festival site in 1984. Reunion concerts were attempted in 1979 and again ten years later. In 2006 the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts – which includes an outdoor music venue equipped to handle 15,000 fans – was opened on the site of Yasgur’s magical dairy farm, with Woodstock veterans Crosby Stills & Nash performing for a quieter crowd than had welcomed them 37 years earlier. Just last year, Richie Havens, who had opened Woodstock with a rousing set of power-soul-folk, had his ashes scattered upon the sedate fields where the magic happened. A few of the surviving stars spring up to perform at ceremonial gigs, but the magic of that weekend – plus the increasing distortion of nostalgic frosting that blurs it – could never be recreated.

Not that we haven’t tried.

Music festivals have never gone away, though in my generation they have become increasingly more corporate and homogenized. Toilet facilities are more plentiful (thankfully), but vendors aim to alleviate any food and water shortages with $8 bags of mini-donuts and $3 bottles of water. Fraternity and cooperation are overshadowed by capitalism. Woodstock ’94, held nowhere near Yasgur’s farm (though considerably closer to Woodstock, New York), was a moderate success, melding modern acts like Cypress Hill, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Green Day with original festival stars like Santana, Joe Cocker and Country Joe McDonald. Hey, they also got Dylan to a Woodstock festival, so that’s a win.

But five years later, Woodstock ’99 closed the doors on recreating that 1969 magic. My generation proved incapable of procuring the wondrous vibrations that our parents had unleashed between those muddy horizons some 30 years earlier. Limp Bizkit’s set saw the site erupt in violence. Plywood was torn from festival walls. Sexual assault reports littered police files, including the tale of one woman who was crowd-surfing before getting yanked into a mob and gang-raped. A candlelight vigil planned for the song “Under the Bridge” during the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ closing set turned into a series of bonfires and the destruction of an audio tower. Vendor booths were looted and burned. ATMs were smashed and pilfered. The show ended with riot police pushing patrons off the site.

Society had changed. Woodstock was no longer an idea within our reach.

No doubt there are at least four million people who have claimed to be among the 400,000+ at the original Woodstock event. The miles of mess, the desperation that was no doubt felt at the scarcity of food, water and toilets, and any animosity or fear experienced that weekend have all been washed away in a deluge of nostalgic reinterpretation. Woodstock cannot be achieved again because it already exists as a tangible ideal – in 1969 Michael Lang, Artie Kornfeld, John Roberts and Joel Rosenman were trying to create a ‘happening’. Now, any such festival aims for a comparison to the original, always somehow falling short.

That’s not to suggest that the Coachellas, the Bonnaroos and the Lollapaloozas should be dismissed as unnecessary – only different. What remains of Woodstock is greater than the music, the fashion and the gratuitous sharing of joints from stranger to stranger. It’s the alchemy of hope. The knowledge that most everyone there experienced at least one buoyant moment within the bubble of their own consciousness that told them that yes, universal harmony was possible. Even if it was all illusory, they believed it, and that alone is magic enough for me.

Day 959: Day Two Of Peace & Music

originally published August 16, 2014

“Said I’m going down to Yasgur’s farm, going to join in a rock & roll band.

Got to get back to the land and set my soul free.”

Somewhere amid the cultural symbolism and the anthemic declarations of a generation’s identity lies the actual music performed at the Woodstock festival. Contrasting that weekend with the tighter and more disciplined Monterey Pop Festival from two years earlier reveals an evolution in rock culture: the glittering aftermath of psychedelia, the re-blossoming of foundational blues and folk through rock-tinted lenses, and the collective embrace of instrumental mastery.

The Who sent jaws dropping to the dusty floor in ’67 when Pete Townsend assaulted his guitar into pieces; at Woodstock they were neck-deep in exploring the possibility of rock-opera. The Jefferson Airplane soared on the strength of their early hits at Monterey; two years later their music was more introspective and demure. Soul music, which had tickled the Monterey crowd to the tune of Otis Redding, Lou Rawls and Booker T. & The MG’s, had rocketed into the realm of cosmic funk by 1969, with Sly & The Family Stone representing. And Janis… well she was just Janis. No higher compliment could be given.

Some of the Woodstock performances were iconic. Others were merely adequate. Then there was Sha Na Na, which fit into the vibe of the festival like a can of tuna fits onto a dessert cart. But the music is unquestionably the skeleton that gives the experience its historic form and structure.

Just imagine what could have been.

A number of acts were either rumored or invited, but never made the bill. Bob Dylan, the poet-rebel of the Newport Folk Festival four years earlier, was the most logical invitee. He lived near Bethel in the actual town of Woodstock, but he’d already committed to the Isle of Wight Festival at the end of the month. Shiny new superstars Led Zeppelin were selected, but promoter Frank Barsalona didn’t want his band to be just another name on the bill. The Doors figured it would be a second-rate Monterey Pop so they turned it down, an act that guitarist Robby Krieger claimed they later regretted.

The notion of witnessing the Beatles performing live in the late 60’s was a perpetual rumor, as the band had ceased touring in the summer of 1966. There were a handful of possible reasons for their absence from Woodstock, one of which involves Richard Nixon denying John Lennon (who had been busted for pot the previous year) entry into the country. Another story is that John refused to perform unless Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band was also added to the bill. The most likely reason is that they simply didn’t want to.

Chicago Transit Authority (who had yet to shorten their name to ‘Chicago’) had a contract with famed promoter Bill Graham. Bill booked the band into the Fillmore West on August 17th, ostensibly so that he could book Santana at Woodstock instead. Tommy James & The Shondells passed, most likely because of the way the gig was presented to them: “Yeah, listen, there’s this pig farmer in upstate New York that wants you to play in his field.” That blundered pitch (come on – Max Yasgur was a dairy farmer!) led them to pass on the show.

Other acts who could have taken the stage include the Jeff Beck Group (who broke up a couple weeks beforehand), the Byrds, the Moody Blues, Frank Zappa, Procol Harum, Spirit, Jethro Tull, Iron Butterfly, Free and Joni Mitchell. Joni’s manager insisted that her appearance on the Dick Cavett Show would be a better career move, which makes it all the more ironic that she would go on to pen “Woodstock”, the song most closely associated with the spirit of the festival.

Sweetwater was supposed to be the first act to take the stage on Friday afternoon, but due to some logistical issues, Richie Havens kicked off the festivities at 5:08pm with a powerful folk set. If you’ve never seen this performance, you owe it to your seat-back to feel the strain as the power of his voice and manic strumming blow you physically backwards. Havens had the voice of a soul singer, drenched with the liquid passion of anguished activism. His rendition of “Freedom” is – to my ears – the highlight of the Friday performances.

The bulk of Friday was devoted to folk music, featuring names I’d never heard of (Bert Sommer and Tim Hardin didn’t make the soundtrack or the film), closing out with Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez, who shut the night down at a reasonable 2:00. The infamous Woodstock rain wouldn’t occur until Sunday, but an early sprinkle during Ravi Shankar’s set heralded a mucky experience for the entire weekend.

Those who arrived at the site packed with consciousness-altering and/or wakefulness-inducing drugs would have been wise to save their stash for Saturday. The set opened with New England rockers Quill shortly after noon, and concluded at 9:40 the following morning with Jefferson Airplane’s gut-throttling set. In between, the towers were blasting the sounds of Santana, Canned Heat, Mountain, the Grateful Dead, CCR, Janis Joplin, Sly & The Family Stone, and a 23-song journey by The Who.

John Sebastian showed up as a spectator and was invited to the stage for a quick set, possibly to help mellow out those whose trips on the not-so-good brown acid had been elbowed into the cosmos by Santana’s frantic jams. Saturday also featured the lone significant technical derailment of the festival when the Grateful Dead’s amps overloaded, likely due to an excessive influx of intensely good vibes. Saturday was a veritable parade of some of the era’s most wondrous concoctors of soul-slamming tuneage.

Those whose constitutions were of sufficient strength to endure another day and night of music on Sunday were treated to the weekend’s most raucous musical achievements. Those who were worn out already also experienced these performances, since the roads were too littered with car debris for anyone to leave if they wanted to.

After Joe Cocker’s magnetic rendering of “With A Little Help From My Friends”, the infamous Woodstock thunderstorm derailed the music, resulting in those triumphant ass-slides through sloppy muck that have been replicated at every rainy outdoor festival since. The music picked up at 6:30 with Country Joe & The Fish, followed by Ten Years After’s delicious feast of infectious rock. Their performance of “I’m Going Home” is a magnificent expression of desperation fuelled by jubilation and sweaty anticipation – it must be heard to be believed.

Saturday night continued with The Band, Johnny and Edgar Winter, Blood Sweat & Tears, Crosby Stills Nash & Young (their second ever live performance), the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Sha Na Na (ugh) and a mesmerizing 2-hour set by Jimi Hendrix and the Band of Gypsies. Jimi’s notorious interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner” expertly captures the damaged patriotism wrought by the Vietnam War and a nation fiercely divided by a snarling generation gap. By the time Jimi finished, at 11:00am on Monday morning, only a few thousand stragglers were left.

Not every artist was thrilled with their performance at Woodstock – Neil Young only showed up for the last part of Crosby Stills & Nash’s set, and he’d insisted the cameras be turned off, lest they interfere with the show. The music truly holds up though; the spectacle of Woodstock lies in the footprint of its cultural wallop, but the music demonstrates why the hippie phenomenon was tied so dearly with the soundtrack of its era. In short: even if you disagree with the hippie ideals, the vehemently bohemian lifestyle or their eclectic mode of dress and style, the music lives up to the hype.

Day 958: Day One Of Peace & Music

originally published August 15, 2014

“I have come to lose the smog

And I feel to be a cog in something turning.”

I have been trying to reconcile my relationship with the Woodstock festival for more than 20 years. “These are your grandparents,” I told my daughter as the movie played in our living room this week. But Woodstock reached further than its generation, even beyond the magnificence of its music. It was the temporary realization of pure Utopia – or at least that’s how its legend trickled down to me, some schmuck born 2400 miles away, five years after the last gnarly raindrop had voiced its opinion that the festival ground should be mud.

Perhaps the image of a groovy, grubby, smoky paradise are merely the false concoctions of media (in this case, the documentary film Woodstock) and reputation, but this is the image that tickles my imagination and tilts my longing toward that sensation of community, of parity, and of that shared experience of being billion-year-old carbon in the same cosmic stew with a few hundred thousand friends.

2014 not only boasts the 45th anniversary of the decade-defining event, it also features an aligned calendar, allowing for the three days of the original festival (August 15, 16 and 17) to land once again on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Today I’ll be exploring what built Woodstock from the sloppy ground up; tomorrow I’ll delve into the music and on Sunday the potent culture – real or imagined.

To begin among the festival’s roots, one simply must start with the sitcom.

In 1967, lawyer Joel Rosenman (pictured above) and his friend John Roberts decided they wanted to write a sitcom about two entrepreneurs who fall into wacky weekly hijinks as they try to bring their business plans to fruition. For research they plopped an ad into The Wall Street Journal, claiming to be “young men with unlimited capital” looking for investment opportunities. Two of the men who responded, concert promoter Michael Lang and “Dead Man’s Curve” co-author Artie Kornfeld, intrigued the would-be comedy writers so much they abandoned their plans for television stardom and became the very entrepreneurs they’d planned to depict.

The idea was to build a recording studio in Woodstock, New York – one that could serve the artists who lived in the area, like Bob Dylan and The Band. The concept evolved into a large-scale outdoor music festival, something Lang had orchestrated quite successfully in Miami. Once they signed Creedence Clearwater Revival, a dream-roster of other headlining acts hopped on board. That’s when the investors hit their biggest hurdle.

Wallkill, New York was to be the venue’s locale, but when town residents flipped out over the possibility of 50,000 hippies swarming their streets, they passed a law requiring a permit for any gathering larger than 5000. That’s when dairy farmer Max Yasgur stepped in. Max was the largest milk producer in the county, and he gladly offered one of his fields near the town of Bethel, for a small fee.

For this, Max felt the stinging wrath of his neighbors, who vocally protested the event. Some anonymous callers threatened arson to his land and property. The more resistance he met, the stronger became Max’s resolve. What was first about the money (it had been a cruddy, wet year and hay production was way down, so the concert would be a good wallet-boost) became a matter of principle. Max was not only a champion to the 400,000+ who showed up to party on his farm but he became their most vocal advocate – before, during and after the concert, earning him a lifetime ban from Bethel’s general store.

Swapping locations meant the site wasn’t going to be ready in time for the show. At a meeting on August 12, a decision had to be made: fortify the fence or pour their resources into finishing the stage. That’s how Woodstock became an infamously free festival – the organizers simply ran out of time. The lost revenues were a real sting; at $24 a person for three-day admittance (that’s about $150 in today’s money) they were counting on those gate funds to finish in the black. But those fences were too easy for kids to step over.

Yet if you watch the film, you’ll see a number of interviews near the very beginning (which could be deceptive, as the film is notoriously out of chronological order) with Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld in which they openly admit that Woodstock was going to lose a heap of money. They didn’t care; the gathering had exploded into the greatest happening of the decade. It was beautiful, it was peaceful, and the two of them were too busy smiling to get caught up in such petty affairs as profits and losses.

I should point out here that these were the two guys with the vision, not the two who put up the money.

The ugly scowl of truth behind the rosy-eyed gaze of history was that Woodstock was the very definition of a disaster area. Modern festivals are chock full of vendors, trained first-aid staff and sufficient portable toilet facilities that – though they may smell like a demon’s wet fart – provide for functional waste disposal. Woodstock had none of that. Had the local community not chipped in with food and water, and had the US Army not provided a few extra medical personnel, things could have gotten ugly.

Not to say there weren’t a few deaths. Four miscarriages occurred at the site, one man suffered from a heroin overdose and another was sleeping in a hayfield when a farmer accidentally ran over him with a tractor. On the flip-side, there are stories about two babies born at Woodstock: one in a car and one at a nearby hospital after the mother was airlifted out of the crowd. They’re stories though, based on the weird in-film announcement: “City McGee, please come immediately to backstage right. I understand your wife is having a baby. Congratulations!” and John Sebastian’s on-stage echoing of the joy behind the news.

But we’re 45 years on and no one has stepped forward as either of the mysterious Woodstock babies. All we can do is hope the scale of life was balanced that weekend.

For the organizers of the event, the sloppy August disaster provided a happy ending. Three albums and two box sets, along with the Oscar-winning 1970 documentary, provided enough return on their investment that by any standard (except perhaps hygiene), the Woodstock festival could officially be considered a success. The movie even launched two future stars: editor Martin Scorsese, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who would go on to win three editing Oscars: for Raging Bull, The Aviator and The Departed – all films that Scorsese directed.

As for Max Yasgur, the man who sacrificed the bulk of his agricultural income for 1969 so that a small city of baby boomer youth could stage the defining event of the decade they had come to culturally dominate, he opted not to stage a sequel the following year. He sold the farm and moved to Florida, where his heart condition caught up with him in 1973.

Max received a full-page obituary in Rolling Stone, one of the only non-musicians ever to earn such an honor. And why not? He offered up the sacred ground and never compromised the festival’s spirit, even at the expense of his standing in the community. Max was the real deal. Max was Woodstock.

Day 956: ‘Scuse Me While I Bust This Guy

originally published August 13, 2014

“Show them as scurrilous and depraved. Call attention to their habits and living conditions; explore every possible embarrassment. Send in women and sex; break up marriages. Have them arrested on marijuana charges. Investigate personal conflicts or animosities between them. Send articles to newspapers showing their depravity. Use narcotics and free sex to entrap.”

So said a leaked memo written by the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, with the aim of fracturing the influence of those hippy-weirdo rock stars in the late 1960’s. Perhaps they were taking a cue from London Drug Squad detective Norman Pilcher, who had arrested Donovan in mid-1966, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in 1967, John Lennon and Yoko Ono in late 1968 and George Harrison in March of 1969 – all for drug possession. Of course, Pilcher would later be disgraced for perjury, and was strongly suspected of having planted the evidence. I believe it was Harrison who remarked that there had been drugs in his home, but not the ones that Pilcher found.

It was in the misguided fog of this backwards policy that Jimi Hendrix was busted at Toronto International Airport after a small quantity of hashish and heroin was found in his bag. A conspiracy to undermine his influence? Perhaps – but that so-called conspiracy threatened to steal twenty years of Hendrix’s future.

After a May 2, 1969 concert at Detroit’s Cobo Hall, the band was warned of a possible drug bust the next day. Tour managers Gerry Stickells and Tony Ruffino took this seriously; not only was a gruesome amount of money at stake, but this was a time when no one was really sure if a serious drug bust might ruin a musician’s career (as opposed to now, when we all know it can only help).

Drummer Mitch Mitchell knew that fans often tried to pass illegal drugs to rock stars, a form of curious gratitude that rarely occurs in my day-job as a provincial government drone. Mitch purposely put on a suit with no pockets and even wore no underwear. Hendrix and promoter Ron Terry paused in the plane’s bathroom after they’d touched down in Toronto and attempted to dispose of anything that could even be mistaken for drugs.

The customs agents uncovered a “small amount” of what they suspected was hash and heroin in Jimi’s bag. I have yet to find what that small amount might be, but when it was confirmed, Jimi was arrested for narcotics possession and carted to the station to get booked and processed. This was a very conservative time in Toronto politics – though the city has always leaned a little further to the right than most North American cities of comparable size. Then-mayor William Dennison was openly anti-hippie, and supported the use of the War Measures Act to harass them.

Also, the presence of the RCMP at the airport for the arrest was unusual; it was almost as though they’d anticipated some sort of public spectacle in the customs area of the airport. Both Mitch Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding felt that the entire operation had been a set-up, and that the drugs were planted by someone. Mitchell even pointed out that heroin was not Jimi’s drug of choice; he’d tried it once or twice but hated needles too much to make it a habit.

The volume of the day had been cranked up to ‘PANIC’. P.R. manager Michael Goldstein bribed a member of the Associated Press with a case of booze to keep him quiet; he didn’t want to see a rash of cancellations kick the legs out from under the tour’s profits. Tour manager Gerry Stickells pleaded with police to release Jimi in time for his show that evening at Maple Leaf Gardens. Fortunately, the detective in charge of booking had kids who were planning to attend the show, and he didn’t want to face their wrath by forcing its cancellation. Jimi was released on $10,000 bail.

After the police had escorted him to the show, Jimi put on yet another Jimi-level performance. He even adopted a jovial attitude and tweaked the lyrics of his song “Red House” to mention his arrest. Word of the bust escaped locally, but without the AP running the story, Jimi’s friends back home in Southern California had no idea.        For now, the story could be controlled.

For Jimi, this was not a nightmare he could easily shrug off. The authorities had been considering adding intent-to-traffic charges, but even with the two counts of possession Jimi was facing a possible twenty years behind bars. Jimi’s bravado and inimitable swagger was limited to the moments when he was armed with a guitar, concocting rhythms and sounds previously unconceived by humankind. Otherwise, he was legendarily shy and unapologetically human. This drug charge was as frightening to Jimi as it would have been to any of us; celebrities weren’t slip-sliding their way through the justice system as easily as the bucket-pissing, egg-throwing jackasses of today’s music scene seem to do.

On December 7, 1969, Jimi returned to Toronto for the start of his trial the next day. He had purchased a custom tailored suit – the first time he’d dared to put an actual suit on his body since his rise to fame. His lawyer, Bob Levine, advised him that he’d better not have anything incriminating in his bag going through customs this time. Jimi assured him there was nothing to worry about.

A few minutes later, he was under arrest once again, on his way to jail.

It was a pill. A legal, prescription-type pill that for anyone else would have necessitated an eight-second explanation to customs. But this was Jimi Hendrix, and the pill needed to be tested (for traces of LSD, amphetamine, weapons of mass destruction, etc.) before they’d let him go. Jimi spent the night in jail.

The trial immediately revealed the rice-paper case the Crown was desperately trying to make stick to the rock star. The defense entered with a simple strategy: yes, those drugs were in Jimi’s bag, but he had gifts thrust into his hands by squealing fans all the time; he simply didn’t know that this particular gift was an illegal substance. When the prosecutor held up the aluminum vial in which the hash was found, asking Jimi what he thought it was, Hendrix replied, “A pea shooter.” The trial took three days, and the jury spent eight hours deliberating before returning a not-guilty verdict.

This would not be the final chapter in the conservative witch-hunt for politically vocal musicians. The FBI opened a file on Jimi, just as they’d do in their persecution of John Lennon a few years later. The government was spending an untold fortune trying to undermine the cult of celebrity and expose rock stars as bottom-feeding deviants. But hasn’t history really exposed these cretins of law enforcement for the paranoid, dishonest schmucks they really were?

Day 954: Edmonton Summers Exist For The Folk Fest

originally published August 11, 2014

As my fingers bluntly stab my keyboard, weighted down by a hangover from sun and loud music, I wonder how I’ll get through today’s chosen topic on Chinese science education without passing out. It wouldn’t be my first afternoon spent with the lopsided grid of a keyboard’s footprint etched into my forehead.

This morning has found me in the blissful yet listless afterglow of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, an annual celebration of everything that brings light into the universe: music, family, friends, sunshine, beer, and deep-fried foodstuffs. It has also found me ready to scrap my topic in favor of a drowsy reflection on what I feel is Edmonton’s most profound and spiritually elevating annual event.

For those who have never attended this magical collective, I hope you have found a similar event – an yearly renewal of your inner chi and a simultaneous escape from the humdrummery of life. Here’s how the dusty reset button of my inner balance was pushed this weekend, and why I recommend a hearty dose of Folk Fest to everyone I know:

One can make it through Folk Fest with very little actual folk music. I hardly ever listen to “hardcore” folk. From Joan Baez’s warbly vibrato to the up-tempo thump of modern Celtic music, I’d just as soon hide under my blanket with an old Muddy Waters record. But more often than not, that lyrical fruit-filling that gives folk its flavor can be found within the pastry shell of a myriad of styles. We watched Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite give folk music the blues; Cody Chesnutt threw folk into funk; the Blind Boys of Alabama raised folk into that holy and delicious confection of gospel.

People are happy on the hill. Folk Fest is held at Gallagher Park: in the winter, the most exquisite toboggan hill in town; in the summer, a natural amphitheater with unbelievable sight-lines. The environment lends an electric tranquility to festival-goers. People tend to be more courteous and celebratory than their daily selves would recognize. I twisted my ankle in the middle of our city’s busiest street last year and watched a dozen people walk past my crumpled self with nary a glance in my direction. At Folk Fest, you drop your comb and a half-dozen people will reach to pick it up for you.

Costco makes the greatest festival chair ever. For $25 apiece we picked up chairs similar to the one above. A Folk Fest chair must be low to the ground, and at full recline, these glorious governors of the posterior not only meet the guidelines, but they offer a hammock-esque level of unadulterated comfort, while the tilt of the hill provides a perfect view of the stage.

The beer and sun are nothing short of glorious. The only beer available at Folk Fest is supplied by Big Rock – Alberta’s finest concoctors of consumable transcendence, and the unofficial sponsors of this site. More beer is sold at the Folk Fest than at any other single event in Canada, yet I have never seen a drunken brawl on the grounds. Maybe that has something to do with the weed.

Yes, people smoke pot there. As we were passing through the security checkpoint Sunday morning, a lady in front of us was scolding a security volunteer about the presence of “marihuana” (I’m positive she spelled it with an ‘h’ in her mind) on the grounds. “You have to search everyone. It’s adults bringing it in – men around 55 years old…” at this point she paused and glared at me. Fortunately I was feeling too blissful to mutter, “I’m still in my thirties, bitch.”

It seems cliché, but the volunteers truly define the experience. Over 2300 people volunteered for this year’s Fest, and everyone – from the garbage-pickers to the sound guys – appeared to be in a good mood. The notion of a festival driven by a sense of community and higher purpose sounds as trite and contrived as any hindsight view of a music-centric gathering might (watch for this weekend’s tribute to Woodstock on this site!), but it’s true. There are very few paid staff on-site. Those who want to build the community for no greater reward than the community itself actually run the show.

You’re going to have to deal with the poo sauna eventually. It just doesn’t feel like Folk Fest until you use a foul-smelling porta-potty at the top of the hill in the thick darkness of night, tilted ever so slightly toward the incline. Gravity will almost certainly not tip you into your worst nightmare, but after a few pints of Grasshopper Wheat Ale, you might not feel so certain about that. And in the daytime, when the smiling sun heats these things up to a comfortable 700 degrees, it’ll pull the toxins out of your system before you can even sit down.

You never know which acts will kick-start your mojo. Los Lobos fell short of perfection, and Michael Franti’s vocals were flatter than ten-day-old Pepsi. But some of the groups that looked fine (yet unfamiliar) on paper stole the show: Imelda May’s rib-thumping rockabilly outshone every other Friday night act. Parker Millsap’s thunderous voice carved a chasm of Wow into everyone’s eardrums on Saturday. Tony Joe White (who wrote the dreamy ballad “Rainy Night In Georgia”) introduced a spirit-stew of bayou blues that added a wondrous snarl to our Sunday afternoon. And Cody Chesnutt – he deserves another mention. How that guy isn’t selling out concert halls around the world is a baffling condemnation of the state of popular music today. Soul music ain’t dead, people.

The view from everywhere is fantastic. Whether you win the entry-gate lottery and plant your tarp within sweat-splash distance from the stage or find yourself perched near Gallagher’s summit, you’ll be dining on a feast for the eyes and ears. The mid-hill screens carry the performers up to the nosebleeds, and the sound system delivers the goods beyond the upper gates.

The douchebag count is remarkably low. Yes, there were a few mouth-breathers inventing their own lyrics to accompany Charlie Musselwhite’s unearthly harmonica, but they were rare. Actual music fans tend to dominate the crowd, sporting a delightful tapestry of concert shirts from all across the spectrum of splendid tuneage. That said, security should have tossed the kid in the One Direction shirt. There has to be a line in that sand.

Strange things tend to happen. They simply do. My wife and I returned to our tarp on Saturday to find a stranger sleeping away his afternoon beers in one of our chairs. I tapped his shoulder and advised him he was in my daughter’s chair, Goldilocks-style, and he smiled and nodded. But didn’t move. When my daughter showed up, I politely asked him to vacate, and he shook my hand, thanked me for the spot of respite and wished us a happy night. At Folk Fest, weirdness is your world and you either flow with it or you’re missing the point.

Over a thousand words in and I still feel I’ve come up short in bottling the magic of this festival. It has replenished my spirit; I’d forgotten how much undiluted joy can be packed into my cynical heart. It’s even worth the horrors of the poo sauna. I can’t wait for next year.

Day 936: Number One With An Irreverent Bullet

originally published July 24, 2014

Here’s the part where the guy twitching in the hungry crosshairs of 40 tells you how the music topping the charts these days won’t inspire so much as a quiver of his trigger finger. But really, who cares? The purveyors of popular song have no interest in capturing my iTunes money. Just as my parents wondered desperately who on earth would want anyone to Rock Them Amadeus, I can’t fathom why Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”, a piece of simplistic monotony with a Clueless rip-off video, spent a month this summer at #1.

Ever since the end of the halcyon days of 80’s pop, the soundtrack that flipped the pages of my childhood, I have paid scant attention to the Billboard Hot 100 chart. While MC Hammer’s parachute pants flapped in the raucous wind of his success, my high school friends and I were discovering the mystical quests within the grooves of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd records. So I guess I haven’t been hip in about twenty-five years. I’m okay with that.

I’d always been a trifle suspicious of this chart anyway. What is it counting? Sales? Radio airplay? Likelihood of ending up as a parody on Weird Al’s next album? There is actually some math to this madness, and it’s far too complex for my mid-week brain to tabulate without a nap under its belt. But I’ll do my best.

For almost two decades prior to the Hot 100’s debut in the pages of Billboard (yes kids, Billboard was and is an actual magazine. A magazine is kind of like Buzzfeed.com made out of trees), the chart tabulators kept track of three separate stats: the best-sellers, the songs most played by disc jockeys and the songs most played in jukeboxes. That last one was key, as a disgraceful clump of radio stations were refusing to play rock ‘n roll in the mid-1950’s. Billboard had to track what was big with the kids.

On August 4, 1958, Billboard devised a points-system which combined sales and airplay (jukeboxes were already moseying toward antique malls and retro-joints), and created the Hot 100, the chart which would come to define success within the industry. Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool” was #1 on that initial chart, and it remained the only single to debut at the top spot (albeit by default) until 1995 when the calculation rules changed.

That’s where things get confusing. The changes.

The juggling act involved in determining the nation’s top songs has had to rely on that staple of the American market: sales. This became problematic as the methods of delivery shifted. 45RPM records weren’t squeezing tunes off the sales floor quite as much during the cassette-dominated 80’s or the CD-strong 90’s. A change was made in 1995, then again in 1998 when the magazine decided that a song didn’t need to be released as a single to qualify for the charts.

This shift atoned for some of the so-called injustices in the 1990’s: No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” sat atop the radio airplay chart for a whopping 16 weeks in 1996. That insipidly catchy theme song the Rembrandts wrote for the show Friends spent two months as an omnipresent annoyance on the radio in 1995 but like No Doubt, those guys never hit the Billboard charts because their big hit was never technically a single. The 1998 adjustment for album cuts also paved the way for that really necessary tweak: online music.

In the 1960’s, the only real Hot 100 controversy came over the decision to count double-A-sided singles as one unit instead of two separate songs in late 1969, right when this adjustment would have helped out the Beatles’ “Come Together” and “Something” single. In the last decade and a half, Billboard has had to account for iTunes, Amazon, MusicMatch, Rhapsody, and a half-jillion streaming music sites. They’ve had to change the formula so often, it’s a wonder the math-minds at the magazine haven’t snapped and shot up the place.

Presently, the formula wobbles a little each week, counting 35-45% sales (which are pretty much all online at this point), 30-40% airplay (I wonder if satellite radio factors into this) and about 20-30% streaming music. Since early 2013, Youtube hits have also factored into that last statistic. So if, like me, you’re feeling wholly disconnected from the stuff at the top of the hit parade, it might have something to do with the rather boring and non-innovative technology with which you listen to your tunes.

At some point around the mid-60’s – perhaps the very moment the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds hit store shelves and urged the music industry to collectively unleash rock’s album era – the limitations of the Hot 100 to accurately reflect society’s boogieing zeitgeist became evident. Pink Floyd’s appearance on the chart was rare and fleeting, despite the band’s perpetual ability to fill stadiums and their 1973 epic, Dark Side of the Moon’s residence on the album charts right through 1986.

Led Zeppelin hardly ever saw the sunny side of the top 10, same with the Grateful Dead. Reaching above the clouds on the charts is no indicator of enduring success, any more than it indicates what the public truly cares about in a lasting way. That horrific abomination called “The Macarena” spent all of three months at the top of the Hot 100 in 1997, but how much money would anyone spend to see those two schmucks live today? How much would anyone have spent in 1998 for that matter?

The real sin with the Hot 100 is that it has always been open to manipulation. The payola scandal from rock’s early days elbowed songs that were played on the radio for cash up the charts. Big labels have been known to discount singles to a financial loss just to bump the song’s sales. Labels would hang on to singles, dropping them when there was no real competition from established artists. There are a number of ways to jostle the charts if you’re desperate enough to gain some street cred for your struggling singer.

The Billboard Hot 100 remains the best method we have at our disposal for determining what songs are pulsing through our culture with the greatest intensity, despite its imperfections. But with music tastes so wildly splintered now – even us crotchety old folks who still seek out new tuneage do so with nary an eye batted toward the auto-tuned pablum of the present-day pop that owns the charts – how relevant is it in our lives?

The Beatles, who for one bizarre week in April of 1964 owned each of the singles in Billboard’s top five slots, landed an impressive string of hits in that coveted #1 spot for years, a streak that finally ended when “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever” only made it to #2. The top song that week? “Rescue Me” by Engelbert Humperdinck. Good luck finding anyone who sings that tune in the shower nowadays, or could even pick that song out of an auditory lineup.

#1 is nice, but it ain’t everything, kids.

Day 922: Riding That Train, High On Cocaine & Pretty Much Everything Else

originally published July 10, 2014

Within a span of about five months, the notion of the Grand Hippie Music Festival had deteriorated from a three-day swoon of good vibes, great drugs and phenomenal tuneage at Woodstock into an angry and disorganized mess at the Altamont Speedway in northern California. I’ve written about the latter already, and I’ll have plenty to say about the former in an upcoming piece, but the question left unanswered by Altamont can only be: “what happens next?”

The digestible myth is that the disastrous Altamont concert nudged the nail in the sixties’ coffin, not only landing near the decade’s calendar terminus but also smushing into ash any hopes that the peace ‘n love generation could haul their good vibes into adulthood. But beyond Altamont you’ll still find the stellar 1970 Isle of Wight festival and the poorly-managed (but heartily rock-tastic) Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. The dream wasn’t dead, it just took a nasty little hit in late ’69.

One of the first post-Altamont gathering of groups took place in Canada in the triumphant early days of 1970’s summer. Where festivals like Woodstock and Monterey Pop had previously lured fans from neighboring time zones and beyond to the event, the Festival Express was set to cruse across the country, bringing the idea of a super-conglomeration of super-groups to a myriad of cities. It was a concert game-changer, and solid proof that the perpetual party of the previous decade had not yet reached last call.

Originally known as the Transcontinental Pop Festival, Ken Walker (above) along with his partners Thor and George Eaton aimed for four cities: Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver. They secured a 14-car Canadian National Railways train for the artists, and booked a documentary crew to film the entire event. Walker and his associates booked passage for themselves on the train also, as no self-respecting businessman of that era was foolish enough to throw a party like that without attending it.

Problems arose right away in Vancouver; PNE Empire Stadium was slated to have fresh phony turf installed, and the backup venue – Capilano Stadium – was nixed by the city. Montreal was also axed because the event was to be held over St. Jean-Baptiste Day, and they were worried about a diluted security force. This was the residue film of the Altamont nightmare: the authorities feared that any mass-gaggle of inebriated youth would smear the city with a breakout of violence.

Turns out they were right to worry.

If there was truly an insidious fall-out from the mighty Woodstock festival the previous August, it was the bizarre misconception that music festivals as a whole should be free. Altamont was a free concert from the start, and a number of fans were upset at the price-gouging promoters of the Festival Express demanding actual money for people to see the show. What a filthy notion – these promoters should be staging these shows for no motivation less pure than unflappable kindness! The performers, along with everyone else involved with the shows’ operation, should work for free, dammit.

Roughly 2500 protestors gathered outside the CNE Grandstand in Toronto to protest the exorbitant price ($14 for two days of music) of this festival. The group behind the protests stemmed from the May 4th Movement (the M4M), a leftist rebel group that had grown grey with fury and distrust since their formation after the May 4th Kent State shootings. They tried to crash the gate and scale the fences, resulting in a violent clash with the police that left several on both sides with injuries.

And these are the people who call their grandkids The Entitled Generation.

Fortunately for everyone, Ken Walker had had the foresight to book the Grateful Dead on this tour. Jerry Garcia – ever the peace-maker and concoctor of calm – arranged with Metro Police inspector Walter Magahay to wheel some equipment down the block to Coronation Park for a free concert for the “spurned” Toronto youth. A number of the headlining groups, including the Dead, Ian & Sylvia and the New Riders of the Purple Sage, jammed until 4:00am, long past the 12:30 curtain of the actual concert.

The following day, most of the protestors who craved more music simply paid for a ticket. The performances were stellar. The acts were immeasurably phenomenal: in addition to the above, Torontonians got to enjoy The Band, Ten Years After, Traffic, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Mashmakan, Mountain, Delaney & Bonnie, Buddy Guy, and an effervescent Janis Joplin at her most luminous.

Then, when the show had wrapped up, the performers boarded the train. That’s where the real action happened.

Imagine a train filled to the overhead compartments with musicians, instruments, alcohol, drugs, and free time (a full-on drum kit and Hammond B3 organ had been installed to encourage creativity). The jam sessions were endless. The documentary footage is priceless. Mickey Hart, drummer for the Grateful Dead, summed it up beautifully when he said, “Woodstock was a treat for the audience, but the train was a treat for the performers.”

This phenomenal fleet of musicians (minus Traffic and Ten Years After who were too lame to stay with the party after Toronto) lit up the rails between Toronto and Winnipeg, stopping in Chapleau, Ontario to buy the entire contents of a liquor store when their supply ran low. The turnout for the one-day show in Winnipeg was low, possibly out of fear that the Toronto violence would rise up again, or maybe because Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was also in town for Canada Day. But there was no violence – only the glow of beautiful music.

Calgary had been added as Vancouver’s replacement (geography often screws Edmonton out of great concerts), and when the train pulled up the protests over ticket prices began. This time the most vocal critic was the city’s mayor, Rod Sykes. Sykes confronted promoter Ken Walker and demanded that Calgary fans be treated to a free concert. According to Walker, the altercation ended with Walker punching Mayor Sykes in the mouth. Take that, prairie communism.

Roughly 1000 people still managed to squeak into the festival for free before security was tightened on the afternoon of the first day. Nevertheless, the show was yet another success. For the performers it was an unforgettable week. While she and Jerry Garcia were thanking the promoters on stage during the final show, Janis Joplin laughed that she had “finally found someone who could throw a better party than me.”

The lesson of the Festival Express experience is that there were still great times to be had in a music festival. Yes, the promoters lost between $350,000 and $500,000, and yes, festival-goers had to endure the group Sha-Na-Na’s weird 50’s-revival performance, but the music was absolutely magical. The Dead were easing into their much-revered American Beauty-era groove, The Band was at the peak of their prowess, and Buddy Guy could screech the blues better than most anyone else in the business. And Janis… wow. Only about three months away from her premature demise (which, along with the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison would truly signal the end of the 60’s love-in), Janis turns in a performance of “Cry Baby” that could leave Garnet Mims crying in his beer and a rendition of “Tell Mama” that will produce a non-stop parade of chills upon your arm.

And that’s only what you can see in the 2003 movie, Festival Express – well worth the investment of 90 minutes. It helps that the original footage aboard the train was shot by Peter Biziou, the award-winning cinematographer who would go on to shoot Time Bandits, Pink Floyd: The Wall, Mississippi Burning and The Truman Show. It’s a perfect time capsule of utter timelessness.

My parents’ generation may not have solved all the world’s problems, and they may have forgotten a lot of the selfishness and ego that had slightly stained the hippies’ righteous legacy, but dammit they had the greatest music of any time.

Day 916: I’m About To Lose My Worried Mind – Led Zep 4Ever!

originally published July 4, 2014

With practically the entirety of recorded music’s history available at the touch of a trackpad, it’s hard to find a lot of common ground among the masses. Back in the sepiatone days when I was in high school, there was certainly a cultural splintering effect afoot – some grooved to Hammer-time, others nodded angrily and forcefully to Nirvana, while still others begged C+C Music Factory to make them sweat upon a hormone-clogged dance floor – but there remained some sacred touchstones.

For whatever reason – and I pray a sociological study will one day uncover the mystery behind this collective madness – the girls in my high school were united under the secret thrill of ABBA. The boys, however discreetly some of them held back their own cravings for retro Swedish vocal-pop, united under an unwavering commitment to one of the greatest rock bands in ear-thumping history: Led Zeppelin.

Most of us had bands we liked more. For me, there was always the Beatles, while my other friends leaned toward Pink Floyd, Roxette or Extreme (yes, Josh, I’m talking about you). But we all sang along when Robert Plant belted out the first “Hey hey, mama” of their conspicuously untitled fourth album. Today Zep nets a kilograph, if for no other reason than as a thank you for the respite they provided after five straight listens of “More Than Words.”

The group’s origin story funnels straight back to this guy, one of the most awe-inspiring yet least well-known (among today’s younger rock-lovers) guitar gods of the 1960’s. Jeff Beck had joined up with the Yardbirds after Eric Clapton had left the group in frustration. Now Jeff was feeling the pull of sweet freedom, and his frustration led him to record his own thing, away from the rest of the group. He invited his buddy (and future Yardbirdian) Jimmy Page to play guitar.

Drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle of the Who were similarly irked at their band situation, and they agreed to join in. When John couldn’t make the session (which Keith Moon attended in full disguise, just in case), studio musicians John Paul Jones and Nicky Hopkins (he’s the guy who plays the piano solo on the Beatles’ “Revolution”) joined in and the brilliant single, “Beck’s Bolero” was born.

There was talk of forming a super-group featuring these musical stars (and stars-to-be), but as the legend goes, either Keith Moon or John Entwistle joked that the idea would “go down like a lead zeppelin.” There is debate over whether or not this quote came from this session or whether a journalist might have first uttered it, but it stuck with a fate-filled mud-slap to Jimmy Page’s mind.

After the Yardbirds’ final gig in Bedfordshire in 1968 (Beck was long gone at this point, but Page helmed the band’s lead guitar spot), they were still committed to playing a few gigs in Scandinavia. Page and bassist Chris Dreja were up for it, but the rest of the band was out. Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham were brought on board as replacements, and John Paul Jones completed the group. They finished the tour as the New Yardbirds and were already at work on their first studio album under that name when Chris Dreja reminded them via a cease and desist letter that they’d only been allowed to use the name ‘Yardbirds’ for that last tour. Page remembered the ‘lead zeppelin’ quote and the rest is history. Actually, it’s all history – that’s a stupid expression.

The spelling was changed out of worry that people would pronounce it ‘leed zeppelin’. Probably a smart move.

No excessively truncated history of Led Zeppelin would be complete without at least a passing mention of Bron-Yr-Aur. Robert Plant did not grow up poor; his family owned a quaint little cottage in Wales that they’d visit on holidays during the 1950’s. The place was called Bron-Yr-Aur, which is Welsh for either “golden hill” or “breast of the gold” (which is way hotter), and Plant brought Page there for a little down-time after their brutally busy 1970 tour. With no running water and no electricity, the duo had little else to do but write music and have sex. With their women, I mean – not each other. Come on.

This little getaway led to at least nine songs that would end up on future Led Zeppelin albums, and they even brought in a generator so that they could record a few tracks that would end up on Led Zeppelin III. This wouldn’t be the first or last time a band would use a rural retreat for inspiration: The Band had fled to Big Pink in 1968 and Phish would find recluse in The Barn some thirty years later. There’s something magical about getting the hell away from the world to write music.

By the time they embarked on their 1973 tour, Led Zeppelin was the biggest rock band on the planet, and rightly so. They got tired of the excessive turbulence on the little Falcon jet they’d been using, so the group stepped it up. The Starship was a repurposed United Airlines Boeing 720, outfitted to look as little like a plane on the inside as possible. There were two back rooms (one a bedroom with a working shower), a bar, an electric organ, a TV and VCR (not common in the early 70’s), and enough comfortable seating for a  huge party.

The Starship was used by the Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers, Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, and a host of other stars with money to burn. When Led Zeppelin couldn’t use it for their 1977 tour (the thing was tired and spent and permanently grounded), they rented out a retrofitted Boeing 707 owned by Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Caesar’s Chariot was even snazzier, with an on-board Hammond organ and separate rooms for all four band members. These guys knew how to travel.

I’ve got to mention it. I know, I know – it’s probably rock’s most ubiquitous urban legend, but it deserves at least a tiny blurbble in this million-word project.

The mudshark.

The story goes that the band was staying at the Edgewater Inn in Seattle, a building perched on the shoulder of the Pacific so that guests could literally fish out their windows. It involves a girl, a wild party with all the band as well as their opening act, Vanilla Fudge, and either a freshly-snared red snapper or a mudshark. Richard Cole, Zeppelin’s road manager, claims it was he who introduced the nose of the fish to the woman’s inner nether regions (front and back doors – this little sea-creature got the full tour of the facilities). Others have claimed it was John Bonham who yielded the infamous aquatic beast. Most claim it never happened.

But it might have. No one has confirmed it and no woman has stepped forward to claim her place in rock history as the notorious fish-fucker, so I’m inclined to believe that this is no more than a myth. But it’s a juicy one.

Myths and excess and exquisite music. This is why Led Zeppelin was the beloved thread of common approval among males at my school in the class o’ ’92. Also, they were a hell of a lot better than ABBA. Or Extreme. Sorry, Josh.