After I graduated from college and returned to my childhood home for the we-love you-but-please-get-your-ass-out-of-the-house-dear-daughter ritual, my dad, feeling sentimental as he watched me rip my Iggy Pop poster from the bedroom wall, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. He told me I could help myself to any five LP’s from his vast vinyl collection.
“Only five?” I cried.
“I’ll leave the rest to you in my will,” he said, shaking his head at what a greedy little bitch of a daughter he had raised.
I dropped what I was doing and headed for the living room, where he kept his treasure on every available piece of shelf space. He had over a thousand LP’s and I’d heard each and every one during my formative years, with varying degrees of attention. Sighing at the sheer difficulty at the task ahead but somewhat inclined to take a trip down memory lane, I started with the A’s (The Allman Brothers) and worked my way to the Z’s (Frank Zappa).
I literally spent all day and night fingering through the collection, pulling out possibilities and playing emotional tug of war with myriad possibilities. Should I go for Super Session or East-West? Do I dare break up his Beatles’ collection? (I didn’t, but I am looking forward to the day he croaks so I can become a proud owner of the original Yesterday and Today cover.) Ogden’s Nut-Gone Flake? Face to Face? Wheels of Fire? Pleasures of the Harbor? Stand Back!? Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music? Sketches of Spain? The experience turned out to be harrowing, but finally, drenched with sweat, sentimentality and angst, I called him into the living room to announce my selections.
“The good news is I’m letting you keep Iron Butterfly, Vanilla Fudge and The Grand Funk Railroad,” I smirked.
“No surprise there,” he laughed. “Show me what you got so I can get started on the grieving process.”
I pulled them out one by one. Having a Rave-Up with The Yardbirds elicited a groan. Surrealistic Pillow yielded a tender smile. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band earned a comment, “Thank God it’s not East-West.” The fourth, Judy Collins’ In My Life, caused him to tear up a bit. However, my fifth selection sparked a change in his visage from nostalgic to stern and led to an irresolvable dispute.
“Nope, not that one.”
“What? You said any five!”
“Not that one. It’s out of print. Pick something else.”
“You prick!” I replied.
“I can live with that. Now pick something else.”
I knew I didn’t have a chance in hell of winning this argument, so I grabbed Live at Leeds and was gratified to elicit another groan. “Serves you right, you welcher,” I taunted.
The album in dispute was, of course, The Great Twenty-Eight by Chuck Berry. I knew that Chuck Berry: The Anthology had been released a few years before, but the attraction of good old-fashioned vinyl with that nice big album sleeve was too hard to resist. There were other compilations, but I didn’t want anything that had that fucking “My Ding-a-Ling” song on it. I wanted The Great Twenty-Eight in blessed analog format because I wanted to experience what John Lennon had heard as a kid while listening to a crackly radio in his room on Menlove Avenue. I wanted to feel the same kind of inspiration that you won’t find in the sound quality, but in the rhythm, in the singing style, in the now-classic guitar licks and in the devil-may-care energy of early rock.
It took me a couple of years to find a relatively pristine copy (in part because I had devoted a large part of that period of my life to sharpening my bisexual fucking skills), but my patience was rewarded. I’ve also forgiven my father for being an asshole about the whole thing, because if I had been in his place, I would have done the same thing.
I have empathy, people!
Much has been written about Chuck Berry’s contributions, and the general consensus is that he’s pretty much the “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” His guitar stylings alone would have qualified him for legend status, and the list of guitarists he influenced is a mile long. More importantly, no other early composer made the ironic synergy between black blues and white hillbilly music work so seamlessly, giving early rock a crossover power that few genres have ever had. The Beatles and The Stones covered several of his compositions, and before the critics started labeling Brian Wilson a musical genius, he borrowed “Sweet Little Sixteen” as the musical base for “Surfin’ U. S. A.” (and was forced to turn over the copyright to the ARC Music Group, owners of Berry’s catalog). Of the early rockers who actually wrote most of their own songs (sorry, Elvis), only Little Richard and Buddy Holly can approach Chuck Berry’s lasting influence.
While his guitar work and his classic rock patterns were deeply influential, one of his strengths that is often ignored is his ability to write exceptionally compelling lyrics. Most early rock music consists pretty much of variations of “I love you, baby,” “You made a fool out of me, you bitch” or songs about dancing. Many of Chuck Berry’s songs contained vivid descriptions of life in concrete language in the context of great stories full of humor and narrative tension. While he frequently wrote songs designed to appeal to the white teenage market (that’s where the money was), he also wrote about the traditional subjects of love and sexual attraction from perspectives other than the malt shop, often adding discreet social commentary in the process.
Chuck also put out a few stinkers, and when he’d found a gimmick that tickled teenage fancy enough to pull them out of the back seats of their oversized automobiles and spend their allowances at the record shop, Chuck would milk it until the cow ran dry. He frequently re-purposed his own compositions, changing the lyrics and throwing in a musical variation or two. Hence “School Days” was refurbished with a new story line and became “No Particular Place to Go.”
The Great Twenty-Eight takes us through Chuck’s entire period with Chess, from 1955 to 1965, generally in chronological order. The only inexplicable absence is “You Never Can Tell,” which happens to be one of my favorite Chuck Berry songs, dammit! Astute researchers will note a significant time gap between the release of “Come On” in October 1961 and “Nadine” in February 1964. Chuck spent a good part of that time doing a stretch in prison on seriously trumped-up charges involving a 14-year old Native American girl. When he left prison, he found himself riding a new wave of popularity due to the dozens of covers by British Invasion bands . . . but we’re getting ahead of our story.
We begin our journey in July of 1955, the year when the Brooklyn Dodgers would finally win their first and only championship (they would not become the Fucking Dodgers until they moved to Los Angeles and were christened thus by fired-up San Franciscans). July was a big month that year, featuring the opening of Disneyland and no less than three significant events in popular music history that exposed the socio-cultural tensions in the United States during the post-McCarthy years of the Eisenhower administration: the national debut of The Lawrence Welk Show, the rise of Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” to the top of the Billboard charts, and the first single released by Chuck Berry, a clever little ditty by the name of . . .
“Maybellene”: Based on an old Bob Wills fiddle tune and named after a tube of mascara, Berry’s first hit single (heavily influenced by Chess bossman Leonard Chess) was specifically designed to appeal to young, horny hot rodders. When Chess ordered Berry to update the lyrics to achieve that end, Berry exceeded all expectations by coming back with an attention-grabbing narrative filled with you-are-there imagery:
As I was motivatin’ over the hill
I saw Maybellene in a Coupe de Ville
A Cadillac a-rollin’ on the open road
Nothin’ will outrun my V8 Ford
The Cadillac doin’ about ninety-five
She’s bumper to bumper, rollin’ side by side
When I hear the opening guitar lick, my 1990’s-programmed ear says shouts to the rest of my brain, “Is he using a distortion pedal?” The part attached to my vocal cords says, “No, silly, they wouldn’t be invented for years.” If you’ve ever seen today’s guitarists in live performances, you’ll see that they all have a huge rack of foot pedals to help them achieve various and sundry effects—few of which are as exciting as the tone Chuck Berry achieved with a relatively cheap amp using primitive recording technology.
“Maybellene” is hot and sassy, and must have seemed like the harbinger of the anti-Christ to all those Lawrence Welk fans who tuned in to hear the sweetly inoffensive Lennon Sisters and go gaga at the sight of a band surrounded by soap bubbles. The comparison to Bill Haley’s number is even more telling, as Bill Haley’s approach to rock was more “Let’s have some fun, kids” and Chuck Berry’s approach was more “Let’s do the deed, kids!” “Rock Around the Clock” is corny. “Maybellene” is hot. You could say that Bill Haley’s sound was the sound of “white people rock” and Chuck Berry’s was “black people rock,” and had you made that comment back in 1955, you would have been 100% correct. As rock continued to develop over the years, more white artists would begin to approach their work with the joy and abandon of Little Richard and Chuck Berry, effectively blurring the color line (Elvis and Buddy Holly being the original blurrers). Those who chose to remain forthright and uptight could look forward to twenty-seven-and-one-half fucking years of The Lawrence Welk Show.
“Thirty Days”: The musical twin of “Maybellene” with a similar guitar intro and the exact same rhythm, so the distinguishing features of this song are found in the lyrics. The thirty-day limit in the first verse is a warning to his woman that she’d better get her ass back home in thirty days. In the next two verses, however, the narrator resorts to the criminal justice system to attempt to get his woman back—an ironic step for a black man to take in the pre-civil rights era. Interestingly, Berry threatens to take his problem to the United Nations, beating Eddie Cochran to the punch by about three years.
“You Can’t Catch Me”: Another car song (again, when Chuck found a winning formula, he had a hard time letting it go), this one is noted primarily as the song that caused Berry’s music publisher to sue John Lennon for ripping off the “here come a flattop” line for “Come Together.” Despite the thematic repetition, Chuck’s vocal is strong and confident, the piano backing is pretty cool and the song moves exceptionally well.
“Too Much Monkey Business”: Chuck’s fifth single came out in 1956, the year that millions of boring Americans went to the polls to re-elect a boring president who was lucky enough to run against an even greater bore. While the masses proclaimed “We like Ike,” marveled at the wonders of American progress in the field of consumerism and delighted in their white shirt conformity, Chuck Berry argued that conformity was more of a threat to liberty than communism.
“Too Much Monkey Business” is the anti-Happy Days theme. Each verse is devoted to a link in the conformity chain (wage slavery, consumerism, marriage, education, bureaucracy, militarism and the job), and at the end of all but the first verse Chuck symbolically shakes his head in disgust with a growled “aah”:
Runnin’ to-and-fro, hard workin’ at the mill
Never fail in the mail, yeah, come a rotten bill
Too much monkey business, too much monkey business
Too much monkey business for me to be involved in
Salesman talkin’ to me, tryin’ to run me up a creek
Says you can buy now, go on and try, you can pay me next week, ahh!
In addition to an exceptionally fluid vocal performance, Chuck is seriously hot on the guitar, with a ripping opener, a frenetic, extended solo and some fabulous fills.
“Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”: This was the flip side of “Too Much Monkey Business,” a pairing that has to make anyone’s top ten lists for the greatest singles in rock history. Inspired by a scene he personally witnessed in California where a Mexican man was hauled away by the cops while his woman shouted at them to let him go, Chuck subtly raises the terrifying specter of the non-white man’s attractiveness to white women while throwing in subtle digs at fundamentally oppressive and corrupt criminal justice system:
Arrested on charges of unemployment,
He was sitting in the witness stand
The judge’s wife called up the district attorney
She said, “Free that brown-eyed man.
If you want your job you better free that brown-eyed man.”
In the USA, you’re certainly treated like a criminal when you’re out of a job, and as a guy who had already done a stretch in reform school for armed robbery, Chuck Berry had some experience with the inherent corruption in the American legal system.
“Roll Over Beethoven”: The revolution is now! Compared to the million or so covers of this song, the original shines with its testosterone-dripping vocal serving both as the conveyor of the anti-square lyrics and a vital component of the song’s driving rhythm. When the band starts driving the sucker home in the final chorus, Chuck sounds like he’s shaking with erotic delight. While concert music appeals to emotions and intellect, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten off listening to Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, and this celebration of the erotic foundation of rock ‘n’ roll, solidly grounded in the blues, is the perfect cure for any Puritan hang-ups or Catholic guilt hanging around the psyche.
“Havana Moon”: Chuck tries to go Latin on us and the result is massive disappointment. Look, if I wanted 1950’s Latin, I’d turn on I Love Lucy and hope that Ricky Ricardo does “Babalú” in his set at the Tropicana.
“School Days”: While it’s apparent that this song was aimed squarely at white teenagers of the time, “School Days” has turned out to be one of Chuck Berry’s most timeless compositions. When I reflect on my brief existence, I can think of no greater waste of time than the years I spent in an American high school, an environment characterized by lazy, tenured teachers, whitewashed textbooks, ludicrously rigid schedules and seriously confused adolescents. Chuck captures the ennui of the school day in tone and lyric, and though we didn’t have malt shops and jukeboxes in the 90’s, getting the fuck out of there at the end of the day definitely qualified as a “lay your burden down” experience after hours of repressing everything from sexual urges to native intelligence. It’s comforting to know that the teenagers of the 50’s had the same things on their minds that I always have on mine—sex and music:
Drop the coin right into the slot
You’re gotta hear somethin’ that’s really hot
With the one you love, you’re makin’ romance
All day long you been wantin’ to dance,
Feeling the music from head to toe
Round and round and round we go
“Rock and Roll Music”: Great song, but we’d have to wait another seven years for John Lennon to do this song justice. Chuck Berry’s vocal is surprisingly tame, especially when compared to Lennon’s let-it-the-fuck-out performance and Chuck’s own performance on “Roll Over Beethoven.”
“Baby Doll”: Another song for the high school crowd that falls far short of “School Days.” Apparently this was recorded during Chuck’s “Letter Sweater” phase.
“Reelin’ and Rockin’”: Chuck gets back in the groove with a driving, swing-your-partner-round-and-round number with a curious opening guitar bit that is reminiscent of the tones I hear in the Jeff Beck era of the Yardbirds. Great piano runs from either Johnny Johnson or Lafayette Leake—both are credited on the album One Dozen Berrys.
“Sweet Little Sixteen”: One of the classic singles of the era, “Sweet Little Sixteen” is loaded with socio-cultural ironies. Let’s just take the second variation of the chorus as an example:
‘Cause they’ll be rockin’ on Bandstand
In Philadelphia P. A.
Though Chuck Berry appeared on American Bandstand, he sure as hell didn’t see any people of color in the teenage dance crowd. That’s because station WFIL banned black teenagers from the studio audience, a prohibition that led to brawls between black and white teenagers on the streets outside. The station was located in a West Philadelphia neighborhood that had already been a focal point of the struggle against racial discrimination in housing, as more African-Americans flocked to West Philly, developed vibrant neighborhoods and pissed off the white demographic. You can find an excellent socio-historical analysis of American Bandstand on Matthew F. Delmont’s website, The Nicest Kids in Town.
The last verse highlights the hypocrisy regarding the double standard and the strict gender expectations of the time:
Sweet little sixteen
She’s got the grown up blues
Tight dresses and lipstick
She’s sportin’ high heel shoes
Oh, but tomorrow morning
She’ll have to change her trend
And be sweet sixteen
And back in class again
The real girl is the one in tight dresses, lipstick and high-heel shoes; the repressed phony is the girl in high school. While most early feminists would run like hell from any honest discussion of female sexuality, here we have a vivid image of a girl wants to feel hot and look hot—and that doesn’t have anything to do with oppression or “learned behavior.” It’s fun to feel sexy, be sexy and look sexy! While this verse may very well reflect male fantasies, what the fuck is wrong with that? People think about sex! Early, late and often! Get over it!
It’s important to note that our little girl was very likely to be labeled a slut by the insecure males of the era, but we’ll cover that aspect of the male psyche when we explore Dion’s contributions to the topic. Cultural complexities aside, “Sweet Little Sixteen” is one hot song with an irresistible chorus and a superb use of stop-time techniques.
“Johnny B. Goode”: It’s just one classic after another with Chuck Berry, isn’t it? From the time Elvis first appeared on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s Stage Show, young boys have seen the guitar as a powerful and complex symbol. Some saw it as a way to grab attention, others as a way to get girls, and a few others were fascinated by its musical and rhythmic potential. “The guitar is a miniature orchestra in itself,” said Beethoven, a very early recognition of the instrument’s unlimited potential. While the guitar had been used in jazz and classical music, and was a staple in country, folk and blues music, it was rock ‘n’ roll—with a huge assist from television—that turned the guitar into something more than accompaniment.
Although some of the early rockers pounded pianos (Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino), the piano could have never become the center of rock ‘n’ roll for several reasons. One, it was associated with the piano lessons many kids were forced to endure when they would have rather been outside playing baseball or throwing rocks in the pond. Two, in the 50’s, the piano was associated with squares like Liberace, and glam rock was years away. Three, you can’t hold a piano like you can hold a guitar—you can cradle a guitar in your hands like you’d cradle a lover. Last but not least, guitars were a lot cheaper and a lot more portable than a piano—you can’t take a piano to a beach party and you can’t pull it out of your trunk and serenade your honey when your more pedestrian attempts to get past second base have failed.
Think about it: can you imagine a video game called “Piano Hero?”
If it comes out, I want in on the royalties.
“Johnny B. Goode” established the archetype of the guitar hero, and appropriately, Chuck lets it rip in an energetic variation of the opening riff to “Roll Over Beethoven.” It’s a more than suitable introduction, because this is a song that starts with pedal to the floor and never lets up. The story of the poor boy (and his mama) discovering that his guitar playing could forge a path out of poverty and into stardom is a fairy tale that has come true for many successful rockers and still has power today, even with rock in decline. “Johnny B. Goode” is really an updated version of the Horatio Alger myth—and a helluva lot sexier.
“Around and Around”: Chuck varies the rhythm and dynamics in this number, similar in theme to “Rock and Roll Music.” While I appreciate the slight variation, I wish the instrumental passage had been more than a simple repetition of the background rhythm. The Stones and The Dead both got a lot more out of this sucker.
“Carol”: Not my favorite. The lyrics are unusually awkward, the story line confusing and the music is “meh.” Apparently neither Carol nor the narrator can dance, which makes for a less-than-compelling dance song.
“Beautiful Delilah”: A spunky little ripper with a fab opening riff and serious blue note bends on both chords and single notes, I rarely bother listening to the words when this song comes on. This song is about Chuck Berry, guitarist, and he steps up big time here.
As for the story, the girl in the center of the story is a more mature version of Sweet Little Sixteen, seriously focused on using her sexual power to bring the boys to their knees. She’s a precursor of Runaround Sue, and though Chuck doesn’t get as apoplectic as Dion does about a woman having multiple partners, he does comment that “Maybe she will settle down marry after a while.”
Fat chance, dickhead.
“Memphis, Tennessee”: A song that’s been covered by more people than you can count, this one doesn’t move my needle a bit. The discovery that Marie is a 6-year old kid is one of those corny, sentimental twists that often end Spielberg movies, and I hate Spielberg movies. Yeah, I know it’s sad when marriages break up and kids get hurt in the process, but this crosses the line into gross sentimentality without providing much in the way of insight.
“Sweet Little Rock and Roller”: Ditto for this one. The lyrics never come together into an interesting narrative and these stories of rock chicks dressed to the nines and ready for action are starting to get irritating. Move on, Chuck!
“Little Queenie”: Ah, that’s better. It’s still the hot girl theme, but here Chuck allows her to play a part in the classic seduction ritual that begins with the innocuous words, “Wanna dance?” Chuck slips into spoken word for the inner dialogue of the lusting male and nails the tone of delightfully evil intent as he plots his way into her pants:
Meanwhile, I was still thinkin’
If it’s a slow song, we’ll omit it
If it’s a rocker, then we’ll get it
And if it’s good, she’ll admit it
C’mon Queenie, let’s get with it
“Almost Grown”: Chuck Berry rarely used background singers, but when he did, he sure knew how to pick ‘em! Etta James with Harvey & the New Moonglows (who had just hired a young kid named Marvin Gaye) knock it out of the park with a soulful combination of call-and-response and scat vocals. Chuck also varied the formula by holding off on the guitar solo until the second instrumental passage, allowing the piano to provide the fills.
Chuck Berry’s radar was always focused on shifts in his audience demographic, so here he gives us the story about a guy who’s “done married and settled down.” Only a few years before, rockers were ripping up movie theaters, but the combination of Elvis going into the army and the multiple tragedies on The Day the Music Died sucked the life out of the party. The 50’s teen revolution was an adolescent revolution without purpose; the teens of the time didn’t give a shit about politics and never questioned consumerism, segregation or American foreign policy the way their younger sisters and brothers would in the mid-60’s. “Almost Grown” is a dismissal of “the silly things we did as teenagers,” opening the path that would allow this mini-generation to eventually color the entire era with the pastels of nostalgia and turn the Fonz into an inoffensive folk hero:
You know I’m still livin’ in town
But I done married and settled down
Now I really have a ball
So I don’t browse around at all
Don’t bother just leave us alone
Anyway we’re almost grown
“Back in the U. S. A.”: If it seems odd that a black man living most of his life under varying degrees of Jim Crow would write a song celebrating the virtues of the home of the brave, it must be pointed out that Chuck wrote this song after doing a tour in Australia, and this song compares his lifestyle to the primitive existence of the Australian Aborigines. In that context, the song mirrors the tone of the argument Martin Luther King adopted in the “I Have a Dream” speech, basically, “We believe in the same things you do.” While Dr. King was referring to the rights embedded in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, Chuck Berry focused on less lofty benefits of the American experience:
Looking hard for a drive-in, searching for a corner café
Where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day
Yeah, and a jukebox jumping with records like in the U.S.A.
On that score, consider me as patriotic as Chuck. The French make lousy burgers and pay very little attention to rock ‘n’ roll.
“Let It Rock”: Chuck rips off his own “Johnny B. Goode” in a song about working on the railroad. Hey! Whatever happened to that ditty? “I’ve been working on the railroad, all the live-long day . . .” And who was Dinah and why did she blow a horn? Was the horn some kind of sexual euphemism? What was going on in those Pullman cars anyway?
You can see that “Let It Rock” is one of those songs that encourages the mind to wander.
“Bye Bye Johnny”: Yecch. I hate sequels as much as I hate Spielberg movies. Chuck should have let us just imagine the poor kid making it big and moved on.
“I’m Talking About You”: Covered by The Stones, The Hollies and even Hot Tuna, the song lends itself to multiple variations because of its exceptionally strong groove. But what really knocks me out on this cut is Reggie Boyd’s bass. Jesus shit, could that fucker play! He proved to be a challenging person to research, but apparently he was a renowned Chicago jazz guitarist and teacher with exceptional knowledge of music theory and history and gave lessons to guys like Howlin’ Wolf and Otis Rush. This is a bass part light years ahead of anything going on in rock during the 50’s.
“Come On”: Chuck’s last single before entering the slammer is one of my favorite Chuck Berry records. I love Martha Berry’s (Chuck’s sister) harmonies, the sax support and the lyrical depiction of the all-too common experience that one piece of bad news deserves another:
Everything is wrong since me and my baby parted
All day long I’m walkin’ ’cause I couldn’t get my car started
Laid off from job and I can’t afford to check it
I wish somebody’d come along and run into it and wreck it
“Come On” was the Rolling Stones’ first single, a version Mick Jagger correctly described as “shit.”
“Nadine (Is That You?)”: A free man once again, Chuck Berry took “Maybellene,” slowed it down a tad, parked the car and pursued his woman on foot and by taxi. Supported by smooth saxophone and a good steady groove, what makes this song one of Chuck Berry’s greatest are the remarkable lyrics and Chuck’s exceptional phrasing. The lyrics are full of fascinating similes (“She move around like a wave of summer breeze” and “I was movin’ through the traffic like a mounted cavalier”) and memorable imagery:
I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back
And started walkin’ toward a coffee-colored Cadillac
I was pushin’ through the crowd to get to where she’s at
And I was campaign shouting like a southern diplomat
Chuck also knows how to move a story forward without wasting words:
Downtown searching for ‘er, looking all around
Saw her getting in a yellow cab heading up town
I caught a loaded taxi, paid up everybody’s tab
Flipped a twenty dollar bill, told him ‘catch that yellow cab
Testifying to the strength of Chuck Berry’s lyrics, both Dylan and Springsteen adored the words to “Nadine.”
“No Particular Place to Go”: Obviously impatient to get back in the groove after wasting away in jail—and never a guy interested in reinventing the wheel—Chuck takes “School Days” and turns it into “No Particular Place to Go,” a song about sexual frustration triggered by a jammed seat belt. While I would look at such a challenge as an opportunity to test out a new form of bondage, Chuck instead drives home for a date with a cold shower. As on “Nadine,” Chuck’s vocal is strong, confident and nuanced. I love the way he dampens his vocal on the line “So I told her softly and sincere” and his tension-loaded staccato delivery on “Can you imagine the way I felt/I couldn’t unfasten her safety belt.” While the tune is beyond familiar, Chuck manages to make it work with his palpable energy and sense of humor.
“I Want to Be Your Driver”: This song closed out the album Chuck Berry in London, but really, they should have gone with “You Never Can Tell,” which truly qualifies as one of the great twenty-eight.
Chuck Berry’s music will never dazzle you with unexpected chord changes and thematic texture: it’s classic twelve-bar, three-chord blues with few variations. The music serves primarily as the foundation for the vocal and lead guitar performances. It sounds exceptionally tight and energetic because Chuck was an exceptional musician lucky enough to work at Chess Records in Chicago, where he could work with of the best musicians of the day: Willie Dixon, Johnnie Johnson, Lafayette Leake. Chuck is an energetic guitar player, but what he lacks in precision he more than compensates for with his sense of rhythm.
Though his music might be (and should be) relatively simple, Chuck Berry managed to accomplish something very few musical artists manage to achieve: he changed lives. When you sit down with The Great Twenty-Eight, the first sounds you hear are the lo-fi guitar coming out of a tube amp shoved back against the wall of the studio, all warm, fuzzy and sexy as Berry glides into “Maybellene,” delivering a spirited vocal with exquisite enunciation at just the right points. As the song proceeds to that primitive but exciting lead solo, imagine yourself a scruffy kid in far off England in the late 1950’s, stuck at the lower layers of the social strata with nothing to look forward to in the future but a dreary sameness, as your life path was determined for you long before you were born. If you were that kid, what you heard in Chuck Berry’s music was so much more than fantastic, kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll.
You heard the way out.
Disclosing My Biases
Look. I’m a city girl. I have spent most of my life living in cities. I spent four years in an L. A. burb while going to college and it felt like I was marooned on a desert island. Except for a few days last year on the Canary Islands, all my vacations during my adult years have centered around big cities. I love the noise, the smells, the sounds, the people, the nightlife, the culture, the food, the crowding, the energy of the metropolis. I like opening my door in the morning and feeling I’m right there in the center of it all. If I get the rare urge to do nature, I’ll take a walk in a manicured city park, head for the baseball stadium (most have grass and dirt, you know) or make for the seashore (assuming they have the proper facilities and a bar).
This is not to say that I don’t appreciate nature. I fully understand how the destruction of the Amazon rain forests contribute to global warming. I want all the animals in Africa to receive full protection from selfish, greedy humans. I love my natural, cruelty-free cosmetics. I just want nature to stay over there, away from me, and leave me in civilized peace.
I did nature once. Once in my teens, my father had the gall to take me camping, an act for which I will never forgive him as long as I live.
We arrived at the campsite on a Friday night after a 6-hour, traffic-clogged drive across the Golden Gate and through the main roads and backroads of Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino counties. All the while my father serenaded me with tales of lovely meadows brimming with wildflowers and butterflies, the sublime experience of sleeping under the stars and how much better food tasted when consumed in the great outdoors. “You mean like the hot dogs at Candlestick?” I asked, searching for a frame of reference. “Even better,” he assured me, finishing off his Disney-esque sales pitch.
We pulled into the state park, checked in with the rangers, drove a little bit further and found our reserved campsite just as it was getting dark. My father got out of the car and inhaled the fog-cooled air filled with scent of redwoods. “Ah, fresh air! Nothing like it to rejuvenate a man’s soul!”
“Whatever, dad,” I said, lighting a cigarette.
He grabbed a flashlight, surveyed the grounds, kicked some dirt around, then marched purposely over to the trunk and pulled out a couple of sleeping bags. “We’ll sleep over there. There’s a clearing in the trees and we can fall asleep watching the night sky. Look at all those stars!”
“Whoa, whoa, wait a minute. Are you trying to tell me that we’re sleeping on the ground?”
“Well, yeah, sunshine, that’s what you do when you’re camping.”
“You want me to sleep on the dirt? On the filthy dirt? Where all the bugs and worms and snakes crawl around? Where all the animals piss and shit?”
“You’re not sleeping on the dirt. You’ll be in a sleeping bag and the sleeping bag will be on a tarp. There aren’t any snakes around here.”
“But what about the worms? I don’t want to wake up with worms crawling through my ears! And what about the bugs? Bugs can fly! Are you insane?”
“I brought some bug spray. Come on, it’ll be fun! You’ll sleep like a baby!”
“You’re a maniac! I’m sleeping in the car.”
I grabbed a sleeping bag, jumped into the back seat and locked all the doors to protect myself against ravenous carnivores. Then I lulled myself to sleep by fantasizing about turning my father over to the authorities on charges of child abuse. The next morning I awoke to a knocking sound and saw the soon-to-be convict outside, holding a steaming cup. I rolled down the window and the smell of fresh coffee tickled my nose.
“Is that real coffee?” I said, hopefully.
“Yep. Here you go.” I opened the window a bit more and let him hand me a cup of coffee in a plastic mug. I started to take a sip and there, floating on the surface was a fat, disgusting bug doing the backstroke. I screamed at the top of my lungs, threw the cup and its contents out the window, then rolled up the window as far as the crank would go to protect myself from any bug buddies who wanted to avenge the death of their comrade.
My dad tried to get me to eat some bacon and eggs he’d cooked up on a Coleman stove but I shook my head violently through the sealed windows. After a while, I was finally coaxed to munch on a granola bar and drink some bottled orange juice after diligently inspecting both packages for any signs of illicit insect entry.
Later in the morning he led me on a hike on one of the park trails. I spent the entire time in a state of near panic, my ears filled with the horrible buzzing of predatory insects, my hands and face sticky from the disgusting spider webs that crossed the path, my shoes caked with slightly moistened, shit-infested dirt. We eventually arrived at a clearing where my dad stopped to take some nature pictures. I looked around and a few yards away from me I saw some birds picking at something on the ground. I moved a little closer and found they were breakfasting on the fly-covered brains of a squirrel who had gone to meet his maker.
I screamed, ran like lightning back towards the campsite, tripped on a rock and wound up twisting my ankle. Dad carried me back to our campsite and calmed my hysterics by cracking open a bottle of Jack Daniels he’d stuffed in his backpack. I don’t usually care for whisky, but at that moment, Jack Daniels tasted like manna from heaven. After a few belts and a couple of cigarettes, I had nearly recovered my sanity. While I was recovering from the terrors of nature, dad loaded the trunk, and after wrapping my ankle in an Ace bandage and helping me into the car, he started the engine and soon we were speeding away from the heart of darkness and back towards civilization.
So . . . when I think about 300,000 people who willingly spent three days on a dairy farm, eating and sleeping in rain, mud and cowshit, swimming in scummy ponds and then fucking each other with microbes and bacteria all over their bodies . . . just to hear pathetic bands like Country Joe & The Fish, The Incredible String Band and Crosby, Stills & Nash . . . I think they had to be the dumbest fucking people who ever lived. I wouldn’t have gone to Woodstock if you had filled me with enough acid that I couldn’t tell my tits from my elbows and the bill had featured The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks and a resurrected Buddy Holly.
Now that I have fully disclosed my biases, let’s explore the album that allegedly documented the “seminal event of the 1960’s.”
In preparation for this review, I watched the extended documentary, had my dad play the original vinyl version while gathering my parents’ impressions and listened to the latest CD version with “such good sound quality.” For balance, I also listened to the grand satire of the event, National Lampoon’s Lemmings. I scoured the Internet for articles, memoirs and press coverage. I also refreshed my memory on the historical events preceding and following Woodstock as well as various myths that were prominent in the era so I could put the album in its proper context.
I have to partially commend Gene Sculatti, the author of the liner notes for the CD release for admitting that what you hear on Woodstock is not pure documentary. The cricket-chirping and the rainstorm are fake. The audience on The Fuck Cheer was dubbed in. The live performance of “Sea of Madness” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young was recorded at Fillmore East.
I can only partially commend Sculatti because when he starts writing about the music, he perceives everything through the nostalgic lens of an aging baby-boomer (who also happened to write for Rolling Stone). All the music was great. Pathetic performances are transformed into moments of legend and lore. He also fails to question the underlying ethos of the hippie movement, but that is hardly surprising. If you objectively attempt to answer the question, “What was the primary characteristic of the hippie movement?” the only possible answer is “the complete denial of reality.”
We’ll go into that topic in more detail throughout the review and in an interview with my parents at the end of this post, but for now . . . the music awaits.
John Sebastian, “I Had a Dream”: Woodstock is not a chronological record of the event; Sebastian didn’t appear until day two. It would have been better for the audience if he hadn’t shown up at all. The “dream theme” of the 1960’s is regurgitated here in a sappy piece of hippie tripe. Sculatti makes a lame attempt to link this silly song to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, calling it “poignantly anachronistic” in the classic style of a pompous ass from Rolling Stone. The most revealing aspect of the song is the mythological reference in the first verse:
I had a dream last night
What a lovely dream it was
I dreamed we all were alright
Happy in a land of Oz
The Wizard of Oz was the dominant myth for millions of Baby Boomer children, particularly in the United States. Unlike today where we can stream any movie any time we want, The Wizard of Oz appeared on television only once per year, and at least half the families in the USA tuned in for the fun. It was publicized as a special, a term that really meant something back then. And what did all these future denizens of Haight-Ashbury and Woodstock learn from The Wizard of Oz? That all you needed to show people you were smart was a diploma. That all you needed to show people you that you cared was to carry a tchotchke that symbolized love. That all you needed to show people you had courage was a medal. It didn’t matter at all that you received these gifts from a wizard who proved to be a complete fraud. All that mattered was validation from a source that was generally accepted by the public as a credible source of recognition. And how did our heroine make it back to Kansas? Glenda the Good Witch told her that she had the power all along, so she clicked her red slippers three times and in seconds she had the thing she wanted most. If you believe hard enough, all your dreams will come true. If we all believe it, it must be true.
So while Dorothy made it back home to eventually fulfill her destiny as a farmer’s wife, the scarecrows went to college to get their diplomas, the lions went to Nam or joined the National Football League to earn their battle scars, and the tin men wore beads and peace symbols and became the flower children. And they all adopted the philosophy that if you believe hard enough, all your dreams will come true; if we all believe it, it must be true. And if things don’t work out, hey, life’s a dream!
Such a ludicrous philosophy is what made it possible for 300,000 people to believe that camping in the mud for three days and nights was like a trip to the magical land of Oz.
Canned Heat, “Going Up the Country”: After the fake crickets, Canned Heat takes the virtual stage. Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson’s voice is completely shot, his falsetto cracking while the notes he tries to hit remain as elusive as world peace. Henry Vestine supports the effort with a lead solo that begins frightfully out of tune. I keep waiting for the gunshot from Lemmings to put these people out of their misery. The song fades into more fake crickets and the sounds of setting up the venue: trucks, hammering, men shouting, light crowd buzz. We get the first announcement, the famous “brown acid” warning: “It’s suggested that you do stay away from that—of course, it’s your own trip, so be my guest.” The gentleman who made that announcement probably holds a high position in the Food and Drug Administration today. A sound check guy shows that he’s making the scene by repeating “number nine, number nine, number nine” to test the mikes. Oh, for fuck’s sake.
Richie Havens, “Freedom”: “Let’s welcome Mr. Richie Havens,” intones the emcee. That’s another wrinkle in time, for Richie responds by playing the last song of his set.
Richie Havens must have been a really nice guy. The morons who “planned” the festival couldn’t get the next act to Yasgur’s Farm on time, so Richie had to play . . . and play . . . and play. He played so long he ran out of songs, so he ended this set with this improvisation based on the spiritual, “Motherless Child.” Given that context, his performance is one of the more remarkable efforts of the entire weekend. He begins tentatively, stops to tune his guitar (one of the few musicians who performed that act at Woodstock), finds a chord and rhythm he likes, patiently instructs the sound tech to adjust the guitar mike and then . . . away we go. He belts this sucker out with such absolute confidence that you’re convinced he’s played the song a thousand times before. Richie is so in touch with himself that he uses varied intonation on the word “freedom” to uncover multiple meanings: sometimes it’s a shout for freedom, other times a frustrated plea, and on one occasion it sounds like he’s pondering its deeper meaning. His only mistake was to urge the crowd to clap their hands, for what he gets in return is the acoustic equivalent of defective time-lapse photography. The film shows him exiting the stage still playing and mouthing some words, probably something like, “These dumb white motherfuckers couldn’t plan a birthday party for a five-year old with no friends.”
Country Joe & The Fish, “Rock and Soul Music”: Man, I need to clean up my karma or something. I thought I’d gotten rid of these bastards in my review of Electric Music for the Mind and Body. Well, here they are again, and they’re going to give us “a little taste of something we call rock-and-soul music,” covering two genres in which they are completely incompetent. The only virtue of this song is that lasts less than two minutes. It ends with a shout of “Marijuana!” This proves to be an allegedly clever way to introduce the next performer and his wretched offering.
Arlo Guthrie, “Coming into Los Angeles.”: I asked my dad once, “Is there any song in your vast collection that you never, ever want to hear again?” He answered immediately and without hesitation. “‘Coming into Los Angeles’ by Arlo Guthrie. That song came out and every asshole with an acoustic guitar learned it and played it over and over and over again. You couldn’t walk three blocks in any direction in San Francisco without hearing the damn thing.” The news that this song actually achieved some level of popularity was a disturbing piece of information indeed. Explicitly designed to exploit the stoner market, this has to be one of the worst songs ever conceived, and Arlo Guthrie proves conclusively that he is no chip off the old block with his exaggerated, crowd-pandering, chit-chat (lingo italicized):
“Hey, it’s far out, man. I don’t you know if you, uh—I don’t know like how many of you can dig how many people there are, man. Like I was rappin’ to the fuzz, right, can you dig it? Man, there’s supposed to be a million and a half people here by tomorrow night. Can you dig that? New York State Thruway’s closed, man! (Laughs.) Yeah . . . lotta freaks!
I asked my dad if people back then really talked like that and he said, “Only the phonies.”
Sha Na Na, “At the Hop”: An amateurishly despicable performance of a rock ‘n’ roll classic by a group of musical entrepreneurs looking for a market niche. The lead singer doesn’t even try to initiate Danny’s classically nasal Philly accent. Bunch of fucking clowns.
Country Joe McDonald, “I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag”: Goddamn it all to hell! This guy is really starting to irk me, and I don’t like being irked! The track opens with The Fake Fuck Cheer, and then the last guy to leave the party still wants to sing us one more song on his fucking gee-tar. The song sounds weak in comparison to the studio version, but it’s probably Country Joe’s masterpiece, relatively speaking. The problem with it is that it’s a novelty song, and once you’ve heard all the punch lines, there really isn’t any reason to hear it again. The crowd at Woodstock apparently felt the same way, responding limply to Country Joe’s attempt to turn the experience into a singalong. This really irks Country Joe, and after three wimpy verses he chastises the children like an old foul-mouthed schoolmarm: “Listen, people, I don’t know how you expect to ever stop the war if you can’t sing any better than that. There’s about 300,000 of you fuckers out there! I want you to start singin’! Come on!” We’re in the land of Oz again, folks, where you can stop wars just by singing along with good ol’ Country Joe. Why, I’ll bet ol’ Tricky Dick heard those voices all the way down in Washington D. C. and called the whole thing off! Let me check the history books . . . nah.
Joan Baez and some New Left loser named Jeffrey Shurtleff, “Drugstore Truck Driving Man” and “Joe Hill”: Oh, man oh man oh man. Can you dig it? There’s actually someone in the world I find more irksome than Country Joe and that is the sanctimonious Joan Baez. Her voice communicates such ideological purity that I want to scream every time I hear it. The two-song set opens with the astonishing claim from Shurtleff hat the draft resistance movement was “different than other movements and revolutions in this country in that we have no enemies.” What? I was born over a decade after this and even I knew how all those people who voted for Nixon and Wallace felt about draft dodgers. And right now I just typed in “Carter draft amnesty” into Google and the first result was a link to the History Channel page titled “Carter Pardons Draft Dodgers.” Everything I’ve read about the New Left is that they were arrogant pricks who thought they had all the answers, but I didn’t think they were that naïve. We’re now treated to a duet between the two purists that I suppose is sort of a satiric protest song, but it’s pretty obvious that it was written with a sledgehammer. Then Saint Joan takes center stage and waxes lyrical about her New Left hubbie, David Harris, who had spent his recent stretch in the hoosegow organizing a hunger strike among the prisoners. She is so proud of her little man! Shit, any idiot could organize a hunger strike in a fucking prison—you think they serve those guys Chateaubriand every night? Saint Joan then drags out the hoary “Joe Hill,” a song about the legendary organizer of the early 20th century who was wiped out by the copper barons. The song asserts that Joe never dies, a phenomenon that fits right into the entire Oz mythology. The song also works in Oz because it completely ignores the cold reality that labor unions of the postwar era were noted more for their corrupt leaders than their efforts on behalf of the working stiff.
Saint Joan in bed with Jimmy Hoffa. Imagine that. Could have been another Jack Nicholson-Anjelica Huston matchup.
Crosby, Stills, Nash (and a little bit of Young, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “Sea of Madness,” “Wooden Ships”: CSNY is where hippies went to die, especially those who still thought the dream was still alive after the political slaughter (both literal and at the polls) of 1968. My dad still has their records and he knows that if he ever plays one in my presence I will immediately pack my bags and leave. Here they open with that ludicrous ode to that lacy lilting lady losing love lamenting Judy Collins, and Stills’ guitar and voice are laughingly out of tune. Graham Nash hits his spots, but I’ve never known what the hell David Crosby does or why. Neil Young’s piece, “Sea of Madness,” lifted lazily from Fillmore East, is played like they had a flight to catch. The best line in “Wooden Ships” is “We are leaving: you don’t need us.” Amen to that, brother!
The Who, “We’re Not Gonna Take It”: Apparently The Who performed all of Tommy at Woodstock, so I should be very thankful that only the last five minutes are included on this record. All I can say is that the performance is much better in the movie with Daltrey’s muscles flexing through the fringe of his costume as he raises his arms to the heavens. In still pictures, his costume looks fucking ridiculous, and as for the quality of the audio-only version . . . well, folks, let me give you a tip. When you’re going to sing something, it’s a really bad mistake to miss that first note by a mile and a half. The rest of the performance sounds like The Who are very, very tired, and they probably were.
After The Who leave the stage, we’re treated to a couple of stage announcements, the most important of which is the announcement that the Woodstock Music & Art Fair is now a free concert. The announcement reveals that the hippies were not as enlightened as they claimed to be:
This is one thing that . . . I was going to wait awhile before we talked about it, but maybe we’ll talk about it now so you can think about it, because you all—we all—have to make some kinds of plans for ourselves. It’s a free concert from now on. That doesn’t mean that anything goes—what that means is we’re going to put the music up here for free. Now, let’s face the situation: we’ve had thousands and thousands of people come here today. Many, many more than even knew or dreamt or thought would be possible. We’re gonna need each other to help each other to work this out because we’re taxing the systems that we have set up. We’re going to be bringing the food in. But the one major thing you have to remember tonight when you go back up into the woods to go to sleep or if you stay here—is that the man next to you is your brother and you damn well better treat each other that way because if we don’t, we blow the whole thing, but we’ve got it, right there.
I had no idea that Woodstock was a stag party. Well, at least it was in one asshole’s mind.
Joe Cocker, “With a Little Help from My Friends”: My dad confirmed my suspicions that John Belushi completely destroyed Joe Cocker as a credible performer. “Before Belushi did his thing, Cocker’s version of ‘Little Help from My Friends’ was considered one of the great masterpieces of the decade, right up there with ‘A Day in the Life.'” I tried to get my head around that while I listened to this piece three times, hoping to magically transport myself back into that era and really try to hear the magic that the listeners of the time heard in this cover. I do think the arrangement is very clever, dispensing with the jaunty beat in the verses of the original for a more majestic, dramatic feel. And in the first couple of verses, Cocker’s not bad at all. It’s only as he starts to feel it that he begins to sound like Frankenstein hit by a bolt of lightning. I watched the film and saw no evidence of foaming at the mouth, but I sure as shit can hear it. He sounds like a madman with a splintered stick up his ass.
At the end of this track is one of the more Oz-like moments: the rainstorm. “Hey, if we think really hard, maybe we can stop this rain!” If we close our eyes and click our heels, we’ll be back home in Kansas.
Because the LP ran out of room, the rainstorm sequence continues for three minutes into the next track. You’ll definitely want to skip those three minutes, where the lemmings are deeply engaged in a rain chant. Due to the mental limitations of the participants, the “melody” is only one-fourth of the pattern of “Land of 1000 Dances.” The drumming is classic beach-bongo quality, and some idiot has to pull out a kazoo towards the end. This kazoo player is quite a show-off, replicating the five-note melody in two different octaves. What a fucking genius.
Santana, “Soul Sacrifice”: Omigod. Is that a musician I hear? One who can really play? Omigod! It is! Carlos, I could suck your cock right now, buddy! Pull it out and show me what you’ve got! Okay, now that we’ve dispensed with your touch of erotica for the day, I will simply state that the difference between Santana and all the acts who preceded them is as wide as the evolutionary difference between the human and the paramecium. They’re tight, they’re tuned-up and they’re on fire. Santana’s appearance at Woodstock, occasioned by besting It’s a Beautiful Day in a coin flip, was timed to coincide with the release of their first album. While I can admire the perfect timing of a product release, what’s more impressive is how musically superior they are to the big names surrounding them on the bill. It’s not even close.
After Carlos and crew exit the stage, we have one of the most insightful announcements of them all: the reading of The New York Times. Counterculture my ass: these people cared a great deal about what The Establishment thought of them. You can’t get any more Establishment than The New York Times!
Okay, okay. Okay people, we got The Times! Okay. On the front page, you have on the left, a very big aerial photo of a huge mass of people, which are YOU and it says, “Music was the magic for throngs at Woodstock Music and Art Fair. Towers near the stage hold large figures. 300,000 at folk rock fair camp out in a sea of mud.” (Laughs, cheers.) Dig it, dig it . . . Despite massive traffic jams, drenching thunderstorms, shortages of food, water, medical facilities, about 300,000 young people swarmed over this rural area today for The Woodstock Music and Art Fair. At the prospect of drugs and the excitement of making the scene, the young people came in droves, camping in the woods, romping in the mud, talking, smoking and listening to (unintelligible) music. Quote: “Participants well-behaved!”
After all that talk of revolution against their pig parents, they were still desperate for their approval. See how well-behaved I am, daddy?
Ten Years After, “I’m Goin’ Home”: Here I have a bias in response to bias. Alvin Lee is a fucking homophobe, and as a half-homo I find him intensely offensive. The first verse of “I’d Love to Change the World” sends me into a near-violent tizzy:
Everywhere is freaks and hairies
Dykes and fairies
Tell me where is sanity?
And here he is at the center of history’s largest love-in. I guess “try to love one another right now” only applied to heterosexuals. Fuck him.
Even if he weren’t a queer-baiting asshole, I also loathe his guitar style, which is histrionic in the extreme. It was guys like Alvin Lee who set the stage for guitar queens like Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen. Who gives a shit about who is the “fastest guitar player in the world?” Speed isn’t everything, people. If you’re a guy, do you really want to be known as the fastest fuck in the world?
Jefferson Airplane, “Volunteers”: If there’s one performance at Woodstock that conclusively proves that the hippies couldn’t put two and two together, it’s this one. Abandoning the superb melodies and harmonies of Surrealistic Pillow, the Airplane transformed themselves into the house band for The Weather Underground. The album Volunteers is full of Marxian, manifesto-like declarations about how “we” are going to take the fight to the streets and overthrow the pigs, as we hear in this not-very-stirring call to action:
Look what’s happening out in the streets
got a revolution got to revolution
Hey I’m dancing down the streets
got a revolution got to revolution
Ain’t it amazing all the people I meet
got a revolution got to revolution
One generation got old
One generation got soul
Translation: our parents won’t let us stay up past bedtime, so we’re going to start a revolution! We’ll turn nouns into verbs! That will show them!
Putting aside the sheer childishness of the message, did anybody wonder why a big, capitalistic, establishment-oriented record company like RCA Victor would agree to release a record threatening an anarchist overthrow of The United States of America? Answer, courtesy of Wikipedia: “Despite its controversies, the album was a commercial success, becoming the band’s fourth top twenty hit record and went gold within two months of its release.” Revolution was the Florida Land Boom of the 60’s!
The one good thing about this sloppily-performed piece of radical bullshit is that it gave The National Lampoon the line that inspired a satiric masterpiece: “Come on now, we’re marching to the sea.” Go, lemmings, go!
Sly and the Family Stone, “Medley”: A melange of “Dance to the Music,” “Hey Music Lover” and “I Want to Take You Higher,” this is another high point of the weekend, no pun intended. My curious indifference to the album Stand! is easily explained by what you hear on Woodstock. Free from the boundaries of the studio where Sly can’t get his hands on the latest technological gimmick, The Family Stone lets it rip in the great outdoors with ten times the energy and intensity of their studio work. There’s no question that Sly’s decision to spur a crowd of 300,000 drug users to shout out “HIGHER!” at the top of their lungs was the ultimate no-brainer (pun intended), but it’s still a very exciting passage—almost too exciting, for when they begin to play the song proper, there is a noticeable decline in kilowatt output. Sly’s vocals on this track are clearly superior to anything he ever did in the studio: he’s got the feel and he’s got the chops.
John Sebastian, “Rainbows All Over Your Blues”: Why a guy who had shot his wad as far back as 1966 got two slots on the Woodstock album is anybody’s guess, but this performance does have the virtue of introducing a supporting hypothesis to the Oz theory: that Woodstock was an experience for children who refused to grow up. Prior to the annual showings of The Wizard of Oz, the Broadway version of Peter Pan with Mary Martin in the title role was broadcast as an NBC special in 1955 and 1956, attracting record numbers of viewers. Perhaps Sebastian was watching, because here he certainly sounds like he’s flying on something, or living in an alternative reality:
“Wow. Far around! Far DOWN! Far UP! You’re truly amazing, you’re a whole city. And it’s so GROOVY to come here and see all of you people living in tents. A cloth house is all you need if you’ve got love. [reviewer’s note: I gagged here.] I’ll tell you . . . could I get a little bit of water . . . Hey, uh, I don’t know, you know, I don’t know how I could come much harder right now, but I’d like to sing you one little song, I’d like to sing you a song, actually I’d like to dedicate it to—there’s a cat and I really don’t even know his name but I remember that the chick said that uh, that uh, his old lady just had a baby and that made me think, wow, it really is a city here. But this is, this is for you and your old lady, man and whew! That kid’s gonna be far out.”
“Dreams do come true, if only we wish hard enough. You can have anything in life if you will sacrifice everything else for it,” wrote J. M. Barrie. Well, not in this case. There is no credible evidence that any babies were born at Woodstock. The Daily Mail reported that there were eight miscarriages. CBS reported that after forty years, no one has come forward with a credible story that he or she is the Woodstock Baby, despite the incalculable financial opportunity of such an association.
Butterfield Blues Band, “Love March”: Oh, for fuck’s sake. Butterfield’s band also appears post-peak, and to rub their faces in the mud, the producers of this record allotted them this embarrassing attempt at crowd motivation.
Jimi Hendrix, “Star-Spangled Banner,” “Purple Haze,” “Instrumental Solo”: Another “legendary performance” ends our slog through the muck and mire of Woodstock. Jimi didn’t appear until Monday, after most of the crowd had either gone home, entered hospitals or gotten themselves busted. He tells the waning minions they can go home if they want, and that “we’re just jamming,” so the first couple of minutes are rather dull. Interest is piqued when he starts to play that horrible melody of Francis Scott Key, and various savants have speculated as to what was running through Jimi’s mind when he chose to play this particular number at the “seminal event.” The hippie obsession with connecting everything to some larger meaning or conspiracy is operating here, but Jimi denied any nefarious motive. When Dick Cavett asked Jimi if he thought his rendition was “blasphemous,” he replied in utter simplicity, “I thought it was beautiful.” That’s what it sounds like to me: a guitarist fascinated with the music he’s playing. As he plays the melody, he is also thinking of the lyrics as he goes, so he uses his mastery of guitar effects to create the rocket’s red glare and bombs bursting in air. I think it’s one of the most interesting interpretations of a fundamentally rotten song that I have ever heard. The rest of Jimi’s performance is pedestrian at best.
Looking Back with My Flower-Child Parents
ARC: So, I want to confirm for my readers that you were indeed Flower Children, that you went to love-ins and be-ins, hung out in the Haight, spent weekends at Fillmore West, did drugs, burned incense, all the usual stuff.
DAD: Guilty as charged.
MAMAN: You forgot the headband. I loved my headbands!
ARC: Excuse the oversight. So, when it begin to dawn on you that the whole thing was bullshit?
MAMAN: (Arching her eyes.) I take it that this is not to be an unbiased interview. (Daughter hangs head in shame.) I never took it that seriously in the first place, the change-the-world idea. It was more about personal liberation for me. I would say that some of what happened made me feel hopeful for a while, but I lost that feeling after the assassinations. It took your father much longer to give up the dream.
DAD: Yeah, that’s true. I was a little down after Nixon won, but there was still a war to end, and I was still a card-carrying member of the SDS. I think my disillusionment began with the ’69 convention and the split with The Weathermen, but I couldn’t believe that anyone would take them seriously. I mean, The Red Guard in the U. S. A? I still believed we could change the system, so I didn’t really get it until McGovern got creamed.
ARC: That’s one long period of denial. The evidence shows that your generation was one of the most ineffective in history; you guys really were “King Midas in Reverse.” Everything you touched produced the opposite of your intentions. Look at the timeline. 1964: LBJ, running on a clearly socialist platform, wins with 61% of the vote. 1966: only 42% of Americans supported the death penalty. 1967: enter the hippies with The Summer of Love and an anti-war movement that was starting to gain traction. 1968: All three of the presidential candidates supported the war. In the general election, the right-wing candidates collected 57% of the vote.
DAD: Don’t remind me. I remember waking up one morning and one of the polls—Harris or Gallup—showed Humphrey running behind Wallace. I couldn’t fucking believe it. I thought the world had gone insane.
ARC: The war didn’t end for years, Americans soon began supporting the death penalty in massive numbers and The War on Poverty was transformed into whites being victimized by welfare queens. And the crime rate went through the roof. Great job, guys!
DAD: Hey, we ended the draft!
ARC: No, you didn’t. Richard Nixon ended the draft to neutralize his political opponents. Look it up!
DAD: Well, I still think we made a difference.
MAMAN: Yes, I do, too, but you have to admit we had no understanding of politics. Where we had our greatest impact was in the environmental movement.
ARC: Certainly in First World countries, yes. I also give you credit for organic food. And free love—though The Pill had a lot to do with that. But the long-term view shows that the movement was a pimple on the ass of history. You wanted to transform America into a haven of peace and today it is a paranoid country where the military are worshipped and where gun ownership rates are skyrocketing. You wanted an America of equal opportunity, and today America has a dwindling middle class and income disparity that ranks with pre-revolution France—and most of the rich are the once anti-capitalist members of the Baby Boomer generation. As for love, well, people seem to fuck a lot, so I guess that’s something.
MAMAN: You grew up in a very cynical time, so you take a very cynical view. Our generation had one thing that your generation cannot understand: we had hope.
ARC: What do you mean we don’t understand hope? Clinton and Obama sold us on hope.
MAMAN: Yes, but we had real hope, not just a campaign slogan.
ARC: And all of your heroes wound up dead.
MAMAN: And your generation has no heroes except for a few successful capitalists. You don’t have an appreciation for real hope: the belief that things can better. It is the thing that makes human progress possible. I was very sad about the assassinations, and not just because we lost two leaders who had a vision of what we could become. I was sad because I felt hopeless for a time. Hope is very important to the health of the human soul.
ARC: I don’t disagree with that, but you have to combine hope with common sense. What was the point of alienating an entire generation—your parents? Instead of trying to build bridges to the war generation, you dismissed them as hopeless. You made enemies when you would have been better off making friends.
MAMAN (sighs): Yes, yes, yes, I agree that we lacked good strategy and tactics. But at least we were trying: your generation has done nothing.
ARC: I’ll give you that one. But I do think my generation has more common sense. We know that this system is never going to produce a society of love, peace and happiness. It would take a disaster of worldwide proportions to achieve that: the whole thing would have to go up in flames. Or the aliens would have to drop in for a visit. I’m not going to spend my life waiting for Armageddon or ET to show up. I’ll work with the cards I’ve been dealt, make the best of it and let history take care of itself. Call us “the patient generation.”
DAD: You’re probably right. I think the only thing you can do now is live life honestly and try not to hurt people. The only thing we can control is ourselves, and maybe someday enough people will get it and realize that we all have to live on the same planet.
ARC: Spoken like a true child of The Sixties. “Maybe someday” should have been the 60’s tagline. Let’s talk about the music. “Spotty” is a good adjective.
DAD: There were some misses, yeah, but I think it was a lot better than you portrayed in your posts.
ARC: That’s only because I’d already done Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, Odessey and Oracle, Surrealistic Pillow and Hendrix’ first. When you add those into the mix, I think I was pretty balanced. There wasn’t much I could have done with the crap that was left. I loved the spirit of experimentation, but you have to admit that too often it was like a dysfunctional science club: experimenting for the hell of it. I was very impressed with Piper at the Gates of Dawn and S. F. Sorrow.
MAMAN: I thought you were very fair. You didn’t even touch some of the worst of that era, like Iron Butterfly and Vanilla Fudge.
DAD: Hey, they weren’t that bad!
MAMAN: You are not qualified to respond. You like everything.
DAD: Maybe it’s because I’m more open-minded than some people.
MAMAN AND ARC: Bullshit!
ARC: One more thing—did you guys ever think of going to Woodstock?
DAD: Hell, no! Travel cross-country so I could see bands I’ve already seen and would see again at The Fillmore, The Avalon and Winterland? I don’t even think I realized it was going on until that weekend.
MAMAN: If it had happened in 1967, I probably would have gone. I was up for anything then.
DAD: That’s true. Hey, that thing about your headbands made me remember the time when we were at that cabin on the Russian River and you stripped right down to—
MAMAN: Assez! This is going public! Show the proper decorum!
ARC: (Laughs.) It’s good to know that being a temp-hippie didn’t contaminate into your French soul. Thanks, old-timers!
DAD: Peace (Flashes the sign.)