Pink Floyd’s “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”

50 years

piper

Yippee, you can’t see me

But I can you

Not long ago I wrote about a dinner party I hosted (“The Craziest Meal I Never Had”). While I thought it was a good party, there were also some tense moments. After I bade goodbye to Herman Melville, Billy the Kid, and Crazy Horse, I retired to the den to reflect on the evening. I thought about how ill-mannered Billy was, and how distracted Herman seemed. My Indian friend, understandably, appeared very uncomfortable.

Then I thought about the fourth guest I invited: the one who never showed up. In fact, I didn’t even get an RSVP. But it’s probably good he didn’t attend. He would have been as uncomfortable as Crazy.

When finished reflecting, I decided to honour this reticent invitee the only way I knew. So I dragged myself upstairs, lit a stick of patchouli incense, dimmed the lights, and put on one of his records.

***

Most people have heard of the rock band Pink Floyd, even if they may not be fans. Casual fans might have a hazy recollection of a mysterious chap who led the band in its earliest days… before Floyd was “welcomed to the machine,” when it was still a cult psychedelic group known mainly in England. Only the most devoted fans know the full details of the tragic yet poignant Syd Barrett, a brilliant artist who briefly burned like a nova, then fried to a crisp and spent 35 years living like Greta Garbo.

Since I’m reviewing a record album here, I won’t go into Barrett’s strange and sad odyssey through music and life. There are plenty of places out there that deal with that stuff.

Anyway, discussing his music is the best way to properly honour this artist. And I do mean “artist.” Pink Floyd guitarist and childhood friend David Gilmour, who knew Barrett as much as anyone other than his family (and despite taking his place in the band) called him one of only a couple musical geniuses, along with Bob Dylan. He also maintains that Barrett’s collapse wasn’t all that unusual: many people in the late 1960s also fell by the wayside. But 99 percent of them we don’t hear about. Barrett stands out because he was so gifted, and because the band he fronted oh so long ago achieved phenomenal international success…without him.

Barrett was a butterfly that broke through the netting, his wings forever damaged. But this is important: despite numerous attempts, they were never able to pin him to Styrofoam.

***

THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN (released August 5, 1967) is a surreal, slightly ominous title for a rock album.  Surprisingly, Syd Barrett didn’t conceive it. He borrowed it from his favourite chapter in his favourite book, Kenneth Grahame’s fantasy classic The Wind in the Willows. But the title expertly sums up the mixture of science fiction and children’s fantasy that inform the words and music on the record.

grahame illustration

Paul Bransom illustration from “The Wind in the Willows”

Within these grooves we share English tea with all varieties of the phantasmagoric. Hallucinating gnomes. Existential scarecrows. Sinister, mind-reading cats. Outer (inner?) space denizens. “The doll’s house, darkness, old perfume…”

Ok, I hear you snicker. “This is the kind of airy fairy shit that gave hippies a bad name.” You may be right. A lot of this stuff was done by hack musicians/writers eager to hitch a ride on the magic bus. But…

Long ago, before LSD became laced with kerosene and the Summer of Love became a cliché and marketing tool, there existed a few imaginative, English art students bent on taking music, words, and art to undiscovered areas. The blueprint for the new music was created by the band Pink Floyd, helmed by the youngest member, Roger Keith (Syd) Barrett of Cambridge, who named his band after two of his beloved cats (who were named after two obscure American bluesmen). Barrett had already penned two eye-opening acid-pop singles that titillated the London youth underground: “Arnold Layne,” a true story about a transvestite who steals women’s underwear from washing lines; and “See Emily Play,” a slice of English whimsy that teeters on insanity.

Based on these singles, EMI Columbia financed Pink Floyd’s first full-length LP in early 1967. It was recorded in Abbey Road Studios, right when the Beatles were putting the finishing touches on SGT. PEPPER. Legend has it that the Floyd members occasionally peeked in on Lennon and McCartney to absorb the brilliance. I propose it was the other way around.

If so, what might John and Paul have heard? There are two faces to this record: an unsettling and ragged trip into space (I’ll call it the Gates of Dawn) and a pleasant and pastoral trip back to childhood (The Piper… this would be all Syd). I’ll save The Piper songs for later.

“Astronomy Domine” “Pow R. Toc H.,” and “Interstellar Overdrive” come close to the later Floyd sound and were staples of the band’s blinding, liquid-light-fantastic live shows. All soar into space on the static-y strings of Barrett’s guitar. “Astronomy” is bolstered by Nick Mason’s tribal drumming, and the 10-minute “Interstellar” by Richard (Rick) Wright’s cosmic organ. “Pow R. Toc H.,” one of the album’s lesser songs, is an instrumental crammed with vocal and instrumental sound effects, but it has a characteristic spacey Floydian closeout.

Let me interject that Barrett on guitar was no Eric Clapton. But he made up for technical inadequacy by bravely exploring the instrument’s electric and aural capabilities (using a silver guitar adorned with 15 circular mirrors). He pioneered a technique of channeling bottleneck slide through an echo device, which gave the Floyd a distinctive eerie sound. His replacement, Gilmour, used this technique throughout his time with the Floyd.

Back to the songs: “Take Up thy Stethoscope and Walk” is Roger Waters’ very first composition. Nothing notable here except the paranoid vocals by Barrett.

Hutton Archive, Getty Images

Waters, Mason, Barrett, Wright (Hutton Archive, Getty Images)

“Lucifer Sam” is a sleek nugget about a third feline owned by Barrett, a mysterious Siamese named Sam. The descending chords and twangy guitar lines have been described as “psychedelic Duane Eddy,”  and recall the Sloan-Barri hit sung by Johnny Rivers, “Secret Agent Man.” In my garage-band days, I used to love playing this song (Sean Connery always popped into my head). It’s the closest song to a single on PIPER, in the same vein as “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play.”

Now for The Piper part of the record: these songs were written exclusively by Barrett, except for “Matilda Mother,” where Rick Wright assists on the arrangement.

“The Gnome” and “The Scarecrow” might as well be solo Barrett – I’m not sure if anyone else even plays on them, except perhaps Mason offering soft percussion help. Both are pastoral evocations that capture children’s fascination with the unreal possibly being real. “The Scarecrow,” also, has a rolling melody that may have made Paul McCartney blush while eavesdropping on the proceedings.

“Chapter 24” is a collection of observations lifted from the I Ching and set to music: “Change returns success/Going and coming without error/Action brings good fortune/Sunset, sunrise.” This song may have been inspired by Barrett’s interest in Eastern philosophies. Like other young people seeking new ways of thinking, he’d attempted to join a Sant Mat sect, but was rejected for being too young. Some say he took the rejection as a personal insult. He turned to LSD for his enlightenment.

The oddest song here is probably “Bike:” “I’ve got a bike/You can ride it if you like/It’s got a basket/A bell that rings/And things to make it look good… I’d give it to you if I could/But I borrowed it.” Note the rhyming, alliteration, and syncopation. Also, the little lyric twist at the end. On surface, it seems like a nothing song.  But Barrett was a skilled writer, and like all great writers, he understood the power of letters and words.

John Steele Collection

Teenaged Syd Barrett in the family garden with guitar and tiger cat (Floyd? Pink?). Lucifer Sam is by his side in the foliage shadows (John Steele Collection)

Now for the pièce de résistance, the two songs that may be the cream of all English psychedelia. Musically and lyrically, they’re a joy to listen to: “Matilda Mother” and “Flaming.”

“Matilda Mother” is a bittersweet memory of Barrett’s about fairy stories read by his mother. The best psychedelic music was less about hallucinating through drugs than about escapism in general, and in “Matilda Mother,” Barrett yearns to throw off the baggage of adulthood and return to the comforting calm of his mother, and the “scribbly black” lines she recited, where the phantasmagoric was tangible and “everything shines.” Rick Wright, the low-key, underrated keyboardist in Floyd, who later also wrote several evocative songs about childhood, co-writes and co-sings.

“Flaming” is my favourite song on the album. Originally entitled “Snowing,” it’s a tune that requires no effort to listen to, just opened ears, an open mind, and a willingness to float on “eiderdown” through fields of buttercups and dandelions. Listen to this with a good set of headphones and let Wright’s deep organ fills wash over you, and Barrett’s stirring multi-tracked vocals warm your insides. You may giggle at the sudden entrance of a cuckoo… but, then, you’re supposed to. On surface, this song is about playing hide-and-seek. We were all children, once, so who cannot relate to that? But, as Lewis Carroll, Kenneth Grahame, and Syd Barrett all knew, words have different meanings.  “Flaming” clocks in at a mere two-and-a-half minutes, but it’s more breathtaking than all four sides of THE WALL.  And it has one of the most beautiful musical closeouts ever devised.  John and Paul certainly walked away shaking their heads in astonishment.  It’s obvious where they got the final notes for “She’s Leaving Home.”

Many have tried over the years, but nobody writes songs like this anymore. Very few back then could, either.

To its credit, U.S. subsidiary Tower Records actually released “Flaming” as Pink Floyd’s third U.S. single. But the song is too good, so it never charted.

floyd with gilmour

Revealing photo of the brief five-piece Pink Floyd. Gilmour is front left, Syd is hovering in back…a non-entity at this point (Pink Floyd Music Ltd Archive)

***

The Pink Floyd sound and image changed noticeably after PIPER was released and Barrett left the band. Rick Wright’s keyboards replaced Barrett’s guitar as the dominant instrument. The songs became longer and more thematic. Lyrically, Roger Waters adhered to Barrett’s philosophy of “keep it simple,” although Waters being Waters, more than a little social and political commentary crept into things. And since the band had no distinct leader anymore, the members’ identities were mysterious, even to many fans.

With the release of the epic DARK SIDE OF THE MOON in 1973, however, the Pink Floyd capsule finally broke the sound barrier of fame. Although the musicians still retained an air of mystery, their days as a curious cult attraction were forever gone. They could now enjoy the fruits of the capitalism which Roger Waters criticizes.

Strangely, however, The Piper never totally disappeared: his spirit and influence haunted the band and its songs until the end.

Psychedelic rock, or acid rock, only lasted a few years, from 1967 to ’69 or ’70.   Much of it was juvenile and derivative (“bullshit” … see earlier post). But the best psychedelic rock is extremely interesting, in my view, and a few records could be termed classics. One of them is THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN, Pink Floyd’s one and only album with a colorful, talented, and enigmatic butterfly named Syd Barrett.

***

Longitudes has now profiled four groundbreaking albums this year (three of them debuts). In December, I’ll discuss one more rock masterpiece in honor of its 50th anniversary, closing out what I consider the penultimate year for rock albums: 1967. But, in the spirit of “laughing Syd Barrett” (as Jimi Hendrix  jokingly called him) I’ll keep you guessing as to what it is.

(Have you got it yet?)

The Wind in the Willows Shepard

 

Come Ride the Little Train: In Praise of “Petticoat Junction”

Forget about your cares

It is time to relax

At the Junction…

My most frequent babysitter as a kid was the television set.  Now, I know I’m strange, but I don’t think that’s atypical for baby boomers.  I probably saw most episodes of the more popular cartoons, Westerns, and sitcoms made during the 1960s. Back then, though, I didn’t know which shows were good and which were bad. I just watched what the networks fed me. I hadn’t yet developed any critical thinking skills.

Today, thanks to various cable TV stations that specialize in nostalgia, I get to indulge in many of these shows again. And I sometimes wonder “Why did I ever watch this dopey thing?”

One of them is the half-hour CBS show, Petticoat Junction. This is a situation comedy with a rural theme that aired between 1963 and 1970. Petticoat Junction had two sister shows, “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres.” These two shows were funny. Petticoat Junction was… well… “charming.” But there were no truly wacko characters, so the show relied more on situations, and the laughs were sparse.

So why am I praising it? Maybe because I’m now popping Centrum® senior multivitamins, but I don’t require laughs like I once did. Just smiles. These days, old-fashioned settings and cornball humor, which Petticoat Junction had in spades, are (pardon the colloquialism)… fine and dandy.

Granny and Jethro Clampett are TV classics, and I love the crazed bumpkins in “Green Acres,” who lived in a strange, alternative universe. But Petticoat Junction, for me, is less frenzied.

Heavens to Betsy, I don’t want frenzy these days! What do I want? I’ll tell you: I want to recline in a rocking chair on the front porch of the Shady Rest Hotel, ogle the beautiful Bradley sisters, then mosey inside with Uncle Joe to sample Kate Bradley’s fried chicken, dumplings, and gravy.

Bradley sisters, first lineup. L to R: Linda Kaye Henning, Pat Woodell, Jeannine Riley

Petticoat Junction (henceforth “PJ”) was one of three situation comedies (including the earlier “The Beverly Hillbillies” and the later “Green Acres”) created by a man named Paul Henning. Henning was a prolific writer of radio, television, and film. In 1962, he concocted an idea for a television show about a bunch of hillbillies who strike it rich, then move to swanky Beverly Hills, California. “The Beverly Hillbillies” was so successful, Henning was asked to invent another show. This would be PJ.

Henning came up with the show’s premise from stories his wife told of being a child in Eldon, Missouri, where her grandparents ran a hotel near some railroad tracks. She entertained Henning with anecdotes about the simple local folk, and the city slickers who checked into the hotel. Henning liked the contrast, which was sort of a reversal of “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

He called his fictional hotel the “Shady Rest,” situating it midway between the farm towns of Hooterville and Pixley. A three-car passenger train named the “Hooterville Cannonball” connected the two boroughs, but apparently went nowhere else (if you like trains, the “Cannonball” might be worthy of research). The town of Hooterville had a small grocery store run by a man named Sam Drucker (Frank Cady). Nearby lived various farmers, such as Fred, Doris, and Arnold Ziffle (the last-named a near-genius pig), Newt Kiley, catty Selma Plout, deaf Grandpappy Miller, ex-New Yorkers Oliver Wendell and Lisa Douglas, and others. But most of the action occurred in and around the Shady Rest Hotel.

Here, a widow named Kate Bradley (Bea Benaderet) managed the Shady Rest, along with her three luscious daughters: Billie Jo, Bobbie Jo, and Betty Jo. They were assisted… or unassisted… by Kate’s uncle, Joe Carson (Edgar Buchanan). There was also a frisky terrier with no name who was always upstaging Uncle Joe whenever Joe tried to concoct some new, failed business enterprise.

Additional characters included Cannonball engineers Charlie Pratt (Smiley Burnette), conductor Floyd Smoot (Rufe Davis), and bad guy Homer Bedloe (prolific character actor Charles Lane), who was forever trying to shut down the Cannonball. Later seasons featured cropduster Steve Elliott (Mike Minor), who eventually married Betty Jo, both in the show and in real life; engineer Wendell Gibbs (Byron Foulger); game warden Orrin Pike (Jonathan Daly); and Dr. Janet Craig (June Lockhart of “Lassie” and “Lost in Space”).

Bradley sisters, second lineup. L to R: Linda Kaye Henning, Lori Saunders, Gunilla Hutton

PJ ran for seven seasons. The cast frequently changed, which helped keep the show fresh. Three different actresses played blonde Billie Jo: Jeannine Riley, then Gunilla Hutton, then Meredith MacRae. Two actresses played brunette Bobbie Jo: Pat Woodell, then Lori Saunders. Redheaded Betty Jo was played throughout by Linda Kaye Henning, daughter of Paul (billed as “Linda Kaye” early on).

Edgar Buchanan, as Uncle Joe, was the only other principal actor besides Henning and Frank Cady to last the entire run. He was the closest thing to a wacko and provided many of the best laughs. He just wasn’t as good-looking as his nieces.

Along with its instantly recognizable theme song, music played a big part in PJ, both inside and outside the show. Actress Pat Woodell was a professional singer, and Meredith MacRae was the daughter of singer/actors Sheila (“The Honeymooners”) and Gordon MacRae (OKLAHOMA). During the 1963-64 season, the three Bradley girls and a friend (played by Sheila James from “Dobie Gillis”) formed a mop-top pop group called The Ladybugs, in response to the Beatles’ recent success (the actresses recorded a single as The Ladybugs and, like the Beatles, appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show”). In 1968-69, MacRae, Saunders, and Henning released two singles as The Girls from Petticoat Junction. And many episodes, particularly the later ones, featured group singalongs around the piano.

_________

Of the seven seasons that PJ aired, my favorites are seasons four and five. These featured Meredith MacRae, probably the most popular Billie Jo. By this time, the sisters’ personas had solidified: Billie Jo was smart and career-minded; Bobbie Jo was a cute airhead; and Betty Jo was the tomboy turned wife and mother.

Also, seasons four and five still featured Bea Benaderet as the mom, Kate Bradley. Benaderet was the most skilled actor in PJ. She’d had a long career in radio and television (she provided the voice for Betty Rubble in “The Flintstones”). She was so talented, that Paul Henning is on record saying that PJ existed only because he wanted to get Benaderet in a starring role.

Bea Benaderet

Sadly, Benaderet contracted lung cancer, and she missed much of season five. She died in 1968. Her place was taken by June Lockhart, who portrayed a doctor who takes up residence at the Shady Rest. Lockhart tried, but she couldn’t replace Benaderet. The show’s ratings declined.

PJ was canceled in 1970 at the beginning of an infamous “rural purge” by CBS. A lot had happened in America in the late 1960s, and CBS executives felt that comedies with rural themes were out of touch. Pat Buttram, who played Mr. Haney on “Green Acres,” famously said “(they) canceled everything with a tree.” Shows like PJ, “Green Acres,” and “Mayberry R.F.D.” were replaced by more urbane and topical sitcoms like “All in the Family,” “M.A.S.H.,” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

Those shows, and others from the 1970s, are comedic wonders, loaded with clever writing, characters, and trend-setting humor. But it’s a heterogenous world, and I feel there’s also a place for simpler, throwback shows like PJ. I’m grateful to MeTV for resurrecting this special show, which for some reason has been neglected by the suits at other cable stations.

If you like homespun simplicity, check out PJ, if not on MeTV, then on DVD. It won’t have you howling with laughter. But it has a simple grace that is especially welcomed in these graceless times.

Bradley sisters, third lineup. L to R: Linda Kaye Henning, Lori Saunders, Meredith MacRae (copyright Gene Howard)

Some interesting facts about PJ:

  • There were actually four Billie Jo’s. The original actress selected was Sharon Tate. She’s pictured in several early promo photos, but she resigned before taping because her agent felt she wasn’t ready for a major television role (some say it was because she had posed nude). She later popped up as a recurring guest character on “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
  • Pat Woodell, the original Bobbie Jo, left the show to become a singer. That didn’t work out well, and she returned to acting, appearing in several sexploitation flicks, including THE BIG DOLL HOUSE from 1971. She passed away in 2015.
  • The bright little terrier named “Dog” had the real name of “Higgins” and later was the star of the popular movie BENJIE, which also featured Edgar Buchanan.
  • Jeannine Riley and Gunilla Hutton, who both played Billie Jo, later jumped into the hay lofts of the variety show “Hee Haw” (another victim of CBS’s rural purge).
  • Before her one season in PJ, Gunilla Hutton was a chorus girl who toured with Nat King Cole. Cole became infatuated with Hutton, who was 19 years younger, and almost left his wife. He abandoned the fling after developing smoking-related lung cancer.
  • Mike Minor, who played handsome pilot Steve Elliott, was the son of Don Fedderson, creator of “My Three Sons.” He and Linda Kaye Henning were married five years, then divorced. Minor died in 2016.
  • Before PJ, Meredith MacRae played the girlfriend of the eldest Douglas boy in “My Three Sons.” (Shucks, why couldn’t the Bradley girls and Douglas boys ever hook up??). MacRae succumbed to brain cancer in 2000.
  • Lori Saunders’ real name is “Linda,” but she changed it to avoid confusion with Linda Kaye Henning. Saunders and Jeannine Riley later acted together in a failed sitcom called “Dusty’s Trail,” a clone of “Gilligan’s Isle” set in the West, starring Bob Denver and Forrest Tucker.
  • Frank Cady is the only actor to ever appear in three concurrent television shows (PJ, “Green Acres,” and “The Beverly Hillbillies”). He was in his 40s-50s when he played Sam Drucker. Cady lived to age 96, passing away in 2012.

(Wikipedia provided much of the information for this article. If you want to read an exhaustive analysis of the fictional town of Hooterville, click here. Someone devoted a lot of time to this subject. This person sounds even stranger than me.)

The Mystery Man of Steely Dan: An Interview with Singer David Palmer

david palmer_today

In 1971, David Palmer was working in a plastics factory in his home state of New Jersey. He’d recently left the rock band he’d sung with, the Myddle Class. For a few years in the mid-1960s, the Myddle Class were one of the most scintillating club groups in greater New York City. They were also on the same label and publishing company as ex-Brill Building songwriting team (Gerry) Goffin and (Carole) King.

Then, out of the blue, Palmer got a phone call. It was from an old friend, a guitarist named Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. Baxter told him that a new band was forming out in Los Angeles. They were looking for a singer. Would he be interested in auditioning?

Palmer flew out to L.A., sang at the audition, and was eventually hired.  The group’s name was Steely Dan (Baxter was lead guitarist through the first three albums, then joined the Doobie Brothers). The leaders and songwriters were Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. These two would soon be the sole members of Steely Dan, and they enjoyed enormous success, racking up hit singles and albums through the 1970s, as well as critical adulation and hall of fame induction. They’re still active today.

But what about Palmer? After only one album with Steely Dan [Can’t Buy a Thrill, on which he sang lead on two songs: “Dirty Work” (click here) and “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me),”] he dropped out of sight.

can't buy a thrill

I love good rock ‘n’ roll and have always been intrigued by footnotes, and Palmer seemed like the perfect rock footnote. So I decided to track him down. I soon located him, running his own digital photography business in California. I was pleasantly surprised when he agreed to a short interview.

In researching, I learned that, in addition to Steely Dan, Palmer crossed paths with some of the greatest names in popular music: Carole King and Gerry Goffin, of course, and also James Taylor, the Blues Project, and even the Velvet Underground.

I figured Palmer was very busy with his work in visual arts, and I assumed he distanced himself from music for a reason. So I kept my questions rudimentary and brief. Although his answers were also brief, I think they’re still real informative. So here’s my interview with a guy who, like Forrest Gump, seemed to always be at the right place at the right time.

steely dan_cropped

Early publicity photo of Steely Dan. L to R: “Skunk” Baxter, Walter Becker, David Palmer, Denny Dias, Donald Fagen, Jim Hodder

longitudes: You were an original member of Steely Dan, singing lead on “Dirty Work” and “Brooklyn,” as well as contributing harmony vocals on several other songs (and singing lead when the band toured).  What were Donald Fagen and Walter Becker like to work with?  Were they as demanding and perfectionist in the beginning as they supposedly were later on?

Palmer: Donald and Walter were The Dan. The rest of us were fortunate to be there. Brilliant writers both, and yes, demanding, but the result is on the record.

longitudes: Before joining Steely Dan, you were in a popular Jersey-NYC band called the Myddle Class. On December 11, 1965, you headlined an infamous show at Summit (New Jersey) High School, and your opening act was the Velvet Underground. It was their first gig under that name (occurring only a few weeks before the Velvets joined Andy Warhol).  Do you have any memories of that show, including meeting Lou Reed or the other Velvets?

TheMyddleClass_011-800x398

The Myddle Class.  L to R: Danny Mansolino, Dave Palmer, Rick Philp, Charles Larkey, Myke Rosa (image copyright Brett Aronowitz)

Palmer: No memories, really. I was only 19 and it wasn’t really a big deal to us. But that gig has become an urban legend of sorts, and you could probably fill Madison Square Garden with the amount of folks who claim to have been there that night!

longitudes: The Myddle Class did a classic garage-band rave-up, “Don’t Let Me Sleep Too Long” (click here), which Al Kooper and the Blues Project included on their album Projections (under the title “Wake Me, Shake Me”).  Your version is tremendously more exciting.  The song is derived from an old gospel tune.  Who originally adapted it, the Myddle Class or the Blues Project, and how close were you to the Project and/or other New York-based bands?

Palmer: We definitely stole it from the Blues Project, who stole it from Public Domain. We actually had a run-in with (Blues Project guitarist) Danny Kalb at Palisades Park when we opened for what was left of the Project. I think what really pissed him off was that (Myddle Class guitarist) Rick Philp played a much better solo on our record than (Kalb) had on theirs!

Someone once sent me a version of that tune that Springsteen recorded with one of his early bands…very cool. We weren’t close to the Project at all. We were closer to Kootch (guitarist/songwriter/producer Danny Kortchmar) and The Flying Machine, when James (Taylor) was in the band.myddle class poster_cropped

longitudes: Your vocals on the Myddle Class songs “I Happen to Love You” and “Don’t Let Me Sleep Too Long” have that archetypical sneering, teen rebel sound so prevalent in mid-60s urban bands.  It’s hard to reconcile this with the sweet-sounding guy who later sang with the Dan.  Was this a difficult vocal transition, or did it come naturally?

Palmer: Actually, I’ve always had a split personality with vocals. But the sweetness was what I believed was called for on the Dan tunes. However, if you go to my website www.davidpalmerimages.com and click on The Lost Demos section, you’ll hear me morph again!

longitudes: The Myddle Class were managed by music critic Al Aronowitz, the man who introduced Bob Dylan to the Beatles.  He also wrote a classic article about the hit songwriting team of Goffin-King.  You eventually became close friends with Carole King, later co-wrote an entire album with her, Wrap Around Joy, and Carole married Myddle Class bassist Charles Larkey.  Are you in touch with Carole these days, or with any surviving members of Myddle Class?

wrap around joy

Carole King’s 1974 LP Wrap Around Joy, co-written by Palmer

Palmer: Carole is extremely busy with the Clinton campaign, I believe. The last time I spoke to her was to offer condolences on the death of Gerry Goffin. Before that, it was to thank her for the shout-out she gave me at the Gershwin Awards for having co-written “Jazzman.”

I was close to Myke Rosa, Myddle Class drummer, for many years until his passing.

longitudes: Speaking of “Jazzman” (click here), the melody for that 1974 hit is real similar to Carole’s earlier breakout solo hit “It’s Too Late,” but it’s got some very smooth saxophone by Tom Scott. Do you know if Carole was consciously trying to replicate “It’s Too Late”?  Also, were you thinking of any particular jazz artist when you penned the words?

Palmer: Since Carole was so prolific, I doubt if she was even aware of sounding like earlier tunes. I mean it’s hard not to “resemble” yourself when it’s your style. And, yes, (John) Coltrane was the inspiration (for the song).

longitudes: In the late 1970s you joined a soft-rock band called Wha-Koo, which made three albums.  Can you please comment on that experience?

Palmer: Danny Douma and I put that band together. I loved the way he wrote, and I wasn’t too sure of what it was I was trying to do until much later. But I think some great tunes came out of that band, but things were changing, and we just missed the rising tide.

longitudes: After Wha-Koo broke up, what were your activities before becoming an artist/photographer?

Palmer: I stayed in the music biz far past my expiration date – as a writer, basically. Once again, I refer you to The Lost Demos on my website.

longitudes: You’re now a successful digital photographer.  Why did you leave music, and how did you get involved with photography?

Palmer: I woke up one day and, literally, couldn’t write, and knew it was over. And yet I also knew I needed a way to be creative. I fell in love with the process of creating images – from the initial camera work to the post in Photoshop. There seemed to be no limitation. And I didn’t have to ask the band what they thought!

longitudes: Thank you for your time, David.

Palmer: You’re welcome.

myddle class poster 2

The State of Donald Trump

trump_ochs

The other night a voice came to me, and it turned out it was the late, great, ‘60s protest singer, Phil Ochs. He said “Pete, wake up, this is Ochs here. Over.”

I said “You’re putting me on, of course, God.”

He then sang a few verses about the Vietnam War, and I realized it actually was Phil Ochs.

“I need you to do me a big favor,” he said.

I told him I was a huge admirer, have heard all his music, and that I’d do anything he asked. He told me he was concerned about the upcoming presidential election, and he wanted me to update his 1965 anthem “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” (which he himself later revised during the Nixon years).

Of course, I was flattered. But I explained that I was a terrible singer, and not much better as a guitarist.

“I know, I know. But you’re a boy in Ohio who likes old movies, like me, and you have a blog. I want you to use the framework of my song, but instead of Mississippi or Nixon, I want you to substitute Donald Trump. I’m really worried he might get elected.”

I told him it was impossible someone like Trump could be elected in America. I told him that, ever since I was a kid, the news media and politicians had assured me “The American people are smarter than that.” (Whatever “that” might be).

He laughed. “You don’t believe that line, do you? Ha ha, Pete, you’re so funny. Listen, Americans may know the maximum characters in a Tweet. But do they know the number of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court?”

“Uh, nine, right?” I asked.

“Well, normally. Only eight right now,” he said with a tone of disgust. “Which proves my point. Where’s the outrage??”

I remembered that, despite a treasure chest of brilliant songs, Ochs was denied even one hit.

“Yeah, I think you’re right, Phil.”

“I want you to do this thing for me, Pete. And after this new lyric has been seen by your readers – all six of them – I’m hoping one of them will sing it, put it on YouTube, and it will then go viral and prevent a national catastrophe.”

I told him I’d do my best, then asked him if he thought my puny efforts would make a difference. But he said he had to go, and muttered something about “Bobby Dylan” and “squandering his talent.”

So here it is. Please, if anyone can sing, and can put this thing on YouTube so it will go viral and prevent a national catastrophe, Phil and I will be very grateful.

fascist killing machine

Here’s to the State of Mr. Trump (sung to the tune of “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” by Phil Ochs)

Here’s to the state of Mr. Trump
For behind the flashy suit there’s a tyrant with no heart
An egotist, a con man bent on tearing us apart
A bully spreading poison in a country that he’s bought
And the GOP supports him ‘cause he’s really all they’ve got
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the party of Mr. Trump
Republican officials have discovered it’s too late
So now he’s not that bad, and he’ll be their party’s face
Though he’s a sexist and a bigot, he’ll make their country great
The party of wealth and power has endorsed a man of hate
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
GOP, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the rallies of Mr. Trump
If you dare to criticize him you’ll be shown the door real fast
And everything is “beautiful,” at least as long as winning lasts
And he’s fawned on by reporters ‘cause he brings them lots of cash
His supporters stretch their arms like the Germans from our past
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the foes of Mr. Trump
The ones who disagree will get labeled with a name
And anyone unlike him is where he’ll lay the blame
The politics of slander are used for his own gain
Derogatory insults are how he plays his game
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the victims of Mr. Trump
It’s the many he’s offended, it could be you or me
Immigrants and disabled who are seeking dignity
P.O.W.s and women, our purple mountains majesty
Forget about our green fields, he’ll strip and drill us clean
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the money of Mr. Trump
His tax return’s a mystery, it’s locked behind closed doors
His accountants smile and plot on how to move his cash offshore
Four billion that he’s bankrolled and you’re a “moron” if you’re poor
Now he’s bought the next election and the voters must endure
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the priorities of Mr. Trump
Corporations with his name are weighted down with lies
He claims he’s for the people but he’s wearing a disguise
Instead of tackling issues he talks about hand size
When he starts discussing women you’d better shield your ears and eyes
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the legacy of Mr. Trump
A country now a punch line, an embarrassment to the globe
Hypocrisy and ugliness, each day a newer low
He’s used our flag to wipe his rear, the Constitution to blow his nose
If Pete and Woody and Phil were here they’d tell Trump where to go
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

***

A free society without a free press is like a table with no legs. Yet Mr. Trump has already banned, from his events, a number of major media outlets that he perceives as being critical of him. This is unprecedented for a presidential candidate, and it’s not a good sign.

He may never visit this humble corner of the blogosphere. But I’d like Mr. Trump to know one thing:

“When I’ve got something to say, sir, I’m gonna say it now.”

(Many thanks to Sonny Ochs).

source of our liberty

Pearl

50 years

janis

All I know is something like a bird within her sang
All I know she sang a little while and then flew on
Tell me all that you know
I’ll show you snow and rain…

– from “Bird Song” by the Grateful Dead

She fled to California from Port Arthur, Texas in the early 1960s. From all accounts, she wanted to escape a stifling environment that had branded her a freak. She was a marginal student, suffered bad acne, sang black music, and hung out with “undesirables.” The gulf between her and her peers must have been as vast as the Gulf of Mexico.

A fourth-grade classmate was future NFL coach and FOX Sports commentator Jimmy Johnson. One of them perfectly fit the mold of conservative 1950s Texas. The other shattered it.

Friday, June 10 will be 50 years since rock singer Janis Joplin made her debut with Big Brother and the Holding Company at the legendary Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco. Recently, I was reminded of her greatness when the PBS show “American Masters” aired a very good documentary about her.

Folks, help me here please: has any woman singer since Janis possessed even a shot glass of her charisma? I don’t think so. Many have tried, and many have failed.

Only a few divas have even come close to replicating her sexually charged delivery of soulful blues-rock. Tina Turner certainly comes to mind. She and Janis actually did a duet on stage in 1969 (what a magical moment that must have been). Singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi, born one month after Janis died, has a little of Janis’s distinctive blues rasp.

But I’ll be gobsmacked if anyone has been able to tear down the rafters like “Pearl.” She glowed like St. Elmo’s fire for only four short years. Her likes hadn’t been seen since Bessie Smith in the 1920s, and they may never be seen again.janis2

I’ll grudgingly admit, though, she’s not for everybody. A friend of a friend once derided Joplin as “that shrieking harpy.” And most recordings of her are pretty shabby. Her most famous backup band was Big Brother, but even with two lead guitarists, they were little more than a distortion-heavy garage band.

Many people, especially women, can’t understand her appeal. Although never crude, Janis was wild, uninhibited, and boldly sexual. Which probably explains her biggest fans: horny young men. Some people prefer subtlety in their music and performers. And Janis was anything but subtle.

On stage I make love to 25,000 people. And then I go home alone.

Similar to her Haight-Ashbury friends, the Grateful Dead, Janis had to be seen and heard in a live setting. She was more about the moment than the artifact. One of her greatest performances is captured in D.A. Pennebaker’s MONTEREY POP, a groundbreaking cinéma vérité documentary about the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Until Monterey, she was unknown outside of San Francisco. But her performance of “Ball and Chain” sent earthquake tremors through the audience. The camera shot of Mama Cass Elliot sitting open-mouthed during Joplin’s performance, then mouthing the word “Wow,” is now part of rock legend.

The Monterey festival was her coming-out party. There would soon be a record contract, then national and international tours, Woodstock, and television appearances (she made four noteworthy appearances on “The Dick Cavett Show,” and Cavett says he’s still in love with her). She became the most famous woman in rock ‘n’ roll, and she holds that title even today.

***

In 1970, Janis returned to Port Arthur for her 10-year high school reunion, an exotic flamingo landing in a nest of sparrows. The reunion was bittersweet. Years earlier, while still in Texas and performing in coffeehouses at the University of Texas, an unnamed fraternity voted her “Ugliest Man on Campus.” One can only imagine how she felt at this brutal insult. Her friend and fellow musician, Powell St. John, said Janis took it hard.

But she never let it stop her.

***

I confess that I don’t often listen to her music these days – my shredded nervous system just can’t handle it – but Janis is special to me because her singing had something real and honest that you don’t often find anymore. Bullshit is the music industry’s stock and trade. But with Janis, there was no bullshit. When she sang, she pulled something from deep within her. Maybe despair.

Whatever that intangible was, it’s hard to imagine rock music without her; there would just be a big gaping hole. Janis held nothing back, and despite having to endure the agonies of childhood ridicule, she stayed true to her muse and plowed her own path. There aren’t many of us that can do that.

So, even though I don’t drink Southern Comfort (Janis’s favorite beverage), I plan to raise a glass to Pearl on June 10. As another friend once told me with great emotion, one who actually knew her: “She was one helluva woman.”

But, in truth, she was a little girl.

…Don’t you cry
Dry your eyes on the wind.

4-18-69_NY_by Elliot Landy

In New York City, April, 1969.  Photo copyright Elliot Landy

1966: A Very Good Musical Year

50 years

Louie-Louie

Listening to Spotify the other day, I landed on a band whose songs never fail to make me feel good: the Turtles. Remember them? Their No. 1 hit “Happy Together” is one of the most beloved anthems of the 1960s. Grade school lyrics, for sure, but absolutely luscious choral harmonies.

Years ago, when I began buying their records, I discovered the Turtles were not just a one-hit wonder. From 1965 to 1970 (in addition to their biggest song) they strung together a glittering necklace of golden tunes: “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” “Let Me Be,” “You Baby,” “She’d Rather Be With Me,” “She’s My Girl,” “Can I Get to Know You Better,” “Outside Chance,” “Is It Any Wonder,” “You Showed Me,” “Lady-O,” and many others.

The Turtles even recorded a version of the Kingston Trio’s “It Was a Very Good Year.”  Frank Sinatra heard it and loved it so much he did his own version… in inimitable Sinatra style, of course.

turtles

The Turtles in 1966. L-R: Al Nichol, Chuck Portz, Howard Kaylan, Jim Tucker, Mark Volman, Don Murray.

The Turtles were one of the few groups able to combine the best genres of ‘60s pop music – British Invasion, folk-rock, baroque pop, and flower power – and they did it with a warm, southern California smile. They flirted with weighty themes during their five-year existence, but they never took themselves too seriously. For me, the Turtles typified the sunny side of the ‘60s. And the sun was never brighter than in the year 1966.

It was a very peculiar and particular time in American history, when the music was ruling the world.

– Howard Kaylan, lead singer of the Turtles

Fifty years ago was a transitional time in popular music. The rock songs of 1966 bridged the folk, garage, and surf rock of the early ‘60s with the hard rock that came later on. It was also still an innocent time. The pied piper of the era – the Beatles – were still writing love songs and had only recently started experimenting with more exotic arrangements, instruments, and lyrics, like in “Rain,” “Norwegian Wood” and “Eleanor Rigby.” They’d also taken the hallucinogen LSD (at least, John and George had). But they’d yet to alter minds with their psychedelic masterwork, the LP “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (which arrived the following year).

barbarians

The Barbarians, with hook-handed drummer Moulty, had a minor hit with “Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl?” This was a crucial question in 1966.

On the radio, AM was still king in 1966. And AM radio played singles (45 rpm records), not album cuts. So the songs had to be brief but catchy. This format required artists to squeeze in their ideas in under three minutes. At minimum, you needed a verse, chorus, and bridge. Lyrics didn’t matter, but you had to have a catchy melody. Harmonica might provide a slight blues or folk feel, and guitars had to ring and chime. In 1966, most bands copped either the cheery, up-tempo Beatles or the bad-boy Rolling Stones. Some of the more adventurous tried covering Dylan (other than the Byrds, these attempts usually failed).

But the icing on the cake was multi-part vocal harmony. Great harmonies separated the men from the boys. They transformed modest two-and-a-half minute melodies into miniature symphonies. Not surprisingly, the best harmonizers had a big year in 1966: the Beatles, Mamas and Papas, Turtles, Beach Boys, Byrds, Hollies, Association, and anything Motown.

Also, in 1966 you didn’t have to be a virtuoso or author your own songs to ride the carousel of success. The Turtles used crack outside songwriters for most of their singles. Many of the biggest hits of ’66 were by teens who’d only recently purchased their first guitar. Tommy James was only 16 when he and the Shondells recorded the smash “Hanky Panky,” which went No. 1 in ’66. The members of the band Question Mark and the Mysterians, who had a No. 1 with the organ-driven “96 Tears,” had parents who were migrant farmers.

leaves

The Leaves were the first of many groups to record the song “Hey Joe.” Leader Jim Pons is in the middle.

One of my favorite rock ’n’ roll rags-to-riches stories involves Jim Pons of the Leaves. Pons had never touched an instrument. But he formed a band to entertain his college fraternity brothers.

In ’66, the Leaves recorded the very first version of the four-chord song “Hey Joe.” It became a surprise hit in Los Angeles. Pons was then asked to join the Turtles on bass, right when “Happy Together” was riding the charts. When the Turtles disbanded, he joined Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, touring the world and appearing in Zappa’s film “200 Motels.” He parlayed his film experience into a job as video director for the New York Jets football team, which lasted till his retirement over 20 years later.

And it all started with an itch to play “Louie Louie” at frat parties!

Won’t you tell your dad get off my back / Tell him what we said ‘bout ‘Paint it Black.’

– from the song “Thirteen” by Big Star

Looking at the year-end Billboard chart reveals that rock artists weren’t the only players in 1966. Soul music (the Supremes, Miracles), crooners (Sinatra, Jack Jones), and even novelty songs (“Winchester Cathedral”) were also represented. This diversity of styles was good, since the local swimming club didn’t have to change the radio dial to appease both parents and kids. Chuck and Susie could dig the Kinks, Standells, or Monkees while slurping their ice cream, and Mom and Dad could sneak sips of gin while humming Sergio Mendes and the Brasil ’66.

But this heterogeneous programming could also be frustrating. Imagine hearing a Four Tops song one minute, then a few minutes later the year’s No. 1 hit, the jingoistic “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” sung by an army sergeant. No wonder people rioted in Detroit!

the-hollies-bus-stop-odeon

The Hollies were from Manchester, England. They broke the U.S. Top 10 in ’66 with “Bus Stop.” Graham Nash, top right, later teamed with David Crosby and Stephen Stills.

Things changed in 1967, after another sergeant came along (Sgt. Pepper). Then came large, outdoor rock concerts, spearheaded by the Monterey Pop Festival. Albums replaced 45s as the medium of choice, rock lyrics became deeper and darker, the Vietnam War crept into songs, and free-form FM radio – pioneered by an underground rock DJ in San Francisco named Tom Donahue – began compartmentalizing musical genres. Rock was finally able to rid itself of the likes of Frank, Jack, Sergio, and Sgt. Sadler.

Also, hard drugs entered the picture, which had a profound effect on the musicians and their music. The chiming guitars were becoming distorted.

In 1966, though, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin were little known outside L.A., London, and Haight-Ashbury. Drug use was generally limited to a little pot or “a couple ‘o quarts ‘o beer” in Joe’s garage. And kids were still learning the chords to “Louie Louie.”

We were happy together, and it was a very good year.

harrison

Turning to Gray: Cam Ne, South Vietnam, 1965

50 years

safer in vietnam

The news today will be the movies for tomorrow
And the water’s turned to blood
And if you don’t think so
Go turn on your tub
And if it’s mixed with mud
You’ll see it turn to gray

– Arthur Lee and Love, from their song “A House is Not a Motel”

At 6 PM EST on August 5, 1965, the report aired on the CBS Evening News. It was suppertime in America. Housewives were preparing or serving dinner. Husbands were relaxing after work. Children were tumbling inside after a day of play in the hot summer sun.

vietnam_war_mapThose Americans who’d tuned their televisions to watch CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite – “the most trusted man in America,” according to many opinion polls – would see something they’d never seen before.

WATERS TURNED TO BLOOD

In early 1965, CBS had set up a news bureau in Saigon, South Vietnam. A 33-year-old Canadian-American journalist named Morley Safer headed the bureau. He was one of the first reporters to be permanently assigned to cover the Vietnam War, which, by the end of 1965, involved 200,000 U.S. soldiers.

On August 2, Safer was in the city of Da Nang in northern South Vietnam. He heard about a Marine Corps mission that was being sent to a complex of hamlets located south of Da Nang, in a place called Cam Ne. This collection of peasant huts was inhabited by families who, for generations, had survived by subsistence farming in the many rice paddies in the region.

Marine private near Da nang

Marine private, merely a boy, near Da Nang in 1965. He may have been present at Cam Ne

Safer heard from one of the marine units that the mission planned for the following day was “search-and-destroy.” It was being referred to as “Operation Blastout 1.” Safer was asked if he wanted to come along… “Please come along,” said the marines.

The platoon left Da Nang early the next morning. It traveled in APCs (armored personnel carriers), and a few amphibious vehicles due to high water. Safer and cameraman Ha Thuc Can (“This wonderful man,” according to Safer) accompanied the troops. Ha Thuc Can was the only person who could speak Vietnamese.

During the journey, Safer talked to a captain. The captain told him that all the houses in Cam Ne were to be destroyed. The marines had supposedly been subjected to sporadic sniper fire from Viet Cong entrenched in Cam Ne, and the captain said the marines were now going to “really tear it up.”

Safer thought the captain was exaggerating. Never before had he heard of a “search-and-destroy” mission, against civilians, executed by a ground strike. Before August 3 – at least since Sherman’s torching of Southern homes in the American Civil War – such missions were directed at confirmed enemy targets and involved either artillery fire or air attacks.

When the marines arrived at the first “village,” they immediately began setting fire to the huts, which were made of thatch. Some used flame throwers, and others used cigarette lighters (later, some marines boasted they were the “Zippo brigade”). Other marines fired their weapons, although the only Americans shot at until then were struck “in the ass” from friendly fire.

zippo 2

Marine using lighter on thatched roof at Cam Ne

One marine aimed his flame thrower down a hole in the dirt floor of one hut. Ha Thuc Can pleaded for him to stop. Ha Thuc Can bent over the hole, speaking quiet Vietnamese into the darkness. He eventually coaxed out a family of six, including an infant child. The family was in tears and, says Safer, “frightened stiff.”

Safer reported that, by the end of the day, one baby was killed, three women were wounded, one marine was wounded, and 150 houses were destroyed. He sent his report by telex to his bosses back home.

THE NEWS TODAY

When CBS News President Fred Friendly and anchorman Cronkite reviewed Safer’s report – which included filmed footage of Cam Ne’s destruction – they became very nervous. They knew this story would ignite controversy. Friendly contacted Safer twice to confirm its veracity. And, twice, Safer confirmed his story.

When Safer’s news report was digested by American families, perceptions of the Vietnam War changed:

I think [viewers] saw American troops acting in a way people had never seen American troops act before, and couldn’t imagine… This conjured up not America, but some brutal power — Germany, even, in World War II. To see young G.I.s, big guys in flak jackets, lighting up thatched roofs, and women holding babies running away, wailing — this was a new sight to everyone, including the military, I suspect.” (Morley Safer)

After Cam Ne, the Pentagon wanted Safer fired. The Defense Department began monitoring TV news broadcasts. President Johnson told CBS President Frank Stanton that CBS had “shat on the American flag.” He was convinced that Safer was a communist. When told that he was Canadian, Johnson replied “Well, I knew he wasn’t an American.”

cam ne villager

Morley Safer and elderly man at Cam Ne

The marines felt that Safer’s story was distorted and didn’t convey that Cam Ne had been fortified by the Viet Cong with trenches, underground tunnels, punji stakes and booby traps (though the VC had withdrawn by the time the marines arrived). They felt he downplayed sniper fire and (their contention) that the villagers were hostile to American troops. Initially, they claimed that only a few houses had been destroyed by artillery. “It was just blatant bullshit,” says Safer.

TURNING TO GRAY

But the legacy of Cam Ne has less to do with Viet Cong hostilities than with how the Vietnam War was being fought by the United States. And, as Safer observes, perceived by Americans at home. Things became murkier, more nebulous. American boys were, suddenly, no longer shining white knights fighting to protect freedom (however that concept may be defined). And, only three years later, the ugly reality of Vietnam would come crashing home after the massacre of unarmed civilians at My Lai, South Vietnam.

Today’s operation shows the frustration of Vietnam in miniature. There is little doubt that American firepower can win a military victory here. But to a Vietnamese peasant whose home means a lifetime of backbreaking labor, it will take more than presidential promises to convince him we are on his side.”

Safer was correct on all counts except one: there was no American military victory.

(Note: Morley Safer has been a “60 Minutes” correspondent since 1970 and has received numerous awards. His story on Cam Ne was voted by fellow journalists as one of the top 100 journalism works of the last century.

________________________________________________

Sources:

http://www.pbs.org/weta/reportingamericaatwar/reporters/safer/camne.html

http://www.historynet.com/what-really-happened-at-cam-ne.htm

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNYZZi25Ttg

Da Nang 1965

Remembering Biff

Biff2_cover

I left the town where I grew up several decades ago.  But last week I visited my mom, who lives in a retirement village there, and I decided to have an early Sunday morning jog through one of our old neighborhoods.  If you’ve ever re-visited a place from your childhood after a long absence, especially if little has changed, you know what a strange and exhilarating experience it can be.  Memories trickle in like dappled sunlight: the park where my dad taught me how to ice skate; the hill where my bike skidded on gravel and sent me tumbling to the pavement.  And you wonder if the houses might contain familiar faces.

As I approached our old house, I passed by a well-kept, single-level, yellow house with two front doors.  This was where Biff Schlossman had lived.  Biff was one of my childhood friends.  He was the only kid who was in all my classes from kindergarten through 4th grade (when we moved out of the neighborhood).  He was also in my Cub Scout den, and I’m sure we exchanged a couple birthday parties.  Physically, he was very striking, with brown skin and hair as black as night.

I’d passed by Biff’s house maybe a half-dozen times since we moved away in the late ‘60s, with only a glancing thought about him.  This time – with the tang of March chill on my skin, fresh air in my lungs, and a sudden feeling of nostalgia – I whispered to myself “I wonder whatever happened to old Biff.”  He was pretty bright, so I figured he’d joined the professional ranks as a doctor, lawyer, or successful businessman.  Thanks to the miracle of cyberspace (and to Biff’s unique name), I made a mental note to find out.

When I later plugged his name in the search engine, I discovered a few things.  One was that a very successful novelist had borrowed Biff’s name for the main character in one of his books.  We both knew Biff from grammar school, but neither of us knew the other (yes, it’s a small world).

The other thing I learned was that Biff wasn’t a surgeon, defense attorney, or bank president.  In fact, he’d apparently shunned the standard American Dream to pursue his own dream.  He’d become a classic back-to-nature hippie troubadour.  He’d moved to the mountains of Montana to ski, hike, and sing and play guitar in local bars and ski lodges.  And in the process he made a lot of friends, and became sort of a local legend.  It didn’t surprise me.  My biggest memories of Biff (besides his Indian looks) are his sparkling eyes, impish smile, and soft-spoken manner.

Sadly, I also learned that Biff died unexpectedly at a young age.  Looking into the past can have its sorrows.

I wish I’d have hooked up with Biff long ago.  I think we would have clicked even beyond childhood, as we shared a certain idealism and a lot of the same interests.  Sometime during our raucous post-pubescent years, we separately kindled a passionate appreciation of music.  And after college, I made my own trip out West, to backpack in the Cascades, and I drove right past where Biff may have been strumming guitar.  If I’d have turned left at Bozeman – the “road not taken” – who knows?  I didn’t have his musical talent or performing confidence.  But if not pulling up a stool with him onstage, maybe I could’ve tuned his guitar or offered a lyric or two.

Two memories stand out about Biff.  Both of them coincide with pivotal moments as I grew up.  If Biff were around now, I’d share both memories with him.  The first occurred in kindergarten.  Biff was Jewish, and I remember him talking about his faith during Show-and-Tell.  He brought in matzo crackers to share with the class.  Even though they were unsalted and unlike our regular diet of sugared cookies, we all liked them.  More importantly, Biff’s presentation was my first awareness that people could have differences beyond the physical.  And that this was a good thing.  It’s a lesson I’ve had to relearn time and again.

The other memory was when we were nine and attended summer camp together.  Our moms signed us up to go as buddies and cabin bunkmates for two one-week stints.  It was the first time either of us had been away from home for longer than a night.  I was pretty homesick, but Biff, being more outgoing and adventurous, made friends with another kid in our cabin.  This kid (I’ll call him Eddie) was maybe a year older, from the rougher side of town, and he had a swagger.  I didn’t like Eddie, but he liked Biff, and they kind of teamed up.  Of course, my homesickness was even worse after this.  But I distinctly remember Biff approaching me later in the week and saying “Pete, I don’t think Eddie likes me anymore, he hasn’t talked to me in a while.”  Maybe it’s rose-colored glasses.  But this may have been his way of trying to make me feel better.

I didn’t return for that second week of camp.  I was just too homesick.  In hindsight, I wish I’d have forced myself, because my copout probably started a pattern of avoidance.   But Biff did return.  I’ve always wondered how he fared.  Our family moved only a few months later, so I never found out.  For all I know, those wooded hills of north-central Ohio helped inspire Biff’s later migration to Big Sky country.

I never saw Biff again, either.  But friends from youth have a way of searing themselves into your consciousness.  Maybe because, when we’re kids, we’re not aware of the concept of time.  When we’re kids, neither the past nor the future are relevant.  We haven’t yet learned how to reflect on things, good or bad.  And we don’t worry about what’s in front of us.  We only live in the present.  For most of us, it’s just a brief period in our lives.  But it’s where you can find true happiness.

Here’s to you, Biff.

centennials

Beatles’ “Please Please Me” Single Released

 50 years

 

beatles

January 11, 2013 will be the 50th year anniversary of the UK release of the Beatles’ second single, the John Lennon composition “Please Please Me.”

In early January 1963 the Beatles were still relatively unknown outside Liverpool, England and Hamburg, Germany.  They’d signed to EMI Records in England in 1962 and were being produced by George Martin and groomed by Brian Epstein.  Their first single was Paul McCartney’s “Love Me Do,” released on October 17, 1962.  But the song only hit number 17 in the UK.  “Please Please Me,” however, was important for several reasons.  Here are a few “firsts” about that song:

  • 1st Beatles song to reach number one on the British charts, hitting that position on February 22, 1963
  • 1st Beatles single to be released in the United States
  • 1st Beatles song to be broadcast in the U.S. (by a Chicago DJ named Dick Biondi in February 1963)
  • Broadcast during the Beatles’ first national television appearance on “Thank Your Lucky Stars,” January 19, 1963
  • 1st and title song on the Beatles’ first album

Musically, “Please Please Me” was a big step from “Love Me Do.”  It had a faster, more upbeat tempo.  It also featured harmony that would typify many of the Beatles’ early and mid-period songs.  Paul sang the same high note for the verse, with John dropping his voice through the scale. 

It was a technique “the boys” had learned from the Everly Brothers song “Cathy’s Clown.”   “Last-night-I-said-these-words-to-myyyy-girl.”  By itself, Paul’s single-note vocal sounds odd.  But combined with John’s descending melody, it created an exquisite harmony.  Then John and George’s guitars pumped the song back up to the second verse.  The chorus “Please pleeease me, WHOA YEAH, like I please you” drives the song home!

The combination of melodic, upbeat vocal harmony and forceful electric guitar was fairly new – it’s been referred to over the years as Merseybeat, the Liverpool Sound, British pop, “ear candy” – but it helped change rock ‘n’ roll as we know it!  please please me

The Beatles didn’t take off in America until a year later with their release of the U.S. number one “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” followed by their historic appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”  This would officially kick off the British Invasion of rock musicians with long hair, matching suits, and cool accents (think Herman’s Hermits, Dave Clark Five, the Stones, Animals, Kinks, Hollies, etc.).  But “Please Please Me” was where the ball started to roll, musically.

(Note: if you’re interested in the roaring 1960s, I hope to be doing more of these 50th anniversary posts.  While the first couple years of the ‘60s were an extension of the ‘50s, things started to kick into a higher gear, at least culturally, with the year 1963.  So… Happy New Year, and Happy 5oth Anniversary of the ‘60s!)