King Koncert: Memoirs of an American Rocker
by Tim Van Schmidt
January 13, 1978- Arlington Theater. Grateful Dead
It was too good to be true- the Grateful Dead playing at the Arlington. This show was a benefit for the Pacific Alliance, a group working to “coordinate movement away from nuclear power plants toward renewable energy resources.” The message was clear- “Stop Nuclear Power.” The cover of the program displayed a Dead design- a skull with one eye socket, a bone, a feather and roses- and described the band as “more than a band, really. A professional, dynamic extended family. A California Institution.”
The Deadhead’s Taping Compendium reported that the set list for the evening included “Bertha,” “Good Lovin’,” “Dancin’ in the Streets,” “Drums,” “Wharf Rat,” “Truckin’” and “Around and Around.” What I heard, though, was even more exciting. “Dark Star” had been one of my favorite live recordings, but in the many times I had seen the Dead, I had not heard a live version. However, at the Arlington, during an instrumental excursion, I thought I heard bits of “Dark Star” in Garcia’s guitar solo. The mood was right and the soaring notes were unmistakable, but the vocals for the song never kicked in. It was probably just wishful thinking.
March 30, 1978- Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum. David Bowie.
During the spring break, I talked two friends into going on a road trip to Arizona. One had friends who had recently transferred to U of A in Tucson. The other was going just for the experience. My brother still lived in Tucson and we bunked with him. He still owned his Moog synthesizer, which entertained my thrill-seeking friend. Meanwhile, I looked up my friend Jonie, from my ASU days. She had graduated from school in Greeley, Colorado and had gotten a job at the Herbarium at U of A. We reconnected quickly.
On the way back to California, my friends and I decided to go up to Phoenix to see David Bowie at the Coliseum. The Thin White Duke had vanished and now Bowie was a futuristic electronic artist, playing tunes from albums he had recently recorded with Brian Eno, Low and Heroes. Again, Bowie used minimal stage tricks. The arena became dark and moody and the music exuded a strange, brittle electricity. Bowie played keyboards and presented an introspective, alien vibe. All of this was underscored by Bowie’s recent part in the strange science fiction film, The Man Who Fell to Earth. In the movie, Bowie was an alien from a dry world who travels to earth in hopes of finding water for his people and family. The alien gets stuck on the planet, however, and wastes away in seclusion.
Arlington Theater- Keith Jarrett.
Pianist Keith Jarrett was another great ECM artist who had a reputation for creating long improvised solo pieces on stage. He did not disappoint at the Arlington. Jarrett would begin with some kind of rolling piano groove, then start picking out a melody to put on top. Then he would take his time playing with themes, changing them, pushing the music into new directions in a gradual, almost lulling way. The result was lost time in between shimmering notes. Jarrett had the habit of singing, or vocalizing, the music he was playing with his hands. He was simply just another part of the instrument.
Starwood- The Eyes, The Dickies, The Jam.
The punk rock revolution had spread to the United States, and to be sure, there were English-style punk bands playing and making independent records in 1978. But the feeling in America was that punk music was more of a musical revolution than a social or even economic upheaval. Punk was co-opted by the artist types, happy to find a radical movement to associate themselves with. The music industry also embraced punk because it was a whole new thing to market. But the English punk image was too extreme- audiences spitting at the performers, bands taking music to the edge of taste, punks beating up hippies and each other- so the establishment came up with a new term that better fit the movement in America- new wave. New wave maintained the aggressiveness of punk- from raw vocal deliveries and frenetic, breakneck rhythms- but also added a rough, restless sense of artistry. New wave wasn’t just spontaneous creativity, but very calculated musicmaking.
One of the punk/new wave records I had brought back from England the summer before was by a trio called the Jam. Instead of dressing in ripped-up clothes and sporting safety pins, the Jam dressed in suits, with skinny ties, consciously calling to mind the old Mod movement of the early 1960s in England. Their music was tough and direct and vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Paul Weller sang in a gruff, unaffected style, not hiding his English accent, but emphasizing it. Since bringing home a couple of singles, I sought out the band’s first album, In the City. The new one at the time I saw the Jam in LA was This is the Modern World with more of the same short blasts of rock.
Several friends and I- making up our own artistic cadre based on an independent literary zine I was publishing with the help of a used ditto machine- made the trip down to the Starwood, a small nightclub with a huge dance floor and little else. The Starwood was profiting from an industry buzz that Mick Jagger might join Jamaican reggae artist Peter Tosh on stage at the club- imagine a star that big appearing in a night club? The management was also picking up on the new wave movement and brought bands like the Jam to town.
I wore my big, clunky motorcycle boots in case I had any trouble with hippie-hating punks. A friend of mine had been attacked by some punks in Texas in a nightclub rest room- they smashed his head against the wall and yanked hair out of his scalp. But there was no need at the Starwood as the little club exploded into a self-absorbed frenzy of pogo dancing to the frenetic, jerky rock of the Eyes. The Eyes were a local band that would probably be the closest thing to real punk I would see that night. Pogo dancing, occurring in the audience and on stage, was the precursor to slam dancing. It was a quick up and down motion- you could jump as high as you wanted as fast as you could. Slam dancing would take the next step- propelling the pogo motion into the people around you, rather than up and down in place. I stood at the back of the small, intense crowd, glad I had my boots on- not because of violence, but because someone might just land on my feet. The Eyes were quick and manic.
A high level of professionalism was evident when the Dickies took the stage. The lead singer had a bowl cut hairdo. What was punk about that was even though it looked stupid, especially when he was bouncing up and down, or ranting over the mic with eyes wildly popping out, this guy didn’t care. The whole band had a kind of nerds on parade look, but dug into the music like hard rockers. Their music also was fast and frenetic. Original songs like “You Drive Me Ape (You Big Gorilla)” and “Hideous” mixed with a cover of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid.” Like Devo’s version of the Stones’ song “Satisfaction,” the Dickies played the familiar Sabbath song with its original structure intact, but messed with the vocal inflections and the tempo- that is, speeding it way up. The Dickies were energetic, irreverent and very funny. Even their names were funny: Chuck Wagon on keyboards, Stan Lee on guitars, Billy Club on bass and Karlos Kaballero on drums, all supporting the perky wildness of vocalist Leonard Graves Phillips.
The Jam then took the stage with cocksure fury. Weller, bassist Bruce Foxton and drummer Rick Buckler wore their mod-like suits, which helped increase the intensity of the performance. Those suits certainly struggled against the jumping and posturing. A highlight of the night was their song “This is the Modern World”- highly dynamic guitar parts offset by guttural vocals that indeed confronted the crush of contemporary living. It occurred to me then that I was watching a very young version of the Who. This was a glimpse of what they probably were like- angry, volatile and intensely dedicated to making electricity. The Jam, however, was new, fresh and powerful, right then and right there.
April, 1978- Starwood. Mike Pinera, Blondie.
New wave wasn’t just a boy’s game and one of the leading bands out of New York City was Blondie, featuring the fashion model-like Deborah Harry. At the Starwood, they were passing out buttons at the door that read “Blondie is a group.” This was in reaction to the attention Harry was attracting as a new wave sex symbol. In the glitz- not a particularly good thing for a new wave band- fans were forgetting that one of the real backbones of the group was guitarist and songwriter Chris Stein.
Blondie’s second album, Plastic Letters, had continued what the group started with their debut record- playing edgy pop music that satirized at the same time as succeeded as great rock. Blondie did not play raw, revved up punk stuff, but aggressive pop, complete with identifiable hooks and Harry’s flat, Marlene Dietrich-like vocal delivery. During this show, Harry played the coy femme fatale, wearing a thigh-length raincoat most of the time. The ironic fact that the attractive star’s body was hidden only increased the tension. However, by the end of the show, Harry started whipping open the coat, flashing the body underneath, as the band pounded away.
Bootleg recordings of Blondie’s several nights at the Starwood continued to circulate long afterward. Dates included April 25 and April 28-29. The set list for the April 25 bootleg is identical to the one on the April 29 recording: “X-Offender,” “Detroit 442,” “A Shark in Jets Clothing,” “In the Sun,” “Your Presence Dear,” “Denis,” “Fan Mail,” “Look Good in Blue,” “Man Overboard,” “In the Flesh,” “I’m on E,” “Kidnapper,” “Rip Her to Shreds” and “Youth Nabbed as a Sniper.”
One of the odd things about this show was the unusual choice for an opening act- guitarist Mike Pinera. I had seen Pinera play in the band Ramatam in 1972 and he had been a member of Iron Butterfly and Blue Image. In 1978, Pinera was playing an energetic but standard type of rock. There was nothing new wave about it and it seemed uninventive compared to the excitement of the new groups like Blondie.
May 12, 1978- Santa Monica Civic. Patti Smith.
Thanks to the success of her new album, Easter, Patti Smith was another female artist at the top of the heap of the new wave movement. But more than rock and roll, Smith also had the reputation as a poet and her verse- raw and street-level- would make its appearance on her records. Her vocals were unusual for a woman- loud, boisterous, sarcastic and self-righteous. By Easter, Smith’s music was full scale, incendiary rock, pushed into overdrive thanks to the contributions of guitarist Lenny Kaye.
Smith and band had achieved a fiery power, were closely synched in and dominated the stage at the Civic. The tune that I was waiting for was “Rock and Roll Nigger,” a blast of cultural extremity that began with spoken word raving about being “an American artist.” This was kind of a theme song for myself and my artist friends who wanted to do something revolutionary in a society so full of itself. Smith delivered and even though the beginning tirade was lost in the muddled sound mix, the rock and roll kicked in with fury. Smith, however, also had a sense of the triumphant and that was displayed in her dynamic version of Bruce Springsteen’s song “Because the Night.” Smith knew how to project to a large crowd and the band and the lights fell in right behind her.
By the middle of Smith’s set, I was standing on my chair to see. When I looked down, I saw a friend from Phoenix standing right in front of me. She had seen me from across the room and came over to say hello. This attractive, vibrant young woman had moved to the LA area and gotten a job as a desk clerk at a Hollywood hotel catering to rock and rollers. She had been one of the most enthusiastic rock fans that I knew in Phoenix and we had gone to see Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs” tour together. Thanks to her job, she intimated that she was still having some very interesting experiences. Outside, we waited by the stage door to see Smith up close. She came out in a rush, her hair flying all over, and handed out leaflets about a recent controversy she was involved in- saying “fuck” on the radio. She jumped into her limo and roared away. The crowd was left howling in the parking lot.
May 30, 1978- Santa Monica Civic. Mink DeVille, Nick Lowe and Rockpile with Dave Edmunds, Elvis Costello.
My final trip to the Santa Monica Civic- this time with the chairs removed from the orchestra section to provide an open floor- was to see a showcase of newer acts. To say that this was a new wave line-up would not be accurate. Though both Mink DeVille and Rockpile were associated with new wave because they made aggressive new records on some of the same labels as new wave bands, they were a different breed. Mink DeVille featured vocalist Willie DeVille and the band played a tough kind of rock and soul. DeVille’s vocals were often raw and the band’s sound was hard and electric, but it was more of an urban R & B than new wave rock. Rockpile had a big, powerful rock sound, playing melodic songs and harder rockers, all with a decidedly electric edge. Featuring Nick Lowe on bass and Dave Edmunds on guitar, the group kept an aggressive pace, but their act was more of a fresh take on pop rock than the more edgy new wave.
I had collected several records by Elvis Costello when I had been in England the year before. In 1977, Costello was all the rage in London and he would rightly be considered one of the new wave artists. In fact, one day while walking down a London street, I saw a newspaper headline that screamed “Elvis is Dead,” and assumed they were talking about the new sensation- Costello- not the king of rock and roll. Costello’s music fit the new wave model because it had plenty of edgy anger and venom. There was also the fanciful story circulating that Costello got a record deal by doing a punk kind of thing- he set up his amp outside the building where a music industry convention was taking place and played a guerilla set, which gained him the desired attention. Costello was also an important figure because his thin, frail-looking body, glasses and nerd-like suit made him an inspirational figure to anyone who felt unattractive and unpopular. But unlike Janis Ian’s song “At Seventeen,” which dealt with loneliness and social alienation with empathy, Costello was angry at the games people play. In his songs, Costello skewered the culture of the beautiful in an attempt to express the truth that the world was full of all kinds of people.
Costello, whose newest release at the time, This Year’s Model, rocked even harder than his debut, My Aim is True, was the headliner but he only played a short set. Almost from the beginning of his set, he started having sound problems. These weren’t necessarily apparent to the audience, but were truly bugging him. Costello got mad, went off stage to complain, and then came back to start up another tune. He stopped again, was obviously livid, then reared back and just kicked his amplifier over. At that point, Costello stalked off the stage- end of show. The lights came on and the crowd milled around some then went home quietly- an anticlimax from an antihero.
June 2, 1978- Robertson Gym. Mink DeVille, Elvis Costello.
Despite the lack of Rockpile, this show was twenty times better than the one just days before. Mink DeVille was a powerful presence in the smaller feel of Robertson Gym, with the highlight not being a rocker at all, but a dramatic and emotive Fifties-style ballad, “Guardian Angel.” It was like being transported to another time and place musically. Fortunately, Costello channeled his anger into his performance and produced a riveting, awesome set. The most memorable highlight of the show was during the song “Angry,” Costello leaning through the blasting sound, spitting out the lyrics while a red light drenched the stage. I was cranked afterward- this had been one of the most intense concerts I had seen in years. Afterwards, they were playing Warren Zevon’s song “Werewolves of London” over the sound system. I slammed up the bleacher seats in time to the music toward some friends who naturally shrank back a little when I approached. I had been taken to the edge and I didn’t want to come back.
June 4, 1978- UCSB Campus Stadium. Grateful Dead.
My final Grateful Dead show in Santa Barbara- and my final concert experience in Santa Barbara altogether- was right on campus at the stadium. Two years of constant touring since the band came back from its sabbatical in 1976 had yielded a larger and larger audience wherever they went. The stadium was pleasantly full for this fine day in the California sun and the people were dancing happily. It was legendary promoter Bill Graham’s birthday and the stadium full of people was encouraged by the band to sing “Happy Birthday,” after Graham introduced the Dead. The Deadhead’s Taping Compendium reported a little extra sound during the set- a motorcycle revving up in the mix during “Not Fade Away.”
Thanks to my association with Wayside Press in Cottonwood, Arizona, I was able to publish my first collection of poems before leaving Santa Barbara. I paid for the materials and they made the books. Along with performing with the Poetry Troupe, I had been diligently publishing my stuff in the “little press.” Wayside had been my strongest supporter- the first ones to publish my work and to help me complete my dream to publish a book. Mostly that meant giving them away to everyone I knew. This continued the tradition my friends and I had started by publishing photocopied books and fliers with our poetry, distributing them freely.
I celebrated the release of First Poems with a farewell performance in Isla VistaPark- where only a month before I had performed solo for an International Workers’ Day celebration- and at Borsodi’s. I sang and read poems and was joined on stage by guest artists. I was finally feeling comfortable on stage. But then it was time to go. I graduated- with honors- and left town to broader horizons.
June 24, 1978- The Roxy. Television.
My final trip to the Sunset Strip was to the Roxy to see another American band associated with new wave, Television. After the Whiskey A Go Go, the Roxy had become the leading rock and roll club on the Strip and hosted events that often attracted celebrity guests. It was small and intimate but not very crowded for Television, so my friend and I stayed for both sets.
The attraction to Television was the group’s raw, but majestic music and the anguished vocals of guitarist and songwriter Tom Verlaine. Just like the Talking Heads’ David Byrne, Verlaine had the image of a confused, tortured intellectual and it came out in his strained voice and surreal lyrics. I had picked up both of the band’s albums- Marquee Moon and Adventure– and counted down my favorites throughout the two sets. Television, however, did not just play their songs, but also branched off into instrumental jamming- a flashback to the past, Verlaine and guitarist Richard Lloyd digging in together. The best was saved for last, however. Television ended the evening with a very electric version of the Stones’ song “Satisfaction.” Verlaine in particular scorched the guitar parts with manic fury; finally unstringing his guitar- while plugged in- for the finale. The intensity was very real and then very over. Even the band just kind of staggered around when the feedback was finished.
Before making any other moves following graduation, I joined a friend from UCSB for a quick trip down to Guatemala and Mexico. My friend was mostly interested in drinking alcohol, which I joined him for, and hiring prostitutes, which I did not. But we also managed to put in some tourist miles. In Guatemala City, we drank heavily one evening in a bar/restaurant, which featured a lively marimba band. Marimba music was a unique cultural element of Guatemala- it was light, happy music, melodic and kind of innocent. It also sounded better and better with each margarita we drank.
After taking a plane up to the Mayan ruins of Tikal, among the twisted rainforest trees, monkeys and toucans, we moved on to Mexico City. In the great Mexican megalopolis, we went to museums, dined at the top of a skyscraper and attended a jai alai match. We also went to a folklorico concert, featuring brightly costumed dancers and a rich, lively orchestral music. This Mexican folk music, recreated for tourists like ourselves, was a little less innocent than the marimba music, at times reflecting a more serious, passionate side. But what roused the crowd were the full-tilt dance pieces and the dancers yipping and yelping as they swirled around, skirts flying.
July 8, 1978- Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum. Bruce Springsteen.
My path of freedom then led back to Tucson, where I visited my friend Jonie for an extended time. She was housesitting for a university archaeologist, who lived in the desert, right on the very edge of the Papago Indian reservation. One morning- the Fourth of July- a number of big Papago guys came to the house and invited us to drink. We politely refused and went back inside, while the guys plunked down on the front porch and knocked back a few. Later, I would see these same guys wrestling in the dust, throwing each other around, and then grabbing more beer.
I had brought only a few albums with me for entertainment during this visit to Tucson and the choices were telling- Elvis Costello, the Sex Pistols and Patti Smith. Right next to those, I carried a copy of Bruce Springsteen’s new release, Darkness on the Edge of Town. There was no more marking time for Springsteen over legal issues and he came back with a vengeance. The musician who had seemed so buoyant and devil-may-care with his Born to Run album was now very intense and much more serious. The vocals maintained a harsher, edgier sound and the guitar parts stung. This aggressive new approach marked a maturing for Springsteen as a songwriter and performer. It somehow fit perfectly with the musical mood of the times. Springsteen couldn’t hope to be “new wave” but he could do a little burning and slashing of his own.
Like a fool, I decided to display my musical association with punk/new wave by wearing a pair of black wool pants and a black T-shirt that said “Anarchy” on it, safety pins clipped on haphazardly, to the concert in Phoenix. This was foolish first of all because it was an extremely hot night and the wool pants made me sweat. Second of all, this was not a punk audience in the least. It wasn’t even close, so I felt completely out of place. Added to this was the decidedly non-punk ponytail hanging down my back. I was so relieved when the lights went down. Springsteen’s set was just as intense as the Darkness on the Edge of Town album. The gregarious stage presence of the band was concentrated in the electricity flowing through the music. A particular highlight was the song “Adam Raised a Cain,” Springsteen’s scratchy vocals screaming over searing guitar.
July 21, 1978- Tucson Community Center Arena. Rolling Stones w/ Linda Ronstadt.
How could you go wrong with a Rolling Stones concert? That was my thought when ticket sales were announced for a Tucson show at the Community Center Arena. The new album, Some Girls, had created a stir with lyrics in the title song declaring that “black girls just want to get fucked all night long.” Anti-racist groups were up in arms. Some Girls, however, would join the Springsteen, Sex Pistols and Elvis Costello records as my platters de jour of the time. I had enjoyed all the Stones’ shows I had seen so far, so I went down to stand in line for tickets, like everyone else. The line wrapped around the building and it really was no surprise that tickets were sold out long before I made it to the box office. I hung around a while, not believing that I didn’t get a ticket, when a guy offered to sell me a pair of tickets he had just bought- at a substantial profit. I had an argument with him about scalping, but bought the tickets anyway.
There was certainly an excited buzz surrounding the Community Center on the night of the show. We stopped in for a drink at an area bar beforehand and everybody there seemed to be getting cranked up for the concert. That would be the highlight of the night, however. As soon as the Stones hit the stage, Mick Jagger growled “I never thought I’d play in this cow town again.” The audience howled and hooted, but I knew what Jagger meant. Compared to a place like Los Angeles, a gig in Tucson was a throwaway affair.
Sure enough, Jagger held back, enduring rather than sparking up the set list. Keith Richards was just plain sloppy, swinging his guitar around, not bothering to finish leads and generally not paying attention. Guitarist Ron Wood, now a permanent member, didn’t help much either. There was one bright spot to the evening- in the middle of the show; Jagger introduced Linda Ronstadt, who came on as a special guest vocalist for the song “Tumbling Dice.” Ronstadt, a Tucson native, had also released “Tumbling Dice” as a successful single. The moment, however, would pass uneventfully, as Ronstadt seemed lost about how to share the stage with Jagger. Jagger writhed and Ronstadt stood still, they sang the song and the highlight was over. The rest of the concert did not improve. This was exactly what the punks were rebelling against- tired old rock stars, ripping people off with a substandard performance. I would join the revolution and wouldn’t see the Stones again for sixteen years.
August 24, 1978- Ravinia. Merce Cunningham w/ John Cage, David Tudor.
While in Chicago on family business, I spied an ad for another collaborative performance with John Cage and Merce Cunningham, this time during the “Ravinia Festival ’78.” Ravinia was a well-known area cultural arts center and I easily got directions and a borrowed car to see one of the shows in the Murray Theatre.
This time, I got to see Merce Cunningham dance on stage. These were odd, odd dance pieces accompanied by concept sounds produced by Cage, David Tudor and composer Jon Gibson at a table full of equipment. During one piece, titled “Solo,” Cunningham stalked the stage, flicking his hands quickly in every direction. Meanwhile Cage plucked at a well-miked pinecone. His piece was titled “Child of Tree.” I couldn’t help but notice a distinct smirk on Cage’s face as he bent over the pinecone. During the course of the performance, there was a temporary loss of power. Everyone took a break and I took the opportunity to collect autographs from the musicians. Besides the Cage/Cunningham piece, Tudor’s piece “Toneburst” accompanied Cunningham’s “Sounddance” and Gibson’s “Equal Distribution” was paired with Cunningham’s “Fractions,” a 1978 composition.
Arcosanti. Oregon, Anthony Braxton, Gary Burton, Sam Rivers, Ralph Towner, Richie Havens, Stephen Stills.
Arcosanti was a center for experimental architectural designs located some distance north of Phoenix. The facility was famous for an enviro-architectural stance, fostered by a pioneer named Solari, where buildings were designed to blend into the natural landscape. Young alternative types worked as interns, helping to fashion otherworldly buildings right into the desert hills. Arcosanti, then, took on the feel of a brave new world, a futuristic vision that recognized the value of fitting in with the environment rather than making it submit to human needs. Arcosanti’s public image was also amplified by an annual benefit concert designed to raise money and to draw people to the facility. In 1978, the annual music event was a two-day acoustic/jazz festival, with Oregon leading the list of performers.
Memories of the concert itself are confused because shortly after the show started, one of the dry parking lot areas at Arcosanti exploded into flames. Due to some moron’s carelessness with a cigarette butt, scores of cars burned. Officials announced the situation from the stage and encouraged everyone to stay put for the time being. But things were tense and the situation distracted from the music. During the course of the day, however, Oregon jammed, although the outdoor amphitheater did not lend itself as much to listening to Oregon’s music as did the intimacy of Campbell Hall at UCSB in 1977. By this time, guitarist Pat Metheny had left Gary Burton’s band, which now featured an inventive young trumpeter. Other sets during the festival included a performance by Woodstock rabble-rouser Richie Havens. His soulful vocals and highly rhythmic acoustic guitar strumming style were energetic and inspiring- especially that way Havens had of exiting the stage while still playing, effectively fading away. Stephen Stills did a low key solo acoustic set, even putting on his glasses so he could read the lyrics to a brand new song he thought he would try out. The best surprise of the concert was discovering the work of pianist Sam Rivers, whose style was both fluid and rhythmic at the same time- straight jamming jazz.
After the first day’s events, we slept in the car in the parking lot- a real challenge because it was a compact Chevy Nova. I awoke early, cramped and stiff, and strolled around the burned-out parking lot, only a few hundred feet away from our car. The most memorable image was of a burned out Trans Am, the rubber melted right off the steel belt tires. After breakfast and a tour of some of the interesting buildings, I stopped by for an early morning performance by innovative saxophonist Anthony Braxton. Braxton was standing on a pedestal in the middle of a fountain in the middle of a cool little courtyard. He was playing freeform solo music, improvising like a bee bop artist gone mad, surrounded by the weird, dry desert.
Dooley’s- John Prine.
In Tucson, the clubs were few and far between in terms of attracting national-level acts. However, a bar called Dooley’s had just opened up in an old church building. They had plenty of seating and ambitious plans to become the town’s leading music venue. Because the bar was in a former church, some friends in Tucson did not like going, not wanting to mix the religious vibe with an alcoholic one. Still, singer-songwriter John Prine took the stage in a cloud of smoke. The smoke came from two directions- from the patrons who all seemed to be chain smoking, and from Prine, who also was chain smoking. His craggy voice and wise guy attitude fit right in as we peered through the haze from upper level seats.
September 21, 1978- UCLA Ackerman Union Grand Ballroom. Talking Heads.
If Elvis Costello was my favorite new wave artist from England (counting the Sex Pistols as punk, not new wave) then my favorite American new wave act was the Talking Heads. Their debut album, ‘77, celebrated quirkiness in vocals, lyrics, song arrangements and production mix, completing the bridge that was being built between punk/new wave and art. This was especially true for the tune “Psycho Killer,” which took artsy role-playing to a chilling, vibrating edge. Vocalist David Byrne was skinny and his performances seemed somehow squeezed out of him. But his vivid personality- as reflected by the songs- created an intense focal point for the group.
A return visit to the Los Angeles area kicked off with a Talking Heads show at UCLA. The band’s second album was out and the group’s version of Al Green’s song “Take Me to the River” had actually hit the radio. Still, the ballroom where the show was being held was only comfortably full- the crowd numbering only in the hundreds. This, however, did not make the security team at the front of the stage relax. As the show started, the crowd moved forward toward the stage and the security personnel freaked out. After a few tussles and the fact that the crowd did not relent, the guards withdrew, angry and suspicious. The main image I took away from the concert was that of Byrne standing stiffly at his microphone, his shirt buttoned right up to the neck. He was obviously wound up pretty tight. Byrne’s neck strained against his shirt, his voice strained against the rock and roll and his eyes were wide and wild. “Psycho Killer” indeed.
After the show, we were just kind of hanging around by the door of the ballroom. Up a staircase and on the second floor, we could see the after-show party going on, but security guards blocked the stairway. Just then, Talking Head Jerry Harrison walked by with some friends. One of my companions just split off from us, joined Harrison’s little entourage and went up the stairs to the party- right past security. Left below, we looked up and our friend toasted us with a drink, smiling.
Troubadour. Peter Hammill.
The English progressive rock band Van Der Graaf Generator had achieved cult status in America thanks to epic recorded works featuring complex instrumental arrangements and the volatile vocals of Peter Hammill. I had never heard of a Van Der Graaf concert anywhere, let alone in California, so I did a double take when I saw the ad for a Hammill solo date at the Troubadour. My musician friends from Phoenix thought it was unusual too and made the trip to LA for the show.
The Troubadour had maintained its reputation as a showcase spot, as well as a club where anything could happen. For example, during his “Lost Weekend” period, a rowdy John Lennon was ejected from the Troubadour after putting a sanitary napkin on his head. The waiting room had speakers piping in a live feed of what was going on inside and so early arrivals, like us, got a little extra treat. Hammill’s voice howled through the speakers.
Inside, the event was very formal. The crowd was hushed, respectful and expectant. Hammill responded by tearing into his anguished art songs with passion, accompanying himself on guitar and keyboards. It felt like a rare moment, sharing time with an artist unadorned- stripped bare, his expression rising and falling, then rising again. I was into it- writing a poem portrait of Hammill on the spot, admiring his artistic integrity and sincerity. After the show, I approached Hammill with my copy of Killers, Angels and Refugees, a collection of his lyrics and songs. He seemed genuinely shocked that anyone would have it and gladly signed. Years later I loaned the book to a friend and never saw it again.
November 19, 1978, McKale Memorial Center. Bob Dylan.
Two things were going on with the great singer-songwriter Bob Dylan by 1979. First, Dylan had reportedly become a “born-again Christian.” His album Slow Train Coming contained overt Christian references and a religious humility. The other thing was a story circulating that Dylan had recently seen a Neil Diamond performance and that he was so impressed with Diamond’s showmanship, he decided to produce a big stage show for himself. As a result, Dylan appeared at McKaleMemorialCenter at the University of Arizona in Tucson with a full backing band- not the Band- complete with a row of backing singers.
What was true about the Seattle concert I had seen in 1974- that Dylan reserved the right to change the arrangements of his familiar songs any time he liked- was now even more true. The Dylan show was big and brash. The instrumental work was rough and funky and the singers added a distinct female element to the music. But it was nearly impossible to recognize what songs were being played. The best thing you could do was to wait for a snippet of familiar lyrics- signposts into the material. It was almost like Dylan was daring the audience not to find this inscrutable. By the time I picked out a few words to “Rainy Day Women,” about half way through the show- the singers wailing like banshees- the effort became too much. Other barely recognizable tunes included a full band arrangement of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Tangled Up In Blue.” We went home early.
December 30, 1978- Pauly Pavilion/UCLA. Grateful Dead.
Despite a growing disinterest in the old rock and roll bands- in favor of the newer more exciting stuff- I returned to see the Dead again. This would be my eleventh Dead-related show (counting Kingfish and the Jerry Garcia Band) and I was still not tired of their act. That’s because what fans and critics alike said about the Dead was true- every show was different and every version of every song was different. Though not aggressive or revolutionary like punk, it was artistic in a way that other contemporary pop bands were not. The Dead knew that people in the audience had been to shows before, so the band accepted the responsibility of working on the music to keep their audience coming back time and time again. If the Dead played like, say Jethro Tull in 1975- presenting the very same show in every city- they would not have succeeded in becoming the preeminent live act in North America.
Since I had seen the Dead at the UCSB stadium in June, the group had traveled to Egypt to play several concerts at the foot of the famous pyramids. It was a carefully orchestrated joy ride to another world, feeding Deadhead fanaticism with an exotic locale. The pyramids themselves emanated a kind of mysticism and the Dead were moving to associate themselves with it. At Pauly Pavilion at UCLA, the Dead treated the crowd- only a night before New Year’s Eve- to a slide show of their trip. But more, they brought a whole cadre of Egyptian musicians on stage- Hamza el-Din & Group. This was the strangest moment of Dead music I had ever heard, the band melding their electric sound into the joyous clatter of the Egyptians, truly a world music experience. The Deadhead’s Taping Compendium reported that War’s Lee Oskar also made a guest appearance that night. I began the year with a Dead show and ended the year with a Dead show- a California institution indeed.