King Koncert: Memoirs of an American Rocker
by Tim Van Schmidt
University of Arizona. Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Living so near to the University of Arizona in Tucson meant having access to plenty of cultural events. This included special lectures. For example, a lawyer for religious cult leader Jim Jones spoke on campus, describing the incredible events leading up to mass suicide. U of A also maintained a PoetryCenter and as a result, widely respected poets came to town to read. These included academics like Victor Simpson, as well as the gruff, grouchy Alan Dugan. Dugan had a very caustic way of describing everyday matters and turned them into something else- maybe something untrustworthy or ugly. I enjoyed his rough old voice. I also went to see Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the most prominent Russian poet of the 20th century. After seeing Akhmudulina and Voznesensky perform at UCLA, I thought I was in for a treat. Yevtushenko, however, was much more cosmopolitan than the other Russians I had seen, and his performance was much more sedate- like an American reading. He even read many of his poems in English. Still, the full house adored him and he did stamp his foot passionately a few times.
As far as live music, I would check out the traditional Dixieland jazz of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. My orientation toward Dixieland went back to a vacation my parents took to New Orleans when I was much younger. They went to trumpeter Al Hirt’s club and kept a few of his records around. In 1977, I was hanging with some other tourists in London, and experienced the English variety of Dixieland. One of my friends led us down a side street and into a lone doorway. We went up the stairs and entered a nightclub in full swing. The room was jammed with people, drinks were flowing and a band was wailing on stage- playing honking, horn-based Dixieland jazz.
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band came from New Orleans and played a longstanding gig there. This concert was held in one of the older auditoriums on the U of A campus and the environment added to the feeling that time was suspended. The music was traditional Dixieland jazz- a happy, herky jerky acoustic music that featured the blast, bellow, slip and slide of a variety of horns. The music was crafted for one main thing- jamming, trading solos around, keeping that peppy beat rolling, coming to a full stop, then cranking back into it again. The horns shot sound out over the crowd in the big wide hall and the audience responded with cheers and the rustle of excitement.
Dooley’s. Elvis Costello and the Attractions.
Temper, temper. Elvis Costello didn’t seem to want to be in this rowdy bar in Tucson. But at least he didn’t abort the set as he did at the Santa Monica Civic the year before. A dramatic highlight in Tucson was the song “Green Shirt.” But basically what Costello did was to just blast through the set, focusing on his new Armed Forces album, and then split- short and surly. The crowd wasn’t too amused and someone yelled, “What’s so funny about no encore, Elvis?” mimicking Elvis’ song “What’s so Funny About Peace Love and Understanding?” It didn’t do any good: Elvis had truly left the building.
Dooley’s. Shawn Phillips.
This was the last time I saw Shawn Phillips perform on stage, certainly a trusted musical friend. At Dooley’s, he was no longer with Quartermass. Instead, Phillips was a solo performer, playing with an array of equipment surrounding him for effects- just like the first time I saw him at the Santa Monica Civic in 1973. He looked like an astronaut, seated in his command bubble. Phillips had taken to performing at a more relaxed pace, taking time to tell stories. One of those stories at Dooley’s was a long discourse about a train trip Phillips had taken with singer-songwriter Tim Buckley. Phillips’ narrative was humorous and folksy.
This final Phillips show would signal the end of the rock and roll decade for me. The last two shows- Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan- had been challenging. I was perhaps overly familiar with most of the old bands and now I was living in a place- Tucson- where the new bands did not come as often. Besides, I had begun a solid relationship with Jonie and there were plenty of other things to do- like travel. After Jonie left her job at U of A, we went first to the West Coast to visit my family, then to the East Coast to visit her relatives.
Rhinelander, Wisconsin– Robert Bly
While traveling through Wisconsin, Jonie and I went to see Minnesota poet Robert Bly perform at the town’s public library. Bly had achieved a reputation as an innovator because he accompanied himself occasionally with musical instruments. In Rhinelander, he spoke with and without accompaniment, strumming a dulcimer gently as his warm, reassuring voice rolled through the poems. Bly was a different kind of poet- he was folksy and down home, but also sharp and wise. Spinning tales of midwestern life, Bly also seemed to have a genuine desire to reach people on an emotional level, his delivery honest and direct.
After spending time in New Jersey and Baltimore, we made our way through the South and ended up getting stuck in New Orleans waiting for lost luggage. A drug dealer with a gold star in his tooth helped us find a room. A secretary at the bus station finally tracked our stuff to Greenville, North Carolina and had it shipped down. Then it was off to Laredo, across the border and down through Mexico. This would certainly affect concert going. Concert news was bad anyway- on December 3, 1979, eleven people died at Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati at a Who concert. It was being called “the worst tragedy in rock ‘n’ roll history.” The concert had featured festival seating, but the gates were opened late, causing a lethal stampede.
For Christmas, Jonie and I ended up on Isla Mujeres at the top of the Mexican Caribbean. The only live music I heard while living in a little dome tent on a white sand beach was the strum of the occasional traveler’s guitar or maybe a harmonica. On Christmas night, however, a group of travelers got together on the beach to jam. I could hear them play from our tent and listened to the nameless and faceless musicians find a groove. Someone had a clarinet. Someone else had a flute and they were tinkering with a light, jazzy version of “Silent Night.” I drifted off to sleep to the soothing music, slipping quietly into a new decade.