King Koncert: Memoirs of an American Rocker

by Tim Van Schmidt


After the New Year, Jonie and I made our way to Guatemala. We settled in a traveler’s paradise called Panejacel on Lake Atitlan, a town used to backpacking travelers and where breakfast was a huge bowl of fresh yogurt and fruit for fifty cents. We traveled to different villages around the lake, three volcanoes towering over the water. My only connection to popular music there was the blare of a portable radio hanging from a stick while a workman erected a bamboo house next to our cinderblock palace. The radio played either upbeat, frenetic pop music or passionate ballads- you didn’t need to know Spanish to guess what they were singing about. Other than that, it was the incessant marimba music blasting on every bus.

After returning to the States- literally penniless and hitchhiking from San Diego to LA, we ended up at my parents’ house. I had contracted hepatitis and was laid up for weeks. Then we traveled to Wisconsin, met our families in Rhinelander and got married on August 16. After another trip back to New Jersey, we moved to Colorado, where Jonie had gone to school. We ended up in Fort Collins, then a small city of 50,000. We settled in and I began a ceramic craft business. Jonie and I also became intimately involved in the Fort Collins Food Co-op, which would highly influence our social lives in those first few years.

Sam’s Old Town Ballroom. Kate Wolf.

A friend in New Jersey had introduced us to the mellow folk music of singer-songwriter Kate Wolf and we played the tape she made of Wolf’s music over and over again in the car on the trip to Colorado. The buzz about Wolf was that her gentle folk music was a reflection of a kinder, gentler New Age. Her music was full of emotional honesty and an artistic strength that denied contemporary music trends. We could hardly believe the news that Wolf was coming to our new home in Fort Collins to a big, rowdy night club.

Sam’s Old Town Ballroom sat on a corner in a downtown area that seemed to only support nightclubs. There was a biker bar, a couple of blues bars, some other clubs and Sam’s. Most other storefronts were shut down or changed frequently. We lined up early outside Sam’s with some of our Co-op friends, but there was no need because it was a thin crowd. Wolf took the stage with multi-instrumentalist Nina Gerber and her emotional music was magic even despite the clacking of pool balls from the barroom. The most riveting moment was Wolf’s signature song, “Red Tailed Hawk.” Years later, Wolf told me in an interview that she and Gerber always joked about that gig at Sam’s.

Lincoln Center. New Grass Revival, Leon Russell.

Besides making craft items to sell, I also snagged a job at the biggest local record store- Rocky Mountain Records. This helped get me tied back into the music scene again, for both records and live music- Rockmo had a hip import section, was located on the busiest corner in town and was a Ticketmaster ticket outlet. Besides working the register and helping with inventory, I also got to clean up the street and parking lot after major ticket sales events had wreaked chaos on the neighborhood.

One of the perks of working at Rockmo was getting free tickets to locally produced concerts. The first, during my short tenure at the store, was to see Leon Russell. The show was being held at the Lincoln Center, a city-run arts center boasting gallery space, ballrooms, meeting rooms, an intimate performance theatre and a larger performance hall. Predating my arrival in Fort Collins, the Lincoln Center had hosted shows by the Talking Heads, Missing Persons and U2, thanks to the efforts of a local promoter. Like them, Russell was playing in the clean, conservative performance hall.

However, something had changed with this old hero. Just the year before, Russell had released a country rock album with country stalwart Willie Nelson, “Willie and Leon.” The country influences were no surprise, really- his 1973 album “Hank Wilson’s Back” was a country workout- but the country stuff seemed to have mellowed Russell out. I had been a fan of Russell’s rabble-rousing power, not the laid back picker.

At the Lincoln Center, Russell’s act seemed reserved, his craggy voice seemed even more craggy and the song arrangements were not always convincing. The artistic bluegrass approach of opening band the New Grass Revival (who I had seen open for Russell in Long Beach in 1973) didn’t help create the energy I was looking for either. The experience felt flat, mostly because I was not prepared to accept the changes in this artist. I hadn’t seen Russell since 1973 and at that time he was rocking arenas. At the Lincoln Center, that particular thrill was gone. Warner Brothers Records released “Leon Russell and New Grass Revival Live” in 1981.

Lincoln Center. George Thorogood and the Destroyers.

For this show, I volunteered to work security. I was assigned the job of keeping people moving through the stage door area of the Lincoln Center because there was a play happening at the same time in the Mini Theatre. The job was harder than my partner from the record store and I imagined as various production people and band crew members continually congregated in our area. Things calmed down however when Thorogood and band swept through the hallway en route to the stage- everybody went out to see the show. We were given tickets to the second show- excellent center section seats- for our pitiful efforts.

I had heard about Thorogood from a record store chick in Santa Barbara a few years before. She loved his rough, roots rock and roll, lumping it in with the aggressive rock and punk that was being churned out thanks to the success of new wave. I knew I could trust the girl’s opinion- she was one of the few people I knew who was serious enough about punk to drive to San Francisco to see the Sex Pistols- but I didn’t buy the record.

On the afternoon of the show in Fort Collins, Thorogood and band stopped by the record store to make an in-store appearance. However, no one showed up, much to the embarrassment of the radio station guy who had set it up. Thorogood and his guys were good-natured about it, however, did some shopping and split. That night my partner and I reported to the back stage area and were promptly offered beers, then given our security assignment.

I was used to chaos at concerts, but even so, things were pretty wild in the Lincoln Center for Thorogood’s show. I went into the rest room, only to find that the paper towel trash can was on fire. The men at the urinals laughed and offered to piss on the fire to put it out. I cupped my hands under the nearby water faucet and threw water on the flames, then went out to notify a Lincoln Center employee that there had been a fire. They responded with a big gulp and wide eyes and rushed off to check it out.

Inside the concert hall, Thorogood stoked up his rough and ready rock and roll. Like an old bluesman, Thorogood’s voice was not much more than a growl and the guitar volume was super-boosted. The audience was rocking. The kid in front of me got up on his chair and jumped up and down, a bottle of whiskey dropping out of his back pocket and breaking on the floor. Meanwhile, Thorogood dug his slide into the guitar and the saxophone honked and blasted. This would be the last major rock show in the venue, all other shows carefully screened. Rules about the audience were stiffened, if for no other reason than just the survival of the hall.

December 4- CU Events Center. Gil Scott-Heron, Stevie Wonder

Since seeing Stevie Wonder open for both Joe Cocker and the Rolling Stones in 1972, I had considered myself a fan. Wonder’s new record in 1980 was “Hotter Than July” and I saw firsthand that indeed it was a hot seller at the record store. Some co-workers, particularly the girl that ran the ticket counter, wanted to go to the show in Boulder when it was announced, so I threw in and bought a ticket as well.

The show was being held in the indoor arena of the University of Colorado, which was full, maybe uncomfortably so. Before the show, a black guy and a brown guy started pushing up against each other, chest to chest a few rows away from our seats. It was all that they could do to not slug it out over some seat dispute while everyone around them anxiously waited to see what would happen. The tension the situation created hung heavy in the air even after these guys sat back down.

Meanwhile, the concert got going with a set by Gil Scott-Heron. Scott-Heron had become known for his smooth, free association of jazz, funk and poetry, half spoken, half sung. On the big stage in Boulder, however, it was the brassy, sharp funk that punctuated the night, Scott-Heron’s rolling, lulling vocals filling in the cracks.

Wonder’s band filled the stage. Flanked by singers and surrounded by instrumentalists, Wonder concentrated on the upbeat material from “Hotter Than July,” including the jumpy, frenetic “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” but the show also looked back into the past. In the 1970s, Wonder had something new to prove- his funky new persona- but by 1980, he was a fully mature artist crafting his show around a wide variety of moods and music styles. From crooner ballads to full band celebrations, Wonder was equally ready to perform, his energy inspiring and undeniable.

Sam’s Old Town Ballroom

 Free admission to Sam’s was another perk of working at the record store. In fact, it became part of working the late shift- close the store and go down to Sam’s to check out some regional band, a touring unit or night club headliner. Sam’s had a huge, long bar in one room, with pool tables on one end. The showroom was rough and ready, a well used and abused wood plank room that was completely functional with dancing areas and seating areas- no problem for crowds to party. And party they did. Alcohol flowed profusely. People sniffed drugs off the table or smoked joints out the back door behind the club. They jumped at the chance to fill the dance floor to anything loud and peppy.

I last saw Commander Cody at the Long Beach Arena with Sha Na Na in 1973. At that time, his band was more like a novelty act, revving up twisted versions of songs like “Hot Rod Lincoln.” By 1980, Cody was in charge of a great rock and roll bar band, throwing country boogie, blues and rock and roll all into the same bubbling stew. At Sam’s, Cody even showed his novelty side with his new tune “Two Triple Cheese (Side Order of Fries),” and the whole club was jumping.

Other dates at Sam’s included a show by quirky Chicago bluesman Corky Siegel. Siegel was the Siegel in the Siegel-Schwall Blues Band, a mid-1960s Chicago unit, and at Sam’s he mixed humor and blues with a tongue in cheek, wise-cracking stage presence.

John Lennon’s Death

 When John Lennon and Yoko One released their album “Double Fantasy,” I told the record store manager that we should display it up front with the other hot new releases. After all, this was Lennon’s first record in years. He only grunted. But then one morning I reported to work and the phone was ringing off the hook with people asking for “Double Fantasy.” The morning crowd was much busier than normal and everyone was asking for the John Lennon record. I asked a co-worker what was going on and she said, “Oh, didn’t you hear, John Lennon was shot.” The store manager looked visibly regretful that he hadn’t carried more stock of Lennon’s new record- or any Lennon record for that matter.

Of course, this made one of my major live music goals- to see Lennon perform live- once and for all disappear. The world had lost a great recording artist and a wise generational spokesman. His murder sent an unintentional message that the 1960s and 70s were gone. The 1980s were a new decade, a new era. As Lennon had told fans years before- the dream was over. Even a longtime superstar must pass, gunned down by a lunatic. Innocence had been ripped away and replaced with bloody reality. Meanwhile, people who hadn’t cared about Lennon’s new record were now clamoring for more.