My Generation Defined

Last night I watched the PBS documentary, Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation. Unlike the hacked-up music documentary released in 1970 presenting many of the festival performers out of the sequence in which they actually performed, this newly released film delves deeper into the social and political environment of the times which led up to the massive event in upstate New York fifty years ago during the summer of 1969.

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No, I didn’t attend the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. I was going on 19 years old, working a summer factory job to help defray my expenses as a college student. Though I was a motivated student, the film aptly describes the pressure on young men facing a ubiquitous selective service system which could pluck one out of a normal life to fight, and perhaps to die, in the unjust war raging in Vietnam.  I witnessed weekly body counts on the evening news. A student deferment was my temporary ticket to avoid becoming yet another heart-wrenching statistic.

 

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Source: Associated Press

I grew my hair long, smoked pot, and practiced non-violence. I also opposed the Vietnam War, marched in anti-war and civil rights demonstrations, and wrote letters to my congressional representatives.   So, yeah, the Woodstock Festival meant something more to me than just three days of peace and music.  It meant a life-long commitment to the principles of peace, fairness and equality.  That was my takeaway for which I’m grateful. And while younger generations sometimes make fun of Woodstock, or disregard it with a wave of the hand, I embrace it, warts* and all.

A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting the Festival’s music promoter, Artie Kornfeld, at a book-signing event in the community where I was living then. Ironically, that was in Woodstock, Illinois.

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Street signs in Woodstock, Illinois

(*Perhaps the biggest wart was the mess left behind. Only a handful of festival attendees remained to clean up the trash produced over three days by half a million people.  Over time, my generation also promoted the overuse of plastic packaging which is currently plaguing our environment. It wasn’t supposed to be “Peace, Love & Pollution.”)

Dylan: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Let’s begin in reverse order with…

The ugly

The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis was a cacophonous, overblown sports arena, home to Minnesota Twins baseball and Minnesota Vikings football teams.  It’s most notable architectural feature was the pneumatically suspended fabric dome, held aloft by constant air pressure pumped into the structure.  Sylvia and I attended a baseball game there once, fans of the visiting Milwaukee Brewers.  We figured it was designed to be noisy intentionally, so that visiting teams and their fans would feel intimidated by home team rowdies.  Leaving the the facility postgame, the hurricane-force air pressure was so intense it literally propelled us out the exit doors.

Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, and Tom Perty & the Heartbreakers scheduled four arena dates together during the summer of 1986. One of those shows was at the Metrodome.  A specially priced concert/round-trip bus ticket combo sponsored by a La Crosse, Wisconsin radio station was offered, so we signed up.  The promise of complimentary Old Style beer along the way played no significant role in that decision.


The Dead would open the show with one long set, though truncated by Dead standards. From the opening notes of a barely recognizable “Gimme Some Lovin’,” we realized  something was wrong.  The Metrodome wasn’t designed as a concert venue.  Sound waves reverberated around us. The Dead’s music was barely recognizable, guitar solos and vocals echoing aimlessly in the air, bass and drums out of sync and muddled.  This was not the Grateful Dead I’d heard twice before.

During intermission, the buzz among fellow concertgoers was palpable.  What’s going on? Why did the music sound so awful? When Dylan and Petty played their set, it was the same acoustic mess that plagued the Dead.  No one could distinguish what lyrics Dylan was singing or exactly what song the Heartbreakers were playing in that environment of nonstop reverberation. Looking back at the published concert reviews and comments from that night, virtually all were extremely critical of the acoustics for that show.  To this day, I scratch my head in disbelief at what could have been a comet ride of a concert.  Instead, it was a subsonic disappointment.

The bad

One day after Barack Obama was elected president, twenty-two years and one hundred sixty miles down the Mississippi River from the Metrodome, Bob Dylan brought his never ending tour to the La Crosse Center.  It was three days before my birthday, on November 5, 2008. Sylvia and I were anxious to hear Dylan in a venue where we’d previously heard Bruce Hornsby & the Range and Johnny Rivers.  The acoustics were tried and true. We were feeling celebratory for many reasons.

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I can’t put my finger on it.  Maybe our seats, which were just to the left and behind the soundboard, were too far back.  Maybe it was the uninspired backing band, or that Dylan stood practically motionless behind a portable keyboard, singing at a volume level just below that of the band. He wore a wide-brimmed cowboy hat that hid his face in a shadow, perhaps masking what could have been boredom.  Maybe it was the constant, low-level buzz of concertgoers who found it a convenient time to carry on personal conversations.  But most annoying, each song sounded the same as the previous one, displaying little or no imagination in the arrangements.  It was difficult to make out what Dylan was singing because his voice sounded garbled much of the time and few melodies were distinguishable.  Some reviewers thought it was a good show.  The opening two songs, “Wicked Messenger” and “Watching the River Flow,” were unrecognizable to me until each was nearly finished.  Nearly every song, new or old, suffered from a paint-by-number quality.  It was exhausting to listen.

The good

Ten years after La Crosse, almost to the day, Bob Dylan performed in Asheville on November 2, 2018.  Sitting in row four, we and some friends were facing Dylan’s baby grand piano with its lid up and with a perfect view of the maestro himself sitting at its keyboard.  To his left on a small table were two items he brings with him on tour.  One was an Oscar statuette, his academy award for the song “Things Have Changed,” featured in the film Wonder Boys, and the song with which he opened the show.  The other was a bust of Greek goddess Athena sporting a green laurel on its head, perhaps a reminder that Dylan is a Nobel laureate after all, and only the second person since George Bernard Shaw to have earned both and Oscar and a Nobel Prize.

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Dylan’s backing band included Charlie Sexton on lead guitar and also featured Tony Garnier on bass; Donnie Herron on pedal steel, electric mandolin, and violin; and George Receli  on drums.  They were brilliant.  Song arrangements were fresh and diverse.  The setlist was a welcome mix of contemporary and classic works.  Dylan interpreted each number deftly, accompanied by engaging vocal and facial inflections.  For a couple of songs he left the piano to take center stage, displaying hints of swagger as he dipped the mic stand and struck a pose.  It was especially effective on “Love Sick.”  His arrangement of “It Ain’t Me Babe” left me speechless.  We were transfixed.

Before I knew Sylvia, I’d heard Bob Dylan for the first time on November 1, 1978 in Madison, Wisconsin. Oddly enough, forty years ago almost to the day of the Asheville show.  Thirty years prior to La Crosse.  Was it good?  Oh, yeah.  It was good.  It was the “Budokan” tour.  Dylan used essentially the same musicians who backed him on his Street-Legal album, but with additional horns and backup singers.  While some reviewers were critical of the new musical arrangements, I thought many were unique and more interesting than the originals.

As I recall, the last song for Dylan’s 1978 show was “Changing of the Guard.” His opening song forty years later was “Things Have Changed.” Indeed they have.  It was wonderful to hear Dylan in good voice, backed by a spot-on band, delivering new, inspired arrangements for his classic works, and covering his more recent songs with passion.  The 2018 Bob Dylan is how we’ll remember him, and that’s a good thing.

 

Readin’, writin’, reviewin’

I haven’t been writing much lately.  I’m not much of a writer anyway, so it really doesn’t matter.  Most of my time now is spent listening to music, new and old — and I use “old” in the very broadest sense, applying to recorded music from the 1920s onward — to determine what the next playlist for my radio show, Life Out of Tunes, should sound like.

Some folks experience personal catharsis from writing.  For others, like me, it becomes a task.  It’s frustrating to “think” wonderful prose and not be able to transfer it to actual words on paper or a screen.  My thoughts are fleeting.  Perhaps I should take a cue from James Joyce and simply let my stream of consciousness flow out on to the keyboard or the notebook.  That would work if I wasn’t so easily distracted by a tune playing in my head, or on the radio, or on the stereo.

Now, most of the writing I’m able to accomplish is in the form of brief reviews for new CD releases.  When I was a working library professional, I wrote more than a hundred brief (150 words or less) book reviews for Library Journal, mainly covering two subject areas.  One was humor.  The other could be described generally as the social impact of technology.  Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference.

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Here’s one of my book reviews from 1999 I had framed along with a personally autographed publicity still of its author, Al Franken.  Al’s book was titled Why Not Me? The Inside Story of the Making and Unmaking of the Franken Presidency.  If you’re wondering into what category his book fell, it was humor.  He was a merely a comedian at that time and didn’t run for a senate seat until ten years later.  The book’s premise about a Franken presidency was funny.  Franken’s actual political career in the Senate was serious.  I wish he were still in office now and actually considering that run for a Franken Presidency.

No, I haven’t framed any music reviews. Yet.  They’re not actually published anywhere other than in a DJ discussion group for the community radio station, Asheville FM, where I volunteer as host for Life Out of Tunes, the radio show.  Among other things, I’m a reviewer of new music.  In a year since starting there as a DJ, I’ve written and posted about thirty or so reviews.  The hundred book reviews I wrote for Library Journal spanned about twenty years, so I should be hitting my stride soon.

Beginning Saturday, October 27, 2018, Asheville FM will enter it’s week-long Fall Fund Drive.  The goal is to raise $30,000 during that time.  Even for a volunteer-driven, community radio station that broadcasts locally and streams its signal worldwide via the Internet, listener support is crucial for our ongoing operations.  Please consider giving any amount you can to support community radio.  And thanks for listening to Life Out of Tunes on Asheville FM!

~Joey Books, host of Life Out of Tunes

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Fifty Years Ago: Volume One

I attended my fifty-year high school class reunion recently.  Another one of those “golden anniversary” milestones intended to make you feel grateful you’re “not dead yet.”

The best part of the reunion gathering was reconnecting with classmates who also were members of a garage band I was in fifty years ago.  The band was “Volume One” and our legacy will remain largely confined to whatever each of the four remaining members recalls about the experience.  To that end, here are my recollections.

Volume One formed in May 1968, rising from the debris of two splintered garage bands, the Jaywalkers and the No Left Turns.  Classmates Dean (bass), Mike (rh gtr/kb), Joe S. (voc/tr) and I (voc) along with two other guys, Tony (ld gtr/voc) and Dick (dr/voc) picked up the pieces of our collectively shattered past, met together in my parents’ basement and launched a musical endeavor that lasted only through the summer of ’68.  But what an amazing summer it was!

In addition to each of us working conventional summer jobs, the band rehearsed in my basement twice a week. By the end of June we’d honed a repertoire of songs in front of various siblings, friends and neighbors who would stop by to listen.  The set list took shape and included songs by Hendrix, the Animals, the Stones and Cream among others.

In July, Volume One debuted as the break band for the One Eyed Jacks from Champaign, Illinois at the E.J. Dalton Youth Center in Rockton, Illinois.  August found us in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin playing at the community center for a teen dance.  Some city officials there harped about our decibel level being too high and demanded that we “turn it down.” When I asked them them to produce a decibel meter, they threatened to unplug us.  The hiring agent intervened and argued that the kids loved us.  She handed me a check for the contracted amount and told us to continue playing.  We finished the show without incident.

Volume One played their third job at our beloved hometown Club Pop House.  It was the pinnacle of our short-lived career together as a band.  Our final gig was as a contestant in a “Battle of the Bands” at the Meadow in Janesville, Wisconsin.  We placed third, winning a twenty-five dollar gift certificate at the local music store.  I’m not sure what became of it before we finally split up for the last time, each of us going his own way.

On Monday, August 6, 2018 I’ll feature a segment of three songs from the original artists (People!, Cream and Vanilla Fudge) that my 1968 garage band, Volume One, played as part of its regular set list fifty years ago.  Tune in to Asheville FM (ashevillefm.org) Monday, August 6 at 2:00 pm EDT for “Life Out of Tunes” with Joey Books.

 

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Volume One (1968) Clockwise from left: Tony, Mike, Joe A., Joe S., Dean, Dick

 

 

Summerfest 1971 and beyond

Summerfest is an annual music festival held in a permanent, seventy-five acre Festival Park along the beautiful shoreline of Lake Michigan in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  The festival runs for eleven days, on eleven stages, with performances from more than 800 acts with over a 1,000 performances.  Since the 1970s, it’s run from late June through early July.  Summerfest attracts between eight and nine hundred thousand people each year, making it “The World’s Largest Music Festival,” a title that’s been certified by Guinness World Records since 1999.

My first experience at Summerfest was in 1971. Though memories of these things sometimes fade, I located newspaper clippings published at that time to corroborate my recollection.  Among other things I recall, it was a very wet experience.

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Admission to the festival grounds was a dollar fifty at the gate or an even dollar if you bought a mail order ticket in advance. There  were no additional postage or handling charges.  Just mail a buck with a SASE.  Postage was eight cents back then.  A savings of just thirty-four cents, once you subtract the cost for two stamps, wasn’t even enough incentive for a college kid to plan ahead.  Besides, my summer job at the local cheese factory kept me in enough pocket money to enjoy an occasional concert spontaneously.

This event was on a Sunday, the final day of the festival.  Early on, it had been promoted as a “Surprise Rock Spectacular.”  The acts were revealed just two weeks before the show. They were John Sebastian, recently gone solo from the Luvin’ Spoonful; Poco, founded by some former Buffalo Springfield members; and Mountain, four loud, hard rockers led by behemoth guitar shredder, Leslie West.  A band named Tayles, from Madison, Wisconsin, and Mylon, a southern gospel-rock group were the opening acts.

Fifty thousand music fans were gathering at the Lakefront Amphitheater stage when my date and I arrived late Sunday afternoon.  It had been raining intermittently all day, leaving a sparkling sheen on every exposed surface.

Like today, Summerfest was sponsored primarily by Milwaukee’s famous breweries.  Miller High Life and Pabst Blue Ribbon are perhaps the only originals still around.  Unlike today, festival beer was served up in glass bottles.  A new minimum drinking age of eighteen had been enacted recently, so there was plenty of bottled beer consumption, resulting in plenty of empty bottles.

One newspaper account had listed John Sebastian as the concert headliner, clearly an error as we’d suspected and confirmed by handbills posted on the festival grounds.  Mountain would be the main attraction. We missed Mylon who, I learned recently, was managed by Felix Pappalardi of Mountain, the concert headliners.   We arrived instead near the end of Tayles’ set.

I’d really been looking forward to hearing Poco and hoped the concert wouldn’t be affected by the rain which had started up again.  After a lengthy delay, Poco came out on stage, tuned up a bit, and began playing.

After just two songs, Hurry Up and Hear That Music, frontman Richie Furay tersely announced that Rusty Young, their pedal steel guitarist, had been hit by a beer bottle.  To my great disappointment, Poco abruptly left the stage as loud booing and buckets of rain began to pour forth.

When the rain eventually eased up, a soggy audience cheered as John Sebastian, acoustic guitar in hand, strolled out to a microphone and announced, “I’ll play for ya. Jus’ don’t throw no bottles at me.”  He played an entire set and two encores without incident.  Memorable songs included Younger GirlDarlin’ Be Home Soon and Red-Eye Express.  Sometimes all it takes to tame an otherwise unruly concert crowd is politely asking not to be a beer-bottle target.

Finally, as rain continued to fall, Mountain took the stage.  Leslie West, Felix Pappalardi, Corky Laing, and Steve Knight simply blew us away.  If any bottles were thrown toward the stage during Mountain’s set, the high decibel sound waves might’ve stopped them in flight.  I could still hear Nantucket Sleighride, Mississippi Queen, and For Yasgur’s Farm ringing in my ears on the long drive home after the show.  It helped me forget about how wet and cold we were.

In four decades of semi-regular Summerfest attendance since then, I’ve heard such notable artists as Roy Orbison, the Moody Blues, Robin Trower, Linda Ronstadt, Kansas, Michael Franti, the Freddy Jones Band, Green Children and many others, including jazz, folk and blues musicians from all over the world.  There were rising stars and those at the end of long careers.  I saw comedian Billy Crystal perform there early in his career, and heard Linda Ronstadt announce to the Milwaukee crowd, “It’s so great to be here in Indiana!”  We were quick to correct her geography.  My wife saw comedian George Carlin arrested by Milwaukee police for performing his Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television routine.

The biggest stars continue to perform at Summerfest in what’s now a 25,000-seat amphitheater at one end of the festival grounds for which tickets are sold at much higher prices than Summerfest’s nominal gate cost.  And though it’s no longer just a buck fifty for general admission, Summerfest remains one of the best bargains for live music around, still hosting hundreds of musical acts on eleven different stages, over eleven consecutive days.

On my July 2, 2018 radio show, Life Out of Tunes on Asheville FM, I’ll be spinning songs from that first Summerfest experience and from other artists I’ve heard at the festival over the years.

Memorial Day: I ain’t marching anymore

My father and his brother both served their country in the Army during World War II.  My uncle, who was based in Australia, saw combat action in the South Pacific.  Dad was training to be a tail gunner in the Army Air Force, but missed combat as the war ended prior to his deployment.

While in college during the Vietnam war, I took part in anti-war demonstrations, marches and rallies.  I still have a letter from U.S. Representative Les Aspin in response to concerns about the war I’d written in a missive to him.  He understood and promised to work toward ending the war.  The continuing anti-war movement resonates with me today.

In 1971, over a Memorial Day weekend when I was home for the summer from college, my uncle and his family came to visit.  Being an occasional coffeehouse folksinger, trying to learn a handful of new tunes whenever the opportunity arose, I’d brought home with me some sheet music.  I’d set the pages to one song, an anti-war anthem titled I Ain’t Marching Anymore by Phil Ochs, on my mother’s spinet piano.  My uncle spotted it there, picked it up and stared at it.  I braced myself for the blowback.

A few long seconds passed, when to my great surprise he turned to me and said, “This is really good.  How does it go?”  I sang I few bars a cappella for him.  He picked up the tune straight away and we both continued to sing the next couple of verses together.  Dad even joined in.  Soon we were discussing the Vietnam war and concluded that future wars should be avoided at all cost.

Let’s not forget why we enjoy this long holiday weekend.  Memorial Day is observed to honor those who died while serving in the U.S. military.  The holiday wasn’t established for businesses to promote “mattress sale extravaganzas” or for car dealerships to offer “holiday blowouts.”  Formerly known as Decoration Day, it originated sometime after the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971, the same day my dad, my uncle and I sang I Ain’t Marching Anymore together.

The message of the song is clear.  Let’s cease adding to the roll call of those who fall in battle, to be honored for a few hours one day a year.  It’s time to give peace a chance… every day.

Fundraising or Fun-raising?

Most of you know I have a weekly music show on a local community radio station in Asheville.  As a matter of fact, it goes by the same name as this blog, Life Out of Tunes.  It’s a joy for me to play music for a listening audience and it’s fun to know those listeners are not only from here in Asheville, but from anywhere in the country and perhaps the world.

Spring Fund Drive Logo by Jess Speer

In order to make that happen, many resources are needed — human, technical and financial.  The community radio station for which I volunteer, Asheville FM, is no different with regard to those needs.  That’s why twice each year we hold fund drives.  With spring now in full swing, we are celebrating the season with new ideas and new goals to make our commercial-free radio station even better and stronger than it is now!

The Asheville FM spring fund raiser begins Saturday, April 28 and runs through Friday, May 4.  Our focus this time is GROWTH.  Community radio is a powerful medium, but we need your support to continue presenting more than sixty shows spanning virtually every genre of music, as well as providing news and community interest programming.  Our goal is $23,000.  It’s ambitious, but attainable.  So please consider contributing any amount by clicking on the DONATE button next time you visit AshevilleFM.org(If you call the station at (828) 259-3936 and pledge or donate during my show, Life Out of Tunes, on Monday, April 30 between 2:00 and 3:00 pm Eastern time, I’ll be especially grateful!)

That brings to mind some memories.  In 1982 I was associate director of the Janesville (WI) Public Library.  I also fronted a band named Heavy Chevy & the Circuit Riders.  We were a fifties and sixties rock ‘n’ roll revival band that specialized in working fund raisers for schools and other non-profit organizations.  Here we are rehearsing just before a library fundraiser.  (That’s me in the green shirt.)

Heavy Chevy & the Circuit Riders (1982)

Later that year I was asked to co-host local televised segments of the annual Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon alongside Janesville school district’s PR manager and the manager of Total TV.  During the telethon I offered to shave off my mustache while on camera for a specific donation.  I don’t recall the dollar amount.  A donor called to offer the requested amount, but asked me to shave only half the mustache.  His hope, he said, was that someone else would call with the same donation amount to shave off the rest.  Someone brought me a can of shaving cream and a razor. I continued the telethon with only half-a-stache until a second caller made the rest come off.  Another caller who recognized me from a Heavy Chevy gig requested that I recite the spoken interlude of a song, Little Darlin’  by the Diamonds.  It was a song from the Heavy Chevy playlist, so I accommodated her request and she made her donation.

Telethon ad from Sept 5, 1982 Janesville Gazette

Isn’t it a shame no visual archive of that telethon show exists?   Well, perhaps not.  Unfortunately, though, there is an audio-visual archive of Heavy Chevy & the Circuit Riders on YouTube.  Here is:

The Ballad of Heavy Chevy

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