Rock of Ages

Above: Before bathing at Baxter’s was popular… Zoned out crowd watches The Velvet Underground

How I Entered Rock ‘n’ Roll History as a Typo

from our NYTimes correspondent, John Stickney

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Each generation feels that the music of its youth is special. But can’t we, in our eighth decade, stake an unequivocal claim?

Consider: In 1964, the Billboard Hot 100 included I Want to Hold Your Hand, Oh, Pretty Woman, I Get Around, Where Did Our Love Go, Under the Boardwalk, The House of the Rising Sun, Walk On By, Baby I Need Your Loving and Louie Louie.

Who wouldn’t fall for those hits, and the dances that they inspired?

The hits just kept on happening through a decade that summoned the energy of a renaissance and a revolution in what was called a youth culture — us, the children of warriors, raised in an era of unparalleled wealth, our college years bracketed by assassinations, against a backdrop of a civil rights movement that defined the era.

Oh, and the war. I write this piece in the midst of Ken Burns’ series on Vietnam (I danced my way out of the draft by tearing a cartilage at a party at Bradford College in 1967). Our less-privileged or less-lucky contemporaries were in a war zone.

Each of us classmates might create his own set list for our years on campus. But a remarkable thing about now is that you can relive much of then on YouTube.

So indulge this idiosyncratic account of my path through the music we all shared — and the accident by which I entered rock history.

First, a confession: On Feb. 17, 1967, the Velvet Underground played Baxter Hall and somehow I missed them. Were you there? In 2013 I mourned when Lou Reed died and in his memory I listened again to that drug-fix anthem I’m Waiting for the Man — my vicarious trip to the wild side, with that live-it-all-now last line:

Baby don’t you holler, darlin’ don’t you bawl and shout
I’m feeling good, you know I’m gonna work it on out
I’m feeling good, I feel oh so fine
Until tomorrow, but that’s just some other time

As a kid I had thrilled to Elvis Presley despite national TV’s censorship of his hip-swinging showmanship, unfiltered here in Tupelo, Miss. And I was unaware of how much he was channeling his black southern peers in the blues tradition.

In 1959 a friend played Roll Over Beethoven for me, and I can still recall my utter delight at how Chuck Berry thumbed his nose at the classical tradition, in his back beat and hilarious lyrics:

You know my temperature’s risin’
The jukebox’s blowin’ a fuse
My heart beatin’ rhythm
And my soul keep-a singing the blues
Roll over Beethoven
And tell Tchaikovsky the news

Another song came into my late-Eisenhower-era life, Money (That’s What I Want), by Barrett Strong, co-written by Berry Gordy, his first hit for the young Motown, which also threatened every sentimental pop lyric convention:

Money don’t get everything it’s true
What it don’t get, I can’t use
I want money

Here I can’t resist a shout-out as well to Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues, Buddy Holly’s That’ll Be the Day and Ray Charles’ What’d I Say.

Bring on the new decade and the Beatles, who to me in retrospect seem a kind of collective semi-Shakespeare for their improbable, out-of-nowhere humanity, humor and inexhaustible inventiveness, re-channeling American blues through BBC-trained ears.

The Beatles honored their roots, as in the album title, “Rubber Soul.” The Who did likewise, in Pete Townsend’s wonderful send-up, Substitute, in 1966, with this lyric:

I look all white, but my dad was black

On the freshman quad I was wearing out my copy of the Rolling Stones’ first album. As I recall, the cool people on campus then, the artists, musicians and actors, lived at Berkshire Farm, a kind of ghetto. They invited me, hardly one of them, on a road trip to Albany to see the Rolling Stones on April 29, 1965.

There they were in the middle of God-knows-where, not all that much older than we, in the pre-“Satisfaction” days, the audience swooning to Mick Jagger and the sleepy-eyed Brian Jones. The British again invade Albany! The screams redoubled at the current hit, The Last Time.

The group’s affect is as you see here in “The T.A.M.I. Show,” the 1964 all-star concert film. To Keith Richards’ regret, the Rolling Stones chose to follow James Brown on the bill — the King of Soul’s high-voltage act and consummate showmanship were impossible to top. By contrast, the Stones seemed minstrel-like.

Later I wrote of rock’s front men in my regrettably titled book, “Streets, Actions, Alternatives, Raps: A Report on the Decline of the Counterculture,” published in 1971:

“The singers sang themselves, ultimately, celebrated themselves — mystic strange creatures, supernatural super-potent superstars — and in their songs they chose personae of equal magnitude, Mr. Fantasy, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Hurdy-Gurdy Man, Johnny B. Goode, Mr. Tambourine Man. Who could resist them?”

For me a defining year was 1967, not least because of the release of “Sergeant Pepper,” Respect, Soul Man, White Rabbit and Light My Fire.

All that summer “Light My Fire” dominated the airwaves, sometimes even in its glorious seven-minute version (that defied radio’s three-minutes-and-out standard length) — jazzy, swinging, expansive, and, to my ears, a song of joy and even rapture, capturing the spirit of what it meant to be age 21 and a part of this generation/tribe that had erupted. (The song, in fact, was out of character with the Doors’ usual apocalypse-now stance.)

In the summer of 1967 — the Summer of Love, and of the Monterey Pop Festival, featuring the Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, the Who and the incomparable Otis Redding (who would die in December in a plane crash) — I was an intern at Life magazine, with free tickets to concerts nobody else on staff wanted to attend. Including the Doors.

At a press conference before that Doors concert, I was introduced to Jim Morrison, enough of a promoter to throw his arm cordially around the shoulder of the representative from Life.

In the Oct. 24, 1967, edition of the Williams Record, I described that concert in the context of a review of the Doors’ new album, “Strange Days.” Partly because I knew Danny Fields, the group’s publicist, the review ended up on the back cover of the “Strange Days” sheet music book.

Fast forward to 1990. I was somewhere over Texas, flying to a sales conference in Acapulco and reading “Riders on the Storm: My Life With Jim Morrison and the Doors,” by John Densmore, the group’s drummer. Densmore was writing about “Strange Days” and suddenly there was a quote from that 1967 review:

“’The themes, symbols and imagery of the Doors are stronger on their second album,’ wrote John Stinckney (sic) of the Williams College News (sic), ‘which manages to transcend the fever-pitch intensity and macabre beauty of their first. The Doors have grown, a good sign.

“’The new album’s music is just as erotic, just as hard-driving, just as compelling but twice as terrifying as their first effort.’”

Later in the book I am quoted once more, also as “John Stinckney.”

I was proud that John Stinckney and the Williams College News had entered rock history, even as a typo.

*         *         *

As will happen when you’re reminiscing about the 1960s, one story leads to another. I’m asked by the 1968 website editors to retell this story, so bear with me. Along with Janis Joplin, our classmate Peter Miller appears in it.

After college I scored a job as a Life magazine reporter in what was called the “youth and education” department. In August 1970 I wrote an article called “Richard Brautigan: Gentle Poet of the Young.”

You may recall the novelist and poet Brautigan, whose whimsical, dreamlike writings flowered during the 1960s — especially the novel “Trout Fishing in America,” a counterculture best seller that seemed to have materialized out of the vapor of the times.

Peter Miller adopted the title for his experimental school in a storefront in Cambridge, Mass., back when he was a graduate student at Harvard. (In the Trout Fishing curriculum: English, math, science and motorcycle repair.)

While I was reporting the article, Brautigan and I visited the school — and a photo of him and the teachers (including Peter) and the students and the motorcycles on the curb appeared in Life.

My research shifted to San Francisco, where Brautigan lived at the time. One night he and I went to the Trident, in Sausalito, Calif., a restaurant that, to my Midwestern eyes, embodied the spirit that prevailed in that moment before the mood soured.

The Trident, a former yacht club right on San Francisco Bay, was all greenery and polished wood and open space where one room flowed into another and out onto the wharf, like the crowd.

Whatever it meant to be hip, to me at least, this place was the epicenter. And the shy Brautigan was a celebrity there, instantly recognizable from the cover photo of “Trout Fishing in America” with his moustache, shoulder-length white-blonde hair and broad-brimmed hat.

Janis Joplin appeared and they embraced. Brautigan introduced us and explained that I was writing about him for Life. Then somebody else greeted him and he turned away.

Improbably, I was alone with Joplin, making small talk with a legend. Her 1967 album “Big Brother & the Holding Company” — and Monterey Pop performance — had electrified the world.

Joplin asked if I wanted to see her car. In my memory it was a Mercedes Benz, but memory is faulty. Biographies cite her psychedelic-painted Porsche.

In any case we were outside in the mild air and all was quiet, away from the crowd. Impulsively and — believe me — innocently, Joplin asked if I’d like to go for a ride.

I declined, saying that I was on assignment and had to stick with Brautigan.

Some decisions you ponder for the rest of your life.

As it happened, Joplin in that summer of 1970 was recording her follow-up album “Pearl,” which included a song she wrote with Michael McClure and Bob Neuwirth, Mercedes Benz. That warped my memory, clearly.

In October 1970, at age 27, Joplin was dead of a drug overdose. In October 1984 Brautigan was dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. And I — thank God — am still spinning small tales.


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