Rock fans have certain stock complaints, and one is that there is no decent live rock scene in New York. The Fillmore is a cross between Philharmonic Hall and the subway at rush hour. The clubs offer prohibitive prices and the vibrations of a dentist's drill. Once in a while, something nice happens in Central Park or Tompkins Square, and people will talk about it for months afterward. But mostly rock talk in New York is wistful, punctuated by many mentions of Woodstock and (last year) San Francisco and (this year) Mill Valley.
One place nobody muses about is Queens. Queens -- yech! A lot of rockheads, including me, have tended to define both their generational revolt and their spiritual progress in terms of their migration from Queens to Manhattan. But a favorite pastime of Americans is rediscovering their origins -- that's what the whole rock renaissance is about, after all -- and this may be the year we find out that Queens has a soul. Didn't Jimmy Breslin promise, "If elected, I shall go to Queens?" Aren't the Mets contenders? Queens is where the working class calls itself the middle class. It's the scene of the epic teenage rivalry of the fifties, between the "rocks" and the "collegiates." It's the home of the original sawdust pizza. Rock belongs to Northern Boulevard as much as, if not more than, to Second Avenue. And Queens has something Manhattan doesn't have -- lots of open space.
This fact has not escaped rock promoters. Last summer, two producers brought a number of major groups to the Singer Bowl, in Flushing Meadows. The concerts were an artistic flop; the stadium was too large, the sound was terrible, and the problem of musical theater-in-the-round was solved -- or, rather, parried -- by means of a revolving stage, which allowed each spectator to get a good look at the performers every three minutes or so, a system that does not facilitate rapport.
This year, the Singer Bowl concerts have been taken over by Music Fair Enterprises, the company that runs the Westbury Music Fair. Howard Stein, a young producer who was hired to organize the shows, has screened off a section of the arena and made improvements in the sound system, and prospects look good. At the same time, however, Music Fair Enterprises has outflanked itself by delegating Stein to take on a much more inspiring project -- a series of rock dances in the open-air (but roofed) New York State World's Fair Pavilion, also in Flushing Meadows. The first of these was held on Friday, July 11th. It featured the Grateful Dead and Joe Cocker, and it was quite simply fantastic. If the management continues to do the right things, rock at the Pavilion could become an institution. For the sake of the music and the culture -- and for the sake of Queens -- I hope it will.
I rode to Flushing on a chartered bus that MFE had hired to lure the skeptical press to the outlands. The bus driver got lost, and we took a little tour of Corona (coming withing eight blocks of my old junior high school). Then, to make up for his lapse, he began to speed. It was no use -- we were late anyway. But by this time the bus had become part of the adventure. It was the Who's Magic Bus, the Magical Mystery Tour bus. We jounced along eating brownies and shouting instructions to the driver.
At the Pavilion, it soon became evident that the rest of the crowd shared our expansive mood. They kept coming in, thousands of happy kids -- almost five thousand by the end of the evening. The Pavilion was large enough to accommodate everyone without strain. The ground level served as a huge round dance floor; on the balcony there were tables and chairs, the food concession (the main culinary attraction was tacos, a beautiful idea, though the reality was mediocre), and a nice view of the park. The atmosphere was totally relaxed. As in the San Francisco ballrooms, people were free to dance, crowd in front of the stage, sit in a corner, wander around, eat, or do whatever else impulse dictated. There were no intrusive guards or cops.
The music was great. Joe Cocker and his band did an excellent hard-rock set that included a spectacular rendition of "Let's Go Get Stoned" -- redundant advice for most of the audience, which sang along enthusiastically. During the break between sets, someone backstage had the good sense to put on Beggar's Banquet, and a large group of spectators got up to dance to the Stones. Nothing like that had happened at a rock concert -- in San Francisco or anywhere else -- for a long, long time.
Later, when the Dead were about to come on, there was some squabbling between a solid bloc of dancers who stood in the middle of the floor -- and insisted moralistically that everyone else do the same -- and the people sitting behind them, who complained that they were cutting off the view. After a few minutes of edgy exchange, Bob Weir came onstage and announced, as the Dead do whenever they can, "The management of this place told us you can get up and dance if you want to, so why don't you get up and dance?" That did it. The dancers won; the sitters got up. They were probably glad they did.
The Dead proceeded to perform for more than two hours. They played a lot of new material (notably "Don't Murder Me," a witty country-western song), some standards (including Otis Redding's "Hard to Handle," with Pigpen doing a pretty fair vocal), and several cuts from their new album, Aoxomoxoa; my favorite was "Mountains of the Moon." Through it all, Jerry Garcia, in his red polo shirt, beamed at us. It was the season of love all over again.
The Dead were the perfect group to launch this latest and best exercise in the nostalgia that has been hitting the rock community lately. Dancing. The summer of love. Queens. We still need that ambience, those memories. It's not enough to stare reverently at Eric Clapton's nimble fingers. I only wish the admission price could be lower. Three dollars is reasonable compared to what city places charge, and you get more for your money; still, it's not exactly proletarian.
I didn't appreciate just how good the Pavilion concert was until the following night, when I attended the Madison Square Garden debut of Blind Faith, the new Eric Clapton-Ginger Baker-Steve Winwood combine. (The group is rounded out by a relative unknown -- bassist and electric violinist Rick Grech.) The best part of the evening was that it was short, though this irritated me, theoretically, as one more example of the promoters' indifferent greed. For the prices the kids paid (the cheapest seats were four dollars), they deserved at least a half hour more of music. They also deserved, and didn't get, adequate sound, an alternative to the atrocity of the revolving stage, and an environment that was not conspicuously hostile and policed. Clapton played well, as usual, but Winwood's voice did not come through, and, as for Baker, his show-offy drumming just makes me nervous. In spite of the shoddy production, the audience was ecstatic. Hundreds of teenagers rushed the stage, screaming like Beatlemaniacs. I don't understand it. I'm sure the Emperor has no clothes, but there must be an aesthetic of nakedness I'm not getting.
(by Ellen Willis, untitled article in the "Rock, Etc." column, from the New Yorker, 26 July 1969)
Ellen Willis had visited San Francisco in fall 1968 and seen the Dead; unfortunately she did not write about them, but she wrote a piece on the other bands she saw:
THE SCENE, 1968
I had been in San Francisco a week, was preparing to visit the new Fillmore West for the third time, and asked a friend from East Bay to come along. He wasn't really in the mood, but he had a hard time saying no. "I feel as if I ought to go," he said. "As if it's culture." I'd been experiencing a similar sense of obligation, but dismissing it as a rather banal occupational disease. Yet, after all, it's just a matter of degree: I'm not an art critic, but if I went to Florence I'd feel duty-bound to see a lot of paintings. Rock and roll was the lazy man's music. Who worked at liking Little Richard? You dug him or you didn't.
I hadn't quite realized how much things had changed until I found myself going to concerts here and in Berkeley (a) to pay my respects to the cultural capital of white pop music, (b) to gain insight into what the new groups were doing, and (c) to see Steve Miller live, because I was afraid I had misjudged his first album (he turned out to be as bad as I thought -- third-rate honky-tonk with a fuzztone -- but then the night I was there he had to cope with a bum sound system and was without his rhythm guitarist). The only group I went to see for its own beautiful sake was the Grateful Dead.
Even now there is more and better music going on here than anywhere else in the country. The Bay Area has long been an amazing reservoir of musicians. In 1964, they were sitting around the Berkeley campus playing for fun. Now, apparently, they've all joined rock groups. In the past week or so, at least fifteen local bands, most of them completely unknown elsewhere, have performed at the Fillmore West, the Avalon, the Oakland Coliseum, the Berkeley Community Theater, and various clubs; of those I've seen, the worst are well above the level of the average third-billed act at the Fillmore East, and the best need only practice, good advice, and luck to be really great.
But, for all this talent, the cultural capital is not what it was when the earliest groups were defining a new consciousness. Such intensity is always difficult to sustain, and the circumstances have not been favorable. Haight-Ashbury has passed to the hoodlums and the meth addicts, the growing political urgency has made music seem less important, and the media, after publicizing the scene to death, have lost interest in it, which is even worse. It may be that the mystique of community that characterized San Francisco rock was based at least partly on wishful thinking; Grace Slick was never exactly the hippie next door.
Yet for me and a great many other people, in and out of San Francisco, it was very exciting, and I am not happy to see it replaced by what amounts to a mystique of musicianship -- a reverence of the sort that makes entertainment "culture." This attitude has its roots in the increasing conversion of white rock from a vocal into a primarily instrumental music -- a trend that originated in San Francisco, though it is by no means confined here. (Eric Clapton has said that Cream uses a voice as just another instrument; Ten Years After, the best of the English blues bands, appears to have the same philosophy.)
The most striking casualty of this development has been the eclectic sensory experience that dance floors and light shows were set up to provide. At the Fillmore West, almost everyone sits on the floor and watches -- one scarcely visible corner is reserved for dancing, as if on principle, just as so many of the groups offer token vocals on principle -- and the light show has become an unobtrusive backdrop. The audience wants to concentrate on what the performers are doing with their instruments.
The best and most polished group I've seen here, It's a Beautiful Day, is totally involved with instrumentation. Not one of its six members -- four men and two girls -- can sing rock. They lack the basic prerequisites of volume and enthusiasm -- especially the lead singer, who also plays the violin. But they are excellent musicians (except for one of the girls, whose function is obscure; she shakes a tambourine now and then, but that's about it). Their sound is built on intricate, shifting rhythmic patterns that reminded me of the Kaleidoscope (a band that isn't very well known but should be), and it is so varied and unfailingly interesting that the vocal vacuum doesn't matter.
At the other extreme is a group of five girls called the Ace of Cups. Everyone sings, and each singer is better than the last, ending with the bass player, Mary Gannon, who has a perfect rock voice, strong, mellow, and idiosyncratic. She and three of the others are essentially belters, but the fifth voice (the piano player's) is soft and torchy -- an effective contrast. Their melodies and arrangements are excellent. But they can't play at all. (This is not surprising. There are plenty of female rock singers but, for some reason, virtually no girls who play instruments seriously.) They pick at their instruments as if at unwanted food on a plate -- especially the drummer, who provides almost no beat. The lack of virtuosity is no problem in itself -- in fact, given my prejudices, it is refreshing -- but the lack of drive is. Their singing is so good that I hope they can overcome this handicap; that they've been performing for a year without learning more is disturbing.
Other groups I've enjoyed are Creedence Clearwater Revival, a workmanlike hard-rock band that is a bit more established -- it has an LP out and a hit single, "Susie Q" -- and the Cleveland Wrecking Company, which is in the wall-of-sound tradition, with a lot of well-integrated electronic noise a la Byrds. . .
[ omitted negative review of "one group I hated, Black Pearl" ]
Except for the Dead, the big groups have been out of town. The Airplane has been in Europe with a twenty-seven-man entourage, and Big Brother recently gave its last local concert to feature Janis Joplin, who is going out on her own. The Airplane doesn't belong to San Francisco anymore; it belongs to the world, like the Beatles and white Levis. As for Janis, she has always belonged to herself. I hope she'll be well and not lose her incredible voice too soon. Incidentally, both groups' latest albums -- the Airplane's Crown of Creation and Big Brother's Cheap Thrills -- are classics. Not only that, they are pure, immediate pleasure. The Grateful Dead's new album, Anthem of the Sun, does take some getting used to, but I find myself enjoying it more and more. Sometimes I think the Dead are the only really happy people left.
(by Ellen Willis, from the "Rock, Etc." column, the New Yorker, 2 November 1968)
Reprinted in the collection Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music.