Tried to post this on Facebook on the occasion of Clarence Clemons’s passing. Too long. So here you go. A couple adventures with the Big Man (and just dig that Eric Meola cover photo):
Met Clarence after a Springsteen show in Detroit, ’75 or ’76, while I was at Creem. When Bruce crashed (he never was into partying), I found Clarence, who was. It wound up around 3 am with me challenging the truly Big Man, an ex-college player, to some kind of football duel. Whereupon he jovially, but terrifyingly, set up in his 3-point stance and blasted me across the hotel room.
Hung out in New Orleans in ’78, too, but sober: two of us walking down the middle of Bourbon Street. White cop confronts Clarence, accuses him of stealing a purse from a nearby bar. Pure harassment, seeing as how we had yet to enter any bar. And little choice but to take it. I’ll never forget looking up at the Big Man afterwards to see tears welling in his eyes.
Big soul, big talent and big fun and taken too soon.
She wouldn’t want me telling you this — the first thing to know about Roni Hoffman is that, unlike some of us, she tends toward the taciturn. In fact, after more decades together than we’d ever admit, I’m still hearing new details of her story.
But it’s a helluva story.
Her boyfriend was among the first of the dubious breed that came to be known as rock critics. You see, back in the day, there were these things called daily newspapers and each one had a middle-aged guy who wrote about jazz and that’s who the dailies would send to cover rock concerts, often with laughable results, at least to rock fans. But along came a publication called Crawdaddy, the first real rock magazine, a year before Rolling Stone. Sandy Pearlman wrote for it. And so did Roni’s b.f. Which meant that at 17 she got to hang out with Jimi Hendrix backstage at a club in Greenwich Village, and later to attend the press conference atop the Pan Am building where, in a publicity stunt, the nascent guitar god had just landed in a helicopter. She was at the Dom on St. Mark’s Place when the Velvet Underground played, and a 17-year-old Jackson Browne opened. She was at Patti Smith’s first poetry reading, before Lenny Kaye strummed along on guitar, and then backstage at the Bitter End when Bob Dylan stopped by to pass Patti the torch as rock ‘n’ roll poet laureate.
Jim Morrison put his arm around Roni’s shoulders and a joint in her mouth. Mick Jagger just put his arm around her shoulders — though the occasion happened to be a birthday party for a raging drunk Norman Mailer, who put his hands all over her. She dined with Lou Reed at the writer Lisa Robinson’s apartment. She and her b.f. shared a house with the Blue Oyster Cult, back when those metal pioneers were called the Soft White Underbelly. She met the young Iggy and Alice Cooper and Marc Bolan of T-Rex and such monumental rock elders as Muddy Waters and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. She was at the celebrated Rock Writers Convention in Memphis in ’73, where the original lineup of Big Star, Alex Chilton’s band, played their one and only gig, and on the infamous Hells Angels boat ride around Manhattan, the same year, where she got to know Jerry Garcia and Bo Diddley, both of whom performed, and where she witnessed the Angels preparing to throw overboard a smarmy young local-TV reporter named Geraldo Rivera. She was in the room when Epic signed a raggedy-ass outfit from SUNY/New Paltz called the Dictators, who would then make the first-ever punk record. An undergraduate Gary Lucas crashed on her couch, a dozen years before he captained Beefheart’s Magic Band and an over-served Lester Bangs passed out in her armchair, a dozen years before he overdosed.
Her kids think of her as their unassuming mom. Little do they know.
I mentioned we were going to see Gary Lucas‘s “Captain Beefheart Symposium” at the Independent, and by way of explanation — or maybe Adam asked — I added that Gary had played guitar on Beefheart’s final album. To which my punkass 24-year-old co-worker replied, “You mean, Ice Cream for Crow?”
“The fuck you know Captain Beefheart, let alone a specific record from 1982?!?”
And that’s where it started.
Talk about Beefheart and you’re talking about things way beyond music. In fact, a lot of people — some quantifiably un-square (Mr. P.) — still can’t stand the music, even if they respect the man. A lot of others never listened (but in both cases, the word “lot” must be understood in a rigorously relative context — the universe of the Beefheart-aware being larger than the universe of East River Pipe fans and smaller than the faniverse of the Pixies, whom Beefheart influenced). You’re talking about a cultural significance that derives, as much as anything, from the unreplicably delightful title and indelible record jacket for Trout Mask Replica, the deadpan comedy of (some) song titles (“A Carrot Is As Close As A Rabbit Gets to a Diamond”), even the martial whimsy of the band name, not to mention the flamboyant ravings of critics — mostly pro, but con, too — some of whom meant it.
One who meant it, Lester Bangs, had ears and eyes beyond mine and called Beefheart “one of the four or five unqualified geniuses to rise from the hothouses of American music in the Sixties” and backed it up to the hilt in many reviews and at least one profile.
Most of all, the Cap’s cultural impact derives from that moment when everyone who was, is or ever will be cool tried to listen to one of the records and failed, a few tracks in, leaving Beefheart to stand as a permanent challenge to everything musical that would come after in their cultural journey and forever cast his shadow on their cool.
The long tail struck again the other day.
For about a decade, starting in the mid-’70s, I was an editor for a rock magazine called Creem and then a freelance writer for dozens of rock rags. The Internet, of course, was beyond imagining, and so was the idea that any of that writing would endure into the 21st century. I do have semi-carefully packed boxes of some of the mags I wrote for squirrelled away in my basement (just as my wife, a former rock photog, has semi-carefully packed boxes of photos of a bloody Iggy Pop, for example, and Muddy Waters without his toupee). But the world moved on, and so did we.
Periodically, however, a stranger will email or call and want to talk about a near-forgotten story from back in the day. The latest came from a writer in New Orleans named Ben Sandmel who’s writing a biography of Ernie K-Doe and who had stumbled on an article I had written for Creem about Bruce Springsteen. There is a paragraph or two in the story about a concert after-party where Ernie was the entertainment, and Ben wanted to know more. Anyway, he sent me the story, which I hadn’t seen in more than 30 years. It’s far from exemplary — too long, too gushing, a little self-involved (thereby demonstrating all the flaws that continue to afflict my writing) — but it’s not bad, for a 24-year-old punk. And for Springsteen fans, especially in light of the imminent release of the Darkness on the Edge of Town box set and documentary, maybe even worth the slog. Anyway, I couldn’t resist posting it here, flaws and all.
One funny historical note is that there were enough people in 1978 — especially, I suspect, in the South — who seemed to think the name Springsteen, which is Dutch, was Jewish and probably spelled “Springstein,” that two of them wind up in this story of three days on the road with Bruce.
LAWDAMERCY, SPRINGSTEEN SAVES!
Testimony from the Howling Dog Choir
(or Tramps Like Us, Baby We’re Born Again)
I walk with angels that have no place — Bruce Springsteen, “Streets Of Fire.”
The middle-aged white man who runs the biggest oldies shop in the very old city of New Orleans is ranting hysterically on the edge of tears. He has recently seen the movie American Hot Wax and senses that history has passed him by one last time.
“That’s right. I was a disk jockey in Canton, Ohio when Alan Freed was a d.j. in Akron. I was playing [n-word] records, and you know what Alan Freed was playing??? He was playing country & western! Country & western music! Then he starts playing [n-word] records and they fire him after a day. One day.
“Well, I’m sitting in this coffee shop with him afterward, and he’s stirring his coffee real slow and looking over my shoulder out the window. I says to him, ‘Alan, just look at what you’re doing.’ And he says, ‘What?’ And I say, ‘Alan, you’re stirring your goddamn coffee with a spoon! And there’s the cream and sugar sitting right over there and you haven’t put a one of them in!’
“Then I tell him that I’m just going to have to write his next contract for him and that he’s not going to get fired no more! A no-fire contract! I told him that you got to ask for what you want ’cause if you don’t, they figure you ain’t worth nothin’ anyway! And I did it! I did the contract! I did his contract! Listen to me! I created Alan Feed!!! Did you read that in the history??? Did you see that in the goddamn movie??? I said, Did you see that in that goddamn movie???”
And he falls into a little red-faced jig behind his cash register with one arm stretching forward to detain us further and the other stretching beseechingly towards the sky. All we asked was how much for a Huey Smith record.
Several hundred miles up the road from New Orleans, in an empty, hermetically modern conference room that is acutely air conditioned against the buttery summer air, Bruce Springsteen, who’s never met the white man in New Orleans, tells me what he has been thinking about.
UPDATE: I was reminded how impossible it can be to earn a living as a writer — even if you’re as talented, knowledgeable and experienced as Ed Ward — when I found out that, after a series of broken contracts and reneged promises over the last year, Ed finds himself on the verge of eviction from his modest apartment in Montpellier, France. A Facebook fundraising page has been posted, and it directs you to a “donate” button on his tres enjoyable blog about his current hometown. I’d invite anyone who liked this story or has liked Ed’s NPR work or other journalism or just thinks it ain’t right, to give what you can. And you can re-post this story or send friends to the Facebook page. Ed has less than two weeks, until October 15, to get right with the landlord. Thanks.
I was reminded of how good Ed Ward is on the way home from work yesterday listening to his story about Sugar Pie DeSanto on Fresh Air. When Ed’s on his game, which seems like most of the time these days, at least on the radio, you find yourself not just in violent agreement, but riffing along, bopping your head, gleefully exclaiming, Tourette’s-like, as his tale of this or that underappreciated cult figure, complete with mouth-watering music samples, unspools from the dashboard. It’s music criticism that comes damn close to being music. You pull in the carport, rush inside and download everything you can find by Sugar Pie DeSanto.
If you have any inkling of who Ed is, you probably know him from his longtime gig as Terry Gross’s “rock historian.” But maybe you were in Austin in the ’70s or ’80s and remember the implacable rock critic for the Austin-American Statesman, the guy who inspired bruised musicians to sport “Dump Ed Ward” bumper stickers, tongue-in-cheek or maybe not. Or if you’re really old you might remember him as a reviewer and editor for Rolling Stone when the magazine was still in San Francisco and still meant the world to people like me.
I remember him in Sausalito, post-Rolling Stone, when he was, among other things, west coast editor for Creem. I had abandoned higher education and the rock bands of New York to try the California dream I’d heard about in all those rock songs. My plan: well, I know a lot about rock music…
But, of course, I didn’t. Not compared to Ed.
I’ll show you mine in a minute. But, first, show me yours.
And you’re not allowed to say Clay Aiken, Miley Cyrus or something silly like that. Even Vanilla Ice. Those guys don’t count. They’re awful. But they’re not really music. They’re just hula hoops. Some unholy combo of popcult ephemera and music-biz corruption. No, a worst band ever has to be something someone else thinks is meaningful. They have to be part of the actual musico-historical conversation. Gotta have, well, gravitas, even if they suck.
My son, a music scribe in his own right (and inspirer of this idea), nominates the Red Hot Chili Peppers, just to start the fire (speaking of good candidates for worst – Billy Joel). Even if I don’t entirely agree, the Peppers seem like an exemplary choice: a band that many revere, that are credited with innovation and with chops and cool and that seem to have ascended to the rock ’n’ roll canon, if not yet the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (a goldmine, I would submit, of worstness – especially in 2010) (and, late-breaking news, now including the Chili Peppers!).
But that doesn’t mean your pick has to be an old band – though you’re going to have a hard time making a case for an artist with less than ten years of output, because some of these guys wind up redeeming youthful excrescence with breakthrough work in their maturity (Justin Timberlake, anyone?). And it’s not enough to name the name, you also have to make the case. Give us a sentence or two. Help us fully grok their true awfulness.
So, nominate your all-time worst band, email your pick to firstname.lastname@example.org before November 1, 2009. We’ll publish the top ten disses and send each winning correspondent a FREE, USED CD of Celine Dion’s My Love – Ultimate Essential Collection!!! Now for mine – except it’s too damn hard to pick just one:
6/28/09, Hyde Park, London, backstage at Hard Rock Calling
– What’re you doing here?
– I’m working for Hard Rock… What are you doing here?
– That was great, you goin’ up onstage with those guys [Gaslight Anthem]?
– Really cool. Really fun.
– Yeah… [Hug.] Good to see ya, Bobby.
This all hit me in Buenos Aires a year or so ago when I turned the corner in a museum and saw a famous painting, described in the nameplate as:
“Self-portrait with Monkey and Parrot. Frida Kahlo, 1907–1954.”
I know it seems the height of philistinism, but I always read nameplates first. And, in this case, maybe because I’d seen the image on a million totebags, it was the nameplate, rather than the painting, that affected me most. And mostly because it told me I was alive at the same time as a nigh-mythical figure from impossibly remote history.
Now I’m sure it’s not a good and honorable way to respond to art (can you say “narcissistic personality disorder”?). But it did get me to wondering, who else? What other surprising historical figures from what seems like way, way back were alive — and maybe alive nearby — same time as me?
Doing the exercise, it turns out a lot of them were musicians, which is how I justify putting them here: