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.
It is dark and it is cold in January in Detroit. Darker and colder than you’re imagining now. And you are broke. You’ve been amicably tossed, but tossed nonetheless, from your railroad flat in NYC because your childhood buddy, Mark the Shark (he of later Studio 54 celebrity), who more or less owns the place, wants his girlfriend to move in. Actually, she’s in already — they just want a little privacy. Besides, you are a few months behind on the rent, as dirt cheap as it might be, because you are really broke.
And here you are. Detroit in the dead of January.
You know John Morthland from Sausalito, where you lived for ten months, on a lark, after abandoning New York the first time and whom you had met through Ed Ward, the ex-Rolling Stone writer (now “rock historian” on Fresh Air), who gave you your start with an assignment to review Thomas McGuane’s 92 in the Shade. John Morthland’s a really good writer and editor and an amazingly prescient musicologist who was first to discover a lot of things pop-cultural that eluded most rock critics, or at least white ones. Things like rap music (before it was hip hop), Sacred Steel and Moe Bandy. He’s in Detroit to be interim editor — interim, because John is strictly freelance or die. And you know him, it should be clarified, only pretty well, though that may be as well as most anyone knows silent, staring, inscrutably smirking John.
You don’t know Lester.
You know of him, but barely, and as much on the strength of that seemingly concocted name — Lester Bangs — as his writing.