Breakthroughs, Bitterness and Biopics

Music biographies mesmerized me when I was a kid. Whether it was Glenn Miller or Elvis Presley, it was always the same fascinating formula: talent and tenacity leading to the precipice of success, with the artist always searching for that one elusive element to define his signature sound, to breakthrough. With Miller it was the addition of trombones. The proceedings always put me on the edge of my seat and the breakthroughs set me reeling. I guess it was in my blood.

It persists. The other night I watched two great documentary-style biopics on TV, one on Johnny Cash, another on Willie Nelson. Willie, as many of his fans may not realize, was actually a Nashville songwriter penning such classics as “Crazy,” which Patsy Cline etched into the music lexicon. Despite his preeminent status as a writer, Willie couldn’t get arrested as an artist in Music City. His quirky phrasing was way too off-beat for the 60s sound, which was infused with sweet strings and pop arrangements.

At the age of 40, Willie returned home to Texas. Such a move would have meant a life sentence selling insurance had history not intervened. As fate would have it, Woodstock Nation had opened the doors to multiple music movements by the early 70s, and Willie realized that such hippie hangouts as Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters were ready for a new kind of country artist. He enlisted his buddy Waylon Jennings, among others, and set about launching a novel sound to a new audience. His ultimate success turned country music, and the music establishment at large, on its head. Ultimately, he was responsible for redefining music, establishing its “outlaw” class and creating the Austin revolution as well as worldwide social activism that persists to this day.

Despite his huge outsider success, Nashville rejected this giant yet again. By the 1980s, you couldn’t find a Willie song on mainstream country radio, and forget about a major label deal.

Okay, let’s get right down to the hard part. Cash was just another music god to be tumbled unceremoniously from Olympus. By the 80s, he, too, was cast out like so much trash. His popularity was dwindling, and he was struggling to find an audience and make a living.

So these outlaw outcasts banded together, literally, forming the country supergroup The Highwaymen, along with Waylon and Kris Kristofferson. Talk about a Mount Rushmore of talent. They had taken fate into their own hands and, once again, set out to redefine the music scene, outside the establishment, all on their own.

A Bronx boy, I was still getting my country legs under me, when I hit Nashville in the late 80s. At the time, I couldn’t understand why the likes of Willie and Johnny weren’t getting mainstream air play, why I could eat lunch with Emmylou Harris but couldn’t hear her songs on country radio, why Nanci Griffith was considered a darling in all the clubs, to all the execs, but couldn’t get the chart toppers and eventually carped about it in interviews.

I was just getting introduced to the hard truth of the music industry: bitterness. Griffith was bitter, my friend Artie Traum (from back home in Woodstock) — one of the sweetest guys to ever grace the business — was expressing a degree of bitterness, too, in interviews of the day. I was just learning.

The songwriting trade in Nashville was rough. By year two, I was saying you had to learn to live on a diet of stones. Rejection was the blue-plate special everyday. It took me two years to get my first major song contract and more to get my first staff writing job and my first cut. Everyone who stuck with it had war stories: the song on hold that never happened, the artist cut that got dropped by the label or never got released as a single or didn’t make it above 20 on the charts. But, despite eventual successes and even industry support, I left after a decade to pursue a career as an artist, packing scars and wisdom, love and hate.

But back to Johnny Cash. One of the greatest artists to “walk the line,” he faced the pure pain of artistry more deeply, more movingly than anyone before him. Late in his career, with the help of producer Rick Rubin, Johnny faced his inner darkness, his demons, his truth, his soul. With such albums as “American Recordings” and “Unchained,” he found a vast and vital new audience, just years before his death. His new material was so raw that family members had a tough time listening. They told him it sounded like he was saying goodbye. He told them he was.

Pure Johnny Cash

In the Cash bio, artists such as Sheryl Crow, John Mellencamp and Vince Gill expressed the true painful tumble that all artists must face. Mellencamp himself recently penned a telling if rambling article on the biz in HuffPost, a blog post that established a wellspring of conversation in the social media sector.

So, this little Bronx boy, who reeled from the Glenn Miller story and cut and broke his teeth on Music Row, finally came to understand bitterness and the role it plays in any music career. No one is exempt. It may be (excuse me) a bitter pill to swallow, but I recommend downing it to develop a good artist-immune system. Another words, one has to learn to deal with it, embrace it, pain and all, and find a way to move on. Carry it on your back, in your suitcase, in your heart, on your skin — the rose tattoo of the music artist.

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‘It’s tough to beat up a guy that never quits’

Babe Ruth mouthed that ungrammatical gem, and a slumping Nick Swisher of the New York Yankees just invoked it at a critical moment in his career.

Hang with me a moment, and you’ll see what this has to do with us music artists. Swisher made the last out in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series the other night. It was a frustrating moment, since a hit in that spot could’ve finished off the Angels and put the Bombers in the World Series.

With otherwise-clutch Swisher having only three hits in 29 at-bats this postseason, the temptation looms to sit the right fielder for another player. But manager Joe Girardi is keeping him in the lineup for the next critical game, and his reasons are exemplary. Girardi had a number of examples but the best came from his own postseason experience as a Yankees catcher. Girardi didn’t have a hit in the Yanks’ 1996 World Series as they entered a pivotal Game 6. He came through with what was to become a legendary triple. That clutch hit helped put the game and the series in the team’s column and set the stage for a dynasty period: four World Series titles in a five-year period.

Like a baseball season, a music career is a real grind. Baseball players play 162 games each season and more in the postseason, if they get there. Each year, even the best teams have high times and low. They play loose and have fun in the successful stretches and get tight when they play poorly. For short periods, even the best player can look clueless at the plate, his mechanics all out of whack. Then, inexplicably, he gets a cheap hit, and his sweet swing returns along with his confidence.

Out of the mouth of the Babe.

Out of the mouth of the Babe.

Likewise, artists at every level have similar swings, if you will. But, if you’ve had successes and you simply stay in the game, you can bet you’ll have more to build on.

Is this a pep talk? Yes. I give them to myself all the time.
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Dog Guru

My wife, Roxanne and I saw Jamey Johnson last weekend in an awful club in Clifton Park, N.Y. Johnson’s a country songwriter cum recording artist who’s anything but awful. He’s one of those rare artists who come along once in a generation in a genre, in this case country.

He’s so raw and real it hurts. He’s of the outlaw breed, and his songs — even some of his hits – hold a bare light bulb to reality.

He’s a Montgomery boy, an ex-marine, ex-family man, and ex-rebel rouser, and his voice is as perfectly imperfect as his life. I’m not writing this to pitch Johnson, but country fan or not, this plainspoken poet is worth a listen.

I’m reminded of Steve Earle, who blew me away with his 1986 debut album “Guitar Town.” One literate bad boy with a voice to match. The first time I heard him I wanted to burn my guitar and typewriter (remember those), but eventually returned to my auteur senses.

Feels good to get a jolt of genius through your gut once in awhile. I find it inspirational.

What I love about guys like Johnson and Earle is their take-no-prisoners approach. They know who they are, and they live it no matter what, even if it means sacrificing at the altar of the hit-machine gods along the way.

We can all use inspiration on the long and winding road of music artistry, something or someone to keep us on the scent of who we really are. For me, it’s my labradoodle, Stella. She’s my guru. She knows things even Einstein couldn’t, but most of all she knows exactly how to follow her nose, and I follow her example daily.

Stella, my guru

Stella, my guru

Johnson follows his nose at all costs, even though there are risks along the way. His next album may not do as well. He may fade from the scene like many road geniuses before him. But, no matter what, he’ll have done it his way, and he’ll have lived a fully-realized life.

For me, it took a decade to discover my voice as a poet. In fact, when I was in college, I didn’t even know what that really meant. Then, it took yet longer to marry my poetic voice with my music, even a career as a Nashville songwriter along the way, an interesting and — as I once told New York Times pop critic Jon Pareles – circuitous journey. But I now know who I am as a recording artist and know exactly where I’m headed.

And Stella keeps me on track; and no matter what, I love the ride.
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You’re So ‘Yester-moment’

It’s no longer the flavor or the month or what used to be called 24/7 or wall-to-wall coverage. The new media cycle, at least for this nanosecond, is called “perpetual movement.”

In other words, spin or die. That’s the latest from Internet guru Michael Moritz, a Sequoia investor who backed Google, Yahoo and the Sugar Inc. blog-networks.

Quoted in a recent New York Times article, Moritz says:

Perpetual movement is the essence of survival and prosperity online. If online media and entertainment companies don’t improve every day, they will just wind up as the newfangled version of Reader’s Digest — bankrupt.

A second ago, it seems, we were talking about reinventing ourselves. But that’s so yesterday, or should I say so yestermoment.

What the Suger blog people have learned of late is that content on their successful networks must change constantly.

What this overall trend spells for us music artists is even scarier than the current biz model. Maybe the Web 2.0 atomizing machine will move us even further from the album, all the way to the ring tone (do not pass digital single).

Of course, I’m kidding, but only partly. After all, it is somewhat scary. The same warp-machine that devoured major labels, newspapers and publishing may chew us into yet smaller morsels.

For myself, I’m headed into my studio to record a new three-note masterpiece. Must adapt or die.
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Viral, Schmiral (‘Greatness’ Pt. 2)

Baimurat Allaberiyev – a YouTube sensation – has a major record deal but still has few teeth, literally. And those teeth are planted on the cutting edge of the latest boom-and-bust trend in the music industry: viral-video microfame.

So, let’s get real about the sobering statistics of enduring Web 2.0 success among music artists. To that end, I will explore the verities of the viral-video trend.

But first, this exploration is not meant as a discouragement. It’s simply a reality check. Like a sound check, it gets us in tune, so we can perform at our best. And, as with the old industry, the new music model presents real, if limited, opportunities for enduring success. So, as in the past, the motivation for the serious artist is the very challenge of the overwhelming game itself.

Now, back to Allaberiyev, a former sheepherder from Russia who sang renditions of Bollywood songs all the day long, not unlike early American blues singers who chanted field hollers while picking cotton in the South. Some traditions never die.

Writing in Friday’s New York Times, Ellen Barry, tells how one of Allaberiyev’s signature performances was captured on videophone, eventually making it to YouTube and viral nirvana. But, while this music 2.0 fame led to a record deal with Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records in London, his manager Ilya Bortnyuk offers the sober summation:

“If there will be disappointment, it’s no big deal. It’s show business. There is glamour; there is disappointment. No big deal. I’m used to it after 20 years.”

Barry goes on to cite examples of viral video flameouts like Tay Zonday and Chris Crocker. She quotes Bill Wasik, author of a new book on viral video and Internet celebrity:

“Virtually all of them have found it hard to parlay the experience into a lasting career… Even a short ride is a kind of gift.”

Allaberiyev’s challenge: his charisma must translate into U.S. sales, since world music doesn’t sell in Russia, the environs of his initial following. Because Bollywood show tunes won’t do the trick, his handlers plan on transitioning his repertoire to Afghan and Central Asian folk songs. So, does the man on what feels like the top now find himself with another uphill climb? Certainly. Does he feel like Sisyphus? Yes. Haven’t we all? Yet, that should serve to raise the fighter mojo in him even more. Let’s face it; only heavyweights will win at this game. It’s the same in the new model as it was in the old. Some traditions never die.

And to rally Allaberiyev (also known as Tajik Jimmy), one of his supporters, Yelena Mirzoyeva, has this encouragement:

“A person that feels he is a star; that person will really go somewhere.”

Wasik himself recently penned a New York Times Op-Ed piece making a case for the Internet as the new New York for aspiring artists. He compares making it in Gotham with getting “the big break” on the Internet. The article weighs in with sobering data, which in the end, appear no better than the old music-biz model.

A senior editor at Harper’s and author of “And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture,” Wasik discusses the recently depressed prospects for artists seeking fortune in the Big Apple, and turns his gaze to the Internet, saying:

“Meanwhile, another destination beckons, a place that courses with all the raw ambition and creative energy that the hard times seem to have drained from New York. I am referring, of course, to the Internet, which over the past decade has slowly become the de facto heart of American culture: the public space in which our most influential conversations transpire, in which our new celebrities are discovered and touted, in which fans are won and careers made.”

He cites such Web successes as the The Gregory Brothers, whose humorous YouTube series “Auto-Tune the News” has drawn hundreds of thousands of fans.

But, in the end, Wasik also concludes:

“Microcelebrity is now the rule, with respect not only to the size of one’s fan base but also to the duration of its love. Believe it or not, the Internet is a tougher town than New York; fewer people make it here (New York), but no one there (the Internet) seems to make it for long.”

As I follow the limited cases of significant Internet success, Bon Iver comes to the fore. Yet, keep in mind that his notoriety was spawned from a combination of both viral and print-media attention, including the Wall Street Journal, with one rolling into the other. Some traditions – in this case, PR-wise – never die.

So what statistical sobriety supplies us artists is the tired-but-true principle: the path to success is fraught with frustration and limitation. Same in the new model as it was in the old. So, buckle up, batton down and stay the course. The meek may inherit the earth, but they won’t star in the movie version.
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Musician: Why Your ‘Greatness’ is Missed

As music artists seek notice from fans and the industry, it’s vital to observe a key factor concerning peoples’ ability to recognize talent, even greatness.

You may have already read about the social experiment the Washington Post conducted two years ago with world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell. It was actually Bell’s idea to perform undercover as a street musician for a day at a Washington Metro station. What many don’t know is that the Gene Weingarten story earned a Pulitzer Prize that year for feature writing. What many do recall is the fact that a venerated violinist went virtually unnoticed, unappreciated and unrecognized.

What the public took away from the story — rightly so — is the fact that people pass up life’s jewels, even when they’re right before their, well, ears. But this tale holds a much greater meaning for artists of all stripes.

Center stage for artists sits the concept of context. What does that mean? For decades, I’ve observed that people, music industry pros included, often don’t recognize greatness in its raw form. When it comes to music, listeners need to have a song or an album framed for them in a validated form.

There are many examples, but here’s a case in point from my own experience as a songwriter and recording artist. In the late 1980’s, I began a ten-year stint as a Nashville songwriter. The first two years were rough, but when I got the hang of it my material and demos became street-ready, as they say. A number of those demos were sung by Trisha Yearwood. Then, she was known as Trisha Latham (her name from her first marriage), and was unsigned and unknown. The first demo I heard her sing on left me slack-jawed, and not just because of the material, which did eventually get signed to what was then PolyGram. By the time she hit the first chorus, I knew I was hearing a major star in the making.

But here’s the point. As I played those demos for music publishers and A&R execs, it amazed me that not a one commented on the singer. So I started what was to become an experiment of my own. I’d ask, “so what do you think of the singer?” They’d invariably say, “who is she?,” to which I’d reply, “Trisha Latham.” Then, they’d say something like “never heard of her,” and that was the end of it.

The reason they never heard of Trisha is because she was being developed privately through Garth Brooks’ camp. A&R in any music town expect to see upcoming talent in the clubs, so the assumption (as it was with Trisha) is: “if I don’t know her, she can’t be any good.” Again, it’s all about context.

Several months later, Trisha’s first single – “She’s in Love with the Boy” — came out, making Music City history for duration at number one for a female artist. By then, she had returned to her maiden name, Yearwood. I made the rounds of many of the same offices again, playing those Trisha-sung demos. This time, by the third note, I’d hear, “That’s Trisha Yearwood!,” to which I’d reply, “yeah, so where were you last year?”

Of course, we’ve all heard the stories of how most famous artists have their walls lined with record-label rejection letters, and, if you’ve paid some dues in the biz, you likely have a collection of your own.

So what’s the point of all of this? People – pedestrians and pros alike – miss greatness all the time. Even in the biz, there aren’t that many John Hammonds, Ahmet Erteguns and Russell Simmonses. If it were that easy to spot top talent, A&R would be a cinch.

So how is this study of use to the music artist? Simply as a point of reference, to understand why some audiences, some pros have been missing your best stuff. Maybe you’ll never write or produce a truly great song. But, if you work hard for a long, long time, chances are very good that you will come up with one, maybe more. For that reason, it’s vital to be armed with such perspective.
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‘On the Road’ to Woodstock 40 Years After

Make no mistake, the Woodstock festival has been viewed with rose-colored glasses, especially from a 40-year vantage point. The event was essentially a massive, disorganized mud pit with a stage-view the size of a dime for most concertgoers. It was as much downer as upper. But, despite its faults, Woodstock was special in ways that defy definition.

On the road to Woodstock

On the road to Woodstock

It sounds trite to say, “you had to be there.” But you did, and I was. My journey there was part of a summer-long road trip in my 1948 Cadillac hearse. But before I put the sleek three-ton black beauty in gear, let me go back a few years – to the Summer of Love – to put Woodstock in perspective.
My Cadillac Hearse

It’s June 1967. I meet a college chum on Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx. “Did you hear about the festival? Are you going?,” she says. The festival in question was Monterey (California), and my reply was that I wanted to go bad, but didn’t think I could make it. That killed me. Music meant so much to us college kids back then. There weren’t a million channels of music. You could actually keep up with all of rock: the groups, the movements. You were at the record store when the new Stones album came out, the new Dylan.

That decade there were seismic cultural shifts on the music front year after year. But one needs to understand that the music front of the ’60’s included a major social revolution, one that impacted politics, family dynamics and both personal and interpersonal development.

When The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album came out a month before Monterey, it hit music lovers like a number 9 on the Richter scale. In 1968, The Band debuted with “Music from Big Pink,” blowing listeners minds. No one had envisioned such a sound: a literary gumbo of country, rock and Americana. Then, Bob Dylan, who had already remapped the music landscape in the early part of the decade, released “Nashville Skyline,” in 1969, turning the scene on its head yet again. Seminal events all.

And that’s just a brief snapshot of the ’60’s music-wise. Defined in chief by Elvis, the Beatles, Dylan, the Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and the Grateful Dead, the period was a turning point in the history of music, and culture overall. Let’s face it, the first three in the list make up the Mount Rushmore of 20th century rock.

Monterey, which featured Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Janis Joplin, and the Mamas & the Papas, was the first of the big music festivals; some say the best. It had a huge pull for us kids back then. Besides the music, there was the romance of “California Dreaming.” After all, it was the Summer of Love. Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair”) beckoned from the radio. By July 1967, it was all too much to bear. I may have missed Monterey, but I wasn’t going to miss San Francisco and the Summer of Love. I quit my summer cooking job at Lenox Hill Hospital and set out with friends in a 1947 Cadillac limousine, nearly the same vehicle of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” We put 10,000 mile on the odometer that summer, which included a long stop in Haight-Ashbury.

My friend Richard, the limo’s owner, was a collector of vintage Caddies, and, by 1969, I purchased a 1948 Cadillac hearse from him, my first car. The same year I married my first wife, Carol, and by the summer we had the behemoth packed for another cross-country adventure that included Richard, my sister, Alice and a brilliant folk singer named Ribsy.

Little did we know we were about to ride through history that July and August, with a strange experience in a beat northern California town during the Apollo 11 moon landing, a detention by the L.A. cops the morning after the Tate-LaBianca murders, and a momentous arrival in Woodstock as we rediscovered America. This post is the last of a triptych depicting those three notable dots on the map of the summer of 1969 (links to the previous two above).

When the L.A. cops released us on the morning of Aug. 11, we continued on our way to the festival. We already received our tickets while in California and hit the desert with great expectations. The collective pull of Woodstock was everywhere we went. Just outside of Needles, Calif., we encountered a converted mail truck full of freaks goin’ our way. And the way was Route 66, the curvy dream road that took us first through the West to Texas and north toward Chicago.

It’s probably difficult for today’s youth to understand that being different was not tolerated in many parts of the country in the ’60’s. Hippies, if you will (and I use the term affectionately), in those days got a tiny taste of what it must have been like to be black in America. Of course nothing could begin to compare to the latter experience, but the longhairs plight of the day – so well chronicled in the classic 1969 film “Easy Rider” – was an interesting snapshot of an intolerant America. I’m not accustomed to giving away movie endings, but “Easy Rider” does end with the shotgunning of the lead characters – played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper — on a rural southern road. And that very scene was to have an eerie resonance for us on our next stop.

With Richard staying on in L.A., the remaining four of us stopped in the small western Colorado town of Naturita, as we had left Route 66 for a time. Us two hippie-looking couples were having dinner in a local café in the no-traffick-ight mountain town. A handful of miners were located in a booth across from us. But for the staff, we were the only inhabitants. In short order, the comments came: “why don’t you get a haircut, boy? Them boys really need a haircut, don’t you think, Billy.”

Ribsy and I both had shoulder-length hair, and I had a full beard. The girls wore summer tops, no bras. To the miners we were heathens. It was becoming clear that they wanted to do harm to the men at our table and likely rape the women, who they viewed as loose, because of their dress.

One of the miners picked up a table knife, stroking it gently, provocatively with his right forefinger. “You do need a haircut, hippie. And you need to shave that beard. I’m just gonna have to do that for you, ain’t I boys?”

The staff could have cared less. It was clear we were alone and in the wilderness. We were just about trapped and we were in trouble, big trouble. I told my table we had to leave now, but that we should move naturally, slowly, then enter the hearse without dawdling. “But don’t run, don’t look panicked,” I told them.

The hearse was parked at the curb right outside the restaurant. We got into the car, and by the time I reached the driver’s door, I heard the screen door slam a second time. I made sure not to look back. I climbed behind the wheel and started the car, all in one balletic motion. The instigator of the group stood before the hearse revealing an open switchblade. The scene looked like the cover of a pulp fiction novel.

For some reason, in emergencies I can see and process dozens of things at once, and I keep my head. I had figured that I needed to pull the car out fast, nearly grazing the knife wielder, knocking him off balance without actually hitting him. It would be like Roger Clemens brushing back a batter. My brush-back worked perfectly, and no one was able to jump on the running boards. But there was just one problem. We were nowhere, literally. There was nothing and no one for miles. The nearest real town was Grand Junction, more than a hundred miles away on winding mountain roads, and it would be dark in an hour. I expected to see a pickup truck of shotgun-toting roughriders in my rearview mirror anytime soon. So I drove 90 on straightaways and pressed the curves best I could. It didn’t hurt that I was a professional driver: four years as a New York cabby while going to college. A cabby eventually becomes one with his car, and it came in handy that night.

Somehow, it didn’t happen. Somehow they never caught up with us. Somehow, we escaped a horrible “Easy Rider”-style fate. Late that night in Grand Junction we found a cheap hotel room and crashed, still scared but also high on freedom.

My sister often reminds me of one memorable stretch when we left Colorado. Apparently, I drove 1,200 miles without stopping, all so we could make the Woodstock festival on opening night. I pushed that car like a streamliner train. Since I was the only one who drove shift, I was the sole driver.

When we pulled into White Lake, were were jubilant. First of all, we didn’t hit any of the awful traffic reported on the radio, because we came in from Route 6 in Pennsylvania. Most concertgoers were on the New York State Thruway. And when we came in that back door, the festival pilgrims, seeing the big black beauty, jumped on the hood, the roof, stood on the running boards and bumpers. We entered Woodstock like a sultan coming into Babylon.

That was the high point. From there it was mostly downhill. The fences were down, our tickets were rendered unnecessary. Food was scarce. Vendors were selling single bananas for $3. The hearse was parked in a field almost a mile from the natural amphitheater. By the time we made the long trek to the concert site, the place was jammed and we were forced to take up residence on the top of the hillside. The stage looked like a matchbox. The performers were specs. Then, it started to rain.

The balding aisles turned in to mudslides, with folks slipping, falling. A group of knuckleheads from New Jersey decided it would be fun to piss in the aisle and have a hoot watching people take headers in their private cesspool. It was sickening, disturbing. This wasn’t peace and love.

Look, Woodstock was a city, and everyone on every block, so to speak, had a different experience. Some were tripping their brains out, some were grooving on the music. Richie Havens was great that first day, but it was hard for us to let go of the bummer scene and challenging conditions in our locale.

We did enjoy some of the festival. Besides the music, we had a great experience meeting our Bronx neighbors in the absolute pitch dark on the way back to the car that night. Jack and Barbara had a full supply of bacon and eggs back in their VW van, and we made plans to rendezvous for breakfast. Jack was our cool English professor from Berkeley, and Carol and I rented an attic apartment from he and his wife. Hearing their distinct, friendly voices made our night and helped raise our enjoyment.

I’m not going to review the music, since this piece is more about the big picture of Woodstock. Essentially, the fest was a gathering of a generation that was also a culmination of all we were and everything we had been.

My generation was always about gatherings, sometimes for activism, sometimes for no reason at all. The latter-style assemblages were called be-ins, and they took place in New York, San Francisco and other urban centers and college campuses throughout the mid-’60’s. We were celebrating life and our sense of freedom, openness and experimentation. Sure, some were smug about it, like we had all the answers. Hippies were about being hip. There were us and them, the freaks and the straights. But find any young generation that doesn’t feel the same way.

Dismissiveness regarding Woodstock and, for that matter, the counterculture of the ’60’s irks me. In revised versions of his 1961 book “The Image,” historian Daniel Boorstin, termed the three-day fest the quintessential “pseudo event.”

But one has to look a little deeper, a little further into the context of the festival and its attendees to understand the far-reaching significance of both. Let’s face it, the media debased that generation. At the time, it was easy for an uneasy establishment to term the counterculture hippies. It was easy to view hippies as goofy, bizarre, lazy, drug-hazed, shallow and self-absorbed.

But let’s put hippies in context. Born of the repressive Eisenhower era, so-called hippies spawned several revolutions. The first involved a self-awareness and discovery that changed the entire dynamics of families and interpersonal relationships. The second spawned a rich culture of music that culminated in the statement that was Woodstock. The third, tied to the first two, helped change the course of American politics and turn the tide of the Vietnam War. And, surely, their accomplishments began the culture wars that blaze on to this day.

Of course there was a down side as there is to any disruptive invention. Extraneous parts need shedding, and, certainly, most hippies shed the excesses of their heyday and eventually — after some bumps along the way — founded strong families and careers by their middle years.

I got some great perspective on the Woodstock generation last night from an interview by one of the times’ most respected FM disc jockeys, Pete Fornatale. I mentioned before that there weren’t a million bands and niches as there are today, and that there weren’t many channels. WNEW-FM in New York was headquarters for the music, and to some extent, the culture of those times. Fornatale had just joined the station a month before Woodstock. Last night, WFAN’s Mike Francesa interviewed Fornatale, who just came out with a book on the history of Woodstock, “Back to the Garden.” It’s a great interview, and brings out background for much of what I’ve discussed here.
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Manson Family: Still Evil After All These Years

Like Forrest Gump, I seem to be placed in historic moments. In the wee hours of the morning of Aug. 11, 1969, the Los Angeles Police stopped my travel companions and me. We were on our way out of town in my 1948 Cadillac hearse. It was the morning after the LaBianca murders, and just two days beyond the Sharon Tate massacre.

They searched the 22-foot-long vehicle and checked out its hirsute occupants. At the time, we had no idea why they had stopped us. They released us, to continue on our way to, oh yeah, Woodstock.

Our path through history had also taken us through Eureka, California the morning the Apollo 11 crew took their first giant step for mankind just a month earlier. My post “Moon Landing is Backdrop to Song” captures the irony of that moment.

Actually, we all seem to be reliving these events as 40th anniversaries abound. But this post isn’t my “On the Road” chronicle. It’s about the Manson clan and their quest for freedom.

My take is simple: no. No parole. No freedom. No leniency. Not for Susan Atkins. Not for Leslie Van Houten.

I’ve never been big on the death penalty, but I’m sorry the Manson team wasn’t fried. Their original death sentences were commuted to life behind bars, when the Supreme Court struck down death penalty laws in 1972. Consequently, now the families of Sharon Tate, her murdered friends and the LaBiancas must suffer the pain of further hearings, of impassioned pleas for mercy from the famous and the infamous, and of the possibility that one or more of the clan — specifically Atkins and Van Houten — could be set free.

True, Atkins, 61, is paralyzed and has terminal brain cancer. According to CNN, in her 1993 parole board hearing, Atkins said Tate:

asked me to let her baby live. … I told her I didn’t have any mercy on her.

But, according to Time.com (Time Warner owns CNN), Atkins really said:

Look bitch, I don’t care about you. I don’t care if you are having a baby. You are going to die and I don’t feel a thing about it.

The latter account is just a tad bit different in the evil department. Maybe Atkins’ reinvented, kind persona just “can’t handle the truth.”

Sharon’s sister, Debra Tate told CNN this spring that Manson family members convicted of murder should remain behind bars. She said the slayings were:

so vicious, so inhumane, so depraved, that there is no turning back. The ‘Manson Family’ murderers are sociopaths, and from that, they can never be rehabilitated. They should all stay right where they are — in prison — until they die. There will never be true justice for my sister Sharon and the other victims of the ‘Manson Family.’ Keeping the murderers in prison is the least we, as a society who values justice, can do.

Meanwhile, Van Houten continues her request for release. Her latest supporter is filmmaker John Waters. In a recent piece on Huffpost, he says, believe it or not:

I have a really good friend who was convicted of killing two innocent people when she was nineteen years old on a horrible night of 1969 cult madness. Her name is Leslie Van Houten and I think you would like her as much as I do.

CNN’s Erica Hill featured Waters on a show earlier this week. He pitched his latest book, “Crackpot,” and attempted to explain his friendship with Van Houten. CNN’s AC360 is doing a weeklong special on the Manson murders.

Water’s sense of justice is misplaced at best. Maybe he’s just trying to reclaim his past celebrity. He’s always courted the outrageous, so why should his appeal hold, uh, water.

So I’ll think of the victims of the Tate-LaBianca murders on this anniversary and forget once again the evil clan who took their lives in such cruel fashion. Then, I’ll move on to celebrate Woodstock as I did when I pulled away from the Los Angeles police back in 1969.
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Moon Landing is Backdrop to Song

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the moon landing on July 20, 1969, I’m releasing the video of a song I wrote that includes that very scene as backdrop. The song is called “Miss America,” a raw tableau.

And how strange it is that the venerable Walter Cronkite, who defined that very moment, should pass right now. It’s as if he and Neil Armstrong will somehow launch into eternity together, in a fitting orbit.

I was in a second-rate hotel in Eureka, California the day the Apollo 11 crew landed. I was with my own merry band of pranksters on a cross country trip in my 1948 Cadillac hearse. As we descended into the hotel lobby, Cronkite’s voice crackled from a TV, saying something like, “What a great county…I just don’t understand these hippies…” The TV was a table model that sat on a broken Sylvania console. Behind these proceedings, a broken American Indian lumbered in the hot California sun. What an ironic scene. Could have been out of an Antonioni film.

The “Miss America” video is as raw as the song, which will be released on a forthcoming album. Here are the lyrics:

MISS AMERICA

Her cherry red lights in Tulane
her white fences in Springfield
her black gloves around your neck
dancing to “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White”
her white panties always only
a twirl away on the silver screen
her darker dreams always only
a thrill away on the back streets

Oh, Miss America
Oh, Miss America

Her John Garfield Joan Crawford face
in the clutches of industrial light
her cocktail lie under the nightclub table
her tires kissing always kissing the feremoned pavement
her cowboy stand on the drifting plains
her palaces of corn and artichoke queens
her dumb fuck Brooklyn hallways
stinging of Pampers and malt liquor dreams

We hung our balls from a Cadillac hearse
we were young and full of cream
we screwed a waitress in Barstow
to see her dessert hunger breath
we sang the Lord’s Prayer on Market Street
“Uncle John’s Band” in Birmingham
we blew our guts in a Eureka Hotel
the day they took a giant leap for mankind

Copyright Allen Shadow
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The ‘Thriller’ in Wasilla

It took Sarah Palin to knock the freshly-crowned King of Pop off the front pages. As it turns out, the Queen of Conservativism is as confounding as the King of Pop.

Actually, Palin should skip the talk show route and go directly into comedy. If she could find a good cigar-toting straight man, she’d give Gracie Allen a run for her money. Two minutes into her press conference on abandoning the Alaskan governorship, my head was spinning cartoon-style. It was the most rambling speech in recent memory. Actually, makes a perfect matched set with Miss South Carolina Teen USA’s inane competition comments from 2007.

For a moment, I thought it was me, until I got weigh-in from a few media mavens. NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, looking more made-over than ever, featured former McCain/Palin campaign advisor Mark McKinnon:

Watching Sara Palin is sort of like watching a moose on roller skates. It’s never particularly graceful, but it’s always riveting.

But no one ever top’s Maureen Dowd on weigh-in:

Sarah Palin showed on Friday that in one respect at least, she is qualified to be president.

Caribou Barbie is one nutty puppy.

Usually we don’t find that exquisite battiness in our leaders until they’ve been battered by sordid scandals like Watergate (Nixon), gnawing problems like Vietnam (L.B.J.), or scary threats like biological terrorism (Cheney).

She continued:

As Alaskans settled in to enjoy holiday salmon bakes and the post-solstice thaw, their governor had a solipsistic meltdown so strange it made Sparky Sanford look like a model of stability.

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