Passion and Pop

Funny thing about passion: it is all about perspective. Makes not a drop of sense from another point of view. This is why there are fan clubs and mailing lists and tailgate parties: it groups these wackos together as a support group so they can imagine they’re sane. I am incredibly passionate about the things I love, this example being the Cameron Crowe movie masterpiece Almost Famous. My wonderful wife Mary takes the time and effort to find my lens and get behind it, so she can view and share this from my admittedly skewed viewpoint.     

There is one scene: William and Penny are walking up the ramp after the first Black Sabbath/Stillwater show, and Penny says “So - call me if you need a rescue. We live in the same city.”   

In a slightly awed tone, William slowly replies “I think I live in a different world...

So - call me! It’s all happening!” She bids him goodbye.

It’s all happening!” William waves his hands in affectionate mockery and trots across the parking lot to his mother’s car awaiting.

Nancy Wilson’s open tuned acoustic guitar fades in, sounding for all the world like a dulcimer, and takes me away in time, each and every instance. I have seen this movie numbering into the dozens, and the effect is not diminished since the first viewing.

That numinous feeling of everything is for the first time permeates me, and transports me back to when I was eighteen, and Yes and the Mahavishnu Orchestra and the Jeff Beck Group were current, cutting edge music. The idea of Mick Jagger prancing around on stage at age fifty was funny because it was unthinkable.

Later, as William runs in his GeorgeHarrisonaHardDaysNightPeriod style across the street to meet Penny - on their way to LA’s Continental Hyatt (Riot) House - the sensation grabs me again: that emotional flashback/seizure that a very good film can sometimes evoke. The moment when the sun breaks through the clouds; a swiftly tilting planet, when everything and every arc is suddenly and irrevocably changed. What is this resurrecting, what association does this trigger.....?

                                           (cut to the swirling mists that signify a temporal change in old movies)  

Increasingly forlorn concerning the likelihood nobody would give us a ride, Phil and I had
stood on the side of I-75 South, thumbs out, for an hour and a half - better than one hundred degrees in the Georgia fourth of July summer sun. We carried a cardboard sign, Atlanta Pop Festival crudely printed on the front as an advertisement/inducement, to no effect other than to bend in the breeze as cars whizzed by. Eventually a filthy white Ford pulled in ahead of us, brake lights flashing red through the dust, partially illuminating Alabama plates. We glanced at each other and grinned, and ran toward the car.

Four good ol’ boys from southern Alabama had been driving around the newly constructed I-285 beltway for a long time, looking for the Atlanta Pop Festival. This was actually some thirty miles south of Macon, near a little town called Byron. Some hundred miles away, as the vulture flies. They were elated we could native guide them to the location, and we wedged ourselves into the back seat driver position.

I had never done anything remotely similar: never hitched a ride; never seen a festival gathering excepting the movie Woodstock (which certainly tilted my planet); never altered my consciousness by more than four beers (anybody remember shotgunning beers?). My mom had gone out of town with her friend Jim Reeves - who I disparagingly referred to as nine chins - and I was my own master. And here I was with my best friend - the brother I never had - and four died-in-the-wool rednecks, who could talk of nothing other than seeing “wimin with’er boobs hangin’ out.” Coincidentally, that was also the principal allure for Phil. For me, naked women were just the icing on the cake. I was going to see, up close sand personal, most of my heroes: Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, The Allman Brothers, Ten Years After, Jethro Tull, John Sebastian, Cactus, Grand Funk Railroad (I shudder to recall a time when this thought thrilled me), and life changing first glimpses of Spirit, Captain Beefheart, B.B. King and the Chambers Brothers. This would be a weekend to remember, if only my memory cells could perform their function.

South of Macon the traffic slowed and congealed. We exited I-75, following the string of lemming-like cars headed for Byron and the southern gathering of the tribes. It became alarmingly obvious we might
not survive the trip. The ‘Bama boys hung their heads out the window and howled at every braless breast in sight, which was most of them. We had to get away from the car before we were breast(fed) dead. Besides: what were our chances of meeting one of these unclad beauties with these guys screaming and oogling?

Traffic was at a standstill, so we thanked our oblivious, vociferous ride providers, slung our packs high up on our backs and tromped on down the road. At widely spaced, irregular intervals, cars would erratically move several yards farther before they deadlocked again. We would look ahead for movement, find a convenient - or available - hood or trunk and hop on. I began to laugh, thinking of fleas moving from one place to another using dogs as taxicabs. Soon there was an endless line of cars covered with sitting people, sporadically moving toward the flea circus destination. Forty five minutes later we saw an immense sea of lunatics crowded around what proved to be a chain link fence that had been trampled flat. To nobody’s surprise, it was now a free festival. I knew I shoulda kept my ticket...

No one was recognizable on stage in the distance, there was no amplified sound in the air, so we looked for a likely place to make camp. Behind the stage was a huge ravine gouged in the red Georgia clay, fifteen feet deep and twenty yards across. We found an area to the right rear of the stage and across the gully and staked our claim; pegged our ground cloths down under scattered scrub pines, laid out sleeping bags and inadequately covered our packs. Experimentally we found the ravine made a perfect latrine (“Look! I peed twenty feet!”) and were informed the Allman Brothers were ready to begin the day’s music. In about half an hour we traversed the ditch and managed to get within missile range of the stage.

Some guy had crawled against one of the huge Sunn stage speakers, leaned against it and passed out. When one of the stage hands tapped the mic to test it, this hapless person was catapulted off the stage. Then the crowned princes of southern rock took the sta
ge to deafening home field applause, and opened with Statesboro Blues. The entire set was spellbinding, with ten minute plus versions of Dreams and In Memory of Elizabeth Reed being highlights; the band peaked and closed with a scorching Whipping Post that clocked in at almost twenty minutes. Brother Duane grinned like the sunrise and waved bye as the bros left the stage. I don’t know how long it took Phil to leave - I just turned around when the band exited and he was gone. I was not too surprised: I never met anyone with my passion for music, and ceased to be amazed long ago.

John Sebastian was scheduled next, and I began to make my way to the stage. Bobbing and weaving through the crush of humanity I found a congenial area at the front, just left of center stage. Sebastian emerged to thunderous applause, characteristic ear to ear grin, and beamed beatifically at the crowd.  

Hey, gang! Welcome to southern fried Woodstock!” This was the appellation that stuck for the duration of the festival. Old Lovin’ Spoonful stuff was mixed with his current eponymous solo album for a wonderful forty five minutes of music. This was my first exposure to nostalgia - in this case songs from five years ago - and I was elated to discover what an unexpected version of Do You Believe in Magic could do to my spirit. But I will always remember the effect I Had a Dream had on me: Sebastian had made this the spiritual theme song to Woodstock for me (go back and look at the album: with what song does it open?), and it embodies the idealistic optimism the event has come to symbolize. We wanted this to be a brethren experience, and even today the song brings a catch in my throat. Everyone relaxed a bit, kicked back and made themselves comfortable. John Sebastian puts on one of the most charming performances you will ever see. People began - or I became aware they had begun - passing various illicit pharmaceuticals across the front of the crowd. Contact high became contagious. Maybe epidemic.

As Sebastian backed away waving, out of the corner of my eye I saw two vaguely familiar shapes walking toward me. In the cultural backwater of Georgia, 1970 was a pivotal year. Changes long entrenched in LA and NYC were just reaching spring tide in Atlanta, and where Fourteenth Street, the Strip and the Catacombs had been fringe counterculture in 1967, the cultural revolution had by now infiltrated the schools, homes and parties. Peer pressure began to less reflect sports and automobiles, and became much more tightly focussed on drugs: Did you have them? Are you a head or a straight? I had written for the underground school newspaper The Golden Smaug, so my affiliations were surmised to be with the heads. Peter and Bill were two of the first to publicly align themselves with this new order: first by hair, then clothes, and these were the two familiars I had espied. Incredulous expressions crossed their faces as they caught sight of me, and I was greeted with considerably more enthusiasm than I was accustomed.

Cal,” called Peter. “What are you doing here?” They don’t call it dope for nothing.

Just hangin’ out, digging the music,” I grinned, just a little suspiciously.

Bill pulled a joint, bubblegum pink, from behind his ear and held it our to me. “Wanna get high?

My mouth twitched. This thought had crossed my mind and nose several times. Somehow, I didn’t want it to begin with these two. “I’ve been thinking about it, actually. But - no. Not right now. Thanks anyway.

The two exchanged glances. Bill cocked his head slightly - a dog that doesn’t understand - and asked “Why not?” I partially expected his ear to lift.

The only answer there is for a question like that,” I replied, letting a little too much smartass creep into my voice: “I don’t feel like it!” The two again glanced at each other.

Maybe we should hold him down and force feed him mescaline?” Bill suggested.

You and who else?” I queried, switching into aggressive mode. My heart began to pump, my eyes and nostrils dilated, my adrenal glands released and I’m certain did perfect impressions of raisins. As usual in situations like this, the question raised in my mind “OK, loudmouth. Wattaya gonna do now? “

They looked at each other and back at me: clearly, they didn’t see what I was feeling. With a palpable effort to sound uninterested, Bill shrugged and murmured, “Suit yerself.” He raised his eyebrows, and suggested “Let’s go,” to Pete. The pair sauntered away, to the galaxy from which they had emerged.

These guys were bright, or perceived as bright, reading the current egg-head stuff: Bradbury, Heinlein, Orwell, Joseph Heller - and of course - Tolkien. Which was where any friendship glue originated between us, I suspect, though we didn’t run in the same circles. Beyond the typical adolescent I-want-everybody-to-like-me perspective, I didn’t particularly give a rat’s ass about them or what they thought of me. As I contemplated this, the thought crossed my mind Why would it matter to them if I smoke pot? Are we so fragile we need other people to share our perspective just to scale walls? The entire world doesn’t have to be like me.

Bemusedly shaking my head, I caught sight of Phil walking toward me along the front of the stage. Only Phil could find me among four (or six, depending on who you believe) hundred thousand people. I laughed as he approached earshot, threw up my hands and yelled “How did you find me? We were two hundred yards away from here and when I turn around - you’re gone.” A beat, then another. “Didja see any naked girls?

Phil grinned askance at me, shaking his head. Rhetorically he asked “How long have I known you? If I had met you fifteen minutes ago, I still would have known you’d be in front of the stage.” Shifting gears, he shook his head again. “Ya gotta see the lake! It’s Playboy in 3-D. Come check it out!

Nothing earth shattering was coming up on stage - Bruce Hampton and his Grease Band, but they were a local staple - so Phil dragged me off to look at the disaster area that surrounded Byron. We wandered down the road to the lake: there were giant square blocks, the size of square city blocks, of coca cola stacked eight feet high and selling for one dollar a piece. Hot dogs, sandwiches and various members of the fast food community were selling for the criminal amount of five dollars a piece. Capitalism - not to say greed - was alive and well and flourishing in southern Georgia, and I began to doubt it would ever recover. In premonition of a time I would spend in Amsterdam some eight years hence, every mind altering substance on the planet was for sale in various locations around the festival, openly and free from prosecution. Capitalism was not helped by the fact that almost all these psychotropics were freely disseminated from on and around the stage.

Eventually we reached the lake, which could have been from a Robert Heinlein novel, or perhaps
Summerhill. Naked people abounded, which was especially gratifying when they were of female persuasion. We must have watched two girls throw a frisbee for half an hour. Nude people filled the lake, covered the beach and picnic tables, hung from the jungle gym structures erupting from the middle of the lake, and almost concealed a rowboat floating on the water. I know I felt distinctly overdressed, and we were unable to shut our mouths. No sound came out - we joked that flies seemed to be attracted - but they just stayed open.

As the air was an easy one hundred four degrees, the water felt wonderful. Suddenly my attention was refocussed by a commotion in the middle of the lake. The mob of people decided to drag the rowboat to the top of the access slide, using a rope. Their eyes gleamed like twelve year old kids, or wet mushrooms, just thinking about the drop to the water below. After long and arduous effort they managed to haul the boat to the summit, and wrap a few turns around the top of the ladder for stability and good measure. Six nude people piled into the boat, and one exceptionally long haired guy perched on the bow. At the back of the slide the rope was released, and seven people squealed wildly as the boat streaked down to the surface.

For some unguessed reason the boat didn’t overturn. As it hit the lake, the most unearthly scream I have ever heard issue from a human throat pierced the saturated air. The guy sitting on the prow of the rowboat had been thrown forward forcibly when the rowboat stopped, more or less dead in the water. Vociferously, we were made painfully aware his anus had been filled with hundreds - perhaps thousands - of large and small wood splinters, courtesy of this dramatic display of inertia. Were there a recording of this, it would make a grizzly addition to the Aushwitz museum. Fortunately, nobody drowned in the lake - after they fell down laughing.

When we entered the lake area a few hours earlier we noticed a guy passed out - face up and naked - on one of the picnic tables. Now, on our way out he was coming to. Portions of his undercarriage that never see the sun had received way too much of a good thing, and I saw just how cruel women - OK: and men, I suppose - can be. Several lissome young ladies discovered flirting with him produced a most unusual reaction. It has been said the expressions for intense pleasure are very similar to those of intense pain: I can tell you there is no mistaking the different sounds one from another,

The afternoon was wearing on, and we headed back to the campsite and stage to grab some dinner and stake our claim for the evening festivities. As we walked through the dusty red clay toward the road, a bearded guy accosted me with wild, spiraling eyes. “Can I borrow your belt?” he asked, with more intensity than seemed necessary.

Perhaps I had heard inaccurately - this made no sense in the world I inhabited. “What?

Lemme borrow your belt, man!” he repeated more forcibly.

I shook my head, more than a little bewildered. “What for?” I asked, naively.

He shot me a look usually reserved for dogs and idiots. “I have to time myself,” he murkily explained, his patience obviously under some strain.

I began to feel like a stranger in a stranger land. “What?!

Just give me the damn belt!” he roared, clearly approaching a major seizure.

I shrugged, removed my belt and handed it to him. As I stared he wrapped it tightly around his forearm and produced a syringe. At a sprinters clip I lurched away, without another word or glance. Phil - who cannot stand needles, and at that time held the Georgia state record in cross country - was already far ahead, a mere speck on the horizon. Eventually the guy reappeared at my elbow, belt outstretched and noticeably calmer. “Here, man. Thanks.

Get the For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge away from me!! Keep the damn belt!” I roared. Looking back I am slightly ashamed: my desire was not to be rude or unpleasant, but this guy had just shattered the windows of my sheltered world view. The only thing I can compare it to is when I found out there was no Santa Claus - though I suspect this is grossly unfair to Santa. Our savoir faire was fairly rattled, and we returned to camp to grab money for dinner. We paid the monetary equivalent for two hot dogs that two lobster would have cost, and fought our way to within twenty five yards of the stage. We made friends with the people around us and settled in for a long night.


Just after midnight the crowd erupted in cheers, howls and barely-recognizable-as-human screams as Jimi Hendrix, Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell took the stage. Jimi, in his characteristic peacock plumage, sauntered to the center microphone. “Hey, y’all!” he drawled. “I’d like to introduce Billy Cox on bass, Mitch Mitchell on drums,, you
rs truly on public saxophone.”          

He launched into a combustible version of Fire, from the first Experience album: unusually brief, it was obvious he was stretching and loosening up for the evening. Still, Hendrix doing finger exercises is more interesting than ninety nine percent of the guitar players on the planet - in their finest hour. At this point in time, Woodstock was the highest grossing album and film on the charts, along with Band of Gypsys from The Fillmore concerts at the end of 69. The worst kept secret of the festival whispered Jimi would launch into his already legendary rendition of The Star Spangled Banner at some point - everybody’s guess was midnight - accompanied by a spectacular fireworks display. Buckets of electric kool-aid already traversed the crowd, spurring the intoxicated on to further heights of mental contortion.

After Fire, he began to flex the amazing connection between his mind and fingers with Lover Man (a rewrite of B.B. King’s Rock me Baby) and progressed through Spanish Castle Magic - where the magic began with some of the flamenco style soloing that graced his playing during this final period of his life - and then a monster twelve minute exploration of Red House. I am convinced this was the last straw, the finishing touch that caused me to drop any attempt to play the electric guitar. You hear people say of Jimi “Oh, I can play that. It’s not that hard.” Of course they can: it’s imitation, and a dog or monkey can do that to some extent. With rare exceptions, I can work out and play anything you play me in fifteen minutes or so. Hendrix heard it in his head, and played it simultaneously as he heard it. This is what music is in it’s purest form - or should be: the ability to express what you feel as you feel it. Listen to the recordings that have been made of this concert: you can hear Jimi come alive and take wing during Red House, and then Room Full of Mirrors is an entire quantum leap in musicality. I remember All Along the Watchtower as being magnificent, but sounds just a teensy bit rushed in the recordings I have heard - which just goes to show how your emotional state colors an experience as you process. I’m sure the fact that I think the studio version of Watchtower is one of the finest productions in music causes me to compare that standard to any version I hear.

One thing the New Year’s Fillmore concerts had changed was his showmanship: there was little flash, and only one time did he play with his teeth; one single time (Foxy Lady) did he phallically slide the Stratocaster between his legs. For this, you can curse - or thank - Bill Graham, who reportedly told him “You did everything but play the guitar,” after his wild New Years Eve performance. This night Jimi did not showboat but rather stood motionless, eyes closed, lost in the music and the spell he (strato) cast. There were the brief gymnastic sparks previously referred to in Foxy Lady (which he dedicated to “...the girl in the purple underwear over there.”) and his playful exhortation to “...get up off your butt and sing Happy Birthday to America...with feeling!” - and he teased us with the first bar of the Star Spangled Banner, then shifted into a rollicking rendition of Purple Haze. Stone Free was the song he chose to segue into the Banner - the predicted skyrockets ignited on either side and towered overhead as Jimi painted the soundscape: bombs bursting in air and soldiers shrieking in agony.

He closed with Straight Ahead, and left the stage awash in awe and applause. He returned only when we were all raw voiced and worn down, and encored with a thoughtful, lyrical version of Hey Baby (Land of the New Rising Sun). Then he was gone, with the sun still hours away. We stumbled back to camp and somehow managed to avoid death from falling into the gully. Sleep came almost immediately.

I awakened in the middle of the night when someone stumbled over me. “Sorry, man,” that somebody slurred as they crashed toward the ravine. The sound of a zipper moving was heard as they crashed through the undergrowth. I raised my head. “Watch that next step,” I called, a little bleary, “It’s a killer.

There was silence, and I waited for the scream and a thud. A voice mumbled from a few feet away “Oh. Thanx.” There was the sound of a shower for several seconds, then the micturating mystery man returned in the direction from which he had originally staggered. My nose felt vaguely tender, but I was again asleep before I could give it another thought.

I have always had this peculiar Irish sensitivity to the sun, and now I awakened in sudden pain as I rolled over and put pressure on my olfactory member. An amorphous blob in the near forefront of my vision would not quite come into focus. Reaching up to add tactile sensory input, my nose was turgid and bulbous. When I pushed against it, it surprisingly impersonated a squirt pistol. Now it was flaccid, not unlike a balloon containing only a breath of air.

Thank god I wasn’t naked! I thought, in a haze of empathy for the guy on the picnic table. That day is largely a blur of memory: watermelons priced by the carrot, ridiculously expensive coca cola, inadequately shielding my nose from the vicious sun. We spent several long hours ogling the young ladies of the lake, and staggered at last through the red Georgia dust and dusk to the stage.


Just as night settled in, Spirit took the stage. Their Clear album is one of those seminal works that recreate nineteen seventy for me. Randy California on guitar and his forty eight year old uncle Ed Cassidy on drums were the nucleus and the bookends of the group. Opening with Dark Eyed Woman, they lit up the stage. I had been in LA the previous year, and missed the 69 Festival at the Atlanta Speedway, but Phil had written they were spectacular at that gathering - and they were again! Musicians communicating onstage share with a crowd, and Spirit on stage had spirit onstage. At the end of the set a barnstormer rendition of 1984 fanned the mob to a new fever pitch: frisbees, beach-balls  and bags of pot crisscrossed the front of the stage area, and as the band left a visceral roar came from the crowd.

Phil and I began to carefully pick our way through the crowd, hoping for slightly closer positioning. Molecules of air separated members of the audience, thinning to atoms and quarks as we approached the stage. It became obvious further progress was impossible without farm machinery, so we squatted in just as Ten Years After jet screamed onto the stage in a rock and roll blitzkrieg. 

It only occurs to me from this vantage point thirty odd years later, that they were the frontrunner of the nostalgia trend that has dogged us ever since. I remember the first of many times I saw the movie Woodstock, and my reaction to Sha-Na-Na - which was to laugh hysterically. The fifties greaser look; the barbershop style vocals; the antithesis of looking forward just nailed me. This was chronologically followed by the film American Graffiti and then Happy Days on TV. And they were just the other end of the spectrum from Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Eddie can see the evolutionary arc from Robert John-son, Charlie Patton, T Bone Walker...  Cultural revolution comes from looking backward AND forward. This would reach fruition when Linda Ronstadt almost singlehandedly resurrected Buddy Holly in the mid seventies. Did anybody else notice that Ten Years After was the other band that made a statement with fifties rock and roll in the midst of the quintessential sixties happening? And then the eighties with the sixties, the nineties with the seventies - anybody else see a pattern, here...?

All of which is meant to take nothing away from Alvin Lee. Truly one of the greats time has left swirling in a tidal pool of forgetfulness, he was a monster that night! Opening with Love Like a Man and segueing into Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, he put the pedal to the metal from the very beginning. I was surprised by the inclusion of The Hobbit as one of the few slower tunes, and they closed with obligatory but always jaw-dropping I’m Going Home. Amphetamine driven rock and roll pushed the very large array of psycho derelicts into new frontiers of the psychic unknown, and the mob again exploded into enthusiastic howls.

Grand Funk was up next, eagerly anticipated by me for unfathomable and disremembered reasons. Closer to Home had just been released, and I dimly recall an affinity for the title song. This from the time I was learning to play guitar in a band: perhaps their music was simplistic enough for me to learn. It is ultimately too embarrassing to attempt a memorial resurrection, so we will let this slip quietly away, under the bridges of time. I began cautiously sampling the joints passing under my nose, but marijuana requires more effort in the beginning stages than I was expending. I had made the usual adolescent experiments with cigarettes, never going so far as to inhale, and reached the point where I could cough convincingly. Any realized effect with grass was purely soporific.

Sly and the Family Stone closed the festival, and I was barely a state of being by then. I would nod off for moments at a time, held upright by the crush of people around me. When the mob would move, which was close to constantly, I would jolt back to wakefulness. Sly was typically wonderful - I know this from flashback memories and the fact that my bottom reverberated all next day - and everybody raved about it in the morning. This is one of the few regrets I have in this world. We stumbled blindly back to the campsite and ceased to exist for several hours.

The next morning is largely out-of-focus, irritated by my unspeakably sensitive nose. I know we fought our way to I-75 using the flea-dog shuttle. When we finally reached the interstate, the mob scene rivaled the festival: I wondered if anyone had actually driven to the concert. Endless lines of people on the access road waited to eventually get to the access ramp, and then hopefully to 75 itself. Phil and I glanced at each other, threw nothing over our shoulders and hoisted our packs high. We’d be old men - forty years old - if we waited for  a ride here, so we set off for the next exit - wherever it was. As we walked down the access ramp, nearing the inflow of the interstate, a car pulled up next to us. The passenger window went down, and the driver leaned  across to appraise us. We felt, rather than saw, the mob behind us bare their collective canine teeth.

Headed to Atlanta?” asked a guy with shoulder length brown hair and a mustache.

Sam!” shouted Phil in recognition. He whooped in delight, and turned to me with a grin. “This is my cousin from Covington! What are the chances?” He introduced us, and we were friends forthwith.

As we rolled out into traffic headed north on 75, I noticed an eight track of Ten Years After’s Cricklewood Green protruding from the player in the dash. Sam raised his eyebrows questioningly, and I nodded agreement.

Plug that puppy in!” he laughed. “We’re goin’ home!

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