I'm sure some of you are tired of hearing about the Sixties, yet here I go. It re-birthed music, political dissent, clothing (or lack of it), and an overwhelming wave of Let The Good Times Roll!
For many of us, it was Scene 1, Act 1 of Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll. I dearly loved every single day of it although I quake at its lower depth and lowest chakra Camelot memories...even though I was one of the few of us who did not do acid, peyote, or mushrooms. Back in those days, I still believed in Control and I wanted as much of it as I could grab with two paws and maybe a rake. Besides, dogs don't do well on psychedelics. You could look it up.
I got to the UCLA film school in 1964; oddly the Sixties didn't really start for me until about 1965 and didn't end until the mid to late Seventies when I finally let it go and got my hair cut. Bye bye, Ponytail. Chow Puppies are always a little slow on the uptake.
It was 1965 and with the early success of the Bay Area rock and roll concerts and the meteoric rise of groups like Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and Big Brother and the Holding Company, it was only a matter of time before the Southern California dorks caught that same idea and put on our own concerts. As long as you had the money, the groups would come play. But you better have the agreed upon sum because some of the groups began traveling with Hells Angels who were all too good (then and now) at extracting the money from you. And word soon got around the motorcycle gang's 'pound of flesh' was an actual pound of flesh.
I was a Teaching Assistant / projectionist in 3H, the film school's ratty old theatre. I worked for Gary Essert who knew Hollywood intimately and was a past master at booking movies for us. Gary could get films that hadn't even been released yet and films that had thought to have been lost for thirty years. He could get work prints, ancient explosive nitrate films (one reel of which went off on my friend Dave), Tracy and Hepburn's personal print of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." He once got Charleton Heston's first movie, "Peer Gynt," a 16mm student film the skinny well-oiled hunk had made while a seventeen-year-old freshman at Northwestern!
Gary and a couple of his better-heeled off-campus friends decided to go into the rock and roll concert business. They would call themselves Kaleidoscope. So they got what they thought were the proper permits, got money promises, set up a business checking account, and began wondering how this badass guy Bill Graham was doing so well in S.F.
I volunteered myself and a few friends to become Kaleidoscope's light show! We would be The New Glory (as opposed to Old Glory; get it, get it?). We would wear American flag shirts (made by our friend and downstairs roommate, Gloria Garvin) and cowboy hats (made by Resistol) with American flag hatbands (made by me). Now having envisaged ourselves, we thought we'd better find out what made an actual light show, giving rise to a tour of dance concerts in the Bay Area.
To accompany the massive amounts of weed and psychedelics consumed, overhead projectors and large concave glass trays of oil, water, and glycerin with colored dyes were employed. Also Kodak Carousel slide projectors and as many 16mm movie projectors as we could wrangle. One of us thought to add a portable pop-pop-pop strobe light blaster which was rumored to cause seizures in some but made everybody look like they were in an old-time movie. Lord, if we'd only had the full color high def Mandelbrot fractal zooms! But for us, it was early and rudimentary. Excitement, a willing spirit, and the sneaky ability to kite checks helped enormously...as Gary and some of his cohorts proved daily.
As The New Glory, we began to collect throw-out movies from various film school trash bins. Old editing projects, camera tests, animation experiments, abandoned student films, anything that would fit on a reel and get through a projector: track 'em and stack 'em! We gathered boxes and boxes full. Then Carousels of slides, slides, and more slides; I stuck a few boxes of my own into a tray, shuffled into the mix. We found a company in the Valley that would rent us the projectors, 16mm and overhead, the cables, the junction boxes. In L.A. they had everything. We built a colored light keyboard which, in my mind, would be Edisonian great, but in reality was a tad less. Although it did manage to nearly blind Jerry Garcia who apparently was staring at it a little too hard.
Tim, Dave, Gloria, and I set up a test run someplace, I can't even remember where, but it was a disaster. Fuses blew (remember fuses? We later bought like twenty boxes), projector lamps overheated and blew, we even lost power cords and had to replace them. We were new to all this and it showed. However, the difference between this test run and our first actual light show was night and day. Well, at least night and evening.
Somehow it had slipped my melting mind: we were not the stars of these concerts, the rock and roll bands were. They were musicians and they'd been working together for years. While we were all trying to hide from John Lewis Fisher so we would get beat up during recess or to get one more first kiss from Nancy Thompson, the musicians were at home, practicing the guitar, the keyboards, the drums. It mattered to them. Cool as we hoped we looked in our American flag cowboy drag, we were just along for the ride and for whatever ooohs and ahhhs we might elicit in passing.
Here are some moments from that time, illuminated by flashing strobe light. Don't have a seizure.
* The Beatles, either together or individually, were rumored to be coming to this particular concert. This happened every week for the six months of Kaleidoscope's operation and was usually low sparked by a high heel of Gary Essert.
* The concert venue seemed to change every half hour. There was always some kind of looming disaster about the permits, the Fire Marshal, a bounced check, or a "better" deal afoot.
* As it became an official Scene, regulars began to appear.
There was a very young Rodney Bingenheimer whose endlessly repeated mantra seemed to be "Whaaaat's happening?!" Rodney would go on to manage bands and become the unelected mayor of Sunset Strip.
One of the regular girl dancers, an old soul with great legs, showed up one night with her panties worn over and outside her black tights. She became known as Karen Underpants. We'd heard she ran off with Paul Simon who wrote "Bridge Over Troubled Underpants" for her. The song later went to the top of the charts in a slightly different version.
Marc Wanamaker and Hy Slobodkin, two young guys who found their way to us and became helpful, willing to jump in their car and get us whatever we needed. When the shit hit the fan, they were always ready to pitch in. Marc was blood kin to one of my fave Lefty actors, blacklisted Sam Wanamaker who escaped to London where he became crucial to recreating Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. When Sam invited a then 13-year-old Marc over to London to hang out, the first thing the old dude did was take Marc out to Highgate Cemetery where he showed him Karl Marx's grave. My kind of guy.
Outside the various venues was Larry "Wildman" Fischer, a bi-polar paranoid schizophrenic street casualty/musician, hawking his one claim-to-fame, a record of his songs produced by Frank Zappa. I always greeted Larry but I confess his clear and present damage made me a little nervous.
Our first gig was a concert in the Grand Ballroom of L.A.'s famous Ambassador Hotel with The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Canned Heat (the last, managed by the boys of Kaleidoscope). The Dead and Airplane were then the two hottest American rock and roll bands. The Dead were like heavyweight Joe Frazier in the ring, the Airplane were like dancer Rudolph Nureyev without the tutu; both great but totally different. The light show was good...if you shut your eyes and pretended you were watching the star-gate sequence from "2001."
A year later, about 20 yards from the concert stage where we were set up, Senator Bobby Kennedy, running for President, was murdered, shot dead by some loser Palestinian schmuck who's mother thought he was so nice, she named him twice.
We lightshowed some amazing gigs. I lost about 25% of my hearing with the great power blues trio Blue Cheer, your basic stripped down model of Southern three-chord blues apostates. It was rumored that one of them couldn't read or write. True or not, it didn't seem to slow them down a lick. And a bunch of my hearing went with them.
We played for our old film school friends, The Doors at Ciro's on Sunset Strip. They were just getting started on their mach ten journey. A fuller accounting of this night can be found in the UCLA Daily Bruin, wildly over-written, but you'll get the idea. We had the gorgeous Kim Gottlieb with us that night and for a while backstage, she was afraid Jim Morrison, completely drifted away and impervious to her revival attempts, was actually dead. Four years later, in a Paris bathtub, he would be.
My first and last solo gig with New Glory was in New York City's Carnegie Recital Hall. Malcolm Terrence, a whip smart ex-journalist from Tucson was in L.A. managing Joe Byrd and Dorothy Moskowitz' band, The United States of America. They had recently been signed by Columbia and to celebrate the release of their first L.P., Columbia arranged for a concert at Carnegie Hall. The little one, to be sure, but it was still Carnegie Hall! The band invited me to go to New York with them and do lights...but this time nothing but film. No overhead sploosh splooshing, no strobe lights, no Carousel slide shows. Just six movie projectors and oversized 16mm reels.
Columbia put us up in the old Henry Hudson Hotel; in a Sixties slump but friendly to the record company's budget and only blocks away from the venue. One afternoon, I walked over to the rehearsal with Gordon Marron, the band's violinist. Classically trained, Gordon was in hog heaven playing rock and roll.
We saw a crowd of people gathering up ahead. Gordon, of course, heard the fiddle before I did. He quickened his step and began opening his violin case. As we arrived, the crowd parted as Gordon handed his case to me and started playing with the street busking violinist. His name was Richard, he was (as they say) famous all over town. He had long hair and wore street makeup that he had not taken around the back of his neck. Suddenly Richard and Gordon were soaring on some familiar piece of classical music, the crowd was enraptured.
And then, here came the cops.
"Ahright, Johnnie, nothing to see here, keep walking, let's go, nothing to see here!" One of them was already trying to put the cuffs on hapless Richard. Gordon stepped in. "You probably didn't like the Mozart. I don't blame you; it's too effete. I bet you're a Dvorak man or maybe Samuel Barber!" With that Gordon began to play Barber's so well known Violin Concerto. Richard somehow got his fiddle back under his chin and began to play too. The crowd went nuts and, as the cops tried to regain the upper hand, the people began to boo. Richard was lead to a squad car and as the cops were looking around for Gordon, he quickly cased his violin, passed it off to me, and we scurried away.
It was one of the all time coolest moments I have ever been attendant to. Years later, I read in Newsweek that the the famous busking Manhattan 'starving Julliard student' violinist Richard had retired at 45 and was living in his Miami beachfront penthouse condo...paid for with 20 years of tips.
The USA concert was a slightly befuddling success: the band was playing live rock and roll, using Moog synthesizers, odd time signatures, electronic stuff so common now but back then, most folks, especially rock and rollers, had never heard of such. And Dorothy's glorious voice, now ring modulated, holy ranchero! The band got a good review in The Village Voice. And New Glory Lights were mentioned in passing.
The last L.A. gig I remember was Country Joe and the Fish. I loved those guys. And maybe Steve Miller, back in the Boz Scaggs days. Somebody get them a cheeseburger! And I think on that same bill was Hammond organist Lee Michaels and his dervish drummer Frosty. Between those two guys, they had so much hair, you absolutely could not see their faces. But when they did what would become their great hit "Do You Know What I Mean," the place went completely apeshit.
When the gig was over, about 2AM, we packed up and went home, totally exhausted spiritually and physically. Mental had taken an earlier train. Our ears ringing, we were covered with sweat, cooking oil, chemicals, dyes, and I don't know what all. We stopped at the laundromat down on Lincoln Blvd. and threw all our clothes into a couple of washers. I may be combining two events here but I think my buddies went home and I stayed, fascinated, watching the wet, soppy clothes go around and around in the smooshy rhythm dancing soap bubbles. Look at that. Finally, a light show.
Since I was alone, I turned off most of the laundromat's overhead lights, shed my Levis and skivvies and tossed them in. Then, my socks. In the ensuing quiet hour, few cars drove by outside and no one came in. I was so tired, I didn't even have a cover story prepped. Now, in the dryer, the clothes were rolling and tumbling. Made me think of Taj and Muddy Waters....
The sun was coming up as I got home. But you know, anything for rock and roll.