Thursday, May 30, 2013

Janis Joplin at Wesleyan

Every five years at my Wesleyan Reunion, I learn a few more facts about the visit of Big Brother and The Holding Company and Janis Joplin to our secluded campus on the Connecticut River on March 9, 1968. Five years ago John Lipsky, former chief economist for the International Monetary Fund, revealed he had hosted the band at lunch and found the experience less than scintillating (“So what’s your sign?” she asked).

This weekend I got a new version of the event from Bob Isard who regaled me with several tales of the post concert party hosted by Delta Kappa Epsilon. As house steward he was at the center of things. When Janis arrived, she demanded, “What’s to eat, I am starving.” (I guess the university lunch was not very filling.)

Isard then told of tapping a fresh keg and filling the beer cup of a young lady who was a regular visitor at the DKE house because she had been dating one of the brothers for more than a year. He described her as “Sweet Sally,” the typical preppie undergrad clad in miniskirt, while blouse and sweater. Unfortunately when she turned to leave she bumped into the guitar player for Big Brother and dumped the beer all over him. The guitarist, without missing a beat stepped forward to get his cup filled.

The funny thing was that Sweet Sally was never seen again after that night. Isard has concluded that there was room for her in one of the two Volkswagen Campers the band was touring in so she joined the guitarist on the road.

Another campus concert, this one by the Grateful Dead in 1970 was the subject of a symposium and mini-reunion for those who made that scene. The event offered insights into the work of archivists who try to authenticate bootleg audiotapes. It was reported that the Dead were paid $4,000 for the gig but everyone was admitted for free. The concert took place on May 3. Shortly afterwards the Wesleyan students voted to go on strike in support of the students killed at Kent State. The school was shut down for the year.

One other Dead connection. John Perry Barlow, Wesleyan ’69 (a religion major) was a childhood friend of Bob Weir and began co-writing songs with Weir in 1971. He is also credited with introducing the band members to Dr. Timothy Leary. In 1990, Barlow founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a platform he has used for education and legal activism on Internet issues.

And last but not least, I learned that Louis Armstrong played a concert at Wesleyan in 1958. I’ll bet the Chapel was jumping that night.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

April Milestones: Memories of Richie Havens

As we move away from April, that proverbially cruel month, I was touched by the passing of a couple of musical greats and the anniversary of the death of a third.
Richie Havens and George Jones, when paired in the same sentence seem so opposite as to be almost comical. Havens, soft-spoken and weary-voiced, the hard working balladeer.
Jones, the hard-living, outrageous showman whose antics became as legendary as his voice and his career. One toiled on the club circuit (with a brief moment of world fame) and the other had his string of hits, the Grand Ole Opry and the ultimate country music partner in Tammy Wynette.

I got a chance to meet Havens in April of 1968. He was scheduled to do a concert at Wesleyan the weekend after Martin Luther King was assassinated. The concert was cancelled but no one had informed him before he left New York City. When he arrived, a couple of the guys hosting, brought him down to our fraternity house for a cup of coffee before he made the return trip. So we stood around the kitchen of the Beta House for a while, making awkward small talk about the tragedy and why we could not do the concert.

At this point, Havens' album, “Mixed Bag” (released in the musical magical year of 1967) had launched him with a series of great covers, including his rendition of Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman,“ the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and Tuli Kupferberg’s “Morning, Morning.” It also included a song Havens wrote with Lou Gossett called “Handsome Johnny.”

I don’t remember a lot from that afternoon (it was the 60’s and my thesis was due) but I still carry this image of his presence: Dressed in leather and beads, with rings on every finger and that soft voice and gentle manner that seemed to radiate a “Summer of Love” vibe. It was more than a year before he would make history at Woodstock.

The down home charm that made Havens so likeable also seemed to be one of the ingredients in Levon Helm’s propularity with fans and colleagues. He died in April of last year and there is a new tribute album produced by Don Was called “Love for Levon.” The concert was recorded in October, 2012 and the incredible list of guest artists (Roger Waters, Mavis Staples, Lucinda Williams, John Hiatt, Bruce Hornsby, etc., etc.) reprised much the The Band’s catalogue of hits.

As Don Was told Bob Edwards, “without the Band, there would be no Americana Music Awards.” They left “an eduring, irreversible legacy.”

Was, when asked about the volatle life cycles of rock and roll bands, offered this explanation: “Bands are crazy. They get together with this dream of conquering the world. If they make it, then they set out to conquer each other.”