Danger has always been part of what draws me to the flame. Right now, I’m getting daily calls from Bubba Sullivan, the Godfather of the King Biscuit Blues Festival. He’s celebrating his 80th birthday in August, and the lineup for his private party includes a plethora of blues luminaries who’ve played the festival for 35 years including Bobby Rush, Anson Funderburgh, Reba Russell and many more who are dying – no pun intended – to play in front of a breathing, sweating, gonzo audience just one time this year. Their scheduled appearances at blues festivals are falling like dominoes. The thought of mixing it up with a bunch of cabin-fevered performers in the August heat of the Delta is palpable. And the idea that it could kill me frankly just puts an edge on it.
It reminds of the night in 1965 when my college suite mate Barry Aston invited me to see B.B. King and Bobby Blue Bland at Louie’s Lounge in Roxbury, an urban jungle that was Boston’s version of Chicago’s West Side. Neither artist at the time had broken into the growing white college market that had already turned Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Buddy Guy into favorites among those of us eager to experience the acts that triggered The Rolling Stones’ muse on songs like “Little Red Rooster,” “Time Is on My Side,” “Walkin’ The Dog,” “Down Home Girl,” “Hi Heal Sneakers,” “I’m A King Bee,” “Pretty Thing,” “Hush Hush,” “Road Runner,” “I Want to Be Loved” and “Diddley Daddy.”
I was listening to AM station WILD (“Wild in Boston”) way over on the right end of the dial beyond – way beyond – Arnie the Woo Ginsburg on WMEX, Beantown’s rocker. I knew I had to be the only white guy listening to this station. And B.B. King was my hidden pleasure. Barry, his date, and I were the only white people at the show. Dressed like hippies, we were surrounded by African Americans dressed to the teeth with handkerchiefs in their vest pockets sitting at tables with linen table cloths.
B.B. and Bobby were wound up like a cheap watch to be playing on the same stage with each other. This was the very top of the line of urban blues. The crowd went crazy, and I learned that night what call and response was all about. If you don’t get it, listen to B.B.’s Live at The Regal LP.
Danger is no stranger to rock and roll either. One of my favorite shows of all time was at Lebanon Valley Speedway near the border of New York and Massachusetts. It was 1977 and the bill included J. Geils, Blue Oyster Cult, The Dictators, and Black Oak Arkansas. I was writing for The Troy Record and was backstage with Peter Wolf of J. Geils and Jim Dandy of Black Oak Arkansas who was dressed in tight black leather from head to foot with a sock in his crotch. He was the K-Mart answer to David Lee Roth of Van Halen and took his name from the 1956 LaVern Baker hit “Jim Dandy to The Rescue.” The band was named for a small town of under 300 people. I hated Blue Oyster Cult, but seeing J. Geils do “Detroit Breakdown” in that environment was worth suffering through the rest of the show.
When I was a teenager in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Lebanon Valley Speedway was the symbol of freedom. Many of the students at Pittsfield High, my alma mater, must have been the inspiration for Rydell High in the film Grease. Most had fake I.D.s and would drive over the border to New York State to the Speedway. The drinking age in New York was still 18, and THE hangout was a place called The Ski Lodge that only admitted guys who had dates. The students would get drunk, drive back “over the mountain” to Pittsfield and a few would careen off the road and be killed in horrible auto accidents. Lebanon Valley Speedway was the symbol of that teen excess, and shortly after that J. Geils concert, they stopped dong rock shows after an attendee was wiped out on the side of the road by a drive-by on his way to his parked car.
There was the time I saw the Clash in NYC at a venue that double sold the hall or the time I almost got crushed at the front of a crowd waiting to see the Grateful Dead in Buffalo. And then the next MORNING I saw the Stones again with J. Geils opening.
Or the night at the Lynn Bowl in 1965 when Bill Nowlin and I hung onto the trunk of the Stones’ limo and were tear gassed as the band exited the arena. A week later we were again tear gassed at a James Brown concert in Boston. Or the time I saw The Beatles at the Revere Dog track and the tweenagers’ screaming was so loud you couldn’t hear a single note. It was June and I was wearing woolen bellbottoms and almost sweated to death!
My wife says she never has trouble finding me at a festival. Just go to the front row center in front of the stage.
After writing this, I showed it to Jim Anderson who offered these comments:
The Lebanon Valley show with Geils was my show and began my friendship with Peter Wolf. The auto accident you refer to was not after my show. I will tell you about what happened between me and the Speedway after my show that resulted in my not doing other shows there. Someone else did a show there the following summer with BO Cult and that is when the accidents (more than one) occurred, and there were no concerts there after that. NOTE: I also think my show was earlier than 1977, but years have never been my expertise.