(Pictured: Gordon Lightfoot in 1978.)
Back in 2009, I wrote about the Edmund Fitzgerald for WNEW.com. I have never repeated that post at this blog, so here it is, with some editing from the original. A big part of my gig at WNEW was explaining major events and personalities in rock history to people either too young to remember or not particularly obsessed by that kind of thing. So regular readers of this pondwater probably won’t learn much from it, but that’s the chance you take around here.
To be human is to love a story. We like to be transported to different places and times and to vicariously experience the lives of others. Although our methods of storytelling have grown more sophisticated—novels and short stories and movies and TV—our fascination with a good story hasn’t changed since the storytellers were our fellow humans around the campfire, hundreds or thousands of years ago.
On November 9, 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald, once the largest ship on the Great Lakes, set sail from Superior, Wisconsin, bound for Detroit with a load of taconite, an iron ore-bearing mineral. On the afternoon of the 10th, a powerful early-winter storm struck the eastern end of Lake Superior with hurricane-force winds and heavy snow. The Fitzgerald lost its radar in the storm; worse, it began taking on water. Another ship traveling about 10 miles behind, the Arthur Anderson, kept in touch with the Fitzgerald throughout the long day. Early that evening, the Anderson found that it could no longer reach the Fitzgerald by radio or see it on radar. It is believed that the Fitzgerald, weakened by the battering it had taken from the storm, was struck by a giant wave and snapped in half. The crew of 29 was lost.
A couple of weeks later, Newsweek magazine published a story about the Fitzgerald that began with the following line: “According to a legend of the Chippewa tribe, the lake they once called Gitche Gumee never gives up her dead.” When Gordon Lightfoot read the article, he was inspired, and by the time he returned to the studio in December to record a new album, he had written a song that told the story. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” would reach the top five of the Billboard singles chart for the first anniversary of the sinking, eventually peaking at #2. In the years since, it’s become more than merely a song—Lightfoot says that it’s the most significant song of his career.
Although there were other story songs before and there have been others since, there’s never been one better. Although I’ve heard it a million times in the last 39 years, I find myself caught up in it every time. There may be a reason for that apart from the song itself, however. On a family vacation at some point in the middle of the 1970s—maybe as late as 1975—we toured the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. The ship that was going through the locks that afternoon was the largest man-made object I had ever seen; from our vantage point in the visitors’ area, the few people looking down at us from the deck of the ship seemed extremely tiny in comparison. Because the ship was so enormous, I remembered its name: it was the Edmund Fitzgerald, of course. I’ve always wondered if any or all the people we saw on board that day were among those who were lost in the Great Lakes’ most famous shipwreck, on November 10, 1975.
One of this blog’s more popular posts is about the Atlanta Pop Festival, held on the July 4th weekend of 1969, which was inspired by a collection of evocative photos of the event posted online. Retronaut, a site that collects marvelous old images, has a set of photos from another forgotten festival.
The Powder Ridge Rock Festival was scheduled for a ski resort near Middlefield, Connecticut, at the end of July 1970. The three-day festival was to be studded with Woodstock veterans, including Sly and the Family Stone, Mountain, Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, Richie Havens, John Sebastian, and Ten Years After, along with Fleetwood Mac, the Allman Brothers Band, James Taylor, Van Morrison, Chuck Berry, and even (it was rumored) Led Zeppelin. But as so often happened in the festival era, the good people of Middlefield took steps to keep from having their town taken over by an army of hippies, getting a court injunction to stop the festival. Two days beforehand, signs were put up along the state highways leading to Middlefield saying, “Festival prohibited,” but by then, it was too late. On July 29, 1970, the day before the festival was to open, the number of people already on the grounds was estimated at 15,000.
Headliners, contracted or rumored, were understandably not eager to violate the injunction against the festival and stayed away. But when it became clear that there would be no show, the crowd began to create its own. The New York Times reported, “The youths provided their own music—from guitars, chants sung to the beat of tin cans and elaborate stereophonic equipment set atop psychedelic buses and mattress-lined hearses.” Folksinger Melanie, who had been on the original bill, risked arrest by performing on the night of July 30. (The sound engineer hired for the show was arrested after ordering his people to get the PA system ready for Melanie.)
At its peak, the non-festival festival attracted anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 people—and dozens of drug dealers. Festival medical director Dr. William Abruzzi, who had filled the same role at Woodstock, said that there were nearly 1,000 “bad trips” over the course of the festival, telling the media at one point that the heavy use of hallucinogens was causing a crisis. Abruzzi credited the eventual appearance of musicians with keeping the number from being greater. “The whole spirit of the place changed when the kids heard there would be music. Drug use went down precipitously.” A news report at the time claimed there had been 73 arrests; a later count put the number at 237.
(Pictured: Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird, and James Taylor in Two-Lane Blacktop.)
In the summer of 1970, film director Monte Hellman saw a Los Angeles billboard with James Taylor’s face on it, and he believed he’d found a star. So he created a movie for him, which turns up on Turner Classic Movies every now and then: Two-Lane Blacktop.
Two-Lane Blacktop is about two drifters with a ’55 Chevy who eventually get into a cross-country race with another driver. Taylor was cast as a character known only as the Driver. Four days before principal photography began, Hellman still didn’t have Taylor’s co-star. He eventually settled on Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, figuring Wilson’s real-life experience with cars would translate into his on-screen role as the Mechanic. Completing the cast were 16-year-old Laurie Bird as the Young Girl, and Hollywood veteran Warren Oates as GTO, the driver of the other car in the race.
Two-Lane Blacktop was shot on location across the country, and it shows an America that no longer exists, one of small-town diners, full-service filling stations, and hitch-hiking as reliable transportation. Like many youth films of the ’70s, there’s not really much of a story to it. The atmosphere of lonely alienation is the point of the film—the Driver and the Mechanic are silent as much as they speak, and while each of them seems to have an interest in the Young Girl, neither one does much to communicate it to her. (GTO is a livelier character, spinning a variety of tales about who he is and where he’s going, depending on who he’s talking to.)
It’s too much to say that Two-Lane Blacktop put a curse on its stars. Nevertheless, three of them came to tragic and/or early ends, while another was probably lucky to avoid one. Taylor, in his only movie role, was addicted to heroin while the movie was filming, and for years thereafter. From time to time he would come up missing on the set, and was said to be off fixing at the time. His co-star Wilson was also an enthusiastic user of drugs and alcohol. He died on December 28, 1983, drowning while swimming off the California coast—coincidentally about the same time Taylor was kicking his drug habit for good. Laurie Bird, who played the Young Girl, was only 16 when filming began in 1970. She appeared in only two other films, including the 1977 Oscar-winner Annie Hall. She became a photographer, and she took the cover shot for Art Garfunkel‘s 1977 album Watermark. She and Garfunkel were romantically involved. In June 1979, aged just 25, she committed suicide in the apartment she and Garfunkel shared. Warren Oates, whose performance as GTO was considered Oscar-worthy by some, died young too. Oates, who appeared in dozens of TV shows and movies in the ’60s and ’70s, is probably best-known for his portrayal of Sgt. Hulka in the Bill Murray film Stripes. It was one of his final performances. Oates died of a heart attack in 1982 at age 53.
(Adapted from a couple of pieces in my WNEW.com archives.)
I wrote for WNEW.com, the website of the relaunched version of New York City’s legendary classic-rock radio station, for four years, until CBS killed it in 2012. Through a kind of Internet alchemy I’m not going to take time to explain, a version of the site still exists in cyberspace, albeit under a different web address. Sometimes readers find their way to that site, and sometimes they leave comments on the posts. Alas, the only person who can see the new comments is me. (I have used a few of these invisible comments in rebooting some of the old WNEW posts at this blog.)
Last weekend, a guy calling himself Frenchy left an epic comment about his experiences at the Concert 10 Festival, which was held in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania in the summer of 1972. I cannot bear to keep his comment hidden in web purgatory, so I’m reposting it on the flip, exactly as it appeared, punctuation, spelling, and NSFW language intact. Stay with it to the end, because it’s fantastic.
Tomorrow is Record Store Day, on which we celebrate the unique culture of the independently owned record store. Although vinyl is making a comeback, there are still only a few hundred such places in the United States. Those of us of a certain age can remember when you could buy records everywhere: department stores, TV repair shops, drug stores, even service stations.
One such place was in my hometown, Gibson’s Discount Store. Gibson’s was like a modern chain drug store, a Walgreens or a CVS, in that it stocked a little bit of everything, but also like a dollar store in that much of their stuff was off-brand and sold cheap. It also stocked a few records. Independent rack jobbers would provide the records and the rack to display them on, and the store would receive a percentage of the sales—which is why it wasn’t uncommon to see racks of records in places that would seem strange today.
Gibson’s carried the top albums and a few singles, but it was also the first place I ever saw that carried cutouts. A cutout is an album or cassette sold at a discounted price, usually because it’s been discontinued by the label. A cutout album would have a corner of the jacket cut off or a hole punched in it; cutout cassettes (and later, CDs) usually had a notch sawed in the plastic case. This was to mark them so that they would not sold for full price—or, in the case of promotional copies sent to radio stations and record stores, not sold at all.
Where regularly-priced albums were six or seven dollars back in the 1970s, cutouts often sold for a couple of bucks and sometimes less. And while I loved music, I loved getting music for cheap even more—and as a result, I became a denizen of the cutout bins forever after.
It was at Gibson’s that I scored one of my favorite cutout purchases, the sort of musical bonanza that would have appealed to the geek I was circa 1975. One fine night I stumbled across the Warner Special Products compilation Superstars of the ’70s, a four-vinyl-album collection of hits I knew and artists I recognized. I remember staying up very, very late the night I brought it home, just to listen to the whole thing. It introduced me to certain artists I wasn’t hearing on my favorite Top 40 stations, like Jimi Hendrix (“Foxey Lady,” “Purple Haze”) , the Grateful Dead (Truckin'”), and Black Sabbath (“Paranoid”). It also includes Alice Cooper, Yes, the Doors (the long version of “Light My Fire”), the Kinks, Deep Purple, and the Jefferson Airplane. Most unusual of all, it includes tracks from Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, who rarely appear on anthologies of this sort. There are some odd choices in that company, though, including Roberta Flack’s “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” “Where Is the Love” by Flack and Donny Hathaway, and a couple of tunes by the Bee Gees (“Lonely Days” and “To Love Somebody”), but as a snapshot of the state of pop and rock circa 1973, you can scarcely do better.
The most off-the-wall track on the album is probably the Byrds‘ version of Neil Young‘s “Cowgirl in the Sand,” which appeared on the band’s self-titled 1973 album. I used to skip over it when I played Superstars of the ’70s back in the day, but I wouldn’t skip it now. So here it is, right off somebody else’s copy of Superstars of the 70s.
We can’t fathom, at a distance of 50 years, just how all-encompassing was Beatlemania during the middle of the 1960s. The Beatles charted a staggering 30 songs in the States between February 1, 1964, and January 2, 1965. And beginning in January 1965, the Beatles would score nine straight #1 albums over the next four years. Nine albums in four years is a lot by modern standards. What’s even more astounding by modern standards is the dozen Beatles albums that charted in 1964 alone. Six of them are relatively famous: Meet the Beatles, Introducing the Beatles, The Beatles’ Second Album, A Hard Day’s Night, Something New, and Beatles ’65. But what about the six other Beatles albums to land on the album charts that year? With one exception, they represent attempts by record labels other than Capitol, the Beatles’ main label, to cash in on the phenomenon. Here they are, in chronological order:
—The Beatles With Tony Sheridan and Their Guests. An MGM release with four songs by Tony Sheridan, backed by the Beatles: My Bonnie, Cry for a Shadow, Why, and The Saints, a version of When the Saints Go Marching In, all dating back to Hamburg. The album contains other tracks by Sheridan with the Beat Brothers—who are not the Beatles on these recordings, although My Bonnie was released as a single in some countries as Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers—and filler from a band called the Titans.
—Jolly What! The Beatles and Frank Ifield on Stage. This was one of several attempts by the Chicago label Vee-Jay, which had released the first Beatles records in the States, to cash in before its rights expired. It’s an insane coupling of four Beatles tracks already released as singles by Vee-Jay with eight songs by Frank Ifield, a British singer who had scored a couple of minor American hits. Despite the title, none of the songs are live performances.
—The American Tour With Ed Rudy. Like several others, Ed Rudy, reporter for something called Radio Pulsebeat News, claimed to be the Fifth Beatle. He also said he was the only reporter to accompany the Beatles for all of their first 1964 tour, which he probably was not. His album is a broadcast documentary consisting of “interviews” with the Beatles, often Rudy shouting questions in the various press gaggles the band held on the road. A second documentary album failed to chart.
—The Beatles vs. the Four Seasons. Another Vee-Jay cash-in, “The international battle of the century . . . each group delivering their greatest vocal punches.” The gatefold album package contained a score sheet and was emblazoned with the words, “You be the judge and jury!” It was Introducing the Beatles, Vee-Jay’s lone Beatles album, packaged with Golden Hits of the Four Seasons, without changing the labels on either disc to reflect the title of the album package.
—Songs, Pictures, and Stories of the Fabulous Beatles. Yet another Vee-Jay reissue of Introducing the Beatles, in yet another cover. Charted three weeks after The Beatles vs. the Four Seasons.
—The Beatles’ Story. An official Capitol release, this is a two-disc documentary album about the band featuring interviews, press conferences, and bits of music.
There’s one other early release of note before Beatles’ releases settle down into a more consistent pattern. In the spring of 1965, Capitol charted with The Early Beatles—their own reissue of the Vee-Jay material that had been put out so many times before.
One wonders how many people bought Jolly What!, Introducing the Beatles, The Beatles vs. the Four Seasons, Songs, Pictures and Stories of the Fabulous Beatles, and The Early Beatles, getting the same music over and over again. Anyone who did, and who has kept the albums may be having the last laugh today. The Beatles vs. the Four Seasons and Songs, Pictures and Stories have become pricey collectibles. Pressings of Jolly What!, with a drawing of the four Beatles on the cover, are among the most valuable collectibles in recording history. A sealed copy was offered for sale a few years ago at $25,000.
(From the archives of my work for the now-defunct WNEW.com, slightly edited.)