Satan Is a Blue Meanie

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(Pictured: Ringo poses with a yellow submarine in 2013.)

Years ago I did today-in-history posts at this website. They’re an easy way to feed the content monster, and they’re still popular with radio stations and websites devoted to classic rock or oldies. Trouble is, the sourcing for a lot of the stuff you see is sketchy to nonexistent. Websites cut and paste items indiscriminately without citations. (Even the low-rent Internet shebeen you are patronizing right now has been guilty of that.) Wikipedia entries have footnotes pointing to Songfacts, which in terms of credibility is one click north of “I made this up.” (Sometimes they even cite low-rent Internet shebeens.) Even assuming good faith on the part of the site or the writer, it’s like a giant game of Telephone. You can’t be sure stuff hasn’t gotten distorted. 

Certain items get repeated endlessly even after they’ve been shown to be wrong. Every year we’re told that a radio station in Washington DC was the first American station to play the Beatles, in December 1963, even though it’s abundantly clear—with contemporary record chart citations to prove it—that they were on in many American cities in the spring and summer of 1963. But smaller things get fubar’d too. Release dates for albums are especially untrustworthy. Often, people don’t differentiate between UK and US releases, or they confuse the date a record charted with the date it was released. 

Back when I was writing for, I made it my business to look deeper into some of the most famous cut-n-paste factoids. I’ve edited the original a bit here. 

Here’s another of those awesome factoids that proliferates from rock history website to rock history website without elaboration or context: “April 20, 1970: The New York Times reported that Catholic and Protestant youth groups had adopted the Beatles’ ‘Yellow Submarine’ as a religious symbol.”

In a continuing quest to flesh out such factoids, I found the article from the Times. Headlined “Yellow Submarine is Symbol of Youth Churches,” it appeared in the Times on April 20, 1970, and in other papers around the country during the next week or so. It reported on the aftermath of a three-day convention of so-called “submarine churches” held in St. Louis. The goal of the churches was said to be either the creation of counterculture-compatible churches or reform of existing denominations. They “combine heavy political involvement with new forms of liturgical celebration ranging from street parades to beer-and-pretzel eucharistic fests.”

(Finally, a religion I can get behind.)

The article reported that “submarine churches” grew out of the “free” or “liberated” churches that had developed across the country in recent years, most famously the Free Church of Berkeley, California, which seems to have been the nerve center for the movement. The Berkeley group claimed that there were about 40 such churches around the country. They weren’t all about theatrics or revolution. In Berkeley, the Free Church operated a telephone hotline designed to help young people with problems of all sorts.

Reporter Edward B. Fiske wrote that some of the churches adopted the yellow submarine as a symbol after certain members of the peace movement had adopted it as a symbol of social harmony and nonviolence. The Free Church of Berkeley added a cross to it. A former Free Church pastor quoted in the story says, “In the Beatles’ movie the submarine was a place where they loved each other in a groovy way and got strength to do battle with the Blue Meanies. It also shows that a church has to have flexibility and maneuverability.”

(Like a really cool 1970 model car, apparently.)

Although young people had a distinct thirst for new forms of religious expression in the early 1970s, everything from the Jesus Movement to the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, the yellow submarine churches did not take the country by storm. It was just another enthusiasm of the moment that failed to catch fire over the long term, even though it was interesting enough to make the New York Times.

I never determined how CBS Interactive, the parent of, found me out here on this quiet corner of the Internet, but they did, and they paid me to write from 2008 to 2012. After CBS moved the WNEW call letters from New York City to Washington DC, they nuked the old site, so most of what I wrote is gone, although some of it is at Internet Archive, and I have reposted a bit of it here over the years. The whole experience still seems kind of surreal to me.

The Wreck

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(Pictured: Gordon Lightfoot in 1978.)

Back in 2009, I wrote about the Edmund Fitzgerald for 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.

The Non-Festival Festival

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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.

Continue reading “The Non-Festival Festival”

Two-Lane Blacktop

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(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.

Read much more about the movie here and see some terrific stills from the production. The trailer is below. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube.

(Adapted from a couple of pieces in my archives.)

“I took all 3 hits of the 4 way and i was trippin for 3 days”

I wrote for, 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.

Continue reading ““I took all 3 hits of the 4 way and i was trippin for 3 days””

All Hail the Cutout

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.

(Adapted from a post in my archives.)