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Go Placidly While You Still Have the Chance: A Pop History of the “Desiderata”

A certain little inspirational prose poem, which was born (if not completed) 100 years ago, has a few fascinating backstories. Authored by the Indiana writer Max Ehrmann (1872-1945) “Desiderata” been a touchstone of plain-spoken revelation for untold thousands, if not millions, of folks worldwide. Much of its popularity comes from the 1971 hit recording narrated by Les Crane (more on him in a minute) and featuring a soaring choir that assured one “You are a child of the universe.”

Even the origin of this famous work was once shrouded in a mystery born of a misunderstanding. In 1927, Ehrmann registered his poem for copyright but only included the first phrase “Go placidly amid the noise and the haste” adding only an “etc.” Although there would be further attempts to secure a proper copyright (esp. by Max’s widow after his death), there were lapses along the way and the “Desiderata” (in Latin, “things desired”) fell into the public domain around 1960. That is about the same time that St. Paul’s Church in Baltimore included it (unattributed) in a booklet of inspirational works. Someone took the listed date of the church’s founding, 1692, as the date of composition, suddenly giving the 35 year-old work the gravity of an newly discovered masterpiece of the early Enlightenment. This may also be why so many of the “Desiderata” posters that adorned college dorm walls used Gothic-type fonts.

A Desiderata mis-attribution on a radio survey from October of ’71. Still, it would prove way more popular than the other two new releases.

Of course, the poem’s popularity skyrocketed with the hit record in ’71. In a way, Les Crane may have been an odd MC for the record’s proto-New Age platitudes, asking us to “remember what peace there may be in silence.” He made his name in 1963-64, as a semi-controversial late-night TV host, being one of the first to try and go up against Johnny Carson. His show featured risk-taking political debates, unusual guests (Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother) and his signature shotgun microphone which he used to get hot takes from people in the audience. He was also a civil-rights advocate, respectfully interviewed both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and had one of the first openly gay guests on TV (Randy Wicker). To cap off his Sixties’ bona fides, Crane was also married at the time to actress Tina Louise, who played Ginger on “Gilligan’s Island.”

Les Crane on his TV show in 1964.

With Crane’s portentous, deep-toned narration and the unsubtle female chorus, “Desiderata” may sound a little hokey 50 years on, but Ehrmann’s sensible, Middle-American wisdom is needed now more ever. Many may think that given the events of recent history it is all but impossible to “avoid loud and aggressive persons” who “are vexations to the spirit.” And while I am personally referring to an orange-haired monstrosity who was until very recently the U.S. president, there is good advice here on both sides of the political aisle. People who loathed Trump are aghast at his followers who have distressed themselves with “dark imaginings.” Yet they may also try and understand that “many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness” and not just react to this phenomenon with the same rigid animosity that it unleashed. As hard as it my be in the deafening world of 24/7 news cycles and ubiquitous social-media indulgences, I believe it is still of great importance to try to “speak one’s truth quietly and clearly, and to listen to others.”

Crane’s record reached as high as #8 on the singles chart and won a Grammy in the Spoken word category. Les had thought, as did many back then, that the words had been passed down thru antiquity. When he found out otherwise, Crane (who died in 2008) did the right thing and paid royalties to the Ehrmann estate.

Given the record’s grandiose arrangement, it should be of no surprise that a “Desiderata” parody would follow, and a year later the incorrigible cast of characters at National Lampoon happily obliged with “Deteriorata” from their pop-culture spoof album called “Radio Dinner.” These two records together should convince a thin-skinned world that it is both possible to have ideals and a good subversive laugh in the same lifetime. The Lampooners (the female singer is a young Melissa Manchester, a year before her fist solo LP) let us in on a little secret right off the top: “You are a fluke of the universe/You have no right to be here.” The music (arranged by future Spinal Tap member Christopher Guest) clings stickily to the original and they scored a coup by getting famed actor/announcer Norman “Voice of God” Rose to play the baritone announcer. In the parlance of today, wicked parodists like NL may be seen as “haters” but “Deteriorata” is also sprinkled with helpful life-coaching (“rotate your tires” and “know what to kiss, and when”) and bright-side thinking: “Be comforted that in the face of all aridity and disillusionment, there is always a future in computer maintenance.”

Not surprisingly, the Lampooners lose the plot for a moment along the way (“For a good time call 606-4311… ask for Ken”) but soon get back on track, assuring us that “whatever misfortune may be your lot, it could only be worse in Milwaukee.”

Now don’t that make you feel better? So while it is increasingly difficult to “Go placidly amid the noise and haste” it’s not impossible. And whether you prefer earnest inspiration or wicked satirical humor, use what you need to get there. Because even if (as NL would have it) “the universe is laughing behind your back” there is no reason why you can’t turn around and laugh right back.

Rock Docs Spotlight: “The Terry Kath Experience”

Chicago: The Terry Kath Experience

Directed by Michelle Kath Sinclair–2016–80 minutes

A few weeks ago, I did a retrospective review of Chicago Transit Authority, the debut long player by Chicago, as part of my ongoing series of rock’s notable double albums. A good portion of that piece focused on their renowned guitarist Terry Kath, who died tragically in 1978. Kath is the Chicago member of choice for rock geeks, not just for his musical achievements but for the might-have-beens. Chicago started out as an adventurous jazz-rock ensemble that had softened its edges by the time of Terry’s passing and would soon become all but a MOR yacht-rock ensemble by the Eighties, whose soppy love ballads are easy objects of derision.

“The Terry Kath Experience” gets its title early on in a comment about how a power trio of that proposed name led by Jimi Hendrix’ favorite guitarist may have been quite the ticket had Kath left the chart-topping septet (he was in the process of forming such a “TKE” group just before he died). But this affecting documentary also give proper due to the man himself. Directed by none other than his daughter how could it not be? Michelle Kath Sinclair was but a toddler when her dad passed, and the film takes the form of a personal quest to know him better (and retrieve a cherished guitar of his) as well as exploring his career. She visits with all six of the others in the original band as well as their manager/producer James William Guercio and his widow Alicia Kath.

The quest to retrieve Kath’s many-stickered Telecaster becomes a subplot of the film.

Kath was a largely self-taught prodigy who would sit in with future Chicago bandmates at DePaul Univ. music school in the Windy City. Many local players like them were serving time in “show bands” at local night clubs. His former colleagues attest that it was “renegade” Terry who began pushing for the band to be more themselves after acts like Cream and the Yardbirds started blowing thru town. It was Kath who wrote the mission-statement song “Introduction” that kicked off their bold first album, released in 1969. A remarkable piece of writing that managed to be both accessible and complex, Kath had to describe it from his head for a bandmate to transcribe. Chicago were on to a winning combination with their punchy horn section, accomplished playing and the keen pop sense that went with it (esp. of keyboardist Robert Lamm) in the early days. Kath’s husky vocals and fierce but passionate guitar solos were the feature of many of their hits, with “25 or 6 to 4” and “Make Me Smile” being maybe the most notable.

His daughter is an appealing presence and a natural for putting his surviving bandmates at ease in front of the camera. Drummer Danny Seraphine is esp. notable in his mix of fondness and regret when looking back on Terry’s role in the band. Kath was set to try his own luck in Los Angeles before deciding to see the band thru to its early success. The whole outfit did move to L.A. in the wake of international success and Kath was the one leading the way to camaraderie, good times and fruitful recording at the Caribou Ranch, the Rocky Mountain studio and home-away-from home built by Guercio in 1972. It was here that Kath and his wife Alicia spent much time in the early years of their marriage.

In relaxed interviews with Terry’s brother Rodney and Alicia, the pair speak to their niece and daughter of a big, amiable bear of a man. He grew up with annual vacations in the country and thrived in the company of friends and bandmates at the wide-open Colorado ranch/studio. There is ample home-movie footage, and even excerpts from a television special filmed, to attest to this.

Spoiler alert: director Michelle Kath Sinclair finds her dad’s prized Telecaster at a relative’s house in Florida.

Eventually, a darker side reveals itself. (“The trappings of success trapped him,” Seraphine says). There are not-uncommon tales of drink and drug abuse and then there’s Kath’s obsession with firearms. For the life of me I’ll never understand this widespread American fixation, esp. with someone like Kath who appears to be an unviolent man. But his favorite movie was “Taxi Driver” and he often imitated Robert De Niro’s famous “You talkin’ to me?” scene.

The end came in January of 1978 when Kath repaired to his place with a member of the group’s road crew after a long night of substance intake. His companion became alarmed when the guitarist started fooling around with a handgun. Moments later, Kath accidentally shot himself in the head after removing the clip but forgetting the one bullet in the chamber.

But moving beyond this needless death, there is plenty of good stuff for fans and guitar geeks here. There are lots of great live clips (several from Chicago’s great gig at Tanglewood, Mass. in summer 1970), a discussion of his boundary-pushing “Free-Form Guitar” from the first album (recorded several months before Hendrix’ famous Woodstock finale), and the guitar quest thru several homes of friends and family that will delight fans and six-string collectors all over. (Streaming now for free “with ads” on YouTube).

—Rick Ouellette

I am the author of “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey.” To look at a 30-page excerpt, please click on the book cover image above.

I Have Seen the Top of Rock Mountain: The Clash live in Boston, Sept. 1979

One of the great action shots in rock history, ace photographer Bob Gruen took this snap of the Clash at the Harvard Square Theater in Cambridge, Mass., at the Feb. 1979 show mentioned below.

If I was backed into a corner for an answer as to what was my favorite concert ever, I’d have to say the Clash at the Orpheum Theater in Boston, 42 years ago tonight, in September of 1979. Opening acts were the Undertones fresh out of Derry, N. Ireland and R&B legends Sam & Dave (both great). The Clash had made their area debut about seven months earlier at the old Harvard Square Theater, a legendary gig ‘round these parts. However, the band’s stand-offish attitude kinda dampened their appeal at that show.

Not so on 9/19/79. By that time their first LP had been finally released in America (re-configured to include a fistful of their classic singles) broadening their fanbase while their collective surly demeanor had been replaced by more of a band-of-the-people image. That become clear three songs into the set during (appropriately enough) “Complete Control.” (My memory has since been aided by a bootleg cassette of the show that I purchased in the 90s). Near the end of the song, Joe Strummer’s ad-libbing to the “C-O-N Control” chant abruptly ends and there is a sudden roar from the crowd (at 9:55 of the above-mentioned recording, seen below). The brutish security guards employed in those days by monopolistic rock promoter Don Law were manhandling fans streaming down the aisles for a closer look. The guards were not used to being challenged, least of all by a relatively scrawny lead singer from England, who had just come ten rows deep (with his Fender in tow) to confront them.

After the commotion, Strummer went back to the stage and went all Popeye Doyle, demanding to know who’s-running-this-operation? When the name Don Law was called out it was a bit of a laugh: the Clash’s version of “I Fought the Law” was released as a single two months earlier. “Where’s Don Law?” Joe repeatedly bellowed. When the man didn’t show, he declared the area in front a stage open to all and the crowd went nuts. The goonish guards were obliged to stand down.

The Clash were spectacular that night, playing every song as if their lives depended on it, with a passion and ferocity seldom equaled. Guitarist Mick Jones further endeared the band to the fans by allowing, “This is a good crowd for us, don’t think we don’t appreciate it.” Mick got off another good one later, while introducing his song “Stay Free,” saying it was about a couple of friends who were sent to the nick. “That’s the penitentiary to you lot.”

The cassette ran out before the end of the show, but I do remember the first encore, a new reggae number where Strummer came out from the wings swinging a train-signal lantern. This was “Armagideon Time” which would soon be released as a b-side to the title track of the album that would break them in the U.S. From that same month (Dec. 1979) that “London Calling” was released, here’s them doing “Armagideon” at the benefit concerts for Kampuchea. RIP Joe, there will never be another.

Days of No Future Past: The Skids and the Punk Repertoire

Any music genre that was once new and fresh and radical is bound to become established and settled if the quality of the original output was great enough to still be well-loved years, decades or, in the case of classical, even centuries later. So it is now with punk rock. True, there are many younger practitioners of the form and some of them I go and see in my own area. But just as some talented young jazz artist will not make aficionados forget Miles Davis or John Coltrane, so too these ardent newcomers could never outstrip the golden era.

Which brings us to the Skids. No newbies are they: their first single was released in the halcyon days of 1978. But these veteran Scottish punkers have just released the vigorous and entertaining Songs From a Haunted Ballroom, a covers album leaning heavily to late 70s battle cries from the likes of the Clash, Sex Pistols, Ultravox etc. and also a few left-field choices that help tell a larger story. Lead singer Richard Jobson and bassist William Simpson are from the original band and drummer. The Skids’ current line-up is rounded up by the father-son guitar team of Bruce and Jamie Watson. (Bruce the elder was also in Big Country, formed in 1981 by the late Stuart Adamson who was Skids’ original lead guitarist). This duo provided plenty up six-string firepower to the amped-up arrangements heard here.

The Skids front line of today. Left to right, Jamie Watson, Bruce Watson and Richard Jobson.

The original Sids were a dtermined and edgy outfit that worked their way down to London from Dunfermline and scored a UK #10 single with the anthemic classic “Into the Valley” in 1979. They would stay together and put out four albums until splitting up in 1982. Since their 2007 re-forming they have been more centered on their Scottish origin. The “Haunted Ballroom” of the title refers to the Kinema Ballroom which recently closed before re-opening as a global fusion restaurant. Generally, tribute albums can be a hit-and-miss affair and it’s likely that some listeners will be underwhelmed by the energetic but pro-forma versions of the Sex Pistols’ “Submission,” the Adverts’ “Gary Gilmore Eyes”, the Stooges oft-covered “I Wanna Be Your Dog” or the Clash’s “Complete Control.” (In the latter, Jobson shouts out Joe Strummer’s iconic ad lib “You’re my guitar hero” twice–maybe once for each of the Watsons).

In the liner notes, Jobson relates the personal significance of the selections, usually being a song from a band he saw at the ballroom in the heady days of the “No Future” punk uprising, or songs that were popular DJ selections on dance-club nights. The Kinema looms large in Richard’s largely personal mythology and not just for the revolutionizing groups he saw there and inspired his own music-making. He makes several mentions of Scotland’s numerous gangs who would occasionally crash the Kinema, giving an added edge to several cuts. Haunted Ballroom kicks off strong with Ultravox’s “Young Savage” and it’s telling tag line “Anything goes where nobody knows your name.” It also informs the Skids’ turbo-charged take on Mott the Hooples’ “Violence” and Magazine’s “The Light Pours Out of Me.” Jobson would later form The Armoury Show with that group’s talented journeyman guitarist, the late John McGeoch.

One of the more intriguing covers here is “Rock On” where the band take David Essex’ frothy 1973 glam hit and gives it an ominous edge with a spoken-word section where Jobson recalls how gangs like the fearsome AV Toi (“the most mental gang in all of Scotland”) would use the chorus of “Rock On” as a cue to cause mayhem on the dance floor. Also having novel appeal on the song list is Garland Jeffrey’s lost gem “35mm Dreams” (the Skids’ did it as an encore back then) and Ace Frehley’s discofied “New York Groove.”

The guys end the album with re-makes of “Into the Valley” and another great early single, “The Saints Are Coming,” before concluding with their cheeky holiday song “Christmas in Fife.” The two makeovers only improve by way of modern production values, so I’m going to go with the august ’79 original where you can read the hard-to-decipher lyrics and see the band in the full flower of their rough-hewn youth. We all have some special nightspot that is now gone (for me it was The Rat in Boston) but Jobson suggests the importance of the Kinema for him goes beyond nostalgia. For him, “it’s the place that made me what I am.” And listening to an album like “Songs From a Haunted Ballroom” can help keep alive the psychic rebellion of the punk rock soul.

The Times that Bond: The Clash on Broadway at 40

The Clash and their epic residency at Bond’s International Casino in Times Square, was that really 40 years ago this month? Yup, I was one of the lucky 30,000 or so who were there for one of the 17 nights. It would have been the same number of fans over only eight shows before the NY Fire Dept. reduced the capacity. Not the Clash’s fault it seems, they honored ticket holders by doubling the amount of shows when the overselling promoters were found out.

Oh, to be 23 years old again, am I right? Me and my two friends who had gotten tickets had the date changed because of this snafu. Our plans for a Saturday night gig and a neat New York City weekend were upended when the expanded schedule had our tickets transferred to the following Monday night. How we even found this out in the pre-Internet age is lost to history. All I recall now is scheming with my partner from work, tooling around in our van that we drove for the General Services dept. at Charlestown Savings Bank in Boston. He did me a solid by agreeing to speak to our manager on Monday morning and say that I was stuck in NY for some obscure reason and/or sick and would not be in until Tuesday.

The Clash at Bond’s, June 1981. From l to r: Paul Simonon, Joe Strumer, Mick Jones. Unseen: drummer Topper Headon

As usual, we had the van’s AM radio turned to WILD, the late lamented soul music station that broadcast out of Roxbury, the city’s predominant African-American neighborhood. Suddenly, the Clash’s “Magnificent Dance” came on, a rare record from a white act for that station. I excitedly told him that this was the group that was drawing me away for a punk-rock weekend in the Big Apple. I was a bit disappointed that this was the instrumental dance mix of ”The Magnificent Seven,” sans Joe Strummer’s witty white-guy rapping. But it struck a blow for the black-white-unite impulse that was floating around back then as musical elements of rock, funk, reggae and rap seemed to be in allegiance.

The weekend was a blast. Those who were there will remember the vital (and often tense) scene that held sway in front of Bond’s as lingering confusion over what tickets were for what day meant cops and crowds and media coverage almost every day. The famous Times Square NYPD sub-station was directly across the street. At one point, Mr. Strummer walked thru the crush to get to the venue’s front door, the closest I would come to meeting him.

Bond’s Casino was an iconic place with an interesting backstory. In the !930’s and 40s it was a large supper-club type establishment. Under the same name it was later a clothing store with its gargantuan signage being a Times Square landmark, the O in the word Bond often sporting a clock to go along with the miles of neon, garish statuary and news ticker. By 1981, it had converted back to a nightclub but that wouldn’t last for much longer.

The Bond’s building was quite an attraction in and of itself back in the day.

Inside the club on Clash night, I remember mostly the winding, undulating ramp that led to the concert room. I also recall hat the 1750 peeps in attendance did a fair job of filling the place, I couldn’t imagine double that number as the unscrupulous promoters wanted. I enjoyed the opening act (the legendary Slits) but also remember being pretty disappointed with the Clash’s performance that night. It seems a bit like false-memory syndrome now. This was the fifth out of six times I saw them and maybe it was the law of diminishing returns. The second time (at the Orpheum Theater in Boston with no less than Sam & Dave and the Undertones opening) was maybe the best concert ever in my personal history. I thought the guys were sort of defaulting to the dub-wise sounds of that era’s edition of the band, but the typical setlist from then doesn’t really bear it out. They opened with the blazing 1-2 punch of “London Calling” and “Safe European Home” while the Mick Jones-sung hit “Train in Vain” and the current rave single “This is Radio Clash” soon followed. But songs from the current triple-album (the eclectic and meandering “Sandinista!”) seemed to dominate the middle of the set. But I like “Sandinista” a lot more nowadays and a time-travel loop back to that gig would surely find me deliriously entertained.

Live at Bond’s, June 13, 1981

The Bond’s residency would find the Clash not only at “The Crossroads of the World” but at a career crossroads as well. They were reaching a bigger audience and not always in a way that suited some of them. Joe Strummer, God bless his soul, was incensed when some of the group’s adventurous choices for opening slots (notably Grandmaster Flash) were mercilessly booed. The group’s radical roots could only take them so far and the attracting of a more mainstream fan base did not necessarily bring the enlightenment they sought.

But that’s a story for another day. As for me, I went straight from Bond’s to Penn Station ten blocks south and caught the red eye train back to Boston. It reached Boston just in time to stumble into work Tuesday morning where I got the expected comeuppance from the boss man. So I stood there and took it and lived to rock another day.

A four-minute snippet of Don Lett’s “Clash on Broadway” footage

The closest thing to a documentary record of this event is the 20 minutes of Don Lett’s unfinished “Clash on Broadway” project. This is available on YouTube in three parts or as a bonus feature on the DVD of Lett’s exemplary Clash doc “Westway to the World.”

Rick Ouellette is the author of Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey. Click on the book icon above to find out more!

Make Mine a Double #22: Jerry Lee Lewis, “The Session.. Recorded in London (1973)

In 2006, original rock ‘n’ roll wild man Jerry Lee Lewis released an album called Last Man Standing. Typically brash, the title has taken on a more poignant and literal meaning in the last fifteen years as many of the genre pioneers still around at the time (Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino) have passed on. But Jerry Lee kept pushing on, performing regularly until a minor stroke in 2019 slowed him down. Even though, there were still plans for the 85-year-old to record a new gospel album with T-Bone Burnett, but the start date was in March 2020 just as Covid-19 flipped the world on its head.

Well-known for his riotous performances and for marrying his 13-year-old cousin in 1958, Lewis was one of rock music’s first controversy-courters and his career had many ups and downs. An up period came for him in 1973 when he added his name to the list of iconic blues and rock ‘n’ roll figures who had recorded albums in London that featured many of the top names of the British pop scene (Berry, Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King had preceded him there). Jerry Lee came away from it with a big double album and a hit single in “Drinking Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee.” After several years of performing for the country-and-western circuit, he re-established himself as one of the top figureheads in the game, a status he was not to surrender after the release of The Session… Recorded in London.

The album kicks off impressively with “Drinking Wine” and sets the template for much of what is to follow. It’s some great ol’ roadhouse boogie with Jerry leading the charge, singing enthusiastically of hedonistic pursuits and pounding away at his piano in that familiar staccato style. Alvin Lee of Ten Years After, the first of many hotshot guitarists to heed the star’s command to “Pick it, son,” gives some 70s firepower to a 50s-style solo. The promised “Great Guest Artists” roster continues with Irish blues-rock master Rory Gallagher (see photo below) on bottleneck guitar for the barroom jaunt “Music to the Man.” Others include the main rhythm section of then-Faces drummer Kenney Jones and Beatles bestie Klaus Voorman on bass, while organists include Gary Wright, Tony Ashton and Procol Harum’s Matthew Fisher—and there were a few extra players on most songs, some were Jerry Lee’s boys that were brought over. But it’s the six-string slingers (or as JLL calls them, “son”) that get the attention and include both Alvin and (unrelated) Albert Lee, Chas Hodges, Peter Frampton and future-Foreigner Mick Jones. Never mind that many of these “sons” were only 5-10 years younger. As Jon Landau put it in is contemporary review in Rolling Stone: “I have a feeling (Lewis) doesn’t care which son or how long he plays, just as long as the spotlight returns to where it belongs when the son is finished.”

UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 1970: Photo of Jerry Lee Lewis Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Although only in his late thirties, Jerry Lee was on the cusp of his elder statesman years and reportedly felt somewhat ill-at-ease during the sessions. He had rarely recorded outside of Memphis or Nashville and was surrounded by long-haired whipper snappers. He was even said to have told his son Jerry Lee Lewis, Jr. (who appears on percussion here) that he thought he had maybe made a mistake. That may explain some of the “son” stuff and calling himself The Killer. The Brits were (of course) reverential in any regard and Lewis would look back more fondly on this event in an interview years later.

When these disparate elements come together the record can be great fun, with the accompanists’ amped-up backing giving Lewis a solid platform to hit his attitudinal sweet spot halfway between blasé and berserk. It’s a rush to hear Rory Gallagher and Peter Frampton trading solos as the man bulls his way thru “Johnny B. Goode” and to have pro’s pro Albert Lee move the crew full-steam-ahead on “Sea Cruise” as Captain Killer runs thru his paces of piano razzle-dazzle, esp. in those sweeping glissandos that flash by like Zorro’s sword. Brian Parrish (then with Yes spin-off group Badger) juices up a couple of blues numbers with some wily harmonica and the session dudes go country-rock on JLL’s decent readings of Credence Clearwater’s “Bad Moon Rising” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain.”

Jerry Lee pulls off a little old-school gamesmanship on second pianist Tony Ashton, inviting the younger man to play a solo then brashly besting him with an over-the-top display on the ivories. Albert Lee does the guitar solo in between.

In other places, The Session does appear “overstuffed” (per the RS review) with, say, the wayward take on Berry’s “Memphis” or on an underwhelming version of “What’d I Say” that does not come within a country mile of the Ray Charles original. A certain boredom with some of these already Golden Oldies may have played a part, as could Jerry Lee’s drinking and pill-intake at the time, even though (by his own account) his admiring British sessioneers did not so much as a light a joint in studio.

It does come all together for the concluding “Rock & Roll Medley” as the Killer whiplashes thru four Little Richard classics before climaxing with his immortal “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.” Jerry Lee whoops it up like it’s 1957 and attacks his piano keys with karate-chop comping while Alvin Lee flies off into Woodstock guitar-hero land. It’s a satisfying ending to an imperfect album that is still a “great party record” (again, Landau’s words) and will be a fun vinyl time no matter which of the four sides you drop the needle on. In 1973 it was lifted into gold record status on the wings of the era’s revival interest in early rock ‘n’ roll. While The Session hit #37 on the pop charts, it pushed all the way to #4 on the country countdown, and Lewis would soon return to the C&W genre: “Drinking Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee” would be his last rock hit single. But the album did a lot to help cement his status in the pantheon of original rock ‘n’ roll greats, a status that will remain long after he is no longer the Last Man Standing.

A “Pale Beyond” Portfolio

In the realm of urban exploration, the general spirit of the thing is “the morbid the merrier” (as Curly Howard once put it after the Stooges had stumbled into a haunted house). The popular fascination with abandoned sites shows little sign of abating, a phenomenon I explored in my series called “The Pale Beyond” some years back (see links below). My own interest in this subject has now extended beyond my photography and occasional blog post to the realm of comic books. I am working on a graphic novel called “The Ministry of Dark Tourism” with artist Ian Miller. I will be posting the first chapter of this some time this spring.

In the meantime, here are some related photographs of mine, mostly taken the last year during our Covid Year. Hope you like them, let me know if you’d like more info on any of them.

—-Rick Ouellette

Chapel of the Holy Innocents, former Fernald School, Waltham MA

The Fernald School went from notorious exploiters of unwanted youth to caretakers of the state’s most severely disabled adults in the course of its long history. Closed in 2014 and currently off limits, the Fernald campus was the site of a Christmas lights drive-thru attraction in 2020, the former chapel lurking behind the Candy Land section.

Tewksbury Hospital tour, Tewksbury MA

My tour of historic Tewksbury Hospital was canceled in April of 2020 at the start of the pandemic, but the good folks at Silver Crescent Photography rescheduled it for October, and was so glad they did. The hospital, like many such institutions from the 19th century is spread over a large campus. Parts of it are still a working hospital and the main building also houses the Massachusetts Public Health Museum. Although it was an early innovator in special services for indigent and disabled people, Tewksbury did have its darker side as evidenced in the Violent Female Offenders Ward seen at the top of this article. The shuttered MacDonald Building (exterior shot above) was used in the TV adaptation of Stephen King’s “Castle Rock.” The Rice Building (the two shots below that) have also been used for horror film locations.

Sometimes you never know what you’ll see on one of these tours. Unexpected beauty (like sunlight illuminating a vintage school desk), unexpected utilizations (the basement of one building had been used as a state trooper training facility) and unexpected chills (the basement storage area of the Public Health Museum sported an old electroshock machine).

Danvers State Hospital Auxiliary Patient Cemetery, Middleton Colony, MA

The fabled Danvers State Hospital, the once-idealistic sanatorium whose fearsome Gothic exterior loomed over Danvers, Mass. for 130 years, was demolished (except for the façade of the main building) in 2007; it has been replaced by (ho-hum) condominiums. It’s two patient cemeteries, where grave markers only bear numbers, still remain and bear witness to the institutional callousness that marked its 20th century incarnation. One cemetery is in a hollow down the hill from the main site. The other, pictured above, is about a mile away and eluded me until a year or two ago. It’s surrounded by fields and farmland and has gained a memorial that lists the names of many of the unfortunate souls laid to rest there.

World War II Ammo Bunkers, Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge

There are more WW2 ruins in the America than you might expect, esp. along the two coasts. There are a couple of dozen giant ammunition storage bunkers in the woods of Massachusetts in what is now a wildlife refuge. The ammo was shipped here some 30+ miles from Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston, to be out of range of German warships. Sadly, this bit of local history has a down side too. The military took this once-populated area by eminent domain, with only ten days notice for residents and ten-cents-on-the-dollar compensation for their property.

Follow and watch this space for more Dark Tourism photos and comix!

Thanks, Rick

Rock Docs Spotlight: “Out of Ireland: From a Whisper to a Scream” (2000)

Irish musicians have had a broad, if rather diffuse, impact on the history of pop music. The relative social and geographical isolation of the Emerald Isle until well into the Sixties may have had a lot do with that. Since then there has been a smattering of superstars (Van Morison, U2, Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy), notable genre artists (blues-rock master Rory Gallagher, indie-rock darlings the Cranberries) and iconoclastic greats like Sinead O’Connor and the Pogues’ Shane McGowan.

Originally released in 2000, the entertaining and encyclopedic “Out of Ireland” was a three-part program produced for Dublin-based RTE television and its 158 minutes should satisfy even the most ardent fan of Irish popular music. Director David Hefferman starts with an overview of the country’s lively but derivative show bands that dominated the music scene while rock ‘n’ roll came to the fore in the Fifties and early Sixties. But the influence of the Beatles and other British Invasion groups on the other side of the Irish Sea could not be denied, though the response at first came in fits and starts. Tellingly, it was from a wide range of emerging acts, from the gritty garage rock of Van Morrison and Them (whose “Gloria” would be a starter-kit tune for innumerable bands to follow) to the lightweight pop of Gilbert O’Sullivan and Dana, whose candy-coated “All Kinds of Everything” won the 1970 Eurovision song contest.


A ten-minute clip of “Out of Ireland,” covering the punk years.

There is a lot to get to here and Hefferman gets to a lot of it, even if things here feel a little puddle-deep at times. He does counterbalance this tendency by returning to major artists like Van and Rory and U2, at various points and stages of their careers. One interesting point that gets echoed at different junctures is that many Irish rockers reached back past the show bands to find inspiration (even if by osmosis) to the greater example of traditional Irish music, literature, and storytelling. Morrison’s observational/impressionistic lyrics on his landmark Astral Weeks LP echoed James Joyce’s ability to lend grandeur to the everyday. Thin Lizzy’s first hit was a rocked-up version of the traditional “Whiskey in the Jar.” The progressive folk band Horslips dressed up archetypal Celtic themes in glam-rock finery while the Pogues spoke (both wildly and poignantly) to the modern Irish diaspora. There’s a keen sense that Irish rock often finds that bittersweet, happy-sad symmetry so typical of Irish culture.


This video of Phil Lynott’s “Old Town” (featured and discussed in the film) shows both the charismatic and troubled side of the Thin Lizzy frontman, who died at age 36.

The film, aptly sub-titled “From a Whisper to a Scream”, does well to ground this thematic thread from the Erie as a lightly-populated backwater to dynamic player in the global pop scene with regularly placed commentary from creative consultant (and editor of Ireland’s music magazine, Hot Press) Niall Stokes. This is esp. advisable when you’ve got a rhetorical road race of musical personalities like the flinty Van the Man, the sharp but soft-spoken Sinead, and the road-hogging conceits of the notably self-regarding Bono and Bob Geldof, who continues to over-estimate the pre-Live Aid influence of his band the Boomtown Rats.


The Cranberries’ lovely “Ode to My Family,” another video steeped in rich Irish ambience

Speaking of screaming, “Out of Ireland” also provides a good overview of the country’s contributions to the punk revolution, with segments on Belfast bangers like Stiff Little Fingers, the Undertones and the Blades (bands that really had something to yell about in that town during The Troubles) and Dublin’s Radiators from Space, whose guitarist, the late Philip Chevron, later joined the Pogues. There are also sidebars on important Irish-English performers of the era (Johnny Rotten, Elvis Costello, Boy George) and 80s bands that never broke out bigtime but are still plugging away, like the Saw Doctors and Hothouse Flowers.

Of course, U2 are still plugging away as well, and their international popularity does not seem to be waning anytime soon. A section towards the end of “Out of Ireland” makes the odd connection that the group’s gargantuan “Pop” and “Zoo TV” tours may be a more modern version of those old show bands (the stage show “Riverdance” is also edged into that category). I agree with that to an extent, but don’t see it necessarily as a compliment. But that’s put aside for Hefferman’s final point that although the lightly-populated island has put itself on the world music map it is no time for complacency. I think all can agree on that, even if it means overthrowing the “show bands” all over again.

If you like my music documentary posts, feel free to click on the book cover above right to check out a 30-page excerpt of my Rock Docs: A 50-Year Cinemtaic Journey and/or join my Facebook group simply called Rock Docs. Thanks, Rick Ouellette

Adventures in Mega-Rock: Festival albums after Woodstock

I am likely to live out the rest of my days forever fascinated and repelled by the idea that millions of young folks once trudged off to over-populated music festivals to hear various rock ‘n’ roll legends in conditions that ranged from beatific sunshine and starry nights to suffocating humidity and apocalyptic rainstorms yielding vast mud fields. Of course, they still do if you count pre-Covid gatherings like Coachella and Glastonbury.

I was a little too young for the original wave of iconic rock festivals and by the time I came of age the business model was superstar bands playing in sports arenas and second-tier groups gigging at theaters. I was never destined to be one of those peeps rising in unison to say, cheer on Richie Havens at Woodstock or to complain to a film crew that the authorities don’t like me because of my long hair or because “I smoke a little shit.” But then again, I never took an unwanted mud bath or had to thumb home two hundred miles because I was short on “bread.”


The Allman Bros. Band at Atlanta Pop

These contemplations took hold recently when I finally secured a copy of The First Great Rock Festivals of the Seventies fifty years after its 1971 release. As a young teen I eyed this whopping three-LP set the way a Little League pitcher may have seen Bob Gibson. It covered the summer-of-1970 Atlanta Pop Festival (sides 1 & 2) and the gargantuan Isle of Wight affair in the UK (sides 3-6). The names of the fourteen artists featured were center-aligned on the cover (Hendrix! Sly Stone! Allman Bros.!) but this was a little rich for my blood and my wallet at the time. Festival burnout was setting in post-Altamont and “First Great Rock Festivals” never came near the stature of the 3-LP Woodstock set (or even the double album follow-up Woodstock 2) and it came to be a curio relegated to the “Various Artists” used-record bins.

The second Atlanta Pop Festival was not in the city. After various official roadblocks (not least of all from Georgia’s then-governor, the infamous reactionary Lester Maddox) it was moved way out to pasture in the little town of Byron, where a couple of hundred thousand kids gathered in a sun-baked soybean field, for the 4th of July event where temps reached just over 100 degrees. The album kicks off with Johnny Winter doing “Mean Mistreater,” the sort of emphatic blooze-rock that was a key genre at the time and which is well represented on TFGRFOTS. But so to is the stylistic hop-scotching of these huge events. We get a couple of nice country-rock numbers by Poco (the romantic “Kind Woman” and the up-tempo instrumental “Grand Junction”) and the groovy soul of the Chambers Brothers. Next up are favorites sons the Allman Brothers. The Macon GA stalwarts do “Statesboro Blues” and the proverbial “Whippen Post” (sic) though neither version matches up to the ones on their landmark At Fillmore East, also released in ’71.

The real acid test (literally and figuratively) of this six-sided foray comes at the end of the Atlanta disc with the 19-minute indulgence that is Mountain’s take on the T-Bone Walker blues standard “Stormy Monday.” I love Leslie West and the gang but this is not their finest moment. Mountain may have preferred the steamroller method when it came to their decibel-cranking concerts, but they could be ingenious as well (just check out the multi-sectional joyride that is the 25-minute live side of their Flowers of Evil album). Here you get a pro-forma jam where the usual Leslie West/Felix Pappalardi guitar-bass interplay is pushed along by Corky Laing’s rat-a-tat drumming, but it never gets to that next level. The crowd seem to enjoy it and these lengthy excursions (both musical and geographical) were part of the scene then. To get a pair of eyes on the ’70 Atlanta Pop Festival, check out the 2015 concert doc Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church. It begins and ends with 10-15 minute segments about the event and in the middle you get an uninterrupted (and most excellent) one hour set of what amounts to a best-of-Hendrix show, complete with 4th of July fireworks.

Jimi would also appear at the Isle of Wight festival off the coast of southern England a month later. Despite the logistics (ferry-access only) some 600,000 made it to the island for the tumultuous five-day festival. There is a full documentary of this third annual Wight festival, Murray Lerner’s essential Message to Love, which due to money issues was not released until 1997. In my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey I wrote about how the film shows how a happening that was supposed to be an English Woodstock descended into “chaos as the Aquarian hippie ideal knocked heads with the emerging notion that rock music was ripe for mass-market exploitation.” French anarchists and freeloading freaks unwilling or unable to pay the three pounds sterling entrance fee tried to knock down the corrugated fencing erected by the youngish promoters who thought they were onto a good thing but took a financial beating (hence the delay in the release of Lerner’s commissioned film).


I miss all the fun! Part of the crowd at the 1970 Isle of Wight.

Peter Goddard, in the Wight liner notes here, compared the festival to a “medieval joust up-dated and passed through a time loop. An interviewed fan in the film used a similar metaphor, describing a “feudal court scene” with the rock stars as royalty, the groupies as courtiers and the audience as serfs. When it boiled down to the music, though, there was a lot less to grouse about. Jimi Hendrix was headlining again and though people who were in the know at that time said it wasn’t his best show, there’s a lot to like in his 15-minute segment here, esp. his razor-edge soloing on “Power to Love” and a wild take on “Foxy Lady.” Ten Years After, not to be outdone by Mountain, offer up there own 19-minute warhorse with far better results. Anyone familiar with the group’s 1973 live album will recognize their version of Al Kooper’s “I Can’t Keep from Crying” with its extended speed-freak guitar workout by Alvin Lee and its little side excursions into “Cat’s Squirrel” and the “Peter Gunn” theme. Despite the pyrotechnics preceding it, Procol Harum’s stately “A Salty Dog” comes off well.


Great excerpt of TYA’s above-mentioned jam from the Murray Lerner film “Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival 1970”

Sly and the Family Stone, who like TYA had a big boost from Woodstock film and record, do a morale-boosting medley of “Stand!” and “You Can Make it if You Try.” The restive crowd that is so evident in Lerner’s documentary spills into the record via the poorly-received appearance from Oxford-educated cowpoke Kris Kristofferson. Tensions between fans and promoters were peaking and seemingly taken out on cocky Kris, who tries to win back the crowd with the coy redneck parody “Blame it on the Stones.” In the film, he is seen waving dismissively while exiting before finishing “Me and Bobby McGee.” Faring better in the singer-songwriter department are David Bromberg with a tender “Mr. Bojangles” and Leonard Cohen. The bard of Montreal gives an unusually empathetic vocal on the jaunty “Tonight Will be Fine.”

That leaves Miles Davis to close out Side Six with a 17-minute bracing jazz-fusion outburst titled here as “Call it Anything.” That was probably Miles’ wily wit at work given the free-flowing improvisations of the trumpeting legend who was at a career peak and crossing over to a rock audience at the time. We know that from the 2011 CD release of Bitches Brew Live that this track compromises the last half of his allotted time (the whole 35-minute set is on the CD) and consists of a wired and inspired clutch of compositions centered around “Spanish Key.” His band consisted of both Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett on keyboards, Gary Bartz on sax, Dave Holland on bass, drummer Jack DeJohnette and percussionist Airto Moreira. Whew.

Peter Goddard, towards the end of his liner notes, opines that the age of the great rock festival was “kaput” despite the promise of the more to come in the title. I wouldn’t own The First Great Rock Festivals of the Seventies for many years to come although in 1972 I bought a discounted copy of Mar-y-Sol, a double LP from a Puerto Rican festival from the same year. Its line-up was typical of the eclectic roster of artists so typical of these outside multi-day events, which would continue, great or not. Everyone from Jonathan Edwards to the Mahavishnu Orchestra to Afro-rockers Osibisa were featured. And the age of the various-artist mega-rock album was not over either. By the end of 1971 we had George Harrison & Friends with the 3-LP benefit album Concert for Bangla-Desh. Other triple-deckers included 1972’s Fillmore: The Last Days, where the Bay Area’s finest congregated to mark the closing of Bill Graham’s fabled ballroom the Fillmore West, and the dreaded No Nukes from 1979. (John Hall, anyone?).


Gong’s side-filler from the Glastonbury Fayre triple album. You’re welcome!

There’s even a three-bagger form the 1971 Glastonbury Festival, called Glastonbury Fayre (an accompanying film of the same name is worth seeking out). This six-sider is rare and bound to test the patience of even the hardiest mega-rock aficionado. It boasted songs ranging from 16 to 23 minutes from Mighty Baby (“A Blanket in My Muesli’), The Pink Fairies (“Uncle Harry’s Last Freak-Out”), Edgar Broughton Band (“Out Demons Out” and Daevid Allen & Gong with the immortal “Glad Stoned Buried Fielding Flash and Fresh Fest Footprint in My Memory.” I don’t know if any of those works would have made much sense away from the Glastonbury grounds, where the pot was plentiful and there was plenty of room for twirly freeform dancing in the days before the event exploded in popularity.
But like they say nowadays, “Go big or go home.” Luckily, we can also go virtually exploring into the far-off fields of adventurous rock exploration. Go big and stay home, to save yourself the unwanted mud-caked blue jeans and acid hangover.
–Rick Ouellette
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