The Calliope Crashed to the Ground: Whatever Happened to the Asbury Park Casino?

Text and above photo by Rick Ouellette

Opened in 1929 and designed by the same architects who conceived of Grand Central station in New York (Whitney Warren and Charles Wetmore), the Asbury Park Casino was a monumental Beaux Arts complex that spread out over both sides of the boardwalk in what was then one of New Jersey’s premier oceanside resorts. Behind its ornamental limestone and concrete façade was a concert hall, a cinema, and indoor ice-skating rink, arcades, restaurants, and even year-round accommodations.

In the antique postcard world, the complex looked the very ideal of City Beautiful movement.

The Casino (so defined here as a place of entertainment, not gambling) anchored the southern end of the Asbury beachfront. The northern end featured another immense structure that straddled the boardwalk: the equally grand Convention Center and Paramount Theater. In between were all sorts of amusements, rides, and eateries. Asbury Park along with other similarly structured cities on the Jersey Shore, had their heyday in the simpler times of 50 to 100+ years ago, when the living was more modest and long-distance vacation destinations far less accessible.

Boarded but unbowed. The Casino in the mid-Nineties. Photo by author.

While places like Atlantic City and Wildwood still hold forth to a greater or lesser degree, Asbury Park took a massive body blow that has been especially hard to come back from. And it wasn’t just shifting societal trends or superhighways and jumbo jets that caused this decline. Mass riots in the city that broke out on July 4th, 1970 and raged for days. When it was over, the main business avenue of the city’s African-American neighborhood burned down, most of it was never rebuilt.

Looking out at the AP boardwalk from what remains of the Casino’s portal, 2017. Photo by author.

The windswept boardwalk started looking like a ghost town, but at the same time a tightly-knit (and racially integrated) community of rock ‘n’ roll and soul musicians started making a big noise in local nightclubs like the Stone Pony and Upstage. Chief among them, of course, was a young, determined and ambitious Bruce Springsteen, who hailed from nearby Freehold. A postcard of the city would adorn the cover of his debut album, 1973’s “Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ.” Though there are no direct references to the town (there would be plenty on his next album’s standout ballad “Sandy”), there is a more subtle and symbolic allusion. In the first verse of the first song, the classic word-drunk rave-up “Blinded by the Light,” Bruce is “trippin’ the merry-go-round” between adolescence and young adulthood with a colorful cast of characters. But the background scenery is not as fresh with promise—by the end of the verse “the calliope crashed to the ground.”

The Carousel House still retains much of its exterior charm, including grotesques giving you the side-eye!

And so it would be for the Casino. The building lost favor and deteriorated, attractions closed and the painted ponies were auctioned off. On my first visit to AP in 1995, the circular Carousel House now was a games arcade, the rest of the complex was shuttered. In the back corner of the arcade, you could see what remained of the skating hall (see top photo) giving some idea of the great interior scale of the place. At that time, the beachside part of the Casino was still standing. But disinvestment and the ravages of time and tide and storms would eventually lead to demolition.

The Casino’s boardwalk passageway, then and now, Bottom photo by author.

My second visit to Asbury Park, in 2017, saw half of it gone, the walk-thru was thrashed, enlivened only by the bright and sensuous mermaid murals. The Carousel House is still the only part of it that’s open, nowadays used as an indoor skateboard park.

A renovation of what is left looks unlikely, although it is on the city’s wish list. But Asbury Park is a funny place: it seems to be in a tug-of-war between decay and rejuvenation. The town has a strong arts and LGBQT community, condos are going up, and the music scene is still a factor.

The Paramount Theater today, Convention Center in backgroud (Wikipedia photo)

At this late date it is hard to see how AP could ever sustain two large-scale complexes, especially given the lofty architectural standards of a bygone era. The Convention Center and Paramount are in good shape, a new restaurant has taken over the great old space-age Howard Johnson’s and further up the boardwalk is the wonderful Silverball Retro Arcade and the fortune-telling booth of Bruce’s late friend Madam Marie: still run by her family. So there is still plenty of life left in Asbury Park. But for the Casino, it may be a case of the bigger they come they harder they fall or, in the best case, the smaller they’ll be if ever re-habbed.

Candy Floss and Catastrophe: The Peculiar Case of West Pier

Text and above photo by Rick Ouellette

It was one of the most celebrated of the 85 pleasure piers built during England’s Victorian era. In 1870, a visiting Napoleon III called it “Britain’s finest structure.” It’s grand 1600-foot oriental profile could be regarded as the people’s answer to the nearby John Nash-designed Royal Pavilion, the exotic getaway built for the Prince Regent (the future King George IV) that had been completed about four decades earlier. In its 109 years of operation (1866-1975), Brighton, England’s West Pier was a topmost playground for everyday folk on their seaside holidays. It was one described as a “luxury liner that never left its mooring” and where the anyone could have first-class accommodations for a small entrance fee. Today, however, only a small portion of the pier’s steel superstructure rises above the chilly Channel waters off the beach. West Pier’s story is one of extremes in pleasure and and calamity.

During its century-plus in operation, the pier variously featured a huge games pavilion and a concert venue with a house orchestra, amusement park rides, slot machines, ballrooms and tea rooms, pubs, and eateries. It was also known for the sale of candy floss (cotton candy) and its signature “Brighton Rock” crystal confection. Author Graham Greene used the locale and the Brighton Rock name for the title of his totemic 1938 novel of crime and Catholicism. West Pier also serves as a backdrop for the Who’s stormy 1973 rock opera “Quadrophenia.” (The band’s earlier hit “Pinball Wizard” is sung from the point of view of a lad who loses to Tommy despite knowing every machine “from Soho down to Brighton”).

Jimmy the Mod walks in front to West Pier in the photo booklet from the Who’s 1973 “Quadrophenia” album

But in the end, West Pier was just as unlucky as it was celebrated. While the Brighton Pavilion and its sister promenade Palace Pier, remain popular local landmarks, the West Pier couldn’t sustain it’s boast of being “the best pier.” Much of its central decking was removed in 1944 to prevent enemy landings. Its popularity declined in the post-war era, and more downscale amusements superseded the grand concert hall and the fashionable boardwalk deck. Structural decay commenced with dis-investment and the pierhead was closed in 1970. Maintenance costs for such an ambitious structure scared away potential new owners and the whole place was off limits five years later.

In 1994, West Pier flounders while Palace Pier flourishes. Photos by author.

West Pier became a sort of plebeian version of the old romantic ruined castle. The 1982 book “Dead Tech: A Guide to the Archaeology of Tomorrow,” by photographer Manfred Hamm and writer Rolf Steinberg was in the vanguard of an aesthetic that would spur the urban exploration phenomenon. It featured several sad but alluring photos of West Pier, placing it in the same obsolescent class as a graveyard for old steam-powered trains and the abandoned launching pads of the Apollo space program. It attracted trespassers and vandals and by 1994, when I visited Brighton the foot of the pier had been cut off from the land in an attempt (ultimately unsuccessful) to stop further damage.

West Pier sun deck by “Dead Tech” photographer Manfred Hamm

This beached leviathan was destined for a series of indignities that would all but wipe it off the map while other English piers from Blackpool down to Southend-on-Sea would continue to thrive. The cyclonic Great Storm of 1987 caused a partial collapse. Another severe weather event in 2002 caused the concert hall to cave in. Two major fires delivered the knockout punch in 2003. Both were considered of suspicious origin; I would love to hear any story of how arsonists accomplished this wicked feat, considering the pier was cut off from land and only accessible from structurally unsound steel supports.

The first of the 2003 fires. Photo by Mark Harris

Even in the skeletal shell form it was reduced to, West Pier continues to fascinate. It’s been used for a giant laser light show and the 2003 fires are re-lived in singer Nick Cave’s novel “The Death of Bunny Munro.” Most notably for me, the fictional 1970 collapse of West Pier is the basis of writer Mark Haddon’s astonishing lead story in his 2016 collection “The Pier Falls.” In remarkably precise, present-tense detail, Haddon creates an immense, harrowing and heartbreaking disaster out of thin air, after four introductory paragraphs of a normal day out in Brighton. But why? Hasn’t it suffered enough? There must be an aura hanging over West Pier’s skeleton that makes it a subconscious marker of the mortality that awaits even the most powerful of persons or things. It’s that ineffable quality that makes our modern ruins so irresistible to ponder.

The cover of Mark Haddon’s book shows the pier as it looks today.
Today, the 530-foot i360 observation tower stands on the site of the old West Pier entrance. Photo by Arild Vagen

Make Mine a Double #24: The A-Listers

When I started this series on rock’s double albums a few years back I began at the beginning, with Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde.” Over the course of about two dozen posts I’ve looked back on both the famous four-siders and ones that have maybe flown under the radar with the passage of time. As I was recently looking over the list at double albums, I noticed several milestone titles that are yet unchecked. I wondered: do I have anything new to say about the “White Album” or Exile on Main St. at this late date?

Well, I can give it a shot or at least dig up a little factoid or two that may be interesting. And if one of your favorite A-List double albums is not here, it may be because I’ve already covered it or will do a full review in the future, that second category could include records like Electric Ladyland and The River which I hope to get to in 2022.

The Beatles “White Album” (1968)

The Beatles’ double-decker is the first and last word in rock eclecticism. I can’t think of another double album that leaps from tree to stylistic tree with such abandon and sticking the landing much more often than not. The one drawback that one usually hears is that the bulk of the album’s 30 tracks sound like solo songs with the other three as sidemen (if they even appear at all). There’s truth to that; more than half the songs originated during the band’s extended stay with the Maharishi in India earlier in 1968. The only Western instrument they had there was an acoustic guitar, giving the record a singer-songwriter feel at times.

My only beef is that the album is just too varied at times and could have been maybe better programmed. The excellent opening trio of “Back in the USSR/Dear Prudence/Glass Onion” has nice cross-fades and lead-ins. But when “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” kicks in, all bets are off. Paul’s music-hall indulgences (“Honey Pie” is another example) and John’s eight-minute tape collage “Revolution 9” are the most divisive parts of the “White Album” but there’s plenty of good stuff elsewhere, even if the pell-mell formatting of the album practically begs the listener to make their own playlist. I made a 45-minute mix-tape years ago, including a smoother transition of the soft/loud material, three of the four George numbers and Ringo’s closing lullaby “Good Night.” It’s still a favorite way to listen to the core of this great but untidy late period work by the Fabs.

Tommy–The Who (1969)

Of course, this one is so much more than just a double album. Being rock’s first popular rock opera and a touchstone of the late Sixties, it took on a life of its own. It variously got re-made into a symphonic album with a roster of guest pop singers, a Seattle Opera production, a delirious Ken Russell film version that nearly drowned Ann Margaret in baked beans, and a hit Broadway musical, among other iterations. The original album’s rep has maybe suffered a bit over time, due to the polite production values and the rather vague storyline. For me, the best way to sample Tommy is to check out the concert artifacts from 1969-70 when the Who were including plenty of material from their deaf-dumb-and-blind-kid epic in their live show. The 14-minute extension of “My Generation” on their raucous Live at Leeds LP featured bits of “See Me/Feel Me/Listening to You” and an earthquake-force excerpt from “Underture.” The 1995 CD expansion threw in a thunderous version of “Amazing Journey/Sparks.” Also, to get a full feel of Tommy’s power potential, one can check out the filmed segments of Pete and Co. at Woodstock and at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970, where the “Listening to You” finale electrifies the crowd.

Exile on Main St.–Rolling Stones (1972)

The Stones’ legendary double LP from their time as tax exiles living in the South of France is definitely one of those “we-never-knew-how-good-we-had-it” albums. In an age when great rock records were coming at you from every direction, this sprawling 18-song collection had it’s critical detractors, esp. in the aftermath of note-perfect Sticky Fingers. But as Keith Richards later noted, “within a few years the people who had written the reviews saying it was a piece of crap were extolling it as the best frigging album in the world.” I didn’t own Exile at the time but “Tumbling Dice,” “All Down the Line” and Keith’s “Happy” lit up the summer of ’72 via the radio, just like the previous album’s hits (“Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses”) did the summer before. Nowadays, I love the four quieter songs on the old Side Two (“Torn and Frayed” has become a latter-day fave) and though things slip a little during Side Three (“Turd on the Run”??), the two closing numbers (“Shine a Light” and “Soul Survivor”) epitomize the defiant pride and staying power of this scrappy, world-weary classic.

“Songs in the Key of Life”–Stevie Wonder (1976)

If anyone was ready to foist a double album on the listening public, it was Stevie Wonder in the mid-70s. His previous album (Fufillingness’ First Finale) was his first #1 on the U.S. pop charts and he spent the first half of the decade recording an amazing string of hit singles. His creative cup was still running over but Motown head Berry Gordy was at first skeptical when Stevie first asked him about recording a four-sider. (Gordy was also notoriously skeptical about Marvin Gaye making What’s Going On, another one that turned out to be a masterwork). But after getting the go-ahead, Wonder went to town. He would sometimes spend 48 hours straight in the studio and played many of the instruments himself. Although it was more than two years between albums SITKOL was an enormous critical and commercial success, spending 14 (non-consecutive) weeks at #1 and winning four Grammies. The first disc is all but perfect, Featuring timeless hits like “Sir Duke,” “I Wish” and “Pastime Paradise” (later adapted by Coolio and parodied by Weird Al) as well as indelible tracks like the majestic opener “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” the thrilling Return to Forever-like fusion jam “Contusion” and the baroque-sounding message song “Village Ghetto Land.” The second disc, where five of the seven tracks are over six minutes, may feel a little padded out but tunes like “Isn’t She Lovely” have not lost any of their initial appeal. It would prove to be Wonder’s creative mountaintop, as deeply personal as it is profoundly universal. Stevie even treated his fans with a 2014 tour in which he performed his magnum opus in its entirety.

London Calling–the Clash (1979)

Rock ‘n’ roll has always been a varied art form, esp. since the post-Beatles era. Still, each genre has its own ideas and arguments about what elements make their sound true to form. This was certainly true in the early days of British punk rock, where the hard-and-fast sonics of entrenched protest was a bit of an orthodoxy. The in December of 1979 the Clash, after two albums of incandescent rock rebellion, released the multi-faceted London Calling. Here, the straight-ahead rockers had to share the spotlight with the adapted strains of ska, rockabilly, reggae and even lounge jazz. Sure, there was still plenty of the righteous anger their fans loved, but there were also songs about being “Lost in the Supermarket.”

It was a great leap forward for the band, but also took some time getting used to. One early reviewer professed that the powerful opening title track, an epic doom-scroll of its time, was so good that the rest of double album could never measure up (!!). I eagerly bought London Calling (which the principled band insisted be budget priced) the first week it came out. But I admit I winced the first time I heard songs like the blotto barroom ballad “Jimmy Jazz.” But London Calling would soon reveal itself as what it was. Its 19 songs are a varied and vital record of human experience and emotion in many forms and moods. These range from quiet reflection (“Supermarket”) to bristling indignation (“Clampdown” and “Guns of Brixton”), to the historical (“Spanish Bombs”) to the overarching (“Death and Glory”). And of course it also has “Train in Vain,” the “hidden” track that was included at the last minute and not listed on early pressings; it turned out be one of their biggest songs.

The willful eclecticism of the Clash would become accepted (and even expected) in later strains of popular music. I will leave you with one of London Calling’s great and simple pleasures—a party-ready dance number whose chorus extols the virtues of “drinking brew for breakfast.”

So until next time, Make Mine a Double—-Rick Ouellette

Rock Docs Spotlight: “Blitzkrieg Bop”

The “strong, hard and raw” sound of the early New York punk scene comes back in all its gritty glory on this shoestring VHS title that I recently plucked from Rock Doc obscurity for three dollars at a consignment/antique shop in Providence, RI. It’s times like these that make me glad I have kept a functional VCR around. “Blitzkrieg Bop” is an unfancy 52-minute field report from CBGB frontline that was likely produced for a local TV broadcast. That it even got to videotape seems remarkable: there are no production credits or even a copyright date (though I’m guessing 1978 or ’79).

What you do get is complete performances of eleven songs (five from the Ramones and three each from Blondie and the Dead Boys) interspersed with straight-man narration and interview snippets with band members and notable rock scribes like Charles M. Young, John Rockwell and Robert Christgau (CBGB owner Hilly Kristal also appears). Although the narrator gamely comes to grips with the whole “punk cult” thing, he edges into an unintentional Rod Serling tone at times and overall there is a bit too much emphasis on the genre’s “violent-oriented imagery.” There is much discussion of Ramone titles “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Beat on the Brat” (“with a baseball bat”) while often missing the point of the group’s comic-book shock value and downplaying more celebratory numbers like “Rockaway Beach.”

Although material of the film is hard to find, there are some YT clips of its Ramones Oct. 1977 CBGB show highlights.

The five songs by the Ramones are great, often electrifying, seen at a career peak two weeks before the release of their classic “Rocket to Russia” LP. The other two groups are captured in fine form as well. Blondie, featuring a more animated Debbie Harry than her cool image may suggest, do the ever-popular “X Offender” (called “You Just Had to Laugh” on the label) as well as “Rifle Range” and the sultry “In the Flesh.” The “controversial” Dead Boys (originally from Cleveland) grind out their signature “Sonic Reducer” and two others, the surly stage antics of singer Stiv Bators and guitarist Cheetah Chrome are preserved for all to see.

Debbie Harry and Joey Ramone contemplate a day trip to Rockaway Beach.

Sure it’s all a bit raucous, but fascistic? Unfortunately, the doc does go down that road courtesy of Mr. Christgau, who in a three-way discussion with other writers implies pretty vehemently that the Ramones’ messaging could one day lead to extensive right-wing violence. Wait, what? At first, I thought it was a put-on by the famous record-rater who gave “Rocket to Russia” an A. But it doesn’t appear to be unless he was indulging in some form of rock-critic performance art. Either way, I would have to give Christgau’s contribution to the film a D-.

Unsurprisingly, it is the band members who come across as the most level-headed. All agree in some way with the notion of punk’s affirmative value by way of rambunctious fun, subculture community-building, and the encouragement provided to find your own voice whether it be in music, art, fashion or whatever. The film ends with the Ramones’ tearing thru “Sheena is a Punk Rocker,” Billboard’s greatest ever #1 hit that only made #81.

In the song, Sheena has to break away from the boredom of her surroundings, discovering that “New York City really has it all.” Thing is, she made that discovery during the Big Apple’s troubled decade, when it was beset by crime, arson, bankruptcy and white-flight. A new insurgent creative class streamed into a desolate Lower East Side and made their own pop-culture history. That New York bears little resemblance to today’s hyper-gentrified city. Yet documents like “Blitzkrieg Bop” help preserve that spirit in spite of a few ill-informed digressions.

If you like this article and are interested in my book “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey,” please leave a message below.

–Rick Ouellette

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.

Machine Age Masterpiece: Bethlehem Steel’s Singular Second Act

The gargantuan Bethlehem Steel plant towers over the Lehigh River in its namesake city in eastern Pennsylvania. It closed in 1995 amid sweeping changes in the global economy and laid dormant after the three-year site cleanup that followed. Since 2011, the facility has been renamed Steel Stacks and forms a dramatic backdrop to a complex that includes an arts center, a cinema, a PBS station, a museum of industry, and an outdoor concert venue among other things. Some sort of adaptive re-use was almost a given: the facility is so mammoth that it defies demolition. The city has constructed a three story-high walkway, stretching out probably close to 2000 feet, where visitors can get up close and personal to this facility. Walking this trestle, dotted with wildflower plantings and well-considered historical markers, tells a useful tale of a changing America.

The term “adaptive re-use” is a little different in this case. Unlike textile manufacturing from the early Industrial Revolution, which took place in orderly brick buildings which are perfect for gutting and rehabbing, Bethlehem Steel is a monumental jumble of blast furnaces, pipelines, vents, catwalks, conveyor lifts, and smokestacks. It wasn’t constructed so much as it was necessitated. The plant’s profile changed continually from its beginnings in the 1860s, as technology evolved. Eventually, the four mammoth blast furnaces completed the plant’s final silhouette and are now illuminated with colored spotlights at night. That’s a far cry from when the noisy and smoky furnaces were going 24/7 for decades at a time. Now relegated to its status as perhaps America’s largest art object, “The Steel” (as the complex was locally called) must be remembered reverently.

Starting in the last quarter of the 19th century, steel production was the master industry of the nation and was powered by untold thousands of mostly immigrant workers. From the rails needed for America’s train-led westward expansion, to the beams that provided the frame for numerous great bridges and skyscrapers to the armaments that saw the Allies victorious in two world wars, the industry’s contribution to national greatness was huge.

But as often is the case in heavy industry, worker conditions were abysmal, esp. in the earlier years. Brutally long shifts for six or seven days a week (with only two unpaid holidays mixed in) and numerous safety hazards (500 workers died from various mishaps between 1905 and 1941) led to the turbulent union organizing efforts that is a national historic epoch in itself. While even a peacetime two-year military veteran will get a fawning “thank you for your service” nowadays, very little lip service comes the way of laborers who toiled for decades in such places as Bethlehem. As Pulitzer Prize winning journalist John Strohmeyer wrote in his book “Bethlehem in Crisis”: “it takes uncommon talent, a strong body, and a mind that knows no fear to transform piles of (raw materials) into the molten metal that is poured, rolled and pounded into the various shapes that support the mainframe of civilization.”

Bethlehem Steel workers were fully unionized by the early Forties, but the end of World War II was also the swan song of the Machine Age. It was succeeded by the Atomic Age and the Information Age, overlaid with several iterations of the Consumer Society. Although I’m not one to deny the march of time, it seems that now we are best at manufacturing clickbait, data-mining and misinformation. Still, Bethlehem presently has it better than many Rust Belt locations, with a stabilized population based on a more varied economy. Many monolithic company towns have lost half of their citizens along with most of their tax base. For instance, U.S. Steel built the city of Gary, Indiana from scratch in the early 1900s. It is dominated by the monstrous Gary Works mill which blocks out Lake Michigan. It was once the world’s largest steel plant and is still the biggest in North America, but automation and foreign competition has reduced its workforce to 3000. The company controlled the town but never cared much for building a sustainable housing stock or providing public amenities, leading to a hollowed shell of a city.

(A telling anecdote from Hardy Green’s excellent 2010 book “The Company Town” notes that during Gary’s “heyday” the city’s largest green space was the front lawn of the factory superintendent’s mansion).

South Bethlehem, where Steel Stacks is located is not without its issues: it depends partly on a large casino (which I guess is OK if you don’t gamble) and well-heeled students from the hillside campus of Lehigh University can mix uncomfortably with lingering pockets of Forgotten America. But Steel Stacks is a promising development and if you ever go there to see a concert or a movie, have a close-up look at the plant and take heed of its story, and give a thought to those who built yesterday what we take for granted today.

Photos and text by Rick Ouellette

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.

Make Mine a Double #23: “Chicago Transit Authority” (1969)

Chicago’s career trajectory as a band is the equivalent of that guy you knew in college who was a bit of a hotshot and always there making his presence known at the biggest parties and campus demonstrations. When you catch up with him decades later you find he has moved to the most strait-laced town in your state, where he has ended up on the board of selectmen, voting down a new skateboard park or marijuana dispensary. Oh, how I kid the guys in Chicago. When this rock-group-with-horns busted out big-time from the Windy City, they were a septet known for their musical experimentation and leftie politics. But less than a decade later, on the cusp of the Reagan era, they were safe-as-milk mainstays of the Soft Rock category.

Yet the band’s keen pop sensibilities were already much in evidence on their dauntless debut, a double album released in April of 1969. Here, three Top 40 Billboard singles were in the mix along with the esoteric touches and long jams common to that period.

Chicago Transit Authority (which was then the band’s name until the actual CTA threatened legal action) opens with a lively mission statement called “Introduction” which is written and sung by guitarist Terry Kath. “Sit back and let us groove/And let us work on you, yeah,” cajoles the husky-voiced Kath and indeed the song’s arrangement follows what would become a tried-and-true formula they would develop with their producer James William Guercio. After a couple verses, the song takes off into an extended, multivariate instrumental section led off with by the horn section. This trio (Walter Parazaifer on sax, Lee Loughnane on trumpet and James Pankow on trombone) gave the group a jazzy cosmopolitan sheen that proved to have strong appeal. They yield to a solo by Kath, often the band’s ace-in-the hole, before coming back strong for a final verse where Terry notes on how they “turned around the mood/We hope it struck you different/And hope you feel moved.”

Well, something worked as the album’s next three songs were all hit singles and were all written and sung by keyboardist Robert Lamm.  The original side one is filled out by “Does Anybody Know What Time It Is?” and “Beginnings” both featuring strong melodies and vibrant playing. Listeners on the AM side may have been hearing these longish numbers in edited form as the piano prelude in the former song and the two-minute percussion outro in the latter were excised for the Casey Kasem crowd.

This edited single version of reached #7 in the U.S.

The hits keep on coming at the start of side two with “Questions 67 and 68,” with lead singing shared with bassist Peter Cetera. The song is also notable for the supple, momentum-driving drum fills of Danny Seraphine, who has never really gotten his full due as one of classic-rock’s great stickmen. From here on out, though, your results may vary. There is one more chart entry, a vigorous cover of the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man,” curiously released two years later as a double-sided single with “Questions 67 and 68.” Future adult-contemporary crooner Cetera helps out here with a muscular bass line and swapping out macho lead vocals with Lamm and Kath. But things also get pretty self-indulgent over the final two sides, starting with the seven-minute “Free Form Guitar.”

Faster than a speeding El train, Terry Kath shreds away in concert.

Terry Kath, who tragically died of an accidental gunshot to the head in 1978, was a major talent (and reputedly one of Jimi Hendrix’ favorite guitarists) but I’m not sure what justified this fingernails-on-blackboard exercise in musique concrete. But considering that Guercio devotes a whole paragraph to it in his immodest liner notes, I’m willing to shift the blame. It’s esp. confounding since “FFG” is bookended by two songs that showcase Kath’s torrid soloing within amenable blues-rock contexts: “Poem 58” and “South California Purples.”

After touching on the events of the previous year’s turbulent Democratic Convention in their hometown with “Someday” (with the inclusion of “The whole world is watching!” chant), the album ends with a brash free-form instrumental (credited to Pankow) called “Liberation” that clocks in at a healthy 15:41. While nowadays this jam may only appeal to Terry Kath completists and the odd speed freak, it does show a band willing to think big and take chances.

This spirit carried on to the next two albums (also double disc affairs) where adventurous compositions sat cheek by jowl with accessible rockin’ hits like “Make Me Smile” and “25 or 6 to 4.” Not content with three doubles, they upped the ante with the four-LP At Carnegie Hall, a lavishly-packaged and rather self-congratulatory box that only featured one new song. Their first single disc was 1972’s Chicago V (fans would become used to the Roman numerals and the band’s persistent curlicue logo) and what, for me, was an early red-flag on the song “Dialogue.” Although written by Robert Lamm, the song features a back-and-forth between a concerned college student (Kath) and a hedonistic friend (Peter Cetera, tellingly) that comes down on the side of complacency (“If you had my outlook, your feelings would be numb,” is Peter’s crowning comment). OK, maybe I’m reading too much into it, and Chicago did have a fistful of attractive hits on thru the mid-70s, like “Saturday in the Park” and “Feeling Stronger Every Day.”

But for many folks, especially rock geeks, the wheels came of the bus following the death of Terry Kath in early 1978. Although several original members remained, the band dabbled in disco but mostly became known for Peter Cetera’s treacly romantic numbers, which were indistinguishable from many other power ballads of the time from the likes of REO Speedwagon and Foreigner. Granted, this trend started before Kath’s passing (“If You Leave Me Now”) but steadily tracked downward with cliched love-song rhymes and sterile 80s production values featuring lots of electric piano. If you need examples, check out “Loser with a Broken Heart”, “Stay the Night” (don’t miss the absurd video!), and culminating in 1984’s mind-numbing “Hard Habit to Break” (from Chicago 17 if you’re keeping track). Cetera, probably miffed at having to share the profits at this point, left for a solo career shortly after.

Am I being too hard here? Chicago was not the only band from that era whose politics now seem like a fashion and whose target audience shifted from hard rock buffs to lovesick teenage girls and divorced single moms for whom songs like “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” was the purest poetry. You’re supposed to get more comfortable as you get older and for Chicago that meant hitting the summer-shed tour circuit with other mellowed-out acts like the Doobie Brothers, who started life as a de facto Hell’s Angels house band. So, to tweak the analogy I started with, Chicago Transit Authority is like that old hell-raising high-school buddy that you see again for the first time at your classes’ fortieth reunion. When you ask him what has been up to since then, he replies “nothing much.”

—Rick Ouellette

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.