Nov 8, 2017
February 7, 1969: Stanley Theater, Pittsburgh
THE JOURNEY OF THE MAGI
In the long stream of human flesh and flashy fashion that wound around corners, across alleys, past parking ramps and police vans, billboards, brick walls and banks, the consciousness of community was a remarkable event. Another remarkable event, reason enough for the religious procession, was the arrival - all on the single glorious eve of the most recent Good Friday - of the Fugs, the Velvet Underground, and the Grateful Dead. Under the streetlights, the evening, like the audience, was quiet and cool and a bit solemn.
While the audience contained a few uninitiated teeny-boppers and an occasional dollar delver (with yellowing wife), for the most part the congregation was composed of very "in" and very "with" believers. They knew Paul Krassner and his Realist, they had heard of Fuck You, A Magazine of the Arts, they were with the movement in Chicago, the march on the Pentagon, the "I have a dream" prayer, they were around, on top and inside when the Jefferson Airplane was barely taxiing and long before the Orient routes were opened to tourists. They were turned on and tuned in. Mayor Barr's establishment had sent a battalion of police to protect the sidewalks.
Paul Krassner, a hero of the Solar System Light and Power Company (producers of the tour through wonderland), was predictably more filled with words than wisdom. The audience was channeled for full frequency sound and prayed for an end to the benediction. In the memorable words of a sensible young lady, "Hey, you're fucking my head up - play some music." St. Paul went on and on about politics and rock and police and how everything was part of the existential power-puff-keg, he name-dropped Hugh Hefner's Acid-Dropping Playboy Mansion (all the bunnies you can eat) and told the TRUTH about Playboy itself (all the hair is left out). After admonitions against narcos, cops, tourists, and other atheists, the stutter of a strobe light zapped Krassner to silence and began the journey to infinity.
The Velvet Underground was more velvet than underground - smooth, soft, and sensuous. The juxtaposition of "What Goes on in Your Mind" to a "Merry Melodies" cartoon (starring Bugs, would you believe, Bunny) rearranged our brain waves in nostalgic patterns. The conservative-repetitive film-and-slide stained-glass backlighting popped the Sylvania blue-dot flashcubes of memory and we were off, conceived of Elvis Presley, suffering under Dwight Eisenhower, crucified with Buddy Holly, raised from the dead and propelled into the heaven of "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
The Velvet and the audience vibrated in perfect harmony, soothed by music loud enough to reach the inner core of being without shattering the transcendence of community. We remembered, after long neglect, the faith of our fathers - John Lennon, Tom Wolfe. Everything was gentle.
THE READING OF THE WORD
The Fugs, a conglomeration of music, the Living Theater, and Lenny Bruce, began the sacred profanity to the sound of country-and-western-hill-billy-gospel-soul-salvation rock. They warned the sinners of suburban middle age they would hear such things that would "make you puke your guts out." The guilty, cracked-voice titters of the cautious crocodiles lapsed into embarrassed silence at the sound of "Johnny Piss-Off," the tale of a right-thinking-mother-loving-Christian-pinko-hating-clean-cut-patriotic-red-blooded American Boy who beat up fags on Saturday night and fulfilled all the duties of his society. They sang, too, of Tricky Dick Nixon: ("Four Minutes to Midnight and There's a Madman at the Wheel"); they told it as it should be told.
But even as television has its signing-off time, and decadent religion its parable, the Fugs offered the rock-sock version of Sermonette, complete with hands-on-both-sides-of-the-Zenith healing, instant salvation (or double your money back), and a lifetime supply of canasta decks with the picture of Jesus Christ on each and every card (including jokers). They told, too, a parable of three men wishing to gain entrance to the heavenly city, each by a different route (alcohol, hashish, speed). Ask and it shall be given unto you.
They perused with us our high school yearbooks, with special notice for the oh-don't-you-remember poetry:
Roses are red,
They reminded us of our secret dreams of high school homecoming queens with the tender ballad "Sweet Dreams, Wet Dreams of You." They strummed our souls to oblivion. To the Fugs we salute with the lyrics of their closing number: in the bowling alley of our minds, they were the pinboys.
For the closing hymns of any service, particularly after a slingers-in-the-land-of-the-obscene-word sermon, anti-climax is the fear, summation the hope, neglect the inevitability. To the Grateful Dead, whose instrumental ecstasy surpassed the unsurpassable, we pay gratitude for our own final transportation beyond the bounds of sounds.
In time to come, we may all look back on this rebirth of wonder. Now we are returned, like the Magi, to our places in the old, unchanged Kingdom where we are less at ease with the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods. For a moment, however brief, we felt damned fine and infinitely near to living.
(by F.D. Williams, from the Pittsburgh Point, 13 February 1969)
* * *
FLASH IN THE GREAT ROCK WASTELAND
I am usually not one to marvel at the Solar System's suborbital light shows, but the Friday evening, Stanley Theater scene was the best musical flash I've had since falling into Pittsburgh. For once someone in our great Rock wasteland has had enough reverence for both the musicians and the audience to put together a concert with an almost perfect sound system and a collection of first-rate acts. To lay out a really good Rock concert is an almost Sisyphean task. There are so many variables to be considered in structuring that perfect musical environment. But the Friday show came close to satisfying even the most fastidious of Rock enthusiasts.
Of course the making of the concert was the tight performance of three great Rock groups - the Velvet Underground, the Fugs, and the Grateful Dead. Such a collection of freaks could hardly lead anywhere but up. The Velvet Underground (preceded by Paul Krassner, who got a lot of snickers but really wasn't necessary) opened up the festivities with "Heroin," one of their religious songs. The power of the Velvet Underground has its source in the train-like rhythms of Maureen Tucker, their curly red-haired drummer. Hunched over her drums, flailing the skins like some madwoman, she was quite an impressive sight. Tucker is not a very good drummer by any means, but her primitive, nerve-throb style and her seemingly endless fount of energy make her ideal for the Underground.
I was so fascinated by Tucker's movements as she tortured her drums that I only got around to noticing Lou Reed towards the middle of the lengthy "Sister Ray." The whole time Maureen Tucker was smashing away at the skins, Reed just floated aloof through everything. He only seemed to come around to what was happening when he got into "Sister Ray" with all its sexual narcotic imagery ("She's just suckin' on my ding dong / I'm searchin' for my mainline"). If it's necessary to pick the best group of the evening, then my choice is the Velvet Underground.
The Fugs followed the Underground with their by now notorious sexual theatrics. The nefarious Ken Weaver, dressed as some demented Canadian trapper, had his solo performance as a horny rabbi. Ed Sanders in his collegiate drag told us of his high school memories and his amorous adventures with the vicious Lesbian dwarfs. And of course the body-beautiful Tuli Kupferberg showed his collection of "numies" in various insane disguises. The whole Fugs act is more visual than musical; they are showmen before they are musicians. I was afraid that in coming to Pittsburgh, the Fugs would think it necessary to tone down a bit, but once caught up in their own crotch Rock fantasies their act reached its usual depth of perversion. The highlight of their performance was "Johnny Pissoff Meets the Red Angel," a song about a young rightist radical who gets his rocks off by beating up peace queers and pulling legs off frogs. Such is the height of the Fugs humor and with all their visual shock treatments they put on a creepy show.
Appearing last on the agenda were the Grateful Dead who were supposed to be the stars of the evening. The Dead are into a really strange musical style to which it is difficult to relate and which for the most part is prone to audience fatigue. Their act is built up on one theme which they expand by slipping in and out of various songs throughout the piece. To do something like this and not lose the audience demands perfect timing and a wide variety of style, both of which the Dead seemed to lack that night. There were many parts of their act where I found myself wishing they would go on to something else. To prevent my becoming a victim of musical exhaustion, I began to pick out individual artists and dissect everything they were doing. One thing for certain - the Grateful Dead are incredible musicians. I must have spent 20 minutes alone just following guitarist Phil Lesh as he cradled and stroked his instrument. But someday the Dead should be made to listen to themselves as an audience has to, for in the end I found their act too taxing and much too loud.
The Solar System's light show was adequate, but too often it had nothing to do with the music. A light show must accent the music to be really effective. This usually means that at some rehearsal both the technicians and the musicians have to get together and decide what fits and what doesn't. On Friday it seemed that the equipment operators were not familiar with the acts. The visual effects selected for the Velvet Underground were just not in tune with the music. When that happens you have two shows going on at once, and which one is the audience supposed to follow? Briefly toward the end of the concert, the technicians got hip and backed up the Dead with some oil shots which fit nicely with what the act was doing. But the groups more than made up for any defects in the light show and so the Solar System should be thanked for providing a good time for all.
(by Joe Anderson, from the Pittsburgh Point, 13 February 1969)