Riffs: Stadium Stomp
August 29, 1968
“WHERE the fuck are the SIGNS?” Howard is furious. Two signs lead you off the Long Island Expressway (too appropriate initials) “To Stadium.” Presuming the stadium to be Shea, presumably the lead-off will take you near the Singer Bowl, too. It takes you into an unmarked Moses maze of intersecting circles and crossroads. If you’ve been there before you can probably make it, if not maybe a VW longhaired vanload will perceive your sweaty plight, jammed six in a Mustang, late already, unable even to see the Bowl: “This way,” they shout. Follow, park hip a half mile’s walk to the light haze in the sky, hanging presumably over the Bowl. It’s probably better than the bumper-to-bumper road that probably led to what had been a freaked-out parking lot; certainly better than 18 subway stops from Times Square or uncertain LIRR trains to Shea, game nights only; certainly less expensive than a Friday night LIE taxi ride. New sandals today; I’m limping already.
We finally get close enough to hear the Soft Machine hard bass throb; then clear around the Bowl to the right entrance; inside, clear back across the Bowl to where we are told our seats are. Mercifully, there’s Gerald, who gets us settled. It’s very bright; huge banks of lights blast down on the field, others blast into the bleachers. Funny, the Soft Machine sounds exactly the way it did outside — all bass throb, nothing else. The huge speakers suspended over the bandstand project too high to reach us, the big ground-level ones don’t reach our back-of-the-bus “field box” seats. If we had binoculars and were seven feet tall we could see. The seats would have been $7.50 each if we weren’t press. Imagine the seats two or three times as far from stage and sound, up in the corners of the bleachers. There are damn few good seats in proportion.
Gotta pee anyway. The guides or guards or whatever they are are in distinctive costume: white shirts — very white-on-white, just like the audience, although the latter is dressed Alexander’s mod. The way you can spot the guards is that they’re men who are noticeably uptight. The sections are totally unmarked, the seats nearly unmarked, nobody knows where the hell to go, and they’re responsible. Back teeth floating, finally get the information that the only johns are back across the stadium where we came in. “Oh God” “Yeah, I know what you mean.” Notice that the sound is better than at our seats just about every place between our seats and the john. Return. For the first and last time in history the Chambers Brothers sound exactly like the Soft Machine, except that where before an occasional piercing organ shriek came back to us, now we get an occasional rimdiddle. You know exactly where the beat is, though. Everybody’s clapping on or near it. Much milling around. House is sold out, 18,000 tickets at $3.50-7.50; untold numbers more have bribed the guards at $2-5 each; 4000 have vaulted the fences. End of set.
“BIG BROTHER and the Holding Company I don’t know,” in girlish Brooklynese behind us. Oh God. I want to hear, I want to hear; only possible solution is taken: up into the bleacher section to a fairly close diagonal bird’s-eye view of the stage, stand against rail with a lot of other seat-leavers, oh my aching back, are the cops going to scramble us from here? No. They’re all down around the stage, ready by sheer numbers to instigate a riot. Somebody’s expecting something. There was one, or nearly, the last time. The sound here is much better, but the system’s basically bad — fuzzy. The sight-line is infinitely better but the carousal bandstand (on a larger square stage) is bad. Rock-in-the-round stinks. You miss exactly half the action. When the band “faces” the two settings opposite, you see only the back of a high bank of amplification equipment.
“Did you SEE what just happened?” laughs Janis, off-balance at the first turn of the bandstand. She’s swilling it down up there from a pint bottle. I wonder idly if the bottle contains weak tea, a stage set. These days, even the best have a shuck, right? I wonder how much it matters to her that they’re getting a bad financial deal because the deal was made a long time ago. It’s an off night for her. Every seat is filled, yet it’s like she’s wailing to an empty house. She never gets with it, and it’s a mediocre set. Something missing — the fire. Despite a perfectly respectable response, it’s not her night, not her house.
THAT THE HOUSE is Jimi Hendrix’s is clear the minute he comes in sight, with that funny, private, oddly modest bearing he has when he’s not playing. Audience is up and shouting. He wipes his nose with a Confederate flag. The monster lights are finally dimmed. The lazy-susan is back-side to us for the first two numbers. Our turn, we get a slow blues, groovy, then another turn and “Purple Haze.” I didn’t know till tonight he was “discovered” at the Cafe Wha?, which justifies just about everything that has gone down on MacDougal Street. He’s getting better than $500 a minute for this show, one hour, and that’s not an inflated price. He’s worth it. But he shouldn’t be playing this date. Rock outdoors is a gas, but stadium concerts should be left to groups like the Rascals or the Four Seasons, not anyone who has original musical ideas. The free Central Park Mall concert last spring was the best, and the Schaefer thing in Central Park is okay — at least it’s proscenium and it’s cheap, even if seating isn’t the best. But Yankee Stadium, Forest Hills, Singer Bowl — they don’t have anything to do with music. The lack of intimacy induces a spectacle, not music. Stadiums are for sports.
We get another good look at the back of the equipment as they do “Foxey Lady.” Then they revolve back to us. A kid who’s been sitting quietly on the steps of the stage (what are those kids doing there anyway?) unexpectedly dashes onto the carousel. The house lights blast back on. In a flash two equipment men get him back to the steps. Mike Jeffery, Hendrix’s manager, who hasn’t been visible all night, and Jerry Stickles, his road manager, who has been, in his usual beleaguered pose, are instantly at the foot of the steps. The music never stops. The kid lies down. Stickles wants him off-stage altogether. Kid protests angrily. There have been dozens of cops around the stage all night, none on it even now, thankfully. Cop pulls kid off, a little force there. I’m looking back at the carousel to see how the musicians are faring, thinking Howard is probably flipping if he is still back where we all were originally, missing this. So I miss what happens next. Horrified, the girl next to me says, “My God, all those cops on that one kid!” Awful things are happening at another corner of the stage, in the audience. It’s the same kid, and I see a cop, among what look like three dozen solid, forcing the kid to the ground by using a nightstick some way on his shoulders. Then some guy has one of those long 2×8 or 2×10 crossbars of a police barricade up in the air. It’s an exquisite instant, the point of balance before the point of no return. I’ve never been in a riot. Shaken, I am suddenly aware of a weak, watery physical sensation that tells me a story of cowardice. I wouldn’t be any good. I’m not going to Chicago anyway… nothing in Chicago that a monkey woman can do. As suddenly as it started it’s all over, a phalanx of uniforms hustling out the musicians’ entrance, the kid apparently in the middle, the barricade apparently back in place.
THE BEAT GOES ON. Jimi, Noel, Mitch. The boys. I met Mitch and Noel once, in a Miami Beach hotel room 10 storeys above a swimming pool where a square dance was about to commence: Mitch, gassed, rushing out to the balcony with his super-8, Noel wandering around in leopard-print jersey skivvies, relaxed as he had been three minutes before when Mitch was stomping around, refusing to play the night’s gig because they were being hassled about working papers: “You can bet if we were Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr nobody would expect us to go stand in line…” Mike Goldstein cooled that. The occasion was a slapstick rock festival that someday, someday yet I may write about. It had its moments, none of them news and none of them musical. I like Mitch and Noel, and I think they’re fine musicians. And Jimi… I met him too, later, I so tongue-tied he finally commented on it, trying to ease my discomfort, only aggravating it. I try to avoid meeting the musicians I admire most. They scare me. Some business. Hassles back-stage, hassles on-stage. The beat goes on.
So the question now is whether Jimi will go ahead with his freakout climax. Earlier he had eaten his guitar. Yeah, he finishes it off, a sort of subdued version, charging his equipment guitar-neck first, carefully deflecting so as not to really bust the speakers or his ax, then squatting obscene across the ax, merry-go-round-round-round-round-round. For what? He’s a genius — what’s he need that corn for? You don’t really think he plays with tongue and teeth, do you? After all, you’ve seen him hold his guitar at arm’s length and play one-handed with his fingers on the neck. Well, it sells a lot of seats to people who could care less about the music (they ate it up on Friday), and if there’s plenty of music going down besides there’s really nothing wrong with selling seats if you weren’t born so affluent you can disdain what money can buy if Mummy can’t. Anyway, it’s a put-on and I think he probably has fun doing it and sharing the fun — if you’re experienced. Of course, it doesn’t have anything to do with the music, because Jimi Hendrix is a genius.
IN ANOTHER CONTEXT, Mike Zwerin, talking with Earle Brown, discusses in his column this week the limitations of a form so free “you can’t make a mistake.” I think maybe those forms are themselves mistakes. Hendrix works in a form that, as avant-garde music goes these days, is pretty tame and inflexible. Yet to some extent he has made his own form, to the extent that his amalgam of blues, rock, some jazz, the improvisation, the things he does with his guitar that produce a pure electronic sheet, results in a unique sound. The best of his myriad imitators sound fifth rate. Altogether the form is hardly so unlimited as that referred to by Zwerin and Brown, yet in a broad sense their conversation does apply. It’s difficult if not impossible for me to imagine Hendrix making a mistake, just as difficult to imagine a performance of his not being absorbing. The issue, as always, is it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing, which doesn’t necessarily mean a hard beat. It’s a matter of being together, whatever music you’re making. Satie might be said to rock, Mozart doesn’t, but they both sure swing, and so does Sun Ra. But the Soft Machine, which is more into experimentation than any group I know that is in any way classified as rock, didn’t the one time I heard them (not Friday). Maybe it was a bad night. Friday, when the lights weren’t dimmed when they began their set, most of the audience thought their first number was a period of tuning up (according to my — as Richard Goldstein says — usually unreliable source). They sound that way to me all the time. But Hendrix is unerring, his authority absolute. He had an off-night of his own Friday, but his off-nights are better than the best moments of most contemporary musicians. If he did make a mistake it would probably be the most exciting musical mistake of our time.
Never mind. Their limousine is probably back in Manhattan by the time the subway finally leaves, 18 stops to Times Square, if you live on the East Side it’s 16 to Grand Central, a few more to get downtown.