ROCK ODYSSEY © 2001 Mick Cusimano

At seventeen I was walking through the Crystal Beach amusement park in Canada late one night. The song Light My Fire was echoing through the park coming from the bobsled ride whirling passengers around in circles. What always grabbed me about rock music weren’t sex and drugs and the entire periphery. The music transported you. It took you to those places of imagination and dreams high above the every day reality of school or your job. Every one has their rock and roll stories. Here are a few of my memories from the classic rock era.

Unlike today’s kids we didn’t grow up on rock and roll. It arrived in America in 1964. A tragic event was unwittingly the catalyst of sixties rock and roll.

After the prosperous but quiet 50’s under Eisenhower along came John F. Kennedy. Remember the 50’s people in America were what sociologists called other directed: extremely concerned about other people in the neighborhood, political office, entertainment, etc. Today many Americans are more inner directed concerned with their inner selves, sitting at home watching TV, doing yoga, less concerned with others in society. Nonetheless people around the world looked for others to be heroes, some one to look up to. To many, not just in America, John and Jackie were those heroes. When J.F.K was killed there was worldwide shock and grief. For months there was sadness and a period of mourning. Lyndon Johnson didn’t capture the country’s imagination. The young people looking for leaders looked outside of politics. That vacuum was filled a few months later when four musicians from Liverpool appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in New York City. The Beatles captured the imagination of young America in a mania that was unexpected, puzzling, shocking, and invigorating.

So began the birth of rock and roll: The British bands the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Animals, and later Hendrix, and The Who became the focal point of a musical and counter cultural explosion. The bands were the heroes; the fans were young kids: the hippies. There was for a few years after 1969 the communal concept of the Woodstock Nation. You could hitchhike all over the country in the early seventies and get rides, places to stay, and all kinds of connections just by having long hair and being part of that subculture.

What was really revolutionary about the 60’s was that for the last 40,000+ years young people, young men automatically went to war. Although some people went to Vietnam this was the first generation of Americans that went to rock concerts instead of going to war.

Although I listened to rock music and bought records I was introduced to live concerts in 1968 by this guy we knew in Buffalo named Bob. Buffalo was an industrial town where I found little culture, art, or music going to school there. Bob was a 400 lb. 24 year old guy who had traveled around the country, had no job, he just bought and sold records. He had 40,000 records in his basement. All kinds of artists and bands came by to hang out in his basement. His place was strewn with obscure records, art books, posters, and vegetable matter that often ended up in a pipe from Haight Ashbury. It seemed every eccentric artist and musician hung out there. It was the closest to a Paris salon that any one could find in a town like Buffalo. In Buffalo the main pastimes are drinking beer, going to Buffalo Bills games, drinking beer, skiing, drinking beer, shoveling snow, drinking beer, drinking beer, and drinking beer. (bars are open to 4:00 AM in Buffalo) Bob’s scene was probably the most important influence I ever had as a young artist.

The first concert Bob took several friends and myself to see was Alice Cooper at a ballroom at S.U.N.Y. Buffalo for 75 cents. Before the show we asked Bob who this woman Alice was. Bob pointed to a guy eating hamburgers in the cafeteria with long black hair and raccoon markings around his eyes. We walked into the ballroom where Alice guillotined himself, waved his pet python around and for an encore poured chicken feathers on the audience.

Bob would often take us to Gilligans, an old airplane hangar turned into a giant rock bar holding 1000 people. Bob Segar, Pacific Gas & Electric, Arthur Brown, and many bands would play there. One night we were sitting at a table with Bob’s friends from a local band called The Sobs. A manager came by and asked them if they would like to back up Chuck Berry that night. Chuck Berry came down and sat next to us at the table and was eating fried chicken for dinner. Some kid in a straw hat came by trying to get his autograph. Whenever the guy came around Berry barked at him like a wolf to chase him away. His show was great as he did his many rock numbers. During the encore we jumped up and danced on stage as he duck walked through Johnny B. Goode.

One night in 1969 a band from Detroit called The MC5 came to Gilligans for $2.50. At the end of the night they did Kick Out The jams again as the encore. In those days before they hired security to create a barrier between performers and the audience we would spontaneously jump on stage and dance during the encores. Last year the producer of a documentary about the MC5 contacted me about a possible interview. It seems he found black & white Super 8 silent footage of that particular concert including people rushing on to the stage at the end. The producer said it was the most out of control rock music footage he had ever seen.

Going to concerts was just an important part of our lives in the 60’s and 70’s. Some of us wanted to go to Woodstock but their weren’t enough cars. Those who had rides met Jimi Hendrix. One night while visiting friends in Virginia we were deciding on what to do for the evening. We had 3 choices. We could see Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, or as this one guy wanted to do: sit at the airport and get stoned. I wanted to see Hendrix but the airport contingent won out. The only purple haze I saw that night was the exhaust fume of a 747.

In 1970 several of us went to the Strawberry Fields Rock Festival at Mosport Speedway in Ontario Canada. The myth that the spirit of the sixties began with Woodstock and ended months later at Altamont is nothing but existentialist journalists trying to fit the rock festival phenomenon into some neat easy to explain box. The truth was the festivals at Mosport; Goose Lake and other shows after Altamont were great events where people got along just fine.

We camped out for three fun filled days listening to Alice Cooper, Melanie, Jose Feliciano singing Light My Fire, Procol Harum, Grand Funk Railroad, and Ten Years After. There was lots of acid and people smoking vegetable matter but most everyone behaved. One woman stood in front of us wearing nothing but a canteen. The crowd, being polite, didn’t even ask her to sit down. At one point we heard some growling behind us. Some big guy on acid was tearing off all his clothes. He ran through the crowd naked on all fours like a wild animal and climbed up the 50 foot light tower. He stayed up there and howled like a wounded wolf during Ten Years After’s set.

Sly and The Family Stone showed up characteristically late Saturday night and played until dawn taking the crowd higher. That morning we had to Hitchike 150 miles back to Buffalo. One hippie from West Virginia gave us a ride to Toronto. He said that he had a revelation on acid. He now completely understood the entire universe and wanted to look for Nirvana in the big city of Toronto. He dropped us off and we hitched for several hours to get south of Toronto. On the Queen Elizabeth Highway the same guy picked us up again. He discovered that Toronto was just another city with no revelations inscribed on the walls of the skyscrapers. Two of the guys in the car were smoking from hash pipes. When heading to the American border the driver taped the pipes underneath the dashboard. When we got to the American border and he told the inspector where we came from of course they pulled us over. We sat in a room as they searched the car. Finally the customs agent came in holding two pipes in his hand. Our hearts sank like the downbeat of Sly Stone. The agent announced that he found it in the car behind us and let us go home.

In 1972 The Rolling Stones played in Toronto and my friend had tickets. They did Jumping Jack Flash and their new album Exile On Main Street. The amazing thing about rock concerts by then was how much the audience identified with the bands. Security was busy every night with fans rushing the stage trying to get near members of the bands who were treated as almost messianic figures.

In 1973 my friend bought the new Who album Quadrophenia. I dug it but it wasn’t a big hit in America. People didn’t relate to the Mods & Rockers phenomenon that rocked England in the Sixties. The significant thing about the Mods was that in the early days, before international recognition, it was the Mods who were the audience for the The Stones, The Kinks, The Who and other London bands. Some one got a line on seven tickets for their concert in Montreal 150 miles away.

Seven of us got into our friend’s station wagon with two cases of Canadian Ale and a pound of prized vegetation. We floated to Montreal. We got there but no one had the foresight to reserve a room. We finally found a single hotel room. Most of us slept on the floor and one person slept in the bathtub: the sacrifices we made for rock and roll. The next day we climbed the hill with the cross and drove around this beautiful French City.

That night we walked down the cavernous halls of the Montreal Forum surrounded with pictures of glorious Stanley Cup teams on the walls. Great hockey players Rocket Richard, Jean Beliveau, Ken Dryden performed superhuman feats in this building. Tonight the ice wasn’t on the floor of the arena. It was in the veins of the audience. The opening band a new Southern band Lynard Skynard, was booed. After 20 minutes the disgusted band walked off the stage. Unlike American audiences that would go into frenzy as soon as the lights went down the Forum crowd sat there with an attitude of show us something. The Who came out and did their new rock opera Quadrophenia along with a laser show. The band played its heart out. Daltry sang Doctor Jimmy and Love Reign Over Me with all the passion he could. Townshend was leaping everywhere. Keith Moon and John Entwistle were totally into it. The crowd sat there…...silent. The frustrated Who broke into their old Tommy hits and did Don’t get Fooled Again. Finally the crowd came alive. The band still frustrated went back and trashed their hotel room and got thrown in jail over night. They had to pay $2500 in damages. It took many years before Quadrophenia became a classic in the Who chronology.

Going to concerts was just a given during college days. One night several of us were out drinking. Several friends came by and invited me to drive 120 miles to Toronto to see J.Giels, Gentle Giant, and The Jefferson Starship who just came out with a song Miracles. We drove up and got home at 5:00 AM. At 8:00 another friend invited us up to Syracuse 60 miles away for another concert. We drank all afternoon and got to a huge fairground carrying several gallons of hard cider. The Doobie Brothers, New Riders of The Purple sage, Jefferson Starship, and The Beach Boys played late into the night. We drove home the next day where someone pulled out a keg of beer. Finally after 3 days of drinking and rock and roll excess and no sleep I dozed off for 2 hours. That morning 3 unexpected guests from Buffalo dragged me out to breakfast. When I heaved up a plate of bacon and eggs at the diner they couldn’t understand why.

In 1974 I was in Syracuse where a band that was the biggest band in America the previous year winding down their short career in a bar called the Yellow Balloon. The New York Dolls were an energetic bunch lead by David Johansen. He later did solo albums but didn’t find fame until he invented the character Buster Poindexter and became a character actor in Hollywood. Guitarist Johnny Thunders tried a solo career in London and came back to N.Y. City where I saw him perform at the Ritz with Wayne Kramer in 1980.

There were Bob and several of us who went to just about every concert imaginable. At one point we saw The Who, The Allman Brothers, a new guy Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review all in one week. Bob discovered an eclectic band called Crack The Sky and almost single handedly built a following for them in Buffalo. They played one night after a horrific ice storm. Their signature song was called Are You Afraid Of The Ice.

Bob worked in a record store and always got free tickets and albums. One night in 1976 he got tickets to The Who on a short six-city tour that included Toronto. Keith Moon came out and waved to the crowd….his last appearance in North America. The band was cooking and Townshend smashed his guitar on stage during Don’t Get Fooled Again. Luckily I was in the front row with my camera. After the concert four girls were waiting outside the door with a huge banner We Love The Who. The band whisked out in their limousine and the girls never got say hello to the band. Some chubby little high school kid was jumping up and down yelling, "That was better than the first time I had sex!"

Sometimes we would see Alice Copper, Susie Quatro, Eric Clapton, or Santana at a smaller venue in Niagara Falls. When I was a kid I was always impressed by those Biblical epics: Ben Hur or The Ten Commandments with their cast of thousands. What was great in Buffalo in the 70’s were huge epic size concerts in Rich Stadium every summer. The football field would be covered and fans would fill the field. These were the fun days of festival seating before they had ushers chastising you for straying from your assigned seat. We almost always worked our way to the front of the stage.

Everyone played there. The Eagles, Donovan, J. Giels, Yes, Bob Segar, and The Stones. Crosby Stills Nash & Young played to 110,000 people there in 1974. Peter Frampton filled the stadium one summer. A year later he played to a 1500 seat music hall. At the Elton John concert some guy in front of me by the stage kept waving his crutches perhaps expecting The Rocket man to heal him. Eric Clapton came by in 1974. He was drunk as hell and collapsed in the middle of a song. I guess every now and then the performer has a right to act like a member of the audience. It was one of the worst concerts I ever saw, but of course old Slowhand redeemed himself many times since.

In those days police weren’t allowed in the stadium except for emergencies. Almost anything went on at concerts. You could bring anything you wanted inside. You couldn’t help stumbling over bodies zonked out on the ground or in hallways. I never understood why kids would pay scalpers prices to get into a concert to pass out and miss the entire show.

One night in the 70’s on Friday the thirteenth Patti Smith played at biker bar in Hartford, Ct. This big red haired biker was standing in front of the stage keeping people back. Patti came out wearing a Keith Richards shirt and grabbed him by the hair and told him to leave. He glared at her and I thought he would hit her nut then walked away. Then every one rushed the stage. One paranoid claustrophobic guy pulled out a knife and waved it around at any one who crowded him.

You can’t stay stuck in the 60’s forever. A lot of what I do these days in performance poetry comes from seeing some of the greatest performers of our time in my younger days. These days with tickets at $50 - $200 I only go to a few concerts a year. But you can never get rock and roll out of your blood.