I met my friend Al because we’d found a cheap print shop down in Poughkeepsie and I needed a ride. This would have been for the first issue I edited of Perspective a student magazine of politics and philosophy. I was only a freshman, which goes to show how thin on the ground were writer/editors at RPI in 1969.
It was a good trip; Al and I hit it off. So some time later, when he invited me down for a weekend visit to his home in New Jersey, I went along. I think that was the first time we went to the Fillmore East.
I never saw the Fillmore West. By the time I got to San Francisco, Bill Graham had moved his west coast venue to Winterland, a building that had been an ice skating rink, or so I’ve heard. But I saw the Fillmore East a lot. Al, Henry, (another RPI New Jerseyite), and I went down to the Fillmore East maybe as often as once a month for several years. Sometimes, we’d drive the three hours down, see the show, then drive directly back, because college students do that kind of thing. More often, though, we’d stay at either Al or Henry’s.
Here are some of the groups we saw, just off the top of my head: The Who, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, The Moody Blues, Jefferson Airplane, Lee Michaels, The Insect Trust, The Blues Project, Ten Wheel Drive, It’s a Beautiful Day, Country Joe MacDonald, The Flock, John Mayall, Procul Harum, Argent, Crosby, Still, Nash, and Young, Santana, Teagarden and van Winkle, Jethro Tull, Paul Butterfield, Quicksilver Messenger Service.
And the Mothers of Invention, the Flo and Eddie incarnation. I think we saw The Mothers more than any other band. Frank Zappa had a thing about guest artists at the time. Once it was Grace Slick. Another time it was John Lennon and Yoko Ono. I particularly remember the one with Joni Mitchell. I’ve heard that she had severe stage fright, but she seemed very relaxed fronting a band and reciting profane poetry on stage impromptu. I’ve sometimes wondered if the experience with Zappa’s band influenced her later decision to get a band for touring. It’s a lot less scary out there if you have backup.
The Fillmore wasn’t the only place I went for music during that time period. I saw Poco, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, and Grand Funk Railroad in Nashville, Pink Floyd at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, and The James Gang, Kiss, and Blue Oyster Cult in Indianapolis. RPI itself had some very savvy people running its Student Union Programs and Activities Committee, so I didn’t even have to leave campus to see Maria Muldaur, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Chuck Mangione, and a slew of others. It was an excellent time to be a music freak.
I am not one of those people who thinks his coming-of-age music is the best that has ever been created, or who spends his time listening solely to that music for the rest of his life. If I had to rank them, I’d probably say that the best rock band I ever heard was Elvis Costello on his first few tours in the late 1970s, from “Watching the Detectives” to “Goon Squad.” I liked Disco, too, and the 1980s and 1990s spawned some magnificent music. Dr. Dre is a genius, Ice T isn’t just an actor, and the current tape running on my ancient auto tape deck is a history of boogie woogie. Sometime I’ll write about the Sunday afternoon Indian music show on WRPI that Bruce Barnett and I programmed back in the day, a show that slowly morphed into what would now be called “World Music,” but the term hadn’t been invented yet, unless maybe we invented it. So even now my ears prick when I hear a Gabonese vocal or an M’bira plink, as much as when Bach or the Beatles come into range.
Nevertheless, I’d be an idiot not to treasure the memories of the experiences of being a restless student at that particular time and place, having those friends, and such a wealth of opportunities to hear the music of the moment. It’s not worth ranking artists, so I won’t. Just say that an awful lot of what we heard was Mighty Damn Good.