Please welcome back our special guest blogger, Dr.. Art Robert for another SMS House-call, with a musical review and salute to ‘your first time.’ Back when seeing a concert could change your life and you embarrassingly had to be driven to the venue by your mom. – SMS
Everyone in the family of the young, pre-med Dr. Robert was a musician, so it’s no surprise that by the less-than-tender age of 14, I was already a scarred, annoying veteran of dozens of sixties concerts.
While it was impossible to fault the perfect ‘live’ vocal harmonies of the “Bus Stop” era Hollies (even while laughing as Graham Nash ‘played’ a clearly unplugged acoustic guitar) or the enthusiastic and hopelessly out-of-tune Buffalo Springfield (who’d come directly from a muggy airport to an even more humid Florida auditorium without a second to change either their strings or clothes), it was The Who, April 1968, who were a complete revelation, showing us the way to a Mod future fueled by power chords , pop art and a dangerously destructive stage act.
In the late 1960s, few ‘pop’ musical acts ventured into the indifferent live music market of the southern United States. Any brave soul who booked a pop gig south of the Mason-Dixon Line was guaranteed break-even wages at best, book ended by a smokey night in a shabby hotel room and short set performed on a plywood stage, free of monitors, spotlights, security, and bereft of an audience. Although the South would eventually become a live music powerhouse across all genres, at the time, even major cities like New Orleans or Atlanta City remained much more provincial in their tastes. For example, the Mississippi Delta was dominated by the blues, New Orleans was the bastion of Jazz and everywhere radio was captured by the colossus known as ‘Nashville sound’.
If you want any more proof of just how tough a market the American South was for pop music, then consider the Beatles 1966 U.S tour of the South was such a disappointment that they famously abandoned live performances in favor of becoming a purely studio band. Their 1966 tour was chiefly remembered for the incredible backlash that ensued from John Lennon’s often misquoted and misinterpreted remark that the Beatles were ‘more popular than Jesus’. That wasn’t a remark that played well with the Bible Belt, no matter how Lennon clarified it.
But in 1968 – all of that changed.
The Who’s first headlining tour brought them to the 5,000 capacity West Curtis Hixon Hall in Tampa, Florida, to be greeted by a mere 600 fans. Hixon was more suited to TV conventions and car shows than a British Invasion, but Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, John Entwhistle and an explosive Keith Moon played as if their lives depended on it (which granted, you never quite know in the South!).
Before a single note was played, Moon precariously mounted the toms of his massive double bass Premier drum kit, surveyed the cavernous, virtually empty cell-block of a hall. tossed handfuls of drumsticks into the crowd and bellowed “There’s millions of ‘em!” in a mock Cockney amazement.
Pete immediately followed by apologizing , noting that their equipment truck had jackknifed off of Interstate 75 so they’d be playing with borrowed guitars that were ‘guaranteed not to survive the night’. For the next 90 minutes (twice as long a concert as any of the audience had ever experienced) The Who assaulted both amps and ears, battering their duct-taped instruments into submission. From “I Can’t Explain”, “The Kids Are Alright” to “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” it was all there – with the notable exception of their then-current single “I Can See For Miles”. The group started it, but Townshend immediately waved the band to an abrupt halt. “Sorry folks. These amps have no sustain. We can’t do justice to this song. When the show’s over, this guitar will be firewood and what’s left of the amps will history too.”
After than, the captive audience, now all seated in what had originally been the expensive orchestra seats ($5 ) were treated to a Moon-derailed trashing of “A Quick One While He’s Away”, which finally collapsed unfinished under its own weight . The group’s response? Convulsive laughter. “Pictures Of Lily”, the then-unreleased anti-smoking anthem “Little Billy” (basically a clever re-write of “Tattoo”), “Fortune Teller” and then a headlong descent into musical madness, with smoke (not dry ice) and shattered marked-for-death equipment that signaled the arrival of “My Generation” and left no doubt in anyone’s mind of the complete impossibility of an encore.
Instead of sharing ‘My Generation’, which I’m sure most of you can hear in your heads just from reading the song title, I will instead share ‘Little Billy’ with you, which, when considering the song’s dark, bizarre, cruel and threatening lyrics, they only ever played live a few times for obvious reasons.
In the years to follow, the Robert’s family was treated to an unusually high percentage of genuinely awful performances at Curtis Hixon Hall by great, classic performers: Janis Joplin got arrested for obscenity on that very stage (Jim Morrison had to go all the way to Miami to achieve the same outcome). Jimi Hendrix notoriously played a 10 minute, two song ‘concert’, flipped the bird to a confused audience and exited stage left. The craptastic gigs continued well into the 70s and 80s too. Patti Smith spun off the stage and broke her neck in the process. The sometimes forgotten English rock band 10cc had the unenviable task of opening for the New York Dolls – a show that drew even fewer fans than The Who’s ’68 appearance. I remember standing backstage with the gifted songwriter Graham Gouldman (A maestro who wrote multiple hits for 10cc, the Hollies, and the Yardbirds, including ‘No Milk Today’ for Herman’s Hermits) as he watched David JoJansen and crew, shaking his head while saying softly “…I just don’t understand”. He wasn’t the only one.
But no performance ever had such an effect on me as watching The Who annihilate their amps onstage, that muggy night at the Hixon Hall in Tampa. I’m definitely not going to claim that that The Who tour is responsible for the birth of the modern rock scene in the South. Indeed, in 1969 (and well into the 70s) you were still more likely to hear Merle Haggard crooning ‘Okie from Muskogee’ than anyone singing the Queen’s English. And yet, The Who and other British bands who ten years before could never have imagined touring the American South, helped plant the seeds that would eventually help define the post-Motown and post-Beatles rock music culture. These seeds would bloom in places like Athens, Georgia which starting in the late 60s, gradually transformed into the live music mecca it is today, and famously produced homegrown bands such as R.E.M and the B-52s.
These memories are why I was especially pleased to recently see The Who return to Tampa in 2019.
But now, dear SMS readers, we’d like to hear from YOU! Who or which was the first live concert that blew your hair back, turned your head around and forever altered music’s role in your life? And perhaps your further thoughts and experiences concerning the 60s music scene in the South?