originally published in Arthur No. 24 (Oct 02006)
Let the Kids In Too: A History of All-Ages, Part One
by Jay Babcock
After this spring’s ArthurBall, someone posted to our website saying, “Hey, how was Growing? I really wanted to see them, but I’m only 17.” Now, if anyone needs to see Growing—a drone duo who are making a very challenging, contemplative sound right now, not unlike the first Fripp & Eno album—it’s a 17-year-old: talk about raw material for a formative experience. And yet, he—or she—was denied, because ArthurBall was an 18 & over event. Which meant that I was partly to blame.
That wasn’t a happy thing to realize. I’d been 17 once. I still haven’t recovered from my own formative experience back in 1988 when I saw the Mirage/Huevos-era Meat Puppets at Variety Arts Center in L.A. I was a teenaged square amidst 1500 freaks of the universe at a cheap, all-ages gig headlined by true goners: enduring the Kirkwood brothers’ 20-minute encore cover of the Beatles’ “She’s So Heavy” left a much deeper, richer impression on my tender, gradually opening mind than seeing U2 and the Pretenders at the Coliseum a couple months before. That was a painfully loud, stage-managed spectacle, a queasy mix of overwhelming power, machine precision and mass audience; the pajama-clad Meat Puppets, on the other hand, were… well, they were fun. They operated on a scale that was recognizably human. They seemed genuinely off-the-cuff, in-the-moment, willing to misfire. Their single stage prop, a pair of Playboy bunny ears spontaneously draped on a microphone, resonated with me in some deep, pleasantly weirdifying way. That Meat Puppets show pointed to a way out: a different way of leading one’s life—of embracing your idiosyncrasies and weird visions and interests rather than suppressing them. It was like some beautiful rite of passage, an initiation into art and imagination and other people—a sideways welcoming into a more creative, fertile, vibrant, rich way of being. Years later, I’d find out that, of course, I wasn’t the only one who’d undergone such an experience: almost everyone I know who is involved with music as a performer or enthusiast or whatever can point to some bizarro show that changed their life when they were a teenager, that lit up new paths.
I wonder if that kind of experience is readily available anymore to those who want it. I mean, the Mars Volta are amazing, but you have to pay $65 to see them open for the Red Hot Chili Peppers at a basketball arena. Growing are cool, but Arthur Ball is 18 & up. And so on. The sad truth is that although exciting music is regularly performed all over L.A.—at backyard barbecues and loft district rent parties, dive bars and supper clubs, nightclubs and art galleries, high school football games and homecoming dances, city parks and Sunday morning church services, street corners and subways, outdoor amphitheaters and baseball stadiums—maybe the only time when a good number of people of all ages can gather together to witness quality music, at an affordable price, with a good sound system, is when an artist plays an in-store set at Amoeba Music on Sunset Boulevard. Kudos to Amoeba for providing this basic public service to arts-starved Angeleno teenagers, of course—it’s more than the public schools and mainstream broadcast media do—but surely it’s not a positive indicator of a culture’s health when the best venue for all-ages music is a record store. ‘Dancing in the aisles’ should mean something more than grooving politely in the Used Funk/Soul section as cash registers ring in the distance.
We lose something as a society when we don’t allow our youth to experience music—by which I mean real, living, breathing music, as opposed to commerce-driven pop—in a decent, accessible, affordable, relatively intimate setting where music is given the opportunity to be truly experienced as music. Something has gone wrong here. But what has happened, exactly, to get us to this point? And is it just Los Angeles, or is it nationwide? What can we do about it? What did they do in the past?
I decided it was time to call John Sinclair.
During the 1960s, John Sinclair founded the Detroit Artists Workshop, managed the MC5, headed the anarchist White Panther Party and got thrown in jail for 10 years for giving two joints to an undercover cop. He was freed after serving two years due to the intervention of John Lennon, who wrote a song for him and appeared at a 15,000-plus arena rally to bring attention to Sinclair’s case (check out the “The US vs John Lennon” documentary for more details). He is a renowned poet, scholar, deejay and journalist, and at 64, still a towering presence. We talked about all-ages shows outside a brandname coffeeshop in Culver City over half-finished crossword puzzles.
John Sinclair: Here’s a point I want to make about this right off: This whole ‘age’ thing is a function of the whole white American culture—it isn’t a universal thing. When I was coming up, you had no congress with anyone more than two years older or two years younger than you, unless they were your brother and sister. You had no congress with adults, with anybody but your own age peers. Everything you did was around that; we were alienated from all the others.
Now, I grew up listening to blues and R&B on the radio in the Fifties. I’m not into country music. I avoided it like the plague. I came from a farming community, and I didn’t want no part of that! Once I heard black music on the radio, I wanted to be where those people were. They were having a lot more fun than anybody I knew, and then when I started going to their dances. It was a beautiful thing. They had big shows in Flint, Michigan. Rhythm and blues shows. I saw everyone that came to Flint between 1955 and 1960. I went to these rhythm and blues shows and there’d be 3,000 black people and 20 white kids who were music freaks and liked to dance. The thing that hit me the hardest about these shows was that there were people of all ages there: little kids, grandmas, and most of the crowd was young adults who were older than us. The teenagers like us were only a stratum. There were people in their 60s, people in their 40s, the finest women you’d ever seen in their 20s just dressed to the nines, red dresses and shit. Knock your eyes out. And there’d be little kids running around and it was no big deal. And the people who wanted to have a drink, they had a flask in their pockets. If they wanted to smoke a joint, they had a joint. It was just like going to a different planet. It was so much hipper. And they were also so accepting. It wasn’t like you would be nervous about being there. They’d let you have your fun, you’d dance with the black girls. It was just like being in heaven for me, man. Because where I lived, I hated everything.
Arthur: Who did you get to see at these sorts of shows?
JS: I vividly remember seeing guys like Larry Williams, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, of course. I remember Alan Freed’s “Big Beat Show of 1958. They opened with Screaming Jay Hawkins climbing out of a coffin. That was the opening act, and there were seven more acts to come, ending with Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. These were revues, they had one band, Paul Williams or Choker Campbell or someone like that would lead it, and they would be the backing band for all the featured performers. If you had one hit, you played it, and you did your next record. If you had two hits, you did both and played your next single, you know. I saw James Brown once, and he did ‘Please, Please, Please’ and one other, and that was it. But the shows were great because, you know, what’s awful is these bands that are coming up only have a couple of good tunes, and they have to play an hour? You just get bored. But, man, when you see someone do those two tunes, you’d think they were the greatest fucking act in the world. So those were all-ages shows, and cost only three bucks!
Where were these held?
JS: 3,000-seat auditoriums. I don’t remember a lot of the details, I can’t even tell you how often these would come through. When they started these things in ’56, when rock and roll ‘hit,’ the shows were all black. In ’57, they started adding people like Ricky Nelson and Buddy Holly. By ’58 you started to have shows that were half black and half white in terms of the attractions. The music had crossed over enough where there were 3,000 white kids in the Flint area who would pay three dollars to see a show. And it was headlined by Jerry Lee Lewis who was a white act, of course. By ’59 and ’60 they killed all the black stuff off; it was all Paul Anka and Bobby Vee. Chuck Berry was in a penitentiary. Jerry Lee Lewis was under approbation for marrying his 13-year-old cousin. Little Richard was a preacher. Of course Fats Domino steamed on through, making great records.
What about jazz musicians? Did you get to see live jazz in the Fifties?
JS: I didn’t know anything about it. I heard some of it on the radio, after the R&B show went off the air, jazz would come on as I was going to sleep. But I didn’t know who the artists were or what it was about or anything. It was a different world. I went to college later and a friend turned me on to jazz.
When did you start seeing jazz guys?
JS: 1960. I would see them at the Minor Key coffeehouse in Detroit. I lived in Flint which was 60 miles to Detroit, and I’d drive down there, a ticket was $3.50 which was huge money then. But you could stay until 5 a.m. and you could buy one coffee or one Coke and just fake it the rest of the night. I saw Coltrane there, and Miles Davis, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver, playing three sets! Me being from Flint, I would study all the characters there. What they were wearing, how they held their cigarettes, all that kind of shit. No drunks, no pressure, the hipsters just hanging out. I saw Cannonball Adderley at this bar, this upscale jazz bar, and it was so lame, the setting. We left during the first set after driving all the way from Flint and paying $3.50. It was too stiff, but the coffeehouse was just so cool. Today I’d much rather play in a coffeehouse than a bar, ’cause I drink coffee still.
When you started working with the MC5, those guys were younger.
JS: They were teenagers, yes. They were just out of high school. We had a house, and the living room was the performance space. We did them every Sunday afternoon, and they were open to everyone, and there was no charge. It was so much fun, man. There was no drinking. Rock and roll in Detroit in the ’60s was strictly in teen clubs, high school gymnasiums, the rare college … and even then, not a real concert, just some fraternity party. And the Grande Ballroom, that was the class venue.
What about bars?
JS: If you played rock and roll in bars, you had to play all Top 40 cover tunes. There were bands that did that, but we didn’t want anything to do with that. When the Grande opened, the owner had been to San Francisco and saw bands who were playing all their own music, and he realized that this was what it was going to be like, and he was right. So the MC5 were the only ones, along with Bob Seger. The fact that they could get a gig and headline, and get their names on a poster, set an example for a lot of other bands. It gave them something to aspire to. It was a beautiful thing in that respect.
When I first heard the MC5, I thought ‘Man, these guys are the greatest,’ but their shit was totally un-together. But once they got all their cords unraveled and started playing, it was just magnificent to me. They were improvising, and their lead singer was named after McCoy Tyner! I thought ‘This is my cup of tea!’ The first gig I went to with them, I probably had to give them a ride, was at a teen center in Plymouth, Michigan, in the western suburbs, and they played a battle-of-the-bands against called the Unrelated Segments that had a hit record on a 45, and [the other band] won. I just thought, ‘These guys aren’t going to go too far with this kind of a crowd.’ But at the Grande, you’d start with a hundred people there, and they were like ‘Hungry Freaks, Daddy.’ They would be the hundred people that smoked pot or took some acid once, hung around Wayne State or lived around the campus. We were the core audience for the Grande, because we knew about the Avalon and the Fillmore. We were just doing backflips that there was going something like that here in fucking Detroit. So, that’s who they played for in the first months.
The other thing is, in those days, it wasn’t in the popular consciousness at all. It wasn’t like today where they cover rock bands in the papers. I bet if you went through the Detroit Free Press and News, the only things you’ll find are bits about this ‘freak gathering place’ and these weirdo hippies at the Grande Ballroom, and this schoolteacher who runs it. Weirdo stories, you know? Never anything about ‘Jeff Beck slayed Friday night.’ Never. I don’t think you can ever find one story about it, which is pretty refreshing. All this shit now is written about, but it’s not any good. But everybody knows about it.
What killed that situation?
JS: It got big. It got bigger and bigger. It opened up in October of 1966, and in the spring of ’67 ‘White Rabbit’ by the Jefferson Airplane was a top 10 hit, and by July, ‘Light My Fire’ by the Doors was the number one hit, and that opened the doors for popular acceptance. There was money in it all of a sudden. Woodstock was the watershed. Before Woodstock, people thought that this hippie rock and roll was just a fad. Then all of a sudden, there’s a half-million people sitting out in the rain listening to all these artists that America had never heard of. Columbia sat up and started signing people after Monterey, but after Woodstock…! The majors took over the underground after Woodstock.
See, when we played the Grande Ballroom, we were the top band there for years before they started bringing in touring bands. We made $125 a night, it wasn’t a lot. The Grande usually held 1,000, but he’d put in 2,000 for the Who or Cream, and it would be packed wall-to-wall. There wouldn’t be an inch of space. On Sundays you had all-ages shows, otherwise you had to be 17 or something. That’s how we ended up with Blood Sweat & Tears with the Psychedelic Stooges on Sunday. One time the MC5 played a Sunday afternoon show with Blue Cheer … the ‘loudest show in the history of rock and roll’! [Laughs.]
What happened to the spaces where a band as young as the MC5 at their beginning could play to their own people?
JS: In ’72 they passed the 18-year-old voting law, and the drinking age was dropped to 18, and so then everybody played in bars because if you could draw 100 people to a bar, you’d get 500 bucks. If you wanted to go beyond a bar of 200 [capacity], you had to have a record deal, and you had to open for the Allman Brothers or somebody. It was like that from that point on until when I was done working in the Eighties. Same thing. That’s as much as you could do, and of course there weren’t any kids there because they weren’t allowed in. The kids went to arena shows to see Alice Cooper or KISS. I’d say since the mid-Seventies, they’ve all grown up in that space, which is of course totally unsuited for music.
So, a lot of the punk stuff in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s was about rebuilding those original spaces from the ground up.
JS: You had to do it yourself, whether you were punk or not, if there was any future for you in the music business. You get a van and somebody would let you come to their city and play in their place for nothing. You’d sleep on the floor of some ugly girl somewhere, and then you’d get out of her life.
See, the thing about what they gotta do now, if the kids wanna have some fun, is they just gotta ignore the music industry. Because in our day, when I was coming up, the ‘music industry’ was on a whole ’nother planet. When I met the MC5 and started hanging out with them, they were five years younger than me, and they were all wanting a hit record and everything, and we had that big flirtation period where the major labels signed weirdos for a while, and Elektra signed the MC5. And then, as Fred Goodman so beautifully detailed it in his book (The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-on Collision of Rock and Commerce), the majors ruined it all.