CALVIN JOHNSON (K Records, Beat Happening) on the importance of ALL-AGES gigs, and the secret history of age segregation in rock n roll

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photo: Danielle St. Laurent

“What’s Wrong With Having Fun?”

A History of All Ages: A conversation with Calvin Johnson

by Jay Babcock

Calvin Johnson is the founder of Olympia-based K Records. He was in Beat Happening, Halo Benders and Dub Narcotic Sound System, and recently toured the USA in tandem with Ian Svenonius. His influence on underground American music in the last 25 years is enormous; read more about him at wikipedia.

I spoke with Calvin by telephone in early 2007, following on an interview I did with former MC5 manager/poet/historian John Sinclair, published in Arthur No. 24, in which we tried to figure out how rock n roll music went from being an all-ages thing to what, all too often, it is today: age-segregated. Calvin had some ideas about that…

Arthur: Where did you see your first shows?

Calvin Johnson: I was going to some stadium shows. When I was 12 I saw Paul McCartney & Wings. That was in the Kingdome, which is like 75,000 people. I was like, This is different than the Casbah Club in Liverpool. This isn’t the same. I kind of view that as more… Having read this biography of the Beatles and their whole world in Liverpool just seemed really exciting. Very little of that excitement existed in the stadium. And I’m like, Hmm. Something went wrong here. Just shortly after that is when I started reading about punk rock and I recognized that as being within the spirit of that local scene that the Beatles came out of.

It was about two or three years later that I went to my first punk rock show which was… A band from Seattle called The Enemy played here in Olympia. Then I started attending shows in Seattle. There was an all-ages club called The Bird that was in an old warehouse, then it moved into an Oddfellows hall. They had shows twice a month at this Oddfellows hall. That was really exciting.

Arthur: How did age segregation in rock ‘n’ roll music performances start, do you think?

My knowledge is second or third-hand on these things, but in reading rock n roll histories or biographies, it seems like some of those people, like Little Richard, was playing in nightclubs and juke joints that were serving alcohol and they were mostly oriented towards adults, meaning people in their 20s and 30s.

So live music was divided in a demographic way: there were these teen-oriented events and then there were adult-oriented events, and rock n roll was viewed at first as teen-oriented music. It seemed to have been normally in these environments that are dance-oriented—the armory, the school cafeteria, gymnasium, the local union hall—might be rented for these teen events.

When people like Little Richard and Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis became rock stars, and they were playing at those kinds of shows where there’s 10 or 15 acts on the bill and they each do their one or two songs that are well-known, kids were still trying to dance in the aisle. [in faux announcer voice] “Can’t stop the kids from dancing! They’re dancing in the aisles! Crazy! Bedlam has broken out!”

You look at films like Charlie Is My Darling—the Rolling Stones on tour in Ireland in ‘65—and you see it’s sort of a transition to this more concert-type situation, where it’s not necessarily a dance, kids are still dancing, and the set-up seems so nascent, they don’t have huge P.A.s or amps, they just have their regular amps and drums, little vocal public address system, and it’s …very quaint.

But it seems as though in the Northwest here, there was a circuit more or less of all-ages teen dances, which were held at various either hall-type situations or clubs that catered to teenagers and…

Arthur: How is that different from a sock-hop?

A sock-hop is more like high school dance where people are just dancing in their stockinged feet. It seems like the demographic is what divided things rather than a legal situation. The demographic was, ‘only kids would want to go to that show.’

Arthur: ‘Who else would want to?’

Yeah. It’s difficult to say, because I’m just piecing this all together, I didn’t live through it, but it appears that it had this vibe that as the audience for rock n roll starts to age into the ‘60s, and people were in their 20s and still interested in rock n roll, the focus changed. I blame the Beatles for that, because they created the atmosphere for where every rock band was suddenly Beethoven, and was creating “Great Works.” So it was more like when you go to the concert symphony orchestra and everyone is paying attention in this way and dancing is almost like an insult. It’s not that the Beatles had that attitude, but I think that the way that their music developed, people started to view music that way, and then these more serious prog rock bands came along and people suddenly forgot all about having fun. What’s wrong with having fun?

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Uncle Skullfucker’s Band: Daniel Chamberlin explains the discreet charm of the Grateful Dead

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Daniel Chamberlin explains the discreet charm of the Grateful Dead. Illustrations by D.C. Berman.

Originally published in the July 2004 issue of Arthur, which is currently available for purchase in our online store. Click here to check it out.

I’M NOT ALLOWED TO WEAR TIE-DYED CLOTHING. My girlfriend and those friends of mine who truly have my best interests at heart forbid it. For most people this is an obvious and easy style rule to adhere to. But during certain times of the year I am overwhelmed by the Grateful Dead. I listen to nothing but live recordings of Dead concerts while immersing myself in books detailing the minutiae of their 30-year career. I search through David Dodd’s “Annotated Grateful Dead Lyric Archive,” reading up on the roots of “Fennario,” a made-up world of timber forests and treacherous marshland mentioned in two of my favorite songs, “Dire Wolf” and “Peggy-O.” Judging from the number of Dead recordings in my collection one can draw an easy conclusion that I am a certifiable Deadhead.

This is a problem because alongside New Age or contemporary country, “Grateful Dead” is a genre of music with acknowledged questionable merits. This has something to do with the schizophrenic quality of said music: the May 14, 1974 “Dark Star” performed in Missoula, Montana sounds like “In A Silent Way” as interpreted by Sonic Youth but nearly every performance of “Lazy Lightnin’” sounds like coke-snorting yuppies getting funky in tie-dyed Izods. The Dead toured with both Love and Waylon Jennings in the ‘70s but were collaborating with Bruce Hornsby and Joan Osborne by the ‘90s. I hear their influence on classic Meat Puppets and latter-day Boredoms albums, but their official inheritors are cornball bands like The String Cheese Incident and Phish. They count among their fans legions of Hell’s Angels as well as Tipper and Al Gore. There are a lot of ways to listen to the Grateful Dead. As legendary concert promoter and longtime Dead booster Bill Graham once put it, “They’re not the best at what they do, they’re the only ones that do what they do.”

Mostly though, the Dead’s bad reputation is due to their fans. My latent Deadheadism causes my girlfriend to worry that at a certain point of saturation, she’ll come home from work to find me reeking of patchouli oil, clad in vibrant pajama bottoms and a tank top decorated with capering bears, my dilated pupils being the only reason I haven’t yet found something to juggle. “Fukengrüven, sister!” I’ll say as she comes through the door.

My most recent Grateful Dead binge kicked off when Islamic militants decapitated Nicholas Berg on the Internet. Oh yeah. No more NPR for me. Instead, a free-falling relapse into this December 26, 1969 Dead show at Southern Methodist University. Drummer Bill Kreutzmann is late getting to the venue, so Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir lay down this sublime acoustic set of murder ballads and old Christian folk songs that they refer to as “sacred numbers.” It’s the only known recording of their version of “Gathering Flowers for the Master’s Bouquet,” which is really something to be excited about for a closet Deadhead like me. The show provides a wonderful escape—the Dead always seem so detached from reality and that’s exactly what I’m looking for.

I was looking for a similar kind of escape in 1991 while en route to my first Grateful Dead show. I wanted to see if the Deadheads might offer a more organic, hedonistic alternative to the existentialist discomfort of my central Indiana high school experience.

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