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Live music

I'm generally reluctant to go to rock concerts, yet most every time I let someone drag me to one, I wind up loving it. The first concert I ever saw was one of the best, too.

Among the liner notes to Jimi Hendrix's third album, ``Electric Ladyland,'' is the rambling, poetic ``Letter to the room full of mirrors,'' dated in the early morning of September 2, 1968, Denver, Colorado. Just a few hours before he wrote this, Jimi had played a concert at Red Rocks near Denver, to an audience that included me, my roommate Fred Beach, his sister Willa, and her boyfriend Reese.

This concert had been sold out for weeks, but we didn't know that when we headed north from Albuquerque in Fred's notorious Land Rover. Word on the street was that Jimi was playing Denver, so off we went. The interstate wasn't finished then, so between Santa Fe and Trinidad, Colorado, it was two-lane all the way, and much of the road between Santa Fe and Raton was very twisty mountain roads marked 25 mph---and they weren't kidding. The back ``seats'' of the Land Rover were not terribly comfortable, either: a half inch of padding over sheet metal.

Reese was one of the first actual hippies in New Mexico, complete with long hair and earring, and his appearance provoked the usual reactions. I've seen a fair number of double takes, but once when we passed a car on the road, the driver did a triple-take. In the lobby of a coffee shop in Raton, we heard a cowboy come out with that famous cliche---``ya cain't tell if it's a boy or a girl.''

Red Rocks is a fabulous place for concerts. The stage backdrop is a vertical cliff face, and the outdoor seating fits in a beautiful natural amphitheatre flanked by more cliffs. We arrived in late afternoon and somehow found a guy who was selling four tickets at cost.

There were four acts. The first group was a forgettable group called Eire Apparent, from Ireland. The second group was called Soft Machine. I had never heard of them, but I liked them immediately, and they are still among my favorites. They played a strange brand of jazz-rock fusion combining free-form improvisations with a hard rhythmic foundation. I was impressed with the way they made the ground vibrate under the concrete seating.

The third act was Vanilla Fudge, very popular in the dorms at the time. Time has not been kind to this band, but their set was well received. Their bass player, Tim Bogert, is one of the best I've seen.

Grateful Dead fans have a saying, ``there is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.'' I feel this way about Jimi. His records don't quite convey his manic intensity and the easygoing freedom of his improvisations. There's no way I can say this without it sounding like a cliche, but his music was love incarnate. Frank Zappa has made a lot of fun of the ``love and peace'' emphasis of the hippie era, but Jimi meant it. I saw Carlos Santana recently, and he carries on this same message of love. It was probably no accident that Santana was wearing a shirt with Jimi's picture on it.

I've never experienced music this intense anywhere else. It was hard just to track it, just to try to hear everything that was going on in the storm of music that came out of the big stacks of Marshall amps. Jimi didn't use a lot of special effects, just a wah-wah pedal---and a lot of feedback.

There were some technical problems with the show. Jimi started out with about nine Marshall amplifiers, and he destroyed at least three of them, although the roadies managed to rescuscitate one of them. Right at the beginning of ``Purple Haze,'' he broke his high string, but he didn't stop. With his knowledge of barre chords, all he had to do was move up the neck a bit; the song sounded just fine to me. At the end of the song, he asked for a roadie to bring out his spare guitar, then started changing the string. By the time the roadie brought the spare out, he not only had the string replaced but had it in tune as well. This is tricky on a Stratocaster, because the tremolo bar has a big spring in it so that when you tighten one string you loosen all the other ones.

He must have gone through guitars on this tour. At the end of the set he used his guitar to smash one of the amps.

I saw Jimi three times, and each time the same thing happened. As the crowd filed out, I noticed that they were divided in their reaction. About half were mumbling about all the ``mistakes'' he made and complaining that he didn't play the songs at all like the versions on his albums. And the other half were mumbling about how they had just seen God playing the guitar for an hour and a half.

I blame the varied reactions on Hendrix's love of freewheeling improvisation. He usually played the opening chorus more or less straight, and then took off for the stratosphere. Some people go for that, some don't. His studio albums don't give the feeling of his live jams. To get some idea of what he did live, try the ``Live at Winterland'' album or his set at Woodstock, especially his notorious version of the ``Star-spangled Banner.''

Twice more after this concert I let people talk me into going all the way to Denver for a show. Once was to catch Janis Joplin's last tour with Big Brother and the Holding Company. There is no way I can describe the way Janis held a crowd. This kind of intensity is rare; for an hour and a half, every eye in the house was on Janis. The warm-up act was a young black vocalist named Prince; I don't think this was the same guy as the current Prince. His act was a pale imitation of Janis.

In the summer of 1969, a couple of months before Woodstock, a promoter named Barry Fey put together a three-day Denver Pop Festival. Five of us made the trek, including my girlfriend Susan Rix, my roommate Brent White, and my friends Jim Guy and Linda Klein. (I saw Jim at our 20th class reunion, and he remembered this all quite well, especially the tear gas.)

I was so keyed up about the prospect of seeing dozens of great bands that I couldn't sleep for a whole day before we left. My friend Jayne loaned us her station wagon. I figured we could all trade off driving, but got a nasty shock when I realized that only two of us had licenses, and Jim couldn't drive a standard transmission. So I was the only driver, and I was pretty short on sleep by the time we got to Denver.

The recap tires on Jayne's car were no help, either. I didn't realize that it was unwise to drive seventy on recaps, so we destroyed three of them. Angels were looking out for us, though: all three tires died in towns---one in Santa Fe, one in Pueblo, and the third in Denver.

We got to Denver at eight in the morning, and it was a hot August day, too hot for me to sleep. We had some crazy idea that Denver was rife with ``crash pads'' where transients could sleep for free, but none of us had any idea where to find such things. Someone told us there was a place called the Chief Hosa Campground way out on highway 40 west of Denver, but we didn't have time to check this out before the concert.

When the concert started in the early evening, I had been awake for two days. Sleeping through that concert wouldn't have been possible even if I'd wanted to, so by the end of the first evening I was really in awful shape.

Getting to the campground was fairly involved. The concert was in a ballpark hard by a north-south freeway. We had to drive south and get on an east-west freeway, then get off and make two or three turns in an industrial neighborhood to get onto highway 40 going west, then the campground was about twenty miles out into the woods.

I remember driving out of the ballpark and getting on the first freeway, but I don't remember the other route changes. I was driving in my sleep, and everyone else had passed out.

The next thing I remember was that I suddenly woke up, at the wheel, driving on a two-lane highway in the woods, with no idea where I was or how long I'd been driving. I got panicky real fast and decided I'd better pull off the road immediately before I killed us all. About ten seconds later, when I was looking for a place to pull off, a big sign loomed up: ``Chief Hosa Campground, Next Left.'' Now how in hell did I manage to wake up just before we got where we had been planning to go, since I'd never been there?

The concert was a lot of fun, with lots of big names over the three nights---Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention (with Ruth Underwood), Iron Butterfly, Rev. Gary Davis, Big Mama Thornton, Love Sculpture (one of Dave Edmunds' early bands), Creedence Clearwater Revival, Johnny Winter, Ten Years After, and Jimi Hendrix to close the last night.

There was one band named The Flock, of whom I'd never heard before. After they had set up their equipment, a longhaired guy wearing only a pair of jeans came out and picked up a violin and plugged it into his amp. People laughed. The kid started playing something kind of classical, then mutated it into something a little jazzy, then he started to rock. The rest of the band came out and joined him then, and pretty soon no one was laughing. That was one hot group. They put out two or three albums and disappeared not long after, but that guy with the violin is still around. His name was Jerry Goodman, and among other places, he later appeared on John McLaughlin's ``Birds of Fire'' album.

There was quite a distance between the front row and the stage, and naturally some of the crowd tried to rush the stage. The security people were not happy about this. At one point when Iron Butterfly was playing, some people trying to rush the stage tripped over a power cable. A heavy rock band with no power is a case study in impotence, although the drummer was getting over fairly well despite the lack of amps.

The first night, people were blocking the aisles and some of the crowd in the front were having trouble getting to the bathroom. Then someone got the bright idea of asking the members of the audience to pass them up to the top of the section on a sea of raised hands. Must have been a weird sensation, having several hundred strangers passing you along on a wave. One girl decided she wanted to be passed up to the top face down. It was nothing like the modern mosh-pit sport of crowd surfing---more like a slug gliding over a rock.

It wasn't all fun and games. The tear gas was no fun at all. The first night of the concert, there were about thirty street people trying to climb the fences and get in free. The second night, there were three hundred. The third night, there were three thousand.

At one point when things were getting tense with the gate-crashers, the security people threw a few canisters of CS gas. The wind instantly shifted and blew a big white cloud into the stadium, to be inhaled by the paying customers. I did not enjoy this part of the concert. One tends to take breathing for granted.

Zephyr, a popular Denver-area band, was playing when this happened, and their vocalist Candi Givens was most helpful, suggesting that the audience try to breathe through a wet hanky. She was a hell of a vocalist, with an almost Janis-like intensity, but I suppose the fact that she couldn't sing on pitch kept her from national fame. Their phenomenal lead guitar player, Tommy Bolin, did make it on the national music scene somewhat later.

The third night, Barry Fey got up on stage early in the evening and declared that it was now a free concert. I thought this was rather a cynical move. He had sold all the tickets he was going to sell by that point. Since there was no way they were going to keep the thousands of gate-crashers out, they just let them all in. This was about what happened at Woodstock, though on a smaller scale.

We got back without too much trouble. The brakes were a little soft after a long downgrade in northern New Mexico on the way back, so I had to run into a bridge abutment at one point to get the car stopped, but I was only going about ten miles an hour; it was no big deal.

Now generally I'm pretty skeptical about ESP, but one thing that happened on this trip still bothers me. It was Monday afternoon when I gave Jayne back her car. I was telling her about her adventures, but I hadn't gotten around to telling about our hellride out to the Chief Hosa Campground when she asked me about a psychic impression she had gotten at about that time on the preceding Friday night.

``I went to bed early Friday, but around one in the morning I woke up because I was worried about you. I got the impression that you were asleep when you should have been awake. So I sent you a mental message to wake up. I felt that you woke up then, and got a feeling of relief just after that, so I went back to sleep.''

How did she know when we got to the campground? She was five hundred miles away!

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John W. Shipman,
Last updated: 1997/01/25 21:45:38