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 America Over The Water

by Richard Lewis

 

I have just started to read Shirley Collins’ account of her time in America with the folk song collector Alan Lomax that she has called “America Over The Water”. 

Reading Shirley’s account of her time in America reminded me that I never got round to completing my own account which some ‘older’ Freewheelers may recall I started nearly 8 years ago. I thought it was about time I did so. I wrote the first part in July 1997 (“Summer of Love”) in Freewheelin’ #143 and the second in August (Who Knows Where The Time Goes”) in Freewheelin’ #144. The two parts also appeared in the Public Freewheelin’ magazines # 5 and 6. To save you trying to find those copies and for the benefit of ‘newer’ Freewheelers I am going to reproduce those first two parts below and then conclude it.

 SUMMER OF LOVE

In April 1967 during the Easter holidays Tim Turner’s Narration changed their name to Fairport Convention at played at a party in my house while my parents were away in Rome. Two weeks later I went to the Amazing Technicolour Dream up the road at Ally Pally and took part in Yoko Ono’s early concept art performances in which members of the audience took turns with a pair of scissors to cut off pieces of a girl’s dress until she was just left in her underwear. I’ve still got a piece of that dress somewhere amongst my other memorabilia. Two days after that I started my first Teaching Practice in Winson Green, Birmingham. I was in the first year of a three-year course at a Teacher Training College in Brum. The school I worked in was overlooked by a prison on one side and a Mental Institution on the other. It was a fairly daunting but exhilarating experience that I was glad to complete on May 24th, a date that somehow seemed special. Then it was my first year exams interspersed with a drama production (Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle”) and concerts in Birmingham (Donovan at the Town Hall, Bert Jansch, John Renborn and Roy Harper at the same venue, Cream at the Carlton Ballroom) plus trips hitchhiking to London (Fairport’s first gig at St Michael’s Hall in Golders Green, Charles Lloyd with Keith Jarrett and Jack de Jonette at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and John Mayall’s Blues Breakers plus the Jeff Beck Group with Rod Stewart, Ron Wood and Aynsley Dunbar at the Saville Theatre). 

All this led up to catching a flight to New York on Wednesday, July 19th to spend two months of the summer in the States. At that time a group of us from Muswell Hill in North London, including myself, my brother Danny, our friends Andy, Simon, John, Chris and Ben all had pen friends in the USA in the same town of North Massapequa on Long Island, NY. My pen friend, Jimmy, had already sent me lots of cuttings on Dylan from the US press and also a US copy of “Highway 61 Revisited” with the different liner notes and a copy of “Blonde On Blonde” several weeks before it was released over here. On my arrival at JFK in New York I somehow found my way on to the Long Island Railroad and discovered that Long Island was really long! I had thought I was going to be in New York itself and here I was right out in the suburbs. However Jimmy and his family really welcomed me and I soon made friends with all of our pen friends who were really excited to have someone from England in their midst. In fact one of the families put on a special barbeque just for my benefit. The father was a retired (at 40 years old having done 20 years on the force) New York Police Captain who had run the Stars and Stripes up the flagpole by the swimming pool, drank lots of beer and blamed me personally for the War of Independence!!

America Over The Water
Sitting in Washington Square Park on my first day in New York City. July 1967.

Anyway, by Friday I had worked out how to get into New York and went to a wonderful free concert in Central Park by Judy Collins who brought on, the then fairly unknown, Leonard Cohen to sing ‘Suzanne’ and ‘That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’. The next night I went to the Village Theatre to see a triple bill of Vanilla Fudge, The Seeds and The Byrds with a freshly permed (a la Jimi) Eric Clapton in the audience. At that show they gave out handbills advertising ‘Al Kooper’s Farewell Concert’ (before he emigrated to England!) at the Café Au Go Go the following Thursday. It said there would be special guests and I made up my mind that I had to be there.

WHO KNOWS WHERE THE TIME GOES

On Thursday July 27th 1967 I arrived at the Café Au Go Go for Al Kooper’s farewell concert. First on was Jack Andrews, who I’ve not heard of since, who sang Richard Farina’s ‘Swallow Song’ and four others. Then Al Kooper came on and played two acoustic numbers before being joined by Jim Fielder, Bobby Columby and Steve Katz. They played about eight songs before finishing with ‘I Can’t Quit Her’, which Kooper dedicated to the Statue of Liberty. Fairly appropriate as he never got around to leaving America!

America Over The Water
Overlooking Niagara Falls.

That weekend I met up with an English school friend who was working in New York and we took a Greyhound bus to see the Niagara Falls and then went on to Montreal to see Expo ’67. That was pretty amazing. I remember the USA pavilion was a wonderful geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller and containing some huge Andy Warhol paintings.

America Over The Water
The USA Pavilion and The USSR Pavilion.

Just a few days before the city of Detroit had been set on fire and at least twenty people had died, Stokeley Carmichael was calling for armed resistance against the government and Black Power was being born. I remember the tension in the air and armed Marines guarded the USA pavilion. 

Back in New York I went exploring armed with a list of addresses that I had compiled from magazines and album covers. I went to Broadside, Elektra, Vanguard, the Folklore Centre, the East Village Other and the office of Albert Grossman. At most of them I only got as far as the receptionist but they were all pleased that someone from England knew about them even if they wouldn’t let me in any further. I did manage to get the back issue of the Saturday Evening Post with Dylan on the cover and at the offices of the East Village Other I started chatting with a guy about Dylan. We talked a bit about which concerts we had been to and the he asked me if knew the different meanings of ‘rain’ in Dylan songs. He got a bit intense and it was only some years later that I realised that I had been talking to AJ Weberman! 

On August 4th I went to the Garrick Theatre in Greenwich Village to see the Mothers of Invention. That week the Fugs were also playing nearby and there was a competition going on to see who could be the more outrageous and offend the most people. The Mothers pulled members of the audience up on stage to be ritually humiliated and for a finale stripped and dismembered several life-size and very lifelike inflatable dolls. 

The next weekend I went up to Boston to stay with a family friend. They took me to Harvard and around Cambridge and then out to Cape Cod to eat lobster and clam chowder. We flew back from Cape Cod in a small six-seater aeroplane and I was allowed into the cockpit and to sit at the controls. From Boston I went to Worcester to stay with my second cousin and his wife and although they seemed very old to me (in their 50s) they showed me around that part of New England. As I left to return to New York they gave me an envelope full of beautiful postcards. It was only when I was back in New York that I found it also contained $200, which back then was a lot of money. Before leaving Boston though I went to Club 47 to see the Chambers Brothers. I had just missed Tom Rush and Eric Von Schmidt and was a week too early for Richie Havens and Tim Buckley.

America Over The Water
Flyer advertising acts at Club 47 in August 1967.

On Wednesday, August 16th at 5.35pm I boarded a greyhound bus heading west. Before leaving England I had purchased a ‘Go Anywhere’ Greyhound ticket that was valid for 99 days and cost just $99! The bus was a through one to San Francisco stopping for just one and a half hours in Chicago and again in Salt Lake City. In Chicago I remember seeing a large wrought iron sculpture by Picasso

America Over The Water
Picasso sculpture in front of Chicago Civic centre.

and in Salt Lake City going down an escalator into the headquarters of the Mormon Church and ‘borrowing’ quite a bit of stationary to write home with. Also on the journey I can remember waking up at about 3am as we travelled through Nebraska to the smell of pot wafting up the aisle. As we crossed the State Line into Nevada we stopped at a service station in the middle of nowhere that was full of nothing but slot machines and one-armed bandits and everyone was in constant use even though it was only 7am and that included the ones in the gents’ toilets! After a somewhat exhausting ride I finally arrived in San Francisco at 10.30am on Monday August 21st

I took the local bus across the bridge to Oakland where I was going to stay with my 80-year-old great uncle Robert. He and his wife were delighted to see me and showed me the paper they had saved from the week before of George Harrison, in his heart shaped sunglasses walking through Haight-Ashbury. That was where I would soon be heading.

BE SURE TO WEAR SOME FLOWERS IN YOUR HAIR

The first thing I discovered was how to tune in to local radio station KYA ‘The sound of San Francisco’ whose current top 20 featured the Box Tops “The Letter”, the Animals “San Francisco Nights”, the Beatles “All You Need Is Love”, Donovan “There is a Mountain”, Buffalo Springfield “Bluebird”, the Doors “Light My Fire”, Jimi Hendrix “Purple Haze”, Jefferson Airplane “White Rabbit” and the Beach Boys “Heroes and Villains”. This was to be the soundtrack to my summer. 

I went exploring, down to Fisherman’s Wharf, across the Golden Gate Bridge, on a cable car, up and down the twisting Lombard Street, out to Alcatraz and of course all around Haight-Ashbury. I found out where the Fillmore and Avalon ballrooms were and explored Golden Gate Park with its gold statue of Buddha and its Japanese Tearoom.

America Over The Water
A hippie child in a fountain in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

I went to see the Butterfield Blues Band and Cream at the Fillmore followed two days later by Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin at the Avalon Ballroom.

America Over The Water
Postcard advertising Big Brother & The Holding Company at Avalon Ballroom. San Francisco.

Next I was off to the Encore Theatre to see a production of Michael McClure’s play “The Beard” which is about an encounter between Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow in Heaven. Jean Harlow was played by Billie Dixon and she had a phrase that she kept repeating

Before you can get any secrets from me
You must find the real me
Which one will you pursue?

America Over The Water
Ticket stub for “The Beard”.

Before the play had started we watched the stage hands preparing the sparse set and putting out the few props as we listened to Bob Dylan (One Too Many Mornings), the Coasters (Searchin’), the Stones (High and Dry), Them (Mystic Eyes) Yardbirds (I’m A Man), Jefferson Airplane (Somebody To Love), Rolling Stones (Lady Jane) and finally Bob Dylan (Memphis Blues Again). 

Then it was back to the Fillmore to see Cream again, this time supported by Mike Bloomfield’s new group The Electric Flag and Gary Burton.

America Over The Water
Postcard advertising Cream and The Electric Flag at The Fillmore, San Francisco.

Cream played two sets featuring a 15 minute version of “Spoonful” as well as “Tales of Brave Ulysses”, “Sunshine of Your Love”, “NSU”, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” and a fine take on Eric’s theme tune from his time with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers –“Stepping Out” featuring a ten minute guitar solo.

America Over The Water
The Electric Flag - Mike Bloomfield 2nd from left; Cream - Eric Clapton far right.

I next made a trip down the California Coastline to visit Sausalito and take in Cannery Row before heading off to the Monterey Fairgrounds to see Joan Baez in concert.

America Over The Water
Flyer and ticket stub for Joan Baez concert in Monterey.

She told us we were more reserved than her previous audience in New Jersey but gave us a great concert starting with Paul Simon’s “Dangling Conversation” and also including “Silver Dagger”, “As Tears Go By”, “Eleanor Rigby”, “Turquoise”, “Scarlet Ribbons”, and three by Dylan “Daddy You’ve Been On My Mind”, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “Its All Over Now Baby Blue”. She finished by singing “Want My Freedom Now” to the tune of “Land of 1000 Dances” and finally “We Shall Overcome”. 

After the show there were no buses back to San Francisco so I took my trusty sleeping bag down to the beach and went to sleep under the stars to the sound of the Pacific Ocean lapping at the shore. When I awoke in the morning I was surprised to see that I seemed to be in the middle of some large rocks. I was sure it was just a sandy beach when I went to sleep. Retrieving my glasses I found that I was surrounded by a group of seals! 

Back in San Francisco I caught a bus to Los Angeles (which I had not appreciated was some 500 miles south). Arriving in the early afternoon I made my way, on foot, towards my destination, the Cinema Theatre at 1122 North Western in the Hollywood Hills to see Bob Dylan in “Don’t Look Back”. I sat through it twice really pleased I had made the trip from San Francisco. In between the two performances they played side one of the first Velvet Underground album. I next made my way to the Whiskey-A-Go-Go to see the Byrds play two sets before, at about 4am, making my way back to the Bus Station for the journey back north. Still it was cheaper than a hotel even if I was in LA for less than 24 hours. 

Then in my final week on the West Coast I made two trips to each of the different theatres run by The Committee. First to see their production of “America Hurrah” on Montgomery Street and then two days later to their “Improvised Satirical Revue” with Carl Gottlieb on Broadway. At the latter they got the audience to suggest ideas to be improvised. First they gave us a choice of genre such as historical, comedy, musical, tragedy etc and then they asked for a line from a poem or song that they could build a sketch around. I shouted out ‘you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows’ and someone else suggested Shakespeare and in less than a couple of minutes they produced the required sketch. Very good it was too! 

In between my trips to the theatre I watched Mimi Farina on TV from Golden Gate Park singing Tuli Kupferberg’s “Morning” and Dino Valente’s “Lets Get Together”. I also made a final trip to the Fillmore to see The Byrds.

America Over The Water
The Byrds – Crosby and McGuinn.

America Over The Water
The Byrds -  Hillman and Crosby.

My last outing before I was due to head back to New York was to go to watch the crowd outside the Presidio Cinema for the Premiere of Andy Warhol’s “The Chelsea Girls”. Sure enough a large American automobile arrived and out got Andy Warhol, Ultra Violet and Nico. They stood around for photos and then went in where they chatted to the audience and had a cup of coffee and generally hung out and made themselves available to anyone who wanted a word or a picture.

America Over The Water
Andy Warhol and Ultra Violet at The Presido Cinema, San Francisco.

 

BY THE TIME I GOT TO WOODSTOCK

On Monday September 11th I took a Greyhound east and three days later arrived back in New York where I immediately took a Trailways bus to upstate New York and the town of Woodstock!

What was I doing? I’m not sure that I knew. As far as the world knew Dylan had been in a motorcycle crash the previous July and was still recuperating. Did I expect to find him? Not really but you never know do you. Greyhound didn’t operate a service and it was only after I had got there that I discovered there was no bus until the next day. I walked around and discovered that the local theatre, “The Woodstock Playhouse” was home to the Hudson Valley Reparatory Company who were performing Joan Littlewood’s “Oh What a Lovely War!” So I would at least have entertainment for the evening even if I didn’t know where I was going to stay.

America Over The Water
Programme cover for ‘Oh What A Lovely War’.

Then two amazing things happened. I had found the Café Espresso where I had seen a photo, in the French magazine “Salut Les Copains!”, of Dylan playing chess outside. As I was walking away from the café towards the Woodstock Bakery to get a roll or something to eat a Ford Station Wagon parked outside and the driver got out and went in. Something about him seemed familiar and as he came out I was almost sure it was Robbie Robertson. He got back into the driver’s seat and passed something to his passenger. Quickly plucking up my courage I approached the car and bent down to the driver’s window and asked for directions to the Woodstock Playhouse explaining that I was English and here on holiday. To my embarrassment it was almost within sight but I got my directions. The man in the passenger seat didn’t say a word but I turned to thank him any way. It was as near as I was ever going to be to Bob Dylan! 

As I wandered off in a bit of a daze I came across a small boy playing with a ball as he walked along the street behind a young woman who I assumed was his mother. He lost control of the ball and I passed it back to him. He said thank you and I said don’t mention it. His mum heard my English accent and we started talking. Within minutes I had a companion for the theatre and somewhere to spend the night. 

The next day I headed back to New York for a final dose of culture before flying home to London at the end of the week I went to see the Albert Ayler Quintet at Slugs in the East Village followed by a showing of Andy Warhol’s “I A Man, Tom Baker”. 

My final outing was to the Café Au-Go-Go to see Canned Heat and BB King. After BB King had played I could see him in the bar area talking to two men who I took to be his managers - they had that sort of Peter Grant, Don Arden, Albert Grossman kind of look. I went over and had a word too and they were amazed that anyone from England would know about BB King. They told me to hang around if I wanted to see and hear something special. BB King did his final set and then invited Elvin Bishop from the Butterfield Blues Band up to join him and he in turn brought up Eric Clapton. 

Together they jammed for about an hour playing just two different numbers on which they all three took turns to take extended guitar solos. A night worth waiting around for. 

On Thursday September 21st 1967 I said farewell to my American pen friends from Farmingdale and Massapequa and boarded a plane for London. My American adventure was over but I had, and still have, some wonderful memories.

America Over The Water
Waiting for the plane home with my pen friend Jim and his girlfriend Holly.

 
 
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