To paraphrase Bette Davis in All About Eve: “Fasten your seat belts, kids, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
I can tell you the entire story of the downfall and eventual long, slow, sad Death of Rock & Roll in one fell swoop in a single story about The New York Dolls at Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium, 41 years ago today, Sunday, May 19th, 1974.
As you can see from my tickets reproduced below, it was a pretty big week for rock & roll in my little hometown of Columbus, Ohio. I saw the Dolls on Sunday the 19th, The Eagles at Mershon the next Saturday, May 25th, and Mott The Hoople the next night, Sunday, May 26th. I fully acknowledge that the 1970’s were indeed the heyday of live rock & roll concerts, but I must point out: Columbus did NOT routinely get three acts of that rock pedigree in seven days’ time; it was definitely an aberration.
Anyway, what does this have to do with The Death of Rock & Roll? I’ll tell ya. The Eagles show and Mott The Hoople sold out the 2500-seat capacity Mershon Auditorium. The New York Dolls drew 150 people to the 3000-seat capacity Vet’s Memorial. I couldn’t believe it. When my girlfriend (and later wife) Pat and I arrived at the show that warm Sunday evening there were a scattering of cars in the huge Vet’s parking lot, and nobody going into the show. “Oooooh man, the show must be cancelled,” I moaned to Pat, dispiritedly. Shows were constantly getting cancelled and/or rescheduled back in those pre-Rock As Big Business early 1970’s times. Drug problems, sick band members, routing problems, missed flights, equipment truck breakdowns all contributed to missed shows back in the day. Art and commerce were still somewhat separate then.
“Let’s get a refund and see if the show’s rescheduled,” I said to Pat as we walked up the steps to Vet’s. Weirdly, there was a full crew of ushers in the Vet’s lobby. I walked up to one of the ushers who had been a friend of my dad’s (see last month’s Vet’s part 4 installment) and said, “Is the show cancelled?” “No,” he said, tearing my ticket. “Then why aren’t there any cars in the parking lot?” I asked. “Because there aren’t any people in the venue,” he replied, pointing over his shoulder.
I just couldn’t figure any of this out as Pat and I crossed the deserted lobby & concession area and walked up the steps to our balcony seats. (In those days I always bought front row balcony seats and brought a little portable Panasonic tape recorder to tape the shows on. I put the recorder right on the balcony overhang and got great sound right off the stage with minimal crowd noise. It was great.) There were four people in the entire balcony: Pat & me and one other couple, who soon joined the “crowd” downstairs.
I couldn’t believe my eyes looking down at the main floor of Vet’s: the first ten rows weren’t even full. The ENTIRE MAIN FLOOR was all but empty. Ladies & gentlemen; that was not what happened at rock & roll shows in 1974. Since the Woodstock Festival in 1969, rock & roll shows SOLD OUT Vet’s Memorial. And it really didn’t much matter WHO PLAYED at Vet’s: it still sold out. Aerosmith, Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band, Rush, Frank Zappa, Foghat, etc. all sold out Vet’s. Christ, the fucking Mahavishnu Orchestra sold out Vet’s Memorial. (But they had Aerosmith opening, that’s a whole other blog for another month.)
Creem magazine – my Rock & Roll Bible of those days – had been telling me for over a year that The New York Dolls were The Next Big Thing, and I had no reason not to believe them. As far as I knew, until that May evening, the Dolls were selling out 3000-seat venues (or bigger, I assumed, in cities like Boston, Detroit & L.A.). This, folks, was definitely a rude awakening.
I really believed to my soul that 1974 was going to be the year that The Great Rock & Roll Reset would kick in. (Reboot was not yet a term anyone outside a few scientist computer nerds in white lab coats would be familiar with.) The New York Dolls would become the New Rolling Stones and Mick ‘n’ Keith & company would retire pleasantly to their English mansions and while away their remaining days playing cribbage, growing roses and/or shooting heroin; Mott The Hoople would become the New Bob Dylan and Mr. Zimmerman would live out his dotage in a Woodstock – the town, not the festival – idyll (actually, that very nearly happened); Elliott Murphy & Bruce Springsteen would be Assistant New Dylans, or at least replace the likes of Van Morrison and Crosby, Stills & Nash in the Singer/Songwriter Sweepstakes. I wasn’t sure who The New Who were gonna be, because Cheap Trick hadn’t been invented yet to my knowledge, it was at least another year before I saw Rick & Robin and the boys open for some long-forgotten lame hard-rock act at the Columbus Agora.
I wasn’t sure who The New Beatles were going to be. I think I figured they were just Too Big, Too Outsized, Too Iconic to be replaced. We would just have to do without.
So after an opening set by a seven-piece, all-female, funk/boogie band (with a horn section!) called Isis – no association with the current Mideast terrorist organization that I’m aware of, although they WERE torturous – The Dolls came out and, truthfully, THEY WERE WEAK. It was the first time I realized that big-time rock critics might be ENTIRELY FULL OF SHIT.
The Dolls couldn’t BEGIN to fill up the big stage at Vet’s, they stayed crowded together like they were in a small club or a bar; the sound – because the huge Vet’s expanse was ESSENTIALLY EMPTY – was just boomy & terrible; and – worst of all – those motherfuckers just DID NOT KNOW how to play their instruments. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know that was what all the 1960’s Batdorf & Rodney and Grateful Dead hippies that the Dolls were supposed to wipe off the face of the Earth said about them, but unfortunately – and I was an incredibly sympathetic first-hand witness, ready to give David Johansen & friends every benefit of the doubt – THEY COULD NOT PLAY.
Don’t get me wrong, the songs were – and still are right up to when I was blastin’ ‘em on CD today – great, but once Johnny Thunders & the gang got OUTSIDE of those song structures, they were finished. Case in point, the Dolls went into a jam in the middle of “There’s Gonna Be A Showdown” from Too Much Too Soon and COULD NOT FIND THEIR WAY BACK INTO THE SONG! They muddled around for a full minute while guitarists Sylvain Sylvain & Thunders and bassist Arthur Kane tried to find the beat, then just simply petered out to a full stop before drummer Jerry Nolan counted off 1-2-3-4! and they lurched back into the last verse. It was humiliating. To this day I have never witnessed a major band demonstrate that big a trainwreck onstage.
I thought things would get better. I desperately WANTED – almost PRAYED – for things to get better, thought maybe the band just had to get warmed-up, but it never got better. At one point, while the band was pissing around between songs, trying to get their guitars in some semblance of tune, I yelled “DO SOMETHING AMAZING!” from the balcony. Johansen looked up into the stage lights, almost smiled, then shook his head like he knew there wasn’t gonna be anything amazing to be had that night in Columbus.
The first time I saw Kiss top-billed over the Dolls in Cleveland later that year, I knew things were all over. I discerned from the beginning that Kiss was just Deep Purple or Uriah Heep in comic book get-up’s, but it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter how good the Dolls songs or records were, if you couldn’t deliver the goods LIVE to the stoned, bluejeaned masses in the Great Midwest, all the rock critics on the East & West Coasts couldn’t save you. (Further, my love for the 1973-1978 Aerosmith knows no bounds. They pinched just enough from the Dolls – attitude-wise and fashion-wise – with the added bonus of ACTUALLY KNOWING HOW TO TUNE & PLAY THEIR INSTRUMENTS.)
So here we are in the 21st century, in 2015. The Who played Columbus last Friday night. Bob Dylan played Columbus last Saturday night. KANSAS, for fuck's sake, played Newark's Midland Theater a coupla weeks ago. The Rolling Stones are playing May 30th. Rush is playing June 8th. We never exactly got that Rock & Roll Reset I was lookin’ for 41 years ago today.
Up to 1974 or so, rock & roll was a living, breathing thing: Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly & Little Richard gave way to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Velvet Underground and The Kinks who should’ve given way to Elliott Murphy, Mott The Hoople, The Modern Lovers, the Dwight Twilley Band and The New York Dolls, who would then have given way to some group of bands in the early 1980’s, and so on.
Instead, right around 1975 the instigators of what would become Classic Rock Radio decided that we were all gonna listen to The Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and, yes, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Bob Dylan, and Rush for the REST OF OUR NATURAL LIVES. And then – after we were sick enough of Bob Seger’s “Turn The Page” to puke in our mouths every time it came on Q-FM 96 – then we’d start puttin’ the songs in COMMERCIALS, thereby sucking every last iota of vitality, life & integrity of the Baby Boomer’s precious rock & roll.
I should’ve seen it coming that Sunday night in 1974, but I didn’t. I see it now. – Ricki C. / May 17th, 2015
(By the way, it was this 1974 Dolls show that sparked my "celebrity encounter" with David Johansen detailed in my Exchanging Pleasantries With David Johansen blog in Growing Old With Rock & Roll.)
Shows I Saw at Vet's Memorial May Honorable Mentions
May 14th, 1968 / Cream
May 11th, 1969 / Janis Joplin & the Full Tilt Boogie Band
May 3rd, 1970 / Sly & the Family Stone (instead of attending my senior prom, exactly the right choice)
May 2nd, 1974 / The Mahavishnu Orchestra w/ Aerosmith opening (more on this in September)