Saturday, January 5, 2019

West Pole (KQED-TV, KQED Experimental Television, 1968)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I decided to run Charles a package of two music programs from KQED, the PBS outlet in the San Francisco Bay Area, made in the late 1960’s on the San Francisco psychedelic-rock scene. Both were produced by Ralph J. Gleason, the jazz critic for the San Francisco Chronicle who discovered the local rock bands in the mid-1960’s and wrote articles hyping them — he even published an entire book called The Jefferson Airplane and the San Francisco Sound which consisted of a long essay on the history of the San Francisco rock scene and extended interviews he did with all the members of Jefferson Airplane (as it then existed) as well as Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. I had strong memories of one of the programs in the package, West Pole (the title being a Gleason inspiration to suggest that the polar attraction in American music just then was to the West in general and San Francisco in particular), which featured music videos of four of the key bands on the San Francisco scene — the Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Steve Miller Band — along with live performances of two bands Gleason considered among the strongest up-and-comers, Sons of Champlin and Ace of Cups. I ran across this on while I was looking for material on the Ace of Cups, a fascinating all-woman rock band from the late 1960’s (a decade earlier than the Runaways and a far, far better and more interesting group), especially since they just reunited in their 70’s and did their first studio album at long last. A previous collections of demos and live tapes from their heyday in the late 1960’s was issued in 2004 as It’s Bad for You but Buy It — the title is a line from a song called “Glue” that satirizes advertising and sounds like one of the great women-led punk bands of the late 1970’s: the Patti Smith Group, the Pretenders and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Elsewhere the Ace of Cups occasionally look back to the girl-group harmonies of the early 1960’s — they were a five-piece and all five members sang, while all but one of them did lead vocals — successfully grafted onto the basic acid-rock style of most of the San Francisco bands. 

Charles called the Ace of Cups “the discovery of this program,” and that they are: they did three songs — “Music,” an a cappella number singing the praises of music and how it can get you through tough times (“We got no money to pay the rent/And what we earn tonight, you know it’s already spent/But baby said don’t worry if times are hard/Just before the dawn it always gets this dark/And when you get so black you think the end is near/Just one moment and the stars appear”) which the Ace of Cups routinely used to open their shows and sang on the new album from 2018 at the end; “Simplicity,” a good if somewhat rambling song they used after the video clips of the more famous bands; and a gorgeous ballad that’s haunted me ever since I watched this show originally (and taped — and frequently played back — the soundtrack, among other things waiting in vain for a full album of this incredible music) which I assumed was called “Listen to Your Children” but its “official” title is “Gospel Song.” In one way it is a gospel song — the lyrics are framed as a direct appeal to God — but in another way it’s a plea for older people to understand the young, a lyric theme that resonated in the political and social tumult of 1968 but also has relevance today: “Lord, oh Lord, will you listen to your children?” When the new Ace of Cups album was released it came with a blurb from Jackson Browne that said, “I’ve been waiting 45 years to hear this.” I’ve been waiting even longer — ever since West Pole first aired in 1968 — and it’s nice to have a two-CD set of new Ace of Cups music as well as the 2004 album of old demos (seemingly out of print as a physical CD but available from as a download) that includes “Gospel Song,” just in case you want to hear it. (You should.) “Gospel Song”’s aspect as an appeal both to divine and human authorities to respect and understand the challenges of rebellious youth was just emphasized by the decision of Gleason and his director and co-producer, Robert N. Zagone, to place it last on the program and run the closing credits over it. 

The other “new” band featured on West Pole, the Sons of Champlin (named after their lead singer, Bill Champlin, though after their first album they dropped his name from the band moniker and just called themselves “The Sons,” much the way the Chicago Transit Authority shortened their name to just “Chicago” after their first album) were a fairly large ensemble with horn players and a vibraharpist, obviously going for the same jazz-rock fusion that was selling records big-time for Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago (and indeed Bill Champlin would much later be one of the replacements Chicago drafted for their original lead singer and guitarist, Terry Kath, after he accidentally shot himself). They did a song on this program called “Have a Nice Time Being” that later became part of a much longer 13-minute medley called “Freedom” that took up an entire side of their two-LP debut on Capitol, Loosen Up Naturally. They never became huge national sellers but they did get on a major label and had respectable sales in the Bay Area and wherever they toured — a fate that eluded Ace of Cups, partly because their manager, Ron Poltz (who also handled Quicksilver Messenger Service), turned down the offers they got because he didn’t think they were lucrative enough, and also because the five members of the Ace of Cups were straight women who did the usual things straight women did in 1968 — they dated men, fell in love, married and had children. This stood in the way of their being recorded big-time because any label that signed them would be expecting them to tour in support of the record — and while they were willing to get babysitters so they could play Bay Area gigs and get home in the early morning, they weren’t willing to leave their kids behind for months to do a major tour. 

West Pole begins with a fascinating introduction narrated by Ralph J. Gleason (who not only appears on the soundtrack but is actually shown in the film introducing the various segments) comparing the San Francisco rock scene of the 1960’s to the Kansas City jazz scene of the 1930’s (he even quotes Mary Lou Williams, the superb pianist whose name meant nothing to me in 1968 and is now one of my very favorite musicians) and saying that the burgeoning bands in San Francisco had places to play because the ballrooms that had been open during the swing era and had showcased the great big bands still existed in San Francisco because they “had escaped urban renewal.” He mentioned the principal venues for the San Francisco rock bands — the Fillmore Auditorium (in the middle of San Francisco’s African-American district), the Avalon and the Carousel, though he does not mention the fierce rivalry between the Fillmore’s proprietor, tough, no-nonsense East Coast-bred businessman Bill Graham, and the more low-keyed Chet Helms who ran the Avalon. (The show briefly mentions Graham’s takeover of the Carousel and renaming it the “Fillmore West.” Within three years Graham would abruptly close both the Fillmore West and the Fillmore East, his New York venue that had previously been the Village Gate Theatre in Greenwich Village, saying that bands were demanding so much money it was neither fun nor profitable to keep going — though he remained a major rock concert promoter until his death in a helicopter crash in 1991.) 

The show features interviews with a number of San Francisco rock fans — many of whom are surprisingly clean-cut and don’t look like the stereotypical image of a hippie — asking them who are their favorite bands in the scene and why. One woman said Big Brother and the Holding Company was their favorite because Janis Joplin’s voice always made her feel good (Janis’s voice to me always carried a message of misery and despair even if she was singing a song whose lyrics and melody were, on their face, happy and upbeat) and a man said he liked the Jefferson Airplane better than Big Brother because when they finished a performance the members of the Airplane would talk to him and other fans, while the members of Big Brother standoffishly refused. Gleason also presented a list of 135 bands in and around San Francisco and admitted that his list was probably incomplete; it contains bands that were already stars (the Airplane, Dead, Quicksilver, Big Brother, Country Joe and the Fish, Moby Grape), bands that were relatively unknown then but would become stars (Creedence Clearwater Revival, Santana, Sly and the Family Stone) and a few that developed cult followings and made at least one album (A. B. Skhy — I can remember when MGM Records signed them and released their first album you could barely move in the Tower Records store in San Francisco amid all the crates full of copies of it — Sopwith Camel, Mother Earth, and It’s a Beautiful Day, which had at least one hauntingly beautiful song that became a cult classic, “White Bird”) and odd bands like Frumious Bandersnatch and the Thorstein Veblen Blues Band (Charles laughed out loud at the audacity of that name!) that never went anywhere. 

After that — and a quite beautiful impressionist sequence of the audiences at outdoor rock concerts set to a hauntingly beautiful extended song by Quicksilver Messenger Service from their first album called “The Fool” (named, like the Ace of Cups band, after a card in the Tarot deck) featuring some quite impressive sound effects — at one point the band sounds like a lion-taming act with leader John Cipollina’s guitar making both the noises of a lion’s roar and a lion tamer cracking a whip (which Cipollina said he produced by mounting a razor blade to his guitar pick and using it to scrape against the wound steel outer layer of his strings, then processing the sound through his wah-wah pedal) — come the music videos. Jefferson Airplane’s is set to a song called “Greasy Heart” that’s one of Grace Slick’s boom-it-out hard-rock specials — Slick’s voice didn’t have the desperate blues power of Joplin’s but it was quite an impressive instrument in its own right, and she had a much better band behind her than Joplin ever did. The Grateful Dead’s sequence is identified as just one song, “New Potato Caboose” (one of the trademarks of the psychedelic age is that bands named both themselves and their songs with these weird, seemingly meaningless combinations of adjectives and nouns — it was the Dead’s leader, Jerry Garcia, who suggested to the Jefferson Airplane that they call their second album Surrealistic Pillow), though there’s an audible break and change in tempo midway through the movie that suggests director Robert Wilson combined two songs. (Wilson made a number of live appearances showing his films in the San Francisco area and prepared a different version of this video in which the visual portion was exactly the same as the one in West Pole but it was set to other Grateful Dead music.) The Quicksilver sequence is a bit disappointing mainly because it’s set to one of their weaker songs, “Dino’s Song,” also known as “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party,” which just invites comparison to the much better song the Beatles wrote and sang under that title. 

Steve Miller is represented by a video of a song called “Sittin’ in Circles,” though earlier in the film they’re heard in a quite pop-sounding number called “Roll With It” to illustrate a sequence set at San Francisco International Airport supposedly illustrating just how many people were coming to the city to take part in the rock scene as musicians, fans or hangers-on. This one led Charles to ask me if San Francisco had had a major bubblegum rock scene as well as the adult-rock bands — they hadn’t, though one early San Francisco band had predated psychedelica and achieved a sort of stardom. They were the Beau Brummels, a five-piece from 1964 who (like a lot of bands then) were promoted as the “American Beatles” and were managed by Tom Donahue, later a D.J. who invented the so-called “free-form” style in which D.J.’s selected their own recordings instead of working to a strict management-ordered playlist and could freely mix genres. (Free-form radio was later shut down by the Federal Communications Commission on the ground that D.J.’s who could select their own records to play could easily be bribed by record companies to play their records, which was called “payola” and was illegal.) To produce the Beau Brummels’ recordings Donahue hired an African-American songwriter named Sylvester Stewart, who later became an artist himself and achieved international fame as Sly Stone. (The Beau Brummels made Gleason’s West Pole list of San Francisco bands even though they really weren’t part of the scene he was depicting.) What’s interesting about the music videos — to use the generic term even though this early they were shot on 16 mm color film, not videotape — on this program is how early the conventions of music video hardened into orthodoxy. Much of what you saw on MTV if you were around when it launched in the mid-1980’s was already in evidence here — the quick cuts, flashing images, photographic distortion and mere lip service played to the pretense of actually depicting a performance. (Through the Jefferson Airplane’s video one hears the band members singing but without their lips moving, and as I noted above the Grateful Dead film was so loosely sequenced around their music that director Robert Nelson later replaced its soundtrack with different Grateful Dead songs, and the film worked equally well.) 

West Pole is a fascinating historical curio for someone like me who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area while the scene was going on (though I wasn’t quite old enough to see much of it — my mom took me to several Jefferson Airplane concerts but I didn’t see the Grateful Dead until much later, and though I had a thrilling experience at one of their concerts which I was allowed to watch backstage I never became a Deadhead and mostly regarded them as highly overrated) and it’s a slice of history even for someone who didn’t (like Charles, who was living on the East Coast and whose age was still in single digits when all this was going on). It’s also indicative of the value of home video (and, now, streaming on YouTube and similar channels) that history like this is still preserved and still available — even though I no longer believe (if I ever did) Gleason’s assertion that by far the most powerful rock music being made in America in the late 1960’s was coming from San Francisco. At this point I think the most powerful rock bands in the U.S. at that time were the Velvet Underground from New York (whom Gleason wrote a particularly snotty review of when they came to San Francisco as part of Andy Warhol’s “Exploding Plastic Inevitable,” an attempt to duplicate the San Francisco rock experience and turn it into Manhattan chic; Gleason called them “The Velvet Underpants” and ridiculed them for doing a song about S/M while two dancers did an onstage act with whips) and the Doors from Los Angeles; of the San Francisco bands the Jefferson Airplane hold up beautifully but the Grateful Dead (especially now that their founder, Jerry Garcia, has died and taken the mystique with him) just sound boring and Big Brother and the Holding Company were an otherwise mediocre rock band that lucked into hiring a fabulous singer, Janis Joplin.