New York, New York
On Tuesday, October 30th 1968 at ten o?clock at night, I received a phone call from a friend of mine named Eric Sepler who was involved in the psychedelic light show business like I was. My friend explained that he had been given three free tickets to the Fillmore in New York City for Halloween night but unfortunately he couldn?t attend. Would I like to have them? I didn?t bother to hang up the phone, I just jumped in the car and set a land speed record over to his place in Takoma Park. After thanking my friend profusely, I drove home trying to think of some way to get to New York City. Then I thought of Bill, another friend who had his own car, an Oldsmobile Rocket 88. I called him to see if he was interested and he was wild for the idea. He suggested that we take our mutual friend Paul along with us. However neither of us knew his number and it was well after eleven pm by then. So we decided to drive to Northwestern High School the next morning and shanghai him right out of class.
The next morning, Bill pulled up in front of my house fifteen minutes late. Bill was always late; he was a black man who fancied Jimi Hendrixesque clothing and spent inordinate time primping. His old Oldsmobile was the definitive definition of bomb: the engine guttered phlegmatically, the tailpipe disgorged thick smoke and the green paint was so faded, it looked olive. I don?t believe that car had ever been washed and waxed in its lifetime. We roared up to the high school and ran through the doors just as the first period bell rang. With auspicious luck, we caught Paul leaving his home room and excitedly demanded that he come with us to the Fillmore. It only took him one nanosecond to comprehend the import of our quest and his face became as inspired as ours.
I had never ridden with Bill and it was a hair-raising surprise; he drove recklessly and too fast without observing any traffic laws. We roared up Route 95 like the proverbial Rocketship 88. I had to look out the passenger side window just to keep my heart from hammering with fear. When we crossed the state line into Delaware, we made the obligatory pit stop at Stuckey?s for gas. After filling the tank, we had about two dollars in change between us. The wild ride was boisterous with anticipation. Paul was a pretty good singer and guitar player and was enamored with the Beatles ?White Album.? Neither Bill nor I were good singers but the three of us sang Beatles songs all the way to New York City. Due to Bill?s lead foot, we made it in just three hours and fifteen minutes!
The only time I had been to New York was a one day trip with my family to the 1964 World?s Fair in Flushing. Entering the city proper was a whole different ball game. Bill had brought a road map but all it did was get us even loster. We were stuck on the west side of the island while the Fillmore was on the east side and we couldn?t figure out how to get there. At one point, we ended up driving down Wall Street the wrong way! So we decided to just park the car in a lot and take a bus crosstown. A curiously ominous event occurred during the ride. As we passed some kind of open plaza, I saw Richard Nixon surrounded by five hundred New York cops while speaking to a huge crowd of people. We eventually descended from the bus at six pm a few blocks from the Fillmore. The bus fare had reduced our fiduciary assets to just 75 cents.
The slate of bands that played that night was not as spectacular as we had hoped. The first act was The McCoys, the first time they had been allowed to play at the Fillmore due to their ?bubblegum? reputation. However their leader Rick Springfield later had a number of nice hits including Dream Weaver. The second act was a group called Cat Mother which didn?t impress me at all. The last act featured Buddy Miles, a massive black drummer who thunderously pounded his drums while singing lead vocals. However there were two famous light shows working that night, Headlights from behind the translucent screen and Pablo from the front row of the balcony where we were seated. The tickets we had received from Eric were courtesy of one of the members of Pablo.
After the McCoys? performance, we wandered back down to the lobby to hang out. While standing in front of the men?s room, a guy with a British accent wandered out and bummed a cigarette from me. Bill was wearing his usual flat Spanish sombero, bell bottoms, a silk neckerchief and a cape. He was talking to another black guy who was dressed exactly the same way but even more flamboyantly. It took me a while to realize that it was Jimi Hendrix! I quickly scooted on over and asked him if he was going to play that night. He replied no, he had only come to see his friend Buddy play. He shook Bill?s hand and walked off. That was the kind of cool cat Jimi was: unlike other rock stars, he was willing to talk to anyone anytime anywhere. It was then that I realized that the guy who bummed the cigarette off me was Jimi?s drummer, Mitch Mitchell.
The show finally ended at two am. The three of us were flat broke by this time. The Fillmore emptied out surprisingly fast: first there was a big rush, then suddenly the streets were completely deserted! This was not what one would expect from the city that never sleeps, certainly not on Halloween night. Nevertheless there wasn?t anyone around that we could panhandle for subway fare. So with no other recourse, we started walking westward across the island toward Bill?s car. With New York?s reputation, we didn?t expect to make it without getting mugged. We could hear what sounded like rioting echoing down the concrete canyons. Curiously there wasn?t any traffic either, so we started walking down the middle of the street because we were too afraid to walk on the sidewalks. About a half hour later, we amazingly reached the parking lot safely. But the car key was still locked in the little kiosk. We were debating whether to break in when the flashlight hit us. The police officer kindly showed us that the key was stashed under the windshield flap. We joyously jumped in and said farewell to New York. Thank you officer, that was very kind.
When we hit the Jersey Turnpike, Bill said he couldn?t stay awake any longer. So I offered to drive while he and Paul crash in the back seat. I enjoyed cruising down the highway in that big gunboat while reminiscing about the night?s events. That is until I feel asleep behind the wheel. . . and woke up doing sixty down the shoulder with the guardrail six inches away. I slowed down and stopped, totally freaked out. Then I woke Bill and Paul. We agreed that two people had to stay awake at all times. Paul took his turn at the wheel while Bill kept him awake with chatter and I caught some shuteye in the rear seat. We continued trading off all night and finally made it back to College Park at seven in the morning. Since I was a roadie for many rock bands from the mid Sixties to the mid Seventies, I experienced numerous road trip adventures but none quite as memorable or affecting as this one.
On a Sunday morning in late June of ?69, I received a phone call from Bill. He wanted to drive to Atlantic City to attend the final day of a weekend rock festival at the Atlantic City Speedway. We didn?t leave until ten am and within one hour, one of the tires went flat. We removed it and rolled it to the nearest service station where we exchanged it for one in the discarded tire pile in back of the station. This tire lasted another hour when we had to repeat the process. And then a third time! By now, we were finally approaching Atlantic City but Bill recklessly ran a stop sign and smashed into another car. The fender of the Oldsmobile was dented so badly, he couldn?t turn the wheel but somehow we made to another gas station where we borrowed a sledgehammer and beat the fender back enough so that we could continue on.
We didn?t arrive at the racetrack until six pm and jumped the fence. The Mothers were playing. I was a big Zappa fan and their performance was a joy to behold. Then the Airplane came on, another favorite of mine since two of its members were from my neighborhood, Takoma Park. And to top the evening off, wonder of wonders, Little Richard played a set. The entire crowd went nuts, standing for the entire performance and jitterbugging for all they were worth. Even the security guards were dancing! By some strange occurrence, we met another high school chum there who had a motel room. He and his five companions were staying over one more night so they could go for swim in the ocean the next day. This sounded wonderful, so I decided to stay with them. Bill wanted to leave, so I gave him all my cash for gasoline and he drove off. This was the last time I ever saw Bill. I hope he made it home safely.