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I’VE GOT THEM OL’ COSMIC
FILLMORE EAST BLUES AGAIN

by Charlie Finch
 
Whit czar Adam Weinberg grinned at the press preview for "Summer of Love," the celebration of ‘60s youth culture that rocks two floors of the Madison Avenue museum.

"Did you pick up your tab of acid in the lobby, Charlie?" he asked.

"Gee, Adam, you aren’t even providing coffee for the press at 10 in the morning. Perhaps you were afraid that someone would spike it!"

In honor of the Whitney’s psychedelia exhibition, here, dear readers, is a piece on my teenage days at the Fillmore East, originally published in 1988 in the long defunct Metro magazine. . . Trip out!

*     *     *
Oh to be 16 again, dangling your legs over the balcony rail at the Fillmore East, a big bag of weed on your lap, your longhaired, free-loving babe snuggling your shoulder, and a sheet of water-pure windowpane acid in the pocket of your flannel shirt. On stage, the most beautiful woman in the world, Grace Slick, leans against an amp, intoning her immortal Bear Melt while the oil-based mandalas of Joshua Light bounce around her. Bliss!

Just remembering the bills I saw at Bill Graham’s East Village pleasure palace sends flashbacks up my spine: The Dead, Love and the Allman Brothers; The Mothers of Invention and the Youngbloods; The Kinks and the Byrds. Of course, there were the phenomenal Jefferson Airplane concerts that were always followed the next day by an even longer, better, more cosmic, free set in Central Park. And who can forget those weird Fillmore opening acts: Sea Train, The Sons of Champlin, Stone the Crows and a guy named Chris who played gongs with various parts of his body and always opened for the Airplane?

Fillmore habitués were divided into two classes: Airplane freaks (like yours truly) and Deadheads. Each liked and respected the other’s group, attending each others’ gigs, but there were differences. For Airplane freaks, Ms. Slick was Alpha and Omega, her searing voice and long dark hair riding the chuggachuggachugga of Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen. Marty Balin and Paul Kantner took stage turns as her consort. The Airplane had a driving sexuality and a commitment to the ethic of free love that drove a true acidhead couple to the heights of ecstasy.

The Dead’s main icon at the time was not so much Jerry Garcia as that ultimate biker Ron McKernan (a.k.a. Pigpen). The pig has a gravelly voice, no commercial potential and was a primo stagehog. Deadheads, a bit alienated and often unable to get laid, strongly identified with Pig’s sense of danger and self-destruction. Yet it cannot be denied that the Dead made their best music in 1967-69, with the immortal discs Anthem of the Sun and Aoxamocoa (pronounced "Wazamozoa"). These records, along with the Dead’s best tune, Dark Star, were the Kant and Kierkegaard of LSD philosophy. Who was St. Stephen, anyway? (He was Stephen Gaskins, the head of a Memphis cult which supported itself by marketing molasses.) The Dead philosophy embodied the acceptance of mortality and timelessness: "he knows he has to die" is the main refrain of Anthem. The Angels, the leather, the menacing Pigpen turned each Dead gig into a crystal ship moving towards the heart of darkness.

Dead concerts put the green-shirted staff of the Fillmore East on red alert, though these ushers were lambs compared to today’s steel-brained club bouncers. The biker fraternity hung around the Fillmore’s bathrooms looking to pick up badges of courage: a knife fight or an overdose. At the Airplane concerts, the johns were reserved for nymphettes and free love.

The dominant dude at the Fillmore East was the Brooklyn-born ex-crony of Frank Sinatra, Bill Graham, who seemed to cross the country as if by magic from his West Coast clubs, Fillmore West and Winterland, on any given weekend.

Graham argued with audiences from the stage, checked crowds at the door and engaged in harangues with those protesting the high price of tickets ($4!). One-time performance pioneers Julian Beck, Judith Malina and the Living Theater attempted to turn the FIllmore East into a free theater, only to have Graham drive them out in defense of his right to make a profit. But, the Fillmore had no drug busts, there was always a doctor in the house and vibes were good. The intimate lower balcony and steep cheap seats put everyone on top of the stage. Graham even provided cute little programs, which are probably worth a fortune in flea markets.

In many ways the crowd was the show. Frank Zappa habitually sent most of his band members, like Native American drummer Jimmy Carl Black, into the aisles for the duration, dancing and choogling. Banana of the Youngbloods brought young girls on stage to tinkle his piano, and Pigpen used to leap into the first row. As most of the audience used psychedelics, contact highs were common. No fear of sex, no burnout, just free love. Instead of old winos, beautiful 14-year-old girls in beads and shawls, just in from the coast, panhandled in the lobby.

It’s sad to trace the demise of rock in New York. The long ago ’60s created great clubs like Steve Paul’s Scene, Ungano’s and Cafe Au GoGo, where Hendrix and Clapton were regulars. The few years of the Fillmore East gave way to the Academy of Music and CBGB’s. Now we’ve got an aimless club scene and arena concerts. If only we could turn back the hands of time!


CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).



 



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