Friday, June 21, 2019

Guest Blog on Al Smith and the History of Music by Dodi Shepard

Al Smith by Bobby Colomby

Al and his daughter Caroline

And granddaughter Dodi

Dodi is a musician with the Cannibal Girls. 

Blogger's note.
For years now, we've listened to Al Smith's stories about war and counterculture, 
drugs and the Lower East Side, music and revolution, Black Panthers and Jimi Hendrix, 
Aaron Copland and Allen Ginsberg, and his journey from playing klezmer music in the Catskills, 
to classical at Julliard to Rock and Roll in the 1960's when he introduced Caroline to Jimi at the Cafe Au Go Go. I've often thought we could learn a mini histoy of music if we listened to Al talk enough.  This spring Cannibal Girls base player Dodi and I listened to Al tell a few stories.  Dodi and I chatted about it.  She wrote some notes.  The following is a brief history of music through Al's life, and a testament to intergenerational sharing and oral history.
May the circle be unbroken. 

My grandad grew up telling my father stories of his life as a beatnik in the 50’s, with Allen Ginsberg and San Francisco. My mother’s father now tells me of his life as a hippie, musician and manager during the 60’s and 70’s: through the prime of the Vietnam war and civil rights movement. Spending time with the Black Panthers, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Hall and Oates, Mott the Hoople and many more; I wondered how he was so lucky to be there and then with everything happening. He told me it was simply the “Forest Gump” effect; he was purely there at the right place and the right time. Live Aid, Woodstock, CBGB’s, and Max’s Kansas City: this might might have been the “Forrest Gump” effect, but it took him through the cross cultural currents of the era.

My grandfather Al grew up in Monticello, New York in the early 20th century. His parents were from Poland, and owned a farm and a garment shop in upstate New York. He spent his summers on the farm with the other New Yorkers who came upstate, and his winters going to school there. As a child, his parents did not play music at home; the first time he was introduced to it was at school. He started playing sax and clarinet obsessively. To his surprise, he was accepted into Julliard, one of the most prestigious music schools in the country. This was his way into the music world. At school, he played in free jazz bands, and then began to become involved in sound production. One time, in a jazz performance band, he was to open for The Byrds when they were still new, at a small space in upstate New York. Al overheard the singer talking to some of the kids who attended the show asking questions. One kid asked what he needed to do to start a great band. The singer responded that you needed a soundman, someone to make sure everything was working at practice and on stage. That without a soundman, every performance there was no guarantee if the music would the amplify from the stage to the audience. He pointed to theirs, “Chipmonk,” he was nicknamed, a highly prominent and influential character in the scene.

Throughout the late 50’s and early 60’s music forever changed. Electric instruments, amplifiers and microphones altered sound completely. Al Smith became immersed in sound, so he enrolled in Trade school and shortly after started working for the RCA institute, the first ever sound production company. This changed everything. His new training opened the door for him to work with bands. Cafe Au Go Go was his spot. Located in the Greenwich village, it provided a place for the most popular bands to play: Cream, BB king, Paul butterfield, Muddy Waters, Stone Poneys and more. New York City, specifically the East Village, was the place for clubs like Cafe au Go Go, The Bitter End, and The Scene. So unlike the west coast, where Fillmore West and many huge stadiums provided venues for bands, New York did not have the space or publicity, (therefore keeping the music scene more intimate.) The nature of music was very different from what was happening on the west coast. 1967, spread flowers the summer of love throughout the west coast creating an atmosphere of psychedelia, with acid rock taking the front and where bands like Jefferson Airplane, The Doors and The Grateful Dead were hugely popular and influential. Vastly differenering from music of the east, which was far more soulful, reflective and melancholy with bands such as The Velvet Underground, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Carole King. Grandpa said this was largely a result of the different environments. California and the west were warm and sunny: everything was lighter and happier. Naturally the cold and darkness of New York took everyone down in a way that didn’t exist in the west. The industry had less faith in New York, as a result there were less large venues such as Fillmore West. To prove to them that a Fillmore East would be successful, then they needed people and an audience. Teens and young adults all flocked to these shows. The drinking age was 18, so more kids came creating a scene, an audience they needed to gain the popularity necessary for these bands’ survival. Fillmore East was the beginning of an era of commercialized rock in New York.

Al’s career took him through four distinct chapters in the history of American music: Klezmer music in the Catskills, where Buddy Hackett and Rodney Dangerfield were performing, where music, comedy and Jewish humor were all a cultural movement of post WWII; free Jazz at Juilliard, where he played night gigs to make money, and moved to classic, spending time with Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. Out of Julliard, he gravitated to rock n’ roll realizing that jazz and classical were of the past. The future, was rock n’ roll. This was movement of the era, rock n’ roll was the music of the 60’s and 70’s in New York. As Bob Dylan said “the times are changing,” and they were, all the while music followed and heavily replicated the political climate: ebb and flowing between folk, soul, and rock n’ roll. The question was: did music change the culture, or did culture change the music?

Music was dancing with culture, and culture was dancing with history, and there were two impending events: the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam war and the draft. The draft was an ominous and dooming feeling for every young man in America. There was confusion, anger and intergenerational conflict around this unnecessary war that did not make sense to the people. Everyone had different responses to the draft. Draft dodging was very common among musicians surrounding my grandfather. Al always assumed he would play for the West Point marching band; but when the time came, he rejected militarism and embraced the counterculture of Woodstock nation. As a musician, he joined the anti-war sentiment- Al was a pacifist, largely a result of the holocaust which took much of his family back in Poland. So he draft dodged… When his number came up for the draft, he took various drugs for weeks on end (including amphetamines,) and did not sleep, eat, or shower for three days straight. When it came time for his physical, he made sure to go to the base on Whitehall street which was much looser and liberal compared to the military base at Fort Hamilton. Upon his arrival for the interview, he looked like a walking dead man and did not pass his first test. The military rejected him and thus his career and life continued...
Al Smith dedicated his life, profession and passion to music. It brings up the question, how can such an unknown person be so influential? He managed countless bands, toured and did sound for revolutionaries, worked with sony music to create digital music and more. When talking to him about this, he said that he didn’t care for popularity, fame or credit; he just wanted to be involved in the movement, the scene and the music. Al was apart of the zeitgeist of the time; the spirit of the age. Throughout the 60’s and 70’s people lived dreading the war and injustices of the time. Being a pacifist, he was drawn to music and how it was used as a form of cultural protest and expression for those like himself. When I talked to him about this, he referred to Country Joe and The Fish’s Vietnam song. “And it's one, two, three, What are we fighting for? Don't ask me, I don't give a damn, Next stop is Vietnam. And it's five, six, seven, Open up the pearly gates, Well there ain't no time to wonder why, Whoopee! we're all gonna die.” He remembered these lyrics vividly, both witty, truthful and devastating, much like Al Smith himself…

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

June Then and Now, Caroline’s Five Decades of Them

her kids
her  family on  the  way.
"Why a 10-Day Hike Might Be the Best Thing You Can Do for Your Kids" 6.19.2015 From the August/September 2015 issue
the photographer,  writer, and  painter looking at fifty.
the artist by nan goldin

turning  this life upside down
Jimi Hendrix at the Fillmore East December 31 1969
after meeting Caroline. 

 Lots of things have happened in June....
ACTing  Up.
Reclaiming  Streets June 18 1999 on Wall Street.
Arrest us just try it, Stonewall was  a riot.
The Brooklyn cyclone some nine decades ago.
Thirteen years ago the little one was born toward the end  of the month.
Perhaps the most majestic of Junes was 1969...
Two and a half weeks before the riots that shook the world,
Some six months before I was born.
Caroline entered into town, just about born in a taxi cab.
Al went on  tour with Seatrain.
Riots tore at  the city.
 “We are the Stonewall Girls,” Queer youth formed a Rockette-like kick-line and sang, as they thwarted riot cops during the riots of June 1969.
“We always dress with flair, we wear clean underwear, We wear our dungarees, above our nellie knees…”
My  mom was a few months pregnant.
Caroline  was  making  her  way through the Lower East Side,
Daughter  of Regina and Al.
“The first time I saw Jimmy it was great, it wasn’t a life changing experience,”
Recalled Al.
He introduced Hendrix to  the little Caroline at the Filmore East. 
Al explained:
“I moved in with my your mother.   I switched to work with Seatrain… I got the call to go to California with  Seatrain.  I didn’t want to go work at the farm for the show. I went west. My dad died. I moved back. I went up to get the singer who had been institutionalized, the band was in a disarray.”
Al moved  to  Bergen Street with  Donny
“…Then things got into a disarray with us, probably because of Donny. We lived on Smith and Hoyt on Bergen, within two blocks of the subway station.”
Decades later  we’d find  our way back there. 
Over  the next few years Caroline traced her  life through New York City,
Moving from the Lower  East  Side to Brooklyn.
Bergen Street.
To Staten Island.
Bronx burning.
You would see fights all the time. Street fights, arguments, confrontations,”
recalled Caroline.
 “My mom was a big confrontational person and she would run around the streets not taking crap from anyone but that always caused awkward situations. A lot of yelling on the streets with random people.”
And the years went on.
She looked around.
Up state and down.
“the people who I became really good friends with starting in 6th grade... we were all very political. We believed that -- and music is a big part of it. You had the music of the Talking Heads .. a little bit of punk rock, a lot of what you would call New Wave. Music in the 80s became a big part of it and we were just joined together as friends but we, in our limited understanding of the world, we were driven toward social justice. We just felt that that joined us. Again, it was always sort of in conjunction with music. The Beatles -- we listened to a lot of the Beatles. Donovan. So I guess still back then when we were in junior high school, the hippie movement was still very influential for us. And that was never separate from political activism. That was a moment in time where activism was so hopeful and so necessary and that influenced us as young people. We knew we had to do that, that it was just an obligation. It was a place you chose to be in the world. Whether we chose it or not, we maybe didn't have the choices that we thought we did. Nobody ever thought for a second they thought they'd go on to Wall St and work in an office...”

At the end of his life with his music, Joe Strummer confessed:
 "Yeah, I was always a hippie. I grew up in the 60s. 68 is when a consciousness grew and I lived in squats and I'm always much more comfortable outside in a bonfire around more people."

CS: It was just an extension of where we all came from. The Clash, Go Straight to Hell, Boy. Those things meant a lot to us. This sense of injustice in the world... As limited as we understood it, it meant a lot to us.

BS: Why?

CS: Because of the world that was around us. There was so much suffering and inequality around us. People were poor…”

She hit the road,
To learn where  it began. 
Studying in  Germany.
Out to California,
Seeing beauty. 
Back to Ireland,
Back to Manhattan.
And the  problems lingered:
I was young and AIDS was just becoming something in the common... It was still very non-spoken and it was still very much something looming, something dark, something looming in the gay world, that would intersect a little bit with mine, but not very much. I remember going to some protests and there was an ACT UP table and they were like, "Hey, you gotta get involved! AIDS is an important thing!" And I was just like, "What?!" I remember being horrified that there was this thing going on and I wasn't a part of it. I think that my choice of activism was always... well, there was anti-nuke. There was always a lot of anti-nuke stuff. I remember the big anti-nuke protests that would go on in I think Central Park…”
There was this guy she’d see at 28th and Lex.
She lived up the street.
She tried to stop the Mayor.
And  met this one.
Sharing the decades and moods.
Fighting monsters outside.
Intergenerational battles.
Never easy growing.
Never  easy.
Feelings linger.
Wars come and go.
Invasions and insurrections.
Another war in 2003.
You can’t wait to have  it  together to have kids,
Dad advised.
Kids  arrive.
Careers collide.
We didn’t  plan for  it.
They came.
Two kids, a  move to  California and  back.
New  York always calling.
A hike through Spain,
From Assisi to Rome.
Through France.
London so many times.
Romping around Istanbul.
Surfing in Costa Rica
Traipsing through rain forests in  Puerto  Rico
And Tokyo.
Two decades together.
Five decades since that June 1969,
Summer  2019 surprised  us.
We hit the beach.
Hot tubs.
Friends  descended from points unknown.
Vodka flowed.
The teenager sunbathed.
The  little one ran to and from.
We battled.
And forgave.
Moods flew, ebbed and ascended.
More vodka.
The sun descended.
The moon rose on 50.
As we sat there on  Brighton Beach.
With Gene and  Leslie and  Karina and Savitri and Greg,
Brother  Wyatt and Caroline.
“To  Caroline” we toasted.
We ran into the water.
And back  to the sidewalk.
Back  to  Coney Island,

She  told me
“My first memory of NY... I don't really have a memory. I have a feeling about NY. It's one that's certainly endured throughout the years.”

“The feeling is a place of excitement and mystery and endless possibilities. Sometimes disappointments, but it was in general always a very exciting place that I wanted to be a part of.”

Sitting in the sand feeling  that  sense of wonder again,
Fifty years after  that  first June in  New York  City.

Celebrating  fifty Junes with Caroline
and a few photos through the years. 

a few moments in the life of the artist...
Such a fun night in Coney Island! Thanks for this pic of Savitri d and I about to swim Babs! Thanks everyone for coming!!! Fifty years ago...great things started... — at Brooklyn, New York.