The list of famous acts with which I like to sprinkle my resume mostly came from the next three years working with Sandy Getz. She didn’t fool around. I had no idea how lucky I was.
Before she could do much, though, she needed a better tape than the garbled one I’d sent Ed Pearl. And I just can’t describe how difficult things like tapes and photos were to come by in those days if you didn’t have any money. In this case, since I didn’t know anyone with a tape recorder, I looked in the Bay Area yellow pages and finally found a small studio over in Oakland that would be willing to record six songs for $25, and I’d end up with two copies of the tape. This was hard, but possible.
So we paid the toll and crossed the bridge and found the house—yes, it was a house, with clapboard siding, a teeny lawn yard full of un-mowed grass, and a rusty doorknocker. The person who answered was kind of a surprise to people who’d been living in Montana: tall, lean, hairy-bodied, wearing a flowered dress with nylons and British walking shoes, thick glasses, gray hair in a hair net, that kind of thing. He went about his business efficiently, so efficiently I couldn’t believe the songs were done being recorded and that was that; I guess I’d hoped to work with them a bit. But I ended up with two actual tapes in green Shamrock boxes, and they were my future. Perhaps later down the line I might get lucky and find someone who could make another copy while that was still possible.
I say that because already when Gavin was 2, we’d left him sitting in the bus with the tape recorder, and when we came back he had it up and running, but he didn’t know about take-up reels, so the tape was in a giant pool around him, this being obviously the third tape he was auditioning, and this not only was a defining event in Gavin’s life, as he’s been doing essentially that ever since, but it also warned of the possible fates that might befall a tape.
So what’s this list, let’s see how many I can remember. ELVIN BISHOP. ERIC BURDON. JOHN PRINE. JOHN FAHEY. MARC-ALMOND BAND. JOHN LEE HOOKER. JOHNNY SHINES. DOC WATSON, DOC AND MERLE. LOGGINS & MESSINA. BROWNIE & SONNY. RAMBLIN’ JACK ELLIOT. SPIRIT. THE DILLARDS. MOSE ALLISON. MIKE JANUSZ. ALBERT COLLINS. HELLO PEOPLE. CHEECH & CHONG. JIM KWESKIN. . . . Well, I’m really starting to be annoyed by my memory loss, since I would love to dazzle you with my name-dropping. Let’s say it included just about anyone who was medium well-known on the west coast in the early ‘70s.
And my job, of course, was Opening Act. Sometimes I barely spoke to the main act; sometimes I played on stage with them. Some noticed me, some didn’t. Here are some typical scenes of being an opening act:
THE GOLDEN BEAR in Huntington Beach. Elvin Bishop was the headliner. The Golden Bear was right across the street from the pier; you could go hang out and watch the night surfers straggling onto the beach with their boards, peeling off their wet suits under the streetlights. If you were me, you could accost them, invite them over to hear your show—and often they would show up. Afterward one of them might venture backstage and say, “Hi, remember me? I’m that one guy?” and I’d say, “Oh! Of course! Thanks for coming!” and away he would go, looking like that wasn’t exactly how he’d imagined this scenario would play out.
Elvin and his chaps would always be back in a corner, doing what bands do in corners before going on, and I’d sit in another corner doggedly warming up, wishing I didn’t have to do this in the presence of these rather dominant musicians. But Elvin was a man of considerable sharpness—kindness as well, I’d say. He sat with his back to me, so as not to be listening, and then he came and told me I had a really great right hand. I am so naturally cranky that of course my first reaction was to think, so my left hand is not so good? It’s always been true, though, that my rhythm hand is much stronger than my note-selection hand. Elvin said, “Will you be playing in Chicago? If you are in Chicago, there are some people I want to introduce you to.” I thanked him and told him there was almost no chance I would ever go to Chicago, since I had a husband and two small children. He shrugged and said, “Well. If you do. I’d give you some lessons, be glad to.” So why did I not follow through on that? You tell me.
With JOHN PRINE, at TULAGI’S in Boulder. John’s style was to play in the almost dark. He was intensely laid back, and so was his band. From the audience you’d just see these ghostly forms, a bit of sleeve moving slowly up and down across the strings, a momentary glimpse of someone’s profile. I don’t remember but am willing to bet they dressed in black. “Magnoliaaaaa,” he sang, like a night bird in a magnolia tree.
I, on the other hand, wore a strappy aqua dress covered with brilliant red blossoms, red shoes to match, and my style was as up-front as John’s was laid-back. “I didn’t know God made honky-tonk angels,” I sang, twanging and grinning through one of the two songs we did together in a spontaneous moment. (I’d made sure to choose songs we all could play, at least I knew that much.) The contrast must have been electrifying. The first two rows of the audience began climbing up on the stage—I can still see their faces, with frankly open mouths, and their outstretched arms.
EBBETS FIELD in Denver. The dressing room was upstairs, an elevator ride, and it was a large, modern, well-equipped place indeed, with armchairs and wall-to-wall carpeting. I did not mingle with the MARC-ALMOND BAND, or maybe they did not mingle with me. I remember underdressing and underplaying, considering what a very posh club it was. The band was so sharp, so talented—what on earth was I doing there? Horns, keyboards, brilliant solos, wow. John Marc, though, underdressed as well, in a plain, faded black jersey, open at the throat to reveal city-white skin.
On the last night, I wore a long, slinky red gown. Then suddenly I was mingling like mad. All the band members became friendly as could be, and John Marc said, “My, you’re looking awfully dishy tonight.” “Oh,” I said, “well, hm. Yes. Sorry. It’s Saturday night.” He said, “Sorry? What do you mean, sorry? Why shouldn’t you look like this? You’re an entertainer, aren’t you?” I said, “I don’t know, am I?” He assured me I was, and then he allowed that he hadn’t liked me much at first, I seemed too snobby and distant, but now he could see that I was warm and dishy and he liked me just fine. I took advantage of our cozy new relationship to point out that one of his theme phrases—‘the good green earth beneath my feet’—was not good imagery, was city imagery, should be the brown earth, earth being brown and not green, and he said he liked his phrase very much, thank you, and was certainly not going to change it. “Well, it’s wrong,” I said.
Even after this snippy little exchange, he asked me if I would like to attend an after-hours party with him, since I was certainly dressed for it. I said I had a husband and two children back at the motel. He said, “So what? Come anyway!” I said it would be nice but probably not. He said, “Please. I want you to. At least think about it, eh?” I said I would think about it. Later, having gone back to the motel as was proper, I did think about it, for hours. I thought, see? See? It’s always this way. No wonder I will never get anywhere, since I can’t hang out. You have to be able to hang out. Linda Ronstadt would have gone. Boo hoo.
Now we’re at JOE’S BAR & GRILL in Boulder, a poorly-attended venue featuring ALBERT COLLINS as well as the SAN FRANCISCO MIME TROUPE. Albert has, evidently, one mode of performance, no matter what the crowd. He’ll strut across the stage with arched back, right knee and then left knee raised toward the ceiling, head thrown back in a fearsome grimace involving stretched lips, squinted eyes and clenched teeth, his guitar alternately cradled against his breast or thrust away as if it were a hot potato. I can see this working well before five hundred people. When it’s five people, huddled at their tables in a cavernous barn of a room, the effect is absolutely startling.
One of those five people was a man called ‘The Silver Fox.’ I remind my readers that Silver Fox is an extremely popular name for gents whose hair has turned white before they feel ready to cash in their youth chips, and that I’m not referring to the singer of ‘Behind Closed Doors. I met the Silver Fox when the club manager came to me after my set and told me The Silver Fox was waiting in the office to meet with me. When I went in, the manager introduced us, “Kajsa Ohman—the Silver Fox.” Consequently I never knew what to call him and so didn’t call him anything. And what did he want with me? To be my manager! He’d fallen in love with my song, ‘Come All My Old Boyfriends,’ a number I’d considered a throwaway and have since forgotten.
“You need to come to Chicago,” the Silver Fox said. What’s this with Chicago all of asudden? I told him I really couldn’t operate out of Chicago since I had a husband and two small children. “You don’t have to move there,” he insisted. “Just come out for a brief business visit. I’ll pay your airfare.” It did cross my mind that while in Chicago I could go take a guitar lesson from Elvin Bishop—and by the time I was back home in Santa Barbara, Gene and I had decided if the guy was for real it could actually be arranged to send me to Chicago.
The question was finessed, however, when the Silver Fox phoned to say he was now in Ventura, a half hour away, and I should meet him at the Wagon Wheel where we could discuss my future. So I drove down and sat with him in a booth and drank, well, really a lot. It seemed like we were talking a bunch of bullshit. I remember thinking I’d better let him know something about me. Maybe everything about me, from childhood on up. Except I had to go to the ladies’ room, where I threw water into my face and tried unsuccessfully to force a quick vomit. I’ve never been easy with this sort of interview. At any rate, I collected my wits and went back and sat across from him and continued my story.
After a few minutes, he said, “Ma’am, this is interesting stuff, but I think you were with the gent in the next booth.” I stared. Two Silver Foxes in one lounge? And I couldn’t tell the difference? So I lurched over to my own Silver Fox and suddenly realized I was not going to Chicago, or anywhere else except back home to our little trailer to subsist on mortification for the rest of my life. [Yes, a patrolman did stop me on the drive home. He made me get out and recite the alphabet. This is something I can do at lightning speed any time of the day or night in any condition, and I think the officer was stunned. Anyway, he let me go, which he should not have done. Things were different back then.]
And this is quite enough for today. It is exhausting to relive, even superficially, the events of one’s life. Try it some time. See you soon, with more of the same, or maybe it will be different. At least we know there’s a common element to all the stories, which is the fact of my being an idiot. Thanks for listening.