Couple of months behind schedule, this is continuing an account of music I heard during previous phases of my life, when and where and how I heard it, music that meant a lot to me then and still does. This is far from comprehensive, but it doesn’t need to be.
U. S. Air Force – October 1966 to August 1970
I remember being at a USO dance one Sunday (the only day we had off) during basic training at Lackland Air Force Base outside San Antonio, Texas hearing “Reach Out I’ll Be There” by the Four Tops. It’s a great song that has always resonated with me. Hearing it in the midst of a strict training routine and adjustment to a new life had a calming effect on me for that moment, however fleeting. It’s the only song I remember hearing during the six weeks of basic. I obviously heard more, but this is the one that stuck.
After basic training, I was sent to Lowry AFB in Denver, Colorado for six-month’s tech training in my “career field” of aerial reconaissance film processing. I remember walking into The Hipbone, a store in downtown Denver that sold records and all manner of countercultural paraphernalia, hearing “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)” from the first Grateful Dead album played at high volume, with a guy at a turntable in the back cranking up the volume to match high points of the cut.
During that time in Denver, I saw Antonioni’s Blow-Up. The music connection is the scene where David Hemmings goes to a club where the Yardbirds (with Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck) are playing a song that is clearly “The Train Kept ‘a Rollin’,” but with re-written lyrics and re-titled “Slow Down.” It’s an odd sequence, but the music is great.
After tech training in Denver, I was sent to Beale AFB in northern California. I remember walking into the base education office during in-processing after arriving and hearing the Doors’ “Light My Fire” playing, the album version with the long instrumental break. Not what I expected to hear in such a context. Felt like things were shifting.
I subsequently saw the Doors in concert at the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium on June 15, 1968. The air base was about 50 miles north of Sacramento, which was an easy trip by bus. What I remember was when they finally came out on the stage, Jim Morrison took his time coming forward to the microphone. After a long time, while he seemed to be contemplating the audience and finding us wanting, he let rip a belch that had impressive range and volume. I guess he wanted to let us know who we were dealing with.
Sacramento didn’t impress me as anything special, not like San Francisco, but it did have Tower Records. This was the original location, the very first (records were initially sold out of the drug store at street level). Though I didn’t have a record player at Beale, I was buying albums and hearing them on friends’ players. I remember buying the first Jimi Hendrix album at Tower. Hearing “Purple Haze” for the first time really pinned my ears back. Just listened to it now for first time in a while. Still a bulldozer. So much power.
In August 1968 I went to the Sound Factory, a Sacramento music venue. Don’t think I knew what to expect, but a band playing that night I hadn’t heard of, Kaleidoscope, knocked me out. Their music had a strong Middle Eastern influence. I think they even had a belly dancer. This cut is an example. It really gets going at the end.
I didn’t know it at the time, but their lead guitarist was David Lindley, who went on to play with Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Warren Zevon, and many others, as well as a strong solo career. Years later, after running the New York Marathon in 1981, I was exiting Central Park at 72nd Street and Central Park West. I recognized Lindley standing across the street on the corner. Stopped and talked, told him how much I’d liked Kaleidoscope. Nice guy, great guitarist.
The BX at Beale sold records for about three dollars each. Even without a stereo of my own, my record collection grew. It included Dylan’s John Wesley Harding and Blonde on Blonde, Fresh Cream, and many more. Also an album called Say Siegel-Schwall. The Siegel-Schwall Band had been formed in Chicago by Corky Siegel and Jim Schwall to play electric blues. Based on the cover, I expected something different from the traditional blues music it was. There was one up-tempo number I liked, but otherwise wasn’t ready for this. I later grew to love it. I might add that John Wesley Harding later eased my landing from a bad acid trip. Those were the days and I was younger then.
I went to San Francisco as often as I could afford to, which was usually twice a month when we got paid. It was a two or three hour bus ride from Marysville, the town seven miles west of the base. I’d get off at the Greyhound bus depot and find a room for the weekend. Sometimes this was at the Sheraton Hotel, where a military discount got me a suite for three dollars per night. Hard to beat that.
Admission to the Fillmore Auditorium, the original location on Geary Street, was only three dollars, if I recall correctly. Went there several times, but the only band I remember seeing was the Steve Miller Blues Band, before they dropped “Blues” from the name. I saw Bill Graham, who promoted concerts at the Fillmore, on two occasions. The first was fairly mundane. I was in an ice cream shop in the neighborhood when he came in, clearly in a rush, and ordered several quarts to go. He pulled out a wad of cash, paid from that, then left. In retrospect, I imagine I thought something like “Well, that was interesting.” The next time was more dramatic. I’d read that he had a temper and I was about to see that in action. I was going up the steps from the street to the Fillmore’s entrance when an alarmed young man rushed past me on the way down. He was followed by Bill Graham, shouting angrily, who was personally throwing this guy out. Had to wonder what the kid had done. It was a moment.
In either July or October of ’68 I saw the Velvet Underground at the Avalon Ballroom. I’ve found a record of both dates, but don’t remember which one I attended. The only thing I recall from that show is when someone in the audience requested “Heroin,” Lou Reed responded with “We don’t play that anymore.” Funny the things you remember out of all that happens.
In January 1969, I was reassigned to a base in Northeast Thailand for a year. Officially it was known as the Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, but at that time it was occupied by the U.S. Air Force. There were two aerial reconnaissance squadrons and one fighter/bomber squadron. I was with one of the recon squadrons, the 11th TRS, processing and printing film.
Shortly after getting there, I was somehow found the money to buy a used Sony reel-to-reel tape deck from another airman. Our base was just outside the city of Udon Thani. There was a Thai shop in town that received new record albums from the States. They would transfer the albums you’d pick for a dollar apiece plus a blank reel of tape . I think they could put up to seven albums on a single reel. The store got albums a month or so after their release, so we were aware of what was coming. I was especially eager for Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and the Stones’ Let It Bleed, the title cut of which is truly great, one of their best.
When I arrived in Thailand, a new facility was being set up to process and print color recon film. Color would provide more detailed information than black & white, which was currently being used. The lab itself was made up of modular units. These were interconnected trailers, one for processing, one for prints, one for chem mix, etc. Mine was the chem mix trailer. My sole responsibility, six days a week, was making sure there were enough of the necessary chemical solutions in the tanks for the day. This would take maybe two hours at the start of my shift. The rest of the time I did stuff like listening to Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland on my tape deck and reading Carlos Baker’s massive Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. Other times I spent flirting with the young Thai girl who ran the Coke shack and throwing peanuts at the monkey in a cage next to it. I did the work I had to do, it just didn’t take the whole day. War is hell.
I spent a lot of off-duty time going to Thai bars where local bands played note-perfect renditions of songs by groups like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. I remember “Hey Jude” got a lot of rotation. These versions were exact copies, but there was one band that was talented enough to do something original with the songs they covered. I became friendly with some of the band members and frequently went to see them. If I went early when there wasn’t much of a crowd, I’d sometimes feel compelled to get on the dance floor close to the stage and accompany the band with a display of what is now called “air guitar.” Why I did this is anybody’s guess, but it must have seemed like a good idea at the time. I don’t claim to have invented the concept, because, per Wikipedia, “…the mimicking of the playing of a musical instrument originated in the 1860s, when it was considered to be a mental disease.” Yes, well. The term “air guitar” didn’t become poplular until the 1980s, but that’s what it was. I think the band was impressed, or at least amused.
Here’s a photo taken in Minneapolis sometime in 1976 showing that I was still at it (apologies to Pete Townsend).
Larger Thai bars had bands at night, while smaller bars had juke boxes. I preferred those bars, and spent a lot of time in one of these on a dirt side street called The Neptoon. I liked the way they spelled the name. The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” and “The Letter” by the Box Tops got a lot of play whenever I was there. Didn’t know it at the time, but the Box Tops’ lead singer was Alex Chilton, who had a later indie recording career with a strong cult following. He was just 16 when “The Letter” was recorded.
In January of 1970, I was sent back to the States after a year in Thailand. During that year had been the first moon landing on July 20, the Manson murders on August 8 & 9, Woodstock on August 15-18 and its evil twin, Altamont, on December 6. Some year. We had news of all this at the time, but it was in the background. Now I had a 30-day leave before reporting to Davis-Monthan AFB just outside Tuscon, Arizona for my final year in the Air Force.
Always in short of money, I had sold the Sony tape deck before leaving Thailand. I think that machine had already gone through a few owners by the time I bought it. At Davis-Monthan I continued buying albums, despite not having anything of my own to play them on. There was always someone in the barracks with a stereo I could use.
When I was stationed at Beale in California, one of the albums I acquired was The Who Sell Out. A track that got my attention was “I Can See for Miles,” which was the first Who recording that captured the powerful sound I’d read they had live.
At Davis-Monthan, I bought their Live at Leeds album, which definitely delivered on that score. “Summertime Blues” is a good example.
There was a small club in Tucson I went to several times called Poco Loco. They had a very small stage for live groups and a juke box. I remember hearing, maybe for the first time, “The Loner,” by Neil Young off his first solo album. I immediately loved it.
Workingman’s Dead was released in June of 1970. I was knocked sideways by how different it seemed from their previous recordings. This was quieter and had an acoustic feel. My favorite cut is “Black Peter,” a beautiful song about mortality that I find deeply moving. I listened to it just now and it always gets me.
During those months at the base in Tucson, the movie Woodstock was released, which I saw twice. I was perturbed that Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch had been released in 1969 while I was overseas and I hadn’t yet seen it. It would be another year or more before I saw it in 16mm at the University of Iowa.
I got a three-month early discharge to go back to college, where, after only two or three weeks, I managed to get run over by someone driving a Volkswagen and spent five weeks in a nearby VA hospital. During that time, friends brought me a portable record player and a stack of my albums. The nursing staff was not thrilled with all this clutter.
That’s it for now. Stay tuned for Part 3 of this saga, the Minneapolis years. Until then, be safe. — Ted Hicks