A Wild Weekend When Rock Writers 'Tried' to Form a 'Union'
It had everything: pissing on Graceland, Furry singing the blues, Big Star trying to break through. Now with guests Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan.
As I continue my summer re-runs, with August semi-vacation still in force: Another from my memoir-in-progress. With Lester Bangs, Cameron Crowe and 100 other legends-in-their-own-mind in 1973, from beer-soaked Holiday Inn suites to riverboats, Beale Street and Graceland—plus hookers, almost non-stop drinking and, oh yeah, plenty of music. Stevie Van Zandt, on reading my account, tweeted, “The Rock equivalent of the Mob’s Atlantic City Conference of 1929!” Enjoy, then share, comment, or subscribe please (note: it’s still free). My recent tributes (with songs) to Charlie Watts and Don Everly and/or plug with some history for Van Zandt’s new memoir. First, the usual cartoons.
Long-distance Information: Get Me Memphis, Tennessee
A legendary weekend in the history of rock critics—if not rock criticism—took place in late-May, 1973. Stax Records, known for its classic soul singles, was branching out. It had opened a new studio and record label in Memphis, both called Ardent, and started signing white rock acts, notably Big Star, the cult group featuring ex-Box Top (“The Letter”) Alex Chilton. Naturally Stax wanted to promote all of this but no one, even in this no-expenses-spared era of rock ‘n roll hype, had gone this far. Instead of, say, arranging a junket for a half-dozen leading rock writers, Ardent invited…all of them.
Or so it seemed. There must have been a hundred, including me and three other Crawdaddy writers/editors—Noe Gold, Susin Shapiro and Patrick “Scumpy” Snyder—from around the country, and even a few flown in from the UK. Many of the “legends” were there: Nick Tosches, Richard Meltzer, Lester Bangs, Lenny Kaye, Cameron Crowe—he hadn’t yet turned 16—Simon Frith, Ed Ward, Chet Flippo, Vince Aletti, David Gest (the future Mr. Liza Minnelli), Stanley Booth, and more.
The carrot—besides the free trip, which was more than enough for most of the semi-starving writers—was the unlikely chance to form a union, the National Association of Rock Writers. Given this cynical crowd, labor organizing was a non-starter (even though some kind of effort was badly needed to raise the industry pay scale), but the weekend would prove memorable for other reasons.
Cameron Crowe would much later review it this way, in an oral history: “The mood was fun, with rock writers allowed to act like rock stars in an all-expenses-paid-sanctuary. It was an opportunity for many of them to live out their own version of the stories we’d been writing—out of control [male] rock stars on the road….There were more big name rock critics in one place at one time than ever before or since.” Young men, in the main, far from home. No one, as far I know, tossed a TV set into a swimming pool from a balcony, or peed on a groupie, however.
Still, Lester Bangs complained to a friend, “What did I spawn?”
The “convention,” as it was billed, was held at a high-rise Holiday Inn on the Mississippi—said to be the chain’s first hotel anywhere. You could walk out back and dip your toe in the river, as I did. Like other conferences, it boasted a busy schedule with seminars and panels but few cared about them. Leaders of the putative new union were elected but what many focused on was changing the name to National Association of Rock Critics so it could be known as NARC not NARW. Woody Guthrie might have rolled over in his grave.
Happily we toured a Schlitz plant (with much free beer imbibed) and historic blues hub Beale Street. Others took a bus trip to Graceland--Elvis still alive and firing guns at TVs there--but were wisely not allowed inside (so Bangs and Meltzer pissed through the gate). We visited the Stax studio. Some made it to a warehouse stacked with old records for sale, cheap. At night we watched a bootlegged print of the still-unreleased T.A.M.I. Show starring the Stones, Marvin Gaye, Beach Boys and James Brown. [Below: The Ronettes and Marvin Gaye from the T.A.M.I. film.]
Marvelous Marv asks if he can get a witness.
Then we attended a screening of the just-released Peckinpah film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. It co-starred Bob Dylan, in his first movie role, which was mainly silent. His longest speaking part involved reading the labels off canned vegetables in his unique, Dylanesque voice. (“Peasssss…Corn…Green beannnnns…More peassssss.”) It did spawn “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” at least (below).
Then there was the evening ride with blues man Furry Lewis on a riverboat, which caused some to blow chunks over the railing due to too much drinking, drugging and eating. Did I mention this crowd was 5:1 male? No wonder Joni Mitchell titled her fine song “Furry Sings the Blues.”
Groupies visited the hotel’s hospitality suites (so I’m told). Maybe we really are rock stars, some of the fantasists might have thought—until some of the fan girls turned out to be hookers. Boy were they disappointed with their chances for any kind of payday with this low-rent crowd.
Big Star, by then a mere trio, would close things out at the bi-level Lafayette’s Music Room in Overton Square, perhaps the most high-pressure rock ‘n roll gig ever, considering the audience. It didn’t hurt that most of the writers were drunk or stoned. “This was the embodiment of every band's greatest dream or fear--the whole audience was rock writers!” Cameron Crowe observed. [A few images from that night in this Big Star movie trailer below.]
The band was introduced by Meltzer, who later tried to take off his pants. I wasn’t familiar with their first album, #1 Record at that point so I mainly remember that they did covers of the Kinks, T. Rex and (oddly) Loudon Wainwright III, and encored with the “The Letter.” Accounts of their performance that night ranged from wonderful to “chaotic.” John King, the Ardent publicist who arranged the whole thing (with the help of writers Greg Shaw and Jon Tiven), testified, “I remember Alex was just in a particularly good mood which means everything. Everybody's playing in key. They were just happy. They were interacting with the writers and the writers were dancing, even. It energized them, gave them something to go on with -- some reason to put the record out and go on tour.
”Alex was going to leave the band. I talked to him and said, ‘You’ve got all this publicity, it’s foolish to throw it all away. Do another album.’ That’s why they stayed together.”
When it was over, at a reputed cost of $100,000—and wisely, never to be repeated--one of our rival magazines, Rock, perhaps said it best in a headline: “Rock Writers Convene, Find Each Other Absurd.” Needless to say, the one-big-union for these dissolute “workers” never went anywhere. Big Star never made it big but, here’s the kicker, they did become a “critics’ favorite,” to this day. And somehow I remained as #2 editor at Crawdaddy almost continually until 1979.
Note: Most of Crawdaddy staff later in 1973, below. Noe at lower left, Susin top left and myself, top right.
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Greg Mitchell is the author of a dozen books, including the bestseller The Tunnels (on escapes under the Berlin Wall), the current The Beginning or the End (on MGM’s wild atomic bomb movie), and The Campaign of the Century (on Upton Sinclair’s left-wing race for governor of California), which was recently picked by the Wall St. Journal as one of five greatest books ever about an election. His new film, Atomic Cover-up, just had its world premiere and is drawing extraordinary acclaim. For nearly all of the 1970s he was the #2 editor at the legendary Crawdaddy. Later he served as longtime editor of Editor & Publisher magazine. He recently co-produced a film about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.