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The 1970s! My years at 'Crawdaddy' with everyone from Springsteen and Patti Smith to Vonnegut and Bill Kunstler. Today, unveiling an early draft of the first chapter of my memoir-in-progress.

My forthcoming ‘70s memoir—I suppose I could call it This Ain’t No Disco—kicks off in March 1971 when I was (literally) “number one with a bullet.” A couple weeks back, I excerpted from another portion of the unfinished book, recalling driving to a gig in my hometown with young Bruce Springsteen. More to come if you let me know you like this. Feel free to comment, use the “like” button, or email. Well, at least you should enjoy the period artifacts starring Neil Young, Carole King, George Harrison, Little Feat, and Marvin Gaye. Then consider subscribing to this newsletter—it’s free! Reminder, you can watch me tonight on CSPAN at 10 p.m. ET.

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Chapter One

March 1971

It started innocently enough with a mid-morning visit to an employment agency, Career Builders, in midtown Manhattan.  They placed a lot of classifieds in The New York Times for magazine jobs, though never for anything even vaguely counter-cultural.  Perhaps I needed to get off that beat anyway.  Less than a year earlier, Rolling Stone had spelled my name wrong in my first published review, a bad omen, and then it provoked angry letters.  My insanely risky first job out of college, as lightly paid news editor at a sketchy rock/politics magazine in Manhattan called Zygote, had disappeared after seven months.  At least I gained experience there interviewing everyone from unknowns like Seals & Crofts to antiwar Vietnam vets, menacing Young Lords, and the folksy novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

For several weeks after that I’d been writing record reviews for rock magazines Creem, Fusion and Changes, for about $15 a pop.  Somehow I managed to review the debut Little Feat album for all three. The highlight was confronting a very gruff presence at the top of the stairs when I dropped off the Changes review at an apartment in the East Village.  It was jazz great Charles Mingus, who was married to the magazine's owner, Susan Graham.

With funds running out in March 1971 I’d fallen this far: applying to hand out flyers for a new Baskin-Robbins up near Columbia University—and I didn't even get the job. Had I passed up a chance to work at The Washington Post the year before for this?  The Career Builders ad advised that I see someone named Bert.  After digging out a sport coat and tie I’d worn only twice--for college graduation and my mother’s recent funeral--I pulled my medium-length blonde hair behind my ears, not unlike John Lennon’s look at that time. At his office, Bert, an older gent with a shy smile, promised to keep in touch, despite my embarrassing lack of mainstream credentials. 

An hour later, back at the dingy two-room apartment on semi-dangerous West 106th Street, the phone rang and, improbably, it was Bert. Just after I left he got a surprise listing for something called “Crawfish music magazine.” He laughed, knowing it was an amazing coincidence, since his office never handled such oddball accounts.  Taking an educated guess, I suggested that maybe he meant Crawdaddy, the first “rock-culture magazine” (as it billed itself under its logo).  It was founded by Paul Williams in 1966 when he was still at Swarthmore, a year before Jann Wenner got the idea for Rolling Stone.  I’d never seen the actual magazine, but had admired many of Williams’ early essays reprinted in a paperback, including his masterpiece on the making and unmaking of the Beach Boys’ Smile album. 

Among other distinctions, Paul claimed he smoked his first “j” with Brian Wilson,  hitched a ride to Woodstock with the Grateful Dead, and sang on John & Yoko's "Give Peace a Chance."  He had also helped launch the careers of many of the first generation of “rock-crits,” such as Jon Landau.  But Williams was more avatar than publisher, and he had dumped the magazine after the far more professional Rolling Stone emerged.  While Rolling Stone took root in San Francisco, the center of the music scene at that moment, Crawdaddy had remained in crime-ridden New York City where the top band, the Velvet Underground, was already shedding members.  The magazine seemingly folded about the time Zygote expired. 

It was, indeed, a time of death (Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix) and re-birth (solo albums from John, Paul, George and Ringo).  Rock 'n roll after the heady 1960s was, to put it charitably,  in a period of transition.  Presently near the top of the Billboard singles charts:  The Osmonds, Dawn, Bobby Goldsboro, Andy Williams, Bobby Sherman, and Henry Mancini's "Theme from Love Story." They were joined, however, by “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Proud Mary,” and “Just My Imagination.”

The list of best-selling albums also pointed to a livelier future with the likes of just-emerging Elton John and veterans George Harrison and Neil Young.  Marvin Gaye had released the soon-to-be-immortal What's Going On.  "Lola" had inspired a Kinks comeback.  Joni Mitchell just finished studio sessions for her album Blue—then put the release on hold after she tossed two songs (including “Urge for Going”) and made plans to substitute “All I Want.” The Stones' Sticky Fingers, Bowie's Hunky Dory, the Who's Who's Next, Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey, and Carole King's Tapestry were all on the horizon, but there was still far too much Partridge Family and Grand Funk Railroad around. 

On the heavy metal front, Black Sabbath's Paranoid was #15 “with a bullet”—a red star on the Billboard chart to signal a fast-climber. Led Zeppelin's unreleased "Stairway to Heaven" was played live for the first time, in riot-torn Belfast. Bassist John Paul Jones would reflect that those in the audience “were all bored to tears waiting to hear something they knew.”

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America's slow withdrawal from Vietnam continued, with vast bombing and bloodshed as we exited.  A bomb had exploded early in March in a men's room at the U.S. Capitol, with the Weather Underground claiming credit (two of my friends would be tailed by the FBI as suspects, although they were innocent).  Six days later, the Washington Post broke the story of the FBI's COINTELPRO program of spying on U.S. citizens. My hero, Muhammad Ali, lost "The Fight of the Century" to Joe Frazier.  Out in Seattle a new coffee shop opened its doors.  It was called, for some reason, Starbucks.

So:  Would I help revive the legendary Crawdaddy?  Naturally, I was interested. Bert called back a few minutes later to schedule an interview.  This was too good to be true. 

The next day, I found the magazine’s new home near Broadway and 52nd Street, directly over a basement establishment newly titled The Crawdaddy Club.  It was less than three blocks north of the Brill Building (known for its songwriting factory),  Jack Dempsey's popular restaurant, and the Winter Garden Theater, where Stephen Sondheim's Follies had just premiered.  On the second floor:  a small suite of offices. The ones in front had picture windows overlooking throngs of cabs, trucks, tourists, pimps, pan-handlers, and teen-age hookers in hot pants along Broadway—a Travis Bickle nightmare in the making.   The two men in charge were of Italian extraction, in their mid-30s, both named Joe, balding and with scraggly hair. They looked to me like minor league gangsters. 

Joe and Joe were also running the new live music club downstairs.  But here was the cool part—they said the Broadway joint was once known as “Birdland.”  Although I wasn’t much of a jazz fan, even I knew that it got that name from its long association with Charlie “Bird” Parker and was one of the most hallowed sites in music history.  Jack Kerouac called it "the bop joint."  All of the greats—Trane, Ella, Monk, Dizzy, Belafonte and on and on—had played there. The new owners, however, looked more like the guys who sold smack to some of the headliners. 

Now they were partnering with Lloyd Price, the old New Orleans hitmaker (“Personality,” “Stagger Lee”), who had long ago disappeared from the charts but promised to perform regularly downstairs.  Hopefully he would avoid the fate that awaited Miles Davis, who in August 1959, not long after recording his classic Kind of Blue, was brutally beaten and busted by a New York cop on the sidewalk right out front after escorting a young (white) woman to a cab between sets. 

And that happened just months after one of the co-owners of Birdland was stabbed to death in the service area. 

Joe and Joe had bought or hustled what remained of Crawdaddy after the previous owners had given up the ghost.  Now they hired me on the spot to bring it back to life.  As far as I knew, they hadn’t interviewed anyone else.  So I was the new editor of Crawdaddy, less than a year out of college--and just days after losing that Baskin & Robbins job. 

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The first order of business, they explained, would be to take the pasted-up “boards” for the final, unpublished issue under the old regime, check them for errors, add some photos to the ones by Jim Hamilton already evident,  and work up a few fresh pages of political items and record reviews. The idea was to get something out quickly before subscribers demanded refunds—and to collect at least some of the money from ads.   Hell, I could do that.  I could even re-purpose my review of that first Little Feat album, along with a tribute to Carole King.  

I didn't care for the cover story on slow-moving Seatrain, nor the articles on Lee Michaels and Jake of the Family Jewels.  There were, at least, some offbeat non-music pieces, including one by Holy Modal Rounders icon Peter Stampfel and a history of the Beats with cool photos of Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac.  I decided on the spot that I would enlist Zygote veterans Peter Knobler, John Swenson and Allan Richards to fill out the record review pages.

Before I left on that first day, I got to hang out with ultra-friendly Lloyd Price, who was visiting the office on his lunch break.  This was the man who helped lay the groundwork for rock ‘n roll with his 1952 hit, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” Elvis didn’t record his version for four more years. Why was Lloyd Price now dressed in all-white work clothes?  Lloyd, like Crawdaddy, had fallen on hard times and was making ends meet working part-time for a laundry delivery service. 

With the basics covered, one of the Joes guided me to my work space, in the middle of the office far from those picture windows looking out on Broadway.  Directly over my desk, on the plasterboard wall, I spotted a perfectly round hole about half the size of a dime.  

“Yes, it’s a bullet hole,” Joe said.  “Don’t ask.”  But I was too scared to do that anyway, given the history of violence associated with the club downstairs.  I was probably the only editor in New York City who was literally number one “with a bullet.”   Only later did I learn that Lloyd Price had operated an earlier club in the same Birdland space, called The Turntable--and his business partner had been shot dead in an unsolved gangland murder.  Upstairs.  In my corner of this office.

Next installment: Growin’ up, from Bandstand to Zygote.

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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. 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 and now has written and directed his first feature, Atomic Cover-up, which will have its American premiere at a festival this spring.