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Tuesday, 12 November 2013 09:00

Beginning to See the Light: The ripples of 'Woodstock' + Video

Beginning to See the Light: The ripples of 'Woodstock' facebook.com/slyfamilystone
Written by John Wendland
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Sly and the Family Stone at Woodstock

This first edition of "Beginning to See the Light" launches what I hope will be a semi-regular series of things I have heard, read or saw that have sent me down a whole myriad of different musical journeys and probably have cost me a lot of time and money in the process. Who cares? I'm better off for it.

Growing up in Orange County, Calif. didn't necessarily make a seventh-grader's exposure to different styles of music that vast. Don't get me wrong -- growing up listening to KRLA and KHJ (the Real Don Steele) was sometimes great (I refer you to Dr. Jeff's "Big Bang!" show on Wednesdays from 4-7 p.m. Central on KDHX for proof), but that was not the place to hear deep album cuts and less commercial artists at that time.

My brother, who could have filled that role since he had a pretty incredible collection of music, was 10 years older than I was and, for all intents and purposes, out of the house from the time I was six. Back then (1970, for those of you still with me and keeping track) I religiously read the Los Angeles Times music reviews. I had no interest, whatsoever, in jazz but read everything Leonard Feather wrote. It wasn't until years later when I discovered what an accomplished songwriter he was. For pop music reviews, it was Robert Hilburn. Even then and long before I ever performed music I could recognize that Robert Hilburn didn't write from the standpoint of somebody who had ever performed music or discussed music from a musical theory or musical knowledge viewpoint while Leonard Feather did. It made no difference to me. Robert Hilburn wrote about music in such a way that he made me want to seek artists out and find out why what I found so compelling in words was even more compelling when hearing the actual songs.

It's at this point where I am going to humbly suggest that whole adage about "writing about music is like dancing about architecture" is complete nonsense. Writing about music in such a way that it compels a passive reader to seek out music (or see a play or movie, attend an art exhibit, etc.) is an art form, pure and simple, and I feel like everybody (musicians and music listeners alike) is worse off when newspapers and magazines devote less space to well-written criticism of music. If music criticism is bemoaned by particular artists, it should be noted that musicians who are truly gifted about writing about music are less than commonplace. They do exist, of course, like the aforementioned Leonard Feather, the late Scott Miller of Game Theory and Loud Family, the very much alive Steve Carosello of the Love Experts, Rosanne Cash, Bob Reuter (he left us way too soon), and others. But one of life's frustrations for me is to adequately explain what is so engrossing, even life-affirming, about music that means so much to me.

All right, flashback to 1970 where an impressionable seventh-grader with a thirst for learning more about music reads an article in the Los Angeles Times about the film soundtrack for the Woodstock documentary. I don't remember who wrote the review but I knew I had to have it. The first place I ended up at that was selling the triple-LP soundtrack was Woolworth's. So with saved money and the set in hand I walked up to the counter to buy it and was refused because the album had the picture of a naked couple on the back. I was advised to return with a parent present to purchase the album. (A year or so earlier when Woolworth's had "Two Virgins" featuring the less-than-impressive full-frontal nudity of John Lennon and Yoko Ono in their album racks, that was not deemed to offend a teenager's delicate sensibilities). Soon I was back with my liberal-minded mom so I could make the big buy.

Before we go any further, let me be clear: The fact that some of the performances and songs were not exactly stellar and/or in tune did not matter one whit to me. This was a big bang (you, the reader, benefitting from two different big bang references in one sitting) musical moment for me. Bam! Hearing Sly and the Family Stone, Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills and Nash (with the occasional Young thrown in for good measure) for the first time was mind-blowing. I can't overstate this. The infamous no longer F-I-S-H cheer. Jimi Hendrix playing before a really sparse crowd after most people had departed. "The brown acid that is circulating around you is not specifically too good." The Who. A ridiculously great rendition of "Soul Sacrifice" by Santana. "New York State Freeway's closed, man." Yeah, I knew what the Beatles sounded like, but what the hell is this Joe Cocker doing? "There's a guy out there, some hamburger guy, who had his stand burned down last night. But he's still got a little stuff left so all of you who think capitalism isn't all that weird might want to buy yourself a hamburger." And on and on.

I knew the Motown hits but Sly and the Family Stone was a whole new thing. The Hendrix version of the Star Spangled Banner managed to escape air play on Boss Radio. All of a sudden, so much to hear. So much to seek out.

I wouldn't feel that way again (at least not to that extent) until the days of the Clash, X, the Jam, Los Lobos and the Plimsouls. Anything by Neil Young I would have to hear. Sly and the Family Stone at the Inglewood Forum? Simple. Beg my older sister to take me and three other seventh-graders. Country Joe McDonald at the Fullerton College gym? I had to go.

Every new path taken one way led to many more paths and many more directions. "Love March" by the Butterfield Blues Band on Woodstock was pretty horrible. Hearing Paul Butterfield with Rick Danko years later was not. Or seeking out "East-West." So many concerts attended and so much music listened to with a remaining lifetime of so much more to come (I hope) -- all informed by one three-record collection that fell into the right seventh-grader's hands at the right time.

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