Go Set, Go

Starting over. A lot of shampoo sets and haircuts went up in smoke, along with the tragic loss of all my children’s photographs.

Richard took us to the Malibu Inn Hotel for a few days. We needed fresh air. Billy was still living at Richard’s, but the phone was disconnected. We found Billy, booted him out, and Adam, Daisy, and I moved into the bachelor pad with nothing but new toothbrushes—that was it. My kids were confused.

“Mommy, what happened, how come our house burned down?” Adam asked.

The following is an excerpt from Bruce Pollock’s By the Time We Got to Woodstock:  The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Revolution of 1969.

Of all the cultural and political wars going on in 1969—between hawk and dove, moderate and radical, hippie and square, gay and straight, man and woman, parent and child, veteran and peace marcher, cop and protester, Nixon and his enemies—the battle between old guard singles fans of commercial AM radio and the new breed of album cut aficionados who preferred the mellow tones of progressive FM radio was nowhere near the most deadly. But it was nonetheless a surefire argument starter and social divider, the latest wrinkle in the age-old music fan caste system—epitomized in the past by Elvis vs. Pat Boone, the Shangri-las vs. Brenda Lee, Buddy Holly and the Crickets vs. Bobby Vee and the Shadows, and Bob Dylan vs. Peter, Paul and Mary (Dylan vs. the Beatles was a big one at first, the Beatles vs. the Stones was eventually a non-issue, Muddy Waters vs. the Stones was a red herring, Lesley Gore vs. Connie Francis was a fight none of us wanted to see, and the Four Seasons vs. the Beach Boys was strictly an East Coast–West Coast thing).

Launched in the summer of 1966, in less than three years the underground stations of the FM band had risen to become an instinctual if not street poetic force for all relevant music and propaganda, the voice of the counterculture, resulting in a concurrent surge of album sales, while the entrenched AM stations relied more and more heavily on market research, catchy slogans, canned bells and whistles, and the same twelve songs repeated every hour between Clearasil commercials.

At least, that was the format over WABC in New York City. Elsewhere, in the mythical secondary markets beyond the Hudson, great singles were born, played, and died unheard by sheltered Manhattanites and their brethren in the boroughs. But that was the price you paid for living in “the greatest city in the world,” on its way in the 1969 through May 1970 period to championships in professional football, baseball, and basketball. But even these secondary markets had a formula for what was playable, not at all based on artistry or the personal vision or taste of the deejay or program director. It had more to do with what the station up the road or across the river was playing: Buffalo looked at Cleveland, St. Louis looked at Chicago, Houston looked at Denver, San Jose looked at San Diego. Of course, a record had to start somewhere and somehow, usually in the even more mythical tertiary markets, their identities hidden from the average listener like the reporting bookstores on the New York Times best-seller list.

We all knew payola was still involved, chart numbers bought and sold, favors traded like Topps bubblegum cards, but exactly what the price of admission was, how much it paid for, and how much was earned was another mystery. As Berry Gordy implied in Motown’s inaugural hit in 1960, “Money” was what he both wanted and needed. But as the Beatles said in 1964, money alone “Can’t Buy Me Love.” For those remaining diehard transistor listeners with a strong antenna who could haul in some of those stations from their rooftop on a good night, the payola question was always rendered moot by the music. But by 1969 the limitless new world provided by progressive FM stations had all but eliminated the need to keep tabs on the weekly drama of the singles chart, unless, of course, you were a true believing fan of a form in danger of becoming a dying art.

Like John Sebastian, author of “Summer in the City” and “Do You Believe in Magic” for the Lovin’ Spoonful, reduced in 1969 to writing show tunes. “If anything I was pooh-poohing people who were trying to put art into rock,” he said. “At the time I was going, that’s really bullshit. A forty-five is special; it’s three minutes of heaven. It’s got to be an opiate. An awful lot of good chemistry has to happen in the studio. Moments—you have to get a series of them, magic moments that you did not plan, that you couldn’t train for . . . that just happen.”

“There’s something in me that’s singles-oriented,” Paul Simon told me. “You start to make a track and all of a sudden it’s got a great feel to it. A kind of magic happens that you couldn’t have predicted. ‘Let’s pull out all the stops and make an AM record.’ That sentence comes up a lot in the studio.”

“I once met John Lennon at a BMI dinner,” Doc Pomus said. “In fact, we spent the whole dinner together. And he was telling me originally all they wanted to do was reach a point, like Morty [Shuman] and myself, or like Carole King and Gerry Goffin, where they could make enough money to survive writing songs.”

Gerry Goffin attempted to explain.

There’s a certain magic that some records have and that some records don’t have. It’s not a quality you can capture unless everything is going right. I’m talking about even at a record session. There are so many personalities involved, so many variables. It has to go through a lot of different ears, different people have to decide if it’s something people want to hear. I could always tell if a song was going to be a hit or not, or how big a hit it would be, by listening to it on the radio. I never listened at home; I used to always listen in the car. It was just something about the resonance of the car radio. Usually with the good records you caught the sound of a hit single.

While the hit single never did die out entirely, by the end of the 1960s AM radio was a severely wounded white buffalo staggering through the hinterlands, its whole oeuvre called into question by critics cramming for term papers in league with record executives looking for a bigger slice of the profits to be derived from album sales. As a longtime singles diehard, owner at the time of a life-threatening stack of Cashbox magazines, whose first attempt to get published was an enraged essay submitted to Seventeen magazine about the emotional veracity of the single “Judy’s Turn to Cry” by Lesley Gore, my bias is as pronounced now as it was obsessive then. However, 670 singles made the Billboard chart in 1969 for at least a week, and while that was down from 1966’s peak of 743, the next decade would barely average 500. With FM stations continuing to siphon off the album market of sophisticated college students, more and more the single was regarded as the lowest of common denominators, the gateway drug, as it were, for lusty adolescents fiddling with their first radio….

In 1969 you could still listen to both AM and FM radio; that is, singles and album cuts, the best of all possible worlds for an Elvis-bred connoisseur. Unfortunately, with WMGM having gone the way of Beautiful Music in 1962 and WINS tragically driven to all-news one dark day in April 1965, only “the Good Guys” on WMCA stood between the diehard and the dreaded WABC, which basically played the same twelve well-established monsters over and over again every day, whereas WMCA had room for the occasional sleeper, the odd stiff, an album cut or two. But even by 1968, the Good Guys, waging a losing battle against the soul stations on one side of the dial and the FM underground on the other, were edging into the all-talk format that would take them over in 1970.

The AM experience was a simple one, hit based, like a daily newspaper, filled with headlines, ads, and little else. FM was more like a literary magazine. You got poems, elaborate essays, funky short stories, excerpts from novels in progress. You could appreciate AM for the familiarity it offered, the chance to hear your favorite single during any given half-hour stretch. On FM the object was just the opposite, to hear something totally unexpected. If AM was order personified, adhering to a dictum passed down from the home office, FM made order out of chaos. If the role of the deejay on AM radio was strictly entertainment, on FM it was creative, educational, and, epitomizing the buzzword of the era, mind-expanding. The primary tool of the AM deejay in fulfilling his mission was the bell or the whistle; the FM deejay was instead schooled in the art of the segue.

A lost art on free radio, to be sure, segues can still be heard here and there, on public and/or listener-supported stations of 5000 watts or less, situated between two mountain ranges and broadcast only during daylight hours in months that end in Y. Satellite radio has become fairly popular of late by offering the kind of segues developed during the heady heyday of so-called “free form,” “progressive,” or “underground” radio in the late ’60s, but minus the creative dimension, the element of surprise, and hence the magic. If you’re listening to a station called Garage Rock, most of your questions have already been answered.

But, luckily, over the course of the last ten years technology has enabled everyone to become a music programmer, indulging a personal segue philosophy on mixed tapes for all occasions, from breakup to make-up to the eternal vernal equinox. Unluckily, this development has mainly served to reveal the paucity of the average person’s imagination, to say nothing of the average person’s record collection (let alone the aching and perhaps irreparable gaps in the record collections digitally stored in cyberspace). Going hand in hand to make a good segue, or, ideally, a good series of segues, leading to a lengthy, satisfying set of music, an extensive imagination and an unlimited record collection can never in and of themselves substitute for the kind of emotional commitment to the music and to the art that some generational bigots tend to think are beyond the grasp of anyone who didn’t come up in the era of “Radio Unnamable,” circa 1966 to 1970. (It was after 1970 that the segue started to go the way of the hula hoop and the hippie, as consultants were already out in force, looking to “monetize” the FM experience, eventually transforming it into, lo and behold, the New AM.)

I guess the first question that would occur to most readers picking up this book is ‘Why 1969?’ and ‘What revolution?’

That’s two questions, Oprah, but I’ll forgive you, knowing my book sales are multiplying as we speak.

You flatter me.

Doesn’t everyone? But, getting to your second question first: the title and subtitle were much debated between myself, my editor, and the powers that be at the publisher, chief among them, I suspect, the sales force. As far as the subtitle, I guess they felt “The Great Rock and Roll Revolution of 1969” sounded more exciting than my suggestion of “The End of the Great Rock and Roll Revolution in 1969.” The point being, the “Revolution” probably started in 1965, with the flourishing of the Beatles and the move to folk/rock by Bob Dylan. ’65 – ’69 was an incredible period, musically, socially and politically, with new delivery systems creating new paradigms in rock–FM radio, the album cut, the rock press, the outdoor festival, the last of which was more of a 1969 phenomena. 1969 was a watershed year, not so much for the music, although many great careers were launched and many great songs were heard, but because it represented the end of an era for the original Baby Boom crowd who came up with Elvis and the start of a new one for a younger generation weaned on Iggy Stooge and Led Zeppelin, two acts that were conspicuously absent from the lineup of the Woodstock Festival.

So you’re using Woodstock more as a symbol than an extensive analysis of the event?

Very insightful, David. To me, Woodstock was a kind of sad commencement day spectacle for a significant part of the generation, who would then move on to the Oldies Revival of the early 70’s.

Speaking of ‘Oldies,” my boy here, Paul Schaffer, tells me he wrote a blurb for one of your books.

That would be Working Musicians: Defining Moments from the Road, the Studio and the Stage. He was kind enough to offer his stamp of approval, although my follow up letter asking to have him help book me on your program failed to get an answer. Recently Paul has expanded that blurb into his own book. This also happened when Neil Sedaka read his interview with me in my book, When Rock Was Young: The Heyday of Top 40.  He found himself so intriguingly portrayed that, a couple of years later, he had his own bio on the market.

Any other notable blurbs you’d like to mention?

Well, not to toot my own horn, but the legendary rock writer Paul Williams also gave me a completely unsolicited blurb for Working Musicians. And the notorious satirist Neil Pollack (no relation) eventually submitted to my request to blurb my 45 pound reference book, The Rock Song Index: The 7500 Most Important Songs of the Rock and Roll Era. But I think that was more out of guilt.


Before that I had accused him, facetiously of course, of stealing the plot for my Great American Rock and Roll Novel, Byron & Keats: The Boxed Set. I was still writing it at the time when Neil came out with Never Mind the Pollacks. There were so many similarities of intent that I had to seriously revamp my novel, actually improving it immensely–although no publisher has touched it yet, even with a ten foot pole. Maybe Neil’s book didn’t sell enough to grease the wheels for me.

So how many books have you published anyway?

Frankly, Conan, I lose count. It might be thirteen or fourteen, if you want to include The Disco Handbook, on the cover of which my name was spelled Pollack (ironically, my best-seller, racking up 250,000 units) and Housework for Men, an underground classic which was really more of a novelty item, although quite penetrating. I thought it would have made a hilarious TV show.

Would you say your greatest claim to fame was discovering Bruce Springsteen?

You’re too kind, Ellen. Although it is true my rave review of his second album in the New York Times wound up as the lead blurb of the eventual trade ad for that album, ahead even of Crawdaddy editor Peter Knobler’s equally effusive review. Knobler may have actually discovered him before me, but both of us pre-dated Jon Landau’s subsequently defining “I have seen the future of rock and roll” comment.

Have you seen the future of rock and roll?

Get off my back, Simon. I’m still stuck in 1969. No, I’m kidding. As someone who compiled an annual reference book on songs for the Gale Research Company from 1983 to 1999, I am one of the rare people of my age who can find excellent, awesome, chilling or even just damn catchy songs virtually every year, except for 1979.

How do you manage to keep up?

As you know, it helps if you’re in the music business, which I was until 2006. Starting in March, I’ll be teaching two courses at the local Continuing Ed (Fairfield, CT), one on Rock Journalism and the other is sort of a Music Appreciation Sock Hop. So I’ll have to get myself up to speed on the last ten years. Luckily, on the Internet, you can do that in one afternoon. I hear Sufjan Stevens is pretty good.

Whatever became of your attempt to coin the term ‘Middle of the Dirt Road’ music?

Boy, you’ve done your research, Jay. I coined that term back in the mid-70s, when so many singer/songwriters seemed to be coming from the same place, a late ‘60s framework, informed by rock, folk, blues, folk/rock, country/rock and a shared experience of surviving a hectic time of dope, sex, rock and roll, bad acid, crushed dreams, women’s lib, political repression, rising gas prices, and a belated realization, as  the late Dave Van Ronk told me in my book When the Music Mattered: Rock in the 1960s: “The check is not in the mail.” Not surprisingly, as a phrase or a genre, Middle of the Dirt Road didn’t quite gain the traction it needed to make me (even more) famous. But the Americana format of today serves this audience quite nicely.

Didn’t John Lennon own a proof copy of your first book In Their Own Words: Songs & Songwriters?

Stop, you’ll make me cry, Barbara. I still don’t know how that came about. I discovered it on the Internet years later, when the book was listed among Lennon’s effects being auctioned off at a Beatles event in Tokyo in 1997. I believe it went for 150,000 yen, which comes out to about $285. I think it’s available for a lot less on Amazon. But that book is still highly regarded among Bruce Pollock aficionados.

What are you working on now?

Thanks for asking, Charlie. All I can say at the moment is, opposed to By the Time We Got to Woodstock, which concerned itself in great detail with one particular year, my next project with deal with 100 years of popular music in a narrative form, with lots of great characters, memories, scenes, and melodies. It should keep me busy for a while.

Be sure to give me a call when its done.

I hope you’re still on the air by then, Larry.