That same January I travelled on Amtrak for the first time, catching a train from Penn Station, hidden beneath Madison Square Garden, to Philadelphia, a journey of about 250 miles. I enjoyed watching the real America flashing past me for the first time, the energy of the American heartlands, the towns and the factories, the buildings and the billboards on tall towers, the wide roads that sometimes ran alongside the railroad track, the places that rock writers don’t normally see. When you’re in the rock’n’roll trade and fly everywhere, as I did, you don’t see the Jonestown companies that Springsteen would one day sing about, but you get a sense of it from a train.
I didn’t write about these impressions in Melody Maker, of course. Bruce had yet to find the river, and I thought it unlikely that our readers would be interested in my thoughts on the American landscape. The truth was that I was on my way to Philadelphia to see the Electric Light Orchestra, and in keeping with their name opted to review them for Melody Maker in the style of a classical music critic. ‘We are gathered together, ladies and gentlemen,’ I began solemnly, ‘for a recital by that promising young group of British musicians who call themselves the Electric Light Orchestra. Please take your seats quietly and refrain from rustling your programmes. Tonight’s recital will include works by Bach, Beethoven and Chopin as well as pieces written and scored by the Orchestra themselves.’
I was probably one of the first writers to draw attention to similarities between their sound and that of The Beatles in their mid-to-late period psychedelic phase, the Magical Mystery Tour era, but I was amused – and pleased – to note that their repertoire included a couple of singles that I’d bought when I was a teenager and learned to play on my first guitar. Just like The Cougars and Nero & The Gladiators, ELO rocked up versions of Swan Lake (Tchaikovsky) and ‘Hall Of The Mountain King’ (Grieg).
“We’re happier working in the States than anywhere else,” Jeff Lynne told me after the show. “We’ve been here for six weeks and have had favourable reactions everywhere we’ve played.”
I wished him luck and caught the train back to New York where my next assignment, a bit of a shift in cultural perception, was reviewing Liza Minelli at the Winter Gardens. ‘Having never seen her perform before, I enjoyed it a lot,’ I wrote. ‘Could it be that it made a welcome change from rock and roll for a few hours for me, or could it be that I found her rather cute, like a loveable puppy? She’s short, very dark and pert; full of fun, very natural and almost a little overawed at herself. When the audience claps, she claps too: a sure sign she’s subconsciously thrilled at having pleased her audience – and herself.’
Whatever enjoyment I felt was tempered by the cost of the seats; not that this kind of thing ever impacted personally on a freeloader like me but I often felt the need to put myself in the position of the paying punter. ‘Despite an outstanding ovation, she didn’t sing an encore,’ I wrote. ‘The show commenced shortly after eight and finished before ten. With almost half an hour’s interval, that made it rather short by my standards. My seat would have cost me $12,50 and whether it was value for money is certainly debateable.’
Towards the middle of January I flew down to Macon in Georgia, my first trip south of the Mason-Dixon line. This was arranged by Capricorn Records whose owner Phil Walden had managed Otis Redding, so he was worth an interview in himself, and in the three days I was there I also interviewed the Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie, Allman Brothers Band keyboard player Chuck Leavell, nowadays The Rolling Stones’ first choice keyboard player, and Gregg Allman himself.
The highlight of the trip was spending an afternoon at his ranch-style house with Greg who played guitar and sang for me, talked about his late brother Duane and discussed musicians he loved, among them Steve Winwood, Van Morrison and, perhaps surprisingly, Cat Stevens. All in all I wrote almost 4,000 words about Gregg, one of my longest interviews ever. ‘Gregg Allman picked up an old Gibson acoustic guitar and allowed his nimble fingers to slide over the six new strings,’ I wrote. ‘He tuned it and cursed and tuned it again. It was a 1920 model that had once belonged to his brother. Soon he picked notes as crisp and clear as the Georgia countryside surrounding his small estate. He played “Come And Go Blues” from Brothers And Sisters, the Allman Brothers Band’s album. Then he tuned it a little more and his picking became familiar again. He played and sang Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” perfectly. “That McCartney... shee-it!” he said.
‘He swopped guitars, choosing a 1942 blond Martin. More tuning and into the chords for “Long Black Veil”, the tear-jerking song about a man hung for a killing he didn’t do, loath to attest his alibi lest it shame his lover, his best friend’s wife. A brief pause, another tuning adjustment and Gregg played “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”, the song the Brothers sang at Duane Allman’s funeral two years ago.
‘It was like sharing a moment of reflection,’ I continued, ‘a very private moment I had no right to. I wondered what exactly he was thinking, but I never really found out, even after speaking with him for over an hour. I don’t think anyone in the world knows what’s going on inside Gregg Allman’s head. He gives out his music and keeps the rest to himself.’
Gregg’s long blonde hair habitually got in the way of the guitar’s fretboard. He spoke in a deep Southern drawl that was at times difficult for me to understand, but he was hospitable to a tee. “Help yourself to the cocaine,” he said at one point, indicating a bowl full to the brim with white power on the coffee table. I had thought it was sugar. I’d never seen so much cocaine in one vessel in my life. Throughout the interview we sipped Dom Perignon champagne which he referred to as “a little white wine from Fraynse”. His fridge, a walk-in affair, was jam packed with it.
Greg and Janis
When the interview was over we shook hands and as I was leaving he stood in the doorway of his luxury bungalow, one arm around Janice, the second of his seven wives, the other waving goodbye. “Mind y’all come back soon now,” he said in the way that Southerners always do.
In the evenings in Macon – pronounced Maykin as I discovered – I was entertained by the staff from Capricorn’s press office, among them a Southern Belle I tried to impress by giving her a coveted Alice Cooper medallion given to me by Shep Gordon. She accepted the gift graciously and we were bill and cooing in the darkest corner of a bar when she suddenly went cold on me.
“What’s wrong?” I asked,
“Wayyell, Chris,” she said, stretching her vowels like Elly May in the Beverly Hillbillies, “Butch Trucks from the Brothers Bayyaaaand has just walked in.”
“I think he fayyaancies me.”
“I don’t blame him.”
“The thing is Chris, he won’t take kaiiindly to me being with you.”
“Well, he has a temper on him and he usually carries a gun.”
Back in New York I scoured the pages of the Village Voice looking for somewhere better to live than the poky little flat on Lexington Avenue. I needed somewhere where I could work as well as live and my budget, controlled by my Squadron Leader, was $400 a month. Two ‘serviced’ flats I saw were unsuitable because they were far too small, but I hit third time lucky when I found the apartment on East 78th Street. It was well-nigh perfect, a dining area on a raised level as you entered, then a step or two down into a large living area, with a nice table I could use for a desk, a big bedroom off to the left, a separate – and, I would find, chronically underused – kitchen with a massive fridge. It was fitted out with deep pile shag carpets, comfortable for sleeping on if I didn’t make it to the bedroom but I soon learned that the best feature was actually the bathroom. The tub was tiny but the water from the shower was steaming hot, so much so that if you left it on for five minutes it was like a sauna in there, especially if you closed the window and stood on the loo seat where the extra height had a Turkish bath effect that sweated off hangovers.
51 East 78th Street, taken by a friend around 2012.
My flat was three floors up, the one with the air conditioners poking out of the windows.
My flat was three floors up, the one with the air conditioners poking out of the windows.
The neighbourhood was tidy. The building was between Madison and Park Avenues and directly opposite was Finch College, an up-market private girls school whose alumni included Tricia Nixon and Grace Slick. Less than a block away on Madison I found a shop that stocked day-old British newspapers, a Baskin & Robins that sold the best ice cream I’d ever tasted and a Greek coffee shop where I ate scrambled eggs and home fries most mornings for breakfast, washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice and coffee. There was a Jewish deli on the corner where, one day, an elderly waitress queried my age – I was 26 – when I ordered a beer, and a small supermarket next door. Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art were a couple of blocks away, and close by was a small lake where old men sailed lovingly tended model boats.
IPC must have been remarkably efficient when it came to paying my phone bills, which were always massive. In LA I’d ran up enormous bills calling the UK and when I called the phone company in New York and ordered a couple of phones for the apartment they came round with two brand-new white push-button jobs and hooked me up within a couple of hours. Ma Bell recognised a good customer when she found one.
Answering machines not yet having been invented, I contracted an answering service so that my phone was answered – on the third ring I think – by someone somewhere who took down messages and relayed them back to me when I called and gave my personal code. Since I was out a lot the girls who answered my phone were the nearest thing I ever had to a PA in New York, and although I spoke to them all the time I never met any of them, ever.
In hindsight I think I ought to have found an apartment downtown, perhaps in Greenwich Village, but I soon got the hang of the subway system which took me downtown and back again remarkably quickly on the local and express trains, a system unlike the London Underground but which was far more efficient, for only 50 cents. Although the subway was dirty and incredibly noisy and the carriages were covered in graffiti, it was a taste of New York’s underbelly that contrasted sharply with my rather bourgeoise rock’n’roll lifestyle. But I didn’t mind. Whenever I took the subway downtown I dressed the part, scruffy, looking like I only had a few cents in my pocket. And since when I got to where I was going it didn’t matter what I looked like and everything for me was usually free, that’s pretty much all I ever needed anyway.