Ralph Gleason discusses jazz, jazz artists, and jazz festivals ; part 2
BROADCAST: Jul. 31, 1971 | DURATION: 00:55:05
In Berkeley, Calif., Ralph Gleason, jazz and pop critic, and founding editor of Rolling Stone, talks with Studs about the history of jazz and jazz artists. They talk in depth about Billie Holiday, white performers who imitated the style of black jazz singers, and jazz festivals. Songs include Holiday's "Them There Eyes" and "God Bless the Child."
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Ralph Gleason You see, from Louis comes Billie Holiday. From Louis and Bessie come Billie Holiday. My grammar is very bad. From Louis and Bessie comes Billie Holiday, I guess, at any rate. But that's where she came from.
Studs Terkel See, this is a flowing program. So we're going from one program to another, and the audience I trust will be listening through these days and if not, I'll have introductions of my own. You mentioned Billie Holiday. I think one of the most beautiful pieces of criticism I've read, it could be jazz or it could be involving a lieder singer or it could be anything, is Ralph Gleason's tribute to Billie Holiday. She is dead. Columbia released "Golden Years", her various songs she sang with different bands, different instrumentalists, and in the album is a piece by Ralph, and I don't know, I think it's worth, you know, I think you ought to read this thing almost verbatim. I really feel it's worth reading verbatim. It's one of the best pieces of--it's a eulogy to an artist. Why don't you just read it? Or I'll read it. I don't care. I think I'll read it.
Ralph Gleason Okay.
Studs Terkel It's by Ralph Gleason. "'I got my manner from Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, honey. I wanted her feeling and Louis' style.' That was the way Billie Holiday once described her singing, and she kept saying it over and over in one way or another whenever they asked her, and they asked her a lot. But Billie Holiday's singing style was one of the most unique and personal in all of jazz music. That's what history will remember of her. Solidly supported by the undebatable evidence of the records. She was a singer of jazz, the greatest female jazz voice of all time. A great interpreter, a great actress, and the creator of a style that in its own way is as unique and important to jazz as the styles of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Lester Young. The fact remains that after all the lurid stories of her star-crossed, self-destructive life, she did something no other woman has ever done in jazz. Today if you sing jazz and you're a woman, you sing some of Billie Holiday. There's no other way to do it. No vocalist is without her influence. All girl singers sing some of Billie like all trumpet players play some of Louis. She wrote the text. The first time anyone was asked to describe her style, it was disc jockey Ralph, then emcee at the Apollo Theater in New York. And he said, 'It ain't the blues. I don't know what it is, but you got to hear her.' That description hasn't been topped yet. It ain't the blues, but the blues is in it. In some strange arcane witch-like way, Billie made blues out of everything she sang. But Billie's forte was the ballad, the pop tune." And here I think is Ralph, if I could just interpolate here, Ralph Gleason's insights here are quite brilliant, I think. "That she could take these frequently banal and generally trivial numbers and make them into something lasting, something artistic. Most singers at best are artful," and perhaps Ralph, I'd love to hear your thoughts about the contrast and I'm [often reminded about?] Billie Holiday and a marvelous performer like Ella Fitzgerald. And on this very point, art, art, the artist or the artful one. "There's a tribute to the way she was for her time the voice of woman. 'I've been told that nobody sings the word hunger like I do.'" He's quoting Billie now. "'Or the word love.' Billie remarked in the autobiography 'Lady Sings the Blues.' A story made all the more tragic and poignant by the 'little girl turned hip kitty' style in which it was told. And this may be true, but it's the way Billie pronounced another word that always symbolized for me the role in which she was, for better or for worse, cast in her life. The idealized sex symbol for an American generation just starting to recognize what jazz was all about, four letters and all. You can hear her do it numerous times in this collection." This is the Columbia collection that Ralph Gleason is writing about. "But nowhere does she achieve quite the promise, the assumption or the wild longing that she does in 'Them There Eyes,' when she lets out that deep-throated magnificently sexual cry, 'Ahh,'"--how did she do it? "Ahh, baby?" How did she do it, Ralph?
Studs Terkel "Born in Billie's world, which represents the introduction to the 20th century's social upheaval if we look at it sociologically, 'baby' had become the word for lover in the most intimate, perhaps even Freudian, sense, and Billie, born in the city and raised in town"--this was Baltimore--"Was the symbol of a sexual reality that transcended all the celluloid make-believe of the glamour queens of Hollywood. She was real and she was alive, and you could hear her and she spoke to you in that sultry molasses voice, the epitome of sex. The story of her life and all the grisly, tawdry, Sunday supplement detail from illegitimate birth through prostitution, jailhouse junk, jailhouse again, and the final deathbed scene, under arrest"--and perhaps we can talk about the laws that were passed, you know, with Billie as target and how it affected artists--"Under arrest in a hospital room for narcotics, gasping out her final breaths. Seven hundred and fifty dollars in 50-dollar bills strapped to her shrunken leg, has been told over and over and over. Please, God," writes Ralph Gleason, "Let her rest in peace at last. She was tortured enough in her life and her all-too-public hell. Let us deal here with what we live on as long as anything left alive on this culture. Her music, and forget for now the rest of it, which even carried over into graveyard quarrels as to who paid for her tombstone. Billie needs no tombstone ever. These records and her others are a monument to her that no stone can ever equal. She is in this album, just as surely as in life, all of her, the good and the bad and the beautiful. It's here in her voice and the songs and the titles and the lyrics. You can't miss it. I heard her say," and I hope you can tell us more in detail after I finish the notes we hear--"I heard her say," says Ralph, "'Baby' once, offstage and not in song. It was 12 years ago as these notes are being written, but I hear it yet. She'd opened in a San Francisco nightclub and she was with her then manager John Levy. She was wearing a brown turban, a full-length blue mink coat, green wool suit, brown crepe shirt with a Barrymore collar, pearl earrings and a Tiffany diamond and a platinum watch. She had waited for Levy to come out of the club, had finally gotten into a car with a group of us. And then he arrived, slipped in the front seat and she leaned forward and said, 'Baby, why did you leave me?' In that line, and all the pathos of 'My Man,' Billie's blues and the rest. Nobody could say a word from then, it's as if she didn't even know what she'd done. It's very possible Billie never knew what she did to people with her voice when she sang. Carmen McRae in the book 'Hear Me Talkin' to You,' spoke vividly of Billie the singer. 'I'll say this about her. She sings the way she is.'" You may recall in yesterday's program Ralph Gleason was talking about the, how people break down when they try to be what they are not. And so Carmen McRae was saying, Billie sings the way she is. "'That's really Lady,' said Carmen McRae 'When you listen to her on a record. Singing is the only place she can express herself the way she'd like to be all the time. Only way she is happy is through a song. The only time she's at ease and at rest with herself is when she sings.' And Bobby Tucker her longtime accompanist gave us a terrifying hint of Billie the woman. 'There's one thing about Lady you won't believe: she had the most terrible inferiority complex. She actually doesn't believe she can sing.' Musically, Billie herself had the most illuminating things to say of her own style. First its origin in Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. And then, 'I don't think I'm singing. I feel like I'm playing a horn. I try to improvise like Les Young, like Louis Armstrong or like someone else I admire. What comes out is what I feel. I hate straight singing. I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That's all I know.' Listening to the performances of these albums, on these albums which is living over again the best years of our lives, for those of us who are lucky enough to have heard her then"--I have a memory I'd like to exchange with Ralph, too, of her in a moment. "The memories are so strong one is struck by several things. First, how little in terms of departure from a melody that Billie actually changes the tune. What she does is Miles Davis was later to work out for himself, is to take a limited canvas and paint exquisitely upon it. She had no tricks, no vocal gymnastics. She may hated straight singing, but her way was to sing it almost straight with a special accent on articulation, phrasing and rhythm. Phrased as she phrased, the words mean something. Many lines and drama are banal on their own but in context and in performance take on meaning. She did this with pop songs because they held meaning for her, a world she never made and never knew except when she sang. The samples here are overwhelming, the way she says 'this year's crop just misses' on her very first record, Lester Young 'This Year's Kisses.'" That's in Volume One, Side Two of the album. "They become not lyrics but Billie's own expression. The other thing is how in retrospect she really did sing as Lester Young played. Just listen to the way she comes in on 'Them There Eyes,' you hear it again and again as she starts a number, as she comes back in for the second chorus or the bridge, and the way she phrases multisyllable words." That's something to talk about, too. A remarkable genius at syllable bending. "It's no wonder that from the moment she made her first record date with Prez, Lester Young, January '37, there's an entirely new feeling. Billie was home musically at last." Ralph write on in this vein, and a very moving vein it is, and I'll just, perhaps, go toward the end of it. "She had been dying and, so, in a strange twisted way, symbolic perhaps, of her strange twisted life, it was an anti-climax when Billie Holiday died. She'd been dying by inches for years. You could hear it in her voice, the ugly sound of death, all the way back to early days of cafe society. It was perversely part of her charm, like that of Prez and Bird; drink, dope and dissipation were really the only superficial aspects, were only the superficial aspects of what was wrong with her. She suffered from an incurable disease: being born Black in a white society wherein she could never be but partially accepted. 'You've got to have something to eat. A little love in your life before you can hold still for anybody's damn sermon,' she wrote in her autobiography. There was plenty to eat later years when her childhood, as a classic juvenile delinquent she was hungry for more than food. But money never helped Billie, nor did men. She had plenty of both, and she died alone and thin, her great body wasted by disease and deliberate starvation with a police guard on the door. She was ridden by devils on her life. In the beginning she was in control most of the time. Those were the days when she made the great records, the classic jazz vocals that comprise this collection, but Billie was more than a singer. She was a social message, a jazz instrumentalist, a creator whose performances could never be duplicated, and tried by a whole generation of singers whose inspiration she was. None of them came any closer to it than sounding like Billie on a bad night. There were plenty of bad nights, too; in the later years her voice and her sense of time would desert her. At nightclub performances listeners who remembered her when she was not only the greatest singer jazz produced, but also one of the most beautiful and impressive women of her generation, choked and cried to see and hear her so helplessly. Billie Holiday when she was in her prime, in the years covered by these performances, was simply the most magnetic and beautiful woman I've ever seen, as well as the most emotionally moving singer I've ever heard. I remember when she opened the cafe society in December 1938 for her first big nightclub break. She was simply shocking in her impact. Standing there with a spotlight on her great, sad, beautiful face, a white"--this is her trademark, of course. "A white gardenia in her hair. She sang her songs, and singers were never the same thereafter. She was really happy only when she sang. The rest of the time she was sort of living, a living lyric to the song 'Strange Fruit' hanging not on a poplar tree, but on the limbs of life itself. Just as Chaplin never won an Oscar, Billie Holiday never won a 'Downbeat' poll while she was living, but for jazz and its fans her music is unequalled, and as indispensable as Louis' and Duke's. The fall before she died I saw her sitting stiffly in the lobby of the San Carlos Hotel in Monterey." Incidentally, Ralph Gleason, who is writing these beautiful thoughts, was one of the men behind the Monterey Jazz festivals we can talk about later on. "I saw her sitting in the San Carlos Hotel in Monterey the morning after the festival finale. The jazz musicians tried to ignore her. Finally, in that hoarse whisper that could still after 30 years of terrifying abuse send shivers down your spine, she asked, 'Where you boys going?' When no one answered, she answered herself. 'They got me opening in Vegas tonight.' 'They' always had Billie opening somewhere she didn't want to be. That's over now and all that's left are memories and the wreckage and the poor misguided singers trying to sound like her, God save them. There's really too much and too little to say of someone like her. We have the memories and we have the records. As for myself, I feel like a young man, the young man in Colin MacInnes' novel 'Absolute Beginners,' who says, 'Lady Day has suffered so much in her life she carries it all for you,'" and perhaps before I read the last part of Ralph's notes, a parenthetical comment, I'd met Colin MacInnes in London in the hotel room and [later of?] his thoughts about Billie and why he thinks she's the greatest artist America has produced. "It's a long, long road from your mother's son-in-law to gloomy Sunday, but Billie traveled it all for us. We owe her a great deal. It is sad beyond words that she never knew how many people loved her." Ralph J. Gleason's notes. About the best I've ever read, Ralph. So. We got to hear Billie.
Studs Terkel Ralph, now I know after having read your piece, you know, you're relaxing a bit now in hearing Billie, this is an up-tempo song, she can sing anything. What she would do with the syllables, you describe what she'd do with the syllables and give it a new meaning entirely.
Ralph Gleason Yeah, well, I fell in love with her the first time I saw her. But the thing about Billie is in a way the thing about Louis as a vocalist. They could take those incredible songs, like "This Year's Crop of Kisses", any one of the tunes of the '20s or '30s and which ground out in Joe Mitchell's Brill Building there, whatever--
Ralph Gleason Oh, incredible. You know, they were aimed at six-year-olds, and the six-year-olds then were really six-year-old, the six-year-olds now are 25. But they could take those songs and they understood the lyric, they got into the lyric and then they made the thing tran--well, Fats Waller would do that, with satire, they would transcend the meaning of the song ,and Billie could take those songs and make the things sound like, not like performances, not like songs, not like somebody on a stage, not like somebody in a record, but like somebody talking to you and saying the thing to you and it had real meaning, which is how you can take thoughts and ideas and phrases that are tawdry, old, frayed at the edges, cliches, banal lyrics and make those things come alive. I mean, that's the kind of performing creativity that she could do, it was almost as though her whole drive to be a person, to be an artist was involved not with painting a picture that had never been painted before, or making a piece of sculpture that never been made, or writing a song that had never been written before, but performing something and taking somebody else's work and lifting it from street level, you know, to the top of the mountain.
Ralph Gleason But, you see, you brought up the point of vulnerability. And I agree with Colin MacInnes, at least I agree almost totally with him that she is certainly one of the greatest artists that the United States has ever produced in any way. And it's much greater, for instance, than our famous stage personalities, and you know, the people that made reputations as performers on television aren't even in the same ballpark. But all performing artists I believe are vulnerable ,and to a very real degree, the degree to which they are vulnerable is directly related to how creative and how important and how good they are as a performer. I mean, you know, Ella Fitzgerald is vulnerable and like Billie doesn't believe that anybody loves her and that she can't sing. I did an interview with her once in the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, I mean, she grabbed me in the hall after the show and asked me to come up and talk to her for a while and I didn't even have any paper to make notes on, and after I got finished talking to her I ran downstairs and went in the men's room and wrote it all out on toilet paper. But the thing about it is that she couldn't believe that she was successful and doing this thing for the audiences, and one of the best Ella Fitzgerald shows I ever saw. But Ella has always been what Billie talked about when Billie said that quote about her wanting to sound like a horn. Ella has always been less interested in the lyric of the song as rhetoric conveying meaning than she has been in the musical phrasing and the sound of her voice and its instrument-like qualities. And I've sometimes had the feeling listening to Ella that she couldn't care less what the words were. Like, Sarah Vaughan is the perfect illustration of that. I mean, Sarah obviously, as you can hear on the record from time to time, doesn't pay enough attention to the words, even know what they mean. I mean, she mispronounces--
Ralph Gleason No, no, never. But you know, it's just a different kind of thing altogether. But, you see, it isn't a question of low-ranking Ella at all to admit to the incomparable position that Billie Holiday occupies. You see, for--well, right straight up to the rock era, to the current young early 20s group of singers, and even some of them, all of those people through the '40s and the '50s, the Peggy Lee as a kind of--all of those singers had Billie Holiday. I mean, they couldn't move without Billie Holiday. Like, as a matter of fact now all you've got to do is to listen to the bands and the TV shows and the late night shows and you hear Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong. If those people hadn't existed, those bands wouldn't be able to play. Charlie Parker, you know, they ought to be paying royalties--
Studs Terkel Hold this, one point of vulnerability, coming back to Colin MacInnes who wrote those notes that you quoted toward the end. He, MacInnes is a very vulnerable man, a very sensitive man in England. And what impressed me as he said it I remember--
Studs Terkel Yeah, an Australian in England. What impressed me as he said it was that to very--people aware of their own mortality to vulnerable people particularly those who may have a touch of the poet in them, Billie is all the more powerful. And if I could just remember a certain moment, it was a lousy place in Chicago called the Budland, not the Birdland, Budland, it was in the basement Cottage, only about 10 people there, Billie was almost through. And the gardenia was still in the hair. She was ruined, and yet more beautiful than ever. That paradox could be and it was. Ben Webster was there, he was about through, he was backing her, about ten people in the house. I was the only white guy I think there, she was singing "Willow, Weep for Me", and of course I wept, as did everybody there. And what the reason, I think, and this is maybe I'm romanticizing, but you put it so beautifully in your notes is that in her vulnerability was the vulnerability of all 10 of us, you know, in the intimations of her mortality were the intimations of our own mortality. So she was unmasked. I mean, it was she and no one else at a certain moment in her life, whereas an artful performer can do it in her, his sleep. But she'd never--even though her voice was shot, as you say there, it was embarrassing at times, it didn't matter, it was--you were so moved by the experience of that artist at that moment revealing herself, and thus yourself, you see. Is that, to me, that's--
Ralph Gleason Well, you see, that's what she did, it was, you know, it's grotesque, it's horrendous to think of her lying in a hospital bed with a police guard. I mean, here she is too weak to walk, too weak to move, and they've got to be sure she doesn't get away and they busted her in the hospital for having a joint, you know. I hate those bastards. You see, I mean, okay, so you can try and think about it in humanistic terms and that copper was standing guard in the door, he's got a job to do, but he really ought to get some other job to do, because if you work on the job to do theory, then you end up with Adolf Eichmann. I don't--I can't think of anyone who fate perversely made into such a pure example of the way in which this society denies you the right to be a human individual, a creative artist. I mean, they simply wouldn't let it happen. And you know, they passed, as you pointed out, they passed legislation that prevented her from appearing on Broadway, for God's sake, all that nonsense. See, the morality of the Cafe Society--of the Cafe Registration Act in New York City which was designed to prevent people who had been convicted of narcotics offences from appearing before the public and thus corrupting them by contact, by visual contact and oral contact, sort of a legal contact high I presume, the morality of that I think is delightfully highlighted by Anslinger's own book on the narcotics, on the history of the narcotics division in which he cops out to having unilaterally made the decision to keep two important people on narcotics. One, a member of the House of Representatives and the other a member of a socially prominent family in the East Coast, because in his judgment it was better for them and for society for them to be on narcotics, and so he okayed the exception to the rule. You know--
Studs Terkel I think one of the tragic aspects extra-curricular tragedy here, aside--this was obviously an attempt by the authorities to get this one particular poet, this artist Billie Holiday, and I don't know if people are aware of this, there were laws passed in New York City that to perform in nightclubs you had to have a clean record, and it also helped kill Lord Buckley--
Ralph Gleason Better
Studs Terkel Lord Buckley, who was so beautiful, finally in order to get a job years ago in Chicago as a rather lusty emcee, and he got in a fight and was arrested. And so it was on his record. And he said he wanted to perform, and so he said no, he was never arrested. And of course he was in trouble as a result. He had a bad ticker and he died. So it seems to me this law that was aimed at Billie Holiday naturally would affect all artists and poets is the point, as it did Dick Buckley.
Ralph Gleason Sure. Well, Brendan Behan said in an interview that I once heard on KPFA that it was the duty of every artist to overthrow his government, and the government is the inevitable and absolute enemy of all artistic creativity, and it always has been. You know, going back to Rome, I'm sure, and Greece, by having them check that out with my historians, but I know probably acknowledge will probably hold true, because the very act of creation itself, artistic creation itself is a threat to the existing order.
Studs Terkel We have to, we, perhaps this sequence about Billie we can't, it seems to me, at least for me, for my sake, we can't end without "God Bless the Child", and here's Billie herself, calling upon, obviously her own memories and experiences, whether it's Baltimore or whether it's New York and these are her lyrics, aren't they, or part of them were I think, some were her lyrics I think. [content removed, see catalog record] Did we miss anything about "God Bless the Child" that touches you?
Studs Terkel It's always difficult to follow Billie Holiday, but Ralph Gleason, I'm his guest here in his city. This is in Berkeley where I am now, part of a San Francisco/Berkeley/Oakland area where so much has happened that he obviously can talk about. So you spoke of the singers, white and Black, influenced by Billie Holiday, we think of young singers today. Recently, Janis Joplin recorded "God Bless the Child" herself, and she of course has caused a great deal of growing conversation among performers, Black, white, the kids idolize her, white kids, maybe Black kids, too, I don't know. What are your thoughts about that?
Ralph Gleason Well, the Janis Joplin phenomenon is an interesting thing, because as sort of a sidelight to the whole jazz world in the last 25 years, we have had a whole sequence of white girl singers who wanted to be Black. We had them trying to sound like Billie Holiday, there was a girl who made a record that was so imitative of Billie Holiday that it was reviewed in "Downbeat" by Leonard Feather saying that now that Billie is dead, it's a good thing that we have whatever her name was who was able to imitate her so well, you know, and I--I lost my breakfast when I read that. The imitation of Bessie Smith, for instance, by all sorts of white girl singers who perform with Dixieland groups, imitation of Ma Rainey and so on, all of this was demonstrably unsuccessful. None of it has survived the test of time. What happened with someone like Janis is an entirely different thing. I mean, she ended up being a star comparable to Peggy Lee, who was also imitative of Billie Holiday. Well, Janis for is a performer that I dig watching. She is not a performer whose records turn me on except in the sense that they bring me back to something that I saw her do. She started, as you know there are tapes around San Francisco and they play them on the FM stations here sometime of Janis singing Bessie Smith songs in coffee shop coffeehouses and singing old time blues--
Ralph Gleason Yeah, but that was a little later. And you see, because the imitation of the earlier blues singers does not work in 1960 and 1970, whether it's done by Dinah Washington or whether it's done by Claire Austin or Barbara Dane. I mean, when we had a few years ago a sequence of two or three albums put out which were collections of Bessie Smith numbers done by Dinah Washington, and I don't remember the names of two or three other people did them, several of the singers were Black or white--
Studs Terkel I think we should point out Ralph Gleason's comment, this is a very rather important one. I'm thinking those who may not know Claire Austin or Barbara Dane as Dinah, of course, Black, and Claire Austin and Barbara Dane white, but imitating it almost precisely, and your point is it becomes quaint and out of context.
Ralph Gleason Well, as you see, it's not--I mean, they're imitating--it's not only that they're imitating someone else, which is a serious artistic crime in a certain sense in and of itself, but they are imitating someone singing from another culture at another time. Now, Janis got through that, and before she made any impact on the public or got out before the public, as she did at the Monterey Pops Festival and again at the Monterey Jazz Festival that same year, she had worked herself through that into an adaptation of the Big Mama Thornton and the Tina Turner style into rock and roll using that rock thing with her. And the thing that I think that she contributed--or not contributed, the thing that she did which none of those other singers have ever done, was she looked right when she sang. She moved correctly. She was the first white female performer singing onstage that I ever saw who was unconscious of the way, or not conscious of the way in which she moved. She was not self-conscious in any sense at all. If she felt like twisting, writhing, jumping up and down, kicking, or anything else that fitted to the way in which she heard the music or felt the music, she did it. She was a natural performer. Now she has kind of extraordinary vocal powers. And if you want to ruin her with one of her fans all you have to do is to play her version of a song and play the version by the original. And she doesn't stand up, because she is not an original in that sense. She is a gifted performer. But even there I think you see in her whole lifestyle the seeds of the lack of fulfillment. See, otherwise she would not be the sort of walking crash pad that she is, you know. And it's kind of a terrifying thing, because she appeared at the right moment in history to become, you know, a female Tom Jones, to become a white version of Black. Now, she can be enjoyable in performance, she can be a knockout in performance, be amazingly exciting in performance, I do not find her an original contributor to music, and I don't find many of her songs things that I want to go back and listen to, and when I hear her say the singing of some song like "God Bless the Child" or--
Ralph Gleason No, I was thinking of some of those ballads that, some of those soft pretty ballads that she sings sometimes. I just find these unsatisfactory in a very fundamental way. I mean, she can't--
Studs Terkel The reason her name came into the conversation naturally it stemmed from Billie as so much does but also the fact that she is a performer and star [drawcard at?] festivals, at rock festivals. Now we come to a phenomenon. You have been involved with festivals of an earlier day and of now, too. You spoke of the Monterey Pop Festival, Monterey Jazz Festival, and perhaps we can talk about your views of Altamont. By the way, Ralph has written a frighteningly good, at the same time frightening analysis of what happened at the Altamont festival here, the anti-Woodstock festival in California. But you go ahead. Take off from there.
Ralph Gleason Well, you know, the idea behind the festivals in the beginning and there were festivals before Woodstock, they really were, the idea behind festivals was to get music out of all those crummy nightclubs with stinking, you know, the original polluted air and get them out of those places into places where you could exist in decent surroundings and enjoy yourself and be festive and, really, to be corny about it, in a loving way listen to the music. This was the reason there was a Monterey Jazz Festival, the reason was a Newport Jazz Festival. It was a reason for the festivals in Europe. Now, those things were all structured and controlled in fairly precise ways. I mean, you were sold a ticket with a number on it that entitled you to a space in which to sit, and the programs are fairly set and they went out on time and there were intermissions and all that sort of thing, and they became very successful. As evidence of that, Newport I guess is close to 15 or 16 years in existence now, and Monterey is 12 or 13, or something like that. As the jazz festivals, and there have been a number of other jazz festivals around this country. I think that by and large there have been a good thing. I think at this point in time that they are demonstrating the inevitable attributes of institutions in this society, which is to become more static, more conservative, and more opposed to allowing any form of originality or creation to occur, anything new. I mean, the Newport Jazz Festival will no longer take rock and roll, it says, and the Monterey Jazz Festival is doing the same thing. They are frightened by new kinds of music no matter how logical it may be to prevent [sic] some of them, because their patrons are middle-aged, frightened by the sound of electric guitars because it represents that their sons and their daughters are beyond their control, you see. We've gone through two cycles on that thing, or two stages of that rejection of electric guitars. In the first place, the jazz audience and the jazz musicians rejected the sound of the electric guitars because it represented to them the sound of Southern redneck hillbilly reactionary racists, which is what they heard all that stuff as being, and it still is the music of a racist portion, of the most racist portion, of most overtly racist portion of this society. But the validation of that through the adoption of those instruments by Muddy Waters and those people changed the reaction of Black people towards it for instance, and it's now crept in, you know, into the festival scene in other ways. Well, the reason that there was a Woodstock and a reason there was an Altamont goes back to the fact that some people wanted to put on a pop music festival in California and the natural site for it was the Monterey County Fairgrounds where the jazz festival had been a success for 10 years, and they produced there the first Monterey pops fest--first and only Monterey Pops Festival which the film was made about where Janis Joplin made her debut--beg pardon?
Ralph Gleason Yes, right. Where Janis Joplin made her debut before large audiences, and set up a whole truth and beauty and flowers and good vibes syndrome which, as you know, in the last two years have been innumerable festivals, there's about 20 of them set this year. Well, I don't see anything that is necessarily true to the feeling that there must be large gatherings of people outdoors to listen to music. I think that there must be places that people listen to music that are comfortable and decent and nice and the ambience is admirable. They don't have to be necessarily outdoors. These things have gotten a little out of control because they have become kind of demonstrations rather than festivals. And what went wrong at Altamont I think can be summed up by the statement that somebody made to me that all of the problems of Altamont were present. In Woodstock and all of the virtues of Woodstock were present at Altamont, except the thing just went the other way.
Studs Terkel I think for the sake of listeners who may not know about Altamont, and since Chicago recently had a breakup of a city-subsidized festival, I think there's a reflection here of what may be happening. Suppose you go back to beginnings, describe the nature of Altamont, the nature of the festival, and the August issue--is it August issue? July issue of "Esquire". August issue has a remarkable piece--
Ralph Gleason Well, Altamont was a free concert put on by the Rolling Stones at the end of their tour last fall, and it took place in a rural area 50 miles from Oakland and 70 miles from San Francisco, and it ended with a Black youth being stabbed to death by a Hells Angel in front of the bandstand as Mick Jagger was singing "Under My Thumb". A number of people
Ralph Gleason The event was filmed. There were a number of people injured during the course of the day by being beaten by the Hells Angels who were, as the photographs in the Esquire story show, using pool cues to whale on anybody that interfered with their concept of how the festival should go. It was a terrible thing. It was the whole concept gone sour. You see? And it's got a lot to do with the state of the country at this point even more than it has to do with the state of music, as a matter of fact. I mean, you've got, you had thousands of people out there to see Mick Jagger because they thought Mick Jagger was a street fighting man because he sang a song about being a street fighting man. He thought he was a revolutionary. If he is a revolutionary, it's implicit in his music because his music is the music of youth, which is at all times revolutionary, but it wasn't that he is a revolutionary in any sense of the word that I can think of, and this confusion and the reality of it when they got there, the reality that the free concert was really sort of a costume party for a film that, while the party itself was free, that there was going to be a lot of money made out of the film, as a lot of money has been made out of the Woodstock film, despite all the statements that Woodstock lost millions of dollars. I noted in the "Chronicle" this morning a "New York Times" story saying that two of the original promoters were suing the other two because they felt defrauded since the other two cats bought them out and didn't let them know they were going to sell the movie for all that bread to Hollywood. Well, people are paranoid. It's the age of paranoia, everybody is totally suspicious. The official government of the United States of America, the Republican and Democratic parties and the city administrations in Los Angeles and New York and Chicago and San Francisco and elsewhere have educated the population of the country to believe that you can't believe public statements by officials on anything. I mean, we are withdrawing from Vietnam by going into Cambodia. And you know, you have all that incredible almost James O'Farrell conduct of Daley publicly on television after the event which is to restructure an alibi by invention and changing everything around. So that what we saw didn't happen. You know? Well, no wonder nobody believes anything anymore. What are you going to believe? Are you going to believe in Richard Nixon? You know, what happens is Chet Huntley quits after 20 years on NBC and says the thought of him being president, you know, appalls me, and then there has to cop out and deny it later on. Well, you know, "Life" magazine says, "Well, gee whiz, he really did say it." You know? And you wonder when he, you know, you rejoice that he says it, at the same time you wonder why it took him 10 years to say it. See? It's like--
Ralph Gleason Yeah, solid. It's like watching, you know, there we are every night on the six--seven o'clock news and we're watching CBS and we get that beautiful feeling and the resonance in his voice and that marvelous precise and sort of understanding knowledge of what goes on in the world.
Ralph Gleason Cronkite on CBS. When he finally got around to his confrontation with Daley, copping out like some $25 a week cub reporter on the Lima, Ohio "Morning Gazette", you know, confronted by the mayor, so terrified to be in the, you know, face-to-face with the guy, didn't have guts enough to say to him, "You're lying."
Studs Terkel By the way, as Ralph Gleason is talking, it's quite clear now I think to listeners that there can be no dissociation from the music the young are singing to the world we live in and the festivals, all related, naturally.
Ralph Gleason See, it may be that the judge believes that by keeping Huey Newton in prison that he is going to prevent the Black Panthers or Black militants from progressing in this society, and it may be true that the other judge believes that by keeping Tim Leary in prison he is going to halt the encroachment upon our society of the drug culture. But this is only additional demonstration of the hallucinatory capability of non-drug users, you see. They don't know what they're doing. If they think by abolishing those concerts in Chicago for the rest of the summer that they're doing something, they're out of their minds, because young people in this country are never going to believe textbook democracy anymore. Not after Bob Dylan. I mean, after he rewrote everybody's view of this country with State of the Union messages, state of the nation messages and reports to the constituency which describe it in terms of everybody's empirical experience indicates are true. You know, I collapsed in black laughter, grim laughter during the course of Daley on television saying that the demonstrators used words that wouldn't be permitted in, I think he said bordello, but anyway what he meant was a whorehouse. Now, that was marvelous, because of all the people involved in the demonstrations in Chicago, he's probably the only one that
Studs Terkel would You know what is interesting as you talk now, a certain phrase you used, with this is a free associative conversation with Ralph Gleason, you said "black laughter," when in terms before we speak of "Black humor," I don't think it's accidental that the color black is applied to this sardonic kind of,
Ralph Gleason See, this had an effect on Lenny Bruce. I mean, his association with jazz musicians was very important to him. It helped him crystallize his view of the society, and the thing that happened to Lenny and the thing that's happened to Eldridge Cleaver and the thing that's happening to anyone of the people who try to make sense out of the way in which this monster organization functions like the, you know, the juggernaut in the streets of the Indian city, the way in which this thing functions eventually they get driven quite literally out of their minds by the attempt to make rational sense of it. I don't think this society makes sense any longer. That's why I dig Joe Heller's "Catch-22"--he doesn't try to explain it into making sense.
Ralph Gleason That's what the trouble with the movie is. They can't, you know, you can't make satire out of something that everybody knows is true, there it is, man. I mean, we all know that you can buy eggs for six cents and sell them for 4 cents and make a profit. Read
Studs Terkel We come back to that point here again of obviously satire may be dead, because the truth, the event itself is satirical. Is by its very nature satirical, and the young, coming back to the young on the events of--
Studs Terkel But coming back to the festivals, you're outlining the festivals, you were speaking of what happened at Altamont and to some extent in Chicago that it's more than just the question of the young and you really say reflecting the state of our society. This eruption that occurred. What--could you be more specific, too, the nature of the event. I don't mean the specific event, but what it is, the ruthlessness, the--Woodstock turned out kind of nice, didn't it?
Studs Terkel And you speak of the vibes involved, bad--we're using the phrase that the young use a lot, there was something very bad that was in the air at Altamont, and indeed as I find out now in Chicago. But you're talking now not about the young--even though it's a metaphor really, what happened at the two festivals, Chicago and Altamont.
Ralph Gleason They expect to be defrauded now, Studs. They went to the thing in Chicago expecting to be defrauded. They expect to be short-changed. They expect to be screwed by the government, by the school system, by the mayor's office, and even on the stage, and some of the rock people cooperate in this. I mean, the contracts that the groups have with promoters indicate that the, as part of the contract terms that the prices must be okayed by the artist. And yet it's a target of convenience to attack Bill Graham or his, you know, reasonable equivalent if there is such a thing as a reasonable equivalent for Bill Graham in Chicago as--
Ralph Gleason The Sol Hurok of rock. If you, you know, it's like getting mad at Sol Hurok. This is pointless. If the people who do these, give these performances want to give the performances at a lower price, they can do this. Joan Baez has done it. It's up to them if they want to do it. Now, in the case of the of the Rolling Stones, like the Beatles and like the other groups from England, we're dealing with people who despite the fact that their music has a direct and immediate reaction in this country, and as Frank Zappa, a rock and roll performer with The Mothers of Invention and a brilliant man has commented, youth today is not loyal to country or flag or creed, but is loyal to music. Despite the fact that the Rolling Stones music has an immediate spark contract with people all over this country does not mean that Mick Jagger knows anything about the United States of America, because what he has seen in the United States of America is the inside of hotel rooms, the inside of planes, the inside of airports, and the inside of limousines, so nobody was more frightened or shocked or startled or confused by what happened at Altamont than the Mick Jagger. I'm sure. He certainly didn't want that to happen, and I don't think he knows yet what did happen.
Ralph Gleason That is true. But you see, Mick Jagger's experience with the Hell's Angels has been to use Hells Angels as the guards for a free concert at Hyde Park where several hundred thousand people gathered without anybody even getting a black eye. And that I don't think it occurred to Mick that there conceivably would be a difference between the London Hells Angel and the United States prototype, and that to turn this thing around the other way, Mick assumes that a Hells Angel is a Hells Angel. He met a cat with a Hells Angels jacket on him in London, so therefore that's what Hells Angels are like. Well, they aren't, are they?
Ralph Gleason He also, as a matter of fact I think, is a victim of, and so are many people from England victim of another thing, which is the whole view of America that comes out in terms of motion pictures and TV shows. And there probably are people right now who believe that there are bands of roving savages somewhere in the great American desert hijacking travelers and holding them for ransom. And you know, I have the feeling that the whole Stones organization thought that San Francisco consisted of the Golden Gate Park, Speedway Meadows and the Hells Angels and Allen Ginsberg and one happy frolic on the grass.
Studs Terkel You know, I think as Ralph Gleason is talking, he's obviously talking about our society itself, and the Rolling Stones he speaks of, of course, of the British group, and "Rolling Stone" happens to be a quite remarkable relatively new journal, of which Ralph, who is younger than I am and yet my contemporary, about five or so years younger than I am, Ralph, you're in your early 50s, I think, aren't you?
Studs Terkel I would say you're about 23 to 19, just being born, you're also, your empathy for the young. We're going to ask you about "Rolling Stone", the phenomenon of that, the meaning of it and what it covers, yourself and your colleagues, but before that, festivals. What do you see? I'm not asking you to be Nostradamus, but what do you see forthcoming as the results, say, of Altamont and Chicago? Chicago again figures in the news.
Ralph Gleason I see the end of festivals. And so, I mean, at this point in the state of California we have at least four counties where it is illegal to hold gatherings of more than seven or eight thousand people without filing certain insurance policies and making certain arrangements and all those things of course are just like your drug laws, food laws, the restaurant laws and so on in any major city can be enforced at the discretion of the enforcing agent at the end of the line, and he can either let you do it and look the other way, or he can insist on a literal enforcement of it. It's almost impossible to put on a festival in the State of California now because you have to make so many guarantees that you would need to have a Ford Foundation grant in order to get the thing off the ground. I think that's already been copied in Oklahoma, I think it's going to be copied in other states. Now, I think in a swing against that, we will have some sort of ACLU action to test the validity of those things. But I think that the society's civic mechanism is still, despite the attempts by Ted Kennedy and John Lindsay and people like that to get a hold of it, is still in the hands of the generation represented by and large by Mayor Daley, and they're not going to permit these things to go on any longer. They're going to pass laws which will not be laws against rock and roll festivals, but that's how they will be enforced. There will be no rock and roll festivals next year.
Ralph Gleason Oh, people read, you know. There's no absence of people reading. They listen to music, but music--see, the thing that--rock and roll is music. But it's also something else. It's religion. It's the glue that binds them all together. It's the educational system, it supplanted the educational system in this country. It's more important than the University of California or the University of Chicago. The most important professors in the educating of the young in this country are Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, not the professor at the head of the English Department at Columbia and not Lionel Trilling who has just become university professor, despite my debt to Lionel Trilling and what--
Studs Terkel Don't you feel, pardon me. I want to ask you a ques--don't you feel on this point there can be a fusion of the two, the book and the street? That is, the guy--I realize this group obviously-- Yeah,
Ralph Gleason That was only last, that was only a year ago, a little over a year ago. That tear gas would be drifting down here now, and when that was going on there was an emergency first aid station on the street right behind here. And then right out in front of the studios was the place where the Berkeley police arrested some couple hundred people and schlepped them all off to Santa Rita prison, which provoked that magnificent article by Bob Scheer in "Ramparts" and the piece in "Life" magazine and the piece that was in the "Chronicle" by Tim Findlay that was syndicated all around the country of how Sheriff Madigan's Gestapo handled the prisoners. Now, just one parenthetical note about Altamont. In order to get to Altamont, you have to drive past Santa Rita.
Ralph Gleason It's a prison. A county prison. You have to drive past Santa Rita to get to Altamont, and Altamont is in Alameda County, and the only law enforcement agency with authority over Altamont is Sheriff Madigan's sheriff's department, and there were no sheriffs there that day.
Ralph Gleason Well, I've never been able to find the answer to that officially. My own suspicion of why there were no sheriffs there that day was that they hoped it would all go away or else it would, something would happen that would be, enable them to prevent them ever having another gathering.
Studs Terkel We come to part three, we have to, of the peregrinations of Ralph Gleason, his journeys and his thoughts of the day. This is a long way from the day you first heard "Black and Tan Fantasy" and Earl Hines in that little New York town when your father had the general store. It's a long way that we've come backward and forward.