Velvet Underground, Grateful Dead, Otis Redding & more; Bill Bentley tells us about his favorite shows, releases book
In December 2015, the Smithsonian put out a call for music fans to submit personal photos and stories from their favorite rock n’ roll moments. Those have been collected in Bill Bentley‘s new book, Smithsonian Rock and Roll: Live and Unseen, which is out today (10/24) via Smithsonian Books:
From Woodstock to the Whisky a Go Go, from Lollapalooza to the 9:30 Club, and all the rockin’ places in between, fans overwhelmingly responded with their favorite rock and roll moments. Iconic artists ranging from the Who to Nirvana to Chuck Berry to the Jimi Hendrix and many more are celebrated here. There are early photographs of everyone from Run-D.M.C. to the Runaways, and contemporary shots of some of the biggest names in music, including Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, and Metallica. Presented together, these photographs create a kaleidoscopic history of the artists, the musical styles, the venues, the concerts, and the fans. This is rock and roll as it has never been seen before.
If you’re in Los Angeles, Bill will be discussing the book with MC5’s Wayne Kramer at Book Soup on Sunday, October 29.
For those unfamiliar, Bill Bentley is a rock n’ roll lifer who has been a drummer, a record store clerk, was a publicist for L.A. punk label Slash in the early ’80s and later Sire Records, and is the former A&R Director at Concord Music Group and Vice President of Warner Bros. Records. He has seen a lot of amazing shows over his lifetime, and we asked him to tell us about his Top Five Most Memorable Concerts, which include seeing Otis Redding and The 13th Floor Elevators within a week of each other in 1966. Read his very entertaining anecdotes and recollections of life-changing shows, below.
Bill Bentley’s Five Most Memorable Concerts
1. Otis Redding / March 22, 1966 / Paladium Ballroom / Houston, Texas
I was 15 years old when I went to the Paladium Ballroom to see Otis Redding in 1966. I’d been a huge fan for several years, hearing all of his songs on KYOK or KCOH, both AM stations that catered to Houston’s huge African-American audience. I knew there was no way I was going to miss Redding in person, school night or no school night. Entering the Paladium, the crowd felt like they’d turned their excitement meter up to 12, with the distinctive sound of a zillion bumble bees being run through the P.A. system. I grabbed a seat at a table close to the stage and nearly levitated waiting for the show to begin. After the 9-piece band played a couple of barn-burning instrumentals, Otis Redding came charging out onstage like a football player making an end-zone run. He was all stomping movements and shouting out exhortations that he was there to deliver his listeners to the promised land. Songs like “Mr. Pitiful” and “I Can’t Turn You Loose” set the crowd on fire. People were screaming at the top of their lungs, climbing up on their chairs and even the table tops to get a better look at the man from Macon, Georgia. For the next hour it felt like I was riding down a mountainside on a runaway train, my heart lodged somewhere in my throat and my skin tingling like I’d been attacked by a massive swarm of huge Houston mosquitoes. I’d never felt anything like it, and haven’t since then. It was truly other-worldly. I blew my 10 p.m. curfew by four hours, but it didn’t matter. There was no way I could leave what I was seeing, and absolutely I have not seen anything like it since. Otis Redding was the king of soul, and while he hadn’t been discovered by much of America quite yet, that day of reckoning was coming. When he died in December 1967 it felt like a huge hole had been ripped open in my chest, one that has not been filled since. Long live King Otis.
2. 13th Floor Elevators / March 30, 1966 / La Maison / Houston, Texas
In late 1965 word from Austin that there was a psychedelic band being birthed that could change the Texas landscape began to filter down to Houston. We weren’t quite sure what psychedelic music was, but we did know whatever it was we wanted some. There had to be more to life than the uptight world of Texas, where long hair could get you killed, and a joint of pot was a felony narcotic with a sentence of five years to life in prison. It was scary business to be in a search for freedom, but it was said the Elevators could provide a way out, at least psychically. When Benny Thurman, Tommy Hall, Stacy Sutherland and John Ike Walton walked onstage that night, it felt like a glow had immersed the large nightclub in shimmering colors. And then singer Roky Erickson came on, holding a beautiful red Gibson electric guitar and looking out at the crowd with pupils the size of blue quarters. This was a band that not only believed in LSD, but took it almost every time they took the stage. They began with Erickson’s single from his previous band the Spades, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” but now it was supercharged beyond recognition, complete with Hall’s electrified jug sending neural depth charges through our synapses. This wasn’t rock & roll: it was religion. With a handful of originals like “Rollercoaster” and “Reverberation” that didn’t sound like any other sound on the planet, they also played the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” the Beatles’ “The Word,” Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me,” Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” and Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” among other covers. It was a mish-mash of rock & roll history coupled with an unmistakeable vision of the acid future on the road to eternity. When we stumbled out onto the darkness of Richmond Avenue, the world didn’t look or feel the same, and it never would again. Everything had changed forever.
3. Grateful Dead / December 28, 1968 / Catacombs Club / Houston, Texas
By the end of 1968 there was one band in the United States that everyone felt like they had to see asap, and it was San Francisco’s Grateful Dead. The word from the Haight-Ashbury district was that this septet had the key to the kingdom and was passing it out every night they played with five-hour concerts of harmonic bliss. Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart and Tom Constanten had set up on the Catacombs stage with true precision, even though it was only two feet off the ground and stood smack-up next to the first row of chairs in the club, in which I sat in the one directly in front of Jerry Garcia. I could reach out and touch his microphone stand. They came on discreetly enough, playing “Beat it on Down the Line” and “Good Morning Little School Girl.” But then they launched into the start of their just-released album, ‘Anthem of the Sun,’ and for the next two hours tore the heads off everyone in the club by playing the entire release. Oddly enough, the Catacombs was an under-21 affair, so it was mostly high schoolers and a few college heads in attendance. It didn’t matter, because everyone was pinned with ecstatic mirth by the third song, no matter how young they were. This was a band from another planet, and there was no turning back. After a short break, in which Pigpen left the building with a teenaged girl, the Dead walked back onstage, looked at the audience like they knew they were getting ready to detonate a musical neutron bomb, and went right into “Dark Star” for the next hour, then segued into “Saint Stephen,” “The Eleven” and, yes, back into “Dark Star.” By that time the set had been three hours long and we’d been holding our breath through it all, not believing what we were hearing. I swear Jerry Garcia was staring into my eyes and smiling the whole time as he played the most beautiful guitar licks I’d ever heard a rock musician play, or at least that’s what I remember now. It still gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. By then it was 2 in the morning, and time for a song to bring everyone back to Planet Earth. What else but the old blues standard “Death Don’t Have No Mercy?” It put a philosophical pin in the night, teaching us that, yes, we won’t live forever in this body, but surely the move to the next world had been shown to us that unforgettable night by the musical wild west of the Grateful Dead. Chips got cashed in.
4. The Replacements / June 26, 1987 / The Variety Arts Center / Los Angeles, California
For a few years it had been obvious the Replacements were going to end up my last favorite band. I was halfway through my thirties when I heard their album “Tim,” and I knew I’d found the group to take me into imminent adulthood. There was something about those songs that peeled back a third dimension, one that mixed psychology with a mild psychosis. That, for me, was the essence of what growing older was all about: juggling that time bomb without blowing up. For this night in downtown L.A., it was clear from note one that Paul Westerberg, Tommy Stinson, Chris Mars and Slim Dunlap had been seriously oversporting with their refreshments. The very first song sounded like they’d never played it before, with Mars barely able to keep the 4/4 beat nailed down. It sounded like disaster lurked straight ahead, and the ‘Mats could have cared less. They’d made their name messing up the biggest shows of their career, and it was way too late to turn around now. As they blasted through some of the best rock songs ever written, like “Bastards of Young,” “Alex Chilton,” “Dose of Thunder,” “Can’t Hardly Wait,” “Swingin’ Party” and “Valentine,” it was like the Replacements knew that no one else was writing anything this strong or permanent, so who cared if they couldn’t play them right tonight. That’s what cover bands do. These Minneapolisans were here to have fun and burn whatever bridges were handy. It was almost like slowing down to look at a car wreck, but there was so much love in the air for what every single person there that night considered their very own band that the mundane logistics of chord structures, lyrics, beats, etc. were just annoying afterthoughts. There was even a moment when Westerberg took over the drums from a disabled Mars, only to be replaced by the skinsman from opening band Young Fresh Fellows. People still show their badge of honor in L.A. by saying they were at that show, but it’s also highly likely the only people who don’t remember being there were, yes, the Replacements. But that’s what rock & roll is really all about: passion played out with daredevil belief in the almighty ability for the music to save the soul, no matter how far over the line that soul might have traveled. Long let it be.
5. Velvet Underground / June 23, 1990 / Cartier Foundation / Paris, France
There are some bands that are so iconic it’s almost like they exist in a land of legend more than reality. Lou Reed, John Cale, Maureen Tucker and Sterling Morrison were surely that band. Their brief tenure from 1965 to 1970 in the Velvet Underground had no sonic or lyrical precedent, and still doesn’t. A good case could be made that they shaped rock & roll more than any other group. Considering they recorded only four albums and less than 37 songs in their career as a working group, it’s astonishing how they influenced almost everything that came later. Alas, I didn’t get to see the Velvets during their original run. The only time they played Texas, where I lived then, I was on probation for a marijuana conviction and had been banned from attending the club in Austin. I didn’t think going to prison was quite worth it, but looking back I might have been wrong. So all those years I lived with the thought I’d blown my chance to see the band that probably shaped my life more than any other. That’s when life kicks in and sends an angel. In 1988 I became Lou Reed’s publicist at Sire Records, and got to work closely with him. And when the band all went to Paris on the Cartier Foundation’s tab for an exhibit dedicated to Andy Warhol and the Factory, I was asked to accompany them. Yes, please. After a day of touring the exhibit and holding a press conference, the Velvets went outside to watch the Czechoslovakian band Plastic People of the Universe play. After their set, Reed, Cale, Tucker and Morrison gave each other sentimental looks and took the stage in a slight drizzle. With the sound of Reed’s very first guitar chord, the audience of 100 people let out a banshee scream, for we all knew that chord signaled “Heroin,” the Velvet Underground’s lasting signature and the only drug song that ever mattered. For the next 15-minutes the quartet wove through the most emotional moments I’ve ever experienced watching a rock band, moving from the volatile verses into the chorus with the line “I guess that I just don’t know,” which came to sum up modern life completely in just seven words. All four Velvets were giving each other astonished looks, like they couldn’t believe this was really happening. When they finally walked off the stage at song’s end, it was like a huge wound had not only been healed, but life ahead looked like it could now be lived to its very fullest. And I felt the exact same way: a missing experience had been miraculously given to me, proving that goodness and faith will always win the day if we only let it. And now I know.
Pick up a copy of his new book at Amazon.