Monday, August 17, 2009

The Secretary who Changed the World

The Secretary who Changed the World
& The Legend of Woodstock before the Festival.

The legend and the legacy was set before the festival was even envisioned.

It's hard to say exactly where to begin, New York, Somers Point, Montreal, but the Woodstock myth began in the Manhattan office of Albert Grossman, the entertainment manager whose stable of acts included one Bob Dylan, folk singer extradonaire on the rise.

Dylan had come in to the office excited recently, and made Grossman sit down and listen to this - "Once upon a time you dressed so fine, didn't you......?"

They knew "Like A Rolling Stone" was a hit right off the bat, without even having to test it on somebody else's ears.

The Byrds had taken Dylan's folkie "Mr. Tamborine Man" and made it a rock and roll song with drums and electric guitars, and now with "Like A Rolling Stone," Dylan was writing rock & roll, and you could sense the direction he was going, and it wasn't to Woodstock.

As the legend goes, Dylan asked Grossman, his manager, about getting a rock and roll band to back him on his next tour, and who would Grossman recommend.

I don't know if they asked her opinion, or if she overheard the question and volunteered her feelings, but being from a small town in Canada, she knew that the Hawks were the best rock & roll band she had ever seen.

Rockabilly Ronnie Hawkins had left the band, and they continued on the road under the name of Levon & the Hawks, after drummer Levon Helm, from Arkansas, the only American in the Canadian band who had toured with Hawkins for years.

Grossman asked where the Hawks were playing and found out that their manager, Colonel Kutlets, had booked them into a nightclub in Somers Point, New Jersey - Tony Marts.

Without ever having seen or heard of them, and based totally on this unknown secretary's opinion, Dylan got the phone number for Tony Marts and gave them a call.

Levon had never heard of Bob Dylan, and when Dylan asked them to back him at Carnege Hall, Levon asked who else was on the bill.

"Just us," Dylan said, incredulously.

So Levon and the Hawks went up to New York and met with Dylan and Grossman and agreed they would get out of their contract at Tony Marts and back Dylan at Forest Hills, a tennis stadium just outside New York city.

Although Anthony Marotta, aka Tony Mart, didn't like the idea of the "best rock and roll band on the East Coast" breaking their contract and leaving before the Labor Day weekend, he let them off the hook, gave them a cake and fairwell party and wished them luck. He called Colonel Kutlets and asked for a new band to replace the Hawks and Kutlets sent Tony a new band, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, who had a hit, "Devil With the Blue Dress."

But luck the Hawks didn't have.

When Dylan plugged his guitar in at Forest Hills, the old folkies booed him, but he played on.

Levon really didn't like it however, and after a few gigs he left and went back home to Arkansas.

Then Dylan was in a motorcycle accident, and rumors were he died, or was on life support, and then that he was okay but just really banged up and in seclusion while recouperating.

Word eventually filtered out that Dylan was recouperating at Al Grossman's house at Woodstock, New York, an historic artists community with a history that dates back to the turn of the last century.

Joining Dylan at Woodstock were some of the Hawks, who leased a pink duplex in nearby West Saguarties, and jammed in the basement. Around town they became known simply as "the band," and eventually adopted that name. Their first album, "Music From Big Pink," showed the Big Pink house on the cover, and featured a painting by Bob Dylan on the back. A few of the songs were written by Dylan as well.

Then came bootleg recordings, pressed into bootleg LPs with a plane white cover, known as "The Basement Tapes," ostensibly recorded in the basement of Big Pink, and featuring Dylan, not only singing old and new songs, but talking and telling jokes.

The one joke from the original Basement Tapes I remember, that didn't make it to the official release years (decades?) later, is the story of the Checkmate Coffee House of East Orange, New Jersey.

Dylan says he went there once, and paid for his coffee with chess piece, a rook, and got a knight and pawn for change. Or something like that.

But "Music from Big Pink" and "The Basement Tapes" put Woodstock on the map in the back of a lot of people's minds, a year or so before they began to put the festival together.

And after the festival was moved to Bethel, fifty miles from Woodstock, and The Band performed the festival, both the original town of Woodstock and The Band, got left in the festival's wake.

For some reason, and I think Grossman advised The Band not to permit it, but The Band is conspiciously absent from the Woodstock movie and soundtrack, which is not an accident. I don't think they, The Band, at Grossman's advise, permitted them to use them in the Woodstock film, just as The Band's version of "The Weight" is not used in the Easy Rider film or soundtrack, but a cover band's version. And I think that decision was Grossman's.

Around 1986, after seeing the Band and the Band minus Robbie Robertson, and Danko and Manuel together a few times, I helped arrange for the Band to return to Somers Point for a Tony Marts reunion at Egos, the new disco nightclub that was built on the Tony Mart site.

After we booked the Band, but about six weeks before the show, Albert Grossman, Tony Marotta and Richard Manuel all died within a few days of each other.

The show however, went on. And while they were in town, I got to know Rick Danko, Levon and Garth Hudson a little bit on the personal level.

While Rick passed on a few years ago (after playing the Good Old Days Picnic at Kennedy Park), both Levon and Garth returned to Woodstock and live there today.

The Woodstock museum and arts center is not in Woodstock however, but in Bethel, where the festival was held.

There is no doubt however, that rock & roll history was made when Bob Dylan joined forces with the Hawks - electrified Forest Hills and the music scene, and then hibernated at Woodstock, establishing the Woodstock legend years before the festival.

And it only happened because Albert Grossman's secretary knew the answer to the question of who was the best rock & roll band on the East Coast.

Why that would be the Hawks.

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