The Adventure continues...
...on our first trip to Southern California.
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The truck was Bill's white Ford Econoline. It was the bare-bones first generation of vans, and he had been forced to get it when he got his prized Hammond B-3. A B-3 and a Leslie speaker is a lot of instrument, and not many bands had the inclination to lug one around. By the time I joined the band, the equipment consisted of two Fender Twin Reverb amps with extension speakers, the Hammond and Leslie, a Dual Showman bass cabinet and top, a set of folding vibes, the drum set, two sax cases, bass and two guitars and a footlocker with strings, cords, and tools.
All this fit in the truck in only one way, which had been figured out before I got there. The organ went in first, physically lifted in the door by a guy inside the truck bent over from the low ceiling, and one outside. This is a bitch, because this thing weighs a couple of hundred pounds and has no handles, and there is no good reason other than youth that one can do this and keep a healthy back. The twins went in under the organ, and the vibes on top, then everything else in the perfect order that filled the truck totally. There is an advantage to this system in that if anything is missing, you know it right away as you come to its spot in the load.
The organ was behind the driver and the vibes were stacked on top of the organ, and unsecured. There was nothing to keep them from killing the driver if he slammed on the brakes. But who would want to slam on the brakes of this grossly overloaded, wallowing, overheating, underpowered piece of shit. You'd probably roll it and kill yourself anyway. You didn't drive it as much as you herded it when it was loaded, and when it was empty it would blow all over the road. Every drive was a test of karma, and mine must be solid gold, because it never came apart under me.
Steve Tobin and I took the truck down to L.A. in the summer of '68, the first of I don't know how many drives I made there for the band. It's a good thing Steve knew something about what he was doing, because I sure didn't. We drove down the coast and finally found the Kaleidoscope Theater in Hollywood.
We unloaded the equipment there, and then drove out to the airport to pick up the band and Fred Roth, the manager. All together there were ten of us: Bill Champlin, Bill Bowen, Terry Haggerty, Geoff Palmer, Tim Cain, Jim Beem, Al Strong, Fred Roth, Tooth and myself. Everyone had the longest possible hair, mid-back in some cases, Mine was the shortest, because I had only been out of the Army for a few months. Five or six of the guys also wore beards. We were as shaggy as we could be, and the world was not yet used to this many guys who all looked like this traveling together.
We picked up the band in the equipment van, which would be our only vehicle. Everyone crowded in, and once again it was overloaded, wallowing, and dangerous as hell. Everyone smoked at that time, and we bought a carton of cigarettes every day to keep everyone supplied. The van would fill up with smoke and we rocketed around town, always traveling together. Stragglers knew they would die if left alone out there, and with only one set of wheels, we were a close knit gang.
One afternoon a bunch of midwestern tourists stopped us outside the Kaleidoscope. Could they take a picture with us. Us? You mean, you've heard of the Sons of Champlin? Huh? It turned out that we were a wonderful crowd of authentic but reasonably safe looking hippies who would be perfect background for a photo to send to Aunt Hazel.
On another occasion we were kicked out of a restaurant for our looks alone. We weren't rowdy, and it was a hippie-veggie restaurant run by devotees of one Swami Yogananda. A photo of the good Swami hung on the counter, and he had hair to his butt and a beard to his knees, and he dressed even funnier. We didn't fail to point out the irony to the holy types running the place, and we went to the Copper Penny down the street. After two years of Army chow, I had no problem with anything served at a coffee shop. It turned out that the guys in general were a little more veggie-organic than the run of the mill coffee shop then catered to, and there was a lot of grumbling. This food focus was a repeated them over the years. Face it, sometimes you gotta eat what America eats, and I could do that. You guys ever eat Army chow?.
Cut to the chase, you're saying, did these guys ever play any music?
The headliner at the Kaleidoscope was Canned Heat, then Sly and the Family Stone, and the Sons of Champlin. The Kaleidoscope had once been the broadcast home of a fifties TV show, "Queen for a Day." In this show women competed to tell about how bummed out their lives were, and the biggest bummer got a bunch of prizes and one day of limo service. Like Oprah, but with prizes for the biggest bummer. Originally designed to show off the prizes ("A complete set of pool accessories..."), the stage was an enormous disc that revolved, and the idea was that each band could set up permanently and then be revolved into place, rather than physically moving equipment.
Each band played two sets, alternating, and the audience stayed through all six sets. The sets were fairly short, about 40 minutes, which was enough for five or six of the Sons' long songs and one Canned Heat song. At only 15 minutes, "Freedom" wasn't the longest song played on that show; the winner was "Refried Boogie" by Canned Heat, which took an entire set.
Because they were recording a live track for an album, Canned Heat played the same song each set, to the same audience that had heard it an hour and a half earlier. Over the three night stand, they played it six times, and no other song. "Refried Boogie" is a one-chord song, which for the purposes of a live performance featured lengthy unaccompanied solos by each member of the band. Ten minutes of monstrously loud guitar jamming on an E chord followed by ten minutes of bass jamming on an E chord followed by ten minutes of harp solo followed by ten minutes of slide guitar solo, and then, THE DRUM SOLO! After that, they play the head, sing the one verse, and quit until the second set. The audience had to hear it only twice a night. I HAD TO HEAR IT SIX TIMES!
Did I say that Canned Heat guitarist Henry Vestine had what he claimed was the most powerful guitar amplifier on the planet? This thing weighed a couple of hundred pounds, it drove six huge speaker cabinets, and it had to have a big fan behind it to keep it from melting through the stage. Next to all that, the Sons looked positively acoustic.
The Kaleidoscope was going to be the first performance of "Freedom." The song had been put together over a month or so, from two or three tunes that were then grafted together and fattened out with solos for a fifteen minute piece. Before the second set of the first night, the band got together in the dressing room for one more run-through. We didn't have enough amps to keep one in the back room, so they were all reduced to singing their parts while Bowen pounded his sticks on his practice pad and a chair. It sounded great, like a Dixieland Barbershop acid experience, but that was the only time they ever did it.
The first arrangement of "Freedom" had a section the band referred to as the "free part" just before Terry's guitar solo. In this, all rhythm dropped away, and they drifted until a cue riff brought everyone back onto a beat. It didn't work very well with the L.A. audience, so it was given a little more definite beat, which is the way it was recorded. Bill's scat singing was a new experience for some of the audience also. In this original version of the song, he built his scat around a phrase and a riff by Rob Moitoza, "Show me the way to get to soulville, show me the way to get home." This was left off the record because Bill didn't want to use a close friend's lick if the guy wasn't going to get royalties. And he wasn't.
Sly Stone had a great act, with horns and a pounding rhythm section, Hammond organ, screaming vocals, a girl trumpet player, a guitar and bass duo who could deliver great licks while doing outrageous steps. Even if they played in a repetitive groove, they kicked ass in it.
After the show, we had to find a place to stay. What, no hotel? They cost money, and there wasn't enough to put us all up, so we always winged it when it came to that. The Sons would complain about food, but they would sleep anywhere. While we were at the Kaleidoscope, we stayed at the Hog Farm, a commune in the mountains high above Van Nuys. It had been famous, but was now practically deserted except for Steve Rhodes, who acted as our host, and was ever afterward referred to in the band as "Hog" Steve. We found places to crash in the funky farm buildings; the only hassle was the 45 minute drive with all of us in the equipment van capped off by a stretch of really bad dirt road on top of some major mountain. No one wanted the job of driving up there, and if it fell to me I don't remember.
The Kaleidoscope gig was three days, so we stayed up at the Hog Farm those nights. After that, there was a 24-hour a day film festival at the Kaleidoscope, so we crashed in there with arty Japanese movies going on every time we woke up. One afternoon we walked down the street to see "2001 -- A Space Odyssey" at the Cinerama. We kept our equipment stashed at the Kaleidoscope because if we loaded our van, there was no way for us to all get around. Every time the van rolled, it had ten guys and luggage in it.
We couldn't help feel like a close-knit gang. Even though the band played convincing blues, it was really a bunch of suburban white boys, and this first visit to Hollywood was for some of us our first exposure to the really seedy world we were going to live in for a while. We met for the first time a culture where everyone took downers or uppers all the time and thought nothing of it. This was a whole new category of drug use from the psychedelic San Francisco scene.
It wasn't a conscious thing, but when we were on the road, the world was divided into "us" and "them," and them was everybody but us ten. As Custer probably said, "There sure are a lot of THEM out there."
After the Kaleidoscope gig we went to San Diego for a couple of nights at a place called the Hippodrome, the band's first visit there also. Tooth and I drove the equipment, and the rest of the guys took the bus. We had dropped off the equipment and went to get they guys at the bus station. We parked the van and went in to get the guys, and when we all ten of us stepped out on the sidewalk, police cars pulled up from several directions and cops piled out. In a town where half the population is military, ten bearded longhairs looked like an invasion, and they wanted to know what the hell we had in mind.
We had to produce identification, which was not always easy. Terry especially had a hard time hanging onto wallets, so we all had to vouch for him. We just told them the truth, which was we were a rock band that traveled on the bus, and they finally let us off the hook, but with a warning to avoid any appearance of mopery with intent to loiter.
I don't remember much about the San Diego gig, but I understand that in the uptight town it was one of the first real acid rock, long haired, real loud concerts ever to take place. You wouldn't see long hair anywhere on the street in San Diego, but the hippies materialized for the show, and it was one of the first events there where isolated members of the hip community found the other members. People who attended it became the core of the band's fans in San Diego for the rest of the band's existence, and San Diego welcomed the Sons a lot of times over the years.
The total trip was about ten days, of incredible group closeness. Us against them, and there are a lot more of them. And in San Diego at least, we had an outpost.