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Our better and worse angels

This period in time marks the 50th anniversary of two events that nearly simultaneously captured the national imagination—and hit close to home for me.

On the nights of August 8 and 9, 1969, Charles Manson’s communal family committed the most shocking murders in LA history—which included the slaying of Valley of the Dolls actress Sharon Tate and four of her guests (three of whom were shot as well as stabbed). The tabloids went crazy with the grisly details.

I was performing in a rock band that weekend on Sunset Strip, two miles from the first murder in the Hollywood Hills. Given the brutality of that crime and its tie to the entertainment industry, West Hollywood was in a state of shock. After the second murder the following night near Griffith Park, the condition became Code Red.

It was reported later that Terry Melcher—the record producer for the Byrds’ million-seller hits “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn Turn Turn” and who had close connections to the Beach Boys, Glen Campbell, and The Mamas and Papas—had previously lived at the murder address and was the intended victim. Melcher had declined to sign rockstar-wannabe Charles Manson to a record deal and Charlie took it a little too personally.

Many of us in the LA music community had some connection to The Byrds and therefore to Terry Melcher, so it was too close for comfort. (I had worked with another Byrds’ producer, Gary Usher, the year before, and a friend of mine, Skip Battin, was about to join the band as a bass player.)

Meanwhile, 2,767 miles away in Bethel, NY, The Woodstock Festival, arguably the most celebrated musical event of the last half-century (captured in a recent PBS documentary) began six days later. The display of peace and good will by a half million “hippies” in attendance was as shocking to the public at large as the events in Hollywood the week before.

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The night the music died

It occurred 60 years ago. But it didn’t have to happen. Good management could have prevented it.

The Winter Dance Party of 1959 was the rock & roll “Tour From Hell.” It was a grueling excursion—11 dates in 11 days—through the Upper Midwest in sub-zero weather on an unheated school bus. (Actually it was five buses, because one after another broke down on the highway in the Arctic temperatures.) In desperation, three of the stars of the tour tried to escape the conditions for a day by grabbing a flight on a small plane to the next stop 400 miles away.

You know how this story ends.

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Holiday grunge

[I thought this would be a good time to reprise—in part—an earlier post on classic holiday songs that have been given a contemporary makeover.]

This season I’m getting into the spirit of things by listening to wilder and edgier versions of favorite Yuletide carols!

I don’t mean the death metal renditions, which are intended for satire (I hope). I’m talking about the real thing: rocked-out Xmas and Hanukkah songs that sound raunchy but reverent, distorted but devout. This may even become a new rock genre: Holiday Grunge.

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Send lawyers, guns, and money

“I went home with the waitress the way I always do. How was I to know she was with the Russians too?” That was the opening of Warren Zevon’s 1978 rock classic, "Lawyers, Guns and Money," in which an American rich kid asks daddy for legal help, weapons, and cash to bail him out of international crises of his own making.

Zevon’s gonzo verse—written during the Cold War—sounds strangely prescient these days, when Russian spying is a daily news event in the US. But his lyrics are not as shocking as the weekly accounts of Washington corruption, which remind us that the political swamp has been restocked in the last 18 months with ever more primitive life forms. A treasure trove for evolutionary biologists.

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Curdled Cream: lessons from Eric Clapton and associates

Cream-Psychedelic-Supermarket-Small I seem to be celebrating a lot of anniversaries this year, but today marks the quinquagenary of the most memorable event of my music career: opening the show for Eric Clapton’s Cream in New Haven, Connecticut, while they were riding high on the success of their Top 10 single, “Sunshine of Your Love.”

As I mentioned in a post ten years ago, my folk-rock band, The Morning, based in New Haven, jumped at the chance to be on the bill with the hottest (and arguably the first) “supergroup” of its day, featuring the most critically acclaimed rock guitarist in the world, Eric “Slowhand” Clapton.

But what I dimly grasped that night became a seminal insight later—and a core pillar of my business consulting today. I witnessed first hand what had been widely reported in the pop music press. Cream was a band riven by conflict. But, more importantly, that dissension was part of what fueled their greatness—as is the case with many creative teams.

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