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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Woodstock '69 Obscurity

Obscurity may be defined as "the quality or condition of being unknown." Can fame, "the state of being of great renown" coexist with obscurity? I certainly believe so. For example, someone today known as “Internet famous’’ (1) very well known among people who spent most of their day staring into a Web browser and (2) not going to be famous for very long.

Or how about a rock music "one-hit wonder" artist? Granted, sometimes popular performers still held in great esteem such as Janis Joplin only hit the Top 40 once ("Me and Bobby McGee" in 1971, incredibly after her death, making the song the second posthumous number-one single in U.S. chart history). Janis could never be considered an obscure artist in the annals of rock. But, how about other one-hit acts that gained great fame then suddenly faded into the musical sunset? I mean "Macarena" (1996) was wildly popular as the song blazed new trails in the dance music scene but few remember the obscure artist who performed it -- Los Del Rio. By 1997 "Macarena" had sold an astounding 11 million copies. But due to the obscurity of Los Del Rio, it was ranked the "#1 Greatest One-Hit Wonder of all Time" by VH1 in 2002.

I guess, when it comes to "one book wonders," many authors come to mind -- some very famous. Examples of the relatively obscure in literature include Harper Lee's only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, which sold 30 million copies; and author Joseph Heller, who wrote several novels, but is still best known for Catch-22. Margaret Mitchell  never wrote another book after her first novel, Gone With the Wind, was a smash best-seller.

Here is a writing, "The Politician," that offers some food for thought in fable form.

"An Old Politician and a Young Politician were traveling through a beautiful country, by the dusty highway which leads to the City of Prosperous Obscurity. Lured by the flowers and the shade and charmed by the songs of birds which invited to woodland paths and green fields, his imagination fired by glimpses of golden domes and glittering palaces in the distance on either hand, the Young Politician said: 'Let us, I beseech thee, turn aside from this comfortless road leading, thou knowest whither, but not I. Let us turn our backs upon duty and abandon ourselves to the delights and advantages which beckon from every grove and call to us from every shining hill. Let us, if so thou wilt, follow this beautiful path, which, as thou seest, hath a guide-board saying, "Turn in here all ye who seek the Palace of Political Distinction.'"

"'It is a beautiful path, my son,' said the Old Politician, without either slackening his pace or turning his head, 'and it leadeth among pleasant scenes. But the search for the Palace of Political Distinction is beset with one mighty peril.'

"'What is that?' said the Young Politician.

"'The peril of finding it,' the Old Politician replied, pushing on."

- Fantastic Fables by Ambrose Bierce

But Today Let's See If You Have Ever Heard
Of a Very Obscure Band That Achieved Great Fame!?

This late 1960s rock group founded by brothers Jon and Dan Cole from the Boston area played many large venues while opening for acts such as The Jeff Beck Group, The Who, The Kinks, Deep Purple, Buddy Guy, Sly and the Family Stone, the Grateful Dead, and Janis Joplin. Once they even played before comedian Steve Martin took the stage. The "word" was that the group routinely outperformed many visiting Boston headliners.

And, as the legend goes, one of their early summer '69 appearances at Steve Paul's Scene, a New York City club, resulted in the debut of Johnny Winter and a late night super jam with Winter, Stephen Stills, and Jimi Hendrix. Not only did this band jam with these rock legends at the club that memorable night, but also their performance earned them an invitation to play Woodstock Music Festival.

One of the great assets of the group was its ability to mount a variety of instrumental and vocal configurations to play specific songs. Just as an example, Roger North, the drummer/percussionist, is still considered by many to be among the best technical and most creative rock drummers of that era. The other members -- Norm Rogers (guitar), Phil Thayer (keyboard, sax and flute), Jon (bass) and Dan (vocals)-- often would switch instruments to create different sounds and effects.

Undoubtedly, diversity was one of the band's strongest attributes. Jon and Norm both sang some lead vocals while Dan might be playing guitar, or even trombone,  forming a small horn section with Phil on sax; Jon would sometimes switch to guitar with Norm playing bass; Norm was known to trot out his cello on occasion; Phil even played bass while Norm and Dan played guitar and Jon sang; everyone participated in group vocals as needed. Though Dan was the primary front man for the band on stage, its ability to effectively and frequently change focal points and configurations was well-suited to the broad song writing ambitions of the Cole brothers, who were responsible for almost all of the band's material.

In addition to its unique original material, the band made its reputation throughout New England and New York on performance art by drawing the audience into the music. The band handed out rhythm instruments and exhorted the crowds to a near riotous dance frenzy. A number of famous bands that played on the same bill with them received lukewarm receptions after finding themselves no match for the excitement generated by this five piece band from Boston. After they disbanded, many other groups took up audience participation with incitement to rhythm.

The band was influenced by greats such as the Beatles, Dylan, and Pink Floyd. They played a hodgepodge of styles and worked out complex song structures with their unique vocal and horn arrangements. Yet they saw their music as a commercial proposition.

Playing Woodstock

Nice Guys Should Finish First.

At Woodstock, in addition to playing the main festival stage on Saturday, August 16, 1969, the group spent the week preceding the festival living at the setup crew's camp at a nearby motel, providing entertainment for the collection of stage crew, hog farmers, and festival workers. Festival promoters also hired the band as emissaries to a skeptical community: they played a series of goodwill concerts at nearby state prisons, mental institutions, and halfway houses as a gesture aimed at countering community concerns about the upcoming festival.

Jon Cole said of the experience, “It was a perfect setup for dealing with people who had difficulty finding their control switch. We pushed people to let go.’’

In the run up to Woodstock, seeing the market potential of the buzz that the band had already created with press and fans, and their coming appearance at the Festival with the potential for film exposure, Ahmet Ertegun, the legendary talent scout and president of Atlantic Records, agreed to sign them in the summer of 1969 to his Cotillion label.

Enter "Cruel" Fate. 

At the festival, after relentless, and torrential rain all Friday and through the night, the skies cleared just before the band was to play. Saturday, on a soaking stage and under a  beaming sun, the group played a 40 minute set of 4 songs ("That's How I Eat", "They Live the Life", "Waiting For You", and "Driftin'"), and was received enthusiastically by the mud-caked throng.

Some slight technical difficulty did hamper their performance, however. With the stage set high above the crowd and the sound system designed to carry across the fields, the band had difficulty making the kind of intimate connection they had mastered in the clubs.

As a result of its position as first on stage that day and the remaining disarray due to all of the rain, the group missed a key opportunity to appear in the Woodstock film, although that was the original intent of their manager Ray Paret and the band. The band was filmed, but a glitch in the film/audio system made it such that the audio and film were not synchronized properly. This rendered the footage unusable for the now famous film that made so many acts household names. The problem was fixed in time for Santana, the next act up, and their outstanding appearance in the film sealed the Santana's later unbridled success.

Oh well, Jon, who had twin toddlers at home at the time, found the fame backstage at Woodstock as "no picnic." He actually was put off by all the debauchery and said later, “I really didn’t like the indiscipline of the heavy druggies."

A Second Opportunity Comes Knocking.

Shortly after the festival, the band self-produced and then released its first Cotillion album, which made some impact, but did not gain national attention. The fact that the group's footage could not be used for the Woodstock movie seriously disappointed Ertegün and the band's record was never actively promoted, even though over the years it has attained some cult status.

Jon, who was, in many ways, the driving creative force in the band, left several months after that release to pursue other production projects in which he had an interest. With the assistance of New York producer, Tony Bongiovi, the other four members, in a collaborative effort composed enough material to produce and record a second album for Cotillion, but which the label chose not to release. The remaining four disbanded the group late in the Spring of 1970, going their separate ways.

Now, Jon, has given up on the music business altogether. He has lived in Hawaii for nearly three decades, where he has reinvented himself as a solar-energy expert. Dan works as a business consultant after years as an executive with Sony’s professional audio-visual products division. And, Roger, who played with the Holy Modal Rounders, has invented his own line of drums.

Now a rarity, the band's lone album can fetch big money in online auctions. Forty years on, the group is getting a bit of belated recognition for its unsung role in the Woodstock saga: Two of the four songs they performed at Woodstock became available when the music appeared on Rhino’s six-disc box set “Woodstock: 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur’s Farm.’’

“We were joking that we might actually get paid for Woodstock, finally,’’ said Dan Cole.

Did you know the band? The Boston band was Quill. Believe it or not, Quill never even achieved the status of "one-hit" wonders, but their place in rock music history is certainly famous although quite obscure. A twist of fate? What do you think?

"I'm afraid of losing my obscurity. 
Genuineness only thrives in the dark. 
Like celery.
- Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World

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