Thursday, January 14, 2021


Trips, by Ellen Sander
No month stated, 1973  Scribner

This used to be a hard book to find, but it was recently reissued in an “augmented” edition.  As usual though I wanted to read the original product, so I had to get a copy of the first edition via InterLibrary Loan. Trips is almost like the Forest Gump of the rock era; Ellen Sander, a journalist, happened to be at all the big events of the day, from Monterey to Woodstock to Altamont, hanging out with a revolving cast of rock stars. 

Sander, who has a definite gift for writing, has here turned out an account of this time – it is very much in the New Journalism mode of the era, the narrative hopscotching wily-nily and Sander sometimes appearing as the protagonist, other times just documenting events. It appears that some of this material was originally published in the magazines Sander contracted for; most infamous of these would be her profile on Led Zeppelin, which Life magazine hired her to write but which Sander never completed, due to the fact that John Bonham and “a member of the entourage” assaulted her at the end of the tour Sander was covering. This material appears in Trips, and apparently it took Sander a few years to recover from the incident – which occurred in 1969 – to write about it. What’s fascinating is that it is not played up anywhere near how it would be today, Sander merely recounting the attack in almost clinical prose in the span of a sentence. 

Otherwise this is a very New Journalism-esque recount of the beginnings of the Rock Era. Sander happens to be at all the major events of the day, meeting all the famous personalities, so provides some first-hand perspectives you won’t find anywhere else. Surprisingly none of it was excerpted in Rolling Stone; I checked my Cover To Cover CD-ROM and Trips isn’t even reviewed. Maybe this is because a lot of its material was formerly published in other magazines, and in its early days Rolling Stone seemed to be a little vindictive in that regard; Jonathan Eisen’s three music-review anthologies, for example (The Age of Rock, The Age of Rock II, and Twenty-Minute Fandangos & Forever Changes), were each savaged in Rolling Stone reviews…and all three of them featured material that had been published in other music magazines. 

Sander starts off the book with a brief recap of “Teenism,” her term for the dawning realization in the 1950s that teenagers had their own beliefs and culture. (“Coming of age in the Fifties was pure pain.”) Sander relates how she and other teens gained their own identity and also how early rock ‘n’ roll made such an impact on them. From there it’s to the early ‘60s, with the discovery of protest folk music and marijuana. There’s a lot of random asides on the culture of the day, in particular drugs and how they too developed their own identities – marijuana was cool, hash was rare, and you avoided people on speed. Acid hadn’t arrived on the scene yet, but of course is dealt with later in the book as we get deeper into the ‘60s. There’s also as expected a lot of material here on Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs and such, but their music has never been my thing, so I skimmed this material. 

Fans of the Byrds will be especially interested in Trips, as Sanders was familiar with the members before they even started the group and were singing separately in New York. In fact, Sander relates in the beginning that Trips started life as a biography of David Crosby, before mutating into more of a overview of the era (and also she states it took her two years to write the book). Soon everyone moves to Los Angeles, Sander relating that as the ‘60s progressed California took over from New York as ground zero of the movement. The Byrds come and go throughout the book, and Sander was also an audience to the formation of Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Later in the book we learn that Crosby and Stills are just separately sitting around, bored, then one day begin singing together at Stills’s place, and Nash wanders in and begins singing with them, and a supergroup is born. There’s also an interesting part where Crosby plays Nash some of the early Byrds material, demos which would be released as Preflyte (which I picked up back in the ‘90s, mainly due to the awesome Neal Adams superhero cover, but still haven’t played). 

Things get even more interesting when we get to Sander’s first-hand experiences of major rock events. The first example of this is her coverage of the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. In addition to ruminations on the various groups, we get cool behind the scenes looks at other rock artists watching the show, like Grace Slick. Sander also well captures the impact Jimi Hendrix made in his American debut – though Sander herself was more personally “moved” by the Who, whose apocalyptic set conclusion so shook her that she rushed for cover, under the mistaken belief that they were destroying the stage. Later of course she learned it was part of their act. Sander wrote the book after Hendrix’s death, so there is an air of loss in any mentions of him…and also I wonder if an early mention of a musician Sander saw fried out of his mind on heroin is a veiled reference to Hendrix. I’m not saying Hendrix was into heroin (and the coroner’s report indicated there were no needle marks on him anywhere), but Frank Zappa claimed he’d once seen Hendrix shooting up in the stall of a public restroom. (Or so a friend tells me; I don’t know much about Zappa at all.)  This is exactly where Sander sees a never-named “famous” rock musician shooting up – and implies that he was bound for an early death. 

The free-ranging narrative also touches on the start of the San Francisco scene, covering some of the same material as in Ralph Gleason’s The Jefferson Airplane and the San Francisco Sound, with the formation of the Family Dog and whatnot. The Beatles aren’t featured as much, always on the periphery though due to their massive impact on the scene and fellow musicians. We do get a cool story about them hanging out with the Byrds when the Beatles came to Los Angeles; once again John Lennon comes off as rather temperamental, given that he compliments Roger McGuinn of the Byrds on a great show, and McGuinn responds, “Nah, we were terrible,” after which Lennon remains “aloof” for the rest of the night. Speaking of the Byrds, Sander has it that Crosby quits the group, whereas the story I’ve always read is that he was kicked out, especially given the JFK conspiracy theories he spouted at Monterey (an incident Sander also records in the book). 

Sander also documents how youth in the ’60s began to travel, more so than earlier generations had; a mere $75 dollars for a flight from New York to Los Angeles, and the hippie kids took advantage of the cheap fare to follow their favorite groups around the country. “Ravers” is the term Sanders employs for touring rockers, road veterans who by the end of the tour are so far gone they have no idea where they are anymore. Again the Who factors in, particular Keith Moon’s hotel-room ransackings, crazed attempts at letting off steam from a hectic, endless touring schedule. This is where, with little fanfare, the Led Zeppelin material comes up, as Sander went on tour with them during their second US tour; this was after I had been released, and while II was still being recorded. 

Zep doesn’t come off very great here, as human beings at least – Sander is clear throughout how she admires their music. On the road they were animals; “no matter how miserably the group failed to keep their behavior to a human level,” as Sander puts it, documenting their many and frequent encounters with groupies, some of whom are incredibly young. Page is presented as distant and reserved, with Plant given to loud public outbursts; there’s a funny part where he shocks his fellow first-class passengers upon boarding a plane, screaming that he needs “the toilets” as he rushes for the restroom. But that’s how early Sander was with them; Led Zeppelin didn’t even have their own transportation yet. It’s clear though they’re on their way to the top, though; granted, the book was published after they’d reached the top, but the majority of the material in this section is apparently from the Life article Sander never completed. 

The reason she never completed it is an event which, as mentioned, only occurs over a few sentences and isn’t dwelt on much at all. After Zep’s final show of the tour, in Madison Square Garden, Sander goes backstage to tell them goodbye, given that she’d spent so much time with them on the tour. Instead she gets attacked, “two members” of the group screaming as they assault her like madmen, ripping her dress down her back. Then burly Zep manager Peter Grant shows up and basically hoists each of them by their shirts and pulls them away; he even offers a shocked Sander his own limo so she can escape. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Sander states that the two members who attacked her were Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham and “a member of his entourage.” 

But this is it for the Led Zeppelin debacle; in today’s era this part would be milked for all it’s #metoo worth. But Sander makes it clear that she respects Led Zeppelin as musicians. She’s jolted by the ordeal, and as stated doesn’t even finish the Life story due to it, but she doesn’t make herself out to be a huge victim over it. This won’t be Sander’s only brush with the bad side of rock; in pure proto-Forest Gump stye she’s also at the infamous Altamont concert, and was so freaked by the bad vibes that she actually left early. She was at Woodstock, too, and we get more cool behind the scenes material, like many of the rock acts hanging out at the open bar at the nearby hotel and waiting for the ‘copter ride to take them in before their shows. 

The Who factors into another story, but only barely; we learn they’re pissed off they have to open for the Doors. Apparently Sander had wanted to cover the Who’s tour, but they rejected the idea, which is why she covered Led Zeppelin; perhaps this is why Townshend and company only appear sporadically in Trips. As for the Doors, interestingly Sander covers material which was captured in a cinema verite documentary they were recording at the time; a young girl in the audience is injured after the show and Jim Morrison goes out to talk to her. I saw this material in the recent Doors documentary When You’re Strange (narrated by Johnny Depp!). But once again Sander has the behind-the-scenes info; we learn that after the girl leaves, Jimbo wonders if he even should’ve talked to her, as he’s afraid it might’ve come off as forced for the cameras. We can glean from this section that Trips was submitted for publication before Morrison’s death in ’71, as there’s no indication he’s bound for a short life. No mention of Janis Joplin’s death, either.  Or maybe there was and I just missed it. 

One chapter features Sander’s brief detour into politics; she answers a strange ad in the underground papers placed by Paul Kassner and Abbie Hoffman, apparently looking for a girl to go on vacation with them! So we have her brief adventures in trying to spread the word of the revolution and whatnot; this chapter doesn’t have as much to do with the rock theme of the rest of the book, but still captures the vibe of the era. One thing that’s become evident to me, given the “resist!” movement of recent years, is how patriotic the earlier movement was, comparatively speaking. Those hippies loved their flag. You’ll see it hoisted at concerts, you’ll see it draped over them. They might’ve wanted to change certain aspects of America, but they still loved America. You don’t really see that with the modern protesters – it’s more of an anti-America thing, more driven by anger than the ‘60s movement was. There seemed to be more of a positive vibe to the ‘60s movement, which is interesting given that protesters then had more hanging over their heads; the protesters of today might be rioting against racism and etc, but not a single one of them is in danger of being drafted and sent off to die in some pointless war in Southeast Asia. (At least they aren’t yet…I’m sure the war-mongers will soon be returning to the positions they were removed from over the past four years.) 

Of course, different drugs fueled that earlier movement; LSD, marijuana, and hash aren’t generally known for instilling hostility. But there was also rock as a unifier of the movement; God knows what the protesters of today listen to. Rap or “trap” or whatever the hell it is. Rock, even the heavier stuff, is just more of a positive force; “Rock ‘n’ roll is life affirming,” as Julian Cope succinctly put it. And rock in the era of Trips was akin to the social media of today, a webwork that unified the youth movement, with the important difference being that it afforded a greater freedom of expression. Rock is not the unifier today, and I doubt it could be, as it’s lost it’s heart. There are modern “rock” groups that can ape the sounds of yesteryear (though why every single one of them have nasallaly, high-pitched singers I’ve yet to figure out), but they don’t have the soul. And as I’ve argued before, none of them today could even think of a song like “Under My Thumb,” let alone release it. 

Interestingly though, the modern establishment, which is clearly more leftist than the establishment those left-wing rockers were rebelling against in the ‘60s, is arguably more restrictive. Limitations on free speech and expression are much more severe, and authoritarian measures have gone through the roof, especially in this past year. (They even went one better than the Sherrif of Nottingham and actually cancelled Christmas!) You’d think this would be a prime petri dish for anti-establishment rock along the lines of the ‘60s, but the “sea change” is so deep that the rock groups of today couldn’t even conceive of such “dangerous” songs. They don’t even know how to question the status quo, let alone challenge it.  So we must leave it to the old rockers to prove that rock can still be dangerous: did you all know that Van Morrison and Eric Clapton recently released a single that was banned? It’s an anti-lockdown protest number called “Stand And Deliver,” and (for now at least) you can hear it here. As stated in the video, this is the original version that was banned. This is exactly what I mean about the limitations on today’s freedom of expression versus the ‘60s. What kind of album do you think the Jefferson Airplane would’ve released if there had been a government-mandated lockdown in 1969?

Actually the quarantine seems to have invigorated much of the old guard; the Rolling Stones have a new one called “Living In A Ghost Town” that’s better than anything they’ve done in years, and certainly better than anything by rockers half their age. Actually it would probably be more than “half” at this point, but I digress…


Zwolf said...

There's still plenty of good anti-establishment protest music being made, just gotta know where to look. O' course, whether you LIKE it or not varies... (those guys are pretty much exclusively protest music now)

And L7's back, so, yeah, rock will stay dangerous.

Johny Malone said...

And what does Southern say in his foreword?

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, guys -- and Johny, I can't even remember Southern's intro (I've since returned the book to the library from whence it came). As I recall it was sort of an overly "hip" jumble of words that made such little impression on me that I didn't even write down any thoughts on it for the review!

Todd Mason said...

As someone familiar with the Byrds as people, she might offer as potential unnamed heroin casualty Gram Parsons.

ROLLING STONE was very much invested in offering Bonham and company as Wonderful People.

I suspect the recently previous administration was mostly interested in bellicosity with China and Iran, and still didn't manage to end the Afghanistan war...we'll sadly see how many neoliberal hawks get to run wild.