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Fading in Rock Phantasmagoria: A Personal Autopsy of the Boston Sound

By John Leone


NOT LONG AGO I took a Rorshach Ink-Blot Psychological Index Test. The psychologist, a kind man in his own field, showed me a blot and asked. "What does this remind you of?"

I ruminated. "Um. I see two rock spirits trying to escape from a mountain."

He smiled at me fearfully. A sort of get-the-straightjacket-Marvin sidelong glance kind of smile. "A what?" He tapped his fingers together.

"Two. Two rock spirits trying to escape. The rock they're in, it's like a fading phantasmagorical mountain. And they're trying to escape, to get to the top of the mountain that they're trapped in." The psychologist didn't understand.

Earlier that year, there we all were, sitting in the back of a GTO with California plates, head-out on the highway for New York City. Our manager was driving, obsessively sucking and running his forefinger through his lips. We were practicing harmony in the back seat, Tina, our fashionable black chick singer, John, our Brooks Brothers law school lead guitarist, and me. I was the lead singer of the Bead Game, and we were on our way to our first gig. Our very first gig, and it was a biggie. Somehow it had been arranged htat we, the Street Choir, and the Central Park Zoo were to go to Vogue Magazine and be photographed before an audience of managers, promoters, photographers, recording executives and various underground seedies. Not a bad job for our first public appearance.

When we got there, up in this loftlike arrangement with great photographers' background screens and a tiny stage, I was greeted effusively by one of those New York fashion ladies with a lovely face and the tan of a Galopagos Islands tortoise. Leathern Petite. "Well, you must be the leader of the Bead Game," she said. She had a way of making it sound as though I was really Genghis Khan and that it was very important that I was wearing an eye-burning Nehru jacket and tan wool bellbottoms. I basked in her admiring glance for a few moments, leaning provocatively up against a table laden with sardine sandwiches. Before I could think of something hip to say someone more immediately important than myself strode into the room. It was some famous model, with the lengthy graceful moves of a giraffe in slow-motion. "So good to see you!" screeched Leathern Petite and left me stranded. Thus began my adventure in the Wonderful World of the Boston Sound.

I have been in several bands, and their names reflect the changing times in pop music. The Dukes, a Fantasy-Aristocrat Blue Tuxedo Ooh-Wah-Wah Teenage Rhythm and Blues Band; the Boss Dudes, a spiffy Tuff-guy Band; the Hard Times, an L.A. Nice Long Hair Band; the End, a Top-40 Blare-Rock Band; the Church Bizarre, a Funky Blues-Rock Bad-Ass Band; and the Bead Game, a Beautiful People Dope All You Need Is Love Stoned Hippier Than Thou Band. I have been addicted to rock longer than I care to remember.

Last year was the year, among other things, of the Boston Sound, known to hipsters and Ralph Gleason alike as the B.S. Whatever its merits or demerits, the phrase transfigured the tawdry Boston rock scene from Saugus Sockhop Rock into a very nearly successful commercial venture, spawning dozens of bands and hundreds of musicians, some excellent, some execrable. It gave hope to a great variety of dropouts and freaks that their City, Boss-Town, would be their next stopping-off point on their never-ending journey to That Better World Through Love, Dope, And Rock 'n' Roll Music. Hotcha.

"Hello." This tiny guy who looked like Little Lord Fountleroy with long, long string blond hair smiled at me as I sat on the tacky Formica table in the loft at Vogue Magazine. The guy turned out to be Richard Goldstein, erstwhile reviewer of the Village Voice, the guy who thought Sergeant Pepper sucked. He was, it turned out, one of the three or four sane people at that particular gathering. We were talking about the Street Choir, who were playing for a ridiculously heterogeneous audience of musicians, reviewers, recording executives in sharkskin suits with greasy skins, and Albert Grossman, the Sullen Santa Claus of the Pop World, the man with the golden touch. His long iron-grey haired presence thoroughly dominated the whole scene. He stood in the back of the room averting his eyes.

"Do you like them?" I asked Goldstein. He shrugged in his I-Don't-Want-To-Hurt-Anyone's-Feelings-and-Anyway-I'm-Only - Doing-This-For-Vogue-For-Money way, very endearing, really. I felt sick. I watched a few executives in the audience yawn and felt like a thirteen year old who has gotten pregnant by sitting on a Tijuana toilet seat. If these guys were bored by the Street Choir, they'd be stupefied by the Bead Game. Goldstein went looking for an aperitif, and the hopes for the Boston Sound were personified by the queasy expression on his face when he found one.

"Sardines?" he asked with disgust.

"Sardines," I said ruefully.


WE SURVIVED the performance. Goldstein came up to Cambridge to interview us later on.

"You seem like a fairly articulate guy," he said to me as we talked alone.

"So do you, Richard."

He looked at me innocently. "What are you doing in this business?" He was suspicious, and rightly so.

I countered cleverly: "What are you doing?"

"Making money," he said calmly. "And I dig it." He was the first person I had met who had a sane attitude towards the whole scene. I certainly never would have admitted that I was interesting in making money, ugh.

It is hard to get rock people to talk about money. Those who don't have it don't have any opinions, and those who do put it down. They can: they've busted their asses getting where they are and they can say any kind of damned foolishness. Our most revered culture-hero, Bob Dylan, whose lyrics bespeak a profound revulsion at our dear depraved society is a millionaire living in a millionaire's seclusion. This means absolutely nothing except that he was not profoundly revolted at accepting millions of dollars for his work. To hear the average rock musician talk, Dylan should be ashamed of getting so rich. Shame on you, Bobby. Because you don't live in the holes that some of your followers do, you are obviously blinded by the light all around you.

There are other, easier ways to make a lot of money. Go into the stock market. Why do people do the public-hippie trip? Well. Entertainers occupy a quasi-sexual world onstage, symbolically conquering entire audiences with their vasty charms. A good rock performer must maintain a tremendously sexual presence onstage, and let it be known in various ways that he's got a bigger one than any two men in the audience. C.F. Mick Jagger or Hendrix. By throwing your head around dramatically, by sweating a lot, by swinging your libidinously sweat-curled hair like an escaped rapist, you get a lot of slaveringly good mileage onstage. This is one reason guys prefer playing the Fillmore instead of Wall Street. The obvious status advantage in our suave college hip intellectual culture are another:

"I really liked the way you held the microphone."

"Thanks, honey."

"How'd you like to play at my coming-out at Newport?"

"I could dig it"

If I hadn't been in a band I would never have met George Plimpton.


ALL THE SHOUTING about the Boston Sound was mostly about the courtship the BS was carrying on with those two whores with hearts of gold, Fame and Money. The big recording companies were pouring money into promotion of the scene before it had matured, feigning great interest in the musicians. The musicians, myself included, fell for it. Somehow in our hearts we all believed that there, way up high on top of the Big Rock Candy Mountain a recording contract was being written by genial producers and stamped with approval by God. Nobody really had any idea what was going on, although every rumor you had ever heard was filed neatly in the rucksack of your mind to act as a pillow for your weary body as you stretched out on a cold night on the Big Rock Candy Mountain. Rumors also served as food while you were starving.

The reason that rock music in general, and the Boston Sound in particular, is such a confused area is that there are no critical standards by which to judge the music. White rock musicians today have nothing, in Dylan's phrase, to live up to. And the audiences will pay in turn to be insulted (The Mothers), bored (The Ultimate Spinach), assaulted (The Fugs and MC 5), ignored (The Jefferson Airplane and Procol Harum), and urinated upon by a lukewarm assemblage of beligerent flower-cretins. Entertainment is left up to a very few white groups who know how to act onstage, such as the Who, the Stones, the Rascals, and most of the English blues people. Art is left pretty much up to the Beatles and Dylan. The common denominator of all the popular groups is that they have realized that they are not just "doing their thing" but that they are putting on a show, that they are different from their audience in some very material ways, and that they must maintain a sort of friendly inaccessibility. Richard Nixon and Eric Clapton share in common this ability to convey their superiority. That's why both are culture-heroes of different segments of our society. One of the reasons the Boston Sound failed was because of a hip unwillingness to idolize the performers so that, like the early Beatles or San Franciscans, they had something to live up to. It wasn't necessarily that the music was bad; perhaps the audiences were tired, that the prosletyzing impulse of the hip movement was dying out, that the hip audience was trying to live out its dictums instead of hearing them preached from a stage at the Tea Party. There had been too many heroes by the time the Boston Sound came on the scene.

In the summer of 1967, at a small-time bar and ballroom in Hyannis, a group called the Underground Cinema was doing its set. Ian Bruce Douglas, now probably the most fiscally successful of the Boston rock musicians, was rapping at the audience, mostly fortyish folk with company suits who were sucking booze from the bar and looking woozily over their shoulders at the weirdos on the stage. Occasionally a bleached-blonde hot tomato would do her version of the Swim with some paunchy insurance salesman, the type who would have had a lampshade on his head if there had been any around. "We play psychedelic love-rock," Douglas shouted to the impervious audience. Those of us in the second band, the Church Bizarre, laughed at him. The Cinema finished their set, and left the stage. We ran through our set of R&B numbers, disgusted by the whole scene. As we walked outside for a smoke, Douglas cornered me.

"You know," he said in the speeded-up way that rock musicians have when they are about to show their knowledge, "You guys ought to play more of your own material, Top-40 isn't where it's at anymore." He bounced on the balls of his feet, flashing his hands around and laughing. I looked at Billy, our rhythm guitarist, who shrugged. It was obvious that this Douglas cat belonged in Bridgewater. I just said yeah, I guess we ought to, and Douglas disappeared from my life until the next fall when the Ultimate Spinach album came out. I was with the Bead Game by then, fighting hard to get ahead, playing exclusively our own music, and I read, as I stood there holding this green vegetable psychotic album in my hands, "Top-40 isn't where it's at, any more." The Ultimate Spinach had arrived. I had a strange premonition that I was doomed to follow in Ian-Bruce Douglas' footsteps, although I hated his music. The Boston Sound was beginning to strangle its young. We were going to have to pay for the sins of the Ultimate Spinach, I knew it in my bones.

Rock musicians are the bastard offspring of Horatio Alger, just as the hip movement is the enfant naturel of the middle class. The success ethic, entrepreneurial impulse, and belligerent independence of the robber barons are stamped indelibly in their acid-mutated genes as surely as in Lyndon Johnson's. The musicians wanted to make it, but the only possible way seemed to be to deny that they wanted to make it. All the accoutrements of the hip life in rock were reminders that you were first and foremost a Beautiful Person, with loyalties not to entertainment but to other Beautiful People. We played a gig in Bedford, New York for some society chick, who introduced me after our third set to -- zowie! -- George Plimpton.

"That was beautiful," said George. Even he knew what it was all about. It was the high-point of my career as a rock star.

John Leone has been the singer for The Bead Game, The Church Bizarre, and several rock 'n' roll bands. He is a junior from Los Angeles, California. He has written many things, including a book.


JOHN HAMMOND, the great blues singer, leapt scornfully upon me for designating myself as an "underground" musician.

"What the hell is that supposed to mean? Are you better than other musicians?" We were sitting in the dressing room at the Scene in New York.

'No. It just means I haven't made it yet." I was beginning to see the Emperors new clothes fairly clearly by now.

"Good. I'm tired of hearing all this crap about those soulful starving musicians. Everybody's trying to make a living. I'm a working musician, and all this romanticized stuff about being a beautiful cat is just pure shit." I agreed with him. Everybody was on the make; the underground musicians I knew were like a school of hip piranhas not averse to a little backstabbing here and there. We all did our share; I can't think of more than two or three people in the whole scene who hadn't been screwed at least once by someone in a hurry to get ahead. Everyone wants to make it. Why shouldn't they? Everyone wants to cut an album, everyone wants to have a gig at the Fillmore and do huge concerts before rapt audiences. It is only the jokers who haven't been around for very long who don't recognize their own self-interestedness, who think that they're just doing their thing. Those who have made it are very careful about preserving their images, because thy know that they are trafficking not primarily in their art but in their charisma. Great music is only half of successful rock personalities. The other half is knowing how to act like a celebrity. This is because the hip audience doesn't want somebody who's just a good performer, like Elvis or Little Richard: that conjures up images of a mindless buffoon in a sequined jacket falling on his knees or miming copulation onstage, and everyone knows that that's stupid. Of course, if you fall on your knees and copulate with your guitar, and let it be known that you are hip, well, that's okay. Third-rate musicians and thinkers try to fashion themselves after the Lennons and Dylans and Zappas, trying to exhibit in their not-so-subtle ways that they are not merely Entertainers, but Important Thinkers. People with Something To Say. The Norman Vincent Peales of the Pop World, the Eric Burdons and the Jackie de Shannons, ruin what talents they have by imitating the concerns of smarter folk. They lack the convincing power of a Dylan or a Jagger. This was the Boston Sound all over. It was rife with rotten social commentators and fourth-rate hip prophets. They played the silly game of Keeping Up with the San Francisco Groups. Instead of becoming a solid block in the great Gothic cathedral of Pop, they became the pale shadows of the stained glass windows of its heroes.

There are several great musicians in Boston, people as good as any in the country: Mike Tschudin and Walter Powers of Listening, both among the top in their instruments; Peter Ivers, Harvard graduate and harp virtuoso, if he'd ever get out of the Chinese Anal-Retentive New Orleans Do-Dah Band bag; Richard Shamach of Eden's Children, matched in guitar speed only by Danny Kalb and in virtuosity by Mike Bloomfield; Peter Wolf and J. Geils, who between them have kept blues alive in Boston since Al Wilson left; the old rhythm section of the Bead Game, Lassic Sachs and Jimmie Hodder, articulate and inventive musicians each; David Mowry, a truly fine singer and guitarist; Livingston Taylor and Bob Telson, both fine composers. There are others who are top-notch players, some good lyricists and a great number of hip people. Why didn't it work?

Boston was infected early with the Syphilis of Success, Status Anxiety. There never was a Boston Sound, a music with its own definable character, and that is partly the fault of the musicians, partly the fault of the expectations of the audiences. They preyed upon their music with the teeth of unfair comparison, and took out their boredom as a token of their hipness. The musicians were wasted away by self-consciousness. These are to some degree the afflictions being visited upon the whole rock scene today, out Boston consumed itself in its rage to be recognized. It forgot that it was supposed to entertain, and not posture. The Boston Sound died, in the final analysis, from an overdose of self-importance

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