Before Blue Oyster Cult, there was the Stalk Forrest Group, and before that, there was Oaxaca, and before that, there was.... The Soft White Underbelly.
Born out of Stony Brook, New York, the SWU were a west-coast influenced jam-band managed by Philosophy Major Sandy Pearlman. One day, he decided they needed a front man, someone to provide a conduit between the audience and the music.
He decided they needed Les Braunstein...
To find out how this all came about, we must first go back to Hobart College, Geneva in upper New York state. The year is 1963...
Q: What sort of place was Hobart?
Hobart College is in the Finger Lakes in upstate New York. The area is totally beautiful. Long lakes carved by the glaciers as they moved south. The land rolling down to each lake covered by farms and vineyards. The College was very picturesque, ivy covered buildings surrounding a "Quad" of lawn. Many of the students were rich prep school boys who couldn't get into Harvard. There was also a big pre-med population. During the time I was there, there was also a growing population of cultural misfits that an enterprising admissions officer was experimenting with. That included me. (He was fired, by the way).
I had done nothing much academically in high school. Played in band (trumpet - then french horn), had the lead in a lot of shows, sang with the dance band, and went to the All State choir in my junior year. That was a big accomplishment. Most people didn't get into the All State choir till their senior (last) year. The next year I was considered a shoe-in but instead of auditioning with one of the approved songs I chose a show tune of my liking and wasn't picked. That was a life lesson. I didn't have the grades to get into Hobart but I wanted to go because I loved Lacrosse and Hobart had a nationally-ranked team. As I said, I found myself before this madman admissions officer and next thing you know I was in.
By the way I had just turned 18. A few months before that my father had died. In my life he held all authority - not the principal or the police. I was in the middle of my fighting my way out of the nest and that control when one day he just suddenly died right in front of me. Heart. I loved him. We were close in our way. But from that moment on, nobody ever told me what to do.
When I got to Hobart, in 1963, guys with a jock mentality pretty much ruled the place. By 1967 when I left, (graduated actually), the place was in a turmoil with ne'er do well dissidents like myself causing a lot of trouble. When I revisited the place two years later with the Underbelly, the freaks had pretty much taken control.
Q: What were you studying and what was your attitude to your studies?
I had done some theater up there but I was discovering that with theater you spoke someone else's words and with music you could speak your own. I had played a little guitar in High School and had restrung a little short necked mandelin-banjo like a guitar and began singing and playing with a jug band, what you Brits called Skiffle, I believe. We used to drink a bunch of Ripple (kind of a wine spritzer in a bottle) and sing songs mostly mocking the administration.
That's where the original "Rational Passional" came from (I was at selective service and the people made me nervous so I asked the sergeant why they made me come, He said do just what you're ordered or we'll have you drawn and quartered, you're a lousy commie peace-creep hippy bum). Between that and the humor magazine which I ran, I became a definite problem for the dean.
We were in on the organization of various demonstrations but I can't say I was really taking protest too seriously until one day someone talked me into doing a war protest walk in the center of Geneva (the town) and I was astounded to see the otherwise normal seeming townsfolk getting red in the face screaming in our faces for being anti-American. That was an eye-opener. Up until then, I had always believed that idealism was congruent with being an American. We had been assiduously taught that America was all about idealism and freedom of speech and thought. That's what they taught us and now they were about to reap what they had sown.
As for studies - I never bought a book after the beginning of my second year (out of four). Frankly, I wasted a lot of academic time, but there was so much else happening. Between the band, the magazine, an occasional show, and the three nearby girls schools, I was otherwise occupied. Then in my senior year (66) dope hit, and that was that.
Q: Eric Bloom (known back then - according to Richard Meltzer - alternatively as "Manny" and "Rock King of the Finger Lakes") was also at Hobart. Did your paths cross much (did you ever hire a PA off him, for example?)
I knew Eric somewhat in those years. I don't know anything about his influence over the school's PA, and I don't think I ever hired one from him. As for "Rock King of the Finger Lakes", that was, I believe, a self-approbation. Yes, everyone else called him Manny. I think Trivers started that. It was a mildly perjorative term designating him as a classic Jewish wheeler-dealer. There were some real kings of rock up there at the time. Link Ray and the Raymen, Joey Shahan and the clan. And this black guy, Wilmer Alexander and the Dukes that sang the hugest tune of the moment up there called "I Wanna Do It".
Jon Trivers and Peter Haviland, who had played with Albert in their hometown of Clinton NY, were both there and played, I think, in the Lost and Found. Trivers, who's now LA's primary jinglemeister, was a very good bass player. We hooked up and he began playing on demos with me. That continued for many years, culminating in the Dead House/ Dark Angel sessions with Donald and Albert in 73. Then he went west.
Haviland lives in NYC and was up at my home studio just last week recording one of his tunes. The Lost and Found played a local club called the Holiday Inn (before the chain got the name). Eric and the rest were working musicians, playing regularly and making some money. I never did that. I admired their abilities.
The only thing Eric and I definitely did together has left a poster as an artifact, and I believe he has it. The Hobart board of trustees had grown alarmed at the general tone of the student population and to rectify things had hired this national troop called Up With People who sang effervescent patriotic and sweetness and light tunes, to come up to campus for a performance. Not only that, but they were going to spend the weekend in the dorms, filling any empty beds available. I guess they thought we'd catch goodness from them.
In my position as editor of the humor magazine I put out the word all over campus that I was going to take a picture for an "Up With Creeples" poster. It was one of the truly satisfying moments of my life when I arrived at the appointed place and found a large assembly of very diverse people all dressed in their most tasteless and annoying splendor. Eric is right in front.
Just before graduation Peter Paul and Mary picked up the "Blue Frog" tune and spun me into a different universe.
Q: How did that Peter, Paul and Mary song come about?
During the last year at Hobart, I was hanging out with a guy named Andy Yarrow. I had heard that there was a guy on campus who claimed to be Peter Yarrow's brother. (Peter Paul and Mary) I knew something about Peter Yarrow because his mother Vera, used to hang out with my mother's first cousin. They used to summer together when Peter was on his bike, up in the artist colony of Woodstock. All long before "If I had a Hammer". Or "Lemon Tree", or "500 Miles". So I went right into this kid's room and said "What's your mother's name?" He said some other name. "Then you're not Peter's brother, cause Peter's mother's name is Vera." He had been smirking at me until I said "Vera". It turned out that Mr. Yarrow senior had left Vera to run off with Andy's mom.
Andy had just recently learned this himself. He was a wild city boy and one night he was characteristically trying to scam his way into a Peter Paul and Mary concert by lying to the door guy that he was Peter's brother. He had the same last name. The door guy tells Peter and Peter says "Let's see his license". He looks at the license and says, "This is my brother!" And from then on Andy was cruising with one of the biggest groups in the world.
So Andy and I became friends. One night we drove to Albany where the group was playing. It was sold out and we had to sit on the floor in front. They had incredible presence. Their voices were unearthly, and Mary was mesmerizing. A beautiful young babe, singing like magic, throwing her hair like a horse's mane.
We used to jump into Andy's TR6 and drive 7 hours to crash and party in the City. Cruise around in the limo with Peter's buddies. Once it was Tim Harden. Occasionally Nico. Eat sushi. Smoke the best smoke. I remember a night, the limo plowing through the deep snow, quiet, empty city streets.
So one night, we had partied and been truly bad. By three or so I was ready to sleep so I left him on the street looking for more adventures and I taxied back to crash in Peter's living room. A couple of hours later, it's still dark, I feel someone shaking me. It's Peter. I figure he must be worried about Andy, who wasn't back yet. But no, he wants to play me this song he's just written - The Great Mandela - "Take your place on the great Mandela, as it moves through your brief moment of time." It was very good, and I told him. "But is there anything that I should change about it?" he asked. "Well, I said, "if I had written it, I don't think I'd have had the guy scream out at the end." Seemed a little out of character. "Oh, that's right," he said, "You're a songwriter - Play me some of your songs." And he handed me his guitar, just like Hollywood.
I played him a couple of songs I was serious about. Human dignity type things. "Unh unh," say Peter, "play more." I played a couple more like that. Nothing was catching him. Iwas blowing a Lifetime Opportunity. "How about this," I said, and started playing a silly song I had written for my jug band - Blue Frog. [ Click here to see the lyrics...]
On campus what it meant was that I had scored before I was even out. You can make waves in your pond is one thing, but I had a big fish straight from the sea.
I'm guessing the royalties were VERY useful
Royalties - They hooked me up at Warner Brothers, in a little Peter Paul and Mary sub-company. I knew the royalties would take a while to flow.
I had to deal with the draft. Here's the word on fighting in Viet Nam - Yes, nobody wanted to die in Viet Nam. Viet Nam was ultimate scary. But not wanting to go over to their land and kill women and babies in their villages, was reason enough not to go. It was the noble path, actually.
So I sent a note to my draft board that I was sole support of my mother (who had no income. She was living off of the sale of our house.) I had to be able to supply at least 50% of her income. That would be easy as she had none. "But how much do you make a week?" said the draft board. "Oh royalties aren't like that," I said, "they come in lumps." They sent me for a note from Warner Brothers saying how much I would be making, averaged out to a week.
So I go up to Warner Brothers, explain my plight and I find myself being ushered into the office of the President of Warner Brothers, a guy named Victor Blau. Steel gray eyes. I tell him my tale and he says that I'll make at least $75 a week and in fact, he'll give it to me. Issue me a check every week. And yes, you little babes, $75 was heavy money for a hippy in 1967. I bought my Volkswagen Bus. The one with the full length sun roof and the little windows around the top. I had excess money in my pocket (before long it started to really pile up - into the thousands) - and it still drops in a few times a year today, thanks to Disney, the Muppets, and Peter Paul and Mary.
A while later I went up to Buffalo with Andy, to see the group play at the big music hall. It was the afternoon and I was standing in the wings watching them do a sound check when Paul, who I had met only a couple times, was motioning me over. I went over to him and he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a newspaper clipping. It was from somewhere in the Midwest and it said "Peter Paul and Mary played many favorites and such old classics as 'I'm In Love with a Big Blue Frog'."
[ to be continued.... ]