The Austin Chronicle

Page Two: God Is Alive, Magic Afoot, and Music Everywhere

Egmont Street was where we discovered Risk, Quaaludes, phone phreaking – and some of the greatest albums ever released

By Louis Black, June 23, 2017, Columns

When I really started to listen to rock in high school, there were precious few ways to hear new music. Often one would read about what was happening weeks if not months before being able to hear it. The new bands then emerging from San Francisco, for example, were written about in national publications long before the music was available. Most of us first heard Jefferson Airplane on a commercial for white Levi's.

Mostly this voyage of discovery happened while listening to the radio. Even then, a new song was not always in any kind of rotation, so it might not be heard again for a long time. Thus you had to buy the record, but these recordings were not always that easy to find.

WBAI, NYC's noncommercial, listener-supported Pacifica radio station, held periodic fund drives. Arlo Guthrie's epic "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" was played the very first time during one of these efforts, as was Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles" during another. In both cases, the deejays wouldn't play them again until $500 had been pledged, which kept everyone listening.

TV weighed in with new offerings occasionally. I came across Noel Harrison, Rex's son, performing "Suzanne" by Leonard Cohen on The Mike Douglas Show. Although I knew neither the song nor the writer, it was electrifying. Checking the TV listings, I followed him to The Merv Griffin Show just to hear the song again. My girlfriend quickly dragged me to her cellar to play me Judy Collins' version, which at first I didn't like as much.

Moving to Boston for college, there was music everywhere. When visiting friends it was fairly routine to go through their records. While visiting my friend Steve Levitan's brother Mark, who never really had much use for me, we discovered a treasure trove of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf Chess recordings. Eventually Steve left but I kept playing albums until they threw me out.

Fall 1969, sophomore year, several of us rented an apartment on Egmont Street in Brookline, a few blocks from our school, Boston University's College of Basic Studies. It was an insane time, not only politically charged but with so much great music being made. Leonard Cohen's Songs From a Room. Dylan's Nashville Skyline. Joni Mitchell's Clouds. Crosby Stills & Nash. Stand! by Sly & the Family Stone. Johnny Cash's At San Quentin. Neil Young's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica. The Band. The Beatles' Abbey Road. Jefferson Airplane's Volunteers.

Acts were so productive, often releasing several albums in short succession. Less than a year after recording Astral Weeks, Van Morrison was in the studio again with Moondance; Tim Buckley followed Happy Sad six months later with Blue Afternoon. In just 18 months, Creedence Clearwater Revival released an eponymous album, then Bayou Country, Green River, and Willy & the Poor Boys, while in less than a year, Frank Zappa came out with Uncle Meat, Hot Rats, and Burnt Weeny Sandwich.

Between $3 and $6 each, $25 was good for five or six albums. We'd all hit the record stores together, returning home with a stack of albums to which we'd devote the next few days entirely.

Egmont Street was where we discovered Risk, Quaaludes, and phone phreaking. After visiting a sister who belonged to a Weather Underground cell in Cambridge, our roommate Michael told us how they had a phone that could be called from anywhere in the U.S. without generating a charge. Skeptical, our two technically skilled roommates soon went to work building one.

This was also when we launched the Egmont St. Boys Club scavenger hunts. Drafting a formal-looking list, we'd drive to rich suburban neighborhoods where we'd go door to door after the required items, all of them food. Invariably we'd head back home with a couple of loaded boxes.

Either the radio or record player was always in use. My mattress on the floor, I'd sit on the edge, madly typing with only one ring on my Smith Corona resting on a slightly raised briefcase. Hours would pass by as I worked, always with music playing. It was during such a jag, listening to The Village Green Preservation Society, that I finally realized the Kinks' greatness, after Drew Simels had been urging their records on me for years. Finally I got how beautifully crafted each song was by Ray Davies, or his brother Dave.

On another all-night writing run, lulled by an extended electronic music piece by Morton Subotnick on the radio, there was a startling transition into Buffy Sainte-Marie's incantation of Leonard Cohen's prose from Beautiful Losers: "God is alive, magic is afoot/ God is afoot, magic is alive/ Alive is afoot, magic never died." The rich language and images tumbling along until the ending: "And flesh itself is magic/ Dancing on a clock/ And time itself/ The magic length of God."

In those times, charged with magic and with politics, possibilities presented and revolution championed, a song often provided transcendence. There was a march the day after the Chicago Seven verdict was reached. It was orderly until some more determined radicals began throwing bricks through bank and business windows. The Boston Tactical Police Force then charged the protesters. Moving forward into the crowd, wearing masks, they fired tear gas canisters, resulting in chaos.

Veterans of similar scenes, we dodged the violence to get to our car. Just as we headed out, "For What It's Worth" by Buffalo Springfield came on the radio. Tear gas drifting through the air, the police in riot gear seeming to move through the thickening dusk in some kind of distorted slow motion, the song was too appropriate and all too real:

There's something happening here

What it is ain't exactly clear

There's a man with a gun over there

Telling me I got to beware

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