San Antone on a Hot and Dusty Night
I Love (Live) Rock & Roll
Just the year before, in the heady, (post-post-Summer of Love) summer of 1969, I'd spent every Sunday going to the outdoor shows at that amphitheatre. These Sunday afternoon concerts were attended by San Antonio's small but burgeoning hippie counterculture - privileged white kids from the suburban Northside, working-class Hispanics from the Westside, lower-middle-class whites from the Southside, occasional Black Panthers (in 1969 it was exceptionally cool to be a black hippie, kind of like being a black punk today), bikers attracted to the free-loving hippie girls, and an ever-changing influx of draftees from San Antonio's five military bases being groomed to fight in Vietnam.
Despite the occasional foray to taunt the longhairs by pickup trucks full of "shitkickers," as the redneck element was most commonly called, Sunday concerts at the Gardens were largely a ritual gathering of LSD-tripping, pot-smoking hippies and anyone else who wanted in on the fun - as was being done at Volunteer Park in Seattle, Golden Gate in San Francisco, Lee Park in Dallas, Central Park in New York, and Anywhere, U.S.A. - with lots of tourists coming to stare at the spectacle. San Antonio's establishment was not alone in its distaste for the counterculture; harassment, rousting, and arrest by the police were regular concert activities.
The concerts started in the late afternoon; I can remember Shiva's Headband playing, swaying as the sun set behind the rainbow-attired, swirly-eyed audience. I was enchanted by the contrast of their loopy Texacid rock being performed against the neo-classical stage setting of the amphitheatre as the clouds took on the rich, golden-apricot tones of a Maxfield Parrish painting. The Greek columns that flanked the stage formed an oddly familiar setting, as if we were a kind of Grecian Golden Age of Aquarius, week after week, with psychedelic rock as modern Greek choruses.
There was a specific spot at the top of the hillside seating area - on the far right as you faced the stage - that I would seek out when I knew the acid was peaking. At that spot, the sound from the stage bounced off the rock wall at the back of the theatre and clashed in a sort of aural wind shear. Often, I would gravitate toward The Spot, not just when the acid was kicking in, but if the mushrooms were just too trippy, or when the music would simply command it. The effect was deafening and struck the deepest part of my soul. Close my eyes for the ultimate rush. Up would rise the moon, like magic, smiling its crooked grin at all of us dancing in its cosmic light. Like heaven.
And heaven I believed it was. My friends and I reveled in the teenage innocence that allowed us to believe that peace and love - whatever those vague concepts entailed - could change the world. We really believed it, and rock & roll was such a powerful medium for this message that rock concerts seemed to become as much a vehicle for the exchange of these well-meaning but half-baked notions as it was for the performance of music. My girlfriends and I did the suburban teenage thing, cruising the streets of San Antonio as Arthur Brown bellowed he was the God of Hellfire, the Velvet Underground gave a nod to heroin, or the 13th Floor Elevators levitated us via eight-track players. There was a beauty to the cruising-in-the-car ritual but mostly it was just a prelude to the concert.
These Sunken Gardens shows were acid-drenched, Texas-flavored versions of the San Francisco hippie-era concerts, and they're where I was baptized by the spirit of live rock & roll. Those shows changed my life, bearing out my parents' worst fears of rock & roll and drugs. So when I decided to add sex to the equation, I chose a scene of epiphany. Right there in that park, rock & roll freed me from the boundaries in which I had been raised - why shouldn't I give back something equally personal? The park was also next to Trinity University, where my dad was then a professor in the English Department. A later boyfriend thought that more significant to choice of location than my theory of the rock & roll epiphany. But in my teenage logic, where I did it the first time was as important as actually doing it. That primal act binds me to the very grounds of the Sunken Gardens and its amphitheatre.
Exactly 10 years after the Gardens shows, in April 1979, punk was running rampant. Its emergence in my life was as profound as the psychedelia that inspired my first experiences what seemed like all those years ago. And 10 years after leaving the Velvet Underground, John Cale was taking his place as one of punk's godfathers with his Sabotage tour. I had met Cale in Austin at the Armadillo show, where his paranoid military consciousness and crackpot conspiracy theories collided onstage in a mangle of punk rhythms, skewing my focus of the new sound I was in love with. Cale and I flirted outrageously backstage but I snubbed him; three days later, however, I drove to San Antonio to see him play - at the Sunken Gardens amphitheatre.
Now, here I was, ten years later, at age 25 - a whole fucking decade, for Chrissake - born again at the scene of lost innocence and a rock & roll renaissance, watching a ragtag army of New York punks prophesy the dark and druggy but riveting and intelligent visions of one of rock's bonafide geniuses. I smiled: the black leather and torn t-shirts of Cale's band were as much an anomaly among the majestic, Grecian columns as the hippies' tie-dyed attire had been.
That soft April Sunday brought back memories with every ruffle of the afternoon wind; I walked slowly, deliberately, toward The Spot and stood, hearing the musical direction of my future performed in front of me. Cale and the band were placating Velvet lovers with "Waiting for My Man," and the familiar feel of sound ricocheted off the back wall and slammed my head from both sides. A journal entry dated April 24, 1979 reads: I was reeling from the memories that flooded back, and the implication of being here ten years after with no less than John Cale. Could I have imagined 10 years before, a mere high-schooler driving around listening to the Velvet Underground jones during "Waiting for My Man" that I would be here, now?... I was flush with lust, yes, for the estimable Mr. Cale, but also lust for the renewal of faith in rock & roll performance. Once again, it was musical epiphany that would forever transform what I listened to and how I heard it, back in the same place it all started. (I busted this rejuvenated cherry by fucking John Cale backstage after his performance, mere steps from the very spot I lost it the first time. It was shamelessly gratifying.)
A few weeks ago I drove with a Gen X-type writer-friend to see White Zombie with Babes in Toyland and The Melvins play the Sunken Gardens amphitheatre on a hot and dusty June night. It had been 16 years since the 1979 Cale show, only the second time I'd been there since the hippie days of 1969. Now, I knew White Zombie from their "More Human Than Human" video on MTV and, though unimpressed, I went because I am still a true believer in live rock & roll. And I have also managed to find a place for rock & roll in my life's work, so that, 25 years later, the God of Hellfire Arthur Brown calls me at work , I've booked the 13th Floor Elevators' Roky Erickson for the Austin Music Awards, and Velvet Underground reunion survivor John Cale and I see each other occasionally.
The idea of seeing White Zombie play wasn't as appealing as simply the idea of returning to the point of origin. That awkwardly termed genre called alternative rock beckons to me as deeply as punk did 16 years ago or psychedelia did 25 years ago or the Beatles and the Rolling Stones did for the very first time for me more than 30 years ago; now I'm in it for the live experience. What I wasn't prepared for was the power of memory combined with the sensory overload of White Zombie's stage show, complete with pyrotechnics and Mother Nature's grand, full moon. White Zombie stormed that stage with the same visceral passion that existed first for me in 1969 and then in the 1979 shows, like doing it all over again for the first time. I was age 15 then 25 then 41 and 25 again or whatever, and reveled in every second of it. I recognized "More Human Than Human" but couldn't distinguish "Welcome to Planet Motherfucker" from "Black Sunshine," and it didn't matter. White Zombie weren't the message, just the medium. Except that all of a sudden they became the medium again, rock & roll in its purest form: alive and raging.
In one of those rare moments when you recognize life as a vehicle you are actually capable of successfully steering into the direction of your own choosing, I navigated myself up the hillside, to the upper right side, to The Spot where the sound clashed, and stopped. "This I remember," I told my friend. He shrugged and turned to watch the band; it wasn't his experience. I turned to look at the audience - equal parts retro tie-dye and retro punk gear - as "Thunderkiss '65" split down the sides of my head, half from White Zombie roaring onstage and half the echo of rock & roll memories so profound they transcended time. 25 years ago, I gave up my virginity in the shadow of that amphitheatre because of those emotions. 25 years later, I got another kind of innocence back.