DAVID BOWIE’S ZIGGY STARDUST ALBUM


August 19, 2010

This is dedicated to Mark, the bartender at Bloom’s Bar, “downtown” Potrero Hill on 18th Street in San Francisco when I dropped by there after work last Monday night.

They’ve always had a great jukebox at Bloomies, and a song from David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust came on. I asked who selected “Starman,” and it turned out to be Mark! The beautiful thing is, he wasn’t even born when the album was released in 1972.  It reminded me about my early days as a teenage DJ. (Cue flashback sfx here and warp the video…see young man with long hair and beard driving a new gray Volvo 164 cross country to San Francisco, then in Los Angeles a year later.)

At the FM Rock Stations in the Bay Area, we used to champion bands and sometimes try to beat each other to play a new artist or album first and exclusively. When I moved here from NYC, there were five progressive rock stations; KSAN, KSFX and KMPX in San Francisco, plus KSJO and KOME in San Jose.  After four years of college radio, I applied at all of them, and was given encouragement by one Program Director (who did hire me a year later), but no gig.  My brother Stuart was a grad student at Stanford at the time, so I volunteered at 90.1, KZSU.  Within six months, I became the station’s Music Director.

On a trip to LA that May, to get familiar with the hub of the music biz and visit the record company offices, I was listening to the Blaupunkt radio in my Volvo, driving down Sunset Blvd., when one of the DJs played a track from the new David Bowie album.  Bowie was still rather unknown, but the cover of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars showed him standing on the street under a sign that said K-WEST…which was something the Los Angeles FM Rock station of the same name was proud of and instantly gave it a spin.  I was blocks from the RCA Records office, so I drove right over and went up to their floor.  At the front desk when I identified myself, a woman told me that the record reps were out to lunch.  Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the open door to a record closet off the reception area, with about 50 copies of the new David Bowie album sitting on the floor.  I wheeled around, picked up two of them, and as the stunned woman tried to sputter a “Wa..wa..wa..wait!,” I jumped back into on of the elevators, pushed the button to the lobby, and as the doors closed said; “When they come back, please tell them I was here, and I took two of them.”

That night, I drove back up Interstate 5 to Palo Alto, and played the whole album on my show on KZSU Stanford when I got back…before it had even been shipped to anyone else.  In October of that year, David Bowie played Bill Graham’s Winterland.  Maybe 500 people were in the crowd, and most of them to see Sylvester, a San Francisco Drag Queen singing with his band.  I enjoyed watching the jaws of their fans drop when David Bowie came out on stage in his glam-rock inspiring Ziggy persona, with Mick Ronson and the bass and drums shaking the old hall.  That band ROCKED!!

Thank you, Mark for proving what my radio mentor John Bybee has long said; “With music, like cars, it’s not when it was, it’s what it is that makes it a classic.”

 

The Last Trip to Tulsa


July 5, 2009

Lynyrd Skynyrd is one of the bands we discovered early on in the Bay Area. When their first album was released, your friendly neighborhood Crustacean-DJ was Music Director of KZSU Stanford and a weekend /fill-in DJ for KSJO in San Jose.

Since we were in the “South Bay,” we had an affinity for Southern rockers. At the time, playing “Freebird” at a college radio station was cutting edge, and not edits of any songs. We would play Michael Oldfield’s Tubular Bells one album side at a time, and could mix Led Zeppelin with Chuck Mangione, Joni Mitchell and James Brown. “Progressive Rock” on the FM was winning in the radio ratings. We were the social media. Interactive with the listeners. “Freebird” was popular with our audience, and the request lines were a source of our programming, and that and local album sales was how we decided that the music we were playing was working. The KISS principle…Keep It Simple, Stupid!

So, when Bill Graham’s Day of the Greens on July 4th Weekend in 1977 had Lynyrd Skynrd second billed to Peter Frampton, they played on July 2nd and July 4th. Since they had a 727 sent by Promoter Barry Fey to pick them up after the show in Oakland on July 2nd and bring them back in time for the July 4th D.O.G., they agreed to play Willie Nelson’s Picnic in Tulsa Oklahoma on July 3rd.

The plane had a lot of room, so they invited some of their Bay Area radio friends to fly with them on this tour date. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, so even though I was using the KSJO Van to move to a house in Campbell, I left all my stuff in it, parked on the driveway and met up with Skynyrd at the Claremont Hotel to catch the flight that night.

Instead of flying directly to Tulsa, our plane was also supposed to pick up Waylon Jennings in LA as well. Since it was a chartered flight, we landed in Burbank and they dropped the back door down to the tarmac out of the tail section and waited. I was standing outside of the plane with Steve Gaines sharing a smoke when we heard a rumbling growl approaching the airplane. Up drove a troop of Hells Angels on their Harleys, with their girlfriends and a case of beer. Seems old Waylon decided to catch another flight to the gig, and had told some biker friends they could fly with us.

The H.A.s parked their Hogs by the hanger and boarded. Dean Kilpatrick, the road manager of the band, passed the word that all of us in the Lynyrd Skynyrd posse would move to the front of the plane and cede the back to the bikers with their babes and beer. Kind of pulling out wagons in a circle, I wound up in the aisle seat across from Ronnie Van Zandt. The band had just released the Street Survivors album, and would tour the rest of the year in support of it. It was nearly 3am when we flew on to Tulsa, and I decided that a couple of airplane bottles of Johnny Walker Red would help me take a nap. At the time, Ronnie had stopped drinking, and over indulging. The song “That Smell” was about getting away from excess, and he watched me down the whiskey. He was having none.

I finished the second and said to him, “I gotta get some sleep. It’s gonna take us all night to get to Tulsa. Ronnie smiled and said “Man, that’s nothin. In our plane it would take us twice as long and we’d be lucky if we made it.” That DC-3 their management leased for them was the plane that crashed in October, taking the lives of Ronnie, Dean, Steve and his sister Cassie Gaines.

Their set at Willie Nelson’s Picnic smoked, and their super-human crew managed to pack up their gear in Oakland, pack it on to the plane, get it all set up on the stage in Tulsa in time for their set at noon, break it all down again, load out, onto the plane and then set it up at Oakland when returned to Oakland that night. My hat was off to them and the band for playing three of the strongest sets I’ve ever heard from any rock band anytime, and sleeplessly flying half-way across America and back in the process.

A highlight of the Tulsa trip for me was the ride back to the hotel their after the performance. One of the roadies put me in a limo. Sitting in the back between two beautiful woman and behind a cloud of really good marijuana was Willie Nelson himself. We chatted, and years later we met again backstage at Neil and Pegi Young’s Annual Bridge School benefit at Shoreline in Mountain View. He remember our little meeting in Tulsa. So much for short term memory loss…

When we got back to Oakland in was after Midnight, and the band had a room for me the Claremont. After checking in, I went over to a room with a bunch of the members of the band and crew, and brought a live performance cassette of the band that I managed when 20 years old in New York City. It had a song called “I’m On The Road Again,” which I thought would be perfect for Skynyrd. The band, Garfield Place (named after the street in Brooklyn where the band had a flat they live and rehearsed in) did what we referred to as Country Rock Fusion. Upon hearing the tape, the Skynyrd guys asked when it was recorded, and were blown away to learn it was in 1970, long before Al Kooper discovered them. Garfield Place had a lot of influences, including the Allman Brothers, but it sounded so much like a Southern rock band, the guys were wondering if we we copying Lynyrd Skynyrd.

After their set at the July 4th Day on the Green, blowing away headliner Peter Frampton for the second time in three days, I said goodbye backstage to Ronnie Van Zandt, and handed him the cassette with an “x” on the side with “I’m On The Road Again.” He put it in his shirt pocket, and that was the last time I saw him or heard the song. I still remember most of it. Maybe I’ll sing it to Johnny and Gary sometime. That was also my last trip to Tulsa. Ironically enough, in 1991 at the Concord Pavilion, I saw Bill Graham backstage at a Lynyrd Skynyrd show, and that was the last time I saw him as well. Miss all the friends who have exited along life’s highway. and in another blog…or in the book version, I’ll include how Bill Graham prevented a stabbing in front of the stage during Peter Frampton’s set on July 4th, 1977…and of course you’ve never heard about it. More Lobster Tales to come. Thanks for reading…and for listening.

Musically yours, The Lobster121754

 

How Paul Wells became The Lobster on the radio


March 9, 2009

It was an accident. Not planned, but with a lot of twists and ties to people, music and culture that reinforces the idea that nothing is really an accident. If someone asks when time is short, I’ll just say, “Gamma Rays like The Incredible Hulk.” If that works for you, then stop ready this blog entry now…

I went to college at the City University of New York branch, CCNY, in the middle of Harlem in Manhattan. I was a freshman sitting in the student lounge when the DJ on the Student radio station, WCCR, read a PSA about joining the club. There was no communications or broadcasting department at CCNY at the time.

It cost me $2 to join, and I started doing my own shows, progressing from a Jazz and Blues DJ to a Rock DJ as the music of the late sixties became more vibrant and experimental.

As a college radio reporter, I bought myself a portable Sony TC 100 Cassette Recorder and a microphone. There’s a bootleg tape made of Procol Harum on August 1, 1969 in Central Park. I never sold a copy of it, but it got circulated and treasured by collectors. In the late ’70s at a friend’s house in Redwood City, CA, he started to tell me about this really great Procol Harum concert he had a copy of. I asked him if the mix was a little loud on the guitar. He said yes, and I told him that was because I was sitting in front of Robin Trower about 20 rows back. Now we get to the Lobster part…

The winter after Woodstock, my friend Mac had just quit the house band at Grossinger’s Hotel in the Catskill Mountains. He didn’t have a car, but had some stereo speakers up there he wanted to retrieve and sell.

Mac asked me for a ride. Since three friends and I were going for a ride on Friday night, and we needed a destination, if Mac wanted to hang with us and do what we were going to do, we’d go where he needed to go.

Along the way, we listened to the AM radio (My Dad’s ’65 Buick Skylark didn’t have FM) and that tape of Procol Harum. While the instrumental “Repent Walpurgis” (based on a classical music theme) was playing as we drove, it sounded like a lobster to my friend David, who was riding shotgun.

When we got to the house where Mac’s speakers were, Dave sat down at a typewriter and started to write a poem called “The Mighty Lobster” It was about going out on missions like the Lafayette Escadrille fighter pilots in World War I.  He wrote about a vision of a lobster turning dials and pushing buttons, while music was playing.

We drove back, first stopping as a pilgrimage to Yasgur’s Farm, the sight of Woodstock. It was late at night, and what had been a muddy hillside was covered by crystal icy snow shimmering in the moonlight. It truly felt as if something magical happened there.

When we got back safely to The Bronx, it was about dawn. Dave read the poem to us, and knowing I was buying a Ford Econoline 200 Supervan with windows all around, he suggested I name it “The Mighty Lobster.” Since I ordered a blue one, I said we’ll call it “The Mighty Blue Lobster,”  which became the name of my radio show.

Back to my senior year in college. I was an English Major with Journalism by then, having dropped the plan to become a Veterinarian. My brother at this point was a graduate student at Stanford. I visited him and my sister-in-law in late October. Riding around Menlo Park on a bicycle wearing a t-shirt in the warm California sun convinced me to move out West. A second visit in February was the clincher. By that time, there were five FM Rock Stations in the Bay Area. Two in San Jose, KSJO and KOME…three in S.F., KMPX, KSAN and KSFX.

I resigned from all my courses at CCNY and finished my Senior year at WCCR. By this time, I had sold the lobster van to my Uncle, who was a contractor on Long Island. Working in the wholesale used car business, I was given a check to pick up a Volvo 164 at a Ford dealership in Monticello NY, close to where Woodstock had been held. I took a bus up there, pretty toasted from being out late the night before. While I road north, I was trying to remember the Hog Farm name for former Beat Poet “Tongue Dancer” Hugh Romney. He had made the famous “Breakfast In Bed for 400,000,” but I couldn’t remember…finally thinking I had the “heebee geebees” I realized that was close. Heebee geebee, oobie doobie…wavy GRAVY!!! It was like magic words. Once I was able to say his nickname (given to him by B.B. King after Woodstock, I felt better. I got off the bus at the dealership on Hwy 17B, and picked up the car. It only had 1800 miles on it. It seems a guy bought it but couldn’t handle a clutch, so he traded it for a Mustang with an automatic transmission. This Volvo was battleship gray with red leather seats. The sticker was still in the window, and plastic still covered the seats, doors and rug.

It was a Saturday, and my boss like to close early. After taking the Subway from the Bronx to the bus terminal in Manhattan,  the ride north and the drive back, he had gone by the time I got back. The car was mine for the weekend. I went home and washed up, heading out for a Saturday night in Manhattan.  My first stop was to pull up at a Flower Stand on the corner of 2nd Avenue and St. Mark’s Place, a few blocks up from Bill Graham’s Fillmore East.  My friend Billy who was working there looked at the car and asked me if it was mine.  I said “No, it’s one from where I work.”  When I turned back and looked at the car, knowing we had bought it for over 2 grand less than the sticker in the window, I said to myself “Well, it COULD be mine.”

Now, at this point, one would wonder, what does this have to do with the nickname? I bought the Volvo and moved West in it. The car came with it’s own tool kit. There was a crescent wrench it it that had a brand on it: “New Lobster.” Here I was, 21 years old, driving across America to start a new life.

Fortunately, for me and my dog Starr, we found a place to live in the Redwoods up in Woodside near Skyline. The five radio stations all were cordially to me, and listened to my tape. Only one Program Director, Doug Droese of KSJO, gave me any encouragement. He said “You have good pipes, hang in there.” I got a job cooking in a nightclub at University and High in Palo Alto, and a midnight Thursday night shift at KZSU, Stanford.

Now, in college radio, everyone had names for their shows…and I knew I wanted to bring back the name lobster somehow. Hadn’t figured it out until I turned the microphone on in KZSU’s tiny 4 x 4 Studio B booth and said “KZSU Stanford 90.1 FM, my name is Paul Wells and the name of the show is The Lobster …Box.” There was a restaurant on City Island called lobster box. You can see in the background in the movie A Bronx Tale. Robert DiNiro plays a bus driver, and the end of the line was right there on the far end of the Island off the Long Island Sound.  A fairly recent picture of me visiting it, holding up a Bass Guitar, is at my Lobster (public figure) Facebook Page.

After starting at KZSU, I began saying Paul “The Lobster” Wells on-the-air. The students and my fellow DJ started calling me lobster because we had a problem with someone stealing records out of the KZSU library. No one knew me very well, and I posted a note in the library titled “Dear Record Rip-off Shithead” and on a whim, signed it “Lobster.”

After a year, and a stint as KZSU’s Music Director, the PD of KSJO gave me a job. I decided to just use “Lobster” on-the-air.  Simple.  It got stuck in my craw.  Fittingly, there’s a chapter in Lewis B. Carrol’s Alice In Wonderland called The Lobster Quadrille. “Tis the voice of the Lobster I heard him declare, and he said woud you, won’t you dance with me.”  It was many years later till I realized that Lobster being a DJ fulfilled David’s vision.

 

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North Bay’s Classic Rock97.7 The River
97.7 The River is the show’s flagship radio station. It’s home base to the program every Sunday, 10 am – 3 pm, hosted by legendary radio personality Paul “The Lobster” Wells.